Saturday, October 10, 2020

Empty: Darkness, Darkness

purchase [Elephant Mountain

 Emptiness can be cathartic. It can be debilitating. Kind of like the glass half full or half empty issue. Me? I am by nature a loner. I recall a semester break in my Junior year of college when I headed off into NC's Smokey Mountains for a week of "camping" all by myself - just because. (didn't even take a tent/slept under an overhanging rock) 

 This time around, I searched and dug for a song that might fit. But I kept coming up empty-handed: "songs with emptiness in the title", "songs about emptiness" ... nothing inspiring. About to give up and wait for the next theme, I finally happened on one that meant enough to me that I was willing to write a few lines. 

 Wikipedia says the Youngbloods never reached critical aclaim. A search of our own archives produces 3 posts of relevance, including -surprisingly- one from Seuras Og just two weeks ago with a mention of the Youngbloods' founder Jesse Colin Young. 

 The song, Darkness, Darkness dates from their third album (1969). The list of contributing musicians aside from the band members (Jesse Colin Young, Lowell "Banana" Levinger, Joe Bauer) includes one of my "heroes", David Lindley as well as Charlie Daniels. 

Wikipedia, again, has a list of notable covers such as Mott the Hoople, Eric Burdon, Richie Havens and Robert Plant. There's a short but informative review at AllMusic that I'll leave for you to check out on your own if you wish. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020


Empty/Strange Little Birds (2016)

I don't think we have ever had much Garbage on this site. That might seem a dangerous place to start, dismissing the usual advice to quit whilst you're ahead, but no, it's true, I can see little or no reference at all. To the band, that is. (What else could I, or even you, possibly mean?) I loved the band on their breakthrough, a fairly rapid state of affairs, if long in the genesis. At the time the brash and somewhat strident decisiveness of the sound seemed a refreshing adjunct to the murkier tones of the grunge movement that begat the band. And I loved the contrast between the "old" guys* and their "young" singer.

Let's retrace some steps. It is 1993. Butch Vig and Steve Marker, both experienced and successful record producers have their own studio. However they weary of their trademark sonic tone, the shockwaves of the Vig produced Nevermind meaning that everybody had and wanted to sound that way. Bringing in old buddy, Duke Erikson, who had been in a couple of bands with Vig, they become engrossed in the art of the remix, their ethos being primarily to alter the direction and focus of the instrumental dynamic, playing tricks with the bass and guitar lines. From there it seems logical to see if that could apply within a live setting, to: 

"take that remix sensibility and somehow translate it into all of the possibilities of a band setup."

Initial false steps with Vig on vocals prove unsatisfactory, with a joint decision it is a female voice the catalyst missing, seeking a forceful character with a powerful voice without too much screech. Marker comes across the band, Angelfish, enjoying the cut of the jib of their striking front woman, and her characterful tones. This is Shirley Manson, and Angelfish are the new name for Goodbye Mr McKenzie, a Scottish group of a relentlessly indie oeuvre. Manson initially not even their lead vocalist, merely sharing that role until the record company get involved, contracts needing a change of name to keep her at the fore. Cue Marker, who draws her to the attention of his cronies. An unsuccessful audition takes place, Manson too much in awe of the reputation of, especially, Vig, and with her impenetrable Edinburgh accent proving indecipherable to the three americans. That seems the end of that. But luckily she seeks another chance, with the dissolution of Angelfish and Garbage are in the can.

Supervixen/Garbage (1995)

I loved those first two albums, Garbage and Version 2.0, 1995 and 98 respectively, the aggressively clean thrust of the songs a potent clarion, with short songs, garlanded both with hooks and the quirks of the three studio boffins, all exuberantly presented with the brash charisma of Manson, transformed from gauche starlet to banshee. With crossover appeal to assuage both the purists and the poppers, for a while they were unassailable.

I Think I'm Paranoid/Version 2.0 (1998)

The traditional difficult third album, Beautiful Garbage, proved as dictated, nearly sinking the band. Frictions were beginning to appear and it didn't fare so well in the charts. A fourth album, Bleed Like Me, only kept them together by performing above expectation, following which they gave themselves some needed time-off.

Bleed Like Me/Bleed Like Me (2005)

As is the way, 2007's greatest hits package, Absolute Garbage, required some new material, with four new tracks produced, a stimulus for again picking up the pieces and reconvening, recording and touring in and from 2010.

As is also the way, no band is ever now allowed to stop entirely, Garbage no different. A final "new" album, Strange Little Birds, appeared in 2016, and it is from this record that 'Empty' comes. Sadly this is not their high-water mark, much of the studio trickery that so lit up their earlier releases seemingly dissipated and, um, empty. But it is still a good enough songs by any other standard, the vocals a mix of Chrissie Hynde and Alanis Morrissette, with a sturdy backing redolent also of the Pretenders.

No Horses/single (2017)

Fast forward a year or three and the band are on tour, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Version 2.0 with a tour, along with an extended re-release of the album. Part of this shebang included a new single, 2017's No Horses, which suggests a return to form, effecting a glorious trip-hop vibe. I caught the tail end of that tour, as it hit Birmingham, UK, and my thoughts of that night, my sole live exposure to the band are included here. I am uncertain whether that is it; prior to Covid they were said to be planning new material for a release this year and US dates are pencilled in for summer next year. So, indeed, whatever happened to Garbage?

*Erikson hits 70 in January.

Empty? Maybe, but maybe get this or this instead.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Empty: Van Halen, Dreams

World turns black and white
Pictures in an empty room,
Your love starts falling down
Better change your tune, 
Reach for that golden ring
Reach for the sky--
Van Halen, Dreams

 Empty. It's a good word, and an interesting choice for a musical theme, for these strange times. I've often felt empty, bereft and without optimism or hope for the future these past months. I'm not alone in that feeling. Not unique in my suffering. There's no such thing as martyrs right now--we all suffer together, only the degree and the wellspring of it might change from person to person, given how 2020 has treated them. I would venture that there's not been a sustained period of despair, fear, and unknowing like this in at least a hundred years. Maybe that's not really true, I don't know: I've only read history. Until now, I don't feel that I've ever lived it. 

But this, our strange days, is history, indeed. And the history we study, that we remember best, isn't usually the kind and gentle eras. I'm sure people around the world, at certain times and in certain circumstances--chosen or forced upon them--might feel like the world at this or that given moment has never been worse, and pray that it doesn't get worse from there on. This is a dark, scary and uncertain time we are living in. There is a dread that hangs over us, a dull unease that this might never end. I will. We have to believe that, and we have to remember, given the past atrocities that have been visited upon us, we can survive this. I live in relative peace, comfort and luxury--writing a music blog is evidence enough that my life, despite the recent upheaval, is pretty easy. But, we all suffer, as I said, despite the form it may take and the effect it has. 

The cure might be different, too, and vary in method and curative properties. I drink--drank--a lot during those first few months of lock down. Something about the buoyancy of a whiskey buzz helped make fear a little more like flying than falling. Booze. And music. Music was a lifeline. Sweet, sweet music. While I didn't read nearly as much as I had planned during the strict lockdown days, I did listen to music. I don't know that I've ever had that much time, sustained and uninterrupted time, to listen to music. I made a long list of bands to explore or revisit, and started ticking them off once I'd made it through their full, respective discographies. Some were relistens, revisiting old favorites, whose studio efforts I hadn't made time for in years (Pearl Jam, Oasis). But, other discography projects were bands I'd never been able to dive all the way into, given whatever reason there always is for me to switch the dial, or pull out the next disc and dig on the new buzz. It was illuminating to go through full careers, highs and lows, without interruption, to track the kind of progress and development that only exists in a band. Especially when a band has been around for a sustained amount of time and weathered the extremes of tastes, trends and technology. The Kinks were a fun listen. The Rolling Stones were an education, a long one. The Beatles, a reiteration of what I already knew to be greatness. The Who had more low, wtf moments than I remembered, but they still exist at both ends of the spectrum, flying from great to blah.  I listened to a lot more than the classics, catching up on modern bands I'd missed out on (LCD Soundsystem, Nada Surf, Soul Coughing), bands I’d never given enough time to (Fugazi, Teenage Fanclub, Blur, Brian Jonestown Massacre ) and bands I wished I hadn't listened to because the full discographies ruined the mystique of loving a few choice singles (Beck, Talking Heads) to bands that I'd been told I was missing out on (Superdrag, Supersuckers, Pavement,) and realized, I hadn't, not really. But, good or bad, confirming or disappointing, music--long sustained loud music--filled an emptiness in a way that little else could. There's a void that opens wide in our psyches during bad times, and closes, leaving a scar that is nonetheless easy to ignore when things get better. And even then, there are scars that don’t heal. Music is a way to scream into that void and fill it, overfill it, cover the scars and find light in the dark. 

