Friday, June 1, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 6/1/12 - Paul & Linda McCartney and Heavy Blanket

Ram, the second post-Beatle LP from Paul McCartney has just been reissued through Hear Music. There are numerous ways for the uninitiated to acquaint oneself with its contents, but the best is likely the two-disc Special Edition. It presents the contents of this hard-fought classic alongside a second album of appropriate bonus material.
Paul McCartney was the member of the Fab Four that so many used to relish knocking around. Whether it was in spirited bar chats or animated discussions at parties, when the tide turned to The Beatles somebody could always be counted on for a hearty jibe at Macca’s expense. And in my above use of “so many” I’m generally referring to males and by “somebody” I’m specifically speaking of those who indisputably considered John Lennon to be the Best Beatle.
While for those truly devoted fans of the band there could simply never be a Worst, for many Paul was the Square Beatle, a designation not borne out by the facts, for he was as interested in the avant-garde as any member. Hell, in ’68 he co-produced “I’m the Urban Spaceman” by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band for Pete’s sake, an act that places him rather high up on the meter of cool.
However, others derided him as the Corporate Beatle. And yeah, it’s true that Paul never lost track of the business aspect of the whole affair, but his behavior in this regard hasn’t really played out as particularly odious in comparison to other rock star types of not even half his stature or talent.
But both Paul’s image and the assessment of his post-Beatle solo career has rebounded in recent years. Much of this might have to do with the constantly regenerating fanbase of the Four consistently growing older and perhaps letting go of the rebelliousness that inspired easy identification with Lennon or Harrison. It also might be related to the race for Coolest Living Beatle being down to him and Ringo “No More Mail, Thanks” Starr.
But seriously. In my estimation Paul’s general critical resurgence is a welcome phenomenon, if only because his first two solo records have finally gotten something approximate to the proper level of respect. And yes, for years I bought the baloney regarding the collective underwhelming nature of McCartney and Ram, too.
This was in part due to older acquaintances, even those quite favorable to McCartney’s work in The Beatles, being generally disapproving of his solo stuff, considering those early albums as grievous miscalculations of ambition (or lack thereof) and Wings (which of course wasn’t really Paul “solo”, being a band in its own right) as a severe pendulum swing into the other direction, offering safer though often more grandly scaled distillations of Paul’s talent.
But the kibosh was Landau and Christgau’s critical double whammy on Ram, which was enough to make me weary for years. And yet, as I kept stumbling onto really great albums that either Jon or Bob (or both) disdained, and as the general curiosity inherent to music fans started getting the better of me, I decided to take the plunge.
I sensibly started with McCartney, and was knocked plumb out by its stripped down feel; it’s been described as demo-like, and that’s accurate. In contrast to the over-slick efforts that were clogging the bins at my point of discovery, it was a real breath of fresh air. And unlike its rep, the level of the songwriting was excellent, and made clear that McCartney’s aims were indeed ambitious, though simply at odds with what the critical zeitgeist (it wasn’t add odds with the record buying public however; both McCartney and its follow-up sold an asston). But the high quality of Paul’s solo debut simply couldn’t prepare me for the exquisitely ramshackle affair that is Ram.
While I already knew and highly enjoyed “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, I was a fresh-faced newcomer to the wonky blues of “3 Legs” or the rollicking smack-talk of “Smile Away”. In “Monkberry Moon Delight” I found a deliciously snide and considerably twisted stomp, and “Ram On”, with its distorted electric piano tones and strummed ukulele, is nothing less than a prototype for the 21st Century indie-pop sound.
The interplay between Paul and Linda on “Eat at Home” feels a little like a laid-back country-rock precursor to the Buck/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac, its scale smaller, oozing with the nonchalance of a couple that’s discovered they have nothing to prove, so they’re just going to do what gets them off. It seems this was enough to drive many observers to vitriolic ends. That “Eat at Home” is apparently a tribute to the undying grandeur of Buddy Holly only adds to its panache.
And unlike some who find her co-credit to be a display of hubris or economic maneuvering, I continue to find Linda’s vocal contribution to Ram one of its most endearing traits. There’s a mixture of earnestness and palpable pleasure that’s sweetly accented by an appealing lack of polish in her delivery, and this blend really adds to “3 Legs”, “Monkberry Moon Delight” (I gas every time on how she sings “cats and kittens”) and the extended “Long Haired Lady”, another Ram cut that solidly presages the modern indie sound. And while we’re on matters of the up to date, the smooth folk-pop of “Heart of the Country” sounds downright contemporary. Bon Iver, anyone?
Over time I’ve detected a mild thread of similarity across the grooves of Ram to the songwriting of Brian Wilson. Not only can I hear it in the album’s terrific closer “Back Seat of My Car”, but I also perceive its presence on “Dear Boy” and even a little bit in “Smile Away”, mainly due to that song’s backing vocals. And this directly relates to one of McCartney’s most positive attributes, specifically the lack of anxiety in his influence. He’s always been pretty open about where his inspiration derives, maybe attempting to add a little modesty to the mantle of pop messiah that was thrust upon all three of the Beatles’ principal songwriters.
