New Song! Jack White Returns Solo With The Guitar Bonanza “Taking Me Back” b/w “Taking Me Back (Gently)” – Our Thoughts

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There’s a commercial I’m fond of quoting where this guy says, in a folksy drawl no less, “I wish I could tell ya how I feel about a morning like this.” I usually like to repeat it when the Rock Chick has roused me earlier than I care to be awakened and so its usually dripping with sarcasm when it comes from me. However, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase that commercial for breakfast sausage and in this case mean it with all sincerity – I wish I could tell you how I feel about a guitar driven rock song like this one. Jack White is back solo, baby! And it’s grand.

I think everyone associated with B&V knows what a big fan of Jack White I am. I got on his bandwagon early while he was still with the White Stripes, his original band – although admittedly not on the “ground floor.” It wasn’t until I heard White Blood Cells their third LP in its entirety that I got on the White Stripes’ bandwagon. I immediately purchased every LP the Stripes had put out before that which at that time was their debut LP and De Stijl. After that, I purchased every LP they put out including their live album… but then I’m known for loving live albums. If a group can bring it live, they just elevate themselves in my mind. And believe me, having seen the White Stripes in concert twice – once at venerable Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas and the other at Starlight Theater on the Missouri side – they can bring it live. If you missed out on the White Stripes they put out a fabulous Greatest Hits LP at the end of last year that is a great place to start with their catalog.

I dug what Jack White could do with the guitar (and keyboards and vocals and production and pretty much all things music) so much that I followed him into his first side project, the Raconteurs. I thought that was a great creative outlet for him. Having only played with Meg White on drums, it was nice to see Jack stretch out with a full rhythm section (both bass and drums) and have a singing/guitar foil in Brendan Benson. Consolers Of The Lonely is probably my favorite of their records (“Carolina Drama” is epic), but I dug their last LP, Help Us Stranger as well. I was still so into Jack I even dabbled in his second side project, the Dead Weather where Jack mostly just plays drums (and sings a bit).

Eventually the White Stripes broke up and Jack went solo. And let me say, he did so gloriously with two great LPs, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto. Sure, I missed the White Stripes and especially the drumming of Meg White who is apparently retired, but Jack’s solo work was so outstanding it assuaged those feelings. I have even gone so far as to describe Jack White as one of the “great men of rock n roll,” based on a similar theory in history that posits that all of history can largely be explained by the actions of great men or heroes. Sadly, Jack lost me on his last solo LP, 2018’s Boarding House Reach. He hired a bunch of musicians who had never really played rock n roll and reached for something completely outside the box and sadly it just completely… lost me. However, I felt that he bounced back immediately in 2019 with his old buddies the Racnonteurs on the aforementioned Help Us Stranger. It seemed to give him that rock n roll structure and reign in some of his more excessive instincts. Everybody’s better with a band of comrades.

I did wonder what would happen with Jack’s solo career. Would he return? Would he just keep producing and working with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather? Perhaps he’s turned his attention to Third Man Records, the label he owns. During the pandemic I wondered if perhaps he’d return to doing re-upholstery work? Heaven knows the world needs skilled laborers… there’s a fortune to be made. My concerns were answered late last week when Jack released a rocking new song, “Taking Me Back.” I’m beginning to think that Wednesdays at B&V may become our “new song Wednesday” celebration after last week’s new single from Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Song of the Seasons.”  Lets hope new music keeps pouring out! Although admittedly while Young has a new LP, Barn slated for December, there’s no word on whether this new Jack White song heralds a new LP or if its a one-off. He did use the same artwork from Boarding House Reach so you never know…

“Taking Me Back” opens with guitar distortion that sounds like the tornado siren in my neighborhood, in a good way… warning kids, get in your basement, rock n roll guitar storm coming. Then Jack moves to a big, fat, fuzzy riff. I had a slight flash back to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” These are the kind of unhinged Jack White vocals that I live for, almost barking over the cacophony of drums and layered guitars… the guitars seem to come at you from every speaker. I particularly like this lyric, about half way through, “When you drop the mail off to me and you make us both coffee, are you taking it black? Are you taking me back?” If this is Jack asking his audience if we’ll take him back after Boarding House Reach, all of us down at B&V say, “Hell, yes!” I played the track for the Rock Chick and she said, “That’s a really, really good song.” Indeed.

The single was released with another track. Just to prove what a genius he is, Jack re-recorded the song in an old timey manner that would have made Paul McCartney (who wrote “Martha My Dear”) green with envy. The second song is “Taking Me Back (Gently).” I actually love the “Gently” version of the song… well I love both versions. There’s a violin and brushed drums that move the song along. The vocal is completely different, much… calmer. There are acoustic guitars and piano – I particularly dig Jack’s acoustic guitar solo. Its funny to hear the same song, the same lyrics recorded in such radically different styles. I don’t know how else to describe the song other than, pure fun. Here are the tracks in all their glory:

I don’t know what this new song(s) portends but the world is always a better place when you’ve got some new Jack White to blast at maximum volume. I’m certainly hoping Jack and Santa put a new album in our stockings this December…

Cheers!

Review: John Mellencamp, “Wasted Days” Featuring Bruce Springsteen – How Am I Not Hearing More About This Great New Song?

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How is this song not blasting out of every radio, everywhere? Mellencamp? Springsteen? Together? Singing on the same song?! This is like the Clash of the Titans. Well… maybe not a Clash… maybe it’s more like the Harmonizing Of The Titans.

There was a time, sadly long passed, when I think this song would be getting a Hell of a lot more attention. If it were say, 1986, this track would be the Number 1 song in the universe. While both these artists have had long and remarkable careers, even I will admit in the 80s they were part of the dominant rock scene that just doesn’t exist anymore. Springsteen was in that whole Born In The U.S.A. hoopla that bled into Live 1975 to 1985. Mellencamp went on a incredible run of LPs starting with Uh-Huh (at least for me) to Scarecrow to The Lonesome Jubilee. It’s a bit of odd pairing… I always thought of Springsteen as a more natural fit for a duet with Bob Seger… those guys were pals back then. Mellencamp was all Farm Aid and Springsteen was out with Amnesty International… But listening to these cagey old veterans, they’re a great fit. To quote one of my favorite comedies, “Cats living with dogs, MASS HYSTERIA!”

I got into Springsteen when The River came out. My entry point to any artist back then was what was playing on the radio after I’d become rock n roll conscious and for Springsteen that was The River. I’d heard some of the tracks from Darkness On The Edge Of Town on the radio, but I was still too newly converted to the church rock n roll and I’m not sure I realized all of the Darkness songs were Springsteen. The River ended up being my first Springsteen LP purchase. And believe me, when you’re in high school on an allowance a double-album was a big investment. I still have a great fondness for that album even though my friend Brewster didn’t take me with him to the concert in KC on that tour… bygones. That album led me to a lifetime of listening to Springsteen with and without the E Street Band. I’m embarrassed to admit, the first time I heard Born To Run in it’s entirety was at a Senior Skip Day party when I was a mere junior in high school… but that was all the way in 1981. I was sitting in this guy’s backyard, not far from the kegs talking to these two girls who while only one year older were still just out of reach. I left that party with nothing more than a nice beer buzz and the determination to purchase Born To Run immediately… once the beer wore off, which I did.

My journey to Mellencamp was a tad more circuitous. Right after we’d got to high school my buddy Brewster – of the infamous River tour snub – went to see John Cougar (as Mellencamp was known back then) with a guy I’ll call Carter (name changed to protect the very, very guilty). Once again, I was not invited… I’m beginning to see a trend. Brewster and Carter were at this Cougar (Mellencamp) show,  which was in support of his second major label LP Nothing Matters And What If It Did – and somehow Carter and Brewster ended up partying with Cougar’s manager. I don’t know if its the same guy who renamed him “Cougar” after his automobile or not. They’re drinking with this guy at his hotel and Carter talks the manager into giving him Britt Ekland’s phone number in L.A. Apparently the manager guy had formerly had Rod Stewart as a client and had his ex girlfriend’s number. Carter called her but he only talked to her maid who answered the phone. Carter was an outlaw… but I digress. While they’re drinking with this manager, Cougar walks into the room. He actually autographed a copy of Nothing Matters… and signs it with the tag line, “Don’t Forget Me.” Sadly, I was with Brewster when he trashed the album and its autographed cover a few days later. He didn’t like the music. The ignorance of youth.

A few years later – and it seemed like light years – I would rediscover Cougar when I heard American Fool. A girl I had started dating, who I guess you’d call my “first girlfriend” had that album. Her parents both worked which was rare in the ‘burbs where I lived. Her parents didn’t get home until 5 pm every day… we all got out of school at 3… you do the math. This gal and her friends and I would go over and hangout at the house during the late afternoon. That’s where I heard American Fool. While I still despise “Jack And Diane” I really liked a lot of that album and thought it was a huge leap forward from Nothing Matters. I really liked the deep track “Thundering Hearts.” Sadly though, I didn’t truly get on the Mellencamp (no longer Cougar) bandwagon until Uh-Huh when I was in college. Maybe it was the name change? That album rocked. “Crumbin’ Down” and “Play Guitar” remain favorites to this day. I really have followed Mellencamp ever since. Although I will admit in the 2000s my Mellencamp album purchases have been sporadic. I was all in on Freedom’s Road, a late career gem. And I dug the raw and rootsy No Better Than This although its more of a late night LP, not a party record. But I’ll admit, I sort of lost touch with Mellencamp. His voice, ravaged by cigarette smoke was slightly off-putting. But then, in 2017 I heard Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which I loved, despite the title. While Mellencamp’s voice was at its most gravelly – one might compare it to a gravel truck that’s thrown a rod – he offset it with female harmony vocalists and it just worked. I was reminded once again that super strong songwriting and an emotional vocal delivery will produce something special every time. And Mellencamp delivered!

I’d been immersed in early 80s Bob Dylan for the last few weeks as I absorbed his new entry in the Bootleg Series, Springtime In New York. I only stopped listening to that box set long enough to take in Chrissie Hynde’s super new solo LP, which happens to be a set of Dylan covers. I finally emerged from this Dylan fugue state to discover this new track by Mellencamp that featured Springsteen. I’d heard some press buzz about it a few months ago. It was slated to be on an upcoming Mellencamp LP, which I now hear is going to be released in 2022 instead of this year. Frankly it was one of those post-lockdown LPs I was really looking forward to for this year but hey, now I’ll just look forward to it next year. When I found out this song was out – and I was surprised – I was further shocked that it wasn’t generating more buzz. I liked it immediately upon hearing. It’s been in high rotation here in the B&V labs this week. I love the pairing of these two earnest rock stars.

I mentioned earlier that if this had been released in 1986 it’d be a monster hit. Well, in 1986 when these two guys were still “the young lions” they couldn’t have sung this song. This is a song written by a more seasoned artist, facing down the end. The first line lets you know what “Wasted Days” we’re talking about here – “How many summers still remain?” Oddly a guy said to me recently, “I’ve only got like 20 summers left, I’m going to enjoy them all…” There’s nothing like getting to the end and thinking, man how much time did I waste and how much do I have left? When you reach a certain age, you can’t avoid those questions and this song hits it straight on with a sense of resolve tinged with regret. While it’s a heavy topic, the tune isn’t a downer. It’s a mid-tempo thing that drilled into my brain through my ear. It’s definitely more of the Mellencamp universe/soundscape with Springsteen as the guest. I did chuckle when I saw the cover art for the single. It looks like these two elder statesmen of rock n roll just tied up their horses outside at the hitch of this farmhouse and came in to sit down to play some acoustic guitar. I feel like there might be a pie cooling on the window sill.

The track starts with the strumming of acoustic guitars with a spidery electric dancing in and out. Mellencamp must have been hitting the hot tea with honey because his voice sounds significantly less gravelly than on Sad Clowns and Hillbillies (which was sadly the last time I’d heard him). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some gravel in Mellencamp’s voice… Mellencamp takes that first verse and when they hit the chorus you hear Springsteen come in. I love that harmonizing on the chorus. “We watch our lives just fade away to more wasted days…” Springsteen sings the second verse. He’s impassioned and a great counterpoint to Mellencamp. The track has that signature Mellencamp, rootsy accordion to carry it along. I don’t know if that’s Springsteen on the guitar solo but it sure sounds like him… I did search to find out who plays lead on this but couldn’t find the details, I’ll have to wait until the LP comes out. To hear these guys, at this stage of their career, nay their lives, come together and knock it out of the park like this is just a joy to behold. They didn’t waste a day or a minute or a second recording this track.

Here it is:

If you’re like me and you’ve been in a Dylan haze – and who possibly has really? – or if you’re not like me (and you’re normal) and your local radio has let you down and isn’t playing this song. I urge you to put this into high rotation. It’s got me pumped for what might be a great John Mellencamp LP in 2022, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever say again. Put this one on late at night with a little more volume than usual and perhaps a little more whiskey than usual… Life is a precious commodity… don’t waste it.

Cheers!

Review: Guns N’ Roses Drop Another “New” Song “Hard Skool”

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Now this is more like it…

Long time readers know of our love for Guns N Roses here at B&V. When Slash and Duff McKagan rejoined the band to go on tour a few years back we were hoping for new music. I saw them in 2016 and it seems like yesterday. It took a while but finally 2021 has seen the release of new GnR music. A few weeks ago they debuted a “new” song in concert named “Absurd.” Shortly after they played it live, the studio version was released to the public. It’s actually not a new song but a reworked Chinese Democracy outtake that was originally called “Silkworms.” Our reaction was… disappointment. It was an odd choice for their first track in 13 years. I couldn’t help but lament, this is what they came up with after being back together for five years?

I spent most my week listening to solo Lindsey Buckingham. My old college roommate, who I’ll call Walt (named changed to protect the guilty) would be proud… he was a big Buckingham fan. Walt is the only person I knew who owned Buckingham’s second solo disc, Go Insane. He played it in the room enough that I was the one who almost went insane. Lindsey recently released his latest solo, self-titled LP. Its the record that got him fired from Fleetwood Mac. I liked it but it’s too artsy for mass consumption. Lindsey plays all the instruments. The man needs to bring in some other musicians to play off of but I’m getting off topic. I wasn’t sure what, if anything I’d be writing about this weekend. This time of year, one must never underestimate new music Fridays. The rock gods smiled on us with the latest GnR track. Beautiful fall weather, football and now some “Hard Skool.”

Yesterday indeed saw the release of a second new GnR track, “Hard Skool.” Yet again this is a track who’s origins date back to yes, the Chinese Democracy days. It appears that instead of holing up during the pandemic and writing brand new material GnR are content to just rework leftover stuff from Axl’s vault. If that’s what we’re left with, I will say I’m relieved that at least “Hard Skool” is a kick ass song. While “Absurd” sounded like a bad Nine Inch Nails cover band, “Hard Skool” at least sounds like a Guns N Roses song. At their best GnR sounded dangerous, perhaps almost menacing and this track captures that alchemy. We are once again reminded that at one time, Guns N Roses were the greatest rock band on the planet.

The track opens with a great, rolling, Duff McKagan bass line. I don’t think Duff gets the credit he deserves as a bass player. He did some amazing work last year on Ozzy’s last LP, Ordinary Man. When the guitars kick in on “Hard Skool” there’s no mistaking that this greasy blues rock metal is Guns N Fuckin’ Roses, baby. While this is a Chinese Democracy outtake, it sounds like it could have been on one of the Use Your Illusions discs. It has that unhinged “Back Off Bitch” or “Right Next Door To Hell” vibe. I can not say enough about Slash’s lead guitar on this track. His solo is classic. There’s even a spacey, Led Zepplin-y bridge in the middle where everything slows down except for drums, Duff and Slash. Slash has such a distinctive tone when he plays. And let me say, kudos to Axl on the vocals. He sounds great. I don’t know if these are vocals from 13 years ago or not but he sounds like a man possessed. Nobody does pissed-off, scorned lover vocals like Axl. On this track, everybody shows up and does what they do best. It’s a great GnR track.

Here is the link to the new song, if you haven’t heard it you’ve gotta check it out:

If I have any complaint, I still wish these guys were collaborating on new music rather than just  being content with reworking Axl’s leftovers. After five years I would have expected that to have happened. Of course this could be an Axl ego thing, one never knows. He may be refusing to move forward with new stuff until he tidies up his music backlog. I hear they’re going to release an EP with the two new tracks (“Absurd,” “Hard Skool”) and several cover songs including, apparently, a version of Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets.” It kinda makes me feel like this is more of a touring exercise than full-fledged band reunion. Although for me, it can never be a real reunion without Izzy Stradlin but that’s another topic. For now we can just be happy with some new savage rock n roll…Nobody does it better than GnR.

Review: David Crosby, ‘For Free,’ The Sublime New Album – One Of His Best Solo LPs

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“I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born” – David Crosby, “I Won’t Stay For Long”

I started this year deeply immersed in Neil Young’s Archives, Volume II covering his career from 1972 to 1976. Then I found myself wildly obsessed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary. The outtakes and stuff that didn’t make the album sowed the seeds to the beginning of all of their solo careers. Well, at least for David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills. I think it’s true Neil always guarded his best stuff for his solo albums but I’m getting off topic. Right now I’m similarly enraptured with David Crosby’s new LP, For Free. I guess for me 2021 is just a CSNY, Laurel Canyon, California, folk-rock haze. I guess I should have gone all in on the purchase of the buckskin fringe jacket, tie-dye t-shirt and bell bottom jeans my wife forbade me to wear. The album cover for For Free was painted by none other than Joan Baez which only accentuates my whole vibe these days…when I’m not complaining about the awful new Gun N’ Roses song

David Crosby is in the midst of what can only be described as a career renaissance or a creative peak that has lasted several years and counting. He’s released five albums in the last seven years, a Van Morrison-ish pace. If you’d told me that this far down the line it’d be Crosby’s records I’d be excitedly awaiting and not Neil Young’s, I’d have scoffed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always dug David Crosby but from 1971 to 2013 he only released 3 solo albums. Over those 42 years that’s average of an album every fourteen years (for all you math-challenged folks out there). And admittedly during those years there were some legal issues fueled by drug use… drugs start out as fun, turn into fun with trouble and end with just trouble… Of course during those years he also released a number of duo albums with his erstwhile friend Graham Nash and a few with CSN and occasionally Y. There are some who say Crosby is better in a band setting. He was a founding member of the Byrds although he was eventually contentiously fired. He did seem to thrive in the configurations of Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young and certainly flourished in his recordings with Graham Nash. I even dug his CPR stuff with Jeff Pevar and James Raymond, his son who he gave up for adoption but reunited with later in life. But in truth, I actually dig Crosby solo, front and center if you will. Check out “Drive My Car”…a truly great tune.

This whole creative burst started with 2014’s Croz produced in part by his son James Raymond. That was a surprisingly solid record, his first solo disc in 21 years. He then teamed up with Micheal League from Snarky Puppy and vocalists Becca Stevens and Michelle Williams for the more raw and acoustic Lighthouse in 2016. Crosby who was used to laboring over a record for years was approached by League who asked if he wanted to try and do something more immediate like Crosby’s masterpiece If I Could Only Remember My Name. I think they recorded Lighthouse in like five days. That gave Crosby sort of a dual career path. He’d do an album with Raymond at the helm – a more polished, focused studio effort – and then he’d jump back into the League/Stevens/Williams camp that he calls “the Lighthouse Band” and do something more raw-boned. The Lighthouse Band really connects with Crosby’s folky roots to my ears. I really love the harmonizing the vocalists do. After the Lighthouse album, Crosby returned to the James Raymond-helmed band and in 2017 released Sky Trails an LP that just knocked me out. What a gorgeous album. That’s the one that got me onto the Crosby bandwagon. I didn’t write about his League produced/Lighthouse Band follow up, Hear If You Listen because for some reason I was led to believe it was merely a live album. It’s amazing. The version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” on that LP rivals Joni’s original… and possibly CSNY’s version. Crosby produced Mitchell’s debut LP, and it seems he covers a track of hers on every LP he does now.

And so now, Crosby has returned to the James Raymond-produced Sky Trails side of his career and released For Free. His voice, while slightly weathered by time is still an incredible instrument. And Raymond’s production for this album is a perfect environment for Crosby to soar as a vocalist. James Raymond has a solo writing credit on three of the tracks and they’re all stand-outs. At this stage of his career Crosby sounds like a wise and wizened Buddha sitting on the side of a mountain, laying out melodic wisdom. On Here If You Listen he sang and ruminated on subjects from Zen to mortality. The lyrics verge on poetry. For Free, like Sky Trails before it, is a much more polished and (dare I say) pop-oriented record (at least to a degree). Crosby has always had a fascination with jazz and you hear that vibe sprinkled throughout the album. It’s not jazz but it’s jazzy. He certainly pulls that sound off better than Sting used to try and do. While I dig the Lighthouse band, I’m more into the Croz/SkyTrails side of the equation. While unlike previous records there’s nothing I’d call overtly political on this record – despite Crosby’s reputation as a political firebrand – the album does have a feeling of coming out of the darkness and heading toward the light. That’s a feeling we can all get into these days. The band on For Free includes, as usual, James Raymond on various instruments (what can’t he play?), sax player Steve Tavaglione, drummer Steve DiStanislao among others.

The opening track, which is also the first single, is “River Rise” a duet with Michael McDonald. Yes, I’ll admit this harkens back to the Doobie Brother’s “Yacht Rock” of the late 70s but it’s a great tune. It’s a catchy damn tune and amazingly buoyant. McDonald used to sing with Steely Dan and I think that’s really the vibe Crosby is going for. The first track on Sky Trails, “She’s Got To Be There” had a Steely Dan sound so that makes sense. “River Rise” quickly fades into the second track, which may be my favorite song, “I Think I.” I love the chorus, “I think I found my way…” If only I could too… Crosby’s vocal is impassioned. Speaking of a Steely Dan vibe, another stand out is “Rodriguez For A Night,” which is actually written by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. It’s the funniest track here, full of angels, drugstore cowboys and the titular outlaw. I think I speak for all of us when I say, “I’d sell my soul to be Rodriguez for a night.” That song sounds like an outtake from Katy Lied. It also recalls, for me, Crosby’s own “Cowboy Movie.”

Crosby, as he’s done on several albums in a row now, covers a Joni Mitchell song. It’s the title track, “For Free.” He’s accompanied beautifully by Sarah Jarosz. He’s done this track twice before – once with the Byrds and once on a live CSN album – so this makes his third try. I’m guessing he re-recorded the song because this is a great vehicle for Jarosz and he to sing together. It’s a great song about a street musician who plays basically, “for free.” He plays merely for the love of playing. “Secret Dancer” is a beautifully sung track about a robot who becomes sentient and then, horrified by human’s history of suffering, dances it away. Someone has been watching Ex Machina. “The Other Side of Midnight” is a beautiful James Raymond song that may be about dancing with Mother Nature late at night…

The last three tracks on the album make for quite a close. The intensity of the album really kicks up a notch. “Boxes” a meditation on time and it’s passing and it is simply wonderful. “There’s love in these boxes.” Following that is “Shot At Me” about a veteran returned from the war. Finally, the track that ends the album and might be the most emotionally effecting is “I Won’t Stay For Long.” It begins with Crosby’s voice, a piano and muted horn… which really sets the mood. This one is also written by James Raymond and it’s a stunner. It’s poetic, emotional and the perfect track to end on. “I’m facing a squall like of a thousand-year storm, I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born, But I’d like to be with you today.” Heavy ruminations man.

This may be my favorite of Crosby’s late career albums and I really loved Sky Trails so that’s saying something. These latter day David Crosby LPs are the kind of records that B&V was built to highlight. This certainly isn’t an album you’re going to play at your Labor Day BBQ party. However, it’s a perfect, late night, sitting out on the deck with a tumbler of something dark and murky when you just want to get lost in some high quality melodies and music. This is one of the best albums I’ve heard all year.

Cheers!

Review: Guns N Roses First New Song In 13 Years, The Aptly Titled “Absurd”

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Leave it to Guns N’ Roses to sneak up on me…

Last week was the first week in a long, long time that I’ve taken a “vacation” from music. Mind you – it wasn’t by choice. My corporate masters called me to New York for a series of meetings that chewed up most my week. Typically my job allows me to have some music on in the background when I’m toiling away on a spreadsheet or a written report. It comes as no surprise to B&V readers that I like to listen to music while I’m writing stuff. In between Webex meetings I’ve usually got tunes on. I don’t think I’m unique in that habit. But when I’m traveling to meetings like the New York session I’m typically sitting in conference rooms surrounded by people. At night I’m usually out at dinner with colleagues making small talk (“So what do you do Hank?”) and by the time I get back to the hotel, it’s lights out. I didn’t even get to listen to any tunes on the flights I was on getting to and from New York. Flight time is thinking time… which really means nap time.

When I got back home on Thursday night, the Rock Chick had her usual plethora of things we “need” to get done. I typically have music on at all times in my personal life, but the Rock Chick kept me busy… well, her and the Olympics kept me occupied. It was the first week in a long time I hadn’t posted anything on B&V. But having spent the week in the relative silence of a rock n roll void, I didn’t even think about posting. I did see however, that G’n’R had performed a “brand new song” called “Absurd” at Fenway Park in Boston. I lived in Boston for a summer and Fenway would be an awesome venue to see Guns N’ Roses. Eventually I pulled the track up and listened to the live performance. I thought perhaps they were messing with us and this was some kind of joke. To quote the Rock Chick who I played the song for, “That’s fucking terrible.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m on record as a huge Guns N’ Roses fan. I think had Axl been able to avoid his LSD (Lead Singer Disease) and the original line-up held together these guys would rank up there with the Stones or Zeppelin. I have to admit, after Axl took over the band and was the last original member standing, then took fifteen years to record an album, they lost me a bit. And, I will admit I found Chinese Democracy to be a huge disappointment. In retrospect, if you set aside all my enormous expectations, it wasn’t a horrible LP. It just wasn’t that great dirty blues metal that I’d come to love and cherish from GnR. Axl clearly has a Nine Inch Nails fetish. They veered into an almost Industrial Rock thing.

I was very encouraged and delighted when original lead guitarist Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan returned to the fold for the “Not In This Life Time Tour.” I saw their Kansas City show at Arrowhead Stadium in 2016. Other than last year’s pandemic shutdown, they’ve been touring almost constantly ever since. For those us hard core fans out here, that was great but I think I speak for the “GnR Universe” when I say we all wanted to hear new music from these guys. Although I have to admit, I was a little leery of their creative process without founding member, rhythm guitarist and foremost Axl songwriting partner Izzy Stradlin. It’s a shame that he’s not included in this reunion, but that’s another post.

I just realized on Monday that they’d released the studio version of “Absurd” on Friday… I’m usually on top of these new music releases but hey, I was still jet lagged. New York is my kinda town. I have to say, upon hearing the studio version of “Absurd” I was stunned… by how absurdly bad it is. I try to stay positive here on B&V but when something momentous like a new GnR single happens, I have to say something. Apparently they reworked an outtake from the Chinese Democracy sessions called “Silkworms” and now it’s called “Absurd.” It was written by longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and former keyboardist Chris Pitman. Soooo, its been 5 years since Slash and Duff came back and you just reworked a single written by the keyboard section that wasn’t good enough to make it onto Chinese Democracy? I guess I was right about the absence of Izzy Stradlin. These guys have put out one album in like 30 years and this is what they chose to lead with?

The track starts with the line, “Listen motherfuckers to a song that should be heard.” This is one motherfucker who would disagree on that whole “should be heard” premise. Axl’s vocals are sung like he’s mad at us. It sounds like he’s shouting through a megaphone. I mean, Zach De La Rocha has an impassioned delivery but at least the music – while still very powerful – has some nimble swing to it. I’ve never heard the oft bootlegged original version of this song, “Silkworms” but I understand it was more electronica than classic GnR rock. I will say that “Absurd” does have some great Slash guitar work. It’s the only thing that makes this track palatable. And Duff has a lovely little bass line on the song, the guy is a nimble player. Those guys certainly elevate the track but not enough to make it interesting. And the lyrics are some of the most misogynist I’ve heard in a while, even for GnR.

You would hope a band this important would want their first single in over a decade to be something epic, something that will burnish their legend and re engage fans. This is so far off the mark that it baffles me. I’ve been hoping for a new GnR album for 5 years… now, not so much. Let’s hope this turns out to be a minor stub of the toe and they’ve been actually working on new material – not just rewarmed Chinese Democracy rejects. They had a year off to write, didn’t they?

Sigh. Cheers!

Billy F Gibbons Latest, ‘Hardware’ – A Straight Up Rocker From ZZ Top’s Front Man

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I’ve been bouncing all around musically this week. I’ve been deeply into the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition for a couple of weeks now and that continued this week. I found myself going from that to Dylan’s Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10 for no other reason than I saw it was the anniversary of the original Self Portrait recently… I seemed to be stuck in a late 1969, early 1970 groove…maybe I should get a leather fringe jacket and some beads. To shake it up I bounced to the Black Crowes’ Warpaint. That southern rock got me thinking about ZZ Top and that’s when it hit me that Billy F. Gibbons (or just Billy Gibbons as I’ve always known him) had just put out a new solo record, Hardware. The next thing I knew I was cranking that and of course, his original band, ZZ Top. I went back and listened to ZZ’s La Futura. I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since that album was released (in 2012). That was a great, Rick Rubin-produced comeback album. Rubin always seems to find a way to get a band to do what they do best. “I Gotsta Get Paid” is a true ZZ Top highlight. I need to do one of my “Lookback” posts about that one… 

My love of ZZ Top goes back as far as my love of rock n roll. As I’ve shared often on this site, my first LP purchase was the Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked, my life forever changed. I was a music collector. It was late ’78, maybe early ’79. There was so much rock and roll to choose from…I was so far behind. I wanted to collect all of this great music released in the 60s and 70s but like anybody I was drawn to what was then current. I remember I only owned maybe half a dozen records and my dad asking me, “Do you really need all of these albums?” Famously a smart ass, I asked my father in response, “You realize there’s different music on each album, right?” We didn’t talk much after that until I was 30 but I digress. I remember my burgeoning record collection consisted of: The Stones’ Some Girls, Van Halen, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America (which I eventually traded to my brother for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-1978, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which was a must have album, if just as a badge of “coolness”), Led Zeppelin (I still have a soft spot for that debut) and believe it or not – the Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues. My friend’s “hot” sister, Stacy owned that record and since she was a few years older I figured it was cool. Actually that record is how I started to realize that most the bands and music I was into was based on the blues. So good on you Messrs. Belushi and Aykroyd. 

In 1979, ZZ Top had been away on hiatus. The last ZZ Top LP, at the time, had been Tejas in 1976. They had been gone for three years, a lifetime back then. My friend Brewster always said the hiatus was because bass player Dusty Hill had been taking off his cowboy boots and a revolver had tumbled out and shot him in the leg. Having seen the documentary ‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,’ I’m not sure that Brewster story is true, funny though it is… As an aside, I did see ZZ Top open up for the Stones in Houston a couple of years later. The show was in the Astrodome. This biker I ended up standing next to, on the floor in the crush in front of the stage, said to me after ZZ Top had played and the roadies were sweeping off the stage, “The roadies have to sweep up all the mud that came off those guys’ cowboy boots,” like they’d been rustling cattle or something. Again, I’m not sure that’s true either but I’m getting distracted again… So many ZZ Top stories. Having been dormant since 1976, I’m not sure that I was aware that all those great southern rock, boogie blues tunes were the same band, let alone knew it was ZZ Top. I’d heard tracks like “Tush,” and “La Grange” but I’m not sure I’d put it together those were all from the same band… I was truly a novice. Hey, I always thought Genesis’ “Misunderstanding” was Journey with Gregg Rollie on lead vocals. That wasn’t cleared up for me until college. 

So, in 1979 I started hearing this great new song on KY102, the local rock station, “I Thank You.” I dug the music but the lyrics sounded like they were slyly vulgar, which was a plus. Beyond thanking a woman for loving him… this line pops up, “You didn’t have to squeeze it but you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.” That line had me thinking there was more to this story… there were just too many “but you did(s)” in the song. It was only later that I found out it was a cover tune written in part by Isaac Hayes. I dug the song and I was interested in this ZZ Top, but with only 6 or 7 albums to my name and a salary derived from mowing lawns, I had to be very careful about which LPs I purchased. I quickly determined the new LP was called Deguello, but I still hesitated. I had this 3 song rule… if I heard three tracks I dug, I bought the record. That was my ROI, three songs. Sigh. After hearing “Cheap Sunglasses” I was almost ready to jump in… Finally I heard “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and that settled it, I had to have this album. I purchased it the next time I could convince my mom to drive me to the mall… Yes, I was still in junior high. Needless to say, that album started a life long connection between ZZ Top and myself. Gibbons had spent his 3 years away absorbing punk rock and psychedelic influences and it paid off. Although even I’ll admit that it was hit and miss after Eliminator all the way to La Futura. I still consider Antenna a great record. 

I had actually heard that ZZ Top was working on a new band LP. I had heard drummer Frank Beard and the aforementioned, Brewster slandered, bass player Dusty Hill were excited about going back into the studio. I was down for another ZZ Top LP after the great La Futura. So I was a bit surprise that guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons had decided to do another solo record. Maybe it was a COVID issue. I remember back in 2000, being in Denver at a Rush cover-band show in a bar up in the mountains. Geddy Lee had just put out his first and only solo record. A friend of mine said to me, “Who needs a Geddy Lee solo record?” Harsh, indeed. Musicians likely get tired of working with the same guys and need a break – especially in the case of someone like Gibbons whose band has been together 50+ years. Sometimes they have material that’s just too personal or they just wanna record different types of music. I never fault a guy for going solo. I will admit, Billy’s first solo LP, 2015’s Latin-tinged Perfectamundo was not my cup of tea. I loved his 2018 LP, The Big Bad BluesI saw that album described as “covers heavy” but there were a lot of Gibbons’ originals. His wife even wrote a tune, “Missin’ Yo Kissin’.” Say what you want about the Rock Chick, she’s never tried to muscle in on the publishing… 

For Hardware, Billy assembled much of the same crew from the last record. He produced the record with Mike Fiorentino and Matt Sorum of GnR and the Cult fame, who also plays drums. I know rhythm guitarist Austin Hawks is also on this record too. Alas, long time ZZ Top engineer Joe Hardy who played bass on Gibbons’ previous two solo records passed away. While Perfectamundo was a Latin, percussive record and The Big Bad Blues was steeped in, yes, the blues – both records could perhaps be seen as genre exercise – Hardware is a straight up rock record. Well, as straight up as Billy F Gibbons is capable of. Gibbons put out a single last year, “Hot Rod” that could have been a bonus track on Eliminator, but it is not on this album. Hardware is the most “ZZ Top” sounding solo record Gibbons has done. 

Hardware is what you would expect in a Billy Gibbons record: lots of guitar, big riffs, bluesy solos, and sly (and sometimes not so sly) humor. Parts of this record remind me of Deguello. The first single was “West Coast Junkie” and it gives me a California vibe that pervades this entire record. It’s a surf rock tune punctuated by Billy doing his “Reverend Billy F Gibbons” schtick. The final track, a spoken word thing not unlike “Heaven Hell Or Houston,” also conjures a California, hot desert wind. You can feel dust on your skin… The first four or five tracks have a seriousness that Billy usually doesn’t evince. It almost starts to feel humorless, but that’s just because it’s missing Gibbons’ trademark humor which comes in later. The opener, “Lucky Card” reminds me of “Just Got Paid,” all funky blues rock. It may be my favorite. “She’s on Fire” is one of those, race to the finish line, fast, balls to the wall rocker. “More More More” has some of Gibbons’ most gravely vocals to date. “Shuffle Step & Slide” is just as advertised, a blues shuffle turned up to 10. It’s got a big, big riff. 

“Vagabond Man” is an affecting bluesy ballad, the guitar solo practically weeps. Make no mistake though, “Vagabond Man” is more ballad than blues. It’s not “Fool For Your Stockings.” “I Was A Highway” is a classic rock song with a chugging riff. It’s almost a sing along. I love the line, “You’d think I was a highway, the way she hit the road.” Gibbons is a deceptively clever songwriter and could always turn a phrase. The only track that really fell flat for me was “Hey Baby, Que Paso” which I think is a cover. “Spanish Fly” is a big riff rocker with almost metallic sounding drums and it is slightly plodding. The music – especially the guitars aren’t as loud as the usual ZZ Top or Gibbons record. They’re down in the mix and the vocals are up a little higher which also surprised me. 

Overall I really do like this record. Much like I said about Cheap Trick’s latest album, this is a solid, straight up rock record. It may not be Tres Hombres but its a damn fine guitar riff record. I’ll be honest, I probably liked The Big Bad Blues a little better but I’m an admitted blues fetishist. Everyone should check this album out. In 2021 its just nice to hear some great, guitar rock. 

Cheers! 

Cheap Trick: Incendiary New Single, “Light Up The Fire” From the Upcoming LP ‘In Another World’

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In the late 70s when Cheap Trick was at their true zenith, I was in junior high school. As the 80s dawned, I began my mostly mediocre high school years. When I was in junior high school everybody rode the bus to school. I suppose there were some kids who were close enough to walk, but my junior high was way over by the Kansas-Missouri border and so every day I begrudgingly boarded the bus. Finally as summer of 1979 waned, I became a high schooler. The main difference between junior high and high school, other than the sheer size of the place, at least for me at the time was that you didn’t have to ride the bus. You could drive a car, catch a ride with someone else in their car, or I suppose you could ride a bike if you were that sort of person…and I didn’t know that sort of person when I was in high school. 

I desperately wanted to drive to school. There was only one small problem. My parents wouldn’t let me get near a car. I knew how to drive, I’d been driving their car for years. It wasn’t like they’d have me drive up to the convenience store for beer and cigarettes or anything weird like that but we’d go out to the country when visiting relatives and they’d let me drive. In those years, especially oddly in junior high I was a bit of a…well… hellion. I’d actually mellowed out a little bit by high school, but I’d never get any credit for that from my parents… not now and especially not then. Since my misadventures typically involved beer drinking of some sort my parents were extremely apprehensive about allowing me to drive a car, any car. Looking back I secretly suspect my father just didn’t want to help me buy a car. I still wonder if they thought I was going to down a six-pack on the way to school… I mean, who drinks beer in the morning in high school? That’s clearly a college level gig. 

This situation left me sadly standing at the bus stop when high school rolled around. I’m not ever going to say only “losers” rode the bus because well, I was riding the bus, but it was a tough crowd. I watched two guys get into a fist fight on the bus one day… they were arguing about whether or not Hendrix, were he still alive, would have gone “jazz” and abandoned rock n roll. While the fight was crazy, I have to admit it was a subject worth fighting for. There was a guy at my bus stop who later went down for murder. Seriously, he killed a guy. That was the bus stop. I’m a lover not a fighter, I was lost in that crowd. A few weeks into high school this guy I knew, who I’ll call “Jimbo” stopped in his green VW bug and said, “What are you doing, get in.” And like that, I was rescued from the yellow hell. He came by my house every day and drove me to school. Alas, Jimbo moved to Oklahoma early in that sophomore year. That wasn’t before we’d wrecked the green VW bug… because of well, beer.  Don’t drink and drive folks. Learn from Springsteen’s mistake. 

Luckily, I had another friend, an industrious guy who always had a job, who I’ll call Brewster. Brewster owned a Monza. I think he bought it with his own cash. Shortly after Jimbo moved I was leaving my house one morning, bummed out, headed back to the bus stop and back to the yellow exile. I was quietly  hoping that there’d be no Hendrix “discussions” that morning as I was tired. When to my surprise, up pulls Brewster in his Monza. He’s got a couple other dudes in the car. Our friend RW was there and I think there were like seven guys named Steve who road along too. That’s how I remember it but that would have had to have been a huge Monza. In my defense, 90% of the people I knew in high school were named Steve so I get confused. After that, Brewster picked me up every school day morning. Oddly there was never a discussion about it. There was never a, “Hey, you can ride with me,” or “Get in” moment like with Jimbo. Every now and again my mom would slip me cash and I’d give it to Brewster for gas money. These were the “Cash, grass or ass” days so I wanted to get that money on the table early. Since there was never a discussion, occasionally if Brewster was sick, I’d be left standing at my front door. My mom was always super pissed, “Can you guys not communicate this stuff?” Alas, Brewster was never a wordy type of guy back then. 

Most days found me riding along happily in the Monza. I was tall so they’d let me ride up front most days. RW and the Steves would all ride in back. The best part of riding to school in the Monza was Brewster had sprung for a good stereo that played 8-track tapes. For those you unfamiliar with 8-tracks, Google them. They were the most confounding musical delivery system ever. Brewster had a recently new live album that we’d listen to almost every day on our way to school by a band called Cheap Trick. The album was called Cheap Trick at Budokan. We all knew it simply by the title “Live At Budokan.” I had only been vaguely familiar with Cheap Trick up to that point but man did we love that live LP. Although since we were listening on 8-track tape, it was years before I actually knew the running order of the songs on the record. It was like it was on random. I never figured that thing out. “I Want You To Want Me,” and “Surrender” were the big tracks but there wasn’t a bad moment on that LP… it easily made my list of “Essential Live Albums,” BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums

Needless to say I was a big Cheap Trick fan early on and remained so even after that late 70s – early 80s heyday. By the early 90s their albums had become a tad inconsistent. They always seemed to have a stray hit or two, even in the low points. Since then there have been a number of albums that were hailed as their “comeback album.” Starting with 2006’s Rockford, which was superb, I found myself interested again. After all these years Cheap Trick still has almost all of their original members: Robin Zander on lead vocals, Rick Nielsen on guitars and Tom Petersson on bass. Original drummer Bun E. Carlos has left the band rather acrimoniously and was replaced with Nielsen’s son Daxx. At least they kept it in the family. Their last album (not including a xmas album) We’re All Alright! was another triumph (LP Review: Cheap Trick’s ‘We’re All Alright!’ – Pure, Rock Delight

Cheap Trick have returned in 2021 with a new single, “Light Up The Fire” from an upcoming album In Another World. I’ve gotta tell you, I love the new track. “Light Up The Fire” just simply rocks. I was playing it one day and the Rock Chick wandered into the B&V Lab and said, “Wow, these guys are rocking.” Cheap Trick do so many things well. There’s obviously a Beatles’ influence in a lot of their music. I would say, now that I’ve discovered Big Star, there is also a huge influence there as well. Call it power pop or rock that feels pop-y, call it whatever you want Cheap Trick can do it. But one thing I don’t think they get enough credit for is how much they just flat out rock. I hated to see Bun E. Carlos go, but ever since Daxx Nielsen has taken over the kit, these guys have leaned a little harder into the rocking stuff.

I would be remiss not to call out Zander’s almost unhinged lead vocal. That was what first caught the Rock Chick’s ear. The track starts off with a fuzzy bass and then the drums and guitar kick in. Its’ galloping along when Zander’s yelp comes in. “So light up the fire, but don’t burn my love to the ground.” Oh, hell yes. Nielsen does his usual manic guitar work here. The solo feels buttery slippery but powerful and its all anchored by such a solid rhythm section. Daxx and Tom aren’t flashy but they’re in the pocket. This is a full-out, fun, race me to the finish line rocker. If you like Cheap Trick’s harder rocking stuff, this will fill the bill. 

I am extremely  hopeful this is a great kick off to a great album and what could be a great 2021 musically. I’d heard rumors they had this album done a year ago but held off release because of Covid. If so, I’m glad its finally seeing the light of day. It’s great to hear the Rock Hall of Fame stalwarts come out guns blazing to start off our year. It’s certainly a hopeful sign for the Rock New Year. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this album, for sure! 

Be safe out there! Cheers! 

New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20

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As I’ve often documented in these pages, before I heard the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls the only time I turned on the radio was to hear a Royals’ baseball game. Then I heard “Miss You,” and later “Shattered” and then “Beast of Burden” and suddenly I wanted a stereo for Christmas. I consider that moment when I first heard the Stones on the car radio, riding with my mother no less, as my rock and roll awakening. It was late 1978 when all this happened and by then rock and roll was a good 20 years along. When you step into the middle of something, it’s really hard to catch up. 

Most of the rock and roll acts I dig (by 1978) were deep into their careers. There had been a lot of great music released in the previous 10 years, let alone the previous 20 years. I was newly into my teens and on a weekly allowance of $10 it’s really hard to purchase the entire back catalogs of rock bands/artists (especially with the constant refrain of, “You didn’t clean your room son, no allowance this week…”). In high school, my fledgling vinyl collection – and I was all vinyl, don’t give me those 8-tracks or cassettes – consisted of the albums that were being released at the time, the current stuff. My first Who album was Face Dances. My first Zeppelin album was In Through the Out Door. And while many of you rock aficionados may hold your nose for those records, they will always have a place in my heart (B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?). 

While Springsteen’s landmark album Darkness On The Edge Of Town also came out in 1978, some how I missed it. I lived in Kansas City and it was never a huge Springsteen town. I did hear “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands” on the radio but I’m not sure I even knew they were both by Springsteen. There was just so much to absorb it was hard to keep track. All of that changed in late 1980 with the release of The River. I remember the first single “Hungry Heart” caught my attention. It was pure ear candy. Bruce had originally written it for the Ramones but his manager told him he best keep that one. I didn’t rush out and buy The River however because its was a double-album. Twice the music but alas, at twice the price. That was a major financial commitment on my allowance. I hadn’t even bought The Wall yet due to similar financial constraints and it had been out a year by then… Plus I didn’t know much about Springsteen… was he cool? did he rock? You had to be sure you didn’t buy any lame artists and I was always cautious. I had seen too many of my friends buy Kiss albums and I considered them suspect at the time. I feared history would not treat them well… naturally I was wrong. I was 13, what did I know?

Luckily, the local rock radio station started playing more deep cuts from the album. After hearing the title track, “Point Blank” and “Out In the Street” I knew Springsteen delivered the goods. He was a special kind of artist. I plunked down the hard earned dough and bought it. I nervously dropped the needle on side 1 of the first album not knowing what to expect. I can still remember the rush I felt when “The Ties That Bind” burst out of the speakers. It hit me in my lower-brain stem and I knew I wanted more rock and roll… nay, I knew I needed more rock and roll. It was that moment I knew I was bonded with this artist. Sadly, he came to KC in February ’80 and played Kemper Arena. They say more people slept out in line for tickets than had seen him on the Darkness tour but how would they measure that?The Kansas City Star described it as “the concert of the year” and again… it was only February. My dear friend Brewster had also secretly gotten into Springsteen and assuming I wouldn’t like him, after buying two tickets… took someone else. After all these years… yes, I have forgiven him… I haven’t forgotten… some wounds don’t heal completely. 

Even though I was a newly minted Springsteen fan, I didn’t go crashing through his back catalog. I’d heard “Born To Run,” “Jungleland,” and “Rosalita” – those were about the only older tracks they played in KC – but I didn’t even know what albums to look for. I thought “Blinded By The Light” was a Manfred Mann tune. About a year after I bought The River a friend of mine and I met two older, senior girls in our Study Hall. Somehow these fetching young women ended up sitting with us and on the surface, seemed to enjoy our geeky-ness. They invited my friend and I to meet them at that year’s Senior Skip Day party. It was where all the seniors blew off school and someone had a keg of beer, insanity ensued. We weren’t seniors but oh yes, we were in. I remember drinking a beer and talking to one of these beautiful girls and it was going great, at least I think it was… when I heard over the speakers propped up on the back deck…”The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…” I was mesmerized…”Is this Springsteen?” Nothing happened with the girls and it may have been my utter distraction from hearing the masterpiece Born To Run for the first time. I was gobsmacked. I bought that record the next day. Who thought Springsteen could “cock block” me?

I’ve been a big Springsteen fan ever since. I’ve followed him from big, anthemic albums with the E-Street band to acoustic, introspective solo records to detours like Western Stars (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). I have live albums and official live bootlegs. I’ve seen him a number of times in concert. I’ve even gotten the Rock Chick slightly into him…she’ll never be counted amongst the converted but she does have a ‘Bruce’ playlist she likes to crank up. I was thrilled to hear during this awful year, that Springsteen had a brand new album coming out. God, how we need new music! I was even more thrilled to hear the E Street Band would be on the album. I figured the new LP, Letter To You, would probably come out around Christmas. Thankfully I was wrong. I was pumped to see that the first single dropped last Friday with the album coming October 23rd.

I have to admit to you, and this will be no surprise, I really like “Letter To You.” The E Street Band is such a sympathetic medium for Springsteen to bring his songs to life. The song finds Springsteen looking back and writing a letter to his first band, the Castiles. Living in isolation, who doesn’t welcome a letter or an email from an old friend. After all these years, the sound of Bruce and the E Street band still gives me chills. It’s like an unexpected call from someone you’d like hear from but haven’t. It’s an upbeat track but I might call it mid tempo. Springsteen’s vocal is particularly inspired. The entire album was recorded live in the studio over five days, supposedly without any overdubs. This is their classic sound, dripping with earnestness and strength. When the band kicks in during the early part of the song, goose bumps, baby. It only lacks a sax solo from the Big Man’s nephew, Jake Clemons. The song is catchy and it sticks with me. It’s not a big anthemic thing like “Born To Run” or “Dancing In the Dark” but it will seep into your brain. 

I reflected on what this might mean for the new album. As I did I found my mind wandering back to 1980 and “Hungry Heart.” Eventually I found myself mulling over every Springsteen first single since The River in an effort to predict what the new LP might be like. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this music travelogue through those singles and my experiences with them… what it means for the new album – probably nothing but it was a fun thing to keep me occupied in mind-numbing times…I skipped the Pete Seeger thing because I despise Pete Seeger and struggle to even acknowledge that Bruce recorded that thing. 

  • The River, “Hungry Heart” – One of Bruce’s signature songs. It was very pop oriented but it heralded one of his greatest albums ever. It’s still a fun sing-a-long at concerts if you’re into that sort of thing. 
  • Nebraska, “Atlantic City” – I was home for Christmas break during my very awful freshman year of college. I was walking past the record store when I spotted a display with Nebraska albums stacked up to the ceiling. I left my then girlfriend standing there and went lunging into the store. I didn’t even know Springsteen had a new album out. I bought it and went home immediately. I was stunned at the difference between the sound of this dour album compared to The River. It’s one of the most grim listens ever (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). Even the video for “Atlantic City,” which does not feature Bruce is grainy and black and white. No sunshine to be found here… However, the single, “Atlantic City” will always be one of my favorite Bruce tracks. The Band did a nice little cover of it as well. 
  • Born In The U.S.A., “Dancing In the Dark” – The song that made Springsteen a superstar. I can still remember how starved, after the grim Nebraska, we all were for a new rock album from Bruce. We were all so thrilled that we might get to see an actual concert vs listening to bootlegs. I remember partying all night and sitting  up at dawn just to see the video. 
  • Tunnel of Love, “Brilliant Disguise” – By this time I was living in Ft Smith, Arkansas. I can remember the first time I heard this track, driving into the office on a cold, winter morning. I knew he’d gone back to the more introspective Nebraska style. This album featured more instrumentation and remains a favorite of mine. One of his greatest songs. 
  • Human Touch/Lucky Town, “Human Touch”/”Better Days” – Two Springsteen albums released on the same day. We’d been waiting for what seemed like forever. He’d disbanded the E Street Band and we didn’t know what to expect. “Human Touch,” at six and a half minutes is a big epic track. It’s much maligned but I still like it. “Better Days” is grittier, more immediate. It remains a favorite from a rather discounted period of Bruce’s career. 
  • The Ghost of Tom Joad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Another from Springsteen’s grim solo projects. This is my least favorite Springsteen album but the title track remains one of my favorites of his. Rage Against the Machine have redone this track as well. It’s a perfect song even today. 
  • The Rising, “The Rising” – The title track from the 911-centric album that saw the return of the E Street Band. I got tears in my eyes the first time I heard this epic title track. It ranks up there with “This Land Is Your Land” as a populist anthem. This song and the album it came from are American treasures. 
  • Devils And Dust, “Devils And Dust” – I’ve noticed that Springsteen likes to release the title track as the first single of most of his albums. Good marketing if you think about it. This album is ripped from the headlines. It sounds like an update from the front lines. One of Springsteen’s best solo tracks and albums. 
  • Magic, “Radio Nowhere” – One of the more rocking first singles of Springsteen’s career. I really liked Magic but I think many critics were divided on it. It’s a great, late-period E Street album. And who could argue with the theme on this song of radio slowly dying (Playlist: Memories of and A Requiem For Rock And Roll Radio). 
  • Working On A Dream, “Working On A Dream” – Another title track! This song has an irresistible melody. It’s as catchy as the old Motown singles. While the album itself was uneven, this single ranks amongst Bruce’s best. 
  • Wrecking Ball, “We Take Care of Our Own” – Another great rocking song with a spectacular message. Springsteen is the quintessential American artist. I remember he played this song on the Grammys. That night I had an old friend who I’ll call, “The Bat Cat” who had dropped by with his family. His daughter wanted to watch the Grammys. When Springsteen came on, Bat Cat paused and said, “Hey, I like that, it sounds like Darkness. Indeed it does. Classic Springsteen. 
  • High Hopes, “High Hopes” – The only cover song Springsteen has released as a single. He’d done it once before on an EP but I like this version best. High Hopes was a reimagining of songs Springsteen had previously written for earlier projects. I think critics discounted it for that reason but there are great songs on this album and I include the title track in that number. 
  • Western Stars, “Hello Sunshine” – The rare ballad as a first single. It was a true harbinger of what the album was like. This beautiful song quickly became one of my all time favorites (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). 

What does this tell us about the new Bruce album? “Letter To You” is another title track as first single for Bruce, but other than that, we’ll just have to anxiously await late October. 

Be safe out there! 

 

Review: Smashing Pumpkins Release 2 New Songs, “Cyr,” “The Colour of Love”

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I was recently writing about a difficult period in my life, 1994-1995 and some of the great music that got me through those rough times (Tom Petty: New Vault Song, “There Goes Angela” From The Upcoming ‘Wildflowers’ Box). When I think about that rough patch in my life one of the bands that I think about, who got me through it, is the Smashing Pumpkins. In 1994 I had one of those milestone birthdays that make you start to ponder your life and the direction you’re heading. My good friend Doug flew in for that birthday celebration at a live-music bar down in Westport, the Hurricane. It was indeed epic but those records are sealed. As a gift Doug brought me 2 CDs. While Doug grew up in KC like me, he was living in Chicago at the time and had adopted that city so thoroughly that we referred to him as “Mr. Chicago.” Naturally this led him to gift me two CDs from Chicago-based groups. The first was from singer/songwriter Ralph Covert who eventually started recording music for children. The second CD was from this group I hadn’t really heard of named the Smashing Pumpkins.

The album he gifted me on that difficult birthday was the Pumpkins’ masterpiece second album Siamese Dream which had come out less than a year prior. I have to admit that Doug, despite not owning a stereo, has turned me onto some great music over the years. I’m trying to talk Doug into buying a turntable so we can disguise our beer drinking jaunts as trips to the used record store and yet he resists the idea, but I’m getting off topic here. The Smashing Pumpkins hadn’t really broken through on KC radio yet in 1994. Their debut Gish was so broadly ignored here that I have to admit I thought Siamese Dream was their debut (at least I did in ’94). It was years before I picked up or even listened to Gish, which I love. In 1994 I had vaguely heard of the Smashing Pumpkins. I was aware they had a video involving an ice cream truck (“Today”) but that was about all I knew.

Well it’s no surprise but Siamese Dream knocked me out. Not only the big songs like “Today,” “Cherub Rock” and “Rocket” drew me in, but some of the deeper album tracks grabbed me too – “Mayonnaise,” “Space Boy,” and “Hummer.” Needless to say, I was on the bandwagon despite still being blissfully unaware of Gish. A year and half later, the Pumpkins – Billy Corgan,  vocals/guitar/bass/keyboards/mastermind; James Iha, guitar; D’Arcy (Wretzky), bass; and Jimmy Chamberlin, drums – exploded when they released the 1995 guitar magnum opus Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. After that album everyone was on the bandwagon. Tracks like “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” were everywhere. That was the first tour I saw the Pumpkins and I was extremely impressed. Some friends and I were on the floor – there were no chairs – and we got up close to the band and they were on fire. It was scorched earth with guitars. 

Alas, toward the end of that tour the wheels came off. Jimmy Chamberlin’s heroin addiction got the best of him and he and their touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin both O.D.ed. Melvoin died and Chamberlin was subsequently fired from the band. And I thought I was having a rough time? On their next LP, 1998’s Adore, the band took a stylistic left turn and adopted a more electronica based sound. I always thought it was symbolic of how pissed Corgan was at Jimmy (who he described as his “musical soulmate,” the two had roomed together on the road in the early days) that they’d choose a musical direction that didn’t really require a drummer. A lot of people were put off by the new Pumpkins’ sound on Adore. My friend’s wife, when we saw them on that tour, turned to me and said “What is this shit?” How Greil Marcus of her! I dug that album and that tour. I was especially impressed with James Iha at that show, he was coaxing wild, bizarre notes out of his guitar. He reminded me of the Edge from U2.

Unfortunately, Chamberlin’s departure from the band began what has continued to be an almost constant churn in the line-up of the band. Chamberlin came back for Machina and a more rocking sound but then D’Arcy left. The band finally broke up in 2000 only to reform in 2007 with only Corgan and Chamberlin as members. Before I knew what was happening Chamberlin was out. The band was down to just Corgan and a guitarist named Jeff Schroeder for a while. They actually brought in Tommy Lee of Motley Crue fame to drum on 2014’s Monuments To An Elegy, an album I really dug. So it was a big deal when it was announced that both Chamberlin and to my delight Iha were returning to the fold in 2018 for Shiny And Oh So Bright. I liked that record – LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’ – although I have to admit, it was not the guitar assault I was hoping Iha’s return would have suggested. The line up at the time was Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and guitarist Jeff Schroeder so you do the math – 3 guitarists and 1 drummer – I just thought it would rock harder. 

I’ve been waiting with great anticipation for what I assume will be called  “Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol 2.” I was delighted last week when I saw that the Pumpkins had released two new songs, the mysteriously titled “Cyr” and “The Colour Of Your Love.” And I have to say, like the last album, only Billy Corgan can have a band with three guitarists and record two songs that are keyboard based. “Cyr” is all keyboards and what sounds like drum machines. It sounds like what U2 has been grasping for lately, a current sounding song. I played it for the Rock Chick trying to find a modern equivalent in terms of sound – I was thinking the Killers, Imagine Dragons or someone like that. When she heard “Cyr” she said, “That sounds like hopped-up Coldplay.” Withering criticism at least in this house. I despise Coldplay. To me, it sounds like a song that would have fit nicely on Adore. Yes, I’d like more guitar but this song has such a great beat (something I never thought I’d write) and melody it drills into my brain. It’s very poppy. “Cyr” signals to me that Corgan is going to do whatever the Hell he wants to do. 

The better of the two tracks to me, is the second track, “The Colour Of Your Love.” On this track I can at least discern Chamberlin’s drumming. Again it’s not the guitar-assault you’d expect or hope for when Iha and Corgan are on guitar… It’s got a lot of keyboards. It’s of the same smooth, polished music that Corgan has been doing since Oceania. It doesn’t seem to matter whose in the band. There isn’t even a guitar solo on this track which is disappointing. It is a hooky song and again an infectious melody. These aren’t bad songs they’re just not what I expect when I think of the classic Smashing Pumpkins. 

For any of you hoping for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” these tracks aren’t for you. If “Daphne Descends” from Adore is your thing, then you’ll really dig these songs. Again, they’re not bad, they just aren’t songs I’d recommend to anybody who isn’t a die-hard Pumpkins fan like me. One has to wonder how involved Iha really is with this new music or really with the last album if I’m being honest. I’m starting to wonder if they’re just paying him to be in the publicity photos. While I am still greatly looking forward to whatever these guys do next, I’m the last person to predict what the next album will sound like…I guess it’ll be whatever the Hell Billy Corgan wants to do. 

Be safe out there, Cheers! 

 

LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!

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“He’s got a curly tongue and a curly tail, but mostly he’s got hate for sale” – Pretenders, “Hate For Sale”

Could any of us expected, this far down the line, this gift of a fabulous Pretenders’ album? I, for one, needed this record!

I was an early adopter on the Pretenders. Their seminal debut album Pretenders came out when I was in high school and I bought it immediately. I think of the album cover as iconic. I have always considered the Pretenders to be a punk band, but since their first record didn’t come out until 1979 in the UK and 1980 in the US (and I’ll admit I thought it was 1978) perhaps they were post-punk or even New Wave or Next Wave? Labels be damned in this case. Ohioan guitarist/singer/songwriter Chrissie Hynde was living in London in the 70s immersed in the punk scene when she formed the original Pretenders’ with James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), Pete Farndon (bass) and her once and future drummer Martin Chambers (if I can sneak in a T.H. White reference).

The songs on that first album still blow me away. The Kinks’ cover, “Stop Your Sobbing” was the first single, but that isn’t the track that sticks out in my mind – although it is great. The opening salvo “Precious” was a call to arms. When she sang in “Tattooed Love Boys” the lyric “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for…” I was smitten. “Kid” and “Mystery Achievement” remain favorites today. Although I’m going to admit – with a touch of embarrassment – the song that drew me in was the big hit single, “Brass In Pocket,” an admittedly “pop” tune.

There’s a reason that song hooked me. I was a sophomore in high school and in my Study Hall (aka “free period”) there was a girl who was a senior. She was tall with long legs and dirty blonde hair that always seemed to be in a fashionable mess. As a lowly sophomore I never had the temerity to even look her in the eye let alone speak to her, she was a vaunted senior, high above me socially – such is the fear and inexperience of youth. There were two sides of Study Hall, the silent side for well, studying, and then the social side. I know this can’t be true but I have this memory that they played music on the social side of Study Hall. While it may be apocryphal, I have this memory of her walking toward me in an angora sweater, to her gaggle of friends – who I viewed with a mix of awe and fear – while that song played in the background…its like the whole world slowed down… My memory is like a scene from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. There’s just something about a strong woman like Chrissie Hynde singing and that senior who was also pretty damn strong that stuck in my psyche. Paging Dr. Freud.

The Pretenders’ success continued on their strong sophomore effort, creatively named Pretenders II, in 1981. “Message Of Love” and “The Adultress” continued the riff rocking theme established on the first album. Especially commendable is the guitar playing of James Honeyman-Scott. Then tragedy struck. The band fired Pete Farndon because of his drug addiction…namely heroin. I read somewhere that Honeyman-Scott was the one who insisted on Farndon’s dismissal but who really knows outside the band? Ironically, two days after sacking Farndon, Honeyman-Scott died from what Wikipedia calls “cocaine-intolerance,” which sounds like an O.D. Less than a year later Farndon drowned in his own bathtub. That’s Allman Brothers level tragedy. And then, as the saying goes, there were two – Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers.

Somehow, Hynde and Chambers were able to shoulder on. It took three years, but the follow up, 1984’s Learning To Crawl with Robbie McIntosh manning the guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass may have been their biggest album. It had the huge songs “Back On the Chain Gang,” and “Middle of the Road.” The latter song finds Chrissie confessing, “I’m going home, I’m tired as Hell, I’m not the cat I used to be, I’ve gotta kid I’m thirty-three.” I have to admit, after that stunning success, I sort of lost track of the Pretenders. I was always aware they were out there. I’d hear the occasional hit on the radio like “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” but I wasn’t paying the same level of attention to them. I also knew that there had been numerous line-up changes, including Chambers coming and going. When they were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame – Chambers thanked the “drummers who’d been keeping my seat warm” and Chrissie quickly jumped to the mic and said, “I had to remain true to the music.”

It would be easy to describe Hate For Sale as the Pretender’s best album since Learning to Crawl or quite possibly since Pretenders II. Its really that good – in this case, believe the hype. However, that does discount some of the fine music the Pretenders have put out since the early, salad days. Their last album, 2016’s Alone produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach felt more like a Chrissie Hynde solo project. The record companies like to press artists into “staying with the brand” and force people like Billy Corgan or Chrissie Hynde into putting out solo albums under the moniker of the old band. However, if you go back to 2006’s Breaking Up the Concrete you’ll discover a great Pretenders’ record. Despite Chambers being replaced by famous session drummer Jim Keltner, Concrete felt more like a “band” record.

That band feel carries the day on Hate For Sale. It’s really nice to see Martin Chambers back on the drum kit for the first time in ages – although he does play drums on tour, its nice to see him back in the studio with Hynde. I think they have a chemistry that can’t be duplicated. Joining Hynde and Chambers are James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass with Carwyn Ellis on keyboards. Hynde’s wit and wisdom are fully present in these lyrics. What I really like is that she cowrote all the songs with Walbourne which again, gives this more of a full band feel. The rockers are energetic and punchy. The ballads are beautiful and wistful. This is truly a complete Pretenders’ record without a dud on it.

The title track opens the record. They actually have a false start that they kept on the song. It sounds like a band jamming, losing the thread but being tight enough to pull it back together. I thought it was kinda cool. “Hate For Sale” is punky, energetic with a great riff. It’s the perfect kick off to this album… and even has some nice harmonica. “Turf Accountant Daddy” is another strong rocker with a big riff and galloping gait. “I Didn’t Know When To Stop,” with crashing drums and guitars (and again, harmonica) has a great guitar solo and simply rocks. I also liked the atmospheric “Junkie Walk,” with its fuzzed out guitars and heavy riff. I actually added that one to our Heroin playlist, B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin.

“The Buzz” was the first single from the album and it’s a great pop-rock tune. Hynde provides us with her typical great vocal on the track. The woman is a legend. It’s their best single in a long, long while. “Lightning Man” is a great reggae tune. I saw the Pretenders open for the Stones in Chicago years ago and Hynde said on stage, “The Stones have brought us a lot of great things but one of the best was spreading reggae to a bigger audience.” The Pretenders certainly deliver on this track – I put it on my Rockers Playing Reggae list, B&V Playlist: Rockers Playing Reggae: It’s Not Just For Vacation Any More. “Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely” may be my favorite track here. It just sticks in my head. It’s got a great rockabilly feel and Bo Diddley beat. I find myself mumbling “I didn’t want to be this lonely but losing you was a relief…” Ah, mixed emotions. “Maybe Love Is In NYC” is another bang up track. With all of these great songs, this record should be as big as Learning to Crawl. 

There are the classic, Chrissie Hynde ballads, sung with full emotion. “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” has another great Hynde vocal. “Crying In Public” is a heart wrenching track with Hynde singing over piano. Ballads aren’t for everybody, but I dig these two. The Pretenders do everything they do well perfectly on this album.

Hate For Sale is the kind of late-career gem that B&V was created to extoll. It’s just so great to hear a classic band pull it together and release something this vital and alive this far into their career. I’d love to see some of this played live, but alas, pandemic. I urge every rock fan out there – or Pretenders’ fans out there – to check out this rewarding album.

Be Safe!