Archive for October, 2008
The only time I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain, maybe ’93, the opening act was Mazzy Star. While the romance between Jim Reid and Mazzy’s Hope Sandoval led to the interestingly soft-core Stoned and Dethroned album, the more interesting marriage may have been between Mazzy guitarist David Roback and Chain guitarist William Reid. I’m not such a big fan of the fuzztone signatures from the Psychocandy early days, and while I love the danceclub hardrock of the middle years, it’s that Velvets sound the Chain had in common with Mazzy Star that I’ve always liked the most.
Comes The Power of Negative Thinking, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s new 4,000 song compilation of crumbs and wholly baked pies heretofore available only as B-Sides or on boots, and the full scope of one the ’90s greatest bands comes clear. Yeah, you’ve got the fuzz-based rock which blended the Beach Boys and Ramones in puree of pure noise (these days preserved in Iceland as Singapore Sling…) You’ve got the propulsive punkrock powered by the drum machine, or a human playing like a drum machine (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, your royalty check to the Bank of Scotland is due.) And then there are these softer gems in which the Jesus and Mary Chain genuflect at the altar of the Velvet Underground.
Naturally, some of the best songs can only be gotten downloading the whole 9,000 song compilation for a round $6 million, but go try out “Shimmer” and see if it doesn’t roust Sterling Morrison from his resting place. If you don’t want to download all 9,636 songs, available for 11 million Euros, go check out the Bo Diddley homage, interestingly titled “Bo Diddley Is Jesus.” If you don’t have a Swiss bank account, take your 99 cents and check out the softer version of “Psychocandy” here, in which the fuzz was scraped off by a merciful scythe.
The Reids may have dissolved like the warring Kinks did, may have busted up the way someday the Brothers Gallagher of Oasis will, but as it happened The Jesus and Mary Chain went out on a musical high note. Munki was mysterious and straight ahead at the same time, and in classic vaudeville form, it left us want something more. They’ve come back for festival shows and they keep threatening to put out a new album. If, like me, you grokked on what they were doing in that period of great ferment between about ’93 and ’98, fork over the $39.00 it costs to get the whole download of 82 songs. The Power of Negative Thinking has a lot of positives, from the Roky Erickson covers to alternatakes of their hits. I counted out 33 songs on the playlist I culled from the whole thing. That makes this vast trove a bargain.
Given how great the Clash were live, and how terrible is the only live album they ever previously released, it’s somewhat bizarre that 26 years after they opened for the Who in the rain in Flushing Meadows, the only single-show archive we have is Live At Shea Stadium.
As a live album, it has great dynamic range, and it was clearly an inspired set. The problem is that it was recorded past the band’s peak, without Topper Headon on drums, and in that sad twilight when Mick Jones’s songs were garnering commercial radio play. The Who Sell Out was the famous title of an early album by the headliners. The Clash, Conflicted, Try To Sell Out might more properly have been the title of this one. If only they could have released it in time to beat Cheap Trick to the Buddokan bank.
How many live albums have been released by the opening act? (The only one I can think of is The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East, and clearly Johnny Winter was a more generous headliner, as he gave Duane and Dicky time to stretch on extended jams. This following The Elvin Bishop Group’s extended jams. Those were smoky, lazy days.) The inherent structural problem of an album like this is the band’s set is perforce short, and the emphasis was on songs like “Train In Vain,” “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” and “Rock The Casbah.” Each had gotten radio play, and on one of those 17 evenings in the summer of 1981 when The Clash played at Bond’s in Times Square, the pop songs were tolerable as de rigeur run throughs in what were otherwise sparkling, extended sets. (I went to six of the shows, including the Sunday matinee.)
