I was in college at the University of Akron when Talking Heads: 77 blindsided me. Prior to college I'd been hopelessly addicted to the English music scene, having seen Mott the Hoople, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and Roxy Music during my high school years at the very majestic Akron Civic Theater (a smaller version of New York's Beacon Theater). I would then latch onto progressive rock and graduate to the arena spectacles of ELP and Yes. But when punk broke, all bets were off.
Soon I would jettison most of my prog-rock and English pub rock LPs in favor of a new sound. And then one evening I witnessed DEVO play the Crypt - the town's local biker bar. (Though they'd soon see the writing on the wall and split town.) Ditto for Tin Huey, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, and many other unsung heroes of "new wave" from Northeast Ohio in the late 70s.
But the Heads really shook me to the core. That amazing orange cover with the preppy nerds on the back. "Psycho Killer" was all angular and twisty. Bryne's nervous yelp and staccato guitar completely did my head in. This wasn't punk; this was heady art-rock, New York style. It fucked me up plenty. Much like Patti Smith's first effort Horses. A razor blade slash across my cerebrum.
I remember replacing many of the lame rock anthem 45s on our fraternity's jukebox with plenty of tunes from the Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Clash, Devo, and one of my other favorites, "Roadrunner" by the Modern Lovers (Jerry Harrison's band before Talking Heads), etc., and leaving the names of the rock anthems up.
What joy it was to hear the needle drop on "Psycho Killer" in the middle of a raging sorority dance party, knowing that someone had probably punched up "All Right Now" by Free or "Freebird" by Skynyrd. Loved shaking up the status quo. Twitching and pogoing in the middle of a beer-soaked dance floor. Carefree days when the world was my stage and college was a place a lot less PC.
Ah, to drink from the spigot of the young and rebellious....
I still long for those transcendental moments when I cue up a new CD and impatiently wait for the hair on the nape of my neck to stand on end. Since launching this site, they have been few and far between, but recently I had one of those rare moments after a friend forwarded me a YouTube link. I watched the clip not expecting much. This unassuming mobile phone salesman from Wales named Paul Potts stating that he was going to sing opera on Simon Cowell's UK talent show. Simon rolls his eyes. But as soon as this Welshman opened his mouth, my jaw dropped. I was stunned. Did he have any digital music available? I hit Google and crossed my fingers...
Paul Potts One Chance (Columbia) - Okay, so Mr. Potts deservedly won Britain's Got Talent back in late June, and yes, they rushed his debut to cash in on his instant celebrityhood, but I was still skeptical of such a hasty maneuver. It nearly worked, not every track. But if you buy one song from the debut, make it his impassioned operatic cover of R.E.M.'s "Oguno Soffre" ("Everybody Hurts" sung in Italian!) I stop whatever I'm doing whenever I hear this gem. He has that rare ability to deliver genuine emotion through his singing. While not as riveting as that moment, there is plenty of other iPod-worthy music finding its way into my digital sphere. Here are some other artists to consider for your musical consumption on congested freeways, subways, ski slopes, or warm winter beach holidays.
The Kim Philbys Whir Whir Whir (Evangeline) - I don't know why I like this CD. It's cliched in a modern alt-rock kinda way; then again, most alt-rock is. But there's something about this SF-based trio's disc that just keeps me coming back for more. There is a simple yet beautiful melancholia that is intoxicating. It culminates for me on the very last track. "Carry Me Home" is a shattering yet optimistic tome on the loss of life and love.
Over the Rhine Snow Angels (Great Speckled Dog) - Holiday CDs are typically tired rehashed Christmas covers; few demand attention or iPod time. This is not the case with this instant folk-rock classic. Smart, moving music, with more than a nod and a wink to Joni Mithchell's Blue, from one of the best husband/wife songwriting teams in America. "Winter Horse" is one of prettiest piano and vocal waltzes of the year, even with the poetic holiday imagery.
Bettye LaVette The Scene of the Crime (Anti) - Already being hailed as a year-end favorite by many critics, and fully deserving. Didn't hurt that this classic soul singer grabbed the Drive By Truckers and camped out at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals to apply some greasy, funky roots-rock tones on these razor sharp songs about "life, love and survival." Download "Jealousy" today.
Ben Carroll Real Thing (Wild Orchid) - Yes he is. I've seen this handsome and charismatic New Yorker perform with just an acoustic guitar, and he killed. Possessing a clear, sweet voice and a satchel full of catchy folk-pop songs about life and love, he's joined on his sophomore effort by papa Jon (of Mary Chapin Carpenter's band), and they play everything. It's a throwback sound, kinda early Nilsson, but more upbeat.
Nyles Lannon Pressure (Badman) - Former Film School vocalist/guitarist drops his second solo long player filled with introspective folk-pop a la Elliot Smith tinged with John Fahey's finger-picking chops and the occasional electronica flourishes. His first effort in 2004 was voted "Best Album of the Year" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and this sophomore effort doesn't stray from that winning formula. "Lost in the Stars" is plaintive and gorgeous.
Moby Grape Listen My Friends: The Best of Moby Grape (Legacy) - Back in the early 90s I interviewed Robert Plant at the Glastonbury Festival for Creem magazine and I asked him to name check some of his favorite American bands. Moby Grape was at the top of his list. We even called their guitarist Jerry Miller, who wasn't home. This 20-song collection covers material from all of their CDs and a few hard-to-find tracks such as "Sweet Ride (Never Again)" from the movie The Sweet Ride. Three caterwauling guitars never sounded so sweet.
Robert Plant/Alison Krauss Raising Sand (Rounder) - And speaking of Plant, his collaboration with bluegrass beauty Ms. Kraus is one of the most unlikely pairings in recent memory, but every bit worth the listen and purchase. Plant is a student of music -- all genres -- as this delicious art will attest. The foundation of this CD can be found in his Led Zeppelin roots-rock classic "The Battle of Evermore" from their fourth LP. (For his heavier music, see Zep review below).
Erik Deutsch fingerprint (Sterling Circle) - A Boulder transplant and gifted keyboard whiz who graced Charlie Hunter's latest long player, this Williamsburg-based whiz delivers on his latest CD. More than just jazz, and certainly more than another rootsy jamband dude looking for props from his peers, this effort sits alone atop a genre where music needs chops and players to converge in harmony. Natch.
Von Iva Our Own Island (Ruby Tower) - If you're a regular reader and have attended any of our Culture Catch Salons in the last year, you know that I hail this amazing trio from San Francisco. Jillian, Bex, and Lay Lay are pure TNT on stage; like Janis Joplin fronting The White Stripes. And their second CD nearly captures that combustible energy. Check 'em out here, live, or this new CD.
Slow Six Nor'easter (New Albion) - Ambient orchestral post-rock tone poems full of Sturm und Drang from this Brooklyn-based sextet. Leader Christopher Tignor employs his knowledge of the programming framework SWARM (SoftWare and Algorithms for Running on Multicore) and turns it into his own secret sauce.
Lila Downs La Cantina (Narada) - Traditional Mexico folk-rock -- cancion ranchera -- from this former Deadhead and classical/opera student. Channeling influences from her Mexican-American roots allows her to weave her own unique tapestry. Think of the traditional leanings of Los Lobos with a slight hint of fado colored by loops and electronica shadings.
Strings Of Consciousness Our Moon Is Full (Central Control International) - Like Ken Nordine meets a Nick Cave Naked City (Zorn) film noir soundtrack. Guitars and strings envelope the basso profundo, nicotine-stained narration. You feel a claustrophobic tension throughout, like a Cormac McCarthy novel. Download "In Between" for the full effect.
Led Zeppelin Mothership: The Very Best of Led Zeppelin (Atlantic) - They deserve their props; after all, they created heavy metal thunder. This two-CD release offers unequivocal proof that Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham were rock gods. And yes, their long-awaited reunion tour will be the biggest tour ever, even without their long-deceased anchor on drums. For those of you who don't own a single Zep track -- and I find that highly unlikely, unless you're just becoming a music fan -- get this 24-track release immediately.
Bret Mosley Light & Blood (Woodstock) - Brooklyn-based storyteller Bret's a friend, having shared a few stages and events for us. His dobro-driven debut was recorded in Woodstock and you can smell the smoky fireplaces and hear the wood cracklin' between tracks. Check out "Barnfire" for some mighty fine old school pickin' and playin'.
Donna Jean & the Tricksters Donna Jean & the Tricksters (DIG) - Majestic, chicken-fried funky, jam band wonder; equal parts Little Feat meets the Zen Tricksters Deadish tenacity. And though it won't be released until January, doubtful there will be a better release in this genre next year. I stated it earlier this past summer, and I'll say it again, "All I Gotta Say" is one of my favorite tracks of the year. And you know what? There's more where that came from; nary a clunker on this righteous release.
And if you're looking for some visuals to serve up with your music: Lord Don't Slow Me Down, the new Oasis DVD, is essential viewing for anyone looking for proof as to why the Brothers Gallagher reign over the U.K. rock charts. Why it hasn't happened in the States is beyond me; I hail their music. The first DVD is a warts-and-all behind-the-scenes look at the volatile band on the road in America. Disc two features a July 2, 2005 concert shot in HD at the City of Manchester Stadium. Maximum rock and roll.
On their live concert DVD Please Experience Wolfmother: Live, Australian's nostalgia-heavy Wolfmother demonstrate how three young feral and ferocious rock dudes tackle and upgrade their favorite hard-rock guitar heroes' poses and heavy jam chops.
And don't miss The Who's new DVD-released documentary Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, told by them in previously unseen interviews and footage, from early mods to older rockers, this covers an extraordinary career arc. Long live rock! Happy Holidays and happy listening.
Wright Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!