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R.I.P. MJ, Reviewing Wilco, Little Richard, The Bats and Tom Brosseau

By Brian Baker · July 7th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

As a child of the ’60s, a good deal of my early education in Rock came at the hands of a headmaster named Ed Sullivan. His Sunday evening variety show was the place to see crooners, comedians, scenes from hit Broadway shows, magicians, plate-spinners (God, how I loved the plate-spinners) and, oddly enough, the absolute best of the music of the era.

It was odd because Ed was diametrically opposed to anything remotely resembling hip. He was so stiff and uncool that by today’s standards, Ed would make Al Gore look like George Carlin by comparison. In fact, Carlin was a regular guest on Ed’s show. Before the hair and dope and the seven words. Way before. But Ed was a brilliant booker and did possess a keen sense of what kids would want to watch and hear, even if he himself didn’t get it in the least. He may not have been cool enough to appreciate the music, but he was smart enough to appreciate its appeal.

I was too young to remember Elvis Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, when the cameras wouldn’t show the future king from the waist down because of his licentiously swiveling hips. I was 8 when The Beatles debuted, and I remember thinking, “If those girls would just stop screaming, I would really like to hear this.” I was both perplexed and thrilled by The Rolling Stones. I was transfixed and transformed by The Doors.

And then, when I was 13, I saw Michael Jackson on The Ed Sullivan Show, and watched as another future king sang lead on “ABC” and “The Love You Save” and “I Want You Back,” his brothers choreographed beside him, equal in billing on the marquee but clearly subordinate in every other possible way. I was mesmerized by this little manchild of Soul/Pop who had the composure to own the stage, dance like a dervish and sing songs about desire and lust and heartbreak with the conviction of someone twice his age and the wisdom of experience that could only come from half a lifetime of living. I was just three years older than little Michael, and I envied his abilities and poise and success. I wanted to be talented and rich and watchable and amazing and black.

I wanted to be Michael Jackson.

The incredible little boy eventually became an incredible young man, but somewhere down the yellow brick road, his almost immeasurable fame and success and wealth became as hollow as fruit devoured by worms from the inside. Perhaps he was forced to grow up too soon. Perhaps his immense talent outstripped his ability to mature and grow into it. Perhaps his wealth made him a petulant wanter of everything with the unfortunate net income to actually attempt to obtain it. Perhaps being molded into an adult persona as a child led him to exist in a childish state as an adult. Perhaps being universally beloved in his youth made him dread the awful certainty of mortality, and the dissipation and infirmity and creeping equalization that comes with the advancing years. Perhaps that fear drove him to seek out doctors who would attempt to turn his mirror into an oil painting frozen in time rather than a traitorous reflection of the ravages of the calendar. Perhaps in his quest for eternal youth, he was aging himself at an unimaginable pace. Perhaps his artificially Dorian Grayed face was betrayed by a battered heart twice his physical age.

Forty years ago, I wanted to be the Michael Jackson that I saw on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. And in a very real sense, right up until June 25, Michael Jackson probably did, too. Neither one of us got what we wanted. And as I reflect on my gray hair and creaking bones and relatively normal life, I am eternally thankful for the existence I have and even more thankful that my thoughtless teenage wish went ungranted. If only Michael could have understood just how beautiful it is to grow old and to be a part of life’s inevitable passage and to gracefully accept the limitations that time and tide inflict on every living thing, he might well have been moonwalking for another three decades, instead of tabloid fodder as another tragic talent extinguished before his time. All we are left with now is the memory of everything he had and couldn’t handle, and everything he wanted and couldn’t have. That and an almost unsurpassed string of accomplishments and a catalog of music created by a blazingly original genius that nearly fulfilled the limitless promise of a star-crossed 10 year old on a black and white TV, four tumultuous decades ago.

We hardly knew ye, Michael, and we knew ye in embarrassing detail. If only you’d had the foresight and the patience and the self-control and the self-esteem, perhaps you could have stopped. And the love you saved would have indeed been your own.

And now, to the music of the living...

The one quality that has served Wilco well over the course of its history is an incredible facility for reinvention that has never obscured or compromised the band’s inherent Wilconess. That is a significant achievement; so many groups retool themselves in an effort to recapture or rejuvenate their relevence and lose touch with the essence of what made them interesting in the first place, or they maintain a constancy that borders on stagnation.

None of this has ever been an issue for Jeff Tweedy and whoever has comprised Wilco.

And that may well speak to Wilco’s evolutionary success. Tweedy has always been the constant, writing good to great songs that match the abilities and potential for every iteration of Wilco, and every iteration of Wilco has been up to the task of illuminating Tweedy’s songs from within, pushing his good material into the realm of greatness.

So it is with Wilco (The Album), an album of unusually powerful Tweedy material translated by an unusually powerful Wilco lineup. Wilco (the album) kicks off with “Wilco (The Song),” a jaunty little romp that howls with distortion and yet cruises along on a buoyant Stonesy riff as Tweedy offers a “sonic shoulder to cry on.” With neck-wrenching speed, the band shifts into baroque Pop mode for “Deeper Down,” digging into similar emotional and musical territory as Joe Pernice with even more layers of complexity, all in less than three minutes, and even taps into his inner Nick Drake on “Solitaire.” If there is an anthem on Wilco (The Album), it might well be the Sly-Stone-meets-The-Beatles Soul/Pop jab of “You Never Know,” where Tweedy gives today’s youth a quick attitude adjustment (“Come on children, you’re acting like children/Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.”), complete with George Harrison guitar and Family Stone fuzz bass. And with all the song-to-song style shifts, even as Tweedy and company conduct from one dazzlingly appointed room to the next, there is never any doubt that you’re in Wilco’s house.

By the early ’70s, Little Richard was still recognized as one of the architects of Rock, but he was a long way from his storied beginnings two decades before. The former Richard Penniman had been relegated to oldies package tours in the wake of the British Invasion (populated by young men like Paul McCartney who worshipped the piano pounding dervish in his prime) and the Summer of Love; he hadn’t helped his cause much by abandoning Rock for Gospel music and the church for five years in the early ’60s. After several attempts at launching a Rock comeback, Little Richard finally got a legitimate shot in 1970 — just as interest in the music of the ’50s began to rise again — when Reprise Records offered him a contract and the opportunity to seize the spotlight again.

Little Richard certainly made the most of the chance, turning out three truly amazing albums in three years, and while none of them lit up the charts at the time, they clearly signaled that the flamboyant Rock icon had lost none of his power or charisma, a fact that is every bit as evident now with their CD debut on Collector’s Choice.

The first of the trio, 1970’s The Rill Thing, featured the moderate hit single, “Freedom Blues,” Richard’s first chart entry in over a dozen years, and showed that he was comfortable slipping into the swampy, funky R&B/Rock/Pop sound that was being championed by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Ike and Tina Turner, spiced with Richard’s own inimitable style. The album’s follow-up single, the Travis Wammack penned “Greenwood, Mississippi,” cemented the deal, packed with fuzzy guitar and a sauntering, sweltering beat. The rest of The Rill Thing is similarly inspired, from the jaunty “Two Time Loser,” the rollicking, swinging “Dew Drop Inn” and Richard’s steaming take on The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” the album’s third single (which may not have charted because the world was still in mourning over their break-up).

On the second album of the arc, the aptly christened King of Rock and Roll, Little Richard returned to the shivering, shouting Soul/Pop direction of his greatest singles for Specialty in the ’50s. The album’s title cut leads off the album and it’s three minutes of the best Rock braggadocio of all time (Hip Hop has yet to even come close to Little Richard in this department), and it’s followed up with Richard’s minute-long dissertation on the greatness of Richard which serves as the opener to his cover of “Joy to the World.” In fact, King of Rock and Roll is jammed with covers (the only original being the Gospel-fueled “In the Name”), including Richard’s struttingly soulful covers of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets,” and a slinky R&B version of CCR’s “Born on the Bayou,” all done, of course, with Richard’s indelible signature.

The last of the three may be the best of the series. The Second Coming reteamed Richard with producer Bumps Blackwell, who had helmed Richard’s most successful and influential material at Specialty in the ’50s, for an album of mostly new, original material. The feel on The Second Coming was rawer and more visceral, as Richard seemed to be channeling his own freewheeling spirit from two decades earlier while keeping one piano-pedaling foot securely in the present. From the glorious arrangement of “The Saints Come Marching In” to the joyous tent revival Pop of “It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way How You Do It” to the swinging R&B/Rock of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Boogie” to the thumping intensity of the wordless, roof-raising “Sanctified, Satisfied Tow-Tapper,” The Second Coming was proof positive that Little Richard had the rare ability to access his past while making it relevent to a new generation.

It should be mentioned at this juncture that the Second Coming sessions yielded material for a fourth Reprise album but it was never released, largely due to the relative failure of the previous three. Southern Child is almost a sonic stew comprised of the ingredients of The Rill Thing, King of Rock and Roll and The Second Coming. There are moments of Richard’s ’50s brilliance, and his take on the urban R&B/Soul movement of the ’60s, but a bit more of the Gospel-fueled Soul of the ’70s. All of it comes together, if somewhat patchily, for an album that has all of the charm — if slightly less wattage — of its three predecessors. If Reprise had released this in 1973, it probably wouldn’t have rekindled much interest in the three that came before it, and so its shelving doesn’t come as much of a shock. The album is fairly accessible on the Web and it’s well worth a listen. Decide for yourself.

Twenty-seven years ago, bassist Robert Scott walked away from the ashes of The Clean, one of the most influential bands to come from the vibrant New Zealand scene of the late ’70s, with the thought to do something different. He started by switching to guitar and moving to the role of frontman, continued by adding the rock-solid rhythm section of ex-Toy Love bassist Paul Kean and Malcolm Grant on drums and finished by enlisting former Minisnap guitarist Kaye Woodward, who provided a potent second guitar presence and the female harmony vocals that would become the new band’s signature sound. Christening themselves The Bats, the quartet charted a sonic path of dark, jangly Pop that rivaled The Clean’s impressive output. Ironically, The Bats’ progress over the past two and a half decades has been periodically interrupted by The Clean’s reformation and subsequent recording and touring activities.

For their seventh album, The Guilty Office, The Bats don’t venture very far from the formula that has served them well from the start. With a melancholy beauty and an impeccable facility for the chilly Pop expanse that has defined the Flying Nun/New Zealand Pop sound since the late ’70s. Musically, the band has the swirling psychedelic simplicity of Lloyd Cole’s Commotions or Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice, with that distinctive NZ edge, topped by Scott’s reed thin vocals, a blend of the Chills’ Martin Phillipps plaintive treble and Brian Eno’s oddly seductive warble. On The Guilty Office, The Bats occasionally throw strings into the mix, a particularly potent addition on the album’s first single, the sweetly dark “Castle Lights.” But for Bats purists, there’s the hypnotic psych pulse of “Crimson Enemy” and the sinewy and brittle lilt of “Later On That Night.” Longtime Bats fans will find plenty to love with The Guilty Office, and for uninitiated, there’s no time like now.

On his early self-released albums and his subsequent releases after signing with FatCat and Loveless, Tom Brosseau sounded as spare and desolate as a Dust Bowl troubadour, singing about the tragedies of the day with a razor wit and an acoustic guitar. Brosseau’s other talent has been a penchant for telling stories disguised as songs — a result of his deep literary influences cross pollinated with his authentic Folk heroes — giving his work the sound of an old tube radio trying to pick up broadcasts of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Jeff (and Tim) Buckley and Jonathan Richman.

On Posthumous Success, his third full length for FatCat, Brosseau expands his sonic palette considerably with fuller, more traditional instrumentation and arrangements while retaining the expansive and sparse atmospherics of his previous work. The album begins and ends with “My Favorite Color Blue,” the opener following his standard solo acoustic path and the closer a slightly different version of the song given the full-band treatment. In between, Posthumous Success vacillates between the two sonic camps, although clearly spending more time in the latter frame of mind; the raucous Folk/Pop of “Big Time” sounds like a Tim Buckley outtake from his most fertile period, while the instrumental “Youth Decay” is Brosseau at his tentative all alone best.

There are brief hints of ambience on Posthumous Success, as though Brian Eno added surreptitious tape treatments to the mix, as on the Lou Reed-meets-Clem-Snide lope of “Give Me a Drumroll” or the similarly structured (with synths) “Love to New Heights,” or the basement demo rawness of “You Don’t Know My Friends.” Brosseau has definitively proven that he doesn’t necessarily require a band to make his effective point, but Posthumous Success is equal proof that, given the fertile creative ground of a real band, Brosseau can cultivate some deliciously exotic fruit.



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