The point of this is that as we get older we gravitate to performers who reflect our expectations for live music. What a twentysomething can deliver in terms of energy, anger, and angst, a fiftysomething can more than match in skill, grit, and experience. This is not to infer in the slightest that rock has entered the province of Geezerville, tho' some of us may have. No, rock is for the young, and by golly I tip my fedora (a real sign of Geezerdom) to the likes of the Dandy Warhols, No Doubt, and the Waifs. So, in response to the reader who complained that we spend too much time on older, popular acts, well, that's what we listen to. If I listened to a lot of jazz, for instance, I'd fight KWN for column inches, or if I was a classical freak I'd try to horn in on Puccio's territory--and would fail miserably; nobody writes like JJP--but like it or not this is the pop and rock column.
And this ish, as T$S embarks on its second century, is chock full of pop and rock geezers. I mean, can you believe that Prince is forty?! So, if you really want the young, undiscovered, and obscure, I suggest Paste, where they abound by the bucketful. Otherwise, hang around, and we'll try to do what critics should: not just recommend, but provide insight. And if you still wanna fight about it, I'll meet you out back after I've finished my beer and this column in roughly that order ...
Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)
Jeff Tweedy is pissed off. Now, I don't know exactly what's rocketed his dander into the troposphere--perhaps his confessed dependency on pain killers, but I think he's best avoided in dark alleys. A Ghost Is Born starts with the lovely "At Least That's What You Said" and gently strumming guitars underpinning a lilting, seductive melody when out of nowhere the drums start banging furiously like fists on a wall. The song veers into another melody before Tweedy's guitar slashes its fabric like a straight razor, stropped to kill. Or take "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", a synth-programmed rhythm scrawled over with Tweedy's hypertensive, virtually atonal guitar--Neil Young's staccato oozing jagged shrapnel.
After the frenzy of the first three tracks, however, Ghost settles into a series of edgy grooves, the ineffably pretty "Muzzle of Bees", the Beatlesque "Hummingbird", and "Handshake Drugs" a wave-upon-wave of downbeat propulsion that crests in a caterwauling phalanx of guitar feedback reminiscent of George Harrsion's "Only a Northern Song". The feedback evolves into an overcurrent of techno drone before surrendering to another of Tweedy's simple melodies, "Wishful Thinking".
Lyrically, Ghost cuts similar tensions borne of unresolved conflict, such as the distance mental illness creates among those you love: "When I sat down on the bed next to you/You started to cry/I said maybe if I leave you'll want me/To come back home/Or maybe all you mean/Is leave me alone" ("At Least That's What You Said"). The wistful "Company in My Back" leads with "I attack with love, pure bug beauty, curl my lips and crawl up to you" before "Theologians" comes back with "I'm going away/Where you will look for me/Where I'm going you cannot come/No one's ever gonna take my life from me/I lay it down ... A ghost is born". Tweedy--or his doppelganger--with A Ghost Is Born has fashioned an intense collection of raw emotion, oblique oftimes savage poetry, and unfathomable beauty. Even the CD's jacket, with an eerily pale upright egg on the obverse and the same egg barely cracked on the back, seems to be a metaphor for Tweedy's fragility as much as the music betrays his strengths. However, inside the open empty shell on the booklet's cover reveals the birth of nothing ... except perhaps a ghost.
BoDeans, Resolution (Zoe)
Webster's offers a number of definitions of "resolution" among them: the act or process of reducing to a simpler form; something that is resolved or pledged (as in "New Year's ..."); the point in a literary work in which the chief dramatic complication is worked out. Resolution also describes the varying depth of clarity of a digital image. Resolution, the first new recording from the BoDeans since 1996 (an awfully long time for a band's hiatus, tho' both Kurt Neumann (Shy Dog) and Sammy Llanas (Absinthe, a Good Day to Die) issued solo works in the interregnum) is some of these things, and perhaps all of them. The BoDeans, now formally including original bassist Bob Griffin, have pretty much picked up where their last studio work Blend, left off.
Resolution treads familiar BoDeans territory: solid pop songs, clever harmonies, and driving backbeats--and, yes, there's yet another drummer or two. What Resolution introduces into BoDeans' sound is a couple of John Mellencamp's stand-bys, accordion and fiddle, expanding their sound by artfully complementing Neumann's signature guitar tone. Indeed, some songs, e.g., "Wild World," "Nobody Loves Me," and "Crazy," sound positively Mellencampish, so much so I half expected to find a Toby Myers or Mike Wanchic production credit. But, no, these are all Kurt's and Sammy's, clearly evidenced by the kind of smart lyrics that elude Mellencamp even on his best days. Oh, even today, Llanas and Neumann can't stop singing about women gained, lost, and fretted over interminably, but I'll take their brand any day. It's honest, and it defines them.
So, what "resolution" would Resolution have us understand? I don't think it's much of a pledge, unless this is the first of a new string of studio albums. That would be good. It could be a reduction to a simpler form, but the music's too meaty--indeed adding instruments to their sound would seem to veer away from simplification. Perhaps we've reached the BoDeans denouement--the point in their life as a band and partnership where they've said all they have to say. Or perhaps they've simply brought their work into sharper focus. Or it's just the kind of elusively obscure multi-tiered message that a loaded word like "resolution" invites. Nonetheless, Resolution is as inviting as anything BoDeans have yet produced.
Prince, Musicology (NPG/Columbia)
We talk a lot about the best rock pioneering new sounds, adapting to new paradigms, yet having a sense of itself and its past. Prince/AFKAP has long revered the artists that preceded him without regard to genre: Little Richard, the Beatles, James Brown, and so on. He has with typical haughty bravura staked his claim as an inheritor of rock's history with Musicology, multiple homages to those he owes debts: Brown, Sly Stone, Earth Wind and Fire--even relative newbies like Chuck D. and Jam Master J, all "the true funk soldiers."
Musicology struts like a funky chicken among nasty, all out funk ("Life 'O' the Party"--with its gleeful Gloved One dis: "And I ain't never had my nose done"), slow grinders ("Call My Name"), and straight ahead rockers ("Cinnamon Girl"--not Neil Young's). Add burning gospel ("On the Couch"--with its very un-gospel lyric) and a Pop Staples roll ("Dear Mr. Man"), and Prince breezes through a couple of generations of black music with offhandish effortlessness. Assisted by luminaries like Maceo Parker and Sheila Escovedo, Musicology is a monument of sorts, fashioned by the master artificer, the sum of whose parts exemplifies the whole.
Steve Winwood, About Time (Wincraft/Sci Fidelity)
I work with a couple of guys, both of whom are fairly knowledgeable music sorts. One is a boogie band aficionado: moe, String Cheese Incident, Phish, the Dead, and so on. The other only lets on what he knows when he feels challenged. The other day we were talking about Steve Winwood, and the gauntlet came down, "Name all the bands Winwood's been in." Easy. Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith, and Latin Crossings, tho' the last never recorded. What's easy to miss is who and what Steve Winwood is today, no longer the wunderkind of the Fender Strat and Hammond B3. After poppish output like are of a Diver and Back in the High Life, About Time finds him at home with polyrhythmic soul and his trusty Hammond, reinventing himself yet again, his voice recognizable but somehow more mature and expressive than the kid who belted out "Gimme Some Lovin'" nearly forty years ago.
