Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Bit Like Goodbye: Big Star's Complete Third

"This sounds a bit like goodbye
In a way it is I guess
As I leave your side
I've taken the air
Take care, please, take care"
- Alex Chilton, Take Care

After the Velvet Underground emerged from the mists of legend and a mostly out-of-print catalog, the next white whale was Big Star, arriving on the horizon of my consciousness through pre-Internet research, tipped off by The Replacements. This consisted of looking through defunct editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and the magazine collections my friend Mike and I found in our older brothers' closets. I distinctly remember reading an article about Tim Buckley in Creem and thinking "Is this a hoax?" It was years before I heard the glorious reality, but that's another story.

I did find some references to Big Star, just tiny glimpses usually including the words "power pop" and "Beatlesque." When I finally heard anything it was just a few songs on an Alex Chilton compilation someone had. Kizza Me was on there, and Downs, but it was mostly shambolic solo songs like Bangkok and Like Flies On Sherbet, most of which I liked in various degrees while remaining unaware of the provenance of any of the material. Kizza Me was especially great, sort of a Stooges song for daydreamers, with bonus cello. As far as influences go, I could hear a hint of The Beatles, especially in Chilton's high, vibrato-less tenor and his way with a melody. I was also distracted by trying to connect this guy with the guy who sang The Letter by The Boxtops. To be honest, I'm still working on that part.

Time went on. I got married, got a CD player, felt lucky to find Pere Ubu and Wire on the shiny plastic discs, but still no Big Star. Then Rykodisc came on the scene, sort of a Criterion Collection (yes, I eventually got a laserdisc player, too) for music, with beautifully presented reissues that included all kinds of extra stuff. Which is how it came to pass that my first extended exposure to Big Star was via a semi-misrepresentational latter-day collection called Third/Sister Lovers.

It's slightly ironic that what had for years been a holy grail/stepchild for Big Star fans (notwithstanding a limited release on PVC Records) was right there in Tower for $18.99. And it was fantastic, if a bit messy. Songs like Thank You Friends and Jesus Christ were instantly indelible, sing-in-the shower classics, while Kangaroo, Holocaust, and Big Black Car were grimly gorgeous ventures into the heart of darkness. I was hooked and evangelized heavily, killing music by passing out many homemade cassettes. The indie-level success of Rykodisc's reconstruction was unharmed by my piracy and finally led Saul Zaentz to stop not dancing and let Fantasy reissue Big Star's Number One Record and Radio City on one CD.

That's when the true majesty of Big Star exploded in my living room. September Gurls, Feel, 13, Back of a Car, In The Street, Feel The Sunshine. I nearly wept at the unrecognized genius contained therein: here was the Beatlesque power pop I had been promised and so much more. How could these records have failed? No wonder Chilton was going blotto and singing about Holocausts a couple of years later. Reading the credits educated me to the fact that there were actually three Big Stars: Mark I with Chris Bell making it a quartet and playing McCartney to Chilton's Lennon - or was it vice versa? Then there was Mark II, a trio after Bell and Chilton parted ways, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens still holding down the rhythm section. And then there's Mark III, which was whatever the hell is happening on Third/Sister Lovers.

Now we have the final word on that period in Omnivore Recordings magnificent three-disc set, Complete Third. Interestingly enough, Chilton wasn't even sure this was a Big Star album he was making. Jody Stephens was still there, drumming on some songs (and contributing the sweet yearning of For You) but there was no band per se, just a rotating cast of Memphian characters, most notably production savant Jim Dickinson, bringing to fruition an astonishing batch of Chilton originals.

Just how amazing the raw material was is fully evident on Disc One, which features mostly solo demos with Chilton accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or piano with occasional overdubs. Many of these were available on Keep An Eye On The Sky, the lavish career overview that came out in 2009, but I admit to rushing through them at the time. It may have been that I thought them superfluous or I just got overwhelmed by the wealth of material, including a wonderful live show from 1973, which became a daily listen. But now their brilliance has fully dawned on me. In fact if these recordings were as far as Chilton got they would constitute a great lost album in their own right. The sheer musicality that pours from Chilton will stop you in your tracks - remember to breathe while listening.

If anything, Chilton had grown as a songwriter, having lost some of the tics that showed up on the first two albums, making for songs that are elegantly constructed, curvaceous yet sturdy like Art Deco sculpture. As Chris Bell noted at the time, Chilton had come even more under the influence of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, adding both toughness and despair. There are strong emotions animating them, but there's also a sense of distance, as if Chilton was holding the feelings at arm's length. These are rough drafts, yes, with some vocal hiccups and the obvious awareness that arrangements would put flesh on their bones, but this is what co-producer/engineer John Fry, who had also worked on the first two albums, and Dickinson had to work with.

We can also hear a taste of who Dickinson and Fry had to work with on a track called Pre-Downs, a bunch of enervated noodling with someone (mercifully off mic) murdering T For Texas while Chilton giggles. Eventually he calls for Baby Strange, the T. Rex song, and it's awful, out of tune and ragged, finally breaking down entirely into a drum solo until Chilton yells "Enough! Enough of this drum ego trip!" Not exactly what you'd hope for from a guy who'd been in recording studios since his teens. According to Cheryl Pawelski, whose archival work here should earn her whatever awards are given for that sort of thing, this is just a small excerpt - and it's quite enough.

Then we get the first band demo of Big Black Car and it's not much better. Chilton sounds barely interested, even contemptuous, turning the bridge into a spoken word joke. After a few listens it occurred to me that he might have been terrified. He must have known that he had a batch of great songs, some even extraordinary, but he'd been there before, in that same studio, slaving over brilliant material, and look where it had gotten him. The self-doubt could have been crippling, wondering if by trying to produce final versions of these songs, he was killing them, like gassing butterflies just as they emerge from their cocoons.

But he powered through, numbed out on downs ("our favorite kind of drug," reports Lesa Aldridge, Chilton's girlfriend at the time - and co-writer of Downs, the wacky, sardonic song that arose out of that jam and kicked off the project) and drink, and aided by the heroic efforts of Dickinson and Fry. Gradually, things began to take shape, with Dickinson's intuitive methods bringing songs like Kangaroo and Holocaust into new sonic territory, with spectral Mellotron and spidery guitars, and Fry's pop classicism adding backing vocals and concision.

Through various rough mixes and alternate takes we get an X-Ray of the choices made along the way, and they were mostly good ones. Jody Stephens made a crucial contribution when he asked a string arranger to sweeten up his song, For You, which we also get to hear Alex sing in a pretty good version, heard here for the first time. Chilton liked the sound so much that he had strings added to a number of songs, becoming a key part of the sound. This is how Lovely Day became Stroke It Noel, named for the violinist on the song. Probably the biggest quibble I have always had is with the final version of Femme Fatale, which I never fully bought into. The acoustic demo was not improved by Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper jumping on the track or by Aldridge's unnecessary "Elle et un femme fatale" on the chorus. It reminds me of the time Paul McCartney tried to "improve" Don't Let Me Down with vocal counterpoint. Lennon was wise enough to put the kibosh on that - apparently Chilton was going to do the same but Dickinson convinced him otherwise.

Even in his damaged state, Chilton managed to participate quite a bit. "Let's start off with just a verse of me playing the guitar," he says at the start of the "Dickinson Rough Mix" version of Take Care, "and everybody fooling around, and we'll save that for some kind of juicy little instrument later, okay? So y'all fall in." This was the germ of an arrangement that would become a chamber-pop gem in the final version, with strings and horns providing the "juiciness" Chilton envisioned. This is just one example of the transformations we can now hear happening before our ears, the butterflies spreading their wings. 

