Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Junkies on the Run

This week I have been inspired to create a mix that matches the winter landscape of the dreary Pacific Northwest. This is due partly to my moods being affected by several days of continuously dismal weather, and partly because I have been listening to the Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour show on XM radio. If you haven't heard this show yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. Bob has an extensive knowledge of music and he focuses on a different theme each week. Thus far, he has covered themes such as flowers, food, jail and weather in his mixes. Here is a link to a site that offers them all for free download.

My theme today is on the drug heroin. We all know that heroin has played a significant part in destroying the lives of many talented musicians such as Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Kurt Cobain and Miles Davis. It hooks you, reels you in and then spits you back out into your own personal hell, fending for yourself in the darkened corners of your mind. Heroin has also served as the spark which inspired these iconoclastic figures to create such amazing work. I'm not condoning the use of heroin or suggesting that anyone should try it. I'm merely stating that a lot of the most mind-bendingly amazing work has come from artists who were hooked on drugs like heroin. That which inspires isn't always the best thing for us.

Here is a medley of songs in the spirit of Bob Dylan's Them Time Radio Hour dealing with the theme of heroin.
Champion Jack Dupree- Junker Blues
Velvet Underground- Heroin

Elliott Smith- Needle in the Hay

Jolie Holland- Old Fashioned Morphine

Gun Club- She's Like Heroin to Me

Sunday, November 19, 2006

It Came From Memphis Part 4

I sincerely apologize to those dedicated visitors to my blog for not updating this over the past week. I am using Blogger Beta, and it is having issues with text and picture placement. Also, Blogger seems to be down a lot for maintenance lately. So, if the text and spacing don't seem to look right on the page, it's because Blogger isn't displaying it properly. If anyone has any ideas about switching to another free blog service that works better, I'm all ears. Well, enough about that! Let's get on to the final installment of the It Came From Memphis series.

The Box Tops

The Box Tops: The Letter and I Must Be the DevilI Must From: The Best of the Box Tops: Soul Deep [Arista, 1996]
Alex Chilton first struck an emotional chord with the nation after receiving critical acclaim for the Box Top's first single "The Letter" in 1967. "The Letter", produced and written by Dan Penn, became one of the highest-selling records of 1967. However, Chilton was only 16 years old when it was released, and he wasn't mentally prepared to cope with the overnight success and adulation that the Box Tops received. Session musicians were often replacing his original band in the studio, and he had little control over the music that the Box Tops released. Over the next couple years, Chilton was growing disheartened about not being able to write his own songs and he disliked the material that was handed to him by Dan Penn and other songwriters. He felt that he was merely a puppet and the music industry was pulling the strings. In 1970, at the age of 19, Chilton abruptly decided to quit the Box Tops to pursue his own creative interests as a solo artist and musician in Manhattan.


From: S/T [ Lucky Seven Records, 2003]

While Chilton was honing his skills in Manhattan coffehouses, Chris Bell became the guitar player and background vocalist in a band called Rock City. The band named themselves after a tourist attraction in east Tennessee whose advertising on barn roofs read"SEE ROCK CITY". Despite this clever promotional move, the band was never recognized as a live act. Instead, they were essentially a studio band with a penchant for writing bittersweet love songs. Rock City was comprised of Tom Eubanks on lead vocals, Chris Bell on guitar and vocals, Jody Stephens on drums, Andy Hummell on bass and Terry Manning on keyboards. After Rock City, the band morphed into Ice Water and wrote a song called Feel with Bell on vocals. This song would later appear as the opening track on #1 Record. My Life Is Right and Try Again would also appear on Big Star's #1 Record, with Chilton assuming the lead singer role instead of Thomas Eubanks. Bell even asked Eubanks if he could take his name off the song credits for My Life Is Right and put Chilton's on it, because he wanted them to read "Bell, Chilton". Of course, Eubanks refused and and his name remains on there to this day.
Unfortunately, the eleven tracks culled from these sessions didn't receive a proper release when they were recorded in 1969. Instead, these tracks gathered dust in a tape storage facility in Memphis until they were recently unearthed and released on Lucky Seven Records in 2003.


From: #1 Record [Ardent, 1972]
From: Radio City [Ardent, 1974]

Chilton and Bell grew up together in Memphis and played in a band called the Jinx in their early teens. However, they didn't cross paths again musically until the day Chilton stopped by Ardent studio on a weekend trip from Manhattan. Bell was working on Rock City tracks at the studio and Chilton was extremely impressed with the songs he heard. Chilton shared material that he was working on with Bell and moved back to Memphis when he realized the potential of writing songs with Bell and starting a rock-n-roll band. The two of them along with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummell formed Big Star in 1971. The band was close to being named Sweden Kreme (the fast food restaurant right next to the grocery chain called Big Star) but they chose Big Star instead. Who knows? With a catchy name like Sweden Kreme, Big Star could have been the next best thing. However, this was not to be.
#1 Record
#1 Record was originally released in 1972 on Ardent, but it got lost in the shuffle due to a distribution snafu between Stax and Columbia Records. It was a critically acclaimed commercial failure, much to the chagrin of everyone who put so much time and effort into the record. However, from the unforgettable opening chords of Feel, you know this record is something special. Chilton's strained high-pitch vocals on the first verse recall Robert Plant on Communication Breakdown. The first verse immediately leads into a perfect multi-part harmony bridge from Chilton and Bell. Then, Chilton heats it up with a stunning guitar solo which then leads into an ecstatic mix of Stax-memphis horns and electric piano. The tempo increases in the last twenty-four seconds of the song as cascading guitars and a springy bassline bring it to a close. Thirteen alone has inspired many singer-songwriters from the past 30 years to pick up a guitar and play with their heart. Gentle acoustic guitars and heartfelt melodic vocals make this a truly gorgeous song. My Life Is Right conjures up fond memories of spending summer days with the girl that made you feel right inside. It's anthemic chorus, enthusiastic cymbal splashes and hooky counter-melodies make this song a crowd pleaser. I could obviously go on and on about this record, but please go out and buy this record to hear it for yourself.
Radio City
Chris Bell felt much animosity towards Stax and Columbia for letting the ball drop on their debut album, and started to hit rock bottom emotionally. He quit Big Star after the first record, but, the rest of the band continued on as Big Star due to Ardent publicist John King. King persuaded Big Star into playing this huge show at Lafayette's Music Room promoting Ardent Records. Fortunately, the band received such an amazing response from the crowd that it convinced them to record a second album.

Radio City was the title of the second album, and it featured some of the band's most raucous and upbeat material to date. Chilton and Bell had collaborated on several songs that appear on Radio City, and Bell's background vocals and guitar playing lend a fuller sound to these tracks. O' My Soul starts things off at a sprint, with a funky drum break, stinging guitars and soulful, high-pitched vocals. The album continues at a steady clip with the inspired melodic genius of Chilton pushing each song toward greater heights. Highlights include "Mod Lang", with its Marc Bolan inspired Glam sound, "Back of a Car" with one of the most impressive pop choruses ever recorded and "September Gurls" the song that inspired R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and countless others to start bands. Big Star's first two records, #1 Record and Radio City, have been reissued as a two-fer on Fantasy in 1992.

Big Star's swan song was entitled 3rd/Sister Lovers, however it was essentially an Alex Chilton solo album with the Big Star moniker. The Sister Lovers part of the title was chosen because Chilton and Jody Stephens were dating sisters at the time. It was a painful, depressing and tumultuous time in Chilton's life and he expressed this turmoil through the songs on this record. John Fry, the engineer of 3rd/Sister Lovers, describes the process of recording this album as "a very unhappy sort of thing". Jim Dickinson, the producer of 3rd/Sister Lovers calls it "a catharsis, a series of very diffeent emotional responses that Alex was having". There are some of the upbeat numbers that Big Star is known for such as "Kizza Me" and "O' Dana", but the underlying pain that Chilton was going through is apparent throughout the album. This is the sound of a man calling to his audience from the bottom of a shot glass, praying for a reason to carry on. 3rd/Sister Lovers has been released three times with different song sequences. Its most current release was on Rykodisc in 1992. This closes the chapter on the original Big Star, but the band would receive a cult following nearly 25 years later, spawning a new album and reunion tour with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies.
Alex Chilton

From: Like Flies on Sherbert [Peabody, 1979]
According to Chilton, Like Flies on Sherbert was a "positive statement about a period in my life that wasn't positive". Chilton began working on Like Flies on Sherbert in 1978 at Phillips studio. He collaborated with Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvidge, Lee Baker and Richard Rosebrough to achieve the album's raw live sound. Like Flies on Sherbert was recorded over three nights in 1978, mixed for six months and received a small pressing of 500 copies on Sid Selvidge's Peabody label in 1979.
Like Flies on Sherbert has mostly been written off as being a cacophonous, sloppy mess of ideas signifying the downfall of a once great talent in Chilton. However, the opening track "Baron of Love Part II" starts out at 90 miles an hour on a dark highway with it's sped up and amplified "One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer" guitars and propulsive drumming . This track alone has inspired Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, RL Burnside, The Oblivians, Flat Duo Jets, etc. The rest of the album continues with a raw, spontaneous and nervous energy. Songs have false starts, weird sound effects and laughter with other banter is left in to preserve the live feeling. Jim Dickinson's production captures all of this in it's full naked glory. This album is definitely not for everyone, but it is a must for Alex Chilton completists and curious music lovers. Chilton has gone on to have a semi-successful career as a solo artist releasing eight albums since 1979. However, Like Flies on Sherbert is the defining statement of many years of frustration and dissatisfaction with the record industry.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It Came From Memphis Part 3

Moloch, a pioneering Memphis blues-rock band led by the exceptional guitar player Lee Baker, released its sole album at Ardent on National in 1970. They promoted the release of this album by playing a show with punk stalwarts Iggy Pop and Mc5 at the New York State Pavilion. However, their sound is purely 12 bar-blues with delta slide guitar, harmonica, frenzied guitar solos and tight drumming. Moloch was highly influenced by Blue Cheer, Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Faces and countless other blues-influenced 60's rock groups . Unfortunately, the band's sound never caught on, and they didn't receive the acclaim that was due to them. Lee Baker went on to produce and play guitar on Alex Chilton's highly underrated album Like Flies on Sherbert and Big Star's swan song Big Star 3rd.

Moloch's only record is out of print, but it is available as an import here. That being said, this is the best place to witness the stunning guitar artistry of Lee Baker, outside of his contributions on the aforementioned Like Flies on Sherbert and Big Star 3rd. The album has an up-front and cleanly produced sound, but without all of the nasty compression usually added to contemporary music. Lee's guitar playing is phenomenal, the rhythm section is tight and funky and the organ playing is incendiary. Moloch achieves an eclectic mix of styles that serves as the bridge from delta blues to heavy metal. If you like what you hear, let me know, and I will post the rest of the album.

Moloch: Maverick Woman Blues, Gone Too Long(Featuring Johnny Woods),She Looks Like an Angel, I Can Think the Same As You and Goin' Down
From: Moloch [National 1970]

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It Came From Memphis- Part 2

The Insect Trust: Special Rider Blues
From: The Insect Trust [Capitol Records, 1968]

The Insect Trust: Our Sister the Sun
From: Hoboken Saturday Night [ ATCO Records, 1970]

