Category Archives: Reviews

U2 – Achtung Baby

Achtung Baby

U2Achtung Baby Island 314-510 347-2 (1991)


U2: the band music geeks love to hate.  Achtung Baby is one of the best reasons to legitimately hate the band.  They never were original.  As at least one other critic has noted, their early output was basically a warmed-over version of Echo and The Bunnymen — though in that U2 did manage to write some great and very accessible post-punk tunes.  As the 1980s progressed, and their fortunes continued to rise, their music became increasingly dreamy, romanticized and airy.  This was fine enough for The Joshua Tree, but it was also OVER with that album.  Rattle and Hum had a few decent songs, but the sheer pretentiousness of it all was unbearable.  With the dawn of the 1990s, and the rise of “alternative rock,” U2 was in a bit of a predicament.  They weren’t exactly that kind of a band.  Well, no problem!  They would become that band, or at least pretend to become that kind of band.  This proved to be the defining moment for U2.  They could always be called upon to chase whatever ridiculous fad took hold of mainstream pop rock.  Sure, Achtung Baby has superb production.  Off in the background, it might even sound pleasant enough.  But on a closer inspection, it reveals itself to be about as phony a record as you could find.  In some ways, it was unsurprising that over a decade later the band would take a lot of flack for avoiding taxes in Ireland by moving its music publishing operation to The Netherlands, all the while campaigning for global celebrity “causes” that tend to be undermined back home by their tax sheltering/evasion schemes (to the extent the campaigning had any validity to begin with).

Frontman Bono is of course an easy target for the ire of U2-haters.  He fits perfectly one of Dostoevsky’s great put-downs from Crime and Punishment (1866): “He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animate abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarize it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely.”  Achtung Baby is Bono’s “emperor has no clothes” moment.  “Even Better Than the Real Thing?”  Ha!  Fat chance.

Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

Elvis PresleyElvis Presley RCA Victor LPM-1254 (1956)


It is impossible to consider the state of American social fabric in the mid Twentieth Century without factoring in Elvis.  The magic of Elvis’ early career was that he was this “other” when it came to the characteristically straight-laced 1950s mainstream culture.  He took just about every element of unacceptable subculture and threw it together in a seamless, integrated package.  C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” in the 1950s, and it featured a complete meal separated into divided compartments.  Take that as a metaphor for the era.  Elvis represented all the food commingling, a stew that crossed all the boundaries and dividing walls.  There were poor, rural, hillbilly country elements, there were bits of raucous blues and r&b, and more, and it all came together as this new thing people called rock ‘n roll.  The music drew from black and white culture at a time when ugly Jim Crow segregation still ruled.  But this music was a powerful shot across the bow of the status quo, a warning sign that segregation and the thinking behind it didn’t work.  Some truck driver kid from Memphis crossed over.  And his undeniable charisma and energy just didn’t leave room for doubt that the most compelling argument was on the side of a new (younger) generation and their new way of thinking.  When Elvis famously went on the Ed Sullivan TV show and his gyrating hips couldn’t be shown on camera while he danced and performed because of what they suggested, it is telling that Sullivan still had Presley on, because there was simply no denying that he had something compelling to offer that people identified with.  Sullivan had no choice but to accept it.  Elvis wasn’t trying to wage a cultural war.  But the size of his talent, like that of Louis Armstrong a generation earlier, transformed the cultural fabric.  He represented the most successful kind of revolutionary: one that almost naively didn’t recognize or seek change but instead suddenly and completely offered a viable alternative that left the old ways obsolete.  They call those paradigm shifts.

Elvis had begun his career with the tiny but now legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.  But as Presley started to gain some attention, label owner Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA Victor in late November 1955 for $40,000 (Phillips made a fortune by investing that money in the new Holiday Inn hotel chain).  RCA producer Steve Sholes took Presley to Nashville and began recording songs.  “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single, and after Elvis made a series of appearances on television for The Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” the single became a smash hit.  A few weeks later, Presley’s debut long-player Elvis Presley was released.  The rest, as they say, was history.

