In her new memoir the erstwhile Sonic Youth bassist does dish on the band and her ex-husband’s infidelity, but it’s her questions about and observations on art and life that ultimately give the book its power.
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
Kim Gordon’s performance as a mean girl has been finely-tuned, though underneath the rock ‘n’ roll attitude, she’d like you to know there’s a person behind the mask, a woman who cries and bleeds like the rest of us, who still wonders whether she’s doing all she can and if that’s all there is to art, to life, and to love.
Every life has its cross or crosses, and Gordon, it seems has had her share, though it’s possible we would never have gotten to know a more personal side of Sonic Youth’s co-founder were it not for the very public rupture of her marriage to Thurston Moore and subsequent end to their beloved band. Were it not for the break-ups, perhaps there would be no reason to divulge the inner-workings of their relationship, nor any call to examine the childhood and formative experiences that made Gordon the artist she is; no forum to unpack her creative process, nor a new lens through which to view band life in print. It would be our loss; though instead, Gordon’s losses become the source of the proverbial gift in the delivery of Girl In A Band, A Memoir (Dey Street Books), a fine and concise history of what it’s meant to be a white female artist in the late 20th and early 21st Century, against a backdrop of success, disappointment, betrayal, and the predictable mid-life rebirth.
While Gordon had thought she’d found a suitable creative and romantic partner in Moore, someone with whom she could share a loft, a child and a life with, their time together, while hardly idle, doesn’t exactly read as idyllic. Nevertheless she persisted, even after the family took up residence outside New York City and Moore’s discontent became palpable. In her sometimes unkind descriptions of people, particularly the self-obsessed narcissists with whom she has an extreme allergy, Gordon takes the opportunity to dig into her own narrative and how she developed her sixth sense for b.s. Her insights into her reactions to others’ behavior are not unlike those of anyone over the age of 60, yet the revelations about Moore (and Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, and other portions of the story the pre-press has seized upon) are the least interesting parts of Gordon’s own story. The most valuable and intense threads on offer here for artists, thinkers, and yes, fans are pulled from Gordon’s basic questions of nature and nurture. Do those who create choose their medium and style of expression, or does it choose them? Do early circumstances create a need to make art, and if so or if not, what would the art be like, were it not for these environments? Would it be more or less than what it is? And so on. (Below: Gordon and family, in happier times)
Written in a conversational style, the pages flash by so readily, it would be easy not to notice that Gordon is performing a hat trick: Transcending blood and guts band memoir conventions and childhood trauma tropes, she takes us on a discovery of what it was like to live her creative life. She telegraphs feelings of what it took to perform and be perceived as a serious artist on one hand, while being dismissed in other quarters, in light of California girl looks and the company she kept (men who by virtue of their privilege and charisma overshadowed her publicly, though privately encouraged her).
With a deftness and a certain humility, Gordon is able to acknowledge her own talents and privilege—she was no one’s victim—but it’s the unanswerables that keep surfacing: If she were another kind of person, would she have become a different kind of artist? While there is no doubt Gordon has her friends and foes (and is careful to list as many by name as she can muster), as a California artist in New York, it was always going to be a long way to the top. Taking it upon herself to embrace and invert the pyramid, she used the Cali stuff as grist for the creation of her own myths and ultimately got there, playing beside legends.
Of a (mostly) California childhood, with seasons in Hawaii and Hong Kong, life with the Gordons is remembered by their daughter as at once magical and fraught with challenges. As a girl caught between stylish and brilliant parents who kept a distance, a brother who was a role model and an antagonist (he would ultimately be institutionalized for his troubles), and her own yearnings to become an artist, she’s alternately inspired by her dad’s jazz records, the natural environment and the weird California scenes unfolding around her. Exposed to all varieties of West Coast experience, through the years Sonic Youth has taken heat for glamorizing the state’s darker myths. “Nothing is farther from the truth,” she writes, in particular of a common misperception of the song “Death Valley 69.” In this way and more, Girl In Band serves as an antidote to more New York-centered stories wherein the awkward child becomes a rock ‘n’ roll icon (Just Kids by Smith, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell), aided by a buzzing city and a coterie of friends.
The Golden State is always with Gordon, informing just about every note she plays, every canvas she paints, and every fashion statement she makes. Recalling with fondness dinners and evenings in Malibu with family friends, “If you were spending the night in their guest room, just below the high tide mark, you could hear the waves fiercely crashing underneath the house, true white noise that sloshed you to sleep.” And while she’s casual about her contribution, Gordon is a pioneer, in a class with Smith and Yoko Ono as a multi-disciplinary artist of groundbreaking stature. I have deep admiration for her band’s impeccable Daydream Nation and Goo and the way they could stretch live, though of less interest to me are her side projects and especially her expositions on fashion here: I come by point-of-view honestly, based on a bad experience in a New York ladies room years ago. Gordon and a friend called out my apparel as “So last year,” and while it was alarming and hurtful to me as I stood by washing my hands, head sinking lower and lower into the basin as they mocked me in the mirror, their fashion dictates got me to thinking about the tyranny of fashion and helped me give it up forever.
“Back then, and even now, I wonder: Am I ’empowered’? If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a ‘strong woman’?” writes Gordon. “Sometimes another voice enters my head, shooting these thoughts aside. This one tells me that the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone.” I know what she means in passages like this and others sprinkled throughout Girl In Band. When she writes of the exhaustion of her job at mid-life, juggling it with carpools and the care of aging parents on another coast, compounded by her family’s complicated history of mental illness and abuse, she joins a very small chorus of rockers who’ve dared to touch that mess. Yet even when opening up and lifting the veil, Gordon keeps the tension burning and never lets us see her sweat. Delivered with a whole lot more soul and generosity than her recorded, performed, or painted works, Girl in Band is a tasteful, never tawdry tell-all that’s ultimately another dimension of Gordon’s art—her life, and her love.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Shaman’s Blues, the Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors
A fortuitous visit to a Swiss guitar shop, a fruitful trip to Tangiers, a remarkable new album for the fretboard wizard—life is sweet, eh?
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Sir Richard Bishop has a better life than you. Exhibit A, last year he was wandering around the back streets of Geneva, Switzerland and sauntered into a guitar shop. Upon his asking for a small, travel-sized guitar, the salesman eventually pulled out a beautiful antique guitar, made somewhere around 1890, that produced so lovely a tone that Bishop sat for half an hour playing before asking how much it cost.
It cost too much. He left. He came back. He left again. He returned and bought the beautiful little guitar and took it with him to Tangiers. (See, better than your life, right?)
There, in Tangiers, he played a gig and stayed for a week, additionally recording a collection of songs in a rooftop room lined with ancient tiles, all alone with the new guitar, dipping into a flamenco, Arabic music, blues, raga and folk, wherever the night air blew him. The sound of the guitar, the sound of the room, the sound of Bishop himself freed from all outside influences and pressures, is simply phenomenal.
Sir Richard Bishop has made many wonderful guitar records, but his new Tangiers Sessions, just released by Drag City, is possibly the most limpidly beautiful of all.
“Frontier,” the opener, has a languid flamenco feel, its sudden flourishes and rapid-fire fills punctuating rounded, resonant melodic lines. The sharpness of finger on string is just audible in the high notes, the low ones spread in viscous pools of sensation. There are baroque, intricate twists and turns in the melody, and a bit of spaghetti Western swagger near the end. “International Zone” feels more influenced by its surroundings, with a low-pitched, percussive rush powering its Arab-flavored urgency. Strong rhythms imply dance in this one. Bishop’s fingers patter out a cadence on strings and guitar body that is very like a drum beat.
