Tiny Tunes Delux
By Michael Henningsen and Stewart Mason
MARCH 15, 1999:
The Afghan Whigs 1965 (Columbia)
Like his affinity for stretching melodic and conceptual themes through the carefully staked course of an album, Greg Dulli's love affair with soul and R&B music goes way back. His thematic sense coalesced most profoundly on Gentlemen, The Whigs 1993 Elektra debut, on which Dulli's trademark Camel-inflected voice invoked the band's philosophic cornerstone: the seedier side of love, sex, fear and joy. The melodic heart of the album's title track haunts the entirety of the record, casting thick clouds of tearfully angry guitar to be pitted against John Curley's soul-drenched grooves. Two years, a single and an EP later, Dulli's R&B roots came to the surface on 1996's Black Love, an aptly titled ode to the bump in Dulli's grind. The album received little fanfare from critics who failed to understand The Whigs' decision to tour employing various configurations of horns and strings, but Black Love succeeded in showcasing Dulli as a major force in indie rock infrastructure and its future.
On 1965, the two elements--singular themes and R&B cues--come crashing together with equal force, framed by a bleached skeleton of staunch indie guitar rock harking back to The Afghan Whigs' days on a then fledgling Sub Pop label. A ragged tapestry of sinewy soul clings to bone in just the right places, making it possible for Dulli's melodies to animate, soar and then divebomb directly for the underbelly of life experience common to us all. More often than not, The Whigs hit their mark, sending shards of urgency splintering with terminal accuracy toward the jugular of each track to come.
It would be easy to characterize 1965 as The Whigs' crowning achievement, or even as Dulli's personal masterpiece. But if the band have taught us anything during their nine-year career, it's that it doesn't pay to jump the gun. Dulli and The Whigs crew have never lived up to any expectation other than their own, nor have they made records based on their laurels or in the image of their previous work alone. Each new release opens a new, revealing chapter, greater depth of character and a more detailed backstory, all of which helped save them from the grunge quagmire their early work seemed on a collision course for. There's a freshness in their presentation of the dark side of life that keeps the yearning and hunger burning as hot and as painfully as the fire that envelopes their records. 1965 is the rule, rather than the exception. ¡¡¡¡¡ (MH)
Revisionist history and oldies radio (pretty much one and the same) remember The Sweet for their mid-'70s glam-rock hits "Ballroom Blitz" and "Fox on the Run." But those of us who were listening to AM radio at the time remember a much different Sweet, a British bubblegum quartet whose unapologetically gooey singles made them the most aptly-named band of the era. Their biggest hit, "Little Willy" (one of the very first singles I ever remember loving), still stands as one of the very best AM hits ever--one of those songs that will not leave your head for days on end, whether you want it there or not.
"Little Willy" leads off this reissue of The Sweet's 1973 debut album, which with the addition of five early tracks now functions as a handy compilation of their first eight UK singles. Producer Phil Wainman (who later had enormous success as the Svengali of the extremely similar Bay City Rollers) had an unbeatable strategy at this time. The A-sides were all written by the hitmaking team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, and feature a combination of ultracatchy singalong choruses, ear-catching gimmicks (the sirens that punctuate "Blockbuster" or the steel-band touches of "Poppa Joe" and "Co-Co") and silly lyrics (song titles include "Wig-Wam Bam" and "Alexander Graham Bell"). These singles aggravate and please in roughly equal proportions. (Chapman and Chinn later reached the pinnacle of irritainment with their definitive statement, Toni Basil's 1982 smash "Mickey.")
