Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottlerockets at the Beachland Ballroom August 16, 2012


Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom is a strange little venue; only recently converted from a Croatian dance hall, the place is somehow surreal when serving as a place to see rock n roll shows. By “recent”, I of course mean in terms of how long rock music has been around – something that is hard to tack down, but is something that Marshall Crenshaw seems to know a thing or two about.
Since the early 80s, Crenshaw has been churning out the kind of tunes that would be American Classics, had they been penned only a couple of decades previous and crooned by The Crickets instead of Crenshaw’s band of kind-of short men. (Crenshaw is not the world’s tallest man, and, supposedly, early on in his career, he refused to hire taller band members. This is not a fact. I read this on Wikipedia.I find it hard to believe, but, hey, it makes for an interesting anecdote, doesn’t it?)

Crenshaw is one of those musicians who seems like he should be at least as appreciated as Neil Young, or Elvis Costello. Apparently, this is not the case, if the strewn crowd at Marshall’s gig at the Beachland Ballroom Thursday night is any indicator. There were a handful of relatively excited folks – and more dads than you could shake a stick at – but it even took a couple of drinks to get anyone in the audience to sing along. Which is sad, because Marshall’s songs are incredibly catchy and downright fun to sing along to.
Crenshaw started out the evening with a slew of old favorites, a cerebral, punchy version of “Someday, Someway” from his 1982 self-titled debut; “Something’s Gonna Happen”, his very first release, and just about every other tune from any decent “best-of” collection.

“There She Goes Again”, “Cynical Girl”, “Mary Anne” – you name it, Marshall and the Bottlerockets (some of them, as Crenshaw joked,) played it. Honestly, what else would you hope for with a Crenshaw concert? You want to hear your favorite songs, but the problem being when you come to the realization that “your favorite songs” make up half of the man’s discography. Even the more obscure picks that Crenshaw made were perfect. “Television Lights” (which my introduction to Crenshaw when I was but a very pudgy girl obsessed with music. Now I am not so pudgy, but the fascination with tunes has yet to fall away.) was a particularly beautiful number, leaving some audience members (Read: me) overtly nostalgic and cooing.

The band plowed through a couple covers as well – Crenshaw joking about “what the crowd would least expect them to play now” before diving into Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”, as well as “Valerie” by Richard Thompson, and some other song I can’t remember.

Every song was a hit with the crowd, as much as anything could be a hit with the rather stodgy group. The Ballroom had laid out seats for concert-goers, making the show the single most comfortable one that I have ever attended – perhaps this was something that the Ballroom planned in anticipation of the highly-dad oriented crowd Marshall apparently attracts.

But perhaps that “dad” contingent is just a feature of the Ballroom – last spring I saw Pere Ubu there, and my boyfriend and I were by far the youngest in the room. However, Pere Ubu is a band loved by many dads, even if they tend to fall on the weirder side of dads. I am hoping to make it to a Shonen Knife concert at the Ballroom on Tuesday. I do not know if there will still be such a high concentration of dads, but I sure hope there will be. More word on that later.

Crenshaw loved the crowd, and he was quite happy to entertain the bunch late in to the night – even if that meant not one, but two encores. Encores made up of beloved Cranshaw classics – “Starless Summer Sky”, songs that portions of the crowd must have been hankering for throughout the performance – as well as a couple more covers, like “Little Sister” by Elvis Presley – who died thirty-five years to the date of Thursday’s show.

All in all, Thursday’s show was incredible, the only downfall being the fact that Crenshaw’s lead guitar had hardly enough volume – and it looked like he was pulling off some incredible solos.

So what if people don’t know enough to show up to a dirt-cheap performance by one of the greatest song-writers of the past half century. It would have been pretty amazing to walk in on a performance of “Cynical Girl” if you had never heard it. Might be a life-altering experience. Or maybe not. It would just make you want to take a look into everything you had been missing.
watch?v=_sgQYHQSqjQ

10/10 Shonen Knife: Rock Animals

Artist: Shonen Knife

Album: Rock Animals

Label: Virgin Records US

Key Tracks: “Concrete Animals”, “Catnip Dream”, “Cobra Versus Mongoose”, “Brown Mushrooms”

