Monday, July 30, 2007

Towers - "Mutagen"

Does this genre have a name? I've definitely heard bands of this ilk before, mostly in basements across America. There's clearly a distinct sound here, and I've been hearing it for years, but I've yet to come across a name for it.

I often read interviews with bands who complain about being pigeonholed into a particular genre, especially when that genre is new (did any band want to be called "stoner-rock" back in the late-90s?). What these bands fail to understand is that (a) they are not unique, and (b) genre names are simply writer shorthand that help readers understand what they sound like. Yes, there are other bands that sound like you, someone's come up with a name for it, and if someone who likes those bands reads your name in connection with this nebulous genre they might think to check out your music. Go with it.

But this stuff doesn't seem to have a name. If someone asked me to describe Towers, I'd start by saying they're a hardcore band. But they're really an example of this in-between genre. They have hardcore rhythms, structures, instrumentation and volume, but with spacey guitar effects and scream-o (a micro-genre unto itself, doncha know) vocals. And I'm telling you, there are other bands like this endangering the eardrums of kids in basements and VFW halls all across America. So what do we call them?

Full disclosure: I know these guys; my friend B— is one of the guitarists and he gave me a copy of the album, which appears to be self-titled. But I'm not posting this as a favour to him, I'm posting it because it's awesome. In fact, if he had his druthers I'm sure he would have preferred I post a different track (perhaps one of these), but I like the guitar effects in the intro to this one, and it's my fucking blog, so there.

The record, by the way, is way cool. The cover is silk-screened onto the sleeve to an old Smokey Robinson album that they cut open and turned inside out, which, due respect to Smokey, is a killer way to package a record. It's not perfect, mind you; it's on white vinyl. I'm morally opposed to coloured vinyl, as anything other than black is a compromise in sound quality, but I'm still mad jealous. I've never had any of my music on vinyl.

No buying story here as B— gave me the record, but I do have a marginally interesting story about acquiring it. After he gave it to me I was riding my bike home and took a really bad spill. Totally my fault and completely stupid, I was drunk, not wearing a helmet, carrying the record and smoking a cigarette with he same hand, ran into a parked pickup truck. I got away with minor abrasions on both arms and a few ice packs the next day, but I had to replace the front wheel of my bike, which was bent beyond repair (used wheel, $30! Bless you, Mike's Bikes). But more importantly, the record was unharmed. And let's face it, that's what really matters.

Buy it... on vinyl. Vinyl only, as far as I can find. Fuck yeah.

From my deck to you: Towers - "Mutagen"

Not sure what to group with this, but I know B—'s a man who knows and loves the old school (check out his radio show Sunday nights), so I'll fill out the week with a couple slabs of classic SST heaviness.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Grateful Dead - "Me and My Uncle"

I've always thought it was kind of weird when a band would put out a self-titled record that wasn't their debut, like Blur or Metallica. Surely it's not because they just couldn't think of anything, so I figure it's either (a) "this is the beginning of a new era for the band", or (b) "this is the album that best sums up what this band is all about". In the case of The Grateful Dead, definitely (b), because it's (wait for it...) a fuckin' double-live album.

I threw this track, a modest little outlaw tale, up here today because it used to be one of my favourites on my cassette copy of What a Long Strange Trip It's Been (my initial introduction to the Dead, which left me somewhat nonplussed; their name and skeleton-logo had led me to expect something more akin to, say, Steppenwolf), and because I really don't have that many Dead records, so why not? The Dead didn't write it; John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas (and sire of one-third of Wilson Phillips) did but, according to legend, has no recollection of doing so. He was hanging out at a party, drunk off his ass, strumming a guitar and making shit up while someone was rolling a tape. One day he began receiving royalty cheques for a Judy Collins album. Not a bad work if you can find it.

This page has pretty much everything you'd want to know about the song, including a more detailed telling of its origin and an extensive catalogue of lyrical variations. It says at the top that this is the song the Dead played more than any other in their entire concert history. I can't believe someone bothered counting. Actually, yeah I can.

