Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Tale Of Two Bobs

(Discussed - Blonde on Blonde (1966), Oh Mercy (1989), Together Through Life (2009), New Day Rising (1985),  Workbook (1989) and Life And Times (2009))

Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Nine was a banner year for pop music. Full of career highlights ("Doolittle" - the Pixies), new beginnings ("Bleach" - Nirvana), false starts (the Stone Roses) and rebirths ("New York" - Lou Reed). It was the year I started my senior year of high school. A lonely time in my life, spent with head phones attached to my psyche, shaping the man I was to become. Which is a not so lonely guy whose headphones are attached to his psyche, shaping the man he hopes to become.    

Twenty years is a long time. Things change. There are not a lot of artists that survive. Certainly not a lot that remain in my daily rss feed. Sure, the Cure (1989 contribution, "Disintegration") still put out a record every few years, but I don't rush out to buy them. Are Fugazi ("13 Songs") even still together? Lou ain't been them same sense 'drella passed and the Pixies only exist to piss me off.  Even Janet Jackson ("Rhythm Nation 1814")  can't buy a hit. 

Shining through all this are a couple of Bobs. If polled on December 31, 1989, I'd have said my two favorite records that year were "Oh, Mercy" by Bob Dylan and "Workbook" by Bob Mould. And they both just so happen to have records out this year that are worth talking about. 

To prepare for this article, I decided to not only revisit the 1989 releases of the two, but also my favorite record by both. I chose "Blonde on Blonde" (Dylan's masterpiece from 1966) and "New Day Rising" (the 1985 release from Mould's first band, Husker Du).

With all due respect to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35", "Blonde On Blonde" does not really begin until track two. "Pledging My Time" begins what is the most personal and timeless collection of songs these ears have ever heard. "Visions Of Johanna", "I Want You", "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)", "Absolutely Sweet Marie". All classics. All could have been recorded this afternoon. If you don't know this record, stop reading. Go away and don't come back until you've fixed yourself. This record is in my DNA. If'n when we have children, they will come out of the womb singing '"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". But none of 'em will be named Dylan. Dylan is Kelly's boyfriend's name, not that of a child. You people simply have to stop this. Off soapbox, can continue.

I don't recall who introduced me to Bob Dylan, but my introduction to Husker Du is the responsibility of one man. In the summer of 1987, my brother Brooks gave me a copy of "Warehouse : Songs And Stories" and my life changed forever. 

As I left work last Friday, for what was my last day of employment, the title track from Husker Du's "New Day Rising" was the soundtrack in my skull. This is a tradition I've taken up sense my first bout with unemployment nearly ten years ago. I know I should be worried  and concerned for the future, but something in me (and in that song) fills me with wonderment and a remaining, sustained belief that everything will work out. Life is a journey and this is but a stop at a gas station for a fresh cup of coffee and a quick piss.

Of course, Brooks will be taken aback by my ranking of "New Day Rising" ahead of his beloved "Zen Arcade". I stand my decision, especially if the discussion is on Mr. Mould's work with the band. "Zen Arcade" is a brilliant piece of art, but not much fun to listen to. And, anyway, "Celebrated Summer"'s on "New Day Rising" and it just so happens to be the greatest song they ever recorded. Welcome to the end of that discussion.

After all these years this record still makes me want to get in the car and drive to the beach. Not go to the beach. Just drive there and bitch about the heat. Maybe hit Electric Smiles and search for that issue of the Bob with the flexi-disc that's got the Replacements cover of "Another Girl, Another Planet" on it. Good times, great oldies. Husker Du were my anti-Beach Boys. And I loved'em for that.

If "New Day Rising" makes me want to get moving on the road, Bob Mould's 1989 solo debut "Workbook" makes me want to hit the streets. I've long associated this record with walking. Maybe it was Saturday afternoons at the Chrysler Museum,  Bob providing me with the audio tour to adulthood. Leaving our hardcore days behind us, Bob bridged the gap for me to expand my universe. This collection of songs showed me a new and exciting way to appreciate music. A way that included Bob Dylan. So, maybe it was Bob Mould who introduced me to Bob Dylan. Nah, that was probably Brooks, too.

So, despite the desperate need for remastering, "Workbook" holds up. Very well, in fact. "New Day Rising" sounds like it was recorded in 1985 and, for me, it's a dated sound (as mid-eighties hardcore records tend to be). But, "Workbook", with it's largely acoustic arrangements and, oddly, timely subject matter (the credit crunch is so 1989), it feels and sounds like a record for the ages. 

Which brings us to Dylan's "Oh, Mercy". This record sure as hell sounds like 2009. WIth it pessimistic view of world leaders and troubled times, it can easily be applied to either Bush administration. "Streets are filled with broken hearts, Broken words never meant to be spoken, Everything is broken'" sounds like the images seen on CNN right now. Hell, CNN should replace the Voice Of Vader with "Everything is Broken". And MSNBC can have "DIsease Of Conceit". Imagine Keith Olbermann closing Countdown every night with that one. Face it, kids, Obama is a small Band-Aid for a large wound that covers this country from coast to coast, L.A to Chicago (I'd like to take this time to thank Ms. Sade for my knowledge of U.S. geography). 

"Oh, Mercy" was the rebirth Dylan needed. After ten years of mediocre records, Daniel Lanois lit a fire under his ass that simmers to this day. "Together Through Life" is the latest chapter in Dylan's autobiography and it has the sound of death all over it. 

This, of course, is nothing new. Death has been a constant muse to Dylan that only left him, truly, when he made shitty records. Except, of course, for his worst album (also from 1989) which he, ironically,  recorded with the Dead..  Not a Grateful Dead fan myself, I take great comfort in the fact that Deadheads and I will always have the shared knowledge that "Dylan And The Dead" is a shitty record and should never be mentioned again. 

If you need an explanation of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin", good luck trying to feed yourself. Dylan sounds equal parts pissed off and resigned on this record. The Four Horsemen quickly catching up in the rearview, Dylan finally has become the old bluesman he always claimed to be. "Together Through Life" has the air of old, dusty Chess records and booze and cigarettes and late night hootenannies and sex and life and death and sittin' on the beach, waiting for it all to go down while you lie there gettin'  brown. Reflection, in other words. And for the first time, I can start to see that we will one day not have a "Bob Dylan". That's a notion that I'm not ready to sink my teeth into. But it's there and Dylan is not willing to let me and you forget that. Another great album by the greatest of them all. 

Twenty years his junior, Mould's looking back, too. 

"Life And Times" is a primer for Mould's soon to be released autobiography. Full of Husker and Sugar retreads (I mean this in a good way) and visits to sex clubs and workin' the auto-tune like a older, grayer and gayer Kanye, Bob breaks no ground here and that don't matter. He may not be the artist I make him out to be , but he's the closest my generation's got to a Dylan. Westerberg's doodles on tape, Frank, Kim, Joey and Dave's cash strapped liaisons,  R.E.M.'s sucky sucks suck...Maybe Sonic Youth will redeem themselves. I can't even remember their last record. But, I've kept up with Mould through nine (9!) solo records and I keep coming back. They're not all fillet (hell, I didn't' even remember 2002's "Modulate until ten minutes ago), but he has been consistent. Dylan put out a whole lotta dreck in the '70's and '80's (anybody remember "Saved"?) and at least Mould has "saved" us (Ha! Get it?)  from that. "Life And Times" may not be the best of this years releases, but it's better than most and that's all I can ask. Together Through Life - A, Life And Times - B

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

If You Can't Be a Part of the Crowd, Be a Part of the Backlash: Susan Boyle

Look. I love reality television. I do. I watch a number of shows that I admit to, and a number of shows that I hide like a heroin habit. However, I do so knowing one simple fact: ain't nothin' real about it. At the very least, the observer effect states that being watched changes the behavior of the observed. This is why contestants on the Amazing Race check their lip gloss before wading through a vat of cow manure to find a marble. On the other end of the reality spectrum (or as I like to call it, Rock of Love-ism)people will do pretty much anything to be on television. Play football in the mud in bikinis, tattoo the name of a person they've never met on their bodies, and the list goes on. Not that I've. Ever. Watched. Rock of Love.

