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

Friday, June 18, 2010

Scorpions- Blackout (Mercury, 1982)

A little-known fact about me is that I have never ridden a bicycle. Many find this hard to believe. What did a kid do in an early ‘80s summer without a bicycle? Could he exist? Could he enjoy a proper boy’s life? What did he do all day? Well, I can tell you, precisely, how I spent the typical summer day of 1983. Out of bed around noon – eat breakfast and watch MTV, hoping they’d maybe play something by Judas Priest or Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark”. Go listen to heavy metal records. Play the radio. Go to the pool. Have dinner. Play more records. Read the Daily News sports section. Watch the Phillies game. Watch Carson and Letterman. Fall asleep listening to the radio. Lord knows if I’d had a bicycle, my life might have turned out far differently. I might now be a doctor or lawyer. I probably wouldn’t be blogging about old records at age 39. I might be the kind of guy who does things, like fishing or camping or tinkering with cars. But then again, maybe I would have gone out on my bike and gotten abducted by pedophile clowns, never to be heard from again, and you, dear reader, never would have been reminded how awesome Teenage Fanclub was. You just never know. Charles Foster Kane had Rosebud to remind him of his idyllic childhood. Me, I’ve got a Scorpions LP.

Blackout might not be the greatest album I bought during my middle school metal phase, but it’s up there. And more so than any other record, it represents my entry into full-fledged heavy metal fandom. I bought it after the last day of school, 1983. I had just completed sixth grade. I felt free, elated, eager for summer and all it had to offer. Already a fan of AC/DC since Grade Four, I was itching to get into metal so I could be just like those cool-ass delinquent degenerates at school who wore Iron Maiden t-shirts and rocked jean jackets even in the May heat. My first attempt to make myself a metalhead was a massive flop: a purchase of Van Halen’s Diver Down, which was WAY too tame to satisfy my pubescent power chord bloodlust. But on my second swing, I hit it out of the park. Blackout was everything I desired, and then some. A couple weeks later, I’d walk into Listening Booth at the York Mall and buy Quiet Riot’s Metal Health and Def Leppard’s Pyromania. My conversion was complete.

Blackout was the last album Scorpions did before they went full-on mainstream. It almost always works out that a band’s best record is the one prior to its commercial breakthrough. It’s on this type of release that you can usually hear a group flirting with the qualities that eventually garnered it widespread popularity, yet without losing the edge that made it a cult band in the first place. That is most definitely the case with Blackout. The hook-laden choruses, slick production, and penchant for power balladry that would pay off a couple years later were already in place, but Blackout is a really fucking HEAVY album. It’s balls to the wall thundering metal music- melodic, yes, but metal nonetheless. And when you’re 12 years old and yearning for that sort of thing, nothing’s better than guitars heavy enough to floor skyscrapers and drums pounding so hard that you can feel it in your bones. Changes were happening to my body – I was becoming a man and living under the influence of unprecedented hormonal surges. That Blackout provided the power, aggression, and alpha male swagger I subconsciously craved is quite a testament to its metal credibility. That it still sounds awesome 28 years after its release, though, is even more impressive. Love at First Sting, sellout or not, remains a worthy listen, and 1980’s Animal Magnetism is kind of a classic. But Blackout is the best Scorpions album, or at least the first one I’d buy if I were you.

Sure, sure, sure: you could argue that 1970s Scorpions, with guitar virtuoso Urich Roth on lead, was the band’s strongest, least cheesy incarnation. But I like a little cheese – not a lot, mind you, but just a little, enough to make it fun, and it was ‘80s Scorpions that really embraced the rock god mythos – right down to the spandex pants, powerhouse twin Gibson guitar assault, and woman-objectifying music videos. Matthias Jabs, Roth’s replacement, was a less studied, more “rock” player, and his blistering leads are all over Blackout, perfectly complementing Rudolf Schenker’s blazing, wall-shaking riffs. The album storms out of the gates with the monster title track, so fast and furious that it could have been a Motorhead song, diminutive singer Klaus Meine summoning the vocal power of a giant. It’s a sonic kick in the teeth, pure and simple, and for sure the 12-year-old Josh Rutledge had never heard anything this hard or heavy on record before! Superb power ballads “You Give Me All I Need” and “No One Like You” (a top 70 hit in the States) let you catch your breath before “Now!” and “Dynamite” blast your ass into next week, giving way to the almost power pop of “Arizona” and the Zeppelin-esque epic sprawl of “China White”. These dudes had the formula down pat – the just-right mix of full-throttle rockers and hard-hitting (check out the solo on “No One Like You”!) ballads, with a little classic rock grandiosity to ice the cake, all of it tied together by big hooks, triumphant guitar wanking, and a charismatic front man. Apparently the songs on Blackout were demo-ed while Meine was recovering from throat surgery, and Don Dokken of all people actually filled in on vocals! No disrespect to Dokken, but it’s fortunate that Meine recovered. Blackout would not have been the same without him!

