Reviews, January 2013

Books

NEIL YOUNG
WAGING HEAVY PEACE
(BLUE RIDER PRESS)
Of those who have a certain last name, it is said that no matter how old they get, they will forever be Young. None has borne that out as publicly as rocker Neil Young, despite his current shaggy-oldsterin- plaid-flannels looks onstage (which is simply a continuum of the looks he’s had for most of his music career). And in Waging Heavy Peace, Young peels back his cranium and invites us into a few months of his life, circa 2011, as he is deep into beginning another recording with Crazy Horse (what will become Psychedelic Pill) and is just living life as he has since his days with Crosby, Stills and Nash in the ‘60s. What does Young think about on a daily basis? It is an existence surrounded by his stuff and his family—and he is far more interested in expounding on his stuff (the energy-efficient LincVolt vehicle and a new digital sound system designed to present music as it should be heard, among many other things) than in any deep insights on his family. When Young does have anything to say about those who have crossed his path, it is usually about those who are deceased: like original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. The pictures he paints with words are pretty indeed, but the man himself still effectively hides in plain sight. —Leigh Checkman

 

RUTH SALVAGGIO
HEARING SAPPHO IN NEW ORLEANS: THE CALL OF POETRY FROM CONGO SQUARE TO THE NINTH WARD
(LSU PRESS)
Post-federal flood (aka, after the terrible events of 8/29/2005), many of New Orleans’ evacuated residents embarked upon the search that professor Ruth Salvaggio did upon returning to their homes: the grasping at something, anything, that could be rescued from the heat of late summer, the damp of receded flood waters and the mold, a search that could differ greatly depending on the searcher. In Salvaggio’s case, it was a book of the Greek poet Sappho’s verse, itself a published set of fragments reclaimed from flames that would have condemned the poet’s work to oblivion. Hearing Sappho In New Orleans is Salvaggio superimposing so much of her experiences of New Orleans onto and between those fragments, so much so that at times, it feels like an incredible stretching of realities across time that doesn’t quite work. Thing is, there was a lot of that going on in the immediate aftermath of the damages wrought by levee failures and governmental apathy, a grasping at anything that justified keeping New Orleans alive, and Salvaggio’s Sappho, is one of the more glorious manifestations of that impulse you’ll ever read, drawing lines from ancient Greece to New Orleans’ earliest days to Congo Square to poets writing and reading about post-Katrina realities at the back of the Maple Leaf Bar. Salvaggio has captured a feel of recovery in a bottle and despite its flaws, is one amazing read. —Leigh Checkman


Records

BETTYE LAVETTE
THANKFUL N’ THOUGHTFUL
(ANTI-)
There’s much to be said for those who interpret the songs of others so skillfully—with so much heart and soul—that tends to go unmentioned in these days when the original song performed by the one who wrote it is still king. The rise of Bettye LaVette, a regal interpreter if there ever was one, speaks to an interpretation appreciation and to a reborn novelty of it – it isn’t new, but the way LaVette does it makes it new for a generation that hasn’t heard music like “Down To Zero” transformed into a soulful cautionary tale tinged with gospel. Her moves over the past seven years have largely capitalized on the re-launch of her career in 2005, with the exception of much of 2010’s Interpretations, on which LaVette sounded as though she was spinning her wheels vocally. The new Thankful N’ Thoughtful is, blessedly, a return to the work of mostly American songwriters, kicking off with a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” and building to the searing crescendo of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Nods to the Black Keys, Ewan McColl and Neil Young are in there as well, but LaVette carries on as though all of it is hers and hers alone. Deluxe versions of Thoughtful contain some extra songs, among them the contemplative “Old,” which succinctly sums up in one song what LaVette will doubtless dwell on in her memoir A Woman Like Me. Though the great lady could use a massage, she is still standing and delivering some mighty goods. —Leigh Checkman

 

GUIDED BY VOICES
THE BEARS FOR LUNCH
(GUIDED BY VOICES INC.)
Robert Pollard clearly has a problem. No normal person feels so compelled to record and release every little song idea that pops into their head. That compulsion is the beauty to Guided By Voices. The Bears For Lunch is the third GBV release this year and like its predecessors, is a cobbled-together collection of song fragments, weird experiments and genuinely catchy rock. The glue that holds the whole thing together is Pollard’s uncanny ability to write good songs. It’s like they’re just spilling out of him. Sometimes he has the time or patience to work the melodies into great pop music, like the gently fuzzy “Waving At Airplanes;” other times, like the skeletal “Have A Jug,” there’s something interesting invested in a track with only Pollard’s slightly strained vocals and a lonely acoustic guitar recorded to answering machine tape. There’s taught, Cars-style new wave rock, (“Skin to Skin Combat”), ‘90s guitar rock, (“The Challenge is Much More”) and even a sweet-hearted acoustic ditty, “Walking Up the Stairs,” whose simple beauty stands out in relief next to the surroundings. It’s daunting to be a recent Guided By Voices convert. Trying to keep up with the band’s madman pace can be tough, but there’s so much great music here that the effort is worth it. The Bears For Lunch is sloppy, disjointed, catchy, sweet, exciting and almost everything in between. —Mike Rodgers

 

JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION
MEAT AND BONE
(BOOMBOX)
It’s been eight years since Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion bandmates have released original material—eight years that they’ve spent performing a lot, re-releasing older tunes and resting on the exposure proffered through their scoring and performing the theme to Anthony Bourdain’s now-defunct No Reservations. Any fan of the Blues Explosion knows Spencer’s m.o. as frontman on the albums of original material by now: he must rise vocally above the instrumental tornadoes thrown down by Russell Simins and Judah Bauer and grab hold of your very being with his attitude, most famously put forth on 1996’s “Can’t Stop” from Now I Got Worry as “kiss my ass, ‘cause your girlfriend still loves me!” There is actually some restraint from Spencer on Meat and Bone, but not much; his cries on “Take Your Pants Off ” propel and direct the tune, and his expounding on what the record company owes him in “Bottle Baby” brings the illusion of live performance to Bone, as he slowly gets lost in doing his thing despite his troubles. “Danger” ramps up a manic panic; “Unclear,” contains some hollers reminiscent of Otis Redding on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (if it were tossed in a blender with an Iggy and the Stooges tune) and the fierce attention to rip-roaring blues is still well in hand. It’s far too wrong for this to have taken eight years to be released, but it’s so good to hear the Blues Explosion still doing it raggedly right. —Leigh Checkman

 

NED SUBLETTE
KISS YOU DOWN SOUTH
(POSTMAMBO)
Before Ned Sublette became a scholar and an author, he was – and is – a musician. A sponge of many different musical genres, Sublette gravitated towards blues, soul and early rock ‘n’ roll, before turning his ears and interest to Cuban music. A blending of these disparate influences with his Texas roots is at the core of 1999’s Cowboy Rumba, on which Sublette comes across as a suave, storytelling Johnny Mathis at one with the cubanismo of his musical surroundings. That storytelling carries over into Kiss You Down South, despite the hiatus between the two albums, but the salsas, merengues, sons and rumbas are absent: Down South is all about one man with a guitar and the sound of his voice to carry him through his experiences. Sublette’s ebullience and smarts are still in ample evidence on songs such as the title track “Rhythm and Booze” and “Between Piety and Desire,” filtering the double entendres of love in the Mississippi Delta, nights bingeing on liquor and a particular way of looking at New Orleans geography through his witty lens. The topical scope of Down South expands well beyond the fertile Crescent City to include songs from earlier in Sublette’s career though, breaking the constraint of its being a “New Orleans” album— and that’s a good thing. When one gets too caught up in the words and the backstories (which is easy to do; the booklet included with the CD is quite a read in itself), the music itself is strong enough to sit with a spell and enjoy by a fire, as though Sublette himself is standing and strumming his life away before your eyes and ears. —Leigh Checkman

 

SCOTT WALKER
BISH BOSCH
(4AD)
Scott Walker has been many things to many people over his decadeslong career. From ‘60s bubblegum rocker to slightly warped balladeer to avant garde pop stylist, each new era has brought along its own detractors and fans, but they all serve to make Walker impossible to get a real handle on. His last few releases have straddled the line between performance art piece and record album, using harsh soundscapes comprised of off-key instruments, waves of paranoia and Walker’s inimitable baritone to create sprawling music that’s daring and difficult. Bish Bosch carries on right where the last album, 2006’s Drift, left off. It’s a dark record filled with degradation, suspense, horror and a morbid sense of humor. Scott Walker isn’t interested in making you tap your toes; he wants to create an environment of sound that draws you into a complete world. And the world of Bish Bosch is one of pain, discomfort and menace. The sound of machetes slicing across one another provides the percussive momentum behind a few key moments across the album and other esoteric instruments creep all over. On the endurance testing “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” there are long stretches where Walker’s aging vocals hang in the vast space, isolated and vulnerable with only a dim bed of strings or a crippled piano for company. Yet in the center of the track, Walker’s voice adopts a garbled distortion, begins shouting at the top of its lungs and is swallowed by a blast of heavy guitar and drums. The beauty of the record—of Scott Walker in general—is his ability to create worlds within his mind and use sound to express them. Listening to Bish Bosch is to accept a battered, difficult and disturbing vision of what art can be, but its otherworldly arrangements, psychotic instrumentation and Walker’s own haunted voice turn the ugliness into something with devilish strength. —Mike Rodgers


Film

GIRL and CHOCOLATE SKATEBOARDS
PRETTY SWEET
TY EVANS, SPIKE JONZE and CORY WEINCHEQUE
(GIRL FILMS INTERNATIONAL)

