Two decades ago, new albums from The Who, Elliott Smith, Marianne Faithfull 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):
Natural Born Boogie
If you’re a fan of ’60s Britrock, thank your lucky stars for the British labour movement.
You see, back in post-Second World War England, the country’s musicians’ union was strong enough to force the BBC to limit the amount of pre-recorded music it could play to an average of about 12 hours a day. So what, you ask? Here’s what: To fill up the rest of that considerable amount of weekly airtime, the Beeb created a whole slate of pop music programs — with names like Top Gear, Saturday Club and The Old Grey Whistle Test — featuring the tops of the day’s popsters.
And thanks to somebody who had the presence of mind to hang on to some of those old tapes, we now have the excellent BBC Sessions series of CDs. Previous instalments have focused on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin; these latest additions spotlight some essential live performances from Humble Pie, Small Faces and Mod-rock legends The Who.
Of course, back in 1965, hatchet-faced guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, laddish shouter Roger Daltrey, creepy bassist John Entwistle and hyperkinetic drummer Keith Moon were just another band of pimply skinned louts rebelling against the old guard, and battling for the No. 3 spot in the U.K. rock hierarchy behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. All that revolt, frustration, impatience, ambition, piss and vinegar — the stuff that make Townshend demolish his guitars onstage and compose lyrics like, “Hope I die before I get old” — have always been more evident in the band’s live recordings and videos than their studio works. And they have seldom been captured as perfectly as they on this 25-song document. Early tracks like My Generation, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere and Substitute crackle with energy, as the group crashes headlong through the tunes at a frantic pace, with Moon thumping away like Gene Krupa tumbling down the stairs and Townshend spewing out feedback-filled solos that must have singed the ears of the Beeb’s more staid listeners. Some of the later works — the set spans 1965-’73 — pack an even heavier punch, as the band’s brash intensity gave way to the confident swagger of Long Live Rock, Relay and Shakin’ All Over (recorded just weeks after the classic Live at Leeds album). Between, there are plenty of lesser-known cuts like Good’s Gone and La La La Lies, vintage interviews with Townshend and a roster of set-filling cover tunes including Good Lovin’, Dancing in the Street and, believe it or not, James Brown’s Just You and Me, Darling, included in sets to appease Daltrey. But the freakiest (and coolest) moments of the disc have to be the first and last cuts, where the band reworks My Generation and Boris the Spider into jingles for BBC Radio One (“Talkin’ ’bout my favourite station …”). The Who sell out, indeed.
Nearly as impressive is the 15-track offering from the tragically underrated Small Faces, led by the young Steve Marriott and featuring future Who member Kenney Jones on drums. That connection is no coincidence; the bands started off in the same Mod scene, playing the same sort of scrappy, choppy R&B-fuelled rock. In fact, on tracks like the propulsive E Too D, the Smalls even sound like Who wannabes — when they aren’t anticipating Led Zeppelin by a few years, as they do on their ’65 track You Need Loving. But then something happened; after the electrifying jive of hits like Watcha Gonna Do About It (such an undeniable classic even The Sex Pistols covered it unironically), the band started drifting into hippie-rock tripe like Lazy Sunday, If I Were a Carpenter and Every Little Bit Hurts. Apparently, it started to hurt a little too much for Marriott, who left the band one day in mid-performance — tellingly, while they were playing Lazy Sunday — to form Humble Pie with the pre-voice box Peter Frampton. Smart move. From stem to stern, their BBC set — released under the title Natural Born Boogie — more than lives up to its title, with leather-lunged Marriott belting out choogle-rockers like Big Black Dog and Four Day Creep as the band shuck and jive with power, passion and amps that go to 11. The bad news? The atrocious sound of this volume. Some of these tracks have the telltale regular pops of the original vinyl acetates they were obviously lifted from. And as for the video-feed sound of I Don’t Need No Doctor, well, let’s just say this is the first CD I’ve come across that actually warns “anyone of a nervous disposition (to) switch off.” Guess there are some things even the U.K. musicians’ union couldn’t fix.
“I’m a little like you … more like Son of Sam.” Well, you can’t accuse Elliott Smith of playing coy. Any doubts about whether indie-pop’s most beloved misanthrope has cheered up since becoming a big-league, Oscar-nominated Recording Artist are pretty much erased the second he delivers those choice lyrics from the opening, serial killer-titled track from his magnificent and touching sixth album Figure 8. But even if Smith is still Mr. Misery, trust me, you’ll love his company. Half the album consists of bittersweet, Beatles-meets-Ben Folds-style ’70s pop ditties with rock-band instrumentation (mostly played by Smith himself) and endearingly loose vocal harmonies. The other half features just plain bitter, solo-acoustic-guitar-and-piano ruminations on relationships that went off the rails. But whether he’s flipping the verbal bird on Easy Way Out (“I heard you found another audience to bore”) or wallowing luxuriantly in a pool of his own self-pity on the back-to-back heartsqueezers Everything Reminds Me of Her and Everything Means Nothing To Me, these hard little gems of gloom make one beautiful set of worry beads.
