k.d. lang, Meat Puppets, Bell X1 and Steve Miller

My review calendar may be hopelessly mired in the past but my head remains firmly ensconced in the present (sort of) and that moves me to offer condolences and well wishes concerning recent sad events. On June 18, the world’s music community was forced t

Jul 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm

My review calendar may be hopelessly mired in the past but my head remains firmly ensconced in the present (sort of) and that moves me to offer condolences and well wishes concerning recent sad events. On June 18, the world’s music community was forced to say goodbye to Clarence Clemons, the Big Man of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. Clemons parlayed his incredible saxophone skills and imposing physical stature into an amazing career and a larger than life persona that made him one of the most unique and identifiable figures in Rock & Roll. In addition to his E-Street Band role, Clemons fronted his own band and was a perpetually busy session player, most recently providing sax to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album. Plagued by health issues for the past few years, Clemons was felled by a stroke at age 69.

On the other end of the spectrum, all but a cult few remember the contributions of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, whose Frank Zappa-produced An Evening with Wild Man Fischer in 1969 is widely considered the inaugural release of “outsider” recording. Fischer was a high functioning schizophrenic living largely on the streets of Los Angeles and making up songs for dime handouts when he encountered Zappa, who took him into the studio and turned him into a cult figure. Fischer continued to record sporadically over the years but to little effect; his most recent studio work was an unlikely 1986 duet with Rosemary Clooney, “It’s a Hard Business,” which was arranged by weirdo duo Barnes and Barnes (Bill Mumy, best known as Will Robinson on Lost in Space, and his creative sidekick Robert Haimer). In 1999, Rhino released The Fischer King, a two-disc set of Fischer’s entire catalog, which sold out within a few weeks. He made a rare TV appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2004 and was also the subject of 2005’s film documentary Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Wild Man Fischer. Fischer died from a heart attack on June 16.

Thankfully still with us but clearly in need of our every prayer and good vibe is former Mountain guitarist Leslie West, who had to be rushed to a hospital from a solo performance on June 20 when the swelling in his right leg turned to excruciating pain. A longtime diabetic, West had to have his leg amputated just above the knee in order to save his life. At 65, he has a tough rehabilitation ahead of him, but West is a born fighter.

After a long and illustrious run, first with The Vagrants in the ’60s, then with Mountain, West, Bruce & Laing and his solo bands, West retreated from music when gigs dried up and no one seemed to care. West’s career was reignited in the late ’80s, when he was listening to Howard Stern’s show and heard Stern muse at great length about whatever became of Leslie West and bemoaned the loss of such a hugely talented guitarist. West immediately called the show, talked to Stern on the air and ultimately became a frequent guest on the program. Those appearances put West back in the spotlight, earning him a new recording contract and putting back on the road for the first time in years. (West talked to Stern on the phone following his surgery and Stern asked West for his right-foot shoes to sell on eBay and wondered if the leg could be incorporated into a guitar. West’s statement through his publicist was “Call my podiatrist and see if I can get half off.”)

We wish nothing but the best for the Mountain man on his path to recovery, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Unusual Suspects, his first new album in five years, slated for mid-September.

And finally, our deepest condolences to the family and countless friends of Jane Scott, the former Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic who passed away on July 4 at age 92. Originally the paper’s etiquette and society reporter for 10 years, Scott went to see The Beatles in Cleveland in 1964 and, although she was in her early 40s at the time, recognized the importance of the band and sensed their impact on music and youth culture. She had already been assigned a column geared toward pre-teen children, and had shifted the focus to teenagers when her unassigned attendance at the Beatles show immediately opened her eyes to the coming musical revolution and she became the Plain Dealer’s full time staff music writer. As she was the only newspaper reporter assigned to cover music in the mid-’60s, she is widely regarded as the world’s first Rock critic.

Scott, who retired in 2002 just before her 83rd birthday, was a constant fixture in Cleveland’s clubs and music venues and was much loved by fans, her fellow writers and most especially by the bands she covered, including Bruce Springsteen, who she predicted would be a huge star after seeing him in 1975 and who became her favorite artist. Other fans included Lou Reed, Lyle Lovett and the Doobie Brothers, whose “Black Water” was her favorite song. Among her notable résumé points: delaying a Who concert by reading the band’s palms backstage (palm reading was a hobby of Scott’s) and accompanying Jimi Hendrix on a Corvette-buying expedition.

