Dead Meadow-s/t

May 17, 2013

Dead Meadow

s/t (Tolotta 2000)

In theory, I should probably love everything Dead Meadow ever recorded. They alternate between chugging anthems that crib all the right notes from the best hard rock albums of the 70s and elongated ballads that borrow from the right loners of the 60s. However, the obstacles to a deep appreciation of what they play is the fact that it sometimes feels a bit too much like an homage instead of original and forceful statement of purpose. That’s just a mere quibble since most of my favorites of the past few decades have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar more than once. All of their albums are guilty of this vice, but their debut captures them at an embryonic moment when all the edges were still jagged and the connections between influences not quite so obvious. They’re still feeling their way towards an identity and it kind of captures them at a place where there was a wide-eyed sense of wonder and they kind of let it all hang out. I also have fond memories of this album because it really stuck out like a sore thumb in the rock and roll landscape as the band didn’t really have a niche as the deservedly short-lived era of stoner rock was petering out and indie-rock was kind of in a woeful state in the year 2000. They were kind of a square peg that kind of sounded like an emasculated Black Sabbath with a fondness for the sounds of Nuggets and Spacemen 3. That was enough for me then and it still is thirteen years later.

This all sounds like half-hearted praise, but I really do dig Dead Meadow and their later albums have grown on me in recent years even though I still haven’t quite reconciled myself with the nasal whine of Jason Simon who is the nephew of David Simon, the brilliant mind behind The Wire and Treme. Yes, it’s pointless trivia, but I always thought it was a neat little factoid. His voice doesn’t ruin the whole enchilada like that John Garcia’s repellent snarl in Kyuss, but it sometimes mars the impact of his guitar playing which often matches the bruising, rugged heights of the idols they so eagerly ape. The opener “Sleepy Silver Door” is a perfect example of this conundrum as the band offers a perfect introduction to their bread and butter. Simon’s riff overtakes the song and kind of falls somewhere between a clumsy, yet forceful combo of Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath and Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs. It’s that good, but could be so great if the vocals matched the majesty of what his fingers hath wrought. It’s a bit of hyperbole, but it comes within spitting distance of it.

“Dragonfly” is another perfect slice of why Dead Meadow is capable of raising the bar beyond talented tribute as they carve out some unforseen landscape that taps into taps into the same well water the Verve were drinking on A Storm in Heaven. Like that classic album, it’s arena rock re-imagined for the small stage as they pen an anthem that kind of spills over the edge to the point that it kind of feels like it lasts forever. It’s kind of epic even though it only lasts four minutes. It kind of reminds me of the masculine counterpoint to Bardo Pond’s “Be a Fish” off of their Amanita album. Yes, it’s an overly esoteric reference, but listen to the two songs back to back and see if you jive with what I’m selling.

What makes Dead Meadow’s debut stand as their finest moment is that they kind of tried to encapsulate all that they loved into one single album and the end result is a flawed, but enigmatic mess that somehow captures the essence of all I love about the early 90s and mid 70s in a variety of styles: pseudo-shoegaze meltdowns, bluesy posturing and thudding riffs that I can hang my hat upon in times of jubilation. It ain’t perfect, but it beats the pants off of the majority of rock albums of the 2000s.

Groundhogs-Blues Obituary

March 29, 2012


Blues Obituary(1969 Liberty)

This is kind of a fitting title since it stands as one of the last hurrahs for the British strain of blues rock perfected on Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On, even though Cream, the Yardbirds, John Mayall and Led Zeppelin might have a few words in opposition to that claim. Hell, even the Groundhogs themselves would probably disagree  since most point to the subsequent duo of Thank Christ for the Bomb and Split as the best albums of their career. However, their is something special about how Blues Obituary borrows from all the right touchstones of their American idols while imbuing each song with the just the right amount of swagger, brooding and instrumental pyrotechnics. Yeah, so many of the contemporaries did the same, but they lacked the important ingredient of all–a mutant strain of funk that serves as a subtle, but powerful undertow on many songs that drags you right into the repetitive groove of each song. Sure, Split and Thank Christ for the Bomb take the groundwork of Blues Obituary and turn it up ten or eleven notches, but there is something special about how they stretch out and really pound each riff into dust or elongate it into infinity via riffs that rise and fall like humble crests that slowly mature into tidal waves.

Unsurprisingly, they were named after a John Lee Hooker tune since they both knew how to mine a sinister vibe even when they were cruising at leisurely pace. Guitarist and vocalist Tony McPhee is the obvious focal point throughout as he solidifies his claim as one of the most underrated rock guitarists of the 60s and early 70s. You know you live in a shitty world when Eric Clapton gets canonized while McPhee’s name wouldn’t garner a speck of recognition from 99% of classic rock aficionados. Outside of a number one hit in Lebabon of all places and a prestigious opening slot on a 1971 Rolling Stones tour, they never gained much traction outside of their native England where their next three albums hit the top 10 on the albums chart. I guess it is somewhat understandable since they only hit their stride in 1969 at the tail end of an era amenable to bluesy rock and roll acts more interested in showcasing the solo than the chorus, but they’d probably be more of a household name if they released Blues obituary a few years earlier. Oh well, life ain’t fair and god knows how many bands were birthed in the right place at the wrong time. I probably have written about a lot of them here. I guess I must be drawn to the gentle tragedies in life.

That’s enough whining about a hypothetical world where the Groundhogs reigned supreme. Let’s get to the stumbling fury of “Times” which might be one of my favorite songs to listen to while barreling down the highway. Let’s be honest. I’m lame, so barreling means a slight gradation over the speed limit in my world, but that’s not the point here. I’m a stone cold sucker for the slide guitar in a driving rock and roll song. Although the Jesus Lizard’s “Nub” ekes out a victory over “Times” in my imaginary sweepstakes, it doesn’t lessen the brilliance of how McPhee’s fingers race up and down his guitar as the rest of the band does it’s best job of imitating Bo Diddley after a bottle of codeine syrup as he relates a heartwarming tale of pondering suicide via a one way dive into the depths of the ocean. It’s a nihilistic, bleak tune that is simultaneously triumphant and beaten to a pulp.

“Mistreated” has a hard act to follow, but does it with impeccable style. Centered around a stuttering riff that could almost pass as a precursor to Black Sabbath if it was slathered with distortion and electrified, it lays the groundwork for an impassioned plea by a naive soul confused by the collapse of a romance. It doesn’t take a therapist to sort out that he is the source of his own ruin, but McPhee’s vocals are full of such pain and frustration that it melds perfectly with the agitated and and uneasy instrumentation that coalesce into a cry for help and forgiveness. Ultimately, those are probably the best adjectives to describe the overall vibe of Blues obituary–agitated and uneasy. On the surface, it’s just an adventurous blues rock album, but there is something malignant, restless and disastrous lying underneath if you listen closely.


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