Monthly Archives: February 2009

HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BONO: U2

With No Line On The Horizon the Irish
superstars, abetted by Eno, Lanois and Lillywhite, create their messiest album
yet.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

 

As icy as its graying
minimalist cover by Japanese photog Hiroshi Sugimoto might suggest, No Line on the Horizon (Interscope) is
U2’s messiest album yet. High pitched, cushiony, operatic, playful, clunky, mostly-midtempo,
often at a lack for a decent turn of a lyrical phrase or vexing chorus, this
thing is the Irish quartet’s White Album.
Or rather its fragile eggshell off-white album; more eccentrically bold (yet
surprisingly tinnier) than How To
Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
, not quite as passionate and joyful as All That You Can’t Leave Behind (despite
Horizon‘s unusual wealth of love
songs – to Bono’s missus, I suppose), and certainly less challenging and
electro-buzzing than Achtung Baby,
the latter my favorite of the band’s recordings.

 

 

While the melting
droney organ and clicky rhythm of its title song (how oddly linear for U2, a
title song first) unfurls, a whinnying high vocal slows to announce “no-o-oh
li-y-ine on theee hor-i-z-ee-on.” It’s an uneasy convenience the way Bono’s words
and vibrating vocal tics (too few at this stage of the game) find themselves
having to (con)form to the tune’s bridge and sighs. Weirder still is how
perfectly the song ends. Actually how every song ends. No Line might be U2’s most neatly crafted album – mordantly hermetic
even when it’s fuzzy, nattily fussy even while it’s muddling.

 

 

The
softly-splayed disco of “Magnificent” and its bible of adoration (“Only
love can leave such a mark”) and the slinky synth-gurgle of “Moment of
Surrender” and its dumbest-ever texts (what the googliemoo is he straining to
sing about, semi-precious stones and the altar of the darks stars) seem to beg
for, and get, commitment. It’s cozy. And that’s occasionally woeful and weird. This
is nice house-husband work that these tracks consider, with their laid-back
Leslie-guitar (?) solos and humbly thumping shuffles trailing behind Bono. In
fact, in that context, lines like “the right to be ridiculous is something I
hold dear” and “every generation gets a chance to change the world” – on the
swift magical mystery pop of “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” –
sound like a house-bound man stuck with the kids for too many months. Is this a
Bono solo record with his three buddies lending (way too moral) support?

 

 

All this ennui
and mid-tempo cool up to this point in the album’s tracklisting – yes, I’m
going track by track here; that’s how conveniently laid out Horizon is – and the “joy is
real”-filled slick glam blur of “Get On Your Boots” feels wrong. That
is, until you get to the next track, the snaking, hard(ly) rocking “Stand
Up Comedy” and its skanky groove. There’s a bit of Beatles again in U2’s
melodic prowess. And The Edge gets his hungriest shot at hunkering down and
riffing out bluesily on this one. Enjoy the growl. You won’t hear it again,
even though “Fez
– Being Born” has the album’s only true freakout in its splintered chorale, its
synthy blipping, its dense wall of bass, chamber-y pianos and N’Orleansese
shuffle.

 

 

Should we mention
here that Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite produced this
thing and added little gurgles to every artsy antsy element? Yes. OK. They did
that. It’s still tinny, although there’s stuff everywhere. Yet all that stuff
feels neatly arranged.

 

 

Suddenly “the land is flat” and Bono’s singing in a (gratefully) deeper voice, about the dry ground,
with a flat dry vocal and a flat dry production against a keys/loop/board on
“White as Snow” – suddenly he’s doing a Jim Morrison. Which is OK by me even at
this late stage of the game. “We are people borne of sound/The
songs are in our eyes/Gonna wear them like a crown,” Bono yelps. while The
Edge finds a fever pitch Ronson-like staccato on “Breathe.” I
might’ve kvetched but-for-a-second at Bono’s love letters during Horizon‘s first half. But they work
better than his universal soldier thing, especially when you consider
“Cedars of Lebanon” and its noodling dedication – musically and
lyrically – to going around the world at war and winding up in the same place.

 

 

Yet all this is something you can’t leave behind as Horizon finds – not portrays; it ain’t that dramatic, nor is it remotely the unqualified
success that Rolling Stone‘s recent
five-star wet kiss would have you believe – an imperfect U2 at its seductive
conductive coolest.

 

 

Notice I didn’t say its hottest?

 

 

 

 

 

EVERYTHING IS COOL Pylon

Form followed function
for Athens
postpunk legends Pylon.

 

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

With the death this week of guitarist Randy Bewley, we felt
it appropriate to pay tribute to him and his band Pylon. Bewley, 53,
experienced a heart attack while driving and subsequently ran off the road and
flipped his van. He passed away Wednesday, February 25, at Athens Regional
Medical Center.

 

The following article originally appeared in significantly
edited form in the December 2007 issue of BLURT predecessor Harp magazine.

 

***

 

CARRBORO, N.C.,
1980: An enthusiastic new wave crowd, including your future HARP correspondent,
jams into a tiny club in Carrboro (near Chapel Hill)
called The Station. Eatery by day, rock venue by night, it’s destined to enter
the history books in a few short months when R.E.M. makes their very first road
trip from Georgia.
This evening, though, another Peach State act, Athens’
Pylon, is onstage, thundering forth their brawny-yet-cerebral brand of dissonance-tinged
punk funk. And here I am, tearing up the dancefloor with… my mother-in-law?

 

“I remember The Station!” Vanessa Briscoe Hay, vocalist then
and now for Pylon, hoots when I recount taking my wife’s parents to see her
band. (For the record, my father-in-law stayed opted to stay outside where it
was a tad quieter that night.) “And that’s interesting, too, because we have had some audiences in the past who
you wouldn’t think we’d convert over! Once we were playing in New Orleans and some sort of physicians’
convention was in town. There were all these doctors with their wives, and they
just went bananas.”

 

Didn’t we all. Anyone who came of age during the pre-MTV
era, back when the Amerindie underground was a vaguely defined network of
fanzines, college radio stations and pizza joints masquerading as punk clubs,
knows Pylon. The quartet of University of Georgia art students-Hay, bassist
Michael Lachowski, guitarist Randy Bewley, drummer Curtis Crowe-formed in 1979,
inspired by the upheavals of punk and New Wave and by the D.I.Y. success of
fellow Athenians the B-52’s. Their aim? “To go up to New York, play once, get written up in the New York Rocker, then come back and break up,” says Hay.

 

Hay elaborates on the band’s origins:

 

“We were all big music fans. There was a record store in Athens called Chapter 3.
We were art students, and at that point in time there was this new music
happening, punk, New Wave, all that, and it was brand new. You could buy
everything to do with that genre as it was coming out, and it was exciting to
get the single, play it over and over and over. Myself, I hadn’t personally
thought of being in a band. I was a major fan of the B-52s, as were most of the
other art students. Two of my friends from art school, Michael and Randy, were
roommates and after reading about some of this stuff they decided they could
form a band too.

“They didn’t know anything about playing these instruments,
so they went to Michael’s studio in downtown Athens and they learned how to play, just
doing the same thing over and over and over. Curtis was hanging out on the
upper floor there, and he and his friend were listening to the stuff coming
through the floor and it was just driving ‘em crazy. [laughs] Curtis was like, ‘They really need a drummer.’ And Curtis was a drummer, since he was a boy, so he
went and knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I bring my drums
down here?’ So that’s the point when things started getting much better for
them. They started writing actual songs that had a beginning, middle and end,
and Michael was writing lyrics. He typed up some lyrics and they started
auditioning people.

