Eugenius – Oomalama

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Eugene Kelly was one-half of the Vaselines with Frances McKee, that band occupying a somewhat outsized place in the indie-pop world given their meager output and lack of success (much of their renown due to a late arriving blessing from Kurt Cobain). They formed in 1986, released two EPs and one album, and then broke up. They reformed in 2006 and have played live very sporadically while also releasing two more albums, in 2010 and 2014. In fairness to all involved, the original run of the Vaselines did feature a rhythm section. McKee (who had previously played in a band with Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), Duglas (not a typo) T. Stewart of BMX Bandits, and Sean Dickson of the Soup Dragons) has released albums under other band names and as a solo artist. Kelly, for his part, formed Captain America in 1990 and when Marvel’s lawyers came calling, changed the name to Eugenius (which was his nickname). With a somewhat messy line-up situation, Eugenius released two albums and then Kelly just proceeded under his own name thereafter. I used to own both Eugenius albums, and while I got rid of Mary Queen of Scots, I would be willing to give it a listen again.

What I Think of This Album

There is a very appealing slacker vibe to these fourteen tracks, with the band deceptively shambling their way through a set that includes one song (“Bed-In”) about how much Eugene Kelly likes sleeping and watching tv, another (“Breakfast”) that apologizes for how he “can’t help falling down,” and the title track, which basically just repeats the absurd “oomalamaa” over and over and also makes an unrelated claim about, I guess, resurrection. In many ways, the album is something the Lemonheads might have created if Evan Dando was more self-effacing and had a better sense of humor (and maybe, you know, laid off the drugs). Throughout, Kelly lends his everyman voice to catchy, simple songs that for all their noise suggest a fundamentally cheerful and lighthearted outlook, as you might expect from titles like “I’m the Sun,” “Wow!” and “Buttermilk.”

For all of its gleeful shagginess, the truth is that Kelly is an ace songwriter and guitarist Gordon Keen unleashes some fantastic leads amidst the mess. Indeed, there is a slippery little riff at the end of the delirious solo on “Bed-In” that belongs in some hall of fame somewhere. Additional very impressive guitar goodness can be heard on the quiet/loud “Down On Me,” fiery “Flame On,” and the rockin’ “Here I Go,” as well as on most other tracks, really.

The band sprinkles just enough surprises in to keep things interesting, not that anyone is in danger of getting bored with Oomalama. Thus, there is some subtle organ on “Breakfast,” strings on the ballad “Hot Dog” (written by Keen), and pleasant (dare I say, sunny?) harmonies on “I’m the Sun.” 

The U.S. release adds three tracks to the eleven on the original U.K. release. One is a robust cover of “Indian Summer” by Beat Happening, the spiritual American cousin to Kelly’s previous band, the Vaselines. This song was also covered by Luna. The other two – “Wow” and “Wannabe” were (along with “Bed-In”) originally on the first Captain America EP. “Wow” is a sludgy delight, reminiscent maybe of the Stooges, and “Wannabe,” which seems like it borrows the verses from Chuck Berry, employs some echo chamber sonics on Kelly’s vocals.

Some of the tracks were recorded with an early version of the band, resulting in a confusing credits situation, though it is clear that Gordon Keen of BMX Bandits has always been the band’s guitarist. Francis MacDonald of Teenage Fanclub (and also manager of Camera Obscura) drums on some songs. Duglas T. Stewart contributes as does Joe McAlinden, both of BMX Bandits. The band thanks Teenage Fanclub in the liner notes.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar work of Gordon Keen.

Release Date

September, 1992

The Cover Art

A head-scratcher, but I really like it.

Cheap Trick – In Color

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

My theory is that Cheap Trick is the band KISS wanted to be but couldn’t. I say that knowing almost nothing about KISS. I still think it’s a good theory.

What I Think of This Album

While Heaven Tonight is the best Cheap Trick album, In Color is my favorite Cheap Trick album, and probably also their most fun and free-spirited work. Unlike the dark and messy debut, this album views primary songwriter Rick Nielsen’s melodic sensibility as a strength to be emphasized, not some embarrassing feature to be covered up or apologized for. Accordingly, In Color is a heady mix of power pop, glam, and hard rock, all cleanly presented by producer Tom Werman. 

There are at least five great songs on this record. My hot take is that the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” is a million times better than the live Budokan version. It’s not even close. The original is a nearly perfect pop song, with a pristine guitar tone, some great string bends, a jaunty old-timey piano, an irresistible rhythm, and Brill Building lyrics. And fingersnaps. 

If I’m being honest, “Downed” is a better song than “I Want You To Want Me,” even though I feel more of an affinity for the latter. “Downed” is a darkly glittering power pop song wearing hard rock armor, with some psychedelic flair. Robin Zander interprets a set of lyrics about confusion and hopelessness with a hint of malice. The whole thing is a colorful windmill powered by Nielsen and Tom Petersson’s chord changes.

Bridging the gap between the overt prettiness of “I Want You” and the density of “Downed” is “Southern Girls,” which boasts a first-rate melody, a great beat from Bun E. Carlos, Zander’s impassioned singing, handclaps, a critical piano part, and I think a guitar playing a harmony tone behind Zander’s vocals (though it may be some (artificially?) held out “ooooh”s). Throw in a hard rockin’ bridge and you’ve got an expertly constructed and arranged song.

