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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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Monday, Jan 19, 2009
Why was Lil' Wayne the single biggest musical phenomenon of 2008?

Lil’ Wayne’s success has reached such a phenomenal peak that at one point, as I was about to turn the radio to a hip-hop station coming out of Boston, my friend could say “How about some Lil’ Wayne?” and be absolutely right. I can’t remember if the station was playing one of his songs or if it was a guest spot, and it doesn’t matter. Between guesting for everyone who makes anything even related to hip-hop or R&B and making a huge score with Tha Carter III, Wayne’s voice is everywhere, and it’s so distinctively hoarse that it seizes for itself—and also flattens—whatever sound is behind it.


That flattening effect is part of the reason Wayne has so completely overshadowed every other rapper around him. He doesn’t sing on top of beats. He eats them, makes them irrelevant. On Tha Carter II, his previous non-mixtape album, the production by T-Mix was focused on distorted soul samples. T-Mix gave soul choruses the rough, dissonant sound of music played too loud on cheap speakers. Wayne took it too easy on the vocals, particularly during the verses, but he still sounded great. On this new album, the soul samples are mostly gone in favor of crunked-up electro, but when they do make an appearance (like on the Jay-Z duet “Mr. Carter”), the switch is barely noticeable.


Wayne demolishes these beats by singing so hoarsely that the noise of his voice, like a blue shirt on a blue-eyed person, pushes forward whatever noise is latent in the music, making it sound dirty and messy. Then he sings all around the beats, basically ignoring where the stresses ought to go, in such a random way that the song’s meter melts down. Sympathetic producers on Tha Carter III build this into the very structure of the songs, so that when Wayne suddenly announces “Bitch I’m the bomb like tick…tick” on “Got Money,” Play-n-Skillz stops the music. Wayne is singing in his own post-detonation vacuum. The point here is that Wayne doesn’t care what he sings over, because he’s just plain hungry to rap. In his and our world, a radio station like Power 105.9 in Los Angeles will reduce everything to equivalent “hip-hop” anyway.


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Friday, Jan 16, 2009
Kathleen Edwards is slowly becoming one of today's great songwriters. Sad stories are not her only strength. In the background is a wry sense of humor and critical eye for the subtle issues of her characters that makes her a songwriting force.

Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?


Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.


Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.


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