It’s time to break out my scarred Sony CD Walkman, my box of AA batteries, and my CD wallet again as I prepare for my Drama City tour. As you can see below, the wallet will be very full, due to an unusually good year for music, both re-releases and new. I’m especially happy to have witnessed a resurgence in guitar bands (verse, chorus, bridge, solo) especially those from the South, which should put an end to all that whining about rock being dead. Here are the records that made the cut:
Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, by Slobberbone
There are fiddles, slides, and accordions in the mix, but don’t call this alt-country, because the out-front electric guitars make this a straight ahead rock band, and the tunes (most written by guitarist/vocalist Brent Best) are pure redneck Americana, as in cars, girls, and getting your head up to a higher place. Think the Replacements and/or The Minutemen crossed with Still Feel Gone-era Uncle Tupelo. Highlights: the scary, been-there-done-that “Josephine,” “That Is All”, “Lumberlung,” and “Some New Town,” to name just a few. The inner sleeve has a photo that could have come off the Allman’s Brothers and Sisters. If you like your rock on the primal side, check out this legendary band from Denton, Texas. Not to be played at your next yuppie-ish gathering. Instead, put this one on at the party to which you’ve invited your old friends-the ones who still drink.
A Nod is as Good as a Wink…To a Blind Horse, by Faces
A recent Harp magazine feature had musical artists picking their Best of 2004s, with a surprising number choosing the newish Faces box set, Five Guys Walk into a Bar. You might want to test the waters before you lay out the dough for that one, and the perfect way to do it is to purchase A Nod is as Good as a Wink…, not only the best Faces record, but also one of the best rock and roll records ever recorded. Released in 1971, the same year as the band’s Long Player and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story (a solo album in name only, as Rod used many of the Faces on Picture), it is the Faces at full throttle, exploding with talent, ferocity, and democracy. The band is Stewart on vocals, Ron Wood (guitar), Ronnie Lane (bass, vocals), Ian McLaglen (piano and Hammond organ), and Kenny Jones (who would later replace The Who’s Keith Moon on drums). Most fans of the era remember this record for the fiery, love-’em-and-kick-’em-out rocker, “Stay With Me” (“Red lips, hair and fingernails/I hear you’re a mean old jezebel”), but there are other riches to be found here. “Miss Judy’s Farm,” “Too Bad,” a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” “That’s All You Need,” and the amazingly tight, ribald “You’re So Rude” all make this memorable, but what lifts this into the category of essential are two magnificent ballads: “Love Lives Here,” which can stand beside Rod’s own “Mandolin Wind” for beauty, and “Debris,” Ronnie Lane’s heartbreaking eulogy for lost love and a meditation on the cost of fame. When Stewart joins Lane for background vocals, it is one of the great, chills-down-your-spine moments in rock. And the playing on this record is always just right. After hearing this, you might just want to spring for that box set, which contains several of these tracks. But I guarantee you’ll be glad you own Nod, in its entirety, as well.
Your Country, by Graham Parker
Leave it to Graham Parker to put out a country/roots rock record long after the new country movement’s ship has sailed, but after all, he’s been sprinkling his albums with these kinds of songs since Howling Wind and Heat Treatment. There isn’t a dud on this recording, and some songs, like “Things I’ve Never Said,” will plain bring tears to your eyes. Lucinda Williams sings backup on “Cruel Lips”. Parker covers the Dead (“Sugaree”) and a new wave oldie (“Crawling from the Wreckage”). Bruce should put “Nation of Shopkeepers”, a genuine rouser, on his live play-list. Buy this CD so Graham won’t quit.
Dirty Harry, OST, by Lalo Schifrin
If you want to know what I think of the film Dirty Harry, go to my essay, “On Action Movies” (originally published in GQ) featured on this website. Rewatch the film, then check out the revolutionary music score, composed by Lalo Schifrin. It had been previously available only in snippets and compilations, but has recently been released in its complete form and remastered in multi-track stereo, which will satisfy Schifrin freaks and Eastwood fans alike. It’s all here, the full “Prologue” and “Main Titles,” “The Cross,” “School Bus” (with a badass alternate take), “Liquor Store Holdup,” and the haunting “End Titles.” Schifrin was obviously influenced by electric-period Miles, and the unforgettable Scorpio theme (a wordless soprano vocal over a driving Fender line that suggests, uh, complete insanity) is a nod to Morricone, but he also cooked up something here that the heads would call “acid jazz” twenty-some years down the road. This is the soundtrack to the movie that will be running through my head as I crisscross the country in March, 2005.
Live it Up, by The Isley Brothers
Back when I was a teenager, before MTV and the like, we could only see our musical idols live or in photographs in magazines. Often, to promote their latest, the bands would come to town and show up onstage in the exact outfits they wore on their album covers. I remember going to the Cap Center outside D.C. with my then-girlfriend to see The Isleys, touring behind Live It Up, in 1974. As on the cover, Ronald Isley had that gold pants suit with the deep brown piping; Ernie Isley wore a multi-colored, winged thing; Chris Jasper was dressed like a matador with an Afro to rival Darnell Hillman’s. Not only did they look badder than hell, they tore it up. Live It Up was on their T-Neck label, showcasing the brothers (and cousin Jasper) stepping out from 60’s soul to a whole new sound inspired by pop, rock, r&b, and funk, with a dose of Sly, Stevie, and Isley’s alumnus Jimi Hendrix in the mix. The first record, 3+3, is one of my desert island discs (chiefly due to the singles “That Lady” and “What It Comes Down To,” the gorgeous “Highways of My Life,” and the eye-popping cover of “Summer Breeze.”) Live It Up was the super strong follow-up, which until now has been out of print. The title track (Part 1 &2) drives and smokes. Ernie goes off with his ax on “Midnight Sky (Part 1 and 2)” and gets bluesy on “Ain’t I Been Good to You (Part 1 and 2).” And the ballads—a cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” the pleading “Lover’s Eve,” and the indescribably beautiful “Brown-Eyed Girl” (not the Van Morrison version)—are as good as slo-jam gets. Newly remastered, this is an essential 70’s funk-rock record. What a time to be a young fan—that kind of revolution, in terms of culture and the music itself, will never come again.
Barrel Chested, by Slobberbone
Two CDs by the same group on one book tour? Yeah, when the band is this good. If anything, Barrel Chested rocks harder than EYOTWRWRT, with songs like the title cut and “Front Porch” coming off extra strong, and one slow tune, “Little Drunk Fists,” that could have come out of the Costello catalog. Includes one of my Slobberbone favorites, “Get Gone Again” (which begins with “I’m tired of writing songs about screwing up” and proceeds to chronicle the first person litany of a loser) and “Billy Pritchard,” a gothic stunner that plays like a great lost Skynyrd record as written by Faulkner and Jim Thompson on dual benders. Trust me, these guys are the real thing.
Our Endless Numbered Days, by Iron + Wine
The second record from Sam Beam is less lo-fi and quiet than the first, and as much as I liked The Creek Drank the Cradle, this is a good thing. There’s more texture and variance here, and Beams’ songwriting has been elevated, just a notch, from his excellent debut. Whenever I play this, Emily says, “You listening to Simon and Garfunkel now?” and though I know she’s kidding me, there are similarities in the vocals and in the quality of the tunes. So don’t expect to rock out behind this one. Instead, this is a record that puts you under its spell. Nick Drake and Elliot Smith fans will get it right away. Great picking, great songs, pure Americana.
Retriever, by Ron Sexsmith
Singer songwriter records aren’t usually my thing, but this Canadian troubadour won me over with this incredible set of melodies and adult lyrics. I have heard the dreaded word Beatlesque when describing Sexsmith (there are hints of George Harrison scattered here and there) but a more apt comparison would be to Difford and Tillbrook, specifically their peak, East Side Story period. Just because you like this doesn’t mean that people are going to think you’re into Gordon Lightfoot. But, hey, I thought Gordon Lightfoot was pretty great. So is Sexsmith.
The World is a Ghetto or Why Can’t We Be Friends, by War
Another great thing about the 70’s funk/rock revolution was the diverse crowds the bands drew. Concerts by War, major party events that crossed racial and cultural lines, were a prime example. Bikers, stoners, rockers, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and all varieties of freaks were in attendance, as well as the occasional Greek boy. The World is a Ghetto (1972) was my first War album purchase, though I knew them from the single “Spill the Wine” (with Eric Burdon taking lead vocals and top billing) and the long player, All Day Music. The cover art alone on World, by Howard Miller, was phenomenal, as was the record. Yep, “Cisco Kid” kicked it off, but other gems included the instrumental “City, Country, City,” and “Four Cornered Room,” which some fans to this day call “Zoom Zoom Zoom.” The title track, expanded from the single version to ten minutes plus, is genius, with the band in full effect. 1975’s Why Can’t We Be Friends was both more polished and experimental, with the suite “Leroy’s Latin Lament” and a pre-hip hop number, “Heartbeat,” in the mix. It contained the anthemic crowd-pleaser “Don’t Let No One Get You Down” and my favorite War ballad, “So.” I’ve seen these guys play live recently, once in a small club on Cape Cod and at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis, and they still smoke. At the Ram’s Head date, Lee Oskar, B.B. Dickerson, and Howard Scott signed my CD booklet backstage (my friend and War pal Tony Wheelock got me in) and they were all cool to the man. I guess you can tell that I’m into their music to this day. One of these CDs will make it into my wallet on this tour. I might even slip War Live in there, too.
Nashville Skyline, by Bob Dylan
I usually take one Dylan CD with me on tour, and this year it’s going to be Nashville Skyline, Bob’s country move that, along with John Wesley Harding, helped jumpstart the entire country rock movement. Yes, it’s only twenty eight minutes long, and there are one or two throwaways. But this record includes the famous Johnny Cash duet on “Girl From the North Country,” and the hits “Lay Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Best of all are two Dylan standouts dealing with lost love, “I Threw It All Away” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True.” The band: Dylan, Kenny Buttrey, Pete Drake (pedal steel), Norman Blake, Bob Wilson, and Charlie “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” Daniels.
The Dirty South, by Drive-By Truckers
It took a while for the new DBT to sink in, but when it did, it rarely left my car’s sound system during my daily to commute to and from Baltimore, Maryland last fall. This is a record about myth itself, and here the Truckers reference James Jones, John Wayne, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, The Band, John Henry, Buford T. Pusser and others in a frank commentary on American icons as seen through Southern eyes. The tellers of these tales stay in character, so the words are honest and never politically forced. Tempos are mixed, but fans of the more raucous early DBT will not be disappointed, as the band unleashes its three-guitar attack in the record’s final stretch, with songs like “The Buford Stick,” “Never Gonna Change,” and “Lookout Mountain” leading the charge. Decoration Day was their masterpiece, and by definition you only get one. But The Dirty South is a solid, mature set from—I’m just going to say it—the American rock band of the decade. I bet The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of Patterson Hood’s favorite movies.
Johnny Winter And, by Johnny Winter
This landmark album, recorded in one day, was released three records deep into Johnny’s famous Columbia contract, and remains one of my most-played discs. The band is Winter on lead vocals and guitar, Rick Derringer on second lead guitar and vocals, Randy Hobbs on bass and vocals, and Randy Z on drums. Here, Winter moves from straight electric blues to a blues rock/hard rock hybrid, inventing something in the process, but it is the songwriting and song selection that makes this set last. One of Derringer’s contributions includes “Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo (four years before he made it a hit on his solo lp, All American Boy). Standouts are the Winwood-Capaldi tune “No Time to Live,” and Johnny’s terrifying “Nothing Left,” both featuring his tortured vocals and fluid guitar. “Prodigal Son” is the penultimate number, with Winter growling and screaming behind the solos, the band creating a kind of hard rock blueprint in the process. The last song, “Funky Music,” fades out with a ferocious Winter and Derringer dual, a fitting end to one of the great guitar albums in history. Radiohead fans need not apply. Yes, it’s metallic, and of its time, but anyone interested in the evolution of rock music should have this in their collection. One warning: the vinyl release, if you can find it in the used bins, has a much cleaner, bottom-defined sound than the CD, now available only as an import. Maybe Sony will do this proud and issue a remaster. Is anyone listening?
Touch My Heart, A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck, various artists
I’m not a big fan of tribute projects, but this one is different. For starters, the music is played by one outstanding house band, which lends it continuity (among the players is legendary pedal steel guitar player Lloyd Green). The producer is Robbie Fulks, who has an obvious reverence and appreciation for the artist. And the songs themselves are not particularly well-known, with the exception of “Take This Job and Shove It,” which made Paycheck a household name and forever mistakenly identified him as a yahoo novelty act. So this record does what all tribute records should do: it sends you back to the original recordings for a rediscovery of a major talent. Touch My Heart contains amazing contributions from Neko Case, Al Anderson, Dallas Wayne, Mavis Staples, Hank Williams III, George Jones, Jim Lauderdale, Dave Alvin, Mike Ireland, and Larry Cordle, and many others. Plus, Bobby Bare, Radney Foster, Buck Owens and Jeff Tweady do a last-call cover of Mr. Paycheck’s most famous song. Johnny Paycheck led a hard, sad life, and thankfully this tribute does him justice. The country record of the year.
Sex, Love and Rock’ n’ Roll, by Social Distortion
The title (no drugs) and cover photo, a shrine honoring Mike Ness’s electric guitar (“Orange County” printed across it, along with a Woody Woodpecker illustration) should pretty much tell you what this one’s about. After several years Social D is back, more melodic than in the past, but just as tough. Titles like “Reach for the Sky,” “I Wasn’t Born to Follow,” and “Live Before You Die” speak to the message of DIY positivity, while tracks like the hard/fast “Don’t Take Me For Granted” (“I’m the blood on your guitar/I’m that wave you caught back in 1975”) and “Footprints On My Ceiling” (which plays like a SoCal version of Crazy Horse) will speak to your inner primate. People call this a punk band, in the same way that X was a punk band I suppose, and others persist in labeling this cock rock, I guess because it’s kind of, well, aggressive. I just call it rock.
Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures (Taken from the Vaults), Vol. 1
“There is a darker, more troubled side to Soul music that really has no equivalent outside of Black American culture or, come to that, within any other spectrum of what is generally known as ‘popular’ music, and by the mid-60’s this was becoming such a marked and distinct category, that I coined the term “Deep Soul” to describe it.” So writes collector/obsessive Dave Godin on the back sleeve of this fantastic set of rare soul sides. Don’t let your non-recognition of the artists color your judgment here; before I bought this, I had not heard the work of Timmy Willis, Kenny Carter, Larry Banks, The Incredibles, Reuben Bell and the Casanovas, Raw Spit, Pearlean Gray & the Passengers, or any of the other artists (with the exception of Irma Thomas) who round out this twenty-five song collection. Nor did I own any music on labels like Musicor, Murco, Peacock, Liberty, Calla, or Imperial. But this recording blew me away from top to bottom, and if you’re into soul—that is, if you’re into popular music at all—you need to check this out. Complete with thorough liner notes and art, this is another quality product from Kent Records out of the UK. I hear Volume 4, newly released, is fantastic, too. RIP Dave Godin.