About Time sandwiches Timmy Thomas's "Why Can't We Live Together"--a classic B3 tune--with Latin tinged work like "Cigano (For the Gypsies)" and "Domingo Morning", influences from his recent touring band, Latin Crossings with Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval. Indeed, the bulk of About Time lopes along amiably in a mellow Latin groove, nudged forward by guitarist Jose Neto and drummer Walfredo Reyes, Jr. While Neto's guitar is precise, one wishes Winwood would pick up his Strat one more time. I fear that the searing leads from his Traffic days are long since past. Too bad. Even without it, though, About Time is evidence enough that Steve Winwood is still around and, despite a ponderous 11:25 medicine ball like "Sylvia (Who Is She?)", still has the chops to make you want to boogie.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Between Here and Gone (Columbia)
The opener to Between Here and Gone is "What Would You Say To Me," an energetic Piedmont rocker, paced by producer Matt Rollins's piano and punctuated with doyen Dean Parks's tasteful lead guitar and Stuart Duncan's pristine Appalachian fiddle, a cross if you will between Bruce Hornsby and Alison Krauss--but with one small exception. Mary Chapin Carpenter. Since her 1987 debut, Hometown Girl, Carpenter has been the thinking man's Nashville chanteuse, eschewing BIG HAIR and the "woe is li'l ol' me" angst that its favored divas flout. Between Here and Gone is Carpenter's first disc since 2001's time*sex*love, which ended up atop my "Official T$S Top Ten or Eleven" for that year. And unless there's an unexpected spate of stellar issues between now and December, Between Here and Gone is likely to end up on this year's list.
Carpenter dares to embed the deeply symbolic into her writing. For instance, in "Luna's Gone" the protagonist, ostensibly a free spirit, ups and disappears. Luna, named after the cursed goddess of the moon and insanity, "sees a light only she could see/A gypsy's spell, a mystery" and hears "a song only she could hear/Whispering charms in her ears," and "the light of the moon is all we've got to go on ..." Carpenter casts a hint of madness, indeed lunacy, over the mysterious disappearance. The album resonates with references to the night and the moon ("Goodnight America" and "Tonight the moon came up. It was nearly full ..." from "Between Here and Gone") as well as recurrent themes if not characters: the vanished pariah of "Luna's Gone" is described as having "astonishing speed, amazing grace." Later in "The Shelter of Storms" Carpenter sings "You always had the gift of speed, you'd disappear without a trace ... Now where are you out in the world, searching for a little grace ..." to maybe the selfsame emotional waif who's missing or simply gone.
The maturity of Carpenter's lyrics is perfectly captured by her crack band (Chad Cromwell on drums, Glenn Worf on bass, and John Jennings on almost anything) and a host of guests and session vets. And like so many of her peers--Patty Griffin, Patty Larkin, Sam Phillips, and Bonnie Raitt come to mind--her voice, really her ability to squeeze every delicate nuance out of her lyrics, simply gets better and better. Between Here and Gone spins most of its tales around departures, missing family and friends whose absences are largely unexplained. A the end of its journey, the disc's last song, "Elysium", disembarks at an arrival, "I don't really know how I got here this time ... I didn't have a map, it's the best I could do/On the fly and on the run ... It was here in your heart I was finally found ..."
Sam Phillips, A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch)
Aside from the extraordinary sound, vocal, and backing quality of Sam Phillips's albums, one can always count on hubby T-Bone Burnett sneaking something into the production which pays homage or subtly lampoons one or more sacred pop cows. 1994's Martinis and Bikinis was saturated with Beatlesque popcraft, Burnett's ornate tour de force. A Boot and a Shoe closely follows the stripped down ambiance of 2001's Fan Dance, as if her move to Nonesuch, like that of Bill Frisell and Wilco, has imposed a compulsive honesty in her and Burnett's approach to crafting recordings. Well, almost. A Boot and a Shoe opens with "How to Quit," an oblique if poetic discourse on the pain of separation, with Phillips's acoustic guitar and a very loud, very overdriven bass drum as accompaniment. Sound familiar? Like White Stripes familiar? The difference between the Whites and Phillips/Burnett is that the Whites embrace their minimalism as a mantra, I think to the disadvantage of their productions. Phillips and Burnett seem to be spoofing it. The bass drum is so prominent that I had to check to make sure the bass attenuation switch on the Legacy Classics was still engaged. Of course played on less bass-sensitive equipment, like the PC speakers I'm listening to now, the deep bass doesn't even remotely register. "Open the World" follows suit but with less emphasis on the bass drum.
