Neverending Randomplay is a feature in which I let my J-River Media Center choose what we get listen to. My collection currently stands at 23,323 titles. The lion’s share are rock of all genres, with a mix of pop, blues, country, pre-rock, jazz, reggae, soul, electronic, avant-garde, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, trance, Afrobeat, J-Pop, trip-hop, lounge, worldbeat, commercial jingles, etc. filling it out. I don’t influence the track selection in any way; whatever comes up, comes up. Rated 1-5 stars.
341. The Shins: Young Pilgrims *****
This is damn near irresistable, as is most of the Shins’ 2003 sophomore album, Chutes Too Narrow. James Mercer’s expressive vocal rests upon a sparse but tuneful acoustic and muted electric bed; the lyrics are harrowing, with a refrain that ends “I know there is this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just fly the whole mess into the sea”. Think of that, in this post-9/11 world. But no negative fest, this song is an incredibly complex ball of mixed emotion; scared, brave, desperate, heroic, self-aware, offhand, well-thought, articulate, nihilistic, sad, resolute, melodic, eerie, pretty. This is the second time I’ve heard it, and both times it got me to drop everything and turn up the volume. Wound up playing it 6 times today. So call me late to the party, but dig those Shins. The band itself originated in Albuquerque, N.M. in 1997, while Mercer was in a band called Flake (later Flake Music), which had been around since 1992 and had toured with sadcore Modest Mouse. The Shins were formed by singer/guitarist Mercer and Flake Music’s keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, with Dave Hernandez and Ron Skrasek from Albuquerque punk group Scared of Chaka, the latter two returned to their mothership shortly after. Now stars of the lo-fi indie sadcore scene, sharing gigs with Preston School of Industry and Red House Painters, they’ve convinced me they’re one of the most interesting bands of the 00’s so far. “Saint Simon” is another great track from the same album.
342. Frank Sinatra/Nancy Sinatra: Something Stupid ***
Okay, I’ll ‘fess up and say I’ve always liked Nancy Sinatra more than I should. Not so far as to ever have bought an album by her, but that’s what things like iTunes are for. And I certainly can’t deny old Frank his props; Songs For Swinging Lovers still works as intended, I’ve discovered. And I’m a forgiver of 60’s schmaltz like nobody else. So why have I never taken a shine to this? Partly because of its relatively atonal melody. Partly because Frank sounds bored and out of it, and Nancy sounds, well, bored and out of it. Partly because I hate duets by family members. The song itself, released in 1967 as a single, went to #1, and appeared on the 1967 album Frank Sinatra and the World We Knew, which was mostly a singles collection. The album is interesting because it represents the most “rock” of Sinatra’s career; Sinatra was always vocal about his disdain for rock music, even when he covered the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. On some cuts, there are actually 1967 vintage fuzz guitars; some of the cuts feature the production team and musicians usually present on Nancy’s recordings of the era. “Somethin’ Stupid”, written by C. Carson Parks, however, bears none of that, and is one of the less interesting numbers on the album.
343. Pink Floyd: Comfortably Numb [live] ***
Pulse, the 1995 live album famous for coming with a red LED embedded in the spine that blinked until it burned out, was part of the post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd’s campaign to cement their claim on the band’s legacy. “Comfortably Numb” needs no introduction; it was one of the cornerstones of The Wall, from 1979, Waters’ next-to-last album with the band. Pulse‘s main draw was the uninterrupted performance of Dark Side of the Moon, which sounds fine except that Waters is missing, and he’s missed. Without Water’s somewhat crackpot sounding verses, which alternated with Gilmour’s choruses, “Comfortably Numb” has one of the edges that made it interesting sanded away. Another problem is that Pink Floyd has long depended on a raft of hidden-in-the-shadows supporting musicians, leaving doubt as to how much of the actual band is playing, and stripping it of any of the character it had in the Ummagumma days, let alone the colorful Syd Barrett era, before Gilmour was even in the band. Pulse takes no chances, recreates the studio recordings almost to the very note, and lacks a lot of the character that made Waters an essential ingredient. So while there’s nothing wrong with this, it isn’t very right, either. Stick with the original.
