Social Distancing Spins – Day 66

By Joel Francis

Peter Gabriel – Up (2002) As a fan who discovered Peter Gabriel in the early ‘90s, the decade between Us and Up seemed interminable. I’m glad no one told me at the time that I’d be waiting at least twice at long for his next platter of original material. Because of the lengthy delay, Up didn’t have the commercial impact of Us and So. Up is also a much darker album that features electronic elements in several songs. “The Barry Williams Show,” the first single released from Up, is easily its worst track. The arrangement never really gels and the lyrics lampooning talk shows and reality TV seems forced. (Lord, if Gabriel ever knew where those twin genres of trash television would lead us today ….) Sadness and mortality are themes in a couple songs, including the moving “I Grieve,” first showing up on the City of Angels soundtrack four years before Up’s release. Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn assists on the album’s emotional apex, “Signal to Noise.” As Gabriel has continued to move further away from rock music, hearing him surrounded by guitars, drum, bass and keyboards feels almost as gratifying as when this original material was first released.

Thelonious Monk – Solo Monk (1965) ‘Tis a pure delight to hear Thelonious Monk work without a band, with no filter between his mind and the music. The 13 songs on this wonderful album include standards, like the jaunty “Dinah,” which opens the collection, and the wistful, sentimental “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” which ends the album. Monk scatters his own compositions among the standards, including “Ruby, My Dear,” one of his signature pieces, “Monk’s Point” and “North of the Sunset.” In his autobiography, pianist Randy Weston talks about Monk holding court at his New York City apartment, sitting at the piano, playing whatever comes into his mind. Solo Monk is as close as we’ll get to eavesdropping on one of those private sessions. Solo Monk is a treasure in every way.

The Kinks – Sleepwalker (1977) The Kinks had such a long career they managed to peak twice. Between 1966 and 1971, they released an amazing cluster of albums, including Something Else, Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies. Then, in the late 1970s they peaked again, starting with Sleepwalker. Disco-era Kinks were a very different group than their swinging ‘60s counterparts. The group had ballooned to five members, to accommodate a keyboard player, and the sound was more hard rock than twee pop. Songwriter Ray Davies abandoned the concept albums that had bogged down most of the band’s 1970s albums, and brought sleek, stand-alone rock songs. Brother Dave Davies turns his guitar up loud enough to reach the cheap seats in the sports arenas they would wind up playing on tour. The subject of songs “Life on the Road” and “Juke Box Music” are evident in their titles. “Life Goes On” is an upbeat anthem guaranteed to brighten any bad day. Sleepwalker isn’t the best album from the Kinks revival, but it sets the table nicely for the pair of albums that follow and improve on this direction.

Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides (2012) As a member of Sonic Youth, guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s solo releases were art projects not intended for mainstream audiences. Thankfully his first effort after Sonic Youth’s unfortunate demise is an accessible, low key indie rock album in the same vein as his old band’s album Murray Street. Ranaldo wrote all the songs for Between the Times, but he assembled an all-star band to bring the material to life. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Medeski, Martin and Wood jazz keyboard player John Medeski. My favorite song on the album is “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a haunting look back at underage drinking parties and the danger constantly lurking under the veneer of good times. Here are the lyrics to the bridge, which sets up a stinging Cline solo: “Slip behind the valley curtain/Looking for a place to hide/Shaky and those times uncertain/Everyone drunk on red wine.” The other songs are equally solid, proving that underneath are the abstract noise experiments beats the heart of a pop songwriter.

Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw? (2017) It feels like Steve Earle releases a new album of original material about 18 months. If you don’t like his current musical disposition, wait a few seasons and he’ll be there again in a different mood. Fortunately, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw?, a return to country-ish material, is a keeper. By virtue of being so prolific, Earle’s songwriting has gotten tighter and tighter, to the point where he can write a tribute to the people fighting forest fires simply because he learned they’d never had one (“The Firebreak Line”). Most of the other songs on the album deal with troubles: with women, money and society. Willie Nelson pops by to lend his voice to the title song. Earle ends the album with several earnest covers of classic outlaw country songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and Waylon Jenning’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

Pearl Jam – Live at Easy Street (2019) In the spring of 2005, Pearl Jam stopped by a Seattle record shop to play a few songs and spread some hometown love. Seven of those songs were released on an CD exclusively available in independent record shops. Several years later, those same seven songs were released on vinyl for Record Store Day. My biggest complaint with this release is that I wished they would have released the full 16-song set on two albums, rather than the 27 minutes of material that populates this EP. What we’re given is great, though. Two songs from Riot Act, the band’s newest album at the time, one each from No Code and Ten and three covers. John Doe even comes out to perform X’s “The New World” with the band.

Last fall I ended up in Seattle for work. After making an obligatory stop at the Jimi Hendrix gravesite, I was hungry for both breakfast and crate digging. Both desires were satiated at Easy Street, which features a nice little brunch menu and an impressive expanse of vinyl. The large murals commemorating Pearl Jam’s concert brought two and two together for me. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, Easy Street is definitely worth a stop.

Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37

By Joel Francis

The nice weather is giving me a different type of spring fever. I miss baseball and concerts and hanging out with friends. Thankfully, there is always music. Let’s dive back into the stacks.

Dave Douglas and High Risk – Dark Territory (2016) A few years ago, it felt like there was a trend, or maybe it was a micro-trend, of acoustic jazz musicians performing with electronic musicians. Pianist Brad Mehldau did it with drummer Mark Guiliana and trumpet player Dave Douglas collaborated with electronic artist Shigeto for two albums under the High Risk moniker. Both projects were mostly rewarding and enjoyable. I had the good fortune to see High Risk play at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in support of their first album. Watching Shigeto respond to Douglas’ playing, and then hearing how the rhythm section responded to their interplay was fascinating. I know there can be an easy temptation to assume electronic musicians pre-program beats and melodies and the acoustic musicians shape their music around that, but High Risk was a true live collaboration.  Dark Territory is the most recent High Risk album but I’m still holding onto hope that we might get another album from them at some point. I also hope more musicians explore this concept.

The Clash – Cut the Crap (1985)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 1 (2017)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 2/The Future Was Unwritten (2018) The final album from the seminal punk group The Clash is a mess, not even a hot mess. The conventional thinking is that solid songs were killed by poor (over)production. The good folks at Crooked Beat Records, a shop I used to visit regularly when I had relatives in Washington, D.C., tested this theory by rounding up several local bands to put their spin on the material written after guitarist Mick Jones was fired from the band and manager Bernie Rhodes assumed more control over the group’s music. It looks solid on paper and in truth it’s not bad on record, either. However, the thesis doesn’t hold up for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think all of the songs are as strong as they could be. Joe Strummer didn’t have Jones there to bounce ideas off and push him to improve the material. Secondly, the Clash are a hard band to cover. Sure, you can get the chords right and nail the lyrics, but the non-musical elements – the hunger, the spirit, the righteousness – can’t be taught or copied. You either have them or you don’t. A lot of big-name acts learned this the hard way on the disastrous Burning London tribute album back in 1999. 

Recutting the Crap is best when Cut the Crap is its worst; the lesser known, underdeveloped materials. The tribute runs into problems on “This Is England,” easily the best song on Cut the Crap, and the bonus album of songs that could have been Clash songs. Joe Strummer’s solo contributions to soundtracks and his collaborations with Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Here, the original material is so strong that the covers, however well-intentioned, come off as pale covers.

Both Cut the Crap and Recutting the Crap are interesting endeavors, but each fall short of the goal line for different reasons.

Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) The NYC noise rockers found the perfect balance between their early indie releases and having a major label budget (and promotion) on Dirty, their seventh album. “Sugar Kane” and “Wish Fulfillment” strike the balance between melody and discord. “Youth Against Fascism” and “Chapel Hill” have a strong political message as urgent and unruly as what Rage Against the Machine was doing at the time (albeit with a different musical approach). Then there are savage cuts like “Drunken Butterfly” and “Purr” that no doubt confounded the record label executives. The deluxe edition I own contains two extra LPs containing b-sides and rehearsal tracks. A cover of Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body” sung by Kim Gordon picks up the same feminist string as the Dirty album track“Swimsuit Issue.” A sideways tribute to the New York Dolls on “Personality Crisis” is a hoot. The works-in-progress recordings fill out the story of Dirty, but they’re not interesting enough on their own to keep me turning back to them as often as the album.

Dirty is my favorite major-label era Sonic Youth album. It’s likely that even casual Sonic Youth fans will get Dirty frequently. Anyone nostalgic for the early ‘90s alt-rock scene should check it out as well.

John Coltrane – Ballads (1963) Entire books and doctoral theses have been written about John Coltrane’s genius. I’m not sure I have anything to add, except to say that hearing Coltrane perform with his classic quartet – and especially McCoy Tyner, who we talked about way back on Day 2, is always a deep pleasure. Listening to him hold back the sheets of sound for this slower material provides yet another layer of reward. Put this on after a stressful day for the perfect lull in the storm.

U2 – Pop (1997) U2’s PopMart tour marked the first time I saw the band in concert, so I’m a little biased toward this album. Pop also feels like the last moment that U2 stopped trying to be U2 and while I enjoy several of their albums after this, they also feel very safe and calculated. At the time it came out, recording for the album ran late, cutting into tour rehearsal time and resulting in a rush-released product. You can still hear the effects of this today because the album feels disjointed. I think listening to Pop on vinyl improves the experience because there are forced pauses in the music between sides. The first side contains the opening three hard dance songs. More gentle, acoustic numbers comprise most of the second side, segueing into the most experimental (and weakest) material on the third side (“Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion”). Pop ends with three atmospheric, contemplative tracks on the final side. Being able to concentrate on one style of song at a time gives the album an extended EP feel, which helps it. Regardless how you feel about Pop, the sound of U2 swinging for the fences and missing here is still vastly preferable to the weak bunts and sacrifice fly balls they’ve been serving up for the most part ever since.

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (2015) The seventh album from the Portland, Ore., indie rockers was also the first release that they sounded like themselves for a while. They went all-in on the proggy concept album “The Hazards of Love,” then responded with the very poppy and folky The King is Dead (which we discussed back on Day 18). Finally, the pendulum arrived back in the middle for this excellent release. Several moments, including “Cavalry Captain” and “Mistral,” recall the high points of their early albums. They break the fourth wall on opening number “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which comes across as a more academic (and less fun) version of “The Wilco Song,” only with references to Axe shampoo. The centerpiece is “12/17/12,” a response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that leaves me with a lump in my throat every time. This is a good place to start if you are curious about the band. Longtime Decemberists fans will find much to love here as well.

The White Stripes – The White Stripes XX (2019) Arriving just in time for the 20th anniversary of the White Stripes’ debut album, this look back includes a record of studio outtakes from the album’s studio recording sessions, and a set from the duo’s tour opening for Pavement. (A DVD documents an additional show from that year.) The platter of outtakes reveal a couple items of curiosity. The is an early version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which wouldn’t appear until the band’s third album. The smoking version of “Little Red Book” is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. The most surprising thing about the live set is that it exists at all. If you listened to the first season of the Striped podcast, you may remember that the Stripes were essentially driving themselves to these shows and losing money in doing so. It’s amazing that Jack and Meg had the money and foresight to roll tape on these gigs at all. The other revelation is how fully formed their sound is, right off the bat. The recording is a little distant, but the essence of the band that ended up playing arenas around the world is very present on this tiny club stage. Ultimately, there’s nothing here that replaces the raw, honest goodness of the White Stripes’ first album (with the exception of that “Little Red Book.” Yowza!) but the material here is the perfect complement. A dig through the detritus for those who want it.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 11

By Joel Francis

Let the hit parade continue.