I've often considered Phillips a displaced songwriter and vocalist, whose style harkens as much to the '20s and '30s as today. "Infiltration" and "Draw Man," for instance, would lose little spinning on crackly 78s, becoming the kinds of standards that jazz combos would eagerly embrace, deceptively simple melodies around which a master could weave bolts of improvisation. The key word, however, is "deceptive": Phillips's lyrics don't mince: "I said I wanted to be alone/Alone with him/ He said he wanted to be alone/Alone with her/She said she wanted to be alone/Alone with me" ("I Wanted to Be Alone"), which plays not only on Garbo's famous line, "I want to be alone" (Grand Hotel), but also on her ambivalent sexuality while skillfully reflecting on Sartre's eternally damned menage a trois from Huis Clos.
Phillips's lyrics are predominantly harsh, especially toward traitorous or merely weak men: "You think you've got too much to lose to feel what you feel for me/What you're afraid you'll lose is already gone" ("I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming"); "Every time you look at me, you're in disguise/Too many endings/The pain has drawn a stranger in your eyes" ("Open the World"). But she'll also turn the blade on herself: "You loved not knowing what I would do with you/You knew exactly what to do with me" ("Draw Man"); "Living between time and choice my soul's blue/I'm awake but my dream keeps dreaming you" ("Infiltration"), the latter also a heroic couplet in perfect iambic pentameter. It's easy to get caught up in Burnett's production quirks, which are fun for what they are. The real treasure in A Boot and a Shoe is buried in Phillips's poetry, intelligent, commanding, and worth revisiting frequently until it yields all its layers of meaning.
Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag (Cooking Vinyl/SPINArt)
We've come to expect Richard Thompson's acerbic satire in full froth, a psychic surgeon's wicked delight, exposing polite hypocrisies and fashionable lies and peeling back the flesh to reveal festering wounds, not for the emotionally unfit or spiritually squeamish. But The Old Kit Bag ("Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile ... What's the use in worrying?/It was never worth the while") is subtitled "Unguents, Fig Leaves and Tourniquets for the Soul", implying like its forebear that some measure of help, a salve, a social mask or something to stop the bleeding, is at hand. This time around, we'll savage what suits our fancy, but have no fear; the doctor has a band-aid, if not a cure, for whatever ails you. Well, not exactly.
The Old Kit Bag was also issued on vinyl, each side of which sports a chapter heading. The first side, and the first suite of six songs on the CD, is entitled "The Haunted Keepsake," implying that its subjects revolve around a memento mori, the real or imagined remains of someone or something that like the unwelcome ghost returns at inopportune occasions. The opening "Gethsemane," the garden in which Jesus spent his last, tormented night, does not disappoint: "Among the headstones you played as boys/Crypts and tombs like a roomful of toys," keying a backward look at life's discouragements and the empty exhortation "O be something, be something fine!" This is supplemented by a generous dollop of Thompsonian fare like "Jealous Words" and the justified emptiness that betrayal reaps. The social third wheel of "I'll Tag Along" or the broken promise maker of "A Love You Can't Survive" are haunted by things that couldn't be or never were, but haunted nonetheless. The love lost in "One Door Opens" or the weary resignation of "First Breath" ("Let's love/What's left ...) bring a thoroughly dispiriting chapter to a close.
