After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
Nearly every music fan eventually comes to realize—for a while anyway—that there's no reason to wait for the bands he or she loves to come through town. There are local bands playing nearby nearly every night, and many of them, in the right context, sound every bit as good as the big-timers. It's that context that's tricky. Sometimes it's hard to pin down exactly what we're looking for in a local band. I had a good friend back in college who got annoyed when his favorite frat-bar cover band started doing originals. I had several other friends who tended to latch onto the bands that sounded the most polished, and thereby most likely to some day make it onto the radio and MTV. And still others who seemed to only like bands if they played to crowds in the single digits.
From the moment I saw my first local band at an all-ages club when I was 17, I was captivated by the idea that a bunch of people I'd never heard of could get up on a stage and do a creditable approximation of rock 'n' roll. Then again, growing up in Nashville in the '80s spoiled me. There were a wealth of great bands around then, and because of Nashville's status as an "industry town"—with professional facilities and such—even the youngsters tended to be slicker than bands in other local scenes.
The kings of Nashville in the '80s were Jason & The Scorchers, a blazing country rock band made up of four talented, likable guys that the whole city was rooting for. Everyone hoped the Scorchers' success would trickle down, and everyone appreciated that the band waved the flag for Nashville well, showing the proper respect for country music history while also rocking as hard as any punk act. The Scorchers' early records got the attention of nationally known rock critics and earned them a spot on a major label, but while the band continued to tear up the college club circuit—frequently alongside their good chums R.E.M.—they could never quite find the sweet spot in the studio. Their records frequently sounded either over-muscled or over-wan, and their songs nearly always came off more cornpone than they seemed live. Seeing the Scorchers perform, as on the TV appearance below, it was easy to understand why the majors would want to be in business with them…
…but in the '80s, mainstream rock was all about metallic sheen and synthetics, which meant that the Scorchers at their raunchiest were never going to crack MTV, no matter how well they dressed the part. (And the Scorchers dressed it so convincingly that a decade later I'd walk into a rocker bar on West End and still see about a half-dozen guys decked out like Warner Hodges, complete with fluffed-out hair, black leather and superfluous chains.) The Scorchers did as their label asked, downplaying their country side in favor of their hard rock side, hoping to capture some of that Sunset Strip hair metal fanbase. Instead, they alienated their longtime fans and created dissension within their own ranks. Their dream died by the end of the decade, and a half-dozen or so other potentially great '80s Nashville bands—like The Movement, Raging Fire and Jet Black Factory—found the road out of town getting narrower and rockier. By the time I left for college in '88, the scene was barely flickering. When I returned after college in '92, it still lay dormant.
Of course things were tough all over for local scenes by the end of the '80s, as college rock gradually gave way to indie. I went to school in Athens, GA, which had given birth to The B-52's, Pylon and R.E.M. not so long before I arrived, and which had inspired the documentary Athens GA Inside/Out, about the boundless creativity of its music scene. I watched that movie a couple of times before I left for college, and went to see all its featured bands during my first semester. But the Athens scene was different from the Nashville one, in that it prized immediacy and flights of fancy more than songwriting and professionalism, and I quickly realized that I didn't actually like very many of the best-known Athens bands. (Which didn't matter, since nearly all the bands in Inside/Out were defunct by the end of my freshman year anyway.)
So I went searching for new bands that no one was talking about yet, starting out with novelty acts like The Groove Trolls and The LaBrea Stompers (the latter of which featured my future wife as keyboardist and eye candy) and then gravitating to straightforward rockers with punk overtones, like Five-Eight, Bliss, Roosevelt and Mercyland (the latter of which was led by David Barbe, soon to be the bassist for Sugar). I can make cases for pretty much all of those bands as "good" (except for The Groove Trolls), though for the most part they were really only good enough to be the best Athens band playing in town on any given night, not necessarily good enough to make it outside the scene.
The major exception? The Jody Grind. I started seeing The Jody Grind when they were called An Evening With The Garbageman, playing sets primarily consisting of offbeat jazz and country covers, interspersed with poetry readings by hulking redneck Deacon Lunchbox. They seemed at first like just another novelty act, and my friends and I played our part by making up silly dances and chants to do along with their songs. Then the band changed their name to The Jody Grind and added more and more originals, many of them clever and sentimental, and lead singer Kelly Hogan would sometimes get so into her renditions of "Mood Indigo" or the band's own "Blue And Far" that she'd tear up. And we would too.
When The Jody Grind released their second album, Lefty's Deceiver, they seemed destined for greater things. No other band in the country had a sound like theirs, at once light yet substantial, and drawing on several different rootsy genres without coming off as dour traditionalism. They had a crowd-pleasing live show and an expanding musical vocabulary. I'd go so far as to argue that if The Jody Grind had been the standard-bearer for the budding alt-country movement instead of Uncle Tupelo, the genre might've become more varied and more popular. (And I say that as a major fan of Uncle Tupelo.)
