Tag Archives: Gram Parsons

Blast From The Past: Let It Bleed

It might be their greatest album, and that’s saying something.

Took a drive through the country Sunday afternoon and slapped this puppy in the player. My god, it sounds as fresh and vital as it did in 1969, and as many Stones albums were during their apex, there’s not a duff track in the lot. Many people focus on the legendary tracks – “Midnight Rambler”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Gimme Shelter” – and those three are certainly landmark tracks of the rock’n’roll era. But it’s the deeper dive that makes this album more rewarding.

Keith’s “You Got The Silver” is among his finest performances, and a perfect example of the “front porch” sound that he gleaned from his relationship with Gram Parsons. Hell, “Country Honk” could have been a Flying Burrito Brothers track. I remember being stunned that the band did not put “Honky Tonk Women” on the album; it was a massive hit single and leaving it off almost seemed counterproductive to the promotion of the album. But as a Stones fan, I was thrilled to have such a different take.

The title track is joyful (and sordid); impossible not to sing along to and timelessly infectious. Speaking of sordid, “Live With Me” is one of their raunchiest, featuring a killer bass line and a nasty sax solo. “Love In Vain” is a prime example of how the blues roots of the band flowered over time; what started as simple expositions of the form started to flower into inventive arrangements.

Charlie Watts is a monster, as always, but the underrated Bill Wyman has some great moments as well. And as much as I love Brian Jones, Mick Taylor was the greatest guitarist the Stones ever had (Ron Wood is a great player, but he has been wasted as a Rolling Stone). The band also pulled out all the stops with horn sections, gospel choirs and majestic arrangements; the sound of this album was phenomenal considering the year it was made.

This album came out as big cultural changes were occurring in the industry and for fans. AM radio was still pretty cool but FM was rearing its head. Singles were still huge (and selling) but albums started to become definitive statements rather than a collection of hit and failed singles. Let It Bleed was proving that these English boys not only understood Delta and Chicago blues, but country music and roadhouse rock as well. Hearing it made me feel cooler than I was. It gave me a window to what could (and would) be.

Listen to clips here…oh just buy the damned thing, willya?

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T.G.I.F. – Ten 2010 Bridesmaids

Putting together a “best of” list is hard for me, because there’s so much out there to enjoy every year and many albums appeal to me in different ways. Lists are subjective, of course (despite what Rolling Stone may insist) and try as I might I can’t put six pounds of stuff into a five pound bag. So while I consider the Top Ten an honor, the near misses – Bridesmaids, as I’ve been calling them – are no slouches either.

To beat the tired drum again, anyone who is claiming that there is no great music being made simply isn’t trying hard enough to find it. I’m out there beating the bushes constantly and I can’t keep up with it; certainly even a cursory attempt to widen one’s horizons would be richly rewarded (there’s a bunch of links at right for starters). And as always I welcome the emails from readers that start “have you heard…” as they often open new doors for me as well.

So this week, in no particular order, let me present Ten 2010 Bridesmaids – albums that didn’t make the Top Ten but weren’t far off. When I post the full “best of” lists in January these will certainly be there, so give a listen and be rewarded! (Amazon links included – many on sale right now!)

And on this TGIF Friday I’m especially thankful.

01) Peter Wolf – Midnight Souveniers…Like fine wine, Wolf just gets better and better with age. A far cry from his kinetic J. Geils frontman image, Pete has quietly entered the small plateau of artists perpetuating organic, honest music for the ages. A musical archivist flexing his talents.

02) Smash Palace – 7…If the cover art’s nod to Revolver doesn’t tip you off, let me. Smash Palace is in the upper tier of powerpop bands with traces of Cheap Trick, The Beatles, Tom Petty and Badfinger in its mix but a fresh and original sound. Solid songwriting, incredible vocals, songs that are pure ear candy. Radio’s loss; your gain.

03) Paul Thorn – Pimps and Preachers…”If I could be a tear/rolling down your cheek/and died on your lips/my life would be complete”. Holy shit. I’m new to Thorn’s world, but this is a gritty brew of John Hiatt, Warren Zevon, Bob Seger and Alejandro Escovedo. I am on board now.