Release Date: January 25, 1994

Rating: 10/10

I didn’t know a lot about Shonen Knife the first time I heard them – and this makes sense for a couple of reasons.

a)      I was about seven years old on vacation, and heard them on a cassette tape my father was playing in our family’s hotel room

b)      It was 1999, and the Osaka trio’s peak commercial success had been about half a decade before, around the release of Rock Animals

Reasons aside, the songs stuck with me. And not because they were “cute” or because they were “quirky” but because the songs felt decidedly true. “Froot Loop Dreams” felt honest and real, even to a seven year old who would rather pick the marshmallows out of Count Chocola than chow down on the cereal harked by the song’s main character – Toucan Sam. These girls knew what they wanted to sing, and if that meant choco bars (and the deep desire to subsist solely on them), summertime laziness, or even the protagonist of the 1948 children’s book My Father’s Dragon.

Rock Animals is a unique creature for many reasons, and not even just because the album artwork is admittedly more commercial than anything else that graced the covers of the band’s previous releases. Everything about this album is more commercial – and for a reason – it was released on Virgin Records in the United States only a couple of years after Shonen Knife toured the UK with Nirvana.

The Nirvana.

As in Kurt Cobain on the tour right before the release of Nevermind, the album that would change everything for everyone in 1991. The music video for “Tomato Head” even face the critique of Beavis and Butthead in America, as well as regular rotation on MTV in the early nineties.

The legendary Thurston Moore even supplies guitar riffs on the album’s third track, “Butterfly Boy”. Sure, the English feels like it is pretty phonetic, and maybe not even in quite the same endearing way it was on earlier recordings, like 721 or Pretty Litte Baka Guy.

Rock Animals is a turning point in many ways for the group. This was their big break in America, and their following albums frankly did not reach the same kinds of audiences that this particular album did.

Regardless of the kind of complaining one could do about the album, gems like “Concrete Animals” stand out as some of the finest tunes in Shonen Knife’s discography.

Generally speaking,

Every park has them

Commonly they are at the sandbox

Occasionally they are vandalized by someone

They are painted many colors

Elephant, Raccoon, Tiger

What kind of lyrics are more punk rock than that? Yamano might as well have been David Byrne.

There is something so poignant and lonely about some of the snippets of Yamano’s words. Something lost. Something unique. Something that isn’t taken too seriously but is very much there.

They are too big to carry back home

They are too heavy for me to move

After the sun sets they have a secret party

Nobody knows, they dance together

 

 

 

Talking Heads: “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”

Talking Heads: This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)

Stop Making Sense

“I don’t sing many love songs. The only one I do I sing to a lamp.”

— David Byrne

There’s a reason I picked the live, 1984 rendition of the final track of the Talking Heads’ fifth studio release Speaking in Tongues.

It’s better.

Better in the same way that girlfriends can be better, and in the same manner that it would be better if you would run far, far away.

David Byrne’s yelping is inarguably more visceral. Weymouth’s bass line, which penetrates the entirety of the piece, feels rawer, purer.

The quote above is lifted from a sort of pseudo-interview that is featured on the anniversary release edition of the Stop Making Sense DVD. And I don’t think anything truer could be said about the songs featured in the performance, or about Byrne’s discography in general.

For the most part, Byrne focuses on everyday things – civil servants, buildings, TV shows – stuff that simply does not require any understanding of the metaphysical. But “This Must Be the Place” is a different sort of beast.

You got light in your eyes

And you’re standing here beside me

I love the passing of time

 

The song is principally made up of several images – none of which particularly make sense in any logical sense. Images of home, images of things coming into being and consequently passing.

I’m just an animal, looking for a home

Share the same space for a minute or two

And you love me till my heart stops

Love me till I’m dead

 

This is  song about family, nostalgia, the shock of realizing you are alive, marriage, relationships, loneliness, and, most of all, about love.

Review of Paul McCartney: Ram Reissue (2 Disc Set)

Key Tracks: “Too Many People”, “Ram On”, “Dear Boy”, “Another Day” (Bonus Disc)

Paul McCartney created some kind of fascinating world with the oddly homespun DIY sound of Ram, and it’s the sort of place he should have stayed for the rest of his career. Sure, Wings and Band on the Run are pretty solid musical ventures – but nothing that McCartney released after 1971 even approaches the bizarre beauty of his second album.

