Monthly Archives: June 2009


Annie Clark isn’t
cynical about music. Not one bit.




Annie Clark made the right decision to get born in 1982.


Now 26, she skipped the travails of corporate radio and the
one-dimensional MTV star machine, landing in the era of digital populism that
is newly opportune for the type of music she makes: shape-shifting, melodic pop
for sensibly dressed smart people with or without advanced educational degrees.


Not so long ago, Clark was still a largely unknown but
ambitious multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who stacked her resume with day
jobs playing with both indie rock footnotes (the Polyphonic Spree) and
respected savants (Sufjan Stevens). For six years she spent her odd hours
poring over the songs that would become Marry
(Beggars/4AD), her 2007 debut that would eventually sell about 30,000
copies, positioning her officially as an emerging artist the Starbucks
demographic might pick up while waiting for the foam to form on their venti


The album was released under the stage name St. Vincent,
which both has literary weight (it is the name of the hospital where Dylan
Thomas died) and a touch of self-knighted benevolence. Clark, who was born in
Tulsa, Okla. but who now resides in Brooklyn, says, looking back, the years she
spent making Marry Me were luxurious.


“No one was expecting it would come out,” she ways. “No one
cared. I could have worked on it another ten years. I would have been bankrupt
but no one would have been the wiser.”


After Marry Me was
released, people cared. Clark received favorable reviews in the most favored
media outlets and connected with an audience prepped to embrace idiosyncratic
voices set against orchestral sophistication. She also assembled a savvy team
that was directed to grow the base, earning her opening slots with headliners
like the Arcade Fire, Xiu Xiu, Death Cab for Cutie and Jolie Holland.


Her schedule was not so packed that, less than a year after
the album was released, she didn’t have time to head back into the studio to
rekindle the magic a second time. It was a scenario that was double-edged:
While Marry Me took a labored six
years to make, starting when Clark was 17 and
ending when she was 22, the new Actor was written, arranged and wrapped up in nine months last year – a brevity she
hadn’t yet experienced but discovered was ultimately healthy for its


“I think a lot of it oftentimes
there’s a romantic answer [of how you make an album] and then sometimes there’s
the nuts and bolts answer,” explains Clark. “With this one, I had this
infrastructure in place. But you just have to be careful. You want to take
enough time on a record so you feel you have fulfilled the vision, but not so
much time on the record where you get to the point of diminishing returns and
you end up painting the canvas black.”


In other words, she did not want Actor to turn into the indie rock
equivalent of Chinese Democracy.


To be certain that would never
happen, the Guns N’ Roses album was played in the studio for reference. For you
Axl fans, cover your eyes: Clark thinks it stinks. Really, really stinks. “It
definitely sounds overworked. It sounds like a digital mess. Sonically, it
sounds insane. It sounds like an insane person. It’s unbelievably bad, I can’t
believe it,” she says.


Actor is a surprising album for just how intimate it feels –
despite Clark’s knack for pretty melodies set against fussy backdrops of
woodwinds and other orchestration, the songs still manage to sound like they
are coming from a small, private space. As a guitarist, Clark prefers
dissonance, layers and striking power chords, and as a vocalist, she has
sweeping range that remains controlled and austere. Her touchstone, she says,
were Disney film soundtracks and they certainly captures that type of whimsy. But
on songs with titles like “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” it is obvious
trouble is lurking on Space Mountain.


“I just kept going, ‘I want this
to be human, not just a fairy tale or a romanticized version of what it’s like
to be human’ … the Marry Me record
was written from the point of view of someone who didn’t have tons of life
experience.” Clark adds that her new music flirts closer to darker edges,
because is “a little older, wiser.”


Actor producer John Congleton (We Ragazzi, The 90 Day Men), who
also worked on Marry Me, says Clark
“was definitely searching for a new sound and wanting to explore a lot of
things. I was more than willing to go along with that too.”


The pair met in 2007 when
Congleton produced The Fragile Army, the Polyphonic Spree album Clark was hired for as a guitarist. “You could tell
automatically from the way she postured herself while playing the guitar and
before she hit a single note that she had a lot of confidence as a player and
she could really bring it,” he says. “I could tell clearly her parts were going
to add a lot and she had a really musical ear.”


Her musicianship and exceptional
vocal skills were formed early. Clark’s parents, a social worker and an
accountant, encouraged her musical interests, but she learned first-hand from
Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart, her uncle and aunt who are also known as Tuck
& Patti, the successful jazz-pop duo that has been recording and touring
the world since the 1980s.


Andress contributed to her musical
education by giving her a box of jazz CDs when she was 13, a stash that
included A Love Supreme, the John
Coltrane classic. Clark’s aunt and uncle later hired her as a roadie during
high school summer breaks. The education showed her both the rush and rigor of
life as a successful musician. “They’d stay in fancy hotels so I’d think ‘this
is cool, this is what touring’s all about’ – but part it wasn’t glamorous at
all, like falling asleep at airports or not sleeping for days because you were
working like a dog.”


Despite a stint at the prestigious
Berklee College of Music in Boston, Clark says she has become less didactic
about creating music and more reliant on going in whatever direction her
instincts point.


“I actually find I’m way more
willing to embrace the innocent whimsy of things that sound like magic I’m way
more into that,” she says. “I’m not cynical about music at all. I think it’s
wonderful. I think it’s the best thing.”



[Photo Credit: Annabel Mehran]



The multitasking
minstrel returns to his late ‘90s roots, but don’t expect him to rest on his




It’s well-known amongst VAST fans that leading man Jon
Crosby is a musical jack-of-all-trades. He started making music at the young
age of 17, he pretty much played every instrument during the recording of his debut
album, Visual Audio Sensory Theater, and he was only 21 when that album came out in 1998. After four solid
experimental rock albums under his belt, Crosby
became a wandering minstrel so to speak, and began recording his solo Generica albums, with just him and his
guitar. It was during this time he also released April, a more lo-fi and intimate VAST outing that sounded like a
cross between The Doors and The Moody Blues.


Now, this acoustic and folk-like period for him seems to be at
an end. Aside from re-working and putting his 12 favorite Generica tracks on the latest VAST album, Me and You (2Blossoms), Crosby has been tinkering with electronic
music again, most notably with his Bang Band SiXXX album [a VAST alter-ego],
the Relay EP – a very dark and
welcome return to form and probably the closest he’s come to sounding like he
did in the late ‘90s. But Bang Band SiXXX is not the end of his electronic
adventures. We caught up with Crosby before he took the stage at the Key Club
in Los Angeles recently
and it sounds like something very dark, mysterious and eclectic might be




BLURT: So aside from
VAST, you’ve been putting out acoustic albums as Jon Crosby-two entities you’ve
managed to keep separate, until now. A while back, you said that Generica songs would never appear on any
VAST record-but on this new VAST album, Me
and You
, you’ve chosen your 12 favorite Jon Crosby tracks and re-recorded
them. Why did you change your mind?


CROSBY: The Jon Crosby Generica series one through five, the
first three were basically just me and acoustic guitar. Volumes four and five
were me playing with the band, so we kind of nicknamed that Jon Crosby and the
Resonator Band, but what we realized is that we didn’t want to start a
side-project band of our own band-that didn’t make any sense. I recorded like
40 songs or so for the project, technically 50 songs, but I put 40 on the
double-CD, Jon Crosby Generica. I
felt that there were a lot of songs stylistically outside of the realm of VAST.
But there are certain songs that weren’t, especially in context with April.


We have different types of fans. The hardcore fans who are
actually hungry and waiting and they want whatever they can get. Then we have
fans that are kind of there when we release things, they may or may not be
interested when we release something, depending on what they hear or if they
hear something they like. Then we have people who don’t know who we are. I
don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort promoting this whole idea of me as
a solo folk artist, because it was all in fun, but there were some gems that
came out of that whole project that were really good.


So I took the best of that and released it as a VAST album.
Now it’s true, there are several thousand people who bought that originally,
who might not be interested in the Me and
album, but that’s not a reason to not release the Me and You album just because there might be five to ten thousand
people who are interested in this Jon Crosby folk thing I did. They can clearly
see on the CD or download online before they purchase anything that there are
some songs they may have purchased previously, so it’s not like we’re ripping
anyone off. They can see the same names of the same songs. Then, there are
other millions of people out there when we do a retail release, or places like
Amazon and iTunes. There are people who get exposed to that stuff who had no
idea about the Jon Crosby thing. We didn’t really want to promote it because
it’s something I did on the side. I didn’t even do a tour as Jon Crosby because
to me, I’ve written all the songs with VAST pretty much, like 99.5 percent. The
reason I released it as Jon Crosby instead of VAST was because I don’t mind
taking fans on a journey. At a certain point, when you think you’re getting
orange juice but you get milk instead, it’s weird because it’s like VAST has
always been progressive, electronic and orchestral, and then to give them this
acoustic guitar stuff for a whole album and call it VAST is a little bit of a
rip off, because they’re expecting something completely different, so I think
it deserved a different name.



 You recently released a book, Bang Band SiXXX. What inspired you to
wake up one day and start writing it?


