Robert Plant – “Now and Zen” (1988)

robertplantnowandzenRobert Plant was one of the very first concerts Holly and I went to together.  It might in fact have been the first, but in talking it over while we listen to 1988s Now and Zen we’re just not sure.  Other candidates are INXS and Tin Machine (<– the only way I ever managed to see Bowie… but at least I saw him).  I remember that we went to the Plant show with my future father-in-law, since similar taste in music was about the only thing a mullet sporting teen and a middle aged dude could possible have in common other than their interest in the same girl… albeit approaching the girl part of the equation from completely different directions.  Mind you, he was more Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, while I was more Now and Zen.  But we both agreed on Led Zeppelin IV, so when Plant and company pulled out the mandolins and played some Zep tunes including “Going to California” we could finally see eye to eye.

I’d forgotten how good this record is.  Yeah, I remember the hits – “Heaven Knows,” “Tall Cool One,” and “Ship of Fools.”  But damn, the whole thing is pretty solid.  Plant is one of those singers who aged well, changing his style as time went on and finding new and interesting ways use his changing voice.  From the Honeydrippers to his work with Alison Krauss, even when I haven’t liked it a lot it’s been near flawless.  As Advancement Theory teaches us… when I haven’t enjoyed Plant’s work, most likely the problem is me, not him.

Delta Rose – “Golden (+ Self Titled E.P.)” (2014)

I fell in love with the sweet sensation,
I gave my heart to a simple chord,
I gave my soul to a new religion,
Whatever happened to you?
Whatever happened to our rock’n’roll?
Whatever happened to my rock’n’roll?
— “Punk Song” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

What ever happened to our rock ‘n’ roll?  It’s a good question.  And this isn’t one of those “back when I was your age” or “there hasn’t been any good music made since [fill in the blank]” rants.  I mean, during my music listening formative years the stars had more Aquanet in their hair than the girls did, wearing shoulder pads and leather and spandex and lipstick, all the while acting tough.  So it wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of art.  And personally I think there’s tons of great music coming out today, perhaps more so than ever before.  Punk, metal, hip hop, indie, alternative… hell, even subgenres and sub-subgenres I’ve never heard of before.

But what about rock ‘n’ roll?  Simple, pure, rock ‘n’ roll?

Whatever happened to my rock ‘n’ roll?

Last weekend I headed downtown with some friends to see one of our favorite hard rockin’ party bands, Diamond Lane, play at a club called El Corozon.  And they did not disappoint, powering and strutting through a 30-40 minute energetic set.  But who was this band that was going on right before Diamond Lane, this band who were touring with them, all crammed into one mini-bus?

They’re called Delta Rose.  And they play rock ‘n’ roll.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane, 2015

They’ve been at it for a while, too, having put out their four-song Self Titled EP back in 2000.  So their latest effort, the six-song Golden, has been a long time coming.  And fortunately for me the guys decided to take a chance and pressed a handful of these on vinyl, which includes all the songs from both albums (note that both Self Titled and Golden are also available on CD, and you can listen to all the songs on the band’s website HERE).  I picked up a copy at the merch table after the show, and while I’ve been listening to the Golden CD quite a bit over the last week, I’m finally getting around to dropping the needle on the record.

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I started off with the B side of the vinyl, which is given over to Self Titled.  Right from the start of “Hot Hand Honey,” it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll.  Relentless drumming, guitar work that alternates between Judas Priest and George Thorogood and Eddie Van Halen, a little bit of funky bass, and vocals that sound like they’re being sung by the lovechild of Steven Tyler and David Lee Roth.  In fact the second song, “Ain’t Dead Yet,” could be a lost Aerosmith classic.  And I do mean classic – I’m talking Toys in the Attic Rocks ear-Aerosmith, not the later stuff.  But then it changes, and “Cut You” gives us a killer little blues-rock number, rich and sweet, some true roots stuff.  Delta Rose’s influences run deep through the rock cannon.

As good as the Self Titled material is, Golden is even better.  “Crazy Little Game” has a bit more edge to it, a bit less pure and little more dirty, and I mean that in a good way, because good rock often has a touch of sleaze to it.  “Chew Me Up” gives a bit more of a lo-fi sound to the vocals, while the chorus of “Problem at Home” brings a hint of country rock to the table, as does “Ten Long Years,” a classic Americana song about love and loss (She was my first kiss / And my last real love…) that includes some beautifully soulful guitar work and even a touch of piano/organ.  This ability to blend styles while still maintaining a core rock sound is, in a way, the band’s calling card.  No matter what flavor of rock is your favorite, you’re going to find things about Delta Rose that you like.

