I’m still recovering from one of those crazy weeks that creeps up every so often. As previously reported, in order to give my working wife a bit of a break I’ve started getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get my daughter out the door at 6:20 to catch her bus. It’s been a bit of an adjustment; I have been a denizen of the night for as long as I can remember, and I’m more used to going to bed at 3 a.m. than I am to waking up two and a half hours after that.
I’ve started turning in around midnight so I can get at least five hours sleep in, which is generally about what I need to get by. Still in all, it’s taking me a while to become acclimated to being an early riser. On the upside, I’m getting to work at 6:30 a.m. most mornings, which is an interesting byproduct.
Last week was just packed solid. I had my usual pile of work to do, two last-minute assignments for an out-of-town paper to write up and an interview to do for a May assignment (an opportunity to talk with Pete Shelley from the legendary Buzzcocks, who are playing Cleveland in May). Then came Friday and three interviews in one day: two for more last-minute assignments that required me to do my research the same day as the interviews and one call to schedule an interview that turned into the interview itself.
That was on top of my usual complement of writing and home responsibilities as well as my usual Friday afternoon weekend entertainment report for ClassX Radio, which thankfully didn’t require a lot of work because my segment was shortened to accommodate a pledge break on the last day of the station’s semi-annual fundraising week. (Head to classxradio.com if you’d like to lend a hand.)
After an insanely hectic day, the girls wanted to see the Oceans movie playing at Rave, so we hit the 6:30 p.m. show. It was gorgeous and lulling, and I fought to stay awake to the end. After dinner and a little TV, I actually got a bit of a second wind and stayed up until well after 1 a.m., knowing that we wouldn’t be getting up for the Saturday trip to Jungle Jim’s for groceries until at least 8 a.m. A tiring but good day, all in all.
So I’m relatively caught up, although I’m coming into the point of the week when last-minute assignments for next week will drop in my lap and I’ll have to set up and research interviews on a moment’s notice. While we wait for the other shoe to drop, let’s check out some new releases, shall we?
Peter Frampton has been defying odds and expectations for his entire career, from his unexpectedly sophisticated guitar work as a teenager in The Herd to his incendiary and thrilling turn as a guitar hero in Humble Pie to his powerfully subtle solo debut, Wind of Change, in 1972. His career was going nowhere commercially when he made the fateful decision to record a double live album as a souvenir for his small but fiercely loyal fan base; 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive became one of the biggest selling albums, live or otherwise, of all time. And even though he's experienced any number of valleys — dude, really, Sgt. Pepper? — Frampton’s peaks have been impressive, from his 1986 comeback with Premonition and his guitar role on David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour to his scorching Live in Detroit set, his Grammy-winning 2006 instrumental album Fingerprints and his orchestral debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
With Thank You Mr. Churchill, his 14th studio album, Frampton returns to the peak with a vengeance as the guitarist storms from strength to strength, elevating his songwriting and his playing with equal passion and precision. The album opens with the quietly powerful title track, a musical tribute to the late British prime minister whose steady political hand ensured the wartime survival of Frampton’s father and therefore his own birth in 1950. He follows that with “Solution,” perhaps one of the most exhilaratingly forceful and relevant songs that Frampton has laid down in 20 years or more.
And he never backs off the throttle, from the blistering Blues Rock of “Road to the Sun” with his son Julian’s band, Smoking Gun, to the gorgeous instrumental “Suite: Liberte” and the relentless Rock swing of “I Want It Back.” Even in the album’s quieter moments — “Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele,” “Restraint,” the album closing “Black Ice” — the guitarist animates the songs with his trademark grace and passion. And Frampton is one of the very few artists that could manage to write a gloriously soaring love song like “I’m Due a You” out of the raw material/inspiration of stepping in dogshit, an obsessed fan and a crashing hard drive.
Frampton has notched some spectacular highlights in his career. Less than a week after his 60th birthday, he might just have to make more room in the trophy case in the wake of Thank You Mr. Churchill.
The late Malcolm McLaren, in his managerial role for The Sex Pistols, once famously described the band’s pathologically troubled bassist Sid Vicious as “a fabulous disaster.” That sentiment could just as easily describe Courtney Love, whose careening and well-documented personal and professional misfortunes have often spiraled into a virtual cyclone of dysfunction over the past decade and a half, even as her band and solo efforts have drawn praise and acclaim. Love’s wildly erratic history of almost-calculated miscalculation and the tortured path that her new album has already taken might be the reason that Nobody’s Daughter is such an unexpected pleasure.
Love started recording Nobody’s Daughter five years ago with the intention of making it her next solo album (the songs were crafted during her last rehab stint).
