Tag Archives: Musical ensemble

Kick Out the Jams

 

 

Found this video recently, and in my mind its shows everything that is awesome and strange about The MC5. To say the least, they were definitely a band that existed in their own world in the late 60s. With the exception of fellow Detroit-ians, The Stooges no one was playing music as aggressive as this.

A friend of mine once suggested that the world wasn’t ready for The MC5. If you look closely at the faces of the some people in the crowd there’s a sense of shock there. It’s also amusing to see how the band looks – they still look like hippies but are playing something that is more akin to the Sex Pistols than say, Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Grateful Dead.  Singer Rob Tyner also looks like a pissed off Art Garfunkel with his huge afro.

You can see the beginnings of punk in this video – as the band pushes itself to its limit and test their audience. Of course that musical revolution wouldn’t happen for another five or six years.

Check out the video, and kick out the jams, motherfucker.

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Is The Live Album Dead?

I love live albums. There’s something about hearing the roar of the crowd from the speakers, an the artist reacting to it. A good live album is a good indicator of an artist. They either push themselves to the limit, or fall or their feet. The best live albums not only capture the energy of magic of the live experience, but can also change your perception of artist.

Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club shows Cooke racing through classics such as “Twisting the Night Away” and “Chain Gang” with an energy and reckless abandon that is not apparent on his studio work. The Who’s Live at Leeds is a tour e force of hard rock. Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypseys finds Hendrix exploring jazz elements, and perhaps the finest performance of an electric guitar with “Machine Gun”.  Peter Frampton has spent his entire career trying to live up to the success of the massive Frampton Comes Alive!  Nirvana’s Unplugged showed that the band that changed the world with their punk anthems could turn it down and still retain their power.

These are albums that add to the story of legends.

Unfortunately, most of the live albums that have had any impact were released years ago. Live albums are no considered to be part of an artist catalog, but rather an asterisk. They still exist but they are almost always tacked onto another set, whether its the infamous Live DVD or a re-issue of an older album. Seldom do you see a newer band release a single live album as its own entity. And those artist that release live albums exclusively – like Pearl Jam and Dave Matthew Band – seemingly release every single show they’ve ever recorded.

U2 – a band who I love – is one of the worst offenders in this area. The band remains one of the best live acts around, but they haven’t released a “proper” live album since 1983 instead opting for a live video for every single tour. And the  “live bonus CD” while nice, too often seems like an afterthought and a cash-grab for re-issues. Thankfully, Elvis Costello reversed this trend by releasing proper Live Albums of live tracks he had been sticking on re-issues for years.

Itunes also shares some of the blame for the decline of the live album as well. If you ever log onto iTunes the front page is loaded with artists who record exclusive “Live EPs” for the digital store. While I can appreciate it as a fan of live music, I also can’t help the feeling that these bands are contractually obligated with iTunes to play these shows and then have them released.

The good news for fans is that more live music is probably being released than ever before. But if artists see their live show as their bread and butter as albums sales decline, perhaps they should give its release the same reverence.

 

 

 

 

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Proto-Punk? Yes. Post-Punk? Yes. Punk? Eh, Not So Much

When I was a teenager I discovered The Clash and with them, punk-rock. There was a certain immediacy and urgency that appealed to my teenage self. Everything was vast, loud and angry. Even if I didn’t exactly understand what they were referring to (this was the case for many Clash songs in my younger years) it didn’t matter. It was exciting and visceral.

Sometime later, a friend of mine took me to an Anti-Flag show about ten years ago, and I found the whole experience completely boring. Sure, the songs were played at break-beck speed, but they mostly stuck to their studio incarnations and seemed lackluster. I also didn’t enjoy being shoved every which way as the kids around mossed themselves in oblivion. I couldn’t understand why no one paying attention to the band – they only seemed intent on bashing each other.

Punk-rock it seemed, didn’t fit my personality after-all.