The second side/chapter is entitled "The Pilgrim's Fancy", taken from John Bunyan's "A Pilgrim's Progress":
"Now may this little Book a blessing be To those who love this little Book and me; And may its buyer have no cause to say, His money is but lost or thrown away. Yea, may this second Pilgrim yield that fruit As may with each good Pilgrim's fancy suit; And may it some persuade, that go astray, To turn their feet and heart to the right way, Is the hearty prayer of The author,"
Perhaps it is in this six song suite, heralded by Bunyan's cautionary tale of moral uplift, we'll find spiritual and emotional first aid. In "She Said It Was Destiny" the rat is as usual left alone pondering his rat-ness, but instead of taking one in the labonza, his ex-lover provides him with an out: it was in the stars, a very polite fig leaf for the truth. The protagonist of "I've Got No Right To Have It All" turns the tables by applying the fig leaf to his bitter disappointment ("And where's the peace of mind/ Among the debris left behind"). The narrator of "Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen" discards the emotional wreckage of his life ("But I shall sweep the dust/And patch and mend"), applying a stanchion to his experience for the sake of a new love. Of course there are never any easy answers. Side Two ends with "Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne" as Thompson turns his story teller's gaze on us, applying the final, ironic unguent:
"And sometimes you never connect with a song Till it's telling the way that you feel Putting words to your story, all the pain and the glory How can it be written so real How I wish I knew All of the old songs they're singing Such comfort they're bringing To a heart that's as empty as mine"
Thompson's ironic thesis, achingly drawn out, is that one old song prescribes a perfectly wretched emotional balm, "What's the use in worrying?/It was never worth the while." The ultimate irony rests in Bunyan's penultimate verse, I think reflecting Thompson's sincere wish, very much like how he flings himself into live performances, that your nickel's been well spent on The Old Kit Bag. Indeed it is, but if you think this is the one time Richard Thompson lets you off with a mere reprimand, better spend your nickel elsewhere.
Al Green, I Can't Stop (Blue Note)
If I could stop dancing for even a second, I'd tell you that there's little I can add to KWN's review of this extraordinarily deft comeback disc, but I can't stop. Oh, the Rev. Al has lost nothing, easily moving from silky soul ("I Can't Stop") to steamy ballads ("Not Tonight") to gutbucket blues ("Play to Win"). Even those tunes which are, er, derivative ("I've Been Waitin' On You" is very close to "I Know I'm Losin' You"; "I'd Write a Letter" steals its first sixteen bars from "Spinning Wheel") rock and sway irresistibly. But those are quibbles. I Can't Stop is classic '70s soul made timeless: just dig the horn intro to "You" ... or the vaudevillian rave-up "Too Many." Please, Rev. Al, don't stop.
Los Lobos, The Ride (Mammoth/Hollywood)
We observed, when reviewing Los Lobos' last studio disc, Good Morning Aztlan, that we feared that the band, always low key and shying from the limelight, had breathed its last. Without overly gushing, man, am I glad to be dead wrong on that one. The Lobos again astonish their doubters by reaching outward to their musical community, reenergizing their work by inviting musical peers into the studio to repolish a couple of nuggets as much as forge new idioms. Legendary, virtually forgotten Malo vocalist, Little Willie G. breathes a full soul into Lobos oldie "Is This All There Is?" and the ageless Bobby Womack likewise into "Wicked Rain." The only gambit under suspicion is Elvis Costello and "Matter of Time," inexplicably slowed to an irritating crawl. Mexican superstars Cafe Tacuba, joined by the inimitable Garth Hudson, wrench "La Venganza de Los Pelados" into overdrive; Blaster Dave Alvin co-wrote and sings the touchingly beautiful "Somewhere In Time"--Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Ruben Blades, and Mavis Staples all make indelible appearances.
Joyce's Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses utters the phrase "ineluctable modality" in a number of different contexts. It can be taken to mean "an inevitable tendency to collapse around a central notion" as much as "the polarized aspects of syllogistic arguments" and a whole lot in between. When applied to Los Lobos and its output, the phrase dismisses all notions that the Lobos are by any imaginative stretch at the end of their road. As The Ride implies, they're still very much en route, displaying an inevitable tendency to reinvent themselves as necessary to find their artistic center.
More Temptations from Radio Paradise. You hear the song, and it's too easy to click on the amazon.com link. After having futilely scoured Best Buy for more than one new disc, I'm here to tell you that the paradigm shift to e-trade is in full flower.
