Monday, December 20, 2010

Golden Earring - The Continuing Story Of Radar Love (MCA, 1989)

Though Golden Earring have amassed over three dozen hit singles in their native Netherlands, they are generally known for two classic-rock staples which charted nine years apart in America. 1973's "Radar Love" (#13 Billboard) might be the ultimate driving-to-see LovieHoneyBabyBunchesOfOats (a pet name for my ex-girlfriend) tune ever grooved to a long player. With thick bass lines, tasty guitar licks and powerful percussion (Blue Oyster Cult and the Alice Cooper Band trading "blows" in an Amsterdam rock club?), the illegal-to-own-in-Virginia detector helped spot the hidden police cruisers along the side streets of Lynnhaven Parkway during the song's many airings on 106.9 The Fox circa 1998-2003. My radar lover and '87 Chrysler New Yorker from those peak years are forever gone to a junkyard full of broken hearts and cracked engines, but new voices in my head will drive my heel and shift gears en route to potential lovelies in Timonium, MD, Windy City, IL and Ghent, VA. Their names aren't Brenda Lee, but I hope they come on strong. Reaching #10 on Billboard in 1982, "Twilight Zone" was a perfect fit for the days when video first killed the radio star. The choppy beats and instrumental midsection were rooted in rock, but the thump was suitable for dance floors at meat markets like Rogue's Gallery in Va. Beach. GE's answer to the Stones' "Miss You"? Maybe, baby. The video was acclaimed for being one of the first with a cinematic storyline, as band members filled the roles of a secret agent and his pursuers. Who can forget the scene of a playing card being sliced in two? Not me, Jack. If Red Rider's "Lunatic Fringe" owns 3 AM, then "Twilight Zone" rules the post-Lovie ride back home an hour later. Many folks in Tidewater have confused these two songs with one another. I blame then-FM99 WNOR DJ Liz Gillette for the mix-up. To my connection in Maryland: Please don't get tired of taking chances. Call me at 2 AM, unless all circuits are dead. If you tear a card in half, make sure it's not the Two of Hearts. Such severance would be the bullet that hits the bone between my chest.

Barry Hay (vocals/guitar/flute/saxophone), George Kooymans (guitar/vocals), Rinus Gerritsen (bass/keyboards) and Cesar Zuiderwijk (drums) have been the core of Golden Earring since 1970. As teenagers, Kooymans and Gerritsen founded the band in 1961 (!) -- when the group was called Golden Earrings and influenced by the pop stylings of the era. In 1968, the "S" was dropped, Hay took over as lead vocalist and the shift was made to a heavier rock sound. Bookended by the two U.S. hits, The Continuing Story Of Radar Love unfolds ten other chapters in GE's fascinating history. How come "Quiet Eyes" (1986) wasn't the band's third Top 20 single in the States? The black-and-white video features fuzzy televisions, spinning clocks, an appealing ticket-taker with eyeglasses and an ample bosom, clever "Soul Train" scramble board-style word alterations and a gang chorus dedicated to the tossin' 'n' turnin' one ("Quiet eyes, silent tears/Silent as the night you deserted me"). Unlike the clip's pajama-clad insomniac whose restless night seems like it's lasting seven years, those who would later purchase Pink Floyd's comeback effort totally missed the wake-up call of this mid-paced gem. Another momentary lapse of reason is why "She Flies On Strange Wings" (1971) isn't universally regarded as a riff-rock masterpiece. Kooyman's guitar wizardry brings to mind the meatier moments of BOC's catalog, while quieter tones emanate like a Waters/Gilmour dreamy soundscape. If the cover band you're in starts playing a different tune, send 'em on the hot rails to hell and seek GE's approval to glide on "...Strange Wings." Worthy of the glam-with-attitude poses struck by The Sweet and Slade, "Candy's Going Bad" (1973) has strong parental objections to a daughter's enjoyment of the wild nightlife ("Daddy said, 'I'll break your bones'/If you come home dressed in peacock clothes/Mother said,'Quit the show'/She didn't want the neighbors to know"). Alas, Candy finds a pimp named Ted and turns tricks for pearls. Keeping it sleazy, Alice Cooper would've given GE the heads of eighteen boa constrictors and bubble shafts in exchange for the weighty strap of "Leather" (1978). Free of the WTF experimentation AC was mired in at the time, the cut is a flatline rocker offering a no-holds-barred look into the S & M subculture ("Sharper than a razor/She hurts me with a laser beam/Burnin' leather keeps her tougher/She stole my dignity"). 1974's "Kill Me (Ce Soir)" is another tale The Coop wishes he had told on his own wax. It might be "too much risk for a golden disc," but musicians will forever take a shot -- even if it means getting shot ("Vick played the part/With all his heart/He wasn't prepared for the shock/When howling lead/Bit into his head/A new martyr for the book of rock").

If your book of rock doesn't mention Golden Earring, the story isn't worth continuing.

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Cavedogs - Joyrides For Shut-Ins (Enigma, 1990)

Often overlooked in a Boston scene that produced such notables as the Pixies, Lemonheads and Throwing Muses, The Cavedogs concocted a plot of playful revenge via the title track from the Tayter Country EP. Brian Stevens (bass/vocals) and Todd Spahr (guitar/vocals) took notice of a Tayters (a brand of regional potato chips) truck that drove by their 9-to-5 each morning. The pair regarded typical Boston show goers as "cold and cliquish," so they began calling the folded-armed masses "Tayters." Mark Rivers (drums/vocals) assisted in the putdowns of jaded scenesters. Spahr's lyrics were in attack mode ("The volume drones to a hundred black/We'll play 'The End' and then give it back/To the comfy light of tradition/'Cause when the shroud is removed from you/The cutting edge becomes petting zoo"), but the catchy '60s pop-meets-'90s modern rock approach gained enough white-flag wavers to make "Tayter Country" the band's first local hit. The irony wasn't lost on The Cavedogs, but they couldn't resist a parting shot (paraphrasing): "Besides, the only words they could understand were, '...with a machine gun'". Lightheartedness also came in the form of a comedy troupe who regularly performed before AND during the band's sets, as well as the trio's penchant for offbeat covers like "What's New, Pussycat?" and "I Melt With You" done 'Doggy-style.

Don't be fooled by the jesting, though. All three members possess a knack for sharp songwriting, a gift for harmonies and an emphasis on powerful arrangements. Todd Spahr's "Tayter Country" is wisely reprised on Joyrides For Shut-Ins, and its Who-cum-Smithereens stance leads off the album like a four-bagger over the Green Monster. Another at-bat, "La La La," finds Spahr pulling a fastball in the direction of himself and his teammates ("We're just three white rich kids bitching 'bout the world/We think we've got problems, but we ain't got problems"). Think Paul Westerberg playing pepper with Paul Weller at Target Field. Main Spahr-ing partner Brian Stevens (AKA "The Lennon Guy") throws his strongest jab on "Leave Me Alone" ("Pointed speech just flows right through my head/Leaving me with wounds from what you said/There is one thing I can plainly see/A hundred faces making fun of me"). If Julian Lennon had traded blows with Ken Stringfellow, perhaps they would've turned in a classic Hagler/Hearns-esque round like this one. Collaborative efforts between Spahr and Stevens yield a couple of ripe fruits. "Proud Land" is a Beatles/XTC juice mix flavored with equal amounts of sweetness and cynicism ("On any nameless street/The clothes are on the line/The dogwood's blooming/And the paper's right on time"). "Taking Up Space" fills the basket with insomnia brought upon by worriment ("Sally doesn't sleep a lot at night/Sometimes she wishes she could/But the preparation must begin with the light/To look is to be good"). An A-1 drum roll is found at the core of this tasty apple. Speaking of which, add Mark Rivers' name to the list of folks whose talents aren't strictly confined behind a snare and cymbals. Though Rivers propels The Cavedogs' backbeat with the ferocity of Keith Moon/Bun E. Carlos, he has bandleader ambitions a la Grant Hart/Dave Grohl. The betrayal in "Bed Of Nails" ("Could you stand to watch me crawl?/Would you move to help me?/Turn your back or break my fall/Save my name or sell me") and finality of "What In The World?" ("And so you're back to your guns, but now they're pointed at you/And your shot in the dark hit what you listened to/What was critically done was not so easily said/And with your feet in the mud, they moved on") prove that Rivers is worthy of holding the baton.

Even if you're not a recluse, take a joyride in a Tayters truck today.

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

American Heartbreak- Postcards from Hell (Coldfront Records, 2000)

I have often lamented that I was born ten years too late, and didn’t have the chance to be a teenager when they still played good music on the radio. It would have been so awesome to have gone to high school in the late ‘70s – when youth culture meant rock concerts in hockey arenas and vinyl records on the turntable and posters of KISS and Cheap Trick on your bedroom wall. It seems almost unfathomable now, but there was a time when having a hit single was a positive accomplishment, when appealing to a mass audience meant that you wrote great songs with melodies and hooks, when rock music was actually fun to listen to. Perhaps my high school years co-incided with the tail end of that era (Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses were rock royalty at the time). But by my college days, the party was over – as the angst, self-loathing, and heavy seriousness of grunge became the new model for youth rock. Things only got worse as the decade continued – the rise of “nu metal” meaning that FM rock was becoming not only even more of a major downer, but also intentionally devoid of melody. Catchy choruses were out. Harmonies were out. Screaming anguish and “edgy” sounds were in. It was around this time that American Heartbreak delivered one of the greatest pop-rock albums this world has ever known. Needless to say, it was not well-received by the public.

I would describe Postcards from Hell as an album packed with potential hit singles – if it had been released in 1978. Formed by Billy Rowe (late of the outstanding glam metal band Jetboy) and Michael Butler (formerly of thrash legends Exodus), American Heartbreak began its quest to save music from awfulness back in 1996. Rowe and Butler, deciding it would be fun to play the “good catchy rock n’ roll” style they grew up on, set out to emulate old favorites both obscure (Starz, Angel) and iconic (Aerosmith, AC/DC). It may have not seemed like a novel concept. But in the era of Korn and Rage Against the Machine, the idea of American Heartbreak was truly heaven sent. Lance Boone was recruited to sing, and the band was off and running. An EP called What You Deserve arrived in early 1997, and a couple years later AH really hit its stride with the great “Please Kill Me” single on the punk label Pelado. Finally in 2000 came a proper album. To say Postcards from Hell did not disappoint would be like saying the 2010 Giants had a pretty good baseball season.

