Friday, October 10, 2014

Album Review - Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
High Top Mountain Records (2014)

Old School authenticity is the Holy Grail of the musical traditionalist. The closer he comes to evoking the masters of the past in a modern context, the better. He is Music's revisionist historian. You can trace the arc of the prime era Rolling Stones albums in the early work of the Black Crowes.* You won't hear a modern folk act that doesn't search for pre-Newport '65 Bob Dylan. All Stevie Ray Vaughan wanted was to be a walking synthesis of the Great Kings of blues guitar (B.B., Albert, and Freddie). While the traditionalist usually seeks to incorporate something new, more than that, he wants to be authentic.    

Sturgill Simpson is a dyed-in-the-wool Outlaw Country traditionalist, with a psychedelic edge. His latest release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is a blast from the future of the Country past. Everybody in Country wants Outlaw credibility; most of the modern artists just want to be Pop even more (i.e., new more than authentic). While he may hit the stage in tennis shoes instead of Laredos, you'll never hear a debate over whether Simpson is a sellout. His music answers the question, accentato. Like early era Old Crow Medicine Show, he walks decades in the past with a 2000's vocabulary. He'd be right at home on the Texas scene in 1974, until his audience got confused by some of his lyrics. 

Put yourself in the middle of the wide open country on a cool fall evening, your boots up on a log and a fire focusing your attention. Metamodern is playing. Instead of a Budweiser in your hand, there's a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. Besides the above-transistor quality of the Bluetooth speaker and the rich flavor of the beer, you'd swear you were in 1978 listening to deep tracks of a non-greatest hits Waylon Jennings release that George Jones produced. It's all there, the slide guitar, the growling baritone ... then this (from opening track, "Turtles all the way Down"):  
There's a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there,
Far beyond this place,
Where reptile aliens made of light,
Cut you open, pull out all your pain.  
Whoa! Wait a minute! Did Phish make a Country record?!? 

Indeed, Simpson is notoriously unafraid of mind-expanding chemicals. There's just enough trippiness and reverb in his music to fix it in the present (witness the non-Outlaw, two-minute Country electronica jam that serves as an album coda in "It Ain't All Flowers"), but it's just under the surface. He may be a hippie at heart, but he can play the pissed off misanthrope shitkicker when he needs to, as in the slow-boil Telecaster growl of "Living the Dream." In "Life of Sin," he toasts the Bad Life in Luckenbach dance hall two-step style. He channels Willie Nelson's (his idealogical, if not musical, forbear) tender side on the philosophically mellow finger-picking of "Voices." Just when things seem stuck in the gutter of the Low Life, he picks the listener up with the Country Gospel swing of "A Little Light," then looks boldly forward with the soaring pedal steel elegance of "Just Let Go." There are no Country covers here, but Simpson makes an enchanting turn of When in Rome's 1988 minor electric dance hit, "The Promise," sound like a late night on Sixth Street in Austin.

Sturgill Simpson is the genuine article. Metamodern is an engaging lesson in perfectly-executed traditionalism, with an invigorating modern twist that even a Country amateur can sink his teeth into.  

* Shake Your Money Maker was the Crowes' Sticky Fingers; The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was their Exile on Main Street.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified Metamodern Sounds as Simpson's debut album. It is actually his second, the first being 2013's High Top Mountain.  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Best Songs You've Never Heard, Part III - Villa Nellcote

Max chilling at the Villa, Summer of '71
If Rock and Roll is a state of being, then what happened at Villa Nellcote, Nice, France, in the summer of 1971 is the genre's eternal zenith. You've heard the story. Stones fail to pay super high British taxes on their earnings. Taxman cometh. Stones have no cash. Stones forced to high tail it from England before they suffer legal sanction. Keith Richards finds a 16 room mansion overlooking the ocean in the South of France and a speedboat to go with it. Perfect. "Let's hang out for the summer; make an album and chill ... No studio at the Villa? No problem. We are the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. We'll bring our own."