The Dandy Warhols, "Godless," Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (Capitol)
"Godless" with its lazy, lone trumpet conjures images of Herb Alpert and "This Guy's in Love with You", which is not as damning a comparison as you might think, also conjuring images of "My Sweet Lord" and blur's "Tender." The Thirteen Tales follow suit, each establishing a rift which in turn is churned to a well-earned conclusion if not a bitter end. This is not to say that Thirteen Tales is dilatory or unadventurous, It's a larger than life riff on BritPop from an American band, which accents melody over noise and pose. This is a good thing.
Bernie Williams, "La Salsa en Mi," The Journey Within (GRP)
My admiration of Bernie Williams as a nonpareil centerfielder is boundless. Focused, intense, workmanlike--almost grim: between the lines Williams is all business, and not a small part of a Yankee dynasty that's always in contention and seldom dull. One can posit similarly for The Journey Within: focused and workmanlike. The playing is better than competent, which is not intended to damn with faint praise, but Williams is a ball player, dammit, not a professional musician. On only one cut, "Stranded on the Bridge", does he seem to play something other than carefully scripted notation. The good news is that he writes a lot of his own tunes, which makes The Journey Within a solid single up the middle.
Patty Griffin, "Love Throw A Line," Impossible Dream (ATO)
Griffin has been one of the better kept secrets of the Boston/Cambridge singer/songwriter scene for more than a decade. When she finally landed a recording deal resulting in 1996's Living With Ghosts, she was a bit past thirty, and we were graced with a wizened maturity, a chanteuse of multiple dimensions, versus something younger and squalling, sparing us the squeamish spectacle of watching someone grow up in public. Think Tori, Alanis, and Britney. (Sorry, fans, but it's true.) Now past forty, Griffin's pipes have aged, deepened, and mellowed, attaining an admirable edge that embraces genres as diverse as gospel ("Standing"), roadhouse blues ("Love Throw A Line"), or a simple lilt ("Useless Desires"). The same "shopping trip" yielded 2003's live A Kiss in Time, a lovely summation of her first three discs (including Flaming Red and 1,000 Kisses).
The Waifs, "Lighthouse," Up All Night (Compass)
If sisters Vikki and Donna Simpson learned nothing else from their apprenticeship covering Dylan tunes in the relative isolation of Western Australia, it was a gift for mimicry, a penchant for donning masks only too evident in their fourth full-length disc, Up All Night. The Waifs move from western Australian rubes ("Fisherman's Daughter") to Nashville honky-tonk queens ("Lighthouse") to London ingenues ("London Still") with guileless ease, and with bandmate Josh Cunningham wielding mandolin and dobro, they emulate an indigenous SXSW act, "They're not American?"--the sort of reaction the Stones got for their R&B chops 40 years ago. No, they're not the Stones, barely a rock band even. But The Wafts are the real deal, equal parts Lyle Lovett and Indigo Girls, and a genuine treat.
Ann and Nancy Wilson, "The Battle of Evermore", Women Live from Mountain Stage (Blue Plate Music)
"Mountain Stage" is a West Virginia Public Broadcasting production, which has been running for more than 20 years. It features an eclectic melange of Appalachian and other acts, some world-burners, some not, in live performance. If you can catch it (go to www.mountainstage.org to see how--if you don't have a radio broadcast near you, some NPR affiliates stream it), you're in for a treat. The sound is sublime, the performances generally inspired, and Women Live from Mountain Stage samples some of the best. I have craved a performance of The Lovemongers' version of "The Battle of Evermore" since first hearing it in the early '90s, the Lovemongers being Ann and Nancy Wilson's post-Heart acoustic endeavor. This live rendition of Robert Plant's keening, multitracked vocals is the stuff of which goose bumps are made. Oh, the balance of the disc includes Joan Baez, Ani Di Franco, K. D. Lang, the Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, and others. Maybe you've heard of them ...
Coda. R.I.P. Ray Charles, Marlon Brando, and Elvin Jones. I'm still reeling ... e-mail: KJEast@cox.net.
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|Title Annotation:||The Music|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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