“Safe House,” too, is wonderfully propulsive and fiery, its notes coming faster, shorter and drier, arriving in swarms and pulling up short in clamped silence at the end of melodic phrases. “Hadija” pulls back into melancholic meditation, a clear liquid interval where the warmth of the air seems to surround and reflect the notes. “Let It Come Down,” later, eases into serenity, the most purely folk-centric of the bunch, with line-finishing tones that hang in the air for sunny eternities.
You almost can’t grudge Bishop for his globe-hopping, 9-5 shirking, guitar-buying existence when it produces music as wonderful as this. Even when it snows two feet and you spend the whole day digging out so you can work your lousy job, and you hate him all over again, you put the record on, and all is forgiven.
After years of struggle, the North Carolina band of overachievers finally taste success. “But we’re a 100 percent independent band,” notes frontman BJ Barham with pride. “I’m not a rich guy, but I’m a pretty happy dude.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
For all intents and purposes, American Aquarium seemed certain to fail. Despite four studio albums, an EP and a live disc in just six years, the endless traveling, countless late-night dives, ruined romances, meaningless one night stands, booze, drugs and an inability to rise above their impoverished existence all combined to convince the band they ought to consider ending it all. Nevertheless, they decided to take one last shot to see what might pan out.
The result was 2012’s Burn, Flicker, Die, an album whose ominous title seemed to sum up their sad state of affairs up until that point. Enlisting producer Jason Isbell, the Raleigh, North Carolina, six piece — singer/songwriter/guitarist BJ Barham, bassist Bill Corbin, guitarist Ryan Johnson, drummer Kevin McClain, pedal steel player Whit Wright, and guitarist Colin DiMeo — finally struck pay dirt, offering up an album that not only garnered critical kudos, but raised enough awareness to give them the needed impetus to carry on.
American Aquarium had looked disaster in the eye, and emerged that much better for it.
Wolves, the band’s new outing, finds them taking a victory lap of sorts. Shorn of the hollow-eyed ballads and despondent dictates that characterized previous efforts, it finds them celebrating a new sense of stability that keeps them out on the road — they log approximately 300 dates a year according to Barham — and feeling secure at home once they return.
We recently spoke to Barham in order to catch us up on American Aquarium’s current state of affairs.
BLURT: Some of the lyrics you were writing early on seemed pretty despondent at the time. Did people come up to you and try to offer encouragement?
BARHAM: Being on the road as much as we are led to a lot of broken relationships. We screwed up a lot of things that may or may not have been around a little bit longer if we had actually been around more. When I was 25 and 26, singing these songs on the road, people would come up to me and say, there’s no reason why that much shit should have to happen to someone in 25 or 26 years. (chuckles)
Did the band share your sentiments?
When I bring a song to the band, the boys can usually pinpoint a verse or two that sums up exactly what I’m talking about. I’d be candy coating it if I didn’t say it like it is. When you’re doing something strictly for the love of the art, it doesn’t pay the bills or help credit. You rob Peter to pay Paul and you’re always in limbo when it comes to making the van payment this month, or paying the insurance, or paying the guy that’s loaned us $500. We were really hard up until the last record.
That struggle to survive seemed to be an overarching theme in your earlier albums. Troubled times.
Oh, for sure. I’m definitely an autobiographical writer. Every song I write is about me, or someone close to me, or some experience I’ve lived through. The good — or maybe the bad — thing is, I’m such a chronological writer. Every record tells you what I’ve been doing the last year or two since the last record from me. I kind of write about what the current state of affairs in my life is. Sometimes that gets old for people, because for eight years, I wrote about what it was like to be in a struggling band, trying to make ends meet, the vices of the road, one night stands. For a long time I was sleeping on floors, living well below the poverty line, but doing it all for the love of making music. The fifteen or twenty people who would come out to see us making music is what kept us going. We felt we had something, and if twenty people turned out, maybe we could get another twenty people, and they could turn another twenty people on to it as well.
It says in your bio you were living in a storage unit for a while. That sounds really horrible.
I lived in a storage unit for about three years. But I was on the road about 300 days a year, so I was only in the storage unit about 60 days. There was a gas station down the road where I could use the bathroom facilities and I had friends that let me stop in and shower. I had a group of ten to fifteen friends who I could rotate between. Every fifteen days or so, I’d stop in to clean up. I could usually get a shower a day, and only bother my friends like twice a month or so. Those were the times that made me who I am today. They made me appreciate having an apartment… a wife… some stability.
Things are different now?
A lot of things have changed since those days. I’m sober, I’m married. A lot of things are going really, really well for me and the band. It’s nice to look back and see how far we’ve come. I wouldn’t change what we went through for anything. I never would have gotten here if none of that stuff had happened to me. I wouldn’t be able to appreciate what I have now.
What’s the vibe like in the band now?
We still get excited every time we walk out on stage. We’re not jaded. We’re not like some buzz band that made it big with their first EP and have never had to experience the lows. All we’ve had is lows, so it’s nice to be finally enjoying the highs. It’s nice to see something we’ve been working on almost a decade finally coming to fruition. We can finally make a living doing this. And not just a musician’s living. Everyone has an apartment. Everyone has an address. It’s a huge thing. No one has to work a day job. We can do our art and make a living doing it.
It’s a really rewarding thing. It’s been really hard work, but the ethic of this band has been if we’re ever going to get anything, we’re going to have to work our asses off for it. Hence the 300 gigs a year. Hence giving up everything except for the instruments we have to make our music with. We’re still just a very small little blip, but it’s our blip. It’s our little bit of success. Every time you reach a new rung on the ladder, you appreciate the rung you’re on. You don’t have to count the millions of rungs ahead of you.
Your last album, Burn, Flicker, Die, seemed to arrive at a critical juncture. It could have been your swan song?
We all talked about that at the time. We faced the possibility that maybe we were finished. We gave it our best shot and we worked hard and we did everything we possibly could. But maybe at the end of the day, this wasn’t what we were supposed to do. We were ready to live with it. So when it came to that record, we wanted to put everything we had into it. Desperation yields some pretty cool results sometimes. That’s exactly what Burn, Flicker, Die is. It’s these talented dudes who were a month away from watching their entire life’s dream completely shatter. If everyone ever came down the road and asked whatever happened to this band, we wanted to be able to hand them this record and say, this is what happened to them. This is the story. This one record will give you every reason why we did what we did. And why it led to the drinking, the broken relationships, the always wanting more out of life. We summed it up in eleven songs.
So if that album hadn’t garnered the critical acclaim that it did, what would you personally have done? Would you have given up your music career? Formed another band?
I definitely wouldn’t have the band I have today. Me and the boys had been together six years. We were all going to go our separate ways. But I’m too stubborn of an asshole to give up completely. I’d be playing open mic nights if I had to. Writing songs is cathartic for me. Writing songs is the way I put up with a lot of the nonsense that I had to deal with over the years. So I’d be doing it on some level. Before I started doing music, I was a really shitty waiter, so I’d probably be a marginally better waiter, or a bartender, or that annoying friend who’s over 30 and still inviting his friend to all his open mic shows. I would be that guy. I’d like to say I could walk away from music, but it’s got a hold on me.
On the other hand, did the success of the last album put pressure on you when it came to working on a worthy follow-up? You certainly set a high bar.
