Favorite Albums Of 2017(so far) : Timothy Fife’s ‘Black Carbon’

Normally by this time in the year I’ve posted at least two lists of my favorite albums of the year, first in April at the 3 month point then in July at the 6 month point. It appears that the year keeps rolling by whether I want it to or not. Needless to say I haven’t made a list of anything(other than that weekly grocery list on Thursdays.) There will be a year-end list, and even though no major lists so far this year I do plan on sharing a few of the records that have been blowing my mind thus far in the year of our Lord, 2017.

First up is Timothy Fife’s Black Carbon.

I first came across Timothy Fife last year with his Victims’ Form Hell release with Chris Livengood. That record really blew me away, both in how it seemed to appear from out of nowhere(via Death Waltz Originals) and just how fully formed the two tracks were. Fife and Livengood(along with Aaron Dilloway) seemed to pull some Komische magic out of the ether and created two beautifully dense tracks that I’ve played more times than I can remember. I talked to Timothy and Chris here.

I made it a point to keep tabs on Fife as I’d heard he was releasing his debut solo record via Death Waltz Originals. 2016 turned to 2017 and before I knew it I was holding Black Carbon in my hands. At only 3 songs(4 in its digital form), I have to admit I was hoping for a whole hour of bubbly synth and vast space vibes. Fortunately, Fife packs quite a punch with those three tracks. His debut for Death Waltz Originals is a tasty bit of synth voodoo that will pull you out of the everyday doldrums.

The album opens with the epic “Sydney At Night”. When you listen to this track there’s an oppressive quality to it at first. Crackling distortion, ominous electronic howls emanate from the speakers, and there’s just a general sense of dread. You can hear crickets begin to chirp and a distant wave of synth begins to emerge from the darkness. Pulsating synth starts up and at this point you feel as if you’ve taken flight. Soon enough the chirps subside and a dark melody emerges. This is very much a journey track. Whether you’re cascading through the black of an Australian night or burning miles on the open road with a slight buzz putting you in some other headspace, “Sydney At Night” is a track that takes you somewhere. Where that is lies firmly in your brain. Side A is dominated by this 17 minute mind melter.

“Black Carbon” opens side B. It’s the shortest song on the album but it makes its presence known quickly. Ponging synth structures bubble up and down as the track moves along effortlessly. Three and a half minutes, it’s in and it’s out. Its sits perfectly on this record, very reminiscent of Fife’s work with Chris Livengood in Victims.

The great thing about Timothy Fife’s work is that he has a very deft touch when it comes to compositions. He never lays it on too thick, while the tracks never feel overly sparse. His songs are carefully layered to reveal maybe something new you didn’t hear the first time you listened, but he’s never going to reveal too much. What’s the fun in that?

The real sonic surprise here is closing track “Low Plain Landscape”. It deviates from the Komische atmosphere of the previous tracks and gives us a lighter, contemplative ambient track that is reminiscent of Daniel Lopatin’s early Oneohtrix Point Never albums(check out Betrayed In The Octagon, Russian Mind, and Drawn and Quartered for beautiful counterpoints.) I feel that this track is what distinguishes Fife from other artists working in the heavy synth realm. He’s not afraid to set the pulsating arpeggios and Edgar Froese-isms to the side and just open the universe a bit in one track. There’s a free floating quality to “Low Plain Landscape” that I just can’t get enough of. I imagine some futuristic visions of floating cities and double sunrises, or unlocking some “Pandora’s Box” of life meanings when this song is playing. There’s a serenity throughout, though at the 9 minute mark a slight turn of the knob creates tension for a moment. Like enlightenment is great, but it comes at a price. You dig?

Timothy Fife just announced a new release coming out in October via Polytechnic Youth. I’d buy it from the artwork alone, but I’m sure it’s gonna be another amazing track from one amazing musician. If you haven’t yet, grab a copy of Black Carbon at Mondotees. There’s still some of that wax available. Or just download it here.

Frame By Frame : Belew, The Boy, and 80s King Crimson

Last Friday night was the big show. My son and I headed out and made our way east 40 minutes to the Sweetwater Pavilion. Adrian Belew Power Trio was treating some Midwest folks to one hell of a show and I wanted my son to experience the power of Belew. What’s the Sweetwater Pavilion you ask? Well it’s a outdoor pavilion adjacent to the Sweetwater Sound music complex just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. It hosts a plethora of national acts that make their way through the Fort. Adrian Belew has played a few times at Sweetwater over the years. The wife and I saw him back in February of 2009 during a promotional tour for his then new Parker Fly guitar. It was some music playing and some storytelling, as well as some talking up his $10,000 Signature guitar. But the show last Friday was just the Adrian Belew Power Trio getting down to business.

The evening was opened with Los Angeles prog/pop band Spock’s Beard. The first five to ten minutes was pretty cool. These guys were all amazing musicians(the drummer was actually a Sweetwater employee that used to be their full-time drummer.) If it had stayed an instrumental affair I would’ve enjoyed maybe 35 minutes of it, but there were vocals. It was like a prog-rock Journey, or Fates Warning gone pop. I know there were some hard core fans there(I’d never heard of them prior to this show), so it was cool that some folks were digging the set. But it wasn’t really my cup of tea. There were elements of Yes, Kansas, Saga, and the aforementioned Journey. The music was distinct enough that it didn’t sound exactly like those mentioned bands, but generic enough that if you had walked up on it you’d think they were a really good cover band.