This album was remarkable in that the LP format was still a new prospect.  There were no accepted formulas for how it might work for rock and roll music, if at all.  Singles were still the dominant medium.  It featured a few leftover recordings from Sun Records (“I Love You Because,” “Just Because,” “Trying to Get to You,” “Blue Moon”), plus new material recorded with Sholes.  Elvis tackles covers of some of early rock and R&B’s biggest talents, Carl Perkins‘ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti,” Ray Charles‘ “I Got a Woman,” The Drifters‘ “Money Honey.”  But he also ventured into the territory of Hollywood show tune balladry with Rodgers/Hart’s “Blue Moon.”

Although Elvis was a hot commodity and starting to receive more and more attention, he was still unproven and not yet a big star when he recorded Elvis Presley.  As reviewer timregler writes, “so what we get is Elvis on his own terms . . . .”  There is something still raw, uncertain and dangerous about this music.  The Sun recordings feature Presley with mostly just an electric guitar and acoustic bass (plus drums on one track), while the RCA recordings add piano and drums for a fuller, more elaborate sound.  The Sun tracks have the label’s characteristic reverb, leaving a faint feeling of spooky, otherworldly distance.  That atmosphere is felt most strongly on “Blue Moon.”  The punchy numbers “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)” and “One-Sided Love Affair” benefit from the drive they provide that frees Elvis’ vocal acrobatics to develop more nuance.  If Presley’s earliest Sun recordings didn’t make explicitly clear the man’s range, it was undeniably apparent when the later RCA recordings sat next to them.  The earliest attempts at pop balladry are here.  Although in some respects this remained Elvis’ weakest skill at this moment in time, he demonstrates a lot of potential, if nothing else, in songs like “I’m Counting on You.”  Elvis’ surprising growth as a singer, together with more elaborate production in the coming years, would improve his prospects.  Yet the multifaceted approach of mixing up-tempo rockers with slow ballads would make this LP a defining statement and standard against which rock and roll albums (and pop music albums in general) would be judged for decades to come.  The songs may not all be great, but there was practically no filler here.  This was put together as a full album of material rather than a few preexisting singles cobbled together for re-release or a few singles padded with many inferior outtakes.

The vocabulary of this album is romance, tempered with some self-assured posturing.  This made perfect sense in an era of claustrophobic conformity.  It represented a more unbridled form of individual expression.  But the predominant language of romance made it accessible yet also less directly objectionable than, say, the more intellectual jazz and beatnik music of counter-cultural circles.  Elvis had stumbled through the unlocked back door of America’s cultural stronghold.  And it seemed like everyone else followed.  While certainly Elvis was not the only musical innovator of his day, the magnitude of his rather sudden and surprising fame made him an easy reference point as a kind of dividing line between different eras of popular culture.

Elvis became the fist popular music superstar of his kind in large part due to the timing of his arrival.  In the 1950s, the United States was the biggest economic superpower in the world (parts of Europe still being in ruins).  The combined legacies of the so-called Progressive and New Deal eras, together with the economic opportunities created by massive World War II industrialization, created a unique environment in which the powerful (willingly or unwillingly) gave working people the greatest share of wealth and power that they had ever experienced in the history of the nation.  Those gains would be attacked relentlessly, and would begin to steeply erode in less than two decades, but they still presented themselves as new and seemingly permanent changes as Elvis came to the fore.  This was the double whammy of Elvis’ stardom.  He was the choice of both the young and of the working class.  And he was their ally in the sense that he was a cultural commodity, an emblem of uncontrollable cool and swagger, the sorts of characteristics that entrenched interests can never convincingly deliver.  But while cultural mavericks exist all the time, Elvis’ records sold millions of copies, proving not only in cultural terms but also in terms of cold hard dollars (the language of entrenched interests) that he had tapped into something that was tangible from any angle.