Anyway, it's all in good fun and in the name of entertainment, so we suspend our disbelief for an hour and watch voraciously. The supreme ruler of all reality television is the talent contest. In the United States, American Idol enthralls us with its wealth of talented kids with back stories that make us cry and root for them. Or you know, point and laugh. There are other shows, but this one is by far the most popular. In England, AI's Simon Cowell has created a number of televised talent competitions, one of them being Britain's Got Talent. The "talent" is more on the order of the old Gong Show than American Idol, with contestants performing all sorts of "talents" to move through the competition. There are of course singers as well,and that is where we come to Season Three and Ms. Susan Boyle.

In case you have been living under a rock, Susan Boyle is a frumpy 47 year old self proclaimed virgin who has always dreamed of being a singer. Her dream was thwarted because her invalid mother needed caring for, and so Susan long ago said goodbye to music and lived her life as a caretaker. Until now. In dramatic fashion, Boyle was trotted onto the stage to the agape mouths of judgmental audience members and pithy stoic judges only to open her mouth and sing a perfectly lovely version of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables. The audience awash in tears in regret of their dismissal of Boyle jumped to their feet and applauded. Mean old Simon Cowell burst into a smile heralding Boyle as the next pop sensation, while immediately locking her down to a recording contract with Syco Records, his Sony imprint. A story of great inspiration to all.

Except it isn't. Now understand, my problem with this isn't about Susan Boyle, really. While I am certainly "hatin'" as one of my friends put it, I'm not really hating on Boyle. The media, particularly in inspiration starved America, have jumped all over this story. Every media outlet from the legitimate news to the tabloids have reported Boyle's "never been kissed" story (which by the way, she quickly dismissed as being blown out of proportion. Hey, honey, YOU said it).They have discussed the hardship of her life taking care of her mother from the 90's until 2007. Most importantly, they just can't understand how such a global treasure could have been hidden from view for so long. I mean, EVEN SIMON COWELL'S legendary face of stone broke into a toothy grin as she was singing.

Except that every aspect of this story is contrived and carved for maximum drama. Was Susan Boyle a caretaker for her sick mother? Yes. Has she actually avoided being kissed for 47 years? No. Does she possess a better than average vocal talent? Yes. Is it so remarkable as to seem otherworldly? No. Was the audience legitimately surprised by that voice coming from that mouth? Probably. Was Simon Cowell? No. Because he auditioned her. No. Folks, she was picked to be on Britain's Got Talent because she is not pretty to look at. Accept it. Understand it. If this woman looked like Eliza Dushku, she would never have gotten a second glance for THIS PARTICULAR OUTLET. BGT is a freakshow, no more, no less. Hey, and if it gets the lady some fame, which she clearly wants, then good on her. But don't try and sell her to me as an inspiration. Because there is nothing inspiring about Simon Cowell going for maximum shock value in getting a dowdy middle aged woman with a partially fictitious backstory who happens to be able to sing. That, my friends, is television... and Simon Cowell is one of the best in the business at manipulating his audience. If you don't believe me, ask Taylor Hicks.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Mirror Speaks

So, look, I liked "Narrow Stairs". Loved it, in fact. I don't buy your cries of sell out, children. Those passionate screams for cred should be reserved for someone truly deserving, like, I don't know...Metallica...or Phillip Glass.

But as we all know, narrow stairs lead to open doors. So Death Cab is back with a new E.P. that basically consists of leftovers from "Narrow Stairs". Songs that fit in with their previous efforts. Not quite the shimmery pop sparkle of last year's L.P., these songs would have been out of place on that record but here sound like a cohesive batch of tunes to be enjoyed by old fans and new. 'Nuf said.

It is worth noting, I think, that I believe this record is the end of the first chapter of Death Cab's career. I have it on good authority that Ben Gibbard's secretly recording a new L.P. that will take him and the band in a very new, very radical direction.
Tentatively titled "How I Lost 30 lbs., Got Contacts And Married A Hot Actress" (kinda clunky, I know), Ben's new batch of songs reflect his inner thoughts on married life. Song titles like, "So, What Do You Want For Dinner?"," I've Got 'Lost' Piled 3 High On My DVR" and a twenty minute, mostly acoustic, Hank Williams-type recitation called "How Do I Talk Zooey And Her Sister Emily Into A Three Way (Thoughts While Mowing The Lawn)" show that Ben has (temporarily?) abandoned lonely single guy music with a more mature lonely married guy slant. Open Door E.P. - B+ My Fantasy Ben Gibbard L.P. - A-

Superchunk - Leaves In the Gutter E.P. 

It seems like yesterday, must have been the mid-nineties.

When we were younger, my brother and I would find some great record ("Jimmywine Majestic", "Slanted And Enchanted", "This Is Where The Strings Come In") and after a few spins an impromptu air guitar concert (this was your old man's "Guitar Hero", kids) would inevitably spark to life. My Ron Wood to his Keef. We never needed much money when we were young, this we could do for hours. Sweet, huh?

Well, I suppose it changes the story a bit to admit we were in our mid-twenties, living in a studio apartment and that these "shows" would usually take place at 2 a.m., often during the work week. With many, many empties serving as our loyal fans ("Thanks for coming out tonight, Miller High Life!"). Mr. Robinson (upstairs neighbor), an uninvited Charlie Watts whose "drum solos" were meant to motivate us to keep rockin' (okay, he meant "shut the hell up", whatever). Good times.

I mention all this because this week the "band" got back together. As with all reunions, someone couldn't make it. Scheduling conflicts, they said. My brother, living three hours away. Mr. Robinson, assumed dead.

This time 2 a.m. was 10 p.m. There were far less empties in attendance. The loud stereo speakers replaced with ear buds. The vinyl record, now an mp3.

When I tell you that listening to this new Superchunk record (their first in eight years, their best in fifteen) I was brought to tears, don't think less of me. I've got a great life. A woman who loves me and a roof over our heads. Can't get better if you tried. But something in that first track (the brilliant, yes, I'm prone to hyperbole, but brilliant never the less, "Learned To Surf") that transported me back to those simpler times. Late nights at the bar, hangovers at work. A time when bills were not a worry, layoffs not much of a problem, Recession, a word never said. This was an age when a seven inch single felt like it could save your life. And, if I'm honest with you, it did.

But times is tough all over. The economy is in the shitter. If you ain't lost your job yet, watch out. War is still waged. "Change" seems like it was a nice idea that never went anywhere (just like "Dollhouse"). And I can't think of any better reason to get a twelve pack, download "Leaves In The Gutter" (i-tunes has it for $3.99, Superchunk is recession proof!) and dust off "Stained And Lit". Along with the air guitar. Brother Brooks, get thy ass here. Leaves In The Gutter E.P. - A

Doves - Kingdom Of Rust

If Coldplay are a poor man's U2, what does that make Doves.

The Manchester foursome are back with "Kingdom Of Rust" and what began as a simple band making simple music has morphed into a simple band convinced they are a stadium act. There are some good tunes on this record, but they get muddled up in the production (John Leckie, I'm looking at you). The guitar "solos" (if that's what you want to call them, more like "the sound a tuneless guitar makes as it's dragged across gravel") are self indulgent and, frankly, embarrassing (oh god, I watch too much "Idol"). The lyrics are often silly and amateurish. And enough with the keyboards, already. I do like Jez Williams' voice, though. He reminds me of Mark Sandman a little. Which makes me sad, so I'm gonna go listen to Treat Her Right and cry.

And say what you will about Chris Martin and company, but they have elevated themselves in a way that Doves simply can not. Coldplay know how to steal from the right people. They would never be caught taking a stab at "re-visioning" the old Blondie chestnut "Rapture." Doves, here on "Compulsion", are guilty of that charge, too. As everyone knows, Coldplay only steal from the best. If Kate Bush doesn't get royalties for "Speed Of Sound" she needs to get a better lawyer.

But, maybe, the first sentence in this review is all wrong.

History of British Stadium Rock 101 clearly determines that Doves are to Coldplay who are to Radiohead who are to Oasis who are to the Stone Roses who are to the Smiths who are to...what? U2? I think not. The Smiths never played any stadiums, did they? And what about the Cure? That whole New Romantic thing my brother loved so much? Blur? And who came first anyway, Oasis or Radiohead? Are Radiohead even British? Human? Do we count "Pablo Honey" or start with "The Bends"? The whole theory is flawed. Fuck it. None of them wrote a song as good as "Waterfront". So let's start there. Simple Minds are to...

Kingdom of Rust - B-