I’ll be playing down at Strange Brew in Austin, Texas today with my kid brother for the first time in months. I had a band with my brother for many years that has been on hiatus while my brother attends law school. After a searing 3 hour rehearsal yesterday we decided to turn my solo show into a rock show. We’re also going to be joined by the great Austin songwriter Kacy Crowley. Detrimental to my wallet, I’ve always had a strange relationship with the whole self promotional thing. However, I can say without any doubt we are going to bring it today. Playing with my brother, and longtime drummer Alex Moralez, yesterday made me feel like I was on a rocket taking off for Mars. Together, let’s celebrate Jesus’s birthday early today by drinking and smoking! (Hey it’s not like it was meant to be celebrated by shopping.) 4pm start time.
This afternoon I fell into the deep and dark sleep of the the hungover, only to awaken to a cold grey and white grave like early evening. It looked as much like a dream outside, and a far more nefarious one, than the dream I had just been having on my couch. Realizing that my dog had not been walked I put on my headphones and headed out the door. I put on the last two songs from Bash and Pop’s album Friday Night is Killing Me. Those songs would be Tiny Pieces and First Steps.
What an album! It is one of those albums that I discovered in a used CD store some years back that has never completely left the rotation. And yet it is an album so few people know about. I wonder how many people even own that album? It was Tommy Stinson’s first album after the breakup of The Replacements. It is full of loose disheveled rock n roll. The playing is simply fantastic, especially the guitar playing. It has so many cool little guitar parts delivered with a ton of feel. The production is organic and inviting. It really is one of those great lost rock n roll gems, like if the Faces had some record out there that had escaped release. It’s not music that will change the world, but it is a record that always manages to change my mood when I am listening to it. I imagine it does that for other people that have discovered its charms.
It’s funny how the things that can mean so much to us, like dreams, are things that so many other people will never ever know. How many great albums are out there that we will never hear? Even more, how many great songs were written that have been lost to the sands of time? Unlike many other types of art that must be rendered in physical form in the doing, usually songs that make it to record often leave behind many other ones that never will. Shadows and spirits of sound that a songwriter may deliver in their living room, that are swept aside as the times change. Ghost songs. Not the songs of the dead, but the songs of the deceased emotion.
Maybe that organization of sound was developed into something better. A lot of times it is just a numbers game. You only get the financing to make so many records. At the time you choose what you think are your best songs, although it can be very hard to judge your own work. You record them, in a process where so many things can be lost in translation. Then out of all of the recordings that are made only so many of them find an audience, often having nothing to do with the works validity. Even for the most popular of artists it can sometimes be a losing game.
Friday Night is Killing Me is one of those records that at least got made, but has been largely forgotten. It makes no difference, other than maybe in the financial bearing of its creators. They made something great. They took a chance and dreamed. Even if they are few and far between, there are still people out there like me whose souls are warmed by it on a grim afternoon, as if we had suddenly stumbled upon the hearth of a friendly fire after a great storm.
One day you’re stumblin’ around
The next you’re thinkin’ of the town
And the friends that you thought would always be
With old friends come those greetings
That your eyes won’t be meeting
Though your insides want to embrace
You hardly recognize the face
With Chicago round the corner
Baby takes her first step today
Bash and Pop First Steps
I’ve been obsessed with AC/DC lately. I want to try to explain why to those of you that might not get them. I also think they demonstrate how powerful minimalism can be.
