Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Orange Juice: Coals to Newcastle

Orange Juice
Coals to Newcastle
Rating: 4.5/5.0
Label: Domino

It takes about seven hours to listen to Coals to Newcastle's six audio discs - tack on more time to plow through the DVD that's also included - but goddamn if it isn't worth almost every last minute. A certain degree of mental fortitude and a whole lot of down time are required, much like listening to 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions or Dylan's bootlegged Rolling Thunder rehearsals, but it's immeasurably enjoyable nonetheless. Compiling the band's complete studio discography and throwing in enough extras to satisfy long-time fans, the box set is an exhaustive and meticulously compiled summary of a band whose influence can still be seen in the best - and, yes, the worst - that current indie has to offer.

Orange Juice's original lineup of Edwyn Collins, James Kirk, David McClymont and Steven Daly has practically been canonized, and rightly so; the first two discs included here, consisting of that foursome's first Postcard recordings and debut Polydor album You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, are nothing less than the sound of modern indie rock being shaped, twisted and perfected. Enough has been written about those early songs to render further commentary superfluous; suffice it say that the band's 1980-1982 work is required listening for anyone even remotely interested in indie history as well as those who think Scottish indie music began with Franz Ferdinand or, for those who are really enlightened, If You're Feeling Sinister. The commercial backlash that followed Orange Juice jumping ship to Polydor now seems both quaint and silly; it's simply a matter of personal taste as to whether a listener prefers the lo-fi Postcard or the polished, glossier Polydor versions of "Falling and Laughing," "Dying Day," "Consolation Prize" and "In a Nutshell," among others. In whatever form, these songs are as close to perfect as music gets.

The band's first lineup change would precede the release of Rip It Up in late 1982, with Daly and Kirk replaced by Zeke Manyika and Malcolm Ross, who had previously produced some of the band's Postcard songs. That album's self-titled track gave Orange Juice their only significant UK charts hit, and the album as a whole found the band abandoning indie-pop in favor of a style that fused funk, soul, reggae and disco. It might be grounds for psychological treatment to claim that Rip It Up trumps the original lineup's work, but there is plenty to like here, particularly the Four Tops' homage "I Can't Help Myself," "A Million Pleading Faces" and "Flesh of My Flesh." In hindsight, the stylistic changes that occurred between You Can't Hide Your Love Forever and Rip It Up are more dramatic than those the distinguish the Postcard recordings from that debut album.

The severely stunted Texas Fever EP was released before Orange Juice was, at least officially, reduced to the duo of Collins and Manyika for the 1984 swan song The Orange Juice. Usually bluntly dismissed as the band's most dismal efforts, Coals might change that perception somewhat. Both recordings are probably best enjoyed in small doses and have plenty of flaws - McClymont and Ross reportedly half-assed the EP's sessions, and "Punch Drunk" and "A Sad Lament" lend that sorry tale credence, while "Scaremonger" and "Salmon Fishing In New York" do the final studio album no favors - but some flashes of brilliance do cut through both records' trendy 1980s' production techniques. Both "Bridge" and "What Presence?!" rival the band's celebrated earlier work, and The Orange Juice is notable for containing some of Collins' most cheerless lyrics.

The band's one-liners are already the stuff of indie legend - "I'll never be man enough for you;" "I hope to God you're not as dumb as you make out;" "What are we/ If not a couple of specks of nothing;" "How I wish I was young again" - while a few stomps through this set show the band was never entirely as fey/campy as they were usually depicted - and as they frequently depicted themselves. Their songs could be as cynical, fatalistic and downright mean as any snarling post-punk band, although the lyrics' biting tones were often obscured by Collins' odd vocal delivery and the songs' peppy arrangements. Orange Juice could rock - check out the 1981 Postcard 7'' version of "Poor Old Soul" and the shambolic live songs that close the first disc - and this collection should dispel the simplistic image of the group as lovesick, twee lads.

