About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Let’s Get Sleazy!

SoHo SinsI need a bath. Maybe a shower too. And some steel wool. I might never feel clean again. But that’s kind of the point of reading pulp, to slither through filthy streets, vicariously partake of forbidden fruit and get really, really slimy.

The Hard Case Crime books are a contemporary series of pulp / detective / noir books, some reprints of old stories, some newly written ones. Many are gems. Today we look at a brand spankin’ new hard case, a trashy, delicious, disgusting, amazing story by first-time novelist Richard Vine called SoHo Sins.

I read a lot of pulp. Truth be told, there’s not a lot of variety in the genre. The beauty typically comes in the language, the prose. Stories tend to borrow liberally from the tried-and-true, with minor variations. Not so for SoHo Sins. What I like about this book is the ways in which it stretches the standard pulp template. The main character/narrator is a wealthy art dealer, not a detective (neither professional nor amateur). He is close friends with a P.I. but their friendship is never explained nor explored (which I quite enjoy). This P.I. asks the art dealer for help in investigating a murder that on the surface seems to be an open-and-shut case. So we do have a murder, a suspect (who is possibly being framed) and an investigation, all typical pulp fare. However, the way that things unfold is anything but typical.

The detective, usually the focal point of pulp novels, is almost a minor character in SoHo Sins. Instead, our narrator, the art dealer, is the story’s focus. He’s the one who carries out most of the investigative legwork. And this detecting occurs at an almost leisurely pace, pausing for months while the art dealer deals art. It’s a lovely technique for freshening up a well-trodden path.

As the investigation meanders along, the detective focuses on a suspected child pornographer, and we meet a 12-year-old girl who is the daughter of a friend of the art dealer (try to keep up with me here). The girl, along with her mother, moves into the same building as the narrator and she starts referring to him as her boyfriend. This does not bother him, a man of some years, as much as it should. The detective asks him to investigate the pornographer (who is obviously interested in the 12-year-old), which requires him to pose as a fellow … pervert? Thus begins the descent into the slime.

Perhaps you can see why it’s bath time.

SoHo Sins will be published on July 19 and it will soon join the EPL collection of Hard Case Crime novels, along with the titles pictured below:

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Bowie Has Left the Planet

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10 years of nothingness had passed when seemingly out of nowhere David Bowie released The Next Day. People assumed he’d retired from music, the album came as a complete surprise. Although it took two years to record, Bowie made sure it was kept entirely secret. If I’d been paying attention to his career, had known he was still capable of making incredible music, I would have been thrilled! But the release passed me by, unnoticed. Until now.

When I think of Bowie, I tend to think of Suffragette City and other songs in that vein. If one approaches his later work with the expectancy of Ziggy Stardust rocking out, one will be disappointed. Unlike mosquitos filled with dinosaur DNA, artists are not bugs captured in amber. Their work evolves over time. People age, their capabilities change. In the case of David Bowie, his voice is the most noticeable difference, no longer as flexible, no longer as energetic or dynamic. Yet … still amazing. Melodies tend to be a bit more monotone, tempos slower, dynamics softer. But this isn’t better or worse, it’s just new.

The Next Day includes songs that range from full-on rockers ([You Will] Set The World on Fire), to the slow and delicate (Where Are We Now?) to standard anthems (How Does the Grass Grow?) to chaos infused with fits of stability (If You Can See Me). Styles are incredibly varied. This is classic Bowie yet innovative. While you might find some tarnish amongst the glitter, the album is certain to please.

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The following year, 2014, saw the release of Nothing Has Changed, a career-spanning collection of greatest hits reaching back to 1969 and wrapping up with selections from 2013’s The Next Day. All phases of Bowie’s career, other than Tin Machine, are covered in this comprehensive release. If you’re looking for an introduction to 45 years of music, Nothing Has Changed is an excellent choice.

