New York Dolls, J Mascis, Smoking Popes and If By Yes

In the new millennium, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain of New York Dolls have been more obvious about their love of Doo Wop and the street corner vocal groups of the ‘50s, and that influence shows up on High Heels on the son-of-Spector “Fool for You B

May 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

There’s a lot of blather out there on the interweb that Dancing Backward in High Heels shouldn't be billed as a New York Dolls album by virtue of the fact that the only members left from the band’s original lineup are David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain. But The Rolling Stones are in nearly the same boat as the Dolls; besides Jagger and Richards, the only original geez is the mummy that was once Charlie Watts. Are you going to tell Jagger he can’t be The Rolling Stones? That makes it a solo project and you know how those have done for him over the years.

But perhaps the most cogent point here is that, even if Billy Murcia hadn’t died by misadventure and even if Arthur Kane had beat leukemia and even if Johnny Thunders hadn’t ridden the smack train to the boneyard, the New York Dolls of 2011, with every original member intact, wouldn’t be the New York Dolls that shook heaven and earth with their brilliant 1974 eponymous debut. So there. (For the record, Murcia died before the Dolls recorded the first album, making Jerry Nolan, who died from a stroke in 1992, the Dolls’ original drummer of record … and Sylvain actually became the band’s guitarist after the departure of Rick Rivets in 1971.)

Since Johansen and Sylvain reclaimed the Dolls’ brand, they’ve done a pretty good job of updating their sound, staying true to their original influences and allowing for the passage of nearly four decades since they took New York clubs like stormtroopers in platform shoes in the early ‘70s. High Heels fits nicely into that sonic blueprint.

In the new millennium, Johansen and Sylvain have been more obvious about their love of Doo Wop and the street corner vocal groups of the ‘50s, and that influence shows up on High Heels on the son-of-Spector “Fool for You Baby,” the tossed off majesty of “Streetcake” and a sweetly ragged take on the Rene brothers’ “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.” But even with his voice 40 years beyond the punky sneer that savagely attacked his lyrics back in the day, Johansen proves he can still swagger with the best of them; when he declares, “I’m more fab than all the hipsters on Broadway” on “I’m So Fabulous,” you not only believe it, you’re inclined to defend him, supported as he is by the Dolls’ full tilt Punk soundtrack and Jamie Toms’ swirling, art-damaged saxophone.

High Heels veers back and forth between these two sonic outposts, from the nodding ’50s black leather prom sway of “Kids Like You” to the West Side Story switchblade rumble of “Round and Round She Goes,” with the unshakeable confidence that they can pull it all off without a hitch. Which they can. They even throw in a Dollsy update of the first track from Johansen’s debut 1978 solo album, the finger-wagging cissy-stomp of “Funky But Chic.”

The New York Dolls may be far from the platformed glam punks that gave the finger to convention in the ’70s, but Dancing Backward in High Heels shows that they’re far from over.

J Mascis is a quiet man, not particularly demonstrative or animated, and even when he takes the stage with Dinosaur Jr., the physical passion of his guitar ministrations manifests itself in a rocking motion that seems fairly sedate by adrenalized Rock standards. But even as Mascis hides behind his curtain of gray hair and delivers his lyrics in a voice that could charitably be described as “unique,” he unleashes a tumult through his amps that sounds like the seismic reading of a 9.5 earthquake set to music.

Mascis’ guitar squall is a palpable sonic force, a visceral wall of melodic noise that sounds as though it could break glass, bend steel and alter heartbeats. But on Mascis’ new solo album, Several Shades of Why, the pummeling guitarist unplugs (to a point) and delivers a largely acoustic album with an uncharacteristically delicate atmosphere that relies more on acoustic Folk elegance than electric Punk bombast.

On Several Shades of Why, Mascis draws on his love of British Folk giants like Pentangle and Fairport Convention (and their most famous components, Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson) on a set of songs that never sound like Dinosaur Jr. demos but are clearly created to exist in this simple, stripped-back atmosphere.

The quiet surroundings point up the vulnerability in Mascis’ voice, a creaky instrument that is reminiscent of Eddie Vedder with a head cold, but the songs’ gentle messages and presentations are perfectly framed by Mascis’ delicate sonic constructions, from the Small Faces/Traffic temperament of ‘Make It Right’ to the Jorma Kaukonen lilt of ‘Not Enough’ and the Fairport/Thompson elegance of title track.

