Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Secret Handshake

Trip and I were talking about this as I recapped the Replacements' show for him. In the grand scheme, the legion of 'Mats fans is relatively small, but if you're in, you're all in, and only another like-minded soul could ever understand. The Replacements are a secret handshake amid strangers. If you see a guy wearing a Replacements t-shirt (like Tyson, who I met at the airport on the way home), you immediately have hours' worth of conversation ready to roll.

Another one of those like-minded souls is our new pal Grant, whom Scott and I met in front of the stage that night. Grant managed to get an impressive camera rig through security, and he got some great shots, some of which we're pleased to share with you here (click on them to get a better view). For more, visit Grant's Flickr page. All photos here are courtesy of Conway Photography and subject to copyright.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Once More, With Subtitles

On Saturday night, in a dusty field, off a two-lane road, across a vast expanse of time, I saw the greatest rock and roll show ever played. You might want to disagree, but you weren't there. You're going to have to trust me.

Of course, you might also have to let me translate. If you don't speak the language of The Replacements, you'll never understand.

                        *                                  *                                  *

8,143 days. That's how much time passed between when I last saw The Replacements (June 6, 1991, Columbia, Missouri) and when I next did (September 21, 2013, middle of nowhere). That might seem like an eternity, but I could hardly have done better. The boys themselves took 8,088 days off.

In that span, Bob Stinson died, and Steve Foley died, and Alex Chilton died, and Slim Dunlap suffered an incapacitating stroke, and Chris Mars shut the door on a career in music. I graduated law school, got married, had one kid, then another, quit the practice, buried four grandparents and an aunt and an uncle, wrote a couple of books (one of which features Replacements' leader Paul Westerberg in a pivotal moment; if you're reading this, and I suspect you are, you'll love it, trust me), saw my dad drink himself to divorce and near-death, watched my mom persevere like a titan, welcomed three nieces to the family, became the PTA president, and went to my law school twenty-year reunion.

I also listened to the music they left behind more times than I could ever count.

For the uninitiated, a thumbnail sketch: Toward the end of the Carter administration, four guttersnipes from Minneapolis formed a band that was equal parts punk rock, cheap beer, A.M. radio and amphetamines. They were Paul, the singer, songwriter, rhythm guitar player, and accidental genius; Bob, the manic guitarist whose leads were "hotter than a urinary tract infection," as Paul once described them; Bob's thirteen-year-old bass-playing brother Tommy; and drummer Chris, the misfit elf who wanted to be a painter.

They made a string of indie-label albums that culminated in the classic Let It Be, then got signed to a major and released the equally transcendent Tim. Then Bob got kicked out of The Replacements for excessive drunkenness (which is akin to being booted from Duran Duran for excessive stylishness) and the band recorded one last great album as a trio (Pleased To Meet Me), before the affable and understated Slim Dunlap took Bob's place. After two more good-not-great records, they handed their gear to roadies on a Chicago stage on July 4, 1991, and walked out of our lives while the crew continued to play.

During those waning years of their existence, I felt closer to The Replacements than any band before or since. To be honest, I felt closer to them than I often felt to my family. It's not rational or reasonable, but it's true. Paul's songs didn't just speak to me, they spoke for me, articulating all the young-adult angst and anticipation that I felt but couldn't say, and it all sat atop a Stones-meets-Pistols buzz that hit me where I lived. "The words I thought I brought I left behind," he sang, "so never mind, all over but the shouting, just a waste of time." Even when he professed to be unable to say anything, he managed to say everything.

And he said those things in the nuanced way of reality, churning out songs that were, by turns, touching, terrifying, harrowing and hilarious. But -- and this is the thing -- no matter how often he evoked isolation or despair ("Within Your Reach," "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine"), the note that always lingered was hope. I can't hardly wait.

In January 1991, my friend Scott pried me out of the law library and stuffed me into a car and drove us to St. Louis, where the band was playing at the American Theater. We knew it was almost over. They were touring on an album that had started as a Westerberg solo project before the label intervened, and Chris had just been relieved of his post, replaced by Steve Foley. The Iraq War was underway, and I was feeling unsettled. I am old enough only to remember Vietnam as some vague thing that was happening when I was very young. I thought there would only be peace in our time.

Inside the theater, I expected to be disappointed, but proceeded to be amazed. They were like a champion athlete in twilight, summoning one last great performance. Paul snarled like he hated Steve, hated himself, hated everything, but he poured it all into the songs and gave them a shimmering, lingering resonance that I can still feel. After they finished the encore with a raging and poignant version of "I'm In Trouble," their very first single, we walked into the cold night grateful to have been there. We listened for echoes of that show when we saw them again, one last time, less than six months later, but we couldn't hear them. The Replacements were done.

