Monthly Archives: June 2009

Nightcrawlers – Dukin’ Out the Blues

January 01, 1970

(self-released)

 

www.nightcrawlersband.com

 

Google the term “Nightcrawlers band” and you’ll get a
potentially confusing array of hits, including entries for Scottish DJ John Reid’s
house music project, an indie/alternative rock band based in Pennsylvania,
and of course the Florida
outfit that had a seminal garage-rock hit in the ‘60s with “Little Black Egg.”
It’s not the most obscure choice of a band name, in other words, although if
you actually take the time to roll the term “Nightcrawlers” around in your mind
a few times, it’s practically a foregone conclusion you’ll wind up at “sounds
like the blues to me.”

 

That’s the Nightcrawlers band at hand, and per the title of
their latest release, they’ve been dukin’ things out in various incarnations for
nearly three decades around the South and in the western mountains of North Carolina they call
home. A guitar-bass-drums-sax quartet (plus keyboards), on Dukin’ Out the Blues they get down to business right from the start
with a steely slice of sanctification called “I Believe” that, with its massed
horns, crying guitar and subtle-but-slinky organ fills, is pure Memphis ‘60s
soul crossed with late ‘80s Alligator Records.

 

Another obvious highlight is “Goin’ to Chicago” – you
guessed it, straight-up, Southside-style houserockin’ boasting a swaggering
lead vocal (namechecks of Wolf and Muddy, plus thumbs-up for Chicago’s
timelessness as blues mecca). “Why You Wanna Hurt Me” is a slower 12-bar
extrapolation, all smoky sax and nocturnal organ against a keening vocal that
brings to mind Buddy Guy’s signature wounded wail. And with “Coming Home” the
band shifts gears into celebratory Southern rock territory, Allmans-esque
guitars spiraling across a good-timey, soulful arrangement guaranteed to put a
smile on your face. These guys may claim to be dukin’ out the blues, but the
K.O. they’re aiming for is your heart, not your face.

 

Now aren’t you glad I cleared all that up for you? Of course,
you could’ve saved yourself a lot of trouble and instead of Googlin’ around on
the web, rang me up and I could’ve put you straight: guitarist Johnny House
just happens to be – full disclosure – my next door neighbor in Asheville. I distinctly
recall how a few years ago, one warm, sunny afternoon not all that long after
moving in, I heard the unmistakable sound of some biting, Albert King/Elvin
Bishop-styled blues licks coming from across the back yard fence. “Now that is a good omen,” I thought to myself,
smiling. We picked the right neighborhood.

 

Standout Tracks: “Goin’
to Chicago,” “Why
You Wanna Hurt Me,” “Coming Home” FRED MILLS

 

Phenomenal Handclap Band – Phenomenal Handclap Band

January 01, 1970

(Friendly Fire)

 

www.friendlyfirerecordings.com

 

Who knew that the Lower East Side’s
premiere hipster taste makers had a secret yen for disco?

 

In the Phenomenal Handclap Band’s debut, DJs Daniel Collas
and Sean Marquand showcase the tangled guitars, the slushy cymbals, the viscous
bleats of synthesizer of 1978 or so, a polyester sound akin to funk but
sleeker, chillier, less human. They dip, sometimes, into other genres — prog,
downtempo electro, kraut, hip hop, psych and indie rock – but all their songs
are paced by a plastic beat and lit by a mirror ball. The alphabet-reciting
“All of the Above” is like a Jackson Five song covered by Ace of Base and if
that sounds like fun to you, go ahead, clap along.

 

An impressive list of NYC insiders join the Handclappers for
this debut album, a crew diverse enough to ensure that most people will enjoy
at least a couple of tracks, if only for the guests. If you’re a Calla fan, for
instance, you’ll likely gravitate to “Testimony,” where Aurelio Valle
insinuates and menaces in a whisper over a slinky, slack-funk groove.  It won’t hurt, either, when Jaleel Bunton of
TV on the Radio switches on the wah for the cut’s smouldering guitar part. Or
say you like Jon Spencer. That’s him spitting grit and heat into the otherwise
dream-sequence softness of girl-harmonized “Give It a Rest.” Old-school mc Lady
Tigra (ex of L’Trimm) gets the album’s brightest spotlight, holding court in the
effervescent “15 to 20,” with its criss-crossing rhythms and percolating
keyboard lines.

