On July 1, we reached the halfway point of the year and this week marked the halfway point of my daughter’s summer vacation. Just three weeks ago we experienced the longest day of the year, and now each day is getting progressively shorter, just in time for there to be less of 2009 to be experienced.
The passage of time has been on my mind lately; two good friends have passed through the portal this year and the celebrity body count has been unusually high (and high profile) in recent weeks, proof that no matter how well connected or wealthy or insulated from real life you happen to be, the words of Jim Morrison in 1969 ring true for each and every one of us: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
All of this leads me to the conclusion that halfway is a strange concept in life. If I'm at the halfway point in my life, I'll live to be over 100, and given medical advances and certain genetic predispositions in my family it’s a distinct possibility. But who can know? My mother didn’t know at 13 that she was halfway through her life, and Michael Jackson didn’t know at 25 that he was halfway through his.
Clearly, it’s better that, by and large, we don’t know our expiration dates. It’s the unknown that gives life its unique flavor and special joy. So wherever I happen to be on my own personal mortality timeline, I’ll keep marking its passage the best way I know how — by loving my family and friends and measuring the clock’s pace one song at a time.
One thing is certain: If your life really does flash across your consciousness like a little movie in your final moments, I’m kicking out of here with one hell of a soundtrack. With a little luck, I’ve just finished compiling side one.
Q: How many minor supergroups can Jack White assemble? A: All of them, apparently. The Dead Weather is merely the latest installment of “What Will Jack Do Next?,” the novelty this time being that the vaunted frontman of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs is taking his place behind the drum kit, the most stereotypically invisible role within most bands except for those timekeepers blessed with outsized personalities (Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, John Bonham) or limitless talent (Neil Peart, Charlie Watts).
Amazingly, White falls into both categories, as he retains at least some of his frontman shimmer by singing lead on more than half of the songs on the band’s debut, Horehound, and by drumming with relentlessly rhythmic abandon throughout. White is joined in this endeavor by an interesting cast of characters; The Kills’ Alison Mosshart on vocals and guitar, Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita on guitar and keyboards and the Greenhornes/Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence on bass (although all of them pull double duty on each other’s instruments).
In a lot of ways, The Dead Weather is a throwback to the ’60s sound of black Blues filtered through a psychedelic white Hard Rock prism. Horehound is rife with sounds and songs that could have been outtakes from the earliest work of Led Zeppelin (“Treat Me Like Your Mother”) or Deep Purple (“I Cut Like a Buffalo”) or Canned Heat (“So Far From Your Weapon”) or Iron Butterfly (“60 Feet Tall”). And just like the best of that storied musical era, what Dead Weather’s songs lack in contemplative craft, they more than compensate for with visceral immediacy and breakneck spontaneity. Horehound might not be a great artistic achievement, but it's most assuredly a fun listen.
This will be a banner year for fans of the Drive-By Truckers.
Last month saw the release of frontman Patterson Hood’s excellent sophomore solo disc, Murdering Oscar (and other love songs), and The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2006), an archival disc compiled from the Truckers’ voluminous slush pile, is slated for early September. In the meantime, Truckers fans will content themselves with the CD/CVD set Live from Austin, TX, the latest in New West’s series of unreleased performances from the PBS TV presentation, Austin City Limits.
Recorded last year on the Truckers’ tour for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, Live From Austin, TX is a core sample of everything that the band does so magnificently. Pacing is a hallmark of every Truckers show and Austin, TX is a perfect example as DBT kicks off gently with Mike Cooley’s jauntily melancholy “Perfect Timing,” and segues into the equally acoustic but slightly more agitated “Heathens.” The pulse begins to rise with the electric twang of “A Ghost to Most,” hits its stride on the incendiary “The Righteous Path,” then cools back down with Shonna Tucker’s winsome Country balladry on “I’m Sorry Huston.”
When the Truckers finally mash down the pedal, the band proves itself the shoulder-to-shoulder equal of everyone from Crazy Horse to the Stones with the one-two heart punch of “3 Dimes Down“ and the bitter indictment of “Puttin’ People on the Moon.” As usual, the Truckers are great from there on out, but perhaps the hair-raising pinnacle of the show is Hood’s emotional tale of how he came to write “18 Wheels of Love,” its tear-jerking but triumphant postscript and then the scuffed beauty of the song itself. The Drive-By Truckers on stage is no less than a religious experience, and Live From Austin, TX is the next best thing to an audience baptism.
With four years of relentless touring under his belt, Lovedrug guitarist David Thomas Owen IV made the momentous decision to walk away from the band and its exhaustive road grind last year in order to reflect on the voluminous material he had cobbled together during his rare downtime on tour. Eventually tapping friends and former Lovedrug members Matthew Depper and Matthew Pullman, Owen revisited his bare-boned sonic sketches and fleshed them into lush and expansive life on his solo debut, Solace My King.
Owen’s direction on Solace My King is less a departure from and more an expansion of his Lovedrug work, which always exhibited a Prog flair. In Owen’s capable hands, that sound encompasses the cinematic bravura of Danny Elfman (“Castles”), the Indie Pop verve of The Shins (“I’m a Lava”), the magnificent shimmer of My Morning Jacket (“Maybe I’m Crazy”), the soaring Rock bombast of Yes and Genesis (“Find Another World”), the melodic savvy of Brian Wilson (“They Will Eat You Alive”) and the uncanny ability to thread it all together to make a beautifully cohesive and original whole. Owen’s Jon Anderson/Jim James/Jeff Buckley falsetto is the perfect frosting for Solace My King’s Prog Pop cake (which clocks in at an unproglike, suite-less, Pop-song structured 40 minutes). Oddly enough, it is Owen’s mad piano skills and not his considerable guitar talents that invest his solo debut with a captivating and contemplative edge.
The sun rises and sets with measurable predictability, a chocolate chip cookie made with consistently similar ingredients tastes largely the same and there aren’t going to be too many surprises on a Robin Trower album. A devotee of B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters, a contemporary and admirer of Jimi Hendrix and a student of Robert Fripp, Trower established his distinctive, galloping, soulful guitar Blues three and a half decades ago on his first post-Procol Harum solo album, 1973’s Twice Removed From Yesterday. Outside of some flashes of pure brilliant original classicism (Bridge of Sighs, For Earth Below) and slight stylistic adjustments (his occasional work with Jack Bruce), the biggest shift in Trower’s sound has been the loss of the touched-by-the-gods-of-Blues vocal prowess of late bassist James Dewar. In recent years, Trower himself has manned the mic, his voice an appealing blend of Mark Knopfler’s raspy Folk balladeering and J.J. Cale’s evocative Blues growl.
Trower’s latest, What Lies Beneath, pretty much follows the blueprint of his seminal ’70s work and his more recent efforts, like 2005’s Another Days Blues. There’s nothing here that particularly pushes the envelope of either artist or genre — the strings on the instrumental opener “Wish You Were Mine” are a nice touch and the more traditional structure of “Buffalo Blues” shows Trower’s deep Blues affection and grounding — but that merely points up the fact that Trower is often damned with faint praise because his consistency has been perceived as lack of inspiration.
As always, Trower’s playing is supple, fluid and powerfully emotive, as evidenced on the muscular Hendrix balladry of “Find a Place,” where Trower’s slinky chorus riff and subtle solo are muted and graceful but never less than viscerally engaging. There may not be much that deviates from the norm on Robin Trower’s albums but his norm is always good and very often great. What Lies Beneath definitely falls into the latter category.
Well over four years ago, William McAuley III — the artist known as Bleu to the Power Pop community — completed his epic and much anticipated sophomore album, A Watched Pot. Bleu had sparked industry buzz with his appearance on the Spider-Man soundtrack, which helped juice his 2003 debut Aware/Sony album Redhead, an album that NPR cited as one of the albums of the year. But Sony downsized, dropped Bleu and A Watched Pot remained shelved. In the meantime, Bleu constructed a Pop fan’s dream team of musicians (Andy Sturmer, Mike Viola and Matt Mahaffey among them) to record a batch of original songs arranged Jeff Lynne-style in a project called L.E.O. for the 2006 album Alpacas Orgling. And Pot continued to collect dust.
Since then, Bleu has formed two project bands (the Power Pop Major Labels with Viola and Ducky Carlisle and the Pop Metal Loud Lion with members of Rooney and The Donnas) and finally wrestled the rights to A Watched Pot away from Sony, paving the way for Bleu to self-release what should have been the triumphant followup to Redhead in 2005. Better late than never; Pot is, in a word, magnificent.
Bleu channels all that is right and good and inspirational about Pop from every era, from the Jellyfish-tributes-Counting-Crows swell of “Save Me” to the Cheap Trick-pens-a-Bread-ballad sigh of “No Such Thing as Love” to the across-the-board brilliant hit-single-in-waiting “Boy Meets Girl” (Taylor Swift would ride this thing to an eight-week stay at No. 1). And for the more adult sensibility, Bleu goes for a Van Morrison Soul/Pop vibe on “I Won’t Fuck You Over (This Time),” with the inevitable Sturmer/Lynne/Nilsson/Fab Four references bubbling up through the mix, as they do throughout the album. Here’s hoping that the freeing of A Watched Pot signals Bleu’s return to a more frequent release schedule. We need this guy and his songs on an annual basis.