A subdivision of ACIDEMIC

Monday, December 20, 2010

New PJ Harvey Song / Beautiful Video

My god, she looks so relaxed. I love this girl, I feel like we've grown up together. From me blasting "Dry" in my old Plymouth Maverick going to and from work in NJ in 1991, to tripping on delerium tremens and a broken heart through scorching summer 1993 in 1993 to "Rid of Me" in my cassette walkman, shuddering on the bring of O.D.s and hollow e fabulousness for the overrated but still cool "To Bring you My Love," sobering up in the emotional release tearful flood of "Is this Desire?," then the super hip release and moving to Brooklyn and happiness with Stories of the City, the break-up fuck you of "Uh Huh Her" - I was never really happy following that, and then the mellow hammer-hitting shorty (and last CD I've ever bought) "White Chalk" which saw me through my early divorce, And now, god bless her, she seems very happy, her hair looks good, the video is in Hi def, gorgeous and not pretentious.... her skin looks clear, she looks relaxed. I'm so proud of her for maintaining her integrity and brilliance for all these decades.... she's a survivor and never sold out or bought into the bourgeoisie or downtown snobbery. She's her own being, and has given me a soundtrack for my emotional life, I know she belongs to the world, but her music seems created just for me and that's the mark of  a great artist.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

She got pinned down at the party pit: My mad love and props for the Hold Steady

I love the first three albums of the Hold Steady! Right? Until they got straight and realized you gotta stay positive. With the E Street Band-style rockin' piano and swelteringly badass electric guitars, their first two albums are amongst my all-time favorites, both as great literature and great music, a mix of Born to Run and Denis Johnson's Jesus Son.

Ask someone who was in the fast lane for awhile and got out: it's amusing, heartbreaking and deeply thrilling to listen to Craig Finn's detailed stories of drug use among the Minneapolis youth and be able to connect deep, even though I've never done heroin - and taking years to realize that my initial translation of the lyric "she got pinned down at the party pit" (from the song "Party Pit") was that she met a nice clean cut boy and started going steady. I figured there might be some hidden sexual assault meaning in the idea of 'being pinned down..."

For shame! It shows you how a lifetime of hearing bad lyrics to pop songs make you presume the worst about even druggy troubadours like Craig Finn. Is Finn so desperate for a rhyme that he would just through 'pinned' in there as a kind of antique phrase signifier term that's not been used since the mid-60s. ala "Bye Bye Birdie?" -- I was in the chorus for that in high school and one of our lines went: "I heard she got pinned" / yeah yeah, I was hopin' she would / now we're livin' at last / goin' steady for good."

Am I such a square as that? Should that be my initial thought, rather than presuming it's about heroin, the only drug I never got to try before I had to start going to AA and living the life of a reformed alcoholic on the somewhat straight and narrow? That's the breaks... Finn makes heroin sound pretty awesome, until it tightens up its tentacles and you take that crucifixion cruise (i.e. the Golgotha-level agony of withdrawal).

But hey, I got other things to slide in there --ecstasy, love, acid, shrooms, and headlining rock shows lost in the glitter and the gold. Finn keeps my options open.

"First Night" taps more beautifully into the sorrows of life post-ecstasy than any song I know -- the melancholy warm glow remembering the first time you really got off with just the right friends around and everything fell magically into place and it's all warm fuzzy and you feel like yourself and loved by people whose love you actually want, and free for the first time--extroverted!--and even into the morning until you say goodbye to people who are now far more than friends because your open souls bled into each other's for keeps and always.

Then you wake up alone the next afternoon, hung over, a puffy gray stranger in the mirror. It's already dark outside--the whole Sunday afternoon long gone. You sit around and realize that even if you do more drugs than you did last night, with the same people, you'll never feel that good again... You think you can get back to the garden the following week, but then 10 years later you realize it was just a tortured memory--you got that one great night just to make all your other nights horrible by contrast. So while every time I hear the sweet juicy opening chords of "Hummer" by Smashing Pumpkins I get the chills of that lost rush, and thanks to Finn and co,m I also get the sadness of knowing "we can't get as high as we got / on that first night".

Heaven is Whenever is a pretty good album, but it's no Boys and Girls in America which captures that giddy "first night" feeling so well it never fails to make me cry, get chills and rock out all at once. Separation Sunday, the album before that was pretty great, too, with that instant favorite song "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" which nails Golgotha-like being16 and trying to seem cool to the older kids and love all the obnoxious punk rock they like, and then you hear the first Violent Femmes album and you know it's all going to be okay and two minutes later your very first alcohol buzz kicks in and finally black and white Kansas fades away and everything glows in Technicolor and you can talk to girls without blushing and stammering. We all start out the hoodrat, then date the hoodrat, then avoid the hoodrat, then we decide to "give back" and help a hoodrat stop being one. Boys and Girls in America reminds me of that.

