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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “El Camino,” The Black Keys

16th December

By the time “Gold on the Ceiling” blasts you with a bruising nod to glam so worthy of Suzie Quatro or Aladdin Sane-era Bowie you can just see Dan Auerbach plant his tongue in his cheek as he plays, you’ve survived the convulsing adrenaline of “Lonely Boy” and the sonically massive “Dead and Gone.” It is clear by then that this is not the Black Keys from that copy of Thickfreakness you wore out back in college. Hell, it isn’t even the Keys you adjusted to on 2008’s Attack & Release, the duo’s first foray with ubiquitous producer Danger Mouse after a rudderless album in 2006’s Magic Potion.

With the exception of stunners like “You’re the One,Potion felt like the work of a band that had turned to the well of their revival rock often enough to come up dry the fourth time around. And though Attack’s more ambitious vision elicited huffs from pseudo-hipster snots who pledged their allegiance to the guys that covered The Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel” eight years ago, it also was the work of a band that had discovered a side of their muse no one saw coming.

Tracks like “I Got Mine” rocked with all the blistering abandon longtime fans expected before a psychedelic interlude turned the song into a vague echo of something from one of Rhino’s mid-60s Nuggets box sets. “Psychotic Girl” laid some wicked banjo over a beat that had more in common with Portishead than pot heads, while “So He Won’t Break” joined the Ventures with the clanging glory of Tom Waits’s Frank’s Wild Years as Auerbach delivered the most stirring vocal performance of his life. The dreamy, wistful ballad “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” remains possibly the finest moment the band has put to tape and sounded like exactly nothing from prior entries in the Keys’ catalog.

El Camino, like its gloriously funkadelic predecessor Brothers, continues the Keys’ Danger Mouse experiment, but the record that emerged this time around puts its finger on an irony no band is better suited to exploit. This is a daring record not because it departs from the rock ‘ roll conventions these guys plumbed on prior albums—garage rock, blues, classic rock, psychedelia—but because it embraces those conventions more fully than ever before and without the slightest trace of shame or reservation.

“Lonely Boy’s” syrupy eruption of chintz and frat-house boogie makes it clear from the start that this will be the record the Keys have wanted to record since the day they stumbled on their parents’ LP collection but never quite found the daring to make. While the layered, half-acoustic half-garage-jam freak-out “Little Black Submarines” flaunts the duo’s affection for those Zeppelin and Tom Petty records they hummed in their sleep as kids, Pitchfork’s assertion that the song lifts “wholesale” the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is far-fetched (See RHCP’s “Dani California” for a much more obvious example of wholesale burglary). “Dead and Gone’s” guitar solo sports all the spit and gritted teeth Auerbach bared on records like Rubber Factory, but here it’s all cloaked in the more considered orchestrations Danger Mouse brings to the mix.

Yes, it’s a more polished and poppy sound, but how boring to let those misgivings get in the way of the truckload of fun this album dumps on your doorstep. That’s the line these songs draw in the mud: Either you’re willing to take yourself a little less seriously and bring a bottle of Quervo to the 11-track party these guys throw on El Camino, or you’re one of the too-cool pseudo-hipsters who can’t let go. The Keys make no apologies here to those who showed up for their shows eight years ago just because it was the hippest place to be seen at the time.

And if you thought six albums of songs full of bitter ruminations on love and loss might have been enough to smudge the hurt out of Auerbach’s heart, do not fear. Here he comes again with lines like “Your momma kept you but your daddy left you / and I should have done you the same,” or “She’s the worst thing / I’ve been addicted to / still I run right back / run right back to her.” Oh, Dan . . .

It takes an oddly cold fish to resist this record. From the aforementioned tracks to the snarling drums with which Patrick Carney buttresses Auerbach’s nasty slide guitar on “Run Right Back” through the meaty, muscular riff on “Mind Eraser,” El Camino boasts the spirit and the substance that great rock ‘n roll is made of.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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The Grammies Get it Right! (Wait, say WHAT??!)

4th December

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Just when you think the Grammies are so full of crap that you can barely stand the stink any longer, they toss some nods in the direction of folks like Arcade Fire, Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Bela FleckBroken Bells, Florence & The Machine and other groups that can never be mistaken for anything other than actual, you know, recording artists. Even ol’ Willie has something to distract him from his 78th pot bust last week, scoring a nod for his rootsy album Country Music, a stripped-bare dose of country music the way it sounded before Nashville strapped it to a post and paddled it until it agreed to become the foul and unlistenable bastardization of the genre that it is today.

Of course, this is the Grammies, and so the 53rd annual awards show will feature, as usual, one of the most bizarre crossroads the music industry can possibly assemble. Grizzled warhorses like Neil Young will share the same billing as Drake and Jay-Z and the utterly insufferable Jewel will inhabit the same edifice as Win Butler. But that’s how it is at the Grammy Awards, where Lady Gaga lavishes Elton John in a rain of adoration from across her piano, Brittney Spears locks tongues with Madonna, and Soy Bomb gets more pub than Dylan the day after the latter brings home the first Album of the Year award of his life at the tender young age of 56 (an incident remembered fondly in the sublime Eels track, “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”).

Top40-charts.com reports that the Grammies honored no less than 273 indie artists with nominations this year–more than half of all nominations. The story then goes on to completely discredit itself with a quote alleging that Taylor Swift is an indie artist. But given the embarrassing legacy that the Grammies have developed over the years, mere tastelessness is better than the baffling indifference afforded The Strokes and The White Stripes back in 2002, when both White Blood Cells and Is This It? earned a combined total of zero nominations despite their standing as easily the two most interesting and superior rock albums of the year. Instead, the “Best new Artist” category that year gave the Strokes the “talk to the hand” treatment in favor of acts like Michelle Branch. Right, enough said.

The Stripes got the shaft in favor of “artists” such as Avril Lavigne (who? That skater-chick from Canada who did that teeny-bopper anthem for Dawson’s Creek, you mean?) while The Neptunes, The Vines, and The Hives also got hosed. But if getting ignored by the Grammies is a sure way to demonstrate your creative integrity (hint: It is), The Strokes, Stripes and friends are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much. As for who should win this year and, of course, who will win instead, here are Culturespill’s picks in a handful of the major categories:

Record of the Year:
images.jpgWith a slate of nominees such as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Jay-Z, and something called “Cee Lo Green,” which I think is a kind of environmentally friendly glass cleaner, does anyone really give a shit who wins here? With ten nods going to Eminem in total, this one is almost certain to go to Mr. Shady. The Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind,” a song that basically amounts to a musical grocery list of all the neat things that the rich and famous appreciate about NYC, is a possible sleeper here–if for no other reason than to offer Alicia a baby gift in light of the recent birth of her son, Egypt Daoud Dean (Can you say “Apple Blythe Alison Martin“?).

Album of the Year:
index.jpgIt is just as obvious that Arcade Fire is by far the more deserving winner here as it is that the Grammy folks don’t have the balls to go there. The only genuinely daring winner of this category in recent memory was Steely Dan’s horrendous Two Against Nature, and maybe Dylan’s win for the brilliant and career-resurrecting Time out of Mind in 1998. Other than that, this one almost always goes to the pop trash celebrity of the moment, and that distinction, clearly, goes to Katy Perry for Teenage Dream, a sure-fire winner this year. Other nominees: Eminem, Recovery; Lady Antebellum, Need You Now; Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster. A good year for ladies named “Lady.”

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance:
paul.jpgSurely Apple has paid off the Grammy folks by now to the tune of whatever it takes to ensure that McCartney wins for his delivery of “Helter Skelter” on Good Evening New York City, a live CD released this year on–wait for it–the Starbucks record label Hear Music. Whatever amount of payola the Grammy folks received from Apple to use this as further advertising fodder for their announcement that Beatles music is now available on iTunes will probably be enough to bring it home. It’s a crowded category this year, including used-up former gods such as Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, whose continued laurel-resting inspired perhaps the most notorious exchange in Culturespill history in the comments below our review of Clapton’s Robert Johnson covers album. If there was a true God, though, the good deity would ensure that this year’s award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance goes to its rightful winner, and that has to be Neil Young for “Angry World,” easily one of the man’s most inspired rock performances since the night he damn-near burned down the building with his terrifying performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on SNL in 1989. Le Noise is the most engaging record Neil has done in at least 15 years and earned him three nominations this year. Other nominees in this category: John Mayer, “Crossroads.” Yes, John Mayer. You are now free to throw up in your own mouth.

Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals:
arcade.jpgIt should come as no surprise that the track nominated in this category from the Black Keys’s brilliant new record Brothers happens to rank among the least interesting moments on the entire album. It is equally unsurprising that “Tighten Up” was also the first single that Nonesuch tagged for promos when the record hit the streets earlier this year. Had the Grammy shills bothered to actually listen to the record before choosing a track to nominate under this category, they might have considered “The Next Girl,” “Howlin’ For You” or “She’s Long Gone.” Since they failed to do so, the winner here has to be Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Other nominees in this category: Jeff Beck & Joss Stone, “I Put a Spell on You“; Kings of Leon, “Radioactive“; Muse, “Resistance.”

Best Rock Album:
muse.jpgFunny how the more cluttered the scene becomes with young bands vying for a spare slice of the glory pie their forebears baked so long ago, the more those forebears remind us that they know best how to rock. Three of the five nominees in this category have roamed the earth for a combined 180+ years: Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and Tom Petty. Others, the boy-band-as-rock-‘n-rollers concept group Muse and grunge priests Pearl Jam, ought to have no chance whatsoever in winning over any of the other three. Here again, Young’s “Le Noise” is by far the ballsiest record of the five nominees, with Beck’s “Emotion & Commotion” a clear runner-up only because Petty’s Mojo turned out to be running a little lower than he realized (forgettable toss-offs like “Candy” and “No Reason to Cry” cramp the style of rock ‘n roll stunners like “I Should Have Known it” and “Running Man’s Bible“). But, as always, most likely this one will go to the shittiest of the five nominees, namely Muse.

Click here for the full list of nominees for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. If you prefer the PDF version, go here.

Tom Petty: Live in Ft. Lauderdale

19th July

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Not more than two seconds into a thunderous opener of “You Wreck Me,” a knock-out whiff of Moroccan hash blooms from somewhere a few rows back, and most people around me lift their noses to the air and sniff like cats in a fish market, hoping to elicit a mild high. And as soon as Tom Petty spreads his arms like some lost eagle on stage, slowly meandering through the band with a mildly disturbing aimlessness as they play with these “oh, here goes Tom again” looks on their faces, I understand that the dudes behind me aren’t the only ones who are stoned. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be–this is a Tom Petty show, where people go to feel good, forget all the bullshit of their daily lives for a couple of hours, and cheer on the songs that sneaked their way, somehow, into some of their most vivid memories.

I wonder which memory revisits the couple in front of me, as they openly embrace immediately upon hearing the first few strokes of “Free Falling” yawn from Petty’s guitar, a vaguely florescent cloud of weed smoke cloaking their silhouettes in the dark arena–maybe it’s the song that accompanied a first kiss in a parked car under the bridge, maybe it’s the song that reminds her boyfriend of all the horrible tramps he survived to find the woman he’s with, maybe it’s nothing anyone else in this writhing crowd could possibly imagine–yes, probably that–not even our closest friends and relatives are aware of even a fraction of the personal mysteries we take to our graves, after all.


Tom Petty: “Listen to her Heart,” Live in Gainsville (2006)

Few bands deliver as steady an onslaught of syrupy riffs and hooks as Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, a monumentally underappreciated talent that cynical Emo wannabes dismiss in their desperate pursuit of an identity their friends will approve of. A public distaste for the likes of Tom Petty is as much a rite of passage among that crowd as a good ol’ fashioned paddling at the frat house; and it’s a damned shame, because the human saga that unfolds at one of these shows is as humbling as it is inspiring. Take the beer-bellied dad with a backwards Marlins cap squeezing his huge, balding head up front, for instance, clutching the gates that close him into the first row seats he probably won by calling into a local radio show one day, hoping to score a pair of seats for himself and his kid, maybe to give him a taste of what “pop music” sounded like back before it meant more than a pair of porcelain boobs and a tongue kiss at the Grammies. The lights that scroll the crowd catch him in their glare for a second–he’s belting out every line of “Listen to Her Heart” with a series of convulsive heaves, every one of which takes maybe another ounce of the world’s weight off his shoulders, if only for one night.

When Mike Campbell busts out the 12-string on “Free Fallin'” or lifts his guitar chest-high and beats another searing solo out of the thing, I almost start to believe he’s one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock ‘n roll. But that’s before Steve Winwood takes the stage to join the band for a killer take on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and it immediately becomes apparent that Campbell, however accomplished as he may be, is one small trout in a sea of aging but wily sharks. Winwood’s fingers flutter over the guitar he straps on and strums in a single smooth motion–one he’s performed for nearly half a century now–a fact that’s evident in his effortless aplomb as he saunters over the the organ for a surprise from his Spencer David Group days, the enduring miracle of his voice overcoming the band’s noticeably rigid interpretation of “Gimme Some Lovin'”–though the crowd’s relatively indifferent response suggests it’s not an entirely welcome one, with lines to the pisser or the beer stand assembling in the aisles.

