PopMatters: Lambchop – Nixon (Reissue)

My review of the reissue of Lambchop’s career highlight Nixon went up at PopMatters:

Nixon is the culmination of the “countrypolitan” path that started on 1996’s How I Quit Smoking; its soulful blend of country, gospel, r&b and late ‘60s/early ‘70s chamber pop reached a state of maximal ornamentation and nearly baroque arrangements. Since this point, they’ve steadily removed country signifiers. It’s hard to hear recognizable country tropes on their latest album, Mr. M, even though they’re occasionally still referred to as “Nashville’s most fucked up country band”. This left Nixon as both the fork in the road and a singular, solitary peak. Instead of following a path possibly paved with gilded country lilies, Lambchop would redefine themselves with Is a Woman, a languid front-porch lounge record that is spartan in comparison.


Stacks: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Farmer John”

It’s Monday morning, which means some scribbling appears at Stacks. This week I spent some time digging into Thud Rock via Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Farmer John” from Weld.

Though they were around at the time, Neil and the Horse were never really Thud Rock; they had too many legit chops and too much musical ambition to embrace their inner Bam Bam. But it was obvious from the get-go that they understood the compulsion and weren’t afraid to flirt with the idea of it. Crazy Horse always had a simplicity to their attack, with a fear of ornamentation that bordered on a full-blown phobia. Neil in turn attacked his guitar like he was strangling a chicken; his choking, stuttering, soloing style a telegraphic S.O.S. to his more lyrical peers.

Stacks: Bill Withers – “Grandma’s Hands”

My latest piece for Stacks:

But let’s talk about the music. Live at Carnegie Hall is one of the best – yet sadly, most often overlooked – live albums of the 1970s. It’s a self-contained universe, the kind of album that erases all thoughts of other records while it’s playing. One of those records that makes you wonder why you don’t listen to it constantly. I often think that way whenever I play any Bill Withers record; it’s his voice, his way with a melody, and how he makes you feel it’ll be alright regardless of what the world may have in store.

Last Rites: A Devil’s Dozen – Ronnie James Dio

Over at Last Rites, we rounded up our favorite Dio tunes and distilled it to a mere 13 (the man had at least a Devil’s Dozen more without any considerable drop in quality). I was able to jot down my thoughts about my very favorite Dio song, Rainbow’s “Man On the Silver Mountain”:

After 25 seconds of Purple-esque vamping from Ritchie Blackmore, Dio opened his golden throat and the world changed. “Man On the Silver Mountain” wasn’t only Rainbow’s opening salvo, it was the genesis of 35 years of Dionic excellence. What came before is crushed by the unstoppable wheel that time and again would lift Dio higher and higher. With all due respect to Elf (or “the shit Faces”, as a friend named them years ago), their style of blues rock never showed what that voice could truly do. The control, the build, the restraint and release, was finally all in place; the quivering rises, the dropping growl, the shivering break on the “silver” of the first chorus. This was the template, the ur-tune that shaped a legend.

Stacks: David Bowie & Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Cracked Actor”

Stacks is back, with a fresh look for 2014 and me still posting on Mondays. Today I took a peak at one of the “what if…” moments of the early 80s. It’s been nearly 7 years since I first wrote about the record, and by focusing on “Cracked Actor” I got a slightly different view of the road not taken.

David Bowie & Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Cracked Actor”
Dallas Moonlight bootleg, 1983

In late 1982, Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded several guitar solos and miscellaneous pieces for David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, most memorably channeling Albert King for the solo on the title track. After hearing his idea of European dance pop and southern American blues come blistering to life in Vaughan’s hands, Bowie asked Vaughan to join the band for the resulting Serious Moonlight tour. It was not to be; after band rehearsals had worked everything into shape, the stories say that Vaughan’s management tried to shake down Bowie for more money as they were literally getting on the plane to Europe. Bowie declined to renegotiate, stopped on the way to pick up Earl Slick, and toured without Stevie Ray. So this rehearsal tape from April 27th is a document of a path not taken, of what might have been.

In its original incarnation on 1973’s Aladdin Sane, Bowie aimed for a Slade stomper, a clap-and-sing-along ode to the callous debauchery of an aging film star. Here, the arrangement has sacrificed stomp for swing, with the glam making way for a more appropriate sense of glamour. The lecher is still on the make, but instead of merely acting like an aging star, Bowie now has a bit more insight into the trials and tribulations of popularity. There is an understanding at age 35 he couldn’t have properly imagined a decade earlier. As a result, the band sell it like the cold truth.

However, the fact that it’s 1983 and not 1968 can’t be ignored. Like Let’s Dance itself, the conception holds the arrangement in time despite an excellent Stevie Ray Vaughan solo and some great horn stabs. This is Europop of the era, its sparkling sheen and chrome-plated everything a distracting glint to the ears. Being a boot, the lack of low-end certainly doesn’t help. But Vaughan brings to it a bit of earthy realism, something that Earl Slick couldn’t do when it was played on tour. Slick is an excellent guitar player, but unlike Vaughan the electric blues of the 60s was not where he lived and breathed. The contrast between their solos highlights what a missed opportunity this was for Bowie and Vaughan and all of us.


PopMatters: Humble Pie – Performance

My review of the new Humble Pie box set, Performance – Rockin’ at the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings is up at PopMatters.

When they left the studio for the stage, Humble Pie became something different altogether. Freed of the strictures of three minute long radio-friendly material, the four musicians came into their own. No longer was it Frampton extracting pop melodies from Marriott’s heavy R&B sensibilities, or Marriott dragging Frampton into a blues framework on a track-by-track basis. As this recording shows, their live partnership wasn’t a capitulation of one’s style to serve the other’s needs. It was two artists constantly pulling away from each other, with the tension of their inherently different approaches held in equilibrium by the rhythm section of Ridley and Shirley. Jerry Shirley’s ability to both pound heavily when playing blues and to sit off the beat for a jazzier feel allowed him to buttress whichever guitarist had stepped to the fore. Greg Ridley’s bass playing was limber yet solid like Shirley’s drums, and alternated that support role with the drummer like one instrument. Their fluid approaches to rhythm let Frampton and Marriott follow where their muses took them without sacrifices from either frontman.

Last Rites: Moon Coven – Amanita Kingdom

I reviewed the upcoming Moon Coven debut for Last Rites:

There are two things Moon Coven have from the opening notes of “Ruler of Dust” that many bands can’t ever seem to find: an earworm of a riff and a properly awesome guitar tone. The riff is a simple one, a drunken ellipse of a figure, with a slight stagger like a hiccup that immediately catches your attention. Then there’s that tone: rich, thick and resonant from bottom to top, no pass filters, no frills. It’s a tone that fills any room, from clapboard walls to cement halls. With that riff and tone locked and loaded, Moon Coven fire off toward the orb they worship. The song clocks it at just over seven minutes, but it could go another five or ten with that riff to carry the load.