Music

Jim White: Transnormal Skiperoo

White continues to prove himself as one of the most intriguing singer/songwriters in the biz.


Jim White

Transnormal Skiperoo

Label: Luaka Bop
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: 2007-10-08
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"Transnormal Skiperoo is a name I invented to describe a strange new feeling I've been experiencing after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed. Now, when everything around me begins to shine, when I find myself dancing around in my back yard for no particular reason other than it feels good to be alive, when I get this deep sense of gratitude that I don't need drugs or God or doomed romance to fuel myself through the gauntlet of a normal day, I call that feeling 'Transnormal Skiperoo.'"

-- Jim White

Jim White's always had a bit of the backroad mystic in him, with songs that seem to look at life's larger issues from a 3/4 angle while the rest of us are staring at them straight-on. Maybe it's his accumulated years wandering the earth as a surfer, a taxi driver, a fashion model, and a musician, among other thing. Maybe it's just that he's the naturally creative type. Whatever the case, over four albums and a film, White's established himself as an artist who doesn't just sling a bunch of songs together. Whether he's opting for off-kilter Tom Waitsisms, acoustic ruminations, or shout-to-the rooftop celebrations, White never loses sight of the things that concern him.

Consequently, White's latest, Transnormal Skiperoo, resonates with themes of traveling, becoming lost, and maybe just finding your way home again, and not just in the physical sense. Right off the bat, White takes a topic that many artists would use to close an album -- the acceptance of life's ways that comes with age -- and uses it to kick off Transnormal Skiperoo. In "A Town Called Amen", White muses, "Oh, the sweet wine of youth / Goes sour over time / Seems like the more that you lose / The more you ache to find / A town called Amen". Of course, then it's down to the brass tacks of getting there, and "Blindly We Go" readily admits, "sometimes you gotta take off your shoes / Sit right down in the middle of the road / Kick off the dust and deal with the news / That you are blind".

This tone of acceptance, however, doesn't mean that White advocates giving in and becoming a cog in the machine. Unsurprisingly, given White's own interesting life, he's leery of the status quo. "Tourquoise House" laments, "if I walk the straight and narrow / One more day I think I'll die", while "Counting Numbers in the Air" sees futility in "how we get lost / Going from here to there / Counting numbers in the air / Cheekbone to a cool stone wall".

That push-and-pull between restlessness and comfort has filled White's songs for years now, so it's only fitting that the album's centerpiece is an older song that he's been tinkering with for a while, and which encapsulates both desires. "Jailbird" starts off with mournful, distant harmonica before the song blossoms into a warm, midtempo lope punctuated by birdsong and subtle percussive touches as White sings, "I wanna be a jailbird / From the prison of my own damn mind / Gonna get me a fast car / Set out and see what I can find".

"Jailbird" is also a good standard bearer for Skiperoo's airy, uplifting update to White's sound, which has quickly evolved past the Southern Gothic tag that greeted his debut, 1997's Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, and 2001's No Such Place. Joe Henry's production touches on 2004's Dig a Hole in that Substrate brought a new level of warmth to White's songs, a trend which this new album continues. Skiperoo's production team of Joe Pernice and Michael Deming -- along with musical contributions from folks like Ollabelle, Laura Veirs, Don Chambers and GOAT, and bluegrass team Jeff & Vida -- help White achieve a light, textured sound. Most notably, White's more atmospheric pieces don't go as deeply into dark corners as they have in the past. The result is that jauntier songs, like "Tourquoise House" (which sounds like it could easily be a Dan Hicks track) aren't as jarring as they once were.

In fact, one of Skiperoo's moodiest pieces actually turns out to be a bit of misdirection. "Pieces of Heaven" sounds for all the world like a depressing ode to a lost love, with lyrics like, "From before you were born till you're old as sin, / Your wild oats strewn / Across the fields of time, / My one prayer will always be, / That someday you, like me, / will see pieces of heaven in photographs of you and me". But it's actually a heartfelt note to his daughters. At the very least, it's sonically heavier than White's tale of a troubled soul destined for the asylum ("Take Me Away"), lives in stasis ("Fruit of the Vine"), and self-sabotage ("Plywood Superman").

White's always possessed an ethereal quality, even on his most earthbound songs, so this lighter sound suits him well. Although, truth be told, his style is so fluid and smooth that it seems to fit well into whatever frame a producer puts around it. Finishing one of his records always leaves you feeling as if an enigmatic wanderer's just left town. Transnormal Skiperoo, another quality addition to a too-short list of White releases, is no different.

7

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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8
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From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.

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9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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