The album plays like a greatest hits compilation from some long-lost ‘70s rock group who might have filled an opening slot on a mythical KISS/Cheap Trick concert tour, but with a clean modern production redolent of, say, early Goo Goo Dolls or Foo Fighters. There are no ballads, no synthesizers, and no experimentations with musical style. From start to finish it’s just high-powered, super-melodic rock fueled by Ginsu-sharp hooks and a massive wall of guitars. Just when you think you’ve heard “the hit”, immediately comes another song just as good. You hear tracks like “Superstar”, “Too Beautiful”, “Brain Vacation”, and “Idiots On Parade” and have to gather that if these songs weren’t massive hit singles, then surely the world must have gone insane. You’d be right – just look at the units being shifted at the time by Creed and Limp Bizkit. Sometime, at some point during the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, good taste at the mass level simply died. This was the beauty of a record like Postcards from Hell. The most anti-commercial thing to do in the year 2000 was to make the greatest commercial rock album in the history of time. It wasn’t about money or fame. It was about craft. Rowe and his band mates carefully and meticulously constructed an album’s worth of completely perfect pop songs – each one containing a chorus catchier than the clap, melodies made for the radio, and glossy, glorious guitar hooks out the wazoo. Boone, singing for the first time in a “big” band, proved to be a natural rock singer - hitting all the notes while bringing bona fide rock star swagger.

It was tempting to hear Postcards from Hell and fantasize about a rock n’ roll revolution – that somehow this album and these songs would get out there and people would suddenly like good music again, that through the healing power of song American Heartbreak would bring joy to the despondent masses and obliterate all the raging nu metalists as swiftly and decisively as Nirvana had wiped away a generation of hair metal bands. It was tempting to imagine American Heartbreak in heavy rotation on MTV (Yes, they used to play music videos on that network), children dancing in the streets to “Dead at Seventeen”, the group playing “I Wish You Were (D.E.A.D.)” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and fans lining up blocks at a time for tickets to the AH/Tsar Super Hit Parade Worldwide Domination Tour. But here we are ten years later. Postcards from Hell is long out of print, and they still don’t play good music on rock radio. American Heartbreak’s debut album did not change the very face of the world. But it damn well should have. I tend to be less prone to hyperbole in my old age, but I’ll conservatively call Postcards from Hell a classic of its genre.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stiv Bators- Disconnected (Bomp! Records, 1980)

Of all the first wave punk stars, Stiv Bators may have been the most successful in transitioning to new styles of music. God bless Joe Strummer and his artistic integrity, but did the guy ever make a solo album that you’d actually want to listen to? Mick Jones owes the world an apology for Big Audio Dynamite II. Johnny Rotten went the dreaded “avant garde” route post Sex Pistols. And Joey Ramone managed such an enduring and listenable musical legacy precisely because he never stopped being Joey Ramone. But Stiv Bators, in a relatively short period of time, built upon the greatness of his punk output with a varied and uniformly excellent body of musical works. For a couple of singles he reinvented himself as a punk rock Eric Carmen, issuing two of the greatest power pop sides in the history of the genre. Later with the outstanding Lords of the New Church, he’d write the book on how to fuse the glam and goth rock genres. Even Bators’s weird conspiracy theory heavy concept super-group project The Wanderers came through with a fine, sadly overlooked LP. And for the best of all worlds, one only needs to turn to Stiv’s one-and-only proper solo album – a somewhat forgotten classic of its period.

After the Dead Boys disbanded in 1979, Bators set out to forge a new path for himself as a recording artist. Seeking mainstream respectability and at least partially hoping to distance himself from his reputation as a vile punk howler, the Ohio native found inspiration from Cleveland greats The Choir and their later incarnation, The Raspberries. Bators wanted to emulate those bands’ power pop stylings and infuse them with the guts and hard edge of punk rock. It was a brilliant idea - and Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records took notice. Bators’s debut single, a cover of The Choir’s “It’s Cold Outside”, was released on Bomp! in May 1979. His second, “Not That Way Anymore”, followed in January 1980. Disconnected arrived later in the year and added plenty of new elements to the solo Stiv motif.

Working with a first-rate backing band (Frank Secich from Blue Ash on bass, George Cabaniss from Akron punk greats Hammer Damage on guitar, and David Quinton-Steinberg from Canadian pop/punk stalwarts The Mods on drums) and a soon-to-be-legendary producer (Thom Wilson, who’d later record such genre standards as TSOL’s Dance with Me, Social Distortion’s Mommy’s Little Monster, and the Adolescents’ blue album), Bators had everything going for him. It’s no surprise, then, that Disconnected is everything it should be: a step beyond punk rock that shows growth but retains the Essence of Stiv. The should-have-been-a-hit “Evil Boy” is a carryover from Bators’s power pop phase but plays on his bad boy punk image. “Make Up Your Mind” is in the same vein but without the irony- it’s Stiv’s true teen heartthrob moment. “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” , a highly dramatic Electric Prunes cover, is one of several tracks that draw from the ‘60s garage rock sounds Bators so loved as a teen. “A Million Miles Away” and “The Last Year” (originally the B-side to “It’s Cold Outside”) aren’t just great pop tunes with memorable choruses. They’re beautifully performed slices of melancholia that show off Bators’s thoughtful, tender side. There are moments when the old Stiv rears his lovely head (the cheerfully perverted “Ready Anytime”), but Disconnected is generally kind of dark and introspective – in a lot of ways foreshadowing the dense gloom of the Lords of the New Church. Although he was never going to be confused for a technically “good” singer, Bators had great heart and sang with real feeling. On Disconnected’s moodier, more downbeat songs, he conveys heartache and despair without affectation. Elsewhere he’s just good old Stiv- rough around the edges, and surely up to no good, yet such a charismatic stylist that you just have to love him.

I can honestly recommend all of Stiv Bators’s post Dead Boys recordings, and perhaps the most mandatory purchase is Bomp!’s wonderful L.A. Confidential compilation (if only for those brilliant early singles). But as a whole, Disconnected is the best thing the man did in the 1980s. It’s a pleasing updating on garage rock and the classic sounds of the ‘60s, done up in Stiv’s unique style. It’s punky enough to appeal to fans of the Dead Boys, but with a gloomy undercurrent for those who’d rather listen to the Lords of the New Church. It seems strange to say this about a guy who’s an absolute legend in the punk world, but I think sometimes people forget how freaking talented Stiv Bators was. Consider Disconnected Exhibit A.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dimestore Haloes- Thrill City Crime Control (V.M.L. Records, 1997)

I won’t argue that Thrill City Crime Control is the greatest Dimestore Haloes album, or even that it’s the best place to start if you’re a Haloes newbie. I certainly won’t contend that it was the best or second-best punk album of its year (for the record, The Donnas and The Infections). But if Dirty Sheets is about albums that mean something to us, that have had special places in our lives, I was bound to write about TCCC sooner or later.

No one, a hundred or even twenty years from now, is going to mistake 1996 for 1977. But to those of us who were too absorbed in cartoons and Star Wars figures to even know that popular music existed in ’77, to those of us who were, as the Haloes put it, born too late, the mid-‘90s rebirth of classic punk rock was pretty fucking cool. Unlike the mass media appointed phony “punk revival” of two years prior, the old school punk renaissance circa ’96 was totally legit and totally grass roots. I was hooked in 1995 after buying a Spent Idols 7” I saw reviewed in Maximum Rocknroll. I was immediately intrigued when I first read about a band called the Dimestore Haloes in a zine put out by the lead singer of the Spent Idols. When, a year later, a local band called The Prostitutes had their first 7” released on a label based the whole way out in Costa Mesa, California, I knew something cool was starting to happen. And what did you know: that label, Pelado Records, soon put out a split single featuring…the Dimestore Haloes! It was all coming together. While I still dig the garage punk and Ramones-core that were all the rage in the mid-‘90s, there was something special about the likes of the Haloes, Prostitutes, Spent Idols, Bladder Bladder Bladder, and U.S. Bombs – groups that were flat-out ignoring the past two decades of musical “progress” and just playing punk music as if the calendar had never turned past 1977. It was an exciting time to be into underground punk – especially as nu metal and boy bands were leading commercial music right over the cliff.

If ’95-’96 was the ground zero point for the ’77 punk revival, then ’97 was the year it really hit its stride. The Prostitutes, U.S. Bombs, and Humpers all put out terrific albums. Pelado seemed to release a new 7” every week. And the Haloes, who had shown great promise on their first two singles, delivered a debut LP that did not disappoint. With clear nods to The Clash, Johnny Thunders, and the Rolling Stones, the Boston foursome came out swinging on up-tempo numbers “Cheap Red Wine God” and “Twentysomething Bad”, quickly introducing the world to their unique brand of sloppy punk n’roll. Singer/guitarist Chaz Matthews came on with classically snarling punk vocals but a lyrical bent in the tradition of Beat literature. Rarely has a band charged out of the gates with a mission statement as memorable and enthralling as “Cheap Red Wine God”’s opening verse:

I got a pale wasted white Keith Richards complexion
You don’t get this pretty through clean living, son
I got a guitar and a girl who’ve seen better days
The only exercise I ever get is the shakes
But I bob like life in a silent movie
I grease my hair, slip into something that moves me
If death is the inevitable end of this film
Then I’ll look so flash while I’m rotting within

Makes you want to listen to the rest of the album, doesn’t it?! Even if one of those lines was ripped verbatim from one Paul Westerberg, it’s still some freaking ferocious poetry! And from “Twentysomething Bad”, how about this brilliantly-succinct analysis of American culture circa 1996:

TV never taught me anything
Except how to change the channel or the clothes I’m wearing
High school never taught me anything
Except now the in-crowd carries guns
America eats its young

Bullseye! If there was one thing about the early Haloes that always made an impression, it was that lyrical boldness. In an age in which Joe Strummer’s line about “turning rebellion into money” had been fully fulfilled in the form of a corporate “alternative” music scene and youth apathy had risen to a cultural ideal, songs like “Twentysomething Bad”, “Hate My Generation”, and “Adrenaline” couldn’t have been any more socially relevant. And although Thrill City Crime Control as a whole isn’t really a “political” record, clearly here was a band that had at least something to say. While many punk n’ roll bands of the time were far more likely to wax poetic on beer, pussy, and how much they “rawked”, the Haloes recalled a time when punk music brought ideas to the table.