Within weeks of Lefty's Deceiver though, The Jody Grind's bassist and drummer (and Deacon Lunchbox as well) were involved in a fatal traffic accident. And though Hogan and guitarist Bill Taft were the dominant creative forces in the band, they didn't have the heart to go on. Taft lent his services to other Atlanta-area bands—most notably the sublime Smoke, before its lead singer Benjamin died of AIDS—while Hogan has released a couple of good solo albums and has become the designated guest vocalist for any number of alt-country acts, including her friend Neko Case. (Case sounds so much like Hogan in fact that sometimes I have a tough time telling them apart.)
As for me, I returned to Nashville and spent almost a decade writing about local music, finding a handful of diamonds in the rough, but really only one all-timer. (That would be Lambchop, a subject for another day.) Since I stopped writing about local music, I've pretty much stopped thinking in terms of scenes, which may be a better way to approach music. Part of me says that critics—or even civilians—should strive to appreciate artists that are good regardless of their origins, rather than making excuses for them out of loyalty or civic pride.
But another part of me says that since musical taste is so subjective anyway, then honestly, what does it matter if you like a band more because you've seen them live a dozen times at a local club, and have had a beer with the bassist? It's not the most important thing in the world that music's appeal translates easily from listener to listener. If you catch a band on a good night, and they create the same emotional rush in you that Jon Landau felt when he saw Bruce Springsteen in '75, well, it's that rush that matters, not whether you can convince anyone else to feel it too.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1985-91, 2001-04
Fits Between Guns N' Roses and Bauhaus
Personal Correspondence On the first Lollapalooza tour, Jane's Addiction played in Atlanta in front of me and 10,000 or so of my closest friends, and about halfway through their set, Perry Farrell brought Ice-T to the stage so that they could duet on Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey." Before the song, Farrell took a moment to bait the Atlanta crowd, calling us racist crackers, and as I rolled my eyes, I imagined Farrell as a teenager, dreaming about the day that he could become a rock star, head into the south, and sing this song in front of a crowd of rednecks, with a rapper by his side. So very brave, our young Farrell. But then to be a Jane's Addiction fan, you to have to endure a certain level of self-aggrandizing bullshit on Farrell's part. That's been both the band's genius and their curse. Musically, Jane's Addiction was never too far removed from the made-up and hairsprayed hard rockers then plying their trade on Sunset—a connection I tried to make when I interviewed Farrell last year, though he was having none of it. They set themselves apart by drawing on elements of avant-garde and shock theater, and though none of it was as mind-blowing or radical as Farrell liked to pretend, both Nothing's Shocking and Ritual De Lo Habitual were and are really exciting records, with songs that burn on slow fuses before exploding spectacularly. (Mucho credit to guitarist Dave Navarro and the versatile rhythm section of Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins.) The band may have had less to say about our culture of sex, violence and racism than they'd hoped, but they generated a feeling of grandness that transcended the skuzz. Sometimes I think portable music devices were invented for bands like Jane's Addiction, so that dweebs like me could walk down the street with headphones on, feeling cocky, politicized and ocean-sized.
Enduring presence? Farrell and Navarro seem to have been actively trying to fuck up their own legacy over the past decade, between Navarro's multiple forays into reality/competition TV and Farrell's succession of fairly shitty side projects. Last year's Satellite Party was especially weak, and perhaps indicative of a permanent shift in the fortunes of the whole Jane's Addiction generation of alt-rockers. These guys were supposed to be the insurgents, but they ending up becoming massively successful, and in the music business, fame and fortune has its own kind of peculiar momentum. It's hard to go back to being a meager-selling cult act one you've been a major earner for a major label, so former players like Farrell keep coming up with ways to pitch themselves as relevant and cutting-edge. When that fails, they move on to the next stage: indie labels and the oldies circuit. Hey, it happens to best of them.
Jason & The Scorchers
Years Of Operation 1981-present (off and on)
Fits Between Hank Williams and The Rolling Stones
Personal Correspondence Even though the Scorchers were arguably the most important Nashville rock band during my teen years, I only saw them live once in those days, because they weren't playing all-ages shows very often. I was too young for the legendary Cat's Records parking lot show that had Jason hanging off a billboard, yelping to the throng, but I did see the Scorchers play an outdoor concert on the Vanderbilt campus—though I had to leave early because my brother got a headache. The only time I saw a complete Scorchers show was their big comeback set at the Exit/In, during the band's mid-'90s reunion. I was an accredited journalist by then—and stoked that Jason knew who I was when I said hello to him after the show—otherwise I might not have made it into a gig that nearly every rock fan in town was clamoring to see. It was a memorable set too: well over two hours long, with three encores, and all the band's favorites represented. I don't know that I've ever had a more satisfying live music experience.