Some reviews say Finn's characters are 'low-lifes' but I don't think that's true, aside from that when you hang out with heroin people or cocaine people the scene naturally gonna get a little gnarly. That's why I stopped going to NYC parties, because cocaine came back, circa 1998, and as far as I know it's still there... I couldn't deal with coke, too ego-ish and too hard on my nostrils, which would swell shut and bubble out hot liquid snot all the next day which turns off all the models your roommate slept with and who are now eyeballing your pockets and nostrils. I did drugs not to get laid or be cool anyway, or use to get models into bed, but to see God and ask him to make me a better writer and painter and less depressed, not to sit with beautiful models too ritzy and stuck up to talk to me and watch them fall over themselves coming onto skeevy hoodrat low level runners who follow in the wake of the coke dealer's cell phone call ("yo! they got hot bitches here! Get yo ass over!").

Sometimes just to annoy them I'd act all high, sniffle a lot and act suspicious and moist-eyed after exiting the bathroom; them models would be all on my tip after that until they realized I was faking them out, but then again getting into bathroom was impossible, no one ever left, so if you weren't drunk enough to pee in a bucket in the back of the kitchen, you had to go home early, and fast.

That scene became like listening to how she got pinned down at the party pit, it was so funny to realize that I'd just assumed--and subsequently never liked the song as much as the others--that getting "pinned down at the party pit" means, you know, the de regeur of the life- the going steady for good - instead skipping off the bathroom with girlfriends to pop some H, some horse, a first timer! Some white lightning, usually offered by a sketch dealer to get you intrigued but also any guy wants to get you in the mood but not comatize you.

A pin, it turns out, is a needle full of heroin, or a pop, what else do you pop the skin with? I presume it means you don't do a whole mainline into the vain but just pop some into the skin. I in my blithe laziness had assumed it meant the old-fashioned phrase of going steady. What? It made me realize that while that kind of lazy thesaurus rhyming (I need a one syllable word for going steady!) might do for a normal singer, Craig Finn is a real writer, a man of few words where every word counts, and every other word is about the scene. I assumed he was too hoodrat to be that detailed. But I was thinking of my scene, how it devolved with half going off to get married and the other half going sketch, until it was ALL hoodrats.

God! How many other lyrics have I misinterpreted!? "Shooting Star" by Lou Reed? "Hit me with your best shot?" by Pat Benatar? "Monkey Man" by the Stones? "Shot of Love" by Bob Dylan? Who knows, maybe every single rock song worth a damn is about getting pinned down....

Only I never got pinned... not once.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Tao of Cash

I’d been reading Sogyal Rinpoche’s THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING and had a panic attack when I read Rinpoche’s response to a student who said (referring to a talk Rinpoche had just given on impermanence: “All this seems obvious, tell me something new.”

Rinpoche replies
” Have you actually realized the truth of impermanence? Have you so integrated it with your every thought, breath and movement that your life has been transformed? Ask yourself these two questions: Do I remember at every moment I am dying and that everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion? Has my understanding of death and impermanence becomes so keen and so urgent that I am devoting every second to the purpose of enlightenment? If you can answer yes to both of these then you have really understood impermanence.” (p. 27) 
Dude! I totally understood that-lived that, had that recognition, on a mindbender of a trip… once, ling ago, when I had been touched by the electric hand of God, and had the boundaries and walls between my consciousness and unconsciousness clean wipes away so that all was illuminated and perrfect and in this moment.

But what about music video? Is there a video that brings this urgency to light, strips away our petty samsara blindness  from us and makes us feel and embrace impermanence as opposed to the endless “gimme more bling” parade of gangstas, dorks and superheros who all firmly deny death?

I can only think of one and it’s rather short. That’s right…. the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.”

I wrote the above in 2008. Tonight I was listening to the Cash album, or at least to "I Hung My Head," which turned up on ipod shuffle, and once again I shivered with the power and humility in Cash's cracked voice. Like all his fans, I hear a little bit of God and a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of Pontious Pilot and a frightened child mixed together in an old man's voice as he stares unblinking into the void, and sings a Trent Reznor song. And it came to me that all Cash's career and life was leading up to this one album, this one perfect expression of all he was and all that was left, every song every live in prison album was leading him to this one moment of pure grace that was for all of us. It makes other music videos seem so surface shallow as to be invisible in the rapidly flipping pages of time that Cash is privying us to. Even the Jesus crucifixion stuff peppered along the way of the video is deserved.

Shots of him all through his career mesh beautifully with old Cash at a table of the damned, and the nails going in the hands. Reznor's lyrics aimed here right at God and Jesus, a little touch of hate towards the utterly simple funnel design by which they eventually get to roast all of us on the spit of heaven and eat our flesh, gesturing out the lyrics like he's an ancient Native American chief telling the tale of the crazy man in black who once strode the land, his guitar and attitude (the one speaking clip insert is a young punk Cash in some film, shouting "Stay the hell away from me!")

Towards the end June Carter comes downstairs and just looks at him sadly, the Cash museum is clearly real, with all the memorabilia and empty shelves caked with dust. The young Cash seems to be trying to find a way into the house where old Cash is living, a kind of 2001 Bowman time collapse meltdown.

