ZZ Top – Degüello

by TW on January 27, 2014

ZZ Top-Deguello

ZZ Top – Degüello

Happy New Year, music fans!  I’m not sure what’s finding its way on to your playback devices in early 2014, but I’ve been continuing to fill obvious holes in my collection by acquiring some classics that, for some reason, I hadn’t picked up previously.  Today’s column visits a band that’s had a rather messed up handling of their back catalog in the CD format, ZZ Top.  I, like many others, was happy to purchase the band’s Six Pack collection when it was released many years ago, thinking it was a great way to quickly catch up on the band’s output, but not realizing that so much of the music had been remixed for a more modern drum sound and essentially ruined in the process.  Inexplicably, but thankfully, the Six Pack did not include an album that was originally released during the same period as the rest of these early recordings, 1979’s Degüello.  That album did see a release separate from the Six Pack and included a mix that remained largely unscathed.  I’d recently picked up Degüello on CD and had a flashback to times spent decades earlier in the “booth” of a high school “radio station” with a good friend, Tim O’D, who knew this album back and forth and was happy to play it for the lingerers in our South Commons after school.  Degüello remains a magical stew of thick blues, extra-planar comedy, filthy innuendo, and grooves as irresistible as Texas barbecue.  Just what the hell did this trio include in the recipe to make it that damn good?

For starters, Degüello comes loaded with a total of three classic rock radio hits: their cover of the Sam and Dave oldie, “I Thank You,” the celebration of bluesman culture, “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and the paranoid boogie of “Cheap Sunglasses.”  Readers of this column should well be familiar with these gems, but the record on which they’re included may not have stood the test if time of the rest of the material didn’t hold up in comparison.  While “I Thank You,” with Dusty Hill’s new wave-friendly, slowly bobbing bass line, glossy overlay of guitar chords, and spiky, electric fills from front man, Billy Gibbons, proves to be a successful reinvention of the band’s sound while staying true to their roots, the moments where the band dips back to those roots while displaying their accomplished expertise are frequent across the album’s ten tracks.

A track that might go unnoticed if not for its tantalizing title, “A Fool For Your Stockings,” is another in a long list of ZZ Top’s hazy, sunset-beyond-the-mesa blues numbers paying homage to Buddy Guy (to these ears, anyway) with effortless, loving devotion.  Women tend to beguile Billy Gibbons, it seems, and the object of this song’s lyrics has him hopelessly in love, or what passes for it on the seedy side of Houston.  Shift gears to the weirdest song in the entire ZZ Top repertoire, “Manic Mechanic,” which sounds more like something coming out a studio gestation while hanging out with DevoFrank Beard drums his way out of a cage made from cowbells and wood blocks while the voice of a drag race competitor (presumably Gibbons aping a tire-iron-swinging gorilla) talks smack to his challengers.  No singing here, kids, but “Mechanic” will leave you both bewildered and smiling.  This was a favorite of the aforementioned Tim O’D, and his mouthing of Gibbons’ daffy bravado (lips puffed out, voice down low – “You want to race?”) is an unforgettable moment of hilarity from my teen years.

It doesn’t get more traditional than the Robert Johnson-penned, Elmore James-popularized, “Dust My Broom,” and our tres hombres are ever-eager to nod to their influences.  Gibbons sounds as if he was born singing and strumming the song, but age has added extra gravel to his pipes and taught him the value of a deftly-wielded slide bar.  And the tones, the tones…  The true magic of the band is found right here on this cut, with guitar effects that have been carefully chosen over time to provide that perfect blend of grit, sting, and warmth.  Following suit, “Lowdown In The Street” could have easily found its way on to one of the band’s earlier records, as it relies on a familiar, funky-bluesy shuffle that so many have now identified as a signature sound.

CDs will never match the clarity and warmth present on high-quality vinyl versions of classic recordings.  But, for many of us, CDs are the devil we must deal with when faced with budget and space limitations.  Buyer beware when snatching up ZZ Top’s tunes in hard copy digital, as the band and its fans have been dealt a great injustice by ignorant record label executives.  While you’re waiting for past mistakes to be corrected, you can trust that Degüello remains relatively similar to the vinyl version – enough that you can still appreciate all the little nuances that made it nearly perfect in the first place.

– Mark Polzin

 

 

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Rush – Rush

by TW on January 20, 2014

Rush 1st album

Rush – Rush

As mentioned in a previous column, I’ve planned to fill some glaring holes in my collection in 2014, focusing on some undoubted classics.  One such album is the debut from Canadian legends Rush.  I’d somehow navigated through my high school, college and early adult life without owning this prize, largely because I’ve had several friends who’ve owned the album, and it was never absent from someone’s turntable for too very long.  The record’s rock radio staples, “What You’re Doing,” “In The Mood” and the permanent fixture to every major market’s Friday afternoon “quitting time classics,” “Working Man” are more evident now than when I’d first discovered the band 30 years ago.

Rush’s debut record is sometimes looked upon with disfavor by Rush purists, as it marks the only time that longtime drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, did not hold down the percussionist slot.  Original drummer John Rutsey lasted with the band through the release of the debut and up until about two weeks before setting out on tour to support Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann.  So for many, the very early stages of the band’s development include elements that would not be counted amongst those contributing to the band’s forthcoming fame.

With that being said, Rutsey was, by all accounts, an excellent drummer, though not possessed of the polyrhythmic prowess of his replacement.  And through mid-1974, his contributions to the group’s formative sound were considerable.  The lockstep grooves of bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson would remain regardless of the person sitting behind them on the riser, however.  Their friendship, more a brotherhood, is the backbone supporting Rush’s signature sound.  That element is prominently on display, as are Lifeson’s stinging, layered guitar tracks and Lee’s throat-shredding vocals, long a problem for many fair-weather Rush fans.

At 21 years old, few musicians are possessed of the confidence with which Rush tears through their debut’s set.  But Lee and Lifeson (both just turning 60 last year) command a swagger that saw them likened to Led Zeppelin’s Plant and Page by a press unsure what to make of the Canadians.  But hearing the opening fade-in of “Finding My Way,” burst wide open by Lifeson’s power chords and Lee’s shriek, it’s evident that Rush was never really the Zep-clones they were made out to be.  To me, the influence comes more from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Adopting the “power trio” configuration, and regularly using the blues as a touchstone, Rush did not employ the wider dynamics, nor folky experimentation of Led Zeppelin.  They were more a mixture of their British blues revival heroes and a blue collar neighborhood bar band…but a really mind-blowing bar band.

