Saturday, April 05, 2014

Remembering Kurt Cobain's impact, 20 years after his death

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the day when Kurt Cobain, the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Nirvana, was determined to have died at his home in Seattle from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 5th, 1994. His body was found three days after that date, on April 8th. It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since then, because I can remember that latter date very well. When I was at work earlier that day, Cobain had actually been on my mind. About one month earlier, Cobain had apparently made another suicide attempt when he was hospitalized in Rome after overdosing on pills. Nirvana had planned to play at the Lollapalooza festival that year, but it then became doubtful that Cobain would be well enough to tour and perform. I remember wondering to myself how that whole situation would turn out. Sadly, my question was answered when I got home from work that day and heard the news that Cobain had taken his own life.

Upon hearing the news of her son’s death, Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor famously remarked, "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club, I told him not to join that stupid club." She was referring to rock’s infamous 27 Club, a long list of rock musicians who died at age 27 like Cobain did.

The news media bombarded the public with images of grieving fans. At a vigil in Seattle, a crowd of 7,000 fans heard a tape-recorded message from Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, who gave a sad-and-angry speech while reading aloud from Cobain’s suicide note. In one unforgettable image, a 15-year-old girl was photographed with the name “KURT” scrawled on her arm, telling the photographer that she “scratched it with a razor blade”. Ouch! The late Andy Rooney caused controversy when he said (among other things) in his 60 Minutes commentary, “What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems like a Depression, World War II or Vietnam?”

The media portrayed Cobain’s death (debatably) as a shot through the heart of a generation, proclaiming that the youth of Generation X had lost their spokesperson, who symbolized their “lost hope”. (Sound familiar? Every decade, the media tells us that a generation has lost all hope for their future). But, in the words of Ray Manzarek, "Kurt was a poet. Kurt didn’t speak for his generation. He spoke for himself. That’s what poets do."

From the point of view of the average person, it seemed that Kurt Cobain had everything to live for. He had become a multi-millionaire rock star, found a kindred spirit of a wife in Courtney Love, and fathered a baby girl named Frances Bean. He was living the American Dream – but the American Dream was evidently no cure for his troubled past. In fact, Cobain constantly spoke about how much he hated his fame and success. At the time, it was easy to dismiss his complaints as “whining”. But his final, terrible act was disturbing proof that he meant what he said.

Cobain’s suicide came only three short years after the release of Nirvana’s 1991 song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its accompanying album Nevermind had changed rock and roll forever. At the very beginning of the 1990’s, many people were declaring that rock and roll was dead. (Sound familiar? We also hear that quite often, don’t we?). Cobain and Nirvana not only pulled rock and roll out of a commercial slump, but also put a whole new raw-and-unkempt face on it. Some people credit/blame Cobain for killing off the hair-metal scene that dominated MTV in the late ‘80’s, but that genre was already on its way out, as its core audience was on its way out of high school. By early 1991, mainstream rock had become tired, caught in a bear-trap of baby-boomer nostalgia and blanded out by digital-age slickness. Younger listeners were turning in droves to the likes of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and other purveyors of increasingly dreadful Top 40 rubbish. Nirvana’s punk-rock-scream-built-on-a-classic-rock-foundation was the force that woke up the sleeping giant.

Cobain’s early musical training and influences were based mainly on the Beatles, the Monkees, and numerous ‘70’s hard rock bands. His first exposure to punk rock came through sight, not sound. When he read magazine articles about punk rock and saw pictures of its performers, Cobain immediately identified with and was attracted to punk’s rebellious attitude. But he was unable to hear what it actually sounded like. His hometown of Aberdeen, Washington had no record stores that sold punk records, and no hip radio stations that played it to the public. This caused Cobain to develop his own form of punk rock based on his imagination. He was surprised when he finally heard actual punk rock recordings for himself, and found that they did not sound the way he imagined them. Nirvana’s now-famous “grunge” sound was rooted in Cobain’s personal, pre-conceived, idealized notions of the way punk rock ought to sound. When the CD-buying public finally experienced it, it struck an immediate chord and it caught on like wildfire. But Cobain didn’t want or intend it that way, and he was caught off-guard by Nirvana’s massive commercial breakthrough.

Cobain has his share of detractors. Some people argue that Cobain and Nirvana ruined rock and roll by turning it lazy and negative, and that he destroyed the art of the guitar solo.