                        *                                  *                                  *

But it turns out that I wasn't done with The Replacements. When I was twenty-two, I thought those songs were about what it was like to be young. But as I got older, I realized that they were about what it was like to be alive. Those feelings may diminish in intensity, may become less acute, but they never go away. Two decades down the line, I have a life that's far better than I deserve, with no good reason ever to be unhappy. But sometimes I still am. Even though I'm loved, sometimes I feel alone. Even after a success, I fear the next failure.

In late 1993, Paul appeared on Saturday Night Live to promote his first solo album. And for reasons I still don't understand, the second song he played wasn't from that record, but instead was "Can't Hardly Wait," one of The Replacements' very best songs, achingly gorgeous and wistful. Paul seemed triumphant, about to experience the kind of success that he had managed to sabotage at every turn with the band. That night, that song was a lifeline to me. I was newly married and beginning my career, beginning my life as an adult, and I was overwhelmed. I felt down deep that this was not the life for me (the professional one, that is; the personal life still flourishes). The performance left me reeling for days, but I still felt the hope implicit in it.

After that, I followed each of the band members for a while, from albums that went from really good to not particularly, with a frequency that went from every few months to every so often. And then, each of The Replacements seemed to recede from my life. Nobody played those songs anymore. It's like they ceased to exist.

But it turns out that those songs were just crammed into a closet like precariously-stacked toys. And then a few weeks ago, someone opened the door and they all came tumbling out along with Paul Westerberg, who performed a perfectly-executed forward roll and stuck the landing on the downbeat in front of the microphone just in time to sing "Stay right there/Go no further/Don't call a doctor/Don't call my mother!"

                        *                                  *                                  *
And now, the show, with subtitles.

In their typical why-succeed-when-failure-is-an-option? style, after years of turning down offers to reunite, Paul and Tommy decided they would get back together for three shows only (at least to date), headlining a low-key, predominantly punk rock festival with stops in Toronto, Chicago and a place hilariously inaccurately billed as Denver. No New York or Los Angeles, or even hometown Minneapolis. No Bonnaroo or Coachella or Lollapalooza. Nope, just Riot Fest in god-forsaken Byers, Colorado, an hour east of Denver, smack in the dusty, rusty pre-mountain flats (to the Chamber of Commerce: I'm sure Byers has its charms; no need to write).

Scott, my companion at those 1991 shows, has lived in Denver for two decades. This, friends, is what we call fate. We would attend the third and final Replacements reunion show.

The rest of what happened on Saturday is largely irrelevant, but just know that it was a hot, windy, dusty, grueling day. We had been there for ten hours before our heroes took the stage, and we are, ahem, older than we used to be. We were going to need the band to carry us to the finish. Little did we know.

Three stages were set up more or less in a row, and The Replacements were set to cap the day on the far left. After the Creed-meets-Cure outfit AFI finished playing there, and the crowd moved over to the next stage to see Iggy and The Stooges (who I would have crawled to see on any other day), we made our way down front, three bodies from the rail, just off center, and held our ground for the next seventy minutes, chatting with pilgrims who had traveled from as far as Eugene, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, while waiting for The Stooges to wrap up their set.

This is what happened next, in roughly chronological order.

What happened: The house lights fell, Frank Sinatra sang "That's Life," and Paul and Tommy emerged from the wings with new members Josh Freese and David Minehan. Each wore a day-glo orange cowboy hat and garish western shirt, with Paul and Tommy sporting long pink skirts.

What this means: (1) It's on; and (2) the spirit of Bob is in the house. Curious sartorial choices were a staple of the band at its wild-eyed best, including the infamous 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance in which the four original members exchanged clothes between songs and earned a temporary ban from NBC for their offstage behavior. Bob Stinson possessed an especially quirky sense of fashion, sometimes performing in a dress or a diaper.

When Paul and Tommy show up in skirts, that's your cue to hold on tight.

What happened: The band launched into a thunderous, gnat's-ass-tight version of "Takin' A Ride," a snot-caked slab of punk pop, and the first song on their first album.

What this means: We're going back to the beginning, back to when no one knew us or cared, to an album no one bought, and you're going to love it. We did. In fact, four of the first five tunes will come from their debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, including "Shiftless When Idle," which they apparently had neither played nor practiced since getting back together.

It certainly sounded like it, but in the best possible way.

What happened: Early in the set, between songs, Paul looked at his bass player and said "Hey Tommy, you know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby," eliciting a laugh from the forty-six-year-old man who helped found the band as a thirteen-year-old kid. Then Paul added "Far be it from me to give you shit for being in Van Halen."

What this means: The hatchet has been buried. Since 1998, Tommy has been Axl's chief lieutenant in the current incarnation of Guns N' Roses. At one point, this appeared to cause some friction between the two, as Paul publicly carped about Tommy's career choice as hired gun in the Big Rock Machine. It may have been jealousy or insecurity or lead-balloon humor, but it seemed to sour the relationship. That's over now.

