Friday, May 11, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 5/11/12- The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Lee Hazlewood

Led as always by Anton Newcombe, The Brian Jonestown Massacre has returned with its twelfth studio album, Aufheben. While not a complete washout, in the end it does little to displace the notion that the man’s best artistic days are far behind him.
Back in the ‘80s is when I first heard The Chesterfield Kings, a garage band with a definite ‘60s bent. Taking the genre’s limitations in mind, they were rather good. They also had a pronounced love of The Rolling Stones. One interesting thing about the Kings; while they certainly had a strong fan base and were bolder in conception than most other ‘80s garage acts, they were still somewhat hindered by the nagging viewpoint of many who considered their music to be decidedly retrograde.
Spacemen 3 and Flaming Lips were just two examples of late-‘80s bands with a detectable ‘60s focus that managed to dodge the retro tag, with both bands at different stages of their existence considered to be groundbreakers. The Kings on the other hand were dogged with the retro stigma, often by those who liked them even. If they made a very good record, it was ultimately very good from within the confines of a limited context, a bit like setting a home-run mark for a single-A farm club; it’s an admirable achievement, sure, but it still pales next to the more grandly scaled activity of the big boys.
I think of The Chesterfield Kings and The Brian Jonestown Massacre together for a couple of reasons. First is their rather obvious shared love of the Stones. The other concerns the differences in reception these bands received for doing something roughly comparable. Yes, BJM first made their mark with a spin on the sound of shoegaze, but they quickly shifted into the role of a retro-inclined band that wore their Stonesian inspiration proudly and defiantly.
The difference between The Chesterfield Kings and The Brian Jonestown Massacre is generally one of scale magnified by differing musical landscapes. By the second half of the ‘90s many listeners were feeling fatigued by an endless procession of “new”, “next” and “latest” things, so the time was ripe for a few bands that were far more about attitude and an unconflicted approach to influence holding no pretense to originality.
Now, anybody truly moved to make music so indebted to the image of The Rolling Stones is bound to exhibit a certain swagger in execution, the kind of in your face attitudinal motion that causes lots of listeners to pile on the disdain. This is to say that if many people unabashedly loved BJM, just as many loved to hate them. Keeping in mind that the history of art isn’t to be confused with the history of nice people, I never really had any problem with the band in terms of image (while acknowledging that said image eventually steamrolled into something comparable to a train wreck), but I also can’t deny having a rather shoulder-shrugging reaction to them overall.
My ambivalence was probably due to their status as a band du jour while other far more interesting acts (from the garage sphere in particular) were getting slighted or ignored completely. By contrast, I was very much in The Chesterfield Kings’ camp back in the day simply because they had the cards of esteem so strongly stacked against them; in the end, they were a band I couldn’t help rooting for. To be frank, The Brian Jonestown Massacre needed none of my goodwill.
And again, plenty of folks wore their fandom of BJM as a badge of cool and just as many used their dislike of the band as a way to define what rock music shouldn’t be; there wasn’t much in the way of middle ground. Well, except that the middle ground is pretty much where I put them. It’s now a given that the name Brian Jonestown Massacre is essentially synonymous with founder Anton Newcombe, and it hasn’t been really accurate in quite a long time to call them a band. But in their early incarnation a band is very much what they were, holding a solid lineup and releasing some solid music upon which their reputation is based.
If I’m foreshadowing the direction of this review by saying that I don’t think The Brian Jonestown Massacre ever made a great record, I’ll add that in the ‘90s anyway, they also displayed a fair amount of promise. But as time marched forward and the situation shaped up more and more as a Newcombe-led project with a frequently revolving door, the whole endeavor became a case of highly dysfunctional diminishing returns, and I started paying less attention.
If I haven’t been fond of any of the BJM records to see release in the 21st Century, I’ve come to at least respect Newcombe as a survivor and an artist of deeper dedication than I suspected he had in him. Yes, the heyday of the Massacre is long gone and it’s highly doubtful it’s ever coming back, and yet here Newcome is with another record. If Aufheben does little to change my perception of his recent output, it does feel like the man’s best release in quite some time. With this said, the bad and indifferent moments far outweigh the good, and it’s become even more likely that Newcombe’s most productive days are vanishing in the rearview mirror.