  I had been dating-I
was engaged to this girl for two years. She was on this website where women
posed naked. Basically, we had broken up and when I met her, this site was
really small. One day I was sitting there, it was after the end of this really
disastrous tour we did in 2004, it was a bad phase for me-and her site had
become huge. I felt like my band had become very [pauses], you know, we were in shitsville. I thought it was ironic.
I thought, people are supposed to pay for music and get their sex for free, but
we’re entering this world where I feel people get their music for free and they
want to pay for their sex. I thought there was something really ironic about


I got the idea, what is it going to be like in 40 years? I
started to question things. What’s the world going to be like with all the
violence and porn online, the way people are, the way corporations are taking
over? With violence and porn, it’s like a double-edged sword. There’s a part of
me that’s fascinated and disgusted by it at the same time, I think a lot of
people are. It’s like sex and death are very mysterious and scary at the same
time. So, it’s a utopian satire where I got to make fun of corporations and
stuff, and then it was also a little bit of a statement about the world we’re
living in. So it was a really cathartic book for me. It was a chance for me to
say things I can’t say in my songs or lyrically, because in a book you have
more time to get it out there. Also, it was a way for me to work through
certain problems I was having, some depression and stuff.



 You released an album that was a counterpart to
the book, the Relay EP. It came off
as a sort of VAST meets Gorillaz, animated band type of project-you had
drawings of these fictitious band members in the liner notes. Do you consider
this to be a VAST album?


 We just wrote the
book, we didn’t do a graphic novel and we didn’t do an animated music video. I
felt people didn’t understand what I was trying to do. I guess for me, I don’t
really separate VAST, Jon Crosby, or Bang Band SiXXX, because it’s just all me
making music. For a lot of people, it’s like a brand thing. If it’s not VAST,
they just assume it’s not important to me. They kind of just ignore things on
some level if it’s not VAST. So, we’re thinking of re-releasing some of those
songs in the near future on the next VAST album, out of the six, maybe taking 3
of them because I really think they’re good songs. “Loneliness is Fine,” I
co-wrote with bass player Michael Cry. That song, we enjoy it a lot and we’re
thinking about re-recording it with the guys, calling it VAST and putting it on
the next record because it has more of a modern, electronic feel to it.



 For a while now, you’ve been dropping hints
about coming full circle and doing a darker, more electronic album. “Like God”
leaked a while back and that was rumored to be on the next CD. Is that ever
going to surface?


 That song is more of
a leak than anything. We recorded two versions of it, but we need to record a
third that really works. It’s definitely going to be just as electronic, if not
more, than Bang Band SiXXX. I just took a break from the electronic thing for a
few years. I started doing electronic music when I was 17, the first record
came out when I was 21, and all the music I did from 21 to 30 was basically
electronic; the debut album, Music For
, Nude, Turquoise and Crimson, and even our
older demos. When I was 29 or so, I did April.
So from about 2006 to now, we did April,
the Jon Crosby Generica stuff and Me and You. So that’s a phase I feel
like I’m done with. Now I want to do more progressive, cutting edge electronic
music again. I kind of needed to take a break from something stylistically for
a while. I became really interested in the purity of the song with the acoustic
guitar, but I think it’s nice to be able to use production to express yourself
too. You can express a lot of emotions and feelings through electronic music
that you can’t with just acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitar music to me always
ends up being very sentimental, romantic and simple-kind of spacious. That’s
really cool, but sometimes it’s nice to experiment with electronic music to
create mysterious sounds, anger and all kinds of different types of emotions
that I don’t think are easy to express with just a guitar.



 Your first album was definitely dark,
mysterious, and spiritual. And you used a lot of chants and orchestral sounds.


 There are a lot of
elements on the first record that are unusual. There was classical, world
music, industrial, goth, rock, and metal. It was all over the place. At the
time, around 1997-1998, that’s what was going on in the music world.
Alternative was an interesting movement because it opened the doors for
different types of styles. You had Mazzy Star, Beck, Metallica, Nine Inch
Nails, Nirvana, Radiohead-everybody was just all over the place musically and
it was cool. You turned on the radio and you didn’t know what was coming on
next. It was just an eclectic kind of thing. I think the debut record reflects
that and how open-minded people were. I remember one year at Lollapalooza where
it was Tool and Prodigy, sharing the same stage-you don’t see that kind of
thing as much. I think we made an eclectic album. So if I made another album
like the first one, I would have to go in with the attitude that I was going to
experiment with a lot of different styles.



 So do you plan to do a hardcore, experimental
album like your first one soon?


 I would say yean, but
it’s kind of hard because I don’t know what direction to experiment in, because
these days, I don’t know if people are receptive or open-minded enough. For
instance, the first record, it didn’t catch on as much as people think when it
came out. We played the Galaxy Theater in Santa
Ana in front of like 40 people. So really, it took a
long time for the record to catch on. It took a long time for it to get radio play
after it was released and I was surprised we did. After we got on the radio, it
was only played for a little while. It was too weird for people when it first
came out and for some people it still is. Ten years later, it doesn’t sound
that weird, it sounds like a cool record, I think. If I made a record in 2009
that was as experimental as that record was back then, it would be a very odd
record that I don’t think many people would like. I guess I feel that people 10
years ago were more open-minded musically than they are now. I feel like a lot
of the stuff out these days feels like the same old thing. I think people
aren’t as much about pushing the limits with music right now. They do with
movies, but not so much with music. People are kind of like meat and potatoes.
They want to hear dance music, they go to a dance club, they like hip-hop, they
want to hear hip-hop. The music scene seems very narrow to me right now.



 While you were touring April, you had a very stripped and raw live sound and all of the
chants, samples and synths that were a signature part of your songs were
missing. Do you plan to reintroduce those missing elements back with this tour
and maybe hire a permanent fifth band member to handle it?


 We actually have a
fifth member now, his name is Ernesto J. Ponce. He mixed some stuff on the Me and You album, that’s how we met him.
He’s a great producer and engineer and he’s also a keyboard player and
saxophone player. We brought him out with us and he’s become a permanent
member. We’re using samples again but we modernized it though. Before, we were
using a digital tape machine. It was sturdy but it was limiting. Now we’ve gone
the route of laptops, so we have a lot more room to improvise and change our
setlists and it’s great. So far he’s been good and he plays keyboards too, so
we have definitely brought back that element.



 Do you ever plan to do a live show backed up
with a real orchestra?


  I would love to. That’s definitely something I
would do when I was older. It seems like a thing to pull out when you’re 40,
the orchestral thing. It would be a time consuming project and I also don’t
think it would be a very lucrative project; so therefore, it seems like
something to do when you’re older and have a lot of time and money on your
hands. Right now, it would be expensive. It would probably cost $10,000 dollars
to have the orchestra at the show and then the rehearsal would be more than a
sound check. We’d have to rehearse for the day. It would be a big undertaking.



 So you say the orchestra project could be
something to do when you’re older. How long do you see yourself making music?


 When I was a kid and
played with toys, I don’t think I woke up one day and was like, “Oh, I don’t
like toys anymore.” I think you just slowly get interested in other things
like, hanging out with your friends, girls, sports, academic stuff, whatever. With
musicians, I think at some point, when you’re in your late forties or fifties
or whatever, you get to a point where it’s not that you don’t like music
anymore, it’s just that you have other things in your life, like children, or
things that matter more. Stephen King wrote a lot about that in his book. He used
to have a desk in this room, and all that room was for was him writing when he
was younger. Now, the desk is in the corner and there’s a big T.V. and he
watches sports and eats pizza with his kids. He balances out his life more with
is art. When you’re older, you mellow out a little bit.


I don’t think I’ll ever quit, I could see myself doing less
when I’m older. I don’t think these guys generally do less, but I think U2, you
know, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was 2004, and this new one came out in 2009. So that’s 5 years in between
albums. In the last 5 years, I think I released 5 albums. I think they are the
same way. They have other things going on in their life other than U2. I think
I would like to continue always doing it, but I’m sure as I get older, if I get
up there, I’ll balance it out with other things in my life.



VAST on the Web:



A look back at the Athens’ band’s second
album, plus a eulogy for the passing of an era.




April 9, 1984, record
stores all over America:
For in-the-loop R.E.M. fans, it’s a red-letter – as opposed to, one
presumes, dead letter – day. The Athens combo’s second long-player is released
today, and although advance tapes of the LP have been circulating for weeks
(the band commenced work on it at Charlotte’s Reflection Studios with producers
Mitch Easter and Don Dixon back in early December and completed sessions in
mid-January), any sneak peeks at the material have only whetted our appetite.
Not for nothing has R.E.M.’s grassroots base been increasing at an exponential
rate over the course of the last 18 months; one fan’s awestruck reports from
the trenches on the band literally begets twenty more, and everybody is
positively itching to have, to hold and to hear this new artifact.


And what an artifact it is. A quarter-century after its
release, Reckoning, as with 1983’s Murmur, has lost none of its charm. From
the disturbingly serpentine Howard Finster sleeve art to the simultaneously
dense and expansive sonics to the tunes themselves, nearly all of which would
remain fan favorites for years to come, Reckoning‘s
estimable powers to enthrall and to mystify are only just slightly less than
its predecessor’s. If there’s a true qualitative difference between the two
that must be logged, it’s simply that Murmur appeared on the musical landscape as something utterly fresh and absolutely alien;
for Reckoning, we know the score – and
therefore what, in general, to expect from the band. But that doesn’t make
listening to it any less thrilling then or now.