Even to this day, when some people hear the name Marianne Faithfull, they think of three songs: 1) As Tears Go By; 2) Sister Morphine; 3) Broken English. Well, more than two decades after her last hit (single, that is) and even longer since she was best-known as a rug-clad Rolling Stones paramour, Faithfull has finally issued an album that just might add a few more tunes to the above list. Returning to a contemporary musical ouevre again for the first time in over a decade (her last few discs have been tributes to Kurt Weill or collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti), Faithfull wraps her unmistakably world-weary, whiskey-and-cigarettes rasp around a half-score of sparsely elegant, bleakly haunted heartbreakers fit for Dietrich, beginning with the confessional pathos of the title track and a wrist-slashingly sumptuous Roger Waters tune (Incarceration of a Flower Child) and building to a smoky, Latin-tinged take on Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song. “Do you remember me? … I coulda been a contender,” Faithfull wistfully understates on the lushly sparse File it Under Fun From the Past. After Vagabond Ways, it’s clear she still is.
It stands, of course, for What You See is What You Get — which is, of course, the exact opposite of what you should expect from anarchist-popster collective Chumbawamba. Especially if you’re expecting, say, another rousing round of drinking-song pop a la Tubthumping, their surprise 1997 hit. You won’t find anything so gauche as a hit single on this 11th album. Instead, the eight current Chumba chums offer up an ambitious but unfocused chunk of leftist cabaret that comes off as the musical equivalent of British music hall — 22 quirky, catchy mini-tunes that speed by in 47 minutes, with the band jumping from style to style, segueing from song to song and using their poison pens to skewer everything from Woodstock to boy bands to the Internet to our celebrity-worshipping culture. Some of the tunes have the skewed humour and ’50s-style showtune vibe of Rocky Horror. Too bad that by the time you hear enough to hum one, they’ve already time-warped to the next one. You hate to knock ’em, but at least you know they’ll get up again.
Asian Dub Foundation
When these reggae-worshipping, house music-influenced Londoners of East Indian heritage use the word community, they’re definitely talking about the global village. And any of the tunes on Community Music, their fifth full-length album, would make a fine national anthem. The rubbery Jamaican-dub skank and subterranean, speaker-rattling dance beats would certainly bring stadium crowds to their feet. And they’d have to salute the quintet’s culture-vulture tactic of crossing traditional Indian instrumentation and melody with hip-hop, rap and sampling to create ethno-beat grooves that transfix and transport you simultaneously. And hey, even if ou can’t exactly sing along to the lyrics of Real Great Britain or New Way, New Life — politically charged manifestos about the cultural, racial and economic realities of life in Tony Blair’s England — their messages can be just as stirring as anything Francis Scott Key dashed off. Just put it down to community spirit.
If you remember singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, it’s probably for her 1990s hit I Kissed a Girl. What you probably don’t remember is her last album — 1997’s more maturely themed Happy Town, which mpretty uch slipped through the cracks and left the singer-songwriter on the edge of one-hit wonderdom. If there’s any justice, her fourth album Pink Pearl will rectify the situation. For starters, it has at least a bit of the sexual double-entendre that worked the first time around — what, you don’t think that title just refers to an eraser, do you? But more importantly, Pearl features some of the smartest pop songwriting you’ve heard since Elvis Costello’s aim was true. Mexican Wrestler finds her yearning (in her breathy, girlish voice) to be a masked grappler so she can crack the ribs of the guy whose heart she can’t dent; the Brian Wilsonesque Rainy Day Parade finds her sweetly rhyming “We’ll have a celebration” with “Getting back on my medication”; and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anybody name-check Jesus, Lou Reed and Ernest Borgnine in the same song like she does on Loveless Motel. How can you not wanna kiss someone like that?