A soul this brave and wise and humble, beautiful, and true deserves not to have to come back to this sorrowful space-time dimension if he doesn't want to, but I hope he does, the star child in black, and if we can find him in his next life before the world has a chance to crush him down, maybe this time our love will be enough to save him. I don't want you to die, dad. I don't want you to die. If I am still right here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"See this top? Flop!" RAINBOW BRIDGE, a Hendrix Paradise

I have fond non-memories of RAINBOW BRIDGE (1970), a weird cult-hippie flowers on Maui documentary that got marketed as a Hendrix concert film, though he only shows up at the end, like a lost weird traveler. Dude is totally high, and everyone's slurring, and viewers got a rare chance to feel what it's like to hang out with super-high Hendrix in the closest thing we have to a Albert Maysles/Gray Gardens-style fly-on-the-wall eavesdrop. Dude, these people up there in that clip above? They're wasted! Now that I'm decades later and not wasted, I can't understand a word they're saying. It sounds like pretentious hippie twaddle, and I think Hendrix agrees. He sounds like he's got a cold.

Sadly, Hendrix would be dead a mere two months later. And thanks to legal issues, the film itself has been but spottily available. Purists cite bad winds on the day of the concert as to why sound is bad and unworthy of close study, but I disagree. Jimi plays "Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun)" and it's the first and only time he plays it on film, as far as I know.

Not to mention it's the closest thing to a "perfect" audience you'll ever see for a major psychedelic rock star film, as they're all "beautiful" hippies and Maui surfers. Remote location and pure word-of-mouth short notice ensured a total absence of the usual suffocating crowd of wallies, murfs, tourists, freeloaders, dullards, normies, breadheads and buzkillers. In short, it's like one of those beautiful concerts where there's just enough people to make it fun, but not enough that you can't get as close as you want to the stage and lay down a tapestry right at the feet of the performer, spark a joint and watch the clouds as the music sends you flying... and that's what it's all about man.

One day we'll all cross that magic rainbow bridge to that land of the new rising sun, and I hope Jimi's waiting at the other end when I go, and I'll answer yes, Jimi, I'd like to go along...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Oh, those drunken Replacements.

In "Treatment Bound," singer Paul Westerberg explains the Replacement's touring strategy as follows: "The first thing we do when we finally show up / Get shit-faced drunk / Try to sober up." For legions of impressionable punk rock youth, these were words to live by. The Replacements were like the male equivalent of Courtney Love, one went to their show in guilty hopes of seeing a train wreck, and more than half the time they delivered, being too drunk to remember their own songs and having to revert to out of tune covers to which Westerberg would make up the words. If they did manage the "sobering up" part they might deliver a searing, moving, furious set of rock songs that fell somewhere between hardcore punk and what would eventually be known as alternative rock (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain originally drew Westerberg comparisons with his anguished vocal style and major label-defying antics. I wasn't alone in my first thought on hearing Cobain's voice being "Hey, this guy sounds just like Paul Westerberg!")

The story of the 'mats (as their fans dubbed them) begins in the punk scene of 1979 Minneapolis. Bob Stinson was lead guitarist and the heaviest drinker. His 14-year old brother Tommy was on bass and their friend Chris Mars played drums. They were a hardcore punk band when Westerberg joined them but he brought in gallons of emotion-wracked songwriting talent and they split the difference. They got signed to Twin Tone, and proceeded to release a series of furious, somewhat sloppy albums, the straight up (but amusing) thrash of Sorry Ma (Forgot to Take out the Trash) followed by an EP (The Replacements Stink) and then the delightfully ramshackle Hootenanny.

Their big breakthrough came with 1984's Let it Be, the album that invented modern alternative rock six years too soon. They went over to a major label (Sire) for Tim. But then the elder Stinson was kicked out for drug and alcohol problems (which must have been pretty bad by that point, considering who was kicking him out). Pleased to Meet Me and Don't Tell a Soul followed, without Stinson and with production values slick enough to make their small but loyal fan base accuse them of selling out. Their final album, All Shook Down, was a step forward to Westerberg's solo career, with sparse acoustic arrangements and anguished confessional lyrics, it still didn't sell and the band split up.

Westerberg idled until Cameron Crowe exhumed him for the soundtrack to his film Singles. Though they've long since gone their separate ways, the status of the Replacements as the drunken stepfathers of alternative rock remains forever assured, and if I wasn't in recovery at the moment, I'd drink to that.


A typically ferocious and witty entry in the low budget indie LP pressings of the early 80s, untrained ears may be unable to differentiate it from other thrash-punk albums of the period, still Westerberg's songwriting gifts show through after a couple of listens. "Shut Up" and "I Hate Music"  would become thrash (or slam-dancing as it was known then) anthems, but there's also some real rock and roll heart in the wrenching "Shiftless When Idle" and "Kick Your Door Down." Looking forward to their future rock balladry there's "Johnny's Gonna Die," an ode to downward-spiraling junkie guitar legend Johnny Thunders (obviously an inspiration to their own booze-addled stage antics). "Raised in the City" manages to be both a satire of and a homage to Kiss-style rock, an avenue they'd travel down further in subsequent albums.