This isn’t to say that I totally dislike punk. I still rate both The Sex Pistols and The Clash among some of my favorite groups. The Clash and Nevermind the Bullocks are some of the most exciting and classic albums of rock and roll. It seems to me that no matter how hard any punk has tried subsequently they’ve never been able to better those two albums. There’s a reason why The Sex Pistols imploded, and the Clash moved on embracing other musical styles. The standard three-chord attack of punk only offers so much for a song.

I however, have a huge fondness for proto-punk and post-punk. Readers of this blog will surely know my affinity for Iggy Pop and The Stooge and of course, the Velvet Underground. The blue-print for punk was more or less created with these artists. As the 60s closed and the 70s began, mainstream rock became a little stagnant with the advent of prog-rock, bands whose names sounded more like law-firms, and other bands who took their names from cities and other locations.

In come The Stooges with their abrasive sound and Iggy’s legendary antics. It should also be noted that their first album also updated early rock and roll, giving it a more aggressive and wild sound complete with tightly controlled feed-back solos. Iggy seemed to be attack the “golden god” singers of the era when he declared, “Your pretty face is going to hell!”  Both the Stooges and The Velvet Underground’s proved that any one could make rock and roll. You didn’t have to be an expert or a virtuoso to get attention.

Punk of course, took that philosophy to the extreme. Naturally, the next groups of artists to emerge would combine punk’s do it yourself freedom, but not completely sticking to its three-chord ethos. Elvis Costello wasn’t strictly a punk-rocker at the beginning, but his first two albums – My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model – combined punk’s punchiness with a songwriter’s mentality. He also looked and acted like Buddy Holly who could punch you in the face and have no trouble stealing your girlfriend in the process. The Police managed infused their punk with tinges of reggae and in the process became one of the world’s biggest bands. The Talking Heads took avant-garde to a mass audience without ever forgetting their roots as a bar-band in CBGBS.

There are dozens of more bands I could list as favorites who were influenced by punk’s attitude, but not so much its sound. For me, punk has always been about freedom and too often a lot of “punk” bands seem stuck in one mode.

 

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade – 7. Radiohead

I’ve gone on record as stating that I don’t really like Radiohead, and I still stand by that statement.  With the exception of a few songs here and there, I find the band to be pretentious and boring.  I’m sure that I’m going to get flamed by Radiohead fans for suggesting this.  However, for as much disdain I have for the band, it’s hard to rule out their significance in the past decade.

Kid A is regarded as a classic now, so it’s kind of hard to look back in retrospect and see how wild and what a risk it was.  True, OK Computer was a left-turn from the guitar rock of The Bends and Pablo Honey. But it was nothing compared to the cold electronic atmosphere that permeated the surface of Kid A.  Somehow an album without a single track that closely resembled any real songs, managed to not only become a critical favorite, but also a hit.  Radiohead managed to do the unthinkable: make avant-garde and experimental music popular.   Bowie, Lou Reed, and Kraftwerk had been put out similar sounding albums throughout their career, but none of those albums managed to sink in through the public consciousness.  From Kid A on, it became clear that Radiohead were blowing out the normal rules out what a popular rock band could do and sound like.  So it’s no surprise that their fans are some of the most militant in existence – take a shot at Radiohead and you clearly don’t understand music.

Of course, Radiohead’s biggest influence over the past decade might not even be musical.  By deciding to release their 2007 album, In Rainbows over the internet letting fans decide how much an album was worth, the band sent a ripple effect through the industry whose waves are still being felt almost four years later.  Many bands have written songs about how terrible their contracts are, and some artists have even sued their record companies.  But Radiohead’s move was the ultimate “fuck you”.   They basically told the companies that they are no longer in charge, and that they have no say in how much music is worth, and how it should be distributed.

Since then, many big artists have tried similar moves – Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins in particular.  While those albums haven’t quite had the same impact as In Rainbows, it’s clear that artists have been inspired by Radiohead’s bold move.  The old model is gone, and Radiohead are the ones leading the charge.  It still doesn’t mean I have to like them, though.

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Top 20 Concerts (Part 1)

I love going to shows.  It’s more than just a passion.  It’s almost a way of life.  The band comes on, and there’s lift-off – a sense of excitement where anything can happen. Nothing else matters at that particular moment in time except the people who aren’t just asking for your attention, but in some cases demanding it.

