Culturespill » 2008 » June

Flashback: The Kinks’ “State of Confusion”

30th June

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When Malcom McLaren’s term “New Wave” landed in the lap of Seymour Stein at Sire Records, where the phrase was promptly used to soften the image of the punk songs that would never have found their way to radio otherwise, it’s a safe bet that the last band either man had in mind at the time were The Kinks, a group in their third decade who, by 1983, had already danced themselves into the sunset of their creative peak. Unwilling to be typecast by the dead era they helped define–an era when all you had to do to make it big was grow some bushy hair, sing about holding some girl’s hand, and package the whole thing as “The British Invasion”–The Kinks happily spent the early 80s graffitying its tombstone instead by cranking up the amps and thrashing their way around the globe from one arena to the next, chasing the glories of younger bands that they themselves made possible twenty years prior–Duran Duran, The Smiths, The Jam–and producing that great document of the arena rock era in the process, 1980′s One for the Road.

But even as they thrived amid one of the most unlikely resurgences rock ‘n roll had ever seen, few anticipated that the band would also find themselves on the crest of that “Wave” so many rode into the 1980s, storming MTV with their video for “Come Dancing,” one of a handful of powerful singles to emerge from 1983′s State of Confusion, and marking the last time they would ever crack the top ten (“Come Dancing” shot to #6 in the US while, once again, the album and single bafflingly failed to make a dent in their native UK.) And as more contemporary artists went to such desperate lengths to cash in on the latest momentary fad–streaking their spiked hair with every hue in the rainbow and discovering fashion in the torn and pinned-together clothes that the pioneers of punk wore, not to make a statement but because it was all they could afford–the Kinks stuck to their guns, strapping on the same guitars they’d wailed on for decades and invoking the nostalgia of memories paved for parking lots and bowling allies built where dance halls were. That the recipe worked as well in 1983 as it did in 1963 confirms a certain timeless chord in rock ‘n roll that anyone with the talent and authenticity can strike.


The Kinks: “Come Dancing,” State of Confusion (1983)

Yet someone writes in the Rough Guide to Rock that songs such as “Come Dancing” were “outposts on lackluster albums.” This has to be the opinion of someone who either didn’t listen to the record or wasn’t there to begin with. To be fair, some of the album’s best cuts were either condemned to cassette-only versions (the peculiarly Dylan-esque “Long Distance”) or tardy reissues (“Noise,” “Once A Thief”), but a “lackluster” record it is not. It’s as though the longer The Kinks defied widespread predictions that they wouldn’t even make it into the 70s as a commercially viable act, the more critics insisted on fulfilling their own prophecy with dismissive reviews. For a band that wasn’t supposed to survive the 70s, it sure is no small accomplishment that they cranked out five instant classics in 1983.

What is even more of a wonder is that the most harrowing among them, the divine “Property,” slumped into obscurity amid the album’s other hits. Along with “Better Things,” “Property” is one of the strongest ballads Ray put to paper since “A Long Way From Home” in 1970. The furiously performed title track speaks for itself, and mammoth hits “Come Dancing” and the prom-closing “Don’t Forget to Dance” are the stuff of rock ‘n roll immortality now. State of Confusion did serve up a couple of clunkers in the merely noisy “Young Conservatives” and “Labour of Love,” but what album DIDN’T include filler in those days? In that context, State of Confusion plays like the masterpiece that it is, closing with Dave’s delightfully blistering “Bernadette” and marking the end of Mick Avory’s tenure as the Kinks’ drummer. State of Confusion is every bit a classic now as it was in the 80s, and hardly warrants the dismissal and neglect it increasingly endures.

State of Confusion Outtakes:

Long Distance

Once A Thief

Noise

Beck: Modern Guilt

28th June

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On Monday, June 9th, Beck decided to do what he always does in advance of a new album: hit the stage at the Echo in L.A. and play some crazy shit no one’s ever heard before. He continues to refer to these outings as “surprise” shows, but how much of the element of surprise Beck’s able to retain after pulling off the same thing nearly every year is probably up for debate. At this point, it’s about as surprising as that unspeakably hideous tie you gave your father this past Father’s Day (you know who you are.) In any event, Beck & Co. delivered the usual reworkings of older material–the culprit this time being tunes like Sea Change’s “Lost Cause,” dressing the song in what Stereogum calls “a My Bloody Valentin-ey fuzzed-up” sound. But the thing that made this latest “surprise” gig particularly remarkable was that Beck used it to unveil a new album which, as bits and pieces trickle down to youtube, myspace and iLike, sounds more and more like the next great Beck album: the Danger-Mouse produced Modern Guilt (out July 8th, his 38th birthday–yes, beck is 38. I know, I know. Guzzle down some Prozac with your coffee this morning and try to think about something else.)

Looking a lot like the exiled leader of some “back to the land” Hippie cult in the Santa Cruz mountains where the wife bakes loaves of macrobiotic bread inside the family tent as he guides the children through prayers to Demeter in the hope of a bountiful harvest, all Beck needed to complete a triumphant return to the original sin of rock ‘n roll that night was a dashiki, a flower in his hair, and a smoking fatty lodged in the head of his guitar . It’s easy to dismiss the whole get-up merely as Beck being the freaky mofo that he is, but when you listen to what’s available of the as-yet unreleased album on his MySpace Page, you quickly realize that there’s a reason he’s passing himself off as the ghost of Skip Spence these days (he did, after all, contribute a track to a Skip Spence tribute album back in ’99.)


Beck at the Echo: “Modern Guilt,” June 9th, 2008

Chemtrails,”one of the few tracks Beck’s teased the public with in advance of the album’s release, opens with Beck’s eerie whisper accompanied only by the hauntingly psychedelic siren of a keyboard before the whole song bursts into a funked-up shuffle of percussion and piano that exemplifies exactly the kind of aesthetic restraint we’d expect of a Danger Mouse production (an aesthetic he delivered with astonishing power on The Black Keys’ recent Attack and Release.) In a creative flourish that’s at once predictable and stirring, the whole thing is then thrown down the winding stairs of Beck’s imagination with an amped-up crescendo that is equal parts space-rock and funk, the musical equivalent of dinner at Neil Young’s house with Pink Floyd, Prince and the full line-up of Crazy Horse. It may well be the most interesting piece of music Beck’s produced since “Loser.”

Beck’s early work is brilliant because it documented the arrival of a relentless creative anxiety that had been absent from music since Elvis Costello put out My Aim is True in ’77. No one was making the kind of sound he served up with Odelay in 1996, but plenty followed suit, and that succession of imitators sent Beck on a prolonged and fascinating pursuit of another sound to call his own. never has that journey sounded so complete as it does now, as tracks like the great “Gamma Ray” reach for where he’s been as much as they arrive at where he wants to be. Like a gypsy who’s roamed the world for decades with a laundry bag of all he’s picked up along the way slung over his shoulder, “Gamma Ray” synthesizes every creative detour of Beck’s recording career, from Odelay’s “Devil’s Haircut” to that bizarre cover he did for a tribute album in the name of the aforementioned Skip Spence.


Beck’s Modern Guilt: A Preview

Modern Guilt is not so much a new album as it is a catalog of every album Beck’s ever done. It is “new” in the sense that these songs shadow every corner of Beck’s creative vision at once rather than lingering over a single passing indulgence, as steeped in the folkish flare of Mutations or Sea Change as it is in the sonic massiveness of Odelay or Midnite Vultures. The occasionally unlistenable eccentricities of The Information–a fascinating if unfocused project–are reigned in but never abandoned on Modern Guilt, a kind of grounded madness that may have made for Beck’s most accessible album in 12 years.

On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb

25th June

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Anyone who’s lived enough knows that hindsight’s got a bad habit of separating the bullshit from the real thing. Few things illustrate this truth more clearly than revisiting Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson four years later. It will be apparent to most who’ve given the album a second chance since its release in march of 2004 that listening to it is about as riveting an experience as listening to a second coat of paint dry on your mother’s bathroom wall. It exudes about as much passion for its material as the corporate executives who’ve been cashing in on Clapton’s deplorable laurel-resting for decades. And though Clapton’s role in defining rock ‘n roll and introducing the work of many blues legends to the larger audiences they so richly deserved cannot be denied, it’s about time to call the old buzzard’s bluff: this ain’t no blues man.

This is “blues” for people who thought Blink 182 was “punk.” That’s probably the reason why, working in the music department at a Barnes & Noble when this drivel hit stores, I watched a succession of soccer moms and burned-out Floyd fans cough up their kids’ gas money to hear Eric Clapton’s ridiculously over-hyped disaster of a “blues” album. “One thing the blues ain’t,” Stephen Stills admonished a fan in the audience on the classic live album Four Way Street, “is funny.” The way he said it, it sounded as if Stills was perfectly prepared to slit the poor bastard’s throat with his pick if he dared utter another sound; coming from the guy who jumped Elvis Costello in an Ohio bar amid a fit of rage after Costello called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger,” the threat of physical violence was entirely real.

(In defense of Costello’s remark, for which he scheduled a press conference to apologize, Salon writes that “There’s no evidence that Costello was a racist — he’d been active in Rock Against Racism before it was fashionable and was too smart in any event to let it show if he was — but he was being as stupid, reckless and out of control as any of the broken-down ’60s stars his energy, brains and invective were supposed to be an antidote for.”)

Another thing the blues “ain’t,” though, is comforting–or at least that’s the way the genre’s founding fathers intended it to be. That’s why it’s the very last genre you should be able to listen to on your way to soccer practice with a legion of snot-nosed kids packed in the back of your SUV. Not because it is explicit–for that is merely controversial–but because real blues is the musical equivalent of a razor to the wrist. A well-delivered blues track, such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail,” should leave you no more settled than a track from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. And if you’ve listened to either Johnson’s song or Cohen’s album, you know what exactly what I mean. Clapton’s album, by contrast, plays like the soundtrack of a walk through the sandbox on Sunday afternoon with a fistful of birthday balloons and clown paint cracking on your chin in the sun. It is, to put it simply, much too polite a record for the blues.

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Robert Johnson

 

It is nothing less than a travesty that Clapton is continually allowed to pass himself off as a blues man when his days as an edgy and innovative guitarist hell-bent on making the blues cool again are so far behind him now as to be the stuff of urban legend. It has been a long time since Clapton was a no-name strapping on his guitar for another session with the Yardbirds, and his recent recordings prove that he has forgotten what it was that brought him to pick up a guitar as a kid. He fails to understand that mere competence does not constitute “Blues” music. Blues comes from within, from a depth in the gut that’s been hollowed out by the kind of real-life suffering that brought the original blues masters — whose genius was not rewarded by millions of dollars in royalties, but by an occasional burst of applause by the roadside — to their chosen craft.

Take Robert Johnson, for example: he grew up in squalid poverty and worked as a sharecropper as a boy, his first child was stillborn and his first wife died during labor, his next wife suffered a breakdown and also died young, he himself was a victim of near-blindness and, finally, he was poisoned to death at the age of 27. Maybe that’s the kind of shit that Robert was fixing for the night he sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to live with. Or take Muddy Waters, who never sold his soul to the devil, but grew up under the care of his grandmother because his mother died when he was five years-old (the age at which he began to teach himself harmonica, beating on a can of kerosene to get a feel for rhythm.) He worked as a sharecropper at the Stoval Plantation and lived in a shoddy wooden cabin about the size of a matchbox, somehow scrounging together enough in wages to buy his first guitar at 17.

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The Cabin Muddy Waters Lived in As A Boy

The idea behind Blues music upon its birth was that the artist had to HAVE the blues to sing the Blues. Clapton’s lackluster performance on Me and Mr. Johnson–as on so many of his past records–further demonstrates that he is too far removed from that state of the soul to make real music. My disgust with the album has nothing to do with “purism” or a lack of grittiness. I’ll take a clean sound if it’s got soul. I’m talking about modern blues masters like Charlie Musslewhite, John Hammond or even Tom Waits. Clapton, by contrast, compounds weak performances with vocal deliveries that sound as though the man is slipping into a coma as he sings.

I’m sorry, but a guy who puts out albums with liner notes that include catalogs of his own merchandise is the last guy on earth who ought to be cutting blues records. Clapton has made it clear that the tremendous celebrity status he engendered as a young man was so unappealing to him that he is willing to release decades worth of diluted, subpar blues/rock, which he has done. He has proven to be a rather powerful enemy of his own reputation, and has subsequently forgotten how to bring his soul to the microphone. If anybody ought to be keeping his hands off those Robert Johnson records, it’s Eric Clapton. If you want to know what Johnson sounded like, stick with the original tunes and hunt down the stuff that Muddy was listening to while he worked with his bare hands in the fields of Mississippi to save enough for that first guitar: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson or The Mississippi Sheiks.

The Action Design: Never Say

23rd June

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The Action Design

Alright, so it may be released on the rather less-than-tastefully named “Pop Smear Records,” but, thankfully, The Action Design’s debut LP conjures more visions of jubilant midsummer drives to the beach with your windows down and streaked hair blown into a frenzy on the highway than it does of pap smears–and that’s a good thing. In a way it’s unfortunate that Never Say is slated for a post-Labor Day release (Sept. 23) because, much like Ted Leo’s great Living with the Living last year, the album really has a “record of the summer” feel to it.

But their MySpace page features a generous helping of tracks from that upcoming record, a sample that’s fascinating to hear alongside older material like “The Scissor Game” from their 2007 EP Into A Sound; the comparatively self-conscious and staid production of that prior work showcases a band that’s undergone an extraordinary creative evolution since, you know, all the way back in, uh–last year (because a 12-month-old song might as well have been recorded in the Mesozoic period these days–to quote Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, “that’s like SO last season!”)

