Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Thorns -- "Runaway Feeling" (2003)

After writing about the British supergroup Electronic recently (Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr with the Pet Shop Boys), here's an American supergroup of a much quieter nature, but no less powerful.

The Thorns were completely molded in the spirit of Crosby, Still & Nash, three brilliant individual talents with the emphasis on three-part harmonies on all the vocals and lots of acoustic instruments that combined together truly worked.

However, unlike CSN, where the members were on their way "up," the Thorns were three guys who'd pretty much been around for substantial, even long, amounts of time, had one Top 40 hit between them (not that that matters), and somehow found the time to do an album that was anything but surefire.

The Thorns consisted of power pop maestro Matthew Sweet, gritty singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins ("Lullaby"), and Pete Droge, whom I had never heard of. But anything Sweet is involved with gets my attention. They were joined by Atlanta-based producer Brendan O'Brien, who produced a couple of early Sweet albums and recently did the last two Bruce Springsteen records.

O'Brien seems to have taken an active role in the proceedings, producing a pristine throwback acoustic rock and folk record where you never hear any one singer solo, but always all three at the same time. In an unlikely move, the major label Columbia Records picked it up for distribution.

"Runaway Feeling," the album's lead track, is all bouncing major key guitars and mandolins, a perfect upbeat summer pop track. In 2003, nothing like this would have a snowball's chance in hell of being a hit, but who cares? This is just a great song, almost from another more progressive era, done in a style that you'd need to dig up on an indie label if you knew about it.

Somehow, I hope these three find the time to record another treat of an album.

Since this album's release, I saw Shawn Mullins perform at the Pleasantville Music Festival in summer 2007. If all you knew him by was that one-off megahit "Lullaby," like I did, you've got to try and catch him perform live. He's a husky fellow who writes some really powerful songs and does it all solo.

Below is the band performing "Runaway Feeling" live on the German TV show Rockpalast.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fountains of Wayne -- "Radiation Vibe" (1996)

Smart ass rock grew like weeds in the mid-90's. These are bands that were the equivalent of the smart kids you went to high school with who seemed to pick up on every cool cultural reference and then use it as a sarcastic weapon to make fun of the jocks and punks behind their backs.

That's when Weezer, Ween, The Presidents of the United States, Nada Surf, and their brethren came out of the woodwork, almost as a reaction to the loud, unruly grunge craze that preceded it.

If you look back, some of these bands are still around and kicking, quite successfully too, although not on a massive breakthrough basis. They inspire feverish cults and once in a while, throw off an actual top 40 single, like Weezer's "Beverly Hills" and Fountains of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom."

So when Fountains of Wayne broke out of the gate with "Radiation Vibe," they could have been any one of the other really good smart ass bands. I bought the debut album it came from as a used copy, and frankly, I'm a nut for good power pop so there was no way this could lose.

My description of "Radiation Vibe" to my friends was "the Cars meet The Ramones." This first record was little rawer than the ones that followed, but the super-hook songwriting was already in place. Later on, FOW polished up their act and blatantly milked their love of the Cars for "Stacy's Mom," right down to the rigid 4/4 beat and hand claps.

Even to this day, "Radiation Vibe" makes no sense at all, thumping along with its fuzzy envelopey guitar chords, but when the electric guitars and drums landslide in for the pre-chorus ("And now it's time to say/What I forgot to say") and then the 60's-modeled chorus, you've got to sing along to the stupid words. Songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood perfected their characters and song punch lines album by album, but this one was like a wacko fluke that just worked.

Are you alone now
Did you lose the monkey
He gave you backaches

And now you slouch.

He didn't mean it
He's just a dumb ape
Reading Playboy
On your couch.

And now it's time to say
What I forgot to say.
Baby baby baby
Come on, what's wrong
It's a radiation vibe I'm groovin on.
Don't it make you want to get some sun
Shine on, shine on, shine on.

I went to Pittsburgh
And joined a pro team
Talk about a bad dream
I broke a knee.

But I can still croon
And make the girls swoon
Isn't that the way life's
Supposed to be.

But now it's time to say
What I forgot to say
Baby baby baby
Come on, what's wrong
It's a radiation vibe I'm groovin on
Don't it make you want to get some sun
Shine on, shine on, shine on
Shine on, shine on, shine on

The video is typical of that smart ass buzz that was typical of the times. Feet tapping in time while others are nailed to the floor, some weird scenes that seem inspired by "Eraserhead," and a Rod Serling look-alike with a cigarette in hand with swirling black and white backdrop.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hipsway -- "The Honeythief" (1986)

After spotting this CD secretly stashed in my friend's collection last night, I have decided to honor this prototypical New Wave one hit wonder single.

With the British taking American black soul styles and churning them back out for numerous New Wave hits (i.e. Paul Young, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, etc.), Hipsway snuck in there at the end of the era for this dark white funk hit.

