Naturally the mind drifts… With apologies to Thomas McGuane, but there is a reason he moved from the Florida Keys to Montana…
Leica M9, 50mm Summilux.
In their first record release since Ronald Reagan was president, the dBs kick off Falling Off The Sky with a Peter Holsapple gem called “That Time Is Gone,” reminding us in a single song how much we’ve missed them. They didn’t have to start with a Southern garage rocker, though the video of their performance at SXSW that’s bounced around the web gave an indication of why they’d want to start the album with maybe its best song. But if a single slice of the apple can give people who may have missed them the first time around a sense of the band’s full flavors, “That Time Is Gone” is an incredibly tasty morsel.
You see, what has always made the dBs so special wasn’t that they were a two-songwriter band that alternated wondrously hummable pop songs with surprisingly kick ass rock’n’roll. The secret to the band has always been that beneath Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple’s songwriting and singing was one of the best rhythm sections around. Back in 1979, a band like the Plimsouls could offer, on paper, a fair bit of what the dBs brought to the party, but without Gene Holder on bass and Will Rigby’s special rum punch drumming, everything by comparison sounded flat.
Special too was the way the dBs were a crankily coherent outpost of Winston-Salem, North Carolina living in Manhattan. They were playing pop songs at the same time the Bush Tetras were playing the Mudd Club, but the music was so infectious, and the band so fantastic live, any given evening that they played was an event. This may be heretical to say, given that Stands For Decibels and other albums they put out have attracted such a cult following over the years, but they never really delivered on vinyl the magic they showed on stage. Those first albums sounded just a bit too thin, too caffeinated. And later, when Stamey had left the band for a solo career that produced, in Its Alright, probably the best record any semblance of the band ever created, the Holsapple-led dBs was missing something, that counterweight to Peter’s songwriting proving, over the course of a single record, to matter. Peter’s songwriting was so magnificent that the few songs of his Syd Straw sang on the Golden Palominos records helped define the ’80s, but Stamey and Holsapple, friends and rivals, needed one another to hold a band in equipoise.
And now they’re back, and man do they sound good. Falling Off The Sky is like a time capsule fallen back to Earth. Head out to the mound, still smoking from where the space debris just hit it, and stand back in wonder. Or better yet, go to Iota in Arlington Thursday night and see the Second Coming.
It is a tantalizing tell, to use the terminology of poker players who seek that small tic that will reveal what a player thinks of his own hand, that the first note of Patti Smith’s unbelievably great new album Banga is a single piano note that happens to be the same note that begins Patti Smith-protege PJ Harvey’s “We Float.” Yeah, she’s been listening, listening to her acolytes, listening, by our reckoning to bands like Blood Meridian, artists like Bowie, and even old folkies like the Youngbloods (whose “Darkness Darkness” returns here in “Nine.”)
Banga is a remarkable album because it connects in a straight line to Horses, released, what, 37 years ago, and to virtually every bit of great music waiting to be played in the great Jungian juke box. It’s not just hearing Tom Verlaine play lead on “April Fool” that produces the rapture — yeah, rapture — this classic album inspires. Maybe it’s the thought that unlike Dylan, who when he produced Love and Theft had lost the voice that could really do the songs justice, Smith still can sing, those years spent inactive paying off now, as like a pitcher with a fresh arm stemming from a late start, she can come in and finish the game without the seeming accumulation of age.
Here we have Patti Smith, not just a survivor but someone who proves she’s learned a lot since those thrilling, annoying, early days when she played the obnoxious tyro spouting pretentious gibberish while making gorgeous rock’n’roll music. Banga is a revelation, an extension of “Birdland,” but so much more: current, sublime. “Maria” is something that will make even an artist like PJ Harvey stand up and cheer for the master, who this time around repays the favor by taking her sound back again. When the final words are written, Banga will be connected to Horses in that long sentence describing Patti Smith’s greatness.
So just about a month ago, we delivered the mixed verdict that the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album was far better than the new album by the Dandy Warhols. And in that post, we referenced how the Dandy’s Zia McCabe had once asked Tulip Frenzy for a reconsideration of whether her band had declined since those amazing early albums. We regretted having to say that we don’t like the new Dandy Warhols album, because we are still a big fan. This morning, we found a comment on that post from the lovely Zia McCabe, and it proves to us that even if the Dandys have lost some of that magic that once made them irresistible, Zia has lost none of her graciousness and class. Anton Newcombe: Please note at least one member of the Dandy Warhols wishes you well. Here’s the comment, called out for wider readership.
Ha, well at least you still consider me lovely. Maybe our next album will suit your fancy. Or maybe you’d like my side project Brush Prairie. Glad to here you enjoy the new BJM album at least. That makes me happy for those guys. X
There was a time when you could make the case that Alejandro Escovedo was wise beyond his years. He was still a young man when, more than 20 years ago, his wife committed suicide after 13 years of their marriage. In response, Al produced 13 Years and With These Hands, with songs so emotionally charged you had to turn off your car stereo when you were pumping gas. And yet here he is, age 61, with his third straight rocking album and our favorite Austin singer/songwriter is frisky as a pup, ink still wet on his new lease on a sober life, a singer of a certain age trying out rock star poses with a kickin’ ass band. And it’s charming.
Big Station marks the third straight album in which Al’s turned to Chuck Prophet for help on songwriting and to Tony Visconti for production duties. Visconti had long since stopped producing David Bowie when The Thin White Duke and Nile Rogers produced Let’s Dance, but I swear, I thought of that album as an antecedent to Big Station, because it’s one of the only records I can think of that also has the singer’s voice mixed with as much amplification as the drums. Unless I am wrong, for the first time in Al’s long career, stretching all the way back to the Nuns, Rank and File, and the True Believers, there’s a horn section on this record, and on songs like “Sally Was A Cop” and “Party People,” it all works. This is a so-called “radio friendly” record, and so what it it doesn’t have the poignance of “Pissed Off 2:oo A.M.” It sounds great, it’s fun, and Lord knows the man deserves success.
This is a good troika — Escovedo, Prophet, and Visconti — and they’ve done wonders for Alejandro’s music. We loved Real Animal, and thought Street Songs of Love was the finest pure rock’n’roll record of Alejandro’s illustrious career. Big Station has weaker songwriting than Real Animal at its best, and it is not as viscerally charged as Street Songs of Love. For any other artist, this would be a high point; for Alejandro it is a fine record that suffers mostly by comparison to the marginally better records that preceded it. It doesn’t quite have the thematic grit of Animal, though any album that has multiple songs making reference to a woman named Sally plays on the same turf as Spiritualized in its evocation of Lou Reed.
But this is not to damn with faint praise. We were disappointed by Alejandro’s touring behind Street Songs of Love, because reducing his band to a hard-rocking foursome left too many of those glorious shades of grey out of the picture; we missed the big bands, with pedal steel and cellos and a big, big sound. Big Station does not disappoint, it is a worthy addition to one of the finest catalogs in American music. But we do find it funny — in both meanings of the word — that the mature Al sounds so much more boyish than he did on 13 Years, which came out in 1994. He was so much older then, he’s younger than that now.