Saturday, February 27, 2016

Shovels & Rope Saturday: 'We always back the underdog, coz he's the only one we trust...'

 '... and if that one's for the winner, then this one must be for me'

My SIXTH STRAIGHT DAY of alliteratively derived musically themed blog posts was always going to be "Shovels and Rope Saturday" because my love of the glorious rock'n'roll-country-folk husband-and-wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent is so intense it is almost unnatural.

The Charleston, South Carolina-based duo are just SO GODDAMN GLORIOUS. From the first time I accidently stumbled across them on YouTube (playing The Thread in a big empty warehouse) my heart was lost.

I have never heard them be anything short of breathtakingly awesome, raw, sweaty and beautiful in equal measures. The dynamics that makes them work so well is the combination of wonderful harmonies wedded to the dirty grit and high energy of rock'n'roll, with more than a dash of punk.

With just two of them on a stage — alternating between playing beaten-down looking guitars and drums, with harmonica and keyboards sometimes thrown in — these dynamics can be seen in songs and between songs.

It can even sometimes be seen between Hearst and Trent themselves — with Hearst the brassy Southern belle with the "howdee-do-dee" accent and Trent the dishevelled rock'n'roller with a three-day growth. Though, like their frequent switching between drums and guitar, they don't stay in those rolls, with Hearst looking often as down-and-dirty as anyone and Trent proving (as in the Americana Music Festival clip below shows) capable of carrying off a stylish suit as well as anyone.

It is a near perfect mix of sugar-and-spice, sweet-and-sour, Heaven-and-Hell (with the emphasis on Heaven). They are everything I ever wanted and their performances make me feel like crying with joy.

I saw them live in Sydney in March last year...  and they were as perfect as I'd expected. The night before, at a typically over-policed Western Sydney Wanderers game, I'd managed to get arrested for "assaulting police" (an insane charge — CCTV footage showed the cop assaulted me — that was later thrown out of court).

I turned up to the Factory in Marrickville barely 24 hours later, charge sheet still in my back pocket, and it was a case of "from the ridiculous to the sublime". If there is anything closer to Heaven than standing just metres from Shovels and Rope playing live, I'd be keen to know about it.

(Being with the Red and Black Bloc as the Wanderers play at Wanderland does give S&R a run for their money... and the one year ban from the Wanderers' stadium that came with the police charge is very very close to running out...)

As my mouth-foaming praise suggests, I'd find it near impossible to pick any Shovels and Rope song as "the best", but I chose "The Winner" coz it particularly speaks to me. It was originally released on a Michael Trent solo album (2010's The Winner).

But, with Trent and Hearst appearing on each others solo albums by that stage, that is a technicality and it is one of a host of songs from their solo albums played live as Shovels and Rope so often extent they as much part of the S&R repertoire as any other song.

The words of this ode to the underdog, the "battler" as I guess you'd say in Australia, are below. Then I chuck in one more clip — a live performance of "Birmingham", because the song is an autobiographical account of how Shovels and Rope came about.

The Winner 
Well I'm going through the motions
Seems it happens every night of every week
Well it's an ever running cycle
And the chance of breakin out of it seems weak
Well my mind becomes a freight train
And it never lets me get no decent sleep
Well my head starts a worrying about all the little things I cannot change
And my heart it starts a pounding
Messing up the way the blood goes through my veins
I never dream of nothin pleasant
I'm always lost or gettin booed off of the stage
Well the west coast was a desert
And New York City black
So I spent some time in Caroline
To make my money back
There's a trail of blood that trickles down from Denver to the sea
And if that ones for the winner, this one must be for me
Well there's this busy little corner
Half a mile down the road from where I live
Where all these beautiful women
Work the sidewalk with a little take and give
Oh it's like an escalator walkway
I just mind my own biz and make sure my money's hid
Well I got this friend, he takes his money down there every day when he gets done from work
He asks for Georgia cuz she's special,
She reminds him he's a man and he has worth
Oh but I don't judge him cuz he's honest
Which is more'n I can say I've been since birth
Well the west coast was a desert
And New York City black
So I spent some time in Caroline
To make my money back
There's a trail of blood that trickles down from Denver to the sea
And if that ones for the winner, this one must be for me
So if you're led into a wasteland or made to stumble through the dark
You leave a cartoon-colored legacy or a common watermark
We always back the underdog because he's the only one we trust
And if that ones for the winner, this one must be for us

Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hope
With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope

Friday, February 26, 2016

Frank Black Friday: 'And then it goes wrooo-oo-oo-ong!"

'And I'm sorry about the Visigoths...'

Yes it is Frank Black Friday, my FIFTH straight day of alliteratively derived musically themed blog posts, and I am as surprised as anyone I've managed to keep it up this long — probably MORE surprised than anyone as I am pretty clearly the only person who pays any attention to what I post.

Frank Black is a man who was born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV and took the stage name of Black Francis when fronting groundbreaking indie rockers The Pixies.

Then Thompson/Francis launched a solo career in the '90s and called himself Frank Black and then, still in the midst of his solo career, The Pixies reformed to tour and he CHANGED HIS NAME BACK TO BLACK FRANCIS just to really fuck things up for the poor suckers like me who try to WRITE about the bastard's career.

Anyway, I've gone for songs from the 1998 self-titled Frank Black and the Catholics album because... well it genuinely fucking rocks.

The fascinating thing is it rocks in a very different way from most of the rest of Thompson/Francis/Black's career -- it rocks in a very raw but very straightforward way. This is straight out "Stones on steroids" rock that, musically and lyrically has almost none of the off kilter, quirky nature that made the Pixies or much of the rest of Frank Black's solo output so original ("Back To Rome"'s much overdue apology for the Visigoths notwithstanding).

It is also pretty glorious, driven by roaring guitars with almost no production — noisy garage punk with Frank Black screaming his heart out about how much getting dumped really fucking hurts.

The album is seriously raw. recorded live to two track tape over just two days. This led to a stand off when Black's record label, which complained about how under-produced it was and delayed its release for 18 months. It was eventually released online in MP3 format, making it the first album to be made commercially available for download on the Internet.

The rawness makes the album — not just the production, but Black's wrenching vocals. The guitar playing, with Lyle Workman on lead, is out of this world.

But I am biased. When the album came out, I had just discovered The Pixies and, loving what I heard, encouraged some family member or other to buy me Frank Black's new album for my birthday. When I heard it, I was confused. It was great... but utterly unlike The Pixies.

For a while I was convinced it was a different Frank Black... but, regardless of who I was hearing, I loved what I was hearing.

Looking back, I'd say the next album released by Frank Black and the Catholics, 1999's Pisterelo, is a better album. It combines the raw-as-fuck garage guitar punk of its predecessor with more of the off-kilter, quirky take on music and lyrics that make Thompson/Francis/Black such a revered artist. But I've still chosen all three tracks from Frank Black and the Catholics for nostalgia's sake, coz it is, after all, MY FUCKING BLOG. Plus I love a bit of heartbroken angst...

I don't want to talk about it, I want to scream and shout about it...

I got peace... turned up SO LOUD!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Triffids Thursday: 'Are you drinking to get maudlin or drinking to get numb?'

Well this is the FOURTH day in a row of alliteratively derived blog posts — after Manics Monday, Tom Waits Tuesday and Weddos Wednesday — and my natural instinct was to do Tom Waits Thursday until I saw it was the 30th anniversary of one of the great Australian albums: The Triffids Born Sandy Devotional.

The Triffids produced strikingly atmospheric post punk, creating folk-infused songs with a deeply poetic welding of romantic loss with a keen sensibility for the Australian landscape. They emerged in the 1980s from Perth in Western Australia — the most isolated capital city in the world. Having emerged from that sprawling mass of suburbia myself, I can see why — what the fuck else is there to do in Perth except what no one else has ever done?

There is something striking in Australian music that is hard to miss — so many iconic, defining bands emerged from the most redneck and culturally backward cities: Perth and Brisbane. I guess when boredom and alienation reigns, you might as well put your head down and create generation-defining works of musical genius.

To give just a couple of examples in each case. From Brisbane, emerging from under Joh's infamous jackboot, The Saints were hugely influential punk pioneers in '70s, while in the '80s, The Go Betweens rewrote the book on using well-crafted pop songs to create cultural markers where none existed.

In Perth, Kim Salmon's band The Scientists may have lacked the explosively revolutionary impact of Tthe Saints, but their swampy punk rock helped lay the ground work for Nirvana over a decade later.

And then came the Triffids.

For his part, lead singer and songwriter David McComb fulfilled the cliche of the "tortured poetic genius" so well — dying in 1999 at just 36-years-old after years of alcohol and drug abuse — that it is just as well he was actually fucking good or he'd have been unbearable.

To listen to the 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional — recorded in London, where most decent Australian bands fled in the mid 80s — is to hear Australia used as a backdrop for poetic, dissolute heart ache of the type that popular music frequently tries to capture, but rarely so perfectly.

On Estuary Bed, for instance, McComb starts by singing:
The children are walking back from the beach
Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet
Washing the salt off under the shower
And just wasting away, wasting away
the hours and hours and hours
Which is about as "Australian summer" as you can get... but followed not much later by:
I see you still
I know not rest
Silt returns along the passage of flesh
I hear your voice
I taste the salt
I bear the stain, it won't wash off
I hold you not
but I see you still
What use eyesight if it should melt?
What use memory covered in estuary silt?
The summer has melted into something more disturbing.

You can watch a documentary about the album, or pieces in The Monthly or the Fairfax press about the 30th anniversary of a defining album in Australia's musical history.

I've chosen three of the album's 10 songs to post below. The first track, the defining middle track and the final track.

That middle track is, of course, "Wide Open Road" — the band's best known track and justifiably viewed as one of the best Australian songs ever. It captures the essence of the album and the band. The desolate Western Australian landscape, sprawling towards the empty plains of the Nullabor, is a metaphor for the emptiness that follows a failed relationship — leaving the protagonist free but alone.

The song captures the pain, confusion and even an unsettling dark sense of possessive jealously that is all-too-frequent with the male response to heartache. That ugly edge is very real.

And alcohol seeps through the album, as can be seen below.

He announced their trial separation, and
spent the night in a Park Beach Motel
bed, a total stranger lying next to him,
rain hitting the root hard over his head
She said "What's the matter now lover
boy, has the cat run off with your
tongue? Are you drinking to get
maudlin, or drinking to get numb?"

The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road

I knew him as a gentle young man
I cannot say for sure the reasons for his decline
We watched him fade before our very eyes

And years before his time
Surrounded himself with shiny things
First night tickets, ermine, pearls upon a string
And disappeared in all the pestilence
that sudden pleasure brings
He never asks after her anymore
He made a point of losing her address
And every trinket that she ever touched
he keeps locked away
And just burns up In the furnace of his chest
Well I spoke to a man who says he's done it all
and the only thing that pleases or excites him now
is hurting, hurting then hurting some more
There's someone I want to forget tonight
Don't you want to forget someone too?
I left him, and I can leave you too
Baby let's go out tonight
It will all turn out all rIght I'm sure
Don't want to drink at home again tonight
So let's go out
Let's go out tonight
It's getting dark earlier now
But where you are it's just getting light
Where you are it will just be getting light       

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Weddos Wednesday: 'And like a dog shot down...'

And they led him through the streets of Forbes to show the prize they had...

My plan to write a blog post each day of the week for a musical act alliteratively derived from the day of the week continues!!! THREE DAYS IN A ROW!!! WOW!!!

Today it is Weddos Wednesday — with a great track by Australian folk rock band Weddings Parties Anything. Storming across the country in the '80s and '90s, the Weddos welded folk music and traditions to the energy of punk and pub rock — and in "Streets of Forbes" give new life to an old folk song about 19th century bushranger Ben Hall.