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And finally, all too soon, I come to that which I’ve been putting off, the acceptance of mortality. Perhaps when I was unaware of his later work I didn’t care as much, but now I’m truly sorry I’ve heard the last of David Bowie. His music will always be there for me, but it is complete, finite, there will be no more.blackstar

In my research for this series of posts I made an intriguing discovery: every David Bowie album has a picture of Bowie on the cover. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple photo, other times a cartoonish drawing, a stylized scenario, or even, as in the case of The Next Day, the re-use of a previous album cover (Heroes) with Bowie’s photo obscured by a white square. Every cover sports a picture of Bowie except for the cover of his final album. Blackstar features the image of a black star. This seems significant. We could ponder the symbolism of a black star or the clues found in the album’s lyrics, but instead of dwelling upon the sadness of death, let us rejoice that Blackstar is a stunning collection of music.

Somewhat in the same vein as The Next Day, the album features songs varying in style tremendously, laid-back vocals and a quiet/ethereal/sparse mood. It’s one of the best efforts from Bowie’s later career, a thoroughly satisfying and lush listening experience. The opening song, Blackstar, is simply gorgeous. Beautiful keyboards, a dark mood and a story well-matched by its music. Sue is an unsettling song filled with discomfiting music. Wild, crazy percussion and bass play frantically beneath sparse, languishing vocals. The album concludes with a celebratory mood in I Can’t Give Everything Away, a wonderful career-ending song.

And then, Bowie left the planet.

Bowie, Still David Bowie

When we last left David Bowie it was 1993 and his music had moved in a somewhat darker direction. This leaves him with 23 years and 6 more albums before the culmination of his career, Blackstar.

OutsideNext up for Mr. Bowie was Outside (1995), a concept album realized with Brian Eno. The pair entered the studio with no written songs, just a vague wisp of inspiration from a fictional dystopian diary written by Bowie. A computer program was used to chop up and randomly cut and paste the text of the diary, and the result of this process became a starting point from which music was improvised. This music eventually coalesced into the finished album. An intensely dramatic entry in the Bowie catalog, I recently discovered this album and cannot stop listening. It’s a truly amazing work.

Earthling1997 saw the release of Earthling, an album influenced by the drums and bass culture of the 90s. As with all of Bowie’s work, he takes the kernel of an idea (in this case a style) and makes it truly his own. For example, instead of sampling other people’s music as a starting point, Bowie’s band creates their own loops to use as musical building blocks. The resulting music is highly aggressive, filled with industrial buzz saw guitars and synths. I would never recognize this as a Bowie album just from listening. Critics were pleased with the results and the recording received a Grammy nomination.

HoursAlways striving for ch-ch-ch-change, Bowie released Hours in 1999. It was his first album to miss the US top 40 in over 25 years. The music is very mellow, even falling comfortably in the Adult Contemporary category. In short, I really quite, er, like it less than intrusive surgery. As do many Bowie fans. However, I can respect the exploration of new styles, and really, in a 40-year career I can give him one album that I’m less-than-enthusiastic about. And perhaps you, Dear Reader, might love and cherish this recording. That is the beauty of personal taste.

Bowie released two more albums before taking a 10 year break: Heathen in 2002 and Reality the following year. Both showed marked improvement to the lackluster Hours. Many good songs, packed with variety, and a laid-back vocal style that characterized the remainder of Bowie’s work.

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A 2004 tour was halted by emergency coronary surgery and this slowed Bowie’s output significantly. He took most of 2006 off, performing his own music on stage for the last time in November. Work continued as a composer, with occasional appearances, but a decade passed before the appearance of another album in 2013.

This is where I must wax philosophically. David Bowie, who was such a big part of my musical existence, took a 10 year break and I wasn’t even aware of it until researching this post. At some point I assumed that Bowie had peaked, didn’t have anything left in the tank, and I stopped paying attention. Now I know that a wealth of great music was created after 1983. And I’m grateful that this music will forever be a part of my listening rotation. But I remain stunned that Bowie all but disappeared for 10 years without me even knowing. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere.

Next month we will look at the final albums, more fabulous music, and the grand finale in an exquisite career. Stay tuned.

Bowie, David Bowie

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Confession time: I’ve never been a rabid Bowie fan. Oh sure, his music is incredible and I’ll happily listen to it over and over, but only songs recorded between 1969 and 1983. I’m fairly unaware of albums recorded after Let’s Dance. Bowie got me to the church on time and then I abandoned his music.

