Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beer Cans On The Moon - Ed Sanders



Beer Cans On The Moon
Ed Sanders
Reprise MS 2105
1972

This is Ed Sanders' second solo album.  I bought it because I'm a big fan of his group, the Fugs.  It is not nearly as good as the classic Fugs albums.  I like Sanders' songs with the Fugs, but I generally like his partner Tuli Kupferberg's songs better.  Sanders isn't much of a singer and I find forty unrelenting minutes of his vocalizing to be pretty tough to take.  The album is satirical in nature, but it is rarely as funny or provocative as the Fugs' best work.  One of the better songs is the opening cut, "Rock & Roll People."  It has a 50s rock and roll flavor to it and it celebrates rock and roll culture.  "Nonviolent Direct Action" is an ode to pacifism that introduces the country music flavor that permeates most of the album.  "Henry Kissinger" mocks the title figure in a heavy handed manner.  I loathe Kissinger as much as most lefties do and still this song makes me wince.  It is pure self-indulgent tedium, by far the worst song on the record.  "The Shredding Machine" has a Middle Eastern flavor to it that will be familiar to Fugs fans but then it abruptly goes country for the section about the journalist Jack Anderson for reasons I can't fathom.  The song is about the cover-up associated with the ITT bribery scandal and the Republican Party.  I guess it was topical in 1972 but I doubt many listeners nowadays know or care about it.  "Pity The Bird" is about oil spills.  Sanders' vocal really irritates me, it sounds like a fake childrens song.  The country-style "Kaw River Valley Progressive Hempune" is about a hemp-growing commune in Kansas that gets Napalm dropped on it by the government.  The song borrows from the Beatles "Happiness is A Warm Gun" awkwardly substituting "hempune on the prairie" for "warm gun."  "Beer Cans on the Moon" is another country song.  The twang Sanders uses when he tries to sing country-style gives me a headache.  The song is about space colonizers and pollution.  "Albion Crags" is my favorite song on the album and is the one that reminds me the most of the Fugs.  It is more of a rock song with some nice wailing organ lines and guitar jamming although the song exposes Sanders' feeble vocals even more than the country ditties do.  The song is a tribute to William Blake and features his poem "The Sick Rose."  "Yodeling Robot" is about an android working in an interstellar mine in love with Dolly Parton.  Not your typical pop song, that's for sure.  I'd probably like it were it not for Sanders' horrible yodeling.  "Priestess" is about a pagan cult led by an abusive priestess.  Musically it sounds like the Jethro Bodine from "The Beverly Hillbillies" fronting the Incredible String Band.  The ragtime style of "Universal Rent Strike Rag" suits Sanders' wobbly warbling better than the more robust demands of country music.  He croons about a hippie utopia free from authority and oppression.  It reminds me of the early Country Joe and the Fish recordings before they recorded for Vanguard.  The album closes with the country sing-a-long "Six Pack of Sunshine" which I think is about trying to maintain optimism in the face of fears that there is no redemption for our sins.  The song actually name checks Plato and his ideas about the transmigration of souls which I'm fairly certain is a pop music first.  I've got to hand it to Sanders, he is a very creative and original lyricist.  If only he could sing.  Recommended to tone-deaf beatniks who like country music. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ellis Island - The Paupers



