B&V’s Best of 2020: New LPs And Live/Vault/Archival Releases, Bad Year/Good Music

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I can’t believe 2020 is almost over. Most years I blink and the year is gone. I can’t really say that about this year. In a matter of two days I’ll be scribbling a “1” over the “0” in the date column on my checks… “Oh it’s 2021 not 2020, sorry.” Yes, I still use checks… you kids and your “apps.” At least this year, in Christmas cards, I didn’t have to read everybody’s not-so-humble bragging about what they did in 2020. This year we’re all just glad we survived. While 2020 was a long slow slog in most areas, it was actually quite a nice year for music. I find myself, in my prior year end retrospectives quoting Don Henley, “It was a pretty good year for fashion, a lousy year for rock n roll.” I certainly can’t say that this year. I will say there is one glaring exception to my 2020 rosy music view: concerts. I miss live music so much I can’t stand it. I’m hopeful, like I never was at the beginning of 2020 about anything, that in 2021 I will be standing in a darkened room in front of a band with my hands in the air, screaming wildly. If Springsteen and the E Street Band’s SNL performance is any indication… I think these musicians are ready to go and are going to come out firing once “the coast is clear” as they say.

It was, if I may say so, a great year at BourbonAndVinyl. I want to say a big Thank You to all the readers, commenters, and followers out there – both those joined us this year and to all of you have been around a while as well. I started this thing with a dialogue with fellow music (and bourbon) lovers in mind and this year that concept came to fruition. With musicians off the road this year, so many acts chose to put out new music or cull through their archives. I found myself writing a lot more than in previous years… sorry if that was a little overwhelming… I get excited about music and I have to share. If you’ve enjoyed B&V this year – tell a friend. All music lovers are welcome. Hopefully I’ve turned you on to something you might have missed which is our goal here at B&V.

There were huge losses this year in rock n roll, too many to enumerate. I was saddened to see Bill Withers pass away this year. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is still one of my favorite tracks. I’ve been hearing “Lovely Day” a lot on commercials lately. Glad to see Bill get some recognition. I was rocked this year by the loss of two titans of rock n roll in the B&V universe. Losing drummer/lyricist Neil Peart of Rush really rocked me. I can still remember the first time I air-drummed to 2112 in junior high school. Rush was so huge here in the heartland, Peart’s loss reverberated through everybody. Making things worse, this year we lost one of the greatest guitarists to ever strap on the instrument, Eddie Van Halen. That one left a mark. Van Halen’s music is such an integral part of my listening as young man it’s almost a part of who I am. Hard, edgy and yet funny at the same time. I loved that band from Van Halen to Fair Warning to 1984 to For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Eddie’s guitar playing was always the price of admission for me. He redefined the instrument and that doesn’t happen much, perhaps once every generation or so. His presence, warmth and smile will be missed.

So plentiful was music in 2020 it’s hard to think of an artist who didn’t put out something new or something from the archives. I barely scratched the surface this year. Elton John put out a box set entitled Jewel Box that was a 10 hour journey through demo’s, deep album tracks and rarities. It was great, albeit mellow, but I felt it was for fans only so I didn’t write about it. The King, Elvis Presley put out a 4-disc box Elvis In Nashville (clearly a play on the title his big LP Elvis In Memphis) that collected all of the country/country rock tracks that Elvis recorded over the course of 3 days in Nashville in 1970. Those songs made up the bulk of three albums including the wonderful Elvis Country. The first two discs had all the actual songs, without any studio sweetening but with the second two discs being demo’s – I love the studio chatter of Elvis hanging with musicians – it felt like a fans only kinda thing. It’s a rare year where I can pick/choose the stuff I write about… skipping Elton and Elvis, wow what a year.

There were some fun singles too. The Black Crowes re-released their Christmas classic “Dirty Santa.” I can only hope the brothers Robinson will record a new album in 2021. B&V favs Starcrawler released their cover of Petty’s “I Need To Know” with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell joining in. Greta Van Fleet released their first single “My Way, Now” from their upcoming album… All this is points toward a good 2021!

Here are my favorites from 2020. The first list is new music, stuff that musicians newly recorded. Below, I’ll furnish my list of vault/archive/live albums – where artists either went back and dug out previously recorded material or compilations and also any live albums that caught my attention. I wrote about a lot more than I’m listing here, these are just my favorites. They aren’t in any particular ranked order, it’s pretty random. Enjoy!

B&V’s Favorite New Albums of 2020

  1. Ozzy Osbourne, Ordinary Man – Ozzy returned after a decade’s absence with a great new record. With producer/guitar whizz Andrew Watt helming the project and RHCP’s Chad Smith on drums, GnR bassist Duff McKagan on bass as the backing band, you knew this would be great. Cameos by Slash and Elton John were icing on the cake, Review: Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Ordinary Man’ – A Simply Extraordinary Album!.
  2. Pearl Jam, Gigaton – Like Ozzy, it had been a long time since these guys had released anything (7 years). I was a touch lukewarm on this record when it came out. It is definitely a “grower.” The more I listen to it the more I like it. The second half of the record gets a little mellow but those are some of my favorite songs. I’d love to see these guys live again, it’s been years, Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts.
  3. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters – It had been 8 years since genius Fiona Apple had released an album – I’m seeing a trend here in 2020 – but Fetch The Bolt Cutters was worth the wait. I think it may be the perfect “lockdown” album, thematically at least, Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed.
  4. Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways – Another artist with a huge gap since his last studio record – 8 years. Dylan had been releasing Sinatra cover LPs for much of that time so it was nice to hear self-penned stuff again. It was preceded by the mesmerizing 18 minute long “Murder Most Foul.” Great, late-period Dylan, Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career.
  5. Pretenders, Hate For Sale – Original drummer Martin Chambers returns and he and Chrissie Hynde deliver the goods on this punchy, rocking album, LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!.
  6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Letter To You – Bruce contemplates his own mortality, inspired by the death of the last surviving member of his first band, the Castiles. I loved Western Stars, his 70s southern California noir but it’s great to hear him back with the E Street Band, Review: Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ – Contemplating Mortality On E Street.
  7. AC/DC, Power Up – I would have never thought Angus would be able to pull Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, and Cliff Williams back into the fold and record another spectacular album. Power Up may be my pick for album of the year – if I still picked albums of the year… Review: AC/DC’s Spectacular Return, ‘Power Up’.
  8. The Dirty Knobs, Wreckless Abandon – Former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ guitarist and “co-captain” and current member of Fleetwood Mac, Mike Campbell’s side project finally releases their debut album. There are a lot of echos of Petty here but make no mistake, this is a guitar album. It’s a lot of fun, Review: Mike Campbell’s New Band The Dirty Knobs, ‘Wreckless Abandon”.
  9. Chris Cornell, Nobody Sings Like You Anymore, Vol 1 – I was tempted to put this in the “vault” list but this is all unreleased stuff that was recorded and sequenced by Cornell. He obviously planned to release it but alas didn’t live to do so. All well chosen covers, this LP underscores what a tragedy it was when his voice was silenced, Review: Chris Cornell Posthumous Release, ‘No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1’ – A Nice Surprise From An Old Friend.
  10. Paul McCartney, McCartney III – A homespun gem more in the manner of McCartney than McCartney II. This felt like a really welcome Christmas gift, Review: ‘McCartney III,’ A Homespun Gem.

B&V’s Favorite Vault/Archive/Live Albums of 2020 

  1. Neil Young, Homegrown – Another brilliant 70s era “forgotten” album from Neil. This guy has more unreleased classic albums than most artists have actual albums. This is included in the upcoming (for general release, it’s already been released to collectors) box set Archives II. If you can’t spring for the whole box set, this is worth picking up on its own, Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years.
  2. Liam Gallagher, Unplugged – The former lead singer of one of the Rock Chick’s all time favorite bands Oasis, Liam Gallagher finally redeems himself in the Unplugged genre with a great little live album, Review: Liam Gallagher, ‘MTV Unplugged (Live At Hull City Hall)’ – Unplugged Redemption?.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup Deluxe – The Stones revisit one of their sleazy-rock 70s classics. Light on bonus studio stuff it contains the great live concert recording Brussels Affair, a must for Stones fans, especially you Mick Taylor-era nuts out there, Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set.
  4. Tom Petty, Wildflowers…and All The Rest – Petty’s vision of Wildflowers as a double LP finally realized. Some lovely stuff was left in the can, Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited.
  5. Prince, Sign O The Times Deluxe – Prince’s creative peak? Maybe… There are so many great tunes that never saw the light of day in this box, it’s perhaps his last masterpiece, Review: Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times – Deluxe Edition’ – An Embarrassment of Riches.
  6. Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary – In my review I quibbled about the lack of unreleased studio tracks (really just one new track) and disjointed live stuff, but this is such a landmark album, everyone should check this out. Leave it to Ozzy to appear on both these lists in 2020, Review: Ozzy’s ‘Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary Expanded’ – Is It Worth It?.
  7. Lou Reed, New York – One of Lou Reed’s true masterworks. If you don’t have the album, you need this. If you do, you need this for the live tracks – the entire album played live, Review: Lou Reed ‘New York: Deluxe Edition’.
  8. U2, All You Can’t Leave Behind 20th Anniversary Box – An album with special meaning for the Rock Chick and I… I already had the bonus tracks but if you don’t they’re definitely worth a listen. The concert included from the tour, in Boston is incendiary, Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’.
  9. Pearl Jam, MTV Unplugged – Only 7 songs long but soooo worth it. I’ve waited and hoped for years that Pearl Jam would finally release this spectacular performance, recorded shortly after their debut album. This is such a legendary performance…Review: Pearl Jam Release ‘MTV Unplugged’ (Finally!).
  10. Keith Richards, Live At the Hollywood Palladium – Keef takes his wonderful backing band, The X-Pensive Winos out on the road. This expanded edition gives us three additional tracks recorded that night. It’s just a great, live album, Review: Keith Richards + The X-Pensive Winos, ‘Live At the Hollywood Palladium’ Box Set.

If there is an album I missed on these list in your opinion, please share in the comments. I’m always open to new music and I do hate to think I missed something…

I hope everybody held it together during this rough and tumble 2020. Hopefully our little B&V corner of the rock n roll universe helped keep you moving down the road this year. I wish everyone a happy, safe New Year. I don’t think we’re out of the dark yet, but I think there is light at the end of the tunnel… and with any luck, it’s not an oncoming train.

It’s a dark ride, take care of each other out there. I’m certainly looking forward to a better 2021.

Review: Pearl Jam Release ‘MTV Unplugged’ (Finally!)

*Image taken from the internet, may be subject to copyright

I like to pride myself on rarely being surprised when music gets released. I like to think I’m “in the know,” as they say. With my borderline OCD I usually know when music is coming out – new or from the vault, typically I’ve read somewhere that the new stuff is coming. Over the years I’ve gone from reading magazines to following bands on social media to searching the web to find out which bands are planning to put out albums. Too many times in my youth an album would come out, local radio would fail to play it and I didn’t realize it was out until much later. I used to hate it when that happened. Perhaps I have a problem…

While 2020 has been an awful year for everyone, at least in music it’s actually been a great year. Sure, I didn’t get that new Stones’ LP I’ve been waiting for, but acts from Ozzy to Dylan have put out new, quality albums. Bands, unable to play live, have been emptying their vaults… so many box sets, so little time/money. While I’ve been blissfully listening to Springsteen’s new album, Letter To You, and battling with Amazon to get my Tom Petty Wildflowers: All The Rest delivered (Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited), a deluge of music has come out. I just discovered an album I was anticipating coming out, Lou Reed’s deluxe edition of his brilliant 1989 album New York had already come out. What’s a poor blogger to do when the music is coming this fast and furious? My only answer is to sip some bourbon and enjoy it immensely. 

While I was out trying to get a handle on everything that’s come out, I realized that Pearl Jam has finally(!) released an LP version of their 1992 MTV Unplugged performance. I had no idea that was even in the works, and as I said, I’m rarely surprised. For you long time readers, you know two things, (a) I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan (Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts), and (b) I love the old MTV “Unplugged” series (B&V’s Favorite MTV “Unplugged” LPs). While there were literally over 100 ‘MTV Unplugged’ shows recorded and broadcast, only around 30 were actually released as albums. 

The whole “unplugged” concept, I’d always understood, was inspired by (of all people) Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performing “Wanted (Dead Or Alive)” acoustic at an MTV awards show. It wasn’t until Paul McCartney appeared on the show in 1991 that anybody noticed it or attached any import to it. McCartney released an album from the performance – and I think he was the first to do so – but originally only in a limited 500,000 copy release. I actually had a copy of that CD in my hands in a record store in Warrensburg, Missouri and I didn’t buy it, I didn’t have the cash back then. What could have been… It was Clapton’s Unplugged that made the whole enterprise a commercial juggernaut. I think that album sold 10 million copies in the states. For me, ‘MTV Unplugged’ in many cases became “appointment television.” From Rod Stewart (who reunited with fellow Faces member Ronnie Wood) to Alice In Chains to Robert Plant reunited with Jimmy Page there were some great, great performances. Some artists stick pretty close to the original blue print of their songs but some like to deconstruct or take liberties with the music. I have a version of Lenny Kravitz doing “Are You Gonna Go My Way” from his Unplugged as an acoustic blues stomper that still blows me away. 

My introduction to Pearl Jam was somewhat circuitous. When the whole grunge thing started to take over, I remained wary and skeptical (which may be the words on my tombstone). I’d seen a similar thing happen in music when punk surged in the late 70s and I wasn’t sure if this was going to resurrect music or destroy all that came before it. It ended up being the latter… but I digress. I was a big fan of a lot of the music that had come out in the 80s including “hair bands” and so I was dismayed that bands like the Cult or Motley Crue were being pushed aside for this new music. Even venerable acts like Springsteen struggled with grunge and its effect. In the 70s when the punks challenged the established order, the older rock bands absorbed the energy and survived (How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s). With grunge, the established rock bands seemingly crumbled and indulged in massive self-doubt. I was always slow to accept change and remained somewhat aloof from Pearl Jam and the other new grunge bands. I will say, I had already adopted their clothing style… I’d been wearing flannel shirts and blue jeans since high school. So I had the grunge threads, anyway. 

In the early 90s, Kansas City got an “alternative rock” radio station. I think it was called 96.5 The Buzz. I had a cheap radio walkman that I would use when I went to the gym. I would bounce from the hard rock to the classic rock and finally when bored bounce down to the alternative station at 96.5. I was working out so I wasn’t terribly focused but I started to hear songs I really liked down there on the Buzz. I had no idea who the bands were I just liked the tunes. I’m usually hyper inquisitive when I hear music I like but I guess I had too much going on to figure out who these new bands were. I really liked Alice In Chain’s “Man In A Box.” That was the first grunge track I actually loved. Then I started hearing these other tracks, “Black,” “Alive,” and a track named “Jeremy.” I couldn’t help but think, not knowing these were all from the same band, “these grunge bands all sound alike.” I didn’t know who Pearl Jam was until I saw the “Jeremy” video on MTV. 

I started dating a woman in early 1992 who had an out-of-town boyfriend who I thought had she’d broken up with. We started hanging out… those records are now sealed until twenty-five years after I’m dead. She brought over Pearl Jam’s landmark debut CD, Ten and just left it over at my place. I can remember listening to that brilliant disc for the first time and a light bulb went off in my head. All of these brilliant songs I’d been hearing were on Ten. Grunge bands don’t sound alike, I’d been listening to the same band. When the affair ended, she left the Pearl Jam CD at my place… it was a sad day when she showed up and demanded I return it. I had hoped it was a parting gift, but oh, well. 

In March of 1992 Pearl Jam entered the MTV studios and recorded their version of ‘Unplugged.’ I don’t remember when they finally broadcast the show, but I was simply mesmerized. Other than the “Jeremy” video I hadn’t really seen these guys. I had heard they were amazing in concert and Vedder was often unhinged, more like a shaman than a front man, physically willing the crowd to elevate. Despite the fact that the suits at MTV edited the order of the songs, the show blew my mind. Vedder seemed like he was barely containing himself, like he was about to physically explode. At one point he stood on his stool and wrote “Pro Life” in black magic marker on his arm. I couldn’t help but think, this is the birth of a legend. He was that charismatic. I was also thinking, I hope that wasn’t a permanent Sharpie, that stuff never comes off. Even acoustic, these guys had an intensity that told me they were an important band. 

While some bands lose that intensity when they go “unplugged” or acoustic, not so for Pearl Jam. Stripped of the loud, squalling guitars their songs emerged seemingly stronger. The melodies really came out, much like when Nirvana did their Unplugged In New York City. Vedder’s vocals were deep and resonant. I have to give props to the drummer at the time, Dave Krusen, his insistent beat keeps pushing this music. Jeff Ament’s driving bass cements the great rhythm section. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars, though muted, deliver on each track. McCready’s solo’s in particular are great here. The sheer energy emanating from this band is palpable over the speakers and simply infectious. I find myself up and moving around the room when I turn this album up. 

While the performance was, to me, legendary, they never released it as an album. Maybe because it was only seven songs (actually, eight) they kept it in the can but I still think this would have been a great EP. The first album was so popular so fast they probably didn’t want to look like they were cashing in. Grunge bands were all very earnest back then… no big cash, no rock star act, no groupies… they might have wanted to rethink that last part but hey, no judgement. When they did an anniversary release of their debut album Ten Redux, it included the DVD of the ‘Unplugged’ performance but they didn’t release an LP or CD version of the show. I remember telling the Rock Chick, “I wish they’d put out the ‘Unplugged’ show on vinyl.” Apparently a year ago, November 2019, they did put out a vinyl version of the MTV Unplugged for Record Store Day, in a limited release. Record Store Day is always a mirage for me with great releases I can never get my hands on. RSD is just like driving down a two-lane country road in summer…you see what looks like water on the road up ahead but it’s just an optical illusion. Anyway, as I just discovered last week by sheer accident, PJ put out the show on a broader basis just last Friday. In a fit of excited amazement I bought the MP3 version but now, finding this on vinyl is my new “white whale.” 

Listening to this concert all these years hence, it’s still an awesome performance. They open with the muted, “Oceans” which Vedder describes as “a love song for his surf board.” After, they launch into “State of Love And Trust” from the ‘Singles’ movie soundtrack and it rocks, even acoustic. “Alive” seems all the more moving in this setting. “Black,” always my favorite track, soars here. At the end of “Black,” Vedder sings “we belong together” repeatedly, you feel it man. They round it out with “Even Flow,” “Jeremy” and “Porch” all of which deliver in this acoustic setting. This was a band becoming superstars right before our very eyes and ears. They did record an acoustic version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World” at the performance but alas, its’ not on this release. It remains locked in the Pearl Jam vault. 

With 2020 being, for me, the worst year of my life, Pearl Jam releasing this album after 28 years is the perfect tonic I need. I urge everyone to check this delightful surprise of an album out. It is really something to behold, a full on aural acoustic assault all these years later… 

Stay Safe out there… Cheers! 

 

B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums

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“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved, See my heart I decorate it like a grave” – Alice In Chains, “Down In A Hole”

A few weeks ago I posted a playlist about heroin, entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin. When I was compiling that playlist I ended up thinking a lot about Alice In Chains and their best album Dirt. Yes, I’m with everybody else in thinking that Jar of Flies was their creative peak, but that was an EP like Sap (another great bit of music), not a full blown album. When doing a playlist about heroin it’s hard not to think about Alice In Chains and their late lead singer Layne Staley who died of an overdose. When I put that list together I realized that I had put not one but two Alice In Chains tracks on it, both from Dirt. I really dug those two tracks on the playlist, “God Smack” and “Junkman.” I hadn’t listened to that whole album in quite a long time and so with those two tunes bouncing around my skull, I had to put it on. I love that record, but I realized about halfway through…this is an unrelentingly dark album. Why they didn’t just name it Smack I’ll never know.

It slowly began to dawn on me, I really like music on that dark edge. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started listening to rock and roll on KY/102 and then later when I started actually buying and consuming music, my tastes ran to the more upbeat. I wanted something that “RAWKED!” Van Halen, Boston and ZZ Top were amongst my early purchases. I wanted that good time, party music. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to anything acoustic. I think most of my friends’ musical tastes ran in that same direction. We were all young, testosterone driven maniacs. What’s that phrase, “young, dumb and full of cum.” My friend Drew and I used to joke that our pal Matthew’s record collection when he got to college was all heavy metal with one Fleetwood Mac album thrown in. His fixation on Kiss back then still baffles me. For my  part, heavy metal did play a big part in all of my early listening from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to AC/DC.

I have to admit, looking back, that even then I was a sucker for a good ballad. I would have never admitted to liking sad songs back then… no, no, give me songs about chicks with a guitar solo. My first Springsteen album purchase was The River and while I loved “The Ties That Bind,” “I’m A Rocker” and “Out In The Street,” I was really, really into “Drive All Night.” The mellow tunes drew me to that album as deeply as the rockers. It’s hard to explain. You could say I was always secretly drawn to great lyrics, hence my early interest in Dylan, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I was that odd person who could relate to songs about broken hearts and sad endings to relationships before I’d even kissed a girl let alone had a girlfriend. Maybe I was slightly depressed as a kid and thus I had this feeling that my heart was already broken from a very early age. No one ever really wants to share the dark parts of themselves, especially when you’re young. There are just some of us who feel things more deeply and life itself can break your heart sometimes…

In college I started to branch out in terms of musical tastes and that’s when I started to buy some of the darker music in my collection. I mean, in truth,  it’s not all “dark,” some of it is just sad or melancholy music. It seems even at that tender age I was like Tom Waits who famously said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In the old days, when things weren’t going well, I’d put on some mellow, generally sad songs and hearing these artists sing about their heartbreak and losses made me feel, well, less alone. Someone else out there had been through what I was going through now and survived. Of course, you can take the sadder end of the musical spectrum too far sometimes. After one break up, my friend the Accountant (who lived three floors below me at the time) came up to my apartment and I was listening to some funeral dirge, moping about when he said, “Say man, uh, maybe all this downer music is affecting your mood… do you have any Van Halen you can put on?” The Rock Chick used to pretend to weep every time she caught me listening to Ryan Adams.

I realize that now may not be the time to share this particular list of albums. Many of us are feeling isolated and alone (B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue). If you’re prone to depression, I would suggest maybe avoiding these albums until we’re all free to walk outside without looking like extras on the set of the television show ‘E.R.’ I know the Rock Chick feels like I do, stuck at home and slightly bored. I take my life into my hands every time I go downstairs… like they say about a blowout football game when the teams start taking cheap shots at each other, it’s getting a little chippy down there. I have always either found solace in these records, or they’re just kick ass albums that everyone should hear. Take the gold where you can find it.

  1. Alice In Chains, Dirt – I’ve already talked about this album above, but it’s truly AIC’s finest full length album. “Down In A Hole,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Them Bones” are all great tunes. It’s clear the theme of this album is heroin. The only lighter moment is the song “Rooster” about Jerry Cantrell’s father surviving the Vietnam War…if you can consider that upbeat?
  2. Nirvana, In Utero – This album was certainly Cobain’s reaction to being named the “voice of his generation.” They were trying to shrink the size of their fan base by recording some really abrasive music. You don’t record a song like “Rape Me” if you’re trying to bring people onto the bandwagon. “Heart Shaped Box” was the tune that actually turned me around on Nirvana. Something clicked for me when I heard it. I still love that song even with lyrics like, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” While some of the tracks on this LP are impenetrable, “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are amongst their best. The art work told you all you needed to know about this record. I bought it in a used CD store downtown by the bar Harlings and it took me to the rest of their catalog.
  3. Pearl Jam, Riot Act – I may be wrong about this but at one time this was Pearl Jam’s worst selling record. It’s no coincidence that the first three albums on this list come from the Grunge era. That generation came of age on lithium (hence the SiriusXM station by that name that plays the music of that era). This is a later record by PJ and I’ve always considered it a bummer from start to finish. There are a few light moments like the humorous “Bushleaguer” about George W. Bush (“born on third, thinks he got a triple,” a line I use often). I’ve been listening to this album again and while it’s intense, it’s still a damn good Pearl Jam record.
  4. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star’s Alex Chilton was so disillusioned about the music business and Big Star’s failure to connect with a larger audience, he holed up and recorded this set of despondent songs. It wasn’t released until years after they broke up. There still isn’t an agreed to, official running order of the songs. “Thank You Friends” drips with sarcasm. “Holocaust” is despair exemplified. Big Star was a band I didn’t discover until after in life, but man I’m glad I did.
  5. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first proper solo album after the implosion of the Beatles. He’d been going to Primal Scream therapy and the vocals bear that out. He often goes from a whisper to a scream. “Mother” is haunting. Songs like “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero” reveal a pretty jaundiced world view. I love the song “God,” where he lists the litany of things he doesn’t believe in any more… until he ends with just he and Yoko…”I believe in me, Yoko and me.” I like this album significantly more than Imagine, but that may say more about me than John Lennon.
  6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon – Drake was another artist I came to later in life. In his short tragic life he only recorded three albums. Pink Moon was his third album and it was a departure from his two power-pop albums that proceeded it. Pink Moon is just Drake’s vocal and an acoustic guitar. He was despondent his career didn’t take off but he largely refused to ever play live… He died shortly after this album came out from an overdose on antidepressants. I think that says it all.
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night – One of Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy.” This is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums, if not my favorite. Drowning in despair, guilt and tequila after he fired original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who then died of an overdose, this is Young at his most raw and emotional. This album knocked me out the first time my friend Drew played it for me and it continues to do so today.
  8. Elton John, Blue Moves – People forget how huge Elton was from 1970-1975. This album isn’t dark but it’s certainly laced with a ton of melancholy. Many people feel it was Elton feeling sorry for himself after the backlash he got for admitting he was Gay. The 70s were at once a freewheeling and closed-minded time. I think he was just feeling some fatigue after 5 tumultuous years. He was bound to have some kind of let down… It’s not a great album but it’s a good one. It’s a double-LP and probably suffers in the shadow of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that preceded it by two years. The second album is particularly down. This album has the saddest song ever recorded, “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.” I’ve got my own story about that song…but again, we can’t share all the darkest parts of ourselves.
  9. Lou Reed, Berlin – This is the bleakest, most despondent thing I’ve ever heard. Reed’s concept album about a couple (Jim and Caroline) who are German drug addicts. It’s got some great songs, “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I” amongst them. But this is hard one to get through. It has grown on me significantly over the years but there is no fairy tale ending here… I dare you to listen to the song “The Kids” and not be haunted by it…
  10. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska – I was a huge Springsteen fan in high school. I had all of his albums up to that point. The River had hooked me. Then I went away for that difficult freshman year in college. I struggled my first semester due to some self-inflicted wounds (love gone wrong). I got home at Christmas and was in the mall when I saw that he had a new album out. Ignoring the stark imagery of the front cover, I thought, here we go The River 2.0. When I dropped the needle on the album and heard the stark, depressing title track I remember having the opposite feeling of the joy I felt when I heard The River for the first time. I liked “Reason To Believe” and almost immediately dug “Atlantic City,” but it took me years and years to come to appreciate this collection of songs about outlaws, losers and outcasts. Everybody feels left outside of society here. It’s a masterpiece, but I’d sure like to hear the “Electric Nebraska” – the version of the album recorded with the E Street Band… maybe we can hope for a boxset…

