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Back Stories | My Album Reviews From July 23, 1999

Rewinding some classic releases from Grand Funk, Ween and plenty more.

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Two decades ago, new albums and compilations from Grand Funk, Ween and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):


Grand Funk
30 Years Of Funk: 1969-1999

“Who can forget Grand Funk Railroad? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner; the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher; the competent drumwork of Don Brewer. Oh, man!”
— Homer Simpson

Frankly, I couldn’t have put it any better myself. And to be honest, few have even tried — Homer J.’s backhanded compliments are are probably one of the best reviews Grand Funk Railroad ever got. I’m not sure why, but almost nobody has ever owned up to being a Grand Funk fun. Maybe it’s because they never pretended to be anything but what they were: A blue-collar Michigan bar band that specialized in lumbering, three-chord BTO-style rock. Maybe it’s because most of their big hits were cover tunes. Or maybe it’s just because Farner just wouldn’t keep his damn shirt on.

Whatever the reason, Grand Funk deserve better, if only for one reason: They penned We’re An American Band, a grade-A, prime-cut, undisputed slab of ’70s guitar rock magnificence. Naturally, it’s the centrepiece of 30 Years Of Funk, this three-CD chronicle of their career. And, of course, along with it come the rest of the hits: Some Kind Of Wonderful, The Loco-Motion, I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home, Rock ’N’ Roll Soul.

But you also get 40 more songs, including a dozen released here for the first time. And it’s these tunes that really plead the Funk’s case. The earliest works — unreleased demos they recorded as The Pack — bridge the gap between the fuzzed-out power trio blast of Blue Cheer and the organ-fuelled acid-rock soul of Vanilla Fudge. The live tracks, like Are You Ready, Footstompin’ Music and Paranoid (not the Sabbath tune), quite simply put, rock like a mutha. And hey, even if their biggest hit was a Little Eva cover, at least they never put out a concept album, a triple-live set or a disco tune, which is more than you can for pretty much every other ’70s band. (And, unlike most classic rockers, they can laugh at themselves; the Simpsons quote above comes straight out of the CD booklet, which also features clippings of reviews with headlines like Grand Funk Are Lousy. You think KISS would ever do that?)

So you can sneer at Grand Funk all you like. Guys like Homer and me, we know the truth. But just remember this: shirtless Mark, Mel, and the still-very-competent Don are back together. And you know what that means: Sooner or later, they’re coming to your town. They’ll help you party it down.


Ween
Paintin’ The Town Brown: Live ’90 – ’98

“Is it green, is it red, is it alive, is it dead?” asks Gene Ween. “I can’t put my finger on it.” If you’re still new to the world ofbizarro-rock duo Ween, you might also be scratching your head over this delightfully deranged double-live set from Gene and musical bro Dean, two of the most eclectic, irreverent and flat-out twisted kooks ever to strap on a Strat and set off a smoke bomb. Judging by this set, Gener and Deaner — really Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman — have never done the same show twice. Often they play to a tape deck; other times they front a gonzo-rock outfit; they’ve even hit the road backed by Nashville country vets. All those configurations are documented here on songs that are just as diverse: drug-addled garage-noise, jazzy disco en Francais, cosmic arena bombast, chicken-friend redneck soul, and even snake-charming Middle East trance-rock. “Is it brown, is it white, is it really out sight?” Gene wonders. You bet your Boognish it is.


Ratt
Ratt
Great White
Can’t Get There From Here

Riddle me this: How many ’80s hair-metal rockers can you get into an old pair of spandex pants? A: All of them. At least, that’s judging by the endless parade of long-faded stars who have presumably given up careers in the drive-through food-services industry lately to make one last grab for rock’s brass ring. The latest to emerge from obscurity are Ratt, whose new self-titled disc is their first in almost a decade. They needn’t have bothered; the dated guitar heroics, reheated Bon Jovi anthems and power ballad cheese here could have been lifted from any of their old albums. Next time, they should at least try to rewrite Round And Round, their only good song. But while Ratt have lost their bite, Great White still have teeth. Maybe it’s because their blues-based rock never gets old; maybe it’s because frontman Jack Russell still pens sex-and-dope songs with titles like Rollin’ Stoned and lines like “When the police showed, I told ’em ‘Kiss my ass.’ ” In other words, they may have reformed their band, but they haven’t reformed their ways.


Loudon Wainwright III
Social Studies

Nothing gets old faster than a joke. Especially a topical joke — who wants to hear one-liners about Tonya Harding, O.J. or Monica Lewinsky any more? Sadly, that’s what legendary musical satirist Loudon Wainwright III (also Rufus and Martha’s dad) has to offer on Social Studies, a collection of years-old tunes written to order for U.S. public radio and other outlets. There’s no denying Loudon’s wit and tongue are as sharp as ever, but with the exception of the funky millennium-bug ditty Y2K, listening to this CD is like watching a two-year-old Jay Leno monologue. Come on, Loudon: If ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic can put out a Phantom Menace song while the movie’s still in theatres, you can surely deliver something more timely.


Boyzone
By Request

For those teenage girls who find the Backstreet Boys too heavy and dangerous, there’s this quintet of wimpy teenypop balladeers from Dublin. On this third outing, the closest they come to rock is with a couple of soul-pop confections, such as a cover of Billy Ocean’s When The Going Gets Tough. Otherwise, this 18-song set is one great blob of mushy pablum whose songs are as trite and indistinguishable from each other as their titles: I Love The Way You Love Me, No Matter What, You’re All That I Need, Baby Can I Hold You. Gad. Come back A.J., all is forgiven.


The Boomtang Boys
Greatest Hits Volume One

Do you set your VCR to tape Electric Circus every week? Have you seen A Night At The Roxbury more than once? Was your favourite childhood band Stars On 45? Then this cheekily titled debut album from Canadian remix masters The Boomtang Boys will be at the top of your chart. Like some MuchMusic Dance Party From Hell, Greatest Hits Volume One is a top-of-the-pops parade of annoyingly addictive covers (Dancing With Myself, Bang A Gong, Time After Time) and the Boys’ own tunes like the electrified rubber-duckie romp Squeeze Toy. Like it or not, this disc will likely live up to its title.


Blessid Union Of Souls
Walking Off The Buzz

The name-dropping novelty single Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me) may be the bait that’ll lure buyers, but this Cincinnati quintet also have the commercial hooks the back it up. That is, if you have a taste for the easy, breezy roots-pop of Hootie & The Blowfish or Shawn Mullins. Now on their third album, these Soul men have refined their recipe to a delicate balance: Just enough power chords for the guys and plenty of nice-guy breakup ballads for the girls. Sure, sometimes it’s as soft and bland as a loaf of Wonder. But hey, who knew you could catch so many fish with white bread?


Surf Monsters
Various Artists
The Lively Ones
Heads Up: Best Of Vol. 2

If you’re looking for the source of the never-ending wave of surf music crashing all around these days, look no further than L.A. retro-rebel label Del-Fi Records. They supplied Quentin Tarantino with the hang-10 classics that floated Pulp Fiction’s musical boat and kick-started the whole modern cowabunga craze. And that was just a drop in the ocean; the long-running label has a whole vault of beach-blanket classics that it keeps reissuing in cool new configurations. The latest: Surf Monsters, which pairs the label’s mouldy oldies with new unreleased tracks from today’s alt-rock chairmen of the board. Thus, urban spacemen Man Or Astroman?, go-go ghouls The Bomboras and Canada’s own Huevos Rancheros kick up some rocky sand between crucial twang-and-bangers from The Centurions, The Sentinels and The Surftones. And let’s not forget about the wild ’n’ woolly Lively Ones, whose new best-of set is a high-water mark of the old-school genre. Pipeline, Surfin’ U.S.A., Tequila, Rumble, Wipe Out, Surf City; they’re all here, complete with the pounding drums, smoking guitars and honking sax that would work Annette into such a frenzy she’d want to take Frankie off behind the sand dunes. Cowabunga indeed.


Eyes Wide Shut
Various Artists

Few directors have used music as creatively and memorably as Stanley Kubrick. Who can forget Alex putting the boot in while bellowing Singing In The Rain in Clockwork Orange? Or Vera Lynn crooning We’ll Meet Again to Dr. Strangelove’s A-bomb apocalypse? The soundtrack to Kubrick’s final film, the sex thriller Eyes Wide Shut, continues to indulge the late filmmaker’s love of odd couplings: The chilling piano of Ligeti prefaces a graceful waltz from Shostakovich, which leads into the bayou sleaze of Chris Isaak’s Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing, followed by Oscar Peterson tinkling Duke Ellington’s I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), and so on. Ultimately, nothing here is bad — and some bits are very good — but with due respect to Tom and Nicole, I doubt anything they do to any of these tunes will compare with 2001’s spaceships elegantly waltzing to The Blue Danube.


Sophie B. Hawkins
Timbre

With her casual sexuality and boho sensibility, some might view singer/songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins as a poor woman’s pop-chart version of Liz Phair. But the gal who intoned Damn, I Wish I Was Lover is very much her own woman on Timbre, her third disc. Along with playing most of the instruments once again, this time Hawkins also gets behind the board and handles the production. And wears both hats with style and grace; Timbre’s 12 tracks manage to be both hummably commercial yet confessional and personal. Not to mention sensual in every regard — in the warm, exotic hand percussion that colours these tracks, in her honey-dripped voice that breathes in your ear, and most of all in the lyrics, which are erotic enough to justify the disc’s warning sticker. If Sophie keeps upping the ante like this, we’ll soon think of Phair as a poor woman’s Hawkins.


Reveille
Laced

It rhymes with ‘heavily’ — which is precisely how these teenage demons play their thunderous, screeching brand of rap-metal. Actually, make that metal-rap; the whump and grind of this debut disc skews a lot closer to Rage Against The Machine’s sonic fury than it does to Limp Bizkit’s B-boy posturing. Whether this is just teen angst remains to be seen, but for now, Reveille provides a pretty impressive wakeup call.


The Katies
The Katies

Three greasy, long-haired guys on the cover, slouching in their leather hats and torn jeans amid a shower of sparks. Song titles like Powerkiss, She’s My Marijuana and Noggin’ Poundin.’ Hell, one guy even has an Angus Young tattoo. For metalheads, this debut disc from Tennessee trio The Katies looks too good to be true — and it is. Instead of the stoner-metal bombast you logically expect to hear, what you get is 11 tracks of southern-fried power pop studded with Big Star melodies and Cheap Trick harmonies. Once you wrap your head around it, it’s actually pretty good — but kids who buy this hoping for Monster Magnet are gonna feel mightily ripped off. Somebody repackage this thing and fast.


New American Shame
New American Shame

For those about to rock, here’s the new bad-boy boogie band — high-voltage Seattle quintet New American Shame. To say these guys worship at the altar of AC/DC is like saying Silverchair sound sorta like Nirvana. But make no mistake. NAS may be shameless clones, but these boys are still TNT; they’re dynamite. With his razor-blade rasp and sin city swagger, one-named singer Johnny is the rockin’, rollin’ reincarnation of metal god Bon Scott. And it doesn’t stop there; the band’s slashing, twin-guitar riffs and backbeat rhythms are more AC/DC than Acca Dacca is these days. It’s so obvious, they don’t even try to hide their dirty deeds; Johnny actually writes about being a “problem child” on the “highway to hell!” Of course, as they already know, hell ain’t a bad place to be.


Pete Ham
Golders Green

Badfinger’s Pete Ham is one of rock’s unsung heroes; his story is one of its saddest tragedies. A gifted songwriter who was victimized by the music business — despite putting out two acclaimed albums on The BeatlesApple label, financial mismanagement left him destitute and depressed — Ham hanged himself in 1975 at age 27. This second posthumous album of home-studio recordings goes a long way to finally giving him his artistic due. Along with demo-style snippets of future Badfinger classics like Without You, tunes like Makes Me Feel Good — a glimmering diamond of summery harmonies and jangling guitars that may be the first power-pop song ever recorded — show how far ahead of his time Ham truly was. If only he’d lived to see it.


Spin Doctors
Here Comes The Bride
Cork
Speed Of Thought

After they broke up a few years back, you probably thought you’d heard the last of Spin Doctors. Guess again. The various factions have resurfaced on a pair of interesting new CDs. The first comes from Cork, which pairs ex-SpinDocs guitarist Eric Schenkman with former Mountain drummer Corky Laing. And if you think that’s weird, get this: Jimi Hendrix’s old bandmate Noel Redding is the bassist! The results are as varied as you’d figure; everything from bluesy folk to Mississippi Queen-style rock to alt-country quirk that suggests an updated Dr. Hook. They’re not the only thing being updated; Here Comes The Bride, Spin Doctors’ first CD in three years, unveils a band that’s rested, retooled and ready for the millennium. Taking their cues from acts like Dave Matthews and Beck, Chris Barron and co. kick things up a notch, tossing Latin grooves, hip-hop, tropicalia and even Sting-style reggae pop into the mix with their trademark funky guitar-pop. It just goes to show — sometimes a divorce is the best thing for both partners.


Eric Clapton
Blues
Various Artists
Blues Power: Songs Of Eric Clapton
Tangled Up In Blues: Songs Of Bob Dylan

One of the reasons the blues remains such a vibrant musical entity is that its songs aren’t cast in stone like, say, classical works. Instead, blues songs are like a shared history, passed on by hand, changing and evolving as they go. In fact, more than any other music (save maybe jazz), blues is based on reinterpretation; virtually every blues artist has played Little Red Rooster, Got My Mojo Workin’, Boom Boom, and so on. These three discs honour that tradition while approaching it from new directions. Blues collects the cover tunes from guitar god Eric Clapton’s ’70s  albums. It’s Slowhand at his finest, playing tribute to Muddy Waters (Blow Wind Blow), Little Walter (Mean Old World) and Elmore James (The Sky Is Crying). There are even a few unreleasead tidbits, like a compelling acoustic reading of the Leadbelly hit Alberta. On the flip side, there’s Blues Power, with other artists covering Clapton. It’s fairly pedestrian, with a few exceptions, like Otis Clay turning Wonderful Tonight into a horn-driven soul ballad, and Bo Diddley taking the unusual step of covering Clapton’s take on Bo’s own Before You Accuse Me — perhaps the ultimate in blues cross-pollination. Finally, the truly inspired Tangled Up In Blues sees Bob Dylan getting the same treatment from the likes of Taj Mahal (It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry), Isaac Hayes (Lay Lady Lay) and R.L. Burnside, who takes Everything Is Broken down to the juke joint and fixes it right up like new. Talk about bringin’ it all back home.