Glass Candy-Beatbox

July 29, 2009

Glass Candy

Beatbox(Italians Do it Better 2007)

Man, it took awhile to swallow my pride and earnestly accept the fact that Glass Candy were no longer the pretentious art-punk mess that released a series of occasionally great, but mostly horrid series of singles and albums. There always was something intriguing about them in theory, but the reality was that you had a fetching vocalist and interesting guitarist who listened to a few too many no-wave albums and decided to meld them with Blondie’s Parallel Lines. It was a mess, albeit one which kind of made you wonder what could be if this unlikely synthesis could be pulled off. It’s probably for the best that they decided to soldier onwards in a different direction and aim for a surprisingly successful marriage of Italo disco, Kraftwerk, new wave, John Carpenter soundtracks and and the hypnotic, but elegant repetition of Cluster. Yeah, the Cluster comparison is a stretch, but I’ll be damned if Beatbox doesn’t put me near that same head nodding zone as their more energetic orbits. On one hand, it’s just as disposable as any number of early 80s one-hit wonders, but Johnny Jewel’s instrumentation is a subtle, but unsettling take on early 80s disco that provides a perfect stage for vocalist Ida No’s blank vocals.

It’s fitting that I first heard Beatbox after listening to their labelmates Chromatics via their Night Drive album. Night Drive is an even more narcoleptic take on Italo Disco and krautrock as it relies mostly on longer instrumental passages and even sleepier vocals. What crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s between the two bands was the involvement of Johnny Jewel who has a innate knack for repetitive, hypnotic foundations for a suitably unemotional vocalist. The result is two bands adept at perfecting the synthesis of “ice queen” and a subdued, yet sensual wash of synthesizers.

Despite its occasional bouts of exuberance, Beatbox is an album suited for late night drives after the party ended long after common sense should have ended it. It conjures images of 3am sojourns down lonely highways when you fixate on the road ahead and ponder your existence. It’s a siren song to inaction, not dancing even when Jewel picks up the pace. Even then, it’s a disco in the center of a K-hole where all tones are grey and drab no matter how hard the band tries to pick up the pace. Beatbox is a danceable intertia at its most lively; a soundtrack to a party on its last legs at its most mellow.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The Good Son(Mute 1990)

I may be in the minority, but I never really bought Nick Cave as a primal, misanthropic entity attuned to the darkest impulses of mankind. Outside of the “Mercy Seat” which still gives me fucking chills, his solo work seemed most poetic when he spun heartfelt yarns about love and its inevitable absence. Sure. the Birthday Party were a singleminded bunch whose music was honestly unsettling and full of the kind of aggression that made you question whether it was mere persona or psychopath. However, he wisely chose a gentler vocabulary and pursued a subtler, but no less effective form of drama. Yeah, he occasionally fostered the occasional shitstorm worthy of the Birthday Party, but he really found his voice interpreting the songs of his heroes on Kicking at the Pricks. Now, that album really grabbed me because I never really saw him as much more than an artist that one listened to when in a pissed, morbid or oddball mood but there are moments of pristine beauty on it as he does what few pull off, which is to make a well-known standard entirely your own. I dunno…there was something tender, yet antagonistic about his take on the familiar that made it seem new. Its followup. Tender Prey, was pretty impressive, but I wanted him to slow things down and take his time with a song, so his subsequent release, The Good Son, was music to these biased ears.

By no means do I recommend The Good Son as a classic or even an entirely successful album since a few songs delve into superficial schtick instead of bloody-hearted pleading and frayed nerves. It’s sometimes hard to embrace a Nick Cave album in its entirety because his embrace of gospel and R&B is kind of ham-fisted as most European efforts tend to play out in their lovable, but shallow manner. Man, that sounds a bit harsh, but if I want clapping and gospel sing-a-longs, there are so many better outlets than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in this wonderful world.

However, my passion for The Good Son possibly revolves around one single song. I think “Ship Song” is so fucking eloquent and symbolic of the tricky nature of loving someone who may ultimately burn you to the ground. In some ways, it may be one of my favorite metaphors in some ways. He portrays himself as an island while his lover is a ship who burns all bridges down in order to get sole access to her muse. The whole song is about how a love seems perfect in theory, but is destined to fail by their own hands. It is an ode to passion and the infantile decisions it sometimes inspires, but is also a paean to how alive these impulses make us feel. It is self-destructive, utterly romantic and a reflection of past mistakes that could possibly be made right in future relationships. For these reasons, this song is pure perfection as parable and song because it is universal just like the beloved standards he took the time to cover. He finally nailed the perfect blend of schmaltz, empathy, pain and composition required of a song that will stand the test of time.

The rest of The Good Son is no slouch either. Most of it is kind of boozy and drunken in a peculiarly restrain manner. He pursues a lovelorn and regretful mood throughout the album and the result is a pervasive theme of poor decision making and its consequences. It doesn’t hurt that the instrumentation allows the Bad Seeds to explore a more lush side of their musicianship. It’s a gorgeous album with just the right amount of occasional ugliness to make you wince as you slug it all down your gullet.

