Friday, July 22, 2005

Saxon Surprise

I was going through some old mp3s the other day and I stumbled across Saxon doing "Court of the Crimson King." I fully expected it to suck and I think that was a reasonable expectation. Saxon is a decent band, but they're a down-in-the-trenches metal band playing rock in it's most distilled but uneventful form, not an avante garde band who pushes the limits of what rock can be. There was no way they could pull this off. Nonetheless, curiosity (of the train wreck, rubbernecking variety) got the best of me. Surprise of surprises, it was actually a very good cover. It didn't depart tremndously from the original, but it did replace a lot of Robert Fripp's amazing guitar parts with second-rate New Wave of British Heavy Metal leads. This is not a dig though, because it injected the song with a very different energy. It's still pretty dynamic with a lot of pace changes and even the operatic parts, but it replaces some of the trippy psychedelia of the original with hard rock swagger and that makes it worth hearing.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Live: Mindside 19, the God Awfuls, GBH

July 10, 2005, Recher Theatre, Towson, Maryland

Fifteen to twenty years ago, I would have looked forward to this show with unbridled enthusiasm. Sunday night, I was excited to see hardcore legends GBH, but only cautiously optimistic. Would they still exude the energy of their great 80s albums or would they just seem like old men going through the motions for fear of having to get real jobs. Well, to find out, I had to get through the two openers first.

Local punk rockers Mindside 19 went on first. Before the first song kicked in, the singer accosted the crowd with a canned punk rock tirade about getting up front, but Darby Crash he was not. They had
not played a note and already lost me. However, over the course of the set, their brand of lite hardcore/hard pop punk started to win me back. There were enough pace changes as they wavered between flat out hardcore screamers and more melodic breaks. The set hit its high point with their cover of "Call Me." When then announced it, I thought, "Do we really need another punk cover of an 80s new wave hit?" I mean, there's whole CDs of that stuff, right? Well, they went through a credible, if unspectacular, version of the Blondie hit, but then they actually did something cool in the last chorus that made the whole thing worthwhile. While the band sang the chours, the singer went off about why he hated the 80s. Contrived? Sure. Credible? Maybe not, considering the singer was maybe in 1st grade as the 80s came to a close. Funny? Totally! All in all though, Mindside 19 was tight and energetic, despite near-constant heckling from the spikey-haired, I-wanna-be-English crowd. The downside was really the self-consciousness of the singer as a frontman. As a vocalist, he was fine, but he clearly thought about every jump, twist and contortion. I swear I saw him pull his pants up before leaping around at one point and at another he removed his glasses and carefully put them aside for one song in which he planned to whip his head around. These were dead giveaways that he was trying too hard, but that's not exactly the rock n roll crime of the century for a young local band.

GBH's touring partners were LA's the God Awfuls. I hadn't heard them before the show and, as a friend put it, I hoped they wouldn't live up to their name. They were clearly American, but they still bore the mark of thier British hardcore influences. Their set stayed heavy thoughout, but they did a good job of mixing in some more melodic stuff with their all-out attack that kept them from being stale. The difference between the God Awfuls and Mindside 19 was clear in both their stage prescence and their sound. They managed to mix things up more than most bands without compromising the sponanaity of live music. Another thing that made the God Awfuls cool is that, unlike their peers the Casualties, they don't wear their influences on their sleeve. The influence of bands like GBH is clear, but they aren't just a GBH clone. And they don't feel like they have to dress up like Wattie to be a punk band. The God Awfuls are a far cry from being legendary like their tour mates, but it's very clear why they're not stuck in their local scene too.

That brings us to the night's main attraction: GBH. These guys have been at it for 25 years and their sound has hardly changed. The last GBH album I've heard was 2002's Ha Ha. It's good enough, but they didn't do anything significantly different than they did on 1982's City Baby Attacked by Rats. Sadly, I'd never seen GBH live before Sunday night, but I had seen a few live videos from the mid-80s that gave me an idea of what they were like in their heyday. The real question was whether same-as-1982-in-the-studio would translate to same-as-1982-on-stage. Frankly, it didn't. What it really translated to was old-guys-with-young-hearts-doing-their-best. Colin wasn't quite as dynamic as I remembered, but he sounded good and was rather funny between songs, which made him pretty engaging all in all. Ross and Jock were stoical, but tight, making them perhaps the closest thing to the GBH of old (they didn't move much then either). Drummer
Scott Preece is the only change in the line-up from the old days and he's a welcome one. He injected a lot energy and played with more skill than all previous GBH drummers combined. They had a little trouble with the sound, but it was straightened out by the third song, so it wasn't a big problem. Besides, they were newer songs. The vast majority of the set came from the first three albums, making the songs older than the half of the audience with Xs on their hands. Needless to say, GBH wasn't all I'd hoped, but they were a lot better than I'd feared. When they announced their last song, the crowd complained. Colin's response, "C'mon, give us a break, we're old," might seem kinda lame, but I thought about it and they really do deserve a break. They weren't what they were two decades ago, but after all these years, they weren't too bad either. It just shows that punk rock isn't about your chronological age.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Review: White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan

The best thing about 2003's Elephant was that it was a near perfect celebration of 70s hard rock, paying homage without simply emulating, delivering rock in its purest form. The downside was that it really didn't stretch out beyond hard rock and garage influences. Get Behind Me Satan is just the opposite. It stretches further, but lacks the punch of Elephant's purity.

The new album isn't a complete departure from Elephant. The fat multi-tracked guitar of "Blue Orchid" gets things off to the same start that the heavy, heavy "Seven Nation Army" did on the last album. It's not quite as interesting, but it has the same
knock-you-down-and-kick-you blast. "Instict Blues" has the same Led Zep ebb and flow of energy that "Ball and Biscuit" did, except, once again it's not quite as strong. They return to the Zeppelin well again for "Red Rain" with similar success. "The Denial Twist" is boogie that rocks on piano as much as it could ever hope to on guitar. Once again, it's nothing that they hadn't done before, but this one does come a little closer to the quality on Elephant.

On other stongs, they stretch out a bit more, emcompassing broader influences.
Jack and Meg are feeling the soul on "My Doorbell," taking the essence of R&B and playing it like kids in a garage, much like their Detroit forefather Mitch Ryder did some 40 years ago. "Forever for Her (is Over for Me)" is a sugar-coated 60s pop song with that same dark undercurrent that helps those songs stand up over time. The White Stripes give old-time country a shot on "Little Ghost" as if they'd played with Charlie Poole, not just heard of him. With marimba and maracas as principle instruments, you'd think "The Nurse" would be an upbeat, Latin-inflected piece, but it's dark and downright creepy (and perhaps a tad long since at 3:47 it feels like 5:00+). "As Ugly as I Seem" is a hippie folk song that finds itself somewhere between "Jane Says" and "Sympathy." They tie up any loose ends with the quiet, but passionate, gospel-tinged blues of "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't that Lonely Yet)." It's tracks like this that make it evident that Jack White as a songwriter and both of them as performaers must have a tremendous breadth to their musical experience. And that is the real seed of greatness.

Get Behind Me Satan doesn't quite live up to the near-perfection of Elephant, but to its credit, it doesn't try to. Rather than resting on their laurels, the White Stripes continue to search all the backroads of music most of us have long since forgotten. Also to their credit, they don't just reiterate what they find. They reconstruct it in their own garage-band-from-Detroit sorta way.

There is one other point I want to make that isn't related only to this album, but to their work as a whole. Jack White is the obvious creative force in the band, so it seems that Meg's contribution is often overlooked, but that's unfortunate. She takes a plodding style and turns it into a strength that gives the music power and drive. Very few drummers, even with vastly superior technical skills, are able to do that.

Rating: 9/10