So ensconced in their summer quarters, the Stones realized Rock Nirvana (or Hell, depending on one's view of things): drugs (copious amounts, even by their standards), supermodel groupies, A list guests (Gram Parsons was in town for a while and, oh, John Lennon dropped by), quarreling, cheating, disappearing, reappearing, narrowly avoiding arrest and deportation threats, speedboating, and other activities of the Greatest Rock Stars Ever at the height of their powers (i.e., scraping the bottom of the gutter).

None of it could have happened in the Social Media World; the whole thing would have blown up like a hydrogen bomb two weeks in when Justin Bieber showed up and posted a selfie next to Richards and a giant pile of drugs and #nellcotemeltdown started trending. This Fire didn't need any help to burn out fast. Less then a year after Richards signed a lease on the Villa, the Stones had worn out their welcome and unceremoniously blown town. For a full and excellent account of the summer, see Robert Greenfield, Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones.

As always, the Stones found inspiration from chaos. In the sweltering, musty basement of the Villa, against all odds, with every reason in the world to lay an egg, soil their reputation, and send themselves on a 20 year death spiral towards the Casino Circuit, what did they do? Recorded the backbone of the Greatest Rock and Roll Album That Ever Was or Will Be.    

Perhaps the finest song on Exile on Main Street, and thus one of the Greatest Rock and Roll Songs Ever Recorded, is the piano trip to the Heavens, "Loving Cup." You've heard it, but never like this. The official version of the song is too lovely, to clear, to have been born in a place as sordid as the Villa basement. Not this version. I can only imagine this alternate take arose at some point after 3:00 a.m. on a steamy July night, in the basement, in the middle of a deep human haze. All must have been quiet and dark on the heights of Cote d'Azur, all but the primal Rock wails in the night emanating from Nellcote. Lesser artists and softer men would have been beaten down by it all and laid about like overcooked sloths. Not our Heroes. When all seemed gone for the night, and there was nothing left to do but quit and watch the sunrise, I can see Nicky Hopkins take the piano for just. one. more. I see an exhausted Charlie Watts calling up to the recording truck parked outside and asking Jimmy Miller for just a bit more tape. Like cosmic dust forming a nebula, the song rises slowly from the haze. Bit by bit, the players find their parts. Mick Taylor, barely upright, summons just a bit more masterpiece country blues from his Les Paul. There could only have been one microphone in the middle of the floor, under a hanging bulb, with Jagger and Richards manning it. From chaos, comes art. "What a beautiful buzz!"


Friday, June 20, 2014

Best Stones Songs You've Never Heard, Part II

Anita Pallenberg
By 1968, Mick Jagger was a global superstar, which naturally led him to acting. For his cinematic debut, only the oddball British psychedelic crime noir of Performance could have worked. And what better leading lady than Keith Richards's girlfriend, mythical late 60's London scenester beauty, Anita Pallenberg? Only in the hyper sexual bizzaro world of the Rolling Stones could one man be working on a near X rated film, in the open, with his best friend's girl.

At some point during the Performance shoot, word got out that Jagger and Pallenberg were a bit too far ... in-character while shooting the love scenes. Richards did not take it well, and took to sitting in car in front of the studio while the two overheated actors "played their parts." Must have been awkward at band rehearsal the next day.

Thankfully, Jagger's affair with Pallenberg (do you even call it that when it's in the open?) wasn't the only thing going on Planet Stones at the time. Guitar legend Ry Cooder had shown on the scene, teaching Richards the open G and E Country Blues tuning that would burn in Let it Bleed era classics like "Honky Tonk Women," its deep fried cousin, "Country Honk," and Delta parable "Prodigal Son." Armed with Richard's searing arsenal of down home American licks, the Stones set about finishing the Country-Work fusion work that Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins had started a decade earlier. What we now call "alt country" can be traced back to the day Ry Cooder met Keith Richards.  

