Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Black Watch - Led Zeppelin Five (2011)

Strictly from my perspective, the largest casualty of The Whiskey Dregs switching away from doing further music reviews was this one.  Given the bad luck that has followed The Black Watch since 1989, however, this is just water under the bridge.

Let's start with some history:  

  1. The Black Watch released their first album St. Valentine in 1987 (after opening for The Church and Toad the Wet Sprocket), then the EP Short Stories in 1989, on founder/lead singer/lead guitarist John Andrew Fredrick's own "Eskimo" label.  
  2. The band went through some lineup changes, including the crucial addition of vocalist/violinist/fellow songwriter J'Anna Jacoby; they signed to Doctor Dream Records in 1991 and released Flowering.  It's a great album, featuring the outstanding songs "Terrific" and "Humming."  Unfortunately, no one ever heard the album as the label did not promote it at all.  So The Black Watch moved on.
  3. The band signed to Zero Hour Records in 1994 and released Amphetamines.  It's a great album, featuring the outstanding songs "Come Inside," "See You Around," "Whatever You Need," and "Nightlight."  Unfortunately, no one ever heard the album as the label did not promote it at all.  So The Black Watch moved on.
  4. The band went through some lineup changes, signed to Catapult Records in 1997, and released Seven Rollercoasters.  It's a great album, featuring the outstanding songs "I Feel So Weird" and "Steve Albini."  Unfortunately, no one ever heard the album as the label did not promote it at all.  So The Black Watch moved on.
  5. The band went through some lineup changes, signed to Not Lame Records in 1999, and released The King of Good Intentions.  It's a great album, featuring the outstanding songs "Uncheerupable" and "Quasi Stellar Radio Source."  Unfortunately, no one ever heard the album as the label did not promote it at all.  So The Black Watch moved on.
  6. The band went through some lineup changes, signed to Saltwater Records in 2000, and released Lime Green Girl.  It's a great album, featuring the outstanding songs "Caroline" and the cover "If You Could Read My Mind."  This time, fortunately, this label actually promoted the album.  And it included a collection of highlights from all of the above albums, now out of print.  People finally heard this album.
  7. In 2001 they released the EP Christopher Smart, again through Saltwater.  So it took the band 14 years to record consecutive albums with the same record label.  It seems too good to be true, right?  Well, it was:  this release was the last one ever for Saltwater.  They promptly folded.
Fredrick and Jacoby were the only two constant elements throughout this whole odyssey.  So once the band settled down for the first of three albums with Stonegarden Records in 2002 (Jiggery-Pokery), it appeared that they were finally due for some long-term stability.

Then Jacoby left the band.  (To play with Rod Stewart, no less.)

Playing great music no one ever heard, toiling in obscurity, and leapfrogging from one bad label to the next is one thing, but this was definitely the hardest hit of them all.  Jacoby not only contributed fantastic songs, but her vocals and violin were part of the core Black Watch sound.  

Lesser men would have crumbled as Fate conspired against him at every turn (and with a bit of rancor, I might add).  But Fredrick pressed on.  

Since then, Fredrick (with various lineups) has released four albums and an EP, the latest of which is Led Zeppelin Five.  Fredrick took a bit of time regaining his footing after Jacoby's departure -- 2008's Icing the Snow Queen was the breakthrough.)  Typically, I think they sound like The Cure meets My Bloody Valentiene with pop sensibilities; Led Zeppelin Five (besides being an ironic, funny, and "how did I not think of that?" title) is actually more laid back in comparison to some of their other albums, and even adds a touch of Longwave (particularly on the track "Weirdly"). 

And we know that Fredrick is definitely over the hill and down the road a bit from that tumultuous departure of Jacoby's:  for the first time in eight years, another band member gets a lead vocal nod.

That, of course, is pure speculation, but I won't let my lack of facts get in the way of a good story:  to me, Fredrick's confident voice is what drives this album.  (And by "voice" I mean that of an artist, not "vocals.")  There is obviously no way to measure this, and I can't define it except to say that he just sounds so sure of himself on every song.  And it is what strikes me every time I listen to it.

Highlights for me include "How Much About Love," "Emily, Are You Sleeping?" and "Cognate Objects."   But there's something here for everyone:  I guarantee that five other people listening to this would have widely varying top 3's.  That's a good album, people.

I don't have a high enough recommendation for this band.  It's criminal that they've flown as far under the radar as they have all these years and still continue to not only perseve, but to create fabulous music.  

My recommendation:  go buy everything they've ever done.  But slowly; you'll want to absorb each album before moving on to the next.  And Led Zeppelin Five is not a bad place to get started.

CD Placement Rating:  Car CD Changer for me, at least Portable CD Case for you.

- Snilch

Thursday, August 11, 2011

120 Minutes Returns!

The last great movement in rock happened in the early 90's.  Grunge took the world by the throat, damning many a hair metal and hard rock act into early retirement.  It even broke mainstream; for the first time in my life the radio was playing my music.  I loved it.

And for most of these "alternative" bands, 120 Minutes on MTV was either where they broke out or where they wanted to break in.  Between 1992 and 1999, I recorded about 14 hours of music (and still have the cassettes to prove it) from this show, from mainstream fare to one-off songs from bands never to be heard from again.  It was the showcase for alternative music. And where would I be without Fossil's "Moon"?  Grade's "A Year in the Past"? Cibo Matta's "Chicken?"  I shudder to think.  

My dirty little secret:  this is where I used to find half the music no one else had heard of.  It awed my music pals, but I was just taping this show and watching it.  Simple as that.

The show, like grunge, started to peter out by the end of the 90's.  It officially lost the plot when Matt Pinfield left in 1999.  I watched a bit of the Dave Holmes era, but by then the show had no more zip on its fastball.  It eventually migrated to MTV2 (which I didn't have at the time) and died an ignominious death in 2003. 

That is, until it came back.

120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield now airs on the last Saturday every month on MTV2.  Sure, Subterranean tried to fill the gap in the interim, but it came off as a soulless hour.  I feel much better with the bald guru Pinfield behind the wheel again, even if it is only once a month.

So how did the first show back compare with the old show?  Well, let's go to the videotape and identify some highlights:
  • Matt Pinfield.  He's bald.  He knows every band since the beginning of time (i.e., 1950), and even has research on a bunch that haven't formed yet.  Some have not yet even been born.  That's how on top of it he is.
  • First video:  The Joy Formidable - "Whirring."  An inspired choice.  It's edgy but reflects the ethos of classic alternative.  And it's a great guitar-grit power-pop song with soaring harmonies and a tempo change thrown in.  I will definitely be checking this band out.  Well played.
  • It appears that they've compiled about 38,000 hours of interview footage that they want to cram into each show.  I have this weird thing about about wanting my "music" shows to be filled with music and my "talk" shows to be filled with conversation.  I'm odd that way.
  • Second video:  Jeff the Brotherhood - "U Got the Look." Following the rich tradition of Local H, The Black Keys, and The White Stripes, this duo packs some '60's retro punch.  It's amazing how good a standard, by-the-numbers drum beat can sound in the right song.
  • There were 895 promos of the Dave Grohl interview during the show... which of course was aired in the final segment (last 10 minutes) of the show.
  • I don't really like Sleigh Bells.  Sorry.
  • First "classic" video:  Pearl Jam - "Jeremy."  This was so mainstream back in the day that I felt this was cheating, until they decided to show the "uncensored" version MTV never aired. That's the one where Jeremy sticks his gun in his mouth at the end.  Wow.  Well, that effectively ends the speculation that he shot the rest of the class up at the end of the video.  The show followed the video with a PSA on suicide prevention.
  • Zach Braff should be interviewed, but not on this show.  I have nothing against the guy personally, but in the interview he says he "loves Coldplay."  I just threw up in my mouth.
  • There was a lot of fast forwarding though the lesser light videos and interviews.  As it should be.
  • Final tally:  with two "classic" videos closing out the show, we ended up with 9 new videos and 3 "classic" videos.  And one massively promoted Dave Grohl interview.
(This post was a lot longer originally.  However, my browser crashed in the middle of the post, wiping most of it out.  And I had already deleted the show from my DVR, so... this is what you get.)

Summary:  12 videos in 2 hours?  Too few.  And the ratio of 25% "classic" to new is crap.  For a monthly show, there needs to be at least 2-4 more videos (so kill one or two of the 14 talking head/interview segments), and 1-2 less "classic" videos in the mix.  Hopefully they are just working out the kinks.  Even with the warts, though, it's still great to see this show back on the air.  Pinfield!!!!!

- Snilch

    Monday, August 08, 2011

    Kraftwerk - Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

    Thanks to Andrew for this one.  With the Tour de France being over, I figured the best way to combat cycling withdrawal would be with this album, specifically written around the 2003 Tour de France.  It starts with an actual Prologue, Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3... and then it gets more abstract, with songs like "Chrono," "Aero Dynamik," and "Elektro Kardiogramm."  

    It's interesting, but ultimately it doesn't capture the event from either the fan or the rider's point of view; it mainly seems to be an exercise in inspiring Kraftwerk to make a typical album with some touches from the event.  In any event, it's a very subtle tribute:  think 90% Kraftwerk, 9% cycling, 1% creepy vocals.  It's a bit monotonous as well, taking 15 minutes in to change the melody.  Perhaps that was their point?

    That being said, the last song, "Tour de France" is the highlight of the album:  the vocals make me cringe, but this is actually a very decent representation of the album concept.  And clearly displays this band's love for the event.

    CD Placement Rating:  I might quite possibly never listen to this album ever again, but the novelty keeps it in my CD Rack.

    Wednesday, August 03, 2011

    Teachable Historical Moments

    This is a bit off the beaten path, but today's lesson is in history, as told to us by the bards.  You have to love it when our musicians try to teach us about the Merrimac and the Monitor, Amelia Earhart, or why Kenny G sucks.  Plus, we all know history students don't have any practical use for their majors, so this will make them feel like their education wasn't a complete waste.

    Honorable mentions:  there are too many to include here.  (Seriously, I had 27 songs that did not make the cut.  I started to list them all out, but that made this interminably long post twice as long.)

    Here are my favorites.  ("Favorites" being defined as what I wrote down/found in my music collection in the last week since I came up with this idea.  Very scientific.)

    1. Tesla - "Edison's Medicine." (1991)  The band named themselves after Nikita Tesla for some reason; it seemed like just a cool band name from an 80's metal act until their 1991 release.  Lyrics addressed to Edison such as "My jury finds you'll be doing time/When you go straight to hell" make it clear that the band is surprisingly passionate about their namesake.  Historical lesson:  1) "They'll sell you on Marconi/Familiar but a phony."  2) Nikita Tesla:  "(They) thought you was crazy/You was one of a kind...All along, world was wrong. You was right."  3) Band Tesla:  they give a pretty good historical diss.  Yes, they clearly skipped grammar in school (or as they call it, "twelve years of hard time"), but they did not skip the School of Hard Rawk.
    2. Caroline's Spine - "Sullivan." (1997)  This song tells the story of the five Sullivan brothers, who enlisted in the Navy in 1942 on the condition that they all serve together.  The Navy complied, putting them all on the USS Juneau.  It did not end well; in the battle of Guadalcanal, their ship sank and all five brothers were killed.  This led directly to the policy that separates family members in the military and protects sole family survivors from service.  Historical lesson:  the song tells the story of the family tragedy eloquently, and I learned that "turning your blue star to gold" meant that your child had passed away.  It's a well-told story with the emotional component intact.
    3. Morrissey - "Irish Blood, English Heart." (2004)  Now, I could have picked about twelve different Morrissey solo or Smiths songs, but I'm partial to this one.  It's both personally and historically reflective.  Describing his "Irish blood, English heart" immediately announces his heritage and nationality; singing "I've been dreaming of a time when/To be English is not to be baneful/To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial" announces that he won't be accepting it all with a blind eye.  It's Morrissey at his best:  both literate and indignant.  He acknowledges his context while presenting his bonafides, then delivers the barbed, pointed conclusion.  Historical lesson:  "I've been been dreaming of a time when/The English/Are sick to death of Labour/And Tories/And spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell/And denounce this royal line that still salutes him/And will salute him forever."  Well, that about sums it up.
    4. Les Savy Fav - "The Year Before the Year 2000." (2007)  This speaks to some recent history; as you might imagine, they're a bit condescending towards the "sky is falling" crowd.  "If you fear, my dear, the end is near/Please do check your frontal hemisphere."  Well said.  Historical lesson:  after the obligatory "I told you so" about Y2K, Les Savy Fav draws an interesting conclusion:  there's something that was great about thinking the world was about to end, and something very disconcerting about the seemingly endless vista of time in front of us.  "Everybody, please keep trying/Trying to party like it's 1999/Even though we've got so much time/We gotta spend it like it's 1999."  Didn't think it was going that way, did you?  Very well done, fellas.
    5. Paul Hardcastle - "19." (1985)  Classic.  Summary:  "In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26/In Vietnam he was 19."  This song has a lot facts and figures, lots of different voices, and a beat you can dance to, all about that little conflict in Vietnam.  Some will tell you their favorite line was the vet saying, "I wasn't really sure what was going on"; I've always been partial to the female chorus:  "All those who remember the war/They won't forget what they've seen/Destruction of men in their prime/Whose average age was 19."  It takes a lot of guts to try and pull off the "average age" line when:  1) you're carrying the only true singing part in the song; 2) you're trying to state a fact -- musically; and 3) you're trying to make this sound as if people are walking around actually talking like this.  (It's part of the song's charm.)  Historical lesson:  none of them received a hero's welcome.
    6. Culture Club – "I’ll Tumble 4 Ya." (1982)  Just checking to see if you’re still reading.
    7. Richard Thompson - "Alexander Graham Bell."  (2003) I learned that Bell had 50 inventions other than the telephone – including x-rays, faxes, and respirators.  And that he laid the groundwork for television.  Historical lesson:  “Edison was a thief, Tesla nuts beyond belief.”  (Edison takes it on the chin quite a bit, doesn't he?)   You'll learn a lot in 3 minutes and 23 seconds - it's literate, clever, and informative.  (Thompson has a ton of such songs, including  “My Daddy Was a Mummy,” "The Story of Hamlet," and “Madonna’s Wedding.”  “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” a reference to Bagdad, is a future history lesson.  On a completely unrelated note, here's Thompson covering "Oops!  I Did It Again.")
    8. U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday." (1983)   A description of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, focusing on the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry.  British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders; Bono got righteous.  Historical lesson:  war sucks, we would prefer to not have it happen again.   Thank you for your consideration.  I'll wave a white flag and yell "No More War!" now.
    9. Anthemic Pop Wonder - "How Great Was Hüsker Dü!" (2002)  The answer:  pretty damn good.  Historical lesson:  underappreciated.
    10. Nerf Herder - "Mr. Spock." (2002)  This not only vividly describes nerd romantic frustration by using science fiction (which is like trying to teach a dog to do tricks with trigonometry), but also completely summarizes the Star Trek episode "Arena" in the lyrics.  There's a bit about destroying robots as well.  Sci fi geeks will play this for their uncomprehending partners, most of whom are undoubtedly blissfully unaware that said geek considers them a "partner" in the first place.  Historical lesson:  you don't want a boyfriend.  What you want is Mr. Spock.  (See the song here; make sure you play it at 240p.) 
    11. Night Ranger - "Sister Christian." (1984)  With its obscurely plausible religious overtones, this song is quite the mystery, especially when delivered by a band that is used to singing songs about drinkin', rockin', and datin'.  Was this "Sister Christian" a nun?  Some historical figure?  Or should we focus on "Christian" -- does her religious choice matter?  Could it be Sister Buddhist?  Sister Hindu?  Sister Agnostic?  Alas... the truth is ultimately far less interesting.  The song was originally called "Sister Christy" and written about the drummer's sister.  Huh.   Well, that sucks.  Historical lesson:  much like the Black Eyed Peas (whose "Let's Get Retarded" anthem about drinking was changed by an ad agency to the "Let's Get It Started" anthem about car commercials), the truth hurts.  Lesson learned:  try not to read too much into Night Ranger's lyrics.
    12. Gang of Four - "History's Bunk!"  The message here:  “There are no lessons in the past.”  They're smarter than I am, so I guess we'll leave it at that.  Historical lesson:   you say there are no lessons in the past, but if this is a lesson learned from the past, then you did learn it, but you could not have learned this truth except from the past... illogical! Illogical!  Please explain!  You are human; only humans can explain!  Illogical!  (Head explodes.  This is a basic summary of the Star Trek episode "I, Mudd.")
    - Snilch