Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/30/11 - The Beach Boys and Wolves In The Throne Room

Over its decades-long tenure as perhaps pop music’s defining “lost” record, The Beach Boys’ SMILE was one of the few recordings that could unite serious sound junkies with the more casual fans (with taste) in a state of resigned melancholy over what should’ve been. And during that same time period, the fact that the legendary follow-up to PET SOUNDS made it to the brink of and then notoriously did not see release has been adopted by all kinds of finger-waggers as an advisory tale to assorted cautions of all sorts; the hazards of too much drug use, the folly of indulging artistic inclinations at the expense of commerciality, or the dangers of hanging out with Van Dyke Parks. 2003 brought the world BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE, a collaboration with The Wondermints that helped to firmly establish what ardent Beach Boys' fans had already long believed; that SMILE was indeed a top-to-bottom masterpiece and not just a couple of hit singles bookending an unfocused mess of pretention, that Wilson was the one guy uniquely capable of seamlessly integrating classic Tin Pan Alley pop aesthetics with the possibilities of legit psychedelia and true-blue studio artistry, and that Mike Love was and continues to be a foul square. But as appealing and successful as WILSON PRESENTS indeed was, it in no way filled the gap left by the original SMILE’s lack of actualization. And that was really no surprise. While issued with goodwill partially as a recovery project and more so as a corrective to its auteur’s legacy, WILSON PRESENTS was still quite a few yardsticks short of a substitute. This opinion seems to have been shared by others including Wilson himself, for 2011 has seen the appearance of THE SMILE SESSIONS, a mammoth undertaking inhabiting a variety of shapes (compact disc, 12” and 7” vinyl) and sizes (digi-downloads, 2LP, 2CD or box set) that’s easily the year’s best reissue. To be clear, this amazing bundle of beauty is certainly not what SMILE would’ve been like had it actually hit racks and blown all sorts of heads in ’67, but it’s surely the closest to what Wilson had in his own mind during that period, sourced from the genuine studio recordings made in preparation for the album’s release. And as such it’s a total revelation, making scads of bootlegs obsolete and causing deep (but not grave) damage to SMILEY SMILE’s already chequered reputation, for as much as I eventually became comfortable with (if not accepting of) that LP’s restless scraps of greatness, I always regarded it with a certain critical distance if not outright detachment (and certainly I’m not alone in this) because it couldn’t avoid being a reminder of what the music world had been denied, namely the essence of Brian Wilson’s brilliance at its absolute apex, a document that would’ve meant a whole lot of different things to a vast diversity of listeners. And part of what’s so fantastic about THE SMILE SESSIONS is that in its format-diverse structure it can well serve listeners holding varying degrees of emotional (to say nothing of monetary) investment; the downloads or 2CD should easily satisfy the more casually erudite listener, the five discs of studio outtakes and demos will doubtlessly please legions of music obsessives, and the vinyl pressings are right up the swank alley of a certain stripe of hep connoisseur. Freeing up this masterpiece from the burden of a pricey (if thoroughly essential) box set hopefully means that the music will reach more people than just those already convinced of its quality and importance. And while I’m still dabbling through the CDs that definitively and happily essay the studio toil of SMILE not as a tumultuous exercise in scattershot grandiosity but as the painstakingly rigorous activity necessary to creating a work of this stature, I hesitate not a bit in claiming that the 2LP set manages to strike the perfect blend of user-friendliness with the expansive yet spectacularly succinct nature of the core recording in all its mono glory, broken up over three sides of vinyl (with a fourth of stereo mixes provided as a truly dandy bonus). What becomes obvious upon spending time with SMILE as a basic record and not as a holy grail surrounded by fascinating ephemera is how it so confidently combines conceptual hugeness with a near brutal directness inherent to pop-craft; breathtakingly experimental, yes (opener “Our Prayer” into “Gee” into “Heroes and Villains” managed to drop my jaw on first listen even though I essentially knew what to expect from WILSON PRESENTS); side-long jams, ill-conceived drum solos or patience testing stabs at borrowed authenticity, no. If Brian Wilson’s ability and vision were ultimately too much for some people (including himself) to bear, he was exceptionally tidy in how he executed his ideas, for nothing on SMILE exceeds the five minute mark. “Vega-Tables” and “Surf’s Up” are of course well known from the SMILEY SMILE and SURF’S UP LPs and “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” are both well-ensconced as cornerstones of high pop-style. But to hear them as simply parts of what Wilson conceived of SMILE to be is to not only experience the true rarity of non-hyperbolic artistic genius but to be boldly confronted with the possibilities of what might’ve transpired had SMILE actually been released at the time of its conception, not only pertaining to Wilson’s and The Beach Boys’ subsequent career(s) but to the pop music landscape as a whole. Because those naysayers mentioned above can occasionally be counted on to use the hullaballoo surrounding SMILE to dictate that pop music is best when unhindered by ambition, proposing that the banal strains of radio fodder typified by Britney Spears and Justin Bieber and their many rank imitators is somehow more legitimately “pop” than the desire to expand the parameters and create something new as exemplified by SMILE. Upon hearing this music with fresh ears in the present, it becomes obvious that calling Wilson an eccentric and SMILE a failure are severe miscalculations, for sheer invention in this case shouldn’t be mistaken for eccentricity and problems of commerce compounded by self-doubt should never be confused with a lack of artistic success; sometimes it just takes a while for an achievement to be established. Bluntly, the best pop record released in 2011 was recorded in 1967. Contemporary hitmakers shouldn’t feel insulted; instead, they should lend an open ear and then just step up their game.

While I’m assuredly a fan of assorted bands appropriately described as being metallic in orientation, I also can’t deny that when it comes to things metal, I’m best categorized as a dabbler. And this is funny, since the first two bands clutched to my metaphoric breast and regarded with solemn seriousness as setting the standard to which all other attempts at music should thenceforth be judged were Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. This attitude lasted approximately six months until after devouring the contents of LILLIAN ROXON’S ROCK ENCYCLOPEDIA through the auspices of my middle school’s hall of books (viva the era when the shelves of a public school library could adequately serve the needs of a young bookworm and budding autodidact) I realized how the harshness of my Zep/Sab sensibility also translated to something like short-sightedness. By freshman year of high school I was devouring the uncut electric blues that unknowingly aided and abetted the early hard-rock impulse and quickly begat heavy metal, and was also ogling the work of The Stooges, Velvets and Beefheart as a primer in getting smacked around by the seductive indelicacy of punk. But as is often my wont, I digress. Some may consider my admittance as a metal dabbler to preclude the ability to speak/write on the form, but that’s nonsense. The secret to writing from the perspective of a dabbler is to avoid adopting an authoritative tone (because there is almost nothing more insufferable than a phony expert) and to not slip into a condescending state of mind regarding those that do wield an expert knowledge of the genre in question (because in the end metalhead = jazzbo = garage-manic = blues-freak = classical-longhair). Now when I say dabbler I don’t mean to imply that my appreciation of the style is somehow less zealous in comparison to my feelings over other genres; when heavy metal fires on all cylinders I love it wholeheartedly, and a list of my favorites would include records by Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, St. Vitus, The Obsessed, Melvins, Samhain, Gore, Prong, Earth and Sunn O))). If you glean from this partial list that I’m more “doom” and less “glam” then you’re right on the money, sport. To me, the bold theatricality expressed through Bowie, Bolan, and early Roxy (all of them owing much to that lovely original glam-queen Little Richard) was far more suited to hybridization with punk (making the New York Dolls ground zero in this scheme of thinking). Metal is best when it’s stone-faced as it indulges in cheap, unsubtle, sometimes even cartoony imagery; another of its strong suits is how it acknowledges the relationship between performer and listener while still fostering a direct relationship with the audience as equals (sorta punk, come to think of it). I also like how many contemporary metal acts possess a severe attention to sonic detail that’s tangibly jazz-like, which is no surprise since Bill Frisell has worked with Earth on THE BEES MADE HONEY IN THE LION’S SKULL and Julian Priester, Eyvind Kang and Cuong Vu all contributed to Sunn O)))’s MONOLITHS AND DIMENSIONS. A current name that can easily be added to the above group of worthies is Olympia, Washington’s Wolves In The Throne Room, a band led by brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver that specializes in an unabashedly conceptual brand of rural, environmentally conscious black metal. They’ve just released CELESTIAL LINEAGE, the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2007 with TWO HUNTERS (BLACK CASCADE is the middle entry, issued in ‘09). One aspect of WITTR that I found immediately appealing was their attention to the band dynamic. In some of my (admittedly hit-and-run) black-metal listening I’ve been struck that much of the music doesn’t feel like bands that thrive on the intensity of interaction but rather projects intended to amplify the extremity of the whole endeavor. Chalk it up to the ease of modern home recording that an anti-social teenage Burzum fanatic need not find band members to make his/her masterpiece; no, they can just do it all themselves (needless to say DIY doesn’t mean what it used to). And these sort of projects are cool, but I must admit that it’s not really what I’d accurately describe as my bag; when I want extremity I listen to Prurient, Wolf Eyes, Borbetomagus or Japanese noise monsters like Masonna or The Incapacitants. When I want to hear human beings working it out like a group in a metal context, Wolves In The Throne Room will do very nicely. Not only do they offer the spark of collectivity, but they also display a fine handle on mood, texture and instrumental prowess. Much has been made of the brothers Weaver’s rep as rurally based and heavily ecologically invested individuals, a reality that’s reflected in their recordings. TWO HUNTERS for example is thematically concerned with the lore of the cave-bear cults. And the Weavers are the kind of guys who’ll release their demo CDR all wrapped up in fur with moss included with the lyric sheet to boot. I can dig this. As modern ideologically driven farmers, these two have a lot on their minds, and like many of the great old-time farmer/players of yore, their relationship to musical expression (and to the instruments they play) seems inextricably linked to emotional survival; I get the feeling that under different circumstances WITTR would be making music of this intensity (if not this scale) at home purely for their shared benefit. It seems obvious from their non-traditional stance (a desire to play unusual, non-commercial venues [i.e. not bars], a distaste for moshing and flash photography at shows, an allegiance to older recording equipment and studio techniques) that the Weaver’s approach to music making is, as Valerie Wilmer once put it in a jazz context “as serious as your life”.  Also, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that frequent WIITR contributor Jessika Kenney (she of Sunn O)))’s MONOLITHS AND DIMENSIONS) is in fine form on CELESTIAL LINEAGE. Her vocals help to bring a real sense of tonal diversity to the music, but ultimately the credit must go to Aaron and Nathan Weaver. Much of the record is meditative in delivery, at times even approaching ambient, and the band possess strategies of non-clichéd tension and release that really feel primed for the long haul. It’s been said that Popul Vuh are an influence, and after spinning LINEAGE for the fifth time in a row I’m convinced that’s more than lip service. Somebody play these guys for Werner Herzog, fast. Southern Lord has a very discerning ear for things metallic, and Wolves In The Throne Room is no exception. They’ve just put a trilogy in the pocket, and I'll be keeping tabs on where they head next.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/23/11 - Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Reptile House

Eddy Current Suppression Ring hail from Melbourne Australia, and they specialize in a lively mixture of finely honed NUGGETS action, thankfully non-trite Stooges motion, some well-considered post-’77 punk heaviness/knowledge and just the right undercurrent of workmanlike art (but not arty) smarts to help render the proceedings as a strong non-generic statement in a quite tricky mode; that is, being small in concept/scale while often truly huge in delivery. In a sense, ECSR is a prime example of a bunch of guys collectively defining the true meaning of the term amateur. Or to put it another way, they endeavor not for money or fame but for the sheer love of the process and result. This isn’t to imply that Eddy Current is striving in a sea of indifference. In fact the band won the 2008 Australian Music Prize for their second record PRIMARY COLOURS, an achievement that paid them $30,000. That’s a swell award to be sure, but it’s frankly also the kind of accolade that can really screw up a band’s emotional dynamic. But not to worry, for ECSR recorded their subsequent album RUSH TO RELAX in their practice space, with reasoning that was really quite simple; if a no-nonsense approach to album making is what earned them the prize, then why change course? Spit and polish isn’t going to do ECSR any favors, for they are a band that thrives on a non-cultivated unkempt quality and a little sand in the gears. If Eddy Current Suppression Ring has thus far escaped your radar, their new 2LP SO MANY THINGS is a fine place to make an introduction, for it compiles a bunch of singles and stray tracks into a nice, expansive package (twice as many tunes as any of their three full-lengths) that illustrates the parameters and appeal of their attack. For starters, these guys have a nice handle on what once was called aggro, the noisy, impolite clatter and din that the Aussies were excellent at shoveling onto boats and shipping to the import bins in hole-in-the-wall indie record shops all across the globe via labels like Au-Go-Go, Aberrant and Greasy Pop. Eddy Current are more punky and less densely noisy than many of the bands that sorta came to define Australia’s underground rock landscape circa the second half of the ‘80s (feedtime, King Snake Roost, Venom P. Stinger, Lubricated Goat etc.), but this fact makes them quite a natural fit for their American label Goner. PRIMARY COLOURS will likely remain my favorite ECSR release, but that’s only because it’s the first record I heard by the band. SO MANY THINGS is a big heap of goodness that’ll gas anybody turned onto the true vine of the punk impulse. If I were allowed to single out only one track from the 22 for specific praise, it would probably be “Demon’s Demands”, as finely wrought a mass of prime-era Iggy-derived throat rip and soul damage as I’ve heard in a long while, and all without the often distasteful aura of dilettantish pomposity and posing; again, ECSR don’t want to be the coolest cats on the block, they just want to rock the hell out the place, which really goes to the true nature of coolness (and longevity), anyway. I also like how “Noise in My Head” gleans so boldly from the “Psychotic Reaction”-playbook. And I was once very sold on the idea of Eddy Current as an overtly garage-descended bunch, but SO MANY THINGS’ three cover tunes help to solidify them as a group steadfast in their post-’77 lineage. A smoking version of The Pagans’ study in snot-rocket classicism “Boy, Can I Dance Good” shows they not only know their history but understand how to not screw it up, and a swell take on their excellent and typically underheard countrymen The Chosen Few’s “T.A.L.O.I.G.A.” (from that band’s very killer THE JOKE’S ON US 7” from ’79) flaunts a legit interest in Aussie punk achievements of yore. The loose if appropriately sincere stab at The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” may not be as tip-top as Poison Idea’s version, but the jury’s still actively deliberating on that point. Eddy Current’s take is certainly very individual, tapping into a sleepy reverence that might even inspire a sly wink from the eye of Belinda herself. SO MANY THINGS backs off a bit from the undercurrents of post-punk the made PRIMARY COLOURS such an unexpected joy, and I could use more keyboards, but in the end Eddy Current Suppression Ring make abundantly clear that they are one of the most reliable non-doofus punk propositions to hail from anywhere on this doomed planet. Theirs is a ruckus of distinction, and anybody that’s ever been well-goosed by the punk sensibility should check them out.

All serious record collectors, at least those that are actually music fans and not just investors cultivating a nest egg for retirement, are sure to utter the following phrase at least once in their life, and for very good reason: There are just too many records. This opinion generally stems from frustration at being unable to lay hands and lend ears to every nook and cranny in the labyrinthine architecture of modern music. For folks inclined to an obscurantist perspective, the difficulty of severe rarity can only add to the misery. Thankfully, one fine circumstance of the free-flowing internet is that people can actually hear the contents of $250-1,000 LPs (or $50-75 reissues) before gambling and plunking down the cash. While I’m a true-blue lover of obscurities, I’m also a relative cheapskate that’s never spent more than $50 for a record. The reason I’m mulling all this over is that I once spied a $25 bagged copy of the I STUMBLE AS THE CROW FLIES 7” by Reptile House, and was quite tempted. In retrospect I’m glad my cooler head prevailed, since Dischord has once again stepped up to the plate and affordably reissued this important piece of post-hardcore transitioning, a move that’s sure to please record collectors, u-ground historians and punks of all stripes. Baltimore’s Reptile House is noteworthy to many simply for the bands that benefited from their existence; drummer London May went on to pound the skins on horror-punk cornerstone NOVEMBER COMING FIRE by Glenn Danzig’s post-Misfits group Samhain while vocalist Daniel Higgs and guitarist Asa Osborne later formed the brilliant study in poetic post-HC cyclical repetition known as Lungfish. But unlike a lot of hardcore also-rans (names redacted to spare the thin-skinned), Reptile House are worth the time and energy of acquaintance and familiarity.  For I STUMBLE is an exemplary primer in the splendidly blabbermouth strains of imagery-laden post-HC, a style inspired far more deeply by lit-class textbooks than the regimented behaviors that were beginning to afflict the era’s punk scene. The ‘80’s u-ground frequently cultivated regional scenes that often held defining characteristics, sonic and otherwise; LA had the Paisley Underground, Chicago and later Minneapolis became strongholds of noise-rock, Seattle grew stringy-haired, occasionally overweight dudes dressed like lumberjacks and Washington DC came to represent a type of introspective soul-gushing that was once called emo-core (before that prefix was hijacked and applied to an unrelated and non-geographically centric genre). DC bands in the style included Dag Nasty, Rites of Spring, Embrace, One Last Wish, Rain and Shutter to Think. In the strictest sense, Reptile House is not a DC band, hailing from the Charm City after all, but like their contemporaries Moss Icon and The Hated (both from Annapolis Maryland) they get lumped into this scene by general proximity and convenience. What’s quickly apparent by listening to I STUMBLE is that Reptile House was one of the messiest and most rewarding examples in this whole style. Joe Goldsborough’s guitar (Osborne would join later) blends melody, distortion and velocity to exceptional effect; bassist Leigh Panlilio holds down the bottom with elasticity all while eschewing the sameiness that often plagued punk rhythm sections in hardcore’s wake; May is a lithe monster on the kit; and Higgs (here known as Daniel V. Strasser) is spilling out a gush of thoughts and images like the embryo of the visionary he was to shortly become (and remain). Higgs’ vocals here actually remind me a bit of Henry Rollins if he was more inclined toward singing and less invested in throat peeling shouting. All four songs here are strong on their own merits, but they add up to a really impressive sum. It’s the truly forward-thinking records like this one that stand the test of time while more formulaic exercises in ritualism fall by the wayside, even though as a split release between Dischord and the band’s own Druid Hill label (named after the site of the Baltimore Zoo), this disc often gets overlooked in discussions of Dischordian activities. Well, it shouldn’t. It’s taken me months to give it a deserving write it up, but here are my words, better late than sitting on the hard-drive unpublished, and I’m hoping that more than just Lungfish or Samhain fans take note. I STUMBLE AS THE CROW FLIES is a dandy bit of post-HC action. While nobody can hear every record ever pressed, this one is easily obtainable. It’s nice to see it selling for considerably less than $25.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/16/11 - Ty Segall and Sea Lions

On SINGLES 2007-2010 Ty Segall demonstrates that raggedy, crudely recorded garage-punk hunch will never be out of style. And while most of the notable examples in this loose genre flame bright but brief, as the title of this 2LP one-stop shopper’s paradise amply testifies that’s thankfully not the case here. Instead, this tireless wunderkind employs low fidelity, rudimentary yet catchy riffing and a judicious mixture of snot and erudition to display his solid knowledge of just how this stuff is supposed to be done. Part of the mythology of the garage resides in how an abundance of enduring records have seemed to explode from the cradle of its vast whatsis with a bare minimum of fuss and perfectionism; in other words, sort of the opposite of bebop, prog or math-rock. I’m not really interested in arguing against this notion, but I do broach the subject since sequential listening to SINGLES really brings the concept of garage-savantism into question, at least as applied to its creator. In this he’s comparable to his much missed compadre and touring partner Jay Reatard; like his late friend, Segall not only possesses a nicely tweaked lone-wolf methodology, but also has songs by the bushel. However, in true garage-punk fashion (particularly post-Mummies), songs aren’t what Ty Segall is about, at least not overtly. On the surface, it’s really more about the euphoria of simplicity aka the eternally hip trick of addition by subtraction and the sparks ‘n’ heat of a loose but shrewdly honed delivery and sound; right out of the starting gate the guy was swaddling his tunes in moves swiped from the twin founts of early art-punk and Killed By Death, with “Where We Go” blending the skuzzy production values and sheer-hell-of-it attitude that defines KBD staples like The Absentees’ “Tryin’ To Me With Me” with the screwy but smart extendedness of long-worthy Los Angelians Urinals or maybe even the contrarian kookiness of Benedict Arnold and the Traitors’ “Kill the Hostages”. Segall apprenticed in the cool if minor Cali outfits The Epsilons, Party Fowl and The Traditional Fools before really hitting his stride as a solitary operator and one probable reason for the qualitative upswing is his open knowledge of garage/punk/u-ground precedent. To bastardize Edmund Burke, actually knowing the past means you’re far less likely to regurgitate it as your own new thing. And if you do choose to repeat it, chances are the results will likely be far more individual and rewarding than disappointingly generic or otherwise by the numbers. As evidence, SINGLES corrals the spoils of Segall’s cover song exploits, featuring one borrowed tune on each of its four sides. Three of these nods are toward a wide breadth of worthy predecessors, namely Canadian proto-punk legends Simply Saucer, fringe-dwellers from the old, dangerous New York Chain Gang, and Detroit’s undisputed kingpins of low-fi punk snarl The Gories. The fourth cover is a nice take on a tune from San Fran contemporaries Thee Oh Sees from a split-single song-swap as exercise in mutual admiration. As snazzy as these four tracks are (the concentrated, truncated splat of Chain Gang’s “Son of Sam” in particular), it’s remarkable that in comparison to Segall’s original stuff they all fell like throwaways (in the best sense). Whether it’s the riffy bit of echo-laden street-punk swagger of “Sweets”, the giddy keyboard seasoned up-tempo bashing of “Skin”, or the urgent, increasingly unhinged velocity of “Booksmarts”, it’s quickly apparent that the best card in Segall’s hand is the material of his own design. And that’s just the early stuff. As he moves along, the ride reveals an appealing trajectory of development while detailing a capacity for weird tangents. The two elements in this equation are easily absorbed by the opposing faces of the “My Sunshine”/”Fuzzy Cat” single; the A side features a guitar hook of truly killer proportions integrated with vocalizing that’s quite inspired, the tune sounding somewhat like the road not taken (i.e. one that’s not a dead end) by the practitioners of prime-era Cali-beach punk. But “Fuzzy Cat” is a whole other bucket of willful eccentricity, feeling a whole lot like the vibe that would ooze from the cassette deck of an early ‘80s UK DIY home taper whose bedroom is completely plastered with wall-sized posters of John Entwistle. The Ox!!! And that’s far from all; the scaled down demos that populate much of sides 3 and 4 are a real treat. While “Lovely One” isn’t that divergent from the version found on ‘09’s LEMONS CD, it’s still a clinic in acoustic strum and multi-tracked vocal junk that smacks of the underfed, scarf-clad urban-urchins that just might’ve danced alongside bourbon-soaked sugar plums in the fitful dreams of the late Lester Bangs. Yowzers. Plus, “So Alone” collides tinny drum-box punk aesthetics into some cool Bo Diddley derived action before getting sloppily psychedelic at the end, and “Shoot You in the Head” so expertly combines the rigid thread of cheap rhythm tech with skuzzy stun-guitar ripping that I immediately started rifling around the house for my Metal Urbain reissues. Where o where did I file those things? Apparently not under the letter m. Cripes. For those already hepped to the goodness of Ty Segall, SINGLES 2007-2010 is an essential acquisition, since I doubt more than a tiny handful of rabid, rancid, anti-social wax collectors actually own all this material in non-digitally purloined form. But its four sides also serve as an expansive yet easily digestible introduction into this disheveled dude’s considerable musical heft, so if your interest is piqued by all means consider this an invitation.

One of the defining records of the ‘90s, particularly in indie-pop terms, was the compilation ONE LAST KISS, the inaugural release for the SpinART label and a document that helped to establish the parameters of a somewhat Anglophilic thread in the US division of what came to be known via K Records as the International Pop Underground. ONE LAST KISS sorta sat at the crossroads between the ‘80s progenitors of the movement (bands like Young Marble Giants and Talulah Gosh, the whole C-86 scene and the Sarah, Postcard and Creation labels for some examples) and the early-‘90s indie-pop explosion that came in its wake (an influx of grassroots imprints like Simple Machines, Slumberland and Pop Narcotic, a barrage of homemade cassette releases and racks stuffed full of fanzines like CHICKFACTOR, WRITER’S BLOCK and POPWATCH as just a tip of the iceberg). I’d bought KISS on a whim due to the inclusion of Velocity Girl, who’d previously knocked me out opening for Galaxie 500 at the old 9:30 Club (not to mention their 1990 Slumberland 7” “I Don’t Care If You Go” is an unimpeachable classic), but the whole disc hipped me with a quickness to fresh developments in the burgeoning underground pop discourse. I bring up ONE LAST KISS because after listening to Sea Lions’ new LP EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEA LIONS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK, I quickly came to the conclusion that any of the record’s 15 tracks could easily fit onto that compilation without the slightest tinge of dissonance in mood or texture.  Sea Lions, who hail from Oxnard CA but sound like they’ve been shaped by a grayer, far more damp climate, could be effectively summarized as a ripe blend of Brit-centric hyper-jangle and Calvin Johnson-approved love-rock. In fact, singer/guitarist/leader Adrian Pillado’s booming vocals are more than coincidentally similar to the seductive tones of Cal J’s vulnerable buzzsaw. But where most early K groups wielded a defiantly loose and instrumentally minimal approach, often consisting of just guitar, drums and vocals (or less) captured through production values that were blatantly direct (flip the switch and play, essentially), Sea Lions flaunt a fairly expansive and lush sonic palate. There are keyboards, shaking tambourines, toy instruments, backing vox and palpable studio finesse in the echo ‘n’ twee atmospheres it evokes. But guitar dominates everything on EVERYTHING, though as dyed-in-the-wool pop denizens distortion is avoided completely. However, it should be noted that the strings are frequently attacked with a gleeful ferocity that reveals the band members’ outgrowth from legitimately punkly concerns. If my praise for Sea Lions feels like a simultaneous damning of the band as a throwback, I’m afraid that’s off the mark. This type of u-ground pop has always been firmly rooted in the past, even when the music has been quite groundbreaking or eye-opening, Television Personalities’ “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” and Dolly Mixture’s cover of Smith’s “Baby It’s You” as just two instances that immediately spring to mind. And as unique as Beat Happening’s music actually was, the band were also undeniably extending ideas first proposed by the young Jonathan Richman (on the early stuff) and The Cramps (think JAMBOREE’s “Hangman” or DREAMY’s “Nancy Sin”, though that one’s also a Sinatra/Hazelwood trib). One of the frequent complaints I remember enduring from crabby old heads back in the ‘90s re: indie pop was that the scene was insufficiently invested in breaking ground in the bold manner of their ’80s forbearers like Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. In contrast, ‘90s indie-pop often wore its influences on the sleeve, and was proud of it. In this sense Sea Lions’ disinterest in blazing stylistic trails is in true synch with their lineage, and this particular strain of inspired unoriginality is in my ear far preferable to the pastiche of likeably pleasant but frankly Johnny-Come-Lately ‘90s-isms of Yuck, for one example. Again, every note on the Sea Lions’ debut full-length platter resonates like it could be twenty years old, but the sly trick is that it’s in no way a foregone conclusion that it is(n't) twenty years old. So maybe the best way to describe EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEA LIONS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (a nod to pre-angst Woody Allen?) is to call it a record of instantly timeless qualities. Much as I dig BAD PENNY by their label mates Spectrals (and I do dig it without reservation), from all the evidence to reach my ear thus far I’m willing to bet the house on Sea Lions as the one contempo indie-pop engine that could truly keep on truckin’ right down the track for the long haul. Slumberland Records' welcome second wind has exceeded all reasonable expectations; that is, like the discs from Spectrals, Weekend and Crystal Stilts, this Sea Lions slab is great as homemade gravy and easily the equal of anything the label released two decades back. If names like Honeybunch, Black Tambourine, Lorelei and Lilys mean anything to your discerning ear then I implore you not to sleep on this one.

From Chester to you.

Hello everyone,
I was hoping to have this Christmas Gift ready and in the form of a cassette.
But unlike Santa I don't have any Elves to help out in my workshop, so here is my gift in digi form.
If you would like a cassette version after Christmas send me an email and I'll get one out to you as soon as I can.
Merry Christmas,

Side A
1: Tom Heinl-Christmas Tree on Fire
2: Mark Sultan-Let me Freeze
3: Big Boys-Red/Green
4:Descendents-Christmas Vacation
5: Les Savy Fav-Brace Yourself
6: Q and Not U-Snow Patterns
7: Evaporators-(I've Got) Icicles on My Testicles
8: Flat Duo Jets-White Trees
9: The White Stripes-Candy Cane Children
10: Mojo Nixon-Son of Santa
11: Mojo Nixon-Transylvanian Xmas

Side B
1: Carla Thomas-Gee Whiz, It's Christmas
2: The Choir-It's Cold Outside
3: Thee Oh Sees-Pleasure Blimps
4: Fletcher C. Johnson-Thanksgiving
5: Terry Malts-No Sir, I'm Not a Christian
6: Binky Griptite-Holiday Breakdown '09
7: Martinis-Holiday Cheer
8: John Zorn-The Christmas Song

Friday, December 9, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/9/11 - Radar Eyes and The Evens

While the true heyday of the 7” vinyl single is long gone, it’s indeed nice that the format remains stubbornly solvent as a tried and true way for musicians to get onto plastic and get heard, and for that matter, as the merch table impetus toward some all important pocket money. The fairly recent phenomenon of the limited edition tour single has certainly assisted many a traveling band in securing a late night diner nosh and a tank of gas for the van. And I consider myself lucky to have experienced firsthand what in retrospect was a truly gobsmacking era for the vinyl short form, that being the early 1990s. With a unrelenting bombardment of small platters from labels as varied as Sub Pop, Simple Machines, Merge, Amphetamine Reptile, Sympathy, K, Matador, Slumberland, Scat, Drunken Fish, Teen Beat and Estrus (and that’s just for starters), it was a period of having to constantly play catch up ball (to borrow a sporting terminology). A frustrating but delicious circumstance, for every trip to Washington DC’s handful of well stocked indie record shops, each arrival of a distributor or small label’s mail order catalog, and the never ending inspections of fanzine ads for new records revealed more than a meager paycheck could absorb. Even though the vast majority of this surfeit came via underground or commercially marginal bands, it still generally followed the two basic principles of 7” presentation, the first being as a vessel to magnify the essence and essentiality of a particular song (the A-side) in isolation as one for the ages (with a flipside of varying degrees of goodness and importance), and the second as a way to present a couple of worthy but minor examples of musical creation without the burden of working up a whole full-length record with which to surround them. This might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but no. Not every song that caresses my ear-space unfolds as a momentously life-altering experience, nor would I want that to be the case. Plus, true greatness is often revealed by how specific art objects situate themselves in the peaks and valleys of magnitude. It’s in this context that the new single by Chicago’s Radar Eyes had me pining for yesteryear, specifically somewhere around the summer of ’93. Released by the Windy City’s quite prolific and admirably discerning Hozac Records, I was anticipating something gruff and compact, as befitting an imprint that finds so much of its discography parked snugly in the punk rock garage. Hozac is far from a one-note enterprise, but with releases by such heavies as Black Lips, Fresh & Onlys, Dan Melchior, Smith Westerns and Nobunny in their catalog you might understand my line of reasoning. But Radar Eyes pleasantly confounded my expectations, and in a manner in no way aberrant to their label’s admirable raison d'être. For “Miracle” is a slice of smartly built chime-pop played loud, and after a few listens I chalked it up as an exemplary, if minor addition to the ever evolving u-ground rock discourse. The presence of a ‘60s derived but totally non-retro organ sound had me thinking of New Zealand’s legendary guitar-pop miners The Clean, but the heft of the tune is more in line with a UK disposition as documented by certain earlier releases on Alan McGhee’s Creation label. Yes, this swingin’ affair is of a very ‘80s complexion, but it’s also non-affected in its Anglo-mining; while pond-spanning give-and-take is very much in evidence, there are also enough hints of Hoboken, Athens and Los Angeles in the sound to make this undeniably American in orientation. Just in case you’re feeling patriotic. B-side “Me and My Dogs” is harder driving in its druthers, and the even more prominent strains of organ ultimately find the tune splitting the difference between the aforementioned Brit noise-pop and the less psyche inflected wing of LA’s Paisley Underground. Definitely Byrdsian with a post prefix to something like the fifth power (frankly, I’ve lost count), but with big flowing currents of heavy dreaminess. So yeah, this has “minor classic” written all over it, primarily because it’s delightfully unconcerned with the ambitiousness of originality, instead feeling like a welcome throwback the type of ‘90s indie bands released by the Slumberland or SpinArt labels. But I’ve just played this puppy six times in a row, with both sides revealing themselves as something very much like long term growers, so it’s not hard to predict that this single just might vault to the level of quiet masterpiece. Hats off to Hozac for a job well done and notice served over Radar Eyes as a band to watch.

A few weeks back Dischord Records released a new single by The Evens, the duo comprised of label co-owner Ian MacKaye and his partner Amy Farina. There was a small rumble of internet activity by way of news reports and updates from online retailers, but really in the way of substantive reviews almost nothing has appeared in regard to these two new songs. Then last week the opening of the Fugazi live archive was announced and the initial response was much larger, featuring headlines splashed across some of the biggest music related sites on the web including interviews with Ian concerning the project and the expected ruminations over the possibility of the band playing together again sometime in the foreseeable future. It might sound like I’m poised to dish some sour grapes, but that’s not my intention. Rather, I’m pointing out a contrast in the two entities. The huge if intrinsically grassroots popularity of Fugazi is only set to undergo an uptick as pangs of remembrance for the ‘90s start heading into full swing. It’s important to keep in mind that the band didn’t break up over acrimonious circumstances between members or due to disputes with labels or even because somebody in the group had the realization that their records were pale imitations of past glories. No, Fugazi just kept on doing it until they simply stopped, and when they ceased operations were still at the top of their game. When the question “why stop” has been broached, the responses have been direct and sensible; the responsibilities of raising children, the tyranny of distance (thanks Ted Leo), for Joe Lally now lives in Italy, and the intense factors that shaped the group’s songwriting and practice sessions requiring close proximity and dedication. I find it interesting that since the hiatus none of the members have attempted to ignite a musical situation anywhere close to the size of Fugazi, though this would obviously be no easy task. Just as obvious is how when a major chunk of a generation’s rock fans look to your band as the barometer of conscience and ethics, and another sizable gaggle dogs your steps for ideological lapses like they’re the self-appointed Phillip Marlowe’s of the underground, this simply has to get a bit wearying. Since Fugazi went on the inactive list Joe Lally has released three swell chapters in a quietly evolving solo project, Guy Picciotto has warmed the producer’s chair for assorted bands along with playing back-up on the some killer late works by the much missed troubadour Vic Chesnutt, Brendan Canty has co-founded the Trixie video company and worked in bands with the fine cellist Amy Domingues (Garland of Hours) and that estimable philosopher-wag Ian Svenonius (Felt Letters), and of course Ian has The Evens. While I value all of these post-Fugazi musical projects to varying degrees (particularly Guy’s work with Chesnutt), the duo of MacKaye and Farina are the most consistently impressive in my estimation, displaying a powerful intimacy of scale and songwriting that’s elevated through a rich instrumental dialogue that’s become almost intuitive. What’s been achieved through two full-lengths and now this 7” does offer familiar characteristics such as Ian’s voice (naturally) and Amy’s loose but sharp drum style as plied in the severely slept on mid-‘90s outfit The Warmers, but there is also a huge difference in tactics. Specifically, and not to get all Joe Carducci up in here, but two musicians do not a rock band make. What The Evens do instead is play a sort of electrified folk music that’s infused with a contemporarily relevant punk aesthetic. But at the mention of folk please don’t go confusing Ian and Amy with Ian and Sylvia. My use of folk here regards proportion and desired effects. It’s worth noting that except for a decade or so (the ‘60s, dontcha know), folk music has never been easy bedfellows with the environment of the night club for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is its traditions often fall outside the bounds of commerce, relating more to community, family and as a means of documenting and delivering the past for future generations. I’ve witnessed the Evens live three times, once at a huge protest during the run up to the second Gulf War, once at a small outdoor event at Fort Reno Park, and once at a benefit in a church. All three experiences pulled my chain but good, though easily the best of the bunch was the benefit. This was due to the quality of the performance yes, but also to the atmosphere of the room. There was no invisible barrier between the givers on the stage and the receivers in the audience, no set of expectations that needed to be met to justify a high door price, and no drunken louts gabbing intrusively over the music. The Evens flirt with but essentially eschew the rock dynamic, and while it wouldn’t necessarily be inappropriate to call them quiet in certain contexts, what they play is far from serene or meditative. In other words it’s a tough, inventive sound that invites attention instead of demanding it. Few and far between are rock bands (like Shellac for instance) that disdain the rigmarole of the rock cub touring circuit, where the significant amount of gig attendees have plunked down hard cash on the barrelhead and simply desire to be entertained. It’s no surprise given the style of music The Evens have developed that they wish to avoid dealing with halls populated by folks looking to get a charge from the guy who wrote “Waiting Room”. The Evens’ records have been released very casually and with full equality between the two principals. No fanfare over Ian’s storied background has been trumpeted in the attempt to shift units, and that’s refreshing. But if the music weren’t up to snuff, this lack of self-promotional trappings would be admirable but not especially noteworthy. In the end The Evens make the grade through the quality of their songs, and as contemporary exponents of the folk sensibility, they still unabashedly channel punk spirit while being uninterested in regurgitating the structural rudiments of the form. It just doesn’t have much in common with the mindset that accepts and encourages the worn-out shadows of once worthwhile bands to tour for the umpteenth time on the fumes of prior triumphs while flogging a mutilated horse carcass. Instead, the music is questioning, edgy and direct, the lyrics aligned with discontent and protest while avoiding the pitfalls of sloganeering, oversimplification or didacticism, and the interweaving voices and instrumentation use skill not as a bludgeon but as a means to build energy and express abstract ideas. “Warble Factor”, the A side of this new 7”, opens with Ian’s baritone guitar tossing off a nice little funky line, the particulars of his instrument allowing him to cover both the bottom end and the melodic side, before Amy takes the lead, her voice throaty yet spry and her drumming thankfully uninterested in simply keeping time. Along the way the pair displays a fine handle on how to utilize shifts in tempo, volume and instrumental punch without ever sounding loud. All the while “Warble Factor” is edgy, intricate and expectedly unique; nothing specific on the current scene springs to mind that’s really equivalent to the spare intensity of their sound. Flipside “Timothy Wright” finds Ian in the reflective down-tempo mode that he’s occasionally explored since the last couple of Fugazi albums, and if given the full band arrangement the song could easily fit on END HITS or into the ragged allure of INSTRUMENT. But as presented here “Timothy Wright” solidly connects as another fine track from The Evens, which means that nothing’s missing and there’s a helluva lot to gain.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/2/11 - John Zorn and Blind Willie Johnson

