Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before*

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Almost four years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about two years later I’m coming down the home-stretch, I hope, of a memoir that regular readers of this blog are already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone. The plan for 2013 is to see this sucker come to life in a format that is both formal and final. I’ve already been fortunate enough to secure the involvement of some amazing people, and that has inexorably made the project better than it would have otherwise been. It also has made it more likely, if even a tiny bit, that I can pull this off. For a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve touched on HERE and more extensively via the analysis I do for my “day job” (it won’t be hard to find it if you try), it makes increasing sense in the current state of publishing to embrace a DIY ethos; the same one so many others have already proven not only viable but, in many unbelievable regards, preferable. Even better, he who controls the production and distribution also controls the momentum: it need not be a big opening-weekend type all-or-nothing initiative (the sad and consistent SOP of entirely too much creative work). In fact, it can be the opposite, and get bigger and better as it goes along.

This is where you may very well come in: I plan to donate all or most of any proceeds to a yet-to-be-determined charity (but anyone who knows the illness that rears its hideous head throughout the story should be able to make some educated guesses where and what I’m investigating). Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…

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Gary Clark Jr.: Seeing Is Believing

It’s only happened on two other occasions, before last Friday night.

In 2001, seeing Mike Patton in person for the first time, with his brand new side project Tomahawk (at the Black Cat in D.C. which, before the overdue smoking ban, was like standing in a dark closet with a nicotine-scented dry-ice machine). They came out and played “God Hates a Coward” and I turned to my date and said “I’m good. We can go now.” We did not, of course, but I truly would have been 100% satisfied with just those 3 minutes. To get an hour-plus of that passion, musicality and showmanship was one for the ages. I was less than 20 feet from the stage.

(More on Tomahawk, HERE, check out #39.)

In 2008 I caught Living Colour on one of the opening nights of their tour for their then not-yet-released “comeback” album The Chair in the Doorway. (My subsequent review of that album can be found HERE.) They played “Burned Bridges” and it was both an opening salvo and shot across the bow: the guys came out en fuego and the smoke did not stop rising until five minutes after they left the stage. Reid’s solo, and I happened to be on the right side of the stage to see it in, well, living colour, remains one of the most ridiculous sixty seconds of virtuosity I’ve ever worshipped in real time. It left me shivering with delight and disbelief, knowing they were locked in and about to operate at this level for another couple of hours. (They did.) I could easily have left right then and felt satisfied and spent (I didn’t.)

Footage of Reid in action is instructive, but the sound quality is not optimal; make sure you check out the authentic version, HERE.

A lot more about this band, and seeing them live (in ’93!) HERE.

 

Which brings us to Gary Clark Jr.’s performance at D.C.’s 9:30 Club last Friday night. He opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. This dude commands the stage like no one else has in a long-ass time: tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December, he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate.

See what I’m saying?

When I saw him, the first time, last year, my impression was that he displayed the type of playing –and talent– we see from a handful of players every 10 years or so. Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling (and history) that you can’t fake. I was absolutely gobsmacked, and immediately hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR.

I look forward to enjoying him  for a long, long time. For now, he seems to be more like a blues or jazz artist in that he shines live and to fully appreciate him, it needs to be in real time. That’s not to say his studio work thus far is underwhelming, but, well, it’s not nearly as effective in my opinion. The intensity and connection is lacking. Certainly, that is true on literal levels (duh): seeing an act live will bring intensity and a literal connection that a digital file played on a digital device can’t deliver. But this is not typically the case with rock music, where so much of it sounds better on album than in person. Quick: name me one rock band that consistently sounds better live.

One example that fairly leaps to mind: The Black Keys. Like just about all rock acts, they sound much better in the studio than they ever do live. And this is understandable on several levels: for one, it’s exceedingly difficult to convey that sound (one guitar, one voice, one drummer) to a large arena. If you could watch the Black Keys –who recorded the bulk of their early work live, in a basement, proving that they could “do it” without studio trickery or production pyrotechnics– in a small room forever, they could be legit live contenders. As such, they struggle (in my opinion, having seen them in venues small and large) to put it down, effectively, in person. (More on The Black Keys, HERE, check out #5.)