Uz Jsme Doma
If The Residents and John Zorn were jamming with Frank Zappa … well, they’d all have to be dead. But in that unfortunate circumstance, the wondrous sound that would ensue would probably bear a pretty striking resemblance to that of Prague rockers Uz Jsme Doma. It’s pronounced Oosh May Dough-Ma and loosely translates to “Eureka!” — which is also how you’ll react to their hyperkinetic, anything-goes mish-mash of goofball rock, free-jazz horn skronk, politically charged punk frenzy, whimsical synth-pop and just about any other sound that pops into their head and can be produced with an instrument. At first, what with the jumping-bean arrangements and Czech vocals, it can all sound like six radios playing at once in some faroff bunker. Once you wrap your ears around the concept, though — frankly, it sometimes reminds me of the more-frantic rock moments of Mexican outfit Cafe Tacuba — you won’t be able to turn it off. And nobody has to die.
Players Choice Jam Band
Big League Rocks
“Music and baseball; a perfect combination.” That’s the pregame pitch from sportscaster Bob Costas on this freaky jock-rock CD of tunes performed by big-time baseballers. Well, maybe it’s a fine double play in his universe, but in the section of the space-time arena known as Reality, Big League Rocks is a major-league washout. Call me a player-hater if you must, but there’s only one thing worse than hearing “top ballplayer-musicians” (again, Bob’s words) such as Mark Langston, Paul O’Neill, Tyler Green and Luiz Gonzalez show off their respective abilities (or lack of same) on guitar, drums, piano and, ahem, bongos — and that’s listening to Harry Caray and Ernie Banks golden-throat their way through two separate but equally agonizing versions of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Put this one down in the record books as one big strikeout — with no hits and plenty of errors.
Blame Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine. Last year, he bridged the worlds of rock and rasslin’ by penning the hit tune Crush ’Em for WCW grappler Goldberg. Now, everybody’s trying to get into the act like midgets at a battle royal. Not to be outdone, the WCW’s nemesis the WWF has tossed this heavyweight set of wrestling-themed rap-metal tracks into the squared circle. And just like in the wrestling ring, there’s plenty of raw talent on display: Run-DMC, Kool Keith, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, various Wu-Tangers and several No Limit soldiers all sing the praises of the various pugilists, trash-talk and dish out verbal smackdowns over a generic canvas of pile-driving, body-slamming crunch-rock. But just like in the ring, most of them are doing a lot of talking — without really saying anything.
Night In Gales
An unforgettable cover tune is a double-edged sword. Sure, it can make your career — just ask Run-DMC, who broke big-time with their Aerosmith-endorsed version of Walk This Way, or more recently, Save Ferris, who cashed in with a remake of Dexy’s Come on Eileen. But that inspired reworking of somebody else’s tune can also work against you, overshadowing your own tunes. Such is the fate of Night In Gales. For an obscure German thrash-metal outfit, their fourth album Nailwork has generated its fair share of press, thanks to the bone-crushing rewrite of Allanah Myles’ Black Velvet that serves as its centrepiece. But remarkably rip-snorting as it is — despite reading the title, I didn’t connect this bludgeoning blood-boogie with Myles’ sultry hit until the unmistakable chorus kicked in — it isn’t half as heavy as Nailwork’s other 10 salvos of blast-furnace metal, which forge hellfire vocals and divebombing guitars into a frenzy of time and shape-shifting mayhem. Think of them as the iron fist inside the black velvet glove.
Time to Come In
There is another Kramer in New York — and no, I don’t mean that old hippie who runs the Seinfeld tour. This Kramer, not to be confused with Jerry’s wacky, wire-haired neighbour, is a music legend, at least in underground circles. He’s played in a million bands and put out a million albums most folks have never heard (Gumball, anyone?). And on his own Shimmydisc label, he’s recorded, produced and released another million or so albums by other artists most folks haven’t heard. The latest is dreamy indie-folk singer-songwriter Mara Flynn, the voice of Milksop Holly. Like a collaboration between Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, her second disc Time to Come In is a set of intimate, confessional songs full of yearning, naked emotion and haunting melody, delivered in a voice as hushed and warm as an autumn breeze. Just because you haven’t heard of her doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to.
The cut-and-paste, cartoon-plumbing artwork on this quirky folk-pop quartet’s debut full-length resembles The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine crossed with the credits to Monty Python. Likewise, the music inside bears a striking resemblance to the tongue-in-cheek, Beatlesque psychedelia of Python-adjacent tunesmith and Rutle Neil Innes, ex of the Bonzo Dog Band. If you’ve ever heard his gem How Sweet (to be an Idiot), you’ll recognize the hippy-dippy pop melodies, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation and playful performances that are all over this 48-minute CD’s dozen tracks. Top it with some of Olivia Tremor Control’s post-rock fairy dust and a sheen of post-glam gloss — singer Ted Velykis’ adenoidal voice and wow-man delivery sit halfway between Bowie and Bolan — and you’ve got something completely different. How sweet.