You can hear the merry slurs in the vocals here, such as the barely standing up messiness of the title track, but the forward-looking track is "Die Within Your Reach," a somewhat sappy ballad whose click-drum track makes one suspect Westerberg did it on his own without the support of his punk rock bandmates. Nonetheless the germs of their future alt rock sound is here, with the boozy field recording "Treatment Bound" and the vividly realized punk of "Color Me Impressed" and "Fuck our School" balance it all out, if you call drunken staggering balanced.
LET IT BE (1984)

This classic 1984 life-changer ignited the soul of every alienated teen who bought it, myself included, and marked a turning point in punk rock and has been celebrated on stage and screen and print as soon as we grew up. Though there are still several punk tracks on the record ("We're Coming Out," "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out") the key element here is the aching emotionally tormented rock of "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine" and "Sixteen Blue" in which songwriter/vocalist Paul Westerberg made the band drop all their drunken punk pretensions and expose the tormented anger, hope and longing he, and everyone else, was really feeling in their mid-80s late teenage punk rock moment. The cathartic end result of all that soul searching is the jangly "I Will Dare," the piano-driven, daring (for the time) "Androgynous" and a Kiss cover; "Black Diamond." Most prescient is "Seen Your Video," in which Westerberg rants about the evils of the still young MTV, little knowing how it would soon co-opt the genre of music he and his contemporaries were at that very moment creating. Sure it's all over the map style-wise, but then you realize the alchemical change has occurred: the punk and metal of the Stinsons and the rock-and-cry gut ache of Westerberg had been mixed and bottled together into something brand new; it would be only a matter of fermentation time, about seven years, and the keg would explode; MTV would begin playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" around the clock.

TIM (1985)

The follow-up to the Replacement's groundbreaking Let it Be marks a significant turning point not just in their career but in the history of alternative music.  Westerberg had come fully into his own, and confidently goes deep into a flow of gut-wrenching ballads, gut-wrenching love songs, and gut-wrenching anthems of angst and alienation. "Bastards of Young," "A Little Mascara" and "Hold My Life," howl with beautiful rage. "Left of the Dial" refers to bands whose only airplay comes from college radio stations (typically at the extreme left of the FM radio dial) and became an instant catchphrase for indie-hood that survives today, as does Westerberg's succinct description of his generation: "Innocence wont claim us / We got no wars to name us." The freewheeling grungy romance of "On the Bus" and the clap-along "Waitress in the Sky" looked forward to the even more innocuous Westerberg solo career but are here catchy, soulful and worthwhile. The final song, "Here Comes a Regular" is a heartbreaking ballad of one slob's failure to escape the dreary all-consuming solace of the local tavern. The band with a reputation for being boozy and unprofessional onstage was realizing the cold, scary future awaiting them if they couldn't stop their downward spirals. This was their first record for a major label and subsequent releases would find them attempting to be more commercial in a bid for crossover success. They didn't make it, but in the passing years, Tim has become a towering milestone whose lyrics are sacred texts to many of today's alternative rock titans.


The first album to be released after the firing of guitarist Bob Stinson, this album alienated a lot of fans (including me) with its unapologetically commercial new direction (Stinson was obviously the force holding Westerberg's more radio-friendly urges in check). Nonetheless, it has stood the test of time and was an obvious precursor Nirvana's Nevermind. In fact, the cover of that album--the baby swimming after a dollar bill on a fishing hook--is clearly inspired by the cynicism of the cover here, of a grungy torn up sleeve shaking hands with a rolexed corporate suit. Westerberg was a big Alex Chilton fan and the album was scheduled to be produced by the same guy who did a few Chilton classics, but things fell through. You can hear Westerberg's Chilton-esque aspirations running full force now though, on tracks like "Alex Chilton" (!), and the acoustic ballad, "Skyway." The rest of the band shows they can still rock hard with "Red Red Wine" and "Shooting Dirty Pool."


In a last ditch effort to break into mainstream radio play, the Replacements allowed the slathering on the slick synths, giving the AOR guys that empty hollowness they associated with crossover appeal, and alienating whomever hadn't given up after Pleased to Meet Me. Sales still didn't meet expectations, losing even fans of their old stuff (like me). Luckily, time has been kind to this album; if it had come out around three or four years later it may have been a grunge classic instead of a reviled example of corporate concessions. Anthems of youth alienation abound despite itself, including the classic "We'll Inherit the Earth" and "I'll Be You." "Rock and Roll Ghost" is one of Westerberg's gut-wrenchingly honest ballads, this one an intensely personal autobiography about a life possibly wasted as a rock and roll also-ran. "Darlin' One" stings with the ache of unfulfilled romantic yearning. There is no doubting that the band was reaching for mainstream success with the desperation of a repentant sinner, but they didn't reach it, and for that this album's prescient songs are all the more tragic.


