Monday, March 14, 2005

Coma Rally

It's the oldest trick in the book: Start your record out with an intriguing noise, mixed super-low, then once the listener, seduced, has had time to twist the volume knob to the right a few notches, smack 'em right between the eyes with the real volume, so that all at once, before they know it, they're caught up in the full force of your sound.

That's the gambit Tim Locke uses to open Coma Rally, the self-titled debut by his "metalicious" new band, featuring a couple of familiar faces and one that's relatively new to Tim's musical orbit. Start with Calhoun, Tim's alt-countryish "other" band (comparisons, of course, suck, and never do the music justice, blah blah blah, but if you held a gun to my head, I suppose I'd have to say the proximate model for Calhoun would be Elliott Smith fronting Being There-era Wilco). Subtract Benroi Herring's keys and pedal steel, because this is a Rawk band, but keep the engine room of Byron Gordon and Max Lintner, only slightly retooled. (Byron traded his Washburn bass for a Fender Precision for this project; basic tasks require basic tools. And Max is a lot more driving and aggressive here than we've come to expect him to be. Then again, it's all down to what the songs require with him, and Coma Rally's material calls for a harder attack than Calhoun's does.) In place of utility muso extraordinaire Casey Diiorio, substitute Daniel Harville, one of Fort Worth's musical, chrome-domed Harville brothers, who had his brush with mass-ass success in Sugarbomb of "Hello" fame. (Myself, I still think Tastes Like Sugar, which sounded more like Queen, or at least Jellyfish, than any North Texas boys have a right to, was a better record overall than their major label release. But whatthehell do I know? Besides, I digress.)

The sound that pulls you into Coma Rally is a muffled blast of Trent Reznor-esque factory-noise percussion, interrupted by the sound of a guitar pick scraping against strings (a precursor of what's to follow), and the one that hits you over the head just after you've nailed the volume is the bandmembers joining in one by one for "Thanks, Alcohol" ("...You smashed it all"), a taut, tense slice of raw-nerved pop-rock worthy of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead or one of those bands. Tim's a walking compendium of every rock sound he's heard ever since he was a sprout growing up in the sticks, listening to his sister's Beatles and Led Zeppelin records, and it shows. Coma Rally (band and record) manages to contain flashes of everything from '80s pop to '90s grunge while sounding like nothing so much as itself.

On the title track, f'rinstance, Locke evokes the spirit of a less-fey Marc Bolan fronting a mutated glam-rock band, early Roxy Music minus the saxophone and blorp-bleep synths or an industrial-strength version of Ziggy Stardust's Spiders from Mars, his keening falsetto riding a subway train of Velvet Underground-derived pulsating drone. Tim says that "Coma Rally" is the album's centerpiece, but to my more distanced ears, that distinction belongs to "Failure in the Small Things," which slows things down after the opening onslaught and washes over the listener like a tide of stately, damned, majestic melody, the weight of the full band, led by Harville's zooming octave runs and Hendrixian hammer-ons (the role of guitar god being discredited, he uses his arsenal of effects, both musical and electronic, mainly for punctuation and melodic contrast, and raises an invigorating racket that's always spot-on, never superfluous, while his most valuable contributions might be compositional), pushing against the delicate, celeste-like sound of the Chromachord as Tim's voice soars on the line "I watched you let go." (The song's blasted beauty is almost matched by the disc's penultimate track, the valedictory "Ray.")