Of course. But it’s a good intimidation, and it’s a good challenge. Burn, Flicker, Die did set the bar. So when we set about doing Wolves, we knew we had to do another good record. At one point we said, maybe we should just not do another record. Maybe we should just leave it with Burn, Flicker, Die and maybe that would have been fine. Maybe we should just walk away from it. However, when I brought the songs for Wolves to the table, we knew we had a completely different monster. Wolves is a progression, a step in a completely new direction. You can listen to this record, and you can listen to Burn, Flicker, Die, and you’ll realize this is a band that’s growing musically, sonically, lyrically.
So what do you see as being different?
The songs aren’t as depressing as the last record. (chuckles) It shows a different perspective. You’re talking to a guy who is sober and in love. Wolves is about a band finding its identity. This is a band that’s saying, yeah, we’re never going to be this huge monolithic band, but you know what? It’s cool. We’re okay with that. We sell out all of the club shows we play and we have at least 200 or 300 people willing to come out each night to sing these songs with us. And that’s our success. So we don’t have to play the amphitheaters and the theaters and headlining festivals. We’re able to make a living doing what we love doing, and if that’s as big as it ever gets, that’s awesome. We’re content with that.
That’s what Wolves is about. It’s a record that says, you know, we may not be the biggest, and the strongest, and the best, but we’re happy with who we are. We’re accepting the fact that we were fuck-ups for quite some time, but we’re lovable fuck-ups at this point.
It sounds like you’re pretty happy with this record.
Wolves represents a huge growth, a huge collaboration for this band. Musically, it pushes us into a different direction. After being a really good bar band, sonically, we’re taking some chances. We’re doing a lot more atmospheric stuff. We’re letting the songs breathe. It’s got a lot less solos and a lot more emphasis on melody. We couldn’t be prouder of this album. There’s not one thing I don’t like about it. There’s not one thing I wish I could change about it.
What funding method did you use?
We used Kickstarter for Burn, Flicker Die and Pledge Music for the new one. In the first five days, our fans funded it 100 percent. In the remaining 25 days, they funded it 200 percent. This is the first record where we were able to hire a proper publicist, and a proper radio guy, and a proper everything. It’s nice to be able to see how it’s supposed to be done… and to afford it as well. Our fans basically gave us a bigger budget for this record than any major label would have given us. A major label would want to own our songs. We still own every one of our songs. We’re a 100 percent independent band who have an enormous fan base and we own all eight of our records. We control every aspect of our operation. It’s a neat thing to look back ten years and be able to say we own everything we’ve ever done, and nobody else owns a piece of it. We own the rights to every song. It’s a neat feeling.
It could have turned out differently.
At the end of the day, I feel like we did it right. We didn’t cut corners. We didn’t take the easy way out. We didn’t sign to Atlantic Records and have them tell us how to make a record. We made a lot of mistakes along the way, but it led us to this point now where I think we all know what we want to happen. We like being an example of how hard work can pay off. If you work your ass off on something and believe in what you’re doing, you can be successful. We’re living proof of that.
The band has been amazingly prolific in the last eight years.
For the first five years, if we took any time off the road, it was to go into the studio and make another record. I wrote a lot of songs about touring and being on the road, but that’s what we know. I’m not going to write a candy coated love song because for a long time I didn’t know what that was. I did know about trying to closing a bar down. I did know about talking to a pretty girl in a club at 3 a.m. because I only had a floor to sleep on and so maybe I could go home with her. I knew about that kind of stuff so that’s what I wrote about.
Not to fan the flames, but do the other guys in the band ever express an interest in contributing to the songwriting?
I’ve written every song American Aquarium has ever recorded, and the boys have trusted me with that since day one. They tell me, “We wouldn’t be here if not for your songs.” And I trust them. I don’t tell them what to play. I don’t tell them what the drums should sound like. The songwriting process is me offering three chord folk songs to the band and then together putting skin and muscle on top of those chords. I trust them in that aspect as much as they trust me to write the song. We’ve gotten really good at that collaborative process. Nobody else wants to sing and nobody else wants to write. This band was built around the fact that it would have a really good songwriter and would also be a really great live band. Just like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We wanted to sing about common themes with a kick-ass live band behind it. I’d put us up against anyone.
Both those examples you mention also found the leader going out and doing solo albums. Can you foresee that possibility for yourself?
I’m not saying that’s out of the realm of possibility. If I write a record and the songs would be better if they came from me, then yes, I would consider it. The boys know that. I’ve toyed with that for a long time. I’ve had a stash of songs pulled off to the side in case I ever decide to do anything. But right now, my focus is 100 percent on the band. These are my best friends, and this is what we do. We’re in our best element when we’re onstage and we feed off each other. There’s an energy that those boys put out that we all soak up. We don’t have to tell each other what we’re thinking. It’s a look. It’s a nod. I’ve played well over a thousand shows with these guys, and that’s just in the last four years alone. (chuckles). There’s an unsaid trust there. They’ve never said that a song wasn’t good.
That’s quite an accomplishment.
There have been a long of songs that I’ve written that didn’t make the cut because I chopped it off before I gave it to them. So every time I present something to them, they now it’s going to be good quality. Then we talk about what direction we want it to go, and if that doesn’t work, we take it in another direction. If that doesn’t work, we go back to the first direction. It’s a true definition of what collaboration should be. It’s all about, let’s make the best thing we can make. We don’t argue. We don’t fight. It’s a family. It’s kind of weird how close we are. We eat dinner together every night. We still sit down together and laugh at each other. We’re not bitter. We’re not mad. Some bands can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. We know how to piss each other off, but we try to avoid that. We focus on the positives, what everybody brings to the table instead of what they’re not. It’s a great way to work.
You seem very content.
I have the best job in the world. I get to see the country and see the world with my best friends, and play music for the people. Then I get to come home to a great place, which I consider one of the best cities in the country. I have a wife. I have a dog. I have two cats. I have an apartment. I’m the happiest guy in the world.
Not many people can say that…
That’s the American dream right there. Being happy. I’m not a rich guy, but I make enough to eat and to have a roof over my head. And occasionally, me and my gal get to go to a movie. I’m a pretty happy dude.
The years 1967 and 1968 brought more than just the winds of change for the British singer—as illustrated on a pair of key new reissues, it was also a time for rearranging styles, priorities, and minds. Pictured above are Burdon and his new crop of Animals at the start of the journey; at the bottom of the page, the same men after taking more than a few musical trips.
BY FRED MILLS
It’s no secret that during the Sixties, LSD rearranged many a musician’s perspective—sonically, aesthetically, culturally, politically; even literally, for some artists, sadly, took trips from which they never returned. Eric Burdon, frontman for British Invasion hitmakers The Animals, even let it shift him geographically, having found “enlightenment” circa 1966 and, with his band splintering in the wake of extreme mismanagement and infighting, decided to put together a fresh ensemble, eventually relocating to California. At the time it may have seemed folly, given that the group probably could’ve continued to reap commercial rewards on the back of such mega-smashes as “The House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” but at that point the lineup was already in flux (keyboardist Alan Price, a core member, had left a year prior). And Burdon himself was plotting a solo album (Eric Is Here), and as suggested above, and the seeds of transition had been planted.