 

“I was the last person they tried. They were about to give
up; they’d tried all these guys from art school and none worked out. Then they
went, wait, Vanessa’s a friend of ours-let’s ask her. So I came in, and they
couldn’t really hear what I was doing, but the fact that I put forth some
honest effort, and they liked the way that I looked, and they liked me as a
human being, they said, ‘Let’s ask her.’ I left that night and didn’t know if
I’d passed the audition or not. Then they asked me, and two weeks later we
played our first gig.”

 

Audiences, perhaps mindful of the Stiff Records credo “fuck
art, let’s dance,” responded so hungrily to Pylon that breaking up after a
single performance was never an option. Instead, Pylon kept going and became wildly
popular regionally as one of the foremost players on the bubbling-under Athens
scene, which would soon include the Method Actors, Love Tractor, the Side Effects,
Guadalcanal Diary, the Squalls and of course R.E.M. Pylon also began making
frequent drives up the East Coast to NYC-one early gig found them,
fortuitously, opening for Gang of Four at Hurrah-where the downtown club
crawlers embraced them just as they had the B-52’s a couple of years earlier.

 

Soon enough it was time to document the band on record. The
result was the “Cool” b/w “Dub” single: the A-side’s pulsing Pere Ubuish
bassline, militaristic percussion, angular shards of guitar and Hay mantra-like
incantation “everything is, everything is, everything is coooool” proved irresistible to national critics and club and
college deejays alike. By early 1980 the band was back in the studio-using the
same console that Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded “Freebird” with, no less- making their
debut full-length for Atlanta’s
DB Recs.

 

Hay remembers the sessions as “a very intense process. The
entire record was recorded and mixed in three days. And we had a date at the
688 Club that week too! We were basically recording our live repertoire, and
[engineer/co-producer] Bruce Baxter knew how to get a good live sound out of
us. We had this idea that we wanted all the instruments and the vocals to be
almost equal with each other, as opposed to something with the vocals blaring
out over the other instruments. We thought that would sound better, and maybe
in a way more democratic too-we were all equals.”

 

Such was the mentality of the Pylon brain trust that, she
adds, the band “approached the music in the same way we did our art. With art,
things like ‘form follows function.’ The idea that sometimes, with the first
line you make, the drawing could be finished. And you know, everything that
we’re doing, all the time, is going on in a ‘space.’ You could really get wild
with all these artistic ideas in approaching music, in a sense of not coming
from a trained musical background but more as artists. So we approached it in
the same way with our tools, except instead of brushes and spray paint cans we
had drums and the guitars and the microphone.”

 

An early ‘80s classic, the album holds up to this day as a
striking document of postpunk-tinged art-rock. Drummer Crowe once described the
Pylon sound to an interviewer as “round, with textured holes,” and fittingly
enough, they titled their album Gyrate.
Several songs followed the “Cool” template-Gang of Four, with a Southern drawl-while
others offered an intriguing marriage of Joy Division’s icy goth noir to a potent strain of humid
swamp-funk. One standout: sinewy disco anthem “Danger,” whose hip-grinding
rhythm (punctuated by a police whistle) is abetted by Bewley’s atmospheric sliding/detuning
fretboard runs; and in Hay’s alternately detached/cautionary lyrics (“I’ll
catch you unaware-look out!”), delivered in equal parts Siouxsie Sioux sneer
and proto-Courtney Love snarl, Pylon oozed an ominous yet undeniably sexual
vibe.

 

(One interesting side note: At early Pylon shows the band
performed stock-still, due partly to the members still getting comfortable with
their instruments and partly to, as Hay relates, “It hadn’t occurred to us [to
move around].” Eventually, though, the band would become caught up in the sonic
maelstrom just as the audiences were.)

 

Pylon toured heavily behind Gyrate, including to England where the Armageddon label
(home to the Soft Boys) had licensed the album, and on a North American trek
with Gang of Four. They also recorded a stirring new single, “Crazy” b/w
“M-Train” (years later, Pylon fans R.E.M. would famously cover “Crazy”), and
then in ’82 they journeyed to North Carolina to cut their second album, Chomp at Mitch Easter’s Winston-Salem studio
with Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of the dB’s producing.

 

Chomp retained all
the key Pylon elements while sounding sleeker and more expansive than its
predecessor-the mark of a steadily-evolving band. “That’s right,” agrees Hay.
“I think we’d just decided we wanted to try something different. We were
touring a lot and listening to a lot of other things that were going on, and we
thought, ‘You know, maybe we need to try working with another producer just to
see what kind of sound we could make happen.’

 

“The recording of Chomp took forever, and actually, the first part of the recording wasn’t [at the
Easter studio]. It was with Bruce Baxter at this studio in Atlanta called the Christian Broadcast
Studios or something like that, just this enormous place where they’d bring in
choirs to record. We recorded ‘Crazy’ and ‘M Train’ and some other stuff there.
But it was a lot of fun to be at Mitch’s studio. I really enjoyed meeting his
mom-that was actually my favorite part of being there recording, because a lot
of times in the studio it’s a bunch of people listening to tracks, smoking
cigarettes, stuff like that. But she was making us coffee and giving us
Moravian sugar cake, and she would sit there and talk to us and she just
enjoyed musicians and younger people. Working with Chris and Gene, they both
had such different personalities and they really complemented each other. Chris
was playing around with things, stuff we hadn’t thought of, like noisegating
the drums; he just thought outside the box, and he didn’t look at anything like
it was a problem, but more like, ‘Well, if this isn’t going to work, what else
can we do?'”

 

The front of Chomp featured a memorable close-up of a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex model at the
Dinosaur Natural History Museum in Utah; in an artful twist, the record came in
a die-cut sleeve designed to look like something had taken a bite out of the
top, and the band also slipped T-Rex postcards featuring the same image into
early copies of the album. (Hay: “We’d bought a bunch of them at the Dinosaur Museum while on tour, so we contacted
the photographer because we wanted to use [the picture] for the cover. He
thought we were some huge band and wanted to charge us an arm and a leg-he
found out different!”)

 

Chomp was a hit
with the critics and deejays again, although as artistically fulfilling as it
may have been, and despite a high-profile tour opening for U2 on the Irish
stars’ War trek, the band was having
trouble breaking through to the next commercial level. By the end of the year
Pylon decided to disband before the work aspect of their enterprise outweighed
the fun part. “We just felt like we’d done everything we could at that point,”
says Hay, adding that it wasn’t a particularly bittersweet or emotional
decision. “I remember waiting outside the 688 Club one night, before the
encores; this was before the final show. And it was about 110 degrees on the
inside there, I’m just covered with sweat, and I was thinking, gosh, I won’t be
doing this anymore! That wasn’t a relief, just kind of an observation. So I
guess I just kind of accepted it.”

 

And as was the case with scores of bands during the early
‘80s, that would have been that for Pylon. But a funny thing happened on the
way to the legacy shelf-twice.

 

In 1987 a film about the Athens music scene, Athens, Georgia: Inside/Out, was released, and among the groups
featured was vintage footage of Pylon. That same year also saw the release of
the R.E.M. odds ‘n’ sods collection Dead
Letter Office
, featuring Pylon’s “Crazy” as the lead-off track. With R.E.M.
constantly talking Pylon up to interviewers, the band started “getting mail
from all over the country,” says Hay. “R.E.M. were getting huge and being big
cheerleaders for us, and we seemed to have more interest [in us] that we had
when we were last together. So we talked and said, well, maybe we should get
back together…”

 

Thus was born Pylon Mk. II, at an unannounced club gig in Athens in 1988.
Rapturously received, they would recommence touring, including opening for the
B-52’s as well as for R.E.M. (on the Green tour) and making a trip to Austin for the annual South by Southwest festival.
In 1990 DB Recs issued a Pylon compilation bearing the cheeky title Hits, and that year the group also
recorded their third album, Chain (Sky Records), produced by Scott Litt (R.E.M.) and Gary Smith (Throwing Muses,
Pixies) at Charlotte’s Reflection Studios.

