The Freelance Mentalists.
Sunday, October 30, 2005
  We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning

Li'l Pilgrims Progress Through The Prograss, And The Earth's Sweet Volcanic Cone

By Don Allred

Nickel Creek's self-titled Sugar Hill debut in 2000 was a keening,
blue-green-grass world of Kentucky-to-Southern-Cali, transplanted suburban Calvinist karma. Prodigies next to prodigals: "My greatest fear will be that you will crash and burn, and I won't feel your fire, I'm hung up on that wire."
Their wires include those on the mandolin, banjo and bouzouki of Chris Thile, then 19 (he's the tallest, and most excitable-sounding); the fiddle of Sara Watkins, at 18; the guitar of her brother Sean, then 23; and the little-but-wiry
vocals of all, who have performed and recorded together for donkey's years. 1993's Little Cowpoke, their first album,features the traditional(and Hollywood)
Western stylings of Chris, age 12; Sara, 11; and Sean, 15. (Be sure to
request "I'm an Old Cowhand," when they come to town.) 13-year-old Chris' first
solo album, 1994's Leading Off, stayed relatively close to tradition, but he got
more adventurous, on 1997's Stealing Second. 2000's *Nickel Creek went gold,
which is unusual for bluegrass, but so is its music. Not so much the classical
or jazz elements: those are fairly typical of progressive bluegrass. Yet
already, the Nickels had a strikingly lived-in point of view: songs like "A
Lighthouse's Tale" were early glimpses of the world's beauty and wreckage, between
the sea and the mountains, home and the freeway. They also sounded like they
were ready to hit the road, Jack.
There was one potential problem area, traveling with them.
"Look at my girlfriend, isn't she pretty?" Chris asked shakily,
clutching his mandolin and staring down into its "face" for CMT's cameras, in late
2001. "I don't WANNA boyfriend!" Sarah laughed, while stamping her foot, and
sounding like she meant this answer to a nosey reporter, in the same mini-doc.
(Shawn, the oldest, had no comment on the subject, that I recall.) Nickel Creek
were determined to focus all their energies on the music! Its nervous edge
was soothed and smoothed out, just a bit, by producer/mist-mama/burbgrass star
Allison Krauss, who brought some of her own discreetly renowned sound to the
Nickels' latent noise. The blend was distinctive, which may well be why, by '02,
*Nickel Creek ended up in Billboard's Top Twenty.
Later in 2002, on *This Side, they covered Pavement's "Spit On A
Stranger": "You're a bittah, stran-g-a-a-h, I could thpit on a stran-gah, " lisped
Chris, in a lofty, bratty way, a parody of self-righteousness. Perhaps it's a
self-parody, or some kind of allusion to his earlier,
Bible-study-to-Tolkien-shelf-to-practice-room perspective? Also striking was his own "Brand New
Sidewalk": "You might not have meant to, but it's done now, you can't take it out.
Is that what this is about? It's done now, you can't take it back. You cry
about what fortune leant you without a plan of attack." They were adapting to the
adult world, gathering and giving out some clues and cues, to certain
ch-ch-changes, but meanwhile, *This Side became hard to listen to. Its subtle
experiments needed some shine, not just polish, and certainly no more of *Nickel Creek's mood stabilizers. Speculative song-shapes' soliloquies and hairline
fractures tended to settle slow-w-w-ly into the dust of dissolving tempi. Maybe
muted drama and delayed impact are all Allison knows how to do. Maybe that's all
they wanted from her. Maybe she and the Nickels brought out each others'
insecurities, when faced with the need for change. Maybe they all should have
consulted Dr. Joyce Brothers. (Maybe contact with *This Side's underside drove
Citizen K. to "Whiskey Lullaby" ? Seriously. Also, the New Morbidity stage/trend
of country's ongoing Life During Wartime was about to waft her Applachoid,
post-dead-baby-ballad way, and maybe the Nickels had already met the New Unease.)
In 2005, their new *Why Should The Fire Die? sports more versatile (but not showy) producers, Eric Valentine and Tony Berg. Also, Nickel Creek
guitarist Sean Watkins, whose solo projects have included jazz musicians, sometimes
brings a Bill Frisell-ian, disappearing crackle to the glamorous darkness.
The Nickels are on the dime now: they sound like they're all dressed in
black, while easing back into the kind of places they once could enter and
leave only via the stage door, when underage. "When in Rome" doesn't fiddle
around. Except in the musical sense, as Sara's sweet, snake-charmer strings chime
around Chris's calls: " Hey, those books you gave us look good on the shelves at
home, and they'll burn warm in the fireplace teacher (no commas in the singing or on the lyrics page!) when in Rome. Grab a blanket,sister, we'll make smoke signals, bring in some new blood, it feels like we're alone." There's also a doctor who comes to town but stays at home, dead men (in the video, sooty WWI soldiers look at the camera, while Chris lies on his back, eyes closed, playing his mandolin and twitching like a cockroach), and a guy with a cold. But that's all in the family, when you do like the Romans do. I think this song has
to do with implied ironic references to touring musicians as cruising tourists, and to Churchly admonitions to "be in the world, not of it." Gang Of Four's "At Home He's A Tourist" also comes to mind.
But there are also plenty of seemingly more direct-to-midnight
confessions, and some boasting, about what bad li'l pilgrims they are. "I helped her
live, and made her want to die!" That's Chris, of course, but each Nickel
contributes to the songwriting, and they take turns singing lead. Sara's got a couple
about seeming the wimpy little sister to potential boyfriends, but one of 'em
goes off and gets married and then can't get Sara out of his mind! The only
consistently disappointing track (especially after her own writing) is Sara's
wispy version of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time." (But it's a wispy song,
except when Elvis did it.) Brief instrumentals provide refreshment, while adding
momentum. And the Nickels stomp so hard, so often, that I didn't realize, 'til
reading the credits, after listening to the whole album, that only one track
features drums. And "Doubting Thomas" is a confession so mature it's
inspiring, especially since it leads to the breakthrough of the title song, in which
love and doubt aren't just risked, and lived with, but embraced. If you can grow
up to that point, then indeed, why should (and how could) the fire die?

Thursday, October 20, 2005
  Okay This Really Pisses Me Off to No End
To all the lazy-ass music writers who mischaracterize Stevie Wonder's career as being split between his "funk" period of the 1970s and his "pop" period of the 1980s and 1990s: STOP IT YOU ARE LYING, OR STUPID. Stevie always had sappy ballad stuff, even on the dynamic duo of Innervisions and Talking Book. Yes he did, listen to them sometime. Hell, he even had a couple on my all-time favorite Stevie record, Music of My Mind. (Okay, it's not my favorite, Songs in the Key of Life is my favorite, but MoMM is a "better" album.) And Stevie busted out with a couple of really hard heavy funk songs in the last 20 years, but no one noticed except I guess me.

Here's the thing with Stevie: he's a soft-hearted guy, and he doesn't care about hiding it, and it doesn't matter. As he says on the new record, A Time to Love, he CHOOSES to be positive because he knows the world is full of shit and he knows he can restore some happiness to it. Okay that's a paraphrase but still. He's always been a Manicheist, the light and the dark, hitting us with the chamber-synth formalism while narrating the harsh conditions of "Village Ghetto Land," setting romantic lyrics to the saddest music ever and vice versa, I could go on but I won't because I'm hoping to get paid for reviewing this new album, because it's really damned good and I want people to know about it, plus I want my $10.54 investment to actually pay off for once.

All I'm saying is, saying that STEVIE FRICKIN' WONDER was once just a funk merchant who sold out to do lite R & B is a damned lie. Sure, he fell off after (AFTER NOT BEFORE, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is a beautiful record) Hotter Than July, but not the way it's being portrayed. Stevie's heart never changed. Y'all just stopped listening. For shame.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
  For Whom The Drells Toll

For Whom The Drells Toll
A Child's Introduction To A Garden of Wishes And Dishes Upon Big Star
By Don Allred
(The child of reading something in this book, then listening to these CDs
again, wandering to and on and from this computer: not a straight-up review
overall, but a lot of notes, observations, opinions)

Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection Of The
Kings Of Power Pop
by Ron Jovanovic (A Cappella Books/Chicago Review Press, 333 pages, $15.95)

In Space
Big Star (Ryko)

