Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some Sung Heroes: Dale Crover

Dear lord, there is no end of love for John Bonham, and unless your name was Keith Moon, there’s no reason to look elsewhere, right? The man defined rock drumming for generations. Aside from that legend, names like Steward Copeland get mentioned, rightfully so. Neil Peart is also thrown into the discussion, and yeah, the guy is fantastic, but his own arrogant refrain of “I’m not a drummer; I’m a percussionist!” has pretty much made me want to write him off for good. In short: fuck you, Neil. Talk to me when you your band makes a good record again. It’s been a decade or two.

Rock drummers are living in these tall shadows, and, to date, few rise above them. Some think Dave Grohl the only candidate for contemporary master of the skins. Bullshit, says I.
It was with great annoyance that I endured the following conversation with a coworker:

Him: Hey, do know what the best live rock album is?

Me: Live at Leeds.

Him: Yeah, that’s good, but it’s definitely Nirvana’s From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkay.

Me: No, it’s Live at Leeds.

Him: You should check this out. Dave Grohl is the best drummer since Bohnam.

Me: No, that’d be Dale Crover.

And that’s the problem: Grohl is famous, mostly for his post-Nirvana hijinks (fuck the Foo Fighters) and Crover is a cult hero to legions of Melvins fans that are certain they’ll never hear better drumming than on the first half of “Skin Horse” or the what-the-fuck opening drum parts of “Boris” (the heaviest song ever recorded?). But aside from being the guy who pounds hardest on the drums, Crover is versatile and adds a distinctive sound to the kit. Few drummers manage to add personality to their beats and fills, but I can always tell that it's Crover when I hear a Melvilns record. Anyone might have filled in on Nevermind and done an equally adequate job. Anyway, Cobain famously gave Grohl so much shit for not being Dale Crover, who helped shape the sound of Bleach by lending his talents to that record. It’s no secret that Cobain modeled his band after the Melvins. He worshipped them and even tried to join once, long before he was the Kurt Cobain. Subsequently, whoever was filling in as Nirvana’s drummer had an impossible task presented to them, as no one could be Crover but Crover.

This is not to say that the Melvins are a better band than Nirvana (though they are) or that Crover deserves Grohl’s recognition (he does) but simply to point the unaware away from Dave “I’m a rockstar!” Grohl and his mediocrity and show them the way a real individual approaches the kit. Aside from Dave Lombardo, the before mentioned Stewart Copeland, and yeah sure, I’ll thrown Peart a bone, no other rock drummer has created such a unique presence that elevates their playing to more than keeping time. Keith Moon will always be a better drummer to me than John Bohnam simply because he tore down the expectations of what it meant to be a drummer and made the job his own. Crover has done the same, more than anyone else I can think of outside the world of jazz.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Read all about a night. last week, in Tunis.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thinking of Tunisia

A lot has been going on in Tunis this last week, and my thoughts have been with the friends I made out there, the people who showed me and mine the highest level of hospitality I have ever known. I sincerely hope that when the smoke of this week’s chaos clears a more equitable and compassionate government is installed and that the history of so many countries does not repeat itself in Tunisia.

In thinking about this whole damn thing, I remembered this poem, which I do not pretend to fully grasp, yet this line “I still don't know what the wind will bring” seemed pretty apt. Poetry solves little, but here I go referring back to anyway.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Some Sung Heroes: Bob Stinson

Page, Hendrix, Clapton, Beck… the greatest guitarists in rock history, right? Um, yeah, I guess, but who gives a fuck? Stones or Beatles? What does it matter? Enough has been said, written, and endured in the name of these classic rockers. Why spend more energy discussing them? Okay, they made some great music (some greater than others), but I propose a series of informal, half-assed (what else would you expect?) posts on some lesser discussed figures, though, what with the internet making all cult art no longer quiet works of out-of-proportion worship, there’s clearly more than enough on these guys as well. Still, I’m throwing some more space their way. Why not?

