Whenever I put on the Afghan Whigs album Black Love it strikes me on a visceral emotional level. It is one of those great front to back records that feels like one piece, even if there is stylistic diversity on the album. I believe I have mentioned the record before, but I wanted to post the first song off of it, Crime Scene Part One. It is somehow beautiful and biting at the same time, with a cinematic scope. It is a song that builds in intensity until it explodes. It is a great song that never ceases to register with me when it comes on. Although there is a lot of music I like because of the ideas involved, this is one of those songs that just hits me in the gut. I believe that Black Love is the highpoint for the Whigs, and this may be my favorite song on an rock n roll album that never lets up.
For anyone that loves barn burning political rock n roll that is still musical and entertaining, Black 47 have released a compilation called Rise Up. (Yes it came out last fall, but I am only realizing it now.) I want to do a larger piece on this as they are a band that is worth knowing about. The writing of lead singer/guitarist Larry Kirwan is fantastic, as he is smarter than your average bear. For the meantime here is the song The Big Fellah that was originally on the album Home of the Brave, and now makes an appearance on this excellent compilation.
A really beautiful album that I’ve been completely awestruck by lately is Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle. It’s one of those albums that is overlooked, not only greatly by the general public, but also within Johnson’s career itself. Johnson is an Austin musician that is most thought of as a guitar hero for his tasteful yet often extremely technical playing. He is most famous for his album Ah Via Musicom, an album that won a Grammy and launched three instrumentals into the top 10 for the first time since the 60’s. (That album came out in 1990.) Although I hadn’t listened to much of Johnson’s work before recently, I used to have his most popular album and bop around the house to the instrumental Cliffs of Dover when i was 12. As great as Ah Via Musicom is, its follow up Venus Isle is a truly extraordinary piece of work that is unique even within Johnson’s own career.
Venus Isle is an extremely elegant and regal album. It has a psychedelic otherworldliness that is very dreamlike. What makes it unique in Johnson’s catalog is that it doesn’t shift styles in the same way that his other albums do, at least not as overtly. Some songs bleed into others and the whole album feels like a complete piece. I almost feel like listening to any one track does not do the album justice. The album is also as much about texture as it is about songs or individual parts. Although the guitar playing on it is exceptional, it is often not showy in the way that one thinks of when they think of the term guitar hero. This album also has more vocals than any other Johnson album except for maybe Tones, his debut.
The album sounds like a combination of Prince’s Purple Rain or Jimmy Hendrix’s Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) crossed with the moody likes of the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine. That description is really only a jumping off point. There are even more styles and moods stirred into the pot, but I think that initial description will give you some idea of the overall feel of the record.
Johnson is often called a perfectionist, and one of the biggest criticisms lobbied at him is that his work is too slick. I think if you were going to judge this record only by rock standards you could maybe make that criticism. Although this album is rooted in rock n roll, it is played with the precision of a jazz musician and almost at times appears to have classical aspirations. Every piece feels perfectly sculpted. If the Rolling Stones created ragged earthy paintings out of blood and dirt, this album is more like a marble sculpture. I think one can hopefully appreciate both kinds of things. If you are open to it, this is a really beautiful thing to behold.
Johnson dedicated the album to his ex-girlfriend who was killed during the making of the record. Although it seems as if this album was well underway when that tragic incident occurred, although I can’t be 100 percent sure of the timeline, there is something about this record that reminds me of an epic poem or symphony that is trying to communicate the beauty of a lost love. Although this album, at the time of its release, was no doubt modern music, and there is even something forward looking about it in the way that it seems like it is trying to communicate a new language, I can’t help but feel that it also seems part of some ancient past.
Johnson’s voice is light and mellow, and it is low enough in the mix that the lyrics are often hard to discern. I find his voice pleasant enough, but it does not alone have a quality that, were it not surrounded by beautiful music, that I would necessarily seek out for itself. I think the way it is used on this record, and on certain other things that he has done, it as another tool used to create emotion in the context of the larger piece. On work this personal I would always want to hear an artist sing their own words than use someone else’s voice. His voice perfectly fits into the larger aesthetics of the piece.