Eric Is Here spawned a modest hit, “Help Me Girl,” although since the album was billed as “Eric Burdon & The Animals” the general public was probably unware that the, er, “winds of change” were blowing for the singer. Indeed, the fresh group, sometimes referred to as Eric Burdon & the New Animals, commenced operations in December of ’66 and went on to record the album Winds of Change the following March (the same month Eric Is Here was released) for the MGM label under the tutelage of house producer Tom Wilson, who also worked with the Velvet Underground.
Burdon published a manifesto on the front sleeve of Winds of Change, one which might also be characterized as a call to arms (or even a chemically-inspired confession):
“I love you all and want you to gain something from these new sounds as I gain from listening to my saints in past years. If you feel alone and confused and unhappy discontented, just know that I (and there are many like me) love you, and maybe you’ll know why I am happy contented and un-confused. The games I play are mostly games of children (not all) happy games, games of love, games of mystery, games of wonder…”
Games indeed. The album was released in September 1967, by which time Burdon was living in the States and had had his mind additionally blown by the Monterey Pop Festival that summer (more on that later). The WoC lineup featured Burdon, bassist Danny McCulloch, drummer Barry Jenkins, Vic Briggs on guitar and piano, and future Family member John Weider on guitar and violin; the record was dedicated to a host of fellow musicians (among them, original Animals Price, Hilton Valentine and Chas Chandler, along with Mick Jagger and George Harrison) and cultural notables (Ho Chi Minh, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Ray Charles, Roland Kirk, etc.), which gives you a sense of the way in which Burdon was trying to expand his personal parameters beyond merely hard-rocking R&B.
“Expand parameters” is exactly what Winds of Change did. Right from the get-go, in fact: the opening title track’s a mélange of droning sitar, Weider’s eerie peals of violin, a hypnotic, almost dub-like bassline and whooshing “wind” sound effects all summoning mental impressions of exotic newness as Burdon’s recited vocals, double-tracked and overlapping, tick off a roster of musical icons who’d inspired the singer. A couple of songs later we’re in the middle of a psychedelic cover of “Paint It Black” that only intermittently recalls the Stones original, followed by yet another recitation, this one a cheery little number titled “The Black Plague.” Also included is a kind of answer song to Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” called “Yes I Am Experienced”; a pair of more-or-less “hits” from the album, the folk-rocking “San Franciscan Nights” and baroque popster “Good Times”; yet another spoken word piece, the proto-rap “Man-Woman”; and closing track “It’s All Meat” which could pass for a vintage Nuggets gem (or a long-lost B-side from the later punk era, take your pick).
Winds of Change is, quite frankly, the most bizarre entry in Eric Burdon’s entire catalog. Yes, it’s “psychedelic” as fug, and with its multiple nods in the direction of the Beats and their ilk, it’s also fuggin’ literary. But it also lacks focus and makes for an extremely difficult listen, the kind of record one respects but doesn’t necessarily pull down off the shelf to entertain the guests at a dinner party. Just the same, it’s still a meaningful piece of the Burdon puzzle, a transitional recording of note, and even a reasonable period-piece for students of the hippie era (keyword: acid). The Sundazed label has dutifully reissued it in its original monophonic glory, additionally reproducing the handsome gatefold sleeve. So while not “essential” in the usual musical sense, WoC remains a key artifact.
Take all that and multiply by a factor of at least “10” for 1968’s The Twain Shall Meet which, like WoC, was helmed by producer Tom Wilson. Sundazed goes stereophonic for this one, while Burdon & Co. go fully widescreen. Recorded in December of ’67, the Monterey Pop Festival afterglow still in full effect for Burdon, it’s got everything its predecessor had—the celebration and the moodiness, the psychedelia and the folk-rock, the recitations and the exhortations, the politics and the personalities—and it is also everything its predecessor was not, namely, it’s focused and it’s powerful.
From the rocking, almost boogie-esque “Closer to the Truth,” which hews close to vintage Animals electric R&B; to the baroque, orchestrally-inclined mini-symphony “Orange and Red Beams”; to the bagpipes, sitar and violin-fueled “All Is One” (itself a credible rock symphony with not-untoward prog ambitions); to the soaring, psychedelic anthem “Sky Pilot,” a masterpiece of atmosphere, composition and arrangement; The Twain Shall Meet succeeds on multiple levels. The latter track, in fact, ranks among the greatest anti-war songs ever, telling the tale of a Vietnam War chaplain counseling his charges prior to their departures into battle where death surely awaits many of them. It’s a complex number comprising three neo-operatic movements (read a good Wikipedia breakdown HERE), one of which contains a remarkably moving segment for strings and flute that, to this day, can bring tears to my eyes for the strong emotions it summons. Controversial in its time here in America, the 7 ½-minute tune nevertheless became a staple of the underground FM airwaves and even enjoyed a bit of notoriety as a Top 20 single, with the 7” uncharacteristically (for US record labels at least) split into a “Part 1” and “Part 2” for the “A” and “B” sides rather than getting edited down into a more deejay-friendly 3-minute 45.
Speaking of singles, we have album opening track, “Monterey.” Also hitting the Top 20 in America, this literal and musical chronical of the iconic rock festival remains as emblematic of the era as “California Dreaming” or “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” I’d even rate it higher than CSN&Y’s signature version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” if we’re talking “emblematic,” given how it not only posterboards many of the Monterey Pop fest’s iconic performers (Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Hugh Masekela…) and at least one equally iconic attendee (the Stones’ Brian Jones, or, in Burdon’s lyrics, “His Majesty, Prince Jones”) but also recreates, sonically, aspects of the actual performances, from Shankar’s sitar twang to Hendrix’s searing leads to Masekela’s jabbing trumpet. “I think that maybe I’m dreaming,” Burdon confesses, his mind summarily rearranged, and as much out of exhilaration as exhaustion, quoting the Byrds while summarizing the entire hippie ethos of the time.
Of which the same might be said of The Twain Shall Meet. The album only briefly made it into the Top 100 Albums chart, buoyed by “Monterey” and “Sky Pilot,” but ultimately garnering only middling reviews from the critics and soon disappearing from view. Don’t let it be overlooked a second time—it’s an understated masterpiece that deserves a closer look. Kudos to Sundazed for making that possible.
The North African band’s first two albums finally see a proper Stateside release on high-end vinyl. They never sounded better.
BY CARL HANNI
I hail from Tucson, ground zero for an amorphous, dubiously extant genre known as ‘desert rock.’ But everyone with any global musical vision knows by now that the true desert rock is from North Africa and the most famous of all deserts, the Sahara, and that Tinariwen is one of the acts that first clued in the rest of the planet that something new was happening musically in that volatile part of the world.
Formed in the 1980s in Libyan camps for Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek) refugees from Mali, the millennium+ old desert nomads laid down their weapons for guitars and drums and birthed a musical revolution that has since become an essential stop on the global musical tour for adventurous armchair travelers. They also helped found the now famous Festival in the Desert, held every year (security allowing) in the desert in northern Mali. And like most revolutions, they have encountered resistance and persecution from various powers-that-be; it’s an on-going struggle, with many twists and turns, that will most likely keep playing itself out indefinitely.
The group’s most recent albums are the acclaimed Tassili, from 2011, and last year’s Emmaar, both released on the Anti- label. Now, Modern Classics Recordings and Light In The Attic have done us all a huge service by releasing remastered versions of their first two CD releases (following several cassette-only releases) on high-end vinyl, The Radio Tisdas Sessions from 2001 and Amassakoul (originally titled World Village) from 2004. This is the first time either of these stupendous records have been released on LP, and Light In The Attic stepped up to the task with obvious relish: they feature the best album covers money can buy, fat, juicy vinyl, tremendous graphics and liner notes and superb remastering. It’s literally impossible to see how they could have done anything better.