After an hour of that Spock’s Beard left the stage and their gear was hauled away by stage hands and the band alike. My son and I made our way to the front of the stage for Adrian Belew. He came out onto the stage and began messing with a Mac Book near his guitar setup. He looked like some guy leafing through the Sunday paper searching for international news with his reading glasses on. I was in awe. 20 feet in front of me looking through bifocals was, in my opinion, a musical legend. Here was a guy that had played with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and was a core member of King Crimson for over 20 years. He also created four of my favorite albums…ever. As I stood in awe of this 67-year old guitar genius my son stood next to me squishing a plastic water bottle in unison with the music playing over the PA system.

Before I knew it Belew was back on the stage in a black one piece suit, bright red sneakers and hat, along with bassist Julie Slick and guest drummer Kris Myers of the band Umphrey’s McGee. It was a set filled heavily with both Belew’s solo work and with songs from his tenure in King Crimson. As thrilled as I was to hear those old Belew tunes(like “Men In Helicopters”, “Young Lions”, and “Big Electric Cat” to name a few), it was the King Crimson songs that really stuck with me. “Frame By Frame”, “Dinosaur”, “One Time”, “Three Of A Perfect Pair”, and “Neurotica” were all played to perfection by this “Power Trio”. It really reminded me just how much I loved those 80s Crimson records.

My son and I bathed in the sub woofer tones for an hour before he said he was ready to go home. As much as I wanted to stay I didn’t want his memory of the night to be a crappy Wendy’s burger and getting tired at the rock concert, so I bid adieu to Mr. Belew, Ms. Slick, and Mr. Myers and we made our way through the night back to our home in the woods. We talked about how good everyone was along the way, and that the first band was really good but played too long. We were both amazed at Julie Slick and Kris Myers. For a rhythm section that only had two rehearsals prior to this show they were tight and on point. Slick is a virtuosic bass player and started playing with Belew(along with her brother Eric who now drums for Dr. Dog) when they were just teens out of a music school in Philly. They were barely adults when I saw them knocking our socks off 8 years ago. Kris Myers was impressive as hell. I know nothing of Umphrey’s McGee, other than they have a funny name. But if his intensity and breadth of musicianship is any indication, I might want to look them up.

So over the weekend that followed I sort of fell down the 80s King Crimson rabbit hole. I used to own the three big 80s records on CD, Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. I bought them back in the early 90s when I was a full-on Belew fanatic, eating up everything I could that he was involved in. I didn’t jump into the Zappa, Bowie, and Talking Heads stuff till years later, but the Crimson stuff I dug. Back then I was more interested in the poppier aspects Belew brought to the prog rock monsters acerbic vibe. Robert Fripp already seemed to me like an android programmed to scare people with his angular guitar style and soulless scowl, so adding the affable Belew to the mix I think really changed the vibe of the band. VROOM was an early 90s record that I really enjoyed, too. Belew’s solo sound had really permeated tracks like “Dinosaur” and “One Time”. The band had been expanded to include guitarist Trey Gunn and percussionist Pat Mastelotto. It was a companion piece to the following year’s THRAK. It contained a song called “Walking On Air” that put me in mind of both their classic “Matte Kudasai” and something John Lennon would’ve recorded in the mid-70s.

Shortly after that I kind of fell out of King Crimson and Belew for years. I’d revisit Belew of course, but Crimson lost favor in my head. A couple years ago my interest re-peaked after I’d begun to get into the John Wetton-era Crimson in the early 70s. I’d hit up Youtube and watch old live clips of the 80s stuff and was once again floored. But more so by the band and not just the guy singing and playing crazy guitar. The syncopation between Tony Levin’s Chapman Stick playing and Bill Bruford’s intricate rhythms was pretty mind-blowing. I could also really see where the guitar lines were drawn between Fripp and Belew. Fripp was the anchor with his chord structures while Belew created soundscapes and chaos one minute and calm and hazy atmosphere the next.

I found copies of Discipline and Beat on vinyl at pretty reasonable prices over the last two years and have been enjoying them tremendously. “Frame By Frame” “Elephant Talk”, “Matte Kudasai”, “Thela Hun Ginjeet”, “Neal, Jack, and Me”, “Heartbeat”, “Neurotica”, “Waiting Man”, and “Requiem” are current favorites. I still need to find a copy of Three of a Perfect Pair. Soon. Very soon.

So taking my son to his first concert worked on two fronts. First, he got to see a master up close and personal his first time out. When he’s older I think he’ll truly appreciate just how big of a first gig this was. We had a great time together, and we also got a soft-serve cone of ice cream at the show. So ice cream and rock and roll: win-win. Second, seeing Mr. Belew up there revisiting some of his classic Crimson tunes really got me to give those records another listen and I realized I was only hearing part of the genius all those years ago. I feel all the more lucky to have seen this show now.

Now if only Tangerine Dream tours soon, I can make my son’s next show even better. And no lousy Wendy’s this time.

El Supremo : For The Love of Steely Dan’s ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’

It’s sad that only when someone dies do we feel driven to talk about them. I guess its only natural that after someone you admire passes that you want to explore their past work and see if maybe you’d missed something. For me, with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker passing away last week I wasn’t going back to see what I’d missed about the Dan while the guy was alive. I’ve loved the duo of Becker/Fagen for over 20 years now and have dug into the Dan discography more times than I can shake a stick at. I’ve never got tired of the Steely Dan discography. Never. Not once. I can’t even say that about the Beatles, the Kinks, or even JHubner73 stalwarts Wilco. Steely Dan have always intrigued me(once I “got em”.) The mixture of sci fi-meets-beatnik-meets-downtown derelict lyrics, subtle funky rhythms, and intricate jazz breakdowns were the things of late night drives, young man contemplation, and stoned conversations. Theirs was a confection of William Burroughs, 50 years of jazz history, and burnt out 60s disillusionment turned into sardonic 70s pessimism.

It was a biting and beautiful thing.

No, what I was going after this past week was digging through that decade of Dan and finding what I might’ve overlooked. I hadn’t really overlooked things, but I never truly appreciated Steely Dan as a “band”. I was always drawn to the later records that were Becker/Fagen- conducted affairs. The revolving doors of wizard-like studio musicians that Don and Walter would direct into meticulous solos and takes. Records like Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja were my jams. They felt like these alternate universes where lowlifes and degenerates ruled the city streets. Each song felt like stories half written by Jim Thompson and half written by Philip K. Dick with the music arranged in the spirit of Wayne Shorter’s Juju. That was what initially brought me in. But the last few years I’ve been drawn to the first half of their career. Can’t Buy A Thrill isn’t played a whole lot by me, though it does have its charms(“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, “Only A Fool Would Say That”, and “Fire In The Hole” are standouts.) For me, Countdown To Ecstasy is the record that truly introduced the world to Steely Dan. It led to the excellent Pretzel Logic which was the last album to feature the original 5-piece band of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jim Hodder. Countdown To Ecstasy was their most rock and roll record. It’s gritty, out there, and holds within it a cast of characters Robert Altman would be thrilled to put on screen.

When you open an album with a hyper speed boogie number called “Bodhisattva”, a track that boast serious guitar solos, keyboard solos, and lyrics like “Can you show me the shine of your Japan/The sparkle of your china, can you show me“, you’re not just laying down the grooves just to jam. The definition of Bodhisattva, for those that don’t know it, simply states: “(in Mahayana Buddhism) a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.” Fagen was never one to write simple lyrics. He was out to tell a story each time out, and throw his literate lyrics over top a serious jam like this and you’re bound for greatness.

Then they follow that with the excellent “Razor Boy”. “Will you still have a song to sing, when the Razor Boy comes and takes your fancy things away/Will you still be singing it on that cold and windy day?” Put to to jazzy vibes and Baxter’s beautiful pedal steel playing, this song is the perfect example of how well Steely Dan could create these subversive songs and make them fluffy radio friendly. Look at a hit like “Peg” which subtly refers to the business of the porn industry(“done up in blueprint blue/it sure looks good on you“) or their biggest hit “Hey Nineteen” referring to “the fine Columbian“(I’m sure they were referring to a cup of coffee.) “Razor Boy” is a nod to drug addiction under the guise of some street punk carrying a blade. It’s really quite genius.

“The Boston Rag” is another stellar track that showcases Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar wizardry, courtesy of his pedal steel. There’s an ominous vibe here that Fagen lays on it with his vocals. “You were Lady Bayside/There was nothing that I could do/So I pointed my car down/Seventh Avenue“, Fagen sings over a seriously tight groove. There’s a grimy downtown vibe in this track. For an album that was recorded in Colorado and Los Angeles there’s some serious New York vibes here.

One of my favorite jams is “Your Gold Teeth”. It’s just an all out barn burner. I never truly appreciated this song till many years later. Fagen’s keyboard work on this is absolutely brilliant. Victor Feldman’s percussion work also makes this song burn brightly. Absolutely brilliant.

One of the most biting tracks opens side two. “Show Biz Kids” is Fagen’s ode to stuck up LA kids blowing mom and dad’s money and generally not giving a shit about anyone else but themselves. He says as much in one of the lines, “Showbiz Kids making movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.” There’s talk of a “Steely Dan t-shirt” and “shapely bods”, and one of my personal bits of favorite lyrical gold “After closing time/At the Guernsey Fair/I detect the El Supremo/From the room at the top of the stairs”. You can almost see Fagen’s smirk as you listen to this track.

“My Old School” was I think the only long lasting radio track, something you still hear on classic rock radio from time to time. It’s another great story song about a drug bust at Bard College when Becker and Fagen were students. I seriously don’t know how this wasn’t a hit song back in 1973. It’s a great tune with a earworm of a melody and excellent storytelling.

“Pearl of the Quarter” for years was one of my favorite Steely Dan songs. The story of a prostitute and the “John” that fell for her. “I walked alone down the miracle mile/I met my baby by the shine of the martyr/She stole my heart with her Cajun smile/Singing voulez vous“, Fagen sings over some beautiful pedal steel and melancholy piano chords. I remember being in a dive bar in town 20+ years ago and going to the jukebox and seeing Countdown to Ecstasy in it. I happily dropped an abundance of coin in the slot and played this track more than a few times. I got plenty of jeers, but the one guy sitting by himself singing along to his bottle of Micheloeb was enough to make it all worth it.

“King of the World”, an ode to the last man on earth is a sci fi rocker that closes the record on a uptempo groove. Complete with synthesizers, jazzy drums, Becker’s excellent bass playing, and more of Baxter’s great slide playing. Lyrically Fagen paints a portrait of a dead world with the guy that pulled the shortest straw, aka the King of the world. “No marigolds in the promised land/There’s a hole in the ground, Where they used to grow/Any man left on the Rio Grande, Is the king of the world/As far as I know“. I think these are probably some of the best lyrics on Countdown To Ecstasy.