On par with these three standouts is singalong “Come On, Come On,” which is somehow equally evocative of the ‘50s and the ‘70s, as if Chuck Berry had joined Sweet. The band goes back to basics on the straightforward “Clock Strikes Ten,” which is exciting and loud and just plain a blast to listen to, even if it is kind of dumb.

A couple more tracks are really good, as well. The thunderous “Big Eyes” succeeds because it pairs its heaviness – and sort of metally guitar solo, to say nothing of Zander’s gritty take – with a winning melody. Considering that it lasts not even two minutes, the glammy “Hello There” makes a hell of an impression, setting the tone for the rest of the album with an energetic, melodic, and tough sound.

Nielsen gets a showcase on “You’re All Talk,” which is not much of an actual song. It’s  basically just a bluesy groove over which Nielsen can show off. Frankly, it reminds me of ZZ Top. Similarly, it seems like “So Good to See You” was specifically designed for Zander; regardless, it’s among the weaker songs here. I think “Oh Caroline” doesn’t work at all – this is basically filler, though Zander layers a nice whine onto his voice.

Producer Werman has a long history of working with metal and hard rock bands (Blue Öyster Cult, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Molly Hatchet, L.A. Guns), though apparently not without complaints that his results are too polished.

The band supposedly started re-recording In Color with Steve Albini in 1997 and whether the recording was ever completed, it was never officially released.

My reissue adds instrumental B-side “Oh Boy,” two demos, and two live tracks. The demo of “Southern Girls” is less glossy than the final version, and upon hearing it I can understand why some might have preferred that In Color have been more carefree and natural. I can’t fault Werman for adding some sheen, but the rougher version has a lot of charm, too. The demo of “Come On, Come On” leads me to the same conclusion. The live version of “You’re All Talk” is exactly what you’d think it would be. The live version of “Goodnight” is just “Hello There” with different lyrics – silly, but not offensive.

The Best Thing About This Album

The appreciation of and reliance on melody.

Release Date

September, 1977 (original); 1998 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Sigh. Very disappointing. The good-looking band members get a magazine cover shoot, complete with motorcycles, leather jackets and cowboy boots, while the freak and the shlub are hidden on the back cover, upside down for some reason, and, in a final emasculating twist, on bicycles. I do like that Nielsen is wearing a Cubs cap.


Dave Edmunds – The Best of Dave Edmunds

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Dave Edmunds is a Welsh musician with an unshakeable fixation on American rock from the 1950s. The multi-talented artist (sometimes playing all the instruments on his own albums) came to fame as a producer in the late 1970s before really flourishing as a solo artist (though he did have a hit in 1970 with a cover of “I Hear You Knocking”). He eventually formed Rockpile with Nick Lowe (the name coming from Edmunds’ first solo album, which oddly enough, did not feature any members of Rockpile), recording one album under that name but relying on the musicians for his solo work (as did Lowe). Edmunds also produced a Dion album, an Everly Brothers album (a pairing that makes perfect sense), and worked with Jeff Lynne (ELO) and Del Shannon. He retired from music in 2017 or so.

What I Think of This Album

This is clearly a budget album, given the minimal effort the record company put into the packaging. And you might forgive them, reasoning that a cult artist stubbornly beholden to an increasingly less relevant past, with a forgettable voice, playing mostly cover songs, doesn’t merit a greater investment. And you may be right, but be that as it may, this is a fucking great collection.

Edmunds benefits from having Rockpile back him on (I believe) almost all of these songs, as the musicians play with palpable enthusiasm and energy. Rockpile only released one studio album under their own name, but they recorded three albums that were marketed as Dave Edmunds releases and one that came out as a Nick Lowe album. So you can feel free to think of this as very close to a Rockpile Best of.

Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremmer wrote songs under the name Billy Murray (uh, probably not the best choice for an alias) and two of his tracks are here:  “Trouble Boys” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” The latter is great even though it is silly, and the former is fine but nothing more.

Appropriately, there are two Edmunds/Lowe collaborations present. “Deborah” is an infectious throwback to the days of soda jerks and sock hops, coming across like a minimally edgier Buddy Holly song (“Deborah / Heartbreaking, lovemaking connoisseur”). “Here Comes the Weekend” is similar, with more of Lowe’s influence coming through in the lyrics and more modern pop sound; the guitar solo is pure Edmunds, though, again referencing late ‘50s American rock n’ roll. Edmunds also covers Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll)” but Lowe’s version of this Chuck Berry homage is better, honestly; I think this is actually one of the songs on the collection where the other Rockpile musicians do not play (not even Lowe).

The same could be said about Edmunds’s rendition of John Fogerty’s excellent “Almost Saturday Night,” which really needs Fogerty’s inimitable rasp, though Edmunds plays a better guitar solo than the one on the original. Perhaps I am biased because I hate Elvis Costello, but Edmunds’s version of “Girls Talk” is the only version I need, poppy and fresh, and actually pretty well suited to Edmunds’s pedestrian voice. Edmunds’s version came first, as Costello did not record the song for several years later. 