The Rolling Stones – Some Girls

Some Girls

The Rolling StonesSome Girls Rolling Stones Records CUN 39108 (1978)


If 1960s music, especially late 60s music, could be summed up in a line, it would be that boundaries were crossed and all possibilities were put on the table.  In the 1970s, the bands and artists that made such strides in the 60s had to do something with the newly socially permissive culture of the West, while tacitly acknowledging that the battles of the 60s for civil rights et al. were not definitively won by the forces of good.  So by the latter part of the 70s, there was a definite slide among more successful rockers towards decadence.  It’s in that milieu that the Stones delivered Some Girls.  It continues the attempts of Black and Blue (their last studio effort) to update the band’s sound, and seem relevant to the disco era, while also playing up a stylistic grab bag.  Unlike that predecessor though, this disc features a much greater amount of songwriting effort.  There are some pretty good tunes here, including the classic “Beast of Burden.”  If anything ties it all together it’s a feeling of weariness and anxiety behind a very jubilant facade.  The band can only barely hold it together.  It’s music for a party that has gone on long enough to see daylight.  But the careless hours of partying haven’t amounted to anything.  In truth, this album is not the great one some make it out to be.  In fact, it’s a little sad in many ways…did really everything the Stones do in the 60s and early 70s lead to this, only this?  Into the 80s, the band, like so many other 60s icons, would start to make music that resigned itself to defeat, that gave up on the promise of their achievements of the 60s.  The contented themselves to rest on the achievements of better days gone by.  But that was a still a few years off.  For the time being, the boys had a little bit of fight left in them, and here you can listen to it burn up and slip away.

Anthony Braxton – Five Pieces 1975

Five Pieces 1975

Anthony BraxtonFive Pieces 1975 Arista AL 4064 (1975)


Anthony Braxton has to be one of the last jazz musicians to achieve “giant” status before the genre’s popularity declined to the point where doing so became an impossibility.  It has been noted that when he was the first jazz signing to the new major label Arista, he promised to be some kind of crossover success (see the liner notes to The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton and a November 2008 essay in The Wire magazine discussing its release).  Well, success he certainly did achieve.  Despite the widely-held belief that new jazz was no longer profitable for labels or musicians from the mid-1970s onward, Braxton’s series of albums for Arista all sold relatively well–enough for the label to break even even if Braxton himself never financially profited.  In terms of being a “crossover” artist, that is a bit more difficult to assess.  Leading up to his tenure with Arista, he had recorded works like For Alto that extended into the territory of modern composition (of the likes of John Cage), but he also worked with more traditional jazz material on albums like In the Tradition.  And that has remained his mode of operation since–drifting back and forth between the twin poles of traditional jazz and avant-garde composition.  But does that constitute a “crossover”?  It would seem most of the time the answer is no.  But Five Pieces 1975 and some other Arista recordings do make strides at crossing the divide between traditional jazz and modern composition, achieving a new synthesis of both within a given piece.  It seems for that reason it manages to be one of his best efforts.

The success of Five Pieces 1975 certainly has a lot to do with the superb band surrounding Braxton.  They are up to the challenge of each piece and every performer is a match for the next.  There is a balance achieved between them that  evidences a complete mastery of both the compositional elements and the more liberal improvisational sensibilities at work.  If the album could be improved, it would be to replace “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with something like “Opus 40P” or even “Maple Leaf Rag” from Duets 1976 to add more variety.  But then again, why tamper.

Musicians labeled “prolific” are usually also saddled with the label “inconsistent”, if nothing else due to the almost inherent lack of editorial decisions to provide some kind of focus.  Anthony Braxton is saddled with both those labels, as well as the one calling his music “difficult”.  Yet through the years he’s also managed to do some things the “jazz-industrial complex” (his term, like the military-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex) doesn’t normally allow.  Thanks largely to a source of income teaching in later years, he has managed to keep writing and recording challenging works without giving up on his mellower, more lyrical and accessible impulses.  He has also managed to come about as close to being a household name as any modern jazz musician since Coltrane’s era (apart from certain members of the Marsalis family and a few pop musicians masquerading as jazz artists).  So aside from his purely musical contributions, which are indeed numerous, he has presented an image of jazz that contrasts with the accepted one.  That may be his most enduring achievement.  It means that there will be more than one path forward.