 

“For that particular incarnation of Pylon,” says Hay, “we
decided to approach things in more of a businesslike manner. We got a manager,
got a booking agent, bought a van, went out on the road with the B-52s and
R.E.M. We did some pretty decent touring there, in fact. We said, let’s just
take this and see how well we can do with it.”

 

Guitarist Bewley, however, gradually grew weary of touring,
and in 1991 he announced that he was leaving the band. “Randy just didn’t want
to do it anymore. We could not talk him out of it,” recalls Hay. Pylon
fulfilled their touring commitments and played their final show in November of
that year at Athens’
40 Watt Club. Once again, the band went out on a pure note, as Hay explains.

 

“Pylon is the four of us; it is not one guitarist who used
to be in Pylon along with three people he auditioned and brought in. It is
these particular four people, so if one of us didn’t want to do it, it wasn’t
going to be Pylon anymore. So… [laughs]
we broke up! And we all went on to our separate lives there for awhile.”

 

For the remainder of the decade and into the new millennium the
former members of Pylon busied themselves with family duties and day jobs in Athens. Hay gave birth to
her second daughter and became a Registered Nurse; Lachowski operated his own
retail business and went into graphic design; Crowe became a set designer for
movies and television (one notable entry on his resume: Lost); Bewley became an art teacher. Then in early 2004…

 

“We’re like locusts or something, coming up every few years!
Oh, they’re gonna kill me for saying that!”

 

Hay laughs loudly as she outlines the improbable emergence of
Pylon Mk. III. One night Bewley called her up and said he wanted to get all the
band members together for a conversation: “He said he really missed us, was
apologetic, and wanted to get back together and play for fun. So that’s what
this incarnation of Pylon is all about; we’re playing for fun when we can, and
there’s no pressure.”

 

Since playing a packed, secret-gig-that-wasn’t-so-secret in Athens in August of that
year, Pylon has continued to perform regionally, but as this time around band
duties have to be slotted around the members’ personal schedules, not the other
way around. Self-imposed low profile or not, ongoing interest in Pylon has
remained high. Journalists often namechecked the band as a post-punk pioneer; a
couple of fan websites devoted to Pylon popped up; and most recently, Matador
Records act Love Of Diagrams covered the band’s “Cool” on their self-titled EP.

 

Pylon’s members also frequently found themselves being asked
by fans how they could obtain copies of the group’s records. One such
conversation was with Perfect Sound
Forever
publisher Jason Gross,
who had previously profiled Pylon for his webzine and urged the band to
consider reissuing their back catalog. Not long after the band resumed
operations in 2004 they obtained the master tapes to Gyrate from DB Recs in the hopes of shopping a CD reissue. (Hay: “The
tape was in bits and pieces, actually! The original tapes had been cut apart to
make Hits, so [it had to be] restored
it and put back together. Tapes from that era are naturally very fragile and
can fall apart, so they had to be baked, too.”)

 

Pylon hired a lawyer, and among the labels that contacted
them about the album was DFA, the label run by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy;
a longtime Pylon fan, Murphy had frequently been spinning their song “Danger”
in his DJ sets. Hay says a Pylon-DFA alliance “felt right. We didn’t know we
had this major cheerleader who loved our band and who wanted to do it right, so
we didn’t even shop it after him.”

 

DFA’s Gyrate Plus features the entire Gyrate album in
superbly remastered form; it adds “Cool” and “Dub” from the first single along
with an alternate, dubby version of “Danger” called “Danger!!” and the
previously unreleased “Functionality.” Glowing liner notes courtesy Michael
Stipe, Fred Schneider from the B-52’s and the Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham round
out the package. Hay confides that Pylon also hopes to have Chomp reissued in the near future “but
we’ll have to see how well this does. [laughs] You know-we’re indie!” She adds that a
new Pylon album is not out of the question either, as they have about an EP’s
worth of fresh tunes written plus some older unrecorded songs as well. “We just
need to have more material, and to be in one place at the same time long enough
to record it.”

 

Nowadays, it’s the rare band that can last for more than a
few albums; rarer, still, are those that can break up, get back together again (and
break up and get back together again),
and still make things fresh and fulfilling. In the case of Pylon, Hay
attributes Pylon’s phoenix-like longevity to the relationships she and her
bandmates forged years ago.

 

“We’ve always been really good friends, we really have. Like
any friends, if you think about it, you’ll ebb and flow like the tide;
sometimes you get to see each other a lot and sometimes not at all. That’s what
it’s like, and we’ve all known each other since we were about 20 years old.
That’s a long time! We don’t reap the financial rewards, but you know, money’s
not everything; and we’ve seen the worst and the best of each other and we’re
all still friends.

 

“These guys are like my brothers.”

 

[To read Vanessa
Briscoe Hay’s exhaustive history of Pylon, go to http://jollybeggars.netnik.com/pylon.html.
]

 

 

[Photo Credit: Ruth Leitman]

 

***

 

PYLON: SELECTED
DISCOGRAPHY

 

Gyrate Plus (DFA,
2007). Original Gyrate LP (DB Recs,
1980) plus bonus tracks “Cool,” “Dub,” “Danger!!” and “Functionality.”
Remastered 2005; liner notes by Michael Stipe, Fred Schneider and Hugo Burnham.

“Cool” b/w “Dub” 7-inch (Caution, 1979)

Pylon !! 10-inch
(Armageddon, 1980)

“Crazy” b/w “M-Train” 7-inch (DB Recs, 1981)

 “Beep”/”Altitude”/”Four Minutes” 12-inch (DB
Recs, 1982)

Chomp LP (DB Recs,
1983)

Hits (DB Recs,
1988) CD compilation of 1979-83 material.

Chain (Sky, 1990)

“Sugarpop” + Band Interview promotional CD (Sky, 1990)

 

***

The surviving members of Pylon paid tribute to Randy Bewley
earlier this week on the band’s MySpace and Facebook pages:

 

This past Monday
evening, Randy Bewley had a heart attack while driving his van on Barber Street in Athens, GA.
He was taken to Athens
Regional Medical
Center. Today, our
bandmate and brother passed away at a little before 5 p.m. with his family and
friends at his side. He will be missed, even as we celebrate his life and
creativity. His guitar sound was as special as he was and always will be.
Randy’s guitar work defined not only a generation of sound but Randy himself.
His visual art, painting and photos, combined with his signature sound formed a
loose set of boundaries that helps understand him. His quiet devotion to family
and friends will become a benchmark for those he leaves behind.

 

 

 

 

ART SWAG Brendan Canning

The Broken Social Scene multitasker
don’t take no shit – just government dough.

 

 

BY JAMIE GADETTE

 

 

Who is Brendan Canning?  Those
well familiar with Broken Social Scene recognize him as a co-founder and
pivotal member of the expansive Toronto indie-rock collective-a low-profile
George Harrison to Kevin Drew’s charismatic John or Paul. Like the late Beatles
guitarist, Canning can easily hold his own as an artist. He just happens to
play well with others. On his 2008 solo LP, Something
for All of Us
(the second in the collaborative-heavy Broken Social Scene
Presents series), Canning walked a neat line between individual and group
effort, pairing songs that sound like You
Forgot It In People
b-sides with tracks like the funky horn-driven “Love Is
New.” Who, though, might Canning be without his brilliant cohorts – or, for
that matter, handy government-backed grants nixing the need for annoying day
jobs?

