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Remembering Alex Chilton, Plus New CDs from Bettie Serveert, Goldfrapp & Gregory, Joe Bonamassa and Mose Allison

By Brian Baker · March 30th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released
If heaven seems a little warmer, it’s because Alex Chilton is writing lovely melodies for the celestial choir. And if hell seems globally cooler, it’s because The Stooges are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Credit Iggy Pop with one of the great acceptance speeches of all time. “Roll over, Woodstock,” he rightfully gloated. “We won.” True dat, Iggy.

Given the rippling influence of the first three Stooges albums over the past four decades, it was almost laughable that Iggy and his band of Ann Arbor crazies had been shut out of the Hall for so long while Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons have occupied a spot since 1990. (Sure, they sold 175 million records but who namechecks the Four Seasons as an influence? Even Michael Bublé is cooler than that.) No matter. The Stooges are in, and the Hall of Fame is Iggy Pop’s dog. All is right with the world.

Except for the void left by so many recent losses, including Redbone guitarist Lolly Vegas earlier in the month (the guitarist/vocalist on their hits “Come and Get Your Love,” “Witch Queen of New Orleans” and “Maggie” had been sidelined since a 1996 stroke and passed away March 4 from lung cancer) and the great Alex Chilton just days before he was slated to play South By Southwest with the latest version of his seminal Power Pop outfit, Big Star.

Talk about influence. Although Big Star was barely a blip on the industry radar when they debuted in 1972, Chilton had already seen the upper reaches of the charts with The Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby”) and was more interested in crafting a Memphis Soul version of British Pop. It took a couple of decades for Big Star to be recognized for their incredible impact on subsequent musical generations — the theme song from That ’70s Show was based on Big Star’s “In the Street,” and the new millennium has seen two tributes to the band featuring avowed fans like The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Nada Surf, Wilco and Cincinnati’s own Afghan Whigs.

Like most true musical geniuses, Chilton was brilliantly flawed and shunned the spotlight with a vengeance, preferring to chart a singular course with his erratically cool solo career while maintaining a secondary presence in higher profile projects (he played guitar on The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” from the Pleased to Meet Me album, which featured the song “Alex Chilton,” and he produced The Cramps’ Gravest Hits and Songs the Lord Taught Us, among many other fascinating roles).

Although he wasn't widely known in a commercial sense, Chilton’s musical children have revered his name, honored his work and will miss his presence. I’m dedicating this week’s post to the cross-cultural genre work of Redbone, the Pop influence of Big Star, the enduring memories of Lolly Vegas and Alex Chilton and the monumental legacy of Iggy Pop and The Stooges.

Bettie Serveert has been establishing its relevance all over the place lately, first with the recent placement of its nearly two decade-old tracks “Palomine” and “Leg” on the TV procedural Cold Case and now with the release of its first album of new material in four years, the almost giddily effervescent Pharmacy of Love.

The resurgence of 1992’s Palomine is no gasping shock; the album was the Dutch quartet’s breakthrough and it sounds every bit as vibrant and immediate today as it did 18 years ago. Perhaps the bigger surprise may be the fist-pumping dynamics and Indie Pop classicism that the Betties use to shape Pharmacy of Love. Bands aren’t supposed to sound this energized and vital a quarter century past their launch date, but clearly no one told the Betties.

Pharmacy of Love bolts out of the gate with the old Motown device of sequencing the first single as the lead track. “Deny All” is classic Betties and the perfect leadoff for the set, with lead vocalist/guitarist Carol Van Dyk combining the shivering cool and blistering heat of Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde and guitarist Peter Visser manipulating the tension between sweet Pop melodicism and scorching Rock riff-mongering. That combination is even more pronounced on “Semaphore,” which could have been a Blondie outtake from 1979 and still sounds as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines, and on sinewy and exultant Pop gems “Love Lee” and “Souls Travel” and the album’s thunderously glammy finale, “What They Call Love,” all of which would shine brightly in the Pretenders’ crown.