David Bowie – The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974

The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974

David BowieThe Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 Virgin 7243 8 21849-2 8 (1997)


If there was ever a single rock star who epitomized the dawn of the modern rock era, it would have to be David Bowie.  This collection of his glam rock works from 1969-74 is quite nice.  But aside from being an absolute blast to hear, there is something to be said for the significance of David Bowie.  He really jumps into the spotlight in the post-’68 time frame.  That shouldn’t be slogged off to mere coincidence.  Compare Bowie’s 1973 version of The Rolling Stones‘ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (originally released in 1967).  For the Stones, the song was something edgy for its time, but still held back.  For an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s American TV show, the Stones had to change the words to “let’s spend some time together.”  In just six-and-a-half years, Bowie’s version is a sweaty, breathy explosion of sexuality.  It’s that, plus Bowie’s persona is that of a high-heeled, jump-suited, make-up wearing, androgynous space creature.   Who would have envisioned that back when Elvis could only be shown on TV from the waist up?  Before ’68 Bowie’s look and sound would not have rocketed him to the top of the charts, it would have put him in position to be lynched.  Here was something out in the open that would have never been permitted just a few years earlier.  While Bowie had nothing to do with that social transformation, he encapsulates how those changes embodied themselves in music and popular culture.  He sort of perfectly represented how someone could step into the whole new territory that had opened up.  What made him the best, though, was that he made it all seem so genuine.

In his early phase, as in later phases, Bowie was mashing up different styles.  In much the same way photographer Robert Mapplethorpe would cross art deco formalism with taboo gay subculture, Bowie would take something like early rock and roll and doo-wop of the ’50s and add camp (i.e., a gay subtext).  This was the case with the likes of “Changes” (1971), the 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Drive-in Saturday” (1973) and the B-side leftover “Velvet Goldmine” (1975).  Then “Ziggy Stardust” and “Rock & Roll Suicide” from 1972’s breakout success The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars blended 1960s urban folk with the bombast of rock opera.  When he was at his best, as he was throughout the entire 1970s, these mash-ups could work wonderfully.  His seemingly heartfelt interest in the various styles carried everything to new heights that were more than just the sum of the parts–later in his career he tended to be more of a hanger-on following whatever fad or trend was in fashion as the “new thing” that year.  Of course, his experiments didn’t always work even when he was in his prime.  Most of his early albums feature a lot of undeniably great songs.  Yet those same albums can feel weighted down by some mediocre material.  The albums as a whole, however good, never fully live up to the commanding heights of the few best individual songs they feature (it was in the late ’70s in his “Berlin” phase that Bowie turned out his very best album-length statements).  In some ways that’s an unfairly high standard to match.  But it holds true.  It also points toward a compilation like this.  On this you get the highlights without anything to bring you down.  Sure, it’s not complete.  “Queen Bitch” from Hunky Dory is missed.  Some tracks might be called superfluous.  “Space Oddity” is not really the necessity most Bowie comps make it out to be.  Still, this collection may still be about the best available option for exploring his early career.  The more mature themes and new stylistic turns of his next period in 1975-79 are summarized on the arguably even better companion set The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979–consider The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 to be a low priority as it marks Bowie’s decline and separation from relevance.

Big Star – #1 Record

#1 Record

Big Star#1 Record Ardent ADS-2803 (1972)


Big Star’s debut, distributed by Stax no less, was a watershed event for pop music. This would be a little hard to guess at the time since it only sold maybe 4,000 copies on release.

Disillusioned with phony hit makers The Box Tops, Alex Chilton joined up with Chris Bell (and the group Icewater) to form Big Star. Memphis was certainly known for blending musical styles, but Big star was different. Call it power pop or whatever, it was “experimental” pop music. The group took big catchy melodies and combined them with smooth harmonies. This was not unusual, as British Invasion groups showed a few years before. The difference was the amount of “pop” they could cram into a song. They also used a personal and honest approach. These songs portray everyday life with a complexity and compassion not found elsewhere.