While by no means allergic to its charms, I have to fess up to being no big fan of Christmas music. I certainly understand the appeal and am okay with the inevitability that I’ll hear “Little Saint Nick” every time I go to the supermarket between Thanksgiving and Dec. 24th, but must admit that in my humble digs, other than A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHILLES RECORDS (the Phil Spector girl-group record, my personal favorite Christmas album ever) and a few one-shots like “Merry Christmas Baby” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers or “Silent Night” by Low, the stuff is simply unlikely to get much play. Don’t think me a Grinch, for the holidays bring me a substantial amount of cheer. It’s just that in my experience most Xmas tunes are very high on sentiment (by design, yes) but generally wanting in the properties that constitute great, or often even just plain good music, a situation I find extremely hard to ignore. So ignore it I don’t. Instead, I’m perfectly happy to groove on zydeco, post-punk or Krautrock while roasting chestnuts on the open fire.  However, it looks like I might need to rethink this somewhat hard-line stance, at least just a little bit, for John Zorn’s freshly released A DREAMER’S CHRISTMAS appears to be more than just another entry into the yearly tidal-wave of contemporary holiday-themed musical diversions, instead feeling something very much like a true keeper. Listeners knowledgeable with Mr. Zorn’s vast output know that he’s a prime instigator of challenging musical environments that can gleefully hurdle headlong into pure sonic mayhem. His group Naked City alone has put large dents in many a dainty constitution, and that’s just one in a formidable hydra head of projects. But the man also has a soft side, so those thinking he’s concocted some sort of anti-Christmas LP need not be worried (or hopeful). Releases like 2001’s exotica-laden THE GIFT, 2008’s somewhat surfy (think Ventures) THE DREAMERS and 2009’s mediation on smooth jazz (think Ramsey Lewis, not Kenny G) ALHAMBRA LOVE SONGS all present valuable insights into an aspect of the musician/composer that’s always been key to his work if not always in plain sight, specifically that numerous inside traditions are integral to his personal aesthetic. A DREAMER’S CHRISTMAS presents nine tracks that initially feel like a hybrid of light exotica and inside jazz at its most professionally polished. But along the way all kinds of other stuff sneaks in. The Dreamers band, a crackerjack group of Zorn mainstays (in addition to this album and the ’08 disc that gave them their name they also appear as a group on ‘09’s O’O and last year’s IPOS: BOOK OF ANGELS VOLUME 14) tackle the material with the skill and panache of true session vets, lightly seasoning the whole with atypical but non-disruptive bits of left-field imagination. Opener “Winter Wonderland” is a showcase for Kenny Wolleson’s vibes, Jamie Saft’s electric piano and Marc Ribot’s slinky surf guitar licks, and along with the dead-solid rhythm work of bassist Trevor Dunn, percussionist Cyro Baptista and drummer Joey Baron they conjure something comparable to a bunch of anonymous workaday cats reeling off tunes in an airport cocktail lounge on a snowy Christmas Eve as travelers knock back drinks en route to their (or hopefully someone’s) homes by morning, the whole band kicking up an inexplicable head of swingin’ steam and for the duration everyone in the room is hanging on the brink of collective seasonal bliss. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s just a well-established idea transformed by wise inspiration and casual flash. Either way it’s a pip. “Snowfall” is more atmospheric, sounding a bit like the sounds flowing from the loudspeakers in an upscale department store while folks wait listlessly in line for gift wrapping services. Except something’s not quite right. Methinks the culprit is Ribot’s interloping guitar, adding the perfect amount of spice to the dreamy proceedings. The looming, loving presence of Vince Guaraldi is an obvious influence all over A DREAMER’S CHRISTMAS, so it only makes sense that they should tackle the man’s signature tune “Christmas Time is Here”, and it should come as no surprise that Saft shines on piano, though Dunn’s tough bass almost steals the show. Speaking of show stealing, Zorn’s original “Santa’s Workshop” is an unexpected treat of sincere conceptual invention (it sounds twenty years old on first listen) and one of the prettiest confections I’ve heard in quite a while, largely in part to Wolleson’s vibes. Cyro Baptista’s lithe but tough bongo slapping is nothing to sneeze at, either. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is played so straight that it’d likely get the seal of approval from the eternally smiling mug of Lionel Hampton. And in this case, that’s very cool. Not my favorite track on the album, but it should work real nice for some extended make out under the mistletoe. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” starts off innocuously enough but before long turns into a real zesty frolic for Ribot, with Saft’s keyboard percolating underneath like Big John Patton with a case of the hiccups. Sneet! “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” is bookended by a tribute to the great Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence, whose gorgeously weird-meat version of the tune was captured by Alan Lomax on a 1958 field trip. But the meat in “Santa Claus”’s sandwich is a high-flying jazz excursion and showcase for Saft’s pianistic skills, and thankfully he avoids succumbing to the sort of flying-finger keyboard mode that tunes of this tempo often inspire. Instead, he’s more in league with Ahmad Jamal or later Bill Evans, and that’s just dandy. As an added plus, Baron gets to break lose a bit on drums, always a welcome development. Zorn’s other original “Magical Sleigh Ride” is nearly up the level of “Santa’s Workshop”, plus the song allows for some collective weirding-out and an opportunity for Ribot and Saft to really burn. The set closes with the well worn Mel Torme standard “The Christmas Song”, featuring a guest vocal by Mike Patton in unabashed crooner mode, and it goes down as smooth as a big mug of homemade nog. Yum.  But maybe the best thing about A DREAMER’S CHRISMAS is how it ultimately feels obvious that everyone involved enjoyed the hell out of making it. As stated at the top of this text, normally that’s not enough for me (Xmas tunes or no), but when all the participants involved have chops to burn and ideas to spare, the whole project takes on a very appealing harmony. This will never be one of my favorite albums, but I can safely predict that for a month or so out of the year I’ll be quite happy it’s around.

When back in the beginning of the ‘90s Columbia Records unveiled their Roots N’ Blues series, music obsessives the globe over threw their hats into the air and let out a collective whoop. Here was a rare move by a corporation that actually possessed something analogous to real human dimension, reissuing a wealth of early American music, much of it rare, in well-ordered collections and under a promotional banner intended to lure and educate curious newcomers to its enduring qualities. True, vital and admirable smaller labels like Arhoolie and Yazoo had already been long engaged in this very activity, and sure, profit motive definitely lurked in Columbia’s intentions, but in an endeavor like this one a word like “motive” feels sorta inappropriate. Instead, it seems correct to describe Roots N’ Blues as an example of Capitalism at its best; offering insight, enrichment and a bounty of rewards at a fair price instead of amassing stockpiles of boodle by fleecing people for necessities and proffering an endless cavalcade of distractions. Needless to say, as a young prole with high appetites for art and knowledge I absorbed the impressive stream of Roots N’ Blues releases with extreme gusto, a move that’s still paying big dividends to this day. Probably the biggest personal discovery gleaned from the whole dang experience was the work of Blind Willie Johnson, his complete recordings collected over two compact discs, a mass of songs that opened my ears and throttled my consciousness with the sheer depth and uncompromising, at times unnerving intensity of its fascinating, mysterious creator. Blind Willie Johnson was in no way a standard issue bluesman, and it’s important to explain that he’s in large part not accurately a blues musician at all, unless the discussion is one where form completely trumps content, for Johnson was a devoutly religious man, his music being among the deepest expressions of pure gospel feeling ever recorded. At the time of his long posthumous Roots N’ Blues collection (Johnson died of malaria in 1945) the term used to categorize the music’s raw sanctified power was Gospel Blues, and this descriptor still works just fine. But an even better way to encapsulate his legacy is to bestow him with the title of Guitar Evangelist, placing Johnson in a small group of African-American roots musicians that combined the rich and intense characteristics of the blues form with the uncommon fervor of sincere Christian belief. Though there are other worthy exponents of Guitar Evangelism, particularly the intriguingly monochromatic Rev. Edward W. Clayborn (from whom the term derives) or the marvelous Blind Mamie Forehand (it’s a signifier that many Guitar Evangelists are deprived of sight), it is plainly acknowledged that Blind Willie Johnson sits at the forefront of the style. Succinctly, his music is amongst the most honest and affecting ever recorded. That venerable Portland, Oregon institution Mississippi Records has just released a fresh limited repressing of its mammoth 2LP set titled DARK WAS THE NIGHT COLD WAS THE GROUND, the contents collecting twenty-six of the man’s thirty extant tunes, all recorded between the years 1927-30, and it’s a severe understatement to call it a thrilling, essential document. While many of the standout legends in the early country blues chronology excelled at doing one or a few things extremely well, Johnson was strikingly varied, all while imbuing his music with very specific characteristics. The first of these is his rough, insistent voice. It’s undoubtedly true that Johnson, a poor black man stricken blind in a racist land, turned to music as a buffer to his need for charity. But the unpolished intensity of his singing makes it immediately clear that he was brutally committed to the cause of his music. It’s not just his sandpapery tones but the blunt force of the delivery; unlike more commercially minded, secular artists, he wasn’t trying to seduce the lobes of the listener with smoothness and finesse, but attempting instead to infiltrate the very core of their souls to shake them. And yet he was far from limited as a singer, shifting from his booming, gravelly gutbucket strains to a more relaxed mode as the material demanded, and he was even capable of transformative, arresting moans in the service of song. Johnson could also sing in uncommonly supple duets with female accompanists, a large portion of his discography devoted to just this practice, the best vocal foil on record likely belonging to his first wife Willie B. Harris.  And as the fact that he recorded his oeuvre over five different sessions for the same label makes plain, Johnson was a quite popular figure in his brief time in front of a microphone, even initially outselling fellow Columbia recording artist Bessie Smith, though it points to the institutional marginalization of the African-American populace that by the early ‘50s his name was essentially forgotten. Another aspect of Johnson’s art that shows off his versatility is his alternation between a cutting, haunting bottleneck slide style and a nimble finger-picking mastery. An extremely accomplished player, the warmth and complexity of the whole movement of American Primitive Guitar can be laid at his feet, for it was the epiphany of a young John Fahey hearing “Praise God I’m Satisfied” that kick-started the whole movement. Along with this fact, credit should also be paid to Johnson for his influence on Ry Cooder’s amazing soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ PARIS TEXAS. When Roots N’ Blues collected these tracks, they were sensibly and scholarly presented in chronological order across two CDs. Mississippi Records takes a different tack, presenting them non-sequentially over four vinyl sides with the intention for maximum emotional effect. It’s a wise move, allowing the locomotive-like momentum of “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” to contrast brilliantly with the slow-burn ache of “The Rain Don’t Fall On Me”, and it sheds fresh context on the more lauded tunes like “Praise God I’m Satisfied” and “John the Revelator” by placing them directly beside less celebrated but equally central tracks from his well of eternal inspiration. But even when some numbers appear in the sequence of their original recording, they are given fresh illumination by appearing later in the song order. Side three finds the infectious melodiousness of “Let Your Light Shine On Me” sandwiched betwixt “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “God Don’t Ever Change”, all from his second session, and Mississippi’s selective processing really places new emphasis on “Let Your Light…”, which I once considered a perfectly fine but somewhat minor song. Unlike some undeniably essential players from any era who excel in hard musical styles, Blind Willie Johnson’s range allows his work to be absorbed in one big gulp, but DARK WAS THE NIGHT’s double album format still allows the listener the opportunity for pause if necessary. To illustrate, Johnson’s most famous tune closes side one. “Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground” was inducted in 2010 into The National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and was included by NASA on the Music From Earth portion of Voyager’s Golden Record, a sort of space time capsule intended to document the better nature of human life on this planet. In the words of the great Samuel Charters, it is “one of the unique masterpieces of American Music”. A deeply personal version of an old church hymn relating to the crucifixion of Christ, Johnson transforms a song previously employed as a solemn call and response by a preacher and congregation into a meditative, wordless dialogue between his transcendent slide and the maddeningly sublime hum and moan of his vocals. Its three and a half minutes are simply breathtaking, and I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. It was included as track four on the Roots N’ Blues compilation THE SLIDE GUITAR: BOTTLES, KNIVES AND STEEL, and after experiencing the song, I repeated it five or six times before shutting off the stereo and leaving the house, taking a long walk to gather my bearings (How do you follow an immersion into incomparable beauty? Answer: you don’t). The song captivatingly eludes the properties of language to span across all boundaries of human experience, hitting the listener instead on a more profound emotional level. This is why Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini included the song, along with music seemingly as divergent as Bach and Odetta, on the soundtrack to his 1964 biblical masterwork THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW. While placing anachronistic music in a period drama would seem to be a certain tempting of folly, it instead enriched the film’s themes to startling effect. Since that first hearing the song has always remained close to me, but it still has the potential to sneak up and hit my being with incredible force. One rainy Saturday night roughly a decade ago while driving home from a movie on Rt. 9 in West Virginia I was listening to Dick Spottswood’s excellent radio show on WAMU out of Washington DC. He was playing a bunch of fine old-timey stuff as is his wont, and then out of nowhere came the strains of “Dark Was the Night…”. I was in a rather melancholy mood that evening, driving somewhat listlessly as the wipers beat a steady rhythm upon the windshield. But as the song played I was taken all over again by its undiluted brilliance. Seeing a shopping center parking lot ahead, I quickly pulled off and idled, absorbing the regenerative nature of the sounds until they reached their denouement. To be blunt, it all just snuck up on me. What Sam Phillips reportedly said after hearing Howlin’ Wolf: “This is where the soul of man never dies”. The same is true of Blind Willie Johnson. Please infer no overstatement when I say that people, this is it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/25/11 - Mark Sultan and Miles Davis

For many, the name Mark Sultan is basically synonymous with the moniker BBQ, the deliciously raw and rocking one man band that comprised half of the sadly defunct demolition duo The King Khan & BBQ Show. The pair’s self titled debut was one of the biggest surprises of the aughties, coming out of left field to impress this writer as something quite different then what I expected, which to be candid was something approximating a garage friendly incarnation of Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. Boy was I off the mark and good thing, too. The duo instead were a thrilling improbability, a combination of sincere but thankfully non-Sha-Na-Na-ist doo wop worship, gleefully impolite rockabilly moves and non-reverent Crampsian punk grit. The wondrousness of that sentence’s properties gives me tingles just typing it. Weee! But with the release of 2007’s THE SULTANIC VERSES Sultan dropped the BBQ pseudonym for his solo releases and began doing it under his own good name. That record and 2010’s gnarly and excellent follow up $ solidly defined Sultan’s gush as being deliriously out of time while casually yet defiantly of the true cutting edge. In some ways he’s underestimated in the alt-music media as the grumpy dude that once flanked Khan’s unpredictable and eccentric personality, but thankfully that hasn’t slowed him down one bit. Instead, he’s seemed to use that inaccurate assessment as fuel, for the guy has two new records out, WHATEVER I WANT and WHENEVER I WANT, and the contents are a wicked plunge into the spicy broth of a twisted, rabid mind. While on the surface the ingredients in Sultan’s stew might seem somewhat rote, closer listening reveals his range to be impressively catholic; he’s managed flashes of stripped down non-angst-laden Velvet’s mining, served up moments of J. Richman as a young lad more obsessed with Sun Records than Reed and Co, peddled some loose and raucous Buddy Holly inspired action, crafted some hazy and gloriously doofus teen psyche, and even kicked out hot chunks that almost feel like rugged demos for some unreleased 45 on Bomp Records. Yow. Well, WHENEVER I WANT finds him not only continuing to swim in these strong waters but stepping out even further.  Opener “Keep Em Satisfied, Part 1” immediately ups the ante with swamp blues simplicity and some hints of rural gospel influence. Good gravy. “In Future Worlds” sounds a little bit like if Zager and Evans were hit over the head with a brick by Del Shannon back in ’68 and then coerced into recording a one off 45 with him for ESP Disk. “Pancakes” is just what its title promises, a song about the wholesome goodness of flapjacks, but it’s also about remembrance and yearning for a simpler time of life (aka that tricky bugaboo nostalgia) and it’s fitting that Sultan uses the exalted strains of street corner harmony to carry his somewhat universal message across. I mean, even vegan’s love pancakes, right? “Party Crasher” could’ve been a song from the soundtrack of a lost grade-Z teensploitation drive-in epic where a lovingly knuckleheaded rock group is accidentally shot into outer space and forced to do battle with Martian cavemen. Paging Ray Dennis Steckler! “Not Another Day” is the prettiest shuffle of an anti-work tune that I’ve heard in a long time, and “See Them Wave Goodbye” features some rogue banjo and guitar so fuzzed out that it could’ve been lifted from one of Tim Warren’s BACK FROM THE GRAVE volumes. Side the second opens with “Keep Em Satisfied, Part Two”, a perfectly conceived slow-burn stripped-down garage-soul rave-up that’s like the essence of a Jack White wet-dream concentrated and alchemized into a 4:30 slab of stompin’ shoutin’ testifyin’ aural mania. Hyperbole? Best back up, buster. “Let Me Freeze” is a strong huff of Killed By Death fumes, and “Apophis to the Slaughter” is pure garage goofing, sorta like a cross between the Hombres and prime Seeds. But it’s “For Those Who Don’t Exist” that really hits Saturn’s outer rings. Starting out as some whistle, crunch and strum that’s innocuous enough in a folk-psyche sorta way, after some stun guitar tribalism it slowly builds into a full on free jazz skronk fest. What’s impressive is that it actually sounds like it could’ve been grafted onto WHENEVER I WANT’s second side from some lost Center of the World Records acetate or something. Does Sultan know Alan Silva? Jeepers Creepers. This sort of screwy genre negation is just the kind of thing to drive garage rock purists totally nutzoid. This is cool. Even cooler is that shallow feebs constantly on the trail of the next thing won’t be around to foul up the air. Mark Sultan is a prickly cat, seemingly always in motion and wearing his mouth on his sleeve, unafraid to air unpopular opinions in public. The contents of the WHATEVER and WHENEVER LPs have been cherry picked for CD release, and if you’re merely curious that might be the way to proceed. But his records are a big gangly mess of lovely ideas, and listeners tuned to his frequency (low wattage, static laden, and as far to the left of the dial as it’ll turn) are gonna wanna hear it all. WHENEVER I WANT is a fine half, so jump on in.

