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Friday, Jan 23, 2009

How many times have you heard a b-side of one of your favorite bands and thought “WHY wasn’t this on the album?” It is even more frustrating/confusing when there are tracks on the album that are weak and if replaced with this hidden gem of a song, could elevate the album to a great (or at least considerably better) record.


The four-disc b-sides and rarities collection Join the Dots, released in 2004, showed the Cure to be a band that consistently casts aside great songs to b-side status, often in favor of questionable experiments. I’m all for variety on an album but 1996’s aptly-named Wild Mood Swings could have done without “Club America” and it’s bizarre low-octave croon from Robert Smith. As the second song on the record after the strong opener “Want”, it was probably seen by first-time listeners as an early sign of a disappointing album and seems to cast a dark cloud over the rest of the (actually quite good) record. If you ask me, it’s one of the main reasons Wild Mood Swings is so looked down-upon.


Now if Smith had replaced “Club America” with the “Mint Car” b-side, the gorgeous “A Pink Dream”, the album just might have been received a little differently and perhaps remembered more fondly. It is an almost ridiculously upbeat, sunny slice of pop. It starts out with heavy cymbal crashing and a mix of electric and acoustic guitars, fooling you into thinking it’s darker than it is. Then the momentum picks up and the clouds break. The bright, fiercely strummed acoustic guitars recall “Inbetween Days” and Robert spits lyrics like “I rub my head and stumble out the door / Head into the bright new beautiful day”. The production is pristine with every cymbal hit sparkling, every guitar strum exuding rays of sunshine. Not only should this have been on the album, this should have been a single. 


There’s an abrupt shift of mood in the last verse when Smith sings “It was all so far away, so long ago / I hardly ever think about her anymore / Except sometimes when the summer twilight breeze carries me the scent of faraway rain…”, showing off how easily the Cure can slip from mindless joy to nostalgic melancholy. These two emotional extremes have always been what the Cure does best. The fact that the same guy who wrote “Pornography” also wrote “The Love Cats” (and within a year of each other!) is proof of that. I can’t help feeling Wild Mood Swings would have been a better showcase for these two strengths if “A Pink Dream” had been included in the tracklist. Alas, it remains a song I can put on mix-tapes/CDs I make for people knowing they’ve probably never heard it, thereby introducing them to a perfect piece of pop.


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Thursday, Jan 22, 2009
They didn't gain the post-punk popularity of Gang of Four and Delta 5, but the Mekons' first three singles will make you wonder why.

In 1978 in Leeds, England there were three excellent post-punk groups emerging from a group of friends in an art program at the University of Leeds.  Of course the biggest was Gang of Four, then the catchy and dancey Delta 5, and then there was the Mekons.  As a post punk band they emerged and quickly faded away releasing a series of excellent singles and a couple of inconsistent albums from ’78 into the early ‘80s. Once they disbanded and reformed things were a lot different as they focused on trad folk and soon got into country music where they have stayed until this day. 


As a post punk band, the Mekons were never a success like their compatriots in Gang of Four or, even, Delta 5; they didn’t even put out the consistently good material like their friends, they never even released a decent album. But the singles! The singles were outstanding. Songs like “Where Were You” and “Work All Week” were like amazing ‘76/’77 styled punk with the self


Never Been In a Riot

Never Been In a Riot


awareness spawned by the post punk scene. Near enough to punk’s origins to sound exciting, raw and legitimate, but removed, allowing them to stray from spitting political rhetoric.


Their first three singles were an exciting progression from snotty and noisy to more focused and still sloppy punk rock. The first was “Never Been in a Riot”, an off tune, off time, slacker anthem with the memorable lyric: “I’ve never been in a riot / Never been in a fight / Never been in anything / That turns out right”.  As a direct response to the Clash’s suspect “White Riot”, it embodied post punk’s awareness, not to mention its conflict with punk’s original ideals.


The following two singles explored the vulnerability, uncertainty and defeatism first introduced here. Where punk groups were only able to show two emotions: anger and outrage, the Mekons and other post punkers were able to reveal emotions outside of that narrow scope, moving on to often complex and conflicting conditions. Beginning with “Where Were You” and moving onto “Work All Week”, we’ll go through a lyrical exploration of the Mekons’ early singles.


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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009

The scream is blood curdling. It sounds like something from a horror film. But it’s not. It’s Jerry Lott, better known as the Phantom, and that scream is the first thing you hear on one of the most ragged, raw, frantic songs my ears have ever heard. “Love Me” was recorded live in one take in the summer of 1958 and is an explosion of out of control ramshackle energy. Lott was a country singer who turned to rock ‘n roll after hearing Elvis Presely for the first time in the mid-‘50s. Calling himself the Phantom and wearing a lone ranger-style mask he apparently spent three months recording his first song “Whisper Your Love” and decided he wanted to do something quick and loose for the other side of the record.  Thus, “Love Me” was born.