If the punkiest songs on the album (“Sickness”, “Hate My Generation”, “Twentysomething Bad”, “Heartbreak Gin”) all suggest what LAMF might have sounded like if Johnny Thunders had traded in his heroin for pep pills and gone into the studio with a severe head cold, that’s not exactly a bad thing. Moreoever, TCCC is not without its pleasant surprises – a lovingly rendered cover of “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the soulful Stonesy ballad “Wingtip Blues”, and the deliberately-paced “Adrenaline” with its hints at the refined pop prowess of the Haloes’ later work. Listening to the best of the Haloes’ recordings, like 2005’s Ghosts of Saturday Night or the criminally underrated EP Long Ride to Nowhere, you hear the full realization of what the band was already shooting for on TCCC. Those irresistable lead guitar hooks, that punked-up take on ‘50s rock n’ roll, those anthemic choruses…It’s all there, just in a rawer form. Some of the band’s later incarnations may have been more “technically” proficient; but Matthews on guitar and vocals, Lorne Behrman on guitar, Marcus Arvan on bass, and the late Jimmy Reject on drums will always constitute the “classic” Haloes lineup in my mind. There was just something incredibly cool about getting this album and digging the band look (like a time machine collision between Ziggy Stardust and James Dean), the provocative lyrics, and the retro-sharp pink-and-black color scheme of the artwork. I’m not saying they were as good, but these guys were for me what The Clash and Sex Pistols had been for my older punk rock friends. From the instant I first played Thrill City to the moment they broke up, they were my band.

The heyday of old style punk revivalism would last a couple more years at least (Remember the Dead End Cruisers? Libertine? The Chemo Kids?). There may have been even better albums yet to come, and there were always new bands to love. But Thrill City Crime Control was always the one album that best epitomized the music scene that made my late 20s tolerable.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

AC/DC - Let There Be Rock (Atlantic, 1977)

Any album that begins with a song about oral sex and ends with a tune about banging a plus-sized woman is bound to be great. The only question is the degree of greatness. And if AC/DC is the second-greatest rock n’ roll band of all-time and Let There Be Rock is their best album, we’re talking a very high degree.

Let There Be Rock may not be the most popular or obvious choice for greatest AC/DC album, but it’s been my #1 for years. Yeah, sure: Back in Black is an incredible record. But with all due respect to Brian Johnson (a hall of fame singer in his own right), Bon Scott era AC/DC is where it’s at! All six Bon-era studio albums are gold standard classics in my book, so picking just one out of the lot becomes a matter of personal preference. I go with Let There Be Rock - probably the band’s bluesiest LP, yet also one of its heaviest. AC/DC, in its heyday, was like Chuck Berry on amphetamines; and that vibe is more pronounced on Let There Be Rock than it is on any of the band’s other albums. And for those of you who are guitarists – try and tell me this album doesn’t have some of the greatest rock n’ roll guitar playing you’ve heard in your life! Praise God! Praise Angus!

In contrast to commercially streamlined, Mutt Lange-produced albums like Highway to Hell and Back in Black, the earlier Vanda & Young produced AC/DC albums are rawer, looser affairs retaining a “bar band” feel. Let There Be Rock typifies that feel. It’s a rock n’ roll record, and it sounds like it. It’s all energy and power and sexed-up swagger, well-produced but not over-polished. It plays to the band’s strengths: Scott’s amazing raspy vocals, Angus Young’s wildfire guitar leads, and a rock-solid rhythm section that never got enough credit. While the likes of Cream and Led Zeppelin imitated the blues, AC/DC truly had the blues in their hearts and their souls. If you want to hear the true spirit of rhythm and blues seamlessly integrated into hard rock music, head straight to Let There Be Rock. I don’t know if it was something in the water, or in the air, or in its unique cultural heritage, but 1970s Australia produced some of the hottest and most authentic rock n’ roll the world’s ever known. And at the head of the class was AC/DC. Let There Be Rock, the band’s last album with an all-Aussie lineup, doesn’t re-invent rock n’ roll. But it damn well perfects it.

Working mostly a raunchy mid-tempo groove, Let There Be Rock kicks off with a monster guitar riff on “Go Down” and never looks back. The late, great Scott never sounded better – his delivery depraved and libidinous, yet soulful to the core and utterly lovable. The songs are simply constructed, yet perfect in every way. The Young brothers are on fire – Malcolm banging out riffs that shake your bones; Angus soloing with such fury that it seems your stereo speakers may shred. But Scott’s clearly the star of the show, wailing away with a blend of confidence and dynamism that only Iggy and Jagger have ever been able to match. He lends muscle to underrated rockers like “Dog Eat Dog” and “Bad Boy Boogie” but still comes across with convincing tenderness on the bluesy love song “Overdose”. And he totally kills it on the album’s two classic songs – the epic title track and the barnburner finale “Whole Lotta Rosie”. And although five of the album’s eight tracks clock in at longer than five minutes, the songs don’t seem long. “Let There Be Rock” and “Whole Lotta Rosie” are musical equivalents to The Godfather – so delightful and action-packed that you’re left wanting more in spite of their length.

The ultimate value of any rock n’ roll record cannot be quantified or even adequately conveyed by the written word. There’s no real way to analyze the greatness of Let There Be Rock. All I know is that whenever I put it on, my day becomes more awesome. I find myself immediately launching into air guitar outbursts of the craziest order. I sing along at the top of my lungs. Routine activities like walking to a shelf to put away books become opportunities to dance and jump around. What’s that? Unemployment is only getting worse, America is trillions of dollars in debt, a terror attack is imminent, Iran’s got the bomb, and if the world doesn’t end in 2012, there will at least be another Great Depression? So what! The music’s loud, and I love it!

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, October 22, 2010

Boris the Sprinkler - 8 Testicled Pogo Machine (Bulge Records, 1994)

Fusing class of ’77 three-chord pogo with elements of standup comedy, geek pride, fast-talking disc jockey spiel, Meatmen-style joke thrash, fervent Green Bay Packers fandom, and ‘90s pop-punk, Boris the Sprinkler were beloved in their day but never as critically respected as they should have been. At best, Boris is remembered as a “vehicle” for the great fanzine columnist “Rev.” Norb Rozek. At worst, the group gets written off as a lightweight novelty act good for a few laughs but ultimately lacking any recorded output of enduring value. I would strongly argue that both takes on the Boris legacy are off base. Perhaps you haven’t put on 8 Testicled Pogo Machine and given it a listen in say, 15 years. But if you did, you’d be pleasantly surprised by how much the thing rocks. I told you Boris ruled in 1995, and I’m still telling you Boris rules in 2010!

Ignore for a moment the outrageous live shows that were something in between performance art and improv night at the comedy club. Ignore for a moment the irreverence, absurdity, and outright wackiness of Rev. Norb’s lyrics. Ignore for a moment the antler helmet, the assorted spoken word intros, and the covering of the Circle Jerks’ Group Sex in its entirety. What do you have left with Boris the Sprinkler? Some of the best poppy punk rock of its time – chock full of hooks and bristling with Energizer bunny vivacity. One just needs to take a look at the bands Boris covered – Undertones, Rezillos, Generation X – to understand where Green Bay’s finest was coming from. And like all good “modern” punk bands, Boris came at the melodic side of ’77 punk from its own angle. In this case, we’re talking the angle at which the band members were repeatedly dropped on their heads as small children. But behind all of the glorious stupidity and goofball frivolity and demented d.j. vocals were honest-to-goodness killer tunes.

Album opener “Drugs and Masturbation”, based on song title alone, is testament to the genius of its creators. But it’s not just a great idea – it’s one of the true CLASSIC punk tracks of the mid-‘90s. Imagine if the Dickies had taken on Tesco Vee as lead singer, gotten hopped up on SweetTarts and Wisconsin cheese, and found themselves locked in a room for hours on end with the first Devo album spinning non-stop. It’s zany for sure, but catchy as all get-out and supremely pogo-licious – buoyed by a sing-along chorus that would do Sham 69 proud. And once you’ve paid homage to the two pastimes that sustained the typical punk kid in 1995, where do you go from there? You move on to the refined, more “adult” punk rocker rites of passage, like pursuing underage girls (“One-Three”), obsessing over comic books (“Hey Professor Flutesnoot”), and rejecting the only female who’ll have you (“Get Out of My Life”). Throw in numerous references to fast food joints, super heroes, TV characters, and classic punk bands, and you’ve got yourself a party! But while the hilarity factor and bad taste quotient are admirably pushed to the brink, this is far from a comedy album. It kicks serious ass, and many of these tunes (e.g. “Gimme Gimme Grape Juice”, “She’s Got a Lighter”) are among the most iconic of all Boris numbers.

One could argue that the signature Boris sound is best exhibited on the group’s second album Saucer to Saturn, but there’s something highly enjoyable about how all-over-the-place 8 Testicled Pogo Machine is. Styles as disparate as power pop (“The Way It Is”), Johnny Thunders-on-amphetamines punk n’ roll (“West of the East”), warp-speed hardcore (“Drunk”), and straight-up pop-punk (“Girls Like U”) are mixed without rhyme or reason – not to mention the full-on weirdness of seeming throwaways like “Anarchy Bob at the Mayo Clinic” and “Hail Potsylvania”. Say what you want about this disc, but you sure as hell can’t call it “formulaic”. And even if you’re sure to program out a few of the, uh, odder tracks, there’s still enough Grade-A material here to match the best efforts of other cherished mid-‘90s pop-punk acts such as Parasites, The Vindictives, and Sloppy Seconds. If I could pull out just one album to remind me why pop-punk circa ’95-’96 was king, I’d probably reach for The Queers’ Don’t Back Down. But my second selection, without a doubt, would be 8 Testicled Pogo Machine. It rules as much in the era of Aaron Rodgers as it did in the heyday of Brett Favre.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Candy- Whatever Happened to Fun...(Mercury, 1985)

Whatever Happened to Fun… is hands down one of the 25 greatest pop albums ever issued – right up there with the best of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Big Star, Badfinger, and whoever else is considered definitively “pop”. Yet it never makes anyone’s power pop best-of list – probably because even if you are one of the 12 people who’ve actually heard the record, you might not be sure that “power pop” is quite the right category for this late, great band. Well, it is, actually, but still somehow Candy seems out of place in power pop discussions – their image pure Sunset Strip hair metal and their Raspberries fixation at least five years out of date in the heart of the Reagan Era. If you were a self-respecting headbanger in 1985 and somehow found a copy of Whatever Happened to Fun… in your possession, you would surely have laughed it off as wussy AM radio fluff unsuitable for even your little sister. If you were a power pop fan in 1985, you probably had one look at the LP cover, took Candy for a second-rate W.A.S.P., and moved up the record rack in hopes that Paul Collins had just come out with a new solo album. Is it any wonder that Whatever Happened to Fun… tanked so severely that today there exists almost zero evidence that the album was ever released? I generally try to shy away from writing about records that are nearly impossible to obtain, but I have to make an exception for Candy. Whatever Happened to Fun… really is that good. And I can say with complete confidence that should you go to the farthest extremes (i.e. selling an internal organ, hitchhiking across the continent, breaking open your kid’s piggy bank, or prostituting yourself to a toe fetishist) to acquire it, you will not be disappointed.

