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Blast From The Past: Everclear

A little over two years ago I regurgitated an old review about the first volume of Everclear’s Songs From An American Movie twin pack, Learning How To Smile. After hearing “When It All Goes Wrong Again” the other day, I decided it was time to unearth the other, which originally ran in Amplifier Magazine eleven years ago.

So without further ado

Aw, anyone could have a bad year…” (“Here We Go Again”)

Double albums used to be a fairly commonplace treat in The Age Of Vinyl, but now they’re as scarce as the green-bearded turtle. How many significant double CDs have been out recently? Wilco’s Being There, and uh…. Hell, these days “prolific” means releasing an album every two years. Record companies – when they do promote your record – will drop your last project like the plague if you issue a follow-up.

Art Alexakis cares passionately about a lot of things, but following the rules isn’t one of them. He planned the two-pronged attack last year with the hope that it would garner some attention, though ironically the success of the first record may get truncated by the emergence of the second. But with his songs all over the radio and his videos the toast of television, Art has a problem most artists would kill for. And with twenty-four new Everclear tracks dropped in our laps, we’re not doing so bad either. The two releases, like Wilco’s two discs, could co-exist as one package or survive independently. Not every track is a keeper, but the percentage is damned high.

Video: “Wonderful

Volume One’s clever homage to youth and the loss of innocence is one of the best releases of 2000, with songs recreated (“Brown Eyed Girl”) and borrowed (“AM Radio” is a tree from the seed of “Mr. Big Stuff”) among a bagful of …gulp….pop songs? Even the crunching riffs of “Wonderful” are offset by the “na-na-na-na-na-na” chorus that’s too infectious to resist, and the string-soaked “Annabella’s Song” (Art’s ode to his daughter) sounds like it was lifted from a classic Hollywood movie. The kitsch of “Unemployed Boyfriend” is a matter of taste, but the acoustic waltz of “The Honeymoon Song” is as delightful as it is surprising. Ditto “Thrift Store Chair”, a sleeper Americana cut with a John Prine (!) reference.

The hardest sounding song on the record might be “Now That It’s Over”, which is really a fat pop hook covered with echoes and John Bonham drum sound. But one look at the imaginative video for “AM Radio” will tell you all you need to know about a man whose life was much closer to Chico And The Man than The Brady Bunch. Alexakis’ heroin-addicted past and intolerance of deadbeat dads are well-known plot lines; perhaps now he can finally find solace in the charms of what should have been a normal childhood.

Video: “When It All Goes Wrong Again

Volume Two’s edge is harder, louder and closer to the classic “Santa Monica” era. The blatant “Rock Star” (“I just want to be a rock star/I just want to get laid”) is probably as true as it is self-mocking. Maybe “Short Blond Hair” is even more telling, where Art claims that “no one really understands just how simple and plain and predictable I am”. Not necessarily true, Art – many critics claim that you’ve been beating the same riff to death for years. The truth actually lies more in the middle – “just when I think I have driven my life to where I wanted it to be/it takes me to a place where I do not want to go”. Everclear was arguably the Band of 2000…so where do you go when you’re “first class living in a goldfish bowl”?

When It All Goes Wrong Again” and “Misery Whip” boast a guitar sound straight outta Jimmy Page (so maybe there should have been a song called “FM Radio”?), and “Slide” and “Babytalk” are as raucous as anything the band has ever recorded. But check out the old softie on “The Good Witch Of The North” and the title track (where he gives closure to the opening track on Volume One), and you see the sentiment from Volume One slipping right back in. Yeah, Art might bitch about asshole ex-wives and loser friends and tripping over his mistakes, but all that pose pales against “the sound of my little girl laughing/through the window of a summer night”.

Everclear survived because they once had nothing to lose, and their anthems for the disaffected rang true with a substantial body of listeners. And even now, with his career a success, Art can still draw inspiration for his songs from a life full of imperfections and missed opportunities. But underneath the bluster of being a rock star, there are a pair of young eyes who will always need him on a different level, and Art knows that he will be “sitting on top when it all goes wrong again“.

Listen to clips and buy at Amazon

Everclear website

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Under The Radar: The Modulators

The Modulators were a Jersey pop band that created some buzz in the 80’s; fortunate fans might have seen them ripping up the Tri-State clubs or even appearing on Uncle Floyd. Jangling guitars, big pop hooks and solid harmonies must have wowed the fans who likely wondered why they never launched into the major leagues. It sure wasn’t lack of talent…

Video: “Spin Me Around

Definitely some Shoes DNA in that one, although with more energy; I was immediately reminded of The Producers. There’s a little of The Jam in “Own Little World” and  “If You Let Her Go” is a mashup of The Grass Roots and The Turtles. Many of the tracks are matted under that thin 80’s production, but for a 1984 album and a handful of outtakes it sounds very clean. Some of the production choices sound a little dated and  there’s a synth clouding a solid cover of “My Back Pages“, but when songs are as infectiously hummable as “Rainy Day Girl” or lyrically clever as “Lies” (Buddy Holly fans, take note), so what?

Like many powerpop bands who never got past the regional stage in their heyday, the Internet and pop festivals like IPO are helping to get them more exposure. And when you can still sound great a quarter century later…

Listen to some clips on Amazon

Buy Tomorrow’s Coming at Kool Kat Musik

The Modulators website and MySpace site.

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New Album! Steve Cropper

Guitar legend Steve Cropper has followed the recent trend of revisiting old chestnuts with the aid of other musical stars, but his effort is also a tip of the cap to one of his first and biggest musical influences, Lowman “Pete” Pauling of The 5 Royales. For all his contributions to music over the past half century, Cropper is not a household name, nor is the band he honors here. But let’s hope that for those without a proper frame of reference, his decision to include artists like Steve Winwood, B.B. King and Brian May will bring listeners like moths to a flame.

Of course, Cropper needs no help; his tone and feel are seminal and he shines throughout. Never overtly flashy, he’s not all over the songs but inside them like a heartbeat. Soulful, pensive, exciting – he breathes these songs to new life with inspired licks and a palpable sense of joy. And with Jon Tiven at the helm, the entire project shines.

The band is amazing, featuring David Hood and Spooner Oldham, and I was particularly thrilled with the inclusion of Dan Penn. Winwood fits like hand in glove, and I was pleasantly surprised by John Popper’s performance (I can count my favorite Popper songs on no fingers). But if there are star performances on Dedicated – A Salute To The 5 Royales, they belong to the dynamic Sharon Jones, the emotive Lucinda Williams and the electrifying Bettye LaVette.

This album is both fresh and a time trip; it will play with every emotion you own. Get your wallet out now.

Listen to clips at Amazon.

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New Album! The Refreshments

It’s gotta be both rock and roll…

The Refreshments have released another gem. Led by Joakim Arnell and piano master Johan Blohm, the Swedish rockers are in fine form – as usual – with another platter of boogie-woogie rock and roll destined for heavy airplay at my house. While American radio continues to shun the natural descendants of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sweden is among the many other lands who honor one our lands greatest exports – rock’n’roll. Sure, these unassuming middle-aged guys don’t look like rockers, but looks deceive. Check this out…

Video: A 40-minute set from Antone’s!

Of course, the band that will immediately spring to mind is Rockpile, and it was Billy Bremner who first sought out the band and even joined in for a couple of albums. Albert Lee also took a turn, and there was even a great tour with Bremner and Dave Edmunds (released as the latter’s A Pile Of Rock) immortalized on this DVD, which I just have to get my hands on. Like Rockpile, the music is infections and relentless, the sound of blues/pub/boogie performed with love…and incredible skill.

Video: JB Boogie

On this new one, the band delivers piano-pumping, horn-drenched rock in droves, but covers all the bases – rockabilly (“Go Baby Bird“), Everly Brothers pop (“By Your Side“), country roadhouse (“Old Hopes Brand New“) and Tex-Mex (“Negative Nancy“). It doesn’t matter what they tackle, they do it well, and it’s astounding that a melting pot of American roots music has been percolating for a quarter century halfway across the world without making a ripple in the States. Then again…why would that surprise me?

One could say that the band has never grown in their career; I say they’ve never regressed. Yes, you could probably buy the albums in any order and enjoy them just as much; they’re all fruit from the same tree. If you have the cash, you could catch up in one fell swoop with this 8-CD collection. I hope you have had the pleasure of enjoying this band, but when I can turn someone on to a great group like this, I must admit a selfish feeling of great satisfaction.

The Refreshments official website

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Labor Day

How appropriate.

Seems like only yesterday I was returning from the abyss and getting my blog legs under me again after a couple of weeks of madness. Then even more ridiculous work assignments came down the pike, and not being a slacker, I dove in. As I finished up this weekend the irony of the holiday was not lost on me. I mean, we’re supposed to take a day off, right?

“The holiday is often regarded as a day of rest and parties…”

So here we go again, folks. I’m writing August off as a bad dream – or the worst summer vacation ever – and starting fresh with September. It might take a day or three to finish up September’s first couple of posts – a TGIF celebrating upcoming albums from familiar favorites, a couple of Under The Radars and New Albums – but skipping your medication isn’t right. And I do want to make certain that you return from the holiday primed to hear one of 2011’s best albums, a (ahem) refreshing slab of rock’n’roll.

So strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Don’t miss out.

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Blast From The Past: Jason Falkner

Another blind shelf grab found me enjoying the music of one of the under-known pop masters, Jason Falkner. I’ve got his solo work, his Beatles lullabies, the Jellyfish canon…can’t get enough of the guy’s talent. But damned if one out of twenty people I know even recognizes his name. Here’s a look back from the turn of the century and TransAction Magazine

TransAction Magazine

Can You Still Feel?

The knock on ex-Gray, ex-Jellyfish Falkner is that (besides apparently not being able to stay in a band) for all his melodic chops he is incapable of writing a song that’s simple enough to be easily memorable – in other words, the Big Hit Single. So what is he supposed to do, dumb down?

Besides playing and singing and writing and arranging everything, he also took the time to craft a boatload of great music that will nudge you at first listen, yet worm its way deeper with repeated listenings. “Eloquence“, which he had been performing live for a while, is reminiscent of John Lennon and could be radio fodder with a more spry arrangement.  Ditto “Holiday“, where Falkner gets the chance to show off his vocal acrobatics. “Author Unknown” (ironically the title of his previous record) has a great repetitive chorus and the double-time tempo at the end is a great touch.

If a band like Radiohead can conquer the planet with their adventurous, textured sounds and pensive wordplay, why not Falkner?

Listen to clips and buy at Amazon

Video: Author Unknown

Jason Falkner website

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Louie

Shameless? More like fearless.

So I’ve been catching up on life after the sabbatical, and given the need to lift the spirits I opted to start with the saved episodes of Louie and Wilfred. There is too much to see and not enough time, and since I had been fairly current with both shows before the departure, they seemed like the logical places to start. Wilfred, of course, did not disappoint – still riotously funny and as black a comedy as we’re likely to get on television this year.

But Louie is playing at another level.

Where last year’s shows had been irreverent and original, the second season of Louie is exponentially greater. Not only has Louis CK become a better actor – partially because his character is so much richer – but the writing has been sharper, darker, and yes, fearless. He’s always been able to write himself as the central figure in uncomfortable situations, but now he is not only scripting extended guest roles into the mix, he’s getting compelling performances from fellow comedians.

Doug Stanhope’s recent turn as a bitter and despondent road comic was outstanding, as he skewered the celebrity of mass appeal comedians while reaching some poignant conclusions about his own life. So too was the performance from Joan Rivers, playing herself, chastising Louie on his lack of work ethic and his inability to overcome insecurity. Although Stanhope’s “Eddie” was a fictional character, he inhabited it with much of his own persona; he was the yang to Rivers’ yin as polar opposites on the comedy hierarchy.

But the jaw-dropping moment had to be Dane Cook, who Louis humbles himself to meet backstage at a gig hoping to score some Lady Gaga tickets for his daughters (the logic is that Gaga and Cook share an agent). In the scene, Cook – who has long been accused of ripping off jokes from Louis CK in real life – is bitter towards TV Louie for not coming out in his defense. Louie explains that although he didn’t think Cook stole the jokes on purpose, he likely knew that they had come from somewhere else and didn’t really stop himself, either. TV Cook is clearly angered by the lingering accusations, and amazed that Louie would still put himself through the humiliation just to get the tickets, but both men get to speak their piece without either really backing down.

About halfway through this exchange, I realized that I was watching two people who didn’t want to have this conversation in public actually have this conversation in public, albeit within the framework of a script. As clever as it was for Louis the writer, it was an equally ballsy move by Cook to participate.

And that’s just one part of one episode. Louie will not likely win the award for best comedy or best drama, but right now it just might be both.

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