This stripped-down affair is a big step forward from the slick AOR-bid, Don't Tell a Soul. Recorded with an array of session musicians while the band was in mid-disintegration, this is was originally to be vocalist Paul Westerberg's debut solo album, in the tradition of his longtime hero, Alex Chilton. The title track is my favorite, a lonesome blues with an earthy, almost Tom Waits-y vibe. If the Mats had been a breakthrough success, who knows what these songs would have been about? As it is, their unflinching honesty towards a life misspent and opportunities squandered makes for great wallowing in your-lack-of-fame listening. This was Westerberg giving up on mainstream success at long last, and turning his back on the hard rock limitations of the band. From now on they wouldn't have old Mr. Westerberg to kick around anymore, and with that he was off on his path of introspective soul-tearing angst, honing the mope rock he helped invent right up to the closing track, presciently titled, "The Last."

(originally written for Amp Camp.com, 2001, now long gone)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Liz Phair: Siren, Sinner, Sister, Sell-Out

(From my discography entry in the now defunct Amp Camp, c. 2001):

Liz Phair: Miss Popular, the queen of the indie prom, the cute Chicago girl who can actually play guitar and write and sing good songs, who lives alone in the dorm room down the hall and only the coolest kids aren't afraid to talk to, the girl that all the other girls hate, who spends her nights alone with a four track and a bong, composing songs about how promiscuous she was in high school and would like to be now. Talking dirty and driving the boys crazy, she's a mix of droll songwriting talent and sex addiction all wrapped up in a cute-as-a-button package. My friends who have friends who know her from school say she's simultaneously using the nymph boy-eater posing as a gimmick and at the same time is far more voracious and crazy than she pretends to be, while also being a closet "normal" -- in other words, they don't know anything about her either.

A brilliant lyricist and notoriously self-conscious performer, Liz Phair was a package no sulky  indie boy or shopworn punkette with an ear for outsider genius could resist. Her debut album, Exile in Guyville landed her the top spot on the 1994 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critic's poll, but the studio-produced follow up, Whip Smart, was accused of being too mainstream. Word was, she let the producers and studio musicians boss her around, and then--to make matters worse--she went and got married and had a baby. 

Hearts lay broken everywhere.

But she surprised many a few years later with whitechocolatepsacegg, wherein she looked upon motherhood with a mix of horror and good-natured sarcasm, much to our relief. BUT, then she decided to "sell out" after all, and signed with a major label, slutted-up her costumes and brought in airbrush artists and make-up technicians to remould her in a Britney-cum-MILF mode. 30something fans dropped off by the droves, to be replaced by teenybopper girls (or so she and her new label hoped). But hey, she's on a journey, and maturity has been very kind to her, replacing her precocious cuteness with a sexuality that could drop a rhino at 30 paces. Don't hate her 'cuz she's beautiful or because she sold out, hate her because she writes brilliant songs without even trying, and suddenly wants to spend more time with her stupid son than us.


Supposedly a feminist "answer" to the macho swagger of the Rolling Stones' 1972 Exile on Main Street, this sprawling masterpiece showed how one girl and her pet four-track could do more musical damage than your mama and all her biker friends after a case of tequila and an eightball of crank. She potty-mouths off to the older boys that may have once taken advantage of her in tracks like "Fuck and Run," and "Help Me, Mary," while occasionally getting all effortlessly catchy, as in "Never Said" wherein her nasal voice makes it sound like she's been (gasp) SMOKING!  Then in "Canary" and "Flower" she twists the knife all the way in, revealing the pig's blood-soaked telekenetic Carrie underneath the coy homecoming queen veneer. Raw and unhinged, the low-fi trappings here may alienate new listeners, but this album is the one that knocked the rock-and-roll boys club forever and completely on its ass. Miss it at your own risk.  A


The critical adulation Phair received for her Exile in Guyville led to the studio-recorded follow-up getting some major label distribution and even an MTV-friendly video for the single, "Supernova." Despite cries of sell-out (even then!) from some of the hardcore indie mopers this is a fine collection of songs, much more coherent and resonant than many of the lesser tracks on Guyville. "Jealousy" benefits from an addictive, propulsive rhythm as its narrator goes snooping through her lovers drawer of ex-girlfriend photos, echoing the co-dependent yowling of Alannis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill released the same year but in a way that revealed far more apathy - like Phair's deliberately nurturing the jealous anger in herself just so she can heighten her high. Other stand-out tracks are "May Queen" and "Crater Lake," with its now classic line, "Well, look at me / I'm frightening my friends." If the sexually frank opening track, "Chopsticks," seems as if she's talking dirty just to show she can still shock prurient ears, that "Crater Lake" sentiment gets to the real truth underlying our socially conditioned reactions to such behavior: It's "cute" for girls to talk dirty, but if they start telling the real truth about things people just get start throwing rocks. Thank God that Phair still isn't afraid to do exactly that, no matter who she frightens. B+