It’s important to not fall into generalizations when describing the problems with any record; I was initially tempted to say that Aufheben is hindered by too many songs in need of inspiration, but that’s not a particularly productive avenue. That the record is lacking in creative spark is perhaps the better way of putting it. After a strong opener (“Panic and Babylon”) and a not bad follow up (“Viholliseni Maalla”), Aufheben begins to bog down with flat tunes (“Gaz Hilarant”, “I Want to Hold Your Other Hand”) and miscalculations (the unfortunate flute on “Illuminomi” and “Face Down on the Moon”, the dance-inclined repetitiveness of closer “Blue Order/New Monday”). “The Clouds Are Lies” and “Stairway to the Best Party” raise the quality back up, but the five and a half minutes of “Seven Kings of Wonderful” goes on for far too long, as does the length of “Waking Up to Hand Grenades”.
If Newcombe had managed to release Aufheben’s four strong songs as an EP, it would’ve caused me to seriously rethink my assessment of his recent output. But these tracks are included on a record that’s sunk by faults seemingly ingrained in its creator’s musical personality. The biggest problem appears to be the sacrifice of dynamics and intensity and a dependence upon repetition that far too frequently results in dead ends.
If The Brian Jonestown Massacre makes an interesting contrast with The Chesterfield Kings, maybe the most revealing comparison, at least in terms of this record, is with Jack White. The White Stripes were a similar sort of band to BJM in how they could divide listeners into pro and anti camps, especially as their popularity grew, in part due to White’s personality but also because their sound was so blatantly in thrall of the music that shaped it.
Listening to White’s Blunderbuss reveals it to also be an LP with quite a few flews, but it’s still a valuable statement with much to offer creatively. What it’s got is, in a word, verve. It’s important to never count any artist out, and Aufheben holds enough quality to reinforce that maxim. But as Newcombe continually staggers to his feet and gets saved by the bell on record after record, it’s starting to feel like he’s taken a few blows too many.

If Lee Hazlewood lingers in the contemporary cultural memory, it’s easily due to his work with Nancy Sinatra. On The LHI Years: Nudes, Singles and Backsides (1968-1971), the Light in the Attic label collects a bunch of his post-Nancy collaborations and a welcome helping of his solo shots, and the results are highly recommended not just for Hazlewood’s fans but for anyone with an inclination for well-crafted oddball pop.
Though his music never wavered from its thoroughly commercial designs, Lee Hazelwood was still a truly strange duck. And the undeniable datedness of his work can really add to the overall weirdness factor, though that’s in no way a bad thing; if often possessing production values and orchestrations that are accurately assessed as “middle of the road” (not the same as “mainstream”), his songs almost always avoid falling into simple kitsch.
But Hazlewood was more than just a bizarro/sophisto cowboy that blended Vegas-inclined pop with a country-inflected folksiness both on his own and in a collaboration with Sinatra that still comes off like a Swingin’ ‘60’s reaction to Dolly and Porter. Indeed, while loads of folks are familiar with the string of late-‘50s hits that he produced and co-wrote with Duane Eddy, it’s also true that most of those listeners aren’t cognizant of Hazlewood’s actual involvement with those songs, a short flowering of creativity that stands amongst the finest instrumental rock music ever recorded.
He was also the impresario of Lee Hazlewood Industries, a fleeting subsidiary label of ABC Records. Naturally, a fair portion of LHI’s relatively slim discography is dedicated to its namesake; both his solo album Forty and The Cowboy and the Lady, credited to the duo of Hazlewood and actress Ann-Margret were released in 1969, and Cowboy in Sweden came out the following year. Back around 1999 or so, Steve Shelley’s Smells Like Records began admirably reissuing some of Hazlewood’s harder to find stuff on compact disc. This program included both the Ann-Margret collab and Cowboy in Sweden, but plenty of worthy bits and pieces slipped through the cracks.
