Life Won't Wait
Back in 1978, when this band was called the Clash and this album was named Give 'em Enough Rope, reviewers noted that the musicians (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon, today known as Tim Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, Matt Freeman and Brett Reed) had managed the neat trick of expanding their punishing punk sound without diluting the power of their attack. Twenty years later, with Rancid set to headline the Vans Warped Tour at the CU-Boulder campus on Sunday, July 12, they're right again. Raveups/ football chants such as "Bloodclot" (complete with loads o' hey!s and ho!s) and "1998" (one of many tracks here to make convincing use of the term "motherfucker") are as tuneful as ever but even more effective, thanks to rough-but-ready production by Armstrong and Frederiksen. However, the reggae and ska influences that infused previous Rancid efforts have been incorporated more smoothly than in the past, giving tracks such as "Crane Fist" (replete with politically populist lyrics about "fightin'," "robbin'," "decision" and "dissension") a loose-limbed, dumb-fun feel. Other styles are referenced, too: Witness the Magic Dick harmonica on "Cocktails" and the Keith Richards strumming that kicks off "The Wolf." These efforts can't be accused of upping the quartet's originality quotient, and neither can the subject matter, which doesn't stray far from the Clash canon: Given that no one other than old lefties and aging punkers remembers anything about Sandinistas, baying about them in the jaw-droppingly retro "Lady Liberty" probably wasn't a good idea. (What's next? A ditty about the Hottentots?) Still, the players' blatant mimicry is good-humored and energetic--and if they follow their current progression, they'll go on to rip off London Calling, a damn good set. Just pray that they've broken up by the time they get around to Cut the Crap.
A Painter Passing Through
It would be easy to dismiss Gordon Lightfoot's new CD just because this is 1998 and the disc's star is Gordon Lightfoot, whose "If You Could Read My Mind" can be found in virtually every Seventies-era songbook; the cover photo, in which the singer wears a denim jacket and a look of infinite wisdom that recalls post-Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood, makes the situation even worse. Moreover, the first few songs here (including "Ringneck Loon" and "My Little Love," which cover exactly the same territory as his older material in exactly the same ways) seem to confirm such cynical thoughts. But those are just some of the reasons that this recording feels like a shovel digging a common grave for every aging country-folk musician trying to make a comeback.
To his credit, Lightfoot, in an unusual and clever twist, actually makes fun of himself on the title track. The tune begins with him singing "Once upon a time...when I was in my prime," and he almost invokes sympathy by declaring, "Yesterday is gone/Yesterday belongs in my dreams at night." For a brief moment, he commands respect, in large part because he seems to be apologizing for making the disc; it's almost as if he's saying, "Look, I can't help it if I can only sing in one key, and I know I write songs that might as well be 'Read My Mind' all over again, but I have this old contract to fulfill, so bear with me." Unfortunately, his boldness doesn't even hold to the end of the song, which drones on and on before turning prematurely gray, and subsequent reminiscences about the "good ol' days" become a chore. His life seems like an endless rut of sameness, with A Painter Passing Through representing death. Read my mind, Gordon: No more new albums.
The Grassy Knoll
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In a recent interview in Cadence, New York City saxophonist Ellery Eskelin named the turntable/DJ phenomenon--a hip-hop by-product--as an inspiration. This is ironic, Eskelin noted, "because the criticism from the jazz world was that 'these cats aren't playing instruments'"--but he argued that DJs and improvisers have a lot to learn from each other.
The latest album by the Grassy Knoll, and Eskelin's own performance on it, underlines his words: The CD is cross-fertilization at its finest. All ten of these musicians, who employ percussion, reeds, woodwinds, cellos, violins, electric guitars and sundry audio artifacts, help make the act's third release a true trip-hop/modern-jazz hybrid, but Bob Green appears to be the project's mastermind. A native Texan, Green wrote all the music, co-produced the record and holds forth on bass, piano, guitars, programming and samplers. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore also drops noisy guitar onto three cuts, but perhaps the most notable sounds come from Chris Grady, a San Francisco-based trumpeter. On cuts like "III" and "Paul Has an Emotional Uncle," Grady's airy, languid style adds range and texture.
With Eskelin (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (bassoon, soprano sax, bass clarinet) also in the house, the combo's chops are not in doubt. But what propels the band away from the clamor of predictability is its saturnine gravity. "Every Third Thought" and "Safe" hover thoughtfully, like one of Brian Eno's lunar soundscapes, and the other instrumentals on hand work together as seamlessly as a well-structured argument. "The Violent Misery of Everything Lost" is syncopated-yet-ambient cool jazz whose grinding guitars recall tracks from Ron Miles's latest; "Six to Four to Three," curiously, revisits the simple pleasure of Beastie Boys wah-wah; and "Thunder Ain't Rain" is an all-out Massive Attack--machine-age ebb and flow that, like "Down in the Happy Zone," sports large bass tones and heavy tempos. Co-producer Nick Sansano's keyboards and organs provide additional glue to III, resulting in a sonic conspiracy theory that stands on its own impeccable logic.