Sonic Youth – Washing Machine (1995) On the surface, Washing Machine appears to be just another release by avant rockers Sonic Youth. Released nine albums into their three-decade career, the band doesn’t have much to prove by this point but they certainly aren’t coasting through this set. All three of the band’s songwriters are in peak form. The album opens and closes Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo taking lead vocals on their respective compositions. Moore’s closing cut, “The Diamond See” is a fascinating 20-minute track that shows the quartet stretching out, yet never repeating themselves. It’s the longest they let a mood percolate on a studio album. (An even longer 25- minute version was released on The Destroyed Room rarities collection.) Overall, Washing Machine points to the more mature direction Sonic Youth would take in the early ‘00s.

One Day As a Lion – self-titled (2008) Well, this is it. The 20 minutes on this EP comprise most substantial release by Zack de la Rocha since the end of Rage Against the Machine at the end of the millennium. It boggles the mind how someone so politically aggressive during the Clinton administration could be so quiet during the Dubya and current administrations. If anything, you’d think de la Rocha would be out stumping for Bernie Sanders.

Brief as it is, the music here meets all expectations. It’s loud, combative and better than either of Rage axeman Tom Morello’s acoustic Nightwatchman full-lengths.

Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1964) I discovered Andrew Hill about six months before he died. Even though I didn’t have a lot of history with his art, I was still deeply saddened by his loss. Selfishly, I had hoped that I would be able to see him perform at some point. I was also disappointed that such a monumental talent hadn’t achieved the renown and accolades Hill deserved.

It can be easy for pianists to get lost in the background when playing in larger groups, especially with reed-player Eric Dolphy in the mix. Hill’ steady hand is ever-present across this album, guiding every song and creating the spaces for Dolphy and saxman Joe Henderson’s solos (and delivering plenty of his own as well). “Dedication,” the final piece, is as beautiful a piece of music as you will ever hear.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Get Happy!! (1980) Elvis Costello has released so many great albums across so many styles it is hard to pin down a favorite. That said, of the four classics in his initial “angry young man” phase, this might be my pick as the best. Costello skitters across all forms of soul music in these 20 songs, moving quickly from Motown to Northern and blue-eyed soul. Ballads and Southern soul are also given their due. What reads like a dull, academic genre exercise on paper is a hoot to hear because of the Attractions manic energy – particularly Steve Nieve’s hopping organ – and Costello’s lyrics, that slash like a switchblade in an alley fight. You don’t realize how quickly they cut until they’ve moved on to the next victim. Best to keep dancing and sort it all out later.

Robbie Robertson – Storyville (1991) Anyone disappointed that Robbie Robertson’s debut album bore few traces of his time with The Band will find more to like with this sophomore effort. Although the performances are far more restrained and the production more polished than anything with his old group, it’s not hard to imagine Rick Danko singing on “Night Parade” (although he does contribute backing vocals on the gorgeous ballad “Hold Back the Dawn”). Taken on its own terms, this is still a very satisfying album. Neil Young stops by to help with “Soap Box Preacher” and the Neville Brothers appear on “Shake This Town,” recorded with Rebirth Brass Band, and “What About Now.” The spirit of New Orleans, where Storyville was made, also appears on “Go Back to Your Woods.” In a way, Storyville makes a nice companion piece to the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, released the year before with Daniel Lanois, the man behind the boards for Robertson’s debut.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – The Golden Era Series, Vol. 1 (compilation) It blows my mind that these recordings are approaching their centennial. These are among Armstrong’s first sessions as a bandleader. His solos here went a long way establish jazz as an improvisational genre. Satchmo doesn’t sing on every cut, but when he does it is always memorable. The dozen cuts here are so celebrated and influential it is impossible to have a favorite, but I’ll share some of the titles to whet the appetites of the uninitiated: “Heebie Jeebies,” “Struttin’ with some Barbeque,” “Gut Bucket Blues,” “Hotter than That.” Just reading those titles, how can you not want to dive in?

