Thursday, November 25, 2010

Neil Young - On the Beach

On the Beach was the in-studio follow-up to 1972's Harvest. Neil Young once wrote in liner notes for his Decade compilation that ''Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." Neil headed for the ditch with the "Ditch Trilogy" - Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and On the Beach. Neil became disillusioned with stardom, discovered that "success" wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, and a couple of friends [Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry] succumbed to drug overdoses. Those circumstances put Neil in a foul mood, the result of which was the "Ditch Trilogy."

Neil Young emerged from the ditch with On the Beach. Released in 1974, it reflected the times - Watergate, the Symbionese Liberation Army and their kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the energy crisis, the post-Woodstock hangover of hippies having to grow up and actually contribute something to society. Several of Neil's friends appear on On the Beach, to include David Crosby, Graham Nash, Ben Keith, Rusty Kershaw, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The album sports one of the coolest album covers I've ever seen - a Cadillac buried in sand up to its tailfins, a newspaper with headlines calling for Nixon to resign, a yellow beach umbrella and two chairs, and a long-haired Neil gazing out at the ocean while standing near a potted palm tree.

On the Beach was made under the influence of "Honey Slides," courtesy of Rusty Kershaw. A honey slide is a concotion made from mixing up honey and real cheap marijuana. According to Neil's manager Elliot Roberts, "The high was debilitating. People passed out. This stuff was, like, way worse than heroin. Much heavier. Rusty Kershaw would pour it down your throat and within ten minutes you were catatonic."

Despite the honey slides [or maybe because of them, I don't know], On the Beach has lots of good Neil Young music. When it came out it was panned, but time has been more than kind to On the Beach. Critics have since praised it as a "masterpiece."

Walk On - Some get stoned, some get strange/Sooner or later it all gets real... a commentary on the 1960s perhaps?

See the Sky About to Rain - a leftover from the Harvest days. Yawn...

Revolution Blues - not so much a tribute to Charles Manson, but written from Manson's point of view. Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars... It's not a blues - it's a full-tilt rocker with the Band's rhythm section [Rick Danko and Levon Helm] and Croz on rhythm guitar.

For the Turnstiles - Neil plays banjo. What does it all mean? Damned if I know...

Vampire Blues - Neil skewers the oil companies. Neil was green before being green became chic. This is as close to a blues as Neil Young gets.

On the Beach - Neil laments stardom. If you should always look on the bright side of life, then Neil meditates on the downward side of fame. I need a crowd of people but I can't face them today/Though my troubles are meaningless - that don't make them go away. This one has the feeling of waking up with a skull-crushing hangover. It sounds a bit bleary-eyed in its execution. Perhaps it was the honey slides. Graham Nash appears on Wurlitzer piano.

Motion Pictures - Neil laments his breakup with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress he fell in love with on Harvest's A Man Needs a Maid.

Ambulance Blues - Neil takes aim at his critics [so all you critics sit alone, you're no better than me from what you've shown with your stomach pumps and your hook-and-ladder dreams], Richard Nixon [I never knew a man could tell so many lies /He had a different story for every set of eyes /How can he remember who he's talkin' to/'Cause I know it ain't me and I hope it isn't you], and Crosby, Stills and Nash [you're all just pissing in the wind...]. It sounds a lot like Bert Jansch's Needle of Death - even Neil said so. It's not a blues either, but a 9-minute ballad. It's just Neil, one acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and Rusty Kershaw's fiddle. Good stuff this one.

On the Beach is not a cheery album, but not every album has to be. Play this one back-to-back with Harvest for maximum effect.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tony's Picks: Frank Zappa

How did I get Frank Zappa? It mostly started long after he died. When I was in college KILO 94 used to play Cosmik Debris. It was goofy but harmless fun. Many years later I bought Strictly Commercial: The Best of Frank Zappa. It's a very good primer for someone just getting into Frank Zappa's music. I liked what I heard, then I went after the instrumentals: Hot Rats [1969], Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar [1981] and Guitar [1988]. These works are where I discovered Frank Zappa as a take-no-prisoners guitarist. Then I got the stuff from his 1970s period - Over-Nite Sensation [1973], Apostrophe (') [1974], One Size Fits All [1975], and Zoot Allures [1976]. There's more excellent musicianship and loads of ascerbic wit. I also got Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage. I tried to like them but there was just too much bathroom humor for one to stomach, so I eventually sold them when I was "culling the herd." The Flo & Eddie period didn't do too much for me either, so I didn't bother with those releases. Frank Zappa branched out into serious classical music. There are two noteworthy albums - The Yellow Shark [1993] (the last album of Frank Zappa music released in his lifetime) and Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa: Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions [2003]. Both are well-executed by the Ensemble Modern, but that's another story. Frank Zappa was a wicked satirist who did not suffer fools gladly. But he was also a fantastic guitar player. That's why there are so many "guitar-only" songs on my list.

