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Spencer Dickinson – The Man Who Lives For Love

January 4, 2013 1 comment

YepRoc Records, 2006

The man on the cover is flashing me the ace of hearts, so you know what that means!  He lives for love, for he is the man who lives for love.  He also apparently lives for chubby keyboardists, speeding tickets, and shootouts at gas stations according to the illustrations behind the late stage Jim Morrison look-alike.  Along with the retro design and songs like “Zigaboo” and “(Chug Chug) It’s Not OK”, this looked to be a record worth a spin just to see what kind of colorful tale I’d get wrapped up in.  Of course, if the background illustrations showed puppies sleeping, a few math equations and Christopher Walken, I’d probably still buy the record.  I’m pretty easy to impress.

Spencer Dickinson is actually a side project for Jon Spencer (of Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion) and Luther & Cody Dickinson (of the North Mississippi All-Stars), so these guys bring a solid background of rock and blues with them.  At nineteen tracks, this concocted group apparently had a lot to get on record that couldn’t be done with their usual bands, which is quickly apparent given the eclectic mix of style throughout the album.  Some of the songs could be placed with either group, but some are just completely out there.  I guess that’s what side projects are for, right?

“That’s a Drag” begins the album with a powerful blues guitar chug, with Spencer singing as if in personal pain.  If one had to think of what an Explosion/All-Stars song would sound like, this gritty and straightforward rocker is it.  With “I’m Not Ready” following in a similar vein, one may begin to think that Spencer Dickinson is just another predictably enjoyable blues rock album (sort of like the Black Keys and every record they have ever released).  But no, as “Zigaboo”s jilting changes in tempo and addition of organ attests, these guys didn’t get together to pass the usual time.  Spencer Dickinson’s momentum from the first two strong tracks takes a heavy sedative with the lulling slide guitar on “Body (My Only Friend)”.  Spencer has even lost all of that early punch as he mumbles and whines his lyrics in this five minute journey.

And so it goes.  With every tune that sounds like it’s a solid blues rock moment, there is one that causes one to rub one’s eyes.  “Primitive” sounds like a trucker on a CB radio losing his mind over the course of the song.   Can’t understand a word Spencer’s mumbling or screaming over the fuzz, can’t get past the jolting guitar pops, and can’t find a bit of replayability in the tune itself.  That song couldn’t get over with fast enough, though I do know what to play if someone asks me to a recommend them a song that would devolve them into madness.  “Flood (The Awful Truth, the Living End)” is collision of singing and shouting that culminates in a dismal screech-a-rific ending.

I suppose when nineteen tracks are compiled there are going to be duds, but there are a few particularly fun ones.  “Sat Morn Cartoons” is two minutes of guitar solo aggression while “Love Without a Smile” is definitely a toe-tapper with its excellently peppy pace near the middle of the song.  The funky title track has the lyric “I wanna mashed potato/down on my knees”, which illuminates the light-hearted feel that Spencer Dickinson delivers on the tune.  Truly, if the guys just shaved off seven or so iffy tracks this would be a very strong album with all the good music on the record.  I am not sure if that goal was really on their mind when Spencer Dickinson put this album together, though.

Since this is a side project that defines the term ‘off and on’, there isn’t a whole lot to go to on the Internet for them.  However, you can listen to a few tracks by Spencer Dickinson on Last.fm.

The group that is Spencer Dickinson has only put out two records, with this one in 2006 and the previous one in 2001.  Since nearly seven years passed after “The Man Who Lives For Love”, the slide guitar on this side act may have been put away.  That may be even more evident with the fact that Jon Spencer’s main act has ended their lengthy hiatus (begun two years before this record), so one half of this side project may not feel that itch to dabble with the Dickinsons for awhile.  Then again, if the point of Spencer Dickinson is to just be something to do when the main players want to get nonsensical and crazy, they might bring back the man and his ace of hearts.  However, if they wait too long they’ll have to name the new album “The Man Who Lives For the Early Bird Special” or “The Man Who Lives For Grandkids”.  Everybody, start brainstorming ideas for that fetching album cover…

The Blue Van – The Art of Rolling

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

TVT Records, 2005

One of the great things about buying one dollar bands is getting other one dollar albums by the band.  I reviewed the Blue Van’s 2006 record “Dear Independence” and thought it was a great surprise from a bunch of Danish rockers, so in this case I managed to get their debut album.  This could go one of two ways.  In one instance, the debut album could be worse than the second record due to shoddy production or meandering direction of interest.  The other possibility is that the debut album is a near match to the sophomore effort, meaning the band decided not to change anything (and thus get pegged as ‘limited’ or ‘stuck’).  Really, for a buck I wouldn’t mind the consistency.  Now that I think of it, there is a third tack that the band could have taken, and that was to change their sound completely.  So, ulp, I could have purchased the band’s initial love of covers of Danish traditional songs, a misguided attempt at modern Danish disco, or recordings of actual blue vans driving around a parking lot.  Now you know that there truly is a lot of danger involved as a bargain bin music reviewer.  I live on the edge… of taste!

Well, I lucked out.  It turns out that this record sounds very similar to their follow up album, though it seems to actually have more energy.  The opener of “Word From the Bird” is a warm cacophony of guitar, drums, and organ with vocalist Steffen Westmark’s ceiling-touching efforts completing the scene.  Even though it’s just over two minutes in length, “Product of DK” and “I Remember the Days” seamlessly continue the romp.  These early songs, as well as the rest of the two to three minutes rockers spread throughout the record, easily emit a sense of having a real good time.