Another fine cover is Graham Parker’s “Crawling from the Wreckage,” an excellent allegorical tune. You can hear a live version of this song on Rockpile’s Live at Montreux. “Juju Man” (another cover) has a great guitar solo and a very cool piano part. The Stray Cats play on (you guessed it, a cover of) “The Race Is On,” but investigation suggests that this may not be the Stray Cats you are thinking of (even though Edmunds would eventually serve as producer for the Stray Cats you are thinking of).

If nothing else, Edmunds should go down in history as the first person to see (hear) the hit potential of Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts” (which Juice Newton made a smash two years after Edmunds’s version). Hank DeVito was the pedal steel guitarist for Emmylou Harris, by the way. A live version of this is also available on Rockpile’s Live at Montreux.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Queen of Hearts,” just to reclaim it from Juice Newton. It should be said that Edmunds’s guitar work throughout the album is excellent, too. And I appreciate his steadfast commitment to a sound almost no one else cares about anymore.

Release Date

1981

The Cover Art

Actually, not that bad. The colors are awful and the text is a travesty, but the line style drawing? I like it.

Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

When we were in college, my friend Justin would lament “you’re too smart to not like Dylan.” While I appreciated the implicit compliment, I’m not sure I agree with the formulation. One can be intelligent and not like Dylan. And one doesn’t have to be smart to appreciate Dylan, either. In other words, Dylan isn’t a litmus test for anything other than taste. After all, Justin and I became friends even though at the time, I was not yet a Dylan fan. It also bears mentioning that in addition to trying to convince me to like Dylan, Justin also sought to persuade me to take up smoking. So . . . who was too smart not to do something, hmmmm?

What I Think of This Album

Dylan’s fifth album is his deliberate move into rock, and in fact is a masterpiece. Bringing It All Back Home is near-flawless from start to finish, way more consistent than The Freewheelin’ and much better than the stark third album and the uneven fourth disc. It should be noted that those albums do contain some amazing songs:  “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “My Back Pages,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” and “All I Really Want to Do.” Okay, so you can make an argument that Another Side of Bob Dylan is worth owning. But Bringing It All Back Home is undeniably crucial.

On much of the album, Dylan is backed by session musicians playing electric instruments and rock drums. He also moves away from direct commentary on the social or political, instead indulging himself with a stream-of-consciousness approach that relies on surreal poetry and impressionistic imagery. This was 1965. No one else was writing songs even remotely like this.

Dylan met the Beatles in 1964 and probably came away with a new appreciation for pop (a genre that certain interviews, at least, suggested he viewed with disdain). But he must have always liked some of it, as he acknowledged the influence of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” on the verbose, rapid-fire “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is way too short at not even two and a half minutes. Anchored by harmonica and a sick little guitar lick, Dylan playfully unleashes a head-spinning torrent of words that surely must have impressed the Beastie Boys. And there are clear lyrical references to this song in tunes by the Jesus and Mary Chain (“Blues From a Gun”) and Echo and the Bunnymen (“Villiers Terrace”).

Dylan changes pace with the gentle “She Belongs to Me,” a love song to a woman of wide artistic talent. By 1965, the ravages of Huntington’s Disease meant Woody Guthrie probably was unable to communicate any appreciation of “Maggie’s Farm,” but I think he would have heartily approved of this proletarian song of principled refusal. Dylan refines the sentiments of “She Belongs to Me” and combines it with his new lyrical approach on “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” a thrilling, literary song that celebrates the object of his affection with unusual, unpredictable language.

More surreal yet is the bizarre, confusing, and frightful world of “On the Road Again,” which shuffles along with a sense of courageous good cheer. Dylan shifts from the personal to the historical for companion piece “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” in which he unspools a feverish, nightmarish version of American history. I really really enjoy the flubbed intro with Dylan and producer Tom Wilson (Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel) breaking down in laughter.

The exquisite “Mr. Tambourine Man” – helped along by the subtle electric lead guitar – is the most pop of Dylan’s surreal experiments on Bringing It All Back Home, with a warm delivery, a dreamy, hypnotic melody, and lyrics that call to mind the innocence of childhood, the comfort of trust, and the promise of escape and discovery. Obviously, the Byrds version is a landmark, but don’t overlook the original. Dylan reclaims the spitfire delivery of “Subterranean” and mixes it with the foreboding scenes from “115th Dream” on the stark and punishing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Unlike most everything else on this album, “It’s Alright, Ma” is a relentlessly bleak polemic that serves as a grim summary of everything that’s wrong in the world. After that, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” seems like a reprieve, and while it certainly has a pretty melody, the lyrics border on unkind. The only two weak spots are “Outlaw Blues” and “Gates of Eden,” and neither is terrible.

The Best Thing About This Album

I can’t pick any one song. I think Dylan’s simultaneous embrace of rock arrangement and surrealism is the best thing about this album.

Release Date

March, 1965

The Cover Art

Cluttered and pretentious and silly, though I do like the blurry ring.

Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger / Bo Diddley Is a Lover

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It is basically impossible to listen to Bo Diddley and not smile. And if Bo Diddley can make me smile, well, then he can make anyone smile. It’s also basically impossible to listen to any rock music and not understand that it wouldn’t exist but for Bo Diddley. And Bo Diddley is notable for a lot more than the well-known beat that carries his name. Ellas Bates was born in Mississippi in 1928; he was raised by a first cousin, once removed, and he took her last name, McDaniel. Still a young boy, the family moved to Chicago, where McDaniel played trombone, violin, and eventually, guitar. There is no consensus on where the name Bo Diddley came from, and that’s about the least interesting thing about him anyway. He released ten albums on Chess Records subsidiary Checkers between 1958 and 1963. He hired women guitarists in his band, including Peggy Jones (also known as Lady Bo; she grew up studying ballet, tap, and opera) and her replacement, Norma-Jean Wofford (known as the Duchess). He designed his own guitars and effects (which he built into the body of the guitars); he used Sebastopol/Open E tuning on his guitars. Marvin Gaye was his valet for a while. He opened for the Clash in 1979. Diddley died in 2008.

What I Think of This Album

Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger

There is so much to love about this album. The title track is all rhythm (including a descending bass line by Willie Dixon and Jerome Green on maracas) and ridiculous boasting – the perfect Bo Diddley song. “Cadillac” adds uncredited saxophone (perhaps by Gene Barge) to the trademark beat; the Kinks covered this. “Ride On Josephine” is like a mashup of Chuck Berry and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, with fine backing vocals, an excellent piano part (by either Lafayette Leake (Chuck Berry) or Billy Stewart), and an irresistible guitar riff.

“Somewhere” and “No More Loving” are surprisingly part of the doo-wop tradition, while “Cheyenne” recalls the Coasters (especially the “and then?” vocal part, which is straight from “Along Came Jones.”) The cover of “Sixteen Tons” (written by Merle Travis) is phenomenal. Diddley reaches back into African-American folklore for “Whoa Mule (Shine).” More saxophone enlivens the jaunty instrumental “Diddling.”

This is apparently the end of the album proper, and tracks “Working Man” and “Do What I Say” are bonus songs, though there is no mention of this in the extensive liner notes. “Do What I Say” is particularly effective, with hypnotic guitar parts from Diddley and Peggy Jones.

This was recorded at Diddley’s home studio in Washington, D.C.

What a great album cover; the guitar is “Cadillac,” designed by Diddley.

Bo Diddley Is a Lover

It may be that “Hong Kong, Mississippi” is a tiny bit problematic, but what a fucking great vocal (“she’s from Hong Kong . . . MISSISSIPPI”), not to mention the guitar playing!

There are some not so subtle suggestions of cuckoldry in the back-and-forth of “Bo’s Vacation,” a conversation between Diddley and, I assume, Jerome (though the other person is referred to as Joe), during which Diddley strongly recommends that Joe/Jerome give his wife advance notice that he is going to be returning home (“You know, you’ve been gone a looooooong time / . . . / If I was you, I’d call home” / . . . / But if I were you, I’d sure call her – she might tell you to hold it up for a few days”).

There is some impressive guitar on instrumental “Congo,” with effects that could easily be from a song from the 2000s. The second instrumental is “Aztec,” on which Diddley drops in some flamenco guitar (which of course, is a continent away from and about three hundred years after the Aztecs . . .). “You’re Looking Good” marries doo-wop vocals to Diddley’s rougher approach, with a great lead vocal. “Bo Diddley Is Loose” is excellent from both the lead guitar and vocal perspective.

The rest of the album is fine: Diddley gets a blues workout on the predictably titled “(Call Me) Bo’s Blues,” and of course the title track is full of the braggadocio that makes Diddley so endearing. Comedy informs “Not Guilty,” while there is some fine guitar work against that familiar beat on “Back Home.” The short “Quick Draw,” based on its title, should’ve really been on Gunslinger, and it’s a surprising little instrumental with some impressive guitar work.

This was likewise recorded at Diddley’s home studio in Washington, D.C. The five bonus tracks feature Otis Spann (Chuck Berry) on the piano, and are mostly instrumentals (though “Lazy Woman” would have been better off not recorded at all).

This cover art is less interesting, but it does have the box guitar, at least, and I like the reverse lettering.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Ride On Josephine” and “Hong Kong, Mississippi”

Release Date

December, 1960 (Is a Gunslinger); February, 1961 (Is a Lover); 2012 (compilation)

The Cover Art

I don’t blame them for just sticking some extra text on the original Is a Gunslinger art. I would have done the same damn thing.

Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Cheap Trick is one of those bands that I wish I liked more than I do. I listened to the debut, and it didn’t stick. I used to own Dream Police, but got rid of it. I have no use for post-Dream Police Cheap Trick at all, and I doubt anyone should, though I’ve been led to believe the Rockford album from 2006 is worth a spin. In Color is pretty great. Cheap Trick came out of Rockford, Illinois around 1973. I could almost believe someone at a record company put this band together:  Robin Zander had pop star looks and a million dollar voice; Rick Nielsen (son of opera singers) was a hot shot guitarist with a wacky image, and a talented songwriter, too; Bun E. Carlos (Brad Carlson), was a dynamic, ambidextrous drummer who, in his early days, toured with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and the Shirelles; and Thom Petersson (born Peterson), basically as handsome as Zander and inventor of the 12-string bass. I’m not always into what Cheap Trick does, but they have made a little bit of great music. Apropos of nothing, Nielsen is part owner of Piece Brewery and Pizza in Chicago.

