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.

This One’s For the Ladies

TacocatI always enjoy finding an exceptional new band or album, and my most recent discovery is Lost Time by Tacocat. Let us pause a moment to spell Tacocat backwards.

T-a-c-o-c-a-t.

If that’s not enough reason to like them, there’s also the music. Labelling themselves post post punk pop pop, classified by many as punk or pop punk, Tacocat delivers ice-cream-with-bubble-gum-sweet hard-edged pop in a bowl of witty lyrics and feminism (from a fun viewpoint). They are the Go-Go’s’ slightly naughty younger sister.

The Northwest has been a hotbed for feminist bands since the 90s. Olympia was the cradle of the riot grrrl explosion (hard-hitting punk with feminist lyrics), which featured bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. The current crop of feminist bands (Chastity Belt, NighTraiN, La Luz, Mommy Long Legs and G.L.O.S.S. among others) don’t all play the same style of music, but their lyrical content and philosophical bent join them together in a musical movement that is poised to be the next big thing in our corner of the continent.

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Tacocat, the most popular of our NW feminist bands, came to some prominence in 2014 with the release of NVM, which includes Crimson Wave, a pop-surf song about menstruation.

Call my girls, see if they wanna go, take their minds off dumb aunt Flo
Sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit, ‘cause I’ve got sharks in hot pursuit
Surfin’, surfin’ the wave

The album, whose title is a nod to Nirvana’s Nevermind, was critically acclaimed, even being named one of the top 10 CMJ college radio albums of 2014. Lost Time has not been as well-received but it’s still a highly enjoyable listening experience. The album’s title is an X-Files reference and the first song, Dana Katherine Scully, is a paean to Fox Mulder’s partner, a woman trying to get ahead in that men’s club known as the FBI: “… she’s the only one thinking it through …”.

Topics that the band tackles on Lost Time include menstruation, women having sex and men belittling women. FDP, the album’s second song, features lead singer Emily Nokes’ feelings on the first day of her period: “So tired, so spent / Functioning at ten percent”. A pregnancy scare is looked at in Plan A, Plan B when a woman considers using the morning-after pill as a contraceptive following a condom failure: “Had safe sex / Faulty latex”. Men Explain Things To Me is a woman’s response to mansplaining: “We get it dude / We’ve already heard enough from you / The turning point is overdue”.

But not everything is feminism. I Love Seattle takes a look at the earthquake that will destroy the Northwest coast and the lack of concern that accompanies it:

Ooooh, beautiful Seattle
Ah, fall into the sea
Earthquake, tsunami
There’s still no place I’d rather be

And other songs are simply about day to day life, its joys and pitfalls. Night Swimming contains an obscurely funny lyric: “You can bring a boom box / But you can’t play R.E.M.”. I enjoy this line simply because I don’t care for R.E.M.’s music. But dig even deeper and you’ll find that R.E.M. also has a song called Nightswimming. Excellent arcane reference.

Be sure to check out Lost Time, and if you want to look further into feminist music from the Northwest, try Sleater-Kinney, Childbirth and THEESatisfaction.

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Rockers in Walkers

We humans are fascinated by car wrecks on the road of life, and aging rock stars provide a plethora of accidents for our viewing pleasure. It is with eager anticipation that we await the release of a new album by a dozing giant, hoping against hope that it’s a flop. Or maybe I just speak for myself.

It’s difficult, improbable even, for an artist to make a good album 30 to 40 years after their heyday. The Sonics were an exception in 2015. So it’s with morbid fascination that I search for albums by former stars or stars-on-the-decline, and 2016 has provided more than its share. Today we look at an ancient rock group, an ancient ex-lead singer and a slightly-less-ancient pop star.

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Cheap Trick hit the big time with the release of Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1979. Although they continued to create high-quality albums for the next 30 years, the band’s success peaked soon after Budokan. 30 years later, 2009’s release, The Latest, showed that the lads … er, gentlemen, could still create amazing songs in their trademark power pop/hard rock wheelhouse. But following this album the band entered the longest silence of their career and seven years passed before the release of another album, 2016’s Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello.

So the question is: Do they still have it? And the answer is an unqualified, Yes! Bang, Zoom is not without a clunker or two, but overall the songs are very well-written, performed and produced. I’m not a huge Cheap Trick fan (although, wait for it, I do like their early stuff), but this is an album I could see listening to repeatedly. These fogies fellas have passed the litmus test of time, presenting fans with another gem.

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Aerosmith first came into the public eye in 1973 with the release of Aerosmith. They are a rare band, one that has maintained a high level of success over the decades. At nearly age 70 it’s no longer so easy to Walk this Way (pause for laughter), but the fellows are still performing, be it somewhat sporadically. And over 40 years after the release of Aerosmith, lead singer Steven Tyler has released his first solo album, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, an alleged foray into the country music world.

Many times over the years aging rockers have released country albums, so it would be easy to assume that Mr. Tyler is going down a well-trod path. However, to paraphrase a review of his album: country is no longer a genre, it’s a marketing scheme. If I had not read that We’re All Somebody was country before listening to it, I never would have suspected. The songs are power ballads, pop and some bluesiness, with a bit of mandolin, pedal steel, banjo and fiddle thrown in for that country feel. But in reality, there are no songs that could even remotely be classified as country. However, the album is well-done and if you like Aerosmith and Tyler’s voice you will probably enjoy it.

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Cyndi Lauper exploded on the scene in 1983, which some of us think of as recently, others as 33 years ago. Spokeswoman for a generation of female music fans, actress and activist, Lauper released nine more albums after her debut, the last in 2010. Then in 2016 at 63-years-old, a time when singers’ voices often change for the worse, Lauper returned with a (wait for it again) country album.

Unlike Steven Tyler’s latest, Lauper’s album Detour uses immortal songs from the annals of country music. Since the songs are already beloved, this leaves the success of the album in the hands of her voice (so to speak), which is a brilliant concept since the voice in question is still going strong. The mix of beautiful interpretations with classic country repertoire results in an album of highly listenable music.

So, no roadkill or dismemberments for today. Maybe next time. We are simply left with a trio of good-to-great albums by a collection of geezers. And I mean that fondly, as a near-geezer myself. As Ringo Starr said in Honey Don’t, “Rock on George, for Ringo, one time!”

Which clearly doesn’t apply to this review.

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.