Historians sometimes remember Candy as a “hair band”. But with Wally Bryson credited as musical director and Raspberries’ hit-maker Jimmy “Teeth” Ienner producing, Whatever Happened to Fun… was hardly going to be confused for the new Motley Crue record. Candy, for all their revivalist power pop and glam leanings, somehow fashioned a sound that was not-at-all stuck in the ‘70s. In fact, Whatever Happened to Fun… sounds so very 1985 that I feel like I’m 14 again every time I hear it. There’s something about this record that encapsulates how it felt to be young in the early-to-mid-‘80s. It’s got the innocent, bittersweet tenor of an ‘80s teen movie – oozing an adolescent melodrama that’s endearing and even a little inspiring. It’s hard to hear “Weekend Boy” or “Kids in the City” and not imagine the sort of youth who was supposed to buy the record – a wide-eyed teen, misunderstood at school, misunderstood at home, his hair big, his dreams even bigger, in love with some girl he could never have, riding in a car with his friends on a Friday night, the top down, the stereo cranked up loud, and life’s possibilities seemingly endless. “First Time” may not have played over the closing credits of some long-lost John Cusack teen comedy, but it sure as hell could have. It also could have been the prom theme at any American high school in the spring of ’86 had Candy’s promotion been better. Singer Kyle Vincent, who would go on in later years to become Barry Manilow’s favorite recording artist, briefly serve as lead singer of the Bay City Rollers, and be labeled by Goldmine as the “crown prince of soft pop”, wasn’t exactly Bret Michaels. His plaintive touch on vocals gives Whatever Happened to Fun… its heart and soul, while Gilby Clarke (later of Guns N’ Roses fame) imbues the band’s bubblegum hooks with just enough guitar punch to merit Candy its borderline association with L.A. metal. The melodies, penned by future Electric Angel Jonathan Daniel, are nothing short of magnificent.

It’s kind of a cliché to say that an album sounds like a greatest hits compilation, but sometimes the cliché is true. Whatever Happened to Fun… was Candy’s first and only album. And if the band had to be short-lived, at least it managed to pack a career’s worth of should-have-been hits into its sole issue. Silly filler (“Turn It Up Loud”) and over-reaching stabs at epics (“Last Radio Show”) aside, it’s pretty much wall to wall smashes here. Melodies and harmonies prevail, and the massive hooks never stop. And if the world, in 1985, didn’t quite know what to make of the band’s Sweet meets Bay City Rollers meets Rick Springfield on the Sunset Strip aesthetic, clearly some people were listening. You just can’t deny Candy’s influence on the bubblegum glam sub-scene of late ‘90s punk rock, when bands like American Heartbreak and the Beat Angels (produced by Gilby Clarke!) ruled the school. Today, the very question “Whatever happened to fun?” seems far more appropriate than it did in 1985. Given the prevailing themes of angst, self-loathing, family dysfunction, and rage that have dominated “serious” rock since that dreaded year 1991, the “problems” chronicled in yesteryear’s adolescent anthems may now seem laughable. Yet even in this age when the taste envelope is constantly pushed and teenage sex is as casual and emotionally insignificant as buying a pack of gum, falling in love and coming of age are still themes that resonate with a massive audience. It’s why Taylor Swift has sold a gazillion records, and it’s why Candy’s music has held up so well. And even if the trials and tribulations of the likes of John Bender, Lane Meyer, and Stefen Djordjevic seem a little hokey today, we still watch their movies and love every minute. If the musical tastes of John Hughes had been a little more mass appealing and a lot less rich kid faux alternative, Candy surely could have had a song in one of his movies. Fuck Simple Minds! “American Kix” would have been a great closing song for The Breakfast Club.

-Josh Rutledge

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Godfathers - More Songs About Love And Hate (Epic, 1989)

Nobody would ever mistake my knowledge of movies with Rex Reed's. I might pretend to know a thing or three about obscure musical artists, but many films that are cherished by numerous friends have never been part of my Blockbuster Nights. For some odd reason, there is a multitude of "G"-string movies missing from the "Seen It!" checklist. It is beyond senseless that "Ghostbusters" has gone unwatched. I like Bill Murray. "What About Bob?" is one of my all-time favorites. Seeing "Bob" take "baby steps" to track down "DR. LEO MARVIN?!?!?" is always the right prescription for laughter. I like Sigourney Weaver. She made shaved-headed chicks sexy with the "Alien" role, and her type-A character in "Working Girl" was the stuff of many dreams. If I had been Tess (Melanie Griffith), I would've served SW more than just coffee! I like Ray Parker Jr. His way with the ladies in the video for "A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)" turned Billy Dee Williams and Colt 45 into Steve Urkel and Nestle's Quik. "Gone With The Wind"? Frankly, Ted Turner, I don't give a damn! Recently, I was asked by one Mr. Eric Thornton to name my favorite scene in "Grease." "The one where John Travolta does his thing," I replied. What's with all the love for "The Goonies" lately? Last week, there was a free screening of the film in the parking lot of Chesapeake Square Mall. Also, the Target inside said shopping center had a themed T-shirt next to a preferred Yoo-hoo rag. I'm sure the young lads' search for treasure is a fine tale, but I can't get past the Cyndi Lauper connection. The only positive thing I have to say about the woman is that she made shopping for clothes at thrift stores acceptable. Somewhere in the world, there exists a man in the twilight of his life who has never heard The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Well, push my wheelchair alongside Wilbur's, for I have yet to give "The Godfather" a private viewing. Ridiculous, huh? Once again, I've enjoyed the work of several of the movie's stars. Al Pacino is a man whose photograph might be included next to the definition of "actor" in the latest Webster's. Turtlenecks and all, Diane Keaton has brought a free-spirited attitude to many fine performances over the years. Robert Duvall was excellent in "Tender Mercies" and "Crazy Heart." I haven't necessarily refused the offer to watch what's considered the best picture in history, but at least I got into the band named for the epic some twenty years ago. You can't take that cannoli away from me.

Brothers Peter (vocals) and Chris (bass) Coyne had their directorial debut as keynote members of the Sid Presley Experience. With an overdose of pub-meets-punk panache from the '70s glory days, "Jealousy" was recorded for a Peel Session in 1984. Cross the cool of vintage Eddie And The Hot Rods, the bite of The Damned's classic lineup and the bark of Roxy-era Slaughter And The Dogs. The result? One of the decade's finest unknown tracks. Two years later, the Coynes formed The Godfathers amidst the fog of their London home. Released on Link Records, Hit By Hit struck with unobstructed views of greed ("I Want Everything" begs like Ian McCulloch wanting change for a Bugs Bunny lithograph), poverty ("This Damn Nation" scrapes by with an absolutely sick guitar effect from Kris Dollimore) and depression ("Lonely Man" has a bouncy beat belying its frowning face). 1988 saw a move to Epic and the greatest success for The Godfathers in America. Peaking at #38 on Billboard, Birth, School, Work, Death benefited from extensive airplay on college radio and the presence of videos on specialty shows a la MTV's "120 Minutes." The band's lyrical edge remained as sharp as a Ginsu. Check out this slice from the title track ("I cut myself, but I don't bleed/'Cause I don't get what I need"). Here's a boast from "'Cause I Said So" ("Every day's a thrill when you're living with me/Don't read Baudelaire's poetry/And I don't need no P.H.D./'Cause I'm ten times smarter than you'll ever be"). After those lines, 'Fathers, I'm kissing your rings!

It's been said that the third "Godfather" movie pales in comparison with the two masterpieces. Fortunately for the Coyne boys, More Songs About Love And Hate is their strongest slab in a well-muscled catalog. "Walking Talking Johnny Cash Blues" speed-freaks its way back to the days of Dr. Feelgood and the Count Bishops blowing thru pub-rock pitchers on the set of "Old Grey Whistle Test." Dressed to the nines in black like his hero, our man has 50,000 questions for a lady named Marie. With her behavioral pattern in "She Gives Me Love," however, perhaps it's best not to interrogate ("She never takes my money/But she always steals my time/ She's the kind of girl that if you gave her the world/She'd say it wasn't worth a dime"). Echoes of The Beatles' sunny voices on "Halfway Paralysed" do little to alter Marie's cheerless disposition ("You serve to bring me down/And follow me around/It's such a crying shame/To see you play your game"). "I'm Lost And Then I'm Found" dumps the ashes from Rolling Stones ashtrays onto contemplative curb sides ("Everybody's giving me the third degree/Don't know when I'm up or down/Cigarettes and women be the death of me/Better that than this old town"). Several years on, "Johnny" and Marie come up with a coping mechanism that's the main image from the
Kink-y "Life Has Passed Us By" portrait ("Gin's a mother's ruin/Dulls the pain away/Helps the conversation/ We're best friends today").

To borrow one of the 50,000 questions: Did The Godfathers ever tour with The Brandos? OK, I'll steal another: Has anyone ever given Al Pacino a copy of More Songs About Love And Hate? If so, it's probably filed next to his prized Germs vinyl.

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Fuses- I Wanna Burn (American Punk Records, 1998)

The two greatest punk rock records of the past 15 years: Exploding Hearts’ Guitar Romantic and The Fuses’ I Wanna Burn. Whatever is at #3 is not even close. But the race for #1 is a dead heat.

Everyone knows and loves the Exploding Hearts, but rare is the individual with knowledge of The Fuses’ greatness. Formed out of the ashes of the highly underrated pop-punk quartet Webster, The Fuses came tearing out of Baltimore in 1997 – the last year their hometown Orioles would win the AL East. And just like closer Randy Myers, The Fuses brought the heat. Brendan Bartow (guitar), Kevin Trowel (guitar), and Lee Ashlin (drums) recruited ex-Thumb Mark Minnig (later replaced by Pete Ross), and The Fuses were born. Webster, unlike typical pop-punk bands of its day, had a harder-edged, Descendents-influenced sound. So it wasn’t at all a stretch for three quarters of the band to evolve into something more straight-up punk rock. Yet “straight-up” punk rock seems a woefully inadequate summation of The Fuses! If you threw The Clash’s self-titled LP, Wire’s Pink Flag, and The Adolescents’ blue album into a blender, tossed in a teaspoon of ‘90s melodic punk, and served it with a heaping side portion of pre-millennial anxiety, you’d get The Fuses. Debut EP “New Bomb” arrived in late ’97 and was so immediately mind-blowing that I can still tell you where I was when I first heard it (standing in front of the counter at the Angry, Young, and Poor record shop in Lancaster, PA, my mouth hanging wide open). I waited with ridiculous, childlike anticipation for a full-length –which arrived a few months later. I was not disappointed.

