Wednesday, November 21, 2007

John Lennon - Walls and Bridges (1974/2005)

John Lennon is one of my favorite figures in rock and roll. I love the Beatles (mostly once they started to get away from their beginning straightforward sound, but even their early pop material is good), and John Lennon always wrote the songs I liked best, and although he was fairly extreme in his politics, I love his radicalism and his attempts to make a change. (Posting giant posters in eleven cities reading "War is over if you want it" is pretty great.) It's a serious pity that his solo career is fairly hit-and-miss, and, of course, that he was murdered in 1980 with much of his life left to lead.

In the twelve years John made solo albums (or duet albums with Yoko Ono), he covered a lot of ground. He started with three highly experimental albums with Ono (released while still a Beatle) which are of somewhat limited interest. Then came Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, two fairly different albums but easily his two best – and two of my favorite albums. Then came the political Some Time in New York, the decent Mind Games, the mediocre Walls and Bridges, the predictable covers album Rock 'n' Roll, and, after a five year break, the decent Double Fantasy and the posthumous Milk and Honey. I could write reviews for most of these albums (and some day probably will), but for now I'd like to discuss the last Lennon album I purchased (with good reason). This also works out since I haven't really written a single negative review yet.

Artist: John Lennon (with the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band, Little Big Horns, and the Philharmonic Orchestrange)
Album: Walls and Bridges
Released: 4 October 1974 (reissued 2005)
Label: Apple/EMI
Producer: John Lennon

01. Going Down on Love
02. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night
03. Old Dirt Road
04. What You Got
05. Bless You
06. Scared
07. #9 Dream
08. Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)
09. Steel and Glass
10. Beef Jerky
11. Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)
12. Ya Ya [Lee Dorsey cover]

Reissue bonus tracks:
13. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night [Live 1974.11.28 in New York City with the Elton John band]
14. Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out) [Alternate acoustic version]
15. Interview with Bob Mercer

Walls and Bridges was written and recorded during Lennon's "lost weekend", an 18-month block of time in which he separated from Yoko. This shows significantly, since it is one of the few Lennon releases without any input from Yoko, and some of the songs are clearly about missing her. In Yoko's absence, though, are Harry Nilsson, who cowrote "Old Dirt Road", and Elton John, who plays the piano and sings harmony on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night", Lennon's only #1 single (during his lifetime). The former isn't really all that of a great song, unfortunately, and the former is good but just feels so hedonistic.

I think a big problem with the album is that it sounds so wrapped up in a stereotypical 70s pop sound. Many of the same elements can be heard in other Lennon albums, but it is rarely so bland, obvious, and uninteresting as it is here. The structures are too easy, very little of the material rocks, the sweet strings and horns are fairly clichéd, and the musicianship isn't really outstanding. I do like Klaus Voorman's basslines in many places, and Elton's piano work is great, but beyond that, talent is lacking. Most of the arrangements are just too predictable, too: too many (like "Old Dirt Road" and "Surprise, Surprise") just use the same guitar, piano, string, and horn sounds to get obvious pop material. The drums are always really straightforward and largely go unnoticed.

It's easy to see how this album was recorded during a "lost weekend" – it lacks direction and feels like no one was there to tell Lennon that some of his ideas needed work. "What You Got" rocks okay, but the screamed vocal seems kind of weird for him. "Bless You" is incredibly slow and spaced out, and it just doesn't work. It sounds like bad elevator music – nothing stands out at all. "Beef Jerky", Lennon's only instrumental release, isn't anything that great, and the short cover of "Ya Ya" with off-beat drums by his son Julian is at best cute, but ultimately just not good. (The complete, actually produced version on Rock 'n' Roll is still not that great, but maybe I just don't like the song.)