We all know what happened to Scorpions after Blackout – three million copies sold of Love at First Sting, a top 40 hit with “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, a clichéd mega live album, a slow decline culminating in the embarrassing political ballad “Winds of Change”, a return to a “heavier” sound on the poorly-received Face the Heat, a clichéd collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic, a clichéd unplugged album, an obligatory return to form on 2004’s Unbreakable, and, currently, a “farewell” tour that is expected to last through the year 2013. All told, Scorpions have been it for an incredible 45 years (41 with Meine on vocals), released 18 studio albums, and sold over 150 million records. Not many bands in the history of rock can boast that kind of longevity. And even if the Scorps have been past their peak for decades, their output as a whole is pretty underrated. Blackout can rightfully be called a classic of heavy metal. It still holds up today while so much of what seemed killer back then now comes off dated and laughable. Why? The songs were great, and it really fucking rocked. That’s the secret recipe for good music. I knew that when I was 12. Why do so few bands get it these days?

-Josh Rutledge

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Teengenerate - Smash Hits! (Estrus, 1995)

What if I told you the best strawberry dessert in Tidewater, VA can be found at a sushi restaurant in downtown Suffolk? Taste testers from The Virginian-Pilot recently awarded a near-perfect score of 98 to the Wonton Napoleon. Here's how the newspaper described the sweet treat: "The stacked dessert on a plain white plate combined fried wonton squares dusted with cinnamon sugar, mascarpone mousse, fresh sliced strawberries from Bennetts Creek and a strawberry sauce. The corners of the wontons were bent upward, evoking the image of an Asian tea house." Sensuous statements, for sure, but I have yet to sample the WN. The reason? I'm a cheapskate of the first order. For less than the eight dollars required to wage an after-dinner war at the place that forgot to fry the fish, I can fire my gourmand guns at the nearby Baron's Pub. Meatloaf Mondays! Taco Tuesdays! Burger Wednesdays! Pizza Thursdays! Still, I should set aside a Friday to dig my bayonet into a Wonton Napoleon. People swear it's worth the 45-minute drive from the strip mall-laden lands of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Surely, I can manage the two-songs distance between my home and the WN. If those two songs are 96-X playlist poop from bungholes like Muse and 30 Seconds To Mars, however, beware of the inglourious basterd! I'll slice off your goddamn ears for radios and sprinkle them with cinnamon!

What if I told you Teengenerate are the best band that's ever come from Japan? On Smash Hits!, Fink (vox), Fifi (guitar), Sammy (bass) and Shoe (drums) blend tasty ingredients that are every bit as lip-smacking as those found in the WN. Combining the primitivism of '60 garage gods The Sonics, the 24-hour raw power of The Stooges, the 1-2-3-4 spontaneity of the Ramones and the for-ourselves frenzy of punk obscuros, this comp of assorted singles plays like the record collection of Rob Gordon's dreams. Wanna hear boss takes of Aussie greats Fun Things ("Savage") and Radio Birdman ("Burn My Eye")? Your Foster's is waiting at the bar, Mick! Ready to try some UK flavors from The Pretty Things ("Midnight To Six Man") and The Reaction ("Talk Talk Talk Talk")? Mr. Belvedere will be down with your Scotch eggs and black pudding in a jiffy! In the mood for American grub from The Zeros ("Wild Weekend") and Nervous Eaters ("Just Head")? See ya at Nathan's on July 4th, hot dog! Championship vinyl, no doubt.

Quote from Fifi: "I don't think I am a musician. I'm an enthusiastic music fan playing with a bunch of friends. That's it."

Yo, Specs from Suffolk and Lookers from Norfolk: Y'all interested in a tune that'll burn down the house quicker than David Byrne with a blowtorch? Try the Teengen-penned "She's A Dumb" at your next bonfire. G-damn, this scorches! Take the 'Mones with their stoopid fun, drown the Beach Boys fixation in John Stamos' bathtub and add the rehearsal-like quality of a Stooges bootleg. What you get is the biggest berry on T-Gen's Wonton Napoleon. "I Don't Mind" is another juicy fruit worth extracting. If Chuck Berry (Ha!) hiring The Real Kids as his backing band for a free show on the 24th Street stage in VB sounds like a plan, make it come together, Hannibal! The best thing ever from Belgium besides waffles is an incredible punk-rock combo called The Kids. If that band's the main course on a breakfast dish, T-Gen's "Sex Cow" and "Let's Get Hurt" could be the sausage and bacon.

