Today at Culture Fusion we are featuring a guest reviewer, Metal-Alholic and all around musical omnivore Sean M. Hebner. Sean presents a unique and highly enthusiastic approach to writing that exactly mirrors talking to him (he talks just like this in person, at a mile a minute and with endless hand gestures and peals of laughter) and which results in a rather personable, informal writing style which is a lot of fun to read.
He chose to review “Shazam!” by The Move on his own impetus after reading a few of my Move reviews. He has been a fan of this album for some years and has a lot to say about how it fits in with the history of Metal and Hard Rock. I hope you enjoy!
SHAZAM! By THE MOVE
A Review by Sean M. Hebner
Rating: 5/5 whozawhatsis
Unlike the leader of this blog (who is older than me by a smattering of years), I was not exposed to a plethora of Progressive Rock growing up. I discovered Heavy Metal at the age of 12 or 13 and was a ‘purest’ for a good many years after that. But my long time obsession with metal and some well placed covers of ‘’Uriah Heep” and “Mike Oldfield” songs got curious about metals roots.
Over the past several years, I have been growing my psychedelic and Progressive knowledge and in the process started a job where my boss, *Redacted*, was a music fanatic. He is as obsessed with “great” music as I am with Metal. He hadn’t really steered me wrong yet, turning me on to such artists as Nick Lowe and Richard Thompson.
So when *Redacted* told me that SHAZAM! By The Move was his favorite album of all time I decided it needed a listen. So I sampled it on Amazon.com, when WHOLY SHIT WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS BEFORE and bought the download. It felt so…ahead of its time. Cause it was clever…without being wanky. It was toned and paced well while being Mellow and Crushingly Heavy all at the same time. More people need to hear this album; in fact, if you haven’t heard this album yet, DO IT NOW!
Now we’ll go track by track:
ALBUM OPENER: Hello Susie – Hot DAMN! That’s almost a metal intro! Oh man I’m in love already the grand “circus” like delivery of the lyrics. This approach becomes common place in the future of heavy epic music and I’m glad to see it has such strong roots.
I’m reminded of “Grand Illusion” by Styx and the role that they played influencing heavy pop rock as well as anything by Queen. But it’s NOWHERE NEAR as pretentious! I’m not one that really pays close attention to lyrics and lyrical content doesn’t make or break a song for me.
SECOND TRACK – Beautiful Daughter. OMG they turned to the Beatles!! Because I’m easily distracted: the wiki article discussing this album uses the word Heavy Metal a lot. This is WRONG: its Proto Metal. Heavy Metal won’t exist till Iron Maiden gets Bruce and Black Sabbath gets DIO.
THIRD TRACK – Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited this one is my personal Favorites on the album as it’s all over the place. Musical Perfection. Lock the door and throw the keys away! I love the references to Alice in wonderland and the firkin BASS. I LOVE the bass playing on this album. Entwistle can shove it!!
Then the song ‘ends’ and CLASSICAL MUSIC!! Wait. WAIT.. FANTASIA!!! AWW YEAH! I get this. This album was written for people with my sense of humor and sense of musicianship. I am not a musician but if I were this is what I’d try to do. Singing the guitar part is my favorite part!!!!!
Track Four – Fields of People. Ok now this is a cover as is the rest of the second half of the album and not having heard the original I can say that this song rocks if only in this context. Its by and large a product of the seventies and its at the same time moving in the direction of the future of heavy music.
Track five – Don’t Make my baby blue A Proto-Metal cover song……………………… If that doesn’t get you sexually aroused then The Move and/or Heavy Music isn’t for you.
Track Six – Last thing on my mind. When most people make the family tree of heavy metal you don’t see The Move on any lists per-say I’m ADDING them to the list. Even This last ballad, so depressing and soul crushing. Melancholy. So good, Roy Wood is the Crazy Uncle to Heavy Metal. And SATAN bless (curse?) him!
Overall this is a Must own for anyone who loves Heavy Metal and wants to understand the roots of metal more fully. Especially those of us who Like Mr. Bungle and its derivatives. I’m thinking that The Move has a lot to do with making these sub-genres of jazzy metal.
Also this is my first written review and its 6 hours before I have to be up for work in the morning. I like to ramble.
After reviewing an album or two (I lost count) by both Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, I feel like it’s time I did a review of their rather…historically important first album as Electric Light Orchestra (self titled everywhere in the world except America, where it’s “No Answer”). I mean, why the hell not? What else do I have better to do? Get fatter older and die alone?
