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Muse, Hugh Cornwell, Gordon Gano & The Ryans, The Dynamites and Charles Walker

By Brain Baker · September 15th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

The death of Patrick Swayze and the cartoonishly rude antics of Kanye West at the MTV awards will dominate the news for days to come and are likely to overwhelm any attention that might have been rightly paid to the passing last Friday of poet/author/Punk frontman Jim Carroll.

The New York street hustler documented his seedy teenage years in The Basketball Diaries, his compelling and harrowing memoir of his years as a male prostitute, heroin addict, high school basketball star and societal fringe dweller. Sadly, his highest profile gig as the singer/songwriter for The Jim Carroll Band in the late ’70s and early ’80s came to be defined by a single song, the admittedly great “People Who Died,” a roll call of all the characters Carroll had known and lost (and the manner of their demise) set to a frenetic Punk pulse and delivered with an urgency that clearly revealed Carroll’s understanding that he could easily have been among the sad hall of fame he was detailing.

“People Who Died,” from Carroll’s 1980 debut, Catholic Boy, became something of a novelty hit, which naturally colored the response to his follow-ups, 1982’s Dry Dreams and 1983’s I Write Your Name, which offered nothing of the same immediacy of “People Who Died,” at least in the cloth ears of an unimaginative label hierarchy.

I was lucky enough to interview Jim Carroll eight years ago on the occasion of his return to music on his five-track EP Runaway. He was adamant that Runaway not be viewed as a comeback because he was more focused on finishing two novels he was working on. He'd already been through the Rock meat grinder, and in a good many ways it left him more damaged and embittered than his life of sex and drugs on the streets of New York.

When we spoke, 2001 was a freshly minted year. Advance notice of Runaway was good, people (who lived) were paying attention to Carroll’s work again and life seemed to be on the upswing. I was thrilled to be talking to Carroll, and he was equally happy that someone wanted to talk to him, and we were all still months away from the horror of 9/11.

Runaway was the last music Carroll did; in recent years, he had done readings from one of his unfinished novels, which he had planned to title The Petting Zoo. It has been reported that he died at home while he was writing.

And it might only be parenthetically coincidental, but Carroll shuffled off the mortal coil at the age of 59 on the eighth anniversary of 9/11. Clearly the majority of tributes to him will be to cue up “People Who Died” and note the irony that he's now among the friends he memorialized 29 years ago. But a more fitting salute would be to seek out a copy of The Basketball Diaries and read a journal kept by a teenager whom Jack Kerouac once called “better than 89 percent of the novelists working today.”

It bears noting that before Muse coalesced into its current form a decade and a half ago, the band’s core trio — vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Matthew Bellamy, bassist Christopher Wolstenholme, drummer Dominic Howard — pretended to be a Glam band to enter a battle of the bands, and they won. This is a worthwhile notation not because there is a surplus of glamminess on Muse’s fifth and latest album, The Resistance, but because the album is further evidence of the band’s amazing facility for musical mimicry.

The album’s first single, “Uprising,” swings with ElectroPop urgency, features a slinky synth line lifted straight from Dr. Who and swells with Classic Rock anthemics and orchestral bombast. “Undisclosed Desires” rages with Queensryche guitar riffage and Bellamy’s soaring falsetto, while “United States of Eurasia/Collateral Damage” shimmers like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” synthesized by Rufus Wainwright for a massively scaled Rock opera. Speaking of which, Muse finishes The Resistance with that very thing, the 15-minute, three movement “Exogenesis Symphony,” an ambitious and movingly successful suite that fuses all of the trio’s longstanding loves — Electronica, Prog, Classical — into an orchestral Rock triumph (the piece’s second part is appropriately sub-titled “Cross Pollination”).

From the start, Muse has presented a variety of musical faces to its fans but The Resistance shows that the band is more than capable of combining their broad range of influences into a unified yet still diverse whole.

Hugh Cornwell has been out of The Stranglers for considerably longer than he was a part of the Punk stalwarts, but the fact is that Cornwell launched his own career two years after The Stranglers’ first recordings, so his solo identity shares a similar vintage as his band legacy.

Since Cornwell’s 1979 solo bow, Nosferatu (featuring Devo’s Mothersbaugh brothers, Ian Dury, Zappa alumnus Ian Underwood and Beefheart drummer Robert Williams, and sporting a demonic cover of Cream’s “White Room”), the guitarist has been prolific, continuing with The Stranglers until 1990, releasing over a dozen albums under his own name and a handful under various band guises. Stylistically, Cornwell is all over the musical map, drawing on elements from seminal ’50s Rock, spritely ’60s Pop and dark ’70s Punk, synthesizing it into a form contemporary to wherever he happens to be.

For his latest, Hooverdam, Cornwell follows that template with a vengeance, starting off with the solid bang of the rousing “Please Don’t Put Me on a Slow Boat to Trowbridge,” blustering like a cross between his later profile in The Stranglers blended with Robyn Hitchcock’s rejuvenated Soft Boys swing. “Going to the City” traces a similar arc, then Cornwell uncorks the sweet menace of “Delightful Nightmare,” a bass-heavy cross between Roy Wood’s darker visions of The Move and the opaque melodicism of early Squeeze. “Within You or Without You” features Dylanesque poetry pushed through the pastry cone of Cornwell’s Punk/Pop experience, while “Beat of My Heart” could be a Buddy Holly demo and “The Pleasure of Your Company” sounds like Cornwell’s Punkass take on Northern Soul. The wonderfully titled “Philip K. Ridiculous” steams and streams like a Wire outtake.

Hooverdam manages to encompass pretty much everything that Hugh Cornwell has always done to great effect; taking his longstanding influences and making them relevant to his now by way of clever and engaging songcraft. The fresh wrinkle on Hooverdam is Cornwell’s embracing of the new technological paradigm: for a short time, Hooverdam is available for free download at www.hooverdamdownload.com. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy by a guy contemporary enough to find a place on today’s sales charts and old enough to grandfather the kids who are his musical peers.

If not for the coincidence of neighborhood proximity, former Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano and Brendan and Billy Ryan (formerly of The Bogmen) would never have discovered the kind of common interests and intersecting spheres of influence necessary to warrant any kind of musical interaction. Gano’s work with the Femmes helped to shape Folk Punk in the ’80s while the Bogmen’s anthemic blend of U2’s histrionics and the Talking Heads’ jittery Pop Wave attracted a cultish fan base but barely registered a blip in the wider scene. But eight years ago, the unlikely trio wound up moving to New York’s West Village at the same time and casual neighborhood run-ins morphed into friendly get-togethers. Gano asked Brendan Ryan to play keys on his 2002 solo debut, Hitting the Ground, and the Ryans subsequently began passing along instrumental demos to get Gano’s lyrical and musical input. After years of this collaborative process, the trio had written over 40 songs together, a dozen of which comprise Under the Sun, the debut of Gordon Gano & The Ryans.

Under the Sun features an interesting synthesis of Gano’s twisted lyrical gifts and sinewy blend of Folk authenticity and Punk intensity with the Ryans’ cinematic Pop sense. The range on the album is breathtaking, from the Talking Heads insistence of “Wave and Water” and the Dylan-fronting-Spoon Klezmer romp of “Oholah Oholibah” to the electric Gospel/Reggae Indie Rock melancholy of “Still Suddenly Here” and the ethnic Folk hymn of “Here As a Guest.” Gano’s VF fanbase will surely come running for Under the Sun, but the Ryans’ nuanced Indie Rock sophistication proves to be a perfect foil for Gano’s Folk/Punk simplicity and should find a larger and more diverse audience than even the Femmes inspired.

I grew up 70 miles west of Detroit at a time when absolutely everything that Berry Gordy touched turned into solid Soul gold. The Motown label (and its galaxy of related imprints) was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for Soul music; even the marginal stuff was danceable and cool. And because of my early exposure to Motown’s brilliance, I had a ready yardstick with which to measure every other branch of the Soul tree, particularly the Pop Soul out of Chicago, the Stax Soul of Memphis, the raucous R&B wail of Philly Soul and the hybridized Soul gumbo of New Orleans.

When Nashville guitarist/songwriter/producer Bill Elder (aka Leo Black) was trying to assemble a Soul band a few years back, he wanted to touch on all the houses of Soul that had sprung up around the country around the same time. Elder wanted Deep Funk, a gritty, visceral Soul sub-genre, to form the core of his band’s sound. Elder built The Dynamites into a brilliant evocation of all things Soul/Deep Funk, but the band wasn’t complete until he installed Soul veteran Charles Walker as the group’s incendiary frontman (his long résumé includes opening for Wilson Pickett and James Brown at The Apollo in the late ’60s). The Dynamites soon blossomed into the churning Funk machine that exploded out of the speakers on their aptly-titled 2007 debut, Kaboom!

On their sophomore album, the just-as-aptly titled Burn It Down, The Dynamites improbably turn up the heat and bring their Soul simmer to a full boil. If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, Charles Walker is his consigliore — he sings with hellhound conviction, divinely inspired passion and otherworldly intensity. A commandingly impressive voice like Walker’s would overwhelm all but the most accomplished and perfectly matched band. The Dynamites are equal to the task, providing a mesmerizing Funk canvas for the bold vocal strokes of their frontman.

Picking highlights from Burn It Down is like choosing your favorite limb or which major organ you’d be willing to part with, but in a set list bursting with faves, the jerking James Brown Soul of “Somebody’s Got It Better (Somebody’s Got It Worse),” the loping N’awlins Blues groove of “Do the Right Thing” and the Parliament-esque raw Funk of the title cut are all standouts. The Dynamites’ rolling, roiling Funk plus Walker’s cloudbusting Soul shout equals pure unadulterated joy and butts shaken and stirred. Equations don’t come any simpler or more elegant than that.

[Note: Walker and The Dynamites will be performing next weekend at the Southgate House as part of the MidPoint Music Festival.]

The old way of doing business in the music world is deader than Britney Spears’ dream of a normal life and the band that understands the risks and rewards of blazing a new trail in these uncertain times has a solid leg up in the new paradigm. Austin’s Band of Heathens is just such a band, eschewing a five-album label contract for the uncertain waters of self-releasing their eponymous studio debut last year (actually their third album overall, coming after they’d already released two live albums) and recognizing the wisdom of their decision when the album spent eight and a half months on the Americana Music Association Radio chart — two weeks at the top spot — and finished in the Top 10 of the AMA’s 100 best albums of 2008.

The Band of Heathens’ sophomore studio album, One Foot in the Ether, doesn’t deviate too far from the aesthetic they’ve already established. BOH’s three-frontman set-up gives them incredible flexibility to do almost anything stylistically, and almost anything is what they do best. BOH’s electric Gospel swing and gumbo Blues lope bubbles to the surface on the Little Feat-ish “Shine a Light” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Golden Calf” shimmers and sways like a cross between Rodney Crowell and Tom Waits, and Band comparisons are completely warranted in the light of the brilliant Folk Rock of “L.A. County Blues” and the Country-Blues-with-a-Lyle-Lovett-twist jaunt of “Right Here with Me.”

Most bands would be hard pressed to present this many stylistic cross currents and still sound cohesive, but the Band of Heathens isn’t most bands by any stretch of the imagination, and One Foot in the Ether is proof of BOH’s impressive breadth of influence and artistic vision.




 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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