 

***

 

 

If the Canadian government’s art
funding dried up, how would you fund your projects? Would you shave your beard
and get a job in accounting-or maybe soccer commentating?

 

Fortunately I am very good at
socking away money. However, here’s a list of things I could do without my
monthly musical welfare checks:

 

We have a spare room so I could
easily become a landlord and could also give up television and rent out that
room. Also, since I’m already walking our dog, I could definitely walk a few
others for some extra cash. My DJ-ing on the side would also bring in a little
extra. I am definitely not an accountant and have lousy accounting skills… and
I have also given up the dream of being a soccer commentator.

 

 

How do you think a day job might affect
your creative process?

 

I need a lot of sleep in order to
be creative and I imagine a day job would require me at some point to wake up –
or stay up – when I need my rest. Result: no creation time.

 

 

What about busking?

 

I’m not much of a busker, as I
feel there are lots of others, mainly in NYC subways, who do it better than me.
Stiff competition for sure.

 

 

How often do American bands give you
shit for your government hook-up?

 

I don’t take shit from other
bands. Anyway, it’s usually envy they express.

 

 

I hear you’re kind of into drum ‘n’
bass?

 

In 1995. I was into-and still am,
just not like I used to be-house music, and am now trying to unload some of
those rare gems from 1998. Drum ‘n’ bass was too hard to dance to but was very
exciting when you heard it for the first time like, ‘Holy shit! What is this?’
Then you say prettier girls go to parties where house music is playing.

 

 

What do you have in the works for 2009?
More solo material? A new Broken Social Scene record?

 

I have a record-or a bunch of
songs-I’m now finishing where I split the vox with a girl named Jeen O’Brien
and am producing alongside longtime collaborator and friend, Bernard Maiezza.
We used to call it CookieDuster and might still. Otherwise, there will be much
more recording this year because that’s what we do. Probably some solo, and
probably some BSS.

 

 

What do you think might happen if you
were forced into isolation for a year? With none of your buddies to bounce
ideas off of or to lend a hand, what kind of record would you turn out?

 

I do have shitloads of acoustic
pieces and piano pieces on my answering machine at home. It’s just a matter of
getting down to it. Soon.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Norman Wong]

 

 

 

 

SPITTING TRUTH Lewis Black

The curmudgeon
comedian wants a baptism by proxy.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

To
anyone fed up with the rampant absurdity in our world, Lewis Black’s rants are
as soothing as they are scathing. On The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart
and his own The
Root of All Evil
, the curmudgeonly comedian and playwright spits truth like
he has Tourette’s-or a really nasty hemorrhoid; we bask in it like a cool
shower in the Sahara. He, like Lenny Bruce and
Bill Hicks and George Carlin, isn’t just a stand-up shecky; he’s a
truth-teller, good for a belly laugh as well as food for thought. When he
talks, we listen-for days after he’s done. And when his wisdom sinks in, it
helps society progress.

 

Black’s two recent projects direct his spitting, finger-twisting
rage toward Anticipation (Comedy
Central Records) and religion-the book Me
of Little Faith
(Riverhead). The album’s theme is that anticipation always
trumps reality; maybe it’s better to just think about doing things instead of
actually doing them. Losing your virginity, for example. When young Black’s
time came, he planned to set the mood by playing a particular song. He put on
the record, returned to bed, then realized the song he wanted was on the other
side-and this side skipped. So, “I lost my virginity to, ‘Lay lady
lay-[skip]-lay lady lay-[skip]-lay lady lay.'” In the book, Black makes
observations about a variety of faiths. Since he spent several months in Utah shooting Unaccompanied Minors, Mormonism gets
plenty of attention. BLURT caught up with Black days before he returned to Salt Lake City, where this
interviewer just happens to live.

 

 

***

 

 

You’re coming back to
SLC. How’d you get caught in the tractor beam again?

 

Uh… just luck. Just pure luck. [laughs] I like playin’ Salt Lake.
You know, the ten weeks there was an interesting experience, but I like
performing there.

 

 

 

You say the same
thing about visiting SLC as you do about writing a book-which is, “Don’t.”

 

Yeah. Especially with writing. Writing’s like being married
to a bitch- but you can’t let her go because she’s hell on wheels. It’s like
some weird mistress. But really mean [laughs]… But you just forget. I really
enjoy the process of writing. It’s when you finish and you look and you say,
“Really… is this good?” It’s just a lot of self-torture because you’re alone
all the time.

 

 

Mormons get some time
in your latest book. Wanna hear more about ‘em?

 

Sure. Well, the thing was- Krakauer wrote a book about the
Mormons. That’s the other [influence]: my being there, and the book. He wrote a
very remarkable history of the Mormon religion, very succinctly. In the book,
with credit to him, I just said look, this guy really does it better in his
book.

 

We did this episode of The
Root of All Evil
on Scientology, which I knew very little about, and didn’t
even write about in the book. Everything I tried to write about was personal.
And those people, what they believe,
makes Mormons look like scientists. As
soon as you think, “This is crazy” someone really – But go ahead: please tell me.

 

 

For one, Mormons are
said to believe that God lives on the Planet Kolob with his wives cranking out
spirit babies. So technically you and I are one of those spirit babies.

 

Come on! Is that true?

 

 

Well, it’s the
subject of debate. The Mormon PR machine is famously competent. Have you heard
of baptisms for the dead, or baptisms by proxy?

 

Oh, yeah. That I knew about. And also marrying for eternity,
which is just… [famous Lewis Black
roiling pause
]… as brutal as it gets, I think.

 

 

The Disinformation Book of Lists has a list
of famous people the Mormons baptized by proxy.

 

Who?!

 

 

Albert Einstein… Anne
Frank…

 

Oh, he’d be
thrilled. He wasn’t even that Jewish. Anne Frank? You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’
me. That’s unbelievable, seriously [laughs].
Anne Frank?

 

 

Genghis Khan…

 

Genghis Khan? Why?
What would possess them to want Genghis Khan?

 

 

Hitler’s on the list,
too.

 

Anne Frank I could-huh? Yeah, that’s a great idea. Real good marketing when you’re tryin’ to
convert a Jew.

 

 

Speaking of which-maybe
you already knew about this, but the list says that they baptized 20,000 to
380,000 Jews who died in the Holocaust.

 

And the others…? Five million…

 

 

Maybe they’re just
runnin’ behind.

 

They’re hand-pickin’ ‘em [laughs].

 

 

I heard you’re a music
nut. Do you collect records?

 

I don’t collect records anymore. I mean, I had a lot-I’ve
got ‘em socked away because I don’t really have the room! [laughs] I mean, I really used to, when records were-I was
crazy. But [my records] were all pieces of shit, really, because I had shitty
record players. Like I say in my act, I used the album covers to separate the
stems from seeds. They were all kinda green,
really.

 

 

What was the first
record you bought and what are some of the jewels of your collection?

 

The first record I bought was-I bought a 45 and it was
either “Louie, Louie” or “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” And I bought a bunch of comedy
albums by Newhart and Jonathan Winters and George Carlin. The ones that
really-the first-you know, that I bought- The Beatles- The ones I remember
going, “I gotta get that” were like CTA,
which was the original Chicago Transit Authority, before they became Chicago. That album was
unreal. I remember going out early, because it was just-and it seems so stupid-

 

Jesus Christ Superstar.
That was like a big deal. I was reading about it and it was nothing like that.
In retrospect, it seems kinda silly. But at the time, it was
really-wow-mind-blowing. Hair!
[laughs] I had Hair, the musical. And
then the Allman Brothers Live at the
Fillmore East
was one of my favorites. Still is. Flo & Eddie, then of
course there was Frank Zappa and-shoo-those are the ones that immediately come
to mind. And the Rolling Stones. And then a whole
bunch
of stuff. Everything fuckin’ out of Motown.

