Thursday, April 17, 2008

I don't like that message. It's too scary.

Playing right now: "One Less Bell To Answer"

(Maybe he wouldn't've left if she served something other than fried eggs once in a while.

Him: Hey, baby, what'd you make for us?

Her: Fried eggs.

Him: Again?! Dammit, woman, I'm outta here.)

Something at work triggered the memory of Christmas' 1989 album Ultraprophets of Thee Psykick Revolution so I got it out the other night. I was reminded of how brilliant this album is and how great and unsung a band Christmas was. I don't know if they meant for this to be a concept album, but it holds together like one, expressing all the horrible things that were festering as the '80s drew to a close (the threat of nuclear annihilation; AIDS; the fact that the world should be blown up because everyone is so awful; and the need to put on a smiley face and act like everything is fine). Rather than handling it all Dischord-style, Michael Cudahy (guitar), his brother Nicholas (bass) and Liz Cox (drums) proved that they were top-shelf practitioners of post-punk pop with a stinging lyrical approach whose closest touchstone was probably their neighbor Peter Prescott of the Volcano Suns. (He had been in Mission of Burma, but his writing really blossomed with the Suns.)

Michael and Liz handled lead singing duties and acted as great foils for one another: Liz singing in a sweet soprano - maybe mezzo-soprano - as the straight member of the band, with Michael going back and forth from the equally straight one to the off-the-wall zany one.

Musically, they could go from chunky, college radio pop ("Stupid Kids") to heavy riffs that sounded like a twist on Led Zeppelin's "Custard Pie" ("Punch and Judy") to drop-tuned even-heavier riffage ("Royal Klutch Tattoo"). Sometimes they fire on all cylinders, acting bold enough to write a song called "Richard Nixon" that discusses the shamed ex-prez in a talk-speak rant that I'm sure many college music directors called "quirky" in 1989, and they segue the verse into a chorus of Liz chirping "Richard Nixon sees you/ Richard Nixon sees through you," with some ooh-la-la backing vocals behind it. It might sound ridiculous in print, and it is ---- but it works.

"Human Chain" tackles the issue of AIDS, but only in an off-hand way. Over a programmed cowbell and drumbeat, Michael bangs out another meaty riff (see - you can take your classic rock roots and use them for good) while the band sings cryptic lyrics like, "Lovers say that love is strange/ Sleep with me your life will change." After about a minute, the distorted guitar changes to a sweet acoustic that cues some even sweeter backing vocals. The lyrics here include "Here's a token of my infection/ pass it on to your connection." The contrast between sweet and dark is what makes this one hit hard, which gets driven home in the coda when the harmonies are muddied by screaming in the back of the mix. And the song gets cut off abruptly, mid-phrase.

Michael told me in an interview years after this came out that "Warhog" was about something to the effect that we should all die in a war because humankind isn't smart enough anyway. I forget exactlywhat it was he said and for 18 years, I can't make out most of the lyrics to the song. Michael, if you're reading this, a lyric sheet would be appreciated. Perhaps knowing what they had just said, the group ends the song with a friend's phone message excerpt: "I don't like that message, it's too scary." Before things get to that point, they've won me over with the harmonies and the guitar work.

Most of the lyrical fodder seems to have been birthed from the rise of the Republican regime, but it kind of serves as snapshot of where we are now as well. Maybe that's also what I'm reacting to now, the relevancy. When the album came out, I remember seeing a review in Rolling Stone that gave it one-and-a-half stars, which proves how out of touch mainstream music media still was at that time. It's not like these guys were Pere Ubu. In fact, there's probably a closer link with Christmas and REM, other than the fact that they were on the same label. The entry in says the album was misunderstood and that some reviews were "downright hostile." I guess the band was right.

"Hymn" ends the album with a sombre string trio alternating with a wobbly farfisa. (Another brilliant musical idea.) The first line of the song, sung by our heroes in a dark drone is "As sure as eggs is eggs/ life is good." They can't be serious. Right?

Right now, "Royal Klutch Tattoo" is playing in my ears and it's one of the fattest, most bad-ass riffs ever. I've always wanted to cover it. Though "My Operator" which follows is equally as good a cover. But I can't decipher those lyrics.

I should write one of those 33 1/3 books about this album.

Buy this record. Now. Or make me dub it for you.

Post-script: Michael, Liz and Nicholas escaped their misanthropic ways and went on to form Combustible Edison, the authentic and always happening lounge band, in the mid-'90s.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hey La, hey la, hey la, hey laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

I wondered if I would lose it when the New Pornographers hit that rousing coda in "The Bleeding Heart Show" on Saturday at the Carnegie Music Hall. Just talking about that song makes me think of the wall of voices roaring out of the speakers. When I interviewed NPs bassist John Collins, I could feel myself getting a little misty. (Some songs have a way of tapping the tearducts for me; can't explain it.)

The Music Hall's bad acoustics gave me some doubt at the start of the evening. The room is really echoey and some things get lost. Like in-between-song banter. I couldn't figure out what Neko Case and Carl Newman were saying half the time. OK, I figured, the song will be fun but it won't be the emotional release that I pondered.

