Tag Archives: Alex Chilton

Jules and Jim – Nada Surf

Eight albums into their career, Nada Surf are more quietly impressive than ever. Not quiet in a musical sense, as their music is often driven by saturated, beefy distorted guitars, but in a low-key, no-bullshit kind of way that’s best demonstrated by their live shows, in which they smash through one song after another with no extended jams and no self-indulgent between-song waffle.

The band formed in New York in 1992 as a collaboration between singer-guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, who had gone to the same French-language school together (the families of both spent time in France and Belgium when they were kids). After a couple of false starts, they found drummer Ira Elliott and began recording low-budget EPs and playing shows. At one such show at the Knitting Factory, they ran into former Cars singer Ric Ocasek, who was by then an in-demand producer (his production discography includes the Bad Brains’ Rock for Light and Weezer’s Blue Album), and gave him one of their self-released cassettes. Ocasek later called the band to say he wanted to produce their first album, which no doubt helped to get them hooked up with Elektra.

Problem was, while their debut scored a hit, it did so in the form of Popular, a sub-Weezer novelty in which Caws recites advice from the 1964 guide for teenage girls on how to achieve popularity in an increasingly hysterical voice. Having not heard it at the time (it wasn’t really a thing in the UK), I’ve got to say, it’s as bad as it sounds. Worse, it pegged them for many as a derivative or even a novelty band; better not to have a mainstream hit at all than to have one that will follow you around like a bad smell for the next ten years. By the early noughties, the band members were back to working day jobs.

With admirable persistence, they set about rebuilding. After getting themselves a deal with solid indie Barsuk (John Vanderslice, Death Cab, Rilo Kiley), they released three super-solid power-pop albums in a row: Let Go, The Weight is a Gift and Lucky. Power pop is not a cool style of music, especially at the moment, but it’s one I’ve always had a huge soft spot for, and Nada Surf are great at it. Matthew Caws has a sweet and supple voice, his songs always have strong melodies and big choruses, and the rhythm section supply the “power” side of things admirably. As does the fact that Caws knows how to get a sweet guitar sound with his Les Paul Custom.

Jules and Jim is from 2012’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, which took the band’s winning streak to four. The song is an Alex Chilton-ish minor classic, with one of their most glorious choruses. Although, really, it’s just one hook after another. The band are now a four-piece (when playing live, at least) with the addition of guitarist Doug Gillard, also of Guided by Voices, and when I saw at the Electric Ballroom a few years ago and Gillard and Caws struck up the song’s chiming harmonised intro, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle heaven.

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The Replacements @ the Roundhouse, London

Last night I saw the Replacements at the Roundhouse in London.

I never thought I’d write that sentence.

I’m too young for the Replacements to mean to me what they evidently meant to a good few people at the show last night. When the Mats helped to show that not all Midwest rock had to be Chicago or REO Speedwagon in the early 1980s (or rather, that there could be a path between the Speedwagon on one hand and Hüsker Dü on the other), I was toddling around, falling over a lot and picking up things and putting them in my mouth.

By the time I knew about them, the band had been defunct for five years or so, and Paul Westerberg was no longer someone to watch as a potential solo star. He and his career were past tense. Suicaine Gratification (still a dreadful title), Mono, Stereo, Folker – Westerberg/Grandpaboy records came and went and made no impression on me, despite the enthusiasm of my good friend and gig buddy Yo Zushi.

But still, once a fan… I was keen to go to the show, relieved that Yo had got tickets (the day they went on sale, I was ill in bed. Very ill. No-energy-to-even-crawl-to-my-laptop ill) and had been getting increasingly excited over the last few days. But in a low-stakes sort of way. The whole point about the Replacements (as with my beloved Sebadoh) was that they were a chaotic live act, by all accounts capable of jaw-dropping power and buffoonish incompetence within the same show. The same song, even. So if they were terrible, fine – at least I’d know I’d seen a legit Replacements gig. And they might be great.

They were, well, mainly great. The start of the show saw them smashing headlong into their early material, all played at a furious, hardcore-like tempo (they were always too tuneful and interior-looking to be hardcore really, but they did play as quickly as their cross-town rivals the Hüskers in the early days): Takin’ a Ride, I’m in Trouble, Favorite Thing (a thrilling moment, that – the best marriage of melody and heavy riffing during their Twin/Tone era), Tommy gets his Tonsils Out. Bam bam bam. Their drummer, Josh Freese, deserves a lot of credit, for maintaining the energy levels as much as anything.

Achin’ to Be provided a mid-set highlight, but here the limitations of their current approach to their set, and of their touring guitarist Dave Minehan, did start to become apparent. At the moment the Replacements live experience is of a group are plugged in and amped up at all times: an acoustic guitar and some light and shade wouldn’t go amiss occasionally. The ability to move from one to the other, to do Skyway as well as Bastards of Young, was what defined the Replacements. It’s the very thing that made them so great.

Minehan, meanwhile, had been the band’s MVP during the first half of the set, throwing himself around like a man half his age (from my vantage point, the boyish guitarist really did look like a kid who’d won a competition to play on stage with his favourite band) and doing a credible job of filling in for the late Bob Stinson. But he seemed to fade away as the night went on, becoming less and less integral to the songs. On reflection, I wonder whether he simply doesn’t slip as well into Slim Dunlap’s shoes as he does Stinson’s. Dunlap’s single-note lead guitar on a song like Achin’ to Be is simple in effect but tricky to execute: it has to be played absolutely straight, and in the middle of a rock show, with all that adrenaline, it takes a lot of self-discipline to play it that straight (there was more of this to come).

The final third of the set was a victory lap: I’ll Be You, a cover of Maybellene (as sloppy as you could hope from the group that gave us Like a Rolling Pin), Can’t Hardly Wait, Bastards of Young (segueing into My Boy Lollipop), Left of the Dial and finally Alex Chilton. You almost had to pinch yourself. Yeah, that man up there who wrote all these songs is singing all these songs on British soil for the first time in 24 years and we’re watching him do it. It was quite something.

The encore, well, it was a bit of a let-down. I’d hoped they’d play Unsatisfied. When they did, I wished they hadn’t. Michael Hann in The Guardian loved it. For me, the song was spoiled by Minehan’s slide guitar (pedal steel does feature on the recording, but subtly: a few swoops here and there, in the background): Minehan was too loud, too busy and sometimes out of key. Westerberg meanwhile sang the song distractedly, pulling the phrasing around until it felt wrong and missing out the key line (“I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”), possibly because it hasn’t occured to him that it’s the song’s emotional crux. It served as a reminder that, as I’ve said before, the record and Westerberg’s vocal performance are essentially the same thing. A moment like that is unrepeatable and I should have realised it would be.

The rest of the set (just a couple of songs) passed me by. I was now thinking about how and why Unsatisfied hadn’t come off but, more happily, of how great the rest of the show had been. I’d feared a cold-eyed, Pixies-style cash-in, where the band’s cupidity threatens to drown out the damn music. It was a long way from that. They were great, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were clearly having a ball and only the most hardened cynic could have heard I’ll Be You without getting a little bit misty. They may even go on from here to do a Go-Betweens or a Dinosaur Jr and make new music in their second life that’s just as vital as the work they did in their first. I wouldn’t bet against them. Alternatively it may all fall apart tomorrow. They are, after all, the Replacements.

Update: It did all fall apart, the day after I wrote this, after their set at Primavera. Thanks, guys.

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Paul Westerberg @ the Roundhouse, 03/06/15

More bassists to come at the weekend!

Recent work:

Unsatisfied – The Replacements (repost)

I’m seeing the Replacements at the Roundhouse tomorrow night, so I’ve decided to take a break from our bass-player series and repost this piece from a year or so back on my favourite Mats song. More bassists on Thursday, unless I decide to write about the show instead.

To a certain cast of mind, the Replacements’ self-sabotaging drunkenness and apparent disregard for professional advancement is endearing, and makes everyone else look careerist by comparison. Such a mindset doesn’t take into account the possibility that Paul Westerberg and his bandmates knew the value of their image as beer-sodden losers, and maybe got ahead by affecting not to care whether or not they got ahead – after all, it’s difficult to end up signed to Warner Bros. by accident. But when I was a kid, working backwards from my beloved Nirvana, trying to work out who influenced them so I’d know who to listen to next, stories about the Replacements and their exploits made them seem cool and exciting. The band weren’t widely known, but well-known enough for their records to be available, and they had some influential rock-critic voices speaking up for them: Gina Arnold dedicated a chapter of her On the Road to Nirvana to them; a few years later Michael Azerrad would do the same in Our Band Could Be Your Life. In October last year they were even included in the list of acts eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, the Meters, NWA, Chic and Hall & Oates.