It says a great deal about Clark’s ability and acumen that he brings the noise, on several levels, when he’s performing. Plus, it would be wrong to label him a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

(For the record, I do think his major label debut, Black and Blu, is more than a little overproduced. It’s understandable, if expected: he’s trying to break in with a sound that is sufficiently accessible to a wider audience, and I certainly don’t begrudge him that. I’ll simply say, if I were handed his new album and his EP, and asked to assess him, I’d probably say: lots of potential. Having seen him live (twice) and with the benefit of myriad clips courtesy of YouTube, I can confirm that the potential is largely realized and he has already arrived; it’s just a matter of being in the same place at the same time.)

If you have a chance to check him out, do so. He sounds fine (thank you very much) in a studio setting, and I encourage you to grab his new disc. But like most of the better acts, especially of the jazz and blues idioms, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future.

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Keep on Baracking in the Free World: 10 Songs for 4 (More) Years

1. Now’s The Time.

Because, you know, it is.

2. Focus on Sanity

No further comment necessary. Thank you America!!!

3. II B.S.

His name is CHOLLY MINGUS and I approve this message.

4. You Can Make It If You Try

True for our president; true for any of us. Preach it Sly!

5. Walk the Streets of Glory

Right?

6. Hey You

Together we stand, divided we fall…

7. Day After Day

Civil War is raging endlessly, day after day…

8. This Must Be The Place

But I guess I’m already there…

9. Give Blood

Give love and keep blood betweeen brothers…

10. Fight the Fight

We are all fighting the same fight
We are all in the same war
We are all in the same revolution
You got to know what you’re fighting for…

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Elvis Is (Still) Dead: Long Live The King (Revisited)

Poor Elvis.

The one-time king is now more often the (big) butt of jokes (see?).

But his musical and cultural imprint remains huge and will forever be impossible to escape from. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Just consider the number of musicians who have covered, copied and imitated the Great White Hype. In part because hype and purloined material aside, the man was, well, kind of a big deal.

In honor of the day he absconded his throne (while on the throne…see? One can’t help oneself), here are ten artistic invocations of Elvis, ranging from the good to the bad to the very ugly.

1. In one of the great scenes from one of the all-time great comedies, here is Spinal Tap saluting The King (argh: the full scene is not possible to embed, damn it. Go to YouTube and look at up “Spinal Tap Elvis grave” for a bit too much perspective):

2. The immortal Bill Hicks keeping it (un)real:

3. A more reverential tribute from the guitar god Danny Gatton:

4. Speaking of “Mystery Train”, here’s some love for (and from) Jim Jarmusch:

5. You think that’s weird? Ever seen Wild at Heart? (Nic Cage when he was only pretending to be crazy…mostly):

6. No list would be complete without Public Enemy’s eviscerating ‘dis. “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” is one of the great slams in rap history. I’ve never heard a song that could hurt and heal all at once quite like this one:

7. Okay. Some comic relief, STAT. Enter personal hero, Tortelvis. If you are not down with Dread Zeppelin, you should be. If you have never heard them, listen to what your life has been lacking all these years (from the enthusiastically recommended –no, really– album 5,000,000):

8. From Dread to Led. Recently discussed from the all-time album that supposedly sucks (but does not), “Hot Dog” is the hilarious and genuinely reverential and rocking Elvis tribute from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door:

9. And another Elvis-inspired number, this one from the magnificent Freddie Mercury. Rockabilly plus Elvis plus Brian May = epic:

10. Last and far from least, a song that sort of ties it all together, courtesy of Living Colour: guest vocalist Little Richard (!) gets the definitive last word, as well he should. Great vid (attention to detail always making the nice little differences: note the peanut butter and bananas in the shopping cart: RESPECT!):

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Living Colour’s ‘Stain’: 19 Years Ago Today

Confession: I would not have known this album was released 19 years ago today if not for Vernon Reid’s Facebook post. But I’m glad I saw it, because it gives me an opportunity to talk about it. In fact, I took the opportunity to talk about Stain last summer for my PopMatters feature 10 Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Don’t) (link here).

19 years ago: I remember exactly where I was. Grad school. In my snug Resident Advisor room hunkered down trying to read 100 books in one calendar year (I exaggerate, but not by much). Suffice it to say, money was tight. But then, as now, I’d give up food for music, and when Living Colour’s third album dropped, there was no question that it had to be acquired. (Obligatory reminder for today’s whipper-snappers: this was not only way before the digital era of samplers and/or online stealing, this was when compact discs cost a disgusting amount of money.)