The songs here appeared roughly the same time as George Gershwin’s compositions and significantly predate Aaron Copeland’s most celebrated pieces. This is the sound of America growing up and forcing its way on the world’s artistic stage well before it became impossible to ignore as a superpower.

Ben Folds – Supersunnyspeedgraphic, the LP (compilation) The first three sides of this two-record collection encompass highlights from the digital-only mini-albums Folds released in the early 2000s. It’s fun to hear Folds give the Cure and the Darkness his own demented spin. His potty-mouthed cover of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is funny the first few times, but gradually wears out its welcome. In his memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Folds recounts a stint opening for John Mayer where he would perform this song several times in a row relishing the jeers. I can relate to how that audience must have felt. Original songs including “Adelaide,” “Songs of Love” and “Still” more than make up for Folds’ West Coast rap mishap. The fourth side of this set is a real treat, too. We get a half-dozen cuts from the Over the Hedge soundtrack, including a great cover of The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” and an alternate version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” with an epic William Shatner rant based on real events.

The Supremes – At their Best (compilation) Conventional wisdom holds that the Supremes were over once Diana Ross left. True, Ross had much greater success as a solo artist than the Supremes did without her, but they were still a potent force. The group had six Top 40 hits in the post-Ross era and several more hits on the R&B charts. Many of those tracks are included on this 10-track collection, which spans 1970 to 1976. “Stoned Love” and “Up the Ladder to the Roof” are as good as anything the Supremes released in their prime years. “I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” and “You’re My Driving Wheel” update the group’s sound with elements of funk and disco. The Supremes were always a better singles act than album artists and this anthology is a fitting encapsulation and the final chapter.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 3

By Joel Francis

Our trawl through my world of vinyl continues.

Various Artists – Stroke It Noel: Big Star’s Third in Concert (2017) To butcher the cliché, probably not everyone who bought a Big Star album back in the ‘70s started a band, but it’s a fair bet that at least one person from most of your favorite bands did (unless you are super into, say, Norwegian death metal, in which case, thank you for branching out and reading this blog).

It’s been ten years to the month since Big Star’s frontman Alex Chilton died on the eve of his celebration at South by Southwest. The impromptu tribute that emerged from that tragedy morphed into a series of concerts around the world celebrating Big Star’s troubling third album. It’s wonderful to hear members of Wilco, R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, the Posies, Semisonic, the dbs and more pass the mic and hike through these songs. But the live reproductions are so faithful they miss the fragile, alluring qualities that made the original studio versions that almost seemed to disintegrate before coalescing into beauty – if they made it that far. So yeah, I dig this, but hearing R.E.M.’s Mike Mills bounce joyfully through “Jesus Christ” or Django Haskins struggle with “Holocaust” doesn’t make me a bigger Big Star fan. It just makes me glad that the people I’m into have such immaculate taste.

Robert Fripp – Exposure (1979) I have a great deal of respect for King Crimson, Robert Fripp’s groundbreaking progressive rock ensemble, but to my heathen ears their music is like listening to calculus. I can get behind Exposure, though. You can almost hear Fripp smirking as he takes the listener from wordless, off-kilter a capella harmonies to an endlessly ringing phone and then a boogie woogie pastiche – all in about a minute. It’s almost like Fripp is daring us to meet us where he is, then abruptly changing course and challenging us to follow him over there. This is also an apt description of his entire career. Listening to Exposure is like playing tag. You never stay in one place and may find yourself out of breath at times with the quarry just out of reach, but it’s always fun to play. Special mention must be made of the definitive version of “Here Comes the Flood” with Peter Gabriel on vocals.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew (2015) This mother-son duo was poised to be the next big thing to break out of the Kansas City music scene when this debut album came out. They appeared on one of the last episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman, the Today show, Later with Jools Holland and played Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. Things have been quiet since then – only one EP in 2018 – but these laid-back, folk blues romps are still a fun spin.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (2017) Damn. was my favorite album the year it came out and it remains a compelling listen today. The fact that I can say this despite a concert that nearly left me in tears is a testament to its strength. When the Damn. tour announced a date at the Sprint Center, I quickly jumped on tickets. Not wanting to take out a second mortgage, my friends and I got seats in the upper level, extreme stage right. The sound was fine for the opening acts, but when Lamar took the stage it was like the sound blew out in the speakers directed at our section. You know it sounds you’re just inside the doors, waiting to get in and the show starts without you? All bass with just a hint of vocals? That’s how it sounded inside the arena. Some ushers kindly moved us to another section where the sound was slightly better, but the spell had been broken and the show was a bust. All this and I still can’t wait to hear what Lamar does next.

Rush – Power Windows (1985) I know everyone loves the hard, sci-fi prog of Rush’s late-‘70s peak, but I am strongly partial to their synth-heavy early ‘80s material. This mostly boils down to the fact that during high school I played the band’s 1989 live album A Show of Hands so often I thought the laser would bore right through the CD. So you can have your “Cygnus X-1” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and I’ll stick with “Marathon” and “Manhattan Project,” thank you very much.

Husker Du – Everything Falls Apart (1982) Playing this record (included in the Numero Group’s essential early-days collection Savage Young Du) is like flying down the interstate on a Japanese motorcycle without a helmet. Insects slap your face and the wind stings your eyes as gravity forces you closer to the ground. Danger is imminent, but you twist your wrist and accelerate even more. Stopping is not an option. Oh, and there’s an entire side of bonus tracks.

Johnny Cash – Mean as Hell! (1966) Mean as Hell! is the single platter version of Johnny Cash’s double-record concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West. I think I got this at a garage sale, because who can resist an album with this title (with mandatory exclamation point) where a gaunt, drugged out Cash is dressed like a cowboy, holding a gun? The music isn’t as exceptional as the cover. The spoken-word bits are a little too somber. Cash sounds like a Southern preacher crossed with a National Geographic narrator on the title track and the studio version of “25 Minutes to Go” is nowhere near as fun as the live version at Folsom Prison. Despite these shortcomings, I’ll still put on my spurs for the ballads: “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and album closer “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

Frank Black – Teenager of the Year (1994) No one liked this album when it came out. It didn’t sound like the Pixies, wasn’t as radio-ready as the Breeders and there was a lot of lingering animosity over how Frank Black ended the beloved Pixies. I didn’t know any of this at the time, however, because I was too busy listening to A Show of Hands. Coming to this album several years later, all I heard were nearly two dozen bright blasts of Black’s songwriting at its most accessible. Nurse a grudge all you want. I’ll be right over hear blasting “Freedom Rock” loud enough to drown out your whining.

Brian Eno – Reflection (2016) I don’t know enough about ambient music to tell you the difference between this album and Lux or the longer-form pieces on the Music for Installations collection. I can tell you that when it gets to the point in the day when I need some Eno, Reflection (and Lux) always comforts me. I also don’t think I have to get up to turn the record over as often with Lux, so there’s one difference.

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle (1973) This is one of my absolute favorite Springsteen albums because it’s the sound of him fumbling through different sounds trying to figure out what he wants to be. It all clicked into place with Born to Run, his next album. The guitars at the beginning of “Sandy” sound like the Allman Brothers Band before the accordion whisks in foreshadowing the opening section of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Where else can you hear Springsteen rocking with a clavinet over a Doobie Brothers guitar line but on “The E Street Shuffle”?

