Monday, September 11, 2017

Poe - "Angry Johnny" (forgotten song)

Driving back to VA from NC two weeks ago I heard a song on the radio that I had completely forgotten about: Poe's "Angry Johnny".  A single from her 1995 LP "Hello", I remember it receiving a lot of airplay at the time.  Wikipedia says she had moderate success with other singles, but I don't remember them.  Wikipedia also says that character of "Johnny" is from the book "House of Leaves", which wasn't published until 2000.  I wondered how this was possible, but further exploration revealed that the book's author, Mark Z. Danielewski is the brother of Poe (aka Anne Danielewski). 

I haven't listened to the entire LP, but this single is an enjoyable mid-90s time capsule.

Poe - "Angry Johnny".

Friday, August 25, 2017

Judas Priest - "British Steel" (LP Review)

I was speaking with Drew last week and he was reflecting on how many songs from the 1980s dealt with the threat of nuclear war.  One of the examples he mentioned was Judas Priest's "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll" ("One last day burning hell fire / You're blown away / If the man with the power / Can't keep it under control"), from their 1984 LP "Defenders of the Faith".  He offered other examples, of course, but the mention of Judas Priest unleashed from me a torrent of commentary, probably far more than he cared for, in which I pontificated that "Defenders" was really the beginning of the end for Priest, and their best LP is 1980's "British Steel", a landmark in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).  I probably went on for about 10 minutes about "British Steel" (and honorable mentions "Sad Wings of Destiny", "Sin After Sin", and "Screaming for Vengeance") while he laid the telephone down and did something else. 

In HS, the cost of purchasing LPs was distributed among a network of friends, and Robert Gordick bought most of the Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (with the rest of us tape trading to complete our collection).  I do have British Steel on vinyl (and eventually I filled out my collection with their early catalog), one of the first LPs I bought myself (first 10 maybe?).  I won't pretend this doesn't have a significant nostalgia component for me, but I listened to it again after my discussion with Drew and was surprised at how well it held up.  LPs like "Killing Machine" (1978) and "Point of Entry" (1981) had good songs, but they weren't necessarily good albums.  "British Steel" is where they hit the sweet spot of commercial accessibility (the singles "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight") without compromising their heavy sound (which began to erode on "Defenders"), with just a hint of their 1970s progressive rock origins (e.g., "The Rage").

The lyrics have certainly helped the LP age well.  I'm not going to tell you they're great metal lyrics (cf. "Morbid Tales"), but they are missing the puerile, misogynistic lyrics common to many metal bands of the era and that in itself is a big step*.   But, for example, the lyrics to "Metal Gods" are basically the synopsis to "The Terminator" some four years before it was released ("Hiding underground / Knowing we'd be found / Fearing for our lives / Reaped by robot's scythes").

There are no bad tracks, and at a trim 36 minutes the LP doesn't bog down and meander.  "Screaming for Vengeance" was their real breakthrough, and that's still a fine LP, but "British Steel" is truly their best.  Whether it was a permanent fixture on your turntable in the early 80s like it was for Robert and me, or if you're new to it like Drew, you owe it to yourself to give this LP a (re-)listen.   

Standout songs: "Rapid Fire",  "Metal Gods", "Breaking the Law", "United", "Living After Midnight", "The Rage", (entire LP). 

Skip 'em songs: none

Final score: 10/10.  Don't just take my word for it, read this retrospective and look at its #3 position on Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Metal LPs of All Time".

* Of course, I didn't realize at the time that Rob Halford wasn't really interested in singing about women.  I remember Danette laughing heartily at me when I told her about the "Blue Oyster" scenes in "Police Academy" and me thinking "I don't get it, they're just dressed like Judas Priest".  Of course it seems obvious in retrospect, but my sheltered HS self didn't know about that

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tangerine Dream - "Zeit" (LP review)

Herbert suggested that I highlight some eclipse-inspired music to mark the "Great American Eclipse" of 2017, but other than tired Bonnie Tyler references is anything relevant?  Perhaps Holst's "The Planets", but solar eclipses aren't really about planets.  Instead, I'm going with Tangerine Dream's third LP, "Zeit", from 1972.  Obviously the cover artwork is appropriate, but "Zeit" is also a seminal work in the genre of "space music", so you could make a pretty good argument that this what an eclipse "sounds like" (even though "Zeit" means "time", and the message of the LP is about how time is an illusion, etc.).

Herbert and I were also recently chatting about how formats (vinyl, CD, MP3, etc.) influence the structure and presentation of music, and this LP is a perfect example.  It's a double LP, with a total of four songs (one per side of vinyl), and while there are examples of songs being split across sides of a vinyl record, it's certainly not ideal and you have to consider that the approximate limits of 20 minutes per side was in the back of their minds while composing .  If this were recorded in age of CDs, would there be fewer than four tracks?  Or if post-CDs, just a single MP3?

I should also acknowledge my college roommate Frey who initially turned me on to Tangerine Dream, ca. 1990.  I didn't like them at first, but I was a big fan of Kitaro at the time and Frey pointed Kitaro's sound was influenced by TD's Klause Schulze in the mid 70s.  Exploring Frey's extensive TD discography, they quickly grew on me and I acquired many of their CDs after graduation.  It's certainly not a complete discography -- that's nearly impossible -- but it's a good sampling of their 1980s and earlier work.  "Zeit" actually stands alone in their discography, sounding a bit unlike other LPs in their canon.  It's dark, slow, ambient, percussion-less, slightly menacing, and quasi-orchestral: a perfect soundtrack for an eclipse.

In researching this post I also learned that Edgar Froese died in 2015, somehow I missed this when it occurred.  Edgar was a founder of Tangerine Dream and the only constant member from 1967--2015.  Tangerine Dream continues without Edgar, although it is worth noting that his son Jerome (who played with TD from 1990--2006) does not approve of TD's continuance without Edgar.   

While there are technically four tracks on the LP, they really can't be separated and they should be consumed as a whole, so I'll skip the regular LP review format.  This is an important, but demanding LP -- the kind that you only listen to once every year or two.  But you don't have to wait until 2024...

Final score: 9/10

Full LP: Tangerine Dream - "Zeit"

Bonus link: You know Tangerine Dream from the soundtrack to "Risky Business". 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Patti Smith - "Because the Night" (the song remains the same)

The final entry in my recent trilogy of autobiographies is Patti Smith's 2010 book "Just Kids" (the other two were Chrissie Hynde's "Reckless" and Kim Gordon's "Girl in a Band").   In "Just Kids", Smith lovingly details her tumultuous relationship with the late Robert Mapplethrope as they find themselves and their voices in the late 60s / early 70s Manhattan bohemian world of Max's Kansas City, The Factory, Hotel Chelsea, and CBGB.

It's an informative and entertaining book, and Smith is an engaging story teller.  Of course I knew a bit about Patti Smith -- everyone with even a passing interest in punk knows of her.  But she was less contemporary for me than Chrissie Hynde or Kim Gordon, so I learned a great deal about her early life, career, and contributions.  For example, I was unaware of her lyrical contributions to Blue Öyster Cult, via her relationship to BOC's keyboardist Allen Lanier, and  I also did not know of her brief relationship with the recently departed Sam Sheppard (see Patti's eulogy in the New Yorker), which culminated in the semi-autobiographical play "Cowboy Mouth" (which would later inspire a band of the same name).  And while it's only briefly mentioned in this book, I also did not know that she later married Fred Smith of MC5

But despite the many positive aspects of "Just Kids", it fails in one critical area: Patti can't rehabilitate Mapplethorpe.  Occasionally I see him as the Byronic hero that she sees, but mostly he comes off as selfish and cruel. Julia Felsenthal, in her article "Patti Smith, Where's Your Critical Distance?", quotes Tom Carson's New York Times book review:
Peculiarly or not, the one limitation of "Just Kids" is that Mapplethorpe himself, despite Smith’s valiant efforts, doesn’t come off as appealingly as she hopes he will. When he isn’t candidly on the make - "Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that’s what I’m about," he tells her - his pretension and self-romanticizing can be tiresome.
On the other hand, perhaps the discomfort Carson, Felsenthal, and I feel is because late 60s / early 70s Patti isn't yet the iconic, feminist badass that we demand of her.  Maybe it's simply disappointing to learn they were "just kids".

I do get the impression that without Robert's extensive encouragement and support, Patti would have never pursued a musical career.  An unkind reading might be that he directed her then unfocused artistic energy into an area that would not compete with him (she found success well before he did); or perhaps he just legitimately assessed the locus of her true talent.

I could choose to highlight some of her early work, like "Horses" or "Piss Factory", but instead I'll highlight her biggest hit, 1978's "Because the Night", from her "Easter" LP.  It was partially written by Bruce Springsteen, recorded but unfinished during the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" sessions, and based on Bruce and Patti sharing the same studio and studio engineer, "Because the Night" was given to Patti for her to record.   

This song is interesting me because it's only partially a cover -- in addition to releasing it first, Patti reworked the lyrics significantly from Bruce's version, to the point where her version is considered canonical, with Bruce even occasionally performing in concert Patti's version.   In the image below, Patti's lyrics are on the left and Bruce's original lyrics (as released on his "Live/1975-85" LP) on the right. 

This is one of the few times you can say "boy, someone really improved on Bruce's version". 

Patti Smith - "Because the Night", live 1978, live 2002, Patti explains the story behind the song
Bruce Springsteen - "Because the Night" (live 1985?), live 1978.
U2, Bruce, Patti: "Because the Night"

Bonus cover: 10,000 Maniacs - "Because the Night"

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Woody Guthrie - "All You Fascists" (forgotten song)

The events in Charlottesville, VA are still unfolding but our Governor's response was inspiring and appropriate.  Our President's response was... not.

All of those fascists are bound to lose.

Woody Guthrie - "All You Fascists" (1944?)

(image credit)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Opal - "Happy Nightmare Baby" (LP Review)

Keith Mitchell, the drummer for Opal and Mazzy Star, died in May 2017.  While you've probably heard of Mazzy Star you might not have heard of their predecessor, Opal.  Coming from the California "Paisley Underground" psychedelic, jangle pop movement, Keith Mitchell, guitarist David Roback (formerly of Rain Parade) and bassist/vocalist Kendra Smith (formerly of Dream Syndicate) formed the band Clay Allison.  After releasing a 7" ("Fell from the Sun"), they renamed themselves Opal.  The Opal discography is pretty confusing: an EP as Clay Allison, an EP as Opal, the latter two collected as a posthumous LP, and a bootleg LP of unreleased tracks.  Most of these releases are out of print and can fetch big $ among collectors.

Their 1987 LP "Happy Nightmare Baby" was really their only contemporary, official release.  Unfortunately, it came during the slow motion wreckage of the once-mighty SST Records, and was not well-promoted.  Kendra Smith quit during the following tour, and David Roback recruited Hope Sandoval to replace her.  After continuing for a while as Opal, they changed their name to Mazzy Star and finally enjoyed the success they deserved.  I don't believe Mitchell ever shared any writing credits during his time in Opal or Mazzy Star (instead, Roback, Smith, and Sandoval were the primary writers), but he was with them since the beginning and his passing deserves to be recognized. 

My own story with this LP ties together several of the friends I regularly mention here.  It was either my college freshman (87/88) or sophomore year (88/89) and I was shopping at the Blacksburg Record Exchange, which was the "cool" record store.  While I was browsing the records, the song "Soul Giver" came on the store's sound system.  I was quickly mesmerized and I had to stop and go ask the clerks who was playing.  I left with a copy of "Happy Nightmare Baby".  In my later professional life I met Butch and learned that he used to work at the Record Exchange; if this was 1987 he might have even been working there that day.  I also bought Terry a copy of the LP for Christmas and on returning back home to Newport News for the holidays,  I went to Drew's house, where Terry was, and proclaimed to the many people there that I had an awesome new LP that they had to listen to immediately.  We did, and Terry was a big fan afterwards. 

The LP itself can be triangulated between The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and Black Sabbath.  The lineage to Mazzy Star is clear, although this LP lacks the quieter dream pop and alt-folk/country sounds that Mazzy Star would introduce.  This LP has several good tracks and a couple that, while not bad, don't quite work for me ("A Falling Star", "She's a Diamond").  But that doesn't matter -- even if the rest of the songs were bad, there's still "Soul Giver", which is as commanding now as the day I first heard it in the Record Exchange; in part because of the strong rhythm from Smith (now retired) and Mitchell (now deceased).  And much like I was bursting to share it with Terry, Drew, et al. some 30 years ago, I'm happy to share it with you now.

Standout songs: "Rocket Machine", "Magick Power", "Supernova", "Happy Nightmare Baby", "Soul Giver"

Skip 'em songs: none

Final Score: 8/10  -- "Happy Nightmare Baby" doesn't have accessible songs like "Halah" and "Fade Into You", so casual Mazzy Star fans won't care for it but it's necessary for serious collectors. 

Bonus link: a live version of "Soul Giver" (ca. 1988) with Hope Sandoval singing.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Soundgarden - "Rusty Cage" (the song remains the same)

Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell passed last month, which I have to think will mark the end of Soundgarden, and possibly leaving only Pearl Jam as the lone survivor of the grunge movement of the early 90s.   I first learned of Soundgarden from my friend Drew, who in 90 or 91 lent me a copy of "Louder Than Love".  I don't think I have any Soundgarden CDs in my collection now, but I used to have the "Singles" soundtrack and I guess that counts.

Although Nirvana is probably the first among equals for the Seattle sound, it's hard to convey the impact of Soundgarden in the 90s.  Let's put it like this: when it came time for Johnny Cash's comeback LP, 1996's "Unchained", Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" was one of the songs Cash covered.  Surely Rick Rubin had a big hand in the song selection, but it's hard to think of a higher honor than having Johnny Cash cover your song.

 "Rusty Cage" was the third single from Soundgarden's 1991 LP "Badmotorfinger" and while it's hardly their most popular song, it's the one Johnny Cash chose and so it's the one I choose to mark the death of Chris Cornell.

Soundgarden: "Rusty Cage"
Johnny Cash: "Rusty Cage"