Monday, December 14, 2009

Undeservedly obscure: Louie and the Lovers pose for a promo photo circa 1970

The Complete Recordings

There's a roiling, "Proud Mary" bite to the choppy guitars on "Rise," the title track of Louie and the Lovers' lone album, released in 1970. The Creedence Clearwater anthem had been a massive hit the year before, a generation-defining smash, and that, combined with their Salinas, California roots, ensures that a certain Creedency songwriterly quality ripples through this lost gem.

But Louie Ortega, leader of the Chicano quartet, a talented if green teenager then sucked into Doug Sahm's ever-swirling vortex, hardly possessed John Fogerty's gruff, work-a-day vocal crustiness. At its silky best, Ortega's tenor--an elastic, expressive instrument--adeptly captures a kind of melancholy sadness and vulnerability. The dulcet "I've Always Got You on My Mind," a drop-dead gorgeous ballad of unrequited love, had the goods to storm the charts à la "Proud Mary." This song, with the rest of the group (Frank Paredes, Steve Vargas, and Albert Parra) lending a knowing, understated grace, is brilliant simplicity--intense romantic longing set to a gentle, loping rhythm.

But, like Mr. Sahm himself, who produced the debut, Rise is not happy to stand in one place for too long, and Louie and company handle the eclecticism with aplomb, pulling off stray-dog blues, '50s-style R&B throwbacks, and guitar showpieces like the ace teen dance band they were. It's a dazzling mix--there's some material with real staying power here--but the verities of the music business circa 1970 ensured success was not to be. Rise failed to rise up the pop charts, as it were, but Bear Family's typically peerless archaeological work has unearthed the band's entire studio output, the entire Rise plus a raft subsequent cuts produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd for Atlantic but, except for a couple of singles, never released.

Among the more gripping numbers included are "Driver Go Slow," a brooding, guilt-wracked reflection of its protagonist's crime-of-passion murder; a spectral cover of Kaleidoscope's "If the Night," more 1966 than 1970 (this Chris Darrow composition appeared on the group's 1967 album Side Trips); and mysterious rocker "Little Georgie Baker" (later released as a non-album single), which hinges on an infectious rockabilly guitar lick and a narrative delivered with an ominous urgency (this song would've been fascinating in the hands of early UK R&B stompers like the Animals or Them).

Ortega proves to be a fine writer as well, just starting to find his voice. And if some of it is derivative, it's gloriously so: "I Know You Know" is a jangly wonder, guitarist Frank Paredes pitching in on celestial harmonies, a cut that could've nestled comfortably into side two of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. "Royal Oakie," a joyous, stoned, back-to-the-country ramble conjuring CCR, is infectious in a "Mendocino" kind of way (wonder if Sahm ever tackled this one?). Emblematic of the entire legacy of Louie and the Lovers might be "Tomorrow Just Might Change," 1:48 of pure pop sunshine destined for b-side anonymity. Given an authoritative, hopeful Ortega vocal, chiming guitars and swirling keyboard fills, it's irrefutable evidence of how powerful this group could've been.

The 1971 Atlantic sessions, featuring session aces like saxophonist David Fathead Newman, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, piano wizard Dr. John, and steel guitarist Charlie Owens, present a slicker, sadly sanded down edition of the band. Delving deeper into corrido other Mexican influences, burnished with a cosmopolitan pop sensibility (perhaps an early draft of Sahm's later Texas Tornados), they're trying harder with lesser results. It's all very tasteful, fascinating in its own way, but no match for Rise. Still in search of that magic bullet--a MOR hit that might land them in the big time--the band lost the thread. Even the more promising cuts--would-be wedding song "We Don't Have to Change," a ramshackle cover of Marty Robbins' "El Paso," and "Caribbean," the latter cut in apparent desperation at the behest of Wexler, are nonstarters. Very little of the Atlantic sessions carries on the raucous, anything-can-happen spirit of Rise, even though Ortega's exponential growth as a singer is much in display.