For this segment of the Memphis post, I will focus on the incredibly eclectic folk-blues-jazz collective known as The Insect Trust. Their name came from a local poetry journal called the Insect Trust Gazette which was derived from the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. The backbone of the band was formed in Memphis in 1966 as a trio called The Solips, which featured Nancy Jeffries on electric bass and vocals, Robert Palmer on alto sax and recorder and Bill Barth on guitar. The Insect Trust was born in New York in 1967 and was comprised of Robert Palmer (the popular rock critic with Rolling Stone and New York Times) on alto sax, clarinet and recorder, Nancy Jeffries on vocals (the vocalist for Peter Stampfel's Swamp Lillies before the Holy Modal Rounders became a functional unit), Luke Faust on banjo-guitar, banjo and vocals, Trevor Koehler on baritone sax, piccolo, thumb piano and upright bass, Bill Barth on electric, acoustic and bottleneck slide. Highly tauted session players rounded out the rest of the lineup on bass, drums and strings.

The sound of The Insect Trust's self-titled debut album on Capitol runs the gamut from country blues, ragtime, free jazz, New Orleans gumbo folk and 60's psychedelia. One of the highlights on this album is their version of Elmore James's "Special Rider Blues", which came about when the band was jamming country blues tunes in unusual modal tunings and time signatures. The result sounds like a cross pollination of country blues, soulful free jazz and electric guitar rock. It begins with a faint vocal sung over acoustic guitar for the first 1:19 and then the rest of the band chimes in with shuffling drums, wicked slide guitar and punchy horns. Nancy Jeffries, whose vocals recall Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane crossed with the folk stylings of Joan Baez, give the song a calm feeling until about the 3:30 minute mark. At this point, the discordant slide guitar playing goes on for 30 seconds and gives way to soulful horns reminiscent of the Stax sound. The horns lead right into a blistering guitar solo from Bill Barth that leads to another awe-inspiring alto sax solo from Robert Palmer that could stand up to Ayler or Coltrane on any given day. Then, Nancy comes back in for one last verse before the song comes to a close. This is only one track on an obscure classic that had been out of print for awhile, but has recently been reissued on CD and can be found here.

The second The Insect Trust album was released in 1970 on ATCO records. It was called Hoboken Saturday Night and featured Elvin Jones on drums as well as jazz guitarist Hugh McCracken. I think I will leave the explanation of this album to Robert Christgau (renowned music journalist and critic for Spin, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice) who wrote the liner notes to Hoboken Saturday Night. The track I am featuring is called "Our Sister the Sun" which evokes images of mysticism, darkness, happiness and faith. Nancy Jeffries channels Grace Slick via Surrealistic Pillow, with jazzy drums, soothing alto sax and lightly strummed guitar complementing the subtle nuances of her voice. Chiming flutes and a loping bassline fill out the sound as the upbeat sax playing punctuates the happiness of the song. This leads up to the climax of the song where Nancy sings a melodic chorus of la-la-la's while Robert Palmer simultaneously let's loose with a jarring alto sax solo. The juxtaposition of the two extremes at the same time is astonishing. If you are interested in purchasing Hoboken Saturday Night, it can be found here.

I was really blown away by the Insect Trust when I first heard them, and both of these albums truly stand the test of time. Please take the time to leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It Came From Memphis

I just finished reading an amazing novel by Robert Gordon called It Came From Memphis. It is a raw, unadulterated account of how the southern white and black cultures in Memphis circa 1950's meshed to create passionate, free-spirited art that inspired legions of like-minded artistic geniuses. Consummate delta musicians such as Furry Lewis, Johnny Woods and Aretha Franklin joined forces with the maverick recording engineers of the day, such as Jim Dickinson, John Fry, Sam Phillips and Don Nix, to produce some of the greatest musical treasures ever pressed on wax. Since reading this book, I have been inspired to research the myriad of producers, musicians, deejays and other eccentric folks who made Memphis such a special place. Here is the first entry in this series of obscure and eccentric musicians who came from Memphis.

