Friday, June 30, 2023

Archive Review: The Godz’s The Godz (1978/2010)

The Godz’s The Godz
Back at the dawn of American hard rock – circa 1969 or so, 1970 at the latest – you had such eardrum-smackin’ dino-stompers as Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Cheer, Dust, Sir Lord Baltimore, and other mono-browed cro-mags that roamed the dangerous rock ‘n’ roll backstreets. Most of these bands took the blues-derived, guitar-driven music of British dandies like Cream and Status Quo as a starting point, ratcheted up the amperage to cerebellum-shredding volume, threw in some fancy on-stage gymnastics like hair-whipping and broken-string flagellation, and subsequently had their choice of the least skanky of their distaff backstage admirers for a little extra-curricular activity once the spotlights were turned off.     

While many of this first wave of hard rock heroes never made it to first base outside of their limited geographical popularity (future cult band status notwithstanding), the rare widespread success of a handful of like-minded chowderheads like Grand Funk was proof to a generation of bar-hopping teens that fame, fortune, and feminine charms were just three (loudly played) chords away. Grand Funk Railroad was hated by college-educated critics with a passion not expressed in print again until the nerf-metal era of the mid-’80s; but while these egg-headed rockcrit types were grooving to their George Harrison and Crabby Appleton albums, the boys and girls were banging their heads in rhythm to the fab new sounds of bands like Alice Cooper, Kiss, Angel, and the favorite sons of Columbus, Ohio, the Godz.  

The Godz’s The Godz

Not to be confused with the hippie-dippie, psychedelic-folk noise terrorists of the same name from New York City that recorded for the ESP Records label, the Harley-humpin’ long-haired hard rock thugs from Columbus pursued a blooze-n-booze swagger that was a universe away from the lysergic fever-dreams of their namesakes. Formed by bassist/vocalist Eric Moore and guitarist Bob Hill from the ashes of the L.A. by way of Ohio band Capital City Rockets (who recorded one ill-fated LP for Elektra that is often considered one of the worst albums of ‘73), the Godz simplified hard rock into a white light blur of boogie-blues and feedback-drenched guitar chords. Although the band toured with labelmates Kiss and Angel, as well as folks like Cheap Trick and Judas Priest, the Godz never found much of an audience outside of their hometown, and all but disappeared after a pair of albums that have since achieved near-rabid cult status.

To be entirely honest, the Godz never hooked the earlobes of the young, gullible rock ‘n’ roll fan because, well…they just weren’t really very good. Yeah, all the pieces fit together like the well-oiled rock ‘n’ roll machine they brag about being on “Gotta Keep Runnin’;” guitarists Hill and Mark Chatfield (who would go on to play with Bob Seger) hit some smokin’ notes; and in Moore they had a gravel-throated grease-n-grits vocalist to mangle their too-often misogynist lyrics. And, as they say somewhere, therein lies the rub…while the band’s hearty, Vikingesque four-part harmonies were years ahead of their time, their shitty songwriting could suck a bowling ball through a vacuum-cleaner hose.

Nope, there wasn’t a decent word-wrangler in the bunch, the six original tunes on their self-titled 1978 debut split evenly among three of the four band members, Bob Hill effectively frozen out of the mix after penning the bulk of the mind-numbing tripe that made the Capital City Rockets album the critically-reviled diaper-candy that it was. Booze, bikes, broads, and “rawkin roll” are the primary subjects found in the lyrics on The Godz, and while such lofty intellectual fare strikes a chord with a bar/club audience jacked up on bottles of Old Crankcase lager (4.1% alcohol by volume) and pheromones, it loses quite a bit of gravitas when played at home on the crappy BSR turntable in your bedroom…not a great selling point with a record-buying teenaged audience trying to figure out whether disco or booger-rock is going to get them laid faster.   

Musical Fusion of North-Meets-South

Still, you gotta give these Godz boys their props…by the late 1970s, when the band had its coming out party, Southern rock had pretty much begun giving up the ghost in favor of punk, funk, disco, and the heartland-bred arena-rock sounds of Seger and Springsteen. The Godz managed to create a near-perfect musical fusion of north-meets-south, combining the reckless hard rock energy of the Motor City with the bluesy vibe of Southern rock, kind of a cross between Ted Nugent and Molly Hatchet, with a healthy dose of Midwest rustbelt biker aesthetic thrown in for kicks.   

The Godz starts off with the riff-happy “Go Away,” a rollicking booger-rocker that sounds like a less-distinctive Jo Jo Gunne, with squalls of ringing guitars, a neck-breaking backbeat, and a solid tho’ unspectacular bass line. Played live, the song probably kicked serious ass, and it sounds OK on the stereo today if you down a shot or two of rotgut and let the guitars carry you away on a cloud of alcohol-inspired bliss. By contrast, “Baby I Love You” is a real fart in the cookie jar, songwriter Moore ripping off about half-a-dozen tunes from better artists, not limited to Chuck Berry, Bob Seger, and the Rockets, the chorus alone pinching the infamous “rock me baby” line that was chiseled in stone sometime during the hieroglyphic era of rock ‘n’ roll, delivered here like a flaccid reminder to move your clothes from the washer to the dryer.

The next couple of tunes salvage the remainder of what was originally side one of the album, the first of ‘em, “Guaranteed,” rocking like a cross between Status Quo and Lynyrd Skynyrd, machine-gun drumbeats matched by twangy vocals and high-flying, razor-sharp guitars. The proto-metal jam “Gotta Keep Runnin’” borrows a bit of the cowbell intro from Grand Funk’s “We’re An American Band,” and pairs it with the locomotive redneck rock of Blackfoot in the creation of a pud-pounding, steel-toed, junkyard brawl of epic proportions. Moore’s spoken word bit in the middle about how we’re all “rock ‘n’ roll godz” was ridiculous even by 1970s standards but, once again, if you drop enough Quaaludes and chase ‘em down with enough rye whiskey, Moore’s absurd ramblings hit your ears like a Shakespearean soliloquy.

Candy’s Going Bad

Side two of The Godz is a mercifully short, albeit athletic three songs long, jumping off the turntable with the raucous “Under the Table.” Opening with some sort of industrial drone intro more suited to a Joy Division single, the song blasts your senses with a pyrotechnic display of twin guitars that sound like BTO but smack your medulla oblongata like Judas Priest. From the chaotic peak, the song devolves into an ear-pleasing Southern rock jam with all four instruments intertwining to great effect. “Cross Country” is a standard-issue, country-flavored rocker with screaming guitar solos and a choogling rhythm that plays well to Harley-Davidson enthusiasts on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.

