Ben Kweller, The Von Bondies, Roger Manning and More

So I finally picked up the new Bruce Springsteen but haven't had a chance to spin it yet. And I'm hot to hear the new Heartless Bastards, but maybe I'll wait until the hoopla dies down and give it a review based on a little perspective. So what does that

Feb 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Life displays the wisdom in old adages every day, and the current lesson is “Be careful what you wish for.” Just as the release sheets begin to burst with titles I’d love to cover, I uncover piles of discs I would have loved to have reviewed when they came out last fall.

What’s a pathological music reviewer to do? Cover the new, work in the old wherever you can … this is the new information frontier. We can do whatever we want. We don’t need no stinking badges!

So I finally picked up the new Bruce Springsteen but haven’t had a chance to spin it yet. Maybe I’m a sucker for big Rock spectacle, but I loved Springsteen’s Super Bowl halftime extravaganza. Nobody does big like Bruce. And the title track from the new album sounded great and fit the proceedings, as did his baseball-to-football shift in “Glory Days.”

And I’m hot to hear the new Heartless Bastards, but everyone in town is going to be concentrating on that one, so maybe I’ll wait until the coverage dies down and give it a review based on a little perspective. I’m a rebel.

So what does that leave us with in the present tense? Quite a lot actually, starting with the new one by Ben Kweller. When young Ben burst onto the music scene in the ’90s, he was a teenage phenom in his first band Radish, a hard rocking trio with a bittersweet Pop undercurrent. When Kweller departed Radish for his solo career as a still very young adult, he largely softened the harder edge to concentrate on his pervasive Pop skills, which earned him a rabid following and tons of great press. Only occasionally has Kweller’s east Texas upbringing surfaced in his work with sporadic forays into Folk or rootsy Rock, as he’s leaned toward an interesting hard Pop blend of Harry Nilsson and Weezer.

Perhaps it’s Kweller’s advancing years — he’s nearly 30 now — or maybe it’s his recent relocation to Austin and a return his Texas roots, but something has clearly grabbed him by the Nirvana T-shirt and gotten the attention of his Country id. Changing Horses is an amazingly straightforward Americana album for a guy with a longstanding love of Pop, although the former is definitely informed by the latter in Kweller’s capable hands.

The most striking feature of the album is Kweller’s ability to reference the classic ’70s period of Country Rock, that time when early proponents like Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel and Mike Nesmith were having an impact on their higher profiled peer group (The Rolling Stones and Elton John, for instance) while folding in the sweet Pop elements that have always been his trademark.

“Old Hat” has the twangy lilt of the Burritos, while “Fight” chugs along like an unearthed New Riders of the Purple Sage classic and “Sawdust Man” has the swinging Country/Folk bounce of Nilsson and Randy Newman’s best similar efforts. As great as Ben Kweller’s Pop/Punk output has been to this point in his still young career, Changing Horses is clear evidence that he is no one-trick Pop pony.

Next up is the latest from The Von Bondies, one of my favorite next generation Detroit bands. Maybe it’s synchronicity at its most ironic, but it seems a weird coincidence that the Stooges’ Ron Asheton should shuffle off the mortal coil in the same month as the release of the Von Bondies’ fourth album of stripped down D-troit Rock and stroll, Love, Hate and Then There’s You.

Since starting the Von Bondies nearly a decade ago with drummer Don Blum, guitarist/vocalist Jason Stollsteimer has frequently channeled the riff-laden vibe of Asheton’s early Stooges work, laced with his own contemporary Motor City sensibilities.

Stollsteimer’s debt to forefathers like the Stooges and MC5 ripples through Love, Hate, particularly on the relentless anthemics of “Shut Your Mouth” and “She’s Dead to Me,” where Stollsteimer and company simultaneously churn like Iggy’s boys and soar like The Cult. Just as often, Stollsteimer melds his broad Detroit Rock City stance with the subtler minor melodicism found in The Smiths’ peppier work, like the slightly more nuanced “Pale Bride” and “Accidents Will Happen,” which come off sounding like the Detroit version of the Strokes’ downtown finger-popping power Punk.

There’s no disputing that the Von Bondies are a long way from the Stooges’ brand of furnace-forged and anvil-hammered Jazz/Soul-inflected Rock mongering, but there’s also no denying that, as far as the next generation taking those vaunted influences and carrying the flag a little further up the hill, the kids are most definitely alright.

Another interesting entry this week is Roger Manning’s new solo disc, Catnip Dynamite. If the name is vaguely familiar, Manning was the keyboardist for the late and much lamented ’90s Pop juggernaut Jellyfish (how many bands do you know that released two albums and subsequently inspired a four-disc box set?). In the years since Jellyfish’s sad dissolution, Manning has kept busy with film and TV contributions as well as band work with Imperial Drag, the Moog Cookbook and TV Eyes.

In his solo work, Manning tends to channel the best aspects of ’70s Power and Brit Pop, translating the swelling effervescence of guitar-crunchy, keyboard-heavy Pop/Rock icons like ELO, Queen, Sparks and Elton John into his own unique presentation. Catnip Dynamite is the latest updated chapter in Manning’s big book of Pop history.

Manning runs the gamut here, from the Queen-covers-Neil Sedaka sugar Pop rush of “Love’s Never Half as Good” to the Jeff Lynne-produces-Rick Springfield fist pump of “Down in Front” to the swaggering New Wave Farfisa riffing of “Imaginary Friend.”

