There’s a great passage in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where Chief Bromden explains how Big Nurse controls the clocks in the hospital, tormenting the patients by slowing the clock down during the majority of the week and then speeding it up during visiting hours. It’s a moving little scene.
It’s also indicative of my life lately; every day is visiting hours at the asylum and the nurses are screwing with the clocks. I never seem to have enough time these days. So I’ll push off yet another week’s vinyl burn and concentrate on the new releases (don’t miss the DVD review below as well). Back to the front …
When is a new album not a new album? 15 years ago, Patterson Hood moved to Athens, Ga., without knowing a soul and began writing songs and recording them in his roommate’s more acoustically friendly bedroom. Hood collected the resulting tunes on cassettes then compiled a handful onto a single tape entitled Murdering Oscar (and other love songs) that he gave away by the hundreds at the time. After reconnecting with Mike Cooley and forming the first iteration of Drive-By Truckers, Hood shifted his writing toward his new band structure (assembling the framework of his magnum opus, Southern Rock Opera, around this time) and shelved his solo songs.
A decade later, Hood revisited his earliest songs during a DBT hiatus. The first batch ultimately became Hood’s debut solo acoustic album, Killers and Stars, but the second collection spoke to its creator in a more electrically arranged fashion. Utilizing friends John Neff and Don Chambers, and Centro-matic buddies Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, as well as his famous father, veteran session bassist David Hood, the DBT frontman quickly recorded his first full-band solo project. Unfortunately, fate and business intervened and Hood was forced to bottom-drawer the album, working on it piecemeal over the next four years.
Now, a decade and a half after the first appearance of Murdering Oscar (and other love songs), Hood reprises his very first recordings with fuller arrangements of the songs under the same banner that graced that first tape. Murdering Oscar is clearly a lot closer to what Hood is doing now in DBT, but one of his intentions with revisiting these songs dating to his birth as a songwriter was to retain their intimacy and immediacy while expanding their sonic range.
Like DBT, Oscar exudes plenty of different styles, from the Big Star/Crazy Horse twangy Roots/Rock buzz of “She’s a Little Randy,” the laconically incisive “Walking Around Sense” and the title track, the Paul Westerberg-as-Folkgrass-fogey on “Foolish Young Bastard” and the even more stripped and simple “Grandaddy.” Hood taps into his inner Pop and Classic Rock child on “Pollyanna” and “Heavy and Hanging,” respectively, and throws in a raspy, rattlingly lovely cover of Todd Rundgren’s “The Range War.” With Murdering Oscar, Patterson Hood once again proves that you don’t necessarily need brand new songs to make a wonderfully fresh album.
Actors with musical aspirations often scare the average music fan because so many have turned out to be marginally talented dabblers who are trading on their fame to establish cred for their recording projects. But there have been exceptions; Mandy Moore is actually a pretty swinging little Pop artist, Zooey Deschanel’s work with M. Ward in She & Him has been wonderful, and, for all the negativity leveled at it, Scarlett Johanssen’s Tom Waits tribute was quite lovely. Count LANDy as another actor’s musical project that not only doesn’t suck but is engaging, edgy, weird and cool.
LANDy is the brainchild of actor Adam Goldberg, whose film resume includes his star turns in Dazed and Confused and Saving Private Ryan and whose TV work includes his brief but memorable arc as Chandler’s short-lived and completely insane roommate Eddie on Friends and as the brain-tumored detective on the recently and unfairly cancelled ABC series The Unusuals. Goldberg has been working on Eros and Omissions, his debut album as LANDy, for close to seven years, dating back to his 2002 introduction to The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd (Goldberg had a prominent role in the Lips’ movie, Christmas on Mars, and Goldberg and Drozd co-wrote the music for Goldberg’s 2005 indie film I Love Your Work), who provided input, as did Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza and LA indie outfit Black Pine.
Eros and Omissions shimmers with lo-fi beauty like the demos John Lennon would have made had he survived into the new indie millennium and collaborated with Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, David Bowie and the Mael brothers (who had checked their whimsy at the door). Eros and Omissions is a dark rumination on the vagaries of love in all its lost forms, which Goldberg couches in typically dour soundscapes and as such, it resonates on a fairly downcast wavelength. There are moments of spritely Pop uplift but the sonic uppers mask the lyrical downers, which is always a great way to create engaging tension in a song. Perhaps most importantly, the album never feels like a vanity project; Goldberg is a legitimate musical talent who has crafted a unique and off-kilter album that satisfies on multiple levels. At just over 70 minutes, Eros and Omissions can be a daunting listen but the patient fan with an affinity for the avant aspects of Pop will find LANDy’s debut a fascinating and trippy sonic stroll.
