Liner Notes: The Moscow Rules, ‘2. never go against your gut’

mr-2-final-cover

So, here’s our second EP, coming 6 (!!) years after the first. It includes one brand new song and collects most of the singles we’ve released in the intervening years. Commence liner notes:

‘2. never go against your gut’

All songs ©The Moscow Rules. Engineered by Mike B except for track 5 by Josh and Mike B. Mastered by Mike B at An Undisclosed Location

Track 1. “Crushing Coal (Pressure)”:    

Music: Bergstrom; Lyrics: Crane.

Mike B: Rhythm guitars, bass guitar, keys/synths

Josh: Guitar solo, drone guitars

Average Joe: Vocals

Michael P: Drums

Recorded at An Undisclosed Location by Mike B (except drums recorded by Mike P at Casa Perez and vocals recorded by Josh at The Situation Room). Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

This one was a lot of fun. Mike B sent the demo, which was basically the completed song – we kept all of his original guitar parts and just subbed live drums and bass for what he had done via synths – to Average Joe and I and we both got really excited. The previous songs Mike had brought to the table (see track 4 below) were great but this was a departure from the more straight-ahead, driving stuff we’ve been doing. This had some funk, a little darkness. Mike asked me to cook up a solo, but other than that I knew I wasn’t going to contribute any traditional rhythm guitar since he had that locked down. As I worked on the solo I found myself drawn to a sort of Eastern Mediterranean modality (maybe Phrygian? I’m bad at theory). Before I even laid down demo’s for the solo Joe rolled into town and was ready to go with the vocals. He and I have played in bands together off and on since we were teenagers – I was there the first time he ever sang into a mic – so I guess I wasn’t really surprised when his vocal melody was strongly reminiscent of the solo idea I had come up with completely independently.  His initial run at the lyrics sounded great and he declared that the song was called either ‘Crushing Coal’ or ‘Pressure.’

Usually when we do Joe’s vocals we take a great deal of care with them – ribbon mics, pop filters, baffling, tube preamps, etc, etc. But this one just felt different, and with the lyrical focus on pressure I just grabbed my $39 Blue Snowball USB mic, plugged it straight into Logic, and let Joe’s thunderous voice redline the absolute fuck out of it.  The result is as you hear – obviously we did some ‘stuff’ to the vocal tracks during mix down, but that blown out, desperate, distorted sound is what we started with.

The drone guitars referenced above are 3 single-string tracks played with an eBow and run through Electro-Harmonix C9 and Hazarai pedals. Mike did a great job bringing them in and out of the mix so that they sound almost like a mournful New Orleans horn section off in the distance. For the solo I used the Burnt Offering guitar and I think it’s the first complete take I got.  You can hear the lead guitar shift from the right to the left of the mix in the middle, right where I flubbed a note and loved the effect, which to me was like a machine breaking down under too…much…pressure.


Track 2. “California Warning”

Music and Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals, rhythm guitars

Mike B: Rhythm guitars (?), bass guitar

Josh: Guitar solo, other guitars

Bass Ghost: bass guitar

Michael P: Drums

Initial recordings done at El Rancho del Crane-O, overdubs at An Undisclosed Location, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

I want to say that the first note and last note recorded for this track were laid down at least a year and a half apart.  The core of the song – Joe’s vocals and guitar, the bass line (actually two bass lines, one of root notes and one melodic track) and I think some rhythm guitars – at El Rancho del Crane-O, Joe’s compound outside of Austin when Mike and I flew out there and spent a weekend tracking parts of maybe 5 or 6 songs, including this one and Saving Grace (more on which below), and some others that remain unfinished today. The rest of the tracks including the solo, and some more Joe guitars and vocals were recorded quite a while later at An Undisclosed Location.

Lyrically this tells the story of Joe’s musical history between the time we played together in a cover band in high school and reconvened in Austin a few years later in The Ultimate Something. During that time Joe had a band with a mix of high school and newer friends and they decided to make the trek from Texas to Los Angeles to make it big. He’ll have to tell you the whole story but let’s just say that the phrase “running from earthquakes” is not a metaphor.

Musically this is about as Pure Rock Majesty as you can get.  Michael P just beats the everlovin’ bejeezus out of his kit, and you can’t get much more Big Rock than a G-C-D chord progression played through a properly distorted tube amp.


Track 3. “Jupiter Hotel”

Music and Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Josh: Guitars

Mike B: Synth strings

Recorded at An Undisclosed Location. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

My wife and I love Portland, and usually when we go we stay at the Jupiter Hotel, a hipsterized motor court inn across the Burnside Bridge from downtown. One of the ‘features’ of the place is that the door to every room is painted with chalkboard paint, and on one of our trips I wrote Joe’s lyrics to “I-10 Handbook” on our door, took a photo and sent it to Joe. I love how inspiration takes us, and that was all it took for him to come up with this song.  Some of the details are borrowed from other places, like the Hotel San Jose in Austin, but it definitely captures the feel of the actual place. The rhythm track for this, played by me on Mike B’s custom-rebuilt Telecaster, was one of the hardest guitar parts I’ve ever recorded – I am not a particularly fast player, and all those downstrokes and the slightly off-kilter rhythm were a bitch to get right, but eventually I got it all in one take. Other than that there’s just the solo and Mike’s synth string section. A bit of a change-up for us, and I remember having to sell Joe on the idea of doing it this way, but Mike had a clear vision of Joe sitting on a hotel bed playing this, with the door open, and we ran with that.


