Monthly Archives: August 2012

Album of the Week: “Transformer” – Lou Reed

 

With the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed’s songs were shocking in lyrical content and sound. Bizarre sexual practices and drug-use were detailed in full, and the band played with a fury and darkness to match. The 17-minute “Sister Ray” was all about excess in every sense of the world. Sheer noise was met with Reed’s twisted tale of group sex and drugs (which may or may not have been happening at the same time.) In a way, The Velvet Underground preaching to the choir when they were recording. Chances are if you listened to them when they were around, you fell into the same crowd as they did.

With Transformer, Reed changes things up a bit. He’s still obsessed with the same themes, but the music found on his second solo album is more accessible. “Walk on the Wild Side” is just as depraved as “Sister Ray”, but it’s more inviting. The same type of characters fill the song, but they’ve moved out into the streets. And with the chorus, Reed is inviting his audience to come with him. “Take a walk on the wild side,” Reed whispers as a type of encouragement.

The irony of the album is that while Reed was trying to gain a wider audience, much of Transformer contains a resentment of some sorts to imitators and detractors. Some of this might have been directed at glam-rockers, who clearly saw Reed as a patron saint.  The fast-paced “Hangin’ Around” is Reed’s version of “Positively 4th Street”.  The message is clear: if you meet him on the street he’ll not only blow you off, but kick you in the balls.  “You keep hanging ’round me/and I’m not glad you found me.  You keep doing stuff that I gave up years ago.”  On the opener “Vicious”, Reed is clearly the antagonist. He claims that the girl is vicious as she hits him with a flower (the phrase was inspired by a conversation with Andy Warhol), but Reed wants her to swallow razor blades and threatens to mangle her feet.

He’s even more scathing on the classic “Satellite of Love”. Easily the album’s best song, “Satellite of Love” bitterness is sugarcoated with doo-wop style background vocals and a gentle piano. It’s a twisted love song, and Reed doesn’t hold back any punches. He doesn’t call out his ex-lover’s infidelities he names all the people she’s slept with and when’s she done it: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Harry, Mark and John”.

What makes Transformer such a compelling album is how it balances two extremes. Its hard-rock and pop elements make it easy to digest for casual listeners. But its classic Reed, and lyrically he proved that you can be just as weird and bizarre and achieve success if the songs are melodic and catchy.

Song of the Week: “Most Kingz” – Jay-Z

 

“Most Kingz” is an unreleased song from Jay-Z, and his analysis of the song is one of the highlights of his 2010 book Decoded.  Lyrically, the song was inspired by a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting titled Charles the First which depicts Jazz great Charle Parker and contains the words: “most young kings get their heads cut off” at the bottom.  Using that line as a template, Jay-Z depicts the trials and tribulations of being famous and successful. Several tragic cultural and historical figures are mentioned throughout the song to drive the point home.

Success, whether it is in terms of money or adoration has always been a driving force in the minds of many hip-hop musicians. Jay-Z is no exception. Consistently ranked as one of hip-hop’s greatest rappers, he’s probably all too aware that his own crown could potentially be taken at any given moment.  But as he writes in Decoded, he refuses to believe that “falling is inevitable…there’s a way to avoid it, a way to win, to get success and its spoils, and get away with it without losing your soul or your life or both.”

Most of the figures that Jay mentions in “Most Kingz” have lost their lives in part due to their success or the views they expressed. In the case of Michael Jackson (who was still alive when the song was recorded) and Bobby Brown the two musicians their stardom and status fall before their eyes.  It might seem like sacrilege to name-check Biggie and Tupac in the same sentence as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, (or even Jesus Christ for that matter) but that’s exactly the point. The figures mentioned may have had different messages and mediums to spread these messages, but their their success was part of their undoing.

