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Hot Tuna, Band of Heathens, Broken Bells and Britney Spears

By Brian Baker · June 29th, 2011 · I Shall Be Released
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Get me, I’m back in the blogosphere. I’m looking to catch up in a big way over the next few weeks, but like Grandma always said, if you want to make God smile, tell him your plans. Let’s really give the Old Man a real laugh and see where we go this summer ... good stuff below, so dig in.

If Uncle Tupelo taught us anything, it was that two incredibly talented and hypercreative personalities will find it difficult to co-exist within the same band structure. Apparently, the principals of the Band of Heathens didn’t bother to learn that particular lesson, as their Austin quintet is that rarest of all musical entities; a band with three distinct frontmen. Since meeting at a mutual residency as solo acts on Austin’s fabled Sixth Street five years ago, Ed Jurdi, Colin Brooks and Gordy Quist, singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists to a man, have had no trouble conceding the spotlight to one another in the context of Band of Heathens’ classically inspired Americana hymns and anthems.

On their third full length, Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son, the Heathens continue to channel the spirits of some of American music’s most powerful personalities; the swampy Rock gumbo of Tony Joe White (“Medicine Man,” “Enough”), the inclusively freewheeling embrace of the Band (“Should Have Known”), the funky Blues swing of Leon Russell (“The Other Broadway,” “Hurricane”), the heartland Rock ethic of Tom Petty (“Gravity”), the Folk/Blues/Jam jump-and-run of the Grateful Dead (“I Ain’t Running”) and the bayou translation of CSNY’s harmonic brilliance (“Gris Gris Satchel”). Along with the skilled touch of producer George Reiff (Chris Robinson, Courtyard Hounds, Ray Wylie Hubbard), the Band of Heathens have crafted Top Hat Crown into a marvelously timeless extension of some of the greatest music ever made, adding their own potent contemporary twists while working within a familiar framework that has remained vibrant and vital for the past four decades. As evidenced on Top Hat Crown, the Band of Heathens clearly have the musical talent; here’s hoping they have the kind of fortitude to match the longevity of their illustrious influences.

Steady As She Goes, the new Hot Tuna album, is on one level something of a numbers game. It’s been 20 years since the last Tuna studio recording, 35 years since the band’s commercial/critical heyday and over 40 years since guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady first conceived Hot Tuna as an electric Blues side project from their psychedelic day jobs with Jefferson Airplane. For several reasons,Steady As She Goes comes with a lot of baggage attached, the most significant being the band’s reputation for their searing, scorching, sinewy and acid-washed translation of the Blues in the ’70s. Looming nearly as large as the Tuna’s prominent history is Kaukonen’s subsequent solo career, littered with considerable acoustic accomplishments that have largely overshadowed the long dormant Tuna legacy. In some respects, Steady As She Goes is susceptible to the same perception that greeted the Stooges’ 2005 comeback, The Weirdness, which many viewed as nothing more than an Iggy Pop album with some old friends in tow.

To a certain extent, that’s true of Steady As She Goes, simply by virtue of Kaukonen’s consistent presence and the Tuna’s obvious absence. What distinguishes Steady in the face of those extenuating circumstances is the relative novelty of Kaukonen’s electric playing, which he does only sporadically these days, and his undeniable chemistry with Casady. While Steady, produced to a turn by longtime Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, is a far cry from the blistering Blues attack of the Tuna’s high water marks, it’s a beautifully rendered evocation of Kaukonen and Casady’s long association, and a wonderful representation of the eclectic path that both men have followed beyond the Hot Tuna brand. Kaukonen’s incendiary moments on Steady are less showy than on Yellow Fever or Phosphorescent Rat but are no less impressive; “Angel of Darkness” and “Easy Now Revisited,” a reimagined Rat track, smolder with a quiet intensity indicative of the guitarist’s stellar history.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jorma Kaukonen project without props to Reverend Gary Davis (“Children of Zion,” “Mama Let Me Lay It On You”), and the Tuna’s acoustic passages are certainly not anomalous, as the rollicking “Vicksburg Stomp” and the gently beautiful “Second Chances” would fit comfortably within the Tuna catalog. The only soft spot on the album is Kaukonen’s “Things That Might Have Been,” an autobiographical scrapbook entry that might have benefited from a minor key and some electrical adjustments. That minor hiccup aside, Steady As She Goes is a fine addition to the Hot Tuna canon, not so much a return to form as a well blended synthesis of Kaukonen and Casady’s accumulated experience and wisdom.

Playwright James Agee once noted that you can’t go home again, and it’s true in so many circumstances. If David Coverdale had tried to revisit his ’80s hair Metal power ballad glories on Forevermore, the follow-up to Whitesnake’s triumphant 2008 studio return, Good to Be Bad, which was his first new album in a decade, it would have been an anachronistic mess. Coverdale wisely chose to hew closer to the gritty Blues that informed his debut stint with Deep Purple and his subsequent solo/Whitesnake output in the ’70s and ’80s. Forevermore’s first three tracks - “Steal Your Heart Away,” “All Out of Luck” and “Love Will Set You Free” — are classic blasts of rafter-rattling Rock which are not the least bit challenging in a lyrical sense (“I want some love, I want it now/I’m gonna take it any old how...”), but as always Coverdale sells it with high voltage sincerity, the twin guitar assault of longtime collaborator Doug Aldrich and former Winger six string demon Reb Beach and the smoke-and-thunder rhythm section of bassist Michael Devin and drummer Brian Tichy. As a unit, they bristle with the intensity of Whitesnakes past.

Of course, Forevermore is not a ballad-free zone; Coverdale defined and perfected the power ballad concept a quarter century ago and he‘d be foolish to abandon the device. “Easier Said Than Done” is much like its predecessors, a track that follows the familiar Coverdale formula of powerful melodicism and heart-tugging sentiment (“Through the long and lonely night, you’ve got me to hold you tight/My love is guaranteed...”) over a sturdy but quiet Rock foundation. Forevermore is packed with high octane songs about love won and lost and life on the road, the staple of Hard Rock for the past three decades. David Coverdale does this schtick as well as anybody and better than most, and with Forevermore he does a great job on bringing Whitesnake into the 21st century by channeling his earliest musical experiences and not relying on musty ’80s/’90s scrapbook tactics to remind listeners of his cheesier benchmarks.

In her personal affairs, Britney Spears may well be a dirty hot mess, and she seems to be going through the somnabulistic motions on her current tour, but no one can dispute that the woman has a pretty decent grasp on how to deliver a contemporary Pop song in the studio. Femme Fatale is the latest example of Spears’ durability as a legitimate Pop power but it also shows how she is reliant and, to a certain extent, at the mercy of her producers, who are legion on her new album (longtime collaborators Max Martin and Dr. Luke, with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, Fraser T. Smith, Rodney Jerkins and StarGate). Luckily, Spears’ uncanny ability to inhabit a Pop song shines through the layers of glossy production and trendy effects.

Femme Fatale opens with the potent one-two punch of “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me,” the album’s first two singles, the former a showcase for apocalyptic Dance power at its best, the latter a terrible pick-up line turned on its head, gender reversed and transformed into a Pop anthem of sexual pursuit and conquest. There are plenty of examples of Spears’ production team relying too heavily on gimmicky studio tricks, particularly the overused Autotune device of the clipped, hard edited vocal on “I Wanna Go;” it’s a smokescreen for lesser singers and unnecessary given Spears’ clear instrument. “Seal It with a Kiss” has a cool ’60s Pop vibe updated to 21st century Dance specifications, but will.i.am’s “Big Fat Bass” is a misstep from front to back, from stupid lyrical content to unsoulful lockstep martial rhythm. It’s no surprise why this didn’t wind up on the last Black Eyed Peas disc. “Trouble for Me” features an interesting off-kilter synth pulse, “Trip to Your Heart” is slamming and club-ready, and “Gasoline” sears with Electro-Pop intensity, but they also bury Spears’ vocal gifts under a lava flow of counterproductive sonic distractions. Femme Fatale has some great Pop moments, but perhaps by her next album, Britney Spears’ production handlers will be content to choose great material and allow her to present it in a slightly purer context.

