Almost Jack Daniels Drowned

26 Mar

john_anderson-2(2)JOHN ANDERSON – 2 LP (Warner Brothers, 1981)

A big name in 80’s Neo-Traditionalist Country John Anderson was, and maybe the best of the bunch. Along with George Strait and Dwight Yoakam, John was one of the first to carve out a career using songs & sounds identified with older, fading styles of country music at the beginning of the 80’s – when limp, crossover country-pop ala Kenny Rogers ruled the day. So not only does he ring in here with great, faithful covers of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You A Thousand Ways” and Norro Wilson’s “July 12, 1939”, but he’s found new songs like “I’ve Almost Jack Daniels Drowned” and written his own (“Mountain High, Valley Low”) that exude deep understanding of honky-tonk and bluegrass traditions.

John has a casual, off-hand vocal style with a blue streak particularly suited to ballads. It gives him real underdog character, the kind that trumps the overly-confident vocals of well-adjusted Strait every day of the week. And since John utilised no-nonsense production still common to country recs at the time (Nashville didn’t have to endure New Wave synths for another half decade) his band sounds more naturalistic than Yoakam’s, who occasionally tried too hard to re-create lost hillbilly aura.

Yes John ought to avoid rocking up his sound as he does on “Chicken Truck” – the band just ain’t made for that kinda action. But even if novelty numbers like “I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Some Day)” are silly, they hit precisely because they meld the old – longtime sessioners Jerry Reed and Pete Drake sound like they’re having fun for the first time in years – and the new with seamless ease. This LP’s more consistent than either his first or third, but if like me you get addicted to John’s lugubrious vocal style, you’re gonna want to search out those too.

Ladies’ Choice

24 Mar

az_B1129769_Jolene_Dolly PartonDOLLY PARTONJolene LP (RCA, 1973)

“What about the ladies of country?” a friend has asked. And yes, I gotta admit: I failed to mention a single woman in my post about Country Music yesterday. Which is a grievous oversight, at least since Kitty Wells succeeded at being the first female artist to chart some 60+ years ago. So right off I’d thought I’d make amends by talking about this classic DOLLY PARTON LP I picked up recently in Leeds.

Jolene is a great example of just how powerful Dolly could be, prior to her late 70’s pop makeover out in Los Angeles. As on most of her records, she’s written most (all but 2) of these songs herself. And while the All Music website has taken issue with a perceived weakness in the lyrics, that criticism completely disregards the social realities faced by women in early 70’s, especially in conservative Nashville. It would also seem its author doesn’t understand the conventions of traditional country songwriting, in which Dolly is most certainly writing here. No – these lyrics are often bittersweet, sometimes angry, occasionally hopeful. But never weak.

In musical terms, there’s only strengths on display. The production eschews Countrypolitan excess, relying predominantly on Nashville A-Teamers to play tight, supporting roles. Despite their country pedigree, the band consistently flirts with less-traditional territory, mirroring Dolly’s own diverse interests. You can hear this in the urgent, minor key chord changes on the awesome title track, the muffled drum rolls on “Early Morning Breeze“, and that uncredited hand percussion that pops up more than once.

Dolly, herself, is as haunting as ever. Her Smoky Mountain soprano has that willowy flutter in it, turning an earthy and rhythmically compelling voice into something way more ghostly and ethereal. While I realise most of you never wanna hear anyone sing “I Will Always Love You” again, Dolly wrote and recorded it here first. Rather than overkill, her version relies on gorgeous understatement. 40 years on, it remains the definitive version.

The LP clocks in at barely 25 minutes. But then, what self-respecting country rec sticks around any longer? Dolly’s got other great records too (check out The Fairest Of Them All from ’69) but this one works a subtle witchcraft she rarely sought to achieve elsewhere. A keeper fr sure.