One of the verses got an official release on a remix of Coldplay’s “Lost” retitled “Lost+”.   The pairing was most likely a returned favor from Jay-Z to Chris Martin who sang the hook on “Most Kingz”. The addition of the verse about Malcolm X and Bobby Brown elevated a pretty decent Coldplay song into a classic. As massive as Coldplay is, having Jay-Z rap on their track is akin to having Michael Jackson, Bono or Mick Jagger.  It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

As for the original – it’s Jay-Z’s version of “Blind Willie McTell”.  Which begs the question: why hasn’t it gotten an official release?  If you doubt the power of Jay-Z’s intelligence or his rhymes, this song will set the record straight.

 

 

 

 

The 10 Most Mediocre Cover Songs of All Time

 

A while back, I wrote a list of the best cover songs. I originally intended to a follow-up highlighting the worst cover songs of all time. But, seeing as how that’s been done quite a bit, I’ve decided to go this route. The songs on this list aren’t terrible interpretations, but they don’t sounded inspired either.

“The Boxer” – Marcus Mumford & Jerry Douglas

Sirius XM station The Spectrum loves this cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”.  Douglas’ resonator guitar adds some nice country twang, and Simon himself plays rhythm guitar. But it’s Mumford who leads the song into mediocre territory. When he sings “the fighter still remains” he sounds beaten down and even bored.

“Instant Karma!” – U2

U2 recorded this classic John Lennon for a charity album to save Darfur in 2007.  The original’s chorus is U2-style catharsis, a decade before U2 made their debut. So it would seem that U2 would destined to play this song with zeal and power. Unfortunately, they seem to be on auto-pilot.

“Under My Thumb” – The Who

When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were jailed in 1967, The Who quickly recorded “(This Could Be) The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb” in solidarity. “The Last Time” is pretty good with a neat Townshend feedback solo. Not so much for “Under My Thumb”.  Instrumentally, The Who thrash away as they was their trademark in the mid-1960s. But Roger Daltrey doesn’t sound convincing singing Jagger’s biting and scathing lyrics. Which is odd, considering he was every bit the womanizer that Jagger was.

“King of the Road” – R.E.M.

The king of all mediocre covers. R.E.M. give “King of the Road” a drunken and sloppy take. Mike Mills can be heard calling out the chords in the background and Stipe slurs the lyrics in such a manner you would assume that it was his own songs. The most hilarious moment is half-way through when the band changes key with no reason whatsoever.

“Redemption Song” – Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer

I know I’m going to get a lot of shit for this one. On paper this pairing sounds amazing. You get a country outlaw and a punk icon cutting Marley’s most enduring tune!  However, it seems forced and a tad bland. Strummer who was known for his fiery performances, comes off as reserved and humble on this track. In the last years of his life, Cash was known for many classic covers.  This isn’t one of them.  A wasted opportunity is what I’m saying.

“Raspberry Beret” – Hindu Love Gods

This one-off super group of R.E.M. (minus Stipe) and Warren Zevon give Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” some good rollicking fun. Ultimately though, it’s mostly unmemorable.

“Like a Rolling Stone” – The Rolling Stones

The world’s best rock and roll band covering the best song by rock’s greatest songwriter – should be awesome right?  The Stones never rock out or add any punch to the song, instead, just reliably sticking to the original’s arrangement. If there were any Dylan song that Jagger could get behind, “Like a Rolling Stone” would be at the top of the list. The Stones play the song as if they don’t want to mess up Dylan’s masterpiece.  Oh, the irony.

“Landslide” – The Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan gives a passionate vocal on this Fleetwood Mac classic, but Stevie Nicks did it so much better. And so did the Dixie Chicks – and I don’t even like the Dixie Chicks.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Rage Against the Machine

Unlike some of the other artists on this list, Rage Against the Machine actually tried to make the song their own. Rage’s metal take is radically different approach on Springsteen’s plaintive acoustic ballad. The song’s themes of working class struggles,  seems right up Rage’s alley. Zack De La Rocha never matches the coldness and anger of Springsteen’s vocal, even as he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.

