Friday, February 29, 2008

Ultra Vivid Scene – "Mercy Seat"

So one more smoke-break track from the DJ days here, this one the 12" of a track from the first Ultra Vivid Scene record. Good tune, great guitar sound, nice little slice of early (as in pre-Loveless) proto-shoegaziness. A little tight time-wise because of the long intro before it kicks in, but you still get a good five-plus minutes of break time.

Frontman Kurt Ralske basically gave up on music after a few albums and moved on to visual art, where he's made a bit of a name for himself. In fact, I had no idea about this work until J— told me about it while he was studying computer art. I recognised the name, but J— had never heard of UVS, so I guess Ralske has made a pretty clean break. Just as well, I suppose. UVS was showed some promise, but never really made the leap from good to great. He seems to have found his true calling with the visual stuff.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Ultra Vivid Scene – "Mercy Seat"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sabalon Glitz – "Ufonic (17 Years Gone Mix)"

Now this is a true smoke-break classic. It's spacey, it's got a good (though frustratingly not great) rhythm, it plays at a consistent volume, it's not too repetitive and it's really long. Forget cigarettes, you could smoke a cigar during this one. This one was always my number one go-to when I had to feed the monkey, a DJ's best friend if there ever was one.

I bought this single on kind of a whim years ago after first hearing Sabalon Glitz on the mighty Monsters, Robots and Bug-Men comp. Yes, this is indeed the third week in a row I've mentioned it. It really is that good.

Anyway, one side of the record contains the title track from Sabalon's only album. It's basically just a bunch of effects pedals making noise for a few minutes; cool enough, but nothing you haven't heard before. The flipside contains the "same" song remixed by San Francisco-based rave/hippie duo Dubtribe Sound System. Dubtribe have basically built an entirely new song simply by laying a beat and a bassline under the original, then topping it off with some additional random noises (see the label credits in the photo). Now we have a monster.

There's a weird postscript to the Sabalon Glitz story. They made one album and broke up, but it was enough to get frontman Chris Holmes a major label deal. So he put together a new band called Yum-Yum and recorded an album of middling overproduced pop. The album flopped, the band was dropped, and Holmes moved on the the next trend by putting together a failed electronica act. Buried by the dusts of history, neither Holmes nor Yum-Yum even rate a Wikipedia entry (n.b., the guitarist from W.A.S.P. is a different Chris Holmes).

But several months after the band and its marketing apparatus had faded away, seemingly for good, the always gullible Harper's magazine published a rambling feature by an old friend of Holmes, who "explained" that the entire Yum-Yum project had been an elaborate practical joke by Holmes that exposed the fallacies of the music industry to make an ironic point about them.

The logic isn't worth summarising here; suffice to say anyone with a passing knowledge of popular music who read the article called bullshit. The whole thing is now just a footnote in Yum-Yum's pointless history.

And speaking of which, Holmes was last heard from getting arrested for trying to bring brass knuckles on to a plane. The website he set up to accept donations for his legal defense is still up, and his explanation of the whole misunderstanding is mildly amusing (as is his claim not to have created the site). Nice to see he's still slinging shit, I suppose.

Buy it... on vinyl. (If this track's on a CD anywhere, I don't know about it.

From my deck to you: Sabalon Glitz – "Ufonic (17 Years Gone Mix)"

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tortoise – "Galapagos 1 (remix)"

I mentioned in Friday's post that I used to play that really long Bowery Electric track during my DJ sets when I needed a smoke. For those of you who don't live in a major American city, a little background. California banned smoking in bars years ago. New York followed suit when Bloomberg got elected, and Philly just started it about a year ago, right after I moved here; I can't catch a break. And Boston did it some time ago as well.

Anyway, I've learned to live with it, to the point where I now go outside to smoke even if I'm in a city that still allows it, but when I was DJing it was a little trickier. I had responsibilities, after all, so I had to time it right. That's where this week's smoke-break classics come in. The trick is to roll one ahead of time so you're ready to go (if you're a cheap-ass who rolls his own smokes), then figure out in advance what you're going to play after your smoke-break record. When the long one starts playing, you throw the next one on the other deck, cue it up to the first beat and run outside. That way you can just run back in and hit play at a moment's notice. If you're vigilant, any song over six minutes should suffice.