Listening closely to “Finding My Way,” you can pick out some of the guitar ideas Lifeson would use on the band’s breakthrough, 2112.  The ideas were gestating, but not yet fully formed.  And without Peart involved to add his high-concept lyrics, the band muddled through ruminations on girls and relationships.  Aiming for that elusive radio hit, they also took stabs at pop-friendly lyrical concerns like friendship on “Take A Friend.”  Not much more than a choogling blues number, it’s elevated by some killer Lee harmony vocals and vocal effects (the echo on “so good!”).  But the trio bash it out as if it were a well-known standard.

But for me, like most fans of this album, the sparks fly on Side 2.  The brilliant riff behind “What You’re Doing” should be enough to have Rush inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its own.  God knows how many times Lee and Lifeson practiced their lines until perfection was achieved, but I reckon they could play the song in sync in their sleep nowadays.  And it was this over-the-top arena rock that would give them a connection to their first American fans.  The sassy “In The Mood,” with its guy-on-the-prowl lyrics and another unbelievable riff fits perfectly alongside “What You’re Doing.”  Memorable for Rutsey’s cowbell as much as for Lee’s cliché “hey now, baby”, it’s unlike anything else in the Rush catalog, and it’s celebrated for its silliness by both the band and its fans.

The band’s most Zep-like moment can also be found on side 2 in “Before And After.”  It’s there that we see an uncharacteristic dip in the volume levels on the song’s beginning, much as we might see on a quieter moment from Houses Of The Holy or Led Zeppelin III.  But this a song of contrasts, and it’s not long before the sturdy, rather funky, riffing gets cranking.  It’s not a tune that fans mention very often, but it’s definitely stood the test of time no worse than any of the album’s “hits.”

Closing the album is the song that made Cleveland take notice, “Working Man.”  It was probably a given that any tune playing to a market of factory workers which mentioned both a grueling work schedule and the reward of an ice cold beer at 5 o’clock would have no trouble connecting with fans across the border in the rust belt.  And so history was written and Rush began their ascent to an unusual arm’s length fame that they enjoy to this day, by first wooing radio listeners, then embarking on punishing tour schedules.  What I find odd, though, is that the underlying message of “Working Man” seems to be ignored by most listeners.  It’s not a celebration of the nine to five, but a condemnation.  The audience is challenged to check if they might be living their lives a lot differently, framing their lifestyle as empty and repetitive.  Ah, but we’re easily distracted by frothy malt beverage and guitar solos that make our ears bleed!

Rush is not an album that adds much to the group’s mythology.  The symbolism, in-jokes, and recurring concepts surrounding their work hadn’t yet been formed.  There’s no mention of a “Xanadu,” “Fear Trilogy” or “Solar Federation” to be found.  It really fits in much better with the party rock records and early ‘70s hard rock by Aerosmith and KISS in your collection than it does with sweeping prog masterpieces like Genesis‘ Foxtrot or King Crimson‘s Lark’s Tongue In Aspic.  And while it’s not usually remembered as one of the best Rush albums, it’s still a rock classic, not meant to be absent from a serious collector’s stack for decades, as in my case.  So, I’ve repented and bought the Mercury remastered CD version.  What’s your excuse?

-Mark Polzin

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Deep Purple-Audio Fidelity Collection

Deep Purple – The Audio Fidelity Collection 

From 1970-73, the Deep Purple “Mark II” lineup of Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Roger Glover, Jon Lord and Ian Paice released four albums that set a new standard for heavy rock/metal: In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head and Who Do We Think We Are. And it was from these releases that the band garnered the most popular acclaim and success. Several radio hits emerged including “Highway Star,” “Woman From Tokyo” and the riff-driven anthem “Smoke On The Water.”  But dig a little deeper (pun intended) into these recordings beyond the FM standards and you’ll find nuggets galore. In this case, the nuggets are 24K Gold.

That’s because Audio Fidelity has re-reissued the quartet of classics in a limited edition, numbered, 4-CD box set of 24K Gold discs titled Deep Purple – The Audio Fidelity Collection 1970-1973. I say “re-reissued” because Audio Fidelity first released these discs individually in limited editions several years ago. They quickly sold out, and those who didn’t strike early were forced to pay big money in the secondary market for what became very collectible releases. With remastering courtesy of Steve Hoffman, the sound is digital done right – the discs are sourced from the master tapes and restored as faithfully as possible to retain an analog quality in a digital medium. The sound across all four recordings is full, open and consistently excellent. The discs are also HDCD-encoded, so you can take advantage of that Microsoft technology should you have a HDCD-capable player. Otherwise, they are compatible with any CD/DVD player.

In Rock blew the doors open for the band, unleashing a torrent of blistering sound with the lead-off track “Speed King.” It opens with a burst of band noise and feedback and then glides into a gentle, hymn-like organ bit from Lord that tails off into silence before the hammer drops. Guitar, bass, drums and organ pound out power chords, as Gillan belts out a ferocious update on Little Richard and hits from the past. The seat belts stay locked tight with “Bludsucker,” a chugging full-speed rocker that just kicks ass. The hypnotic “Child In Time” became a concert favorite, and it’s easy to see why as even the studio recording has a burning intensity, thanks to a remarkable performance by Gillan. His voice had awesome, often frightening power in the early 70s and you can be serenaded all over again.

Of these four albums, Machine Head has received the lion’s share of fame, but the follow-up to In Rock, 1971’s Fireball, is the superior record. Every facet of the band is on display here: heavy rock, country-rock (!), blues, psychedelic and humor. Listen to “No One Came” for a hilarious look at life through the eyes of a wannabe rock star. As I listened to this collection, it struck me how “bluesy” and “drumsy” these tunes are. The Purple sound may be heavy on guitar and organ, but the glue that holds it together is Paice’s incredible drumming. And his drums sound great here. Listen to the explosive opening of “Fireball,” as Paice flies across his kit in a Buddy Rich-like flurry. In fact, Purple classics including “Fireball,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Woman From Tokyo” all begin not with a guitar riff or blasts from Lord’s organ, but drums alone.

Fireball’s “Strange Kind Of Woman” and Machine Head’s “Lazy” show how the Blues can be supercharged into something completely fresh, riding high on some killer Blackmore riffs.  “The Mule” is another personal Fireball favorite, awash with psychedelic chording and Paice’s hypnotic drum pattern.

Not much has to be said about Machine Head, as several of these tracks have become permanently burned into the ears and minds of generations of rock fans. But I will mention that Blackmore’s guitar solo on “Highway Star” was hugely influential to an upcoming generation of guitar shredders such as Yngwie Malmsteen, who locked into Blackmore’s Fender Stratocaster sound and approach. It’s one of the greatest solos of all time. And I’ve always thought “Never Before” was a sleeper track.

Likewise, Who Do We Think We Are is a much underappreciated effort. If you haven’t listened to the entire recording, or just shut things down after the lead-off track, “My Woman From Tokyo,” it’s been your loss. The album is brimming with grooves and attitude. The roundhouse riffs that power “Super Trouper” and “Rat Rat Blue” are something at which the Mark II lineup excelled. And the deft interplay between Blackmore and Lord is truly special.

A side note: Where I live in northern Wisconsin, we’ve seen a lot of snow already this winter and the local roads I travel are very rough. During a recent daytrip, I took a handful of Redbook CDs with me and listened to them throughout my travels. One of the discs I tried to play in my vehicle kept skipping and hanging up every time I hit a bump in the road. I became frustrated and reloaded the disc player with the Audio Fidelity In Rock CD. To my surprise, the disc played with no hiccups or hang-ups even when I traveled over bumpy patches. The same was true of the other three Purple 24K CDs.

Conclusion? This is not only a set of great-sounding discs, but also very stable and highly readable under trying conditions. These are landmark recordings that Deep Purple fans will enjoy for years to come. If you missed them the first time around, here’s your chance.

 

 

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Matte Henderson

Matte Henderson with Marco Minnemann – The Veneer Of Logic (CD + DVD)

There’s a proliferation of great King Crimson-related projects seeing the light of day recently.  One company that’s contributing heavily to this trend is Seattle-based 7 d Media, whose philosophy stems from the perceived limitations of traditional record labels and media outlets in properly servicing modern artists.  Already the home to Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto, Tony Levin and Trey Gunn, 7 d has just unleashed the debut album from guitarist and multimedia experimenter Matte Henderson, The Veneer Of Logic.  Henderson has previously performed with his label-mates in various configurations, as well as with artists as diverse as Henry Kaiser, John Medeski and Natalie Merchant.  His main foil on Veneer is the amazing drummer, Marco Minnemann, known for his work with an enormous list of musicians, including Joe Satriani, Steven Wilson, Andy Partridge, Adrian Belew, Kreator, Eddie Jobson, John Wetton, Chad Wackerman and Terry Bozzio.  The album’s guest musicians include the aforementioned Crimson label-mates as well as guitarists David Torn and Bad Brains’ Dr. Know.

A huge influence on Henderson, Dr. Know terms Veneer’s style as “muttcore” due to its diverse flavors – jazz, metal, electronic, industrial, ambient, and sample-based sound collage.  The “muttcore” tag is dead-on as Veneer persistently defies further categorization.  Henderson again tosses this salad by his creation of 11 new videos, one for each track on Veneer, included on a separate DVD.  The collection then provides for two completely different experiences, one with the visual component and one without, and they’re both captivating.

Before I had an opportunity to slide the DVD into my PS3, I gave the CD a spin several times.  Opening track “Whirled,” one of Henderson’s nods to Bad Brains (of which both guitarist Dr. Know and bassist Daryl Jennifer were both frustrated jazz fusion artists looking for a greater challenge, just like Henderson), splits the air with alternating metallic march and electronics-fused, low-key jazz noodlings.  Though the track, like the rest of the album, contains no sung vocals, it does include a sample of some fellow describing “a great, wide, wonderful world,” when the guitars are not savaging our ear drums, that is.  Flip then to “Bible Camp” and its haunting, echoing, childlike melody and a de-emphasis on the drums save for a jazzy skitter, and we know we’ve just crossed into an odd parallel universe engineered by a deity with his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek – Matte Henderson.

That disorienting effect, where things seem slightly familiar, yet distorted by reflections from a Hall of Mirrors, rolls on in “ppgf” (short for “playing pussy, getting fucked”).  A sinister, funky synthesizer leads the way through this tangle of sampled voice mail messages (“I’m callin’ ya back.  Don’t have a heart attack ‘cause I’m calling ya ba-a-ack.”) and monstrous guitar riffs.  That same evil synthesizer draws its lines out a bit longer for the creeping approach of “Can’t Indict A Flower.”  Henderson once again goes sample-crazy with the repeated use of a demented voice reciting the song’s title.  Guitar and drum freakouts abound!

The profanity-laced over-dramatization of a woman’s unpleasant parking lot experience provides the backdrop for “Come On.”  Henderson coaxes noises from his treated guitars that cause him to exceed noise pollution limits in several surrounding counties.  The song’s impossible rhythm is hammered out with Minnemann’s machine precision.  This contrasts with the no less noisy “Balinese Funeral” by the latter’s use of Indian percussion and Southeast Asian chime samples punctuating the back alley skulk of a rhythm track.  The relatively tame “Tomatte” closes the CD with some stolen moments from Joe Zawinul’s time with Miles Davis or Isaac Hayes’ time establishing himself as an afro-centric, cerebral pop composer fleshed out by performances from the extraterrestrial clone of Eddie Hazel after a satisfying bowl of Amphetamine Pops.

As much fun as you’ll have listening to the CD, give the DVD a spin or seven for a completely different ride.  Henderson has a background in visual arts production, so he relished an excuse to pay homage to groundbreaking film directors such as Stan Brakhage while ransacking vintage stock of terrible sci-fi movies, children’s educational films, forgotten cartoons, and foreign cultural footage.  With images shown in color and black and white, run forwards and in reverse at varying speeds, and with shocking color filters and washes applied, the DVD is the point at which you remorselessly launch yourself to drift amidst Henderson’s dented can version of the universe.  What caused him to tie certain images to certain sounds is left largely for the viewer/listener to decide, but they’ll be guaranteed a chuckle-fest while they try to figure it out.  Tripped out, unnerving, dated, and baffling, the video images provide for the full experience of this project’s vision.

This is but the first release ever credited to Matte Henderson, but his union with 7 d proves to be a fruitful one.  Keep your ears open for other releases on this label which may not bear Henderson’s brand, but nonetheless enjoy the product of his labors.  He enjoys damn fine company while he leaves his own particular concoctions to stew, in any case.

-Mark Polzin

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Gary Numan – Pure

by TW on November 19, 2013

Gary Numan-Pure

 

Gary Numan – Pure

Far removed from the synth-pop novelty for which he’s best remembered, 1979’s “Cars,” Gary Numan’s music nowadays simultaneously exemplifies his status as an innovator in the use of electronics in popular music while reflecting the influences of those who were heavily influenced by his own music.  Yes, influenced by those he’s influenced!  So, while his current output shares more in common with the music of Nine Inch Nails than that of The Human League, Numan’s switch to that style was more a matter of coincidence than a calculated attempt to cash in on the flavor of the day.  After chasing the pop dragon for another 15 years after “Cars,” Numan instead moved to make music more personal, more dark, and more human, and of note for the “rockers” amongst our readership, with more guitars.  Now with a clutch of solid releases in this style under his belt, Numan continues to enjoy clandestine career resurgence.  Let’s take a closer listen to the best of these albums, 2000’s Pure.