I should, however, admit that I do really like two of the songs: "#9 Dream" and "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)". "#9 Dream" is a very dream-like, strings-laden song, but I really like it – maybe because it is so ethereal yet still moves along, unlike the horribly downtempo "Bless You". The lyrics parallel the music – the chorus uses made-up words and the rest is about dreaming, magic, and spirit dances. "Nobody Loves You" is a mostly acoustic song that's fairly simple but gets across a dark theme of selfishness (although there's still a few lines about love slipped in). As the song progresses, the arrangement widens to include a full band, but the instrumentation is appropriate and works. It's a fairly dramatic song, but something about it makes it work and stand above the rest. (Apparently the album was originally envisioned as something more of a Dylanesque acoustic album, but things changed for the worse, especially considering how much the folkier Rubber Soul rules.)

There's also "Scared", which is also a somewhat harrowing song, but the arrangement works against it in some ways. The lyrics are pretty rough: "Every day of my life / I just manage to survive". (Oddly, it ends in a Dylan reference: "No place to call my own / Like a rollin' stone".) Most of the album seems to balance frustrations with life against a frustration with love. "Going Down on Love" does just that, while "Bless You" is clearly a statement of eternal love for Yoko, and "Surprise, Surprise" seems to be about his temporary lover in Yoko's absence, May Pang. "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" seems on the other side of the scale, trading off lines like "Whatever gets you through your life / it's alright, it's alright" with "Don't need a sword to cut through flowers / oh no, oh no".

The bonus tracks aren't anything revelatory. The live version of "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" by Lennon and the Elton John band is interesting by nature but not much different than the studio version. It was Lennon's last public performance, which makes it special, but it would have been nice to have included the other two songs performed that night with that line-up ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There"), although neither of those renditions are all that great either. The alternate acoustic version of "Nobody Love You" is also basically the same, but unadorned by other instruments. The interview at the end is just Lennon saying that EMI should promote the album because it's good. Considering that other material exists (like the (posthumous outtakes compilation) Menlove Ave. songs "Here We Go Again" and "Rock & Roll People") there should be no reason to include the fairly boring interview. (The reissue does have good sound and liner notes, but they changed the cover... weird.)

When it comes down to it, this album can only stand as a disappointment. There are a few good cuts, but much of the album is just plain not good. I'm sure no one ever really knew what to expect with Lennon, but there could be so much more here – the potential is mind-blowing, and it's largely wasted. Truly sad.

Score: D (convenient: "D" for "disappointment".)

Postscript: It's a pity that the recent Lennon reissue campaign has left several songs in limbo: "Instant Karma!", "Cold Turkey", and "Give Peace a Chance" (three of his biggest and best singles!) are not found on any album and are only available on compilations. (I firmly believe that reissue campaigns should strive to have an organized way of including all the released (and the best unreleased) material by an artist or band without the overlap caused by best-of/singles compilations.) "Move over Ms. L.", the b-side to "Stand by Me", is also unavailable except on one of the compilations. On the other hand, if you want only the good songs from this album, you're out of luck, since "Nobody Loves You" is only available here and nowhere else.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers (1976/2007)

The Modern Lovers have a bigger name than an actual recorded history. I knew about them because countless other great bands had covered them: Siouxsie & the Banshees, John Cale, Echo & the Bunnymen, etc., and the band shared a keyboardist with Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison). However, the Modern Lovers never recorded an album during their short early 70s lifetime and broke up with nothing but some demos to show for it. As singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Richman began rounding up a second set of Modern Lovers in 1976 (but this time explicitly labeled as his backing band), Beserkley Records compiled some of the demos the original band recorded (mostly produced by John Cale) and released the album years after the recording process. The album has been reissued a few times and now boasts a host of bonus tracks from the various demo sessions.

Artist: The Modern Lovers
Album: The Modern Lovers
Released: 1976, reissued 2007
Recorded: 1971-1973
Label: Beserkley, reissued on Castle/Sanctuary
Produced by: John Cale, Kim Fowley

01. Roadrunner
02. Astral Plane
03. Old World
04. Pablo Picasso
05. She Cracked
06. Hospital
07. Someone I Care About
08. Girlfriend
09. Modern World

Reissue (2007) bonus tracks, all of which are just outtakes:
10. Dignified and Old
11. I'm Straight
12. Government Center
13. I Wanna Sleep in Your Arms
14. Dance with Me
15. Someone I Care About [Alternative Version]
16. Modern World [Alternative Version]
17. Roadrunner [Alternative Version]

In some ways, I think the Modern Lovers wished they were the Velvet Underground. Richman is known to have hung around the band band in the day, and the band frequently covered "Foggy Notion" and perhaps a few other Velvets songs live. The band line-up is total rock-'n'-roll: guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, nerdy singer. The band is called proto-punk, and for a reason. The musical structure is ridiculously simple (anyone can play it); almost every song is a two- or three-chord rocker. "Pablo Picasso" is one riff based around one chord, and the slower songs don't get very complex either. In addition to the accessible and fairly traditional structures, the sound is usually a bit loud and distorted, and the various instruments use a fair amount of improvisation within the chord changes. The lyrics show a stand against what seemed like the dominant cultural hegemony of stadium rock and hippyism.

The music here has such a great sound to it, but what really makes the Modern Lovers a winning band is their lyrics. Richman sounds like a young, naïve, nervous and weird man who just wants friendship and love. Many of his songs are about romance, but his approach is very un-rock-'n'-roll; it seems that his obtuse nerdiness is his main impediment to love, and instead of the same old "let me hold your hand" sort of business (sorry, Beatles), he sings things like, "I don't want just a girl to fool around with / I don't want just a girl to ball / What I want is a girl that I care about" in "Someone I Care About". It's so plain and straightforward, so simplistic and innocent. However, it is very self-aware, and it's not like Richman doesn't know about the rest of the world. He just wants his good old way.

In "I'm Straight", Richman shows his awkwardness and dislike of drug and hippie culture: "I saw you thought today walk by with hippie Johnny / I had to call up and say how I want to take his place / ... / See he's stoned, he's never straight". In "She Cracked", Richman again expresses his style of conservatism: "She'd self destroy, necessary to self enjoy / I self develop, necessary to self help", "She'd eat garbage, eat shit, get stoned / I stay alone, eat health food at home". That one cracks me up a lot. He gets things pretty clear in "Old World" when he sings, "Well the old world might be dead / Our parents can't understand / But I still love my parents / And I still love the old world". He's aware that times have changed, though, and he's willing to accept that; he finishes the song with, "Alright, now we say bye-bye old world / Gotta help the new world". He even acknowledges that the old world isn't perfect: "I see a '50s apartment house / It's bleak in the 1970s sun".

On the whole, the lyrics are genius. I love the mild awkwardness, the desperate search for affection, the glorification and appreciation of a mix of traditional and modern values, and the somewhat subtle humor. "Astral Plane" is about a sort of imaginative dream-world where Richman can picture himself with his love, and "Roadrunner" is an absolute declaration of love of the highway and AM radio. Richman loves his old world and health food but simultaneously declares, "And me in love with modern moonlight / Me in love with modern rock-'n'-roll / Modern girls and modern rock-'n'-roll / Don't feel so alone, got the radio on". "Modern World" similarly expresses his unsubtle modern love: "I'm in love with the USA now / I'm in love with the modern world now". I greatly appreciate Richman's sort of postmodern attempt to appreciate both the past and present and try to get the best out of both world. Like me, Richman prefers things like music, love, health food, and the imagination instead of drugs and unnecessarily destructive behavior.

I have been focusing on the words a lot, but I do greatly appreciate the music, too. (However, I suspect Richman must have shared my priorities here, since in concert he would apparently stop the music and recite the words if he thought the audience wasn't paying enough attention). "Roadrunner" is glorious two-chord rock-'n'-roll (although admittedly a third chord crops up a few times). That song starts the album to a great start and sets the scene. The drums thump along in a simple, steady, upbeat rhythm, the guitar chugs along, Lou Reed style (a la "What Goes On" or something), the bass follows with a few flourishes, and the keyboard flows around the scale. It's great. Throughout the songs, the keyboard and guitar both get a few solos here and there, but nothing too dramatic or superfluous. Rhythm and tempo remain mostly consistent except for "She Cracked", an already great song (with its quick chugging, distorted guitar, dark keyboard, and simple but great melody) which slowly begins getting dissonant and messy before suddenly running right back into the chorus without missing a beat.

