The Dü, finally getting their due… but losing Hart

In the late 70s and early 80s, the frozen tundra of Minneapolis was a hotbed of musical innovation. The Replacements brought the raucous rock, Prince brought the funk, and Hüsker Dü brought the punk.

Now, hot on the heels of the release of a remastered box set of Hüsker Dü’s early recordings comes word that drummer Grant Hart has passed away at the age of 56.

Jon Wurster, the drummer for Superchunk who also mans the drum kit for The Mountain Goats and former Dü member Bob Mould, wrote a great tribute to Grant on Rolling Stone’s website.

And at the center of the sonic hurricane was Grant Hart, arms flailing, feet flying, laying waste to every drum and cymbal in his path. 

His drumming alone is enough to secure Grant Hart a place in the alt-rock history books, but that’s only part of his story. Grant was a top-shelf songwriter, penning and handling lead vocals on Hüsker Dü classics like “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” “Diane,” “Green Eyes” and “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.” 

And what a voice. His was arguably the best to come out of the post-punk/hardcore/alternative scene: sweet and angelic one minute, menacing the next. Grant also handled much of the band’s visual side, designing Hüsker Dü’s album covers and helping other bands with theirs, most notably the Replacements’ 1983 LP, Hootenanny.

My favorite Grant Hart tune is the lead track off his first post-Dü release, “2541”… and I’m not alone. This Minneapolis writer feels the same way.

R.I.P. Grant, and thanks for the great music.

Unanswered prayers

Saw this poor critter while waiting for the bus last week:

Looks like his prayers went unanswered, unless his request was to die on the streets of downtown Cincinnati.

Naturally I immediately thought of Don Dixon’s song “Praying Mantis.” You’ve likely never heard the song, and perhaps you’ve never even heard of Don Dixon. All he did was co-produce Murmur and Reckoning by R.E.M., as well as albums by The Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw and Guadalcanal Diary. Jangle pop wouldn’t exist without him.

Please look beyond the bad hairstyle and appreciate the tune.

Since 1988, Don has been married to the equally talented and equally underappreciated Marti Jones. They live in Canton, Ohio and still tour occasionally. Here’s a nice interview with them.

 

 

When did pop songs become clown cars?

I know I run the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson or SNL’s “Grumpy Old Man”….

… but when did every pop song become a clown car, where you cram in as many artists as you can? “Back in my day” there were solo artists (we miss you John Denver), bands (hello Pablo Cruise) and the occasional duet (Kenny/Dolly or Kenny/Sheena or Kenny/Kim, whichever you prefer). But now it seems like there is some sort of rule (actually “formula” might be more apropos) that a single can’t be released unless it has at least three of the following:

  1. A DJ
  2. A rapper
  3. a pop singer known more for their looks than their pipes
  4. A Disney/Nickelodeon kid show star
  5. Rihanna

Ryan Seacrest must get laryngitis every week just announcing the names of the Top 40. It’s like a music version of The Love Boat.

I think Rihanna just lives in some giant recording studio complex – she steps into Studio A, sings a hook, moves on to Studio B, then C, D, and E… and by the time she gets back to Studio A there’s another disposable band in place working on a song that she can “feature” on. (And I’m using the term “band” very loosely. Most times it’s probably a 22-year old with a laptop.)

More doesn’t always equal better, and the sum is not always greater than the parts. I don’t know how bands and artists can establish any sort of staying power when their identity is based mostly on a Lazy Susan of condiment guest stars. (DJ Khaled, you’re the spicy mustard. Lil’ Wayne, you’re the Dave’s Insanity hot sauce. Biebs, you’re the fat-free mayo.)

Maybe instead of breaking up, the Beatles could’ve just become Lennon & McCartney with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, featuring Yoko Ono and Billy Preston. And they could’ve done the theme song for Matlock. That’s music to my ears.

 

You can’t improve on perfection… so please don’t try

Why, Ben Gibbard, why?

Why would you even attempt to cover Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept”? It’s a heaping helping of pure pop perfection, from their brilliant 1991 album Bandwagonesque. That album was so good that Spin magazine named it album of the year, which means it beat out an obscure album called Nevermind by some trio called Nirvana. (You can – and should – listen to the entire album here.)

“The Concept” is the lead track from that album, and just one of several amazing tunes on the release.

Teenage Fanclub was (and is – they put out an album last year and still tour) the rightful heir to the Big Star crown, and like Big Star they don’t get the credit they deserve. But being underappreciated just comes with the territory when you’re a Scottish band (looking your way, Frightened Rabbit, CHVRCHES, We Were Promised Jetpacks and the inappropriately named Texas).

And now, Mr. Gibbard, you have the temerity to cover the entire album? Don’t get me wrong, I know your intentions are pure.

In a press release, Gibbard explained why he chose the particular record: “Bandwagonesque is my favorite record by my favorite band of all time.” He continued, “It came along at a pivotal time in my musical life and I’ve loved it for over 25 years. It’s been such a blast taking these songs apart to see how they work and then putting them back together again.”  (Source: Pitchfork article)

I like your band Death Cab for Cutie, and even your side project The Postal Service.  But if you can’t bring something new to the cover song, or make it completely your own, then don’t do it. And you’ve taken a great song and turned it into a bit of a dirge. Which is weird, because when Iron & Wine slowed down your Postal Service song “Such Great Heights” it worked great.

But for your treatment of “The Concept”? Not so much.

However, there is a silver lining, BG. Maybe by covering the entire album, you’ll induct a few members of this generation into the Teenage Fanclub fanclub (no, I didn’t stutter).

That’s a brilliant idea! And if the band is on board, then I am too.

Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake is also happy with the result: “I was thrilled and extremely flattered when I heard that Ben Gibbard had decided to cover Bandwagonesque in its entirety. Needless to say that the reimagining of the album by this very talented fella is both inventive and deftly executed. Thanks Ben.”

 

 

 

 

Uncle Jesse… no, not that one… not that one either…

You can keep your heartthrob John Stamos from “Full House”

You can have the proud elder statesman of the Duke family on “Dukes of Hazzard”

And I’ll stick the Jesse Malin, the glam/punk rock/singer/songwriter/poet, the pint-sized dynamo who has been entertaining audiences with his music since he was 12 years old, and continues to perform with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager at the age of 50.

I’ve seen Jesse Malin live in concert four times now, and each of those shows has had two things in common:

  1. An enthusiastic, entertaining, uplifting, energizing performance from Jesse
  2. A sparse crowd

This past Saturday night, I saw him at a tiny club in Columbus (yes, I drove 100 miles to see him, well worth it), giving it his all for an audience that was 50 people strong at best. He even joked from the stage about at least having more folks in attendance at that night’s show than at the Last Supper.

The lack of a crowd just doesn’t make sense. His music is brilliant, and runs the gamut from introspective songwriter tunes to garage rock to punk rock. His stage performance is as high energy as anyone I’ve ever seen, including Springsteen. He’ll crack jokes, tell great stories, hop into the crowd, whatever it takes to make the performance memorable. This past Saturday, that included dancing on the bar while singing a cover of the Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail.”

And Jesse has friends in high places, too. Ryan Adams produced his first solo album. Springsteen sang a duet with him on his 2007 release. He was in a side project with the members of Green Day in 2010. By all accounts, he should be packing theaters instead of playing dives. I think he does better in Europe, and closer to his home base of NYC, but he really deserves a better fate commercially. Just check out this song, the one he opened up with this weekend, a sizzling slice of Stones swagger:

But instead of worrying about the size of the crowd or the Billboard charts, I should just channel my inner Jesse. He clearly doesn’t let it get him down, and I respect the fact that he gives it his all every single night. He does what he does with passion, and unleashes his creativity into the world… what the world chooses to do with it after that is out of his control.

Keep rockin’, Jesse, and I’ll keep listening and watching and appreciating.

Music and Magic

Would you want to run into this guy in a dimly lit bar at 11 o’clock at night?

If you like great rock and roll music, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

His name is Tim Showalter, and he and his fantastic band perform under the name Strand of Oaks. I saw them last night, in a free 10 p.m. show at MOTR Pub near downtown Cincinnati. It was well past my usual bedtime by the time they hit the stage, but I can always catch up on sleep, and I’ll probably never see a show quite like last night’s. The band was fantastic, sure, but there’s more to it than that.

And halfway through the show, they introduced a guy whom they had just met. A local singer/songwriter who had emailed Tim earlier in the day. He has a tumor in his chest that needs to be removed, but there’s a 50/50 chance that the surgery might damage his vocal cords. So in “Make a Wish” fashion he wanted to play on stage with Strand of Oaks, as it might be his last singing performance. Heavy stuff.

Strand of Oaks not only brought him up on stage to play one of his songs, but also had learned another song of his prior to the show and served as the backing band on it. 

The moment was truly moving…I’ve been to hundreds of shows in my life and never experienced anything like it. It also shows what a big heart that Tim Showalter has. He may look like he belongs in a biker gang, but he’s a music lover, not a fighter. Here are a couple of quotes from recent articles that prove it:

I’m giving hugs and shaking hands and sweating with everyone at our shows. I love making records and writing songs, and I’m already writing for the next record now, but what I love most are the concerts — getting to hang out with cool people, sing, play for my friends, have some good drinks and stay up late. I’m a simple guy, and whatever size the show is doesn’t matter, as long as my guitar works.”

[Read more here.]

We’re not living in the day and age where you can sell 5 million records, but there are still people hungry for it and that is the best thing about it. You can never duplicate the experience of what it’s like to go to a concert. [emphasis mine] That’s priceless currency in this world. You can never take that away. It’s my favorite thing to do.

[Read more here.]

Strand of Oaks latest album is called Hard Love. Check it out.

 

Attaboy, Billy!

