Monthly Archives: April 2012

“Last Surrender” (Video) – Brigg Fair

“Last Surrender” from Brigg Fair is a sweeping ballad with plenty of piano and heartfelt vocals reminiscent of early Coldplay.  The video seems to recall the early 90s videos from Aerosmith (the ones with Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone) as it follows the adventures of two young women as the band plays in the background.

 

Song of the Week: “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” – The Ramones

I used to think that pretty much all of the Ramones songs sounded the same.  While most  of their songs are in the same vein, they’re not all carbon copies of each other.  It’s been said that Ramones played dumb, but were actually quite sophisticated.  Underneath Johnny Ramone’s buzz-saw guitar attack and Joey Ramone’s gloriously stupid lyrics, was a band who understood the early days of rock and roll.  The best Ramones songs contain elements of 1950s rockabilly, surf-rock, girl-group-style vocals.  The Ramones didn’t achieve a legendary status just because they created something new – it was because they reminded everyone that rock and roll started out as fun.

Which brings me to “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”.  Is there any Ramones song that is as good as “Sheena is a Punk Rocker?”  It’s got everything that you would ever want in a Ramones song – chugging riffs, memorable melody, a famous count-off.  It’s hard not to let loose with Joey Ramone’s vocals especially when he sings “oh yeah, oh yeah,” with such glee and abandon.

 

Edward Rogers: “Separate Walls” (Live Video)

Of all the artists I’ve interviewed and reviewed, Edward Rogers is probably my favorite with his nod to The Kinks and 60s garage rock.  His latest CD, Porcelain is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already.  The above video for “Separate Walls” proves that Rogers is even better live than he is in the studio.  With an all-star band including members of Ian Hunter’s Band, The Smithereens, and Cracker among others, Rogers gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance.

Song of the Week: “Bold as Love” – Jimi Hendrix

When I used to work at Starbuck a few years ago, they often had Jimi Hendrix on their playlist.  I always thought this was a bit strange, since Hendrix’s wild blues doesn’t really seem to mesh with the hurried vibe of a Starbucks in the morning.  Even his slower songs demand to be heard and listened to.  Reducing Hendrix to simple background music in such a corporate and fast-paced setting seems to go against much of what his music stood for.

Still, as a fan of Hendrix, I was always glad to hear him being played even in this odd setting. I knew almost every single note of the songs they played – the usual hits with a few obscure songs thrown in for good measure – but “Bold as Love” always seem to stand out.  It was a song that for whatever reason, I always kind of over-looked before.

For me, “Bold as Love” is quintessential Hendrix.  Within its four minutes, it’s got everything that made Hendrix great – bluesy ringing chords during the verses, psychedelic inspired lyrics and the ending guitar solo that beams with all the colors of the sun.  Hendrix’s playing always had a lyrical quality to it (even the more wild and violent playing) but on “Bold as Love” it seemed to open the doors of the universe and all of its meaning.  If that seems like a hippie fantasy, well that’s exactly the point.

A Tribute to Levon Helm

In many ways, Levon Helm was the spirit of The Band.  He was the one who didn’t want The Band to stop after the Last Waltz.  He kept making music afterwards, performing the on his farm (nicknamed “the barn”) for the better part of the last decade carrying on the tradition of the down-home style rock his old group made and in many ways pioneered. Though this was done in part to pay his medical bills, the concerts always seemed to be a celebration of life and music.  Unlike massive rock tours by other bands of his generation, the Midnight Ramble concerts proved that even in his 60s, Levon Helm was still doing things his way and making the music he loved with family and friends.

I’ve written many essays here about The Band, and how it took me a long time to truly appreciate them.  I think I speak for many here, when I say that once you “get” the group, they never let you go.  The best of The Band’s music conjures up something about truly being American (even though Helm was the only one of the group born in the US) in a way that few other groups have managed to do.  Their music was a mix of soul and folk, with lyrics that seemed like that came out of the Appalachian Mountains. Though Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel wrote much of the group’s music, Levon Helm was its heart.  “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” among many others would not be the same with Helm’s vocals and drumming.