I don't think I even bought this record; I think my old roommate forgot it when she moved. Your loss, K—. It's here if you still want it.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Grateful Dead - "Me and My Uncle"

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Grateful Dead - "China Cat Sunflower"

Ah, memories of the van. I play in a band with two members (myself as one) who dig the Dead without being, y'know, fanatical or nothing, and one who despises every note they ever played. Indie rocker through and through. You know the type. A valid opinion, by the way; as much as I enjoy them in moderation, I'll be the first to admit that anyone who can't see how anybody could possibly find the Dead annoying just isn't listening hard enough.

Anyway, we have a shitty K-Mart boombox in the van (to complement the broken AM-only radio) we take on tour. And a cardboard box of truck-stop cassettes. Most of the time we just listened to ZZ Top and Van Halen, but whenever G— crawled into the back to tape a nap (often), J— and I would bust out Europe '72, or at least tape 1 of the two-tape set, which is the only one we have. We'd play it quietly and groove on down the freeway until G— inevitably awoke and growled some variation of "turn this hippie shit off." Our favourite cut was always "China Cat". It's the guitar riff. Definitely the guitar riff.

Aoxomoxoa was the Dead's third album, and the last of their real psychedelic phase. It's not quite as trippy as Anthem but there're some pretty spacey moments. "China Cat" is hardly the most far-out cut, but I can't resist posting it. The album opens with "St. Stephen" and closes with "Cosmic Charlie", both of which would remain staples of the live set. But in between there are some long-forgotten psych-outs that are well worth revisiting. As with Anthem, recommended if you think the Dead are kind of okay, but find the folky shit really annoying.

The price tag looks like Generation (where the downstairs was, for a few years, my vote for best kept secret in New York's admittedly slim used record marketplace, especially after Revolver (no link!) changed ownership and jacked up their prices), and it's a cool $3.99. You'll probably be hard pressed to find it for less than twice that nowadays.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Grateful Dead - "China Cat Sunflower"

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Grateful Dead - "That's It for the Other One"

Conventional wisdom amongst Deadheads holds that the band didn't really become THE DEAD as we know and (um,) love them until their fourth album. On 1970's Workingman's Dead (the one with "Uncle John's Band" on it) they toned down the excessive psych-out ramblings of their earlier records and re-embraced American folk music. And jammed.

Which makes their first three studio albums must-hears for anyone who grudgingly respects the Dead but instinctively hates their music. Trust me.

The self-titled first record is, indeed, amateurish twaddle, the sound of a band who were clearly not yet ready for the studio. But the second, Anthem of the Sun, is a terrific find for anyone who digs the more far-out regions of American psychedelic rock in the sixties. The songwriting and arrangements are ambitious, the recording delightfully weird.

This cut is the album's opening track, and it ostensibly consists of three parts, but you're one up on me if you can figure out where the dividing lines are drawn. Perhaps the titles will help:

  1. Cryptical Envelopement

  2. Quadlibet for Tenderfeet

  3. The Faster We Go the Rounder We Get

Or... perhaps not.

Incidentally, this track is followed on the album (and you can hear the opening notes in the fade-out of this mp3) by "New Potato Caboose", inexplicably (and somewhat facetiously) cited as one of the worst songs of all time in this terrifically entertaining article. I mean, it's not great, but Lord knows there are plenty of worse Dead tunes to be had.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Grateful Dead - "That's It for the Other One"

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Weekend video(s): Thomas Dolby

Usually I try to post cool performance clips I've found, but for some reason this video crossed my mind the other day and I had to seek it out and watch it. Truth is, the only reason I'm posting this is so I can email the link to my brother and he'll laugh his ass off.

I hadn't listened to any of Dolby's music in many years, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it holds up fairly well. It's definitely a product of the eighties, but whereas much of the pop music from that era sounds dated due to the technology employed, Dolby's canned beats and synthesised "horns" sound sharp and bright, rather than the thin, tinny sounds that tend to bog down the music of his contemporaries.

As for the song itself it's... well it's clearly written by a producer. The arrangement is completely overstuffed. The lyrics are filled with clever puns and metaphors, but it's all just a bit too clever. Albums written by producers are kind of like movies directed by cinematographers: even the good ones are more surface than substance, more sounds than songs, more shots than script. Still, this one's fun and elaborately decorated, and bears up to a few repeat listens.

I think the most frustrating thing about the video is that too much time is spent on the kooky story about the reporter's dream. Whatever. I want to see more of the band. That singer rules.

The first time I ever heard Thomas Dolby was when I saw this video on Top of the Pops as a kid. I liked any videos with a lot of broad visual gags, and this one's over the top. To match the song, in which the entire chorus is sung in a chipmunk voice. Again, very Dolby, very slick and multi-layered production, although this one without the faux-ethnic accents that make the above song such a treat. But you don't watch something like this for the song; it's all about those ridiculous cheap video effects.

Which, come to think of it, may not have been very cheap at the time. For all I know this was the cutting edge of video editing technology.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Jefferson Airplane - "Embryonic Journey"

I do believe that I could make a fairly convincing case for the Jefferson Airplane as the most underrated rock band of their era. Furthermore, I also believe that I could make an equally convincing case for the Jefferson Airplane as the most overrated rock band of their era.

Briefly, then:

  • Underrated

    They produced the only studio album(s!) of note out of all the bands to emerge from the wildly hyped San Francisco scene in the mid-60s, brought American psychedelic rock to mainstream with arguably the genre's biggest hit ("Somebody to Love") and best album (Surrealistic Pillow), and headlined Woodstock. Yet unlike many other giants of classic rock they remain largely forgotten amongst anyone too young to remember their heyday. They released more than one album arguably better than their most famous, but no one's ever heard them. Despite their once-towering stature, their music has been reduced to a nostalgic curio of a bygone era.

  • Overrated

    Anyone who's ever read Rolling Stone is well-versed in the insufferable tendency of boomer's the inflate the importance of all pop cultural artifacts of their youth, and Jefferson Airplane may be the most egregious example of this habit. Often held up as "vital", and one of their era's all-time greats, their music has hardly stood the test of time and their influence is barely felt, if at all. While many of their contemporaries continue to find new fans to this day, the Airplane have, apart from two songs, been largely forgotten.

As much as I love the Airplane, I'll be the first to admit their music is woefully dated. Even my favourite moments on their album sound, if I'm not in the right mood, like the goofy noodlings of stoned hippies. The music's drug-soaked ambiance, while doubtlessly radical and dangerous for mainstream pop music at the time, tends to render their revolutionary fury impotent. How many bong-jockeys have you known whom you thought really might just get off that couch one day and overthrow the government?

But I would argue that timelessness is necessarily sacrificed to achieve such utter contemporaneity with the events of their era. The Airplane's music is unmistakeably a product of the sixties, and therefore must age. The Beatles' music is often held up as being emblematic of the spirit of the sixties, but it's really not, because it's so timeless. They and the Stones produced music which sounds just as vital today as when it was first released, but the cost of not being stuck in the past is that their music can never really represent anything outside itself.

The Airplane's music straddles no such divide. It is the sound of the sixties, plain and simple. Hearing it invokes images of bell-bottoms, long-hair, draft card burnings, be-ins, love-ins, protests and all the other images of an era someone my age knows only from photographs. Only music this dated can truly embody its era, just as music that so completely represents an era will inevitably date more quickly. As the era fades into the past, so does the relevance of the Airplane's music. The music can still be enjoyed on its own terms should you bother to seek it out. But unlike, say, Elvis Presley or Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix, in fifty years time, when the baby boomers have for the most part passed away and are no longer controlling the media outlets that still teach us today to pine for the blessed sixties, no one under the age of fifty will have any idea who the Jefferson Airplane were.

Bummer for them. I'll close out the week (and a long week it was) with a track that sounds nothing like the Airplane. I first heard this track on a tape my uncle Paul, an avid music collector, made for me one Christmas, a sort of introductory overview of acoustic guitar-based music. A couple of John Fahey cuts made the strongest impression, but this one slotted in quite nicely with the surrounding tracks. It's from Pillow, an album of nine songs forever destined to be overshadowed by the other two. It's just guitarist Jorma Kaukonek alone, flexing his pickin' chops. Nice one. No idea where I picked up the vinyl, by the way. Got it in college when I got all the other Airplane albums, probably in New York, probably for about two bucks.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Jefferson Airplane - "Embryonic Journey"

Next week, by popular demand (i.e., a single comment on a previous post): the Grateful Dead.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jefferson Airplane - After Bathing At Baxter's

Okay, so I've slacked off. Things've been hectic; I won't get into it. Anyway, I'll conclude the long-hiatused Airplane week today and Friday then get back to a regular schedule next week.

After Bathing At Baxter's was the same album every major band released in 1968: the token Sgt. Pepper's response. According to myth the whole thing was in the can before Pepper came out, but the band went back to the master tapes and remixed it, adding more goofy stereo trickery, after hearing the way Beatles had raised the bar. Jeff Tamarkin's book doesn't back this up, and I'm inclined to believe him over anyone else, but the story deceptively hints at the musical zeitgeist of the time: everyone suddenly felt like they were playing catch-up. It's just not entirely clear why.

It's hard for younger people (myself included) to fathom today just why Pepper is considered such a landmark. It's been in the cultural dialogue again a lot lately, due to the whole fortieth anniversary hoo-hah, and there's been a predictable amount of backlash. Most people today think it's just not that great. I'm a huge Beatles fan, and I'd rate it their fifth-best album at best, maybe lower. Revolver seems to have replaced it as the consensus greatest-of-all-time; so how did Pepper ever earn that title in the first place?

What stories like the Airplane remixing Baxter's after hearing Pepper really illustrate is how the Pepper myth gets it wrong. Pepper was radical for three reasons: the compositional complexity, the instrumentation and the since-debunked (by Lennon himself, on many occasions) "concept-album" theory. But Pepper was by no means any sort of a revolution in mixing-desk wizardry. In fact, the Beatles themselves only oversaw the mono mix; the stereo mix was done without them and was the one which saw wide release. As far as headphone nuttiness goes, there's nothing on the album nearly as radical as Revolver's "Tomorrow Never Knows".

My theory is that other bands, knowing they were unable to compete with the Beatles as composers, instead drenched their songs in trippy effects. Since the slew of supposed Pepper-response albums that flooded the market the following year were all full of extraneous stereo psych-outs, Pepper's reputation has evolved to incorporate that. But really, from a sonic standpoint, Baxter's has nothing to do with Pepper.

Having said all that (where was I?), Baxter's remains my favourite Airplane record for two reasons: the sheer sonic nuttiness of it (check out the "whoa, buddy, I think my turntable is melting" bit at the end of "Martha"), and Jack Cassidy's bass work. I will go to my grave believing Cassidy to be one of the most underrated rock bassist who ever picked up a four-string, and he absolutely owns Baxter's.

A while back J—, on an iTunes store binge, asked me to recommend a few obscure favourites. Since he's a bass player, I told him to check out Baxter's, warning him about its more dated qualities (I'll address those Friday). I told him to download these two tracks first as a sampler, then get the rest of the record if he could stand the cringe-worthy hippie-dippy aspects of them. I'm not sure if he just ignored me (understandably; I mean Jefferson Airplane? What are you, like, sixty? Dude.), so what the hell, I'll just post them here now. I chose them because I think they have some of the more interesting bass work on the record. This means, unfortunately, that I must forgo "rejoyce" [capitalisation sic], in which Grace Slick sings my all-time favourite anti-war lyric of the Vietnam era:

War is business so give your son

But I'd rather have my country die for me

I also decided against posting the entire nine-minute bass solo from side two. But hey, can't have it all.

I think I bought this one in Boston, or rather Cambridge, at Planet, one of my favourites. Price tag: a cool $5.99, baby. This was one of my favourite stoner records sophomore year in college (it is worth noting that I was grilled for at least 50% of my waking hours that year), much to the chagrin of my three roommates, who had little interest in such hippie-psych twaddle. They were Stones/Velvets/Stooges guys, really. Tough shit.

Buy it... on vinyl.

