Over the past seven years, Manchester Orchestra has evolved from post-high school baroque Emo Pop naifs to a viscerally muscular, Southern modern Rock force. Throughout their development, the Atlanta quintet has managed to keep their hearts close to their early influences and their antenna tuned to contemporary concerns, creating a fascinating sonic graft of the two musical branches.
Manchester’s last album, 2009’s Mean Everything to Nothing, drew comparisons to a pair of similarly-toned Southern Rock geneticists, Kings of Leon and Bobby Bare Jr., with shades of The Shins’ subtlety and Dashboard Confessional’s emotional bluster. Those elements are distilled into an even more beautifully potent brew on the Manchesters’ third full-length album, the conceptually structured Simple Math.
Frontman/songwriter Andy Hull has said that Simple Math is the story of a 23-year-old questioning everything — marriage, love, sex, religion. Considering Hull comes from a Christian school background and married three years ago, Simple Math could be a scrapbook of his personal turmoil, but looking beyond mere conjecture reveals an album of incredible emotional and musical depth.
On Simple Math, the Manchesters inject their subtlety with even more power (the gorgeous opener “Deer,” the heart-stopping 10CC-esque closer “Leaky Breaks”), while their Rock musculature has grown by steroidal percentages. “Mighty” quivers with the Stones/Skynyrd-reverence of Drive-By Truckers while delivering a message from an internal wilderness (“It’s not like I was lost for a purpose/I lost purpose and purposefully froze/So be good if you think it can save you/Be good if you‘re comfortably numb/And I will do my best to breathe.”).
Through a handful of powerful EPs and a pair of stellar albums, Manchester Orchestra has steered jaggedly from strength to strength, proudly reflecting their varied influences, but Simple Math shows them defiantly evolving beyond them with a rare combination of confidence, humility and true musical greatness.
The New Cars project featuring Todd Rundgren in 2005 was a slight return for the surviving participants of the vaunted New Wave/Synth Pop icons, The Cars, but it was clearly dependent on the fans’ ability to accept Rundgren’s strong creative presence, a distinctive flavor that was almost more suggestive of his work than theirs. Move Like This suffers from no such similar issues, as Ric Ocasek returns to the mic and restores perhaps the single most identifiable characteristic of the Cars’ sonic profile. From the opening strains of “Blue Tip,” Move Like ThisCandy-O and Heartbeat City and The Cars’ eponymous debut are in constant rotation. From the familiar, propulsive shimmer and handclap Pop of “Sad Song” to the synth balladry of “Soon” to the jerky rhythms and rollicking swagger of “Keep on Knocking,” it’s obvious that the Cars are only this year’s showroom model when Ocasek is at the wheel. plays like a magic radio set to the late ’70s, blaring a station where
But even Ocasek’s return doesn’t completely resurrect The Cars’ infectious and wildly successful sound on Move Like This. Ben Orr’s vocal absence haunts The Cars’ sound like a friendly and irreplaceable ghost, and Ocasek and his fellow Cars — guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson; Orr’s bass role was either programmed or played by Hawkes or producer Jacknife Lee — understand implicitly the quality that Orr brought to the group’s dynamic and don’t force their own creative personalities into that unfillable hole. Instead, the musicians concentrate on the juddering New Wave snap that typified Ocasek’s contributions to the band’s singular sound, making Move Like This the best Cars reunion you can have under the circumstances.
Commercial success has a way of defining and constraining artists, painting them into creative corners that discourage them from exploring the dark expanses of new directions. Christopher Cross could be the spokesman for that charity, with his early chart success on “Sailing” and “Arthur’s Theme (Best You Can Do),” Grammy and Oscar wins, and nearly constant airplay on Soft Rock stations over the past three decades. Cross’ relative identity is so well drawn and perceived, the announcement of his first album of new material in a dozen years is bound to be greeted with a resounding, “Really? Why?”
Those questions are deftly answered on Doctor Faith, where Cross has penned some of the best and most reflective songs of his long career, while simultaneously breaking from the piano-centric sound that was the foundation of his platinum success. Although Cross doesn’t stray impossibly far from the light Pop architecture of his house of hits, he definitely decorates the rooms in a new fashion.
Doctor Faith immediately leaps into fresh territory for Cross with “Hey Kid,” his admonition to younger creatives to appreciate the journey and do better than the last generation, while assuring them that age brings wisdom and perhaps even a sweeter desire and ambition than youth can imagine. Musically, the song is punctuated by an atypical guitar accompaniment and a pointed solo by Eric Johnson, clearly establishing a point of departure. On “I’m Too Old for This,” Cross rails at the dumbing-down of America and the polarized factions running the country; it’s an interesting lyrical perspective for a guy known primarily for his romantic love songs.