When he died I fervently resisted the urge to jump on the bandwagon and sing Bowie’s praises, viewing his last album as the most incredible ending to a perfect musical life. I assumed plenty of others would take up that mantel. But when I finally did hear Blackstar recently, I was stunned by how spectacular the music is. And only then did I realize that I had no idea what Bowie had been up to for the past 30+ years.

Thus began a quest to quickly get a feel for Bowie’s “recent” albums, to look for trends in his compositions, and to see how the final album fits into the big picture. So buckle in, Major Tom, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime.

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Frequently bands put out a remarkable first album and never again reach the same level of accomplishment. The reason for this is simple: An entire lifetime of composing goes into a first album. A second album has roughly a year in which to be put together.

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So here’s something beyond amazing: From 1969 to 1980 David Bowie put out more than one album per year, many of them absolutely brilliant. Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980). The timeless songs found on these albums include Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things and Life on Mars? (1971), Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City (1972), The Jean Genie (1973), Rebel Rebel and Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans and Fame (1975), Golden Years (1976), Heroes (1977), Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes and Fashion (1980).

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Not bad for a career. But that only covers ¼ of the time Bowie filled in the “musician” bubble on standardized forms.

Eric Carr, in reviewing Bowie’s 2003 album Reality sums up the last ¾ of Bowie’s career quite nicely:

“Bowie’s work is traditionally seen in a terrifically damaging binary– common law states that if his work isn’t brilliant, it’s terrible…”

This is a fair assessment of how Bowie’s post-1983 albums were received. Realize that he was not content to repeat previous successes but always strived for something different, a particular concept or composing strategy. Some forays into new territory were more successful than others. Often the results did not meet fans’ expectations. Judgments were harsh. And 1983/84 were pivotal years in this process.

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Before the release of Let’s Dance, Bowie was immensely popular yet associated with fringe or avant-garde culture. Making a complete left turn, his 1983 album was straight-ahead danceable pop music. The 1984 follow-up Tonight, featuring similar music, made Bowie more commercially successful than ever and brought in a legion of new fans. However, the commercial success came with negative reviews; to his long-time followers, Bowie was not acting like Bowie.

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Three years passed before the release of another album, Never Let Me Down. Three hit-singles, commercially successful, but critically panned. Later in life Bowie felt that he had not been involved enough in the process of making this album. He commented that the time after Let’s Dance was a bad one for him artistically.

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Bowie’s next two albums were with the band Tin Machine, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he released another solo album, Black Tie White Noise. This album moved in a new direction of darker music, more intensely personal songs. The result? Critical and commercial success. The music is still funky and dance-oriented, but not poppy, somewhat similar to synth-pop band Heaven 17. Lyrics focused on Bowie’s wedding to Iman and his step-brother’s suicide. Highly personal and dark.

With still more than 20 years of music before the release of Blackstar, stay tuned for more on David Bowie’s later career next posting, same Bowie time, same Bowie channel.

The Rebirth Of Country Music

As I grew up in suburban western Washington, I developed a … strong hatred for country music. Perhaps because it was my parents’ music of choice, perhaps because it was uncool amongst my peers or perhaps because the country music created at that time was easy to hate.

Somewhere along the line, what we call country really became rock or pop music sung with a western accent. Oh sure, bands threw in a few traditional country instruments for appearance sake, but rest assured: a cowboy hat does not country music make.

But as Bob Dylan once said, “The country music is a-changin’ for the better so get used to it.” I’m paraphrasing. Many contemporary artists are returning to the roots of country. Others are taking country in new directions while still leaving it as an identifiable genre. So let us take a walk through this…  new country (pause for thoughtful laughter).

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One direction taken by contemporary country musicians is a return to the great music of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Picture stunning voices over music steeped in tradition. Songs with stories, heartbreak and the occasional miner. Neko Case, Gillian Welch and Eilen Jewell fall into this new/old-timey genre.

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As always, the lines between genres can become as blurry as a narrow freeway lane in a hailstorm. Bluegrass, folk and country often intermingle to the point where exact labels are meaningless. Amongst contemporary artists who play old-timey country with folk and/or bluegrass influences we find Old Crow Medicine Show, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn and Carolina Chocolate Drops. These bands often present a sparse or quiet sound (although there are still frequent times where one should not go a-knockin’) and focus on banjo, fiddle and other bluegrassy instruments.