Of the later material, "My Belief in You," with its catchy stair-step melody and steel guitar and accordion interplay, stands out. As does "La Paloma," the oft-covered Mexican ballad, here serving as a showcase for Ortega's soaring vocals. All in all, Bear Family was right to pull together this group's collected works; throwing Rise a long-deserved lifeline is a masterstroke. And anyone with a modicum of interest in inventive, eclectic pop will find something to like on The Complete Recordings. (Luke Torn)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pop Culture Press: The Reincarnation

SALVO from Pop Culture Press

Greetings pop enthusiasts, rock and rollers, loyal readers, friends and colleagues, maybe a stray dog or two--

It's your old friend Pop Culture Press, with a long overdue update. Thanks to some crazy hard work by far too many people to name, PCP published for 20-plus years in the print realm. In magazine years, that's like, um, 280, or something. It was work from the heart, though, for the love of the music and the excitement it generated everywhere, and for the encouraging words and endless kindnesses extended by bands, musicians, readers, record labels, friends, and, well, you name it.

But, all good things come to an end, and a glimpse of the "music business" and the "publishing business" as they exist circa 2010 (versus, say 1987) indicates, well, changes afoot. Ha ha ha ha! Anyway, as you already know, I think, issue # 66, Nick Cave on the cover, closed the book on that particular chapter. As much as we'd like to spend our remaining years hanging out with certain of our former swindlers, I mean distributors, telling funny bankruptcy stories and guffawing about the slippery slide of all those alternative media hippies into oblivion, I'd say our time would be much better spent cranking up the music delivery device of our choice, inundating ourselves in sound, actually, and putting a few thoughtful, hopefully insightful, words on its behalf out into cyberspace.

So, a big hearty welcome to the PCP blogspot ( We'll be digging through the extensive archives for the best of PCP past and Luke's freelance cache, as well as going nowtro, pawing through new releases and bands for the best bits of power pop, indie rock, garage bands, folk, blues, country and alt-country, and plenty of older, off-the-radar music and reissues. And we'll be a stepping stone of sorts to PCP's more extensive website still to come.

Please drop us a line in the comments sections, and thanks as ever.


PS--Photo at right: Cyril Jordan, Eddie Munoz, and Paul Kopf of Magic Christian, Pop Culture Press Party March 2008, Dog & Duck Pub, Austin, Texas (photo courtesy of Kent Benjamin)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


There may be some memorable songs lurking beneath the surface of this late '60s curio--the melancholy "Tucson" hits a nice, grey-day-on-the-American-road vein--but the sweetening machine, swathing the tracks with strings and Sgt. Pepper horns, shrill shopping mall harmonies, and arrangements from the Mamas and the Papas school of chart supremacy, work to undo the songwriting's modest strengths. Lead track "There Is Now," with its driving guitar underpinnings and swirling melody, also shows promise, its quieter moments capturing that peculiar mix of late '60s hope, need and fatalism. "Will you please come, and help me find a reason to be alive," wails singer Susan Alexander as the song reaches its apotheosis. Too much of the time, though, Euphoria reaches for a kind of Ian & Sylvia meets Spanky & Our Gang sheen, shiny but without much depth. Trainspotters will note that the group included Massachusetts-born Tom Pacheco, a fine criminally overlooked songwriter whose group the Ragamuffins made a couple of unforgettable mid-60s folk-rock singles, and who went on to work with Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and other Band luminaries in a long, intriguing career. (Luke Torn)


By Luke Torn

Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the American south. It may be true that the corporatization and cable-ization of America, the Internet, and all the rest, has flattened our sense of place, sucked out the character inherent in a sense of place that used to fuel the kinds of cultural explosions of which rock ‘n’ roll was a part. We’ve got a great hillbilly singer, Gillian Welch, whose roots lie in 60s TVLand Hollywood, and one of’s progenitors, the Jayhawks, came from icy Minnesota. Perhaps the purest country singer out there, Laura Cantrell, hails from New York City, probably the least countrified burgh you can find. It all adds up to some sort of weird disconnect, where even the most perfectly stylized music seems like a put-on.

