Tuesday, February 23, 2010

PCP's First Listen: Steve Forbert

The Pop Culture Press FIRST LISTEN
By Luke Torn

Down in Flames
Song-by-song through Steve Forbert's crucial reclamation of history . . .

As 1978's Alive On Arrival continues to dazzle three decades down the line, anyone familiar with Steve Forbert's story knows that his career was seriously derailed in 1983, in some of the most peculiar record company shenanigans of the era, when his record company held him ramsom for essentially producing music they deemed not commerical enough. The story goes much deeper than that--one for the books as they say--but Forbert to his credit has gone on to produce a seriously underrated body of work ever since. Having already produced two superb outtake volumes covering his early years--the Young Guitar Days discs--Forbert now rescues his long-buried session tapes for his fifth album with the deluxe Down in Flames. Here's PCP's first impressions:

Disc 1: Down In Flames [album proper]

Get Out Tonight (and Try So Hard)
A bit of stutter-step funk, vocals slipping in and out of a bullhorn, "Get Out Tonight" is Forbert in bubbly, optimistic mode. "I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got," a wise Bruce once said, and Forbert picks up that baton.

Take A Message to Mary
A gorgeous take on the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant chestnut, this is certainly a left-field choice for a cover circa the early 1980s. But given a gentle, sympathetic arrangement, with poignant guitar fills from John Leventhal, "Mary" is a Down in Flames highlight. A sad prisoners' tale, kin to Johnny Cash's similarly grim "Give My Love To Rose," the song was a Top 20 hit for the Everly Brothers in 1959, but feels as if it connects with a much older folk tradition. Forbert gives it a haunting, and appropriately lonesome, yearning vocal.

You Gotta Go
In a return to his southern roots, Forbert cut some spirited rockabilly at the Down in Flames sessions. "You Gotta Go" literally blasts out of the speakers, carrying a rare momentum, with a ferocious backbeat and some fiery fretwork. Amid urgent rhythms and spidery piano, Forbert leans into the kissoff lyrics with the relish of Jerry Lee holding forth at 706 Union.

Written in 1983 but universal enough to hit listeners with a rueful truth (especially in post-Katrina New Orleans), Forbert released this poignant ballad as a download a few years back, donating the proceeds to Hurricane Katrina victims. It's a beautiful song, the flipside in tone and pace of Dylan's "Crash on the Levee" or Springsteen's "Lost in the Flood." "Underwatertown," tellingly (and terrifyingly) written first-person from the point of view of a child, builds tension as the narrative rolls on, finally achieving a resigned, heartbroken melancholy.

So Many Mistakes
Bright young artist, meet the ways of the world. Delivered in a breathless rush, "So Many Mistakes" has a slight hint of ska in its herky, jerky rhythms and a series of character sketches worthy of the cinema.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune Again
One of Down in Flames' major compositions, Forbert must've known this one belonged in his upper echelon--recutting it for 1995's Mission of the Crossroad Palms. Borrowing its title from one of Bob Dylan's (then-unreleased) masterpieces, "Again" is restless and self-referential, funny and poetic, flashing images original and borrowed (e.g., the bits about "wooden soldiers" and "Jane she is a clerk," appear as surprise tribute to the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane") like an expansive but world-weary Tom T. Hall. Essential!

Because My Heart Says So
Superb, '60s soul-inflected love song, with a lean melody and a catchy, bouncy chorus. It might be unrepresentative (think Graham Parker's also uncharacteristic "Next To You," a 1985 hit), but this was a radio hit waiting to happen, potentially launching Forbert into easy-listening MOR-land. Why couldn't this have been the single from these sessions?

Sampson and Delilah's Beauty Shop
More teeth-rattling rockabilly, the lone song to previously slip out onto CD from this era (appearing on Columbia/Legacy's 1993 anthology The Best of Steve Forbert: What Kinda Guy?). This song never fails to bring a smile, and might nestle right in there with your Carl Perkins and Warren Smith sides, though the Sun stars rarely packed the kind of dense imagery and streetwise jive Forbert manages to put down here. Later cut by the great Webb Wilder for his stunning debut, It Came From Nashville.