With all of the releases I've listed above, I compiled a bunch of tunes for my iPod. So, for those who care for such things, these are my Frank Zappa picks:

Peaches en Regalia [Hot Rats, 1969]

Camarillo Brillo [Over-Nite Sensation, 1973]

Dirty Love [Over-Nite Sensation, 1973]

Cosmik Debris [Apostrophe ('), 1974] - Frank Zappa's commentary on self-help gurus

Stink-Foot - [Apostrophe ('), 1974] - Frank Zappa's commentary on Bromidrosis

My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama [Weasels Ripped My Flesh, 1970]

Trouble Every Day [Freak Out!, 1966]

Apostrophe (') [Apostrophe ('), 1974] - Jack Bruce jams with the Grand Wazoo himself, back when he still used to play a Gibson EB-3. Do you want to know what a fat, distorted lead bass sounds like? Try this song and you'll hear.

Montana - [Over-Nite Sensation, 1973] - guy wants to move to Montana to become a dental floss rancher

Inca Roads [One Size Fits All, 1975] - UFOs are landing!

Florentine Pogen [One Size Fits All, 1975]

Evelyn, A Modified Dog [One Size Fits All, 1975] - "Arf!" She said...

San Ber'dino [One Size Fits All, 1975] - Johnny "Guitar" Watson guest vocals. A not-so-nice look at San Bernardino, California.

Andy [One Size Fits All, 1975]

Muffin Man [Bongo Fury, 1976] - "Goodnight Austin wherever you are..." Frank Zappa's musings on the world's most perfect food, the muffin.

Dumb All Over (Live) [Have I Offended Someone?, 1997] - The Pier, NYC August 25, 1984 - a scathing attack on televangelism. Insane guitar solo at the end.

five-five-FIVE [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Conehead [You Are What You Is], Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 19, 1979

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 17, 1979

Sexual Harassment In The Workplace [Guitar, 1988] - Fox Theater, San Diego, California December 12, 1981 (late show)

Systems Of Edges [Guitar, 1988] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Rhein-Main-Halle, Wiesbaden, Germany, March 27, 1979 (early show)

Black Napkins [Zoot Allures, 1976] - Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Osaka, Japan
February 3, 1976

Pink Napkins [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Black Napkins, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 17, 1977

Zoot Allures [Zoot Allures, 1976]

Ship Ahoy [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Coda from Zoot Allures, Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Osaka, Japan, February 3, 1976

Watermelon in Easter Hay [Guitar, 1988 - originally Joe's Garage, 1979] - Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY August 16, 1984

Friendly Little Finger
[Zoot Allures, 1976]

Which One Is It? [Guitar, 1988] - Guitar solo from Black Page, Olympiahalle, Munich, Germany, June 26, 1982

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 18, 1979 (early show)

Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 19, 1979

Chunga's Revenge [Trance-Fusion, 2006] - Wembley Arena, London, UK
April 19, 1988

Bowling On Charen [Trance-Fusion, 2006] - Guitar solo from Wild Love, The Palladium, NYC, October 28, 1977 (early show)

A Cold Dark Matter [Trance-Fusion, 2006] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Memorial Hall, Allentown, Pennsylvania, March 19, 1988

Village Of The Sun [Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974] - about a turkey farm on Palmdale, California

Echidna's Arf (Of You) [Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974]

Cheepnis [Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974] - Frank Zappa's tribute to cheap monster movies

RDNZL [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

Pygmy Twylyte [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

The Dog Breath Variations [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

Uncle Meat [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

If you can afford them, check out these titles. I think you'll enjoy them for the humor, and for the musicianship.

Thanks to Román García Albertos for making much of this track information available to me.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tom Waits: The Black Rider/Alice/Blood Money

Of all the people who grace my CD collection, Tom Waits is probably the most interesting. He’s been making records since 1973 [Closing Time]. He possesses a unique voice that critic Daniel Durchholz described as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I suppose that’s one way to describe his raspy, gravelly voice, but the voice is only part of the appeal. His music includes styles ranging from cabaret, vaudeville, primal blues, carnival music, tango and theatrical music. Some of his stuff sounds industrial. He includes unique instruments in his music, like bassoon, waterphone, bagpipes, pump organ, marimba, accordion, Stroh violin, and an early mellotron called a Chamberlin. He sings about bums, he finds inspiration in hookers, strippers, thieves, drunks, jailbirds, addicts, all kinds of life’s losers. He’s done music for movies, and he’s done music for theatrical productions. I have CDs from three such theater productions on which he collaborated with director Robert Wilson: The Black Rider, Alice, and Blood Money.

The Black Rider is based on an old German folk tale called Der Freischütz [The Marksman]. Wilson’s The Black Rider premiered at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany in March 1990. It’s the story of a young clerk named Wilhelm who makes a pact with Satan in order to marry the daughter of an old forester. Wilhelm had a problem. He was in love with a girl named Katchen, but her father Bertram wanted her to marry a hunter. Herein lies Wilhelm’s problem – he’s a poor marksman. He can’t shoot straight to save his life. While he’s out in the woods trying to improve his marksmanship, Wilhelm is approached by a dark horseman named Pegleg. Wilhelm and Pegleg have a chat, during which Wilhelm tells Pegleg his tale of woe. Pegleg has a solution to Wilhelm’s problem. He has these “magic bullets” that allows the shooter to hit whatever he aims at, no matter how lousy a shot he is. There is only one catch – Pegleg wants the very last bullet to be able to go wherever he wants it to go. Wilhelm is desperate for Katchen’s hand so he agrees to Pegleg’s proposal. Unbeknownst to Wilhelm, Pegleg is really the Devil. So, Wilhelm practices with his magic bullets and becomes quite the marksman. He enters a shooting contest, wins, and Bertram agrees to let his daughter marry Wilhelm. On their wedding day, Bertram asks Wilhelm to demonstrate his excellent marksmanship one more time before he and Katchen exchange their vows. Wilhelm has but one bullet left out of those given to him by Pegleg. He loads, aims at a wooden dove, and fires. The bullet doesn’t hit the wooden dove – Pegleg directs the bullet to Katchen, who is stricken and dies. Wilhelm kills his own bride and shortly thereafter becomes a raving lunatic. The moral of the story is fairly obvious.

Alice is based on Lewis Carroll’s fascination with Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Wilson’s play premiered at the Thalia Theatre in 1992. The folks at describe the music as “nocturnal, gloomy, reflective, literate, and quirky.” The music is in many styles like jazz ballads, old waltzes, tangos, European folk songs, theatrical love paeans. There is not a single “rock” song in the bunch. The instrumentation includes the Stroh violin [a violin fitted with a brass horn for amplification], marimbas, piano, organ, French horns, trumpets, woodwinds, and reeds. There are no guitars to be heard on Alice. There are themes of loneliness, sadness, insanity, resignation to one’s own fate. According to Waits "Alice is adult songs for children, or children's songs for adults. It's a maelstrom or fever-dream, a tone poem, with torch songs and odyssey in dream logic and nonsense."

Blood Money, released the same day as Alice, is another German tale. Another Robert Wilson production, the play premiered at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen in November 2000. The story is from a political play written in 1837 by Georg Büchner. The play, Woyzeck, is about a German soldier who needs to earn extra money and subjects himself to bizarre army medical experiments. These experiments and his lover’s infidelity with a handsome drum major drive this German soldier into madness, which leads him to murder said lover. So you’ve got sex, drugs, insanity and murder [oh my!]. This isn’t your typical “concept album.” This CD is permeated with German cabaret, and with some sound effects, like the sound of marching feet, it gives the CD a Weimar-era Germany feel. According to Waits, "Blood Money is flesh and bone, earthbound. The songs are rooted in reality: jealousy, rage, the human meat wheel...They are more carnal. I like a beautiful song that tells you terrible things. We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth. I like songs to sound as though they've been aging in a barrel and distressed." Like with Alice, there’s some eclectic instrumentation on Blood Money. He uses the Stroh violin, calliope, Chamberlin, trumpets, reeds, woodwinds, marimbas, accordion, guitars, bass, drums, cellos, to evoke the moods of panic, confusion, desperation, pain, death. He even shies away from traditional drums in favor of a “kitchen sink” approach, which included trash can lids, brake drums, megaphones, chairs, and even tubas to further help evoke the proper mood. There’s some interesting sounds going on here and on Alice and it definitely is not boring. It keeps me guessing “what is the next one going to sound like?” In one song Tom Waits will slur his words, another he’ll bark, maybe growl in the next, then maybe whisper. This stuff keeps you guessing musically. One thing Tom Waits is not is “typical.” If David Lynch made records instead of movies, this is what they’d sound like.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bob Mould: Workbook