Track 4. “Saving Grace”

Music: Mike B

Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Mike B: Rhythm guitars, bass, keys, synths, etc.

Josh: Jazzmaster

Michael P: Drums

Initial recordings done at An Undisclosed Location; Joe and Josh recorded at El Rancho del Crane-O, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

This was a track that Mike brought complete to the recording session in Austin. He had sent it ahead to Joe to give him time to come up with lyrics. When we arrived at El Rancho, Joe had rented some gear for us to use, including a Fender P-bass and a Mexican-made reissue Jazzmaster.

I was never really much of a Fender guy and I never “got” the Jazzmaster.  It just seemed unnecessarily complicated with it’s switches and the funky-ass tremolo system and big brick-like single coil pickups. But I don’t think I had ever actually picked one up until that session and man… what a burner. There’s obviously a reason why it was favored by all the surf rock players in the 60’s because when Mike cued this track up I was suddenly possessed by the angry ghost of Dick Dale. My actual track was kind of a mess but Mike chopped it up and built a great complementary part to what he had already laid down.  Add in another phenomenal performance on drums by Michael P and you’ve got a real face-melter.


Track 5. “Flames of Rome”

Music: Crane/Chisom

Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Josh: Guitars

Bass Ghost: Bass guitar

Michael P: Drums

Guitars and vocals recorded at The Situation Room, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Josh with Mike B

This song started with a minute-long demo Joe recorded using GarageBand on his phone. Immediately upon hearing it I was seized with delusions of grandeur and straight-up hijacked the song. This is maybe the only song we’ve finished without doing any recording at Mike’s Undisclosed Location. I played all of the bass and guitars, and we recorded Joe’s vocals, at the Situation Room.  At various points other band members would make suggestions or comments, and I would either just straight out say ‘no’ or nod my head and just keep on doing what I was doing. In other words I will happily take the blame if this is anyone’s least favorite TMR song.  I will take that happily because I know that person has no taste whatsoever.

Why did I hijack the song?  For one thing, I heard an epic in that one minute blast of reverb and tribal drums that Joe played us. I heard something in the tradition of “When the Levee Breaks,” The Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic,” The Verve’s “Weeping Willow,” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” Something with a big backbeat, huge guitars, and for another thing, I really really wanted to do a big, long, self-indulgent guitar solo.

I’ll let Joe be the keeper of the ‘real story’ behind the lyrics, but to me the song is apocalyptic, like several of the guidepost songs I referenced above.  It’s a look back at a burning city from the open door of a boxcar or a truck bed, it’s as close to a blues as we’ve done. It seemed an ideal song to stretch out on, get that backbeat kickin’, drop about 10 rhythm guitar tracks on there and then just go to town.

Jesus, these liner notes are going to be as long as the song.  So I built the song up, bass and rhythm guitars, then Joe’s vocals, then Michael P’s drums, until all that was left was this solo that I had decided was going to be some sort of Big Artistic Statement.  And… I froze up.  I couldn’t get it. I beat my head against that fucker for what seemed like forever and wasn’t getting anywhere. The problem was, in part at least, that my method has always been to ‘write’ solos to fit the song, and now I was trying to do the exact opposite, to get back to improvisation and get my consciousness out of the way. It also didn’t help that I was committed to doing the whole five-plus-minute thing in one take.

The breakthrough finally came at about 3 AM on a Saturday morning. I was by myself in the Situation Room.  After a bunch of blown takes and increasing frustration I decided to take a break, have another adult beverage and try and reset my headspace.  I went out into my yard with a good bourbon and my headphones and I listened to “Cortez the Killer” twice – once the studio version off ‘Zuma,’ once the live version off ‘Weld.’ Apparently that combination of chemicals and time of night and inspirado was the right one, because I came back in, tuned up, hit record, and got exactly what you hear on the EP in the next take. As the musicians among you can imagine I got reeeeeal fuckin’ nervous in the last 30 seconds or so.  And yeah, there are a few, er, dissonant parts in there, but I’m proud of it.  It’s honest. It’s a summation of whatever style and sound I’ve developed over the last 30 years.

For the gearheads, I used my Burnt Offering guitar plugged into my Vox ToneLab tube-driven effects unit and that directly into the computer via my Focusrite I/O unit.

And that’s our second EP done. I’m really proud of it.  Proud to work with these musicians and help bring their songs to life. Enjoy.

J

September 2016

Liner Notes: “Static” by The Ultimate Something

Twenty-some years later, we bring you the one and only recording every released by The Ultimate Something: the Static EP, originally self-released on cassette in 1993 or 1994.  You can find it on iTunesGoogle Play and literally all of the other streaming and downloading sites you can possibly imagine.