Though Alex Chilton was the big name (simply for coming from The Box Tops) that attracted the most attention, Chris Bell is perhaps the biggest force on #1 Record. Only briefly do the songs touch on the dark insecurities that Chilton later brought out. When they do, it is more of a recollection of times passed. Here, Bell conveys hope and perseverance. “My Life Is Right” shows satisfaction. “Watch the Sunrise” is triumphant in telling of the future success. Bell brings in some religion on the brilliant “the Ballad of El Goodo” and more explicitly on “Try Again.” Again, the beauty lies in the complexity of the emotions. “Thirteen” is about innocent teenage romance but it speaks only of timeless hopes that still remain.

The emphasis on acoustic guitars and smooth vocals is unique to the group’s debut. There is an “indie rock” kind of feel. It’s natural. #1 Record also has enough personal recollection and noble aspirations to make the material meaningful. Big Star had a vision of the world that is easy to accept.  It is real, honest, and fun.

#1 Record was the last effort to really include Chris Bell. After the record’s commercial failure, the group split up. They did reform (actually multiple times), but Alex Chilton took control of the band. Bell turned suicidal and largely due to artistic differences did not take any credit for some contributions to the group’s second album. Big Star consistently released brilliant material but met stiff commercial opposition. Such a situation (think Vincent Van Gogh) is hard to take. Bell spiraled out of control, and died in a car wreck a few years later (recording just one solo album, posthumously released over a decade after his death). Alex Chilton alternated between heavy drinking and a solo career. But Big Star, especially on #1 Record, always sounded right.

Stax may have been failing, but groups like Big Star and Black Nasty proved there was great music still to be made — even if only on the fringes.

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main ST

Exile on Main ST

The Rolling StonesExile on Main ST Rolling Stones Records COC 69100 (1972)


A sprawling thing, Exile On Main ST runs through blues, county, gospel, soul and rock with reckless abandon. Exile is a stellar affirmation of American music, strangely enough coming from some boys from the U.K.

Most of the album writhes in murk (akin to Sly & the Family’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On). Jagger’s vocals sound muffled. Half the time you can’t hear a damn thing he sings. “I Just Want to See His Face” sounds like you stumbled onto some backwoods gospel revival tearing through what turns out to be an anti-gospel song. Jagger moans in front of some backup singers who scream passionately but seem caught on record only by chance. That mystique of careless luck gives Exile its grandeur. The entire album stays true to its desire for unrefined expression.

This is basically the most important Stones album. It would be hard to predict the Stones would have done anything in the 70s after they kicked founder Brian Jones out of the band (and Jones died shortly thereafter). Mick Taylor finds himself settled into the band, finally. His slide guitar works magic on the masterpiece of uncontrollable longing and charismatic bombast “All Down the Line.”

Backup singers belt out harmonies behind Jagger with horns blasting in a fever. Even Billy Preston stretches out for a guest spot on organ and piano on “Shine A Light.” Every piece of Exile comes together.

None of the individual songs achieved quite the popularity of earlier hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” because they are so uniformly brilliant. The album is still greater than the sum of its magnificent parts. Battered losers and hopeless wrecks parade through honky-tonks and the open road, holding on to what they can. Like the Fellini-esque Robert Frank photo collage on the album jacket, freaks stand placed in a precarious kind of order. When you see a song named “Soul Survivor,” you can hardly take the Stones’ word that they in fact “survived.” Rather, listening to the song reveals they barely made it this time (and may not the next). It’s easy to identify with the characters’ endless attempts to find compassion.

Rebellion is a prerequisite for rock and roll. The German artist Joseph Beuys said art is the science of freedom. In the Twentieth Century at least, the pursuit of freedom necessarily involved the rebel attitude so deeply ingrained in the fabric of rock and roll. The Rolling Stones certainly did their part. They always slid in some raunchy songs that chipped away at the establishment. “Loving Cup” and “Rocks Off” are sleazier tunes than they appear and reveal much more than idle ramblings of libertines. Their vices haunt them as they search for something to hold onto. They testify to the simple joys of common failures. You also have the deconstructionist spin of English boys redefining the musical traditions of another land. The Stones carried with the basic ideals of American music while they wandered into new territory.