Jefferson Airplane - "Martha" and "The Last Wall of the Castle"

NOTE: Check out the vinyl link, if you haven't yet. You can order Baxter's brand-new on vinyl from the Airplane's official site. How cool? Also, what the fuck is this? Hardcover? I want one.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Weekend video: QOTSA

So yeah, generally speaking supergroups are a bad idea. But Josh Homme can do pretty much anything as far as I'm concerned. It's no surprise that the Queens of the Stone Age line-up with Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan didn't last, but it as pretty incredible while it did. No idea where this was shot (Werchter? anyone), nor who broadcast it (TMF? wtf?), but you can pinpoint the year pretty easily just because Grohl's up there.

"Song for the Dead" is one of my favourites off Songs for the Deaf, and definitely my favourite to hear live because the rhythm is so perfectly suited to it. The moment at the the beginning when they first slow down to half-speed from the intro gives me whiplash every time, and nobody swings the main part of the song like Grohl. He actually looks psyched (check out the grin he flashes after the intro kicks in), and you can feel it in his playing.

Lanegan's voice sounds pretty good here, but he looks shaky. He appears to be holding himself up with the mic stand. He's probably just waiting for the song to be over so he can go back to the green room and shoot up.

Best Queens line-up? Yeah, obviously, but it was never meant to be forever. I think it's fleeting nature adds to its greatness. Homme needs to rope some more giants into the band for an album. He's clearly capable of staying in control. The Queens have had more than a dozen members to this point, and they always sound like the Queens.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Weekend video: Radio Birdman

Yeah, I've been slacking; get used to it. I'm going out of town again this week, so I'll post a couple more Airplane cuts at the end of the week, then get back to a regular schedule the following Monday. Meanwhile, have a video.

Been slowly making my way through Clinton Heylin's Babylon's Burning for the past month or so (full review on the Key whenever I finish; lots to cover here). One of the things that separates it from previous punk history tomes (and I've read my share) is Heylin's coverage of Australia's modest mid-70s proto-punk scene, basically the work of a few dozen misfits who managed to get their hands on copies of Fun House and Kick Out the Jams.

Radio Birdman were the biggest instigators in Sydney and "New Race" was their big, um, hit. Try to overlook the disconcertingly fascist overtones and just focus on the lunatic in the white tux. The singer's dance moves are a treat in their own right as well.

According to the notes from whoever posted it on YouTube the performance is from April 1977, but I've seen the same footage posted elsewhere (and with added closing credits, as though it were edited as the conclusion of a longer program) with a date of December the same year. According to Heylin they played a triumphant gig at the Paddington at the end of that year, so I'm inclined to believe the latter, but who knows?

All in all a pretty tasty little MC5 knockoff. Lost classic? You decide.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Jefferson Airplane - "Volunteers"

Sorry about the time off, recent flooding has limited my access to the turntables. Long story. No more excuses.

It's the fourth! Happy birthday, America!

Love, the Jefferson Airplane.

Weird story here: I shoplifted a cassette copy of Volunteers from a supermarket when I was like, fifteen or something. I'm not proud of it, I don't do that shit anymore, I was young, what can I tell you. All in the past now. Funny thing is I barely listened to it. Once I read the tracklist, I realised it didn't have any song's I'd heard of (there were two... guess which ones). So then years later one night I'm in some bar whose name escapes me. Looking Glass? On 3rd Avenue and 13th Street. Changed names and owners a few times. One of the owners used to chat with me everytime I went in there. No idea why. I was just some dumbass college kid.

So one night the opening chords of this track come blaring out from the jukebox and I'm transfixed. This tall, hippie-looking dude across the bar goes, "Yeah!" So I ask him, "Who's this?"

"Jefferson Airplane, man!"

So I go over to the jukebox to see what album and it's the one I've got on tape but never listen to. I listened to it a lot for the next few weeks, and that's when I started really liking the Airplane, which led me to get into several other bands of their ilk, many not quite as... essential.

I can't remember where I picked up the record. Sticker says $1.99, looks like a Generation tag. Must have grabbed it one day on a whim, replacing the tape, filling in a gap in the library.

Kick back and listen. Think about America. Think about 1969. Think about today. Then get up and go start a revolution. I'll be like, right behind you. In a minute. Or so.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Jefferson Airplane - "Volunteers"