Friday, February 19, 2016

Blood: Blood on the Tracks

buy Tangled up in Blue

Bob Dylan. Blood on the Tracks. 1975. This post isn't exactly a "blood"-titled song, but the album is titled...Blood ... so it mostly fits the theme.

Now ... I appreciate a lot of Dylan's oeuvre - the man has contributed more than his fair share - much more, but - I confess - much of it doesn't set me on fire. Blonde on Blonde: much to appreciate, much to admire. Great album. New Morning: almost all of the songs are all select. Blood on the Tracks: much that is good: if you select.

Apropos the theme: what means Blood on the Tracks?T o me, it's the obvious tracks of the railroad and the many miles that encompasses. In railroads, I see: Big train run you down and leave a mess. I see shades of future - maybe even a Slow Train Coming (at least it fits my "train" theory? )

I further find it a sign of the times that a Google search for Blood on the Tracks is virtually limited to only Dylan references - I would have expected at least a few reference links to some trains. More to the point: my memory says that there was/must have been such a phrase before Dylan and the Internet appropriated it. The phrase: "Blood on the Tracks" belongs to Dylan?

When it comes to choosing a favorite from Blood on the Tracks? Probably "Tangled Up in Blue". But - are there any further references to blood? In the lyrics?

The video is not great but - unlike many of the other YouTube clips we've got  -the man on the guitar and the sound isn't bad. Actually - very Dylan-esque - the video quality seems to enhance  the message

Last but not least - lest it steal from our upcoming thunder: whatsabout "Shelter from the Storm"? Again ... anything to do with blood here? (I hadn't previously  noticed the lack of Dylan live YouTube videos). I would have wished for another live version with the man playing the guitar for this song ... but couldn't locate one @ YouTube. Here ... he sings.




Blood: Too Much Blood

Purchase: Too Much Blood, from Undercover

I love deep cuts from bands that the serious music enthusiast might generally feel well-informed about. The Rolling Stones have vaults of under-heard music: b-sides, live material, unreleased, unearthed, under appreciated. I could go on. The Stones have a made a lot of great music.

They have under-heard albums, too. I know the argument that they haven’t produced anything of real value since Tattoo You, but, if you feel that way, I think you’re missing the point. The Stones are kings of the mountain in terms of rock ‘n roll greatness. They put out a lot of lead-weighted stuff, but in context to their entire career and the span of the history of rock music, anything they put out is always worthy of a deep listen and tends to grow in terms of quality, the more time you give it. Certain snapshots of the Stones might not sound all that great in context to what they were doing at the time, but going back, almost everything they put out is pretty good. The joy of listening to the Stones is there is so much music they are like a continually undiscovered country. Listening to the Stones should be undertaken as a survey course, rather than a micro-history. There’s a lot of sound and a lot of story and all of it relates to the era it came from.

Take for example Too Much Blood, off 1983’s Undercover, a decidedly uncritical, disliked entry in their discography. I like Undercover, as an album and a song—the title track is funky, razor-blade sharp dance rock, with a serious Latin-tinged, tin can rhythm. It reminds me of the go-go drummers who used to set up shop on the streets of my hometown, Washington, DC, laying down bottomed-out, tribal beats on an array of over-turned plastic buckets. Have you ever heard that sound? It is unrivaled in terms of lo-fi funk, and the sound is unique to the streets of DC. But, both Undercover and the go-go sound certainly pay back to their antecedent Latin-Carib grooves.

Undercover has that same walloped, whip snap sound. It’s a fantastic album opener. And then, four tracks later, we have the messed-up, drugged-up, half-spoken murder ditty Too Much Blood. And, Too Much Blood is pretty much a wtf moment. The song is a funked-up run through the jungle with Jagger doing what might be some of the first crossover rapping in rock music. Starting with a distinctly ‘80s horn line, and then throwing in some pinging guitars, Too Much Blood grooves along at a dithery slip, until the break, where Jagger starts to tell the true tale of Japanese cannibal killer, Issei Sagawa, who murdered and ate a French woman in 1981. Sagawa went on to earn a strange celebrity in Japan, but that was much later. But in 1981, he was treated in the media as a sensation rather than the monster he was. A “movie of the week” excitement surrounded him, and Jagger uses Too Much Blood as a half-hearted commentary on media and the pervasiveness of violence and lurid sensationalism. It rings as true back then as it does now. Jagger goes on to talk about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and how people mistake it for reality. The highlight of the song is Jagger, in his very best London swagger saying, “Oh no. Don't saw off me leg, don't saw off me arm…” Of all the famous British accents, Mick’s has got to be my favorite…