The picture of the band is especially priceless. Half the guys have their shirts unbuttoned all the way, only a couple are wearing shoes and Springsteen is rocking a tank top and blue jeans. They look like a group that would get uncomfortably close and overly friendly with a stranger, ask to bum a cigarette and then inquire if he or she liked to par-tay.

Wild and Innocent is also the only time multi-instrumentals David Sancious appeared as Springsteen’s main musical foil. Sancious left to form his own band shortly after this album came out and went on to work with Stanley Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Eric Clapton and many others.

Lee Hazlewood – The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (compilation) If you’ve heard “These Boots,” then you’ve heard a Lee Hazlewood production. This collection doesn’t contain any of Hazlewood’s work with the Chairman of the Board’s daughter – which is good enough to warrant its own anthology – but it does contain duets with Ann-Margret and Suzi Jane Hokom and solo cuts that sound like cowboy songs in Cinemascope. Drag Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to the wild west and your getting close.

R.L. Burnside – Too Bad Jim (1994)

T-Model Ford – The Ladies Man (2010) I saw T-Model Ford one time, right around the time The Ladies Man came out, a couple years before his death. The venue, Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club, or just Davey’s, was about as close as you could get to a juke joint in Kansas City. Split across two storefronts, the bar was on the left side, where you’d traditionally enter. The area with music was on the right side of the wall. If a performer moved too far stage right he or she was liable to bump into a door leading out to the street. That would be bad. Despite these shortcomings, the sight lines were decent, the drinks were cheap and the sound was usually OK. I mention all this because Davey’s, a century-old Kansas City institution, was gutted by a fire just a couple days ago. Everyone reminiscing online about the great times they had at the venue made me reach for this album.

R.L. Burnside’s blues were cut from the same primitive cloth as Ford’s. I don’t know if Burnside ever played at Davey’s but I’m sure he would have been welcomed and would have liked it. The good news is that the Markowitz family, who have run Davey’s since the 1950s, plan to rebuilt the space.

Loose Fur – self-titled (2003) Recorded before Wilco’s career-defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but released afterward, Loose Fur is the sound of Jeff Tweedy shaking off the weight of Wilco and getting acquainted with two new collaborators. Opening track “Laminated Cat” is one of my favorite Tweedy compositions. It’s more than seven minutes here, but Wilco frequently tear it down onstage like a Sonic Youth number and stretch it even longer. Jim O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction” provides a more relaxed counterpoint and while the album doesn’t get that relaxed again until the closing number, “Chinese Apple,” the opening pair frame the album as a balancing act between tension, experimental noise and release.

Benny Carter – Further Definitions (1961) Impulse Records are frequently viewed as the playhouse for avant-garde jazz workouts by saxophonists John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Rollins. Further Definitions is proof that Impulse wasn’t so one-dimensional (at least in the early years). Pre-war legends Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins push each other to new heights in the confines of this small group anchored by Coltrane’s rhythm section. The result is an album that jazz fans can appreciate for its sophistication and intricacy but your mom can hum along with. A win for everyone.

Review: Titus Andronicus

(Above: Titus Andronicus deliver “A More Perfect Union.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It’s clear that Patrick Stickles is a smart guy. His band Titus Andronicus is named after one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays and his lyrics are littered with sly allusions to American history and rock heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Despite the pretentious song titles (check the setlist) and English-major critiques (“This next song is about the narrator’s quest for internal validation,“ Stickles announced at one point), many of the band’s songs deal with self-doubt, alienation, insecurity and other forms of social and emotional uncertainty that have served countless other bands so well for so long.TitusAndronicusWhen Stickles led crowd in singing “you will always be a loser” or “the enemy is everywhere” it gave off similar vibe to when Weezer declared “In the garage/no one hears me sing this song or Morrissey and the Smiths wondered “In my life/why do I give time/to people who don’t care if I live or die?”Bonded in isolation, a full but not crowded Riot Room crowd reveled in the indie punk band’s 90-minute set on Friday night. The quintet charged out of the gate with the driving “A More Perfect Union,” also opening track on their most recent, excellent album, “The Monitor.” Stickle doesn’t have a big singing range and his lyrics are so dense it’s often difficult to discern what he’s saying/screaming over the band, but he always keeps the sound churning.