What if I told you that on my way to finally surrender to the Wonton Napoleon, I will play Teengenerate's version of a classic track by The Vibrators? Hell, "Yeah Yeah Yeah"!

-Gunther 8544

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Beltones- On Deaf Ears (TKO Records, 1999)

A common perception of The Beltones is that they were really good Stiff Little Fingers sound-a-likes. I never really bought that. While it can’t be denied that main ‘tone Bill McFadden was a huge SLF fan who sounded a whole hell of a lot like Jake Burns vocally, this Ft. Lauderdale (later Gainesville) band had WAY more going for it than that. In fact, out of the thousands of punk rock releases I heard in the 1990s, the first Beltones CD easily rates as one of the ten best in my book. Never did this band claim to be groundbreaking, and its lifetime output was limited to one proper album and four 7” singles. But within that small, stylistically familiar body of work lay enough heart, soul, guts, and timeless hooks to put almost any band to shame. McFadden had the gravelly Burns growl down pat, but he was his own artist all the way, imbuing the hard-edged punk style with the emotional depth and clever turn-of-phrase of a true poet. And boy, could he ever write a catchy punk tune!

The TKO Records issue On Deaf Ears pairs the great Beltones EP “Naming My Bullets” with re-recorded versions of the band’s earlier 7” tracks. By the late ‘90s, McFadden had really come into his own as a writer, and this collection eschews typical “street punk” fare in favor of far weightier topics. McFadden’s narrative voice speaks to the beer-swilling everyman in all of us but pushes deeper to the core of the soul - articulating not just rage but also sadness, despair, fear, frustration, life lessons learned, and the anguish of unspeakable loss. One of the four or five songs in the history of popular music that has truly made me cry, “Let the Bombs Fall” is about the death of McFadden’s mother. Just reading the lyrics is a powerful experience, but the impassioned vocal delivery makes this heart-wrenching tune all the more devastating. No song ever has more perfectly conveyed what it’s really like to lose the person most precious to you:

So don't you tell him that your goddamn life isn't fair/
Cuz you don't like your clothes, your car or your hair/
He's a mama's boy who ain't got a mom anymore/
So run and hide cuz he's gonna start an all-out war/
But then from nowhere, he feels a gentle hand on his shoulder/
And suddenly all the murder leaves his mind/
No one knew a fragile life/

Like the woman that his father used to call his wife/
And for what it's worth no one was as kind/
So let the bombs fall, cuz buddy I don't care/
Kill 'em fucking all, man/

Kill everybody each and everywhere

Intense, eh? Elsewhere McFadden sings about more atypical punk rock topics: friends’ drinking problems (“My Old Man”, “Casualty”), the toll that growing up can take on friendships (“Shoot the Shit”), the misery of domestic bliss (“Insipid Sedentary Girl”), and the boiled-over frustrations of everyday life (“Naming My Bullets”). Even on cover songs, he gets creative, revamping the Newtown Neurotics’ “Suzi is a Heartbreaker” for the Internet age. And anyone who’s ever hovered over an alcoholic beverage and plotted revenge against a wicked world will relate to “Fuck You Anyway”:

Tonight is the night that I come unglued/
No longer will the beautiful people walk the streets/

And smile while I sit and stew/
Been waiting all of my life just to give it to you/
Gonna pay back all you generous souls/
And when I'm done you motherfuckers will all be through/
Just kidding, please forgive me/
Didn't realize that the whiskey would hit me so quickly/
I'll just grab my death and be on my way/
Didn't mean to wreck your evening/
Don't you worry 'bout me cuz I'm only bleeding/
And before I go there's just one last thing I wanna say...

Musically, On Deaf Ears rips fast and hard, but with a ringing guitar sound that keeps the melody in tact even at a breakneck pace. With a distinctive, earthy touch, the Beltones struck a similarity in sound to contemporaries like the Swingin’ Utters, early punk groups like (pre-Nazi) Skrewdriver, and of course the mighty SLF. At a lean 10 tracks, the disc is truly all-killer, no-filler. One could maybe contend that the truly definitive versions of most of these songs were the original 7” takes, but who can argue with the convenience of having all those assorted tunes on one CD? As much Lemmy as Jake Burns, the McFadden vocal style didn’t just have the tone – it had feeling! Everything about this CD suggests a band going all-out, playing and singing every last note as if it meant everything. Minimalist production values, not always a good thing in music, really work here to conjure the feel of a live band bringing it like it’s the last show it’ll ever play. I know that hardly anyone plays CDs anymore in this age of downloading. But if you do, On Deaf Ears is one of those titles that you won’t want to take out of your player. Running just 19 minutes, it will always leave you wanting more. Isn’t that the single best thing you can say about a piece of music?

