Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Concert Review: Lucinda Williams - St. Louis, MO - July 15, 2007

Lucinda Williams is an artist about whom it is practically impossible to write anything new or insightful. Like Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, and Tom Waits. And Kevin Federline. Reviews and opinions about the singer inevitably devolve into utterly predictable comments about Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, its blend of country-folk-rock, and the image of Williams as some sort of Southern musical cross between Dylan and Flannery O’Connor.Williams seems aware of this as well. The singer has essentially ignored that album on her current tour, while the actual live interpretations of her other songs have obliterated their country music twangs in favor of a barrage of electric guitars and pounding drums. Relying heavily on songs from her latest album West, Williams at least deserves credit for her willingness to challenge audience expectations by refusing to play an endless repeat of Car Wheels Redux Live, even with the risk of alienating fans whose perception of Williams is stuck somewhere in 1998.

The problem is that West departs from Williams’ previous works in that, well, it’s pretty lousy, too much of it tedious and repetitive, with an overly-produced sheen applied throughout. These problems that plague much of the album translated to the stage and resulted in an uneven, if occasionally outstanding, live performance Sunday night in St. Louis. Playing the Pageant for the third time since 2003, Williams and her latest band – bassist Hall Sutton, guitarist Doug Pettibone, and drummer/super badass-with-goatee Butch Norton, made it clear just a few songs in that the show would not be an alt-country affair. The show got off to a hesitant, uninspiring start with “Rescue,” one of the more plodding tracks from West. Maybe it’s just the repetitive lyrics and instrumentation, but both the band and audience seemed bored with the song. That sense of boredom with the West material continued for the various other West songs that were performed, at least judging by the frequent crowd conversations that were audible as the band worked through the new material. Introducing each new song with the comment that it was from the new album, it was difficult to determine whether Williams intended this as a proper introduction or a warning.

The notable exception was “Come On,” one of the more vicious songs Williams has recorded; in concert, the performance dripped with pure venom directed at some poor schmuck of a man with uh, certain performance inadequacies. In fact, the band’s best moments occurred when they set aside the West material and bashed out older songs at top volume. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” “Those Three Days,” and “Righteously” were all given rock-thrash treatments that made the album versions seem harmless and tame. In concert, the songs came across as swirls of noise, propelled by Butch Norton’s violent drumming, with the themes of sexual frustration and revenge made more apparent by the aggressive arrangements. If Williams is attempting to dispel the image of her as some sort alt-country founding mother – “Still I Long for Your Kiss&rdquo and “Joy; were the only Car Wheels songs performed – the song selection went a long way toward accomplishing that. “Cooch rock,” as my wife described it.Although she has a dedicated fan base that will continue to buy her albums and see her performances regardless of the musical direction she chooses, Lucinda Williams is not relying on past glories by serving up a stale rehash of her most well known, and best, album. This refusal to take the easy route is commendable. However, in a live setting, as seen this past Sunday in St. Louis, this can result in a hit-and-miss show. While this show wasn’t one of the best ones I’ve seen, or even as good as Williams’ two previous performances at the Pageant, the reworked full-steam-ahead arrangements of the older songs showed Williams won’t allow herself to be defined by the alt-country label. And that in itself is worth the occasional boring live performance or underwhelming new album.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Book Review: Babylon's Burning - From Punk to Grunge by Clinton Heylin

Before reading Clinton Heylin’s Babylon’s Burning: From Punk to Grunge, remove the god-awful dust jacket. Its eye-twitch-inducing color scheme of neon pink and lime green, coupled with cropped photos of music icons/court jesters/tragic metaphors Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain, is truly, appallingly tacky. Trash it, use it as scrap paper or a coaster. But just get rid of it. Aside from this awful cover and some other shortcomings described below, Heylin’s study is a good companion piece to his previous From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Whereas that earlier book dealt mainly with the origins of American punk rock, Babylon’s Burning attempts to close the loop, from punk to Post-Punk/New Wave/No Wave/Hardcore/Grunge, and all those other media-invented terms that neatly categorize music like varieties of soup.

The book’s greatest strength is its detailed examination of the evolution of Pre-Punk to Punk, from about 1971 to 1977. All the major players (and many bands only truly sick musos still listen to) are covered in depth. Even if some of the early chapters repeat material from Velvets, there are enough added details (especially the sections that deal with Australian and Irish punk) to make these sections more than just a rehash of that book. Along the way, Heylin convincingly challenges many accepted punk myths and misconceptions made popular by scores upon scores of questionable, B-movie-grade punk histories. The well-worn belief that punk bands (especially the British variety) “couldn’t play and that didn’t matter” is shown to be overly simplistic. In addition, the punk cliché of “Year Zero,” in which punk bands would dismiss all musical influences by essentially pissing on the legacies of most previous music groups, is shown to be little more than a combination of empty posturing and effective publicity stunts.

One of the more intriguing questions Heylin’s book raises is whether it is possible to maintain punk credibility and its vaguely-defined ideology after a band signs to a major label. Despite the oft-repeated phrase that “punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS,” it is worth noting that the Clash, as well as many other punk and post-punk bands, produced their strongest albums while working under the cruel whip of a major label. Sure, major labels then, as now, might have been run by cold, calculating suits driven by bottom-line profit numbers, but even a group as ostensibly anti-industry as Public Image Ltd released their finest album (Metal Box) on Virgin. Heylin’s implied conclusion is that there is a distinction to be made between maintaining artistic credibility and caving in under the weight of commercial interests. But the book is not entirely a warm summer breeze. Its coverage of the post-punk years, notably 1984-1991, is spotty at best and grossly negligent at worst. After over 500 pages covering practically every gob-launch made in 1977, Heylin summarizes these years in about 100 pages, which gives these closing chapters a tacked-on feeling. Key groups are either mentioned only briefly (Mission of Burma, Pixies), or ignored completely (Pavement, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr). Likewise, major musical developments are ignored, including the early 1980s Athens, Georgia scene, and the Washington, DC hardcore scene. Essentially portraying Kurt Cobain as a poser and major label sellout, Heylin’s last chapters seem to offer more in the way of shock value than any real insight into how Nirvana et al tie into the overall punk tradition.