There’s certainly nothing novel about an album filled with love songs and the concept isn’t made any more revolutionary by couching the concept in a Blues setting.
But Otis Taylor is no mere Blues practitioner and, although he has included the phrase in the title of his latest album, Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs, these are no mere love songs. Taylor twists lyrical and musical forms on Pentatonic Wars, from prepubescent interracial love (“I’m Not Mysterious”) to the woman who leaves her man for another woman (“Mama’s Best Friend,” based on Taylor’s own mother) to the loss of an instrument as the metaphor for the loss of a child (“Lost My Guitar”) to a ghost beckoning to a living lover (“If You Hope”).
And while Pentatonic Wars is populated with standard Blues depictions of lovers of all stripes — murderous, mournful, greedy, boastful, wandering — Taylor has placed it all in a uniquely chilled context, counterpointing his acoustic Blues guitar with Jason Moran’s jazzy piano and Ron Miles’ slinky cornet for a sound that lives up to Taylor’s description of trance Blues. Just as important are the album’s vocal textures; Taylor’s emotive voice hovers somewhere between Ben Harper and Taj Mahal and his daughter Cassie, who takes an occasional lead and provides a good deal of bass, has an appealing Alicia Keys vocal quality, both of which are perfect instruments for Pentatonic Wars’ unconventional love songs and atypical smoky Jazz/Blues atmosphere.
On Foreign Born’s 2005 debut EP, In the Remote Woods, the SoCal quartet jangled and hummed like it was channeling vintage Echo and the Bunnymen and lived up to its name by sounding more imported than domestic. With their first full-length, On the Wing Now (self-released in 2005, reissued by Dim Mak in 2007), the band began exhibiting more signs of being an American band, deftly absorbing and translating its diverse influences into an original sound.
For Person to Person, their sophomore full-length and debut for Secretly Canadian (they must be on a quest to record for every indie label in America), Foreign Born follows a similar sonic arc as On the Wing Now but with an expanded focus and increased depth. The band periodically incorporates African rhythms with an American Indie twist ala Talking Heads (“Early Warnings”), sometimes sublimating it into sinewy Pop concoction that hints at the Arcade Fire or Spoon (“Blood Oranges”), sometimes mutating it into a Pavement-touched chaos (“Winter Games”). There are references back to the band’s Bunnymen loving days (“Can’t Keep Time”) and there are moments of exquisitely powerful sensitivity rivaling the best of Grant Lee Phillips’ similarly emotive output (“Lion’s Share,” “It Grew On You”). Person to Person clearly demonstrates Foreign Born’s growth and maturity and also suggests a band that has a truly great album yet to come.
The membership roll of the Lemonheads reads like a Mormon geneology and the musical styles that the band has embraced over the past two and a half decades define eclecticism. Through it all, from Punk whelps (in fact, they were named The Whelps when they first formed in 1986) to jangle poppers to classically tinged rockers, the one constant has been the ever enigmatic Evan Dando; howling punk, charismatic frontman, sexy beast, drug glazed cover boy, rehabbing hermit, solo crooner, triumphant survivor.
The Lemonheads’ new disc, Varshons, was inspired by Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, who sent schizophonic mix tapes to Dando then wound up producing the album that sparked the material. Not coincidentally, Varshons sounds like a carefully considered yet madly diverse mix tape itself, veering wildly from style to style while keeping the sound well within the Lemonheads’ vast wheelhouse. And clearly Dando is comfortable stepping into other songwriter’s material; one of the Lemonheads’ biggest hits was their cover of “Mrs. Robinson,” and Dando and the band have never shied away from outside material, from Big Star to Richard and Linda Thompson to Schoolhouse Rocks.
On Varshons, Dando and the Lemonheads cover everyone from Gram Parsons and Townes van Zandt in the Country/Roots/Folk vein to more esoterically odd choices like G.G. Allin’s murder balladry (“Layin’ Up with Linda”), Wire’s tremulous New Wave edge (“Fragile”), Arling & Cameron’s Electropop cool (“Dirty Robot”) and Christina Aguilera’s populist schmooze (“Beautiful”). There’s even a duet with Liv Tyler on Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” As patchy as it sounds on paper, the Lemonheads weave a thread of consistency through the varied material. Even by Dando’s liberal standards, Varshons is the Lemonheads at their scattershot best.
Between dual band memberships and production credits, the members of Tortoise are as pathologically busy as ants on crystal meth. That’s one of the reasons that Tortoise albums are relatively rare; the Chicago quartet’s last studio outing was 2004’s It’s All Around You, a further example of the band’s Space Rock-meets-Prog-meets-chilled out Jazz-meets-electronic-atmospherics. Even as the band was finishing up that album five years ago, they were thinking ahead to their next one and determined that when they eventually reconvened in the studio, they would endeavor to take more sonic chances and get out of their comfort zone. And with the release of Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise can say, with at least some semblance of surety (certainly more than our previous president) “mission accomplished.”
Beacons’ opener, the eight-minute mini-epic “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” is evidence that Tortoise took their original goal seriously, crafting a song that throbs with a dubby pulse and hums with a slinky synth purpose that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Frank Zappa or Todd Rundgren or Bootsy Collins album from the ’70s. That is until it suddenly shifts gears and pounds out an aggressive Trance/Dance groove with Moby’s hyperactive power and Kraftwerk’s metronomic insistence. The Zappa vibe is even more prevalent on “Prepare Your Coffin,” even as it references the kind of bubbling Prog that FZ would have disdained, while “Northern Something” strobes and strikes with Techno precision and “Penumbra” swings with forceful ambience. The second half of Beacons of Ancestorship is more typically Tortoise — coolly cinematic, calculatingly precise, impeccably arranged and executed — and therefore more familiar and less edgy. Incorporating both directions on Beacons means that Tortoise offers a certain degree of departure while still embracing the sound that earned them a loyal fan base and strong critical favor over the past two decades.
Today, “Happy Together” might be little more than a lovely three minute singalong on Classic Rock radio, but nearly four and a half decades ago, when it was a freshly pressed single on the White Whale label, “Happy Together” was the chart-peaking breakthrough The Turtles had been trying to notch for two years. They’d come close with “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “You Baby” in 1965 but hit the Pop radio jackpot with “Happy Together,” an infectious bit of songwriting gold that punched the L.A. quintet’s ticket for the big time.
So in 1967, the Turtles found themselves on a brief promotional tour in London to support their new hit. Exhausted from the long flight but eager to experience the scene, the band met up with touring acquaintance Graham Nash, who played them a tape of Sgt. Pepper the night before it was released while they traded hookah hits with Donovan.
From there, they headed to London’s notorious Speakeasy, where they met and were amazed, amused and ultimately abused by their idols, The Beatles themselves. More than a little disillusioned, four of The Turtles retreated to their hotel rooms, but vocalist Howard Kaylan was waylayed by Rolling Stones guitarist (and Turtles fan) Brian Jones and relative unknown Jimi Hendrix, who detoured Kaylan to the Speakeasy’s restaurant. Over the next few hours, Hendrix and Kaylan shared endless scotch and Cokes and spinach omelettes and a drunkenly confessional conversation about fame and music and spiritual enlightenment ... until Kaylan threw up on Hendrix’s red velvet suit and ended the evening.
That incident is the culmination and ultimate point of My Dinner With Jimi, a fictionalized film account of The Turtles’ landmark year. Much of the film addresses the band’s rise in the L.A. scene and their interactions with local luminaries like Mama Cass Elliott, Jim Morrison and Frank Zappa (who would employ Kaylan and harmony vocalist Mark Volman as the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie after the Turtles broke up).
While My Dinner With Jimi is no groundbreaking cinematic achievement, it is a fantastic evocation of a magical time in music history. Screenwriter Kaylan’s firsthand experiences and ability to bring them to life without embellishment establishes a credibility that few Rock biopics possess; when Kaylan met Hendrix, Kaylan was the famous one — Are You Experienced? was finished but unreleased, and while Hendrix enjoyed some notoriety in the UK and parts of Europe Kaylan was the singer of the song that had just displaced “Penny Lane” as England’s No. 1 song.
There are excellent performances throughout My Dinner With Jimi: Academy Award nominated Justin Henry as Kaylan (he was an Oscar nominee for his role as the kid in Kramer vs. Kramer), Jason Boggs as the pertually goofy Volman, Cheers’ George Wendt as Turtles’ cheapskate manager Bill Uttley and Curtis Armstrong as Zappa manager Herb Cohen (who was also a distant cousin of Kaylan’s and who advised him and Volman on how to escape the draft in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes).
But the absolute pinnacle of the movie is the portrayal of Jimi Hendrix by Royale Watkins, who mimics Hendrix’s vocal inflections and relatively shy offstage demeanor to perfection, inhabiting Hendrix not as a character but as a living, breathing human being. If anyone is working on a Hendrix biopic, they’d do well to fast track it in order to put Watkins in the marquee role. He is magnificent.
On the whole, My Dinner With Jimi works because of Kaylan’s faithfulness to the period, getting the dialogue and the tenor of the times exactly right. By going low-key and observational and not over-dramatizing events or situations and allowing them to exist as they happened for the most part, My Dinner With Jimi becomes that rarest of entities: an authentic Rock movie.