It all comes together on Golden‘s last song, “Golden Umbrella,” a song that just grooves, giving the bass the chance to hold the pace, almost holding the song back and forcing it to stay slow and heavy, keeping the whole thing from exploding and flying off the rails.  Throw in some bluesy guitar, and vocals that alternate between lo-fi and raspy rock, and you’ve got a winning formula.

Having seen Delta Rose live, I can totally picture singer/guitarist Spencer Krasch belting out these songs in the studio.  Krasch is a force of nature on stage, moving, rocking, sweating like a fiend, he’s pure front-man.  But even more, he’s obviously a fan of the music, and not just his own; Krasch and bandmates were out there in the crowd during the Diamond Lane set rocking out right in front of the stage and signing along to every song.

I found my rock ‘n’ roll again.  And it feels good.  Thanks Delta Rose.

KISS – “Music from ‘The Elder'”

In the music world there are those “infamous” albums, the album by the famous and popular group that is widely panned by even their most die-hard fans, often viewed as being some kind of “phase” the band or artist went through.  Lots of bands of have experienced this.  In the case of KISS, that album was 1981s Music from “The Elder”.

In general I don’t get the rock opera thing.  That’s not to say there aren’t rock operas out there that I enjoy – Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Queensrÿche’s Operation:  Mindcrime being two notable examples.  But in general the concept of an album with a storyline (as opposed to a more general theme) doesn’t generally resonate with me, though I suppose I can see the appeal from the musician’s standpoint in that it gives them to the chance to tell a more in depth story in a way you just can’t do in one song.  It’s probably in part because I’m one of those guys who doesn’t always listen to the words that closely, at least not the first few times I hear something.

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I’d been interested in hearing Music from “The Elder” for some time.  After all, KISS is a seminal band know for playing some pretty damn good rock ‘n’ roll, so what is it about this album that people hate so much?  It’s been re-released on vinyl, though I wasn’t about to drop $30 on it.  But I kept my eyes open and the other day found a used original pressing in nice shape for under $10 and figured it was time to check it out.

Basically Music from “The Elder” is the soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist.  Inside the gatefold we’re told of a group known as the Elders who watch over the earth, and when the planet is faced with an evil that wants to destroy it they look for a warrior to train who will save mankind.  A being named Morpheus is the caretaker and tells the Elders when the warrior is ready to do his duty.  And that’s pretty much it.  So with that in mind…

Side A is decent, and I’d go so far as to say “The Oath” is a solid rocker.  The most notable weakness is when Stanley tries to hit the high notes, which come off as pretty weak.  Musically it’s decent, though I’ll admit that other than “The Oath” there isn’t anything super catchy here, at least not the first time through.

On the flip side “A World Without Heroes” is interesting – like a prog rock KISS song.  While “Mr. Blackwell” continues the slower pace when compared to KISS standards, it’s actually a solid song.  I dig the bass line and the way the vocals sound – the music is basic and a bit heavy, then the chorus kicks in and the sound fills out.  This might be the bust song on the record.  Now “Odyssey”… well, OK. Now I see where some of the criticism of this album comes from.  Lots of piano here and a vocal style that is not Stanley’s wheelhouse.  But it ends in a pretty satisfactory way with “I”, another decent rocker.

Well, Music from “The Elder” is certainly not the prototypical KISS record, that’s for sure.  But it isn’t nearly as bad as people make it out to be.  There are some good tunes here, and admittedly a few clunkers, but all in all it’s OK.  There’s a guy out there named Seb Hunter who wrote a screenplay to go with the soundtrack and actually went so far as to produce a trailer of sorts to the movie he wants to make around Music from “The Elder”.  Not sure if it’ll ever happen, but I’ll certainly check it out if he gets the financing and approvals together.

Rainbow – “On Stage”

I know that it’s technically “Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow”… but isn’t the band less famous for its namesake, former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, than it is for its short-time lead singer, one Mr. Ronnie James Dio?  If you don’t believe me, just listen to the song “Man on the Silver Mountain.”  It’s OK.  I’ll wait.

Done?

Ronnie James Dio scared me when I was in the sixth or seventh grade.  Not because he was a tiny dude with big hair and massive heavy metal pipes throwing up the devil horns.  Which he was.  No.  It was because of the album covers by his band Dio, specifically 1983s Holy Diver, which freaked me the hell out.  I’d never even heard the music before, but I can remember seeing it at whatever chain record store used to be in whatever mall it was I used to go to in Columbia, South Carolina back then.  It wasn’t your run of the mill stuff, man.  That demon thing was whipping a priest with a chain!  Good thing Ronnie James changed his last name though… because a band called “Padavona” wouldn’t have sounded as evil.