The Ultimate Something (aka ‘the band’) had been based at a shambly, gray house in the 2600 block of Merrie Lynn Street in East Austin for about a year. It was a great bandhouse: a 3 bedroom plus an in-law unit (my hidey-hole) perched over a basement/garage that was built into the hill on which the house sat, so that with some cardboard beer boxes (easily obtainable as most of the band pulled shifts at the Crown & Anchor Pub just north of the UT Campus) pasted 4 or 5 layers thick on the garage door, some wooden pallets covered with carpet keeping our gear off the perpetually damp floor, and the loan of a stupidly huge 24-track soundboard from the C&A owner, we had a first-rate practice space; we spent a LOT of time down there, working up new tracks, trying to record demos, and so forth.  Of course, this being a band made up of dudes in their early twenties, all in various states of drug- or woman-fueled distress, we had some drama and some turnover.

The actual residents of the house had shifted multiple times, as had the band members. In early ’93, Backwards-Hat Pat had been our drummer for several months and Brian was our new bassist*; he had been friends with Joe for quite a while and fit in really effortlessly. In some ways he was the quintessential bass player: quiet, unassuming, punctual, planted towards the back of stage left, near the drummer. In other ways he was not – he was easily the most educated musician in the band and we quickly discovered and exploited his knack for finding the way into or out of a troublesome bridge or verse melody.  Around that time – say the spring of 93 – we had crossed paths with Nathan, a super-mellow sound engineer who happened to have a truck full of equipment and, for whatever reason, liked us and our music enough to offer his gear and services for little more than credit on any recordings and an equal share in the nights beer- and pot-runs.

In our early practices with Brian, we began working up a song brought to the table by Nick. It had some of his trademark open, ringing chord progressions, and Brian immediately showed his value by adding a fat-assed, descending bass melody. I broke out the delay pedal and came up with a complementary rhythm part and a tidy little solo (although the rhythm of this one always jacked with my head).  Joe cooked up some lyrics and rather quickly we had written “Scream,” which while having the fundamental “Nick-ness” of it’s root chord progression in common with several of our earlier tracks, also stood out as being, well, a little poppier than our usual material.

Before we moved out of the Merrie Lynn house, Nathan brought a huge Tascam 4-track over and we decided to use ‘Scream’ as our first multi-track recording experiment. It went…OK. We got a decent drum sound and then built the track up, with Nathan bouncing things down to make room for 4 instruments and a vocalist on 4 tracks. We definitely got a great, fat bass sound and everything sat well together, but it was a challenging track. Regardless we got it done and dusted.  One track down.

By mid-summer Brian was fully integrated into the band. We were gigging regularly and had honed a solid 40-45 minute set list via regular gigs at the Steamboat and the Back Room.  Soon we had two very promising gigs on the horizon.

First, an appearance on KLBJ’s Local Licks Live series in July 1993. This was a radio show, hosted by local DJ Loris Lowe, that ran every Tuesday for 10 or 12 weeks in the summers. A local band would play at Pearl’s Oyster House and their set would be broadcast live on the radio. Then at the end of the summer each band would get one song on a compilation CD which was sold to benefit a local charity. Although we were way more lightweight than the average band who appeared on the show, Joe had in his Jedi-like way made a friend of KLBJ legend Johnnie Walker, who seemed always willing to advertise our shows during his drive-time slot. I don’t remember all the machinations but this relationship, and the fact that we played regularly at Steamboat, and possibly someone bigger bailing out, got us booked.

Second, we were given a chance to audition at the Black Cat on 6th Street. This was a big deal. Paul Sessums, the owner, would audition new bands on weeknights. If he liked what he heard, he would give you a residency – you would play the same slot on the same night of the week every week for a year. This was how Soul Hat and Sister Seven became the biggest bands in Austin.  Everyone knew that if it was Thursday night Soul Hat was playing at the Cat.  We had actually gotten an audition spot a couple of years earlier with a different lineup and simply weren’t ready for prime time.  Now, we felt like we had a real shot.  But before those two potentialities, we needed a demo tape. One 4-track recording of ‘Scream’ wasn’t going to cut it.

Aside from the 4-track Nathan had a horse trailer full of gear including a DAT recorder, which for the youngsters was basically a digital cassette deck; it recorded in stereo onto digital tape so you didn’t have the hiss and wobble of analog. We decided to just find a place to set up and record our set live to DAT.

We knew three young ladies (two of whom were six footers while the third was barely five) who lived in a classic Austin craftsman; we of course dubbed it the Amazon House. They threw good parties. In July of ’93 the Amazons were going out of town for a weekend and were willing to let us set up and record in the house while they were gone. We spread amps and drums around the house, put Joe down a hallway while Brian, Nick and I congregated in the living room. Nathan ran his cable snake out into the driveway and used his trailer as a control booth. After an interminable setup (recording really is quite boring) we played through our setlist, recording live to two-track so that if anyone fucked up we had to start all over again. Unfortunately Joe was really sick with the flu and spent the afternoon slumped down his hallway guzzling orange juice and rousing himself to a really impressive level of performance. His voice was definitely rawer than usual, but there was a desperate edge to his singing that day that added something to the recordings. We got through as much of the material as we could then packed up and vacated.