Something seems to sour on stage in the aftermath of Winwood’s cameo, as the Heartbreakers stumble out of their cover-by-the-numbers take on “Gimme Some Lovin'” with a frenetic delivery of “Saving Grace,” a newer track from Petty’s admittedly uneven but no-less underrated solo album, 2007’s Highway Companion. The band is obviously insecure in its newer material, as they overreach to turn the tune into a raving rocker with a clutter of misguided noise that ruins what is, in its original form, a blistering and bluesy rocker. For a band that is always remarkably true to each song’s original recording on stage, it’s an especially jarring moment that feels like an eternity.


Tom Petty: “Saving Grace,” Highway Companion (2007)

But a second wind of anthems follows, and you realize, with a modest touch of awe, just how relevant these guys have managed to remain throughout four decades now, tricking high schoolers into a love of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit “Something in the Air” when Petty slapped it onto his greatest hits package in 1994, discovering a polished echo of grunge’s grit on the mischievous staple “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”–a song which, the second Petty unleashes it on stage here in Ft. Lauderdale, is met with the entire crowd’s instantaneous delirium, as if they’ve gone blue in the face holding their breath for this very moment since they took their seats at 8.

Petty and the band hopsctoch in and out of the four decades they swept through–the ’70s (Refugee, American Girl); the ’80s (End of the Line, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Don’t Come Around Here No More); the ’90s (Learning to Fly, Honey Bee, Won’t Back Down). But the true testament to just how many diamonds this band has mined over the years is the crowd of kids who fumble through the lot under the peach glow of parking lot lights after the show, singing their best rendition of “The Waiting,” yet another anthem which, somehow, just couldn’t be crammed into the 150-minutes of rock ‘n roll we witnessed under the dome of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bank Atlantic Center, one of many corporate civic centers cropping up around the country that look every bit as impersonal as their names suggest–a crudeness overshadowed only by the music of those folks who, as Rocky Frisco puts it, “write from the heart, not the wallet.”

Well, Petty’s wallet is doing just fine, but there’s something about the genuinely emotional response his music evokes–that couple embracing before me, the pot-bellied dad screaming the band’s songs back at them with his mesmerized son at his side–that proves beyond any doubt that Petty is one of the heroes Frisco had in mind–an authentic pioneer the likes of whom become fewer and farther between with each passing year.

Ft. Lauderdale Set List 7-15-08

You Wreck Me

Listen to Her Heart

Won’t Back Down

Even The Losers

Free Fallin’

Mary Jane’s Last Dance

End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys)

Can’t Find My Way Home (w/Steve Windwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (w/Steve Winwood)

Saving Grace

Breakdown

Honey Bee

Learning To Fly

Don’t Come Around Here No More

Refugee

Encore:

Runnin’ Down A Dream

Bo Didley’s A Gunslinger/Mystic Eyes

American Girl

Bob Dylan: Outtakes and Oversights

19th June

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Bob Dylan’s recording career is replete with tragic omissions that might have turned mediocre albums into masterpieces–and sometimes at the least likely points of his career. In a fit of indulgent self-pity amid his now-infamous period of artistic oblivion in the 1980s, Dylan willfully refused to release some of the greatest songs he ever recorded–songs that might have established the 1980s as one of the most peculiarly fertile moments in his creative life. Many Dylan dorks (myself included) know that he kept from the public such sublimities as “Blind Willie McTell and “Foot of Pride,” recorded during the sessions for 1983’s Infidels with Mark Knopfler on guitar. He similarly refused to allow the great “Series of Dreams” to be included on 1989’s Oh Mercy–despite producer Daniel Lanois’s impassioned arguments to the contrary–taking the attitude that one more Bob Dylan song really doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things, a callous indifference that lends credence to one of two possibilities: 1.) artists really aren’t great judges of their own work, or 2.) Dylan struggled mightily to overcome the deliberate destruction of his reputation that he began after becoming disgusted with his fame in the late 1960s, a disgust that produced Self Portrait in 1969, probably the most famous “fuck you” album ever made (right up there with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Neil Young’s Everybody’s Rockin’).

It was a disgust that Dylan transformed into a concerted and enduring project of public self-destruction. In Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan describes going to such lengths as pouring bottles of liquor over his head and wandering around in public wreaking of alcohol to perpetuate the myth that he was little more than a hopeless and washed-up drunk, an artifact of a dead era to be swept under the unclean rug of American culture. In that fabulously written–if occasionally strange–memoir, we also watch Dylan wince on a car ride with Band guitarist R0obbie Robertson as Robbie asks Dylan where he will “take the whole scene,” never considering for a minute whether Dylan had any interest in being nominated Cultural Czar of the world–he clearly did not; and that, more than anything, is exactly the disdainful reluctance that contributed to so many mediocre albums Dylan produced in the wake of his creative renaissance in the 1960s. The music sucked because he wanted it to suck. He wanted to be left alone, and damaging his own reputation as persistently as he did with garbage like Down in the Groove offered him the most likely path to that desired infamy.

Throughout the book he recalls time and again a feeling that the world really did not need another Bob Dylan song, a conviction that made it rather difficult for him to turn what he called “pieces of songs” into the full-fledged comeback album they became in 1997: the brilliant Time out of Mind. Only when he saw fans thirty years his junior sing along to “Love Sick” and “Cold Irons Bound” did he realize that, yes, the world really did need more Bob Dylan songs. More to the point–the world craved them, helping Dylan rediscover an inspiration he’d left behind so long ago.

Some say that the Oh Mercy and Infidels omissions were ultimately of little consequence, because they were eventually released on the 3-disc Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 in 1991. That, of course, is totally beside the point: not only did the electric version of “Blind Willie” never see the light of day, but the withholding of these tracks kept two decent albums from ranking among his very finest at exactly the moment in his career when the world had damn-near left him for dead (and perhaps with good reason.) You only get one chance to make a masterpiece; many great bands fail to produce even one. But to hold one in your hands and send it down the trash-shoot is both inconceivable and tragic.


Bob Dylan: “Band of the Hand,” Band of the Hand (1986)

But the Infidels and Oh Mercy outtakes are merely the better-known instances of this sad pattern in Dylan’s creative life. Other work is scattered across bootlegs, obscure soundtracks and tribute albums–work which proves that, contrary to popular belief, Dylan was still operating on all cylinders in his creative dark ages from the late 1970s and through the 80s–he just didn’t want anyone to know that. Until Columbia Records decides to avail the world of these performances, a full understanding of why Dylan’s name is engraved in the American consciousness is impossible. Just listen to the work he recorded with the Traveling Wilburys–particularly “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”–and tell me he was washed up in the late 80s. To the contrary, the man remained in full possession of his faculties throughout that period, but he chose instead to take a torch to his reputation and stand by watching while it burned.

“Band of the Hand,” a track recorded for a forgotten movie of the same name from 1986, is a devastating tune produced by Tom Petty that Dylan recorded around his Knocked Out Loaded period–it is, predictably, a million times more powerful than anything that unfortunate album offers, and yet it only saw the light of day on the soundtrack to a film nobody remembers. His early-80s masterpiece, “Caribbean Wind” is, in its original form, quite simply one of the best songs the man ever put to tape. But he murdered it later on with Joan Baez and released that pathetic byproduct on Biograph after trying–and failing–to redo the song long after the fire that produced it had faded.

But perhaps no album more thoroughly illustrates this unfortunate mishandling of Dylan’s most inspired recordings than 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Dozens of tracks were recorded for the album, and while only a fraction made the cut and some of those songs went on to define his legacy (“Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “Blowin’ in the Wind”) a score of absolutely devastating acoustic blues numbers–tracks that foreshadow an early and growing affinity for rock ‘n roll–was tossed to a scrap heap of genius that would grow over the decades. We’re proud to offer a few glimpses of those gems here. Check out these unreleased cuts from the Freewheelin’ sessions, material that Dylan’s label bafflingly allows to languish in the vaults while releasing one inconsequential live set after another (like the 1964 Halloween concert which, compared to the Freewheelin’ outtakes, is an utter bore.) Sadly, the only way to get your hands on this stuff is if you’re lucky enough to live near an indie record shop somewhere in a large city (like NYC) that carries bootlegs (also remember that ebay is your friend.) Click on any of the titles below to hear for yourself . . .

Hero Blues (includes a false start)

Goin’ Down to New Orleans

Witchita

Baby Please Don’t Go

Quit Your Lowdown Ways

That’s Alright Mama (with full band)

Watcha Gonna Do (includes a false start)