In 2001, the Beltones would finally get out a proper album, Cheap Trinkets, which is of course worth owning if you’re the sort of person who likes good music. As far as I know, the band has not recorded anything since, and officially disbanded in 2005. But wherever Bill McFadden is right now, I hope he hasn’t stopped writing songs and making music. He was and will always be a major talent.

-Josh Rutledge

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Drivin N Cryin - Great American Bubble Factory (Vintage Earth Music, 2009)

Once again, I owe my fandom of a great artist to the best radio station in the history of Tidewater, VA -- 92.1 WOFM. Drivin N Cryin received major attention on the left-of-the-dial band, with tracks from 1989's Mystery Road getting the most cheek pinches and ass grabs. "Toy Never Played With," "Honeysuckle Blue," "Malfunction Junction," "Straight To Hell" among others joined key cuts from Scarred But Smarter (1986) and Whisper Tames The Lion (1988) to give the somewhat snooty a proper curtsy with these fine gentlemen from Atlanta. (To the writer in Catharsis whose poison pen slammed The Smithereens: Screw you and your Yo La Tengo!) When WOFM switched over to the syndicated Z-Rock in 1990, it was 98.7 WNOR's turn to carry on DNC's brief-but-beloved tradition. Though not as generous with sharing the booty, the AOR spot's adequate rotation of the title song from Fly Me Courageous won over the not-as-sophisticated readers of Rockflash. Indeed, the tune contained enough cowbell to satisfy the sons-of-a-bitches in Nazareth, the reaper-fearers in Blue Oyster Cult and the production demands of Christopher Walken-as-Bruce Dickinson. After acquiring all three releases on cassette (I wouldn't join the world of CDs until 1992 or so), I dubbed each of them for my college bud John. He liked DNC well enough to accompany me at The Boathouse for the Norfolk date on the Courageous tour. I was so engrossed in head-banging along to the band, a couple of preppy pukes nearby were mocking my movements. The crowd was a bit light in comparison to other shows I'd attended there (PiL, The Connells, etc.), but my future amigo Kenny enjoyed the killer set with John and me. One regret: I wish I'd taken my brother Mike along for the ride. Anyone who blasted "Catch The Wind" and "Powerhouse" on a surf-stickered boom box certainly deserved a ticket. Don't cry for him, though, 'cause the man's got something over his older sibling. Mike has seen REM in concert; I have not.

DNC share an outline on the U.S. map with the boys from Athens, but their differences at the plate are as pronounced as Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb's. If Peter Buck is the guy selling heavy metal records at a yard sale, the members of DNC are the ones handing him the cash. Wait, are those Soul Asylum's Hang Time, Meat Puppets' II, Skynyrd's Nuthin' Fancy and Led Zep's III wedged in the middle of the milk crate? Here's ten Washingtons from DNC's Kevn Kinney, Peter. That should be enough for a couple sandwiches down at Walter's BBQ. Kevn's funny-but-cool voice expressed the concern of having side dishes with your dinner, so take five more bucks for Neil's Rust Never Sleeps and Bob's Highway 61 Revisited. Enjoy the fries and slaw, PB. Done reading that stack of paperbacks from the likes of Harper Lee and Hemingway? KK wants to know if they're worth a cherry pie and a chocolate shake to you. Pete, have fun pullin' pig. DNC's got a gig.

Kevn quotes Springsteen in "Detroit City" ("I went out for a ride and I never got back"), but his heart's hungry for a Motown miss who's built like a (pink) Cadillac and crazy about The Stooges and MC5. A cool chick, no doubt. However, if I had the keys to the Fleetwood and $12,000,000 in Amoco allowance, I'd ride the 10th Avenue back streets to Baltimore, Jack, and ask a female friend if she'd like to go next level with me. Have the "Midwestern Blues" got you down? Though it would be awesome to have you and 300 other mouths in the unemployment line join me and the Oriole Bird at Camden Yards, please move to a town where you don't have to perform the same work as your father. Also, tell your mama not to wake you from the dream of hugging a pillow and pretending it's a woman. "I See Georgia" is where you've found freedom as a truck driver. Rock on, B.J. and your bear! When parked for the evening, Gladys Knight, Dave Dudley and Dolly on the juke should keep the whiskey and cold rain company. Try to catch the Braves on an off day, 'cause Heyward's been a stud so far. Every relationship is one "Ricardo on the beach" from being over. Once the 12 million's in the gas tank and the Caddy's in an impound lot, "The Hardest Part" is keeping the Charm in the City. If you're a man with a sponge in your hand who throws away green bean cans, that could be the Key for her not to move West. Speaking of Florida, "Preapproved, Predenied" has lines that read like "Good Times" ("I gotta work two weeks just to pay my rent/I gotta work three days just to keep my lights on/I gotta work two days just to get to work/I gotta work one day just to pay the fines"). The "hand-me-downs from Goodwill racks" and "off-brand soda from the corner store"?