Particular credit should go to founding bassist Herman Bunskoeke and guest drummer Joppe Molenaar, who comprise a frenetic rhythm section that lives and breathes and propels the wildly energetic mood swings that Van Dyk and Visser perpetrate up front. Pharmacy of Love is a bold reaffirmation of everything Bettie Serveert has already done well and a signpost indicating the Dutch foursome has plenty more left in the tank.

Over the course of their decade-long partnership, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have twisted their electronic collaborations into a variety of synthesized balloon animals, veering from brightly colored and warmly entertaining (2005’s Dance-fueled but lustily diverse Supernature) to ominously toned and vaguely amorphous (2000’s frostily ambient Felt Mountain, 2008’s similarly dark Seventh Tree) to oddly crafted combinations of the two sonic shapes (2003’s electronic Glam Pop blast Black Cherry).

While the duo has placed everything they do in an Electronic context, they’ve taken great pains to present a wide stylistic spectrum under that general heading; New Wave, Glam, Disco, Electroclash, Pop and Ambient have all bubbled up to Goldfrapp’s shiny surface.

The fifth Goldfrapp album, Head First, might well be a reaction to the morose and contemplative Seventh Tree, or it could be the duo’s reaction to the swift rise of Lady Gaga’s bold brand of adrenalized Synth Pop. Either way, Head First is clearly more vibrant and energetic than its predecessor, although it begins on a soft note. Album opener “Rocket” has the ’80s synth sound of a summit meeting between ABBA and Christopher Cross, building to a countdown that oddly stops the song in its tracks. Better is “Alive,” which maintains ABBA’s spritely Pop melodicism but tosses in dashes of Gary Numan’s synth darkness for counterpoint, an atmosphere that carries over to the breathy pulse of “Hunt.”

For the most part, Goldfrapp and Gregory steer their force to the light side on Head First, eschewing Seventh Tree’s bleak perspective for a sunnier, frothier confection; “I Wanna Life” could have been Madonna’s feel-good comeback single, and “Voicething” sounds like an Annie Lennox experiment. Goldfrapp’s fan base has already embraced the band’s duality, so Head First’s success could be determined by its acceptance by the new Dance Pop paradigm, which might be too numbed by Lady Gaga’s full frontal Pop assault to appreciate Goldfrapp’s ethereal coolness.

Although Joe Bonamassa has been guided by traditional Blues influences, he has been sparked to action by the British and American interpretation of those traditions. The affection he has for B.B. King (who he opened for at the age of 12), Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson takes a back seat to the devotion he feels for the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. That distinction was evident in Bonamassa’s first band Bloodline (featuring the sons of Robbie Krieger and Miles Davis) when he was just 17, and it remains in the solo career he has forged over the past decade.

With Black Rock, his eighth studio album in the past 10 years, Bonamassa largely sticks to the Blues Rock formula that has worked for him since his 2000 debut, A New Day Yesterday. The raw power that he displays on “When the Fire Hits the Sea” and his cover of Beck’s “Spanish Boots” shows that he has absorbed his British Blues lessons well and the finesse and versatility that are highlighted in “Quarryman’s Lament” is proof of his Delta dexterity and sincerity.

While Black Rock sounds vaguely familiar, Bonamassa’s passion keeps everything he does from ever sounding workmanlike and by-the-numbers. But he offers some interesting departures as well, as he shows the seams of the album’s Greek studio sessions with an appropriately atmospheric take on Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and the Greek/Delta original “Athens to Athens.” And Bonamassa’s traditional colors have never flown higher than on his scorching cover of Otis Rush's “Three Times a Fool” and his ecstatic reunion with B.B. King on Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.”

For those who most love Bonamassa in pure Rock mode, look for his upcoming supergroup Black Country, with iconic bassist Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin legend John Bonham. But until then, content yourself with Black Rock’s swinging stomp and subtle intensity.

If you were to happen upon Mose Allison’s new album, The Way of the World, environmentally without knowing who or what you were hearing, it’s doubtful that you’d peg the singer at the piano as an 82-year-old Blues/Jazz icon who released his first album in 1957. The Mississippi native has maintained a firm footing in both Blues and Jazz camps for the whole of his career and he’s played with a power and authenticity that persuaded most people who heard his records in the ’50s and ’60s to assume that he was black — even Muddy Waters was surprised when he met Allison in the ’60s.

Allison’s influence on music in general and Rock in particular cannot be overstated. The Who’s cover of “Young Man’s Blues” on Live at Leeds and The Clash’s version of “Look Here” on Sandanista! more than prove his sway, and avowed fans like Van Morrison, Ray Davies, John Mayall and Elvis Costello have given Allison plenty of props over the years.

The roots of The Way of the World took hold when singer/songwriter Joe Henry booked Allison for a German music festival in 2008 and spent the next year trying to convince him to return to the studio after a 12-year absence. Between Henry’s persistence and Allison’s wife’s gentle intervention, he was convinced to record again and what a treasure The Way of the World has turned out to be. From the opening jaunt of “My Brain,” which sounds like it would fit comfortably in a Chuck Prophet set list, and the Delta lope of “I Know You Didn’t Mean It” to the Randy Newmanesque God’s-day-off message of “Modest Proposal” and the stuttering swing of “Crush,” Allison displays an effortless blend of simplicity and sophistication, like a gene splice of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic Pop lyricism and Thelonious Monk’s brilliant Jazz invention.

For his part, Henry supports Allison with a sparse but complementary backing band (including guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose) that provides the kind of accompaniment that showcased Tom Waits so effectively in the mid-’70s. We can only hope that we haven’t heard the last of his offhand genius and that the soaring artistic success of The Way of the World convinces Mose Allison that he still has much to contribute to today’s musical conversation.

More than 30 years ago, Werner Fassbinder protégé Ulli Lommel set up camp in New York and became ensconced in the city’s burgeoning Punk movement. The experience inspired him to make a movie about the disaffected youth who were sneering their contempt for the music industry’s status quo at top volume with only the barest concern for structure, melody and convention. The star of Lommel’s docudrama was Punk icon Richard Hell, frontman for one of NYC’s most magnetic Punk bands, the Voidoids, and the title of his film came from one of Hell’s most famous compositions: Blank Generation.

MVD Visual has chosen the film’s 30th anniversary to present its DVD debut, and it’s a worthwhile release for a number of reasons, the least of them being the film itself. Clearly Blank Generation was a film about disenfranchised artists and their disjointed personal and professional lives, so it follows that the movie would use that very quality as a storytelling device. As it turns out, it’s not a very compelling storytelling device.

The plot, such as it is, doesn’t help either. Hell is Billy, a New York Punk with a future, and Carole Bouquet is Nada, a French journalist who is filming interviews with Billy while having a personal relationship with him. The pair have a tempestuous affair that is dizzyingly and sometimes psychotically on-again-off-again (BG is not an endorsement for having a French girlfriend) and is complicated by the reappearance of Nada’s German boyfriend, played by Lommel, who comes to New York to interview Andy Warhol.

Blank Generation probably wouldn’t have been too bad a movie with a few professionals in front of the cameras. As it is, dialogue that could have been salvaged by actors savvy enough to mimic the machine gun patter of New Yorkers is instead delivered by real New Yorkers who are just self conscious enough to read their lines with an amateur’s sense of your-turn-then-my-turn pacing. And there's very little real story to deal with here, so the flaws are even more glaring.

So what is there about Blank Generation that makes it worthwhile? Plenty, actually. Edward Lachman and Atze Glanert’s breathtaking cinematography of a decaying New York in the late ’70s, on the verge of financial and social collapse, is worth the price of admission. The all-too-brief scenes of Hell and the Voidoids playing live at CBGBs are all the more precious with the closing of the club, and the footage of Andy Warhol playing himself in the film is absolutely compelling.

But the real draw here is the 45-minute interview with Hell, conducted by Luc Sante just last year, featuring a savagely honest critique of the film by its “star.” Hell’s fascinating insights into what was going on in his life and career and in the city itself make for a more compelling experience than the movie, which is far from terrible in the context of the avant cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

If you have any affinity for the music and culture of the time, if you enjoy plotless, out-there movies, and especially if you’re a Richard Hell fan, there are just enough positives to recommend Blank Generation.



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