Monday, November 24, 2008

Various - 'All Aboard: A Tribute to Johnny Cash'

Has there ever been a perfect tribute album? It seems like it would be impossible; how do you make a compilation that honors a band yet betters them at every turn? It’s a paradox. Yet every year sees more and more cover albums issued. All Aboard: A Tribute to Johnny Cash is one such release, and while it never beats the former “man in black,” it sure does give him glory. The liner notes contain blurbs from each of the bands involved, and some of the participants, like The Bouncing Souls and Smoke or Fire’s Joe McMahon are upfront about the feeling that they can’t make these songs any better.

I know art is supposed to be subjective, but scientifically speaking, Johnny Cash is one of the greatest American musicians ever. It’s fact. To try to cover his material faithfully, as many of the bands here do, is an exercise in futility. All Aboard marks the first time I’ve ever listened to Chuck Ragan (“Wreck of the Old 97,” with Jon Gaunt) and thought, “You know, I think he could be gruffer.” That’s not to say that Ragan’s cover fails – it’s actually pretty good. But he makes me want to listen to more Johnny Cash instead, which might be the highest compliment I can give All Aboard.

Of course, I’d hate to imply All Aboard is any way a bad compilation, partially because its proceeds benefit The Syrentha Savio Endowment, which in turn kicks the shit out of cancer, but mostly because the CD is actually kind of good. The Souls open the disc with “Man in Black,” and they somehow maintain a lot of the song’s rhythm while adding their trademark Jersey punk style. Indeed, the best covers here try to accentuate certain elements. Depending on one’s perspective, MxPx either gives “Hey Porter” the standard pop punk cover treatment, or they update the song’s catchy leanings. “Hey Porter” was released in 1955; this is what commercial radio used to sound like. To that end, it’s surprising how effortlessly MxPx converts the tune. The Gaslight Anthem pushes “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” to its deepest, darkest peak. It doesn’t even sound like a TGA song, that’s how far the band goes to honor Cash’s haunting songwriting. The Dresden Dolls and Franz Nicolay, of The Hold Stead and World/Inferno Friendship Society, deliver an incredible take on the Jack Clement-written “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” The trio converts the song to their cabaret leanings while maintaining the barbershop harmonies. Nocolay adds accordion, saw, and castanets to the mix, which is awesome and spooky. Overall, the Dolls deliver the best cover of the mix, if only because they’re the only ones who seem to break free from the source material and forge something new.

Overall, the album is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. There’s lots of bluegrass and twangin’ a-foot. That works well enough too, I suppose, but it’s the songs mentioned above that really transcend. Being an album of songs Cash either wrote or had a hand in, the lyrics remain brilliant. What I miss, though, is Cash’s gritty baritone. If anyone could express yearning, addiction, strength, humor, and love in one breath, it was him.

The Cure - '4:13 Dream'

[I honestly don't know why it took so long to write this review. Now go listen to more Cure!]

Eight years after they were supposed to break up with swan song Bloodflowers, The Cure returns with their 13th full-length, 4:13 Dream. And while the gloomy yet loving four-piece has been cranking out albums for over 30 years now, there’s little for fans to hate about their latest. The group’s previous, self-titled album, from 2004, suffered from being too cliché, too stereotypically like a general Cure album. 4:13 Dream avoids this pitfall by trying really hard to sound like a specific Cure album, in this case 1992’s Wish. Right down to the album artwork, 4:13 Dream seems concocted to mimic the airy arrangements of “Open” and “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea.” Album opener “Underneath the Stars” more or less rewrites the slow, ambient thrill of “A Letter to Elise,” and while the idea isn’t new or surprising, it works.

The album breaks from Wish by trying to include more single-worthy numbers, like “The Perfect Boy” and “The Only One.” The latter is a giddy, romantic tune that can perhaps best be described as this album’s version of “Friday, I’m in Love.” But while these songs are certainly catchy, they lack the thrill of surprise. As part of 4:13 Dream’s marketing, The Cure issued four singles on the 13th of each month leading up to the album’s debut. This idea was botched when Geffen Records decided to delay the album’s release, but the fact remains that about a third of the album has been legally available for months. “The Only One” is a great song, but it’s not exactly unique to the album. This is further complicated by the album’s soggy middle. “Freakshow” never finds a groove. Outside of the opening line, nothing sticks. “The Real Snow White” feels like such an obvious pander to the Hot Topic set, right down to the stupid, mall goth title.

Still, though, The Cure has never released a truly bad album, and 4:13 Dream is no exception. The moody aura that hangs over songs like “The Reasons Why” or “This. Here and Now. With You” will romance listeners just as well as anything on Disintegration. The closing double freakout of “The Scream” and “It’s Over” shows that the band still knows how to get truly dark. In fact, frontman Robert Smith’s vocals on “The Scream” might be his best on the whole album, if only for the howl the song leads him to unleash halfway through. Everything builds and builds into this ridiculously rocking, somewhat psychedelic explosion.

Another highlight worth mentioning is “The Hungry Ghost,” an amicable mid-tempo tune. For a band so wrapped up in the concept of yearning, there’s something soothing and surprising in lines like “All the things we never know we need / Looks like we get them in the end.” The song talks about addiction to materialism, and buried somewhere in lines about desperately staying within the spotlight’s boundaries, Smith seems to find a balance between material possessions and happiness. It’s not the most uplifting statement he could make, sure, but it seems practical, which is perhaps the best word for describing 4:13 Dream as a whole. Well, that and “good.”

2003: if you hate your friends, you're not alone.

