Sunday, February 22, 2015

CD Review: Steve Earle & the Dukes' Terraplane

Steve Earle's Terraplane
For much of the first decade of his career, Americana legend Steve Earle was running around in circles. Too much the square-peg rock ‘n’ roll gypsy to fit easily into the round holes of Nashville’s Music Row machine, Earle was also deemed too rawboned country for the bi-coastal big-city intelligentsia who didn’t buy into the notion of the Music City as the “third coast.”

Earle made a lot of damn fine music through the 1980s, though, albums like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road providing inspiration and a veritable roadmap for like-minded twang ‘n’ bang fellow travelers like the Bottle Rockets, Slobberbone, and the Drive-By Truckers, among many others, to embroider with their own personal sound, hopes, and dreams. For Earle, however, his influence on a younger generation of roots-rock rebels was moot; between women, drugs, jail, record label woes, and the rigors of the road, the talented singer/songwriter easily lost a half-decade of his career.    

Steve Earle’s Terraplane

Suffice it to say, Earle has paid his dues and earned the right to sing the blues, which he does quite nicely on Terraplane, his 16th album and a rock-solid set by one of the great songwriting talents of our generation. Taking his album title from the 1930s-era car made by the Hudson Motor Car Company that inspired Delta blues legend Robert Johnson to write his song “Terraplane Blues,” Earle’s Terraplane is no mere collection of classic blues covers, but rather an ambitious, entirely original slate of songs inspired by giants like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, and the Vaughan Brothers, who all influenced Earle’s sound as well as his storytelling in one manner or another.

Opening with a blast of Earle’s jaunty harmonica riffing, “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” is an old-school styled romp, a shuffling trifle of a song that is notable mostly for Earle’s drawling Texas patois, and the sly rhythm put down by his backing band the Dukes. The song sounds like a late-hour jam at Antone’s, erudite lyrics are less in demand than a strong groove and a midnight vibe. “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had” is more like vintage Earle, poetic lyrics and no little emotion paired with dusky, droning fretwork and a low-slung rhythm reminiscent of both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi’s R.L. Burnside.

The Tennessee Kid

Menace hangs from the words of “The Tennessee Kid” like kudzu from a cypress tree, Earle delivering an intelligent, entertaining updating of the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” myth. Earle’s rapid-fire vocals spit out the lyrics above a dark-hued, malevolent soundtrack, shards of electric guitar punctuating the swampy fever-fog on occasion, the entire performance displaying a certain devilish inspiration that leads to the inevitable conclusion that “the balance comes due someday.” By contrast, while “The Tennessee Kid” is firmly mired in the mud of the Mississippi Delta, “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” is a Piedmont blues-inspired ditty more akin to Blind Blake than Blind Lemon Jefferson, Earle’s vocals even taking on more of a Georgia accent than that of his native Texas, delivered alongside some sublime six-string pickin’.

Bluesman Steve EarleEarle’s “Go Go Boots Are Back” could have easily fit on one of his early albums, the song a breathless amalgam of alt-country twang and bluesy rock with subdued vocals and fierce guitar licks delivered above a steady percussive rhythm. With a wink and a nod, the song’s well-constructed lyrics slyly deliver the message of history repeating itself with. Earle’s arrangement – echoing a sound he’d long since abandoned (or refined, perhaps) – is an unconscious choice that nevertheless drives his lyrical point home with no misinterpretation.

Whereas “Gamblin’ Blues” provides an insightful glimpse into the hard-luck life of the ramblin’, gamblin’ man, delivered perfectly with spry Piedmont-style guitar strum, the album-closing “King of the Blues” is a near pitch-perfect representation of the genre’s themes and mythology. From the protagonist’s divine birth and the evocation of “John the Conqueroo” to Earle’s raw, gritty vocals, his down ‘n’ dirty git licks, and the smothering, claustrophobic ambiance of the instrumentation, it’s a howling, growling result of a nearly a century of blues music. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For any misguided soul who believes that the blues and country music are worlds apart from one another, I suggest that you give a listen to some of Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings from the 1920s or Hank Williams’ sides from the ‘40s. Blues is the father to the entirety of American music, and in few places is this tradition stronger than in the state of Texas. Steve Earle's Terraplane just represents the latest fraternization between blues and country, a long and respected tradition that began, perhaps, with Blind Lemon Jefferson and runs in a line through Sam Hopkins to Bill Neely to Townes Van Zandt and beyond to Earle and even his son Justin.