When you think late ‘90s punk revival, you think of groups slavishly imitating both the sound and the image of their 1977 heroes. I’m not going to say there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I made my name celebrating that. It’s just that while The Fuses were doing something similar to those other bands, they were also doing something very, very different. For while The Fuses did combine the warp-speed melodies of early ‘80s California hardcore, the outside-the-box strangeness of first generation art-punk, and the wildfire urgency of The Clash, Dils, et al, they did so without coming off as copyists or even revivalists. With the exception of the blatant “Blank Generation” homage of “I Think They’ve Got My Number”, the songs on I Wanna Burn are remarkably non-derivative. Influences are hinted at but never made obvious, and all in all The Fuses fashioned a highly original take on classic punk rock – a true updating of the ’77 sound for the ’97 world. It was an odd time for our planet – technology was rapidly advancing, people thought the world was about to end, fat-free cheese had just gone mainstream, and Jerry Springer was the biggest thing on television. Everyday life was bizarre if not ominous, and along came The Fuses to tap into the tenor of the times. Here was a band that carried the icy, sci-fi ish overtones of Gang of Four or Mission of Burma yet delivered them with a staccato adrenaline rush that would have made the Ramones or even Lemmy proud. This was the future, this was the past, this was the present – punk music as visceral and aggressive as it was moody and angular.

But really, who cares about originality? A band can have all the originality in the world, but if the music’s not good, the creativity is pointless. Would you really rather listen to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music than jam to The Riverdales? So if we’re going to hail I Wanna Burn, it’s gotta be because it’s a great record, and not because of its novelty and social context 12 years ago. So let it be said: I Wanna Burn is an incredible record, chock full of catchy, perfectly-constructed punk songs played at a delirious pace with fire, force, and feeling. It hits with the power and determination of Bo Jackson barreling over Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football while offering up hooks bigger than Geico’s advertising budget. Ashlin’s drumming is relentless and tight, setting a lightning pace for the Trowel/Bartow guitars, which crash into each other like raygun fire in a space war. Trowel and Bartow emote dread, discomfort, and frantic desperation on lead vocals, bringing it like their lives depended on it. Debut single “New Bomb” is wisely included, joined by equally inspired tunes like “Jesus on the Beach”, “Dead Air Beat”, and the scintillating title track. A vinyl reissue in 1999 tacked on an absolutely ferocious cover of Joy Division's “Warsaw”, punked-up to the max.

The good year 1997 was sadly a last hurrah for Baltimore’s Orioles. The team missed the World Series by two games, but a roster filled with aging stars (Jimmy Key, Cal Ripken) and notorious juicers (Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro) was not built to last. The O’s haven’t been to the post-season since. Baltimore’s Fuses, however, were just getting started in ’97. The group would indulge its love for classic post-punk and art-punk, evolving rapidly and challenging its fans to keep up. A second LP, Are Lies, came out in 2000, followed by a third album Eastern Cities, released five years ago by Shit Sandwich Records. Did Our Lies prove to be a worthy follow-up to the greatness of I Wanna Burn? Did The Fuses sustain their early excellence for the long term? Is there more than one title in this band’s catalog that you absolutely have to own? Stay tuned to this blog, and you may get the answer!

-Josh Rutledge

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Alice in Chains- Dirt (Sony, 1992)

It’s so very tempting to blame Alice in Chains for directly influencing countless “nu metal” bands who sucked in the late ‘90s and 2000s, continue to suck now, and shall forever suck in the future. Not only did AiC have a major role in taking down an entire generation of fun-spirited metal bands, but also the group’s bleak sound became the blueprint for the dark, self-loathing face of metal in the 21st Century. You have to hate AiC, right? Wish you could go back in time and prevent them from ever existing? Uh, no. For while nearly every single band that’s imitated Alice in Chains can be rightfully described as unlistenable, the genuine article still sparkles. Dirt, AiC’s second LP, sounds as good today as it did 18 years ago, and still rates as one of my all-time fave heavy metal albums. Is it gloomy? Bleak? Dark? Depressing? Yes on all counts. And I love it!

Jerry Cantrell, Layne Staley, and their bandmates created such a masterpiece of misery that it could not be successfully copied. Modern takes on the AiC sound come off as tuneless exercises in manufactured angst. Dirt, on the other hand, was not contrived but rather born out of the very real throes of heroin addiction and death obsession. It’s a thundering, screeching beast of an album – far from pleasant but in its own way an immensely enjoyable listen. Rooted in the brooding heaviness of Black Sabbath but reflective of an edgy, angst-ridden age in American life, Dirt proved to be just as much of a culture-changer as the previous year’s Nevermind. And while any perceived connection between Nirvana and AiC was purely a media fabrication, it cannot be denied that both bands were deserving of acclaim. Had the “grunge” fad never existed, had Alice in Chains been from Idaho or Canada or Celebration, Florida instead of Seattle, Dirt would still have been one of the most powerful and memorable hard rock albums of its time. All these years later, the thing still flat-out rips!

While Alice in Chains would eventually cultivate a tempered, mellowed-out groove best exemplified by the Jar of Flies EP, the band was at its best when it stuck to heavy rock. As introspective, haunting, and sophisticated as it often is, Dirt is pure fire and fury – one of the hardest and heaviest mainstream rock albums to come out of any era. Cantrell’s battering riffs, so steeped in the classic rock/hard rock tradition, are as memorable as they are muscular. Staley, who would eventually succumb to the drug addiction he laments here, is an anguished, convincingly desparate vocalist. He channels all his demons, all his inexhaustible angst, all his fear and pain and utter hoplessness, into something genuine and powerful and truly remarkable. He gives a performance for the ages, lending chilling conviction to already dark lyrics. And beneath the thundering, sludgy guitars and pounding drum beats are genuine melodies. The likes of Staind and Godsmack and countless other douchey modern rock bands managed to imitate the style, but none of them had even a fraction of the talent that made Alice in Chains special. And how many of the wannabes had the songs to go toe-to-toe with their heroes? From the pitch-black blitzkrieg of “Them Bones” to the epic slow burn of “The Rooster” (BEST WAR SONG EVER!) to the seam-busting hysteria of “God Smack”, Dirt is loaded with the A-grade material to match its conceptual aspirations. It’s not even possible to dislike the MTV hit “Would?” – a song good enough to be forgiven for its association with Cameron Crowe’s lame attempt at a “grunge” movie, Singles.

Alice in Chains would manage to produce just one more LP between the release of Dirt and Staley’s death in 2002. The group eventually carried on with a replacement vocalist, and released an album last year. But come on – without Layne Staley, it’s not really Alice in Chains. Cantrell and Staley, each considerable talents on their own, were really best as a tandem. Musically, at least, they played off of each other’s strengths and far exceeded what either could have done alone. One might think that it would be difficult to listen to Dirt knowing that Staley was destined to die at the hands of the very demons he confronts in these songs. But in some strange way, I find this a life-affirming record. Staley’s life may have been ill-fated and far too short, but he at least left behind music that comforted and inspired others. We are all, to some degree, terminal in this life, and Dirt begins with that exact sentiment: “I believe them bones are me,” sings Staley. “Some say we’re born into a grave. I feel so alone; gonna end up a big old pile of them bones.” Morbid as they may be, Cantrell’s lyrics remind us that no one lives forever. Dirt, which rages against the dying of the light, isn’t really an album about death. It’s an album about life. Smart, soulful, and rocking to the core, it represented the beginning and the end of “new” metal.

-Josh Rutledge

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Badlands - Voodoo Highway (Atlantic, 1991)

May 17, 2005: A Southern gentleman named Bo Bice delivers what many consider to be the finest moment in the history of "American Idol." Backed only by stunned silence from the audience and judges, the confident contestant induces goose bumps with an a cappella version of Badlands' "In A Dream." After a hearty round of applause mixed with some tears, the judges' comments continue the bravos. Veteran record producer Clive Davis expresses great interest in working with Bice on future projects. Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul admire his bold move of choosing to sing without a backing band. Even resident curmudgeon Simon Cowell admits, "You may have just put 34 musicians out of work." Though Carrie Underwood ultimately takes home the '05 "AI" crown, Bice is to be commended for giving belated exposure to a great band who would've scoffed at such a pop-tart competition.

It's been said that Ozzy Osbourne has an ear for gifted guitarists. Count Jake E. Lee among the Prince Of Darkness' collection of axe-shredders. His best moments with the Devourer Of Doves can be heard on the Bark At The Moon album. Via telegram from Osbourne's wife/muscle/interpreter Sharon, Lee was given the pink slip while polishing one of his prized muscle cars. Tony Iommi's taste in vocalists is equally exemplary. Presented with a once-in-a-
lifetime opportunity to perform alongside Black Sabbath's legendary fret-burner, New Jersey-based Ray Gillen replaced Glenn Hughes on the tour for the band's 1986 Seventh Star full-length. He worked with Sabbath the following year on their next album, The Eternal Idol, but dissolution in the camp forced Gillen to jump ship for an early lineup of Blue Murder. Joined by drummer Eric Singer (another Sabbath alumnus) and bassist Greg Chaisson, Lee and Gillen formed Badlands and released their self-titled debut in 1989. Powered by the strength of videos for "Dreams In The Dark" and "Winter's Call," the album reached a peak position of #57 on the U.S. Billboard chart. Constant touring and rave reviews helped push the disc to over 400,000 in total sales. For all of the Sab/Oz connections, Badlands didn't pull too many rabbits from those hats. Rather, they poured their bowls of Trix cereal from the magic boxes of vintage Led Zep and Deep Purple. Gillen/Lee were as fine of a next-gen model of Plant/Page and Gillan/Blackmore as one could cite. Had Whitesnake spent more time on their recordings instead of dollars on skanks, perhaps I would've reviewed Slip Of The Tongue instead of Voodoo Highway. Shortly after the death of KISS drummer Eric Carr, Singer left the band to fill that void. Former Racer X vocalist Jeff Martin took over Badlands' abandoned stool and began working with the three charter members on their follow-up platter.