Enduring presence? That mid-'90s reunion generated two studio albums and one double-live album that almost make up for the band's previous rapid degeneration from their 1982 debut Reckless Country Soul to their 1989 nadir Thunder And Fire. Jason & The Scorchers were always a tricky band: too meaty and aggressive to be a country act, yet too twangy and Dixie-fried to be mainstream rockers. Their music needs a certain amount of glitzy hard-rock sheen to achieve maximum impact, and yet if the band slicks up too much, they lose the grit that makes them unique. By the mid-'90s, they were essentially free of commercial obligations and could perform in the style that suited them best, even though their material was weaker and their audience diminished. These days, the Scorchers are no longer a going concern, but they reunite occasionally for a gig or a mini-tour. I haven't seen them play in over 10 years, but I'd be shocked if they weren't still one of the best live rock acts on the planet.
Years Of Operation 1987-present (including non-solo)
Fits Between The Carter Family and Doug Sahm
Personal Correspondence Like most Uncle Tupelo fans, I'd pegged Jay Farrar as the band's true creative force and Jeff Tweedy as the likable hanger-on, so I fully expected Farrar to have the more fruitful solo career once Uncle Tupelo dissolved. But while Son Volt (who I'll cover separately down the line) and Farrar's solo releases have had their moments, I confess that I've found it difficult to fully warm up to Farrar's post-Uncle Tupelo music. Maybe that's because Farrar himself so rarely warms up. He has one of the most recognizable and original voices in roots-rock, but one of the most muted personalities, and the combination of his relentless insularity and miserable moan makes Farrar an acquired taste that can be difficult for some to acquire. It also means that those who are devoted to him are, to put it gently, fervent. (To put it less gently, they're kind of assholes; I had a run in with a commenter last year who was convinced that rock critics praised Tweedy over Farrar because it was hip to do so, not because we actually preferred him.) I still check in with Farrar every time he puts an album out, and I like scattered songs and even some whole albums. But I also find myself wishing that he'd stretch out more, push himself, open up, strive. Farrar's such a talented songwriter and accomplished musician, but he keeps selling himself short.
Enduring presence? To me, Farrar's finest post-UT hour—aside from Son Volt's superb debut album—was Sebastopol, one of the few records he's made where he really does seem to be pushing towards something greater than he's capable of. Songs like "Feel Free," with their burbling sound effects and direct yearning, present a version of Farrar that's at once more playful and vulnerable than his usual murky, vaguely angry self. Since it was his first proper solo album, Sebastopol seemed to bode well for the future, but the follow-up Terroir Blues was a creative retreat, and then Farrar reconvened Son Volt for a pair of good-not-great records. He's still got greatness in him though. I keep waiting.
Years Of Operation 1989-present
Fits Between Eric B & Rakim and The Notorious B.I.G.
Personal Correspondence I can't remember why I made Jay-Z's The Blueprint one of the few hip-hop albums I've bought in the '00s, because in the abstract, it's not the kind of rap I'd be inclined to prefer. I'm not big on crime stories, self-promotion, or tracks that lean heavy on hooky samples, and yet The Blueprint struck me as a perfectly proportioned model of just that kind of hitmaking hip-hop formula. The Blueprint and The Black Album stayed in heavy rotation in the months after I picked them up, and I still return to them when I can (though I haven't kept up with the various comebacks that have followed). Maybe I'm responding to Jay-Z's polish and showmanship, or maybe just to the pop version of ascendancy—the idea that there needs to be one major artist in a genre who towers above the rest in terms of success and cultural impact. In the early '00s, Jay-Z wasn't just a rapper, he was an event. It's a blueprint that Kanye West (one of the producers of The Blueprint) has tried to follow himself, with varying success; though as I'm sure I'll mention in a few weeks, I appreciate West for many of the same reasons I appreciate Jay-Z. We'll always need leaders, even if it's just so that we'll have someone to disagree with,
Enduring presence? If Jay-Z actually had retired after The Black Album, that would've been an amazing way to go out, though as of yet he hasn't tarnished the brand. I've heard good things about American Gangster, and intend to pick it up when this project is over. I'm still interested to see if Jay-Z can match the likes of Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint now that he's in his fat-and-happy years.
Years Of Operation 1991-97
Fits Between Edith Piaf and Jane's Addiction
Personal Correspondence I don't want to say that death was the best thing to happen to Jeff Buckley, because I—like many—was eager to hear what he was going to do next with that magnificent voice and restless musical curiosity. That said, it's easy to forget that before Buckley drowned, he wasn't exactly well-known, and even the music buffs who knew him were fairly divided on whether Buckley's debut LP Grace was a staggering masterpiece, a hit-and-miss first shot at greatness, or an overwrought set of bombastic, shapeless rock. Myself, I was I the hit-and-miss camp at first, though these days I shade more towards masterpiece. Grace has its clunkers, but in a way they're of a piece with the album's moments of real triumph. It's a record of impossible ambition, and in retrospect what's most impressive about it is the confidence Buckley brings to each song. He wails away like he knows exactly what he's doing and why, and if you're not into it that's your fault, not his. It's because of that confidence that I've never known quite how to take Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, the posthumously released collection of Buckley's sessions with Tom Verlaine—sessions Buckley reportedly was dissatisfied with—and the demos for what might've become the revised version of his second LP. I think those Verlaine-produced songs sound good-to-great, while the demos sound intriguing but ultimately off-putting. Was Buckley about to record something staggeringly awesome and boundary-expanding, or was he about to sabotage a set of songs that could've become every bit as classic as those on Grace? And would more than a handful of cultists like myself have cared? I think the answer to that second question is yes, because it's hard to believe that someone as talented as Buckley would've stayed obscure forever. But we'll never know. Damn it.