Numan’s need to present himself as less robotic has been an ongoing battle.  Too many people will think of him as that lonely android guy standing at his keyboard during the dawning of MTV.  Considering that his first choice in instruments has always been the guitar, and that he hadn’t planned to be coated in gobs of white make-up for his early TV appearances (he blames bad acne) and subsequent promotional tours and photos, you can see where he started asking himself, “Well, how did I get here?”  His wife, Gemma, talked him down off of that ledge and encouraged him to just do his own thing.  Pure, therefore, is pretty much Numan’s gig.  He’s joined by the duo then known as Sulpher, consisting of drummer Monti and guitarist Rob Holliday (whose resume is extensive and amazing and consists in part of a brilliant live presence in Mission UK and for the last few years as the touring guitarist for Marilyn Manson).  Numan himself plays guitars, keyboards, and drums when not supplying his distinctive nasal and very British-accented vocals.  He’s also the sole songwriter with the exception of one tune co-written by Sulpher.

Beginning with the title track, Pure seeps into the cranium via a grinding machine noise and a stark keyboard line.  Then everything else comes crashing in – loud and heavily distorted guitars, squelching synthesizers filtered through guitar amplification, live drums, and a propulsive rhythm program.  The music is so full and menacing that it bears little resemblance to the 30+ year-old paean to the automobile.  True, we always felt that the artificial life forms that Numan surely spoke for may one day revolt and topple humanity, but now it sounds like they have the weaponry to succeed.  The subject of the lyrics is unclear, but Numan’s dissatisfaction with her is evident: “Hey, Bitch, this is what you are.  Purified, Sanctified, Sacrificed.”  His voice now transformed into a brilliant caterwaul in tortured anguish, he sets out to tell more tales.

The backdrop is lit less brightly on “One Perfect Lie” as Numan wrestles with understanding an associate’s death through their views of the world and cosmos while he himself is anchored in his own atheism.  Amidst the swirling synthesizers and vocal effects, he sings “One perfect lie/Wrapped in kindness and tears/I wish I believed in your Heaven/One perfect life/Led by blind faith and trust/If God has a heart He will find you.”  It’s heavy reflection, and something he’d largely avoided until this later date in his career, but it comes from him without hesitation as if he’d lived this song time and again.  His comments on divine nature continue with “My Jesus,” in which he correctly assesses that the nature of a mythological savior is completely determined by those who feel they’ve been saved.  In Numan’s case, Jesus is a figurehead that transcends the Bible’s more human portrayal to become a looming symbol of the loneliness, pain, dishonesty, and fear that accompany someone waiting out their life for the promise of something better beyond.

He changes gears a few times across Pure, perhaps most notably on “Little InVitro.”  Here he examines the heartbreak of a failed in vitro fertilization, which he endured with Gemma.   A true family man, it’s telling how deeply he was affected by the dashed hopes that followed the promise of another new addition to their household.  The gloom of persistent, swarming synthesizers and the ache in Numan’s voice are more than adequate means of detailing the couple’s pain.  The record then closes with Numan’s discussion of paralyzing fear in “I Can’t Breathe.”  Whatever the protagonist’s psychological malady – agoraphobia, paranoia, or if it’s Numan himself, Asperger Syndrome – he’s incapacitated by worries about things both real and imaginary.  Numan’s cold persona was eventually discovered to be the result of his challenge with Asperger’s, and his lyrics here can only come from someone with extensive knowledge of the unpleasant duty of dealing with his fellow human beings and their suspect motives.  It’s not the way that rock musicians typically address psychological conditions, and you’d probably least expect to find a topic so gripping on a record by this artist.

So, forget about what you think you know about Gary Numan.  That guy existed a lifetime ago and it’s his reinvigorated spirit that prowls the stage today.  You should be able to track down this release on Eagle Records with no problem, and then branch out to learn more about the status quo of this truly unique performer.  The difference between the old stuff and the new is like that between a Model T Ford and a jetpack.  Once you’ve evolved past ancient technology and design, who the hell needs cars?

– Mark Polzin

 

 

 

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Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

by TW on November 11, 2013

Pearl Jam-Lightning Bolt

 

Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam is my favorite band – ever.  You need to know that fact before you take in the rest of the words that I’m laying down here.  And I needed to also focus on that truth every single time I’ve listened to any new material from this group.  So, going into the first new collection of studio work from them since 2009’s Backspacer (has it really been that long?), I have to do a few extra things, like putting the music in the proper perspective with the group’s evolution, which I’ve followed very, very carefully over the years, and remembering that I have changed a bit since the last album as well.  Everyone, from the Wal-Mart greeter to the international pop star, will have had one thing in common in-between releases.  We’ve all gotten older.  And despite the trusted adage, not everything improves with age, and the degree of improvement or “unimprovement” will vary based on the observer’s perspective.

Some of these concerns are meant for my friend, Tom to consider.  See, Tom is a big Pearl Jam fan as well.  But although he bought Lightning Bolt right around its release date last month, he was quick to tell me of his dislike for it.  In fact, purchasing Tom’s copy is how I came to own the record myself.  This actually doesn’t surprise me that much.  What Tom loves about Pearl Jam is what many people love about Pearl Jam.  Their thoughts drift back to those heady days in the 1990s where Pearl Jam was the band to beat, the people’s band, and the band to defy your expectations.  The thing is, Tom (and your ilk), they still are that band.  They’re all of those things you remember them to be, but now they’re older – just like you are.  The problem is that your expectations haven’t changed, but how Pearl Jam will defy those expectations once more has changed significantly.

Distractions abounded, with solo albums, side project band reunions, and the business of a Soundgarden reunion, which kept drummer Matt Cameron engaged to the point that not one song on Lightning Bolt bears his songwriter’s credit, the first time that’s happened in his 15 years with Pearl Jam.  Stepping to the fore, however, is lead guitarist, Mike McCready, who celebrates co-authorship of two songs, and a dynamic presence throughout the collection.  This is coming from a guy who was lucky to have written one song on any of the band’s previous records.  It’s this shift that may be the biggest single cause of the change in the group’s direction.  Where Backspacer enjoyed several moments attributed to a “New Wave” influence, largely due to a collective appreciation for the changing pop and rock landscapes during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and emblematic of Cameron’s more experimental track at composition, Lightning Bolt is all about the guitars.  McCready, always keen to drop a few lines of a classic Hendrix, Van Halen or Sabbath riff in the middle of one of his own live solos, seems to have a ready stash of truly “classic” sequences that he’s discovered on his own, perhaps while searching for that painfully overlooked shred-burst that should have become part of our collective rock conscience decades ago.

