Record #372: Johnny Cash – Mean As Hell! (1966)

While Johnny Cash has always been a country western icon, I’m not sure if he has ever been as country or as western as he is here…
Mean As Hell is a collection of old western tunes, and damn if it doesn’t play exactly that way. On some of these songs, the only thing missing is a lonesome coyot’ howlin’ in the distance. The disc is as dust covered and spur-janglin’ as every cowboy movie. These songs all feel like they’re being played in an old saloon, at risk of being interrupted by a stranger in town any second. That being said, it is a very specific Johnny Cash album, and pretty far down the list of which record I’d toss on if I’m in the mood for the Man in Black.

Record #371: Boris – Noise (2014)

Boris is one of those black hole bands. You know–groups with outputs so prolific and consistent that it’s impossible to choose a starting point. You know, bands like Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Mogwai…
And like all of those groups, Boris has cut their teeth indulging every experimental whim and recording every note they’ve ever played. Noise, their nineteenth album, might be a controversial pick for a favorite Boris album, but it’s a microcosm of their entire catalogue. The variety of the disc might be best described by their own press release, which describes the album as an intermingling of “sludge-rock, blistering crust punk, shimmering shoegaze, epic thunderous doompsychedelic melodies.” 

That might sound hyperbolic, but it is entirely correct. In fact, it completely skips over the bouncing J-pop that informs the sugary sweetness of “Taiyo no Baka.” And needless to say, the guitar amps are pushed almost to blowing the whole way.

Fans of Boris of course aren’t surprised by any of it. Their (reputed, anyway) landmark album Pink spun from long-form doomgaze to head-banging garage punk at whiplash speeds. My issue with Pink is that it spends too much time in the garage and not enough indulging the slow burners that they play better than anyone.

Noise on the other hand rests on the other side of that coin. The album tends more towards the crushing heaviness of tracks like “Ghost of Romance” and “Heavy Rain” (after all, I originally looked up Boris after seeing them in the “similar artists” on the Russian Circles AllMusic profile). Even “Vanilla,” the most straight-ahead rock song on here, still makes good use of the rumbling, detuned guitars and metal riffs that informs the rest of the album. 

The album’s centerpiece, the nineteen minute long “Angel” is a masterwork of tension and release. The first section drones alongside a looped four note guitar riff, vocals and drums joining in a few minutes in. The song teases a catharsis a number of times–the drums play a few fills anticipating a crescendo, only to drop back out to let the drone continue on. A few minutes in, distorted guitar chords swell in on a new progression, and after a few measures of building, the explosion we’ve been promised finally hits in the second section, soaring guitar solo, crushing bass chords and all. It burns wild and huge at the same droning tempo for a couple minutes, then the drums riff into a hard rocking double time section that bears zero resemblance to the opening minutes of the track.

This third section crashes to a close in an almost “Thank You Cleveland!” moment of cymbal crashes and guitar feedback. But out of those ashes rises a new heavily-delayed guitar riff in a major key. The drums rejoin and a tremolo picked guitar rises up the scale, making for one of the most beautiful moments on the disc. It all decays into an incoherent wash of reverb and echo, which reaches its apex and abruptly segues back into the opening guitar loop. For a few minutes, the song teases another moment of catharsis before letting the drone ring out to silence, ending this wild ride where it began. 

It’s a happy accident that the vinyl edition puts “Angel” on its own side of the disc, because such an expansive masterwork deserves a moment of silence to rest before the start of the trashing, shrieking crust punk of “Quicksilver,” the first few minutes of which is the only moment on the disk that sometimes rubs me the wrong way. But only a band like Boris has the guts to follow a masterpiece like “Angel” with a breakneck tempo, screamy song. Or rather, that’s what it is for the first six of its ten minutes, before its heavy punk riffage gives way to a few minutes of unfiltered doomgaze. 

Having only scratched the surface of the Boris iceberg, Noise delivers everything that makes Boris appealing to me. Heavy guitars, sludgy tempos, and plenty of moments of post rock catharsis. This is my first Boris record, but I doubt it will be the last.

Also, I’d watch the hell out of whatever imaginary anime series “Melody” is the theme for.

Record #370: Hall & Oates – Voices (1980)

I’ve said on multiple occasions that my musical worldview has a number of blind spots–bands (or sometimes entire subgenres) that have made a mark on pop music that I’m just entirely ignorant of.

​Hall & Oates occupy a certain pocket of ‘70s and ‘80s middle of the road soft rock that I’ve somehow missed.

Of course I’ve heard their name–I’d be hard pressed to miss that. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever knowingly heard them. My friend Dan flipped out when he heard this, so when I found this copy in my mom’s collection, I took it home.

And now that I hear them, I’ve put a name to some of the great pop tunes I still hear on the radio–”Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams,” and “Every Time You Go Away” still have healthy radio airplay, and with good reason. They’re infectious pop tunes with harmonies as sweet as honey. What’s surprising is just how new wavey some of the deep cuts are. Side one features a bunch of moments that clearly took notes from Talking Heads and Duran Duran. But as post-punky as they get, their vocal interplay remains just as sweet and sun kissed as the pop singles. It makes for a surprising first foray into a band’s catalog, but I dig it.

Record #369: Grateful Dead – Blues for Allah (1975)

I recently just turned thirty, which among every the other milestone marks the point at which I have lived more of my life as a guitar player than not. And like every other guitar playing teenager, I had a huge classic rock phase in high school. I methodically drudged through the old rock and roll masters, playing my way through the Canon. To this day, I remember how to play every note of “Stairway to Heaven,” and with a little noodling I could probably remember “Purple Haze.” I’ve studied Harrison and Clapton and Blue Oyster Cult. I even had my own jam band (for one show).
All this to say, until today, I have never knowingly listened to the Grateful Dead. I mean, of course I know their reputation. I know about Jerry and the Bears and Deadheads, but this is the first time I have ever cued up any of their cuts and hit play. In fact the only time I know I’ve heard them is that late episode of Freaks and Geeks where Lindsey borrows a copy from a new girl and dances in her room. I can’t speak to the reason behind my avoidance–in recent years it’s probably my distaste for the schlocky jam bands that picked up their mantles, but I never had that aversion when I was studying the great guitar players of yore.

And Jerry Garcia is certainly in that company. In spite of the occasionally lackluster composition (read: jam band), Jerry’s fretwork is as nimble as the legends claim, deftly climbing its way through key changes without pausing for a second. The songwriting is much more substantial than most of their disciples also, taking the time to establish a framework to build their noodling on rather than just some sort of…noodle tower? You know, like trying to build a tower out of wet noodles? It’d just fall apart? I lost my metaphor.

It is strange listening to the Grateful Dead forty years after their heyday though. I would very likely hear them differently if it weren’t for Phish and Dave Matthews and their ilk who followed in their footsteps–and also the ilk that follow these bands around on tour. In 2017, the Grateful Dead occupies more a cultural position than a musical one, and divorcing them from that is impossible. But it’s a little sad. Forty years ago, this was probably absolutely groundbreaking. Now, that ground is built up with overpriced high-rise condos that smell like weed.

Edit: I’m not keeping this.