Speaking of band boys, let me go on record saying Byron Gordon plays the fool better than anyone I know. An acquaintance remembers being at Byron's house one night when Byron came running in the door and urged him to come outside and "Look up there;" after five minutes of staring at the sky, the fella asked Byron what they were waiting to see and Byron replied, "I dunno, but it's gonna be good." Away from Tim, Byron also plays jazz -- the old, good kind -- with Johnny Case. A strong kid; once, on the road with Blue Sky Black, Tim could tell you, "There was a guy from another band, a little fireplug kind of guy, and Byron had him on the floor -- he couldn't get up." Byron plays bass like that, too. He's excited about going to see the Motley Crue reunion, but I told him he should save his money and just go hang out with his running bud Shane Faw-Faw, who looks like Tommy Lee, instead. In another universe, the two of them could constitute a riddim team with the inebriated comedic potential of the Who's Entwistle and Moon, fo' shoah. In this one, Byron intertwines his sound with Max Lintner's to produce a rumble and thump with the heaviosity of Soundgarden's (before their little-guy-with-big-voice Chris Cornell hooked up with those revolooshunary Rage Against the Machine boys to make, uh, money).

"So, what's it about?" Kat wanted to know. "The name, I mean." Before she knew who he was, she used to see Tim working out on the Stairmaster at the downtown YMCA and speculate that he was a mad scientist or a monomaniacal engineer, which in a sense he is, I suppose, only one that tinkers in a laboratory where the elements are his own emotions and the building blocks of sound: a Beatlesque hook here, a keening snatch of melody there. Myself, I'm the kind of philistine who never notices lyrics until I have a recording I can listen to and dissect at home. At shows, I'm more likely to attend to timbre, the onstage interaction of the musicians, the sound mix, all the boring minutiae of MusicianShit. Which means I'm frequently surprised by what I hear once I get the record home.

It used to make me laugh when the high school clique that hung around the Moon, back when the floating crapgame known as the Acoustic Mafia (including Tim and some other people) used to play there, would speak in hushed tones of how "Tim's great, but jeez, I mean, he's almost 35." Tell it to Picasso. Or Dylan. Peaking at 17 is passe, or at least overrated. As is dying in your 20s. Or knocking yourself off. A cursory glance at the song titles will give the interested listener a clue to what Coma Rally's about: "Fake Funeral," "Ted Nugent Chastises the Ghost of Kurt Cobain (The Asshole)" ("Is he calling Kurt Cobain an asshole?" a friend wondered. Myself, I doubt it; Tim grew up in the era of the Nuge and Texxas Jam but was too young to participate; he came of age around "the year punk broke," when Nevermind kicked down the doors of MTV-stultified complacency and made it seem, briefly, that rock'n'roll still had some fire left in its belly, before Kurt ate the shotgun and made way for, um, Bush -- the band, not the president), "Down, Down, Down," "You Can Self-Destruct Now," "Guitars Are Good Firewood." A long way from doddering senility, but far enough along to grasp the concept that his time here is finite, what Tim's singing about here is nothing less than the Big D, the Uninvited Guest, the Final Surprise -- the one Ralph Stanley (or his on-screen surrogate) looked in the face and called by its name in that O Brother Where Art Thou? film.

The song that follows it on the CD might openly invoke his ghost, but "Fake Funeral" seems to be a conspiracy-theorist/fan's prayer to grunge's patron saint: "You faked your funeral / Cradling a baby girl / Hiding down in Europe somewhere." Once the song gets underway, the band churns up welters of sound as Tim sings, "Something's got to die before it lives." Too true, mate, especially in the music biz. On the aforementioned "Ted Nugent Chastises the Ghost of Kurt Cobain," Tim has the Nuge asking Kurt, "Did you think twice / Before you took the devil's advice?" I must confess: I've heard Tim play this song dozens of times, and I never once twigged what it was about. I was too busy singing along with that chorus: "Oh no it's over, rolled up in clover / Oh no it's over, I didn't even know you." Same thing's true of "Down Down Down," which dates back to Blue Sky Black days; Tim's old Grand Street/Blue Sky compadre Steve Duncan used to perform it occasionally in his solo sets and even with the Chemistry Set. Perhaps it was Duncan's irrepressible positivity -- like a more substantive Tim Delaughter with Sideshow Bob hair -- that caused me to focus more on each verse's bright, upbeat opening lines, rather than the underlying message, which is that the singer isn't really that way (although he wishes he could be).