The B-sides sounded like another band entirely, unsurprising since it was later revealed that the A-sides were in fact performed by studio musicians. Written and recorded by the band themselves, the B-sides are actually almost the equal of their flips. The band rocked quite a bit harder--"New York Connection" and "Man From Mecca" presage their classic 1975 hard-pop LP Desolation Boulevard--but also essayed softer gems like the acoustic guitar-based "Spotlight" and the countryish "Jeannie." The combination of these rough-edged goodies and the almost cynically slick Chapman-Chinn A-sides define early-'70s bubblegum, and though it would be nice if this reissue included more liner notes and photos, the music itself sounds absolutely incredible, as long as you don't mind occasionally cringing while you're rocking out. ¡¡¡¡1/2 (SM)
"It's not the notes you play, but how you play them." Guitarist Sandy Bull has perhaps always been more keenly aware of the oft adopted and adapted cliché than any guitarist before or after him. His early '60s recordings for the Vanguard label heralded what became referred to as psychedelic folk, a genre virtually carried by Bull alone until Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Leo Kottke, Richard Thompson and others began moving audiences a decade or so later with their respective virtuosity and incorporation of odd-metered music from the far reaches of the earth into their repertoires.
Indeed, Bull's innate ability to pull together instruments as disparate as banjo, oud and guitar and make them sound fitting in concert preceded in many ways the very notion of contemporary instrumental folk music. Although he made just four records in the decade between 1962 and 1972 before fading into heroin-fueled obscurity (he re-emerged in the late '80s and has released a pair of solo albums since then), Bull's spellbinding ability as a guitarist and arranger reverberates freely in the work of countless guitarists of virtually every genre.
For Re-Inventions, producer Tom Vickers culled material from three of Bull's four original releases for Vanguard--Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo (1962), Inventions (1965) and Demolition Derby (1972). Bull's 1970 release, E Pluribus Unum, was re-released by Vanguard in 1996. Included are Bull's classic signature piece, the 22-minute improvised opus "Blend" (on which he is joined by frequent collaborator of the day, drummer Billy Higgins) and the extraordinary "Carmina Burana Fantasy," based on Carl Orff's original work and arranged by Bull for performance on five-string banjo. While both aforementioned tracks are in some respects as odd as they sound, Bull's subtle reliance on dynamics and melodic coloring rather than on sheer technical ability (of which he possesses no shortage) makes both work.
The most striking element of Bull's work as represented on Re-Inventions is his use of Middle Eastern aesthetics, particularly Indian and Arabic dronish modes. And while he admittedly wasn't the first artist to delve into world musics, he was certainly the pioneer when it comes to folk--even rock--adaptations of such exotica.
Re-Inventions chronicles the work of an extraordinarily influential guitarist whose contributions to Americana have gone largely unsung, and for that alone he deserves accolades. But Bull's work, so inventive, full of flux and passion, is the magic that will most certainly make the retrospective a unique treasure. ¡¡¡¡¡ (MH)
What makes a perfect record? It has less to do with any kind of objective standard--there's no such thing--than with whether a record accomplishes what it sets out to do. If a record has a specific set of aesthetic criteria and fulfills them completely, then it's a perfect record. Janet Klein's Come Into My Parlor is a perfect record.
Klein, accompanied by her own ukulele and occasional unobtrusive bits of guitar or accordion, interprets 26 songs from the teens through the '30s. The program includes standards ("You're the Cream in My Coffee," an exquisite version of Rodgers and Hart's "Mountain Greenery"), near-forgotten pop songs (the absolutely adorable, almost Betty Boop-like "What a Night for Spooning" is possibly the album's highest point) and a small handful of racy novelties. These songs now mostly sound as innocent and sweet as once-shocking French postcards from the era look, despite double-entendre titles like "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' On It" and "Banana in Your Fruit Basket." "Need Some Sugar in My Bowl," on the other hand, still sounds downright rude. "I need some sugar in my bowl/I need a hot dog in my roll," purrs Klein. Gee, does Jerry Falwell know that our great-grandparents were listening to such depravity?