An album of this breadth and consistency is a rare thing indeed. Exile is never too polished. It is at the same time familiar and new. It seems so real because the results are so fragile.

Derek Bailey – Ballads

Ballads

Derek BaileyBallads Tzadik TZ 7607 (2002)


It’s interesting how some people can walk into an art museum and say they would only respect an abstract expressionist if they could paint in a literal, classical way. But does anyone have a requirement that a classicist be able to paint like an abstract expressionist? For that matter, why should an artist have to be either/or?

Derek Bailey is a master of creating sound from a guitar. For him to do an album of ballads might seem like a waste of talent. But is it such a waste? Ballads is an amazing album. It’s one that belongs with the most important work of the most important artists. This isn’t just a success for Derek Bailey but a grand achievement of the highest order.

To begin with, Bailey can set hearts aflutter with only the briefest use of melodies. He moves quite deftly between furious free improvisation and flowing chord progressions.

Quite simply, Bailey makes more of the ballads he plays. None are reduced or trivialized. The ballads don’t hinder Bailey’s improvisation. They are part of an evolving music placing no more relative value on any particular forms. What we have is a total recreation of how structure fits into a program of improvisation. It is fair to say this was no easy task. Ballads come with certain inherent limits. Certain rhythms and certain tempos can overpower a ballad. Percussive qualities too are generally hindered by the delicate melodies and narrow harmonic flexibility of a ballad. Of course, these used to be the inherent limits of ballads. There are limits no more.

Ballads simply has me beguiled, enchanted. There are three Hoagy Carmichael songs, not to mention “Stella By Starlight,” “Body and Soul” and two renditions each of “Gone With the Wind” and “Rockin’ Chair.” In a cunning little way, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” concludes the disc. Hearing the whole disc, I feel like nothing was taken from me, everything given to me. The timeless nature resounds with each pluck and bang on Bailey’s guitar. When his strings resonate, so too does the shapeless possibility of playing ballads without limits. Hearing limitless music like this is most definitely a captivating experience.

Bailey says, “It was Zorn’s idea.” John Zorn and his Tzadik record label deserve much credit then. Ballads isn’t the kind of record you would expect Bailey to make. That perhaps is a large measure of what makes it such a success. Making a record unlike his others tends to eliminate an easy consistency with what he knows of himself. Ironically, Bailey takes a huge risk by entering familiar ground. He opens himself up to all kinds of judgments when he adds a reference point playing a standard. Preserving his natural freedom amidst the structures of these ballads requires some choice of what he himself can do while still advancing the overall structure. If this approach makes Bailey guilty of violating the rules of both balladeering and free improv, then he is a great criminal. We need that kind of spirit.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys’ Christmas Album Capitol T-2164 (1964)


The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album is short, at less than thirty minutes, but has the classic “Little Saint Nick” and some other good songs (“Merry Christmas, Baby,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are”).  It’s decent for what it is, but it’s nothing essential.  The songs with orchestral backing sound almost like instrumental tracks cut for Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby on which somebody slapped Beach Boys vocals.

Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance

Insignificance

Jim O’RourkeInsignificance Drag City dc202cd (2001)


I’m not entirely sure why, but somehow Insignificance seems to be one of the great albums of its age.  As a lyricist O’Rourke may not be Bob Dylan, even if most of the time he’s channeling the same mean spirit that populates “Positively Fourth Street” or Blood on the Tracks.  He’s also probably not anyone’s idea of a charismatic singer.  But pairing the underachieving, utter non-event of the words and vocals with the the nuanced, finely orchestrated — yet still hard driving — instrumentals and arrangements is a masterstroke of genius.  Dylan carried the soul of the Beat generation to someplace new.  O’Rourke carried the angst of alternative and indie rock to its pointedly ironic pinnacle.  This music has an empty sophistication and sense of aimlessness that mark it as something totally representative of its time.  I find the fact that it’s somewhat unnoticed to be all the more a hallmark of the diffuseness of everything it stands for.