The news about Eddie Van Halen's passing was a fresh hurt, a mean pain that felt new and cruel and like a scab being pulled too soon. There’s been enough bad news and when your heroes die, it’s hard not to linger. But,  I went back today to the eponymous 1978 debut, and listened all the way through the discography, fully to the present. It was a long day of listening, and I'm still going as I write this, but I felt I had to get this out, to listen and to write while I'm in the present of this awful news. And, somehow being awash in the phased out, squealing guitar of Eddie Van Halen helped. It felt good to go back, and there was a certainty that it wasn't ‘just awesome' because, I mean, he’s one of the greatest guitar players ever. Period.  It was awesome to hear him again, my original guitar hero, the reason I picked up the guitar to begin with. This wasn't bandwagoning, or getting caught up in the nostalgia that plays out so well to make gods of our once mortal heros. Listening to that guitar, to that pounding, revved out engine and horse-powered screaming, out of this world sound, was a revelatory now as it was when I first heard Van Halen in all their dirty, blazing glory. There are definitely some better than others when it comes to their catalog. Yet, despite the changeovers in stylistics, line ups and interpersonal drama, Van Halen, the band and the man, remained an otherworldly force of great music. Eddie Van Halen's guitar was a signal from another world, and it caught me, transported me, to great places. That's what rock does: moves you, takes you places. 

I'm feeling a little more empty than normal today knowing the EVH is gone. The world feels a little more real, a little less magical, knowing that he was really just one of us, sadly, fraily human, and that the transformative laser beam and lightning sorcery of his fret work is over. Don’t meet your heroes, they say, but that’s silly--most of us never will. But, watch your heroes die? That seems exceptionally cruel, especially now.

 Like some many teenage boys, when I heard “Eruption”, I wanted to play like that, wicked fast fingers sliding over the frets with extraterrestrial finesse. Rock music is magic. EVH was powerful in a way that is incomparable to what almost anyone else did on the guitar. Songs like “Cathedral”, “Panama”, “Everybody Wants Some”--I could listen to that work over and over again and still feel like I was hearing something miraculous. It never felt like a repeat--hearing EVH shred was revelatory and it hit as hard the 1000th time as it did the first time you heard it. EVH made you feel powerful just by listening. You'd never be as good as he was, but listening to him shred, literally, the fabric that separates reality from fantasy, made you grateful to go along for the tripped out ride. 

The world is emptier today than it was yesterday. My heroes are falling, fading and I find myself cursed with an old man's cynicism and certainty that music won't ever sound that way again. There will never be music like that again. Like who? Like any of it, any of those first albums I heard that seduced me and made me fall truly in love with rock and roll. As a sound, as a lifestyle, and way to make sense of a world I know, no matter how old I get, will never really make sense. A world that would be a lot emptier without the sound of these drums and these guitars. 

It helped to sit with EVH's guitar today. His music was a signal from a different place. The spectrum echos, sadness seems to be on a repeating loop, and the world is a darker place lately than it's been in a long time. And, today, it's even worse.  But, music abides. It lasts. It has to. Music sustains, both of its own power and in what it can do for the soul in need of something better than itself to carry it through these rough days.

I know this post is a stretch on our usual editorial principles here at SMM, but I woke up and felt empty. Going back all the way to that 1978 eruption of rock n roll madness helped fill the void. I stretched our theme to include the word "empty" from the lyrics to Van Halen's "Dreams", from 1986's 5150. It's still a controversial album, even today. It was their first outing post-David Lee Roth, and purists think nothing VH did after 1984 was worth listening to. Van Hagar ruined the band for a lot of fans. And “Dreams”, despite the stellar EVH soloing and the instrumentation, is a decidedly 80s power-pop ballad.  But, for me, it fits in a great album. The album was my first foray into rock n roll, and appeared in my life right about the time that I was starting to discover what music meant to me. The tour for 5150 was the second show I ever saw, the summer right before I started high school, and I often wish I could go back to what that felt like, hearing that music for the very first time. It was a blissful time--not at all empty--full of possibility, of exuberance, of curiosity. I may have moved on from VH, but the bliss, pure joyous bliss, that music first created in me, the spark it set off, has never been far from my mind. And EVH played an outsized role in that earthquake-sized shift in me. In fact, I think I keep listening in hopes of getting back to that inception. Today took me back, even if it was painful. And to EVH, I say, thank you for what you, and your preternatural, singularly mystical guitar playing, sparked in me. 

The house band in heaven is going electric tonight, and they're gonna play something like you've never heard before.

Empty: The Void (Filler)

Titus Andronicus: The Void (Filler)

Titus Andronicus is a frustrating band. (Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play that I’ve never seen, is also supposed to be pretty frustrating, and for years was considered to be his worst play. But, as it always seems to happen, it appears that this appraisal has changed. End of gratuitous Shakespeare section). They’re frustrating because they have incredibly grand ambitions, but don’t always live up to them. Because some of their music is really great, and some of it is headscratching. Because the band’s leader, Patrick Stickles, can be incredibly open and interesting when interviewed, but sometimes comes off as difficult. Although he suffers from various mental health issues, which may explain some or all of this. And, by some reports, sometimes their live shows are great, and others stink. 

And I need to admit that part of my frustration is that I recognize that Titus Andronicus is a band that requires the kind of attention that I haven’t really been able to focus on music since maybe college. 

Back when I was in high school, it was not uncommon for bands to create “rock operas” or albums that had some sort of overarching narrative. Some of these were and are considered classics, and others were considered silly or pretentious or indecipherable. As punk music began to gain notice, one of the things that you heard regularly was that the simple, stripped down music was a reaction to the excesses of classic rock and prog, and all of the hifalutin’ pretense, particularly the rock opera and its ilk. 

Eventually, though, punks succumbed to the artistic temptation of trying to create a song cycle with a narrative, and the stories that were told often rivaled the prog masters for incomprehensibility. Although the music was, generally, more concise. 

It probably came as no surprise to fans of Titus Andronicus, though, a band that fused punk with large helpings of Springsteen-esqe rock, that Sickles would attempt his own rock opera. As a Civil War buff of sorts, I first became aware of the band in 2010 when they released The Monitor, which used themes from the Civil War to reflect Stickles’ emotional issues. And some of the music really was thrilling. Their next album, Local Business, was more straight-ahead rock, but for 2015’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Stickels created a rock opera lasting more than an hour and half, on the topics of mental health and neurodiversity. As Spin explained

the rock opera’s plot is roughly as follows: A manic-depressive young man meets a lookalike who shows him, through pharmacology and/or religious awakening, a better way of life. He meets and falls for a girl, but has become drug-dependent and experiences a breakdown. He nearly ends it all, but learns at the last second that life is worth trudging through. It’s basically impossible to track the story just by listening — Stickles’ guttural spitting makes many tracks indecipherable — but Quadrophenia and American Idiot were hardly coherent original screenplays, either.

And have you ever read the liner notes to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway?

The music is also diverse; while most of it skews punkward, there are also electronic/noise interludes, poppy songs, some clear Springsteen homages, fiddle-heavy Celtic rock, and a version of “Auld Lang Syne.” And it was reviewed in The New York Times

Toward the end, is “Into the Void (Filler),” a hard rocker with more than a little bit of Bob Mould/Hüsker Dü influence. I’ve read the lyrics and I’m frankly not at all sure about what it means, but if it is part of a piece about mental illness, maybe it not a surprise that it is hard to decipher. I still don’t know, though, whether the “Filler” in the title refers to filling the titular void, or that the song is filler, but I don’t think so, because it's pretty good (although I've never seen it mentioned in any of the reviews I read in preparing this piece).

I saw Titus Andronicus in 2013 at Terminal 5 in New York with my son, where they were the second act on a bill with The Menzingers opening and Lucero closing. I was excited to see Lucero for the first time since 2006 and to hear Titus Andronicus, but had never heard of The Menzingers. I think that Terminal 5 had really crappy sound, so the loud fast dense sound of Titus Andronicus was hard to listen to or understand (and looking at the setlist now, it appears they played a few songs from the not yet released The Most Lamentable Tragedy). Lucero was fine, although not as good as the first time, although it was maybe because of the bad sound. The Menzingers, though, made a good impression.