AC/DC albums are kind of the opposite of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album. I love well orchestrated ornate pop music, but I love its opposite just as much. The arrangements on AC/DC albums rarely go beyond what can be reproduced live by a four piece rock band other than backup vocals, occasional percussion, and Angus Young’s lead guitar. There are some minimal guitar overdubs, an additional guitar in the chorus or whatnot, but rarely more than that. Their records musically are usually just bass, drums, and one electric guitar in each speaker. However, as Lou Reed said about Kanye West’s Yeezus album, “the arrangements are minimal, but the parts are maximal.” It’s hard to sound bigger than AC/DC, they often play to packed stadiums, but they achieve this sound with only a couple of instruments. Their sound is created by the way each musician plays and, more importantly, the way that they play together. For instance, Angus and Malcolm Young, the guitar players and brothers that run the band, perfectly compliment each other in parts and sound so that their guitars sound infinitely bigger together than either one could on their own. Malcolm, who is in the left speaker, plays a Gretsch guitar and has a thicker cleaner sound. Angus, whose rhythm guitar is in the right speaker, plays a SG and his has a more distorted and biting tone. The frequencies created by each insturment perfectly compliment each other, creating a gigantic sound.
They also use space in a way that each instrument achieves maximum impact. On their mega-hit You Shook Me All Night Long, the bass does not come in till the chorus, which is unusual for a pop or rock record. By withholding it that long, when it does come in, the listener really feels it. The riffs that the brother’s write also often have large gaps in them. By having moments of silence in between their riffs, you feel the full impact of each scrape across the strings. Much like how a Zen garden, through being minimal, forces one to focus on what is there, they too pull the listener in by knowing what to hold back. Even their drummer for most of their career, Phil Rudd, rarely plays the usual rock n roll drum fills. He makes every cymbal crash count. Except for when Angus’s lead guitar explodes, which again is so powerful because it is restrained until just the right part of the song, AC/DC does so much with so little. A lot of other bands couldn’t get that kind of emotional impact with their music with twice the musicians.
One of the misconceptions in the media is that AC/DC make the same record over and over. They do have a set of rules in place that can often make their music sound the same to the casual listener. But there is actually a lot of diversity if you compare the rock n roll boogie of their earlier records to the more melodic rock of something like Blow Up Your Video. Their records are always driving guitar based hard rock records that feature typical rock n roll subject matter in the lyrics. There are no guitar effects used other than amp based distortion. It’s like they set a frame and a subject matter, like a painter that only paints certain sized water color landscapes. But as you know, there are a lot of different landscapes one can paint even within a certain sized frame using a certain medium. By limiting themselves they achieve their unique sound. They also must figure out how to be creative while limiting themselves. Even on one album, lets take their famous Back in Black album, there is a lot of difference between the sound of Hells Bells and You Shook Me All Night Long. One has a foreboding quality, while the other one is celebratory. The devil is in the details with this band. If you are willing to explore their music they have a lot to offer.
Now I know that some of you will think that it is ridiculous to take a band seriously that often only sings about sex, explosions, rock n roll, and more sex. Forgetting that their original singer was actually pretty clever within the confines of those topics, I think one can take what they do seriously and think they are charmingly ridiculous at the same time. Even the sexism that is apparent in so many of their songs is taken to such a ridiculous level that it is comic. This is stuff that is meant as release and as fun. There is a reason they can fill up stadiums and give so many people a great time. I think you can listen to their stuff on several levels. On one hand it is just fun ridiculous music, but if you pay attention to the craft they put into creating this stuff, it is pretty interesting as well.
Also, if you take their career as a whole, in their refusal to change thematically if not musically, their is a certain noble defiance in it. Where other bands try to reflect their lives in their lyrics, AC/DC has almost made an art out of being an immovable object. They are the mountain that has not been eroded through time. Their biggest hit album, Back in Black, was written after the alcohol related death of Bon Scott and features a song called Have a Drink On Me. Their new album, Rock or Bust, was recorded after founding member Malcolm Young had to retire because he was diagnosed with dementia. Yet as they grow older and life thins their herd, they remain as they always have been thematically, unchanged, Mount Fuji in the background of the changing seasons. Like the last sentence at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, they are grinning horribly and thumbing their nose at You Know Who.