What I Think of This Album

It’s arguable that At Budokan is the only essential Cheap Trick album, but I don’t like having only live versions of songs (and there are a lot of songs on the rerelease that I do not like at all). Heaven Tonight is likely the best Cheap Trick studio album. As any album that contains “Surrender” would have to be.

It is almost impossible to list all the great things about “Surrender”:  Zander’s priceless whine (“Some Indonesian junk that’s going roooooouuuuuuuund” and “Old maids for the waaaaaaaaaar”); the humor in the lyrics (“But Mommy isn’t one of those / I’ve known her all these yeeeeeaaaaaars”); the contemporary reference to KISS; the massive drums; the synth line; the perfectly placed guitar slashes; the tremolo effect on the guitar; the breakthrough “Awaaaaaaaaaaay” that takes us into the euphoric closing minute; the stacked vocals and melodies in the outro.

Another high point is suicide anthem “Auf Weidersehen” – yes, it’s a suicide anthem – in which Zander sounds truly unhinged, unleashing some amazing screams as the song closes, and Peterssen and Nielsen get gritty and dark, with Carlos bashing the shit out of everything in sight. Check out the reference to Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Likewise unsettling is drug anthem “Heaven Tonight,” with Zander again delivering in spades as Nielsen shows off on the mandocello. There are no strings credits (or keyboards either) but clearly these are present on the album – not cool, Cheap Trick.

The darkness continues with the odd but thrilling “Takin’ Me Back,” featuring unusual synth noises and a stellar chorus. The pick slide on the frantic “On Top of the World” is very cool, as is everything else Nielsen does here (especially the divebombs), and Carlos keeps things moving along on this catchy, piano-reliant number, which slides into a technicolor, ELO-aping closing minute. The cover of the Move’s “California Man” is fine – I can take it or leave it. The guitar solo is impressive (and includes a bit from the Move’s “Brontosaurus”). And I do appreciate the handclaps. I always appreciate handclaps. More handclaps, please.

“Stiff Competition” is silly filler, but it sounds great – Zander and Carlos turn in fine performances. Another throwaway is “On the Radio,” but it has a sunny, loose, California vibe that is pretty irresistible. Jumpy “How Are You?” is similar – very slight but not unpleasant, with an amped up chorus that will get you moving, and some creepy string creaks thrown in for no good reason. “High Roller” is just meh, and “Oh Claire” is stupid.

The reissue contains two bonus tracks, both earlier versions of album tracks. The rough version of “Surrender” is notable only for coarser, misogynistic lyrics, and at the end, Zander humorously ad libs the names of the band members (including himself), the producer, the engineer, and others (“Gary’s all right / Robin’s all right / Ricky’s all right . . . “).

The Best Thing About This Album

A very difficult choice: Carlos’s drumming; Zander’s voice; “Auf Wiedersehen”; Nielson’s skill. But obviously, “Surrender” is why you buy this album.

Release Date

April, 1978 (original); 1998 (reissue)

The Cover Art

I find it a little offensive that they put Zander and Petersson on the front cover, and relegated Carlos and Nielsen to the back. It would have been nice for something a little more creative and less cynical (and maybe more respectful of their bandmates).

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – 101 Damnations

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Ah, Carter USM. I love this band. I don’t always like what they produce, but I love this band. Two brash punsters who gleefully machine-gunned anyone who offended their sensibilities, Carter (I am not going to write out “the Unstoppable Sex Machine” every time) was a highly moralistic band. Take away the jokes and programmed beats and you end up with vitriolic bile aimed at slumlords, bullies, and warmongers. Fine. With. Me. But the puns and the canned drums were what made them fun – even if I couldn’t unravel a tenth of what I assume are hyper-British references and in-jokes. Carter came from London in 1987, evolving from earlier band Jamie Wednesday, and its core was James “Jim Bob” Morrison and Leslie “Fruitbat” Carter (even though at one point the band had six members, which just seems wrong); Jim Bob sang (and played guitar) and Fruitbat played the guitar mostly and they otherwise relied on keyboards, sequenced bass tracks, and drum machines. As difficult as it is to believe, the distinctive Carter belonged to a music subculture – grebo, as decided by Pop Will Eat Itself – which blended pop, punk, hip-hop, and electronica influences. The legitimacy of grebo as a subgenre is suspect, but it generally includes not only PWEI but Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, the Wonder Stuff, and of course, Gaye Bykers on Acid.

What I Think of This Album

I defy you to identify all the jokes and puns on this disc. Let’s just examine the album and song titles:  101 Damnations; “The Road to Domestos”; “Twenty Four Minutes from Tulse Hill;” and “The Taking of Peckham 123.” If you want to spend the time to go through the lyrics, be my guest, but pack several weeks’ worth of snacks.

Now, I further defy you to identify anything resembling a happy song on here. This album is an unrelenting carnival of poverty, greed, and violence. There is a song about being assaulted (“Midnight On the Murder Mile”); one about a homeless person being set on fire  (“An All American National Sport”); one about divorce (“Good Grief Charlie Brown”); another about suicide (“Everytime a Churchbell Rings”); three about urban decay (“Twenty Four Minutes from Tulse Hill;” “Sheriff Fatman”; and “The Taking of Peckham 123”); and another about war (“G.I. Blues”). But filth, deprivation, despair, and the worst aspects of humanity never sounded so goddamn invigorating.