I DIGRESS much too heavily there. Ignore the morbidity (always a hard thing to do with me) and move on to the next paragraph which flows much more logically from the sentiments of the previous paragraph (the stuff about music) than this one (which flows from a digression and which has become a lengthy digression of its own).
“Electric Light Orchestra” is an important album for a number of reasons. One: it was the last collaboration between Wood and Lynne, two musical geniuses with very similar yet vastly different (weird how that works) goals that briefly combined for musical excellence on the last two “The Move” albums and which simultaneously plateaued, peaked and ended with this peculiar album.
Basically, the goal of the album (considered a “project” by the two as well as drummer Bev Bevan, imported from “The Move”) is to combine rock and roll and classical music as seamlessly as possible. And not in a sprawling symphonic, progressive style: more in a “chamber” music style with small string quartets, minimal horn arrangements and short running times (relatively speaking).
To that end, Roy grabs every string and horn instrument in sight and proceeds to arrange driving classical arrangements that are relatively complex for a rock and roll musician but nothing that Beethoven would find boggling.
But that’s okay because it’s not TRUE classical: it’s classical rock in perhaps the rawest sense of the term (as illustrated by the hilarious back cover image of the three main musicians on the album dressed in period piece and holding string instruments).
And “raw” is the exact word to use for this album: it’s not exactly intricately arranged or immaculately produced. There’s a very…empty feel to parts of the album but not in a bad way: there’s simply room to breathe and holes in the arrangements in a way that’s both good and bad.
The holes are “good” in the sense that they help you differentiate the songs more fully. At their best (the album “Eldorado”) Electric Light Orchestra sometimes felt too lush for their own good, with songs bleeding into the next. Of course, that’s sort of the point of those albums (they’re not labeled “symphonies” for nothing) but the more “in your face” feel of this album is a bit more…interesting than later ELO albums.
That isn’t to say it’s “better.” After all, Roy is a solid multi-instrumentalist but he’s no super pro and when he goes ape overdubbing endless sawing strings on “Battle of Marston Moor” the effect is numbing: yes, the song goes through multiple sections but they don’t really “progress” in a logical way or create any type of emotion. I feels like Wood is just changing up sections to change them up.
However, this “purer” classical feel is unique to this album and is mainly the influence of Wood. His other highly classical piece, “1st Movement” is more solid, with nimble classical guitar parts (that sound a bit TOO “Classical Gas” for their own good) show off chops I always forget Roy has on guitar.
Wood does a better job on numbers like “Look at Me Now” and “Whisper in the Night” as he simply combines classical arrangements with regular pop tunes and ballads in a unique way.
This is especially true of the endlessly catchy “Look at Me Now” with the unforgettable refrain “Ahhh! Look at me now! Displaying emoootion!”
Lynne takes a much less “pure” approach to his synthesis of rock and classical and as a result probably creates a more “instantly enjoyable” set of songs.
The lead off tune, Lynne’s classic “10538 Overture” sounds almost exactly like later period ELO with a rawer production edge. The instantly catchy instrumental parts and vocal melodies progress in a logical fashion and climax easily.
Other Lynne tunes such as “Nellie Takes Her Bow” are a bit more unique to this album as it seems to display a jazz influence we rarely get from Lynne. “Manhatten Rumble” is also strangely jazz oriented with a piano heavy classical sound that may not be as complex as Wood’s classical work on the album but which probably makes more sense to the average listener.
Wood and Lynne share songwriting and production duties nearly equally on the album which helps to explain its somewhat raw, confused and diverse approach. There is an obvious clash to their approaches on the album that gives it a strange edge as the two desperately try to “take off where ‘I Am The Walrus’ ended” which was their stated goal.
However, Lynne has since stated that he and Roy had “no real idea what to do or real plan” when they started the recording sessions which also helps to explain the contrast between their two styles. Clearly, Lynne brought in a few tunes that Roy added strings to while Roy perhaps made up (bad) pure classical pieces on the spot, improvising to try to make them work.
Whatever the reason, you simply won’t hear another ELO album like this or any album like this in the world of pop and rock. Although Lynne would perfect his “classical pop” style over several different albums while Wood would go on to snatch hits with Wizzard and disappear into the ether on his manic solo albums, neither would really ever produce something so…confused, raw, far reaching, ambitious and intriguing.