Was listening to the album Let There Be Rock by AC/DC all day. It is an absolutely fantastic rock n roll album. I have no idea how the album was recorded, but it sounds like an album recorded by a band live in a room while rolling some fat tape. It may seem simple to some, but the playing, writing, and recording are tremendous. Every groove is deep in the pocket. The guitars sound like snarling dogs. The lyrics are funny and witty and delivered for maximum effect by Bon Scott. There aren’t many overdubs that couldn’t be performed live, a guitar part here and there. I love records like this, that sound like an actual band. A great deal of the magic is from the way the musicians interact with each other. This is primal physical stuff. At the same time there is more sophistication going on in the arrangements then appears. This can be seen in the way there are long pauses on the title track, and then all of a sudden the band explodes back into the song. That’s not amateur hour there. Angus Young’s lead work sounds like he is taking the paint off of an entire countryside of barns. There is a reason that every one from metal bands to Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye love this band. They are the very best at what they do. The title track, which may be my favorite AC/DC song will be posted above. It’s also one of my favorite rock videos.
The rock n roll monolith that is AC/DC continues, even without brother Malcolm Young. The new track sounds like, well, AC/DC. Would you want anything else? As a heavy metal drummer once told me, “Their shit is so simple, but it drives people fucking crazy.” At this point the band should probably be added to the periodic table.
My last posts may have been too dark for a Monday morning. I’m stuck in the airport and I’m sure many of you are stuck at work. (Which is where I surfed the internet so much I once thought I found the end of it!) Here is a little joy in the form of music. This is Melody of Rain by Marah from their Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album. In my humble opinion they are the best band from my home state of Pa and at the height of their powers they are one of the greatest rock n roll bands out there right now. Like many great bands they can’t be properly defined by one genre, but even when they are doing something like this that has one foot in folk music, they always have another in rock n roll.
One of my favorite guitar players is Alain Whyte. He was Morrissey’s guitar player from Your Arsenal through Ringleader of the Tormentors. He still wrote songs with Morrissey after leaving the touring band, although I do not know yet if he wrote any songs on the new album. Morrissey pokes some fun at him in his Autobiography, but with Morrissey it is hard to tell if he there is any real animosity or just a sort of backhanded compliments that are the result of his Northern humor.
Alain Whyte never got the credit that he deserved, largely for the unpardonable sin of not being Johnny, even though he wrote at least 81 songs with Morrissey and contributed to some of his best works.
I loved the guitar team of Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, but I prefer Alain’s melodic expressive playing to Boz’s more rhythmic approach out of the two. They were perfect foils for each other. Although the guitar playing of the two was rooted in pop and rock classicism I actually felt that especially during the 90’s they were one of the few two guitar teams that were pushing the instrument in new directions.
They took glam, rock, pop, and rockabilly riffs, and blended them into a unique recognizable style. Under Steve Lillywhite the pair created what to me are the two high-water marks of Morrissey’s career when it comes to guitar playing. The albums Vauxhall and I and Southpaw Grammar both feature exceptional guitar playing though they are both very different. Vauxhall and I is very beautiful and gentle while Southpaw Grammar explodes with volume and energy.
One of the things that is interesting about their playing is that even when they were playing loud they were often including beautiful melodies under the noise. Vice versa, even when they were playing beautiful gentle parts there was an emotional quality that created tension.
Much how Paul Westerberg often updated the guitar playing of the Rolling Stones by making it more melodic, I feel that Whyte, and Boorer with him took preexisting rock n roll templates and added a new melodicism to them. They might have only been painting new landscapes in the margins, but they were still creating their own language.
Now that Whyte is no longer in Morrissey’s band he often co-writes pop songs with American pop stars. However, if you like his work his work with Morrissey I would recommend checking out the album Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. This album features Whyte’s guitar playing, writing, and singing. Some of the songs you will recognize as songs that became Morrissey songs.
If you are unfamiliar with his playing I would recommend checking out both of the above mentioned Morrissey records. Although I think Vauxhall and I is the pinnacle of Morrissey’s solo career, Southpaw Grammar may interest you more if you are buying a record for purely the guitar playing aspect if you happen to be a rock n roll fan. Both records feature glorious guitar playing that in and of itself has unfortunately been overlooked for too long.