Catnip Dynamite also sports a trio of live bonus tracks: cool covers of Thomas Dolby’s “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” and Manning’s own “You Were Right.” Manning was clearly the sweetening in Jellyfish’s bittersweet Pop (Andy Stuermer and Jason Faulkner offered up the burnt edges of the band’s confection), so his work may seem a little too soft for fans of darker Pop. But hardcore fans of Power Pop will find Manning’s Catnip a welcome treat.

Last in the review thunderdome this week is the sophomore disc from Ladyfinger (ne), whose 2006 debut, Heavy Hands, combined the foundational classicism of ’70s Hard Rock with Hardcore/Post Punk’s visceral contemporary energy. With their sophomore release, Dusk, the Omaha quartet (who, by the way, did not add their parenthetical postscript when threatened with legal action; they heard there may have been another Ladyfinger and attached it to circumvent future problems) embarks down a similar path with perhaps a better sense of how to merge those two sonic ideas to create their uniquely hybridized identity.

Dusk’s propulsive opener, “Over and Over” certainly has more than a little flavor of Dave Grohl’s efforts with the Foo Fighters, from the thundering drum sound to the anthemic wall of guitar. At the same time, there is a lot in the song and throughout the rest of Dusk that points in the direction of Jets to Brazil and Sunny Day Real Estate, from the jittery counter rhythms of the appropriately titled “ADD” to the relentless siren pulse of “Work Party.”

Lead vocalist/guitarist Chris Machmuller has a fascinatingly unique voice, with a quality that exists in the tension between Grohl’s contained howl and Julian Cope’s upper register subtlety, which acts as an anchoring agent when the band’s gear shifts from melodic (Dusk’s epic seven minute closer “Born in the ’80s”) to chaotic (“Let’s Get Married”). Dusk is a shreddingly powerful document of Ladyfinger (ne)’s enviable vision and refreshing lack of pretense.

As regards my vinyl-burning project, there is yet another reason for this weekly search through the 12-inch archive to find items that I deem CD worthy. Throughout my collecting career, I have occasionally done something that I believe every rabid vinyl hoarder has done at one time or another, which is buy a desirable title that is in less than mint condition as a collection placeholder, a vinyl bookmark so to speak, saving the position until a better graded copy comes along.

The problem is that over the years I’ve tended to forget which albums were placeholders. This practice was illuminated rather graphically this past week when news of British singer/songwriter John Martyn’s death hit the Internet. I called my friend Kirk to see if he’d heard, and our subsequent conversation led to a discussion of our mutual love of Martyn’s classic Solid Air album from 1973.

Martyn had been a friend and supporter of Nick Drake and wrote the song “Solid Air” about him. When Drake died of an overdose of prescription antidepressants the following year, it was a devastating blow to Martyn. The melancholy Solid Air album took on an entirely different vibe in the face of Drake’s tragic demise.

As Kirk and I went over this old ground, I vaguely recalled having picked up Solid Air at some point. Martyn’s catalog is enormous, of which I possess maybe seven or eight titles. When I finally tracked down my Martyn albums, I flipped through until I located my copy of Solid Air and pulled it out triumphantly … only to discover that it was indeed a placeholder.

The spine looked as though a cat had sharpened its claws on it, and the top edge was completely worn through, offering access to the record sleeve from two directions. When I pulled out the album, it seemed to be in fairly good shape with no major gouges or damage. I cleaned it, put it on the turntable and got ready to burn.

The first side was OK — a little crackly but not unlistenable. Side 2 was another story. Although visually it appeared largely the same as the first side, about a minute into “Go Down Easy,” there was a pop that sounded like a double cracking off Joey Votto’s bat. Then another and another. It was too much to bear. I stopped the recording, tossed the disc and put the album back. Time to look for either a better copy of the album or, failing that, the actual CD.

With the Martyn album off the table, I returned to my Alex Harvey-related pursuits of last week and dug out my copy of Piggy Go Getter, the first album from Tear Gas, the band that was the precursor of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

The story goes that Alex, who was considerably older than the average Glasgow scenester in the late ’60s (he had won a Tommy Steele soundalike contest in Scotland in the ’50s and had formed the Folk/R&B-tinged Alex Harvey’s Big Soul Band in the early ’60s), had seen Tear Gas in a Glasgow club in 1970 and was so impressed he essentially hired them to be his backing band.

Piggy Go Getter is a relatively light Tear Gas album, more indicative of their ’60s Pop influences. “Lost Awakening” has the psychedelic feel of Spirit, “Your Woman’s Gone and Left You” has the soulful Pop lilt of The Kinks or Family, while “Nothing in This World Can Change Your Mind” veers toward the undeniably accessible Pop of The Turtles or The Association.

“Living for Today” leans in a heavier direction and is closer to the full bore Blues/Prog of their eponymous sophomore album, which came about a year later and represented the incarnation of the band that Harvey witnessed around 1971. The long out of print second Tear Gas album was recently issued on CD for the first time, and I just picked up a copy I found through Amazon. Maybe you’ll read about that one next week.

Given the weather recently, my general reticence about heading out into the night was magnified to an unreasonable level, so no shows again this week. Soon …