As the tunes continue their rousing level to “The Remains of Sir Maison” (yet another good rock song), one begins to wonder if the Blue Van will ever take it down a notch.  You may say “Hey!  When should anyone ever wish for the party to end?”  I agree with that, and yet the continuation of the same level of volume and excitement can work against a band if the songs all blend together.  Westmark’s voice continues to reach the high register, the organ is constantly present, and the cymbals never seem to cease reverberating in my ear.  For five songs in a row, the Blue Van make a case for an amazing band, but one will more likely be left with just that impression more than a favorite song in particular.  Some diversity helps appreciate the band’s talents further.

It almost seems that the band knew it had gone on a little too long with the same old thing, as the Blue Van suddenly veers into the leisurely “Baby, I’ve Got Time” where Westmark relates his hesitancy to hurry out of the warm confines of a bar with his girl.  The light electronic piano introduction to “The Bluverture” reminds me of a Beatles song, but then it turns into a dramatic instrumental that could be used in “Kill Bill, part 3” if ever a movie was going to be made.  It’s a curiously interesting interlude to the bombastic nature of the record, which thankfully allows some pause to soak in what the band had completed up to that point.  Then, of course, it’s back to the party.

“Revelation of Love” and “What the Young People Want” are par for course, but “Mob Rules” at least tries to invoke a bluesy swing before erupting in the second half of the song.  The final song of “New Slough” is probably what the band could have done at the beginning of the record in that it’s eight minutes of sheer rock out.  Why make five songs that sounds somewhat similar when you can make one really long one?  Granted, a long one with such stomach-churning lyrics as “1-2-3, I’d like to look at thee” and “I’m a rebel with a cause/but I ain’t no Richie Rich”.  I know these guys are from Denmark, but reading around a bit it seems that the Danish start learning the English language in the third grade or so.  Okay, so they stink at lyrics, but I suppose if one didn’t care what Westmark was screaming out then this record serves nicely as a fine boost of rock ‘n roll energy.

The Blue Van has an immediately musical website (as in, make sure your speakers aren’t too loud) and a potentially musical MySpace page.  Check out their new stuff on either site … it sounds good.

Whenever I give a Golden Dollar to a band, I always keep an eye out to see how that band is doing.  Even if this was a record that was released before “Dear Independence”, I am still excited that such a band exists in Denmark.  They must (should) be loving these guys over there.  I’m not sure if the Blue Van will ever make it over to the States that often, but if their new album “Love Shot” is any indication of how good they are now, the group should at least pop over to open for someone like the Black Keys.  They’ll likely get pegged as some kind of posthumous garage rock revivalists that are trying to pick up the remains of the Hives’ efforts, but I bet the crowd will love them.  I look forward to the next Blue Van record that comes my way.

Peter Gammons – Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old

February 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Rounder Records, 2006

Back in 2005 when this record was being made, Peter Gammons was likely smarting like the rest of us Red Sox fans from the fact that the team only went out and got Chad Bradford and Alex Cora at the trade deadline.  What a bit of a downer that was, and it would be a whole 2 years until the Red Sox won another World Series.  What a buncha … oh yeeeeah.  Gammons must have been so relaxed towards the team’s future that he went and recorded a kind of blues rock album with a bunch of relatively famous people.  It seems that the man behind the TV desk with the heavy makeup and the natural mysticism that surrounds a ‘man in the know’ had another talent he wanted to get out there to the public.  Since I loved this book he wrote as well as the fact that a pre-All Star Kevin Youkilis sings on the record, this was a no brainer to pick up, check out, and hope for the best.

As action-packed as that album art looks, one had to feel that this record was going to be a moderate rocker for the older crowd at best.  Gammons was not going to cuss at me, plink away at his mandolin, or peel my face off with scorching metal riffs.  He does, however, mostly spend time doing enjoyable renditions of songs he likes without getting too off track with each song’s original sound.  Warren Zevon’s “Model Citizen” begins the record with a steadily paced bar rock number that allows the listener to get used to the idea that Peter Gammons also sings (?!).  The only original number, and arguably the best song on the record, follows by the name “She Fell From Heaven”.  It has an upbeat Springsteen element to it with some mumbling word play, as well as a rib poking chorus line of “She fell from heaven/and landed on her face”.

I was pleasantly surprised by a few tunes on this record, for I didn’t think I’d fall into step with the sound nor did I think I would enjoy hearing Gammons sing like he came right off the farm most of the time.  I found that his version of “Cinderella Superstar” with the lovely Juliana Hatfield on backup vocals, was excellently low key.  The cover of the Clash’s “Death or Glory” seemed quite harried, yet I appreciated the fact that Gammons gave it a good go with Theo Epstein on electric guitar.  By the way, this explains my earlier rant about the 2005 Sox because Epstein might have spent too much time perfecting his power chords and not enough time thinking about getting another bat.  I digress.  The stompin’ “Promised Land” with George Thorogood and a bunch of Red Sox players as (cough) backup vocalists had a lot of great energy to it, while “Bad Teeth” was more of an amusing number that kept the good feelings going as the album headed off into a few fifties-sounding rock numbers.

I gotta call this a Bargain because I think this collection of Gammons’ Favorite Hits turned out as a pleasant surprise from beginning to end.  Unfortunately just before the release of this record Gammons suffered a brain aneurysm that he has thankfully been recovering well from.  With his return to television, as well as his recent move to the MLB Network, one has to wonder if Gammons is also feeling up to another record.  I suppose this will depend on if he wants to do another record like this one to benefit the Foundation to Be Named Later charity or if David “Big Papi” Ortiz is available for a duet.