What Coma Rally isn't: another of the the too-many Rawk records I've auditioned over the last seven or eight years that sound like they were mixed by somebody who's fried their ears playing live and wants a record that sounds like a monitor mix. Vocals are clear and prominent -- hardly the fashion in this Age of the Non-Singer, but befitting the quality of Mr. Locke's vocal stylings and lyrics. (When Yeti made their concept album about death, the vocals were deliberately obscured in the mix, even when the singer was screaming, but that was almost the point.) Produced by the band and the Pipes brothers at Bass Propulsion Labs in Dallas, mastered by George Guerin at Digital Mastering Services in New York, the disc is a primer in how to make a Big Rock record that doesn't make the listener scratch his head and wonder, "What in the hell is this guy singing about?" Even better, they managed to do so without losing the sense of "musicians playing hard" that's essential to real rock (unlike another Metromess band who shall remain nameless, whose record sounded like a vocal demo in spite of the fact that they're relatively ballsy onstage). When I heard rough mixes of this last fall, the rhythm tracks were so wet and live that I knew there was no way they'd survive the mixing/mastering process. And they haven't exactly, but what's there in the final version has just the aura of hyper-reality that you want from a rock record, the same way you want it from a movie: like real life, only more so.

In the end, I finally broke down and asked Tim what the name meant. "Well, it's a real phenomenon, but I kind of named it, I guess," he said. He went on to explain: "Many times, a person's vital signs will jump up when they're in a coma, just before they die. I thought it fit us perfectly: The musical graveyard awaits."

I beg to differ. Listening to Coma Rally makes me think of the first time I ever saw Tim Locke perform, when Grand Street Cryers were near the apex of their trajectory and it seemed, for a moment, at least, that they were going to be the "next" band after the Toadies to explode out of sleepy Cowtown to serve notice that Seattle (remember when that town meant more than coffee and software?) had no monopoly on splenetic angst with loud electric guitars. He stalked the stage like a coiled spring, eyes blazing, and his band looked like iconic Big Rockers, but they didn't quite sound the part -- not like this band does. Remembering that moment and contemplating everything he's accomplished in the, what, eight years since then, is enough to give a person, well, hope or something. And if that isn't as good as it gets, it'll do for now.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

It seemed at once surreal and too good to be true: One of my favorite Californians, ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (the other two: John Steinbeck and Harry Partch) had convinced Petra Haden (daughter of the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden, she's also a virtuoso violinist, former member of the '90s alt-rock outfit that dog, and busy L.A. indie session singer) to record an acapella "cover" of one of my all-time favorite albums, The Who Sell Out. I just got it, and it's wondrous. I'll tell you all about it -- in just a little bit. But first, some background.

The Who Sell Out has a lot to do with why I've been obsessed with music for the last, oh, 35 years or so. It started (like so many things) with a girl: my first-ever crush, which lasted, more or less, from sixth grade until I talked my way out of my last year of high school, at which point she informed me that I was "really weird," and that I needed to find someone weird like me. She used to work at her father's camera store, which also sold records. So, from sixth grade until I discovered the hippie record store one town over when I was 15, I used to spend all my lawnmowing money there, and discovered the joy of bargain-bin records. It was a sad day at my house when the price of LPs went up, from $3.99 to $4.28, which meant I could no longer afford to buy one a week. Luckily for me, the store also had a cut-out rack, from which I bought my first copy of The Who Sell Out for $1.99, the summer I turned 13. Over the years, I've continued to score most of my favorite music on the cheap. But I digress.

(To digress even further, about the girl: She was the author of the only e-mail I have ever received, which I read in Columbia, South Carolina, while I was on the road with Nathan Brown and Dave Karnes last year. She's a music teacher in Florida now. She, um, married a Japanese guy. I told her that I had, in fact, found someone as weird as me and that I was touring with a band whose itinerary included some stops in Florida. For some reason, she never wrote me back.)