And for that, one can forgive Lynne “Xanadu.” Almost, anyways.
Noise is noise and music is music but sometimes noise is music and music is noise. Nothing but grinding sounds crashing against each other in discordance. Scrapes. Moans. Bashing out a stupid rhythm on a snare drum. Plucking out a few notes on a sitar (which you’ve never played). Feedback. Rumbles. Looping everything or playing it live. Pretension. A guy reading religious texts. Expressing something with nothing and nothing with everything in the room.
No light. No melody. No style but that which comes naturally with no effort at all.
Kluster may or may not have been three wild eyed Germans who created noise from 1970 to 1971. They may not or probably didn’t (or did) release an album called “Klopfzeichen” in 1970.
But the truth is something named “Klopfzeichen” exists in the world: it’s an album two record sides of the future of music (circa 1970) according to three unschooled, wild eyed Germans: a complete amateurish abandonment of all conventions, musicality and thought processes influenced by philosophers, composers and philosophies far above their heads.
A brooding German voice reading a disjointed, confusing text which often contradicts itself and which wasn’t really in the original plan. Nobody minded the man, standing nervously in the room, reading a strange speech while Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius ran around a room randomly working up an extensive and noisy drone on instruments, trash, sheet metal, ball bearings and various other incidental items that they had gathered up for the purpose of…creation.
The Man Reading the Text no doubt had ear plugs in as the microphone rolled, captured on track as it occurred with little to no editing interrupting the style, the sound and the feel of an endlessly rolling boulder crushing all offenders that stand in the way.
Nobody could convince the three (even if they’d wanted to try) to stop playing and another endless track was made out of metaphoric cardboard boxes and string. The German Text Reader ran away before this track even started, never to be heard from again.
“Let’s do it again!” somebody must have said as the band once again gathered up a reader (a woman this time) and made her read some type of strange, religious texts forced upon them by their label.
The three unskilled (but skilled) impatient (but patient) crazy (but focused) Germans shook obelisks at the sun (metaphorically of course) for another 40 or so minutes (the text reader fleeing after the first 20) and said “hey we should stop now.” And they never did it again.
The second 40 minutes of noise is “Zwei-Osterei.” It has two pieces (songs doesn’t work) and they sound in no discernible way different from “Klopfzeichen.” Aesthetic or limitation?
The band never recorded in a studio again but they released a live performance called “Eruption” which is 60 minutes instead of 40 and has no singer.
This time, our three German anti-heroes glided around a stage instead of a studio and really “let their hair down” to “rock and roll” in a way unheard of on the first two albums. Which is to say it sounded exactly the same but with no singer ruining the flow.
Play any of the tracks by this group and stop it at a random point. Edit a small portion out, save it and then do the same with another track. Edit these two together: you have a hit single.
Kluster ditched Conrad Schnitzer (and the K) to become “Cluster” and found a home blipping out random disturbances on synthesizers until they finally became skilled enough to be ambient, where all the music sounds the same on purpose.
The box set of Kluster music is the way to go because a) you can’t find them any other way and b) you can play all three albums in a row without stopping and spend over two hours listening intently.
Because even if it all sounds the same and seemingly never ends, each groove is like the Genome Project in that there are endless variations and permutations in each track that give it identity, life and a personality.
One moment its ball bearings rolled in a bowl of jelly. The next it’s the endless grunt of synthesizer feedback and a German grunting monosyllabic odes to joy.
Is it good? It isn’t good or bad. It simply Is. I wouldn’t listen to it if I were you but you probably should listen to it anyway.
What the…is this guy really reviewing Rick James? The Super Freak Guy? The Crack Pipe Prostitute Burning Fellow? The Dave Chapelle Lunatic Who Was Merciless Mocked for Years and Probably Rightfully So?
Sure am! Why? Because this is a good album. A great album actually and very influential to hard rock freaks after its released (hell, it influenced James so much he tried to remake it for the rest of his career).
I don’t feel like flying off the handle into the history of Rick James, partially because I don’t know it that well. James is a bass player (multi-instrumentalist, really but bass is his main thing) who had been kicking around the scene for decades. He was friends and roommates with Neil Young. He played in a lot of go nowhere bands. And then he started his solo career with a few solid but not high selling albums until “Street Songs” hit it big based off the success of the two hit singles “Give It To Me” and “Super Freak,” which was infamously sampled by MC Hammer for his biggest hit “You Can’t Touch This.”