Billy Bragg has always been one of my favorite folkies. (Or as I heard him describe himself in concert once: “a quasi-political punk-rock folk singer.”) His new song “The Sleep of Reason” is a great example of why I love him so. Check out the bitingly insightful lyrics.

And in the end, the greatest threat faced by democracy/isn’t fascism, or fanaticism, but our own complacency. 

Wednesday the 14th, Part VI: Jason Lives

Do yourself a favor and carve out 40 minutes and 17 seconds today to listen to the new album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, called The Nashville Sound.

Jason’s been on a roll for the past few years, chronicling his sobriety, falling in love, becoming a dad… and doing it all with a unique perspective that comes from the crossroads of the Literary South and the country backroads of northern Alabama. The closest comparison I can make is he’s a male version of Lucinda Williams, and I adore Lu so that’s high praise in my book. His sound could probably be classified as “country” but his writing goes so much deeper than the truck tailgates and cutoff jeans of the “bro-country” set that you can’t even put them in the same category.

In the 1946 book “Confessions of a Story Writer” Paul Gallico wrote: 2

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.

Jason’s been bleeding onto the page for years now… with fantastic musical accompaniment… and it’s music to my ears. His sixth studio album is another stellar offering.

Here he is rocking out:

… and here’s his softer side:

Watch the entire session to appreciate the full spectrum of Jason and the 400 Unit:

 

I just wanna stop… but I can’t quit Gino

I did a bit more Senior-Discount-Sunday crate-digging through the LPs at my local St. Vincent de Paul, and I’ve got a bit of sad news: the biggest Gino Vannelli fan in the Cincinnati area has moved on…

Six, count ’em, six albums from Gino’s heyday were available for four bits each. I’m not sure if the Gino fan has moved on to other soft rock stars of the 70s (we’ll have to check the iTunes sales numbers for Seals & Crofts) or to the Great Beyond. Either way, it’s a sad day.

My favorite GV album cover has to be the one from the ’75 release Storm at Sunup:

A poodle-permed Gino stares forlornly at the camera, satin shirt open to reveal his hirsute chest and his “lack-pack” (i.e. lack of a two-, four- or six-pack). A scantily clad woman is in the background, clearly disappointed with her choices in life.

But there is good news for Gino fans (and really, aren’t we all Gino fans?):

a. He’s still alive

b. He’s still touring

c. His hair is still amazing.

And now, a short-distance dedication from Gino to the Cincinnati area person who dumped him at the Mt. Washington St. Vincent de Paul:

If you like Piña Coladas…

Sunday is Senior Discount Day at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop near my house. While I’m not a full-fledged, card-carrying, early-buffet-eating member of AARP just yet, the discount applies for anyone 50 or older. (“Fifty is nifty!”) And I can’t resist a 25% discount, especially when my vinyl crate-digging unearthed this gem:

Yes, the masterpiece of Rupert Holmes oeuvre, the seminal Partners in Crime album, featuring the earworm entitled “Escape” but better known and loved by millions as “The Piña Colada Song.”

Don’t act like you don’t know it. Don’t act like you don’t like it. Don’t pretend that you’re not hearing it in your head right now, and singing along at the top of your inner-voice lungs.

It may not be the best song ever put to acetate, but it has its own unique charm. And it is, hands down, the single most unrealistic song about a relationship ever. Let’s recap it, shall we?

In the days before Tinder, when newspapers were still a thing, folks would use the “personals” section of the classified ads to find love. But wait, our Escape protagonist already has a lady. She’s sleeping right next to him… and he’s perusing the personals. Yet somehow he manages to absolve himself of any guilt or shame in the first couplet:

I was tired of my lady, we’d been together too long/Like a worn-out recording, of a favorite song

Ergo, ennui is justification for cheating on your significant other. Who knew? So he sees a personal ad that piques his interest. Perhaps it’s a shared predilection for piña coladas and/or getting caught in the rain and/or intimate encounters in sand dunes. Or a mutual hatred of yoga/health food. So while his current “lady” is sleeping, he channels his inner Robert Browning and writes a reply, suggesting a rendezvous at an Irish bar (because those are the best kind of rendezvous – sidebar, the word “rendezvous” is plural – those wacky French!)

When the woman arrives at the appointed place and time – plot twist ahead – it’s his current paramour (a.k.a. “my own lovely lady”). And both of them laugh off the fact that they were trying to cheat on each other. Yes, that’s correct, in this song, there’s no righteous indignation, no hurt feelings, no screaming/yelling/divorce-attorney-calling. They laugh it off, presumably have a drink or three (when in O’Malleys…) and in all likelihood head to the Cape for an assignation. It’s not really a song so much as it is a fairy tale.

So when I saw the album in the thrift shop, I had to have it. Especially because it had held up rather well considering its 1979 release date. It still had the poly wrapping, it still had the record sleeve with liner notes, it even had the original receipt from the purchase:

Guess it wasn’t Senior Discount Day at Music World back in the summer of 1980. They paid $5.75 but I got the album for 37 cents. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me (and The Village People) to introduce the world’s favorite non-philanderer, the inimitable Rupert Holmes: