Posts Tagged ‘rock


When A Reunion Isn’t: Pixies – Indie Cindy

1. Let’s start with what this isn’t. This isn’t the Pixies band you loved as a teenager. This isn’t even the same band that played Monkey Gone to Heaven back on Letterman maybe a decade ago. This is Pixies, yes, but this isn’t the same Pixies, the same as The Rolling Stones who did Steel Wheels aren’t the same Stones who did Exile on Main Street.

That Pixies, the one everyone more or less loves, is gone and has been for a long time. It wasn’t even there when Pixies released their last full length, back in the early 90s: Tromp le Monde was a Frank Black solo album where he’s backed by David Lovering, Joey Santiago and Kim Deal.

The Pixies everyone loves was really only a band for a couple of albums: Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, maybe Bossanova if you’re feeling generous. It was a band, full stop. Both Black and Deal wrote the songs; both their voices and influences shaped the band’s music. You couldn’t have the thrashing, abrasive Something Against You without the catchy, driving Gigantic as a counterweight. At their best, Pixies was a band of contrasting sounds and when everything clicked, they were as good as anyone ever.

2. That Pixies died when Black and Deal stopped working together. On their first two albums, Deal only wrote one song on each and sings lead on just a handful of tunes, but you can feel her presence all over the records, from her spoken intro on I’m Amazed, the shouting on Tony’s Theme and her vocals all over nearly everything.

But by their last album, Deal was barely there. That could be her playing bass on U-Mass, but it could just as well be Santiago or Black. On Alec Eiffel, Black’s singing his own backup vocals – not Deal. In this sense, Trompe le Monde has more in common with albums like Teenager of the Year or Frank Black than it does Surfer Rosa.

You can just about draw a neat line between Teenager and Deal’s first album with The Breeders: hers is poppier, Black’s is spikey. Deal’s Cannonball is catchy and fun alt-rock tune where Black’s Los Angeles is driving and propulsive.

About a decade later, they got back together and started touring. I remember taping an episode of Austin City Limits where they (and Guided by Voices!) played a set. It wasn’t revelatory in any sense, but it was cool to see a band I liked and thought was forever finished get back together. Some friends of mine saw them live and had similar reactions: it was cool to see them live, but it wasn’t life changing. It was just cool.

3. Late last year Pixies released an EP on their website. I remember it coming out of the blue: they’d released a single called Bagboy I didn’t think much of, but that was it. Critically, it tanked: in a body slam of a review, Pitchfork called it a soon-to-be-forgotten chapter in the band’s history.

God bless ‘em, though: they followed with another EP a few months later, which got slightly better reviews. And now they’ve followed with a full-length, mostly compiled from those EPs, the Bagboy single and some other loose cuts.

As I noted in my review of the first EP, this record has more in common with Black’s solo albums than any previous Pixies record. This makes sense when you think about it: even after Pixies got back together, Black continued releasing material as a solo artist. He’s not the same guy he was in 1991, so it makes sense his new material doesn’t sound like something he wrote over two decades ago.

And it makes sense for Black to write and release new material with a reformed Pixies. Why hire and rehearse a new backing band in the moments between Pixies gigs when he can just work with the same musicians he’s been working with for nearly 30 years? He knows what they can and can’t do; on the EPs, they’ve been hashing the songs out together, working on how riffs should sound, where the drum fills go.
Except it’s not really the same band. Deal’s long gone, having quit around the time they started working on new material. So is her replacement, Kim Shattuck. Black seems to have a specific idea in mind for a bass player – a woman who can sing some backup, maybe one of Deal’s songs – and when they don’t fit into what he wants, they go.

In his memoir, Waging Heavy Music, Neil Young wrote about the need for making changes in his bands: “It hurts to be honest, but the muse has no conscience. If you do it for the music… everything else is secondary.” I imagine Black would agree (and after all, he’s released a couple Young covers over the years).

4.  Part of the negative reaction to the two EPs and this new full-length is pedigree: they’re Pixies albums and I loved Surfer Rosa/Bossanova/Doolittle but these EPs don’t sound like the band I loved. Therefore, they must be awful: they’re ruining my memory of a band.

But what if they had a different name? If Indie Cindy and the two EPs weren’t released by Pixies, would they get better press? That goes to the above point: the 2014 Pixies aren’t the same as the 1988 Pixies. It’s largely a matter of semantics, but it goes to the negative reaction, too. Just about every negative review has the same subtext: doesn’t it suck when your favourite band gets back together?