Jane Scott was a fantastic spirit and an incredible inspiration to those of us who endeavor to follow her example and spread the gospel of Rock to our readers. There is no way that we can miss her, because she’s a part of our musical DNA and her influence will ripple through us until we join her. Thanks for blazing the trail, Jane. We’ll do our best to hack out new paths in your amazing memory.

Anyone who witnessed k.d. lang’s 1986 American television debut on Late Night with David Letterman will never forget the sight of the Canadian firecracker kicking up her heels in a gingham dress and belting out the electrifying “Turn Me Round” while her band, The Reclines, provided an incendiary soundtrack and tore up the floorboards behind her. It was a frenetic performance that was ultimately paid off by the 1987 release of Angel with a Lariat, which beautifully displayed lang’s incredible range and her adoration of Patsy Cline. Within a year, lang dropped her first solo album, the torchy Shadowland, and although she kept the Reclines around for a couple more albums, the die was fairly well cast for lang to become a Country/Pop chanteuse of the first magnitude.

With her latest, Sing It Loud, lang returns to a band atmosophere for the first time since the end of the Reclines. Credited to lang and the Siss Boom Bang, Sing It Loud offers a perfect balance of lang’s early raucous, one take spontaneity and the carefully crafted Pop balladry that she’s polished to a brilliant finish over the past two decades. Her love of Roy Orbison immediately comes to the forefront with the album’s first three tracks, “I Confess,” “A Sleep with No Dreaming” and the Jimmy Webb-tinged “The Water’s Edge,” which gives way to the shimmering Memphis Soul of “Perfect Word” and the Stonesy shuffle of the exquisite “Sugar Buzz.”

Clearly, there’s nothing on Sing It Loud that erupts with the manic energy of “Turn Me Round,” but there is an obvious band vibe on the album, as on the gorgeous melancholy of “Habit of Mind” and lang and SBB’s rippling Angelo Badalamenti take on Talking Heads’ “Heaven.” Sing It Loud shows a facet of lang’s musical persona that has gone untapped for much too long a time. One that we can only hope she’ll keep in her creative arsenal from now on.

When Meat Puppets roared out of Arizona over a quarter century ago, their tumultuous desert Punk found eagerly receptive ears among the likes of Kurt Cobain, J. Mascis and Stephen Malkmus, but the Puppet’s most profound influence may have resulted from their almost pathological creative restlessness. Psychedelicized Country Rock, dusty Punk, melodic Pop/Rock and every permutation between and beyond has emanated from the Puppets during their long tenure and infamous turmoil.

The Puppets’ track record of reliable unpredictability has been their greatest asset, from their earliest experimentation to their 1994 commercial breakthrough Too High to Die to the comprehensive backward glance of 2009’s Sewn Together. Lollipop, the Puppets’ 13th studio album, is largely an extension of Sewn Together’s sonic quilt, from the Psych Punk sway of “Hour of the Idiot” and the acid hootenanny of “Baby Don’t” to the rootsy Pop pulse of “Damn Thing” and the desert Glam of “Way That It Are.”

Lollipop is neither startlingly groundbreaking or disappointingly familiar, it’s just the Meat Puppets doing what they do, which is everything they do.

To most Americans, Bell X1 is a complete cipher — even after they scored songs from earlier albums on Grey’s Anatomy and The O.C. (“Eve, the Apple of My Eye” was the soundtrack to the latter’s well-hyped lesbian kiss scene) — so they’d likely be astonished that the Irish band routinely fills stadiums at home, a feat they accomplished by racking up multi-platinum sales figures that broke records previously held by U2 and the Pope (not necessarily in that order).

On Bloodless Coup, Bell X1’s fifth album and second without founding member Brian Crosby, the band retains their Coldplay-channels-David Byrne edgy warmth with a slightly greater reliance on an Electronic pulse. “Safer Than Love” could have been produced by Gary Numan, “Sugar High” blips and bops with bedroom laptop intensity and “Hey Anna Lena” opens with a chilly Radiohead minimalism, eventually giving way to the majestic orchestral dynamism that has defined Bell X1 from the outset. But “Nightwatchmen” and “The Trailing Skirts of God” soar and swoon with the best of the band’s estimable and emotional Pop catalog.

It seems like a 100-year-old yesterday since my time as writer/editor for the bi-weekly Entertainer, which is where I wound up becoming a fan of Pop wunderkind Richard X. Heyman. Sifting through the mail one afternoon in 1987, I came across a package from Nancy Leigh touting a bracing bit of Power Pop wizardry titled Actual Size, Heyman’s debut solo EP. As it turned out, Leigh was Heyman’s occasional bassist, publicist and the girlfriend he had left behind in New York for a brass ring shot in California. He ultimately realized that Leigh was his future, returned to the east coast and married her, a bond that remains nearly a quarter century later.

Heyman’s epic new Pop album, Tiers And Other Stories, is largely inspired by his early journey of musical and personal discovery. The two-disc release, which Heyman describes as a “Popera,” is actually two distinct parts. The first disc, Tiers, reflects on Heyman’s defection to the west coast, while And Other Stories deals with the tribulations and triumphs experienced by Heyman and Leigh in the years since his prodigal return.

Heyman is a lover of puns and double entendre, as evidenced by Tiers, which could be interpreted as “levels,” but could also represent the salty cheek residue resulting from his exile from family, friends and love. Beyond its literal story, Tiers is like a brilliant conceptual collaboration between Brian Wilson, Jon Brion and Randy Newman, littered with harmonic gems like the bittersweet farewell of “Horizon,” the literal letter home of “The Game Stays the Same,” the Pop Gospel hymn of “Yellow and Blue” and the confessional truth of the title track.

And Other Stories, while less overtly conceptual than its companion disc, is an equally impressive set of reflective Pop songs, like the melancholy meditation of “Agnostic’s Prayer,” the Brit Folk pace of “Birds” and the lilting piano Pop of “No Time For Rest on Sunday.” Heyman progresses well beyond the jangling guitar Pop that defined his early work, embracing a more ornate baroque atmosphere, although longtime fans will be heartened that he hasn’t completely abandoned his Pop/Rock roots — “Branded in the Sky” and “Only For You” shimmer with the best of his Beatlesque output.

Lyrically and musically, Tiers And Other Stories is classic Heyman — serious and playful, heartbreaking and hilarious, single-minded and expansive. It is also amazingly accomplished; Heyman plays everything other than the album’s string and horn parts. On paper, Tiers And Other Stories could be viewed as a challenging listen — an intensely personal and literally conveyed story that doubles as a Rock opera of sorts, spread over 30 tracks and better than two hours of music — but in execution, it is Heyman’s astonishing magnum opus and quite possibly one of the year’s best albums.

The bulk of Steve Miller’s success has occurred as a result of his Pop output (“The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jungle Love,“ “Jet Airliner”), but fans that date to his earliest work know that the Texas-reared guitarist started his recording career in 1968 with Children of the Future. That album and the handful that followed into the early ’70s were immersed in the hallucinatory Blues atmosphere that was pervasive in San Franciscom when he arrived there in 1967 after having tested the more traditional electric Blues scene in Chicago. Over the course of six albums, Miller became a staple of FM/college underground radio and he used the sonic formulas that had made him a cult figure on the Pop albums that made him a mainstream icon. Miller tired of pursuing new stylistic shifts and largely retired from recording after 1993’s Wide River, instead concentrating on the lucrative live market.

After a 17-year hiatus, Miller finally returned to the studio with last year’s Bingo, an album of interesting and nicely translated Blues covers, and this year Miller offers up Bingo’s bookend, the equally energetic and entertaining Let Your Hair Down. The 10-track cover album picks up where Bingo left off, with Miller finding a nice balance between the electric Chicago Blues Rock he abandoned in the mid-’60s, the Psychedelic Blues he mastered in San Francisco with just a touch of the Pop swagger he perfected in the ’70s and ’80s.

Bingo offered up several Blues chestnuts (“Rock Me Baby,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Further on Up the Road”), where Let Your Hair Down features just one seriously revisited biscuit (Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago”). In that respect, Hair might be just a shade better, with a couple of nuggets from Willie Dixon (“Pretty Thing,” “Love the Life I Live”), a great Muddy Waters tune (“Can’t Be Satisfied”), a Jimmy Reed classic (“Close Together”) and a blistering take on Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk.”

Let Your Hair Down is further evidence of Steve Miller’s impeccable skills as a guitarist and his amazing versatility as a purveyor of classic Blues from a contemporary craftsman’s perspective.

Ian Axel has one of those irresistible back-stories that makes for compelling copy. Axel started playing piano at age 3; inspired by the bar scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, he picked out the melody for “Tequila” by ear on his grandmother’s piano and naturally drifted toward writing. After shifting to Classical piano and considering/rejecting a conservatory education, Axel enrolled at New York University where he met kindred musical spirit Chad Vaccarino, who became his friend and musical collaborator. Vaccarino eventually gifted Axel with a voice lesson with one of New York’s most respected vocal coaches; until that lesson, Axel had never even sung in the shower.

Axel ultimately balanced a day job at the Apple Store with school and gigging around New York, and even worked in a few national promotions for Apple, including store openings and corporate events. Last spring, Axel was able to leave his Apple position with the help of MTV, who licensed songs from im on to you, his 2007 EP, for use on The Hills and The Real World. Last year also saw the digital release of Axel’s debut full length, This is the New Year, which just recently gained its physical release through tinyOGRE Records.

This is the New Year is a sonic scrapbook of Axel’s myriad influences but at the same time it’s a brilliantly expansive and naively sophisticated evocation of what Axel wants Piano Pop to be. The most frequent and logical point of comparison is Ben Folds, and to be sure, Folds looms large in Axel’s development, and that shadow spreads over tracks like “Afterglow,” the epic “We Are” and the album’s propulsive opener “Leave Me Alone!” But Axel departs from Folds’ Pop/Rock-on-the-88s blueprint by dialing back the frat boy humor and concentrating on the melancholy majesty of his melodies and the intensely personal focus of his lyrics, while offering the passionate contemporary emotionalism of Owl City. At the same time, there are hints of Regina Spektor and Rufus Wainwright in the Slavic sway of “Waltz,” the ghost of Harry Nilsson hovers over “Girl I Got a Thing” and Chris Martin would be proud to claim the title track as his own.

This is the New Year is a wonderful debut album. While Ian Axel may inspire a bit of name-checking now, he’s clearly on the way to inspiring young, up-and-coming piano Pop dramatists that dream of being the next Ian Axel.

As evidenced by recent releases by Steve Miller (reviewed above) and Todd Rundgren (covered next week), the new trend in the Blues is to rediscover obscure old songs and reinvent them in some classically contemporary manner. Tracy Nelson got the first part of the formula down, but the formidable vocalist has little interest in updating these great old tunes beyond the spit and polish of current production methodology.

Nelson has Blues cred to spare; she recorded her first album, Deep Are the Roots, in Chicago in 1964, then relocated to San Francisco and formed the Psych Blues powerhouse band Mother Earth, which became one of the premier bands of the era. Nelson’s own composition “Down So Low” rose to classic status, inspiring greats like Etta James, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt and Cyndi Lauper to cover it. After the end of Mother Earth in the ’70s, Nelson carried on as a solo artist, even scoring a Grammy nomination for “After the Fire is Gone,” a duet with Wille Nelson.

One spin through Nelson’s homage album, Victim of the Blues, and you’ll wonder if you haven't fallen into some science fiction time slip. Nelson’s greatest influences are the twin towers of female Blues singers, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and she has a duskily clear vocal instrument to rival either of those greats. Amazingly, avowed superfan Nelson was completely unaware of the Ma Rainey song “Victim of the Blues” until she saw it listed on a website. When she heard it, she knew she’d found her title track, which she nails with all the considerable Blues authority and passion at her command.

From the shambling backbeat of Little Milton’s “Feel So Bad” to the Blues/Gospel hymn of Irma Thomas’ “Without Love (There is Nothing)” to the blistering swagger of Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine” to the gritty roadhouse choogle of Jimmy Reed’s “Shoot My Baby,” Nelson puts her unique vocal stamp on songs that date back more than half a century without trying to tart them up with a lot of modern affectations. Tracy Nelson is a Soul/Blues belter in the finest tradition and, along with her crack band on Victim of the Blues, she knows when to leave tradition well enough alone, how to infuse a song with her inherent power and let her voice and the song itself soar.