Why? I’ll tell you why.

I asked for Hootenanny by the Replacements for Xmas this year. I got it. Rhino has reissued all the records by the legendary group—every 80s/90s alternative rock fan’s favorite. I was a mad nut for the Replacements myself, discovering them late in their career and not long before their demise, though the real Replacements, as some would argue, died when they kicked out Bob Stinson. We’re coming up on the 16th anniversary of his death, which makes him my candidate for the first of Hungry Inferno’s Some Sung Heroes.

Stinson represents the first half of the Replacements’ career: drunk, sloppy, and brilliant simultaneously. Some have said that anything could have happened at a Replacements concert, but really only one of two things were possible: you’d see a brilliant rock show or a total disaster. Both, allegedly, were great fun. They were notorious substance abusers who would play shows consisting of almost only cover songs that they barely knew how to play. As a sloppy guitar player who faked his way through shitty covers that were all winged, off key messes, the Replacements represented something wonderful: the possibility that anyone could make rock and roll magic, no matter how wasted. But there was far more to the band than drunken louts butchering Muddy Waters. Paul Westerberg was (is) a fantastic writer of enduring songs that have earned him his well-deserved reputation. But it was Bob Stinson, his foil, who added to these gems the out-of-control element essential to the ‘Mats’ sound.

Stinson’s dislike of the new direction (less shambolic, more melodic) and intense drinking and drugging got him kicked out of the band, an act that always seemed cold to the fans, but we didn’t have to live with him. All accounts are that this was next to impossible, and the worst place for a manic depressive addict to be is in a rock band. His half-brother was still a member, to the bitter end. That had to make for some awkward Thanksgivings. From all the reports, and there are many if you look, Stinson’s last days were as a couch surfer popping up often in many bands centered in his native Minneapolis where all too many people were willing to buy him a drink and feed him dope. (Echoes of Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan, other great drunks killed, some day, by their fans.) Few in the world of big rock noticed when he died, but Spin and Rolling Stone gave the guy his due, sort of. One of them said something like, “No one could fuck up a guitar solo like Bob Stinson.” True, true, but the recklessness that did him in helped make an otherwise fine band a little riskier and a lot more interesting. I’m one of the annoying fucks who think the Replacements were never the same post-Bob. (This is not to say I only like the rocking ‘Mats—oh no. “Swinging Party” and “Androgynous” are two of my favorites.) The band seemed always on the brink of implosion and Stinson’s departure, while making room for a few so-so, considerably calmer records, can be read as the first step down, but that seems neither here nor there. The band “matured” some but listening back to their final performance at the Taste of Chicago, only somewhat. Really, no one, including the members of the band, expected them to last forever.

Westerberg is always going to be remembered as the heart-on-his-sleeve, unsatisfied rocker with a gift for penning inspired, enduring songs. Tommy Stinson has a good gig going in G&R, though many Replacements fans are overlooking that (or not holding it against him—we all gotta eat). Chris Mars apparently paints and has retired from music. The ‘Mats have grow up and moved on. Bob Stinson has moved on for good, but here’s hoping the recent reissues resurrect his name.

Bolaño Non-Fiction

One of the defining qualities of Bolaño’s work, the one that maybe interests me most, is the digression. His books are full of them, and while they often lead back to the supposed topic, they usually go in more interesting places. I’ve tried to work digressions into things before, to terrible effect, and so I admire essays like this, from the forthcoming non-fiction collection, very much. This coming book is one I am eagerly anticipating. It’s been a while (relatively speaking) since I’ve been anxious for a book to be translated (not since 2666, really) and while I love the Bolaño short story collections that New Directions has put out, I find them to be a mixed bag. The novels are where it’s at, and it looks like the best of Bolaño’s fictions has now been published in English. I must then turn my attention to the essays (out this year!).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

