Reviews

Eileen Rose

Devon Powers
Eileen Rose

Eileen Rose

City: New York
Venue: Bowery Ballroom
Date: 2002-05-20

Inside that tiny red dress is a tinier woman, and she's standing before the tiniest crowd I've ever seen at the Bowery Ballroom. The stage behind her is elaborately set -- lots of mics, a full drum set, an upright bass, a keyboard -- but the only instruments this songstress plans on playing are the acoustic six-string she's gripping tightly, the harmonica she'll reveal later, and the curious smirk she's wearing on her face. It's the smile of a woman who has played rooms much tougher than this one, and of someone who performs her heart out wherever she may be, regardless of who may or may not be listening. Tonight, Eileen Rose is the preamble for someone else's constitution -- a position with which she's plenty familiar. This time, her touring companion is Ed Harcourt, but there've been other notables, like Ryan Adams, Ani DiFranco, Frank Black, and Turin Brakes. Such a roster of artists may only be tenuously related sonically, but their common thread is also the thesis of the Eileen Rose way: an appreciation of telling story; a thoughtful, almost intellectual attitude toward songwriting; and a proclivity for merging and revising musical genres. Rose is an American born singer who has spent over ten years living London, and her newest release, the 2002 Long Shot Novena (Rough Trade), is her second as a solo artist. Formerly frontwoman for groups like Daisy Chain and Fledgling, her individual style reaches back as far as Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn and forward to femi-folksters like Shannon Worrell or Dar Williams, with a taste of the masculine methods of Tom Waits or Bob Dylan. Over the course of Long Shot Novena, she treks through country, spins folktales, GIVES roots to rock, and sings a womanly blues. Mostly, though, she does what she wants to, singing and playing from a place of determined, self-assured emotion. Unfazed by wandering, sparse crowd, Rose settles herself into singing, opening with "Rose" off her 2000 release, SHINE Like It Does. Though the song is a fairly traditional take on the "reflective woman's love song", her voice is anything but girly -- it throbs a wizened sternness and mature strength that gives her melody much more grit than lilt. Even her soprano is sandier than it is sweet, winding leisurely around the crowd like dusty road rolls through the countryside. But it is also colorful (full of unique tricks) and versatile (capable of sky-highs and cavernous lows). She blats and bleats and browbeats, pushing so much sound from that tiny frame that it seems that one or the other should give. Her voice is by far her most well practiced instrument, with guitar coming a not-so-close second. Though her easygoing style disguises it, her voice does acrobatics while their guitar underpinnings follow basic chord progressions with few techniques beyond basic strumming. (A breezy backporch harmonica sometimes dresses up the songs, but the lines it wails are also mellow .) Rose admits as much to the audience tonight. She begins a number by declaring, "oh, I hope I don't mess this up," and apologizes about having to sit down in order to play certain songs. "I write songs and they're beyond what I'm even able to play," she shares matter-of-factly before launching into "See How I Need You", the night's third song, off Long Shot Novena. "And I think 'why did I do that to myself?'" Certainly, from all appearances, Rose is shy about very little. As a storyteller, she has a tendency for speaking freely on stage, sharing a little bit of her life history or simply disclosing the impetus of some of the tunes. "For Marlena", the fourth song of her set, was written for the mother of a friend who was murdered. A radio host once asked her if in order to write "Good Man", a song written about a man who has made more than his fair share of wrong decisions, she had to pretend to be a man. Responding to how the tour has been treating her, she quips "I started out with crow's feet and it's like pterodactyl's been stomping on me now." It's repartee like this that transports me to another place, one smokier and smaller, so Rose's variety of humble honesty and homespun goodness can be greeted with an intimate appreciation. Or maybe a green outdoor venue in the blaze of summer, smoking herbal cigarettes on a tattered blanket, where the haze of early evening renders Rose's tones even more golden. Eileen Rose doesn't need a big audience, but her music makes much more sense when there are big ears to give it a sincere listen, and big hearts to take it all in.

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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