As much as I dig the first Badlands album, the Robert Christgau in me could accuse it of being too much of a one-dimensional effort. Those phony reservations can't be made for the meandering trip down Voodoo Highway, however, as the interstate signs are painted in various hues of the rock 'n' roll spectrum. The cut I'm groovin' on right now, "3 Day Funk," thumps like the 'eaviest Edgar Winter/Jimmy Page juke 'n' jive imaginable. Jeff Martin's the busiest cat here, as he contributes congas, timbales, maracas, blow drum and blues harp with his usual stick-smashing. "Headbangers Ball"-cum-"Soul Train"? Word! "Shine On" points its flashlight in the faces of contempos like Alice In Chains and The Black Crowes. Would the suggested collaboration between Jerry Cantrell and Chris Robinson work with the involvement of the actual principals? Nah, the stage'd collapse from twenty tons of ego. "Show Me The Way" shares a title with Peter "Fucking" Frampton's slice of classic crock, but it's NOT a cover of the poodle-coifed talk box's claptrap. If Paul Rodgers and JP were to reconstruct and recontextualize The Firm with the hiring of credible backup players, perhaps the radioactive emissions would slay the Peter Monster once and for all. "Fire And Rain" IS a take on James Taylor's elements of singer/songwriting. Let's suppose your Scully's-lovin' grit band circa 1993 were to feature this in a way that displays yer chops while retaining the spirit of the original. For the effort, I'd clap at a noise level exceeding that of an LPGA gallery. Then I would swear like Eldrick "Fucking" Woods on the 18th for your Faster Pussycat-like treatment of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." C'mon, fellas! Y'all don't wanna be among the 34 musicians put outta business, right? Lee's swampier-than-the-Dismal geetar on "Whiskey Dust" strings like CCR's "Green River" taking a riverboat to meet the sick-as-a-dawg slide from a Uriah Heep tune I can't seem to recall. As for "In A Dream"? Save for sparse accompaniments of dobro guitar and acoustic bass, Gillen croons the number in a similarly naked way as the aforementioned "AI" participant would 14 years later.

Bo Bice: If your nickname were "Jangles," I'd buy every damn one of your records.

-Gunther 8544

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blue Magic- Greatest Hits (Atlantic, 1990)

Hot Tub Time Machine not only provided a breakout film role for my evil twin Rob Corddry but also executed wardrobe and set design worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Having (barely) survived the horrors of life in the mid-to-late 1980s, I can attest to the stunning visual accuracy of this fine motion picture. Watching in my 21st Century living room, I felt like I really was back in 1987. And let me tell you: I sure as hell don’t ever want to return to that time! If I did have a time machine, I’d be far more inclined to ride all the way back to 1974, and like Corddry’s lovable asshole Lou, I’d probably stick around a few years. How cool would it be to see the Ramones live in their infancy, drink a Billy Beer, see good cartoons on Saturday mornings, drive a brand new ’75 Firebird through the Gino’s drive-thru to pick up a Sirloiner, chat up ladies sporting hot pants and monster ‘fros, witness the rise of punk in 1977 London, converse with truckers over C.B. radio, grow out my chest hair, and be there in person to see Tug McGraw strike out Willie Wilson to clinch the 1980 World Series? The first thing I’d do upon arriving in the past? Purchase a ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals and watch the most violent sports team of all-time, the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers, win their first championship. Shortly thereafter, in the same city, I’d catch Blue Magic in concert.

While not as revered or famed as fellow Philadelphians The Delfonics & Stylistics or the Philly-produced O’ Jays, Blue Magic had a chart run to rival them all. Between 1973 and 1976, the group had nine singles reach the R & B Top 40. “Sideshow” went all the way to #1 and crossed over to the pop Top Ten as well. Backed by THE house band of Philly soul, MFSB, and produced by the legendary Norman Harris, Blue Magic really could not miss. Its self-titled debut album just might be the single best LP of the Philly soul era. Greatest Hits, a definitive document of Blue Magic in its heyday, takes the majority of its tracks from that classic first long player. You supply the hot tub, and the music is the time machine - taking you back to the day when majestic harmonies, lush strings, slick dance moves, and pimp outfits ruled the music scene in the City of Brotherly Love. Is it any wonder why I wish I could go back?!

Less like Gamble and Huff’s larger-than-life O’ Jays productions and more like the Creed/Bell easy listening slow jams, Blue Magic’s hits epitomized the soft side of Philly soul. Only in this era did there ever exist music that was equally suitable for backseat makeout sessions and corporate elevator ambience – a perfect description of Blue Magic’s versatility. You and yours, still in your hot tub, can get it on to the dulcet tones of Greatest Hits. And then you can play the very same disc for your grandparents when they come over later to watch Glenn Beck on your 50-inch flat screen. These songs exhibit all the hallmarks of smooth soul: heaven-sent harmonies; impossibly high-pitched lead vocals; gorgeous orchestral arrangements; sweet, sublime melodies; and heartbreakingly rendered lyrics about breaking up, making up, and loving all the while.

Listening to this collection, it’s still hard to believe that most of these songs came from the same album! From the first track through the last, it’s pure gold. Ted “Wizard” Mills shines on the lead, showing off the pipes that made him one of the greatest vocalists of ‘70s R & B. And the songs, written by a top-notch team including Mills, Harris, MSFB guitarist Bobby Eli, and Gwen Woolfolk (among others), are sheer perfection. “Sideshow” is a classic in anyone’s book, but “Stop to Start” and “Spell” are every bit as good. “Three Ring Circus” (off the band’s second album Magic of the Blue) is basically a re-write of “Sideshow” that surprisingly manages to equal the original. And although Blue Magic’s “thing” was tender ballads like the exquisite “Chasing Rainbows” (off 1975’s 13 Blue Magic Lane), the group occasionally got funky. “Look Me Up” has the group sounding like the East Coast’s answer to Spinners, and “Welcome to the Club” is proto-disco at its finest.

Perhaps, if I chose to stay in the ‘70s, I’d eventually have to live through the ‘80s and ‘90s again. That would suck, but I’d make sure to use my knowledge of the future to advance the good of mankind. I’d track down Sylvester Stallone and convince him that two Rocky sequels were enough (We have to allow Rocky III to exist, for without it there would have been no Mr. T.). I’d warn everyone about New Coke. And at 1974 prices, I could easily buy a copy of Blue Magic’s debut LP for everyone who’s reading this. But the pimp canes I buy? I'm keeping them for myself.

-Josh Rutledge

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Dirtys - You Should Be Sinnin' (Crypt, 1997)

When I hear this album, I instantly want to do what one of their songs is entitled: "Drink, Fight… And Fuck"! Oh yeah, and do all the drugs! Too bad it’s migraine drugs these days...

Why do I turn to albums that aren’t current? 'Cause no one makes balls-out rock albums like this anymore. Hailing from Port Huron, MI, this short-lived four-piece on Crypt Records had THE reputation of living the way they played. Booze, drugs, women and rock! The life I always wanted to live! This album was it. Their tours breathed it. I envied it. To the point of where one summer, I met one of these fine gentlemen at a backyard BBQ and got down on my knees and begged like a schoolgirl to ask him to reunite The Dirtys. Although I wasn't (vocalist/guitarist) Larry Terbush, I would've done my best to emulate the man. I don’t know if that impressed or scared him, but I never got a call back. Bummer!

What you get here is 15 tracks of pure fucking rock-n-roll! In your face, booze down your throat, coke up your nose… Whatever, this band is it! Raw, lo-fi, fast and dirty! Thirty minutes after this slab of pure sleaze rock is over, the adrenaline is going, and you're ready to throw it back on and rock the fuck out again!

Produced by the multi-talented Mick Collins (The Gories, The Dirtbombs), he adds that perfect “Nasty Detroit” sound that gets to the grit of this album and contributes his riffs to “Rock It Out Tonight”. Makes you wonder what The Dirtys really could have done with Mr. Collins at the helm full time.

“Midnite Till Noon” gets you started in all its blazin’ glory (“She don't want me no more/She says I’m not what she’s looking for/She’s got me drinking all the time/When I don’t even have a dime”). Loud guitars ripping through screeching vocals of pure unadulterated rock!

“I’m On Fire” gives you something like a modern day Chuck Berry, with guitar licks, swagger and its ringing of “Christine, Justine, Emily…" Wonder if these guys, though, ever had to do time for taking minors across state lines? Naw, those girls probably kept their mouths shut!

“I Ain’t Cheatin’”, an Eddie "Guitar" Burns number, is the only cover song on the album. An old, traditional blues tune, but it fits perfectly with their attitude (“She works hard every day/Stumbles in at night/But I don’t take your money, 'cause that ain’t right/I ain’t cheatin'’’).

The longest cut on the album, "Alive", can also be considered ironic (“Only I survived/Everybody died/But I’m alive”). Only months after this album's release, Larry was found dead from a drug overdose. And thus brings us to the end of, in my opinion (which always matters!), one of the best rock-n-roll bands that never got a chance to really give us a taste of what they really could do. The rest of the band members went on to do other projects, but nothing can withstand the full-on rock glory that is The Dirtys. As I put on their album to finish this up, I think about them and do as they say: "Gonna Rock It Out Tonight"!

-Angie Granado-Wehrle

Friday, July 30, 2010

Holly and the Italians - The Right to Be Italian (Virgin/Epic, 1981)

Sometime in early 1998, I suddenly decided I was going to start collecting power pop albums from the 1979-81 skinny tie era. Pop-punk, my genre of choice, was starting to get stale. Power pop was making a comeback. I felt compelled to go back to the source. And for a year or two, I took a really good run at this quest. I visited record stores specializing in old, unwanted vinyl. I went to record collector expos. I posted my wish lists in my zines in hopes that readers could hook me up. I ended up acquiring dozens of LPs - some “classic” (Paul Collins Beat, 20/20), some cultural remnants of my boyhood (Vapors, The Knack), some ultra-obscure (The Cichlids, The Now), and some that were for power pop completists only (The Proof, Pearl Harbour and the Explosions). Never one to collect things just for the sake of collecting them, I actually listened to all those records. Was I wasting my time? I think not. Granted, I doubt I’ll ever again in my life feel the need to sit through Yachts’ Without Radar or Bram Tchaikovsky’s Strange Man, Changed Man. But I enjoyed them well enough. And at three bucks a pop, it’s not like those records set me back a fortune. Better yet, some of the titles I bought ended up becoming records I loved – all-time favorites of mine, in fact. Near the top of that list is the debut album by Holly and the Italians.