Since I put my first ollie hole in a shoe somewhere around 1986, I have seen skateboarding go through drastic changes. I’ve seen it go from being commercialized, to the underground and then to being more commercialized than ever. I’ve seen decks slim down, grow an inverted Dick Tracy nose, wheels shrink and then grow again. I’ve seen people stop using their hands to manipulate their board. I’ve seen Rodney Mullen grid out his deck like he’s Wim Crouwel and manipulate it in ways that defy physics. I’ve seen people take what Mullen has done and bring their hands back into the action. I’ve seen Chris Haslam. I’ve seen video games go from the jousting-in-a-pool ridiculousness of Skate or Die to the mind-blowingly accurate feeling that EA’s Skate franchise has produced. I mean, I could literally spend hours busting flip tricks and grinds on a single set of steps, much like the hours spent on the ledge at the A&P grocery store parking lot—without the skinned knees, purple shins and that weird clicking sound I now have in my right wrist.

But the single most aggressive evolution in skateboarding I have ever seen is the leap from the single-celled organism skate video that was The Search for Animal Chin to the god-like creature that is Pretty Sweet. The understated opening line in EMA’s “California” (simply, “Fuck California”) launches the video into a slow-mo, purple drank-like assault on your senses and immediately you know Pretty Sweet (like Ron Swanson’s “Turf and Turf ”) is nothing but meat. The opening sequence isn’t the explosion-laced superhero stuff that they brought you in Lakai’s Fully Flared, but it is just as spectacular in a minimalist kind of way. For one thing, I can’t even comprehend how it was shot: a seamless bird’s-eye POV takes us down an alley, around a bend, down a flight of stairs and into a playground full of sweaty dudes. Without cutting, the camera rises into the sky while confetti cannons rain down colored paper onto the bro-zone, who raise their boards like soldiers on a communist propaganda poster designed by Rip Taylor. The intro washes away quickly with a Maximum Hedrum track (featuring Ozzy Osbourne) and an effectsladen second intro—just to show you what they can do. We see Rick McCrank hit the deck and turn into a wooden girl logo, powerslides through fire, lots of slow-mo bails, skating through mortar shells and a crazy edit that has Guy Mariano flipping out into a beautiful explosion of decks flying across the screen. But Pretty Sweet isn’t an over the top edit assault. It’s toned down a bit from the Michael Bay-inspired production that was Fully Flared, but it does enough to give you those “What the fuck?” moments. Most of the effects are reserved for skater intros, except for the use of super slow motion (where you see bits of concrete breaking off of curbs), which provides a good look at how some of these insane flip tricks are pulled off.

With all of its innovation, Pretty Sweet still falls victim to one asshole ruining his part with some ironic music selection. The perpetrator in this case is Cory Kennedy. The crime: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” He’s lucky he brings the ruckus, because his song choice almost kills his part. The skating itself is from a roster of masters, which can be expected from anyone familiar with the history of the Girl and Chocolate brands. There is a ton of pedigree here but old guy favorites Mike Carroll, Eric Koston, Jeron Wilson, Chico Brenes and Brandon Biebel are reduced to cameo roles. That may sound off-putting to you elder statesmen out there, but the new blood totally kills it. Jesus Fernandez flips more tricks out of a grind than the Miller High Life room at Dixie Divas. Raven Tershy gets off the street a bit to keep the bowl-and-pool crowd happy, but still grinds enough handrails to keep me interested. Mike Mo Capaldi shows why he earned the opening spot in Fully Flared: by bridging more gaps than Ronnie Lamarque and Michael Strahan’s orthodontist. For being such a small lanky kid, it’s amazing to see how big Stevie Perez can go. Vincent Alvarez and Elijah Berle skate like they just ran out on their checks at Shoney’s. Their speed is reminiscent of Kris Markovich in the Color Skateboards video, minus the best Smith’s cover ever (but you can’t go too wrong with “Straight Outta Compton” and “Right Brigade”). I had never heard of Sean Malto before this video, but he is clearly the white buffalo of skateboarding. His part probably should have closed the video out, but there is something to be said about seniority.

If you old-timers are scratching your heads and saying in your best Jerry Seinfeld voice, “Who are these people?” Don’t worry, Marc Johnson and Guy Mariano represent the 30+ crowd in full force. Johnson seems preprogrammed at this point. It’s like his body is on autopilot and he doesn’t even need to think about what to do to get up on that picnic table, what to do while on it and how to get down. Also, he has tendency to do darkslide tricks, which happens to be a fetish of mine. Mariano closes out Pretty Sweet with a “I might be old, but I can still beat you up” banger of a part that will send tingling sensations through all of your soon-to-be arthritic joints (especially the simplistic yet beautiful wallride popout over a planter gap). My knees swell with pride. Pretty Sweet is groundbreaking in its camera work and production, but it isn’t just some auto-tuned Myspace junk; it has real soul. The skating is flawless. You’ll see 540 street tricks and grind/slide tricks you thought were only possible in video games. –Kevin Barrios