I know where they’re coming from, but I think it’s a little misguided. Yes, these new tracks don’t sound like old Pixies, but they didn’t come from the same band, either. It’s not like Blacks and Greens was found on an old build reel left behind at Fort Apache Studios; this is something coming from a different person, a different band.

The new songs aren’t bad, although I’ll be the first to admit they aren’t great either. Some of the new tunes fall flat: Bagboy’s a pile of hot trash and Andro Queen doesn’t do much for me, either: too much reverb.

But some of them are pretty decent: Blue Eyed Hexe has great, loud guitar riffs and Black shouting himself horse over a stomping beat while What Goes Boom has a good loud-quiet dynamic, with Santiago’s guitar giving it the music a nervous edge Black’s been missing for years.

5. The thing is, they don’t sound like Pixies. The brutal beat and shredding guitars of Hexe reminded me of Bone Machine, one of my favourite tunes. But jumping A-to-B is jarring: the guitars are sludgier, Black’s singing more furious than ever but it’s missing Deal’s backing vocals.

It’s not just there, either. All throughout this record, Deal’s absence makes her more felt than ever. You never really think about all the times she harmonized with Black, about her poppy basslines until they’re not there. On this new record, the songs are all okay – but they all feel like they’re missing something, like they’re a step or two removed from sounding like the real Pixies.

And it all comes down to who’s not there. And who is: Frank Black, whose fingerprints are all over the thing. When I hear a song like Greens and Blues my first thought is something like “this is a nice change of pace from Hexe” and maybe something about the guitar. The third or fourth time around, I just think about how much better it would’ve sounded with Deal singing on the chorus.

As a record, I think the new Pixies make some good music. I listen to a lot of it these days and when it’s good, I prefer it to most of the new stuff I’ve heard this year. When it’s bad, it’s as forgettable as last year’s album by Rainbow Chan. I think it’s generally more good than bad, but I recognize it’s a minority opinion.

6. Another 80s band I enjoy is Japan; Tin Drum is a killer album of moody, percussion-heavy new wave. There isn’t too much else like it, maybe because the band was already falling apart as it came together. A short while after it’s release, Japan split up.

When they got back together a few years later, they released a one-off album as Rain Tree Crow. It’s not as good as their earlier work, but it’s not the same music either. There was a different approach to writing and performing it, so David Sylvian and company chose a different name.

I think there’s a lesson there for Black, Santiago and Lovering. It’s not that their new music is bad, it’s that it doesn’t really fit in with the canon. Critics can’t divorce their past with the band when looking at the new music. And as a result, it pales in comparison, as does everything else when compared to the fun new music we discovered as a teenager. I don’t think making music under a different name would solve all their problems and it’d probably hurt their appeal at the gate, not to mention with casual buyers, but I bet it’d give them better ratings, too.


Mean Old Man: Hellfire – Nick Tosches

Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis storyHellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis story by Nick Tosches

A fiery, energetic look at the first half of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life and career, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire is a great read. It covers way more than just The Killer, starting deep down the line of the Lewis family, at the harsh Louisiana landscape and the even-harsher Pentecostal religion with formed and shaped the inherent contradictions in Lewis.

As Tosches makes clear, inside Lewis has a tortured soul: he was raised in a strict religious upbringing, nearly became a preacher and rose to prominence as a hard rocking piano player, singing songs about screwing, getting drunk and raising a ruckus. On a very visceral level, Lewis’ music is pounding rock and roll, what he himself would call Devil’s Music. But when things go bad, Lewis retreats into religion, recording gospel and preaching to whomever will listen. And, almost as suddenly, he’ll show up on stage in shades and start banging out Great Balls of Fire and the wheel turns again.

There is a lot of supposition here and frequent, sudden changes of scenery as Lewis descends into addiction. But what makes Tosches’ book stand out is his forceful prose, it’s biblical echoes and allusions to fire and brimstone. This is a book where a reference to Jezebel being eaten by dogs is alongside a passing reference to Billboard’s C&W charts. Like Lewis himself, it teeters back and forth and reads like no other musical biography I’ve read.

Inside is a lot of information about Lewis, his troubled marriages, the death of his two sons and the depths of his drug and booze addictions. It’s often countered with looks at his first cousin, the preacher Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who learned to play music on the very same piano but who went in a totally different direction.

The spectre of religion haunts Lewis and his music. Just listen to the shouting match between him and Sam Phillips from a 1957 recording session. Just listen to the bombastic quotes Lewis gives every so often about dragging his audience to hell. Just listen to his albums and how he switches back and forth from gospel to rock to country and back again. As Tosches makes crystal clear, he’s a troubled man.