Enduring presence? Thanks to my friend and former boss Stephen Thompson—a major Jeffhead—I've got a wealth of live Buckley bootlegs and demos, but not much from the period just before he died. I know Buckley's mom is sitting on a bunch of stuff, and there have been ongoing debates on how best to package it. I'm sure eventually we'll start to get some official releases of the rarities and unfinished material, but I hope it's sooner rather than later.
The Jefferson Airplane/Starship
Years Of Operation 1965-present
Fits Between Big Brother & The Holding Company and REO Speedwagon
Personal Correspondence Similar to what happened with me and The Grateful Dead, a biography led me to explore the Jefferson collective further than I ever had before. (Beyond Surrealistic Pillow, basically.) But Jeff Tamarkin's Got A Revolution, while well-researched and well-written, never quite persuaded me that The Jefferson Airplane, The Jefferson Starship and Starship were any more than self-indulgent, semi-talented rock slobs who were lucky enough to catch a wave and ride it for decades, coming up with a decent song every year or two in order to keep the machinery greased. I know that sounds harsh, and I'll hasten to add that The Jefferson Airplane were formidable in their day, and did a lot to earn their rep. But even back in the '60s the band members tended to take advantage of the cluelessness of their label bosses, convincing them to put out weird concept albums and side projects based on far-out ideas (and the certainty that with enough drugs and enough guest musicians, they could make those far-out ideas into something listenable). As lousy as most of The Jefferson Starship and Starship albums are, in some ways I prefer their solid-state album-rock hits to the shaggy, quasi-political acid-rock of the Airplane. When I dug into the Starship era for the first time, I was surprised by how many of those songs I knew: "With Your Love," "Runaway," "Find Your Way Back," "No Way Out," "Jane," etc. I'd never really identified them with The Jefferson Starship because they don't sound much like the same band that recorded head-trip boogie anthems like "3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds." But as Tamarkin's book details, the band changed incrementally, feud-by-feud and member-change-by-member-change, until they'd become everything they once rebelled against, without even realizing it.
Enduring presence? Unlike early hippie crossover acts The Mamas & The Papas and The Lovin' Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane cracked AM radio playlists with actual rock music, which remains an impressive accomplishment. Even today, the screeching guitars and brutal percussion of "Somebody To Love," sound surprisingly threatening. The Beatles pioneered many of the pop-music revolutions of the '60s, but when "Somebody To Love" hit the charts in early 1967, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was months away from release, and Paul McCartney was making a pilgrimage to San Francisco to meet the hottest band in America and its smart-mouthed singer, Grace Slick. If nothing else, the Jeffersons have that legacy to cling to. I return to Surrealistic Pilow and Bless Its Pointed Little Head from time to time, marveling at how wild they sound. But all things being equal, I'd rather hear "Miracles."
The Jesus & Mary Chain
Years Of Operation 1984-99, 2007-present
Fits Between The Velvet Underground and The Shangri-Las
Personal Correspondence The rumors about The Jesus & Mary Chain preceded the release of Psychocandy in the U.S. by months, as the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin printed stories about the band's fuzzed over early singles and cantankerous 20-minute concerts. I don't know what I expected when I finally heard Psychocandy—on a tape a friend from Governor's School made me, with James' Stutter on the flipside—but I don't think I was expecting songs so yoked to doo-wop and early rock. Songs like "The Hardest Walk" and "Taste Of Cindy" sounded like the battered old 45s I found in my mom's old record box, only with an extra layer of dirt and crackle. I was less enthusiastic about the J&MC; records that followed, although I've grown to like Darklands a lot in recent years. The first time I heard it, when I was in high school, I mistook the switch from distortion to clarity as a wimp-out move, rather than a ballsy attempt to show that the band didn't need a gimmick to write timeless rock songs. (Take a lesson, The Raveonettes.)
Enduring presence?: I know some people are partial to Automatic and some of the band's other post-Psychocandy/Darklands material, but I tend to cherish those first few years' worth of songs—including the singles and B-sides on Barbed Wire Kisses—as The Jesus & Mary Chain's salad days. It says something that in the notoriously standoffish UK music scene, where bands seem to sniff at the idea that they've been influenced by any other band, The Jesus & Mary Chain remain an acceptable name to drop.
