This is a bittersweet time of year for me. I’m obviously pleased to be as pathologically busy as I am (it beats the poverty-straddling alternative), but there's a tinge of sadness as another South By Southwest music festival/conference that I won’t be attending looms on the horizon.
My three Austin visits — 2004, 2005 and 2006 — were life-altering encounters with one of the most amazing music scenes I’ve ever witnessed and experienced. The combination of seeing our hometown artists playing to appreciative audiences so far from home and the thrill of seeing some fairly big names in relatively intimate surroundings was an unmatched thrill. And it was great to finally meet so many of the publicists and label reps that I've known only through phone and e-mail contact for so many years, not to mention my fellow music scribes whose amazing insights have inspired me to be a better writer and listener (and in the case of guys like Dave Marsh, actually inspired me to write about music in the first place).
It’s an incredible four-day scene, and I really can’t wait to have the opportunity to return. Obviously, there have been a few shifts since my last trip four years ago. One of my favorite daytime parties was hosted by Austin-based Pop Culture Press — a magazine that I began contributing to in 1997 — but they unfortunately ceased publication in 2008. It seems they've resurfaced in the blogosphere, but that’s not likely a strong enough presence to resurrect their amazing Saturday afternoon lineups at the Dog & Duck Pub.
Such is life at SXSW. There are clearly dozens of other events going on around Austin on the last day of the festival, so it’s not like the absence of the PCP party will be such a glaring gap in the schedule. Still, it was the place where I got to have long conversations with Alejandro Escovedo and Steve Wynn, met Jules Shear and Dwight Twilley and saw Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs do their Sid and Susie cover act. C’est la vie.
Anyway, enough reverie about something I can’t do when there’s a stack of stuff waiting for me to do what I can do. This week is a lot like last week: lots of releases and not a lot of time to review them. I had to hold a few titles from my last posting due to time constraints, and that’s the case again this week (there are some flat Tuesdays at the end of this month and again in April, so I’ll revisit the recent overflow then) but there’s still a ton of good stuff to check out. So check, already.
John Hiatt has been pursuing his Roots Rock direction for so long now it’s sometimes difficult to remember that he started off in a Folk/Pop vein in the early ’70s, which morphed into a tough/tender New Wave angle later in the decade and into the ’80s. But like any decent gunslinger, Hiatt never forgets how many bullets he has left, and his chambers are packed full on The Open Road, the 19th studio album of his long and storied career.
Hiatt’s last album, 2008’s Same Old Man, was a quirky but relatively gentle acoustic/electric outing filled with a comfortable combination of the songwriter’s highly personal and oddly structured material and his more traditional and infinitely coverable songs, all with a Blues-on-the-back-porch feel. On The Open Road, Hiatt charts a slightly more expansive course, returning to the chunkier, funkier Rock rhythms of Slow Turning and Bring the Family, with guitarist Doug Lancio doing a pretty fair job of approximating the slide and snap of Sonny Landreth, whose presence on those two seminal Hiatt albums was palpable.
Hiatt’s theme on The Open Road is, as the title suggests, hitting the highway but not necessarily for some romanticized road trip. The title track opens the album, with Lancio’s guitar squalling with Crazy Horse abandon as Hiatt’s craggy vocal tells a tale of redemption or escape with the kind of visceral, breakneck intensity that informed Warren Zevon’s best work.
What follows is almost a sonic scrapbook of Hiatt’s career path to date, from his Tex Mex-flavored version of a Red Sovine truck-driving song (“Haulin’ ”) to his classic Roots Pop balladeering (“Go Down Swingin’ ”) to a smart and swinging Blues spin (“Like a Freight Train”) and a dirtier, steamier side of the same (“My Baby”). If there’s a future Hiatt classic in this set, it’s got to be “What Kind of Man,” a sinewy shuffle that bubbles to a slow boil between Lancio’s guitar pyrotechnics and the flawlessly funky bottom of bassist Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Kenneth Blevins.
Clearly, Hiatt hasn’t had to worry about a commercial breakthrough since becoming a songwriter’s songwriter and providing cover material to Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan and any number of others who have taken his songs to the upper reaches of the charts. That frees him to make albums like The Open Road, works that are personally satisfying first and foremost and a joy for his steadfast fans who have followed every Hiatt phase with a knowing nod and a sly smile.
The danger of doing a Robert Pollard review is running out of superlatives and Pete Townshend references before the end. There are other obvious pitfalls, up to and including the review itself; Pollard is the Stephen King of Rock, churning out massive amounts of music both with and beyond Guided by Voices, which apparently puts off a lot of jaded media types who can only digest genius every two years.
Pollard’s recent streak is impressive even by his own raised-bar status: four Boston Spaceship albums, two from Circus Devils, one from Cosmos (Pollard and Cardinal’s Richard Davies) and four under his own name, all within the past two years.