By modern standards, it is nothing special, yet Too Much Blood sounds like a document of a certain era, a crossing of the streams of disco, funk, and rock giving way to something more modern. While it was in reality a one-off track (the full band doesn’t even play on it) born from mucking about in the studio, it sounds somewhat ahead of its time, looking toward the crossover and hybridization that is now so celebrated over multiple genres. It's not so 80s to be too 80s; yet it's a strange, groovy little departure from the band that can pretty much depart in any direction they want and still sound like themselves.

One more thing: the video is linked below. I don't really know what to say about it. Best just to watch...

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Blood: Blood and Roses

The Smithereens: Blood and Roses [purchase]
[Or go for the 30th Anniversary edition]

From 1986, when I first heard the great “Blood and Roses,” from their debut album Especially For You, until 2011, when someone asked me about “The Smithereens,” I thought of the excellent band from New Jersey, whose British Invasion-influenced alternative sound helped to define the music I listened to during that period. After 2011, though, when I heard those words, I thought instead about the Smith College a capella group that gave my daughter so much pleasure during her college years. To be fair, I’ve only seen the rockers once, opening for Los Lobos at the legendary Pier in New York back in the 80s, while I’ve seen one of the oldest all-female a capella groups (formed at least a decade before the Jersey boys were even born) many times. And unlike my friend Lee, I’m not on a first name basis with any of the band, while members of the older group have slept in my house.

That all being said, I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of a capella music, although I certainly enjoyed seeing my daughter and her friends perform. While they were very good, it is way, way more likely that I’d take affirmative steps to listen to the performers of our feature song than to listen to a performance of “Softly.” (But I still check out “Chicago” occasionally....)

“Blood and Roses” is a typical Smithereens song—catchy, but with depth, an intelligent, brooding reflection on love gone bad, and it was successful—included in the soundtrack of a forgotten film, and then a top 20 hit on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and a popular video on MTV (you know, back when.....), it introduced the band to a wide audience. Produced by Don Dixon, whose relationship with R.E.M. probably helped get the band airplay, Especially For You is a fine album from top to bottom and is widely reported to have been a favorite of Kurt Cobain’s, so if you want to draw a line from The Smithereens to Nirvana, go right ahead.

The Smithereens released a number of excellent albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the middle of the decade, the world of alternative rock had changed, mostly due to the ascendancy of grunge (spearheaded, ironically, by Nirvana), and the band withdrew from recording, although they continued to tour for a while before taking time off. Lead singer Pat DiNizio made a run for Senate from New Jersey on the Reform Party ticket and, not surprisingly, did not win. On their return to the studio and the road (they opened for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers a couple of years ago and are on the road right now), they have released a couple of albums of new material, a Christmas album, and a few cover collections to some critical, but little commercial, success.

That’s really too bad. Because these guys were, and are, good, and deserve to be better remembered. They had a sound that, while filled with recognizable influences, was distinctive, and their songwriting was strong. And, maybe best of all, and certainly compared to the older, all-female group, they play instruments when they sing.

BLOOD: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

A title as above will either send you screaming for the hills or you will know of it already. Of course, I maybe underestimate the number of actively fundamentalist Christians possibly reading, none of whom I would wish to offend. Be that as it may, if intrigued by such a heading, and I dare say it is true, within these largely secular scribblings, please read on.

