[2 December 2004]
In the early ‘90s, when certain—and at times vastly dissimilar—rock bands from the Northwest were lumped in together under the same marketing banner, the most common influence cited was Neil Young. The brawny, wood-grained electric guitar crunch of Crazy Horse, along with the uncompromising attitude of both the songs and Mr. Young himself found echoes in bands formed by youngsters raised on glam, punk, and metal. Now it’s almost 15 years past “grunge”, and its godfather’s influence is again popping up all over. But as Mudhoney’s Steve Turner shows on his second solo release, this time it’s the Buffalo Springfield Neil, the Harvest Neil, the CSNY Neil. But this is no pillaging job. Bad Ideas is a deeply satisfying record that puts Steve Turner in the small club of musicians who maintain artistic viability both in a band and solo.
Bad Ideas sounds like a flight from bad times, using every vehicle it can to get by. After the brief roar of “The Grand Introduction”, Turner and company jump straight into the garage/Stones raveup “Zero on the Scale”. It’s just under two minutes of exhilarating rock and roll. For my dollar, Turner shows today’s vaunted upstarts how it’s done all over this thing. The basic combo is Turner on guitar, Johnny Sangster on bass and guitar, and Bruce Brand on drums. That’s all it takes on “Zero” to snap your attention away from whatever you’re doing when it comes on. “A Beautiful Winter” is a jangly Byrdsian duet with Holly Golightly. The two singers sound relaxed but invested, and their voices wind around each other in classic style. The echoing production recalls the golden era of analog recording, with Turner and Golightly trading delicious barbs. After “I wish you every ounce and pint of good luck / From what I hear around town, you’re dating a drunk”, Golightly responds with:
“Let’s talk about your ex-girlfriends, / And why in the world there are so many of them, / Well I don’t think I really want to be the next one, / You’ve got some problems, / Could that be why you’re still alone?”
“I-55” uses Turner’s Gram-like warble to full-effect. It flutters with heartbreaking charm, and cuts straight when it needs to, evoking the perfect loneliness of the road. The lyrics are conversational but never pedestrian. Themes of escape and longing are dealt with using a precision that doesn’t detract from heart. Likewise, “Dimebag Blues” is a golden country weeper, stating explicitly “I wrote a song called Dimebag Blues today / It’s a short song / It’s a good song / And it’s my last song”. The lines reverberate as something you’ve definitely heard before, but maybe you were lied to, because they’ve rarely sounded this sincere and authentic. Jim Sangster’s dobro floats through the arrangement with brother Johnny’s piano. Someone’s playing banjo; I’m not sure who, but it works. If the characters and lives and relationships on Bad Ideas are breaking down, the songs work with brute efficiency and zero pretension.
“I Love the Sound of My Guitar When It Sings” is more tight barroom rock, singing the praises of guitars and riding bicycles. But just when you think the clouds have parted, the third verse looks back on lost love, and the pieces come together. She’s the catalyst for rock and roll escapism, for the rush of wind in your face as you fly through city streets with abandon. Melancholy touches even the breeziest songs, so that you revel, rather than wallow in it. An appropriation of Hoyt Axton’s “Greenback Dollar” fits the mood completely, as does the Creedence slow boogie of “Things to Give Away”. Finally, Turner closes the piece with the lovely “Move Ahead”, the opening guitar line of which sounds like a brother to fellow Seattleite Ed Vedder’s moving “Man of the Hour” (a kindred example of maturing songwriting and artistic development), bringing us back around again.
Move ahead. Not always an easy thing to do. But Turner’s done it here, wringing timelessness out of troubled times.