Friday, May 29, 2009

Pansy Division -- That's So Gay

Pansy Division -- That’s So Gay (Alternative Tentacles)

“I’ve had 20 years of cock/and I’m never gonna stop.” Yep, Pansy Division has been with us for two decades, continuing to provide good humored pro-gay power pop. As an ultra liberal straight guy, I laugh along, and just think it’s cool that Jon Ginoli and his mates are so up front in celebrating their sexuality. It’s possible that Pansy Division can help demystify homosexuality for some younger folks and give confidence to others. It’s also likely that there are some factions within the gay community who don’t like songs like “Ride Baby” (which is about sex, not bike riding) or “Twinkie Twinkie Little Star” (which starts off with these great lyrics: “He’s in his PJs giving BJs to the DJs/who play what he’s likes.”)

In the end (oh, that’s could be interpreted as a pun!), none of this would matter if the music wasn’t any good. But Ginoli and Chris Freeman write strong hooky rock songs that never overstay their welcome. Moreover, the frivolity is always leavened with a few more sober songs.

Two songs that fit the bill on this effort are “Life Lovers” and “Some of My Best Friends”. The latter song is billed as the first Pansy Division song penned by a breeder -- lead guitarist Joel Reader. Okay, this isn’t the most serious political commentary, but Reader succinctly lets the world know that homophobia sucks: “I may not be gay, but I know this much is true/I’d rather fuck an asshole than be one just like you.” Way to go, Joel!

“Life Lovers” is the final track on the album and it’s an impassioned song about two guys living on the down low (well, at least one of them is). In characteristic Pansy Division fashion, the music here is less bouncy and more dramatic. Okay, maybe this song promotes cuckolding, but the larger point is that you can have feeling for someone of the same sex that go beyond friendship and act on them without messing up the rest of your life (which may or may not be true). Regardless, this song has a real edge to it and might provoke some thinking. Yep, thinking.

I should also mention the rip on folks whose anti-gay feeling run too high, “Obsessed With Me”. “Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, getting caught getting laid/there’s a price to be paid when you’re obsessed with me.” Point well taken.

Of course, there is plenty of fun to be had. I giggle every time I hear “Pat Me on the Ass”, a modified Bo Diddley beat pop tune. Ginoli extols the virtues of high school sports, as it provides so many opportunities for ass patting (see how direct the title is?). Meanwhile, “What’s In It For Me” is Freeman’s best tune on the collection. It’s about a relationship where they are either fucking or fighting. The music is somewhere between Fountains Of Wayne and Too Much Joy, and this might have the strongest hook on the album.

While probably not the best Pansy Division record, after 20 years, they are still full of spunk (yes, pun intended) and making good records. Here’s to 20 more years.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jim Basnight -- We Rocked And Rolled

Jim Basnight -- We Rocked And Rolled (Disclosed)

When I was in high school, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were considered a new wave band (though that designation quickly faded away) and some folks classified Elvis Costello and The Boomtown Rats as punk. Yes, that seems hard to believe.

But those artists all represented a fresh take on classic rock and roll moves. Around 1977, that’s what rock really needed. There were others fighting this good fight, including The Nerves, The Scruffs and out in the Pacific Northwest, Jim Basnight.

Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, Basnight has never stopped fighting. While he’s never hit the big time, whether as the leader of The Moberlys (a band that got deserved props from Trouser Press), The Rockinghams, or as a solo artist, this is a big time compilation, brimming with vibrant hooky rock and pop. Perhaps because he’s never gone beyond his core audience, Basnight has never felt compelled to make any ill-advised artistic statements. Instead, he has stayed true to playing catchy rock tunes that mine from the past without aping it.

So let me hit the highlights of the highlights. I’ll start with the first song I ever heard from Basnight, a Moberlys song which was credited to Basnight individually on the first Yellow Pills compilation. Who cares who gets the credit, just enjoy a song that is top notch power pop in the vein of The Plimsouls’ “Million Miles Away”. It relies on powered up jangly guitars and a general restless urgent vibe, created by the combo of the guitars and the intent rhythm section. This track is a classic.

I’d say the same about the gentler “Last Night”, old school power pop that showcases Basnight’s personality filled vocals. His singing is rough around the edges, and the contrast between his pent up (sexual?) frustration and the light mid-tempo pop (somewhere between Marshall Crenshaw and The Scruffs) is compelling. This frustration boils over in a raucous guitar solo. This is followed by another gem, “Sexteen”, which is comparable to Paul Collins’ Beat.

Some of Basnight’s material is really classic rock that not enough people have heard. “Tonight”, another Moberlys’ song, would fit in well with anything on the first two albums by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, while the solo cut “Opportunity Knocks” is a fun bluesy romp in the tradition of J. Geils Band.

The CD is arranged chronologically, which illustrates that Basnight has always been capable of knocking out a great song. For example, his second band, The Rockinghams, kicked out “Space”. As Basnight sets forth in his informative liner notes, this is a take on the cliched need that guys have for space from their girlfriends. This song starts out simmering and reaches a full burn in the chorus, Basnight’s vocals moving from a modulated tone in the verses to full mania in the chorus.

There are occasional respites. For example, The Jim Basnight Thing scores a winner with “Summertime Again”, in which our pal Jim takes a cruise down Rascals Road. While he doesn’t try to do the whole blue eyed soul, this track has a nice laid back R & B foundation. This is mixed with Jim Knodle’s trumpet and Jeff Castle’s violin, giving the song a distinctive sound.

I could go on and on. There are 23 tracks on this disc, which begs the question: will there be a Volume Two?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Telekinesis -- Telekinesis!

Telekinesis -- Telekinesis! (Merge)

This is one of best indie pop albums to come down the pike in a long time. Moreover, it’s one of the poppiest indie pop albums to come down the pike in a long time.

The man behind Telekinesis is Michael Benjamin Lerner, a one-man band who is ably guided by producer Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie. This album sounds like a midpoint between Elliot Smith and Emitt Rhodes, which in an indicator of how strong Lerner’s melodies are.

I also think, though this is purely speculation, that Lerner is more mentally stable than Smith and Rhodes, though basing that on an album is pretty ridiculous. But I’m not a health professional. I’m a part-time music critic -- I can speculate to my heart’s content.

Now my speculation may be undermined by “Imaginary Friends”. The opening lines are humorous and sad at the same time: “When I was young I had imaginary friend/and boy did we have fun/one day my mother told me they were just pretend/and then I had no one.” Lerner sings this over an inviting bed of strummed guitars (one artist who comes to mind as a point of comparison is Mull Historical Society). The verses alone are catchy, but there’s a nice counterpoint lead guitar hook and a telling middle eight: “Look at me, I’m getting older/look at me I know.”

Lerner has mastered a big pop sound, as some of the best tracks on this album burst with life and momentum. Combined with Walla’s production, which is spacious and full, this leads to irresistible tracks like “Coast of Carolina”. The song is grounded in a simple guitar riff that Matthew Sweet would like to borrow, which gives way to a soaring chorus.

These sounds wouldn’t mean much if Lerner didn’t have oodles of great melodies to work with. This is illustrated by affecting songs like “I Saw Lightning”. This is a quiet, intimate number that is the primary basis for the Elliot Smith comparison I made. But Lerner has an extra sweetness that I don’t find with Smith. Here, a rainstorm isn’t a metaphor, instead the rain is an excuse to “sit inside our house and unplug all our phones” and get really intimate.

Lerner also scores with the cool pop of “Great Lakes”. This song sounds like a collaboration between Elliot Smith and Lindsey Buckingham or some other denizen of ‘70s AM radio. The melody is so smooth and there is another great lead guitar driven interlude that really resonates.

I can’t speak highly enough of this terrific album. Lerner is a great talent and he’s found the right collaborator in Walla. This is a team that needs to stay together to see what further magic it can produce.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 -- Goodnight Oslo

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 -- Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc)

The second Hitchcock outing with The Venus 3 proves that this ensemble (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin) is turning into a suitable substitute for The Egyptians. This relaxed effort is on par with the second tier efforts of Robyn and the Egyptians. There are no revelations on the album, but this is an enjoyable collection of Robyn being Robyn, which he is still quite good at.

The album starts with a Hitchcockian spin on swamp rock, “What You Is”. I say that due to the bayou feel of the band, especially Robyn’s lead guitar fills. He lays his basic Dylan-meets-Barrett whimsy over this, colliding two types of ‘60s sounds into something vaguely spooky yet frivolous.

The album really gets good about midway through. “Hurry For the Sky” is a wonderful loping folky number. The gentle chorus is so soothing and cuts against the restless feel of the verses. This is followed by “Sixteen Years”, a song that would have fit as well on Queen Elvis as it does here. This song is all furtive glances and accusatory gestures, with a simple acoustic guitar part grounding the tune, and Hitchcock grafting a couple of melodies that add a late-‘60s Beatles vibe to the proceedings. Yet this really doesn’t sound like The Beatles at all.

This is followed by the ultra poppy “Up to Our Nex”. With a light Bo Diddley beat, some rustic instrumentation (banjos and mandolins) and some horns, Hitchcock taps into the place that produced such gems as “So You Think You’re in Love”. The playfulness continues on “Intricate Thing”, where Hitchcock gives a typically cockeyed look at “love between a woman and a man.” You see, “you’re not just bodies on the sofa” and the key question is “can you trust me?” You get the feeling that Robyn is gently trying to tell us all relationships are ultimately doomed.

The album ends on a high note with the title cut, a swirling, hypnotic number that ranks up there with the best tracks off of albums like Fegmania and Element Of Light. Yet again, the jangling guitars and the pulsing of the bass and drums creates tension which never seems to release, which makes the song all the more compelling.

Some are claiming that this is peak Hitchcock. I can’t go quite that far. But this is more quality stuff, and I understand why someone might feel that way.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Strand -- Another Season Passes

The Strand -- Another Season Passes (Kool Kat)

The old saying is that it takes a lifetime to record your debut album and a year to write the follow up. The Strand have found a way around this cliche by taking a lifetime to record the follow up to the band’s 1984 bow, Seconds Waiting, on the old Wasp label.

The Strand were a band clearly inspired by ‘60s rock, with the best songs being about two parts garage for every one part power pop. Seconds Waiting isn’t a classic, but I picked up the CD reissue just last year, and it certainly has its share of gems.

This tardy follow up is comprised of songs that date back to the mid-‘80s and songs that were written in 2007, when The Strand got back together. The liner notes say “[t]ry to guess whether the tunes were written in 1982 or 2007.” With good reason, as the songs steadfastly adhere to The Strand's basic style.

In face, this is a better album than the debut. The band sounds just a bit tighter and the musicianship has improved just enough (on the songs that were recorded recently, there’s an old recording or two here) -- not too much, as that would take away from the band’s style. Furthermore, the songs are just a bit more consistent. While there isn’t one track as awesome as the should-have-been-on-Children-Of-Nuggets minor garage-pop classic “I Understand You”, there are simply more hooks. And, to paraphrase the scary Six Flags old guy, more hooks means more fun.

The song that comes closest to that high standard is the so nice, they recorded it twice “Scared Streets”. The first version on the album is actually entitled “Scared Streets 2". The song has a sinister feel to it, an urgency that is not typical of the band’s generally more jocular approach. It’s a bit of rant, and I mean that in the best way, with great lead guitar work by Bill Lasley. The other version is a bit rawer and the choppy rhythm guitar has even more of a ska feel than on the other version. The lead vocal isn’t quite as strong, but this song may be the scarier of the two. It was a good (in)decision to keep them both on the album.

Even rawer, recording-wise, is “On Her Own”, a nice mid-tempo pop track with a guitar line (which is complimented by a keyboard part) that sounds like something off a Nothing Painted Blue album (for you two Nothing Painted Blue fans reading this). The dodgy sound makes this sound almost like a demo, but the arrangement is too developed. This song is really charming and has a very ‘they don’t play ‘em like that anymore' vibe.

Though I’m nearing the end of this review, I should mention the strong start to the album. “Rising Tide” is a swell song that is consistent with debut album Strand, but has a certain weightiness. The more innocent vibe of the ‘80s has been replaced by experience, maturity and the hard knocks that came along the way. Meanwhile, “Why’d You Call” is dumb (yet smart) pop fun, with a simple bouncing rhythm and a clever lyric about a guy who’s been dumped getting a call from an ex: “You knew that I’d return your call/and take a chance however small/that I could hear you say it’s not the end.” Anyone who’s wanted one more chance, regardless of how foolish that would be, will relate to this tune.

It’s probably asking too much for a third Strand album, but if it’s in the cards, I hope they work a little bit faster this time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pet Shop Boys -- Yes

Pet Shop Boys -- Yes (Astralwerks)

(Phone ringing -- the way it sounds in Britain, not the U.S.)

Neil Tennant: (sounding slightly groggy, as if he just woke up): Uhh...hello?

Chris Lowe: Neil, where have you been?

Neil: Bloody hell, what time is it? (Pause) What day is it?

Chris: It’s Tuesday and we’ve got the studio booked for two weeks, starting tomorrow. Haven’t you got my voice mails and texts?

Neil: I’m sorry, I’ve been a bit...out of...what day is it again?

Chris: (getting slightly indignant) Tuesday, you nattering fool. Tomorrow, we start recording the new album. Have you finished the lyrics?

Neil: (sounding baffled) Lyrics to what?

Chris: To all of those music tracks I e-mailed to you a month ago! When I didn’t hear from you the past few weeks, I thought you were locked up getting the lyrics together.

Neil: I was...I was staring to get them together. I jotted some down, but I think the maid threw out that envelope. (Pause) Look, can’t we just reschedule the studio time? I can be ready next month.

Chris: (agitated) Neil, the economy is crap. We have a bloody small advance and if we cancel, we’ll have spent almost all of it before we even start production. Do you want to pay for the studio time out of your pocket?

Neil: Calm down, calm down! Okay, I’ll get something together. Maybe working under the gun will make it sound fresher.

Chris: (sighing) Whatever. Just get it done, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

Neil: And where is the studio again?

(Sound of dial tone, as Chris has already hung up).

The above dramatization is based solely on conjecture.

But there may be a grain of truth to it. Musically, this is a pretty good album. The Pet Shop Boys can still conjure up some poppy danceable tracks, mixed in with slower numbers that are alternatively wistful and melancholy. The lyrics, however, are comparatively weak, and that's a real disappointment.

For the most part, Neil Tennant has strayed away from specificity. The songs take on generic themes that, quite frankly, ol' Neil doesn't seem to be into.

This may be best exemplified by "Beautiful People". The music sets the wan mood with majestic yet muted keyboards playing over '60s girl group style drums. "Buy the latest magazines/and aspire to the dream/perfect home and perfect kids/not a life lived on the skids," Tennant sings, a wind up for the bland observation that he wants to "live like beautiful people." Lyrics this dull don't deserve such ornate pop backing.

Throughout the album, Tennant just doesn't seem to have his heart, or brain, into saying anything. There's "Pandemonium", an ode to paranoia. He sings about "building a wall." Why? Because "not so much what men are doing/much more what they're not." So could you explain what it is we're not doing? But when he gets to the part about "Jesus and the Man from U.N.C.L.E./Caesar conquered Gaul" I've got to think he's just filling time.

This album gets by on the innate pop sense of Lowe and Tennant. "Love etc.", the first single, is a good pompy synth variation on "All You Need Is Love" with a superficially more cynical edge. There's a frothy dance feel to "Did You See Me Coming?". And the closing track, "Legacy", has a chilling sadness to it, with a dramatic flair nearly on par with classics like "Dreaming of the Queen" and "It Couldn't Happen Here". So at least the music is up to standard.

Ultimately, what you get with Yes is all of the Pet Shop Boys style. There's just none of the substance.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Charlie Pickett -- Bar Band Americanus: The Best Of Charlie Pickett And

Charlie Pickett -- Bar Band Americanus The Best of Charlie Pickett And (Bloodshot)

Peter Buck of R.E.M. is quoted as saying that Charlie Pickett and his band “were one of the undiscovered giants of the late eighties.” As much as I would hate to disagree with Mr. Buck, if this compilation is Exhibit A in support of the Pickett legend, I hope he has more convincing evidence elsewhere.

When I was in college, Pickett’s reputation floated around, with his various bands, and he was touted as this amazing rock and roller. At least that’s what the press release said that accompanied Route 33, Pickett’s sole release for Twin/Tone. At the time, I found that Pickett purveyed a tough brand of roots rock with a low key sense of humor. But the best I could say about the music was a bit above average, at best.

More than 20 years later, I’m hearing some songs from that album and other sundry recordings on this collection. And my reaction has changed only a bit.

There are some standouts amongst the 18 songs on this collection, but many of the songs are merely okay. I will say that Pickett’s mix of twangy country and more Stones-y blues rock is distinctive. And Pickett has some personality -- he often sings the lines like he’s tossing them off out of the side of his mouth, a cigarette dangling off his lip. He was also one heck of a guitar player.

The best song on this album first appeared on his Twin/Tone album. “A. on Horseback” begins with a circular guitar line that is prominent through the song, and with a chugging rhythm track, this is a great tune for hurtling down the highway. “I wish that I could see/America on horseback” Pickett sings while Jim Duckworth keeps those leads coming. As the song goes on, Pickett adds some nifty slide guitar counterpoint.

Another top track is “All Love All Gone”, a great look at the battle of the sexes which indicates that men are doomed to lose: “She was woman/and I was boy.” Although this song is more mid-tempo, it also centers on the steady rhythm section work, allowing Pickett to rue the busted romance, while Duckworth goes nuts on lead guitar.

Pickett recorded an album with Buck as producer in 1987, and it yielded a magic moment with "On the River in '59". This track has the burning intensity of Neil Young. It's a showcase for Pickett's slide guitar, as he reels off some bluesy runs, and he is uncharacteristically uninhibited vocally, really cutting loose.

This is a contrast to his more usual jokey self, on display on "If This Is Love, Can I Get My Money Back?". Here, he warbles the witty lyrics of a tune originally waxed by his cousin Mark Markham back in 1966: "Baby, I tell you/one thing is true/I'm not getting younger/but neither are you/let's not squander our time." Rev this up a little bit, and I could easily hear Jason and the Scorchers rocking out to this.

The disc concludes with four live tracks that show Pickett in his element, back in 1982, finishing off with a passionate version of The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action".

While I don't think that Pickett's material was consistently strong, I have a greater appreciation as to his appeal as a performer. No, he wasn't a legend. But he was probably the best performer in town on any given night about 90% of the time. And while this isn't great, his career merited this retrospective.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Franz Ferdinand, April 30, 2009, Riviera Theatre, Chicago

One thing that struck me while watching Franz Ferdinand play a searing set at the Riviera to close out a cruddy Chicago April: where do they fit in? Here's a Scottish band that plays the most delightful blend of dance music spiked with bits of '70s glam and post-punk goodness, has a charismatic front man and one of the best rhythm sections in the biz. Moreover, they know how to write a great single. Yet their audience is shrinking. After all, where do they get radio play or some other means of getting across to a mass audience?

It's a shame, because the 2,500 or so folks who packed the Riv knew what they were seeing. They were seeing a band at the peak of its powers. Playing in front of a cool multi-paneled video screen, model-thin frontman Alex Kapronos was flanked, as usual, by guitarist-keyboardist Nick McCarthy who, unusually, was on crutches and helped to a stool. This did not prevent him from dressing smartly (as usual). Paul Thomson manned the traps, with an unfortunate neck tattoo and Bob Hardy (bass) still seems the eager kid brother.

The band opened with a three song burst -- "Jacqueline", the thrilling opener of the band's classic debut; "No You Girls", the sexy second single off the current Tonight album; and the awesome "Do You Want To", the first single from the second album. The band tore into each of them with vigor and Kapronos' baritone was spot on.

From there, the set leaned mostly on the new album and the debut, with a smattering of second album songs. The first half of the set focused on tight versions of songs like "Twilight Omens" and "Dark of the Matinee", one of the best pop songs of the decade.

The set hit a peak going into the second half, with a ferocious run through the must-dance "Take Me Out", which had the crowd moving in a frenzy. I've never seen folks dance at a rock show they way they do at a Franz Ferdinand show. They followed this with the lead track from Tonight, "Ulysses". It's not as aggressive of a groove, starting out chilly and building up in intensity. So it provided a brief cool down before sweeping the crowd up in a similar frenzy and when Thomson finished it with a drum roll flourish, folks went nuts.

Following this one-two punch with the more laid back "40"" was a great decision. This was a brief respite as the intensity crept back up for an extended run through "Outsiders" from You Could Have It So Much Better.

The encore built on that, with a nice "What She Came For" followed by an intense work out on one of the gems from the new album, "Lucid Dreams". Members of the promising support act, Born Ruffians, came out to provide extra percussion, and the when the song hit the lengthy electronic synth-dominated breakdown, the Riv became a Rave for about five minutes.

Most bands would have considered that to be a fine finish, but most bands don't have a song like "This Fire" to end the night with. The soft-hard dynamics of this song never fail to get folks going, and it was no exception on this night.

The one thing I want to convey is just how Franz Ferdinand: a) tore into its material with such relish and passion, b) did some rock star posing, which is okay, it's fun to see rock stars once in a while, and c) did so with smiles on the band members faces. From the first time I saw them at the 250 capacity Empty Bottle until now, these guys know they're good and take pleasure in it, giving the people what they want to hear and feeding off the enthusiasm they get back. It's why Franz Ferdinand is a must see live act.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tinted Windows -- Tinted Windows

Tinted Windows -- Tinted Windows (S-Curve)

Ear candy. Junk food. Disposable. Bun E. Carlos is so dreamy. Taylor Hanson is so dreamy. These are at least four, if not five, common reactions to the debut album of power pop supergroup Tinted Windows.

Some of you might be asking, “Supergroup?” Well, Hanson was a big band for a while and still has a fervent audience. And Cheap Trick and Smashing Pumpkins (James Iha) both held the title of Biggest Band in the World at one time or the other. Maybe Fountains Of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger) only had one top 40 hit, but not many bands have had the pedigree of the Windows.

Unfortunately, the sum is less than the parts. It’s not that the record doesn’t sound good. Au contraire -- this is sparkling power pop with a great vocalist singing his ass off. Where this falls short is in the songwriting department. Schlesinger is a master craftsman, but many of these songs only offer craft. This is the musical equivalent of a big slugging home run hitter settling for singles up the middle.

Repeat plays reveal some really nice songs. “Can’t Get a Read On You” is a galloping rocker, with Hanson singing urgently over the brisk backing track which is punctuated by Iha’s staccato lead guitar lines. This is a breathless rush of a tune.

Iha’s sole songwriting credit is the most stylized song on the album, the bubblegummy “Cha Cha”. This song is the missing midpoint between T. Rex and Tommy Roe, with Hanson taking the right approach to this dopey yet fun tune -- utter sincerity. And just when you think there should be handclaps, the handclaps kick in.

There’s a ‘70s pop vibe, with added muscle, on “Without Love”. This is one song where Bun E. Carlos is able to embellish with his trademark drumming style. Iha and Schlesinger add some enthusiastic backing vocals and Iha rips off a nice little solo.

And there is one good power ballad, "Dead Serious", which sounds like something out of the Cheap Trick or E’Nuff Z’Nuff songbook, with a more soulful and coltish lead singer. This song may have the strongest chorus on the record, with a great melody and excellent lead guitar accompaniment by Iha.

One thing that hurts this record is how banal the lyrics are. I think Schlesinger was shooting for archetypical powerpop but ended up with generic words. Material Issue’s Jim Ellison was particularly good at dressing up classic themes with little tweaks that gave them personality and a bit of substance. But one of the reasons the songs here don’t have as much staying power as they could is because they don’t seem to be about anything in particular, certainly nothing worth singing along to.

Even worse, someone decided to print the lyrics. This is almost as great a waste of paper as the entire Ann Coulter ouvre.

As with all supergroups, who knows if this is a one off. I would like them to take another crack at it, as this record makes me wonder how great Tinted Windows could be if the boys could just take it up another level or two.