As an aside, Paul, now fifty-three, looks better than he ever has, handsome even. Sober, fit, refreshed. He has also clearly been itching to plug in and turn up. These are all good things.

What happened: Ten songs into the set, the band plays "Androgynous," and Paul forgets some of the words.

What this means: Sing-along! In truth, the whole show was a sing-along. I was astonished at how all of those words poured out across the gulf of time, deeply imbedded memories surging to the surface. On the quietest song of the night, it was especially evident. This is the only video I shot (notice how close we were), and you can hear it clearly. Those aren't just words going back to the stage. That's love.

What happened:  The band played "Love You Till Friday," interspersed with Chuck Berry's "Maybelline."

What this means: There's nothing new here. This is some primal, primordial shit. This is the Beatles in Hamburg, tapping into the most elemental, exciting thing that has ever been created, making it scream like a symphony for chainsaws, and imbuing it with a majesty that three chords should not possibly possess. "Love You Till Friday" is the second least-consequential original song played all night (only the outtake "Wake Up" will be more obscure), but, good lord, is it spectacular.

What happened: They did not play "Unsatisfied."

What this means: They are no longer unsatisfied.

What happened: The band hit the home stretch.

What this means: The most undeniable string of songs any current band on the planet can play. It starts with "Little Mascara," a gem from side two (remember sides?) of Tim that hums like an American muscle car. During this stretch, Paul will (among other things), try to sing while eating, attempt to play guitar while holding a cigarette, and nearly drown while holding a water bottle upside down in his teeth while trying to simultaneously hydrate and play. Miraculously, he survives.

What happened: "Left of the Dial," that's what happened.

What this means: I didn't know how I was going to react to the show. When it was first announced, I was excited but also wary. The Replacements were great, but that was a long time ago. Might it not be better to just leave it alone? Then I thought I might get overwhelmed. I am not a man prone to emotion, but when I saw YouTube clips of the first reunion show in Toronto, I'll confess to a tear welling in the eye. But from the first note of "Takin' A Ride," all I felt was joy until we got to "Left of the Dial." If you want to hear one song that represents The Replacements, this is it. It's loud, lovely, wistful, sad and hopeful. But then comes the final verse, with Paul signing "pretty girl keep growing up/playing makeup/wearing guitar/growing old in the bar/you grow old in the bar," and it hits me just like it does every time, an arrow through the heart. The song came out in 1985, but Paul saw the future. We did grow old, and I know it, and I can feel the constriction in my chest and the cold rush through my face, all of the stuff the band has represented to me over time (and, let's face it, they have represented my life) comes to the surface. I keep it together, but just barely.

What happened: "Can't Hardly Wait."

What this means: I was at a dinner party a few months back, and all the guests were asked to provide three songs, one that represented childhood, one for the coming-of-age years, and one for the married-with-kids period, and "Can't Hardly Wait" was my coming-of-age tune. It was there for me in that crisis time of transition to adulthood, it was there at the center of my novel, and it showed up here again, just where it belonged.

What happened: The set ended with "Bastards of Young."

What this means: This is their "Born to Run," their full-throated, big-hearted anthem. It opens with a guitar figure that is a musical battle cry, and a first line that neatly encapsulates the band's career: "God, what a mess, on the ladder of success." It is relentless and raging. Paul, again for reasons unknown, decides to bang on his guitar with his shoe while Minehan plays the solo (see below at 1:59), to Tommy's great delight. The song, as always, ends in cacophony, and the band exits the stage.

What happened: While the lights were down, I saw the flash of Paul's pink skirt dart behind the drum kit.

What this means: "Hootenanny" is coming.

Hootenanny, the band's third album, was the great leap forward. It's not exactly professional, but it's focused and brilliant. "Hootenanny," the song that gives the album its name, is a glorious mess that features the members of the band playing each other's instruments. Paul pounds the skins like a caveman and shouts "it's a hootenanny!" over and over again. On this night, with Paul behind the drums, drummer Josh Freese takes the bass, and bassist Tommy Stinson takes Paul's guitar and then leans Paul's microphone stand across the drum kit at an angle that results in Paul singing into his crotch.

It is magical.

What happened: Well, it's hard to explain, but let's give it a shot, augmented by the video below. When Josh Freese makes a move to retake his drum kit, Paul waves him off so he can continue to sit. This is the segment of the show where they start making stuff up. By the time I was old enough to see the band the first time around, they were an intermittently professional unit. I never saw one of the legendary drunken shows, but I've heard the recordings of several. This was a little like that. Our pal Pete would call it shambolic, and he would be right. As the band fumbles for something to play, Tommy fishes out the riff to "Detroit Rock City" and the others join in. Sort of. And when that falls apart, he plays the intro to The Who's "Substitute" (at least one online recap lists them as playing "Ace of Spades" in between, but that's more than a stretch; judge for yourself). Paul does a spastic Keith Moon imitation and nearly falls off the stool, then jumps off the riser, grabs his microphone from the stand, and attempts a Roger Daltrey mic-twirl. But on the first spin, the microphone flies off the cord and slams into the stage, Paul's big rock and roll move having gone appropriately, spectacularly wrong. Tommy laughs uncontrollably, while a bemused Paul picks up the mic and tosses it into the crowd. The band then walks off the stage, never to return. In Toronto and Chicago, they wrapped up with "I.O.U.," but here they skip it, which seems fitting. They owed us nothing.

Scott and I then walk out into the night like we did in St. Louis more than twenty-two years ago, just as awestruck as then, but somehow wiser and happier.

What this means: The Replacements live on.

What this means to me: More than you could ever know.

(Michael's novel XL is available at Amazon and all the familiar places)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Joe Strummer Nails The Ramones

"We learned a lot off of The Ramones... how not to muck around on the stage. When the Ramones number started, it started there! When it ended, it ended there! They didn't spend hours shambling around, scratching themselves... ya know, there's a lot of this casual behavior is considered cool now - yeah, but I wonder if it's rooted in cool or rooted in just... ineptitude."

   ------  Joe Strummer, 2002
Not only does the video perfectly capture the essence of The Ramones, but it reveals the massive heart of Joe Strummer.

Friday, April 26, 2013

# 15 - The Weeks - Gutter Gaunt Gangster

With the countdown to Dear Bo Jackson at mere days (out April 30th), it's time to celebrate The Weeks stopgap EP, Gutter Gaunt Gangster, that reintroduced the band in 2012, four years after their promising debut, Comeback Cadillac. We already proclaimed "The House That We Grew Up In" the song of the summer, but sadly that won't get a third go round on the new album. Nor will "Slave to The South", a mournful ballad that seems to celebrate a life that can only be embraced by leaving it behind.

I'd like to give Dear Bo Jackson Teenage Kicks highest rating... two ears open. It's out this Tuesday and you should buy it.

The Weeks - "Slave to The South" (from Gutter Gaunt Gangster)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

# 16 - Gentleman Jesse - Leaving Atlanta

What happens when you wait 3 years to release a follow-up to a little heard gem of a power pop debut? You wind up # 16 on some doofus blog's year's best list. This is the skinny tie hearbeat perfected by the likes of 20/20, Richard X. Heyman and The Knack -with a jittery, Red Bull buzz upping the ante. Using the time honored trick of delivering bad news and bad breaks with a cotton candy coating, Leaving Atlanta is the missing link for anyone who pines for Poptopia and  swallows Yellow Pills whole.

Gentleman Jesse - "What Did I Do" (from Leaving Atlanta)

Richard X. Heyman - "Falling Away" (from Hey Man!)

50 Days

Yep - that was a quick 50 days (over 7 weeks, almost 2 months) between # 18 and # 17. As a treat for those still following (both of you), here's one of the songs from the Titus Andronicus Record Store Day release. When they played it in concert, they called it their "Free Energy song". It's lyrically slight, musically derivative ("Dyslexic Heart" anyone?) and sounds like a throwaway. And of course it's fantastic...

Titus Andronicus - "(I've Got A) Date Tonight" - (from Record Store Day)

Paul Westerberg - "Dyslexic Heart" - (from Singles Soundtrack)

# 17 - The Walkmen - Heaven

Instead of keeping us at arm's length with a cool reserve, The Walkmen invite us in for a warm embrace in their most personal, most commerical, most accomplished record yet. I think this is the album I'd hoped U2 might have made after The Joshua Tree.

"Song for Leigh" just crushes... Heaven indeed.

The Walkmen - "Song for Leigh" (from Heaven)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ben Kyle House Concert Tonight in Media!

I can't guarantee "Danny Boy", "The Parting Glass" or "The Irish Rover", but tonight's intimate show in Media will surely gain its share of converts to Ben Kyle's contemplative balladry. Ben Kyle is an ex-Pat Irishman who now calls Minneapolis home, although his Belfast roots shine through his tightly constructed story songs sung with an evocative Gaelic lilt. After three albums with his alt country band Romantica, plus an exquisite duets album with Texas sweetheart Carrie Rodriguez, Kyle struck out on last year's solo debut, Ben Kyle. The album deals with the push and pull of creating a solid home life for his family with the vagabond lifestyle that is the calling card of most touring musicians. The result is spare and touching, with the bare minimum of accompaniment.

Tonight's shindig is a Sixth Street Concerts event, which means it's a super cozy house concert in Media. Show starts at 8:00, will be over by 9:30 and will still provide ample time to get your Irish on in one (or more) the approximately 3,000 bars in Delaware County featuring Irish music tonight.

Sixth StreetConcerts - call 610-627-0670 for reservations.

