Record #349: Jesu – Conqueror (2007)

Jesu’s career is what happens when a member of a celebrated metal band (Godflesh, in this case) embarks on a sensitive singer-songwriter solo career but forgets to change his sonic palette. 
That might sound reductive, but it’s why this album works so well. Thousands of musicians have sung these sorts of songs on their acoustic guitars (see: Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, Bright Eyes, James Taylor, Phosphorsecent, Fleet Foxes…that’s without even trying).

But few had the inspired idea of pairing those gentle melodies with huge walls of crunching metal guitars, glistening synths, and crashing drums. Justin Broadrick’s is a gentle voice in the eye of a hurricane, creating one of the most spellbinding records to ever come out of the metal camp.

Record #348: Jeff Beck – Blow By Blow (1975)

I originally purchased Blow By Blow, former Yardbird* Jeff Beck’s second solo album, after I remarked, “Oh, I thought that said ‘Jeff Buckley,’ nevermind,” mid-dig, and my friend, the record store owner shrugged and said, “just as good.”

I listened through it once before I returned it to him and said, “No! It! Is! Not! Just! As! Good!” 

I must have found this copy in one of the free collections I’ve picked through over the years and decided to give it another chance, but I haven’t gotten to it until now. Immediately, I know this isn’t going to be a frequent disc on my turntable. It may have been revolutionary in 1975, but at this point, the utilization of jazz elements into rock music has become entirely dated, almost a parody of genre that Beck & Co. pioneered (as opposed to the fusing of rock elements into jazz music, which is timeless. See: Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew).

Which isn’t to say there aren’t great performances here, because of course there are. You can’t pull this sort of music off without virtuosic skill from the entire band. But unlike most of the fusion acts that followed, composition doesn’t take a backseat to technical skill. Dated it may be, but it’s absolutely not unlistenable (it’s not my jam, but it’s not unlistenable). It goes without saying that Beck is a great guitarist–his lead playing is unmistakably his own the way that Hendrix was Hendrix and George Harrison was George Harrison. The arrangements (courtesy of one post-Beatles George Martin. Hi again, George) are top notch, especially of their version of Stevie Wonder’s Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers, which is a standout on this disc.

So now, having given it a fair listen this time, this isn’t due for an immediate removal from my collection. It’s an excellent archival piece–a look at a musician at the top of his form–but it’s not something I’ll listen to on any sort of regular basis.

*but really, who wasn’t a former Yardbird?

Record #347: Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977)

As I mentioned last time, I’m pretty new to Jackson Browne’s (reputedly legendary) catalogue. I’ve come to know and appreciate some of his singles on the classic rock station, but yesterday’s article was the first time I listened to a Jackson Browne album front to back (and I rather enjoyed it). Running on Empty, however, is a different sort of album…
It’s a live album, but none of the songs appeared on earlier studio albums. Besides that, many of the tracks were recorded not on stage, but in hotel rooms, on tour busses, and in green rooms before shows. This gives the record an intimate quality that escapes not only most live albums, but most albums in general, even though around half of the songs are covers. 

While I spoke previously to Browne’s tendency towards subtler arrangements, many of the non-stage recordings here (like The Road, Rosie, and Cocaine) are downright sparse–a pair of acoustic guitar, a violin, a few extra voices singing harmony. A couple of the hotel room tracks include a drum kit and electric guitar, which raises the question: what kind of Holiday Inns were they staying in? The most impressive of these non-stage tracks is the bouncing Nothing But Time, recorded on a bus driving down the highway You can literally hear the engine shifting as Jackson sings about sleepless nights and state lines. Ambient noise is most recording engineers’ worst nightmare. Here, it adds a level of authenticity impossible in a studio. 

All of these ignores the full band, stage performance tracks, though. The crowd is amped, the lead guitars scream, but the band resists the urge to take off after them. The restraint shown on their studio recordings remains intact, and Jackson sings just as earnestly in front of a thousand people as he does in a hotel room. 
All of these elements create a live album that is less a portrait of the musicians’ live performance and more a documentary of life on the road–a life that Jackson assures us isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Record #346: Jackson Browne – For Everyman (1973)

Record #346: Jackson Browne – For Everyman (1973)
As much as my tastes may veer toward post rock, shoegaze, Krautrock, metal, and other less-mainstream waters, I do have a huge soft spot for old Americana (“Born to Run” gives me life every time I hear it). But for all my affinity for the Boss, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, and Dire Straits, I’ve never spent much time digging into Jackson Browne’s catalogue, which I have been told is a real shame. 
I was sold on a couple Browne albums by a merchant at a garage sale selling records three for $5 (this is also where I picked up most of my Chicago. That was a year ago. I haven’t listened to either Jackson Browne records yet (though I have cried before when “Running On Empty” has come on the radio). 

