Missing Roger Ebert

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Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

One day after the news that Roger Ebert had succumbed to death after a long battle with cancer, it’s starting to sink in what we’ve lost in the passing of this amazing man. While this is ostensibly a rock music site, anyone writing or talking about art in 2013 is doing so in a P.E. (Post Ebert) era, and personally Ebert was one of the first voices speaking about art that snagged my attention and ultimately my own passions to explore, comment and otherwise get entangled with music, film, etc. Some of my fondest television memories are of watching Siskel & Ebert spar on PBS, and while the takeaway for too many cultural critics today is the thumb gimmick, it was their all-in engagement with film AND how they threw the net very, very wide to connect politics, literature, sports, and a whole quietly semiotic slew that fascinated me, even long before I learned what “semiotic” meant or how the interdisciplinary approach to cultural thinking could enliven and enlighten in such profound ways. What attracted me to Ebert as a kid was his energy and the sense that he meant what he said no matter where it might take him or who it might ruffle or delight – which is about as punk rock an attitude as any offered by Keith Morris, Johnny Rotten, et al. He made me excited about something I already loved on an intuitive level – film – while simultaneously showing me through his example that what happened on the screen was only part of the full story.

By high school, I was devouring his books, his words a succulent feast filled with ideas I needed to scout around for answers to, if only to see if I agreed or disagreed with his point. And this is a crucial difference between Ebert and most folks who call themselves critics: He wanted you to talk back to him, to defend your position with real thinking, to challenge his notions, and he was always ready to be surprised out of his current stance – again a marked difference to most commenting on art today who too often go in with the answers to their questions already penciled in or a review half-written before the thing is taken in for what it is not what they think it is. Strong of will and opinion, Ebert was formidable and cantankerous. I loved, especially as I began to write for my high school paper and onward through my college weekly and countless other nickel & dime employments I’ve had with my pen, that there was nothing academic or “learned” about him. He was of the people, a town crier from the hoi polloi with more brains than most of us and quite likely more heart and soul, too.

Ebert_UltraVixens

He took each film, each book, each idea as it came, open armed and only pushing it away if he really deemed it lacking, hurtful, lazy, consciously stupid, etc. His reasons for disliking a work were generally legitimate, but he did so without a lot of obvious malice. He wasn’t out to destroy the creators the way say wrongly beloved Lester Bangs did. Ebert had high standards but also a tremendous love of low culture that deflated any notions of him being a stern, authoritative scold. He adored b-movies and cult cinema, and one of the things that endears him most to me is he wrote not one but two movies for Russ Meyer. And while Beyond The Valley of the Dolls is the one most folks cite, it’s 1979’s goofily surreal sexploitation joint Beneathe The Valley of the Ultra-Vixens that reveals what a keen satirical edge and spot-on black humor Ebert possessed as well as a healthy appreciation of mega-boobed smut. More sincerely, it’s another complicated facet to a man who seemed to embrace humanity in total, trying to understand what drives us, what hurts us, what scares us and what makes us laugh and tumble down into one another. In fact, it is hard to escape one’s humanity and one’s connection to the human condition in the larger sense reading Ebert’s work or listening to him talk about the world we live in as seen through art’s lens.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

It’s not overstating things to say the man had a massive influence on my life and my choice of what to do with it. I often describe myself as a writer who has chosen to make music his focus and inspiration rather than a “music critic” or even “music journalist,” and the distinction is crucial – at least to me. I rarely if ever think of myself as a critic since I’m more interested in digging my mind and fingers into what excites me, what feels worthwhile, what moves me in some way. Using the work of others as one’s springboard in their own craft is a strange business. It calls into question whether one is “creating” anything at all. Ebert’s example and unflagging determination to be part of a great, bold, universal conversation about who we are and what stories we tell about that has been and always will be inspirational.