Abner Jay

Swaunee River and Cocaine Blues(1967)

There is something about the way Abner Jay tells a tale. You wish that each song lasted an eternity because he has that rare gift of a true storyteller that is able to spin a yarn into a scarf that seemingly runs on for miles and miles. Yeah, they end around the three-minute mark, but Swaunee River and Cocaine Blues’ songs kind of run together into one long cautionary tale about the perils of love, substance abuse and the consequences of poor decision making. What makes Abner Jay utterly transcendent is his loose, rambling guitar licks that approach mantra status as the combo of instrument and voice hypnotize you and suck you into his narratives. I know the ending of each tale, but listen to each repeatedly because Abner Jay is an entertaining motherfucker who plays the holy hell out of a guitar and is one of the few artists who can make a song literally come alive for you late at night when you want to bathe in your own imperfections. These are tales of souls who make the same mistakes over and over again, but never lack the stubbornness to try to make things right no matter how many times shit goes down the wrong chute.

The ramshackle charm of Abner’s music is only highlighted by the fact that he was literally a one-man band. Playing guitar, harmonica, banjo and bass drum, his music is surprisingly mesmerizing and complex despite being looser than a necktie after a long day of drinking at a wedding. He learned much of his repertoire from his grandfather who was a slave in Georgia. Abner was one of the last souls trafficking in minstrel music, but his performances aren’t offensive, but sincere odes to the past and its accumulated storybook of mythology while adding his own spin on what his elders taught him. Even his take on “Ol’ Man River” takes new life in his hand as he wrings every ounce of frustration, pain and weariness from its lyrics and instrumentation.

The song which originally introduced me to the world of Abner Jay was “Cocaine Blues” after hearing Tim Hardin’s  take on “Cocaine Bill.” I think I googled Hardin only to discover the world of Abner Jay and I haven’t looked back since. His “Cocaine Blues” may be the most effective ode to drug abuse while serving as its most chilling warning. A simple, bluesy lick eats its own tail throughout its seven minutes while Abner Jay champions its effectiveness while decrying how it has possessed his heart and soul. You know how many blues songs talk of the devil’s influence. Well, Jay’s “Cocaine Blues” replaces Satan with Cocaine to chilling effect while romanticizing its influence and relating that it is the real deal, not the wash of psychedelics readily available in the 60s. He is part salesman, part drug counselor as he tells of its peaks and valleys and what a misguided soul will do to get a fix. The song isn’t about judgement for misdeeds, but a depiction of what addiction will make a man do and think about at his lowest moments. It’s a love song and death ballad all at once. For that reason, it sticks in my craw each time it is heard in this neck of the woods.

Hackamore Brick

One Kiss Leads to Another (Kama Sutra 1971)

This album stands firmly at the  intersection of all that I love about the music of the early 70s. Most folks seem to peg it as a scruffier descendent of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, which is kind of fitting since most folks don’t even pay proper tribute to it in the VU pantheon. I kind of like that it is regarded as a lesser cousin to watered down stock. However, we all know that pedigrees don’t mean shit, so we gotta embrace what we encounter on its own merits. To be honest, I do hear echoes of Loaded, but only in the fact that that both are loosely played, kind of stoned and slightly ragged takes on what happens after the afterglow of Woodstock fades, but you still like to play folk, blues and good time rock n’ roll in an earnest fashion. There isn’t an ounce of pretension to One Kiss Leads to Another. Yeah, it’s kind of obvious they like Lou Reed like any other maladjusted longhair, but there is something sweet and sentimental about their take that lacks the overbearing artifice he engineered for himself. Add a love of the 70s am smoothness of early Bread, Poco or even a blue collar version of Colin Blunstone and you kind of have an idea of what planet these guys were transmitting from in 1971.

Yeah, I’m kind contradicting myself by immediately grasping at the VU straw, but the opener “Reachin” immediately conjures the same wistful hoodoo of “Ride Into the Sun” or “I Found a Reason” as vocalist Chick Newman sings of reaching for the last moments of sunshine as the day slowly turns dark as night. It’s supposedly a metaphor for the Vietnam War and its devastating effect upon the idealism and “can do” spirit of America. It is an ode to the fallen soldiers that had their optimism crushed by the the brutality of war. On a larger scale, it deals with a larger issue of the loss of innocence and how can anyone resist a hardening heart when the world is such a fucked terrain. Idealism gets squashed so easily and he wants to know why. You ask yourself the same damn thing after hearing it.

Now where they deviate from the VU blueprint is on the closer “Zip Gun Woman” which could almost pass as a late 70s punk tune if it wasn’t punctuated by a psychedelic organ boogaloo straight out of a live Santana or Yes album. It’s such an angry, frustrated number that lacks the musical vocabulary to qualify as proto-punk, but the piss and vinegar marks it as a definite precursor weighed down by a hippie palette. “I Watched You Rhumba” is another walkabout round the Loaded influence as it swings more than their heroes ever could due to their art-school trappings. It’s a simpleminded ode to yearning and lust that taps into the primal desires one has when they see the object of their affection for the first time. Nothing fancy, just a slightly horny ode to watching a lover rhumba on the dancefloor as you thank your lucky stars that you mustered the courage to ever speak to her.

Is One Kiss Leads to Another groundbreaking or influential? No, it isn’t anything more than a well-played rock album that invites repeated listens because it traffics in the time honored subjects of lust, betrayal, good tunes and a frothy brew in a way that makes them feel like AM staples even though Hackamore Brick never got a whiff of radio airplay.