You may recall this series that Mr. Moderator has run in the past. He posts an album cover and then says:
In 50 words or less, please describe how the album cover for Album Title, by Artist says all that there is to say, for better and for worse, about the music contained within.
It’s gotten to the point where I have trouble listening to new music; too often it’s a letdown. More often than that, the new release lives down to my expectations, expectations based primarily on the album cover art. I know that’s not right; I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I do. As Paula Deen recently said, “I is what I is.” See if you don’t find yourself weeping in my strong embrace after you find yourself in the same boat with your reactions to the following relatively new releases. After the jump…
So it happened. It really happened. After a 22-year wait My Bloody Valentine has released its follow-up to Loveless. Take that, The La’s!
As I admitted last week, MBV totally passed me by. I was one of those people Slim Jade suspected knew more about the bands they influenced than the band themselves. I have not yet heard the new album. I can’t imagine what a next album by that band would sound like. Where does a band go with that sound…after 22 years?
Fans of My Bloody Valentine, as you get your head around this thing, was it worth the wait?
…[the] album craps out midway (tracks 4-6) when they peel back the wall of noise to reveal that there ain’t that much there there. It’s like seeing your mom naked. I don’t need to see that. But it picks up again…
The FAQ page on the band’s new website ignores the most obvious question:
In past years you could count on me for my patented Insta-Reviews, frequently real-time reviews of the latest releases that I happened to pick up. The past year was not such a year. I was busy. I was bored. Late in the year I did pick up a couple of albums that inspired me to jot down my impressions: Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls and Tame Impala’s Lonerism.
Boys & Girls
After months of avoidance as my generation of relatively hip, middle-aged mouthbreathers raved over the debut album by Alabama Shakes I found myself confronted late one night with a performance by the band on PBS. I allowed myself to watch for a minute, thinking I’d chuckle the righteous chuckle of the dismissive rock snob and then move on. But I was wrong. Rather than the mix of college-boy hoodoo, jive, hokum, and beer commercial bluesology that I expected, Alabama Shakes simply hunkered down on some elemental soul music chord progressions and then drove them the fuck home with some Clash-worthy forearm rock and singer Brittany Howard’s Joe Cocker-esque histrionics. Any time I felt ready to reach into my deep bag of hang-ups I was thwarted. A song and a half into their performance I ceased attempting to find fault. Spittle had accumulated on my lips. The band’s charms are presented without distraction on Boys & Girls. The performances are warm and direct. Howard’s got killer pipes, a term that usually induces a cringe but applies here. The slow burn of “Hold On” doesn’t take long to explode. “Hang Loose,” my favorite song of the year, mixes a “Chain of Fools”-style intro and hippie ethos. The cynic in me still ponders whether the band is an indie-rock flipside to Sam Phillips’ ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel…” dream, but hell, this album is the answers to my prayers.
Australian band Tame Impala’s 2010 debut album, Innerspeaker, mined the best bits of the Nazz’ “Open My Eyes,” leaving out the flowery middle eight section. The stomping fuzz riffs drilled straight into my brain. I dug that feeling. The band’s follow-up, Lonerism, attempts to stretch from its third-generation psychedelia with a gentler, lyrical approach. This approach works best on songs like “Be Above It,” “Mind Mischief,” and “Keep on Lying,” which sound like the sylvan folk of Midlake as produced by the Chemical Brothers. Other times, as on “Apocalypse Dream” and “Music to Walk Home By,” I feel like I’m listening to one of those George Harrison-Jeff Lynne collaborations from the 1980s, the ones I’d spin a couple of times, decide were “better than Gone Troppo,” and never spin again. This aspect of Tame Impala’s growth is not as satisfying as having my brain drilled by the best bits of a Nazz song. Where does one go after the first rush of psychedelia? Tame Impala attempts to move into the light, but sometimes it “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” as the band’s take on the Verve is entitled. When in doubt, when the band makes its third album, may I suggest a little skull-piercing fuzz guitar?
I’ve been holding onto this “Insta-Review” for 6 weeks—or the time it takes to listen to Neil Young & Crazy Horse‘s latest release, Psychedelic Pill, all the way through 5 times. What a long, strange drag it’s been.
If I wrote the review in real time, as these review often are written, this post might crash the might RTH server. The 27 minute-plus opener “Driftin’ Back” should spur pharmaceutical companies to develop a drug to treat Faded Idealism Syndrome. An artist who’s made a career of looking back and feeling old even when he was young launches into what essentially ends up being a 90-minute long meditation on sputtered idealism, shit that only means much to you when you get really old, and the Power & Glory of Slowly Jamming in a Pentatonic Scale Over a Minor Chord.
I am thankful to live in a world with Neil Young willing to put out such a long, self-indulgent album of nostalgia and compromised idealism, but 90 minutes of songs threatening to turn into the electric version of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” yet invariably falling short gets old. There must be 75 minutes of Neil’s patented guitar solos, but only seconds of goosebumps. I can only get so nostalgic about nostalgia.
Maybe this all hits too close to home as I feel myself sliding into my own long, slow struggles with revising my notions of idealism. I still want to walk like a giant, too, but giants don’t have to see the podiatrist.
Well, after the entirely craptastic A Bigger Bang, I didn’t expect much from the new Stones song, which is one of two that will be on their latest catalog cash grab, GRRRR! (which has a terrible cover as well as some truly spotty song choices on it). But I like this song. It sounds pretty okay, but I’ve only listened to it once. So I guess The Stones aren’t extinct!