Like many a kid, I went through a period where I was heavily into comic books. For a few years on weekly family trips to the supermarket I’d spend the entire duration eagerly rotating and scanning the contents stuffed into the spindly comics rack, absorbing as much info as I could before being forced by time constraints to decide upon which issue to buy with the meager pieces of my own stray silver, or if hard up for coin (which was often) hopefully procured through the benevolent auspices of my Mother’s purse strings. As someone unable to buy more than one title every week or two, I was a stone sucker for those very occasional issues with covers that advertised a surfeit of heroes and villains coming together under one banner to engage in all sorts of collective creative mayhem. An imagination-addled preteen might describe it as more bang for the buck. In retrospect, some of those issues were cool, but just as many featured a jumble of bluster and lack of cohesiveness that could leave a young mind feeling simultaneously overstimulated and underfed. As an adult, I encountered a similar situation while in the throes of jazz consumption. Ogling the personnel on the backs of record jackets and CD covers and taking home copies of releases with the most star-studded rosters was revealed with due quickness as a not particularly savvy way of getting to the big crux of the improvisational matter. For every JAZZ AT MASSEY HALL or BLUES AND THE ABSTRACT TRUTH there accumulated a stack of records chock full of major names, that while in no way shameful or even average, simply had to take a back seat to certain releases with one clear star (or none) and a bunch of lesser known names giving amazing performances. Part of this is what I like to call “personal canon-building”, that process of sifting through the small avalanche of established classics to get at what feels individually resonant, and the other part is gaining the invaluable insight that star hierarchy in jazz can be as faulty as it is in pop music or in Hollywood. To put it another way; in my personal estimation the smaller outputs of pianists like Dodo Marmarosa, Elmo Hope or Carl Perkins individually outweigh the mammoth discography of an overrated figure like Oscar Peterson. It’s with all this in mind that I grew leery of the rep of certain star-studded albums, BAG’S GROOVE by Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants in particular. Featuring a list of players that’s loaded top to bottom with established jazz masters, I felt it was impossible for the record to live up to its potential, as if stacking these names on top of each other was somehow supposed to translate into a skyscraper of greatness. Plus, I’d already heard a bit about the problems Davis and Monk had while recording together, the leader asking the pianist to not play (to “lay out” in jazz-speak) during his solos, and having already been exposed to the recorded incompatibility between another inside trumpeter (Kenny Dorham) and outside pianist (Cecil Taylor) on STEREO DRIVE aka COLTRANE TIME, this worried me even further. But upon finally sitting down with BAG’S GROOVE all preconceived notions quickly fell by the wayside, with the only thing that ultimately mattered being the vast quality of the music. Simply put, this LP, compiled and released three years after the initial sessions, is as essential as anything produced in the jazz genre during the 1950s. Now for some back-story: BAG’S GROOVE compiles work from two separate ’54 recording dates by a pair of somewhat different lineups. The first session was taped on the 29th of June, and while it makes up the record’s second side, it warrants being discussed first. Featuring Miles with Sonny Rollins on tenor, Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny “Klook” Clarke on drums, it’s something of a clinic in post-bop affairs; consisting of three Rollins’ originals and two takes of a Gershwin standard, the five tracks find all the contributors in essentially flawless form, and the music really sits at a vibrant midway point between the still fresh progressions of the original bebop impulse and the vast sea of the soon to be entrenched post-bop and/or hard-bop sensibility that dominated the East Coast jazz scene in the second half of the ‘50s. For instance, the rhythm team of Heath and Clarke were both members of the still young Modern Jazz Quartet, but more importantly they’d each served under the formidable jowls of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. While tangibly more flowing, relaxed and crisp than the wilder rhythmic expression of early bop, the bass and drums on BAG’S side 2 still feel closely connected to the root of Modern Jazz, particularly in Clarke’s bass drum. On the other side of the equation, Horace Silver was not only the co-founder of the Jazz Messengers, perhaps the quintessential hard-bop group, but also the leader on a slew of classic Blue Note albums that helped define the qualitative brilliance of mainstream jazz in its heyday, the ’55-’65 period. Between these two polls sits Davis and Rollins. While Miles is the leader, Sonny in some ways steals his thunder. As mentioned, three tunes belong to Rollins’ penmanship and the choice of Gershwin fits the tenor’s modus operandi like a ballerina slipper on a lean and muscular foot (though to be fair it’s also right up Davis’s old chestnut loving alley). But also, Rollins’ playing, while not quite at the levels of largeness to be found on ‘56’s TENOR MADNESS (for just one example), is still quite booming (if lithe) for the period, though also detectably in the thrall of twin tenor titans Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. BAG’S GROOVE can accurately be described as a landmark recording in the career of Sonny Rollins, and for that reason alone ranks as an indispensible jazz acquisition. And yet there is Miles, his playing simply superb, if not quite at the recognizable crossroads of sound and phrasing that defines his later ‘50s work. Not quite; “Oleo” shines as the first recorded example of Davis’s use of the Norman mute, an event of huge significance in the landscape of 20th century music. But BAG’S GROOVE has so much more to recommend it. Like Silver’s rich, soulful playing, equal parts grease and intellect. Or Heath’s massive bass line on “Oleo”. Or how the whole group navigates the shifty buoyancy of “Doxy”, a tune with a shrewdly casual head that in the wrong hands could easily be maimed into sounding like a bad sit-com theme from around 1960, this crew making it sound instead like a truly fabulous sit-com theme from around 1960, with typically grand solos from Davis, Rollins and Silver, all displaying the deceptive no-big-deal-ness that perfectly suits this sort of sophisticatedly funky material shining from between the intro and the play out. Side 2’s five tracks would justify the purchase of BAG’S GROOVE all by their collective lonesome, but the two takes of the title tune excerpted from the now legendary Christmas Eve ’54 date on side 1 help this LP rise to the level of an abundantly revelatory document. Fittingly, the lineup shifts. Rollins exits and vibraphonist and fellow Modern Jazz Quartet member Milt Jackson turns up in unsurprisingly fine fettle. Silver the approachable synthesist is replaced by Monk the idiosyncratic master, and this is initially where the action is; specifically, Miles’ difficulty in playing along with Monk’s stridently non-traditional execution can in some ways appear like an early incarnation of the trumpeter’s now legendary flare-ups of close-mindedness, mean-spiritedness or downright intolerance. But actually, no: what it illustrates in this case is that Davis was indeed really listening to his fellow contributors and that Monk’s unusual conception unfortunately hindered the trumpeter’s ability to create in the moment. The rest of this session has been long available on MILES DAVIS AND THE MODERN JAZZ GIANTS, and those tracks make a few things quite clear. First, Monk was apparently asked to refrain on “Bag’s Groove” only. Second, the pianist, obviously stung by hurt feelings, contrarily instigates difficulties to the studio atmosphere, with the evidence plainly revealed through the false start of “The Man I Love”’s first take. But if this difference of musical temperament persists as part of BAG’S GROOVE’s alluring lore, it’s far from the main reason for its lasting import. Here’s another; earlier, I described Monk’s playing as stridently non-traditional, and it surely is, but it’s not always easy in century 21 to ingest or relate that fact. Monk’s work has become such an integral part of the jazz discourse that in many ways he no longer sounds “weird” or at odds with any prevailing norm; he instead just sounds like Monk. And this is cool, since the true appeal of the pianist’s oeuvre lies not in its strangeness but instead in its inexhaustible depth and rare, thorny beauty. But for some valuable insight into just how unique Monk actually was at the time of his marginalization, “Bag’s Groove”, particularly take 1, is a superb study. Milt Jackson’s composition begins with the expected grace, all the players sans Monk contributing to stating the theme before Davis turns out a solo of striking magnificence, with strides made in just a six month period immediately palpable, his playing really sounding like the Miles of the insanely fertile ’57-’67 period. Then it’s Jackson’s time to solo, and it’s a turn of eloquent blues feeling. It’s here that Monk first appears, and Ira Gitler is spot on in the LP notes, describing the pianist as “comp[ing] timidly”. If this was the extent of Monk’s contribution it would surely be an underwhelming experience. But the solo to follow audaciously announces a change of direction. Gitler’s assessment of it as Monk “toss[ing] rhythmic figures around like someone bouncing a rubber ball off a wall” can’t help but smack of the writer taking a jab at the pianist, possibly on Davis’s behalf (it is his album after all), but it also points to the hesitancy of appreciation that was still dogging Monk circa ’57.  But in actually hearing that solo, it becomes easy to understand (though I ultimately don’t agree with) the backhanded nature of Gitler’s evaluation. To call Monk’s playing angular in “Bag’s…” is a bit like calling Marilyn Monroe pretty or Magic Johnson agile for a big man. It’s accurate but doesn’t really suffice, dig? Compared to the (soon to be classique) straight ahead sensibility of the rest of the group, Thelonious arrives as if from some other planet. For a small taste of what it was like to be a jazz fan in the ‘50s, nonchalantly confronted with the crossroads of hipster elegance and square limitations, well look no further. But Monk ultimately and rather easily transcends attitudes of mere coolness. He was, in the sage words of Ray Davies, not like everybody else. Hey, thanks Miles, for being such an astute pain in the ass.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 11/18/11 - Thee Oh Sees and The Grateful Dead

While these days it’s relatively easy to hear or read them described in basically garage-band terms, it is very much worth noting that San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees began operation as a far weirder amalgamation of influences. Formed by John Dwyer, ex of such impressive noise-rock outfits as Coachwhips and Pink and Brown, Thee Oh Sees explored avenues of less raucous but intensely attractive outsider headspace. Their first LP THE COOL DEATH OF ISLAND RAIDERS for instance, drew upon such disparate if simpatico angles and influences as The Shaggs, loner-psyche, freak-folk, post-Krautrock drones and even hints of The Paisley Underground at its least collegian. A big part of the band’s appeal comes via vocalist/keyboardist Brigid Dawson, her voice at times conjuring up the bruised eeriness that makes underground UK psyche-folk such a continually appealing proposition. But as tilting an ear toward the very necessary corral of short-players SINGLES VOL. 1 + 2 or the outstanding full-length CASTLEMANIA from earlier this year shows, Thee Oh Sees also have a predilection for rock. And even though I haven’t managed to absorb every bit of their sizable discography I feel confident in proclaiming that the freshly released CARRION CRAWLER /THE DREAM LP finds them at the very top of their game. It shows an expert hand at combining the aesthetic and sense of scale that continues to define the garage genre with welcome gusts of legit psyche action all without the slightest bit of dissonance in presentation, which is really worth noting since the stripped down grunt of basic garage-rocking often suffers when mixed with more outbound tendencies. The appeal of “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” or “Incense and Peppermints” stems from gestures less sincere and far more trend-conscious, but the tone turning serious frankly resulted in scads of mere curiosities and outright missteps, and anyway it’s 2011 and Thee Oh Sees are markedly not in a post-NUGGETS mold; frankly they’re just too intrinsically weird for that designation. John Dwyer is a byproduct of the fertile ‘90s underground, a scene where it wasn’t a bit unusual to find folks drawing influence from such varied sources as garage odd-meats Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Krautrock kingpins Can, UK free-folksters Comus, and avant-drone monster Charlemagne Palestine. And CARRION CRAWLER wastes no time in showing off Dwyer and Co’s far-reaching scope, though the sprawl is generally rock taggable; the opener “Carrion Crawler” hits upon an exquisite run of extended riff-worship that’s like PIPER-era Floyd if they recorded for International Artists, but with just a hint of outbound distorto soloing that recalls Wayne Rogers of much missed ‘80s New England psychsters Crystallized Movements.  “Contraption/Soul Desert” utilizes finely tuned passages of stun guitar to come up with something that’s not far from early Airplane if they’d been routinely shoot-up in the left butt-check with primo ‘roids by some rogue manager. But it’s the instrumental “Chem-Farmer” that provides CARRION CRAWLER with its standout track, locking into a brawny, vaguely Kraut-like rhythmic groove and then just riding it until they actually start inspiring visions of a mythical garage-punk version of early Stereolab. If Thee Oh Sees don’t manage to attain the heights of “Chem-Farmer” on the second side, they don’t miss by much, and I’m quite pleased with the development of their motion. “The Dream”’s sound actually registers as completely contemporary and very hard for me to draw comparisons with any other band currently working, though I’m sure I could come up with something if I sat here and contemplated it for a while. Maybe the label switch to In The Red has something to do with it (or maybe I’m just imagining things) but The Oh Sees are fine-tuning their sound, becoming heavier, more muscular while reining back the weirdness and not sacrificing a thing in depth or quality. CARRION CRAWLER/THE DREAM’s second side presents a well focused band upping the forcefulness of their attack to fine result, and I’m quite psyched to hear Thee Oh Sees’ future developments. No pun intended.

I’m on record as considering the first three albums by The Grateful Dead to be something like the apex of San Francisco psyche as rendered in the studio environment, and prizing LIVE/DEAD as one of the greatest of all live rock albums. That trio of studio-bound Dead discs essentially present a blues-based band not particularly far from the standard Stones/Yardbirds template (the debut THE GRATEFUL DEAD) subsequently undertaking considerable levels of experimentation (ANTHEM OF THE SUN) and then combining that spirit of exploration with maturing songwriting skill and instrumental prowess (AOXOMOXOA). And as great as those three records continue to be, LIVE/DEAD, when considered along with the concert captured on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s HAPPY TRAILS and the half live/all awesome stature of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s CHEAP THRILLS basically sums up San Fran psyche as a true 'performance based' music. Indeed, the constant touring of the Dead and the ritualistic grandeur of their shows springs from just this very idea. Even though I think their first three records get a bad rap from certain quarters, I can’t deny that when it comes to the Dead, live is where it’s at. And after catching lightning in a bottle and waxing it on four sides of vinyl, just where does this particular band go from there? Back into the studio where they recorded WORKINGMAN’S DEAD, frankly a record it took me years to warm up to. Full disclosure: as a mid-‘80s Johnny-come-lately suburban punk I found The Grateful Dead to be something distinctly other than my bag, dig me? Of course I grew up and out of that shortsightedness, and LIVE/DEAD was the major part of my maturation. Sure, I also grabbed a handle on that early studio stuff, mainly because I’d grown curious over the storied nature of the San Fran scene in general, looking into names big (Quicksilver, Santana, Sly, Steve Miller, Airplane, Country Joe, Big Brother, Moby Grape, It’s a Beautiful Day) and small (Mad River, Frumious Bandersnatch, Mojo Men, The Mystery Trend, Kak, Fifty Foot Hose). But LIVE/DEAD hit me like a ton of Tex Avery’s cartoon bricks, and back then in my estimation the unabashed studio-based acoustic country-folkishness of WORKINGMAN’S DEAD just didn’t compare. Well, it still doesn’t, but I’ve come to consider LIVE/DEAD and WORKINGMAN’S to be something like apples and oranges harvested from the same funky orchard. The first of two Dead albums released in 1970, WORKINGMAN’S opens and closes with two by now ubiquitous tunes from the band, the somewhat Crosby Stills and Nash-like “Uncle John’s Band” and the country-rock cornerstone “Casey Jones”. I’ve heard these classic rock radio staples more times than I can shake a rucksack made from 100% hemp at, but what’s interesting is how they can transcend being overplayed and still work in the context of the LP that spawned them. In addition, WORKINGMAN’S also includes a few deep cuts/concert staples in “High Time”, the distinctively bluesy “New Speedway Boogie”, the rollicking “Cumberland Blues” and the fabulous “Black Peter”. What I’ve come to accept over the years is just how strongly conceived and well delivered these songs are. What I’ve come to acknowledge over the years is just how prescient their sound was; this album and AMERICAN BEAUTY are basically Americana in a nutshell (check out “Dire Wolf” if you don’t believe me). And what I’ve come to understand over the years is that some stereotypes are really nothing more than collective faulty opinions. That is, for a band often derided for excessiveness and self-indulgence, WORKINGMAN’S DEAD is lean in construction and direct in execution. As the record’s most psychedelic track, “Easy Wind” is notable in this context, heading outward but retaining the relative brevity of the album’s other seven songs. By this late date The Grateful Dead are not only deeply ensconced as major players in non-crap rock lore but also continue to be relevant in a contemporary sense, influencing scads of bands including Wilco, The Decemberists and Animal Collective. They were also the true survivors of the San Fran scene, releasing quality albums deep into the ‘70s when their contemporaries had succumbed to shilling out sub-par product or far worse. WORKINGMAN’S DEAD might pale in comparison to one of the band's top-notch live shows or even next to the intense studio weirdness of ANTHEM OF THE SUN, but it’s still a jewel in its own right. If you don’t know it, please proceed. And if you’re undecided? Well, it can never hurt to reconsider.