Tav Falco & the Panther Burns: Bourgeois Blues
From: Behind the Magnolia Curtain [Rough Trade, 1981]
Tav Falco & the Panther Burns: Drop the Mask
From: Drop Your Mask 7" [New Rose, 1987]

Gus Nelson, an early member of the Memphis Dream Carnival's theater troupe, was first introduced to the world as his alter ego- Tav Falco during the show dubbed as The Tennessee Waltz. He asked Jim Dickinson if he could perform a song in between sets, and the music he played could best be described as primal rockabilly country blues. He played the old Leadbelly standard Beourgeois Blues, but he started blowing a police whistle in the middle of the song, laid the guitar down between two stools and started ripping into the guitar with the chainsaw like a wild banshee on crack. The crowd was in utter chaos, screaming and carrying on like they had just experienced sheer terror. One person in the crowd was particularly impressed with Tav's performance. It turned out to be Alex Chilton, the lead singer and songwriter of Big Star, who was in attendance and liked what he witnessed. Chilton approached Tav about starting a band, and Tav Falco and the Panther Burns was born. The Panther Burns name was taken from a legendary plantation in the Mississippi delta.

This psychobilly style is an amalgamation of delta-blues standards mixed with
The Cramps' macabre sense of humor and the hiccup-style rockabilly vocals of Charlie Feathers. This was the world's introduction to the unpredictable sounds and antics of Tav Falco, but he continues to release awe-inspiring rockabilly punk albums 28 years after the bands inception. I am featuring the studio version of the track called Bourgeois Blues which can be found on Tav's 1981 debut entitled Behind the Magnolia Curtain. I am also featuring a track called Drop Your Mask which can be found on the Drop your Mask 7 inch. You can buy Behind the Magnolia Curtain online by following the link. The 7" is out-of-print, but you can find a live version of Drop Your Mask on Midnight in Memphis and a newer version on Deep in the Shadows. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

It's Been a Long Time...

The Oblivians- Guitar Shop Asshole and Do the Milkshake
From: Popular Favorites [Crypt Records 1996]

Short, furious blasts of distorted, amped-up three chord lightning. Alcohol-fueled reckless abandon. This is what's missing from the Rock-n-Roll of today. Too much time is being wasted on multi-million dollar record deals and talentless hacks who parade across our televisions every night, claiming to be the next best thing. I implore you to forget about the next best thing, and instead listen to the sleazy, balls-out rockin' sounds of the

Oblivians are from Memphis, Tennesee, the city which spawned Mud Boy and the Neutrons, The Mar Keys, Moloch, Furry Lewis, Johnny Woods and countless others. It's no wonder that this talented three-piece garage-rock group was spawned from such a musically diverse and free-thinking place like Memphis. The Oblivians sound is a trebly, lo-fi super-charged garage rock full of gruff vocals and lyrics about sex, drugs and well... Doin the milkshake. They recall the most intensely rockin' moments of The Stooges, The Sonics, The Cows and Jesus Lizard, while no doubt influencing the sound of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who in turn influenced the sound of RL Burnside's album "Ass Pocket of Whiskey".

I have been listening to Popular Favorites in may car for the past three weeks and can't get these songs out of my head. It's really difficult for me to pick a couple songs from this record, as the whole thing is great. However, I really like "Guitar Shop Asshole" with it's hilarious bit where a customer goes into the guitar shop and says "I'd like to buy one guitar string and your cheapest picks" . The guitar shop worker replies with "Man you must really be frustrated, All that hair coverin' up your neck, I say you can go to heck". "Guitar Shop Asshole" features overloaded amp distortion, hyper-speed three chord guitar riffing and maniacally, gruff vocals that all go by in under two minutes. The next track is called "Do the Milkshake" and it is the only song on the album that breaks the five minute mark. It is easily the most bluesy on the record and features a stinging guitar tone that recalls
Ike Turner's old sides on Ace Records. You would never guess that the racket these guys create on "Do the Milkshake" is done by a three-piece. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think by adding a comment.