Setting aside the standard Love controversies, Nobody’s Daughter surprises on a variety of levels; Love’s substance-coated voice has gone from raspy to ragged, like a Grunge version of Marianne Faithfull, leaving her with an instrument that effectively translates the pain, horror and weary wisdom that she’s accumulated over the years.
The album’s first single, “Skinny Little Bitch,” is a raucous Grunge/Alt.Rock workout, with Love’s snarled/screamed lyrics equally applicable as inward reflection or outward indictment (“Skinny little bitch, staring at the mirror/ In your desperation, you disappear”). Conversely, Love has rarely sounded as reflective and sensitive as she does on “Pacific Coast Highway” and the achingly analytical “For Once in Your Life” or as defiantly insightful as on “How Dirty Girls Get Clean” or the title track.
Here’s hoping that Courtney Love finds some measure of success and redemption with Nobody’s Daughter and that she uses both as a benchmark to move forward rather than an excuse to backslide into familiar and destructive behavior.
It seems as though critics have been looking for Jesse Malin to apologize for his influences since the beginning of his career, from the Johnny Thunder-wannabe dismissals of his work with D Generation in the ’90s to the Springsteen-light comparisons of his solo output over the past nine years. To his credit, Malin has never shied away from displaying his influences proudly, covering The Clash, The Replacements and the Boss (and even sharing the mic with Springsteen on “Broken Radio” from 2007’s Glitter in the Gutter) in various venues, going so far as to release a revealing covers album, 2008’s aptly titled On Your Sleeve.
On his first album of new material in four years, Love It to Life (also the name of an official live bootleg he did in 2007), Malin pursues a similar path as his previous studio outings, translating avowed pedestal dwellers like Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, Steve Earle and Neil Young into a brisk set of NYC-run-through-the-heartland Rock & Roll.
Malin channels his best Westerberg vibes on “All the Way from Moscow,” “St. Mark’s Sunset” and “Black Boombox” (the latter simultaneously sporting sly lyrical references to Neil Diamond’s “Cherry, Cherry”), while Joe Strummer smiles down on “Burning the Bowery” and “Disco Ghetto.” And as usual, Malin effectively shows his range, from the balladic “Lowlife in a High Rise” to the anthemic Joe Pernice-tinged “Revelations.”
While Malin rarely strays too far from the parameters he established on his Ryan Adams-produced debut, 2001’s The Fine Art of Self Destruction, he, like Tom Petty, completely understands his fan base and his own sonic identity as it relates to his influences.
If you’ve ever wondered what a summit meeting between T Bone Burnett and Wilco at a Slavic gypsy Jazz festival would sound like, Gogol Bordello has been offering a credible answer for the past dozen years. Frontman Eugene Hutz, a Chernobyl refugee whose family wound up in Vermont, was content with his Punk direction until a mid-’90s gig at a Russian wedding opened him up to the possibilities of combining the visceral power of Rock with the freewheeling abandon of gypsy Jazz to craft what can reasonably be considered Klezmer Punk, with Hutz serving as a swaggering hybrid of Iggy Pop and Sacha Baron Cohen.
On the Gogols’ fifth studio album, Trans-Continental Hustle, Hutz draws a great deal of inspiration from the Brazilian environment that's been his home for the past two years as well as his Romanian samba dancing girlfriend and his newly forged relationship with American Recordings Svengali Rick Rubin, who produced Hustle. Hutz’s Latin inspiration is plainly evident on the tarantella-flecked “My Companjera,” “Last One Goes the Hope” and “Uma Menina Uma Cigana,” and it’s all refracted through the Gogols’ signature eastern European gypsy Punk lens. Elsewhere, “In the Meantime in Pernambuco,” “Rebellious Love” and “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rough)” have the galloping sound of the Dropkick Murphys if they tributed the Ukraine and Latin America rather than Ireland.
Regardless of how many new cultural reference points Hutz decides to fold into his musical melting pot on Trans-Continential Hustle, the result is full bore, 100 percent uncut Gogol Bordello.
The Pack A.D. might be the latest Blues outfit to tread the guitar/drums path, but don’t mistake their duo status for a cynical cash-in on a hot new trend. Vocalist/guitarist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller transcend all expectations — as a Blues twosome, as two women playing the Blues, as contemporary players translating an old, established genre for a new generation.
On The Pack A.D.’s first two albums, 2007’s Tintype and 2008’s Funeral Mixtape, the pair set a high bar for lo-fi Blues, with Black peeling off irresistible riffs of ragged intensity and Miller pounding out a pulse with jackhammer power and velvet-fist subtlety in a combination that roared with visceral first-generation purity, as if 40 previous years of Blues interpretation had never happened.
For their third album, We Kill Computers, The Pack A.D. eases off the Blues pedal while steering toward a more Indie/Garage Rock direction without losing a molecule of the strength and swagger that underpinned the Vancouver duo’s first two albums. That shift might be disconcerting for some of the band’s fans that became enraptured with their straight Blues approach, but a third Pack A.D. album of the same genre snarl would likely have alienated even more listeners.
We Kill Computers, an obvious reference to the duo’s opinion of modern technology, finds Black and Miller merely moving out of the context of a pure Blues presentation and into the realm of ’60s/’70s Blues-influenced Garage Rock, more Blue Cheer than Cream. The pair still throw off Blues sparks, particularly on the slow burning heat of “The Slow Down,” but they hew much closer to Garage brethren like The Greenhornes and The White Stripes on frenetic stompers like “Deer,” the scorched Pop swing of “Everyone Looks Like Everyone” and the staggering shout of “Math, the Stars.”
We Kill Computers isn’t so far removed from The Pack A.D.’s previous work as to be considered a departure, it’s merely a welcomed new phase in their elemental Rock development.
Canadian Daniel Victor Snaith comes from a storied line of mathematicians, completing his own Ph.D in London five years ago with his scintillating thesis, “Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols.” No, you haven’t stumbled onto Steven Hawking’s Web site by mistake — in addition to being a gifted mathematician, Snaith is also a gifted electronic musician, starting out under the name Manitoba a decade ago until a threatened lawsuit by the Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba forced him to change his moniker to Caribou.
Whether as Manitoba or Caribou, Snaith takes a fairly organic approach to his electronic musical expressions, folding an uncharacteristic number of genres (or hints of genres) into his sonic constructions. On his latest album, Swim, Snaith injects a dancier groove into the proceedings, like a blend of ’70s Pop synth stylists the Units and Radiohead’s blippier moments. The beauty of Snaith’s presentation on Swim (and on pretty much all of his Caribou and Manitoba output, for that matter) is his kitchen-sink ethic in service of the song at hand.
The opening song, “Odessa,” is a tangle of smooth Pop vocals, synth squiggles, faux flute runs and percussive cowbell that roils and wriggles like a tribute to David Byrne and Talking Heads, while “Sun” trips along like a Psych Pop vision of Tangerine Dream and “Kalli” goes all Acid House/Trance with a sunny touch of Brian Wilson’s sonic madness for good measure. There’s a little of Depeche Mode’s smilingly veiled menace in “Found Out” and “Leave House,” and “Hannibal” pulses with House-driven purpose.
Swim seems slightly less substantial than Snaith’s previous Caribou/Manitoba catalog on first listen, but, like any album inspired by the ’70s at some level, a few spins through headphones reveal a new and compelling electronic world of possibility. (Cincinnati music lovers take note: Caribou has been announced as a 2010 MidPoint Music Festival participant in September.)
Although The Freak-Out List is attributed to Frank Zappa, the new DVD is less by Zappa and more about him. The documentary’s title is also its theme, a reference to the extensive roll call of avowed influences that Zappa declared on the inside of the gatefold of his debut with the Mothers of Invention, 1966’s Freak Out. The Freak-Out List examines Zappa’s love of a wide variety of seemingly disparate musical styles (Modern Classical, Doo Wop, R&B and Jazz), all filtered through his Rock sensibility and steered by his aspiration to be taken seriously as a composer of contemporary Classical music.
The Freak-Out List illuminates Zappa’s most prevalent influences and the manner in which he wove them seamlessly together — the atonalities of Schoenberg, the multi-key explorations of Stravinsky and the visionary musique concrete experimentalism of Zappa’s most potent Classical influence, Edgard Varese, who also provided Zappa with the quote that he trumpeted throughout his career (“The modern day composer refuses to die”).
In addition to contemporary Classical revolutionaries, Zappa was also totally enamored of Doo Wop and R&B. The early Mothers albums always had some obvious Doo Wop references (he even crafted an entire album’s worth and credited it to Ruben & the Jets), and he often cited Johnny “Guitar” Watson and his hit “Three Hours Past Midnight” as having the most impact on his personal musical style. The documentary also looks at Zappa’s prescient blending of Jazz and Rock on 1969’s Hot Rats, a full year before Miles Davis’ acclaimed Fusion classic, Bitches Brew.
The Freak-Out List is populated with a variety of interesting interview subject (including former Mothers Ian Underwood, Don Preston and George Duke) and several Zappa biographers (including Ben Watson, who makes the astute observation that Zappa didn’t see the genres that he loved as compartmentalized factions of music, but simply as music).
There are some marvelous clips here: Zappa and the Mothers in their earliest incarnations, Zappa conducting studio musicians for a performance of Varese’s “Ionisation,” presumably from the still unreleased Rage and the Fury album. There isn’t any footage of Zappa discussing his own music, as those clearances might have been too expensive or unavailable, but The Freak-Out List is still an amazing glimspe into one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century.