Unfortunately the Amazon House session took place just 3 days before our appearance on Local Licks Live, and by then between the illness and the all-day recording session Joe’s voice had moved past edgy and into shredded. I won’t get into details about the KLBJ set as none of the songs recorded there made it onto Static, but I will say two things. One is that, overall, we did a solid job and Joe was a trooper to even get up there, much less make it through that set with only a couple of blown notes. Second, I will leave you with a quote from Bill Johnson, the legendary engineer who recorded the set. When we walked out to his mobile recording booth outside the bar to get our cassette copy of the show, he handed it over and said, “guys, you have some really good songs and you’re not bad players, but for the love of God will you BUY SOME FUCKING TUNING PEDALS?!?!”

Ahem. So now we had “Scream,” and the Amazon House recordings, and the KLBJ show. We decided not to use the KLBJ material as a demo, both because we weren’t sure if we legally could use it that way and because Joe’s voice was in bad shape.  Oh, and we were pretty out of tune (Sorry Bill).  From the Amazon sessions we had some good material but we decided that the best track was “Promise Land.” This was another song that Nick brought to the table, and another one for which I somehow had a weird little riff bouncing around my head looking for a home that perfectly fit as a bridge. The only problem was that Nathan had inadvertently pulled the volume all the way down on Brian’s bass during the song and since it was live to two track there were no take-backs. We solved this by having Brian fly a bass part in via some sort of alchemy or witchcraft.  There, now we have two tracks.

And we had the upcoming set at the Black Cat. Even calling the club a ‘room’ was something of a stretch. It was basically a shambles with a false front. There were bleachers down one wall, a bar down the other ($1 PBR’s (the only place in Austin that sold them back then) and free hot dogs at midnight) and a small, rickety stage at the back. The PA was only for vocals – everything else was live including the drums. And that was it. It was one of the best live music venues in town because Sessums fucking loved music and had a good ear and hand-picked the bands. It was always packed, sometimes with frat boys, sometimes with bikers, sometimes with both.

We rolled in and set up and Nathan brought his DAT machine and two microphones and set himself up against the far wall facing the stage.  We were debuting a new song that night, “Life Like That,” one of three songs I wrote for the band that I delivered complete, musically speaking (Joe wrote all the lyrics for every song aside from 2 verses in 2 different songs). It started in a sort of staggered 9/14 time waltz, went two rounds with a two-chord chorus and then dropped into a straight up Stairway to Zeppelin coda. It was a custom-built show closer.

Unfortunately our show only lasted 4 songs that night.  Backwards-Hat Pat, our drummer, was an extremely gifted player with a unique style and he contributed a lot to the sound of the band. That said, he was an asshole that seemed to delight in sabotaging us at key moments and fomenting conflict between members. That night, at the Black Cat, he claimed to have some sort of diabetic attack after three songs. I had always doubted his claims of having diabetes (most diabetics don’t literally live off Busch Light tallboys, Camel Light 100’s and marijuana), just like I doubted his true last name (Charbonneau? Bates??), whether he attended Columbia University (or was it Oklahoma State? University of New Orleans??) or whether half of the wildly entertaining, erudite, hilarious stories he told were even a little bit true. That said, he did look sweatier and paler than usual, and there was a note of panic in his voice. We at least got him to play “Life Like That”  before Joe announced that our drummer was sick and we had to cut our set short.

Naturally we didn’t get the gig. We did, however, get scorching if lo-fi recordings of the four songs, and selected two, “Life Like That” and our mainstay (and in my opinion our best song full-stop) “We’ve Been Here Before.” This one was a pretty close to 50-50 composition between Nick and I, although he was the one who brought that chiming G-B verse progression that got us started. In yet another happy coincidence I had this little riff, a turnaround that went from power chords to a descending arpeggio that fit Nick’s progression both in key and mood.  I believe we came up with the big churning power chords of the chorus in the rehearsal room. Add some of Joe’s best lyrics and melodies and (imho) a great melodic solo and it was as close to perfect a song as we ever wrote.

And there they were.  The four tracks we’d release into the world. Nathan mastered the tape, adding some static and other sound effects at the beginning (hence the title of the release) of side one (‘Scream’ and ‘Promise Land’, and a recording of Johnnie Walker mentioning our Black Cat audition recordings at the start of side 2.

Unfortunately AS ALWAYS we had less than no money. We scraped the last bits of room on some credit cards and pooled our change and had something like 50 cassette copies done, but we couldn’t afford to have the info screen printed on the cassettes.  So Joe’s fiancee hand typed labels for every freaking one of them and then we stuck them on. And Joe somehow got access to a computer and a printer and did a super early-90’s cover. Somehow everything – the labels, the cover, everything – ended up printed upside down. We put copies on consignment in stores around Austin, gave some away, maybe even sold a few at shows.  I used to have one sealed and one open copy, but the sealed one has apparently disappeared over the years.

Anyway, this is it.  The one “official release” The Ultimate Something ever did. Hope you like it.