Years Of Operation 1968-present
Fits Between The Yardbirds and Yes
Personal Correspondence One of family mysteries that went to the grave with my father is exactly why he—and by extension my brother and I—stayed so partial to Jethro Tull. I grew up on Aqualung, which got as much play on our living room turntable as The Beatles, Eric Clapton or Chet Atkins. I'm sure it had something to with my dad's preference for accomplished musicianship, which also led him to rate Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer pretty highly. Later, my high school English teacher—the one who made lists of essential rock albums for me—turned me on to Jethro Tull's Stand Up, which puts Ian Anderson's trilling flute and puckish take on medieval folk in the context of smoky electric blues rather than proggy pretension. It's a really fine record—though I like the proggy pretension too. I don't play the full Thick As A Brick that often, but I drag it out about once a year and give it a spin; and as silly as it may sound, I count the lyric sheet to Aqualung as one of those scales-falling-away-from-the-eyes, "Hey, maybe our leaders are lying to us" moments. As blustery and leaden as they can be at times, there's something inherently delightful about Jethro Tull.
Enduring presence? Jethro Tull's infamous win in the first year of the Grammy's "Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance" has been an unfortunate and unearned ding against their reputation, as they've become an example of Grammy voters' out-of-touchness. In my opinion, Jethro Tull are one of the most entertaining and frequently inspired bands of the blues-rock/prog-rock era. They're not favorites of mine, but I'm nearly always pleased when a Tull song comes on the radio. Unless it's "Bungle In The Jungle."
Years Of Operation 1966-70
Fits Between Cream and B.B. King
Personal Correspondence In one of the many uncomfortable associations that comes with growing up in the south, I had a friend in junior high who was incorrigibly racist, and referred to nearly all R&B; and rap as "jungle music," and yet was arguably the biggest Jimi Hendrix fan I've ever known. (Similar story: A guy I worked with as an adult raved about the Tina Turner concert he saw on HBO one night. What impressed him most? That the concert was shot in Europe, and there were no black people in the crowd.) What's particularly pathetic about my friend's pro-Hendrix/anti-soul stance is that one of Hendrix's strengths was his connection to R&B.; Nearly every showboat with an electric guitar in the '60s declared their allegiance to Robert Johnson and B.B. King, but Hendrix—who had the advantage of actually being black, and thus didn't have to prove how "authentic" he was—paid his respects to The Beatles, Motown and garage rock, and was rarely accused of breaking faith. His first LP Are You Experienced is still absolutely phenomenal in the way it jumps from style to style, without losing any internal consistency. Even though Hendrix's hits are so overplayed that it can be hard to really hear them anymore, his less pervasive album cuts and singles—especially the poppier ones, like "Remember"—continue to impress with their casually avant-garde approach to rock and soul. (And the songs are so short too—something Hendrix's disciples often fail to note.)
Enduring presence? Is it petty of me to hold the career of Stevie Ray Vaughan against Hendrix? I'm sure Vaughan would've gone on to make some good records had he survived the late '80s—and its ghastly, blues-unfriendly production styles—but still, so much of what Vaughan and his followers have produced sounds like Hendrix without the wit. It's like journalism inspired by Hunter S. Thompson or music criticism inspired by Lester Bangs. The progenitors are amazing; their adherents, less so.
Years Of Operation 1972-present
Fits Between Janis Ian and Nina Simone
Personal Correspondence I'm not sure how embarrassing this is to admit, but I owe my Joan Armatrading fandom largely to Mandy Moore. I was sent an advance copy of Moore's LP Coverage, on which she covered Armatrading's "Drop The Pilot," the only song on the disc with which I was unfamiliar. A little reading up on Armatrading convinced me she was someone I'd probably like, so I picked up the double-disc anthology Love & Affection and sure enough it was right up my alley. Armatrading's from that mid-'70s era when the best soft rock had aspirations toward art, and she in particular imbued the singer-songwriter confessional with the sophistication of jazz and the earthiness of island music. She falls in line with a lot of the other '70s folk, rock and soul I've always liked: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Rickie Lee Jones, Prince and others. Discovering her so late in my pop life was like getting to re-enjoy some of my old favorites. So thanks, Mandy Moore!
Enduring presence? Perhaps the reason I wasn't as aware of Armatrading was because she's never part of any of the canons I explored as a lad—and still isn't. I couldn't help but notice that when our own Nathan Rabin last week reviewed the episode of Saturday Night Live that Armatrading guested on, he didn't mention her performance at all. And why would he have? Who pays attention to Joan Armatrading?
The Jody Grind
Years Of Operation 1988-92
Fits Between Dusty Springfield and Neko Case
Personal Correspondence Two days before half of the Atlanta-based roots-rock band The Jody Grind died in a car accident, I filed a review of their second (and last) album Lefty's Deceiver in which I wrote with an unusual amount of personal candor (even by Popless standards) about what the band had meant to me during my four years at The University Of Georgia, and how with graduation imminent, I found myself clinging to the wonderful Lefty's Deceiver as an example of what's possible. The review ran on a Monday, by which time the news of the accident—which happened over the weekend—was widely known. I had some people tell me that the review was a comfort that Monday, serving almost as an inadvertent eulogy. But it wasn't a comfort to me, because I had a lot invested in the idea if The Jody Grind could break out, so could I. If they could go from playing to a dozen people at The Downstairs Café (as seen in the video below), then I could go from our college paper to a real job in journalism. As it happened, the ride didn't go so smoothly for me either.
