The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium

De-loused in the Comatorium

The Mars VoltaDe-Loused in the Comatorium Gold Standard Laboratories GSL75 (2003)

In the tradition of proggy music for lonely, sexually frustrated young men, from Frank Zappa to Rush, that only King Crimson ever seemed to transcend, you have The Mars Volta.  Some good stuff here and there, but this also tries too hard and shifts around too much for its own good.

Johnny Cash – Unchained


Johnny CashUnchained American 9 43097-2 (1996)

Rather than do another solo acoustic album after smashing success with that approach, Johnny Cash teams up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band to deliver something a lot more energetic and loud.  Other guests include Flea, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood.  If American Recordings needed to strip everything away to prove that Cash’s voice was still a force to be reckoned with, then this follow-up is granted the space to demonstrate that it was Nashville keeping Cash down and out for so many years.  It’s like this:  Cash was always an outsider to the country music establishment.  But along the way, he started courting it.  Those were bleak years.  When paired with a rock band, incorporating a few rock songs, and working with a rock producer, Cash can still cook.  Nashville just seems so irrelevant.  This album demonstrates versatility, and refuses to let some kind of formula settle in.  It’s probably the most energetic record he made since Carryin’ On almost thirty years earlier.  The dirty secret though is that this album is much like The Mystery of Life from five years earlier or Rockabilly Blues from more than 15 years earlier just with better production and better songs.  Another interesting comparison would be to Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) from Elvis‘ comeback, with 25 years’ difference in perspective on what constituted a “contemporary” sound.  It was fortunate Cash made this record when he did, because health problems would not permit it just a few years later.  Key tracks:  “Spiritual,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Mean-Eyed Cat,” “Memories Are Made of This,” and “Rowboat.”

Johnny Cash – American Recordings

American Recordings

Johnny CashAmerican Recordings American 491797 2 (1994)

Johnny Cash made one of the biggest comebacks in memory with American Recordings (perhaps only Louis Armstrong‘s surprise 1964 hit “Hello, Dolly!” comes close).  Cash had struggled for the preceding two decades to maintain an interest in recording as well as to find a producer that could do justice to his older voice.  It wasn’t that Cash’s many previous albums were all bad, but they were uneven and often misguided.  They usually tried to take him and fit him into current trends, however awkwardly (think Leonard Cohen‘s unfortunate meeting with producer Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies’ Man).  That was a mistake because it tended to devalue what made Cash so great — that rich baritone voice and his disarming earnestness — by insisting that he could only succeed by transforming himself into something else.  Unlikely enough, though, by the late 1980s Cash was quietly changing all that.  He made a few albums that, while still rather mediocre, had a stately feel that was quite natural for his new coarser and more gravelly voice, which subtly (or unsubtly – “Beans for Breakfast”) had more vibrato than years before.  But he was still dragging along a backing band that should have been put out to pasture long ago.  And the production values on so many of his albums had still lurched between various fads, from countrypolitan to urban cowboy, that haven’t aged well.

Rick Rubin, who rose to fame in the world of hip-hop and later extended his reach to rock and metal, sought out Cash and made him the key signing for his newly-formulated record label American Recordings (formerly Def American).  What Rubin did wasn’t all that surprising.  The popular television specials “MTV Unplugged” had been presenting a variety of rock/pop musicians in low-key acoustic settings with great success.  And other established artists like John Cale (Fragments of a Rainy Season) and Bob Dylan (Good as I Been to You) had found renewed success (at least critically) with solo acoustic recordings in recent years.  Also, Willie Nelson had recently released the collection of stripped down recordings of old tunes (The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?) to help pay off well-publicized tax debts.  Rubin applied that popular trend to Cash, and it was a perfect fit.  All the dross that cluttered Cash’s albums for so long was immediately stripped away.  Rather than trying to sound like what was popular at the time, he could just sound timeless.  It’s only his voice and an acoustic guitar.  Everything comes through on record very clear and natural.  Cash gets to be Cash without anything to stand in the way.  It helps too that Cash gets to re-record songs he’s done before (like the hauntingly grisly “Delia’s Gone”) with a smattering of other cover songs that seem tailor-made for him.  By keying into the darker side of Cash’s music, this album also appealed to rock audiences that maybe had heard the name Johnny Cash but never bothered with his music before.  While still ignored by much of the country music establishment — which incidentally had not done much of value for decades — this album succeeded in launching Cash into the booming music market of the 1990s, the last time (as of this writing) there was any effort by mainstream media to push music of any substantive quality.  Of course, a big reason that Cash was able to find so much commercial success in this comeback was the marketing effort put forward on his behalf for the first time in a long time.  It was all black & white photography, bold lettering of the name CASH, and a confident, lived-in and knowing ambiance, with a hint of rural underclass danger.  Rubin does deserve credit for looking to Cash when no one else would, and for matching him up with a recording style and marketing package that suited him.  Plenty of songs from these sessions that didn’t make it onto the album ended up on the very good box set Unearthed.