And, in the present day, many people merely think of Cobain as the artist who brought the now-antiquated “grunge” genre from the Seattle underground to the American mainstream. But those people are missing the larger picture. During a five-year span in the mid-‘90’s, various types of alternative music were given wider exposure after Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough. Although the 1980’s were once considered to have been the decade when alternative music crossed over into the mainstream, the 1990’s were the years in which music’s underground was brought above ground – whether it wanted to be or not. Commercial radio stations began to give increased airplay to alternative rock, some of them even basing their entire format on the genre. Artists and songs that would previously only have been played on college radio and on MTV’s late-night programs (such as 120 Minutes and Post Modern) were then being played on mainstream FM stations and on cable channels at earlier hours of the day.

Also, major record labels began to sign indie artists that they never would have considered in earlier years, in search of hip credibility and the next Nirvana. One classic example was the metal band Helmet, who became the center of a fierce bidding war among major labels who were convinced that they were looking at the next big thing. Interscope Records wound up paying a cool million to sign the band. Although Helmet did not become the big sensation that the label was probably hoping for, they have since become regarded as a major influence on Nu Metal. There were countless other examples of this trend in the years between 1992 and 1996. SPIN magazine dug deep in a recent article to find the most extreme examples of bizarre underground artists who were signed to major labels in the wake of Nirvana’s success. At the top of their list were the spastic Japanese avant-garde noisemakers called the Boredoms, followed closely by the mentally ill outsider musician Daniel Johnston. These were just two examples of outlandishly non-commercial artists who apparently were signed to the majors simply because Cobain was known to admire them. If a major label had been able to track down Jandek during the mid-‘90’s, they probably would have offered him a deal, as well – although he probably would not have accepted it.

Artists on indie labels also got a boost from the success of Nirvana. One shining example was the Offspring, whose 1994 album Smash (released on Epitaph Records) became a multiplatinum radio smash with songs that suggested a less grungy Nevermind. Indie labels began to take bolder chances, as well. In 1994, the Twin/Tone label released a 2-CD set called Bulk from a completely unknown artist named Jack Logan. That was at least one year before the Smashing Pumpkins made it fashionable for even well-known artists to release pricey 2-CD sets of all-new material.

I remember thinking it was great when off-the-wall bands like the Flaming Lips and Ween began to get airplay on mainstream radio stations in the mid-‘90’s. I thought this was a sign that the barriers between music’s underground and music’s mainstream had been permanently torn down, and that mainstream music would become increasingly creative and ground-breaking as a result. How naïve I was in my twenties! This trend was probably what brought the alternative revolution to a halt in 1996 and ’97. When songs like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” started getting broadcast over mainstream airwaves, I believe it caused mainstream listeners to think, “Uh oh, this is getting too weird, we’d rather listen to Hanson and the Spice Girls now”. In retrospect, I do believe that mainstream rock and pop have been altered by the ‘90’s alternative revolution, but not always for the better.

In recent months, the print and digital media have been inundated with writings about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. Numerous books have been written about Cobain over the years, and sure enough, a slew of newly released titles are hitting the shelves to coincide with the anniversary of his death. Volumes have been written about his impact on the culture, and how he changed the way we look at fame, depression, suicide, and heroin abuse. On April 10th, only five days after the anniversary of the tragedy, Cobain and Nirvana are being felicitously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cobain’s widow Courtney Love (who has successfully kept her name and face in the gossip columns through the years) is currently planning a biopic, a documentary, and a Broadway musical (!) about her late husband. At least two cities in the state of Washington, including Cobain’s original hometown of Aberdeen, have begun to celebrate a Kurt Cobain Day on different dates. And the Seattle police recently released new but not-so-surprising photos taken at the scene of Cobain’s death, probably in hopes of ending long-running conspiracy theories claiming that Cobain was actually murdered. (So far, the conspiracy theorists do not seem satisfied).

But where does Cobain’s legacy stand in modern music? Undoubtedly, more people listen to punk rock now than before Cobain’s time. But modern alternative music does not seem particularly Nirvana-influenced, at least not in terms of sound. The Foo Fighters, founded and fronted by ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, are one clear example of an enduringly successful by-product of Nirvana. But most modern rock bands whose sound is reminiscent of Nirvana are considered to be part of rock’s mainstream (for example: Nickelback, Linkin Park, Lifehouse, and, yes, the Foo Fighters). By contrast, current alternative bands seem more influenced by pre-Nirvana sounds. Many of them (i.e. Foster The People, Vampire Weekend, Neon Trees, Fitz and the Tantrums) seem enamored with ‘80’s new wave instead of ‘90’s grunge. Is this a conscious rejection of the Nirvana sound, since it now seems so mainstream after two decades of heavy radio airplay? Or is it just a natural result of the genre evolving over the course of 20 years? It’s hard to say for sure.