The set stalled a couple times because of equipment problems, but those interruptions couldn’t stall the night. Top moments included the emotional tour de force “Battle of Hampton Roads,” which lead into the mostly instrumental “Titus Andronicus Forever.”

One of the few indie bands that can boast a trio of guitars, “Forever” found the middle ground between Boston and Sonic Youth. As guitarists Amy Klein and David Robbins wailed in harmony, Stickle and the rhythm section reveled in cacophony.

Klein was the night’s unsung hero. Her boundless energy infected the entire room. Most of the night it looked as if she was playing guitar on a trampoline. The only time she wasn’t bouncing around was when she switched to violin. Her lovely solo and arrangement on “Four Score” served as a nice counterpoint to Stickles’ grievances.

At times Stickle seemed to prattle on a bit much between numbers -– especially in the second half of the set –- but when the band kicked in the world was a perfect place, at least until the song ended.

Setlist: A More Perfect Union; Richard II; My Time Outside the Womb; New Song; Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’; Fear and Loathing in Mahwah; No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future; Titus Andronicus; To Old Friends and New; Battle of Hampton Roads > Titus Andronicus Forever; Four Score and Seven.

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Andrew W.K. – “55 Cadillac”

55

By Joel Francis

From “Brand New Cadillac” to “Little Red Corvette,” no art form has had a love affair with the automobile quite like rock and roll. So while the subject matter for Andrew W.K.’s fourth album, “55 Cadillac,” is well-trod, his approach is surprising and fresh.

W.K. appeared on the scene in 2001 sporting a bloody nose on his album cover and urging hard rock fans to “Party Hard.” In the years since opened a New York night club, penned an advice column that was compiled into a book, produced an album by reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, hosted a show on Cartoon Network and continued to turn out big dumb anthems like “Make Sex.” That said, few could have seen the side of Andrew W.K. he reveals on “55 Cadillac.”

Comprised of eight “spontaneous solo piano improvisations,” the album finds W.K. expressing himself on the 88 keys he started learning at age 4.

“55 Cadillac” opens where Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone” – which features our heroine on the hood of a 1968 Mercury Cougar  – left off, with the sound of crickets and frogs. Like a drag race, W.K.’s prize auto doesn’t start, but “begin.” Appropriately, we can hear the motor thrust and idle as pistons warm up on the first cut, “Begin the Engine.”

Though the performances are spontaneous, W.K. obviously put a lot of thought into tone and texture. “Seeing the Car” is suitably elegant, while “Night Driver” features an upbeat, galloping melody. The stately ballad “5” is the album’s most tuneful moment and “City Time” is choppy, reflecting urban stop-and-go traffic.

The tracks are joined by the sound of a car racing past and the album works as one long piece. The songs flow well, sustaining the mood without becoming stale, but despite the solid pacing it can easily become background music.

W.K.’s party rock persona doesn’t emerge until the opus’ closing minutes. When the flood of electric guitars enter on “Cadillac,” the closing track,” it sounds like a lost snippet of musical dialogue between Queen’s Brian May and Freddy Mercury.

Co-released on the Sonic Youth guitarist’s Ecstatic Peace! Label, “55 Cadillac” is the rare album that can be enjoyed by both Thurston Moore and Thurston Howell, III.

Remembering Ron Asheton of The Stooges

(Above: The Stooges do “1969” in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Mavis We’ll Never Turn Back

 

Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back
Radiohead
– In Rainbows
Talib Kweli – Ear Drum
PJ Harvey
– White Chalk
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Bettye LaVette – The Scene of the Crime
Thurston Moore – The Trees Outside the Academy
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
Kanye West – Graduation
Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer