Thursday, July 12, 2007


So CBS FM is back. After 25 months of being held in captivity by Jack, the station that played “the greatest hits of all time,” was set free Thursday, July 12. As Jack got the heave ho, in a mock Sopranos’ takeoff, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” segued into Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind”, an obvious kiss up for the unseemly exit two years ago; and, after a montage of songs and moments going back to 1964, the first official song, the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” was played at (now get the pun?) 1:01 P.M. From the minions of grateful oldies fans, a gigantic “Thank you, God” could be heard across the tri-state region. Jack had left the building; what was once new was now old again; the enemy had been vanquished and all was right with the world.


But hold onto your jukeboxes, sock hoppers. This isn’t your daddy’s CBS FM. For one thing, rock-n-roll seems to have begun in 1964, not 1955. I wonder what Bill Haley and Alan Freed would have to say about that. In fact, no mention of any pre-Beatle song is found anywhere on the updated WCBS website. The word oldie has been completely eliminated and replaced with hits. In deed, the theme throughout is the greatest hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. No Doo Wop, no Elvis, no nothing! And while it was nice that the Beach Boys got first dibs, the more sentimental favorite would’ve been “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles. But, truth be told, the song never stood a chance of getting the green light, and for one very important reason: the suits at CBS still don’t believe that Jack failed. Deep down, the reason for the switch back to CBS FM was the feeling they simply didn’t handle the original transition well. In other words, it wasn’t the message, it was the messenger. In one respect, it was gratifying to learn that someone high up on the food chain had some degree of shame and regret over their conduct in ’05; credit Dan Mason, at the very least, for understanding that much. But that appears to be where the introspection has stopped. While Jack may have been officially relegated to the CBS HD2 channel, until yesterday reserved for the oldies format, the goal of corporate still has not changed: to move forward with the younger demographic. In other words Jack, plus ‘60s music, plus DJs equals compromise (i.e. truce) and, hopefully, ratings. The obvious intent is to get the original listeners, hence the advertisers, back in fold, keep a few of the Jack fans (those that didn’t go back to playing with their iPods), and in the end make everyone happy. Good luck!

Because, deep down, CBS still doesn’t get it. Whether or not you think that the oldies format has a future or is even relevant at all, know this: No other format has had the loyal following that this one has enjoyed. The moldy oldies, as they are jokingly referred to, are NOT your typical radio listener. Many of them grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, and had one, possibly two favorite stations that they would listen to. And heaven help anyone who tried to change the dial in the middle of a song. Further more the DJs on those stations were like icons; they were as big as the artists they were playing on the radio – sometimes bigger. Names like Bruce Morrow, Dan Ingram, Bob Shannon, Harry Harrison, Bill Brown, Don K. Reid and Jack Spector were, in their own way, as popular as the Beatles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Stones, the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Aretha Franklin. You eagerly awaited the next song these guys would play, and far from an annoyance, their charm, wit and soothing voice, would be the perfect antidote for the hustle and bustle of the work week. You had coffee with Harry, joked with Dan and Bob, guessed which secret song Bill would play, sang along with Brucie, and reminisced with Don K and Jack. It wasn’t the dressing for the salad; it was the whole damn salad!

Compare and contrast that with the generation that grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s – the age of the walkman and the personal computer. Before the ‘80s you didn’t even have presets on car stereos; by the ‘90s you had multiple bands for both FM and AM. With MP3 players and satellite radio in the mix, a typical terrestrial radio station would do well to score a 3.5 in the ratings, let alone a 4.0. And yet CBS FM, which was pulling in the mid threes for most of this decade and in the first three months of '05 was actually in 8th place according to Arbitron - this in spite of the stripped down format and reduced playlist - was scrapped for a format that for all intents and purposes never got off the ground, and as of the first quarter of '07 was mired in 16th place( a 2.0 as of sign off); a format that reached out to a demographic that can measure listener loyalty in the millisecond range. Even stranger, is that CBS chose this format in more than a dozen markets, and on stations that heretofore had been holding their own and for the most part were playing oldies. Go figure! Was it any wonder that more and more people were choosing to fork over $12.95 per month for Sirius and XM? Satellite radio, despite its reception problems, has now become the number one choice for music lovers. No matter what genre of music you prefer – rock, R&B, jazz, oldies, hip-hop, country – you can find a plethora of choices with a seemingly endless selection of songs. There are no restrictions. And the DJs know something about the music they're playing and aren’t afraid to offer valuable insight, something sadly lacking on most stations and completely devoid of at Jack.

But, I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. After all, I am grateful to have CBS FM back, even if only partly. Yes it was nice to hear Bob Shannon again. Two years was long enough. But, Broadway Bill Lee? Where hasn’t this guy worked? KTU, Hot 97, LTW, Fresh 102.7 and XM channels 5 and 8, all in the last eleven years! I’ve had less jobs than him. And can somebody please track down Bill Brown and see if he’s still alive? I miss my Brown Bag. CBS has talked about bringing back the Top-20 countdown, and doing other specials that have long been a staple of the station. If that happens, it will be good news. But I remain cautiously optimistic, in deed, somewhat skeptical over the motives for this return to the past. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being around senior management, it’s that they seldom get it. More often than not they repeat the same mistakes. If, in deed, this is more than just a PR move designed to placate disgruntled listeners, then here are some suggestions for the current CBS FM to incorporate into their fabric.

1. Play some ‘50s music. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Frankie Lymon, the Everly Brothers and the Platters are not dinosaurs, nor are they dirty words. Without them, much of the music of the ‘60s would have been impossible.

2. Drop the playlists, or at least drop the restrictions. There are thousands of songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s. Play them; play them all. Don’t sell the audience short. Enough “playing what we want”; play what the listeners want. Trust me, they can keep up; and those who can’t still have their iPods.

3. Keep in touch with the past by resigning past DJs who have worked at the station and who still have a presence in this market. Perhaps someone at CBS could sit down with Scott Greenstein of Sirius and work out a deal where Cousin Brucie’s Saturday night oldies show could be simulcast? Talk about a coup.

If CBS FM is to survive, it will survive being what is has historically been: the city’s station, playing the songs that a generation of fans grew up listening to. It can’t afford the “luxury” of appealing to a demographic that never listened to it in the first place, and who could care less whether it is called CBS, Jack, Bob, Brenda or Exene.
In the meantime, just to keep our new good guys honest, below is a playlist of hour one of CBS FM, compared with Sirius, XM and True Oldies. To be fair, I will limit the satellite selections to their ‘60s and ‘70s channels. I have no control over what decade True Oldies plays from. And the hits just keep on coming!

The Beach Boys – “Do It Again”; Frankie Valli – “Oh What A Night”; Aretha Franklin – “Respect”; Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days”; Fleetwood Mac – “Don’t Stop”; Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”; Maxine Nightingale – “Right Back Where We Started From”; The Rolling Stones – “Satisfaction”; Billy Joel – “Only the Good Die Young”; The Contours – “Do You Love Me”; John Mellencamp – “Jack and Diane”; The Beatles – “Twist and Shout”; The Bee Gees – “You Should Be Dancing”; Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman”; Tommy James and the Shondells – “Mony, Mony”; Donna Summer – “Last Dance”; Sam the Sham – “Wooly Bully”; Bruce Springsteen – “Pink Cadillac”.

Sirius ‘60s Vibrations:
The Hombres – “Let It Out”; The Byrds – “Turn, Turn, Turn”; Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone”; The Beatles – “All My Loving”; Spencer Davis Group – “I’m A Man”; Stevie Wonder – “My Cherie Amour”; The Archies – “Sugar, Sugar”; The Doors – “Light My Fire”; Aaron Neville – “Tell It Like It Is”; Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston – “It Takes Two”; Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”; Chad & Jeremy – “Yesterday’s Gone”; B.J. Thomas – “Hooked on a Feeling”; Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – “Over You”; Spanky & Our Gang – “Like To Get To Know You”; The Vogues – “Five O’Clock World”; Animals – “It’s My Life”; Lou Christie – “Lightning Strikes”; The Hollies – “Bus Stop”.

Sirius Totally ‘70s:
Lee Michaels – “Do You Know What I Mean”; Atlanta Rhythm Section – “Spooky”; Carole King – “I Feel the Earth Move”; Joe Walsh – “Life’s Been Good To Me”; Andrea True Connection – “More, More, More”; Curtis Mayfield – “Freddie’s Dead”; Jigsaw – “Sky High”; Al Green – “Look What You’ve Done For Me”; Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama”; Paul Simon – “Me & Julio”; Cornelius Brothers – “Treat Her Like a Lady”; Sammy Johns – “Chevy Van”; Elton John – “Bennie & The Jets”; Samantha Sang – “Emotion”; War – “Low Rider”; Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”.

XM ‘60s:
The Beatles – “Birthday”; Percy Sledge – “Warm & Tender Love”; The Zombies – “Time of the Season”; Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Down on the Corner”; The Youngbloods – “Get Together”; Sandals – “Endless Summer”; Paul Revere – “Just Like Me”; Jan & Dean – “Honolulu Lulu”; Herman’s Hermits – “Leaning on a Lamp Post”; Rascals – “Beautiful Morning”; James Brown – “I Got the Feeling”; Sly & The Family Stone – “Dance To the Music”; Del Shannon – “Keep Searchin’”; Jimmy Glimmer – Daisy Petal Pickin’”; Mel Carter – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”; Jackie DeShannon – “What the World Needs Now is Love”; Bobby Lewis – “Tossin’ & Turnin’”; Elvis Presley – “Good Luck Charm”; The Beatles – “Love Me Do”.

XM ‘70s:
The Rolling Stones – “Brown Sugar”; Andy Gibb – “Everlasting Love”; Charlie Rich – “The Most Beautiful Girl”; Elton John – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down”; Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough”; Eric Carmen – “Never Gonna Fall in Love”; The Chi-Lites – “Oh Girl”; Starbuck – “Moonlight Feels Right”; Jim Croce – “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”; Hurricane Smith – “Oh Babe, What Would You Say”; John Travolta & Olivia Newton John – “Summer Nights”; Toby Beau – “My Angel Baby”; Dorothy Moore – “Misty Blue”; Eric Clapton – “Lay Down Sally”; Dr. Hook – “Sharing the Night Together”; Steve Miller Band – “Take the Money and Run”; England Dan & John Ford Coley – “We’ll Never Have To Say Goodbye Again”.

True Oldies Channel:
Herman’s Hermits – “Wonderful World”; The Spiral Staircase – “More Today Than Yesterday”; The Beatles – “I’m Looking Through You”; The Drifters – “On Broadway”; Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman”; The Temptations – “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”; Swinging Blue Jeans – “Hippy, Hippy Shake”; The Hollies – “Long Cool Woman”; Dionne Warwick – “Walk on By”; The Box Tops – “Cry Like a Baby”; The Coasters – “Charlie Brown”; The Supremes – “Love Child”; Every Mother’s Son – “Come on Down To My Boat Baby”; The Rascals – “Good Lovin’”; The Beach Boys – “California Girls”; B.J. Thomas – “Rain Drops”; Blues Image – “Ride Captain, Ride”; Paul Revere – “Hungry”; Al Wilson – “Show & Tell”.

While all the stations faired well, including CBS, which was a pleasant surprise, the True Oldies Channel edged out Sirius’ ‘60s Vibrations for top prize, if for no other reason than they had a more diverse selection. Were it not for that, though, ‘60s Vibrations would have won hands down. Neither of the ‘70s stations distinguished themselves; either the decade is too eclectic for its own good, or neither can handle it properly. Kudos to the XM ‘60s station as the only one in the bunch to play an Elvis song, and two Beatles songs ALL IN THE SAME HOUR. Are you listening CBS FM? It can be done. And speaking of our dear lost station, the mix was about what it was before the initial switch over two years ago: nine songs from the '60s, six from the '70s and three from the '80s. Eighteen songs in all, with the clear winner, not surprisingly, the '60s. Perhaps I was a bit premature predicting a Jack Facsimile, afterall. Only time will tell. But if you still need a hint as to where this station's sympathies will most likely lean, look no further than the lyrics in the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop." "Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." It is in deed.

Well, I’ve written all I intend to on this. I’ll listen to CBS FM from time to time, but based on what I heard today, Bob Shannon’s emotional return notwithstanding, I will not be canceling my Sirius subscription any time soon. The lack of any serious pre-'64 content will, I fear, keep a lot of long-time listeners away, and the long-term prospects of increasing its demographic among a younger audience seems dubious at best. I wish them well, and sincerely hope they make it. Prior to this afternoon, there was only one FM station worth playing on the dial: WFUV. Now there are two, which if I’m not mistaken was how many there were on June 3, 2005 when all this mess started.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Faced with ratings that continued to spiral downward and unable to defend a format that more closely resembled an iPod than a radio station, Infinity Broadcasting cries “uncle” and brings back the format that memories were made of.

It was Friday, June 3, 2005, 3:57 in the afternoon and long-time DJ Bill Brown was doing his usual sign off for WCBS FM, but something was missing. It was customary for the exiting DJ at CBS to announce the next DJ, in this case Bob Shannon. But Shannon never got a chance to sign on that afternoon. Instead he and the rest of the CBS crew were called into a conference room at 4:00 P.M. and told that they would no longer be employed at the station. WCBS owner Infinity Broadcasting had decided to change formats from oldies to “adult contemporary” and, under the new call letters JACK, would no longer need disc jockeys. At 4:30 that afternoon, while CBS was issuing its pink slips, Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was winding down. No one at the time thought it would be the last song heard at CBS. After 30 minutes of movie and song clips that seemed to make no sense at all, a voice came on to announce the new call letters. The next song heard was the Beastie Boys’ “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party,” and that, as they say in the biz, was that. As Don McLean would’ve said, it was a day the music died.

For almost 33 years, WCBS FM (the golden 101) faithfully played the songs of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and, with some of the best talent on the radio, was recognized as the preeminent oldies station in America. But sagging ratings, and an increasing demographic shift towards a younger audience, spelled trouble for the iconic station. The first sign of clouds on the horizon occurred in the summer of 2002 when Don K. Reed's long-running Sunday night Doo-Wop Shop program was closed down. They also cut pre-1964 product down to once or twice per hour and began playing '70s music even more often, becoming focused on the years from 1964-79. At this point they were playing at least two ‘80s songs per hour. In a July 2005 keynote address to the Radio & Records Convention, musician/actor/DJ Steven Van Zandt labeled this switching out of 1950s music for 1970s music as the key death blow to WCBS-FM (and other oldies stations), not the later Jack takeover. [1]

The station canceled more specialty shows in 2003 such as the "Top 20 Oldies Countdown". In the summer of 2003, to appease some fans, they did bring a specialty 1955-64 oldies show called "Heart & Soul of Rock & Roll" with Norm N. Nite (another longtime air personality who had been with the station on and off since 1973). Still in that year Harry Harrison left mornings and Dan Ingram also left. In the spring of 2004, the station tightened its playlist even more, playing almost entirely songs from 1964 to 1979. They played one pre ‘64 song every other hour. They were down to about 30 pre '64 songs altogether. They played several ‘80s songs per day down to a couple dozen of those as well. The rest of the playlist was about 500 songs totally. Harrison still came back for Saturdays in that fall of 2004.

And then came “Black Friday,” as it has been called by both listeners and industry insiders. Never in the history of radio had such a move been made on such short notice. Not even the blood-letting at WNCN in December of 1993, when the station switch formats from classical music to rock and changed its call letters to WAXQ, could compare. In that scenario listeners had been told ahead of time that the switch was coming, and in any event, there was still another venue for classical music: WQXR. When CBS FM went off the air, suddenly and without warning, it meant the end of oldies music in New York.

Critics argued that the manner in which Infinity flipped formats angered long-time devotees of the station, calling it a slap in the face for the DJ’s they had grown up with. As if to add insult to injury, during its inaugural week, Jack poked fun at the CBS FM listeners, while at the same time having the audacity to “invite” them to visit an internet site that had been set up to play the songs of the old format. So not only did the station unceremoniously part ways with its past musically, it completely severed ties with virtually ALL of its listeners in the tri-state area. Jack was now in uncharted territory. Never before had a format change resulted in such a drastic demographic shift and a plunge in ratings, all at the same time. It would take months before the station was able to even approach the ratings CBS FM enjoyed for most of its tenure. To date, it has never equaled those pre-Jack ratings, a triumph of personality over attitude if ever there was one.

But there were other problems that plagued the new format, even worse than its lack of class. It was obvious that Infinity Broadcasting had seriously miscalculated the demand for a music format that more closely resembled an iPod than a radio station. What was billed as an eclectic mix of music representing all genres and all age groups proved to be nothing more than a very restricted playlist. Additionally, Infinity did not count on the fact that while the demographic for oldies music was shrinking due to the fact that some of the baby-boomers were dying off, they were among the most loyal listeners out there. Conversely, the market that Jack was courting was anything but loyal. Instead of enjoying a monopoly on a loyal, if shrinking, market, Jack was now competing within the adult contemporary market, which included the likes of WPLJ, Z100, WLTW and the new "Fresh 102.7" WWFS, formerly WNEW. Further exasperating an already dreary future was the fact that most of these listeners were not, contrary to the station’s promos, music lovers. They were more casual listeners, who owned maybe 100 or less CDs and were more interested in music for background enjoyment than for serious listening. Without quite realizing it, Jack had become for pop music what CD 101.9 had become for jazz. Failure was inevitable.

So now, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Jack is poised to exit stage left and leave the building. If reports are accurate, WCBS FM will return this week to reclaim, and hopefully, recapture its rightful place as the best oldies station in the country. The move is said to be the decision of the new CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason, who returned to the company in March of this year after leaving it in 2002 to work as a consultant for the industry. Mason also recently restored 92.3 K-Rock to its alternative music roots when it became obvious no body was listening to the Free FM format either. But what about the on air personalities that helped shaped WCBS's identity? Certainly, some will return; but others like Bruce Morrow, who now calls Sirius his home, are likely lost forever. There is also the rumor that, in an attempt to attract a younger audience, the “new” CBS FM will play mostly music recorded between 1964 and 1979, and may even include some '80s hits, virtually ignoring all pre-Beatles music, and almost certainly annoying its most ardent listeners, without whom the station would never have made it to the ‘80s, much less 2005. But still, limitations and restrictions notwithstanding, it will be nice to hear the old call letters return to where they belong. Hopefully, the suits at Infinity have learned a valuable lesson from this debacle. Never underestimate the power of people who love music, and never overestimate the value of people who think mall music is where it’s at!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Three Glasses: One half filled, one half empty, the other bone dry. Can anyone get me a drink of water, please?!

Patti Smith: Twelve (Sony, 2007).
What often gets ignored when talking about Smith’s career is that long before her ground-breaking debut, Horses, she was a rock critic at Creem, working alongside Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau. And, like so many critics, she developed her own biases and partialities – yes, folks we ain’t the altruistic bearers of wisdom and insight we think we are. And those subjective truths would come to permeate her music in the years and later decades to come. So it shouldn’t be a total surprise that in doing an album of purely covers that she would lean towards her contemporaries, like Young, the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Simon and Hendrix, in her time legends all. What is a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, is how well done the album is. These aren’t just rehashes of some favorite song list she had stashed away. Smith makes each song her own. She manages to extract the original lyricism of the artist, adding her own sound in the process – that distinctive spoken / sung voice that has been her signature since 1975 – without doing violence to the song, something most cover artists, sadly, do on a fairly regular basis. Expecting a poet to be an interpreter is one thing; expecting an interpretation that enhances the song without reinventing it is a rare gift; one that even Kurt Cobain would heartily approve of. Not everyone who listens to this album will be enriched by its sound. You either like Smith and her voice or you don’t. And, to be honest, nothing here is groundbreaking. But on the whole I’m impressed enough to recommend it, and optimistic enough to think it will give you a fresh perspective on each song. The last time I checked, that was supposed to be the reason for a cover album in the first place. A minus

Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (Hear, 2007).
36 years of sub-par performances after an illustrious, if somewhat, brief – relatively speaking – stint as part of arguably the greatest rock-n-roll band of all time apparently have had no affect on his demeanor. So why should year 37 be any different. Because deep down all of us wonder what the hell happened to that wonderful, talented lad from Liverpool. John had his moments, George, too. Even Ringo turned some heads. So how come after all these years are we still anticipating that moment when Paul will thrill us with an effort worthy of his pedigree? Because deep down we want to believe he’s capable of it, and we don’t want to miss it. Fact is, with the exception of a couple of songs on Band on the Run and Venus and Mars, he has been what he always was: the silly romantic who loved love songs, who went for the hook no matter how corny because that’s where the bucks were. John brought balance to his romantic side, and together their genius soared. Apart, Paul foundered. It’s that simple. So, now he’s recording for Starbucks. More money, more airplay, and more anticipation that maybe this time, he’ll deliver on his promise. No such luck. Compared with the rest of his catalogue, Memory Almost Full might seem like a breath of fresh air, but therein lies the problem. His catalogue is so mediocre, almost anything would be an improvement. Not that any of this matters to Sir Paul. Airplay and apologists are what it's all about these days. If the man had cared at all, we wouldn’t be going on four decades waiting for a sign from the heavens. Personally, I stopped holding my breath years ago. As for the rest of you, if you’re still waiting for his masterpiece, I have some sobering news. Don’t hold your breath! B minus

Smithereens: Meet The Smithereens (Koch, 2007).
“The Beatles Tribute Album by America’s Phenomenal Pop Combo!” Seriously, that's what it says on the cover. Fortunately anyone who’s ever listened straight through to a Smithereens album knows this is at best hyperbole; at worst an oxymoron. The only thing vaguely resembling phenomenal in Pat DiNizio’s relatively innocuous career occurred in 1986 when, for a short time at least, he and his band mates enjoyed some fanfare off of a rather pedestrian debut effort, which garnered some airplay among the new-wave radio stations before it fell off the cliff into oblivion. That being said this attempt at covering a group that in its heyday would have run rings around the likes of the Smithereens just goes to show you that we are truly living in perilous times. C

Thursday, July 05, 2007


The Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc, 2007).
“Uh oh uh oh, uh oh uh oh, turn up your ster-e-o-o, uh oh uh oh, uh oh uh oh, I feel electric when the meter starts to glow,” Robert Schneider belts out in “Can You Feel It,” the opening track on this, his latest and best Beatles-like album. After a five-year layoff he’s finally nailed it. I disagree with the ELO connection though; I’m thinking more Housemartins minus the political overtones. I’ve always suspected Schneider for a Paul Heaton fan anyway. As for the rest of the album, the tone, as in earlier efforts, defies categorization. Not quite indie, but definitely not pop; I’d call them bubble gum punk, which I guess is as close as anyone is likely to come. Whatever your preference, there’s no denying the charm of the lyrics and the vocals, among the best of the year. The one sad note, the departure of Hilarie Sidney, who wrote and sang "Sunndal Song" and “Sunday Sounds,” two of the best songs on the album. Otherwise sit back in your way back chair, put up your feet, and “feel the magic when the speaker starts to blow.” A

Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (Saddle Creek, 2007).
Far from being the child prodigy rock crits hailed him as only five years ago – he did turn 27 on February 15! – Conor Oberst was more a spoiled brat who couldn’t stop whining long enough to allow himself a chance to transcend the pain that was in his soul. That was then, this is now. Following up on 2005’s pleasantly surprising I’m Wide Awake, And It’s Morning, Cassadaga is his best and most clearly defined effort to date. And if the album title’s reference to a spiritualist community in Florida has you concerned, don’t be. Really, did every one get Jim Morrison’s psychedelic rantings in the ‘60s? Unlike Morrison or Ryan Adams, who still hasn’t shit but refuses to get off the pot, Oberst at least goes somewhere with his self-indulgence. The promise everyone saw in 2002 finally gets delivered here. Gone is Emmylou Harris, replaced by an assortment of mostly anonymous harmony singers (the exception being Gillian Welch on “Classic Cars”), which is probably a good thing; Oberst never did like sharing the spotlight. He still isn’t Dyan incarnate, but, given the current crop of indie frontrunners, he does more with his talent than most. A minus

brakesbrakesbrakes: The Beatific Visions (Rough Trade, 2007).
The album title denotes innocence, which I suppose is their way of being ironic. Like most English auteurs who grew up on the British new wave explosion of the ‘80s, but who cut their teeth on the original British invasion of the ‘60s, Eamon Hamilton had some reconciling to do. So, with the assistance of Thomas and Alex Wright (of Electric Soft Parade) he cut one of the most eclectic albums of the year, spanning the gamut between post punk (“Porcupine or Pineapple” and "Hold Me in the River") to alt-country (“If I Should Die Tonight” and "On Your Side") to adult alternative ("Mobile Communication" and "Isabel"). Every song a winner, even the eight and a half minute ending, which needlessly has about a minute of dead air. I told you they were ironic. Bumper sticker of the decade: “Who Won The War? Was It Worth Fighting For?” They should get the grammy just for that! That being said, I’d settle for a couple of plays at WFUV. A minus

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Some Loud Thunder (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2007).
Having released the indie sensation of 2005, it stood to reason that Part Deux would be a disappointment, right? Wrong. Notwithstanding the annoying distortion that plagues the title track – no Robert it isn’t a cracked ceramic cartridge sound; more a saturated tape player sound, which, knowing their love affair with lo-fi, makes more sense – this actually is a more even album than version one. My favorite songs are “Satan Said Dance” and “Underwater (You and Me)”, the former proof that Alec Ounsworth really does have a sense of humor, the latter that he has the instinct and ear for the hit single that one of these days this band will score. Don’t believe the hype from the indie naysayers. Listen for yourself. A minus

Monday, July 02, 2007

Get Your Country Comfort Where You Find It!

Two entries by two women steeped in country tradition; one very good and one encouraging, sort of.

Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Sony/BMG Nashville, 2007).
My disdain for country music goes back almost twenty-five years, and with good reason. With the exception of Rosanne Cash, John Anderson, Willie Nelson and a couple of Rosie Flores albums, the genre simply hasn’t lived up to its historical traditions. Somewhere, I suspect, Hank Williams is turning over in his grave at what has happened to this once proud and rich music. While this latest entry by this self-proclaimed Garth Brooks fan is unlikely to repair the damage of the last three decades, it does, if nothing else, offer up an olive branch. Lambert is no stranger to success; her debut Kerosene made her the darling of the country charts in 2005. This album builds off of that and with an edge that is very reminiscent of Flores, circa 1992, which means it’s also part Dwight Yoakam, circa mid 1980s. In other words, Lambert leans more toward Honky Tonk than the traditional El Lay that passes for country these days, and at only a mere twenty-three – a babe even in country – she has more to say than women ten years her senior. While her writing has grown a notch since her debut, the real breakthrough here are the covers: “Dry Town” Gillian Welch, “Easy From Now On” Carlene Carter, and “Getting Ready” Patty Griffin. Not quite Lucinda Williams, but far enough from Brooks and Dunn to bring hope. Quite possibly the country album of the year! A-

Elizabeth Cook: Balls (31 Tigers, 2007).
The title track – actually it’s called “Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” – will impress the boys at the bar, the Velvet Underground cover will have her contemporaries wondering if she has her priorities in order, and "Rest Your Weary Mind" is pure Alison Krauss and Union Station. But while everyone in Nashville seems convinced that she’s the next Loretta Lynn, I still have my doubts. True, Rodney Crowell’s production talents help a lot - the last time Crowell got this close to a country star he wrecked his marriage; the guess here is that Cook isn’t nearly that fragile. And, yes, I do like the songs, all of which she managed to write herself! Cook’s main problem is not her writing, tough though it may be. She’s a little too “cute” for my tastes. In other words she’s more Faith Hill than Shania Twain, which probably means she has a long way to go before she gets to Loretta Lynn. B+

Sunday, June 03, 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today: Rocks Seminal and Defining Moment Celebrates Another Anniversary.

The date was June 1, 1967, and it represented for rock fans what the birth of Christ represented for Christians: the demarcation point between what was and what would forever be. In all honesty, however, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was not the first of its kind; nor were the Beatles the first to cross over that threshold of what was to become known as album rock. Two years earlier, Bob Dylan had graced us with Bringin’ It All Back Home, followed closely by Highway ’61 Revisited. In December of that year the Beatles would release Rubber Soul; this was the album that Brian Wilson couldn’t get out of his head for six months. No, the birth of Christ would be an inaccurate analogy to the release of Sgt. Pepper's. A more appropriate comparison would be the Declaration of Independence. Any decent historian would tell you that by July 4, 1776, the Colonies were already at war with England – in deed the War had started in Boston Harbor a year earlier. The Declaration was more a formality, sort of an announcement to let the world know what had already begun. Sgt. Pepper, meet Thomas Jefferson!

Yes, far from being rock’s AD moment, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, like that July Fourth signing, announced to the industry that the status quo had changed. For as critically acclaimed as those earlier albums had been, they were still considered the exceptions to the rule. Prior to 1967, the record industry still considered the LP to be an accessory to its bottom line. If an artist or group had more than two or three strong songs on an album it was considered a bonus; of more importance was how many hit singles the record company could cash in on. No matter how well received an album was, a dearth of hits meant trouble from the label. The Beach Boys found this out when they released Pet Sounds in 1966. Capitol thought they were getting Surfin’ Safari, Wilson gave them Revolver, Part Deux. The label felt betrayed, and though Wilson convinced them to let him release Wild Honey in 1967, Capitol never seriously promoted the album. Payback can be a bitch.

What the Beatles did was nothing short of revolutionary. Not even Dylan – who has always been thought of as a bit of an eccentric, even among his admirers – could’ve pulled this off. [In deed, one could argue that from a pop music standpoint, despite the critical acclaim he was receiving, Dylan was doing more for the careers of the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary than himself.] It was the Beatles who almost overnight not only convinced an industry to rethink how it viewed the record album, but single-handedly set the ground rules going forward. No more would artists or groups be permitted the luxury of getting by with a hit single or two. The goal now was to record a complete album of material. Filler, long the mainstay of the industry, would now be shunned. Those who couldn’t keep up were relegated to the auspices of what would soon be known as bubble gum music.

Consider the transformation. In 1967 alone, notwithstanding Sgt. Pepper’s, the top albums of the year included the following: Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced?; Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man; Otis Redding, Love Man; The Beach Boys, Wild Honey; The Velvet Underground and Nico; Buffalo Springfield, Again; the Hollies, Evolution; and Stevie Wonder, I Was Made To Love Her. All of them A minus or better. Take away Dylan, the Beatles and the Beach Boys from 1965 and 1966 and you wouldn’t have gotten more than half a dozen good albums combined, and one of them, the ByrdsMr. Tambourine Man, owed as much to the brilliance of Dylan as to the genius of Roger McGuinn. By the end of the 1969, what started off as the decade of the 45 rpm, would end up being defined as the era of the album. In less than a couple of years the industry went from "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to "Hey Jude." Talk about a 180!

Not even the Stones, long the perennial kings of blue-collar, R&B rock and roll, could resist. Both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were testimonials to what Sgt. Pepper's had wrought. Ironically, though they often referred to themselves during the ‘60s as the greatest rock and roll band of all time - Jagger goes so far as to actually call them "the greatest fucking band of all time" on Hot Rocks - the Stones would actually wind up inheriting the mantle from the Beatles. They’ll deny it to their graves, but Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street owed more to Rubber Soul than to Out of Our Heads. The evolutionary process that began in 1965 as an experiment, by 1967 had become standard operating procedure. And all because of one album. Go Figure.

So the next time you play Sgt. Pepper’s consider, if you will, not just the brilliance of the album, but the significance of its arrival. 40 years is a long time in music and a lot has changed since then. Most of the genres that we listen to today owe their heritage to what four lads from Liverpool - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr - brought about, and more to the point what they forced on a reluctant, but ultimately grateful industry.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

With The Village Voice having canned Robert Christgau, I thought I’d start my own little Consumer Guide. Each month I’ll do 8 to 10 reviews, split up into two entries. There will also be the odd feature or two as I feel the inspiration come over me.

Here goes nothing.

Lily Allen: Alright, Still (Capitol, 2007). It would be easy to dismiss this 21-year old child prodigy – she’s the daughter of prominent British actor Keith Allen – as just another privileged brat of excess. But you’d be wrong. In deed it is Allen’s upbringing – attending 13 schools in 12 years and being expelled from many of them, running away from a boarding school when she was 14, and various sundry relationships with folks obviously not of her class, that sets the theme for this album. The girl is pissed, and with a maturity that belies her age, she transcends her rage and rebellious past and comes up with an album that her contemporaries could only pray to deliver. She’s Ani DiFranco with a rhythm section, with one obvious exception. While DiFranco had a loathing for herself and a healthy contempt for anyone who was superficial, Allen seems to get off on her good looks. She really thinks she’s the shit, which probably means she is. A-

Chris Smither: Leave the Light On (Signature, 2006). Smither has been around so long – his first album I’m a Stranger Too was released in 1970 – only Dylan and, maybe, Newman have lasted as long, with only the former consistently turning out significant works. And while Smither’s voice is aging faster than the fingers that pick his legendary blue guitar, it’s his indelible spirit that remains ageless and timeless. While I still prefer 1991’s Another Way To Find You if for no other reason than the fact he’s always been at his best when he flew solo and live, there’s no denying this 60-plus year old troubadour his due. Gotta love his sense of humor too on the title track when he boasts he’ll live to be a hundred, “39 to go but I ain’t keepin’ score;” or on “Origin of the Species” the funniest knock on intelligent design ever set to music. But it’s on “Diplomacy” where Smither’s folkie roots come home to roost: “Peace is so peaceful, it ain’t a way to survive. When nobody hates you, nobody knows you’re alive.” Like so many philosophers before him he has the heart of a poet but with the moral high ground to make it sound sincere. I’m hoping he makes it to the century mark. A-

Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Ever Sank (Epic, 2007). Having long ago given up any hope he would one day wake up to find he was Stephen Malkmus, Isaac Brock was free to develop one of the country’s best indie-rock bands this side of Pavement; and unlike the former, Brock’s star is still ascending. Ever since 1996’s “This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing To Think About” they have continued to evolve their sound, which I’ve always suspected owes much of its heritage to ‘80s bands like the Meat Puppets and Husker Du. Adding former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr to the lineup cinches it for me. These guys are nostalgic, but in a good way. “Dashboard” proves they can reach for the stars while still reaching for the jugular, and with five albums already under their belt, this one is their finest. Among their contemporaries, only Sonic Youth has a longer and more substantial catalogue. A

Brandi Carlile: The Story (Columbia, 2007). Having survived the accolades of her self-titled debut in ’05, Carlile enlisted the help of T-Bone Burnett and with the help of some smart lyrics by Phil and Tim Hanseroth, comes up with a sophomore effort worthy of her P.R. While I generally eschew singer/songwriters who wax poetically, but who lack the depth to convey substance behind the style, there’s no denying the charm of this Washingtonian. Her songs are light, but hardly the stuff of the background music that finds its way to most “easy-listening” stations. And she never over-reaches, meaning she knows her limitations – a talent other supposedly “superior” artists seem to lack these days. A good one. A-

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch, 2007). I used to think that Jeff Tweedy was this generation’s Mark Knopfler in that he seemed overly preoccupied with technique often at the expense of substance. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a text-book case in point. I still don’t know what the thing is, but boy doesn’t it “sound” impressive? But now I think his real problem is that he suffers from Paul Simon syndrome: he’s too damn smart for his own britches. How else do you reconcile the brilliance of the Mermaid Avenue albums with the aforementioned effort? Clearly, Tweedy, like Simon, is far better off keeping it simple, which is why this album – his sixth in 12 years and the best since Being There (which I'll admit I may have initially overrated a bit) – is a classic example of the age old axiom, less is more. Here, Tweedy abandons his “technique” and instead opts for simplicity. The songs for once are engaging and inviting, rather than complex and obtuse. Consider these lyrics from the opening track, "Maybe the sun will shine today, the clouds will blow away / I will try to understand, everything has its plan." Tweedy’s real accomplishment is not trying to sound so profound that he misses the forest for the trees. Another welcome sign is his return to his alt-country roots, where I’ve always thought Tweedy belonged in the first place. Like so many bands before them – the Jayhawks come to mind here – Tweedy’s Wilco, and to a lesser extent Uncle Tupelo, overreached and thus lost touch with what made them truly successful. Unlike Mark Olsen, who fumbled the ball and never did recover, Tweedy has a chance to build off this if he wants it. For now, I’ll just say this is the Wilco album both fans and admirers alike will enjoy. A-

Friday, May 18, 2007

2006 - A Final Look!

1. Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia)
2. Ghostface Killah: Fishscale (Def Jam)
3. The Klezmatics: Wonder Wheel (JMG)
4. Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti)
5. Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (Capitol)
6. Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
7. The Streets: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic)
8. Joanna Newsom: Ys (Drag City)
9. Outkast: Idlewild (LeFace)
10. Todd Snider: The Devil You Know (New Door)
11. Maria Muldaur: Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (Telarc)
12. The Coup: Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
13. Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time (Hyenna)
14. Wussy: Funeral Dress (Shake It)
15. Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (Piranha)
16. The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury: Songs From a Series of Unfortunate Events (Nonesuch)
17. Clipse: Hell Hath No Fury (Zomba/Star Trek/Re-Up Gang)
18. Jesus H. Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (
19. Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not (Domino)
20. Toumani Diabates Symmetric Orchestra: Boulevard de I’Independence (Nonesuch)
21. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)
22. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
23. Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)
24. Rominca Puceanu & the Gore Brothers: Sounds From a Bygone Age, Vol 2 (Asphalt Tango)
25. Kimya Dawson: Remember That I Love You (K)
26. Rhett Miller: The Believer (Verve Forecast)
27. Chris Smither: Leave the Light On (Signature)
28. Beck: The Information (Interscope)
29. The Rapture: Pieces of the People We Love (Motown/Vertigo)
30. TV on the Radio: Return To Cookie Mountain (Interscope)
31. Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (Matador)
32. Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Geffen)
33. The Handsome Family: Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top)
34. The Go-Betweens: That Striped Sunlight Sound (Yep Roc)
35. Grandaddy: Just Like the Fambly Cat (V2)
36. Sir Douglas Quintet: Live From Austin, Tx (New West)
37. Public Enemy: Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk)
38. Tom Ze: Estudando O Pagode (Luka Bop)
39. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
40. Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (Frenchkiss)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

DUMB AND DUMBER: How Corporate America takes out its garbage.

“What did you do on your vacation, Peter?”

“I went to sunny and warm Florida and got a chance to relax. How about you?

“I got a chance to see a radio icon commit suicide.”

“That’s the last time I take a vacation during sweeps!”

Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, legendary, hall of fame radio personality Don Imus threw himself on his sword as it were, quite possibly ending an otherwise prestigious, if tumultuous, 36 year career over his remarks towards the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team. The now infamous phrase “nappy-headed hos” will join ranks with other illustrious comments, like, “I did not have sex with that woman” and “I’m not a crook.”

What strikes me most about this spectacle is not the outlandishness of the remark; anyone paying attention over the last four decades probably had the “pleasure” of hearing worse language from him. Nor is it even the clamor from outraged minority groups, lead particularly by Al Sharpton whom Newsday’s Shawn Powell correctly referred to as a racial ambulance chaser. No, the remark was repugnant and the outrage justified. One could say that Imus finally got what he deserved. In an ironic twist of fate, after years of playing Russian roulette, critics argued he finally caught the bullet.

But did he deserve the bullet, and why, after all those tumultuous years of deriding and, in many cases, defaming people, did this political and emotional tidal wave finally take him out? Race is the ultimate four-letter word in American society; after three centuries, it is still a hot button for the body politic. While it is true that African Americans are treated far better now than they were, say, forty years ago – lynchings and cross burnings are virtually a thing of the past – critics say that America still has a considerable way to go to mend the damage of that legacy. So when anyone, especially someone in the position of Imus, cracks a remark that touches a nerve among such an historically discriminated group, there are consequences that must be doled out.

But did the consequences fit the crime? Certainly no one with half a brain could argue that Imus should get off scott free for his remarks, but shouldn’t the actions that both NBC and CBS took over the last two weeks bare an equal and complicit review? As Warner Wolf would say, “Let’s go to the video tape.”

Wednesday, April 4, Imus is in the middle of a comedy bit with Bernard McGuirk when he utters his now infamous comment. Both laugh heartily, not realizing the under-water sea quake that they just started.

Thursday, April 5, Imus tells listeners to get over it; that it was just street language. The tsunami begins headed for the shore.

Friday, April 6, with protests coming into both WFAN and MSNBC officials, Imus issues an apology for the remarks. The tsunami picks up momentum and speed.

Monday, April 9, five days after the original remarks, NBC and CBS, within hours of each other, as if trying to out do each other, finally issue statements condemning the remarks as “deplorable.” A giant “duh” is heard emanating from the African American community. Both networks agree to suspend him for two weeks, the suspension to begin the following week. The wave is within striking distance of the shoreline. Later that day Imus goes on Al Sharpton’s radio show and with already one foot squarely in his mouth, he inserts the other foot by referring to both Sharpton and a black congresswoman as “you people.” Turn over steak and apply seasoning!

Wednesday, April 11, one full week after the initial insulting remarks, MSNBC decides to drop the Imus in the Morning show from its simulcast, effective immediately. Water recedes from the shoreline as on lookers see a massive wave off in the distance headed straight for them.

Thursday, April 12, late in the afternoon, CBS radio follows MSNBC’s lead and fires Don Imus. A statement issued by CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves, said, "From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset and repulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship with such class, energy and talent." The tidal wave finally sweeps ashore, taking out the man most thought to be impenetrable and indestructible.

While Moonves’ statement was accurate, if superficial, in its theme, why did it take over a week to issue? Was Don Imus any less insulting or repulsive last Wednesday when he made his comments? Of course not, but last Wednesday all he was was a loud-mouth shock jock who uttered another in a series of questionable remarks. No one at either network could have anticipated the groundswell of public outrage and furor that was to come. What is the most repulsive thing about this entire episode is not the fact that an aging white man uttered a phrase more commonly heard on a hip-hop album, but rather the conduct of both NBC and CBS. By waiting as long as they did to take action – five days! - they exacerbated an already tense situation, until, finally with sponsors bailing on them left and right, they had no choice but to remove Imus, just to stop the hemorrhaging. All the high-brow, altruistic comments made by both companies were nothing more than a feeble attempt to placate an outraged community who kept insisting on blood and the corporate sponsors, who were themselves concerned about their own image. Imus became the poster boy for all that was wrong with American race relations. Somebody please pass me the barf bag.

Ironically, the TRUE victims in this messy affair, the Rutgers’ Women’s Basketball Team, have proven themselves the only decent and courageous party. If anyone had a right to get on their high horse and scream for vengeance, it was those 10 young women and their coach. But instead of calling for Imus’ head, all of them wanted to meet the man who slandered them, and get to know him and hopefully give him a chance to know them. Their class and dignity, in an otherwise vulgar scenario, should have set an example for the country and laid the foundation for a true dialogue into the problems in our country. Instead the focus has been on Imus and his storied career.

In the end what got Imus canned was not so much his mouth, though it certainly played a role, but the underlying fear within corporate America that whatever rocks the boat and threatens the bottom line must be dealt with in the harshest of terms. In deed Imus’ greatest crime might have been that he bit the hand that fed him. The very same networks that financially benefited from his off-color humor and abrasive personality, when they saw their profits threatened, turned on him like a tiger eating its young. And like the tsunami that swept onto shore to devour the invincible, when it was finally done receded back into the ocean leaving in its wake the aftermath of its destruction.

Imus will be back, perhaps sooner than most expect. The backlash against his firing is already gaining its own sort of tsunami, though not nearly as big as the one that lead to his dismissal. And the reason he will be back is very basic and simple: he makes his employers money. You may call them shallow and transparent, but company executives know a cash cow when they see one. But when, and in what manner will he return? Will it be on terrestrial radio, or on satellite? Already there are rumors that Sirius may sign him. Sirius president Scott Greenstein was Imus’ old boss when the two worked at WNBC in the 1980s. It was Greenstein who signed Howard Stern to his multi-million dollar contract two years ago. Satellite radio might well prove the perfect venue for Imus to reconstitute his damaged reputation, and given what will prove to be a very rigid and carefully-watched landscape in both radio and television, might end up being the only outlet that will have him.

It has been said that politics make strange bedfellows. They got nothing on corporate America!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Lucinda Williams: West
(Lost Highway, 2007) B+

LIKE most major artists who have something relevant to say, Lucinda Williams has evolved over the years. In 1988, the shy, introspective 35 year old alt-country phenom from Lake Charles, Louisiana, arrived on the music scene and through sheer courage and strength of will propelled her self-titled debut into the best kept secret in pop music since Gram Parsons bumped Roger McGuinn from the Byrds, spawning in the process two of the best country hits never to hit number one in Nashville: "The Night's Too Long" and "Passionate Kisses."

Undaunted by the lack of airplay, she toured relentlessly over the next few years, and when she was finally ready, she released the beautiful, if dark, Sweet Old World. Williams’ perfectionism, her unwillingness to allow anything with her name on it to go out until she was completely satisfied, was a refreshing change of pace in an industry that spits out albums like bird seed in a pet store. Like the former album, once again airplay was sparse. But, over the years, Williams had developed a huge and loyal following of fans who came to admire and respect the principals she espoused in her songs. The nakedness of her singing, coupled with her ability to transcend pain into joy, to find something hopeful even when things don't often seem to be going your way may not have been what the record bizers wanted to hear, but the critics fell in love with her. Call her stubborn, but don't call her pretentious!

But it was 1998’s stunning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that finally brought her the recognition she so richly deserved. She won the grammy for best contemporary folk album the following year, and almost overnight her fan base doubled then tripled. Like it or not, she was now following in the grand tradition of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, with all the baggage that went along with it. No longer the best-kept secret among the alt-country scene, she was now among the most recognizable faces, not only of her genre, but in pop music in general.

Critics waited to see how she would handle it. They didn’t have to wait long. The next two albums, 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears, saw an artist being pulled toward compromise but never consumed by it. Both albums were easily her most accessible since her debut, but neither pushed the envelope in the way Car Wheels had. She was still the best at her craft, the best at letting her audience in to see her world, but now the engine that propelled her music was taking a fast lane. As Robert Christgau succinctly pointed out, “Like Dylan before her, she discovers how hard it is to write the simple ones.” Success hadn’t spoiled her, nor dulled her pen, put it did put a crimp in her style, which was always far more private than any of her fans or peers could have realized. The sweet old world she loved so much had gotten considerably smaller and a bit tarnished.

No wonder she took the next three years off before heading back to the studio to cut her next and latest album. Let’s cut right to the chase; West is nothing like she has ever recorded. It’s as different from her last two albums as Car Wheels was from Sweet Old World. But then that has always been Williams’ modus operandi. Familiarity and continuity are qualities she has never aspired to. Rather than try and reinvent past successes, she opts instead to reinvent herself. She can’t help but veer off in new directions; you could say it’s what’s kept her from falling victim to the same disease that has plagued lesser artists.

In past albums, however, Williams’ music, and more to the point, her words always drew you in, no matter how rustic they sounded. There was an attractiveness and charm to her songs that carried the listener regardless of the subject matter. West is about as unattractive and charmless an album as she has ever attempted. Not that attractiveness and charm are necessary ingredients to artistic integrity. Some of the greatest artworks are ugly, when they’re not down-right offensive. Maybe that is the problem. The album is neither attractive nor ugly. Robert Christgau has called it dull; I disagree. But it is, to put it mildly, uninvolving, even distant. I have played it three times, and still don’t know quite what to make of it. And there in lies the problem. Nothing on West leaps out and grabs you. Sure she can still write better than just about anybody out there, with the exception of Dylan, and maybe Amy Rigby, but I find myself too often straining to find significance or meaning in her lyrical landscape. I find myself respecting the songs more than enjoying them. Sure “Are You Alright” is a great song – one of her best ever, but Williams can’t build off of it. She seems mired in technique rather than the gut instinct, which has historically served her so well.

