Culturespill » 2008 » May

John Hiatt and the Scourge of a Digital World

30th May


It’s getting pretty clear that we’ve probably heard the last of the great John Hiatt albums. I’m not asking for another Bring the Family—records that great only grace our ears once every decade or two at best. And I’m not one of those close-minded dip shits that bitch every time his favorite band puts out a new album because “it’s not as good as the last one,” stubbornly resistant to an artist’s creative evolution. Lord knows an artist with Hiatt’s range offers something for everyone and their mother, as adept at the crooning twang of “I Can’t Wait” as he is at the lion’s-roar of rockers like “Something Wild”–to say nothing of his “I am the other Elvis Costello” days on early albums like Slug Line and Two-Bit Monster.

What I am saying, however, is that it’s been far too long since John sounded ready to abandon himself to the song, come what may, in the kind of blistering spontaneity we heard on the brilliant and rollicking Crossing Muddy Waters that scored him a Grammy nod in 2000. Hell, even The Tiki Bar is Open, for all its polish, still offered a sound that swung with two clenched fists. But, good God, Same Old Man? Master of Disaster? (album title or Freudian slip?) What’s happening to Mr. Hiatt is happening to some of America’s most prized and once-gritty songwriters, and it’s not entirely their fault, either.

It’s called “compression,” an alleged “technology” that is, ironically, doing more to set back the soul of rock n’ roll than it is to advance it. We’re told by the advocates of compression and digital recording technology that “Compression is used to bring down the highest peaks, above the threshold level, leaving the lower levels just as they were. After that the level is restored so that the peaks are the same level as they were to start with, but the overall dynamic range is reduced. The result is a much more controlled sound.” The problem, though—as albums like Hiatt’s Same Old Man or even Dylan’s Modern Times demonstrate rather painfully—is that this “controlled sound” makes for a profoundly boring listening experience, the result of a mastering process in which all instruments in the mix are compressed so that no one sound stands out over another—presumably to maintain the listener’s attention for a longer period of time as opposed to merely bearing the song until that killer guitar solo at 2:13.

John Hiatt & The Guilty Dogs: “Perfectly Good Guitar”

The result is an album full of tracks that sound more like extended yawns than songs. David Skolnik, a self-professed “audio nut” and “vinyl guy,” shares this experience with Hiatt’s 2005 album, Master of Disaster: “I had noticed the sound wasn’t very good– so I did the unthinkable and hit the tone controls on my best audio system. After a dramatic reduction of bass and well chosen treble spice, the album came to life–like the Hiatt I’ve known and loved for 20 years! What a difference,” he concluded, “this is a fine album.” Perhaps, but when you need to hit the “treble spice” and tone controls to hear that fine album hidden in the clutter, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

This is what Dylan meant when he told Rolling Stone that “you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” Exactly, Bob. Now maybe he got a little carried away with the whole ”no one’s made a decent record in the last 20 years” bit, but you can understand the frustration of a guy who is responsible for some of the most essential rock n’ roll ever put to tape, a balls-to-the-wall blues-rock sound he pioneered at a time when lo-fi was the only fi. There’s a reason why The Black Keys recorded Thickfreakness in 14 hours on a ¼-inch 8-track Tascam, and it wasn’t just for shits and giggles.

As song after song unfolds on Same Old Man, John Hiatt’s latest offering, a painful fantasy enters the mind: what might this record have been had John been left to his own devices, allowed to strip each song down to nothing more than a solo acoustic performance recorded live in-studio with only a guitar and harmonica to cradle the guttural snarl of his immediately distinctive voice? What if, for once, John had tossed the band to the curb in a long-awaited realization of the power he commands when the excess is filtered from the substance (uh-hem, “Have A little Faith in Me,” “Learn How to Love You,” uh-hem)? With a record like Same Old Man, it’s clear that the vulnerability lurking beneath the surface of these new songs—mostly reflections on a 20-year marriage and entertaining memories from an even longer career—might have come to the fore, and we just might have had the album of John’s life on our hands. What a tragedy.

John Hiatt: “Cry Love,” Walk On (1995)

It truly pains me to make this argument about Hiatt’s more recent work, because few appreciate John’s neglected talents more than I do. I drove from Tampa to Nashville last year just to see John Hiatt do a brief opening set for the woeful Peter Frampton at a charity event (where, predictably, legions of burned-out Framptonites sat stone-eyed and baffled throughout a devastating solo performance by Hiatt, someone most of them had obviously never heard of before—one of many reasons why my girlfriend and I jetted out of there before Frampton took the stage with his prog-rock bullshit—at the Ryman Auditorium, of all places. Is nothing sacred?)

Hiatt’s life story is the stuff of an authenticity few songwriters can claim: his brother committed suicide, his father died when he was 11, his first wife also committed suicide (shortly after the birth of their daughter), and he spent his first night in Nashville sleeping under a park bench. He went on from there to spend nearly thirty years sleeping under another bench—this time the park bench of recognition—but this isn’t Leonard Cohen’s music scene anymore. As Tom Petty argues on his vicious The Last DJ album, fake breasts and a polished smile will sell better than a well-written song any day of the week. “Some angel whore that can learn a guitar lick / Heeeyyy, now that’s what I call muuuuzzziiiiiik!” Petty sneers on “Joe.” Hiatt is easily one of the most hard-nosed and unsung pioneers of what’s become known as “alt-country”—a sound Hiatt was making long before Steve Earle fused it with a rap sheet and boot spurs to make it cool.

Maybe it’s that same crowd of burned-own Framptonites who are currently bemoaning the loss of what they call John Hiatt’s “golden voice” on Same Old Man. “John has lost the golden voice,” someone called E.M. Witt whines in an customer review, “his voice is gravelly and out of pitch at times.” (Oh, no! Gravelly? You mean it sounds like a real human being occasionally! Eeeww!!) And maybe it’s this crowd for whom the whole “compression” crave was fashioned. But anyone who comes to a John Hiatt record in pursuit of a “golden voice” should probably be directed to the bin of remaindered N-Synch CDs over in the corner instead.

John Hiatt: “Have A Little Faith in Me,” Bring the Family (1987)

We don’t ask John for golden voiced pop ditties—we ask him to be real, give it to us straight, and take no easy turns. His voice has always been gruff, and, until recently, so was his music–and that’s what made his records so great. The problem with Same Old Man is that it is boring, and that’s not entirely John’s fault–the culprit is the same thing Dylan complained about after releasing Modern Times–digital recording technology and its “compression” approach to mastering is sucking the life out of these songs; the result is an album that more closely resembles a fleeting drizzle in a cold empty park than a record.

It happened on Master of Disaster and it happens again here. It’s a downright travesty—and I mean that. Either John can’t hear it himself or he just isn’t speaking up. As the aforementioned “audio nut” David Skolnik suggests, “I don’t think John should have to suffer a let down of his public perception because of his tech people- he deserves better!” I wholeheartedly agree, but until Hiatt hands down the ass-whoopin’ those “tech people” have earned, the decline in that “public perception” may become precipitous.

The Spill on Hiatt’s new album, Same Old Man . . .

Associated Press:Same Old Man ranks with the best music of Hiatt’s 34-year recording career . . . “

Glide Magazine: “Same Old Man may be the most accessible album of John Hiatt’s career . . .”

Thoughts of a Lime Monkey:SAME OLD MAN is not a bad record, it’s just a poor Hiatt album . . . “

411 Mania: “Hiatt puts in another solid studio album, that sorrowfully won’t get much airplay . . . “

Bamboo Nation: “Same Old Man is absent any out-of-the-ballpark, radio-friendly singles, but the album is so consistently excellent as a whole that its culminative effect is a bit disconcerting at first . . . “


Meet Joe Henry (It’s About Damned Time)

29th May

Henry live

There’s a reason why nearly every artist worth the price of the boots they stand in has courted Joe Henry to produce their records over the past five years–Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Allen Troussaint, Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, Mary Gauthier–earning Henry the Grammy recognition that his own brilliant music sadly fails to garner. I guess until Joe Henry agrees to tongue Madonna on live TV, he won’t have a spot at the Grammies, a show that’s become a profoundly embarrassing pageant of T & A that, at this point, is as much a celebration of music as it is a tutorial in soft porn (You’d think the Grammy people might get a clue after posting such shitty ratings in the past several years. Yes, you might think so, but only after forgetting that this is the same Grammies that totally ignored both The Strokes’s debut album as well as The White Stripes’s White Blood Cells. Fuck them.) Then again, Henry has good reason not to tongue Madonna–on live TV or elsewhere–he is, after all, married to her sister. Yes, Joe Henry is the Material Girl’s bro-in-law, but no one’s holding that against him, now. We’re all friends here.

An artist’s authenticity is easily gauged by the company he keeps, one of many measurements that confirms Joe Henry’s position as an underground badass. Take Mary Guathier, for instance, a woman who was abandoned at birth by a mother she never met, stole her parents’ car at 15 and ran away from home, spent her 18th birthday in jail and more time than that in halfway houses and rehab clinics. Writing her first song at 35 and cashing in her stake in a Cajun restaurant in Boston to pursue a music career (Gauthier hails from New Orleans), she now enjoys such accolades as an “Indie CD of the Year” nod from the NY Times for her third album, Filth and Fire. Her latest, Between Daylight and Dark, flickers with a ghostly darkness only Joe Henry could summon.

Others, like Mann or Costello, need no introduction, while soul luminaries like Lavette and Burke have Henry to thank for tossing them a life raft amid their flagging careers the way only great producers can (Burke’s Henry-produced Don’t Give Up On Me earned a Grammy, and Henry turned Lavette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise into the musical resurrection of the decade. The lion-voiced Lavette had spent a long-overlooked career floundering in the shadows of giants whose terrain she roamed, i.e., Aretha Franklin. It’s about time Lavette got some of that R-E-S-P-E-C-T the Queen herself loves to wail about.

Solomon Burke: “None of Us Are Free,” Don’t Give Up on Me (2002)

But the true tragedy amid this tale of unsung talent is the neglect of Henry’s own solo material. While Henry himself seems perfectly satisfied making music on the margins, it’s no less pathetic that his catalog is found only on a succession of indie labels while pretenders like Pete Yorn cut records for Columbia. Even so, Henry has more recently found his home on the now-legendary Anti Records, a subsidiary of Epitaph and home to other brilliant victims of an increasingly conglomeratized industry, such as Tom Waits and Merle Haggard.

Admittedly, most of Henry’s records range from unfocused (Murder of Crows) to uneven (Tiny Voices, Civilians); but nearly every one of them still packs its precious punch of genius (like “Time is A Lion” from 2007’s Civilians). There are exceptions, of course. 2001’s frequently devastating Scar–for which Henry solicited the services of fiery jazz great Ornette Coleman–produced, among a handful of other essential tracks, a funky, Waits-ish song called “Stop” that brought in plenty of dough when his uber-in-law turned it into a ginormous hit in the new clothes of a different title (“Don’t Tell Me”) and typically overblown production of her 2000 album, Music (Madonna’s version of the song came out before Henry’s because her version was based off an unfinished demo Henry sent her before he released it on his own album later on.) Coleman took “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful nation” to heights no Henry album has explored before, and Joe’s smooth hand begged no assistance on spare piano pieces like “Lock and Key” or “Cold Enough to Cross,” whispery jazz-lounge gems in which Henry’s smoky voice snows softly over the oblivion of the heart.

There is absolutely no disputing, however, that 1999’s Fuse is the one record which transcends anything else the man has done–either as a producer or a performer–a TKO of stinging songwriting and trip-hop atmospherics that earned the album Top Ten CDs of the Year honors with the NY Times. Songs like “Skin And teeth,” “Want Too Much” (produced by Daniel Lanois) or “Fat” sound as if Joe Henry stuffed the night sky into a silk bag–moon, stars and all–and ran off into the studio with it (you might also recognize “Angels” from the Felicity soundtrack.) The lonely trumpets, thumping bass and funky, echoing guitar licks sound like they were played by street-musicians who just happened to pass Henry by as he sang in a dark alley at night under a winter rain. A desperate solitude pervades every layer of Fuse, particularly on the stand-out “Like She Was A Hammer.” No one grabs the throat with a line and a good beat the way this man does; just take a look at this writing:

And like she was the railroad
Like she was the lost world
Like she was the big hand turning back the scene.
Like she was the raging flower in the brick-yard
Like she was the only thing holding on to me.

There is no revolution
without boots and song.
Her foot falls like a banner day
and I will song along.

Like she was the anvil
Like she was the fire bell
Like she was the fever I wear like a crown.
Like she was the bomb scare
threatening with heaven,
Like she was the only thing hold me to the ground.

Joe Henry is an instant private treasure to all who do the man the worthy favor of coughing up some dough and picking up an album of his. I strongly recommend beginning with Fuse, sampling 1997’s Trampoline, and then diving into the jazzy shipwreck of Scar. If you’re disappointed by anything on those three albums, you just aren’t listening. Period.

Additional samples:


Scare Me to Death

Parker’s Mood


Weezer: The Red Album

26th May

by Sara Mrozinski


“Bodies be all up on my behind. And I can’t help myself because I was born to shine. And if you don’t like it you can shove it. But u don’t like it, you love it.”

Nope, not the newest Kanye release. That’s a Rivers Cuomo original. After a college graduation, a shitty album, and a solitary venture, where are we now Rivers? We are at The Red Album, the first full length Weezer album since 2005’s Make Believe (you know, the shitty one).

Weezer represents a staple of teenage life. Whether the band debuted during your pubescence or not, each poppy chord brings you back. Just when you thought only Kurt could translate your angst, Weezer came along and made frustration Geeky-Cool. Sure, Make Believe was a let-down, but all was forgiven with the prospect of another menagerie of surf-rock that is due this June. A self-titled work up now being nick-named The Red Album (guess why). Certainly this will redeem the bands falter, right?

Um… guys? What is this?

It has been reported that Rivers has calmed down, become more normal so-to-speak in his everyday life. So then, how does one explain the overtly party-boy lyric composition intrinsic throughout The Red Album? Imagine a 15 year old mediocre garage band whose influences are Queen and P-Diddy. Except, they don’t pull it off. That is The Red Album ladies and gentlemen.

“The Greatest Man that Ever Lived” sounds like Elton John and the Crazy Town collaborated to make an escapade of epic arrogance and sexual conquest. Is this what you learned at Harvard, Rivers? Sweet. But seriously, the band’s abandonment of surf-rock for… what is this anyway? They just don’t pull it off. “Heart Songs” could easily be passed off as a tortured mainstream pop-punk creation, or a digression into 90’s boy band ballads complete with whispery melodic interjections at the end of verses. While “Dreamin’” comes closest to sounding like “old Weezer”, this is only true for the first minute and a half of the track. Beyond that, the tune rolls into a mash-up Queenesque breakdowns and garbage I’d expect to hear on a Panic at the Disco download. Thankfully, the band is planning on including the single “Pork & Beans” they released April 4th, on the Red Death… sorry, I mean Red Album. The video for that single is out now and it is great.

Weezer: “Pork and Beans,” The Red Album

One thing this album has successfully done is make us revisit Make Believe in a new light. “It could be so much worse”. Hopefully, over the years Rivers and company’s sense of humor became deliberately maniacal and this album is one big joke. A big “‘EF YOU” to us critics. Hopefully the remaining tracks will include a fiery explanation imbedded in a laugh track. Hopefully. Or, maybe I misunderstood every leaked song completely. Jokes on me I guess.

You can expect to see this assortment of confusion in stores June 3rd. And in true Weezer fashion, there is an extended disc available complete with 4 additionally confuddling tracks.

What The Blogosphere’s Saying . . .

Stereogum: “Heart Songs’ . . . reminds us of LFO’s “Summer Girls,” just with references to Springsteen and a cat named Stevens instead of girls of the summer and Abercrombie & Fitch. This isn’t a good thing.”

Idolator: ”Pork And Beans’ has a Blue Album-worthy chorus hook and distortion pedal push, but the lyrics are a pretty embarrassing attempt to seek sympathy for his ‘uncool’ songs.”

Kickin’ The Peanuts: “‘Heart Songs”‘ is a mellow ode to some really great musicians who have presumably meant a lot to Rivers & co. (there are a hell of a lot of references jammed into this little four minute song!). It’s, dare we say, a pretty song. Okay yeah, we probably shouldn’t have said that”

Perez Hilton: “The song is called ‘The Greatest Man That Ever Lived.’ And there’s only one word we can use to describe it: epic. It’s so amazingly awesome!!!!!”

BuzzSugar: “Now there are a bunch of songs from the the album available for a listen and again, it seems like fans are nervous. Perhaps it’s because aside from one of the tracks (“Pork and Beans”) there doesn’t seem to be a tune that is of the same quality of ‘Say It Ain’t So’ or ‘Island in the Sun’.”

Tiny Mix Tapes“The Red Album is a sad portrait of a band that has been totally destroyed by fame and the pressures that come along with it . . . “

Neil Young’s “Reactor”: Kicking Against the Pricks

26th May

Neil live

When you’re talking about an artist like Neil Young, whose muse suffers from the most acute schizophrenia any songwriter’s ever experienced—a countrified Pantera one minute and Tim Hardin the next–you don’t have to look too hard to find the criticism of pot-bellied goobers who tolerate only what they hear on one of those “classic rock” stations they turn up in their rusted trucks on the way to a beer pong tournament.

Take this poor bastard’s attempt at criticism of Neil Young’s Reactor, the greatly misunderstood garage rock tutorial he put out with Crazy Horse in 1981, in an customer review—typos preserved. “There is one song on it ‘T-Bone’ where he repeats the same lines over and over. That ain’t song writng,” he says, supporting it with the equally misguided assertion that you “Never see Bob Dylan write something like that. You know it stinks becasue I’ve never seen Neil play any of the songs from this album live,” he continues. The problem, of course, is that “Southern Pacific,” Reactor’s most recognizable single, is actually a mainstay in Neil Young’s live shows (I’ve got the bootlegs to prove it.) And when he does perform it live, the crowd always responds with a roar of familiarity.

This is just more of the entirely unfounded pretense with which so many close-minded fans fuel misinformed criticism. Reactor, like 2003’s brilliant Greendale, only asks that his audience expands their minds and tastes just enough to accommodate a muse whose range continues to widen despite age. While many of Neil’s peers languish in the dust of past triumphs, Neil is not afraid to indulge newer visions and look forward–both as an artist and as a man (For once, Rolling Stone got it right when they voted Greendale the #2 album of 2003 just behind Warren Zevon’s highly emotional swan-song, The Wind. At least someone still knows the sound of art when they hear it.)

Those who express disappointment in albums like Reactor or Greendale because they didn’t mail in yet another collection of “Neil Young-ish” singles the way Silver & Gold or Prairie Wind did were never fans in the first place. They crave merely a single patch in the quilt of Neil’s total artistic range. They are the morons shouting “Judas” at Dylan in 1965 whose hopeless anonymity is a fitting fate.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Southern Pacific

“That ain’t songwriting,” some say about tunes like Reactor’s epic “T-Bone” in which, yes, Neil howls “ain’t got no t-bone” for nearly 10 minutes, “Never see Bob Dylan write something like that.” Really? Let’s take these lines from Dylan’s song, “Wiggle Wiggle,” the opening track from his 1991 album, Under The Red Sky.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like satin and silk,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a pail of milk,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, rattle and shake,
Wiggle like a big fat snake.

Now, call me crazy, but I’m fairly certain that this fails to meet the aforementioned reviewer’s standards for “songwriting”. That is exactly the point: Neil Young’s Reactor is much-maligned for applying an aesthetic fraught with ruthless feedback and distortion to a weak selection of songs, but to object to Reactor on those grounds completely misses the point.

If this album’s flaws are more of the same-old Neil Young “flakiness”, it is the same “flakiness” that characterizes rock ‘n roll’s legacy–a legacy Neil Young defines as accurately on Reactor as on any other record. Reactor’s snotty abandon and feedback-laden indifference constitute the kind of temperament that great rock ‘n roll thrives on, and if it fails to conjure greatness on Reactor, then it is, at worst, a powerful tribute to the soul of rock music.

A boundless ambition pervades Reactor that is at once charming and confounding: the frenzied wail and shriek of “Shots“, the thumping, deceptively political railroad anthem, “Southern Pacific”, the 10 minutes of Neil Young shouting “ain’t got no t-bone!” amid Crazy Horse’s famous thrash-and-grind sound. These performances exemplify what is great about rock ‘n roll far more powerfully than any of those contrived classic rock anthems poisoning FM radio every day.

Neil Young: “Be The Rain,” Greendale

Reactor and, later, Greendale, are miraculous examples of a musical and lyrical ambition that refuses to give in to the ravages of time and age. If people would get a grip on their attention spans for long enough to engage with a story that lasts longer than the 3-minute FM radio single, the rewards are great. People who don’t have the capacity to do so need to toss their Neil records and listen to more chick-rock.

Take a chance on Reactor. Listen to something different, something that refuses to make friends, something too sincere to earn air time on any of America’s thousand shitty classic rock stations. Few experiences are more gratifying than getting weird looks from other drivers when you crank up this album on your car stereo at a red light with the windows down. It proves you’re listening to something that’s true. Reactor is the real thing: are you?

Special Treat: The excellent blog known as That’s Fucking Dynamite recently posted an mp3 for this killer and extremely rare Neil Young tune called “Sea of Madness,” which appears to be a live take from Neil’s appearance with CSN at the original Woodstock. Check it out here.

UPDATE (6-2-08): Here is yet another special treat, courtesy of Andrew Ronan–a live, solo acoustic performance of “Shots”–the song that would later appear on the Reactor album–performed here in a live set from 1978. It is an absolute must-hear. Download it here.