Some of the most successful songs are the ones with the fastest BPMs. “Sheriff Fatman” is a rapid evisceration of shady landlords, with whiplash-inducing references to Star Trek, Klaus Barbie, and the United Nations. The opening keyboard fanfare is iconic, as are its accompanying handclaps, and Jim Bob’s righteous anger comes through in his emphatic vocals. The energy on this track is pressure-cooker high, with an irresistible beat; this is the best ever dance song about slumlords.

Likewise, “Midnight on the Murder Mile” is a mile-a-minute tale of a dangerous walk through London, with sequencers, keyboards, and drum machines working overtime to create a claustrophobic atmosphere, with Fruitbat chainsawing away in the background. This song samples Elvis Presley (“I Got Stung”), name-checks Wilson Pickett, and references Chuck Berry, and there is probably more that I missed. “Twenty Four Minutes from Tulse Hill” speeds by so fast you almost miss the Little Richard reference being co-opted into a lyric about domestic abuse in a song that grimly details life in a rough neighborhood.

“Good Grief Charlie Brown” is a sad glimpse at the effects of marital disruption on a child, but no less catchy for it, with some nice work by Fruitbat and eventually some frenetic rhythm tracks taking over. And “An All American National Sport” does right by its victim-narrator, expertly sketching his inner life (“And I dreamt I was an artist / Like Toulouse-Lautrec or Manet / Drinking like a bastard / In Madrid”), making his cruel end all the more affecting.

On the slower side of the ledger, “The Taking of Peckham 123” is a clever waltz (1, 2, 3) that grows in intensity as Jim Bob details various violent crimes taking place in a high-rise housing block, while Fruitbat unleashes gritty leads. I don’t love the sample-dense “A Perfect Day to Drop the Bomb” but it does quote both Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (“Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge”) and Eddie Cochran (‘She’s sure fine-lookin’”), and also samples “Great Balls of Fire” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

This is a unique album that creatively marries social consciousness, wit, audacity, and drum machines. Oh, apparently Carter USM wanted to title the album Cunt.

The Best Thing About This Album

I mean, no one can resist “Sheriff Fatman.”

Release Date

January, 1990

The Cover Art

I’m not a fan of the Carter USM logo, but the art sells the pun of the title perfectly.

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

The last Byrds album worth a damn, and the end of their classic period, though they were basically down to a duo at this point. Gene Clark had left after Turn! Turn! Turn! and David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke had left or been fired in the summer of 1967, during the sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Fortunately for everyone, Roger McGuinn (Jim had changed his name in 1967, as part of his conversion to Subud) and Chris Hillman decided to hire Gram Parsons as a keyboard player in 1968 and, more importantly, heeded his advice on the new direction for the band. It only lasted for one album but, Jesus, what an album.

What I Think of This Album

I was encouraged to listen to Sweetheart of the Rodeo by a former boss, Jeff; he would be pleased to hear that he was right. I love this album. It is almost entirely covers, with no songwriting contribution by any original Byrd (though Parsons is credited with two songs). 

Parsons (born Ingram Connor III) was a rich kid who had gone to Harvard and had released a country-rock album with his International Submarine Band. Parsons’s love of and experience with country resonated with Hillman, who had a background in bluegrass. For his part, McGuinn wanted to turn the band’s fortunes around. With as-yet-unofficial Byrd Clarence White, they went to Nashville to record with a bunch of session musicians.

True to form, Dylan covers bookend the album, both from the then-unreleased Basement Tapes (which would not see the light of day until 1975). Opener “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” gets things started on the right foot, with a lyrical steel part from Lloyd Green and excellent group harmonies. Dylan released a non-Basement Tapes version of this in 1971; Cracker also covered it (with Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows on lead vocals). Traditional “I Am a Pilgrim” is sung by Hillman, and is fine but nothing special. The Louvin Brothers’ sweetly self-righteous declaration “The Christian Life” is marvelous. This was one of three tracks that Parsons originally sang lead on but for which McGuinn re-recorded the vocals when Lee Hazlewood objected to Parsons’s appearance on the album due to a pre-existing contract with Hazlewood’s label (though some theories state McGuinn simply used that as an excuse to create more parity – and indeed, Parsons’s vocals remained on three other songs). The harmonies on this are fantastic.

The biggest and best surprise on the album was the reworking of William Bell’s soul number “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (also recorded by Otis Redding in 1965). The vocals and weepy steel guitar (by JayDee Maness) are transcendent. This song has also been covered by Brian Eno, Peter Tosh, and the Triffids. “You’re Still On My Mind” may have bordered on country music parody (“An empty bottle / A broken heart / And you’re still on my mind”) even back in 1968, but its broad strokes make it no less poignant. Parsons sings lead on this, and truly, his voice is wonderful. McGuinn adapted Woody Guthrie’s socialist-flavored outlaw anthem “Pretty Boy Floyd,” complete with violin, banjo, and mandolin; the result is colorful and energetic.

Parsons original “Hickory Wind” (co-written with his ISB partner Bob Buchanan) is a mournful slice of nostalgia; his aching vocals are expertly matched by the steel guitar of Green. Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years From Now,” though this was one of the tracks on which McGuinn substituted his vocal. It’s a nice little song with fine filigreed guitar part. Hillman takes the lead on “Blue Canadian Rockies,” which is sort of a cousin to “Hickory Wind” with the same reflective qualities tied to a specific locale. More interesting is that “Blue” was written by Cindy Walker, who had a number of songs that became hits, including “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” which Roy Orbison recorded. Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison” was the last of the Parsons-sung tunes on the album, and feels a bit like filler. Closer “Nothing Was Delivered” benefits from steel guitar and some nice harmonizing; Parsons plays the piano and organ on this one, and the band builds up some steam towards the end, approaching a rock sound.

My CD adds eight bonus tracks including the original Parsons-led versions of “The Christian Life” and “One Hundred Years From Now.” There is also a very Chuck Berry-flavored Parsons original titled “Lazy Day” that definitely would not have fit on the album (though it did end up on a Flying Burrito Brothers album).

The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry after recording and were poorly received; they were also mocked by Nashville DJ Ralph Emery during a promotional appearance, and he became the subject of future song “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.”

Parsons had already quit the band by the time this album was released, his tenure lasting only a few months. Hillman left later that same year, and joined Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons died at the age of 26 of an accidental morphine and alcohol overdose in 1973; the fascinating story of the theft o this corpse (from Los Angeles International Airport) and its impromptu cremation in the Joshua Tree National Park is too long to retell here.

The Best Thing About This Album

Hard to pick between “Going Nowhere,” “Miss Your Water,” and “Christian Life.” But I think the Louvin Brothers’ classic wins this one.

Release Date

August, 1968

The Cover Art

I love this cover. I probably can’t even judge it objectively at this point. Just look at it. LOOK AT IT.

Billy Bragg – Back to Basics

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Where to start? I worship Billy Bragg, an exceptional songwriter and admirable activist. He basically writes two kinds of songs – love songs and protest songs – and does so with aplomb. His lyrics are witty, insightful, humane, and heartfelt, and his melodies are second-to-none. His chunky, ragged guitar playing is passionate and inspired, and his thick Essex accent is absurdly charming. I first came across Bragg through my friend Duke, who loaned me – many, many times, until I finally bought my own copy – Back to Basics freshman year of college. I was immediately captivated and became a devout fan. I admit that Bragg’s more recent work does not do much for me, but his early string of albums is as gem-filled as a British dowager’s heirloom necklace.

What I Think of This Album

This is a record company compilation of Bragg’s first three official solo releases:  (mini) album Life’s a Riot With Spy v. Spy; album Brewing Up With Billy Bragg; and EP Between the Wars. Those first two albums can be found more easily now, having been re-released, but back when this comp was issued in 1987, they were difficult to track down. Whatever the impetus, this is a fantastic collection that speeds through 21 tracks in about an hour; this early material is really Bragg at his best, when he discovered the inflection point between folk and punk and sat there and demanded to be noticed.

Appropriately enough, things kick off with the seven songs that comprised Life’s a Riot (though they are slightly resequenced, probably to better effect), which is basically just Bragg singing over his own often-loud guitar playing. Right off the bat, Bragg unexpectedly offers up a hand of friendship on the vulnerable “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” before transitioning to a sensitive but sharp critique of the British school system and capitalist structures – Bragg, as it turns out, was effectively shut out from higher educational opportunities due to his performance on an entrance exam – on “To Have and Have Not” (“All they taught you at school / Was how to be a good worker / The system has failed you / Don’t fail yourself”). A leftover from his earlier band Riff Raff, “Richard” is a black-and-blue romance (“You helped me build this bed / But you won’t help me sleep in it / When I fall between you and the wall / Our titanic love affair sails on the morning tide”). Jay Bennett, who helped (future Bragg collaborators) Wilco make its great leap forward, was previously in a band called Titanic Love Affair, named after this lyric.

The song “Lovers Town Revisited” (yes, he has an original “Lovers Town”) tells a story, in under two minutes, of a disillusioned, shy, and quiet loner looking for love. Next is the song that should have made his career (the first time):  “A New England.” Quoting Paul Simon (from “Leaves Are Green”) and wistfully cutting ties with the erstwhile object of his affection (“I loved you then as I love you still / Though I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill / I don’t feel bad about letting you go / I just feel sad about letting you know”), Bragg crafts a catchy, realistic tale of surviving unrequited love. Kirsty MacColl had her biggest hit with this song; Bragg wrote two extra verses for her version (she consolidated them into one). The final song from Life’s a Riot is “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty,” a feminist takedown of beauty/gossip magazines. So over the course of the first seven tracks, Bragg firmly establishes himself as a vital, smart, caring, and tenacious artist.