Few people who’ve done anything like what Ebert did with his life have so richly lived up to Oscar Wilde’s notion of The Critic As Artist. He was never afraid to be an obvious fan, shirking the notion of being an all-knowing objective POV, and he enthusiastically championed artists he felt deserved his muscle and powerful push – two huge examples I’ve tried to follow with all my heart. His refusal to parse high and low culture and to treat each work as its own thing and judge its own merits (or faults) as they come is at the core of what we’re doing at Dirty Impound. Just because everyone knows the names Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty or Radiohead doesn’t mean that a new artist just putting out their first single, album, etc is any less worthy of our consideration OR any less deserving of praise when their talents, imagination, etc. warrant it. Ebert taught me that art is a level playing field and that hierarchies are for people who don’t like to be challenged or pushed out of their comfort zone.

This is a thank you note that comes too late, as they so often do. It’s my hope that what I’ve tried to do with my writing since the very beginning honors the man just a bit, and I promise to further honor him by carrying on his legacy in spirit here at the Impound in the years to come.

Favorite Albums of 2012

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For more of what floated our boat last year check out DI’s picks for the Top 12 Debut Albums of 2012!

2012Faves_Intro

The primary criterion for Dirty Impound’s annual list is artists that honored and creatively worked in the ALBUM medium – not a random assortment of new songs, not 2-3 good singles surrounded by filler, not nearly complete visions. Rock is our church, our guiding star, our reason for getting up some days, and for myriad reasons these selections made the world seem better, brighter, more intense, beautiful, sad, meaningful, fun, or maybe just plain ‘more’ than it was before they existed. These selections represent the cream, the top 10-percent, of the 310 new releases we checked out in 2012, and without exception, each shimmers with a special, compelling glow.

While the Impound generally eschews hierarchies in this year-end wrap-up, we feel compelled to single out two albums – Howlin Rain’s The Russian Wilds and John Murry’s The Graceless Age – that we’re absolutely certain will be considered classics in decades time, song cycles that will be shared by the music loyalists who haunt what’s left of brick & mortar stores, gleefully handing copies of these records to friends with a breathless, “Your life is incomplete without this!” Both albums took a few years to germinate and reveal the virtues of time and close care in their creation – each free of the rush, rush release energy that defines music today, each a modern answer to the kind of shining craftsmanship that infused so many pioneering works in the 60s and 70s. Interestingly, both happen to come from Oakland, CA-based artists, resounding proof that some of the world’s best music is still being generated in the Bay Area (further testified to by the killer albums from Chuck Prophet and Penelope Houston on the list this year). Also, each digs deep for inspired cover tune selections – Murry tackles Derek & The Dominoes’ “Thorn Tree in the Garden” and Howlin Rain glows on The James Gang’s “Collage” – which sparkle in their care and show how obvious and lazy the competition is in this area. Simply put, the Impound stacks these two albums up against anything in rock’s canon.

Now, on with the show…

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Top 12 Debut Releases of 2012

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This is the graduating class from 2012, the bands Dirty Impound fully expects great, surprising and delightful things from in the future. So promising are these first steps that our faith is high that they have much more to give. As we wait for what comes next, we have these damn fine platters to savor and study.

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The Beatles Go To 11: Reed Mathis’ Picks

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The Impound is asking our favorite musicians to pick their eleven favorite Beatles songs in an effort to offer Fab-u-lous insights in our shared love of the greatest rock band of all-time. This inaugural selection comes from Reed Mathis, bass wunderkind of San Francisco-based Tea Leaf Green, a true Beatles connoisseur with a positively obsessive knowledge of what went into the making of their landmark music. Here’s what Reed had to say about his choices.

[In Chronological Order]

1) “I’ll Be Back”

I adore early Beatles, but this one from their third album really stands out to me. Harmonically, melodically, and lyrically it presages a lot of their later, darker work. Also, I love the outtakes from Anthology where they first try it as a waltz! Oh, sweet, sweet process. ( STEREO MASTER) / (WALTZ DEMO)

2) “Help!”