  1. “Scream”- music by Nick and Brian with Josh; lyrics by Joe. Produced/Engineered by Nathan at the Merrie Lynn House.
  2. “Promise Land” – music by Nick with Josh and Brian; lyrics by Joe. Recorded live to DAT by Nathan at the Amazon House. (guitar solo by Nick)
  3. “We’ve Been Here Before” – music by Nick and Josh; lyrics by Joe. Recorded by Nathan at the Black Cat
  4. “A Life Like That” – music by Josh; lyrics by Joe. Recorded by Nathan at the Black Cat

Personnel: Joe: vocals; Brian: bass; Backwards-Hat Pat: drums; Nick: red guitars; Josh: black guitar.

All rights and shit reserved, y’all.

That was 2015: My End of Year Mixtape, Volume 2

A double-album required a double-post, so here is the conclusion of my mixtape commentary. You can read the first part here.

  1. Sheer Mag, “Fan the Flames” 
    A few tracks back I mentioned that Royal Headache’s second album suffered from its clean production. This – what these Phillie freaks have going on, that glorious SCUZZINESS – is what I am talking about. Back in the day caring about lyrics meant you were a folkie or a crooner, and that ain’t rock n roll.
  2. Bully, “Reason”
    Yep. Two Bully tracks. They deserve it. Hell here’s a whole concert. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
  3. Mikal Cronin, “Turn Around”
    I was introduced to this guy at this year’s Treasure Island Music Festival. Great power-pop songwriting, really good live band.
  4. The I Don’t Cares, “King of America”
    “So, they sort of sound like, if Paul Westerberg and, like… Juliana Hatfield had a band?” Well, that’s because for some reason this actually IS Paul and Juliana, although she isn’t exactly prominent on this track. Curious to hear the whole album.
  5. Florence & the Machine, “What Kind of Man”
    Been a fan since her first singles hit America. This song reminds me of The Cult but I cannot figure out why.
  6. Sharon Van Etten, “I Don’t Want to Let You Down”
    The Queen of the Sad Bastards. Exquisite.
  7. Ryan Adams, “Style” 
    Ah, the indie music media storm of the year. And I still haven’t listened to the original album. Hey, good songwriting is good songwriting, and both the coverer and coveree in this situation know what that is. 
  8. Josh Ritter, “Getting Ready to Get Down” 
    Such a smart, fun songwriter. I still think his high points were 2006’s “The Animal Years” and 2007’s “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” but the new album has some solid tracks on it.
  9. The Frames, “None But I” 
    It was fitting to put the Frames next to Josh Ritter, since they discovered him at an open mic in Rhode Island and convinced the Idahoan to move to Ireland where he first found success. I’ve been despairing of new Frames music for a long time, since singer Glen Hansard appeared in “Once,” won an Oscar and so forth. But they at least gave us a retrospective album this year, and this is one of the new recordings on it. Not the best Frames track, but even middlin’ Frames music is better than most.
  10. Father John Misty, “Bored in the USA”
    I caught FJM at the Treasure Island Festival this year, and I think I get what he’s at. The costume, the false-feeling camaraderie with the fans, etc. He’s subverting the whole Laurel Canyon coked out rockstar thing, right? In any case, this is a bold song. The laugh track cinches the deal.
  11. The Dodos, “Two Ships”
    Another installment from the Polyvinyl 4-Track Singles Series Vol. 2 but one that I can actually find a link to! These guys really took their sound in a different direction on this track, and the crunchy old synth outro seemed like a great lead in to…
  12. Chvrches, “Never Ending Circles”
    I’ve written about Chvrches before, so I won’t repeat myself. Just couldn’t pick one song so here’s 3. Also caught their set at Treasure Island and dammit they can do it live too. Such a great band.
  13. Chvrches, “Leave a Trace”
  14. Chvrches, “Clearest Blue” 
  15. Greg Dulli, “A Crime” 
    The Savior of Misbehavior covering the Queen of the Sad Bastards? Yes please! Frankly Dulli covering anyone is worth listening to.
  16. Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color”
    And now we start to ease ourselves towards the exit. What an undeniable voice (she also fronts Thunderbitch who appeared somewhat more raucously earlier in the mix), and although I am normally anti-vibes and anti-xylophone; just anti- any instrument the playing of which involves a mallet, really – this is a nice groove.
  17. The Black Ryder, “Throwing Stones”
    It was hard to pull a single song of this album, which is really all one big, dark highway run. It takes me back to the first Mazzy Star album and that’s never a bad thing.
  18. Crooked Fingers, “The Old Temptations”
    Yep, a THIRD entry from Polyvinyl’s 4-Track Singles Series. Go Polyvinyl! I even didn’t hate the Deerhoof single that was included. Hmmm. I just realized that this track has some mallet-involved instrument on it. Problematic…
  19. William Fitzsimmons, “Pittsburgh” 
    Don’t know much about this guy other than he has a mighty beard and a nice turn of phrase. Basically I figured anyone with the stamina to make it through the entire mix would probably need a rest, and this song, while really good, makes me sleepy.

And we’re done. Happy New Year, y’all.  Hope to get back to regular posting this month (and no that is not a resolution).