The lyrics, same as always, are the work of singer Eddie Vedder.  While there’s a sense of adventure bleeding into the group’s sound, Ed’s lyrics remain thought-provoking and continue to cut fools to the quick.  This is how “aging” becomes “maturing,” and subtlety is wielded like machete.  Opening track and Vedder composition, “Getaway,” with its churning guitars and four-on-the-floor drums, picks apart Tea Party lunatics and religious over-conservatives by taking a stance for Ed’s own beliefs.  True mutual respect of each other’s political views requires that two opponents meet in the middle to find common ground and a solution that’s amenable to both sides.  Ed wasn’t about to let our recent, terribly misguided government shutdown go by without comment and he doles out well-deserved condemnation.

The album’s first single, “Mind Your Manners,” one of McCready’s inventions, is solid punk rock, showing us that the guitarist isn’t only a metal head.  And that’s the thing about the ridiculous “grunge” designation, right?  Those bands from the land where the coffee is strongest loved punk and metal equally.  When lazy reporters couldn’t lump them in one category or another, out comes the word “grunge”, a term which no self-respecting band would ever have used to define their approach.  But here it is, laid bare.  McCready then swings to the other side with the”beyond classic” classic, “Sirens.”  If not for Vedder’s distinctive voice, veering close to Dave Matthews’ territory, we might mistake the song for a forgotten mid-70’s mid-tempo guitar anthem that somehow slipped off the classic rock radio station’s playlist.  The solo is more something we breathe in than something we hear.

“Pendulum” marks a return to the collaboration between longtime associates, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament.  It’s also not very characteristic of much else in the PJ catalog.  Ament’s darkened slides, anchored by echoing percussion, and framed with ghostly, chiming keyboards produce a combo that either chases away the fair weather fans, or has the rest of us praising the band’s inventiveness.  Similarly, “Let The Records Play,” another Gossard composition, is mainly a walking blues number.  It sounds more like a group that Alligator Records dug up while prowling seedy dives.  McCready’s guitar alternately purrs and screams, just like good blues ought to.

Not all has changed for Pearl Jam, it seems.  The record is once more produced by the most complimentary fellow the band has had at the boards throughout their career, Brendan O’Brien.  And they’re backed by hairy Hawaiian, Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar, whose beautiful organ swells have graced the last several Pearl Jam records.  They’ve also, wisely, made use of the talents of Don Pendleton, whose sleeve and art design includes images worth pondering nearly as much as the songs within.

My final assessment – it’s not my favorite record of the band to date, but that’s really only because they have so much else in their repertoire that I absolutely adore.  These songs will grow on me, and that they don’t immediately resonate as strongly with me is no fault of the songs or their performers.  A new Pearl Jam album is still better than any ten albums that hit the streets this year.  I’m the one that has to catch up.

But none of this really matters.  Pearl Jam, like the Grateful Dead, shows their true worth in the live arena rather than on slabs of vinyl.  What excites me most is the thought of how these songs will sound in a live setting, after the band has become comfortable with them and has modified them slightly over the course of a supporting tour.  In that respect, this album gives them more variety for their toy box and they’re going to have a lot of fun playing.  When I get a chance to see them, I’m going to have a blast as well.  And we have to have this meeting now, before any of us becomes so old that we’re not having fun doing it any more.  Knowing what I know about me and about Pearl Jam, we must have another 30 years before that’s even possible.  I’m not sure about Tom’s commitment, however.  Your loss, buddy!

-Mark Polzin

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Fuzz – Fuzz

by TW on October 17, 2013

Fuzz-Fuzz

Fuzz – Fuzz

Although this is supposed to have been a “quiet year” for San Francisco musician Ty Segall, he’s featured prominently on another new release from earlier this month, the debut album from lysergic power trio, Fuzz.  But on this album, Segall returns to the first instrument on which he’d trained, the drumkit.  While Segall also contributes vocals, the group is rounded out by guitarist Charlie Moothart and bassist Roland Cosio, colleagues from various other band configurations with which Segall has played over the past few years.  Worlds apart from Twins (reviewed here earlier this year), Fuzz heartily embraces crushingly heavy psychedelia and straddles the divide between Tony Iommi’s early string-bending excursions and countless bands ‘overdriven ‘60s garage experiments.  Elements of Blue Cheer, Hawkwind, and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd swirl side by side, emerging to display dominance as the song demands.  At under 40 minutes in length and sporting just 8 tracks, we’d be tempted to consider this as filler between Segall’s projects bearing his own name, but that’d be a colossal mistake.  Fuzz is easily one of the most exhilarating releases of 2013 and it should attract fans of not only new music, but also those hopelessly in love with the sounds of Nuggets-era America.

The five-minute ride concealed within the disc’s opening track, “Earthen Gate,” perfectly sets the stage for what’s to follow.  It begins much as we imagine a pseudo ballad discussing some metallic trip through a mythical wasteland might begin.  But then the rhythm section fairly explodes, Segall chanting beneath it all like some disembodied spirit of an acid casualty.  When Moothart finally unleashes his fury on the fretboard, we’re shocked not to find Dickie Peterson lurking in the wings, moaning “Oh Lawd, ain’t no cure.”  All finger vibrato and tones stretched to the point of snapping, Moothart proves himself every bit the match for Segall’s typical guitar gymnastics.

Rolling in the delicious mire that permeated Black Sabbath’s debut, the album really gets interesting by the time “Hazemaze” hits the speakers.  While his voice displays the inherent contrary snottiness of a punk sneer, Segall’s drums are more a pacesetting force, helping to tastefully change tempos and also pushing the intensity into the band’s upper limits.  This frees Cosio to maintain deeply penetrating bass tones which can’t help but resonate in the listener’s chest cavity.  In fact, that bass murk is present in all the tracks, serving to both darken the tunes and draw our attention to the lower register.  “Loose Sutures” follows suit on a more 1960s British electric blues path, Moothart soloing wildly over the churning, pulsing rhythm.  The groove is disrupted by Segall and Cosio taking noodly solos in turn for no apparent purpose than to show that power trios like to play solos.  Here the rhythm section might feel a bit like The James Gang’s, competent and inventive, but ultimately serving as the back-up to a brilliant leader.

Switch gears to “Preacher” and a more driving, hammering attack to the drums.  Moothart coaxes gelatinous chords during the verses, but catches flame on the chorus, spewing sparks in a tripped out cascade.  “Raise” follows with what feels like a rehashed blues number pushed to amplified excess.  Moothart takes the mic here, grounding the song in a way that Segall’s fey whine can’t.  Before we’ve hit the end of the line, we’re somehow aboard a speeding freight train with tragically damaged brakes.

Fuzz is the perfect example of umpteenth-wave garage psych revival.  We’ve seen this style go in and out of phase over the decades, but the best proponents are adept at not only capturing the thrills and spills of the 1960s, but taking the sound in bold, new directions.  Get in on this wave as the getting is good, dear reader.  Should the trend continue, we’re sure to see the music watered down over time.  But Fuzz gets it right and puts it right in our faces.  I’m excited to see where Segall takes it next.

– Mark Polzin

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Nosound – A Sense Of Loss

by TW on September 25, 2013

Nosound-A Sense Of Loss

Nosound – A Sense Of Loss

Italian progressive rock band Nosound are still very active on the scene.  There has been a steady stream of full albums, EPs, deluxe editions, and DVDs released these past few years, but today we’ll drop back for a visit to their third full album, 2009’s A Sense Of Loss, which also serves as an excellent introduction to Nosound’s music.  Issued under the banner of the outstanding Kscope label, A Sense Of Loss displays a conscious effort to dispense with electronic keyboard sounds in order to rely on a more organic feel.  Through its haunted melancholia, the record assumes its position as one of the most important prog releases of the 21st Century.

Led by vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Giancarlo Erra, Nosound is rounded out on this album by keyboardist Paolo Martelacci, guitarist Paolo Vigliarolo, bassist Alessandro Luci and drummer Gigi Zito.  While Erra originally composed and performed the music alone, he’d soon realized that requests for live performances dictated his need for a full band, whose members eventually performed on the albums as well.  Erra now assumes the role of vocalist, chief songwriter, and overall sonic constructor, using Martelacci’s and Vigliarolo’s talents to expand upon his compositions.  A Sense Of Loss is also notable for its use of a string section to provide a droning gloom where synthesizers may have been employed previously.  Also, Vigliarolo sticks to acoustic guitar and leaves the electric textures to Erra himself.

The album’s title is emblematic of its sound, in that it’s dominated by a tug of longing which is fleshed out by warm washes of sound amidst a spectacular audio mix.  Nosound is thus able to ease the listener into emotional surges of regret and painful memories without the feelings becoming overwhelming.  The minor key choices and slow speed tempos also serve to enhance the pervasive sadness.  Therefore, as an example of engineer, songwriter, and performers bringing an A-Game of collaborative effort to give life to concept, A Sense Of Loss is remarkably successful.

Nosound’s influences are somewhat obvious, however.  Touching especially on the path taken by Pink Floyd circa Animals and afterwards, as well as fellow Kscope signees, veteran prog duo No-Man, Nosound is not intent on dazzling you with their virtuosity.  They’re far more interested in capturing moods, mostly darkened and bruised, with their playing.  This is not to say that anything about Nosound is derivative.  They just know what they’ve found to be successful elsewhere and they have no intention of reinventing those wheels.  And with just six tracks spread over the CD’s 50+ minutes, they give themselves the time to more easily achieve their goals.

Giancarlo Erra has one distinct difference from his idol Tim Bowness of No-Man.  Erra chooses to blend his vocal lines into the mix rather than placing them starkly atop the music track.  This isolation causes Burgess’ voice to stand out, as intended, while Erra’s works as if it’s yet another instrument.  Bowness also tends to be a bit breathier in his delivery, moving from emotion to emotion as the lyrics dictate.  Erra, meanwhile tends to set the emotion with the music, using his voice to maintain and reinforce the mood.  There’s no right or wrong here, more notes on two similar music acts that remain complimentary to one another despite the difference in tactics.  Erra’s method is illustrated best on “Fading Silently,” where shifting walls of bass tones, isolated piano, simplified drumming, chiming acoustic guitar, and rich strings recede to allow a glimpse at the man behind the curtain before obscuring him once again.

At times, A Sense Of Loss can be taken as six movements to one comprehensive piece.  There’s a flow to the sound that is usually reserved for conceptual pieces, but works to great effect here.  Follow the path from “Tender Claim,” a mournful symphonic Yes-meets-post rock number, to the acoustic guitar arpeggio and acoustic piano elegy of “My Apology,” and then out to the even slower-paced “Constant Contrast,” and the ride is far from jarring.  This trio of songs serves as the set-up to the album’s sprawling closer, the near-16 minute “Winter Will Come,” which noodles around a bit before settling into a pattern of swirling keyboards and rigid electric guitar.  While the pace remains glacial, the increasing heaviness of the guitars vies for our attention with occasional Hammond organ, military drumming, Erra’s spectral voice, Mellotron, and oddly circling sampled tones.

Nosound is the antithesis to the “I’ll wank for twelve bars then it’s your turn” school of prog rock.  Giancarlo Erra is very aware that you can demonstrate your abilities by performing as part of an ensemble as easily as you can when acting as the featured soloist.  Therefore, he’s freed up to compose without the need for unnecessary measures that do little to contribute to the piece’s direction.  This is not your father’s prog, children.  You’ll find yourself in most easily in harmony while listening on your car stereo during a moonlit drive, or alone in a darkened room than you will when listening at top volume on an expensive system.  But for those that do choose the technical high end, the mix will not disappoint.  Nosound is actually Lots Of Sound, and picking through their recordings will continue to be an extremely rewarding experience.

– Mark Polzin

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Nine Inch Nails – The Fragile

by TW on September 17, 2013

NIN-The Fragile

Nine Inch Nails – The Fragile

Several of my preferred styles of music – dark, industrial metal, visual-inducing ambient sonic sculpture, emotional prog rock concept albums, and funk-infused hip-hop/dance experimentation – came together on Trent Reznor’s 4th release under the Nine Inch Nails banner, The Fragile.  A double album, coming five years after the success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, and an intense period of suicidal thoughts and crippling writer’s block, The Fragile reinforced the vast support network of fans lining up to hear the latest from their somber savior.  Panned by some critics at the time of its release as being overly-dramatic and lacking editing or a check against some of Reznor’s self-indulgent tendencies, the release holds up extremely well some 14 years after its unveiling and earns a place in rock history alongside other collections sporting a unifying theme such as The Who‘s Tommy, Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, Kinks‘ The Village Green Preservation Society, Alice In Chain‘s Dirt, and Frank Zappa‘s Joe’s Garage.