 

Yet in focusing on the stars, you might overlook the skill
with which Collas and Marquand divine the right musical setting for each, or
the clean, clear execution of the arrangements that support them, courtesy of a
six person core band. Indeed the only problem with these cuts is that they are
a little too clean to catch in your head right away. They melt instead into a
slippery stream of dance-friendly, disco-leaning experiences, hedonistically
enjoyable, well-made and tightly played, but a bit inhuman. A handclap is,
after all, probably man’s earliest musical attempt, as rough and unpremeditated
as breathing. Why encase it in all this plastic?

 

Standout Tracks:
“Testimony” “15 to 20” JENNIFER
KELLY

 

Children – Hard Times Hanging at the End of the World

January 01, 1970

(Kemado)

 

www.kemado.com

Children, a new band formed by members of Early Man and S.T.R.E.E.T.S.,  takes metal very seriously. There’s no irony
on their debut, a mélange of mid-‘80s Metallica-style speed metal (when they
were still good), classic rock guitar licks, and sneered vocals. The resulting
brew reanimates the ghosts of thrash metal past, and attempts to melt your face
in the process.

 

The familiar chug-chug-chugging of warp speed power chords
underneath wailing solos contrasts nicely with the occasional psychedelic
keyboard warble, as is the case in the intro of the album’s opening track,
“Advanced Mind Control.” And classic breakdowns in tempo and texture allow some
breathing space and enhance the thrill when the band picks up the pace again.

 

The only complaint here might be that the album’s frenetic
stride and whitewash of distortion gives it a uniform feeling throughout. But
this is metal, and you have to look between the cracks for nuances. They are
there, but Children are too busy pummeling your face to allow you more than a
split second to discover them.

 

Standout Tracks: “Advanced
Mind Control,” “Power Spirit” JONAH
FLICKER

 

Joe Cocker – Joe Cocker!

January 01, 1970

(Hip-O Select)

 

www.hip-oselect.com

 

Years before he became the tragic burn-out parodied by John
Belushi on Saturday Night Live, Joe
Cocker was just another young soul rebel trying to grab the brass ring. The
British singer came up through the ranks of various skiffle and jazz-blues
bands like many of his contemporaries, but he distinguished himself from the
rest of the pack through his gritty, rough-hewn R&B vocals and a car wreck
performing style that had him staggering around on stage, flailing his arms in
the approximation of a disoriented sand piper, and belting out songs in his
best Ray Charles croak.

 

Cocker’s debut album, 1969’s With A Little Help From My Friends, represented more than just another
rocker finding gold with Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting skills. His soulful
take on the Beatles tune scored his first Top 40 hit and put Joe Cocker on the
pop music map. He followed it up quickly with a similar, sorta self-titled collection,
Joe Cocker!, that featured a mix of
covers of folks like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Sebastian along with
originals penned for the album by Leon Russell.

 

Because Cocker was a superb stylist, there was very little
drop-off in his performances during the months separating his first and second
albums. Backed by the Grease Band, a solid group of punters led by keyboardist
Chris Stainton and including the six-string skills of guitarist Henry
McCulloch, as well as melodious backing vocals by Merry Clayton, Rita Coolidge,
and Bonnie Bramlett, Cocker blows through the songs here like runaway freight
train.

 

Several of the tunes featured on Joe Cocker! would become live standards for the singer in the years
to follow. Russell’s “Delta Lady” is probably the best-known here, a
fine gossamer bit of British soul better known, perhaps, for its soaring chorus
and backing harmonies than for Cocker’s stellar vocal performance. Cocker’s
take on John Sebastian’s Lovin’ Spoonful gem “Darling Be Home Soon”
is pure magic, Cocker perfectly capturing the song’s desire and emotion. A
cover of New Orleans R&B legend Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
is a real raver, even if Stainton does end up nicking pieces-and-parts of Alex
Chilton’s “The Letter” for his keyboard melody.

 

Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison, impressed with
Cocker’s previous take of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” gave
permission for the singer to use “She Came In Through The Bathroom
Window” and “Something” for Joe
Cocker!
The former is an unabashed soul-rocker with McCulloch’s
imaginative, slightly-twangy fretwork, while the latter is a showcase for
Cocker’s interpretive skills, his high-flying vocals matched by delicious
backing harmonies and Stainton’s half-gospel/half-psychedelic keyboard
flourishes; McCulloch also throws in a few choice notes just to lively things
up.  

 

Cocker would go on to find a greater measure of fame and
notoriety in the wake of his 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which would
yield both an acclaimed film and an album, and which would also help launch
Leon Russell’s solo career. By mid-decade, though, due to alcohol, Cocker had
become a mere shadow of his former self. He would recover from this stumble and
forge a satisfying and moderately successful career, but never again would he
reach the Icarus-like heights that he did with Joe Cocker!

 

Standout Tracks: “Delta Lady,” “Darling Be Home Soon,” “She Came In
Through The Bathroom Window” REV. KEITH A. GORDON

    

 

Future of the Left – Travels with Myself and Another

January 01, 1970

(4AD)

 

www.4ad.com

 

Andy Falkous and Jack Egglestone
retired the Mclusky name a while back but, thankfully, as FOTL they haven’t
kicked their previous sonic habits. Like Curses (2007), Travels with Myself and Another gives free rein to the tendencies that made Mclusky great: a knack for
economical, unrelentingly assaultive, absurdist songs that strike an unlikely
balance between cacophony and catchiness.

 

The Welsh trio’s pummeling
intensity is still indebted to noisy US forefathers like the Jesus Lizard, Big
Black and Shellac (“You Need Satan More Than He Needs You”;
“Chin Music”), but they also look closer to home: the jagged,
staccato stab and chanted chorus of “That Damned Fly” recall Gang of
Four’s doctrinaire rigidity. FOTL’s uniqueness resides largely in Falkous’s
oblique narratives, acerbic wit and a delivery ranging from menace to frantic
spleneticism, often fleshed out with bassist Kelson Mathias’s vocal interplay.
“Throwing Bricks at Trains” has most of these strengths and more,
scoring bonus points for the finest opening line you’ll hear all year:
“Slight bowel movements preceded the bloodless coup.” Who says
poetry’s dead?

 

Standout Tracks: “Arming
Eritrea,” “Chin Music,” “Throwing Bricks at Trains”
WILSON NEATE

 

Big Star – #1 Record + Radio City [reissues]

January 01, 1970

(Ardent/Concord Music Group)

 

www.concordmusicgroup.com

 

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 was apparently not too shy about commandeering the stereo at a party if
he disapproved of the current selection, and announcing to no one in
particular, “Let’s hear some Big Star!” he 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 actually bailing
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 had 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
Record
and a sealed edition of Radio City that had a cut 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 many times 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
Record
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
City
, 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
Record
, 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
profound.

 

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 a 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.

 

 

Standout Tracks: “When
My Baby’s Beside Me” (#1 Record);
“September Gurls” (Radio City) FRED
MILLS

 

 

Amazing Baby – Rewild

January 01, 1970

(Shangri-La Music)

 

www.shangrilamusic.com

 

With a combination of pop/rock competence, young-gun oomph and
softly scuzzy attitude, Amazing Baby makes songs that are hard to immediately
tear apart. But Rewild, the Brooklyn band’s debut album, becomes strangely
unfulfilling after awhile. Although these songs might be made honestly — with
no direct intent to be homages or facsimiles — they all could use an extra
crackle of originality or personality. It’s a case where preternatural
professionalism isn’t enough.