Coals to Newcastle warrants a purchase for newcomers as well as those who already own The Glasgow School (2005) alike, despite some overlap with that previous compilation. It corrects the sorry state of disrepair the band's discography has been in for years, the Postcard-era excluded; it also contains a respectable amount of previously unreleased material, adds a bunch more alternate takes, live tracks and miscellany than only an Orange Juice super-freak would already have and tacks on a full disc of BBC radio sessions with stellar versions of some of the band's most representative songs, including "Lovesick" and "Wan Light." The packaging is classy, with vintage photos and enthusiastic, though occasionally cutesy and too-clever, liner notes by Simon Goddard. More live inclusions would have been nice, but Coals to Newcastle is as flawless as such box sets can be. Barring the discovery of previously unknown tunes or good old-fashioned greed, it looks to be the final, definitive word on the band's studio history.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Rating: 4.7/5.0
Label: Columbia

It's practically a tradition that each new Bob Dylan Bootleg Series release will be accompanied by complaints from Dylan freaks (sorry, "aficionados"). Though Dylan Fandom's response to The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 has been largely positive, some predictable grousing about how some classic performances still haven't seen the official light of day and how Columbia over-emphasizes the musician's 1960's work at the expense of his later stuff has surfaced. A quick perusal of Dylan message boards - proceed with extreme caution - also reveals gripes about the release's sound quality, packaging and track order.

Such dissension is difficult to understand, though, as archival releases don't get any better than The Witmark Demos. They have neither the luster nor the mythology of Dylan and the Hawks 1966 or Rolling Thunder 1975/1976, but these demos document a key piece of the 1960's Dylan puzzle, finding the musician moving past his Guthrie-aping days yet still before the "thin, wild, mercury music" of his mid-1960s electric trilogy. In the tradition of Dylan boots the title here is only partly accurate, as this set contains demos for both the Leeds and Witmark publishing houses, a technicality of course and one that doesn't detract in the slightest from the brilliance of the record's songs. These recordings are immediate as we hear Dylan occasionally flub lines and offer various comments about these songs; some of them are mere fragments, but the majority are fully formed and sometimes contain alternate lyrics to what would eventually be included on record.

Though the demos include plenty of the socio-political songs usually associated with early Dylan - "Blowin' In the Wind," "Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Masters of War," "Oxford Town," "John Brown, " among many others - they nevertheless suggest that the accepted image of the young Dylan as primarily a topical songwriter isn't entirely accurate. Of course Dylan initially embraced, and unarguably advanced, this depiction, framing himself as a folkie devotee of both Guthrie and mysteriously nicknamed socially-righteous bluesmen that most people hadn't heard of; still, the demos are indicative of an artist whose lyrical scope already extended far beyond sometimes too-simplistic topical ballads. For example, the demos include all varieties of love songs; there are subtly dismissive ones like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Boots of Spanish Leather;" nostalgic, mournful ones like "Bob Dylan's Dream;" and occasionally tender ones like "Girl From the North Country" and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Humor and tragedy exist in equal measure; the acerbic bite of "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and the pure silliness of "I Shall Be Free" contrast with the personal dramas of "Seven Curses" and "Ballad For a Friend" as well as the global ones of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," all in a manner that belies Dylan's young age at the time of these recordings.

Any serious Dylan fan will have heard some of these songs in various incarnations already, either via the debut 1991 Bootleg Series release or the plainly titled Witmark Years boot. Among such completists there may be a tendency to approach these demos from a too-academic perspective, whether it's in terms of Dylan's debt to archetypal American folk themes or his lyrical evolution; indeed, the poetic intricacies revealed in "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind" are still striking. Such approaches are valid but unnecessary, as this newest Bootleg Series is simply fun to listen to and a perfect snapshot of a young artist with a pile of amazing songs to his name. With any artist whose volume of quality unreleased output surpasses his officially sanctioned material, it's impossible to satisfy everyone as the vaults are purged, but The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 is an essential Bob Dylan release and every bit as captivating as much of his best work.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Elvis Costello: National Ransom