Enduring presence? There's apparently another band that's emerged in the past several years that calls itself The Jody Grind, and while they may be okay at what they do, I can't help but be annoyed that they're using one of my favorite defunct band's names. (Though to be fair, there was another Jody Grind before "my" Jody Grind too, so I guess turnabout is fair play.) Perhaps if some kind record label (like maybe Yep Roc or Bloodshot) would get the '90s Jody Grind's records back into print (perhaps on a big two-disc anthology with bonus tracks and live material), we could chase the upstart Jody Grind back to where they came from.
Years Of Operation 1978-present
Fits Between Elvis Costello and Ben Folds
Personal Correspondence Piano men tend to carry chips on their shoulders just as a matter of course, but Joe Jackson has seemed to me to be extra-pissy. Perhaps it all started with his wildly entertaining debut album Look Sharp!, which had the misfortune of standing in the shadow of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker (at least from a critical standpoint… sales-wise and chart-wise, Jackson's debut outpaced his fellow travelers). Then, after basically making the same album again with I'm The Man, Jackson seemed to dedicate himself to defying expectations, recording albums influenced heavily by dub, jump blues, Cole Porter and big band. He recorded his album Big World live, with no crowd noise, and released it on a 3-sided LP. He released a live album—one of my favorite live albums of all time, actually—in which he favored versions of his best songs that sounded different from the originals. I haven't always liked Jackson's music—especially post-1988—but he's never failed to surprise me, and he's never stopped being a little cantankerous. That seems to be the secret to his success… such as its been.
Enduring presence? One of Jackson's major problems is that after that stellar debut, his songwriting has been kind of up and down. In the '80s he was usually good for two to three really fine songs per record—and those records always sounded fantastic—but he frequently confused generic grumpiness with social comment. Nevertheless, he's responsible for roughly 20 teriffic pop songs, and one the greatest opening lines ever: "What the hell is wrong with you tonight?"
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
The Jayhawks, "Crowded In The Wings"
When the '90s alt-country story gets written up nice and proper, a whole chapter should be devoted The Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall, one of the albums from that era that made the genre seem not just viable, but possibly the next big thing in rock music, post-grunge. (See also: Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac, The Bottle Rockets' The Brooklyn Side, and about a half-dozen others.) This song is Hollywood Town Hall at its best, evoking The Band and The Byrds while staying resolutely contemporary and appealingly personal. The Jayhawks were a good band for pretty much their entire existence, but while Tomorrow The Green Grass has its supporters, I don't think they ever topped Hollywood Town Hall. (And I think they're failure to do so shook Gary Louris and Mark Olson a little.)
Jennifer Gentle, "I Do Dream You"
If you're going to try to write and record new songs as snappy and mind-blowing as the best of Nuggets, you may as well go whole hog, as this Italian neo-psych-pop band does here. They distill the lysergic essence of those old garage rock singles, boost its power, and then pour it all over an original composition as catchy as it is surreal.
Jenny Toomey, "The Smell Of Him"
With her band Tsunami—and as a label maven and indie-rock philosopher—Jenny Toomey has had a profound, not-always-properly-recognized impact on the direction of alternative music. She's put out some decent solo records too, especially the double-disc Antidote, which is divided into a "Chicago" set and a "Nashville" set. This song—which sound to me like an accidental homage to Pink Floyd's Animals—comes from the Nashville side, recorded with members of Lambchop. It's dreamy and forlorn, matching well with Toomey's admittedly limited skills as a songwriter and performer.
Jesse Harris, "Feel"
Laid-back folk-pop artists don't get a lot of respect among music nerds—just witness the hatred for Jack Johnson expressed in the Popless comments section last week—and though music nerds haven't paid a lot of attention to Jesse Harris thus far in his brief-but-prolific career, I have to imagine that if Harris were a bigger seller, he'd be hated. Me, I like the dude. He has an easygoing style and effortless melodic flow, such that his songs don't really seem like much, even as they're getting stuck in my head. And when I did a Random Rules with him last year, I was impressed with his enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge. He's a huge Brazilian music fan too, which makes me wonder: If his albums were sung in Portuguese, would he get more respect?
The Jim Carroll Band, "People Who Died"
If you're only going to write and record one truly memorable song, I think you'd want it to be something like "People Who Died," a cathartic shot of nostalgic nihilism that encapsulates Carroll's music career: It starts out with palpable excitement, then it repeats itself a few times, and by the time its done, everyone's pretty much ready for it to be over.