“Sister Ray” – Joy Division

The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” is one of the noisiest  and bizarre songs ever put to wax.  And like The Velvet Underground, you either love Joy Division or hate them. Their version of “Sister Ray” isn’t bad, but Ian Curtis’s distant vocals make this tale of drugs and twisted sex seem like an AA meeting.

 

It’s Time For a Moratorium on the Wah-Wah

The other night while out for a friend’s birthday, my gaze turned towards the band setting up at the front of the bar. As the rest of the band was still setting up, the guitarist fiddled with his foot pedals.  “What type of stuff do you think they’ll play?” Asked a guy who I had only met moments earlier. “I’m thinking some Def Leopard covers.”

I looked at the guitarist whose long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail so tight that it must have hurt his head. “White man blues,” I said.  “Definitely.”

And then, with a slight tap on the way, the guitarist started playing the opening riff of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return”).  His playing was far more fluid and note-heavy than Hendrix’ noisy and distorted recording.  In essence, by overusing the pedal, the guitarist (like many other cover bands I’ve seen) stripped the song of its power.

A few moments later, another riff was tried out and excessive watery notes filled the bar. When the full band started playing, the rest of the band gave the guitarist plenty of room for long bloated fills and solos that lacked originality, and they were all courtesy of the wah-wah.  But it wasn’t until the band tried out a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” that things got truly out of control.  The song’s normal pounding ending was replaced by a “Stairway”-style solo that reeked of musical masturbation.

Don’t get me wrong, the wah-wah pedal has its place in rock and has become the cornerstone of many great songs and artists. Both Cream and Jimi Hendrix took the pedal to artistic heights during their mid 1960s recordings.  Bassit Melvin Ragin (also known as Wah-Wah Watson) of the Funk Brothers used the wah for many classic Motown singles.  The Band’s Garth Hudson famously made his clavinet sound like a jaw-harp on “Up on Cripple Creek” using a wah.  And jazz legend Miles Davis used it on his fusion recordings in the early 70s.

It seems now that many bar bands (and also recording artists) use the wah-wah to make up for their shortcomings. This also applies to bands I like as well.  As much as I love Pearl Jam, Mike McCready over uses the wah in concert especially during the “Even Flow” solo.

So I’m suggesting that for the time being, musicians should leave the wah-wah aside. There are other effects and pedals out there.  The way has become something of a crutch, and it’s time to ditch it.

 

 

Former Bad Company Bassist Paul Cullen On Combining Music & Wine with “Unplugged & Uncorked” {Exclusive Interview}

“Unplugged and Uncorked” is a fusion of passions from former Bad Company bassist Paul Cullen in the early 90’s, when they rocked in front of over 2 million people. Since then, Paul has followed his true passions of playing acoustic guitar with a cool jazzy vibe and developing his very own California wine label from the Sierra Foothills. Now with 3 solo CD’s and 3 delicious wines, Paul is touring the country again Unplugged and Uncorked. 

First off:  How did you come up with the idea for Unplugged & Uncorked? 

When I switched over from bass to guitar, and started writing and recording my first CD, I wanted to promote myself in a viable entity.  And I was getting back into wine at the time, and I’d put together and play wine events for Wineries from California.

Then after working for an Italian Wine Importer for 2 years, I decided to do my own wine.  Since it’s my company I can do what I want.  I just wanted the total package of my wine, my music. I had the idea in 2007, as I moved forward with it but now I get to promote it as I see fit. I tell people that I know enough about wine, music and food to be dangerous.

The music you play at the wine events and shops and on Eleven Sundays and Paradise is entirely different from your days with Bad Company, but it’s a definite fit for the overall vibe of wine and low-key evenings.  Is Jazz and Latino influenced music something you’ve always been interested?

I just happened to play in a rock band, but I was into jazz as a kid.  And I had always been interested in different styles of music.  When I picked up guitar after playing bass, it just kind of happened.

What’s the goal of Uplugged & Uncorked?  Seems like you just want to ensure that people have a relaxing night and enjoy themselves. 