There you have it, my top bleak, depressing albums. Sometimes you’ve got to go dark. Again, if you’re prone to depression, you might wanna wait on these records. I’ve always loved these albums and I hope you do too. If there are albums like this that you’re into, please let me know and I’ll check them out! Otherwise, sit back, put one of these on, pour something dark and murky and contemplate…

Stay healthy and safe out there. Cheers!

Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts

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I have to admit, up front, that I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan. I subscribe to the great man theory of rock and roll and I think Eddie Vedder is one of those great men, so to speak. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In the old days, I was always slow to get into new things. I didn’t buy in on Guns N Roses until I heard their third single, “Paradise City.” In my defense, Appetite For Destruction came out during my Exile Years, when I was living in Arkansas. My exposure to GnR was strictly via MTV and every band sort of looked the same. It was hard to get my attention and besides I was deeply into the Allman Brothers and the Band at the time. It wasn’t until I heard “Paradise City” from the other room – without the visuals – that I thought… wait a minute, these guys are something special.

It was the same with the Grunge era bands. I was always suspicious of these new “movements”… call me paranoid. I always thought the bands that were lumped into this new “Grunge” thing were wrongly characterized. Nirvana was a punk band in my mind… certainly that’s where their influences were. The first time I heard Soundgarden I remarked to a friend, “this is the new version of Black Sabbath…” They were a metal band in flannel. I really didn’t have a description for Alice In Chains, they were perhaps uniquely Grunge.

In the early ’90s I had just returned from my exile in Arkansas. I was living in an apartment by the highway where I’d lay in bed at night listening to the sound of trains in the distance behind the constant buzz of semi’s barreling north and south. It certainly contributed to my feeling of restlessness. My musical tastes were somewhat rootless as well. At the dawn of the ’90s there was a new radio station in town that specialized in “alternative rock” which was, at the time, Grunge bands. I’d tune in to that station looking for something “new” and I kept hearing these songs I liked…”Black” was  especially a favorite. “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and this song “Jeremy” were amongst my favorites as well. I hadn’t realized all of those songs were by the same band until I started dating this woman – whose boyfriend lived out of town – who loaned me Ten. I was listening to it for the first time while I worked out and with every song that played I thought, “Wait, that’s Pearl Jam too?” How could all these kick ass songs be on the same album. I became one of the converted… When we ended the affair I kept that CD for a long time… until the young lady came by and forcibly retrieved it. It was all very friendly but she was having none of my absconding with her Pearl Jam disc. Apparently I’m the only one who loses CDs during a breakup. Remarkably, I danced with her at her wedding, sadly not to Pearl Jam.

I was amongst those who were at the record store the day Vs and later when Vitalogy came out. Pearl Jam was the Grunge band who were so firmly rooted in classic rock, how could I not become a huge fan? They had so many soaring anthems – “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” “Go,” “Animal,” “Rearview Mirror,” “Better Man,” and “Not For You.” I could go on. They could also go acoustic and just slay it – “Daughter,” or “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town.” Vedder’s vocals were amongst the best I’d ever heard. He conveys so much emotion when he sings, from despair to simmering rage. I thought rock and roll would last forever with these guys. I happened to be lucky enough to see them at Red Rocks on the Vitalogy tour, a personal concert highlight for me. From the machine gun blast of the opening number (fittingly), “Go” until the last strains of “Yellow Ledbetter,” it was an amazing night. They even started the encore with “Leaving Here,” a cover song made famous by the Who.

As inevitably happens, Pearl Jam decided to stretch out in new musical directions by the time No Code came out. I liked that album but for many fans it was a creative stumble. So much so the follow up Yield was seen as a comeback (an album I loved but the critics didn’t). After Yield it seemed that Pearl Jam was content to just record straight-up rock and roll to please themselves rather than connect with their audience. Binaural and Riot Act were grim, mirthless albums. Although I must admit, both albums grew on me over time, especially Binaural. Listening to their archival release Lost Dogs, its clear those albums could have been less… intense. It wasn’t until 2006’s eponymously titled album that they seemed to even want to connect with an audience. For me that album was somewhat overshadowed by the Chili Pepper’s Stadium Arcadium. A friend remarked to me at the time, “If you’d told me 10 years ago I’d be more into a Peppers album than a Pearl Jam album, I’d have told you were crazy.” By then Pearl Jam was considered a premier live act, but there was never a ton of enthusiasm for their studio stuff anymore. Which is a shame because both Backspacer and Lightning Bolt were, in my opinion, exceptional. The ballad “Sirens” on the latter album is one of my all time favorite Pearl Jam tunes. There seem to be two kind of Pearl Jam fans anymore: the fans of their epic early records who have stuck around for the live shows and then fans who stuck around for the latter day studio stuff. I’m kind of both.

It stuns me that Pearl Jam waited seven years to put out another album. Lightning Bolt came out in 2013 which seems like another lifetime. I had heard they were struggling to come up with new material and had a couple of stillborn attempted starts at recording new music. That all might explain why the new album Gigaton sounds well, so different. The title refers to the gigaton of ice lost by the polar ice caps. The theme here is clearly around climate change. You hear a lot about water, oceans, rising oceans, and rivers on this album. If anybody needs something to channel some good ol’ fashion Pearl Jam anger, climate change is as good as any. I think it helps Gigaton hang together. The politics of this record are more subtle than most bands, like say vintage John Lennon. And I will say, there are plenty of songs that sound, dare I say, hopeful.