The Drive-By Truckers are no put-on. Like the greatest blues and country singers, they know we’re all fucked, but that we might as well raise a ruckus on our way to hell. On Decoration Day, the Truckers begin the proceedings with a sweet twangy waltz whose characters, brother and sister, are mired in an incestuous relationship. Four babies later, the law finally catches up, breaks up the "family," and issues some prison time. It’s a grisly tale, but in its creepy way, it demonstrates how impossible it is to escape your raising, a major DBTs theme. Then the Truckers lean into stage fave "Sink Hole," all billowing gray clouds of mangled guitars and Patterson Hood’s desperate account of a farmer about to lose the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. From this song on, Decoration Day assays a litany of untenable situations, trapped characters, and broken lives with the kind of thunder and intensity perhaps only seen in the early raging days of 1976 punk rock, or maybe, to use a more apropos southern connection, Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio circa 1957 and "Train Kept A Rollin’."

"Rock ‘n’ roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies," yelps Mike Cooley on the relatively joyful "Marry Me," a cut that was born down on Exile on Main Street and raised by Let It Be-era Replacements. From the sizzling guitar fills and Jerry Lee-like piano damage, this song has the kind of momentum and electricity all too rare in pop today. So does "Do It Yourself," a blazing slab of rage written by Hood and aimed squarely at a friend who committed suicide. On "Pin Hits the Shell," Cooley takes on the same subject matter in a much more subdued but no less affecting way. An interior dialog full on reminiscence and reflection, its an utterly brilliant counterpoint. "It’s enough to make a man not want to be nobody’s daddy," he sings, "when all he thinks he’s got left to hand down is guilt and shame."

Ultimately, it’s the dynamics inherent in two great, explosive songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (not to mention newcomer Jason Isbell, who pens the sobering title track here), that makes the Drive-By Truckers such a formidable force of nature. Between them, they bring a context and interconnectedness that’s of a piece, yet reveals nuance and a panoply of moral and personal shadings in its depiction of real-life desolation. Many of the songs, from "Something’s Gotta) Give Pretty Soon" to "Heathens," reveal characters at a crossroads, with decisions to make. Others, like Isbell’s letter to his father, "Outfit," deal with the ramifications of decisions already made. Still others, like the remarkable album closer, "Loaded Gun in the Closet" somehow avoid destructive confrontation that always seems to lurk right around the corner.

Of course, Decoration Day would be a pale affair if the Truckers didn’t have the musical chops to back up their remarkable songs. The beautifully textured bed of guitars on "My Sweet Annette" is emblematic of a dense but versatile sound achieved throughout, an approach that is quite fluid, giving the songs plenty of room to breathe. The Truckers’ musical grasp is such that their folk, country, blues, and good old Stones/Faces rock ‘n’ roll influences coalesce so seamlessly that this might as well represent a new mutant genre. It certainly couldn’t be called retro, yet the band clearly has its tendrils deep into the history of American music.

Producer David Barbe coaxes a gritty, gutsy sound, and leaves plenty room for the musicians to take the songs to lofty heights. One example is the coda on the title track, where the song seemingly fades out, only to reappear in the guise of a gnarled, knotted guitar overture. Another is in "Do It Yourself," where the band takes a fairly straight-ahead rocker and kinda drags it through the mud, roughing up some already dirty guitar parts in a perfectly apropos bit of audio verite.

It’s rare for a band to produce a masterpiece on their fifth album (how many can you think of?), but those that do prove many tenets of the American work ethic: perseverance, stubbornness, dedication, focus, and, most of all, hunger. With Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers challenge themselves to see just how good they can be, and come out with perhaps the best rock ‘n’ roll epic of 2003.

THE STUDIO RECORDINGS 1972-2000 [released 2004]
(Warner Brothers)
By Luke Torn

A nearly faithful accounting of Simon's post-Artie studio work, luminously remastered; available individually, or as a nine-disc box

It's an odd time to evaluate Paul Simon's solo career, in light of his successful 2004 reunion tour with Art Garfunkel. But maybe all that boomer nostalgia needs a little levity, and the sweep of his solo work proves Simon has never dwelled on the past.

