Friday, October 27, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: Lightnin' Hopkins, Saliva, Sum 41, Demon Hunter, The Cynics (2002)

Lightnin' Hopkins’ Live At Newport


The importance of Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins on the contemporary blues scene cannot be overstated. Hopkins’ unique guitar style inspired a literal “who’s who” of blues giants, including Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Beginning in the ‘40s, Lightnin’ recorded hundreds of songs, taking his payments in cash (and maybe a bottle on the side), capturing his performances on tape in one take. Hopkins was in danger of fading into obscurity when Sam Charters produced a full-length Lightnin’ album in 1960 and featured the guitarist in his best-selling book The Country Blues. With his natural charisma, six-string talents, and improvised approach to storytelling (Hopkins would often add new lyrics to traditional tunes on the fly), Lightnin’ became a star of the early ‘60s folk-blues revival. Touring the globe, Hopkins’ travels eventually brought him to the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival.

Hopkins’ Live At Newport (Vanguard Records) is a wonderful document of the bluesman at his very best. Taken from the original analog tapes, cleaned up and remastered for the digital age, the sound quality is a notch below what most people expect from a CD. The sound does nothing to detract from the incredible performance offered by Lightnin’, however, and the addition of several previously unreleased songs fleshes out the original vinyl release. Hopkins’ runs through a set that includes such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Mojo Hand,” also offering up red-hot readings of “Come On Baby” and “Where Can I Find My Baby?” Hopkins’ voice is in fine form and his between-song comments are priceless. It is Lightnin’s guitar that holds center stage, however, his fluid leads and percussive bass lines defining a style and establishing Hopkins’ influence on generations to come. An essential addition to any blues’ fans collection, Live At Newport is both a fine introduction to the talents of Lightnin’ Hopkins and a textbook illustration of Texas-flavored country blues.


After a few years of wandering the indie-rock wilderness, Memphis-based Saliva mined platinum with its major league debut, Every Six Seconds. The band’s mix of rap-influenced vocals and hard rock with sharp metal edges caught the ear of the teen market and resulted in a handful of modern rock chartbusters. Back Into Your System (Island Records) attempts to recreate the magic of that debut and, for the most part, succeeds. Fronting a lean, muscular collection of tunes fueled by leather-tough riffs and crashing rhythms, Saliva vocalist Josey Scott shows subtle growth as a vocalist, allowing some of the Memphis soul that he grew up with to creep in around the edges of songs like “Rest In Pieces.” The staccato rhythms and pounding fretwork of “Raise Up” conceal a lyrical braggadocio worthy of any gangsta rapper while the radio-ready “Always” offers all the best traits of nu-metal with few of the clichés. With greater emotional depth and musical dimensions than the typical modern rock band, Saliva prove with Back Into Your System that the band’s early success was no fluke and that they’re here to stay.

Sum 41's Does This Look Infected?
Also delivering a sophomore effort in late 2002, punk pranksters Sum 41 asked Does This Look Infected? (Island Records) with a two-disc CD/DVD set. Shuffling across the same pop/punk tightrope as Blink-182 and the Offspring, this Canadian foursome shows little maturity in its lyrical tales of teen angst and romantic frustration, high-energy tunes playing directly to the MTV demographic. However, Sum 41 shows the improved musical chemistry that a year together on the road will create, adding a dimension to radio-ready songs like “Still Waiting” or the riff-happy “Over My Head (Better Off Dead).” Extra-credit for the late-night, monster movie zombie motif that runs through the album’s graphics – if psychotronic film fans like Sum 41 turn one teenage kid onto George Romero then this will be a better world, indeed…

Just when you figure that this “nu-metal” thing has run its course with a thousand different Slipknot/Mudvayne clones, along comes a band like Demon Hunter to change your perceptions of the trend. With the self-titled Demon Hunter (Solid State), the band brings some intelligence and style to the alt-metal genre, mixing powerful syncopation and chameleon-like time signatures into the standard brew of razor-sharp fretwork and pounding rhythms. Songs like “Through the Black” or “As We Wept” offer more than your typical instrumental mugging, Demon Hunter’s obsession with death and entropy informing the band’s lyrics with poetic erudition. The band is also quite capable of moving from a whisper to a roar and back again in a heartbeat, acoustic-flavored melodies complimenting the industrial-strength riffs and jackhammer beats. Inspired by bands like Black Sabbath, Venom, and Sepultura, Demon Hunter thankfully strays off the beaten path with a fine debut album.

The Cynics' Living Is the Best Revenge
The growing media fascination with “garage rock” bands like the White Stripes and the Hives couldn’t come at a better time for The Cynics. Pittsburgh’s favorite sons have been cranking out highly-amped, ‘60s-styled fuzzbox rock for the better part of a decade with none of the mainstream accolades afforded the aforementioned artistic poseurs. Living Is the Best Revenge (Get Hip Recordings) is just the latest installment in a lengthy tradition of rock solid efforts by the Cynics, the album offering a dozen finely crafted tunes drenched with feedback and manic rhythms. Frontman Michael Kastelic’s snotty vocals lend credence to the theory that he might be Sky Saxon’s lovechild, while six-string maniac Gregg Kostelich keeps the riff-quotient high, tearing off frenzied chords in never-ending pursuit of Cub Koda-styled perfection. Songs like “She Lives (In A Time of Her Own)” or “You Never Had It Better” resonate with undiluted rock ‘n’ roll passion and a fervor that you could spend a lifetime trying to find. Save yourself both the trouble and the airfare and check out the Cynics instead. (View From The Hill, December 2022)

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