I loved Vivid and I really loved Time’s Up (which I’d put on the short list of the decade’s best). After what seemed an interminable wait for my hungry ears, I could not have been more excited to slap this baby in the machine. And…I hated it. At least the first few times. I wasn’t ready for it; I simply was not prepared for this sonic assault. It was abrasive, unapologetic and angry. Just the inside photo of the band was frightening: these were some bad-ass motherfuckers. This, I asked myself, is how you follow up the sophomore masterpiece that landed you on the cover of Rolling Stone? Within a week or so my mind adjusted and I understood: the answer was affirmative. Of course this is how you do it. They were making the music they wanted to make. Like any band with integrity, they were making the music they had to make. Pretty simple, really. And, like so many albums I’ve come to cherish, it was impossible to get an accurate read during the first several spins. Certainly, some music reveals itself, immediately, as masterful and it’s love at first listen. But so many challenging, worthwhile albums require you to embrace them on their terms, no compromise or equivocation.

Stain is not only a brilliant album, it’s –especially with the benefit of hindsight– very much an album of its time: there are the inexorable nods to grunge (this was 1993, after all), and a musical/lyrical reaction to the social issues of the day (this era, lest we forget, was an uneasy cauldron of racial tensions, coming in between the 1992 Republican Convention, Rodney King and the cultural clusterfuck of the O.J. Simpson trial). Stain is a prescient album in several regards: on one hand, Clinton had been inaugurated less than two months before, ending a 12 year Republican stranglehold: life was good again, right? Right. Except for the fact that so much was wrong. As impossible as it may be to recall, this was a time where racial matters (see: Rodney King, etc.) and sexual preference (see: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the political debacle that turned into) where still toxic, third-rail type distractions. Of course, Clinton’s unsuccessful attempt to reform Health Care proved that America was simply not ready to act in its collective best interest (some things never change, right?). Put in more stark terms, 1993 was a year when Chevy Chase had his own talk show. Needless to say, America was a very confused place in many regards.

Here’s the thing: so much music made in the early ’90s sounds astonishingly dated, and the copycat impulse was in full effect –everyone wanted to sound like they came out of Seattle. A little bit of that went a long way. And while, as already acknowledged, Living Colour certainly tipped their creative caps to what was going on around them, they were also carving out a deep, dark sound that still sounds, well, vivid, almost two full decades on. Even though they did not go on to own the decade, like they may have, they sort of did anyway.

My assessment of the album, from this summer, is below.

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and… that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. Wimbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.


So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa 1993. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.
All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now,Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

By the way, I should also have mentioned that the tour for this album, in summer of ’93, produced one of THE best live performances I’ve ever seen.

It was an appropriately hot (I mean steaming hot) evening, and the venue was the old WUST Arena (now the relocated 9:30 Club), which was located in a sketchy part of town. The venue was small, tight and absolutely crammed with fans. Keep in mind: this was 1993 so the mosh-pit craze was in full (and annoying) effect, which meant that what would/should have been the first 10-15 rows were necessarily allocated to shirtless d-bags doing the man dance. Nevertheless, the band was in killer form and the set, which drew heavily –and appropriately– from Stain was scorching. It was a revelation to actually watch each of these artists do their thing: the lanky Wimbish manhandling his bass, Calhoun beating the drums within an inch of their lives, and Reid locked and loaded, effusing cool and gritty elan. But Corey Glover, who had by this time shorn his dreads and (wisely) retired his body-suits, was the main attraction. Dude was en fuego: snarling and prowling the stage and (this was 1993) doing copious stage dives. At one point he shimmied up one of the speaker towers and, I am not exaggerating because I was in the upper deck, at least twenty feet above the floor and was essentially eye-to-eye with him for a few seconds, just dropped into the crowd. They caught him, of course. But that was just balls. It wasn’t like he said “Catch me” or made some big dramatic overture before diving; he just got up and then got the fuck down. But the crowd was there for him.

I was soaked through by the time the gig was over, and aside from the sweat, beer and blood (figuratively speaking, from 20 feet up) those 9o minutes were more like a prizefight than a concert. I’ve seldom seen a band more focused and intense and, as I drove home that night, I really did think they were about to take over the world. Like I said, they sort of did anyway.

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Elvis Is (Still) Dead, Long Live The King!

Poor Elvis.

The one-time king is now more often the (big) butt of jokes (see?).

But his musical and cultural imprint remains huge and will forever be impossible to escape from. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Just consider the number of musicians who have covered, copied and imitated the Great White Hype. In part because hype and purloined material aside, the man was, well, kind of a big deal.

In honor of the day he absconded his throne (while on the throne…see? One can’t help oneself), here are ten artistic invocations of Elvis, ranging from the good to the bad to the very ugly.