The Radio Tisdas Sessions, recorded in the radio station of the same name in Kidal, Mali, features ten tracks of deeply hypnotic, mid-to-down tempo, guitar, percussion and chant driven music that beautifully manifests Tinariwen’s less-is-more approach. Led by the quietly charismatic front man and principal songwriter Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen have a collective approach that features four of the five guitar player/vocalists stepping up to take the lead at some point, fleshed out by a percussionist and 3 female back up vocalists. Produced by Jah Wobble and Sinead O’Conner guitar player Justin Adams and ‘French global troubadour band Lo’Jo,’ The Radio Tisdas Sessions was a game changing introduction to Tinariwen and a landmark, essential release for anyone interested in music of the world.
Their second international release, Amassakoul, was a huge step forward in every way. Featuring several new members, and more prominent female participation, the eleven tracks on Amassakoul are more intricate, more diverse and wider ranging, while retaining the essential, hypnotic approach of the previous record. The production really steps up, introducing all sorts of new flavors and textures, with a harder, more rock edge. Most tracks feature multiple, intertwined guitar parts, bass, percussion and lead and chorus vocals, with flute, handclaps and native instruments like the derbouka and calebass added in. Close your eyes and you could hear the hypno-drone of Junior Kimbrough’s hill country blues on any number of songs; others like “Aldhechen Manin” and “Chet Boghassa” add in a funky edge to the drone, while “Arawan” sounds like a long lost desert psychedelic template.
While it’s impossible to separate the music of Tinariwen and several other like minded regional acts from the complex, continuously evolving politics of the region that they come from, none of that matters in any tangible way when swept way in music as manifestly profound and transformative as this. I saw Tinarawin play a couple of mesmerizing shows in the last few years that were ecstatic, spirit enhancing collective experiences that also sort of made much other music seem irrelevant and shallow. This is not entertainment in the conventional sense; it’s a tap into the well of universal aural energy that opens portals into…well, that’s up to you.
File under “rock with guitars.” LOTS of guitars. Oh, and lots of colored wax, to boot. Vinyl? Yeah, we’ve had a few… Above: Hulaboy
BY TIM HINELY
You did it…you people dared me. You never thought I’d turn it up to 11, did you (on the 10th singles column, no less)? Every other column I’d reviewed 10 singles and this time I upped it to 11. And then the editor upped it even more with a couple of picks of his own. You people know better than to dare me. (Or us.) If you say I can’t or won’t do it, trust me, I will. This column is for every one of you (and you all owe me dinner, by the way).
I loved this band’s full-length (former members of Baby Grand, woot woot!) and now here’s two more songs to scratch that pop itch that rarely gets scratched these days. “Weekend” is damn near perfect, all cooing and sighing while “Over You” adds a little bit more grit to the proceedings, but not too much. Buy, Buy BUY.
Just when you think that Stew and Jen have retired Boyracer for good they come roaring back with 4 more songs that were recorded in locales such as Arizona, Sweden and the UK. This 7” starts off with a song called “Pete Shelley” (you can never go wrong with that name) and ends with the Jen-written “Jump” (not a Van Halen cover, you freaks) and two more cuts that are worthy of your time. Don’t pull a hamstring listening.
I’m not trying to trump any of Dr. Hinely’s “8” and “9” star ratings by deploying an unheard-of “10” here—the record’s genuinely that awesome. It’s everything a classic single should be: blazingly powerful and straight to the point, boasting irresistible hooks and both sides clocking in at under 2 ½ minutes. Indeed, the legendary Australian skronk/blues trio is unleashing its first new studio material in two decades, having gotten back together in 2012 to promote their Aberrant Years retrospective. With a slide-guit-powered A-side that is pure f-time blooze-punk (like they walked out the door and then walked right back), and a 1-chord locomotive raveup for the B-side, the single’s a no-brainer to be on year-end best-of lists. And it’s only friggin’ February! Time for an album, lads. Download code included. —Fred Mills
Apparently this Australian quartet’s first album (they have three) was recorded in one day, and released three days later in a vomit bag (and you thought you were punk rawk). I hadn’t heard a note of their music but the four songs are like a punch in the face that you keep asking for. My pick to click is the first tune, ‘St. Vincent’s” but all four are righteous. File under: rock with guitars. Lots of guitars.
“Skinheads Home for Christmas” b/w “Yesterdays Hero” (8)
(Future Perfect Records)
This seems to be that perfect melding of The Ramones, Skrewdriver (minus the racist lyrics), Sham, 69 and the Bay City Rollers. Gravelly-voiced doesn’t even being to describe the singer while the guitars are whispering sweet nothings in my ears. Both songs are ace. Yeah, ace so the red vinyl isn’t the only reason to get this….DAMMIT, IT’S GOOD.
Back before Stew Boyracer became a husband, dad and a ranch hand he used to record every waking second (no, really). In addition to Boyracer he had another project going, Hulaboy (with his pal Eric from the band Hula Hoop), that had some singles and comp tracks. Good to see he’s revived that band with three more tunes. “Kids Under Stars” is roaring and ferocious while the two songs on the flip were slower, darker and had some cool keyboards. Purrrrrfect purple vinyl. (photo is at the top of the page)
Had not heard of the label before but with this release and others, seems like it’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Anywho, these two songs would be requested over and over again if this trio played your next frat party. Or house party. Or whatever. Vocalist/bassist Dave makes all the girls swoon (but drummer Jeremy gets ’em in the door in the first place). I/we need a full-length from this band. Terrific stuff and yes, boo boo blue vinyl.
When you look like these guys do and hang out in graveyards you’re inevitably going to get Black Sabbath comparisons. These guys do sound a little like Ozzy’s old band, being played at 45, that is. “Hit and Run” is what these guys do for a living so you’d better stay on the sidewalk while the flipside, “45 Minutes”, kicks it up a notch. And forget Sabbath, this is more Dead Boys/Electric Frankenstein kinda rawk. Red vinyl.
Quitty & the Don’ts
“Running out of Time” b/w “(She’s Gonna) Break Your Heart” (8)
I dunno a dern thing about this band but I like the name and after playing it I wanna hear more. Two near-perfect slices of pure ‘60s garage pop from the Hidden Volume label (see Improbables review above) complete with tambourine and melodies to die for. Think Dave Clark 5 here people and for those of us who are colored-vinyl freaks the red on here looked righteous. These guys need to record again and again.
Given that MM has delayed their new Strangers to Ourselves album again—as of this writing it was slated for March 17—this single will have to do for hungry fans. It’s technically a freebie that indie record stores received to use as giveaways for customers who purchased the full length (or, now, who preorder it). But it’s probably easy to find for sale, and the two tracks, along with teaser tune “The Best Room,” are also already available at iTunes. Whattaya get? A weird kind of polka-fueled punk rock ditty on one side, a luminous waltz-time pop nugget on the other, neither of which is exactly essential listening but still hold up to repeated spins. We’ll have to wait for the full album to see if Isaac Brock’s mojo is still intact, though. —Fred Mills
The Safe Distance is Stew (as if this guy wasn’t in enough bands, see Boyracer, Hulaboy and Hard Left on this page) plus Crayola and David. Like the latest Boyracer 7”, record in the US of A, Australia and England (they’re got lots of frequent flyer miles). This is all over the map and reminded me of someone switching between AM radio stations (plus some college radio throw in there, too). Like if “Boris the Spider’ was written by the guy from the Monochrome Set. Rude red vinyl.