There are several more typical ballads on Doctor Faith, from the ebullient second-time-around invitation of “Leave It To Me” to the well-worn love promise of “Rescue” to the heartbreak twist of “Help Me Cry.” Cross returns to his patented sound on “November,” a beautifully rendered, late-in-life love song, swelling with a sweet melancholy that looks back on a long history and ahead to an undeniably shorter future. And Cross’ two worlds come together on the title track, as he blends his old Pop persona with his new guitar direction and throws in a guest vocal from Michael McDonald.
Doctor Faith is certainly not a jarring left turn for Christopher Cross. Old fans will embrace the album but those who have written him off as a Soft Rock relic may be surprised at the depth, drive and heartfelt introspection of Cross’ latest work.
With his 1989 arrival as the Allman Brothers’ new guitarist, his solo presence and his role as bandleader with the Psych Blues superpower trio Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes has clearly established himself as a songwriter and guitarist of incredible invention and versatility. And his never-ending string of live recordings of cover material with the Mule — everything from The Who to Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd — show how deep Haynes’ influences run and how effectively he can translate them into his own unique genre language.
On Man in Motion, Haynes’ first true solo album of new, original material since 1993’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, he reduces the emphasis on his acclaimed guitar skills and concentrates on his avowed love of Stax Soul to create an album that rolls with soulful warmth and jumps with a funky bounce. “Sick of My Shadow” crackles with Blues intensity but swings with a jazzy Traffic jam vibe at the finish, while “Your Wildest Dreams” and “Save Me” find Haynes channeling his Gospel roots to spectacular effect.
Of course, Haynes isn’t merely standing at the mic crooning in his best impression of Otis Redding and Johnny Taylor on Man in Motion. His guitar has just as active a voice as it has on recordings past, but Haynes has adjusted his playing to suit the album’s homage to Soul so his tasteful playing resembles the ferocious subtlety of B.B. King (“On a Real Lonely Night,” “Take a Bullet”), while the horn arrangements swagger and soar with the vibrancy of Stax-via-Young-Americans. At the same time, Haynes shreds with the delicacy and supple finesse of Jimi Hendrix on the heartfelt southern balladry of “A Friend to You.”
Lyrically, many of Haynes’ songs here deal with love lost and the vagaries of fame and success, subjects that always take on a uniquely different flavor and tenor when delivered in a Soul/Blues context. But with Haynes’ guitar and vocal skills, he could make a stellar album using a Labor Department report on unemployment as his source material. He’ll certainly be back in face-melting mode with Gov’t Mule soon enough, but until then we can content ourselves with the soulful satisfaction of Man in Motion.
When Urge Overkill burst from the Chicago scene in the late ’80s, the band flew in the face of the pervasive Grunge trend with a thundering style that relied on the melodic sensibility of some of the most astute Pop of the ’60s and classically channeled Rock of the ’70s, all of it sculpted with the contemporary chisel of visceral Post Punk.
In many ways, Urge Overkill was the Midwest hard Rock precursor/counterpart to Matthew Sweet’s personal evolution and eventual involvement with Velvet Crush.
Sadly, UO couldn’t survive the success of 1992’s Saturation, the universal exposure of their cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” from the soundtrack of Pulp FictionExit the Dragon. Co-frontmen Nash Kato and Eddie Roeser separated, with Kato attempting to keep UO a viable entity, then dissolving it in favor of solo status and his one album on his own, 1999’s fairly well received Debutante. Roesser formed L.I.M.E. with the Jesus Lizard’s Jim Kimball and Electric Airlines with his brother John. and the failure of 1995’s
Nearly two decades after Saturation almost broke them as the stars they deserved to be, Kato and Roeser have reformed Urge Overkill with Gaza Strippers bassist hadju Hodgkiss and Cherry Valance drummer Bonn Quast and self-released Rock & Roll Submarine, a worthy and long overdue addition to the UO canon.
It’s clear from the opening salvo of “Mason/Dixon” that Kato and Roeser are going to be relying on the muscular Power Pop tricks that they perfect in the ’90s with barely a thought for current musical trends. That concept is hammered home on the title track and the album’s first single “Effigy,” examples of UO’s unique and consistent gifts; the chunky yet sinewy twin guitar attack of Kato and Roeser and the singularly powerful harmonic convergence of their combined voices.
From the rising/falling early Who Pop/Rock of “Thought Balloon” to the Stooges melodic bash Pop of “Niteliner” to the Ziggy Stardust-meets-Television squall of “She’s My Ride,” Urge Overkill shows they are coming back now by going back to their undeniably powerful then.
Iggy Pop, how do I love thee? Let me count the motherfucking ways. I grew up 30 miles from the hallowed ground where well-mannered malcontent James Newell Osterburg evolved into the mythic Rock man-beast that irreversibly altered generations of listeners, a good many of whom grew up (sort of) to become purveyors of a similarly charged Punk soundtrack. But Iggy was the true original — powderkeg, fuse, match, adrenalized flight from imminent destruction and shrapnel infused explosion in one diminutive package.
I was only 12 when The Stooges first prowled southern Michigan as self-described streetwalking cheetahs and so their impact on my teenage psyche didn’t take hold until the sonic nutkick of Raw Power in 1973. It was at just about that precise time that the first two Stooges albums were cut out, so my chemically enhanced friends and I experience the holy Iggy trinity nearly simultaneously. But of us all, I became the slavish acolyte, the zealous believer, the wild-eyed snake-handling hosannah singer.
Over the course of the past three decades, Iggy’s live persona has been endlessly documented on unofficial recordings that matched the wide range of Iggy’s stage presentation, from powerfully pristine to swaggeringly horrendous. I have a couple dozen of them in my collection and I have personally witnessed both triumph and debacle. (Anyone else see the Party tour? Hands?).
The massive four-disc legit bootleg Roadkill Rising attempts to anthologize all of the various eras as well as the leaps and lapses that Iggy has managed on stage over a 32-year span. Beginning with 1977’s Idiot tour and finishing with his 2009 Preliminaires shows, Roadkill Rising also displays Iggy’s stylistic shifts — his late ’70s evocations of early Stooges classics (“1969,” “Funtime,” “Raw Power,” “Search and Destroy”), the quasi-sophisticated shimmer of the ’80s (“Blah Blah Blah,” “Shades,” “Sister Midnight”), the metallic clang of the ’90s (‘Butt Town,” “Home”) and the unlikely new millennium resurgence of the Stooges and their semi-chronological pacing (“Skull Ring,” “Real Cool Time,” “Dirt”). Just as entertaining is the change in Iggy’s vocal instrument, from the drug-damaged but still youthful howl of the late ’70s to his more recent rumbling baritone, bits of which could topple the walls of Jericho, first with Punk intent and then with thunderous seduction.
One of the other interesting aspects of Roadkill Rising is the fact that the majority of the songs chosen for the bootleg set came well after Iggy conceived them in the studio, as if the compilers were looking for those moments when Iggy best understood some of his most brilliantly visceral work. “Lust for Life” and “The Passenger” don’t show up until the ’90s, nearly a decade and a half after their vinyl debuts. There are no repeated tracks (although “Dirt” is reprised back-to-back on a French show in 2003) and some of Iggy’s best covers are revisited here, from “You Really Got Me” in 1979, “Hang on Sloopy” in 1981 and the marvelous cheese log of “Louie Louie” from 1994 (still a far cry from the middle finger to the universe found on Metallic KO).
Roadkill Rising is not the definitive Iggy Pop bootleg collection, because no such collection is remotely possible. Iggy’s brilliance lies in his chameleonic shape-shifting as a songwriter, performer and Punk shaman. It would be easy to recreate this exact set list from two dozen different live sources and come up with a four-disc set that vibrates at a completely different frequency.
If there’s a ding on Roadkill Rising, it’s the lack of notation on the bands that accompanied Iggy on these shows, although for those interested enough to find out, the internet has the information you seek. An aesthetic plus is William Stout’s EC Comics-like illustration of Iggy as a skinless, blood-dripping zombie standing in the middle of a road to nowhere/everywhere, less a metaphor and more an exaggerated but nonetheless true caricature.
Real Iggy fans probably have a good chunk of this material already, but real Iggy fans, and Iggy himself, would be the first to remind you that you can’t have too much Iggy.
Is it mere coincidence that the mysterious Roswell, NM, crash occurred in the summer of 1947 and Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was born in the spring of 1948? Given his astonishing accomplishments over his nearly 40-year career, including his groundbreaking work as a member of Roxy Music and as a producer/collaborator with David Bowie, Devo, U2, Talking Heads, Genesis and dozens of others, his singular solo efforts, his development of an entirely new genre of music, his technological wizardry, and his uncanny ability to foresee new musical directions years ahead of prevailing trends, it often seems as though Eno is precisely described by the title of his recently released biographical DVD, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Based on his earliest works as well as his most recent output (last year’s gorgeous Small Craft on a Milk Sea and his just released collaboration with wordsmith Rick Holland, Drums Between the Bells), it’s not difficult to imagine Eno being teleported from some parallel reality like a hypercreative avant garde Mr. Bean, a man out of his time, advanced just enough beyond mere mortals to be frustratingly misunderstood and disdainfully bored with trying to entertain our primitive sensibilities. The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t examine Eno’s latterday accomplishments, preferring to focus its lens on the years 1971-1977; his seminal days as a radical art student, his budding sonic experimentation, his short but wildly influential stint with Roxy Music, four brilliant albums and his beginnings as an incredible producer of renown and influence.
In many ways, Eno’s amazing singularity has become a normal part of contemporary Pop culture, to the extent that few people actually remember (if they’re old enough) or know (because they’re not) that Eno’s creative personality in the ’70s was so blindingly original there were almost no reference points to what he was doing, sonically and culturally. The Man Who Fell to Earth is documentarian Rob Johnstone’s attempt to contextualize Brian Eno, in and beyond his time.
The Man Who Fell to Earth rarely uses Eno himself to make its point; there are a couple of interviews excerpted here and there, but the film was done without his direct input or cooperation. Instead, Johnstone relies on a cadre of expert witnesses, including Eno biographers David Sheppard and Eric Tamm, Roxy Music biographer Johnny Rogan and Rock critic Robert Christgau, among many others, to both explain Eno’s incredible creative brilliance and put that brilliance in the context of the time it was rising. Musical peers Chris Spedding, Brian Turrington, Lloyd Watson and Davy O’List further attempt to give some sense of the experience of following Eno’s direction in the studio and working in ways that were unknown in the early ’70s, which forced conventional musicians to respond in unconventional ways, which was exactly what Eno had in mind.
There is little in the way of actual music on The Man Who Fell to Earth, snippets of Eno’s work and that of his influences, but it is a fascinating examination of his completely unique place in music history. His art background is brought to fuller light, as is his insistence that he was more interested in the idea of art over ability (he famously described himself as a “non-musician,” and he was castigated by the more classically trained artists of the day for it).
The film also looks at Eno’s love of avant Krautrock and his own avowed influences like John Cage, Steve Reich and Terry Riley (and his fascination with Cybernetics as espoused by Stafford Beer in his book Brain of the Firm), which led to his tape loop experiments with Robert Fripp (as documented on Eno‘s first release after leaving Roxy Music, No Pussyfooting), and his avant Pop constructions on his first true solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets, and the groundwork all of this offered for his Ambient explorations.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a complex and often wordy film that may not appeal to anyone whose exposure to Eno is limited to seeing his production credit on U2 and Coldplay records. But for true fans of Eno’s absolutely groundbreaking musical history, the documentary is a treasure trove of information that reinforces just why his work has been so important over the past three decades.
Rory Gallagher was as singular a guitar talent as the Blues Rock universe has ever produced. The Irish string-strangler conceived the power trio in 1966 with his first band Taste; his fashion sense consisted of a checked flannel shirt and denim jeans and his guitar of choice was a Fender Stratocaster that was as battered as a Belfast ghetto.
Peaking at the dawn of the guitar hero era, Gallagher was the envy of some the period’s greatest players. Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix was asked how it felt to be the best guitarist in the world, and he responded, “I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.” Although he worked hard and consistently for nearly 30 years, Gallagher was sadly underrated by fans who were more interested in the flash and histrionics of Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, Page and other commercially viable guitarists of the time. Gallagher was their equal in every way, except at the cash register.
There have been many examples of Gallagher’s live prowess unearthed and released since his passing from an overly liquored liver in 1996, but scant little in the way of studio material has come to light beyond scattered bonus tracks for the remasters of his existing catalog (Calling Card, Photo-Finish and Against the Grain just came out), although the acoustic Wheels Within Wheels in 2003 was a nice find.
The new double disc Notes From San Francisco, an incredible artifact for Gallagher fans, is something completely different; an actual unreleased album from 1977, the missing link between Calling Card and Photo-Finish. The story goes that Gallagher recorded the album in San Francisco with the quintet that had just finished a grueling world tour, but he became frustrated with the complex mixing process and simultaneously abandoned the project and broke up the band. Gallagher’s brother Donal, now the executor of Rory’s estate and caretaker of his legacy, allowed his son Daniel to remix the album for its first official release.
Notes From San Francisco shows Gallagher in fine form as both songwriter and guitarist on a set that might well have opened him up to a new and more appreciative audience. Gallagher smokes and snarls on footstompers and ass-shakers like “Rue the Day,” “Mississippi Shieks” and “Overnight Bag.” Notes From San Francisco also features the original take on “Brute Force & Ignorance,” which wound up on Photo-Finish; this arrangement plays more like a Van Morrison power ballad, as does the wonderfully wistful and western-tinged “Fuel to the Fire.” And proof of Gallagher’s range and power is as thick as his Irish brogue on the Clatonesque alternate version of “Wheels Within Wheels.” Notes From San Francisco is a fascinating archival nugget for the casual Gallagher fan, but for the true believer, it’s a rarity of breathtaking necessity.
The set’s second disc is a live recording, appropriately enough, from the Waldorf in San Francisco, featuring his longtime Taste/solo bassist Gerry McAvoy and former Sensational Alex Harvey Band drummer Ted McKenna. Gallagher had seen The Sex Pistols in San Francisco while mixing the lost album and lamented his own loss of primal power with the expansion of his trio. After dissolving his five-piece, he went back to the trio form which he unleashed on the Waldorf over four incendiary nights in December 1979.
Notes’ live disc is a scorching compilation of the best of those four performances, from the pure Rock simplicity of “Shinkicker” and “Bought and Sold” and the visceral Blues balladry of “Tattoo’d Lady” to the Hendrix/Robin Trower powderkeg of “Off the Handle” and the blister and bluster of his signature “Bullfrog Blues,” a holdover from his Taste days. The Waldorf disc is exhibit A-Z as to why Rory Gallagher should be every bit as lauded as the Hall-of-Famers who are still gracing magazine covers today.
Indie doesn’t even begin to describe Chad VanGaalen. The Calgary native started with basement tapes of instrumental music made with homemade instruments, but he created music as a third option behind illustration and animation (he’s done videos for J Mascis and Guster, among others). But for a guy whose music is a hobby, he’s done plenty;
VanGaalen’s latest, Diaper Island, makes nine releases over the past seven years, counting EPs and his 2009 Black Mold album, and his new disc may stand as his most linear album to date. Recorded in VanGaalen’s new home studio (which he’s christened Yoko Eno), Diaper Island has the contemporary energy and soft edge of Jim James and James Mercer while applying the claustrophobic expanse of Brian Eno’s earliest twisted Pop explorations to the proceedings. Plus, it’s hard to resist any album with a space-Rock-from-the-bottom-of-a-well anthem called “Blonde Hash” and an Indie-Rock-music-box twiddler titled “Shave My Pussy.”
Elvin Bishop has enjoyed a near 50-year career in music at every possible level — from apprentice to veteran Blues master Little Smoky Smothers and Blues groundbreaker as co-founder of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to crossover Pop success (with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”) and various degrees of roadhouse fame and commercial obscurity. With his signing to Delta Groove and a pair of Top 10 Billboard Blues charting albums, Bishop is in the midst of a career resurgence.
Bishop’s third Delta Groove release is an inadvertent live album — his hastily assembled band of Blues gypsies was documented by a pair of recordists on last year’s Rhythn & Blues Cruise. With a rotating cast that lives up to their Revue billing, including veteran vocalist Finis Tasby, Blues newbie John Nemeth and Bishop’s longtime bandmate, vocalist/saxophonist Terry Hanck, Bishop’s band tears shit up good and proper. Although the bulk of the group was made up of players who happened to be booked on the cruise, Bishop and the aptly christened Raisin’ Hell Revue mesh with the skill and intensity of a group that has shared a musical chemistry for years.
Bishop’s guitar work is at once scorching and completely fluid, like on the incendiary and satisfying “What the Hell is Going On,” a song that is every bit as contemporary as it is classically influenced. One of the recognized masters of the slide sound, Bishop runs his Revue through its paces, setting a course that includes Blues (“Down in Virginia,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Dyin Flu”), Gospel (“River’s Invitation”), Doo Wop (“The Night Time is the Right Time”), Soul (“Cryin’ Fool”), R&B (“Tore Up Over You”), Zydeco (“Callin’ All Cows”) and every combination and variation thereof (“Rock My Soul”).
The Raisin’ Hell Revue is less indicative of Bishop’s recent rejuvenation and more an example of the totality of his long and brilliant Blues experience.