These songs tell you a lot about the album and are indeed the two high points, musically: “Give It To Me” boasts an energy and drive that throws it nearly into a rock and roll camp. The intricate arrangements are quite clever with instruments seemingly answering each other and the chorus is unforgettable once you’ve heard it even a single time.
It’s also about doing it, a thematic concern quite dear to Mr. James throughout this album.
“Super Freak” has exactly the same ingredients as “Give It To Me”: a rock and roll drive, intricate arrangements centered around the unforgettable, immortal bass riff and another tale of wanting to do it. In this case, with a “super freak” who is so damn kinky you wouldn’t even want to take her home for a visit.
The songs may seem like cliches (and have kind of become jokes through the years due to James failures as a human being later in life) but they were something really new in funk. Early funk, such as that practiced by James Brown and the George Clinton gang was a jam heavy medium that often found songs stretching out past all realms of reasonableness to the average listener.
Of course, to the true funk believer (like yours truly) the repetition of those grooves is part of the appeal to funk: it sets up a mantra, meditative feel that feels truly liberating.
There was also an occasional looseness to early funk that was relaxing and fun but which often became meandering in the wrong circumstance (too many drugs, for instance).
James’ songs aren’t short but they aren’t set up for “jam” mode either: they’re wound up lean, mean and tight and rarely burst over the five minute range. They’re also highly composed: they aren’t simple “vamps” repeated ad nauseum while the singer improvises gibberish: these are composed songs with verses and choruses that are so efficient it’s hard to forget them even years later.
Basically, it is a form of “pop funk and R&B” that still maintains all of the positives of “real” funk while minimizing the negatives and compensating for a lack of “instrumental fireworks” with arrangement tightness that makes the mind boggle: these instrumentalists may not be soloing like maniacs but holding down these grooves in such a tight interplay was probably even harder than soloing.
What makes the album stand out even further, for me, is its focus on the dark and dirty side of life. After all, it’s not called “Street Songs” for nothing: James was very serious about documenting the rough, seedy side of the city and especially but not exclusively the African American experience. It’s not always successful (especially on the ballads, which are usually pretty dull as James doesn’t quite have the pipes to pull them off) but the faster paced songs are thrilling.
Yes, James Brown explored the grittier sides of reality at his artistic peak but he seemed more concerned with having a good time and celebrating the African American experience. He would occasionally delve into the crimes perpetuated against African Americans but generally his message was “Say it out…I’m black and I’m proud!”
And while Brown did indeed wax poetic about sexuality (“Sex Machine” after all) he wasn’t quite as lewd or…specific as James. Neither approach is superior but both are different.
Furthermore, James stands out from the George Clinton crew as he generally didn’t sing about science fiction and fantasy themes. Yes, Clinton often set up apocalyptic funk grooves and sang about end times but it seemed more literary minded (i.e. stuff he was making up) rather than based in the actual reality of the African American.
James stripped back all those pretenses and false poetics to explore his personal experiences and beliefs in simple yet evocative ways.
For example, “Mr. Policeman.” James sets up another tight funk grooves and preaches out against the institution of police brutality which he felt was holding he and his friends, neighbors and family firmly in place. It may feel like he is overreacting (and blaming the entire institution of law enforcement probably is overreacting a little) but his sincerity and dedication to the message helps it feel more “real” than it has any right to feel.
There are faults with the album, of course: James funk arrangements often become much too similar to tell songs apart even though they have distinctive melodies and riffs. Plus, his ballads are truly unengaging and don’t really hit any of the emotional areas for which they strive with so much strain.
But “Street Songs” is a serious statement made by a serious artist and it deserves consideration and respect, as silly as “Super Freak” may sound on the umpteenth listen.
Note: I don’t mean to insult either James Brown or George Clinton’s music in my comparisons to Rick James. I love both of those men and their music and find them to be more important than Rick James in general. I only compare to illustrate that he was truly a new voice in funk and is undeservedly ignored.
Songs to YouTube:
Anything but the ballads qualifies.
The early 80’s was a time of relative musical chaos. The 60’s had all coalesced into the hippie movement and The Beatles which fell gradually apart to be replaced by bands taking the “complex” sound of the times and running with it. This produced the incredible sounds of “progressive” rock which inevitably turned to crap.
Then, there were the “heavy” bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple who took the “heavy blues” vibe and ran it head first into the ground of wild (stupid) mysticism (in the case of the former) and lazy, riff nicking (in the case of the other).
Then punk came around and created the myth that it destroyed “bad” music forever by destroying the former “dinosaurs” and bringing rock back to the masses.
That lasted about a day: if punk was the “huge thing” in the late 70’s, how come crap rock bands like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon still existed?
I’m not knocking punk (I like a lot of it) but just the idea that it destroyed the careers of the dinosaurs. Yes, a few bands disappeared but most just warped into other, more mainstream styles of music.
The best influence of punk is that it did inspire amateur musicians to pick up their instruments and try out new styles, sounds and ideas that were neither “punk” or “mainstream” and which would come to influence a wide variety of musical stylistics in the decades to come.
This is where the “Young Marble Giants” come into the picture.
The Young Marble Giants was a three-piece with guitar playing brother Stuart Moxham writing the tunes, Phillip Moxham playing the melodic and nimble bass lines and Alison Stratton singing the “vibrato free” vocals. A drum machine (sometimes treated) keeps up the rhythm while an occasional organ pops up, played by Stuart.
What the band did reads very easily on paper: they created an airy, minimalistic “pop” style that influenced dozens of future indie bands looking to avoid the strum and drang of rock and roll and to develop a more subtle attack.
Hearing the album is a whole different experience. In my opinion, there are two possible reactions to this album: complete excitement or complete boredom.
The boredom is easy to explain: nothing happens. The songs all sound the same. The singer sucks. What’s the big deal? Next record, please.
The excitement that arises in the right person (such as yours truly) comes from an appreciation of how little the band is doing to create the atmosphere and style they are creating. Stuart is a capable rhythm guitarist and an excellent songwriter who’s signature guitar style comes from palm muting the guitar during most of the album.
Yes, palm muting, that thing you hear metal guitarists do during “breakdowns” in songs. Except Stuart plays his guitar mostly clean with just a touch of distortion for the “harder” parts i.e. those parts where he plays simple but memorable non-muted riffs.
The drum machine plays along with Stuart’s model: the beats are muted and warped through a slight phase effect. The drum beat is never more complex than a basic 4/4 but the phased beat creates an absolutely unique pulse that has never been repeated.
Phillips is perhaps the most important member of the band instrumentally as he has the most freedom to play. Stuart has surrendered himself to the rhythm: as Gabriel said, it has his soul. Phillip plays to the beat, around the beat, adds simple runs, plays melodies and does everything he can to color in the spaces between the beats.
Even then he picks his notes carefully (he’s not exactly doing Chris Squire stuff) and chooses careful, simple parts and pops them in from time to time, all adding to the slight, airy beat that is the sound of this band by adding a slightly more muscular attack.
And then there is Stratton. Her simple, child-like voice (forced on Stuart, who had wanted to be the band’s singer) floats above the simple rhythm bed singing simple, but catchy, memorable and endearing melodies as if commenting on the band playing beneath her.
Her voice is simply something: not much there technically but her vibrato free, no nonsense approach practically defined female indie singing for…well, ever it appears.
All of this praise would be to nothing if the band simply played atmospheric airy nothingness (a million bands do that) but this band does nothing of the sort. Stuart writes the kind of snappy, simple pop songs that defined the early punk era but plays them in the gentlest way possible.
“Looking for Mr. Right” is a perfect start for the album: the distant fade in of the atmospheric, faded drum beats slowly builds into a trademark Stuart palm mute rhythm. Phillip starts playing simple, stabbing bass lines that raise the tension. Stratton then comes in bemoaning her ability to find “Mr. Right.”
Bemoaning isn’t the right word: simply stating. She’s simply stating how difficult it is to find the right guy to a Stuart melody that is hard to deny.
A serious complaint that can be lodged at this album (that I can’t deny) is that it all sounds the same. This is very true: the band does throw in an organ from time to time, but generally when they do that the organ becomes the predominant instrument. With arrangements this simple, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve heard it all before.
However, and I insist this is the case, the band is obviously doing everything they can to diversify the songs within their formula. “Searching for Mr. Right” may serve as the prototype but “Include Me Out” breaks the mold by featuring some slight distortion, a straight forward guitar riff and the type of fluid bass lines that came out of the punk world.
Seriously, throw in a real drummer, a bit more distortion and Joey Ramone and you got a punk tune.
