August 27, 2009
Guided by Voices
It's a fact of life – you have to overcome emotional barriers before you can move on. On Guided by Voices' last album, Isolation Drills, bandleader/indie rock poet laureate Bob Pollard, fresh from a failed marriage, relayed his inner turmoil with some of his most revealing and tender songs to date. Now that he's got that off his beer-soaked chest, it's time for this Dayton, Ohio-hailing troupe to return to what they do best: be America's top purveyors of immediate, completely alive rock 'n' roll.
Enter Universal Truths and Cycles, which handily reconciles GBV's lo-fi garage roots with the high-gloss approach they've adopted in recent years. There's the swaggering, noisy "Skin Parade," brief acoustic fugues ("Zap," "The Weeping Bogeyman"), and urgently melodic gems spiked with Pollard's famously obtuse wordplay ("Christian Animation Torch Carriers"). It's hard to pick out a clunker anywhere on this disc; "Cheyenne" annoys at first with Pollard's maudlin falsetto, but then it somehow grows on you.
Similarly, given the consistent quality of these 19 tracks, it's tough to single out highlights, but I submit the anthemic, staccato-riffing "Back to the Lake," the cascading "Storm Vibrations," the scrappy "Everywhere With Helicopter" and "Eureka Signs," a revved-up chunk of resplendence and grit.
For all their singularity, GBV isn't immune to betraying their influences. The folky "Factory of Raw Essentials" sounds like Pollard channeling Gordon Lightfoot, and "Wings of Thorn," with its percussive guitar strumming, could be sandwiched into every future pressing of the Who's Tommy and no one would notice. Nevertheless, as Cycles thrashes and jangles to a close, all that is great about this thing called rock seems gloriously distilled. Grade: A
"Some say the end is near," bodes vocalist Maynard James Keenan during the title cut from Aenima, Tool's long-awaited new effort. The song is a disgusted meditation on all of the world's dysfunction and apparently, Keenan feels that society needs to be purged entirely. Never one to bask even remotely in any type of ignorant optimism, he dwells rather in the murky recesses of the damaged human psyche, especially his own. With delicate whispers that gradually escalate into unsettling primal howls, Keenan traverses Tool's jagged soundscape like a psychotic charioteer. The band launches a multi-layered aural attack, fraught with shifting cadences and temperament. Aenima, the Los Angeles quartet's follow-up to 1993's incendiary Undertow, marks an upward artistic progression for a group thematically submerged in a self-imposed and downward emotional spiral.
Picking up where they left off on Undertow, Tool kicks things into overdrive with the opening track, "Stinkfist." With its familiar musical structure (crunching guitar riffs, airtight rhythms, Keenan's Jeckyll/Hyde croonings), it conveys the fearsome, visceral tone found in previous tunes like "Sober." One of Aenima's prime moments comes on "Eulogy," as Keenan's twisted, imposing vocals are seemingly funneled through a distorted bullhorn. Although the lyrics are completely unintelligible, they nevertheless retain an unnerving beauty. Tool has a penchant for such idiosyncratic details. The disc is full of soundbites (a relentless
tapping on a window, a baby crying) and creepy voice-overs (a German man fervently orating is especially disturbing) that render it a transportative yet dreadful experience. Tool doesn't compromise its art, and fearlessly marries darkly incongruent elements into a turbulent sonic netherworld where no one escapes unscathed.
Aenima is the perfect soundtrack for a mental breakdown. You may want to turn it off mid-disc (running time is 77 minutes, the single CD maximum), to regain a balanced state of mind. That is by no means an insult to Tool, but rather a genuflection to the devastating impact of their music. After a short break, you'll be compelled to turn it back on, eager to resume your harrowing journey into madness.
August 18, 2009
Henry Rollins sends a dispatch from his endless tour of duty
What keeps Henry Rollins busy? Let us count the ways. While the Rollins Band’s status is inactive, the 45-year-old continues to bring his spoken word shows to audiences at home and abroad. He still runs his publishing company, 2.13.61, and authors books, the latest being the brutal, often comic Roomanitarian. USO work finds him shaking hands and building soldier morale in such military hot zones as Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and Turkey. On the music side of things, his free-format radio show, “Harmony in My Head” has just returned to Los Angeles’ Indie 103.1 FM (listen Tuesday nights 8-10 p.m. or stream the show anytime at http://www.indie1031.fm). And he’s fast becoming the Roger Ebert for a new generation on the Independent Film Channel (IFC). The first season of "Henry's Film Corner" was essential viewing for filmgoers weary of Hollywood’s bullshit, which Rollins is all too happy to call out. The second season hits in 2006 with a weekly schedule, musical guests, and a new name, “The Henry Rollins Show.”
It would be easy to keep adding to this list of Rollins’ professions (voiceover work, acting…), but we’ll let the man speak for himself. The punk legend checked in from somewhere in Australia, where he’s doing spoken word sets as part of that country’s “Big Day Out” festival.
In a recent Washington Post interview, you said you’re working toward getting the Rollins Band going again. Would you be building a new band from scratch, or is Mother Superior still an option?
Nothing has been planned but I am interested in doing something musically. Not sure of the players as yet.
Since talking shows and other endeavors have primarily occupied you for the last couple of years, are you burning to get back onstage with a band? Is that aspect of your artistic expression still something you need to do, or is it more a “want to” do at this point?
I like the idea of playing music still but have been checking out other things lately. I still want to do some music at some point. I don't know what the environment would be like for a band and me at this point.
In your eyes, who and what are some of the lasting monuments of punk rock?
The Ramones, The Clash. They really made an impact on things. The what would perhaps be the perception of rock music now. Punk rock has made an indelible impression on that front. I have no idea where rock would be now without punk rock's intrusion.
To borrow a line from Roomanitarian, “Nothing can be recaptured. It can only be approximated and stood next to.” Though this thought diverges from the book’s context,it made me think of all the bands that reunite to tour – without naming names, there seems to be a bigger glut than ever, much of it ’80s and ’90s “alt-rock” bands. As a performer, what do you think this phenomenon boils down to? It’s too reductive to say it’s just about the money. Is there a need, an insecurity/“please love me again” element at play here?
I think it could be all kinds of reasons and combinations of reasons. I know I miss doing songs I used to do a long time ago with Black Flag. Those were really cool and I still love them. I think some bands may not feel done with it all yet and want to get out there again after a long absence, thinking they are really better than ever. I think ultimately it's a little sad, but then again I saw the Stooges play the other night and it was one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life. It was frightening.
You’ve described Roomanitarian as “an angry book,” but can you elaborate on your inspirations? There are clearly targets in these pages that you wanted to take out. You’re certainly taking Bush and conservative pundits to task, and, not only that, suggesting some imagery-rich comeuppance across the board.
Bush and all those pussies make for a target rich environment. A lot of the book comes from the emptiness I often feel. I don't know about what was inspiration for writing of that kind in that I don't really feel inspired when I write like that. Cursed is more the word. It is an elaboration on the wretchedness that runs me all over.
What are the lingering thoughts you’ve taken away from your time spent with soldiers overseas and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center?
That there are really no bigger truths to be known from any of it. The people at the top are almost as clueless as anyone else. People lose limbs really easily and they have the rest of their lives to wonder what it was all about anyway. The closer you get up on it, the smaller and sadder the whole thing becomes. Everyone's just running around being insane, the troops, the insurgents, it's all completely nuts. There is so much pain for the families and friends. It's too much sadness to make people go through in a life.
In terms of your talking dates, what countries and/or cities do you find it hardest to connect with the audience?
None really, believe it or not, it's been great all over. Russia was a little difficult with the language. Israel was amazing, places like Hungary were really great as well. Sometimes in the south of the U.S., there's some disconnect with the audience and myself perhaps but I could be wrong about that.
The new season of your IFC show is going to be weekly, with musical guests. Can you share a little bit of what viewers can expect in the first few episodes?
Honestly, we have just started working on the season. There will be interviews with guests to be determined, I will be going off on topics that are interesting to me, we will have music as you know. There will be some special segments, letters and other stuff we'll throw in as the year goes on. As far as the first band on and the first guests, I really don't know. We have taped Sleater-Kinney who were great, Ringside, John Doe, Frank Black, Ben Folds. Should be really cool.
You’re nonstop. But age bears down, and you must foresee some level of slowdown and/or priority shifts in say, the next 10, 15 years. What does Henry Rollins’ semi-retirement look like?
At some point, I would like to be extremely solitary and not have to talk to many people or get much mail. It becomes harder and harder to be around and amongst people for me. There will come a point to where I will be unable to do it. I am not one who hates people. Not remotely. They are, in many instances, painful to be around.
Waking up with Luke Steele, the musical mastermind of The Sleepy Jackson
It’s 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, so what better time to be talking to a guy who works under the moniker the Sleepy Jackson. Aussie rock visionary Luke Steele is wide awake, but then again he’s in a different time zone — New York City, where he’s enjoying a view of the Big Apple skyline while promoting his ambitious new effort "Personality – One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird."
As the album’s title suggests, Steele’s psyche is no stranger to conflict, and neither is his band. The Sleepy Jackson’s history is a troubled one, blighted by alcohol, drugs, and more fired musicians than Guns N’ Roses. But a new dawn is breaking for Steele and company, a real sense of starting over. With its wall-of-sound production, confessional lyrics and kaleidoscopic pop beauty, "Personality" is a bold statement, and to hear Steele tell it, he and his mates are on a mission. “We’re ready to rock,” he says without a trace of irony. “It’s really stepped up to a right sharp level now, it’s quite serious. It’s really make or break time for the band.”
The lush "Personality," which betrays Steele’s love of ’70s vinyl classics such as Carole King’s "Tapestry" and ELO’s "Time," is the successor to the Sleepy Jackson’s 2003 debut "Lovers", an acclaimed, genre-defying fantasia that impressed even the most jaded critics and music fans. And while the disc was a rush for the listener, Steele and his players found their own thrills on tour, where indulgences are unavoidable. “It’s a war,” he admits. “You’re up against a lot of big guns, like lust and temptation.”
Those crazy nights on the road are the polar opposite of Steele’s isolated hometown of Perth, Australia, which provided the ideal back-to-business environment for recording his latest song suite. “It’s quite calm at night, there are no cars on the road,” he says. “Perth can make you feel like a professor. You can feel like what you’re doing is real significant and definitive and special.”
If Perth sounds like a place frozen in time, that would seem to suit Steele just fine. Like many an artist, he was probably born in the wrong era. In fact, his father, a policeman, introduced him to music at an impossibly young age. “Apparently I was conceived a Tom Petty show,” Steele laughs.
Anastasio's assured, three-hour concert didn't lack much, but what it did lack was the momentum-killing, 30-minute set break. In a move that seemed radical in today's clichéd jam band scene, this tour-closing performance was a brisk, one-set affair, a runaway train that raced, braked, and eventually hurtled into the Police. But more on that later.
Backed by his ace seven-member group 70 Volt Parade, bandleader Anastasio was clearly charged up and delighted to be breaking in two new recruits, New Orleans drummer Raymond Weber and saxophonist Russell Remington. With his vocals nicely padded by backup singers Jennifer Hartswick and Christina Durfee, the riff-and-squeal guitar maestro provided fresh thrills, nostalgic chills, and eye-popping spectacle. Credit the spectacle part to former Phish lighting wizard Chris Kuroda, whose kinetic, big venue-caliber lighting was lush and colorful, yet practically seizure-inducing in the tight quarters of the Wiltern.
Focused and steering clear of dead-end noodling that sometimes made Phish stink, Anastasio delivered solo material ("Air Said to Me" and "Come as Melody," high-impact rockers from his new CD Shine, book-ended the show) and some welcome Phish tunes, the latter done mostly solo acoustic. It was refreshing to see Trey playing an acoustic guitar; it's something even longtime Phish fans have rarely, if ever, seen him do. So when the crowd echoed the chorus of "Wolfmans Brother" or went all campfire sing-along on "Chalkdust Torture," it was both a knowing nod to the rich history of artist and audience as well as a loving, we'll-follow-you-anywhere, Trey sort of benediction.
And since Trey's earned all this musical capital, by God, he's going to use it. His stature was cemented at the end of the show by his ability to lure no less than Police drummer Stewart Copeland for a run through the pile-driving "Rubberneck Lions" (from Anastasio, Copeland and Les Claypool's now-defunct side project Oysterhead) and the Police's tension-and-release exercise "Cant Stand Losing You." Don't worry, Trey, you haven't lost us yet.
BUILT TO SPILL
You in Reverse (Warner Bros.)
Five years between albums is an eternity in todays rock marketplace, but Boise, Idaho's Built to Spill is one of the few acts that can rely on an adoring, emotionally-attached fanbase to be loyally waiting for them, no longer how long the layoff. Issuing his bands' first CD since 2001's underrated "Ancient Melodies of the Future," melodic guitar dramatist Doug Martsch is back April 11 with a retooled Built to Spill, expanded from a trio to a quintet. Consider this a rebirth; besides the addition of new members Jim Roth and Brett Netson, it's the first album Built to Spill has self-produced. With it use of analog equipment and a loose, recorded-live approach, You in Reverse should prove to be the most organic-sounding Spill yet. An initial listen to the lead track, "Goin Against Your Mind," currently posted on the bands MySpace page, finds Martsch's plaintive voice and dazzling fretwork intact, but theres also a grittiness and a tendency to stretch out the jams. Patience will surely be rewarded.
