Review: Jackson Browne, ‘Downhill From Everywhere’ – A Voice We All Need

“I’m still out here under the streetlight, baby, I’m still lookin’ for something in the night…if all I find is freedom that’s alright…” – Jackson Browne, “Still Looking For Something”

The Rock Chick and I loaded up the car and headed for points West to see the daughter this last weekend. While I was out living my Jack Kerouac “On The Road” fantasy I saw that Jackson Browne released a new album Downhill From Everywhere. I also saw David Crosby had released a new album as well… Jackson Browne and David Crosby both releasing an album on the same day… what is this, 1973? I can’t believe it’s been seven years since Browne last released a studio LP, the late career gem Standing In the Breach. Had B&V existed back then we definitely would have written about that one. Since 2000, Browne has only released four studio LPs, an average of 5 and a quarter years between each one. Needless to say when a singer/songwriter/producer like Jackson Browne drops his first album in damn near a decade, it’s a big deal. For those of you who only know him from “Somebody’s Baby” on the soundtrack for Fast Times At Ridgemont High, there is so much more. He’s had quite a storied career.

I first heard or learned about Jackson Browne the way most people did in the 70s, from rock n roll radio. I can remember prior to my rock awakening, hearing “Dr My Eyes” or “The Pretender” on the stereo at the neighborhood swimming pool when my mother would careen into the parking lot, barely stop and shove us from the car. She always said she was going to be back by 3:00pm and we should be waiting… but it always kinda felt like she might just keep driving and we’d never see her again. Jackson Browne specialized in beautifully sung introspective songs about love, relationships, life and death. These were not topics a pubescent 13 year old was into. I wanted songs with loud guitar about girls and more girls. It was my brother – who as always was out in front of me – who brought a Jackson Browne LP into the house, 1980’s Hold Out. Critics derided it as “self-indulgent” but it’s his only number 1 LP… I loved sitting in my brother’s room listening to “Boulevard” or “Call It A Loan.” While “Hold On Hold Out” with it’s cheesy spoken word part was cringe-worthy I always liked “That Girl Could Sing” and the lyric “She was a friend to me when I needed one, wasn’t for her I don’t know what I’d done.” Even as a teenage virgin I hoped to meet a woman like that.

It wasn’t until college when I was infinitely more secure in my musical tastes that I delved into Browne’s catalog. I picked up his live album Running On Empty which was actually a concept album about the road. I also picked up his debut LP, a seminal singer/songwriter album and of course, The Pretender. His first five LPs are essential listening. After what was considered a disappointing outing on Hold Out, he followed up with Lawyers In Love. The title track was a joke that didn’t land. He has a great sense of humor evinced on songs like “Rosie” or “Ready Or Not” but people didn’t get “Lawyers In Love.” Browne’s songs were always highly personal but after that LP he veered hard into politics. He’d been an activist for a while and had even formed MUSE, Musicians United for Safe Energy and hosted the “No Nukes Concert.” I bought 1986’s Lives In the Balance and 1989’s World In Motion but eventually sold both of them at the Used Record Store. World In Motion was a tough listen… Lives In the Balance despite being political had some great songs.

After a rather cold string – two LPs that weren’t up to his early work and two LPs that were borderline strident – I drifted away from Jackson Browne. His “comeback” LP the very personal, break-up album I’m Alive is a phenomenal record. It really set him onto a stretch of great LPs. Everything he’s done since has been really strong – the kind of LPs B&V were founded on. I really got back into Jackson Browne on The Naked Ride Home from 2002. I highly recommend that disc for everyone. After I’m Alive Browne seemed to come to the realization that he’s better off mixing the personal with the political to make a point. When he balances those two viewpoints in one song, its magic. Time The Conqueror and Standing In the Breach are late career gems… although the latter is the pick of the litter for me, Time The Conqueror veered slightly too far into the political.

In the early 90s I say I drifted away from Jackson Browne’s music but in reality I just drifted back to his early LPs. I finally went out and bought his 2nd and 3rd LPs on CD, For Everyman and Late For the Sky. I was living in a crappy 1-bedroom apartment on Brush Creek, working a dead end job and fresh off a break up when For Everyman and Late For the Sky went into high rotation on my stereo. I was living next door to an exotically beautiful Egyptian woman who, when her boyfriend visited, can be best described by Paul Simon, “Couple in the next room, bound to win a prize.” I was laying awake late at night lamenting my life choices but the neighbor lady was celebrating life at full volume. I was sitting in front of my stereo one day when there was a knock on the door… I turned down the music and opened the door. There stood the screaming Egyptian woman. “What is this beautiful music I always hear coming from your apartment?” Stunned, I sort of mumbled, “Jackson Browne, Late For The Sky.” I sensed she wanted to come in and listen but for some reason I didn’t invite her in… Oh, a life of missed opportunities. Perhaps she could have “been a friend to me when I needed one…” I guess I’ll never know.

I actually saw Browne live for the first time in the middle 90s on the Looking East. He played a show down at the Liberty Memorial. He was amazing that night. I remember he dedicated the song “Fountain of Sorrow” to his ex girlfriend Darryl Hannah. He said, “I’d like to dedicate this song to Darryl Hannah who seems to hate me now…” I went down the rabbit hole on that whole situation this last week… I still don’t know what happened. I saw him again opening up for Tom Petty and he delivered again. If you get a chance to see Browne and his band live, buy the ticket.

Having been seven years since his last LP, as I mentioned before, hearing Downhill From Everywhere is like getting an email from an old friend you haven’t chatted with in a while. Browne’s songwriting chops are still very much in place. His voice is ageless. He’s backed on this LP by Greg Leisz and Val McCallum on guitar, venerable Bob Glaub on bass, Jeff Young on keyboards, and Mauricio Lewak on drums. These guys play like an actual backing band vs a bunch of studio hired guns. Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills who have been Browne’s back up vocalists for a long time are back for Downhill From Everywhere. The thing I’ve always loved about Jackson’s music is that he’s always searching for something, for answers. It’s a world view I can understand. He’s also a consummate craftsman – which some critics use as a put-down – but his records always sound great. His early albums all had David Lindley’s slide guitar all over them and McCallum and Leisz capture that same vibe here.

There is so much to like here. The opening track, “Still Looking For Something” is probably my favorite track on the album. It’s a soulful mediation on the search for truth. It’s a feeling I can relate to…I feel like I too am “still out here under the streelight…” “My Cleveland Heart” is a rock n roll song. Why Cleveland and not Detroit? I don’t know. Maybe its a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame reference? It’s a classic Browne rocker. “Minutes To Downtown” is a beautiful song about finding love later in life which more than a few of us can relate to. “The Dreamer” is the perfect example of Browne finding the right mix between the political and the personal. It’s a song in support of the DACA dreamers but told through the lens of a young girl. It’s simply put, a brilliant song. “We don’t see half the people around us, but we see enemies who surround us.” That line pretty much sums up the Fox News crowd… The ballad “A Little Too Soon To Tell” is a classic Jackson Browne song that sounds like lazy, late summer on the porch. “Song For Barcelona” is a track that transports me back to that wonderful city that I hope to return to some day… perhaps to live out my twilight years… “Love Is Love” comes across like a beautiful mantra.

There are only a few moments that miss the mark for me. He does a duet with Leslie Mendelson, “A Human Touch.” I think it was recorded for a movie. Too much Leslie not enough Jackson. “Until Justice Is Done” isn’t a bad political track but it doesn’t really take me anywhere. I dig the sentiment I just can’t get into the song. It sounds like it was something written for a protest rally and I’ve been to plenty but can I dance to it? Other than these slightly “off” moments, this is an amazingly strong late career record.

This is one of the strongest albums of 2021 so far. If you’ve haven’t heard Downhill From Everywhere or any of Jackson’s late period LPs, especially Standing In The Breach or The Naked Ride Home I urge you to seek those out as well. This is a prime example of a classic artists who continues to put out incredibly strong, late career music that deserves a listen. I just hope Jackson comes around a little more often, he’s a voice we need. Pick this one up, pour something strong, get out on the porch and groove. You never know…the pretty neighbor girl might just knock on your door.

Cheers!

‘McCartney 3,2,1’ Streaming Now On Hulu – Paul Talks Music With Producer Rick Rubin

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“Paul was one of the most innovative bass players that ever played the bass.” – John Lennon

I mentioned on a recent post on the great documentary Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) directed by Questlove, how disappointed the Rock Chick and I are about the dearth of new rock n roll coming out these days.  Well, at least a dearth in the rock n roll we’re interested in here at B&V. People kept saying that musicians, unable to tour in 2020 due to Covid, were holing up in studios and taking the time to write new stuff… I haven’t really seen that come to fruition yet in 2021. I will say, I do believe we’re on the cusp of a bunch of new music coming out – both new stuff and archival. Typically when we find ourselves in a bit of a lull on the new release front as we’ve been lately, I find myself turning to the television. After we wrapped up watching the aforementioned Summer Of Soul last weekend we turned to the new, limited series McCartney 3,2,1. Over the course of six, thirty-minute episodes Paul sits down for a candid, lengthy conversation with uber-producer Rick Rubin. As binge watches go, we burned through this one pretty quickly.

First, I’ve always been a big Rick Rubin fan. He’s produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Cult, the Black Crowes, the Beastie Boys, Metallica and AC/DC. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. He literally resurrected Johnny Cash who had been left for dead by the Country Music “establishment.” When producing Black Sabbath’s 13, he told them, “Pretend you’ve just recorded your first album. What comes next?” He’s clearly a vibe guy, not a technician. I saw a documentary about the Avett Brothers and Rick Rubin was producing them. I think he owns and maybe lives in the Malibu studio (named Shangri La) where the Avett Brothers doc was filmed. Bob Dylan and the Band recorded Planet Waves there. The man is a rock n roll Guru…and frankly looks the part.