This band hails from Baltimore and its members were probably extras on The Wire. Only two songs on this here big-hole, black vinyl 7” but both are winners, that is if you think The Germs “Forming” 7” is one of the greatest pieces of wax ever. I do. Lyrics to “Beat on Beat” go like this, “Eyes together, hands together, heads together beat on beat.” Yeah!
Hard Left/ Bad Daddies (SPLIT)
Hard Left Side- “Stay True’ and “It’s Not You” b/w Bad Daddies side- “War,” “Festering Brine” and “We Never Will” (9)
Hard Left are making an impression and taking a stand. You read my review up above and these two songs, “Stay True” and “It’s Not You” are no different. Join the Hard Left Barmy Army or be lonely forever. Bad Daddies, who I’d never heard of before, crank out three gold-plated nuggets of sped-up punk complete with Poly Styrene-ish vocals and a layer of some of the sweetest fuzz around. This particular blue vinyl looked almost good enough to eat (I’m hungry).
Tim “45 Adapter” Hinely spins backwards when he reviews Australian records, but don’t let that throw you off balance. Check out his most excellent rock mag Dagger at www.daggerzine as well as his 9th installment of The Singles Scene (here at BLURT), or the 8th (here ) or the 7th (here), the 6th (here) and the 5th (here).
Traditional music is not an insect in amber”: the Tarheel newcomer’s debut demonstrates that maxim with exquisite grace.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
It’s an unfair standard, but we expect debut records to sum up, succinctly and completely, the essence of their artists. It’s a false notion. Most first albums, even the best ones, only begin to shade in a picture that will fill out as the musicians move forward, bringing their vision into clearer focus and adding new wrinkles.
The recent self-titled effort from Durham, North Carolina’s Jake Xerxes Fussell is the exception that sustains our lofty expectations. His debut — issued by Paradise of Bachelors, an increasingly eclectic Tar Heel State label excavating the weirder corners of the ongoing folk tradition — is a near perfect travelogue for the journeyed old-time bluesman.
Assembling 10 traditional tunes — imbued with pastoral grandeur by producer and contributing guitarist William Tyler — Fussell imprints his own distinct personality onto songs taught to him by pickers all across the country: The wide-eyed and wistful “Star Girl” came to Fussell by way of Blue Ridge balladeer Bobby McMillon; revered California fingerstyle guitarist Steve Mann turned him onto “Push Boat,” a rollicking blues number that takes on eerie, melancholy hues in Fussell’s hands; the album’s lone instrumental, “Georgia Buck,” was passed on by Precious Bryant, the Georgia blues legend Fussell toured and recorded with before her death two years ago.
“These were really the songs that kept coming back to me,” Fussell says, speaking over the phone from his new N.C. home. Georgia-born, he recently relocated to Durham after almost 10 years in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I probably had a list that was trimmed down to about 15 or so,” he continues. “Ten wound up on the record. And we really only recorded 10. There weren’t any outtakes. These are just the ones that sort of stood up on their own.”
Much of his whittling was guided simply by the quality of the tunes and reactions to his renditions, many of them tested during weekly gigs down in Oxford. But for Fussell, the experiences he encountered learning his songs were equally compelling. He grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where his father, Fred C. Fussell, worked as a folklorist and museum curator. In his formative years, Jake accompanied his father as he visited people who practiced traditional American arts — “old-time basket makers and people who did old hunting traditions and fishing traditions, but also old-time musicians, as well.” These travels sparked his interest, leading him to seek out players like Precious Bryant. He’d go to her house frequently to play and listen, taking her to gigs because she didn’t drive.
The younger Fussell went onto receive his own formal folklore education, earning a master’s in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His contrasting backgrounds — as a roving and voracious picker, and an aspiring scholar — inform his distinct approach.
“On my best days, those things are so complimentary,” Fussell explains. “They work hand in hand. Sometimes they feel like they’re out of sorts and they’re two different worlds, but for the most part, I feel like each one really supports the other. Growing up with that kind of background, I became really interested in songs. Because I knew musicians in a traditional setting, I was always interested in what purpose different songs served. I realize that I am sort of drawn to songs that maybe have a certain purpose … songs that interest me historically in addition to just being interesting songs.”
These are indeed songs with many years behind them. The liner notes for opener “All in Down and Out,” adapted from a 1938 recording by Dave Macon, trace the song’s origins all the way back to 1924. But what’s impressive about Fussell is how convincingly he owns this heavily travelled and clearly back-dated material. Set to the guitarist’s punch-drunk waltz-time picking, his “All in Down and Out” bridges the gap between barebones Pete Seeger ballads and latter-day Bod Dylan brainteasers. “This is the truth, and it certainly exposes/ Wall Street proposition that wasn’t all roses,” Fussell sings, his gravelly croon evoking either sincerity or sarcasm, depending on your perspective. He relishes the irony and feels the pain, singing a song that predates the Depression and skewering the hypocrisy and idiocy that stoked the country’s current recession.
“Just how relevant that song is to living in whatever decade we’re living in now,” William Tyler offers, “it’s just like, don’t get caught with whiskey in your car, going to Atlanta is still considered punishment — it’s just funny. It’s such a relevant song. The material’s really, really interesting, and the way Jake interprets it, you can’t really tell where these songs came from.”
As evocative as Fussell’s renditions already are, his studio collaboration with Tyler adds yet another layer to his merger of past and present. Capturing Jake’s solo personality during a separate session at Dial Back Sound, a Mississippi studio operated by Fat Possum’s Bruce Watson, the two then travelled to Nashville to overdub with help from some Music City veterans: Chris Scruggs, who has worked with Will Oldham and Marty Stuart, contributed steel guitar, bass and fiddle; Brian Kotzur, once a member of Silver Jews, laid down drums; and Hoot Hester, a fiddle ace whose credits range from Bill Monroe to Ray Charles, also took part. Mark Nevers, the Lambchop alum who hosted the Nashville sessions at his Beech House studio, assisted with engineering.
But despite all the talent on deck, it’s Fussell and Tyler’s effortless chemistry that sets the record apart. The two spent a month in Oxford playing and scheming before they began recording, and the way Tyler works his own sparkling and expansive parts around Fussell’s crisp and unassuming progressions perfectly balances old-time bona fides with modern folk-rock elegance.
Fussell’s brisk acoustic picking pounds purposefully down familiar dirt roads during “Raggy Levy,” in which the narrator plans to “build me a stone fence” to keep the world at bay. Beautiful but menacing distortion swells each time he hits the chorus, the encroachment of modern advances that threaten to erase this man’s simple way of life. On “Boat’s up the River,” Fussell’s languid blues licks conjure sorrow, as a man gazes downstream, pinning — “I believe to my soul she’s Alabama-bound.” Tyler’s echoing slide embellishments linger like ghosts, the shadowy recollections this poor soul just can’t shake.
“He didn’t write the songs, but he sort of did in a way,” Tyler says. “I don’t feel like people are really doing that enough with traditional music. Each song had enough of its own universe to where it was like, ‘Well, you can have one here that’s more like a soul song. Here’s one that’s kind of a blues song. Here’s one where it’s really spectral, psychedelic folk-sounding.’”
Fussell concurs: “Traditional music is not an insect in amber. If you mess around with it, I think that’s OK, there’s not really any laws there.”