 

 

How about Stax?

 

Yeah.

 

 

Did you hear Isaac
Hayes passed away?

 

Yeah, I was just watching that. He was a Scientologist. That
kind of blew me away. But yeah, it’s sad. Shoo… Him and Bernie Mac.

 

 

Would you ever write
a book on music?

 

I don’t think I’ve got the kinda chops to do that. I have
friends who are so much smarter than me about it that I would hope they’d write
the book. And I would put my name on it. But I wouldn’t mind-I did a thing once
with Steve Earle, I had a great time. I picked the songs out and then we would
talk about why I picked those songs and then he’d play the song. That was a lot
of fun.

 

 

A lot of people use
music to relax. Do you find it soothing? Can it tame the beast within?

 

It
helps. It really does help to get away from it all, that’s for fuckin’ sure.
The sad thing I find about music now is trying to find music. Between American
Idol doing everything it can to destroy the last vestiges of it. And it’s just
tough. They’ve made it tougher. It’s nuts! You go to websites-Pandora helps,
because then you can pick up other stuff that’s bein’ done now and it’ll lead
you in the right direction.

 

But
it’s really amazing how few really great radio fuckin’ stations are left that
are playing-it used to be that’s where you’d turn to. But there just-even New
York: New York’s best radio station is out of Fordham University and I live in
a section of town where I can’t fuckin
get it on the radio. So I have to rely on-I’ve got a friend of mine, Allie, who
does a thing for a website, the name I can’t fuckin’ remember right now. That’s where I try to find the stuff…
I’m tryin’ to find it… [messing with his
iPhone
] No, that’s not it, you fuckers.
Ah, fuck. I don’t have it. That pisses me off.

 

FIVE YEAR OLD ITCH Lenka

The
Australian songbird’s inner child keeps calling her.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

For most of her career, the singer-songwriter-actress Lenka
says she felt like a violinist in an orchestra, helping to make other people’s
projects come to life but secretly longing to be in control.  After acting in a few independent movies (and
training with fellow Aussie Cate Blanchett), Lenka first burst on to the music
scene as the vocalist for the ambient-electro band The Decoder Ring.

 

“I don’t want to say it wasn’t my style of music,” she says.
“But the songs I was writing were more girly, upbeat pop that didn’t fit with
the male, shoegazer, electronic music they were making.”

 

On her self-titled debut, issued last fall by Epic, Lenka’s
free to be as girly as she wants, making music that combines classic Brill Building
pop with the quirkiness of Bjork and Regina Spektor.  It’s a sound that has already earned her
spots on “Ugly Betty” and the Courtney Cox vehicle “Dirt.” It could pass for
bubblegum, until  you listen to the
darkness that lurks within.

 

“I wasn’t happy when I wrote a lot of these songs, so I was
trying to cheer myself up,” says Lenka. “The theme of the record is that life
is a screwed-up thing, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so you may as
well enjoy it.”

 

Now, Lenka hopes her music can cheer up other people,
especially a certain little kid that may or may not exist.

 

“I went to a kinesiologist and she said all my problems were
caused by my inner five-year-old,” Lenka says. “So I’ve tried to see the world
in a fairly childlike way and hold on to this idea that a five-year-old inside
me is calling the shots and I have to keep her happy.”

 

 

 

 

FREE BEER, NO SORROW The Donkeys

The San Diego band got drunk and got a tune out
of it.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

On a night not too long ago, San Diego’s Donkeys, flush with $13 in gig
money, assailed an LA bar. They had a few… and a few more. No one knows how,
but at one point, producer and all-around-pal Alex deLanda got his cell phone
lodged in the bar’s pool table. Donkeys are now banned from the bar for life,
but they did get a song out of it. Their “Nice Train” is a lackadaisical grin
of a tune, as light-hearted as a well-maintained buzz.

 

You wouldn’t know it, listening to Living on the Other
Side
(Dead Oceans), but the Donkeys are originally from Orange County,
ground zero for hardcore punk, garage and emo. Keyboard player Anthony Lukens insists
that there are “subtle Greg Ginn-like grooves,” yet the main influences seem to
be the Byrds, the Band, and the Grateful Dead. It’s music bassist Tim DiNardo
says he learned about from his dad.

 

That classic rock sound bubbled up midway through the ‘00s,
when all four Donkeys found themselves between bands and sharing a practice
space. The band recorded their first album on a shoestring, and released it on
Antenna Farm in 2006. The debut caught Dead Oceans’ attention, and in 2007, the
Donkeys headed back to San Francisco
to make Living on the Other Side. “This one ended up taking a way longer
time and was a lot more crafted,” says DiNardo.

 

The band finished post-production at the Lookout, a California mountain
hideaway near DiNardo’s childhood home. “When my mom passed away, the lady who
owns the Lookout took me and my dad under her wing. That place became my second
home,” he remembers. “We posted up there for two weeks. It’s a secluded place,
with an amazing view of the lake.” 

 

“Yeah, and it’s underneath the coolest bar… and we got free
beer,” Lukens adds.

 

No wonder it took so long to get the songs right.

 

[Photo Credit: Jeff Wenzel]

 

HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN: Leonard Cohen

lc-by-scott-weiner

On Feb. 19, 2009, the bard took Manhattan for the first time since 1993.

BY A.D. AMOROSI / PHOTO BY SCOTT WEINER

From the mania of post boomer-age New Yorkers rushing the Beacon Theater’s front door (including guys like Richard Belzer and Harvey Keitel) last Thursday night (Feb. 19) to the collective sigh every time its main attraction kneeled or doffed his hat in his appreciation of his band’s brave plaintiveness and his audience’s rapturous response, the first American showing of Leonard Cohen in fifteen+ years meant more than mere comeback or mere reunion (unless you’re considering the communion between long lost artist and fan). It was profound and religious, plain and simple.

Though the Beacon show was scheduled months ago, a Live In London DVD/ CD (from his more tentative 2008 shows) is due in weeks, as is a US tour, as is a slate of clarion clear hi-def Sundazed label vinyl versions of his first five Columbia recordings Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate, Songs from A Room, Live Songs and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. There’ll be plenty of Cohen to go around. Yet not enough.
Not ever enough.

It’s like a fellow Canadian sister of his, Joni Mitchell, once sang “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/’til it’s gone.”

The Canadian-born Cohen is the link between the Beats, the Romantics, the Hippies, the Boulevardiers, the Punk Poets and the Manhattan Bards – and he’s the only one. And his reemergence into the cold long Manhattan night literal and figurative (not unlike that of Paul Simon’s at this same newly reopened venue days previous) was both a celebrative reminder of that generation’s only beautiful alternative, their true only sad eyed poet, and a deep declaration of their finality.

How long would there be a Cohen to celebrate – a thin man hale and spry at 74 bouncing on his heels, almost skipping as he bound to and fro across the stage?

A Simon? A Lou Reed? A Dylan even.

Ain’t it funny how time slips away?

I’ve seen your future brother and it is murder.

“It’s been a long time since I stood onstage in New York. I was 60 years old then – just a kid with a crazy dream,” said Cohen creamily in a baritone voice one note above the rasp that had been his sing-speak just previous to this announcement.

