Culturespill » Heroes

Leonard Cohen drops new song ahead of Jan. 31 album release

10th January

If you have any idea what Leonard Cohen has been through since emerging from the Zen monastery “Mount Baldy” after years of seclusion there following his 1992 record The Future, then the seething ruminations on age, death and ruin he indulges on the new song he dropped today is precisely what you’d expect of the grizzled, 77-year-old bard. Culturespill told the full story here back in 2008, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: Cohen re-entered the real world to find that the $5 million retirement fund he left in the hands of his long-time manager Kelley Lynch had dwindled to $150,000. With no recourse through which to recoup the money and his estranged manager on the lam, he instead embarked on the much-celebrated world tour documented on two live releases–2009′s Live in London and 2010′s Songs from the Road.

Now he is set to deliver a long-anticipated new studio album, Old Ideas, on Jan. 31. Cohen angered some fans with the unfocused gaiety of his last studio effort, 2004′s Dear Heather, and defended himself by saying that it was meant as a “playful” album to be followed by a collection of more characteristic material–you know, the stuff that makes you want to kill yourself. In keeping with that promise, the song Cohen dropped today is called “Darkness,” and delivers precisely that. He tosses metaphor to the winds and instead dives right into the rough of what’s bugging him here. “I’ve got no future / I know my days are few” he growls in the gruff and whispery baritone Elton John calls his “non-voice.” “The present’s not that pleasant / just a lot of things to do.”

These sound like the words of a man who, now in his late 70s, might have been perfectly content to live out the rest of his life much the way David Bowie does these days–chilling at home with family and friends, savoring the anonymity of walking the streets unnoticed, and feeling absolutely no compulsion to add anything new to his abundant and glittering oeuvre. And perhaps that’s where things might have stood had Lynch not directly linked her American Express card to Cohen’s bank account and sucked it dry to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

Poets like Cohen get snarly when critics read autobiography between every line they write, and perhaps rightfully so. But autobiographical or not, “Darkness” delivers precisely the kind of unabashed and strikingly sincere appraisal of the human condition that longtime fans heard on every Cohen record before the hapless and baffling Dear Heather. If “Darkness” is any indication, Old Ideas will deliver much more from where all that came from.

Veteran fans will delight in this track’s more stripped-down approach, a sound Cohen largely has abandoned for the slicker, more ornate production he’s preferred since 1984′s Various Positions and its brilliant follow-up, I’m Your Man. “Darkness” opens with a gorgeous flutter of acoustic guitar that storms with the ominous and theatrical finger-picking style exhibited on some of his most signature tracks, such as “Teachers” from his 1967 debut or “Avalanche” from the incomparable Songs of Love and Hate in 1971. Those earlier records are achievements no artist can ever hope to replicate, but “Darkness” comes damned close, and suggests that somewhere in the consternation of a retirement disrupted by circumstance Cohen turned up a few more of those songs of love, hate and, now, the growing specter of mortality.

You can check out the track here, and also visit his website where you can hear another track from Old Ideas he released in November, a supine piano ballad called “Show Me the Place.”

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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R.I.P. Gerry Rafferty

4th January

Dogs

If you’ve ever worked up the brass to sit through the brilliant scene in Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs when Michael Madsen pulls a blade on a cop to cut the poor bastard’s ear off–but not before shuffling his best Texas Two-Step to the tune “Stuck in the Middle With You”–then you know Gerry Rafferty. Recorded with an outfit called Stealers Wheel that Rafferty put together with Joe Egan in 1972, the song was an only hit for a band that made more money for the lawyers they needed to get out of contract hell than its members made for themselves–an all-too common industry nightmare that would recur in Rafferty’s odd career, as EMI kicked him to the curb about five years later when they bought out the flagging Universal Artists in 1980. It’s little wonder the guy preferred music’s version of the witness protection program for the rest of the decade–what artist of any value DIDN’T vanish in the 80s?–and only resurfaced sporadically after that to record one critically adored but commercially disastrous album after another, each of which moved about 3 1/2 units (that may be a mildly optimistic estimate.)

Culturerspill newsflash: the record industry blows, especially when you’re trying to make it with a label that consists of no more than a phone in an abandoned garage and some Emo dork with a borrowed kazoo. In an era void of ring tones, myspace profiles and, well, the whole damned internet in general, Rafferty surrendered to this sad fact after making bank with his brilliant City to City album in 1978, an album that featured his enduring masterpiece, “Baker Street,” about busking in the subway station. So enduring, actually, that The Foo Fighters got their hands on the song not too long ago–which is either a blessing or a reason for instantaneous self-immolation, depending on your taste. Chances are that the size of the royalty check Rafferty took to the bank was enough to keep his food down, even if the cover sucked. Decide for yourself here. (The brilliant Eagles of Death metal, for their part, served up a killer cover of Raffery’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Check it out.)


Reservoir Dogs: “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel

Rafferty adamantly refused to tour even in support of that hit–a single so successful that it booted the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack off the top of the charts at the height of disco’s infamy. Of all the immortal albums in rock ‘n roll history, City to City just HAD to be recorded in the late 70s, the most confused decade in the history of modern pop music. For an era that pumped out acts like Alice Cooper and The Clash alongside a seemingly endless barrage of disco trash and some of the most mawkishly produced pop music ever to soil the ears of man, calling it “confused” is an act of extreme courtesy. Yet this seems precisely the thing that designates City To City a masterpiece.

Despite the album’s love affair with the flowery, post-psychedelia production that turned pop music into a pageant of circus cast-offs by 1978, the strength of Rafferty’s songwriting stands firm. The album’s most amazing moments come at times when Rafferty seems to have sent his producer out on another take-out run for the band. Good clean tracks like the stirring “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart” and the flawlessly composed “Right Down The Line” attest to the power Rafferty commands when left to his own devices. By contrast, the hysterical onslaught of bells, cymbals and synths that usher in “Baker Street” sound like the start of some 25-year-old Perillo Tours ad.

Rafferty
Gerry Rafferty

Yet the songs themselves endure: “Baker Street” soon clears the clutter and slides effortlessly into a gorgeous ballad with Raphael Ravenscroft’s unmistakable sax riff cutting a backbone through the song, rivaled only by Rafferty’s stinging guitar work in the song’s amplified crescendo. “The Ark,” a beautifully understated ballad brought to fruition by a genuinely moving vocal performance, is as successful an opening track as there has ever been. Only the title track and the album’s last two songs seem incapable of overcoming the desperate production that threatens to derail the album throughout but, thankfully, never succeeds. It is this tension between indulgence and tact that makes for one incredible listening experience. That Rafferty essentially abandoned his talents in apparent disgust with the industry soon after this is just as tragic as City To City is miraculous. But no more tragic than today’s news that at age 63, Gerry Rafferty left this world behind today after a battle with liver failure that landed him on life support in recent months. R.I.P., Gerry–here’s hoping that you’re busking once again now in that Baker Street in the sky.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

 

Meet Lloyd’s Garage, “the antidote to Autotune”

20th December

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Lloyd’s Garage is what happens when Adam Duritz rides a time machine back to 1973 to lay down some tracks for Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. It’s what happens when R.L. Burnside lunges out of his grave to cut a postmortem record with Pearl Jam. It’s Steve Earle jamming in his living room with Jimmy Page as Chris Robinson shows up at the door with a new song scribbled on his palm. And if Seth Heitzmann is to be believed, Lloyd’s Garage aims to be the “WTF?” inside the text cloud that blooms in the brains of people who go to Richard Thompson shows and hear that 60-something guitar god drop acoustic covers of tracks like Brittney’s Spears’s “Ooops! I Did it again.”

“You hear people say, ‘That song sucks.’ But usually it’s not the song that sucks. It’s the producer that decided to treat the song like a 6-year-old beauty contestant,” Heitzmann says as he explains the reasoning behind his cover of “California Gurls” by–(cough)–Katy Perry. “The frustration comes from sensing that there is something beautiful in there, but it’s been covered in goop by some bozo with bad taste. Well, we’ve done our best to strip away the bad taste to give you a chance to hear “California Gurls” performed by actual human beings.”

On the “California Gurls” cover and just about any Lloyd’s Garage song you can find, Heitzmann’s vocals indulge the warbling vulnerability of a Counting Crows ballad (think “Goodnight Elizabeth“) laced with a bruising, stripped-nude and rootsy brand of rock ‘n roll. And with drummer Lloyd Lewelyn hammering out his unending homage to John Bonahm on track after track, this San Francisco duo’s songs swing by like bloody fists in an old-fashioned ass-kicking contest. That appears to be the point, after all–to beat the shit out of bad taste, one song at a time.  And if that is indeed the objective behind Lloyd’s Garage, then consider bad taste as Rocky Balboa begging Mick to cut a slit in his swollen eyelid so he can see what he’s swinging at. The only difference is that in this version of the movie, Rocky is pronounced D.O.A. at the hospital.

“With Autotune, it seems like the transition from music to noise is nearly complete,” Heitzmann laments. “We can now take all of the humanity out of a voice. WTF is going on?”

The band says that the video for their Katy Perry cover–which really is less a cover than it is an ambulance summoned to rescue the song from its fake plastic jailers at Capitol Records–is storming the internet like a wind-swept fire threatening the mansions of Malibu. But even if the video hasn’t quite done all that just yet, one thing is almost certain: you will watch it more than once, and you may even hear it sneak through the backdoor of your mind as you’re slurping down another low-budget lunch of Ramen and Fritos in your cubicle tomorrow. Check it out; I dare you to prove me wrong:

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Le Noise,” Neil Young

19th December

 

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No matter how many “Best Albums of 2010″ lists you read on the web this month, somehow you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re reading the same one over and over again. There’s a pretty good reason for that: You are, and it’s sad. Most lists read like they were composed by a cadre of 20-something Vampire Weekend roadies who crowded the local wheat grass bar and nursed their flax and spirulina smoothies as they chattered in passing about music. In most cases the albums they discuss reflect only a narrow sliver of the year’s creative bounty. And almost invariably, they acknowledge only bands that are at least as young if not younger than they are, bands they overheard fellow pseudo hipsters praising over Venti Spelnda-sweetened extra dry skim-milk Americanos, or bands whose music sounds like somebody just blasted three pterodactyls out of the sky all at once with a thousand-pound nail gun.

That’s one of many reasons why Neil Young’s Le Noise is both right for the cultural moment in which it was released and why, pitted against so many of the year’s lesser but lauded records, it smacks of a creative desperation that in eight brief tracks obliterates the pervading cynicism and emotional catatonia of the “indie only” crowd that has ignored it. These songs were all recorded in one or two takes so as not to dilute the immediacy of the creative impulse from which they emerged, and that Young has managed at age 65 and after countless records to do something he has never done before–a solo electric album–is a testament to the restlessness of his muse and to his enduring standing as one of rock ‘n roll’s genuine mavericks.

Young has been crucified for that very “restlessness” over the past decade, as uneven and therefore characteristically fascinating releases like Are You Passionate, Greendale or Fork in the Road earned a reception which, like Le Noise, exposes even his most longstanding fans as crybabies who hold him personally responsible for the fact that it’s not 1972 anymore.  Even the most casual glance at customer reviews of Le Noise on Amazon.com reveals a host of whiners crying that it doesn’t sound enough like something they heard when they were 12 and their mothers still sported beehive hairdos.  It’s not enough like On the Beach, or it doesn’t sound like Harvest, or it isn’t the same as Rust Never Sleeps. They don’t hear a “Pocahontas” or a “Cortez the Killer.” Many of these complaints begin with “I’m the biggest Neil Young fan in the world, but . . .”

And that’s just it: How on earth any self-proclaimed “fan” of Neil Young cannot exalt in the rich and anthemic riffs that open “Sign of Love” or “Angry World” on this album is utterly mystifying (to say nothing of the fact that the two acoustic offerings on this record, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War,” are among the most stirring acoustic songs the man has done since the days of “Pardon My Heart” or “Look out for My Love“). If anything, these “fans” are the sort who mistake art for an anodyne, who think music should always palliate and never challenge, who bristle at authenticity because it doesn’t croon the lullaby that plays in the background of their nostalgic fantasies of long-gone days.

Dylan put together a documentary called Don’t Look Back in 1965 as he fumed across the world on a tour that saw fans shout “Judas!” because he wouldn’t play the monkey to their organ grinder, pounding them with “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” when they paid to hear him sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” all night long. Le Noise is the latest evidence that Neil Young took the man’s advice. Fans endowed with the courage to look forward with him will hear in Le Noise the work of a creative spirit as much at war with itself today as it was when he was just the kid who played guitar for Buffalo Springfield.

Daniel Lanois’s presence on the project could have been an unadulterated disaster because Neil Young’ s music is a dish best served raw, and Lanois’s brand of voodoo atmospherics is anything but undercooked. But it turns out that it was Lanois’s idea to amp up the acoustic album Neil intended to record and turn it into a solo electric set instead. There are times when Lanois just can’t help himself, as he drags out the opening stunner “Walk With Me” with what seems like an eternity of aimless reverb and distortion that serves no purpose other than to lengthen an album that otherwise might have lasted no longer than a drink of water. But elsewhere he is pleased to step back from the songs and let the rage of “Old Black” have the floor.

The first six tracks here–from the primal, Rust-era grunge of “Walk With Me” and “Angry World” to the lonely reverbarations of Neil’s acoustic guitar on the desolate “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”–blaze with a creative fury that is at once disquieting and restorative. “Hitchhiker” and “Rumblin’” add nothing to what is achieved in the songs that precede them but it is at least nice to finally hear an official version of “Hitchhiker,” even if it falls well short of the majesty of the live acoustic version fans have come to know and love.

You won’t find Le Noise on the “Best of 2010″ list over at (enter favorite smarmy indie music blog here), but you will find it on the minds of music lovers a generation from now while so many fly-by-night bands currently enjoying a loving spotlight dwindle into the dusk of their momentary celebrity.The material on Le Noise boasts the strength, urgency and variety of Young’s finest records, and when the smoke of its mixed reception clears, it may well be ranked in that company.

Click here for Neil Young’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com