After Lott’s opening howl the guitar starts playing a sinister-sounding rockabilly riff and Lott makes an unintelligible noise before commanding to his bandmates “Let’s go!” The bass slides in, then the drums and the Phantom starts his Elvis-like singing. When the music stops and he moans the title he sounds desperate and out of breath. At forty-three seconds in we’re already halfway done and a guitar solo starts off unassumingly, sounding like it could be any other rock ‘n roll solo. Is it possible Lott’s noticed too that it was somewhat formulaic and tepid? Because just after the solo starts you can hear him away from the mic yell “Come on, let’s go!” and suddenly the band is tearing into their instruments with such intensity that they seem to fall out of your speakers. “Keep going!” Lott calls out as the drummer wails on a cymbal that sounds more like a garbage can lid. On the last verse Lott is barely able to get the words out and when the music stops he’s breathing like he just ran a marathon. As he repeats the title the “love” simply becomes a grunt and only the “me” remains.


Tragically, the Phantom’s music career was cut short in 1961 when he sustained severe injuries in an accident that sent his car tumbling 600 feet down a mountainside in South Carolina. “Love Me”, however, lives on as an example of ferociously fun, chaotic, rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form.


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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009

On tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Costello brings together Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and John Mellencamp for an old-fashioned songwriters’ circle, the kind that Rosanne’s father, Johnny, used to host back in the day. (Indeed, at one of those Cash-helmed circles, Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee” for the first time, as he remembers at one point during the episode.) This format is slightly different than the first seven episodes in the series, as it focuses more on performance than discussion—a total of ten songs are performed over the course of the hour, by far the most songs featured on an episode of Spectacle yet.


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Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009
“I never met a hero I didn’t like. But then, I never met a hero. But then, maybe I wasn’t looking for one.” -- Lester Bands on Lou Reed.

Lou Reed - Berlin


Lester Bangs dedicated a large portion of his writing career to Lou Reed. Bangs’ loved Lou Reed, but he also hated his guts. Genius and creativity mixed with egotism and jackass-ery. I love Lou Reed. Quite simply, he’s probably my secret crush that I don’t talk to many people about for fear of having to defend this love against a wall of the opposite point of view.


Can I be honest? I have all sorts of difficulty with Lou Reed. There are moments I feel he receives absolutely no credit for the evolution of rock and roll. I mean, come on! No Velvet Underground? No R.E.M. No Sonic Youth. Absolutely no major influence for the underground music scene of the ‘80s and no Nirvana and the list goes on and on. Don’t give me the Ramones or the much over-hyped Sex Pistols. Velvet Underground. More distinctly, Lou Reed holds the key to everything.


And then I stop myself. Usually mid sentence and remind myself whom I am talking about—Lou Reed: The masochist of rock and roll. The man that not even Lester Bangs could quite pin down (which has to be a reason why so much of Bangs’ career is dedicated to writing about Lou Reed). In the end, Lester concluded, “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possible conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.” Lou fought with the demons created by David Bowie and tried to match full bore that type of excitement; almost pissed he hadn’t thought of glam first. Thus, Lou returned to his VU roots and turned out Berlin.


Berlin caught hipster renewal the past year because of director Julian Schnabel’s filmed concert of Lou Reed performing the entire Berlin album. Shockingly panned by critics and fans upon initial release, Lou spent the majority of his career avoiding the music from Berlin. The album is Reed’s rock opera about a disturbing relationship between a couple based upon drugs and not much else. A maniacal album with full session horns mixed with music snippets from Lou’s days with the Velvet Underground; the most affirming this point are within the song “Caroline Says”, a direct rip from the VU’s “Stephanie Says”.


Berlin is an arresting album and not one for an introduction to Lou Reed’s musical legacy. However, the album dedicates itself to pull its listener to the depths of post ‘60s, urban decay. Truly a song like “The Bed” where Lou whispers of the death of his character Caroline; “And this is the room where she took the razor/And cut her wrists that strange and fateful night/And I said, oh, what a feeling” summarizes the pain and death of the West in a post Vietnam/Summer of Love era that is largely built upon fluff and excess. True, Lou loves the characters he addresses, but Lou also understands that by addressing these issues he stirs up the bowl of stew and no one likes all the ingredients in this stew.


Whatever the case, Lou Reed’s Berlin is probably a nice way to microcosm Lou’s career. He probably gets too much blame for making the album and for making it a disturbingly story that feels disjointed with the glam he was producing at the time. At the same time, Lou probably doesn’t get enough credit for making an album that harkens back to Velvet Underground while giving us a glimpse into what will be Lou’s most engaging and critically acclaimed work of his career in New York and Magic and Loss where Lou shows the focus that is somewhat lacking throughout Berlin


Regardless, Lou Reed’s Berlin is a necessary album for a Lou Reed fan. I am happy to see it receiving some new critical acclaim and was happier to see it in the stacks of “New Vinyl” at Dave’s Records. It shows that rock and roll can resuscitate without traveling down the pathway to corporate sponsorship and excess. Rock and roll can be what it’s supposed to be: urgent and unrepentant. Both are true of Berlin.


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