Monday, November 22, 2021
Sunday, November 21, 2021
They were to the power trio what Neal Cassady was to drive. I consider Dick Peterson an able, if not great, bassist. Still, unquestionably, one of the most terrific white-blues screamers of all time--his singing was rage, self-pity, and uncontrollable impulse fused in each frayed, corrosive syllable he spat out. His bandsaw -on-steel vocals, joined with guitarist Leigh Stephens' PULVERIZING ATONAL GUITAR SOLOS and drummer Paul Whaley's trash can demolition, Peterson and crew lay the groundwork for a generation of metal and punk bands to come: MC5, STOOGES, MOUNTAIN, LED ZEP, RAMONES, MOTORHEAD, DEAD BOYS. Even the Velvet Underground, with their feedback skronk, couldn't match Blue Cheer's steel-belted forays into electrified abandon; the Velvets merely taunted the strings of their guitar, Blue Cheer sounded like they punched holes in oil tankers. And Peterson's vocalizations were the perfect match, screech, rasp, and banshee wail all rolled into one bag of verbal outrage, maintaining a punk's slouch. His was the rusty yowl that deserved to be praised and dreaded for the unflinching combination of fear and rage it represented.
Saturday, November 13, 2021
Soulful, soul searching, soul-bearing, soul matching, all terms to describe the singer-songwriters who write tunes less as candidates for hard rotation on the radio or various streaming services and more like updates on their status psyches. Much of it is endearing and attractive, depending on the artist's melodic craft and canny poetics we might be considering. Joni Mitchell? Yes. Paul Simon? Of course. Jackson Brown? Perhaps, provided what here from him is low dosage and brief. A little bit of information from the annals of someone’s psychic equilibrium goes a long way. There is a propensity among many a self-revealing artist to overshare, to dwell, to paint their remembrance in thick coats of idealized colors. Ecstasy or perpetual despair.
Made in Ojai by the duo Smitty and Julija (Smitty West and Julija Zonic), it is a tuneful disc, well-produced, lushly arranged, and highlighting the soulful vocals from the pair. The record is a mixed bag of results, with a few of the songs taking a long time to evolve into something more intriguing. “I Just Wanna Sing this Song with You” begins with doleful piano, simple arpeggio figures that dwell a shade too long, with the song easing in slowly to some crystalline vocal harmonies from West and Zonic. It is, though, a longish ballad of laying one’s heart to the glorious presence of another. The duo’s harmonies elevate the words and soar over the hesitant piano in the choruses, infusing the lyrics with heartfelt emotion. This song, though, drags when, I think, it should pick up the pace and rhythmically engage a listener in their joy, and regrettably, this is an element that hampers many of the other songs. Particularly the next song, “Let Her Go,” where the philosophical lesson of letting go of past loves, regrets, and missed opportunities to grow are lost in what becomes inevitable tedium.
Zonic has a fascinatingly vulnerable voice, suggesting a quiver, a quake, a certain fragility that suggests a trammeled soul that has gathered its wits and finds the words, the voice, the eventual wisdom to push on over the horizon. One wishes the song were more melodically proactive in the sentiment and less dirge-like. A listener exhausted by the excess of earnestness through these songs can take a rest with a nice bit of amusement, a tune called “Trust Fund Hippy.”This is a suitably and incisive dig into an obnoxious hipster indulging his counter-culture aesthetic with inherited money, oblivious to his own absurdity. Following suit, the music is up-tempo, with an old-time feeling, rather remindful of the Phil Ochs classic “Outside a Small Circle of Friends.” There is quite a bit to enjoy and admire in Made in Ojai, but one does wish they would have varied the fare, taken it beyond the confession box they seem comfortable in, and engaged their wittier instincts.
Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission.
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
In a feature in the current issue of Slate, Jack Hamilton adds some lighter fluid to the controversy slowly boiling over who was the better wordsmith for the Beatles, Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Not coincidental with the release of the pricy two-volume, slip-cased set The Lyrics where McCartney describes his authorship of 150 songs both for the Beatles and other projects, Hamilton, as one could expect, bucks conventional wisdom and argues that Sir Paul was the superior lyricist. Do you remember any time in your younger life when you wax incessantly, continuously, and oppressively about one album, one particular album, was the greatest album ever made and that super-great album is a work of art unlike any other we've ever seen as a species and the likes of which we will ever seen again? Do you remember forgetting about that extra-fantastic disc and then listening to years , maybe decades later, and then realizing it hasn't traveled through the ages as well as you claimed? And remember what you said at the time?
I remember my hyperbolic tantrums arguing the genius of many records I have since abandoned to resale shops long ago. That is what Hamilton's defense of McCartney's lyrics for the Beatles read like, a gushy mash note. Of course, the man had a way with words, but...please calm down... Like anyone else obsessed with what the Beatles have accomplished and how it was that they created a body of work without peer, I've dived into the weeds to determine who had the more outstanding mind and pen, John or Paul. After much scrutiny, cogitating, late nights scanning lyric sheets wearing headphones while the Beatles blared loudly and made my hearing even worse than it was, my conclusion is that it's a draw between the two.
As for songwriting partners and as lone authors of single songs while in the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney seemed an evenly matched pair as lyricists, with McCartney having a substantial edge for composing engaging and deceptively simple melodies. Lennon, to be sure, could write a lovely song as well and do so throughout the band's lifetime, but McCartney has the advantage. As Beatle lyricists, one can strongly argue that the two were equal for fluidity and agility of expression. Their distinct personalities gave the metaphorical Beatle Universe (with some exemplary additional contributions from George Harrison) a remarkably fresh and finally unpredictable take on the human experience. McCartney was a fine lyricist with the Beatles, and I'd even agree brilliant at times. Still, I believe the old saw that Sir Paul's best abilities as lyricist and melodist may well have remained dormant if Lennon hadn't become such a significant presence in his creative undertakings. And yes, I would agree Lennon might have remained yet another Rocker doomed for inevitable anonymity if he hadn't made McCartney's acquaintance. This will, without doubt, be argued about till the end of time. Notably, McCartney has been showing concern over his legacy as he approaches his final curtain, wanting the world to realize the weight of actual contribution to the Beatles' longevity, perhaps even a desire to take Lennon's reputation as the superior lyricist and intellect down a peg or two.
'Though fueled by resentment, I suspect, there is no getting away from the fact that the solo efforts by Lennon and McCartney, including struggles with Plastic Ono Band and Wings respectively, are depressingly substandard considered against the work they'd done for the Beatles. Of course, both bodies of post-Beatles music have pockets of the old magic, charisma, wit, and melodic bite. Still, Lennon had descended from the ranks of an artist to becoming merely a Professional Celebrity, an amazingly clueless personality whose lyric acumen was now little else but sloganeering no more subtle than a bumper sticker. McCartney, in turn, couldn't seem to write a cohesive song anymore; his song structures were erratic, jarring, disjointed, too often coming less well than office buildings abandoned during construction. His lyric writing was gibberish, and those who want to defend the words he wrote for Wings are doomed to come off as foolish wishful thinkers.