Here there’s a great version of “London Calling” to begin the set, and “Police On My Back” follows nicely, but if this album is true to the evening — I wasn’t there — then having Paul Simonen follow Mick Jones to the mike and sing “Guns of Brixton” brings to mind that final awful Creedence Clearwater album where John Fogerty sang “Sweet Hitchiker” and let the rest of the band carry the vocal chores from there. The idea of Joe Strummer singing only one of the first three songs tells you just about everything you need to know about this late period in the greatest band of the ’70s’ story arc.
In late summer 1982, I’d gone to see the Clash down in Asbury Park plus or minus two weeks from the Shea Stadium set. It was dispiriting. Their debut in America at the Palladium in February ’79 — the one depicted in the cover of London Calling, where Paul is smashing his bass against the stage — remains the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen. Those of us who lived in the New York clubs of the day had just a little bit of a superiority complex, believing — mostly accurately — that our bands, from the Voidoids and Ramones to Talking Heads, Heartbreakers and Fleshtones — could blow away most of those limey “punks” any time, anywhere. We also knew the Clash were in a different league, and on that night in ’79, as they burst onto the stage with “I’m So Bored With The USA” and bounced against each other like ping pong balls in a lottery drawing, it was pretty clear that these guys were the real deal. Through their return tour later that summer, just before the release of London Calling; their extended stay in 1980 while recording Sandanista; by the time they moved into Bonds in ’81 — only to have fire marshalls force them to double the number of shows in order to honor the (oversold) number of tickets — they had effectively become a New York band. One of us. But by the time they returned in ’82 with Terry Chimes back on drums — Topper having been brutally dumped because of his heroin addiction — it was over. They went through the motions in Asbury Park, and they were, after all, THE CLASH, but we didn’t want to hear “Rock The Casbah.” We wanted things to be the same as they’d been in the brief moment when the Clash replaced the Rolling Stones as the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World.
Live At Shea is a better than fair artifact. If Joe Strummer’s widow were to have found instead tapes that could comprise Live At The Palladium, we’d have gotten something of far greater value.
When David Byrne and Brain Eno last collaborated, there were no Pro Tools, no digital recording, no Internet to email files back and forth across the cyberpond that separates New York from London. This ghost of an album in this late age of Bushes bears little resemblance to their last outing, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. That one was a really interesting meld of Byrne’s musicianship, Eno’s studio genius, and found sound snippets, from a pentecostal preacher (“Help Me Somebody”) to an Egyptian folk singer (“Regiment”.) It was the beginning of the ’80s and both Byrne and Eno were in prime form, as the Talking Heads reached their critical and artistic peak and Eno was about to embark on his collaboration with U2.
It’s not that the years haven’t kind to them both. Byrne’s resisted the reformation of the Talking Heads and, for more than 20 years, continued an interesting, if suboptimal solo career. Eno’s never lost relevance, and his published diary from a few years back (A Year (with Swollen Appendages)) showcased a life as peripatetic as a character in, well, an Eno song. But still. Byrne’s albums made you miss the Talking Heads. Eno’s collaboration with John Cale tilted heavily in the latter’s favor, and his recent solo album produced one song, “This,” that was worthy of his ’70s masterpieces. In fact, one could be forgiven thinking the best Eno song since Before and After Science was Robert Wyatt’s “Heaps of Sheeps.” No matter how wealthy, or fulfilled, each of these multitasking brainiacs may be, as solo rock musicians, each of these guys could use a comeback album.
And they utterly pull it off. The best way of describing Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is that it’s a great Talking Heads album in which Byrne and Eno have cut out Jerry and the Tom Tom Club. Melodic and sweet, like an Eno album, jaggedy shards and glee club choruses, the hallmarks of past work by each. All songs sung by Byrne, gloriously produced, of course, and utterly contemporary. 30-year old lightning caught in a Smart Water bottle. It makes rumors of that Roxy Music reunion, with Eno collaborating with Bryan Ferry, all the more enticing.
There comes a moment in every Dylan concert when you hear someone, halfway through a song, turn to his neighbor and say, “Oh, that’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Or whatever the song is he’s finally recognized in its utterly reformed structure.
In the new issue of Uncut, there’s a wonderfully informative series of interviews, spliced together George Plimpton-style, with many of the participants in the four albums — Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times — whose session tapes were ransacked for this latest installment in The Bootleg Series — Tell Tale Signs. Over and over again participants relate how Dylan never plays the same song the same way twice. This can be frustrating to fans at concerts trying to divine from Dylan’s smoke-shot voice and stop-start phrasing just what the Hell we’re listening to. But when it comes to his release of a 39-song, triple CD collection of outtakes, unreleased songs, and the stray live song, it leads not merely to a collection that fills in fanatics’ blanks. It delivers up a masterpiece.
If the unreleased songs from Oh Mercy here had been available when that album came out nearly 20 years ago, what was viewed as a return to form would have been understood as something else: the opening salvo in a middle-aged rock star’s white knuckled determination to outdo the songs that, as a younger man, had already delivered the stuff of myth. Then the next year came Under The Red Sky, and Dylan was back to scattershot failed definitions of who and what his purpose was. We had to wait until Time Out Of Mind, eight years after Oh Mercy‘s release, to get a sense of what late-period Dylan was truly building up to. When the song “Things Have Changed” won an Oscar after its appearance on the Wonder Boys soundtrack, by now we were astonished — astonished that an artist of Dylan’s calibre would explore age-appropriate themes of death and redemption with the same black humor and melody as he’d previously ennobled youth. Yet I think that had we gotten a complete version of 1989’s Oh Mercy — with the additional songs, and different takes released on Tell Tale Signs — we would have had at the outset the proper portents of things to come. Instead, Oh Mercy came off the way Some Girls and Emotional Rescue had for the Stones in the late ’70s: a brief reprise of greatness, before the long slide.
To understand just how meaningful it is that Dylan offers up different versions of songs we already liked –diamonds of the same size and weight recut by the master into wholly different gems — just listen to “Someday Baby” on Disk One, and compare it to the version on Modern Life. The latter is one of that album’s highlights — a jaunty, taunting shuffle. Oh but the new version, with its martial drumming and slowed down pace sends shivers up the spine. It is starkly beautiful, a reminder of Dylan’s unsurpassed power to stop us in our tracks. (He’s been doing it for 45 years.) The Uncut piece has musicians talking about how in the studio, Dylan is continually experimenting with tempo and different keys to make the music fit the words, not the other way around. It is this level of experimentation that can lead to wildly different results — and in Dylan’s case, spectacular results for each.
The album’s been out for 24 hours. There are new albums by Oasis, and David Byrne and Brian Eno, and the Pretenders, all waiting for their turn. There’s a live album by The Clash that has gotten great reviews. They’ll just have to wait. When Dylan releases 39 songs from what has proved to be, to these ears at least, perhaps the most meaningful period in his long career, we don’t need to rush.
Listening to Tell Tale Signs made me think of Peter Matthiessen’s recently released Shadow Country. Mathiessen’s in his ’80s. He doesn’t have too much time left. And he spent the last several years not writing a new novel, but taking his trilogy of related novels about Mr. Watson and the Florida of the 1900s and editing them into a single book. There’s something to be said for that in this context, only the editor has to be us. Dylan has now given us the archives of his work since 1989. The four albums — different producers, a core of similar musicians — are clearly of a piece. Yes, his voice has deteriorated even further over 20 years. But we now have the materials to produce our own version of what Dylan’s been aiming for, by putting together a playlist with songs from the original albums, and the better versions, or different versions, we’ve been given. Dylan calls his incessant road shows The Never-Ending Tour (and the live songs here, like “Lonesome Day Blues” give you a sense of how entertaining his shows still can be, if you’re close enough to the stage to get the band’s full blast.) Let’s hope that’s an accurate moniker. One thing that’s clear is we’ve been given all of the elements of a masterwork we can listen to forever.