Studio Recordings 1972-2000 is that rare bird--an attempt to collect an artist's entire oeuvre. Never prolific, occasionally over-ambitious, Simon's career paints the picture of the pensive, cerebral pop craftsman, less interested in musical trends of the day than in finding an appropriate--sometimes daring—sonic backdrop for his acerbic social observations, pithy narratives, and gentle reflections. Nonetheless, as the years wear on, Simon's ability to sustain the intimacy that marked his greatest songs wanes, even as his appetite for musical expansiveness grows.

The remastering is aurally breathtaking throughout this set. The early records--especially the first two--sound radiant, bringing out textures never hinted at before. The brick-box includes all nine of Simon's studio albums, housed in digipacks. Each contains several extra tracks (30 in all), generally working drafts or demos of familiar songs. There's no booklet or contextualizing essay, simply the original lyrics and production notes.

Along with Dylan and the Beatles, Simon was a 1960s prophet, instrumental in radically expanding the canvas of popular song, capturing the conscience of the times with as much eloquence and passion as any artist. The duo's swansong, the ethereal “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” transcended all, a humble gospel song wrapped in sentiments so universal that it instantly launched Simon into the songwriting elite.

Simon's eponymous first solo step post-Garfunkel (Paul Simon (1972), ****) is loose and free, with bits of reggae and Latin influences (foreshadowing, that), sublimating big social statements to streetwise hipster personae and deceptively intuitive songcraft.

Long on slice-of-life vignettes, it spawned two hits ("Mother and Child Reunion" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard"). But, as insinuating as those are, the meat lies in "Duncan," a beautifully sung, aw-shucks reminiscence mirroring the take-stock mood of the times, and "Paranoia Blues." The latter, a gripping, bottleneck-laced cut, solidified Simon's reputation as the consummate New York songwriter. While you could read social commentary in between the lines (voices from the generation of the spooked), there was plenty of room for humor, too.

There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973, *****) is this set’s crown jewel. The songs, many of them cut at Muscle Shoals with greats like Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins, represent Simon at his most melodically indelible. There's a graceful intimacy here, from the rhythmic kick of "Kodachrome," to the gospel swing of "Love Me Like A Rock." This album and its follow-up, Still Crazy After All These Years (1975, ****), angle for a level of sophistication more akin to Gershwin or Berlin than Dylan. "Tenderness," which echoes Ray Charles' "You Don't Know Me," and "Something So Right," with a gorgeous string arrangement by Quincy Jones, remain spine-tingling works 30 years on. The album's sublime centerpiece, meanwhile, "American Tune," captures the unraveling of '60s idealism in the starkest terms: "I don't know a dream that's not been shattered/Or driven to its knees." Here, the protagonist of S&G's "Homeward Bound" finally realizes there's no home to go home to.

Still Crazy meanwhile, was cut in the wake of Simon's failed marriage. With its jazzy sheen, sodden New York atmospherics, and melancholy verging on ennui, it's torch music for the brokenhearted. Like other wrecked masterpieces of its era (Dylan's Blood on the Tracks), it has a corrosive sadness at its core that no amount of tasteful jazz chops by ace session players can hide. It's overproduced, nasty in places, but still bears the hallmarks of a legend in his prime. The title track, with its woozy late-night reverie and watery Bob James arrangement, is Simon at his self-referential best, but also a prime example of why punk rock had to happen. "Have a Good Time" is even more telling: it bespeaks of '70s hedonism the way Simon's most passionate '60s compositions captured that generation's idealism. It was Simon's last album proper for eight years.

During the drought, Simon appeared in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, switched record labels, played the filmmaker. The less said about 1980's One-Trick Pony (**) the better. A triumph of style over substance, it's got plenty of groove, but few memorable cuts ("Late in the Evening" was the hit). A couple of fine bonus tracks, "Stranded in a Limousine" and a sad Vietnam-era ballad, "Soft Parachutes," which was the film character's fictional big hit, salvage this disc. But a rare Warner Brothers faux pas, omitting Simon's 1977 hit single “Slip Sliding Away,” disappoints. Go figure.