I get a lot of ribbing around these parts for my unabashed love of all things ZZ Top. Like every other right-thinking lover of music, though, in actual fact I categorically reject virtually every track the Zeez laid down between 1981 and… and… well, now.
But before we get to the howcum of my belief that ZZ Top’s new album, La Futura is the band’s best album since 1979’s Deguello, let’s pause for a moment to clamber into the rock and blues way-back machine. I’m going to pilot this thing back — way back, long before ZZ Top came into existence 43 years ago. Let’s head back together to the 1920s, when ZZ Top heroes like Robert Johnson plied their musical trade in sleazy bars and whorehouses across the deep South. Most of these blues OGs packed serious heat, just to make sure they emerged from their latest gig with all their body parts intact. They played for gangsters, they played for hustlers, they played for pimps, bootleggers, and corrupt country preachers — and their music was suitably, dangerously literal. Some of this stuff was downright freaky, it was so violent (didn’t we have a thread about “Stagger Lee” the other day?). No doubt, it celebrated the gangster lifestyle, but it wasn’t bullshit. It was real.
Robert Johnson, keepin' it real
Flash forward to 1973. ZZ Top released Tres Hombres — a celebration of beer drinking, hell raising, fucking, and, yes, redemption. I remember in college, me and my roommates (including a young Townsman Massimo) used to marvel at how terrifying the cast of characters on the inner record sleeve looked: it was a literal rogues’ gallery of rednecks with shotguns, semi-autos, and pistols, leaning against battered pickup trucks and leering at the camera through bloodshot eyes. I mean, it was funny for us East coast college pukes, coasting through school on our parents’ money, safely ensconced in our dorm rooms — these kinds of white trash crackers lived in somebody else’s world… didn’t they? Still, the fact that ZZ Top was writing music for and about them was vicariously thrilling, in the same way that gangsta rap would be for the generation of pampered white folk that would follow us into college a decade later.
So here’s my point: much of this new album is violent and exciting in the same way that Tres Hombres was — and even (sort of) in the same way Robert Johnson’s music was. Virtually every song is about dealing, or getting high, or toting a gun, or suffering the loneliness of the thug life. The album’s opening track, “I Gotsta Get Paid,” is a cover (of sorts) of an underground hip-hop anthem that chronicles a day in a dealer’s life. Typically (if weirdly), the track “Big Shiny Nine,” about a 9mm pistol, opens with the verse:
Big shiny nine, she’s mine all mine
Showin’ down the front of my old blue jeans
Big shiny nine she feel so fine
Waitin’ to impress my hippie queen
[audio:https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Big-Shiny-Nine.mp3|titles=Big Shiny Nine]
[audio:https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/I-Gotsta-Get-Paid.mp3|titles=I Gotsta Get Paid]
… to which I say: hey, Quentin Tarantino — two of your characters just wrote themselves. Love songs sing the praises of sleazy chicks who snort coke and smoke weed. In the album’s more reflective moments, Billy wonders aloud whether it’s even worth getting out of bed, or — in an inspired cover of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings‘ “It’s Too Easy Mañana” — just how tempting it is to just sit around the house and get fucked up. It’s inspiring, in a weird way; a singular vision of industry applied toward the hustle, freedom found in a fat bankroll and a cheap high; the love of guns and money.
[audio:https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Its-Too-Easy.mp3|titles=It’s Too Easy]
Of course, none of this would matter if the music didn’t support the message. I mean, come on: when was the last time sixty-something Billy Gibbons, Board member of the Houston Museum of Modern Art, ever got caught in a ghetto cross-fire? But here’s the miracle of the album: Billy and Rick Rubin didn’t waste our time making a gloriously retro, all-analog, recorded-in-a-country-shack return to the boogie party ZZ Top of old. No, they put a bridle on the explosive power of the Zeez of the 2000s, led it into waist-deep mud, and recorded it struggling to break free. The songs are chock-full of high-art, tape-spliced cuts and jabs. Guitars fade and rise, appear and vanish in an instant, like the Marfa lights. Arrangements are twisted, jarring, often strange. Much of the album is slow, the guitars are distorted to the point of disintegration, the drums sound like they were recorded in a box canyon… and the bass. Holy shit, the bass will crush your damn skull. God bless you, Rick Rubin, for finally shining a spotlight on Dusty Hill. He’s the miracle of this album.
So where are we at here, people? Well, look, the album isn’t a masterpiece from one end to the other. It’s got some moments where one’s patience for blues scales gets a bit frayed. But that’s true of all of the Zeez output. Even Tres Hombres has some needle-lifters. On the whole, though, this is the most focused, most relevant, most interesting, best written and best produced ZZ Top album in decades. I for one can’t stop listening to it.
p.s.: speaking of listening to it — do yourself a favor and make sure you listen to the samples I’ve provided through some decent speakers or headphones. They’ll be necessary to really capture a lot of what makes this album so good.
OK, maybe not a dedication but an observation from our fellow townsman, hrrundivbakshi, who is in the UK. He texted me last night with this request:
I’m in the UK at an otherwise totally irritating massive rock festival. Despite my dire immediate artistic surroundings, I have to say my eyes have been opened by one band in particular. Since the internet is basically unavailable on the Isle of Wight, please post this two-sentence concert review: