Archive for September, 2012

“Glyphs” by Sic Alps

“Glyphs” is the single from Sic Alps’ self-titled album, which was released this month, but to me it sounds like it could have been a John Lennon song around the time of the White Album or Magical Mystery Tour.  It takes the strings and surreal lyrics of “I Am the Walrus” and the staccato guitar and gloomy vocals of “Glass Onion,” slows down the tempo a bit, and gives the mixture a stop-and-start chug with a healthy dose of guitar distortion.  A choice cut from a very worthwhile album.


For the week of 9/24/2012…

“13” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre

In 1996, the Brian Jonestown Massacre issued three full-length albums, each of which points to a different aspect of the Rolling Stones’ late-’60s oeuvre.  Take It from the Man! expertly mimics the Stones’ mid-’60s style of rhythm-and-blues-based guitar rock; Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request pays homage to the first Request, a dip into psychedelia; and finally, Thank God for Mental Illness draws upon the Stones’ subsequent back-to-the-basics approach to their music, which resulted in the heavy country and blues influences heard on Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed.

Now, if Thank God for Mental Illness is an offspring of Beggars Banquet, that makes the BJM’s “13” some sort of cousin to the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues.”  Both songs are about attempts to seduce underage girls.  The “stray cat” is a 15-year-old groupie in the album version of the Stones song and, for maximum salaciousness, a 13-year-old in the live rendition on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!; the title of the BJM song refers to the age of the object of the protagonist’s affection.  Still, the “Stray Cat Blues” makes it clear that its protagonist is a predator who’s up to no good — no matter how many times he assures us that “it’s no hanging matter, it’s no capital crime,” a creepy-sounding guitar riff and lines like “no I don’t want your ID” warn us that this character is lustful deviant.

“13,” on the other hand, sounds like a perfectly normal song about love, not lust.  It’s an upbeat tune in the form of a 12-bar rhythm-and-blues, filled out with bright electric guitar notes, twangy acoustic guitars, tambourines and handclaps keeping the beat, and “Sympathy for the Devil”-style “woo-woos.”  In this context, it’s downright disarming when frontman Anton Newcombe throws this curveball:  “Yeah you’re the girl I’d marry, if you’d only take my hand/Well I know you’re only 13 honey, but I hope you understand.”

Why add that twist to the song?  The BJM surely aren’t interested in normalizing pedophilia.  It’s possible that that line was a wink at the subject matter of the “Stray Cat Blues.”  It could also just be a nod to the Rolling Stones’ reputations as the darker side — the bad boys — of the British Invasion.  Or maybe Newcombe was just honoring the rock and roll tradition of outraging social conservatives with provocative, salacious lyrics.

Regardless, there is actually an important lesson all present and future parents can learn from this song:  Don’t let your 13-year-old daughters talk to strangers, especially when they look like the guy on the Thank God for Mental Illness album cover.  …Or look like Mick Jagger.

…and I’m not even going to buy it.  Shortly after listening to Battle Born, my reaction was to bluntly declare that the album sucked.  A few days later, I would like to temper that statement by admitting that this isn’t actually a straight-up bad album.  However, I’m definitely not into the direction the Killers have taken with these songs, and I would argue that these songs completely lack the certain something that made me a fan of their earlier work over the past eight (!) years.

The buzz for this album was that it was more like Sam’s Town than like Hot Fuss or Day & Age.  As someone who genuinely, nonironically loves Sam’s Town, this news had me eagerly anticipating Battle Born.  Music critics everywhere panned Sam’s Town, the Killers’ second album, condemning it as a collection of Brandon Flowers’ corny attempts to be Bruce Springsteen or Bono.  But I love the songs on that album, and I think it really rocks; yeah, the lyrics are goofy a lot of the time, but I take that in stride — in fact, I smile at them — and just appreciate the songs for being fun to listen to.

Well, Battle Born was released last Tuesday, and most of the reviews were pretty positive.  There weren’t really any critics who thought the album was a flop, although a few thought it was just middling.  It’s unreasonable to expect a warm critical reception for a new Killers album, so I finished reading and then queued up the album on my computer for a pre-purchase listen.  As I listened to the album, I was (a) disappointed in what I was hearing, and (b) surprised that my problems with the album weren’t really touched upon in the professional reviews I’d read.  So I resolved to write this post, making note of why I disliked Battle Born.  This is not an album review.  I’m not going through this song by song; I’m just writing about my general impression.

This new album is underwhelming.  The energy and power of the Killers’ previous albums are absent from the proceedings.  When I say “power,” I’m not talking about profound lyrics.  I’m talking about the kind of power that makes you rock out to an album in the car, turning the volume up and letting the music blast you out of your seat as you sing along.  The best songs on Hot Fuss have that energy.  Almost all of Sam’s Town has that power.  A decent amount of Day & Age grabs you that way too.  But Battle Born doesn’t possess that quality.  It’s the Killers’ least dancey album by far.  It’s bland.  It’s often boring.  There are straight-faced ballads.  It’s sort of like the Killers aping Meat Loaf, but performing in a way that’s sapped of all of Meat Loaf’s songs’ energy.

In fact, that’s the best way I can describe this album’s sound.  This is the Killers’ most ’80s album — and that’s saying something, considering this is a band whose entire career is premised on sort of being ’80s synth-rock revivalists.  But where their previous albums were heavily influenced by different sorts of ’80s music, they were still clearly very much part of the musical trends of the 2000s.  Battle Born doesn’t fit in the year 2012.  It belongs entirely to the U2 and Meat Loaf schools of mid-’80s pop-rock, and in my opinion, that’s not a good thing.  (The synthesizers are still prominent here, but they’re not used in the same way they used to be.)  Moreover, “pop-rock” is something of a misnomer here, since “pop” implies catchy melodies and hooks, and those are things of which this album is very nearly devoid.  And so this set of songs utterly fails to excite me, and never builds to anything anyway.

It occurs to me that Battle Born is the album that Brandon Flowers was trying to make in 2006 when he misfired and gave us Sam’s Town.  If that’s the case, then boy am I glad that he misfired six years ago!

P.S.  In posting the above video, I am taking the unusual and indeed unprecedented action of posting a song I dislike on this blog.  I’m doing so in this case only because I think this particular song is pretty representative of the album’s sound.

For the week of 9/17/2012…

“Susanne” by Weezer

I’m not a big Weezer fan, but I’ve taken a liking to “Susanne,” a song of theirs which plays over the credits at the end of Mallrats, the 1995 Kevin Smith movie.  It appeared only the Mallrats soundtrack — although it would later be added as a bonus track to the deluxe version of Weezer’s self-titled Blue Album.

The song’s backstory is as follows:  In August and September 1993, Weezer recorded their debut album with Ric Ocasek as their producer.  Even though the album was finished, however, Geffen Records sat on it until May of the following year, and even then didn’t publicize it much until “Undone (The Sweater Song)” caught fire on the radio.  Anyway, with their record in limbo, the young band’s confidence in their relationship with Geffen was no doubt a bit shaken; a Geffen assistant named Susanne reassured them and did several kind things for them, as detailed in the song.  (Susanne also worked with Guns ‘n’ Roses, hence this amusing couplet in the second verse:  “Even Izzy, Slash, and Axl Rose/when I call, you put them all on hold.”)  Anyway, to make a long story short, Rivers Cuomo showed Susanne his appreciation by writing this song for her; and that’s probably one of the sweetest things Rivers Cuomo has ever done for anyone.

Even if you don’t the backstory, though, you can enjoy this song for what it is on the surface — a ’90s love song, and a very catchy slice of Weezer’s heavy-guitar power-pop.

This song tells the story of a magical invitation.  Its a simple postcard with no return address stamped with the singer’s name in gold leaf on the front.  It reads (as the chorus of the song goes) “You are invited for anyone to do any thing.  You are invited for all time.”  The story progresses in a singing/speaking monotone backed by nothing but a drum machine that sounds like a robot eating lunch.  He takes the invitation to a club that he could never get into.  The magical invitation works and our protagonist is in the club, drink in hand.  The invitation then leads him to a party thrown by a friend of his ex.  During this sequence the robot drum machine picks up a snare beat and slowly crescendos into one of the most satisfying guitar choruses that I have heard in a while.  It takes about half of the song for the guitar to play a single chord, but when it arrives, accompanied by perfectly placed snare sixteenths, the track really gets its legs.  After using the magical invitation for his own purposes he discovers a crying man who didn’t get to party at all.  In a somber yet fulfilling conclusion the magic invitation is passed along.

Covers: “Smokestack Lightning”

Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” originally recorded in 1956, is considered one of his signature songs and indeed is regarded as one of the greatest blues songs of all time.  The ingredients are well-known:  an instantly-recognizable guitar riff, supplied by prolific collaborator Hubert Sumlin; anguished, disjointed lyrics delivered in the Wolf’s gravelly voice; and a wordlessly expressive falsetto punctuating each verse.

“Smokestack Lightning” has been widely covered, especially by other blues artists, by various ’60s bands, and by George “Bad to the Bone” Thorogood.  I’m posting the two below covers because I think they’re particularly unique and interesting renditions of the song.