For the actual event, it’s all about food and fun.  It’s all about giving them the ultimate experience.  What’s really cool is that it’s live and I’m meeting people and getting to know people.  It’s a pleasant surprise that the events are so popular.

When did you first discover that the bass was the instrument that you wanted to play?

Everybody came to me for music, and I had the best sounding stereo in my car.  In 1973, I got into Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  I didn’t start playing until I was 20.  I was in a band in Florida called “Boys of Summer”.  The guys from AC/DC actually recommended me when the part for Bad Company became open.  Bassist Cliff Williams said to them, “You guys gotta take Paul.”  Holy Water was released 5 days after I joined the band. I basically carried the torch for them.  I was like their younger son and they would lead me through the road.  A few years later, they were thinking about coming back as the original band, so I became the odd one out.

After being in a rock band, it was hard to go back into a cover band.  I helped out in my friends’ business.  I moved to Delaware in 2001, and I started thinking about what I needed to do and what I needed to do to be successful.  I don’t compare what I do now to Bad Company anymore, it’s its own thing.  But when I was in Bad Company, I was introduced to some French Wines.

What other goals do you have for Unplugged & Uncorked?

We’re working on our 4th wine, a Merlot.  I have a really good idea of what I want, and I work with the wine maker.  I’m in 6 states now and only I started 14 months ago.  The company is about 2 years old.  It took a while to get approved by the government.  We’re going to brand ourselves – the people in the stores should know the wine.

We’re also working on a wine club – Paul’s winos.  One of the things we do is give the fans a song a month.  They’ll be the first one to get the music.  I’m also planning some Skype tastings.  I’m never home but I’m trying to be home and give people a treat.  You can tune in and watch me talk about wine. I’m always trying to stay on the cutting edge.

For more information on Unplugged and Uncorked check out Paul’s web-site.

Review: Cowgill (Velvet Lounge, Washington DC 8/20/12)

 

When you think of the mandolin, chances are you either think of bluegrass, or R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”. One doesn’t really think of it an instrument that is played aggressively.  But that’s exactly what Dan Weissman did during Cowgill’s set recently at DC’s Velvet Lounge. Weissman’s fiery mandolin playing gave singer Paul Cowgill’s folk-rock songs an extra bit of venom. On songs such as “I’ve Think I’ve Been Breathing” and “King of Wales”, Weissman seemed acted like the Neil Young or Pete Townshend or the mandolin. His solo on a cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” was both a homage to the original, but also proved that Cowgill can put a spin on a well-worn classic.

Though Weissman was a highlight of the show, it was frotman Paul Cowgill’s song that really stole the show.  The band’s songs are a mixture of world folk, rock and indie influences makes for an intriguing mix.  Paul Cowgill’s singing and acoustic guitar hold the songs together, but fairly often the band veers off into unexpected directions.  The trombone playing of Mike Truskowski and violin playing of Leeanne Hackett give songs such as “Red Carpet” and the previously mentioned “I Think I’ve Been Breathing” a Russian feeling.

Paul Cowgill proved himself to be an energetic frontman.  When he wasn’t singing, he was jumping and strumming his acoustic guitar wildly.  The band’s music never ventured into conventional rock territory (the bass and keyboard were the only electric instruments) but Cowgill gave a spirited performance that suggested they had studied many rock shows.

While Cowgill’s studio efforts are quite good, it’s in the live setting where they truly make their mark.

 

Song of the Week: “Sweet Soul Music” – Arthur Conley

 

 

“Do you like good music? That sweet soul music?” That’s the question posed at the beginning of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music”.  With a quick trumpet blast, the song quickly flies into a fast-paced soul-rave up. If you like “sweet soul music”, Arthur Conley is there to remind you of the greats that deserve your undivided attention: Otis Redding Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and James Brown.

Sweet Soul Music acts as a musical education through of soul music. Each artist is given a description of why they are deserving of praise. Lou Rawls looks tall, Wilson Picket is mentioned by his nickname “the wicked Pickett”, and James Brown is dubbed “the king of them all.” By putting a “spotlight” on these artists, Conley is suggesting that he is nowhere near these Titans of Soul.  But after each verse when Conley sings “oh yeah, oh yeah”, his voice proves that he’s not as far away from his heroes as he thinks.

Whenever I’m asked if lyrics are more important than the music itself or the delivery, I always bring up this song. Conley’s lyrics by themselves don’t really mean much, but when he delivers each artists’ “spotlights” the listener is reminded why these artists are great. It’s the way he sings these lines against the music in the behind that truly makes the song and gives his lyrics their impact.

 

 

Joe Strummer at 60

(Today marks what would have been Joe Strummer’s 60 birthday.)

In the fall of 2002, a friend of mine asked me I wanted to go see Joe Strummer at the 930 Club in DC. I desperately wanted to go, but wasn’t sure how I could make it work. At the time, I was in college in Western Pennsylvania and it was a 5-hour drive to DC. Ultimately I decided against it. Missing that show has since become one of my biggest musical regrets. A few months after that show, Joe Strummer would be dead.

In terms of personal hero worship, Joe Strummer ranks right below Bob Dylan. I first discovered The Clash in high school. To say that they came at the right time would be a bit of an understatement. Like may high schoolers, I felt torn between being a kid and a young adult. Numerous questions arose. What’s my place in the world?  How do I view the problems that the world is facing?

I may have been leaning towards the left anyway, but Strummer and The Clash gave a much-needed push. With politically charged songs such as “Clampdown” and “The Call-Up”, Strummer felt like he speaking directly to me. Even the songs I didn’t understand, it was hard to deny the sheer power and conviction in Strummer’s voice. Instrumentally, The Clash played with a sonic charge, but it was Strummer that lit the fuse. He didn’t sing so much as command.  When he sang “let fury have the hour, anger can be power, do you know that you can use it?” it was a straight-up challenge to the listener.

During my freshmen year of college, I randomly bought Art-Rock and X-Ray Style, Strummer’s first album with the Mescaleros. I knew enough about it to not expect it to sound like The Clash, but I was still surprised at how mellow it was. The music on the album was more world influenced than thrashing chords designed to change the world. But the more I listened, the more I became engrossed in it. Strummer’s conviction and spirit was still present, it was just presented differently.

The highlight of the album was “The Road to Rock and Roll”.  Like some of the Clash’s best songs it mixed several genres into one singular song (in this case country, camp-fire sing-along’s and hip-hop) creating something original in the process. Only Joe Strummer (a singer well versed in rock history and music in general) could come up with a piece like this.  Even as he became closer to 50, he was still challenging himself and his audience. For Strummer, it seemed there was always something new to be found as long as you looked both backwards and forwards.

To me, that particular outlook is what always put The Clash above their peers. Any other band would have been satisfied making an album as well as the band’s eponymous debut. But Strummer and the band kept going and taking influences from wherever they could. The older styles such as rockabilly and jazz mixed perfectly with contemporary sounds such as hip-hop and reggae when they were in The Clash’s hands. No other band, except perhaps The Beatles could play so many different styles so effortlessly while also making it their own in the process.

Unlike some other bands that I became attached to in high school (like The Who for instance), The Clash and Strummer in particular still seem vital and important.  The questions I get from the band’s music are no longer the same. Instead of hearing “Clampdown” as a song about my own situation, but rather the economic divide that our country faces. Similarly the adult-confusion found in  “Death or Glory” makes a lot more sense to me than I did a decade ago.

As long as rock and roll and its listeners continue to believe that it can change the world, the spirit of Joe Strummer will be there snarling and thrashing away as always.

No Dumb Words – An Exploration of Indie Instrumentals {Guest Post By Rick Claypool}

 

No dumb words

We’re living in boom times, folks.

Okay, so the economy is utterly devastated and the corporate-politico-industrial complex is completely dysfunctional and our soot-encrusted planet is basically slow-roasting the remaining acres of arable cropland.

But still, boom times.

