Monday, June 30, 2014

RETRO REVIEW: "Tiny Music: Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop" by Stone Temple Pilots

The following review originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on April 12th, 1996.

Could the eagerly awaited third release from the Rodney Dangerfields of alterna-rock be their swan song? Tiny Music: Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop (Atlantic) finds Scott Weiland, singer/lyricist for Stone Temple Pilots in the throes of a personal exorcism. His ongoing battle with heroin and cocaine came to a head with last year's well-publicized drug bust. Although fellow bandmates assert that Weiland's current rehab stint is going smoothly, their plans to tour in support of the new CD have been put on indefinite hold. Everybody's concerned that if they resume before Weiland regains his balance, the consequences could be disastrous (read: fatal). This might seem like so much well orchestrated bullshit designed to create controversy (or just plain PR), but you wont think so after listening to Tiny Music.

Following an opening instrumental warm-up ("Press Play"), STP dive headlong into the glam rock grunge of "Pop's Love Suicide", and it becomes painfully clear that all is not well in the Pilots' cockpit. "Pull the trigger on a pop gun/Mindless fools aggravate, pick at you in desperation" Weiland snarls, though not with his usual blend of sarcasm and mischief. He sounds totally pissed-off, like a man one episode shy of a nervous breakdown. As evidenced by this track (hell, half the album) Scott has a serious bone to pick with the music industry - artists and promoters alike. On "Tumble In The Rough" Weiland pleads, "I'm looking for a new stimulation/I'm looking for a new rock sensation", with Dean DeLeo's guitars cutting a staccato swath across a power-punk landscape. "Ride The Cliché" puts the matter across bluntly when Weiland sings "Just because you're so clichéd, it don't mean you wont get paid."

What's going on here? The ironic thing is that, despite their general maligning by the press, STP are true pop craftsmen. Tunes like "Plush", "Interstate Love Song" and "Pretty Penny" (from their previous releases) illustrate their ability to amalgamate the best rock'n'roll has to offer with remarkable dexterity. But if you're expecting similar hits on Tiny Music, you're in for a nasty shock. What you will find are some beautiful, disturbing songs that reflect Weiland's inner turmoil like mylar on glass. On "Lady Picture Show" he assimilates John Lennon's nasal croon, with guitarist Dean DeLeo borrowing a page from the Abbey Road  songbook - but the lyrics are anything but cheerful: "She hides because she don't know nothing anymore/She keeps a sunny face/It's locked and bagged/It's just outside the door."

Bassist Robert DeLeo contributes the other instrumental track, "Daisy" - a speakeasy blues number performed on electric guitar. DeLeo's jazzy phrasing shows the band isn't afraid to experiment with genres previously unexplored. Perhaps the most daring gamble on Tiny Music is "And So I Know", which pits Weiland's passionately defeatist observation on love against a lilting, smooth-jazz ambiance provided by Eric Kretz's unobtrusive percussion and Dean's evocative guitar (close your eyes during his solo and you can easily imagine Pat Metheny or Earl Klugh.) The sad verses are interpolated with the reassuring line "Campfire girls make me feel alright"; they bring to mind the musings of another tortured artist (and former junkie): Brian Wilson. In its own way, Tiny Music bears a strange kinship with Pet Sounds-era Wilson - a sonic pastiché of gorgeous melodies, intriguing harmonies, and emotionally heartfelt playing, with pain lurking just beneath the surface.

Tiny Music also includes its share of thrash-injected rockers, preserving their campus-icon identity. The Zeppelin-esque chord changes in "Tripping On A Hole In A Paper Heart" are joined to Eric Kretz's locomotive-like battery. "Art School Girl" gives Tripping Daisy a run for their money, complete with a blistering refrain reminiscent of early Kinks. And of course, lead single "Big Bang Baby" offers up a gritty vocal by Weiland, Dean DeLeo's twin-guitar attack, and Robert DeLeo's sinewy bass line. Comparisons between Tiny Music and Purple (their sophomore release) and Core (their auspicious debut) are inevitable, and not entirely unfair. The difference lies not so much in the music as how Weiland approaches the material. Even at his most lyrically descriptive, Weiland always managed a certain degree of detachment. On Tiny Music, his wounded heart is on public display.

REASSESSMENT: Billie Holiday's album, Lady In Satin was recorded toward the end of her career. It's been recognized as one of her strongest works, despite the fact that heroin and alcohol had severely ravaged her once-silky vocals. On Tiny Music, Weiland's vocals are likewise ravaged by the wages of heroin and alcohol, yet his passionate, sometimes crenulated singing actually accentuates the some instances it adds pathos to Weiland's lyrics. It's kinda ironic in retrospect, that the musical experimentation and rock scholarship that informs Tiny Music plays against such bitter couplets as "Sell more records when I'm dead/Hope it's sooner, hope it's near corporate records fiscal year" (from the somber "Adhesive", which boasts of all things, a mournful trumpet solo). The passage of time hasn't changed the album's poignancy - it was the darkest Stone Temple Pilots release to date, and remains even more so in light of Weiland's heart-wrenching backstory.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Conversation With: Butch Vig, Part One

Butch Vig is a very easy person to talk to. On the surface, this doesn't sound so revelatory, except when you consider his pedigree in the rock arena: his alternative outfit Garbage has received numerous awards and a rabid following among critics and listeners alike; he is a talented musician who has played drums for a variety of artists, as well as producing their material. But the one thing he will go down in the history for is helming the landmark album, Nevermind, by legendary (and at this juncture, mythological) band Nirvana. His latest foray finds Vig treading the waters of alt-country with Emperors Of Wyoming, his eponymous band debut – which has already gotten critical praise.

I got the chance to sit down and talk with the multi-talented Vig prior to his appearance at this year's Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony and concert, where Nirvana was officially inducted. Our conversation was as eclectic and thought-provoking as I would have expected.

DG: I understand the Emperors Of Wyoming album came out awhile ago overseas, and is now being released domestically – is that right?

BV: Yeah – this is the first domestic release. It came out as an album proper in Europe about 2 ½ years ago. We've compiled a couple of expanded editions of the original, including two covers: one is a cover of an obscure Afghan Whigs tune, “Rebirth Of The Cool.” We kinda changed up their version considerably, so I reached out to Greg Dulli via email and shared ours. He gave us his blessing, which was really cool. The other day, some radio station played our cover and a tune off of the latest Afghan Whigs release, Do To The Beast back-to-back, and I thought they really complemented one another.

DG: And what were the musical inspirations behind Emperors Of Wyoming? I've seen my colleagues toss-off labels ranging from alt-country to Americana/roots rock. What bag would you place it in?

BV: I mean, if I have to lump it into a particular category, I guess I'd agree with the alt-country/Americana label. I and fellow bandmate Phil (Davis) both grew up in Wisconsin, and found ourselves listening to country giants on the radio like Johnny Cash and George Jones. Later, we were turned on to folks like Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band and Tom Petty. Those are influences the four of us in the band share. Of course, most people know me for making big, rock records, or are fans of my rock/techno hybrid Garbage, but the Midwestern country influences have been with me since childhood. What was liberating about the project is that we went into it with no agenda, no musical blueprint, and no deadline. Most tunes were recorded simply – only a couple of tracks utilize overdubbing.

DG: Funny you should mention that – as I was listening to the album last night, I could hear the Tom Petty influence, and other tracks reminded me of early Joe Henry, before he switched from alt-country to the blues.....

BV: Joe Henry? Hadn't thought of that, but I can definitely see what you're saying – actually, those are great reference points in terms of our approach to the music on this album.

DG: I also sense a certain resurgence in the popularity of Americana/roots music of late, sparked in part, I think, by the enormous success of groups like The Civil Wars.....

BV: I think music has always tended to go in cycles in terms of popularity, especially what gets played on the radio, but I also think the stripped-down feel of folk and alt-country is a reaction to the prevalence of all the slick rock productions that are out there. That sound and genre will always be popular on the radio, but people crave the unadorned beauty of the human voice, without Auto-Tune and all that other hi-tech crap attached to it. Real country music hasn't lost that authenticity, and there will always be an audience for it. I was speaking with a writer the other day, and we both acknowledged there is a tremendous sense of power and immediacy when a person just walks on stage with a mic and guitar, and connects with the audience in a way that an arena-sized concert event can't.

DG: As someone who immerses himself in the open mic scene, I'd definitely agree: whenever I check out or perform at an open mic, it becomes apparent right off the bat that folk and country are not only held with the upmost respect, but have always been a fixture in that musical landscape.

BV: Exactly. There is no denying that impact is there, and will always be there.

DG: Take us into the making of the album – how did it all come together?

BV: Phil and me write the majority of the lyrics – occasionally, I'll come in with a line or two or contribute to the chorus. Most of the tunes start with Phil giving us a rough demo of him singing over acoustic guitar. From there, I'd load the tune into my Protools software. After seeing my daughter off to school, I'd head down to my home studio in my pj's and start laying down a drum track. That overdubbed track would then be uploaded to a file sharing service we all use. Frank (Anderson) loads what I did into Ableton Live, and adds banjo, pedal steel, accordion, etc. Pete (Anderson) puts on his bass part, and then come the harmony vocals or other embellishments. Approaching it this way allowed us to take our time bringing these songs to life.

At some point, we realized we had enough material for an album. Frank, whom we designated as the “file keeper” brought everything down to a studio in Milwaukee, where his buddy, engineer Alex Molinski helped bring a cohesiveness to our project with his mixing expertise. Obviously, the audio quality varied from the various home environments in which they were recorded, and Alex did a great job adding a uniformity that made it sound as if the whole thing was laid down in the same space. I give him tons of credit for that.

DG: I think it's fascinating how file-sharing on the Internet has opened up so many opportunities for artist collaboration that weren't available before.

BV: Technology has changed immensely over the last twenty years or so. When I first started learning my craft as a producer, the industry standard was analog tape: it seemed like a mysterious process: you had to book the recording time, assemble the musicians, etc. - not to mention the cost of studio time, which caused many to feel as if they were working against the gun to finish something. In many respects, that can be very daunting, especially for an emerging artist. I know that a lot of electronic musicians are using file-sharing as their industry standard these days – I'd hazard to guess we are the first alt-country act to utilize file-sharing to put together an album.

Most folks think, given the nature of our sound, that it's just the four of us, sitting in a room playing together, like in the old days. Twenty years ago, this option would not have been available to us, but I think the advent of this technology makes it possible to level the playing field – folks can create entire finished works on a laptop that are comparable to going into a basic studio environment, and there's lot to be said for that. But the fact that I know these guys so well, and we share the same musical background made it possible for us to integrate our individual performances as a whole – on some level, I feel we are all of the same mind, which also contributed to the uniformity of our sound, as if we had been in the same room.

DG: Considering your various music projects, I sense you are equally eclectic, musically-
speaking. Who are/were your influences, particularly as a drummer?

BV: Keith Moon was the first drummer that inspired me initially, probably because he was so crazy and flamboyant, and The Who defined how exciting and visually arresting rock'n'roll could be. I never had the patience to be a super technically-skilled drummer – I'm your basic 4/4 rock drummer, but I've also had an interest in songwriting, the art of production and audio engineering. Like most drummers, I started out just playing along to the records I dug listening to. While attending the University of Wisconsin, I found myself embracing the punk/new wave scene – it felt like my kind of music, and was immediately drawn to it. I love Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols, New York Dolls (David Johansen's outfit prior to going solo), The Pretenders, The get the picture. That's when I started seriously playing as a drummer in bands, during the heyday of that period.

DG: And of course, there's your resumé as a producer: looking at your roster, we see the expected rock names – Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Against Me!, and needless to say, Nirvana (more on them later). But I was surprised to see that you had produced for seminal hip-hop artists House Of Pain (“Jump Around”) back in 1992. That's quite the trajectory......

BV: It started with me doing a remix of “Boomshalaklakboom” - they sent me the master tape of their recording, and told me, “Do whatever you want with it.” So I ended up trashing all the instrumentation and keeping the vocal track, and built it from the ground up. When I sent it back with the new backing tracks I had added, both the guys and their label Tommy Boy were totally jazzed about it. I realized sometime after that, that I was getting a little bored with rock'n'roll. By the time Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana were hitting it big on the radio, it seemed as if record labels went into “send in the clones” mode, and spawned a thousand imitators. I was just so bored by the guitars/drums/bass template, that creatively, I needed to branch out. On the House Of Pain project, I began messing around with samplers for the first time, and ironically that is what led me to wanting to start my own band. From the HOP remix, came gigs to remix Depeche Mode, U2, NIN and others – a light bulb went off in my head: “Maybe I should use this approach, and create a band around it”, and that's what led to me forming Garbage.

Next week: More on Garbage, their upcoming album, and Nirvana's induction into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The White Stripes/Black Keys Smackdown: Who's Right?

If you haven't heard by now, White Stripes founder Jack White has a problem with the Black Keys. Rolling Stone, who have been chronicling the feud, wants us to believe that Mr. White is being petty and arrogant (so much so, they've reported the gist of emails concerning White's divorce [courtesy of TMZ, no freakin' surprise there], suggesting this emnity was spurred on by White saying he wouldn't want his kids to attend the same school as Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach.) But frankly, I wouldn't be so dismissive about White's assertions: that his band was first, and that the Black Keys have done a good job of assimilating the style and attitude of the group he founded with drummer Meg White in 1997.

In White's own words, "I'll hear TV commercials where the music's ripping off sounds of mine, to the point I think it's me. Half the time, it's the Black Keys. The other half, it's a sound-alike song because they couldn't license one of mine. There's a whole world that's totally fine with the watered-down version of the original." Does anyone with journalistic cred really challenge this comment? The Keys have licensed songs to Madison Avenue - songs that sound suspiciously similar to White Stripes material. The Keys have cross-pollinated the same musical genres (blues, garage-rock and alternative), although nowhere near as pointed and introspective in the songwriting department. The Keys are blues-lite, the White Stripes never pretended to be blues musicians, and wouldn't insult their antecedents with such an audacious comparison. 

And the Keys have not exactly responded to these accusations with détente - drummer Patrick Carney took to PItchfork to say, "I feel embarrassed for him" and "White obviously sounds like an asshole" then qualifies these statements with the seemingly empathic sentiment: "We've all said fucked up shit in private, and divorce is hard." He also lashes out at deserved target TMZ, saying "I really think personal things are personal things. Like, TMZ? Honestly, they should be fucking ashamed of themselves, that they make a living dragging poor souls that have nothing, that aren't famous, into this world." Of course, Carney is mistaken about the last observation - TMZ doesn't care who you are, but obviously, if you're famous, more folks will be interested in taking a voyeuristic look at your transgressions.

All of this could have been avoided if Dan and Patrick weren't so adamant about denying the influence (consciously or not) that the White Stripes has had in regards to their sound -
they could've said something along the lines of "Yeah, The Stripes are an influence. But then we're influenced by a lot of things (then list them) - hopefully, we are putting our own unique spin on it, but there will be folks who will just call us copycats. We're okay with that. We love making music more than trying to convince our detractors to like us." And then, if White still takes you to the woodshed, he is in fact, being an asshole.

The White Stripes: "Seven Nation Army"

The Black Keys: "Your Touch"