Monday, April 11, 2011

The New Soul Music

At South By Southwest this year, the biggest, most audible buzz (at least for those of us who didn't attend, at least!) was for a group from Silverlake called Fitz and the Tantrums. No angular indie or beardy folk group they -- the Tantrums play what could probably be termed "classic soul" music, heavily influenced by the sounds of Motown and Stax from the mid-to-late '60s.

And they're certainly not alone. Fitz and the Tantrums are part of a larger move back into the vintage soul sound that's been echoing loudly across the R&B genre for the last three or four years (at least in the overground -- even longer in the underground, natch). Indie listeners have slowly been crawling on the bandwagon, too -- the Tantrums, Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears and other New Soul artists have been creeping onto typically homogenous, whitebread indie radio playlists.

Why now? What happened?

As with any musical movement worth its salt, the New Soul started off as an underground revival movement. East Coast indie-soul groups like the Dap Kings and the Budos Band started cropping up five, six, seven years ago, and a largely underground soul revival movement based primarily in New York (and primarily around the Daptones label) began to bubble under the surface.

It could have been one of a thousand short-lived revival fads -- remember the swing revival in the late 90s? The burlesque revival in the early 00's? -- if it wasn't for the emergence of a few mainstream artists who championed this New Soul sound to the masses. Producer Mark Ronson grabbed onto the sound with both hands, and used the Dap Kings to back up Amy Winehouse on the Back To Black LP, the first mainstream New Soul album and still perhaps the finest.

Mainstream R&B was ready for this New Soul. It had been evolving towards a more organic, classic sound for a long time. After New Jack Swing, perhaps the next real "forward" evolution of the form in the late 90s and early 00s was the so-called "Neo-Soul" movement (D'Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu), which already embraced some of the New Soul values -- deep, often complex songwriting; influences from the 60s and 70s, organic instrumentation, and a "conscious" vibe that was as far apart from mainstream love-ballad-driven R&B as indie rock was from modern radio pop.

Perhaps the next most important New Soul salvo after the Winehouse album was Raphael Saadiq's exquisite The Way I See It. Saadiq, a founding member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, was already an important writer and producer in the Neo-Soul movement, having worked with D'Angelo on the seminal Voodoo LP and been a member of Lucy Pearl before striking out as a solo artist. On The Way I See It, Saadiq fully embraced the sound of Motown, even going so far as to work with some of the original Motown backing musicians.

What made the album great, though, and more than just a "revival" album or "retro" album, is that he remembered that Motown was more than just a "sound" -- it featured great, memorable, diverse songs. For years, the primary sound of R&B had been sexy bedroom ballads with nary a hook among 'em, but The Way I See It was top-loaded with popping dancefloor classics like "100 Yard Dash" and "Let's Take A Walk," all of which were loaded with great soul beats and memorable hooks.

Saadiq's album, too, was a hit in the indie world -- it received airplay on alternative and indie stations around the country, and received plaudits from normally soul-free "best of the year" lists. In a way, the mainstream success of Amy Winehouse gave the movement a voice, but Saadiq's success gave it cred -- no producer's darling he; Saadiq was a genuine R&B/hip-hop practitioner, and his refusal to sell out to trends made New Soul look like more than just a revival movement or brief side-track or fad.

Since the release of these albums, the New Soul movement has exploded. Artists previously associated with other movements scrambled to keep up, sometimes to excellent effect. John Legend, previously a smooth/adult-contemporary artist, teamed up with Neo Soul hip-hop group the Roots and made Wake Up, an album of fiery, stomping covers of 60s and 70s songs. Even R. Kelly -- known as much for his sex-crime exploits as his batshit crazy song moves -- got in on the action, releasing the excellent Love Letter, a smooth R&B album that channeled mid-70s Marvin Gaye. And improbably, talk-show-host son Robin Thicke released the amazing Something Else, an album of heavy, horn-driven R&B that sounded as gritty and as realistic as anything from the underground.

And what's interesting about the New Soul movement is that, like the Stax label in the mid-60s, it's fully integrated, a word that means more in the '10s than it should -- there are as many white artists as there are black ones, as many male as female, and as many old as young, all equally valid and "genuine." Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings are the perfect picture of this New Soul movement -- Jones is an over-50 African-American woman, fronting a band made up of black and white members of various ages. Fitz and the Tantrums features a white, over-40 lead singer, a mid-20s black female co-lead, and an integrated membership made up of members of various ages. The Budos Band feature no lead singer, a mostly-white membership and yet sound more like the early-70s Meters than anybody ever has. It all, impossibly, works.

And then there's Eli "Paperboy" Reed. Paperboy is a potent, gritty soul belter and one hell of a performer. Close your eyes, and you hear Memphis or Detroit in the mid-60s. But Paperboy's a 20-something nerdy white kid -- almost impossible that such a seasoned, powerful voice could even come from that body, but "Come And Get It" is possibly the best single yet in the New Soul sweeps, a horn-driven rocker that could have just as easily been written in 1965 as 2011.

But what keeps New Soul from being just another revival movement, embraced for a moment but soon forgotten? And why wouldn't you just go on to iTunes and download a bunch of old Motown, Stax and Gamble/Huff records?

I'd argue -- and of course time will either prove me right or wrong -- that its longevity is what makes it a genuine movement rather than just a retro sidestep. It's developing and growing within itself -- the new Saadiq album, for example, sounds like a logical extension of his last one, but with new influences, and an even more pronounced sense of experimentation, while the awesome Black Joe Lewis album sounds even grittier and funkier than its predecessors, an aggressive angle taken from, say, the White Stripes. This evolution means it essentially is R&B right now -- even though it exists parallel with whatever's on mainstream R&B radio at the moment (you know, autotuned electro-pop) it is informing what's happening within the genre and will probably push even further into the mainstream as time moves on and people take more risks.

Too, what does "retro" even mean in this information age? In a time people have absolutely equal accessibility to albums of all vintages and genres, is it even valid to call something out for being "old?" What does that even mean anymore? As information moves at the speed of a blink, genres can be born and die with the speed of a meme, shouldn't we be more concerned with great songwriting, with longevity, with substance, with excellence than whether something sounds "old" or "new?"

I'd also argue that there's quite a few albums within this genre -- Winehouse's, Saadiq's two, the Fitz and the Tantrums, both "Paperboy" Reed LPs, even R. Kelly's! -- that stand quite strongly against whatever Motown you wanna stack 'em against. Again, time will prove me right or wrong, but I'd say you could take Saadiq's album and stack it song-for-song with the Four Tops' mighty "Reach Out" LP and you wouldn't be throwing it out the window. You know?

It remains to be seen how far this New Soul will go. Will it continue to run parallel with mainstream R&B until it produces masterpieces like What's Going On or Innervisions? Will it fade out and be replaced with something utterly else? It's absolutely hard to say, considering how capricious the music industry is and has been lately. But for those of us who love the vintage sound of a horn section, a gospel/soul belter, a funky dance-beat, it's a ride that promises at least a few awesome highlights along the way.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Duran Duran Is Great.

When I was in tenth grade, my favorite band was Duran Duran.

This, of course, got me an inordinate amount of stick from my classmates, who were ankle-deep in 'Halen and Def Lep (or Hendrix and the Doors for the stoners). Duran Duran were, as everybody "knew," a girls' band. If a boy listened to Duran Duran, their sexuality was suddenly in free-play -- after all, the only possible reason you'd ever want to listen to Duran was because they were good lookin' blokes. There was certainly no musical merit to 'em -- I remember when Guitar magazine did a super-sarcastic piece on Taylors Andy and John. Their lack of musicality was common knowledge. So clearly -- clearly -- my fandom just meant I was a "fag."

The lavender-frosted lipstick and eyeliner I occasionally wore 'cause of Nick Rhodes probably didn't help with that impression either. Somehow it got them chicks. It got me shut into a locker. That can probably be put down to growing up in the London club scene vs. growing up in Crystal, MN.

At any rate, it's 30 years on and I'm still a Duran Duran fan. And despite the fact that we've had thirty years to analyze, re-analyze, retro-chic and RE-retro-chic, ironic-i-fy and de-ironic-i-fy the band, I still get an inordinate amount of stick for liking them.

This, my friends, is not fair.

People's opinions about Duran, if they're negative, are almost always steeped in ancient, outdated pre-suppositions. They're just a pre-fab video band. Or they only had one good record. Or they were just disposable, barely-musical teen idols like David Cassidy. Or they represent a particularly virulent and awful brand of Thatcherism. All of which are the same arguments that were leveled at them in 1984, and ignores the fact that the band has been producing music this entire time. And lots of it has been quite good. And much of it has been very, very good.

They're also completely false. Let's examine them one by one, shall we?

1. They're just a pre-fab video band. Okay, what do you mean just? Duran Duran were one of the first bands to take full advantage of the medium of video to take their music into a visual realm, and if you ask me, that's actually pretty impressive. At the time, of course, MTV looked like nothing less than the death of REAL ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC. Video killed the radio star, dontcha know. Except it didn't -- what killed the radio star was the excesses of the 70s + failure to change with the times or find a new audience -- basically the same thing that killed every radio star that's ever been killed. I think the eventual video successes of just about everybody worth their salt proved that pretty bands like Duran didn't kill anybody. But people are still sore about that.

Duran Duran, though, understood that videos were just an artistic extension of the music -- or could be, if done right. And theirs always were -- take a look at the fascinating and frequently gorgeous videos for all the songs on spin-off band Arcadia's "So Red The Rose" album. Now look at the video for Journey's "Separate Ways." It's clear that more than just "pretty-boy-ness" is happening here -- Duran worked with fantastic and visionary directors and created a complex and gorgeous visual language that was way ahead of its time. That's not a bad thing. That's awesome.

2. They only had one good record. That's not true, but if you're a casual music listener, or even a deep music fan with only one ear on pop music, you might be forgiven for thinking that. The album is, of course, "Rio," the album that broke them in America. It is a fantastic record, and deserves its place among the classics of that decade. But it wasn't their first good record -- the self-titled debut is great too. And it was by no means their last -- despite following it up with the lackluster "Seven and the Ragged Tiger," their career continued for two more decades, and they've got a bunch of records -- "So Red The Rose," "Notorious," "Big Thing," the 2nd self-titled album aka "The Wedding Album," "Medazzaland," "Astronaut" and now "All You Need Is Now" -- that fully stand up to "Rio."

It's just that you probably didn't hear them, because apart from their brief early-90s comeback hit "Ordinary World," they sort of stopped having massive culture-defining hits.

But since when is commercial viability a gague for what's good and what isn't? It sure isn't for any of the other bands you probably like. It wasn't for Duran's ancestors like the Velvet Underground, David Bowie or Roxy Music -- some of those bands' best records weren't their hit albums, necessarily, if they had any hits to begin with. In other words, your unfamiliarity with the band's canon is not a good reason to dismiss it.

3. They were disposable, barely musical teen idols like David Cassidy. First of all, I'd love to argue for the musical viability of David Cassidy with you sometime, 'cause I can, and I'll defend just about ALL the teen idols that have ever been, including the newest ones. But secondly, it's just not true -- they were by no means "barely musical" in the first place. Ask any bassist worth their salt and they'll tell you that John Taylor, to grab a band member at random, is a phenomenal bass player. He understands the principles of funk and disco, and his "walking octave" style has become EXTREMELY influential in this recent wave of neo-80s dance music. But it's not just John -- did you know Nick was one of the first guys to use a computer to sequence his keyboard sounds? And he wasn't even musically trained -- he was making that shit up as he went along, and his Apple-powered keyboard rig might well have been the very first of its kind.

And don't even get me started on Simon LeBon's "adenoidal yelps," as I've heard them described -- first off, he's not the first overly-mannered crooner out there (see also: Scott Walker, David Bowie et al) and secondly, he hasn't "adenoidally yelped" in years. His voice is smooth, strong and powerful, and sounds better today than it ever has.

Plus, they're great songwriters. I'm not sure I can defend Simon as a lyricist -- he's always interesting but occasionally quite silly -- but the lyrics aren't even important in music like this, which is far more concerned with creating a mood and a dance beat, a situation for you to be able to move around in. They've got great melodies and ENORMOUS hooks, and they're far more experimental than they're given credit for. Listen to side two of "Big Thing" if you don't believe me -- it's the slightly-more-accessible version of something like Talk Talk's "Laughing Stock" or David Sylvian's "Gone To Earth" -- it never sacrifices great songwriting or structure like those albums do, but still creates THAT KIND of ominous, sumptuous, earthy mood. And then you flip the record over and side one's full of killer dance music.

4. They represent a particularly virulent brand of Thatcherism. I dunno, dude, I'm from America. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. I don't know them personally, but from what I've read I'd have a hard time believing someone as forward thinking and just all-around kind as Nick Rhodes, for example, would be a Thatcherite. To me, it's like Springsteen representing Reaganism -- the fact that his music was around in the era when Reagan was around is no reason for any kind of connection between the two, seeing as their philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed. Just 'cause Duran were on when Thatcher was in power -- and just 'cause they were played in dance clubs filled with cocaine-sloppy, self-absorbed Thatcherites is no reason to equate the two. They're musicians. They can't help when they came around, or who likes them, or who danced to 'em, any more than Springsteen can control fist-pumping jingoists liking "Born In The USA." If Duran actually voted for Thatcher, I guess that's their business.

I'm pretty sure that my highly enlightened readers don't need the "their music is for fags" impression refuted, right? We can just let that one pass as pure and simple homophobia, and none of your impressions of Duran are based on that, right?

So okay, your presuppositions are wrong, what next?

Well, if you haven't heard anything beyond "Rio," you need to. Let me give you a quick run-down of what you need to get:

Arcadia, So Red The Rose. The thinking-fan's Duran album of choice. While Taylors John and Andy were off with Robert Palmer making "Some Like It Hot," Taylor Roger, Simon and Nick produced this gorgeous, underappreciated, forward-thinking gem. Not a commercial album by any means -- the hit "Election Day" still sounds as weird today as it did back then -- it is never less than beautiful. Even a Sting cameo in "The Promise" can't sink it -- he sounds great, and soaring.

Notorious. The very minute a lot of early, casual fans dropped out, this is a mature, lavish, very slick and very credible funk album, and sounds less dated and "of its era" than any of their albums. Produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, this album is a horn-powered tour-de-force of great songwriting and phenomenal performance.

Big Thing. Remember how "I Don't Want Your Love" sounded like pre-jungle club-rock six, seven years before anybody'd ever heard those terms? Probably not, since it wasn't a huge hit, but this album's highlights -- especially the aforementioned and rather arty side two -- prove the band were still a viable creative force with one eye on the future of electronic music.

The Wedding Album. The first wave of 80s nostalg came just at the start of the grunge era (Courtney Love was a Durannie, remember!) and "Ordinary World" was a deserved, massive ballad hit -- the rest of the record was great, too, expanding on the slick funk-rock of "Notorious" and adding in some arch hip-hop beats that oddly sound not the least bit dated.

Medazzaland. The group squandered their newfound success on an album of covers called "Thank You" that's far less awful than its reputation suggests, but people dropped off the nostalgia train in droves. Undaunted even by the ship-jumping of John Taylor, the group made this rather odd, chilly, electronic-powered record -- "Electric Barbarella" was a minor club hit, but the rest of the album was too arty for club-goers and too strange for E-gobbling club kids enamored of the Chemical Brothers. It is, nonetheless, a minor classic of the era and one of their most overlooked albums.

Astronaut. A late-period reunion of the "original five" lineup, it manages to suggest the sound of the early albums without aping them, and manages to sound credibly forward-thinking besides. Great songwriting and a couple of club-pumpers the likes of which we'd not heard from the band in 10 years.

All You Need Is Now. Possibly their second-best record, delievered a mere thirty years after "Rio." Produced by Mark Ronson, a man clearly and rightfully obsessed with Nick Rhodes' 80s analog keyboard sounds (see: his own excellent "Record Collection" LP). He reminded the band how cool they were back when they were (and perhaps how influential they'd become in the last few years), this record delivers ample hints of their 80s sounds in the form of retro keyboards and slashing guitars. But far from a sad attempt to snatch past glories, the songwriting is remarkably tight and well-considered, and the band channels their experimental side into concise dancefloor classics that sound not the least bit contrived. One of the only "rediscover-old-sound" records that actually works.

I'm ready for a full-on critical reassessment of Duran. It's time. I'm sick of having to defend my love for them at this stage of the game -- they've more than proven themselves if anybody's paying attention, and you're only missing out on some very interesting, near-classic LPs if you stop at the one album, their latest album among 'em. I'm sincerely hoping that when Jake Rudh does a Duran night at Transmission in a month-ish, he lays some of the lesser-heard classics on y'all, opens your mind, and shows off the ample strengths of a band that deserves more love and more critical consideration than they've yet received. I still love 'em as strongly after thirty years, and that counts for something. Join me, won't you?

(Editor's note: if you've not yet heard Mark Ronson's "Record Collection," and think the guy's just a rich club-kid dilettante with no actual musical ideas, you need to give it a listen. For one thing: it sounds great. For another: he took just exactly the right stuff from the 80s synth stuff he obviously loves. For yet another, he begins Simon LeBon's critical rehabilitation on the title track, and teases us that yet another one -- Culture Club -- is yet to come. And then there's "Bang Bang Bang," which is probably my favorite song of last year. Go. Listen.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Jonny Blackout's Best Albums of 2010

2010 was the best year for new music since 2000. I don't know if it's just the optimism of a decade-switcheroo or what, but there was a veritable explosion of fantastic LPs, singles, live shows and direct-to-brain plug-ins this year (wait -- scratch that last one, that's 2020. I get so confused. Timey wimey.). Bands I normally hate put out decent records. The overhyped music was actually pretty good, and almost deserved the overhype. Even the shitty stuff was pretty fun (I mean, who the hell *didn't* catch themselves bopping their head like a ten-year-old to "Whip My Hair"?). The only downside to the year was the continued rise of the "Beards/Banjos" genre (Mumford and Sons et al) -- but I was able, through judicious and prodigious enjoyment of synth-pop, to pretend it didn't exist. I had a hard time trying to whittle down to a top ten, so I'm just going to list a bunch of stuff I really liked in a kind of rough order and let you guys figure out which stuff was better.

Apples In Stereo, "Travelers In Time" -- the best late-70s ELO record that ELO never made. It's as if someone took the best songs from "Discovery" and "Time" that never existed -- hypothetical singles from an alternate universe -- and compiled them together on a batshit crazy future-thinking concept LP.

Tom Jones, "Praise and Blame" -- why was there not more hoopla for this amazing, incendiary record? Tom Jones becoming the angry preacher he always wanted to be, backed by a band with grit and soul -- what more could you want? Astonishing, plain and simple.

The National, "High Violet" -- a record I so didn't WANT to like because I usually diverge widely from hipster musical taste, or at least "mainstream hipster musical taste" whatever that is. But I fell in love nonetheless. What can you do when confronted with a lyric like "I was afraid I'd eat your brains?"

Robyn, "Body Talk" -- of course, pop is a dirty word amongst the bearded and banjo-holding, but there was no finer collection of the pure stuff this year -- a distillation of the early-80s electropop sound into perfect 3-minute gems. If you aren't stirred by "Hang With Me" you need to check your head -- it's sharp, perfectly tooled songwriting, the perfect 1983-channeling radio single that never was. The way that chorus soars should remove all doubt.

R. Kelly, "Love Letter" -- there is NO BETTER SINGER in R&B than R. Kelly, fucked-up past aside, and he's finally applying it to mature, gorgeous soul music that's at once retro and completely modern. If I didn't think he was about to release an album of banging, immature gangsta music (he probably is) I'd say this was a career-remaker for the guy -- it's top-to-bottom beautiful, soulful and perfectly written, including the sumptuous "When A Woman Loves" which I think surprised a lot of people who thought they knew R. Not so much.

Mystery Jets, "Serotonin" -- British alt-pop music the way they don't make it anymore (hell, it's "college rock," full on!), unabashedly romantic and crooned the way Ian McCulloch used to. The title track was my replay of the year -- literally didn't leave my player for a week straight. The rest isn't too shabby either -- it produced four killer singles in the UK, where such stuff is appreciated and not pooh-poohed.

Mark Ronson and the Business International, "Record Collection" -- it's unhip to like Ronson because a) he's prettier than you (probably), b) he's an "international DJ," c) he's rich, and d) he's fucking great. You're just jealous. This album provided the year's best single ("Bang Bang Bang"), brought Boy George out of hiding, produced the best video of the year ("Bike Song," featuring the ever-lovely Rosay Pipette), and generally ruled my turntable.

Black Keys, "Brothers" -- heavy motherfucking rock, but unlike their last couple, completely laden with astonishing, memorable hooks. The album I wish Jack White would make, only he never would because he's far too in love with defying expectations -- a good thing, but keeps his feet hovering five feet off the ground. This thing's planted three feet in the mud with wellies on, and sounds the better for it.

Janelle Monae, "The ArchAndroid" -- a soul record the way they used to make them -- I *think*. Stuff this intergalactic may not have ever existed. Not to say it sounds old-fashioned or retro in the least -- but it's coming from a UFO like classic P-funk, but with the emotional center of classic Motown. Ambitious, occasionally stumbling, always fascinating.

Field Music, "Measure" -- Two boys in love with melody, harmony, and spasmodic rhythms, and how those things can be applied to monumentally great tunes without sacrificing a hint of listenability. Oh, and it's a double album. Take THAT.

New Young Pony Club, "The Optimist" -- skittish and dark, angular new wave played by genuinely weird people with a pop sensibility so far left of center it can't find its way back. Cool the way the first few Talking Heads records were, like AM radio from another planet.

Duran Duran, "All You Need Is Now" -- I love how 80s bands are starting to realize that the young pups are stealing their thunder by sounding like *they* did forty years ago. Duran Duran aren't afraid of any electro-newcomers -- they've been making great records all along, it's just that fewer and fewer people were paying attention. That should change with this Mark Ronson-produced gem, which is a top-to-bottom smash laden with fantastic dancefloor fillers ("Blame The Machines," "Safe," "Girl Panic") and eerie ballads ("Leave A Light On" and "Before The Rain"). A great band rediscovers their strength and sounds like a contender.

The Drums, "The Drums" -- a rare gem, a first album by a totally unproven band that crackles with life. Doesn't sound like anybody in particular, but with echoes of stuff you love. Post-punk, sure, but *happy*. Joyous even. Artsy, sure, but also undeniably accessible, the way, say, the Femmes were in the day (but minus the layer of intense suck). A fist-pumper.

Big Boi, "Son Of Lucious Left Foot" -- of course, Big Boi is the best emcee in the world, and he's a freak besides, meaning his records flow like mad and sound like nothing and nobody else. Too weird for mainstream rap, too scary for indie audiences, he hovers like a pimp ghost over pop music, casting a wide shadow over all comers. Including Kanye. You heard me.

Hurts, "Happiness" -- channeling the unabashed schmaltz songwriters from the late 80s -- Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Stock/Aitken/Waterman -- and honing it into a sharp, slightly evil point, "It's A Wonderful Life" was the inescapable guilty pleasure of the year.

Robert Plant, Band of Joy -- You wanna tell me how a 60-something dude with poodle hair can still sound like a cocksure bluesman from another planet without sounding a little ridiculous in the bargain? This thing oozed with credibility but was a hell of a lot of fun anyway, and quite pretty besides.

Ne-Yo, Libra Scale -- The best Michael Jackson record this year, including the one by Michael Jackson. "Champagne Life" was my 2nd fave single of the year -- channeled lush, decadent 70s soul and spotlighted Ne's amazing, perfect, crystal-clear voice.

Satellite Voices, "Scarlet Rays of Future Echoes" -- lead singer Knol Tate DEFINES the word "angular," takes it and twists it into a hard little ball of electric energy and spits it right the fuck back out at the audience on this one, possibly the best local record of the last SEVERAL years. Heavy in the way they USED to mean it -- i.e. full of meaning, brains, soul-churning rock and roll music.

BNLX, "1," "2," "3," "4" -- Okay, I'm a little biased because I'm on their label and I've been an unabashed Ed Ackerson / Ashley Ackerson fan for years, but he's reinvented himself as an I-don't-know-what-exactly, equal parts Big Black, Ministry, Buzzcocks and the Archies, a stirred-in-a-fucking-fast-and-heavy-pot smoking with skittering rhythms, amazing melodies and buzzsaw guitars that'll chop your head off and serve it to you if you're not careful.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

RIP Chris Dedrick of the Free Design

(I just wanted to post this old interview I did with Chris Dedrick of the Free Design. It used to be on my old Beach Boys-and-Sunshine-Pop website the Smile Shop. Chris was a genius and one of my all time favorite songwriters and it is absolutely terrible that he's died at such a young age.)

When Matt Sullivan at Light in the Attic records contacted me about doing an interview with Chris Dedrick of the Free Design, I immediately leapt at the opportunity. "Great," I said to myself, "now's my chance to do the definitive Free Design interview, and ask him everything I've been meaning to ask." Of course, when my questions were all written out and sent, it amounted to about two pages of questions -- a daunting amount for anybody! So Mr. Dedrick will be answering them in installments -- hopefully when all is said and done, it will be the definitive Free Design interview!

Let's get the history stuff out of the way first: obviously with a musical father, you must've all sung together a lot growing up, but where'd you get the idea of starting a group with your family members? Had you played in other groups before starting your own, or was the Free Design your first experience with the group dynamic?

The Free Design was the first real group experience, other than playing in a jazz trio for a summer, or my dad's dance band in my high school days. I had only sung with Bruce and Sandy in church choir. When I attended the Manhattan School of Music, I was for the first time since childhood, in proximity to them; it was mostly Bruce's enthusiasm for folk music that pulled us together for some fun on weekends. We went home for Christmas; I wrote out a song in a three-voice arrangement — we sang it and began to see that we had an interesting sound "identity". That seemed to be the seed.

What kind of an impact did the 60s music scene have on you? What groups do you remember influencing the sound of the early albums?

Just about anything on the radio was going to have some influence. I particularly liked Motown music because it often showcased some very good arranging, had a great rhythmic feel, and the songs had real melodies. In general, melody writing was much more valued than it seems to be in large areas of pop music today. Think of Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, Simon and Garfunkel; everytime I see a movie or hear a radio show with some oldies, memories kick in and I realize that there is another song that kind of lives in my bank of references and influences.

You've covered a few Beatles songs along the way -- what did the Beatles mean to you as a group?

At first I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Their first hit singles didn't excite or move me -- in fact they were like a minor irritation on the thick skin of my youthful artistic snobbery. Then I turned around and when I looked back they were coming out with Yesterday, Penny Lane, Eleanor Rigby...I started to love their music. At one point the Abbey Road album was my number one. They conceived (with help from people around them) of some great musical and lyrical statements, mixed in with cracked humor, appropriate goofing around, and constant change. I was hooked.

How did people perceive you in the 60s -- what other bands did you find yourselves lumped in with, and who in particular did you feel you fit in with? Did you have any contact with some of the "baroque pop" groups like the Left Banke or the Association?

We were simply perceived by too few people. What goes around comes around: we loved the Hi-Lo's, a great jazz vocal group, and it's been said that we were "dug" by the Association and the Singers Unlimited, both having Hi-Lo's roots. It's also been said that the Carpenters liked our stuff. Oh -- that's the next question.

Do you think groups like the Carpenters kind of took the Free Design sound to the bank, as it were? Is that frustrating or flattering?

Neither, really. Music-making is a constant cross-pollination and conversation, translation and fascination, appealing and stealing, re- using and abusing that is endlessly going on amongst everybody. Or on some rare occasion, it's a single act of almost divine inspiration -- still having to be expressed in sounds and languages made available via the above processes.

Did you consider yourselves avant garde or experimental, or were those tags that were applied more later as people went back and listened to your music?

Anyone who thinks they are avant garde is probably too stuck in intellect; music that lasts is usually not an experiment, but an experience. And tags should be endings, not descriptions. I'm grateful the Free Design music is still around and bringing some enjoyment to some people. The labels are just for fun.

"Kites are Fun" and a handful of other songs (and, well, the entire "Sing For Very Important People" album!) espouse a brilliantly naive and child-like worldview. What attracts you to themes like that?

"Beginner mind" as the Zen Bhuddists call it. "Only as a little child..." as Christians like to quote. I was always interested in the connection between what we called heaven and what we saw as earth. I didn't edit myself very much in those days (as I tend to do now) and for better or worse, no one else was editing me either. I wasn't far from being a kid when I wrote much of that material. We're all many- sided creatures -- dark side, light -- morose and funny. Sometimes we have observations or ideas that are worth expressing. The songs always say something about the songwriter, but not usually what you think they say. That pretty well takes care of what I can say to the next question (which regarded the "sardonic side" of the band -- ed.).

That's it for the moment. I'll dig in again soon. Hope these remarks are of some interest!


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rush. Yeah, Rush. You wanna make something of it?

(one more chapter of the "Camaro Rock" book -- and then you gotta buy the rest, dammit! Er, assuming it will ever be a) finished and b) published. Both of which are extreme wishful thinking.)

I like Rush a whole lot.

I realize that's an incredibly nerdy thing to admit, akin to saying you're a "really big fan" of, say, a theoretical physicist or an architectural draftsman, but there it is. My intro to Rush came via "Tom Sawyer" cranked top volume on a school bus in the mid-80s -- I wasn't what you'd call a huge fan (honestly, my musical taste ran more to Duran Duran) but there was definitely something to the group's odd, crystalline, mathematic brand of rock and roll power.

To begin with, Rush are Canadian. Now, say what you will about Canada and Canadian rock (and you will), there have been some awesome Canadian rockers over the years (Neil motherfucking Young, for one). Sure, the cliche is that Canadian rockers are polite and neatly-scrubbed and lack the danger of their American counterparts, which is at least partially borne out by reality (Glass Tiger, anybody?). But Rush -- despite their rep as mathrock nerds -- are, if nothing, completely impolite. They patently refuse to be pigeonholed into a genre (are they prog? Hard rock? Metal?), they write dense and incomprehensible songs, they don't give a flying how-do-you-do about the latest trends, they made pretentious concept albums when such things were outta favor, and they do what they want when they want. They're basically a gigantic middle finger to everything polite in rock. And yet, legions of teenagers -- from bemulleted dirtballs to nerdy bandgeeks to Joe American -- continue to adore them despite their affront to apparent good taste. To them, I say: good on ya.

Meanwhile, among music fans "with taste," the band is among rock's most despised. No other group in the history of the form (except maybe Lady Gaga) has inspired so much love-'em-or-hate-'em polarization. Few people just kind of like the group. You either love 'em or you despise them with a force unmatched. The focus of the group's ire (and affection!) is twofold -- most people's emotions center around drummer Neil Peart. He's the posterboy for overplaying -- his comically large drumset is adorned with a million drums ranging in size from gong to thimble, and he seldom lets a moment pass in music without throwing in an adornment or filligree of some kind. He's good, but his problem is (or seems to be) that he's too good.

The other issue people have with Rush is Geddy Lee's voice, and the issue they seem to have with him is that he sounds like a girl. Now, people have the same issue with Jon Anderson and Tiny Tim (for example) but while those guys sound pretty, Geddy's strange, adenoidal voice makes him sound like -- well, an alien girl, honestly. It's absolutely an acquired taste, like foie gras or beets -- you either learn to love it or it makes you wanna puke for the rest of your life.

Rush's lucky break came early on in their recording career, when original drummer John Rutsey left (due to diabetic complications, sadly) and was replaced by Peart. Rutsey was a serviceable hard rock drummer, and the group under his sticksmanship was a perfectly serviceable Zeppelin clone with very little to recommend it except bassist Geddy Lee's voice and Alex Lifeson's heavy guitar attack. Their first LP is heavy and generally okay but certainly no kind of masterpiece, and resembles nothing more than a Foghat LP -- second tier metal, with a decent crunch. Peart, on the other hand, is certainly distinctive. Playing twenty notes when one would probably do, accurate to the point of being a living drum machine, and writing a particularly high-falutin' brand of lyrical poetry, Peart gave the band an identity -- he pushed them into the realm of progressive rock while retaining the heavy-hitting smackdown of the first album. Suddenly, Rush were brainy rather than boneheaded. Suddenly, a new audience opened up for 'em -- camaro guys AND the math league loved 'em.

It's on "Fly By Night," the group's second LP, that they become RUSH, all caps, full signifier. The record contains their first radio-ready hit, the catchy and rather wonderful "Fly By Night" which positively soars under a terrific Alex Lifeson guitar hook. Elsewhere, the group veers between the busy, mathematic/architectural heavy rock that would eventually become its stock in trade ("Anthem," "Beneath, Between and Behind") and gentle hobbit-rock ("Rivendell.") "Caress of Steel," its followup, is another step in the right direction, and fans of the band will certainly enjoy the 20-minute epic "The Fountain of Lamneth" while acknowledging that it's still an unformed, nascent vision of what would eventually make the band a beloved entity.

"2112" was the group's first cult classic. Legions of Rush fans who favor their 70s work swear this is the group's apex, but I almost never listen to it. Side one is a futuristic multipart epic, and a far more insightful try at such than anything they'd yet attempted. It's heavy, goes a million places, and generally is a blast to listen to. I find the album's remainders, including nominal hit "Passage to Bangkok," to be only okay -- a bit unfocused, not as radio-ready as they should be, fussier than they are catchy. But millions swear by it, so, as they say, your mileage may vary.

"A Farewell To Kings" and "Hemispheres" find the group expanding their sound gradually, letting in different textures (keyboards! Every guitar under the sun!) and sharper songwriting -- everybody knows "Closer To The Heart" from "Farewell" and the grating-but-amusing "The Trees" from Hemispheres, and the "Cygnus X-1 Book 2" suite on the latter album is probably their best and sharpest sidelong epic. But suddenly on "Permanent Waves," in 1980, the group makes a sharp left turn that would define the group's sound for the next fifteen-odd years: the eventual dominance of Geddy Lee's synthesizer. Suddenly, the group isn't just a pseudo-cryptic mathrock/metal group -- suddenly you can add "New Wave" to that bloated descriptor. Suddenly, Rush sound like "the future." "Waves" is great -- Opener "Spirit of Radio" sounded like nothing else to that point with its burbling synth intro and the group's slam-bang riffery, Elsewhere "Freewill" is tense and taut, "Entre Nous" is optimistic and catchy and sparkles with synth brilliance, and "Natural Science" is a thrilling epic.

My favorite Rush record -- since I tend to favor their 80s pop work, despite its inconsistencies -- is the awesome, epic "Moving Pictures." Even people who hate Rush (most of my friends, in other words) will admit that "Tom Sawyer," the record's amazing, heavy, stone-cold-classic opener is one of the best album kickoffs in history. Geddy's keyboards begin to dominate the group's sound on the rest of the record, but its no less heavy or insightful because of them -- "Limelight" still powers forward on some of the group's best riffery, "YYZ" remains a classic mathrock instrumental, "Red Barchetta" showcases the group's ever-developing pop side perfectly. Not a dud song on the entire album.

Moving forward into the 80s, the group would never manage an album as consistent again. As Lee's keyboards began to dominate the albums (even over Lifeson's guitar attack), the group's songwriting continued to become more pop-influenced and slightly generic, and this would occasionally hobble their 80s output. They were writing sharp and focused -- they just occasionally forgot "memorable." "Signals" is almost entirely great -- "Subdivisions" is one of the group's best songs, awash with New Wavey keyboards, and "Analog Kid" finds the group propelling forward at an almost punk speed. From there, though, it's pick-and-choose (rule: the albums' openers are almost always their best track). "Grace Under Pressure" has "Distant Early Warning" and the remarkable, futuristic, pulsating "Red Sector A." "Power Windows" has "Big Money" and the catchy "Grand Designs." "Hold Your Fire" (the best of the 80s batch) has "Force Ten," the almost Police-like "Time Stand Still," and the gorgeous "Second Nature." And "Presto" has "Show Don't Tell" and the powerful "War Paint."

By the early 90s and "Roll Your Bones," you can tell Rush has become frustrated with being third-tier wuss-pop (and getting stick from their 70s fans for it). The keyboards slowly start to vanish, replaced with a tougher guitar attack, and the pop sensibility fades slowly over time. While "Bones" still has some catchy pop tunes -- "Dreamline" and the title track are my favorites, and the latter has a particularly funny "rap part" to make it relevant -- the follow-up, the shamefully underrated "Counterparts," features a toughened attack borne of the alt-rock explosion of the time. It wasn't so much Rush following trends as it was a gradual return to an earlier sound that better fit the tenor of the times. Or maybe the group just really liked Nirvana. Either way, tracks like "Stick It Out" and "Leave That Thing Alone" (no, this wasn't a sex-themed concept record) hit with a force the group hadn't mustered in years.

Since then, however, the group hasn't managed a consistently great record. 2007's "Snakes and Arrows" came close -- and thanks to a new audience from online games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it was their most popular record in a dog's age, too -- but it, like most of "Test For Echo" and "Vapor Trails," is marred by unmemorable songwriting and muddy sonics.

Basically, I like them despite the "taste issues." I think their best songs are terrific examples of smart, catchy hard-rock songwriting. I obviously don't mind a little bit of progginess or mathrock, I have no issue with Geddy's voice (I've learned to love it), and I've learned to overlook Peart's overplaying (by ignoring all but the heavy bits). Whatever you might say about 'em, you have to acknowledge the awesomeness of "Tom Sawyer." And if that's the group's legacy to the world, that is, frankly, enough.

Camaro Rock: I Listen So You Don't Have To

(editor's note: This is the beginning of a book I'm thinking about writing. Originally threw it up over on the Record Room, my favorite music board, in bits and chunks, and thought I'd throw it up over here for comment as it progresses)


Grey day, 1983. You and Randy and Todd, standing in your garage in your prom finery. Randy was rebellious and wore a pink bowtie, remember how Todd called him a fag and he punched Todd in the arm so hard he bruised? Remember how Randy got kicked in the shin later that night by his date 'cause he called her a skank? Good times.


You and Sherri, 1982. Hell yeah. Sherri was hot, wasn't she? I heard she's a dental hygenist now, but doesn't matter. Back then she was smokin' -- the curly hair, the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, the leather jacket with the Halen patch on the back. You're both smoking Marbs. Now you can't quit, and those things'll kill ya, but man, you looked cool.


