Posts Tagged ‘music criticism


Album Review: Ryan Adams – 1989

It seemed like a joke at the time. Ryan Adams, that laconic, slacker alt-country dude, covering an entire Taylor Swift album. He’s a guy known for being “real” – evoking old Springsteen and Tom Petty tunes, essentially – and Swift is known for being “fake,” which is a way for people to denigrate her for having the audacity to try and make lots and lots of money through her music.

Really, it seemed like a joke.

But now here it is, thirteen covers of Swift, as played by Adams and company. And the whole thing is played so straight you might think it actually is a joke.

Back in the early part of the 2000s, it was briefly a thing for white frat bros to release acoustic covers of hip-hop tunes. Their folk-evoking, deadpan readings were supposed to draw out the ironies in the music, the videos juxtaposing upper-class life against songs about being poor. They tried turning a genre into a farce for a cheap, ugly laugh. By and large, these covers were hot garbage, a tasteless joke people forgot about after a year or two.

I feared Adams’ version would be similar: he’d consciously try and draw on Swift’s image as a pop star to get a cheap laugh, the music a knowing wink to those too cool for school, as it were. But here’s the thing: I didn’t get that impression, not once.

I’ll admit I’m only slightly familiar with Ryan Adams. I’ll also admit I’m kind of a fan of Swift; I’ve written a couple of lengthy pieces about her. But regardless, I like this thing. I like how good Swift’s songs sound in the hands of another artist. I like the emotion Adams has poured into his versions, too. I generally like the arrangements, I like the overall vibe and I even like the cover.

The most interesting thing about this record, and the hype cycle surrounding it, involves the duel roles of Swift and Adams. In one corner, Swift is seen as fake because she works with songwriters and producers to fashion her sound. In the other is Adams, a guy who’s seen as authentic because he has the air of doing it all himself. Somehow, in some eyes, he lends Swift’s music an authenticity she could never attain herself.

It’s all a load of horseshit; to those who think her songs weren’t any good, why do they now sound good in Adams’ hands? You can’t polish a turd, but you can polish a gemstone, ya dig?

The most interesting stuff on this record are the moments where Adams sounds the most like his influences. His version of “Welcome to New York” sounds like a Springsteen outtake while “Style” could fit right near early 80s Pete Townshend. If I remember right, Swift said her concept for 1989 was to make music that evoked the year of her birth; Adams’ version sounds like a requiem for the Album Oriented Rock of that decade.

I think my favourite song on the record is Adams’ reading of “Bad Blood.” The original had a lousy video and was arguably the weakest cut on the record, which was a bummer since it’s one of Swift’s meanest songs, a left cross at Katy Perry buried under chants and a cameo by Kendrick Lamar.

But there isn’t really any malice in Adams’ version; instead he comes off sounding like a jilted ex. He’s turned her song into a plea, simply by reversing the gender roles in the song (and to think – he didn’t even have to change any pronouns!). And in it’s own way, it shows that despite the producers and writers Swift works with, she’s still writing country music – and she’s hitting her stride, too.

For the believers, there won’t be any revelations here. I liked Swift’s 1989 a lot and consequently, I like Adams version a lot, too. For the people too cool to like Swift, but like Adams’ indie cred, maybe they’ll swallow some pride and go buy a record with some seagulls on the cover. And maybe some people will find his version a little repetitive; as good as it is, it does occasionally lose focus and it’s minimal rock band arrangements could drag for some listeners.

It may have started as a joke, but after spending an hour with Adams playing Swift’s music, I’m willing to believe a few things:

  • Adams respects Swift’s music
  • Swift’s songwriting is as strong as it’s ever been
  • This version of 1989 is a strong record, saying as much about the former as it does the latter

Rating: 3.5/5


Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Ranters and Crowd PleasersRanters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Why should you or me or anyone at all read a book of rock criticism, especially when it’s filled with stuff about records from 30 years ago or longer, of bands who aren’t around anymore and musicians who aren’t even alive? It’s a good question. Why should anyone read Greil Marcus’ 1992 collection Ranters and Crowd Pleasers (also republished as Inside the Fascist Bathroom)?

It’s tempting to say something about how it putts music in a proper context, like reading a period review would help us get into the mind of that particular place and time. This might be true for some collections, I imagine, but it’s not really why I’m recommending this particular book of Marcus’ criticism.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a history of punk rock, either. Although it’s nominally a book about punk rock, particularly of English punk, and Marcus’ reviews cover a pretty good range of bands, generally a handful of names keep popping up, over and over: The Clash, Gang of Four, The Mekons and Lilliput. At the same time, more than a few seminal American bands fall to the wayside: there’s only a couple mentions of Sonic Youth and Black Flag, while both Husker Du and The Minutemen don’t ever show up at all.

So as a history of punk in the 80s, it only kind of succeeds; books like Our Band Could Be Your Life cover the 80s underground in a better fashion. So why am I recommending Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, then, exactly?

Basically because it’s a collection of criticism about music in the 80s, but is about more than just music. It takes music, ties it into pop culture and examines why this music was so important then, looks to deeper trends in the decade and gets to the core of why some of this music is so powerful and why the decade unfolded as it did.