The undeniable highlight of The Godz, though, is the album-closing cover of Golden Earring’s “Candy’s Going Bad.” An unlikely choice in material (every other bar band at the time was playing “Radar Love”), “Candy’s Going Bad” showcases the band’s instrumental skills while removing the “ick” factor of their self-written lyrical turds. Starting slowly with a blast-oven intro that is more industrial that anything Einst├╝rzende Neubauten ever thought of, the song unrolls in ways both predictable and otherwise, with plenty of scorched-earth fretwork, an unusual and somewhat syncopated arrangement, a blizzard of drumbeats-and-cymbals crashing down in the back of the mix, and gangfight vocals reminiscent of the Dictators. The song rocks harder and faster and with more energy than anything else on the album, and shows what these lunkheads may have achieved if they’d had a half-decent (and literate) songwriter on the payroll.

The question, then, would be “are the Godz worth their cult band status with hard rock and heavy metal fans?” The short answer: I dunno!? The Reverend saw ‘em perform once, way back in the day, and I remember being pretty damned entertained at the time. Given my nutritious daily diet of psilocybin, pizza, Stroh’s beer, and Jack Daniels during that era, however, I couldn’t reliably bet my rockcrit reputation on the Godz’ onstage prowess.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The band’s self-titled debut, produced by Grand Funk drummer Don Brewer, shows moments of hard-rockin’ brilliance surrounded by trite period clich├ęs that would be repeated ad nauseum a decade later by a younger generation of similarly shaggy-headed, Marshall-stacked cretins. That the Godz proved to be influential far beyond their meager album sales is undeniable, and while they may have rocked many a stage at the time, their trademark biker boogie-rock sound would be pursued with greater success by bands like Badlands, Jackyl, and the Black Label Society years down the road. Still, not a bad musical legacy for a bunch of guys from Columbus… (Rock Candy Records, released May 15th, 2010)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2010

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The Godz’s The Godz

The View On Pop Culture: Zakk Wylde, The Chameleons U.K., Tommy Walter & Abandoned Pools, Kim Cooper's Bubblegum Music book (2002)

Black Label Society's 1919 Eternal

Nobody – and I mean nobody – can shred a set of guitar strings like Zakk Wylde. An instrumental madman, Wylde coaxes noises out of his axe that even Jimi Hendrix only imagined. The New Jersey native’s guttural, bass-heavy vocal style sounds like something straight out of Dante’s worst nightmares. Both traits are perfectly suited to the manic heavy metal style that Wylde performs, the maestro’s talents illustrated with great clarity by 1919 Eternal (Spitfire Records) from Wylde’s Black Label Society.

Wylde made his bones as the lead guitarslinger in Ozzie Osbourne’s late-eighties band, replacing popular Osbourne foil Randy Rhode after his death. After working with Ozzie on a number of albums and accompanying tours, Wylde struck out on his own, first forming Pride And Glory and later putting together the musical wrecking crew known as the Black Label Society. Wylde reunited with his mentor for Ozzie’s excellent 2001 release Down To Earth; it was during sessions for that album that many of the songs found on 1919 Eternal were written.

Metalheads that prefer Wylde’s guitar-heavy style above Ozzie’s relatively tame sound need not fear. 1919 Eternal has a little of everything that you love Zakk Wylde for – rampaging riffs, powerful rhythms and the staccato-like sound of notes being drilled into your brain through your ears. Tunes like “Battering Ram,” “Genocide Junkies” or “Lords of Destruction” lay a mighty smackdown on the listener. Honorary BLS bassist Robert Trujillo and tag-team drummers Christian Werr and Craig Nunemacher struggle at times to keep up with Wylde’s aural assault, the magnificent bastard spreading layer upon layer of stinging guitars and throbbing bass above his somber vocals. 1919 Eternal is a rock-solid collection of songs, pyrotechnic performances your parents are certain to hate, your enemies will fear and your friends will listen to with awe.

One of the most criminally-overlooked British bands to enjoy a stateside cult following, The Chameleons U.K. continue to be ignored by a mainstream audience in favor of flashier, less-talented outfits with better press agents. Since 1981, however, the band has quietly, and without fanfare, trickled out a handful of lush, textured albums that have withstood the test of time to become true classics of the pop/rock genre. Reuniting to record their first studio album in fifteen years, the Manchester quartet has created a powerful musical statement in Why Call It Anything (Cleopatra Records).

The music of the Chameleons U.K. has always seemed more about tone rather than cheap hooks and a catchy chorus, every song awash with ringing six-string and driving rhythms. Why Call It Anything carries on in this tradition, guitarists Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding, drummer in John Lever and vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess weaving an extraordinary, mesmerizing tapestry of sound on songs like “Lufthansa” and “Dangerous Land.” Burgess’ friendly vocals are threaded throughout the songs on Why Call It Anything, sometimes lost in the mix while other times soaring high above the melodic din. The Chameleons U.K. don’t so much build a wall-of-sound in the studio – an overdone trick – rather they cement all of the cracks and crevices with a joyful noise, creating a seamless texture to their material. Overlooked even in critical circles, the Chameleons U.K. are worth another listen, Why Call It Anything as good a place as any to start.

Abandoned Pools' Humanistic
Tommy Walter left behind a promising future as a member of Eels, his musical contributions to their 1996 debut Beautiful Freak certainly helping cement the enigmatic trio’s rep as critical favorites. Walter left Eels after that album, preferring to forge his own path across the musical landscape, which has brought him to Abandoned Pools. Essentially, Tommy Walter is Abandoned Pools, the multi-instrumental talent playing almost every instrument on Humanistic (Extasy Records). Wearing his heart (and musical influences) on his artistic sleeve, Walter has delivered a debut that is full of potential.  

Working with famed alt-rock producers Paul Q. Koderie and Sean Slade, Walter has crafted a careful selection of songs for Humanistic. Adding a soupcon of Britpop, a measure of hard-rock distortion and a spoonful of blue-eyed soul, Walter blends the disparate styles into an entertaining musical experience. Kurt Cobain is Walter’s most obvious influence, the former Nirvana frontman’s personalized angst and stuttering musical style mimicked by Walter on songs like “Blood” or “L.V.B.D.” Whereas Cobain drew his inspiration solely from the punk and heavy metal bands he listened to as a teen, Walter’s Beatlesque pop roots keep his songs from veering off the road onto darker musical trails. Humanistic is an ambitious, multi-layered album that takes a spin or two to develop a taste for. Once you embrace the new pop aesthetic created by Tommy Walter, however, you’ll wonder what you ever did without it.

Kim Cooper is the editor of Scram, an intelligent and entertaining publication that covers the complete spectrum of pop culture. As a long-time reader and fan of Scram, I can’t think of another writer that could have exceeded Cooper’s efforts as editor of Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth (Feral House). Subtitled “The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop,” the book is the ultimate authority on this often-maligned and popular, if overlooked genre of music. Along with co-editor David Smav, Cooper has assembled an impressive roster of contributors, writers like Lisa Sutton, Metal Mike Saunders, Dave Thompson, and Chuck Eddy. From the people who made the music, like the Ohio Express, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Cowsills to the producers and writers like Boyce and Hart, Neil Bogart, and Jeff Barry who shaped the history of bubblegum, you’ll find them all here. (The View On Pop Culture, March 2002)

Friday, June 23, 2023

Book Review: Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter (2010)

Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter
When guitarist Johnny Winter burst onto the rock music scene in 1969, his arrival was accompanied by a then-unprecedented amount of hype. Signed to Columbia Records with what was reported as the largest advance in history, expectations were unrealistically high for the young albino bluesman from Texas.

Truth is, by the time that Winter was introduced to the record-buying public, he was already a decade-long veteran of local and regional Texas bands, first performing at the young age of fifteen years old. In the 40 years since Winter’s “discovery” and the release of his self-titled debut album, the talented guitarist has endured a fearsome roller-coaster of fame and famine, addiction and alcoholism, acclaim, and indifference…and along the way he has created some great music and influenced a couple generations of guitarists that followed.

Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter

Writer Mary Lou Sullivan first met Winter a quarter-century ago, and has become a trusted confidant to the tight-lipped musical legend. Her biography of Winter, Raisin’ Cain is the result of seven years of work and hundreds of hours of recorded conversations with Winter; the artist’s family and friends; and with musicians like Billy Branch, Jerry Portnoy, Bob Margolin, and Tommy Shannon, among many others. Raisin’ Cain is an authorized biography, meaning that Winter oke-doked the book, and the man even dug up dozens of photos to help compliment Sullivan’s 386 pages of hard-hitting but easy-to-read prose.

Raisin’ Cain touches all the bases of Winter’s lengthy, wild, and raucous 40-years in the business, from his early days on the Texas music circuit to his signing by manager Steve Paul and subsequent performance at the Woodstock Festival; Winter’s short affair with fellow Texan Janis Joplin and the dozens of women that have crossed his path; Winter’s heroin addiction and alcoholism; his record label deals, mismanagement, and re-emergence in the 2000s as an elder statesman of the blues.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

More than anything, Raisin’ Cain does a great job of capturing the one everlasting love of Winter’s life: blues music. From his early efforts to hold onto a pure blues sound in the face of pressure to rock ‘n’ roll, to his joyful production of Muddy Water’s late-career albums, to the making of nearly all of his recordings through the years, Sullivan captures it all with humor, insight, and deference to her subject.

Writer Mary Lou Sullivan digs as deep into her subject’s life as such great music biographers as Peter Guralnick did with Elvis or Robert Gordon did with Muddy Waters, interviewing everybody from Winter and his equally famous brother Edgar to former bandmates, managers, producers, fellow blues musicians, and many others. Sullivan’s writing style is to simply get out of the way and let those she’s interviewing tell the story, and she has strung together the story of Winter’s life and career masterfully. As a result, Sullivan has delivered the ultimate bio of the enigmatic bluesman. Raisin’ Cain is highly recommended for any Johnny Winter fan, of course, or anybody interested in blues music. (Backbeat Books, published May 1st, 2010)

Buy a copy of the book from Amazon:
Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain

The View On Pop Culture: Johnny Cash, Andrew Vachss, Waylon Jennings (2002)

Johnny Cash's The Essential Johnny Cash

Country legend Johnny Cash recently celebrated his seventieth birthday and, with his health improving, has announced plans for another new album. Like many of Nashville’s old guard, Cash will keep working until he is physically unable to record or perform, and based on his last couple of albums, the Man In Black seems to only get better with age. Columbia Records – Cash’s musical home for over thirty years – is reissuing a number of his classic albums on CD this year, many for the first time. To kick off the celebration, the label has released the excellent The Essential Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy) compilation, a historical overview of Cash’s lengthy career.

The two-disc set kicks off with Cash’s early singles for Sun Records, mono jukebox favorites that became big hits during the mid-fifties. “Hey Porter,” “I Walk the Line” and “Ballad of A Teenage Queen” and their B-sides share a youthful energy, even if they only hint at Cash’s incredible charisma. Cash’s early-sixties treasures, songs like “Ring of Fire” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” set the stage for Cash’s commercial peak of 1968-1972 and crossover hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue.” From this point, the set is somewhat erratic, overlooking much of Cash’s 80s output, offering highlights like “(Ghost) Riders In the Sky” and “Highwayman,” ending with his 1993 collaboration with U2, “The Wanderer.” Overall, The Essential Johnny Cash provides the listener with a fair representation of Cash’s immense talents. If you’re looking for more, I’d heartily also recommend the expanded versions of At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, reissued on CD last year.

If a novelist creates one lasting, memorable character in a book, they’ve accomplished more than most writers manage to do during their entire careers. Andrew Vachss has created an entire world revolving around his central character Burke, building a New York City peopled with fascinating characters like “Silent Max,” the Asian martial arts master, or the “Professor,” a street-smart philosopher and Burke’s mentor. The shadowy Burke is an ex-con and “man for hire” continuously walking a tightrope between freedom and prison.  

In his previous novel, Dead And Gone, Vachss left Burke stranded on the west coast; “presumed dead” by the NYPD after exacting revenge on the enemies that tried to kill him. With the latest entry in the Burke series, titled Pain Management (Alfred A. Knopf), Vachss takes the character into uncharted territory. Working in the unfamiliar environs of Portland, Oregon, Burke has taken on the job of finding a runaway teenager. Working without the safety net of his self-styled “family,” Burke finds himself embroiled in the designs of the drug-running “pain management” underground, the book delivering an ending that should surprise even the most faithful of Vachss’ readers. Vachss writes with the soul and the poetry of the street, bringing his own experiences as a lawyer, federal prosecutor and children’s advocate to bear in creating his rough-hewn and dark-hued tales. Pain Management is a fine introduction to Burke’s world, but be forewarned – after you’ve devoured one Burke novel, you’ll be running to your local bookstore to grab them all up.

Everybody who has lived in Nashville for any length of time has a favorite Waylon Jennings story, and your humble columnist is no exception. Jennings was a familiar figure in the Music City back in the seventies and one Christmas Eve, a group of friends and myself ran into Waylon drinking beer and playing darts by the fireplace of Daddywacker’s, a local joint with big burgers, cold beer and homemade potato chips.