For a long time, Keith Moon was always my favorite drummer.  In recent years though, that spot has been replaced by Helm. He certainly wasn’t as flashy as Moon, but the music never required that.  But Helm’s drumming was distinct right from the beginning.  The New York Times describes his playing as “a muffled, bottom-heavy sound” that anchored The Band’s music.  The beginning of “The Weight” with its bass-drum thump introduction, has surely got to be one of the most famous drum moments in rock. There was a wide variety of beats and influences that popped up all over Band classics: “Up on Cripple Creek” was given a funk beat, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” sounds like a Motown beat, and “The Shape I’m In” contains a ragged shuffle.  His drumming was tight, but somehow managed to sound loose and improvisational at the same time.  There’s no other way to describe the playing on the version “All Along the Watchtower” found on Before The Flood, the live album recorded with Bob Dylan and The Band in 1974.

When I think about Levon Helm though, I tend to think of an insanely talented musician (like the rest of The Band he could play multiple instruments and wasn’t just limited to drums) who loved playing music and gave inspiration to many until the end.

 

Song of the Week: “Up on Cripple Creek” – The Band

With the very sad news that Levon Helm that is the final stages of cancer, I thought it would only be appropriate to have a song by The Band as the Song of the Week.

“Up on Cripple Creek” is one of my favorite songs by The Band, and represents everything that I love about them.  Musically, it’s a a strange mix of R&B, funk and roots rock anchored by Helm’s tight drumming and vocals.  Also worth noting is the use of the Clavinet played through a wah-wah pedal (which most people were using for guitar effects at the time.)

Lyrically, the song is quite intriguing with its story of a man from out of town who lodges with an old acquaintance, Bessie.  While Bessie holds him up, he wastes his money on booze and horse racing – “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see.”  Though the narrator seems to have some feeling for Bessie, it’s hard to take him seriously.  It’s hard not to wonder if he only likes her because she is enabling his bad behavior, and giving him a place to stay.  When he gives her half of his winnings, she tears it and throws it in his face, “but just for a laugh.”  At the end of the song, when he leaves Cripple Creek he notes that there’s a flood in California and it’s cold up North and think that perhaps he’ll lodge with Bessie again.

The story in the song seems very old and something out of an old-folk song or folk-tale.  Like “Apple Suckling Tree” and many of the other songs on The Basement Tapes, the lyrics and music  “Up on Cripple Creek” seems to exist in and out of time.  It seems like a very old story – one that could have been passed down in generations in rural areas – not one that was written by The Band themselves.  Few artists were able to conjure up the ghosts of America’s past while creating a version of America themselves, and that’s exactly what “Up on Cripple Creek” does.

(I was lucky enough to see Levon Helm a few years and I wish him, his family and friends the best at this unfortunate time.)

 

RIP Dick Clark

As a kid, I only knew Dick Clark from the New Year’s Eve specials.  It seemed like he always existed.  Long before I started drinking champagne at midnight at whatever bar I happened to be in, Dick Clark was my representation of what New Years was all about.  Being the strange kid that I was, because he always looked the same from year to year, I assumed that he might possibly be a vampire – only to come out on New Year’s Eve.

It wasn’t until I started reading up on the history of music that I realized that Dick Clark played a much bigger role in popular culture than announcing a ball drop at the end of a particular year.  As producer of American Band Stand, he set the standard for musical television shows.  Every TV show that used musical acts as its prominent feature – from Soul Train to The Voice – owes Dick Clark a huge debt.  Clark was probably also one of the first hosts on television to truly appreciate (and understand) the power of teenagers’  taste in music with his “Rate a Song” segment.  There’s a reason why he was nick-named “the world’s oldest teenager.”