Listening to The Right to Be Italian, I find myself marveling that it was actually put out by a major label in 1981. The majority of commercial power pop in 1981 was really just new wave pretending to be power pop. With The Right to Be Italian, it’s the other way around. It was punky power pop marketed to the new wave crowd, and as such it was not characterized by thin early ‘80s production, contrived quirkiness, or an over-reliance on synthesizers. In the lexicon of today, you’d probably call it “pop-punk” – and I mean that in the nicest way. While nearly every other big name record producer of the day was a corporate hack entrusted by his bosses to cut the balls off a band’s music, Richard Gottehrer knew how to make great rock n’ roll records. He’d already done ace work on the debut albums by Blondie and The Go-Go’s, and as the architect of ‘60s classics “I Want Candy” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”, he was clearly no faddist. Gottehrer’s old school approach, a perfect fit for Holly and the Italians, gives The Right to Be Italian a timeless feel. It’s just a great, loud rock n’ roll album with crunchy guitars, hard-hitting drums, and a clean, crisp sound. It could have been released in 1965 or 2001 and sounded just as fresh and fun as it did in ’81. Perhaps it could have benefited from a higher “rockers to ballads” ratio. But all in all, the LP is bona fide awesomeness.

Singer/guitarist Holly Beth Vincent’s shtick doesn’t seem so revolutionary today – combining the girly appeal of the ‘60s teen queen with the snotty pop-punk ‘tude of The Ramones. But in the early ‘80s, there weren’t a whole lot of precedents for that type of thing. Along with Nikki and the Corvettes and the aforementioned Go-Go’s, Holly and the Italians form a holy trinity of seminal bands in the girl-fronted power pop (g.f.p.p.) genre. While not as consistent as Nikki and the Corvettes’ debut, or as well-known as the Go-Go’s’ first, The Right to Be Italian is in the same class as both. And if there’s one truly ultimate g.f.p.p. single, it’s “Tell That Girl To Shut Up”, The Right To Be Italian’s best tune. Whether you pay one, ten, twenty, or forty bucks for the album, this track alone justifies the purchase. With its punchy guitars, bristling bad-girl swagger, and unforgettable sing-along chorus, it hooks you from the first note and holds up to a thousand spins. Bands like The Donnas, Bobbyteens, Eyeliners, Riff Randells, Holograms, and Baby Shakes, so successful in the ’90s and 2000s, were all spiritually descended from this number. Nearly as good is album opener “I Wanna Go Home”, an anthemic rocker that rates as my all-time favorite song about America not sung by Neil Diamond. Dirty Sheets’ fearless CEO likens “Youth Coup” to a female-fronted Dictators, and I cannot disagree. “Do You Say Love” channels post-adolescent heartbreak so powerfully that it ought to have played over the closing credits of a top-tier early ‘80s teen movie. And the ballads – even if there are too many of them – are pretty freaking excellent.

Even with its big-name producer and big-name musicians (David Letterman sidekick Paul Schaffer and his bandmate Anton Fig were session players on the record), The Right to Be Italian features only one true star – Holly Beth Vincent. She was the total package, combining a flair for perfect pop songwriting with a great voice and a cool kind of sex appeal. She should have become a force in pop music – but for whatever reason she did not. She would go on to make more serious, “mature” records – which were perfectly fine but lacked the youthful energy and buzzsaw catchiness of The Right to Be Italian. We can say it’s a shame that there was no true “sequel” to The Right to Be Italian, but if there had been one it probably would have been a disappointment. Although in no way dated, this is an album that evokes the feel of the early 1980s – youthful optimism, an innocent type of rebellion, heart-on-sleeve teenage romanticism. It was a lighting-in-a-bottle moment in music, and Vincent would have been a fool to try and re-create it in later years without her original band. When you start naming the truly classic power pop LPs, the Plimsouls, Beat, and 20/20 may come to mind first. But The Right to Be Italian is right on the heels of them all – not just one of the greatest specimens of the genre but also one of the most enduring mainstream rock albums of the entire early ‘80s. Pay any price- it’s worth it.

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rhino Bucket - The Hardest Town (Acetate, 2009)

Do any of my Virginian friends remember when Food Lion sold record albums? The year was 1983, the store was the location on Tyre Neck Road in Portsmouth and the child ready to make a purchase was a curly-haired ignoramus of 11 years. I had saved nearly 1200 pennies' worth of allowance in order to trade Abe Lincoln's facial representation for a more colorful portrait. Would the tall 'n' bearded one be swapped with a baby smoking cigarettes on Van Halen's 1984 cover pose? Would our 16th prez be replaced in the history books by a hot rod adorning the face plate of ZZ Top's Eliminator? Would the light on the Gettysburg Address be dimmed by Angus Young's electrical test on AC/DC's Flick Of The Switch visual? I'd love to lie and claim one of the aforementioned LPs as the first slab of vinyl bought with my own money. Pulling honesty out of Abraham's top hat, however, I walked out of Food Lion that day clutching Culture Club's Colour By Numbers under my arm. An embarrassing first choice for the milk crate? Maybe, but at least it wasn't a goddamn Wham! album. That offense would've necessitated an ear bite from Mike Tyson's chompers.

Air-drumming into another generation, my 11-year-old nephew Nolan hasn't experienced any hangovers from listening to tween po(o)p such as The Jonas Brothers (did they really play a free show outside MacArthur Center before becoming famous?) and Justin Bieber (John Mayer is JB all growed up). Thanks to the influences of his uncle (takes a bow!) and soundtrack selections from various PlayStation 3 video games, the not-so-small dude rocks out to Aerosmith, KISS, Ramones, Motorhead, Twisted Sister, etc. The band Nolan favors the most? AC/DC. Though my neph digs their entire output from High Voltage to Black Ice, he prefers the early works with Bon Scott on the mic. Favorite album? Highway To Hell. Favorite song? "Beating Around The Bush". Awesome picks, Noles! No wonder you're a straight-A(C/DC) student! Gradually, I'll introduce him to artists who've used Acca Dacca as a blueprint (Rose Tattoo, The Four Horsemen, Jackal, Airbourne, etc.), but the latest effort from 20-year worshippers at the Church of Bon in Van Nuys, CA needed an immediate reading of its scriptures.

Rhino Bucket's 1990 self-titled debut on Reprise Records rang the bells for those who'd tried to prevent Bon Scott's final ride on Hell's Highway a decade earlier. Georg Dolivo (vocals/guitar), Greg Fields (lead guitar), Reeve Downes (bass) and Liam Jason (drums) did their damnedest in siphoning gasoline from the golden throat's Cadillac. Tunes like "One Night Stand," "Train Ride" and "Ride The Rhino" were unapologetic in their toasts to the whiskey-coated voice and signature groove that'd filled AC/DC's pre-Back In Black shot glasses. 1993 saw the departure of Liam Jason (who'd later have gender-reassignment surgery and briefly rejoin the band as a woman -- now THAT'S AC/DC!!!) and the arrival of one-time Acca Dacca snare-smasher Simon Wright. After an extended hiatus from 1996-2001, RB returned with Brian Forsythe from Kix taking over the duties on lead guitar. Appearances on several movie soundtracks (including "The Wrestler") and a slot on the Rocklahoma festival helped the band regain a foothold in an L.A. rock scene that'd changed considerably since the heyday of Riki Rachtman and "Headbangers Ball."

RB's 2001 core lineup returns to The Hardest Town with the unchanged ambition of recording a proper follow-up to Highway To Hell. Make no mistake, Brian Johnson has done an incredible job fronting AC/DC over the past 30 years and been a part of some great moments in the band's history. I must admit, though, to spinning THT way more often than the otherwise-fine Black Ice. Had Bon Scott lived to drink another fifth, RB's latest would've been on the shelves as a Wal-Mart exclusive. When Georg intones, "I'm looking for money/I'm living in dirt/Something for nothing/'Cause that's all it's worth" on the title cut, an emphatic door greeter, a shifty manager and a sly smiley face grant the problem child permission to five-finger Acca Dacca's Backtracks collection. With the economic problems and other riff raff, these three Wally World workers realize it ain't no fun waiting 'round to be a millionaire. Rosie behind the register isn't a squealer, so the touch of her lips turns out to be love at first feel. However, you suspect Jack from automotive is doing the bad boy boogie with your not-so-little lover ("Every time you come over/There's a weird vibe/I see you looking at my woman and I wonder/What happened last night"). It takes big balls to fool around with another man's lady, so why doesn't your "Dog Don't Bite" Jack's live wire? Being a jilted rock 'n' roll singer who was shot down in flames by a woman can make one forget his identity as a love hungry man. Simply go down the aisle stocked with Krylon and take your cans to the biggest Wal-Mart in Sin City. Once your tagging is finished ("I got a mind/It's on the wall/Big block letters/Ten feet tall"), Rosie's cute 'n' cuddly friend in gardening will "Know My Name." Feeling the down payment blues on a deposit for a place to house you and the horticultural honey, Jack gives your squeeze a ride on his Vespa. Damn, kicked in the teeth again? Here's the message you want passed from "Street To Street": "I'm a bad motherfuckin' man, if you take what's mine/If you mess with my woman and child, it's your suicide." What's next to the moon is a star called loneliness. If that's a light heading to heaven, then hell ain't a bad place to be. Because "You're Gone" ("All I ever wanted was for you to be mine"), a permanent "Gone shootin'." sign hangs on the front door.

Back to Wal-Mart for a bullet to bite on...

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Main Ingredient- Everybody Plays the Fool: The Best of The Main Ingredient (RCA, 2005)

Next to cheesesteaks with Whiz and women with large rear ends, early ‘70s soul music is probably the best thing ever. It had all the right stuff: lush strings, soaring harmonies, bigger than life production, and silky lead vocals always delivered by the smoothest ladies man you ever saw in your life. Those were the days, man! Circa 1971-74, the American soul scene was killing it! Philadelphia had The Delfonics. Chicago had the Chi-Lites. Detroit had The Spinners. New Jersey had The Moments. And New York had the mighty Main Ingredient!