"Pablo Picasso", a witty song about the artist (sort of: "Well some people try to pick up girls / And get called assholes / This never happened to Pablo Picasso / ... / Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole / Not like you") that sort of points out the power of fame over ordinary life, has what is probably the most blatant guitar solo, but even here the solo is fraught with what could be considered mistakes (sort of like Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" solo with all the thuds of trying and failing to hit artificial harmonics). The best is when part of the solo is just Richman turning his distortion pedal on and off.

"Hospital" is a slow, longer song that sort of cracks me up: "When you get out of the hospital / Let me back into your life / ... / And when you get out of the dating bar / I'll be here to get back into your life", "I go to bakeries all day long / There's a lack of sweetness in my life". He sounds so down and self-deprecating when awkwardly mumbles, "And when I walk down your street / Probably be tears in my eyes". I guess I can't stop talking about the lyrics, so here's one more: "Girlfriend" opens with a reference to being in the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston (a city which he mentions in several songs) but declares he'd pretty much rather have a girlfriend, which he then proceeds to spell out, only he spells it quite clearly wrong: "g-i-r-l-f-r-e-n". Who knows. The song has a great walking bassline under the somewhat slow and sparse feel of it all. At one point the drums even break the beat and hold the snare crack back a beat.

It's a sad fact that the Modern Lovers were so short-lived. Some of Richman's later work with different sets of Modern Lovers might be interesting, but after this outfit, he mostly traded his distortion and electric guitar for an acoustic guitar. The core set of songs here is incredibly well-written, and for demos, the recordings are of good quality and the performances are great. It's not quite right to say Richman was ahead of his time, but he certainly didn't fit in with his own. He wouldn't quite have fit in with the late 70s punks, but it probably would have been less awkward than the early 70s types. At least they had the sympathetic John Cale on their side.

This is a great album. The last five bonus tracks are of lower quality (in terms of both performance and recording) and not as essential. Find the album on cheap vinyl, or find an older CD reissue with just the first few bonus tracks, or go all out, but this is a great album, and it clearly meant a lot to plenty of other musicians.

Score: A+

Monday, November 5, 2007

Control (2007)

This past week Control made its premiere in St. Louis, showing on one screen at one theater. I went and saw it with a couple friends and my brother, and although I have no desire to usurp my brother's venture of reviewing films, I would like to review this movie on the grounds that it is quite clearly about music. Specifically, Control is about Joy Division, one of the most hailed post-punk bands of the late 70s, and their lead singer, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide right as the band was getting serious recognition.

The film is sort of based off of Touching from a Distance, a memoir about Ian by his wife Deborah Curtis, but is supplanted by plenty of other sources. (If you are concerned about the accuracy of the depicted events, the surviving members of Joy Division have approved the content of the film.) Unlike some biographies of Ian and the band, Control tries to combine the personal aspects of Ian's life with the story of the band, and since the two do go hand in hand, it works out well. It was directed by Anton Corbijn, who might not be a big name, but he has been a longtime photographer (taking pictures of Joy Division when they existed 27+ years ago) and music video director (known for doing Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Joy Division's posthumous "Atmosphere" videos), and this is his first film, a fairly appropriate choice considering his history.

I don't want to detail all of Joy Division's history, so if you don't know it but want to, see the movie or read it on Allmusic or something. The movie chronicles Ian's first encounters with Deborah (followed by their very young marriage and childbirth) and the rest of the band (at an infamous Sex Pistols concert), then shows the growth of the band (becoming managed by Rob Gretton, playing on TV by Tony Wilson, recording the first album and singles with Martin Hannett, etc.), and then shows the troubling aspects of Ian's life and their toll on the band (namely marriage problems and epilepsy).

Fans of the band or scene might remember 24 Hour Party People, which focuses mostly on Tony Wilson, the co-owner/manager of Factory Records, but depicts some of the same events. Whereas that movie makes no attempt to separate fact from fiction (explicitly stating that the myths make better stories anyway), Control is more focused and aims to set the record straight. (My one question is the validity of the scene in which Joy Division signs to Factory: supposedly Wilson wrote the contract in his own blood, but I've heard conflicting reports to the truth of that. Beyond that one scene, every other event depicted appeared legitimate to me.)

Control isn't just an accurate biography; it's also a well-made film. The acting is solid, the visuals are good, and the soundtrack is great. The film alternates between black-and-white and sepia tones, which usually swap unnoticed. After Ian's first seizure, the film jarring switches from a dark outdoor sepia scene to a bright, indoor black-and-white scene that will nearly blind you, and although it's a bit annoying, it sure does serve as a wake-up call that something's not right. Ian was never fond of his hometown of Macclesfield, and the monochrome suits the bleakness of the area (and matches most of the historical photography of the band).

The real winning touch, though, is the soundtrack. It combines music from the era that influenced the band (Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Kraftwerk), original recordings by the band, new soundtrack recordings by the surviving members of Joy Division, and live material recorded by the cast for the concert scenes. The thing is, you wouldn't know that the concerts aren't actual Joy Division recordings – the cast does a really good job of accurately covering the material, affecting the band's demeanor, and actually sounding like the real thing. One of my favorite scenes merely traces Ian's walk to his boring job at the employment agency, but it's set to the early Joy Division song "No Love Lost". The song has a great bassline and a solid drumbeat that starts right as Ian starts walking and follows his pace. When we see the backside of Curtis, his jacket has the word "hate" scrawled on it.

The movie gets fairly intense in the latter half as the line between Ian's onstage dancing and seizures becomes more and more blurry and his affections shift from his wife to a Belgian journalist. The band keeps writing, recording, and performing, but Curtis' condition becomes worse and worse until he simply cannot take it anymore. The juxtaposition of the Joy Division songs that the band is shown recording or performing with the events going on make evident a connection that I never thought much about before. The band is shown working with songs in mostly the chronological order they were originally written, and the lyrics of each song seem to correspond eerily close to real life. The (real) band and other involved people have said before that the warning signs of Curtis' suicide were all there in his lyrics, but even I never credited his lyrics as actually applying the real life very well. After seeing an epileptic girl at the employment agency, Curtis sings "She's Lost Control", which lends the film's title and serves as a foreshadowing of Curtis' own problems. Later, after a troubling scene with Deborah, the band is shown recording the music video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart", a song whose lyrics strike a deep chord in response to the Curtis' relationship. Other songs throughout the movie similarly reflect real events (albeit perhaps less obviously).

Everything about this movie comes together well: the music goes with the visuals quite well. One could complain that the last third seems to move at a slower pace, but the movie does manage to pack a lot into just two hours without leaving much out. Many scenes make reference to events that a non-fan might not catch, which could make much of the movie alienating, but for those that know the story, it all comes together in a sort of "wait a minute, that crazy producer dude is Martin Hannett!" sort of way. Not to spoil the ending (although it is history anyway), but after Curtis' death the rest of the band sits at a table looking sombre, and drummer Stephen Morris has brought his girlfriend, Gillian Gilbert, along. Although she isn't named and no words are spoken, this clearly alludes to the dawn of New Order (which consists of the three remaining members of Joy Division plus Gilbert). Actually, the whole set of scenes in the last few minutes made a big emotional impact on me: there's the drama of everything falling apart, and it's all set to the Joy Division single "Atmosphere", which is already a haunting, moving piece.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. If it plays in your city and you know anything about the band, go see it.

Score: A