 

-J

That was 2015: My End of Year Mixtape, Volume 1

For the last several years I’ve put together a mix on CD (I know, so 1999) for family and friends, had the kids decorate cardboard sleeves, and hand them out around Christmastime. Some years they had a theme of some sort (one year every song had something to do with dreams, for example; that was kind of a pain in the ass to curate); some years I used Toast Titanium to bleed & mix the tracks into each other, and sometimes I just went with my most listened-to tracks of the ending year.

This year I missed my deadline, but will persevere. I’ve shared a slightly mutilated version of the mix on Google Play already, but CD copies are being made (it’s a double album this year!), cardboard sleeves have been ordered, and while I put this all together why not share some thoughts on the songs included? Continue reading “That was 2015: My End of Year Mixtape, Volume 1”

Weiland: The Roof Brought Him Down

When I saw that Scott Weiland had died, I wasn’t really expecting to feel much, and I didn’t. I have honestly been expecting to hear that he had died for the last fifteen-plus years, since over that time period I’ve to see a lot more headlines about his arrests and stints in rehab than about his musical output. I stopped reading articles with Weiland’s name in the headline a long time ago for that exact reason. But I always turn up the radio when “Vaseline” or “Interstate Love Song” comes on.

I always thought STP got a bad break critically, initially due to the misfortune of releasing “Plush” as one of their first singles right when Pearl Jam was blowing up and, let’s be honest, he sounded a LOT like Eddie V. on that track.

So they got lumped into the grungepile despite the fact that by their second album they showed themselves to be a much more versatile band than that categorization allowed. They often eschewed big guitar solos, went in for interesting song structures and really had an ear for a good, tight pop song. This versatility gave us some of the great rock singles of the mid-90’s and at the same time probably denied them from the long-term super-fans that their nemeses Pearl Jam got by finding their formula and riding it into the flannel-hued sunset. They lacked the consistency of sound that brings those fans that will buy your albums unheard.

Those that paid attention also discovered that Weiland was quite the vocal chameleon, able to do that Veddery moan but also the punk sneer, the Morrison-esque croon, whatever the DeLeo Brothers’ compositions required. Plus he had that dangerous, who-kn0ws-what-he’ll-do quality that really good frontmen often have. Part of that was natural talent; part was stagecraft. And part of it was the drugs.

The drugs. I am probably sticking my hand in the fire here but fuck it, it’s not like I have advertisers to worry about. When it comes to music, for the most part I adhere to Bill Hicks’ controversial but difficult-to-deny theory that drugs and art go great together. They’re not essential or even useful for everyone, they don’t excuse anything, but they’re as intertwined with rock and roll as Gibson Les Pauls and ridiculous haircuts. Sometimes they’re a key component. Perry Farrell hasn’t released a listenable piece of music since he got sober, and now he doesn’t even have drugs to excuse the fact that he’s an intolerable twat. Aside from the obvious fact that one is a musical genius and the other couldn’t songwrite himself out of a paper bag, there are at least three other reasons why Keith Richards is a far more interesting person than Gene Simmons: Jack Daniels, Marlboros and heroin. Would Johnny Cash have become the Man In Black without the Dexedrine? Would Sgt. Pepper exist if Dylan hadn’t smoked out the Beatles? One of David Bowie’s most critically acclaimed albums was recorded when he was so fucking zooted on cocaine that he literally cannot remember a single second of making the goddamn thing.

There’s no need to feel guilty about enjoying that music, and thus condoning that behavior. We’re not built to take the weight of individual stranger’s problems onto our shoulders; I’m not talking about shirking our duties as a neighbor or a citizen, I’m talking about not involving our psyches in the life choices of some person you will almost certainly never meet whose record we dig. If you deny yourself the pleasure of engaging with art made by anyone who does drugs or makes poor life choices or does unpleasant things or is simply an asshole you’re just going to spend your life trying to enjoy really shitty art.

I don’t know the exact ups and downs of Weiland’s attempts at sobriety and how it coincided with his various musical projects over the last couple of decades and that doesn’t really matter; I don’t need to know and I don’t need to care. I’ve never listened to a Velvet Revolver song and I had no idea he even had another new band until I read his obituary today. And honestly, anyone who’s a genuine music fan has to admit that the only reason anyone gave a shit about Velvet Revolver was that it gave them a chance to hear two good musicians do fucking SOMETHING even though they couldn’t do what we actually wanted them to do, which was be in the great bands they started out with. That or they were mildly curious to hear about the latest drug-fueled escapade that Weiland got himself mixed up in. That second part IS something to feel guilty about if you participated in it, because that’s about celebrity schadenfreude bullshit, not art.

I don’t know what any of this means. The last new good thing I can remember hearing from him was a track called “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down” and it was released in 1998. I liked that song a lot. It was Weiland in Morrison mode, a sloppy drunken waltz with a string section and accordions and all kinds of kitchen sink shit, plus a nice late-Beatles nothing of a chorus. It wasn’t a hit, but it was a good track and I listened to it a lot back then. He was talented, and he apparently did a lot of drugs, and he was in a really good band twenty years ago. Now he’s dead. I don’t know if he was a good person at heart; that’s for the people that actually knew him to celebrate or contemplate as the case may be. For me, I’ll still turn up the radio when “Vaseline” or “Interstate Love Song” comes on. What else should I do?

The Stack: Ziggy and Janis and Rod and the Zep

Another – very very late and kind of short – installment in my ongoing series.

I had a shitty stereo with a turntable in my room. At some point my Mom walked into my room with an armload of records. I don’t recall what she said exactly, whether I should listen to them or that I might like these or what. I’m sure at least some of the impetus behind the gesture was that she was sick as shit of hearing “Pyromania” and “Metal Health” over and over again. When she left I put the stack in my lap and took a look. A couple of Cream records, Janis Joplin’s “Pearl,” at least a couple of Led Zeppelin’s first 3 or 4 records, “Ziggy Stardust,” the Faces “A Nod’s As Good As A Wink…” and Rod’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

Even with a turntable, even with all these capital-A Albums, my memory still chops them up into 7” single-sized chunks. “Me and Bobby McGee” and the Faces’ “Stay With Me” were two big takeaways from the stack. The only albums of the bunch I remember listening to all the way through a lot were Ziggy and Led Zeppelin IV.[1] I don’t recall ever listening to the Cream albums even though their covers were so striking and I don’t recall any particular reason NOT to listen to them aside from, you know, the tweedly-deedly. I also recall a moment in the title track to “Every Picture Tells a Story” where someone in the band or in the studio while they were recording yells out “HEY!” in a completely random and non-musical way. Whoever that person was sounded EXACTLY like my stepfather and literally every time I listened to that song (which was a lot) I jumped when that “HEY!” happened because I thought it was him telling me to turn it down or go clean the pine needles out of the gutters.

Was it growing up with most of my musical intake coming from commercial radio and MTV that made me tend to think of music in terms of songs instead of albums, singles instead of bands? Dunno but that’s how it was and still is with me. Not that there aren’t albums that I love from front to back but I don’t expect to do so. Why should I be surprised when a group of even superlative musicians can’t come up with 40+ minutes of amazing music every year, or every other year, or even once? It’s arbitrary and more than that it’s really, really fucking hard to do. It’s hard enough to produce – and by that I mean everything that goes into it: writing, arranging, performing, engineering, mixing, mastering, artwork – one single song that people will want to hear more than once. But that’s do-able. Thus I never held it against a band or a singer if I only liked one or two of their songs. Sure there were times when I’d get pissed that I’d dropped ten bucks on a cassette only to discover that literally every song other than the one on the radio was absolute dogshit.[2] But you learn your lesson and you start to get a feel for when something’s a one-hitter or a going concern.

[1] Shut up. It’s their fourth album and I don’t wanna hear about the fucking symbols or whatever.

[2] I’m looking at you, Cutting Crew.

Live From New York, it’s Your Not-Quite-Adolescent Introduction to S&M

Note about my previous post in this series: I wasn’t aware until around the time I started writing this that literally NO ONE knows who Judee Sill is anymore. To me her record was right there with Jackson and Sweet Baby James and the rest and who had a record with their picture on it that wasn’t famous? In any case if you like the Laurel Canyon/Americana thing and can handle lyrics about Jesus having a gunfight with the Devil or spaceships from heaven or magic spells based on the Musica Universalis designed to make God give the world a break, you should check her out. 

John Cougar on Saturday Night Live, April 10, 1982.

Not too long after this my Mom and I moved. We drove up I-45 about 30 miles, hung a left and ended up out in the pines of East Texas; outside of suburbia but still close enough to Houston to not truly be ‘in the country.’ My Mom married a great guy, an English teacher who had a comic book collection and books everywhere and “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl (on which more later). Mom and Stepdad were progressive and/or laissez-faire about the media to which I was exposed. I can remember them taking me to Woody Allen double features down at the River Oaks and seeing “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” when I was maybe 10. I didn’t get 99% of the humor, but with the rhythm and phrasing, the timing, and the slapstick Woody trafficked in at the time, it was still funny to me. At some point around then I was allowed to stay up late to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and that was what sparked my love for rock n roll.

John Cougar (post Little Johnny, pre Mellencamp) was the musical guest on SNL around the time his hit album “American Fool” came out in 1982. I don’t remember anything else about the episode (apparently Daniel J. Travanti was the host), but Cougar wore a green t-shirt and fringed leather motorcycle pants, and he did “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” “We sound just like Martha and the Vandellas, don’t we?” he asked an apparently indifferent crowd as they started it up. He was obviously having a good time even if they weren’t. (Also: if you can, click on the link above to the “AEDWTN” video and at least watch the saxophone solo that starts around 2:40. Music videos used to be amazing).

More to the point, he also did “Hurts So Good.” As with the Woody Allen movies, I didn’t really ‘get it,’ I didn’t understand, but it hit me hard. It was scary and compelling. Why would somebody sing about pain in such an enthusiastic and positive way?   It was a little scary…and I liked it. His performance made an indelible memory, so much so that for a long time I wondered if I really remembered it as vividly as it seemed. Then one day in my thirties I happened across the episode on TV and, yep, it was all just as I remembered.