Recorded post-child, Phair's third album received some great notices as a mature, edgy, even experimental departure for the indie princess of profanity. Sardonic power chords and spooky prog keyboards count among the many inspired flourishes, showing the whole child thing gave the lass some time to think and expand on her sound in her own weird way. The album kicks off with three instant back to back classics, culminating with the single, "Polyester Bride," a Beck-like send-up of 1970's AOR radio that confused a lot of critics who "didn't get the joke" (or maybe I'm just so in love with her I gave it the benefit of the doubt.) Then there was the infectious electro-bounce of "Headache" and her use of different narrative voices to reconfigure herself as a Randy Newman-style storyteller ("Shitloads of Money" comes off as a somehow less ironic sequel to "It's Money that Matters"). The sheer exuberant catchiness of the optimistic "What Makes You Happy" and the folky lilt of "Uncle Alvarez" show Phair as an artist spreading her wings in a way that makes the alleged "sell out" of her following album less shocking in hindsight, but nonetheless, here we go...A-

 LIZ PHAIR (2003)

Shocking! The queen of low fi (who hadn't really been lo-fi since her debut) drops all her pretensions and makes a distinctly unlady-like grab for the big gold ring of Top 40 girlpop. Slick production team the Matrix, who helped Avril Lavaigne, here work the same mojo on several tracks, including Phair's first chart-breaker, the irresistible "Why Can't I." The many-bridged psychosexual boasting of "Extraordinary" is a definite shocker with production so slick it is beyond slick. But then the smoke clears and all the fuss turns out to be a little unfounded and we start revisiting all the old Phair neighborhoods, exploring her favorite topics such as oral sex ("H.W.C.") and the seduction of impressionable babysitters (this time from the POV of the mother, "Rock Me").  In the heartbreaking "Little Digger" she explains to her 5-year old son why all these strange men keep appearing in her bed. In a way she could be addressing her whole dejected indie boy fan base, who she knew in advance were going to receive this album with angry, tear-stained dejection. From now on, we would have to share mommy with the whole wide world. She hoped! C-

Much as I hate to admit it, this cute cover makes me weak at the knees every time I see it, but Phair and I are through, finito, so there's no more listening and trying to like stuff and then getting my feeling's hurt as I realize she's not singing to my demographic anymore... she's singing for the suits, the 'tweeners and the void. Alas, a lot of people agreed with me and the last I knew they weren't even able to give Somebody's Miracle away... probably that helped prompt the career decision to do a bells-and-whistles re-release of Exile to see if all her dorky fans will now accept her as a mid-90s nostalgia act instead of alternative's Mata Hari. For me, the paint still drying on the cement floor where my heart once lay, it's gonna take another 8 years.

BUT, damn can she sizzle with a good photographer and sultry poutfit. Let's take a little pictorial walkthrough and see how one talented, my-age indie rocker goes from 80s high school girl to bitingly witty alt-rock princess to just another airbrushed Maxim boytoy:


I'm not debating her third-wave feminist right to sell out and get paid but... sheesh, there's a line between the Madonna "use it cause you got it but also deconstruct it" and the merely "use it because the publicity agents flatter your vanity." Funny that in posting all this, mainly because I found my old Liz Phair discography work from 2001 for Amp Camp, I'm now back in swooning love with this edgy MILF icon, and all the accompanying jealous pique that love entails.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

X: See How They War

X stood onstage somewhere between a ferocious L.A. punk combo and a Sam Shepherd play. Bassist/vocalist John Doe was the wayward cowboy, poet/singer Exene Cervenka his boozy, brilliant, trailer-park dwelling ex-wife, spewing at each other oaths of love and hate, harmonizing like wounded cats over topics like class discrimination, alcoholism, jealousy, lust, and lousy presidents. Pompadour-sporting guitarist Billy Zoom stood off to the side, legs firmly planted in a wide stance as if waiting for a horse to land under him any minute, ripping out rockabilly solos with coiled fury at odds with his serene, bemused smile. DJ Bonebrake's drums setting the pace like the ghost of an abusive stepfather, driving everyone's emotions forward towards the cliff. They were edgy and in the moment, yet plugged in deep to the roots of Los Angeles. For them it was still unsettled desert country and the lonesome folk music of that bygone era was audible beneath their sonic din. This link, and their steady gigs around the Sunset Strip won them the attention of former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek who produced and played on their first four albums.


Unfortunately their major label, Elektra, expected bigger sales, and when their fifth release AIN'T LOVE GRAND didn't break through, Billy Zoom finally moved out. They replaced him with first former Blasters-member Dave Alvin, then Tony Glykson. When their next album, slick as a button, SEE HOW WE ARE still didn't sell, the band began to dissolve, doing other projects, such as the alt-folksy formation The Knitters, the lure of movies and solo projects. They still get back together, and in 2004 even re-formed with Zoom for a tour captured on DVD and CD: LIVE IN LOS ANGELES.

I saw them live only once, when they played at City Gardens in Trenton in 1985. I was 18. As often happened at that great club, I got trapped against the front of the stage as the whole club erupted into a mosh pit (we called it "slam dancing" in them days) I was about to get creamed by this out of control kid in a mohawk flailing his fists and lining me up out of the corner of his eye for a take-down, when a giant skinhead yanked me to the side with one gigantic iron hand and smashing the mohawk kid right in the nose with the other, spattering me in a spray of blood. When I looked back up on the stage, I saw Exene smiling down at me like I'd just learned to walk, she'd seen the whole thing - perhaps even conjured it, then she turned over to Jon Doe, both still singing and playing, beaming with pride at each other and the whole chaotic scene. Highlight of my life.