1. In one of the great scenes from one of the all-time great comedies, here is Spinal Tap saluting The King (argh: the full scene is not possible to embed, damn it. Go to YouTube and look at up “Spinal Tap Elvis grave” for a bit too much perspective):

2. The immortal Bill Hicks keeping it (un)real:

3. A more reverential tribute from the guitar god Danny Gatton:

4. Speaking of “Mystery Train”, here’s some love for (and from) Jim Jarmusch:

5. You think that’s weird? Ever seen Wild at Heart? (Nic Cage when he was only pretending to be crazy…mostly):

6. No list would be complete without Public Enemy’s eviscerating ‘dis. “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” is one of the great slams in rap history. I’ve never heard a song that could hurt and heal all at once quite like this one:

7. Okay. Some comic relief, STAT. Enter personal hero, Tortelvis. If you are not down with Dread Zeppelin, you should be. If you have never heard them, listen to what your life has been lacking all these years (from the enthusiastically recommended –no, really– album 5,000,000):

8. From Dread to Led. Recently discussed from the all-time album that supposedly sucks (but does not), “Hot Dog” is the hilarious and genuinely reverential and rocking Elvis tribute from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door:

9. And another Elvis-inspired number, this one from the magnificent Freddie Mercury. Rockabilly plus Elvis plus Brian May = epic:

10. Last and far from least, a song that sort of ties it all together, courtesy of Living Colour: guest vocalist Little Richard (!) gets the definitive last word, as well he should. Great vid (attention to detail always making the nice little differences: note the peanut butter and bananas in the shopping cart: RESPECT!):

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #7

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Four (Revisited)

20. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (2005)

Mad genius? Compulsive artiste? Fragile chanteuse? Misunderstood icon? All of the above? More? Whatever it is (and it could be none of this), there is no getting around the fact that Fiona Apple is a major talent. There is also no getting around the fact that the circumstances surrounding the conception, execution and (eventual) release of this, her third album, are the stuff of pop (and Internet) legend. Soap opera succinctly: word got out that Apple had recorded several tracks for her long-awaited next album. Then: was she unsatisfied with the results? Was the record label? Was she having a breakdown? Would we ever hear the album?

Between Apple’s admitted perfectionism, the understood (and expected) intransigence from the label, and the bizarre online campaign to “Free Fiona” organized by her more ardent fans, it’s a tall order to make sense of who did what when to whom. Who cares? The result is an album that could be called (tongue very much in cheek) epic and extraordinary.

But it gets better. The first version (the one ostensibly rejected by Epic), which was leaked to the Internets, then widely disemminated (and still pretty easy to track down) is, in this writer’s opinion, far superior to the quite satisfying officially released version. There is a rawness, immediacy and unaffected sincerity that confirms what a remarkable talent Apple is, (and, if the conspiracy story is true, what myopic, destructive imbeciles the people who usually call the shots are).

Finally, and most importantly, if you figured all that mid-decade hype regarding this album was a publicity stunt or not worth the bother, don’t make the mistake of overlooking this one. And if you are already on board but have not heard the “alternate” versions, here is a taste of what you’ve been missing: Any Other Questions?

 

19. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)

Prog rock lives! Concept album! About robots! The kind of album you get a contact buzz just looking at.

But as anyone who has followed The Flaming Lips knows, this is not superficial feel-good music to pass the bong around to (although I’m sure a few hundred thousand people have happily done so, with no complaints about the background music). Indeed, the “robot” songs comprise less than half the album, and some of those same recreational smokers might point out that the robots are highly metaphorical, and not about some dystopian future. Dude.

So, yeah, The Flaming Lips are out there, but they are out there in the best way. Arguably they are out there the only way they can be, because they could not be any other way. And any band, at any time, who can cultivate their own unique style that you can recognize with a single note is worthy of the highest praise. Most folks would agree that The Soft Bulletin (’99) is their masterpiece, and one of the significant works of that decade. But if nothing else, Yoshimi created a new crop of fans who could discover what they may have missed, and get on board for the next few albums (all of which have been wonderful in their own way).

This music is ostensibly breezy, and it has a deceptively ebullient air. The lyrics are quite sombre, dealing with death and the struggle to live. One way to look at this is that by dealing so forthrightly and unabashedly with serious issues, The Flaming Lips are able to deliver their findings with optimism and goodwill. Like Pink Floyd, the band they are often compared to, one need not be drunk or high, happy or sad to find much to love and enjoy on this brave and fantastic recording.