I suppose I should preface this passage by mentioning that I am now much healthier and happier, and it is because of this that I don’t feel sorry for not fully fleshing out the following. That being said, 2003 was the shittiest year of my life. I was really starting to drift away from my band (they wanted to cover Linkin Park; I wanted to cover The Ramones). I hated my best friend for swooping in and snatching up a girl who I was head over heels for, partially because he then proceeded to treat her like shit, partially because he rubbed my face in it, and partially because he openly admitted to me that he only went after her because, in my frequent appraisals of her, I made her sound like the best lady of all ladies. There was more to it than that, but it doesn’t matter now.

The year ended pretty badly. My grandmother had developed Alzheimer’s a few years back, and her slow decline left her angry, vindictive. Old issues that had long since been settled suddenly came to light, forcing me to deal with problems that I really shouldn’t have had any part in. I learned some ugly things about my family. It was weird too; these problems had long ago been resolved How do you react when you learn that a loved one used to be a bad person, but has atoned for his and/or her sins?

Mom-Mom died Dec. 23, 2003. My boss let me go early that day. We buried her Dec. 26, 2003, next to Pop-Pop’s grave in Conshohocken. I was a pallbearer. The idea was to have the eldest grandson from each family carry her. I was to the left of the casket, which went against my left-handedness. I tripped once but I didn’t lose my step or my grip. The moments I remember most vividly are 1) being so freaked out when I walked to Mom-Mom’s open casket; it was her but it wasn’t. And 2) wanting so badly to cry. And I couldn’t.

Being straight edge, I wasn’t in a position to self-medicate. So I turned to music and hoped to a God I no longer believed in that college would be OK, even though I didn’t want to live long enough to find out. I banged my drums and I played my CDs.

Catatonic? I’m bleeding quadraphonic.

Also, I read a lot of Albert Camus and J.D. Salinger.

10. Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue

This is the official pop punk album of summer 2003 between my friends and me. By this point, our musical tastes had splintered off; I was listening to a lot of Mars Volta and Ben Kweller while they were just getting into Yellowcard and Simple Plan. And while I have some pretty shitty memories of being locked in cars with No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls in the stereo, I also have even more fond recollections of Ocean Avenue. Arguably the culmination of whatever Yellowcard was trying to achieve (pop punk + violin, perhaps?), Ocean Avenue is vaguely emotive, but mostly just a super fun pop rock exploration. “View From Heaven” is a touching ode to a deceased lover, “Way Away” is a solid rocker, and “Back Home” is a bummer anthem for those that hate their hometowns. And of course, there’s always that catchy little title track. I still hum a couple of the song's lines whenever I'm on Ocean Avenue or Cherry Street.

9. Cat Power – You Are Free

On You Are Free, Chan Marshall started to break free from her folk-y, Southern Gothic sound in favor of something a lil more twang-y and soulful. Cat Power is probably one of my favorite vocalists of all time; her voice is smooth like gin, capable of sounding mournful and celebratory at the same time. She’s like the Irish wake of singers. Things would get even mellower on her follow-up, The Greatest, but You Are Free catches Marshall at a good crossroads – hints of the her old indie folk style on “Free” mix freely with her sexy new minimalism on “I Don’t Blame You.”

8. Thursday – War All the Time

Am I the only one who thinks Thursday has actually gotten better with each record? Don’t get me wrong; Full Collapse is a great, brutal album. But its style has been so thoroughly co-opted by lesser bands that it sounds kinda dated now. It’s become an album I respect for being innovative more than anything else. War All the Time, though, found the band massively expanding their palette. Oh sure, there’s angst aplenty, but there are also discussions about sexuality (“Signals Over the Air"), pro-gay anthems (“M. Shepard”), and political missives (like half the album). Frontman Geoff Rickley really started to expand his focus here, writing an emo album that harkened back to the D.C. underground, providing an overview of one’s entire life, and not just the way some girls can be bitches.

7. The Sounds – Living in America

¡Viva la Swedish synth rock! Dave Grohl, James Iha, and I agree, The Sounds’ debut, Living in America, was a thrilling Blondie-esque garage rock love affair, an unstoppable pop juggernaut that was punk-y and new wave-y in the old sense, even if I can only count on one hand how many people in America like them. Retro and exciting, the album somehow managed to be a throwback to 1982 while being way catchier than a lot of the albums released in 1982. From “Seven Days a Week” to “S.O.U.N.D.S.”, Living in America is unrelentingly infectious. Well, come on. Come get up and dance with me.

6. Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism

If you live in southeastern Pennsylvania, sooner or later you go through a right of passage: You get lost in Jersey when trying to drive to and/or from Philadelphia. I’m still slowly figuring out my way around the city, and the first place I ever learned how to get to consistently was St. Joe’s University, during my senior year of high school. Two of my older high school friends, Dave Drayton and FITZ!, had a student-run radio show there on WSJR. I listened to it pretty much every week while doing my homework, and eventually they asked me to come over to do the show with them. I got there without a hitch, had a lot of fun, and even learned how to use a soundboard. Then, somehow, I completely fucked up the drive back. I missed the on-ramp to 76-W and, unaware of my mistake, just kinda kept driving straight. For an hour. Freaked out, I kept driving and driving, eventually pulling over and asking for directions. I got home at like 9:30 p.m. that night and proceeded to desperately halfass my math anal homework.

Two things made my stupid, stupid driving experience tolerable: I got some help from my mom, courtesy of my new fangled cell phone. And I was listening to my recently purchased copy of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. I listened to the album for the first time on the drive down to the university, and ended up listening to it many, many more times on the way back. Songs like “Title and Registration,” “A Lack of Color,” and especially “Transatlanticism” made me just sane enough to not crash my car. The title track’s slow build from somber piano to chiming guitars made me feel calm as unknown buildings and lines wizzed by. I’ve had a lot of records help me while I felt lost; Transatlanticism is the only one to guide me while I was literally so.