Much like the aforementioned Ted Leo, tracks like “Landmines” live up to their titles by exploding from the stereo with an anthemic fury that might be downright threatening to members of the Emo persuasion, a manic exultation that approximates the rapture of The Long Winters’ “Rich Wife” or The Golden Dogs’ “Birdsong.” By the time you get to tracks like “Ten Feet of Snow” or “The Crossing”–songs on which it sounds as if the band decided to forgo the usual amps and plug their guitars into a passing thunderstorm instead–you realize that this shit should come with a warning label–”if you have a heart condition or listen to Coldplay, consult your physician before purchasing.” Or perhaps one of those disclaimers some dude reads on the radio so fast it fries your eyelids: “this band is not responsible for any sudden tremors of the nervous system, fidgety eyeballs, or inexplicable rushes of rapture.”


The Action Design in Studio

In an industry that increasingly believes money is made by categorizing bands into corners like “hardcore” or “pop” (whatever the hell THAT means anymore–is “pop” the new “indie”?), it’s particularly delightful to hear a band that does both with equal skill and passion, a band that enjoys a synth riff as much as the meaty crunch of electric guitar. Emily Whitehurst’s full-throated wail–a voice reminiscent of that neo-Mama Cass, The Gossip’s Beth Ditto–dresses the new-wave leanings of “The Crossing” in a silvery whisper poised to sneak up on you at any given moment with an unanticipated roar.

If lyrics like “once I was yours and I will be yours again” don’t threaten the thrones of Leonard Cohen or Townes Van Zandt, that’s because this is an “indie” record that does not openly cater to the falafel-and-tofu-crunching crowd of Emo vegans for whom music is a means of statement rather than joy. It’s a record for people who don’t feel guilty about turning to music for fun. Never Say, judging from those of the album’s tracks available on their MySpace Page, is indeed an unashamedly joyous record–something we could use a lot more of in a musical climate that too often identifies “indie” as a synonym for “mopey.”

In a label-obsessed scene saturated by so many genres that entire web pages are devoted to defining them, The Action Design’s Never Say offers another one for the pundits to savor: Post-punk-indie-dance-pop. It might sound like something that should come with a bubble-gum center and hard candy shell, but if any album ought to be sold with a blow-pop attached, this is it. Check them out on tour this summer and see for yourself:

Jun 19 @ 7:00P Glasshouse Record Store CD RELEASE – Pomona, California

Jun 20 @ 10:00A Pomona Fairgrounds Warped Tour – Pomona, California

Jun 21 @ 10:00A Pier 30/32 Warped Tour – San Francisco, California

Jun 22 @ 10:00A Seaside Park Warped Tour – Ventura, California

Jun 23 @ 5:00P Jillians w/Alesana, Evergreen Terrace, The Bronx, 1997 – Las Vegas, Nevada

Jun 25 @ 10:00A Cricket Pavilion Warped Tour – Phoenix, Arizona

Jun 26 @ 10:00A N.M.S.U. Practice Field Warped Tour – Las Cruces, New Mexico

Jun 28 @ 10:00A SLC Warped Tour – Salt Lake City, Utah

Jul 13 @ 8:30P Bottom of the Hill w/ Girl in a Coma – San Francisco

Jul 19 @ 8:00P The Knitting Factory w/ Girl in a Coma – Los Angeles, California

Aug 13 @ 10:00A Save Mart Center Warped Tour – Fresno, California

Aug 14 @ 10:00A San Diego Warped Tour – San Diego, California

Aug 15 @ 10:00A Shoreline Amphitheatre Warped Tour – Mountain View, California

Aug 16 @ 10:00A Sleep Train Amphitheatre Warped Tour – Sacramento, California

Aug 17 @ 10:00A Home Depot Center Warped Tour – Los Angeles, California

Aug 30 @ 8:30P Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco

Sep 5 @ 8:00P Los Angeles, California – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 6 @ 8:00P San Diego, California – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 7 @ 8:00P Phoenix, Arizona – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 9 @ 8:00P El Paso, Texas – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 10 @ 8:00P Austin, Texas – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 11 @ 8:00P Houston, Texas – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 12 @ 8:00P New Orleans, Louisiana – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 13 @ 8:00P Birmingham, Alabama – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 14 @ 8:00P Atlanta, Georgia – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 16 @ 8:00P Charlotte, North Carolina – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 17 @ 8:00P Wash DC, Washington DC – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 18 @ 8:00P Philly, Pennsylvania – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 19 @ 8:00P New York, New York – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 20 @ 8:00P Boston, Massachusetts – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 21 @ 8:00P Cleveland, Ohio – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 23 @ 8:00P Chicago, Illinois – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 24 @ 8:00P St Louis, Missouri – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 25 @ 8:00P Kansas City, Missouri – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 26 @ 8:00P Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 28 @ 8:00P Denver, Colorado – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 29 @ 8:00P Salt Lake City, Utah – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 30 @ 8:00P Boise, Idaho – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Oct 1 @ 8:00P Seattle, Washington – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Oct 2 @ 8:00P Portland, Oregon – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Oct 3 @ 8:00P Sacramento, California – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola