Thursday, March 18, 2010

RIP Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

You might as well have told me that Paul McCartney or Keith Richards just died. He was that good. That important to some people. Who was Alex Chilton, some of you ask? In a parallel universe where all things are just and right, Alex Chilton would have led one of the biggest and greatest bands of the 70's, made boatloads of cash, and shaped the direction of music for the past 40 years. In reality, Chilton was a promising child prodigy of sorts, led the cult band of all cult bands, toiled in obscurity for most of his career, and has been enjoying a career resurgence the last decade or so. Chilton died suddenly last night of heart problems in New Orleans.

Chilton was the teenage lead singer of the pop/soul group The Box Tops, and they scored some chart success with "The Letter" in the late 60's. But Chilton's real mark was left with three classic records he made in the 1970's with Big Star. Joining forces with fellow Anglophile Chris Bell, Chilton formed Big Star in Memphis and recorded #1 Record, one of the great pop/rock records. (It reached #12 on Dez's Top 100 Albums List. Read about it here.) Bell soon left, disillusioned over the lack of commercial success, and Chilton soldiered on leading a trio and released Big Star's second classic, Radio City. Still no mass success. Many words have been written trying to explain why Big Star wasn't bigger than it was, but one of the main problems was lack of promotion and record label troubles that had very little to do with Big Star itself. In other words, really bad luck. Chilton then recorded (and released years later) Big Star's phenomenal 3rd/Sister Lovers, a stark, bitter, beautiful kiss-off. Through the late 70's and 80's, Chilton's cult status grew as he released odd, very uncommercial solo records. In the early 90's, he reunited with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and joined up with members of The Posies in a new line-up of Big Star (Bell died in a car accident in the late 70's, original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel didn't participate), released a decent new Big Star record called In Space, and toured extensively to appreciative audiences.

Those are the facts. But it is really about that great Big Star music that has influenced countless indie, college-radio bands. Especially in the 80's. Bands from REM to The Replacements cite Big Star and Chilton as major influences on their sound. Big Star was the bridge between the brilliant pop jingle jangle and vocal harmonizing of The Byrds mixed with the garage bite of early Kinks to those great 80's bands who tried to create smart, guitar-driven pop/rock music. One of the best deals around is #1 Record and Radio City available on a single CD. Do yourself a favor and go buy that. If you really want to take the plunge, the Big Star box set Keep An Eye on the Sky is well worth the money. Read my full review here.

As fellow rock cult hero Paul Westerberg sang in his Replacements song "Alex Chilton": "Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round / They sing 'I'm in love, what's that song? / I'm in love with that song'...I never travel far without a little Big Star."

ABOVE: Here is a decent NPR story on Big Star

ABOVE: The gorgeous "Thirteen" from #1 Record

ABOVE: "September Gurls" from Radio City, their "biggest" hit

RIP Alex Chilton.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony

I am sure most of you tuned in last night to the 5-hour broadcast of the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Fuse TV. But in the off chance you missed it, here is a recap and my observations...

The ceremony opens dramatically with the strains of the majestic Genesis classic "Watcher of the Skies" being played onstage by...Phish. You see, Peter Gabriel was too busy rehearsing for a tour in Europe to show up and Phil Collins had back surgery last year and so is unable to play drums. Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Steve Hackett all sit in the audience smiling and drinking their booze while watching Trey Anastasio and Phish play their music. To Phish's credit, they do the song justice, although Anastasio's rather pedestrian singing made me really miss Gabriel's one of a kind vocal delivery. (They later do a by-the-numbers "No Reply At All" to acknowledge the Collins-led era as well). But, Anastasio really gave a wonderful, heartfelt induction speech that made up for the lackluster performance. He is definitely steeped in Genesis lore, and I liked how he gushed about his love for Selling England By the Pound, saying that "none of you in this room has probably ever even listened to that record. You won't hear it if you go out and buy the Greatest Hits." Genesis themselves were rather relaxed about the whole thing, with Collins quipping to Anastasio after his speech that "you make a good argument."

ABOVE: Phil Collins accepts Genesis's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Notice Peter Gabriel's absence.

I wish I had kept track of how many times the camera cut away to Springsteen sitting in the audience. 30 times? 50 times?

