Sonic Jesus – “Neither Virtue Nor Anger”

sonicjesusneithervirtueThis is the last of the Sonic Jesus albums that arrived in the mail the other day from Fuzz Club, and while it’s the last one we’re listening to it’s actually their first full length album.  And it’s a doozy because it’s a double, 16 songs on four sides of wax, complete with a trip-fold gatefold jacket.  Sonic Jesus obviously impressed the hell out of someone over there at Fuzz Club to warrant this kind of investment.

Whereas the other Sonic Jesus releases I listened to and blogged about recently had a certain unceasing relentless to them, Neither Virtue Nor Anger seems to be of a somewhat different breed.  It opens with “Locomotive”, the kind of plaintive song that reminds me of Þórir Georg before picking up the pace and moving into more industrial territory.  That leads into the full-bore “Triumph”, which also appeared on a 7″ single I wrote about recently and one of my favorite Sonic Jesus tracks, a aggressive driver of a number.  By time we get to the tripped out “Sweet Suicide” to close out side A, I’m hooked.

The intensity seems to continue as we flip over to the B side, but it could just be the effect this type of psych has on my brain.  At times it can wear me down, flattening me underneath a thick layer of fuzz that seems to surround me from all sides at once.  Fortunately they bring it down a bit with a very Velvet Underground-y “Paranoid Palace” with it’s slow jangly guitar, a welcome respite to the sensory-numbing pounding of the previous four songs.  It does build to a bit of a crescendo, but that initial breather is all I needed.

The one thing that differentiates Neither Virtue Nor Anger from the other Sonic Jesus albums and EPs I’ve listened to over the last few weeks is the vocals – while they continue to be effects-laden as they are the other releases, there’s more variance here in how the vocals are treated and that gives the songs a bit of variance, even when the guitar pedals are threatening to punch a drill bit into your brain.  It gives everything a certain nuance that was lacking in the sheer weight of the later efforts.

Side C opens with “Monkey On My Back,” which originally appeared on Sonic Jesus’ self-titled 2012 EP, a song that reminds me a bit of the Brooklyn-based Imaginary Friends, and not only due to the monkey reference. (♠)  In fact the C side in toto has a different vibe to it than the first disc did, more sparse at times in a way that gives more power to the meatier parts.  And the D side kind of brings in a whole Eastern thing, so good on Sonic Jesus for managing to give us 16 songs that have an certain consistency while also mixing it up enough to keep things fresh.

(♠)  But it does not remind me of Peter Gabriel’s “Shock The Monkey,” something that just sounds needlessly cruel especially when he goes on and on about shocking the monkey.

Depeche Mode – “Spirit”

It feels a bit odd to have some mid-50s famous musicians open their new album by insinuating that all of us are going backwards, in part due to technology, and have lost our souls.  Truth be told it feels like some old man back-when-I-was-your-age and get-off-my-lawn shit.  And if it wasn’t for Depeche Mode’s street cred, I’d probably have left it at that, even though the opening song to their 14th studio album “Going Backwards” is a pretty catchy jam.

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But these guys came of age in left-leaning Basildon in the late 1970s, a working class town with no jobs, so they came by their revolutionary streak honestly.  And that streak runs right down the middle of Spirit like an eight-lane superhighway to nowhere.  It’s right there on the cover, legs with flags as the upper half of their bodies (one imagines them being red if they were in color), and on the inside photos showing the members wielding sledgehammers.  But in case the imagery wasn’t enough, you just have to listen to the words, which are like an accusatory slap in the face.  Where’s the revolution? / C’mon people, you’re letting me down (“Where’s The Revolution”).  I’m told I must pay a penance for being so shallow (“The Worst Crime”).  I kind of feel like I’m being lectured here.  As a middle aged man I bristle against that a bit.  It’s one thing to hear it from the young and idealistic; it’s another to hear it from someone older than me.

Spirit is an angry album.  Not quite bitter, because the sound is too clean for that.  It’s more the resignation of the parent who realizes their kid is an idiot.  Not that the kid is a bad person, mind you, just a goofball who follows the status quo, not because it’s what they like, but because it never dawned on them to do anything different.  It’s like Depeche Mode are kind of throwing up their hands, flabbergasted but not entirely surprise at how things ended up.