Unlike some hit songs, tunes which stick out on otherwise superb albums like an unfortunate mustard stain inflicted upon a finely-designed and well-worn shirt during a swank holiday picnic, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” fits snuggly into Ram’s qualitative gist. In fact, it’s one of the album’s more important tracks in that it provides quite a template for some of the expansive tweeness that’s occurred over the following four decades.
It’s also a very weird song; to wit, the assumedly Linda-derived tongue-flutter in the cut’s first section. And while listening recently, it suddenly became tangible that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, again at least in its first section, isn’t that far removed from some of the more pop-inflected moments of Animal Collective. Yeah, contemporaneousness is surely in abundance on Ram.
By this late date it’s not likely too many people are continuing to harbor a lingering prejudicial grudge against McCartney’s pre-Wings solo work. Like this expanded issue of Ram, McCartney was released in a deluxe bells-and-whistle intensive set not quite a year ago, and if that effort had either stumbled commercially or been subject to a persistent persnickety critical evaluation, Sir Paul might’ve hesitated over putting this one in the racks in so quick a fashion.
And in my estimation, the two-disc edition of Ram edges out the same configuration of McCartney by a little more than a nose. Sure, both “Another Day” and “Oh Woman, Oh Why” were already added to the ’93 CD issue, but their inclusion on the vinyl of this impeccably crafted set is still quite jake. “Little Woman Love”, the b-side to Wings’ “Mary Had a Little Lamb” also turns up, and is sorta the odd track out.
For unlike the latter live versions that make up the bulk of McCartney’s extra material, Ram includes a bevy of previously unissued studio tracks, all of which date from the sessions for the LP (a big plus in my book), which makes hearing them an absolute cinch for anybody that’s stumbled onto the greatness of Ram.
And the verdict on the general worthiness of these extra tracks is a resounding positive. Quite interestingly, the unreleased songs don’t sound like completed tunes that didn’t make the cut for reasons of inferior quality, instead feeling like pieces that were worked on and then set aside unfinished, never to be picked up again. For a few examples, “Great Cock and Seagull Race” and “Sunshine Sometime” are both instrumentals, and the lengthy rocker “Rode All Night” would’ve likely undergone some editing in a non-bonus cut version.
Of course, McCartney maniacs might already be familiar with these tracks through unauthorized channels. But here they are in a Paul-instigated expansion of Ram, another installment in one of the most meticulously assembled and least mercenary of contemporary single artist reissue programs.
Like McCartney, Paul’s second solo stab has endured the tide of time to distinguish itself as one of the more interesting and most personal works of the ‘70s, easily ranking in the top three Beatle solo albums alongside All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Hearing Ram in its original form is essential. This well conceived expansion of its contents does nothing to interfere with its disheveled majesty.

J Mascis plugs in and freaks out on Heavy Blanket. A blissfully heavy slab of instrumental scorch, it’s an expansive yet tidy expression of one aspect of his musical personality. It’ll likely appeal to only a portion of Dinosaur Jr.’s fanbase, but it’s no less interesting for that.
In case you didn’t already know, J Mascis is quite the adept guitarist. In fact, along with Thurston Moore, he served the role of guitar hero to a late-‘80s u-ground rock scene that was still close enough to its punk roots to consciously disdain the concept of string heroics as antithetical to what made the period’s hip crux of bands bubbling under the radar such a supreme kick.
That is, if Moore was Jimi Hendrix then Mascis was Jimmy Page and most of the wigs getting flipped by their abilities, if presented with such an analogy, would’ve likely sneered in disgust and berated the person making such an uncouth comparison as a total, um, dinosaur.
Yes, some folks comprehended the significance of the moniker Dinosaur (the Jr. being added after some real dinosaurs from the San Fran psyche scene demanded they change it), but for most listeners back then the name was simply a name, and indeed most of those same listeners didn’t know or particularly care that Dinosaur Jr. soaked up influence from such relics as Crazy Horse, Sabbath and the general blunt sludginess of power-trio rock.
Now, the above analogies are extremely loose ones meant to represent importance rather than specific stylistic similarities, for as one listen to Hendrix and Moore proves, the two are highly dissimilar. And Mascis for that matter doesn’t aurally reflect Page, or Clapton, or Jeff Beck. He does recall Neil Young in his roughest period with Crazy Horse mixed with the sort of head down, back to the audience heaviness that spread like a rogue STD in a free-love commune from ’69 to roughly ’73 or so.
But give that description to someone who’s never actually heard any of J Mascis’ stuff, then play them a few choice cuts from either incarnation of Dinosaur’s original lineup, and the difference between what they imagined and what they actually heard will likely be quite large. This helps make a great case for the crème of the ‘80s u-ground guitarists (a group that also includes Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, Minutemen’s D. Boon, Big Black’s Steve Albini and Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller) as standing up tall in terms of individuality next to the late-‘60s team of string warriors.