Like Big Star, the Replacements have birthed a mythology so pervasive, it becomes hard to consider the band’s music without also considering a whole load of extra-musical stuff that’s commonly taken to be crucial to understanding them: their various addictions, the tension between Westerberg and the rest of the band, their hazing of unfortunate record producers, the commercial compromises of the band’s latter albums and of course the death of Bob Stinson, the group’s wayward lead guitarist. When we respond to the Replacements, we’re not just responding to the music; if we were, I think it unlikely they’d be quite so highly regarded. Their status as the perpetual losers and professional underdogs from a second-tier city is a crucial part of their appeal*, hence the enormous cognitive dissonance of their even being nominated for the R&R Hall of Fame.

None of which makes Westerberg any more or less talented as a songwriter. I Will Dare; Unsatisfied; Here Comes a Regular; Bastards of Young; Left of the Dial; Alex Chilton (the cult of Big Star goes up a notch with this song); Skyway; Can’t Hardly Wait; Aching to Be; I’ll Be You. That’s a list that just about anyone would be happy to have written. But for me, Westerberg created his masterpiece early when he wrote Unsatisfied and cut it for 1984’s Let It Be.

The crucial thing to me isn’t that Unsatisfied is cleverly crafted and universally relatable, although it is – it’s Westerberg’s performance of it and his band’s empathetic playing (especially Chris Mars’s drumming). It’s why every cover of it I’ve hear falls flat. Westerberg’s voice was not a tutored one, and was quite a limited one, but his hoarse bellows on Unsatisfied are the song. His performance is perfectly judged, rising in intensity all the way through the second verse and chorus (which ends with a discordant reading of the line “Are you satisfied”, in which only the last word is enunciated), until he reaches the song’s key line: “I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but Westerberg’s delivery of it will make your hair stand up. The tension-building of that first unresolved “I’m so” – you know that the resolution can’t be a positive one – lasts only a few seconds, but the whole song rests on that one moment.

Very few things about great singing or songwriting (and Unsatisfied is an example of both) are unconscious, and Westerberg’s fully in charge of his craft here. When writing the song, he must have known how hard he’d be able to bite down on that line in performance. The genius of the recorded version of Unsatisfied is how fresh it sounds, as if he’d never sung the song before, as if the thought was occurring to him for the first time as he gave voice to it.

Foremost in their slim canon of truly great songs, Unsatisfied is the one that will keep people coming to the Replacements’ music to see what all those critics are making a fuss about. It’s a perfect little moment.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Replacements  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Replacements live: Tommy Stinson (seated), Chris Mars (drums), Westerberg (horizontal), Bob Stinson (guitar)

*They’re aware of it too, and know how to play it up for writers, hence bassist Tommy Stinson in a Spin profile a few years ago: “We were all nowhere – we came from nowhere, we were going nowhere. And the band gave us something.”

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 2 – Call Me on Your Way Back Home – Ryan Adams

When I first heard Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker I was more impressed than I’d have been if I’d been familiar with the artists he was cribbing from. At that time, I didn’t know that many records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt or Bruce Springsteen, or any of the other acts that Adams was stylistically in hock to. Nowadays, while I can still remember the emotional charge I used to get from My Winding Wheel, My Sweet Carolina and the sparse, charged Call Me on Your Way Back Home, most of the time when I listen to Heartbreaker I find the obviousness of his borrowings crass.

Which says at least as much about me as it does about him. No one said pop music had to be original. A lot of the time the joy of it is precisely its lack of originality, its willingness to repeat the formula exactly, to conform perfectly to expectation. But I had something invested in the idea of Adams as an original talent of the order of Dylan, Morrison or Young, which is absurd, but at 18 I knew know better. If I’d known twice as much then as I actually did, relatively speaking I’d still have known dick all.

