Friday, January 27, 2012

birch hill music

A reader named 'Lee' called the truth of my friend's Robbo story - the one where Robbo was working in shipping at a guitar shop in Boston - into question. I know Lee might very well just be a troll sitting around in her bathrobe, eating Bon Bons, with nothing better to do than be a loser troll. But given that I wasn't there and that the story could be untrue (though I have no reason to think my friend would lie), I've decided to take my previous post down out of respect for Robbo (whose nickname I had admittedly misspelled). ...Thin Lizzy is about five or six obsessions ago for me at this point, but I figured that just this once I should finish what I started... While Nightlife is a transitional album, Fighting is the record where Thin Lizzy really goes for it for the first time with the hard rocking dual lead guitar sound that would ultimately propel them to their commercial peak. The music reminds me of Birch Hill, a ski resort (if you could call such a rinky dink place a 'resort') in upstate New York where my family would go skiing on the weekends when I was a kid. The place was crawling with pimply teenage heschers back then, in their ripped jeans jackets and Blue Oyster Cult t-shirts, smoking doobies and drinking So Co from flasks on the chair lift. These were Dairy Queen Saturday Night types, dead end locals who had no inkling that punk and New Wave were happening downstate in the City. The world was so different before the internet, more culturally uneven. …But while the Thin Lizzy you get starting with Fighting is undeniably Birch Hill music, my favorite track on the album is a cover of an old Bob Seger tune, and it’s the least Hescher-ish track on the record. Check out the how-low-can-you-go guitars that answer the line, ‘she knows music, I know music too, you see… It’s enough to make me wanna put on a pair of skis and have my face break out in zits...




Wednesday, January 18, 2012

don't let the song title scare 'ya


Vagabonds of the Western World is viewed by many hardcore fans as Thin Lizzy’s finest album. I think the album is pretty patchy myself, though it’s worth the price of admission for tonight’s song alone. But let’s get something out of the way immediately: Little Girl in Bloom is an absolutely awful title for a song and an awful refrain in a song. It sounds like 70s porn, the kind starring Jamie Gillis and set in a girl’s summer camp. Don’t ask me how I’m able to come up with such a specific evocation. I have a certain amount of familiarity with the genre and let’s just leave it at that. Back to the song. The whole thing strikes me as being Irish Catholic in the extreme. See if you agree with me. It’s also pretty haunting stuff, sort of uncomfortable listening in some ways, even though the girl at the center of the narrative is overjoyed with her situation and sees it as ‘something sacred.’ And Eric Bell’s guitar playing, and especially the sound he coaxes from his instrument, are as superb as ever. He seems to drift slightly off key in spots, but this only gives his weepy solo more urgency. This is music that’s really hard to categorize. I’ve been referring to it as progressive rock but it’s only kinda sorta prog. It doesn’t have the same delusions of grandeur as, say, Genesis, nor does it make a fetish of technical virtuosity in the manner of King Crimson or Yes. The Liz were really very unique during their early period. They became much more conventional after Vagabonds, not in a bad way, but definitely in a way that would eventually get them stadium gigs, co-headlining summer tours with the likes of ZZ Top. Ah, to have been a beer drinking and hell raising hesher in the mid 70s…

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tone Tone Tone

I spent the weekend intensively studying the Thin Lizzy catalogue. Most folks when they think of the ‘Liz remember them for their more commercially successful, riff-laden heavy rock from the mid 70s, the first shades of which come on Nightlife before finding full throated expression on Fighting. There’s a lot to love about the band in this crunchy incarnation, but their early, stylistically elusive records – I suppose you could say they’re somewhat proggy - are actually definitely worth your time, though you should know that they are very different from the more well-known material. Try to imagine what Astral Weeks would sound like if it were performed by a power trio and you’ll have a sense of what you can expect with Thin Lizzy’s debut album. The record’s first three tracks in particular are quite stunning. Eric Bell’s guitar is perfect for this type of material. He’s not necessarily the most technically accomplished guitarist you’ll ever hear, but he creates a lovely atmosphere with playing that’s subtle and pleasing, tasteful without ever being tasty. And he gets a tone out of his guitar that has me licking my chops. It’s the tone I dream about when I think about how I want my electric guitar to sound. Bell’s intuitive feel for the intricate melodies, at once free-form and tight, is a lovely complement to Phil Lynot’s warm and soulful vocals. …The first three Thin Lizzy albums were commercial disappointments and Bell departed after Vagabonds of the Western World. But he left behind a really nice body of work with the band. His sound gets in your blood and stays for awhile. …An interesting side note about Bell: In the mid 60s he spent some time playing in Them. I believe he might even be the guy who adds the lovely electric guitar accompaniment to Here Comes the Night. This may go some distance towards explaining why the first Thin Lizzy album evokes such a strong Van Morrison association…



Thursday, January 12, 2012

breakout!

Thin Lizzy made music that was hard and heavy yet also pleasingly tuneful. They evolved from an obscure quasi-progressive rock band in the early 70s to a juggernaut hard arena rock band with twin lead guitarists who made their axes sound like bagpipes. The late Phil Lynott remains one of the ultimate front men in the history of rock ‘n roll, a tough black Irishman with a heart of gold beneath the bad ass rocker persona he played up so excitingly. When I was eight years old, The Boys Are Back in Town was one of those songs that made me stop whatever I was doing when it came on the radio. I just wanted to drink it all in. I loved the low, bellowing, dangerous sound of the guitars and the way they’d rise up to an ecstatic crescendo. Drink will flow and blood will spill is still a line that gives me goose bumps today. The thing that gives so many Thin Lizzy songs their weight, from what I can tell, is that they were not afraid to tune their instruments down a few tones, giving the intrerplay between the guitars and the rhythm section an instantly recognizable sledge-hammer heaviness. And yet the songs almost always remain super melodic and the guitar playing is actually deceptively intricate. Check out the opening chord in tonight’s song. It reminds me of the famous opener in A Hard Day’s Night., not because it’s the same chord or combination of chords (it’s not), but rather because it serves as a prelude that puts you on notice: You are about to hear something that’s gonna rip the lips right off your fucking face. And sure enough, the riff that follows is one of the nastiest, bad motherfuckingest, most beautiful and pleasing things you’ll ever hear. It makes you curl your lower lip and snarl like a tough...

Like the game, if you lose, go to jail...



Wednesday, January 11, 2012

hair!

80s hair metal is not a style of music I ever connected with. Granted, Bon Jovi have a few songs that sound ok when they’re blaring from a dive bar juke box and you have a few drinks in ‘ya. Guns ‘N Roses are pretty good, too, but they’re not hair metal in the manner of Whitesnake. Skid Row, Winger, Poison, etc. Most of the stuff is too undifferentiated, unimaginative, and just plain stoopid, the rare exceptions proving the rule. So I was surprised to find that Enuff Z Nuff is a favorite band among some power pop geeks lurking on the internet. Until now I’ve always thought of ‘nuff Z as just another dumb hair band. But after doing some exploring, I’ve come to the conclusion that they were actually a pretty decent power pop band that had the misfortune of bad timing, coming along during hair metal’s MTV-driven dominance. This is not to deny that they have many of the unfortunate trappings of your garden variety hair metal bands. Today’s selection certainly has the look and feel of all the stuff Adam Curry used to pleasure himself to on the Headbanger’s Ball. But if you can get past the B.C. Rich shredding and the vaguely guido-ish vibe that was so often an essential component of the hair metal ethos, you’ll hear an amazingly catchy pop song with lyrics that, while cloying and na├»ve, are nevertheless very far removed from the by-numbers misogyny of the genre more generally. And how often do you see a guy in a metal band of any kind playing a Rickenbacker? Try never…except in the case of ‘nuff Z. It makes me think that they wanted to be more direct in their power pop approach but were thwarted by marketing suits at the record company who made them put on makeup and riddle their songs with Eddie Van Halen-style fills. What makes things all the more tragic is that 'nuff Z's 15 minutes overlapped with that period when grunge was on the rise and hair metal was already in decline. Just really bad timing on all levels, it seems... I’m still making my way through the ‘nuff Z catalogue, but so far I like what I hear. They recorded their fair share of stinkers, of course, but the good stuff is hooky, crunchy, tight, and well crafted. If more of the hair bands had gone in this direction, I’d probably be wearing lipstick right now…

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

occasional dream, three

So one of the reasons I’ve been on this Rock Candy kick has to do with trying to understand, for myself, why I continue to be drawn to David Bowie’s early 70s records, everything from The Man Who Sold the World (1970) to Diamond Dogs (1973). This is the stage of his career in which his music arguably ROCKED the hardest, and I’ve begun to shy away a bit from hard rock with the onset of middle age. I suppose the reason why these records still move me is that the music is not ROCK as an end in itself. The ROCKingness of the songs is always in the service of themes that can’t but be communicated in a hard charging way, but there’s plenty of candy to both offset and complement the ROCK. The music remains melodic in spite of its hardness. It really doesn’t get any more melodic than The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), and yet Mick Ronson’s guitar snorts and snarls and farts and growls all over that record. It’s a perfect blend of hardness and tunefulness and strikes me now as quite an abrupt departure from Hunky Dory (1971), which is the one record in Bowie’s ROCK period that doesn’t ROCK quite so hard. Having said all this, though, I’d have to add that The Man Who Sold the World is my least favorite of Bowie’s ROCK records, perhaps because it’s not just hard but hard and heavy. I think of it in the same vein as Led Zeppelin III. The two records were released within one month of each other in late 1970, each a heavy-duty, plugged-in folk album. I don’t mind heaviness if it’s tuneful, but often times heaviness prevents music from realizing its full melodic potential. This is definitely the case with The Man Who Sold the World. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize the record as a step backwards from Space Oddity, but Space Oddity is the more enjoyable record to hear because you don’t have to fight through so much noise to get to the heart of the matter. Still, The Man Who Sold the World has its moments, and it’s a David Bowie record and as such is interesting by definition. Black Country Rock, with its tambourines and squawking Mick Ronson guitar playing, is my favorite song on the album. Bowie has always had such great taste in guitarists, hasn’t he?




Wednesday, January 4, 2012

the king of queens

Queens of the Stone Age are one of my favorite all-time bands. They have been for many years now. It’s hard to believe almost 14 years have passed since the appearance of their magnificent debut album, which features tonight’s seductively riffy bit of Rock Candy. But to call QOTSA a ‘band’ is something of a misnomer as it’s basically Josh Homme’s baby in conception and execution. The rest of the personnel have been comprised of a continually shifting cast of players, some of whom have stuck around for comparatively long stretches (Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan), while others have just passed through (Dave Grohl, Nick Lucero, Dave Catching). Unfortunately, three years or so have passed since the last QOTSA record and I fear Homme may have decided to shelve the band for good. Homme, in fact, seems to have laid low for awhile more generally as there hasn’t been much output from any of his other projects either (Desert Sessions, Eagles of Death Metal). Hopefully he’ll make a triumphant return to the scene sooner rather than later. Although my tolerance for heavy ‘n hard music is increasingly limited these days, Homme breaks the mold and defies categorization. And he gets things exactly right in the process because his vision is squarely within the realm of the pop life. The hooks just keep coming and the riffs have phenomenal staying power. He’s obviously well versed in Black Sabbath, ZZ Top and AC/DC, on the one hand, but the catchiness of his melodies makes me think he’s probably a huge fan of everything from the Beatles to Big Star to Husker Du to REM. He’s one of those rare performers who are at their best more often than not, and when he’s there he plays hard – and, yes, heavy - pop. There’s not a lot of people who can import heaviness into pop, but Homme does it in a way that’s just so satisfying. The other thing is that Homme’s music quite clearly comes from a place of supreme intelligence, which is not necessarily a requirement for me when it comes to the music that captures my imagination, but it doesn’t hurt, especially if the smartness of the music emerges spontaneously as opposed to being mannered or showy. …With a few rare exceptions, I’ve almost completely abandoned contemporary music. My iTunes library cuts off at about 2005, so I’ve been out of it for a long time. I know this is a tell-tale sign of incipient Dinosaurism. Maybe it’s no longer even incipient but rather a fait accompli. I am Dinosaur, hear me roar! But as long as Josh Homme continues to record music, I’ll be able to claim at least a tiny bit of purchase on What’s Happening Now. He’s one of a handful of artists still making music that sends my spirit soaring…

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

sweet 'n heavy...

…Continuing in the vein of music that’s at once hard, heavy, and pleasing. Let’s keep calling it Rock Candy for short. Brant Bjork makes great Rock Candy Records. It’s funny to me that his name is Brant Bjork. When you picture the person behind the name, your mind conjures up an image of a blonde Aryan dude from Scandinavia, but then you see him and he looks like he’s from Spain or South America. Bjork is actually from Palm Desert and cut his teeth playing drums, first in Kyuss with Josh Homme, and then in Fu Manchu. And given this pedigree, you might expect his solo material to be more rock than candy. My taste will always be such that I prefer artists to err on the side of candy. But this is exactly what Bjork does when he’s on his own. He’s all about catchy riffs and poppy hooks, though his stuff is also admittedly pretty darn heavy at times. I don’t mind heaviness if it frames something sweet and compact. I can’t do Sabbath, or Deep Purple, or Led Zep these days, for example. Their stuff is too stretched out, with the focus placed on making the music as heavy as possible. Some progressive rock, by contrast, is expansive yet catchy without being too heavy, which I can take in limited doses. I’m thinking of bands like Caravan, Be Bop Deluxe, Jethro Tull, and Utopia…What makes me head for the exits is music that’s simultaneously windy, heavy and anti-pop. It seems that the Palm Desert ‘stoner’ scene birthed at least some music where the riffs are the main thing and heaviness coexists in a nice equilibrium with catchy hooks. Along with Queens of the Stone Age, Brant Bjork is one of the best examples of this. Play today’s selection at 7:30am, and I guarantee it’ll still be in your head at dinner time. Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop the rock tonight. Yes, indeed…