 

18. Tool, Lateralus (2001)

It is always cause for serious celebration when a band can be uncompromising to the point of near abrasiveness and still pull an audience along, simply because their music is too brilliant to ignore. I don’t think Tool is deliberately abrasive (in fact, I don’t find anything abrasive about their music at all, but I can appreciate how some folks may feel that way), and I don’t think they out to make impenetrable work. Sometimes a work (whether it’s an album or a novel or a movie) requires some effort on the part of the audience, and the more work you are willing to do, the richer the reward. Suffice it to say, Lateralus is the type of art you need to experience, and find out, in your own way, what (if anything) it has to offer you.

Put another way, Lateralus is a pretty dark, challenging work, and anyone with a functioning set of ears can confirm that there is some serious artistry on display. This is one of those albums that grabs you on first listen, but you’re not sure what is grabbing you, or what is being grabbed. Is it your heart? Your head? Your gut? All? Over time, it’s a little bit of everything, because this is art that makes you think and feel. It’s head-banging music for people who spend as much time in the library as the mosh pit (Check that, does anyone hang out in mosh pits, or libraries, anymore?). Anytime you’re ready to do some emotional and mental lifting, Lateralus will meet you more than halfway.

17. The Black Keys, Rubber Factory (2004)

The Black Keys have been productive (practically an album per year since their debut in 2002) and they have improved with each album. Even though their M.O. is as stripped down as possible (guitar/drums), and their music is grounded in a blues-rock hybrid that strives for authenticity and feeling (no overdubs, live-in-the-basement-studio recording, vintage equipment, etc.), they’ve shown an admirable range and willingness to expand on and enrich their sound. This is all on near-perfect display on Rubber Factory which, in my humble opinion, might actually be more highly regarded (now, later) if they had fizzled out after this release. But the fact that they have been so reliable and consistent has made it difficult to isolate individual albums. It also doesn’t hurt that each of their albums, starting with Thickfreakness, could –and should– be assessed as masterful.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Dan Auerbach these past couple of years and I’m still far from finished. But on Rubber Factory he somehow manages to sound, on some of the songs (like the opener “When The Lights Go Out” and “The Desperate Man) like a much older man who has seen long years and hard times. It’s not affected or sonic slumming: this is a natural gift and Auerbach has an almost indescribably expressive voice. Then there is his guitar playing. Then there is his songwriting. The guy is an absolute original, and nowhere is this more evident (if slightly ironic) than in his choice of songs to cover: on Rubber Factory he does a more than credible cover of The Kinks’ “Act Nice And Gentle” and then somehow pulls off a (scorching) cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Grown So Ugly”. Folks, you can’t fake this. But of course the shining moments are the Auerbach tunes, which sound utterly unlike anything anyone else on the scene is doing (or is capable of doing): case in point, “All Hands Against His Own”. Arguably, the album’s masterstroke is the plaintive, powerful “The Lengths”.

Back in late 2004 there was at least one person who could not help wondering if The Black Keys, based on their first three albums alone, was laying the groundwork to become the best and most important band of the decade. Five years and a few albums later, the verdict is in and it’s not even close: The Black Keys owned this decade.

16. Living Colour, The Chair In The Doorway (2009)

The rumors of Living Colour’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

While 2003’s Collideoscope was a welcome if uneven release, The Chair in the Doorway represents more than a return to form. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope was very much a post-9/11 statement, and many of the songs on The Chair in the Doorway sound like a wrathful response to last year’s Wall Street fiasco.

For an album that resonates with testimonies of lessons learned (“That’s What You Taught Me”) and self-explanatory smackdowns (“DecaDance”, “Hard Times”, “Out of My Mind”), there is a typical—and expected—air of adventure and variety throughout. Highlights include the fresh but filthy blues romp “Bless Those”, the almost slo-mo funk freak-out “Method”, and the final track “Not Tomorrow”, which, improbably, manages to sound urgent and subdued, like time’s really up (and is on the very short list for stunning vocal performance of the decade, any decade). The shining light burns brightest on the album’s succinct statement of purpose, “The Chair”. It’s all over in two minutes and change, but it stays with you: the muted and compressed guitar intro recalls “Information Overload” (from Time’s Up), while the uneasy vibe recalls the nervous malaise of Stain. The final result, quite simply, is a composition that only Living Colour could create, circa 2009. There is so much going on here, so many sounds cresting toward a disorienting momentum, it feels like being pulled out to sea in a current of quicksand.