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Back to On Stage.  I bought this album for two reasons.  First, it’s live… so there’s a cool factor there.  But also because it contains one of the great rock/proto-heavy metal songs of all time, “Man On the Silver Mountain,” which I’ve written about before.  That song was flat out ahead of its time, standing as a prequel to the hair metal of the early 80s, but better.  And the version on On Stage doesn’t disappoint.  It appears on the first side of this double album, one that starts oddly with the opening notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” (get it… rainbow… like the band name!) something too preposterous to make up.  But man when they turn up the speed to 11 and crank into “Silver Mountain” it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll.  It is a bit odd, though, that that rock attack is followed immediate by a slow blues jam and some seriously sad bastard acapella on “Starstruck”… at least before it breaks back into “Silver Mountain” and rocks out again!  Oh Rainbow, you tricksters!

There were still three more sides to go after that, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the rest of the material, being unfamiliar with it.  Side B is given over entirely to the nearly 16-minute “Catch the Rainbow,” which is a pretty epic, wandering prog rock tune and not a song about Skittles.  It actually reminds me a tad of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” (but the end is very “Stairway to Heaven”).  A lot of fancy guitar quasi-soloing here, but it’s still Dio that separates Rainbow from the rest, his soaring voice, the passion, the clarity of it.  You left us too soon, Ronnie James.  RIP.

Side C is also one long track, the 13-minute “Mistreated.”  Once again, Ronnie James brings it, singing about how once again his baby has mistreated him.  Ronnie wants you to feel the pain with him, his struggle, the agony.  The music tries to match his passion but can’t.  This is a man’s struggle, and music can’t do it justice – only the human voice can.  Side D is more of the same with “Sixteen Century Greensleeves” and “Still I’m Sad.”

All in all, On Stage is a bit of a one trick pony for me.  It’s not that it isn’t good – it’s just that the intensity of “Silver Mountain” isn’t there on most of the songs.  But if you can find it used at the right price, give it a spin.

“No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North-West Grunge Era 1986-97, Vols. 1-2”

You could absolutely be forgiven for thinking that every band that came out of Seattle during the late 80s and early 90s performed some variant of grunge.  Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden were arguably the Big Four, and it seemed like you couldn’t turn on MTV, get into a car, or walk into a record store without hearing one of them.

But, of course, just as Seattle wasn’t the only city producing grunge bands, so too is it true that, believe it or not, not every band in Seattle during that time was trying to do the grunge thing.  I mean, you only had to go an hour south down to Olympia and there was a whole different scene happening there, with sort of weird proto-minimalsit-shoegaze and riot grrrl breaking out.  Bellingham had it’s own scene… as did Portland.  There was a lot of great music being made in these places (still is…), and it covers the gamut of styles.

With that in mind the gang over at Soul Jazz Records put out this two volume, four record set of those “other bands” from the Northwest, the ones that didn’t get huge and famous but were nonetheless important in their scenes.  I read some pre-release reviews and it sounded pretty cool, so when I saw these the other day at Silver Platters I picked ’em up.

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No Seattle:  Forgotten Sounds of the North-West Grunge Era 1986-97, Vols. 1-2 are a pair of high quality releases.  Sturdy, clean vinyl, full color sleeves, and each has a two sided full color insert about the curation of the collection and the bands involved.  I found the latter particularly helpful since the only one of the 24 or so different bands included that I’d ever heard of was Bundle of Hiss.  While Soul Jazz was going for a somewhat diverse collection of artists, almost all of them fit comfortably within the overall “rock” genre.  Different flavors of rock to be sure, but it’s not like there’s any EDM or hip hop or metal or what have you on No Seattle.  Arguably the two least rock songs included are Hitting Birth’s “Same 18,” which is some pretty trippy, pretty industrial awesomeness, and “It’s Getting Late” by Small Stars, which has violin and has more of a modern folk feel to it.  But that’s about it.

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No Seattle gives us a bit of everything in the way of rock.  We’ve got punk by bands like Attica, Soylent Green, and Vampire Lezbos (“Stop Killing the Seals” is one of the best of the 28 tracks, alongside the previously mentioned “Same 18”), punkabilly from The Ones, some stuff that sounds like Rush (Yellow Snow) and Weezer (Nubbin), old school trippy garage rock from Chemistry Set, and frankly stuff that sounds like pure grunge to me – Shrug, Calamity Jane, and Starfish.  The one thing I would have really liked to see is a bit more non-rock stuff, though I get that makes it a bit harder to market and sell.  But I think that was one of the interesting things about some of the early Seattle comps, like Seattle Syndrome – you never knew what the next track was going to bring.  Don’t get me wrong – I like the type of music that’s on No Seattle.  I just would have preferred a bit more variety.