So the magic faded somewhat, and when it did I was left with a record that was admirable for the way it replicated the sound and feel of certain rock-history glory moments, most notably producer Ethan Johns’ uncanny reproduction of the sound of Dylan’s mid-sixties work, most notably Blonde on Blonde. The devil is in the details where this sort of thing is concerned, and Johns has a record producer’s ear for detail; an ear schooled by his father, Glyn Johns – producer and engineer for the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin – from an early age

His drum tunings were key to pulling this off. Tune the drums correctly, then leave enough space in the performances for the resonances to really add to the overall sound. Then set the band up right in the room and allow the leakage of the drums into the guitar and vocal mics (yeah, live vocals – scared yet, you Pro Tools kids?) to dictate the overall sound. Johns was the drummer, the producer and the engineer for all this, so there is really is no overstating how important he was to the finished product (he also played bass, organ and Chamberlin – a precursor to the Mellotron).

Johns sits out almost three-quarters of the genuinely mournful-sounding Call Me on Your Way Back Home, finally coming in when Adams’ vocal drops out, allowing the sound of the room – captured in the guitar and vocal mics as well as in his drum mics – to supply a beautiful reverb, taking full advantage in his big, simple tom fills, which owe a lot stylistically to Levon Helm. Nowadays, when I think of Heartbreaker, I think of Johns’ drumming on the album: of the five-stroke intro to Come Pick Me Up; of the pattering brushed drum fills on Sweet Carolina; and of course of those authoritative and strangely uplifting thudding toms at the end of Call Me on Your Way Back Home.

ryanadams

Ryan Adams

My Life is Right – Big Star

There are two ways to approach the music of Big Star these days. The first is through the rock-canon myth of the Unruly Genius of Alex Chilton, Big Star’s singer-songwriter. In that case, start with their third album Third (also known as Sister Lovers), released in 1975, and work back. This is the standard rock-critic take on the record:

To listen to it is to be plunged into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Songs are drenched in strings and sweet sentiment one minute, starkly played and downcast the next. No pop song has ever bottomed out more than Holocaust, an anguished plaint sung at a snail’s pace over discordant slide-guitar fragments and moaning cello.

Parke Putterbaugh, Rolling Stone

Here’s my take on Third. It’s a mess, and only a couple of songs reach the standards of the band’s best work. The myth of Alex Chilton the Unruly Genius is just that, a myth: in the early years of Big Star at least, Chilton was a disciplined craftsman, but that was an image he didn’t care to project (and besides, that image doesn’t appeal to jaded music critics). But it was Chilton the craftsman who gave us the Ballad of El Goodo, Give Me Another Chance, Thirteen and Watch the Sunrise, all of which are absolute classics of their type. Songs like Ballad of El Goodo don’t happen without work. A lot of it.

Which brings us to the other way to approach them: through the first album, #1 Record, from 1972. This is the one that the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, the Bangles and Elliott Smith owed so much to. This is the one that first made cool the idea of mixing 1965-era Beatles-style songwriting with big drums and guitars that were jangly, but loud, with an edge to them, guitars so sparkly they’re almost harsh. This version of Big Star were responsible for the lion’s share of the band’s enduring songs.

This version of Big Star had two singer-songwriters, and it was the push and pull between Chilton and Chris Bell, author of My Life is Right, that made #1 Record such a fine record. Without Bell to bounce off and to provide nearly half the songs, Chilton struggled to pull together enough strong material for a whole album. Bell shared Chilton’s Beatles obsession, but was a more damaged, less hedonistic, individual. Depressed by the commercial failure of #1 Record, dependent on heroin and, it has often been said, conflicted about his sexuality, he seemed destined for a bad end.

He met it, at the wheel of a Triumph TR-7.

He cut a classic single after leaving Big Star (I Am the Cosmos/You and Your Sister), which is  known to later generations though This Mortal Coil’s cover of the B-side (with vocals by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly) and the inumerable covers of I Am the Cosmos. But not enough people talk about how great his contributions to #1 Record are: his vocal on Don’t Lie to Me is the album’s most startlingly aggressive moment; Try Again is a beautiful, weary song, beaten down but ready to start over, refusing to give in; My Life is Right is his most joyful song, and maybe the band’s. There’s nothing more grin-inducing than Chilton and Bell straining to hit their high notes on the line “You are my day” in the chorus while drummer Jody Stephens plays bubbling triplet fills on his snare and rack toms. And what a great drummer Stephens is – I could write a book!

I can’t recommend #1 Record highly enough. Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers certainly have their moments, but for me they’re the work of another, inferior, band. The first version of the group were less mythic, but a lot more consistently rewarding.

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Alex Chilton, Chris Bell

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

Old friend and musical mucker Yo Zushi mentioned me and this blog in a piece he write for The New Statesman about Valentine’s Day songs. Check it out here:

To a certain cast of mind, the Replacements’ self-sabotaging drunkenness and apparent disregard for professional advancement is endearing, and makes anyone else look careerist by comparison (such a mindset doesn’t take into account the possibility that Paul Westerberg and his bandmates knew the value of their image as beer-sodden losers, and maybe got ahead by affecting not to care whether they got ahead – after all, no one gets a major-label deal by accident). When I was a kid, working backwards from my beloved Nirvana, trying to work out who influenced them so I’d know who to listen to next, stories about the Replacements and their exploits made them seem cool and exciting. The band was not widely known, but it had some influential rock-critic voices speaking up for them (Gina Arnold dedicated a chapter of her On the Road to Nirvana to them; a few years later Michael Azerrad would do the same in Our Band Could Be Your Life). In October last year they were even included in the list of acts eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, the Meters, NWA, Chic and Hall & Oates.

Like Big Star, the Replacements have birthed a mythology so pervasive, it becomes hard to consider the band’s music without also considering a whole load of extra-musical stuff that’s commonly taken to be crucial to understanding them: their various addictions, the tension between Westerberg and the rest of the band, their hazing of unfortunate record producers, the commercial compromises of the band’s latter albums and of course the death of Bob Stinson, the group’s wayward lead guitarist. When we respond to the Replacements, we’re not just responding to the music; if we were, I think it unlikely they’d be quite so highly regarded. Their status as the perpetual losers and professional underdogs from a second-tier city is a crucial part of their appeal*, hence the enormous cognitive dissonance of their even being nominated for the R&R Hall of Fame.

None of which makes Westerberg any more or less talented as a songwriter. I Will Dare; Unsatisfied; Here Comes a Regular; Bastards of Young; Left of the Dial; Alex Chilton (the cult of Big Star goes up a notch with this song); Skyway; Can’t Hardly Wait; Aching to Be; I’ll Be You. That’s a list that just about anyone would be happy to have written. But for me, Westerberg created his masterpiece early when he wrote Unsatisfied and cut it for 1984’s Let It Be.

The crucial thing to me isn’t that Unsatisfied is cleverly crafted and universally relatable, although it is – it’s Westerberg’s performance of it and his band’s empathetic playing (especially Chris Mars’s drumming). It’s why every cover of it I’ve hear falls flat. Westerberg’s voice was not a tutored one, and was quite a limited one, but his hoarse bellows on Unsatisfied are the song. His performance is perfectly judged, rising in intensity all the way through the second verse and chorus (which ends with a discordant reading of the line ‘Are you satisfied’ in which only the last word is enunciated), until he reaches the song’s key line: ‘I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied’. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but Westerberg’s delivery of it will make your hair stand up. The tension-building of that first unresolved ‘I’m so’ – you know that the resolution can’t be a positive one – lasts only a few seconds, but the whole song rests on that one moment.

Very few things about great singing or songwriting (and Unsatisfied is an example of both) are unconscious, and Westerberg’s fully in charge of his craft here. When writing the song, he must have known how hard he’d be able to bite down on that line in performance. The genius of the recorded version of Unsatisfied is how fresh it sounds, as if he’d never sung the song before, as if the thought was occurring to him for the first time as he gave voice to it.

Foremost in their slim canon of truly great songs, Unsatisfied is the one that will keep people coming to the Replacements’ music to see what all those critics are making a fuss about. It’s a perfect little moment.

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The Replacements Mk II: (l-r) Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, Westerberg, Slim Dunlap. Care to guess which one ended up in Guns N’ Roses?

*They’re aware of it too, and know how to play it up for writers, hence bassist Tommy Stinson in a Spin profile a few years ago: ‘We were all nowhere — we came from nowhere, we were going nowhere. And the band gave us something.’