It is right, then, to celebrate the return of a beloved band. It is also appropriate to acknowledge that, five albums in, Living Colour has solidified their standing as one of the most consistent, original and important bands America has produced. There’s little left to say: kick the chair out of the doorway and get this essential album into your life, immediately.

15. Portishead, Third (2008)

If I were to pick the 10 best albums of the ’90s, there is a very good chance that both Portishead albums (Dummy from 1994 and Portishead from 1997) would be in the list. Indeed, Dummy is, for my money, the best album of the decade and one of the seminal albums of the modern era: it not only utterly defined an entire genre (trip-hop), it truly transcended it. In other words, it recalled some of the best singer-songwriter tropes of the golden era (like Dusty Springfield on a bad acid trip, singing along to some of the best Italian b-movie pyschedelic soundtracks) and anticipated much of what was to come (found sampling and clever insertion of obscure jazz and pop bits). It was also incredibly, eerily out of time, transmitted from outer space but connected deeply to the darker aspects of our collective inner space. It is stark, immediate and arresting, yet also remote, cool and forbidding. It was, and remains, quite unlike anything anyone else has ever come close to producing. And some people even danced to it.

I remember thinking, with genuine resignation in ’97 after their second album, there is no way they can possibly follow this up. Sadly, I was correct. For a variety of reasons, Portishead dropped off the face of the planet. A year turned into half a decade, then more…and it became less a question of inspiration or intimidation, and more a matter of whether or not any of their hearts were still in it.

Nobody, not even I, could imagine how remarkable their eventual return would be (quick: how many bands can you think of that took 11 years between their second and third albums?), and their interminable hiatus made it that much sweeter. Portishead was too smart to retread the old formula, no matter how original and arresting it was. Indeed, they refused to retrace their steps on the second album, going from the judicious use of the perfect sample to simply creating their own samples (yes, they conceived the perfect sound or snippet, recorded it, then inserted it into the song, doing the unthinkable by combining DIY and cut and paste).

Third is, from the first second, quite obviously a Portishead album. But it is, against all probability, even darker and more urgent than their first two. The first album was a deep blue (almost purple) and the second a heavy gray; Third is just out-and-out black. And not the black of violence, incoherence or apathy; rather, it’s pulsating with feeling and a seemingly unquenchable anxiety. It is a naked nerve of an album, an album that sounds nervous without making the listener (necessarily) feel nervous. That, when you think about it, is a remarkable accomplishment. We still have the surreal soundtrack vibe, along with the raw and ragged vocals, but undercut with a confident, purposeful groove. That Portishead was able to tap into the considerably nuanced sound and feeling they invented/perfected while doubling down to produce an album that somehow reinvents (and re-perfects) that sound, is worthy of major kudos. Fortunately, their audience was waiting for them, and the critics recognized a masterpiece when they heard it. At this point, one should only hope Portishead might somehow do it again, but they’ve already given us so much it’s all bonus material from now on.

14. P.J. Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)

Everyone seemed to agree that P.J. Harvey would never be able to duplicate what she achieved on Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love. Who could? Artists who go that far, that indelibly, so early in their career are either compelled to imitate (invariably with little success) that lightning caught in a bottle, or else they are too overwhelmed and flame out. It’s a rock cliche and it has ensnared way too many musicians. Fortunately, there are the ones who are either sufficiently adjusted, confident or restless to live in the past or become paralyzed by the future. P.J. Harvey kicked off the decade with an album that sounded unlike anything she had done, and it was a refreshing, vigorous change of pace. Appropriately, her time in NYC inspired some of the material and it bristles with the frenzied energy of the Big Apple.

It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate call to arms (literally) to kick off Y2K than “Big Exit”, where Harvey declares “But I want a pistol in my hand/I want to go to a different land”, and my God does she sound almost unbearably sexy as she sings it. In fact, Harvey is in full vixen mode throughout these proceedings, and I’m pretty certain one need not be a smitten boy to fall under her spell. Check out the video for “Good Fortune”: Good Lord! (When she swings her purse at the 1.24 mark? I would jump out in front of one of those buses, and in that moment I’m reasonably certain I could walk through any of them.) She is the complete package, my friends. And it demonstrates something many folks never thought they’d see: P.J. Harvey sounding happy. Not to worry, that giddiness does not infuse all the songs, but it is pervasive throughout, in very satisfactory fashion.