344. Bob Dylan: To Ramona [live] ****
In the wake of Woodstock, there was a rash of enormous rock festivals attended by audiences numbering sometimes in the hundreds of thousands. Some, like Altamont, were utter disasters. Others, like the Celebration at Big Sur, the Dutch Stamping Grounds festival, the Watkins Glen Festival, were mostly unmarred by trouble, and had good performances. One of the best, in terms of lineup and general organization was the August 26th – 30th, 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Names assembled included the Doors, the Who, ELP, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, Donovan, Miles Davis, Free, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell (who was absent from Woodstock despite penning its theme song), Ten Years After, and Kris Kristofferson, among others. Plus a then-rare appearance by reclusive Bob Dylan. A documentary film and CD have been released, called Message to Love, on which Dylan is represented by “Desolation Row”. “To Ramona” was originally on his fourth and final purely acoustic album, Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). By 1970, Dylan was going through a strange time; he had become largely media-shy and wasn’t performing much; he also released his famously worst album, Self Portrait the same year. Thus, his performance at Isle of Wight is not one of his better ones; he seemed ill at ease and tense. However, “To Ramona”, which here is a very good quality audience recording on the easily found Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight bootleg, is fairly touching and sweet. Sung in a toned-down version of his Nashville Skyline croon, which actually trembles at one point, and all alone with an acoustic guitar, it captures Dylan sounding a little more naked and vulnerable than we’re used to hearing him. Not sure if a legal version of this exists, but it’s easily found on filesharing networks.
345. Billy Joel: Famous Last Words ***
“Famous Last Words” in many respects are the last words from singer/songwriter Billy Joel; the closing track of the last pop album his has thusfar produced, River of Dreams from 1993. As such, it almost explicity announces his quasi-retirement from pop music. The album peaked at #1, his first #1 album since Glass Houses in 1980, so his absence from recording seemed puzzling in the 90’s; while he’s kept busy with tours with Elton John, a Broadway show, and some exercises in classical composition, there’ve been no more pop songs from this once fairly prolific songwriter. River of Dreams did not fare well with the critics at the time, and it is arguably the weakest album of a career that never garnered much critical respect. However, “Famous Last Words” actually has some of the easy-going tunefulness that made his late 70’s albums so hummable; it’s a better track than most of his late 80’s work. That said, it’s still Joel singing about Joel, so there’s nothing here compelling enough to make one seek out the song again. But it’s inoffensive when it turns up in randomplay.
346. Hot Tuna: I See The Light ****
Hot Tuna, the acoustic/electric folk/blues combo of ex-Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, originally disbanded in 1978. Kaukonen spent the next few years working on solo albums, which were good, but minor efforts. Casady briefly joined a punk group, of all things, called SVT, which released a good EP and a so-so album in the early 80’s. By the mid 80’s, the duo must have come to the conclusion that they were worth more together than separately, and regrouped; Kaukonen keeps a solo career going on on the side, and Casady splits his time with the reformed Jefferson Starship. Their first studio album in 14 years, Pair A Dice Found appeared in 1990 to mixed reviews; in 1992 and 1993 a pair of live albums followed on Relix records, Live at Sweetwater I & II. The Sweetwater stuff, recorded in a small club, is pretty good, sounding very much like the Hot Tuna debut album from 1970, except with more originals. “I See The Light” is one of the originals, written by Kaukonen (new member Michael Falzerano co-wrote a few tracks as well), and features Kaukonen’s always-tasteful country blues picking and Casady’s rumbling bass. Former Jefferson Starship keyboardist/bassist Pete Sears contributes some spur of the moment improvised piano. Important, relevant music this isn’t, but it’s hard to quibble with the fine playing, and Kaukonen’s nasal voice is in unusually good form. Fans will find both Sweetwater discs to be key additions to a Hot Tuna collection, while novices might want to check out some of the 70’s stuff first.
347. Grateful Dead: Saint of Circumstance [live] ***
“Saint of Circumstance” is a Weir-Barlow number from what is usually considered the Grateful Dead’s weakest album, Go To Heaven, from 1980. Some Deadheads dislike the previous studio album Shakedown Street even more, but the difference between the two is significant; keyboardist Keith Godchaux had been killed in a car accident in the interim, and wife/vocalist Donna Godchaux had departed as well. Their replacement was keyboardist Brent Mydland, who had been in a band called Silver in the 70’s. When Mydland joined the band, he was immediately given a co-starring role despite his essentially minor-league status, and the band’s sound changed considerably. Mydland’s vocals were high pitched to the point of almost being falsetto, and his style of keyboard playing was devoid of much of the blues Godchaux (and Pigpen, back in the glory days) had brought to the instrument. So while this sounds like the Grateful Dead, it’s an inferior version, one not just in transition but also lost in the disco/new wave era. This live version appeared on re-issues of Go To Heaven and doesn’t rescue the original tune; Weir’s vocals fly off their mark early on, and he stuggles to get them back on track. Mydland’s backing stands out like a sore thumb, both in terms of vocals and somewhat cheesy-sounding synth, which marred a lot of Dead tunes in the 80’s. The only real hero is Jerry Garcia, whose guitar soars, although even he doesn’t quite approach the visionary heights the band once flew. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t very good either. Mydand improved over the years, but died in 1991, the third Grateful Dead keyboardist to reach an untimely end.
348. Johnny Cash: Hurt *****
“Hurt” comes from the 2002 Rick Rubin-produced American IV: The Man Comes Around, the final disc of Cash’s career, and his fourth for Rubin’s American records. The song is a Nine Inch Nails track, from The Downward Spiral, and despite its unlikely choice as a cover, Cash makes it his own. While Trent Reznor was all about shock in the 90’s, nothing he pulled off is quite as shocking as Cash’s death rattle of an old man’s voice intoning “I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that’s real” It’s one thing for a nihilistic twentysomething to sing these lyrics, and another for a God-fearing outlaw like Cash. Rubin’s production builds things to a dizzying crescendo interrupted by spare, close-miked lulls. Cash’s enunciation is chilling, and the wintery vibe makes this quite possibly the most compelling rock song ever recorded by someone over 70. Cash, whose legend spanned nearly 50 years, died a year later, in 2003. With “Hurt” he went out a winner.
349. Death In Vegas: Hands Around My Throat *****
Death in Vegas is the conceptual big beat electronica outfit headed by U.K. disc jockey Richard Fearless. Noteworthy about Death in Vegas is their reliance on rock beats and aggressive guitars and keyboards; unlike many of their electronica peers, most of Death in Vegas’ recordings could be called “rock” without inspiring snickers. Death In Vegas also employs a lot of guest vocalists on their albums; Iggy Pop, Liam Gallagher, Paul Weller, Hope Sandoval, and others have taken turns at the mike. “Hands Around My Throat” is from the 2002 album Scorpio Rising, and is one of the best cuts on a somewhat unfairly maligned album. Nicola Kuperus (from Adult) handles vocals, and gives a sinister, scary performance, while the song itself is hung on a hypnotic synth loop, with an almost early 80’s new wave beat (think Missing Persons, Blondie, Berlin) beneath some angular hard rock guitar. The beat is propulsive, the guitars have meat, the electronica flourishes serve an admirably supporting role instead of taking over, and the whole package is a pretty solid cut. As is customary in the fast-changing trendy world of electronica, Death in Vegas are already yeaterday’s news, although they’ve continued releasing albums worth hearing, most recently Fabriclive.23 in 2005.
350. Pere Ubu: Vacuum In My Head ****
“Vacuum In My Head” is a weird cut from a mixed album that happened to appear during this legendary band’s least interesting period, the mid-90’s. Ray Gun Suitcase marked a return to indie label recording for these Ohio art-punk veterans. In some ways, Pere Ubu were a band that seemed cutout for the alternative rock era; with their groundbreaking albums of the 70’s mostly unheard by the great unwashed masses, and a faithful cult, they always seemed one album away from finally getting their props. It didn’t happen; Ray Gun Suitcase, from 1995, returned the band to the darker, more psychotic sounds they explored in their heyday (“Vacuum In My Head” is like a more introspective and damaged “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”), after flirting with melodicism for a few years. Diehard fans will welcome this return to basics; the minimalist guitar and strange noises still sound like only Pere Ubu can do them, and David Thomas’ tortured spitting of the lyrics -which are demented- are about as far from singing as you can get. So at the time, it seemed like a return to form, at least the form that is Pere Ubu, although it turned out to be another false hope among many. So far, the last word from the band has been St. Arkansas, from 2002. That one seemed like it might be a breakthrough too; it wasn’t.
Listen to the Shins: Young Pilgrims (2003)