On the whole, the album passes muster, but more on talent than on delivery. Lucinda Williams is still one of the finest singer/songwriters of hers or any generation. That West will not be included among her finest albums, probably says more about her past achievements and the subsequent expectations they set for us and for her, than for any specific short-comings the album itself may have. Bruce Springsteen had similar triumphs and disappointments. Between 1973 and 1987, he released his three best albums, one of which - Born in the USA - was among the finest rock albums ever. However, he also released Greetings From Asbury Park and Darkness on the Edge of Town, proof that even the great ones are capable of pedestrian efforts. If West turns out to be Williams' Darkness, well that's fine with me. Like Springsteen, it just proves she's only human after all.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti, 2006) A.

REMEMBER when you were in school, there was always that kid who sat in the corner of the room, who never seemed to belong, who never participated in any of the class functions, who seemed aloof – perhaps detached would be a better word. He looked weird, as though someone forget to dress him properly in the morning. His grades were good, his attendance record above average, but there was just something about the guy that prevented you from getting to know him. Even the bullies would keep their distance. Then someone would crack a joke and from the corner of the room you’d hear a snicker – a half-muted laugh - from the guy. He was paying attention after all, he heard every word that was being spoken; he just chose that precise moment to chime in with his own two cents.

For 33 years now Tom Waits has been that kid in the corner of the room. The weird outcast who just didn’t seem to belong. Ever since Closing Time critics have been trying to classify his music and have failed miserably. And like the snickering kid who got the joke, even when the rest of us didn’t, Waits just kept on recording music his way: weird, aloof, detached from any genre or sub-genre the biz could concoct.

Not that there haven’t been sign posts where his music veered off in new and divergent paths. Swordfishtrombones represented for two decades the demarcation point between his bohemian, gin-soaked jazz/blues days (OK, that’s as close as I can get to defining what it was!) and the eclectic troubadour artiste he has been morphing into ever since. Not unlike his early albums, the music and the singing were ugly, except now it all seemed to make sense. Like a glove the warped sense of humor his fans have always cherished most about him came together brilliantly. That it even came into existence in the first place was owed directly to the persistence of then girlfriend, now wife, Kathleen Brennan, who after Asylum rejected the record, and then subsequently dropped Waits, convinced Island Records to give it a shot. The rest as they say in the biz is history.

But, whatever one may think of that record’s virtues, and I for one thought it had many, success, even for a recluse can be a hard road to travel. Rain Dogs, the follow-up, began for Waits a vicious cycle of vying for either an identity beyond what he had created or a recapturing of the moment of his greatness. For once in his life, he was the one telling the joke not merely laughing at it. Almost over night he had gone from the guy bumming a cigarette off of a patron to being able to buy the whole house a round. You could say he didn’t care, but you’d be wrong. For the next dozen or so years, he struggled artistically, even as his film career soared. It wasn’t until Mule Variations, 16 years later, that he finally seemed to make peace with himself. Again Brennan’s hand was evident. While I generally loath direct comparisons the album is a cross between the melancholy of Closing Time and the hope-filled minimalism of Swordfishtrombones. Imagine, an album about romanticism that isn’t self-indulgent; what a concept!

What followed was, you guessed it, more vying. Blood Money, Alice, and Real Gone showed he was more the romantic of Closing Time than the hopeful troubadour of Swordfishtrombones. Of the three, Blood Money was my pick. I’ve always operated under the premise that when in doubt less is more. Waits, for me, has always been at his best when he has aimed low. Grandiosity has, more often than not, boomeranged on him. You could say it has been his ambition that has gotten the better of him. But give the man some credit; his refusal to give up on himself as been his greatest attribute. He is indelible, if nothing else.

Which of course brings us to the main event: a 3-CD, 54-song album that reeks of grandiosity if ever any album did. A good album? Well let’s just say I wasn’t holding my breath. Then I played the damn thing. It was as if 33 years of music suddenly coalesced in front of me. This is the album the man has had in him for four decades, and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – let out. I have always suspected Waits of having multiple personalities, musically at least. Well now there’s proof.

Whether you subscribe to the theory that he is a mad man with a sentimental side, or a romantic lush with a mean streak, Orphans is proof of that age-old story of the chicken and the egg. The simple truth was and is that Waits is both. That it took him 33 years to finally come up with it is yet one more example of his indelibility. True Orphans started as a collection of outtakes - only 30 of the 54 songs are new, with 14 of the remaining appearing on other albums - but it quickly developed beyond that. The result was as ambitious a project as Waits as ever undertaken.

Seldom have I heard lyrics that speak of anguish and redemption along side revenge and cruelty. It’s as if Waits is sorry for pulling that girl’s hair in class, while at the same time enjoying the pain of the moment. Listen to the man’s own words: “What’s Orphans? I don’t know. Orphans is a dead end kid driving a coffin with big tires across the Ohio River wearing welding goggles and a wife beater with a lit firecracker in his ear.” He has always been the smart ass who couldn’t let on that he was a smart ass. This is his coming out party, if you will.

Pick a song, and you’ll probably find something of yourself in it. Disc two, Bawlers, is my personal favorite, and not merely for the Johnny Cash song “Down There By The Train” which Waits finally reclaims as his own. No, what impresses me most is how completely naked and vulnerable Waits allows himself to be. However gifted his music may have been, Waits has always had a problem letting his hair down. He has been guarded when it came to his emotions. He didn’t mind laughing at someone else’s jokes, but he shied away from self-reflection. He could tell “Martha” how much he still loved her after “forty years or more”, but look in the mirror and ask the obvious question, “Dude, why are you still living in the past?” Never! I suspect the answer was that the engine behind Waits’ lyrics has always been the regret of what might have been. Pain was OK, so long as it was somebody else’s pain. On Swordfishtrombones, the girl he just couldn’t live without in “Johnsburg, Illinois” was as close as he’s ever gotten to letting us in. But just to make sure we didn’t think him a sap, the next song on that album was “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six.” Waits could kill the ending to “Old Yeller” if you gave him half a chance.

Fortunately, on Orphans, his killer instinct, at least for now, has been shelved. The result is as secure and (gulp) mature an album as you will likely find. At 56, Waits has finally grown up. We finally get a chance to see him not as the recluse who didn’t fit in, but the scared kid that nobody bothered to get to know, who listened to everything everybody said, and who now has something relevant to say about his life that finally isn’t a punch line about somebody else’s. Like he says in the song, “I always take the long way home.” I’d say 33 years is long enough. Welcome home, Tom, stay a while.