Of course, there are the more sombre and reflective numbers, like “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore” (a kind of pre-epitaph for the decade) and the magnificent duet with Thom Yorke, “This Mess We’re In”. Then there are the straightahead white knuckle workouts like “Kamikaze” and “This Is Love”. In the end it all adds up to an a P.J. Harvey album that is unlike anything she has done before or since, and in many ways an album that stands above her own work and everyone else’s.

P.J. Harvy is a goddess, and that’s all there is to it.

13. Little Axe, Hard Grind (2002)


Of the albums I would most urgently recommend from this list, Hard Grind is near the top, in part because I suspect so few people have heard of Little Axe (guitarist Skip McDonald) or would ever be inclined to pick up one of his albums. And I could talk about his pedigree as a “musician’s musician”, or how his playing has been associated with some of the more significant (if unheralded) moments in 20th Century music: Sugarhill Records (for whom he was in the house band, playing on Grandmaster Flash’s epochal “The Message“), On-U Sound, the band Tackhead. In other words, the underground where so many of the strange and interesting things occur.

Bottom line: history and import aside, I’d encourage anyone to pick up Hard Grind simply because it is a significant, satisfying album. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more depthful (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time. As anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

A few years ago, when reviewing the reissue of African Head Charge’s seminal Off The Beaten Track (1986), I attempted to put some perspective on the whole “found-sound sampling” phenomenon:

Today, for instance, it’s not only unsurprising, but inevitable to hear pop-culture samplings and multimedia sound bites spliced into songs. The apotheosis of this formula—at least in commercial terms—was Moby’s fin de siecle mega-smash Play. Before that, a host of deconstructionist whiz kids, led by DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow (and myriad well-intentioned acolytes with varying degrees of skill and diminishing returns), succeeded in making cerebral, hip-shaking electronic music. But in the halcyon days, the world in world music was created by real instruments in real time, and any honest producer would acknowledge that virtually all roads lead directly back to Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Put another way, folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. Hey, it worked for a lot of people (and full disclosure, I never did hate the playa, or Play for that matter). The point is, as is so often the case, genre-smashing innovation that may not be ready for mainstream appeal often breaks through, years later, in remunerative fashion. That’s the way it works in all art forms. What is unfortunate is that unenlightened critics (and fans) credit the bandwagon jumpers with the advancements. So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut lamented half a century ago.

Anyway, give this one a shot: it might just free your mind (and your ass can follow). And that in turn might turn you on to African Head Charge, Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound, for starters. And you’ll just have to take my word for it, these are all very good things.

*It kind of kills me that the only video I could find on YouTube from this album is the (excellent) “Down in the Valley”, not because this isn’t an adequate representation of what Hard Grind sounds like (indeed, it’s one of the more accessible tunes), but because I would love to introduce anyone to “Blues Story II”, “Seek The Truth” or especially “Run Here Boy”–the latter one of the songs that truly rocked my world (in multiple senses of the expression) this past decade. The only silver lining is that perhaps this review will inspire some people to take a chance and learn more about blues, rock, dirty authenticity and, inexorably, themselves, by making Hard Grind a part of their lives.

12. Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise (2005)

Huh? That was the first response many people (like yours truly) had when the word began spreading that Illinoise, Sufjan Stevens’ second “state” album (following his first, the excellent Michigan, an appropriate homage to his home state) was part of ongoing mission to dedicate an individual album to each of the fifty states. The audacity! The chutzpah! The…genius! However this was meant to turn out, you had to tip your hat to the young man for staking his claim and shooting for the stars.

Five years and no proper follow-ups, the already unlikely proposition that he could pull it off seems even less feasible, but frankly, if the project ends with only two states covered, he did them proud. Illinoise has to be considered, hands down, the most ambitious album of the decade. Whether or not this album will age well only time can determine, but more than a handful of folks declared this one an instant classic. It is, to be certain, a classic of sorts. And whether or not it’s an actual masterpiece is entirely irrelevant (the type of thing only the most pointy-headed of critics and the types of dorks who make lists of the decade’s best albums concern themselves with); what is important is that Stevens set the bar ludicrously, almost impossibly, high and pulled it off. He manages to work almost every bit of relevant history alongside the most trivial minutiae, all in the service of songs that could be sung around a campfire.