Despite some critics’ recent assertions, Dylan probably won’t be following Rod Stewart into the back pages of the American Songbook with his new album of standards. And that’s a good thing.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
Good God! After all these years and all those albums, Bob Dylan still retains the power to surprise us and reinvent himself with his music.
When Shadows in the Night was announced last year, it sounded like another of Dylan’s late-career oddities – like his Christmas album or his cameo appearance on Pawn Stars.
Surely he couldn’t be entirely serious about recording an album of moody pop ballads previously sung with finesse by Frank Sinatra? When you think of Dylan, you think of singer-songwriter. You don’t think of “romantic crooner.” Yet songs like “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Stay With Me” (not the Faces’ song) demand crooning.
Making the just-released project (on longtime label Columbia) more challenging, with age (he’s now 73), Dylan’s voice has become more grizzled and harsh. The bluesy country-swing music his band specializes in sometimes seems designed to cover his singing up, at least live in concert.
So the first surprise of Shadows in the Night is how good Dylan’s voice sounds on these 10 tracks. That’s an understatement – there is beauty in his singing. Gentleness. Soul. There is also deliberateness to his enunciation and pacing, which frankly may surprise many. And that voice isn’t auto-tuned – he and his band recorded all the songs live in the studio, many with single takes. There were no overdubs.
It sounds as if he is aiming to sing higher than normal, or at least lighter and more smoothly than he has done on anything since Nashville Skyline.
Yet, unlike that record, there’s nothing affected or artificially stylized about the voice. When he sings the melody, holds his notes or emphasizes phrasing, he just sounds comfortable and relaxed with his choices. But he’s thoroughly engaged.
He doesn’t mumble his way through or growl ominously. As a result, this album is touching and smitten with the dreamy, longing quality of the source material. But its quietude haunts. It’s a bit like watching an old Astaire musical on TCM in the middle of the night. From the guy who sang “Love Sick” and “Not Dark Yet,” that’s quite a feat.
He isn’t perfect at it, obviously. There are times when the pitch wanders and his singing gets a little unsteady. But then, this gives lived-in truth and melancholy reflection to the slower songs, especially those here like “Autumn Leaves” (originally a French song to which Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics and Sinatra recorded in 1956) and “Full Moon and Empty Arms” (recorded by Sinatra in 1945, the same year written by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman) that reflect upon loss or regret.
Too, Dylan is full in on this project – he produced it. He’s convinced that now is the time for his voice turn to these tunes. (He has on special occasion sung a pop standard, such as “I’m in the Mood for Love,” or written in that style, before.) And the “shadows” in the album title have meaning. He’s going where these songs – or at least this kind of sophisticatedly wistful, elegantly written adult pop music – apparently affected him in his youth. He is exploring them as if they were a series of dreams from long ago.
The second big surprise is the instrumental backing. These couldn’t be further from the orchestral arrangements Sinatra favored on his greatest albums from the 1950s, In the Wee Small Hours and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely.
His band – bassist Tony Garnier, guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, percussionist George G. Receli – provide such soft backing it’s almost as if they’re laying down guide tracks. Really, to use another 1950s musical reference, this sounds like it was recorded in Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village” on a very laid-back day. It’s largely left to pedal steel guitarist Donny Herron – who does great work – to provide some color and ornamentation to the arrangements. His gentle interplay with Dylan on “I’m a Fool to Want You” (which dates to 1951 and which Sinatra had a hand in composing with Joel Herron and Jack Wolf) coaxes out some of his best singing.
There is also some minimal sweetening from brass instruments, especially on “That Lucky Old Sun,” which Dylan makes elegiacally spiritual. Sinatra was one of several artists who recorded it in 1949, the year it was written by Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie. While clearly a pop song, “Lucky Old Sun” has since been recorded by enough roots artists to be considered part of the Great Americana Songbook. Dylan’s version adds to that list.
And this brings up the third big surprise of Shadows in the Night. It isn’t really a Sinatra tribute per se (and Dylan isn’t particularly marketing it as such). It’s not even really Dylan going classic pop. Really, it’s closer to a neo-country album, a cross between Willie Nelson’s Stardust and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series. (Both men have recorded “That Lucky Old Sun.”)
If there’s an especially apt contemporary comparison with what Dylan is doing here, it’s the way pub-rocker/New Waver Nick Lowe found contentment and meaning in crafting new ballads and mid-tempo songs that evoked but didn’t mimic 1950s country-pop songs like Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life.”
Given Dylan’s artistic restlessness, as well as the fact the importance of his older material (like The Basement Tapes) is growing, not diminishing, with time, one doubts Shadows in the Night marks a permanent new career track for him. He probably won’t be following Rod Stewart into the back pages of the American Songbook.
He doesn’t seem ready to give up the songwriting or hard-swinging, muscular roots-of-rock music that are his trademarks just yet. But what he has done here is more than a lark. He really loves what he’s singing, and it shows. And he has a lot still to teach us about the joys of music.
Who indeed? Our correspondent/shutterbug J.B. caught the Brooklyn quartet the other night (Jan. 29) at The Earl in Atlanta to try and figure out what the buzz is all about. “THIS is the show you don’t want to miss,” he concludes.
TEXT/PHOTOS BY JOHN BOYDSTON
Another Sold Out show for Parquet Courts, the Brooklyn-based band that continues to razzle, dazzle, and light the world on fire one stage at a time. And they make it look easy, as if they are four guys who don’t particularly care if anyone notices. Fortunately people are paying attention, but without the support of band-sponsored social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram? Their only official web presence is here: https://parquetcourts.wordpress.com/ Who are these guys?
They are transplanted Texans Andrew Savage on vocals and guitar (blonde Strat); Austin Brown also on vocals and guitar (seafoam green strat); Sean Yeaton on bass; and Andrew’s brother Max Savage holding down the considerable fort on drums. I’m glad its not my job to describe what these guys do exactly, but they do it so damn well that it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Great artistry is like that.
A don’t-miss band if they pass your way. Whatever else is going on when they play your town, THIS is the show you don’t want to miss that night, week, or month. They’ve always been a compelling live act, but after several years of touring they are a band in command of their craft, and can astonish on any given night. Let’s hope it’s not their peak, leaving the door open to them actually getting better if that is possible.
Their most recent LPs ‘Content Nausea‘ and ‘Sunbathing Animal’ (both from 2014) and the ever brilliant ‘Light Up Gold’ (2013) are still keeping my turntable busy and revealing a layer of greatness with every spin. And despite their serious on-stage demeanor there’s a lot humor and wit in their music and songs, reflecting their ’nothing matters and what if it did’ approach.
Parquet Courts are wrapping up this leg of club shows with dates in Alabama, Nashville, DC, Philly and NYC. Then off for a tour of New Zealand and back by April for Coachella.
Though lasting only a handful of years, the pop outfit’s legacy and influence endures, as expanded reissues of its two albums strikingly reveal. Above: the band puts its best foot(s) forward in an early promotional shot. Yes, kids, the early ’90s in San Francisco really WERE like that!
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Picture, if you will, a young man entering a Sound Warehouse in the parking lot of a mall in a Houston suburb in 1990. Equally besotted by the top 40 hits of his childhood, the classic rock of his high school years and the Trouser Press Record Guide never far from his bespectacled eyeballs, he’s looking for something new to put in his Volkswagen’s tape deck. Heading to the new release listening tower (always his first stop in that store), he’s drawn to a colorful cassette. A giant naked woman, covered discretely in frosting swirls, reclines on green grass while a quartet of longhairs in utterly ridiculous clothes – mismatched, garish, topped by stupid hats – climb all over her. Plus a silly band name. Naturally, he has to hear the music housed inside such a ludicrous cover.