5. Kenna – New Sacred Cow

SCI-FI Channel used to have a late night showcase for independent short films called Exposure, and I seriously miss it. My favorite short was “More” by Mark Osborne, a claymation piece about how materialism doesn’t make us any happier, even if we become bold innovators. Later, on MTV2, I came across a song called “Hell Bent,” which used footage from “More.” The artist was named Kenna. “Hell Bent” tapped right into the intense angst I was going through, aided by some dope-ass beats. I would later learn that Chad Hugo from The Neptunes wrote the music with Kenna, which is weird given how not-mainstream the album sounds. Also worth noting for its oddness is that Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst is who got Kenna signed in the first place.

Anywhoozle, I spent many months trying to hunt down Kenna’s album, New Sacred Cow. Nobody had it. In a random bit of bonding, Eric, the hip-hop-lovin’ African-American DJ and then-assistant manager at my Sam Goody, talked to me about his own frustrations about trying to find the album. The only other time we bonded was when he tried to justify Beast Machines’ ending to me. We both agreed that Dinobot’s death was both fucked up yet brilliant, though.

THAT BEING SAID, one day I did get to buy New Sacred Cow, and it was awesome. Poignant yet danceable, Kenna’s first album moved my three key listening organs: my feet, my head, and my heart. Not everything is as dark and moody as “Hell Bent” (check the smooth jazz solo on “Yenah Ababa (Rose)”), but you can bet it’ll be good.

4. Bear Vs. Shark – Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands. And If Something Isn't Quite Right, Your Doctor Will Know in a Hurry

Somewhere, Nate Adams is throwing a shit fit.

Sweet merciful Christ how I miss Bear Vs. Shark. Spastic yet muscular, Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands… is blisteringly brilliant. It’s like XTC meets Hot Water Music, all angular and c-c-c-c-crazy yet very, very hardcore. The record stomps faces right away with the lead track, “Ma Jolie.” The drums could derail at any moment, the guitars are sloppy and crunchy and then, without warning, everything locks into a dancey post-punk beat. And then it all ends in a percussionless campfire singalong, which is funny because the next song is called “Campfire,” and it will fuck your shit up. My favorite song from the album has always been “Second,” if only for the passion behind the lines “And I’ll take what is given to me / and I’ll realize I’m not going home.” It’s kind of became my mantra, even though I refuse to accept my current living status and I do in fact live at home.

3. The Lawrence Arms – The Greatest Story Ever Told

“I’m gonna scream into your telephone!”

Chicago’s Larry Arms emerged from the shadow of their buddies Alkaline Trio in the new millennium, first with Apathy and Exhaustion and then with their 2003 magnum opus, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Everything you could love about the band was cranked up a couple extra notches – dueling vocals, high and low cultural references, and pop punk guitarmegeddon. The album opens on a solemn, almost gothic note with “The Raw and Searing Flesh” before kicking into full-on Chi-town punk rock. A pseudo-concept album about the band’s influences, The Greatest Story Ever Told strives to take in every book, film, and TV show ever made. Faust, Catcher in the Rye, and Hot Shots! Part Deux all collide into one another, with the point being that, like your food, it’s OK to switch up your diet. The whole dang record is great throughout, but for me it’s the ending that goes over best. Just nine seconds short of the four-minute mark, “The Disaster March” careens through rhythms, winding itself into a fury, declaring itself relevant and alive, before ultimately telling listeners to, “Shout me in the streets and parks / scrape your voices on the stars.”

2. Dresden Dolls – Dresden Dolls

Punk rock cabaret they tells me. It’s a hyper-specific genre, and no one does it nearly as well as Dresden Dolls (although you could probably make a successful argument that World/Inferno Friendship Society belongs in that style too). The band’s been experiencing some diminished returns lately, but I can remember being freaked out by the mix of influences present during my first trip to Otakon. I was drawn to the punk fervor of single “Girl Anarchonism,” and while nothing else on the album comes close to conjuring up that kind of insanity, there’s still plenty to love about a band that blends equal parts Black Sabbath, Tori Amos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Half Jack” is the slow-to-rise stomper, monolithic in its destruction and female angst. “Coin-Operated Boy” and “Missed Me” are the kitschy cabaret tunes that blend Berlin with overwhelming sexuality. Frontwoman Amanda Palmer even manages to craft a perfect pop song about a lost love with “Jeep Song.” Dresden Dolls was made by a band brimming with ideas, and I hope that the duo will reconvene for a proper third LP to show us what else they can do.

1. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros – Streetcore

Joe Strummer died way too soon. Sure, he had enough fun to last several lifetimes, and he gave the world at least nine incredible albums of music (I still haven’t heard his soundtracks or 101ers material, so I might need to upgrade that number). But if Streetcore is any indication, the guy was just warming up for his second wind with The Mescaleros. The album comes off more focused than Rock Art and the X-Ray Style or Global A Go-Go, perhaps due to Strummer’s premature death. The finished tracks, like “Coma Girl” and “Get Down Moses,” are still firmly planted in world music, but a clearer pop focus. “Coma Girl” is easily one of the catchiest songs Strummer ever wrote, and it’s arguably my favorite. Streetcore is rounded out by demos Joe left behind, such as covers of “Redemption Song,” “Long Shadow,” and “Silver and Gold,” as well as a mix of segments from Joe’s radio show entitled “Midnight Jam.” “Silver and Gold” in particular is affecting for the line “I’m gonna do everything silver and gold / but I have to hurry up before I grow too old.” At 51, Saint Joe Strummer still had a lot to do.

I got into The Ramones’ after Joey Ramone died, and the same happened with The Clash and The Mescaleros when Joe passed on. The Singles Collection taught me about ’77 British punk, but it wasn’t until Streetcore came out the year after Strummer’s death that I really learned to love the man. I’ve become a huge fan since then. I make it a point to spin Streetcore every time I go to the beach. The album’s mix of raga and pop seems appropriate. Plus, Joe was a big fan of staying in touch with nature. But man do I wish he had stuck around to write more.

NEXT WEEK: first wave intact, pointy fucking shoes, lovers underneath the covers, 2004.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

'Define the Meaning' Gangbang #2

[Finally got a second round of albums to do for Define the Meaning. I legitimately liked three of the albums, which is a plus. Guess which ones!]

Anarbor – The Natural Way

I’m assuming the band name is a Red Letter Day reference, as Anarbor cultivates the sort of pop rock-oriented emo music that The Get Up Kids once mastered. This four song EP is a tad too polished for my taste; a little Four Minute Mile-style grit would be appreciated. And with TGUK reunion rumors flying, I can’t help but feel that Anarbor is about to become irrelevant anyway. Of course, they could always settle for being the new Hot Rod Circuit.

Confide – Shout the Truth

THIS! ALBUM! IS! A! PIECE! OF! SHIT! Hear ye, hear ye, young lads and/or lasses – if you’re going to write “post-hardcore” songs, either make sure your lyrics don’t blow mega-chunks or check that your vocalist’s scream is so primal and devastating and demonic that it doesn’t matter. Confide frontman Ross Kenyon is stuck in a weird place; he can’t quite sound harsh enough to come off badass, but he can’t really hit notes either, so he’s not much of a singer. My advice: drop the douche and go instrumental. It’s not like couplets like “Honestly, were you sleeping? / Reach out touch me now” were defining kids’ lives anyway.

Electric Six – Flashy

As far as holding patterns go, the latest from Dick Valentine and co. is actually kind of good. Flashy never hits the giddy highs of Señor Smoke or Fire, but it’s still a solid collection of raunchy Detroit Rock City tuneskis that are fun and funny; catchy and kitschy. At this point, Electric Six is pretty much playing for the converted, as Flashy deviates little from the band’s potent mix of rock, funk, horns, and synths. But numbers like “Lovers Beware” and “Making Progress” are top-notch. The only real problem is that Valentine is clearly running out of areas to mine comedy gold from, as songs like “Formula 409” and “Graphic Designer,” while decent-sounding, don’t really offer much in terms of humor.

Greeley Estates – Go West Young Man, Let the Evil Go East

To quote the everlovin’ Bouncing Souls, “East Coast! Fuck You!” Some of us are doin’ OK in the East, thank you very much. Arizona’s Greeley Estates dish out screechy, metal-y screamo adequately, but the sound leaves little affect on the listener. You’ll remember that the guitars squealed, and that there was a lot of double bass. And maybe the song “If I Could Be Frank, You’re Ugly,” but only because that title is hi-larious. Overall, this style was played out like five years ago, and even then it wasn’t that great.

Japanther – Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt

You call it fuzzy Brooklyn bass-n-drums hipster combo, I call it good ol’ fashioned pop punk. Underneath that NYC cool are simple, fun songs (like The Ramones!). Some of the tracks are broken up by humorous samples (like Dillinger Four!). Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt is a catchy collection of rapid fire lo-fi jams (like The Dead Milkmen!). Just skip the lengthy spoken word pieces by Penny Rimbaud of Crass ‘cause they’re just not fun or funny (unlike Anti-Flag’s “This is Not a Crass Song”).

Lipona – Atlas

I’m not saying this always works, but sometimes you really can tell how good or bad an album is going to be based on the cover. Lipona’s album Atlas has a pretty boring cover; blue photo of the Earth with white text over it. And unsurprisingly, the music ain’t much more interesting. If you like punk bands that vaguely resemble blink-182, Pennywise, and Offspring with a dash o’ screamo, then Lipona might help you adequately kill some time.

Polysics – We Ate the Machine

There are too many elements from Polysic’s hyper-accelerated new wave/punk style to pick out for the band to be considered anything other than original. They’ve got the J-pop sound of The Pillows (FlCl to my otaku brethren!). They can be just as spastic as early Elvis Costello, especially on organ-laden tunes like “Pretty Good.” And fans of the crazed synthy energy of Mindless Self Indulgence will feel a surge of glee after spinning this disc. Extremely energetic, Polysics will give you the sugary passion needed to punch through mountains. I have no idea what these folks are singing, but I like how they sing it.

This is Benji… - Far Too Honest

At his best, This is Benji… recalls the shimmering indie pop of Band of Horses or mid-period Nada Surf. At his worst, he comes off like David Gray trying to front a rock band – overly earnest and not particularly heavy. But there are flashes of brilliance on Far Too Honest, like the slight opener “I Miss You” or the uber-catchy “Everywhere You Go.” When he keeps it light, everything is awesome. But the dude tries way too hard to break that vibe up with faux-alternative tunes that, to be blunt, kind of suck. If Benji can learn to embrace his stripped down, subtle folk sensibilities though, his next effort will be pretty gosh dang brilliant.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tom Gabel live at The Barbary

It’s Wed., Nov. 19, and I’m standing about 15 feet away from Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel as he sets up merch for his show at The Barbary in Philadelphia. He’s distracted, so I think I could give him a wet willy. I could be the one millionth fan to ask him why he signed to a major label. I could try to go “buddy-buddy” and make some sort of reference to his blog – a Curb Your Enthusiasm quote might earn a laugh – or maybe bring up a band we both like. I wonder what he thinks about the new Mountain Goats record? He mentioned liking Tallahassee in an interview once. Or, I can wait for him to move away from the merch table so I can buy a copy of his new 7” (on clear vinyl!) from his wife, Heather. Arguably one of the most important artists in punk rock in the last 10 years, I sheepishly tell her I like her work. She seems legitimately flattered and smiles. Smile achieved, I get the fuck out of there before I say something stupid.

The show starts a little after 7 p.m. Emilyn Brodsky opens the show with a combination of ukele and wit. She messes up a lot of chords and belches during songs; I think she’s nervous and/or buzzed. But she does a great cover of The Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love.” Her sound is warm and slightly folky – think a punker version of Mirah, I suppose – and she keeps her set down to a half hour.

Gabel goes on around 8 p.m. and opens with a song he just wrote a few days ago, “Bob Dylan’s Dream #12 35.” It’s in line with the material from his new EP Heart Burns, which got a lot of play, in that it’s acoustic and doesn’t quite sound like Against Me!. The song’s story arch revolves around Gabel meeting Dylan in a dream and talking to him about everything except his music career. They go to thrift stores, they race toy cars, it’s beautiful. It also makes me very glad I didn’t ask Tom about Sire Records because there is no way this song is not an allegory.

The set is going really well. It starts off with the new songs, but Tom soon starts digging through his library. Sure, we get “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” and “Sink, Florida, Sink,” but the true gems are “I Still Love You Julie,” “Walking is Still Honest,” and “What We Worked For.” With just guitar and vocals, the sound is perfect, and Gabel’s voice still sounds charged. He flubs a few chords here and there, but it doesn’t matter; the crowd is so excited to be there. No one moshes per say, but there is some aggressive swaying going on. Gabel pulls out Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” from Fat Wreck’s Protect compilation, which is significant because A) the regionally appropriate due to the line about a “trucker out of Philly,” B) it was partially written by the aforementioned Bob Dylan, C) I’ve never heard this song live before, and D) this cover is totally righteous. Reasons C and D also apply to a stirring performance of “8 Full Hours of Sleep.” “Joy” also goes over huge with the crowd.

Near the end of the set, fans storm the stage, which I haven’t seen since before Searching For a Former Clarity came out. Gabel is now completely surrounded by excited, slightly sweaty people. He cannot even get back to his guitar case, let alone leave the stage, so he keeps playing. He plays “Tonight We’re Going to Give it 35%,” from the The Disco Before the Breakdown EP, and it’s thoroughly awesome. I’m on stage and everyone is screaming the words back at Gabel. This is a unitive moment. After the hour-long set ends, I’m asked not to bother Tom, which is not unitive and kind of alienating. But for one hour, I “sang along to the songs I never had the courage to write.” I walk back to my car. It’s 9 p.m.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Joe Strummer - 'Earthquake Weather'

“Let’s rock again!” – Joe Strummer, “Gangsterville”

Sooner or later, every artist spends some time “in the wilderness.” He and/or she loses his and/or her artistic perspective and struggles to create more, ya know… art. Depending on who you ask, Joe Strummer either spent one year in the wilderness – the time it took to make the horrid final Clash album Cut the Crap and the actually pretty good Sid and Nancy soundtrack, say I – or 16 – from the time Joe kicked Mick Jones out of The Clash until the release of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, his first album with The Mescaleros. Either way, we are contractually obligated by good taste to agree that Joe’s late period work was ridiculously awesome, upon penalty of sounding like a cock that I will not tolerate.

But the road to critical redemption was rough. After he lost Jones as a songwriting partner, Strummer struggled to find a musical balance. He was arguably one of the best lyricists of all time, but Strummer’s greatest strength – his rambling, playful, internal rhymes – became he biggest flaw when he lost Mick’s pop sensibility. In some folks’ eyes, the guy just couldn’t write catchy songs anymore. Those people can cram it into every last orifice for all I care, though. In 1989, Joe Strummer returned to form with a devastatingly underappreciated solo LP, Earthquake Weather.

Unfairly maligned (and compared to Jones’ new project Big Audio Dynamite.) upon its release, the record eventually achieved somewhat of a cult following among Strummer enthusiasts like myself. On a certain level, I guess I understand why some critics didn’t dig the album. When you’re the guy who wrote London Calling, I imagine a lot of your other stuff seems petty by comparison, but even Strummer's lesser releases are better than most.

Earthquake Weather is perhaps best explained as the prequel to Joe’s run with The Mescaleros, filtered through cheesy ’80s production. The album transcends its studio limitations, however, showcasing the hurricane of influences that coursed through Joe’s veins. Elements of punk, rockabilly, reggae, folk, ska, funk, Caribbean and pop music intertwine. At times delirious, Earthquake Weather also feels like a Brian Wilson moment for Joe; it’s crammed with instruments and changes, as if the man never could make up his mind on how to go solo. And outside of scoring films, it would take him another decade to release another album.

But from the gentle rhythms of “Island Boogie” to the stomp ‘n’ pomp of “Gangstervielle” to the awkwardly Prince/Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque “Boogie With Your Children,” Earthquake Weather shows the guy still had a lot of potential, ideas, and talent left. I’ll be clear; it doesn’t exceed any of The Clash’s albums with Jones, nor does it beat the Mescaleros' three releases. But it is a pleasant bridge between the two. It’s not a perfect album – again I cite the RHCP tone on “Boogie With Your Children” – but it is a charming one. Earthquake Weather is out of print now, but it’s available on iTunes. A CD or two always pops up on eBay for those looking for a physical copy. Either way, I hope more people tune in to Joe’s post-Clash work.