There are some less cranky songs on Spirit.  “You Move” is my favorite track (though I have to confess “Where’s The Revolution” is super catchy), opening a section of the album that is a bit more traditional Depeche Mode.  But after a brief two-song respite, it’s back to black clouds and radiation (“Eternal”), and I’m a bit bummed out.  Even the relationship songs reference having poison in your heart.  Corporations get all the breaks and references to trickle-down economics.  It’s like the worst of the 1980s Thatcher / Reaganism all rolled into one.

Spirit isn’t a good-timey album, but it is excellent.  Even though it’s a bit preachy at times, the songs are brilliantly composed and have a great sense of flow to them.  If you’re a fan I’m guessing you’ll love it, because even with my casual familiarity with Depeche Mode’s catalog, I still find myself getting caught up in the music.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Live”

brmcliveWe’re big fans of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in the Life in the Vinyl Lane household, so we were stoked to find a vinyl copy of the band’s 2009 double album Live.

Now, let’s get something out of the way right up front.  I don’t write negative reviews on Life in the Vinyl Lane.  If I don’t like something, I don’t write about it.  Artists work hard on their music and I have no interest in taking a shit on someone.  But I will occasionally be critical.  And this is one of those times.  Because about 15 seconds into dropping the needle on Live, Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane said, “this sounds flat”.  And she was 100% right.  I know live performances present their own challenges, but if you’re going to make the effort to put a live show onto vinyl, I’d hope you could get a better mix than this.

That being said, it’s still BRMC, and the songs are killer.  The slow burn of “666 Conducer” just smolders.  The set list in general is killer, as this is post-Baby 81 / pre-Beat the Devil’s Tattoo BRMC, which to me is the band at their peak – it’s practically a greatest hits collection with tracks like “Weapon of Choice,” “Ain’t No Easy Way,” Berlin,” “Red Eyes and Tears”… their catalog was deep at this point, and Live pulls in all the big hitters.  And you kind of get used to the flatness so that it sort of fades into the background.

“Singles” – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Deluxe Edition

easystreetcornellUnless you’ve been living under a rock or the terms of your probation don’t allow you to access the internet, you know that Chris Cornell passed away a few days ago.  Chris was an icon in the Seattle music scene, first with OG grunge rockers Soundgarden and later with Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and his solo projects.  He was a supremely talented man and music fans in Seattle probably feel his loss just a bit more deeply than do people everywhere else.  He was one of ours, born and raised.  I’m certainly old enough to have experienced the loss of other musicians who were part of my formative years, including more than a few local talents.  Cobain, Staley, Wood… But Cornell.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  He had survived the reckless years.  He’d won Grammy’s.  He did a James Bond theme song for Christ’s sake.  And he was back with Soundgarden and touring.  And then he was gone, choosing to exit the stage permanently.

Holly and I were playing Louder Than Love the evening he died, possibly right around the actual time his death occurred.  And we were already planning on heading out to the record store on Saturday to buy the new deluxe edition of the Singles soundtrack that was coming out that Friday.  So Chris was, even if a bit indirectly, in my thoughts this week, and perhaps that’s what I’ve been feeling so reflective about his passing.  Many of the others weren’t terribly surprising.  Heroin has taken its pound of flesh from the Seattle scene, and many of the previous casualties had struggled with the dragon for years.  But Chris had made it through.  But the scars were still there, and ultimately the pain was so overwhelming that in his mind there was only one resolution.

A piece of my remembered teenage innocence died with him.

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We watched Singles on Thursday night for the first time in a long time and it helped a little, putting a smile on my face and giving us a quick glimpse at a young Chris Cornell looking on as Bridget Fonda’s new stereo blows out all of her car windows.  And we went out to pick up the soundtrack on Saturday morning like we planned even though we knew the entire city was sold out of it on vinyl (♠), so we settled for the CD.

