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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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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “July Flame,” Laura Veirs

23rd December

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You don’t know it yet, but you are already a fan of Laura Veirs. You’ve fixed dinner or cleaned the house with the television braying somewhere off in the background when that LG Optimus cell phone commercial came on, and suddenly the song in the ad was no longer off in the distance. Suddenly Veirs’s voice rushed into the forefront of your mind like the memory of a lover long gone; nostalgia mixed love and loss into some sweet melancholy you’d like to hold onto for a while, maybe forever. You didn’t know it then, but you were listening to the opening track of Laura Veirs’s July Flame, and it’s about time you did know. It’s About time a lot of people know, actually, about this magnificently gifted singer/songwriter out of Portland, Ore.

Several songs on July Flame play like love letters to summer–songs like “Summer is the Champion,” “The Sun is King” or the brilliant title track, which easily ranks among the finest songs of the year as it gathers into an angered sea of haunted strings and backup vocals. “Can I call you mine, can I call you mine” Veirs intones as the track pulls you deeper into the whirlpool of its longing. Elsewhere on the record, the pluck of a banjo reverberates through the open space of the song like someone calling your name from across a cave, the acoustic guitar Veirs strums is recorded with such clarity as to be made of crystal, and her wistful piano work on tracks like “Little Deuschutes” is enough to bruise the heart in the manner of Aimee Man’s “Wise Up” or Nick Cave’s “We Came Along this Road.”

The songs don’t so much bring to mind the season they celebrate as they do the first flower to pierce the melting snow of a long but waning winter. These are songs of renewal, of some emotional torment lived through and left behind, of a yearning as painful as it is alluring. They tell tales of a life lived fully enough to have tempted the dangers of the heart and survived in fighting form, of pain stared down until it turned to poetry. “Sure is hard to dance across the room when you’ve got one foot on the floor and one foot outside the door,” Veirs sings on “Little Deuschutes.” “I want nothing more than to dance with you.” These songs embrace a desire that is as dazzling as it is destructive, and through them all Veirs works toward an understanding that you don’t get one without the other.

Veirs’s Wikipedia page reports that the singer did not “listen seriously” to the folk, classical and pop music that surrounded her in childhood until she reached her 20s. The music she makes today demonstrates that when she did start to “listen seriously,” she didn’t just listen–she absorbed every chord and lyric like a dish rag under a faucet. “Summer is the Champion” borrows the thumping drums and piano of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” before waltzing off with a horn section that evokes the devastating close of Tom Waits’s “Earth Died Screaming.”The undercurrent of percussion on the title track resembles the opening moments of “Mental” by The Eels. And her gorgeous voice is borne of a heritage that includes Natalie Merchant, Iris Dement and Jennifer Warnes. But even as this pageant of influences parades through Veirs’s songs, the record as a whole remains entirely her own and begs for another listen the second it’s over.

Click here for Laura Veirs’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

R.I.P. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART

17th December

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1941-2010

If you find yourself browsing a site like this one on a Friday night, chances are you know by now that Captain Beefheart is dead, finally released from the horror of a prolonged battle with multiple sclerosis. Chances are also good that you’ve come across one of the many slapped-together obits crowding the web tonight, where you learned that Beefheart was frienemies with Frank Zappa and influenced Tom Waits. How boring. In most cases the people who wrote them know that because they read it on Wikipedia five minutes beforehand or borrowed from some one else’s blog post. It appears that that is largely the way Beefheart will be remembered–as the guy who struck a War-of-The-Roses kindship with Frank Zappa in the Mojave Desert and whelped a strangeling called Tom Waits.

But to confine the man’s influence on rock ‘n roll merely to his own era is to dishonor him. Listen to Joan Osborne’s “Right Hand Man” from her 1995 album Relish and you will hear the exact replica of the riff from Beefheart’s early 1970s gem “Clear Spot.” Listen to P.J. Harvey’s “I Think I’m A Mother” from her seminal LP To Bring You My Love and you will hear a half-sleeping and fiendish take on Beefeart’s “Dropout Boogie” from his uproarious debut with the Magic Band, Safe as Milk–perhaps the first “punk” record to ever hit the streets. It is no accident that “Right Hand Man” is likely the finest few minutes Joan Osborne has ever committed to tape, that the record on which Harvey paid her peculiar homage to the man is in all likelihood the one she’ll always be remembered for, that these disciples found inspiration in his work more than a decade after he left it in the dust following 1982’s swan song Ice Cream for Crow, almost never to be heard from again (Well, he did sing Happy Birthday to the Earth over the telephone for a benefit album produced by an environmental law firm in 2003).

No other group at the time even approximated the sounds that Beefheart and his band of crazies explored on Safe as Milk in 1967. Not the snotty riff that bites the pin off the grenade of “Plastic Factory” as Beefheart bathes it in some of the filthiest electric mouth harp you’ll hear this side of Little Walter, not the sweating acid trip that is “Zig Zag Wandeerer” or “Abba Zabba Zoom,” not those wickedly psychedelic licks of slide guitar that open the album on “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do.” Beefheart would never again cut a record as simultaneously accessible and defiant as Safe as Milk, and he would struggle to sell his brand of madcap fusion to consumers and critics alike over the years. But that’s how it is when you’re brilliant enough that your sculptures get featured on a TV show when you’re four years old and you earn a six-year full scholarship to study marble sculpture in Europe at age 13.

1969’s Trout Mask Replica is as famous today for nearly cracking the top 50 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time as it is for being gloriously unlistenable. It’s no starting place for novices but it’s a nightmare to savor over and over again when you’re ready to handle it.  A host of more accessible gems followed, some boasting song titles that make Ween albums sound like nursery rhymes–“Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee,” “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have to Go,” “Lick My Decals off, Baby,” “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby.”The Holy Grail of Beefheart’s oeuvre, though, is his Lick My Decals Off, Baby album of 1970, a record that saw a reissue in the early 1990s that flickered in and out of existence like a lit match flaming out in the rain and posts an asking price upwards of $100 on amazon.com. If you’ve got the dough, it’s worth every damned penny.

Beefheart’s final decades after lifting his middle finger to the music industry for good found him tending to the sculpture and painting with which his creative impulse began. Rumors of his impending demise swirled for years in the same way that rumors of Syd Barrett’s life after Floyd took on the credibility of whispers passed between school kids in an old fashioned game of telephone. But today, sadly, the most recent rumor turns out to be true, as Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, took his permanent leave. Here’s a taste of some of the magic he left behind . . .

 

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.