It was an all-ages show, but for the encore they passed out a bunch of cold beers to us, urging us to pass them around and get ready for some country Knitters songs. Jon and Exene were divorced by that point, but I saw the love still in their eyes when he playfully duked her chin. In that moment we were all one big happy blood-and-sweat-soaked dysfunctional family; twenty years later and I still miss them.

we'll skip their first album Los Angeles - but you shouldn't - it's the definitive X - it's just that my initial review of it (part of a Neighborhoodies/Amp Camp music canon critic freelance gig) of which all these capsules are part of (now the whole project seems to have been scrapped, and the paid shit, so I'm taking them back) is MIA - I guess it was on a separate spreadsheet. One day... one day I'll find it - and it wouldn't be prudent at this juncture to make a new one.

Wild Gift (1981)
The second album from punk rock darlings X is actually a mix of tracks recorded from around the time of the first album, 1980's "Los Angeles," with some new material which shows the band already progressing at a fascinating pace. Produced by Ray Manzarek (the Doors), this album finds the band realizing they have an almost mature and poetically distinct style that separates them from their early 1980's punk peers, then trying to upset the apple cart and either make it or break it loose with Doe and Cervenka's searing anthems of romantic disillusionment, "White Girl," "When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch," and "Adult Books," all career highlights. Billy Zoom's hopped up surf-abilly guitar gets its chance to rock out on the rip-roaring "We're Desperate," probably the album's most definitively "punk" tune, followed by the choogling rage-a-thon, "In this House that I call Home." The 2001 re-mastered version features several worthwhile demos and B-sides including the amazing demo of "Blue Spark," a track heard on the their following album, the definitive "Under the Big Black Sun."   

Under the Big Black Sun (1982)
Considered by many to be the band's artistic peak, this is a dark, feverish, disillusioned piece of acidic beauty, with deeply personal lyrics including such topics as the death of co-vocalist Exene Cervenka's sister Mary in a hit and run auto accident ("Riding with Mary"). You can practically smell the grief, the drug-laced sweat of dank hotel rooms, the mountains of cigarettes in ashtrays, the day-old sex, the simmering emotions, and the blood drying on the bathroom floor.  Cervenka and her lover/songwriting partner/co-vocalist John Doe generously share every excruciatingly personal detail of their disintegrating romantic life on the punk rock tour road to hell, kicking ass every mile of the way. Guitarist Billy Zoom, a rockabilly powerhouse who cut his teeth playing with country legend Gene Vincent, brings some salve and salt to the wounds with some of the most furious playing of this career. "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" is a cover that offers a welcome respite from the angry gloom, while songs like "Real Child of Hell" and the slowly simmering "Blue Spark" show how to mix rooted musical maturity and unhinged ferocity for maximum yield.

More Fun in the New World (1983, Elektra)
After almost killing themselves with a string of critically acclaimed but poorly selling albums, the X family decided they needed to break out of their furious punk rock rut (after Under the Big Black Sun there was probably nowhere else to go but back from the edge of the cliff, or over, Thelma and Louise-style) and achieve the breakthrough AOR radio-play success that was the measure of one's artistic cred back in Reagan-era Hollywood. Checking a significant chunk of their punk rock fury at the recording studio door, X went and developed a whooping good time call-and-response style song cycle about political apathy and their own music industry frustrations, presaging west coast rap in the process, as in the litany of metonyms shouted out in "True Love" Parts one and Two. My own personal favorite is "Drunk in My Past" which seems to prefigure the post-punk introspection of emo by twenty years. There's also a great cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless" with Exene Cervenka on vocals so rough and sexy you may feel like you're violating some law just by listening. The 2001 re-master includes several worthwhile demo tracks.

Ain't Love Grand? (1985)
When their previous album, More Fun In the New World, didn't cross them over to the mainstream as they hoped, punk rock icons X took another step closer to traditional rock respectability with this album. Ray Manzarek, the former Doors member who produced the band's first four records was replaced, and in came the 1980's studio gloss.