Jim Guthrie, "Lovers Do"
I was a little bit obsessed with Guthrie's album Now, More Than Ever back in 2004, when its gently pulsing strings and casually insistent rhythms seemed almost painfully lovely to me. Over the course of the five months I've been working on this project, I've become increasingly disillusioned with sweetly orchestrated indie-pop, if only because I have a glut of it, and because sometimes the genre's cushiony sound seems like an attempt to keep the real world at a distance. And yet, songs like "Lovers Do" still achieve their intended effect, carrying me out of myself for minutes on end, lost in reverie.
Jim Lauderdale, "Hummingbird"
Because the 2002 LP The Hummingirds was such a likable, unpretentious throwback country album, I've spent much of the last decade thinking of myself as a Jim Lauderdale fan, even though I haven't actually liked anything else he's recorded since then. I finally got fed up with Lauderdale two years ago and in a combo review with an Emerson Drive record, I wrote the following:
"By some weird stroke of fate, alt-country underdog Jim Lauderdale is releasing two purposefully generic-sounding new albums, Bluegrass and Country Super Hits Vol. 1, on the same day that mainstream pop-country band Emerson Drive is releasing an album called Countrified. It's like two factions of a culture war, issuing competing mission statements. Is this what country music is? Or is it this? To Lauderdale, 'country' means simple music that anyone can make with just an acoustic guitar, and maybe some friends with fiddles. Bluegrass plays the genre straight, using the traditional string-band approach, while Country Super Hits is a little rowdier, but in the safe-for-radio, every-hair-in-place way of classic country. Meanwhile, Emerson Drive believes 'country' is more a state of mind, to be conveyed by yokeled-up vocals and maudlin Middle American sentiment. Typical Countrified tracks include 'A Good Man,' with the opening line 'I don't need a whole lot of money / But I wouldn't turn the lottery down.' There's hardly a note on the record that doesn't pander. But honestly? The same could be said of Lauderdale, who started his career as a retro-minded original, but has become something of a dry theorist. It's easy to overrate Lauderdale because he sounds more 'authentic,' but on Bluegrass' 'Don't Blame The Wrong Guy,' he clumsily weaves banjos and fiddles into a song where they don't really fit, and on Country Super Hits' 'I Met Jesus In A Bar,' the lyrics are so cloying that they must be conceptual."
Nevertheless, I'll probably listen to whatever Lauderdale does next. Sometimes one good album is enough to keep me hooked for a very long time.
Jimmie Rogers, "Waiting For A Train"
Here's one of the classics of country music, rendered in a version that sounds almost like speakeasy jazz. Rogers was one of the first pop artists to muddy up the racial divide in music, and while he sounds like a thoroughgoing hick on this song's vocal track, he also sounds happily familiar with all sides of the tracks.
Jimmy Cliff, "Sitting In Limbo"
This song is from the Harder They Come soundtrack, and what's most remarkable about it to me is that it's barely island-inflected at all; it's just a soulful pop ballad with reggae as part of its parentage, yet in no way purebred. For a time there in the early '70s, it seemed like Top 40 radio was heading in this direction, with eclectic influences from around the world getting integrated seamlessly into accessible pop songs. But for the most part, reggae and its ilk have remained marginalized on the charts, reduced to novelty songs, and as deep background for non-reggae hits.
Jimmy Dean, "I.O.U."
Six minutes of this may be more than anyone can stand, but I'm including it for a couple of reasons: Because it's a prime example of the maudlin spoken-word country song, with its stately orchestration and discursive, treacly sermonizing, and because I can't hear it without thinking of Albert Brooks' hilarious parody version, "A Phone Call To Americans." I don't have an MP3 to share, but here's a link to RealAudio file. Favorite line: "Mother's Day used to be a whole week in July. What happened, gals?" Runner up: "We check into hotels, but hotels won't take our checks. Well they won't take mine." In third place: "To go, my country? Why can't we eat it here?"
Jimmy Eat World, "Bleed American"
My first exposure to Jimmy Eat World was this song, which made a pretty strong first impression—as did the whole of the Bleed American LP, which to me still sounds like an adroitly aligned mix of arena rock and emo. (I know that real Jimmy Eat World fans prefer Clarity, which is a good record too, but I came to that one later, and so it didn't sound as fresh to me.) I'm dismayed by how crummy that post-Bleed albums have been, though I imagine it's pretty tough to be Jimmy Eat World, with such a fervent fan base (each with their own set of expectations) as well as such a large number of people who hate everything they stand for. When my a Random Rules with Jim Adkins went up a couple of weeks ago, a commenter confused my relaxed banter with Adkins as a sign of disrespect, and when I write back that I liked Adkins and liked Jimmy Eat World, another commenter fired back with "Of course you do, Noel. Sigh." Because I'm just that lame, I guess.
Jimmy Reed, "Baby, What You Want Me To Do?"
This is one of my wife's favorite songs, but when I asked her to tell me why, she started strong, talking about the "untraditional blues structure" and how "the verse kind of accelerates and stretches out," before she realized I was recording her thoughts for posterity and she backed away with a simple, "It's just awesome."