Pollard seems ready to continue the string in 2010 — this week sees the release of We All Got Out of the Army, which will be followed by Moses on a Snail this summer and God knows what else before the year is up. On Army, Pollard and producer/co-conspirator Todd Tobias concoct a visceral set that runs the gamut from delirious Power Pop (“Silk Rotor”) to fresh takes on Pollard’s darkly ruminative Who fixation (“I Can See,” “Poet Bums,” “His Knighthood Photograph”) to jangly Mitch Easter-flecked sugar Rock (“Post-Hydrate Update,”) to clockwork New Wave guitar Rock (“On Top of the Vertigo,” “How Many Stations”) to hints of 1970-ear David Bowie (“Red Pyramid,” “Faster to Babylon”).
There are some classic off-the-sonic-wall Pollard moments; “Rice Train” imagines Motorhead as an experimental Pop band with Brian Eno trying to corral the weirdness, and “Wild Girl” is a tremulous answering machine demo. As bizarre as those songs are, they divide the disc in a typically interesting manner. The truly amazing thing about Robert Pollard is that he can write and record in this wide variety of styles within a single album and is clearly adept enough at all of them to actually be capable of writing an album’s worth of any of it, but he contents himself with tossed-off two-minute chunks of cracked brilliance.
To hell with the haters. The least of Pollard‘s prolific output is pretty damn good, so why should he edit genius? If you‘ve got 10 in you this year, Bob, we’ll eat it all — thank you, sir — and ask for more. Get busy. Oh, you are. Carry on, then.
Rogue Wave began eight years ago when frontman Zach Schwartz lost his tech job in the dot.com bust and decided to clear his head with a trip to New York. His original intention was to record a couple of songs with a friend but the sessions yielded an entire album’s worth of tunes that inspired Schwartz to quit his old band and create a new one that he christened Rogue Wave, adopting Rogue as a pseudonymous surname.
He self-released the New York sessions as Out of the Shadow in 2003, which brought him to the attention of Sub Pop, which signed the band and reissued Shadow in 2004. The following year, the largely solo bedroom Pop of Shadow gave way to Rogue Wave’s more collaborative sophomore effort, the bracingly beautiful and expansive Descended Like Vultures.
Good things began happening for the band; acclaim rolled in for the album, and their music received high profile exposure with cool television and film placements. But the downside was more difficult; kidney disease forced drummer Pat Spurgeon on hiatus, guitarist Gram LeBron’s father passed away, bassist Evan Farrell quit and the band lost their Sub Pop deal when they couldn’t agree on a number of albums to put in the contract.
Jack Johnson eventually signed Rogue Wave to his Brushfire imprint and released Asleep at Heaven’s Gate, an album that was generally regarded as slicker and slightly less satisfying than its more visceral predecessors.
On their fourth album, Permalight, Rogue Wave seems to be steering for even deeper commercial waters. Although “Solitary Gun” hearkens back to Heaven’s Gate, “Good Morning (The Future)” and the title track bubble along on synth and machine beats like a cross between Vampire Weekend and Peter Gabriel at his most chart-minded. “Sleepwalker” “Stars and Stripes” and the lovely and edgy “We Will Make the Song Destroy” push the sound back into Rogue Wave’s quirky Shins-as-Shoegaze-Pop range, but Permalight too often settles for good enough when the band should clearly be aiming for the same general targets that they hit effectively on their last two albums.
Certainly no band should continue to make the same album over and over, and the addition of electronics isn’t a bad way to spice up the mix, but if that’s the direction that Rogue Wave wants to pursue, it needs to be in the service of better songs with more sonic conviction than they show on Permalight.
Where would we be without that special brand of crazy provided by the inimitable and certifiably erratic genius of Anton Newcombe? Over the past decade and a half, Newcombe and his revolving door of acid cases known collectively as the Brian Jonestown Massacre have sculpted a cool underground career and a loyal fan base that hews slightly above cult status by simultaneously looking backward (to The Rolling Stones’ sonic tripmongering of the late ’60s), less backward (to ’80s psychgazers like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Church) and forward (as a lo-fi home recordist with boundless ambition, balls, confidence and wild-eyed creative ability). BJM’s early outings ran the gamut from Shoegaze to Garage Rock to straight Psychedelia to twangy acid Blues to increasingly expansive cinematic soundscapes, with each evolutionary notch clearly defined by Newcombe’s unhinged brilliance.
For their latest, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?, Newcombe and this year’s iteration of BJM combine their constant penchant for psychedelic exploration with their recent filmic perspective while adding a new sonic wrinkle — a contemporary Trance/Techno pulse. Like most of Newcombe’s musical hybrids, Sgt. Pepper is not merely a new idea tacked onto the front of an old structure but a fascinating blend of stylistic directions, expanding BJM’s range while retaining a consistent identity. And one look at the cover art indicates a wild ride on Newcombe’s musical roller coaster, as he namechecks Rock’s most revered and recognized psychedelic album along with an image of Christ’s crown-of-thorns agony.
With Trance-like deliberation and an acid-fried loopiness, BJM crafts an oddly controlled 75-minute dance floor hallucination that largely reflects the album’s European recording environment; “Someplace Else Unknown” sounds like a collaboration between Iggy Pop and Muse, “Dekta! Dekta! Dekta!” combines Kraftwerkian Pop with Gogol Bordello’s gypsy dance Rock, and “This Is the First of Your Last Warnings” throbs with both Psych intensity and Techno groove, with neither one overtaking the other.
While an argument could be made that the album could have been a little more judiciously edited, Newcombe has the rare ability to incorporate new sounds into his existing sonic profile and produce a new yet familiar musical experience, and Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? is further evidence of that gift.
Essra Mohawk is one of those astonishing artists with a compelling back story and a pretty decent catalog that should have made a much bigger impression within the encyclopedic context of Rock music’s history and instead became inexplicably lost in its tangled table of contents. Thankfully, Collector’s Choice is reissuing Mohawk’s first three albums in an effort to illuminate the obscure singer/songwriter whose work has been heard in some high-profile circumstances. Ever heard “Interjections!” on Schoolhouse Rock? That was Mohawk.
Born Sandy Hurvitz, the Philadelphia native recorded her first single at 16, wrote songs that were covered by the Shangri-Las and Vanilla Fudge and turned down a staff songwriting position at the Brill Building at 17. She met Frank Zappa at 19, becoming a de facto member of the Mothers of Invention when she replaced an ailing Don Preston on keyboards during the Mothers’ residency at New York’s Garrick Theater. Zappa signed Hurvitz to a production deal and started work on her 1969 debut, Sandy’s Album Is Here at Last!, but peevishly turned the project over to Mother keyboardist Ian Underwood after Hurvitz suggested looser, less charted musical accompaniment.
The resultant recording, barely touched by Underwood and ultimately abandoned by Zappa, was almost completely stripped of anything beyond Hurvitz’s voice and piano (a handful of tracks featured saxophonist Jim Pepper, flautist Jeremy Steig, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Donald McDonald) and had the stark emotional impact of Laura Nyro’s early work (not to mention a precursor to the kind of raw empowerment that would define Alanis Morrissette’s work almost three decades later). A highlight is “Archgodliness of Purplefull Magic,” a gorgeous hippie ballad and one of only two non-Zappa compositions that the Mothers performed at the Garrick shows. The album sank with little notice.
Mohawk’s next album was momentous even though it didn’t fare much better commercially. Reprise head Mo Ostin saw Mohawk in a New York club and signed her for her sophomore album, 1970’s Primordial Lovers, which was produced by her soon-to-be husband, Frazier Mohawk (her Zappa-era nickname Essie had evolved into Essra; she had also been dubbed Uncle Meat by Zappa during the Garrick shows), a pairing that provided her eventual performing name. With Primordial Lovers, Mohawk found a sympathetic producer and a better platform for her Rock/Soul/Jazz direction. And while the album garnered decent notices and a lot of FM airplay (particularly on “Thunder in the Morning,” Mohawk’s ode to Stephen Stills, written on a baby grand owned by Little Feat frontman Lowell George), Reprise did almost no promotion and gave Mohawk no tour support on an album that Rolling Stone called one of the Top 25 albums of all time in a 1977 feature. Once again, Mohawk’s soulful Nyro-like explorations piqued critical interest but not sales.
For her 1974 eponymous album, Mohawk signed with Paramount, a label that was actively interested in her work. By this time, Mohawk had taken her sound in a more Blues/Rock direction, although she was never far from her love of Soul and Jazz, giving her new songs a sound that suggested everyone from Carole King (“New Skins for Old”) to Lydia Pense (“You Make Me Come to Pieces”) to Janis Joplin (“Back in the Spirit”). The album also featured a fun and funky take on the Gershwin classic “Summertime” and the song that would become Mohawk’s signature, the soaring “Magic Pen.”
But at the 11th hour, Paramount was sold to ABC and Mohawk’s manager, thinking the sale would be detrimental for the album, optioned out of the contract. He resold it to Elektra/Asylum, who had no emotional attachment to the album and released it in 1974 with a lack of enthusiasm that equalled or surpassed her previous two labels.
Mohawk has continued to release records — she’s put out eight studio albums and a live recording since 1976 — and a variety of artists have had hits with her songs, most notably Cyndi Lauper with “Change of Heart” and Tina Turner with “Stronger Than the Wind.” Still in all, it’s heartening to see Mohawk’s first three albums, criminally ignored in their time, find some validation nearly 40 years after the fact.
In Collector’s Choice, Essra Mohawk has finally aligned with a label that believes in her and her work wholeheartedly. They’ve added a few nice complementary bonus tracks from each album’s session to round out the sets, as cool and strong as they were four decades ago, proving it’s never too late to revisit great music.