I am also a huge McCartney fan. When you came of age in the mid to late 70s, McCartney was at a zenith and was most people’s favorite ex-Beatle. Lennon went into semi-seclusion in 1975 when he went into his “house-husband” phase after the birth of his son Sean. The late 70s saw the once promising careers of George Harrison and Ringo Starr sort of… fade. McCartney kind of became the de-facto “favorite” as he was the only one in the public eye in a big way at the time. I will say, even then my brother’s favorite Beatle was George… the Quiet Beatle. Which makes sense as I got the loud/obnoxious gene that he was able to avoid. Were I quizzed now, with the benefit of time and reflection I’d probably say John was my “favorite” Beatle. Although I absolutely love much of George Harrison’s solo output. And, I still love Paul McCartney. His late career stuff from Flaming Pie onward is the type of stuff that B&V was founded on – older artists making phenomenal, oft-overlooked new music. I loved his latest, last year’s McCartney III. Having just written all of that, I can’t help but think that maybe I don’t have a “favorite”… maybe I just like the Beatles.

A few years back I saw Black Sabbath on the tour for the aforementioned 13. I met a dude who plays the drums in a local band, the Sunset Sinners. The guy has been around music and musicians his whole life. We’ve had kind of an on-going dialogue about music and the creative process ever since. He has a term for certain bands, albums or songs. He says some stuff is too “musician-y.” Meaning, that the song or the band is so geared toward other musicians that it may not be popular on a broad scale. He once told me he thought the Queens of the Stone Age were too much of a “musician-y” band that they’d never reach a mass audience. (That was me using the term in a sentence for all you Spelling Bee fans.) It’s like when political commentators talk about conversations that are too “Inside the Beltway,” which I assume means its too “wonky” for most of us folks on the street. Or perhaps when a comedian tells an “inside joke.” Same concept, loosely speaking.

McCartney 3,2,1 finds Paul – and isn’t it cool after all these years we still know him by his first name – and Rick Rubin sitting in a studio (maybe it’s Rick Rubin’s Shangri La, I’m not sure). The show is filmed in black and white which classes everything up. McCartney has on what appears to be jeans, a white t-shirt and a cool jacket. After all this time McCartney, especially without hair-dye, is still the person with the coolest hair in the room. Rick Rubin looks like a beach bum who has wandered in off the strand. Rubin looks indistinct and rumpled. He’s got baggy shorts on with a t-shirt that I’d be willing to bet has food stains on it. He’s barefoot during most of the shoot. At times he sits down with his legs crossed and he really looks like a Rock N Roll Buddha. Buddha is always laughing but Rick Rubin is almost always smiling through his thick and unruly beard. He looks like a rock version of Yosemite Sam. I will say Rick is tan – that comes across even in black and white – and looks trimmer than he used to. The clothes, wild hair (whats left of it) and beard make Rubin look like some crazy, rock n roll aesthete or monk.

The Rock Star and the Producer spend the entire time talking music. It’s clear that Rubin is the fan here, smiling and geeking out at some of the things McCartney is describing. They sit, like in an interview show, but not for long. They’re often standing up as though so excited about the conversation and music that they can’t sit down which is understandable. They stand for the most part at a mixing console where Rubin summons up different songs from McCartney’s past. It’s mostly Beatles stuff but there are a few solo or Wings’ tracks that get played. They keep the conversation very lively although at one point I thanked the Rock Chick for hanging in there for six episodes because it’s basically watching two experts stand around and talk about their craft. It’s like being in a bar and overhearing people talk about their favorite sports team. When Rubin starts a track he usually turns elements of the song up loud and other elements down. He’ll break down the bass part or the drums. He likes to focus on guitar solo’s because, well, who doesn’t? He’s very interested in how the Beatles were able to do things in the studio that nobody had done before. Rubin is like a pupil with a master. I enjoyed that but I thoroughly understand that doing all of that, breaking down/analyzing songs is really well, musician-y. This is inside stuff. Most of us listen to the song on the radio and let the whole thing wash over us. Some of us put the headphones on and try to concentrate on the bass or the drums. These guys take that and blow it up to infinity. You won’t hear a complete song, with all parts played. It’s fascinating to hear how they put together a song but again… you gotta really love music which luckily I do. It really sheds light on a song when you strip it down to the studs.

By deconstructing all of these songs it does make you realize what an amazing bassist McCartney is. He talks about how the bass line in some of the tracks helped change the shape and sound of certain tracks. Nowhere is that more evident than on John’s “Come Together” which started as more of a Chuck Berry riff. McCartney talks a lot about the recording process and how the Beatles came up with certain sounds. He has nothing but praise for producer George Martin. They played a guitar solo and Rubin, who is obviously having the time of his life asks who played the solo. McCartney says, “I want to say I did because it was so bad.” That got a chuckle.

During the course of the six programs, while discussing certain songs and the piece parts of tracks McCartney does share some great Beatles stories. Although be prepared, the conversation is non-linear and they bounce all over the place. One could call it a rambling conversation. On one episode they’re talking Beatles and out of nowhere jump to “Band On the Run” which caused the Rock Chick to say, “Wait, I thought this was a McCartney solo song.” Some of the changes of subject matter may cause a little whiplash. Paul tells about the genesis of the song “Michelle” coming from his going to parties at Lennon’s place when John was in art school and pretending sing in French to get “the girls.” He mentions that Lennon was never complimentary of much but that he once told him he really liked one of Paul’s songs when they heard it during an album playback. You can just tell how much that meant to Paul. Rubin at one point reads a quote where the speaker talks about what a great bass player Paul is. Rubin asks him, “Do you know who said that?” Paul didn’t know but it was John who said all of it (excerpted above). It was a nice moment as you could tell that meant a ton to McCartney. He seemed a little flustered.

He also tells the story of the first time they played with Ringo on drums, “He elevated the whole band.” He also said that George was incredibly generous to “let” Eric Clapton play the guitar solos on Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I’m guessing not a lot of people realized how in the Beatles they all played parts interchangeably on songs – McCartney exclusively played bass but Lennon, he and Harrison all played guitars including lead. Whoever had the hot hand in the band got to play the part. George Martin often jumped in on piano. They were so open to the creative process and that freedom and their confidence let them really do extraordinary things that other bands couldn’t do.

I thought all of this stuff was incredibly fascinating. If you’re a Beatles fan this is a “must see.” Although I will admit and warn everyone again, there are parts of this that are very, very “musician-y.” I watched it all in two sittings and maybe breaking it up a bit would be better if you’re not into the craft and details. Its certainly fun to watch Rick Rubin geek out in such a big way. Paul is still an amazingly charismatic and charming man. You might need to turn it up a little because, a) its the Beatles’ music which needs to be played loud and b) McCartney is prone to mumbling… especially in the scenes where he’s chewing gum. I really enjoyed this rare, up-close-and-personal candid conversation with one of Rock n Roll’s legends. I think you will too.

Cheers!

Review: Tom Petty, ‘Angel Dream’ – Revisiting The ‘She’s The One’ Soundtrack

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“I dreamed you, I saw your face, caught my lifeline when drifting through space, I saw an angel, I saw my fate, I can only thank God it was not too late…” – Tom Petty, “Angel Dream (No. 2)”

I don’t think I ever explicitly tied Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s soundtrack of songs for the movie She’s The One to his prior record, the solo credited (i.e., Tom Petty vs Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) Wildflowers. 1994’s Wildflowers was such a momentously big record and tour by 1996 when it was announced Petty and the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell, guitar; Ben Tench, keyboards; Howie Epstein, bass; they didn’t have an “official” replacement for departed drummer Stan Lynch) were releasing a soundtrack for a movie, I felt it was probably a stop-gap until the next “actual” album. However, recently the Petty estate decided to revisit the She’s The One soundtrack and remake it as more of an actual Petty LP vs the soundtrack we are all familiar with. They’ve been pitching this album named Angel Dream as the “last chapter” in the Wildflowers story. I questioned that at first but considering that a handful of tracks from the Wildflowers sessions ended up on the soundtrack, it sort of makes sense to me. I feared this might be something akin to the Finding Wildflowers fiasco but it appears not.

It’s always difficult for an artist to follow up a game changing album, especially one as huge as Wildflowers. Fleetwood Mac struggled after Rumours and switched creative directions and recorded the experimental Tusk. The Eagles struggled to follow up Hotel California so they labored and labored over The Long Run. Petty was probably facing a similar daunting task following up Wildflowers so doing a soundtrack ala Queen’s Highlander-centric A Kind of Magic was probably an escape route. Why they didn’t kick out a live album at that time is anyone’s guess? The story I remember about the She’s The One soundtrack was that director/star of the film Ed Burns approached Petty about writing a song for the soundtrack and Petty & his Heartbreakers (with Curt Bisquera playing drums on most the tracks, future Heartbreaker drummer Steve Ferrone only appears on 3 of them) got together with producer Rick Rubin and started jamming. The story went they were having so much fun they ended up with an album’s worth of material. I had no idea at the time that the soundtrack had tunes that originated in the Wildflowers sessions: “Climb That Hill,” “California,” “Hope You Never,” and “Hung Up And Overdue.” If Petty had this much strong material coming into the project, it hardly sounds like the jam I’d been led to believe it was. Petty had always wanted to make Wildflowers a double LP, but the record company talked him out of it. I guess he wanted some of those leftovers to see the light of day so they ended up on She’s The One.

