How to Mask Friends and Influence People: Reviewing My Friend’s Band

Clown-Mask-Card-8.5x8.5-FrontBefore you listen to this Jackie & the Treehorns album, before you share this review, tell me what your friend’s band sounds like.

They’re good, aren’t they? Your friend’s band? They’re always really good, not just because they’re your friends. I’ve always been a bit too fascinated with how we talk about music, why we attempt to write about music and put into words that which can’t and doesn’t need to be explained.

So the next question is how do we listen to and process our friend’s bands? What if it’s our brother, or our best friend, or just dudes we knew in college? And do we overvalue how “great” they are? Cuz let’s face it, some of your friend’s bands aren’t that great. But that’s awesome that you still talk them up.

When you hear your friend’s new demo (or soundcloud thingy or youtube “trailer” for their upcoming album), do you think about how your boy once rocked a C&C Music Factory cassingle in his car and now he’s got this super-serious Queens of the Stone Age hard rock vibe going? Our intimate knowledge of our friend’s life and known favorites and influences surely must taint our view of their music.

Wait, you can’t view music. This is how Jackie & the Treehorns trick you into using the word “taint” in their album review.

The point is, there is this indescribable difference in listening to your friend’s band versus the latest album from an actual famous rock star. For instance, I know Jack White is a minimalist rocker heavily steeped in and indebted to the blues. He’s a longtime champion of a truly “independent” business approach and has an extreme fondness for vintage, authentic recording gear and techniques. I know all of this because that is what he has presented to me on record and through interviews, etc. (And of course all of that is then remixed and regurgitated and re-imagined for me by all the people attempting to write about music.) I don’t actually know Jack White as a person, I didn’t hang out with him growing up in Detroit, I never worked with him as an upholsterer, and I’ve never been in any of his numerous bands or side projects.

But I’ve been in Jackie & the Treehorns. I was the original drummer, and also served as Jackie’s manager and confidant during such dizzying highs and lows of his career that there’s a documentary film about it. In fact, I’ve been in a few bands and side projects with my friend Steven Rubin, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and mastermind producer behind Jackie & the Treehorns.

I know his influences. (I won’t name check them). I thought I knew his influences. Yes, I can hear some of them peaking out from behind the Clown Mask. And then there are new faces, or old faces with different masks on, and they’re singing too. I didn’t know he knew them. There are things about our friends that we don’t know.

Did you think your friend’s band would sound like this? What did you think they’d sound like? Do you feel guilty if, when your friend isn’t around, you tell people “They’re kinda like 311, but they totally don’t sound like them at all”? Are you a little ashamed that you’ve only made it out to see them ONCE, and you got there a little late, and honestly don’t even know what they sound like? You could always just mumble “sort of a Blues Traveler kinda thing” and hope the person either doesn’t get the reference or thinks it’s a good thing.

Have you ever lied to your friend? Or, more accurately, have you ever just not told the truth about how much you think they suck? Do you have a lot friends in bands? Are you reluctant to spread the good word about how great they are because the other friends you’re telling probably assume you’re only talking about your friend’s band just to let people know you’re the kinda cool person who knows people in bands?

So then what happens when your friend’s band makes a really great album? Your other friends are so tired of hearing about your friend’s band they might as well be called Cried Sheep. It’s not that they don’t care (yea, it’s cool, you know dudes in bands). It’s just that they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Seriously, read that last sentence again: they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Back in the day when no one would get off my lawn, we (the friends of yours who were in the bands) had to beg our friends (you) to purchase a hard copy compact disc of our band and then we inevitably just gave most of them away for free, in exchange for the promise or hope that you would tell all your friends about our band and then also get together with them and PLAY IT FOR THEM. Force them sit through My Friend’s Band’s CD. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that. We can do the here’s the link, go listen for free at the time and place of your choosing thing. But I will tell you this: my friend’s band’s album is really, really good. I’m not just saying that. And he didn’t email me bugging him to write something about it (full disclosure: yes he did). Fittingly, my favorite track is called “In No Condition to Explain.”

Please don’t ask me what my friend’s band sounds like. Aren’t your friend’s bands true originals with a unique style that really doesn’t sound like anyone else? It’s almost impossible to know, but even if it wasn’t my friend’s band, I’d still think this was a great album.

Do you believe me? Will you check it out? Do you mind if I wear a clown mask?