I wasn't a club DJ, I played hang-out music in a bar, so most of my records weren't 12"s filled with ten-minute dance remixes. I played a mix of shoegaze and triphop and anything head-bobbing in between. But there were still remixes.

In the 90s it became common for rock bands to embrace dance, hiphop and other emerging electronic styles. For a while, rock bands putting out dance remixes became de rigeur, at least among the hipper ones. The band that arguably kicked this trend into high-gear was Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, who released an entire remix album after only their first studio album.

Following their second album, they released a series of four 12"s (numbered 1, 3, 4 and 5, for some reason) featuring celebrity remixers screwing with tracks from their most recent release; this would shortly become common practice in indie rock. This track is from the third, numbered 12.4, in the series.

I always liked Spring Heel Jack, so much so that I once mistakenly purchased a CD by ska band Spring Heeled Jack; what can I say, the cover looked techno-y enough. Maybe it was the rock pedigree; one of them was a guitarist in Spiritualized, though I didn't know this when I first heard them. As a young guitarist/rock loyalist, I hated electronic club music until I was about 21, and what brought me around to it was jungle. Spring Heel Jack were responsible for the first jungle track I really dug, a song called "Double Edged Dub" on the seminal Macro Dub compilation.

They keep it pretty simple here: you've got a bowel-rattling synth bass; some mellow, but standard, Amen breaks; and the song's primary guitar hook, just enough of the original to make it recognisable. In fact, I played this once between sets at an Unlove gig and C— came up and asked me if this was some Tortoise remix or something. So there you go.

Buy it... on vinyl. (The original 12" is apparently titled Rivers, though there's no indication of this on the label.)

From my deck to you: Tortoise remixed by Spring Heel Jack – "Galapagos 1"

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Weekend video: Zappa in the Crossfire

Apropos of nothing from this past week's posts (I couldn't find any interesting Bowery Electric videos), I'm posting this video of Frank Zappa on Crossfire debating rock censorship in 1986. I would have to assume that there are people ten or so years younger than myself that know Tipper Gore only as the First Lady who should have been, not as the Washington housewife who once instigated congressional hearings on Prince lyrics. But believe it or not, kids, Al Gore's wife was once the default villain for rock fans of all stripes.

Two things really stand out about Zappa in this clip: one, his utter contempt for John Lofton from minute one. It's not like he grows to hate Lofton throughout the segment; he refuses to even look at him from the beginning. And two, Zappa's meticulous preparation for the show. You just couldn't spring a tough question on this guy. Watch toward the end when Robert Novak brings up the teenaged protesters outside the Annapolis courthouse during Zappa's testimony. Not only does Zappa know exactly who they are and where they came from, he cites specific examples of absurdity from their reactionary pastor's literature.

I've said it before, I'll no doubt say it again: God bless YouTube. Think about it: somebody taped this twenty years ago, kept the tape, dug it out, digitised it, and uploaded here for your edification and mine.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bowery Electric – "Floating World/Lush Life"

Bowery Electric put out a remix album following Beat, then disappeared for a few years before finally releasing a follow-up in 2000. Lushlife is essentially a continuation of the direction the band established with Beat: more ambient guitar soundscapes, more reliance on sampled drum loops.

It's a decent enough record, but it's easy to see why there's been no further output: they lost their identity. While Beat was an interesting fusion of experimental rock and triphop, Lushlife is little more than a generic triphop album. The song structures and guitar and vocal sounds are pretty much the same from track to track. The beats are easily recognisable; there are no long-lost rare grooves here.

I don't actually own a copy of Lushlife, just a promo 12" of two of the album's tracks. They're both basically the same, but one of them (the title track) is longer, which made it a treat back in my DJing days because I could put it on and go out for a smoke. Neither of them is bad, but they're both pretty undistinguished (and indistinguishable).

Incidentally, the copy I have has the labels pasted on the wrong side of the record. The track labeled "Lush Life" is really "Floating World", and vice versa. Other than that, not much to say here.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Bowery Electric – "Floating World" and "Lush Life"

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bowery Electric – Beat

Beat was the Bowery Electric album that was recommended to me by an anonymous commenter last week, and I think it was the first full-length I owned by the band. No idea where I got it, but I'm sure it was new.