I bought She’s The One almost as soon as it came out. The career momentum of Wildflowers was such that I would have purchased an album of Petty singing Appalachian folk songs accompanied by a banjo at the time… oh and I hate the banjo. I will admit the first single “Walls (Circus)” didn’t exactly grab me. I remember asking a friend of mine if he’d heard it and he said, “That song wouldn’t have even been considered for Wildflowers it’s so awful.” Harsh, indeed. The song is not my favorite, but I still ran to the record store. The song actually didn’t do very well on the charts either despite the fabulous Beach Boys-style backup vocal by Lindsey Buckingham (seriously, listen to that song on headphones and focus on Buckingham’s voice). That was probably a disappointment to the Petty camp at the time, but I figured the soundtrack was just a method to take some of the pressure off Petty having to come up with “Wildflowers 2.0.” I considered it then and still do, more of a minor addition to the Petty catalog.

She’s The One seemed slightly slap-dash, like most soundtracks. There were a couple of instrumentals, “Hope On Board” and “Airport,” likely used as background in the flick. I saw the movie but only remember a little of it. There were two versions each of “Walls” and “Angel Dream” which was unusual. What was also different about this album was it had not one but two covers songs, a rarity for a Petty album. The band did Lucinda Williams’ “Change The Locks,” and I must ask, is there a more perfect paring than Southern boy Tom Petty doing Southern woman Lucinda’s track? Petty also did a cover of Beck’s acoustic track “Asshole.” I loved that Petty was covering an artist who at the time was a relative new comer. And lets face it, “Asshole” is a great song. Petty treats it lovingly.

There are a lot of things to like on the She’s The One soundtrack. I do like both versions of “Angel Dream,” but especially “Angel Dream (No. 2),” quoted above… which could have been written by me about the Rock Chick a few years later. I love the song “California,” which is so catchy it should be on that state’s tourism commercials. I almost picked it for my “Virtual Vacation, 50 Songs/50 States” playlist last summer and I regret not doing so… “Supernatural Radio” is one of those lost, epic gems of a song that everyone should hear. “Zero From Outer Space” is the sound of the Heartbreakers having a really good time playing a surf-style rocker. Interestingly enough, Campbell and Tench would later record an entire LP of surf songs in disguise as the Blue Stingrays, (Friday Night Music Exploration With the Rock Chick: Blue Stones, Blue Stingrays).  “Hope You Never” is another “baby you done me wrong” track which always reminds me of the awful woman I was dating in ’96. While it wasn’t the momentous follow up people were looking for, it was to me an interesting record. Not great but good and Petty’s good stuff is better than most other artist’s great stuff.

The Petty estate decided as part of the Wildflowers story to repackage and re-release this music. Renamed Angel Dream after the strongest track on the original album, they also put some new artwork on the cover. I don’t usually talk about cover art but the choice on this one was… poor. It looks like a greeting card. What has changed on Angel Dream vs She’s The One? They omitted the two original instrumentals, “Hope On Board,” and “Airport.” They paired the two songs that had two versions each down to one version. “Walls (No. 3)” and “Angel Dream (No. 2)” were included and the other versions left off. I will say, in each case, they chose the right version of the song to include and which one to omit. They left off three of the Wildflowers outtakes, “Hope You Never,” “California” and “Hung Up And Overdue” which were included in the Wildflowers All The Rest box. They completely changed the running order of the original tracks. They lead off with “Angel Dream (No 2)” which as a ballad is different. They have included four unreleased songs that supposedly came out of those She’s The One sessions but weren’t included, which I assume is the hook to get us to buy this version: “One of Life’s Little Mysteries,” “105 Degrees,” the J.J. Cale cover “Thirteen Days,” and an instrumental “French Connection.” “French Connection” is just an instrumental version of “Angel Dream (No. 2),” which plays back into the multiple versions theme of the original.

If you don’t own the She’s The One soundtrack, the new running order probably won’t bother you. If I’m being honest, it’s probably a more satisfying listening experience in this new incarnation. It certainly didn’t change my opinion of this album as a minor entry in Petty’s catalog. The new tracks, as a whole, are weaker than the Wildflowers outtakes that were taken off the original for Angel Dream. “One of Life’s Little Mysteries” is an almost old-timey sounding track. It reminded me a little of “The Man Who Loved Women” from The Last DJ. It has that McCartney “Martha My Dear” feel to it. I’m a huge fan of stuff in the vaults but I’d just call “Life’s Little Mysteries” an OK track. It’s a curiosity. The J.J. Cale cover, “Thirteen Days” is the pick of the litter of the new songs. It tells the story of a band barely maintaining their sanity on the road. It’s got a fabulous slide guitar from Mike Campbell. “We’re smoking cigarettes and reefer, drinking coffee and booze.” Sounds kinda fun. “105 Degrees” is a barrel house rocker in the vein of the Animals with a big organ and sawing guitars. “What do you want, perfection?”

If you already have the She’s The One soundtrack, I’d merely suggest checking out the new, unreleased stuff, especially “105 Degrees” and “Thirteen Days.” If you don’t, this is a wholly satisfying listen in it’s own right. In my estimation it’s still a minor episode in the continuing story of Tom Petty but it’s definitely worth a listen… until the next box set of suddenly found material pops up from the Petty camp.

Cheers!

Review: The White Stripes ‘White Blood Cells (Deluxe)’ – Revisiting the LP That Made Them Famous

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The dawn of the new millennium saw a lot of changes for me. In the decade leading up to that landmark year of 2000 I had moved around a lot living on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the Kansas City state line. I seemed to bounce from apartment to apartment every year or year and half. Perhaps that’s why I always felt like a gypsy despite living exclusively in the area codes of 816 and 913 the entire time. I was always in a constant state of flux. I never even took the time to take everything out of boxes or hang any pictures on the wall. Mine was a Spartan existence, capital letter on purpose… Of course in those days I never wanted to own anything I couldn’t carry to the car in the dead of night while the sound of sirens got closer and closer. I still had my original record crates back then to facilitate getting my albums to the car easily…say what you want, but my priorities were definitely in order… I never wanted to commit to anything that might slow my exit, should it become necessary, and it always seemed necessary.

In the year 2000 all of that changed. I remember as a kid always doing the math on what my age would be in the year 2000 where I expected robot butlers in every home and flying cars… maybe an Earth colony on Mars. I thought the Jetsons cartoon was prophecy. Well, none of that happened. While I did that math on how old I’d be in 2000, I never really thought about what my life would be like then or in the years after it. Things did start to get better for me around that time. My job situation got better. I actually started looking for a house, something my commitment-phobia would never allow prior to that. Things just started to stabilize for me. And when I stopped emitting all that gypsy, rootless energy I finally met a stable, solid woman. Yes, the Rock Chick entered my life.

By 2001, we were living together in a house in Brookside, south of my beloved Plaza in the heart of Kansas City. Alas, my record crates, like most of my pre-marriage property ended up on the curb. Farewell futon, farewell olive colored couch, farewell to my glass kitchen table. Time to make room for new, improved, Rock Chick approved home furnishings. Getting rid of all my stuff was traumatic but I have to admit, I hadn’t had a roommate in years and now I was living with the Rock Chick and her somewhat hostile daughter… thank God for Bob Marley. I had gone from gypsy to Evil Stepdad in the span of a year.

The turn of the millennium was not only a transitional time for me, so too music was in a state of flux. The Grunge movement which had dominated the first half of the 90s had faded away. Kurt Cobain had sadly taken his own life. Soundgarden had broken up. Layne Staley of Alice In Chains had practically disappeared into a heroin haze. Pearl Jam released Binaural which was a solid LP, but I felt it fell short of the heights of some of their previous work like Ten, VS, Vitalogy or even Yield. It just felt like Pearl Jam wasn’t swinging for the fences anymore. True, Grunge had punched itself out by the latter half of the 90s but it had given way to what they were then calling “alternative rock.” There was some really good stuff that came out during the late 90s but I had done what I had done in college – I’d turned backwards in time to music from previous decades. I was really into the Velvet Underground and the Clash at the time. I did catch some of the great alternative stuff that was coming out like Fiona Apple or Beck, I wasn’t completely unaware. I was also looking into some of the singer songwriters that I’d missed: Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. I just didn’t feel connected to current music any more, something I never thought would happen. I was concerned at the time that Grunge was the last great musical movement.

I was lucky when I met the Rock Chick for many reasons, but one of the foremost was her music taste. She turned me onto a lot of stuff that I’d missed or ignored: The Cult, Social Distortion, Motley Crue and Green Day. Luckily for me she was also a little more connected to the rock music that was then current. I started tuning back in to the radio and what was going on. At the time there was this new “Garage Rock” thing going on. I couldn’t help but think, “Garage rock, Hell yes, deal me in.” There were all these bands playing loud, fast rock n roll. On paper this should have been perfect for me. There were the Von Bondies, the Hives with Veni Vidi Vicious or Hot Hot Heat who an ex-girlfriend sent me a CD from. The Rock Chick was particularly into the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs and Karen O. I jumped into the fray on this whole scene with the band that had most the hype, The Strokes and their debut LP, Is This It? I know this will be considered blasphemy by the rock n roll faithful who follow B&V but the Strokes just left me cold. They came across like hipster kids with rich parents. I couldn’t dig the lead vocalist at all. It sounded like he was singing through a running fan. I was on the verge of giving up and going back to my Clash albums when a band emerged to save me… that band was the White Stripes.

I was actually watching some MTV Awards show and they had the White Stripes play the final song of the night. “Honey, who is this? Is that a chick on drums? Where’s the rest of the band?” The Rock Chick quickly played me the “hits” they’d been playing on the radio, “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl.” This was the garage rock I had been searching for. I was convinced this was the next great band. With a little research I found that these tracks were from their third LP, White Blood Cells. I quickly decamped to the record store – lets be honest, the CD store – and picked up this album. Little did I know that I was holding the White Stripes’ landmark, breakthrough album. As I wrote last year about their Greatest Hits album, to paraphrase, I fell in love with a band.

