Robert Pollard’s unrelenting inundation of product continues unabated in 2011 with SPACE CITY KICKS, a pill sweet and tart with pleasantly art-damaged pop-rock that jaunts and digresses into a whole bunch of ragged crannies. This drunk master’s chronological wheelhouse will always be roughly ’66-’78, or more descriptively the period that sorta begins with The Beatles great leap forward via REVOLVER and ends at the breakthrough of high power-pop style that hit commercially through Cheap Trick and The Cars. As stated elsewhere in this blog, Pollard siphons much of his mojo from the Anglo side of the pond, and his artistic existence is basically unimaginable without Beatles/Kinks/Who/Faces as a launching pad. Sometimes he tempers this impulse and jumps into hard(er) rock territory, but SPACE CITY KICKS wears its Brit-rock DNA proudly on its sleeve. Yet in so doing it still feels totally American, like a one-shot mid-‘70s album from a mythical English-enamored Midwestern group, a band pop-rock at its core yet beset by all sorts of art-rock aspirations, four-fifths Badfinger/Raspberries/Runt roots with a disruptive twenty percent that couldn’t keep their fingers off the odd and occasionally proggy import cut-outs in the record bin of their local drug store. Of course a whole lot of cognitive dissonance is present in that description. KICKS bathes in a methodically slapdash aura that’s antithetical to most mid-‘70s records, and it’s a solid cinch that no label of the era (major label, anyway) would allow a band’s strongest pop ditties to hit shelves at lengths under two minutes. But these anachronistic qualities are the biggest part of why Pollard still matters. The dude’s entire aesthetic is hitched (some might say chained) to a post that can’t get much more “classic” or “Rock” in its grain, but never for an instant does he falter into the trite realms of the mere retro. Naturally with a guy this prolific everybody’s mileage will vary, but I feel that KICKS is a sleek keeper. In addition to all of the above, I also hear flashes of The Move’s sweet foofery, some very welcome post-pub-rock action that feels a bit like Nick Lowe or Graham Parker being produced & seduced by the wise hand of Robert Wyatt or even Sir Eno, a glam gesture or two that’s maybe more Mott than T. Rex (Is that splitting hairs…..Nah…), and even bits of harder-to tag acoustic shamble that sounds grand on an overcast day (like today) and I guess harkens back to such hollow-bodied and heavy-hearted cats as Donovan and Saint Leonard, though Pollard’s gust is disheveled and hung-over instead of wispy or poetic. In the end, SPACE CITY KICKS sounds like a confident man with a belly full of hops and a head full of ideas getting it all onto tape. Some crabby oldsters will continue to carp that “Something Strawberry”’s 1:23 is frustratingly unfinished, but I decry that thinking as sheer nonsense. Pollard understands an intrinsic aspect of pop music’s tangential allure, that it’s often less about the structure of entire songs and far more tied to highly idiosyncratic and individual moments. It can be a riff or harmony, a hook or the build of tension or release. It can be less than thirty seconds or just a bit over a minute. Or in another way, it can be that lazy afternoon when you hear the lasting beauty of a tune for the first time, lounging in a coffee shop with yr girl or guy and it sounds just perfect, a euphoric synthesis of guitar bass drums and vocals (perhaps keyboards, too), and for the moment everything feels all right as you drink it all in and stare out the window to the street. Then you hear the words….”We’re breaking up”. That’s when the bottom falls out, the rest of that song evaporating into the air. You’ll always remember, and likewise, you’ll never forget. What a bittersweet ouch.
ELECTRIC LADYLAND is one of the great double albums, a gripping final tour through the fathoms-deep group-psyche of a splintering trio, its four sides encompassing a wide swath of musical terrain while always retaining the massive thrust and liberating scorch that marks the Jimi Hendrix Experience as one of rock music’s eternally relevant bands. As Richard Meltzer pointed out way back when in a copy of CREEM magazine, Hendrix was to the rapidly blossoming late ‘60s rock scene as John Coltrane or Cecil Taylor were to the ever-shifting contemporaneous jazz landscape, and while his prodigious level of technique remains awesome, it’s just one aspect of his artistry; overemphasizing this particular element is possibly the biggest part of why the long parade of those in line for the throne consistently fell short, with many guilty of rank imitation. This isn’t to imply that Hendrix moments of flash should be downplayed, for this soul woodshedder (Jimmy James, remember) absorbed whole mason-jars full of the potent sweat of cathartic stage showmanship, which is why he was such a snug split-LP fit with Otis Redding on that live at Monterey slab. What I find to be so eternally impressive is how Hendrix integrated heavy soul-flash and deep-blues feeling into an instantly recognizable personal sound. This sound was extremely well-suited for cross-pollination with psychedelic, hard-rock and avant-garde elements, and that he was able to succeed at unifying these different forms under the umbrella of the Experience is maybe the biggest part of why Hendrix is still one of the biggest of all deals. But yeah, there’s always more, and stopping to consider that rock music = band music brings us rather quickly to the union of Hendrix with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. Certainly any recording by Hendrix is of great import, but I’m of the opinion long held that he was at his best in the Experience. Mentioning this over the years has led some folks to accuse me of trying to undermine Jimi’s thunder, but that’s never been my intent, no way. As great as Redding and Mitchell were as bassist and drummer, the duo never achieved anything post-breakup that was even close to comparable to their work with Hendrix, so it seems supportable by the evidence that they needed a strong leader to inspire, prod and antagonize them to such a magnificent plateau. Once they were up there, Hendrix could respond and soar like a champion. This sort of dynamic, particularly when applied to the nude nature of the trio, can surely shorten the cycle of longevity however, with issues of equality, egos and exhaustion throwing sand into the operational lubricant. It’s to this band’s credit that LADYLAND never suffers from audible dysfunction even while clearly pointing to the end. The fake-live studio-jam trickery of the now famous Muddy Waters tribute “Voodoo Chile” lacks Redding’s bass, Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady replacing him (Traffic’s Steve Winwood also appears), and in fact the bass playing on six other tracks is actually overdubbed by Hendrix himself. Yes, there is definitely a rather large digit pointing toward the never-ending All-Star Jam in the sky, with Traffic’s Dave Mason and Chris Wood, future Band of Gypsy-ite Buddy Miles, Al “Supersession” Kooper and dead Rolling Stone Brian Jones all making the scene, man. But Mitchell walks that brutal balance beam between aggressively heavy and precisely lithe as assuredly as ever, and when Redding’s here he’s always completely in the game: while some disagree, I tend to love the mod-rock foppery of Redding’s “Little Miss Strange” quite a bit. Yes, classic rock radio warhorses “Crosstown Traffic” and “All Along the Watchtower” are here, but they regain their original luster when heard in the context of LADYLAND, as does “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, its euphoric avalanche of guitar shrapnel and rhythmic thundering placing a huge, graceful exclamation point on the end of side four. But along the way there is a whole lot of other fine stuff to be had, such as the sleek Motown gestures of “Have You Ever Been To (Electric Ladyland)” and the shoop-shoop soul-rock of “Long Hot Summer Night”, the ground-level blues-blasting cover of New Orleans legend Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)”, the solid extended spaciness of “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” and the deceptively odd heavy rock of “House Burning Down”. But my favorite overall track remains “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”. With its baroque formality via electric harpsichord, backing vocals from the Sweet Inspirations (who?) and a sturdy bit of pop songwriting it’s as pretty and calculatedly heavy as ‘60s psyche-rock gets. What a fine construction. ELECTRIC LADYLAND isn’t a perfect record, since parts of it feel painstakingly assembled instead of naturally conceived, but I wouldn’t describe these properties as flaws. They’re more like stress points on a statues’ aged magnificence.