 

Consider “Headdress,” a sharp-dressed glam-rock epic
that has spacey production and some kickass harmonized guitar riffs. Frontman
Will Roan’s vocals are perfectly breathy at times and reasonably Bowie-esque at
others. And the song clocks in at a well-edited 4:38. All around, it’s a
totally disciplined effort — but maybe that’s the problem. It never suggests
any kind of discomfort, and it never threatens to become unhinged.

 

Similar absences linger beneath Rewild‘s other cornerstones: “Invisible Palace” is a Pink
Floyd-ian display of bombast and galactic psychedelia, but it’s lacking a sense
of dread; “The Narwhal” recasts druid-folk without being trite, but
it’s more showy than clever; and the highly danceable “Bayonets”
mixes coolness and agitation the way Pulp does, but without the pointed
political overtones.

 

Maybe those shortcomings will fix themselves as Amazing Baby trots
these songs around the world, aided by online buzz and its connections to other
Brooklyn acts such as MGMT. Talented bands tend to fill themselves up without
even trying. But as a document of this Baby’s still-evolving headspace, Rewild is all about what’s missing.

 

Standout
Tracks: 
“Bayonets,” “Invisible Palace” JOE WARMINSKY

 

Ronnie Earl And The Broadcasters – Living in the Light

January 01, 1970

(Stony Plain)

 

www.stonyplainrecords.com

 

First things first: Ronnie Earl is one of the greatest blues guitarists
in history. He’s also arguably thee greatest instrumental blues
guitarist ever. Colour Of Love and Language Of The Soul are
classics and Blues Guitar Virtuoso Live In Europe is the best
instrumental blues guitar recording ever made (Yes – I’m aware of T-Bone
Walker, Freddie King and Albert Collins…). Quite a while back he passed beyond
being simply masterful within the idiom. Earl is a rare, beautiful talent. When
he’s at his best, he soars, projecting himself directly through the guitar and
it can be truly awesome to witness.

 

But he’s also had a very difficult time getting through this life. Long
time struggles with depression, drug abuse, the emotional trauma of having
holocaust survivors for parents, and a grandparent who died in the war have
made Earl’s road unusually rocky. And as they would for anyone, these
experiences have taken their toll. He no longer tours to support records and
plays live only around his home. The trademark ferocity in his playing (he has
been referred to as ‘Mr. Intensity’) is not as omnipresent on Living In The
Light
and when it appears it’s generally toned down.

 

This could all be expected from merely growing older. But it seems
Earl’s scaling back of intensity and touring is willful and related more to his
relationships with his wife and church than to his age (mid-50s): “I have a
wonderful wife, I’m close to our church, I live in the country and I want to be
in my own home, every day,” he says in relation to touring. It would be safe
and easy to ‘take the high road’ by congratulating Earl on his sobriety (deserved),
envy his sense of belonging in the church, and not question its effect on his
music. But Earl deserves honest reaction to his music. In his personal life,
his philosophy toward sobriety and his embracement of religion may be the
greatest gift, but within his music it may not always be the way to go.

 

Earl says, “I see my music as a way to have a deeper relationship with
God, and bring healing and love to the people.” There is no doubt in my mind
that Earl is sincere. But mixing religion with your music can be a slippery
slope, especially if it’s not gospel or choral music where it’s a traditional
subject. It can almost be like a separation of Church and State issue:
polarizing and murky at best. Unless your only desire is to preach to the
choir, it’s something you need to be concerned about. While someone like John
Coltrane (someone Earl has consistently cited as an inspiration through the
years) saw his later work as being directly connected to God, he was still
somehow able to remain completely focused on the music while he was
playing/improvising. He was relatively private about his personal relationship
with God and his music generally had no lyric content referencing God (semantic
arguments about song titles and text to A Love Supreme’s “Psalm” aside).
It’s a tough call. At times it feels as though Earl’s thinking about God
instead of playing the blues. It’s as though he is distracted by God.     