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The Anniversary Re-Issue of My Top 10 List

Working in a record store back in 1987, we got the first Beatles CDs shipped to us and excitedly opened the boxes after hours as they would go on sale the next day to coincide with the 20 anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper. Obviously I understood the leap to the new format, but was a little surprised at the hype of this “new” release that was really just a reselling of old music everyone already had.

And in true Beatles fashion, of course they predicted all of this and put it on record. In fact the first line of that legendary Sgt. Pepper album is “It was 20 years ago today…” and a tagline was born. The Beatles making it to compact discs in the late 80s wasn’t the first or last “anniversary reissue” but it rang in a new era of nostalgia culture along with what the Box Set craze was doing for what was once known as “The Record Industry.”

As our media and culture and news cycles continued to speed up as technology advanced, so too did our nostalgia rates. The 1990s saw a resurgence (recycling) of the 1960s…. and soon enough we couldn’t wait to re-celebrate the 70s and shout I LOVE THE 80s and by the dawn of the 21st century it seemed we were already “looking back” on a 90s decade that just ended. This hyperwarp eventually ate itself and now we just spend each day, week, and year looking back at the great things that already happened 10, 20, and 25 years ago.

Usually we are nudged into this by some not-so-coincidental reissues… anniversary edition remasters of the classic albums we already know and love. And in the digital age where selling any music, especially hard copy CDs, is next to impossible, it’s a lot easier to (re)sell us stuff everyone knows is good (especially with added goodies and updated artwork or notes). It’s easy to have a hit with a hit.

In the “rock is dead” era, we didn’t need the Strokes or the White Stripes to be saviors of rock, we just exhumed the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin to do it again. It’s almost comical that the recent remastered reissues (expanded 2-disc versions!) of the Zeppelin catalogue rolled out exactly 20 years after the 1994 remasters. Can a shark jump the shark?

Anniversary culture gives us an excuse to tell the world which albums changed our lives and how. We gather in the town square (Facebook/Twitter) and remind our friends that A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory came out 24 years ago. We make our high school buddies feel old by telling them Van Halen’s 1984 is 31 YEARS OLD while websites gather clicks by offering us info on the whereabouts of the woman from the “Hot For Teacher” video. Obviously seminal albums like the Stones Exile on Main St get lavish remastered reissues, and so do lesser-known but still critically acclaimed efforts like Bob Mould’s Workbook, but soon enough there’s a niche within the niche and we’re “celebrating” albums that weren’t so great the first time around. Or maybe the album might be worthy, but we don’t wanna wait for the 20th or 25th anniversaries, so now just “It was 10 years ago today” is good enough.

best_double_albums_3203775bInstead of listing every album that’s had an anniversary reissue, it would be easier to list the ones that haven’t. As for which ones are worthy of buying a second or third time… this brings us from the nostalgia phenomenon to our other favorite rock pastime: Top 10 Lists. From the dawn of the first day spent on that hypothetical desert island, we’ve been making our personal Top 10 lists. Once everyone and their former record-store coworkers had blogs, rock fans everywhere were raging against the tastemakers and righting all the wrongs unjustly handed down by the gatekeepers at Rolling Stone or SPIN or the Grammy voters and anyone else who gets it wrong when trying to tell us what’s good.

It’s a way to make sense of a senseless world in which Bob Marley never won a Grammy and Ziggy Marley’s career is already longer than Bob’s. Continue reading →

Fantasy Rock Band

Just stare at that chart in all its trivial rock’n’roll glory.

As arbitrary as the chosen musicians and their corresponding “salaries” might be, and countless arguments can be made about who’s missing and who’s under/overpriced, I’m still fascinated by this! [We could make 5 or 10 different salary charts based on this same concept, but as you can see, @MattNorlander made this one, so credit to him and send him any of your complaints.]

A few things are keeping me from making a final decision on a line up. Should I just try to make the salary work under the $25 cap, or also consider how the styles/playing fits together? Just like in sports, perhaps more so, chemistry can be as important as talent. But, this is fantasy. I think it’s safe to assume we are getting each of these guys at their peak, and not current (and in some cases, dead) state. Is it a requirement of this pointless fictional game to spend the full $25? What about getting credit/points for spending less?

My day is shot.

One inherent flaw is the idea of strictly defining the guitarists as either “Lead” or “Rhythm” guitarists. Sure, guys like Keith Richards and Neil Young are more known for riffage than shredding, but that’s not all they can do. Jimmy Page is listed as Rhythm but I’m pretty sure he’s capable of playing Lead. On the flipside, the top Lead Guitarist is Jimi Hendrix, but he’s more than capable of playing a Rhythm role as well. Same for George Harrison (listed as the cheapest “Lead” option, perhaps because we often think of him as a peaceful strum-along type).

So that leads (LEADS, see what I did there?) to more questions: should I pick 2 very versatile guitarists so they each fill both rhythm and lead duties? Or go for a more defined rhythm-lead combo? We’ll play with some lineup options later, but thought it should be noted that the guitar slots are tougher to define than Drums or Bass.

“Frontman” seems easily defined, but there’s some basic flaws with that slot too. Are women eligible? (In fact, there are no women anywhere on this chart, so that’s another general complaint to be launched elsewhere on behalf of Janis Joplin, Kim Gordon, Chrissie Hynde, and Ann & Nancy Wilson.) And are we judging/choosing our Frontman on vocal abilities alone or does stage presence play into it? Again, chemistry comes into play, how will a given Frontman’s voice sound with a given supergroup of musicians? If you choose some hard-rockin metal-leaning musicians, then Axl Rose might be a better choice than, say, Bono or Mick Jagger. But I’d trust Bono and Jagger to actually show up to the gigs and perform on time, and in general I don’t think I’d want Axl Rose in any band I was putting together.

Continue reading →

Revisiting Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath
One of my earliest childhood memories was not of learning to ride a bike or my first day of school or the first time I walked into a professional baseball park. It involved something much less childlike in nature. It was my discovery of Black Sabbath. In particular, the opening notes of the song “Iron Man.”

My brothers and I shared one of those every-school-had-one old school tape recorders. It was the portable audio device of its time. Built-in tape deck, built-in speaker, a little handle to carry it around with. The original boom box. One day, in it, I discovered one of my brothers tapes. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. I had no clue who this band was, what they sounded like, or why my brother even owned the tape. I brought it into my room, sat it down on the floor, put myself next to it, and hit the play button.

Thump-thumb-thump-thump–dddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-dddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

I AM IRON MAN!

Holy fuckin shit I was floored! I mean, my mind was literally blown. I wish I had a photo of the expression on my face when I first heard Ozzy’s techo-fuzzed voice. I immediately rewound the tape and listened again.

I AM IRON MAN!

Repeat 13,736 times.

I had never heard anything like it before in my life, and my life was forever changed by it. I couldn’t care less about the rest of the song. That fuckin’ intro was so amazing to my adolescent mind. It’s still amazing to my adult mind. What does that say about my mind?

Continue reading →

Best Albums of 2012: Not Just a List!

I knew when the Fall new-album schedule had Bob Dylan, the Avett Brothers, and Patterson Hood releases on the same Tuesday morning that it would be the best September 11th ever.

Sure enough, none of them disappointed.  Bob Dylan returned with Tempest, a gritty and at times scathing stew of blues and folk serving as an amazing reminder of the late-career consistency he’s shown on record in the new century. Great Bob Dylan records are the reason people like me make lists like this every year.

Whether willingly or unconsciously, the Avett Brothers and Patterson Hood (lead driver and navigator of the Drive-By Truckers) are indeed disciples, descendants, and torchbearers of the folk-rock tradition personified and perfected by Dylan. And neither act seems to cower from the challenge, even if they’d scoff at my assertion that they belong in the same sentence as the legendary Dylan.

Seth and Scott Avett are blessed with much sweeter voices of course; and the songs (from the Beatlesque harmonies and tearjerkers to the more rockin’ numbers) on The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter are perfect showcases for their natural talent.

phood-hlritdPatterson Hood’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance might actually be his best album to date. Fronting the Drive-By Truckers, Hood had already built a career as a gifted storyteller and master painter of pictures, and now the solo Heat Lightning flashes it right in our faces. There’s one scene where he shows up just after midnight at a liquor store in the next county cuz it’s Monday now and the liquor laws allow them to start selling again. It’s sad and lonely, but then Hood’s protagonist sees some “friends.” Even sadder, there’s already a line of “zombies” there when they flip the sign to open. This all transpires within the first verse of the first song.

From that first track on, it’s apparent that this will be a strange and telling ride, from that bleak scene at the liquor store in “12:01” all the way to where it “winds around dead-man’s curve where the lady from the Sunbeam bread wrapper was killed in that head-on” in “Untold Pretties.” Easily one of my Top 3 Albums of the year.

The other two were Chuck Prophet’s Temple Beautiful, reviewed here, and Jack White’s Blunderbuss (which I wrote about over the summer in this Heavy Rotation column). Other albums that I blurbed about in the first half of the year that make this Best Albums of 2012 list are:

Dr.John – Locked Down
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
KRS-One – The BDP Album
DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Father John Misty – Fear Fun

soundgarden king animal artOne of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Soundgarden’s King Animal. They were always a good band, and made a few great records back in the day. But after such a long layoff, I was only expecting a shell of a bland Soundgarden-by-numbers album. I was wrong, this album really is great. The first two tracks might fit that bill of as-expected uninspiring rockers, but from track 3 through the end King Animal sits right up there with the bands’ finest moments from their Badmotorfinger-Superunknown peak.

At the end of the year, December saw the release of an album called Carry On, by a guy named Willy Mason. Never heard of him, but started noticing some good reviews so I checked it out. Really glad I did, as this album is both instantly likable and a slow-burning grower. Terrific songwriting meets production that ranges from trippy and atmospheric to stripped down and raw. Think Beck meets Daniel Lanois. Or just forget my half-assed attempts at catchy descriptions and just go buy Willy Mason’s Carry On right now. It’s like a secret gem. An out-of-the-blue underdog landing on my list of Best Albums of 2012.

The Rest Of The Best:

Jimmy Cliff  Rebirthjimmy cliff rebirth
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Jason Isbell – Live in Alabama
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (reviewed here)
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-1975
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Bill Fay  Life Is People
Band of Horses Mirage Rock

Rush – Clockwork Angels. That’s right, I’m risking what little credibility I might have by putting the polarizing RUSH on this list. Fact is, or my opinion is, this new Rush album rocks. There’s no synthesizers or cheesy electric drums. It’s not just guitar-driven, but the guitars actually sound like guitars. I realize most people hate the sound of Geddy Lee’s voice, and I’ll admit I can only take it in small doses. But this is a solid showing by the aging-but-legendary trio from Canada. I know it’s not cool to admit liking Rush, that’s why I hid this part all the way at the end.

Celebrating Zeppelin

led zep art

“The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.”

― French poet Charles Baudelaire, a quote later immortalized in the movie The Usual Suspects.

The greatest trick that Led Zeppelin ever pulled was not reuniting. Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but poetry, cinema, and a satanic reference…. It just seems so Zeppelin.

The greatest reunion that Led Zeppelin ever played, a 2007 one-off gig in London with Jason Bonham on drums, is now available in the recently released amazing CD/DVD set Celebration Day.

It’s become a semi-annual ritual to speculate on the various rumors concerning a possible Led Zeppelin reunion tour. Maybe they’ll play the Super Bowl, fans think (and TV executives pray), and then launch a massive world tour! And yet every year it never happens, and Robert Plant puts out another acoustic-based album with Alison Krauss. Now, from all reports, including word from Jimmy Page in recent interviews, we’re all getting used to the fact that a Zeppelin reunion tour will never happen.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what is and what should never be: the Mighty Led Zeppelin have somehow managed to satisfy us by not coming back at all. Confused? Well, a Led Zep tour would likely feature ticket prices in the $100-250 range and even if you could afford it, I’m sure the internet machines would tell you they were all sold out a minute after they went on sale, while Stub Hub and all the eBay “ticket brokers” magically managed to land all the good seats. So, none of us would actually get to attend a Led Zeppelin concert anyway.

By releasing Celebration Day, from their stunning performance as part of a show honoring the late founder and president of Atlantic Records Ahmet Etregun, Zeppelin is basically letting us all have the best seat in the house for a mere $15-20 (the cost of the regular CD/DVD set available now, and probably what you would have paid to park at the Led Zeppelin reunion concerts that aren’t happening). Thanks guys!

We don’t have to lament that we missed the tour or had to settle for the DVD… cuz there is no reunion tour. And while Page, John Paul Jones, and Bonham have all sounded like they’d be game to do it, I have to respect the refreshing honesty of Plant, who’s leaving millions of dollars on the table because he admits that his heart wouldn’t be into rehashing the glory of his younger self as part of some massive cash grab. Bummer for hardcore Zeppelin fans, but good for him. (I think his quote was something about no one wanting to hear a man his age singing about juice running down his leg.)

