Tag Archives: Paul Westerberg

Blast From The Past: I Am Sam

Beatle Weekend, Part One.

Also known as How To Sell A Beatles Tribute Album With A Movie Tie-In. The premise of the relationship between this collection of Beatles covers (more specifically, Lennon-McCartney covers) and the Sean Penn film is Penn’s character’s affinity for Beatles music.

Fine by me. I imagine the reason that not too many of the artists strayed from the formula had more to do with “keeping it real” for the imagination of the Sam character (mentally challenged) than the participant’s unwillingness to experiment with established classics. Regardless, great songs are great songs, and several of the almost spot-on performances (Aimee Mann and Michael Penn on “Two Of Us” and Sheryl Crow’s “Mother Nature’s Son“) are enjoyable versions that could have been bonus tracks on those respective artists’ albums.

Video: “Two of Us“, “Blackbird“, “I’m Looking Through You

Some veer slightly off the path, like The Vines with “I’m Only Sleeping” (great finish), Stereophonics‘ soulful “Don’t Let Me Down” and Howie Day’s desperate reading of “Help“. I would have preferred that The Black Crowes tackle something raucous like “Birthday“, as their restrained performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is missing a spark. The original “Across The Universe” succeeded largely because of the vocal; Rufus Wainwright’s interpretation grows tired very quickly. Paul Westerberg disappoints with a dull “Nowhere Man” but Ben Harper surprised me with his solid take on “Strawberry Fields Forever“.

Oddest moments: Not hearing “The Weight” immediately after “Golden Slumbers” (Ben Folds, natty) and Eddie Vedder making “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” sound like a suicide note. Then again, most things Vedder sings could fit that description.

(This 2002 review originally ran in Yeah Yeah Yeah, Issue #21.)

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New Album! Rob Skane

Well, new as of last September, anyway. I only have two ears.

Rob Skane, an upstate New York pop songwriter, has assembled a really nice acoustic based collection of three-minute pop songs. Weaving your way through you will probably draw the conclusion that Rob is a fan of Paul Westerberg (“Army of Individuality”), Elvis Costello (“You Preach Peace” – A/B that puppy with “Radio Radio”), Graham Parker (“Ballad of a Small Man”), Paul Collins (“I Waited”) and Nick Lowe (“In My Room”). The whole album has that loose, casual feel of  Marshall Crenshaw. Hell, that’s all from the good end of my record collection.

Ironically released on LoFi Records, Skane’s songs are primarily fueled by chunky acoustic guitar, simple but infectious melodies and choruses. His lead vocals, while not stellar, are well-suited to the songs; if you can appreciate Jesse Malin, Jonathan Richman, Eytan Mirsky, Michael Shelley or Ben Vaughn this is right up your alley. There are no explosive moments; guitar solos are brief, playing is tight without being flashy.

Video: “I Waited

While many of the songs are three chord wonders and can be a bit repetitive (especially the first two), most of them really grew on me.  (With one exception – I have no idea what’s going on with the hidden track, but if the purpose is to remind you to get up and take the CD out of the player, mission accomplished.) It would be almost impossible to hear “Girl Next Door” or  “I Waited” and not drum on the dashboard, and “You Preach Peace” deserves much wider airplay.

Give Phantom Power Trip a listen; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Visit the Rob Skane website.

Buy at CD Baby or Amazon.

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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:

+++

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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New Album! Darrin James Band

It’s tough to keep up with everything that comes down the pike, and I completely missed out on Thrones of Gold, the 2006 debut album from Darrin James. Had I read a quote like “As a songwriter, I have wanted to combine honest, dark lyrics with old school blues and a fusion of styles, to express the emotions and stories of tragic or flawed characters” I would have been all over that album in a heartbeat.

Fortunately this second effort did cross my desk. Having no expectations whatsoever, I let it unfold organically and found myself pleasantly surprised by the results. James spent a few years traveling the world playing and writing music, and this album is all over the map as well – but in a good way (kudos Matt Gill for solid recording in multiple studios). Blues, folk, rock, country; a nice blend of atmosphere for his characters and stories to take root in.

Critics have been pretty effusive, dropping comparisons to Robbie Robertson, Joe Henry, Lyle Lovett, Paul Westerberg, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, among others. I drop a couple more names below.

Live Video: “Baby Don’t Bitch

James has a raw and expressive voice that can at first be jarring, but it does suit his material. His cadence in “I Was Wrong” makes him sound like Neil Diamond on a bender, while the voodoo blues of “Baby Don’t Bitch” might bring Captain Beefheart to mind. But when he settles in on something more pensive (“Shallow Grave”), he can float the timbre and wisdom of John Prine. It’s a nice chameleon act, so when he rolls into Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, it fits hand in glove…

Read the full review at PopMatters.

Visit the Darrin James Band website.

Listen to clips at CD Baby

***

R.I.P. Lynn Redgrave. Goodbye, Georgy Girl.

True Royalty

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Semi-Semisonic

The law firm of Wilson-Munson-Wilson is back!

Doesn’t seem like that long ago that Semisonic was a staple of our radio diet. “Closing Time” – both song and video – seemed to spool in an incessant loop for about a two year period. Fortunately the band had both chops and songs. Like the Gin Blossoms, they seemed like they’d pump out pleasing melodic pop rock for a long time, and then – like the Gin Blossoms – they were yesterday’s hot band.

Before there was Semisonic there was Trip Shakespeare, where the Wilson-Munson-Wilson axis was firmly in place. Now those three are involved in related projects as artists and producers (damn, Minneapolis is a fertile ground!). And Jacob Slichter? Well, he only wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read about being a musician and getting tossed into the star-making machinery. I heartily recommend you go read So You Wanna be A Rock And Roll Star as soon as possible – it’s literate, funny and poignant.

But on to these two records; a semiSemisonic, if you will.

One of the things I liked about Semisonic was that even when they weren’t really rocking (“FYT”, “Brand New Baby”, “Across The Great Divide”, “If I Run”, etc.) they had a punch to their songs. Sure, much of it was powered by piano and acoustic guitar; maybe it was the way Dan Wilson’s vocals soared above it all that hooked me. The slower paced songs (“Secret Smile”) seemed more fragile by comparison. I could listen to something like “Falling” all day long.

Well, if you like great vocals, those of John Munson and Matt Wilson as The Twilight Hours are stellar. Stereo Night kicks off with the ambitious “Dreams”, weaving hook and melody between foreground and background like a delicious hypnotic dance. But after ten tracks I was in serious need of something more uptempo, although the closing track “Never Mine To Lose” is a solid exit.

“My Return”  and “Queen of Tomorrow” are probably the standouts as far as the more energetic tracks go, while “Forgot Me Now” reminds me of Semisonic’s finest slower moments. (It actually reminds me more of a song called “Fall” by The Tender Idols, but that’s really stretching a reference!). And “Winter Blue” is a pretty stunning exercise in twee-pop, with some nice arrangements that will remind you of another guy named Wilson.

It’s pretty, well-crafted and consistent. For me, it’s just lacking that intangible oomph to force its way to the top of the pile. Give a listen and decide for yourself.

The Twilight Hours on MySpace

***

I’m rabid for tribute albums, and by a similar nature, always game when established musicians do cover songs because they want to. That’s a long way from the days when you had to cover the du jour pop tunes in your corner bar to put food on your table, so if you’re going there now, I’ll go there with you.

Thanks to Chan Poling’s piano and Steve Roehm’s natty vibes, the album does swing. I won’t say that their version of “Androgynous” will make me forget Paul Westerberg or Joan Jett, but it’s clever and catchy and retains all of the original playfulness. And there are some loopy jazz moments within “Watching The Detectives” that remind you that Steve Nieve would totally do that if Elvis only let him.

But the bottom line for me  is too many albums, not enough time. The New Standards are great musicians, offer some class arrangements, and John Munson (with Poling) are solid vocalists. There will be moments when this album will be a joy to encounter. But there’s no way I’ll ever play it as loud or as often as The Hot Rats, who were just as inventive but (1) selected better songs and (2) rocked the snot out of them.  (Caveat: I didn’t realize they had a prior album out, and some of those songs look killer, so I’m headed there to check them out myself).

But this album is well worth a listen as your mileage may vary.

The New Standards website and MySpace

***

And let’s not forget Dan Wilson, who has been pretty busy himself.

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Blast From The Past: Tonio K

It's great - no bull!

I will never understand how great records can go unheard… 

I guess when it comes to Tonio K., I can almost extend that to great catalogues of records. For despite initial kudos out of the box for Life In The Foodchain and pockets of critical acclaim bordering on cult worship, the man remains a virtual unknown and is seldom mentioned when people discuss great songwriters and favorite albums. To give you an idea of the breadth of his career, he was a member of The Crickets (as in Buddy Holly, although well post-Buddy) and collaborated with Burt Bacharach on his 2005 Grammy winning effort. He turns sixty this year, which is still young pup status for someone with his pedigree. 

When Foodchain was released in 1978, it exploded off the radio, standing out even though the post-disco mid-punk era was in full chaotic bloom. The music was great, the lyrics both hysterical and deep, and it remains one of the most auspicious debut albums of the rock era. I’ll save the dissertation of his career and its impact upon me for another day; there is not enough room to discuss it in one bite. Let’s just say that the public missed the boat on this one big time, and even my hopeful plea contained in my review over a decade ago (below) fell on deaf ears. 

Had Ole’ been released when it was supposed to have been, who knows what might have happened? Maybe he would have finally gotten that well-deserved acclaim. Maybe he would have disappeared again. I haven’t heard very much about or from Tonio K. recently (even his MySpace page hasn’t been updated in almost two years)  and reportedly he’s done with performing and trying to play the artist game. But I won’t count the man out, ever. And if he is done, well…he’s laid down a hell of a gauntlet. 

Check out his entire discography. If you don’t own everything he’s ever recorded, you now have a to-do list

Here’s my review of Ole’ from Pop Culture Press 

 

Thank God! One of the more critical “oh-that-won’t-sell-let’s-shelve-it” mistakes of 1990 finally has closure, and people can get a chance to hear what die-hards with secret taped copies have been crowing about for a decade. 

Tonio K (Steve Krikorian) first burst onto the rock scene in the late 1970s with the caustic and brilliant “Life in the Foodchain,” a concept record from Hell that mixed witty and insightful social commentary with blistering rock and roll. Although “Amerika,” the followup, contained more great music, Tonio K was no longer the flavor of the month and sales dipped. He released a great EP called “La Bomba” (not yet re-released) and then later a pair of majestic records for What/A&M in the mid-1980s that were chock full of great songs but could find no home on radio. Then it seemed that he disappeared, surfacing occasionally as a collaborator with friend Charlie Sexton or supplying songs for soundtracks. Gigs were either infrequent or low profile, or probably both. 

What actually happened was a third record for A&M produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring a hot band including organist Booker T. Jones (!!), ex-Attraction Bruce Thomas (bass) and T-Bone himself. Guests on the record included Peter Case, Warner Hodges (Jason & The Scorchers), Paul Westerberg and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. The music kicked ass, and as always, the lyrics were amazing. How could this record not get noticed? But some bean counter said “uhhno.”

But they wouldn’t release the tapes either, so this sat on a shelf and collected a mound of dust. Enter Mitch Cantor, fan and label owner, whose dogged persistence finally elicited some cooperation from saner heads, and eighteen months later you can finally hold this in your hands. 

So the big question is this÷does it hold up? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Kicking off with the manic “Stop The Clock” (with a heart-attack guitar solo from Marc Ribot that has to be heard to be believed), the twelve cuts showcase both sides of Tonio K÷the intolerant cynic with the vocabulary to back it up, and the introspective social observer who is able to communicate about faith and hope in a valid and non-fanatical light. 

Rockers like “Time Steps Aside” and “Pardon Me For Living” are fresh and vital, and the acoustic numbers place even greater focus on his stellar lyrics. Topics of homelessness and child abuse in “Hey Lady” and “That Could Have Been Me” could have been rudimentary folk songs in the hands of a lesser artist, but here are first-rate work. And maybe it will take a lesser artist to have a hit record with “I’ll Remember You,” an absolute killer that, like most truly great songs, will never find its way onto the radio unless some hack like Celine Dion sings it. 

Video: We Walk On

Video: That Could Have Been Me

The liner notes by Tonio K are a great bonus, insightful and sometimes self-deprecating illuminations of the songs. Kudos to Gadfly Records for altruistically stepping up to the plate and re-releasing records by people like Andy Breckman and Tonio K simply because they deserve to be heard. No one thinks these are stadium-filling artists, but it’s obvious Tonio K has a lot more to say, and I don’t care whether it’s brand new or has eight years of dust on it. The man is a flat-out work of art, an essential artist, and deserving of a wider audience that he hopefully will now find. 

 Grab Ole’ from Gadfly Records or CD Baby 

Wiki up on Steve Krikorian, whydontcha? 

The unofficial homepage has tons of lyrics and information.

***

R.I.P. Allen Swift, a/k/a the voice of Simon Bar Sinister

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Chilton Classics

Not in sales, no - but in impact? Oh, yes.

“Thinking ’bout what to say / and I can’t find the lines…”   

Alex Chilton died the other day, and so did a piece of me. I first heard Alex when his booming gravel voice launched out of my transistor radio with “The Letter”, the brilliant Box Tops single that didn’t waste a second of it’s not quite two minutes. I was still buying singles then, and follow-ups like “Cry Like A Baby” and “Soul Deep” made it all the way from Memphis to my ears. 

From The Box Tops to Big Star

But most singles bands from the 60s had their moment and hit the wall when music turned towards FM radio and longer, more sophisticated album cuts. And although I was getting into progressive rock and glam and the beginnings of heavy metal with Black Sabbath, I retained my passion for short sharp pop songs. I wouldn’t realize until years later that the Box Tops weren’t a group of friends hanging out and writing songs like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were, but rather they were a staunchly controlled vehicle for a group of writers and producers and that a disillusioned sixteen year old was in fact that singer who sounded like he had already lived a hard life. I was half right. 

Thanks to someone’s insight in a rock magazine – I’ll wager that it was Creem – I was tipped that this new band was aces and I was able to grab a copy of the first Big Star album called #1 Record. What an audacious title, I thought, but dropping the needle on that album was an electrifying experience. Here was an album of impeccable chestnuts, from the rocking “Don’t Lie To Me” and “In The Street” to the sweet and fragile “Try Again” and  “Give Me Another Chance” (and when that crescendo of angelic vocals comes crashing in…oh, my God!). The fist fight between the tambourine and ringing guitar chords in “When My Baby’s Beside Me”. And that dagger-through-the-heart, “Thirteen”, which dripped with teenage angst. 

December Boys got it bad

The second album, sans Chris Bell, was almost as good, a little sloppier and esoteric with absolute standouts like “Back of A Car”, “September Gurls” and “O My Soul”. Meanwhile “What’s Going Ahn” and “Daisy Glaze” and “Morpha Too” hinted at the fragility that was to come in Third / Sister Lovers. Despite some genuinely upbeat sounding moments in “Thank You Friends” and “Jesus Christ”, it was painful to listen to “Holocaust” and “Big Black Car”, almost the soundtrack of a man falling apart. 

A perfect album title; he could have used it twice.

The post-Big Star years were a mixed bag; there were moments of pure joy and fun and others of witnessing painfully inept performances. I remember being in a club with my friend Bill waiting for a band to come onstage, and the most horrific atonal version of “The Letter” came over the sound system. As we cringed, the bartender informed us that it was a tape of a recent Alex Chilton performance; I remember thinking that he sounded like he would die mid-set. 

But in the coming years he regrouped and rebounded, issuing some solid EPs before getting talked into reforming Big Star with Jody Stephens and a pair of Posies in Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. When The Replacements blasted out the dynamic single “Alex Chilton” the legend was reborn; more indie bands started to admit the influence and at long last Chilton was getting the popular response to match the critical hurrahs. 

 

But Alex took it full circle and reunited The Box Tops, for as esoteric and varied as his playlists had been over the years – from soul to powerpop to MOR standards – the New Orleans via Memphis vibe never left. He seemed to enjoy the Box Tops shows more than the Big Star ones, and perhaps that’s why their reunion album In Space was a disappointment – his heart wasn’t in it anymore. 

But his soul and his heart and his pen and his voice came together often enough to leave behind an incredible legacy. So here are ten tunes that are a huge part of my life, songs that hit me like a ton of bricks or dovetailed with the emotions I was going through when I first heard them. They are fresh and timeless and will resonate with me no matter how old I am. I’m in love…with that song. 

And now the show for SXSW will go on as a tribute.

Icewater

 * September Gurls. December boys got it bad, I know, Alex, I know. Me too. 

* Cry Like A Baby. “Today we passed on the street/and you just walked on by/my heart just fell to my feet…” 

* The Ballad of El Goodo. “I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds” 

* Take Me Home and Make Me Like It. Is that the best pick up line ever? Hilarious and sloppy. 

* Soul Deep. Pop Soul Perfection. Neil Diamond shat himself when he heard this. 

* I’m In Love With A Girl. I can’t help but smile every time I hear this simple, fragile love song. There’s so much angst and pain in Alex’s catalogue; this is a nice exception. 

* No Sex. More for the fact that the EP signaled his return than the song itself. 

* Back of a Car. Thinking about what to say, and I can’t find the lines

* The Letter. The two minutes that started it all. 

* Thirteen Maybe the most poignant song about fumbling adolescence ever written. This one went through my heart like a spear, even though I was eighteen when I heard it. 

Rest In Peace, Alex.

All Music Guide tribute from Steven Thomas Erlewine 

Memphis Commercial Appeal says goodbye 

Some thoughts from pop critic Mike Bennett

Alex Chilton wiki with links to multiple discographies

The tribute at Popdose

Auditeer and music columnist John Micek remembers

Ed Ward from NPR chimes in

Anthony Lombardi talked to John Fry about Alex.

Others pay tribute from SXSW.

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