 

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to listen through Living In The
Light
(see the recording’s title alone) without dealing with Earl’s
relationship with God. A sampling of lyrics from his new CD Living In The
Light:
“Love given from God above/Every day is a new day/I get down on my
knees and pray/God woke me up this morning,” from the relatively strong opener
“Love, Love, Love.” Shades of AA’s ‘one day at a time’ mantra? Relatedly, one
of his tunes is titled “Recovery Blues.” Or from his cover of Dylan’s “What Can
I Do For You:” “You’ve chosen me Lord to be among the few/What can I do for
you,” accompanied by his own church’s Baptist Choir. Or from his song dedicated
to his wife “Donna Lee:” “You brought my life a million points of light/ my
higher power brought you to be my wife.” For a non-believer who’s coming to
Earl for some screamin’ blues guitar and not the road to salvation, these
consistent references and occasional new-agey spiritualism can get in the way.
However unintentional, it can sometimes comes off as preachy.   

 

Artists and listeners alike can take the same universal issues and
relate them to their own personal lives: Love, money, heartache, etc… That’s
what’s great about the blues and much in art in general. Conversely, it’s also
possible (though more difficult) for artists to transform something personal,
even a seemingly meaningless detail of their own life, into something an
audience can universally relate to. It seems Earl feels his personal
relationship with God may translate into something everyone can universally
relate to. It doesn’t.

 

Thankfully, “Child Of A Survivor” is the best tune on the album. This
one’s been a long time coming and is most likely more important to get out in
the open than any sobriety mumbo-jumbo or religious hoo-ha. Also thankfully,
Earl decided (subconsciously?) it would be better to leave God out of this one
lyrically. It deals with Earl’s relationship with his parents and their
connection to the Holocaust. It resonates with Earl’s personal struggle and is
sung with respect and passion by Earl’s good friend, the underrated Kim Wilson
(Fabulous Thunderbirds). Wilson
also blows some fine harmonica on this cut and elsewhere on the CD. “Child Of A
Survivor” is also the only tune on the recording that fades out unresolved.
Intentional or not, that’s no coincidence. 

 

The rest of the Living In The Light follows suit with nearly
every Broadcasters recording: a mix of blues improvising over slow 12/8
grooves, rockers, swing blues, shuffles and gospel feels. The playing is fine
and occasionally exciting. The current lineup of The Broadcasters includes Dave
Limina on organ, the great Lorne Entress (Duke Levine, Bruce Katz) on drums,
and Jim Mouradian on bass. They’re all excellent players and any artist would
be hard pressed to find a better blues rhythm section. But the fact is that The
Broadcasters lineup in the ‘90s of Bruce Katz on organ/piano, Rod Carey on
bass, and Per Hanson on drums was the best instrumental blues rhythm section to
ever play. Hanson was particularly rhythmically hooked up with Earl, but the
whole band could read Earl’s signals telepathically and create wildly dramatic
dynamic shifts on a dime during extended improvisations. And the occasional a
cappella call and response trading between Earl and Katz was always fresh. On Living
In The Light
some of these same scenarios and techniques are used but they
come off as less inspired and slightly prescribed.  

 

The closing track “Pastorale” recalls Stevie Ray Vaughn’s mellow, jazz
influenced instrumentals “Lenny” and “Riviera Paradise,” though it’s much less
distinctive melodically and less inspired instrumentally. It’s sedate and
introspective to the point of implosion feeling like an afterthought that’s
over before it’s begun. The mere presence of a major seventh chord doesn’t
guarantee harmonic interest or ‘jazzy sophistication.’ Earl is always at his
best when he throws off all caution, all ‘rules,’ and goes straight for the
jugular. 

 

A personal analogy: My relationship to Earl’s playing is similar to my
relationship with Woody Allen’s work of the last decade. His movies from the
last 10 years or so have basically been fine, and if you’re new to him then you
may even find them terrific and fresh. But for those of us who’ve been watching
his films since the ‘70s/’80s, we often feel we’d have done just as well
re-watching one of his earlier classics. Yet we still have to see everything he
puts out. Much of Earl’s playing has the same effect here. Good (and still much
better than nearly everyone else around), but a bit flat to the already
initiated. And like Allen, anyone who knows the score knows Earl has done
enough brilliant work to last forever and will always be worth the check-in. I
personally still have faith that live and in person Earl can still be an
electrifying inspiration. Can I get a witness?