The 19th century phenomena of bushranging in the Australian colonies is well known, but not always well understood. History is notoriously ironic and a classic example is the bizarre case of far right-wing "Aussie patriots" sporting Ned Kelly tattoos and Australian flags, Union Jack sitting in pride of place in the top left corner.

I suppose it is asking too much for the fascist-minded among us to bother with facts, but the famed outlaw was very Irish. And, being very Irish, Kelly was, of course, very filled with hatred towards the English — as a casual glance over his brilliantly furious stream of consciousness rant that was his 1879 Jerilderie Letter shows.

But while the story of Kelly — more of an expression of social rebellion by Victoria's rural poor than an outright "bushranger" — is well known, the case of New South Wales outlaw Ben Hall is less so.

Hall, born to Irish and English convicts, lead a gang of bushrangers operating across a chunk of rural NSW in the early 1860s. A successful grazier, he fell victim to what appears to be systematic police harassment — a fact reminiscent of Kelly's experience in Victoria.

Impoverished, he joined with others and turned to robbery — seemingly carrying out his crimes in a manner designed to heap maximum humiliation on the NSW police. His gang was responsible for more than 100 robberies, but there is no record of Hall ever hurting or killing anyone.

Stung by the gang's seeming ability to act with impunity, the NSW authorities introduced special powers declaring its members "outlaws" — giving police the authority to shoot them dead on sight.

And that's what happened. In 1865, Hall and his colleagues had decided to leave bushranging and the NSW colony, taking a ship overseas. But they were ambushed just north of Forbes... and Hall was shot in the back. No trial. Just an extrajudicial execution.

Hall was undoubtedly guilty of robberies, but such a cold-blooded killing indicates the lawless and corrupt way the NSW police operated in those days. Thank god things have changed and that kind of thing is unimaginable these days. Except for when they do.

Like when they shot Aboriginal man David Gundy dead in his own home in 1989 — mistaking the entirely innocent man for another entirely. Or killed 17-year-old Black youth TJ Hickey in Redfern in 2004. Or god knows how many other Black deaths in custody...

I post the Ben Hall track partly coz it is a great track about a story not that well known... But a better known story is told in the Weddos' justifiably better known track "A Tale They Won't Believe" -- about infamous Van Demien's Land convict-turned-cannibal Alexander Pearce.

The live version below shows the Weddos at their absolute best -- energetic, rollicking pub rock, combining punk with the traditional story telling of folk to capture an amazing, though dark, story from our past.

But you should have seen the bastard who was carrying the axe... he was a sick man, he had murder in his heart...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tom Waits Tuesday: 'The smell of blood, the drone of flies...'

And the gods go begging here...

Well my plan to post a song from a musical act drawn alliteratively from a each day of the week continues apace, having now managed to do it two days running. Today it is the turn of The Great Man, with a blistering track from his 2004 album Real Gone, which always seems a bit underrated. I have a huge soft spot for it, though, not just for its consistent quality but the fact that, having become a committed Waits convert a year earlier, it was his first album I bought as a new release.

The album came out as the "War on Terror" turned to bloody disaster. A year into the US's Iraq debacle, the album found Waits angry -- and featured several tracks there were more explicitly political than the veteran documentor of America's underbelly had ever been.

"Writing songs about the war is like throwing peanuts at a gorilla," Waits said of the album's political content at the time. "But then I think, look how important soul music was during the civil rights movement.

"Sometimes I feel we are way outnumbered and the dark side has one more spear. But folks in the arts — it's their job to put a human face on the war."

That's what Waits does in "Hoist That Rag" — a blood-stained ragged song, underpinned by Marc Ribot's almost savagely spiked guitar, that takes aim at the horrors of war and the ugly nationalism that justifies it. It was truly a song for its time, and sadly for ours too.

Hoist That Rag

Well I learned the trade
From Piggy Knowles
Sing Sing Tommy Shay Boys
God used me as hammer boys
To beat his weary drum today

Hoist that rag...

The sun is up the world is flat
Damn good address for a rat
The smell of blood
The drone of flies
You know what to do if
The baby cries

Hoist that rag...