In a 70s interview, Lennon was asked what Beatles songs he was most proud of. He answered that he thought he’d written three good Beatle songs – “Strawberry Fields”, “In My Life” and “Help!” In this one, he reveals perhaps much more than he meant to about his inner life, as much great art does. And the groove! Jeez. Home run. (MONO MASTER)

3) “The Word”

Did someone try LSD? :) Suddenly spirituality and universality creep into Lennon’s writing, along with Day-Glo harmonies and exaggerated arrangements. And, speaking as a bass player, Paul’s stuff on this one is just unreal. They’re trying to be Motown, and they’re killing it. (MONO MASTER)

4) “Tomorrow Never Knows”

In April 1966, The Beatles entered Abbey Road to begin their seventh LP. George Martin: “Who wants to go first?” John Lennon: “Well, I’ve got one…” This was the first tune they tackled. Chord progression? Drone. Groove? Breakbeat. Lyrics? Tibetan Book of the Dead. Mix? Lennon said he wanted his voice to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks”. They ended up re-wiring the Hammond Organ’s Leslie Cabinet to run Lennon’s voice through it. Sound effects? Paul recorded dozens of incidental sounds around his home, and they cut the tapes up with scissors, threw them up in the air, and re-spliced them at random. OK. That’s one way to make a masterpiece. My only complaint? I wish the outro was 10 minutes longer. (STEREO MASTER)

5) “Rain”

Again with the spiritual metaphors? Wow. Lennon’s taking a real stand. “She Loves You” it ain’t. He can show us! The recording is notable for several reasons. He tuned the guitar down a whole-step to D, but then slowed the tape down so he’s got a low C. Pretty epic. Also, it’s the first time that Paul overdubbed his bass after the fact, and rather than use a mic on his bass amp, they rewired a huge woofer to receive rather than amplify sound and used THAT as a mic. Ringo said this was his best drumming on any Beatle track. AND John took the rough mix home and put it on his reel-to-reel, but (stoned) but it on upside down, and listened to it in reverse. The next day he proudly showed his discovery to the team, and they tagged his reverse voice on to the end, thus creating for the first time in history backwards recording. You’re welcome, Mr. Hendrix. (STEREO MASTER)

6) “I’m Only Sleeping”

There’s not another song in the entire Beatles catalog like this one. Such a creative, weird form. Such a sexy, lazy groove. Such amazing singing! And, George really digs deep on the backwards guitar….someone’s got a new toy! (MONO MASTER)

7) “Penny Lane”

They finished their final tour. They took four months off. Then, they reconvened to do… what? They could do and be anything now. They decided to make a concept record with all songs about their childhoods. John’s first offering was “Strawberry Fields”. Paul’s was “Penny Lane”. Incidentally, their label demanded a single in time for Xmas, and took the only two finished songs, so these two were not a part of what was, by then, becoming Sgt. Pepper’s. This song is a quantum leap in sophistication and production. The piano you hear is actually FIVE pianos, played by John, Paul and George. The changing feel on the drums is ingenious. And the bass playing….well, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better. I personally channel the bass playing from this tune every single night. Astounding. (MONO MASTER)

8) “Getting Better”

Another entry in the original Pepper concept of songs about childhood. A good friend of mine once said that if you were ever with someone who was having a bad LSD trip just put this song on. :) I thought of that when I learned later that the one-time Lennon was tripping in the studio (on accident, it turns out) and he was recording the backup vocals on this tune. The huge quarter-note pulse that rolls through the whole thing is the definition of ICONIC, and something that I’ve tried to get every band I’m in to pull off, with limited success. So sick. Again, the overdubbed bass has much more freedom than it would have if it had been tracked live with the band. (MONO MASTER)

9) “Within You, Without You”

George’s masterpiece. Aside from “Revolution 9,” The Beatles never ventured farther from “Love Me Do” than this, and they rarely spoke so profoundly of real truth. George Martin’s orchestration is absolutely masterful. This one’s brought me to tears on more than one occasion. And then when I heard Martin’s 2006 remix with the “Tomorrow Never Knows” drums and bass underneath, I nearly lost my shit. This song almost makes the rest of their catalog look silly. (MONO MASTER) / (2006 remix)

10) “Fool On The Hill”

