2001: Jon Brion - Meaningless
Like Phil Spector in the ’60s or Glyn Johns in the ’70s, Jon Brion seems to produce everything and anything. That’s him behind the wheel for The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” and Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled debut. There he is turning knobs for Fiona Apple, then, famously, not. Finally, he shows up for Kanye West’s Late Registration, a pairing that is as surprising as it is fruitful.
Brion is also a ridiculously accomplished musician with a superhuman ear. His weekly stints at L.A.’s Largo, at which he plays obscure instruments and takes audience requests for impromptu covers, are legendary. Some of his songs have shown up on movie soundtracks, but his best work can be found on the self-released Meaningless.
Meaningless shows off everything Jon Brion has to offer. It’s a meticulously produced, arranged, and written endeavor, with an endless shelf life. The disc starts with “Gotta Start Somewhere,” with its sardonic opening line “I may not have anything to offer you/ I may not have anything to say that’s new/ But you’ve gotta start somewhere.” It’s a throat-clearing of sorts, a comment that Brion knows what you’re thinking: this is all bullshit. But, he’s adding, it’s inevitable, so why not?
Brion also co-produced Aimee Mann’s masterful Bachelor No. 2 around this time, and the baroque production of Meaningless matches Mann’s record, detail for detail. Mann even co-wrote the record’s best track, “I Believe She’s Lying,” which is as frenetic as it is heartbreaking. Its chorus -- “I believe she’s lying/ I trust her to undermine my faith in her/ In time, I have every confidence she’ll dismantle mine” -- is quintessential Brion (and Mann): emotional, darkly funny, and concisely clever.
The genius of Meaningless is Brion’s use of his two greatest assets: production and songwriting. In providing the former, Brion knows when to make things charmingly complicated (as on “Lying” and the funnily confident shuffle “Walking Through Walls,” co-written by Grant Lee Phillips, which features Brion sweetly singing “motherfucker” in the background) or simple (the brutally intimate relationship ballad, “Same Mistakes”). These songs are nothing short of perfect. The McCartney-esque melodies are catchy enough to make an immediate impression, and the lyrics, seemingly simple, have meanings that permeate later. From “Hook, Line, and Sinker”: “I’m feeling for all the world like I’m feeling for all the world.”
Thematically, Meaningless sticks to what Brion School fans know well: addiction (emotional or otherwise), heartbreak, malaise, and tongue-in-cheek exuberance. In this way, much of the record calls to mind the best work Brion has produced, from Mann to Apple, Eels to Wainwright. There’s happiness in spots, but it’s cautious or ironic.
For kicks, Brion ends the disc with a cover of Cheap Trick’s gorgeous ballad “Voices,” and it’s then that you realize: what you’ve just listened to, with its esoteric lyrics and detailed arrangements, is still just pop music. At its core, it’s no different from Cheap Trick, Herman’s Hermits, or AC/DC. And thank god for that.
1979: Alex Chilton - Like Flies on Sherbert
My favorite scene in Bullit, the 1968 cop flick staring Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullit, comes near the end of the movie: Shady Senator Walter Chalmers tells Bullit -- who’s been through hell and back, dodging death, knee deep in intrigue, and jumping up and down the hilly streets of San Fran in that ’68 Ford Mustang G.T.390 Fastback -- “We all must make compromises.” “Bullshit!” Bullit growls.
I like to imagine Alex Chilton saying the same thing when asked by some clueless record execs to tame down his 1980 debut, Like Flies on Sherbet. Maybe the label just didn't, you know, get it -- their unfeeling commercial aspirations unable to grasp the artistic boldness and significance of Chilton’s masterwork. This is his What’s Going On, his Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bravely, Chilton decided to press a meager 500 copies of the album himself; 500 copies of no-compromise attitude, DIY grit, and triumphant artistic expression.
Yet listening closely to Like Flies on Sherbet reveals that, sadly, my imagined Chilton, creative and courageous, might be exaggerated. Likes Flies is one of the most damaged records I’ve ever heard; not damaged in the way Pig Destroyer sounds “damaged,” but I mean totally wrecked. It’s as if no one involved in the performance, production, mastering, or duplication of the album was sober at any time during the process. The playing is sloppy: in-the-red guitars blast-mask any subtlety underneath, the vocals careen out of tune, studio clatter remains audible, and vocal flubs are left brazenly on display. It’s so ruined it can’t be accidental. Gleefully out of control, the record sounds like someone exiting the New York punk scene, someone enamored with The Cramps (who Chilton had produced), inspired by that snot nosed attitude, aiming to deconstruct rockabilly, blues, and country music, and to rebuild them in his own image.
All of which wouldn’t be so surprising if it wasn’t for Chilton’s pedigree: At 16, the Memphis kid was fronting The Box Tops, gallivanting about the country on the strength of the group’s massive hit, “The Letter,” which found the young Chilton sounding impossibly gruff. Eventually, he left The Box Tops, frustrated by a lack of songwriting input, and headed home where he joined the fledgling Big Star. Over the course of three albums, Big Star would define American power pop; they laid the foundation for everyone from The Replacements to R.E.M. and garnered a cult following that still obsesses over every sound on those three records. But commercial success eluded the band, and by the time Third/Sisterlovers was released, the strain was audible. The final album to bear the Big Star name was haunting and disparate, created largely by Chilton alone. A fractured psyche is revealed, capable of chiming power pop as well as tortured balladry (listen to “Oh Dana” followed by “Holocaust”).
Despite an ongoing debate over Third/Sisterlovers' status as a one-man effort, Like Flies remains Chilton’s first definitive solo album. Holed up in Sam Phillips & Ardent Studios with Big Star producer James Luther Dickinson, Chilton leads a group of session musicians through a rambling set of covers and half-formed originals. “I’ve Had It” showcases the album's most out-of-key performance, with multi-tracked vocals stumbling across the room. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (the first track or not included at all, depending on which rare pressing you hunt down) features another glorious mistake: Chilton comes in with the vocals too early and in the wrong key. “Girl After Girl” goes for prime Elvis and ends up sounding like dead-toilet Elvis, while the Carter Family standard, “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena,” features some high, lonesome vocals that don’t entirely fail until Chilton begins uncontrollably laughing amidst the tale of slavery and loss.
It’s not that these tracks are without merit, though. The playing, still messy and loud, is positively gleeful and, on Chilton’s originals, surprisingly appropriate. “My Rival” stomps with Sonic Youth joy, driven guitars chugging along with complete abandon, and “Hey! Little Child” re-imagines Big Star’s lovelorn “Thirteen” as a Catholic school girl call out; with its repeated chorus of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” the song fits alongside “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night!” and “Hey ho! Let’s go!” in the pantheon of deliriously stupid and wonderful rock ‘n’ roll mantras. The album's title track, “Like Flies on Sherbet,” is an ace card: a pounding piano-driven rocker embellished by avant-garde synth and guitar squeals that sounds something like a Here Come the Warm Jets B-side covered by Badfinger.
To say that Like Flies on Sherbert is a masterpiece of lo-fi punk would be a misnomer. Chilton wasn’t a punk rocker, even if he wanted to be. But to decry the album as an utter failure would be just as faulty. Chilton’s work has grown increasingly stale over the years, the oddball madness of early albums replaced by cool ambivalence and easy listening forays into jazz and blues. Modern Chilton doesn’t seem to care about anything, but the Chilton of Like Flies seems to care about not caring. What he found so exciting about punk was its engagement of the audience. Like Flies is G.G. Allin tossing excrement on his crowds; it’s Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass and peanut butter; it’s Elvis Costello cutting the band off mid-song on SNL and launching into “Radio Radio” instead. Like Flies is the sound of a musician railing against the indifference he felt his career had endured.
Chilton may not be the “rock-hard” Bullit, refusing to compromise, but his album at least recalls that film’s famous car chase. There’s one scene where the camera is hit by one of the cars, causing the shot to shake violently before cutting out. The scene was left in the movie. Perhaps the director wanted to make it known that the chase was real, that there was tangible danger and risk involved. Like Flies on Sherbert is an entire album of that shot. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s absolutely real.
1982: Descendents - Milo Goes to College
Recorded two months before the titular wunderkind (born Milo Aukerman of Lomita, CA) made the trek from Hermosa Beach to UC San Diego, Descendents’ first album sounded the demise of the band's original incarnation; it rivals X’s Wild Gift and Fear’s The Record as L.A.’s superlative punk document. By this point, the band was tighter than ever, and the songs were well-played indeed -- so much so that the gay-bashing and virginal-wrath-as-sour-grapes-neo-Puritanism would come off as merely figurative if not for Aukerman’s pubertal tenor.
His voice brings to mind a stalling El Camino and cakes each mote of pampered suburban ennui in requisite grime and gravel. The lyrics aren’t “funny” anymore than they’re “lyrics,” but an occasional insight along the lines of “You got a baited hook and you’re calling it your cherry/ You want to settle down and you want to get married” damn near elevates them beyond brain droppings.
Thirty seconds into the splatter and fuzz of “Myage,” you want the song to play over the opening titles of every movie you’ll ever see for the rest of your life. It’s a killer. And if the rest of the album doesn’t always match the opener on a hook-for-hook level, the more traditional pile-drivers benefit from Aukerman’s sharp wordplay and charmingly stunted worldview. Things he likes: fishing, The Beatles, true love. Things he hates: whores, posers, PARENTS!!! (three syllables). Things he is not: a loser, a punk, dead.
There’s some softening on the last four songs, both melody-wise (“Bikeage” actually jangles) and thematically, as M.A. pines for a girl looking for love in all the wrong places. On “Hope,” he tells her, “I think it’s right to want someone for all your own/ And not to share her love.” By “Jean Is Dead,” she’s killed herself. See where feelings get you?
1991: Sonny Sharrock - Ask the Ages
During the time of year when all the leaves are gone and the nights are long, without flaw, I begin an annual shift into pensive hibernation. Three transformations take place in me that I neglect the rest of the year. First, I rediscover my oven and the delights of baked deserts; I crank out enough cookies, sweet breads, and pies to make your grandma green with envy. This comfort food fattens me up for coming winter months and lays the groundwork for the next metamorphous that takes place. Step two, I become a raging midnight hour film fanatic of the black and white persuasion. Night after night, I sit in the dark, wrapped in a fuzzy down comforter, nestled up with my chubby cat Delilah in a drooling semi-diabetic coma from all the of baked yumminess, and I watch movies from Tinsel Town's golden era, with an occasional Criterion Collection selection sprinkled in to appease my highbrow aspirations.
The final phase of my march towards monastery-like introspection takes full effect: I dig into that forgotten attic of my record collection, the hidden corner that contains that most cerebral of musical art forms, the music that makes documentarian Ken Burns wet his starched slacks with glee -- the music known as jazz. Sure, some of you have your Mannheim Steamroller Christmas collections to sip eggnog to while wearing your holiday-themed sweaters. Not me. I prefer to transport myself to an imaginary Parisian nightclub thick with cigarette smoke, where Billie, Miles, Duke, and the like reign supreme. I suppose I could choose to watch an inspirational and heartwarming made-for-TV holiday movie starring Meredith Baxter Birney on one of those family-friendly cable networks like my mom does, but would Meredith Baxter Birney provide the appropriate acoustical ambiance I require for making a Bundt cake? I think not.
Oh, but don't think my appreciation for jazz lies only with musicians who grace U.S. postage stamps. This is where I seem to differ from the aforementioned filmmaker with starched slacks. You see, I also get my freak on to avant-garde jazz from the ’60s, where giant afros stare at me from the album covers. I weird-out to those art-damaged beatniks hanging out in the downtown New York lofts during the ’80s. I scan the pages of Wire magazine for the latest improvisations hitting the streets from some unheralded, underground maestro. This is my wintertime, get-out-of-bed-and-face-the-world music. This provides the jolt I need to shake the sugar hangover from the previous night's confectionery smörgåsbord. This is the fiery yang to my moonlight yin preference of bebop, ballads, and swing. That's where Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock comes in. But really, as fascinating a topic as I am, enough about me.
You might be familiar with Sonny's guitar sound already. He recorded the theme song for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, is featured on several Ron Burgundy-approved Herbie Mann records, and played with Miles Davis' early ’70s fusion band. But that only scratches the surface of what Señor Sharrock does when plugged in. Sonny shreds on the guitar. Not the sort of hair guitar shredding that is promised in the tabs of the glossy guitar mags with Joe Satrioni and Stu Hamm on the cover. If I were to make assumptions, I would guess that Sonny could shred after finding the glowing orb from the cartoon cult classic movie Heavy Metal lying in his backyard, which gave him the guitar power of Greyskull. It's kinda like if the love child from the respective worlds of Rod Serling and Lewis Carroll was given a guitar, these would be the sounds that it produced. Is it making sense for you yet? Sonny Sharrock is the guitar boss you've never had. I don't care how good you are at Guitar Hero, even if you have Thad Jarvis backing you up; there is no way you are producing the whacked-out sounds that come from Sunny's six string. Too bad for any of you wannabe Yngwie Malmsteen blowhards reading this; I'm not technical enough to be able to tell you what's going on from a theoretical point of view. (I do, however, have a great recipe for ginger snaps.)
Joining Sunny on Ask the Ages are two undisputed grand poobahs of free jazz, Pharaoh Sanders on saxophone and Elvin Jones on drums. Elvin is best known for propelling John Coltrane through his peak creative years, and Pharaoh has my second favorite name in jazz after former Jazz Messengers bassist Spanky DeBrest. Pharaoh howls and shrieks in all the right ways to compliment Sonny on his exploration of the stratosphere; there are moments when the intensity is at such a fevered pitch that you absolutely think one of them is on the verge of blowing an o-ring.
But this isn't a total skronkathon that can turn off many listeners to free jazz; there is a lot of variety going on here. On "Who Does She Hope To Be?" for example, the band simmers it down for a scorching electric blues. You know that obnoxious commercial where a bunch of baby boomers are sitting around singing Viva Viagra? I bet they crank out some electric blues while driving in their midlife-crisis convertibles -- but Sonny isn't playing the generic electric blues that would appeal to that crowd. This is the sort of soul searching electric blues that reminds me of Eddie Hazel's "Maggot Brain" from the Funkadelic clan. If I had to find a flaw in that song, it'd be its brevity, and that it isn't opened up enough to let Sonny totally rip into the ether as it's on the verge of doing. Meanwhile, on "Many Mansions," I hear Love Supreme-era Coltrane being channeled. Which reminds me of the time I went to the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco and had some red beans and rice. Which just triggered my salivary glands and is making me aware of that delicious aroma coming out of my oven. Which is making this review come to an abrupt end. Godspeed, mix tape fans, godspeed.
1970: Blue Mountain Eagle - Blue Mountain Eagle
In the wake of Buffalo Springfield’s undoing, a plethora of new projects were birthed. As Steven Stills parted ways to team up with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Neil Young went solo and occasionally collaborated with them. Jim Messina discovered his folk singing protégé, Kenny Loggins, and the two went on to make heavenly sounds for the next half decade as Loggins and Messina. Dewey Redman, the group’s drummer, decided to recruit new members and milk the Buffalo Springfield thing for all it was worth, performing under the New Buffalo Springfield, and often just New Buffalo. Stills and Young weren’t so jazzed on the idea and sued Redman for use of the name, which caused a prompt re-branding: New Buffalo became Blue Mountain Eagle, named after their home state of Oregon’s oldest newspaper, who, coincidentally, did not sue. After the change, Redman left the band to form Medicine Ball, excising BME from any direct legacy of Buffalo S.
