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Frank Zappa, Duran Duran, Eric Johnson and The Volebeats

By Brian Baker · January 10th, 2011 · I Shall Be Released

Captain Beefheart is dead. What a suckass Christmas present. Born Donald Glen Vliet, later morphed to Don Van Vliet, but forever known by the nickname bestowed upon him by Frank Zappa when they were teenage music-makers in Lancaster, Calif., the Captain changed the course of Rock with his Howlin’ Wolf-as-painted-by Salvador-Dali vision of the Blues. Although he gave up music in favor of painting nearly three decades ago, his legacy of singular sonic influence was well established in an altogether too short 15-year output. His 1969 epic, Trout Mask Replica, produced by Zappa, remains one of the most amazing and misunderstood records of the 20th century; the rest of his catalog is not far behind.

I was first exposed to the Captain’s warped magnificence through the auspices of late night FM college radio one Saturday night/Sunday morning when a stoned sixth-year senior DJ played Beefheart’s skronk Blues anthem “The Blimp.” That introduction came just weeks after I’d found a used copy of the Mothers of Invention’s Mothermania for 50 cents at a jukebox servicing company where I typically bought cheap and obscure singles after they’d been retired from bar play. Those two discoveries forever altered my musical consciousness, opening my sponge-like taste to an even broader variety of artistic expression of every stripe.

In 1972, when I was a junior in high school, I read a glowing review of the Captain’s Clear Spot album in Creem Magazine and talked my grandmother into driving me out to Hi Fi Buys, a stereo store that sold new records at a cheap price. I bought Clear Spot and the new Santana album, Caravanserai, but had to set them aside when I got home in order to finish homework.

The next day, the sniffles I’d had for days turned into a raging flu and I was home for two days. Laying on the couch in the living room the first day, my grandmother dosed me with medicine, set up a tray with juice and aspirin and left for a doctor’s appointment and her monthly Ladies Aid Society meeting, leaving me alone to be entertained by the TV and our cheap plastic stereo.

With no cable in those days, I opted for the stereo and, in my feverish haze, remembered that I hadn’t listened to my latest purchases. I ran upstairs still blanket-shrouded and grabbed the albums, slipping the Captain on the turntable first and setting the turntable to repeat before retreating to the warmth and comfort of the sofa.

As I lay there sweating out a 102-degree fever, the first side of Clear Spot spun out in ever widening circles in my boiling skull; the angular guitar invention of Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton, the weaving tribal rhythms of Orejon and Ed Marimba, and the mad lyrical and vocal experience of the Captain himself. Side one must have played four or five times before I rose from my fever palette to flip the record over; I was overwhelmed by the blistering stutter of ‘Low Yo Yo Stuff,“ the lumbering Jazz/Blues hallucination of “Circumstances,” the exquisite ache of “My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains” and the glorious two minute Blues head spike of “Sun Zoom Spark.”

When I finally found the strength to get up and flip the album, the second side revealed as many gems as the first: the rumbling, rambling title track; the prismatic Blues of “Crazy Little Thing” and “Big Eyed Beans from Venus”; the poetry slam-with-Jazz-soundtrack giddiness of “Golden Birdies”; and the second most beautiful love song the Captain ever wrote, “Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles.”

Although I had maybe a dozen individual Beefheart songs recorded on the cassettes where I captured the FM sounds that interested me, it was that sick day at home that made me a true fan of the Captain. And although I love everything he’s done, in varying degrees and for a variety of reasons, Clear Spot will always be my favorite album. When I listen to it even today, I suspect my temperature goes up just a bit in tribute to my feverish first exposure.

In surfing around after the announcement of the Captain’s passing Dec. 17 at age 69 of complications from multiple sclerosis, I came across this amazing quote, delivered 40 years ago and prescient of current hot-button topic, downloading music: “I don’t want to sell my music. I’d like to give it away because where I got it, you didn’t have to pay for it.”

Music will never see the likes of Captain Beefheart again; his brand of originality and passionate invention was discouraged long ago by an industry that finally and tragically convinced him to give up music altogether in the early ’80s. If you love Captain Beefheart, haul out your albums and remember his greatness, but if you’ve never experienced the Captain in all his insane glory, seek him out on the Internet and give him a shot. It’s quite assuredly the most challenging music you will ever hear, but when it finally makes sense (and it may take years, trust me … I was lucky to experience it when I was open to anything), the Captain will booglarize you, baby.

Last posting, I reviewed the new Frank Zappa disc Congress Shall Make No Law , an interesting and relatively music-free documentation of Zappa’s 1985 testimony before a Senate subcommittee and the Maryland state house condemning proposed legislation for the labeling of records to warn of potentially “harmful” material. For those who are looking for a little more in the way of Zappa’s traditional mode of expression, the musical and visual delights of the new DVD, The Torture Never Stops, has all the Frank you can handle and then some.

Torture documents an interesting point in Zappa’s musical evolution at the dawn of the ’80s when he was still at least partially interested in playing guitar and had stocked his band with battle-hardened veterans (guitarist/vocalist Ray White, keyboardists Bobby Martin and Tommy Mars, percussionist Ed Mann) and an incredible cast of freakishly talented youngsters (bassist Scott Thunes, drummer Chad Wackerman, guitarist Steve Vai).

Recorded during Zappa’s stop at The Palladium in New York City on Halloween night, Torture finds bandleader and band in rare form (Zappa and company always took their performance to the next level for the Halloween shows) as they run through a program of Zappa’s more then-contemporary material, with Zappa variously occupying his roles as engaging frontman, scintillating guitarist and crazed conductor, a hybrid of Leopold Stokowski and Spike Jones.

There are plenty of patented brilliant moments on some of Zappa’s best known material of the period: the searing beauty of “Black Napkins”; the frenetic lightning strike of “Easy Meat”; the twisted Blues variation of “Bamboozled by Love.” Of course, the more incendiary moments during Torture coincide with Zappa strapping on and shredding with his almost casual intensity, an exquisite cascade of discordant melodicism that is compelling and powerful enough to relegate excellent craftsmen like White and Vai to supporting roles, as evidenced by Zappa’s hellhound solo on the DVD’s title track and throughout the set’s stratospheric closing number, the scathing wonder “The Illinois Enema Bandit.”

As a crooner, Zappa was Sinatra on electric shock therapy. Check out the sublime power of his vocal charisma on “Flakes,” “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” and “You Are What You Is,” and his prescient rapping on “Dumb All Over.” Whether at the mic, or with guitar or baton in hand, Frank Zappa was an undeniable physical force, a composer of unrestrained genius and a performer that perfectly understood the critical balance between comedy and gravity and had no problem pushing himself and his band past the tipping point of either one.

Hypermolecular Zappa analysts will find the warts on The Torture Never Stops, but I choose to look past the flaws and simply be grateful that there are enough of these shows in the vault to supply a steady stream of audio and video delights for the foreseeable future, maybe enough to stretch until the beautiful moment that Frank Zappa goes beyond being accepted as a Rock star but is finally understood as a compositional giant.

Duran Duran was a minor figure in the ’70s New Romantic movement, but reinvented themselves into one of the biggest Pop bands of the ’80s. The quintet’s concept of modern music dominated the charts and their approach to style and marketability changed the landscape of the period, from the profile and viability of MTV to the look, age and intensity of a new generation of teenybopper.

As Duran Duran pushed musical boundaries in its post-platinum years, sonic experimentalism defined the band’s attempts to recapture its audience. A good deal of that expansive thinking is evident on All You Need is Now, D2’s 13th studio album. At the same time, the band (now comprised of Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor) wisely embraced the classicism of their Synth Pop triumphs, making Now a fascinating hybrid of Duran Duran’s dual identities, exemplified by the album’s opening title track which veers from a pulsing dissonance to a melody reminiscent of “The Reflex.”

Grammy-winning producer Mark Ronson helped the band contemporize their sound while simultaneously channeling their early spirit, giving songs like “Blame the Machine” and “Runway Runaway” a classic foundation as well as a modern luster. All You Need is Now may not be a complete return to form but it’s certainly a strong reminder of Duran Duran’s halcyon days.

While the Rock soundscape is rife with guitarists of considerable skill and invention, there are a select few who possess an unmistakable sound that is uniquely their own, a sonic and stylistic fingerprint that is singular and undeniable. Eric Johnson is most certainly among that number, having established his particular sound on his earliest recordings and cementing it with his multi-platinum breakthrough, 1990’s Ah Via Musicom. On his subsequent and sporadic studio work (there were six year gaps between Musicom and its follow-ups, 1996’s Venus Isle and 2002’s Souvenir), Johnson pursued an almost molecular level of perfection as he utilized the studio as an extra instrument, resulting in recordings that were technically and sonically pristine but also just slightly sterile and clinical.

With his newest release, Up Close, Johnson backs away from the perfection he has so strenuously sought in recent recordings, hearkening back to the more spontaneous creativity of Ah Via Musicom. The album opens with “Awaken,” a guitar evocation of dawn, a slow ascent that is both quiet and yet trembling with the potential of sunrise. That potential is delivered with a heart-punch on the all too brief “Fatdaddy,” as Johnson uncorks one of his patented instrumentals that marries elegant riff wrangling to a bedrock Blues fusion foundation, like an impossible summit of Jan Hammer and ZZ Top.

Up Close is also notable for the vocalists that Johnson uses to accent his semi-rare lyrical inclusions, including the exquisite Soul singer Malford Milligan on the sweet shred of “Brilliant Room,” the pure Blues exhortations of Steve Miller and guest guitarist Jimmie Vaughan on Johnson’s cover of the Electric Flag’s “Texas,” the raspy perfection of Jonny Lang on “Austin,” Johnson’s musical autobiography, and his own contribution to the melancholy sway of “Arithmetic.” And for all the shingle-shaking volume that Johnson unleashes on Up Close, he proves, as always, to be a master of delicacy and beauty on the Far East-tinged “Gem,” while displaying equal parts restraint and power on the unfolding Blues origami of “Soul Surprise” and the twangy getalong of “On the Way.”

There has never been any dispute regarding Eric Johnson’s technical proficiency or musical facility, but his sometimes bloodless presentation has sapped some of his best work of its soul. With Up Close, Johnson has allowed his creative beating heart to provide the spontaneous spark and warm pulse that has been lacking in his post-Musicom precision.

He may have been born William James McAuley III, but the banner across his solo albums reads Bleu (although he broke out the acronym L.E.O. — as in Little Electric Operas — for Alpacas Orgling, his 2006 sonic homage to Jeff Lynne). A Berklee graduate, Bleu made a name for himself around Boston with a couple of acclaimed releases and a Boston Music Award for Best Band, all of which led to his Columbia/Aware contract and his major label debut, 2003’s Redhead. The album spawned the minor Power Pop hit “Get Up” and featured the track “Somebody Else,” which wound up on the soundtrack of the first Spider Man movie, all of which seemed to point toward a guy who was well on his way.

Unfortunately, Aware execs were unhappy with Bleu’s demos and he and the label went their separate ways. Bleu eventually self-released the album Columbia wasn’t too keen on, A Watched Pot, in 2009. And although his albums garner great press while Bleu toils in commercial obscurity, don’t feel too badly for his lot in life. He’s a songwriter-for-hire for the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Drake Bell and Selena Gomez, and those kind of royalties are effective wolf-repellents for even the flimsiest of doors. They also allow Bleu the freedom to explore odd side projects like LoudLion (with Rooney’s Taylor Locke and The Donnas’ Alison Robertson), The Major Labels (with Candy Butcher Mike Viola and Ducky Carlisle) and L.E.O. (featuring Viola, Self’s Matt Mahaffey, Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer and many others).

For his latest studio album, cleverly titled Four, Bleu went directly to his fan base for funding. His Kickstarter appeal resulted in $40,000 for the recording and marketing of the album that may well stand as the pinnacle of Bleu’s already impressive catalog. Four displays Bleu’s various Pop influences to a shivering turn, from the Jellyfish sting of “Singin’ in Tongues” to the George Harrison-Jeff Lynne balladeering of “How Blue” to the Soul/Pop majesty of the incongruously titled “When the Shit Hits the Fan.”

When Bleu hits the gas pedal, as he does so effectively on the hometown boosterism of “B.O.S.T.O.N.” and the teetering Pop of “I’ll Know It When I See It,” he swaggers and sways with the high octane burn of an American Supergrass. But Bleu is just as brilliant in the quiet moments, like with the swampy shimmer of “Evil Twin,” the Memphis Pop hymn of “I’m in Love with My Lover” and the spritely melancholy of the McCartneyesque “Everything Is Fine.”

Pop aficionados with even the slightest affinity for anyone among the incredible circle of friends that Bleu has worked with over the past decade (which includes Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips, Hanson and Puffy Ami Yumi) should be a card-carrying member of his fan club. Four is the certified proof that they’d be backing a hugely talented winner.

The Volebeats have existed in some form or fashion for close to two decades, with an amazing collection of Americana talent claiming intermittent membership in the Detroit outfit. Across that considerable expanse of time and personnel, the Voles have maintained a high standard of musical quality, from the isolated beauty of 1994’s Up North to the celebratory melancholy of 1997’s Sky and the Ocean and 1999’s spaghetti-western soundtrack Solitude. At that point, the Voles’ twangy Americana direction increasingly began to include the Pop and Psych elements that guided co-frontman Matthew Smith’s other group, Outrageous Cherry, giving the band’s next three releases a decidedly cosmic cowboy spin.

After an uncharacteristic five-year gap that felt more like a break-up than a hiatus, the Voles returned with their eponymous eighth studio album, released in mid-October. After such a long wait, some kind of stylistic sea change within the band was clearly possible but The VolebeatsLike Her, and The Volebeats could be viewed as both of those albums. shows the band doing exactly what they’ve done so well for so incredibly long. “With You” quietly quivers with the vibe of Ryan Adams translating a Marc Bolan demo; “Me and You” bristles with the ’60s Pop verve of the Turtles if they’d hired Gram Parsons as their roadie guru; and “Like You Mean It” has the gentle Psych twang of a band that has been equally guided by The Beatles and The Byrds. And while the Voles don’t deviate far from these sonic parameters over the course of the album’s 19 tracks and nearly 70-minute length, the sameness of the songs is a minor quibble considering they could have fit a pair of albums in the time since the exquisite

After close to 20 years, The Volebeats don’t have a single thing to prove to anyone and their self-titled album isn’t designed to appeal to anyone but the band and their well-established fanbase. And for that select group this new album is unadulterated melancholic bliss.

 
 
 
 

 

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