Archive for May, 2009
Leica M8, 21 Summilux, slightly cropped.
Leica M8, 35 Summilux, too early in the morning to be able to accurately focus.
When L.A. psychedelic masters The Warlocks released 2003’s Phoenix, it was filled with enough exuberance for a Modern Lovers album. “Shake The Dope Out” even kinda sounded like “Roadrunner.” And then there was “Baby Blue,” as sweet a confection of SoCal Britpop as anything produced by BJM or members of the Paisley Underground.
But things got darker from there, witness the titles of their next two albums — Surgery and Heavy Deavey Skull Lover. This was disappointing, because at their best, The Warlock’s were the Alpha dogs of the nascent American neopsychedelic scene — big brothers to the Black Angels, regional counterparts to Vancouver’s Black Mountain. They are the grandparents of First Communion After Party, the ones that show up and leave cigarettes in the punch bowl and ashes right next to the rosary that was the gift of Aunt Martha. They could bash their way darkly through six-minute guitar fests with Bobby Heksher singing like some exile from The Darkside, like maybe the member of Spaceman 3 who was left on launch pad because he was just too heavy to get into orbit. Call him Spaceman 4.
Now comes The Mirror Explodes, and it’s the best thing they’ve done in six years. Maybe the concoctions they consume keep them from ever returning to the relative innocence of their Phoenix days, but they’ve sure resurrected themselves from the ashes. Okay, so the opening song sounds like late ’80s Sonic Youth, and surely “There Is A Formula To Your Despair” was swiped from Kramer’s apartment after an early Galaxie 500 session. But these are compliments, man. They’ve got a little of their swagger back, even if it’s 33 RPM swagger in a 45 RPM world. The Mirror Explodes, and after you duck, you realize things are shining brightly all around the room.
It’s a pretty remarkable homage when an artist will record an entire album of songs by his hero. And let us stipulate this isn’t Soupy Sales singing Dylan just to cash in. This is Steve Earle, one of the greatest songwriters to emerge from “country music” in the past decade, and his homage to Townes was undertaken, in part, to get the world to recognize what a gem of a songwriter the late Austinite really was.
Van Zandt got lost along the way. Steve Earle is one of the few who went down the rabbit hole of heroin to make it back alive. Since he did, he’s produced one absolutely perfect album — I Feel Alright — and a bunch of great ones: El Corazon, Transcendental Blues, The Revolution Starts Now. The thing that makes Earle so admirable is not just his honesty, his bile, his guts, it’s the way he can invoke Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, Joe Strummer, and Revolver-era Lennon/McCartney on the same album, and make it all sound like… Steve Earle.
Townes is a labor of love, a testament by a survivor on a tightrope about the one who fell off. He does his mentor proud, even as he reinforces not just Townes Van Zandts’ greatness, but his own.
When Cracker first was heard, when “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” first came blaring from early ’90s FM stations, it seemed like David Lowery was embarked on a logical continuum from Camper Van Beethoven to a sound as Southern and traditional as Jack Daniels being poured on a bass boat. By Kerosene Hat, it was perfected: Johnny Hickman’s guitar was fluid as the James River, and Lowery, in character, was transplanted from his Santa Clara hippie guise to the barefoot boy who’d grown up on Wet Willie and could transition from irony to sincerity as easily as sliding from a bar chord G to E.
Things went South, if you’ll pardon the expression, by the time the Clinton administration reached terminal decline, and besides, by the early part of this decade, Camper Van Beethoven’s rusting engine was re-lubed and cranked up. By the time Cracker put out Greenland a year or so ago, it seemed over.
Well, it’s perhaps a giveaway that there’s a song on Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey called “Time Machine,” for surely, when you listen to this incredible album, it’s 1992 again. The band plays with swing, punky power chords, and propulsive drumming. One could almost imagine Lowery, who on recent CVB tours has seemed like a laid-back suburban dad, strutting on the stage of the old 930 Club, shirtless and youthful. We did not know that what the world needs now is a new version of Cracker, but we got one, and I dare say it is the best thing they have ever done.