 

Standout Tracks: “Child
Of A Survivor,” “S. O. S.” JOHN DWORKIN  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cosmos (Robert Pollard + Richard Davies) – Jar of Jam Ton of Bricks

January 01, 1970

(Happy Jack)

 

www.rockathonrecords.com

 

At first, one can
only imagine what might result from a collaboration between two adventurous artists
like Robert Pollard, late of Guided By Voices and various one-off sidebars, and
Richard Davies, bearer of a catalogue that includes work with the Moles,
Cardinal and three excellent solo records. 
Both men have highly regarded reputations as progressive pop
visionaries, and while Pollard is something of an eccentric with a prodigious
output, Davies maintains an inward gaze better suited to cerebral set-ups.

 

Pollard’s been
mighty prolific of late, seemingly releasing an album a month – or at least it
sometimes appears – but lest anyone dismiss Cosmos as just another exercise in
indulgence, it ought to be noted that Jar
of Jam Ton of Bricks
is actually one of his more accessible efforts,
tempered no doubt by Davies’ penchant for sumptuous arrangements and widescreen
elaboration.  So if some of the songs
seem somewhat obtuse  – the opening haze
of “Stoke Newington Blitzkrieg” and the droning “Early Chills, Early Crow” in
particular — the remainder of the album sounds absolutely illuminated, with
songs such as “Don’t Be a Shy Nurse,” “The Neighborhood Trapeze” and “Hail
Mary” bathed in the glow of iridescent arrangements and a slight psychedelic
sheen.  Other tracks boast a steady strum
and a surprise hint of REM in Pollard’s pleading vocals, creating the suggestion
that Cosmos isn’t so much a celestial spectacle as a terrestrial treat. 

Standout tracks: “Don’t Be A Shy
Nurse,” “”Hail Mary” LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

 

 

 

Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

January 01, 1970

(Jagjaguwar)

 

www.jagjaguwar.com

Spencer Krug’s voice is the one that always rings operatic through the lovely,
messy indie-rock haze of his main band, Wolf Parade. Actually, with the
ever-increasing success of Sunset Rubdown, his “other” other project, besides
the quirky Swan Lake, it’s becoming unclear which band
is really his “main.” Not that it matters, as they are all rather different,
sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically so. Krug’s songs for Wolf Parade
are always a bit show-tune-y, like an unwritten musical by a modern-day Kurt
Weill, full of changes and hooks and tinkling pianos. Dragonslayer, Sunset Rubdown’s latest, is no different in this
regard, although it may be the most driving, urgent, and rocking record the
band has created thus far. It also feels the most like an album by a full group
instead of a solo project, no doubt due to the inclusion of band members in the
recording process.

 

And never more so than on a track like “Idiot Heart,” which
rides on a wave of driving bass and drums and caterwauling guitar, as Krug
repeats “Look at you go!” over and over. “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna
Anna Oh!” and the album’s opening song, “Silver Moons,” are more recognizable
as the utterly unique and appealing beer-hall rock that Sunset Rubdown does so
well, a neo-indie version of Weimar cabaret. These songs take their time, never
rushing to reach their peaks or denouements – most clock in above the
five-minute mark. And above it all rides Krug’s warbling vocals, keeping the
whole mess together.

 

Sunset Rubdown continues to deviate from rock and roll
conventions with every new album. Whether Dragonslayer is softly exploring a new melody or unleashing guitar chords in an aggressive
and challenging manner, it’s doing something in a way that you haven’t quite
heard before. In other words, Spencer Krug continues to keep indie rock
interesting.

 

Standout Tracks: “Idiot
Heart,” “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)” JONAH FLICKER