The first disc is the original soundtrack, 13 tracks that could almost be a Seattle best-of album in their own right had only Nirvana contributed a song (I can’t really explain how Paul Westerberg and Smashing Pumpkins ended up on it… though I have to begrudgingly admit that Westerberg’s “Waiting For Somebody” is, to me, the song that best captures the overall feel of the movie).  It’s an eclectic mix of tunes, though.  It opens with the menacing bass line of Alice In Chains’ “Would?,” a dark way to start the soundtrack of what is in effect a rom-com.  Pearl Jam gets us a bit more into the vibe of the movie with “Breath,” and then it’s Cornell’s turn.  I can remember originally buying this CD back in 1992 and being blown away by “Seasons,” a very un-Soundgarden-like song that was the perfect vehicle to showcase Chris’ voice, exposing a side of his musical talent that I’d never heard before.  I still think it’s the most beautiful song not he album, though “Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns” gives it a run for its money.

There were some intriguing selections on Singles and I respect director Cameron Crowe for staying with Seattle even when he goes back in time, using Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” in the scene when Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick play records together in Scott’s apartment and also getting Ann and Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s wife at the time) involved performing as The Lovemongers with their near-perfect interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore”.  There was a real effort here to make this as Seattle-centric an experience as possible.

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Left to Right:  Chris Cornell (RIP), Jeff Ament, Matt Dillon, Layne Staley (RIP), Cameron Crowe

I’d actually forgotten that Mudhoney contributed a song to Singles.  Well, technically two songs, I suppose, but only one that made it onto the soundtrack.  They were given a budget of $20,000 to record “Overblown,” but as the story goes they hit up a local studio and paid producer Conrad Uno $164 for a day’s work, banged out their song, and walked out at the end of the day $19,836 the better for it (♥), which is a pretty punk move.  The movie’s fictional band Citizen Dick, fronted by Matt Damon, also performed a song called “Touch Me I’m Dick,” a modified version of the underground Mudhoney hit “Touch Me I’m Sick”.  Somehow this didn’t end up not he soundtrack (♣), but was eventually released as a 7″ single on Record Store Day back in 2015 and also makes an appearance on this deluxe edition, opening the bonus CD.

The original soundtrack was every bit as good as I remembered, but what I was truly excited about was the bonus disc full of extras – live tracks, demos, acoustic versions, you name it, a decent amount of it never-before released.  Cornell is all over this thing, contributing seven of its 18 tracks, one with Soundgarden and the rest as a solo artist, including an early pre-Superunknown version of “Spoonman” and the Beatles-esque “Flutter Girl”.  But the three live tracks, “Would?” and “It Ain’t Like That” by Alice In Chains and Soundgarden doing “Birth Ritual” (complete with the intro, “Cue musicians, go!”), are the highlights to me, well-recorded and capturing both bands in their more formative and energetic years.

And then there’s Paul Westerberg again, and dammit, I want to resent him for bing a non-Seattle musician on this soundtrack, but his songs are just so damn good I can’t do it.  The bonus disc gives us four Westerberg tracks – beautiful acoustic renditions of both of his soundtrack contributions “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody,” as well as a pair of previously unreleased tunes in “Blue Heart” and “Lost In Emily’s Woods.”

The two biggest “surprises” on the bonus disc were tracks by Truly and Blood Circus.  If I’m being completely honest, I’d never heard of Truly before even though two of its three members came from Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.  I may have to track down some of their stuff if I can.  As for Blood Circus, I’d forgotten how grimy they were.  “Six Foot Under” is heavy, hitting you like a grunge version of a country song.

While I’m still a vinyl junkie, I have no regrets about buying Singles on CD as it was the bonus material that interested me the most.  It’s too bad they didn’t do the whole thing on vinyl, like a four record special edition box set – now that I probably would have bought.  But regardless, I’m very happy with the both the quality and price (got mine on sale for $15) and highly recommend it to any fans of the old school Seattle sound.

(♠)  The vinyl guy at Easy Street told me they’d ordered 200 copies and only got 20.  They’ll certainly have more, but given that all the bonus material is on CD, even with the vinyl release, I figured I’d just save myself $20 or so and buy the disc.

(♥)  Mudhoney:  The Sound and Fury From Seattle by Keith Cameron (2013), p. 157-58.

(♣)  It probably had something to do with the literal use of the word dick, along with the euphemism “little Elvis” and the repeated phrase “I won’t cum”.  Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center would have had field day with that song.

Dear Chris…

Dear Chris,

The other morning I did the same thing that I do most mornings, grabbed my phone and laid in bed for few minutes, looking at Facebook and a few websites.  The news of your passing was quite literally the first thing I saw on a screen that morning.  My initial thought was it was some kind of click-bait bullshit headline, but it quickly became apparent it was the truth.  We’d lost you.