The most impressive thing about Come Into My Parlor is that unlike most recent exercises in nostalgia, like the thankfully dead lounge revival and the can't-be-dead-soon-enough swing revival, this album is completely free of both smarmy hipsterism ("ha ha, we're so cool pretending to like this stuff") and attempts to modernize the material. Janet Klein obviously genuinely loves this music, and she sings it with both the historical reverence of the archivist and the unfettered joy of a person doing exactly as she pleases. Recent albums by Squirrel Nut Zippers, John Southworth and Rufus Wainwright have incorporated elements of this pre-rock style of pop music, but Come Into My Parlor is an irony-free presentation of its purest form. I cannot recommend this album more highly. ¡¡¡¡¡ (SM)
If the Red House Painters' Mark Kozlik fronted Built to Spill, you might get something along the lines of Pedro the Lion. Begun in 1996 by David Bazan, Pedro are neither as melancholy (and potentially boring) as Red House Painters, nor are they as consistently on the verge of royalty as Built to Spill, but the middle ground is pleasant and quite satisfying to listen to. Recorded, one can assume, in Bazan's living room over a period of no more than a few drizzly, Northwestern days, It's Hard to Find a Friend kind of seems like one--the friend who's more like a diary or a mirror than a person. Bazan, it seems, has taken every thought, dream, desire and fear you've ever had and either documented and embellished it with his own analysis, or reflected it back at you with all the kindness of stainless steel on a bright summer day. And with friends like that, who needs other friends?
Simple, bombastic rhythms that border on slo-core supermodels like Smog and Silver Jews, along with molasses-thick, first-position chording and beautifully lackadaisical vocal melodies make for a delicious bed of dead leaves to roll in. Bazan's lyrics sound like most were written while entangled in any number of boring, 'round-the-house chores that are just mundane enough to inspire flashes of brilliance and/or suicide notes.
Spontaneous without sounding accidental, Bazan's songs drift in and out of consciousness at your will, yet there always seems to be some not entirely unpredictable bridge or melodic hook around the corner to snap your brain back into the record. Even the songs that lean toward the painfully slow ("The Longer I Lay Here," "The Bells") linger like the scent of flowers recently wilted, rather than drone on for minutes beyond their effectiveness. If Bazan were consciously aware of his ability to rein in his own mood swings and make perfect pop delights out of them, he'd have made a very different record. Thankfully for us, his ignorance (that is to say that he writes by feel rather than from formula) is our bliss. ¡¡¡¡ (MH)
KC Bowman understands that a song should never be any longer than necessary, and so his solo debut (after two releases as leader of the Elephant 6-like collective, the Preoccupied Pipers) features 20 tunes ranging from 30 seconds to four and a half minutes. What's most impressive is that unlike many who work in similarly constricted time restraints, such as Alistair Galbraith, the shortest songs are as well-constructed as the longest, rather than seeming like mere sketches or fragments. In fact, the first five tracks feel like one long, varied song! It's an odd, impressive achievement, as is the rest of this phenomenal album.
So what does Bowman sound like? Imagine if the Apples In Stereo became considerably less hyperactive and then recruited XTC's Colin Moulding as their primary singer/songwriter. The Davis, Calif., native favors sturdy, mid-tempo melodies, alternately rocking ("Cuban Illness Anxiety"), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ("Capital I"), quirkily giddy ("Cactus League Game") and sweetly melancholic ("Pumpkins Angels").
Over this inviting base, Bowman lays lyrics that range from shy declarations of love disguised as science lessons ("You pull my astronomical weight into your apogee," from the genuinely lovely "Spacegirl") to tongue-in-cheek but deadly serious social protest ("The civil rights of turnips fall quickly into view when living things are sovereign beings regardless of IQ/We mercy-kill the Dutch Elm patients, why not people who can voice the need to need no more interminable ICU/But free-range vegetables we can conceptually oppose/We like to see them grown in those oppressive little rows," from the album's best track, "Be Nice to Plants"). Like his kindred spirits Robyn Hitchcock and R. Stevie Moore, Bowman seems incapable of writing a boring or clichéd lyric.