Hooks wash over his cochlea. Intricate arrangements, carefully produced for maximum clarity. Spectacular vocals, both lead and harmony. And melodies for miles. And miles. A lifelong love affair commences.
The album, of course, is Bellybutton, the debut LP from the much-beloved Jellyfish, originally released in ’90 by the Charisma label. After releasing a handful of posthumous ‘fish records, Omnivore now rises to the challenge of reissuing this seminal record and its even more revered 1993 follow-up Spilt Milk in remastered editions, adding buckets of bonus tracks originally found on the long out of print (and quite collectably expensive) box set Fan Club. Even better are new interviews with the band members, including track-by-track commentary on the main album cuts from keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., guitarist Jason Falkner and the elusive singer/drummer Andy Sturmer that shed light on band favorites, working methods and artistic motivations.
A quarter of a century on, Bellybutton holds up spectacularly well. Though often noted as Beatlesque, the San Fran quartet takes its inspiration from a different generations of pop greats, from Harry Nilsson to Squeeze, from the Zombies to ELO, from Emitt Rhodes to Prefab Sprout – as Falkner notes, the band was more likely to listen to artists inspired by the Fab Four, rather than the Beatles themselves. Thus the songs scan familiar on one listen without any major (or at least obvious) thefts – at no point do we think, “Oh, that sounds just like [song] by [artist].” The record opens with back-to-back-to-back killers, from the aching ballad “The Man I Used to Be” to the tumbling pop gem “That is Why” (probably the band’s best-known tune) and the wry mini-epic “The King is Half-Undressed.” The rest of the songs suffer only by comparison; it’s difficult to think of the bossa nova addiction tale “Bedspring Kiss,” the yearning popster “Baby’s Coming Back” or the desperate bash-and-crash “All I Want is Everything” lacking in any way. Impeccably produced by Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig, crammed with hooks both brash and subtle, loaded with thoughtfully composed melodies given maximum punch by the kind of arrangements that bespeak intricate musical minds, Bellybutton is a classic, power pop or otherwise.
Most of the bonus cuts are live or demo versions of the album tracks, but even those are instructive. The members claim in the liner notes that most of Bellybutton was recorded live in just a couple of weeks, and the extra versions bear out how this would be possible; the live cuts emulate the studio version without lacking any fullness in the arrangements, and the demos sound 90% close to the final versions. This was a band fully prepared for its moment in the studio spotlight. The disks also include a few originals that didn’t make the studio cut, highlighted by the rocking “Mr. Late,” and some choice covers, including the band’s well-known take on Paul McCartney’s “Jet” and a blazing (!) run through the Archies’ (!!) “Sugar and Spice” with a gnarly Falkner solo. Essential.
Three years later, shorn of Falkner and Manning’s bassist brother Chris, Sturmer and Manning returned to the studio with Galuten, Puig, new bass player Tim Smith and session cats Jon Brion and Lyle Workman to make Spilt Milk. Armed with more musical and technical expertise, the band set out to create a set of songs with enough dense arrangements, lush layers and strong melodies to keep listeners in discovery for years, and nearly succeeded. Stuffed with enough instrumentation to reflect a clear Brian Wilson influence but stopping well short of Phil Spectorian Wall of Sound, the tracks emphasize melody and harmony above all else, elevating the songs instead of obscuring them. Applied to the band’s updated sense of songcraft – cf. the biting “The Ghost at Number One” and “Joining a Fan Club,” the bouncy “Bye Bye Bye,” the roaring “All is Forgiven,” the gently smutty “My Best Friend” and the flat-out glorious “New Mistake” (the song Sturmer and Manning consider the band’s quintessential number) – the results are truly magical, the essence of what Jellyfish hoped to accomplish. Frankly, though, a few tunes don’t hold up to the album’s best – though hardly bad songs, the ballads “Glutton of Sympathy” and “Russian Hill” come off as too ephemeral, the straightforward “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” suffers from a pat melody, and the rococo epic “Brighter Day” sounds like the band threw everything against the wall at the end of the session, hoping for something to stick. But even if it’s not cut-for-cut as strong as Bellybutton, Spilt Milk boasts enough extra-strength pop confectionary to make it as indispensable as its predecessor.
This edition comes packed with extras for the discerning ‘fish fan. A full set of album demos, in sequence, shows that, once again, the band knew exactly what it hoped to accomplish once it hit the studio. A few live cuts with post-recording guitarist Eric Dover reaffirm the band’s prowess as a concert act, and the inclusion of its final recording – a lovely cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles” for a tribute album – is a nice touch. That noted, diehards will likely get most excited about the eight demos on disk 1, none of which were re-recorded for the album and only four of which previously appeared on Fan Club. (The other four appeared as B-sides and on the obscure videogame soundtrack Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin’). The George Harrisonesque “I Need Love” (sung by Manning”) reiterates the composers’ capacity for melodic beauty, the goofy “Ignorance is Bliss” almost overdoses on whimsy, the countrified “I Don’t Believe You” (recorded by Ringo Starr) nods to the Monkees, and the glam rocking “Family Tree” bashes harder than anything the band had previously done. Any of these would have been worthy additions to the record, even if it pushed it into double album territory. It should also be noted that two of those demos, “Watchin’ the Rain” and “Worthless Heart,” date back to Sturmer and Manning’s tenure in ‘80s new wave combo Beatnik Beatch.
And that, alas, was it. Fortunately, the craft, imagination and sheer quality of this pair of albums, as well as the bandmembers’ subsequent activities, have led to a wide influence and ensured their legacy remains intact a quarter of a century since their original release.
Following the Spilt Milk tour, Sturmer and Manning’s partnership came to an end, and with it the group. Manning has had by far the most prolific career, touring and recording with Beck, Air and Cheap Trick, among many others; exploring electronic cheekiness in the Moog Cookbook and his remix project Malibu; forming the short-lived but generally excellent bands Imperial Drag (with Dover) and TV Eyes (with Falkner); co-creating the obscure faux-soundtrack oddity Logan’s Sanctuary (with Falkner and his other TV Eyes bandmate Brian Reitzell); and recording a pair of solo albums. Falkner has a mere handful of solo records, but includes the brilliant and highly acclaimed Can You Still Feel?, as well as pre- and post-Jellyfish membership in the Three O’Clock and the Grays and his own session career with Air, Brendan Benson, Eric Matthews, Daniel Johnston, Beck and others (most recently he’s served as Beck’s touring guitarist). Dover went on to front Imperial Drag and Slash’s Snakepit, play guitar for Alice Cooper and form his own project Sextus. Tim Smith has enjoyed a fecund session livelihood. Though the band’s focal point, Sturmer stepped permanently out of the spotlight once Jellyfish was over, writing and producing for Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi (who also covered “Joining a Fan Club”) and various animated television shows, though he has done session work with everyone from Swedish power poppers the Merrymakers to country singer Brady Seals to Christian alt.rock act Switchfoot. Sturmer made a rare lead vocal appearance in 2006 on Alpacas Orgling, the debut (and so far only) LP from singer/songwriter Bleu’s Electric Light Orchestra homage L.E.O.
Below: speaking of homages, watch a live cover from the original Jellyfish lineup….
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