The remaining band’s ephemeral existence would see them sharing the stage with the likes of Hendrix, Lee, and Burdon. In December ’69, they entered the studio to record with Bill Halverston, who manned the decks for other acts like the Dead and CSNY (years later he would engineer Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express). The final product revealed a slickly recorded, shimmering side to acid rock. "Love is Here" starts things off with a deep cookin’ groove, reminiscent of SRC or Dino Valente’s Quicksilver Messenger Service. A Young-ian lyrical structure heeds a letter of warning to a young psychonaut: “If you want to change the world you live in yeah/ There must be a feeling from all sides yeah.” BJ Jones and Joey Newman weave their wails, while lead vocalist David Price “chh”’s and “aah” throughout.
And there are plenty of other tracks worth describing:"Yellow’s Dream" is soft and folksy, with an organ intro reminiscent of Aoxomoxoa era-Dead, while the heavy blues rocker, "Feel Like a Bandit," has a dual vocal attack, filled with “my woman ain’t no good” lyrical fare, so typical of that era. Troubles’ proto-"Sweet Home Alabama" opening lick erupts into a color chorus of sunburned psychedelia that makes you think you’re back in the Haight. "Loveless Lives" evokes the stoner soul of Vanilla Fudge and the deep, deep grooves of Randy Holden’s solo work. "Sweet Mama" is similarly iconoclastic, and finally the Stills-penned single "Marianne" is lovingly added to this CD in both mono and stereo form, jovially creaks with electric wah.
On the downside, ballads like "No Regrets" and the airy "Promise of Love" detract from the album's more freewheelin’, “All American band” stride. Blue Mountain Eagle also sounds derivative at times, recalling a number of other, more popular groups; they ultimately suffer from a far too formulaic approach, with each song following the verse-chorus-verse-guitar freakout-coda-verse-chorus-coda-end template. The lyrics are sometimes abysmally simplistic ("You make me feel bad now mama/ And that isn’t good"), and despite the heaviness and proficient playing, this super group comes off as somewhat of a session band. Ultimately, big egos and poor record sales would be their demise, and in May 1970 they disbanded, only five months after recording the album. Now the tracks have been rescued from obscurity and re-released, and despite a few qualms, aficionados of West Coast hard psych should definitely check out this lost rocker.
1991: Jim O’Rourke - Tamper
Jim O’Rourke gets the reissue treatment from Drag City, the Chicago label better known for hyphenated folk stalwarts like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Joanna Newsom, two artists for whom O’Rourke has done engineering or production work in the past. On Tamper, we get a much less accessible O’Rourke, reminiscent of the innovative instrumentalist who has frequented the likes of Derek Bailey, Eddie Prevost, and Keith Rowe since his college days. The three classically-minded pieces on this record dilate and deepen through quarter-hour crossfades, attaining violent crescendos and murmuring in near silence with generous stretches of overlapping, single-note loops in between. For those who appreciate drone and minimal composition, it’s quite intriguing stuff.
“Spirits Never Forgive” swells patiently toward a climactic, birthlike highpoint, starting with nearly inaudible pulses before queasy, cosmic oscillators jangle through each other and Tony Conrad-style violins squeal away like agitated bats. There may be a clarinet at the bottom of all this, but the sounds are stretched so much that instrumentation seems irrelevant; texture and mood are more central concerns. “He Felt the Patient Memory of a Reluctant Sea” is downright mournful, tracing wobbly orbits through de-tuned, echo-heavy wavelengths. “Ascend Through Unspoken Shadow” begins with a feedback shitstorm; sharp blocks of sound cleave into and through each other, resulting in a texture far more abrasive than in the two more contemplative tracks that open the record. On all three pieces, O’Rourke deftly welds a vehicle for experimental, classical, and noise music, without allowing his layered tones to veer too far into any one of those domains.
All in all, Tamper is a worthy reissue of the high caliber one would expect from someone of O’Rourke’s stature. Although the original release dates back to 1991, it sounds perfectly relevant in the context of contemporary experimental work. This should give us pause: If, some 17 years after its original release, this ‘experimental’ record still sounds fresh, we can and should praise the foresight of its creator, but we should also question the ingenuity of his would-be successors. Tamper should serve as a challenge to today’s electro-acoustic mavens to renew both the sound and structure of their work.