When I saw and heard “Hurts So Good,” on SNL, it was some sort of next step on that road. In the year or two leading up to that Saturday night I had gotten more into music in general. A friend of Mom’s upon request made me a 90-minute cassette of two Hall and Oates albums, ‘Private Eyes’ on one side, ‘H2O’ on the other, that I would listen to on a Radio Shack mono tape recorder nestled in the crook of my arm as I strolled around the middle school playground.

But “American Fool” was the first ROCK AND ROLL record – and by that I do mean an actual vinyl album – that I bought with my own money. Listening to it right now, and trying to lay aside the obvious four-coat varnish of nostalgia it has acquired, I get this: it sounds great, although it does sound of its time. Luckily its time was 1982, not 1988 so it’s not burdened with cannon toms and fucking Eventides and Bob goddamn Rock. It sounds expensive, which really just means it sounds like it was recorded in a real studio with a real producer and a rock-solid band playing pro-grade instruments.[1]

It’s emphatically un-hyphenated Rock, and its time was also one in which that was no bar to also being pop. It’s such an obvious thing, right? ‘Pop’ is supposed to be shorthand for whatever’s popular. Those three little onomatopoeiac letters aren’t supposed to contain a sui generis genre, unless it’s that of Popular Song in the Cole Porter/Bing Crosby/Sinatra sense. It just means what’s popular. And what was popular in ’82 was a lot of Rock. I had to look it up, but ‘American Fool’ was a pretty monstrous hit[2]. Number 1 album. “Hurts so Good” hit number two on the Hot 100 and “Jack & Diane” [3] number one. Even “Hand to Hold On To” hit nineteen and I have no recollection of ever hearing that one on the radio.

All of that said, I can be honest with my 10-year-old self and admit that it’s not a great album. It has two all-time great songs, four or five very-good-to-good songs and two or three weak-to-shitty ones (happily it’s pretty much sequenced from best to worst. That was nice of them. Every other musician: do that from here on in, OK?) Does that matter when you’re ten years old? No one has taste at ten and I’m going to say that’s a good thing. Ten year old me didn’t react to things because they were cool or because they fit into an aesthetic framework constructed over years of paying too much attention to popular culture. He reacted to things because they CAUSED A REACTION.

“Hurts so Good” on SNL gave me a perfectly calibrated whiff of danger and hit that attraction/repulsion sweet spot that can be so compelling. And I have to say after rewatching the videos from this album, Johnny C. was putting out a pretty sleazy biker vibe back then, in line with the best rock n roll traditions; he was not yet the Americana/60’s revivalist of a few years later. Shortly after seeing SNL I bought the album on a trip to Greenspoint Mall and I listened the hell out of it and wondered what else was out there. So I listened to the radio because that was literally the only place to hear new music. Between 1982 and 1984 I fully embraced Rock, started playing guitar and caring about my hair and along the way I accumulated the following records:

The Rolling Stones, “Tattoo You” (1)

Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” (51)

Quiet Riot “Metal Health” (1)

Def Leppard “Pyromania” (2)

The Rolling Stones “Hot Rocks 64-71” (4)

David Bowie “Let’s Dance” (4)

Genesis “Genesis” (9)

Scorpions “Love at First Sting” (6)

Motley Crue “Shout at the Devil” (17)

Billy Joel “Glass Houses” (1)

The Police “Synchronicity” (1)

If you eliminate “Hot Rocks” as an outlier (only compilation and only non-contemporary release) you can see how I was a slave to the charts: all of them were big goddamn hit records.[4] Look at the numbers in parentheses up there; those are the highest Billboard Top 200 chart positions for each record. You can see that what I was buying was what was selling, which was what I had a chance to hear, which was what was on the radio. I was too young to really have a shared musical experience with my peers, no older siblings, no other options. Pop, but rock, yes? The reason I am pausing this tale in 1984 is that we didn’t get MTV until around then and that. Changed. Everything.

[1] While writing this section, the drum break in “Jack & Diane” happened and OK the toms are a little cannon-y. However I know that JC was inspired to insert that drum break after hearing “In the Air Tonight” so we have to give him a pass.

[2] It was also Cougar’s FIFTH album. How in God’s name is that possible? I knew he had a couple before that, but Christ. Did he start recording as a zygote or is he now 73 years old?

[3] I didn’t want to get all Klostermanny (Foster-Wallacey?) with the footnotes here, but I’m perusing the Wikipedia entry for the record and see that MICK GODDAMN RONSON did “guitar, vocals, and arrangements” on “Jack and Diane”. How did I never catch that before?! We’re going to get to Ziggy here in a bit and I am, just, DEEPLY disappointed in myself for never knowing that before.

[4] OK the Joan Jett record wasn’t a huge hit, but her next record was and I think I bought “Bad Reputation” at the same time as “Hot Rocks,” on cassette at the music store where I took my guitar lessons, probably under the influence of my friend Mike M. who often wore a Joan Jett t-shirt to school and talked about how she was awesome in concert. He was in fifth grade and he’d seen a ton of rock shows. The 70’s and early 80’s were kind of a great time to be a kid.