Waylon Jennings
We began drinking beer with him and as the night wore on, Waylon suggested that we needed a Christmas tree to make the night memorable. Several of us staggered out into the alleyway behind the restaurant and found a scrappy little pine sapling behind a dumpster. Setting it up in the main room, we decorated it with empty beer mugs and potato chips. Waylon sat and drank with us until midnight and, as the restaurant closed, we wished each other a Merry Christmas and went our separate ways.

That’s the kind of guy that Waylon Jennings was, more comfortable sitting and drinking with a bunch of working class stiffs than in hanging out at any one of the industry parties that he was certainly invited to. At the time, 1976 or ‘77, Jennings was riding high, one of the biggest stars in Nashville. Success never seemed to go to his head, though, and Waylon continued to fight to retain his artistic integrity. Throughout the course of his career, Waylon never lost his connection to his fans, the audiences who appreciated his efforts to bring them music that was sincere, passionate and from the heart.

With the attitude of a punk rocker, the soul of a bluesman and the heart of a poet, Waylon Jennings forged a name and legend for himself in country music. Jennings’ death at the young age of 64 from complications due to diabetes is a sad reminder that he was one of a dying breed of Country musicians. One of the last of a generation of giants such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Waylon and his friends worked their musical magic without focus groups or image consultants. They remained true to their roots, to their beliefs and to their idea of what country music should be. There will never be another artist quite like Waylon Jennings, and come next Christmas Eve I’ll be sure to raise my glass to his memory... (The View On Pop Culture, March 2002)

Friday, June 16, 2023

Archive Review: Sir Douglas Quintet’s The Mono Singles ‘68-’72 (2011)

Sir Douglas Quintet’s The Mono Singles ‘68-’72
Although long respected by critics, hipsters, and historians for their important place in rock ‘n’ roll history, only belatedly has the Sir Douglas Quintet begun to receive its props for expanding the 1960s-era garage-rock vocabulary beyond retro-Elvis crooning and faux Fab Four harmonies. While the band was originally put together by Houston producer Huey P. Meaux as a Cajun facsimile of an amalgam of British Invasion bands, left in the hands of the capable Doug Sahm and friends, the Sir Douglas Quintet became something else entirely.

The original Sir Douglas Quintet recorded a handful of songs with Meaux, scoring a Top Twenty hit in 1965 with the Tex-Mex flavored classic “She’s About A Mover.” Fleeting fame would follow, met by a string of good, but not particularly successful singles released by various Meaux-owned labels, culminating in The Best of the Sir Douglas Quintet album, a collection of the aforementioned flotsam and jetsam. When the band was arrested for marijuana possession after returning home to Texas from a 1966 European tour, Sahm got out of jail, broke up the band, and took off to San Francisco, followed shortly by the Quintet’s saxophonist Frank Morin.

Sir Douglas Quintet’s The Mono Singles ‘68-’72

In California, Sahm saw the light and formed a new version of the Sir Douglas Quintet with friend Morin and a bunch of guys who subsequently came and went. Playing regularly around Frisco, the band signed with a Mercury Records subsidiary, and recorded a true debut album in 1968’s Sir Douglas Quintet + 2 = Honkey Blues. It’s at this point that our tale takes off and the era documented by Sundazed’s The Mono Singles ‘68-’72 begins, the album collecting all 22 songs – 11 singles total, with B-sides – released by Mercury and its subsidiary labels during the stated period.

While these songs have been compiled before – most notably as part of the 2006 box set The Complete Mercury Recordings, this single-disc set places them firmly in the spotlight all by their lonesome selves. Whether you prefer the mono or the stereo versions of these songs is a matter of personal taste, really – I find myself on the fence, liking the mono versions of some songs better, the fleshier stereo mixes of others – the groundbreaking nature and entertainment value of the songs is beyond argument. As a rabid Doug Sahm and Sir Douglas Quintet fan, I’m happier than an armadillo in the sun to have multiple versions of all of these classic tunes.

The Mono Singles ‘68-’72 begins with an atypical pair of 1968 singles, “Are Inlaws Really Outlaws” and “Sell A Song.” The former is a muted, Stax Records/Southern soul jam with bleating horns and conversational vocals, while the latter is similar to what Delaney & Bonnie would be doing later in the 1960s, Sahm’s R&B torch vocals supported by Wayne Talbert’s gospel-tinged piano and scraps of guitar until the song devolves into an improvised instrumental work-out with jazzy horns. Both songs are interesting in a curious, prurient, historical context but neither is indicative of the sound that the Sir Douglas Quintet would later innovate.


By late ‘68, Sahm would have a reconstituted Quintet in place with his old friend Augie Meyers on keyboards, where he belonged, and then the band really started cooking. “Mendocino” was the result of the new band line-up, the song’s Tex-Mex flavor enhanced by Meyers’ buoyant keys, Sahm’s understated vocals, and a melodic hook large enough to hang your hat on. The song cracked the U.S. Top 30, blew up even bigger in Europe, and put the Quintet back on the international stage. The B-side was the wistful “I Wanna Be Your Mama Again,” a mid-tempo slice of Texas soul with Sahm’s lonesome vocals, some inspired piano-play by Meyers, and just a touch of psychedelic swirl creeping in around the bluesy edges of the song.

“Mendocino,” the hit single, would subsequently spawn Mendocino the album, which in turn would yield a couple more minor hits. The first was the yearning “It Didn’t Even Bring Me Down,” a great example of the emotionalism Sahm could bring to a song with both words and vocals, the music a mix of horn-driven R&B led by Morin’s tasteful tenor saxophone and Texas-flavored blues-rock. The flip side was the jaunty “Lawd, I’m Just A Country Boy In This Great Big Freaky City,” another homesick ode about life in bad old San Francisco that is as alt-country in sound and texture as anything to follow by the Byrds and/or Gram Parsons.

Sahm missed Texas something awful during his stay in the Bay area, and it made for some great songs. The other single from Mendocino was the wonderfully wry blues-gospel-rock hybrid “At the Crossroads,” a slow-paced ballad with chiming organ and as mournful a vocal performance as you’ll ever hear. Sahm’s verse “you can teach me life’s lesson, you can bring a lot of gold, but you just can’t live in Texas, if you don’t have a lot of soul,” is pitch-perfect in its yearning, the sentiment punctuated by an elegant score of descending piano notes. Turn the single over and you have the equally delightful “Texas Me,” a fiddle-driven country tale of Sahm’s move to Frisco, a mid-tempo rocker with plenty of twang and an undeniable yen for life back in Austin.