Meanwhile, the forests are echoing with laughter perhaps to the point of tears. Because listening to this set (I haven’t even watched the video yet, but the audio has been in heavy rotation), it’s obvious that this older/wiser version of Led Zeppelin, more-than-capably driven by late drummer John Bonham’s son on drums, put some real rehearsal time into just a one-night only concert. They are absolutely bringing it on every tune, proof that IF they had ever done a full tour they would have blown all expectations out of the water. There wouldn’t have been any cries of over-the-hill disappointment. They would have kicked our asses and melted our faces, just as they still do every time some unsuspecting 14-year-old discovers them.

And that’s what’s so brilliant about this set: it shows and proves that “Hey, we made sure that we would NAIL it for a one-off gig… so imagine how good a reunion tour would’ve been? That’s right, we woulda killed it… but we’re not doing it. So for less than $20, you can see/hear it in all its glory. You’re welcome.”

Page and Jones are as vital as ever. Page has always been a legendary rock god and guitar hero, and still sounds the part. Jones was always been underrated, and his versatility and subtle musicality are on full display here. The older, gentler Plant sounds great; he’s still in fine voice but knows his limitations. He’s not my-ma-MY-my-my-my-ing his way through every single line of every song.

As for the kid on drums (who I think is 40-something years old by now), Jason Bonham is just ON every one of these songs. He is simply badass, in that he knows when to tip his cap to his father’s famous fills (often) while still providing the rock-solid backbone these legendary songs demand and deserve. I assume (and it sounds like) this dude has studied this stuff inside out his whole life, knowing that if/when called upon to sit on daddy’s throne, he’d have to be ready. (Seriously, I’m not sure if being Bonzo’s son makes it easier or harder. Imagine the sheer weight of this assignment.) And it’s not just the drum parts, he’s obviously well versed enough in all the nuances of the other three guys’ parts that he can interact and complement them in the live setting, not just try to recreate the original versions.

To keep with the movie analogies, this is not some bland sequel or terrible remake. If you prefer a sports analogy, this isn’t Johnny Unitas on the Chargers or Michael Jordan on the Wizards. (Speaking of sports, just as the game-day stadium and arena experience has priced most of us out, and huge TV’s and the RedZone channel have made watching at home more enjoyable, perhaps getting the Led out in hi-def in our basement, sad as that might seem, has become the modern concert experience.)

As for the songs, all the usual suspects are here, from the hits to the deep cuts, including one that Plant mentions is a first attempt in public, the crunching “For Your Life,” from the criminally underrated Presence album. At one point you can hear Plant admit between verses, “it still feels pretty good up here.”

In a previous column lamenting the brutal murder of Led Zeppelin at the hands of Classic Rock Radio, I wrote that a Led Zeppelin reunion tour was #1 on my Top 10 Awesome Zeppelin Things That Can’t Be Killed. Well, it looks as though it’s on life support, and yet it’s still cause for celebration.

So, to Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham, in the words of one song title not included here: “Thank You.”

An Open Letter To Mr. Classic Rock Radio Programmer Guy

This logo is as unimaginative as the playlist.

Since your station announces that it’s family owned and locally operated (with the tag line bragging “Programmed IN Baltimore, FOR Baltimore”), I figured you’re not some computer-generated playlist mandated from a corporate office and you’d enjoy some feedback.

It seems you have a borderline-obsessive fascination with The Eagles, Steve Miller Band, and Bob Seger. It’s not healthy, and it’s starting to hurt my ears. They’re not the absolute worst bands in the world, and I realize that as a Classic Rock Radio station you should offer them on your menu. But playing them each twice an hour is a bit much. I don’t care what your records and logs might say, I swear every time I get in my car, the next song is the goddamn Eagles. Hey, I like a bunch of Seger’s tunes, but jeez, do people really want to hear him that often? Can you please start giving some of his carries to John Mellencamp and Tom Petty instead? And most of Steve Miller Band’s stuff is just way overplayed considering it was never really that great.

Also, I wanted to let you know that both the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have more than 5 songs each. Seriously. You should really check out their whole catalog, you’re gonna love it. Again, I realize that the Stones and Zeppelin are your bread and butter (and rightfully so) but can we go a bit deeper than Stairway and Satisfaction? I know you already murdered Led Zeppelin years ago, but it’s not too late to breathe some life back into them.

I do need to thank you for reminding me how good some of those songs by Heart in the 70s were. And I forgot how bad their mid-80s stuff was, so please stop playing “What About Love,”  “Never,” and “These Dreams,” and stick to the “Baracuda” and the one about the guy with the magic hands. Oh, and I really appreciate you letting me know that Journey and Lynyrd Skynyrd had a baby named .38 Special. Congrats. Continue reading →