Sunday, December 14, 2014

Play Me Some Tunes

Many of the notices I saw when Rock or Bust, the 17th album from Australian rock icons AC/DC and the 10th with current lead singer Brian Johnson, came out contained references to the band doing the same thing they've always done. Usually the writer said something like, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it," and attributed the success of the album to that idea.

Whether during the Bon Scott or Brian Johnson eras, AC/DC has a pattern of putting out albums with a handful of great tracks and a lot of filler. For every "Girls Got Rhythm" there's a forgettable "Love Hungry Man" or three clogging up the playlist (The exception, of course, is Back in Black, which reverses the ratio and drops only a couple of duds into a list of standouts). You'd be hard put to describe any real differences between the two kinds of songs, though, other than the fact that the great tracks stick while other ones just don't. Why does "Thunderstruck" still get played on every classic rock station in the world while "Are You Ready" is halftime music for the Big Ten Network and a German soccer team? If I knew, I would be paying somebody enough money to pay yet another somebody to write this blog but keep my name on it.

Rock or Bust's first single, "Play Ball," got notice when TBS used it in their 2014 posteason baseball broadcasts (Fox Sports' use of Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass" during their World Series was just one of the many ways in which their coverage, to use a technical term, sucked). It's everything an AC/DC earworm is supposed to be -- adamantium-hard hooks and riffs, Johnson modulating his gravelly shriek of a voice into more of a boozy bellow, a shout-along chorus, foundation-steady bass and drums and Angus Young's incomprehensible yet somehow fitting lead work and solos. The title track, "Got Some Rock and Roll Thunder"and "Baptism by Fire" join it as top tracks, with "Rock the Blues Away" close behind.

Black Ice showed that late-period AC/DC can still produce studio work that kicks as much behind and takes as many names as ever, but its 15-track length left more room for that cluttering filler mentioned previously. With the trimmed and leaner Rock or Bust, AC/DC shows that doing the same thing you always do isn't the way to success -- the way to success comes from doing well the same thing you always do.
By the time she came around to recording her first album, multi-instrumenatlist Sarah Jarosz already had a background that included onstage jams with mandolin wizard David Grisman and lightning-fast picker Ricky Skaggs five years prior. You might question her tardiness, but she was twelve during the jam sessions and all of 17 by the time Song Up in Her Head was released in 2009.

Jarosz plays mandolin, guitar and clawhammer banjo ("clawhammer" means the player picks or strums the strings downwardly instead of upwardly), sings wonderfully and writes great songs. The mandolin and banjo seem to place her in the category of a bluegrass musician, but she has definite folk flavorings and, as her cover of Tom Waits' "Come on up to the House" demonstrates, she can play some blues as well. Song showcases both vocals and instrumental tracks -- like "Mansinneedof," which was nominated for a Grammy award in one of the categories that matters (Hint: Neither Taylor Swift nor Luke Bryan would ever show up on the list).

Another cover, "Shankill Butchers," is a spooky take on the Decemberists song about the group of Irish murderers who terrorized Belfast in the 1970s and early 80s, until they were arrested and their leader assassinated by other paramilitary groups that thought he was too extreme. The title track is probably the most "bluegrassy" of the album, with Jarosz demonstrating a clear understanding of the kind of plaintive tone sometimes called "high lonesome" and singing it with a greatly reflective character. The only miss is probably "Broussard's Lament," a commentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans that shows while Jarosz is an excellent and insightful songwriter, she is a very young excellent and insightful songwriter who may not understand as much as she thinks she does.

Jarosz has released two more albums since her debut and continues to strengthen her playing, singing and songwriting, but Song Up in Her Head is worth a listen in its own right, not just as an "origin story" of where a skilled artist got her start. 
The whole point behind what's called "garage rock" is that anybody with the right instruments and the aforementioned area of the house is supposed to be able to make it. But while almost anybody can make the right sounds, it takes skill and talent to make them sound good and from them create great songs.

Enter Boston's The Charms, who debuted in 2003 with Charmed, I'm Sure as exhibit A in proving what I just wrote. From stem to stern, Charmed is great-sounding but also just a great record. It opens with the fine bratty sing-along summer party ode to convertibles "Top Down" and from there slides into the punky "Tragic," in which lead vocalist Ellie Vee says "it's tragic baby, that we're not together" in a voice which suggests she's a lot more ticked off than sad about the situation.

Vee's 21st-century Patti Smith vibe plays well off the throwback Farfisa organ of Kat Kina to make a mix of 60s' garage with 70s and 80s new wave and punk that blends them without erasing either genre's distinctiveness. The standout track is "Boys Room," in which a plumbing problem at a club presents the singer with an opportunity to read an unexpected message in the other restroom. "I saw what I wasn't s'posed to see," Vee sings in a marveling tone amid Farfisa drones and glorious buzzy guitar. "The boys' room wall/Says you love me."

It's a pretty good metaphor for the album and the band itself -- although it's possible to lump them in with the early 2000's garage revival wave they stand out pleasantly both in craft of sound and songwriting sensibility. The Charms recorded two more full-length albums and two EPs through 2007 before going on an extended hiatus, although they may be preparing a new release for early 2015. Which means it's definitely time to clear some space out in the garage.

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