The White Stripes were Jack White on guitar/vocals/keyboards/songwriting/production and Meg White on drums. Just typing out “Meg White on drums” seems reductive because she was a monster on the kit. Much has been said of her “caveman” style of drumming but that simple, straightforward yet visceral attack on the skins allowed Jack White to soar on guitar and vocals. When I saw them live – and I did so on two subsequent tours after White Blood Cells – Jack would always wander the stage, shredding on guitar but he always ended up back at the drum kit, the heartbeat of the White Stripes’ sound. Jack would always introduce Meg as his “sister” but in truth they’d been married and were divorced. Jack said later that he was telling people Meg was his sister to avoid that “Fleetwood Mac drama,” which actually makes total sense to me, but I love Fleetwood Mac.

There is so much to love on White Blood Cells. There’s the aforementioned “hits” like “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With a Girl.” I loved that they had this guitar-forward garage rock thing but I could hear blues in what they did. Probably more so on their 2 earlier LPs, but it’s still there on White Blood Cells on great tracks like “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.” They could also go acoustic with great success on tracks like everyone’s favorite, “We’re Going To Be Friends,” which sounds like Rubber Soul-era Beatles. Rock tracks like “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman,” “The Union Forever,” and “Offend In Every Way” continue to resonate with me. They could be frantic and intense and I just loved it. Everyone should have White Blood Cells.

I was doing research on the 50th anniversary of a number of legendary LPs from 1971 recently, and I didn’t realize it’d been twenty years since White Blood Cells came out. If you’d asked me about an LP from 2001 I’d have said, “Yeah that’s about 10 years ago, right?” To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this fabulous record, Jack White and the folks down at Third Man Records have released a “deluxe” edition of the album. Much like Lou Reed’s deluxe edition of New York last year, White Blood Cells (Deluxe) is the original LP with a bonus disc containing a live concert where the Stripes play WBC in it’s entirety from start to finish. On Lou Reed’s New York Deluxe Edition, they pieced together the live performance of the LP from different performances. Despite that it hung together… Unlike that, this performance by the Stripes is one show. They recorded this at a show at The Gold Dollar club in Detroit (now gone apparently). Jack walks on stage, introduces his “sister” Megan and says, “We’re going to perform our new album White Blood Cells in it’s entirety for you.” That’s about all he says to the affectionate crowd. He does mention at the end, that they’d played the same room a few years earlier and there were only about three people in the audience… I’m guessing from the sound of it there were a few more there the night they played this show.

It’s probably no surprise, but I love this live performance. It feels more raw, less polished than the studio LP. Not that the studio LP was overly “polished.” Meg White’s drumming in particular is ferocious. As I said, I got to see this band twice and I always thought they brought it. It’s nice to hear them come out and go from quiet to loud, hard rocking to ballad and do so seamlessly. They completely nail it in these performances. I can only say I wish I had been there. The question I always ask myself on these “deluxe” packages is, is it worth? First and foremost, if you don’t already own White Blood Cells, buy the deluxe as you will absolutely want this live concert. Even though I already own this album I am absolutely purchasing this deluxe package as I think the live set is absolutely worth it. Any live White Stripes – or live Jack White, for that matter – you can get your hands on, do so. If I have any complaints, its that there is no bonus studio material… I guess we’ll have to wait on that for the 30th anniversary…

If anything, this music has me thinking back to those fun early days of becoming a family. I have intensely positive memories tied to this music… Luckily it’s kick ass music. And this live performance of the record only enhances it in my estimation. The White Stripes were such a great band. I’d love to see Meg come back from out there in the wilderness and play with Jack again… if she still even plays. I will always tell people to get into the White Stripes. They will go down as one of the greatest rock band ever… if B&V has any say in the matter. This titanic live performance ought to help seal their fabulous legacy.

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! 

Lookback: The “Peak” of Bob Seger, The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock – 1976 to 1981, From ‘Live Bullet’ to ‘Nine Tonight (Live)’

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I thought for certain by now, almost midway through 2021, we’d be awash in a flood of new music. While 2020 was an awful year it was actually a pretty damn good year for music. Even so, I know there were a lot of bands who had stuff recorded and ready to release last year who ended up delaying since they couldn’t tour. I know Cheap Trick’s latest LP, In Another World was recorded and ready to go last year but not released until this spring. I know I described that album as merely “solid,” but it has really grown on me. I would have guessed that all of those great musicians out there, unable to tour, would turn to writing and recording new stuff. I had expected with all that “pent-up supply” of music we’d see new albums from beloved bands every week. And in truth we have seen some good music this year from Dirty Honey and the Black Keys, to name but a few. If I’m being honest however, I’ve been a little disappointed with the small number of new albums that have dropped this year. While things are rapidly improving out there I’m guessing that booking a tour right now might be slightly premature, a word I studiously try to avoid. And without being able to tour – which is where the real money is anymore – I’m sure that bands are waiting until the latter half of 2021 to put out the new stuff. At least there’s been some amazing archival stuff this year from the Black Crowes, Neil Young and CSNY.

While I’ve been fairly immersed lately in Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2, CSNY’s great Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary, and frankly a lot of blues, with the small amount of new music coming out I do what I’ve always done… I’ve wandered back through my music collection to stuff I haven’t heard in a while. You can only research new stuff for so long before you have to return to the music that turned you onto rock and roll in the first place. For some reason this week I found myself obsessively (the only way I know how to do anything) listening to a guy who I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, Bob Seger.  I’m from Kansas City, the center of the country in the glorious midwest. In the late 70s, we kind of knew who Springsteen was, especially after The River. We kind of dug Tom Petty after Damn the Torpedoes. But in the midwest, Bob Seger was King. Everybody loved Bob Seger. I’m surprised the guy’s face wasn’t on our currency back then. He could sell out two nights at Kemper Arena in under an hour. They say that your musical tastes are ingrained during your formative, high school years. There was no one bigger during that time of my life than Bob Seger. The first Seger album I ever owned was a gift from my Sainted Grandmother (on my mother’s side) who knew I’d gotten into music. She bought Stranger In Town for me because she felt Seger “had nice eyes.” I loved the tune “Still The Same.”

While Seger was huge back then, for some reason he seems to have fallen out of favor. Most people only seem to know him from his greatest hits. I’m not sure the guy really ever got the respect he deserved. He’s like the Rodney Dangerfield of rock n roll, “I can’t get no respect…” It took until 2004 for the guy to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame despite being eligible for it years before that. He said Detroit radio and gads, Kid Rock helped spearhead his induction. Seger is from the midwest and most of the rock intelligentsia are on the East Coast which might explain why Seger’s name isn’t uttered with the same whispered reverence as Springsteen. I like what Dylan said about Springsteen/Seger on his Theme Time Radio Show, “Some say Bob Seger is a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. I like to think of Springsteen as a rich man’s Seger.” Seger has a lot in common with CCR… meat and potatoes rock n roll. “Maybe not the coolest band but certainly the best,” as Springsteen said of them. Seger’s rock n roll was simple, straight-forward, barrel house rock, based on a Chuck Berry ethos. When he rocked he was amazing. When he did the acoustic ballad stuff, well, yes, he was still amazing. Who doesn’t know and can sing along with “Mainstreet,” or “Fire Down Below” with equal gusto.

When I was trying to frame this article on Seger, I began to ponder what his “peak” period would be. I don’t think there is a musician with worse luck than Seger. He always struggled with decent studio production. Once, when I was in college with nothing better to do, I went to the library to do some rock n roll spelunking. I was surprised to learn that Seger is the exact same age as Pete Townshend. Pete and the Who’s road to fame and fortune was clearly a lot shorter than Bob’s. I decided to focus on what I consider to be Seger’s commercial peak. The albums that came out between his two landmark live albums. Those are likely the albums everybody is familiar with, which is actually too bad. Because out of Seger’s first 7 or 8 albums I’d say over half are classics. Unfortunately you can’t buy or stream any of his early LPs save for 1969’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man and 1975’s Beautiful Loser. I have mused in these pages before about who is holding his early stuff hostage. Jack White, another Detroit native, has even offered to go in and remaster Seger’s early LPs but Seger turned him down. I blame his longtime manager, Punch. Although Punch just passed away, sadly… but maybe this means new management might get this essential rock n roll released.

That lack of availability of a lot of Seger’s early music is what led me to pare this post down to that albums that are considered his “commercial peak.” Ideally, I’d be telling you that around the time Seger did his all covers LP, Smokin’ O.P.s he started to hit his stride. I’ve already posted about Smokin’ O.P.s in the best albums featuring all cover tunes…His early stuff, if available is all worthy of being considered a part of his peak but alas it’s not out there. Back In ’72 (recorded in ’72, released ’73) is a  lost masterpiece and if you ever see a copy in a used vinyl shop, grab it up. You can’t find this thing. The original version of “Turn the Page,” So I Wrote You a Song,” and “Rosalie” later covered by Thin Lizzy are all on this album. He covers Van Morrison (“I’ve Been Workin'”), and the Allman Brothers (“Midnight Rider”) to stunning effect. Seger always had a uncanny ability to “smoke other people’s songs”… Seven, his creatively titled seventh album doesn’t have big hits but is my all time favorite Seger album. “Get Out of Denver” from that album is the best Chuck Berry inspired number that Chuck didn’t do himself. Seven is the LP that saw the debut of the Silver Bullet Band. And finally, Beautiful Loser is damn close to perfect. Since none of these records (save the last one) are readily available, I’m sticking to my premise and merely recommending Seger’s “commercial peak” LPs, from his first live LP Live Bullet (an LP that made our best Live LPs list), to his second live LP, Nine Tonight. These are the albums that every rock n roll fan should own.

Live Bullet, 1976

After my grandmother gave me Stranger In Town, which I realize isn’t the coolest origin story, this was the second Seger album I purchased which was quite a financial outlay in junior high. This landmark live LP was largely ignored when it first came out but finally began to sell and get airplay after Night Moves broke Seger. Recorded at Detroit’s historic Cobo Hall this is the sound of the world’s most overachieving bar band, the Silver Bullet Band, on perhaps their best night. Twelve of the fourteen tracks are from the LPs mentioned in the paragraph above. This plays like an early Seger greatest hits (that weren’t hits) album. They say Seger could play Cobo Hall in Detroit and drive to the nearest city, Chicago, Des Moines or Kansas City and couldn’t sell out a theater. “Beautiful Loser/Travelin’ Man,” “Turn the Page,” and “Katmandu” were all staples of Kansas City rock n roll radio. But if you ask me, the opening track, “Nutbush City,” an Ike & Tina Turner track should have been a hit…

Night Moves, 1976

I heard Seger say in a radio interview that the title track of this LP, the one that finally broke him nationally, was somewhat inspired by Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” It’s an epic track. I was a pre-teen when this track came out but I still got goosebumps and could relate to the line, “woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered… started humming a song from 1962…ain’t it funny how the night moves?” There isn’t a bad song on this album. OK, maybe “Sunburst” is a little weak. Other than that, this is all killer, no filler. While the LP is billed to the Silver Bullet Band, half the album was recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – a habit that Seger had begun when recording Back In ’72, recording select tracks with his backing band and select tracks at Muscle Shoals. Tracks many casual fans will recognize from his greatest hits albums are here: “Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” and “Rock N Roll Never Forgets.” But the deeper tracks are some of his best, like “Come To Poppa” a line that never worked for me… “Sunspot Baby,” and the rocker “Mary Lou.” This is close to midwest rock n roll heaven as you’re gonna get folks.

Stranger In Town, 1978

This was the album where I got on the bandwagon. The track that drew me in, oddly, was “Still the Same.” It still makes me think of a fickle friend of mine from those days. “Hollywood Nights” has some of the most propulsive drumming I’ve ever heard, especially when driving down the highway at 90 miles per hour… ahem. If I ever have a heart attack, put this on the stereo, turn it up loud and throw me on the biggest speaker in the room. It should revive me. “Feel Like A Number” is a tune I relate to even more now… although being a faceless member of the crowd in a high school of 1800 students certainly made it relatable. “Brave Strangers” was relatable on a completely different level. Again, a lot of these tracks, like “Old Time Rock n Roll” and the treacle “We’ve Got Tonight” are on the greatest hits but its the deeper tracks that I dig. “Ain’t Got No Money” is just a great rocker. “Till It Shines” boasts a great guitar solo from none other than Glen Frey.

Against The Wind, 1980

I will always have a soft spot for this album, as this is the first tour I actually got to see Seger. That’s why I’ve probably always been fond of his second live LP, Nine Tonight. That show was the famous night my mother blew out her knee doing “jazzercise” in the living room. The neighbor called 911… cops and ambulance showed up. I had a bottle of Jack Daniels in my pants and my friends almost drove past my house… I love this album but I have to admit, this is where I began to see the cracks in the Seger veneer. It has the sound of an album that was crafted to sound like his previous two. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fabulous album that everyone should hear. “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” and “Horizontal Bop” were great tunes but they felt like we’d heard them before. I did particularly like “Her Strut.” The first single was “Fire Lake” which asked the musical question, “who wants to go to Fire Lake?” sung by back up singers Don Henley/Timothy B. Schmit/Glenn Frey. With the “bronze beauties, lying in the sun,” I think we all would go to “Fire Lake” given the opportunity. The real question in that song was… why was Uncle Joe “afraid to cut the cake.” I mean, I get why he ran off to “Fire Lake” but I’m getting off topic here. “Long Twin Silver Line” is a great song about a train and made our train songs playlist. My favorite track here is the acoustic ender, “Shinin’ Brightly.” It was the perfect bright note to end the album on.

All of those albums are must haves for fans of rock n roll. I do like this second live LP, Nine Tonight, but I’m not sure it’s essential. It covers the three studio LPs above and only shares “Let It Rock” with Live Bullet which is a testament to how many great tunes were on those 3 albums. His next studio album, 1982’s The Distance was another solid album but I loathed the first single, “Shame On the Moon.” I loved “Even Now” and “Roll Me Away” but the cracks I started to see became more visible for me on this album. I’m still not sure what “House Behind A House” was about. But “Makin’ Thunderbirds” kicked ass… I will admit, after The Distance I really couldn’t connect with much of Seger’s more sporadic output until I Knew You WhenMaybe that’s why Seger has fallen out of favor… too many late-period, weak LPs. Although that doesn’t seem to hurt most bands these days.

I urge anyone who hasn’t gotten deeper than Seger’s Greatest Hits to check out these albums in full. There is a host of great music in these deep tracks. “Like a guest who stayed too long, its finally time to leave,” indeed.

Cheers!

Third Time’s The Charm: The Artists Whose Third Album Was The Breakthrough

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*Only 5 LPs photographed because most of your intrepid blogger’s property is still in storage…

I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sure seems like bands have a lot more avenues to get their music out these days especially when compared to how they used to do it in the 70s or 80s… I’ve been sitting in the cheap seats watching my friend Drummer Blake work to establish his latest band the Sunset Sinners and those guys are a marketing machine. I don’t think they’re any different than any new band out there today. There are so many tools at a band’s disposal. Bands now have YouTube where they can release videos of live performances or just old school videos like Dirty Honey‘s latest. There’s so much more a band can do with social media today. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter new bands have a way of communicating directly with fans so when a record company comes calling, the band already has a built in fan base that can literally span the globe. And now with Tik Tok that social media reach may have even gotten broader… at least that’s what my friend James tells me, he loves Tik Tok. I’m only on a few social media platforms and Tik Tok ain’t one of them. Not yet anyway. I only got on Instagram to follow the bands I love…well that and to watch videos of cats and dogs doing adorable things. I’m like everyone else in that regard. 

In the old days a band’s social media consisted of the guys in the band wandering around downtown stapling cheap copies made at Kinkos to telephone poles to announce a gig. I think there was a scene in Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ where they’re doing just that which had to be hot and exhausting in all that spandex. Typically to start a band a few like minded musicians who liked the same music might huddle together in a garage and start playing cover tunes. After a while and usually a few line up changes – often that involved someone answering an ad in the newspaper like Ace Frehley – the band might start doing gigs in front of actual people, not just distressed family members. A school dance here, a keg party there, it all helped the band to start to create a following. The band’s repertoire would expand and eventually they’d start to create their own, original music. Eventually some enterprising bar owner would let the band play on their stage… or perhaps give them a residency. Maybe Gene Simmons would show up and pay for a demo tape like he did for Van Halen…probably not but somehow  demo tapes would get made. If fortune and luck shone on the band, a record company would extend a contract… Oh, and a manager probably showed up somewhere in this process to take 10%.

When the record company would offer the band a contract you’d think all their dreams were answered. It’s the Cinderella story. Record companies today seem to only want bands who can deliver that mega-million dollar selling debut LP. Maybe record companies have always been that way? But for some bands that debut album fails to connect. Not every debut can be Boston or Appetite For Destruction (Pleased To Meet You… The Epic List of Our 40 Favorite Debut Albums). Some really classic debut LPs from the world’s biggest bands have been commercial failures. In meetings, the record company guys all act supportive, but the pressure is really on now. To make matters worse, there’s the sophomore slump that hangs over a lot of bands. Bono, in his Rock Hall of Fame speech was talking about being in a band and described the 2nd album (and he was speaking generally) as “the difficult second album.” The old saying, “You have your whole life to write your first album, and only a few months to write your second,” holds some truth. Even for bands whose debut LP had a hit single or two and sold well, a weak second album only brings more pressure. And there are a lot of weak second albums out there… U2’s October is a prime example. 

For a band whose first two albums hadn’t sold in big numbers, I can only imagine that the third album was a “make or break” situation. Today, I don’t think any current label would keep an act longer than two LPs if neither sold well. We live in an instant gratification world, and if a band’s first or second album doesn’t explode, it’s time to move on. Back in the 70s and even the 80s, record labels seemed to be slightly more patient. They would let a band develop, mostly by playing a shit ton of concerts on the road, but also in the studio and as songwriters. Sometimes all that was needed was a new producer. Maybe the band tweaks the line up. It just felt, without all the social media to help build in that fanbase, that record companies back in the day gave artists’ more time or a little more leash, if you will. 

Some of the world’s most renown artists took an entire three albums to break into that world wide fame and commercial success. If these bands were coming out today I’m not sure any record company would have stuck with them until that third album and that would be a damn shame. Here is my list of phenomenal third records that made the bands who recorded them famous. I consider each of these records essential rock and roll listening. 

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic

While Aerosmith had the hit “Dream On” on their debut, the album didn’t make a dent. They moved in together so they could rehearse constantly and brought in renown producer Jack Douglas for their second LP Get Your Wings, which sold better. At that point Aerosmith became road warriors. They toured incessantly behind the 2nd LP which helped build their fan base but also improved their songwriting and chops. With the big singles “Walk This Way” (later redone with Run D.M.C. during their “comeback”) and my favorite “Sweet Emotion” Aerosmith became superstars. This, to me, is Aerosmith’s peak album. Even the deep tracks like “Uncle Salty” and “Adam’s Apple” kick ass. I love the first two Aerosmith LPs, but I can understand how this is the one that broke them wide and far. It’s telling that they re-released “Dream On” during this time period to try and boost sales of that debut. 

Lenny Kravitz, Are You Gonna Go My Way

While Lenny’s debut is now considered a classic, you never heard much of it on the radio. Every woman I met in the 90s, even casually, put his debut on for me to hear. Despite his unending support among 20-something aged women, his second LP, Mama Said was pretty much invisible. Then suddenly, the title track of this album exploded on to radio and MTV with an iconic video of Lenny rocking in a circular room and flinging his dreds everywhere. There are so many classic tunes on this album – “Believe,” “Heaven Help,” “Black Girl,” and “Just Be A Woman” to name a few. Yes, Lenny tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, but he distills all of them into a fantastic album here. I’m not sure he ever did anything as good as this essential third LP. 

No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom

I had no doubt back in the day that I didn’t like this band. Then the Rock Chick took me to see them live on their reunion tour and I was blown away by them. Guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal, and drummer Adrian Young were lean and muscular. I wasn’t prepared for how hard they rocked. Front woman Gwen Stefani who went on to totally disappoint me on her solo career was charismatic and energetic on stage… I was mesmerized by her performance…but I’m getting off topic. After that show, I went out and bought all their albums. Their eponymous debut LP got zero support from their record label and they asked to be dropped from their contract which the label refused to do. Their 2nd album, Beacon Street Collection can be thought of as songs about hating their record company. Finally on the third LP, they pierced the grunge consciousness of the era with Tragic Kingdom. Listening to this LP all these years later, it’s a staggering leap forward from the first two records. “Just A Girl” is a woman’s empowerment anthem for the ages and it actually rocks. From that to the ballad “Sunday Morning” this album is just about perfect. 

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Damn The Torpedos 

Petty’s first two albums had classic songs and hits – “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart.” Listening to those albums today you could tell this was a band who was on the verge of breaking big. Damn The Torpedoes was that quantum leap forward and coincidentally the first Petty LP I ever purchased. My brother had it before I even did. “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” were all monster hits but I like some of the deep tracks. “Even the Losers” (a personal anthem) and “You Tell Me” are stellar. I even dig “Louisiana Rain.” One of the greatest albums of all time. 

The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta 

Maybe some day someone will explain the title to me… I was in junior high when the Police’s debut album Outlandos D’Amor came out. We all loved “Roxanne.” I remember singing it like Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, loudly, high-pitched and out of tune in study hall much to the chagrin of the teacher in charge. Outlandos was a classic despite the French title, but I didn’t know anybody who owned it. The second album, Regatta De Blanc boasted the hits “Walking On the Moon,” and “Message In A Bottle” but it didn’t seem to resonate with as many people. Frankly I thought both those tracks were on the debut. After a world wide tour, much like Aerosmith, that honed their playing and songwriting skills they returned with Zenyatta Mondatta and suddenly everyone was on the Police bandwagon. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” about the nonsensical nature of speeches by politicians, teachers and lawyers was the first single and despite probably not understanding that, we all loved that song. I think my friend Doug saw the Police on this tour. Every song on this album could have been a hit. Between the Police and Aerosmith I think it could be argued every new band should be sent on the road for at least a year to play as many shows as they can. 

Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run

Springsteen’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park is now seen as a classic. Groups from Manfred Mann to Bowie to Greg Kihn have covered tracks from this album. Commercially though, it was largely ignored. His second disc, The Wild, The Innocent And the E Street Shuffle, which gave his backing band its name, is my favorite Springsteen album. Oddly, the great epics on that album like “Incident On 57th St,” “Rosalita,” or “New York City Serenade” were largely ignored. With his back to the wall, Springsteen wrote his greatest batch of songs. He wanted lyrics like Dylan with Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” I’d say he checked both those boxes! Like Damn The Torpedoes this is one of the greatest albums of all time. I’m just glad Columbia Records let Bruce have a third shot at an album. They would have dropped him if this record failed… 

Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story 

After his brief stint as “vocalist extraordinaire” for the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart recorded his debut, The Rod Stewart Album, or as it was known in the UK, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. It was part folk, part rock n roll which would set the template for the rest of Rod’s best work. It didn’t take off so he joined the Faces as their lead singer and after that, he’d release an album with the Faces and a solo album every year. It wasn’t until his third LP, Every Picture Tells A Story that he broke it big when a DJ in Cleveland flipped over the first single “Reason To Believe” to play the B-side, a little ditty named “Maggie May.” Rod became a superstar which was great for him, not so great for his mates in the Faces. I still hope Rod, Ronnie Wood and Kenny Jones can get a semi-Faces reunion together and do something. Rod was always better when he was working with a strong guitar player like Wood. 

U2, War

Boy, U2’s debut boasted the fabulous song “I Will Follow” that they still play in concert but it only made a little dent on the charts. The “difficult second album,” October didn’t do them any favors. Like Springsteen, with their backs against the wall, they retreated to Hawaii and recorded their breakthrough album. Sure, they had bigger and perhaps better albums, but War is the LP that broke them wide open… it’s also the first LP from them I purchased. The anthems “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” moved them in a political direction that I always loved. It’s amazing how many of these third LPs ended up being some of the greatest music ever recorded… Maybe it’s the pressure? 

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells 

Like a majority of people, this was the LP where I first discovered the White Stripes. I ended up going back and buying their previous 2 LPs almost immediately upon buying White Blood Cells. The eponymous debut was all garage-rock, meaning it sounded like it was recorded in a garage. It was raw and ferocious, naturally I loved it. Even I will admit however, I can see why that wasn’t an international sensation. Their second LP, De Stijl was, like Springsteen’s E Street Shuffle, my favorite Stripes album. It’s bluesy and punk… its blues punk. However, it also failed to resonate far and wide. White Blood Cells had the big hits that made them famous “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl” that likely drove a lot of people like me to their first two records. They may have had bigger albums but this one is almost perfect. “We’re Going To Be Friends” is the best acoustic track they ever did. “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” has always been a personal fav. The Stripes just released a wonderful Greatest Hits album if you’re not obsessive about owning every LP but White Blood Cells is the perfect place to start with the Stripes. 

 

Most, if not all of these bands went on to storied, long careers. They all had “bigger,” better selling albums but these are such critical pieces of that later success. These are some of the greatest albums ever. I urge everyone who hasn’t heard these “third” records to do so immediately. Because as we’ve just learned, sometimes the third time is the charm. 

Cheers! Be safe out there, we’re getting closer every day to being able to some of this great rock n roll played live! 

 

 

Lookback: My Mixtape Days – Inventor of the Cassette Tape Dies at 94

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I got up one day last week, as I thankfully do every day, and I checked the news. I’m not a morning person so there’s no TV involved. I prefer a lot of silence in the morning so I just checked on-line. I was scrolling through headlines and I noticed a Dutch gentlemen named Lou Ottens had died at the age of 94. He was a scientist and inventor for the Philips company. In my still sleep riddled mind I couldn’t help but think, big deal some scientist passed in the Netherlands. I kept scrolling, still half-asleep drinking hot coffee as quickly as the scalding liquid would allow, when I stopped and went back to the Ottens’ article. It was then that I saw that Lou was the inventor of the cassette tape. Oh man, that took me back. In this age of streaming and MP3s people forget what a revolution cassettes were. Portable music was a reality. We weren’t all chained to the home stereo any more. 

Prior to Mr. Ottens’ invention, other than vinyl the only way to consume music was on those bulky reel-to-reel tapes, but lets be honest only beatnik, jazzbo types owned reel-to-reel tapes. I have an image of groovy dudes in black turtlenecks and shades even though they’re indoors, smoking joints and talking about Miles Davis’ feel as In A Silent Way spools through the reel-to-reel player. Although as I type that sentence I’m reminded that my father-in-law owned a reel-to-reel player and as a rancher/farmer he was only into country music like C.J. McCall…”Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy…” Gads. His reel-to-reel gear was long gone by the time I came along but I would have loved to hear what that sounded like. 

In an attempt to make music more portable, the industry had tried a more “compact” tape version of the album on the now legendary 8-track tape. If you couldn’t get a turntable into a car, by God, lets try 8-tracks. A lot of people jumped on the 8-track bandwagon, thankfully I was not one of them. First of all, I never thought they were very compact. They were the size of a small paperback novel. My buddy Brewster had an 8-track player in his car and we’d listen to Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan all the time. I thought it was because Brewster loved that album but looking back it may have been the only 8-track he owned. I could never figure out 8-tracks. It was years before I learned what the actual playing order of that Cheap Trick live album was. 

Enter Mr. Ottens and his magic cassettes. I’ll be honest, I was a vinyl guy from the start. I only purchased two albums on proper cassettes. I purchased AC/DC’s Highway To Hell on cassette because I wanted to listen to that album in the car. I actually bought that LP on cassette for the reason they were invented – so you could take your music anywhere and you were free from having to have a turntable which would have been hard in the car considering what a reckless driver I was (am?). I also bought Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass on cassette prior to that because I saw that was how a lot of people were buying albums and I thought I was missing out on some sound sensation. Was there something I was missing? Well, no but it was still a nice portable way to consume music. If you were tired of your local radio station – or if you lived in a godforsaken place like Ft. Smith, Arkansas with terrible radio – you could just pop in a cassette and magically you were listening to your own music, arranged how you wanted it. 

The real magic in cassettes were the blank cassettes that allowed you to record anything you wanted to. It was indeed, a blank canvass. There were so many different brands of cassette tapes. Early on I purchased strictly TDK brand but quickly “upgraded” to Maxell who had an infinite number of different types of cassette tapes, each one of a higher quality than the last. Cassettes would hold 90 minutes of music – 45 minutes on each side. The average album back then was around 40 minutes, usually less. If it was a Van Halen album it was more likely 30 minutes long. You could put 1 album per side and leave the last bit of tape blank or you could add your own “bonus tracks” by the same artist at the end. Each tape had a small lead tape that wouldn’t hold music but was there to protect the cassette when fully rewound. You had to be careful if you were recording on vinyl that you’d gotten past those 10 seconds of lead tape or you’d cut off the first few seconds of the first track. The struggle was as real as the skills you needed to create a good tape recording. 

In the early days of my cassette taping, I was merely trying to collect music that I hadn’t purchased (for free). Cassette tapes were the early Napster, I suppose. My brother who had a crate full of albums before I’d even purchased my first album was my first source. I remember going into his room and plugging a cassette into his stereo – it was a turntable/radio/cassette tape all in one – and declaring I was going to tape some Beatles, but only the “good songs.” After filling up two whole cassettes to quote the movie Jaws, I realized, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” My mother had a friend, who  I’ll call Mrs. Smith, who had kids my age and my brother’s age. She brought over a stack of albums for me to tape that her kids owned. I’m still unsure why that happened. I think Mrs. Smith was trying to be cool. She appeared one day holding a can of beer with a cigarette dangling from her lips and handed me a stack of the heaviest metal I’d ever heard. Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Judas Priest… it was all too heavy. I was listening to blues rock… the Stones, ZZ Top, Foghat. I’ve always wondered what the hell was happening over at the Smith’s house. It was extraordinarily nice of her to share her kids’ music even though they were probably using it during human sacrifices, or so I wondered back then. I’ve grown to love metal but hey, I was 13 years old. 

After cannibalizing other people’s albums on cassette the thing that probably accelerated my cassette use was the Sony Walkman. I got a Walkman for Christmas one year and it really changed the way I listened to music. I had headphones on my home stereo, but to be able to pop a cassette in the Walkman and actually leave my room to wander around while tunes played was mind blowing back then. I remember walking around in a snow storm, we’d been let off school, and listening to Yes (The Yes Album) and feeling my brain expand. 

Pretty soon, with my cassettes I realized you didn’t have to be so linear in your thinking. You could mix up artists or songs from one artist on the cassette. You could mix music… ie, the mixtape finally occurred to me. My music collection had expanded to the point where I had enough Aerosmith LPs or Skynyrd LPs that I could cherry pick the tracks I liked from them from each album and put them on 1 cassette. I was making my own “greatest hits” album. I remember sitting in front of my first stereo, surrounded in a semi-circle of albums resting gently on their sleeves and rotating albums on and off the turntable as I carefully hit “record” or “stop.” If a band had a double-live LP, I’d typically use that as my guide to building a 2-sided 90 minute collection of their music. I had friends who made copies of my “greatest hits” mix tapes as by then the cassette industry had created the dual tape deck that allowed you to copy a cassette to another cassette… 

Eventually, even rock and roll nerds get girlfriends. By the time I was in college I was making the dreaded mixtapes for girlfriends. You always tried to find a song that said what you didn’t have the courage to say yourself. “You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel…” as the movie says. Mind you, my mixtapes were never terribly sappy. Often times it was just stuff I knew the lady liked. She’s into Sting, here’s a mix of Sting and the Police. I often tried to turn women onto the music I dug. It was always important. If she rejected my music, wasn’t she rejecting me? I know people think they’re doing much the same when they were burning CDs or putting together playlists on Spotify, but there was nothing like the engineering the perfect mixtape. There was no shuffle. The order you put the songs in was really, really important. I’ve always loved the scene from the movie High Fidelity where John Cusack explains the theory behind a great mixtape because it’s so accurate…

Nick Hornsby who wrote the novel this movie is based on is a real hero to the music nerd in me. 

I have an ex out there somewhere who now teaches yoga who occasionally emails me to thank me for turning her onto good music. I did a lot of that with the dreaded mixtapes. I actually used a mixtape to break up with someone in the early 90s… As I recall I started that tape with B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Not my finest moment. I’ve even made tapes for some friends of mine way back when. I have a friend I met when I first moved to Arkansas who had no money and coveted my deep album collection. I’d tape stuff I thought he’d dig – Clapton, the Band, the Allman Brothers – and so on… I wonder what ever happened to those things… Although if I had one of those mixtapes, I couldn’t play it. As times have changed and technology has shifted, the Rock Chick forced me to finally give up the cassette player. The only cassettes I still own are some Springsteen bootlegs from the way back machine. Oh, but I do miss those wonderful afternoons in front of the stereo with a stack of vinyl on the floor and a blank cassette in the stereo… Simply glorious. 

I’m glad Mr. Ottens came along and invented the cassette. It gave me many countless happy hours. I try and share music now via playlists but there was something so intimate and personal about sharing your music with someone back when I was younger and the mixtape was my medium. The mixtape was the way I took something that was so personal – listening to music – and turned it into something more public to be shared, to help bring me closer to people, friends and lovers. Maybe I was just practicing for this blog. The mixtape will always be a part of my rock and roll experience and enabled me to start sharing music and my experiences with it that I will hold onto fondly for as long as I’m able to hit “play.” 

R.I.P Mr. Lou Ottens. Cheers! 

Review: Smashing Pumpkins’ – ‘CYR’ – An Exhausting Slog With The Dark Lord of the Synth

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When I started BourbonAndVinyl I vowed to myself I’d try to be positive. There is so much negativity out there, especially online. Twitter is a cesspool of anger and grievances. At least Instagram is out there for pictures of people’s cats and what they’re eating. I joined Instagram to follow rock bands and I ended up following a bunch of cats and restaurants, but I digress. B&V was founded in order to throw light on older bands, artists who have been around for a while that are putting out new music that probably isn’t making it to your car radio (Bourbon and Vinyl: Mission Statement). I try to write about albums that I like, that excite me about rock and roll. At times, I fear that ethos has made me sound overly positive, which if you knew me is pretty ironic. 

I have indeed been critical in the past. I subscribe to the “important man (person)” theory of rock n roll. Important artists do big things. So when one of those “important” artists puts out a record that misses the mark, I have in the past felt compelled not only to comment but to be less than positive (LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’). I’m hopeful that this post will not come across overly negative. However, as always, I’m going to give you my honest opinions here. 

I consider Billy Corgan, leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, to be one of those “great men” of rock and roll. Anyway you slice it, the guy has done some amazing work. However, even I must admit that Corgan, well, doesn’t lack self-confidence. No artist, if they’re being truthful, has enough ego to actually want to be the “voice of their generation.” Dylan struggled with that tag in the 60s. In the 90s that tag literally helped drive Kurt Cobain to suicide. Heavy weighs the crown. I saw Corgan interviewed years ago about Cobain and how he brought Grunge to the mainstream, changing music forever. Corgan said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that there were a lot of artists pushing rock and roll’s new sound, grunge or alt rock, and Cobain ended up getting credit for it. I got the sense watching him, that Corgan was actually kind of disappointed he wasn’t tagged with that “voice of his generation” thing because I truly think he believes he was the voice of that generation and not Cobain. It’s like he feels gipped. Who knows… he did date Courtney Love so he shares that in common with Kurt, maybe he was the voice all along. I can’t adjudicate that but the guy has had a chip on his shoulder for a long time. 

I’m on record stating that I’m a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan. I was a big fan of Siamese Dream after my friend Doug gave me that disc for my birthday many moons ago. It began a lifetime of fandom for me. I love the grandiosity of the epic Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. I followed the band through the radical shift to electronica on Adore. That album remains amongst my favorite of their work. After the band fell apart following Machina/The Machine of Gods I followed Corgan (and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) on their next band, Zwan. I actually dug that album but I think I’m in the minority there. When Billy rebooted the Smashing Pumpkins I didn’t get back on the bandwagon until Oceania. I liked Monuments To An Elegy that featured Tommy Lee on drums. By that point Corgan was the only original member left. When it was announced that original members James Iha (guitar) and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums) were rejoining, I was excited at the guitar rock possibilities. Admittedly, I’d liked to see original bassist D’Arcy back but I’ll take what I can get. 2018’s Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol 1 was not the hard rock reunion I was expecting, but I still liked it (LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’. I figured they were just taking their time to re ignite the chemistry. 

The Pumpkins have finally returned with the follow-up(?), not with “Shiny And Oh So Bright Volume Two” but with what’s being billed as a double-album CYR. And in classic Billy Corgan fashion, with the chip securely on his shoulder, he’s delivered an album no one would have expected. Instead of the classic guitar-epic music we’d expect, he’s delivered a keyboard heavy album. It’s as if Billy has decided to join the dark side… The Dark Lord of the Synth, he’s Darth Keyboards. The first time I heard this record I thought I’d accidentally played a Flock of Seagulls’ disc from 85. I will say, his vocals still have that immediacy, that urgency you would expect, it’s just the music is such a surprise. What makes this all the more confounding is that drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and guitarist James Iha are purportedly playing on this record, just like the last one. Chamberlin is one of the more aggressive drummers ever and on this record he’s mostly confined to being a metronome, he’s totally neutered here. If James Iha is playing guitar on this record it’s like a “Where’s Waldo’s Guitar.” Even Jeff Schroeder who plays bass and guitar is seemingly awol. This is the sound of one man who spent way too much time playing with the latest technology. The only proof that anybody but Corgan contributed on this record are the female backup singers. 

Practically half of these tracks were released as singles… I only posted about the first two, Review: Smashing Pumpkins Release 2 New Songs, “Cyr,” “The Colour of Love”. I have to admit those two tracks have grown on me. I especially like the title track, “Cyr.” Corgan sings “I’m on the verge” so many times I have no choice but to believe him. There are other good moments here. “Confessions Of A Dopamine Addict” is actually interesting… I think it actually has some real drums. “Dulcet In E” is a nice Corgan ballad. The two tracks that generate the most heat, for me, were the curiously titled “Anno Santana” and the overly affected title of “Wyttch” (ie, Witch). Both have a bit of actual guitar. Neither is “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” 

I’m not faulting the guy for wanting to go in another direction. I loved Adore. But by the second half of this album, washed in all the cold keyboards and synths it all sort of turns into white noise. The songs are just not that memorable, especially on the second half of the record. Corgan has always written great hooks and there just aren’t any here. While this is described as a double-LP it just feels like a boring, long single disc. If Corgan is this ambivalent about songwriting and the songs he’s putting out, why wouldn’t we be too? To call this album monochromatic doesn’t do it justice… at least Picasso’s “Blue Period” was interesting. 