And by boom times, I mean boom times for a certain vein of indie instrumental electronic music. These tracks won’t save the world. But many of them make for an appropriate soundtrack for the world remaining unsaved.

See, I like to listen to music while I write. And when I’m writing, music with lyrics is just distracting. Thankfully, a solid crop of new(ish) artists are doing interesting things instrumentally without ruining things with dumb words.

Below, I share a handful of my favorite instrumental tunes I dig for listening and writing. I guess some of it is maybe “witch house” or “chillwave” or “dub step.” I’m sure someone will say these genres are already dead or passé or whatever. That doesn’t matter. Maybe the next new thing sucks. So check out the latest newish things I’ve been hearing and maybe there are some things here you haven’t already made up your mind about. Imagine!

1. Glitch Mob – “Fortune Days” (from Drink the Sea)

A solid track, heavy and rhythmic like a phalanx of robots marching to conquer the Alps.

 

2. Gatekeeper – “Giza” (from Giza)

Big beats + John Carpenter-esque fight scene music = Gatekeeper’s best.

 

3. Holy Other – “Yr Love” (from With U)

I can’t get enough of what this guy releases. Chill, kinda romantic but also kinda creepy. Way to use sampled voices in a way that doesn’t suck.

 

4. Com Truise – “Open” (from In Decay)

Get past the cheeky name and enjoy some of the most interesting 80’s-style instrumental grooves this side of a pair of mirror shades. Some of this stuff is hit or miss, but this track (and several others on this album) definitely makes the hit category.

 

5. Imminent – “Seracs” (from Cask Strength)

The noisiest and most “industrial” track on this list, Seracs starts a bit twitchy and grows into something brutally mechanical. Believe it or not, this is one of Imminent’s track that comes closest to having a melody.

 

6. Umberto – “Night Stalking” (from Prophesy of the Black Widow)

Synthy and spooky like a soundtrack Euro-zombie flick from the ‘80s, Umberto comes off both tongue-in-cheek and virtuosic. It’s the ideal car music for a drive on a foggy night.

 

7. Kavinsky – “Testarossa Autodrive (from Teddy Boy)

I’m a sucker for old school laser disco. Kavinsky revives the retro-futuristic Eurodance style with an angular ferocity unheard in classic tracks.

 

8. Zomby – “Mozaik” (from Dedication)

Hypnotic, minimalist, and spacey, this track is my favorite among Zomby’s atmospheric, dub-ish tunes.

 

9. Belbury Poly – “Remember Tomorrow” (from From an Ancient Star)

Belbury Poly’s best work sounds like synth music for a magical adventure, circa 1971 (though this album only just came out last year). I don’t know about you, but it gives me the urge to light a candle, pour a mug of grog, and crack open something by Tolkein (or maybe Terry Pratchett).

 

10. Gridlock – “Atomontage” (from Formless)

Having been out for nearly 10 years, anything by the now-disbanded Gridlock is by no means new. But seriously, this album is a masterpiece of instrumental electronic music. Nothing else out there comes close. And this track, with its slow build up to an eventual monstrous drop into chattering, churning mechanical beats and ethereal voices merging into strings, cannot in good conscience be left off any list like this.

Of course, this list is by no means complete. Did I leave off one of your favorite instrumental artists or tracks off the list? If so, it’s probably because I don’t know it exists. Make me know it exists; post an awesome instrumental track in the comments.

 

Rick Claypool is a writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Currently he is working on a dystopian novel featuring giant predatory invertebrates, political dissidents disguised as robots, and mushroom-loving mutants. His writing has appeared in the Toledo City Paper, the New Yinzer, and the Allegheny Review. For more about Rick, visit www.rickclaypool.org.

New Music: “Somedays” – Romans

Romans’ “Somedays” is the perfect soundtrack for the end of summer with its mix of glam-rock power ballad and Pet Sounds-style harmonies.  It’s the kind of song you want to listen to when the days are still warm, but the nights are cool.

Check out “Somedays” here.