Needless to say, the expectations placed on Reznor to deliver a follow-up to the amazing The Downward Spiral came not from his record label, but from himself.  He’d removed the possibility of his label trying to force unwanted opinions on his musical output by creating the Nothing Records imprint under Interscope as his vehicle.  Reznor’s survival through this gloomy period also brought numerous new directions for expression.  He hadn’t reinvented himself stylistically, but rather offered further definition to the sound that already characterized Nine Inch Nails’ output.  This can be seen in new highs and lows, dropping at times to sparse instrumental, interstitial episodes and enhancing a heaviness to the buzzing synthesizer tracks that was perhaps impossible to replicate using previously known technology.  His full embrace of hip-hop rhythms and his incorporation of guest musicians’ interpretations of his compositions, round out these new directions.  Producer Alan Moulder helped Reznor maintain an even keel while Bob Ezrin helped arrange the pieces into a more cohesive storyline.

The concept behind The Fragile, divided by the two CDs into “LEFT” and “RIGHT,” isn’t so much a beginning-middle-end traditional rumination, but more one which drops in and out in response to and in preparation for new, related musical themes.  It deals roughly with the fact that it is impossible to create order from chaos, and vice versa.  In that way, it serves as a realization of the philosophy emblematic in Eastern thought via the Yin/Yang.  At the center of each contrasting black and white swirl is a dot of the opposite color, demonstrating that chaos and order are actually forces at the center of the rival force – motivating, balancing, in constant opposition.  One cannot exist without the other.  Reznor recognizes this truth and shares a tale of futility regarding those who still struggle to understand it.  Thus, there are musical motifs which are reused across both CDs in the collection which are meant to be illustrative of this philosophy and reiterate the lesson.

Four singles were released from The Fragile to different regional markets on the globe – “The Day The World Went Away,” “We’re In This Together,” “Into The Void” and “Starfuckers, Inc.”.  The best drama occurs around these singles, as Reznor tended to take more chances in his attempts to unify the hits within the record’s theme.  Therefore, “The Frail,” which follows “The Day The World Went Away,” offers merely a solo piano repeating one of the album’s main motifs as mood-contrast to the sense of violation and betrayal evident in the hit’s lyrics.  That motif later reappears, amongst other places, in the album’s title track as the protagonist heroically attempts to prevent the world’s plasticity and duplicity from eating away at the beauty within the psyche of his beloved.

Thus use of primarily instrumental composition in several places is frequently surprising and refreshing.  “The Pilgrimage” becomes a sort of soundtrack to a sinister march of mind-boggled puppets, with chanting and cheering, and synthesizer fanfare ushering the latest crop of society’s zombies.  “No, You Don’t”  follows closely behind, using crisp, live drums, machine gun programmed beats, demonically-enhanced guitars, and stack after stack of beguiling aural layers.  The song abruptly gives way to the instrumental, “La Mer,” with its repetitive solo piano line, Bill Rieflin’s jazz/funk drumming, barely audible vocals, and pizzicato cello.  Order into chaos into order into chaos.  Disc one – LEFT – closes out with “The Great Below” as the story’s narrator is compelled to seek his fate below the surging waves – a semi-transparent barrier of incredible power preventing easy, instantaneous connection with satisfying clarity.  Guitars and atmospheres, both melodic and ethereally mood-inducing, are provided by Adrian Belew, Danny Lohner and Charlie Couser.

Disc two – RIGHT – continues the quest with similarly beguiling fare.  To mention just a few of the standout moments, I turn to “The Mark Has Been Made,” featuring Reznor alone as he adopts methods especially conducive to this brand of storytelling.  Here the beat is held to a shambling dance rhythm slowed to a pained march.  Percolating synthesizers, mournfully bent guitars, and vanishing high tones are used variously to set the mood for the tales’ final chapter.  “Complication” serves similar duty, but uses a repetitive, amorphous synthesizer line, more akin to a Chemical Brothers rave number, and Lohner’s strangled and tortured guitars to help change gears.

“Complication” is the set-up for “I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally,” which pleads for union with someone who’s already traveled the path of the narrator and has found release in death, or more likely in forgetfulness.  The words have shifted to examine how you cannot unlearn what has already been learned, and how that fact often leads us down paths that are not only revelatory, but also pocked with longing for a previous, simpler time in our lives.  Here, then, “The Big Come Down” contains the narrator’s realization that the path he’s on will never lead to satisfaction.  Crafting order on the shell of one’s existence will not prevent the chaos harbored within from undoing what you’d just accomplished.  A bumbling, rhythm track, punctuated by super-harshed Reznor vocals and a sample of dementedly bent electric guitar strings using no effects, propels us towards the conclusion.

The album closes with “Ripe (With Decay),” another instrumental track featuring the piano figures of Mike Garson and violin work from Steve Duda.  Here again, we’re left with the music alone to summarize what has transpired.  Reznor’s concept stays consistent throughout The Fragile, using lyrics as guidelines, but interacting with the listener to have them fill in their own precise meaning.  The tones set by the music are therefore the single most important elements, outweighing vocals, lyrics, guest appearances, dance music conventions, and identifying signatures of previous Nine Inch Nails works.

The Fragile did not feature the first attempt by Trent Reznor to circle the wagons around a single dominant theme, nor was it, or will it be, his last.  Music is pure artistic expression to him, but product must also encompass similar expression for the entire package – album artwork, stage production (including lighting and other live visual components), album packaging, press kits and promotional images.  Hence, each new project from Reznor under the Nine Inch Nails name will bring new unifying themes and new challenges to his audience to play along in order to better grasp his meanings.  This fact, though not unique to Reznor, elevates him above his contemporaries, if only in measure of the thought and planning that support each project.  The Fragile is our best example that Reznor is operating on another plane from that peopled by the most rudimentary of pop composers.  This album deserves another listen by those who’ve already fell under Reznor’s sway and by those that have let their preconceptions hold him at arm’s length.  This is brilliant material and it demonstrates why we ought to pay attention to so much more than an artist’s words and music when evaluating their importance.

– Mark Polzin

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New York Dolls-One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This

New York Dolls – One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This

So, I recently reviewed the debut album from The New York Dolls and thought it also appropriate to lay some thoughts down concerning their “comeback” album from 2006, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This.  Released on Roadrunner Records, which is primarily a metal label, the surviving two members of the original recording line-up, vocalist David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, sought to renew their camaraderie and create new music under the Dolls name and using as much of the Dolls’ grimy brilliance as they were able to muster some 32 years after their last proper studio release.  This record can be heard in two different ways.  If you’re looking for the same sloppy, drug-fueled energy that the band unleashed in the early ‘70s, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  But if you’re after some damn fine party rock and roll from veteran performers who can tell schlock from shock, and are able to use both tastefully, you’re going to love it!