Anyway, as a teenager, I loved the Who -- no other word applies. At the time I discovered The Who Sell Out, I'd just read an excerpt from Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia about the band in some newsprint rag they gave away at school, and I was intrigued. I was at an age where I found the idea of a band that acted outrageous and smashed up shit onstage really appealing, and the idea of the style-happy, scooter-riding, pill-popping, weekend-rioting Mod cult that spawned them even more so. (As weird and asocial as I was in those days, I was hooked on the idea of a community that coalesced around music, which seemed less silly at the ass-end of the '60s than it does now. I guess you could say I've been looking for one ever since.)

When I got the Tommy album for Christmas, it wasn't exactly what I'd been hoping for -- it seemed kinda sterile -- but with all the hope of the wannabe-converted, I kept the Who faith. I'd been anticipating some unholy apotheosis of volume, energy, and aggression, which arrived at the end of the summer in the form of Live At Leeds (preceded by massive hype by Nik Cohn in the pages of the Sunday New York Times). Live At Leeds soon supplanted The Who Sell Out in its place of honor on my record player, where I listened to it, too, at least four times a day, right up until my sister (whose musical tastes ran more toward The Sound of Music) threatened to break it. One of my longest-lasting friendships started on the basis of our mutual ability, at age 17, to sing every guitar lick, bass line, and drum fill from Live At Leeds, including the mistakes. Later on, we had a band that actually played some of those songs, before I broke my hand while drunk and 'luuded out, New Year's Day 1980, and wound up getting run out of Aspen, Colorado, on a rail (long story, not exactly relevant here, except perhaps as an illustration of how our substance-abuse proclivities were modeled on those of the Who's manic drummer Keith Moon, as in "Take two [insert name of drug here]? I'm Keith Moon! I'll have eight!", which contributed materially to his descent from cute little boy to scary old man to dead person in a little over a decade).

Of course, The Who Sell Out itself didn't exactly sound the way I expected it to, either. Actually, it was hard to tell just what to expect, but David Montgomery's Pop Art cover should have given me a clue, with its photos of the bandmembers in fake adverts hawking garishly outsized products. It was all part of the album's Concept: an homage to Britain's pirate radio stations -- which challenged the BBC's dominance of the airwaves by beaming their signals toward Britain from boats anchored offshore throughout the '60s -- complete with blaring "ads" (all written by the Who, of course) in between the songs, and an original mix which, in its unremastered version, sounded like it was emanating from a transistor radio -- a good thing, if you grew up, as I did, near the ocean, and spent every summer listening to WABC-AM blasting from a thousand crappy speakers from one end of Smith Point Beach to the other, like the soundtrack to a movie.

Sure, Pete Townshend might have been an opportunist who traded on concepts like Pop Art and "auto-destruction" he'd learned about at art school, but at least he had a sensahumour back then. A few years later, I'd spend an awful lot of time trying to convince myself that I really liked Quadrophenia, Townshend's somewhat overblown and grandiose paean to the Mods. By that time, perhaps inevitably for a guy with a big brain who liked to shoot his mouth off to the press, Big T had succumbed to the Sin of Seriousness that afflicted so many rockstars of his generation, but when I was first finding out about them, he and his band seemed to offer something more: they were smart, they were funny, and they made a big bad noise, but weren't at all moronic or fey like the music most of my schoolmates favored. (Remember, this was the era of Grand Funk and early Black Sabbath; Led Zeppelin occupied the Olympian heights that the Beatles had just vacated.)

Anyway, the sound of The Who Sell Out was much softer and lighter than the band's hard-nosed image: more airy, more ethereal, and highly evocative, to my teenage imagination, of a mythic English summer, albeit one that probably never existed anywhere but in my teenage imagination. As a more analytical and, um, wiser adult, I'd recognize the persuasive influence in its grooves of 1) acid, 2) Brian Wilson, and 3) the classical composers like Britten and Purcell that Kit Lambert, the upscale end of the Who's management team (and the son of a composer himself) had inflicted on Townshend in an effort to inspire his charge to ever more ambitious compositional feats. We all know now how that turned out, but at the time, the incandescent pop of The Who Sell Out seemed magical to me, and I still don't believe that they ever surpassed it. I wasn't even ashamed of its airy-fairy qualities.