I will say, at the outset of my comments about the album, this one is a grower. My first taste was the first single, “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” which I reviewed (Pearl Jam: New Song, ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants.’ Old Dog With New Tricks?). That track was like nothing I’d ever heard from Pearl Jam. I won’t go back into it as I’ve written about it before, but it sounds so much like the Talking Heads that David Byrne must be drawing royalty checks. That made me think, “Mmm, this might be a tad more experimental than I’m emotionally prepared for.” The next track I heard on satellite radio was “Superblood Wolfmoon.” That track, at first, sounded like the Vedder barking vocal style that he adopted after befriending the late Johnny Ramone in an attempt to sound “punk” (“Mind Your Manners” or “Can’t Deny Me” for example). After my first listen to the entire album, I will tell you, I hated it. After seven years I wanted a big, epic, arena-rock album. The Rock Chick rejected the album immediately. I wasn’t even going to post about it. But there were a couple of tracks that had stuck with me… I couldn’t leave it alone. I’ve spent the last week with this album, giving it repeated spins and I’ll tell you, I like this record. It’s not going to change the top of a “Pearl Jam Albums Ranked Best To Worst” list but it’s a damn fine rock and roll record. We all want that endorphin hit we got when we first dropped the needle into the groove and “Once” burst out of the speakers and went right to our lower brain stem…it just doesn’t happen that often any more.

The album kicks off with one of my favorites, the rocking “Who Ever Said.” It’s an old fashion, Pearl Jam, turn it up rocker. That leads to the aforementioned “Superblood Wolfmoon” that has grown on me. I will say that Mike McCready is an all-star lead guitarist. He should be mentioned more often in the great guitarist conversations. His solo’ing is exceptional on this album, like always. “Never Destination” is another great rocker about climate change denial. It hits hard and again McCready shines. “Quick Escape” is another great rock tune but it’s guitars and vocals are distorted. The song is about an immigrant’s journey away from his home. Rather than singing a song about immigration, Vedder narrates the song from the personal perspective of the immigrant and it hits so much harder. It’s always best to make a political point by making it personal. The distortion of the vocals and guitar almost generate the feeling of fear and being upended that the lyrics depict. “Take The Long Way” was written by drummer Matt Cameron and it sounds like Soundgarden (in a good way). I can’t help it, that’s what I hear.

For me, Pearl Jam has always done exceptional ballads. If I have a complaint about Gigaton, it’s that the last four tracks are ballads. The back end just mellows out. My favorite of the mellow tracks is “Seven O’Clock” the most political track here. He gives the current occupant of the White House his Native American name, “Sitting Bullshit.” The song penned by bassist Jeff Ament, “Alright” is also a highlight. Rhythm guitarist extraordinaire, Stone Gossard’s penned “Buckle Up” almost sounds like a lilting children’s tune until Vedder, over loping drums and acoustic guitar, sings the first line, “I got blood, blood on my hands…” Happy music delivering disturbing words… Tom Waits would be proud. “Comes Then Goes” is a simple vocals over acoustic guitar track. Who does that any more? Vedder plays an old time pump organ on the closing track, “River Cross.” “Retrograde” is a lament about how the world is falling apart.

If you’re a fan of the early, early Pearl Jam, you might want to skip this one and just buy the concert ticket, if concerts ever happen again. But for those of us who have been along for the whole ride, this is an exciting, mature effort by one of the world’s greatest bands. I’ve never faulted any artist who wants to expand the aperture on what and how they create – I’ve always loved David Bowie and latter day Paul Simon, just to name a few examples. Simon’s last album (Review (Full LP): Paul Simon’s “Stranger To Stranger”) was as far away as you can get from “Still Crazy After All These Years.” I hope this new found experimental mood sparks some creative burst from these guys and we don’t have to wait until 2027 for the next Pearl Jam album. It may not be what everybody wanted, but it’s great to have a rock and roll album to be excited about in 2020, arguably the suckiest year in my lifetime.

Cheers!

 

 

Pearl Jam: New Song, ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants.’ Old Dog With New Tricks?

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I found out about the new Pearl Jam song, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” the way I do most new music now. It was a text from the Rock Chick.

What do you think of the new Pearl Jam song?

“I haven’t heard it”

“What I heard is different. Might be good though. First listen…”

A new Pearl Jam song is kind of a big deal these days… They haven’t done anything new in the studio since 2013’s Lightning Bolt. For those of you who aren’t into the whole math thing… that’s seven years. They did have a one-off single, “Mind Your Manners” that I hoped would herald a new album, but alas it was just that one song (New Single: Pearl Jam’s Feisty, Great New Song “Can’t Deny Me,” Their First New Music In 5 Years). I was excited to hear about new Pearl Jam music as it’s something I’ve been clamoring for for quite a while now. However, the Rock Chick’s second text gave me pause. I trust her musical instincts, implicitly. “What I heard is different…” 

There’s a song by Lou Reed, “Doin’ The Things That We Want To” from the fabulous album, New Sensations. Lou sings about a play of Sam Shepherd’s he went to see and then goes on to sing about the movies of Martin Scorsese. He’s clearly a fan of both those gentlemen. In the last few lines he says, of Marty and Sam, “I wrote this song ‘cuz I’d like to shake your hand… in a way you guys are the best friends I ever had.” That last line has always stuck with me. I feel the same way about certain rock artists I’ve listened to over the years. In many ways the musicians and lyricists I’ve heard have expressed things I’ve felt and thought more so than the people I see day to day. To paraphrase Lou, “in a way (those) guys are the best friends I ever had.”

I think it’s because of that feeling that I’ve actually formed what I’d call “a relationship” with certain bands. Nothing stalker-y or creepy, but an emotional connection to their art. That connection is what keeps me coming back to the catalogs of certain artists like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or yes, Lou Reed. Springsteen considers his body of work to be a “conversation” he’s having with his listeners and I don’t think that’s too far off. Many artists, like the Stones, have always stayed fairly close to the sound they started with. They do disco and country-rock but they’ve stayed blues/blues rock/rock pretty much their whole career. That doesn’t mean they don’t surprise me all the time, but the “conversation” is consistent. Artists like David Bowie are more “shape-shifting” in terms of sound. Bowie went from Ziggy to Philly Soul (Young Americans) to the Berlin Trilogy. Still, the conversation continued.

Now I would never fault an artist for wanting to change creative directions. I stuck with Dylan even through the “Christian Period.” I’ve followed Springsteen from E Street to dark acoustic stuff (Nebraska or Ghost of Tom Joad) and back again. It’s a conversation. All of that said, Pearl Jam have been pretty consistent in terms of sound and style for the bulk of their career. I kept wondering why it was taking so long for them to get their shit together in the studio, I thought it was Vedder being reluctant to record, but perhaps it was a desire to go in a new direction. It was great eagerness, when I returned home, that I put on “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” As always with a Pearl Jam record, I had hoped to hear some kind of arena sized, rock and roll anthem. What I heard, was quite different indeed. Not bad, just different.