Songs like “Heart of the Country” and “Long Haired Lady” sound a bit like they escaped off of The Beatles (aka The White Album). Not that similarity to McCartney’s collaborative work is exactly what we are looking for when we are examining Ram for signs of greatness.

The highlights of the album come in the frank way that the album understands that it is merely a collection of silly love songs. With quirky, nonsensical lyrics (listen to “3 Legs” one time; those three-or-so minutes is really all you need,) and endearing lo-fi melodies (“Ram On”) it becomes clear quickly that McCartney is not trying to be anyone but the music-obsessed goofball he is.

But, like any good rock n roll album, the release has its punky, anti-establishment moments. “Too Many People” is an anthem for anyone itching to emote some discontent with society; and with “Eat at Home”, McCartney seems pretty adamant about only needing his partner to get by.

Some of the songs on the album show characteristic signs of McCartney’s general style, although it is pretty safe to say that nothing he has made since truly resembles Ram.

“Admiral Halsey/Uncle Albert” is a dip into the kind of epic pop piece that McCartney experimented with throughout his career, but perhaps received the most recognition for concerning “Band on the Run”.

The revamped original, on its own, is definitely worth the investment, but the true gem for fans lies in the bonus disc. The unreleased material – and the material is pretty hefty at eight tracks running almost as long as the original album. “Hey Diddle” and “Little Woman Love” retain the goofiness factor of the released album, while sounding different enough to really be worth listening to.

The second disc is a bit like a look into the kind of music that McCartney could have made, and could still be making. The opening track, “Another Day” is a slice of the life of some everywoman; McCartney’s songwriting turns everyday despair into something breath-taking. Breath-taking and still shoe-tapable.

Looking at the barren liner notes, made up largely of domestic bliss-style photographs of McCartney and his young family around the time of the album’s recording, it’s pretty clear what kind of album Ram is. This is a young album, but not young enough to be completely free of melancholy or maybe even a bit of guilt (“Smile Away”, “Dear Boy”).

Maybe part of what makes Ram so remarkable is that it is so one of a kind; not saying that it wouldn’t have been pretty cool if McCartney had kept on making albums just a little more like Ram.

10/10 Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish?

Artist: Badly Drawn Boy

Label: ArtistDirect

Key Tracks: “40 Days, 40 Fights”, “What Is It Now?”, “You Were Right”, “Coming Into Land”

Release Date: November 5, 2002

Rating: 10/10

Maybe I think this album is beautiful because it arrived in my life at just the right time. It’s shocking when I read the mediocre reviews it received when it was released a decade ago. Songs like “40 Days, 40 Fights” and “What Is It Now?” are classics to me, songs that described larger themes of life and loss, yet somehow provided the perfect sonic background for a second grader dealing with issues like classmates who poked fun at my mismatched wardrobe.

Have You Fed the Fish? is sort-of a concept album, or at least there are a couple reoccurring themes. Sure, the themes are a bit oblique, and occasionally, if you weren’t tuned into to the emotional playing field that Damon Gough is playing with, they might even seem a little overbearing. The themes: the things you need, the fear of what is “now”, lifelong love, and the necessity of detail.

Sure, the album starts out with an audio clip, one that sounds like it is being recorded on a  commercial air flight – and instead of seeming saccharin and overbearing, Gough manages to come off as perfectly charming. Sure, the clip mentions Badly Drawn Boy, and Gough does name drop. But you’ve got to understand – he probably recorded this after writing the slew of excellent songs on the album. And if he was a little full of himself after penning “Imaginary Lines” and “All Possibilities”, reality is the only thing to blame.

Sometimes I need your body next to mine
I could draw us an imaginary line, i’m
Just don’t breath, I don’t need your allergies
I am falling out of bed not out of love, love

Then Gough has to get all breath-taking when he sighs:

I know you’ll understand…

Cooing it in the self-assured way that only someone who knew so well that you never, never would.

There is something gorgeous about the Sergeant-Pepper-esque way that the album slide into itself. Short, sweet numbers, like the fourteenth track on the record “What Is It Now?” effortlessly fall out of the preceding number, in this case the melancholy “Tickets To What You Need”.