In the case of Sonic Youth, this individualistic streak is unsurprising, for that band is maybe the apex of rock music made by actual record collectors. But in the case of Mascis, I’ve been consistently struck by how successfully he’s avoided falling into a retrograde zone. His obvious inspirations are unchanged, and yet while his most impressive, groundbreaking work is behind him, he’s retained his vigor in both performance and recording, surviving a bout of post-grunge ‘90s celebrity with no noticeable side effects.
A big reason for Mascis’ sustained distinctness from his influences and the continued creative spark in his work boils right down to punk rock. I know that upon my first hearing of Dinosaur, specifically the “Repulsion” 7-inch, I made no immediate connection to Crazy Horse and Sabbath. A helping hint was provided in the liner notes to Homestead Records’ The Wailing Ultimate, a compilation LP that also included “Repulsion”, and where the band was described as “ex-hardcores that like to jam”.
That liner blurb on ol’ Dino also served as my introduction to Deep Wound, the suburban Massachusetts hardcore band that’s taken on legendary status as the first group of Lou Barlow and J Mascis. Over time Dinosaur’s HC pedigree became general knowledge: their cover of “Chunks” by Boston fly-by-nights Last Rights, J’s professed love in interviews of the UK band Discharge, and the bootlegging and eventual legit issue of the Deep Wound discography, a big beautiful throttling blur of a thing, as the nooks and crannies of hardcore gained retrospective value and respect.
And it became apparent that while what Dinosaur’s music was no longer appropriately categorized as punk it was also impossible to remove vital elements of the music that shaped them from their aesthetic, and it was why so many crabby observers refused to accept that You’re Living All Over Me was a natural extension of elements derived from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Paranoid.   
Hell, by the ‘90s there was a certifiable ton of bands that had strapped on the mantle of able musicianship while retaining a connection to punk’s leveling globular impetus. One such example of this would be the obscure but very worthwhile instrumental compilation Guitarrorists, released in 1991 on Terry Tolkin’s short-lived but quite interesting No. 6 label. It lined up twenty-six tracks from as many contributors, one of which belonged to none other than J Mascis.
If deep down always connected to his roots, J’s use of Dinosaur as essentially a solo vehicle that had a fleeting pop-chart flirt caused many to knee-jerkily disassociate him with the movement from which he was creatively spawned. This was a big mistake, for the 21st Century found Mascis easing into his status as a not very talkative sleepy-lidded elder statesman of indie-rock, fronting a smaller scaled band The Fog as well as working in groups such as The Witch and Sweet Apple. But reconvening with his original Dino partners was the icing on the cake, knocking out two expectations-exceeding albums and some even stronger tours.
Heavy Blanket is J’s latest effort, and it’s rather resistant to broad description and analysis. The self-titled LP finds Mascis shredding in the studio across six instrumental tracks, all of them basically templates for extended soloing. The press bio concocts an entertaining if obviously bogue story about J stumbling upon some high school band mates and, based upon an old demo tape they made, rerecording those tunes to unexpectedly high quality results. Um, yeah. In reality, the music is likely to be all Mascis via overdubbing; he was the drummer in Deep Wound, as well as Gobblehoof and Upsidedown Cross.
The fun fictiveness is understandable. A bio that stuck to the bare facts would be a short, uninspiring read. But interestingly, the creative untruths connect the music on Heavy Blanket, a sound that many would consider antithetical to the oft rudimentary nature of punk, to 1984, a point when Mascis’ was still running roughshod over the Massachusetts’ HC circuit in Deep Wound. Indeed, the bio directly references that band.
These fabrications unknowingly reinforce what becomes clear after time spent with Heavy Blanket, namely that if on the surface indulgent of Mascis’ boldest desires of heaviosity circa the early ‘70s, it is also indicative of the guy’s continued relevance as an exponent of contemporarily substantive din. And the whole racket may not be overtly punk in form, but it holds an abundance of what some describe as “punk in spirit”.
This is a cool development. Much as I liked the largely acoustic and tangibly laid-back atmosphere of last year’s Sub Pop outing Several Shades of Why, I also couldn’t help having mixed feelings over my impression that the man was mellowing considerably with age. Heavy Blanket makes clear that he holds no inhibitions about plugging in and throwing down. And as a display of such, it’ll obviously appeal to a fraction of Dinosaur Jr.’s legion of fans, a huge portion of which require the melodiousness that’s become a trademark of said band, not to mention lyrics and the instantly recognizable sound of J’s voice.
But the fraction that will welcome Heavy Blanket’s existence should be blown away but good. Throw in Savage Pencil cover artwork and the whole package feels a little bit like a project issued by the Twisted Village label around ’92 or so. It doesn’t stand as tall as the Fog stuff or the intense beauty of Mascis’ most unheralded work, ‘05’s J Mascis + Friends Sing + Chant for Amma, but it’s not far behind. Long may he wail.

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