During that time away he took to Buddhism and teased about having taken to Prozac, Xanax, even “Tylenol, full strength” and though he “turned to a study of religion and philosophy, cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

Which is where we were, watching him cradle his microphone while occasionally kneeling before a grand flamenco-folk-smooth-jazz ensemble and oddly-sunny background vocalists, all who played elegantly precise waves of wonder so that Cohen could croon-chat in a mummy-lizard-like voice his stories of sensually tempered interludes, un-flowered romance and crushed-ice apocalypses.

A dapper-in-black suit and hat Cohen and his similarly dressed band started with the Spanish guitar swirling/soprano sax blowing “Dance Me to the End of Love” with his vocal an icy croak that spoke of passion. Three women’s voices curl blandly and in perfect cheery discord behind Cohen’s doom humorous lyrics of anal sex, crack, Stalin and the blizzard to blow out the biggest candle of “The Future.” Because a Cohen concert is no exercise in improvise, it’s his slightest punctuations of words like “revenge” as they ooze from his lips that cause a heart like mine to flutter. Or the way he intones “baby” in a voice so low and gravely during the gospel flit of “Ain’t No Cure For Love.”

The words: we could write pages about his Biblical rage and sage sexuality and how innovative his looks at Janis Joplin, AIDS, the LA riots, rapid aging, declining purpose, dysfunction and lost romance are as poetic verse. But here we’ll cling to the funeral organ’s whirr of “Bird on a Wire” and its bluesy guitar run; and how “Everybody Knows”‘ usual stammer is replaced by a Third Man zithery éclat with an elegant pedal steel behind that; and how the twilighty acoustic “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and “Sisters of mercy” are unsteadily steady; and how the sensational sound system allows you to hear each of his dry intentions wetly puckered – as in, you can hear his lips lick as he speaks these words:

“Don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be/Ah the wars they will be fought again/The holy dove/She will be caught again, bought and sold and bought again/The dove is never free/Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

That is before he sings them as “Anthem.”

Then things got really good – a hauntingly sensual “The Gypsy’s Wife,” a breathy So, Long Marianne,” an elegant frank “The Partisan,” a positively gloomy vicious “First We Take Manhattan,” an almost tart take on “I Tried to Leave You” with a naughty haughty “I hope you’re satisfied” in its mix. All the while, Cohen boxed into air, swayed his hips and provoked the gods and the over everywhere with holiest of wise words and the wisest of holy intentions.

This is how the light got in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PRODIGAL DAUGHTER Jenny Lewis

Last year the Rilo
Kiley vocalist took a vacation from her band, visited her hometown, and wound
up with a solo album.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Going back and forth between the past and the present, the
inane and the barely passably sensible is pleasing to Jenny Lewis.

 

That’s her life and that’s her wife, what with having spent
the better part of growing up absurdly in one brand of show-bizzy limelight or
another; a child of vaudevillians and entertainer-types, a kid actress, a
country-tinged pop band chanteuse, a mistress of wordy Saddle Creek-y solo
album (Rabbit Fur Coat) éclat.

 

“And now is my time,” says Jenny Lewis crisply. “My time.”

 

Not just because she’s away again from that old California gang of hers
– the now decade-old Rilo Kiley that she birthed with guitarist/one-time
paramour Blake Sennett. Or that she’s simply releasing her second solo effort
in two years.

 

Jenny Lewis has produced Acid
Tongue
– a damn-near live album that’s got no Pro-Tools, is all analog, is
far less wordy than her previous recordings, and whose vocals were tracked as
they were happening. Lewis produced it with some old close friends and brought
in a few pals to play and sing.

 

But it’s her.

 

You can’t help thinking that having her return to her
childhood home (the one between Las Vegas and L.A.) of Van Nuys to record Acid Tongue wasn’t just the work of
healing old wounds (“Badman’s World”) wounding old heels (“The Next Messiah”) and
reconstructing the Oedipal Complex for 2008 (“Jack Killed Mom”), but rather
some sassy shout-out of independence and huzzah-huzzah-hoorah-ness.

 

Besides, there’s got to be some particular self-satisfaction
at work; of divinity, silliness and narcissism that would allow her to place
her face on the cover of this new album done up as dozens of acid blotter tabs.

 

“Well, you may as well have a laugh,” says Lewis, about her
lysergic cover art. “And if you were to drop a tab, you might very well see as
many mes standing before you.”

That doesn’t sound so bad.

 

From the reaction to 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat – produced by her bud Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes
stalwart Mike Mogis – a couple-hundred Jennys would be great. She did three
tours around that solo effort alone. But it’s always seemed as if Jenny-philes
have wanted more of her. No sooner than people liked Rilo’s quirky irked brand
of indie-country-pop, Lewis’s soulful squint of a voice and panicky
character-driven lyrics (2001s Take Offs
and Landings
on Barsuk), they wanted the band to go major label and her to
go solo. The moment she released something small and the band hit the majors
(with 2007s Under the Blacklight for
Warners), people wanted more solo stuff from Jenny.

 

Everybody seems to be waiting for something from her.

 

“I don’t know why they’re waiting. I’m incredibly stubborn
and I probably won’t give them what they want,” she says plainly. She is her
own driving force and won’t be cadged into doing more solo projects. She does records
with whatever speed and volume because she is not yet satisfied. “I never am
and never have been. I want more. I never assume that I’ve done all that I can
do. That just happens to be one of my character traits.”

 

Jenny Lewis dictates the pace. Things have been as such
since she decided to become a writer and singer.

 

Stop.

 

This is not the question where you ask her about the
childhood acting thing. This is the question about the through line that exists
between those careers; the one beyond “Show biz.” She goes on to tell me a family
history.

 

Grandmother was a head balancer and dancer with Moscow circus. Grandfather
was a small time criminal and singer with vaudevillian Burt Lahr who fell into
depression and out of music when Lahr left the act to pursue the role of
“Cowardly Lion” in The Wizard of Oz.
Both of her parents were musicians who had a lounge act in Las Vegas and were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

 

“My birth was just a continuation of family business,” she
giggles. “But it was also about the continued avoidance – for me – of avoiding
the straight life, a regular job. That’s what show biz presents itself as
always, a viable option from doing normal 9-to-5 stuff.”

So maybe it’s all one big gesture. But I’m not here interviewing a Jenny Lewis
of Facts of Life fame or a Jenny Lewis star of the touring version of The Lion
King or a Jenny Lewis known for hosting a reality show and singing for Disney.

 

Without sounding too lofty, this brand of Lewis found a
deeper aesthetic direction, an art form amongst the entertaining bits.

 

“That’s the only difference I think… I am a writer,” she
says. That’s what led her upon meeting Blake Sennett to write their first song
together, “Eggs.” “It was before Rilo Kiley. At least before we were called
Rilo Kiley. It was on the first day we met.” Sennett had a guitar riff. She had
a four track. He laid it down and she wrote stuff over it.

 

 

 

But this is not a Rilo Kiley story.

 

“Yes,” Lewis says quietly, when I ask if she feels like she
and Rilo have grown up together. “In some ways; but I don’t know that we’ll
truly grow up.”

 

Yes. Most of her Rilo Kiley lyrics are less personal than
those on her first solo album. But on the new Acid Tongue there’s a darker, deeper mix of the personal and the
character-narrative. “There’s so much more Rilo stuff so there’s been more to
experiment with and more time for it. But I was comfortable enough here to do
both character-driven songs and personal ones.” Does that mean she’ll find a zone
in Rilo in which to do both? Or is she better off keeping the personal tunes like
“Tryin’ My Best” to herself and for herself?

 

“To know that there’s someone else you’re singing about can
weigh just as heavily as a song you’re singing about yourself,” says Lewis. “Sometimes
the personal songs are easier. Sometimes the personal songs bore me.”

She’s tired of hearing of hearing herself complain about stuff. “That is until
I write another song about me complaining about stuff.”

 

Maybe she’s getting better at being solo than Rilo
Kiley-ing. She doesn’t know yet. Lewis can say that this Acid Tongue experience – recorded in the same studio where Neil
Young did After the Gold Rush and
Nirvana did Nevermind – was the most
comfortable she’s ever felt in the studio; so comfortable that she was able to
sing the songs in their entirety “The whole record is live, live singing, live
playing. I haven’t been able to do that in the past. This may sound a little
hippie dippy-ish but I just never felt free enough to do that. I was always
self-conscious in the studio.”

 

Her three weeks spent recording Acid Tongue were planned, but ever so loosely. If they could pull
it off the live haste and pace – great.

 

The title song’s first line – written
who-knows-how-many-years-ago when she was living in her Silverlake apartment
where she wrote 90 percent of all of her songs – was the start of the record:

 

I went to a cobbler to
fix a hole in my shoe/he took one look at my face/and said “I can fix that hole
in you”/”I beg your pardon I’m not looking for a cure/I’ve seen enough of my
friends in the depths of the God-sick blues”/you know I’m a liar.

 

The line didn’t dictate what would happen next. Nor does it
sound like anything else on the album. “But there was just something about that
first line coming to me; the idea of someone having an answer for you, a
solution to something, the sadness of that,” she trails off. “It was a feeling
I wanted to go with.”

 

 

So Lewis and her co-producer pals Farmer Dave Scher, Jason
Lader and songwriter/beau Johnathan Rice, along with musicians/singers Chris
Robinson (the Black Crowes), Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, Benji Hughes and Davey
Faragher, all got Acid-ic. So did family
members like her vibraphone playing uncle, her singing sisters and – amazingly
-Elvis Costello.

 

“Once we got to the studio it was good and flowed very
quickly,” claims Lewis. “We could pull it off. We could play it live. Which is so
weird, to have to make a point of that, because that’s what music should be.
But I’m a child of the digital revolution.”

 

I stopped to finish a thought I‘d had earlier: that if she’s
having such a good time with people other than Rilo Kiley, is she worried that
she might be better at being solo than a Kiley-ite. She’s not. She just wants to
make the best music possible with whatever bunch of people she makes it with.
She didn’t start playing music to be burdened by her relationships and be miserable.
She wants to enjoy myself.

 

“Now’s the time.”

Not just because the moment out there is good. But, not to sound hippie-dippy-ish…

 

“The moment within me is good. I’m just starting to
understand what I do.”

 

And that understanding is? “I’m just learning how to trust
myself musically. I’m learning that you don’t have to say as much to make a
point.

True, that. Yes, the inspiration of Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle – the spare soul momentum, delirious melody,
awestruck joy and the lean accompaniment of the trio of singers that was
Labelle – was the backbone for Rabbit Fur
Coat
. So, too, was a loquaciousness and a series of multi-syllabic phrases
that filled every crevice of every song.

 

Acid Tongue – lyrically
– is more economical than that.

 

“That was a conscious decision. Going back and listening to
my older songs I think I was trying to prove something – overstating the
obvious.” So she went back over Acid
Tongue
things and scaled back the syllables. That happened, too, because
this album was as much about the total package as it was the worried words and
dark passages. The expansive, sometimes-psychedelic harshness is a far cry from
Nyro’s stewing Tin-Pan soul and Lewis’ mom’s favorite songwriter.

 

“Plus the location was more important” says Lewis,
discussing Van Nuys’ California’s
Sound City Studios. “We were all inspired by the records that’ve been made
there. Plus, returning to where I grew up was timely. I needed to address things
about my personal life, my past.”

Lewis isn’t so completely revealing as to what she was addressing. You don’t necessarily
need her to do so, save for the fact that she expressed pain at having to drive
past her childhood home every day as she rode to the studio and then realized
that she couldn’t run from things bottled up.

 

“You cannot run from feelings. You will be unwell. They will
affect all that you do. It will ruin your health. In order to do that, I had to
make this record there.”

Ask her to focus on the track that best reflects that search for addressing
those feeling, for picking at your emotions: she chooses “Badman’s World.”

 

There’s a certain line that listeners should seek out during
that haunted song. Lewis doesn’t know if it’s a necessarily poignant phrase.
But it was important enough to stop the recording of another track – “Sing a
Song” – as she came up with a twist on “Badman’s World.” Lewis started playing
“Badman” on piano only to have the rest of the band join in and the control
room ops continue taping.

 

The line is about scorpions. Originally it was about her and
another person being two scorpions in one bottle. Now, it’s about one of those
scorpions getting shot by Lewis. Which one gets shot is a mystery worthy of J.R.
and Dallas.

 

“You have to take responsibility,” says Lewis, when asked
what the point of the “Badman’s World” is.

 

Yet the whole album seems to be about her taking
responsibility.

 

She won’t take full credit for the economy of its lyrics not
matching the ferocity of its sound. Lewis credits her co-producers and mentions
Johnathan Rice. “The four of us together formed one great person.”

That she’s brought up Rice twice and that she’s made music in close proximity
with another one-time paramour, Rilo’s Sennett, the questions arise about it
being hard or desirable to work with someone you’re having a loving
relationship with.

 

“It is what I do and what I’ve done. It’s just very natural.
I’m always thinking about music. Every time, every day, writing words,
listening back, criticizing myself. It’s nice to have someone who is up for
sharing in that at all times of day at all hours.”

It is a risk, she knows, because you’re chancing personal happiness and the
longevity of the relationship. But she knows she has to do it. “You got to do
it. And as a woman playing music, it’s nice to have someone by your side… because
I am a coward,” she giggles. “Seriously. I’m lucky to have had talented dudes
around me.”

 

Speaking of talented dudes, Elvis Costello worms his way into
the conversation in the same fashion he wormed his way onto Acid Tongue. Apparently she first spoke
to the British lion when having Christmas with a friend’s father – Costello
drummer Pete Thomas. Costello phoned to wish Pete merry-merry, got Lewis on the
phone, got her to appear in his “Monkey to Man” video (“I did an awkward
walk-by clutching a purse”), then wound up dueting on “Carpetbaggers when Rice
was up for the low singing parts.

“I emailed him. He responded. And in exchange we recorded some
of his songs. The vibe was so good there that as soon as we finished mixing, Costello
went into make his own record there.”

 

Like Costello grabbing a lick, all the heavy heady sad
moments that fill Lewis’ Acid Tongue are ripe with lightness of being, of funny moments and gentle sessions. The
funniest seems the sweetest – the mad-mad-Jim Morrison moment of “Jack Killed
Mom.” While the whole song seems to seethe with its death knell promise (“I had
to kill off the mother character that was so prominent on Rabbit Fur Coat,” says Lewis), it is her harmonica-blowing dad,
jazz-bo Eddie Gordon, on the track.

 

“I was so tired of talking about my mother from that last
record that having my dad play on it was just hilarious. Having him and my
family and my friends in the studio felt like an honest record.”

 

Now let’s back to those acid tabs.

 

 

 

 

GREATEST DISCOVERY EVER Hank Williams

The country music
giant’s recent trove of unreleased material may be just that.

