Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mekons: Ancient & Modern

What an absolute relief.  When last we caught up with the Mekons on record, four years ago on Natural, things didn't seem quite right with one of rock 'n' roll's most truly original - and obnoxiously unsung - bands.  For the first time in their lengthy career, the Mekons seemed defeated in a bad way on that record: "you don't have to believe in the end/you have to believe this is the end" went the chorus of Natural's catchiest number.  In some ways, the Mekons' entire catalog is a celebration of defeat, of the joys of being an eternal underdog, but Natural was the sound of a band accepting defeat, which is a far cry from raging against it or reveling in it.  It was a strong album, and one appropriate to its era of release and ultimate subject - the human devastation left behind by nearly eight years of George W. Bush and the world he created - but it was also a sad one.  Who, after all, can be counted on to counter the dying of the light if not the Mekons?

I'm happy to report that all of that was just a symptom of the age. Ancient and Modern finds the Mekons rollicking along once more, their collective position as one of rock's great groups of raconteurs again on proud display.  As suggested by its 1911-2011 subtitle, the new album centers around the last century of human history as recounted by a group of master storytellers, all parallels between then and now duly noted.  In the hands of lesser bands, the entire conceit would smack of pretense; for the Mekons, it is instead charming - and accomplishable.

Like most of the Mekons' output of the last decade and a half or so, Ancient and Modern is largely folk-based.  As such, the only disappointment it might offer is to anyone looking for another album's worth of Mekons Rock 'n' Roll-style sturm und drang.  None of this is to suggest that the band have abandoned loud post-punk completely: "Space in Your Face" is one of the best stompers they've put forth in years, and the likes of "Honey Bear" and "Calling All Demons" aren't far behind it.  For all of that good stuff, however, Ancient and Modern's heart beats loudest in its quieter moments, as typified by the utter dignity of the gorgeous Tom Greenhalgh-helmed "I Go to Sleep" or the verbose, engrossing title track.  Quirks, as ever, abound as well: the Sally Timms-led cabaret of "Geeshie" is certainly a new wrinkle, and a delightful one at that.

In some ways, the Mekons are almost a bit too good for their own good: Timms, Greenhalgh and Jon Langford are as great vocally as ever, and the group they collectively front is easily one of the most instrumentally accomplished and versatile that rock as a genre has ever produced.  They're always so on-point that it's easy to take them for granted, to mistake something that seems effortless for something that actually is.  It's too late now for the rest of the world to catch on; the Mekons tried several times to meet it halfway and failed, as some would claim they by their very nature had to.  It is not too late, however, for them to become your new favorite band.  If you've never heard them before, their aforementioned 1989 LP The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll remains the place to start; once hooked, you should work simultaneously forward and backward through the catalog from there.  If you've been around these parts before, Ancient and Modern is yet another fine LP, or perhaps even a bit more than that.  Time will tell, but it does, at first blush, seem to have that little something extra to it.

Trick Tuesday: "The Latest" (2009)

I never said it wasn't worth the wait...

I'll always have a small grudge against The Latest, stemming from the fact that it took whoever handles the band's merchandising nearly two months after its release date to get my copy to me.  From this, I learned a valuable lesson: never, ever order the CD of something at the same time as the limited, likely to be delayed vinyl.  This remains good advice for all you multi-format types, by the way.  Speaking of multi-formats, yes, they did release this one on fully-functioning EIGHT TRACK - you know, those big, honkin' cassette-like things that alright mommies and daddies played in their Camaros way back when -  as well.  And, no, I do not own one: had it been $10 or so, sure, why not.  For $30?  No thanks.  Bought a t-shirt with a picture of the eight track for ten bucks less than that and called the whole thing even.  Never looked back, either; honestly, I wear the shirt fairly often...and I don't even own an eight track player.

I know a blogger who needs to do laundry!
Fine, right, whatever: more music, less merch talk, I got ya.  The Latest is as solid as everything they've done since 1997; not quite as good as Rockford, but certainly in that same neighborhood.  In many ways, it seems drawn equally from the same wells as their previous two albums: Rockford-esque rockers ("Alive", "California Girl", the amazing lead single "Sick Man of Europe"), intermingled with a good dose of Special One's inspired power-pop ("Miss Tomorrow", "These Days", "Times of Our Lives").  Somewhere in between, there's a nifty Slade cover ("When the Lights are Out"), a closing ballad that would make your teeth rot if it weren't so unquestionably sincere ("Smile"), and THE BEST BEATLES SONG THAT BAND NEVER BOTHERED TO WRITE.  Seriously: if the actual Beatles had more stuff in their catalog as knife-edge beautiful as "Everybody Knows", I'd listen to Abbey Road a whole lot more often than I do.  I realize that this is a bold statement; the comments box below this post is available for your complaints.  Type legibly.