Sounds like a Charm.

-Gunther 8544

Joe Jackson- Look Sharp! (A & M Records, 1979)

Rockwriters, in their vainglorious quest to bring order to the universe, love to pigeonhole. Take Joe Jackson, for instance. Was there a single review of his first album that didn’t mention Elvis Costello? Even today, with a legendary and eclectic body of work to his credit, ole’ J.J. still finds himself lumped in there with Costello and Graham Parker, as if all three were not unique artists but rather separate arms of the same machine. Isn’t having your best-known song covered by Sugar Ray enough punishment for one lifetime?

True enough: Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson were both English, nerdy-looking, lyrically bitter, and exceedingly gifted at the craft of the three-minute pop song. But to backhandedly credit Jackson as a worthy imitator of Costello isn’t just unfair – it’s plain wrong! Personally, I don’t think Jackson ripped off Costello in the slightest. Look Sharp!, if you really listen to it, owes as much to Jackson’s pub rock roots as it does to the new wave fancies of the late 1970s. The playing and production give the record a cleaner, harder-hitting sound than the typical new wave or skinny tie power pop title of the day. And although Jackson’s memoir made it clear he was no huge fan of punk music, the supercharged “pub rock on speed” feel of Look Sharp! is kinda, sorta…punky!

We can generously say that the young Joe Jackson was not endowed with movie star good looks. While every other band or artist of the new wave pop style was posing for his/her/their own album cover photos, Look Sharp!’s cover art is a picture of a pair of shoes. But while Jackson’s average Joe (no pun intended, I swear!) image may have been a detriment publicity-wise, it was a huge asset for his artistry. Much or most of Look Sharp! is about the woes of not getting the girl. And rarely on record has said theme rung more true. We could never really believe that Mick Jagger couldn’t get no satisfaction. But Joe Jackson getting rejected by girls? Joe Jackson envious of those happy, loving couples? We could totally buy that! He was one of us! These songs, they aren’t just bitter – they positively bristle. The claws come out and dig they do into cold-hearted ex-girlfriends (“One More Time”), the douche bag who does get the girl (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”), the blissfully married (“Happy Loving Couples”), hot chicks and the evil they do (“Pretty Girls”), and even love itself (“Fools In Love”). With lyrics ranging from pained (“Tell me one more time/That love was only my illusion”) to cynical (“Fools in love/Well are there any other kind of lovers?”) to just plain caustic (“Don’t talk to me about women’s liberation/They already got their right/Just where it hurts”), Jackson sure doesn’t hold back. He rightfully earns his “angry young man” rep, occasionally opining on social issues (“Sunday Papers”) but mostly venting a lifetime’s worth of romantic frustrations. When he sings “If looks could kill/There’s a man who’s marked down as dead!”, it’s so utterly convincing that it sends chills down the spine. Is it any wonder Mark McGrath couldn’t pull off that line? He’s exactly the type of guy Jackson was singing about!

But make no mistake about it: Look Sharp! is by no means a downer. Working with one of the best pub/new wave backing bands of its time (Graham Maby has got to be one of the two or three or four best rock bassists ever!), Jackson channels his pent-up frustrations into an upbeat, high energy joyride of an album. Not quite power pop, not quite punk, not quite mod, not quite pub rock, but perhaps a little bit of each, Look Sharp! is pure pop adrenaline from the first jagged guitar strains of “One More Time” to the final tick of “Got the Time”. Of course it will appeal to fans of classic period pieces like This Year’s Model and Squeezing Out Sparks, but at the same time it’s the unique work of a distinctive artist - a man with a point-of-view, singing voice, and way of writing a song that are entirely his. He would go on to a lengthy and musically diverse career, including forays into jazz and classical music and an extraordinary return to pop form on 2003’s Volume 4. But never has he been able to top his debut. That’s not a knock on the man’s achievements. It’s just that Look Sharp! really is that good.

-Josh Rutledge