First, on the Electric Prunes’ live album Stockholm ’67, the California band offered a psychedelic garage rock version of “Smokestack Lightning.”  If you think you’d like to hear a performance of the song which fuses the Doors’ and the Stooges’ sounds… well, then you’ll probably like this cover.

Second, Soundgarden covered the song on their 1988 debut album, Ultramega OK.  Even though this was in the band’s early years (and indeed the quality of the music is not up to their later standards), they’re already experimenting with time signatures; as part of that experimentation, Kim Thayil turns Sumlin’s concise guitar vamp into a very long, undulating riff.  And the whole band tries to make “Smokestack Lightning” into as much of a heavy metal song as possible, complete with an abundance of wailing from Chris Cornell — wailing of a sort that he would wisely abandon by the ’90s.

For the week of 9/10/2012…

“Limb from Limb” by Motörhead

When Motörhead was bursting onto the scene for the first time in the late ’70s, some listeners may well have been unsure of which genre the British band pledged allegiance to.  Punk rock?  “We came up along with the whole punk thing,” singer/bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister has said, but his band’s music was far heavier than that of the Sex Pistols & co., and their personal style wasn’t a good fit for the punk aesthetic either.  Heavy metal?  Closer, perhaps, but no one else was routinely playing such hard-charging, revved-up metal at the time, and even songs like Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” were given to endless prog-style soloing.  Disco?  Just kidding, I’m pretty sure no one has ever seriously suggested that Motörhead played disco.

Writer Steffan Chirazi puts it well:  “Never metal, never punk, never antyhing except themselves, Motörhead transcended genres, styles, fads and trends with ease.”  The best label for them isn’t “punk” or “metal” but simply “rock ‘n’ roll.”

“Limb from Limb,” the closing track on Motörhead’s 1979 breakthrough album, Overkill, is a good example of how the band melded the two aforementioned genres.  It begins as a prototypical heavy metal affair:  Lead guitarist Fast Eddie Clark lays down a sleazy riff, which becomes the basis of the ensuing electric blues.  Then, around the 2:10 mark, the band kicks it into a higher gear and starts playing a revved-up version of the song that, with its grungy power chords, is more akin to punk than metal.  All the while, Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor powers through a dirty performance on the drums, replete with fills, while Lemmy barks and ultimately howls the song’s sexually charged lyrics.  As he promises his “long-legged lover” that he will “rip [her] limb from limb” and “sink [his] claws into [her] velvet skin,” it’s not hard to see why the girl in “Damage Case” was kind of alarmed by this guy!

For the week of 9/3/2012…

“Into the Great Wide Open” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Maybe it’s just because I’ve never been that into Tom Petty, but “Into the Great Wide Open” was never really on my radar until these last few days.  I was listening to the second disc of the Heartbreakers anthology I gave my dad last Christmas, and this song really stood out to me for a couple of reasons.  First, musically, the songwriting here is plainly, heavily influenced by George Harrison, right down to the Harrison-esque lead guitar licks.  (This song was composed by Petty and ELO frontman Jeff Lynne, bandmates of Harrison’s in the Traveling Wilburys.)  And secondly, this song is meant to tell a story, which is always a good way to curry favor with me.  “Into the Great Wide Open” is the tale of a rock star named Eddie, chronicling his rise to fame and fall from grace.  It’s the kind of song for which you wish there was a music video to provide an accompanying visual depiction of the story…

Fortunately, Tom Petty was kind enough to provide one, and he didn’t half-ass it either:  At nearly seven minutes, the video is a bona fide short film, and it’s absolutely worth watching.  A rather young Johnny Depp (circa 1991) stars as the protagonist, Eddie.  Tom Petty plays three roles:  the tattoo artist in the beginning; the “roadie named Bart” mentioned in the song; and the bespectacled narrator, who wears an orange Willie Wonka sort of suit (which is amusing considering Depp’s famous portrayal of Wonka fifteen years down the line).  The fact that this wasn’t even nominated for a Best Music Video Grammy defies logic.

One month before the Frank Lautenberg Secaucus Junction train station was completed The Wrens released their third album “The Meadowlands”. Multiple occasions throughout the album the band rhymes “Thirteen Grand” with “Meadowlands” just to make it painfully obvious that they are dirt poor and living in Secaucus. However, the melancholy lyrics are accompanied by very bright guitar which actually makes the strip of highway that is Secaucus seem inviting. By the time the B side track “Everyone Choose Sides” rolls around, the lyrics about drudgeries in the swampy part of New Jersey are flipped on their heads. The band makes a turn and describes their existence as thirty year olds living in Secaucus as being “the best seventeen year olds ever”. From here The Wrens proceed to have the bass and both guitars to play lead, and to shoot a music video on a submarine.