This one is Paul at his absolute best. Light/heavy, simple/surreal, catchy/mystical, melodic/groovy, profound/absurd. I love how it’s basically a piano song, and all the other instruments just add a tiny touch here and there. The baritone harmonica sounds like an ancient ritual. They didn’t flirt with the guru, they married the guru. Then, yes, they divorced the guru. But, for a time, they meant it. (STEREO MASTER)

11) “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”

I vividly remember my reaction the first time I heard this track: “THIS is the Beatles?!?!” The drums and bass on the intro are so heavy, so funky, I thought surely it was The Pharcyde. This was cut as an instrumental just days after Sgt. Pepper’s was completed. It then sat in the vault for three years. Then, at the absolute end of The Beatles career, they needed a B-side for “Let It Be”. John and Paul pulled it out, and overdubbed some AMAZING vocals, that are nothing short of pure Monty Python-esque brilliance. Also, that’s the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones on saxophone at the end. Truly a unique recording in the history of music. Paul once said this was, without hesitation, his favorite Beatle track. I concur! (STEREO MASTER)

Up next, the Impound’s own picks. It’ll be less erudite but just as heartfelt. See y’all around the virtual water cooler soon!

Missing Janis Joplin

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We love our dead pop icons – frozen in time, perfect (or perfectly imperfect) forevermore, mannequins to hang whatever projections, merchandising, etc. on that we choose, where the mythologizing goes on unabated, the real flesh and blood person conveniently unable to correct or contradict the image crafted by profiteers and a public’s fevered imagination. Many of the most beloved fallen figures – say Marilyn Monroe and James Dean – weren’t actually all that talented, more beautiful creatures with massive charisma and romantically tragic lives that make for fine folklore. However, some early departers are genuinely special and blessed with gifts that make their work crawl inside us in ways others simply cannot achieve. Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison endure not just because of their fucked up lives but because the music they made reverberates with truth and originality – a raw, undiminished spark – each offering a downright sensual discourse that never pussyfooted around the hard stuff of the Human Condition. And while her catalog and time on the public stage was brief, Janis Joplin is the same kind of standout, literally a voice for the ache of living and loving that echoes through to today, where she is still continually cited as the benchmark for women in rock.

Janis wasn’t a pop queen in looks or style, particularly by 1960s mainstream standards, but her obvious moxie, her gruff-but-bruised personality, her primal sexuality, and above all, her barn-burning, powerhouse voice set her apart from the pack very quickly. Anyone who’d ever felt left out, overlooked, or profoundly dejected responded in a visceral way when Joplin moaned, “There is a light but it never shone on me.” She directly engaged rock’s Boy’s Club mentality, which prevailed even amongst the supposedly enlightened hippie class, offering a crooked smile and a very un-ladylike “fuck you” to anyone who suggested she wasn’t where she belonged. She could drink the best of them under the table, and if she grabbed you by the balls you’d go wherever she told you, and likely do whatever she wanted once you got there. Some people have that kind of will to power, and try as we might we’re hard wired as a species to respond to it.

But, it’s ultimately Joplin’s vulnerability that’s key to her continued place in the rock pantheon. She bravely showed us her scars, bled in plain view, and paraded her imperfections in a way that was appealingly unattractive, the ugliness of desire and bad choices dealt with in song, a cry from love’s dark pits that showed resilience even as her legs gave way beneath her. It’s not that Joplin wasn’t afraid of these places in her psyche but she seemed unable to avoid them. Some folks can’t tell a lie no matter how hard they try, and her work shoves thorny reality right down on our heads.

Oh, she could croon, too, as witnessed by her haunting reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a performance that rivals any jazz greats’ treatment. She could have fun, too, and seemed to revel in cajoling men to action in her tunes. While rarely polished – the phrase “ragged but right” could have been coined for Janis – she brings something memorable to nearly every piece in her canon. It’s a rightness another singer would likely never stumble across, something made evident by the myriad imitators of her style that never quite hit the mark like Joplin herself.