Continue reading ‘Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus’


Music and Myth in America: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' RollMystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll by Greil Marcus

Rock is the quintessential American music form. Say what you will about jazz, bluegrass and hip-hop, it’s rock that people identify with the US more than any other. It’s one of those assessments that people make not because of the music, or the people who make it, but because of the culture: rock is so tied into what it means to be an American, it’s hard to separate it. Even the Brits try to sound like they’re from the south when they rock out.

In this  series of essays about America, rock music and the cultural history between the two, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is an attempt to place music in the greater context of America and, in particular, American culture. Here he’ll go between Moby Dick to Robbie Robertson to Stagger Lee to Elvis, making the connections one never thought about before and can’t help but see afterward. Don’t worry, it sounds more high-handed than it is and it’s a blast to read to boot.

In a series of essays about bands and musicians – Sly Stone, The Band, Robert Johnson and Elvis, among others – Marcus looks at the roots of music and the traditions between each, tying together disparate elements like Moby Dick and slavery to music’s role in culture. It’s thought provoking and gave me, someone who’s been listening to some of these acts for years, a new angle to look at their output.

One good example is The Band’s second album: Marcus makes the case that their long experience and travels through America, first as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and later for Bob Dylan, gave them the breadth and exposure to America to become commentators on it; only an outsider could write as nuanced a look at the south as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and make it, as Marcus writes, “not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American caries a version of that event within himself.”

Later, Marcus ties together the common elements between the songs on their second album, The Band:

“The shifts between songs finally let us understand that the man who sings King Harvest wants nothing more than to sing a song like Rag Mama Rag; we understand that the voice on Rag Mama Rag is real because it’s been shaped by the terrors of King Harvest and knows a chance to dance them away for what it’s worth.” (pg 57)


In this essay, Marcus makes a great case for this album’s importance: it’s more familiar than their first record, although it lacks a song as iconic as The Weight, and that familiarity comes from the common roots of their music. It’s an album inspired by where we’ve been, looking backwards at a time when music was pushing forwards, coming together as a remarkable synthesis of two. It’s unfortunate that The Band lost the thread shortly after, releasing one good concert film (The Last Waltz), one decent album (Stage Freight) and some forgettable ones before breaking up for good in the mid 70s.

The other essays are just as provoking. In Every Man Is Free, he ties the literature of Los Angeles and the spectre of slavery to the music of Randy Newman (in particular the 1972 album Sail Away). In another, he examines the legend of Stagger Lee’s ties to black culture, and especially how they relate to the music of Sly Stone. To wit:

“On the way to the silent riot Sly shouldered the racial and sexual fantasies of a huge audience and staggered under them, as if he were Staggerlee himself back from the dead to live up to his myth. The images of mastery, style and triumph set forth earlier in Sly’s career reversed themselves; his old politics turned into death, his exuberance into dope, his old music into a soundtrack for a world that didn’t exist. As an artist, Sly used those facts to reverse the great myth itself.” (pg 78)

The heart of Mystery Train is his in-depth look at Elvis, which ties together all the elements of America: he cuts through the bullshit and hype to look at how one man came to represent so much, mean everything to a style of music and almost leave it as quickly – even if he still gave glimpses of his raw power here and there: on Ed Sullivan, on the Comeback Special, in the way he commanded himself on stage, doing so much while doing so little. A nod here, a move there and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Also of note is a giant Notes and Discographies section, which offers a more straightforward history of each act, breaking down their careers and discorgraphies (often with pointed opinions towards them), literature about them and suggestions for further reading. It’s nice to have a reference like this and having a seasoned critic like Marcus not only offer suggestions on where to go for everything (he seems to have an opinion on thousands of records), but what to read and to make it completely readable is a nice bonus.

Rating: 8/10. I read the fourth edition, which means the discography section was a little out of date (it’s since been updated, but I can’t speak to specifics), but it was still a blast. Still, the little things that nagged at me most were in the main text. Recommended for music fans, but I imagine some will find it a little pretentious. Still, there isn’t a better book in it’s vein. And if you’re like me, you’re going to go back and listen to these bands again and again.



A Lost Psychedelic Classic: Spirit’s The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Coming in at the tail end of the psychedelic era, Spirit just managed to slip in to the LA music scene of the late 1960s. They didn’t quite fit into that scene, though: folk rock bands like Buffalo Springfield, Poco and especially The Byrds dominated Los Angeles. There were other acts, too: Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the garage-rock meets folkie band Love and popular hitmakers like The Turtles, The Monkees or Beach Boys. As a band, Spirit was almost too eclectic to fit in with those, even as they incorporated little bits of each into their music.

Formed in 1967, Spirit was Randy California on guitar and vocals, Jay Ferguson on vocals, percussion and keyboards, Mark Andes on bass, John Locke on keyboards and Ed Cassidy, California’s step-dad, on drums. Of them all, Cassidy had the most experience: a jazz drummer by trade, he’d worked with Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderly and Gerry Mulligan before moving to rock. California had some chops too: he played with a young Jimi Hendrix in The Blue Flames. These two would greatly influence the band’s sound: rock, occasionally rollicking into full on into psychedelia, occasionally going full on into jazz.

Spirit had some success with their first three albums. Their debut, self-titled album peaked at 31 on the Billboard charts and 1969’s “The Family that Plays Together” reached 22, mostly on the success of their hit single “I Got A Line On You.” But as 1970 came around, the band was starting to splinter: California’s songwriting had been improving by leaps and bounds – and he wrote their lone big hit – but Furguson wrote the bulk of the band’s material. Their fourth album, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” was the first filled with California’s material.

Over 12 songs, “Twelve Dreams…” loosely works as a concept album, a sci-fi tale about a mad scientist’s wild dreams, but works better as a band trying a little bit of everything and succeeding in nearly all it’s attempts: it’s a band at the peak of it’s powers.

It opens with California’s gentle acoustic playing on “Nuthin’ To Hide,” but before anybody can get too comfortable, the band kicks in with a slick, glam-rocky groove, with California’s crunchy guitar riffs playing off against the keyboards and Ferguson yelling he’s got nothing to hide. It’s with a guitar freakout, horn riffs and yelling. Hey, it was the 60s!

After “Nature’s Way,” a song dominated by loud, booming kettle drums amid folky guitars, is “Animal Zoo.” With it’s bright keyboards, bass solo and poppy feel, it’s a great slice of 60s pop. Here’s a song about being disillusioned with your surroundings. “Gotta get on back to that animal zoo” isn’t the most original idea in the world, but nobody’s ever looked to pop for serious enlightenment. Unlike the first two, this doesn’t rock out exceptionally hard; it’s Ferguson’s first contribution to the album and it certainly shows a difference in his and California’s approach to songwriting.

They pull out all the tricks on “Love Has Found A Way,” a song that manages to feature backward guitars, a marimba, bongos and lyrics like “Children reaching for a hand / Soldiers killing at every command,” without sounding like an acid casualty. Why hasn’t this song been on a “Nuggets” complilation?

Maybe the best song on the album, and one of the more memorable songs Spirit ever recorded, is “Mr. Skin,” a song about Cassidy’s shaved head (legend has it Ferguson walked in on him with a groupie and saw nothing but skin; “Mr. Skin, you know where you’ve been,” sings Ferguson). It’s a slinky, funky track for the band, again dominated by horns and an organ, lending it a jazzy feel (and that’s before the saxophone solo). Don’t let that fool you, though: this is the catchiest thing on the album and actually became a hit years after the album’s release, cracking the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. Is there a little Zappa influence here? Or is it a sly nod to Cassidy’s jazz experience?

Kicking off side two is the jazzy instrumental track “Space Child.” A breezy, light track with a prominent lead synth, which is just lo-tech enough to sound like something out of a 50s sci-fi flick and combined with tinkling piano and Cassidy’s full-on jazz drumming (listen to his drum rolls at the end!) gives it a weird, experimental air.

This strange feeling permeates through side two: California’s guitars ring loud on “When I Touch You,” another track that shows these guys were just a couple years ahead of their time: the way this builds up with synth lines and raging guitars would have been right at home among glam rock bands like T-Rex. Later they tackle folk rock (“Life Has Just Begun”), more psychedelic pop (“Street Worm”) before moving to the piano-led, California-written ballad “Soldier,” closing the album on a slow note: “You have the world at your fingertips / No one can make it better than you,” sings Ferguson over what sounds like a church organ.

A word has to be said about the production of this album: here, Spirit turned to David Briggs on the advice of Neil Young. He’d just come off working with Young on two classics: “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “After the Gold Rush,” where he captured Young’s ragged, raw live sound (just compare them to “Harvest,” an equally good album but one polished and shiny like a showroom car). Here, he pushed Spirit into their best release: they go from genre to genre, sometimes even in the same song, and pull it off in almost every song. Even Robert Christgau, who didn’t care much for this album, gave them props.

This would be a high-water mark for the group: by 1972, both principal songwriters had left the group and Spirit more or less broke up for a few years. They’d reform, mostly with California, Cassidy and hired hands, for a spell in the late 70s, adding Ferguson for a couple tours in the 1980s. The reunions and touring came to a sudden end in 1997, when California drowned while rescuing his son in Hawaii. Keyboardist John Locke died in 2006.

The other members of Spirit are still active in music: Andes is still playing bass and released a solo album a few years back, while Cassidy was still drumming in 2010 and Ferguson now plies his trade as a composer of soundtracks.

Altogether, through it’s various incarnations and posthumous releases, Spirit released close to 30 albums. Most of these can be ignored, though. They weren’t at their best for long, but with “Twelve Dreams” they at top form and left one of the great albums from acid rock scene. This album might have a difficult repuation in some circles, but it’s not a hard album to get into. Just cue it up, maybe pretend it’s 1970 again and wonder just how these guys never quite achieved the fame a lot of lesser LA bands did.

Originally published at, Sept. 23, 2012