State of the Mind

As Cassandra pointed elsewhere in cyberland, I have been struck with an unfortunate problem since attending a dinner party last weekend: the song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” by Dr. Dre won’t leave my head. No amount of alternative songs, catchy as they are, will scrub this tune from the gray matter.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Art That Changed My Life: Brazzaville

Ah, Brazzaville. I have been listening to little else these last few months. Each record reveals something new and exciting to these here ears, though I suspect I am merely going through a period where RAWK! and/or roll is doing less and less for me. Maybe not. I still love the rock, the hip-hip, punk, jazz, and all the things Brazzaville is not (not quite) but it’s nice to mix it up from time to time even if that means slowing down and taking it easy for a fucking change. So to those less initiated but perhaps interested, here’s my loose review of the first four records (I’ve yet to pick up the last 2 released or David Brown’s solo effort). Also, here’s a link to the band’s website where you can read all about the band, their manifesto, the progress they are making to secure a massive floating studio space/artist’s retreat, and all else relevant:

Brazzaville (aka: 2002)

Debuts are tough. One assumes that an artist would pack it full of all they got and make the best impression possible, right? Damn straight. Zappa did it. Zeppelin did it. Ween did it. Brazzaville did it. The start to Brown’s career was as a saxophonist for Beck and the influence is noticeable here. While I don’t listen to much Beck, I can discern how he had a direct impact on Brazzaville, but I don’t give a monkey’s whatever. This is a goddamn great record, start to finish packed with gems and not a moment of filler. It’s lush, baby, lush and only occasionally delves into the “Rock” label that my desktop media player applied. Aside from some screaming guitar parts on “Sewers of Bangkok” there are more horns and keys and faux-tropical elements and so forth to be found (and enjoyed). Lazy keyboards and infectious melodies galore, the gem of the record is “Voce” with its chorus in Portuguese and air of ultra hip, laidback cool. Another bonus, Joe Frank, one of my ten favorite Americans, contributes a monologue to the song “Oceans,” which fits in with Brazzaville’s aesthetic perfectly.

One of the most striking things here is how different this is compared to the records that followed. Oh, the essential qualities are in order and would be recycled to great effect on subsequent releases, but this record is a kitchen sink and all production where every instrument seems to be in competition with the others for attention, whereas later albums feature steady melodies accented by the occasional trombone or electric piano solo. The effect is somewhat chaotic for a Brazzaville record, though that is like saying that the 5th Symphony is chaotic for Beethoven. This is a busy record, very busy, but not overwhelming. Still, listen to this record back to back with, say, Hastings Street and it feels pretty damn intricate. I suspect Brown has mellowed a bit and realized that one does not need to put all their tricks into the mix, so to speak, to make a great record. Evidence of this is found on the follow up…


On the website, Brown states that he felt at one point that every moment of this record was worthless, which is probably what most artists feel about a lot of their work. When I read that I laughed, as, to me, this is a near perfect record that is definitely the best one to hear first. Aside from containing some great songs, it runs the gamut of what the band is capable of. “Air Mail” is an impossibly cool and catchy song about a hobo who just threw it all away (and doesn’t everyone get tempted to do that?); “Foreign Disaster Days” feels simple and direct but I get tripped up on lines like “Memories of her face drag me down like heroin” and “There’s nothing like a car bomb. Window shopping at 3:00.” Shortly after this run through the fake reggae and tropicali sound comes “Boeing” a straight up rocker with a fantastic chorus: “Boeing, carry me away. Help me press erase on all of my stupid mistakes.” Again, who can’t relate?

All of these tunes seem pretty flawlessly composed and produced, save for “Casa Batllo” which I often skip. Not a bad song, it’s just the only one that feels a touch forced. Buy hey, this is still a great record that never fails to take me to a wonderful place. I feel oddly uplifted when I hear this, as opposed to…

Rouge on Pockmarked Cheeks

The first time I heard this CD I was disappointed. I was hoping for another Somnabulista. It is not. It’s far gloomier, mellower, stranger. It is now my favorite of all the Brazzaville records. This is largely due to me listening to it while driving in the rain, at night, stuck in traffic and trying to figure out a better route from the north of Chicago to Cicero. In such a frustrating situation I normally go mad, scream, want to hit things, but Brazzaville soothed me.

Apparently, Brown was not in a good place when he made this one—depressed, he sings of loneliness, dissatisfaction, failure, drugs, many of the usual Brazzaville themes, but here put to full effect. Whereas songs like “Air Mail” and “Shams” celebrate vagabond life (to an extent), or at least deal somewhat with the negative aspects of such a life, the tracks here do not shy away or romanticize the downtrodden existence. “Motel Room” sounds like just that: a dirty, sad, motel room where one can mediate on the angst and defeat of weary travel; “1980” delivers this feeling via some haunting arrangement and instrumentation. “High Life”—I song I used to hate—is a direct confrontation of, well, the high life. “N. Koreatown” is an ode to Brown’s youth when he lived homeless in that area of L.A. doing drugs and panhandling, like one of the many annoying homeless white kids that populate big cities. It seems Brown would have fit in well on Hasting Street, which is probably why he wrote a song about that junkie laden area of Vancouver (more on that in a bit).

The real highlights of this record: “Samurai” which is six minutes of slow working darkness adorned with muted horns and a ceaseless nylon string guitar working under gorgeous vocals (Brown’s not nearly as much as his female co-singer); “Rainy Night”—maybe my favorite Brazzaville song—is the only real up tempo number here, though even this one is fairly restrained; “Genoa” is a steady, slow, haunting number with out of control electric piano working out over a repetitive beat and single note guitar picking. The lyrics of the song conjure up riots and destruction (“Anarchists tearing up the beltway. Molotovs as if they knew the right way”) incongruent with the quiet, controlled music. Gotta love that! And then we have what is maybe my least favorite song on the record musically and favorite lyrically: “Xanax and Three Hours of TV” a “post 9/11 song” that focuses on the ennui of our American lives where there is no E. E. Cummings, Mark Twain, or Martin Luther King to be found, only pointless distraction, self-medicating, “online porn and SUVs.”

Suspecting that Brown might have ridden this train all the way to crazytown, I was somewhat anxious to hear the follow up, which, based on the direction Brown went here, not to mention the title and cover photo of the next record, promised to be bleak. What a surprise…

Hastings Street

The cover art depicts what I assume is a typical junkie from the Eastside Downtown area of Vancouver (represent!). And yeah, there are moments that feel dire and sad, but overall the mood of this record is pretty upbeat. Mostly there are love songs to be found on this one, some good (“Old Folks”) some not so much (“Dark Eyes”) but fear not: “Hastings Street” is indeed a downer. Ditto “Single Apartment.” Other tunes are still a mystery (I admit I’ve only had this record a short time and am still warming up to it). “Love is the Answer” seems like a love long but the lyrics betray a deeper sense of desperation. Really, the crux of the record is “Night Train to Moscow” which is kind of a sad number that probably seems that way to me because of that goddamn accordion. When I hear the chorus I get all sad and shit, but I think that has a lot to do with my listening to the song right before dropping off my dog for a week with his babysitter before jetting off to Vancouver and feeling like I was abandoning the little pooch. Yeah, I’m a big sap for the little dog, but the song stayed in my head as I walked him that night and I was oddly very fucking blue.

Anyway, aside from making me blubber in such a manner, Hastings Streets contains the tune “Asteroid Field” which may be the most beautiful song Brown will ever write. It pretty much carries side two and leaves the listener in a good place near the exit. Really, this is kind of a mixed bag of good, okay, and occasionally great moments, more than a lot of artists can boast. And, like I said, I am still digesting the record so who knows—it may turn out to be my favorite someday.

So that’s it, my quick review and half-assed attempt at describing the work of David Brown, man behind the band Brazzaville. Back to reality now.