Earle’s Terraplane offers up all that the singer’s fans have come to expect – whipsmart lyrics and storytelling; the singer’s immense charisma; and well-constructed, skillfully-performed, often adventuresome music. Earle has always drawn from the whole spice rack of Americana in creating his own unique musical gumbo; this time around he just throws a bit more blues flavor into the pot. If you’re a longtime fan, don’t be scared off by the “this is Steve Earle’s blues album” hype or, if you’re a blues fan, don’t ignore this one because of any preconceived notions you may have of Earle. No matter what you want to call it, Terraplane is one damn fine collection of roots ‘n’ blues music. Grade: A (New West Records, released February 17, 2015)

Buy the CD from Steve Earle's Terraplane


Friday, February 20, 2015

The Pretty Things’ Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky Box

The Pretty Things’ Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky
This is one that hasn’t gotten a lot of press from the mainstream music rags, so we thought we’d shed a little light on a mighty fine box set comin’ your way – The Pretty ThingsBouquets From A Cloudy Sky. The legendary rockers are getting the full deluxe treatment in commemoration of the band’s 50th anniversary, and it’s only gonna set you back around $200 (if you buy the box from the good folks at Ugly Things zine).

“So,” you ask hesitantly, “what do I get for my pair of hunnies?” Bouquets was produced with the Pretty Things’ approval and input, and features all eleven of the band’s studio albums, including 2007’s often-overlooked Balboa Island, all packaged in gatefold digi-sleeves and including a whopping 42 bonus tracks. Two additional “rarities” discs offer up 45 previously-unreleased demos, alternate takes, live recordings, and outtakes while two DVDs feature a new documentary, Midnight To Six 1965-1970, plus S.F. Sorrow Live at Abbey Road, additional videos, and band interviews.

The Bouquets box also includes a 10” replica acetate that features the full-length demo for “Defecting Grey,” the studio version of “Turn My Head,” plus a pair of previously unreleased Pretty Things songs. Throw in an illustrated 100-page hardback book with a comprehensive Pretty Things history written by musician/music historian Mike Stax of Ugly Things (who named his zine after the band and knows from whence he speaks on all things ‘Pretty’), plus lots of rare photos and a complete band “family tree.”

You’ll even a “court case history” with excerpts from the legal files compiled by the band in their fight to regain the rights to their master recordings and songs. The box finishes up with an art print by singer Phil May; one lucky Pretty Things’ fan will find the original copy of the print, which has been randomly placed in one of the boxes. Overall, Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky has everything a collector or new fan might desire, and the box will be limited to 2,000 copies only.

The Pretty Things' Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky

The Pretty Things were formed in London in 1963 by guitarist Dick Taylor (who was the original Rolling Stones bassist) and singer Phil May, along with rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton, bassist John Stax, and drummer Pete Kitley. The band would run through various members through the years, including notorious drummer Viv Prince, Twink (from the Pink Fairies), and Jack Green (from T.Rex), and Taylor would leave the band in 1969. But they scored hits with their first three singles – “Rosalyn,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and “Honey I Need,” and the band’s self-titled 1965 debut rose to number six on the U.K. charts before subsequent efforts experienced diminishing commercial returns.

The Pretty Things never scored a hit stateside, but they’ve had a loyal following that has only grown through the years, partially because of Mike Stax’s proselytizing on their behalf. The band has a musical legacy as strong as any of their peers, however, and stronger than most bands from the era. Their 1965 debut is an undisputed classic of British blues-rock; their conceptual 1968 album S.F. Sorrow is widely considered one of a handful of essential psychedelic-rock albums; and several of their 1970s-era recordings – Parachute (1970), Silk Torpedo (1974), and Savage Eye (1976) – earned significant critical acclaim even while selling only moderately.

If you’re a classic rock aficionado unfamiliar with the charms of the Pretty Things, Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky is a great way to get up to snuff!  

CD Preview: Van Der Graaf Generator’s Merlin Atmos

Van der Graaf Generator's Merlin Atmos
British progressive-rock legends Van der Graaf Generator recently released a new live album titled Merlin Atmos, the limited-edition two-disc set recorded in 2013 and released by the U.K. label Esoteric Antenna. For long-suffering fans of the band, their prayers have been answered, as the album features the first live performances of the popular Generator songs “Flight” and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.”

A bit of band back story: since reuniting in 2005, Van Der Graaf Generator has released a number (four, actually) of critically-acclaimed albums featuring long-time members Peter Hammill (vocals & guitar), Hugh Banton (bass & keyboards), and Guy Evans (drums & percussion), including their reunion album Present, cited by Classic Rock magazine as one of the ten essential prog-rock albums of the decade. In June 2013, the trio performed a series of live concerts that featured a set list of rarely-performed album tracks like the sprawling 23-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” from the band’s 1971 album Pawn Hearts, which had never been played in its entirety on stage.

Hammill’s solo track “Flight” is another such song, a 19-minute epic from the guitarist’s 1980 solo album A Black Box. Together, these two rare album tracks became the heart of the band’s live performances, which also drew upon classic songs from past albums as well as from newer recordings like 2011’s A Grounding In Numbers. Several of these shows were recorded and compiled to create Merlin Atmos, a solid work from a still-innovative and exciting band. The limited-edition two-disc digipack edition also includes an additional 70-minute CD of extras recorded during the 2013 European tour.

“The most important thing to note and/or get across about Merlin Atmos is the fact that we played both the long-form pieces 'Flight' and 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', says Hammill in a press release for the new album. “The former, of course, had been in the repertoire since the last North American Tour. The latter had only ever been played live once before, as far as we remember, back in the seventies. It was a pretty major commitment to say we'd be doing it even before we'd actually rehearsed together. We were also, of course, doing it as a trio whereas the original recorded version was as a quartet with David Jackson. It took quite a bit of work to make it stage-worthy! I suppose the mere fact that the record is being released proves that we were pretty satisfied with our efforts in the end!”

Van der Graaf Generator was formed in 1967 by Hammill and Chris Judge Smith, who would leave the band a year later. The band was the first act signed by the legendary Charisma Records label, releasing their debut album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, in 1969. The band would shuffle through various line-ups and even break up on occasion before settling into a roster that included Hammill, Banton, Evans, and saxophonist David Jackson.

Van der Graaf Generator would release eight albums until they broke-up one last time in 1977, including such critically-acclaimed recordings as Pawn Hearts and 1976’s Still Life. While the band found very little commercial success outside of Italy (where they were curiously popular), their immense musical legacy has endured, influencing artists like Rush, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Julian Cope, John Lydon of Public Image Ltd, and Marillion, among many others.

Merlin Atmos track listing:

Disc One
1. Flight
2. Lifetime
3. All That Before
4. Bunsho
5. A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
6. Gog

Disc Two
1. Interference Patterns
2. Over The Hill
3. Your Time Starts Now
4. Scorched Earth
5. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
6. Man-Erg
7. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End

Buy the CD from Van der Graaf Generator's Merlin Atmos

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dave Cloud, Nashville’s Own Captain Beefheart, R.I.P.

Nashville's Dave Cloud
The Nashville Scene has reported that singer and songwriter Dave Cloud passed away on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 after a short illness. Cloud, 58 years old and a long-time fixture on the Nashville rock scene, had been admitted to Centennial Medical Center on Monday for complications from melanoma. He died quietly on Wednesday night after being taken off of life support.

A musical shaman that blazed his own trail and refused to dance to the beat of any other drummer than his own unique vision, Cloud was a dogged pursuer of truth, rock ‘n’ roll, and cheap thrills. He appeared on the local non-country music scene in 1979 as one of the first generation of original rockers, along with folks like Dave Olney and the White Animals, at first performing a sort of loud punk rock that he would later incorporate into a broader shambolic sound. He performed in many area clubs through the years, including the legendary Lucy’s Record Shop, but he primarily held court at Springwater Supper Club & Lounge, a dive bar located near Nashville’s Centennial Park, performing there several nights a week for over 20 years.

The only thing you knew for sure that you’d get from a performance by Dave Cloud and the Gospel of Power was a damn good time. Once described by the Nashville Scene as a “perverse cross between Neil Diamond and Tom Waits,” Cloud was just as likely to break into rock or soul covers from the 1960s and ‘70s on stage as he would his own brilliant original material; karaoke was another possibility, Cloud applying his sonorous pipes to pop classics. His charisma and talent would, in turn, attract other talents, and through the years the Gospel of Power featured veteran musicians from local bands like Lone Official, Lambchop, Silver Jews, and Trauma Team.   

Dave Cloud's Pleasure Before BusinessDuring the day, Cloud worked as a volunteer book reader for the visually impaired, and since 1984 he had reportedly recorded thousands of hours of audio books and magazines for the Nashville Talking Library. Aside from his long-standing music gig, Cloud also appeared in several films and music videos, including a pair of director Harmony Korine’s films, Gummo and Trash Humpers, and the 2005 music video for Bobby Bare’s “Are You Sincere.” Bassist Matt Swanson produced Cloud’s first two albums – Songs I Will Always Sing (1999) and All My Best (2004) – which brought the singer to the attention of London’s Fire Records.

The label signed Cloud and released Napoleon of Temperance, a two-disc compilation of Cloud’s first two albums, in 2006, subsequently bringing Cloud and the Gospel of Power overseas for the first of their two British tours. Three more albums would be released by Fire – 2008’s Pleasure Before Business, 2011’s Practice In The Milky Way, and 2012’s Live At Gonerfest – as well as the six-song Fever EP in 2009.   

Dave Cloud's All My BestThe Stool Pigeon music magazine in the U.K. wrote of Cloud, “fans of Lambchop or Be Your Own Pet will know that Nashville is a city split into two halves: the cowboy-hat-sporting, Clint Black-loving, yee-haw!, corporate country half and the other half, where bands exactly like Lambchop or Be Your Own Pet thrive in perfect opposition. Somehow, though, there’s a third half where Lambchop or Be Your Own Pet go when they’re bored of being the alternative and pine for something that makes them look like the mainstream. It’s dark over there in that third half but it has a radiant king. His name is Dave Cloud, garage rock lounge lizard extraordinaire, a legend in his own lunchbreak from reading books to the blind, and now the unexpected new face of Budweiser.* All women love him – they “luxuriate” in his masculinity – and all men fear him.”

Writer Phil Hebblethwaite summed up Cloud’s career perfectly – he was Nashville’s own Captain Beefheart, a unique and extraordinary talent who worked primarily in the garage-rock genre to re-define the meaning of popular music altogether. While not as well known an American cult artist as Roky Erickson or Vic Chestnut, Cloud’s legacy nevertheless lives on in his albums, on YouTube, and in the hearts of fans worldwide that he earned performing one sweaty, discordant, entertaining rock ‘n’ roll show at a time.   

* In one of those odd occurrences of cosmic irony, Dave was featured in a Budweiser TV and print ad campaign in the U.K.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Light In The Attic Releases 13th Floor Elevators Singles Collection

The Complete 13th Floor Elevators IA Singles Collection
Light In The Attic is dipping its toe deep into the psychedelic waters with the upcoming release of The Complete 13th Floor Elevators IA Singles Collection. Not much ambiguity in that title, really…the box set features eight glorious slabs o’ beautiful 7” black vinyl featuring sixteen essential classic tunes from the band that represents the alpha and omega of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll. All of these songs were released by the legendary Texas-based International Artists label, and aside from the enduring hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the set also includes the original (and different) version of the song as released by the Spades, the band that came before the Elevators, and a single so rare that it easily fetches a couple thousand simoleons whenever it comes up for sale.

The 13th Floor Elevators were formed in Austin, Texas in 1965 by singer/guitarist Roky Erickson, electric jug player Tommy Hall, and guitarist Stacy Sutherland. The band existed for but a short time – roughly four years from 1965 through ’69 – and released four albums and seven singles for International Artists, More important than the band’s brief tenure and meager recorded output is their role as one of, if not the first psychedelic rock band, lysergic-fringed musical pioneers whose influence touched artists as diverse as ZZ Top, Big Brother & the Holding Company (both with and without Janis Joplin), REM, Television, Zakary Thaks, and many others.

The band’s debut 45, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was a re-recording of one of Erickson’s songs with the Spades, the single rising to #55 on the Billboard charts. While they never enjoyed another hit – minor or otherwise – the band nevertheless delivered a pair of classic albums in 1966’s The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and the following year’s Easter Everywhere, recordings that are still finding new listeners and influencing young psychedelic-oriented musicians to this day. While the band’s catalog and live archives have been exploited seven-ways to Sunday, including a ten-disc box set, Sign of the 3-eyed Men, released in 2009, I haven’t seen a collectors-oriented singles box like this.     

The eight singles included in The Complete 13th Floor Elevators IA Singles Collection are reproduced exactly like the original 45rpm releases, complete with the big hole in the middle, with only the original catalog numbers missing from the run-out grooves. The full-color box set includes a booklet with details on every single release as well as rare photos, and reproductions of French and German picture sleeves. The vinyl itself was cut by DMM utilizing 24-bit digital masters at Abbey Road studios. Check out the Light In The Attic Records website for more info and to pre-order the box set.

The Complete 13th Floor Elevators IA Singles Collection 45s:

1. “You're Gonna Miss Me” b/w “Tried To Hide”
2. “Reverbaration (Doubt)” b/w “Fire Engine”
3. “I've Got Levitation” b/w “Before You Accuse Me”
4. “She Lives (In A Time of Her Own)” b/w “Baby Blue”
5. “Slip Inside This House” b/w “Splash 1”
6. “I'm Gonna Love You Too” b/w “May The Circle Remain Unbroken”
7. “Livin'” On b/w “Scarlet and Gold”
8. “You're Gonna Miss Me” b/w “We Sell Soul” (The Spades)