After many years of being nominated and not making it, The Stooges are finally in. Iggy Pop delivered as expected. As in, the guy is still a nutjob, thank God. After an enthusiastic induction speech from Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Iggy gave a wonderful speech of nonsequiters, one second unleasing a string of expletives and giving the audience at the Waldorf the finger and the next quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. The remaining Stooges joined Iggy onstage for brutal run throughs of "Search and Destroy" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog." He constantly taunted the "rich people" in the audience and their "$2400 plates" (although I doubt Iggy is hurting financially), and then amiably invited anyone who wanted to to join him onstage for the finale of "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Here is where we definitely have the generational divide. The Boss, Robbie Robertson and Jann Wenner kept their asses firmly planted in their seats, while Eddie Vedder, Armstrong and others ran up to the stage and danced around with the forever shirtless Iggy.

ABOVE: Iggy undresses himself as the rest of the Stooges give their speeches

ABOVE: Iggy sings uncomfortably close to the high rollers. "I wanna be your dawwwwg!!"

About that generational divide. Recall I discussed the RRHoF's politics at length in this post here. The problems with the Hall's cabal and way of doing business was on dramatic display during Steve Van Zandt's alleged induction of The Hollies. I say "alleged" because very little of his lengthy rant was about The Hollies. Van Zandt, our resident music crumugeon, is a very vocal and influential member of the nefarious Nominating Committee, and his firm belief is that no good music was made after about 1971. He said as much (I wonder if he then disregards his Boss's music as well?) Little Stevie declared that today's music industry is "artistically, financially and spiritually bankrupt." Then he quickly added "there are some good bands out there now, sure." Contrast SVZ's attitude to the speech Iggy Pop had just given where he proudly declared "we destroyed the 1960's."

Van Zandt then explained how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the most important institution in rock music. More important than the Grammys (but what isn't?), more important than anything. He then chastized people for not showing up to the party. Previously I had been annoyed that Peter Gabriel couldn't make it, but at that moment I was actually glad Peter skipped the self-congratulatory party. Van Zandt then acknowledged the all-powerful Rolling Stone magazine (or maybe it was Jackson Browne when he was inducting David Geffen), camera cuts to King Jann Wenner enthusiastically applauding himself. Until they get some new blood on that Nominating Committee who understand the musical landscape of the 80's (and appreciate non-Rolling Stone approved genres of music such as prog rock and heavy metal), the Hall will continue to have these issues. It does not bode well considering earlier this year Wenner "suggested" that they move the 25 year eligibility requirement to 20 years in a clear attempt to bypass the 80's. So far, not even Sonic Youth, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, The Cars, Devo or Depeche Mode have been nominated, although all are eligible.

Anyway, As for the Hollies themselves, they played fun but ragged renditions of "Bus Stop," "Carrie-Anne" and "Long Cool Woman" (which is one of the all time great rock songs). Graham Nash was happy to earn his second induction to match the two inductions each for cohorts Crosby, Stills and Young. Nash is one of the good guys of rock music (if a tad self-righteous), so I was happy for him. I've come to really appreciate The Hollies this last year, so it was all good. Great 60's pop band.

I liked David Geffen's induction, especially the montage of the artists who recorded for his labels that prominently included shots of Neil Young. Geffen sued Neil in the 1980's for making non-commerical (read: bad) albums on purpose and therefore costing Geffen money. In Geffen's defense, Neil's 80's output is one of the most willfully baffling musical stretches of any major rock artist. I probably would have been pissed too if I had just signed Neil after the amazing decade he just had (the 70's) thinking more of the same was on the horizon. I love Neil's 80's work, by the way. Anyway, Geffen's speech was very witty and fun. Enjoyed it.

You know who's performance blew everyone else away, though? Jimmy Cliff. He was awesome, and gave a wonderful acceptance speech. He managed to sound humble and down to earth while at the same time claiming to have invented reggae music. His performances were by far the highlights of the night, as he ripped through passionate versions of "You Can Get It If You Really Want," "Many Rivers To Cross" and "The Harder They Come."

ABOVE: Jimmy Cliff blew everyone else away

Only AB (or was it BA?) of ABBA showed up for their induction (the blondes, not the brunettes). Benny Andersson gave a fascinating speech about how growing up in Sweden in the 50's meant that he completely missed the rock and roll revolution and instead listened to Italian arias, Swedish folk songs and German beer hall music, and that is why ABBA sounded the way they did. It was a great speech. (He was recently quoted as saying that he was baffled as to why they were even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as they were a straight pop band.) Faith Hill then performed one of ABBA's tunes with him (don't know which one) that was quite beautiful and moving.

Speaking of moving, a group of long overdue inductions for some important songwriters was great to see. Otis Blackwell, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Mort Shuman and Jesse Stone all were inducted. A fun series of performances featuring Eric Burden, Peter Wolf, Chris Isaak, Ronnie Spector and others showcased these great songwriters' tunes.

Alright, ready for next year.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cool Pics of Daughter of Dez

I will try not to make this blog too much about my newborn, but these two pics are a little unusual and cool...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dez Reviews Jimi Hendrix's Valleys of Neptune 2010/1969 (and unravels a confused discography along the way)

It is remarkable that Jimi Hendrix has been dead for 39 years now, yet there is still quite a bit of excitement in the music community with the release of this collection of rarities and recently unearthed gems. And for the most part, gems these are. Perhaps no other artist has had his discography more abused posthumously. Much of it was Hendrix’s fault. While he was alive he seemingly signed contract after contract on a whim, even when the contractual rights overlapped. Upon his untimely demise, several parties had claim to much of his work, and over the next 20 years or so a dizzying number of questionable “new” Hendrix albums were released (Crash Landing, War Heroes, Midnight Lightning, Rainbow Bridge etc. etc…all of which, thank God, are long out of print). On these dubious releases, various incomplete sessions (Hendrix was a prolific studio experimenter, but he never intended for most of his studio noodlings to ever be released) were cobbled together with many overdubs and released to an unwitting public, forever diluting Hendrix’s real musical legacy. Finally in the early to mid-1990’s, Hendrix’s family gained control of his copyrights, and set about bringing order to his discography through the Experience Hendrix label.

It is worth noting that actual Hendrix-approved releases (those that he put out while alive) are very few. During his lifetime he only released three studio records (one a double), one live album (of all new material, so it was kind of like a fourth studio record, and it was released mostly to fulfill one of his bad contracts even while he was alive) and a short hits collection. That’s it. As far as “legitimate” posthumous releases go (that is, under the Experience Hendrix banner), First Rays of the New Rising Sun was the best approximation available of what his next record would have sounded like had he lived, as it contains most of his finished, almost finished and works in progress from his last year or so. New Saturn Delta was a quirky but valuable odds ‘n sods collection. There have been a bevy of live releases as well, some essential, such as Live at Monterrey.

So, where does this latest release, Valleys of Neptune, fit into the picture? All of these recordings are from 1969, and muddy the waters as to what his next record and direction would be. Whereas First Rays of the New Rising Sun has heretofore been the definitive statement of his new direction when he died, these newly found recordings were also recorded in an immediate attempt to follow up Electric Ladyland. Hendrix often talked, sometimes in confusing terms because he himself was in an uncertain transition when he died, about his next album. Most likely it would have been a double like its predecessor Electric Ladyland, so maybe much of First Rays... and Valleys would have eventually made it for official release. Who knows.

At any rate, Valleys of Neptune is a wonderful collection chronicling the last gasps of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums) and the first gasps of the “new” Experience that he envisioned (replacing Redding with bassist Billy Cox). Hendrix and Redding were not seeing eye to eye any more, and these sessions were the last of the original trio as they tried to ready tracks for the next record. In fact, this record contains the last studio sessions they ever recorded together.

These recordings along with the First Rays… material clearly indicate that Hendrix was moving more in a soul/rock hybrid direction that would have been fascinating to hear had he been able to bring it to fruition. He is more interested in deep groove than flash now. This combined with his talks with Miles Davis about a collaboration during the last months of his life creates one of the biggest “what if’s” in rock (and jazz, for that matter) history.

ABOVE: The title track

But we are left with his works in progress here, and they are great enough. The awesome title tracks is his best foray into his sci-fi fetish, and features shifting tempos and his often underrated rhythm playing (no solos here). "Ships Passing Through the Night" has a gritty soul vamp. "Mr. Bad Luck" shows off his humor as a lyricist. As far out as Hendrix went with his psychedelia and experimentation, he never really strayed too far from his blues roots. The blues-based numbers here are simply outstanding. We finally get a definitive studio rendition of his live staple "Hear My Train A-Comin'," and his funky cover of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" is magnificent, and "Crying Blue Rain" is a rare down home blues for Hendrix that creates an eerie and melancholy mood.

Even the jams that would never have made it passed the studio walls are focused and top quality Hendrix. A blazing and spirited instrumental cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" is fun and gives Hendrix an opportunity to show off his chops, while "Lullaby For Summer" is a groovy jam that eventually would turn into "Ezy Rider" (available on New Rays...) He also revisits some old standards within his own repertoire, which is actually welcome. Hendrix often tranformed his songs through working them out on the road, and so returning to earlier material again in the studio resulted in revelatory versions of songs you thought you already knew. Opener "Stone Free" dramatically improves an already killer song. Hendrix bests the original version by a long shot here, adding intricate rhythms and riffs built upon riffs that were missing from the original version. The burning "Red House" is given a quieter and double the length workout. Only a new version of "Fire" seems redundant and unnecessary.

Posthumous releases should always be looked at with suspicion, but in this case, this material is more than worthy of official release and adds greatly to Hendrix's legacy.

**** out of *****

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dez's In Depth Oscar Coverage and Review

I didn't watch the ceremonies due to baby matters. I did DVR them with the intention of watching them later. And then I heard who won what. Not much point in watching them now that I know who won. Glad Avatar didn't win Best Picture. Haven't seen Hurt Locker yet, but I like Bigelow's other films. There, that is my Oscar Review and Commentary.

Oh, RIP Corey Haim.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dez Reviews Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back, 2010

This one is tough. Taken individually, these tracks have much to offer. If Gabriel had recorded a normal rock album and then thrown in one or two of these amongst his regular songs, they would be standouts on the record as great contrast. But this is a matter of the whole being less than the parts. The premise of this project is that Gabriel selected songs to cover by artists that he admires, both old (Bowie, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Randy Newman, Talking Heads, Neil Young) and new (Arcade Fire, Elbow, Bon Iver, The Magnetic Fields, Radiohead), and then each of these artists supposedly has agreed to cover a Gabriel song for an accompanying record to be released later. Hence the title. Cool song exchange concept. Further, Gabriel has decided to not use conventional rock instrumentation. No drums or guitars or synthesizers here. Just some piano and orchestration.

Gabriel teamed up with composer/arranger John Metcalfe to craft these arrangments. First, Gabriel does follow my cardinal rule if you are going to cover songs by other artists: do something different with them. He has certainly done that with these tunes. But there is a sameness about this effort. The tone is, overall, pretty somber and dark. On almost all of the tracks he slows down the pace, and some are offered as glacial dirges (like Radiohead's "Street Spirit"). Gabriel has always possessed one of my favorite voices in rock music. And this orchestral setting does allow his vocals' many tones and colors to come through.

Some of these tracks really are stunning reinterpretations. The opening two are my favorites. David Bowie's "Heroes" starts so quietly and whispered that it feels it will flutter away at the slightest touch. But Gabriel and Metcalfe masterfully build the tension and drama in a thrilling middle section. And I love what Gabriel does with Paul Simon's once jaunty "Boy in the Bubble." Here he turns the tune on its head, making it a melancholy piano ballad more akin to Sinatra's "One For the Road" as opposed to Simon's original musical vision of the song. But Simon's lyrics to the same song are shown in totally different and darker tones. This cover is transformative of the original. Not necessarily better, but transformative.

He reaches back to his prog roots a bit with a dramatic journey through Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage," which is partially successful. On the other hand, his take on Randy Newman's great "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" is pretty conventional (not nearly as interesting as Joe Cocker's version from the 70's). And as intriguing as Peter Gabriel doing Neil Young could be, he picks the boring "Philadelphia" and basically redoes Neil's original yawn-inducing arrangement. One of Neil's dullest songs in his entire catalogue.

There are some individual triumphs here, but the project as a whole is a failure. I do not think I will ever listen to it again from start to finish, as there is a dull sameness that creeps in about halfway through. But I will return to some individual tracks many times.

**1/2 out of *****

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Baby's First Song

The first music to ever enter my baby's ears: "Yesterday's Papers" by the Rolling Stones. In fact, she heard the entire Between the Buttons (UK version) album today. I think she digs The Stones.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Spawn of Dez

I have officially reproduced. My daughter was born yesterday at 4:14 in the afternoon. She is beautiful (of course). My wife's eyes. My nose.

In relation to our recent discussions below, everything went as planned. Fully natural birth, no complications. Delivered in a hospital by an excellent doctor and nurses who respected our birth plan. My wife was amazing. She went into labor Sunday evening, and we arrived at the hospital at about 3:30 Monday morning. She labored through the contractions calmly and with purpose, never losing control or giving in to the pain. Even through transition, which is generally considered the most painful and intense part of labor, she was concentrated and calm, focusing on the task at hand. The doctor was shocked at how relaxed she was, especially in comparison to the woman screaming like a banshee next door. Anyway, I've never been more proud of (or impressed with) my wife. And thank God everything went as planned and our daughter appears to be a healthy and happy little girl.

We return home with her tomorrow. That will be fun.

Next up...a review of Peter Gabriel's new album...