Friday, April 18, 2014

AC/DC - Back In Black - 1980

AC/DC is not retiring. Thank god for that.

If you haven't heard, founding member Malcolm Young is having severe health problems, and there were rumors circulating the Internet that the band was going to hang it up for good. Instead, the band announced they were still going to go back into the studio and record another album, but that Malcolm was on hiatus from the band. (It's unclear whether or not he'll return, but at this point, he needs to focus on getting better.)

This isn't the first time AC/DC have had a huge mountain to climb. Back in early 1980, Malcolm and his brother Angus (the guitarist from the band who's known for his schoolboy outfit and his shredding solos) were starting to figure out songs for their next album, when tragedy struck. Lead singer Bon Scott had gone out for a night of drinking and partying. At the end of the night, one of his friends left Scott to sleep it off in the back of a car. The next afternoon, the friend came by to check on Scott and found him dead. While he had choked to death on his own vomit due to acute alcohol poisoning, the cause of death, in classic rock and roll style, was listed as "death by misadventure."

Hell of a cause of death, right?

Rather than pack it in, Scott's family convinced the band that they needed to keep on going, so the Young brothers enlisted a new vocalist, Brian Johnson, whom Bon Scott had spoken highly of before his passing. "Back In Black" was the first album with Johnson, and it was released just five months after the death of Scott. It was almost a memorial to their late singer, but it's also one of the best-selling albums in history, having sold over fifty million copies. (The fourth best-selling album ever, as of this writing.)

So why am I telling you about it? Because a lot of people still don't know about AC/DC, and that's a damn, damn shame. "Back In Black" is the album of a party. It's got everything you need - sleaze, swagger, bravado, a good time and rockin' tunes. Everyone knows the title track, but the whole album is full of great tracks, including the magnificent "You Shook Me All Night Long."

Sooner or later, we'll see the end of AC/DC as a band. I think if the band had their way, they would all be on fire on a tour bus that was hurtling into the Grand Canyon while they were blasting "Givin' The Dog A Bone" from speakers loud enough to blow women's clothes off.

They'd probably qualify it as "death by misadventure."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport - 2009

There isn't really another band out there like Fuck Buttons. I mean, the band's name alone is enough to drive off a lot of listeners, which is a shame, because they are one of the more inventive bands I've discovered in the last decade.

Formed in 2004, Fuck Buttons is two guys - Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power. They make... music. Fascinating music. At the basest level, it's electronic music, but it's not electronic music like you generally think of.

Whereas the standard modus operandi for electronic music is lots of big beats and heavy bass drops, Fuck Buttons are more interested in environmental soundscapes, but never in a trance-y sort of way. They build soundtracks for movies that don't exist, but not movies that any humans would've made. This is machine music, for machines, by machines, of machines. Their music is full of fizzes, crackles, pops, hums, static, organ croons, swizzling guitars, burbling synth banks, cosmic twinkle and a bunch of vocal samples that are so cut up, they could be signals from Mars.

Fuck Buttons first album, "Street Horrrsing," was wonderful, but was also wildly uneven. That was part of its charm, but it was disconcerting to get howls and shrieks mixed in with the lovely soundscapes. Still, there was an immense amount of potential there. But it wasn't until their second album, "Tarot Sport," that the band connected on all cylinders for me.

For "Tarot Sport," the band enlisted sonic craftsman Andrew Weatherall, who helped them center their music and focus on all the things they were doing right while sanding off some of the bits that were just getting in the way. As a result, "Tarot Sport" is all of the things that I liked on "Street Horrrsing" turned up to 11. Full of long songs, the album demands repeated listening. Keep in mind, the videos I'm going to share are directed by Andrew Hung (half of the band), but are only subsections of the full song.

The first one is "Surf Solar," what can only be described as hypnotically bouncing.

"Surf Solar" was the moment I knew I had to have this album. It hit about two months before the album went on sale, but I listened to the hell out of just this subsection. You can hear that vocal sample so heavily clipped as to be just another instruments, and the weird scratching thumps that curl into the song, and yet that almost TRON-like heavenly hum remains, soaring above it all.

After the album dropped, though, I found it was the majestic "Olympians" that I adored most of all. Again, keep in mind that this is just a subsection of the song. The full version runs 10:43.

"Olympians" is like Vangelis, Mogwai and The Chemical Brothers decided to have a musical child. It's the sound of a new dawn on a majestic desert landscape. It's an IMAX song, so widescreen that you're having to turn your head, just to see another part of it. It's the closing credits of a movie so hard warming that even the most jaded cynic would say "You know, I think we're all going to be okay after all. We might just make it." The track even made it into the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, in a sort of weird self-fulfilling prophecy.

The band's third album, "Slow Focus," dropped last year, and it's also amazing, but it's got a slightly higher barrier to entry, as the songs aren't quite as immediately accessible. It's still a great album, but it's not where I'd recommend people start with. If you find you like "Tarot Sport," then by all means, pick up "Slow Focus."

Also of note - apparently talking about Fuck Buttons makes me something of a hipster, which I get, but reject, because I've seen My Bloody Valentine live twice, and that has to even out.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Third Eye Blind - Ursa Major - 2009

It's really a shame that people had mostly written Third Eye Blind off after "Out Of The Vein," the band's third album, failed to make much of a splash. It didn't help that their label, Elektra, fell apart around the time of that release, and the band was left with no one to help push the album to radio stations, and generate promotion for it. It was the band's first without guitarist Kevin Cadogan, so there was a bit of apprehension that the band wasn't going to be able to deliver the goods. Thankfully, "Out of the Vein" was a great album. Unfortunately, it never really found an audience.

It would be six years before the band would be heard from again, and by the time the band's fourth album, "Ursa Major," dropped, the band's audience had shrunk significantly, and the album hit with a big splash but that splash dissipated quickly, and the album didn't stick around in the public limelight. I've always felt that was unfortunate, because "Ursa Major" might be the band's best album.

Between "Out Of The Vein" and "Ursa Major," singer/songwriter Stephen Jenkins had been through the wringer. His fights with Kevin Cadogan had been truly epic (and litigious), the Elektra debacle had hurt his pride, , their long-time bassist Arion Salazar had been removed from the band (reportedly for excessive drug use), he'd been through not one but two very messy and public relationships (the first with actress Charlize Theron and the second with singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton) and neither had ended without leaving some battle scars, and he'd had a massive case of writer's block. "Ursa Major" was reportedly held up for the longest time as Jenkins tried to get lyrics he was happy with, rerecording some of the tracks multiple times, if the internet is to be believed.

And yet, somehow, all of those scraps are what needed to happen. Jenkins is wiser, better composed, and a ton more insightful than he had ever been before. It's not like Third Eye Blind ever put out a bad album, but there's something... wounded about "Ursa Major," as if Jenkins is trying to figure out why all the paths in his life led him to this point.

A number of the songs on the album around about relationships in various states of disaster - "Why Can't You Be," "One In Ten," "About To Break" - but there's also songs that reveal Jenkins is getting through it, such as the resolve of "Dao of Saint Paul," which hangs on the refrain "Rejoice, evermore." The lyrics wrapped around it show he's not satisfied with his life, but he knows that he has to take comfort in the fact that his life has both good and bad in it. "Well, I confess / that so far happiness / eludes me in my life / it had better hurry up / if it's ever to be mine / it had better hurry up now / if we're ever going to find / what we're looking for..."

This isn't to say the album doesn't have rip-roaring rockers. The first single, "Don't Believe A Word," shows that Jenkins hasn't lost a step in writing the 'big rock anthem' and the opening track of the album, 'Can You Take Me' fits into that same vein. But a good portion of the album is slightly more low-key. And yet, it's hard to be bluesy when you have an album that includes the lyrics "My duct tape vest is a party vest / it's really all I own" from "Bonfire," a song that straddles perfectly between rocker and restrained downbeat.

There was talk that the "Ursa Major" sessions had yielded a ton of great songs, so many that they had an entire extra album left over, and they were going to put those songs out as "Ursa Minor," but that never happened, much to my sadness. That got put in the same camp as the instrumental EP (rumored to be called "Symphony of Decay") that the band was working on that also never got released, except for one track, "Carnival Barker," a portion of which was a preorder bonus with "Ursa Major." (If you go digging on the internet, you can find a handful of these tracks, though, including the full 7+ minute version of "Carnival Barker," not that I would ever suggest you do such a thing, no, surely not.) You have to wonder if 3EB is like Prince in that there's a vault of stuff we're never going to hear until everyone in the band is dead. 

In 2011, Third Eye Blind recorded a great song, "If There Ever Was A Time," honoring the Occupy movement, and gave it away free online. And that was the last we've heard of them, although the band is supposedly recording album five in Hollywood right now, with an intended summer release.

The scuttlebutt is also that it'll be Third Eye Blind's last album. I hope that isn't true, but even if it is, let's hope Stephen Jenkins just goes solo and keeps making music, because regardless of how he feels about it, he's getting better and better at this as he keeps doing it.

It's okay to be hurt, Stephen - you just can't let it defeat you.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Afghan Whigs - "1965" - 1998

The Afghan Whigs have put out a new album today and while it's too early for me to pass judgment on that, I want to talk about what I've always considered their finest album, "1965."