No matter what you think of him (and for me it’s certainly hard to ignore the payola scandal of the 1950s) in many ways he was one of the first in mass-media to achieve success on many different platforms (DJ, Host, Producer, etc). It’s no wonder Ryan Seacrest looked up the man as his idol.  With American Bandstand, the exposure he gave to artists (ranging from The Doors to Prince) cannot be understated.  But for Clark, the audience always came first even if he didn’t quite understand their tastes.  That will remain his biggest legacy.

 

 

 

Why Image is Important

I was listening to Alt-Nation on Sirius XM last night and was struck by the lack of distinction between the artists that were played.  While I highly enjoy Neon Tree’s “People Talk”, Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied” and Bombay Bicycle Club’s “Shuffle” among others, the artists and the songs are pretty interchangeable. Each one of those songs is a mix of dance-rock, with a highly memorable chorus.  But there’s nothing from any of those bands that makes them distinct from one another.

Pop Artists on the other-hand, have managed to create larger than life personas, which have only added to their mass appeal.  Lady Gaga?  An eccentric and wildly dressed champion of the misunderstood.  Nicki Minaj?  An insanely talented, genre-bending lunatic (and I mean that in a good way.)  Bruno Mars?  A throw-back to Soul, with James Brown-style dance-moves.  Adele?  A woman with a bruised heart, and super-charged voice.

While each of these artists have memorable songs that sell and are heard everywhere, the image they’ve cultivated for themselves helps identify them from others.  While having a hit song helps sustain an artist, the best ones have something extra that the audience can latch onto.  Rihanna has sold a lot of records, but the fact that she rose above a very public incident, probably adds to her appeal.

If you think about it, many of your favorite artists aren’t just your favorite artists because they make great songs (though that is a huge part of it.)  They have something identifiable about them, which you like.  The identity of the people behind the music who makes the makes you want to listen even more.  It makes the artist relatable. The Ramones weren’t just a punk-band,  Instead, they were saviors of rock and roll, who played music that was purposely stupid and fun.  The Rolling Stones were the original bad-boys of rock, who took cues from various forms of American Music and made it their own.  Kurt Cobain was was full of rage, yet his music extremely catchy.  James Brown was the “hardest working man in show business” and of one of popular music’s most dynamic performers.  Bob Dylan has had so many different personas (folk icon, cynical hipster, the wounded soul on Blood on the Tracks and Desire, Born-Again Christian, etc) it’s probably one of the reasons why he has such a loyal following.

As far as rock goes, there’s really only two (current) artists that I can think of that have some sort of image (The Black Keys and Jack White) that sets them apart.  Of course, both artists model their music on the blues, so perhaps that’s telling.  The industry would have you believe that illegal downloading is the only problem why people don’t buy music.  I’m not sure.  People will buy and invest in artists that have a history, or a story to sell.  The current pop-artists have that, which is one reason why Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry are selling lots of records.  Current rock and roll? Not so much.  I’m not suggesting that image is everything, but it certainly holds a lot of value.  And if you don’t believe me, it certainly worked for Malcom McLaren.

 

Review: “Do It Again” – Smash Palace

 

 

Do It Again, the 8th album from New Jersey rockers Smash Palace finds the band sounding like the world’s best bar band.  Like their past albums, Do It Again is a mix of power-pop and straight ahead rockers.  Every song is perfectly crafted and suited for a night at the bar.

The original line-up of Smash Palace was formed in 1985, and Do It Again plays like a college-rock album from 1985.  “Tell Her Now” and “21st Century Boy”  sound they could have been out-take from Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, while “She’s Never Coming Back” contains a guitar lick that would make Peter Buck proud.

Smash Palace aren’t the type of band who are intent on changing the world.  And that’s exactly the point they make on Do It Again.  Clearly the band loves playing music – and chances are you’ll get swept along for the ride – and sometimes that’s all you need.