This album is, in a few words, a huge disappointment. I think we were all waiting for a great Smashing Pumpkins’ album. Sadly, this isn’t it. I can’t imagine Iha and Chamberlin will stay on with the Pumpkins if all they’re going to do is pose for publicity photos. This one is a hard pass for me. 

Cheers! 

Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited

Editor’s Note: Never have I struggled so hard to acquire music. I ordered the 4 CD version of All The Rest only to later discover there was a 5 CD version. It was an extra $100 so I probably would have stuck with the 4 CD version but more on that later. This box set came out on October 16th but mine wasn’t scheduled to ship until 10/20. It was delivered to the wrong house and never recovered. The second, replacement set arrived scratched. Finally, on the third try I finally got my copy… only last Friday. Hence it took me a while to live with this music long enough to write about it. I know this all sounds like “First World Problems,” but it was frustrating, I’ve got nothing else to do. Thank you for your patience. 

I remember hearing an interview of Tom Petty some years back and he was discussing his and the Heartbreakers’ career. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that the Heartbreakers had always been so consistently good nobody noticed when they were really great. I would argue with Tom, were I still able, that the Heartbreakers were more than consistently good, I think they were consistently great. There really aren’t any bad Tom Petty records. Some might argue that Southern Accents was a bit of a mess, but I like all the different directions producer Dave Stewart (the Eurythmics) took the band. I’d also suggest that when they were great, they were exceptional and everybody took notice. I would say over a great career that Petty recorded three stone cold masterpieces: Damn The Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever and finally, Wildflowers. Don’t get me wrong, there were other really great LPs, like Hard Promises, or Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, just to name a few. If you’re uncomfortable with the moniker “masterpiece” then perhaps you’d agree with me that those three albums mentioned above are perhaps his most beloved albums.

Wildflowers was Petty’s second “solo” album, his first being Full Moon Fever in 1989. While Petty has albums he described as solo albums, Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) of the Heartbreakers were both involved in his solo efforts. Back in 84/85 Petty was recording what he wanted to be his “great southern album,” Southern Accents, and he punched a wall. Sadly, he hit a stud and broke his hand. Never punch an inanimate object, folks, there’s no upside. There was some question of whether he’d play guitar again. While he was convalescing, Mike Campbell wrote and recorded “Boys of Summer” with Don Henley. Henley’s album Building the Perfect Beast did a lot better than Southern Accents and I think Petty began to realize how valuable a collaborator Campbell was. The Heartbreakers then ended up backing up Bob Dylan on a tour – which I think came out of a chance meeting at a Farm Aid – and during that tour they managed to record the Stonesy, Exile On Main Street style LP, Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough. Petty always said that backing Dylan on that tour – which I saw at Sandstone Amphitheater…where Dylan dedicated a track to all the men serving sentences at Leavenworth prison up the road – taught him how to be a member of a band and not “the leader.”

During this whole Southern Accents… backing Dylan… Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough period Petty started to really come into conflict with Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch. Stan was always pushing the band and had rather narrow ideas of how they should sound. Weary of the struggle, Petty huddled up with producer Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell and recorded Full Moon Fever with a more relaxed, laid back approach. The atmosphere was looser without Lynch and Petty responded with a great album. Howie Epstein came in to sing harmony vocals on a song, he was also pissed about the solo album thing, and complained that he didn’t like the new material. The song he was going to sing on was “Free Fallin’.” Sorry Howie, not buying it. Lynch was the only Heartbreaker who didn’t play on Full Moon Fever and I don’t think he and Petty’s relationship ever recovered. Petty enlisted Jeff Lynne again to produce the follow-up, Into the Great Wide Open, which was a full Heartbreakers album but it wasn’t as successful and at that point the writing was probably on the wall.

As a follow-up to Great Wide Open Petty announced he was going to do another solo album, this time produced by uber producer Rick Rubin. He said he wanted to do a solo album to “escape the confines” or limitations of a 5-piece band. Of course, it ended up being basically a 5-piece band recording it… so you reach your own conclusion. In the middle of recording the album that would become Wildflowers Rubin produced two new tracks for Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits compilation, “Something In the Air,” and “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” Those two tracks were to be Lynch’s final songs with the band. Campbell and Tench both play extensively on Wildflowers but like Full Moon Fever, bassist Howie Epstein was relegated to harmony vocals. I know Ringo Starr and Beach Boy Carl Wilson both made cameos as well, but it was really Petty/Campbell/Tench. Since Lynch wasn’t involved they brought in drummer Steve Ferrone who ended up staying with Petty for the rest of his career. Obviously they picked the right guy.

While recording Wildflowers Petty’s first marriage was starting to come unraveled. I was going through something similar with a girlfriend in 1994/95 and maybe that’s why I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this album (Tom Petty: New Vault Song, “There Goes Angela” From The Upcoming ‘Wildflowers’ Box). That relationship was almost bookended by Wildflowers and the box set Playback. The original LP is probably my favorite Petty LP – although admittedly it’s hard to pick a favorite. It’s a timeless classic. It’s genuine, sincere music recorded with real instruments – acoustic guitars, electric guitars and real drums – not synths and drum machines and that instrumentation brings heft to this music. The lyrics have always grabbed me. They’re like onions, there’s just depth upon depth in these songs. My all time favorite lyric, and one that I apply to my life daily is from “Crawling Back To You.” It’s brilliant – “Most things I worry about, never happen anyway.” I love the mellow acoustic stuff like the title track, “To Find A Friend,” and “Don’t Fade On Me.” But this isn’t a wholly mellow album. The rockers are epic. “Cabin Down Below” and “Honey Bee,” a monster blues stomper are amongst my favorite. “You Wreck Me” is both mine and the Rock Chick’s favorite. This is simply the quintessential Petty album.

As far back as I can remember, perhaps even when it came out, I heard Petty say his original intention for Wildflowers was for it to be a double-album. Don’t get me wrong – I love all this unearthed vault material for what would have filled out that second disc – but this may be a perfect case for the old adage that every double-LP has a classic single disc hiding within. I think it would have been a great double-LP but its a perfect single disc. Before he died I heard Petty say he was working on packaging up the material for that Wildflowers double album but alas, he passed tragically early (RIP Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017, A Devastating Loss: The Composer of the Soundtrack to My Life Is Gone). Unfortunately his estate wasn’t buttoned up as tight as it should have been and his daughter Adria sued his second wife Dana. It took seemingly forever but at last the legal tussles that prevented this fabulous music from being heard has been settled.

All The Rest is a loving look back at this landmark album. Disc 1 is the original album. Disc 2 is the All The Rest piece meant to be that second, unreleased disc. There is a lot to love across these 10 tracks. I will say, a handful of these tracks were released (in different versions) on the follow up LP, Songs And Music From the Motion Picture She’s The One. “Hung Up And Overdue,” “California,” and “Climb That Hill” will all be somewhat familiar to you completist like me out there. The first track, “Something Could Happen” is a lovely, wistful ballad that would have been perfect on the original album. It’s that good. I love the original version of “Leave Virginia Alone,” one of the few tracks that Petty gave to another artist to record before he did, in this case Rod Stewart. Petty’s version is superior because of the wonderful Mike Campbell guitar work, especially at the end of the track. “Henry Green” is a beautiful character story and a wonderful tune. It sounds like something Dylan would have written. Henry apparently “kept a redneck from kicking my ass.” “Confusion Wheel” is dark, driving, acoustic number. “Somewhere Under Heaven” is a mid tempo, lilting love story. It’s all great stuff.

I have but one beef with the All The Rest box. I didn’t realize there was a Super Deluxe version of this box that was also available. It has a fifth disc entitled Finding Wildflowers. It looks like a bunch of demos. However, they kept the studio versions of “Girl On LSD” a beloved, long sought after B-side and “Drivin’ Down to Georgia,” a barrel-house rocker, previously only released in live versions to the damn fifth disc. Pulling those two tracks and a third, “You Saw Me Coming,” that I’ve never heard, off the All The Rest second disc  and putting on the fifth disc of the Super Deluxe version that’s $150 vs $50 seems like a money grab by Adria Petty. I don’t think you can tell the entire story of the double-album without those tracks. Sure, “Girl On LSD” is a novelty song akin to Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” or “One Piece At A Time” but I defy you to find anybody who doesn’t love that track. Maybe Petty’s instructions were to leave “LSD” off the second disc…however, I’m mystified if he wanted “Drivin’ Down To Georgia” left off. A small knit, but it still bugged me. Like I said, I’m nothing if not a completist.

The third disc in the box is labeled Home Recordings. You can read that as “demos” but quite a few of these are fully realized. “There Goes Angela (Dream Away)” is still my favorite. I can’t believe he didn’t finish that one. “A Feeling Of Peace” is another highlight here. All of these songs on Home Recordings are the proverbial “glance inside the creative process” of Tom Petty. He’s such an important artist, all of this stuff will fascinate. I like how this box takes you from the demo/home recording phase, to the studio and then on to live versions, fully realized. 

And speaking of live versions, the last (fourth) disc is all live versions of the tracks on Wildflowers. I was surprised that only a handful of the tracks overlap (albeit different live versions) with the 5-disc Live Anthology that Petty & the Heartbreakers put out a few years ago. For most people these are live versions that you haven’t heard before and any live Petty is good Petty. They do put a live version of “Girl On LSD” on here and even Petty laughs while performing it. It’s a nice moment. These live songs may all come from different concerts and sources but because they’re Wildflowers tracks the live disc holds together very well. I can listen to any live version of “It’s Good To Be King” out there. It’s like a jazz song, they do it different each time.

Overall this is a wonderful, loving look back to one of Tom Petty’s most popular, beloved and successful works. Its an important album for all fans of rock and roll. Beautifully produced by Rick Rubin and beautifully performed by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ben Tench and company. This is definitely something any fan of Petty or of Wildflowers will have to check out.

Cheers!