“Dance of the Clairvoyant” starts with a bass line that swings like nothing I’d ever heard on a Pearl Jam record. The drums from Matt Cameron sound… programmed. It’s not his usual aggressive drumming. There was a little tickle of keyboards and I thought, oh no. I was gripped with the fear that they’d gone the route of U2 and are trying to be, I don’t know, Imagine Dragons? That bass line is almost… dare I say, danceable. Then Vedder starts singing and it sounds like he’s channelling twitchy, Fear of Music-era David Byrne. He spits out phrases instead of lyrics. “Imperceptibly big, big as the ocean…” I half expected Eddie to sing, “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…” They don’t sound remotely like Pearl Jam until the chorus, “Expecting perfection leaves a lot to endure, When the past is the present and the future’s no more, When every tomorrow is the same as before.” The track has a long coda, “I know that girls wanna dance…” I won’t tell you what boys wanna do…

As usually happens when an artist heads off in a new direction sonically, I was confused at first. I remember being baffled the first time I heard U2’s “The Fly” from Achtung Baby. I will say, if “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is a stab at “being current” or being “relevant” it’s a better job than U2 has been attempting lately. After my second or third listen to this new Pearl Jam song, I have to admit it, it grew on me. I would have liked some searing Mike McCready lead guitar…but perhaps they’re saving that for other songs on the album. I like this track but it leaves me with no idea what this new Pearl Jam album Gigaton will be like. Which is probably what they want. I will say, this is an artist who I’d prefer to continue my “conversation” with… this threw me at first, but I’m on board and ready for more.

New Single: Pearl Jam’s Feisty, Great New Song “Can’t Deny Me,” Their First New Music In 5 Years

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“You want me to breathe and be so thankful” – Pearl Jam, “Can’t Deny Me”

Well it’s about time we got some new Pearl Jam. I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since they released the incredibly strong LP Lightning Bolt. I think I listened to the ballad, “Sirens” on that record about a thousand times… in a row. I can get obsessive. I’ve always been a huge Pearl Jam fan. I was dating a woman who brought over their first album, Ten, and when we broke up I did everything I could to hang onto that CD. I probably should have worked that hard on the relationship, oh well. Eventually, like her affection, she returned to take her Pearl Jam CD with her…

I will admit, it hasn’t always been easy to be a Pearl Jam fan. They started doing everything they could to dismantle the fame and success that came after Ten (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame). Even their second album, Vs was titled to let you know it was Pearl Jam against the world. While they were still a vital and important live act, their albums became more and more obtuse. They almost lost me at Riot Act. However, if you spend some time with that record it will slowly reveal itself to you… there are some great songs there. It’s a grower.

Prior to Riot Act Pearl Jam would put out an album about every two years. Since then, they’ve stretched out the periods between albums. Any more they take anywhere from three to four years between albums. Vedder does solo stuff or hangs out at Wrigley field watching Cubs games. Drummer Matt Cameron got back together with Soundgarden. The stuff they do solo or more appropriately, away from the band, probably helps re-energize them for the next Pearl Jam project. But even I have to admit that 5 years is a really long time between albums. Only the Stones seem to take longer… but that’s another post.

It was with great excitement that I heard that Pearl Jam had released a new single, at first only to their fan club known as The Ten Club. It’s actually a great fan organization. I don’t know why I haven’t joined… but if I did that for every band I liked I’d be broke. The Ten Club typically gets a free single every Christmas and gets an advanced shot on concert tickets. After a few days of listening to the new single, “Can’t Deny Me” on YouTube Pearl Jam have finally released the song this week to the general public and I snapped it up.

I like my Pearl Jam angry and “Can’t Deny Me” is a great, rocking single. Eddie Vedder spent a lot of time hanging out with guitarist Johnny Ramone before his demise in 2004 and that punk influence has stuck with him ever since. This is a punchy, feisty song. I love the fact that when they played it the other night, they dedicated it to the Parkland, Florida kids who are out on the streets protesting for some common sense gun control laws. I dig what Roger Waters and Randy Newman are doing in terms of socially cognizant music these days, but I needed a good rock and roll protest song and Pearl Jam have delivered. Pearl Jam, of course, are no strangers to making political statements in their music. “Bushleaguer,” and “W.M.A” just to name a few songs that addressed politics. Vedder famously wrote “Pro Choice” on his arm in black magic marker during Pearl Jam’s “Unplugged” performance, which to this day I still wish they’d release as an album. So it was great to hear these guys let loose on our current situation.

The song starts with a wicked Matt Cameron drum beat. Eddie Vedder sings like he’s a wounded animal. With lines like “The higher, the farther, the faster you fly, you may be rich but you can’t deny me,” there is little doubt who this is addressed to. Over Cameron’s insistent drum beat the guitars crunch and squall. “Your ignorance is sinful…” I love it. Pearl Jam’s music has always had a grandiosity to it, similar to U2’s music, which these days comes across stronger in their ballads. And while this song isn’t as epic as “Alive” or “Even Flow” it hits every bit as hard as “Go” or “Animal.” It’s brief, clocking in at only 2:44  in keeping with that punk ethos they’ve adopted.

The best news of all about a new Pearl Jam song is that it means there’s a new Pearl Jam album on the way. I haven’t heard anything about a release date but they have announced a number of concert dates… so it appears to be only a matter of time. All of us here at the B&V labs are eagerly awaiting a whole new Pearl Jam album. Hell, I was thrilled to hear Vedder sing “Room At The Top,” the gem by Tom Petty at the Oscars… imagine how I’ll react to an entire new album. I’m even hoping Eddie releases “Room At The Top,” his performance was that fabulous… he could do it as a charity thing perhaps?

Last, and certainly not least, Happy St Patrick’s Day to all of you out there. The Rock Chick and I will be out on the streets of Kansas City, dressed in green, drinking with the revelers. I’m told Kansas City has the third largest parade in the States. It really is the only religious holiday I still observe. I mean, Christmas sort of happens around me, I can’t avoid it, but I’m a full participant in St Patrick’s Day. Be safe out there and Erin Go Bragh to all of you!

Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame

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*Photo shamelessly borrowed from the Internet, gettyimages, Paul Bergen

I just love this photograph of Pearl Jam from their early days. The only guy who looks happy is the drummer, in the middle, and they fired him. Likely on the HR form it read something like: Reason for Dismissal: Cheerfulness or Enjoying the Fame.