When she wept her tears were real. When she ran her hand up your thigh sex dripped from her fingertips – “Try (A Little Bit Harder)” is a sonic cure for erectial dysfunction that no pill can rival. And her laughter was infectious, even when tinged with unmistakable madness. Yes, there’s plenty of fireworks in her performances and a blues-basted spirit Bessie Smith would have loved, but it’s how Joplin’s work feels that makes it stick, makes it prick and pull at us until we shed a little blood right along with her – a tenderizing force in a hard, hard world.

On this day, October 4, in 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead of a heroin overdose. It was an abrupt end to a fast burning life, but like kindred spirits Cobain and Morrison, one always had the sense it would end badly for her. Those that step into our collective pain, our collective longing, our collective inhumanity towards one another rarely emerge unscathed. That we had Janis around as long as we did is a blessing. Hell, she’s a beacon to march towards in our own honesty and attack in our art and expression. That is if we’re sturdy enough to walk in her shoes for a spell.

Though born just two years before her demise, Joplin has been a lifelong love of mine. In my pre-pubescent days when others had Charlie’s Angels bikini shot posters on their walls, I had the Robert Mapplethorpe cover shot from Patti Smith Group’s Horses next to a poster of Janis sticking her tongue out. These are not glamour shots, but their personalities and strengths shone through. They made me want to engage with the world as they had, and yes, they made my young self oddly flushed at times, drawn to things I fully did not understand at 12 but was eager to figure out with a quickness. While the poster is long gone, Janis lingers, a sore spot that never fully heals, and maybe I don’t want it to.

Amorican State of Mind

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It’s hard waiting for heaven. May your song keep you alive.

Author Sublime In Amsterdam Back In The Day

Author Sublime In Amsterdam Back In The Day

We don’t choose what we love.

This thought occurs to me a lot, but never more acutely than with the music that finds a home in our hearts. I never cease to be amazed at what moves people and to what degree, where a band that leaves me utterly cold can be central to another’s existence. It’s why I’ve largely quit pissing on anyone’s parade in recent years, no matter how little I think of an artist’s work (I do gleefully make an exception for Nickelback and a handful of others, but largely reserved for whiskey stoked, in-person rants). What music we honestly, helplessly, beautifully, stupidly, really, really, really adore is so fucking personal that it’s really nobody’s business trying to dismantle something so amazingly nourishing and childlike in its magical effects. And we almost never come to this music by choice. It finds us, usually right exactly at the moment we need it most, reaching a sure hand into our depths and squeezing blood into our veins. It’s life force, kids, and anyone who tells you otherwise is carrying on a sadder existence than those who understand and embrace this truth.

Under the weather. Never got better. Wrapped up in disease.

Vintage Promo Still

Vintage Promo Still

I met the rock ‘n’ roll band of my life on a storm throttled night driving back to Santa Cruz in 1990. Weaving up Highway 17 into the mountains underneath a sliver moon, I heard a sound coming out of the radio that honest to God made the hair on my arms stand up. It was on a late night show on long defunct KOME radio in San Jose, CA – the soundtrack of my 70s and 80s childhood and young adulthood with tag lines like, “Don’t touch that. You’ve got KOME on your dial.” I pulled over to a payphone as soon as I got into town, rain battering away, and drenched to the bone, I rang the DJ and miraculously he answered.

“Who the fuck was that band you played a few songs back, the one about staring at it cold?”

“That’s The Black Crowes, man. The song’s called ‘Stare It Cold’ and it’s on their first album, which comes out next week. Shake Your Moneymaker is the title.”

A profuse number of ‘thank yous’ later I knew what I was doing on Tuesday, and it took all of one spin for me to know I’d met MY band. It was the kind of thing I imagine early fans of The Kinks or The Who must have felt, and while I’d been hugely influenced by punk’s vanguard of The Clash, Black Flag, etc. I’d never had something that got into the fiber of me in the same way as the Crowes, music felt rather than just listened to.

Go down, go down, you stranger. There’s something waiting for you.