Here is a sweet sampler of Ben Kyle's music:
Romantica - "There She Goes" (from It's YourWeakness That I Want)
Romantica - "The National Side" (from America)
Romantica - "Tonight I'm Leaving You for Love"(from Control Alt Country Delete)
Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle - "Unwed Fathers" (from WeStill Love Our Country)
Ben Kyle - "The Hills of England" (from Ben Kyle)


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

# 18 - fun. - Some Nights

Back in 2006, I called Dog Problems by The Format the best album of 2006... ahead of Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady. I might want a do-over on that one.

I still love Dog Problems, and now the decade-long gestating overnight stardom of Nate Ruess (lead singer for both The Format and fun.) has propelled fun. to superstardom on the back of their massive smash "We Are Young", surely to be a generational touchstone once the aughts' hangover recedes a decade from now.

# 19 - The Lumineers - The Lumineers

I really like The Lumineers debut. I really do (take a look... it's # 19!). But how the heck did they get so popular, so fast? Is it Mumford mania pulling them along? Guess how many views the video for "Hey Ho" has? If you guessed 24 million, you'd be half right. I say "God bless The Lumineers", but keep it real kids, I don't want this to be your Cracked Rear View.

The Lumineers - "Classy Girls" (from The Lumineers)

# 20 - The School - Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything

If you ever wondered what would have happened if Brian Wilson had produced The Shirelles, take a listen to The School. It's all bubbly melodies, lovesick lyrics and kitchen sink production - guaranteed to make you feel like you are listening to Hyski on WIBG or George Michael on WFIL. Groovy.

The School - "Why Do You Have to Break My Heart Again?" (from Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything)

Vinyl nerds... check out this video. Graded VG+.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

# 21 - Nicki Bluhm - Driftwood

For those miss Laurel Canyon songbirds like Linda Ronstadt, Karla Bonoff and Joni Mitchell, may I present Nicki Bluhm, sweetheart of the radio. Her second album, Driftwood, is a slow burn that features the year's best duet, "Stick With Me" featuring her husband, Mother Hips main man Tim Bluhm. And she was bringing back bangs way before Michelle.

Nicki Bluhm - "Stick With Me" (from Driftwood)

# 22 - The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter

Despite the huge misstep of "Paul Newman vs. The Demons", which was probably a natural defensive reaction to the scattered "sellout" cries that greeted I And Love and You, the Avett Brothers continue their hot streak with their death-obsessed The Carpenter. Despite the mind boggling success of americana sensations Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers, the Avetts remain the realest deal.
The Avett Brothers - "The Once and FutureCarpenter"

# 23 - Joe Pug - The Great Despiser

Joe Pug is a self-effacing young singer songwriter who gives away his music for free, tours like an old school troubadour and talks of his debut album "escaping" rather than being leaked. There's a humanity and forcefulness in his songwriting that sparks that rare combination of being tender but not sappy. His second album, The Great Despiser", features 10 original songs and one killer cover, "Deep Dark Wells", that shines a light on unknown Texan wordsmith, Harvey Thomas Young.

# 24 - Shark Tape - 2 EP's (+)

Philadelphia's Shark Tape self released 2 ep's and a digital single (ten songs) that together combined to make the 24th best lp of 2012.  You could look it up. Combining the early 80's moody angst-ridden shimmer of Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes with a dash of Westerbergian flair, Shark Tape is angling for Next Big Thing status in 2013. Check out this video for "Put Those Things Away"... the only bummer is that it's not introduced by Martha Quinn.

# 25 - American Aquarium - Burn.Flicker.Die

American Aquarium lead singer P.J. Barham looks like the booze-bombed spawn of Tim Matheson and Ryan Adams, but luckily for us he evokes the gritty, lovable loser side of Ryan Adams that we fell in love with in early Whiskeytown. The protagonist in "Savannah Almost Killed Me" falls for a girl who was "A Bette Davis double / With diamonds on her knuckles / She knew every word to "Born to Run"". My kind of girl. My kind of guy.

American Aquarium - "Savannah Almost Killed Me"  (from Burn.Flicker.Die)

Teenage Kicks Belated Top 25 of 2012

My friend Sarah says that by the first week of January it is too late to post a best of 2012 list. I think she's right. But she is industrious and hard working and I am not, so therefore I bring you the top 25 albums of 2012 in the first week of March. Three titles battled it out for the top spot and ultimately a traditional, second generation artist took the crown. So without messing around, I'll start with # 25 and work my up (down?) to # 1.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In which Michael listens to the Beatles on vinyl for the first time

There is not a single note in the magnificent Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set that is new to me. I have long owned all of it - every song they released during their life as a band - on CD. And I've owned it all in the same configurations, this mixture of British, American and universal releases that became codified as The Beatles Catalog when the music was first issued on compact disc in 1987.

I could not possibly guess the number of hours I have spent listening to these albums over the past quarter-century.

I couldn't even estimate the number hours I've spent listening over the past two-and-a-half years, from the moment I saw Paul McCartney play live and went on a fully-immersive bender that prompted me to read book after book after book about the band, and even incorporate a whole lot of explicit Beatles worship into my novel XL (which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other fine retailers).

So when I opened the vinyl set on Christmas, even though I knew if was coming, I could feel the same sort of swell I felt when I heard Paul's band play the opening notes to "A Day in the Life."

This isn't an act of nostalgia for me. Though this music was ever-present in my childhood, it wasn't the music of my childhood. I was born too late, between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. I gained musical consciousness only after the Beatles split. I knew their songs, but never owned their records. I had a few cassettes - 20 Greatest Hits, Abbey Road, the American version of Revolver, or as we Americans called it at the time, Revolver - but never a bit of vinyl. Just little tapes in nondescript packages, album covers no bigger than baseball cards.

But, oh my, the music. I listened to Revolver over and over, in my room, in the car, anywhere a cassette player could be found or lugged. And I could not have believed that anything was missing. I listened to "Eleanor Rigby" and "Here, There and Everywhere" and could barely believe that music could be so beautiful. I heard "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" and ruefully acknowledged that the awful stories about LSD were probably true.

And then one day I was watching the old Beatles cartoons on MTV and this came on (jump ahead to 2:45 if you must).

It blew my mind in every way, combining power and melody into the perfect rock and roll song. I had never heard it before. I never knew. To my knowledge, no one ever knew.

Now, of course, everyone knows. Or at least everyone who cares to know. I can't imagine what goes on in the mind of someone who doesn't care to know.

Upon returning home after Christmas, I methodically, chronologically worked my way through the collection. After listening to one record, I unwrapped the next and listened to it, a ritual repeated through fourteen albums, including two two-record sets. And each one revealed something new to me, even after all this time. Here's how it went.

Please Please Me: Pick it up. Look at the full-sized cover for the first time. Notice that (unlike the CD) the word "stereo" appears on the top right corner in that stylized sixties font, a feature consistent on the first six albums. Look closer. It's impossible not to notice how young they look, Paul and George especially, virtually schoolboys. Peel the plastic. Pull out the plain white sleeve. Only a transparent circle revealing the label suggests anything momentous. Long Playing * Parlophone * Stereo it says in grandiloquent script. Put the record on the turntable and drop the needle. It starts with a "1-2-3-4!" Just an ordinary count-in, but to hear it now, knowing what we know, with the hard emphasis on the "4," it sounds like a declaration. We four, forever. The first song features Paul singing "I Saw Her Standing There." The last features John shredding "Twist and Shout." You don't have to know much history to understand that a revolution has just begun.

With the Beatles: The iconic cover, faces in shadow against a black backdrop. In just eight months since the first album, the cherubs somehow achieved gravitas. A half-century later, project yourself into the mindset of the time. It must have seemed audacious, almost aggressive. Long-haired bubblegum punks, purveyors of "yeah-yeah-yeah" poetics, demanding to be taken seriously. If the cover doesn't convince you, drop the arm on side one, feel the stomp of "It Won't Be Long." That must have sounded like heavy metal in 1963.

A Hard Day's Night: After thinking about this stuff for thirty years, I start to have some realizations. First off, this is a great album. I always knew that, of course, but I mean it more profoundly. The talk of great Beatles albums usually starts with Rubber Soul and marches forward chronologically. Before 1965, the single was the great artistic and commercial expression, with the album a way to express a little more cash from the consumer's pocket. But this one is so consistent, cohesive and propulsive that it deserves consideration along with its brethren. And this notion strikes me most forcefully when I flip to side two. For the past quarter-century, this had been a single album to me. Now it's two sides. And side two is what seals the deal. Side one has the more famous songs ("A Hard Day's Night," "Can't Buy Me Love"), but side two is a barrage of lesser-known gems that makes the entire record essential listening. We've long heard about the rifle-shot snare that vaults Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited through the speaker and into your mind, but Ringo's blast that kicks off side two preceded it by a year. And in that song, "Any Time at All," the genius of John's singing is reaffirmed. He does for the voice what electrification did for the guitar, imprinting it with the gritty distorted sound that differentiated this generation's music from all that came before. The whole second side (really, the whole album) belongs to John, with "When I Get Home" and "You Can't Do That" hitting with the same power as "Any Time at All," and "I'll Be Back" ending the affair on a wistful note, sounding like a real album closer.

When contemplating the cohesiveness of A Hard Day's Night, it strikes me that this is the band's first great leap forward. Between 1963 and 1964, Lennon and McCartney found their voice as songwriters. There are great songs on the first two albums, no doubt, but considerably less maturity. Another thought strikes me: While I knew before that this is the first Beatles album to consist solely of original songs, I suddenly realize that this is the only album in the entire catalog to consist entirely of Lennon and McCartney tunes (no George or Ringo here). I'm sure I'm not the first person to note that, but it helps explain the record's seamless, unified perfection.