Like last year’s Murmur 2-CD overhaul, the brand new Reckoning –
Deluxe Edition
(I.R.S./A&M/UMe) has been freshly remastered, and while
it’s nigh-on impossible to fault the original Easter-Dixon production/mixing, Reckoning Mk. 2009 does have a crispness
and an overall presence that will have stereo gear geeks and headphone (not
earbud) aficionados pinching themselves. The “theater” aspect of the album is
quite profound; moving your battered-but-trusty old pair of Dynaco A-25
speakers around in the room just so will make the record come alive in nearly
3D or surround-sound fashion (the producers even applied binaural recording
techniques on some tracks). In fact, “alive” is the operative term: despite it
being very much a studio record boasting a wealth of cortex-ticking mix flourishes
– listen, for example, to the choirlike qualities of the Michael Stipe-Bill
Berry-Mike Mills harmony vocals, or Mills’ keyboards, previously somewhat
obscured – Reckoning is a remarkably
accurate document of what the band sounded like in concert (see below) at the


From the sensual, hip-swiveling throb of opening track
“Harborcoat” and moody jangler “so. Central Rain” to the brash powerpop thump
of “Pretty Persuasion” and proto-Americana anthem “(don’t Go back To) Rockville” – try listening
to the latter without singing along during the chorus – Reckoning delivers the songwriting goods, too. By now Stipe had
grudgingly decided he had a greater stake in having people understand what he
was singing, and even if it was still tough sometimes to get exactly what he
was singing about, with his words
more carefully enunciated and no longer pushed as deep into the mix, you can
snag complete visual images, tantalizing metaphors, quirky observations and little
asides that help make the lyric-combing all the more rewarding. And with Pete
Buck’s consistently churning, at times agitated fretwork riding atop an equally
brawny Mills-Berry rhythm section, Reckoning was defiantly rock ‘n’ roll from start to finish. Though early on the group may
have notched its share of Byrds comparisons, nobody was going to mistake this record for some latterday excursion
into folk-rock territory.


The Deluxe Edition’s second CD serves up a sparkling live
concert from the actual Reckoning tour
(a/k/a the “Little America Tour”). Recorded July 7, 1984 at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom and broadcast over
WXRT-FM, the performance spawned a raft of high quality bootlegs so it’s not
exactly obscure to R.E.M. buffs. It’s not the entire show, either; the original
broadcast was about 75 minutes but a subsequent re-broadcast trimmed it back to
just under an hour, omitting the unreleased song “Cushy Tush” and covers of
Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run.” The
edited concert is what’s presented here, but it’s still a welcome addition to
the collection, showcasing such relatively obscure R.E.M. gems as the band’s
charmingly awkward take on the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and hectic
punk raveup “Windout” plus the as-yet-unrecorded “Driver 8” and “Hyena” (the
latter two would eventually wind up on, respectively, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction and 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, but as mainstays of
R.E.M. setlists on the ’84 tour, they quickly became concert crowd-pleasers).


All of the Reckoning songs
shine in their live incarnations. “Rockville”
in particular dials the twang back and is straightforwardly anthemic in the
purest R.E.M. sense, while “so. Central Rain,” though sounding ever-so-slightly
out of tune, brings an additional dynamic heft, particularly in Stipe’s
feral-to-the-point-of-anguished vocals in the closing seconds. “Harborcoat” is
itchily kinetic, speeded up to the point of almost being ska-like. “7 Chinese
Brothers” is true to the album version – with the exception of Stipe’s role, as
he throws in some of the tune’s “alternate lyrics” (otherwise known as “Voice
of Harold,” an outtake from the recording sessions, they included bon mots culled from the sleeve of an
old gospel album, e.g. “the joy of knowing Jesus… produced by Joel Gentry…backliner
design…”). And the band’s standard pre-encore concert-closer at the time, “Little America” is a rousing, howling, thumping,
gloriously messy blowout that, also, is pure R.E.M. For a crucial snapshot of
the band in the mid ‘80s, the Aragon
broadcast is pretty hard to beat (hold that thought; see below).


The Deluxe Edition of Murmur was issued last November (read our review HERE), which was a fantastic document
but one that might have been served more fully by the inclusion of additional
studio material (its bonus disc comprised a 1983 live recording). Likewise, this
new-look Reckoning doesn’t include any of the known studio outtakes
from the original recording sessions, or sessions proximate to the album’s
general time frame. (“Burning Down,” “Ages of You,” “Voice Of Harold,” “Cushy
Tush” or “Hey Hey Nadine,” anyone? How about the Velvets covers
“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale”?) Previous import CD reissues of the album
had included bonus tracks “Wind Out,” “Pretty Persuasion (live
in studio),” “Tighten Up,” “Moon River”
and “White Tornado (live in studio),” so fleshing out Disc One wouldn’t
have been all that problematic. However, since this makes twice R.E.M. has
opted to present the original artifact exactly as it was presented in ‘84 sans extras, we’ll squelch our fanboy
instincts and defer to the intentions of the artists themselves. Besides, some
of the songs listed above have already seen official release, and if R.E.M.
eventually gets around to doing a Deluxe Edition for 1987’s odds ‘n’ sods collection
Dead Letter Office, it’s entirely
conceivable they’ll throw the fans a few additional bones – or olive branches.




September 26, 1984, Duke University: “If anybody
taped last night,” R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe is saying to the audience, “come find
me after the show – I wanna talk to you.”


It’s the second of two sold-out nights at Duke’s Page
Auditorium. After this tour, R.E.M. won’t be able to do venues of this size
(seating cap.: just over 1200) anymore. Knowing that and wanting to document the
impending end of an era, the band has brought in engineers and recording gear
from Reflection Studios. Reckoning‘s
release a few months earlier brought critical and commercial acclaim, the LP eventually
hitting #27 on the Billboard charts, and
the band is firing on all cylinders. Much to the chagrin of everyone involved,
however, last night’s taping yielded some nasty sonic gremlins. Hence Stipe’s
stage announcement – they’d like to get ahold of a decent tape.


And this is the moment where one of yours truly’s odder
intersections with rock royalty begins. In possession of front-row balcony
seats for both nights and with my own mobile recording unit (a Sony D6 stereo cassette
deck) in hand, I’m doing my own documentation of what’s clearly an event. As
both tapes turn out quite nicely, upon my return home I dub off copies of each
night and drop them into the mail to their manager, whom I knew from our mutual
Chapel Hill days, at R.E.M.’s Athens


A few months later things take an intriguing twist when an
acquaintance phones and says he has a surprise for me. It’s a cassette, tellingly
labeled “Page 9-26-84,” and the moment I hear it I know what it is: the
Reflection mobile recording from the second night at Duke, fully mixed and in
pristine sound – the best live R.E.M.
recording I ever heard
. My friend, an aspiring engineer/producer who’d
recently begun interning at Reflection, had somehow gained momentary access to
the studio’s vaults and dubbed off about an hour’s worth of the show. “Keep it
to yourself,” he instructs me gravely. I readily comply, no questions.


Too bad he didn’t take his own advice. He’d also made a copy
for another contact, an R.E.M. fan and record dealer from Florida with more balls than ethics. When
the “We Are Having A Heavenly Time!” bootleg R.E.M. LP subsequently
surfaced in the summer of ’85, it was pretty obvious who was behind it. In the
transition from tape to vinyl, somehow the Duke show had gotten slightly
speeded-up, but with the otherwise incredible sound quality and custom sleeve
artwork, the album quickly became a high-demand item among collectors. It
probably would have remained “underground,” too – by ’85 a lot of R.E.M.
bootlegs were in circulation, Pete Buck himself even being known to collect
them – had the back cover not been inscribed with the notation, “This Fan Club album is not intended for
sale, commercial distribution or air play. All rights reserved.”


R.E.M. HQ wouldn’t have blinked twice at the appearance of
another R.E.M. boot, but they were not happy at all about some clown
usurping the official fan club’s name. Curses were uttered. Phone calls were
made. Including one to yours truly from the band’s manager, who thought I might
have an idea who was behind the LP. I did, of course, so I offered to track
down the bootlegger and broker a scenario whereby, in exchange for his pledge
to get out of the R.E.M. “fan club” business, they wouldn’t sic The Man on his
ass. Oh, and as a gesture of good faith, could he mail a stack of the Heavenly Time album to Athens as well? The guys in the band would,
er, like their own copies.


After that things returned to normal – sort of. Not long
afterwards, R.E.M.’s lawyer turned up at Reflection. He took every R.E.M. tape
that had been in storage at the studio, including the live shows from Duke, and
toted them back to Athens
in, legend has it, an armored car. Many years later during a periodic
housecleaning at Reflection, the studio’s head engineer, also a friend of mine,
came across some empty reel-to-reel tape boxes; listed on them were Reckoning song titles. Knowing I was a
fan, he mailed them to me and to this day they remain prized additions to my
record shelf.