But one thing is for sure. In the decade-and-a-half since the ‘90’s alternative revolution faded, rock and roll still has not experienced another resurgence or movement comparable to the one that Cobain and Nirvana accidentally spearheaded. I do not agree with the people who constantly say that rock and roll is dead; if it really was “dead” for as long as some people claim it has been, then there would not be so many artists still recording and performing it. However, it is hard to argue with the much-stated position that there will probably never be another grunge-like phenomenon that would make rock and roll seem young again. The music industry – not to mention the world in general – has probably changed too much for such a thing to happen again in a similar fashion. Because nothing of the same magnitude has happened to rock music since Cobain’s time, it still seems like he is not so far away, even 20 years after his untimely passing. But at the same time, that is also the reason why he is still so greatly missed.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kate Bush: The Line, The Cross & The Curve

More news on Kate Bush’s upcoming series of live shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo: seven more shows have been added, bringing the total to 22 – and all of the shows are sold out. A total of 77,000 seats were sold out within 15 minutes. This news is amazing, but understandable considering that these shows will be Bush's first full concerts in 35 years.

One time when Bush was rumored to have considered touring during that long hiatus was in or around 1993, when she recorded her album titled The Red Shoes. That album had a more immediate and down-to-earth sound than most of her earlier works, possibly to make the songs easier to reproduce live. Although she did not tour in support of the album, she did direct and star in a short film called The Line, The Cross, & The Curve, which visualized dance performances and other bits of theatricality built around six of the songs from The Red Shoes. After premiering at the 1993 London Film Festival , the film went straight to video in most markets. It was released on VHS and LaserDisc, and is now out of print.

The 43-minute short film has a vague storyline inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Red Shoes, as well as the 1948 Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film of the same title. The photogenic Ms. Bush portrays a dancer who is tricked by a mysterious, devilish woman (played by English actress Miranda Richardson) into wearing a fancy pair of red shoes. The shoes cause the dancer to dance unendingly, and she is transported into a hellish dimension that symbolizes her obsession with her craft.

The visual sequences that accompany four of the songs seem like little more than promotional videos. “Rubberband Girl”, “And So Is Love”, “Moments Of Pleasure”, and “Eat The Music” look as though they were designed for rotation on VH1 rather than as part of a plot. There is plenty of MTV-style visual flair on display, but the story (such as it is) is ineffectual. The imagery does acknowledge the religious themes of Andersen’s original story, but it’s presented in a way that is more flashy than meaningful.

The Line, The Cross & The Curve will interest Bush’s ardent fans, but it’s best seen as a video accessory to the Red Shoes album, not as a standalone film work in its own right.

Kate Bush - The Line, the Cross & the Curve

Kate Bush: The Line, The Cross & The Curve (Columbia Music Video VHS 19V50118) 1993

Featured songs (in order):

1. Rubberband Girl
2. And So Is Love
3. The Red Shoes
4. Lily
5. The Red Shoes (instrumental)
6. Moments Of Pleasure
7. Eat The Music
8. The Red Shoes

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kate Bush: Live At Hammersmith Odeon 1979

Some surprising news about British singer-songwriter Kate Bush was recently announced: Ms. Bush will be performing a series of 15 concerts, titled Before The Dawn, at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in August and September of this year. Incredibly, this will be Bush’s first time performing full concerts in 35 years. She only went on one proper tour in 1979, the year after her debut album was released, when she played a number of shows in the U.K. and on the European mainland. She has occasionally made guest appearances at various events during the years since, but she has avoided performing full concerts of her own. Many people have speculated on possible reasons for her decades-long absence from live performances; Bush herself has said that the 1979 tour had proven to be exhausting, and that her family life became more important to her.

Because of the surprising length of her stage absence, the recording of one of her 1979 shows is even more vital than I realized. On May 13th of that year, the then-20-year-old singer performed at the same London venue – known at the time as the Hammersmith Odeon – at the end of the tour. Recordings from that concert have been released in both audio and visual media, but all of those releases – at least the authorized ones – are currently out of print.

