Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer some observations of the recent Grammy Awards:
• I continue to be amazed at how much I enjoy Lady Gaga’s work. Just weeks ago, I wrote an appreciation of Gaga for an out-of-town paper and compared her wardrobe and staging to Elton John, and then she shows up in the Grammy opener with none other than Sir Honky Cat himself. “Poker Face” would have been fine, but the mash-up of “Speechless” and “Your Song” — and Elton’s cheeky but clearly sincere endorsement of Gaga — really was a highlight of the evening’s performances.
• If Taylor Swift’s duet with Stevie Nicks had been her American Idol audition, Simon Cowell would have mowed her down with an onslaught of “truly dreadful”s and “bloody awful”s. And she picked up the Album of the Year paperweight an hour later. Maybe she just had the jitters. Maybe they should have done “Pants on the Ground.” Stevie was good, though.
• If Adam Schlesinger writes the songs, it’s not a comedy album, it’s a musical parody. Not to stir up more subdivision within the Grammy categories, but Weird Al Yankovic and Stephen Colbert and their funny music should slug it out in a slot of their own. And Patton Oswalt should have won the Comedy Album Grammy. Because it was a comedy album. And funnier than everything in that category anyway.
• But speaking of Colbert, he had the best line of the night: “You may be the coolest people in the world, but this year your industry was saved by a 48-year-old Scottish cat lady in sensible shoes. So give it up for Susan Boyle.” The Web is filled with people pissed about Colbert’s remarks on Boyle — particularly his reference to Pop stars bringing sexy back and Boyle sending it away — but in reality he was defending Boyle and truthfully asking why she wasn’t nominated in some capacity, a fair question since she probably outsold everyone in the New Artist category combined. And I think she was genuinely a New Artist.
There’s more, but I really should get to it. Time’s ticking, the music’s playing and I should be opinionating, which might be a word I heard on The Beverly Hillbillies in 1967.
It’s not easy for a band to come up with a memorable sophomore album, so it was a fairly auspicious occasion when Midlake uncorked a certifiable masterpiece on their second trip to the studio with 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. A distillation of Midlake’s abiding love for the Psych Folk and Classic Rock/Pop of the ’70s and its own interpretive Indie Rock gifts, Van Occupanther wound up on any number of year end lists, particularly those of the band’s extremely hard to impress peer group.
Nearly four years later, the stakes are even higher for Midlake as the critical acclaim bestowed on Van Occupanther casts a long shadow on the release of the Denton, Texas quintet’s third album, The Courage of Others. Against all odds, the band has followed brilliance with brilliance; if Van Occupanther was Midlake’s Rubber Soul, Courage of Others might well stand as its Sgt. Pepper.
Courage is a gorgeous, swirling prayer to British Prog and Folk, a gently forceful homage to early Jethro Tull (“Small Mountain”), Strawbs (“Winter Dies”), King Crimson (“Acts of Man”) and Fairport Convention (“Fortune”), bands whose most influential and timeless work was only being recognized by aging Rock critics and obsessive fans when Tim Smith and his compadres in Midlake were still in diapers. But the band’s genius lies not in merely aping the ancient glories of four-decade-old Prog icons but in refracting that influence through the prism of contemporary inspirations like Rufus Wainwright (“Children of the Grounds”) and Radiohead (“Bring Down”), making a glorious, soaring soundtrack that is almost giddy with melancholy and longing and sweet despair.
With the obviously referential and yet blazingly original textures and moods of The Courage of Others, Midlake hasn't just made one of the best albums of 2010 — they’ve made one of the great albums of the young year and perhaps of the decade yet to come.
Broken Teeth isn’t exactly a household name, but the Texas quintet has been cranking out blistering Hard Rock for well over a decade and inspiring comparisons to the genre’s best known and, perhaps more to the point, biggest selling proponents, so it begs the question: Why aren’t these guys huge?
Clearly, they’re not reinventing the wheel on their fifth full-length, Viva La Rock, Fantastico!, but they’re most assuredly putting the rubber to the road from start to finish.
Former Dangerous Toys and Watchtower vocalist Jason McMaster tears into this material like a Frankensteined stitch job hybrid of Axl Rose, Bon Scott and Lemmy and the band — guitarists Jared Tuten and David Beeson, bassist Brett McCormick, drummer Bruce Rivers — lay down a scorching riff-swollen soundtrack that’s hotter than hell’s hinges.
Anyone who requires any additional testimonial proof of Broken Teeth’s Hard Rock credentials, Canadian Rock shouter Danko Jones guests on a pair of tracks here because, as it turns out, he’s a fan. If even one of the above reference points causes your blood pressure to rise even slightly, you should be washing a Broken Teeth T-shirt at least once a week and testing both the integrity of your rear windshield and the destructive power of your car speakers with Viva La Rock, Fantastico!
Tragedy often ruins a person’s ability to effectively deal with life in its aftermath, but it can also have the opposite effect, galvanizing the grief-stricken to rise above their loss and use the churning dynamo of sadness in a constructive manner. Brian Dolzani decided on the latter path when he lost his father in a car accident when he was a teenager. Determined to heal from the experience, the Fairfield, Conn., native spent a decade learning guitar licks from his favorite songs, then began writing original material in his mid-twenties, which ultimately led to a string of self-released albums and a fair amount of regional acclaim.
For his self-titled fifth album, Dolzani beefs up his vulnerably appealing heart-sleeved songs of love and longing with a coterie of musical cohorts, including members of gypsy Pop outfit Caravan of Thieves. When Dolzani’s electric aspects are most prevalent, he and his talented band push out a vibe suggesting a kinder, gentler Son Volt (“Midrange”), but in his acoustic moments (or when he effectively combines the two sonic directions) he exudes the melodic charm and trebly vocal hitches of Jules Shear (“Surrender,” “Starting Again”) and the heartbreaking warmth and intriguing lyrical turns of Freedy Johnston (the Middle Eastern flavored “Water,” “Blindly Fall in Love”).
With his first four albums, Brian Dolzani proved that he was the equal of any of the singer/songwriters of his peer group; with his new eponymous release, he joins the select few that are leading that pack.
Edward Rogers is British by birth — Birmingham to be precise — but had to leave the home country at 12 when his father moved the family to America. Rogers eventually landed in New York and embarked on a variety of musical adventures, including Folk Pop quartet Green Rooftops and baroque Pop duo Bedsit Poets as well as a couple of excellent and acclaimed solo albums, Sunday Fables and the brilliant You Haven’t Been Where I’ve Been.
On his third solo release, Sparkle Lane, Rogers stays in his Pop comfort zone with an emphasis on the baroque end of the spectrum. Rogers’ Birmingham roots might only encompass a dozen or so years (and the first four or five of those relatively negligible), but it’s hard not to hear a gentler version of Roy Wood’s string-quartet-in-a-Rock-setting idea in Roger’s engaging Pop soundtrack. In fact, Sparkle Lane is a tangle of Pop reference points: Ray Davies’ urbane Pop scrapbook (“Boys in Grey”), Ian Hunter’s British Dylanisms (“Passing the Sunshine”), Lloyd Cole strained through a ’60s sunshine Pop filter (“Unknown Until Today”), the raw sophistication of latterday Beatles escapades (“Slow World”).
The thing that saves Sparkle Lane (and the bulk of Rogers’ catalog, for the matter) from retrograde monotony is his clear talent for finding the fresh perspective with which to view and translate his references. The fun you’ll derive from picking out the sounds here (a good many of them provided by guitarist Pete Kennedy of The Kennedys) will very quickly be replaced by the pure joy you’ll experience listening to Edward Rogers.
Ken Will Morton’s long musical history is an amalgam of styles and experiences, all of which he has combined to craft a stellar solo career. After successful stints with Power Pop trio Wonderlust (two releases and Warped tour dates) and Roots Rock quartet The Indicators (one powerful release featuring Morton, 2003’s Kill the Messenger), a path that wound from the early ’90s until 2003, Morton finally channeled his skills in a solo direction for his self-released 2004 debut, the acclaimed In Rock ’n’ Roll’s Hands.
Since then, Morton has raised his solo bar even higher with the outstanding King of Coming Around in 2006 and a pair of excellent discs in 2008, Devil in Me and Kicking Out the Rungs, all of which have garnered favorable and valid comparisons to a veritable Hall of Fame of great American music: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Steve Earle, Drive-By Truckers, Paul Westerberg, Old 97s, the Dead, Ryan Adams, Steve Forbert and a good many more have all had cameos in Morton’s well-stocked press kit.
On his latest solo excursion, True Grit, Morton continues to follow his Americana heart while saving his Jangle Pop soul. On the opening title track, his observations on the vagaries of life and the toughness required to navigate them are set to a jumpy Forbert soundtrack and sung with the raspy verve of John Popper, and it’s just a hint at the greatness about to follow. Morton rocks tough and tender on the Truckeresque “Gamblin’ Man‘s Blues,” touches a Bruce Springsteen nerve on “Restless Heart” and treads Steve Earle-fronting-The Band territory on “Don’t Feel Bad for Crying.”
Six years into his solo sojourn, Ken Will Morton has proven beyond a doubt that he stands shoulder to storytelling shoulder with his illustrious and oft-cited musical peers.
For close to 20 years, guitarist/vocalist Fred Cole, his bassist wife Toody and drummer Andrew Loomis pushed the limits of their sound equipment’s factory specs and created the beloved howling noisefest known as Dead Moon. Fusing the unlikely elements of Punk, Country and Garage Rock, the Clackamus, Ore., trio made an unholy racket and a cultishly loyal fan base all at the same time (although they found a larger and even more receptive audience in Europe). The band had many peer fans, most famously Eddie Vedder, who has covered several Dead Moon songs, and they even inspired a 2004 documentary, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story.
After two decades of grinding out their genre trinity, Cole felt as though the band had painted itself into an inescapable corner and announced the dissolution of Dead Moon. The Coles’ retirement lasted all of four months before they sought the long dormant drum services of Portland bassist Kelly Hutchinson (whose father had played in a band with Fred Cole in the ’70s), and thus Pierced Arrows was born.
Although the only physical difference between Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows is in the drum chair, there are subtle shifts in Fred Cole’s songwriting and Pierced Arrows’ sonic presentation on the trio’s sophomore album, Descending Shadows. Still raw and elemental sonically and structurally, there is a level of complexity in Pierced Arrows that was largely absent in Dead Moon, even as the Coles remain true to the shambling. Missed-beat beauty of their previous incarnation.
“Buried Alive” displays the ragged Punk/Soul heartbeat of the earliest Stooges work while Fred Cole’s visceral vocal performance hacks through Iggy Pop, Jim Carroll, the Beastie Boys and Greg Dulli with a rusty push mower; “Ain’t Life Strange” and “Paranoia” could be unearthed Patti Smith/Richard Lloyd demos; and “Tripped Out” finds Toody in a Marianne Faithfull-fronts-the-Voidoids state of mind.
If you’re looking for musical proficiency, move along … nothing more to see here. But if you’re looking for the kind of foundational passion and rage that underpinned Punk’s earliest proponents with no regard for playing it exactly right, just getting it to feel exactly right, Pierced Arrows will hit you square in the lizard brain.