The only recent development in the Shins’ camp more startling than James Mercer’s dismissal of most of the band was the fruition of his collaboration with producer du jour Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, in their Broken Bells project. Mercer’s lyrical whimsy and Pop melancholy were evident on the duo’s 2010 eponymous debut as were DM’s psychotronic spaghetti western atmospherics, a successful if unlikely merging of two disparate talents. The duo’s new four-song EP, Meyrin Fields, isn’t necessarily a hint of future directions; the tracks are leftovers from sessions that date back to 2008. Interestingly enough, Meyrin Fields definitely tips in Burton’s sonic direction, highlighting his experimental textures and transforming Mercer’s Pop melodicism, particularly on the Morricone-tinged expanse of “Heartless Empire” and the Beckian lope of “An Easy Life.” There is a ’70s synth Pop menace that bubbles up through the title track, while “Windows” plays like a poppier-yet-still-dark evocation of Depeche Mode. Meyrin Fields may not be Broken Bells’ vision of things to come, but it’s solid evidence that what they’ve already explored has been fascinating.

Robbie Robertson’s greatest sin over the past three and half decades has generally been seen as not being in the Band. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Robertson has typically been viewed as the villainous architect of the Band’s demise which has, in some circles, cast a shadow across anything he’s attempted since the The Last Waltz in 1978. Appropriately, Robertson’s first musical explorations after the end of the Band were totally un-Band-like film scoring/producing projects (Carny, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy), with his eponymous solo debut finally emerging eleven long years after his departure from the group that ultimately wrote his Hall of Fame ticket. Robertson’s solo introduction was his attempt to evolve past the overwhelming weight (pardon the pun) of his Band years by crafting an album that was a balance between ethereal atmosphere and earthy foundation, an Ambient/Roots/Pop hybrid that was defined by his history and shaped by producer Daniel Lanois.

Since that first album, Robertson has never done the same thing twice; his last album, 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, was a Robbie Robertson work in name only, as the album’s Native American chants and songs framed by Rock/Trip-Hop/Electronic settings featured a good number of collaborators and front-end guests. Robertson had largely decided that his music making days were behind him when songs began sneaking up on him; the result was How to Become Clairvoyant, his first album in 13 years and perhaps the true sophomore follow-up to his first amazing record.

Like the majority of Robertson’s work, Clairvoyant is stocked with high-profile guests — Eric Clapton, Robert Randolph, Trent Reznor, Tom Morello and Taylor Goldsmith, frontman for the band Dawes, which has become Robertson’s live backing band — and features some of the most personal songs that he’s ever written. Cases in point would be “This is Where I Get Off,” Robertson’s ode to the end of the Band and his clear assertion that he never intended for the group’s dissolution, and “He Don’t Live Here No More,” a powerful contemplation on Richard Manuel, Robertson’s late Band-mate who was consumed by substance abuse, and Clapton, who overcame his demons and survived. It may well be that Robertson’s general tactic of writing about personal issues from a narrator’s viewpoint fell to the wayside simply because he wasn’t aware he was writing for an album, which may have freed him to become more open and direct, even if it was subconsciously inadvertent. Like Robertson’s debut, How to Become Clairvoyant is a slinky and compelling take on American Roots music, from Blues (“The Right Mistake”) to Delta-tinged Jazz (the title track) to textured Ambient Pop (“She’s Not Mine”), strengthened by Robertson’s artistic evolution over the past decade and a half and pushed to new heights by tapping an intensely personal vein for his songs.

Timeless music doesn’t all sound the same but it all sounds timeless. Every era in contemporary Rock has produced bands and artists that manage to create a singular identity, and in the process simultaneously define and transcend the time they inhabit. One would assume that those rare entities would have their tickets written for life, that their enduring originality would ride out any trendy and ephemeral storm. Sadly, too many blazingly unique artists drift away for too many pedestrian reasons, which makes it all the more satisfying when they claw their way back into the spotlight.

The Smithereens are not only a prime example, they could be the poster child for the scenario. While they’ve never completely gone away, the New Jersey melancholy jangle Pop quartet’s profile has been unforgivably low, even as they’ve turned out a couple of exceptional Beatles tributes as well as a devotional reading of the Who’s Tommy over the past few years.

But on 2011, the Smithereens’ first album of new material in a dozen years, the original trio of vocalist/guitarist Pat DiNizio, guitarist/vocalist Jim Babjak and drummer/vocalist Dennis Diken - along with relatively new bassist Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion - are reunited with producer Don Dixon, who helmed the band for their magnificent breakthrough in 1986, Especially for You, and its stunning hit single, “Blood and Roses.” That 25-year-old magic comes roaring out of the speakers from the very first blistering Who-fueled acoustic/electric chords of “Sorry,” immediately followed by DiNizio’s unmistakable and darkly mesmerizing croon. For the next 45 minutes, the Smithereens keep their foot on the gas without letting up, from the Beatlesque jangle and crystalline harmonies of “One Look at You” to the epic Pop expanse of “A World of Our Own” to the Kinksian swagger of “Keep On Running.” Every song on 2011 is a brand new track wrapped in a tangible memory of the Smithereens’ brilliant mid-’80s to early ’90s run of dark Pop excellence, and predictably they save the best for last. “Turn It Around” is classic Smithereens, a yearning love song providing a fresh Beatles translation while remaining awash in its perfect classicism, followed by the brightly dark garage Rock intensity of “What Went Wrong,” a swinging love-off-the-rails anthem that bristles with ’60s Rock tribalism. Make no mistake, 2011 is not the Smithereens making some vain attempt to recapture lost glories, but rather proving conclusively that their glories have always been firmly intact and should never have waned in the first place.

It is both heartening and puzzling that Melora Creager has been able to maintain a steady musical presence with her cello-centric Goth/Baroque Rock collective Rasputina for nearly 20 years. When Columbia signed her in the early ’90s, it was largely based on Creager’s highly publicized stint as cellist for Nirvana on their European tour supporting In Utero. While she and Rasputina have delivered some of the most compelling and unique sounds and textures in modern Rock, her blend of ancient Folk, electrified Baroque and contemporary Classical has garnered her little more than a cult following, which happens to be fine with her.

For the past six years, Creager has charted her own course by way of her own indie label, Filthy Bonnet Recording Co., which has allowed her a great deal of freedom to conduct Rasputina however she sees fit. On last year’s Sister Kinderhook, Creager and her latest iteration of Rasputina, cellist Daniel DeJesus (the first male to play in the group) and drummer Melissa Bell) envisioned something Creager called Colonial vaudeville, which was in essence a stripped back, early American-themed version of the band’s 1996 debut, Thanks for the Ether. Rasputina’s latest release, Great American Gingerbread, shouldn’t be considered a follow-up to Sister Kinderhook, as it’s actually a compilation of unreleased demos, film scores and tribute tracks that span a considerable length of time; as it’s primarily Creager working out ideas before bringing them to the band, it’s a Rasputina album in name only. Even though Gingerbread something of a sonic quilt, that kind of pastiche works perfectly for Creager; the voice-and-percussion Goosebumps tale of “Pudding Crypt” tees up the album nicely as it heads into more familiar Rasputina territory with a typically sonorous cover of the Pretenders’ “I Go to Sleep” and the Gothic Classical Rap of “Do What I Do.” The heavy solo cello exploration of the aptly titled “Loom” gives way to the lighter and weirder “Death at Disneyland,” a track that sounds like a collaboration between Kate Bush and Brian Eno, which are counterpointed by the foreboding silent movie soundtrack of “Ballad of Lizzie Borden” a minute-long piece that evokes flickering candles that served as footlights at the turn of the century, and the truly oddball “Mysterious Man-Monkey,” which consists of Creager reading Indian paper accounts of the title creature while providing an appropriately bizarre semi-musical accompaniment. While Great American Gingerbread is not exactly a Rasputina album, it’s a fascinating example of Melora Creager’s boundless creativity and will clearly be embraced by her legions of Steam Punk/Goth Rock fans.

 
 
 
 

 

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