To be certain, the choral, cascading song structures are deceptively buoyant; the strings and Stevens’ own voice are so gentle and pleasant it’s unnerving to consider some of the source material. For instance, one of the album’s signal achievements, an examination of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. It sounds like an obscure (but plaintive) Simon and Garfunkel cover, until you catch the lyrics and realize Stevens is entering some dark and dangerous territory. That this softspoken (and obviously sensitive) singer/songwriter –who looks and sounds like a choir boy– acquits himself taking on tough topics, and putting a mini-encyclopedia of state history into a toe-tapping song cycle, is humbling. It’s also a considerable victory for truly independent and visionary songwriting; a welcome reminder that a gentle but honest voice occasionally carries above the noise of the machine.

11. The Breeders, Mountain Battles (2008)

If Kim Deal was a dude she’d be considered one of the baddest MFers on the planet. She might actually get the props for being one of the better songwriters of her generation, and credited for some of the advancements she made for progressive rock. In other words, she’d be Frank Black. Just kidding, sort of. Bottom line: Deal has done enough with The Breeders to be able to say she has been an integral part of two of the best bands of the last 20-odd years. And, in the final analysis, she’ll just have to settle for being known as Kim Deal, the most under-rated, but beloved musicians on the scene.

Let me not mince words: this is very close to being a masterpiece and I can’t recommend it more enthusiastically.

Did you sleep on Mountain Battles? A lot of people did. And what’s crazy is that it is a totally accessible, user-friendly (yet utterly uncompromised) and enervating experience. I was lucky enough to see them play this excellent material live and the concert was (I want to choose my word carefully but there is no other option here) a revelation. There was an overflow of joy, purpose and love on that stage. Love of the material, love of playing it, love of the audience, love of self. It was a triumphant occasion. Yet very few people seemed to be have been swept off their feet (perhaps they were too busy gazing at the soles), if they even bothered to pick up (or, um, download) this bad boy.

Twin sister Kelley belts out a gorgeous (tongue only slightly in cheek) tune, in Spanish, while Kim counters with “German Studies”, sung in German (!) Novelty aside, there are straightahead scorchers like “Bang On” and “Walk It Off”. And not to worry, there are several songs (indescribably cool, indescribable period) that only The Breeders could make, like “Spark”, “Overglazed” and especially “Night of Joy”. But the crowning achievement on this set is the spectacular “We’re Gonna Rise” (see below): this is what it’s all about, a song that manages to capture everything that is so special about Deal, and her band.

People will always (understandably) point to The Pixies, but anyone who remembers 1989 understands that the monkey who ended up in heaven is listening to The Breeders.

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Ten Songs For Myself

Eight years ago today.

I’m sure anyone who has lost a parent (or heaven forbid, a child) can understand that when this happens it becomes a line of demarcation: your life before and your life after. It doesn’t mean nothing is ever the same or that you never get past it (everything is the same and you get past it except for the fact that nothing is ever the same and you never get past it. You don’t want to).

One year ago today this is what I had to say, and I’m not sure I can (or need to) improve upon this sentiment:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that small numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically, and anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I have little compunction sharing some thoughts on this plaintive anniversary. Indeed, for me these occasions are much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.

As I have mentioned in other pieces (most recently on my birthday), one of my earliest and most positive memories of art and discovery is associated with my mother: listening to Nutcracker Suite and drawing pictures. I still listen, as anyone who knows me knows, and I still draw pictures, only I use words (and, whenever possible, my mouth –as anyone who knows me knows).

I’ve long maintained that while I don’t begrudge anyone their pleasure in augmenting their musical experience with altered substances, I am happy to take it straight, no chaser. When I listen to music it does everything I suppose it is designed to do: it soothes me, inspires me, consoles me and makes me genuinely grateful to be alive. To be among the same species that was capable of creating this magic. To be transported to other times and places while being wholly present in the here-and-now (what a miracle that is when you think about it; something drugs cannot do half as reliably, or inexpensively…or legally). I don’t turn to music when I need it most, because I always need it. But certainly there are some songs I need at certain times more than others. There are, fortunately, too many to list or share, but there will be many more anniversaries of this day to remember, and I’ll look forward to sharing more at the appropriate occasions. For today, here are some songs that always help.

Chopin, “Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2” (performed by Artur Rubinstein):

 

Grant Green, “Exodus”:

 

Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”:

Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, “Sunny Side of the Street” (with epic, miraculous vocals by Diz):

Jeff Buckley, “Dream Brother”:

Led Zeppelin, “In The Light”:

Neil Young, “Motion Pictures”:

Living Colour, “This Is The Life”:

Sonny Sharrock, “Who Does She Hope To Be?”:

Jethro Tull: “Reasons For Waiting”:

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