Well we stick our fingers in the ground, 
heave and turn the world around
Smoke is blacking out the sun
At night I pray and clean my gun
The cracked bell rings as the ghost bird sings
and the gods go begging here
So just open fire as you hit the shore
All is fair in love and war

Hoist that rag...

Monday, February 22, 2016

Manics Monday: if you tolerate this...

So if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists...

Yes, its Manics Monday! By which I mean I have, in a desperate bid to somehow inspire myself to post SOMETHING, SOMETIME on this godforsaken fucking blog, I have invented another novelty I'll drop more or less straight away.

I have decided to institute days of the week to post songs according to the name of the act, and so this is the first Manics Monday, in which I post a classic track from the veteran Welsh socialist rockers.

I was going to post A Design For Life, the Manics '96 anthem about working class life and defiance that, a decade ahead of its time, seems to capture something essential about the rich's class war austerity in their native Britain and beyond.

But, well.. I dunno...  there is just something about Australia right now... with our government absolutely determined, like it is a MOTHERFUCKING POINT OF PRINCIPLE for these pricks, to send MORE BABIES to the hellish prison camp on Nauru -- a place the scene of serious allegations of child abuse where employees are actually bound by law TO NOT REPORT CHILD ABUSE... I dunno... It just makes it impossible NOT to post "If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next" (and a great "live in the in studio" recording I hadn't heard before)

Coz that is not just the NEEDED sentiment... it is the actual sentiment of large numbers of people across the country in a humanitarian uprising of sorts to say NO. At the centre of this, baby Asha -- in a Brisbane hospital after suffering bad burns in the Nauru jail, whose medical personnel refused to discharge her to be sent back... with an ongoing picket focusing the government to promise to place the baby in :community detention"... only to then come out and insist that, as soon as they can, they send the one-year-old to the widely condemned hell camp. Despite NZ offering to take Asha and dozens of other innocent asylum seekers the government is determined to jail in on an isolated island in hellish conditions.

Say what you will, you gotta admire principles, even if the principles seemingly belong to 1930s Nazi Germany.

The Manic Street Preachers' 1998 track was about the Spanish Civil War -- in which thousands international volunteers travelled to fight against those principles... resisting General Franco's fascist forces under the slogan "No Pasaran" (they shall not pass).

The title comes from a recruiting poster (below) urging working class anti-fascists and socialists to join the anti-fascist side -- and the phrase "if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists" was the explanation a Welsh farmer gave for deciding to fight.

But today, in Australia and elsewhere in the Western world where asylum seekers face growing racist hysteria and terrible treatment, the recruiting poster slogan carries its own resonance. It is something captured by Tony Benn, the late English socialist politician and longtime comrade and mentor to current British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, when he said:
“The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”

Well there you go. I plan to do another post tomorrow based on an act starting with T for Tuesday, but I dunno... I don;t know if I can think of any act I like at all that starts with T. I've wracked my brains and nothings comes up... maybe something will come to me before midnight tomorrow.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ed Kuepper shows how even Nick Cave can be made interesting

The usually pompous, occasionally brilliant, frequently repetitive and generally ever-more-boring Nick Cave is a man who has, from The Birthday Party on, been lucky to be surrounded by incredibly talented musicians -- until, like long-time collaborator Mick Harvey, they finally have enough of his shit and walk out. (See Anwen Crawford's The Monarch of Middlebrow" in Overland for a great disection of Cave's casual misogyny and increasingly dull output).

On the other hand Ed Kuepper, who was part of seminal Brisbane punk band The Saints, has had an amazing consistent career that has somehow managed to generally fly just under the radar. His post-Saints band The Laughing Clowns produced some remarkable stuff and his solo stuff never anything short of amazing. And with unique covers, as like his above version of "Do You Love Me" shows, he can even turn an overwrought Nick Cave song into a genuine work of art -- instead of a half decent photocopy of one. 

Couple more Kuepper tracks:

With a rose or red carnation, I'll secure my reputation...'

Hey hey, you meet some dickheads on the way...

You do indeed, Ed, you do indeed. Not mentioning any names.