Pete Doherty, Dan Hicks, Nils Lofgren and 1990s

As a dichotomous counterpoint to the popular column in our own esteemed pages, I would advance the theory that this is the Best Week Ever in terms of fascinating and worthy releases. Something for every taste: new albums from Pete Doherty, Dan Hicks, Nil

Apr 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

As a dichotomous counterpoint to the popular column in our own esteemed pages, I would advance the theory that this is The Best Week Ever, in terms of fascinating and worthy releases. Something for every taste, so don’t crowd, form a line and here we go …

Anyone who had “dead before a solo album” in the Pete Doherty office pool is out of the money. Against all odds, professional wastrel Doherty — who now apparently wants to be referred to as Peter — has survived his rampant self-destructive appetites long enough to craft his proper solo debut (hold all indignant e-mail; Babyshambles is a band). And perhaps even more surprising, Grace/Wastelands is a work of quiet reflection, thematic maturity and thoughtfully conceived and executed classicism.

For much of the album’s duration, Doherty sings and plays with the passionate detachment of Ray Davies at his Return to Waterloo minor epic best, all of it run through Doherty’s own skewed contemporary filter and barely tethered experience (“Arcadie,” the Bond-themed “A Little Death Around the Eyes”). At times, he touches a similar nerve as native oddballs like Martin Newell (“Through the Looking Glass”) and Yank eccentrics like Randy Newman (the Tin Pan Alley scat of “Sweet By and By”) and Ryan Adams (“Palace of Bone”), with arrangements that are both joyful and melancholic and sun in a thin voice that betrays its owner’s excesses and limitations.

A number of the tracks on Grace/Wastelands date back to Doherty’s time in the Libertines and pre-date his most recent love/substance issues, which may account for the relative lack of self examination or pity, although “I Am the Rain” certainly qualifies. The timing of Grace/Wastelands couldn’t be more ironic: Just as the media, fans and casual observers are tempted to write him off, Peter Doherty gives them some proof of why they were drawn to him in the first place. While far from a perfect album, Grace/Wastelands shows Doherty’s capabilities in a slightly clearer light than the one he typically shines on himself.

At the height of San Francisco’s Rock revolution in the late ’60s, Dan Hicks dared to be decidedly different with his big band, the Hot Licks, channeling Western Swing, Gypsy Jazz, Pop (the kind that was featured on 78s thirty years earlier) and Country in proportions and permutations that had never really been heard before or have been heard since (although the Asylum Street Spankers could pass for Hicks’ bastard children).

Hicks’ new album with the Hot Licks, Tangled Tales, is a case in point, and the song “Blues My Naughty Baby,” is a particular example; when was the last time you heard anyone scat singing like Louis Prima and throw in a jazzy reading of Thijs Van Leer’s yodel from Focus’ “Hocus Pocus”?

This is the kind of smart and smirking wit that has characterized Hicks’ work over the past four decades. Inspired by his love of Swing guitarist Django Reinhardt and propelled by his own twisted sense of humor, Hicks and a largely rotating cast of Hot Licks have ignored prevailing trends to offer his own eccentric musical translation. Tangled Tales is yet another swinging triumph for Hicks, from the jumping, jiving “13-D” to the smooth Western swagger of “The Diplomat” to the scat-smacked boogie of the title track. Hicks and company never fail to throw in a few surprises. Tangled Tales offers more than a few — guests like David Grisman, Charlie Musselwhite, Roy Rogers and Richard Greene, the subdued and sensitive balladry of “The Magician” and a shuffling Swing Blues take on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Long ago, Dan Hicks asked the musical question, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” and I think we can safely answer, “Here’s hoping we never find out.”

Of all the people who might feel compelled to record Neil Young’s timeless songs in tribute to the legendary master, Nils Lofgren is uniquely qualified in this endeavor. Lofgren was only 17 when he sessioned with Young on his monumental After the Gold Rush album, and he subsequently joined Young’s Crazy Horse for one album and returned for 1973 ’s Tonight’s the Night and 1983’s Trans. On the Gold Rush sessions, Young loaned young Lofgren his Martin D-18, which he then gave to the budding rocker in appreciation for his stellar work on his album. Naturally, that treasured instrument is the only guitar featured on Lofgren’s latest album, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil.

Lofgren doesn’t get too cute with his song choices on The Loner, offering a few obscurities but primarily sticking to Young’s higher profile cuts to translate on the Martin and his wife’s Hardman baby grand piano. Lofgren himself is a songwriter who mixes relative simplicity with great emotional depth, which makes him perfect for this project. The songs that Lofgren presents on The Loner have already largely been proven to be highly effective in a stripped down state, from the powerful “Mr. Soul” to the delicate “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to the emotional “Like a Hurricane” to the devastating title cut.