As being Rolling Stones is the only job either of them ever had, "Memo From Turner" must be the only memo that Mick Jagger or Keith Richards ever wrote. In the Stones saga, non-Stones tend to be transient presences. Thankfully, Ry Cooder stuck around long enough to pitch in on the "Turner" studio effort. While appearing on the Performance soundtrack as a Jagger song, the Jagger/Richards writing credit and the song's appearance on the 1989 London Years box set (where I found it) qualify it as Stones enough for this list (despite the fact that no Stones besides Jagger are heard on the recording). Cooder's sunny day driving slide line is the central theme here. Jagger gives dismissive vocal treatment to what sounds like an awkward conversation between Turner (a criminal in the Performance story played by Jagger in the film) and a stranger who recognizes him, to Turner's apparent chagrin. Despite, or perhaps because of, its sordid backstory, "Turner" is a charming piece of Stones obscurity.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Best Stones Songs You've Never Heard, Part I

Brian Jones, circa 1964
On the night of July 3, 1969, the Rolling Stones sat in Olympic Studios in London, working out a new track with freshly minted guitarist Mick Taylor. At about 2:00 a.m., the word reached them that founding member and original guitarist Brian Jones had been found dead in the pool at his Sussex home. Jones, who had been fired from the band and replaced by Taylor less than a month earlier, thus became a founding member of The 27 Club. The news literally dropped the Stones to the floor. Charlie Watts wept. Two days later, the Stones would play Hyde Park before a quarter million to memorialize their fallen mate.

On that fateful June night, the song the Stones were working up was an overhaul of Stevie Wonder's 1968 non-hit "I Don't Know Why." The song lyrics are rooted in confusion and pain, voiced by Rock's ever-present pleading lover. It must have served as an appropriate tableau for these young artists, their invincibility shattered. The result of their work does "I Don't Know's" R&B origins proud. The underwater vibrato opening sequence segues with immediate power into a Muscle Shoalsesque (the studio had opened earlier that year; the Stones would record there in December), brass and ivory accented theme that dominates the rest of the song. Taylor's presence is immediately felt, with a searing slide overlay that crackles the song's back half. Watts uses his snare like a conductor, setting off each of the song's mini-crescendos. Pain and exhaustion resonate in Jagger's voice as he pleads his way through the lines of a narrator resolved to defeat ("I ain't gonna stop, your cheating ways ..."). The put-on vocal tic in the third line is charming in its quirkiness. "I Don't Know Why" this little three minute heater never turned more ears.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sunshine Daydream

The heat rises, and with it, the spirits of a hemisphere. Shade becomes a precious commodity as the air thickens; umbrellas open. The strips of sand on the outer boundaries of the continents bustle. Morning comes with a fast-rising temper, foretelling a day that rides the cries of cicadas to a stubborn end. Entering our cars, we grab the vents in a short-breathed, desperate search for the first hint of cold air. Students scatter into the heat to search for amusement in the absence of academic pressure. We know it intuitively, but the arrival of Memorial Day serves as an exclamation point. Summer's here.

No season begs for a soundtrack like Summer. A steamy blast of July air through an open car window gives any song resonance. The beads of sweat on the listener's forehead relate him to the hard creative work of the artist; the act of listening becomes work. It's all part of the natural order of things. Confined to their studios by the cold of winter, artists record. Then, as the lifeguards take their whistles, the world goes outside to hear the musical bounty that results. New albums drop. Amphitheaters hum with energy in the night. Open fields become small cities built on Music, teeming with the barefooted and shirtless. Humans don't stand outside in groups of 100,000 in 90+ degree heat to watch movies.

Stop for a moment. Place yourself on a tall chair at the Surf Restaurant on Amelia Island on a 94 degree July afternoon. It's 6:47 pm. Happy hour. The open grid of the plastic cushions waffles the back of your thighs; the PVC frame of the chair creaks with each frequent shift. The sun starts to hide itself behind the faded white boards of the deck, making the evening sauna tolerable. Still, a short plastic pitcher of Miller Lite stands no more than a 10 minute chance at drinkability without a bag of ice sitting in it. You were in the ocean 20 minutes ago, but the middle of your back still sweats. There's a soft breeze coming off the ocean, but the heat rising off of A1A microwaves it and robs it of the ocean's moisture before it can cool your face. Still, all is well. (Sweat purifies the soul.) Over the sultry din of the conversation, what do you hear? (Close your eyes) ........... "Come Monday" by Jimmy Buffett? I thought so. Music is part of the Fabric of Life; the weave is strongest in Summer.

Over the next few months, dust off some Music you love from Summers past. Think back to some sacred Early Evening spent staring out over the ocean. Reflect on a long day of bobbing lazily on a crystal clear lake. Reminisce fondly over a long-ago, unforgettable night of live music under the stars.  There was Music in the background. Rediscover it.

"Sunshine daydream ... blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cobain - 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago this month, Generation X+ lost its avatar. Kurt Donald Cobain was a Supernova in a malcontent's body, a self-described "negative creep." He was a musical genius, not in the technical vein of a John Coltrane or the lyrical mastery of a Bob Dylan, but in his ability to see far into the depths, down to where the music of his day was heading, and to capture the moment and take the plunge. He was not the first Grunge artist, but he was the greatest. Sheepish and introverted by nature, when holding a guitar and backed by a bass and drums, his rage poured out of him like spitting blasts of hot lava. To hear him in his prime, you could not help but grit your teeth and clinch your mouth into a half grin as you put your own "teenage angst" on display. His dour philosophical being was summed entirely in the two most famous words he ever wrote: "A DENIAL!"     

Most musicians seek fame, or at least to make a living in music, which requires some measure of fame. In 1988, when whammy bars, teased hair, and dudes in tight leather ruled popular Rock music, it took an artist confident in his craft to forego the potential payday of Hair Metal for a micro genre known to few outside of King County, Washington. Cobain eschewed the bombastic conventional wisdom of his day and, four years after Nirvana's first gig, he found himself a platinum-selling artist on the cover of Rolling Stone. His genius was, in part, his ability to realize an unpredicted musical future that so few saw. 

It was hard for those of us in Generation X+ (the late Gen X'ers, born in the mid to late 70's) to wrap our hands fully around Hair Metal. The Sex/Drugs/Rock n Roll lifestyle Hair celebrated, in hyperbolic proportions, was hard to realize whilst living with attentive parents. We couldn't stay up all night partying with supermodels, like Axl Rose. Any of us, however, could be pissed, and that was the only credential for embracing Grunge. Re-watch the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In an hour of MTV three months before "Teen Spirit" broke, one would see busty women jumping into hot tubs built into the back of limousines while champagne sprayed everywhere, over-wrought guitar solos squealed like a reverb tooth drill, and some David Lee Roth doppelganger jumped around in sex-fueled chimpanzee mode. Not so in "Teen Spirit," where we see a dimly lit horror story gym full of pissed looking teenagers looking for a reason to mosh. Not even the Goth High cheerleaders get attention in this teen angst dreamscape. Unwashed hair falls down over bowed faces. Everybody's pissed. This was Grunge, and it was easy for Gen X+ to sink it's teeth into it. Overnight, the angry nerds and disenfranchised poets of the world went from zero to hero. (Barely five years later, the same nerds would take the business world from the suits as the Tech Revolution hit its early crest.)   

As frustrating as it was for my entire CD collection to become obsolete in a couple of months starting when Pearl Jam's "Alive" hit heavy rotation on Headbangers Ball,  it was exhilarating to watch the musical zeitgeist of the day get blown to bits and tossed out on the curb like four-day-old garbage. (Anybody want to buy a Slaugther CD?) This was the closest thing my generation (or any generation before or after) would see to the British Invasion. (Recall also that the Grunge Explosion coincided with the sudden and meteoric rise of Rap in the early 90's. Those were heady days.) No matter what one's views may be on the mertis of a revolution, it's cool to watch one.        

So, 20 years after Generation X+ lost its spokesman, how are we to view the man? Is this anniversary a reason for celebration? For me, it's more of a lament. Sometimes, we are so desperate for a voice or hero that, when we find one, we smother him until he cannot breathe. Such was the case with Cobain. He never wanted the spotlight that burned him so. If a generation of American youth hadn't held him up as the savior, if he would have simply stayed in the Seattle underground making artistically critical music that did not turn him into a pop culture sensation, he'd probably still be with us. Instead, a beautiful 20 month old child was left fatherless, another Rock fairy tale cut short. At age 27 , he'd played his last gig (sound familiar?). What if one of his stints in rehab had taken hold? What if he'd seen the Light? Could Cobain have served as an example, leading Gen X+ through the rage of its youth into a calmer, more sober, domesticated future? While he gave us a final hint (see below), we will never know. For all his musical genius, Cobain's life was a human tragedy marked by pain, addiction, and depression. Looking back, we can only hope that many who witnessed his rise and fall were inspired to avoid their hero's fate. The Music must be separated from the Man; we don't have to worship the latter to admire the former.  

Cobain's finest moment in my view was, ironically, his softest. Less than five months before his death, on November 19, 1993, Nirvana sat down for a session on MTV's Unplugged. Here we get a tantalizing 70 minute view of what may have been. We see a calm, self-assured Cobain, softly playing the music of his own heroes alongside stripped-down versions of his own compositions. The performance opened a window into his soul, and we get a portrait of the artist as a man that aged too fast. We see where a tired Cobain could go musically when the rage burned out and his underlying vulnerability was laid bare. The people in front of him were no longer an inconvenience; he smiled that night; come as you are. At the end of the set, when the time came to put an exclamation point on one of his life's greatest moments, Cobain reached into history. After a short life spent creating the New, he showed us his familiarity with the Old with a haunting version of the American folk standard "Where Did You Sleep Last NIght" (a/k/a "In the Pines").     
My girl, my girl, don't lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night.
It was in that pleading refrain that Cobain found his moment. For a man exhausted by the glare of a spotlight he came into unwittingly and learned quickly to hate, the inquiry resonated at some point far inside his being; a point we'd never know. Was the delicacy of this night a harbinger of things to come? Might Grunge have become Goth Folk, with Cobain leading the charge? We will never know. Instead, we are left to stand in appreciation of what this tortured artist gave us before his candle burned out, too early.     

Friday, March 14, 2014

Album Review - Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City
XL Recordings (2013)

Artistically significant charm is a tough musical bogey. On their third LP, Modern Vampires of the City, New York based indie sensations Vampire Weekend deliver deceptively dense, diverse, yet accessible pop that delights. It's the kind of album that connects with music snobs, English scholars, and teenagers alike; dance music for the contemplative. It's a bold musical vision, fully realized.

The songs bear little relationship to each other, but they nonetheless feel like parts of a cohesive piece. The vibe is intelligent pop, with the sophisticated poetry of Columbia educated lead singer and lyricist Ezra Koenig feeding a philosophical mood. (If Koenig was more focused on sex than philosophy, it would be easy to hear screaming girls in your head.) This from the album opener and mellow morning drive mood music, "Obvious Bicycle":
So keep that list of who to thank in mind.
And don't forget the rich ones who were kind.
Oh you ought to spare your face the razor,
Because no one's gonna spare their time for you.
Why don't you spare their world a traitor,
Take your wager back and leave before you lose. 
The morning of "Bicycle" quickly becomes night, and the dance party begins. If Jim James nailed his own version of Graceland, with a twist of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this would be the near result. Koenig has a background in African music, and it permeates much of the record, especially the superb "Everlasting Arms." His vocal chops match his lyrical prowess. Like James, he knows how to measure his vocal effort, alternately rocking you to sleep or bringing down the house, as the context requires.

As one would expect from Ivy League musicians, inspirations are diverse. "Arms" opens with orchestration before launching us to the African savannah. The album even brings Irish hyper folk into the mix (the Riverdance ready "Worship You"). "Don't Lie" lays gospel organ over a marching band drum roll. 

Intelligent and versatile, VW can weld campfire folk into soaring electronica without sounding contrived. Album highlight "Hannah Hunt" pulls the listener quickly through an initial burst of synthesized chaos into crackling love song serenity...
Our days were long our nights no longer,
Count the seconds, watching hours.
Though we live on the US dollar,
You and me, we got our own sense of time. 
Once a trance is obtained, the listener is ripped momentarily out of it with percussive shots of out-of-nowhere piano and renewed electronic noise. Then, a peaceful drumroll leads immediately back to ... serenity. The song is a model of lyrical quality and restrained texture, delivered in a taught sub 4 minute package. "Hunt" is emblematic of the album's quirky, taut genius. 

As a body of work, Modern Vampires is a bold experiment in intelligent pop, beautifully executed both musically and lyrically. I can't get enough of it. Casual fun should always be this serious; deep art this charming.