The remainder of the album – mostly the eleven tracks from Brewing Up – only reinforces this notion and demonstrates even further growth and nuance. Witness the polemic against the right-wing press of “It Says Here;” the bleakly comic anti-war and anti-capitalist song “Island of No Return” (“I never thought that I would be / Fighting fascists in the Southern Seas / I saw one today and in his hand / Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham”); and the allegorical love-as-battle masterpiece “Like Soldiers Do” (“No one can win this war of the senses / I see no reason to drop my defenses / So stand fast my emotions / Rally round my shaking heart”). Bragg apes Chuck Berry on “From a Vauxhall Velox” (“Some people say love is blind / But I think that’s just a bit shortsighted”) while also borrowing the song title from Dylan, pulls some Eddie Cochran moves on “Love Gets Dangerous,” and channels Bo Diddley on “This Guitar Says Sorry.”

Also excellent are “Strange Things Happen” and “A Lover Sings,” the latter with a soulful organ part and a surprising lyric about “your tights around your ankles,” but the true highlight is the deeply affecting lovelorn tween – sensitive enough to quote the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” – of “The Saturday Boy” (“She danced with me and I still hold that memory soft and sweet / And I stare up at her window as I walk down her street / But I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh / And she never came to the phone, she was always in the bath”); the trumpet part on this is exquisite.

The final three songs are all political in nature, inspired by the UK miners strike of 1984-85, and all will make you pull on your Doc Martens and start researching “how make molotov cocktail” on the internet. You will definitely need a lyric sheet, as Bragg’s accent is as thick as a milkshake-airbound-for-a-fascist and he tends to pack a lot of syllables into a short space. I will love this album until the day I die.

The Best Thing About This Album

I could just say “The Saturday Boy,” which will rip your heart out, but the fact is that the best thing about this album is Bragg’s lyrics. He is masterful.

Release Date

May, 1983 (Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy); November, 1984 (Brewing Up With Billy Bragg); February, 1985 (Between the Wars); July, 1987 (Compilation)

The Cover Art

I can’t be objective. I love this album so much. I like the use of the blocks – they are a clever play on the title – and I like the cover art of the original releases on the top row of blocks.

Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I hate when people ask questions like “which is the greatest rock band?” What does that even mean? What is “greatest?” This shit isn’t quantifiable – it’s not like measuring feet above sea level. And even being asked to list my top 10 favorite artists is an impossible task; there is simply too much out there and how do you begin to compare between even 100 artists? Inviting me to rank songs by one band is a more discrete but no less difficult task. I figure at best you can divide a band’s catalog into three parts (great/good/not good), and even then, things get tricky at the margins. Where would I rank Chuck Berry? How important is he to me? I have no fucking idea how to answer those questions. Like with the Beatles, if Berry did not exist, someone else – or multiple someone elses – would have created similar things, eventually. There wouldn’t just be this black hole dramatically altering the future of music; it would be different but roughly (on a grand scale), it would be similar. But he did exist, and where we are today is due in large part to him. Do kids still listen to Chuck Berry? Will bands continue to cover his songs? I doubt it. But that doesn’t change anything.

What I Think of This Album

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. I don’t even know where to begin. Please buy this album. If you care at all about rock ‘n’ roll, it is basically a moral imperative that you own this. These songs are: a) eminently witty; b) fun; c) the best showcases of the importance of a guitar riff; d) full of attitude and spirit; and e) the fucking cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll.

All the great and critical Berry hits are here:  the iconic “Maybelline;” the racism parable “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man;” “Memphis,” the most heart-breaking song ever; poetic “Nadine;” anthem “School Days;” the warning shot that is “Roll Over, Beethoven;” the song that helped birth the Beach Boys, “Sweet Little Sixteen;” the song that gave the Stones their start, “Come On;” the song the Beatles copied for “Come Together” in “You Can’t Catch Me;” the lyrical geyser of “Too Much Monkey Business,” which inspired Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues;” the guitar masterpiece of “Carol;” sexualized “Little Queenie;” the self-mythologizing “Johnny B. Goode;” and the comical “No Particular Place to Go” (which is just “School Days” with new lyrics, but that’s okay). Plus a bunch of others that you have never heard before but should have, because they are also great (maybe not “Havana Moon”). Each of these songs is literally begging to be studied, not just listened to. Berry was a revolutionary guitarist, a stellar lyricist, a consummate showman, and an undeniable force. He was a visionary, and this collection proves it. Sometimes the sound quality on these recordings is a little lacking, and that can be disappointing but it’s a minor quibble.

The song-by-song credits are delightful to read through. Johnnie Johnson was Berry’s pianist on most of these tracks (with Lafayette Leake on several others, and legend Otis Spann on a few) and oh my, how they could play! The piano parts on the classic Berry songs like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Reelin’ & Rockin’” are mind-boggling. Also, Willie Dixon played bass, and Etta James and the Moonglows sang backup. And, Jerome Green (Bo Diddley) shook the maracas on “Maybelline” and “30 Days.” The sheer amount of talent on this compilation is nearly incomprehensible.

The Best Thing About This Album

That it exists. Are you kidding me? Literally close your eyes and put your finger anywhere on the track listing. Fine . . . if “Memphis” doesn’t make you cry, you are not human.

Release Date

1982

The Cover Art

Pretty good. The picture could be sharper but I like the pose and Berry’s smile. The primary colors work and I like the Chess Records element across the top on an odd diagonal, and particularly how it integrates the “often imitated, never duplicated” phrase into the graphic.

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