The first time any part of this concert was released was in 1979 on a four-song EP titled On Stage. Three of the four selections were songs that originally appeared on her 1978 debut album The Kick Inside; the other (“Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake”) was from her sophomore album Lionheart. On all four of these tracks, Bush comes across as a fine live performer in good voice. The intense six-minute rendition of “James And The Cold Gun” – which has quite a different feeling than the studio version – is the standout track; the EP is also notable for its inclusion of “L’Amour Looks Something Like You”, which is curiously absent from the “full-length” film of the concert. (Note: On Stage was never released in the United States. In the different countries in which the EP was released, it was either issued as a 12-inch 45-rpm single, a 7-inch 33-rpm single, or a set of two 7-inch 45-rpm singles).

The 53-minute film of the concert has since been released on home video at least three times. The first time was in 1981 on VHS and Laserdisc formats; the second time was in 1994, with a CD of the concert packaged together with the VHS tape; and the third time was in 2012 as an unauthorized European DVD. The set's twelve songs were drawn almost entirely from the first two albums, except for “Violin”, which would later be released on the third. The film reveals that the show was heavy on visuals and stage theatrics, with Ms. Bush constantly changing costumes and demonstrating her odd dance moves and facial expressions. Her bewitching vocals sound wonderful throughout, and the piano-based art-pop songs retain most of their aura. Her performances of “Violin” and “James And The Cold Gun” are particularly dynamic; the latter track runs at least two minutes longer here than it does on the On Stage EP. It must be said that the sound is too clean to be true on some tracks, especially considering how smoothly the woman sings while doing some of those dance moves. Indeed, I hardly saw Kate’s mouth move during “Hammer Horror” (and was her dance partner wearing a Spider-Man mask during that number?). Whatever the case may have been, Ms. Bush certainly put on an elaborately entertaining stage show, and it will be interesting to see what she will bring to the stage when she returns to the same venue this year.

Note: An unofficial CD of the concert was released in the Netherlands in 2012 on the Immortal label, catalogue number IMA 105001.

Kate Bush - On Stage

Kate Bush “On Stage” EP (EMI MIEP 2991) 1979

Track Listing:

1. Them Heavy People
2. Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake
3. James And The Cold Gun
4. L’Amour Looks Something Like You

Kate Bush - Live at Hammersmith Odeon

Kate Bush “Live At Hammersmith Odeon” (EMI 7243 8 30065 2 6) 1994

Track Listing:

1. Moving
2. Them Heavy People
3. Violin
4. Strange Phenomena
5. Hammer Horror
6. Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake
7. Wow
8. Feel It
9. Kite
10. James And The Cold Gun
11. Oh England My Lionheart
12. Wuthering Heights

The Live At Hammersmith Odeon CD was available only as part of a VHS package by Picture Music International, catalogue number SAV 4913063.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds EP's from 2012

Noel Gallagher, the former guitarist and songwriter for the legendary Britpop band Oasis, left that band in August 2009, after constant feuding with his younger brother Liam Gallagher (the Oasis lead singer) finally took its toll. Noel has since begun a solo career, with a backing band called High Flying Birds, while Liam formed a new band called Beady Eye with other members of the final Oasis lineup. When you hear the separate works that have since been created by the estranged Gallagher brothers, their musical differences become more noticeable than ever. Liam's two albums with Beady Eye show him still playing the rock and roll bad boy who's unabashedly in love with vintage British rock. Meanwhile, Noel's 2011 album Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds is a more stately work, favoring subtle artistry over rock and roll bombast.

Although Noel is the more musically talented of the two brothers, Liam arguably has the current edge in their post-Oasis sibling rivalry. The immediate-gratification rock and roll music of the Beady Eye albums leaves a stronger impression than Gallagher's album with High Flying Birds, even though the Beady Eye songwriting is less memorable than Noel's songwriting was for Oasis. The more controlled music of Noel's High Flying Birds is respectable and mature, but generates a bit less excitement than his brother's more visceral output.

Fans who are awaiting the follow-up to Noel's solo debut may want to discover his two EP’s released in 2012, one of them vinyl-only, the other one digital-only.

Songs From The Great White North was a 12-inch EP pressed in white vinyl, limited to 2,000 copies for release on Record Store Day in April 2012. The EP collected four non-album B-sides from the singles released to promote the debut album. It starts with “The Good Rebel”, a track that sounds more Oasis-like than most High Flying Birds songs do; Noel even sounds like he is mimicking his brother Liam’s singing style. It’s a decent tune, though I can’t help but think it would have been better as an Oasis song. The other three songs have more unexpected sounds. “Let The Lord Shine A Light On Me” uses ambient sounds for an ethereal effect, and adds Gospel elements into the mix, coming close to achieving the transcendence it aims for. “I’d Pick You Every Time” is a charming two-minute ballad that uses a banjo to create an underlying bluegrass vibe. The last track is the oddest: “Shoot A Hole Into The Sun” is a surviving track from Gallagher’s collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous (aka The Future Sound Of London). It’s an eight-minute variation on “If I Had A Gun…”, full of neo-psychedelic experimentalism. It holds attention, but it’s less spectacular than Noel made it out to be in interviews. It was intended to be released later as part of a full album that Gallagher recorded with the ambient-electronic duo, but the album was scrapped. That may be just as well, because such an album would probably not have been the ideal follow-up to the debut album.

There was a fifth single released from the album after this EP was issued. The A-side was “Everybody’s On The Run”; the B-side was a trippy 15-minute Amorphous Androgynous remix of “AKA…What A Life!”. That lengthy experiment is also fairly interesting, but it still doesn’t make me want to hear the entire abandoned album.

iTunes Festival: London 2012 was only sold digitally on iTunes. It was originally only available in the U.K., then it was also made available in the U.S. in January 2013. It featured six solid selections from the concert performed by Gallagher and company at the iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse in London on September 12th of 2012. The band was in fine form throughout, with a background choir giving the songs extra feeling. The four High Flying Birds selections on the EP are all performed very well, with Gallagher and the band displaying plenty of discipline and professionalism. Also included are equally respectable performances of two Oasis songs which Noel had sung the lead vocal on: the obscure B-side “D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman”, and the grand concert closer “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. Good stuff. iTunes Festival: London 2012 originally included videos of the performances of “Everybody’s On The Run” and “AKA…What A Life!”. If you have time to watch the full 99-minute concert in its entirety, the whole show is quite good.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Songs From the Great White North

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Songs From The Great White North” EP (Sour Mash JDNC14T) 2012

Track Listing:

1. The Good Rebel – (originally the B-side for “The Death of You and Me”)
2. Let The Lord Shine A Light On Me – (originally the B-side for “AKA…What A Life!”)
3. I’d Pick You Every Time – (originally the B-side for “If I Had A Gun…”)
4. Shoot A Hole Into The Sun – (originally the B-side for “Dream On”)

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Everybody's on the Run

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds "Everybody's On The Run" (single) (Sour Mash JDNC15T) 2012

Track Listing:

1. Everybody's On The Run
2. AKA...What A Life! (The Amorphous Androgynous Remix)

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - iTunes Festival London 2012

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “iTunes Festival: London 2012” EP (Sour Mash, no number) 2012

Track Listing:

1. Everybody’s On The Run
2. If I Had A Gun…
3. D’yer Wanna Be A Spaceman
4. (I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine
5. AKA…What A Life!
6. Don’t Look Back In Anger

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, part 19

Third Man Records recently revealed the contents of its nineteenth quarterly Vault package. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the independent label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service normally offers two exclusive vinyl records – one full-length 12-inch LP and one 7-inch single – and an additional bonus item to its Platinum members every three months. However, the Vault package for the first quarter of 2014 will instead consist of four 7-inch singles.

Vault packages usually feature recordings not available elsewhere, but that will not be the case this time around. This package will feature newly remastered reissues of the four singles from the White Stripes’ 2003 album Elephant. These four singles were originally issued in 2003 and 2004, and they will soon be reissued for the general public in plain black vinyl editions.

What makes these singles exclusive for Vault members? The limited edition Vault copies will be packaged together as a box set, will be pressed in fancy colored vinyl, and will also be packaged in fancier sleeves. In the words of the Third Man website:

Each of these tracks has been remastered from the original analog sources, and in the case of "…March" and "Piranhas" where there were no analog masters, we used only the finest digital files that could withstand sitting unused on a hard drive for over ten years.

The artwork on all the singles has been tidied up, spell-checked and given that special Third Man "je ne sais quoi". "There's No Home For You Here”, which was originally coupled with a generic company sleeve, now has stunning new artwork. It looks electrifying!

And these sleeves FEEL amazing. Employing a process called (we're not making this up) "soft touch aqueous coating" each of these glue-pocket sleeves feels like a hybrid between rubber and lambskin. It's difficult to describe, but immediately noticeable and amazing in person. Each record will be pressed on clear vinyl with an added vinyl highlight color insertion of either red, black or white. For "There's No Home…" all three of those colors will be added to clear vinyl, to make something truly exciting. All of this will be housed in a custom-made telescoping box, so that these singles can forever live together with distinction in your record collection. Later in 2014 each of the singles will be available individually, on black vinyl, with no box, to the general public.

I don’t doubt that these items will be visually remarkable. However, because there is no exclusive music being offered here, I do not feel that the package will be worth the quarterly price of a Platinum Vault membership. I have been a member of the Vault since it was begun in 2009, but I will be sitting this quarter out.

I’ll still review the package’s four singles.

The “Seven Nation Army’’ single was originally released in 2003 by XL Recordings, catalogue no. XLS 162. "Seven Nation Army" has become the White Stripes' best-known song, built on a sturdy and rhythmic guitar riff that resembles a bass line. The song helped to give a whole new 21st century respectability to garage rock, not to mention the blues. Its B-side is a cover of Brendan Benson’s 2002 song “Good To Me”, a rock and roll love song to a car, an amp, and a girl – in that order. The Stripes naturally give the song a minimalist treatment, propelled briskly by Meg White’s fast-paced drum-bashing. Its only flaw is Jack White’s lead vocal, which simply isn’t as good as Benson’s was on the original. This song was a bonus track on the Japanese edition of the Elephant CD.

The second single from Elephant was a cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”, originally released as XL catalogue no. XLS 166. That song is traditionally a pop ballad, but the Stripes were able to turn it into a garage-rock tune without making it obnoxious. Their version is punctuated by thudding guitar-and-drum sounds during the slower-tempo sections, building up to a more intense midsection and finale. The B-side was “Who’s To Say”, a cover of a country rock ballad by the Detroit band called Blanche. The Stripes’ version is superior to Blanche’s version in every way, as Jack White’s singing and playing give it far more feeling. This song was the other bonus track on the Japanese version of the Elephant CD.

The third single from Elephant was “The Hardest Button To Button”, originally released as XL catalogue no XLS 173. The song effectively uses Meg’s thumping drumming and Jack’s pulsating guitar leads to illustrate the tension of family angst. The B-side was “St Ides of March”, a cover of a song by the Soledad Brothers, recorded during a soundcheck in Berlin in April 2003. It’s a raw and spontaneous-sounding slow blues jam, with a guitar sound that hits just the right spot.

The fourth, final, and least-famous single from Elephant was “There’s No Home For You Here”, originally released in 2004 as XL catalogue no. XLS 181. The song has a quirky sort of power-pop sound that was not typical for the Stripes. The grandiose chorus is reminiscent of Cheap Trick, while the stanzas recall Steely Dan with almost-spoken-word lyrics and subtle use of keyboards. Not exactly a commercial song – which is probably the reason why the single never charted – but it’s a good one. The B-side was a medley of “I Fought Piranhas” (from the first White Stripes album) and “Let’s Build A Home” (from De Stijl) recorded live at Electric Lady Studios in New York in November 2003. “I Fought Piranhas” goes on for three-and-a-half minutes, and adequately serves the purpose of a slow buildup, but the payoff comes from the furious sub-two-minute burst of “Let’s Build A Home”. (The 2014 reissue has new cover art to replace the unprepossessing company sleeve in which the single was originally packaged).

White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” (b/w “Good To Me”) (Third Man single TMR-262) 2014

Track Listing:

a. Seven Nation Army
b. Good To Me

White Stripes “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (b/w “Who’s To Say”) (Third Man single TMR-263) 2014

Track Listing:

a. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself
b. Who’s To Say

White Stripes “The Hardest Button To Button” (b/w “St Ides Of March”) (Third Man single TMR-264) 2014

Track Listing:

a. The Hardest Button To Button
b. St Ides Of March

White Stripes “There’s No Home For You Here” (b/w “I Fought Piranhas/Let’s Build A Home”) (Third Man single TMR-265) 2014

Track Listing:

a. There’s No Home For You Here
b. I Fought Piranhas / Let’s Build A Home (Live at Electric Lady Studios)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kiss Saves Santa: the Christmas cartoon that never was

Rarebird's Rock and Roll Rarity Reviews wishes you and yours a Merry Christmas, or whatever you personally call this time of year.

If you've ever visited my site or blog before, you've probably noticed that I have a peculiar fascination with rare recordings and films related to rock music. My friend once joked that my website is about "albums that don't exist", his tongue-in-cheek description of my site about albums that are out of print. As we celebrate this holiday season, and as we congratulate Kiss on their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, I want to debunk the myth about a "rarity" that really, literally doesn't exist: a supposed TV Christmas special called Kiss Saves Santa.