The little-regarded anomaly of Simon's catalog--1983's Hearts and Bones (*****)--followed the ballyhooed 1982 S&G reunion. Simon expressed disappointment with this record, and it was a failure on the charts. Still, it's his most nakedly personal and, in its weird way, most soulful record. This one's been described as Simon's Tonight's the Night, referring to Neil Young's magnum opus, and while Simon never possessed Young's impulsive bent, Hearts and Bones' dark themes and eloquent narratives, from postwar snapshots to panoramic vignettes trace complicated emotional terrain, making this his unsung masterpiece. "What is the point of this story," he sings in "Train in the Distance," one of the most exquisite, perceptive songs of his career. "The thought that life could be better," comes the answer. A breathtaking acoustic demo of this song is the singular highlight of this box.

Graceland (1986, ***) was next, and its left-field success reconnected Simon with his rightful audience--baby boomers now out in the suburbs seeking unthreatening, multicultural spirituality. A hugely influential effort which shone deserved light on South African musicians, there's nonetheless aloofness in Simon's songwriting here. Given to cuteness ("You Can Call Me Al") and irrelevance (the Cajun effort "That Was Your Mother"), Graceland is more touristy than revelatory. While admirable for opening up western tastes to worldbeat, substantial portions of this record sound forced. Only "Boy in the Bubble" ("These are the days of miracle and wonder") and the title song take their place in the upper regions of Simon's canon.

Rhythm of the Saints (1990, **), shifted focus from South Africa to Brazil, and is both less accessible and more oblique. Simon's melodies are so thin that the grooves just vanish into air, though its musical landscape remains self-consciously adventurous. "Born at the Right Time," is the lone standout.

Songs From the Capeman (1997, *), the aural companion to Simon's Broadway flop, and You're the One (2000, **) are his most recent outings. Expanding upon and recasting the street music of his youth, the former's precision and attention to every sordid thought and character detail are daunting. Despite some nice moments (especially the elegiac “Trailways Bus”), though, the album does not cohere--the spoken asides and impenetrable narratives just aren't conducive to practical listening.

The latter, the long-awaited return of Paul Simon, modest songwriter, is preoccupied with aging and mortality, veering from joyful simplicity to ruminations on love and philosophy. Alternately ponderous, comic, and disconnected, it's merely workmanlike.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Warren Zevon
Mr. Bad Example
Rhino Encore

Disappointed by the commercial lethargy demonstrated by his late-80s run at Virgin Records, Zevon circa early 1990s made one last heartfelt stab at the pop mainstream. Rounding up trusted studio aces from his Excitable Boy days, including guitarist/producer Waddy Wachtel, Zevon wrote yet another batch of exceptional songs--from the madcap greed-gone-wild narrative of the title cut (seemingly more pertinent with each passing day) to the dreamy "Suzie Lightning," his gentlest, most wistful love song. Overproduced in patches, the strength of the songwriting wins out on this criminally overlooked disc. And how the gorgeous, floating melodicism of "Searching For a Heart," even with a Hollywood tie-in, missed the charts remains a great Zevon mystery. (Luke Torn)

Friday, October 23, 2009


Johnny Cash's Tower of Song

Johnny Cash
(American Recordings, 2003)

By Luke Torn

Johnny Cash is one of those giants, like Dylan or Miles Davis, about whom it’s daunting to even contemplate writing about him. What can be said that hasn’t been said before? What can be said that isn’t right there in the grooves of the music, in his case half a century's worth? However, in response to Unearthed, the absurdly generous collection of American Recordings session outtakes released last autumn, I have to say this: Thank God for Rick Rubin.

The estimable Mr. Rubin, in 1993, had the means (production successes with everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Slayer) and the vision to contemplate what no other punter in the music industry could fathom: Sit Johnny Cash, the veritable oak tree of American music, a song collector on par with the great A.P. Carter, in front of a single microphone, with not much more than a lone acoustic guitar, and roll tape. This simple gesture posited the great unwashed of American popular culture of the '90s and '00s with some eight CDs of remarkably vibrant, liberating, visionary music.

With all pretension of the marketplace removed, and the music peeled back to its very essence, Cash relished the opportunity like a man on death row given a new lease on life. Whether tackling songs by Will Oldham or Merle Haggard, Trent Reznor or Dolly Parton, Nick Cave or Jimmy Webb, Cash, time and again, drew a demarcating line in the sand with song. He rediscovered his voice in songs both ancient and brand new. And it’s the power of song, the belief in its transcendent and redemptive qualities, that’s played out over and over on Unearthed, and throughout the incredible body of work known as the American Recordings.

Rubin's entrance into Cash's professional life brought with it an air of liberation, a freedom from expectation borne out of record labels and producers watching only the bottom line, a freedom from beancounters and demographics, and a chance to for a great artist to operate from instinct, as songs like Marty Robbins' great western ballad "Big Iron" and Stephen Foster's timeless "Hard Times" (both on Unearthed) attest. Like Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes--wherein the Voice of His Generation managed to lock out the chaos raging around him and lay down cuts by everyone from Luke the Drifter to Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, or indeed like the whole of the early Sun rockabilly recordings by Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins, most of which are nothing if not the sound of sex, booze, youth, and freedom in the American South, Cash (in his twilight years no less) was afforded a blank slate, a blank check.

You can hear that in Cash’s voice, a hunger, as if everything's on the line again—and it’s not about money, career, or prestige. It’s about mindfulness, family, the power and transforming qualities of art and music (see Bono’s "One" and the Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne composition "I Won't Back Down" on American III for twin approaches on this subject), and most of all faith. And when he gets his hands around a truly great song, like Steve Earle's "Devil's Right Hand" (on Unearthed) or the driving Nick Cave/PJ Harvey composition "The Mercy Seat," or Cash's own gem "Flesh and Blood," or, indeed, Trent Reznor's "Hurt," with only a few lines or the strum of a guitar he opens a chasm that separates the kind of throwaway, wallpaper pop culture we wallow in these days from something altogether more dramatic: the real thing, the art of song, which implies a sense of history, of social responsibility, and challenging listeners (and their attendant assumptions) to see something of themselves in the cold blooded murderer in "Banks of the Ohio," or the rambling determination and restlessness of "Going to Memphis."

The point is, that Cash--a man of faith but also a man of truth and a seeker--is a gleaming example of not just artistic integrity and perseverance. The stark simplicity of the murder ballads, the soulful singing on the incredible gospel numbers included in Unearthed, and the ability to reach back 40 years and still cut some feral rockabilly, resonate through history precisely because they're not shot through with the kind of cute and ironic distance, the post-modern hipness we've come to expect from popular art of all kinds. The performances on all of the American Recordings represent the absolute opposite of the seething cynicism that saturates American culture these days, they're like a rope extended to the drowning man

I know it's counter-intuitive in this day and age, especially when record company profits are threatened from every angle, but I'd plead with producers, labels, and A&R folks everywhere to consider the example laid down by Rubin and Cash. The mind reels with the possibilities already gone: singer for the Band Richard Manuel had an incredible body of work in him that, given the musical trends of the 1980s, had no chance for an audition; likewise Gene Clark, Tim Hardin, Roy Buchanan, lost souls for whom there was no place in the music business toward the end of their lives, went to their graves without a second glance. Among the living, there's endless possibility: Merle Haggard, Doc Watson, Jackson Browne, Buddy Guy, Joe Ely, Linda Ronstadt, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Swamp Dogg, Hazel Dickens, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom T. Hall, Ralph Stanley, Arlo Guthrie and dozens more. In the name of preserving and documenting the cultural importance of song in this country, these extraordinary artists should be afforded the Rubin treatment. After all, it's about the music, and ultimately, the song, and to my mind that's what Unearthed, and indeed the totality of Cash's enormous and prolific body of work teaches us. Take one listen to the Cash/Joe Strummer duet, on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" (or any of a another dozen I could easily list here) on Unearthed, and tell me I'm wrong.