Saturday, January 29, 2011

Air Supply - Lost in Love (Arista, 1980)

If one considers the cumulative abundant manliness of AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, Radio Birdman, The Saints, the Fun Things, and the Victims and then considers the finite amount of testosterone available to any one continent’s gene pool, then clearly Air Supply was a band that could not be avoided. The irony is that Air Supply – long mocked for their monumentally sappy ballads and frequently derided as something even worse than a couple of Aussie Michael Boltons – probably got more pussy than all of the aforementioned bands put together. And while it might not be cool to dig Air Supply, you have to give the duo its props. If it’s only fair to judge a band within the context of its particular genre, then Air Supply is close to soft rock royalty. At worst, they were true craftsmen and worthy successors to such AM gold progenitors as Bread and England Dan & John Ford Coley. And truth be told, I love me some AM gold! Surely it’s going too far to call Lost in Love a “great” album. But I’ve got no problem admitting that it is a classic of its genre. Three decades on, I bet it’s melted more panties than the first three Twilight movies combined.

For all intents and purposes, Air Supply was (and still is!) two guys: Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock. The former was the pretty boy blonde Bjorn Borg looking guitarist/songwriter while the latter had the unfortunate white man afro and sang lead. Lost in Love, their fifth album, was their first to receive any airplay outside of Australia. But when Air Supply finally hit it, they hit it BIG. Lost in Love scored three top five U.S. singles and went double platinum. Music industry legend Clive Davis heard the Aussie single “Lost in Love” in 1979, signed Air Supply to Arista Records, and quickly had the band re-record the tune for an American release. Added to what was already a fine set of new songs, it made for a true powerhouse soft rock album. #2 hit “All Out of Love”, for all its epic cheesiness, boasts a melody of such perfection that it brought drill sergeants to tears and literally moved mountains (albeit two very small ones along the northwestern coast of New Zealand). Even better are the breezy, mellowed-out groove of “Lost in Love” (like some forbidden coupling of Cat Stevens and Christopher Cross) and a rare quality “happy” love song in “Every Woman in the World” (penned by professional songwriting tandem Bugatti and Musker). It was the latter that turned a nine-year-old me on to Air Supply when the group performed it on the TV program Solid Gold sometime in the fall of 1980. I loved the song the instant I heard it and would soon after request, for Christmas, a cassette copy of Lost in Love. I played the hell out of that thing! Having already owned AC/DC’s Back in Black, and soon to discover the power pop splendor of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”, I would come to think of Australia as this magical, mystical place inhabited primarily by incredibly talented musicians. Little did I know then how right I truly was.

Do ladies love sensitive men? Perhaps. Do ladies love sensitive men with hit songs on the charts and big money in the bank? Definitely. Air Supply came out of nowhere to become the biggest band of 1980, and that was only the beginning. They would score five more top five hits and two more platinum albums by the end of 1983, achieving a level of world domination somewhat equivalent to today’s Bieber fever – except in their case the females they bedazzled were well past puberty and clearly capable of expressing their appreciation in the best way possible. This is only speculation, but based on the demographics and sheer size of the Air Supply fan base, Russell and Russell circa the early ‘80s must have been availed to a volume and quality of pussy that would have made even Bon Scott envious (by now rolling over in his grave for sure, wishing he’d imbibed less and written more songs like “Overdose”). Such is the jealousy amongst the world’s male populace that Internet rumors still abound about Russell and Russell being gay and married to each other (easily dispelled with a small amount of fact-checking, losers!). Laugh them off as wusses all you want, brother. But be aware that not only did they “get some”, but they got more than you’ll ever dream of. I’ll put it this way – if these two dudes weren’t indulging in a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of ripened female flesh from the first night of the One That You Love tour right on through to the plane ride back to Melbourne at the conclusion of the last gig in support of the Making Love compilation, then what was the point of writing all those sappy songs? Liking Air Supply will not get you laid. But being Air Supply surely did, and one cannot underestimate the artistry required to concoct such supremely seductive tuneage.