Beatles for Sale: The fourth album by the four is the first to feature a gatefold cover, and it includes four photos of the full band (front cover, back cover, front inside cover, back inside cover). Have at it, numerologists. Compared to A Hard Day's Night, the record seems disjointed, with six cover songs among its fourteen tracks. "Eight Days a Week" is the album's most famous track, but "What You're Doing" is the most interesting, a McCartney original with a soaring vocal in which he combines melody and power like never before, while the band crafts a guitar sound that the Byrds will make a career of. The primacy that John owned within the band on the previous record is gone, never to return.

Above the second of the four photos, the liner notes manage to sound audacious while still somehow underestimating the band. Derek Taylor, the band's PR man, writes:

There's priceless history between these covers. . . . When, in a generation or so, a radio-active, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about - 'Did you actually know them?' -don't try to explain all about the long hair and the screams! Just play the child a few tracks from this album and he'll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today.

At that time, music recording was still in its relative infancy, and the notion that a piece of popular music would continue to resonate four decades into the future must have seemed preposterous (not many folks in the 1960s were listening to recordings from the 1920s). But here we are, well past AD 2000, and we're still listening to it, studying it, and (in some cases) worshipping it. My kids were both born after AD 2000, and they love these songs. My daughter plays them on the piano. And if these kids and their friends carry this music with them throughout their lives (and there's no reason to think that they won't), these three-minute pop artifacts will endure into a second century. Mull that over for a minute.

Help!: The fifth album, the fifth consecutive one to include a back-cover pitch for Emitex record cleaner (I use Discwasher, thanks), and the last to include songs authored outside the band. The final original song on the record is among the most celebrated of all time. It's easy to gloss over the majesty of "Yesterday" having heard it so many times, but listen for a minute and focus on the simplicity. "Yesterday" and "Suddenly" are the only two words in the song longer than two syllables. Only nine others - troubles, away, believe, shadow, hanging, over, wouldn't, something, easy - are longer than one. It's just a wisp of a song, but as insistent a piece of popular music as there has ever been. These are the things you think about as you watch a record spin.

Rubber Soul: Hints that this is the great transitional album are right on the cover. The moptops are wild, exaggerated, representing not style but freedom. Inside, there's no era-defining hit, just fourteen songs that explore new territory ("Norwegian Wood," "In My Life") and hold together like a unit.

The first note about sound: I'm not one who will proselytize about the virtues of vinyl and how it sounds so much better than a compact disc. But good lord does this record sound great. The depth, richness, warmth and roundness are spectacular. Paul's bass bounces and thrums, and there's a perceptible sense of space. I've always thought this was a great-sounding album, but it's a spectacular-sounding record.

Revolver: The most radical piece of pop-art I know (Highway 61 Revisited is the only other contender), and a brave one, too, as the world's most popular entertainers defiantly lay waste to their audience's expectations. Sonically, I don't hear anything new on the vinyl (except, perhaps, for a greater focus on McCartney's jaw-dropping bass playing on "Taxman"), just the blueprint for all that comes after, with Paul's genius for formalism, John's revolutionary gift for rock and roll abstraction, and George's growing confidence and consciousness (his first raga!) colliding and showering sparks that no other band could hope to match.

It's when I flip over to the back cover, which I had never before seen, that I have a revelation. I already knew that the template for Oasis's music could be found in the album's grooves. Now I see that the template for the band's visual aesthetic can be found on the back.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: A CD booklet, no matter how lovingly executed, can never match the grandeur of a record sleeve. This one opens up to reveal the boys in their moustaches and their silks, and the front cover reveals details I'd missed before. I had never noticed that the figure of Shirley Temple on the right edge is dressed in a Rolling Stones sweater, for instance. And it comes with the original cutouts (moustache, badge, etc.) that no right-minded person would ever actually cut out. There's Sonny Liston on the front, and Bob Dylan and Lewis Carroll and on and on. The record, unfortunately, is less impressive. The spindle hole on my copy is drilled slightly off-center, which makes for some unpleasant distortion the deeper you get into each side. It's the only dud disc in the box. I'll be ordering a replacement.

Magical Mystery Tour: A nice touch. Because this is the American version, the label says Capitol instead of Parlophone. If you don't already know the reason, you almost certainly don't care, but the short version is that the original British release was a six-song double EP that featured only songs from the film, while the American version added non-LP singles. On CD, the thing has never quite held up as an album, but on vinyl, side two is a juggernaut, one of the greatest compilation records ever released.

The White Album: After listening on CD for all these years, it strikes me that I don't know where the breaks are on this double album. In my mind, I hear "Martha My Dear" right after "Happiness is a Warm Gun," but on vinyl, you have to flip the record in between them. Which is good, because nothing should have to follow that song.

Yellow Submarine: This is how great the Beatles were. You don't want to own this album, but you have to. Because if you don't own it, you don't have the complete catalog, and if you don't have the complete catalog you're a casual fan, and who can be casual about this stuff? I mean, you already have "Yellow Submarine" on Revolver and "All You Need is Love" on Magical Mystery Tour, and side two doesn't contain a single note of Beatles music, but still you have to have it because if you don't, you don't have "Only a Northern Song" and "It's All Too Much" (which are kind of dreary) or "All Together Now" (which is kind of slight), or "Hey Bulldog" (which is all kinds of brilliant). And the best thing about the LP is the back of the sleeve, in which they implicitly acknowledge the weightlessness of the project by running Derek Taylor's review of . . . The White Album.

Abbey Road: The downside to the pristine sound is the "shoot me" that John repeatedly whispers before each verse is wince-producing in light of what happened eleven years after the album's release. The upside is that, instead of the second half of the CD, side two of Abbey Road is side two of Abbey Road, the most spectacular and emotionally-cathartic twenty-three minutes in pop music.

Let it Be: "This is a new phase BEATLES album" the back cover declares, and I suppose the end of the band is technically a new phase, but, crikey, what a bummer. Phil Spector has taken his share of crap for the goop he glopped all over "The Long and Winding Road," but my main takeaway is how direct and immediate the record sounds. He made no effort to create a wall of sound. Instead, on the likes of "I've Got a Feeling," the fourth wall is obliterated, and you're right there with the band.

Past Masters: The end of the story starts at the beginning, with "Love Me Do" (in sparkling mono), then progresses through every officially-released A-side, B-side, and bit of ephemera that don't show up on the albums. As stunning as any of the lovingly-crafted albums, it moves forward, gathers momentum, tells a story, blows the mind, "She Loves You" to "Hey Jude" in twenty-one easy steps. But for all the titanic songs here ("I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Paperback Writer," "Revolution") it's fittingly subversive that a set that includes the entire output of the band ruled the world should end with "You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)," the one time they rolled tape with the sole purpose of amusing themselves. Play us out, boys.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Weeks - "The House We Grew Up in" is Your New Favorite Song

Signed to Kings of Leon's imprint, Serpents and Snakes, The Weeks reek of the same good-time southern booze-soaked grime the Kings took to the bank, but don't let that deter you. The Weeks follow their own path, mixing Mississippi hillbilly soul with Nirvana's loud/quiet/loud explosions (check out "Buttons" on their debut, Comeback Cadillac). Lead singer Cyle Barnes, loping around the stage like a Rebel Jeff Spicoli, looks like the bastard love child of Matt Dillon and Slapshot's Hanson brothers and sings in a carefree emo-acid drawl.

Their show this past Saturday at Philadelphia's Milkboy was a revelation, as it far surpassed their ramshackle early recordings (major props to my nephew T, who's been singing this band's praises for 4 years and was the catalyst for this show). The Weeks are getting better by the second, as you'll see by the different versions of "The House We Grew Up In", the latter version from Gutter, Gaunt Gangster EP that came out last year. I am guessing this will also be on their upcoming album, the wondrously titled Dear Bo Jackson, out April 30. It's a bar band anthem crawling in the hazy morass of touring tedium and shenanigans, buffed to a bright sheen with a big, bouncy chorus - absolutely perfect for whatever still constitutes rock radio. Is it too early to call it the song of the summer? Nah, it's never too early to call for anything summer when the wind chill hovers in the single digits. They can't stop them.

Listen here:

The Weeks - "The House We Grew Up In" (from Gutter, Gaunt Gangster)
The Weeks - "The House We Grew Up In" (from Comeback Cadillac)

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Rilo Kiley New (Old) Album This Year... Or Day 2, Crush 2

Rilo Kiley posted the following message on their facebook page last week:
"Record is almost finished, and artwork is nearly done. Going to need your help! More to come."

One of the great aughties bands, Rilo Kiley mixed alt folk with Brill Building pop accessible enough to appeal to the beardo, designer-glass wearing Pitchfork mob as well as the suburban NPR dinner crowd. Their not-so-secret weapon was Jenny Lewis, who was the indie max crush prior to Zooey.

The new record is said to be a compilation of b-sides and stray tracks. Here's hoping it contains the first widespread release of the Initial Friend ep, a widely bootlegged disc that fetches big bucks on eBay.

Rilo Kiley - "Frug" (Initial Friend EP)
Rilo Kiley - "The Absence of God" (from More Adventurous)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Hello 2013, Allo Darlin

Here's a band that I thought might gain traction with the Mumford/Avetts/Lumineers americana faction - Engand's Allo Darlin', featuring transplanted Aussie Elizabeth Morris singing as adorably as possible. Their 2012 release Europe will be near the top of my forthcoming best of the year album list. Check out this acoustic recording courtesy of the folks at Here on Out Sessions.
Allo Darlin' - "Darren" (from Darren cd single)