Gavin Bryars is an English composer, best known for his pieces within the oxymoron of contemporary classical music. Always a champion of the accident of creative expression, he was a founder member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an extraordinary ensemble whose membership demanded little or no pre-existing competence in the playing of any instrument. Whilst some, like Bryars, had skills and experience, many did not, resulting in sometimes the triumph of enthusiasm over accuracy. And sometimes not. Another member was erstwhile Roxy Musicman, latterday U2 (and others) producer and composer, Brian Eno, under whose patronage Bryars later developed a more orthodox career, albeit one that owed a fair bit to John Cage and his uneasy compositional style. Prior to that he had been a jazz bassist alongside another free spirit, Derek Bailey, so you could argue his chosen oeuvre became the meeting of improvised free jazz with orchestrated found sound.

The piece celebrated here has a glorious evolution, almost apocryphal, and is best described in Bryar's own words here. I remember hearing this for the first time and being astonished, as the repetition and ritualistic build of tension worked a spell I would encourage you to become entranced by. Don't rush. Leave yourself plenty of time. Turn off outside distractions.

This was the original recording, from 1971, with a later revised version appearing 20 years later, with the added delight, if he is your bag, of vagrant faux Tom Waits joining in toward the end. (An unnecessary addition in my ear, but I am not a fan. And apologies to those who, on sight of the picture at the top were expecting something overall Jethro Tullier, but the image seemed apt.)

Buy the original here. (The lesser Waits "enhanced" version is also available, at considerably less a price, but, hey, that's commercialism for you!?)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Blood: Bloodbuzz, Ohio

Purchase: The National, High Violet

This month, I was going to write about Pearl Jam’s Blood, but then I had to remind myself: this isn’t a blog about my personal favorites. Modern music is a galaxy without limits, and studying it is like attending an endless history class (and a scientific and sociological and anthropological class, too.) One of the great things about researching for these entries are the discoveries I make looking for appropriate tunes to fit our theme. Some tunes I know, but I get the chance to discover a little more. Like, did you know Bon Scott was a bagpipe player (AC/DC’s  If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)? Or that Ryan Adams' Bad Blood is way better than Taylor Swift’s? Well, that’s probably not something I needed to research to know…

One of the most interesting thing that I’ve come across is a write up about a song I knew well, yet obviously hadn’t listened to as closely as I should. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield makes the case that The National’s Bloodbuzz, Ohio, from 2010’s High Violet, is a literal and exact copy of INXS’ brilliant and timeless Don’t Change. Listen to Bloodbuzz right now—you won’t be able to unhear it…But, you can’t really blame The National, or take points off their paper for plagiarism. Sheffield quotes the dearly departed Michael Hutchence as saying: “ ‘...You couldn't make a bad record copying ‘Don't Change.’”

So, we can forgive The National for working within that nebulous world of inspired by, or in tribute to. When it comes to rock songs sounding too similar to a predecessor, it’s hard to assign blame. I think loving imitations make some of the best work we encounter.  The National do little wrong in their music—moody and smoldering yet driven with an intensity of sulk and smoky atmospherics that is hard to define, even harder to imitate. Accusing them of plagiarism comes across as jealousy more than anything else. But, wait: their lead single of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me was titled Sea Of Love. To the Principal’s office!  The parentage of a rock song is a nebulous thing. Pete Townshend, one of our founding fathers, once said he’d never really written anything original. Rather, he just took songs he liked, reworked them until he had something new, and that was that. I think there’s a lot of wisdom there. The paternal song in this equation—INXS’—is as pop-perfect as it gets, with the driving guitar line and the warp-speed keys. When you listen to The National’s Bloodbuzz, those same ethereal elements are there—just as they are in song after song we end up loving.  The pedigree of a rock song is always going to spring from opaque origins. The similarities shouldn’t surprise us: the originality of turning an old phrase into a new one should, and usually does. Which is why, if you are a proper student of rock and roll, you’ve got more favorite songs and albums than makes sense.

Professor of rockology Tom Petty has the final say on plagiarism in rock, in response to the accusation that The Red Hot Chili Peppers ripped off Mary Jane’s Last Dance when they recorded Dani California : “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for their song ‘Last Nite’], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you’ … If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous law suits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”