But to describe Dickinson and Fry's work as heroic does not overstate the case. They polished up the songs, sequenced them, made a test pressing, and shopped it around. That turned into a farce as they were met with derision and contempt by people like Jerry Wexler. Chilton was out of the picture by that point, too dissolute to do more than weakly protest their efforts, never approving of a sequence, a title, or cover art. His career, such as it was, never recovered until a late career lionization that was well-deserved - and sometimes great - but based on past glories. He never wrote songs this good again. (Solo Chilton boosters - feel free to write your hate mail on a box top and send it to the Dead Letter Office).

In any case, thanks to Omnivore's efforts, I can now make my perfect version of Third. It will include the demo of Femme Fatale and get rid of all other cover songs, especially the rotely rocking Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On. Newly unearthed versions of I'm So Tired, Don't Worry Baby and After Hours, all featuring Lesa on vocals, are intriguing but certainly not final cut material. You can hear my version here or below - feel free to share yours.

So is Third or Sister Lovers or whatever you want to call it a Big Star album? The closest I can come to a definitive answer is that it is a collection of songs written by Alex Chilton in a style reminiscent of Big Star. Or maybe I should just quote Kizza Me's insouciant rejoinder and say "why not?" You might also ask if this essential reissue is overkill for the casual Big Star fan - but have you ever met a casual Big Star fan?

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.

A few years ago I was very nearly convinced that there was a generational divide about guitars. The six-stringed wonder seemed to be less and less relevant to people who came of musical age in the 80's and 90's, which made me slightly sad, I'll admit. Don't get me wrong - I love synthesizers, sampling, turntablism and all kinds of studio trickery, and I'm certainly not advocating a return to guitar hero wankery. I just feel that there is a unique disturbance to the air caused by strings vibrating in some kind of interval-based tuning, whether over a magnetic coil pickup or a soundhole, or both. Acoustic, electric, six or 12 string, solo and in combination, I just really, really like guitars.

Now I see I needn't have worried. This year there's been an explosion of good to great guitar albums and bands, some of which (Cian Nugent, Car Seat Headrest, Wire) were among my best of the year so far. What follows here is a quick tear, in no particular order, through some of the other guitar-driven jams that have been getting me out of the fug of 2016 on a regular basis. Politics, schmolitics, let's tune up and plug in. Rocking out is optional.

Exmagician - Scan The Blue This is the sound of a couple of music lifers finding their sweet spot. A little too clean to be shoegaze, but with some of that propulsion, and not bombastic enough to be Britpop but with some of that melodic grandeur. Job Done should be a hit and there's not a bad song to be found. 

Journalism - Faces I may be the only one I know for whom this was a long-awaited debut. I enthused a few years ago when Denim Jesus showed up on SoundCloud, immediately impressed with its power, polish and wit. While they played a concert now and then, I wasn't really sure if they were a going concern. Who knows what the deal was - in any case the full length is here, nine driving rock songs with a psychedelic edge. This is what rock radio should be playing. 

Pale Dian - Narrow Birth I stumbled on these guys when they opened for Cheatahs last time I was in Austin. Like the headliners, they were monumentally loud, but I was able to discern a sweet interplay between the guitar and synth, along with a gift for well-turned melodies. When the album came out, I was a tiny bit disappointed that it sounded so familiar: a little bit of MBV and JAMC, a touch of Siousxie, some Blondie. So they're noise-pop classicists in the end, but they do it very well. Great production, too. 

The Stargazer Lilies - Door To The Sun The Lilies were touring with Pale Dian so I cued them up, even though I couldn't make it to the show - yet another way I discover new music. It's easy to see why they were put together, as they strike a lot of the same chords as Pale Dian, with perhaps a touch more originality. When is the split "Pale Lilies" single coming out? Or do people not do those anymore?

Nap Eyes - Thought Rock Fish Scale I fell down a defunct blog's rabbit hole one day, reading years of passionate (if slightly amateur) collective criticism about bands that were mostly unsatisfying when I actually heard them. Eventually I hit on Nap Eyes, liked it, found out they had a new album out and liked it even more. There's a new naturalism to their songwriting, that falling-off-a-log ease that is usually hard-won. However they got to this point, it's a delightfully heartfelt album of smart indie rock. You could be their next devoted fan.

Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing So she has famous parents - that doesn't mean her tunefully awkward pop is a put-on or any less charming. While I don't bond as closely with her songs as I do to, say, Hospitality's, she hits some of those targets. She'll probably only get better, too, unless she decides to enter the family business and become an actor.

Tacocat - Lost Time Frankie Cosmos definitely owes a debt to these guys, who have been plying their punky trade for nearly a decade. Lost Time is probably their most "accomplished" album - but don't worry, they haven't killed the fun. It just means that the songs don't meander so much and the sound is better, so you can enjoy the Riot Grrrl rush of songs like I Hate The Weekend all the more easily.

Feral Conservatives - Here's To Almost Okay, so it's not a guitar that Rashie Rosenfarb is strumming but her electric mandolin provides the same pleasures. Great songs, too, and you can read lots more words about this album by me and others on Off Your Radar. Subscribe while you're there, won't you?

Self Defense Family - Colicky Speaking of Off Your Radar, I have my colleague Drew Necci to thank for introducing me to this dark-hued post-punk-referencing group, who have been releasing music under this name since 2011. For It Isn't Very Clear, Is It? alone, Colicky is my favorite of the three EP's and two singles they've put out so far this year, but if you put all the songs in a playlist you'll have a damned good album.

Scott & Charlene's Wedding - Mid Thirties Singles Scene While I'm not connecting as strongly to this album as I did to their last, Craig Dermody still has a way with slightly off-kilter jangle and clever lyrics and everyone should know about this band.

Parquet Courts - Human Performance Even those these Brooklyn sort-of slackers sell out every show in minutes, I somehow think they're underappreciated, taken for granted - even by me. This is easily their best and most varied album since they broke through with Light Up Gold. There's a little more humor and self-deprecation here, as well as clever instrumentation. Dust, Berlin Got Blurry, One Man No City and the title track are all seriously sticky songs that betray new strengths, and Steady On My Mind has some truly velvety guitar interplay. Don't count them out.

Omni - Deluxe While Omni, like some of the other bands here, might be a little too comfortable in their post-punk niche (hell, they even have a song called Wire), this debut is still a terrific listen. Tight, colorful songs, assured playing and sharp production, all by ex-Deerhunter and ex-Carnivores members, seal the deal. If you want to read someone gush over this album, check out my old friend Tim Sommer's review - if that doesn't make you want to listen...

Big Thief - Masterpiece Calling your debut album Masterpiece and then starting it with two minutes of lo-fi wayward warbling is a fun way to play with expectations. But singer/songwriter Adrienne Lenker and co. sound like they're in it for the long haul. Her songs are sturdy and inevitable, and the band serves them well with a canny combo of straight-ahead folk-rock and mathy touches. Perhaps most importantly, Big Thief sound like they're seizing the moment with everything they've got - grab on.

The Amazing - Ambulance I guess if a band called The Amazing named their album "masterpiece" it would be overkill. But this Swedish band's last album, Picture This, was exactly that - a masterpiece - and made it to number six on my Top 20 for 2015. While Ambulance is not quite at that level and could use some of the urgency implied by the title, it's still a beautifully absorbing set of psych-rock. A sly, funky, positively noirish song called Blair Drager stands out like a captivating sore thumb, however - and may hint at new directions for these guys. Special note should be paid to drummer Moussa Fadera whose light touch and detailed playing elevate everything this band does.

Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung Walker could easily have had a great, low-key career as an acoustic fingerpicking wizard, such are his skills. But his ambitions are greater than that and on his third album he's getting closer to realizing them. Richly textured, expansive songs with wide dynamic range provide an ornate frame for his tenor, with which he is sounding more comfortable on every album. Van Morrison is an obvious touchstone here and if Walker doesn't quite have the lyrical facility of The Man at his best, at least he's pushing hard at his own limitations. Probably my favorite song is Age Old Tale - just pure hypnosis. If you listen on Spotify, don't skip the mind-blowing 40 minute(!) live take on Sullen Mind. Maybe he'll play it like that at the Market Hotel on November 3rd - or a venue near you.

Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20 I recognize that it seems almost cruelly reductive to include a master like Lucinda Williams in a roundup of this sort. But the fact is that this double-album set is full of gorgeous guitars, duet after duet by Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, both masters in their own right. Also, I will admit that the almost entirely low-key mood of this album has me reaching for it less frequently than I did Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, which had more of that driving groove that she addicted us to on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Still, many of these songs - Dust, Doors Of Heaven, the title track, If There's A Heaven - are marvels to behold. And who knows - if she tours with Stuart Mathis again, there might be even more six-string fireworks.

Dinosaur Jr. - Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not It should not be that Dinosaur Jr. made one of their best albums over 30 years after their start in 1984. But that is what we have here, people. Give A Glimpse is a celebration of both the melodic smarts of J. Macsis as well as his guitar-titan status. Gritty chords give way to liquid or wonderfully overdriven solos with a casual regularity that is dumbfounding. That sense of mastery combined with surprise is a rare thing indeed. Lou Barlow (bass) and Murph (drums) can do no wrong, providing just the right support and holding the goalposts for one game-winning kick after another. Barlow also wrote and sings on two songs and his lighter style adds some nice variety, also provided by Macsis's prettier moments. Even though they've only made 11 albums in all those years (and took a long hiatus from 1997-2005), let's face it: J. Macsis and Dinosaur Jr. are probably at least part of the reason we're still talking about guitars at all in 2016. Long may they reign.

OK, I think that's enough for now! What guitar-driven stuff has been driving you wild this year? Also, I slightly lied at the start. There is an order to this list, which is based on the way I sequenced the accompanying playlist. It was a fun challenge to blend everything together in a way that made sense. Let me know what you think.

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Sunday, October 02, 2016

Frank Ocean Goes Deep

It's profound. It's profane. It's a benediction. It's an indictment. It's intimate. It's universal. It's pop. It's art. It's soulful. It's icy. It's carnal. It's cerebral. It's wickedly funny. It's as serious as your life. Frank Ocean's Blonde (or Blond?) is all of these things, and more, and it's on the top of the charts. After a four year wait, which drove some corners of the Internet to the breaking point, we finally have a follow up to Channel Orange and it is brilliant, exceeding my expectations in every way. 

Part of the reason I love Blond is that it makes fewer concessions than Channel Orange to R&B, the genre to which it supposedly belongs. For one thing, half the songs have no drums, and on the ones that do, the percussion comes and goes. For another, guitars are the most prominent instrument - next to Oceans's glorious voice, of course. Ivy, for example, feels rich and fully realized despite just being voices accompanied by two tracks of heavily processed electric guitars. It works so well mainly due to the sophistication of Ocean's melodies, which combine with his poetic lyrics to make an intoxicating cocktail of a song. Then there's the end of the song, where he makes a hook out of a little vocal phrase that would seem bizarre if it didn't feel so good. 

The length of time between albums might imply a lack of confidence but much of Blonde is incredibly bold, including all of the different things he does with his voice. Considering that his gifts as a singer put him in the same league as Stevie Wonder (believe it), his lack of veneration for his instrument is refreshing. He pitches it up, distorts it, talks through parts of songs, and, in general, could care less about impressing you. This makes the moments when he lets rip, like the wordless passages in Solo, that much more astonishing. 

Lyrically, he's gotten bolder as well. Consider Skyline To, which kicks off like a Frank Loesser song ("This is joy, this is summer...") and then, as a reflective jazz guitar shimmers in the background, turns strikingly conversational. "That's a pretty fucking fast year flew by," he says, speaking plainly, "that's a pretty long third gear in this car, gliding on the Five, deer run across, killed the headlights," he continues in a stream of consciousness. He keeps talking: "Pretty fucking under moonlight, now, pretty fucking...sunrise in sight" - he sings the last word and we're back on Broadway - "then comes the morning hunting us with the beams, solstice ain't as far as it used to be, it begins to blur, we get older, summer's not as long as it used to be, every day counts like crazy." 

This is compressed language, heightened but completely relatable, and, in the context of a 2:37 pop song, amazing. Throw in subtexts about  sexual encounters and the effects of the drug trade on the Congo, and his achievement is  elevated from the pop realm into that of the literary. Synth clouds and squiggles float in, Ocean begins to harmonize with himself and heaven is not too strong a word for the sensation of listening. And this is just one song, picked almost at random. One day monographs and graduate essays will be written exploring the treasures of Blonde - for now, I'll just keep browsing Genius

Skyline To also continues some of the main themes of Blonde, the cut-adrift sensation of getting older, being on your own, answering only to yourself but desperate for connection, coping with work, self-worth and technology. "I may be younger, but I'll take care of you," he sings in Nikes, the opening cut (don't miss the video), a come-on to a one night stand whose glow lasts long in the lives of both people involved. The spoken word interludes also play off of these strains. Be Yourself is a voicemail from a friend's mom imploring her son not to drink or do drugs "unless under a doctor's control,"and signing off, unnecessarily: "This is mom. Call me." 

Facebook Story is an anecdote told by Sebastian, one of Blonde's producers, about a woman who left him after three years because he wouldn't accept her friend request. "I'm in front of you," he told her, "I don't need to accept you on Facebook." These snippets speak volumes about helicopter parenting and the perils of social media - issues that don't only weigh on millennials, I can assure you. Frank Ocean has straight up become the voice of more than one generation, all the while remaining an artist of great intimacy. 

A word about collaborations. Guests and samples can sink an album under the weight of misplaced star power or references that are too clever by half. No worries on Blonde - Ocean is in total command. Luminaries such as BeyoncĂ©, Kendrick Lamar, Jonny Greenwood and Kim Burrell are here, along with a children's choir and samples of everyone from Gang of Four and Elliott Smith to The Beatles themselves. However, everything is beautifully woven into a distinctive tapestry that could belong to no one else. If any collaborator deserves to become better known based on Blonde, it would be Om'Mas Keith, who has songwriting and production credits on 11 songs on the album.

The one song where Ocean takes a backseat is Solo (Reprise), a full-on feature by Andre 3000 of OutKast, who speed-raps over a soulful piano and arty synths. Depending on my mood, I vacillate between joy that someone was able to get Three Stacks in front of a microphone to feeling like it's an intrusion. I've heard it's a two year old recording so I'll chalk up its inclusion to the diaristic structure of the album, which makes a palpable presence of all the living Ocean has done since Channel Orange came out.

Considering that Blonde is a vessel for four years of emotions and creativity, I hope everyone who snapped up this album invests their own time to let it unfold in their hearts. Blonde is an unconventional, deeply felt, and organically original work of art. There's much more I could say about its mysteries but I'd rather let you discover them on your own. And, Frank - feel free to take your time on the next record. A gem like Blonde is well worth the wait. 

Note: Two days before Blonde came out, Frank Ocean released a "visual album" called Endless that featured a soundtrack of all new music. It is only available to watch and listen to if you subscribe to Apple Music, a sub-par service that I tried several months ago. From what I understand, Endless was a clever move on Ocean's part to finish out his Def Jam contract and allow him to put out Blonde independently. That suggests that he saved the best music for Blonde and, based on what I've heard from tinny-sounding bootleg MP3's, that is indeed the case. If and when Endless is released in a conventional fashion I will be happy to give it full consideration in a future review.

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