My corporate overlords are asking me to travel quite a bit more and I haven’t been able to write as often as I’d like, my apologies. It has given me a lot more time to think about music… and lately I’ve been thinking about fame. Ah, Fame, it’s such a cruel, fickle beast. Bands often form, write music, tour and work hard to achieve financial stability and yes, fame. But once it happens many bands/artists don’t know how to deal with it. There are certain levels of fame that nobody is ready for. Not everybody can be the Beatles, who not only embraced their fame, seemed energized by it. Well, McCartney anyway, Lennon seemed somewhat unnerved by it all.

Fame has all kinds of effects on an artist and not always good ones. Many artists, feeling the pressure to repeat earlier heights of record sales crumble under the pressure. Many artists turn to drugs, alcohol or just plain break up the band. Or sometimes the effects of fame are even worse…bad juju indeed. There are as many reactions to fame as there are artists, I suppose.

Lately, I find myself thinking about those artists/bands who decided to take control, take the bull by the horns as they say, and purposely change the trajectory of their artistic arc. The artists who, commercially speaking, tried to take a dive. The goal seemed to be to thin the herd of rabid fans, hanging on every word. These acts literally altered their art (in my opinion) to reduce their fame…

Bob Dylan: After a two year period that saw Dylan “go electric” and record three classic masterpieces: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisted,” and “Blonde On Blonde” Dylan retreated to upstate New York to Woodstock (pre-festival fame Woodstock). This creative burst is beautifully documented on the box set, “The Cutting Edge” reviewed earlier in B&V. Dylan just wanted to get away, rest and spend some time with his wife and new family. Then, he had a motorcycle accident. Or did he? I’m not usually a “second shooter on the grassy knoll” guy, but I wonder if Dylan faked the whole thing to get a break in his crazy schedule. The guy was being touted as the “voice” of his generation. He was the appointed leader of the Hippy movement… heavy responsibility for a guy who is really just a singer… or a poet, depending on your outlook. After secluding himself in upstate NY and hanging out in a basement for a year with the Band, recording some pretty amazing music, but not really sharing it, Dylan emerged with a quiet, acoustic based “John Wesley Harding.” While considered a classic by critics, it was quite a dramatic departure from his three prior albums. It’s like Dylan rewrote the book on a career in music. He went on to record a country album, “Nashville Skyline.” He really didn’t recover commercially until “Blood On the Tracks” by which time his rabid audience had diminished and mellowed out.

Neil Young: Neil Young’s trajectory was similar to Dylan’s, perhaps without the messianic overtones… the 70’s were a more cynical decade after all. Young released “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” and then “After the Gold Rush” and joined CSNY. He was poised to explode. I don’t think he realized how big he was going to get when he delivered the mellow, extremely popular “Harvest.” You couldn’t get away from “Heart of Gold.” Neil said, on the liner notes of the excellent greatest hits package “Decade,” that he found himself in the middle of the road after “Harvest” and decided to steer his career into the ditch…he said he’d meet more interesting people there. He dismantled his following by delivering the live LP, “Time Fades Away,” which oddly seemed to declare war on his fans. Young was exorcising demons, but his fans were left to exorcise Neil.

Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen’s career has been a study in the art of controlling your fame. He released “Born To Run” and ended up on the cover of Time and Newsweek… after a 4 year absence due to legal issues with his management, he delivered the grim classic “Darkness On the Edge of Town.” Punk was prevalent and so he probably rode that wave, plus he was pissed about the court stuff and the four year absence. Finally, in 1979 he released “The River” which gave him his biggest seller to date… rather than capitalize on that success he retrenched with “Nebraska” an album I still struggle to listen to without being put on suicide watch. He finally reached his peak potential when he released “Born In the USA” but quickly retrenched to “Tunnel of Love.” Release something that makes you huge, follow up with a quiet personal album to make the crowds go away…it’s the best of both worlds.

Fleetwood Mac: Nobody saw the huge success of “Rumors” coming. Lindsey Buckingham, fueled by the punk movement took control of their next album and drove the band in experimental, weird directions. Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie apparently didn’t get the memo and continued to record solid mid tempo rock songs causing a very disjointed approach.”Tusk” is a masterpiece in my mind but it was heralded as a huge disappointment upon it’s release. I see it for what it was – Buckingham responding to the pressure of repeating “Rumors” by taking the band in a less commercial, artsy direction. When the LP doesn’t sell as much as the last one, you just say the audience didn’t “understand your creative vision.” It’s a great strategy really. Although Mick Fleetwood did drive out to Lindsey’s house after the reviews were in to say, “you blew it, mate.”

Prince: “1999” was such a breakthrough record for Prince. He, along with Michael Jackson, were one of the first black artists to breakthrough to a broad white audience. He followed up with the movie/LP “Purple Rain.” Prince, a control freak, whose goal had always been world domination, and who actually accomplished it, responded with the quirky, artsy “Around the World In a Day,” an album I bought the day it was released and sold a week later. Yeah, I was one of the fans Prince exiled from his fan base with that record. Prince never really regained his commercial/artistic mojo. That’s the risk when you purposely try to kill off your fame… sometimes you’re successful.

Nirvana: Kurt Cobain, almost 30 years after Dylan, was also tagged with that “voice of his generation” tag. Based on Dylan’s response to that in the 60s and what happened to Kurt, you might want to avoid that tag. After “Nevermind” seemingly destroyed everything that came before it and revolutionized music in a way that punk only dreamed of, Cobain felt painted into a corner. He had wanted to only be as big as say, Sonic Youth, not bigger than the Beatles. In response to the world-wide worship, Cobain and Nirvana delivered the abrasive album “In Utero” an album that was such an obvious attempt to drive fans away and yet it was still wildly popular. “Heart Shaped Box” is still my favorite Nirvana tune. Sadly Kurt never reconciled his fame and for a myriad of reasons ended up sadly ending his own life… the most tragic tale I’m gonna tell.

Pearl Jam: I read an interview with Eddie Vedder once, and he said they were playing a bar that had a free hamburgers in the parking lot while they were set to play. He got on stage in front of an empty room (everyone was eating outside), closed his eyes and when he opened them, the entire bar was full of enthusiastic fans. He went on to say that was how Pearl Jam’s world wide fame happened, seemingly in the blink of an eye. “Ten” was such a huge album and it’s follow up “Vs” despite the “us vs you” implied by the title, was just as popular. Finally PJ put out “Vitalogy” which I consider a classic but like “In Utero” it was a clear attempt to “thin the herd.” You only have to take one look at the picture above and you can tell these guys were uncomfortable with the fame that had resulted from their music. Eddie took these guys down a path that saw them stay a solid live draw, but their music has never sold like it did early in their career and I think that’s how Eddie wants it… Vedder’s only proper solo album was a ukele album…clearly not a guy looking for wide commercial success or additional attention…

That’s it for now folks. Did I miss anybody on this list? Please add your thoughts in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Have a great weekend! Cheers!