Cowboy (Re)Boot

23 Mar

countrycoversIt’s been a transitional time here at Chez Recon, musically speaking. I’ve noted my flagging interest in rock and roll here before, but what I haven’t mentioned is that I’ve been listening to a steady diet of Country Music over the past few months. Yes, this is indeed an odd turn of events. Not unlike Jake and Elwood Blues, I’d previously reckoned C&W to be overly sentimental, kinda cornball, and pretty forgettable music at best.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Fired by Nick Cave and Chris D. in the later 80’s, I once went through a phase ferreting out eerily captivating murder/prison ballads by guys like Johnny Cash, Eddie Noack, and David Allen Coe. I also spent a fair bit of time in the early 90’s rediscovering the flow n twang of formative West Coast country rock bands like The Byrds, The Burrito Brothers, The Dead and their ilk. But last year, whilst combing through yet another shitty, 70’s singer-songwriter record vainly searching for that elusive, song-to-end-all-songs, I experienced an epiphany of sorts. It hit me, clear as a ringing bell: if you want a good song, you gotta go down to Nashville.

Since then, my ears have been filled to the brim with country music, more country music, and still more country music. From the 40’s western swing of Bob Wills, through Owen Bradley’s Nashville Sound and Billy Sherrill’s Countrypolitan in the 60’s/70’s, on up to 80’s neo-traditionalist hat acts like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis, I’ve been trying to digest it all. Which is no mean feat; taken in total, country music is one thick-cut, juicy steak with all the fixings. It’s an endless feast that I could be tucking into for decades.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time with the erudite proprietor of York’s Rebound Records disecting dysfunctional honky-tonk logic, weighing the relative merits of syrupy string sections and bellowing gospel choirs backing ornery hicks, and querying why country artists have often been overlooked in the CD reissue frenzy of the past couple decades. I’ve also had heated debates with my long-suffering wife about my interest in irresponsible drunks such as George Jones and Johnny Paycheck, which often devolve into accusations that I am either a) turning into a particularly sick, perverse bastard, or b) lapsing gradually into senseless stupidity. Needless to say, it’s all grist for the mill for some renewed Pig State Recon action.

So I am back to set the record Strait – er, straight. Expect blog posts to appear here in the near future by an unreconstructed rock and roll fan as he tries to get his head around a new found love of Country Music.

Mad Yodel

6 Jan

lawrence_hammond_presumed_lost300

There will always be another amazing record you haven’t yet heard, but it’s also true that a wealth of unreleased recordings exist that would blow minds, if only somebody ever saw fit to release em. This is what Nigel Cross at Shagrat Records has made a career of: mining the archives for aural documentation worthy of serious reconsideration. Since I last checked in with Nigel a few years ago, he’s released previously unheard, early 70’s jazz rock jams by American ex-pat Londoners FORMERLY FAT HARRY, post-MOBY GRAPE twang by THE DARROW MOSLEY BAND, and amazingly fluid psych sessions ca. 1971 by Brit master musicians HORACE. Now, hot on the heels of a 10″/book by late 60’s SF ballroom kings MAD RIVER, Nigel gives us the Presumed Lost CD by ex-MAD RIVER multi instrumentalist Lawrence Hammond. And what a confoundingly great, sincerely stellar record it is.

Up front I should admit I’ve never been a diehard fan of MAD RIVER’s schizo, acid rock cut-ups. The BEEFHEARTian jaggedness of their first LP and cowpoke trippiness of their later Paradise Bar & Grill record do have wiggy moments, moments I once savoured deeply when courting “altered” states of mind as a young adult. But MAD RIVER also had a perverse knack of changing the psychic flow without warning, often at the most inopportune of times. And more than once, I’ve pulled that first rec off the deck mid-tune, as the music therein was threatening to sour my trip, bigtime. Clearly though, group leader Lawrence Hammond had some serious talent, and long after he’d left the SF Sound behind he recorded an album that illustrates those strengths beautifully.

From the outset, Presumed Lost announces itself proudly as unabashed country & western, free from most California country rockisms proliferating at the time. Originally recorded for but unreleased by the then-waning Takoma label in the late 70’s, Lawrence’s songs alternate between lilting, southwestern country/folk and a kind of ambitiously composed, spit-shined country pop popular in Nashville then; indeed, his “John Deere Tractor” would later be covered famously by THE JUDDS. He proves himself master on a half dozen instruments (gtr, piano, fiddle, mandolin) while sidemen like banjo player John Hickman and renowned fiddler Byron Berline are consistently sympathetic and always ring in with nimble, biting precision. It’s true that all of this has as much to do with acid rock as Marty Robbins does, but if you can’t sit still for a Pete Drake pedal steel solo . . . well, that’s your loss, partner, not mine.

At heart this is a vocally-driven record, and Hammond’s voice! Good God, what pipes. Few others this side of FAMILY’s Roger Chapman – or even THE FLESH EATERS’ Chris D. – have possessed a voice so divisive as Mr Hammond’s. While I can empathise with reactions noted in Eugene Chadbourne’s review of Lawrence’s first solo LP, Coyote’s Dream, to my ears his mad yodel here is utterly captivating. His lyrics, too, are also fairly unique in the field of C&W: bittersweet narrative punctuated with naturalistic imagery and western colloquialisms. It’s erudite but ornery stuff that gets me believing Lawrence could’ve founded a High Lonesome School of Cowboy Romanticism all his own.

Two songs do bear noting for their peculiar magic: “Papa Redwing Blackbird” is a gorgeous falsetto psych folk number that’ll send chills down your spine every spin, while “Love For The Hunger” is the sort of dark and brooding tune THIN WHITE ROPE might’ve covered to great effect a decade later. But as amazing as those tracks are, they are but diversions in a central, more powerful journey, one where Lawrence nudges country music in a profoundly soulful direction few have ever tried to. A trip worthy of serious reconsideration, indeed.

Lane Steinberg: Pop’s Stunt Double

14 Oct

Writing this post pains me. And it will pain you too, deeply, if only you’d let it. It hurts me because I am not sure all Pig State Recon readers – or even PSR family members – will agree with what I have to say. But say it, I must.

It is clear that not all music lovers pine for a return of the popular Tin Pan Alley showtunes of NOEL COWARD, or the lush Brill Building pop confection of BURT BACHARACH and HAL DAVID, or even the sensitive, piano-driven singer songwriter stuff of CAROLE KING. And precious fewer of you have recorded so many low-budget tributes to such derided aesthetics as Lane Steinberg has over the years. But this is why I love the guy. Let me elaborate:

THE WINDThe Best of The Wind 1979 – 1986 (EM Records, 2002) Let’s get this straight: Lane Steinberg’s THE WIND was one seriously messed up band. These boys largely eschewed the reigning 3 chord Power Pop paradigm at the dawn of the 80’s and instead were drawn to elaborate chord progressions that made JOE JACKSON’s “Steppin’ Out” sound underwritten. They took a devilish glee at shoehorning witty, syncopated lyric lines into slowburn lounge-pop numbers, if only to irk lazier listeners. And not only did they occasionally play soulful piano vamps that would’ve made BILLY JOEL proud, apparently they wore tan sportcoats straight out of The Piano Man’s wardrobe. As I said, messed up.

In amongst all this, they somewhow penned the coolest early BEATLES knockoffs I’ve ever heard, wrote a grip of catchy tuneage that beat TODD RUNDGREN at his best LAURA NYRO impressions, and rocked an awesome Samba-pop romp called “Sushi Bar” I just can’t seem to stop humming. That THE WIND’s chosen form – an oddball sort of Extreme Pop – seemed untouched by then prevailing Punk, New Wave or even Garage/Paisley revival trends is testimony to a powerful, peculiar vision. THE WIND were devouring the entire scope of 20th century pop songform and spitting it back at us in a ZAPPA inspired, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kinda way. This made for a not always comfortable but thoroughly mindblowing listening experience, and I recommend this compilation wholeheartedly.

TAN SLEEVEBad From Both Sides (The Bus Stop Label, 2003) TAN SLEEVE was a 90’s/00’s reunion of Lane with his ex-WIND songwriting partner, Steve Barry Katz. While their pop genius was still completely intact, the gee-whiz fire of THE WIND had mellowed somewhat, and the tempering presence of Katz results in a more NPR-friendly sound than Lane might’ve come up with alone. Still, these two sound like they’re hurrying down dark North London alleys looking for RAY DAVIES on “Destruction,” sneaking a peek at ROGER MCGUINN’s stock portfolio on “Maria Bartiromo” and examining BRIAN WILSON’s middle ear on “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.” Which some of us will reckon are great, great things.

Others of you will be tempted to deride these songs as THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS smarm, or perhaps kinda cloying in their wordiness ala JON BRION. And you will be wrong. This is because unlike THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, TAN SLEEVE never ever grovel for your love. Plus it’s obvious that neither Lane nor Katz have the big motion picture industry connections a JON BRION has. No: this remains pop from the outside looking in, played by guys that might well leave a turd in your Hollywood punchbowl if you don’t watch em closely.

LANE STEINBERGCheeks Are Blooming (no label, 2012) For me, Lane’s solo work is where it’s really at. Unbridled by the necessary concessions one makes in collaborations, here Lane can ride the wild, contrary hoss of his musicality where ever he sees fit. And that covers a heck of a lotta terrain.

Part of the fun of this guy’s work has always been in the train-spotting: hearing the myriad of diverse musical influences, picking out just who/what/where he’s referencing in any given song. So the old timey piano playing, upper register vocals, and battlefield lyrics in “Wyse Fork Showdown” conjures up images of Big Pink-era THE BAND, while the deliberate, neo-classical decorum of “The Mistrial” tells me PROCOL HARUM were lurking somewhere in the general vicinity.

But as on every Lane rec there are other songs (like the half dozen co-written by the King of Ageing Pop Weirdos, R. STEVIE MOORE) which are like nothing else: subtly beautiful, oddly strange, and really wonderful. It’s for moments like the gorgeous opener “Theorem” that you’re gonna find yourself returning to this, over and over. Heck I’d be spinning this album nonstop everyday, if only my wife didn’t throw shoes at me when I do.

MUSTAFIOThe Family Bastard (Cheft, 2008) Who is Mustafio? First and foremost, Mustafio is a man with a distinctive accent who is not shy of using it. He likes to muse on random topics – a mouse that wears coats, a veterinarian that revives dead animals, how much he hates Tom Shipley – spinning off exponentially into dozens of other random topics with scant regard for linear narrative. Finding linguistic connections where sane men ought not stick their tongues, Mustafio moves tirelessly between dissociative non sequitur the way a New York pickpocket works a crowd of hapless Japanese tourists.

Throughout, a backing soundtrack segues from woozy electronic moan to gristly percussion clatter with the ease of post-coffee bowel movement. Yes it’s queasy-making but also mesmerizing, and after a few minutes listening, you will no longer care – you will simply be Mustafio. This is why, when Mustafio notes “I don’t even remember my teeth; they had been loose and falling out for some time,” I reach for my dentures.

I realise all this has absolutely nada to do with any music mentioned elsewhere in this post. But in fact Lane Steinberg is Mustafio too. Go figure.

Pigrocksampler

25 Aug

Let the record show I took 2 1/2 years of Japanese language classes when I was at University of Texas in Austin in the early 90’s. This was primarily because language was a requirement of the linguistics degree I was after, but heck, I could’ve taken German, French, Spanish or some such spiel. I didn’t, I took Japanese! And there are more than a few folk who, to this very day, know me exclusively as Rowsan. Which makes me approximately .00001% more qualified than you lot to review these here Japanese recs.

I must state up front that none of these records are what anyone would term hard or heavy – indeed only HAPPY END really muster a good sweat, and then only for the length of a song or two. But while this explains why none of these artists figure much into Julian Cope’s book Japrocksampler, it also points out that tome’s shortcomings. That is: there is sooo much more to fire your thoughts & emotions about Japanese music than freak alone, and these LPs are as good a place as any to begin firing. So kiite, my friends.

HAPPY ENDKazemachi Roman (1973) This LP is where I finally see eye to eye with that gawd awful Sophia Coppola, who used a bit of it to soundtrack the upperclass malaise of her Lost In Translation. And if she really loves Kazemachi Roman as much me, than maybe I do need to go take a another look at her vapid films.

It’s no overestimation to say these guys are part of the very foundation of Japanese rock; even Julian has given a nod to the HAPPY END rhythm section. Haroumi Hosono’s warm, fat bass tones occasionally put me in mind of FREE’s Andy Fraser (esp. on the opener, “Dakishimetai“), bellowing lullabies to the languidly powerful drumming of Takashi Matsumoto. Like THE BAND’s Robbie Robertson, Eiichi Ohtaki’s gtr is a chankin’ pitchfork-like presence, tossing both rootsy and funky hay about with ease. Vocals are casually believable, with lyrics that apparently cast a Ray Davies-like glance back at simpler, pre-1964 Olympics Tokyo life.

If there’s less psychedelic ephemera than on their BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD-styled debut LP, the emphasis here on earthy American folk forms and quieter, singer-songwriter material pushes distinct musical personalities to the forefront quite gracefully. And what naturalistic production! Why this album isn’t easily available in the West, I know not; it beats the shit outta similar-period recs by TRAFFIC or BADFINGER (two bands I’ve seen these guys compared to). Frickin’ awesome from start to finish.

KAZUHIKO KATOSupergas (1971) This is the kind of late-psychedelic shenanigans the eventual leader of the SADISTIC MIKA BAND got up to back before he went glitter. It’s perhaps a more stripped-down musical statement than some he’d lend his name to later, but then that’s more a reflection of a stoic aesthetic sense than any shortcomings. And methinks stoicism is something the Japanese pull off exceptionally well.

Unlike the fully Westernised rural rock sounds mined by HAPPY END, there’s a Japanese folk/pop influence at work as evidenced by the lead-in track, “Iewo Tsukurunara“. This might irk you more Ameri-centric listeners, but listen deeper: there’s a near-spiritual glow that illuminates the proceedings beautifully, nudging this one into acid folk terrain rarely explored by others. Actually, I could totally imagine Mr Cope championing the more dissociative moments on this one, which never fail to make my head feel fuzzy. Sadly, Kazuhiko Kato committed suicide a few years back, a major loss to Japanese music for sure.

SADISTIC MIKA BANDHot! Menu (1975) – Julian Cope calls this band “shit” – but then, I’ve heard some say the same about THE TEARDROP EXPLODES. Yes the first two SADISTIC MIKA albums were fun if sorta simplistic 3-chord bashers. But by this point, they’d fully digested the suave irony and musical futurism of ROXY MUSIC and developed an appreciation for retro kitsch disco ala DR. BUZZARD’S ORIGINAL SAVANNAH BAND. And even if like those groups they’ve gone for style over substance, they ended up creating one of my favourite albums from an otherwise lacklustre musical year.

While I always fast-forward past the opening fusionoid workout (appropriately named “Time To Noodle”), everything else here gets me either thinking either very sexy thoughts, or else I’m up outta my seat bumpin’ along with a shit-eating grin. Especially their dancefloor-ready peon to Jack Nicholson, “Hi Jack (I’m Just Dying).” And it’s apparently gonna be reissued too in the UK any day now! The Japanese reissue train is all too slow to reach the Western world, but maybe, I’m finally sat at the right station.

Provostian Moments Vol. XIII: The Sloths

19 May

What did DAVIE ALLAN & THE ARROWS, THE DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND and THE DREAM SYNDICATE and all have in common? Bassist Dave Provost, that’s who. Who has played in musical aggregations with the likes of AL GREEN, SKY SAXON, and KATHY VALENTINE? Dave Provost has.

Dave is a kind of rock n roll Zelig, somehow popping up at all the crucial turns and twists in LA rock history during the past 4+ decades. Over the years his formidable musical & rhythmic chops got him seats next to some seriously world-class musicians, while his gregarious, outgoing nature had all the rest inviting him to their after-gig parties. And now, he’s now spilling the beans about it all, starting with this post.

This is really, really good news to those of us who appreciate just where this man’s walked and rocked in his lifetime. So please: do take a seat at the feet of Mr Dave Provost for a spell, and follow him in his search for lost rock n roll time.

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The Sloths at Pandora’s Box, 1966

he mile, and a half stretch of West Hollywood known as the Sunset Strip has been romanticized in books, and films for over seventy years. The ritzy 1940s nightclubs that were controlled by mobsters Micky Cohen and Johnny Stompanato provided the backdrop for movie star trysts, tabloid murders, and show biz failure. In the mid 1960s these same clubs came alive with teenage empowerment. There was no age limit, just a well enforced curfew. Thousands of shaggy haired hipsters lined the Strip every night of the week. The sound was deafening. Not just from the rock bands at the Go Go clubs, but from the ocean of cars and motorcycles that cruised the Strip looking for kicks.

The Sloths were just one of the many teenage bands playing at Strip hotspots like the Sea Witch, the Hullabaloo, the Stratford, and the Trip. They were from Beverly Hills High School and had a sizable local following. Their lone 45, “Makin’ Love” was getting some radio airplay, and the Sloths were in the top cut to play the fictitious band the Monkees on the new TV show. The boys procured opening slots for the Doors, Love, the Seeds, and the Animals.

After a change of lead singers, the Sloths took on a new moniker, and were now known as the May Wines. Frank Zappa became their mentor, and would occasionally sit in on guitar. As the May Wines the group played at Pandora’s Box on the night of the famous riot on the Sunset Strip, and opened for Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd at the Cheetah.

In 1968, the May Wines called it quits. Lead guitarist Jeff Briskin went off to college, bassist Mike Rummens joined the Yellow Payges, Singer Tommy McLoughlin moved to Paris and joined Marcel Marceau’s mime troupe, guitarist Don Silverman went on to join Doug Yule’s Velvet Underground, and the early Sloths singer Hank Daniels sadly joined the Choir Invisible.

Four decades later in the fall of 2011, Mike Stax of Ugly Things Magazine got the Sloths back together for an interview. The men were not aware of the cult mystique that had been generated by the inclusion of their song “Makin’ Love” on a Back From the Grave compilation, or that Chicago’s stellar garage punk band the Gories had recorded it. The Sloths were also oblivious to the fact that original copies of their 45 with the photo sleeves, that they had made on a high school mimeograph machine, were now fetching over six thousand dollars each.

One of the fellows had an empty garage, so it made perfect sense to put it to good use.

I had been playing guitar in Portland’s Punk Rock Collective just before moving back to Los Angeles, and I was excited about playing 60s punk in the newly reunited Sloths. I was surprised by how much they still looked like a band. They still sounded like the 16 year old kids that I’d heard years earlier, but they were concerned about being older, and how they might be received by the young audience they sought. I reminded them about how much we looked up to the somewhat older blues legends back in the 60s, and by using the newly back-in-action Sonics as a template, it was full speed ahead for the Sloths.

When Mike Stax reissued the “Makin’ Love” 45 on his UT label, the calls from garage punk show promoters started pouring in. Some things had changed over the years. The Sloths quickly learned about mosh pits, and stage monitors. We befriended a lot of younger bands, and our friends the Shag Rats recommended a drummer Jose Rendon who worked out swimmingly. The new Freakbeat scene is largely based in East LA, the part of town that introduced the world to the Premiers, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and Thee Midniters.

The Sunset Strip is currently not the happening place that it once was, but it’s mythology and spirit lives on in the hearts of the young scenesters who would sell their souls to be standing outside of Pandora’s Box on a summer night in 1966.

– Dave Provost