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