Okay, stop for a second, you neo punk rocker reading this: Before you turn away with the words "sell out" on your lips, remember that in 1985 (long before the advent of CDs) being on a major label involved serious pressure from the suits and unless you sold at least a zillion albums you were losing money, something your White Stripes never had to worry about. Understand this, and forgive X their high gloss trespasses, because the album is worth it. This was my first X album, which I bought in 1985 when it came out due to pressure from my punk rock high school buddy. It took me a few listens to get into it but then when I did my whole life started to change. In comparison with its predecessors it spits its venom in fewer places but with better aim, and there's a great lovesick sense of nicotine-stained compassion floating through, even during their angry litany of towns they don't like playing in ("Well downtown NYC, people there F--k with me / Downtown Paris, France / they never give us half a chance" -- "What's Wrong with Me.")  What was wrong nobody still knows, but X was proving they were capable of crafting accessible but hard edged songs of loss, failure, acceptance and hope better than anyone else. When in "Watch the Sun Go Down," Exene sings "I Wish I'd never grown up / So I could cry myself to sleep," she sounds both genuinely grown-up and genuinely wishing she could cry, but she can't do either all the way and you can't get much more genuinely human in a pre-alternative alternative rock record than that, gloss be damned. There's also a glimpse of the X to come with the ex-Blaster Dave Alvin producing the track "Little Honey" (he would later replace Zoom --briefly). There's also some great demos and B-sides including the only released as a single "Wild Thing (Long Version)" and a great demo of John Doe solo, playing bass and singing the Replacements song "I Will Dare."

See How We Are (1987)
First generation punk rock icons X recorded SEE HOW WE ARE during a period of personal and professional disappointment: Their guitarist Billy Zoom left the band, discouraged by their inability to break out of the punk rock ghetto. Their harder edges had been burned off in an effort to court AOR repsectability and the marriage of lead singers and songwriters John Doe and Exene Cervenka was over. Getting played on mainstream radio had became something of a white whale for the band, but somewhere among all the changes and compromises something amazing happened; the rural Americana country rock sounds they had been dabbling in all along began to fill the empty spaces. Soon they were bringing their maturity, edge and rawness into the heartland symbolized on MTV by the white t-shirt of John Cougar Mellencamp --alternative-Americana was being born. Fans were baffled, but no one could deny they were onto something, despite the studio gloss. The title track is a standout and became something of an anthem in their subsequent years and the straight-up confessional oomph of "I'm Lost" let's you know right out of the gate this band is looking for direction even as they find it. There are also some great rockers, like "Fourth of July" and powerful near-ballads like "When it Rains."  Replacing the departed Zoom were two guitarists Dave Alvin (The Blasters) and Tony Gilkyson each bringing a distinctly "other" country vibe. The 2002 re-mastered CD includes several bonus tracks. 

Live at the Whiskey A-Go-Go (1988)
This double live album captures X at around the period of their final Elektra release SEE HOW WE ARE, and is an excellent swan song for that period of their career. Tony Gilkyson is on guitar, substituting pretty adequately for the absence of the legendary Billy Zoom, but though the punk classics of the earlier part of the decade are all there ("Blue Spark," "Los Angeles," and "This House that I Call Home"), it's clear the band is headed in a more twangy-folksy direction as they turn down the heat on the rockabilly boil for a spell late in the evening to perform some acoustic songs in their alternate incarnation, the Knitters, sich as:  "Skin Deep Town" and "Call of the Wreckin' Ball."  All in all this is a fine place to start for casual listeners, especially if they are wondering what all the fuss is about, or coming to band via the roundabout route of John Doe's solo work or the Knitters albums. There's also some great audience interaction between the songs, capturing Exene and John's rare ability to make an entire audience feel like they're cherished guests at a drunken, dysfunctional family gathering. (originally published Ampcamp 2000)


X - Hey Zeus (1993)
The band had seemingly called it quits but four years later released this album on an independent label. Tony Gilkyson is still on guitar still instead of Billy Zoom… and still in the more mature direction of Ain't Love Grand and See How We Are. This shows the band having more or less accepted their destiny as a cult band, adored by those who heard them but destined to be "Unheard Music" for the rest of the world. Stand-out songs are "Big Blue House" and "Baby You Lied." Meanwhile the politics of the album's release year are fleshed out in the angry "Arms for Hostages."

X- Live in Los Angeles
 Punk never dies and the beloved band X is back from the beyond replete with original guitarist Billy Zoom in this stand-out live album. They rip through all their classic songs with a fervor that defies the decades that have passed since they last surfed punk rock's first wave. Most all the songs come from their first four albums, and they blaze by with the same stunning fury of the originals. Far more than just a tribute album, it's great to hear these great artists re-interpret their material with a fresh energy that comes from knowing these songs have lasted through the years to become a key bedrock of the punk canon. Tracks like "The Phone's off the Hook," "Because I Do," and "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" blaze with a brow-furrowing intensity. The return of Zoom to the fold is obviously galvanizing, and fans of the band should be in heaven. For newcomers, this is a great introduction.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Lost Art of Japanese Loungecore: Harumi Hosono

In the mid 1970s the future bassist for the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Harumi Hosono, was a minor star as a lounge revivalist, a Japanese version of Leon Redbone perhaps, creating a great post-modern frisson by doing Japanified versions of American orient-inspired exotica like "Hong Kong Blues" (swapping the original "colored man" for a more PC "kind of man") and "Salt Peanuts." Hilarious stuff! And also great, why can't Japanese impersonate Americans impersonating Japanese? They have great organ and about eight marimba and xylophone players. And Hosono's voice is as rich and lovely as Redbone's even on the worst of days. At times as on the heavenly "Exotic Lullabye" he provokes hilarity through "Americanese" ranting. Great, great stuff!