Surprisingly(to me, anyways), while this album was highly regarded by critics and fans it didn’t yield much in the hits department and was seen as a disappointment by the record label. Of course they’d follow this up with the monster that is Pretzel Logic only a mere 7 months later and from that point on they would put out one stellar record after another until 1980 when they would take a 20 year hiatus until 2000s Two Against Nature.

Though they would inevitably go on to make better albums, there’s something about Countdown To Ecstasy that makes it stand out in the Dan canon. Maybe because it’s a “live” album, written for a rock and roll band to perform. Maybe because there’s a heavier sci fi slant here that makes the record seem like more of an outlier. Or maybe it’s the grittier, street-sweaty manor of the songs here that makes Countdown To Ecstasy a record I find myself going to as of late. I guess it doesn’t really matter what it is that keeps me coming back.

If the Razor Boy approves, then that’s what matters.

Happy Birthmark!

There aren’t too many artists that influenced and affected me quite like Adrian Belew. He had a four album run from 1989 to 1994 that pretty much defined for me what it is to be a songwriter. With those records, Mr. Music Head, Young Lions, Inner Revolution, and Here, I’d felt that I had my own Beatles or Kinks. Of course I had the Beatles and Kinks, but Belew was in my universe, creating at that moment. He was making pure power pop bliss with a flair for the experimental. When I was 17 I was merely interested in the pop aspect of Belew’s playing. I wasn’t even considering the groundbreaking guitar work he was doing(both as a solo artist and with King Crimson), or the pioneering studio work he had already done by then with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and the Talking Heads(just to name a few.)

I was enamored with Mr. Belew so much that in 1995 I actually sent a typed(yes, with an electric typewriter kids) letter to Adrian Belew’s management company Umbrella Management in Cincinnati, OH. I told them of how much Adrian Belew’s music had affected me and influenced me in my fledgling songwriting adventures. I hem hawed around until I got the courage to ask if they would be willing to check out a tape of some songs I’d recorded on my 4-track. I got a letter back from them a couple weeks later saying they would share my letter with Mr. Belew, and that they would be honored to check out my tape. “We’ll give it both ears” is what Mr. Stan Hertzman responded with. Of course I talked myself out of the whole thing, but it was nice to actually hear from a human.

Now at 43 I’ve gone back and dug into all that studio work. I think what he did with the Talking Heads was some of the most important stuff put to tape. I really do. Remain In Light is this anomaly in pop music. A totally out there, experimental approach to making music that redefined what you could do in the studio. Belew’s work on that album and the tour that followed still blows my mind. His later work as a solo artist was heavily influenced by David Byrne, Brian Eno, and David Bowie; but it was also influenced by Lennon and McCartney and Ray Davies. The latter influences are what hit me first, but the former are what I think have made Adrian Belew an artist of the highest order.

Inner Revolution was the record that turned me inside out, and Young Lions was my first experience with Belew. But Mr. Music Head was a revelatory moment for me. With just one song, it felt like that album knocked my head open to allow the world to soak in. And it all seemingly started with Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.

It was December of 1990 and one of my good friends and I met up with a few other friends from school at the Lake Theater and saw Jacob’s Ladder. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a dark and disturbing film about a guy that feels he’s losing his grip on reality. He thinks he’s seeing demons and dark conspiracies surrounding him and trying to take his life. It’s one of those movies that seems like one thing and at the end it’s something completely different. Honestly, it moved me. It was one of the first films I saw that had me thinking about it for hours afterwards. We all went and got fries and drinks afterwards and my good friend and I were attempting to explain what happened to our other friends. I won’t get into the details of the film. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Tim Robbins, Danny Aiello, and Elizabeth Pena were all amazing in it. Bruce Joel Rubin wrote a film both haunting, disturbing, and heartbreaking. See it.

Anyways, so after we got back to my friend’s house we’re still contemplating the movie when he gives me a cassette. It was Adrian Belew’s Mr. Music Head. He found a used copy and told me happy birthday. This is the friend that got me into Belew. He’d bought Young Lions earlier in the year and after a summer of constant listening I was hooked. Mr. Music Head was the album that preceded Young Lions and I was excited to hear it. As we discussed the film, the tape played and impressed me at every turn.

“Oh Daddy” was a top ten hit. It was a song Belew recorded with his 12 year old daughter(who sang.) It’s a sweet tune about a little girl asking her dad if he’d finally made the big time. “House Of Cards” shows Belew’s knack for writing spot-on pop songs while still being experimental and adventurous. “One Of Those Days” sounds like a lost Harry Nilsson track with its upbeat shuffle and piano melody. Belew talks about summertime picnics and barbecues all the while referencing God going back to sleep for a while longer behind the sun(referencing Daoism I believe.) “Bad Days” is another incredible piano led pop track, more melanchoy. A song about a troubled relationship that might’ve been about Belew and his first wife. “Motor Bungalow”, “Bumpity Bump”, and “Bird In A Box” all were these jangly pop songs that impressed a couple of 17-year old dorks. Then we came to “1967”. That song stopped us both in mid conversation. It was this acoustic-driven number that sounded like Lennon/McCartney turned inside out to reveal the inner workings of genius. It was just as much an impressionistic work of art as it was a harmonious pop song. There are moments of pure beauty and of this existential drifting where you feel as if you stumbled into someone’s dark psyche. Each time the song twists and turns into these wormholes of psychic dread Belew pulls us out with power pop harmonies and his jaunty acoustic guitar. From the first line(“Last night/I took a walk into the back of my mind/Through the trash and the warning signs”) to the last (“If you’ll excuse me I should say goodbye/I gotta go now”) I was floored. Me talking about it doesn’t do it justice.