This is the perfect kind of album to put on at sundown and slip away into a dream to. A unique moment in music is created, one that even Johnson never tried to repeat himself. I know that there are those that look for more edge in music that would judge this for being too perfect, too slick, too painterly, but they would be using the wrong metrics. I think nothing is more important then for an artist to create that one emotional moment that is true to themselves, that doesn’t look for any confirmation other than whatever light they have guiding them. I think on this record Johnson achieved that. The record was a commercial failure, but here it is after all those years, not in the least representative of its time or any other, still living on its own terms.
Here is an interesting piece in the Austin Chronicle from 1996 about Johnson just as he was about to release this record:
I love records that one can only describe as sounding “batshit insane”. Where the artist seems as if they are out-crazying the din and the whirlwind of the Great Void. Albums that trump death, even if the artists are alive and the albums don’t even have death as a central theme because, even if it is subconsciously, they know it is out there and they seem not to give a shit. I am reminded of the character at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who dies, “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.” I also think of George Carlin, putting on a show making the batshit insanity of this world hilarious, and then ending his set by standing on one leg with his arms outstretched, daring to be smited. These are albums where artistic fear is not only not present, it almost seems as if the artists are daring you not to like them. Albums like this make me laugh out loud and warm my heart to its very foundation. I could be having the worst day possible and when I put one of these records on I think, “Thank God they are out there.” I wanted to write about several of these records to start 2015 out on the right foot. My goal is to post at least one record a day for the next week. I’m just having fun, like a child skipping through a field. Entry #1:
Lulu – Lou Reed and Metallica – Maybe the most insane recording of all time. So many people hate this record, but I love love love it with my whole being. I don’t love it because people hate it, but because it seems like someone going as far out on a limb as they possibly could. Lou Reed was apparently already suffering from the sickness that would eventually kill him. Did he go out by reflecting on an extraordinary life or by begging forgiveness for past sins? No, he went further out into the storm than he had ever gone before. He was a warrior poet that went out into the jungle, that the rest of the village feared, and brought back strange truths. This record is poetic, vulgar, bizarre, and heavy as fuck. Based somewhat on the “Lulu” plays of the German dramatist Frank Wedekind, it deals with murder, Jack the Ripper, sadomasochistic sex, and a femme fetal. And that is just the tip of the iceberg! On the single The View Reed sings:
I want to see your suicide
I want to see you give it up
Your life of reason
I wanna see you in a coffin, your soul shaking
I want to have you doubting
Every meaning you’ve amassed
When I hear this album I can’t help but mentally be in Berlin’s Teirgarten on a dark and rainy day. Yet, in case you think that this is just shock for shock value, the album ends with the incredibly poignant and heartbreaking Junior Dad, which casts multiple layers of meaning over the prior proceedings. The song features, from the breakdown on out, lyrics that are some of my favorite lyrics of all time, lyrics that never cease to move me. Even if you have no desire to check out this record, check out that song. A poetic tour de force that shows that Reed was, on his last song on his last record, still a poet of incredible insight and depth.
Sunny, a monkey then to monkey
I will teach you meanness, fear and blindness
No social redeeming kindness
Or oh, state of grace
Would you pull me up
Would you drop the mental bullet
Would you pull me by the arm up
Would you still kiss my lips
Hiccup, the dream is over
Get the coffee, turn the lights on
Say hello to junior dad
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad
The greatest disappointment
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad
Ian McLagan and the Bump Band’s new album United States is an album of pure life affirming joy. Even the heartbreaking ballads are so in the moment in their performances, that one feels more alive while listening to them. I love all kinds of electronic music, but for those of you that want to know why nothing will ever beat the heart and feel of great musicians performing with each other, look no further.