Like their country mate Mel Gibson, who peaked with the first two Mad Max films and only half redeemed himself with Braveheart and the Lethal Weapon franchise, Air Supply would rest on its laurels for decades. They’d never again attain the artistic and commercial heights of their heyday, and they didn’t really need to. A greatest hits compilation may suffice for most, but for me Lost in Love is Air Supply’s Mad Max. It holds up so well not because it’s flawless, but rather because it’s not. It’s a perfect 1980 time capsule, capturing in song everything that was good and bad about that strange time in our world’s history. The ‘70s were over, but the ‘80s had yet to begin in earnest. Men still wore shirts that exposed chest hair and gaudy necklaces. You could still call a midget a midget, and Chlamydia was not an “S.T.D.” but rather a “V.D.” The funny term “sex symbol” still existed, and was applied to the likes of Cathy Lee Crosby, Loni Anderson, Lee Majors, and Erik Estrada. There was no Internet or even MTV (that would come a year later). You were a high roller if you had HBO and/or owned an Atari 2600. If you wanted to follow popular music, you actually listened to the radio and bought 45s of the songs you liked. There weren’t chat rooms or Facebook or even email. “Social networking” meant going to some sleazy singles bar and striking up conversations of astrological significance. Most likely you just stayed in and watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, then put on the big headphones, listened to some fine music on the stereo, and contemplated the imagined glories of boning Suzanne Somers. And this being 1980, Lost in Love was definitely one of the titles you played. It had all the hits, plus some notorious misses (the failed attempt at recreating Bee Gees magic, “Just Another Woman”, the unbearably cheesy wanna-be anthem “American Hearts”, the unfortunate rocker “I Can’t Get Excited”). On top of the classic cuts, deep tracks like “Having You Near Me” and “My Best Friend” were first class proto adult contemporary rock all the way, establishing a formula that the likes of Chicago would later milk for all it was worth.

We often say “They don’t make music like that anymore” in reference to the classic artists of yesteryear. But sometimes that phrase can pertain to music that wasn’t even particularly respected to begin with. Truth be told, nobody does make music like Air Supply’s Lost in Love anymore. That gloriously wimpy, super-sentimental, silky-soft style of rock is a relic of the past just like “V.D.” and recreational racquetball. I for one wish “V.D.” were still in vogue. The Air Supply guys probably knew a thing or two about V.D. They also knew a thing or two about how to craft a great tune. “Every Woman in the World” is still one of my favorite songs of all-time. I’d call it a guilty pleasure, but I ain’t guilty.

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Connells - Boylan Heights (TVT, 1987)

It wasn't an easy decision to choose which Connells album would be discussed on these pages. Along with R.E.M. and The Smiths -- two undeniable influences of these Raleigh, NC pop gods -- Mike Connell (guitar/vocals), David Connell (bass), Doug MacMillan (vocals), George Huntley (guitar/vocals) and Pelle Wimberley (drums) logged many hours on turntables and tape decks during my junior and senior years of high school. I remember Darker Days (1986) helped me cope with an otherwise uneventful bus ride one cold morning. "Seven" pressed its luck with a case of vocal hiccups, jangly guitar heroics, steady basslines and skilled stickwork. This and the other eight tracks on the disc were almost like a permission slip for the Hatful Of Hollow T-shirt I'd worn in regular rotation. Fun And Games (1989) was a tour my brother Mike and I caught at The Boathouse in Norfolk, VA. After taking several wrong turns in the Bondo-covered 1977 Chevy Malibu, we finally made it inside in time to hear catchy cuts like "Something To Say," "Upside Down," "Hey Wow" and "Sat Nite (USA)." There were at least 25-30 of our Salem High School classmates at the gig, which made us refer to The Connells as an unofficial local band for years afterward. Mike and I also saw the fellas in support of their follow-up effort -- the crunch-pop classic One Simple Word (1990). "Stone Cold Yesterday," "Speak To Me" and "Take A Bow" hit the hardest, but gentle caresses from "What Do You Want?" and "Waiting My Turn" were welcome stopgaps. The band's playful side was best shown on "Too Gone," via a lyrical lift from '80s R & B star Shannon's "Let The Music Play." Ring (1993) called repeatedly with perhaps The Connells' most direct pop songs to date. "Slackjawed" was showcased on Conan O'Brien's gabfest. " '74-'75" garnered massive airplay in Europe. "New Boy" headed an EP that also featured an interesting take of Jethro Tull's "Living In The Past." "Burden" had such a killer Byrds-y hook, Tom Petty would've reached for his cash drawer. Unfortunately, Mix Master Mike and I weren't able to witness the Carolina gents at one of their peak moments. But thanks to a big brother who'd kept his left ear glued to a Sony boombox, our appreciation for The Connells began in modest circumstances.

Moving from Portsmouth to Virginia Beach during the summer of 1987 forever changed the way I listened to music. Because of independent stores like The Music Man and cutting-edge DJs such as FM-99's Carol Taylor, I was presented with more audio options than the default dross emanating from 97-Star and Z-104. Instead of Bon Jovi and other tarts for teens, I recorded songs from the likes of The Alarm, BoDeans, Midnight Oil, The Insiders, Rainmakers and many more onto my ever-growing collection of mixed tapes. One of my favorite moments from the homemade stash of C-60s happened to be the first shot from Boylan Heights. In spite of a line that read, "I delight in my despair," "Scotty's Lament" captured vivid images of angels and windmills that betrayed any self-loathing. With infectious choruses and clanging guitars, it brought to mind another Southern pop act from my tapes who would later strike "green" in a major record deal. Often considered The Connells' answer to R.E.M.'s Murmur, Boylan Heights shares a kindred spirit in legendary producer Mitch Easter. Once again, he's at the helm of a disc that's by turns dark, uplifting and folksy. The blaring trumpets and 1776-style snaring of "Over There" are an inspiring call to arms when the "boys hit distant soil," but the instruments become tuneless when facing anti-war rhetoric ("Lead the sheep in their sleep to slaughter"). So much for using it as a recruiting pitch, huh? Staying on the battlefield, "Choose A Side" finds a "soldier" not willing to discuss his painful experiences ("When they've torn you every way/ Put your past away/When they said to choose a side/It made you want to hide"). Whether the hurt is caused by wounds from shrapnel or a woman named Sherry, you're left with a bitter smile all the same. "Try" makes an attempt to revive a relationship that was once strong, even though the finality is like the Dead End sign on We No Longer Court ("But if you should feel confined/Then take the step and you could leave it all"). A stab at reconciliation highlights "Home Today," but the Morrissey/Marr bounce is popped with a pocket knife ("I like your face, but I can't anymore"). A final meeting on "I Suppose" fails to take place ("All the way down to the park/And I never saw you there"). This is also branded by marks from The Smiths. Perhaps Miss No Show prefers The Cure.

Should the key lineup of The Connells decide to perform at my 25-year reunion at Salem High School in 2015, I'll be the portly man in the crowd wearing a Bayside Marlins sweatshirt. Hope Timbaland doesn't beat me up.

-Gunther 8544

Friday, January 21, 2011

D Generation - No Lunch (Sony, 1996)

One part post New York Dolls sleaze rock and one part Dead Boys-ish urban punk n’ roll, D Generation was doomed from the get-go. Formed in 1991, a.k.a. The Year Glam Died, the New York City band had everything on its side except timing. As other glam-influenced groups were cutting their hair and hopping on the alterna-grunge gravy train or simply disappearing from the face of the Earth altogether, D Gen went all-in. Against great odds the band scored a major label deal – its hit-worthy hooks and blow-‘em-away live show enough to overcome The Industry’s sudden shunning of all things glam. The band would part ways with EMI/Capitol after one woefully misproduced and commercially failed LP and subsequently land at Columbia Records. Mass adulation and significant unit-shifting were not in the cards this time, either. But at the very least, the group got the opportunity to work with a strong, sympathetic producer – one Ric Ocasek. The D Gen/Ocasek collaboration, seemingly an odd coupling, yielded one of the greatest punk rock n’ roll records this world has ever known.

