Music

Various Artists: The Times We're Living In: A Red House Anthology

Steve Horowitz

The independent folk label Red House Records' latest compilation disc features all the usual suspects, including Greg Brown, Guy Davis and newly signed The Wailin' Jennys and Jimmy LaFave. No big surprises here, just a generous sampling from the recent catalogue.


Various Artists

The Times We're Living In: a Red House Anthology

Label: Red House
US Release Date: 2005-02-08
UK Release Date: 2005-03-14
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Bob Feldman's Red House Records began largely as a way to distribute Iowa folk rocker Greg Brown's records. Just as Brown has become increasingly successful (with Grammy Award nominations and such), Red House has grown as well. President Bob Feldman has turned Red House into one of the nation's premier independent folk and contemporary acoustic music labels, with a roster that features an array of talented stars from across the country, including the aforementioned Brown, Guy Davis, The Wailin' Jennys and Jimmy LaFave. Red House has become synonymous with a certain type of literate folk-rock marked by populist, progressive politics and concern about the socio-psychological condition of our nation and its inhabitants. The instrumental purity of the artists' skills complements their common, public concerns. They make music with a soul and a conscience.

All of the 16 tracks on this anthology are already available on discs by the individual artists. Label compilation albums usually feature a few unreleased and / or bonus cuts, and I wish Red House would have included some as well. If the purpose of the record is to turn listeners on to new artists and have them purchase their entire albums, it only makes sense to give them something they can't / don't already have. Red House presupposes that those purchasing this sampler don't already have any of the material. This strategy is suspect because it makes more sense that anyone who would buy this already owns at least one or two of the tracks and wants to explore more of the label's output.

Not surprisingly, the best cuts on These Times We're Living In are by the best-known artists on the Red House label. Greg Brown's sumptuous and sardonic love song "'Cept You and Me Babe" opens the disc. His rumbling, low vocals declare his feelings as if he's a primordial creature of the dirt rising to meet the spirit world. He instinctively rebels against the state of contemporary life, with its cell phones and such. Austin Music Hall of Fame artist Eliza Gilkyson's search for refuge, "Coast" evocatively offers a glimpse into the brighter side of loneliness -- that of coming to terms with oneself. British folkie Martin Simpson's sprightly and atmospheric instrumental "Horn Island" deftly conveys the serenity of solitude. The irreverence of Suzzy & Maggie Roche's "Who Cares" suggests that the petty hypocrisies and concerns we share are outweighed by our common humanity and our desire to enjoy life.

The contributions from new artists The Wailin' Jennys ("Arlington"), Jimmy LaFave ("River Road"), Ray Bonneville ("Oxford Town") and David Francey ("Fourth of July") reveal that Red House continues to sign and record top-notch musicians to their roster. While these performers share a mostly acoustic style, their music differs on the roots level. For example, LaFave's tune comes out of the Western tradition, while Francey's has a Canadian lilt -- even though it was written in and is about the United States. Bonneville's song very much comes out of the blues, while The Wailing Jennys have a country legacy. This variety adds to both the depth and breadth of the compilation.

Other contributions by folk stalwarts Robin & Linda Williams, John Gorka, Bill Staines, Peter Ostroushko and John McCutcheon help round out the disk. Two songs that deserve special mention in these troubled times are Dave Moore's "Sharks Don't Sleep" and Guy Davis's "We All Need More Kindness in this World". Moore offers a cautionary tale about the importance of keeping on, keeping on during a dark period. He knows one has to do more than be careful, one must be caring. Davis reminds us of the same. We must maintain our core human values and help each other. He knows that kindness is more than a virtue -- it's a necessity.

6

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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