 

BY
RICK ALLEN

 

To
say that anyone who doesn’t like Hank Williams’ music simply hasn’t heard it
yet may be the weakest of arguments, but that doesn’t mean that in most cases
it isn’t a valid one. Hank Williams was one of the most important figures in
American popular music and probably the most important and greatest country
music artist ever; not as that music’s founder, but certainly its major
codifier.

 

There
are 54 cuts in Time-Life Entertainment’s recent 3-CD box The Unreleased Recordings (www.timelife.com)
 culled
from a batch of 143 songs recorded for his 1951 radio show for the Mother’s Best
Flour Company on Nashville’s
WSM and which were forgotten until barely escaping the dustbin during a
cleanout of the station’s audio library in the 1990s.  A sticker on the set’s shrink wrap doesn’t
even limit the significance of the find to music, calling it “the greatest
discovery ever.” It’s not that much of an exaggeration; think of going to
investigate a noise in the attic and finding a pristine 1952 Fender Telecaster,
a case of Chateau Rothschild ’66 and a copy of Action Comics #1 in a climate controlled corner.

 

 

Many
of the songs here – some never recorded or released in any other form – are
Williams originals; some are personal favorites of his – favorite hymns from
childhood or songs by contemporaries like Western Swing and pre-rockabilly artist
Moon Mullican or Fred Rose (who, as Colin Escott’s notes in the booklet point
out, Hank considered “the greatest living songwriter in our kinda music”).
Hank’s band, the Drifting Cowboys, crack players, road tested, were in their
musical prime, as was Hank, then at a high point in a career that promised to
reach even higher.

 

Since
Hank and the band were constantly touring at the time, some of these tracks
were pre-recorded to be broadcast on his early morning radio show. But many are
one-take, live-in-studio performances of songs not heard since they were
broadcast on the show in the middle of the last century.

 

Among
the rare finds is Hank’s version of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” with a
verse missing from Willie Nelson’s hit version and which adds to the song’s
sad, poignant beauty. Between cuts there’s a relaxed Hank, comfortably in his
element, cracking wise with band and crew and introducing songs like “I Can’t
Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” as “brand spanking new… nobody’s ever
heard this one but me and the record company” – thus giving a sneak peek at
songs that would become classics months, even weeks, later.

 

 

With
the jury long in regarding Hank Williams, the high quality of the music here,
from composition to execution, is pretty much a given. The surprise – and a
whole new level of listening enjoyment – comes from the results of the efforts
of Joe Palmaccio and the rest of the restoration crew. Working from what were,
from a modern perspective, technically primitive sources, they have made these
cuts sound like they were done yesterday – no matter when “today” is.  Hank’s vocals are clear and natural-sounding
and each instrument clearly discernible in a well-balanced mix. Sonically these
cuts match or even beat their “official” contemporarily recorded releases.

 

This
is first-rate stuff from an artist who has written and recorded some of the
world’s most enduring music, a singer who, as Hank’s daughter Jett says in her
introduction (quoting producer Owen Bradley, who played piano on several of
Hank’s recordings), “sang every song as if his life depended on it.” And the
music gets the presentation it deserves; the accompanying booklet is full of
fresh, candid pictures and engaging, informative anecdotes.

 

The Unreleased
Recordings
contains a little over a third of the recovered tracks, which means there are
almost 100 still available for similar treatment and eventual release – talk
about settin’ the woods of fire.

 

It’ll
be like Christmas in July.

 

 

BORN AGAIN Van Morrison & Astral Weeks

The bard of Belfast reinvents his
transcendent classic.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

First of all, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is rock’s A
Love Supreme.

 

There’s no way you could ever listen to its title song, a
jazzy and modal riff that slowly but confidently builds in tempo and power as
Morrison scats around the impressionistic lyrics until he finds confidence in
repeatedly declaring “to be born again,” and not think the creator had a master
plan for Morrison to record this album – a song cycle – in 1968.

 

At the time, Morrison was just 23 and coming off his first
solo hit – the rockin’ “Brown Eyed Girl” – after leaving the British Invasion
band Them, for whom he wrote the garage-rock classic “Gloria.” Even with Them,
his voice  seemed far more soulful and
mature than his age, capable of instinctively going as gruffly yet
electrifyingly deep as a Tuvan throat singer at just the right moment.

 

Just before Astral Weeks, he had been signed to
Warner Bros. Records, which provided him with a producer, Lewis Merenstein, who
teamed Morrison with such jazz-sensitive musicians as bassist Richard Davis and
guitarist Jay Berliner. The result, in its singular vision, was as great a
late-1960s fusion album as Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way.

 

Yet, at the same time Astral Weeks is also rock’s
true walk on the wild side, courtesy of his hometown of Belfast. On “Cyprus Avenue,” he traveled down
dangerously bluesy side streets full of the kind of wailing, tongue-tied erotic
desire only hinted at in “Good Morning School Girl.” And on “Slim Slow Slider,”
a starkly mournful folk ballad, Morrison faced death itself – as a lover. He
was right there at Robert Johnson’s crossroads.

 

But most of all, Astral Weeks had seemed to belong to
– as Morrison sang in the title song – “another time, another place.” After
emerging from its hypnotic trance, Morrison retreated a little into dynamically
sung and composed, but more conventionally structured (and produced), songs
that reveled in rather than trying to transcend their genre roots. While he
occasionally could revisit his Astral Weeks territory for a song or two,
like “Listen to the Lion,” he couldn’t stay there for long. And he never seemed
to let on that he cared.

 

So how to explain the vitality and relevance of Astral
Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl
(Listen
To The Lion; www.emimusic.com)? Yes,
his voice is a shade darker and deeper now, but forty years on he not only has
kept in touch with all that is sublime about the original, he’s improved on it.
And the album, put together from two shows last fall, is truly live – Morrison
has declared there is no post-production trickery.

 

A line or two (on “Sweet Thing,” particularly) gets mumbled,
but he is otherwise so in touch with the original sense of discovery propelling
these songs that he generates chills. Morrison stretches passages in new ways,
seemingly willing to extend “the love that loves to love” on “Madame George” ad
infinitum. It’s frustrating when songs have to end.

 

On several, he makes changes. On the insistently rhapsodic
“Ballerina,” he adds on a snippet of Curtis Mayfield’s dance classic, “Move on
Up.” “Astral Weeks” melds into a piece called “I Believe I’ve Transcended” in
which Morrison chants (if I hear it right) “I believe I’ve transcended death”
and convinces you he has. (He’s also changed the order of the songs, moving the
original closer “Slim Slow Slider” up to the third selection, and letting the
almost nine-minute “Madame George” end the overall cycle.)

 

Morrison has brought his primarily acoustic accompanying
musicians – including a string section – right along with him on this peak
performance. The piano (from Roger Kellaway) has become a flowingly prevalent
instrument now; Tony Fitzgibbon’s violin and viola effortless swing back and
forth between classical and folk-style fiddlin.’ David Hayes’ upright bass
drives the songs, while Richie Buckley’s flute provides coloration. Morrison,
himself, plays several instruments, including a piercingly lively harmonica
toward the end of “Sweet Thing.” According to the liner notes, there was only
one rehearsal, which is yet one more reason the overall musical beauty of Astral
Weeks
is so miraculous. It does indeed transcend death – it refuses to get
old.

 

After completing Astral Weeks, Morrison treats his
audience to three extras – two from subsequent albums but similar in mood,
“Listen to the Lion” and “Common One” – plus “Gloria” with The Doors’ John
Densmore guesting on tambourine. (The last will apparently only be available on
a vinyl release; I could not preview it.) There will also be a high-def DVD of
the Hollywood Bowl shows at a later dater and Morrison is performing Astral
Weeks
again in New York
on Feb. 27th and 28th.