The pop-leaning material is a bit more fully scored here than it was on Special One, and a quick spin through the credits makes it immediately obvious why: Roger Joseph Manning Jr - Keyboards.  And then some: although he's not credited for it, Manning's arrangement touch is all over the album.  If the name is unfamiliar, Manning was one half of the creative team behind turn-of-the-'90s power-pop phenoms Jellyfish, a band whose two albums should prove worthy of examination by most Cheap Trick fans.  His work throughout The Latest is truly inspired, a virtual clinic on how tastefully played and arranged keyboards can enhance guitar-driven rock, rather than simply slathering on a layer of Velveeta.  Just as Cheap Trick fans should check out Jellyfish, fans of that band who've never heard The Latest should make it a priority: it may be as close as you'll ever come to that third album, folks.

Jellyfish probably had fewer more rabid fans than Rhea.  We saw Cheap Trick play Irving Plaza in early 2011, their first headline date in the New York area after The Latest's release.  (The less said about the fact that they had appeared at Jones Beach the previous summer as an opening act for fucking Poison and Def Leppard, the better.)  Manning, along with first-album Jellyfish cohort Jason Falkner opened for the band, much to Rhea's delight.  Beyond that, the pair then played with Cheap Trick for their entire set as  well.  Folks, I have never seen someone so absolutely thrilled to be witnessing live music as Rhea was that night.  (Well, maybe my reaction to last weekend's D Generation gig came close.)  After all, it was the closest thing she's likely to ever see to one of her favorite bands reuniting, and perhaps closer to it than anything she'd previously imagined.  I can't do her reaction to it justice at all; you'll have to ask her about it if you ever get the chance.  What I can tell you about it is this: in general, I like my live Cheap Trick better sans keyboards, but this gig almost made me rethink that stance.

This gig happened in 2010, nearly thirty-six years after the band played their first gig, and thirty-three years after the release of their first album.  I'm a realist: they certainly don't have another thirty-six years in them.  On the right night, though, you do begin to wonder if another twenty or so is really all that far out of the question.

Next week: did somebody say "Beatles"?

Rhea's Defective Internal Jukebox: Robbie Williams, "Rock DJ"

Cor blimey guv'nor!  Me lassie Rhea reckons I should write one of them Defective Internal Jukebox bits about this Robbie Williams lad and his toe-tapper "Rock DJ", which she's had atop her noggin for a fortnight or so now.  I say gobshite: it's me opinion that Robbo never made much nevermind here in the colonies, and since Blogger Statistics tells me that I don't have much of any readership originating over in Old Blighty, I just can't be arsed with the bugger.  It's right easy to see why, too: not ten seconds into the bloody thing, our lad Robbo rhymes "floor show" and "torso", and then proceeds to spend the next four minutes sounding like a right daft twit.  I mean, really - an ex-boy-band Brit affecting a quasi hip-hop inflection is always going to throw a spanner in the works from the get-go, innit?  Crikey!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Nirvana's "Nevermind": My Twenty Year Voyage of Antipathy

A spin around the forthcoming release lists informs me that the inevitable twentieth anniversary expand-o-recyclings of Nirvana's Nevermind are soon to be upon us.  I'm sure Kurt Cobain - who notoriously thought everything corporate sucked save for his contract with Geffen Records and the resulting royalty checks - is sneering his flannel-clad disapproval from the grave.  In theory, I should care.

But theory is not reality, and in reality I am an exceptionally poor Gen-X'er, because I've never been really sold on Cobain or his band.  Not back then when, admittedly, I owned the tape just like every other angsty seventeen year old, and not now with the benefit of retrospect.  Look, I grant you that the guy was FOR REAL, MAN.  Dying of self-inflicted bullet wounds says more about that than an entire army of snarky writers could hope to.  Sadly, sincerity alone isn't enough to make great music, and that's always been the core of why, at least for me, Nevermind's myth is simply that.  All of that said, it has been twenty years since the world allegedly changed. Why don't we give the bean-counters over at Geffen their due, in a backhanded sort of way?  I'll pass on the multiple discs of barrel scrapings, thanks - hell, I don't even like the original album very much, as should be obvious by now - but let's have a bit of fun examining its impact. shall we?

Nevermind was the album that finally brought PUNK ROCK to the masses!  In a manner of speaking, I suppose.  Honestly, Nevermind's connection to punk has always seemed a bit tenuous to me; it always seemed a bit too slow 'n' sludgy for that particular horse race.  Still, the album certainly took its cues from a decade-ish of punk and indie ("college rock", whatever) music that had preceded it.  It wrapped all of that up in a big, blue, baby-penis bow and brought it to the production counter for a full-budget spit 'n' polish.  Result: radio play, sales explosion.  This is not a bad thing, mind you: the myth that all artistically substantial music must sound like unmitigated sonic slime is propagated by dudes who look like Steve Albini and don't get laid nearly often enough.  That's a scientifically proven fact, by the way.  Nevermind paved the way for recordings of music I liked a whole lot more to sound as good as they should, and that's one of the few things I actually like about it.  Credit where due, or "+1", depending on your age.

It's a solid, classic album full of great songs.  Not hardly.  I'll grant you that the first 1,284,983 times I heard it, the album's famous lead single was something to write home about: great sound, nice catchy chorus hook, good beat and you could dance to it, at least in an awkward, hormonal fashion.  The rest of the album offered little more than self-flagellation, rendered over great drums and indifferent guitars and notably lacking in hooks.  Alright, sure, there's also "Come As You Are", but let's be honest for a minute, shall we?  That's pretty much a cover, isn't it?  Ahh, Killing Joke, now that's some punk rock for ya.

But it killed hair metal.  You hate hair metal, Will, so why weren't you happy?  Simple: because replacing something lousy and dopey with something differently lousy and dopey isn't my idea of progress.  True, the vast majority of hair metal seems fairly vapid and worthless to me, and it's equally true that I often point to Poison as being my vote for the worst popular rock 'n' roll band of all time.  But was the newly-clothed emperor really the breath of fresh air his sycophants claimed?  Take this little pop quiz: who am I describing?  Simplistic, three-chord songs played by serviceable but not especially distinguished musicians, topped off by nasal singer dishing out meaningless nonsense.  The answer, of course, is "both Poison and Nirvana".  Seriously, do you really mean to tell me that Cobain's mumbledy-mumbledy-kill-myself-mumbledy shtick is somehow more worthwhile or profound than Bret Michaels' come here pretty baby and suck my cock bullshit?  Both were equally REAL, mind you; that is, both flavors of gibberish likely accurately reflected the artist's mindset at the time.  While I never want to hear another note by either band again, I know whose tour bus sounds like it was probably a lot more fun.

Fine, we get it, you thought Nirvana were shit.  But it bears repeating: they got rid of all that metal crap!  Yeah, but the problem there is that there's as much great metal in the world as there is great punk rock, not to mention plenty of top-notch bands who bravely refuse to acknowledge the distinction.  Ever heard the one about the baby and the bath water?

But Kurt Cobain was the voice of our generation!  The hell he was.  I didn't shoot myself.  If you're reading this, then you didn't shoot yourself.  If anybody wants to tell you that the voice of your generation had so little to actually say that he shot himself, I'd recommend that you pound your fists on the nearest available surface and demand a better representative, loudly.

You know, I'm not really that into Nirvana anymore, but they did get me listening to better stuff.  This is the other "+1" I'm willing to hand out.  I'll give Cobain this much: he was always pretty open about his influences.  If he is the reason that names like Hüsker Dü or the Wipers or the Replacements or the Meat Puppets or X...or, hell, even Cheap Trick for that matter first crossed the consciousness of you or someone you love then good on him, even if he remains proof positive that you can in fact make a bad band out of good taste.

Fine, I give up.  They were still better than Pearl Jam, though.  Fair enough, another "+1" for a total of three, then.  True, it's not a lot of credit in the face of so many demerits, but oh well whatever nevermind, every rose has its thorn, and life, for those of us brave enough to continue to face it, goes on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Rockford" (2006)

I love this album so much that I actually own an OBNOXIOUS YELLOW t-shirt of the album art, which I'm pictured wearing here.  Rhea would be the one dressed more sensibly.

Easiest review of the series: this is a flat-out modern classic, easily the artistic equivalent of the band's first four studio albums.  No hyphens, no qualifications.  It's not "good for a latter day effort" or "late career-good" or whatever other condescending designation rock critics like to dump on good albums by old bands.  It's also not merely a good album by an old band.  Rockford is a career highlight for Cheap Trick, regardless of backstory.

In fact, Rockford wouldn't be a bad place to start for a neophyte.  The album practically acts as a career-to-date resume: first album style edgy rock?  Check: "Decaf."  Arena rock turned on its ear?  Check: "Come On, Come On, Come On".  Power pop with overbite intact?  Check: the "Welcome to the World" / "Perfect Stranger" one-two opening salvo.  Gorgeous, non-formulaic semi-balladry?  Check: "Dream the Night Away" may be their best-ever in that style.  Filler?  Negative, not one single second.  Personality?  And then some.

It was a great time to be a fan.  Generally speaking, artists do not make records as fresh and inspired as this some twenty-nine years into their recording careers.  The Who or the Rolling Stones could only dream of sounding half as relevant; Zeppelin and the Beatles, of course, never made it this far.  Pink Floyd can get on their giant inflatable pig and just ride home, and the roll call rattles on.  I'm sure that AC/DC and Motörhead admirers will argue in favor their heroes; while I'm a fan of both, neither of those great bands have been as willing to stray from their formula as Cheap Trick.  If you can name me another album this vital by a band approaching their fourth decade of recording, I'd truly love to hear it.

I could go on for hours singing Rockford's praises.  The album was brilliant, and Rhea and I saw a number of great live gigs - now as a couple! - in its wake.  Instead of listening to me repeat myself, though, I'd rather turn you loose in the hopes that you'll go acquire a copy and give it a spin for yourself.  Hearing is believing, folks.

Monday, September 19, 2011

D Generation: Irving Plaza NYC, 17 September 2011

Ah yes, reunion shows: the big, eternal question mark of rock 'n' roll.  Can they still play?  Will be as good as they were back in the day?  Were they even really that good back in the day, or is your youth simply playing tricks on you?  Do the songs still hold up now, even though you and they are x years older?  Most importantly, do you go and find out or do you let everything just stay cool in your mind, untarnished by second shots at glory?

To be fair, the D Generation reunion was a safer bet than most.  In the years since the band's 1999 demise, I've seen singer Jesse Malin perform live about a million times; while his singer-songwriter gig may not sound exactly like his former band, his chops have only grown in the time away. I've also seen most of his former band mates guest with him for a song or set here or there.  Ability wasn't a question, nor was the material: the three albums and smattering of singles left behind by D Generation have never strayed far from my music playback apparatus of choice in the past twelve years.  Really, there was only one unknown quantity: would this be the explosive live act of yore, or would the band be content to stand there and play.

For me, either would have been fine: we are all twelve years older than the last time around after all.  Still, there was the question of my fiancée Rhea, who has listened to me rave about how these guys were the best live band of the '90s bar none for more years than we have been dating, let alone seriously committed.  I've long since converted her to the cult of Jesse Malin's equally distinguished solo career, but she'd never seen D Gen before their implosion.  In the back of my head, I wondered if she'd be getting the full deal.

Lights down.  The band takes the stage in darkness.  Malin steps up to the microphone: "Has anybody seen my boy?"  The band blasts into "Degenerated", their longtime set closer; hearing it used to kick off the gig initially throws me for a loop, then makes perfect sense: WE ARE BACK, it screams.  So they were: the next hour and a piece flew by like it was nothing, one neglected classic after another resurrected, brought comfortably into the present by a band who may be twelve years older, but who haven't lost one iota of energy or unpredictability to time.  Malin, Danny Sage, Richard Bacchus (both guitar), Howie Pyro (bass), and Michael Wildwood (drums) - the lineup responsible for the majority of the group's studio output - did the bit and then some, and the fever-pitch crowd responded in kind.  If it's at all possible, we may all have shaved off at least a couple of those twelve years that night.

Rhea's jaw hit the floor early and stayed there.  By our car ride home, she was talking excitedly about how she wished she'd found the band in their '90s heyday, about what a welcome respite from grunge ennui and shoegazing disconnection they must have been in their day.  In many ways, it's Rhea's reaction that counts; aside from wanting me to come away happy, she had no emotional connection with D Generation before they took the stage.  This band took a newcomer and made her a believer in under ninety minutes.  That's no mean feat for any band, let alone one that has been in hibernation for longer than they were around in the first place.

For me, the old die-hard, it was worth every minute of those twelve years' wait and then some.  I can't tell you whether D Generation ever "got their due" or anything like that - the world, as so many folks are fond of pointing out, is not a fair place after all - but I can tell you that they were easily the best band of their era for my money.  I can also tell you that they are the best band of 2011 for my money, and I really do love speaking of them in the present tense once again, for however long it ends up lasting.

That last subject is the focal point for quite a bit of conjecture at the moment: a quick Google search tells me everything from they'll be doing an album in 2012 to these shows are it.  Obviously, I'd be pleased as punch with the former, but even if the latter turns out to be closer to the mark it does nothing to negate the fact that this music that I've held so dear for so long lived again, and did so in fine style, for one night in Manhattan.  If you missed it, well, Malin did promise another New York show before all is said and done in his stage banter; cross your fingers.  If you live in or near California, go buy your tickets right now for this weekend.  Twelve years is a long time to wait, you know.

Setlist (many thanks to setlist.fm; I was way too in the moment to take notes.)  Degenerated / She Stands There / Feel Like Suicide / Guitar Mafia / Capital Offender / Cornered / Major / Working on the Avenue / Helpless / Scorch / Stealing Time / Vampire Nation / Frankie / Waiting for the Next Big Parade / Wasted Years / No Way Out

Sunday, September 18, 2011

D Generation: Just Home.

Un-fucking-real.  Like the twelve years gone since the last time around meant absolutely nothing.  High energy and perfect, just like we and they left it back then.

I'll write something coherent tomorrow/next day, when I'm less wired-n'-tired.  But, really, wowed doesn't even begin to describe it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

D Generation and Eddie Trunk: Countdown to 1999

Just home from riding around with Rhea, listening to the best and most surreal hour and a half of New York radio in recent memory: Jesse Malin and Danny Sage of D Generation on Eddie Trunk's Friday Night Rocks.  Actual thought train, about halfway through an airing of "Working on the Avenue", from D Gen's 1994 self-titled debut:

1) This song is currently being played on the radio.
2) This song is being played on Q104, home to one of the most restrictive classic-rock playlists known to mankind during daylight hours.
3) This song is being played on Eddie Trunk's show, which goes some of the way toward explaining it, but still...
4) This song is currently being played on the radio!

The best part was Trunk's enthusiasm, which came through the radio waves clear as a bell. Previously, I kind of doubted that anyone was as excited about tomorrow night's show as I am.  Now, I'm honored to be in such good company.  Amazing stuff all around; bring on tomorrow night at Irving Plaza!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happy Birthday, Rhea

Post title says it all.  Well, maybe except this: shall I leave you my key?

You'll just have to get away from you know who...

