Albums I Don’t Really Like

They say people’s taste and actions fall closer to the mainstream than their actual personalities usually dictate. About a quarter of people have little to no self-determination at all, and another quarter don’t give a fuck what you think — they just listen to music. I fall somewhere into the middle of that spectrum, since I take a lot of recommendations and stay relatively quiet when other people play terrible shit on the stereo. (Of course, my taste is always a lot more offensive to them than theirs is to me; I suppose everyone else is just stupid, and I ought to forgive them for it. Oh well. That’s Übermensch life, I guess.)

That being said… there are several albums you would probably not suspect me of disliking. I do not put records on this list lightly — I have listened to each one several times, and most or all of the time they disappoint my expectations. Often I read a lot about these albums, and the enthusiastic reviews hyped up my expectations, but the real thing was not up to the snuff of fawning critics. Many of them have some good or even excellent songs, but the sum of it all is really lame.

These are ranked in order of least to greatest shock value.

13. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis

When you fill two discs with six tracks, you’d better be goddamn sure they’re good jams. Not everyone can make a Jack Johnson, but you would think Miles Davis — the great, all-encompassing bandleader-composer-innovator-asshole — capable of repeating his masterstrokes. Bitches Brew is simply one of those “transitional” albums that critics mention in reviews of much better albums later on in an artist’s discography. It’s unfocused, spotty and, above all, too fucking long. I do like the first twenty-odd minutes of the title track, and “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and bits of disc 2; but the intensity that Davis and his band brought to Jack Johnson is spread thin.

12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles

No, I’m not original in criticizing the Beatles, and especially not in criticizing Sgt. Pepper’s. (Jim DeRogatis decimated it in another book.) However, I really don’t find a whole lot of redeeming material anywhere in their catalog. There are about a dozen songs that I enjoy — “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” the excellent “Dear Prudence,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” the John Lennon half of “A Day In the Life,” “Something,” and others — but almost none of them are on Sgt. Pepper’s. It is stuffed with underwhelming orchestral pop, so that soporific garbage like “She’s Leaving Home” and “Fixing a Hole” and “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” bleed out and blur the edges of any interesting bits. And please, if you have somewhere to go quickly, don’t get me started on the Paul McCartney half of “A Day In the Life.”

11. Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy

I really don’t know if I should include this, because there are parts I like and there are parts that completely slip my mind. I tremendously enjoy the first side, particularly the ballad “Something Sweet, Something Tender” and the industrial clank of “Hat and Beard,” but the second half is dreamily pathetic. I can’t get behind it. Have fun without me, spacey anti-compositional freaks — I will put on John Lee Hooker instead.

10. Frizzle Fry by Primus

I adore Sailing the Seas of Cheese because it is a diversion like no other. It is a gleefully stupid record into which Primus channels tons of fun. If it were less atonal, it would probably go down in collective memory (instead of just mine) as one of the best pop albums of the past twenty years. Similarly, Pork Soda is dark and broody, and effectively sustains darkness over seventy-odd minutes. Both are interesting and engaging, and super catchy.

On the other hand — Frizzle Fry.

P.S. The production is headache-inducing shit, the lyrics are aggressively stupid, and the overall mood is one of unmitigated rage at nothing in particular. Exceptions include “Harold of the Rocks,” “Too Many Puppies” and “Mr. Knowitall.”

9. Dirt by Alice In Chains

This is the most stupid, ill-informed, colossally misguided, and deeply concerning albums I’ve ever heard. It’s not so much the junkie narratives as the lack of a moral center, which can be compelling if the author can say anything by emphasizing the characters’ lack of values. Layne Staley, unfortunately, was writing his autobiography, and so there is no redeeming an album as intimately tied to his wasted life as this one, especially one that celebrates the muck he wallowed in. Also, the guitar tone gives me a fucking headache. Their first album Facelift, recorded before his heroin addiction (but during his crack addiction), is a lot better anyway.

8. Earth 2 by Earth

Euuugh. I enjoy Earth’s other albums — Hex, Bees, Pentastar, Primitive, Bureaucratic and others are brilliant bits of outward-bound, minimal rock. Earth 2 is simply a device by which I try my patience when other ways of challenging myself are just too exciting. Doesn’t put me to sleep, doesn’t wake me up, doesn’t even make me zone out. It’s exhausting to listen to and totally uninteresting. I do like Sunn O)))’s Monoliths and Dimensions, however, especially when turned up loud on an epically bassy stereo.

7. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

I probably should have placed this one in the beginning, since I mentioned in the Tonight’s the Night review that it makes me feel really bad about myself. Van Morrison, it has been said, rests often on the idea that “earthly love” is as close as anyone can be to heaven while on terra firma, and as a dude who has never actually been on a second date, kissed a girl or had a girlfriend, I cannot at all commiserate with the teary-eyed blonde Irish fuck who stares out from behind the overlaid image of an autumn tree on the album cover. Lester Bangs’ piece suggests that a lot of Astral Weeks is actually about having to deal with the irredeemably sad people one comes into contact with, so there could be hope yet for Vanny’s first record; I also like some of the first side (aside from “Sweet Thing”) and “Slim Slow Slider.” Right now, though, it makes me cry for all the wrong reasons.