Also like Hitchcock and Moore, Bowman favors a DIY approach that simultaneously eschews both rough edges and overly lush instrumentation. Even the solo guitar pieces have a crystalline quality about them, and the more arranged tracks have a cozy, small-scale feel that's the natural result of recording nearly all the instruments (save for occasional spots of trumpet, flute, clarinet, violin, sax and congas) oneself. Fresher Tin Villages is a delight from start to finish that all fans of intelligent, carefully-crafted pop will enjoy. ¡¡¡¡ 1/2 (SM)
Of all the surviving drug culture casualties of the '60s, none has received more sympathy than Austin music legend and psychedelic rock architect Roky Erickson. Well deserved as the humanitarian efforts might be, as put forth by King Coffey, Charlie Sexton, Henry Rollins and others to help keep Erickson stable, his music alive and his scattered poetry available, it's still no stretch to say that the 51-year-old former leader of the legendary 13th Floor Elevators is living proof that acid maybe wasn't such a good idea--at least not in the quantity that Erickson and brethren indulged.
As a direct result (although some would argue differently), the once brilliant songwriter and one of the best rock 'n' roll singers of his generation has been reduced to a mentally ill caricature of his former self since the mid-'70s. Coherent enough to live on his own (with a little help from his friends), accept visitors, deny interviews and even record an occasional song--he made several solo recordings during the '80s--Erickson's legend began gaining momentum upon the release in 1990 of a tribute album titled Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. In 1996, the famed and now defunct Austin label Trance Syndicate released All That May Do My Rhyme, a stunning studio effort and Erickson's first collection of new recordings in more than a decade.
Never Say Goodbye is the latest collection of Erickson's songs, 14 never-before heard tracks recorded in the early to mid-70s, some while incarcerated at the Rusk State Hospital in Rusk, Texas, and others while at home following his release. The tracks were unearthed four years ago in the midst of research for a book of Erickson's lyrics called Openers II (available from Rollins' 2.13.61 Press). The record is as "lo-fi" as an album can get, with some of the tracks so warbled that they're barely listenable; still, though, these are songs written and performed by Erickson. Despite the inconsistent and relatively low quality of the recordings, the songs shine through, offering a glimpse of Erickson the songwriting genius before the motherboard turned on itself and the console went blank. A more heartfelt collection of bare bones emotion and reflective spirit you won't find. Never Say Goodbye is the skeleton of the album Erickson's friends and confidants sorely wish he could make again. And although that may not be in his future, the record allows disenfranchised fans and newcomers alike to glimpse Erickson's rich musical mind and gaze long and thoughtfully into his brilliant past. ¡¡¡¡ (MH)
I realize there's a certain delicious irony in using the word "poseur" in relation to that most style-obsessed of subcultures, the Mods, but you know who I mean. Sure, they've got the scooters and the black mohair suits and the razor-cut hair, and they've seen Quadrophenia a dozen times, but they don't actually, you know, listen to mod bands. Not unless Cherry Poppin' Daddies have some sort of mod significance that's unclear to the rest of us.
Well, Wayne Manor would kick these people's skinny, white asses. The leader of mid-'80s New York's great mod hope, The Secret Service, Manor understood that to be a true Mod, you not only needed to look the part 24 hours a day, but you also needed to take your inspiration from the music of your idols. (Of course, legally changing your name to a cool reference to that most mod of TV shows, "Batman," certainly doesn't hurt either.)
As a result, the comprehensive 28-song retrospective Power and Volume! includes studio and live renditions of tunes by Mod heroes The Who (a surprisingly effective "A Quick One While He's Away"), The Creation ("Biff Bang Pow!"), Animals ("I'm Crying"), Chuck Berry (two tunes), Johnny Kidd and the Pirates ("Shakin' All Over") and Aretha Franklin ("Soulville"), effectively saluting both the first-generation Mods and the R&B giants who inspired them.
The originals by Manor and guitarist Rob Normandin can't truthfully be called derivative, since faithful re-creations of the sound of the original Mod bands is what they were shooting for. You can argue whether that's a viable pursuit, but there's no denying that 99 percent of the time, they nail it. The sweaty allure and power of tracks like "I've Been Hurt So Many Times" and "Once Again" is undeniable, and even the weakest tracks are redeemed by Manor's gravelly voice and Normandin's Townshendesque guitar. Of their scene contemporaries, the Smithereens got the commercial success, and the Vipers are more fondly remembered by critics, but The Secret Service have much to teach those who think themselves Mods today. ¡¡¡¡ (SM)
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