Just Like the Fambly Cat (V2 Records)
All good things must come to an end. The recent announcement that this May 9 release will be the swan song of futuristic art-rockers Grandaddy was a serious blow to hipsters and music geeks everywhere. The Silicon Valley-based band never rose above cult status, but they earned truckloads of critical acclaim for frosty yet affecting efforts such as Sumday and The Sophtware Slump. Their warped meditations on life in the computer age continue on Just Like the Fambly Cat, which features 15 more tracks chronicling todays battle between the soul and technology. Song titles like "What Happened," "Summer It's Gone" and "Disconnecty" (sic) suggest the slow disintegration of an act that always sounded too fragile for this crazy world. Grandaddy mastermind Jason Lytle vows to continue his musical endeavors under a different name; until then, this program has been deleted.
THE FLAMING LIPS
At War With the Mystics (Warner Bros.)
The fearless freaks return, loud and proud. Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins, three Oklahoma City eccentrics better known as the Flaming Lips, unleash At War with the Mystics on April 4. Though the white-suited Coyne and his band of psychedelic pranksters could have easily rested on their laurels after the tremendous success of the past few years, this is War, no complacent victory lap. Sound-wise, the Lips will still be cosmic and expansive on this effort, their first since 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. But are you ready to rock? Early word has it that heavy guitar riffs and an overall intensity abound here, so this may not be such a Soft Bulletin. Track titles include "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" (described by Coyne as MC5-ish) "Mr. Ambulance Driver" (which first appeared on the "Wedding Crashers" soundtrack) and "The W.A.N.D." For serious fans, a special edition of this CD will also be available, complete with a bonus DVD that features additional tracks, videos and a 5.1 audio mix. Look for the band on tour this summer and beyond.
No static at all... That line from Steely Dan's hit FM, the finale of their fan-friendly, two-hour concert in Irvine, neatly sums up the carefree vibe of this night and the overall balmy texture of the band's deceptively dangerous, jazz-inflected pop-rock. Upon reflection, FM would really be the underlying theme of this laid-back summer tour/party, as both opener Michael McDonald -- a former member of this night's headliner as well as the Doobie Brothers -- have FM radio to thank for irrevocably imprinting their voices and classy music upon the gray matter of untold millions. Over and over again. For years. To this day, really, if you consider that recent payola paranoia has FM rock radio deejays eschewing any new music in favor of spinning familiar, impossibly worn-out tracks from 1970s acts like these guys.
It's hardly novel for dinosaur acts to trot out on the road in the summertime, sans any new material, and flog their classics for the money. But saying that this warm, humid Wednesday evening was nostalgia-for-the-money would be a disservice to curmudgeonly Steely principals Donald Fagen (a stiff yet affable presence) and the bespectacled Walter Becker (perched on a stool and not working too hard on this night). Their 18-song presentation was an exercise in one terrific, timeless song after another, and though the Dan have no new disc to promote (their last effort was 2003's coolly received Everything Must Go, a disappointment in comparison to their previous Grammy-winning comeback Two Against Nature), their repertoire is simply too classical to be written off as a live product being exploited cynically for cash.
Setting the festive mood with the swinging, propulsive rave-up "Bodhisattva," Fagen, Becker and their brassy 12-piece went on to serve up sharp, climactic renditions of tunes both familiar ("Hey Nineteen," "Josie") and obscure, such as "Time Out of Mind" and the shuffling Hollywood satire "Showbiz Kids" (the latter with McDonald, who sat in with his old Dan-mates for the last third of their set). "Dirty Work," one of their earliest ditties, was a deep cut surprise too.
Though attention to detail is crucial to do these songs justice, Fagen and Becker injected a loose feel to the set, with Fagen addressing the sweaty crowd humorously and Becker telling all they were a "great fucking audience" (thanks, Walt!). By the time they served up the first song of their encore, "My Old School," the entire venue had drank the Kool-Aid, and all were merrily singing that number's apocalyptic line "California... tumbles into the sea..." At that point, dropping into the Pacific seemed an acceptable fate, as long as FM radio waves could be received, with no static at all.
Soulful silver fox McDonald, whose deep, unchanging vocal chords must be encased in amber, christened the night with an enjoyable set of his solo material (Sweet Freedom), golden oldie covers like I Heard it Through the Grapevine and, most memorably, cherry-picks from his Doobie Brothers tenure such as What a Fool Believes and the inevitable, message-to-his-brother chronicle "Takin it to the Streets."
In the saturated rock reunion climate today, there are precious few revelations left. The Police? Reunited. Pink Floyd? Reunited with Roger Waters, at least for one night. Led Zeppelin? Realigned for a one-off show and very likely a tour if a Rolling Stone cover story portends anything. Are there any surprises left?
Well, there is one. David Lee Roth's prodigal son-like return to the Van Halen microphone seemed all but unlikely, after several failed attempts over the years for he and Eddie Van Halen to finally realize the seemingly hopeless dream of many a rock fan. To be fair, perhaps the timing wasn't right until now; the obstacles Eddie's faced in recent years include divorce, rehab and even cancer. Also, anyone familiar with Roth realizes he's a notorious clown and let's face it, the bane of Eddie's existence on a personal and historical level. We all know that Van Halen did not get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past January on the strength of the Sammy Hagar material. How perverse then, that this unlikely and overwhelmingly successful reunion that touched down in Portland this past Saturday came just a few months too late for the appropriate Van Halen personnel to receive the honor in person; they had to cede the formalities to Hagar and recently-ousted longtime bassist Michael Anthony.
But with a catalog this rich and the irresistible Diamond Dave back at center stage, who gives a damn about an awards ceremony, really? While a return of a Roth-fronted Van Halen has been one of most significant missing pillars in the house of recent rock history, the thunderous, triumphant evening at the Rose Garden this past Saturday night confirmed that the house is now stabilized.
Van Halens Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang (Eddie's son installed as bass player and set list architect in favor of Anthony) really made this a family-style affair, and it was undeniably touching at points to see Eddie kneeling/playing next to his son, both experiencing the ecstasy of playing beloved songs to a worshipful crowd. Though Anthony's inclusion would have made this reunion complete, the kid was alright, plucking his bass and harmonizing with his old man at least as well as the erstwhile bassist. Meanwhile, Alex attacked his kit with typical hyperactive force, complete with those signature drum fills and double-bass drum wallop. And what more can you say about Eddie? Trim, shirtless, doing scissor kicks, smiling, and clearly juiced by the deafening ovation of the crowd, his guitar work is just as accomplished and exhilarating as when his band dropped their debut album three decades ago.
And then there's Roth. It's surreal to see him onstage alongside Eddie and Alex again, and even he clearly recognizes the headiness of it all. With an above-the-shoulders physicality that should earn him the title of "Rock's Bobble Head," not to mention an open mouth, toothy grin firmly affixed to his face throughout, rock's famous joker was clearly having as much of a blast as the audience. Despite a short haircut that might not be god-given, a slightly stiffer back that nonetheless allowed plenty of fairly acrobatic leg kicks, he delivered on more cylinders than anyone might have expected. Even though Roth retains his slightly disappointing habit of omitting words and phrases from lyrics that are of biblical significance to fans, his enthusiasm and unbridled joy made up for it.
The quartet started slightly tentatively with a workmanlike "You Really Got Me," and didn't seem to hit stride until the surprising fourth number, the Women and Children First deep cut "Romeo Delight." It was at this point that Van Halen began to reveal the fist-pumping, serious fan-appeasing pleasures to come; while riff-laden anthems like "Unchained" and "Panama" got the expected attention, hearing relative obscurities and hidden catalog gems such as Diver Down's sentimental "Little Guitars," the wacky "Everybody Wants Some," "And the Cradle Will Rock" (complete with its squalling, death-from-above guitar intro), and the haunting "Little Dreamer" was what made this night an essential, long overdue pilgrimage for the faithful.
Throughout, the instrumentation was airtight, with Eddie's fingers still nimbly dancing around his fret board and Alex and Wolfgang ably holding down the bottom end. For his part, the strutting Roth was hugely entertaining and proved himself the most qualified captain of this ship (sorry, Gary Cherone). One of many highlights was when he stood solo at center stage and played "Ice Cream Man" on an acoustic, complete with a verbose story as to how the tune came to be. It was an intimate moment, but Roth didn't get much time alone, as the band fell in soon enough to perform the electric segment of the song. It was a rare space of calm and quiet, and if there's a criticism to be levied at this two-hour program, it's the sheer breathlessness of it all; given the history and storytelling potential with these guys, a brief song intro here or there, or a chat with the audience, would be a nice way to break up the proceedings. And hey, Eddie – do you talk at all?
The burning question now is, what is next for Eddie, Alex, Wolfgang and Dave? If Eddie finally broke down and did this tour to bring his life's work full circle and end it all on a high note, his legacy, always towering, is far more burnished than it was say, a year ago. But if they do press on and do a new album, they have their work cut out for them. However, given the musical force, familial love and glory-reclaimed elation on display at the Rose Garden, it's still not a good bet to count Van Halen out. Whatever they decide to do, the hopes of countless fans have been realized in one of the most surprising and needed rock reunions of recent years.