Where does the myth of its existence originate? From a 2001 episode of Seth McFarlane's Family Guy: Season 3, Episode 16, to be exact. During this Christmas-themed episode of the irreverent animated series, the Peter Griffin character expresses a desire to watch a Christmas special called Kiss Saves Santa, an animated show-within-the-show in which the original make-up-clad members of Kiss are depicted as superheroes who save Santa Claus from pterodactyls. The four original members of Kiss (Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss) lent their voices to the episode. The Instant Video page for the episode mentions the Kiss cartoon as if it was the main plot point, even though it only makes up a tiny part of the full satirical episode. Here is a YouTube video that distills the three scenes from the fictitious Kiss cartoon from the Family Guy episode:

It seems that some people have mistaken Kiss Saves Santa for a show that was actually made in real life. If you Google the phrase "Kiss Saves Santa", you will see that people have posted questions about its existence on Yahoo Answers, among other sites. And if you look at the Google autocomplete suggestions for the phrase, you will see "a real movie" and "1979" as suggested additional keywords. 1979! The myth even has a year attached to it, even though the Family Guy episode does not mention a year in which the special was supposedly produced. If you add that year into the Google search term, you will come across websites that actually suggest (jokingly, I presume) that the cartoon was a real 1979 production! Also, if you search on YouTube for "Kiss Saves Santa", the autocomplete suggests adding "full movie" to the search term, suggesting that people have searched for exactly that.

I must regretfully inform everyone that Kiss Saves Santa is not a real show. And that's a shame, because based on those three scenes, it looks like it would have made for one cool Christmas special. Darn it, I want to see how the band saved St. Nick from falling from that dinosaur nest!

Evidently, I am not the only person who feels this way. If you add "a real movie" into the Google search term, you will notice (among other things) a Facebook page and an online petition requesting that Kiss create a real full-length version of the cartoon.

I don't blame anyone for thinking -- and wishing -- that the show was real. It looks like something that the band really would have been interested in making in or around 1979, the same time period in which there were Marvel Comics magazines and a live-action made-for-TV movie (Kiss Meets The Phantom from 1978) which also depicted the quartet as superheroes. That's what makes this particular Family Guy gag so funny: it's believable to anyone who is familiar with how the Kiss brand works.

I stand with the Kiss fans who wish that Kiss Saves Santa was a real show, even if it might have become a rarity that I would have had to search out. As I said before, I love searching for rarities like that!

Realistically, if Kiss Saves Santa did exist, I imagine it would be available as part of the 2007 DVD box set Kissology Vol. 2: 1978-1991, which does include Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. Now that movie is so bad that it's funny, but when I watched it on TV as a child, I thought it was great!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 18

Last week I received the eighteenth set of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months. According to the postal service, my package was sent on December 4th. I received it on the 10th.

This eighteenth set of items includes a live double-LP by the Raconteurs, a DVD documenting the same performance, and a 7-inch single containing two new studio tracks from the Dead Weather.

In a departure from past Vault singles, the Dead Weather single (pressed in “yellow jacket” vinyl) contains two brand new, fully developed studio cuts. The quartet plans to record a series of exclusive two-sided singles until 2015, when all of the tracks will be included on their next full-length album. The two songs on this single are both satisfying slices of the Dead Weather’s brand of dark, fuzz-drenched hard rock. The A-side “Open Up” is propelled by punchy riffs, giving Alison Mosshart (billed as “Baby Ruthless” on the sleeve) a sturdy foundation over which to sing the odd lyrics. The B-side “Rough Detective” is actually the better track; it’s a unique, complex swirl of aggressive noise, something like a Queens Of The Stone Age jam that’s been diced apart by Dean Fertita and pieced back together in a surreal fashion, with White and Mosshart sharing the lead vocal duties. This is a song that only the Dead Weather could have concocted with their individual personalities put together.

The Raconteurs double-LP Live at the Ryman Auditorium (pressed on one “rawhide and tobacco” colored record and one “gold and oil swirled” record) documents a September 2011 concert at the Nashville venue. This is the third live Raconteurs album issued through the Vault, which means that the band’s live Vault releases now outnumber their studio albums. This one has crisper sound quality than the previous two: Live In London from 2009 had noticeably muddy audio quality, while Live At Third Man Records from 2011 was purposefully recorded to analog tape. On Live at the Ryman Auditorium, the band are in good form as you would expect, performing 13 songs from their two studio albums without a single disappointing moment. Still, it is debatable (at least to long-time Vault subscribers) whether or not we need another live album from a band who have only two studio albums to draw material from. Two of the high points are “Top Yourself” and “Blue Veins”, where the Racs deliver strong Led Zep-like blues-rock jams – but I’ve had that same basic story to tell about all of their live Vault albums so far. Support from Dean Fertita on keyboards helps to make “Level” and “Intimate Secretary” sound fresh; a tasteful three-piece Nashville horn section gives extra class to “Many Shades of Black” and “The Switch and the Spur”. If you don’t own either of the other aforementioned Raconteurs live albums and only intend to obtain one of their Vault albums, then Live at the Ryman Auditorium is the most polished one of the three; it is the easiest one to imagine as a proper commercial release.

The DVD is the item that makes this package special, presenting that same Raconteurs concert to better effect. Seeing the band perform this set helps to create more excitement, making the viewer feel more involved in the event. Watching the band members interact, with clear chemistry and camaraderie, makes the set more fun and more illuminating. It’s particularly riveting to watch their extended blues jam during “Top Yourself”; the visual medium also draws more attention to the horn arrangements on “Many Shades of Black” and “The Switch and the Spur”.

A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or the runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The A-side of the single has “That’s Too Much” and “GEO @ 3rd Man Live” carved in the dead wax; the B-side has “Active” and “GEO @ 3rd Man Live” carved. The double-LP has these four messages carved on its respective sides: “Confederate Gallery Opening”, “Understood”, “Schotts, Schotts, Schotts”, and “Go ahead ask him”.

The Dead Weather - Open Up (That's Enough) / Rough Detective

Dead Weather “Open Up (That’s Enough)” b/w “Rough Detective” (Third Man single TMR 243) 2013

Track Listing:

a. Open Up (That’s Enough)
b. Rough Detective

The Raconteurs - Live at the Ryman Auditorium

Raconteurs “Live at the Ryman Auditorium” (Third Man TMR 241) 2013

Track Listing:


1. Consoler of the Lonely
2. Hands
3. Level
4. Old Enough


5. Top Yourself
6. Many Shades of Black
7. The Switch and the Spur


8. Intimate Secretary
9. Broken Boy Soldier
10. Blue Veins


11. Salute Your Solution
12. Steady, As She Goes
13. Carolina Drama

Raconteurs “Live at the Ryman Auditorium” DVD (Third Man TMR 242) 2013

The DVD documents the same concert, with the same track list as above.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Remembering Jim Morrison and John Lennon on this date

First off, I wish to acknowledge the birthday of Jim Morrison, the late lead singer of the Doors. The Lizard King was born on December 8, 1943. He died in 1971 at the age of 27; if he was still alive today, he would be 70 today. Hard to believe! This question inevitably comes to mind: what would have become of Morrison if he had stayed alive? In terms of popularity, I've always thought that he would likely have faded away if he hadn't burned out. That is, of course, open to debate, and we'll never know the answer for sure. It's really impossible for me to imagine Jim at age 70, because the only way he could have reached that age would have been to do away with his self-destructive tendencies -- and I just can't imagine Morrison without those tendencies! He would have needed to make major changes to his lifestyle and personality, and who can say where that would have led him? Perhaps I'm overthinking it. You might be saying: "Well, what if he could have stayed the way he was and lived to be 70?" Sorry, but in my view, he just couldn't. That's why (like so many other famous rockers) Morrison passed at age 27. And I've certainly never been a believer in the conspiracy theories about Morrison faking his death. Even if he had done so, I cannot imagine him reaching age 70. I hope this doesn't offend, as I mean no disrespect to this great, legendary singer on what would have been his 70th birthday.

Also, this date marks the 33rd anniversary of the death of another rock legend: John Lennon. The co-founder of the Beatles was shot and killed on December 8, 1980, at the age of 40. For a fascinating piece of history, the WFMU blog offers an mp3 of a recording of a dial scan of New York City's FM band from that tragic day:

During one part of this recording, a radio commentator reads a telling Lennon quote which is very relevant on this day, taken from an interview in Playboy given shortly before his death. The interviewer asked Lennon, "You disagree with Neil Young's lyric in 'Rust Never Sleeps'-- 'It's better to burn out than to fade away....'". To which Lennon replied:

"I hate it. It's better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don't appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It's the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison's garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They're saying John Wayne conquered cancer... he whipped it like a man. You know, I'm sorry that he died and all that. I'm sorry for his family, but he didn't whip cancer. It whipped him. I don't want (my son) Sean worshiping John Wayne or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it's garbage, you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn't he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I'll take the living and the healthy."