Produced by Jack Douglas, who knew enough when to interject and when to get the hell out of the way, the album exhibits a balance of rough edges and professional performances.  There are really no low points across its 13 tracks, but it tends to build in momentum.  The listener will have been pulled into the world of the new Dolls and will be left asking for even more by the time the disc stops spinning.  The obvious difference, aside from the fact that chief architect of their original sound, lead guitarist Johnny Thunders is absent (had to be that way, the guy’s dead) is that the boys have grown up.  That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate juvenilia, but Johansen actually can write intelligible lyrics and he sings them in a voice carved by time and matured by world experience.  The band was rounded out by guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sami Yaffa, keyboardist Brian Koonin, and drummer Brian Delaney, filling the holes made by the deaths of Thunders, drummer Jerry Nolan, and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane.  Kane had actually taken part in a reunion concert shortly before sessions for this album, and had intended to be fully involved in what was to come, but he passed away tragically, not even aware that he had leukemia until days before leaving this mortal coil.  His departure hangs over the album, but not as a shroud.  This record feels more like a tribute to him and it celebrates his life and the contributions he made to the Dolls’ circus.

I’m not too concerned with trying to pick out cuts selected by the label or the artists’ media machine as “lead tracks,” but I’d rather tell you about a few songs that really stand out and produce genuine smiles and heartfelt appreciation for this endeavor whenever I hear them.  One of the best is “Dance Like A Monkey.”  Simply put, if you like amusing lyrics, driving rhythms set to a nearly tribal beat, and blistering guitars supporting Johansen’s sassy yet wizened voice, this is the song for you.  The band sound as if they’d been playing together all through these past few decades rather than for a few months and they defy you to sit still as they kick your asses.  Much of this can be credited to Douglas, who understood the challenges this new incarnation of the group was facing.  But when you watch the bonus DVD contained in the “special edition” package of this release, you see that Sylvain and Johansen didn’t get this project going just to cash in on a classic band’s legacy.  They’re totally into it, and the finished product is fantastic.

Skip on ahead to “Dancing On The Lip Of A Volcano,” featuring REM’s Michael Stipe on harmony background vocals, for more adult (as in grown-up, not X-rated) lyrics and a collaboration between a big fan and his idols.  Stipe, along with singer Morrissey, and E-Street Band guitarist Little Steven, was a big supporter of this reunion and it’s great to hear him put his efforts behind his emotions.  This is somewhat illuminating for Stipe’s talents as well, as his voice is sometimes taken for granted in the mix of REM’s output.  Here he shines proudly, his commitment unshaken, his instrument employed perfectly.  The bright tones of the distorted guitars, the added dimension from Koonin’s piano, and Stipe’s airy counterpoint to Johansen’s gruff delivery, make this one a keeper.  Listen also for an incredible jumble of words that Johansen would never have written three decades earlier to understand how things have changed for him personally.

Next up, “I Ain’t Got Nothin,’, lets Johansen show off the fact that he’s really an excellent harmonica player.  A slower number, concentrating on the near-despair of Johansen’s lyrics, the song stands out despite its lack of bombast.  “Rainbow Store,” one of a handful of songs for which the music is composed by Conte rather than Sylvain, sounds more like something the Dolls may have tried to concoct in their heyday, but could never have pulled off amidst the chemical haze and chaos of the past.  Sylvain, a big lover of ‘50s doo-wop, takes every opportunity to add in sweet oohs and coos in support.  You can practically see Johansen strutting across the stage with his smarmy attitude as you listen.

A union within a reunion occurs on “Gimme Luv & Turn On the Light” as fellow punk survivor Iggy Pop lends some tough background vocals to this bruised stomper.  Douglas again works his magic – did Iggy always sing alongside David?  Sure as hell sounds like it!  When he sees a chance to bust loose with some more blues harp wailing, Johansen takes it, weaving in and around Yaffa’s persistent bass and the shredding guitars.  “Take A Look At My Good Looks” closes out the set with a mid-tempo sap-fest composed by Johansen, Sylvain, and Conte.  The lyrics lean toward the gender-bendage of the Dolls of yore.  Can a man be pretty?  Depends on who the man is.  It’s evident that make-up can’t cover up all the 21st Century wrinkles reaching over the boys’ faces, but the song is also both sad and beautiful – in a Dolls kinda way.

Packaging and bonus material: First, as mentioned above, the special edition of the CD includes a bonus DVD showing the band in the studio, both horsing around and getting serious about the project.  You sort of need to watch this film, especially if you’re in doubt as to the integrity of the project.  There’s also a bonus track – “Seventeen” – in case the CD left you wanting more (as it surely will).  The CD booklet includes a stark, yet stylized, mini-comic book written and drawn by Leah Victoria Hennessey, which depicts a fictional origin for this incarnation of the group.  And finally, that album cover artwork!  It’s a lovely design using just the right shades of pink and rose to offset the wicked, fresh-off-the-streets sound of the music within.  Feminine?  Masculine?  A bit of both?  Who cares?  Just rock out and don’t worry so much!  Dave and Syl are back!  And this ain’t no Buster Poindexter thang, ‘cause Dave’s looking pretty shaggy again!

The boys tried hard to turn this project into something that would keep the money coming in for a while, but, unfortunately, the new Dolls didn’t seem to catch fire.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One, this isn’t a punk record.  Folks that discovered the Dolls after it seemed we’d lost them in the mists of time may not realize that Dave and Syl were really only interested in playing rock and roll, not inventing a prototype for heavy sounds from the fringes of society.  Expectations, therefore, may have gone unfulfilled for some fans.  And two, these guys aren’t in their 20s anymore.  That’s not a slight, but a truth.  They grew up, lived and lost, and learned how to be better musicians.  It’s really impossible for them to forget how to play guitar well or how to compose lyrics that actually tell a story you can follow.  So those enamored of the brash, undisciplined force we’ve come to love may not be able to draw a straight line between this and the Dolls of the ‘70s.  It’s usually impossible for something to catch fire in the same way twice.  This record’s massive bonfire is, unfortunately, dwarfed by the inferno generated by the band the first time around.  If you don’t try to compare the two, you’ll be able to enjoy each version of the group for its own merits.  There’s plenty here to set this apart from anything we’d come to associate with the name “New York Dolls”, and it’s all excellent.

– Mark Polzin

 

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