As its title makes plain, this 2LP corrals a bunch of those bits and pieces with the supposed intention of further volumes to come, and the sustained level of quality across these four sides of vinyl really makes one hope that Light in the Attic comes through on their objective to excavate the LHI archives.  It opens with “Califia (Stone Rider)”, a duet with girlfriend Suzi Jane Hokom that mines familiar territory to impressive success; that combination of unabashed lushness and faux-earthy twang, the echo on Hazlewood’s booming, edgy baritone and the way he smartly blended his voice with the softer, more welcoming elements of a female counterpart.
Things hardly look down from there, with the music making clear that Hazlewood had no problem playing to his strengths. To elaborate, seven of the record’s seventeen tracks are duets with female counterparts, all obviously inspired by the fruitfulness of his artistic union with Nancy Sin, and while none of them charted in the US/UK that’s not for lack of value. Another track with Hokom, three with Ann-Margret and two with Swedish singer Nina Lizell find him cultivating the contrast between tough and sweet with much success.
This blend of the masculine and feminine has become a big factor in Hazlewood’s work, even when he’s behind the chair. His was the pen responsible for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, after all. In fact, his status as a collaborator has sorta come to dominate his legacy; while his ‘60’s solo albums sold well enough to keep him in demand, it’s also true that Hazlewood never had a hit single under his name alone, and some people view the guy’s solo output as substantially lesser to his work with Nancy and the gals.
To put it mildly, this is a gross miscalculation. Just for starters, I’ve never been able to decide between pre-LHI solo slabs Lee Hazlewoodism – It’s Cause and Cure (for MGM) or Love and Other Crimes (for Reprise) as a personal favorite. Both are world class collections of strong song from a truly unique voice, and The LHI Years includes more of the same top flight material. “The Bed” squarely hits the middle ground between honky-tonk and high gloss that found him in the producer’s chair for Singer of Sad Songs, one of Waylon Jennings’ finest pre-Outlaw LPs.
But when the music called for it he could also show admirable restraint, as the spare, hung-over “If It’s Monday Morning” and the driving “Bye Babe” both display. “No Train to Stockholm” feels like a legit slice of flower power-era pop, and it matches up well with the Jesus as proto-hippie storytelling of “Trouble Maker”. These tracks can serve as a satisfactory corrective, for Hazlewood is sometimes erroneously tagged as a wannabe hipster, or categorized by more polite denigrators as a kooky and aged interloper upon the grassy knolls and bubbling fjords of the late-‘60s youth movement’s supposed exalted purity.
This is another way of saying that some crabby sticklers persist in viewing “Some Velvet Morning” as “fake” psychedelia, but the people holding this odious opinion probably don’t like Eric Burdon’s “Sky Pilot” either. What a bunch of killjoys. In reality, Lee Hazlewood is one of American music’s true eccentrics, and as the cover of The LHI Years plainly shows, he was part playboy and part sage prankster, halfway between the establishment and the margins with nary a trace of conflict between the two.
Of the duet tracks, those with Ann-Margret stand up strongest, particularly the gleefully over the top festival of corn vs. schmaltz that is “Sleep in the Grass”, though the fairly laid-back country-folk-pop of “Victims of the Night” is also quite appealing. “Nobody Like You” with Hokom is one idea stretched a little beyond its limit, though it’s not unpleasant for all that. And both tracks with Lizell acquit themselves with purpose, though “Hey Cowboy” really tackles the era’s Bacharach-esque MOR tendencies with vigor.      
At this point the LHI label is still mostly remembered for Hazlewood’s releases, though the company also issued Safe at Home, the only LP from Gram Parsons’ first group The International Submarine Band. But the imprint also put out some highly regarded and quite hard to find work from artists like The Kitchen Cinq, Arthur and the Aggregation, Honey Ltd., The Surprise Package and Sanford Clark, whose 1956 hit “The Fool” happened to be written by Hazlewood.
It’s unclear how much if any of this material will surface in Light in the Attic’s LHI reissue plans, but here’s hoping at least some of it makes it onto disc, for it’ll only serve to deepen the already rich legacy of an absolutely one of a kind artist. The LHI Years: Nudes, Singles and Backsides (1968-1971) is a trove of Hazlewood’s brilliant work. Not every song is perfect, but every song is essential. It’s a beautifully done package from one of our best reissue labels.

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