04) The Master Plan – Maximum Respect…You were so sure that you didn’t get a record from The Del Lords, The Fleshtones or The Dictators in 2010. Well, you were wrong! The collaborative side project is back for a second album and as you might expect, it kicks ass! If “BBQ” doesn’t get you hopping, you are a zombie.

05) Teenage Fanclub – Shadows…Back after a five-year break and sounding like it was a day. Fannies know what to expect, for the uninitiated, think a sophisticated pop blend of XTC, Big Star and some classic California sunny pop (Beach Boys, CSN). A little subdued for some, I prefer to call it atmospheric.

06) New Pornographers – Together…The phrase “greater than the sum of its parts” sets the bar very high when talking about this collaborative unit, but damned if I don’t find every one of their albums irresistible. Any band that can make whistling as cool as a snapping snare drum is okay by me.

07) Graham Parker – Imaginary Television…Another guy who just defies the calendar and continues to pump out great songs; he’s a better singer, songwriter and guitar player now than in his popular prime. Also be sure to pick up his live set with The Figgs.

08) Deadstring Brothers – Sao Paulo…Imagine the Gram Parsons / Keith Richards sessions in the Stones’ golden era were invaded by Ronnie Wood from The Faces. Wine flowed. Tape rolled. Absolute gospel – rock – country blues bliss.

09) The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever…Just missed…I thought the personnel change would impair their urgency and their passion but they are as good as ever. The first five songs are absolutely perfect and the album would be worth it if it ended there.

10) Nick Curran – Reform School Girl…I wasn’t a follower of Curran but damned if he isn’t channeling Little Richard, Phil Spector, Fats Domino, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Sonics on this album. This is a party whittled down and stuffed in a jewel case; besides – how can you not buy an album with a title like this one?

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Blast From The Past: Whiskeytown

When the insurgent roots music movement started to take hold – call it alt-country, No Depression or Y’Alternative music – a flood of bands that tied back to Gram Parsons, Neil Young and classic country artists from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash started to milk a serious buzz. Near the front of the pack was a loosely raucous band from Raleigh, North Carolina called Whiskeytown, and their lead martyr singer and songwriter Ryan Adams.

A skilled and interesting collaborative band (with Caitlin Cary, Phil Wandscher, Eric “Skillet” Gilmore and Mike Daly), Whiskeytown released its debut Faithless Street, which bowled over critics and landed them a major label deal. By the time the second album Stranger’s Almanac was released, the group was known for its self-destructive tendencies as much as its musical brilliance, the lion’s share of that squarely on the head of Adams. Reading interviews at the time I realized that I was watching someone emulating Keith Richards; I just didn’t know how much of it was by accident.

Thankfully, I was wrong about Adams in a multitude of ways. He didn’t drink himself into an early grave, even when the band imploded in 2000. In fact, he was so prolific between 2000 and 2005 (eight releases!) that the plaudits became even more gargantuan. Like some of his heroes and influences, he juggled both popular acclaim and commercial success, and it looked like he was a step away from releasing that album or song that would place his name on everyone’s lips (or perhaps spontaneously combust).

Having juggled the solo image and with his more traditional band The Cardinals, he opted for the latter and released two more albums over the next five years. Like contemporaries and heroes Wilco, he’s prone to experiment with styles and now has left them to form a rock trio. I haven’t even heard Orion, his newest record; I’m not certain I want to hear Ryan Adams doing metal (even if he did get his start in a punk band). But there’s no denying the early classics, and I hope he still has a few tricks like that left in his worn out sachel.

Here’s my short shot review of Strangers Almanac from 1997:

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Ryan Adams is a hell of a songwriter for a guy in his early twenties, but I’d get the suicide watch started right now. Desperation set to music works both ways, and Adams mines the vein like the forefathers he so drunkenly pretends he isn’t influenced by (perhaps his own line sums it up best – “I can’t stand to be under your wing”). When he’s more uptempo he wears his Paul Westerberg on his sleeve (“Yesterday’s News”) and other times a Neil Young ghost will rear its head (“Turn Around”).