X - 'See How We Are'

[Here's another fill-in-the-gaps joint]

It’s crazy how productive some bands were in the ’80s. The Cure and The Smiths shat out records annually with a pretty good batting average. Same goes for the L.A. punk in X, who put out six albums in seven years, five of which are great. 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand!, however, is not great. It sucks. You know how sometimes artists put out divisive records, like Against Me!’s New Wave or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Weezer's Pinkerton or like ¾ of Neil Young’s backcatalogue, where people can’t agree if they’re genius or bullshit?

Ain’t Love Grand! is not that kind of an album. It is unquestionably shitty.

Even the band straight up hates it. Of the six X re-releases, Ain't Love Grand! is the only one with liner notes that essentially state that you wasted your money. Tons of factors contributed, like touring burnout and artistic differences. The biggest reason why it sucked the suckiest suck to ever suck a sucky suck, though, was Master of Puppets sound engineer Michael Wagener. Wagener made a lot of bank handling metal albums in the ’80s, so when X came to him looking for a hit record, they got bad ’80s metal production. Frontwoman Exene Cervenka was virtually removed from the record thanks to Wagener’s borderline sexist attitude towards her lyrics and singing style. You know that “metal drums” sound that everybody used back in the day? That heavy/thudding yet artificial snare/bass sound that sounds like it was made on a keyboard? Yeah, that’s what Ain’t Love Grand! sounded like. Dokken and Poison blow, and so does Ain’t Love Grand!.

The one good thing about Ain’t Love Grand!, though, is that it was so terrible that it made the band’s final album (before the numerous reunions anyway), See How We Are, sound even better. I bought my X albums chronologically, so I can say I felt the same emotions as X’s original fans in the ’80s did. I was relieved to hear a return to the rockabilly sound. Granted, Ain’t Love Grand! led to founding guitarist Billy Zoom’s temporary departure, but his replacements, Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson, fill in admirably. Less raw than Los Angeles, the band’s evolution into a true American roots band was clear here. John Doe and Cervenka are American poets with way more eloquence than the average punk and enough sense to keep it all tightly packaged. Still dealing with urban decay, romance, and political rambling, X’s last stand was a good one.

Opening number “I’m Lost” has more in common with The Blasters and The Stray Cats than with Los Angeles, which is to say its rockabilly stance borders on country rock at times. Track two, “You,” briefly recalls Bruce Springsteen circa-Born in the U.S.A., if only for its synths. It’s easily one of the poppiest songs Cervenka has ever written – she even opts for traditional singing over her trademark ghostly wail thing. And that’s only bad if you’re more into punk aesthetics than actual songwriting. Indeed, listening to See How We Are, it feels as if this shouldn’t have been a swan song, but the band’s real bid for commercial appeal instead of Ain’t Love Grand!.

The record’s pop sheen can only cover up so much, though. There’s still a hint of X’s desperation present, perhaps best displayed on the title track. “See How We Are” extols the pains of prison, inner city violence, and brand name saturation (“Now there are seven kinds of Coke / 500 kinds of cigarettes / This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy”) in under four minutes. A ballad among rockers, it’s mournful, it’s pointed, and it’s especially moving. The Rhino re-release includes a rough-sounding demo among the bonus tracks (Also worth noting is a pretty great take on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”), and it’s just as amazing. See How We Are might still not sit well with some punks who like their guitars muddy and their vocals buried in the mix, but it’s a solid rockabilly record that just so happened to have a decent recording budget. If nothing else, this was a good way to end it.

Of course, the band reunited to record 1993’s hey Zeus!, again to promote 1997’s Beyond and Back: The X Anthology, and yet again to tour sporadically during this, our new millennium.

2002 - HAIL SATAN!

2002 is when my music consumption exploded. I was like a junky, and the money I made from working at Duke’s car wash was only partially covering the habit. Pop punk and emo were quickly becoming my best friends, fed by introductions to the Victory, Vagrant, and Saddle Creek record labels. Drive-Thru Records was in its prime, with New Found Glory, Midtown, Rx Bandits, and Allister touring. Christen turned me on to Bright Eyes, which led me to Saddle Creek 50, which in turn took me to Cursive and Rilo Kiley. MTV2, in a final fit of influence, taught me about Ben Kweller. And all the while, I kept a little secret in my back pocket: The Mountain Goats. Internet-punk-dilettante Mitch Clem included a few lo-fi TMG cuts in his Liquid Paper online compilation series. After an e-mail exchange with the guy, I opted to check out All Hail West Texas, and man what a good decision that turned out to be.

I say The Mountain Goats were in my back pocket because, no matter how hard I tried, none of my friends could get into them. It sounds weird now, especially since like 95% of the friends I’ve made since then are down with the Darnielle sound, but in 2002 everyone around me seemed completely dumbfounded by my love of a dude who wrote and recorded with a guitar, an old keyboard, and an even older boom box.

So there I was, about to throw that football 300 yards over them mountains. I busted out of the got-damn Matrix and never looked back. Feeling the schism before it ever broke free, I beat it. The radio is dead and I am alive.

10. Desaperacidos – Read Music, Speak Spanish

If I’d made this series five years ago, I guarantee there would be been way more Conor Oberst entries. At the advanced age of 22, though, I rarely find myself with the exact levels of angst needed to savor Bright Eyes. But I can still hold on to the punk fervor of Oberst’s side project, Desaperacidos. The band recorded one LP, but it’s so good that in a way I’m glad they never got the chance to foul up their legacy. Read Music, Speak Spanish deals with lady troubles like Bright Eyes, but through a socio-eco-politi-crazy perspective. This is a “burn it all down” record that’s much more eloquent than the phrase “burn it all down.”

9. Taking Back Sunday – Tell All Your Friends

“For this simple reason I / just need to keep you in mind / as something larger than life.”

The fabled “Summer of Screamo” was still a year away, but the genre was already well on its way to mainstream appeal thanks to two albums: Thursday’s Full Collapse and Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends, both released by the ethically questionable Victory Records. It’s funny; the label didn’t give a shit about Thursday until Full Collapse started moving units and effectively established the genre/business model which Victory still uses today. Thursday’s success allowed for at least one positive release from the label: TBS. Tell All Your Friends exists like a flipside to Thursday, so much so that some might debate the record’s association with the genre.

Where Full Collapse is a brutal hardcore record, artsy and feeling and concerned with more than just its dick, Tell All Your Friends is much coyer. The record is obsessed with losing lovers and friends. The shtick got old by LP #2, but man was it glorious the first time around. At his best, frontman Adam Lazzara could be as sexy and beguiling as Morrissey himself, with co-vocalist John Nolan as his tortured Robert Smith. Fact: “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team)” once meant as much to me as “I Know It’s Over,” and I still kind of love it.

8. Rilo Kiley – The Execution of All Things

Intrigued by “With Arms Outstretched,” I took a gander at The Execution of All Things’ deeee-lite-ful collection of lady-laden, despair-shaking, indie rock pop tunes. Like Oberst, Jenny Lewis has lived to disappoint me. But on Rilo Kiley’s second full-length, she was perfect, an emotive chick who knew how to kick ass on guitar. I’ve spent hours upon hours obsessing over pretty much every single track on this album at one point or another – opener “The Good That Won’t Come Out” stayed with me for a long time, thanks to its downplayed depression. The way the lyrics count off all the “friends who lost the war / and the novels that have yet to be written about them” hits me every time. “A Better Son/Daughter” is a right rabble-rouser. In this moment, though, I have to give it to epic album ender “Spectacular Views.” The feedback-spewing guitar solo. The propulsive bass line. Those synth flourishes and driving drums. The way Lewis sums up every image ever as “so fucking beautiful,” that desperate shift in her voice, like she needs to scream it but also needs to keep it together for the sake of the song’s pop leanings… Do you know why I don’t like Feist? Because she can’t let herself go, like Patti Smith or Tori Amos or PJ Harvey or Courtney Love or Jenny gosh-dang Lewis.

7. The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee

Hold on to your shit, you motherfucking damn assholes! This list has two Mountain Goats records on it, not just one!

2002 marked a major shift in John Darnielle’s recording style. He bid adieu (to you and you and you-oo) with his last uber-lo-fi release, All Hail West Texas, and then set about recording a real hi-fi album in a real hi-fi studio with a real hi-fi band. The change wasn’t as drastic as you’d think, though. Instead of imagining additional instruments buried beneath tape hiss, I hear actual additional instruments. And the lyrics, well, they stayed jawesome.

My first live Mountain Goats experience was during their 2005 tour to promote The Sunset Tree, at Swarthmore College. Oddly enough, they didn’t play many songs off of that album or its predecessor, We Shall All Be Healed. The show opened with “Tallahassee,” the first track off of the album of the same name. My friends, some Swarthmore students, and I were packed into a log cabin, fizzing with anticipation, when Darnielle busted out this subtle little number (“What did I come down here for? / You / You”). It’s an old trick of his, in which he always manages to invert a rambunctious crowd with a subdued ditty. Backed by the opening act, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, the Goats also slipped in some more energetic songs, like “First Few Desperate Hours” and “Oceanographer’s Choice.” The songs rock pretty dang hard live, lemme tell ya. And in the middle of it all was John, tipsy and silly and alive. No one talks to a crowd like him; he’s like a master of ceremonies hosting a party. Which, in a lot ways, the show was.

6. Minus the Bear – Highly Refined Pirates

Freshman year of college was a scary time, what with the whole “complete lifestyle change” thing going on. I spent the summer before moving into La Salle buying as many albums with my Sam Goody employee discount as possible (40% off!!). One of the last purchases was an EP AP hyped; They Make Beer Commercials Like This by Minus the Bear. I was hooked on its fine blend of synthy surfy prog-rock. Later, on one of approximately 12,000 South St. trips with Eric Crack and Nick Elmer, I picked up Highly Refined Pirates, MtB’s first full-length. It’s remarkable how much the band had already figured out its airy yet rockin’ sound right off the bat. Highly Refined Pirates is an album I can pretty much listen to regardless of setting – on the beach, while driving, in bed right before sleep, or at 10:25 a.m. on a Monday morning (as of this writing) whilst perusing the Internets. Songs like “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twisters” and “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” are lovely lil gems about good times with good friends – partying, dancing, drinking, swimming – bathed in the warm glow of Dave Knudson’s guitar-tapping wonders.

5. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising

Although most of the songs had been written prior, Bruce Springsteen’s reunion with The E Street Band on The Rising became for many a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. A slew of pro-American songs came out after 9/11, many of them banal (Paul McCartney’s “Freedom") and some of them even embarrassingly offensive (Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”). Bruce went the opposite route; The Rising isn’t about retaliation, it’s about figuring out how to move on. Last week, I wrote about Joe Strummer’s “wilderness years,” the period where he didn’t quite know what to write. Well, Bruce had a pretty big dry period. He’s never made a truly awful record, but every studio album that came out in between Nebraska and The Rising – two decades – was spotty.

The Rising is the sort of effortless, grand Americana statement Bruce used to make effortlessly. It’s dated in some spots thanks to an overabundance of keyboards, and it would be a golden past sort of album if it weren’t for all the lyrics about moving on and living. The whole E Street gang returns with their classic sound. There’s tons of piano and guitars, but everybody knows it’s Clarence Clemmons’ sax that really gives the songs drive.

Ultimately, the record is really about Bruce trying (and occasionally failing, like on “Nothing Man”) to believe in himself again. The timing just meant that the rest of us had the same problem. But even if The Rising wasn’t tied to the terrorist attacks, it would still be a resonant record. I’ve found myself listening to it a lot in the last year or so. I always turn to music when times get tough, but The Rising is one of the few albums to make me take a proactive approach to my problems. When I didn’t get the job at the Inquirer, when I bombed a separate interview, when I’ve felt powerless, The Rising brings me back to life with its repeated messages about hope, faith, and rising up. Not that all my memories of the album are tied to bad events – I made it a point to spin The Rising after Barack Obama clinched the presidency. The album is a little overstuffed in the middle, but when I hit that last third – “Mary’s Place” into “You’re Missing” into “The Rising” into “Paradise” into “My City of Ruins” – I truly believe everything is going to be alright. C’mon, rise up.

4. Jets to BrazilPerfecting Loneliness

Jets to Brazil came into their own right before they broke up. As much as I love Orange Rhyming Dictionary, it really is just an extension of Dear You. Four-Cornered Night showed a lot more growth, adding piano and strings to the mix, thanks to the addition of guitarist Brian Maryansky. That album opted for arrangements that strayed further from punk into a more indie rock sound. And while Night is pretty dang good, Perfecting Loneliness develops that approach further. It’s a fitting swan song. While JtB was totally separate from Jawbreaker musically, it’s clear the band existed lyrically, to a certain extent, as a coping mechanism for Dear You’s failure. The title could not be more literal.

The record dips a toe or two into country/bluegrass (“Wish List”), and it’s clear that Maryansky’s presence was put to much better use this time around. The melodies are richer too. At six minutes long and without a chorus to be found, “The Frequency” is a ballsy opening track. But it’s actually one of the best Jets to Brazil songs of all time, as frontman Blake Schwarzenbach tries to find an appropriate way to explain why he writes. My favorite line has always been “When the measure of your work / is the measure of your worth / then you’d better make it work.” From there, things get a little more traditional (i.e. – choruses) on “You’re the One I Want” and “Cat Heaven.” The record has an overall arc – poppy then introspective then poppy again and then really introspective on closer “Rocket Boy” – and it works pretty darn well.

3. The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

“The best ever death metal band out of Denton…” I think the best way to sum up my high school years vs. my college years goes like this: I spent a lot of time in high school feeling like no one else liked The Mountain Goats, or Jawbreaker, or Jets to Brazil, or even the freaking Smiths. Then I went to college and met a lot of people who did know what was up. My God, how many times have I heard people strum “The Best Ever Death in Denton” at parties? How many times have I danced a fit to “Jenny?” My most vivid pre-college memory of All Hail West Texas is a being begged to turn off “Blues in Dallas” because the keyboard line was “stupid.”

But enough with the baggage. All Hail West Texas feels like the culmination of Darnielle’s boom box aesthetic. Arguably his best album since Zopilote Machine, this concept album “about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” is rife with vivid imagery and bombastic acoustic guitar. This album isn’t just symbolic of the last six years of my life, it’s symbolic of the lo-fi sound – lurking in the murky depths is a phantom orchestra, unleashing the most complex constructions you’ve literally ever imagined. I can hear drums buried in the mix, even though I know they’re not really there.

2. Ben Kweller – Sha Sha

Choosing between Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha and Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose has been a tough call, as they’ve both been with me through shit and not-shit. The original list that spawned this series went for Sha Sha, but today I’m feeling Rose a little bit more. Which I suppose reveals how arbitrary this whole process is. Hell, I’ve heard albums since starting this series that should’ve made it in (Fact: If I ever redo this, Ride’s Nowhere will dominate 1990). My experiences and feelings are constantly in flux, like the weather. Which is probably why I loved Sha Sha so much.

Picking up where Weezer’s “Blue Album” left off, Ben Kweller tapped into both my dorky and angsty veins. The result, Sha Sha, was about love and loss and yearning, but it was also about Planet of the Apes and pizza and goofy similes such as “I’m maxed out like a credit card.” It was about family trees, remembering where you came from. Where you want to get to. Feeling like you’ve found the one (“Falling”), but remembering your momma (“Lizzy”). And like any good Weezer-esque album, it’s got some ridonkulous guitar solos (“Harriet’s Got a Song,” which I played for my Art of Listening class, thank you very much).

1. Against Me! – Reinventing Axl Rose

I have a hard time writing about some albums. There’s always that desire to say something new, something you’ve never said before. But what else could I possibly tell you about Reinventing Axl Rose? That it’s one of the most passionate punk albums of the new millennium? That I’ve drunkenly played and sang at least half of the songs with friends? That this shit makes me want to live?

I’ll tell ya what, howsabout you just watch this live video of “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)?” This song still sends me into a rage. I have to clean the inside of my windshield if I play this while driving, because the spit flies high when I call out Mary.

NEXT WEEK: I am written on the subway walls, I was crawling through a festival way out West, I need you so much closer, I am hell bent, 2003.