And the album’s make up isn’t the only thing that pays homage to the Late Great Beatles. “You Were Right”:


I remember doing nothing on the night Sinatra died
And the night Jeff Buckley died
And the night Kurt Cobain died
And the night John Lennon died
I remember I stayed up to watch the news with everyone
And that was a lot of nights
And that was a lot of lives
Who lost the tickets to what they need?

By the end of that track, Gough hits home the entirety of the album in one line when he mutters

And songs are never quite the answer
Just a soundtrack to a life
That is over all too soon
Helps to turn the days to night
While I was wrong and you were right

Making the following eight tracks an study in the potential beauty of a pointless endeavor.

Guided By Voices “Class Clown Spots a UFO” Review

Guided By Voices

Class Clown Spots a UFO

Label: Guided by Voices Inc.

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Class Clown Spots a UFO”, “Keep It in Motion”, “All of This Will Go”

Guided by Voices have churned out more lo-fi pop gems than any other band over the span of the past twenty years – even if you take that brief six year hiatus period between 2004 to 2010 when the band wasn’t making anything at all into account. Besides, during those couple of years front man and song-writing-probably-part-robot Robert Pollard managed to release a couple of incredible solo albums that sounded remarkably like the best GBV material. (2006’s dazzling Normal Happiness and 2008’s well-constructed Zoom (It Happens All Over the World) EP)

That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that the band has released its fair share of clunkers, as well. Thankfully, it is pretty hard to honestly isolate any given GBV record and declare it to be the stinking one of the lot, as the weakest of the band’s material typically co-exists alongside its shoddiest. For a lot of folks, Do the Collapse was the ultimate disparity in the band’s discography. But those folks seem to forget that that album starred a couple of fantastic tracks, including “Wrecking Now” and “Teenage FBI”.

When the original line-up of GBV dissipated sometime around 1997 and Robert Pollard enlisted the help of Cleveland’s Cobra Verde the albums that followed (especially Universal Truths and Cycles and Do the Collapse) were just as rocked out as Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, but in an entirely different, decidedly more rock-poppy way. Cleaned-up and occasionally longer than three minutes, this new material was just not as fleeting or as vital as “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Blimps Go 90”. But there’s something charming about oddball pop songs with surreal lyrics, like “Everywhere with Helicopter” and “Back to the Lake”, so this newer stuff can’t be totally discounted.

When GBV reunited in 2010 with the original line-up (Tobin Sprout, Kevin Fennel, Mitch Mitchell, and Greg Demos) they played exclusively the material that they recorded together, so that goofy stuff that Rick Ocasek produced in the late 1990s was out. However, with the release of the band’s newest material (Let’s Go Eat the Factory in January of this year) the sound that Pollard and co. are working with now is a sort of mash-up of pre- and post-Cobra Verde GBV.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory was a tad bit disappointing for anyone looking for a great album, but it sure was comforting for any GBV fan, eager for new material. Class Clown Spots a UFO is decidedly more accessible and more refined than Factory, and, frankly, a finer recording.

When GBV played the Nelsonville Music Festival last month, Pollard prefaced the band’s rendition of “Class Clown Spots a UFO” with the remark along the lines of “Isn’t it great when you get to hear the best one?”

And he has a point.

“Class Clown Spots a UFO” is the finest track on the new album, with that trademark, inexplicable melancholy that accompanies all the best GBV material. Heck, there are even horns. And drumming so fine from Kevin Fennel that the tune moves along seamlessly. You feel pretty bad for the class clown – no one is going to ever believe he saw a UFO!

Some tracks on the album abandon the typical GBV format, like “Keep it in Motion”, which trades Pollard’s custom wordiness for simplicity in the lyrics department that perfectly accompanies a steady drum beat – one to which you can practically see Pollard swinging his mic chord to.

Sure, there are some really terrible songs on this record that you will probably skip over even on repeated listens – like “Worm with 7 Broken Hearts” and “Jon the Croc” (although the latter does have an appealing title that is oh-so-reminiscent of GBV before Pollard had fluffy white locks.

Class Clown Spots a UFO is up there with the best, most highly regarded lo-fi rock, even if it doesn’t have the pops and skitters that made Alien Lanes and Vampire on Titus some of the most remarkable music to come out of the past three decades.