And yet, he’s also trouble, man. Reading about all the insanity of Lewis’ life – the addictions, shooting a band member, losing everything to the IRS and having his career collapse on him more than few times – it’s hard to believe he made alive even to the end of this book. He barely made it, nearly dying in 1981, but he did. And somehow, the story’s gotten even weirder: just read this Richard Ben Cramer story about the death of his fifth wife.

As of this writing, he continues still, having evolved into something of an elder statesman of Rock; just a couple of years ago, he released an album called Mean Old Man. I’m glad he has a sense of humour about it all, but I still can’t think of a musician I’d want to hang out with less.

Rating: 8/10. As a book about Lewis, it’s a little dated, stopping when he turns 45. But as a biography, it’s first-rate, capturing not only Lewis, but the world that produced a unique force in music. Recommended.


The Time Meloy Was Menacing

A few days ago over at Stereogum, that home of lists, listicles and slideshows, there was a piece about the top ten Decemberists songs. One assumes the list comes as the steady stream of Top Ten of Whomever well begins to dry up, since it’s not like those people were ever especially popular with anyone who didn’t own cardigans.

Me? I own a cardigan and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for some of their music. I won’t defend how overly-wordy Colin Meloy gets and I’ll admit I think The King is Dead is hot trash, to my ears sounding derivative of R.E.M. but without any of the fun. And that’s probably the one Decemberists album anyone knows. It’s certainly the only time I’ve heard them on the radio.

The list is, as lists usually are, completely wrong. I’m not going to bore you by listing my personal top ten – I don’t even think I have one – but I’ll point out a glaring omission: The Rake’s Song, off 2009’s The Hazards of Love. That album’s a bit of a mess, too, but for about three minutes, Meloy managed to pull off the near impossible: sound menacing.

Told in the first person, The Rake’s Song is a gothic fiction along the lines of Wapole’s Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udelpho. The narrator gets married young to a lady he wants to fuck; a rake was a person who used to sleep around with unmarried women. “No more a rake and no more a batchelor,” he says, more concerned with his social standing than anything resembling a relationship. It’s worth noting he never once actually describes his bride, let alone gives her a name.

Almost immediately, the wife starts having kids, or as the narrator puts it, “her womb started spitting out babies,” spoken with a sense of disgust. He was probably a shitty husband, barely remembering anything about his kids (only the first gets any kind of identifying figure) and doesn’t seem too torn up when his wife dies in childbirth. Hell, for him it’s an excuse to start all over again: “All that I wanted was the freedom of a new life / So my burden I began to divest.”

He goes on a brutal child-killing spree, poisoning one, drowning another. When his oldest resists, he burns him alive. He punctuates each act of murder with a shout of Alright! and speaks in a tone like you or I would talk about the weather. By song’s end, the husband’s killed off his family and is living “easy and free,” unbothered by his crimes.

On the album, a concept album, Meloy’s written something of an overwrought story. The Rake’s the villain and (spoiler!) his children come back as ghosts and blah blah, nobody really cares. Christgau said it best when he said “His plot is so preposterous and unempathetic it’s more the appearance of a plot, or an elaborate joke about a plot.” But the failings of that album are beside the point here: for once in his career, Meloy – the tweedy, professorial-looking wordsmith of indie rock – was able to finally hide behind one of his songs. The Rake’s Song was three minutes of menace, the casual boasting of a serial killer. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from Tom Waits or The Band, not the guy who sang a love song about Valerie Plame.

How it didn’t make the list is beyond me; it’s certainly the only song I’d want to hear Waits cover. And if that’s not a measure for a Top Ten Songs list, I dunno what is.


Just Another Boy From Tupelo: Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

My mom’s a big Elvis fan, which means I’ve heard his music more or less forever. Hell, she once had an Elvis impersonator she was a fan of over for dinner. Then again, my hometown’s big into this scene, too. Growing up, there was a 50s rock festival every summer. A few towns over, there’s an annual Elvis festival. It was hard not to get tired of his music growing up.

But it’s hard not to be curious about the man, too: he’s so iconic in music, it’s impossible not to be aware of his shadow. There are tons of quickie, scandal-ridden biographies, the depictions of him as a pill-addled maniac in popular culture, even the iconic photo of him shaking hands with Nixon. By the time I got around to this book, I figured I already knew everything I needed to about Elvis: he got famous back in the day, made some movies, got fat, hooked on drugs and died. And as Peter Guralnick shows in the first volume of his two-part biography of Elvis, I was completely wrong.

In some ways, I’m surprised a book like this hadn’t been written before: a straight telling of Elvis’ life, cutting through the bullshit with an objective viewpoint, while still remaining sympathetic to the man himself. In other words: a book about Elvis, the world he lived in and how each influenced the other. Not about the idle gossip or rumours.

Here, Guralnick cuts right to the roots of Elvis, looking at him before he was famous, driving a truck for an electrical company and hanging out at Sun Records, looking for a recording gig. It’s a fascinating read: we see Elvis living in the projects, barely making it through school and working hard for a living. Throughout this book, this Elvis is always right at the shadows; even as his fame went through the roof and he bought Graceland, he still realized where he came from and was appreciative of his fans, going out and signing autographs and taking pictures. It’s a cliché to say celebrities love their fans, but at this point in his career, Guralnick makes a point of showing Elvis really did: on a regular basis, he’d go out to sign autographs for fans and press some flesh.

The musical side of his life is also illuminated. I have memories of Elvis as a singer who danced around, but there was more to him than that. He had rudimentary guitar skills, played some piano and learned songs after just a few listens. While he served something of an apprenticeship from Sam Phillips at Sun Records, he was always a driven, determined musician who was going to make it, one way or another. When Guralnick writes of the many sessions Elvis had, it becomes clear that Elvis was always a perfectionist, demanding take after take, sometimes radically altering the song in the studio until it sounded the way he wanted it to.

Just as interesting is the supporting cast: Gladys, his worrisome mother (who Elvis was utterly devoted to); his moody, jaded dad Vernon; Dixie Locke, the woman he nearly married right before finding success and remained close to, even after they separated; the eccentric DJ Dewey Phillips, whose show inspired Elvis and helped popularize his music; and of course, Tom “Colonel” Parker, the smart, shrewd and ruthless promoter who all but turned Elvis into a rock star and then into an industry.

Rating: 9/10. Music biographies don’t come better than this and I can’t wait to read the second volume. Recommended for rock fans, especially if you think you already know everything there is to know about Elvis; you don’t, not even close.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: cool as all hell

We’re joined today by an old friend and new voice to the blog, Philip DeSouza. He can currently be found working at an all-vegan fried tofu and korean BBQ food truck somewhere north of the Danforth.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is cool as all hell. They’re awesome. smart folks who know rock. Look at this year’s entries: the Beastie Boys and Guns n Roses. That’s not just an awesome double bill, that’s something that Chuck Klosterman will froth at the mouth over as he ironically listens to a Whitensnake album and drinks Mountain Dew cut with SoCo. It’s got me so fuckin’ stocked I just can’t handle it, man. It’s so cool because it’s the worst choices they could have literally made, which is exactly the kind of thing I expect from old rock critics.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an idea spat out of Jann Wenner’s brain. That’s a name from back in the 70s, when he edited Rolling Stone, a thing people actually read; it’s best remembered now as a place where Hunter Thompson wrote 15,000 word pieces people actually pretended to care about and called gonzo, as in what happens to your afternoon when you try to read them. Wenner created a magazine so cool, so in touch with the kids that he fired Lester Bangs for not being respectful to the friendly cool people whose music the magazine liked to award three or four stars to. It was, and probably still is, an industry mag, filled with tepid reviews of mainstream stuff eaten up at the mall. Not the cool one with the pawn shop and bootleg DVD place, the boring one with a Gap and Orange Julius.

That mall’s parking lot is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame’s a monument to something undefined, curated by people who want to please everybody and attended by people who want to gawk and take pictures. Is the Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right To Party more important than everything Public Enemy, Notorious BIG or NWA did, combined? Must be, since the Beasties are in and all those black artists aren’t. Is Donovan more important than Gram Parsons, who only mixed country and rock, creating a path that everyone from the Stones to Wilco went down? Guess Mello Yellow means more in rock history.

And what about Guns and Roses, a band led by a guitar player who wears ugly hats and a singer who wears blatantly fake hair? What did they do, besides play guitar on top of a piano and welcome you to the jungle?

Do you need monuments to famous rockers? Do you need a statue to remind you that Hendrix’s solo at Woodstock was like such a moment, man, that I just get dizzy thinking about it? Do you need a plaque to remind you of all the times you got high as hell and listened to Live/Dead and could just feel Garcia’s solo man… take me just a little bit higher Jerry, I can almost touch it…

No, you don’t. Rock is music, it’s not fucking academics. Rock is music made to be listened to, not taken apart and broken down like poetry. The best music was, and still is, made by sleazy people who don’t really care about stuff other than music. Want to hear a legacy? Listen to Elvis Presley, who still has a festival up in the sticks. Want some rock? Listen to Ron Asheton and Iggy.