Richard & Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

Richard & Linda ThompsonI Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight Island ILPS-9266 (1974)

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a landmark of British folk-rock, and a real treasure from the 1970s.  After leaving Fairport Convention and attempting a solo career with limited success, guitarist Richard Thompson met and married vocalist Linda Peters and the two began working together professionally.  The duo’s debut album is a wonderful extension of various currents in British folk music of the prior decade.  That Richard was a singular talent on guitar was already established.  But Linda’s voice filled out the duo’s sound in a way that becomes quite apparent on listening to Richard’s solo work before and since by way of comparison.  Someone once described legendary gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples as possessing a voice that was powerful yet uniquely de-sexualized — something that is unfortunately rarely accepted among female singers.  Linda also has something of that same quality in her voice.  With a warm and home-y tone, she had excellent command of vibrato and subtle rhythmic phrasing.  Richard’s fretwork is excellent as always, with mesmerizing solos littered all across the album.  But it’s the rich instrumental backdrop and superb songwriting here that make this album so endearing.  Unlike so much folk music that relies exclusively on acoustic instruments in drab and unstimulating arrangements, the Thompsons are backed with a rhythm section and an assortment of colorful sounds and textures, from unsettling double-tracked vocals and punchy horns on the title track and a warm electric keyboard on “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” to a somber concertina on “Withered and Died” and sonorous guitar reverb on “The Calvary Cross.”

All the aforementioned factors would make for a very good album.  It is the songs, though, that put this into another category entirely.  Many are portraits of lifestyles, if you will, often on the fringes of society.  “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” for instance, evokes an old-fashioned vision of a community of outcasts like the criminals around docks and ports that Jean Genet immortalized in his autobiographical novel Journal du voleur [The Thief’s Journal].  Tales of loss and loneliness in “Withered and Died” and “Has He Got a Friend for Me” strike tender, sympathetic chords.  “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is the most rousing tune here, recounting the pent-up desire for adventure and unbridled energy lurking in the hearts of nearly everyone caught in the cycle of the working week.  Similar sentiments are echoed in “We Sing Hallelujah” and “When I Get to the Border.”  “The Little Beggar Girl” is quintessentially British folk music, revealing hints of the sort of rhythms and connivances that once inhabited Chaucer‘s medieval book The Canterbury Tales.  A much bleaker vision of those notions is found in “The End of the Rainbow.”  Concluding the album, “The Great Valerio” tells of adulation for and ambiguous emotional impulses to emulate a circus tightrope walker — a metaphor Richard would return to in his later solo career (“Walking on a Wire”).

It’s somewhat unfair that this is frequently described as a dark and depressing album.  Aside from “The End of the Rainbow” and “Withered and Died,” this music doesn’t adopt a particularly pessimistic outlook on life.  Instead it reflects an almost existential search for meaning, and on close inspection reveals a sense of camaraderie in facing rather universal toils for love and acceptance, told in each song through the microcosms of unique character studies.  The emotional range of the album may not be apparent immediately, but it’s there awaiting discovery.

The Thompsons made other great music, but I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is undoubtedly their best, one for the ages.

