Music

moe.: What Happened to the La Las

Moe. is still going strong, and yes, they still know how to translate their sprawling live shows into succinct rock albums better than almost any of their jam-band peers.


moe.

What Happened to the La Las

Label: Sugar Hill
US Release Date: 2012-01-24
UK Release Date: 2012-01-24
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What Happened to the La Las, moe.'s ninth studio album and first since 2008, finds the band in a very different place professionally. They've been running their career completely on their own for more than a decade -- booking tours, doing the merchandising, and self-producing and self-releasing their albums on their homegrown label Fatboy Records. Now, for the first time since the '90s, the band has signed with a different label, the usually country and bluegrass-leaning Sugarhill Records. They've also brought in an outside producer, John Travis, to help them with the album. The results, though, don't sound too different from what the band usually does.

Moe. has always been that rarest of jam bands: a group who understands how to effectively translate their material into studio recordings. Those instincts got a little away from them on 2008's middling composed-in-studio effort Sticks and Stones, and again when they re-recorded sprawling versions of early jams for 2010's retrospective Smash Hits, vol. 1. But Travis and the band have rediscovered their mojo on La Las, which takes much of the band's newer live material and focuses it into succinct rock songs. The only track here to get much beyond five minutes is "Downward Facing Dog", a song which coasts along on easygoing verses before hitting a catchy-but-chunky (with cowbell!) chorus. The bridge of the song drifts from slow distorted guitar chords into an entirely new bass line and vocal melody that is tangentially related at best to the rest of the song. The first four minutes of "Downward Facing Dog" are prime single material for rock and adult alternative radio, so it's no surprise that Sugar Hill has already put out a 4:35 radio edit that excises the bridge.

The rest of What Happened to the La Las is smartly arranged. Travis' production makes the guitars of Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey snarl and pop out of the speakers, while paying special attention to the low end as well. Rob Derhak's bass sounds great all across this album, regardless of whether he's doubling a guitar or doing his own thing. The band's two percussionists, drummer Vinnie Amico and multi-intrumentalist Jim Loughlin, also sound distinctive here, and Travis is also able to highlight the rhythmic interplay that often sets moe. apart from their peers. Album opener "The Bones of Lazarus" stomps along on Loughlin's latin percussion. The way the guitars shift from smashing power chords to bluesy solos to the interesting use of harmonics is fascinating. If anything, second song "Haze" ups this ante. At first it features tense minor-key verses and a hard-hitting chorus. But it hits the solo section around two-and-a-half minutes and takes off. A great guitar solo is immediately followed by a series of supercharged drum fills, which leads into another excellent guitar solo before sliding back into the chorus. "Haze" is exactly the kind of song that could easily stretch this section into a 10 or 15-minute jam live. But the band compresses it into about 90 seconds here, and the song is harder-edged and better for it.

The bulk of the first half of the album is taken up by similar material, where the guitars dominate. Moe. has always been capable of rocking out, but they haven't ever sounded this consistently chunky on an album. Besides "Haze", the best of these is probably the Derhak-penned "Paper Dragon", which has the album's best use of quiet-loud dynamics. Just as all of the distorted guitars threaten to become oppressive, though, the band starts throwing curveballs. "Chromatic Nightmare" is an instrumental track that fully spotlights Loughlin for the first time on an album. He handles the song's melody on a xylophone, while the band plays a 3/4 waltz that sounds like demented circus music. It sounds like nothing else that moe. has ever done, and it's a very welcome interlude. Also welcome is the album's penultimate track, the poppy "One Way Traffic", probably La Las' catchiest song. The lyrics, "We got one way traffic / Love's a two-way street," are undeniably cheesy, but it's wonderful to hear something so sunny-sounding after all the hard-rock crunch. The album ends with the oddball "Suck a Lemon", which marries another genuinely catchy chorus to possibly the disc's thickest layer of distorted guitar, playing underneath the melody. I'm still not sure if it works or not, but it's definitely interesting.

What Happened to the La Las highlights the muscular side of moe., and does a good job of it. This is an album that may have benefitted from a couple more change-of-pace type songs, but overall this is probably their best studio effort since 2003's Wormwood. The band's three songwriters remain some of the best in the jam-band world, and their commitment to brevity in the studio pays off in listenability.

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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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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