But, as the song - the last in the set proper - started to build up in dynamics, it felt like riding the Jack Rabbit at Kennywood Park (sorry if the metaphor is lost on you non-Pittsburghers). It pulls out of the station and slowly rounds the corner and you start to think, "Ooooooooooh boy! The first dip coming up real soon." Just a few miles down the road from Kennywood, Carl and Neko and the gang were making me feel the same way. Six out of eight of them starting wailing on that coda and while I didn't get misty, I certainly whipped my head around like I was having a paulsey. Goddam, it felt good. I don't think I'll ever get sick of that song. Or grow weary of expounding on it.

As stated in the previous blog entry, the NPs had a lot to live up to in my head, after the stellar John Vanderslice performance on Friday. The show was excellent. The sound kind of buried the guitars, mainly the lead work, but that served to boost the vocals. With Carl, Neko and keyboardist Katherine all chiming together that was definitely a good thing. The set really crossed over all of their albums, even including a couple from Mass Romantic towards the end of the set.

For an encore, they played ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" and, naturally nailed the harmonies, making it sound as full as a Jeff Lynne production.

Okkervil River opened the show. I'm not up on their music but I thought they put on a pretty good show. Several friends of mine absolutely hated them. Despised them, even. Oh well.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dispatch on the John Vanderslice show

Playing right now: a slightly hissy (surface noise) 10" by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, "Daahoud" specifically

Last night was the John Vanderslice show at the Andy Warhol Museum. Sometimes you build something up in your to such a high degree that it's impossible for the real thing to meet your expectations.

That wasn't the case last night.

I've listened to John's albums a lot, the last three especially. Hearing these songs in person was totally mind-blowing. The full (four-piece) band really brought them to life and emphasized subtleties that the albums only hint at. The albums really came together in the studio from what I gather, instead of the studio replicating a live performance. I was thinking how the tunes acts sort of as inner shots of John's head, and now they're so much more in person.

He didn't play "Coming and Going On Easy Terms" which is one of my favorite Vanderslice songs. That's not an easy song to call for from the audience either, so I couldn't do an obnoxious request. But the set offered a good cross-section of songs from almost all of his albums so it was a real treat.

Dave, his drummer, played about half the songs with one hand doing moog bass parts while the other played the beat. And bassist Daniel spent half the set playing violin and singing while he bowed. He had a great effect on his fiddle that turned a steady, bowed noted into 16th notes that really kicked. When Ian the keyboardist had some technical difficulty, Daniel did a HI-larious imitation of Michael McDonald playing "Little Wing." This was especially funny for me and my friend Brendan, for whom Michael Mc is a running joke.

The show ended with an encore of about four songs performed in the entrace gallery with the audience surrounding the band. Ian played concertina, Dave played floor tom and xylophone and Daniel stuck with the fiddle. And boy can that young man harmonize!

It should be mentioned that there was a really good crowd there. I didn't think that many people knew about John, based on all those years of playing shows with out of town bands who I thought would appeal to more people, but who sadly didn't draw very well. This exceeded my expectations, and on top of that, I only knew one person there besides Brendan.

All I can say is the New Pornographers have a tough act to follow.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Ain't nothing but a lot of music goin' on

Two more days 'till John Vanderslice plays at the Warhol.

Three more days 'till the New Pornographers rawk Munhall.

If only I had my druthers, I'd make it a three-tiered weekend and drive to Buffalo to see Marilyn Crispell on Sunday. But my druthers are at the cleaners, so for now I'm staying in town.

However, I did get to interview Marilyn last week for Art Voice, Buffalo's alt-weekly. (Her new CD on ECM, Vignettes, is really good by the way. It drops on April 22.) Later that same day, I interviewed John Collins of the New Pornographers. Thus began a week of writing, which was sidelined at several points by a teething young son with a fever and a bad disposition. Yesterday, it finally ended. I had to turn in the Marilyn article as well as three CD reviews for JazzTimes. Once I had the time to devote to writing, it wasn't too much of a challenge, but there's always that part of me that worries that the time will vanish and it won't get done. Or else I won't have any idea what I'm talking about.


Lately I've been fixated on Clifford Brown. I've been trying to win some of his EmArcy records with Max Roach. I had one slip through my fingers at the last minute last week. But I also got really lucky and won a 10" by them! For $22, no less. Ha cha!

I've also started digging out Beatles records. Last week I had a hankering for A Hard Day's Night. It was the first one I ever heard because my oldest brother had the soundtrack when I was a wee thing. Then a few days later I pulled out Meet the Beatles. It's easy to forgot how tight they were at that point in time. Even the throw-away songs had something to them. You can't hear any of the instruments in "Little Child" but it still rocks. So does "I Wanna Be Your Man." Part of it is extra percussion they added. And "It Won't Be Long"? Man, what a killer song. I'd've been screaming for them too if I heard that live.