“Credit in The Straight World” is a similar “punk like” song that is so good, Hole of all people, did a cover on “Live Through This” that follows this arrangement to the letter except it adds a real drummer and another guitar to make it the hard core punk song it never quite becomes (for good or bad) in the hands of the Young Marble Giants.
And then the band slows things down, brings out the organ and croons about a “Wurlitzer Jukebox.” This song is a great example of how the band changes their style: by slowing down, focusing on the organ and developing a solid “ballad” vocal melody they create a song that stands out from the album.
Honestly, each song qualifies as either “good” to “great” but differentiating all of them would require focusing on the type of tiny details that only pop out after multiple listens.
Final verdict? Buy the shit out of this, especially the “Special Edition” as it contains two more discs: the first being “Colossal Youth” the second a disc of singles and EP’s the band recorded that are now impossible to find and a series of Peel Sessions. The band was right on the cusp of making it big and were the “next big thing” before the tension within the group finally broke them up for good.
Songs to YouTube:
Any I mentioned in the review plus a live performance of “N.I.T.A.” It gives you a solid feel for their live presence (which wasn’t much to be fair) and giving you a solid look as to what these strange, enigmatic people could possibly look like in the real world.
They look like a few British gits and a daffy broad (in the good sense of the word). Awesome.
Somehow, I feel that “Big Black” is a group that never really gets their due. Yes, any alternative rock fan worth their weight in salt knows the name “Steve Albini.” Albini is an infamous producer that patented a rather trebly, high pitched industrial-ish rumble that mixed drum machines, punk rock, high pitched guitar sounds (everything in “Big Black” is “treble”) and an absolute dedication to DIY that has made him one of the most respected and sought after producers in the business.
He is also one of the grumpiest guys in the world of rock and roll: his lengthy rants on well…everything are rather infamous. He called the CD edition of “Atomizer” “The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape” and chastised the buyer in the CD liner notes for wasting their money on an “inferior” sounding product.
Whatever his hang ups and personality quirks, the man is a living legend but mostly for his production skills and not for his songwriting. Which is a shame: the man developed an intriguing production style, had a way with catchy riffs and melodies and even had something to say lyrically, especially on the previously mentioned debut album “Atomizer” which is, naturally, our review of the day.
Now, what Albini has to say lyrically isn’t very pretty. His topics generally concern boredom, mid-western insanity, serial killers, self harm, serial child rapists and a variety of other nasty topics. There is no bright lights or sunshine in the lyrical world of Albini, as made clear on the track “Steelworker” from debut EP “Lungs” where he chants “I work with my hands…and I kill what I eat” over a harsh, grinding groove that makes it clear that Albini is coming for you.
Focusing on negative lyrical matters is nothing new but Albini goes the extra mile and sings everything from the first person perspective. It’s never “they’re steelworkers, they kill what they eat” or “they live in Jordan, they do what they like.” It’s “I’M a steelworker…I kill what I eat” and “this is Jordan, WE do what we like.” He puts himself right into the boots of the negative people about which he sings.
This caused some serious controversy when “Atomizer” came out, especially because of the song “Kerosene” Albini’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of rock and roll theatrical performance.
Albini would no doubt baulk at such a statement: calling his music theatrical would no doubt insult him more deeply than calling him a sell out.
But I don’t know how else you could define this song: it starts out with an insane, high pitch ringing (one of Albini’s trademark sounds) that builds into a wild, rampaging guitar, bass and Roland Drum stomp that eventually drops out to a bass and drum groove.
Albini then begins detailing the mentality of what he believes is a typical, mid-western, small town loser with no ambition, no future and no hope. He uses a minimum of words and phrases and repeats them regularly to reinforce their strength.
“There’s never anything to do in this town…lived here all my life…probably come to die in this town…lived here all my life…nothing to do but sit around home, sit around the house and stare at the walls, stare at each other and wait till we die, stare at each other and wait till we die…there’s never anything to do in this town…lived here my whole life…”
Chilling and a feeling that anybody who’s ever lived in the mid-west can identify with completely. And then he says a single phrase that reawakens the monstrous guitars “there’s kerosene around…it’s just something to do…” He repeats this phrase a few times, with various degrees of intensity before screaming “SET ME ON FIRE!”
The rest of the song then de-evolves (in a good way) into a noisy mess of over trebled guitars, bashing drum machines, screams and even a false start. The song perfectly defines the Albini mythos and style in a matter of seconds.