The best places to see shows, are venues that are almost downright dirty, and grungy.  The stale smell of beer.  Though most of the places I go to see shows now are smoke-free, you can still smell the smoke stained in the floor and the walls.  (This is why I think that Baltimore’s Rams Head Live is a intimate venue, it will be better in about 20 years when it’s been lived in.)

Today I’ll post 20 – 15, and tomorrow I’ll post the rest through the week.

20. The Dirtbombs (April 2008, Sonar – Baltimore, MD)

I never really heard of the Dirtbombs until my friend introduced me to them.  The Dirtbombs mix of R&B, Soul, and funk played with an aggressive twist is made for a live-setting.  It’s a non-stop party – a perfect setting for the dingy hole in the wall of Baltimore’s Sonar Club.  This show holds the record for the smallest show outside of a bar-band that I’ve seen – but it was also one of the loudest, and loaded with energy.  I’m pretty sure that The Dirtbombs only played for over an hour, but their short energized blast made it seem like they were playing for 3 hours.  After the show my friend spilled his beer all over singer Mick Collins while trying to get a poster signed.  A fitting way to end an awesome night.

19. Eddie Vedder (June 2009, The Lyric Opera House – Baltimore MD)

Normally you think of Eddie Vedder as a very serious dude, but at this solo show he was surprisingly funny cracking jokes and telling stories.  The Lyrics is actually the complete opposite of Sonar – I sat in velvet cushioned seats!  It was great to see one of rock’s modern legends in such a small place.  Despite an aborted attempt at the looped vocal chant of “Arc”, Vedder put out on a show that was both loose and tight at the same time.  Most of the material stemmed from the Into The Wild soundtrack, but he also threw in some Pearl Jam songs such as “Porch” and a pretty reverent cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”.

18.. The Recipe – March 2005, 8X10 – Baltimore MD

Normally, I don’t particularly like the type of music that The Recipe specialize in which is jamming.  But, unlike say The Grateful Dead, and Phish this band is fun.  This is a show that I don’t remember much of actually, but this is one of those bands that I’ll always remember seeing because like the Dirtbombs, it was so much damn fun.  My friend and I debated who would be fun to hang out with after the show – the cute fiddle player, or the old dude playing the banjo dubbed “Uncle Eddie”.  I said Uncle Eddie, because he probably had the best collection of music in the band.

17. They Might Be Giants – June 1994- Wolftrap, Virginia

This gets an automatic inclusion just for the fact that this was my first concert.  They Might Be Giants were one of those groups that I grew up by way of my older siblings.  Sure, they’re silly but they’re kind of like The Ramones who were smarter than they actually let on.  I went to the show with my three older brothers, and while I’m not sure if I would enjoy it on the same level, back then it was one of the highlights of my youth.

16. Lou Reed – April 2008, The National – Richmond Virginia

(This is from the actual show I went to.)

With Lou Reed you kind of have to look past the fact that he can be a bit surly, and just appreciate the music.  This show was a case in point.  Reed, has nothing left to prove anymore, so it was enjoyable just to see the man play.  While there plenty of expected moments (distortion and feedback, some biting dialogue – particularly about “I’m Sticking With You”) there were also plenty of surprises including an energetic version of “Sweet Jane”, and a slow-burning take on “Ecstasy”.

More tomorrow.

 

 

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The Problem With The Edge

 

Back in 2008, when Kings of Leon released “Only the Night” I was a bit disappointed with the direction that the band seemed to be going in.  They had abandoned their dirty rock roots opting instead for a clean, shimmery clean arena ready sound.  Even “Sex on Fire” the album’s sole “rock” song was washed in delays pedals.  A band who spent three albums creating a distinct sound, suddenly sounded like everyone else.  And while Kings of Leon’s guitarists is pretty decent, it was clear he was learning tricks from a certain knit-capped wearing guitarist who’s made an entire career out of using delay pedals.

The Edge is very inventive and knows how to construct a song based on atmospherics that only enhance Bono’s bombastic singing.  The Edge wasn’t the first to create icy delays in rock song (it’s usually credited to Tom Verlaine of Television) but he certainly took it further than anyone else.  It’s a sound that has made U2 distinctive, and like it or not associated with The Edge himself.  Throughout the years, even The Edge has forgone his trade-mark style, looking for inspiration in distortion best seen on 1991’s “Achtung Baby”. 

Somewhere within the past decade almost every single up and coming band that wanted to be reach as many fans as possible seemed to copy U2’s signature sound.  It’s as if the guitar players from Coldplay, Snow Patrol, The Killers, among others each had a delay pedal and placed the settings on “Edge” and hit record.  Unfortunately none of these bands are as good as song-crafting or inventive as U2, and they all of their front-men lack the charisma of Bono.   These artists think that by aiming big and copying U2 they will be seen as a serious band with importance just like their heroes.  Too bad that their efforts just come off as flat and pompous.

Two years after “Only By the Night” Kings of Leon released the first single from their forth-coming album “Come Around Sun Down”.  I was hoping that they would opt for a stripped down sound in constrast to the sheen of “Only By the Night”.  Amazingly, they not only set the guitars to “Edge” again, but they also managed to bring in a choir.  When U2 played with a choir for a live version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at least you could tell they meant it.

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Anniversary Week – Tuesday: “Your Hands (Together)” – The New Pornographers

I’ve been a fan of the New Pornographers since 2005/2006.  One of my friends was playing them while we were hung over and driving to get some greasy food.  Perhaps I was just in a certain frame of mind at the time, but the power-pop bliss of “Use It” stayed in my head for weeks.  And it’s never really gone away either – it’s my second most played song on Itunes.

I was disappointed with 2007’s Challengers because it seemed like the New Pornographers finally admitted that they were just a side band for almost every single member.  Only a couple of songs stood out in an otherwise lackluster album.  Luckily they bounced back with this year’s Together. They realized that they might all be in different groups and have different musical outlets, but together they create some pretty kick-ass music.

“Your Hands (Together)” is the New Pornographers at their best – it somehow manages to blend both Cheap Trick (an average band who sounds awesome when you’re drunk enough to do karaoke) and Black Sabbath.  It begins with a chunky power chord that’s ripped right out of “War Pigs” – there’s even breathing room for the cymbals to heard without headphones on.  The star of the show here is Neko Case, who once again proves why she is a star in her own right.  The way she harmonizes with Carl (aka AC) Newman is nothing short of amazing.

The song rocks, but for The New Pornographers it’s the closest they’ll get to Led Zeppelin or Sabbath.  Newman describes the genesis of the song here.

“Your Hands (Together)”:

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Women Singers: “Piece of My Heart” Big Brother & The Holding Company

Though not written by Janis Joplin (or performed strictly by her) “Piece of My Heart” is a song that has become identified with her more so than the band she fronting at the time – Big Brother & the Holding Company.  “Piece of My Heart” was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, and then recorded by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma.  While Franklin’s version was a top 10 R&B hit, Big Brother’s version catapulted the song into the mainstream.

Just as Erma’s sister Aretha transformed “Respect” into a powerhouse, Joplin and Big Brother completely reinvented “Piece of My Heart”.  Their version is noisy, and bluesy and for my money I’d say Joplin gives one of the greatest vocal performances in rock in this song.  The verses are quiet are soft, but not entirely quiet but they’re a calm before the storm of the chorus.  The music itself would be exciting, but Joplin takes over the chorus.  She wails “come on, come on” several times, before the damn breaks, and releases the supercharged scream of “and Take it!”  It’s defiant and desperate.  You can tell that Joplin is giving all that’s she got in this performance.

You can tell the pain that she’s in this song.  But rather than be bound by it, she’s taking control of it and belting out her frustration.  It’s as if she saying, “Come and see what happens if you take this part of me.”

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Clash Week, Friday: “The Call-Up”

The Clash followed up the magnificent London Calling with one of rock’s most interesting and frustrating albums –Sandinista! A triple disc, 36 song set Sandinista! found the Clash taking the multi-genre experimentation they explored on London Calling and taking it to its (often illogical extreme).  It’s been called the punk-rock White Album due to the few numbers of great songs piled in between loads of filler.  I’m not quite sure I’d agree with that – I’ve grown to like The White Album more in recent years, and Sandinista! just seems misguided, and egotistical to me.   The one thing I really do like about the album overall though is the production.

That being said – there are shades of brilliance, and “The Call-Up” is the best example of that and ranks among the Clash’s best work.  Musically, “The Call -Up” is one of the Clash’s better reggae/dance experiments.  It’s almost danceable, and its laid back and dreamy groove almost entirely glosses over the bitterness in the lyrics.  It’s a rallying cry for blind-patriotism that often sends young kids to their death  “You must not act the way you brought up,” Joe Strummer sings softly, almost with a hint of sympathy. Later he laments,  “All the young people down the ages/they gladly marched off to die/Proud city fathers used to watch them/Tears in their eyes.”  Sometimes The Clash could be too specific in their attack, but lines like these transcend time, and still applicable almost 30 years later.

I’ve got to admit that “The Call-Up” didn’t even really register on my list of songs from Sandinista! until I saw the Pogues a few years ago.  The connection between the Pogues and The Clash is no secret.  Shane MacGowan is known to have attended their shows in the late ’70s, and Joe Strummer took over the singer’s duties when he was forced out of the band.  Before the show started, the PA blasted “The Call-Up” and I realized how powerful of a song it was.  It’s dark groove proved a perfect introduction for the Pogues – fun sounding songs with serious lyrics.  As John Lennon once said, “Imagine was an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.”

The Call-Up:

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Spin Names “Achtung Baby” Best Album of the Past 25 Years

Spin recently named U2’s Achtung Baby as the number one album of the past 25 years.  As a big fan of U2, a few years ago, I probably would have listed Achtung Baby as such.  (But I have to say, Rain Dogs, Rum Sodomy & The Lash, and The Queen is Dead – among a few that come to mind – have more meaning to me than Achtung Baby currently does.)

Most casual listeners refer to The Joshua Tree as U2’s masterpiece, but Achtung Baby truly does belong in the pantheon of great albums.  Stripping away the worldview of their 80’s albums, Bono turned his lyrics inward creating U2’s most personal album.  At the same time, the music was turned up inspired by the industrial movement and also David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”.  The Edge already known for his excessive use of guitar pedals, ditched his trademark echo for a wall of distortion. Achtung Baby is the 90’s version of “Sergeant Pepper” and “Highway 61 Revisited” – the sound of a band taking a giant risk musically while at the same time challenging its fans to fantastic results.  (Unlike Radiohead, with Achtung Baby U2  created an experimental record that is actually listenable.  Kid A I’m referring to you.)

Unlike a lot of other great albums, Achtung Baby’s emotional core is actually at the end of the album.  The last three songs might be among the most emotional and sad songs U2 ever recorded.  (And that’s saying something considering this U2 we’re talking about.)  “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” shows a man at the end of his rope clinging on for dear life.  (When singing this song on last year’s 360 tour, Bono would try to personify this by singing and swinging from a suspended microphone.)  “Acrobat” deals with the conflicts of being a rock star, being spiritual but not religious.  “Yeah I’d break bread and wine if there was a church I could receive in,” Bono sings.  “Love is Blindness” ends the album on a slow note with the Edge producing perhaps the best guitar-solo he’s ever recorded.  Depending on your point of view, the song is either about an IRA bomb, or leaving his home behind and sleeping with a prostitute.  (I’m going with the prostitute theory.)

I don’t listen to Achtung Baby as much as I used to.  But it still remains one of my favorite albums.  And it’s also an album that U2 knows is among their best – they regularly play songs from it while on tour.  And 19 years later, they’re still trying to recreate the magic of the album with last year’s disappointing No Line on the Horizon.

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