Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Sham 69

Here's a backhanded compliment from's review of Sham 69's Tell Us the Truth album:

"Tell Us the Truth sounds passionate, belligerent, and kinda dumb, but that's an improvement over Sham 69's later work, where the band sounds overblown, strident, and really, really dumb."

I don't mean to single allmusic out here, because I've seen this treatment of Sham repeatedly over the years and I can't understand it. Sure they were a simple band who wrote basic songs with straightforward lyrics, but when did that become a crime in rock n roll? When was it deemed wrong to be honest and real? A band like AC/DC, a glorified bar band at best whose lyrics make Sham's look like Shakespeare, get reviews that include phrases like "high voltage rock," "perrenial rock album" and "not a single weak track." Maybe the Sham critics had never heard AC/DC (even though many of these reviews were written well after both bands were well-established) and just didn't have a good standard for dumbness. Maybe they're afraid of a band whose truth is so simple that no one needs a brilliant rock critic to explain it. Sham 69 meant something to English working-class kids of the late 70s with real issues. They meant something to me ten years after Tell Us the Truth and That's Life came out. They transcended their own place and time and continue to mean something to disaffected kids today. The raw honesty of "Angels With Dirty Faces" and "If the Kids are United" and so many other Sham songs have become timeless for generation after generation of punk rockers. While the critics praise the AC/DCs out there, they really only mean something to people looking to drink and screw (or worse yet to people remembering when they were young enough to drink and screw). Sham's songs, on the other hand, continue to do what rock (and music in general) does at its very best, it helps us deal with life and find some truth however simple it might be.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Battle of the Bands (with a theme)

Here's a new twist on the old battle of the bands thing. Instead of picking two bands that are musically similar, I'm choosing two bands that have something in their names in common. Sometimes its a common theme, sometimes they're opposites, sometimes they just sound similar. It's not as serious an exercise perhaps, but it might be fun. It was certainly fun for Chuck and I to come up with the pairings. So give it a try and see what you think. We came up with thirty some of these, so I'll post some now and if it seems fun and generates some interest, I'll do more.

  • 2 Live Crew vs Motley Crue: It's the battle of the bad free speech advocates versus the bad free liquor advocates. While 2 Live Crew gets points for not killing anyone and then laughing about it, Motley Crue wins on the relative strength of their music, three good albums to zero. Crue beats Crew.
  • Pedro the Lion vs Def Leppard: While Pyromania was great commercial rock album, it was significantly the creative work of Mutt Lange. Pedro the Lion is also the creative work of one person, but he happens to be in the band. Lion beats Leppard.
  • Boston vs Chicago: Just like the cities of Boston and Chicago live in the shadow of New York, so the bands Boston and Chicago live in the shadows of the great bands of the 70s. Of course, while they're not New York, they're both a lot better than Baltimore! Chicago certainly sucked worse than Boston ever did by the mid-70s, but they also did some fairly interesting stuff early on. So, on the population scale and the battle of the bands, Chicago wins.
  • Asia vs Europe: Just as the world's future superpowers are in Asia, so to the good musicians in this battle are in Asia. There isn't anyone in Europe who can compete with John Wetton and Geoff Downes, let alone Steve Howe and Carl Palmer.
  • Public Image Ltd vs Public Enemy: Now this is a tough choice. I probably like PIL more, but I just can't argue with PE. If PIL represents real rebellion, then PE represents real revolution. Enemy beats Image.
  • Queen vs Prince: The Queen might be one step in front of the Prince in line for the throne, but the tables are turned for the artists. Queen was a great band, but even they didn't shake up the rock world like Prince.
  • Pink Floyd vs Pretty Boy Floyd: I thought this was a funny matchup, but I don't think I really need to say anything here. If you can't figure out who's better on your own, you're probably dumb enough to like Pretty Boy Floyd.
  • U2 vs UB40: UB40 had a few good singles, but...they were covers! On the other hand, U2 wrote songs worth covering. 2 beats B40.
  • Dusty Springfield vs Bruce Springsteen: This one is cool, because it's a great singer vs a great songwriter. Typically, the songwriter will win easily, but not here. It's awfully close. Springfield would win this one except...Springsteen did write the Nebraska album. Steen over Field.
  • Heaven vs Nirvana: The band who brought us "Rock School" versus the band who showed us what rock school might have looked like (in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video). Nirvana is terribly overrated, but they'd have to be a lot more overrated not to beat out third (or fourth or maybe fifth) rate 80s hard rock. The Buddhists win this one.
  • Styx vs the Stones: Can Mick and Keith really compete with Dennis and Tommy? On a technical level, no way, but this is a great illustration of how technical ability doesn't measure up to passion and swagger. Granted this would be a tighter race if we're only looking at the last 25 years of Stones albums. Even Styx never sucked as bad as Steel Wheels after all. But Styx, for all their musicianship never even came close to the Stones output up through Exile on Main Street. Stones beat Styx.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Review: Thee More Shallows - More Deep Cuts

Label: Turn
Released: 2005

To be a truly great record, an album would have to transcend its genre and appeal to music fans in a nearly universal way. It has to be the kind of album that I'd give to someone and say, "I know you don't like such-and-such-a-genre, but you have to hear this anyway." If there's a case to be made against More Deep Cuts, that's it: It doesn't have universal appeal. If you don't care much for indie rock, don't bother. But if you do, you're gonna be floored (at least after a few listens).

Be forewarned, this is not an easy listen. Thee More Shallows takes loose, lazy indie rock and turns it on its head with elements of chamber music, ambient noise, distorted fuzz and trippy tribal rhythms. Sure there's the laid back beats, the melodic bass parts and the mousey vocals that every indie rock fan craves, but the aberrant elements are so integrated that it's hard to imagine this album if it were more typical in its arrangements. It does take a few listens to get into the album's state of mind so to speak, but once there, it's hard to imagine the album being any different. The attention to detail here is amazing and it soon becomes apparent that the divergence from the norm is no random accident. Like Godspeed You Black Emperor, their contempories and most likely comparison, they push the indie rock envelope considerably further than most.

There are no singles here. Don't try to listen to it piecemeal. This album is a cohesive whole, almost like a soundtrack, except it's the soundtrack of a mood, not a story. There is a constant eerieness. The album runs from restful to frantic and back, but the creepy undercurrent doesn't let up throughout. It even ties up all its loose ends with the last track. It doesn't leave you hanging, but it certainly leaves you unsettled, which I suspect is exactly its intention. It may not transcend its genre, but More Deep Cuts certainly pushes its genre's limits, making it a great indie rock recording even if it's not a truly great album in the most strict definition.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Live: Palomar, Tom Heidl, Holly Golightly

August 12, 2005, Ottobar, Baltimore, MD

I'd been looking forward to this show since I saw it on the Ottobar site a few months ago all because of one Holly Golightly song, "Your Love is Mine." The song is just that good. It's probably hard for a show to really live up to the expectations of one great song, but tonight, no one song could prepare me for this show.

Brooklyn-based Palomar opened to a sparse crowd. I read a little about them before hand and expected that I'd like them. What I didn't expect is that I'd love them. They didn't exhibit tremendous technical prowess, but that was the beauty of their music. It's always more fascinating to be blown away by a band's intangible skills than by their overt talent. The rhythm section was deceptively strong. THe drumming was sharp and precise, but never flashy. Every song rode on the back of the bass lines, yet they were subtle enough that I had to really pay attention to realize it. The interwoven guitar parts were sparse with simple but well-phrased leads. Much of the time this presented itself as pleasant, layered indie pop. But other times, it turned into a wall of fuzzy garage sound. The vocals were always great, sometimes including punk rock "whoa-oahs" and sometimes including 60s girl group pop. Palomar played perfect pop with a manic undercurrent reminiscent of the Fastbacks (if I'm forced to make some comparison). I liked them from the start, but liked them even more with each song they played, culminating in a cacophonous jam break in their second to last song. The subtleties of Palomar's performance is what makes it so amazing. They were so good that I seriously wondered if the subsequent acts could measure up the the standard they set.

The best word to descibe Tom Heinl is "bizarre." He was like some crazy combination of Johnny Cash and Jonathan Richman. At times I thought he could play children's birthday parties and at others I was a little bit afraid that music was the only thing that kept him from being dangerous. He played guitar on the same number of songs during which he wore a Grizzly Adams beard - one each. The rest of the time, he played backing tracks on a tape deck and sang along in his deep, rich (and rather good) voice or read from his 5th grade journal (and I really think it was his 5th grade journal from 1976). Heinl is a novelty act, but he's a good one. He's funny and oddly genuine and he's a fine singer. Best of all, he was such a change of pace from Palomar that he minimized any let down that he or Holly Golightly might have suffered from following Palomar's incredible performance.

I went to this show to see Holly Golightly, but by the time she went on I wasn't sure she'd be able to overcome the strength of Palomar or quirkiness of Tom Heinl. She'd have to be as good as I hoped just to live up to the standard. It only took her a few seconds to prove she up to the challenge. From the start, Holly and her band were cooking and they seemlessly shifted from simmer to boil. Her drummer was amazing. He was loose, but kept his playing tight at the same time and he got visibly excited when his parts picked up. In a strage twist, he gave up the drum chair to play organ for the second half of the set. The guitarist took his place and was clearly a step down, being adequate, but not outstanding. The step backward in drumming was more than made up for in the sheer soul coming from that Hammond organ though. The guitarist, before moving behind the drum kit, was a well-versed blues player. He didn't break new ground, but played with an intensity and understanding that escapes most guitarists. The bass lines were all solid, but unspectacular. The bass player would actually show his strength on guitar (in yet another instrument switch) during the encore. The band was good, but the Holly's voice is the main attraction. She can go from delicate and breathy to bold and powerful from phrase to phrase with such ease that it moved me without shaking me. She's a blues singer through and through, but has an incredible Patsy Cline quality as well. The set ranged from slow, intense blues numbers (including "Your Love is Mine") to upbeat rockabilly tunes and they throw in just a dash of psychedelia that would have rivaled the Doors at their bluesiest. The set was strong enough that I hoped she would let it stand and skip the encore, but she didn't. She came back for a couple songs, all of which made me glad she returned, and finally finished with just her and the bass player on guitar. It was even more stripped down than the rest of the set and ended a fine performance (actually a fine night of performances) on a very poignant note.

Both Palomar and Holly Golightly gave performances worthy of headlining and Tom Heinl was an awful lot of fun, so I had a pretty great Friday night for the $10 price at the door.