"The tune itself was an up-tempo rocker, which gave the album an
abrasive start, but the song soon twisted to show its melodic qualities and then took
off to somewhere else completely." That's Rob Jovanovic reporting (he's not a
critic), and however accurately he does or doesn't diagnose "Feel," he's
close to nailing "Feel" 's parents, the misfit Anglophiliac Memphians who named
themselves Big Star, after a chain-chain-chain of grocery stores. In Big Star:
The Short Life, Painful Death And Unexpected Resurrestion Of The Kings Of Pop,
R.J. indicates that they knew their name would rise again, possibly to hang
around their necks like their pointy trademark neon sculpture, which already
looks like a real quick chalk mark around a body.
So what the heck, they named their first album #1 Record. It was more
or less "released" in 1972. On Stax, like their second album, neither of
which was exactly the Stax-ish (Bell Records-labelled) soul-pop of Big Star
frontman Alex Chilton's former group, the Box Tops. (AKA the Funky Monkees, cos
live, in my hearing, they sounded like what they mostly were, a teenbleat cover
band, spazzilizing in hits of the session rat-only Box Tops. Even main
double-shifter Chilton was pro forma-ing his own gravelly,
bluejean-jacketed-soulpunk studio pipes; his preferred range was higher, for better and worse.) #1
Record mainly existed as promotional copies, but (thus?) got great reviews. As did
# 1's even better follow-ups, '74's Radio City and '75's Third/Sister Lovers,
the latter of which couldn't find a legit release until '78, and both of
which pushed Big Star's music and luck further and further. Yet even early on,
their also-funny-named "power pop" was melodic and rough, polished and sweaty,
melodic and twisted. They all continued to radiate in the ears of critsters,
fansters, and musos.
They set the bar too high for most of what gets called power pop.
(Unsurprisingly, considering that generic pee-pee usually boils down to the kind
of creeps who fixate on a [particularly drippy] transitional phase, which then
becomes arrested development at best. Accordingly, their own fansters luv to
whine about "Why isn't there more of their good stuff?" One-hit wonders are
all over the map, get over it. But that would be a contradiction in terms.)
In an afterglow that became an afterlife, they continued to fall, into
truer, bluer Big Stars, making more and more underground/grassroots sense: some
even called them "the Beatles upside down." (As Edd Hurt points out, this notion might have gotten folk-processed from Robert Christgau's 70s Consumer Guide notes on Big Star: "The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards." But later in the 70s, I heard it from a couple of people, who didn't know each each other, or at least I hope not, considering other things they said. I've always pictured Big Star sprouting from an upside down Used bin in the sky, waiting for the next breeze to take their lusty dust for a cruise.)
Upside down in an operational sense as well, because they had found fresh
possibilities in their native Memphis, and themselves, via the perspective of the
Beatles, yes, but also (as Jovanovic points out) of the Kinks, the Zombies,
even the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin. (Way before Big Star's local studio
consultant Terry Manning engineered Led Zep III, which also has certain
beyond-folk-rock, modes 'n' nodes in common with Big Star, Zepreneurs launched
another para-Star: even though it was an important introductory single and/or
Featured Track, moving from groovy late night FM to nervy Top 40 Morning Drive,
compulsating "Whole Lotta Love" just couldn't be satisfied with any direction
homerun but that of a purposefully self-Led ((Zik Zak Wohnderah)), as equally
possessed Capt. Beefheart would put it. He and Zep had great live acts, and
he even had tour support like they had more of, but Big Star had little act,
tour, or support, in their original setup.)
Meanwhile, back in dream-(and otherwise-)infested Memphis, Big Star
tunneled through a meta-boilism of mutant-soul-stewpotheaded, Amerophile
records, the black vinyl hobo pyramids of kicks-starved, UK art school dropouts, and
found a space to see things from, not just fall into (although that could also
be cool.)
Jovanovic makes it pungently clear that Big Star were late-adolescents,
precariously balanced, but often (almost) equally determined to swing all
moods and rock all bottoms. Yet another Beatley aspect was that they had their own
mix of George Martin, in the person of Ardent Studios co-founder John Fry,
who had had his own mix of Big Star, in the persons of his own teen gang of
brainac techno-autodidacts (One of whom later founded Federal Express.) He passed
the fever along to Big Star, teaching them how to engineer sound, teaching
them from the waves up. So they in turn could become mad monks of the studio,
locked away in the anti-roots cellar, and all of 'em could take it as far as they
could go. (So Big Star's nuclear cluster wasn't just Alex Chilton Lennon and
Chris Bell McCartney lording it over the other two, it was more of a sweaty,
somewhat richochet-prone group head.)
The music can not only sway and jump like a gland funk railroad,
sometimes it flickers, even while chuffing in place, which is enough to keep it from
sounding very much, to me, like somewhat comparable (element-wise) joyrides
of, say, Buffalo Springfield, who they namecheck in R.J.'s book. (Maybe like
some solo stuff Neil Young would do, but not yet.) Even between croons and nice
beats, it can switch and twitch enough to cough up an anti-groove (groove), a
reaction against what's usually expected and required of Suthun boys, and what
we expect and require and show and peddle of ourselves, typically enough, in
and for some quarters.
Thinking here of Radio City, especially, where "Life is White" 's
post-blues blues claims the dumb post- part for toasties, offered as toothpicks of
white noise that (I guess this part is a harmonica) can seem white as bare
wood appearing in the bandsaw of the Home Improvement daddy, flashing back to his
pre-TV incarnation as bachelor cokefiend jailbird: he demonstrates how to
smoothly peel the bark, as chips, pine needles, blood and white powder fly in
every direction, their shadows crossing over his L.L. Bean plaid shirt, and
spots appear on his khaki Dockers, and his studio light life whites on out, into
the black, or at least the next track, which has its own life to do.) And
each album has its own set of curves. To "Break on thoo!" as the Doors would say,
but Freedom Rock can become more stylized than evah, which might be why Edd
Hurt refers to Radio City as "mannerist."
Not to get too (much more) owlish about it: fairly often, even on the
early tracks, they turn gawky self-consciousness into speedy self-awareness, so
the music seems to comment on itself, but dynamically. "Don't lie to me!" they
squawk, over a heavy beat, which, in this context, sounds (deliberately, I
think!) like a child-man stamping his big foot. Although they could also button
their collars, to face down the gorgeous perfidy of "September Gurls," which
became a hit only when covered by the Bangles, many years later. Many more
years later, their futility-anthem, "In The Street," covered by Cheap Trick, was
adopted as theme song for That 70s Show, and re-named "That 70s Song." (Big
Star's own original rendition of "September Gurls" ended up on That 70s'
semi-soundtrack, possibly because the producers were such fans, and also didn't want
to pay more for the Bangles' version.)
Pt. 2 is below:

  Big Star Ptart II
Big Star (cont. from above)
Not that things stayed so cute. For instance, it turns out that, for "O
Dana," Big Star's upside down semi-"Lennon" figure, Alex Chilton, built up a
stash of lines actually spoken by his (apparently) unwitting girl friend, Diane
Wall. Lines like, "I'm afraid this is my last life." Reading this, I remember
#1 Record's "The India Song," which was written by Big Star bassist Andy
Hummel, not A.C., but includes, "Get to know her after our trip, her life a part of mine." The song still sounds dreamy, though now I see it lay its cards
on the navel. R.J. also shows how witting people toss stuff into the strange
brew. Eventually, Alex encouraged another girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge, to
perform on several tracks, then erased most of what she'd done, "at a certain point
in his creative process," according to Jovanovich. But she can be heard
sometimes, not quite sealed away, on Third/Sister Lovers (also the repository of "O
Dana"), which still sounds like a house of secrets, even while Jovanovic's
impassively deep focus persuades me that it's (apparently) based on the slowly
dying relationship of Alex and Lesa.
Ron J., T/SL producer Jim Dickinson, and Big Star's Jody Stephens all
hear it as happenings in scuzzy Midtown, around which the river city fluxes and
grinds, loads and unloads. Tore down and tarted up, it's a Southern thing,
everywhere and nowhere. Big tin and today's potatoes. It's the mid-70s I
remember: walking around, outside and inside; pacing, even when doing errands, and
partying again. "Til the end of the day!" Alex, now the center of a nebulous Big
Star, raises a glass, covering the Kinks, his faves, 'til habits seem more
nocturnal than ever, rocking through sleepless stillness, like the old lady in
her chair, in Samuel Beckett's play. Stillness keeps me listening, forgetting to
be depressed.
"Morning comes and sleeping's done, birds sing outside. If demons come while
you're under, I'll be a blue moon in the sky." Either way really, which is
nice (don't come any closer). Jovanovic thinks this is a real nice song, and so
it is, in its way. Voice like a mirror sometimes, brightly so: does R.J. ,
does Chilton, really buy the A.C. quote re "Thank You Friends" being so sincere.
Maybe it is, but sincerely what? Look over here, please.
A couple of gutty, blutty, sometimes almost Hendrixan live sets, with
Alex's guitar perpedicular to that lilting, tilting voice (too confident by
'alf, in some later solo, low-dimensional/-campy gigs), and now leading a new
bassist, John Lightman, and original drummer-singer-songwriter Jody Stephens: on
Ryko's Big Star Live, and the rehearsal tapes-half of Norton's Nobody Can
Dance. (When they finally get out to the stage, sound goes awobble, maybe for them
too: R.J. says earlier lineups had a knack for that.) Then, after a couple of
decades of going solo, Chilton suddenly agreed to a Big Star "reunion"
performance, again with Jody Stephens, and new recruits Jon Auer and Ken
Stringfellow, guitarist and bassist, respectively, of the Posies. On Zoo's Columbia,
Live At Missouri University 4/25/93, there no bad dogs, even on songs from
Third/Sister Lovers, but also missing is its (and previous albums') consistent
commitment to expressive detail. About (a scattered) 50-60% of the set kinda works
anyway, but the other half's just high-generic, early-70s-associated Classic
Rock, suitable for sweatin' to the oldies "The Ballad of El Goodo" was once
poignantly self-assertive, and even (gasp!) personally responsible. ("You can
just say no, " Chilton advised Nancy Reagan in '72.) On Columbia, it's more
like Mott The Hoople's wet-hanky-waving "Ballad Of Mott." Stringfellow's bass
lumbers all over the place. Big Star lite 'n' heavvy too.
And now! A mere twelve years later, Chilton's Columbia crew bring us a
studio album of all-new tracks, In Space, where lightweight-to-high-generic
qualities seem deliberate, and sometimes witty, like they're saying, "Hello,
fellow collectors! We're influenced by Big Star!" Pleasantly hooky, tap-along,
sing-along, ho-hum-along ballads currently reside in the McCartneyesque portion of
our programme. But my fave raves are more like chillin' Chilton's better solo
joints. The veddy classical "Aria Largo" gets tortured by the twang of an
electric guitar, one (faithful!) note at a time. (I checked it vs.
pre-transcribed, chamber orig.)"Love Revolution" sounds like a longhaired Carolina beach
band covering Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up," which is surely a signal
to the shade of Big Star's tightly-wired,increasingly cracked,
upside-down-semi "McCartney," Chris Bell, who did want a Love Revolution, in the name of
Jesus!. Seeking to drive (incompetent) money changers and other bugs and swine
from the temple, and the program! For, as previously mentioned, Chris and the
other original Stars were trained in engineering by Big Star studio
mentor/founder John Fry, but Chris was the one who obsessively tinkered for years on the
same set of solo tracks, as he would have on some Big Star tracks, if he
hadn't wrung himself out of the group. (And do the tighten up, ma blue-eyed boy,
like when young A.C. was but the frustrated clapper 'ttached to Bell Records'
own Box Tops.)
This alluvial- plain-as-thee-Memphis-on-yr.-phizz bell of allusion is
closely observed by the guy behind the shades and the finally-getting-creepy,
fake British accent, who's "Hung Up With Summer." When the sun goes down, "Do
You Wanna Make It" conjures a big fat drunk chick, doing the bump with/to those
elegant Kinks. Yes, baby's got bass, and there's a Big Star tattooed on it.
Once again, Big Star shine where the sun don't shine. ('Cause after all, they're
stars of the underground!)(Update: ever the gentleman, Mr. Chilton insisted
on keeping a blind date with a lady called Katrina, down in New Orleans. He
almost became a star under the underground, but ended up settling for the
Astrodome. (Poor bastard. I don't really know what I'd do.) Now recuperating in "a
place he refuses to name," behind a wall of rumors, his usual home away from
home, at least. Hopefully not too far for A.C. and his Nola to make up, without
breaking up; there's been too much of that already.)(Updownsidedate:Get back,
Rita's rival!)(Poppermostpostdate:Wherever he is, somebody tell him Big
Star's tourette has been rescheduled for December. That's '05, Alex. I think.) For
a more concentrated hit of Big Star, book and band, see Edd Hurt's trenchant
  Fried Ice Cream IS a Reality
1. Listening to "Lunchmeataphobia" off One Nation Under a Groove on my iPod while doing late-night grocery shopping: why, exactly, is George Clinton so upset about the existence of fried ice cream? Think about all the nasty stuff he'd sung about before now: peeing on and being peed on; a woman so funky that her very odor makes the air complain; selling one's soul to the devil; the ritual murder of gold-laying geese...and he's worried about fried ice cream? (Actually, "the fear of being eaten by a sandwich" kind of sums up all of P.Funk past and present. Not sure how though. A koan for me today.)

2. Dammit, but Maroon 5 rocks harder than you ever thought they could on the new live album. That's just unfair.

3. This year I believe I will have exactly almost no English language albums on my album list. It will be just about all Mexico, Brazil, India, and maybe some Africa. Oh and country, which somehow doesn't count, and hip-hop maybe. And jazz. Super Furry Animals I liked too, and Jaguar Wright. Oh snap that's 58 records already.

4. Finally hearing the latest reissue of "Odessey and Oracle". Wow.

5. My son asked me a few weeks ago if I was the best music critic in the world. I said I was twelfth or thirteenth. Tonight, he says "Dad, maybe you're only like the ninety-eighth best critic." He's a nice kid, but damn. Screw that, I'm 13th by my count.

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