By 1996 Bowery Electric had given up on the idea of a permanent drummer and decided to forge ahead as a duo. Beats on the their new album would be split between loops and a session guy. The result is predictably less rock, more ambient, electronica, post-rock, pick one. The guitars are turned down, the arrangements are even sparer and more repetitive. This is isolation tank music.

My buddy G—, incidentally, saw them live around this time and said they sucked. Apparently unable to choose between a temporary drummer or canned beats, they went with both: a live drummer playing along with a drum machine. G— hates drum machines anyway, so I guess he took this as the ultimate insult to live drums. I've never been able to get him to listen to Bowery Electric since, despite my repeated assurances that the first album has a real drummer. Shame, too. I think he'd like it.

Beat has basically two killer tracks on it: the title cut and "Fear Of Flying". The rest is all pretty good, if a bit same-y, but those two really stand out. I chose the latter figuring it would be the less well-known, but lo and behold, a quick check over at the Hype Machine shows that "Flying" is still posted periodically, whereas "Beat" is all but forgotten. My bad. I'd switch it up, but I'm at work now and the mp3's already recorded. Maybe I'll post "Beat" as an update tomorrow. "Flying"'s still a killer tune, so it stays.

The other track I'm posting is the real treat here: Beat's vinyl-only bonus-track, which takes up all of side four. No kidding. It's basically a seven-or-so-minute drone with little variation. This one took me a few passes to get a decent recording because I kept hearing excessive surface noise on the record. Or at least thinking I did. I bought the album new, and I can't have played this side more than a few times, so how worn could it be? On the other hand, could the vinyl noises be an intentional affectation? I can't check, because the song's only available (to my knowledge) on vinyl.

Also, if you listen closely, you can hear a drum beat fade in about halfway through, then fade out a minute later. Believe it or not, the liner notes credit a real drummer on this track. Other than that, it doesn't really change. But still, hey, y'know... bonus!

Buy it (scroll down; it's KRANK 014)... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Bowery Electric – "Fear Of Flying" and "Low Density"

NOTE: 100th post on the Shelf! That counts the weekend videos when I've bothered, so I have no idea how many actual tracks I've posted. Nice to know I've been able to stick anything out this long, I suppose.

ADDENDUM 22 Feb 2008: Here it is; decide for yourself which is the keeper: Bowery Electric – "Beat"

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bowery Electric

So somebody posted a comment on Friday's post in which they recommended an old Bowery Electric album. I have it. In fact, since (a) I'm so gassed that somebody actually read this thing and (b) I own exactly three Bowery Electric records, I'm making this Bowery Electric week.

The band's first album was released on the post-rock/dream-pop label Kranky in 1995. It's credited to a three-piece, the principal pair plus a drummer.
I think I first heard them when a track from this album turned up on the Monsters, Robots and Bug-Men compilation, making this the second week in a row I've referenced it. It's really good if you can find it.

The track was "Slow Thrills", and it's similar to the rest of the album. You've got a simple bassline, plodding drumbeat and a guitar playing a three-chord progression with so much reverb you can't hear where one note ends and the next begins. It's a terrific formula because it's exceedingly simple, it works, and you can milk it quite a bit. The whole album sounds like that and it's great.

I've posted the opening track, or rather first two, and well, you get the idea. The division is curious. It's listed, with track times, as two tracks on the sleeve; "Sounds In Motion" is the first 1:55, "Next To Nothing" the remaining 7 minutes and change. But the times listed on the album's allmusic page list the first track length at 3:01. Is this how it's tracked on the CD? I have no idea. I guess it doesn't really matter because it's clearly the same song. I guess it changes over somewhere around when the drums kick in.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Bowery Electric – "Sounds In Motion/Next To Nothing"

NOTE: To order the CD from Kranky, you have to either mail them a cheque (?!?) or follow a bunch of links to their Paypal page. Click here for the catalogue page, then scroll down. The albums are listed in reverse order by catalogue number; Bowery Electric is KRANK 007.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Weekend video: Matt Elliot

So, um, anyone out there wondering just whatever happened to Third Eye Foundation? Yeah, so was I, and look what a little Internet digging turned up: turns out Matt Elliot's left his samplers and distortion pedals behind (way behind) and re-invented himself as a folk singer. This tune is the title track on his 2007 album, apparently the second in a trilogy. I understand all his stuff now has this sort of eastern European-inflected sound.

