Music

Leona Naess: I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll

Rob Varak

Leona Naess

I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll

Label: MCA
US Release Date: 2001-10-09
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The extent to which you will enjoy this album depends in great part on your reaction to writing such as this selection from the liner notes:

"To my muses and last but not least my heart for enduring the bleakest of winters and still beating strong turning heart ache into song . . . for you".

These sophomoric sorts of sentiment abound on Leona Naess' sophomore effort I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll. The songwriting is salvaged somewhat by the inconsistent but occasionally creative production of yet another Swedish soundboard jockey, Martin Terefe. The end result is an album that is workmanlike and solid, with the few revelatory moments slightly outweighing the outright silly.

On Naess' previous album, the London-born stepdaughter of Diana Ross focused on her raw tools as a singer songwriter. Her vocal work was oftentimes not strong enough to carry the endeavor. On I Tried to Rock..., the daring and complex arrangements allow space for her to be a bit more vocally playful. Her instrument is stretched a little thin on several songs, most notably "Sunny Sunday" and "Hurricane", but for the most part her breathy delivery and creative phrasing are terrific. She deftly navigates the rubbery, syncopating chorus of "Weak Strong Heart", and she displays a touching, fragile quality on the ambient dreamscape of "Panic Stricken".

Naess' songwriting is similarly inconsistent. Many critics have compared her to Beth Orton and Liz Phair, but her writing calls to mind an artist with whom she also shares vocal similarities, Edie Brickell. Like the former New Bohemian, Naess alternates junior high melodrama with contemplative whimsy. Solemn naval-gazing like, "Give myself so easily / never again / I'll be one of those fake plastic trees / in your den", alternates with puckish, catchy wordplay like, "I got my high heel boots of steal / My lipstick to kiss and kill / I'm following through on something new / This isn't about you". None of her writing is strong enough to elicit comparisons with the elite songwriters of the day. However, it is strong enough to elevate her above the current crop of lightweights passing for serious songwriters, such as David Gray or Dave Matthews.

Musically, I Tried to Rock... is an album that revels in its '80s-ness but eschews slavish imitation. The strongest tracks are those in which Naess' producers have elaborated on a strong core of '80s references. "All the Stars" recalls the Eurythmics and a whole host of early-'80s groups, and even opens with a self-referential lyric. ("You killed the '80s with another love song"). "Boys Like You" finds Naess singing in a yearning monotone over a track that sounds like a lost track from Yaz's Upstairs at Erics before launching into a chorus straight out of an A-Ha b-side. "Blue Eyed Baby" is built around a chiming, Edge-derived guitar sound and lovely synths. The best tracks on the album will be pure bliss for devotees of new wave and other '80s styles.

Unfortunately, there are some musical missteps as well. Maybe it is an outgrowth of Martin Terefe's studio prowess, but many of the tracks have a kitchen-sink vibe about them that does not work empathetically with the songs. There is often too great a dynamic distance between the more introspective, atmospheric songs and the more aggressive and expressive tracks. Those introspective tracks are often marred by an overload of ambient effects and noise. The thoughtful and sober closing track, "Promise to Try" loses much of its impact amid a swirl of silly ambience that sounds as if it has been lifted whole from an Enya album. Naess' message would have been more powerfully delivered if these tracks were left unadorned.

This album is not an easy one to either summarize or recommend. There are gems sprinkled throughout, particularly for one who is partial to the various musical references in the production. Those who find it troubling that some tracks have "programming" listed next to a phalanx of musicians in the credits will likely find it sterile and overly clean. Naess is unquestionably a promising young singer/songwriter, and she has certainly shown a measure of growth from her first offering. While I Tried to Rock... has its moments, it seems that the clearest message it delivers is that Leona Naess is someone whose finest work may be just ahead of us.

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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