Together After Five

Sir Douglas Quintet
Somewhere during all of this, Mercury released the non-album single “Dynamite Woman,” a swinging little number with gobs of Cajun fiddle, Meyers’ steady Farfisa work, Sahm’s vocals almost lost in the mix beneath the spry instrumentation. “Too Many Docile Minds” picks up, musically, where “Dynamite Woman” left off, adding a bit more melody to the arrangement but otherwise sounding very similar. Why they were left off the album is anybody’s guess, ‘cause both are fine performances.

Reunited with producer Meaux, the Sir Douglas Quintet would release Together After Five in 1970. The album’s lead-off single was the mid-tempo Tex-Mex rave-up “Nuevo Laredo,” an ode to the Texas border town that features a recurring keyboard riff, joyous blasts of Mexican-influenced horns, and more than a little mariachi flavor. “I Don’t Want To Go Home” is a contemporary 1960s-styled country ballad that would have been at home in either Texas or Tennessee. It’s right about here that Sahm veers off course, The Mono Singles ‘68-’72 offering a pair of Nashville-born singles that Mercury released under the “Wayne Douglas” name in an attempt to crack the country charts.

Although both “Be Real” and the Music City remake of “I Don’t Want To Go Home” are fine examples of old-school country featuring some of the city’s best session players – folks like pedal-steel maestro Pete Drake and honky-tonk pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins – both were a little too raw and, well, dated to appeal to then-contemporary country radio’s sophisticated “countrypolitan” audience that placed a premium on slick production and slicker appearance. Sahm returned to the Sir Douglas Quintet for 1970’s 1+1+1=4 album, from which were released a couple of singles, “What About Tomorrow” a relatively-unremarkable country-rocker and “(I Found Love) A Nice Song” a bluesy ballad with jangly piano-pounding and a dynamic vocal performance by Sahm, with just a little nuanced guitar thrown in for good measure.

The Return of Doug Saldana

To be honest, Sahm’s return from Nashville to San Francisco seemed to only prolong the inevitable homeward journey, and the subsequent handful of single releases seemed to be a catch-as-catch-can mixed bag of styles. “Catch the Man On the Rise” is a bluesy rocker that walks a path that Joe Cocker would sprint down couple of years hence, while the psychedelic tropes of “Pretty Flower” seems an unnatural fit for the Lone Star State transplant. Sahm finally gave in and went back home to Texas in time for 1971’s The Return of Doug Saldana, a welcome return to form after the middlin’ country-rock of 1+1+1=4.  Tex-Mex ruled the soundtrack to the autobiographical “Me and My Destiny,” a great folk-rock song with deep roots in the multi-cultural Texas music tradition that Sahm cherished and, indeed, helped popularize.

The B-side of “Me and My Destiny” was a heartfelt cover of Freddy Fender’s 1959 regional hit “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights” which, perchance, would launch Fender’s country music stardom during the ensuing decade. Delivered straight, as a 1950s-styled soul burner, Sahm’s version is very cool with emotional vocals, a swinging horn line, and piano flourishes all around. With The Return of Doug Saldana achieving mixed commercial results, the Sir Douglas Quintet would call it a day.

Sahm appeared as a drug dealer in the 1972 film Cisco Pike starring Kris Kristofferson, offering up the pro-drug song “Michoacan” for the movie’s soundtrack. Released by Mercury as the last Quintet single, the jaunty Mexican-flavored number is a mid-tempo polka featuring Meyers’ familiar Farfisa and Sahm’s playful vocals. The B-side, “Westside Blues Again,” is a bluesy, smoldering R&B tune that features a great, growling Sahm vocal and scorching fretwork complimented by Rocky Morales’ 1950s-styled tenor sax riffs.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Doug Sahm would launch his solo career with 1973’s acclaimed Doug Sahm and Band, recorded with what remained of the Sir Douglas Quintet, including Meyers and future Texas Tornados bandmate Flaco Jimenez. It was a testament to the esteem that his fellow artists held Sahm that he was able to enlist talents like Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and David Bromberg to appear on his solo debut. Sahm would continue to create and record essential and creative music throughout the 1980s and 1990s, both as a solo artist and with the more commercially-successful Texas Tornados. Although Sahm would later resurrect the Sir Douglas Quintet name on occasion, he’d never break as much ground as he did with these 22 songs recorded over four years. (Sundazed Records, released January 23th, 2011)    

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2011

The View On Pop Culture: Joey Ramone, The Chemical Brothers, Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 (2002)


After the 1996 break-up of punk icons the Ramones, the band’s frontman and teen idol Joey Ramone worked sporadically on a solo album for several years. Uncompleted at the time of his death last Easter from cancer, Ramone’s long-awaited solo bow has been wrapped-up by producer, guitarist and long-time compatriot Daniel Rey, and is being released in time for the Ramones’ induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in March. Ironically titled Don’t Worry About Me (Sanctuary Records), the album is a fitting tribute to an enormous talent.

With a band that includes Rey, the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff, Frankie Funaro of the Del-Lords, and former bandmate Marky Ramone, Joey has delivered the perfect pop masterpiece that he’s wanted to create his entire career. The album opens with a strong affirmation of life over death, Ramone masterfully providing the Louis Armstrong classic “What A Wonderful World” with new meaning and power. From the funny schoolboy crush of “Maria Bartiromo” to an inspired cover of the Stooges’ “1969,” Don’t Worry About Me offers up the same sort of bubblegum punk and hard rock that was the trademark of Ramones’ former band. Joey’s imperfect vocals remain infectiously friendly, his simple lyrics concealing the depth of thought behind them.

Joey speaks openly of his disease only once, with “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” a powerful song of defiance and hope. The album closes with the title track, fittingly an old-fashioned love song. In his heart, Joey was always a mark for pop music, a rabid record collector with a fondness for bubblegum pop and sixties garage rock. With Don’t Worry About Me, Ramone reaffirms his love for the music that gave his life meaning. Joey brings the same sort of passion and fire to this wonderful collection of songs that he did to that first Ramones album better than twenty-five years ago. Joey Ramone leaves a magnificent recorded legacy, one that will continue to reach new fans when today’s hypermarketed artists have fallen by the wayside.
It was just a couple of summers ago that the major label “five families” tried to cram electronica – a dance music that blends big beats and driving electronic rhythms – down our throats, failing miserably in their attempt to create a new (and lucrative) musical trend to exploit. If they had been smart, they would have waited for the cream to rise to the top of the fledgling scene, creating mainstream stars in the process. Since the summer of ‘99, several electronica-oriented artists and deejays, most notably Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, and the Chemical Brothers, have become dance-floor royalty, selling oodles of CDs, appearing in teevee commercials and generally appealing to a mainstream audience in a way that the previous hype could never have accomplished.

The Chemical Brothers' Come With Us
Back in the mid-nineties, the duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were the hottest deejays on the U.K. club scene. After a handful of albums, the pair – known as the Chemical Brothers – remain cult favorites in the states even as they consistently go top ten in their homeland. With the release of Come With Us (Astralwerks Records), though, the Chemical Brothers are poised on the brink of a major breakthrough stateside. Fueled by the high-energy dancefloor hit “It Began In Afrika,” the album mixes acid-house and techno dance music with elements of hip-hop and funk, the duo then delivering their monster beats with an undeniable rock aesthetic.

The result is an electrifying collection of tunes on Come With Us that punch you directly between the ears while forcing even the most hidebound rocker to move their feet to the rhythm. I suspect that tracks like “Galaxy Bounce,” “The State We’re In” with vocalist Beth Orton, “Star Guitar” and “The Test,” featuring vocals by Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, will all get a lot of play in clubs during the months to come. My guess is that the Chemical Brothers’ Come With Us is certain to become the dance-floor soundtrack for the summer of ‘02.

Music journalism ain’t rocket science, folks, and not even quantum physics offers as many possibilities as does the wide world of music. When rock criticism hits the bull’s eye, however, it provides the reader with valuable insight into the artist’s psyche, the musician’s methodology and the style’s sensibilities. For several seasons now, Ben Schafer of Da Capo Press has worked with various “guest editors” to compile an annual collection of the year’s best writing on the various aspects of music – popular and otherwise – culled from newspapers, magazines and web sites. This year, with the help of novelist Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity), the pair have put together a stellar representation of music writing for Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 (Da Capo Press).

Some of the names represented in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 are familiar, and Richard Meltzer remembering a young Cameron Crowe, Anthony DeCurtis on Johnny Cash, and Greil Marcus writing about the distaff punk trio Sleater-Kinney do not disappoint. It’s the writers that you don’t know that deliver the real thrills herein, though, such as Carly Carioli’s excellent reporting on the Napster phenomena or Monica Kendrick’s piece on the Stooges’ Fun House Sessions CD collection. “The Rock Snob’s Dictionary” is a brilliant piece of satire and a valuable guide to rock ‘n’ roll exotica while observations by Charles Mann and Nick Tosches on the record biz are entertaining and informative. If you enjoy music of any style and want to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of the musician’s craft, look no further than this indispensable annual collection. (The View On Pop Culture, February 2002)

Friday, June 9, 2023

Archive Review: Elliott Murphy's Notes From the Underground (2008)

Elliott Murphy's Notes From the Underground
Before Bruce was “The Boss,” before ‘Little Stevie’ Forbert haunted the doors of Manhattan’s nightclubs, before anybody had even heard of Johnny Cougar, the Long Island-bred Elliott Murphy was the best-and-brightest of those necklaced with the “new Dylan” albatross. A literate scribe with a penchant for observational, poetic lyrics set to an undeniably rocking soundtrack, Murphy’s ‘70s-era albums – gems like Aquashow, Lost Generation, and Night Lights – went nowhere and sold few copies.

To his credit, Murphy never attempted to change his spirited blend of rock and folk; he merely sharpened his pen and recorded intelligent, destined-for-obscurity works like 1986’s Milwaukee. Although American record buyers ignored the talented wordsmith in favor of hair-metal and grunge, European audiences loved Murphy’s sophisticated wordplay. Moving his family to Paris, Murphy continued to work throughout the ‘90s, cranking out classics like 1993’s Unreal City. His steadfast refusal to bow to musical trends or industry expectations has earned Murphy a solid reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter as well as the friendship of folks like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Sonny Landreth, and others.  

Elliott Murphy’s Notes From the Underground

Murphy’s best work is always filled with brilliant imagery, and Notes From the Underground, the artist’s latest, is certainly no exception. The album-opening, mid-tempo rocker “And General Robert E. Lee” begins with a strongly strummed guitar before launching into a storm of cinematic lyricism, a tale of romance gone wrong with references to James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin and other cultural touchstones, Murphy’s vocals supported by a mournful, weeping lead guitar. The subdued, Dylanesque “The Valley Below” matches Murphy’s best low-register, croaking vocal performance with sparse instrumentation that builds from a silent buzz to a resounding rattle-and-hum, the song’s romantic lyrics delivered with no little passion. “What’s That” is a spry rocker, Murphy’s rapid-fire vocals spitting out stream-of-consciousness wisdom, organized A to Z, the song delivering essential knowledge on everything from love to tea to personal hygiene.

The beautiful “Ophelia” is pure, trademark Murphy…rough-hewn vocals caressing delicate, carefully-crafted vocals above a stunning blend of acoustic guitar and lush rhythms. The dark, discordant “Frankenstein’s Daughter” features Murphy’s son Gaspard on guitar, supporting his father’s fractured, atmospheric vocals with intriguing, off-kilter fretwork. The haunting “Crying Creatures of the Universe” offers an almost spiritual vocal delivery, with sorrowful harmonica and folkish guitar supporting the singer’s wistful remembrances.

The lyrical themes visited by Murphy on Notes From the Underground are familiar favorites of the songwriter: the cost of love and loss on the human soul; the intrusion of the past on the present and future; the long shadow cast by the places we’ve been and the people we’ve known. No other songwriter provides these themes with more thought and vitality than Elliott Murphy, the finely-drawn protagonists of his songs standing on the outside of life, looking in. They’re life’s misfits and outlaws, men literally without countries, their homelessness as much a state of mind as it is a physical absence.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Notes From the Underground is a perfect showcase for Murphy’s uncanny ability to spin words into emotional landscapes. Supported by a talented band that has developed a special musical chemistry with Murphy – especially the phenomenal guitarist Oliver Durand – the ex-pat rocker has created his best album since 1998’s Beauregard, a late-career triumph that proves that Elliott Murphy remains the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. (Elliott Murphy Music, released April 15th, 2008)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2008

The View On Pop Culture: Echobrain, Starsailor, The Line, Buckaroo Banzai DVD (2002)

Echobrain's Echobrain

Whenever a musician leaves a successful band, the public usually figures that the individual in question has lost their mind. On one hand, you have fame and fortune, but the flip side of that coin is artistic stagnation and the desire to blaze new creative trails. When Jason Newsted left Metallica, many wondered what would come next for the talented bassist. Well, after a brief aside backing pre-teen rock ‘n’ roll prodigies the Moss Brothers on their wonderful Electricitation album, Newsted has returned from his musical hiatus with a new band and an exciting new sound in Echobrain.

The self-titled Echobrain (Chophouse Records/Surfdog) illustrates a more complex and diverse side to Newsted’s playing. Teaming with youthful musicians Dylan Donkin and Brian Sagrafena, the trio has forged a distinctive identity for Echobrain. The band explores the possibilities of hard rock with elements of jazz, funk, pop and soul in a manner that is as far away from Metallica as one could imagine. Songs like the mesmerizing “Adrift” or the ethereal “We Are Ghosts” showcase a carefully-crafted, deliberate rock sound while the muted, mysterious “SuckerPunch,” with Newsted’s former bandmate Kirk Hammett adding his guitar, strikes in a little harder vein.

Faith No More’s Jim Martin contributes his six-string talents to the forceful “Spoonfed” while the blues-tinged “Highway 44” sounds like vintage seventies radio rock with big, looping riffs and funky rhythms. Donkin is a surprisingly mature vocalist and an imaginative guitarist, Sagrafena a dynamic drummer, adding complex rhythmic dimensions to the band’s sound where a lesser talent would fall short. Newsted has been forced into stretching his own talents past Metallica’s expectations in order to compete with his younger bandmate’s energy and enthusiasm. Echobrain, the album, is a significant debut, a powerful introduction to a band I suspect you’ll be hearing quite a lot about in the future.      

Starsailor's Love Is Here
British pop music has long held a fascination for cultists here in the colonies but not since the Beatles has Britpop managed to achieve more than a fleeting notoriety on these shores. Contemporary musical stalwarts like Oasis have barely dented the charts stateside, but that hasn’t stopped a steady trickle of hot U.K. bands like Coldplay from making a play for pay with U.S. releases and tours. Starsailor is the latest underdog in this impossible voyage, the band’s debut Love Is Here (Capitol Records) a mix of lush pop instrumentation and bittersweet poetic lyricism.

Appropriately named after a song by fey pop icon Tim Buckley, Starsailor’s moody musical confections feature the emotionally scarred vocals of guitarist James Walsh. Songs like “Poor Misguided Fool” or “Way To Fall” offer wry and often lovelorn observations on life, the music soaring and gliding behind Walsh’s vocals like wisps of a cloud. Although there’s nothing on Love Is Here that’s going to receive significant radio airplay considering the current musical climate here in the land of McPop, Starsailor have nonetheless crafted a complex and provocative set of songs. Love Is Here is an encouraging debut album with suburb musicianship, finely detailed songwriting and a distinctive, atmospheric sound that evokes memories of another batch of Buckley acolytes, This Mortal Coil. Well worth checking out...

Hailing from the unlikely musical hotspot of Big Bear Lake, California, The Line has been working their way through the indie rock ranks for over half a decade now. Tours with punk faves Sublime and Guttermouth as well as a coveted slot on the 2001 Warped Tour have the band poised on the brink of bigger things. With their fourth album and major label debut, Monsters We Breed (Volcom/MCA), the band cranks up the volume a notch, delivering their trademark high-octane mix of punk and roots rock on an engaging set of hard-rocking tunes. Singer Don Horne sounds like a cross between Midnight Oil’s Peter Garret and Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty, his powerful vocals propelling songs like “Take What’s Ours” or “Earthworm Crisis” above the efforts of similar bands. Combined with Ryan Immegart’s manic guitarwork and the band’s introspective lyrics, Horne’s vocals create an anthemic, arena-rock quality to the Line’s instrumental assault. Monsters We Breed is a strong album, one that would appeal to mainstream rock fans as well as died-in-the-wool punk fanatics.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
Back in the day – 1984 to be exact – an ambitious action film came and went almost unnoticed across the screens of America’s multiplex theaters. The first of two planned serialized films, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (MGM Home Entertainment) was considered, at the time, to be a failed experiment. The movie had its apologists, though, cultists such as myself who held onto cherished copies of the flick on scratchy VHS tapes, the film growing in popularity through video rentals or one of its frequent late-eighties cable TV appearances. Finally, Buckaroo has made his long-awaited debut on DVD and after a recent viewing with the apprehensive Mrs. Gordon, we both agree that the movie is still a hell of a lot of fun!

A pre-Robocop Peter Weller stars as the enigmatic Buckaroo Banzai, a half-Japanese, half-American genius who is a brain surgeon, quantum physicist, rock musician and samurai warrior. Banzai’s posse/band the Hong Kong Cavaliers is made up of rough-riding adventurers like “Perfect Tommy” (Lewis Smith), “Rawhide” (Clancy Brown) and “Reno Nevada” (Pepe Sena). A youthful Jeff Goldblum is “New Jersey,” the newest HK Cavalier while Ellen Barkin plays Banzai’s romantic interest. Together, these modern high-tech cowboys continue the experiments in exploring the eighth dimension that got Banzai’s parents killed. Along the way they battle crazed aliens (including a hilariously madcap John Lithgow), discover the secret behind H.G. Well’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast from the thirties and save the earth from destruction. If this sounds kind of over the top, well, it is... The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension was the first (and last) sci-fi western, a masterful combination of action, comedy, satire and cheap thrills that has grown more entertaining as the years have passed. (The View On Pop Culture, February 2002)

Friday, June 2, 2023

Album Reviews: Neil Young & the Ducks, Neil Young with the Santa Monica Flyers (2023)

The Ducks with Neil Young - High Flyin'
The Ducks (with Neil Young) – High Flyin’ (Shakey Pictures Records)

One of a pair of recent archival releases from Neil Young’s “original bootleg series,” High Flyin’ features highlights of a summer ’77 California tour by the Ducks, a pick-up band comprised of Young, former Moby Grape bassist Bob Mosley, drummer Johnny Craviotto (who played with Ry Cooder and Buffy Sainte-Marie), and guitarist Jeff Blackburn, who fronted his own band and co-wrote “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” with Neil. Released as three-album vinyl or two-CD sets, the 25-tracks were chosen by all the band members and includes a brace of cover tunes alongside several Young compositions. All four men share the microphone, so the result is a triumph of band democracy, everybody had their spotlight, and the entire album sounds like a bunch of friends jamming full-stop.

The handful of Neil originals are generally from the more-obscure wing of his enormous mansion of songs, the lone exceptions being Young’s “Are You Ready For the Country?,” which places a sly groove alongside the song’s guitar-driven shake, rattle and roll arrangement, and Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul,” which is afforded a ramshackle, feedback-drenched, runaway freight train-styled performance. Much of the material on High Flyin’ was penned by Mosley and/or Blackburn, however, and they mix country, rock, and blues styles as deftly as Mr. Young with the instrumental skills to pull off the disparate genres. The band’s choice of cover tunes – bangers like Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” or Crazy Horse’s “Gone Dead Train” – are provided uniquely rowdy and highly amplified interpretations while material that hits closer to home, like Moby Grape’s incredible “Gypsy Wedding,” is infused with equal enthusiasm. The album’s sound quality is top notch, better than expected for 1977 recordings, but Neil typically spared no expense, bringing in a mobile recording van to capture the shows, something we’re all thankful for... Grade: A   BUY!

Neil Young's Somewhere Under the Rainbow
Neil Young with the Santa Monica Flyers – Somewhere Under the Rainbow (Shakey Pictures Records)

Ol’ Neil’s mining his archives for these “original bootleg series” releases and he’s crankin’ them out a couple at a time. Young may be providing these recordings with his personal touch before setting them free but, as is the case with Somewhere Under the Rainbow, there are some shows that should stay in the can. Not that this November 1973 concert is horrible – there are, indeed, some fine performances on the two discs – but the sonic quality is pretty funky, hollow and distant with an edge of distortion, just a notch above an audience-recorded bootleg, really, and Neil sounds like he’s singing to us from the bottom of a cave.

Young leads an ace band through its paces, talented players like multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren, steel guitar wizard Ben Keith, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, and the set includes beloved tunes like “Cowgirl In the Sand,” “Helpless,” “Roll Another Number (For the Road),” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying On the Ground Is Wrong.” The extended version of “Tonight’s the Night, Part II” kicks ass in all the best ways, but Neil’s performance overall is somewhat lackluster, and the band can only prop up its frontman so much. The album’s liner notes lend more gravity to the performance than it deserves and while your enthusiasm may vary from this scribe’s, if yer gonna shell out a double-sawbuck for a Neil Young bootleg – authorized or not – I’d recommend High Flyin’ above this tedious molasses mix. Grade: C+   BUY!

The View On Pop Culture: Hadacol, Ryan Adams, R.L. Burnside (2002)

Hadacol's All In Your Head

The best-selling country music album of 2001 wasn’t by Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks or even old-faithful himself, Garth Brooks. No, the multi-platinum soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? grabbed that brass ring, the collection of traditional country, hillbilly and gospel music chalking up over three million in sales with little or no radio airplay. Apologists for the pop-flavored pabulum that Nashville has been cranking out these past few years are crying “foul” up and down Music Row, dismissing the aforementioned soundtrack as a mere fluke…but alt-country fans know better. A movement in search of commercial recognition found a hit in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the CD providing short-lived justification for the entire alternative country genre and it’s artistic call for a return to some sort of traditionalism in country music.

Lack of talent isn’t the reason why alt-country hasn’t broken big with mainstream audiences. The tendency for the genre to include everything outside of Nashville’s major label system might be its biggest problem, alt-country artists running the stylistic gamut from bluegrass and Western swing to country-rock and mountain-grown hillbilly rave-ups. It’s a mighty big tent that can include rough-hewn rockers like Slobberbone alongside Nashville traditionalists like BR5-49 or folkish singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams. Two recent albums by so-called “alternative country” artists highlight the identity problems suffered by the genre, with roots-rockers Hadacol and former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams offering widely different interpretations of the country tradition.

Hadacol – named after the tonic that once sponsored Hank Williams’ radio show – delivers a brilliant second album with All In Your Head (Slewfoot Records), offering up rollicking tunes with stylistic roots similar to other great American Midwestern bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets and the Skeletons. Brothers Fred and Greg Wickham run the show here, swapping off songwriting duties on a roughly 50/50 basis, both contributing vocals and guitars to the band’s distinctive country-rock sound. The Wickham’s are individually quite talented songwriters, Hadacol’s lively tunes poetically exploring familiar themes of love and betrayal, family and friendship, life and its many ups and downs. Deft production from the musically sympathetic Lou Whitney of the Skeletons breathes a great deal of life and energy into tunes like the eerie “Watch It Burn,” the self-doubting “What I’m Doin’ Wrong” or the light-hearted “Airplane Song.” Sort of like the kudzu vine that frames the highways of the South, All In Your Head will grow on you more and more with every listen.

Ryan Adams' Gold
Ryan Adams
, formerly of alt-country pioneers Whiskeytown, delivered one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2001 in Gold (Lost Highway). The Reverend is here to tell you that Adams lives up to his press clippings. Gold was released by Lost Highway, the fledgling alt-country label that shocked Nashville with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and which has also released discs from Lucinda Williams and Billy Bob Thornton. Unlike the unabashed roots-rock style of Hadacol, or even his own earlier solo work, Adams’ sophomore effort blends equal measures of country, rock, pop and Southern-fried soul into a sort of musical hobo’s stew. The album opens with a love song for the artist’s newly adopted hometown, “New York, New York” a guitar-driven romp through Adams’ lyrical infatuation with the Big Apple’s charms. From that point, Adams uses his natural charisma and songwriting skills to drive home another fifteen wonderful tunes. From the country-flavored “Somehow, Someday” to the soulful “Rescue Blues” or the introspective “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd,” Adams’ infectious voice and intelligent lyricism are guaranteed to fire the listener’s imagination.    

Although not an alt-country artist, many of those who choose to wear that label like a badge of defiance could learn a lot by listening to R.L. Burnside. One of the few remaining old-school bluesmen, Burnside’s music is a unique hybrid of Delta and Mississippi Hill Country blues. Enduring the scorn of uptight blues purists for the sin of tainting his sound through collaborations with “outsiders” like guitarist Jon Spencer or electronica producer Alex Rothrock, Burnside has nevertheless enjoyed a fair share of mainstream popularity during the past decade. Burnside’s increased audience has been built not through marketing hype but by the artist’s uncompromising and dynamic live performances.  

Burnside On Burnside
(Fat Possum/Epitaph), recorded live at the Crystal Ballroom on, well, Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon, showcases a return to an earthier sound for Burnside. With a backing band that includes his twenty-two-year-old grandson Cedric and his longtime sidekick, guitarist Kenny Brown, the 74-year old musician delivers a red-hot set of classic raw blues. Burnside’s bent-note style of guitar playing, inspired by mentor Mississippi Fred McDowell, when matched with Brown’s looping slidework and the younger Burnside’s steady rhythms, creates an almost hypnotic tapestry upon which the bluesman embroiders his powerful vocals.

At home while on any stage, Burnside tells jokes, wanders across various musical pathways and generally plays what he wants to play. This is no slick Chicago-styled blues or the work of some studio-bred Texas guitarslinger – this is primal, no-frills, rockin-the-Casbah, honest-to-god jukejoint BLOOZE, delivered straight up, with no chaser. A gem among blues albums, Burnside On Burnside captures the music’s threatening ambiance and fiery essence like no other live album these ears have ever heard. (The View On Pop Culture, Janaury 2002)