The Mix Tape, 2005 (tracks I liked)
The Delivery Man was hailed as a return to form for Elvis Costello, with critics calling it his best since This Year’s Model, as if he’s done little of worth for the past twenty-five years. This is, in fact, another solid record in a career of them with several outstanding cuts laced in with the almost great and near misses. Every EC album (even Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World) has something worth owning, and there are several such tracks on The Delivery Man, a country-soul hybrid recorded in Oxford, Mississippi. My pick is “Either Side of the Same Town,” a classic Costello ballad, as rich and passionate as anything in his catalogue.
Half Smiles of the Decomposed, by Guided By Voices, Tracks 1-7. The first half of this, the final record from Robert Pollard and company, is GBV at its finest, promising the masterwork you knew they always had in them. Think of 1-7 as the best e.p. GBV ever put out. Try not to think of it as what it is: the end of a glorious era.
According to Robin Trower’s website, his latest, Living Out of Time, will be his last recording. If so, the final track on the CD, “I Want to Take You with Me,” is a fitting send-off, ten minutes plus of Robin doing that From-the-Delta-to-the-Universe thing as only a true guitar god can do. What a way to say goodbye.
Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News was a critic’s favorite but (due to the rather eccentric vocals of Isaac Brock) it’s not for everyone. Shoot, half of the record’s not for me. But several tracks are very good, and one alone, the gorgeous “Blame It on the Tetons,” makes the whole experience worthwhile. Depending on your tastes, you might even dig the whole thing. Just prepare to be challenged.
“Watch out for the medallion, my diamonds are reckless/Feels like a midget is hanging from my necklace.” Bill O’Reilly’s favorite punching-bag rapper, Ludacris, puts out one slamming single after another, and last year it was “Stand Up,” from Chicken N Beer. I don’t know why O’Reilly doesn’t like the man. I guess he’s just not up to Bill’s high moral standards.
For some reason My Morning Jacket sounds better in the car than it does on the home stereo. Maybe it’s the reverb. Could be that it’s what I call landscape music. I’d really like to listen to this band at an outdoor concert, at night, under the stars. At Dawn was released in 2001, but I just got around to it this year. “The Way That He Sings,” track 3, cops bits off “The Lion Sings Tonight” and “Life in a Northern Town,” but stands on its own as one of the best driving-with-the-windows-down tunes of the year.
Speaking of which, I got pulled over on 895 last September while listening to “Witch Mountain Bridge,” off Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’s Pig Lib. I was doing 80 in a 55 zone when the State Police waved me to the shoulder. My latest rocket gets away from me sometimes. The problem is exacerbated when I’m listening to amazing guitar work on songs like “Witch.” “I didn’t mean it, Officer, it was the music made my foot pin the pedal to the floor.” He didn’t care.
Lambchop’s Is a Woman was a very quiet record, especially on the heels of their own Nixon, a country funk workout in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield, complete with falsetto vocals. Is a Woman is worth owning alone for “The New Cobweb Summer,” a beautiful song with a haunting sax pulsing in the background. I don’t know how Lambchop, an unusual musical collective, will be judged in the end. But tracks like “The New Cobweb Summer” are enough to justify an entire career.
Four tracks from Soul Deep, a mix CD sent to me by a soul collector/fan: “Just a Little Overcome” by the Nightingales, who are not even listed as a group in Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles, the bible for soul completists. This should have been a monster smash in its day. And: “It’s What You Give,” by Jimmy Castor (for the background singers and the horns), before he added the Bunch and became a novelty act. Plus: “Sometimes a Man Will Shed a Few Tears Too,” by Johnny Adams, and “I’ll Step Aside,” by Ben Atkins and the Nomads. The best of the obscure best.
“Goin’ Down to Laurel,” by Steve Forbert, from the budget priced best-of. One of the finest young-and-in-love songs you will ever hear.