As a matter of fact, Hipsway remind me of Duran Duran for their clipped lyrics and sustained, snakey lead vocals. Besides all the catchiness and danceability in a mere 3 minutes and 15 seconds, the song's aura definitely comes from Grahame Skinner's deep menacing baritone lead vocals. When you are oozing out a song about the not-very-subtle "honeythief" of the title, that kind of tone is enough to excite all the girls who were listening in!

Sleek big cat, bible black
Honeysuckle I would never deny

The light of deep regret
Let me see what I don't get
The light of deep regret
Let me see what I don't get

Pass through the heat
Come on, come on and pass
Through the heat
Catch a thief, a honeythief
I am a thief, a honeythief

That's the price you pay
When love gets in the way
Stealth in the night
I come to steal with stealth
In the night
You got the sugar to satisfy
I am the man you can never deny

They sure knew had to make great singles in those days. The whooshing organ that comes out of nowhere for the middle break, the black background singers on the chorus, and that funky guitar line that rips off Spandau Ballet's "Chant No. 1."

But Hipsway was more than that one single. Like my friend, I also have that debut album which contained terrific singles that made it far bigger in the UK than the US, like "Broken Years" and the even more menacing "Ask The Lord."

In the official video, there's some vaguely weird about the African native clips cut in with the band performing and Skinner's strutting around.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Dictators -- "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?" (2001)

Kudos to Little Steven's Underground Garage channel on Sirius Satellite Radio to get me into New York City's other proto punk group many, many years after they first arrived on the scene.

I don't know why I never got into the Dictators. Probably like everybody else in the 70's, the record company botched promoting them, they weren't played on the radio and for some reason, nobody else had the decency to turn me on to them.

Yet, the Dictators put out their first studio album in decades in 2001 and Little Steven had the superior taste to put some of the tunes on the playlist. Even if you never heard any of their previous Epic and Elektra albums from their heyday, and I hardly knew them myself, the DFFD album was a blazing rock and roll statement that basically ignored if any other style of music ever existed.

Primal yet well-recorded, loud, and funn,y The Dictators broke everything down to its basics. Not just with their instrumental makeup -- your basic guitars, bass and drums -- and no synths or keyboards. The subject matter: the rawness and beauty of rock and roll conquers all.

The first song I heard from the album on Little Steven was "Savage Beat," an ode to the "primitive sound" packed with brilliant Flintstones references. Soon enough, it was life down on "Avenue A" and the catch-phrase happy "What's Up With That?"

Yet, the album's... and the Dictators'... statement of purpose opened up the whole escapade with "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?" The overdriven guitar notes lovingly ripping-off The Clash's cover version of "Police On My Back," lead singer Handsome Dick Manitoba sounds like an angry thug on the warpath, wailing on about the loss of the greatness of the music he loves.

I fall to my knees
and look to the sky.
Who will save rock and roll?

Murray The K, is not here today.
so who will save rock and roll?

Every protest singer.
every guitar slinger.
every punk rock sinner sells his soul.

My generation is not the salvation
so who will save rock and roll?

I saw The Stooges, covered with bruises
who will save rock and roll?

Every mercenary
Three chord revolutionaries.
Choose your side and choose it well.

June 1st, '67... something died and went to heaven.
I wish Sgt Pepper
never taught the band to play.

My generation
is not the salvation.
so who will save,
who will save...
tell me who will save
rock and...... roll!?

We've all had favorite guitar players, but a listen through "Who Will Save Rock and Roll" and the rest of DFFD record convinced me that the band's Ross The Boss (yes!) can swing that high gain axe through the Marshalls about as good as anybody. You begin to sympathize with that opening anthem because how often do you hear an album full of amazing raw rock and roll like this one in this day and age?

I found out over the next several years that some of these songs were re-recordings from earlier band and solo albums, including "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?" I had to go back and check out the early Dictators albums, such as their Epic debut from 1975, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!! when Handsome Dick had a colossal afro and they were known for their irreverent cover of the Riveras' "California Sun" and whacked out punk classic "Cars and Girls."

It was only tonight that I finally found out that DFFD stood for Dictators Forever Forever Dictators. Here they are in 1999 in Detroit, raising the roof.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lloyd Cole -- "She's A Girl and I'm A Man" (1991)

Lloyd Cole is the true definition of an adult rock cult artist.

In the mid-80's, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions had a good success ride overseas with their folk/rock blend of Dylan and the Talking Heads. Cole stuffed a lot of words into stream of consciousness songs like "Perfect Skin" at almost early Springsteen-like levels. In States, the band was strictly under the radar.

By the time he ditched the Commotions and released his second solo album, Don't Get Weird On Me Babe, Cole had moved to the United States and recruited some of the same brilliant musicians who played on Matthew Sweet's classic power pop album, Girlfriend, like Fred Maher and Robert Quine. It may not have been a coincidence, since he was definitely aiming for some kind of crossover success, betting on intelligent guitar-driven power pop and ballads, so why not employ a similar cast?

His real gambit was the single "She's A Girl and I'm A Man," a clever tale of turning the tables sexism that probably went over the heads of many listeners not hip to the lyric's irony. Thankfully, alternative radio and college programmers got the message and dug the big echoey guitar riffs, mammoth melody and four on the floor drums.

When you first listen, you think some of the words are a bit harsh, but then you realize there's a lot more going on. The song pries into the male psyche of putting women down, getting hitched, only to find out that his wife is sharper than him: "You're not cool, you're just like me, you're a stupid man...." With lyrics this subtle, you had to listen to it a couple of times to appreciate Cole's ambitious songwriting craft.

She said she didn't understand him so she guessed he was deep.
He swore he'd never been to college and was too tall to be.
So as she led him to the slaughter thinking she'd be laughing last.
Now the lady in the question is his better half.

She's got to be the stupidest girl I've ever seen.
She don't care who, why, or where I've been.
She's got a right to be, with all that's wrong with me.
But she doesn't want to understand .
That she's a girl and I'm a man.

He thought that women and drink would make a man out of him.
But the extent of his studies left a jaded man.
So as she led him to the altar he was easily led.
And when they asked him if he did, well then, this is what he said.

She's got to be the stupidest girl I've ever seen.
She don't care who, why, or where I've been.
She's got a right to be, with all that's wrong with me.
But she doesn't want to understand .
That she's a girl and I'm a man.

Every time she's near me
She gives me a new reason to be alive
To try to get right
She looks right through me
She says you're not cool, you're just like me
You're a stupid man
Get over here, hold my stupid hand
She's all right...

If you're morose over the deteriorating state of adult rock music, then do yourself a favor and have your faith restored by buying a used copy of Don't Get Weird On Me Babe. Enjoy the video here on You Tube (there's no embed code, unfortunately) and the beautiful gold hollow body guitar Cole plays in it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Electronic -- "Getting Away With It" (1989)

A British music supergroup teaming Bernard Sumner of New Order with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Electronic was more of a cult item in the US as opposed to the total embracing the UK gave it.

No wonder. Taking its cues mostly from New Order, the duo did all the programming and songwriting, emphasizing electro-style dance music with acid house touches. Their debut album opened with Marr's distorted wah wah to the disco beat of "Idiot Country," followed by song after song of distinct high hat patterns mixed up front and layered with synths.

Electronic follows in the tradition of solo projects veered into successful partnerships, the most famous one being when Kenny Loggins "sat in" for Jim Messina's solo album in the early 70's, resulting in a string of hit albums together. Vocalist Sumner had planned a solo album, asked Marr to join him, and together they produced three albums over an eight-year period.

What really made Electronic's debut special were their two collaborations with the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, "The Patience of a Saint" and especially "Getting Away With It." The latter was a single released in 1989, well ahead of the full 2001 album, and it's a shame Tennant and Lowe didn't do the whole album with them. Now that would have been a super-super group and one wonders what that combination of talent would have been on an ongoing basis.

"Getting Away With It" is equal doses of all the brilliant talents involved -- Sumner's emotionally bleak lyrics, Marr taking a rare guitar solo, Neil Tennant's background vocals mixed at the same levels as Sumner's, and a polished melody that could only come from the pop skills of the Pet Shop Boys.

Primed by the organic combo of an actual electric bass and an acoustic piano pounding out the chords, "Getting Away With It" glides on a mid-tempo bed of strings, surging with bells on the chorus (a Pet Shop Boys arrangement trademark) and Marr's lovely acoustic guitar solo.

I've been walking in the rain just to get wet on purpose
I've been forcing myself not to forget just to feel worse
I've been getting away with it all my life (getting away)

However I look it's clear to see
That I love you more than you love me

I hate that mirror, it makes me feel so worthless
I'm an original sinner but when I'm with you I couldn't care less
I've been getting away with it all my life
Getting away with it all my life

I thought I gave up falling in love a long long time ago
I guess I like it but I can't tell you, you shouldn't really know
And it's been true all my life
Yes, it's been true all my life

I've been talking to myself just to suggest that I'm selfish
(Getting ahead)
I've been trying to impress that more is less and I'm repressed
(I should do what he said)

I remember that after the time of this single, Marr contributed another wah wah rhythm guitar to the Pet Shop Boys' incredible decade-introspective single "Being Boring" from their album Behaviour.

For appreciators of sophisticated electro-pop, if you are a fan of New Order and Pet Shop Boys especially, you want to track this debut album down for a cheap used copy. With New Order currently broken up, it's hard not to wish Sumner would find himself with Tennant and Lowe and cut a whole album together.