Elvis Costello
National Ransom
Rating: 3.8/5.0
Label: Hear Music

What is there to say about Elvis Costello that hasn't already been said? For over 30 years, critical wits have described him in various too-clever ways; he's been the Angry Young Man, Buddy Holly on Acid and the Bearded Bard, laughable depictions that may have made for good press but still say very little about the musician or his music. His discography has likewise made a mockery of such depictions; while Costello's earliest albums tentatively placed him as a post-punker whose folk tendencies were obscured by his aggressive vocal delivery and the Attractions' manic pace, his last several albums, particularly The Delivery Man and Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, have incorporated elements of jazz, country and Americana.

So it's a guess as to what side of Costello will dominate each new album; during the lead-up to listening to National Ransom, one of Spectrum Culture's writers jokingly asked if I thought it would be Rocker Costello or Wimpy-Crooner Costello. It's actually a bit of both, though the rocking isn't as hard as it could be and the crooning isn't all that wussy. Recorded quickly and including songs that have been part of Costello's recent live shows, Ransom was produced by frequent cohort and former Coward Brother T-Bone Burnett. Featuring contributions from backing bands the Imposters and the Sugarcanes, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller, Leon Russell, Vince Gill and formerly estranged bassist Bruce Thomas (wait, never mind), the album might be Costello's most musically varied, as it genre-jumps like an ADD-addled kid.

It's a scattershot approach that mostly works well. The self-titled album opener and "Five Small Words" are classic Costello rock songs, though the equally up-tempo "The Spell That You Cast" sounds to me like a bad Brutal Youth outtake; as fun as the song is, it tends to feel every bit as slight as something like "Playboy to a Man" or "Luxembourg." There are hints of jazz in "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a song that contains some of the album's best lines ("forgotten man/ Indifferent nation") and, with its references to "slow coaches rolling o'er the moor" and a cowboy singer "mild and bitter from tuberculosis," is presumably about Jimmie Rodgers. Steel guitar features prominently on "I Lost You," "That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving" and "Dr. Watson, I Presume," a trio of solid songs that owe a debt to Americana/country every bit as much as Almost Blue did before them. Costello was always a folk singer of sorts at heart - a fact obscured by his pissed-off persona, surly disposition and infamous fixation with exacting revenge through his lyrics - so it's fitting that unadorned and simply-arranged songs like "All These Strangers" and "Bullets for the New-Born King" offer National Ransom's most enduring moments. An acoustic assassin's lament that consists of only Costello and acoustic guitar, "Bullets" interweaves history and geography and contains some of the album's most evocative imagery and will likely age better than some of the album's genre-specific tracks.

Like most Costello albums, the writing is exceptional, with characters like a stage-door Josephine, charlatans and princes, privateers and brigands, a double-agent girl and disgraced priest heading for some unnamed border flittering in and out of these songs. Costello's occasional bouts of verbosity sometimes rear their wordy heads, and shades of North unfortunately creep in on "You Hung the Moon," a song about a dead soldier that's ultimately wrecked by Costello's exaggeratedly theatrical vocals and strings that are laid on pretty thick, but these spots are rare. If National Ransom was a debut album from an indie band with a bizarre name we'd all say it lacks focus and lives too much in the past. But with Costello such absence of uniformity somehow works, and his latest album again confirms that he's simply an expert musician who damn well knows what he's doing, witty critical characterizations be damned.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Rediscover: The Dashboard Saviors: Kitty

The Dashboard Saviors

The Dashboard Saviors released three studio albums in four years - 1992's Kitty, 1993's Spinnin On Down and 1995's Love Sorrow Hatred Madness - before disbanding. Not that many people outside of Athens, GA noticed. The band was met with commercial and critical indifference throughout their brief career; a feature write-up in Rolling Stone's "New Faces" section in December 1992 was the closest the group ever came to sucking at the mainstream teat, and time has done little enhance the band's legacy. Perhaps the supreme insult, Saviors vocalist Todd McBride is better known for his connection to Vic Chesnutt than for his work with his own band: he played with Chesnutt in the La Di Das and also asked the musician to write a song with the line that opens "Isadora Duncan" on Little.

Produced by Peter Buck, Kitty remains an overlooked masterwork, with scratchy, sometimes slightly polished country-rock songs featuring McBride's nasal, reedy vocals and a core group (Michael Gibson on guitar, Rob Veal on bass and John Crist on drums) that does balladry and hard rock equally well. Scattered throughout are contributions from Buck, Mike Mills, John Keane, David Blackmon and Tim White, with Chesnutt providing occasional backing vocals. Much of the album consists of character studies of life in the small-town South; indeed, the shadow of what Chesnutt once described as "that most famous Georgia college town" - or at least how we perceive small towns - looms large over the record.

Its songs are those of everyday small-scale misery where there is nothing romantic about rural life. One would be hard-pressed to find a character more pitiful than the nameless protagonist - a one-time, and one assumes, anonymous musician - of country weeper "A Trailer's a Trailer." Its desolate images - a swig of warm beer, a baby crying above the buzzing of a window fan, a broken-down shitbox Dodge in the yard (of course), a pawned guitar, his inability to correctly sing a song he knows by heart - are accented by fiddle and pedal steel and all convey a seemingly hopeless situation. What prevents the song from being just another clich├ęd, booze-soaked honky tune are its narrative details: a faded bumper sticker of a shark in sunglasses that deadpans "Ain't life hard;" a domestic fight after "The Cosby Show;" a cigarette lit on a hot plate. By the end of the song the man doesn't have much to show for himself other than some hard-learned wisdom: "A dead end's a dead end/ And a trailer's a trailer/ Even if it's double wide."

Several of Kitty's other characters similarly lead lives on the skids. Images of restlessness and boredom mixed with loneliness are frequent. "Tracy's Calendar" describes the archetypal sad-eyed female, this one apparently with a mental or physical illness, while the disconcertingly jaunty arrangement of "Been Meaning To Do" belies the desperation experienced by someone who wakes up to "another morning in sunshine hell" and can only pathetically "count your blessings and . . . come up short." This type of ennui also defines "Town," a somber ballad that examines how two polar opposites react to the confines of their hometown; delinquent Johnny lights up a Salvation Army box by making a Molotov cocktail from a "Boone's Farm bottle and an Aerosmith T-shirt and some gas from his daddy's car," while "daddy's perfect girl" Julie meets a man with a "greasy frown" and ends up with a ripped dress and "tears in her eyes/ Little bruises on her thighs." They beg for Jesus to get them the hell out; we never find out how their stories end, and we probably don't want to.

"If you think I'm being cynical/ Well yeah, you're probably right," McBride sings on "Cabaret College," and he's not joking. The title act of "Consummation" brings nothing but sadness and is reduced to a series of post-deed excuses - "You'll blame the wine and I'll blame the weather" - while on the combative "Dropping" he rails against a woman who's "dropping your trousers without any shame." Even the album's rare moments of humor are coated in such cynicism. The rollicking "Drivin' Blind" describes a woman who's either got the world by the balls or is cold as hell as she mocks the narrator as nothing more than a "nickel a half dozen" - dude sheepishly agrees - and is unmoved by a man begging for food. The satirical "The Coach's Wife" is driven by White's raucous barroom piano as McBride's ramshackle vocals talk about the title figure, an absolute souse who drinks "gin with champagne chasers" and dreams of a career in politics. Even the album's most tender moments - the childhood remembrances of "G.I. Joe" - are offset by the fact that those simple days exist only in memory. It's fitting that the album ends with the fire-and-brimstone, and probably shady, radio evangelist of "Brother Shiloh Collins."

Available on iTunes but a complete bitch to track down an original copy of, it's likely that for the near future not too many new listeners will come around to Kitty. It's worth the effort to locate a copy though, and of all the great lost Southern rock operas that have come out of Athens, few are better crafted and more deserving of recognition than Kitty.