Loose tooth three of a perfect paradiced onions cheese
And beans from another planeteri gargoyle change
Every two thousand smiled at
Linda Evans called again singing happy birthmark

Over the years Adrian Belew has remained a constant in my musical wanderings. He’s always been a significant influence and inspiration. As I got older I started going back to his studio work and my mind was blown yet again by his work on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. But I’ve never strayed too far away from those four albums that started it all for me. I recently acquired a promotional copy of Mr. Music Head for the low, low price of $5.50. The sleeve is beat up a little, but the album is clean. I spun it this past Friday night and it was like reliving that Friday night in 1990 all over again. This time though, I had the pleasure of sharing it with my 12 year old son. In two weeks I’ll be taking him to his first rock concert. We’ll be seeing Adrian Belew on September 8th.

God had his great snooze
And through the trees a sleepy breeze blew
It was one of those days

 

Diver Downer

In my life, Van Halen have gone from being hailed as Gods to being complete clowns back to being a source of great love and nostalgia. Growing up in the Midwest in the 80s you were limited on cultural growth and expanding ones tastes musically to Top 40 radio and physical print mags you found at local bookstores and grocery store magazine stands. If you had cable and MTV then you were ahead of the game slightly. For me, my parents wanted no part in the cable game. We had a 40ft attenna tower that got us 9 channels, plus some Chicago stations on clear, summer nights if we were lucky(The Twilight Zone on Channel 9 was a treat.) My parents saw cable as a scam(though were quick to buy a splitter for their bedroom when I paid for cable at their house when I was 20 years old. Pfft.)

What I’m getting at here is that I was limited to my musical adventures. By the time I hit 5th grade I’d already bought Ratt’s Out of the Cellar, Quite Riot’s Condition Critical, Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry, and Van Halen’s 1984. These were my “holy grails” of music. The big four that would push me into all other directions. While Ratt would put out at least three more decent records(Invasion of Your Privacy, Dance, and Reach For The Sky), the rest kind of faltered. Van Halen turned into a different band altogether. With Roth hitting the road they brought in Sammy Hagar, and though they never hit the massive “cock rock” appeal that the Roth years brought they were equally successful(if not more with Hagar.)

For me, though, the David Lee Roth years were my favorite Van Halen years. I’m a completist when it comes to bands. At least I was back then. Once I got a taste for 1984 I knew I had to dig back for all the good stuff. I was familiar with Van Halen and Van Halen II as my parents had them both on 8-track, but the rest was waiting for me to explore. I think Fair Warning was and still is my favorite Van Halen album. It was cheeky and had all the Van Halen tropes I’ve grown to love, but there was also this darkness to it that none of the other albums ever achieved. The album that seems to be everyone’s least favorite is Diver Down. I think it was my least favorite when I bought it in 1985. 32 years later I’d have to say that’s not the case. It’s really quite a hell of a record.

I may not remember much in the ways of Algebra, or how to tie a tie(I was pretty fluent in the art of tie tying in high school because I had to wear one as a bag boy at Owens Supermarket…clip-ons were for losers, baby), but I remember where I was when I bought certain albums. Not all of them, but some. I bought Diver Down on a day I stayed home from school because of a doctor appt. After the appt my parents took me by Butterfly Records where I picked up the last piece of the Van Halen puzzle, Diver Down. The only song I was really familiar with on this album was their cover of “(Oh)Pretty Woman”. I remember seeing the video on ‘Friday Night Videos’ and liking their guitar-heavy version. We arrived home and I went straight to my room to dig into Diver Down.

What I heard was an album that didn’t have any one song that stood out. Each album previously seemed to have stand out after stand out. Diver Down seemed to just roll tape and give out this continuous hum of same ‘ol stuff. I dug “The Full Bug” right off the bat, and I really liked “Big Bad Bill”, if not only for the fact that it made me think of my dad(his name is Bill and in his younger days he was known to throw fisticuffs here and there), plus the clarinet made me think of old Woody Allen movies. “Little Guitars” was nice as well, but everything else just seemed to blend together. It was also the most covers on a Van Halen record, with “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”, “(Oh)Pretty Woman”, and “Dancing In The Streets”. At the time I thought that was kind of lazy of VH. I listened maybe one more time before putting it in the cassette case to sit quietly and complete my collection.

Many, many years later when I would grow up and come to terms with my hair metal past, I started looking back on some of those 80s albums that I loved and would occasionally even pick one up on vinyl when I’d see it on the cheap. Two or three years ago I started snagging up Van Halen albums. Fair Warning was the first. Still a classic to my ears. I found a record club exclusive version of 1984 that was in mint condition last year and grabbed that, too. Then a few months ago I found a $5 copy of Diver Down. I couldn’t resist. I have to say, the 11 year old me just didn’t hear the goodness I’m hearing now. It’s not their best by any means, but it’s still a hell of an album.