From that week forward it’s been love. I no longer pussyfoot around the term when it comes to the Crowes. From the first show I caught that November [The Cabaret in San Jose] on through the ensuing seven studio albums and 137 shows that followed that initial gutbucket, follicle activating response has never faded. Its intensity has fallen and risen due to circumstance, material choices, lineup changes, etc. but at the root this is something that lasts in a world that constantly reminds me of the impermanence of things. Even if usually wise Shakespeare thought love fickle, sometimes it is steadfast and a balm when all others chafe and vex us. While many other loves I’ve known have proven, well, problematic, what I have with the Crowes keeps on keepin’ on.

In fairness, like all lovers, I forget sometimes what they mean to me and simply ignore them for a period. But eventually they find me again, as they did this week, out for a drive, devouring distance and finding none from the thoughts in my head. For no reason I can explain, I grabbed Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm for the road. Both were dusty from more than a year’s inattention, relegated to the CD rack where the Crowes have lived since they went on hiatus in December of 2010. And while I’m seriously diggin’ where both Chris and Rich Robinson have gone in their solo pursuits, none of it puts lead in my pencil quite like what The Black Crowes do together. And pounding the steering wheel, a cursed diamond true in full throated voice, I remembered all over again how unreasonably and wonderfully and madly I love this band.

Do you hear me breathing? Does it make you want to scream? Did you ever like a bad dream? Sometimes life is obscene.

Fillmore 2009 by Susan J. Weiand

Fillmore 2009 by Susan J. Weiand

While parts of what they do is pure fun – lusty vehicles like “Blackberry” and “She Gave Good Sunflower” spring to mind – the Crowes are mainly concerned with rocky places, the jagged and sharp crevices we must navigate in our journey. I’ve often thought of their music as hardtack for the hard road, just the stuff to get you by as you steer your wagon towards the horizon. It’s romantic and maybe a bit goofy, and I accept those glosses gladly because the music AND the way they deliver it really has sustained me through thick and thin, speaking to me when those around me could not reach me, offering catharsis when I felt trapped and out of options, or more positively, a perfect score to being split open and ready for joy and pleasure wherever they could be found. Yes, as a words guy, the lyrics mean a great deal to me but Chris’ words wouldn’t have the thwack they do without the movement and muscle of the music around them. It’s what they do together that conjures the spell – the cauldron merely a cauldron if they don’t share the eye to see what they’re brewing up.

Through all their transformations and changes, they have remained fascinating to me. There are a few clunkers, to my tastes, in the catalog, but they don’t trouble me and never really have. I figured out young that love doesn’t mean loving every aspect of a person or thing but merely being willing to engage with it with one’s full being at every turn. Shit, friction and all those crazy things that throw off sparks are part and parcel of the Crowes, and their music reflects these struggles – internal and external – offering comfort for those unsure about where right and wrong really abide but willing to wrestle for an answer just the same.

I love you in the worst way, the only way I know…This life is great, and it’s better when you’re not alone.

Black Crowes by Josh Miller

Black Crowes by Josh Miller

And I love the people this band brings together, the citizens of Amorica. Some of the greatest, most intense days of my life have been spent with the tribe at shows, enjoying pre- and post-gig get-togethers where we can be unashamed of caring as deeply and fervently as we do about this band and their music. Like the songs themselves, it’s another way the Crowes have helped a bunch of people feel less alone and less misunderstood. It’s a gift – one which I haven’t been as appreciative of as I should be in recent years.

Tonight, I found my thoughts winging back to March of 2005 and the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. More than the shows themselves – special to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was my review of them leading to befriending the band, penning liner notes for a few releases, countless interviews and more [it remains a glorious strangeness and blessing to me to be entangled with this gang of unique, hyper talented souls] – it is the whole atmosphere of togetherness and shared cause, the LOVE offered up without disguise or reservation within the Hammerstein – from the crowd and from the stage – and at numerous watering holes at all hours around NYC those sweet, dear days, that lingers.

Understanding that – really letting it surface and fill my head tonight – made me think we need to do it again when this current hiatus comes to a close. Wherever and whenever The Black Crowes reemerge, I think the faithful should gather. Not everyone is a member of this tribe, and it’s a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted, especially in a time where so much of America and the world is at cross-purposes and incapable of real communication and compromise. Might it not be a swell idea to throw our arms around the people who get where we are coming from, the gang riding the same wavelength, and squeeze them tight, whispering, “Peace on you, brothers and sisters,” as we leap into the greasy grass river together, perhaps unclear where these cosmic friends will take us but game for it all.

Seed planted, and like good foreplay, I kinda dig the waiting because I know what good company and good music await me when it’s done. As the boys themselves once put it, let’s walk right through the door just to see what’s inside. Hold my hand, it’s freely given, dear Amoricans.

Going Back To The Grotto

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Y’all can download this freakin’ amazing album for FREE until June 2nd right over here!

And the Hips will perform the album in its entirety at San Francisco’s The Independent on Friday, June 15th.

“They were playing the reels of old dreams in the back room last night.”

Few bands have arrived more fully formed than The Mother Hips. Stepping into the world in 1992 – looking as charmingly scruffy and fresh faced as any young band has ever looked – Tim Bluhm (vocals, guitar), Greg Loiacono (vocals, guitar), Isaac Parsons (bass, vocals) and Mike Wofchuck (drums) did not come on like a bunch of college novices knocking out their first long-player. Back To The Grotto is the sound of a benevolent, odd gang aching to make their mark in rock’s grand book. You can practically smell the ambition and keep-them-up-at-night sweats in just the first few minutes. Hungry might be a simpler way of saying it, but plenty of bands are famished and the Hips came on like guys who believed even in their formative days that they were gonna get a spot at the big table or die trying – and given that Grotto ranks handily with the firsts from Badfinger and Moby Grape it was reasonable to share that belief.

“I went out to the desert on some pills with no name. The doctor couldn’t tell me what they were and, man, ain’t that a shame?”

However, before a note rings out, one enters a touch puzzled. Who is this Little Lord Fauntleroy on the cover? Is it a child or a little person? And who names their debut “back to” anything? That’s usually reserved for the fourth album no one wants from a one-hit wonder. Then we meet Emilie…but really we don’t. Like much of the album, there’s a peculiar specificity that’s given openness for others to fill in, elbow room left in the curves of the Hips’ calligraphy. What seems etched – Los Angeles, dear pain erasing Emilie – become our characters through an act of poetry, but poetry with balls, nothing too high tone despite all the preternatural wisdom and understanding flowing in these songs. Despite their age, the Hips ensnare some fairly large truths on Grotto. What other men of their age reject the power of tits and ass or understand that true corruption runs far deeper than the politicians we catch?

“This is a man who walks around with his head held high but his pants are falling down.”

The Mother Hips (1992)

The Mother Hips (1992)

In every corner of this album, they push at the boundaries of their talents, egged on by producer and future bassist Paul Hoaglin, dancing between sweet melody and dissonance, dotting the music with endless small, lovely touches – primal howls, miniature guitar solos, falsetto blasts, shimmery swells – but in a manner that’s not too careful, some mess left on things because that’s how the real world is. The rhythm team is so perfectly foundational that one almost doesn’t notice them, and thus may miss just how bloody good Wofchuck and Parsons truly are. Admittedly, it’s not easy to see past the guitar front line, a pairing that ranks up there in their embryonic promise and Basque-like uniqueness with the opening salvos of the Allmans’ Dickey Betts and Duane Allman and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina and Gary Duncan. Then as now, no one sounds like Bluhm and Loiacono together, who arrived speaking their own language, a tongue with both sharpness and woozy slur, blues bite and watery slipperiness – no one had to tell you there were surfers in this bunch. That guitar sound is a big part of what makes Back To The Grotto such a bona fide bong hit masterpiece – a delightful blend of sativa and indica moods.

“Would you like to come down to me from your town above the line?”

Ultimately, it’s the songs that capture one with Grotto, the totality and sheer quality of them forming a most compelling bone structure that they’ve just built and built upon in the intervening years. These tunes remain the spine of their live shows, which attests to their enduring strength and intrinsic role in defining who The Mother Hips are as a band. A debut is usually something shed with time, a larval self bands aren’t that interested in endlessly revisiting but Grotto is different – it is the group’s DNA writ wild and large.

And while I’ve never understood the endless Buffalo Springfield/Byrds critic-comparisons for the Hips, there are plenty of echoes of quality elders on this set. “This Is A Man” is a number Jefferson Airplane would have given Marty Balin’s left nut to have penned, and “Precious Opal” suggests a melding of the Velvet Underground and Derek and the Dominoes – sex wriggling around in the music as one tries to wet the bed all night (????). But there are just as many spots on Grotto where they sound like no one else, notably the happy platypus of “Two Young Queens” with its hickey bookends to a monster groove vamp and the hypnotic singularity “Figure 11”. There’s so much mojo inside these tracks that they still hit audiences with major wallop in concert, where folks punch the “goddamns” in “Turtle Bones” and lift a little out of their skin as a key turnarounds arrives on “Chum” and “Stephanie’s for L.A,” singing along knowingly, empathetically, as Tim notes, “Everybody smiles for the camera and I think that’s kinda strange” or shouting in cracked disgust that spills back on our ourselves, “All the revolutionaries are revolting,” wondering perhaps where we dropped our own freedom flag along the way.

“Some things tear a little town apart, and some things cut right to the heart.”

The incision that this debut makes is a good one…or maybe a fruitful evisceration is more correct. It might not make us lose all the weight we feel but it does leech some of the ill humors and leave us smiling on the edge of a circle, suddenly possessed with the notion of rotation, and eager to return to a grotto we know not where. The horizon seems wider on the other side of this record, and the colors most assuredly richer, deeper, and closer to our outstretched hand. It’s a shockingly good first chapter, and all the more impressive that the band has kept mutating and building upon the story begun here. It should long ago have hit tastemaker lists of the Finest Rock Albums of All Time, but the universe is uncaring and so are the record industry and its aggregate press corps who prefer to have things handed to them in gulp-able, sugary bites. This slab requires one to work their incisors a bit but the meal you get will stick to your ribs for the long haul.

Missing Johnny Otis

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Johnny Otis by Jay Blakesberg

I did not always like early rock ‘n’ roll. This may strike some as strange given the past 25 years of nigh apostolic championing of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, et al. my acquaintances have endured from me, and I have Johnny Otis to thank for this life enriching musical awakening.

In the mid-1980s, my listening swung between 60s modal jazz, punk rock (West Coast and U.K.), a growing interest in Krautrock and prog, Grateful Dead, and an abiding Beatles fixation that had spread dramatically to the Fabs’ solo work. Nowhere on my radar were rock’s early pioneers, let alone the jump blues, feisty country and hot jazz that helped usher rock into the world. So, one post-work early evening, baked to the beejeezus on old school Thai stick (yes, the kind that actually came to one wrapped around a stick with “Rasta hair”), kicking it in my shitbag summer rental house a few blocks from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park, I heard crazy jungle drums coming from the beach. Just blazed enough to circumvent reason, I leapt into my flip-flops and quick-zombie shuffled towards the sound. As I got closer to the rides and fragrant carnival smells, I figured out it was a tune I’d heard many times on oldies radio tooling around with my grandfather as a kid – “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Johnny Otis and his band were cooking away on the beachfront bandstand, one of the Boardwalk’s free summer concerts in a series that regularly featured the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Chubby Checker and former hit makers (and since replaced by Eddie Money, Starship and other 80s nostalgia acts). But this was different. Johnny had a devilish grin and the musicians were putting their backs into it. No one had to tell you the song had certain vulgar insinuations – it felt dirty and made one want to rip off some comely stranger’s panties and go to town. Memory has erased any other specifics of their set but the feeling of discovery, the sense I had come face-to-face with rock’s ground floor, or perhaps its mojo basement, has never left me in the intervening years.

Dive into some snatch…