Of course, Mascis can’t contain his electric impulses for an entire album; “Is It Done” cuts loose with some squealing and yet tastefully dialed back soloing about three minutes in, while “Can I” finds Mascis painting the air with the moody amplification that Neil Young has made his signature.

Several Shades of Why is a craggily beautiful album that is every bit as powerful as the towering monuments to feedback that dominate J Mascis’ catalog.

It’s been a quarter century since Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean began filtering their AltRock chops through their prismatic adoration of Neil Young to create Eleventh DreamDay’s gloriously melodic cacophony. Lineup changes, fickle commercial winds and label indifference have conspired against 11DD, but it’s rarely had an impact on the honesty with which the band approaches its brash and beautiful noise.

Riot Now! — 11DD’s first new album in five years — bristles with the kind of squalling intensity that defined the band’s earliest albums, an amazing accomplishment considering the nearly malicious neglect they’ve experienced. Opener “Damned Tree” is an insistent case in point, a howling mad mash-up of Dictators/Dolls Punk Rock thunder and Mission of Burma Indie Rock lightning, with the ever present Crazy Horse squeal drifting through the proceedings like a palpable cloud of feedback smoke.

Every song on Riot Now! finds the band members applying their broad musical brushstrokes to, from “Cold Steel Grey” (which opens with a chaotically epic Stooges intro and gives way to a Farfisa-and-guitar garage rumble) and the Iggy meets Sonic Youth feedback hymn of “That’s What’s Coming” to the anthemic Who/Crazy Horse Punk of “Divining for Water.”

Anyone with memories of Eleventh Dream Day will tremble at the raw wonder of Riot Now! It’s an album that quivers with visceral abandon rivaling the current crop of melodic noisemeisters, many of whom weren’t even born when 11DD released its debut. Anyone lacking those memories should attempt to fill in the gaps immediately.

When Smoking Popes began in the early ’90s (on the heels of the Caterer brothers shifting from their teenage band identity from Speedstick), the Chicago scene seemed primed and ready to embrace their infectious brand of Power Pop/Punk, which they did with almost unquestioning loyalty. It’s not like the Popes didn’t earn that slavish devotion; very few bands turn out a single masterpiece, and the Popes churned out two, 1995’s Born to Quit and 1997’s Destination Failure, which led to opening offers from Green Day and Electric Light Orchestra and officially avowed fandom from Morrissey. The band rode a decent wave (save for the slight Capitol Records hiccup, another major label “What do we do with these guys?” cliché) until frontman Josh Caterer’s Christian beliefs moved him to dismantle the Popes in 1999.

After a six-year hiatus that saw the Popes’ reputation hold steady on the basis of a couple of live albums and a rarities collection, Josh, Matt and Eli Caterer (and a rotating cast of drummers) resurrected the Popes. Their November 2005 reunion show at Chicago’s Metro sold out in just over 30 minutes, their 2006 tour with Bayside introduced new songs, and their 2008 album Stay Down proved they were back for good.

The Popes’ new album, This is Only a Test, stands in contrast to the band’s catalog in that it’s built around a very specific and focused concept, namely writing from the viewpoint of a contemporary teenager. This idea begs a fairly relevant question: How effectively can guys in their late 30s/early 40s channel the desires and devastations of someone half their age?

The secret lies in the concept itself. The Popes are dealing in stereotypical teenage concerns and paint in fairly broad strokes: unrequited love is examined in “Wish We Were”; the doubts about a future career are covered in the title track; the resistance to higher learning is explored in “College”; starting a band crops up in “Punk Band”; and the ever present teen scourge arises in “I’ve Got Mono.”

In lesser hands, these songs might have been a little much, but these are Smoking Popes and you can’t spell Popes without Pop. That’s what the Caterers generate by the metric ton on This is Only a Test. Busking Weezer covers on the corner of Cheap Trick and Fountains of Wayne (and how many times has FoW jumped on the concept bandwagon?), the Popes turn pedestrian musings of pedestrian teenage lives into brilliantly infectious Power Pop anthems of the first magnitude.

Don’t take it so seriously, dude, just chill and dig the tunes. Isn’t that what your 15 year old would tell you?

Even without the considerable drama that has surrounded Edwyn Collins over the past six years, the Scottish singer/songwriter has a dramatically impressive back story. Collins tasted success with his first band, the critically lauded and often commercially rewarded Orange Juice. After OJ’s 1985 dissolution, he embarked on a much anticipated solo career. His first two albums were well received but largely ignored at the cash register, but his third album, 1994’s Gorgeous George, spawned the durable hit single “A Girl Like You,” pushing the album into the UK Top 10 (the song’s use in a variety of movie soundtracks, including the first Austin Powers film, propelled Gorgeous George into the lower reaches of Billboard’s Top 200 album chart as well).

Collins continued to plug away, releasing two more solo albums (1997’s I’m Not Following You, 2002’s Doctor Syntax) and a 2002 compilation of OJ and solo work. He also pursued production assignments for the likes of The Cribs, The Proclaimers and Robert Forster, produced and starred in a Channel 4 sitcom, and created the illustrations that would comprise his 2009 book.

Then, in 2005, Collins suffered a pair of cerebral hemorrhages that set him on an arduous path of rehabilitation and therapy. His excellent 2007 album Home Again was actually recorded before his strokes, but his new disc, Losing Sleep, represents his first work in the wake of his health issues. And beyond all doubt, it reinforces the title of The Candy Twins’ 2009 hit single — Edwyn Collins is Back.”

Collins has always been steered by a love of Pop music, specifically the Northern Soul movement of the ’60s, but clearly filtered through his uniquely contemporary musical kaleidoscope. That’s one of the reasons that “A Girl Like You” worked perfectly in Austin Powers; it fit comfortably in the ’60s, when Powers was frozen, and the ’90s, when he was reanimated.

Losing Sleep springs to life with its title track, a similarly vintaged track that swings with the finger-snapping abandon of half a century ago but burns with an undeniably modern intensity. There’s no small amount of big pig picture contemplation on Losing Sleep, a natural response to Collins’ brush with the other side of the sod, but he never resorts to mere maudlin thankfulness — “What is My Role?” and “Do It Again” is the inevitable question and defiant answer, while “Bored” brings a new perspective to Collins’ long road back (“I’m halfway down a mountainside, and I’m bored”).

Collins is still a long way from full strength; he co-wrote a number of the songs on Losing Sleep and his trademark baritone wobbles in spots. But his collaborators, including the Cribs’ Ryan Jarman, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame (who guested on Collins’ first solo album) are all huge fans of Collins’, which makes Losing Sleep an incredible labor of love all the way around.

If this is the album Edwyn Collins makes at 51 after nearly dying, imagine the result when he’s fully recovered.

All things old are new again in the music industry, so it’s inevitable that strains of Kate Bush, Ambient Pop, mechanized Tropicalia, Middle Eastern warbles and languorous Dream Wave would eventually shimmer back into soft focus. All of that and more are blown into beautifully elaborate bubbles by the sonic artisans of If By Yes on their gauzy debut, Salt and Sea Glass.

Given the quartet’s impressively arty pedigree — featuring members Petra Haden (That Dog), Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), Hirotaka Shimizu and Yuko Araki (Cornelius) — perhaps Sea Glass’ big surprise is that IBY doesn’t pursue an avant-for-garde’s-sake direction, as the long distance contributors congregate at an organic crossroads. In process since 2002, IBY’s songs drift along on Ambient currents with jazzy insistence that can be passively soothing or aggressively powerful.

Like all good subversive Electronic music, If By Yes is best in the quiet moments, which require repeated and focused listening to fully appreciate. Guests include David Byrne, Nels Cline and Keigo ‘Cornelius’ Oyamada, but their support appearances don’t overwhelm Sea Glass’ passionate subtlety.

Joe Bonamassa’s back story is filled with the kind of jaw dropping facts that would sound unbelievable if they were part of a movie script. First guitar at 4; played Jimi Hendrix note perfect at 7; opened for B.B. King at 12; formed Bloodline with Berry Oakley Jr., Erin Davis and Waylon Kreiger (the sons of the Allman Brothers’ late bassist, the legendary trumpeter and The Doors’ guitarist, respectively) at 17; started solo career at 23 with the staggering A New Day Yesterday produced by the legendary Tom Dowd and featuring cameos by Leslie West, Rick Derringer and Gregg Allman.

After seven more studio albums and three live sets, the biggest competition Bonamassa faces is the guy in the mirror. And so far, he’s managed to hold his own against that formidable foe.

Bonamassa’s task on his latest album, Dust Bowl, may have been his most complex. His last album, last year’s Black Rock, was largely a cover affair, perhaps necessitated by his involvement in the Rock supergroup Black Country Communion (with bassist Glenn Hughes, drummer Jason Bonham and keyboardist Derek Sherinian). With the half covers/half original Dust Bowl, Bonamassa wanted to re-stake his territory as a solo artist and make a gritty, rootsy Blues album. Check and check.

Dust Bowl leaps to life with the towering “Slow Train,: sounding like a summit meeting between Warren Haynes, Rick Medlocke and the late, great Gary Moore. The hauntingly reverbed title track has the slinky vibe of Chris Isaak’s cool and Sonny Landreth’s humidity. Among the deft covers, Bonamassa picks a trio of fascinatingly perfect tracks to reinvent — John Hiatt’s “Tennessee Plates” (featuring a guest vocal from its writer) steams and churns with a blistering intensity, Free’s “Heartbreaker” (featuring Bonamassa’s BCC bandmate Hughes) thunders and roars beyond the parameters established by the great Paul Rodgers, and Tim Curry’s “No Love on the Street” plays out like Pop/Blues at its most atmospheric and powerful.

There’s nothing slick or formulaic about Dust Bowl, just Joe Bonamassa and a talented cast coming together to put on a scorchingly simple Blues display.

Gord Downie could very easily coast on his long and respected reputation as the mercurial frontman for Canada’s version of Midnight Oil, The Tragically Hip. Beginning as a Blues-tinted modern Rock band a quarter century ago, the Hip eventually dropped any pretense of the Blues and concentrated on exploring interesting sonic nuances in their music and direct references to their innate Canadian-ness in the mid-’90s. That redirect proved to be the band’s golden ticket to the next level. The Hip’s 1998 album, Phantom Power, spawned five hits singles, generated triple platinum sales numbers and earned the 1999 Juno for Best Rock Album (which is just one of the 14 Junos the Hip have taken home since 1990).

After 25 years, a dozen studio albums, a handful of live releases and induction in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005, it seems reasonable to think that the Hip would take an occasional breather, but they seem as driven now as they were in their hungriest times. The group’s 2009 album We Are the Same was previewed live via a broadcast that was shown in over 80 Canadian theaters and they’re already hard at work on its follow-up.

And while the Hip is gearing up for their next studio gem, Gord Downie takes a busman’s holiday to spend some time on his new solo side project, The Country of Miracles, and his new album, The Grand Bounce, produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla.

There’s not a great deal in Downie’s solo work (which stretches back to 2001) that differs significantly from what he does with the Hip, from his quirkily stylized vocals to a musical expanse as broad as Canada’s interior to a lyrical preoccupation with his home country and his unique perspective on it. Perhaps it’s best to look at The Grand Bounce as a stock split. While we wait for Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, we can content ourselves with Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles.

Picking out highlights on The Grand Bounce is like picking your favorite ruby from a jewel-encrusted crown, but it’s hard to beat the one-two punch of the visceral Indie Rock anthemics of “The Dance and Its Disappearance” and the laconic electric Folk shimmer of “The Hard Canadian” … unless it’s the relentless (Jakob) Dylanesque wail and whip of “The Drowning Machine” and the breakneck Pop of “Night is For Getting.”

Of course, there are subtle differences between the Hip and the Country of Miracles, and Downie’s secret weapon in the latter is the presence of Julie Doiron, who’s had a pretty respectable career of her own and who lends a perfect harmony vocal counterpoint to Downie’s histrionic Pop magnificence.

The Grand Bounce is yet another potent example of Gord Downie’s inexhaustable talent; here’s hoping he can somehow continue to find the time and energy for both the Tragically Hip and the Country of Miracles.

Photo: Anna Victoria