- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 11 March 2014
Them Crooked Vultures "Them Crooked Vultures" DGC Records/Interscope
I'm famously late. I was late to Nirvana because I was too cool to listen to the radio when I was 17. I was late to the Queens of the Stone Age because I was too lazy to follow up on their hit radio song that I actually enjoyed in the early 2000's. I've loved Led Zeppelin for as long as I can remember, but I took a pass on Them Crooked Vultures when their record came out in 2009 because… I don't know. Granted, I still hadn't realized the majesty of Josh Homme, but I damn sure knew what John Paul Jones (as an overall badass) and Dave Grohl (as a drummer) could do. So, I've gotta eat some crow. Or some vulture. Again. I'd still rather do it my way than to have to wade through the waters of popular music to find what's good in this decade, but I wish someone had clued me in to this one. I don't think anyone even tried. I don't really blame them. I'm not typically very open to this kind of thing. But there's nothing typical about this record. It's of the "self titled" variety. Maybe they couldn't think of a name big enough to hold this thing up.
Part of what's so baffling to me about my newfound appreciation for (man crush on?) Josh Homme is that his day job finds him fronting a full on Rock band. Not what I consider a Rock and Roll band. I haven't plumbed the depths of their catalog, but I did fly to Las Vegas to see QOTSA play a couple of weeks back, and there wasn't much Roll in the set list. All Rock. And I liked it. But the Crooked Vultures is a different kind of bird. John Paul Jones would likely have seen to that on his own. "No One Loves Me and Neither Do I" starts things off with some funky (seriously) drumming from Grohl, and there are so many whacky beats and sounds within that one tune that I knew I was in for a ride after the first couple of bars. I don't really get into song by song run-downs of records because I think it stands to reason that a vinyl collector wouldn't clog up his or her record shelves with discs purchased in the interest of single songs. That's about the only thing downloads are good for if you ask me. So I think of an album as a body of work. Clearly, they can't all be flawless so there's a tipping point at which the listener decides if there's enough compelling content on a long player to take the plunge or if they're going to hunt and peck on iTunes. The choice is obvious in this instance. I did a little research and found that "New Fang" won a Grammy for something or another. That means absolutely nothing, of course, and it might actually scare some folks off because the Grammys almost never get it right. They nailed it on this one. The song would have outrocked most anything on the pop music radar in 2009, but it also stands out on a record of rockers that's as compelling as anything I've heard in a while. I feel guilty. Like I'm cheating on QOTSA with Them Crooked Vultures, but this one gives …Like Clockwork a good run and I completely flipped out about Clockwork. It's gonna be a second before I can get myself upright. This stuff is strong.
And the vinyl presentation is too. A couple of heavy records pressed quite cleanly in a gatefold package with lyrics on the inners. Of course, you don't actually keep the records in those inners, but you keep the inners. The records go in the MoFi sleeves that you have on reserve for occasions such as this. No digital copy of any kind included with this one. Make like a vulture and circle back for this one if you missed its release. If you like to rock.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Valerie June "Pushin' Against A Stone" Concord Records
Some pretty remarkable music was coming out of the North Mississippi Hill Country a while back. Mostly from old blues artists on the Fat Possum label that have since passed away. And it's easy to forget that the Black Keys got their start, at least on the national stage, playing in tunings and styles that they lifted from that aging roster. They did a whole tribute album to Junior Kimbrough, in fact, before moving on to the Space Rock that they're populating every television commercial in the universe with now. And just north of towns like Holly Springs, you'll find a city that's a bit more recognized by name and history, and maybe a little more comfortable to work in. It's called Memphis and that's where Valerie June gets her work done. Dan Auerbach produced her latest, called Pushin' Against A Stone, and my ears still stand at attention when I hear his name. He's got the feel for what I think real music should sound like. And Valerie June's music is real, gang. Dan Auerbach is no wizard behind the curtain when it comes to her work. She's the show. And I suspect she'll be sticking around for a while. I hope so, anyway.
The first thing you might want to consider is that this lady has a singing voice that most folks outside the Deep South might find weird. I call it "distinct." There's a nasal quality and a country accent, and they add up to something that almost sounds like Appalachia to my ears. And that effect is exacerbated by the instrumentation which includes fiddles and mandolins. There's a bit of a church vibe too which is delivered via organ. Booker T. Jones' organ, in some instances. Call me crazy, but if you're basing your operations in Memphis and you have that guy on your team, I'd say you've arrived. (He has a bit of history of his own in those waters, don't you know?) But I'm betting that Ms. June is just knocking on the door to a kingdom to come. I really, really hope so because hers is exactly the kind of voice that can combat the auto-tuners and riff-raff that we're so often accosted by today. And there's recent precedent for this type of music going big. The Carolina Chocolate Drops come to mind, but I find June's work less gimmicky. (I was turned off by that "Hit 'Em Up Style" cover that the Chocolate Drops did.) June has also collaborated with the Old Crow Medicine Show, and I finally succumbed to what they were doing a while back. (I was turned off by their gimmicky name for the longest time.) Finally, June is opening for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at the Fillmore in a couple of weeks, and I certainly intend to make it down for that one. If I don't, I'm a fool. Basically, she's aligned herself with a bunch of contenders (and, in the case of Auerbach and Booker Jones, some title holders), and I'd be surprised if she didn't carve out a comfortable niche somewhere in the American bedrock for herself on the strength of Pushin' Against A Stone. One listen to "Wanna Be On Your Mind," and you'll have a hard time making room for much else in your ears. That was my experience, anyway. I've been right about this kinda thing before.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Bruce Springsteen "High Hopes" Columbia
You wanna see some Australian folks get nutty? Check out the recent YouTube video of the Boss opening his show down there with his cover of "Highway to Hell." I got good and juiced for his new record, High Hopes, right away after seeing that one. Seems like Tom Morello is an honorary member of the E Street Band at this point if he's not an official one. According to Springsteen's essay in the High Hopes liners, Morello and his guitar became the Boss's muse during this project. One thing's for sure, Morello blazes a solo in that clip that sets the bar pretty high for the three other gunslingers in that band. And, being the E Street Band, Bruce, Nils, and Little Steven follow that solo up with scorchers of their own. I'm surprised that arena survived. Game on. High Hopes, indeed…
And not just as a result of that clip. In that same essay, Springsteen describes "working on a record of some of our best unreleased material from the past decade." To that end, we finally get to hear a studio version of "American Skin (41 Shots)," and another studio take on "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Speaking of ghosts, we also get posthumous contributions from Danny Federici and the Big Man, himself. This is exciting stuff for Springsteen fanatics. And one look at that video will illustrate just how fanatical we can get. But maybe the "best unreleased material" was unreleased for a reason? I mean, "Bonus tracks" are usually subpar in comparison to the songs that make the final cut, in my opinion. And, while these songs cohere to make what is clearly an album in the traditional sense, this project feels a little limp. That's all the more true if you're fool enough to compare it to the last studio project that found The Boss sifting through his vault. The Promise delivered. High Hopes kinda crashed.
Here's why: Morello's tone and playing reminds me of the lead guitar line on "Mainstreet" by Bob Seger. That's bad. The intro to "Just Like Fire Would" sounds for all the world like Springsteen covering Mellencamp's "Small Town." (In fact, he's covering an Australian group called The Saints, but someone should have called the "Small Town" similarity to Bruce's attention before this thing went to press. It's distractingly similar.) "Down In The Hole" sounds like a hybrid of the Boss's own "I'm On Fire" and "Magic." Much of this record sounds like the least compelling material from "The Rising." None of it sounds fresh. It's clean, it's sterile, and no amount of lyrical F-bombs (peppered throughout "Harry's Place") could give it sufficient grit. Clearly, this is all one man's opinion, and I'm sure that there are folks that dig this sound. But I'm pushing 40 (thus, I say "dig") and I suspect those folks probably have about 30 years on me. There must be a reason that Springsteen hasn't worked with Rick Rubin yet and I doubt it's due to scheduling. If I could, I'd beam a holographic image of myself to Rubin right now, Princess Leia style. "Help me, Rick Rubin. You're my only hope."
No one wants to bad mouth the boss. Least of all me. When he comes through town in support of this record, I will pay whatever ticket price he asks and I will leave that arena feeling better than I did going in. In the meantime, I'm gonna see if someone else can make better use of my copy of High Hopes than I can. It's a really nice vinyl package.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
T. Hardy Morris "Audition Tapes" Dangerbird Records
I remember going out in my hometown of Augusta, Georgia one night to see some local music by a band called Redbelly. They'd later become Dead Confederate and go on to what I consider great success, but I never gave that band much of a listen because I wasn't too into what I saw that night at the Soul Bar. Lord knows what I was into at the time, probably whiskey and a girl named Roxy, but not the band. I remember them making a big sound though, and I wasn't a bit surprised that they took off. More recently, I've been seeing the name "T. Hardy Morris" crop up in a bunch of righteous places, and when I finally mustered up the energy to open my laptop and type his name, I found that he'd been onstage that very night with Redbelly, co-founded Dead Confederate, and released a solo record to rave reviews across the board. I'm stubborn, but not dumb. We were all kids at the Redbelly show. Holding onto that first impression at this late date would be about like blaming a guy for eating sugary cereal when he was five. I picked up Audition Tapes and I'm a better man for it. Let the healing begin.
This record grabbed me by the lapels on first listen, but I don't think it's done with me yet. It has a "creeper" vibe, and I mean that in the arcane way, not the newer Urban Dictionary way. As I understand it, Dead Confederate is a heavy sounding outfit, often likened to Nirvana. This stuff is less aggressive than Nirvana, certainly, and I wouldn't be at all uncomfortable playing it with my mom in the car. (My mom's a little cooler than most so factor that in.) These arrangements are pretty sparse with clean guitar tones and warm harmony vocals courtesy of Thayer Sarrano who I was fortunate enough to see perform with Bloodkin in Athens, Georgia a while back. Matt Stoessel (slant rhymes with "pistol") adds some slick pedal steel guitar sounds to the mix because that's what that guy does. He was doing it when I was in Athens, and I'm glad he's still at it. All of these folks have performed with some pretty heavy hitters and are undoubtedly professionals of the highest caliber, but this record retains a really rustic, casual vibe that gives credence to the record's title. On that note, it's also obvious that these songs were recorded to tape. You don't get this type of warmth with 1's and 0's. I've listened to Audition Tapes actively and passively a few times, but Stoessel's playing lulls my attention away from the lyrical content without fail. That's a credit to his playing or a critique of my attention span, it's in no way meant to detract from the quality of the lyrics. They paint a beautifully weary picture on some perfectly dreary canvases, but I've not studied them. I detect some heavy content especially in songs with titles like "Hardstuff" and "Share The Needle." If those songs are about what I think they are, Morris likely had no lack of inspiration for characters. Augusta has always had a darker side that some folks find romantic. Some say "romantic," some say "stuck." I say pick up Audition Tapes and give it a listen.
This is an independent release and is not geared toward the audiophile. The record is heavy, but noisy in places. I sat down to meditate on it once and I got mad. Not what I was aiming for. But a really thorough cleaning helped, and I think another with my deep groove cleaner will do the trick. I suspect my copy had some residual mold release compound on it. The standard paper inner sleeve will need to be replaced because you're going to have this record for a long time. It comes with a download card, and it's housed in a sturdy gatefold. I love it.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Beck "Morning Phase" Capitol Records
Well, my ship has come in. The ship that set sail about a decade ago on Beck's Sea Change has come back to port. And it's carrying gold, and rainbows, and unicorns, and cotton candy. It's called Morning Phase. It's sturdy and large and ecologically responsible. When my buddy Neil gave me a burnt copy of Sea Change, I didn't know what was coming. I had Morning Phase on my radar way before I could actually see it on the horizon so I wasn't caught unawares. But the impact was still great. I've not been so excited about a sequel since The Dark Knight, and I may never have borne witness to a greater payoff against loftier expectations. LeBron James coming out of high school to dominate the NBA, maybe. But I like Beck better.
I had to try three different retailers before I finally ordered the damn thing with two-day delivery online. I don't necessarily know that the pre-orders sold out or that there was a line of kids beating down the door to the local stores, but it created the effect of something large and elusive. And that fits the Morning Phase sound perfectly. Is this folk music? Political? Celebratory? Is it for the shoe gazers? It's honest; I can assure you of that. Right down to the promotion work that Capitol has done in advance of the record's release. Hearing artists deny what is obvious gets a little irksome after a fashion. Dylan's made a career out of it, but Morning Phase is described outright as exactly what it is: a "companion piece" to Sea Change. Let us bow our heads and listen. It's all there. The strings conducted and arranged by Beck's old man. The same key players that rattled my conscience in 2002. The melancholy (morning?) vibe. But the differences, if you're paying attention, will stagger you. The melodies are brighter. The bass is bigger. And Beck doesn't seem so… crushed. Sea Change is a legendary breakup record. The only mystery here is what kind of legend Morning Phase will create for itself. Because the legendary part is already in the bag. This one will saturate "best of" lists for 2014. I, for one, can't wait to see how the songs translate in a live setting. (I just hope he chooses cool live settings to translate the songs in. No cavernous concrete halls, please. I trust you, Mr. Hansen.) He's already performed a couple of the tunes Live from New York on Saturday Night, and he brought the whole orchestra with him for "Wave." And he played guitar on "Blue Moon" which is something he was unable to do for a few years due to some horrendous (and mysterious) back injury. But he's back now, and he sounds less injured. The music heals through its own hurt. I can't get enough.
There was an interminable wait between the time that Sea Change was released and its first appearance on vinyl. Then, a few more years before MoFi polished that diamond into something extraterrestrial. At least we didn't have to wait for Morning Phase in a proper format this time. But I wish we could have just cut to the chase and let MoFi work their magic from the jump. I don't know if that's ever happened, but this would have been the time to break the mold, if not. The Capitol release is more than passable. The 180-gram record is clean and deep with tons of clarity and a tight bottom end. Those strings float around on top like clouds. Of joy. Mighty clouds of joy. That's what I see when I hear this record. It comes with a download coupon which is nice. But don't accept that as a proper format for a work like this. That would be like looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on TV. In black and white. Do what's right. Don't miss the boat. Get in the ring.