For Everyman, his second record, is, by several accounts, his best work, and a few songs in, it’s easy to see why. This record is spellbinding. It opens with his arrangement of “Take It Easy,” cowritten with the Eagles’ Glen Frey and released the same year. Browne’s version is the more nuanced of the two versions, allowing the somberness of the lyrics room to breathe (in what universe is being torn between seven women something to brag about? Jackson sings it with the tension it deserves).

The disc as a whole showcases his tendency to restrain the band into subtler, more emotive arrangements when lesser band leaders would crank up the amps and let the drums take off. This restraint leaves room for his heartfelt wit, allowing his words room to breathe. Accordingly, the weakest track on the album is bluesy, raucous “Redneck Friend,” which has none of the emotional heft of anything else here. But thankfully, that’s only one song, and it’s fun enough that it doesn’t taint the rest of the album, which is heartbreaking in the way that the best Americana (Springsteen’s Nebraska, Seger’s “Against the Wind”) is heartbreaking.

Record #345: Craig’s Brother – Lost at Sea (2001)

When I was in middle school, back in the pre-internet days*, my best friend Travis and I discovered most of our music through his older brother Tyler and his best friend, also named Tyler. Tyler and Tyler themselves were primarily driven by record label samplers, back when samplers were actually useful. Led by the track “Head in the Clouds” on Tooth and Nail’s legendary Songs From the Penalty Box, Vol. IV (still one of the best samplers of all time), Tylers purchased a copy of Lost At Sea, which they burned for Travis, who burned it for me. 
By the time it got to me, the tracks had somehow got clustered up in such a way that the first second and a half of each song was attached to the end of the track before it, which was then interrupted by that two-second silence between tracks that all CD burners decided were mandatory (you youths will never know the struggles we faced for new music). Despite the chopped-up transitions between each song and profound skips it quickly developed (those early CD-Rs were anything but durable), it became one of my favorite albums in 8th and 9th grade. It even somehow survived the various iconoclasms my tastes went through when I discovered emo, hardcore, Radiohead, and Krautrock. My tastes have changed over the years, but I never dismissed this album the way I dismissed the Ataris or Slick Shoes when something “more sophisticated” came along.

And truth be told, that’s because this is sophisticated rock and roll. It is pop punk stripped of all pop punk tropes. Palm-muted power chords are relatively rare, the guitars instead playing more melodic lines through a phaser. The bass rarely rides the root notes at an even pace. The drums often break from the quick one-two’s of most punk and explore more varied dynamics.

Lead singer Ted Bond sings in a genre-appropriate sneer, but his lyrics utilize much more poetic images than typical pop punk—an out of tune orchestra, FDR growing weary as WWII waged on, a shipwrecked survivor drifting helplessly on bits of wreckage. Elements are borrowed from college indie rock (“Head in the Clouds”), thrash metal (“Back and Forth”), brooding alternative (“Lost at Sea”), and country (“Set Free,” before that awesome Smithsy jangle-rock pickup halfway through). But what’s probably most impressive is that throughout ten tracks of genre-bending turn-of-the-millennium pop punk, there’s not a bad song on here. Each song is just as strong as the next, which means an awful lot when we’re dealing with highlights like “Glory,” “Prince of America,” and “Divorce” (alongside every other song mentioned). 

All of this is enough to make this album a rare gem, but (as I’ve just read on the album’s Wikipedia page) the album was damaged by tensions between Tooth and Nail over budget overages (specifically the choir on “Glory”) and a picture on their website of drummer Juice Cabrera giving the finger (Christian label, remember). The band was dropped from the label and distribution was on a by-request-only basis, which, paired with members leaving for other bands (hi, Yellowcard), led to Craig’s Brother’s disbanding shortly after its lackluster release. Learning this now makes me even more glad to have heard it when I did. 

*we HAD the internet, but it was almost useless for discovering music. 56k download speed, streaming didn’t exist, file-sharing services almost always mislabled songs, a three minute video took two hours to load and you couldn’t open another tab while you waited for it, etc.

Record #344: Golden Earring – Moontan (US) (1973)

Don’t be fooled by lead single “Radar Love” and commercial rock radio’s continued play of it: this album isn’t your typical classic rock fare…
There are bits and pieces of straight forward, macho, dad rock, sure, but most of the record is the sort of open-ended, spaced out sections that mark all the best psychedelic works. “Big Tree, Blue Sea” (exclusive inserts a five minute instrumental section laden with sleepy flute and guitar solos in between codas. The nine and a half minute Are You Receiving Me is half psych noodling, half balls-to-the-wall rock anthem (and is also one of the greatest psychedelic rock songs ever, in my opinion). 
Their ability to rock out while leaving space for sonic exploration is aided by the North American release, which wisely replaces the shorter, more straightforward Suzy Lucy (Mental Rock) and Just Like Vince Taylor with the eight minute Big Tree, Blue Sky. While I usually oppose adjusting the track listing between releases, in this case, it was the right move. The label’s meddling here transformed Moontan from a pretty decent psych-rock album with a few choice cuts into a sprawling psychedlic epic that stands toe to toe with Pink Floyd’s Meddle and King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King in the upper echelons of psych greatness.