The moment the needle drops on Back to Land, the third album from the San Francisco psychedelic group Wooden Shjips, a trace amount of smoke seeps from the speakers. By the time the title song is going full bore the sweet smoke is now unmistakably filling the room. Short of stopping the record, nothing can be done to stop the foggy ambience. It’s best just to lay back and embrace the feeling.
It doesn’t take long for the four-piece band to lay down a groove wide enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier. Once there, an organ spars with Ripley Johnson’s echo-laden vocals against a tight, minimalist rhythm section while Johnson’s guitar soars high in the heavens. There isn’t necessarily a lot of deviation from song to song, but why play with a perfect formula? Listeners will figure out pretty quickly if Wooden Shjips are their cup of tea. If so, welcome to the promised land.
Pretenders – Hate for Sale
Every so often, if music fans are lucky, a veteran artist will put out an album that reminds fans why and how they fell in love with the band in the first place. Hate for Sale, the 11th album from the Pretenders, is that album.
Clocking in at a brisk 30 minutes, Hate for Sale snarls out of the gate with and rarely slows down. Frontwoman Chrissie Hynde seems invigorated by the return of founding drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist James Walbourne, with whom she wrote every song. Walbourne’s riffs and solos add muscle to Hynde’s undiminished vocals. He even manages to singlehandedly salvage the album’s least-effective track (“Junkie Walk”). Sidesteps into reggae on “Lightning Man” and orchestral pop on the introspective ballad “You Can’t Hurt a Fool” reinforce the raw force on the rest of the album.
The Pretenders are selling hate. Buy it. There is a lot to love.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
When this Fiona Apple’s fifth album was released digitally last April, and dealing with the coronavirus appeared to be a season and not A Thing We’d Have to Live with Indefinitely, I was convinced it was going to be the soundtrack for the pandemic.
Although this naiveté is laughable in hindsight, Fetch the Bolt Cutters still captures that mood. It is charming, angry, insecure, elegant, awkward and funny – often effortlessly shuffling through several emotions within a few bars.
Apple recorded these songs at her home studio in the years following her previous album, eight years ago. The resulting baker’s dozen tunes are complex and authentic and provide a heartening catharsis especially needed right now.
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) The final Johnny Cash album released in Johnny Cash’s lifetime is appropriately fixated on mortality. Then again, Cash has been singing about death since he shot a man in Reno to watch him die. The album works more often than it doesn’t. The title song is one of my favorite Cash compositions, funneling the Book of Revelations through a strummy Martin guitar. Similarly, Cash turns Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” into a gospel song. He adds a layer of guilt and gravitas to Sting’s “I Hung My Head” that is absent from the original recording. Best of all, Cash infuses a lifetime of pain and addiction into “Hurt,” completely claiming the song from Nine Inch Nails. Most of the rest ranges from fine to worse. “Tear-Stained Letter” is too jaunty and “Desperado” and “Danny Boy” are unnecessary. Cash isn’t adding anything to those well-worn tunes. Even worse, are covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Fiona Apple) and “In My Life.” Surprisingly, Cash seems lost on these songs, unsure of what to do with them. The high points more than make up for the milquetoast material – there is usually a little filler on Cash albums, but the result is the least consistent of the American releases to that point.
David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986) Diamond Dave is looking to settle scores with his solo debut. He brought in hotshot guitarist Steve Vai and bass player Billy Sheehan to generate one of the highest notes-per-second rock albums in an era that celebrated six-string excess. For better or worse, Roth can’t help being anything other than himself so even this grudge match was delivered with a broad wink and jazz hands. The key word in the album’s title is SMILE. All the songs push the fun factor to 11, but surprisingly nothing feels forced. Of course it’s all junk food, but like getting the extra butter on movie theater popcorn, sometimes you just can’t help it.
Four Tops – Second Album (1965) More often than not, especially in the 1960s, Motown albums were collections of hit singles padded with other recordings. The result was often uneven, but the album tracks on Second Album are pretty great in their own regard. No one can argue with the three Top 10 hits on the first side: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song” and “Something About You.” The second side doesn’t contain any hit singles but doesn’t suffer from it. “Darling, I Hum Our Song” has a great Levi Stubbs vocal performance (really, he’s great on everything here) in a Jackie Wilson-styled song from the period when Berry Gordy was writing hits for Wilson. “Since You’ve Been Gone” first appeared as the b-side of “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The energy from Four Tops and the Funk Brothers on this track make me think it could have been a hit on its own. Back on the first side, “IS There Anything I Can Do” is one of the few songs on the album not to come from the pen of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles Ronald White and Pete Moore, it’s not hard to imagine the Miracles performing this song. Surprisingly, as far as I know they never did. Come for the hits on Second Album but stay for the album tracks that illustrate just how special the Four Tops were.
The Damned – The Best of the Damned (compilation) It seems there are almost as many best-of collections for the Damned as there has been lineups. I picked this up at a garage sale because it has many of my favorite songs from their first three albums, back when they were more punk than goth. At some point I might expand my Damned album collection to include those early releases in their entirety, but until then this is a great overview of a tough band.
The Stooges – Fun House (1970) The hype sticker on my album proclaims “Iggy and the boys find their troglodyte groove.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The music on Fun House connects on a primal level, like howling at the moon. In a strange way, it connects with me in the same way as Howlin Wolf or John Lee Hooker – straight in the gut, without any pretense. Like it is hitting the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, etc.) In other words, the exact opposite of a pompous album review that references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The song “TV Eye” came from a phrase that Stooges rhythm section Scott and Ron Asheton’s sister used about men leering at her. It forces me to exceed the speed limit every time it comes on in the car. “Down in the Sleep” came to Iggy Pop in the middle of the night. He got out of bed trying to play the power chord he heard in his head, waking his wife in the process. Unlike Ziggy, Iggy didn’t play guitar. Perhaps he never found that chord.
After the opening assault, Fun House changes up a bit but remains just as gripping. Steven Mackay’s saxophone squonks across the second side like the group has just discovered fire for the first time.
This album needs to be played regularly to make sure you are still alive.
The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (2007) The third album from the Albuquerque indie rock quartet was their first release after Natalie Portman proclaimed them life-changing in the film Garden State. There was a lot riding on this release, but frontman and songwriter James Mercer wasn’t afraid to stretch the band’s sound. He sprinkles synthesizers and funk basslines among the familiar chiming guitars and la-la-la melodies. As a result, Wincing the Night Away isn’t as strong as the two Shins albums before it, but it is still very enjoyable.
Willie Nelson – Teatro (1998) Willie Nelson seems game to try just about anything. Reggae album? Sure. Duet with Kid Rock? Why not? Still, the decision to record in an old movie theater with producer Daniel Lanois was a solid nod. Nelson revisits several of his lesser-known songs from the 1960s with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and the marvelous Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. Many of the arrangements are Spanish or Mexican in spirit and give a vibe like we are lost in a marathon of Ennio Morricone films south of the border. Nelson, the other musicians and the songs thrive in this atmosphere, making this a distinctly unique album in Nelson’s vast catalog and also one of his best.
Peter Gabriel – Us (1992) It took Peter Gabriel six years to release a follow-up to his massively successful album So. That’s almost light speed, considering he’s only given us one other album of original material since then. But what an album Us is. Gabriel throws everything from bagpipes to a Russian folk group in the should-have-been-single “Come Talk to Me.” Other songs are just as overstuffed and immaculately excellent. The horn-driven “Kiss the Frog” ranks as one of the greatest extended sexual metaphors of all time. “Blood of Eden” and “Secret World” are passionately romantic. The only dud is “Steam,” aka Son of “Sledgehammer.” There is a lot to unravel in Us, but Gabriel gave his fans plenty of time to process all of it.
Today hundreds of young music fans will protest outside the headquarters of Atlantic Records in New York City as part of Fiasco Friday. A similar rally will also take place in Chicago.
The gatherings started as an frustrated discussion on an internet forum over Atlantic’s two-year refusal to release an album by rapper Lupe Fiasco. Inspired by success stories of similar incidents with Wilco and Fiona Apple, this new generation of fans want major labels to respect their voices.
“Lupe is just one part of a larger issue,” said 17-year-old Matthew LaCorte, one of Fiasco Friday’s organizers. “I would like Atlantic to stop interfering in the creative process of its artists and to help get a more positive message – a message like Lupe’s – on commercial radio.”
Tall requests, to be sure. Artists complaints of label meddling can be found in ever era of the music industry, and are a major reason why artists from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the Eagles have divorced themselves from major label. Complaints of commercial radio playlists have increased – while overall listenership has decreased – since the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed single corporations to gobble up more and more of the national spectrum.
“Our goals mirror Lupe’s L.A.S.E.R.S. manifesto, which he posted online,” LaCorte said. “We want to alert people and tell the message of Lupe Fiasco, who’s music has a drastically different message from what you hear on the radio.”
In part, the 14-point manifesto declares an end to glamorizing negativity in the media, promotes environmental responsibility, individualism and political accountability, elevates substance over popularity and calls for the end of war and a “processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption and waste.”
But it will take more than T-Pain’s ubiquitous and chart-topping auto-tune to make these lofty goals part of any mainstream discussion.
“I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the rally,” LaCorte said. “I know we’ll have lots of signs and so some picketing. I’m planning on giving a speech, and I know we’ll have lots of chants and rally calls based on Lupe’s music.”
Oh, and Fiasco will be personally participating in the New York rally. In late September, Fiasco tweeted “well if y’all there…I guess I gotta be there too!”
“This started because we all wanted ‘Lasers’ to come out,” LaCorte said. “Last week Atlantic finally gave us a release date of March 8, 2011, so in a way we’ve succeeded. Fiasco Friday will be both a celebration of our success and a chance to protest issues we feel still need to be addressed.”
Fiasco is hardly the only rapper facing label resistance right now. Last week Nas raged against Def Jam’s refusal to release the second volume in his “Lost Tapes” series as part of his contract.
“Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago,” Nas wrote in his open letter. “I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my way because since day one I have been my own man.”
LaCorte said he was fine with Nas’ perspective. But when the original petition calling for ‘Lasers’” release was ignored by Atlantic, he knew it was time to make a bigger noise.
“Having fans protesting is not good for business,” LeCorte said. “But if we fans do this – petition, boycott, make phone calls, send letters and stand up for the musicians we admire – if we make our voices heard, there will be a change.”