Now I know that my former boss Jeff Randall (who was the entertainment editor, among other things, for The Daily Nebraskan during my tenure) would argue that "Gentlemen" was their finest record, but here Jeff and I must simply agree to disagree. A lot of people put "Gentlemen" down as their favorite, but for me, "1965" focused all the things I loved about the band and left me with nothing but great songs. I hesitate to do the "top five desert island" albums thing that Rob Gordon would criticize but if I did only have five albums I could bring with me somewhere, "1965" would definitely be on that list, as it's an album I've listened to a lot over the years and never seem to get tired of. So that says something.

When The Afghan Whigs started, they were, well, they were certainly rough around the edges. The band formed in Cincinnati in the mid 1980s, and the idea was to blend garage rock with shades of R&B. The early recordings hinted at the R&B influences, but it wouldn't be until "Congregation," the band's 1992 album, that the shades of Motown would start to eek into the spotlight. This was also the time the band started getting well noticed, and moved from indie hero label Subpop and to Elektra, to record 1993's "Gentlemen."

"Gentlemen" got them a lot of attention, and is around the time I found them. I suspect I saw them on 120 Minutes. It's not an unreasonable thing to suspect. I remember picking up this album on cassette, and eventually CD, as well as the follow-up, "Black Love." Both albums had songs I liked, but it wasn't until 1998 when "1965" came out that I truly "got" what the band was doing.

"1965" is the R&B/rock hybrid record they'd always been flirting with. It's heavily steeped with New Orleans brass, and has an almost carnival-like glee to it. The album is both seductive and sleazy, both alluring and vaguely menacing. It's the perfect Afghan Whigs record, in my estimation.

From the opening bass slide of "Something Hot" to the final orgy-of-sound that is "The Vampire Lanois," "1965" is an album that purrs and croons. For the longest time, I had an Archos MP3 player that held TWENTY gigs of music. (Shut up. This is back when I was in college.) And I used to fall asleep listening to music on shuffle from that thing, and the first song on it was "66," and very rare was the night when I'd skip past that track.

Trust me, this is an album to own.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Books of Magic - 1991

I've had a mixed relationship with Neil Gaiman over the years. He's written a bunch of things I've loved and a number of things that just haven't connected with me, for whatever reason. Fair enough. But for me, it all began with one thing - "The Books Of Magic."

BoM was a four-issue miniseries that was originally conceived to be a sort of tour guide of the more mystical characters floating around the DC Comics universe. The Vertigo universe was starting to coalesce (the imprint would be officially launched in 1993), and DC was trying to get a good handle on who belonged where.

The premise of the story is that a young man named Tim Hunter has the potential to be the world's greatest magician, or the world's most deadly. To ensure that Tim goes into this choice with his eyes open, four of the biggest mystical heavyweights decide to give him a tour, so he can make a decision about what he wants to do with his life at least informed about what lies before him. Each of the guides will show him a different facet of the mystical world around him that he's been unaware of up until now. The guides are jokingly referred to as "The Trenchcoat Brigade." It's a fitting appellation.

Each of the four books of BoM has a different artist, which helps set the tone for each book.

The first book, a tour of the roots of the magic in the DC universe, is led by The Phantom Stranger, and is illustrated by John Bolton, whose artwork I fell in love with from this moment on. One of these days, I hope to own a piece of his original art, preferably one from this book. We learn where magic begins in the DC universe, and how those early days would shape so many things to come later.

The second book, a tour of the modern day magic in the DC universe, is led by John Constantine and is illustrated by Scott Bolton. This was my first introduction to John Constantine, and since then, I have gotten every trade paperback Constantine is in, and the character is one of my absolute favorites (and it's breaking my heart what they're doing with him at DC now). This book alone is absolutely worth the cover price.

The third book, a tour of the fae and faerie realms, is led by Doctor Occult and is illustrated by Charles Vess. I'd find myself seeing a lot more of Vess shortly after this book, as Books of Magic is what launched me into reading Sandman, and he made a bit of a splash over there.

The fourth book, a look at the possible future of magic, is led by Mr. E and is illustrated by Paul Johnson. Johnson's since retired from comics, which is a shame. I rather liked his painterly style, and would've loved to see more books from him, but he found his options limited and is now, if the internet is to be believed, an acupuncturist.

Books of Magic represents one of my favorite graphic novels, and I think I may even have to buy a new copy of it soon, the spine's been worn so much. I read this book generally once every year or two, and each time, I still find the story wonderful. The raw beginnings of magic. Zatanna calling out Constantine. Titania and Oberon. The wonderful final twist.

If you're thinking of dabbling into comics, The Books Of Magic is a great place to start - it's self-contained and will give you a good idea of the players and the landscape that made up the mystic section of DC Comics around 1990. Hopefully DC finds its way back to making this kind of top shelf entertainment soon.