To date none of the live material from Duke has ever seen
the official light of day. Although the Aragon set is good, the Duke show
is better, at least to these ears. (I’m biased, I admit.) Regardless of where
one’s Reckoning intersection occurs,
however, to re-experience the band on that eventful 1984 tour – with the
exception of a month’s break during August, it essentially lasted all year (chronology
HERE) – is to hear a band at the peak of its pre-arena powers, as thrilling and
charismatic a live outfit as the era ever produced.


In a both a literal and metaphorical sense, the slamming
shut of the aforementioned armored car’s doors marked, perhaps, when that era
truly came to a close.



[Photo Credit: Ed Colver]





Tobacco, Graveface,
Seven Fields of Aphelion and Power Pill Fist
are some seriously fucked up friends.




some bands go into the studio never having played the songs they’ll commit to
tape, Black Moth Super Rainbow took the complete opposite approach for their
fourth album. Eating Us (Graveface) was
essentially recorded before the band
loaded into Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Studios. Yet the move from home recordings to
big studios takes their dreamy mix of vintage keyboards and vocoderized vocals and
wakes it up with the addition of live drums and guitars, bridging the gap
between previous releases and the Pittsburgh
band’s critically lauded live performances.


(aka Tom Fec), the band’s driving force, recorded the keyboards at home by
himself and sent early mixes to Ryan Graveface, the name behind the band’s
label, who added guitar and banjo parts to some of the tracks. But Tobacco
wanted to final product to sound different. “I had taken the band sound as far as I had wanted to on my own
with [2007’s] Dandelion Gum,” he says
via email, his chosen medium for interviews.  “And BMSR had been more of a
live band since the last album came out, so I figured for the first time since
we started doing this, I’d give people more of what they might be expecting.”


Fridmann (who has
worked with Weezer and BMSR tourmates the Flaming Lips) was the only candidate
as far as Tobacco was concerned. “I’ve always thought of him as like my sound
opposite.  Where my stuff is usually tight and gritty, his is spacious and
smooth,” Tobacco says. “He’s down with grit, but it’s a different
kind.  I knew he could give me everything I couldn’t do on my own.”


Most of the time at
Tarbox was spent adding BMSR drummer Iffernaut’s parts to the finished songs. They
captured things like the distorted dance beat in “Tooth Decay,” which combines
with the ‘70s educational film soundscapes for a groove that’s much more
sensual. “The Sticky,” like all BMSR songs with vocals, runs Tobacco’s voice
through the vocoder, which gives it a steamy polish. “I don’t like the sound of
my real voice,” he explains, regarding his vocoder habit. “I’m not a
singer, and I couldn’t get the sounds I want out of my voice without a
vocoder.  It lets me make any melody into a vocal part.”


While in the studio,
Tobacco likes using analog keyboards, but he doesn’t consider himself a purist.
“I use a lot of home sampled stuff as well.  There weren’t any newer
digital synths on this record, but it just happened that way,” he says. “We
use a lot of Yamaha CS stuff for the live show. 


“An interviewer
recently asked me to count the synths I had – and I came up with four. 
Two of them actually work. I think the new keyboards are fine in a live
setting, and are way safer than the old ones.”


Sonically, Eating Us sounds like the next chapter
after Fucked Up Friends (Anticon),
Tobacco’s solo album from last fall. Both feature lush melodies that state
their case for two or three minutes and move on. The similarity isn’t
surprising. Other than Tobacco, Iffernaut and Graveface, only one other BMSR
member appears on the new disc. And the band member known as Seven Fields of Aphelion
appears only in opener “Born On a Day The Sun Didn’t Rise,” playing the song’s
central Fender Rhodes riff.


The live incarnation
of Black Moth Super Rainbow is “a whole separate animal,” according to Tobacco.
Several live videos on YouTube bear this out. One comes from the band’s set at the
2007 SXSW, where the rhythm section, this time including bassist Power Pill
Fist, turns the sound into something more akin to prime psychedelic rock.


When asked which side
defines the band – studio or live – Tobacco won’t pick one over the other. “I
think of the recording and live sides as two totally different things,” he
says. “My heart has always been with the writing and recording, because
it’s what I get the most out of. But the live show is like a way of
reinterpreting what I’ve been working on in a way that an audience might enjoy
a little more.”


Eating Us takes
advances on the cover art of last year’s Drippers EP which included scratch-and-sniff scents. The new release features a
16-page booklet and a jewel-case slip cover encrusted with hair. More than an
artistic statement, it acts as a reward to fans who still like their music in
tactile formats.


“I think if you’re gonna buy a CD now, we
should probably make it worth your money and the space it takes up,” Tobacco
explains.  “With the hairy summer jacket, I want to make sure the CDs are
warm and itchy. The booklet is made up of a
bunch of potential covers, so you can refold it if you want to change the




BORN AGAIN Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Sonically cinematic and lyrically
rife with literary imagery, the English trio crafts a masterpiece.




Britain’s Sweet Billy Pilgrim turns introspection
into universality while somehow drawing a line connecting melancholia to
rapture. The trio’s sophomore effort, Twice
Born Men
(issued by David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label), has a kaleidoscopic
spectrum of associations: Shaker songs, Radiohead, poetic lyrics, experimental
electronics, and Jon Brion-esque cinematic gestures blur while essentially
remaining within standard song forms. (Did we mention it’s a killer record?)
The band: Tim Elsenburg, Anthony Bishop and Alistair Hamer.


Twice Born Men is more
like a mini opera of the imagination than a collection of pop songs. Like the
short story collections of Tim O’Brien or Mary Gaitskill, the whole equals more
than the sum of its parts. And while there is plenty of specific imagery, Elsenburg’s
writing is open (at times cryptic) enough for the listener to step into the
story and wear it like their own personal raincoat against the world. Twice
Born Men
is one of those records that will likely divide its listeners into
two camps: those who shout “Beautiful! Brilliant!,” and the rest who shrug
muttering, “That’s weird. I don’t get it. It’s boring and pretentious.” And
it’s a shame for that latter crowd because Twice Born Men is a
fantastically ambitious near-masterpiece. In a world where ringtones seem to
have become the typical musical attention span, music has generally become
something to mindlessly consume and excrete rather than something to engage
with, experience and ponder. This is not the world of Twice Born Men. 


The first sounds we hear are scratchy electronic blips and metallic
pulses hovering over a faint undercurrent of acoustic guitar. The general tone
of (internal) conflict is set from the start; electronic vs. acoustic being
just one of many. Enter the opening monologue – sampled dialogue of Mandy
Patinkin portraying Jim Nashe from the film The Music Of Chance: “Every
night I’d tell myself that I’d had enough; that I’d pack it in and settle down.
Every morning I’d wake up, crawl back into the car and drive. I thought why
not? Why not just keep driving?”


Road Trip! I call shotgun!


Though Sweet Billy Pilgrim is an English band, Twice Born Men has a somewhat American pulse: their band name is taken from a Kurt Vonnegut
character, lyrics explicitly refer to the U.S.
and California, the opening monologue is based
on a book from a Brooklyn, NY based author
(Paul Auster), and banjos ring through the recording.


Instrumentation is an essential element to the group’s creativity. Bass
clarinets, laptops and electronics, banjos, harmoniums, “tuned dishwasher,” and
creaking metal door hinges all add to the clatteringly kaleidoscopic and
occasionally near circus-like atmosphere; albeit a relatively dark circus. Then
at other moments we get a more traditional piano, guitar, bass and drums. But
there is almost always something else pulling underneath creating a sort of
musical surface tension. While the musicianship and playing is great, the focus
is completely on the composition. There are no ‘solo sections’ and no guitar
heroes. In “Joy Maker Machinery” there’s a short, rubato instrumental section
with harmonica, scratchy steal string slide guitar, and piano that has the
fragility of a dream upon waking, simultaneously being destroyed and re-constructed.
For sure there are many beautiful instrumental passages, but Twice Born Men is a very detailed map with lyrical, romantic melodies charting the course
(ships and sea imagery abound throughout the record). Imagine Jon Brion
collaborating with Radiohead on a film score for a melancholy, dark love story.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s music feels naturally cinematic.


The story of Twice Born Men is essentially two things: a love
story, and an exploration of conflicts between opposing forces: joy and
sadness, staying and leaving, imagination and reality. The sound of imagination
running parallel to reality is a sonic theme throughout the recording. Whether
its acoustic (human) against electronics (machine), or subliminal clatter
underneath beauty, that taut musical surface tension is often present. They may
occasionally butt heads, but imagination and reality remain essentially shadows
of one another not sharing the same body. This idea of imagination vs. reality,
or human vs. machine, recalls Bjork’s tune “Cvalda” from her Dancer In The
soundtrack of Lars VonTrier’s film. In the film (and, interestingly,
in another VonTrier film Breaking The Waves), Bjork’s character Selma actually collides
with machinery producing tragic results. In Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s world these
two forces remain agonizingly unresolved in their somehow still achingly
beautiful, melancholy world.


Through Twice Born Men, imagination and reality are like the
pair of star-crossed lovers from 17th century poet Andrew Marvell’s The
Definition Of Love.
In describing their love, he writes: “But ours, so
truly parallel/Though infinite, can never meet/Therefore the love which us doth
bind/But Fate so enviously debars/Is the conjunction of the mind/And opposition
of the stars.” Elsenburg’s lyrics of love are powerful and often bittersweet as
well. From “Longshore Drift” he writes: “And every earnest kiss
departing/Leaves an exit wound/But we can patch it up with dirty pictures/And
colorful balloons.” Or from “Joy Maker Machinery”: “Bones will arc and cradle
sparks/From circuits smudged in bliss/The newborn blush that makes us drunk/On
every little kiss.” And from “There Will It End” he writes, “And the planets
move as I touch your back/The stars go out as I tip my hat/Will I kiss those
hands as we fade to black/So say us – there will it end.” On this ending track,
Elsenburg overdubs his voice again and again (some 30 times!) turning this
beautiful simple melody into some kind of modern day Shaker Hymn for choir.


The other main focus in Twice Born Men’s lyrics are those
opposing forces, and ultimately life and death. In “Bloodless Coup” we get:
“You’re never going to make it right/You’re never going to feel alive/‘Til
you’re defeated and broken/You’re never going to make it up/It’s never going to
be enough/To turn it all round/We fall down again.” This can be read as
nihilistic. But it can also be seen as a selfless surrendering. These lyrics
echo Aimee Mann’s brilliant surrender “Wise Up” (“So just… give up”). And from
“Future Perfect Tense:” “Like an empty promise/A sail becomes a shroud/And the
sky is falling down.”


Sitting down to listen through the record in its entirety, it starts
out so strong that as you continue listening, out of sheer logic or habit you
anticipate the inevitable bottoming out of intensity, craft, or beauty. But it
never comes. And there will it end.   


[Photo Credit: Francis





“There Will It End”:



In the confession booth with the White
Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather mainman.




I have to admit
I am a bit spoiled when it comes to rock star greatness. Having been in front
of (behind, upside down, sideways and beside) many brilliant innovators, it
takes a whole lot of genius to turn
my flaming red head and perk up my jaded, rocked out ears. Before the White
Stripes came along, the last important rock god for me, was Kurt Cobain, an
obviously tortured fellow who reflected the angst of his discontent young
audience to raging perfection. I believe Eminem does that for his pissed-off
young followers, but as winningly dangerous as it is, I don’t quite classify
his music as rock ‘n’ roll.


I have
interacted with most of my musical heroes, and truth be told, there are very
few in the last couple of decades who have intrigued me enough to dash out and
make their acquaintance.  Jack White of
the White Stripes being the Magnificent Exception. (Or is that “Obsession”?)


It took a few
months to pin him down, because Mr. White is just about the busiest man in show
business, but I am finally winging my way to Nashville for a meet-and-greet with what my
Goddaughter Polly Parsons (Gram’s daughter) calls “An audience with the modern


Besides acting,
producing and running a company, Jack White has three bands – the White Stripes
with his “sister” ex-wife, Meg, the Raconteurs (love ‘em!) and most recently,
moody the Dead Weather, in which he play drums. Their debut album is out July


The sun pours
down like blazing honey today in the sweaty south, and as I wend my rental car
through the maze up and down hilly streets, I soon realize most of them are
blocked off, and thousands of Nike-clad runners have taken the place of all the
vehicles. I am in the middle of an annual marathon and cannot get anywhere near
my all-important destination – Jack White’s new studio/office/complex where our
interview is taking place. Not even sure where I am, I park under a shady tree
and start hiking in the 90 degree heat, wearing my favorite strappy snakeskin
high heels, purchased in Roma, of course. Ouch. But despite the probable
sunburn and blisters, the show must go on. I will meet Jack White today. I will. I will. Feeling like a thief, I
snatch someone’s Wall Street Journal to shade my eyes, and at 20 minutes past
our designated meet time, my cell phone rings. It’s Jack’s assistant wondering
where I am.  I explain about being lost
in the massive marathon and she promises to come fetch me for her master.  


Dressed all in
black (as I am sure you know, he only wears red, white & black) the modern
Elvis welcomes the bedraggled visiting journalist into his inner sanctum within
his shimmering gothic lair and we settle in on a cozy couch to chat. His
charisma is bombastic, but surprisingly, his spirit is gentle, centered and
serene. I am thrilled to hear he is reading my first book, I’m With the Band.


“I remembered
when I first saw it in the bookstore when I was a kid,” he confesses. “I was
scared of you when I saw that book and I’d actually flip through and look at
the photos every time I went to the bookstore. 
I don’t know why, but you scared me, like this girl’s too much!  She’s like, over the top, outrageous!”


 Jack is the seventh son in a religious family
of nine children, (Born Again Dad, Catholic Mom) and I try to picture him at
12, feeling naughty for peeking into my life. “But redheads have always
attracted and repelled me magnetically at the same time,” he adds, “That’s in
line with Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.”
(For those few who aren’t familiar with that wacky ‘60s sitcom, it featured a
scantily clad red-haired B-feature “Movie Star.”)


I suggest that
perhaps the fiery depictions of the Lord’s muse, Mary Magdalene may have engaged
his youthful fascination. “Maybe so,” he ponders, “but she wasn’t a whore.”
Aaahhh, a man after my own heart! I knew we were kindred spirits.


I hope you’re
not expecting the typical rock talk here, dolls. This is where I like to go
with my interview subjects: deep. When he tells me he’s read one of my faves, The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene,
we revel in the discussion between a disciple and Jesus: “Why do you kiss her
on the mouth?” The answer? “Because I kiss her on the mouth.” We agree that the
Lord was very Zen indeed. Jack then tells me something that totally blows my
mind because it’s a brand new way of hearing a certain biblical quote. “I named
one of my albums Get Behind Me Satan,
my favorite phrase Jesus said, because the triple meaning behind that is so
powerful:  The idea that the devil could
‘get behind me’ as in back me up. The
idea of Satan not as just some evil figure, but the idea beneath all, is get
behind me, man, get with me on it.”


Wow. I have to
fan myself after that one.


Despite growing
up in a “Christian battleground,” Jack is pleased with the outcome. “I’ve taken
a lot of things from it, most importantly God. 
I’m just glad I got God out of all of that because I would hate to have
waited until I was in my thirties to have discovered God, in whatever aspect.”
Jack pauses, very thoughtful. “I sort of default to Jesus.  Do you know what I mean?  I listen to all kinds of spirituality and
respect all of it, and if I’d grown up in China, I would have had a different
path.  So I don’t believe this one’s
better than the rest, but I default to Jesus because that’s the one I know.”


I tell Jack that
my belief is that we all are a part of God, that the all and everything, every
person, creature and atom make up the entirety of God. “My main focus on God is
that he’s creating from nothing and we’re creating from the pre-existing
materials, especially as artists,” he insists, “We can only take the wood that
he put here and make something out of it. 
We can’t create from nothing. 
That’s what divides him from everything, not only from people, because
we are all a part of him, like you said. 
But it divides it all because it’s the one thing he has that we can’t
touch, and we could never come close.  I
mean, the greatest thing we could ever create, be it the Empire State
Building or a pyramid,
it’s laughable compared to a planet or a solar system.”


For this
particular redhead, rock ‘n’ roll is an ideal way to get way inside Great God
Almighty, and the raucous, masterful, multi-level music Jack White creates is
its own unique solar system.




#1 BAND Big Star

With their first two
albums just reissued and a remarkably revealing book recently published – and a
box set on the horizon – the power pop icons get their due.




The lifeline of any rock fan is dotted with myriad this-is-what-I-was-doing
moments regarding first musical encounters – those metaphysical occurrences
when, upon discovering a record so profoundly moving, time stood still, the
earth cracked open, the cosmos shifted, etc., and nothing is ever quite the same
thereafter. It’s no wonder that we refer to hearing this or that album for the
first time as “losing my music virginity”; the impossibility of busting one’s
literal cherry more than once notwithstanding, listening to a truly timeless
album can be, indeed, as good as (or better than) sex.


And so it is with this rock fan’s lifeline, and with Big Star.


It was at a house party in Chapel Hill, probably around ’77 towards
the tail end of my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina,
attended by sundry acquaintances and strangers – among the latter, one Will
Rigby, future dB’s/Steve Earle drummer, with whom I’d soon become fast friends.
Rigby, apparently not too shy about commandeering the stereo at a party if
he disapproved of the current selection, anounces to no one in
particular, “Let’s hear some Big Star!” then tugs a black vinyl album from an
odd-looking record sleeve (depicting a white/yellow neon sign in the shape of a
star against a blackish-blue background) and settles it on the turntable. A
slow, almost languid, irresistible descending guitar riff issues forth, and as
my head turns towards the speakers the drums kick in, followed by a
high-pitched vocal yelp and the guitars progressively growing chunkier. By the
time the tune reaches its first chorus, all dreamy, Beatlesque ahhhhs, I’m hooked. Three decades on, I
can still see myself fumbling around on the floor of the living room, searching
for the remnants of my jaw.


“Feel” is followed by a sweet, jangly number bearing the inscrutable
title “The Ballad of El Goodo” (more angelic harmonies), and that is followed by the throbbing,
slightly twangy “In the Street” (wait for the short-and-sweet guitar solo, and,
um, more cowbell please!), and that by
a luminous, impossibly fragile acoustic ballad, “Thirteen”… sigh… and then that by a dirty-assed, tart-tongued
rocker called “Don’t Lie To Me” straight outta the Move/Cheap Trick school of
pop-tinged hard rock I so dearly love. As the album side gradually comes to a
close with the candy-coated psych-pop of “The India Song” (what’s up with those
flutes?!?) I’m sitting there on the couch, still transfixed, lower mandible marginally
intact, though sore.


Thanks to namechecks in magazines like Trouser Press and CREEM, by
1977 I had at least heard of this
band Big Star. I even knew a few background details, such as how they were from
Memphis and were led by ex-Box Tops vocalist Alex Chilton (the latter a
somewhat erroneous factoid, for as I’d learn later, the group was actually the brainchild
of pop wunderkind Chris Bell; it was rounded out by drummer Jody Stephens and
bassist Andy Hummel, with Chilton coming into the fold latterly but
enthusiastically, swayed by the inordinately gifted Bell’s vision of an
Anglophiliac band of southern boys). Also how #1 Record and its 1974 followup Radio City were on the Stax-distributed Ardent label, but since neither album notched
anything beyond critical acclaim, the band broke up soon afterwards, Bell having already bailed
prior to the sophomore platter. Roughly around the time of the Chapel Hill party, Chilton was undergoing a minor revival
in NYC, courtesy the nascent punk/new wave scene, and as it turned out, a
native North Carolinian, Chris Stamey, had been playing in Chilton’s band. Rigby
himself was a past and future bandmate of Stamey’s (before, seminal garage/punk
combo Sneakers; later, of course, the dB’s) so his degrees of separation from
Big Star were appealingly few.


Rigby talked about all of this and more, throwing in some
tantalizing tidbits that made me feel as if I had been invited into some inner
sanctum of Big Star intimates. Chief among the goodies: the knowledge that
there existed a third, unreleased Big Star album Chilton and Stephens had
recorded some time after the band dissolved; and that not only was Rigby willing
to tape both Big Star LPs for me, as he owned a hissy but listenable cassette
dub of that unreleased record, he’d gladly copy that for me as well. (As a
bonus, on the flipside of the latter cassette Rigby dubbed an FM broadcast of
the band playing in some New York
area radio station. Nowadays, Big Star fans everywhere know that the 1974 performance
in question hailed from Long Island’s
Ultrasonic Studios and was aired live by WLIR-FM, later released by the Ryko
label as Big Star Live.)


I left the party that night a changed man. I’d always had a
certain Brit-pop streak in me (I was more a Stones man than a Beatles buff, but
still…), and I also treasured my Raspberries and Nazz albums, so the Americanized
strain of the genre – power pop, I
think we still call it; I’ll have to consult Greg Shaw via Ouija board to be
certain – that Big Star specialized in during its brief lifespan felt
instantly familiar. To discover a group that had somehow eluded me until now
only made the band more desirable, because as any record collector will tell
you, having a brand new musical quest is half the fun.


It wasn’t long before I was scouring record dealer ads in
the back of Trouser Press as well as
the ones in collectors’ bible Goldmine,
eventually netting a near-mint copy of #1
and a sealed edition of Radio City that had a slice through the
bottom right corner to indicate it was a cutout. If memory serves, each LP set
me back between twenty and thirty bucks, which to me at the time was a pretty steep
price but a fee I willingly and eagerly paid. I’ve still got ‘em, in fact.
Looking at the albums now – holding them – I’m struck both by the tactile
qualities of each package (thick cardboard stock sleeves, thick/heavy vinyl) plus the iconoclastic artwork that keeps drawing music fans to them year after
year, generation after generation.


And I’ve heard the songs, a dozen per album, so many times
since that fateful night in Chapel Hill that
they’re literally scored into the crevices of my cortex. Because with Big Star,
and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique, it’s the musical love affair that
keeps on giving. The band continues to be discovered by new fans, yet the
thrill of rediscovery among we older acolytes has hardly lessened. If anything,
the bond has been strengthened, not undermined, by familiarity.




Now, it must be said that those 24 songs have been dissected
so often by critics and historians that it’s almost pointless to retrace
old territory. Yet because we have new editions of the albums in hand – Concord
Music Group, which owns the old Stax catalog, has reissued both of them on
vinyl, additionally issuing a slightly expanded version of a 1992 CD two-fer reissue
– I’d be journalistically remiss if I didn’t at least give those of you still
relatively fresh to the Big Star oeuvre some sense of why it matters.


That first half #1
is flawless, from the vitriol-spewing proto-punk of “Don’t Lie to
Me” to the oh-so-perfectly teenage sentiments of “Thirteen.” It’s like an
entire history lesson of pop and rock compressed into one album side, and with
a production so utterly empathetic to its creators’ original influences (all
tunes save “The India Song” are credited to Bell-Chilton) that it’s tempting to
paint the album in homage colors. It’s no mere tribute, however, as the
not-flawless-but-still-mesmerizing Side 2 proves. Flip the record over, or cue
directly to cut #7 if you’re a CD or iPod person, and there’s the astonishing “When
My Baby’s Beside Me,” as original and bracing a track in the pop/rock idiom as
has ever been penned; with its twinned, sinewy descending/ascending riff,
loin-pumping bassline, tambourine-powered percussive heft and buoyant,
swaggering vocal line (not to mention an outrageous wah-wah guitar solo), it’s
nothing less than pure Big Star.


Several tracks later, when the gorgeously intricate
12-string showcase “Watch the Sunrise” curls into being, alight with fretboard
harmonics, subtle deployment of harp and gospel choir-worthy backing vocals,
one gets the uncanny sensation that by ’72 the four men of Big Star, as abetted
by their fifth Beatle, Ardent Studios maven John Fry, hadn’t just soaked in the
sounds of their formative years – they’d already surpassed them. Bell, in
particular, was an astonishing pop savant with an ear for arranging, while
Chilton brought to the table a seasoned toughness wrought by his experiences
touring with the Box Tops and working as a folksinger. Factor in an uncommonly
intuitive Hummel-Stephens rhythm section and Fry’s inside-out studio savvy, and
you had that ever-elusive chemistry that only comes along once in a rare while.


Radio City,
recorded by Chilton, Stephens and Hummel (plus a handful of fellow Memphis musicians who hung around the Ardent enclave) in
the aftermath of Bell’s
departure, comes close to matching its predecessor. For one thing, it’s got
what’s arguably the best-known Big Star song – or “most loved,” as #1 Record‘s “In The Street” probably
qualifies as best known, thanks to the Cheap Trick (!) cover of the song that
fuels the title sequence for TV hit That
70’s Show
the eternal
“September Gurls.” As more than a few pundits have observed, is one of those
perfect power pop songs, on equal footing with the Beatles “Day Tripper,” the
Raspberries’ “Go All The Way,” Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” the
Move’s “Do Ya” and the dB’s “Black and White.” Many have covered it, and at
least one – the Bangles – came close to matching it, but none have ever fully recreated
its sonic magic, its sense of yearning, its dream marriage of guitars, vocals
and lyrics.


There’s plenty more on Radio
, of course, from kinetic, wiry, twangy opener “O My Soul” and
slinkysexycool groove-rocker “You Get What You Deserve” to the
as-timeless-as-“September Gurls” “Back of a Car” and Chilton’s gently
sentimental solo acoustic turn, “I’m In Love With a Girl” (why not “gurl,”
Alex?). Radio City‘s a wholly
different creature from its predecessor, too, although it should be said that
Big Star founder Chris Bell’s influence is still felt in Chilton’s songwriting
style, and it’s also to the three musicians’ collective credit that they
remained under the spell of classic pop for the duration of the album sessions
rather than attempt to branch out or experiment (that would come soon enough when
Chilton and Stephens joined forces with producer Jim Dickinson in late 1974 to
begin work on what would eventually be released as Big Star Third). Paired with #1
, Radio City forms one of pop’s true Mount
Olympuses, and the charms
of both albums have not diminished with time. Rather, they’ve grown more


Some may find it curious that Concord opted to reissue the Big Star albums
on CD in the same format as they appeared back in ’92. Aside from a pair of
somewhat inessential bonus tracks (single mixes for “In the Street” and “O My
Soul), there’s no difference in the product and packaging. The latter, in fact,
repeats the egregious offense of the 1992 CD in which the memorable front
sleeve artwork of Radio City (a photo of a naked lightbulb in the ceiling of a crimson-hued room) is removed
in favor of the back cover photo of the band. Why not add a couple of panels to
the booklet and restore all the
original art? For that matter, since they’re also doing the albums as separate
vinyl reissues, why not do two standalone CDs, with complete artwork, fresh
liner notes and additional bonus material? Rumor has it that an agreement was
struck between Concord and Rhino, which is doing a Big Star box this fall, to
not unduly cannibalize each other’s projects, so that may have come to bear
here. But it’s still a shame that more thought and care wasn’t put into the CD.


I will add, however, that a sleeve note indicates it’s a
fresh remaster (done by one George Horn, at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios), and indeed, an
A-B test of selected tracks does reveal a new crispness to the music.
Considering how great those LPs sounded back in the ‘70s, it’s hard to imagine
improving on the originals, but compared to the ’92 reissue, this new CD
benefits in particular in the vocal department (those Chilton-Bell harmonies
literally float from the speakers and wrap around you like a soft pillow) and
on Stephens’ percussion (listen to his snare-taps and subtle cymbal deployment,
for example). All that aside, if you really want to experience Big Star the way
its creators intended – hell, to experience the albums the way I experienced
them, too! – go for the vinyl.




The Big Star story has been recounted in great detail over
the years, most recently by British journalist Rob Jovanovic, whose 2005
biography Big Star: The Short Life,
Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop
is a
must-read, so it’s not as if these characters are the same hazy figures they
were back when I first discovered them. Amazingly, then, a new book ostensibly
about the making of the second album takes the story to an entirely new level. See, practically from day one Chilton has resisted the overtures of journalists, typically downplaying Big Star’s overall importance both in the larger sense
and in how it relates to his particular musical vision. He’s consistently been
“not available for interviews” during Big Star’s periodic revivals (for
example, in 2005, when a reborn Big Star featuring Chilton, Stephens and two
members of the Posies issued In Space,
Stephens assumed virtually all the media-fielding duties), so writers have
generally had to rely on the reflections of Chilton’s friends, former band
members and even other writers to cast an impression of the man.


But in Radio City the
book – the latest installment in Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series on classic
albums – author Bruce Eaton pulls a bonafide rabbit out of his hat, and Big
Star devotees owe him an immense debt as a result. Not only does he get Chilton
to go on record about the band, he coaxes in-depth commentary out of the
notoriously elusive musician, who holds forth on everything from his childhood
and experiences with the Box Tops to his relationship with Chris Bell (good, it
turns out, and not adversarial as has often been reported) and detailed
descriptions of Big Star recording sessions. Eaton, it should be said, was
holding one card that all the other journalists who’ve picked away at the
Chilton monolith didn’t: based in upstate New York, Eaton, a musician himself,
found himself, through a series of coincidences, playing in one of Chilton’s
early eighties bands, and although the alliance was short-lived, the
relationship was friendly enough to allow the two to remain in occasional
contact. When Eaton decided he wanted to do his book, he was able to tap that
friendship, Chilton apparently trusting that Eaton’s agenda was neither
self-serving nor exploitative but rather a sincere desire to set the Big Star
record straight. (Memo to fellow journalists: yes, despite all our protestations
of doing what we do because we love the music, we can come across as self-serving and exploitative to musicians.)


The best titles in the 33 1/3 series tend to be
making-of-the-album stories (sorry, but the ones that read like novels or
fantasies or a protracted exercise in autobiography are rarely engaging), and
when the author is fortunate enough to conduct interviews with the principals
themselves, the books can become invaluable reference works. That’s Eaton’s Radio City,
in spades. He frames his main narrative with a intro relating how he discovered
the band and why he thinks it’s noteworthy, and a closing section outlining how
he wound up playing with Chilton (which itself is insightful as it provides glimpses
into Chilton’s mercurial personality and musical modus operandi).


But the bulk of this 144-page volume is given over to the
events leading up to the formation of Big Star and those surrounding the first
album, followed by a blow-by-blow breakdown of Radio City. In addition to Chilton, Eaton’s respondents include
Stephens, Hummel, Fry, Ardent engineer Richard Rosebrough and Ardent label boss
John King, plus the late Chris Bell’s brother David who pitches in on the pre-Radio City section, and they all supply
incredibly detailed descriptions of who did what, when, where, and how. Even
when memories get slightly fuzzy – for example, as it was the musicians’ habit
to record late into the night at Ardent, often without a producer or engineer
on hand (the Big Star members all had keys to Ardent studio), specific session
details sometimes didn’t get transcribed – the reader still gets a vivid sense
of what it must have been like to be part of the Ardent inner circle.


Fry’s recollections tend to be the most reliable, summoning
up specific notes on how he placed the mics on certain songs, how this
particular take differed from that one, even how he approached mixing the
album. Yet the three musicians are generally clear-headed in their
reminiscences, and as noted above, Chilton supplies his share of invaluable
anecdotes, even talking a little about the Radio
aftermath in 1974-75 and the Big
Star Third
sessions. (Countering another journalist-spawned misconception,
Chilton states unequivocally, “[Stephens and I] never saw it as a Big Star
record. That was a marketing decision when the record was sold in whatever year
that was sold.”) For his part, Eaton structures his book as a semi-oral
history, interspersing sections of expository narrative as needed between
blocks of quotes – many of them quite lengthy, such as a nearly ten-page passage
dictated by Chilton on his life prior to Big Star. Oral histories can be risky,
but in this instance the editorial decision was sound; perhaps Eaton sensed
that after all the telling and retelling of the Big Star saga, maybe it was
finally time to let the men get it down in their own words, without
journalistic filters.


Plus, one mark of any great music bio is that while you’re
reading it you want to listen to the artist or album in question. When you get
to the Radio City song-by-song descriptions, I guarantee you’ll be compelled to cue
up the record and listen for the parts that Fry, Chilton, Stevens, Hummel and
Rosebrough are describing. It’s as close to a fly-on-the-wall experience as
you’re likely to get with Big Star.


Incidentally, Eaton has his own this-is-what-I-was-doing
epiphany on Big Star that he relates. Coming across a used copy of Radio City in the bins of a Buffalo, NY,
record store one afternoon in ’76, he was struck by the William Eggleston lightbulb/room
photo gracing the sleeve. “Curious, I picked up the album,” writes Eaton. “The
sturdy cardboard cover sheathed a nice thick slab of wax. Like a vintage Blue
Note jazz LP, it felt like a record made by people who cared about the music
and knew what they were doing.” At home later that evening, Eaton put the album
on while he sat down to write some letters:


Song by song, it
pulled me in until by the end of the first side I had stopped writing and was
propped back in my chair with my feet on the desk, listening as the sun set
behind the woods outside my window, feeling the June breeze blowing in through
the window screen. I flipped the record over to Side Two, and by the time the
needle reached the middle of ‘September Gurls,’ five cuts in, I was riveted…”


Across the land, over the years, a similar scene would
continue to repeat itself. So I ask you, dear readers: where were you when you first heard Big Star?




Watch for yet more Big Star navel gazing this fall,
incidentally. That’s when, on September 15, Rhino issues its rarities-heavy
4-CD box on the band, Keep an Eye on the
. (You can get details on it, courtesy BLURT, right here.) Mucho media
coverage is inevitable, and yeah, I’ll probably have to weigh in on the band
one more time myself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.



STILL CONSPIRING Secret Policeman’s Film Festival

Last week the American
Cinematheque kicked off its Secret Policeman’s Film Festival at the famed
Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood
Boulevard showcasing a month’s worth of rare gems
of wonderful comedy, music and a commitment to change and hope.




As part of the Mods & Rockers tenth anniversary
festival, this is a special-themed retrospective saluting the finest in British
comedy and rock via the Secret
Policeman’s Ball
which helped raise awareness and money on behalf of
Amnesty International back in 1980. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary Secret
Policeman’s Ball
– the brainchild of Monty Python’s John Cleese.


Featuring an all-star lineup, the original Secret Policeman’s Ball as well as the
subsequent Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in 1982 included performances by comedians
Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Neil Innes (who actually was on hand during
the festival’s opening last Thursday), Peter Cook, Eddie Izzard, as well as
musical performances by Pete Townshend, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins,
Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Kate Bush, David Gilmour, and many more.


Opening Night featured the documentary Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball? This 2004 British film
directed by Margaret Kinmonth celebrates the spirit and memory of the Secret Policeman’s Ball series showing
how the innovative concerts galvanized musicians, most notably Bob Geldof, into
becoming social activists, eventually leading to groundbreaking socially
conscious efforts such as Band Aid, and Live Aid.


Also screened was The
Secret Policeman Rocks!
, a look at some of the best benefit performances over
the years by Sting, Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Dave Stewart,
Kate Bush, et al, as well as The Secret
Policeman’s Rare Nuggets!
which is a 15-minute compilation of hilarious rarities
and outtakes.


Sunday saw the airing of the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope concert
from Giants Stadium in its entirety. The 11-hour concert, shown in real time,
featured performances by John Eddie (with Max Weinberg on drums), The Hooters,
Peter, Paul & Mary, Jackson Browne, Ruben Blades, Yoko Ono, Howard Jones,
Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Joan Baez, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams,
U2, and the reunited Police, among others. A treat was actually watching some
of the commercials that originally aired…so funny! As were many of the musicians’
outfits and hairdos 20-some years ago.


Conspiracy of Hope, the 1986 six-city tour, fresh off the
heels of Live Aid the year before, was a caravan of rockers – including Sting
(The Police reunited mid tour after a three-year break), U2, Peter Gabriel,
Bryan Adams, Lou Reed, Joan Baez, and The Neville Brothers – that helped raise
awareness of Amnesty International, a human-rights organization, celebrating 25
years at the time, campaigning against the detention of prisoners of conscience.


The marathon concert also included appearances
by Christopher Reeve before his debilitating accident, as well as Michael J.
Fox and Muhammad Ali before their bouts with Parkinson’s. Ali pleaded with
those watching to be tolerant and not to be so quick to judge all Muslims every time there’s a
terrorist attack. New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley pointed out that several governments
around the world unjustly abuse prisoners – which sounded ironic nearly 25
years later with the recent closing of Guantánamo Bay.


The Conspiracy of Hope concert was only ever broadcast live
and has never been re-aired, nor is it currently available for purchase, so it
was a pleasure to revisit an era of music gone by. Back in ’86 The Bangles were
walking like Egyptians, Whitney Houston was huge, INXS and Berlin were still
relevant, Van Halen was topping the charts, Huey Lewis was both hip and square,
and John Cougar Mellencamp was busy r-o-c-k-ing in the USA.


This time around I had a greater appreciation for Miles
Davis, and was even impressed with Joan Baez, whom I dismissed as too granola
back in the day. Ruben Blades was a treat, as was watching a pre Joshua Tree U2 on the verge of worldwide
super stardom that would catapult them into the biggest band on the planet discussion. Bono, looking more like a
disheveled Jim Morrison in ’86, was still as intense and powerful as ever as
the band tore through Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” and John Lennon’s “Cold
Turkey,” as well as delivering a moving rendition of The Beatles’ “Help” and
the “Sun City” protest song with guests Steven Van Zandt, Ruben Blades, and Lou


Bono, who originally attended the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball benefit concert has noted, “I saw The Secret Policeman’s Ball and it
became a part of me. It sowed a seed.”


I remember feeling compelled to join Amnesty International
back in 1986 and felt so again Sunday while watching the concert one more time.
Indeed we’re still living in a time where social injustice is still rampant and
now, more than ever, an organization like Amnesty International is as relevant
as ever.


The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival runs through July 19 in
Los Angeles. It
will soon set up shop at New York’s Lincoln Center
and Paley Center from June 26 – July 31. Upcoming
highlights during the Egyptian run include the world theatrical premiere of Human Rights Now! – a three-hour
retrospective of the 1988 concert in Argentina celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights featuring Sting, Peter
Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Youssou N’Dour and Tracy Chapman.
This screens June 20.


Another world theatrical premiere will be The Paris Concert for Amnesty International on
June 21. This 1998 three-hour concert from Paris includes performances by Peter Gabriel,
Springsteen, Radiohead, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Jimmy Page &
Robert Plant, and an appearance by the Dalai Lama.


A look back at a time when music was used as a vehicle for positive
change, Amnesty International reported their membership in the U.S. increased
by 45,000 after the Conspiracy of Hope Tour. The Secret Policeman’s Film
Festival is billed as “a celebration of three decades of mock & roll” for
Amnesty International and we can only hope that kind of passion still exists in
all of us.


For more information
on Amnesty International see
For more information on The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival and the American
Cinematheque please visit. and



Despite expanding their lineup to a
quartet, the husband-wife team still makes it a family affair.





If Viva
Voce doesn’t take honors for Band with the Strongest Work Ethic, they’re
definitely in the running for such a designation. For a few years, the band was
just as likely to be on tour as not. “Our m.o. has been to put a record out and
basically tour for a year and a half to two years to support it,” says
guitarist/vocalist Anita Robinson, who started the Portland band, along with
her drummer/vocalist husband Kevin. “Then we tour as much as humanly possible
during that time.”


road is such a good friend to the duo that Anita inadvertently mixes her
metaphors, saying she’s “very at home” while touring. “I thrive on being on the
road. I love traveling,” she says. “I love playing music. It’s what I wanted to
do my whole life. I mean, it is my


addition to headlining their own shows, Viva Voce supported hometown friends
the Shins on their tours in support of Wincing
the Night Away
. Anita, who sang harmony on the album, reprised her efforts
onstage and in the performances the Shins played on the late night television
circuit throughout 2007.


the Robinsons spent much of 2008 off the road, the work didn’t cease. They
formed a second band, Blue Giant, which taps into a countriefied Byrds/southern
rock style and departs from Viva Voce’s psychedelic dreams. At the same time Amore!Phonics,
their home recording studio, was restructured so it would be separate from
their living quarters. “Before, whatever tiny living space we had would
temporarily be converted into a recording studio and basically life as we know
it would have to be put on hold,” Anita says. “You’d have amplifiers in the
bathtub, cables hanging from the ceiling and sleeping bags stapled over the
windows so your neighbors don’t hate you.”


After the
other efforts were in motion, the duo resurrected the Viva Voce model and recorded
Rose City (Barsuk). Their fourth album, it includes
the same blend of heavy guitars with dreamy melodies and harmonies, but this
time they deliver it in more concise blasts that average three minutes, without
any excess. And finally, 11 years after starting the duo, the Robinsons have
added two new members to Viva Voce to recreate their heavy sound organically.


and Anita met in Muscle Shoals, Alabama
during the late ’90s and began collaborating almost immediately. In 2002, they
moved their base of operation to Portland, continuing in their manner of
recording all their music themselves. Although their husband/wife, guitar/drums
axis could draw comparisons to the White Stripes, a more apt comparison would
be Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley with an instrument swap. Like
YLT, Viva Voce’s sound combines guitar freakouts, which Anita often plays on a
double-necked axe, with the couple’s lilting harmonies landing on top of the
music. In the studio they take turns on bass, and Kevin handles piano and
keyboard parts. Live, their duo augmented their sound with triggered samples
and keyboards, which Kevin often played while keeping the beat with the other half
of his body.


Kevin has switched to bass and newcomer Evan Railton has taken over drum
duties. Corrina Repp rounds out the new lineup, playing guitar, keyboards and
theremin. The addition seemed inevitable to the Robinsons after years of doing
it on their own. “We did our last show in Portland in December 2007 and I just
knew that it was the last time that particular set was going to be performed
with just the two of us,” Anita says. “It was a really awesome, fun,
challenging way to play and I think we just took it as far as we could take
it,” Anita says.


swirling, heavy-cum-hypnotic sound of The
Heat Can Melt Your Brain
(2004) and Get
Your Blood Sucked Out
(2006) also recalls the best production work of
Kramer, whose similar technique left an indelible mark on the catalogs of
Galaxie 500 and his own trippy unit Bongwater. This continues on Rose City,
where the understated “Midnight Sun” could be a Northwest counterpart to Damon
and Naomi, who anchored Galaxie 500 and continued to work with Kramer on their first
few duo albums.


similarities are a happy coincidence, though, according to Anita. She professes
a love for lo-fi and garage rock, but her inspiration comes from more popular
sources. “I love classic rock and I love delta blues,” she says. “I love some
new music being made now, but I have to admit, I listen to a lot of older
things probably more often.”


she prefers not to put any limits, stylistic or otherwise, on the work of Viva
Voce. The group even recorded a few soundtracks for some Portland filmmakers
last year, a project that Anita describes in manner that epitomizes the band’s
sonic influence. “I really like lush, ambitious music and recordings,” she
says.  “Those are the kinds of things
that I get inspired by the most.”



Credit: Alicia J. Rose]



With a new rarities collection, the West Coast
psychedelic pioneers and Americana
godfathers are afforded a fresh look.




Ever since 1993’s Vintage:
The Very Best of Moby Grape,
various unissued tracks from the San Francisco band’s late
1960s/early 1970s heyday on Columbia Records have been tacked onto reissues as
bonus cuts. Then some of those reissues, like Vintage, get discontinued
themselves, orphaning the rare material. So Sundazed has put all of those
“extra” tracks on one album, The Place and the Time.


These come from Moby
Grape, Wow, Moby Grape ‘69
and Truly Fine Citizen – audition and
demo recordings, instrumental outtakes, live recordings, alternate versions.
With its often-rugged takes, it’s certainly not a replacement for a good
greatest-hits package or the group’s sublime first album; it’s basically for
those so into the Grape they want to have multiple versions of tracks. But for
Sundazed, Place is a valiant attempt to try to salvage a problem. The
label had reissued the first four Grape studio albums on CD in 2007 with
extras, but was forced to discontinue the first two (plus Wow’s companion, Live Grape), when
a legal problem over the recordings arose. Now, though, apparently Sundazed has
finally been able to free the bonus tracks.


Moby Grape is so revered
because the original quintet was filled with good singers and songwriters, plus
had three guitarists – Skip Spence, Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller – capable of
piercingly melodic inventiveness. Spence, beset with mental problems, left
after Wow, so it’s good to have anything at all additional by him made
available. This has the audition recording of “Indifference” and an alternate
version of “Seeing.” But Moby Grape’s bassist Bob Mosley, who stuck around for
three albums before joining the Marines, was a flat-out great soul singer and
sharp, smart songwriter. The acoustic demo version of his “It’s a Beautiful Day
Today” is this album’s hands-down standout, and a demo of his “Bitter Wind” is
a close second.


The whole saga of the Grape
is one of rock’s most tangled and, by some measures, tragic, involving
genius-like talent offset by drugs and madness, record label and marketing
ineptitude, shady managerial goings-on, and no shortage of comebacks and
reunions. (At certain points the members had to operate as, variously, Fine
Wine or The Melvilles because they didn’t have the legal right to perform or
record under the name Moby Grape!) All the while, though, the stature of the
band steadily rose and nowadays Moby Grape is revered by critics and fans alike
as one of the great U.S.
rock bands, a pioneer of the West Coast psychedelic sound and a godfather of
modern-day Americana.  Co-founders Mosley, Jerry Miller and Peter
Lewis continue to perform on occasion as Moby Grape, and reportedly there’s an
album cut in 2008 during a series of reunion shows currently awaiting release.