No Lunch may have been five years ahead of its time, or twenty years behind it. Like some unholy bastard spawn of Young, Loud and Snotty, Appetite for Destruction, and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the album combines gritty hard rock, snarling old style punk, and a flair for melody that you could have called “commercial” in any time period besides the late '90s. It’s pointless to lament that none of these songs were hits – this after all being the year of 311, Sublime, and Bush. Suffice it to say that tracks like “Capital Offender”, “She Stands There”, and “Waiting for the Next Big Parade” could have been huge, and probably would have been in 1979 or even 2003. Featuring four songs re-recorded from the band’s first album plus eight new ones, No Lunch perfectly integrates D Gen’s scorching pedal-to-the-metal attack with the nuanced, melodic songwriting of singer Jesse Malin and guitarist Richard Bacchus. The self-titled LP featured incredible material (e.g. “Guitar Mafia”, “Wasted Years”), but it fell flat thanks to a production style more suited to a Stryper album. As No Lunch would prove, it was all an easy fix.

It was no surprise that someone with Ocasek’s industry savvy was going to mine the pop gold that was, say, “Capital Offender”. But where he really excelled as No Lunch’s producer was in letting D Gen cut loose and just be themselves. No Lunch is a hard-rocking punk n’ roll record first and foremost. Ocasek’s production accentuates the commercial hooks but doesn’t try to scrub clean the band’s raw edge. This is the closest D Gen would ever come to sounding “live” on record. Guitars and drums are pumped sky high in the mix, and there’s a reckless, destroy-all-comers energy in the playing that just wasn’t there on the first album. From the opening notes of “Scorch” to the final strains of the killer Reagan Youth cover “Degenerated”, the guys just tear it up. Bacchus and Danny Sage kick up a dual guitar firestorm like a couple of Cheetah Chromes, and Malin plays the proper rock star on vocals - his nasally tone unlikely to ever win him any voice competitions but his attitude cranked to 11. Red-hot tracks like “Frankie”, “No Way Out”, and “Too Lose” absolutely shred, providing the perfect yin to the yang of the album’s standout melody-driven numbers. On a lesser album, perfect pop songs like “She Stands There” and “Capital Offender” would make everything else sound like filler. But No Lunch kills from wire to wire. It’s the album that D Generation’s debut could have been. Funny how tunes re-recorded from the first album – “No Way Out”, “Frankie”, “Degenerated” – sound like much better songs on No Lunch. The “Degenerated” cover is particularly inspired, and rocks so ferociously that it seems the band may come bursting through your wall at any moment with guns a blazing. It closes the album with a proverbial bang – No Lunch is like a thrilling movie that saves its very best scene for the end.

D Generation would go on to do another fine album for Columbia, 1999’s sadly unheralded Through the Darkness. The band broke up that same year. Malin finally achieved fame in the early 2000s after re-inventing himself as a “singer/songwriter” and indulging his inner Neil Young. And while it was nice to see this talented individual finally “make it”, he was always at his best when he was fronting a full-blown rock n’ roll band. 15 years later, No Lunch sounds as good as ever and remains the best thing Malin has ever put his name on. Like other terrific groups of the same ilk (Hanoi Rocks, Dogs D’Amour), D Generation was probably too hard rock for the punks and too punk for the hard rockers. The alternative rock hit-makers of the mid-‘90s sure as hell didn’t know what to do with this band. They weren’t grunge. They weren’t ska. They weren’t “post-modern”. They didn’t cross over to AOR formats like Social Distortion or seize the Hot Topic demographic like The Offspring. While it’s a shame they only got to do three albums on a major, the fact that it was that many was slightly miraculous! D Generation’s eventual imitators only made the band’s demise seem all the more unfortunate. And when the likes of the White Stripes, Strokes, and Vines were living large in the heyday of “garage” revivalism, it was hard not to wish that D Gen would get back together and blow all those bands off the stage. If the silver lining of so many failed mid-’90s major label "alternative" acts is that you can still find a lot of really great albums for cheap in cut-out bins, then put No Lunch at the very top of your to-find list.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bobby Fuller Four - I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino, 2001)

Bobby Fuller is best known for his mysterious death and his defining rendition of “I Fought the Law”, yet perhaps he ought to be most remembered as one of the few true American rock n’ rollers of the early 1960s. I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four is far from a comprehensive summation of the truly excellent music left behind by the man and his band. But at a lean 12 tracks, it’s got most of the essential tunes from a group that combined the best aspects of traditional rockabilly and the British Invasion.

American rock n’ roll didn’t completely die in 1959, but it would find itself on life support for a good five years. Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were dead. The previous year, Elvis Presley had gone off to the Army and Jerry Lee Lewis had found that marrying one’s 13-year-old cousin was a perfect way to destroy a career. Embroiled in serious trouble with the law, Chuck Berry would have zero Top 40 hits between 1960 and ’63. Little Richard had found God and quit rock n’ roll. Clean-cut teen idols would be the new face of popular music, and American bands would not really start rocking again until they began imitating the new English bands who themselves were imitating the old American ones. But there were exceptions. The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and Del Shannon – to name a few – held to the traditions of early rock n’ roll and found chart success in the early ‘60s. And Bobby Fuller, who took the world by storm in 1965, had been releasing rockin’, Buddy Holly influenced records since 1961.

The Fanatics, after re-locating from El Paso to Los Angeles in 1964, signed to Bob Keane’s Mustang Records (subsidiary of the legendary label Del-Fi). Keane quickly changed the band’s name to the Bobby Fuller Four to take advantage of the singer/guitarist’s talent and charisma. By this time, the British Invasion was in full swing and new bands were popping up all over the place doing their own take on the Fab Four’s throwback rock n’ roll. Fuller and his band, who’d already been playing that kind of music for years, fit right in with the ‘beat craze. The Fuller-penned “Let Her Dance” was a regional smash and hit the national charts in 1965. Another minor hit followed in “Never To Be Forgotten”, but it was the next BFF single that would make history. The Fuller Four had previously covered “I Fought the Law”, a 1959 tune by Sonny Curtis and the Crickets. The group re-cut the track for Mustang and scored a top ten hit in January of ’66. Another single - a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You”- went Top 40. But it would be Fuller’s last hit. On July 18th, 1966, Fuller was found dead in the front seat of his mother’s car, his body severely beaten and a gas-soaked rag stuffed into his mouth. He was just 23. The LAPD bizarrely ruled his death a “suicide”, and for decades theories have abounded given alleged connections between organized crime, a lady friend of Fuller’s, and a “business associate” of Keane’s.

If Fuller is ultimately remembered as a Buddy Holly imitator, he at least ought to be remembered as one of the greatest of such imitators. He was a talented songwriter in his own right. And his voice, although styled much like Holly’s, was wonderful. If you’re wondering what kind of music Holly would have made had he survived into the ‘60s, I Fought the Law gives you 12 really good examples. Moreover, the collection demonstrates that Fuller was a genuinely unique artist, as adept at pure pop and pretty ballads as he was at old style rockabilly and proto garage rock. For legal/contractual reasons, the disc is forced to omit classic tracks like “Never To Be Forgotten” and high energy rockers like “Saturday Night”. And while that’s a damn shame, it’s a testament to Fuller’s unheralded greatness that 12 songs are simply not enough. Of course “I Fought the Law” alone justifies the price of admission. But “Let Her Dance”, with its plaintive melody and homespun harmonies, is a bona fide rock n’ roll classic. British Invasion fans will go nuts for the Beatle-esque gem “Another Sad and Lonely Night” and the bouncy “Take My Word” (which could almost pass for a Herman’s Hermits B-side!). Some of the LP cuts are pure gold as well, like the poppy “She’s My Girl”. And “Julie” may be the second-best song ever penned by Chip “Wild Thing” Taylor. Even with so many essential songs missing, this is a fine starter kit for any aspiring Fuller Four fan. Turntable owners would be well advised to seek out some older, vinyl LP best-ofs, and you wouldn’t be crazy to spring for the Never To Be Forgotten box set, which compiles the entirety of Fuller’s Mustang recordings and a rare live LP. Basically, go out and pick up anything you can find with Fuller’s name on it. If you consider him a one-hit-wonder, you need some serious schooling.

-Josh Rutledge