But he’s also savvy enough to diversify the instrumentation. Fiddle and horns alternately pick a song up (“Sixteen Days”) and take it out at the knees (the pained and haunting “Everything I Do”). One of the most powerful and depressing records of 1997, and I mean those both as compliments.

Listen to clips from Strangers Almanac

Whiskeytown page at Lost Highway Records


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Under The Radar: The Donkeys

There are just too many records to sift through.

As a result, I sometimes miss a follow-up to an album that I really liked, even though I spend a while keeping my eyes peeled for their next one. But many times there is no next one, or the stars don’t align and I miss out on it when it drops. In a perfect world I will run across it again eventually thanks to my habitual late-night web browsing, but those gaps are getting longer and longer as time goes on.

So that’s my long-winded way of telling you that The Donkeys released Living On The Other Side in 2008, and I only realized that today. So while I’m off to get that one, let me pimp you on their self-titled effort from 2006, because there’s a chance that you might not have heard either one. And I can vouch that at least one of them is a real gem.

Here’s my 2006 review from Pop Culture Press…

I almost don’t know where to start in describing the collective sound. A pinch of Wilco, a dash of Beachwood Sparks, a whisper of the first Rod Stewart album but only if played in Gram Parsons’ living room on a Sunday morning. The Donkeys, as unassuming as their moniker, quietly serve up a gumbo of bottleneck country blues, sun-drenched folk and pensive basement soul that is solidly entertaining and occasionally mesmerizing.

Four musicians from San Diego who blend perfectly; percussion that never overplays, solid bass that yangs the drummer’s yin, guitar lines that fuzz, shine and shimmer, and what can only be described as impeccable choices from the keyboard player. Beyond the sounds, unusual, challenging and dark lyrics hover, adding an ever deeper dimension.

The oddball waltz of “Paisley Patterns” might be too off-putting for some (especially with the droning lyric of “All my friends are dead” haunting the melody) but just about everything else here is pure ear-worm material. “Try To Get By” is a two-minute arm-wresting match between Bob Dylan and Neil Young. “Black Cat” is The Band reincarnated as Built To Spill. “No Need For Oxygen” is six minutes of aural beauty juxtaposed with somber lyrics, but it could have gone on six more without a complaint.

This album could be the soundtrack of your Saturday night depression, your Sunday morning sunrise coffee, or your silent road trip home after “that” weekend…your dwindling cigarette pack on the passenger seat and your life in the balance. It sounds like a cop-out when you describe a record as sounding “organic”, but when ninety percent of what comes out of your speakers is too easily categorized, records that percolate their own energy deserve a bright floodlight. Go find this wonderful record and immerse yourself. 

The Donkeys on MySpace

Donkey Buzz

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Blast From The Past – Beachwood Sparks

beachwood_sparks

The great thing about revisiting albums years later – especially ones that not everyone is talking about – is that you hear them differently and pick up new wavelengths. It’s almost ten years since Beachwood Sparks released their eponymous album, and while I still enjoy it I’m able to discover other subtleties in the music beyond the major touchstones I identified the first time around. From legacy bands like the Grateful Dead to more recent purveyors Apples In Stereo, it’s all about texture.

Here’s what I wrote for Cosmik Debris back in 2000…

Gram Parsons described his style as “Cosmic American Music”, and I suppose that if he were around to hear Beachwood Sparks, he’d let the quartet on his bus without a second thought.

A quick look at the graphics and titles would have you trot out Buffalo Springfield or The Flying Burrito Brothers as a touchstone, but the production and arrangements owe as much to inventive popmeisters like Brian Wilson and Mitch Easter. In fact, I imagine that if Easter or master knob-twiddler Brad Jones were sent back in time to produce Parsons, this would be the result. Except “Something I Don’t Recognize”, where he would need the Nesmith-led Monkees. Or “Old Sea Miner”, where only XTC would do.

Aw hell, Parsons would have gotten around, he was that kind of guy. And the fact that Beachwood Sparks pulls all of this off without painting themselves into a corner is a hell of a compliment.

The overall sound is psychedelic, dreamy introspection, with interludes like “Singing Butterfly” leading into more uptempo Byrds/Poco moments like “Sister Rose”. Of course, just when you’re safely in that mood, they toss in an aggressive fuzzbox guitar solo over a go-go beat just to throw you for a loop. “See On Three” recalls Wilco’s experimentation, but the dizzying signature changes are probably even outside of Tweedy’s methods.

“This Is What It Feels Like” is another time-travel song, sounding like a pop track that somehow leaked into the future from 1967 California. “The Reminder” eerily and beautifully recalls the innocence of Neil Young’s first records with its delicate guitar and lilting vocals. Individually, these are wonderfully realized moments; as an album, it’s a mental watercolor painting that will dance with your imagination.

I had mixed feelings about their follow-up album, but I love the debut as much today as I did ten years ago. So if you haven’t savored this one yet, please do. And keep your eyes open – supposedly they will release a new album soon (it’s been an eight year drought!)

Beachwood Sparks on Amazon.

Beachwood Sparks on MySpace

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Blast From The Past: The Jayhawks

And so will you when you listen to this album

And so will you when you listen to this album

With the surprising (but exciting!) announcement of The Jayhawks reunion and the release of their new anthology, I’m reminded of how much I love Smile, a work of sheer beauty that is aptly named because it always brings one to my face. Here’s my original review of this classic from May 2000 in Consumable Online…

jayhawks band

Brian Wilson fans, fear not. Despite the record’s title (and a track titled “Mr. Wilson”), The Jayhawks are not trying to usurp your leader or ride his coattails. And for god sakes, naming a record Smile is not blasphemous, although it may have taken balls to do so. Allow me to prescribe this simple task. Listen to the title track – the opening cut on this record – and get swept up in its irresistible, anthemic chorus. Smile? Try not to.

“I love what we used to be, but I’m interested in where else we can go”, Gary Louris is quoted in the band’s bio. And in fifteen years, the band has bent and turned and changed, but never so dramatically as when Mark Olson left the band and Louris’ vision led to the Big Star leanings of 1997’s Sound Of Lies. That baby step is now a confident gait, and if the last record warmed your heart, Smile is Chapter Two of the new direction.

You might be surprised to see Bob Ezrin listed as producer, as his reputation was built on bands like KISS and Alice Cooper. But Ezrin takes no job lightly, and his response to a tape of fifty possible tracks was a three page letter analyzing what each one needed. (Indeed, in an interview last year, Alice Cooper referred to Ezrin as the “sixth member of the band”). The result is a more rhythm-oriented disc, layered with guitars and drums and vocals, but still the essence of the band. “Somewhere In Ohio” starts out like a soft Spring breeze drifting through the window, but then the guitars slam in, and now we’re nose-to-nose with Wilco.

“What Led Me To This Town” and “A Break In The Clouds” find Louris and new keyboardist Jen Gunderman in a vocal duet that would make Gram and Emmylou fans…errr…smile. But “Life Goes By” has Ezrin steering them (and us) into psych-pop territory, more aggressively raucous; wah-wah guitars and percussion driving the song like the Gas Giants or Gin Blossoms might do. Then the brakes are slammed, “Broken Harpoon” centered on the acoustic guitar and the seamless harmony of four vocals fronted by Louris’ lilting lead.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is probably the first single, a hybrid of Ronnie Lane and latter-day Fleetwood Mac that might just leapfrog the boyband stranglehold on the airwaves. And if it doesn’t, that’s radio’s loss, not yours. Because ten tracks in, after the rocking “Pretty Thing”, The Jayhawks seal the deal with four killer tracks. “Mr. Wilson” is as lyrically thoughtful as it is musically stimulating, “In My Wildest Dreams” dabbles in folk psychedelia with great success, “Better Days” beautifully brings the spirit of The Band into the year 2000, and “Baby Baby Baby” forges energetic rock, great vocals and a harrowing story into an unforgettable brew that will have you arguing over the replay button and playing the whole damned thing through again start to finish.

Even if you fell on the other side of the fence after the Louris/Olson split, you have to admire this work on its own terms. Olson will no doubt continue to make good music. But The Jayhawks have just hit back-to-back home runs.

The Jayhawks page on Wikipedia

An interesting video for a live version of “Smile”

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