Ellis Island
The Paupers
Verve Forecast  FTS-3051
1968

The second and final album by the Canadian band, the Paupers.   I first learned of the Paupers as a teen in Lillian Roxon's "Rock Encyclopedia" which suggested that they were a major group that somehow never really made it.  I was intrigued by her description and when miraculously their debut album turned up in my crappy hometown's sole used record store I pounced on it.  The liner notes of that record, "Magic People," described how they stole the show from the Jefferson Airplane when they opened for them in New York in 1967.  I gave the album a spin expecting to be blown away and was decidedly underwhelmed.  It was a decent record but nothing special.  I dismissed them as a product of music industry hype and forgot about them for a few decades.  Then a couple of years ago I was browsing on Amazon and I was surprised to see a CD comp of the band selling for a highly inflated price.  This made me wonder if I had misjudged the band and I decided to track down a copy of their second album which wasn't all that hard to find.  I've listened to it a few times and I'm still underwhelmed.  I don't think it is as good overall as the first album, although a couple of the tracks I think are among the band's best work.  In fact the opening cut, the 8 minute long "South Down Road" is my favorite Paupers track.  Bassist Brad Campbell and drummer Skip Prokop lay down a hypnotic rhythm track on top of which Chuck Beal fires off stinging guitar lines while rhythm guitarist/keyboardist, Adam Mitchell or guest keyboardist, Al Kooper, plays psychedelic organ lines with orchestral overdubs offering some extra oomph.  It is a noisy, hard rocking psych extravaganza reminiscent of bands like Fever Tree only better.  Great stuff.  Unfortunately the rest of side one sounds nothing like this.  The gentle, piano driven "Cairo Hotel" sounds like a different band entirely, namely the Bee Gees.  Lead singer Mitchell had howled his way through "South Down Road" but now he is sweetly crooning the words.  The song is heavily orchestrated which adds to its sappiness.  "Can't Go On" opens up with a sizzling guitar solo but then goes pop the rest of the way.  "Another Man's Hair on My Razor" is a country-style song played for laughs.  Side two opens with "Numbers" which is a return to hard rock.  It is almost as good as "South Down Road" with the band going to work on top of a steady driving riff.  Lots of great guitar noise on this one.  A song like this helps me believe the hype about their live act.  It really cooks.  Once again they shift gears entirely for the soft rock love song "Oh That She Might."  Prokop takes the vocal on this one and shows he can be just as sappy as Mitchell.  "Yes I Know" is another slow one, but at least it is loud with its fuzz guitar and big majestic organ lines reminiscent of Vanilla Fudge.  Mitchell's growling, passionate vocal makes the song one of the more memorable ones on the album.  "Ask Her Again" is the oddest song on the album.  Mitchell's vocal is slightly distorted and Prokop plays koto on it which makes it sound Japanese although it is basically just another sappy, orchestrated soft rock song.  The album ends with "Julliana" which is a pseudo 50s rock and roll type song.  I'm all for eclecticism but this is a bit much.  Even though the album is entirely self-penned (mostly by Mitchell) it has little consistency or flow with all these shifts in tone and style.  I'm drawn to the three psychedelic rock songs "South Down Road," "Numbers" and "Yes I Know."  It is not just that I like that genre of music, it seems to me that they play to the band's strengths.  I find their soft rock unconvincing and their lyrics are too bland to make the songs interesting.  The one thing that most impresses me about the Paupers' two albums, is that even though they sound like a lot of different bands at various times, there really aren't many rock albums from the 1960s that resemble these two albums.  The Paupers' versatility and shifting directions make for a unique listening experience.  The band's instrumental prowess is beyond question, but unfortunately it wasn't matched by their songwriting abilities.  If they had featured a first rate songwriter, they might have lived up to all the hype.  Recommended to people think it would be cool if Steppenwolf jammed with the Grassroots. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

We're Only In It For the Money - The Mothers of Invention





We're Only In It For The Money
The Mothers of Invention
Verve V6 5045X
1968

My earliest memory of Frank Zappa comes from Alameda in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was living when I was in the 8th grade.  On my walk home from school, I passed a run down old home that I took for a hippie den of iniquity.  The front door had a big glass panel which had been covered with posters.  One was for the movie "Jimi Hendrix" and the other was a poster of Zappa who I viewed as a creepy weirdo.  I wonder how Frank would have appreciated the irony that I perceived this inveterate mocker of hippiedom as a degenerate hippie himself.  By the time I became interested in Zappa as a musician as opposed to a freak, his classic 1960s records on Verve were out of print and already commanding hefty prices in the used record stores.  I eventually managed to collect them all, but it took awhile because I couldn't afford them at their market value and had to look for bargains.  The first three are my favorites and it is tough to choose which one I like the best.  "Freak Out" is probably the greatest of the trio, but this is the one I play the most.  I also give it the edge over the other two for its "Sgt. Pepper" parody on the gatefold.  The album is constructed as a single flowing suite of music with the songs edited together without pauses and connected by various sound effects and sound bites.  I find the resulting melange of sound and music to be dizzying and exhilarating, truly a landmark in pop music.  Zappa's editing creativity is evident right from the album's opening cut, "Are You Hung Up?", which is a sound collage centered around the title question and the hippie phrase "out of sight."  It is followed by a whispered threat to erase all of Zappa's master tapes, some psychedelic guitar noodling and band member Jimmy Carl Black's announcement, "I'm the Indian of the group" which Zappa evidently found so amusing that he repeated the line in "Concentration Moon" and in the musician credits.  The song introduces one of the themes of the album, mocking hippie shallowness and cliches.  This is even more explicit in the scathing song that follows, "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" which is my favorite track on the album.  The song is an answer song to songs like "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" which hyped "the Summer of Love."  In Zappa's song, phony hippies flock to San Francisco to drop out, get stoned and get the crabs.  "Concentration Moon" introduces Zappa's other big theme, the intolerance and hostility of straight culture and authority figures towards the counter-culture.  In the song, cops kill longhairs or put them in a concentration camp.  In keeping with the collage construction of the album, the song veers back and forth between a slow folky section and a fast paced rocking section with speeded up vocals.  The intolerance theme is also the subject of the brooding "Mom & Dad" which features straight parents defending police brutality towards hippies and alienating their daughter who ends up getting killed by the police for hanging out with "creeps."  "Bow Tie Daddy" also pokes fun at uptight parents.  It starts with a weird telephone conversation before going into an old-timey style tune.  "Harry, You're A Beast" attacks frigid women leading superficial lives.  "What's The Ugliest Part of Your Body?" starts as a slow doo-wop type song before jumping into a rocking section.  The answer to the title question is "your mind" as Zappa again blames the mentality of mainstream parents for their children's alienation from their culture.  There is a brief interlude of classical style piano before Suzy Creamcheese announces that she doesn't do "publicity balling for you anymore."  This line has apparently been censored on some pressings of this album, but it is loud and clear on mine.  "Absolutely Free" is a parody of psychedelic escapism.  It is another one of my favorite songs on the album.  It starts out waltz-like before going psychedelic.  "Flower Punk" uses the melody of "Hey Joe" to assail hippie cliches like going to love-ins to sit in the dirt and play bongos.  The final section features some crazed fantasizing about being a rock star before leading into "Hot Poop" which Zappa describes in his liner notes as the head of the Flower Punk exploding after an overdose of STP.  In actuality it consists of a censored verse from "Mother People" played backwards followed by some sort of electronic burping sound.  In case you are wondering about the censored verse, it goes "better look around before you say you don't care, shut your mouth about the length of my hair, how would you survive, if you were alive, shitty little person."  It is supposed to be "shut your fucking mouth" but the word has been edited out.  Too bad the verse was removed, it would have made "Mother People" a stronger song.  Side two opens with "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music" which consists of a bunch of sound effects, a sound bite from Eric Clapton and some surf music. "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" is a disgusting portrait of some teenage weirdos out by San Bernardino.  Zappa begins the song by claiming that it is really true and in his autobiography he elaborates on this.  In his book he also complains that MGM censored the line "Mama with her apron and her pad" but it is present on my pressing of the album.  The song is about a pair of brothers who smear snot on their windows, light their farts and collect their urine in jars.  The song is gross, the story in the book is even grosser.  Zappa's juvenile delight in aberrant human behavior (which would only get worse as his career progressed) is the one element that makes me question him as a major artist.  The tale of these creepy brothers continues in "The Idiot Bastard Son" in which they rescue the title character and raise him to "enter the world of liars and cheaters and people like you."  The next song is listed as "Lonely Little Girl" on the record label but as "It's His Voice On the Radio" on the lyric sheet.  It's about another daughter alienated by her parents.  "Take Your Clothes off When You Dance" describes a world where people are free and not judged on their appearance.  The song pokes fun at hippie fashion but otherwise seems to be sincere in its utopian sentiments.  It is a catchy song, if you took away the speeded up vocals and sound effects, you can almost imagine it as a commercial single.  "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body" is briefly reprised before the group launches into the propulsive "Mother People" which is a celebration of non-conformity.  The album concludes with "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny."  It is an instrumental but in his liner notes Zappa claims that the song is inspired by Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."  Zappa invites the listener to imagine being an inmate in a non-conformist concentration camp in California, "Camp Reagan," and being punished by the torture device in the Kafka story.  I don't perceive that at all, I hear some Edgar Varese inspired symphonic music mixed with a bunch of sound effects and goofy speeded up laughter.  It sounds a lot like "Lumpy Gravy" and originates from the same sessions that produced that album.  It is an extraordinary finish to an extraordinary album.  Pop music just doesn't get any more challenging or stimulating than this.  You could argue that the album's themes are dated, but having grown up around hippies it still strikes a chord with me and as far as I'm concerned non-conformity and intolerance are just as relevant today as they were back in 1968.  Also I think Zappa's skewering of the commodification and exploitation of youth culture is probably an even bigger issue now, than it was in the 1960s.  I never get tired of this album and consider it is one of the great albums of rock history.  Recommended to people who think hippies were kind of dumb but not as dumb as the mainstream culture they were rebelling against.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

'Cause I Sez So - The New York Dolls



'Cause I Sez So
The New York Dolls
Atco RI 518926
2009

This was the second Dolls album following their reformation in 2004.  I picked it up in a bargain bin, not expecting much and I pretty much got what I paid for.  I don't think I'm being cynical when I suggest that the main reason this record exists is money.  Since 3 of the 5 members from their classic line up are dead, it is really a David Johansen and Sylvain Mizrahi album with three new guys using the Dolls' name to sell records.  In all fairness, two of the new guys, guitarist Steve Conte and bassist Sami Yaffa do contribute to some of the songwriting but no one is going to mistake them for Johnny Thunders.  Johansen and Mizrahi wrote the bulk of the album including the opening track, "Cause I Sez So," which is full of promise.  It features some of the swagger and rock energy of the original band as Johansen vents his spleen about surveillance cameras which he likens to Orwell's Big Brother.  It is my favorite song on the album.  It goes downhill from there.  The generic hard rock Johansen/Yaffa cut "Muddy Bones" is a diatribe about the crummy state of the world.  The energy level drops with the obnoxious Johansen/Conte tune "Better Than You."  In the song Johansen defends his girlfriend who is "a brazillion times better than you."  If she really likes his music as much as he claims, that is probably not true.  I find the song boring which is also true of the next song "Lonely So Long." The original Dolls were anything but boring.  The love song "My World" is better.  It has a more distinctive melody and a little velocity but it sounds more like Bruce Springsteen than the New York Dolls.  The bluesy Johansen/Conte track "This is Ridiculous" reminds me of Johansen's solo work.  The song is the plaint of a guy down on his luck.  It is one of the better songs on the album and features a terrific vocal from Johansen.  Side two opens with "Temptation to Exist" by Johansen, Yaffa and Conte.  The song has a bit of a retro feel to it with a nice romantic atmosphere.  Unfortunately it is undermined by awkward lyrics that don't deliver the emotional punch the song needs.  "Making Rain" also features some pretentious lyrics married to a nondescript tune.  Words like "learn to bear the beams of love now mending my conflict with circumstance" sound to me like the boys are trying too hard to sound smart.  I like "Drowning" better, it is more straight-forward and rocks harder. The beginning of "Nobody Got No Bizness" borrows from Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up" as Johansen announces "we're from New York City and we like our Philly soul Chicago-style."  Unfortunately the tune isn't as propulsive or funky as "Tighten Up" but it does get a groove going and it has a sense of humor, an aspect of the original Dolls that this album could use a lot more of. The reggae-tinged "Trash" also is kind of funny particularly since the object of affection in the song is named "Trash." The album concludes with the noisy "Exorcism of Despair" which sounds a bit like the Clash's "Safe European Home."  It is not a great song but at least it ends the album with some energy.  I find this album to be listenable but also rather forgettable with only a couple of really worthwhile songs.  It bugs me that Johansen and Mizrahi are tarnishing the legacy of their great band with such generic and mediocre music.  I don't blame them for wanting to get paid but I would have though they would try a little harder to make something worthy of the New York Dolls. Recommended to people who have never heard the first two Dolls albums.