I can’t not mention that the city of Austin lost one its greatest residents last year when Ian McLagan died. However, it is due to his untimely death that I wanted to wait to review this album. I didn’t want this amazing set of songs to be clouded by the immediate feelings of sadness that hung over his loss. I also wanted to make sure that when I say this is a great record, it is because it is a great record, as I did not want my own reason to be informed by any sentimental feelings. As Voltaire said, “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”
And the truth is this is a fantastic recording by a group of musicians firing on all cylinders. McLagan doesn’t need me to proclaim that he was one of rock’s greatest keyboard players, having been in the Faces and the Small Faces, having worked with the Rolling Stones and so many others. However, this album sounds like a thesis statement of everything he learned in all of those years working and being part of rock royalty. His Bump Band meets him at every turn, playing in complete synchronicity with their leader.
Lyrically McLagan almost never strays from tried and true rock n roll themes, but because of the passion that everything is sung and played with, this never hinders the events. His ragged yet melodic voice, a perfect rock n roll voice if ever there was one, makes even phrases that seem as if they have been around since the foundation of rock n roll come to life. Heart and soul can make even simple words become expansive and welcoming. “Why would you ever want to run away,” he sings in the above song Pure Gold. I would bet there are a million rock songs with this phrase in it, or slight variations of it at least. However, when he sings it the intellect shuts down, the emotions take over, and you know in your deepest recesses what he means. How can you not bop your head, tap your feet, and feel a little more alive when that song comes on?
On the track Don’t Say Nothing, which has simply outstanding piano on it, he sings:
If you can’t say nothing positive
if there’s not a kind word in your head
Don’t say nothing at all
Now this isn’t even a statement that I intellectually agree with. First of all I love singers like Lou Reed and Morrissey, whose dark senses of humor have helped me survive many a day. I also think in life that in order to make things better, you need to acknowledge what’s wrong with the world. However, when McLagan sings that chorus with such perfect timing and feel, I find my heart with McLagan for every single syllable.
What a fucking band on this record! Nothing they do is overly complicated, but if you know music you know that the kind of feel and subtlety they bring to these proceedings is the work of masters. Every rhythm is in the pocket. The guitars, keyboards, and bass weave in a way that, while each is masterful in its own right, the parts most definitely add up to a whole more powerful than the individual pieces.
The ballad Mean Old World is one of those heartbreaking cry in your beer kind of ballads. But it is delivered in a way where you know the sadness is only a passing thing and that you will eventually transcend whatever mean circumstances you find yourself in. It’s rock n roll partially rooted in gospel music.
When reading about McLagan, you know that like every human, he had his moments in the dark. However, whenever I saw him at gigs in recent years, what I kept taking away was that here was a guy that was inspiring for the sheer fact that he made you feel better in the moment. His gigs were joy, his stage banter was playful, and between sets he walked through the audience and made you feel like a friend even if you didn’t know him. This is all thankfully captured on this recording.
The record simply sounds great too. Everything has an organic quality that makes it sound alive. Although produced by McLagan, partial credit must go to the legendary Glyn Johns who mixed it. Johns has worked with everyone from Led Zepplin to the Rolling Stones to the Who and on and on and on. The mix is crisp and clear but never loses the earthiness of the performances. This is how a band playing together should sound on record.
Although his Rise and Shine album contains several of my favorite McLagan songs, before this record I would probably say his last album, Never Say Never, was his best front to back, as the songs were not only great, but the production had that same masterful touch that is apparent here. However, Mac might have gone out on top with this one. If you are a rock n roll fan that fears that no great rock n roll albums have been made lately, or you are a musician that wants to hear musicians playing at the top of their game, get this record now. We shan’t see the likes of him pass this way again. Luckily for us, recordings like this make his death only a temporary thing. When you put this record on, whether today or at some unknown date in the future, you will be in that moment completely, alongside Mac, with a shit eating grin and a gleam in your eye…
Slade performing Merry Xmas Everybody.
And…if you want your Christmas with slightly more drugs:
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.