But there are other songs on this album too! Imagine. Opener, “Jordan, Minnesota” is a song about the (alleged) child abuse ring in the town of Jordan and while the truthfulness of the story has been hotly debated for years, hearing Albini sing “this is Jordan…we do what we like” over and over again is truly creepy. But only if you know the story: without knowing the story it’s nowhere near as effective but it still has a great riff and great drive.
“Passing Complexion” features more wildly over trebled guitars (really, how the hell doe she make that high pitched “shing!” sound on the guitars?) playing intricate, strange and relatively complex guitar parts.
The album does have a basic sound and style that bleeds over to the rest of the tracks: if you’ve heard one track, you’ve heard them all. They vary in the riffs and melodies as well as the arrangements and the lyrical focus but all set this mood of grinding, inescapable mid-west despair that is simultaneously gripping and wearing on the consciousness.
The CD version of “Atomizer” contains some bonus tracks from the “Heart Beat” EP. The title track is a cover of the Wire tune from “Chairs Missing” and has a similar menacing atmosphere but builds to Albini screams instead of the chanting of the original. It’s the highlight of the bonus tracks.
Final verdict? If you like noisy, difficult but well composed punk/industrial style rock, it’s worth a buy. In fact, buy everything by Big Black: you only need to get three CD’s: this, The Hammer Party and Songs About Fucking.
p.s. Big Black doesn’t really sound like “punk” or “industrial” but those are the closest genre terms I can find for the style they play. It’s definitely a unique sound that Albini utilized in all subsequent bands with minor variations.
Song to YouTube:
“Kerosene” and “Jordan, Minnesota” will tell you all that you need to know about Big Black. If you like those songs, you’ll like the rest.
As a young man, I despaired of moving to Marquette to continue my studies because a) I hardly knew anybody there b) went there for a girl who had broken up with me the day I registered for classes and c) the distance and snow. I had never lived anywhere so far from home or anywhere that was so prone to four foot snow storms.
A random snow storm on my way back up to class one day backed up traffic so bad on the I-75 that I made a diversion into Cheboygan for the night, stopping at Wal-Mart and randomly buying “Smiley Smile/Wild Honey” by the Beach Boys.
The strange sounds of the acid warped “Smiley Smile” confused me: my young mind associated the Beach Boys with the lameness (to me at the time) surf hits while “Wild Honey” possessed a simple, stripped down pop/R&B approach that sounds a lot like a lot of minimalistic indie bands of today.
And each were soaked in a sense of positivity held down by a sense of deep sadness that reflected the heart of composer and producer Brian Wilson perfectly: a radiant, child-like genius that wanted to express complete positivity to destroy the demons that were killing his mind and which infected his joyful music with a sense of foreboding that made the late 60’s/early 70’s Beach Boy albums vastly under rated forms of true rock and roll beauty.
Of course, the band ravaged and destroy their own reputation with obvious commercially shilling, complete suck-hack jobs of albums and songs and “Kokomo” a song bad enough to ruin the reputation of The Beatles, Beethoven, Bach and even Richard Nixon for all eternity.
Naturally, Brian had little to do with this: he was completely bonkers and was only just getting by with the care of Eugene Landy, a doctor who went too far and invaded Brian’s life completely to the point he was getting songwriting credits on Brian’s (solid but weird) solo albums.
Landy was able to save Brian from self destruction but he had to go and Brian was able to pick up his life (with the help of a young bride) and although not demon free (that would be impossible) was able to overcome his demons well enough to begin touring and even finishing up the album “Smile” that had eluded him so many years ago and which had contributed to the destruction of his mind.
So, Brian was finally back and was writing some solid music and was once again a force in music. The Beach Boys had folded years ago and were now little more than a traveling county fair oldies act led by Mike Love and a crew of scabs.
And then the band turned 50. So, of course the still living original members (without poor Dennis or Carl Wilson) got together to crank out a suck job of an album not worth a damn.
Or so I figured: until I saw Brian was not only on board but was writing most of the album and producing everything. In the past, this had led to such strange albums as “20 Big Ones” and the masterpiece “Love You” but Brian was “back” and my expectations were slightly elevated.
And the album came out: and of course I bought it. “That’s Why God Made the Radio” was designed to be the classic swan song the band deserved (and is much more deserving of that title than their last album, the stupid country cover album “Stars and Stripes Volume 1”) and it definitely sounds the part.
The harmonies are there: Mike, Bruce and Al all sound great (never druggies, they kept their voices strong) and they sing their hearts out on the trademark Brian Wilson harmonies. Wilson himself is still a bit rough around the edges but he doesn’t go off key.
And the material is there too: “Think About the Days” is a solid acapella and piano introduction that reminds one “Our Prayer” from “Smile” or “One for the Boys” from “Brian Wilson.” And lead off single, “That’s Why God Made the Radio” has the perfect mix of “simple but genius” melodies and flawless surf arrangements and playing that highlighted the band’s best material.
The album then goes through a variety of summer themed songs such as “Spring Vacation,” “Shelter” and “Daybreak Over the Ocean” a Mike Love composed song that is probably the weakest tune here but leagues about the shill he was putting out in the 80’s.
And then the album ends with a heart felt trilogy of songs that slow things down and get introspective with carefully paced melodies and arrangements that end with “Summer’s Gone” a lament to the passing of summer and perhaps a lament to the passing of the band (Love quickly kicked the other guys off their won 50th Anniversary Tour and replaced them with his typical scabs).
In spite of the bad vibrations (heh) that come from the usual Mike Love shenanigans, this album is a pure return to form right? The sound is there: the style is there. Brian is writing and producing. No one expects a masterpiece from a 70 year old in a style patented when he was in his 20’s but this album sounds like it’s worth the money, right?
Generally, yes: it works as a solid swan song for the band and I was rather excited listening to it the first few times. It really SEEMED like the old times were back but with a new twist reflecting the band’s age: they were no longer singing about surfing but simply celebrating the nostalgia of the old days.
This is all good stuff but the more I listened to the album the more I felt the nagging sensation that…Brian’s heart wasn’t really in this stuff. And this is the most important aspect of the Beach Boys: how focused and dedicated Brian is to the music. With apologies to the rest of the band, they could be anybody: the Beach Boys was Brian’s band (and to a lesser extent, his brothers’) and I don’t need Al Jardine singing harmony to make me feel like I’m listening to the Beach Boys.
Basically, the guys who aren’t Brian sound completely dedicated to the project: they sing their heart out, Mike writes an “okay” song and even original “second” guitarist David Marks puts in a solid performance, having grown a lot on the instrument since the band’s early days.
But the problem here is Brian. It’s not that Brian isn’t writing good music (this is catchy, well composed stuff) it’s simply that we’ve seen this kind of thing from Brian before. Everything seems highly calculated, carefully considered and composed to fit “The Beach Boys” sound.
But what is the “Beach Boys sound?” Many will cry out that it’s surf rock: yes, for the first few years, it definitely was surf rock. But then Brian moved onto to writing more complex rock and nearly baroque level ballads.
Then the band moved into weird psychedelic insanity, into a weird pop mode, some kind of odd minimalistic acoustic style, a weird melange of soul/rock/pop/and MOR in the early 70’s and then into a semi-roots rock band for a few albums which mutated into a hideous Broadway style group for an album before Brian recorded a “synthesizers and drums” album before the band started dabbling more in soft rock balladry and stale surf rock.
Which of these styles is represented on this album? Basically, the stale (but well written) surf rockers, some well written soft rock ballads and nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia. Nothing on the album is exciting or unique to the album: it sometimes sounds under arranged instrumentally in a way that Brian’s recent releases have not.
And therein lies the problem: I think Brian sort of rushed this out for the tour without putting a lot of thought into it. His best work in the last few years have been albums he’s taken his time on and which really touched his emotions and spurred him on to put his absolute heart into it (the Gershwin cover project, “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Smile” basically).
To these ears, this sounds the most like a “contractual obligation” album that Brian has ever produced. Sure, the Beach Boys have produced way worse albums but these represented at least Mike Love’s honest attempts to stay relevant and keep the band afloat. It didn’t work but at one cannot fault him for trying to keep the band going.
It even sounds more like a contractual obligation than those weird albums Brian did in the mid 60’s (like “Party!”) that were made to please Capitol and get product on the shelves. At least those were funny and inspired, more like a silly gag than anything else.
Final verdict? The album isn’t bad: it’s sure sonic poetry in the arrangements (as under arranged as I instinctively feel most of these songs are) with solid, catchy melodies and bad lyrics (just like we always expect from the band) set to a firm sense of nostalgia. If you go into it with that relaxed state of mind, it’s a great album. Just don’t expect to fall in love with the album or to find it on your play list too often.