Not half bad, actually. And certainly a bold new direction. How come Beirut gets all the hype and I've never even heard of this until now?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Portishead – "Cowboys"

As promised, a third Bristol rarity. Portishead weren't a part of the FSA/Third Eye/AMP scene, nor the Massive/Tricky axis the city produced in the 90s. Instead, they forged their own combination of hiphop rhythm moves (right down to the turntable scratches) and dark cabaret lounge pop. Why they never got tapped for a James Bond theme is beyond me. Sheryl Crow? Seriously?

Following the success of their groundbreaking debut, the band released a self-titled follow-up three years later that was similar but way weirder. The formula remains basically the same, but the beats are harsher and distorted, the samples atonal and eerie, the vocals menacing. They announced their new developments with the lead single, the first track on the album and one of the most extreme in this regard.

I'm not really sure how I wound up with this promo 12". I think it belonged to a roommate of mine who used to work at Kim's and left it behind when we moved out. It has no information on the label, and contains only the single on one side and an instrumental version on the other. It was released, apparently, in an edition of 3,000.

And after that, silence. The band released a well-received live album a year later and then disappeared. They were recently announced as one of the headliners for this summer's Coachella festival and reportedly have a new album coming out in April. Welcome back.
Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Portishead – "Cowboys" and "Cowboys (instrumental)"

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

[The] Third Eye Foundation – "Semtex"

The Bristol scene in the late 80s consisted of a lot of people playing in each other's bands. Matt Elliot played in Flying Saucer Attack and AMP before getting serious about his own project, Third Eye Foundation.

The best way to describe Third Eye's sound is lo-fi drum'n'bass. Crisp, sterile breakbeats pulse beneath waves of static and distortion. Elliot released four full-length LPs, as well as numerous singles, EPs and compilations thereof. The first album is called Semtex; this track is not on it. In 2006 he released the three-CD set Collected Works which, for some reason, contains three of the four albums.

This single, inexplicably credited to The Third Eye Foundation, features far and away my favourite Third Eye track, and in fact one of my all-time favourites from the era. Only close competition: his track on the Monsters, Robots and Bug-Men comp. It's from some 12" that I got, I think, when it was out (pressing run: 500). It's a bit more straight-ahead drum'n'bass than some of the other stuff, with the standard Amen breaks pushed a bit higher in the mix than usual. But the dense soundscapes over the beat give the whole thing a relentless feel. And the best thing about it? It's ten minutes long.

Unfortunately, the version on Collected is cut in half. (And that comp track isn't on there at all; it's on the first album, which has the same title as this song that isn't on it, and isn't on Collected. Who's in charge here?) So I don't think the full version is commercially available on CD. The 12" contains three tracks; two are posted here. The third is a shorter version of "Semtex", and who needs that?

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Third Eye Foundation – "Semtex" and "Science Fiction"

Monday, February 11, 2008

Flying Saucer Attack – "Coming Home/Hope"

I picked this up without having any idea what it was. The guy at Beautiful World didn't know either. I asked him how much, he said "I dunno, five bucks?" Not really a super-bargain for a 7", but hey, it's FSA. And, as it turns out, the record does trade for a bit more than that.

Turns out the a-side is a cover of a track by some forgotten early 80s English DIY act called Prisoners, of whom I had never heard. Live and learn.

Which explains why the songs sounds so little like FSA, particularly at this point in their history. The single was released the same month as New Lands, the first FSA record without Rachel Cook on bass and a definite step (even further) away from conventional song structures. I mean, at least "In the Light of Time" had something resembling verses and choruses; New Lands is all drum'n'bass beats and experiments with static. Damn good record, too, mind you.

The b-side is a bit more like the FSA we all know and love. Not a great cut, but that's why it's a b-side.

Incidentally, I posted this just because I had it lying around and hadn't listened to it yet, but I actually have enough material to make this week's theme "limited edition singles by 90s acts from Bristol." Check back Wednesday. This one had a run of 1,000, by the way.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Flying Saucer Attack – "Coming Home" and "Hope"

NOTE: FSA were hardly afraid of a good singles comp in their day, but I can't find these tracks anywhere but here. If they're on CD, I don't know about it.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Weekend video: BROOOCE!!!

I posted "Kitty's Back" on Wednesday and described it as a live favourite, so here's a killer live version.

This is from Conan O'Brien's Christmas show a few years ago, and it's one of the best TV performances I've ever seen. in fact, it's one of the only truly great TV performances I've ever seen. I can clearly remember watching this with my brother down in the basement rec room and being blown away. Even my brother, who's hardly a Springsteen fan let alone even a rock n' roll fan, was mightily impressed. I can clearly remember him commenting on how amazing it was.

You see? Now that's why people worship this guy.

Friday, February 8, 2008


So I was going to post a few cuts off Born To Run to wrap up Jersey Giants week on the shelf, rounding out (what I consider) the Boss's big three, but there aren't really any hidden gems on it. It's such a monstrous album that all the good songs are well-known. By contrast, his 1995 Greatest Hits contains no songs from the first two albums and three of Born To Run's eight tracks.

Born To Run is also something of an artistic as well as commercial turning point in Springsteen's career. It's the first album produced by Jon Landau, and the first with Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg in the band. And, more than any other, it's the point at which Bruce became BROOOCE!!! The lyrics are simpler, the convoluted wordplay of his early years replaced by the heart-tugging tales of workin' folk for which Springsteen remains best known. And the songs themselves became more anthemic, pushing pretty basic buttons for the listener. It's still a terrific album, every bit the all-time classic its reputation holds it to be, but in a way it's also a break with the past. The transformation from troubadour to superstar begins and ends on Born To Run.

So I figured I'd represent the BROOOCE!!! era with a couple of tracks from the 1986 live box set. Released at the peak of Springsteen's post-Born in the USA fame, Live/1975-85 was the first major box set I was aware of, and started a trend that would peak about ten years later. It's a bloated, excessive, exhaustive marathon of monster hits and sweaty, balls-out performances, just like one of his legendary shows. More than that of any other performer of the rock era, the live Springsteen experience is just too massive to be contained by a simple double album. BROOOCE!!! earned himself a five LP set one three-hour show at a time. It's also, incidentally, the first (only? not sure) Springsteen album to share a credit with the band, and Lord knows they earn it.

For even the casual fan, the set is a treat start to finish, and never feels too long. It sold a whole mess of copies, but I think a lot of people didn't listen to it much; it's quite a commitment. My copy ran me all of ten bucks, and it's in perfect shape. You can find it anywhere.

The set packs in all the elements of a Springsteen show, right down to his famous rambling-bullshit stories about growin' up in Jersey. My favourite of these comes just before "The River", when he yammers away about fightin' with his pop about his long hair and gettin' drafted. The way he starts out sounding somewhat aimless before knocking you out with one touching line at the conclusion shows what a canny performer Springsteen is. The story may not even be true, but he knows just how the blindside the audience with a grab at the heartstrings and here he pulls it off to perfection. Call me a sucker, but I still get goosebumps every time I hear it, even though I always know what's coming.

The box draws from a number of shows through the years, but most of the first three sides all come from the same date, a 1978 performance in a theater (as opposed to a stadium) that must have been a doozy. Even then, "Spirit in the Night" was already an oldie, and the band tears it up here.

Finally, I'm posting "Born To Run" because I didn't post the album version. It's "Born To Run", dude! What more do you want? Listen to how hard the band kicks in after the break! BROOOOOOOCE!!!!!

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – "The River", "Spirit in the Night" and "Born To Run"

NOTE: One of the benefits of upgrading my file storage account is that I can now post bigger files, meaning no more lower bit rate on songs over ten minutes. Lucky you!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle

Just a quick reminder that it's Springsteen week on the Shelf as a big shout out to Jersey in honour of David Manning defeating Goliath Brady. Justice is served.

The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is my favourite Springsteen record by an overwhelming margin, but I wouldn't be surprised if not many others felt the same way. The songs are overlong and overwrought, the arrangements too busy. Springsteen's lyrics, while not nearly as oblique as the ones on his first album, are still needlessly loquacious. The trademark cheesiness that will turn off hipper listeners for years to come has already begun creeping into his performing sensibility.

Okay, enough criticism, I'm just trying to be balanced here. E Street Shuffle is one of the best albums of its era and there's not a weak moment on it. The opening number announces everything about the album. The style has developed into something recognizable, the derivative, old-time rock n' roll elements more fully absorbed into a contemporary sound. The lyrics have become more purposeful, painting characters and telling stories. And the coda, when they kick into to double-time, is the hottest jam of its kind this side of Sly Stone's "Stand".

And I didn't even post that song. There's too many other good cuts. Every song is good. Two of his best-loved long-form concert staples ("Rosalita" and "Kitty's Back") are from this album. "New York City Serenade", essentially a showcase for soon-to-depart pianist/string arranger David Sancious, might be Springsteen's finest ballad.

I'm posting "Kitty's Back" because it's less well-known that "Rosalita" and because the arrangement has more unpredictable turns in it.
I'm also posting "Incident On 57th Street" because the lead guitar in it rules. It's worth noting that on his first few albums Springsteen played all the guitar, lead and rhythm. Little Steven was in the concert band, but the Boss did it all in the studio. And the chorus is terrific. Corny? Screw you, cynic.

Incidentally, my copy still has the price sticker on the cover: $1.99. Yesterday I saw the new Cat Power album on vinyl and was psyched to pick it up: $30.99. Think I'll wait. Nothing against Ms. Marshall, mind you, but what are the odds that album's one tenth as good as E Street Shuffle?. You know when I started buying vinyl in college it was partly because it was just cheaper than CDs? Even new albums.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Bruce Springsteen – "Kitty's Back" and "Incident On 57th Street"

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ

Giants win! Evil has been vanquished! There is a lesson in all this, innocent children of America: it may take a while, but cheaters will eventually lose. Always.

So I missed posting on Monday which is ridiculous because I have no excuse. None whatsoever. I even had several mp3s uploaded and ready to go in case either team won. That's right: I planned on the possibility of the Giants actually winning. Seriously. I even won $20 on it.

So in honour of the Giants' victory, a week of Jersey's finest: the Boss. If you're a die-hard fan, Springsteen's never really made a bad album. Some are better than others, but they all have their merits. If you're a casual fan, like me, Springsteen came out of the gate strong, put out three absolute classics, then never made another great rock album after Born to Run. (Arguable exception: Tunnel of Love)

The qualifier rock album is important here. Every few years he takes a break from writing mediocre blue-collar stadium anthems, turns off his amps, and reminds anyone who forgot that he's probably the best songwriter of his generation (acceptable rebuttal: Elvis Costello). Hence Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and that Pete Seeger tribute album from two years ago that I thought was the best thing he'd done since I can't remember. Seriously, go listen to it.

But Darkness on the Edge of Town is boring as f—k, The River is a little better but still doesn't touch the first three, et cetera etc. There are theories as to what went wrong (some of them hinging on the influence of superfan-turned-svengali Jon Landau), but I won't dwell on them here. (Okay, I'll give you a brief overview of my three-part hypothesis: the problem is (a) Bruce's ego, (b) Bruce's ego and (c) BROOOCE!) We're here to talk about the good times, and what remains is the music.

It's hard to see how bold Springsteen's debut must have sounded without proper context. To hear it for the first time today is to hear an uneven bar band fronted by an overeager lyricist trying to cram a few dozen syllables into each bar. What made it so different at the time, aside from Springsteen's precocious wordplay, was its classicist bent. Nowadays, this sounds like seventies rock. In the seventies, it sounded somewhat retro. Without resorting to slavish imitation, the band managed to invoke just enough of the past to sound like the entire brief history of rock n' roll unfolding in a single verse. The rhythm section packs the punch of a Stax/Volt session crew. The two-keyboard piano and organ combo recalls Dylan and the Band's rustic Americana. And most strikingly, the once dominant saxophone, a staple in rock n' roll combos before being laid to rest by the ascent of the Beatles, returns triumphantly in the form of Clarence Clemons's simple, growling melodies. Springsteen manages to borrow elements from gospel, folk, R&B and whatever other pre-rock style strikes his fancy and incorporate them into his own signature sound. In the age of dick-swinging arena rock and navel-gazing prog noodlers, he stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb.

What he adds to the mix is his still-developing lyrical voice, and my, what a wordy young fellow! At this point he's still dealing mainly in abstract images. The words are too impressionistic to cohere into anything tangible, but they're thrilling nonetheless. Later, he would learn to sketch vivid slice-of-life scenes and populate them with instantly familiar characters. A few more albums in and he would begin telling actual stories with beginnings, middles, endings, sinners, saints, redemption. But it started out as just a bunch of words.

I hadn't listened to the album in a while before taping these tracks. The hits were "Blinded By the Light" (an even bigger hit for Manfred Mann) and "Spirit in the Night"; you know those already. I picked "Lost in the Flood" because the lyrics jumped out at me and because I liked the build-and-release of the arrangement. I picked "For You" because the band kicks ass on it. No better reason, really.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Bruce Springsteen – "Lost in the Flood" and "For You"

Friday, February 1, 2008

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – "Louisiana Rain"

America's only true national holiday is this Sunday and, if you're like me, you're rooting for a certain band of dirty cheats to lose and teach the impressionable youth of this great land a valuable lesson about honesty and good sportsmanship. Petty's the halftime act, a decent enough choice, but one whom I can guarantee right now will not touch Prince's dominant performance from last year. By coincidence, I picked up a copy of Damn the Torpedoes a week or so ago, so he gets today's post.

Torpedoes is, believe it or not, the only Petty album I own. I never even had Full Moon Fever in its heyday. K— had a copy of the Greatest Hits back in college, and that always seemed like enough. Lo and behold, I may not have been wrong.

Not that Torpedoes is bad, but for an album reputed to be among Petty's best, if not the best, there's a disappointing paucity of hidden gems. Four of the nine tracks (including "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That") are well-known singles that we've all heard before, and they clearly account for the album's reputation. The rest of the cuts are mostly filler, none of them awful, none of them especially memorable.

The closest we get to a lesser-known classic is the closing number, a mid-tempo ballad called "Louisiana Rain". Petty seems to be striving for epic status with this one, but it falls slightly short. I just feel like, good as the song may be, it lacks that album-closer feeling (Would you know it was the closer if I hadn't told you?), and I think of Petty as the kind of guy who needs strong closers.

Having emerged in the mid-seventies, Petty represents the tail-end of the previous generation of old-school classic rockers, the ones being rebelled against by the punks and new-wavers who arose around the same time. For the crowd Petty rolled with, the closing number was key for any album, and had been since the Beatles put out "A Day in the Life" ten years earlier.

Petty's music, like that of his contemporary Springsteen, is characterised (though perhaps not as explicitly as Springsteen's) by a reverence for rock history, an obligation to carry on traditions only recently established. Torpedoes was Petty's third album. Having made the brash debut and the frustrating sophomore effort (both classic rock clich├ęs in and of themselves), his third was supposed to be the mature, confident album that established him as one of rock's staple artists. And it did, in every sense.

But what the album lacks is great songs beyond the singles, songs for the next generation of fans like myself to find when they discover Petty and decide to dig deeper. Springsteen's second album, for instance, is composed almost entirely of those kind of songs. I think a stronger closing number would have gone a long way toward reinforcing this album's classic status. And what "Louisiana Rain" really needs to fulfill that role is a five-minute guitar solo after the second chorus.

Yes, you could argue that the lengthy solo represents a facile shortcut to epic status, that the resulting song would get there by merely signifying epic-ness rather than earning it. I might not agree, but it's a valid argument. But I still think a five-minute guitar solo would carry "Louisiana Rain" from good to great. On the other hand, you can probably say that about pretty much any song.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – "Louisiana Rain"