One of my biggest complaints 30 years ago was that there were too many covers on this album. My opinion has changed completely on this. I think the covers are probably the strongest thing going on this album, with “Dancing In The Streets” being the cream of the crop. The use of synths, the patented Van Halen groove, the soaring Eddie solo, and David Lee Roth never sounded as sincere in his delivery as he does on this song. Really, I start with side 2 every time I spin this because I love this song so much. “(Oh)Pretty Woman” is another stellar cover, with the song starting out with some weird, dark instrumental(“Intruder”) that goes right into Orbison’s titular riff. Roth turns Orbison’s sadsack guy trying to get the attention of the girl into a blowhard come-on which Roth does like no other. The last cover(I’m not counting “Happy Trails”, kids) is the cover of the Kinks somewhat obscure track “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”. I hadn’t heard The Kinks version before hearing Van Halen do it, so I didn’t really have a reference point. I always dug the guy lamenting about the good old days schtick, and after hearing the Kinks original I felt Van Halen stayed pretty true to it.

Elsewhere, the originals don’t disappoint. “Hang ’em High” is a nitrous-fueled rocker with a mix of punk and LA glam. “Cathedral” is a dreamy little instrumental that leads into the poppy “Secrets”. Roth would go on to put out songs like “Ladies Night In Buffalo” and “Skyscraper” that seem to have their origins in songs like this. For all his crotch writhing and Tae Kwon Do mid air splits, Roth was a goofy romantic at heart. “Little Guitars(Intro)” and “Little Guitars” is flamenco guitar that morphs into the sweetest and most earnest pop the VH dudes had made yet. A kid looking for serious guitar mind melting would be disappointed with this, but for a guy in his 40s looking back this is a perfect dollop of late summer confection. Eddie’s guitar and Michael Anthony’s backing vocals make this song soar. As I mentioned before, I dug “The Full Bug” back in the day and still do now. It’s the obligatory “boogie” track. Nearly every VH album through Roth’s tenure had them. “Ice Cream Man”, “Bottoms Up!”, “Fools”, “Sinner’s Swing!”, and “Hot For Teacher” were all boogies in some shape or form. “The Full Bug” fills the boogie quota for Diver Down quite well. A good portion of the “Sunset Strip” bands of the mid-to-late 80s owe their 15 minutes to the Van Halen boogie(I’m looking at you, Bullet Boys.)

I’m not sure what happened in 1982 when Diver Down came out. Maybe it was VH overkill. Maybe the DLR schtick was starting to wear on everyone. Whatever it was, this album is the least discussed. I’m here to say that after putting some years between me and old Diver Down I can look back at it and appreciate it for the pretty decent LP that it was. It led us to the monumental 1984 and then the eventual ego war between Eddie and David Lee Roth. Then Eddie and the world at large.

If you haven’t heard this one in a long time, give it a spin. See what happens.

Oh, the video is pretty gross. But it was the early 80s. 

 

6 Must Die : Revisiting John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’

There’s certain things in our lives we hold dear because we experienced them when we were young. Maybe a certain food or a song. Maybe it’s an old bomber jacket we were given on some nondescript Christmas morning when we were 7-years old. Maybe a special time with a loved one on a holiday when we were 10. For me, all of those things apply. My mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner”, a leather bomber jacket I got for Christmas when I was 15-years old, and a Memorial Day picnic with my grandma and grandpa Hubner at Ox Bow Park when I was 5. All of these things I will carry with me as long as the synapses are popping off in my head. Regardless of how significant or insignificant they may seem to the person outside looking in, for me they’re things that will always stay with me.

Same could be said for movies we saw in our childhood. There were certain films I saw as a kid that have stayed with me. Movies that I can’t necessarily say they’re great movies, but they moved me regardless. Audrey Rose, Phantasm, The Neverending Story, and The Road Warrior were movies I saw growing up that had a profound effect on a adolescent JHubner73. Of those movies, I still rank Phantasm and The Road Warrior up there, while the others not so much. John Carpenter’s The Fog is another movie I remember watching a few times when it was shown on network television that put me in a very specific place. It was scary, for sure, but it also had a very specific look to it. There was this overwhelming feeling of isolation in the scenes with Adrienne Barbeau in the lighthouse radio station, or with her son on the beach finding the driftwood. The drive Barbeau took to get to the lighthouse felt endless and almost magical. All these things stayed with me as a kid and the movie became this pinnacle of scary movies for me. Every time it was on TV I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and camped out on the living room couch. I wanted to be scared. I wanted to be transported to Antonio Bay for two hours. It’s a film that worked its magic on me when I was young. As an adult the soundtrack has become one of my favorite scores to get lost in. It evokes in me all those feelings I had as a kid bundled up on the couch waiting for a commercial break so I could go get a bowl of ice cream or go to the bathroom.

One thing I hadn’t done in years was sit down and actually watch the movie again. I recently picked up a limited edition 3-pack of Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, and They Live in steelbook case Blu Rays through Shout! Factory. Friday night my son and I popped in The Fog as he hadn’t yet seen it and I watched the film that sort of defined for me what great horror is supposed to be.

For the most part, my memory served me correctly.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Cliff Notes version:

The scenic ocean town of Antonio Bay is celebrating their 100th anniversary. The night before the celebration things go crazy in town; car alarms go off, dogs start barking towards the ocean, windows and clocks shatter, and out in the ocean three drunk fishermen are slaughtered by beings that appear out of a glowing, ominous fog. That same night the local alcoholic priest finds a hidden journal in the wall of the church that was written by his grandfather who was one of the founding fathers of the town. It seems the town was founded on lies, deceit, and murder. Back in 1879, a colony of lepers approach the small village now known as Antonio Bay and ask if they can settle and form a town just a few miles from the village. They offer gold as payment for this proposition. 6 conspirators, including the priest’s grandfather, decide to doublecross the lepers by leading their boat at night right into a bank of rocks which sinks their ship and kills all the men on board. The conspirators then retrieve the gold from the wreckage and with it founded their town, Antonio Bay. On the town’s 100th Anniversary the leper pirates have returned and want revenge. 6 must die in place of the original conspirators, plus they want their gold back. 

As a kid I loved this movie for the scares and creepy glowing fog. As an adult I find myself more mesmerized by the beautiful shots and Carpenter’s keen eye for forming scenes. The story isn’t complicated. This is basically The Blob, but with fog instead of a giant, man-eating ball of snot. In anyone’s lesser hands this would’ve been a movie that the sands of time would’ve devoured and spit out like so many other B-movies of the day. Carpenter made this with a$1,000,000 budget. With screw ups and re-shoots it ended up being closer to $1.1 to $1.3 million. Still, that’s peanuts in the scheme of things. His decision to shoot in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen made his low budget horror flick look more like an arthouse film. It’s simply gorgeous. There’s some truly effective acting here, as well as some not-so effective. Let me go over the good and meh.

First the good:

Like I said, this film is gorgeous. With Shout! Factory’s clean up of the print the film looks as good as ever. Carpenter is a visual guy more than a storytelling guy. He tells stories, but they’re simple ones. His strength is in putting scenes together and building tension, as well as his keen eye with the camera. Along with cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter takes a little horror flick and gives it serious class in the looks department. His steadi-cam work, his use of light, and long, slow pans all feel revelatory in the field of horror. This film gave the horror genre a serious kick in the pants. It didn’t have to be grainy, choppily edited, and dubbed like a Godzilla picture in order to be a horror film.

The music is completely next level for horror films, or really any kind of genre. Carpenter used the synths for melodic dread creating and also to amp up intense scenes of terror. I think this is one score that stayed with me through my entire life. I always thought back to this music(even more so than his Halloween score) when I thought of great scores. When I started collecting film scores this was one of the first I wanted. Fortunately I waited a couple years till the Silva Screen reissue came out back in 2015. It’s gorgeous and sounds stunning.

There are individual moments of genius here. The opening sequence with John Houseman as the crusty sailor telling the tale of Blake and his comrades dying in the sinking ship to a bunch of kids around a campfire is classic. It sets the stage for what’s to come. And then the move from there into the town where lights flicker, windows explode, and things just get generally strange is exceptional. Carpenter’s use of light and his gorgeous widescreen shots go a long way to making this a classic. For me the scenes with Adrienne Barbeau’s radio station owner/DJ in the lighthouse radio station are some of the best. Her drive through the California countryside to the radio station located on a lighthouse cliff is just stunning. Walking down the long, narrow concrete stairs to the lighthouse is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Even hearing the repeating promos of KAB-radio is poignant. You get this overwhelming sense of isolation. And her play-by-play reports from the radio station to the town regarding where the fog is heading is tense as hell. Besides the fog itself, this is Adrienne Barbeau’s movie for sure.

The fog itself is ominous and creepy. This is a point that could’ve sunk the film had it not been done right and Carpenter and his effects crew did an amazing job here. There are three main players here: Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, and the fog itself. These three are what push the movie forward. There’s plenty of characters, but they are all here in order to react to the actions of these forces of nature.

Blake and his leper ghost pirates are done right. You see enough to know you wouldn’t want to run into them on your morning commute, but not enough of them to see this is a movie with a $1 million budget. The ghost ship is effective as it silently moves along the drunk fisherman’s vessel. And the scene at the end in the church with Holbrook is intense as hell, glowing eyes and all.

And now, the not-so good:

Honestly, there isn’t much I can  complain about here. But watching it 35 years on from the first time I saw there were just a couple things that bothered me. For one, some of the characters just didn’t seem fleshed out enough. The Tom Atkins/Nick Castle and Jamie Lee Curtis/Elizabeth Solley characters, while serving a definite purpose here(they’re a pivotal part in one of the most intense scenes in the film) just don’t seem all that interesting. Curtis was amazing in Carpenter’s Halloween as Laurie Strode, basically defining the female heroine in that role. But here, her easy hitchhiker just feels like any other character in the background. Tom Atkins seems like Tom Atkins in every role he’s in. Here he’s fine, but him hooking up with the MUCH younger Curtis(he’s 23 years older) seems more creepy to me now than it did when I was younger. They both serve the film well, but in as simple a way as they can(Atkins played the angry, abusive dad in Creepshow wonderfully, btw.)

Elsewhere Hal Holbrook does the stereotypical alcoholic priest as well as he can(he does resemble Edgar Allen Poe quite a bit.) The local townies all show up in fine form, but nothing really makes me care whether or not the Fog gets ’em or not.

The Fog isn’t any one person’s movie. It’s an ensemble built to serve us some existential dread in the form of a glowing fog that hides inside of it regret, guilt, lies, deceit, and stone-cold revenge(as well as some pissed off leper pirates from beyond the grave.) This is an old-timey campfire ghost story, much like the one we see transpiring at the very beginning of the film. It’s a lesson in “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but done up in a nightmare-ish fable by the sea. John Carpenter put a unique spin on a story about ghosts, revenge, comeuppance, and where greed will get you. He made one of the most gorgeous, midnight b-movies ever made.

38 years on, this fog still glows brightly.

 

 

It’s Getting Better All The Time

Yeah, I know. Like the world needs one more opinion on a Beatles album. Christ, I think everything that needs to have been said has been said. We get it. The Fab Four are great. They revolutionized rock and roll and popular music in general. What more needs to be said? Oxygen is pretty important. Let me tell you why! I think you’re taking naps for granted and here’s 1,000 words on the subject. So yeah, I know you probably don’t want to hear another blowhard espouse the greatness of something like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…but that’s exactly what’s going to happen right now.

I’ve always loved The Beatles. Its’ a dumb statement, really. Who doesn’t love the Beatles? Sure, I’m sure those folks exist. I know a couple of them. They’re free to not love the Beatles, but I’m certain they have no soul(who can listen to something like “In My Life” or “I Will” and not something inside of them melt? Who, dammit?) But hey, people voted for Donald Trump and continue to back him so there’s something definitely astray in the universe.

For me the Beatles were ingrained in my head from the beginning. My parents only owned two albums, Sgt. Pepper and The White Album, but just those two records played in heavy rotation were enough to rewire my brain at 4 or 5 years old. I’d get that tingly sensation whenever “Back In The USSR” would start up and blast through the speakers. It started that that was my favorite song as a young whippersnapper, but as I got a little older I’d stick around for “Dear Prudence”. That song was sad and plainspoken. It made me see colors and feel things I couldn’t quite understand. There was something plain and earthy about The White Album. It was all over the map in terms of styles and sounds, but they all felt grounded. In some ways The White Album sounds like the first true indie rock record. A band that had the power of a religion behind them getting back to gritty basics.

But before they went all double album they created arguably one of the most important albums to be released in the last 50 years. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was unlike anything I’d heard before. While The White Album was grounded, Sgt. Pepper felt like some other world altogether. It was regal, pristine, buttoned up psychedelia, and some of the best songwriting the Fab Four would ever do. As a kid songs like “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, and “Within You Without You” were almost scary. They felt like these odd musical worlds to my adolescent ears. Places you could get lost in and if you weren’t careful you may not come back from them. But then there was the tough, guitar-driven tracks like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Getting Better”, and “Good Morning, Good Morning” that would pull you out of those weird musical caverns. Gorgeous whimsy ran through songs like “Fixing A Hole”, “Lovely Rita”, and “When I’m Sixty-Four” that made everything alright. The use of “When I’m Sixty-Four” in the opening credits to George Roy Hill’s The World According To Garp made that film all the more sadly underrated in my eyes. And then there was the majestic beauty of “She’s Leaving Home”. It may have caused weepy eyes late at night when I was wondering if my girlfriend was making a new life for herself in college back in 1992. It may have. Of course, “A Day In The Life” is really the ultimate John Lennon feat. A microcosm of the life of the plain guy. An existential musical trip into British life. The lyrics are both plainspoken and literal, as well as being coy and poetic. I can totally see how Paul Thomas Anderson based his magnum opus Magnolia on that one song. It feels like a lifespan in just one song.

Over the years I’ve gone through Beatles phases. I go from completely in love with them to “yeah, been there done that. Next.” Of course that latter phase is complete crap. I always find my way back to what made me fall in love with them in the first place, at 4 or 5 years old. Sgt. Pepper is the ultimate piece of musical genius from John, Paul, George, and Ringo. That musical world is one I never tire of. When I’d heard a couple months ago that yet another reissue of this album was coming out my first thought was “Here we go again, EMI.” I pretty much stayed away from all those 2009 reissues. I did end up buying Abbey Road and Let It Be on CD just because. But I stayed away from the Mono Reissue black hole and for the most part just stayed with my inferior original CD purchases from the early 90s. For some reason though I felt differently about Sgt. Pepper. Something in my head was saying “You need this. Get it.” So against my better judgement I ended up listening to the voice in my head and ordered this new Sgt. Pepper reissue. I picked it up yesterday and I’ve been listening to it pretty much ever since. It’s pretty brilliant.

I won’t go into the technical jargon as I really can’t comment on that. I’ll say this, Giles Martin has taken a 50 year old classic and opened it up for all of us to hear with fresh ears. I liken it to the original version as a plain storybook and Giles has taken his dad’s handiwork and turned it into a pop-up book. While before we were merely an audience looking at a beautifully ornamented painting, we are now walking into the painting and seeing that world for the first time, again. Each song seems to hold new secrets for us to discover. From the opening salvo of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to the guitar punch of “Getting Better” to the psychedelic whimsy of “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”, there are new places to explore. “Within You Without You” sounds almost three dimensional. You feel surrounded by the sitar as George sings “We were talking, about the space between us all“. That space has opened and enveloped us now. Those exquisite background vocals feel more present than ever. Listening to this you really do understand how the word “Beatles” has become an adjective when describing how vocals sound. “It’s got a Beatles vocal sound to it.”

The essence of this record hasn’t changed. Nothing was drastically altered or re-colored for an updated look. It feels like the small details that have been lost in time and many, many format iterations over the last 50 years have been brought back into beautifully sharp focus. Things taken for granted -like those detailed vocal harmonies, the crispness of the harp in “She’s Leaving Home”, and dense sonics of “Within You Without You”- have all been pulled back up to the front for us to appreciate once again. The dust and grit of time have been removed. Sgt. Pepper can be appreciated all over again.

I can’t say I’ll continue buying up Beatles records if Giles wants to take other albums to task. I guess it depends on the album, I suppose. I can say that I have no regrets buying this one, though.

It truly is getting better all the time.