Isaac Hayes – The Best of Isaac Hayes

The Best of Isaac Hayes

Isaac HayesThe Best of Isaac Hayes Enterprise ENS-7510 (1974)

There were things happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s that could have never happened before.  There were new possibilities in the United States brought on by changing social and economic forces.  And there was music right there in the heart of it all.  Isaac Hayes represented a surging confidence in black america.  In a way, he also represented some of the excesses that tend to go hand in hand with newfound autonomy.  Though his voice is instantly recognizable, he wasn’t a great singer in the conventional sense like an Al Green, Candi Staton or even James Carr.  His records were also made without the expansive compositional skills of a Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway.  Where Hayes made his mark was in bold, smoldering atmospherics, more like Bobby Womack or mid-seventies James Brown.  His best songs tend to be ones that turn conventional love songs around, with subject matter that’s a bit more mature than in typical pop songs but with DIY roughness in the music that’s more youthful than the lyrics.  “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (a short edited version is included here) is more spoken monologue than “song” — a daring move.  It is a brooding piece that works because of its sparse sense of drama.  “Walk on By” is another of Hayes’ best, though it’s in edited form here.  “Theme from Shaft” is of course Isaac Hayes’ signature tune.  It’s a one-of-a-kind showpiece for a boastful, hyper-macho male ego tentatively confronting the problems of freedom rather than the ones of oppression.  So the line “no one understands him but his woman” is both a little chauvinistic and a little existential, treading a line no one really walked before.  Like it or not, there is not another damn song like it anywhere.  The cover of “Never Can Say Goodbye” from Black Moses is a throwaway.  It misses the mark in being too tepid in the vocals and too extravagant in the accompaniment.  It’s probably representative of a lot of other stuff he recorded, because his good material didn’t run all that deep.  This particular collection is a bit shoddy because it features edited material, though that might hold the attention of casual listeners better considering how very long the album versions were.  But in the end, this album does still capture everything that made Isaac Hayes popular.

James Brown – Hell


James BrownHell Polydor PD-2-9001 (1974)

Monster #1: “He’s too strong, we can’t stop him.”

Monster #2: “That’s because he’s the Godfather.”

Dialog between the cartoon monsters on the album jacket gets it down. Hell is James Brown at his super-baddest. He definitely sticks something funky to the man on this mother. From the early 60s to the mid-70s, James’ music got increasingly complex and distinct. His bread and butter used to be fairly straightforward R&B numbers, like “Try Me.” After “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” that all changed.

James knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it.   His vision just happened to be completely unlike anything else in the world. Copycat funk groups—even really good ones—tend to wander through some beats and just fade out after a few minutes. This band is driven every second. Really, Hell couldn’t happen without some great supporting musician: Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, David Sanborn, Jimmy Nolen, and Hearlon “Cheese” Martin are just a few.

The first half of the album (meaning disc one of the double-LP) features most of the hard funk (“Coldblooded,” “Hell,” “My Thang,” and “Sayin’ and Doin’ It”), while the middle, transition part moves into more ballads (“These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” “A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroads Before He Finds Himself,” and “Sometime”). It seems a bit odd to include a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” plus a Latin-tinged remake of “Please, Please, Please,” but that little bit of self-absorbed madness keeps the album within reach. James Brown was still a singer of songs after all. On Hell he manages to call attention to just that, reinforcing his very clear messages. He throws aside smart maneuvering to focus on stupid, moving torch songs. Then he closes with some mid-tempo soul, including one of his best, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”

If for no other reason, this album is great because almost all the songs (10 out of 14!) start with the crash of a gong announcing James Brown’s entry—implying an entryway to the music. Only the Godfather. It can be difficult to put Hell in a proper context, but those gongs are constant reminders that Hell is about finding a new context.

The Tom Tom Club in their song “Genius of Love” spoke some remarkable wisdom: “who needs to think when your feet just go?”  James Brown made intelligent, innovative music, but our feet might be too busy to dwell on it.

Boris – Noise


BorisNoise Sargent House SH-120 (2014)

Boris is a band that is hard to put a finger on.  Back a decade or two ago, they revelled in nimble drone metal.  There were one of a rare few bands that had power and finesse.  Then they increasingly went for a more accessible type of music that had them releasing shorter songs, that seemed like songs as such.  This was fine and good.  But after about 2008, Boris albums started going off in all sorts of different directions.  In 2011 they released, almost simultaneously, albums of shoegaze rock, pop rock, and more of their recent brand of indie hard rock.

Noise hardly features two songs in the same style.  It opens with “Melody,” a song that could pass for the sort of hard rock/metal that has permeated “hard rock” format radio for the last 10-15 years, the kind payed on ninety something point whatever “X” FM stations–whatever the geography, these stations in the United States always have an “X” tagged to the FM frequency.  “Ghost of Romance” is a little better than most stuff here, with something approaching classic rock riffing but layered in echo.  “Taiyo no Baka” is pure pop, unlike the rest of the album.  It is lighter than everything else, linked to the fabric of the other songs only by the use of echo, here on vocals.  But, it is kind of catchy, and might be the best thing on the album, even if you’ll wonder if it is on the right album.  “Angel” is the sort of “epic instrumental” post-rock that was in vogue about ten years ago, the sort of more widely popular sort that Boris seemed to ignore when they made more intense music.  Why return to that stuff now?  “Quicksilver” is late punk, an obligatory change of pace to make sure something punkish makes the cut.  “Siesta,” the closer, is a short bit of drone, almost a kind of rushed drone music, and among the group’s more forgettable drone tracks.

The main problem here?  For one, Boris jumps from style to style without purpose.  The band seems to be out of things to say.  They jump from style to style not because the jumps say something in and of themselves, or because what they have to say requires a breadth of territory, but out of a kind of boredom.  This is an album that listlessly restates music that was alive some time in the past.  It is like a summary of a conversation that happened a while ago.  There are snippets that are interesting, but it’s like remembering only part of a joke from that conversation that is now fading from memory, with the punch line seeming to belong to a context that maybe isn’t quite the same as the one of the retelling.  So rather than an emphasis on content, Noise is all about delivery.  The album is slick, professional.  Ah, well, it’s still a mess and hard to fathom.  But at least Atsuo’s drums sound good, and there are some well-recorded guitar solos, even if none of them get past being flawlessly executed versions of rather superficial moments from the past.  Is Boris getting ready for the equivalents of the “county fair circuit,” playing to audiences in isolated pockets wanting nostalgia not relevance?  Let’s hope not.  But it might be time to start worrying.

Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Leonard CohenLive at the Isle of Wight 1970 Legacy 88697 57067 2 (2009)

The third Isle of Wight music festival in 1970 was something of a disaster, with riotous gate-crashers disrupting many of the performances and with the stage and instruments being lit on fire.  Leonard Cohen, appearing with his band “The Army”, was featured toward the end of the festival.  He achieved what other performers had failed to do: to calm and captivate the unruly crowd.  “Let’s sing another song boys; this one has grown old and bitter.”  

This recording (CD + DVD) captures his performances admirably.  Cohen wasn’t the most refined musician around.  He didn’t play guitar particularly well, and despite having an unmistakable voice he wasn’t the best of singers.  But this “Army” in 1970 (assembled by and featuring producer Bob Johnston) was arguably the best band he ever performed with.  The era when schmaltz crept into his music was still a few years off.  While the schlock of his later years bothers me a lot less than most listeners, there is no denying that Cohen’s bands often leave a lot to be desired.  With a few exceptions (Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes), Cohen often surrounded himself with performers that would otherwise be playing for a sparse, disinterested crowd at the Holiday Inn’s Sunday brunch.  Yet, what some of the interviews on this DVD sketch out is the portrait of a guy who maybe wasn’t all that concerned with posterity.  He opted to be a decent guy on a personal level who supported his friends rather than becoming a cutthroat entrepreneur seeking only the finest performances with no sense of loyalty.  “But I have many friends, and some of them are with me.”

The Isle of Wight concert came shortly before the release of Cohen’s best album, Songs of Love and Hate.  He offers a few songs from that album, but mostly featured are songs from his first two albums.  Cohen is really a one-of-a-kind songwriter.  He is every bit the equal of a Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt as a lyricist, with the imagery and wordplay of Dylan intact but with the dark and harrowing personal focus of Van Zandt too.  Though he came up at the tail end of the urban folk movement, and was around through the whole singer-songwriter movement, he never quite fit the stereotype of any of those kinds of performers.  The wisdom in his words is a rare thing.  Even listening to his songs for the 1000th time, there is always something in the juxtaposition of his words and themes that comes out to surprise.  You always get the sense that Cohen just could see the world with clearer eyes, and could put across the trying aspects of life with an alacrity and charm that made it all seem so comfortable: “like a drunk in some old midnight choir.”

This might be the best live Cohen album available.  Sure, we all know the timing of this release has quite a bit to do with Cohen going broken not long before.  But there is no compromise in this music.  “It’s time that we began to laugh, and cry, and cry, and laugh about it all again.”

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

White Light/White Heat

The Velvet UndergroundWhite Light/White Heat Verve V-5046 (1968)

White Light/White Heat is an album that demands, but also teaches, a most elemental understanding of rock ‘n’ roll. In spite of its demands, it also opens up limitless possibility. It writhes not in perfection but realization. A cerebral work of great complexity, White Light/White Heat is a very important creative turning point in the history of rock music. The Velvet Underground nullified prior rock conventions in making the loudest album possible. What they left in their wake was a new world where a specifically urban rock ‘n’ roll ideal could begin to truly realize itself.

This is the album that assured John Cale a place in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. He won the Battle of “Sister Ray” (rock’s greatest cutting session) because he had the loudest amp. But his organ solo on “Sister Ray” is something more. His minimalist keyboard pounding swaggered and twisted its way into rock ‘n’ roll lore.

Lou Reed played a customized super-guitar that was nothing short of a necessity. Reed had his 12-string hopped up with about seven pickups (one even borrowed off bandmate Sterling Morrison’s guitar!). Solos on “I Heard Her Call My Name” (recalling Edgar A. Poe’s The Raven) and “Sister Ray” are not trippy peace/love fare. They are original and timeless. Songs telling of amphetamine rushes, hallucinations and murderous orgies don’t shy away from any subjects. Call them goth drug vampires or whatever, it is indisputable that the Velvets had an unbelievably deep and inclusive understanding of the nature of their medium. The dark ambiance of it all was at bottom more optimistic than cynical.

White Light/White Heat is almost a live album by its off-handed and raw nature. Yet, that is exactly what makes it great. It is the closest example of what the Velvets in their prime sounded like live. Any refinements would spoil the divine noise they created. White Light/White Heat is also what any future guitar-rock must be judged against. This is the prefect soundtrack for a real revolution. It’s no wonder Václav Havel named Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution after the band as he did.

Lester Bangs said the Velvets “invented the Seventies.” This only partially explains them. It was as if The Velvets slew the great beast guarding the inner circle of illumination. Here was a band having some new relationship with their instruments. They were not a bunch of depraved punks working solely with forbidden forms. Shattering the dogma still remaining in rock ‘n’ roll, the Velvet Underground questioned every rule previously deemed inviolable, in a genre that already seemed premised on breaking from convention. No amount of shock value could do anything for an album of this ilk.

The Velvets made something that lasts because of its philosophical premise. Music could be more than previously conceived; and it could do it with less. The immediacy is paradoxically the enduring quality. The urges and desires thumping to Moe Tucker’s drum heartbeats are the stuff that sustains it. No routine survives. Maybe it’s not enough to say that White Light/White Heat breaks conventions. It provides somewhat of a guide. It points you in a direction along an axis you never knew existed.

It takes a journey to the edge to properly stupefy yourself with existence. This is the album to take you there, to that edge. The one True musical Statement does not exist. White Light/White Heat, however, is a singular assertion. Sell a kidney if you have to, but you must get this album.