6. Velvet Underground & Nico

The third Velvet Underground album is terrific. The first one is cold, compressed, leery, exhibitionistic and ultimately empty. Perhaps the “classic” cover is really a metaphor for my approach to the record: there’s a bruised, bright banana peel on the cover, and the signature of an artist; this represents the praise of a bunch of easily impressed critics and people, which coated the album and got my attention. Underneath, though, there’s no delicious potassium-rich substance; instead we get a radioactive-looking banana phallus. I’m sure it sounded “revolutionary when it came out,” but mostly it just kind of bores me.

5. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

My introduction to hip-hop. I tried so hard to like it that I got burned out on the thing. It’s rather heavy reading, and oppressive listening for eighty minutes — Ulysses for those who are learning English. I don’t like good kid, m.A.A.d. city that much either, though I enjoy Butterfly’s “untitled unmastered” outtakes album. I really want to appreciate it too, but I suppose I haven’t yet gotten around to the psychology course where they teach you how to deal with well-meaning lower-class activists like Kendrick, who mean well, but still need to let me know often how little I understand them or how little they need my help. Many of the beats are really good, though.

4. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

Don’t let anyone tell you that rock and roll is a device of anarchy and freedom — the people who do, are the ones to run from the fastest. As a dedicated fan of bizarre and existentially challenging music, I’ve been told often that my taste is terrible or that my favorite albums suck; though it hurts a little still (especially from my family), I have learned to take it in relative stride, and to avoid playing any when making an impression on a new acquaintance. I’m not invested anymore in what people think of “my” music. It’s a pity that more brain-dead classic-rock fans haven’t figured out how to cope with people who say the same, because having your entire identity wrapped up in a series of tones that somebody else made must really suck. I don’t want to project that arrogant alt-righty superiority over people who are hurt by the disingenuous fuck-you-all bombs which they repeatedly chuck into serious discussions, a la “that’s your trip if you snowflakes can’t handle it,” so I’ll say it straight and stop intimating: I don’t think that The Dark Side of the Moon is very interesting. I do like “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” and “Money,” but the rest is take-it-or-leave-it lounge music to my ears. I don’t know why anyone rates Pink Floyd above prime Steely Dan, or Seventies Pink Floyd over Sixties Pink Floyd — Aja and Piper at the Gates of Dawn both top Dark Side in very different ways.

See, kids? That’s called owning what you say. It’s an important part of being an adult.

3. Bone Machine by Tom Waits

A lot of people call this the best Tom Waits album, which is horseshit because that title belongs indisputably to Nighthawks at the Diner (soon to appear on this site, I hope!). It certainly features several of Waits’s best sonic textures, which are the things that made his Eighties work famous — that is, his ability to make junk and obsolete instruments evoke all kinds of locales and states of mind with incredible clarity. He is Dr. Barry Blesser’s argument for the efficacy of “aural architecture.” That is not the case with Bone Machine. Waits, in his old age, is no less sentimental than before, which he proves with two gorgeous piano ballads; however, he now hands meaning over to explicit symbols, rather than intimate it by speaking in only ideas. Axes with bloodstains and suicidal ramblings replace stepping on the devil’s tail and passing out wolf tickets. The hokey “Murder in the Red Barn” sounds a lot less desolate or folksy than “Gun Street Girl,” despite the fact that both are arranged for banjo, footstomp and slapped percussion, because it shows you the goods exactly instead of leading you to a conclusion. Do I confuse you? It’s like how Steven Spielberg was better off not showing off the shark in Jaws, because then the audience could build its own impression of the shark, which would be scarier than anything a filmmaker could create. Same with Rain Dogs and Nighthawks and Swordfishtrombones — these albums are composed of impressions and suggestions, which allow us listeners to construct fantastical worlds for his characters to inhabit. Waits abandoned that for Bone Machine by going the cheap-thrills route of most modern horror movies, showing us scary shit and hoping we’ll think it’s scary. Does he not trust his audience anymore, or did having to write narrative showtunes for all those Robert Wilson plays fuck him up?

2. Spiderland by Slint

I can hear, plain as day, that Dylan Carlson was listening obsessively to Slint and its fellow “post-rock” bands as he made The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull. I can only imagine what he heard in it all. I heard one reviewer assert that Slint’s desired aesthetic abandoned the “Dionysian impulse” of rock and roll — that is, the will to rock. That makes me mad. All that’s left, when you stop rocking, is to roll — to roll over, to roll back, to roll with the punches. This is what Slint does in Spiderland. Their protagonists are poor sad sacks without self-determination, who drift along and push happiness and interesting music aside as so many distractions. They are defined — Don Theman, Nosferatu, whoever the hell Washer and the Captain are — by what they cannot have, what is beyond their grasp. I say fuck that. “Breadcrumb Trail” celebrates life, in its strange and somber way, and thus is the only track I can sit all the way through. Otherwise, Spiderland is a hipster against satisfaction and vicarious living, which is probably why so many “artsy” people are attracted to it: it looks to the cheap and false pleasures of society and vows to itself to construct a cheap and false sadness to oppose it. This is because it has nothing to say in particular. Unfortunately, the flawed mainstream still has some pretty good ideas (like compact songs, conviction, lyrical content or interesting guitar lines, for example), which the amorphous Slint refuses to acknowledge. In short: rock for what you are — don’t mope for what you aren’t. (Plus, most of the guitar parts are boring and abrasive and the good passages are nothing but pretenders to Red‘s already precarious throne.)

1. Fun House by the Stooges

I really have kicked the hornet’s nest, haven’t I? In this age of punk-rock nostalgia, there’s even a Beatles/Floyd/Davis/Velvets/Morrison/etc.-style consensus about the records that no one paid attention to back in “the day.” I love the Stooges’ first, self-titled album because it provides us with eight excellent little songs that showcase the group’s much-heralded power and intensity in the confines of pretty tight structures. There’s a reason people don’t like “We Will Fall” very much, and that is because it wanders. The rest of The Stooges is compact and bursting with energy, and M-80’s its way into my heart. As a punk songwriter and arranger with minimal proclivities, I should know.

Fun House unleashes the jamming Stooges instead. Uncensored by their novice producer, whose only qualification was that he played the organ on “Louie Louie,” they proceeded to lay down several lengthy songs which aren’t nearly as interesting or intense as people would lead you to believe. I’ve even put the album to the Stereo Test, which means that after I got bored listening to it on headphones I decided the problem might be the lack of dynamics and bass inherent in listening through tiny speakers that wrap around the cranium. So I played Fun House on the nice family set, and my reaction was the same: relative disinterest. I tried to rock along with the first side, but “Down on the Street” and “T.V. Eye” remained unbearable, though I was somewhat interested by “Loose” and “Dirt”; the extended bleeeaaaaughs of the second half (and really, of “Dirt” too) were still funky and a little engrossing, but didn’t go anywhere.

The problem with the Stooges lies in their faith in the jam, a concept articulated in the Sixties and Seventies by lumbering conformists on the order of ELP and the Grateful Dead and Kansas (but with admittedly more taste by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the MC5). The jam is an article of faith — faith that the tonal dissertations performers pump out will be worth hearing, that they will say something you can identify with. They must express what you feel. On one hand it’s easier to jam in music because the articulation is much easier in music than in speech; on the other, it’s more difficult to decide what all to express. The former is easy in the jam-rock and progressive rock explored by the Stooges’ contemporaries because the players have tremendous facility with their instruments; the latter comes easier to punks because they often use music to catalyze emotional reactions. (Look to the “screaming” timbre of noise guitars for proof of that.) Personally, I’m an original prog-rock speaker who found his way to triumphant punk expression, and I find things to like about both — but also criticisms. The greatest complaint I have about Fun House is that the Stooges embrace the lamest variety of jam-rock, though they retain some vital punk energy, because they’re not nearly skilled enough to play or compose that kind of thing. They would be better served by much shorter songs and a lot less dicking around with the guitars. The huge problem with their “live”-sounding album is that it stays too true to the worst of their concert tendencies, without preserving the visual theatrics that made them epic in the first place. I’ve seen the footage — Iggy Pop teetering on the hands of a dozen spectators, belting out the best part of “1970,” smearing himself with peanut butter and tossing it everywhere. He has the crowd in his hairy hand. Meanwhile, in the background, Dave and Scott thump away ad nauseam and Ron Asheton doodles out sub-Allman Bros. guitar solos. The Stooges needed a strong producer to police their basest impulses, which they did not get in Don Gallucci. And Fun House suffers for it.

In summation: I don’t care what you think of these albums — I just don’t really like them. I confess that I did weigh their popularity when picking them, and take a little glee in deflating the most jealously guarded ones, but my sentiments are sincere. Go write your own blog if you think I’m wrong.

“Chicago XX” by the Low-Maintenance Perennials – Review

chicago-xx

This is definitely a difficult album to get. At first glance it’s only another Mark Prindle project, with dozens of jokes guaranteed to offend pretty much any marginalized group. Just look at the song titles — “All Women Are Lesbos.” “O.J. Simpson.” “I Hate Everyone, Especially Homeless People.” And that’s before you actually listen to the songs themselves.

It takes awhile for it to sink in, I mean — all I could pay attention to at first were the egregious offenses to common decency. It was difficult to stop rubbernecking. And so, I kept listening, but to no avail, until

I realized, late at night last November in a wooden chair over the excruciating monotony of a calculus assignment, exactly how wonderful the music was. Prindle has called himself a “guitar nerd” before on his website, in describing the works of Blue Öyster Cult, but they don’t seem like the inspiration for the innovative fingerings present; instead I hear snatches of Wire and Slint and early Pink Floyd, but I also suspect that some of his most derided groups influenced the songwriting. This sounds like the Sonic Youth, of all people! Or the Velvet Underground! Or post-Damaged Black Flag! And he hates them all! Perhaps it’s compensation, or just Mark pretending to despise the Youth because so many people hang on them like wet coats, but many of Chicago’s songs are very Daydream National, if you get my drift. Two interlocking guitars, washes of feedback, flaming danger! dissonances flying in all directions… very much like the Sonic Youth. What a hypocrite.

Perhaps the Perennials did draw some inspiration from these groups with regard to texture, but they have a much finer ear for songwriting. That, it seems, is the reason I keep coming back to Chicago XX. “Lorp and the Pain” is the catchiest available track, but there are dozens of moments to file between the synapses and bring up when the mind wanders. Good luck assigning lyric fragments to the songs — there are thirty-five tracks, most under three minutes. (That’s indicative of another improvement in LuMP’s approach to recording, since their previous albums all exceeded ninety tracks, most of which were four-second dick jokes anyway.) They have learned to self-censor. Sort of.

As stated above, there are dozens of great moments to consider. My personal favorite is the seven-minute guitar epic “O.J. Simpson,” which encompasses a few pleasant verses and some earworm choruses; the real treat, however, is hearing guitarists Mark Prindle and Matt Terrebonne play off one another between parts, concocting the most wonderfully nostalgic riffs for minutes at a time. Even more remarkably, these bridges seem like completely natural parts of the song, building on one another and building ever more anticipation for the more conventional parts of the song. Near the end, as the vocalist (I can’t actually identify any of them by sound, okay?) learns that O.J. has a secret, Mark/Matt switch to 5/4 just to fuck with our minds, growing more and more dissonant, playing off the bass, twiddling even faster, until the climactic “WHYYYYYYYY?!” that ends the song. Then they coda it with eight seconds of shouting “TRUCA!” Wonderful.

Other bestests include the punk sound tapestry of “That Dog on Frasier,” the off-time industrial guitar alarms in “Jink Has Pimples” and “Postmodern Fish — Alternative to What?”, “Lorp and the Pain” all by itself, the Miles Davis-circa-1974 ambience of “I Believe All Women Should Have the Right to Decide Whether or Not to Have an Abortion” and “Who’da Thought Billy Graham Was a Pedophile?”, Prindle’s pjornl of twisty guitar existentialism titled “Henry the Vegetarian fellow,” “‘Leaves of Ass’ by Walt Shitman” (blues-rock? DUUUUUDE!), and “Ice Cream Man.”

There are a lot of things wrong with Chicago XX, of course. Foremost is the band’s (primarily Prindle’s) approach to songwriting — while the hooks are present, the lyrics are lacking, and not so much in taste as in understanding. Mark doesn’t seem to have much conscience about what he says — spreading pain like mayonnaise, he says, or swine flu, is just his way of letting off steam. If he has all this hate, why not channel it towards people who get made fun of and stomped on all the time? Only the PC warriors are gonna come after him, and they’re just crybabies, after all. He didn’t even mean it. It was all irony, as he explained very clearly and disinterestedly in the review of Tamara’s Little Sex Secret Cleverly Disguised as the Third Low-Maintenance Perennials Album.

“Well, Mark, I’m afraid we can’t let you in. You see, that’s what all assholes tell themselves. And after a while even they believe it so strongly that they think it’s gonna get them past me.”

But Saint Peter

“No fucking buts! I’ve had enough of you and your little troll friends! You’ve sent enough teenagers in pain my way already!”

[pulls lever] AAAAAAH!

Also, it kinda peters out after “Weekends Are Bonus.” Still — it’s worth listening to. Please try it out on Bandcamp, and pay the guy a buck an album. He’s got a kid to support now, who appears in the side of his profile photo, so hopefully he’s cleaned up his act. And “O.J. Simpson” still worth the dollar by itself.

“Slip It In” by Black Flag – Review

slip-it-in

It’s happened: I crossed over a third time regarding the best Black Flag album. Of course I loved Damaged first, since it was my introduction; with time, however, it grew old. The production relegated all the instruments to a tinny backdrop clusterfuck, in which the one-dimensional bass and screeching guitars fought desperately for ground; that, I suppose, is part of the appeal. However, all good things must come to an end (with the notable exception of Finnegans Wake*) and I moved on to The First Four Years compilation to get ahold of tighter, more conventional hardcore punk, which in the hands of an excellent songwriter like Greg Ginn** was a treat indeed. As a fan of weirded-out horseshit, however, I can’t count on three chords and a rattled brain forever — I want fat on my red meat. So I turned to My War, which was much more dark and oversharey than the other two; with Henry Rollins leading the charge, I expected nothing less. It was a tough sell, but well worth it, if a little fragmented.

What I didn’t count on was Slip It In. It’s a filthy listen, as are most Black Flag albums; the supercompressed psychosis of the upfront guitar, backed by the murmurs of other instruments, steals the show, and when combined with the overwrought hysteria for which Rollins is famous, the combined effect leaves nobody unscathed. Everyone who listens to Slip It In and Family Man and My War is a voyeur of sorts, who revels in the pain of a man with no emotional intelligence. Perhaps that description applies to most Flag fans, but that doesn’t explain why so many were turned off by it; I suspect that they were all turned off by how unusual the music was. The key to understanding Slip It In, I think, is to regard it not as a traditional punk album — with six-minute guitar anthems, how could it be? Instead, the listener must approach it as a work of experimental music, an attempt to abstract the depressing sheen of dirt that coated the lives of its makers. They were fed up with touring, but also with having to explain themselves to everybody.

I’ve been listening profusely to the first track of King Crimson’s Red recently — bit of a bender, in fact — and its clankity grind is beginning to point towards the true nature the Flag’s deadly-slow 1983 “socialist groove.” Straight-ahead rhythms are still common on Slip It In, but several are less orthodox than those of previous releases. Look to the totally unholy thump-ahead of its centerpiece tracks, “Rat’s Eyes” and “Obliteration,” for proof of the chief songwriter’s love of prog-rock. “My Ghetto” also allows Bill Stevenson to bastardize Wire’s favorite drum pattern: instead of “dun-dun-chhh-(silence),” to fill out the 4/4 meter like a good little punk, he simply plays the 3/4 polyrhythms implied in the initial swing, throwing the song for a constant loop and well-underlining the delirious lyrics. The other songs carry the famous punk doop-chick to thrilling effect — “Slip It In” is my personal favorite composition, even with the two ending minutes of fake orgasm noises, because of the baddest beat on the entire album. (Its successor, “Black Coffee,” is less astonishing because of its predictability, but still rocks on its own.) “The Bars” is a close second for best hardcore song.

One of my favorite features of the album is the bizarrely extended pauses that litter the choruses. You hear them in “Slip It In” and “Wound Up” and “Rat’s Eyes” and “Obliteration” (by the way, Greg, nice “Birds of Fire” reference with the meterless gong hits at the beginning of “Obliteration” — yes, I got it**), where the band should be pausing for the usual four beats and resuming the song, but they instead let it go for an extra beat and then heave their way back into the song. It sounds like the kind of gimmick they discovered when one of them fucked up during rehearsals, but it really works. That extra bit of effort they take to re-enter the song makes it sound like they’ve earned it, like they’re all lifting at once to hit a crucial railroad spike with a giant sledgehammer. It gives the pauses a measure of catharsis that they would never have had otherwise, and probably (I say this as a guy who plays in a band) reminded all the Flag members to pay close attention to one another when playing. When you all need to coordinate your re-entry, so that nobody fucks up the landing, you have to listen real hard and use the visual cues you give each other, and the results really show up on the tape. We should all take note of the pauses on Slip It In — I know for a fact that Primus did. You can hear them do the same thing on Pork Soda, especially in “My Name Is Mud.” And who doesn’t want to be like Primus, if for no other reason than the technical prowess and peculiar soul of the players?

In short, Slip It In is definitely the best Black Flag album. Of course, I haven’t heard them all either, but obviously I’m gonna stop here.

…right?

*Full disclosure: I’ve never read Finnegans Wake, though I have read Ulysses, and I know about the trick Joyce devised where the beginning of the first sentence is located at the end of the book. Fuck off.

**That Greg Ginn has proven himself a terrific songwriter and talent scout still doesn’t excuse the fact that he starves and neglects his kids, beat his wife up and kicked her out of the house, refuses to pay anyone royalties, mismanaged SST into the ground, smokes a ton of weed, besmirches the Black Flag name with horrid new albums, threatens to sue everyone he knows, and totally fucked the plans that literally everyone else in Black Flag had for a huge, remastered series of reissues with photos and lyrics and real liner notes. Instead we get fifteen-dollar POS CD’s with jack doodly shit for booklets. Fuck Greg Ginn the dude.

“Metal Box” by Public Image Ltd. – Review

metal-box

I haven’t soaked up all the little ideas in this album yet — that much is certain — but I can tell that eventually, something will happen again. Metal Box is one of those Money Pit-type records that yields next to nothing with each listen, but after a long time leaves you with epic dividends. This morning I was listening to “Poptones” loud on my parents’ nice stereo, when that seemingly inessential four-minute outro grudgingly betrayed one of its secrets: an untraceable noise that peeked through the cracks in the music, squalling ever so quietly in the far right channel, like Blixa Bargeld’s noise guitar in the Bad Seeds’ “Well of Misery.” In my previous half-dozen sessions with “Metal Box” I had never noticed that noise, probably since I only really listened to it on headphones; of course, it could also have happened soon regardless.

In the meantime, the album’s tangible bits are pretty stunning. I used to believe that only Sixties and Seventies funk songs (“Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” “Chameleon,” “Bitches Brew,” maybe D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” from 1999) and maybe the Minutemen had basslines worth remembering. I must add Jah Wobble’s work to that canon now. The songs are entirely driven by the bass — not to steal credit from Keith Levene, but his guitar mostly dances around the big cement blocks that Wobble places so methodically. I wish he’d use the bottom E string more often, just to see what would happen. I imagine that a single pluck would equal the downward press of a T-bar on one of those old detonators. The Birthday Party and Scratch Acid are not, as I had mistakenly believed, a proper substitute for Public Image — they are not as mature or inspired as the corporation-turned-band which combed all manner of world music to blast the egotism of the close-minded, sulking ex-empires in Britain and America. And you bourgeoisie think you’re so fucking special?

A lot of musicians talk about how much they love Captain Beefheart and Trout Mask Replica, but Metal Box (along with “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can” and — well shit, the Minutemen) stands out as one of the few statements of a band that really holds to the ultra-free ethos somehow. It’s difficult to articulate how they do it, but Public Image Ltd. (this is really going to get me in trouble, isn’t it?) manage to… hold to… a center… in… the midst… of… chaos. Fuck, that’s not it. They… break… the rules? No, no, they… shit! If you listen and believe, you can probably hear it — that kind of radical freedom. Something in Lydon’s voice, or the huge joyous bass, or the frenetic pace-keeping drums, or the skrankly Les Claypoolian guitar shrieks — God help me, in all four, and then in the production and synthesizers — some quality in those disparate elements lets you know that they all knew what they wanted, and none of them gave a fuck about what anyone else was going to think of their album. They were following their heart’s content, spitting out all the beloved music they had absorbed, and making what they knew would be their best and most honest document. I still can’t quite put my finger on what makes Public Image first cousins to Beefheart, but I hope I made some sense above. I hope you can hear it, you lovely intelligent reader.

The highlights of this album include “Albatross,” “Poptones,” “Careering,” “Death Disco,” “No Birds,” “Graveyard” (no good song is ever this catchy — only repulsive death music is worthy of consideration – signed, Black Metal Fan), and pretty much everything except “Bad Baby” and “The Suit.” Neither is very active while condemning suburban apathy or whatever — they need livening up, though when played loud enough they do make for a decent reprieve from the other fifty-two brutal minutes. In short, Metal Box is one of those long albums that I sometimes dread putting on because of how long and dense it can be; however, I always feel rewarded when I indulge my inner PiL fan. There is no proper mood for approaching this album, except maybe a little energetic.

P.S. If you own the CD version of Second Edition, I really recommend ripping it to your computer and putting the songs back in order, so that “Socialist,” the greatest video game menu theme ever, is track 10. It really fouls up the progression to put it in front of “Graveyard,” and I’m not certain why the transferring engineers felt the need to improve on Metal Box. Fucking heretics.

P.P.S. If you’re reading this, you’re obviously either new to PiL, or you did get the album and want to commiserate with a fellow soul who enjoys it too. Either way, it’s very likely that you are not currently listening to Metal Box. Get off your computer! Get with the program! PUT IT ON! NOW!

lydon.jpeg

“The B-52’s” by the B-52’s – Review

b-52s

I found this CD at Goodwill last Friday, while everyone else in my carpool was eating frozen yogurt across the parking lot. So far, I can say very little about it, except that it’s fucking terrific.

People keep saying you need a sense of humor to like the early B-52’s. I say that that’s disingenuous and kind of passes on what makes the band so great — the trappings of ’50’s pop culture are a simple press grab. What qualifies them as really really great is their songwriting skill. There’s only so much mileage most bands can get out of three power chords and a little root-fifth picking every once in a while, but the B-52’s are not most bands: as evinced by the likes of “Lava” and “52 Girls” and “Dance This Mess Around,” they can bang two cold, reverb-less power chords against a wall for four minutes at a time, propelled by a spry and cracking beat, without ever exhausting the listener (or at least me). It may not please everybody, but in a world where commercial considerations forced Duane Eddy to dub vocals over great stand-alone guitar tracks on Twangin’ Up a Storm, how many pedestrians can you expect to understand party-down surf rock, especially when presented this honestly? “Rock Lobster” aside, there’s not nearly as much irony in The B-52’s as you would expect, because these kids seem to genuinely love the plastic era they imitate. I say let ’em have their fun, no matter how white the Fifties were, no matter whether they cared about it. When they can coax this much fun out of two chords and some harmonics, I will leave them alone.

You know what this album reminds me of? Danzig. I’m not kidding. Both are basically perversions of ’50’s and early-’60’s pop music, with ultra-simple riffs and a special knack for beating the living shit out of the songs they play. The only difference lies in how far they were willing to take the schtick — the ’52’s mostly gave it up to pursue less fun music; Glenn Danzig stuck with it to pursue less fun music. Matter of fact, he still seems to be living it. Poor bastard.

Anyway, I dare you to buy it. It’s like $3.99 on Amazon as we speak.

danzig

“Read my lips: NO MISFITS REUNION!”

“Tonight’s the Night” by Neil Young – Review & Resolution

tonights-the-night

A guy I used to know has died. I hadn’t seen him in awhile but remembered him pretty vividly: tall and awkward and a little bit too eager. He made lots of dumb jokes and did some stupid shit, like most people. He and I used to argue a lot in carpool, until we eventually started riding opposite ends of the bus. On the twenty-sixth of January he shot himself. He was sixteen years old.

[ ]

What in the fuck for? What could he have hoped to accomplish? Perhaps he was making a statement to us, his hateful enemies. “Thanks, assholes. See what you’ve done to me.” When I first learned of it, thinking this way made it easy to shed the uneasy responsibility I almost felt. I felt angry.

God, people hated him so reflexively at his old school, the place where I go now. And I did nothing. I wrote an essay for the UC application, about how I thought that empathy was my most prized ability. Fat load of fucking good I put it to. The guy who could have used it most is dead. I can’t shake it — I think my classmates and I may have helped him along. Handed him the rope and let him find his way to the other end. We were cruel, or we didn’t act. We suck. Truly, we do.

Please excuse me. The Internet is no place to barf like this. I started this with the — oh fuck it, I started it with the intention of venting about my dead ex-classmate. The reason it appears here, though, is because of my new Neil Young album. Yes, last Friday I came into possession of Tonight’s the Night on a near-mint record, whose packaging some genius had shrink-wrapped to keep the piece of shit from falling apart. Fucking congratulations. What’s important is the likeness in our situations, mine now and his in 1975. According to the story: when told that Danny Whitten was dead, Neil’s first reaction was guilt. Earlier in the day he had kicked him out of Crazy Horse for the chronic incompetence his heroin addiction caused. Perhaps, he reasoned, this final rejection had not galvanized the guy — it had sent him over the edge.

I couldn’t make a sad album like Neil. Instead I went up to a big paper banner in the cafeteria the next day, a tribute the school had arranged, to be sent to the family. I wrote on it Thanks, P—–, for inviting me to your birthday party in middle school. I’m sorry I never invited you to mine. Wherever you are I hope to God there’s ESPN and I broke and cried all over the fucking thing.

There was a therapist there, who had been brought in specifically to counsel us through the guy’s death (and probably to help ward off any copycat suicides), and she took me into her office. I knew what I was feeling, at least to a point. What I had needed, instead of a sympathetic paid friend, was a wall, a listener who didn’t care about supporting me. I’m plenty supported in times like these, by the likes of friends, parents, occasionally teachers. I feel their love so acutely that I live in fear of betraying it. Public A.P. is a guy who lives and works for school and music, who is maybe a little needy and says loud stupid shit when you ignore him but isn’t generally a burden. I am not nearly so wonderful. It seems like cowardice, I think, to unload on other people, when they don’t deserve my problems. A man would act as the intimate shoulder to cry on.

A foot-high pile of tissues later, I left the office. To a total stranger I had let fly about momentary horrors that I had never spoken of, things I had dismissed as the long-ago problems and fantasies of a coddled pre-pubescent kid. Somehow they bothered me still, and stung like motherfuckers as they tore away. God help me if anyone else learns about them. And God help anyone else too. Maybe I’m not as good at that public persona as I thought, like how gay men always fear coming out but find out that everyone already kind of knew. I don’t want to know too badly right now — or I deny myself the knowledge of how badly I want to know. Perhaps my friends and family are prepared and even willing to help, but my narrative can get pretty fucked when I reach hard. Either way I’ve got the demons like Neil doubtless did.

What shook me most that day was the simplest possible gesture. As I sat back down at the lunch table one of my friends looked across at me. He saw my red eyes and face, and put two and two together. “Hey, man. Are you OK?”

I reeled slightly inside and just barely tossed off an unconvincing “Yeah.” Jesus Christ. My life flashed before my eyes, so affected was I by that question, a bare-bones cocktail-party inquiry, from a friend that I trusted. I realized that I had worn a kind of chain mail in public all those years — wide, polite, indirect swings at my self had always bounced off, and yet a casual thrust had snapped the whole thing and I suddenly stood there naked in the school courtyard. I dove for cover. “Yeah.” White light flashed behind my eyes, my neck hairs prickled with the genesis of sweat, vertigo set in for a crucial half-second — before fragile control returned. “Yeah.”

These, it seems — these demons, and my recalcitrance on the subject — are why I prefer Tonight’s the Night to Astral Weeks. Van Morrison is precious, a sparkling Irish spring of wisdom and tragedy beyond his years; a well-adjusted hippy who makes well-adjusted people cry. I’m being unfair, but still. I give myself no catharsis or confession or confrontation. I eat my grief in crummy little packages, the kind that fall apart like blotter-paper record sleeves when prodded, but which are straight and composed at first glance. I listen to my sorrow half-obscured by booze and parties, hidden from acknowledgment for as long as possible — the way a man does it. I watch Ratso’s eyes fill with tears when Joe Buck, his only friend in the goddamn world, threatens him over a cheap transistor radio, and I cry to see him choke on it and insult the bruised, cherubic Joe in turn. Because that’s how a man does it. Until some epiphany shatters the toxic façade on which my personality teeters, I will keep Tonight’s the Night in rotation. And I hope to God my pride doesn’t hold out much longer. Private sadness keeps its claws in as long as you let it. I think that people are willing to take me on; I think all I need is to be brave, for only a minute. Maybe that was what Neil found at the very end of the album. The first iteration of “Tonight’s the Night” was only a funeral, a tribute to the lives lost — in the end he admitted his sadness, in a sort of memorial-service hymn, and acknowledged exactly how much he missed Bruce and Danny. He leaned on his band, and let people hear him cry. If I could only get up the courage to do it too, with an audience of the people who know me all too well. I want that thrust more than anything, even as I dread it, if only to know — once and for all — where I stand.

The point, I guess, is that my own Waterface is gone. Like Neil, though, and all the other bereaved, I’m still here, baggage and all. I refuse to give my problems over to death — perhaps instead I have to surrender them, and my fragile self, to the proper authorities. Perhaps turning myself in is the bravest thing I can do.

goodbye-waterface-jpeg

How I Found the Ninth Amendment’s “Soft Sunshine Soul” – Submission for Discogs “Collecting Stories” Contest

Verbatim submission w/additional photograph — contest ended 1/16/17

Day was the 7th May 2016. Summer was starting to make itself known in Hollister, California — the temperature was well into the eighties as I bicycled back from my Saturday-morning karate class. I was about to head up Sunnyslope and back to my house when it occurred to me: should I go to Goodwill today? There hadn’t been anything noteworthy there the week before, and in a town of thirty thousand, new records don’t often find their way into the bin. Mostly they rot in an attic or get swept up by greedy young relatives. Not that I’d hesitate in their position — once I found “Surrealistic Pillow” in a box owned by the friends of a parent. Fortune is cruel like that, handing out prizes just often enough to get us coming back, so it can shit out a mountain of bum lottery tickets on us.

Nevertheless, it was only a block’s backtrack to the Union Road Goodwill, and a relatively short trip back home on the subsequent route; I took the chance. The store’s cooled interior, with its concrete floor and tinted windows under a shady arch, was indeed a welcome change of scene, and I took my time thumbing through the little plastic crate in the back. Only one album stood marginally out among the familiar wash of mediocrity, the Perry Como Christmas crap and bland Helen Reddy and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ubiquitous “After the Lovin’ “. The sleeve that caught my eye was the least likely of all to do so — a black and white cover, with the faces of five teenagers in stylized photo slices on the front. Now I remembered — I had seen it the week before but passed it over, bored as I was by the overall selection; now I reconsidered. The first of the girls on the cover wrinkled her nose petulantly, given away by the shadows beside her nose; the second looked upwards with awe, wide-eyed and naive. One of the boys faced the camera directly, with full and obvious knowledge of exactly how adorable he was. He had a perfect countenance, the kind common among those squeaky-clean teenage heartthrobs who thrived in the Sixties. Another subject eyed his viewers arrogantly, anticipating the shameless gaze of the record collector (myself) who would one day examine him; the third stared blankly past the photographer, as though he had just been busted for some terrible crime that had obliterated his self-respect. On the back they appeared as adults — less affected and pretentious than their counterparts on the front, but pretty well set in their ways. They knew what to expect from life, and were thus less magical.

soft-sunshine-soul

So I picked it up. The sleeve, as I later noticed, had no musician credits, no names to assign to faces front and back. Only on the back could one find miscellaneous scraps of information. Produced by Glenn Scott, whom I would learn had (along with an uncorroborated dude named Mark Lawson) written all the songs. Engineered by Dean Thompson, owner of the Ojai, CA studio where the album was recorded, and Hank Cicalo, later the producer for Lou Reed, Carole King and the Monkees, among others. Cover art by Eric Louzil, who — if the Internet is to be believed — has made his living swindling independent filmmakers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. What a story, Mark.

Of course all this editorial drivel was added in post-production — the scene itself was pretty brief. I went in, pawed through, came upon the album for the again. Shrugged, searched on Amazon to listen to Prime library samples; found none.

Curiosity was aroused.

I googled it on the wider Internet and found a definitive match listed on eBay. Under the heading “Ninth Amendment – Soft Sunshine Soul,” somebody was attempting to hawk my record — the very same one I held on that cold concrete floor in the town where I grew up — for $399.99 plus shipping.

When I tell friends the story I like to say that my eyeballs got road rash, owing to the speed with which they popped out of my skull.

I grabbed the thing up summarily and walked very slowly to the counter, lest I fall over and or drop it. The sleeve was already wrecked, with a massive rip on the top and side, and I was eminently careful to avoid letting the record fall out (as I had done with Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” a few months earlier). As the cashier bagged my $1.99 purchase, she smiled faintly and tapped the record hard with her fake index nail. “I remember them,” she nodded. I suspect now that she was thinking of the Fifth Dimension, but it does not diminish the obsessive flinch I had to tamp down as her shellacked digit hammered against the fragile grooves. I hung the bag gingerly on my handlebars and mounted my bike.

I rode home not on a cloud, perhaps on wings — definitely with the aid of a levitating agency, some exuberant power I had not known I possessed. And I most certainly burst through the door, exploding with the news.

For weeks afterwards I debated internally about whether I should sell it. I didn’t like the music much at that point, but I didn’t know how to go about finding buyers. So I did some research. Which site had good prices? Who knew anything else about the album? Was four hundred dollars a warranted purchase, or was it simply another ruthless eBay pirate trying to scalp buyers?

In the meantime I learned a lot about the album. As a Two:Dot Records product, it would have been recorded in Dean Thompson’s garage, at the end of Hendrickson Road in Ojai; it was among the earliest studios in the world to employ eight- and sixteen-track technology. The owner, Thompson himself, was a generous guy who would work for cash, for lunch or often for free, but his printing capacity was minimal; thus, only a few hundred copies of a given Two:Dot band’s album were ever pressed. The blank white label in the center, which differed entirely the printed yellow one I had seen in a photo of another copy, identified my new treasure as a test pressing of an album with a run of a few hundred copies at most.

It may yet be unspeakably valuable, but I have no intention of finding out. All the songs are wonderful — multi-sectional works of indeterminate bars and beats, with choruses that blossom in pure organic growth out of verses, and totally without superfluous bridges or solos. Each second of each song is impeccably composed. Each of the eleven tracks has gotten stuck in my head multiple times. Trust me, I’m keeping it.

The album also catalyzed many “firsts” in my life. It inspired me to set up a Discogs account, for which I will always be grateful; it gradually taught me to appreciate the folk-rock and pop of the 1960’s; and moreover it convinced me to pursue music collecting as a realistic hobby. Not after such a gem had fallen directly into my lap could I dismiss the possibility of its happening again. If I, of all people — a kid in a dinky Central Valley town, with limited funds and even more limited luck — could score so hugely, then it was nearly certain that I could do it again.

And so, even after adventures that yielded other great albums (“Gris-Gris”, “Diggin’ What You’re Doin’ “, “Low”, “Autobahn”, “Hot Buttered Soul”, “Aja”, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”), the Ninth Amendment’s sole recording still represents my favorite collecting memory. They say, in a very different context, that there’s nothing like your first time, and for once I must agree with conventional wisdom: no subsequent experience really compares. And furthermore, I don’t care anymore if I see nothing new for months at a time in the Goodwill bin. I know something will pop up again, interesting at least if not on the order of “Soft Sunshine Soul”. There’s too much good music around for me to miss ALL of it. I will get lucky again, and no number of Johnny Mathis records polluting the bin will convince me otherwise. So nice going, Fortune — you’ve sucked me into your lottery, but the deluge of shit albums won’t discourage me now. I’m hooked on account of a record you tossed me in Goodwill, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.