Lofgren’s affinity for Young’s work is apparent from start to finish, kicking off with his heartbreaking rendition of “Birds” and finishing up with a propulsive acoustic take on “Don’t Cry No Tears” (in fact, I might have reversed their positions), and everything in between reinforces the love and debt that Lofgren obviously feels for his early mentor and longtime friend. The Loner is a gorgeous album, for Young’s brilliant songs and Lofgren’s loving translations.

On Cookies, their 2007 debut, 1990s proved to be a blend of their Punk history (guitarist Jackie McKeown and bassist Jamie McMorrow came from Yummy Fur, drummer Michael McGaughrin was a V Twin) and their boozily spontaneous now. They opened for friends/former YF bandmates Franz Ferdinand after just six gigs, and Cookies reflected the band’s just-add-liquor instant existence with bits of The Stooges, Modern Lovers, The Stones and The Sex Pistols floating around in their immediacy. 1990s’ sophomore effort, Kicks, benefits from the band’s work over the past two years, their original chaotic sound giving way to a slightly more coherent but every bit as energetic presentation.

From the opening volley of “Vondelpark,” it’s clear that 1990s has upgraded their frenetic melodicism for a more cohesive insistence that’s more Lloyd Cole than Johnny Rotten, more Clash than Stooges. “Tell Me When You’re Ready” takes the evolution a step further, working burbling electronics into the mix like a latter day Big Audio Dynamite, although “Kickstrasse” makes a slight return to Cookies’ Iggy/Stooges template combined with the more fully integrated Pop edge that permeates Kicks. There’s still plenty of swagger and swing to be found in 1990s, they’ve simply tightened a few bolts and narrowed their focus to just a few of their still potent influences, leaving the fun and energy that made Cookies so rump-shakingly engaging.

A quote on Damion Suomi’s MySpace page likens his work on his debut album, Self Titled, to Michael Stipe and Billy Bragg getting hammered and singing Woody Guthrie songs. That’s not too far off the bubble. I’d replace Bragg with Adam Duritz and add in Josh Joplin and maybe amend it so that the trio is inspired by Woody Guthrie and sing songs about getting hammered.

Suomi (say it with me: “Sue-Me”) claims to be a longstanding lover of Irish culture and he proves it in shambling rhythms and hangovers on Self Titled. Honest to God, there hasn’t been this many songs about drinking since The Pogues’ last concept album about their pub tab. And the songs that aren’t about drinking are about love from a drunken perspective. And whether acoustic or electric, sparsely or fully arranged, the Florida native’s work is as compelling as tales told from the end of the bar by a guy whose only tan comes from the Guinness light over the taps.

All of Suomi’s gifts coalesce in rousers like “Darwin, Jesus, The Devil and Me,” which romps like R.E.M. on a whiskey crawl and “Save Your Ass,” which could pass for Josh Joplin at a Luka Bloom tribute. In the vernacular of Self Titled’s alcohol-fueled thematics, Damion Suomi is no well brand, he’s top shelf all the way.

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of Doug Sahm’s passing and the world has been a whole lot emptier in his absence. Sahm took his musical Texas childhood (playing steel guitar with Hank Williams and recording his first single before he hit puberty) and combined it with his broad adult experience (absorbing the possibilities of mid-’60s San Francisco), crafting a sound that incorporated Country, Folk, Rock, Blues and Jazz, and thereby introducing the world to Tex Mex and Americana music.

Sadly, Sahm has been largely relegated to oldies radio by way of “She’s About a Mover” and “Mendocino,” his two big hits with Sir Douglas Quintet. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Keep Your Soul, the long overdue tribute to Sahm, is bookended by those very songs, the former by legendary Hispanic vocalist Little Willie G (produced and guitared by the incomparable Ry Cooder) and the latter by Sahm’s son Shawn, doing the family business proud. Even more appropriate is the absolutely star-studded line up that Shawn Sahm and his team assembled for Keep Your Soul: Dave Alvin, Alejandro Escovedo. Los Lobos, Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton, Delbert McClinton, Terry Allen, our own Greg Dulli and The Gourds (who had recorded with Sahm the year before his death), as well as tons of others, paired up with a swinging set of Sahm songs that illustrate not only his amazing range but also the debt that everyone involved with the album owes to the man they’re tributing.

Best of all, Keep Your Soul accesses Sahm’s real roots, featuring original SDQ members Augie Meyers, George Rains and Jack Barber on several tracks, as well as a track by one of Sahm’s ’70s discoveries, Freda and the Firedogs — led by Blues belter Marcia Ball — a group he routinely performed with in Austin back in the day. Keep Your Soul is clearly a labor of the purest love for every contributor, all of whom had some direct connection to Sahm and bring a personal passion to translating his songs in their unique fashions. And maybe, just maybe, the marquee talent on this album will help spur a rightful revival of Doug Sahm’s incredible contributions to music.

John Wesley Harding has had an amazingly broad career arc, beginning with the Costelloish Pop brilliance of Here Comes the Groom in 1990 and continuing through a dazzlingly diverse catalog: the bleak Folk of New Deal, the Brit Folk/Nic Jones tribute Trad Arr Jones, the conceptual Awake, the a cappella chamber Folk wonder of Songs of Misfortune, the return to form of Adam’s Apple and any number of little diversionary tactics in between. The thread of Wes’ work has always been what he’s described as Gangsta Folk or Folk Noir, as good a description as any for the emotionally and culturally incisive and evocative songwriter.

Lately, Wes has been occupied with writing of a different sort, concentrating his efforts on a pair of novels, 2005’s Misfortune and 2007’s By George (published under his real name, Wesley Stace). For his first new album in five years (not counting the aforementioned Songs of Misfortune, credited to the Love Hall Tryst and based on the lyrics he wrote in his debut novel), Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, Wes returns to his patented Pop-based sound with an arsenal of talented assistance (a formula not far from his last album, the also brilliant Confessions of St. Ace), including the Minus Five’s Peter Buck and Scott MacCaughey, former Bowie guitarist Earl Slick, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Americana chanteuse Kelly Hogan (also a member of Love Hall Tryst).

More than that, Who Was Changed is almost a compendium of Wes’ career to date, with dashes of classic British Folk, chamber Pop and everything else that he’s ever done well stirred into the album’s mix. Take the opener, “My Favorite Angel”: what begins as a seemingly typical love-gone-wrong ode is actually God’s sad reminiscence about the fallen angel that got away. It’s indicative of the kind of cleverly constructed and executed delights that Wes has pushed out almost effortlessly over the past two decades. And the remainder of Who Was Changed follows suit beautifully, from the Van Morrison-meets-Cat Stevens Soul/Folk of “Oh! Pandora” to the father/son Dylanesque rush of “The End” to the Graham Parker-touched faux memoir of “Top of the Bottom.” Wes’ brilliance has always been of the quiet variety — which probably explains why he’s not collecting platinum royalties — so in that context, even though there’s plenty of electricity in Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, it may be his quietest album yet.

Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tyson made his reputation over four decades ago as half of the renowned Folk duo Ian and Sylvia. He wrote the oft-covered “Four Strong Winds” and she wrote “You Were On My Mind,” a huge hit for We Five. After their divorce, Tyson went the solo route, continuing in the Country direction the pair had begun with Great Speckled Bird at the end of the ’60s. He’s recorded over a dozen albums and ultimately became a fixture at the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where he was honored this year with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

For his latest album, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories, Tyson uses a number of recent events (a painful divorce, a fractured love affair, his bittersweet 75th birthday) to infuse his songs with a blend of melancholy and hopefulness. The album’s title cut is an unusual love song, telling the true tale of a pack of wolves relocated from Canada to Yellowstone National Park to repopulate the extinct species. The song is told from the viewpoint of the former pack leader as he recounts his journey and mourns the loss of his mate in a territory battle, which sets the tone for the album.

The bulk of Yellowhead to Yellowstone is comprised of tales of love lost — a cowboy leaves his love for war in “Ross Knox,” while “Fiddler Must Be Paid,” “Estrangement” and “Love Never Comes at All” find Tyson reflecting in various shades of blue about his absent partners. It’s all made even more powerful delivered in Tyson’s “new” voice, a Steve Forbert-like gravelled rasp brought about by blowing out his voice and a subsequent virus two years ago. Although Tyson’s mellifluous tones are gone, Yellowhead to Yellowstone is an emotionally wrought set of songs as weary as its singer’s voice and heart.

This week’s vinyl burn project came in one of those roundabout, connect-the-dots kind of ways. I’m reviewing the new Bob Mould for one of my outlets (it’ll appear here in a couple of weeks) and I went looking for my Husker Du albums to check which ones I still had (and one of those may wind up here in a couple of weeks as well) when I ran across my two Danny Wilson albums.

Danny Wilson was a Scottish trio comprised of brothers Kit and Gary Clark and their friend Ged Grimes. Their lone American hit, “Mary’s Prayer,” came from their 1987 debut album, Meet Danny Wilson. When they originally decided to make the move to America, they were known as Spencer Tracy, but Virgin Records was afraid of legal trouble with Katherine Hepburn, who was the executor of the late actor’s estate, so they changed to Danny Wilson, based on a relatively obscure 1951 Frank Sinatra movie.

The first time I heard “Mary’s Prayer” on the radio, I was completely captivated. Incredibly atmospheric yet totally accessible Pop, a perfect storm of artistic accomplishment and commercial appeal, the song is a man’s lament at having left the woman he realizes, too late, should have been the one. “Blessed is the millionaire who shares your wedding day,” sings Gary Clark with a joyful melancholy. “So when you find somebody to keep, think of me and celebrate/ What I wouldn’t give to be, when I was Mary’s prayer.”

I found the album at Mole’s — my copy still has Michael Riley’s handwritten price of “4-“ in the upper right hand corner — and I played it constantly. 22 years later, I still get a little misty when I hear “Mary’s Prayer” on the radio, which isn’t often enough.

Danny Wilson put out one more album in 1989, Bebop Moptop, and then hit the road for an American tour with Simply Red. Melissa and I were working for Bogart’s/Casablanca Productions then, and we were both ecstatic when the Simply Red/Danny Wilson show was booked for the club. We got tickets for ourselves and for our friends Karen and Mark. I was counting the days. Sadly, Simply Red’s stage gear was so voluminous and Bogart’s stage was so small that there wasn’t enough room to accommodate Danny Wilson, so they didn’t play the date. I was so pissed, I wanted to leave immediately, but everyone else wanted to stay and see Simply Red, who I didn’t particularly care about. In fact, I had been planning to suggest we leave after Danny Wilson, but I bowed to the group’s wishes and we stayed. Simply Red put on an astonishingly good show — they’re a much more powerful live act than their studio work suggests — and, although I was still a little bitter at having missed what turned out to be my only chance to ever see Danny Wilson, I really enjoyed the concert.

Bebop Moptop failed pretty spectacularly and they were dropped by the label and promptly broke up. Ged Grimes stayed in the music business, ultimately doing a lot of soundtrack and game work (his music appears in the Enter the Matrix game and the trailer for The Bourne Supremacy), Kit Clark has played in a number of subsequent bands including his current group, The Swiss Family Orbison, and Gary Clark did two more bands, King L and Transister, and a solo album before deciding to work behind the scenes as producer and writer, working with Natalie Imbuglia, Liz Phair, k.d. lang, Lloyd Cole and a host of others.

Revisiting the two Danny Wilson albums was a real revelation. I’d found a double CD, Sweet Danny Wilson, years ago and I’d relied on that for my DW fix instead of the vinyl. The problem is that the first CD of the set is a compilation of the best bits from the two albums, while the second disc is a collection of B-sides, live tracks and covers, so I didn’t actually have the full albums represented on CD (a single disc greatest hits and both albums are now available on disc as imports through Amazon and CDBaby). So I pulled them out of the rack and headed for the stereo.

The first Danny Wilson album is a big Pop album but with an incredibly sophisticated edge, like an amazing blend of Steely Dan, Joe Jackson and The Beatles, arranged and conducted by Burt Bacharach. Combining jazzy rhythms with pure Pop accessibility proved to be a potent blueprint for Danny Wilson; “Lorraine Parade” and “Nothing Ever Goes to Plan” could have been outtakes from Pretzel Logic, and I said at the time, “Hey, it’s Steely Danny.” At the same time, DW goes way beyond that simple comparison, creating expansive sonic textures for their big songs, like the gorgeous and powerful “Broken China” and the ethereal funkpoparoll of “You Remain an Angel.”

Bebop Moptop continues in a similar vein. DW’s Beatles influence comes spilling out of the speakers in a flood on the brilliant single “The Second Summer of Love,” which, by all rights, should have been every bit as big as “Mary’s Prayer.” It was, of course, in the UK, but Virgin blinked here in the States, maybe because of the cagey drug reference (“Acid on the radio, acid on the brain/Acid in the calico, acid in the rain”), and it sank without a trace.

The rest of the album found DW folding in flecks of blue-eyed Philly Soul reminiscent of Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren, evident in the album’s other hit single, “I Can’t Wait,” the Gospel Pop of “If You Really Love Me (Let Me Go),” the Something/Anything Emo Pop of “Never Gonna Be the Same” and the Todd-produces-Katy Lied pedal steel lilt of “If Everything You Said Was True.”

Danny Wilson is a sterling and unfairly overlooked example of all that was right with Pop music in the late ’80s. Even though the band enjoyed the rather unexpected success of “Mary’s Prayer,” which was a hit here first and became a Top 5 UK smash after it was rereleased on the heels of its American popularity, Meet Danny Wilson was only a marginal success and Bebop Moptop was ignored almost entirely. These are two excellent albums that deserve to be revisited by everyone who calls themselves a Pop fan.