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As we move further afield from tradition, we can find music that combines traditional country elements with blues, jazz, distorted guitars, punk rock, and hip hop drumbeats. Examples of what might be called alternative country can be found in the music of Lydia Loveless, Angaleena Presley and The Wood Brothers.

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Next stop is the world of psychobilly and cattle core in the music of Hank Williams III, also known as Hank3. Yep, he is the grandson of Hank Williams and his music, which contains elements of metal, hardcore and rockabilly, is deeply rooted in country. It’s truly difficult to describe the music of Hank3 as it varies so much from album to album, from song to song. He is equally at home with a traditional country ballad, traditional bluegrass, a speedmetal/thrash bluegrass hybrid or punk, sometimes all within a single song. To further confuse matters, his former record label continues to release albums of old recordings without his approval. So albums can vary considerably in quality. However, Hank3 is well worth checking out. Brothers of the 4×4 is an excellent starting place.

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Finally, we move to the bizarre and unthinkable, a combination of country and rap called hick hop. I feel the need to make a disclaimer: rap is my least favorite genre, so I am not the best advocate for anything involving said abomination. However, what I can tell you “rappers” is that the music of both Big Smo and Moonshine Bandits clearly weaves together elements of country music with rap, creating something that never afore existed. Like if Mothra and Rodan had offspring. You get the picture.

The list of country hybrids and new evolutionary branches goes on and on. This is one of the most exciting aspects of music, this continual growth in new directions which brings about strange and wonderful listening experiences. So take a chance on some new/old styles of country music, even if you’re not a fan. As the Dali Lama once said, “Hey, it’s worth a shot.”

I’m paraphrasing.

The New Beatles?

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I’ve been thinking about the Beatles lately, specifically about recent bands that show an obvious Beatle influence.

(Gestures intimately). Please, come with me. (Walks a short distance). Let me explain where I’m going with this. The Beatles, from day 1 to day last, changed dramatically in style. So I had to ask myself, what do I consider to be a Beatle influence?

Very few bands seek out the early Beatles Mersey beat. What I’m defining as the Beatle sound comes from what one might call their psychedelic period, beginning roughly with Rubber Soul and ending with The White Album (I know, I know, it’s really called The Beatles). This sound has influenced bands a-plenty.

(Holds up hand). Yes, there is still a need to define “influence”. We have Beatles tribute bands, groups that sound one heck of a lot like the Beatles and others that are influenced in more nuanced ways. And nuance is where it’s at for me.

One last bit of business is to define elements that create the Beatles’ sound. This could be a large list, but I’m going to focus on just a few: 1) their prevalent vocal harmonies, 2) the types of chord progressions used, 3) psychedelic tidbits and 4) lyrics that often tell a story.

Let the comparisons begin!

(Approaches desktop computer) While I immediately had a few bands in mind such as Jellyfish and XTC, I needed some help with this topic, so I turned to the internets in search of absolute truth. There I found many bands that are often compared to the Beatles, bands such as Panic at the Disco, Radiohead and My Morning Jacket. But these are bands who I don’t think have a palpable Beatle influence. (Speaks to audience in exaggerated Cockney accent) Oh, I suppose one could focus on any element, such as cymbal hits, and say, “Oi, that’s just how Ringo did it! They’re the new Beatles!” (Returns to regular voice) But from my perspective these groups have no Beatle connection.

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Other common Beatle-comparees include Blur, Arctic Monkeys and Belle & Sebastian. Again, I don’t hear the influence, but perhaps you, the listener, will. And this is not even to say that I don’t like these bands, just that they seem to be on a different path than the lads from Liverpool.

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Delightfully, I found myself introduced to bands I’d not heard before like Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips and Of Montreal. These fine groups do indeed have a Beatle influence, taking some of the key elements one finds in Beatles’ music and repurposing them into entirely original soundscapes.

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(Stretches arms above head) But after this long preamble, the band I really want to talk about today is Squeeze. Over the past forty-plus years, including a break or two, genius songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford have kept Squeeze alive. Perhaps rivaling Lennon and McCartney in lyrical depth, catchy hooks and riveting complexity, these two gentlemen are frequently spoken of in the same breath with the Beatles, even though they’re not well-known in the U.S.

After gaining popularity in the U.K. early on in their career and churning out hits for some time, slowly the band’s popularity began to fade. Their last album was released in 1998. (Raises eyebrow and pauses dramatically) Well, last album less one. In 2007 Squeeze began touring once again and in 2015 they released Cradle to the Grave, picking up right where they left off.

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The album is filled with pop gems. Even on the first listen you’ll feel like you’ve put on your favorite sweater (pantomimes donning garment), the one that makes you happy just to wear. Tempos are a bit on the medium side of fast and the music exhibits a delicate country influence. Songs feature trademark Tilbrook and Difford harmonies while taking small turns into unfamiliar neighborhoods before quickly returning to major boulevards. Here I find an old friend not seen for a long while, one who immediately re-establishes a comfortable rapport. Squeeze again demonstrates why they are, perhaps, the carrier of the Beatles’ torch.

(Turns to walk away) Check this one out. You can’t go wrong.

Just Regular Joes

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By the time you are reading this fascinating post, the following statement will not be true: Tonight I am going to see (and hear) The Tripwires, Girl Trouble and the Young Fresh Fellows. While I’ve never even heard of The Tripwires (Seattle power pop super group) and have not seen Girl Trouble live (they’re a garage rock band from Tacoma formed in 1983), I opened for and consequently saw the Young Fresh Fellows in 1986. For those of you who are good at math (rainmen), that’s 30 years ago. This was also the last time I saw them live. I don’t get out a lot.

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Over the years I’ve kept track of the Fellows and have continued to purchase both their albums and those of their side projects, which are actually big name groups. Scott McCaughey often tours with R.E.M. He plays in the Venus 3 with Robyn Hitchcock. He leads another semi-local group called The Minus 5. Guitarist Kurt Bloch led the well-known Seattle punk band The Fastbacks as well as performing with many other local bands. Bassist Jim Sangster formerly played in grange rock (yes, grange not garage) group The Picketts and currently plays in the genius power pop group The Tripwires. Drummer Tad Hutchison, simply the best drummer period, plays with Chris Ballew of The Presidents of The United States of America in a group called simply Chris and Tad.

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The Young Fresh Fellows’ music is sort of a cross between The Kinks and The Sonics, with a touch of early Pink Floyd thrown in. Garage anthems, beautiful pop melodies and dueling psychedelic guitar solos are offset by oddities such as Tad singing a warped version of Neil Sedaka’s Calendar Girl (January, it was very cold / February, it was still real cold). Their live show is a bundle of energy, top-notch musicianship and humor. Band members are roughly in their fifties, but when Tad puts on a hat that covers his salt and pepper hair he suddenly becomes a 10-year-old boy playing incredible fills. Kurt jumps up and down maniacally and leans into Scott while ripping out psychedelic solos from the depths of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind. Scott is the leader and focal point, providing intricate lyrics delivered with a simple everyman’s voice. And Jim, not to be outdone by Kurt, is a kinetic kewpie doll pounding out the bass, the bass, the bass.

It’s difficult to choose a single song as a favorite, but one that resonates with me is Searchin’ U.S.A. from their Topsy Turvy album.

I’ve been to Pauline’s Café in Bellingham
Jack said he’d be with me in a minute
I asked him for a glass of water
He said, “What for, you want to put some LSD in it?
There’s already speed and marijuana in the hash browns
Pauline always gets a kick out of that crack
And that kind of service brings the customers back

Pauline’s Café, which opened in the 60s, was a legendary diner in Bellingham, barely wide enough to walk through from front to back, simply a counter with barstools. By the 80s the owners were in the autumn of their lives but were full of vinegar and enjoyed messing with the college students. One of Pauline’s strict rules was no dessert until you cleaned your plate. Searchin’ U.S.A. offers up several slices of life that I have experienced (verse 2 begins: Well, I’ve been to the Alderwood Mall…) encased in poppy Americana-esque music.

There are those of us who see the “Seattle sound” as something that existed long before grunge was conceived. The Young Fresh Fellows are the heirs to this wild, dirty, thumping throne of sound born with The Wailers and The Sonics. Check them out and file the experience under Mind Blown!