For those whose knowledge of, um, rock history has been shaped by "classic rock" radio during the ClearChannel years, it's probably news that there was a Who before Tommy (hell, before Who's Next), but indeed there was. And they were some silly bastards, too. In between "My Generation" and Tommy (the two milestones for which they were best known in the States, initially), they cut a whole string of wonderful pop story-songs, not just the singles (a bit of consumer guidance: avoid all latter-day greatest hits albums and seek out a used copy of Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, which contains all the essential shit and none of the garbage that came later) but songs like "Disguises" and "In the City." The former is a little ditty about mistaken identity with a head-spinning, reverb-laden mix that mirrors the narrator's disorientation, while the latter's a throwaway B-side composed by Entwistle-Moon in homage to the Beach Boys that makes Swinging London sound like nothing less than an updated version of Chuck Berry's Promised Land. Anyway, The Who Sell Out was the culmination of that period.

It was fun being a Whofan in those days; it was like being in on a great secret. Some of that was snobbery and some of it was Everyfan's need to have some obsession that doesn't have to be shared with everyone else. That specialness, that exclusivity, evaporated around the time Who's Next catapulted them to mainstream superstardom. I've never experienced quite anything like it since, although I've never given up trying, either.

In his liner notes to Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, Mike Watt writes about how he and d. boon discovered the album around the same time and age I did, and how it was always their favorite Who album for the way it demonstrated how a band needn't be tethered to a single sound or style. (In Songbook, Nick Hornsby notes that while John Lennon's influences included Chuck Berry, The Goon Show, and British music hall, Noel Gallagher's seemed to consist of the Beatles and nothing else. I think he hit the nail on the head there, and also when he noted that the major difference between Yank and Brit rockers back in the '60s was that the Brits seemed to like their parents more.) Beyond that, though, it makes perfect sense that a couple of outsider kids like boon and Watt would have dug that album in particular: there's a quality of childlike innocence suffusing every song on the record, and we were all still children back then. (When my own kids were small, I used to sing them "Tattoo" and "I Can't Reach You" at bedtime. Recently, my middle daughter confessed that she'd always thought the Who were "children's entertainers" and Sell Out a "children's record." On the basis of having first heard the songs in the context she did and not knowing the history behind them, I can see how she got that impression.)

While Sell Out might have inspired boon and Watt to play whatever they wanted in the Minutemen, the Who wound up stuck in a stylistic straitjacket by their audience's expectations and their desire for continuing Success. Townshend spent years ruminating endlessly on a single subject (the difficulty of being a rockstar, yawn) while composing ever-more-bombastic music, culminating in acts of ultimate irrelevance like "Eminence Front" (surely the worst song ever recorded by a band I once liked) and their '82 "farewell" performance at Shea Stadium, which Mick Farren chronicled in a piece that the Village Voice headlined, um, "The Who Sell Out." Farren blamed the bloated, flatulent latter-day Who on their having traded up from playing theaters to playing sheds, which forced them to rely more and more on grand gestures to try and achieve what they once had on smaller stages with sheer volume and adolescent aggression.

Myself, I saw 'em three times: once when Moon was still alive, at Forest Hills '71, right after Who's Next came out (they were jaw-dropping, but their best song was the encore, a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Baby Don't Do It"); once with Kenney Jones around '79 (Townshend had injured his hand the night before and looked tired, haggard; he was phoning it in, and I almost walked out, but then they played one of my favorite Tommy-era songs, "Naked Eye"); and the last time, in 2000, when they'd scaled back to a five-piece rockband from the ridiculous extravagance of some of their other reunion tours. Townshend seemed to be enjoying himself, relieved of the responsibility of having to come up with new material, and actually played decent lead guitar, the result of spending years listening to Coltrane records with his son, then aged 10. (He'd always been, well, kinda shitty before; he spent the late '60s chasing Hendrix but wasn't really up to the task.) At the end of "The Kids Are Alright," he sang some new lyrics about his kids that I wish I could still remember, because I found them very moving at the time. By then, relationships between parents and kids had become pretty important to me, and when I heard Daltrey singing "Hope I die before I get old" to an arena full of people mostly in their 40s and 50s, I had to laugh out loud.

I say "the last" because two years later, on the eve of yet another reunion tour, John Entwistle, an incorrigible road rat who'd spent a large chunk of his Who money touring his own unprofitable bands just because he loved to play, checked out in a Vegas hotel room, from a cocaine-induced heart attack. It seemed somehow fitting. If you watch the Kids Are Alright DVD, you can see a couple of songs where they isolated his bass tracks and realize just how much of the Who's sound he was responsible for. While it was hard to imagine the Who without Moon, it's impossible to imagine 'em without Entwistle.

One of the blessing/curses of the CD era has been the endless repackaging of stuff you've already heard...with a difference. While I love digital remastering and bonus tracks as much as the next music obsessive, there are certain albums I don't want tampered with. Once I was through being impressed by the much-improved sound quality of the "upgraded" Who Sell Out ("Holy shit," I remember exclaiming, "Keith Moon is on this record!") and the presence of added tracks I'd previously owned on bootlegs (part of the fun of being a Whofan, back in the day, was collecting those things, since the Who released fewer "real" records than any of their contemporaries of comparable stature), I realized that I didn't want the drums to sound as clear and deep as the ones on Live At Leeds, and the bonus material didn't feel like it belonged there. I missed the crappy cardboard-box drum sound and unadulterated sequence of songs from my old vinyl album and the shoddy original MCA CD. Proof positive, either that record geeks are some strange folks, or that you shouldn't try and mess with people's memories.

With that in mind, I had to approach Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out with at least a smidgen of trepidation. I needn't have worried. Haden, who's apparently done this kind of acapella-cover thang before, on her 1999 album Imaginaryland, has a fine musical sensibility, great vocal chops, and an arranger's ear. She worked on the Who project intermittently over three years, starting with an eight-track tape Watt gave her with the original album on track eight as a reference, overdubbing her voice until she had filled up all the tracks. In her hands, stripped of their original veneer of noise and flash, it's possible to really hear the simple elegance and warmth of these songs.

Incredibly, she manages to reimagine the sounds of the Who's instruments, as well as occasionally improving on their vocal harmonies. On the opening "Armenia City in the Sky," f'rinstance, it's awe-inspiring to hear her emulating the sounds of Ring-modulated trumpets and backward tapes, not to mention Entwistle's implacable bassplaying. She reharmonizes a couple of the songs and adds vocal embellishments far more adventurous than anything the Who (whose singing was, how you say, functional at best) would ever have dared to attempt. If she gets the lyrics wrong in a few spots, that's forgivable in someone who hadn't ever heard the album before undertaking this project (although she must have heard the remastered CD at some point, to know the "lost" bit of the first verse of "Rael"). She sings beautifully. Her regular vocal range is about the same as Townshend's, so when she goes way up high during "Odorono," it's kinda scary, but in a good way.

I dunno how other old Whofans will respond to this unlikely artifact, but I'm happy and grateful to have it. It's not often that you get to re-experience something familiar that you love in a truly new way and be amazed all over again -- a very unexpected pleasure.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

confusatron on the web

wow! confusatron actually has a web presence, with a bunch of mp3's that sound better than the cd-r i got, altho with song titles like "cum margarita," i don't suppose they're hoping for airplay on the oasis. wonder if they need a bio?