Once upon a time there was a punk band from Minneapolis. Their name - Hüsker Dü. They were Bob Mould [guitar, vocals], Grant Hart [drums, vocals], and Greg Norton [bass, vocals]. Bob Mould and Grant Hart wrote the songs. Their sound was equal parts distortion, feedback, extreme volume, and speed. Their first album Land Speed Record consisted of 17 songs spread out over a whopping 26 1/2 minutes. (!) Bob Mould once remarked Land Speed Record was "the bad part of the acid...It sounds like when you go to a gig and get your ears blown off." Hüsker Dü soon acquired the tag of "hardcore punk." After Everything Falls Apart and the EP Metal Circus, Hart and Mould became better songwriters, and beginning with Zen Arcade Hüsker Dü would try anything - pop songs, tape experiments, acoustic songs, pianos, noisy psychedelia. Both Hart and Mould developed a dependency on alcohol and speed. Mould sobered up, but Hart drifted into heroin addiction. As a result, tensions between Mould and Hart began to rise. In 1987, the night before they were to tour in support of the double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Hüsker Dü manager David Savoy committed suicide. Mould took over the management responsibilities, and Hart slid further into heroin addiction, thus adding to the vibe of doom between the two. After the Warehouse tour, Hüsker Dü dissolved amidst much acrimony. It was quite the painful split. Mould chalks the breakup to "not liking each other very much" and "not liking each others' songs." They recorded seven albums and an EP in five years, and crammed in tours between each of the albums. They fell victim to the album-tour-album-tour treadmill.

After Hüsker Dü's split in 1988, Bob Mould moved into a Minnesota farmhouse and woodshed with his acoustic guitar for months. During his woodshed time he came up with the songs that became his debut solo album, Workbook.

In an interview in 2009 with musician Tom Goss, Bob Mould said of Workbook:

"That record was a big departure from what I'd ever done before. Compositionally, it was a lot more poetry and free verse, non-rhyming structure, the sort of narratives, sort of found images that would collide when I put them together. Sort of a real unconscious way of writing as opposed to ''I need to find a word that rhymes with this.'"

He wasn't kidding. Nothing says "I'm free" from a previous band than to change the sound radically.. Workbook, released in 1989, starts with an acoustic instrumental called Sunspots. Most of Workbook is acoustic, with touches of cello and mandolin thrown in for good measure. If you want to find a blueprint for Workbook, look no further then Mould's Hardly Getting Over It from Hüsker Dü's Candy Apple Grey. The gentle strains of acoustic guitars, whispered vocals from Bob Mould with a melancholy melody from Hardly Getting Over It [itself a depature for Hüsker Dü] are all over Workbook. The electric guitar makes itself known in a few of places: Wishing Well, Poison Years [which on the surface sounds like Mould's lamentation on the Hüsker Dü experience], and the finale Whichever Way the Wind Blows. Workbook doesn't have the Hüsker Dü wall of noise. Mould actually sings the songs instead of screaming them. Workbook derives its heaviness not from any loud music but from the angst contained in the lyrics, to wit:

Used to be that a handshake was a man's word
But now we settle arguments in court
No one trusts anyone's intentions anymore...

[Compositions for the Young and Old]

Why every time you knock me down
It's all that I can do to get up off the ground, pull myself apart again
At the end of this rope, rope at the end of the line
I see you swing by your neck on a vine

[Poison Years]

Cheap thrills are awful hard to find these days
No one is amused for free
Someone's pulling on your mama's apron strings
You'd better run and see who it is

[Compositions for the Young and Old]

As the years go by, they take their toll on you
Well, think of all the things we wanted to do
And all the words we said yesterday
Well, that's a long time ago

[See a Little Light]

All those things I've done before
It doesn't matter anymore
I see the errors of my oh-so-humble ways
Better run before
There's no way that i can cover for
All these things catch up to me
We've all sinned before
I have sinned before

[Sinners and Their Repentances]

See a Little Light is a brilliant little pop gem. Songs like Dreaming, I Am and Heartbreak a Stranger are almost a whisper [compared to Hüsker Dü anyway...]. The tunes are extremely well written, and the guitar playing is flawless. My favorite is Poison Years. There's so much venom and vitriol there. The music matches the mood. If you are going to own any music Bob Mould made after Hüsker Dü, Workbook is the one to have. It's brilliant!

Also recommended: Sugar - Copper Blue

Poison Years