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?

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 →

Coach Spector

So Kobe sets up on the perimeter and Shaq works the post. Fisher, I want you to backdoor your pass from the foul line over to Gasol. And please make sure you write a bridge!

As readers of some of my previous posts might already know, there is nothing I enjoy more than correlating music with sports. Today I would like to ask this profound-yet-absolutely-meaningless-question:  Just how important is the coach to a team or a record “producer” to an artist when it comes to success?

Is George Martin the greatest record producer ever because he happened to be in the room during all of those Beatles recordings or because of his influence in that room? Is Phil Jackson the greatest coach who ever lived because of the triangle offense and his ability to motivate or was he lucky to have Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe? Would George Martin be able to get the same results with, say, a band like Strawberry Alarm Clock?  Would Phil Jackson be able to win a slew of championships with Kevin Ebanks and Manute Bol?

Most people aren’t one hundred percent sure of what a record producer even does. I am not sure if any producer really knows either because the job is more akin to being a creative consultant.

Hey Producer, look at this product we have and tell us what you think about it. Maybe you can comment on its looks, colors, and shapes and present us with some additional options we might like. You can even carouse us to think of some new ideas ourselves. Since we really respect your thoughts and past works we will assume you know what you are talking about.

Or someone might be called a producer for the simple fact that they helped finance a project. Rick Rubin gets paid to produce Metallica records, he doesn’t finance them himself. But if you see a listing for an “Executive Producer” on a band’s record then more than likely that person was simply laundering money from the profits of their cocaine business.

There is no real question as to what a coach’s role on a sports team is. The coach is the boss. The coach makes the team rules, sets the teams goals, teaches the players how to run plays and schemes, and when really good at their jobs will shield the players from any external distractions, whether they be personal or professional. You often hear younger players refer to their beloved coaches in a paternal fashion.  Some athletes will go as far as comparing their coaches to generals in the field with whom they “go to war with” and “battle” alongside. You think John Lennon spent his time praising the greatness of George Martin?

I am not here to downplay the role of the producer when it comes to great music. A great producer (like a great coach) can take mediocre talent and extract greatness from it. Just listen to any Dr. Dre produced album: you might not like the songs or even the style of music but you will without a doubt respect how good it sounds (i.e. well produced). Would Dark Side of The Moon be the same legendary album had Alan Parson’s not help produce it? Probably, the same way those Jordan/Pippen teams of the 90’s probably would have still won championships without Phil Jackson. The 98 Yanks would’ve won the World Series with me as their manager.

What about when a good producer does a bad thing? I, of course, am referring to Clive lets-make-up-for-30-years-of-ignoring-the-classiest-most-interesting-guitar-player-on-the-planet-by-producing-a-made-for-the-masses-crossover-singles-album-with-today’s-young-pop-stars Davis. Supernatural sold 700 billion copies and made Santana a house hold name (…again…if it wasn’t already–which is a shame unto itself). Look, I love and respect Carlos Santana perhaps more than any other guitar player alive today but the fact that “The Academy” only got around to giving him Grammies for that Clive Davis-produced-shitfest vs. anything he did in the 70’s is ludicrous. Clive Davis has an amazing history of evaluating and discovering talent.  But Mr. Davis took an artist known for one thing (incredible musicianship and fusion of styles) and turned him into another (pop rock artist). And Carlos went along for the ride, so he should be called out on that to some degree as well.

I do feel that within the athletic world the role of a coach has a much more influential role than a good record producer might have. The band (usually) still writes their own songs, but players rarely draw up their own plays (unless they are the Brady, Mannings, and Kobes of the world). In this day-and-age you hear about the miraculous one-year-turnaround in sports rather frequently. A team is 4-12 one season, hires a new coach and go 12-4 the next with relatively the same talent. When was the last time Rick Rubin took a band that was horrible and made them great? He took a band that was on the cusp in the early 90’s and transformed them into megastars, but the band was good before he got there. He just made them better. Nigel Godrich has masterfully produced numerous Radiohead albums, but couldn’t do shit when presented with The Strokes.

The debate is never-ending and completely circumstantial. Sometimes a great coach can win with a good team and sometimes a producer can fail with a great band. And vice versa. The interesting aspect of all this is how the coach and the record producer share a very similar role in their respective fields: to collaborate and extract great performances. And in both fields each will sometimes get too much praise for success or too much ridicule for failure (athletes must execute plays and musicians must write good songs). In the end though, I would much rather sit in a control room with Macca discussing the merits of adding a french horn to the bridge than writing X’s and O’s on a chalkboard trying to figure out how to stop Aaron Rodgers from dissecting my secondary.

Happy Birthday Uncle Bruce!

Bruce Springsteen is my uncle. Well, not real direct uncle like a sibling of one of my parents. Just a cousin that we all call “Uncle.” Or maybe my mom just used to joke about inviting “Uncle Bruce” to my birthday parties because she knew I had a possibly unhealthy obsession with Bruce Springsteen.

Being a Bruce fan is an odd place sometimes. A lot of my closest friends and band mates weren’t/aren’t Bruce fans. (I’m sure most of them, especially my cohorts here at Bums Logic, are rolling their eyes realizing it was only a matter of time before Todd used this space to idolize his Boss once again.) As popular and worldwide famous and critically acclaimed as Springsteen might be, there’s a certain uncoolness about being a Bruce fanatic. And I guess that fits the narrative of Young Bruce feeling alienated and alone and discovering through Elvis and the Beatles that rock’n’roll could not only save you, but it was your only hope.

I was turned on to Bruce Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band in the early 80’s by my sister’s college boyfriend. He had vinyl bootlegs of the legendary Winterland show as well as the one from the Agora in Cleveland, both from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour in 1978. I taped them from his albums to my hand-labeled cassettes and was on my way.

Soon after, Born in the U.S.A. was released and “my guy” was suddenly the biggest rock star on the planet. I saw him at the Capitol Centre in Largo, MD, the month I turned 14. Perhaps that vulnerable age mixed with the power of those legendary live shows and I was doomed (blessed?) to be cemented for life as a Bruce Fan, I don’t know. But I still feel like that night I found out that there really was a circus to run away with. I’d be reminded again, by everyone from the Grateful Dead to The Roots and by Springsteen 11 more times over the years.

So Uncle Bruce turns 62 today. Which makes it seem like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Stones must be in their 80s. Love him, hate him, or respect him with indifference, but may everyone be lucky enough to still have his energy when they reach that age. Or at least be saved by rock’n’roll.

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 →

Top 10 Most Overrated Musicians of All Time

1. Sid Vicious
Will any argue that this non talented, drug addicted, pathetic human being doesn’t deserve to be on this list? Let break it down: he couldn’t play bass, he couldn’t sing, he murdered his girlfriend, and he was so fucked up most the time, he would wear swastika t-shirts as some sort of punk rock statement. For some reason, legions of fans of the Sex Pistols have glorified and deified this man into some Godfather of the Punk Movement while greats like Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer (who had more talent in his left ass cheek than Sid had in his entire body), and Joey Ramone, though get their dues, are no where near the legend that Sid is. The most he ever contributed to music was an attitude.

2. Jim Morrison
As a friend recently told me, “Jim Morrison is a drunk stripper who was somehow romanticized into the greatest rock poet of a generation”. No one is questioning his abilities as a front man (behind Mick Jagger and David Lee Roth, it doesn’t get much better than Morrison). But to have movies made about his life, and book after book written about his lyrical genius is absurd to me. I love the Doors and their music. But lets face it, he wasn’t even close to being the best lyricist of his generation (can anyone say “Dylan”?), and his voice was a drunken howl at best. Though The Doors influence can still be heard throughout modern music, and Morrison truly was one of the first rock-n-roll clichés, I cant help but think that if not for Rolling Stone magazine, classic rock radio, and Oliver Stone, Jim Morrison would be about as popular as John Densmore (don’t know who he is? Exactly)

Continue reading →