Joe Henry, "Edgar Bergen"
Last year, reviewing Henry's most recent album Civilians, I wrote:
"Because Joe Henry has become entrenched as 'the songwriter's songwriter,' steadily releasing critically beloved albums of smart character sketches, it's tough to object publicly to the way so many of his songs sound damnably similar, blanded-out by his pinched rasp and seeming disinterest in melody. It's like complaining that art-film directors don't move the camera, or that modernist poetry doesn't rhyme. So it's probably safer to point out the redeeming qualities of Civilians, like the moody, evocative tracks 'Parker's Mood' and 'Civil War,' where lack of structure keeps the focus on a general mood of weary resignation. And it's probably better not to point out that songs just like those are available on nearly every Joe Henry album."
I'll cop to that being an overly harsh assessment of an undeniably talented artist, but to be honest, my frustration with Henry has been building up for nearly a decade. When he first made the transition to scarred, shambling art-folk on albums like Scar, Henry sounded fresh, and songs like "Edgar Bergen" had the quality of a good short story, evocative cinema and engrossing mood music, all at once. Then he did it again. And again. As I wrote in the Glorious Crackpots essay a couple of weeks ago, sometimes an artist's retreat ito repetition can be singularly satisfying for his or her fans—but only if those fans are on the artist's wavelength to begin with. Henry's music already requires me to move outside my comfort zone, so hearing him do the same thing over and over isn't such a treat for me.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Coma Girl"
I don't have much more to say about Joe Strummer that I didn't put in my write-up of The Clash a couple of months ago, but I felt I had to acknowledge Strummer's end-of-life stint fronting The Mescaleros, a group that served as a vehicle for Strummer's maturing theories on musical mélange and the pleasures of sharing a communal moment with a crowd at a rock show. Global-A-Go-Go is the most satisfying Mescaleros album—it's not Clash good, but it's pretty damn good—while the swan song Streetcore contains some of Strummer's most moving songs, like this chugger, which fills me with such joy at Strummer's joy that I'm frequently overcome with emotion by the time the song ends.
Joe Walsh, "Rocky Mountain Way"
Walsh For President '08. It's not too late to make it happen, foks.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Japan, Japancakes, Jason Isbel, Jawbox, Jawbreaker, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Jelly Roll Morton, Jenifer Jackson, Jenny Lewis, Jens Lenkman, Jeremy Enigk, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jets To Brazil, Jim Reeves, Jim White, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joan Jett, Joanna Newsom, Jobriath, Joe Cocker and Joe Ely
Also listened to: The Jan Martens Frustration,
Jan Wayne, Jane, Jane Aire, Jane Siberry, Janette Carter, Janice McClain, Janice Ian, The January Taxi, Jards Macalé, Jared Young, Jars Of Clay, The Jasmine Minks, Jason Collett. Jason Darling, Jason Mraz, Jason Ross, Jason White, Jasper James, Jay Bennett, Jay Brannan, Jay McShann's Orchestra, Jean Knight, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jean-Jacques Perrey, Jedd Hughes, Jeep, Jeff Alexander, Jeff Bates, Jeff Black, Jeff Hanson, Jeff Klein, Jeff Thomas, Jeff Tweedy, Jeffrey & The Healers, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Jeffrey Lewis, Jen Chapin, Jenn Grant, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Nicely, Jennifer O'Connor, Jephte Guillaume, Jeremiah Lockwood, Jeremy Toback, Jerry Brown, Jerry Butler, Jerry Corbetta, Jerry Douglas, Jerry Garcia, Jerzee Monet, Jesca Hoop, Jesse Dayton, Jesse DeNatale, Jesse Malin, Jesse McCartney, Jessi Colter, Jessica Andrews, The Jesters, Jesus Jones, Jet, Jewel, Jihad Jerry & The Evildoers, Jill Read, Jill Scott, Jill Sobule, Jim & Jesse, Jim Brickman, Jim Gilstrap & Blinky Williams, Jim James, Jim Noir, Jim O'Rourke, The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up, Jiminem, Jimmy & Walter, Jimmy Church, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Gilmer, Jimmy Hughes, Jimmy Jones, Jimmy Murphy, Jimmy Ruffin, Jimmy Scott, Jimmy Sweeney, Jo Ann Garrett, Jo Sullivan, Jo-Jo & The Fugitives, Joan Jonreneaud, Joan Of Arc, Joan Osborne, Joe, Joe Acosta, Joe Algeri, Joe Bennett & The Sparkletones, Joe Bonson & Coffee Run, Joe Caverlee, Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers, Joe Hill Louis, Joe Holland, The Joe Houston Orchestra, Joe Maneri, Joe Pagetta, Joe Pain, Joe Simon, Joe Tex and Joe Val & The New Englanders
Next week: From John Barry to Jonathan Richman, plus a few words on drugs (for real this time)