One last shortcoming is that Heylin doesn’t bring closure to most bands’ stories. Sure, everyone knows about the Sex Pistols’ 1978 disintegration and later, 1990s legacy-destroying reunions, but many of the bands are basically left dangling within the pages. The Clash’s story stops at London Calling (maybe this is for the better), Gang of Four is not mentioned after Entertainment, and Pere Ubu’s output apparently ended after Dubhousing. In this respect, it’s a shame that Heylin couldn’t provide a synopsis for each band as part of the book’s nearly 700 pages.For fans of punk rock and early post-punk, especially the British variety, this book is one of the better histories written, with interviews, opinions, and insights from those who helped create and define the punk aesthetic. However, music fans interested in the 1980s rise of American indie music, who realize 1980s American music consisted of more than the Minutemen, Husker Du, and the Replacements, will likely be disappointed with the slapdash approach taken to that era.

Turning Rebellion into Money: Compiling The Clash

Gotta feed the monkey. That apt quote from the movie The Big Lebowski lodged itself in my brain as I read that Epic/Legacy had issued yet another Clash “retrospective.” In that movie, The Dude used the aforementioned phrase to describe Bunny Lebowski’s dalliances in the porn industry in order to generate some needed baksheesh.

And like any aging porno queen long out of tricks or new material, Epic/Legacy has settled into a boring and fairly disgusting routine of groping by rote, in the form of pointless Clash compilations.

The latest offering from the label is the non-essential The Singles. First a disclaimer: The music included is of course for the most part brilliant [insert plaudits, praise, admiration, and general ass-grabbing common to most reviews of The Clash’s recorded output here]. So let’s put it on the pedestal and leave it there.

The main problem I have with this release, and with the glut of Clash releases of recent years, is that it’s impossible to view any of them as anything more than a collective quick cash grab. This new disc simply contains nothing that offers any new insight into the band or their songs. Listeners are still best served by giving the debut self-titled album, London Calling, or the three-disc Clash On Broadway a listen to truly appreciate the Clash’s songs.

I do not expect the major labels to break the stigma of being unimaginative, uncreative, and uninspired. After all, their primary business is bottom-line profit, especially as CD sales plummet and listeners turn to iTunes and other less above-the-board ways of hearing music. If I want creative re-issues or compilations, better to see what the indie labels serve up. The most ambitious recent attempt to place the Clash’s music in some sort of larger cultural and historical context was the 19-disc box set of the band’s U.S. and UK singles from 1977-1985. That set included, b-sides, promos, the Capitol Radio EP, and a chubby booklet full of essays waxing poetic about the good ol’ days when singles meant something.

Aesthetically it was quite pleasing, especially for those fans old enough to remember the Clash on vinyl (I’m not one of them). But in practical and monetary terms, the box set reeked of desperation. At a hefty price of around $80 (over $4 per song, plus there was no discount given for the lousy ones from Sandanista), flashy packaging and faux-vinyl compact discs were not enough to justify this set. Plus, to listen to the entire set, a listener would need to change CDs 19 times. Or, as is more probable, spend an hour or two uploading the songs to a PC. Calling it a “collector’s item” is being generous.

The Clash repackaging campaign seemed to be moving in a more creative direction with the 25th anniversary reissue of London Calling in 2004. That reissue included a bonus disc of rehearsal sessions (the so-called Vanilla Tapes) and a DVD of Don Letts’ post-mortem documentary of the making of the album (complete with a ladder-wielding Guy Stevens). It was a good summation of one of rock’s defining albums, offering a great introduction to people unfamiliar with the album and a worthy investment for those already wary of being held upside down by their ankles and having their pockets turned inside out by previous compilations.

There is still a wealth of unreleased Clash material, much of which has been floating around on bootlegs for years. Sure, a lot of it is unlistenable and sounds like it was recorded from the toilet in the basement of a London punk club. However, there are plenty of great recordings in excellent sound circulating unofficially (like the recent Deadly Serious compilation), and to date there has been only once officially-released live Clash album, the underwhelming From Here to Eternity. That release excluded some key songs (like “White Riot”) and didn’t even contain any performances from 1977, the Year of Punk (a moment of silence, please). Not a good souvenir for a band considered by many to be the best live band ever.

There is a balance major labels can strike between repackaging albums and providing unofficially available material. For a perfect example, check out Rhino’s magnificent Elvis Costello reissue campaign, which offered one disc containing the original album and a bonus disc with demos, outtakes, and live performances. Not to mention the candid, caustic, and insightful liner notes penned by Costello himself. All at the price of a single cd.

Now 30 years removed from the band’s debut album, 2007 seems like the perfect time for a quality Clash reissue campaign. Dust off some key figures from the punk scene to applaud (or criticize) the band one last time, peg Clinton Heylin to write the liner notes, and jam those dics with some raucous noise and tasty treats. Until that happens though, Epic/Legacy is, as Costello himself once sang, apparently content with “picking on the bones of Strummer and Jones.”