Come With Me
A fine is somewhat monotonous rythmic rocker, this is Forbert in "glass half-full" mode, kicking off the dust. Nice, snaky John Levanthal guitar solo.

His Was the Sound
More pop history, Forbert style. It's hard to imagine a better tribute to the great Ritchie Valens than this intricate, upbeat piece, which really takes off on the bridge ("only 17 and he had it down," Forbert growls), and eventually dissoves into Valens' signature song, "La Bamba." This song jumps and moves.

Triplet-style blues, Forbert the streetcorner crooner. A pleasant throwaway.

What's So Hard About Being Alone
Another peppy number, and one that seems a tad tossed off. This time the song's sunshiny tone masks the protagonsist's denial and emotional pain at an affair gone wrong.

They're Out to Break Us
Perhaps Down in Flames' highlight, "They're Out to Break Us" sets a gorgeous melody to martial drums and Forbert's most defiant lyric. One could read the sentiment of this song many ways, personal and universal, which is essentially the key to its effectiveness. "God knows good from evil, baby what more can I say?" Forbert cries as the song plays out.

Disc 2: New York City Demos 1983-85
Rough studio sessions, recorded with Forbert's core band.

Go Ahead and Start
Some piquant political commentary for the Reagan years (and beyond), taking into account some stars-in-their eyes voters. Another Dylan echo in the line "The times are always changing . . ."

Music of the Night
A rambling, get-out-of-the-city tune here, reminiscent of the early '60s Greenwich Village sound. A measured Forbert vocal, and some delicate piano/guitar interplay, add plenty to this atmospheric cut.

Situation Love in Vein
Easily one of Forbert's most-blistering rockers ever, hinging on some pumping Chuck Berry rhythms and John Leventhal' feral guitar leads. An infectious song, reminiscent of something Joe Ely might come up with, and one wildly deserving of resurrection.

Don't Look Back
With its slow-moving rollercoaster melody and a fevered vocal, "Don't Like Back" resembles Springsteen circa Darkness on the Edge of Town, both in sound and feel. Like "Come With Me" and "Get Out Tonight (and Try So Hard)," and the set's next cut, "Welcome Back to the World," and even the great "Goin' Down to Laurel," this song celebrates living for the now.

Welcome Back to the World
A beautiful full-bloom ballad, Forbert cradling the melody like a newborn baby, that sounds like something the Everly Brothers might've come up with in their prime. This one could've really developed into something, but is still great even in embyronic form. Levanthal is spot-on with a spine-tingling guitar break.

I Wake Up Each Day (With the Light of My Life)
Straight Nashville-style country shuffler, a Valentine card one might say. With its rambling melody and ramshackle guitar, it sounds like a momentary whim in the studio, no more. That is, except for its unique and bizarre internal rhyme: "vice-versa" with "reimburse her".(!)

I've Got Charisma, I've Got the Hootchie Coo
Kind of a Latin-flavored thing going on here. A joke, maybe, or a sly come on? Whatever, it doesn't really work.

All Her Words of Love
A hushed country ballad of love-gone-wrong. Some ponderous observations on the verses lead into a darkly bouncy chorus and a sterling harmonica break.

I've Got News For You
Some more Memphis rockabilly, Forbert hiccupping like a latter-day Buddy Holly. It's an infectious track, with a Paul Errico/John Levanthal piano/guitar break lifting the song up to the rock and roll heavens.

Lifeline (Take Me Back)
Bright young artist tires of the fast lane. A bit of nostalgia, almost like something from the Carter Family catalog. "I got lost in this bad time," he avers.

Come With Me
Second take of this boot-scootin' bit of escapism.

Fighting Under the Clouds
In true demo style, Forbert's whispered vocals are kinda buried in the mix of big jangling guitars on "Fighting Under the Clouds," another overcome-the-odds ballad that shuffles along at its own unhurried pace.

Take Me Back
Another variation on a theme of getting the hell out of here. Levanthal offers big Duane Eddy--style fills on this genteel ballad.

Everybody Likes My Party
With its E Street-style piano intro and cascading melody, "Everybody Likes My Party" feels like a summing up, an it's-time-to-move-on number. Finally, Forbert is afforded the opportunity for apropos closure to the classic New York/Nemperor era.

Disc 3: Live Recordings With the Flying Squirrels 1983-85
Strong, if raw and unsweetened, recordings from the time when the record deal went south. For anyone who saw Forbert during this period, you know he was a rock and roll juggernaut, pouring it all out on the stage night after night with a great band. This 12-song set picks up some of that flavor, drawing on rare material and a few stray cuts from his eponymous 1982 LP.

Don't Look Back
One of the highlights of the unreleased sessions, introduced to the audience as a "slow dance tune."

Those Were the Lonely Days
A nice mid-tempo rocker with some gorgeous keyboards. From the sound of its melody it might be an early draft of "Running on Love," the lead masterpiece on 1988's Streets of This Town.

Don't Stop
An odd, loping quality marks this pleading song, the narrator imploring his love to not give in. The warmer, more personal angle of themes explored with the great "They're Out to Break Us," a disc one nugget.

It Takes A Whole Lotta Help
Revved-up, rockabilly Steve reappears here, the band positively cooking on a song that made a slick studio appearance on the eponymous 1982 Nemperor album.

You Gotta Go
Thrilling roadhouse piano from Paul Errico (pictured below, on stage with Forbert 1985) highlights Forbert's most urgent vocal performance on this set. The band heads out into rarified air on the break, crackling with electricity.

On the Beach
Another stray cut from the Steve Forbert album resurrected, and delivered with a touch of regret, if not bitterness. Levanthal's at his chiming best on the fills.

I've Got News For You
Fluid rockabilly workout, Forbert Elvising up the place.

Channeling Doug Sahm.

My Mistake
Another very fine lost song, this one has classic feel of some of the Young Guitar Days material, ala "House of Cards."

They're Out to Break Us
A spellbinding, tension-building live take on the set's best song, the singer leaning into the defiant lyrics, Levanthal flinging little bits of silvery guitar shrapnel around Forbert's voice.

Samson and Delilah's Beauty Shop
A storming, echoey, chaotic, lo-fi take, Forbert maneuvering through the verses with aplomb, and adding some ably impeccably-timed stutters and exhortations.

You're Darn Right
Down in Flames closes out with more blistering Levanthal guitar, Forbert breathless to catch up in a rush through this rocked-up country pounder.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Journey Through the Vanishing South, Jim White style

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
Retail DVD (Plexi; http://www.plexi.co.uk/)
Review and Interview by LUKE TORN

Spectral visions of the American South spar with religious grandiosity and hellbent Saturday nights; singer songwriter Jim White is your guide

It's not often a set of album liner notes evolves into a feature-length film, but that's exactly what happened in the case of Jim White's 1997 debut album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! White's terrifying road tale delving into the macabre spiritual undercurrents of the South served then to amplify his disembodied, surreal songs. Now, with White serving as travel guide and riffing on the cultural contradictions of a region that's produced artists from Flannery O'Connor to Johnny Cash, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus emerges as mesmerizing, slice-of-life filmmaking.

Though Searching only uses White's original narrative as a touchstone, its rich cinematography, superb music, and colorful characters catch the offhand flavor and spectacle of the vanishing South in vivid detail. Commissioned in part by the BBC, the film was directed by Andrew Douglas (The Amityville Horror), who brings to the proceedings a flair for capturing the South's stunning geographical splendor.

Renting a beat-up 1970 Chevy, with a concrete Jesus stuffed in the trunk, White, Douglas, and company set out to find "the gold tooth in God's crooked smile," as White describes it, and end up depicting an area rife with internal contradiction, driven to extremes by the unseen hand.

Douglas and crew consistently come up with striking compositional images--a creepy, house-of-mirrors view of Louisiana swampland, decades-abandoned school buses rusting in the woods, a beat-up car adorned with countless "repent now"-type bumper stickers passing by on the highway. "There's a lot of rapture talk on that car right there," White blurts.

Meanwhile, the film roams into the most intimate of settings--churches, barbershops, trailer-park lean-tos--in an elliptical, sometimes bemused quest for some kind of understanding. Throughout, White spins out bits of hard-won wisdom borne of experiencing the yin-yang perplexity of growing up southern. His theory that, "until you've walked away from the South, you can't see it," is written on the faces of most of the humanity passing by the camera, including, in particular, the barbershop patrons present as sandpaper-voiced Johnny Dowd (with Maggie Brown) serenades them with a song called "First There Was a Funeral."

Locked in by grievous poverty, iron-fist religious repression, and a socio-political culture painted in stark black and white, the film's protagonists are portrayed as embroiled in one dichotomy after another: haves vs. have-nots, good vs. bad, being saved vs. burning in eternal hellfire.

In the face of such fatalism, White opines, it becomes incumbent on southerners to "invent a God who's gonna whup some ass." While visions of feverish Pentecostals and writhing parishioners speaking in tongues (with enthralled yet terrified youngsters looking on) are among the film's most indelible moments (likely to stay with you long after the film ends), it's to the filmmakers' credit that, while the film does deal in stereotypes, it never comes across as disrespectful, never mocks its subjects.

In fact, a strange kind of empathy emerges from bits like The Singing Hall Sisters' harmonizing on a murder ballad, "Knoxville Girl," or the prison scene wherein inmates describe their crimes as mere manifestations of boredom.

Secular salvation--where it can be found--lies in music and storytelling, and Searching provides its share of spine-tingling, occasionally surreal moments. Novelist Harry Crews croaks a scarifying tale regarding the arrival in Appalachia, long ago, of the Sears catalog, an alien product wherein the models are inexplicably in possession of all their limbs; alt-country existentialists the Handsome Family, whose rugged, unadorned Appalachian spirituals dove-tail best with the film, are seen performing "When That Helicopter Comes" for an audience of one--a puzzled young boy--near a trailer park; mountain man banjoist Lee Sexton's "Little Maggie" and Melissa Swingle's unearthly musical-saw rendition of "Amazing Grace" are likewise hypnotically compelling.

"It's only within the music that the dichotomies and complexities of the world dissolve," the film seems to suggest, and it's those dreamlike sequences, presented throughout, that somehow mitigate the powerful, see-sawing black-and-white forces that lie at the heart of the film and the South.

Extras: Five deleted music/monologue scenes with David Johansen, Harry Crews, and others; director's commentary

Jim White
Athens, Georgia resident Jim White's latest is Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, released in 2004 on the Luaka Bop label.

Luke Torn: How would this movie have been different if you took it back 75, 100 years?
Jim White: Well, the duality and dichotomy [religion and drinking] would be no different. I think what would be different would be that there would be a big investigation into the English filmmakers who vanished in Louisiana. There's more guns back then, everybody would have been shooting from all directions--the church people, the bar people, everybody.

LT: Did you feel like you were a liaison between the British film team and the locals?
JW: They [the film team] did a fair amount of research and contacting on their own. Probably about half the contacts in the film I provided them and the other half they found on their own. So, they're very good natured people who like to go out and meet the world. Somehow or other, they have a charm, it's a tribute to their humanity, that they can walk into the most unlikely place and get people to spill their hearts to them, and then they treat that information with respect. They're just saying 'These stories are beautiful, listen to them.'

LT: Seems like a lot of the peculiarities of the South are vanishing before our eyes.
JW: It is vanishing. In the scene from Sheffield's Jesus Is Lord Catfish Restaurant Truckstop, which is in Valdosta, Georgia--I took them there when they were scouting for the film, and the whole entire wall-to-wall establishment was a tableau, like a primitive artist, Howard Finster-style tableau of the rapture, with planes crashing and people rising out of graves and cities on fire and buses turned over … it was astonishing. When we came back five months later, Sheffield had painted the whole thing white. And Andrew [Douglas] walked in, sat on the ground, and started crying. Sheffield had changed its name to Sheffield's Country Kitchen.