Love you, darling!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Special One" (2003)

It's a solid album, stuck being the merely very good album between two great ones.  In some ways, the six year gestation period probably didn't help: Cheap Trick are always at their best when they stand on the knife-edge of chaos, and the years Special One spent living (by his own admission at the time) on Rick Nielsen's MacBook, subject to endless tinkering, account for its slightly over-fussed-over feel.  On stage, the Special One material came across with more power: compare any bootleg live version of "Pop Drone" to its differently-excellent studio incarnation, and you'll hear what I mean before the first chorus passes.  Still, there is some absolutely textbook-worthy power-pop ("My Obsession", "Words", "Too Much") to be found here, even if it needed a couple more rockers and a bit more spontaneity to put it all the way over the top.  A few bonus points awarded for the original cover design as well (the one with the old vinyl feel pictured above, not the reissue with the band caricature); it's one of their most attractive.  So, yeah, good album, critical schmitical, yada yada yada.

The spring of 2003 was a seminal era in my life: much of my post-work free time was spent at the local bar with my future fiancée Rhea; we were getting to know each other's stories, and working on healing together the separate heartbreaks that were still too close in both of our respective rear view mirrors.  We'd become friends in that way that so many music obsessives find one another; over a span of time and many drinks, the conversation expanded to include everything: life stories, loves and losses, how many times we'd probably been in the same place at the same time and never known it.  Less than a year later, we'd be an "us", as we still are today.  Back then, we were laying the groundwork, whether we'd known - or, maybe more accurately, would have admitted - it or not.

None of this is to say that the conversation ever drifted totally away from music.  One night, Rhea was telling the story of the one time she got to see Jellyfish live, on their Spilt Milk tour, in what ended up being the last time said neo-power-pop heroes would ever play in New York City.  I told her how I'd been finally convinced of that band's worth by seeing the video for "The Ghost at Number One" late one night on MTV and thinking that the song sounded like it could have fallen off of Cheap Trick's In Color were it fifteen years or so older.

*total silence, no reaction at all from Rhea*

Slowly, it dawned on me: I'd hit the one hole in Rhea's musical education.  I was incredulous: "How can you like all this power-pop stuff and not have ever heard the early Cheap Trick albums?"  To be fair to Rhea, the answer was obvious; in many ways, it's the reason I've undertaken this series: if all you knew was "I Want You to Want Me" and "The Flame", how much further would you really dig?  I swear that there are few bands worse represented by their hits than Cheap Trick, but I digress.

Suddenly, I had a mission.  It involved a two-volume mix CD, tapes having become recently passé.  Along with it, I gave her a burn of the advance Special One CD pictured above. The album was still a few months away from release at that point, but in those days most things could be had in one of the 8.923 record stores in Greenwich Village well in advance if one was willing to dig a bit.  Obviously, the widespread adoption of file-sharing has rendered such endeavors outdated.  The thrill of the hunt was fun then, not paying for such things is fun now, and the world keeps on a'-turnin'.  So I burned Rhea the then-forthcoming Special One along with two discs of the hits, and told her the truth: "I think that they're still great today, but if you end up liking the old stuff you should give this a spin too and see what you think."

The mission was a complete success: Rhea became a fan of both old Cheap Trick, new Cheap Trick ("wow, they've really still got it"), and of me.  All these years later, she remains a fan of all of the above.  Special One?  Most definitely.

Monday, September 12, 2011

This Is How You Deal

This is a joke that requires a little bit of setup: when a retailer goes bankrupt, they are purchased and taken over by a liquidation company.  These liquidation companies do nothing else but blow the merchandise out of soon-to-be ghosts of retail past.  Once a particular failed retailer's liquidation sale has ended, the liquidation company warehouses anything that didn't move, and then transfers that merchandise to the next company they are charged with ushering to the egress.  This is how Borders - the famous book and music store that I once worked for - has come to sell all sorts of blankets, bathrobes and the like.  If I had to guess, they're probably onetime Linens & Things offerings; at the very least, it's that kind of merchandise.

My co-workers made me love them even a bit more than I already did by altering the (useless, really; all sales final and all of that) receipts to print the following.  For reference's sake, the text below the Borders logo generally reads BORDERS BOOKS, MUSIC & CAFE.

Dear prospective employers looking for smart, creative help: HIRE THESE PEOPLE.  That is all.

Anthrax: "Worship Music"

First things first: Here's the new Anthrax!  They didn't change their name!  Fuck you, terrorists!  Folks, it simply needed to be said.

That out of the way, I absolutely love albums like this from bands that have been around for a while.  No pandering to current trends, no "hope you enjoy our new direction", no sounding humbled by not playing the enormo-domes of decades past, none of that noise.  In its place: quality music, written and performed in the style and spirit of the group's salad days.  This may just end up being one of the easiest reviews of the year: if hearing a new album from Anthrax sounds like something you'd enjoy doing in 2011, proceed without caution: Worship Music delivers the goods.  The band are tight, the songs and arrangements honed to perfection, and I think I like returning vocalist Joey Belladonna's voice better now than I did way back when; age has taken the shrill quality from the top end of his range, and his control has improved immeasurably since the Persistence of Time days.  The band's ability to swing between silly and serious lyrical matter without sounding forced on either end of the spectrum remains intact as well: both the emotionally heavy "In the End" and the utterly ridiculous, zombie-killing nonsense of "Fight 'Em Til You Can't" rank among the high points of a very consistent album.

And that's it.  Really, there's no point in my going into any further detail: if you still harbor a sweet tooth for '80s metal, non-glam division, Worship Music will give you good reason to rejoice.  If not, it's an album that wastes no time trying to sucker you in with any sort of gimmicks.  That's the beauty of the thing, actually.


It's just past noon on a beautiful, sunny late-summer New York day as I post this.  I remain awed and humbled by the sheer amount of human resilience living just underneath that sky.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


There are probably a million different ways in which New Yorkers - and, beyond my local area, Americans - dealt with the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, ranging in volume and visibility from spending the day alone in a quiet, dark room to going out and absolutely painting the town.  There are no right or wrong responses.  Personally, mine ran closer to the former: a day of quiet, solemn reflection.  What follows is a list of things I've thought about today concerning the anniversary of the attacks, in no particular order.  Attempts to arrange them into a cohesive essay simply didn't seem to work out; whatever else you can say about the history of this day, it certainly does not lend itself to linear, cohesive thought.

Regarding all this talk of no longer using the phrase "Ground Zero" to describe the former World Trade Center site: that is not a determination to be made by a politician or a special interest group.  Once the land is finally fully redeveloped and once again functioning as a vital social and business center, I'd imagine that the "ground zero" terminology will naturally depart the local vernacular.  As long as it still exists mostly as a crater, an open wound in lower Manhattan, I can't imagine what else we should rightly call it.

Regarding the omission of first responders from the official Manhattan tribute, I don't really know what to say.  The reason that I'm sure Bloomberg, et al can't officially utter in public probably runs something along the lines of "but what do we do if, god forbid, something happens and so many of our trained response personnel are all in one place?  What if, given those circumstances, that very place becomes a prime target?"  On the other hand, I am 100% in agreement with the idea that the first responders belong there first and foremost, certainly miles ahead of the normal parade of bloviating politicians.  I don't have a good armchair answer for you; clearly, Mayor of New York is not likely to be part of my future career path.

The law enforcement personnel and firemen and -women currently at work, dealing with the endless cavalcade of false alarms this weekend have my undying respect and sympathy.  I cannot imagine how quickly "well, I just saw one of them Muslim lookin' guys driving a rent-a-truck so he must be a terrorist" gets old, especially given that the rest of the world, with its normal weekend incidence of crime and fires, just keeps on spinning like nothing ever happened.

I downloaded the new Anthrax album, and had originally planned a review of it for this space.  It seemed a great, flippant concept: Here's the new Anthrax!  They didn't change their name!  Fuck you, terrorists!  When I woke up this morning, however, I just wasn't in the mood to listen to any music at all.  Now, well into the evening, I still feel that way.  On the other hand, I still like the idea, so we'll review Worship Music tomorrow, the day after.  Can I get some horns up from the congregation?

Speaking of the congregation, this is the single day of the year when I'm at my most comfortable with atheism.  Generally speaking, I identify as an agnostic.  I'm certain that organized religion is absolutely not for me, but I'm uncomfortable with atheism as well, simply because both claim to know, with certainty, the unknowable.  On this day, however, I have a lot of trouble believing in a god that either sanctioned the attacks (in the extremist Muslim view of things), or was content to sit back and let them happen (in the less-extremist Judeo-Christian model).  I've no interest in pissing on the parade of those whose faith helps them through something like this, especially not today.  Speaking solely for myself, I can find no reason to have faith in a god who was cool with 9/11, even if just by way of silent consent.

This is a day of conflict, and internal conflict at that.  Looking back on what I've written so far, I can't get over how many times I've either used the phrase "on the other hand" or inferred it.  That phrase is a cliché, as is "there are no easy answers."  Neither of those turns of phrase became clichés by being useless.

Napping on the couch next to me as I write this is my family's Labradoodle, Casey.  At just shy of four years old, he doesn't have any clue why today is different from any other Sunday.  He does seem to sense the tension of the day, and has made with lots of extra cuteness, cuddles and kisses as a result.  I don't know that it's the "best" response - honestly, I'll stick with the idea that there are no wrong responses - but it's one that I like a whole lot.

Ten years ago, when the attacks occurred, I didn't yet even know many of the most important people in my life right now, including my fiancée, Rhea.  I had far less stories to tell, and had yet to tell a single one of them in a public forum such as this.  Most of what seemed important at the time turned out to be little more than a dress rehearsal, a dry run-through before the real show started.  I sit here amazed by what has happened between then and now, my heart warmed by humanity's ability to constantly turn the bottom into the beginning.

Lastly, this is the video for "People Who Died", a 1980 single by the Jim Carroll Band.  Mr. Carroll, a man whose work has long been a great inspiration to me, died two years ago today.  Somehow, it seems just plain wrong that any sort of New York icon, as he certainly was, should have to be stuck with a date beginning "9/11" on their tombstone.  Were he still alive, Mr. Carroll would have gladly told you that this song, probably his biggest "hit" as a musician, was written as a celebration of lives rather than a mourning for passings, and it is in that spirit that I present it here. 

I'll see you all tomorrow on this blog, when the big, beautiful world keeps on keeping on.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Richard Cheese: "A Lounge Supreme", and Some Thoughts on the Economics of Comedy

It’s a funny thing: in general, I’m not much of a fan of musical novelty acts.  Not because I think the form is sacred and that comedy defiles it or some such pretentious twaddle, but because most of them are either not musical enough, not funny enough, or both.  In the seven-or-so years since I first bought one of his albums on a New Year's Eve whim, Richard Cheese has been the exception to this rule for me: he is both exceptionally funny and surprisingly musical, not to mention far less of a one-note joke than you’d ever imagine.

A Lounge Supreme, Mr. Cheese’s ninth studio album, finds the shtick of the World’s Loudest Lounge Singer far from dried out.  If you’re not familiar with his work, the concept is relatively simple: imagine Bill Murray’s classic Saturday Night Live lounge lizard character taken to its logical conclusion.  Mr. Cheese renders pop and rock songs as written, all lyrics intact in his inimitable, loungin’ style.  Often, this allows the jokes to make themselves: the infamous “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” chorus of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” sounds suitably idiotic and bombastic when delivered in a style suggestive of Frank Sinatra having been told he was cut off a bit too long before last call for his liking.  A simple scan of the track list illuminates some easy highlights: garbage like “Friday” or “Boom Boom Pow” is seemingly tailor made for the Cheese treatment, and how on earth did it take him more than a decade to get around to “Margaritaville”?  The highlight, as usual, is somewhat unexpected: while Mr. Cheese’s new “Birthday Song” may not exactly be the greatest composition in the history of music, his lengthy, spoken explanation on how he came to write it is laugh-out-loud funny.  As for the Scorpions cover, or the Fred Schneider guest spot, well, I’ll let you discover the charms of those for yourselves.  As usual, all of these antics are delivered with pin-point precision: Mr. Cheese’s vocals and characterizations are spot-on, and his musicians’ playing and arrangements are typically careful and crafty, rendering the proceedings doubly funny by being of such a high standard.

Now for the morality play: I implore you, dear readers, to back away from the search box on your torrent tracker of choice and instead lay down some of your hard-earned for this one.  Usually, I’m not one to get on any kind of high horse about downloading.  Page back through this blog: more than once, I’ve flippantly started to write something like “downloaded from Demonoid” and sarcastically interrupted it with some variation on “I mean, bought at my local record store that certainly didn’t close five years ago.”  I’ll stand behind that bit of snark, too: I’ve no problem with no longer paying for music that turns out to not really be worth the price of admission once I’ve heard it.  Similarly, I’ve no problem ignoring the whining of rock stars that have already collected enough money: if Bono never gets another cent from me, somehow I think that both he and I will sleep just fine regardless.

So why stop the buck for this one?  Two reasons, actually.  Firstly, it can’t exactly be amazingly profitable to be Richard Cheese.  Without knowing the exact economics of it all, I’d imagine that a good chunk of any profits from record sales, physical or digital, fly immediately out his window simply because he is predominantly a covers artist, and thus must pay publishing royalties to those who wrote the songs he performs rather than keeping the whole album-sales bounty for himself.  Beyond that, I’m sure that illegal downloading has hit Mr. Cheese harder than most, simply because of the “novelty” aspect of what he does.  Doubtlessly, more than one person has thought something along the lines of “well, it’s only comedy, so I’ll just download it instead.”  The inherent wrong-ness of that statement brings us to the second reason to pay Mr. Cheese his due: he consistently releases quality products.  Concepts like “novelty” and “comedy” be damned: the amount of time and craft that goes into the track selections and arrangements on an average Richard Cheese album are obvious to anyone willing to listen at all carefully to the finished product, and certainly comparable – and often superior – to what goes into making a “serious” album.  Personally, I’ve no compunction with keeping my wallet in my pocket when it comes to mediocrity, but I remain ready and willing to pay for quality.  Quality comedy is no exception to that rule.

Only a limited amount of A Lounge Supreme CDs were pressed; if you’re lucky, there’s still a few left to be had over at Mr. Cheese’s Lounge Mart.  The packaging, a six-panel digipak complete with an 8-page booklet, is beautifully designed and will look great either on your shelf or under your martini glass.  The music itself, be it on disc or legal download, will pull you in with the belly laughs and keep you coming back for the toe-tapping.  What more can you ask from your entertainment dollar, really?

That address again: www.loungemart.com

Trick Tuesday Two-Fer: "Music for Hangovers" (1999) & "Silver" (2001)

Better than Budokan?  A nerd like me would say something like that...

Cheap Trick’s 1997 self-titled rebirth came as a revelation to fans like me, but it also came with a huge elephant-in-the-room of a question: was it a one-off or the beginning of a lasting thing?  Sadly, due to a period of protracted legal limbo (their new indie label, Red Ant Records, had gone spectacularly bankrupt less than three months after the 1997 album’s release), it was a question that would remain unanswered for six years.  In the meantime, the band stuck to live work, always its backbone.

Amidst all of that touring came a pair of live albums, both issued completely independently by the band themselves.  Surprisingly, given that the name Cheap Trick Is somewhat synonymous with “live album” thanks to At Budokan, they hadn’t issued a non-archival live full-length since that album.  On the one hand, neither of these albums told us hardcore fans about the band’s creative health; even at their lowest ebbs, Cheap Trick had never failed to deliver as a live act.  On the other hand, both were more welcome additions to the band’s discography than they may seem at first blush.  Hell, I’d even argue that one of them, on an artistic level, is better than Budokan.  No lie.

Music for Hangovers came first, released in 1999 and culled from the band’s residency at the Metro in Chicago the previous year.  When Sony Music’s Legacy reissues division announced plans to reissue the band’s first three studio albums and At Budokan remastered with bonus tracks, Cheap Trick came up with the then-novel idea of touring to promote said reissues: in selected cities, they set up shop for four nights, performing one album complete each night, plus encores. Since then, a lot of classic rock bands have toured the complete performance of a classic recording, but Cheap Trick were the first band to make such a big deal out of it and, arguably, were one of the few to still possess the chops and fire necessary to do their early material justice.  For the kind of fan who was probably more excited to hear them take on “Stiff Competition” than “Surrender”, it was a dream come true.  Music for Hangovers pulls sixty-five minutes of highlights from the Chicago run, drawing mostly from the first three albums but also allowing for a few later-career ringers from the encores.  The sound quality is just great: very raw, but also very detailed, and also very “really live”, and the set list is completely unassailable.  Over time, Hangovers has come to be far and away my most listened to official live Cheap Trick disc.  Is it culturally more important than At Budokan?  Not hardly.  Is it a better listen?  Put it this way: I’ve more than once recommended it as a starting point for Cheap Trick newbies, and it has more than once made converts of those to whom I’ve recommended it.  The death of the music industry being what it is, used copies start at around a buck over at Amazon.  Deal of a lifetime, folks.

Silver followed two years later, culled from a 1999 hometown performance in Rockford, Illinois, during which the band performed three distinct sets, touching on at least one song from each of their albums to date.  The overall sound production is similar to that of Hangovers: a very “as it happened” sound coupled with a nice, big overall mix.  Obviously, the very idea of the whole thing is a fan’s dream, and it is fantastic that they released it commercially rather than leaving it as the muddy-sounding provenance of bootleggers, but there’s almost a bit too much of it to go around.  I’m sure that wasn’t the case for those who were in attendance that evening, but listening to the whole thing as a well over two-hour live album starts to feel daunting about halfway through.  Do fans need it?  Absolutely: it’s great stuff, both as a performance and celebration, and many of the track selections are obviously unique to this one amongst official releases.  Neophytes and casual fans, however, would probably be better served by Music for Hangovers’ well-sequenced concision.  [Oddly, and confusingly, Silver was reissued by Big3 Records in 2004, appending two Music for Hangovers out-takes to the end of the second disc as bonus tracks.  Obviously, this is the version you want.]

Both of these albums were also released as DVDs, and for those I’d actually recommend Silver over Hangovers by just a hair.  Silver’s epic sprawl feels far less overwhelming when you’re actually watching it, whereas Hangovers feels a bit short at sixty-odd minutes as a visual program.  Still, both DVDs are great, and Hangovers’ absolutely riotous audio commentary by the band more than makes up for its brevity.  Silver is still readily available and reasonably priced, whereas Hangovers seems to have graduated to the land of the deleted and expensive.  It’s not worth north of $40, no DVD really is, but if you have the chance to grab it for a less inflated price, it’s well worth it.  [A bit of fan-nerd full disclosure: Silver was the first DVD I purchased, upon acquiring a player for Christmas in 2001.]

Next week: back to the studio, back to business.

Friday, September 2, 2011

New Samiam LP, "Trips" Streaming

...right here, thanks to the good folks at Alternative Press (or "ALTPRESS", as they now seem to be stylizing themselves.)  Really solid on first listen; it's too new for me to know where it places in relative quality to the rest of their catalog, but I can already assure you that it's a damn throw better than 2006's well-intentioned but ultimately not-quite-there Whatever's Got You Down.  I'll do a full review once it's sunk in a bit, and once I've had a chance to digest it in a bit higher audio quality.

Never heard of a Samiam outside of Dr. Seuss?  One of the best post-punk bands of the '90s, the kind of band who would have probably been labeled "somewhat emo" then (i.e., their songs were more slice-of-life than politically motivated), but have nothing at all to do with what "emo" has come to mean in today's pop climate.  Their arguable peak came with 1997's You Are Freaking Me Out (currently out of print, but set for reissue on No Idea in the near future), an album that sounds as powerful and vital today as it did then.  If post-Hüsker Dü/Replacements kinda stuff with great vocals floats your boat, Samiam are a band well worth getting to know.

*EDIT*: Third listen.  Absolutely freaking brilliant record.