Then the inevitable dread set in, that feeling you get when a musician that you love dies too young, simultaneously hoping that it wasn’t drug-related while at also having a momentarily selfish facing-your-own-mortality moment of realizing that if it was due to natural causes, we’re close to the same age… Then when we learned it was suicide (possibly driven in part by prescription medication…)… It mades the loss even harder.

We never met, and I never had the privilege of seeing you perform in person.  But that doesn’t mean your music wasn’t important to me, especially your early Soundgarden albums.  Growing up on the “Eastside” across the lake from Seattle, the city seemed like some kind of impossible plane of existence even though it was probably a 30 or so minute drive from our house.  Grunge was bubbling under the surface in 1987; it was still “our thing” the locals, but we all seemed to understand that it was going to blow up and go national at some point.  We all had our favorite bands, who we mostly experienced via Sub Pop singles and EPs.  And while most people in 1988 seemed to think the band that was going to hit it nationally was Mudhoney, Soundgarden was always my pick.  The Screaming Life and Fopp EPs, plus your album Ultramega OK, shattered my ideas of what “rock” music was supposed to sound like.  Those albums altered the trajectory of my musical taste.

I was 16 years old.  You would have been about 22.  At that age, that age gap is real.  You felt like an adult and a rock star.  The reality is probably more like you were a young guy living in a shitty apartment working one or more jobs to make enough money to allow you to still play in a band.  I know that now, and it makes me smile a bit at my own innocence.

I remember going away to college in the fall of 1989.  I moved about as far across the country as possible, from Seattle to Pittsburgh.  I knew no one there.  But of course one of the things I brought with me was a bunch of CDs.  I was excited to find out that one of the guys in the dorm room next to me was a Seattle music fan… but admittedly a tiny bit deflated when I found it he was big into Metal Church and Queensrÿche, not because I had anything against them, but it just wasn’t the same.  He’d never heard of Soundgarden.  I found out that Louder Than Love was coming out and that Soundgarden would be playing Pittsburgh around the same time, but I couldn’t find anyone to go to the show with me, and truth be told lacked the confidence to go by myself.  But I did track down the CD.  I’ll never forget my country-music-loving roommate walking in when I was playing it for the first time.  “What is this shit?”  Coming from him, that was the perfect review of the album.

Badmotorfinger was Soundgarden’s watershed, at least to me. For a lot of people it was probably Superunknown.  Badmotorfinger spawned some hits for you guys in “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined”, and while those are great songs, to my ears they’re middle of the pack.  I can’t tell you how many times I shredded my own vocal chords trying to be you while hitting the high notes on “Jesus Christ Pose” in my car.

But you’re staring at me
Like I…
Like I need to be…
Saved… saved… 
Like I need to be…
Saved… saved…

I don’t think I ever bought any of your post-Soundgarden albums, but I always enjoyed hearing Audioslave on the radio and your James Bond theme song is one of my all-time faves.  For years I’ve been telling myself I need to catch you live.  And now I’ll never have that chance.

Chris, we can never know truly what is in another person’s mind, so I won’t pretend to understand how and why this happened.  I’m just sad about it.  Selfishly sad, of course, to know that I’ll never hear a new Chris Cornell song.  But much more importantly, and deeply, sad for the depth of despair you were obviously feeling in those last moments, and utter sorrow for those you left behind.  The children who you won’t see blossom into adulthood as they experience their own successes and failures.  All your friends and family and bandmates who have to try to create a new normal in their lives as they work around the big hole your absence leaves.

Holly and I were playing Louder Than Love the night you passed, probably just a few minutes before your life ended.  I don’t know why we decided to play it, but we did.  Over the last few days I’ve been struck by an odd sense of regret that while we were listening to your music you were going through hell.

Suicide generates a complicated set of feelings and reactions from people.  I’m not going to pretend to understand why you made the decision you did.  Death is probably the last great frontier, the one thing that we humans simply can’t understand despite all the science and religious texts.  Are you at peace now?  Does any part of your energy or spirit or whatever you want to call it still exist out there somewhere?  I don’t know.  And that’s part of the sadness too.

Thank you for sharing your life with us through your music, Chris.

Jeff