Like all the great bands of the smooth soul era, The Main Ingredient had roots in traditional vocal R & B but developed a new sound through collaboration with a highly skilled producer. Donald McPherson, Luther Simmons, and Tony Silvester formed the group in Harlem in 1964, calling itself The Poets. The trio recorded some singles as The Poets and later The Insiders, and eventually changed its name for good to The Main Ingredient. Under the direction of producer Bert De Coteaux (arranger of B.B. King’s classic “The Thrill Is Gone”), The Main Ingredient was one of the earliest bands to push soul music in an orchestral direction. De Coteaux’s gorgeous arrangements and lead singer McPherson’s smooth voice proved to be a match made in music heaven. Early hits like “You’ve Been My Inspiration” and “Spinning Around (I Must Be Falling In Love)” are some of the most beautiful recordings not just of the early ‘70s, but of all-time! Tragically, McPherson took ill with leukemia in 1971 and died that year. Cuba Gooding, Sr. replaced him on lead vocals, bringing a swagger that would transform the Main Ingredient’s sound from quiet storm to more classic ‘70s soul. Buoyed by Gooding’s big pipes and suave persona, the new Main Ingredient hit the ground running with the famed 1972 single “Everybody Plays the Fool”, which hit #3 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies. The group would hit the top ten again in 1974 with a great cover of Blue Magic’s “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely”. Not surprisingly, the Everybody Plays the Fool collection opens with both mega hits – two of the greatest recordings from a golden era of American soul. But there was so much more to The Main Ingredient than that, and this comp does a wonderful job of representing the many facets of a truly remarkable band.

Everybody Plays the Fool is comprised entirely of tracks from The Main Ingredient’s glory period, which began with 1970’s debut Tasteful Soul and ended with Gooding departing the band in 1977 for a solo deal with Motown (he returned to the group in 1979). Included are the aforementioned sweet soul gems “Spinning Around” and “You’ve Been My Inspiration” plus a few more choice tracks from the early years. McPherson sparkles on beautiful covers of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” and Bread’s “Make it with You” and belts it with conviction on the funky, stirring Afro power anthem “Black Seeds Keep On Growing”. The Gooding era tracks, although occasionally bordering on disco (“Happiness is Just Around the Bend), are aces too. Alicia Keys liked “Let Me Prove My Love To You” so much that she sampled it on her huge hit “You Don’t Know My Name”. “Girl Blue”, “I Am Yours”, and “Superwoman”- all Stevie Wonder covers from 1973’s superb Afrodisiac LP – are remarkable testaments to the trio’s singing talents and powers of interpretation. As upbeat and catchy as “Don’t Want To Be Lonely” and “Everybody Plays the Fool” are, this was a band that excelled most at being the epitome of smooth. Slow jams like “Spinning Around” and “Let Me Prove My Love To You”, while not the trio’s best-known songs, are the definitive Main Ingredient numbers. Call it mellow, call it easy listening, call it whatever you want. The music created in the early 1970s by The Main Ingredient has stood the proverbial test of time. Need some tunes to enhance your next romantic dinner? Check. Need to mellow out on a lazy Sunday morning? Check. Need to calm yourself while waiting in the dentist’s lobby? Check.

We all have our rock n’ roll fantasies, I suppose. When I was 10, I wanted to be Angus Young. When I was 25, I would have loved to have walked in Joe Strummer’s shoes. Today, though, if I could be any musician, I’d want to be a soul singer in the 1970s. I’d want to wear sharp suits and pimp hats and sport a big ‘fro and go on Soul Train and melt the fine sisters’ hearts with my smooth ways and velvet voice. Specifically, I’d probably want to be Cuba Gooding, Sr. The guy was flat-out cool. His son Cuba Gooding, Jr. would go on to exceed his fame – but Senior is still the badder dude if for no other reason than he didn’t appear in perhaps the worst movie of all-time, What Dreams May Come. And if I had my choice between working with Tom Cruise (what the hell happened to his career?) in the ‘90s or rubbing elbows with Don Cornelius in the ‘70s, it would be an easy call. There was just something magical about the period in music that was The Main Ingredient’s heyday. Some of it was about style, but substance was no less important. It was the era of the producer and the era of the singer – you weren’t any less of an “artist” if you were performing a song someone else wrote. You could put out an album comprised almost entirely of Stevie Wonder covers, and nobody called it a cop-out, because it wasn’t about who wrote the songs. It was about amazing vocals, incredible production, and beautiful recordings. Today The Main Ingredient are not quite as celebrated as a lot of their contemporaries. But one listen to Everybody Plays the Fool will make it clear they should be.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jim Croce- Life and Times (ABC, 1973)

Although he attended high school in the late ‘50s and college in the early ‘60s, my dad was never too hip to the rock n’ roll. His early ‘70s vinyl collection contained no Beatles or Stones, no Chuck or Buddy or even Elvis, and certainly no Stooges or MC5. He’d sit in his den and play his records, and as a young child I’d be subjected to the likes of Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary. When Dad would show interest in contemporary music, it was always some random act of strangeness, like the time he came home with a copy of Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer or plucked my Men at Work LP out of my bedroom in the spring of ’83 (“What’s this teen rock?”). When I took an interest in Ritchie Valens as a teen, he played me his Trini Lopez version of “La Bamba”. He’d have heated discussions with my younger sister during her hardcore phase, perplexed as to why Richard hung himself and why anyone would be guilty of being white. In recent years, he’s become intrigued with Robert Plant’s bluegrass recordings, but has yet to hear Led Zeppelin. Yet while I was an intuitive enough child to sense that the old man generally had taste for shit, I was there anytime he played Jim Croce. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was my first-ever favorite song. As a pre-schooler, I was known to sing “Speedball Tucker” in public. I knew it then, and I know it now: Jim Croce was the balls!

Jim Croce was the alpha male of early ‘70s singer/songwriters. Just look at that ‘stache! He could have kicked the asses of James Taylor and Paul Simon, both at the same time, with one hand tied behind his back. He could have sent John Denver running for the trees with one nasty stare. Unlike Harry Chapin, he didn’t write contrived sentimental bullshit for weak-minded conformists. Unlike David Gates, he had testosterone running through his bloodstream. Cat Stevens may have written better ballads, but not by much, and Croce whooped his butt when it came to the edgier, blue collar side of the singer/songwriter genre. His singing voice was nice but not extraordinary. What he could do, though, was write a fucking song. Almost never in the annals of the singer/songwriter genre have we heard a better storyteller, and his melodies were as perfect as they were simple.

While it doesn’t contain either of his adult contemporary radio staples “Time in a Bottle” or “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)”, Life and Times for me is the ultimate Jim Croce LP. This was the Croce album I grew up with, the one I heard so many times in my dad’s den, the one I’d play on my very own turntable a few years later. It had a gatefold with lyrics inside, and I can still see myself at six or seven years old, barely able to read, studying those lyrics thoroughly, my nascent intellectual development forever altered by these tales of barroom brawlers, outlaw truckers, roller derby queens, and quarreling couples. Co-produced by Tommy West and Terry “Talkin’ Baseball” Cashman, Life and Times epitomizes the age when AM radio was king - when soft rock actually rocked and even sensitive men were manly. There are ballads present - good ones, in fact (like “Alabama Rain”). Yet it’s the rockers that carry the day. Croce had cut his teeth playing bars in rural Pennsylvania and later worked in construction and truck driving to support himself. Life and Times is heavily influenced by both his mixed genre bar show repertoire and his real-life blue collar experiences. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll, a little bit folk, and a whole lot awesome.

Croce, a native of South Philadelphia, started playing in bands in the mid-‘60s while he was a student at Villanova University. He eventually formed a musical duo with his wife Ingrid, and the two scored a record deal with Capitol. They relocated to New York City, put out an album, and toured relentlessly for a couple years. Unhappy with the music business and life in the Big Apple, Croce decided to return to Pennsylvania, where he worked manual jobs and even joined the U.S. Army for a time. In 1970, Croce met the brilliant guitarist Maury Muehleisen, and the two would soon begin a musical collaboration of legendary proportions. Muehleisen’s playing brought out the best in Croce’s writing, and Croce eventually found himself with a three-record deal with ABC. In 1972 he recorded both You Don’t Mess Around With Jim and Life and Times. Released in January of ’73 on the heels of the massive success of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim (which produced two top ten hits including the #1 smash “Time in a Bottle”), Life and Times was no slouch either. Opening cut “One Less Set of Footsteps” was a Top 40 hit, and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was Croce’s second #1. Croce finished work on his third album for ABC, I Got a Name, just eight days before he and Muehleisen died in a plane crash on September 20, 1973.

“One Less Set of Footsteps” is one of the most upbeat sounding breakup songs ever recorded, and it’s classic Croce storytelling – a couple in crisis, a relationship fractured, and the man, he’s ready to walk (not that I actually understood the “one less pair of jeans on your door” image when I was six!). With its sing-along chorus and simple driving beat, it’s a great tone-setter for Jim Croce’s most “rocking” album. “Roller Derby Queen” might be the most underrated of all Croce tunes, replete with that classic “Round and round, oh round and round!” vocal hook and typically humorous lyrics (“Well she might be nasty/She might be fat/But I never met a person/Who would tell her that/She’s my big blonde bomber/My heavy handed Hackensack mama”). 5’6” and 215? Sounds like Croce and I had similar taste in women! “Speedball Tucker” is a flat-out rocker – if you heard it today you’d probably call it “alt country”. Another catchy chorus, another great story – this time of a truck driver who defies nature and the law, and ultimately gets brought down by the latter. And who doesn’t love “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”? Perhaps at six I liked it best because it had a cuss word in it, but there’s just no denying the perfection of the tune at every level. This is one you simply can’t resist singing along with – and people of all ages will always love a tale of a classic bad guy. Leroy Brown - now this dude was a seriously bad:

Now Leroy, he a gambler/
And he like his fancy clothes/
And he like to wear his diamond rings/
On everybody’s nose/
He got a custom Continental/
He got an Eldorado too/
He got a 32 gun in his pocket for fun/
He got a razor in his shoe

Seriously, that might be the greatest verse of poetry ever written by anyone! Sure enough, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown inevitably meets someone even badder, and like all great stories this one has an awesome ending. The softer songs on Life and Times, while not of the caliber of Croce’s best-known ballads, are top-notch nonetheless. Album closer “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” is kind of a reverse image of “One Less Set of Footsteps” – tender, pretty and boldly optimistic that lost love can be regained.

Ever notice that the oldies radio format no longer exists? The stations that used to play Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Beatles, Stones, and Elvis now feature Elton John, Billy Joel, Chicago, and America. If they play any Beatles, it’s late Beatles. It’s as if 1962 or ’57 was so long ago that it no longer registers. The target audience for Crosby, Stills, and Nash is the babyboomer population. The target audience for Dion and the Belmonts is…apparently dead. I often hear one of those nouveau oldies stations while I’m at the gym, and never once have I heard Jerry Lee Lewis or the Dave Clark Five or Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon. But nearly every time, I hear something by Jim Croce.

It seems there are a whole lot of babyboomers just like my old man.

-Josh Rutledge