Smoking lounge, high school, 1983. You and Randy and Sherri, leaning up against the wall, looking like cool MFers, puffing on red box, feathered hair all 'round, Randy in a 'stache, leather jackets resplendent. Later that night you and Sherri would go all the way and you'd come super fast and she'd dump you the next day for Todd, and you wouldn't speak to that cocksucker for three years.


Ahhh, there she is. Red 1977 Camaro. You polished that sucker until it glowed. You spent every Saturday underneath that thing with the little transistor radio blasting until Mrs. Nelson next door yelled out the front door and you flipped her the bird. That's the back seat where you and Sherri did it. That's the front seat where you and Todd and Randy smoked weed for the first time. Man, you wish you still had that car, don't you? Instead of the god-damn minivan your wife made you get for the kids? THEN Jeffrey at work would stop giving you shit for coming in half an hour late. You might even be able to slip the tongue to Julie in marketing. Shit. The Camaro.

This is you. Or someone you knew. The guy down the street. The chick with the locker two down from yours who used to front you cigs. The dude who used to buy you liquor. Whatever. You knew someone like this.

And if you lived during this time, you listened to the music he listened to.

Maybe you didn't like it. Maybe you were too busy listening to Elvis Costello or the Germs to give a shit, but you couldn't avoid it anyway. You heard "Point Of Know Return" when you were pumping gas down at the Esso. You heard "Don't Stop Believing" at prom when everybody you hated was out in the middle pumping their fists and you were sitting sullen in the corner wishing you were anywhere else and contemplating ways to get revenge by sending them porcelin dolls in the mail COD.

Or maybe you did. Maybe you spent your Friday nights down in your buddy Darren's basement drinking Jack and Coke and listening to Journey or Halen or Styx and talking about that awesome slutty chick who lived in the apartment building across the street who put out and staring at the poster of Farrah on his wall and thinking god dammit what I wouldn't do for a chick like that.

Either way, it was there. It was part of your life.

And right now, you are having a visceral reaction to it. You are either warmly nostalgic or halfway to the bathroom.

This thread, then, is for you, either way.

I've got a mission, see. I'm taking one for the team. I'm going to listen to all the touchstones of this genre of music -- call it "Camaro Rock" or "Arena Rock" or "Corporate Rock." Whatever you wanna call it, you know what I mean. And I'm going to write about it. This means I'm about to become intimately familiar with the ouvres of Journey. Boston. Foreigner. Styx. Kansas. Little River Band. And about twenty others you forgot about. Rest assured, I'm not going to forget about them. In fact, I'm going to listen to every album they ever put out, or at least a reasonable sampling. And I'm going to figure out why they're popular, why the guys with the mullets and the leather jackets liked 'em, and whether you should ever bother to let 'em grace your stereo.

You're welcome.

Think of it this way: If I do it, you don't have to. It's a mission from God. Or the other guy.


Kansas: Where's a tornado when you need one?

In the late-60s and early-70s, too-smart-for-their-own-damn-good British teens figured out something magical: they could parlay their love of classical music, jazz, and impressive instrumental chops into a style of music that not only wouldn't get them shunned by their peers, it actually stood a chance of getting them laid. This was Progressive Rock, shortened (though the name was the only thing that was ever shortened in that style of music) to "Prog."

Of course, too-smart-for-their-own-damn-good American teens wanted in. They, too, spent far too much time practicing their respective instruments in their childhood and they, too, wanted to turn that annoying practice time into actual genital contact. And so American Prog was born.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view and tolerance for such things) American Prog was devoid of some of the things that made British Prog so interesting -- namely whimsy, a uniquely British sense of mysticism (songs populated with Hobbits and faeries and the like), a medieval-obsessed reliance on archaic instruments like flutes and harpsichords and lutes and a genuine sense of forward-thinking experimentation. American prog bands didn't don foam-rubber costumes and prance around, in other words.

Instead, they added uniquely American qualities to the music -- influences from country and left-bank psych rock; a certain by-the-numbers, rural pop sensibility; bigger and bushier beards and a whole lot of "we take this seriously and so should you" attitude.

The prime practitioner of American prog was a band from Topeka named, pragmatically, Kansas. Formed out of several earlier proto-prog combos including Saratoga and White Clover, Kansas rose out of the pack for several reasons -- a decent songwriter in guitarist Kerry Livgren; an arena-ready belter in singer Steve Walsh; the ability to play very, very fast; a zippy violin player named Robby Steinhardt; and a series of very bushy beards indeed.

Their first two albums, the self-titled first and "Masque," have little to distinguish them apart from an obvious love of alternate time signatures and fast up-and-down scale-playing. Sound and fury, signifying nothing but a desire to signify something. It is only on "Song For America" that Livgren's songwriting begins to emerge as a contender. The ten-minute title track, while nowhere near as epic as one of Yes' sidelongs, features passages of notable power, and the melodies show signs of leaning towards memorability. Meanwhile, the band continues their lightning-fast up-and-down scales and the violinist saws away gamely. It's not a pretty sound by any means -- Dave Matthews would later hone it into a fine and hideous art -- but when married with Livgren's evermore potent melodies, it became a force to be reckoned with.

"Leftoverture" is the moment Livgren's songs become so epic and powerful that radio and American FM listeners couldn't ignore them anymore. "Carry On My Wayward Son" is certainly memorable, stuffed to bursting with great hooks and hard rockin' guitar and soaring harmonies. It sounded important. The lyrics portend some kind of yearning or searching, and American teens fell in line in droves. I'm searching too, they said. I want that peace when I'm done with my shift at the Wiener Barn! Unfortunately, the song also features the elements that make Kansas listening as agonizing as it is fascinating -- twinkly, superfast piano, semi-obvious boogie-rock guitar riffs and overearnest vocal wailing.

The rest of the album falls nicely in line behind "Carry On"'s mold. The band was slowly but surely abandoning their prog roots in favor of FM-ready rock songwriting and tunes like "What's On Your Mind" are far closer to Foghat and other bar-band classics than they are to Yes, despite the presence of hammond organ and round-the-bend time signature changes. Fortunately for prog fans, there's still epic, portentious stuff like the eight-minute "Magnum Opus" to accompany their dope-smoking-and-ripple-drinking reveries.

"Point Of Know Return," the follow-up, is actually the superior record, and if you want to own one Kansas record, this is the one. It contains two radio-ready smash hits, the keyboard-and-violin-driven title track (just try to get that keyboard lick out of your head. Go on, try. I dare you) and the morose but pretty funeral anthem "Dust In The Wind." The rest of the album is far less memorable but far less boogie-rock driven than "Leftoverture." Songs like "The Spider" and "Lightning's Hand" wind and weave with considerable prog chops. And "Portrait (He Knew)" actually sounds a little forward-thinking -- it's at least five years ahead of its time, sounding more like a mid-80s FM anthem than something from a late-70s prog record.

Unfortunately, that's where Kansas began to self-destruct. "Monolith," while beefing up the guitar sound and pulling back on the violin hackwork, contains not a single memorable song apart from the awful Queen pastiche "Stay Out Of Trouble," which is memorable only for being an embarassing attempt at marrying guitar beef with urban storytelling theatricality -- unfortunately, the band doesn't have the elan to pull it off. "Audio Visions," the last album by the original lineup, tries to add an even bigger layer of guitar crunch, sounding almost like a metal band in places. It has a few semi-memorable songs, including the Billy Joel-ish "Anything For You" and the hooky "Relentless." It has an equal number of embarassing missteps, like the baffling "Loner" which fails to rock, fails to groove and fails to not sound utterly laughable.

Guitarist Livgren, meanwhile, had long been balancing his born again Christianity with his life as a mid-america Prog rocker. He managed to convert bandmate Dave Hope, and it was this point that Steve Walsh, finally tired of the thin Christian metaphors stretched out across the last couple of records and, most likely, the crimp it put on his lifestyle, jumped ship. The band replaced him with Christian rocker John Elefante, and interestingly, it is at this point that the group actually becomes listenable for a couple of records -- though prog afficianados will find little to like in the group's beefy corp-rock sound.

"Vinyl Confessions" is Elefante's bow with the group, and right away, you can tell this ain't the Kansas you dug in the 70s. For one thing, Livgren's formerly oblique religious metaphors are pushed straight into the open. For another, the violin is virtually invisible. For yet another, the twirling keyboard arabesques take a back seat to a muscle-bound Journey-like corp rock guitar sound. The album is jam packed with radio-ready hooks. Tunes like "Right Away" and "Borderline" sound far more like Journey or even (at times) the Knack than they do 70s Kansas. Not to say Livgren's abandoned the Prog sound entirely -- "Windows" features his scale-heavy pop tune and sounds not unlike a "Know Return" outtake married to an overtly Christian lyric, and "Chasing Shadows" is an attempt to write a "Dust"-esque ballad. But mostly, you can see the Kansas of the 70s shattering apart amongst its grooves.

"Drastic Measures" is almost not a Kansas record at all -- the songwriting is dominated by Elefante, who sounds like he thinks he's either in Foreigner or the Tubes in equal measures, and Livgren's whirly-twirliness is pushed to the far background. The Christian lyrics are in full force, and the guitar sound is at the palm-mutiest it would ever get. It sounds like any mid-American corp-rock band -- and any hint of "Carry On" has been relegated to the dusty past. That said: it's really not a terrible record. "Everybody's My Friend" is a legitimately great pop song, with a magnificent hook and a deeply cynical lyric. "Fight Fire With Fire" is a great corp-rock anthem, and Livgren's equally sardonic "Mainstream" is funny and quite good. There's an odd New Wave sheen over the whole thing that's not common in records of this ilk, and it works both as a good CCM album and a great corp-rock one -- alas, fans of classic Kansas would find very little to like here.

Kansas broke up at this point, and when the band reconvened for "Power" and its follow up "The Spirit Of Things," they were literally an entirely different band. Led now by departed singer Steve Walsh, the group sounded exactly like every other corporate rock band of the mid 80s -- all their uniqueness had departed, and their reliance on power ballads ("All I Wanted" was a mid-decade hit) and generic chunka-chunka rock made them sound like a third-string Journey, four years after Journey themselves had become irrelevant. Kansas soon found themselves equally irrelevant, and the label dropped them soon after. There have been partial and complete reunions since, but nothing that managed to capture even a fragment of the meaty prog-rock sound that had propelled them to the top in the 70s.

If you want to dive into these waters -- and if you like British prog and don't have a total aversion to mid-america corporate rock-and-riff, you might want to at least get a toe wet -- you should head straight for "Point Of Know Return." That one album will give you a decent-sized taste of both the good and the ill of Kansas -- the epic, memorable songwriting and their occasionally tasteless overplaying, both in healthy-sized dollops. If your tolerance for superfast playing, violin virtuosity and strident singing is small then lay low and pray for a tornado.

Styx: The Great White Hope

(dediction: For Styx fan extraordinaire, Ray Puzey)

While Kansas were plying their trade in Topeka, a group of kids in Chicago were marrying what they learned from British prog and American boogie rock to a uniquely workin'-class aesthetic as native to the Second City as Kansas' heartland prog was to its region. Formed from the ashes of a group called the Tradewinds (headlining TONIGHT! down at the Best Western Pump-Room Lounge, get there early for the shrimp platter!), Styx had two weapons in its arsenal that put it ahead of the pack. First, multiple songwriters in Dennis De Young and James Young, both of whom knew their way around a hook. Second, De Young's dramatic, Broadway-ready singing voice, which, no matter what kind of song he was singing, sounded like he was auditioning for the touring company of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (which, unironically and expectedly, he'd later join). This, married with their image -- a bunch of guys from shop class, a guy from the Drama League and two of the Village People -- and their love of the concept album, that uniquely sixties-and-seventies conceit that made ordinary albums seem far more important/portentious/intelligent than they actually were, pushed Styx to the head of the prog-rock class fairly quickly.

Of course, it took two years for radio to notice -- after years of flogging their tunes in shitty clubs and high school dances, a song off their second album (the still-mostly-nascent "Styx II") called "Lady" began to get first regional then national airplay. "Lady" has everything that would eventually come to define the group: De Young's plaintive wail and over-enunciated delivery, loads and loads of stacked harmonies, a "gentle strummed part" contrasted with a "wicked rockin' part," a sense of drama and excitement, virtuoso playing, and an extreme sense of its own self-importance as a tune. It was the birth of "pomp-rock," an offshoot of prog that favored pompous heaviness and dramatic chest-beating over involved instrumental passages.

Styx were already 4 albums into their career by the time they signed to A&M and released "Equinox" (and honestly, apart from "Lady," there ain't much on those first four apart from some interesting garage boogie, some sub-par writing from De Young and the hint that better things were a-comin'). "Equinox" is the beginning of Styx as we know them -- it's got one dramatic, killer hit single ("Lorelei"), a couple almost-prog FM staples ("Suite Madame Blue" and "Light Up") and some filler that veers between dramatic, choir-practice wailing and gentle balladry ("Born For Adventure" for the former, "Lonely Child" for the latter). It's not a bad album -- but the band was missing one element that would propel them into the stratosphere.

When their guitarist, who had an unpronounceable last name (Curulewski -- try saying that ten times fast!), bailed after "Equinox," a hasty search to find a replacement turned up blonde wunderkind Tommy Shaw, who possessed genuine hard-rock chops and cred as well as an even more sharply-honed pop sensibility than De Young. His debut on "Crystal Ball" was the bouncy, Queen-like "Mademoiselle," an excellent little tune featuring some terrific harmonizing by DeYoung and a killer hook. Shaw's hard-rockin' sensibilities perfectly balanced De Young's dramatic wailing and Young's boogie-rockin' to create the perfect 3-headed Cerebrus of Camaro rock.

But it wasn't until "The Grand Illusion" that all the elements came together perfectly. If Styx can be said to have an "album for the ages," it is undoubtedly this one. Though not their best, it contains their most memorable hits, their most enduring FM chestnuts, and their most direct and focused playing. It's got just the right amount of De Young theatricality, Shaw guitar crunch and Young simplicity -- the perfect balance, which would tip too far one way or the other on all future releases. The first four tracks were all hits of one type or another. The title track is a brilliantly dramatic and powerful call-to-arms. "Fooling Yourself" is one of Shaw's best melodies and lyrics, and doesn't descend into rock cliche as some of his later tunes would. "Superstars" has a massive and powerful hook, beautifully sung by De Young. And "Come Sail Away" is the group's "Stairway To Heaven," a study in pompous light-and-dark with a brilliantly silly lyric (it's a boat metaphor -- wait, no, it's a spaceship!!). The album starts to fall apart with Young's "Miss America," and the second half has a tendency to flag ("Castle Walls" is dull, and "Grand Finale" is cheating, just a combo of all the songs up 'till that point), but the first half is memorable, classic, and, frankly, extremely good. It approaches the excellence of mid-period Queen without, alas, that group's winking and sly wit, but with a good deal of jovial, workin' class humor besides.

I actually prefer "Pieces Of Eight," the group's follow-up to "Illusion" -- I think it's a stronger, more consistent album, with higher highs and much less dull lows. It rocks harder and with more cred and conviction, whilst still maintaining the grandiosity that "Illusion" trafficks in so successfully. Everybody's writing sharply and cleverly, and while faulting Styx for overindulgence seems foolish (hell, the group's ABOUT overindulgence) this album contains far less of it than the others. The highlights are plenty -- Young's powerful, anthemic "Great White Hope," De Young's inspirational "I'm Okay" and his amazing Hobbit-rock mini-opera "Lords of the Ring," and Shaw's triumvirate of amazing rockers -- "Blue Collar Man," "Renegade" and the gorgeous, moving "Sing For The Day." The album only flags slightly at the very tail end, with the slightly limp balladry of "Pieces of Eight" and the pointless "Aku-Aku."

Unfortunately, it was all a slow, measurable slide downhill from there. "Cornerstone" shows the influence of limp soft-rock creeping into the group's sound, in the form of De Young's insistance on using ballad-ready electric piano wherever possible. That's not to say the album doesn't have some great moments -- "Borrowed Time" still rocks with conviction, and the bouncy "Why Me" has a kind of Supertrampy catchiness. But the album hinges entirely on "Babe," the massive runaway soft-rock hit -- and your love of the album will hinge on whether you like it or find it cloying and obnoxious. I lean towards the former, despite its obvious limpness and hit-grabbiness.

"Paradise Theater," of course, was a massive, runaway hit with a billion hit singles -- it comes off a bit desperate in retrospect, but of course the high points hit extremely high. It is literally impossible to argue with the awesomeness that is "The Best Of Times" -- that's De Young's best chorus ever, and his gorgeous, powerful balladry is in full effect. And Shaw's magnificently rockin' "Too Much Time On My Hands" is almost as perfect -- you know you do the "clap-clap" when it plays on the juke every single time. Don't pretend you don't. "AD 1928 / Rockin" The Paradise," too, is no more or less silly than any of their other "concept call-to-arms" tunes. Alas, there's much generic stuff here too -- "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned" is faint 'tramp ripoff, "Lonely People" is drab, and there's never been a more earnest, accurate but ultimately dry cocaine anthem as "Snowblind." Still, though, "Best of Times." You can't argue.

Alas, "Paradise Theater" was the group's last hurrah. "Mr. Roboto," the first single off the group's into-the-80s try, portended a changed group, and was a strange, intriguing blend of New Wave synth-plying and hard-rock pomposity. It sounded like nothing before and since and should/could have been the harbinger of a newly revitalized Styx. Alas, the entire rest of the album is nothing like this song. "Cold War" is one of Shaw's least realized and least catchy tunes, "Heavy Metal Poisoning" was silly and not the least bit metal. "Haven't We Been Here Before" was limp balladry, and only "Don't Let It End" was the least bit good.

After that, the group disbanded. A brief early-90s resurfacing gave us the "Edge Of The Century" album on which Shaw was absent -- and for some odd reason De Young's generic "Show Me The Way" became a first-Gulf-War anthem. A 00s resurfacing, this time with Shaw and Young in charge and minus De Young, gave us the bland "Cyclorama" album which had none of the elan of the earlier group, and in fact sounded like nothing so much as Nickelback.

(Mention should briefly be made of De Young's 2009 solo album "One Hundred Years From Now," which, if nothing else, sounds like Old Styx in most places, and contains a few great songs including the bouncy "This Time Next Year" which approaches the power of his mid-70s stuff. It's not all great -- it too frequently veers close to extreme cheese -- but it has definite moments.)

My recommendation: I'm a bit more forgiving of Styx than I should be, perhaps, but I think everybody should, if nothing else, own "Grand Illusion," "Pieces of Eight" and, if you're still not repulsed or freaked out by the pomposity and drama-kinging, "Paradise Theater." The first two are solid albums that border on magnificence, and the latter has "The Best Of Times," which you need and then need to hear in context.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stone Temple Pilots and my strange relationship with grunge music

Stone Temple Pilots, Self Titled
Atlantic Records

I've always been weirdly fascinated with grunge music, in the same way one gets fascinated with a plane crash or an open wound on one's arm: a strange mix of pleasure and brain-churning pain. As the first musical movement that I "didn't get" (I was all of 21 when it hit, and painfully out of step with my own demographic), I was absolutely hide-bound and determined to know everything there was to know about it -- even moreso than if I'd "gotten it," since I figured there was something I was missing.

The end result being I've probably heard more grunge music than most people who generally hate the stuff. And of course there wasn't anything I was missing -- grunge music was nothing more than heavy metal with somewhat more masculine trappings than hair metal, but, ultimately with worse songs. Hair metal was a combo of hard rock and bubblegum (meaning it had hooks); grunge thought it was Zeppelin but it was really Foghat (meaning it really didn't).

But as always happens when I explore a musical genre, I always come away from it liking more of it than I probably should. Weirdly, the stuff I like isn't the stuff most critics do. I hate Pearl Jam, for example. Po-faced, over-serious bullshit, the Grape Nuts of rock and roll (good for you, tastes like gravel). I can't stand Mudhoney, either, and Soundgarden actually sends me into spasms of anger. Especially "Black Hole Sun." God, I hate Black Hole Sun. And I still have mixed feelings about Nirvana -- I love "In Utero" but I still think "Nevermind" sounds like a hair metal album, and I notice all the cut-and-paste work Butch Vig did to clean it up to a radio-friendly sparkle.

No, the stuff I like from that genre is the stuff that doesn't pretend it's more important than it actually is. Alice In Chains, for example, seems well aware that it's a Camaro-metal band and makes really good but completely shallow Camaro-metal records for today's heschers. I have no problem with them because, oddly, they're good at what they do, even if what they do is kinda awful. But my favorite grunge group is the band I used to call the Strawberry Alarm Clock of the grunge scene (because they seemed like bandwagon-jumpers that accidentally did a better job of encapsulating the scene than the main practitioners) -- Stone Temple Pilots.

STP always seemed like they took themselves way less seriously than their compatriots. They wrote songs with massive, catchy hooks and seemed unabashed in their love of pop music. They switched gears mid-stream and made a record that sounded like it wanted to be T.Rex's "Electric Warrior" (1996's "Tiny Music", which still sounds completely left-field even today). Unlike 99.9% of the other grunge bands, they were a little bit sexy, which was something most of those bands were too busy bitching about how famous they were to comprehend the necessity of. Sure, they haven't ever been able to write a lyric to save their lives -- but does it even matter? I'd rather have total nonsense than Vedder's po-faced tripe.

Still, there was no reason a new STP album should be any good. Their last (2001's "Shangri-La Dee Da") was only okay, and Scott Weiland's last gig as lead singer of Slash's Velvet Revolver was a total bust -- not a single memorable song across two albums. Nevertheless, their brand-new self-titled album is kind of awesome anyway -- more hook-laden than anything they've yet done, still just as silly, but, oddly, still just as sexy and righteous. It sounds like grunge + bubblegum, which, if you see my previous paragraph about hair metal, kind of rights a couple wrongs.

Most interesting is Weiland's continuing fixation with glam rock; namely, early-to-mid-70s David Bowie, whom he channels quite effectively on the album's two best songs, "Hickory Dichotomy" which roils along on a spung Bowie cockney, and the positively astonishing "First Kiss On Mars" which is easily the best song the group's ever done, with a lovely melody and a mammoth hook.

Elsewhere, the band channels great hard-rock hooks into tightly-written songs that almost always resolve to righteously fist-pumping chorii. My favorite is "Take a Load Off" -- the shift from minor to major in the chorus is one of those delicious "sigh" moments that just automatically brings to mind summer-day drives under bright blue skies. "Hazy Daze" sports a wicked boogie-rock groove, while "Cinnamon" sounds like New Order filtered through the the Osmonds.

The band only stumbles a couple of times -- lead single "Between The Lines" sounds like an attempt to write an archetypal Stone Temple Pilots Hard Rock Single, which unfortunately means its a bit drab, and "Dare If You Dare" tries a little too hard at Beatle balladry, arriving somewhere at Klaatu territory.

In terms of ongoing grunge concerns (there ain't many left -- Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, the newly-reunited Soundgarden), STP rests comfortably way at the top in terms of actually remaining both relevant and highly entertaining. "Stone Temple Pilots" is a terrific album -- fantastically heavy and surprisingly optimistic. Grunge, even though I hate you, you continue to amuse.