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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Radio silence.

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Will probably be silent for a couple of days.

I read a piece of wrongheaded clown-ass dogshit writing by a paid writer today that frustrated and infuriated me so much, it took the pen out of my hand.

I am literally reluctant to write anything for fear it will turn out to be that bad, or somewhere close to that bad. I have been reminded that there’s a lot of lousy writing in the world, and that reminder always makes me fearful of contributing to it.

(I also don’t have any new tunes in my world that motivate me enough to write, and I don’t feel like looking for fresh juice in the old ones.)

I thought about dissecting what I’d read, brutally exposing its faults and slicing it razor-thin like carpaccio.

But … it doesn’t deserve that much attention. I’m not gonna link to it; I’m not gonna quote it. I’m gonna let it eat away at my brain, but I’m not gonna implant it in yours. It doesn’t deserve that much market share in the community of ideas.

It’s time for mice to move on in.

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My Year of Power Pop initiative left the rails a while ago, but I’m bringing it back for a moment, conveniently annexing piano-pop into the power pop genre to suit my own needs.

Far too infrequently, I read a music blog devoted to Canadian independent music called Grayowl Point.

Earlier today, I stumbled on a post they put up around this time last year, offering a Canada Day playlist of explicitly Canadian-themed indie-rock songs.

I’ve listened to a few, and there’s some very good stuff there … but none as good as Will Currie and the Country French, a piano-pop band from southern Ontario.

Their song “Tommy Douglas” — a tribute to one of the fathers of Canada’s universal health-care system —  is pure ear-crack for pop fans.

There’s bouncy piano, and tempo shifts, and charming backing vocals, and some subtly used fuzz bass, and a guitar solo that intelligently heats things up at the end. Most everything but a clap track, in other words. It’s stupendously catchy and perfectly done, down to the ringing last chord.

(It’s also a history lesson in a box for those of us south of the border. The reference to the “mice (moving) on in,” and the cats going, is a reference to a fable often told on the stump by Douglas.)

You can hear it, in all its waltz-time glory, here. 

Don’t wait for Canada Day to do yourself a favour.

You speak to me in sign language.

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Things I learned today: The cover photo of Eric Clapton’s most recent album (released in March) is a selfie he took with his iPhone while on vacation in Antigua.

Even rock n’ roll gods are not immune to the self-aggrandizing attractions of 21st-century technology.

O tempora, o mores!

(Everyone else in the world probably knew this three months ago, but I maintain a general policy of ignorance on current popular-music affairs.)

Another thing I learned today: The aforementioned Clapton album features a cameo appearance by Paul McCartney, who plays upright bass and sings on a version of the old standard “All Of Me.”

I can remember a time when a collaboration between Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney would have been big news indeed. And maybe it was, for those who are more tapped into the news than I am.

But now, it kinda has an air of elderly rich guys amusing each other … like if Thomas Edison and Henry Ford had gotten together, stiff and flannelly, to sit together on the endless lawns at Dearborn and talk idly about flying electric cars.

I don’t know what the Clapton-McCartney collaboration sounds like, though I’m kinda intrigued to find out — I might have to surf YouTube and see what I can find. (It is a measure of my ingrained respect for both men that I think there might be something worth hearing there.)

Inevitably, it brings to mind another Clapton superstar collaboration that didn’t work out so well.

Clapton’s 1976 album No Reason to Cry included “Sign Language,” an otherwise unreleased Bob Dylan composition.

The recorded version featured Dylan and Clapton duetting on vocals, with the added bonus of the Band’s Robbie Robertson on lead guitar. (The album was recorded at the Band’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu, and Robertson’s Band-mates participated in various other songs.)

One might think that a combination of Dylan, Clapton and Robertson would be rock n’ roll dynamite. Dylan and Clapton had released two of their strongest albums in the preceding year or two (Blood on the Tracks and 461 Ocean Boulevard, respectively), while Robertson was still a respected songwriter and guitar stylist.

But the end result is pretty unimpressive. The song itself doesn’t say a whole lot; Dylan and Clapton both sound kind of detached; and Robertson plays the same damn solo he played on every single song he touched back then.  (Just ’cause you can play those chirpy harmonics all the time doesn’t mean you should, Robbie. Let. The. Notes. Ring.)

Maybe the end results of “Sign Language” (and the entire No Reason to Cry album) are a testament to the effects of alcoholism. Clapton and many of his celeb sidemen had alcohol problems at around this point in time; and when you spend a lot of time getting really, really loose, stuff like this starts to sound good.

Or maybe “Sign Language” shows what happens when you get too comfortable and insular. The record was made in a swank locale, at a studio owned by rock stars, with numerous rock stars in evidence. Maybe they needed a little bit more grit and conflict and pressure in their lives to come out with music that mattered.

(I particularly love the presence of Ron Wood, whose contributions to the album are unspecified, but who appears in the liner notes. It seems like any time a rock star opened a bottle of Jim Beam or a bag of blow in the late ’70s, Ron Wood was somewhere within earshot.)

Anyway, fresh from the summer of ’76 and still reeking vaguely of Jim Beam, here’s “Sign Language.”

Five For The Record: Grand Funk, “We’re An American Band.”

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A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Seventh studio album by Flint, Michigan-based rock band. Released July 1973. Produced by Todd Rundgren. Reached No. 2 on the album charts and spawned two Top 40 singles (the one you remember, and the one you probably don’t.) Kick-started GF(R)’s brief but lucrative run as a Top 40 teenybop-singles band.

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And here’s why I like it:

1. None more gold. An American band? Perhaps. But there’s scarcely a shred of red, white or blue to be found anywhere on the album. (We’ll get back to this thought in a minute.)

Instead, the entire album cover is done in gold foil, with black lettering and some white inside the gatefold just to break things up a bit.

Redolent of gold albums, yes … but also of shiny, shiny bullion, and sleekness, power and fortune.

’73, you’ll remember, was also the year Alice Cooper released Billion Dollar Babies, whose art and design were based heavily on dollar bills. Grand Funk went Vince Furnier and the lads one better, with a design that evokes one of the world’s most sought-after universal currencies.

And, when you think about it, a lot of people laid out a lot of bank to buy copies of We’re An American Band (and Billion Dollar Babies, for that matter). Behind that shiny gold cover was/is a rich river of millions of dollars of American teenage cash.

It’s enough to make a man go all Scrooge McDuck.

2. Vinyl. This is the other album I own on colored vinyl. And colored vinyl, in all its showy glory, earns an automatic placement in any Five For The Record entry.

You can guess which color it is.

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3. Starkers in a hayloft. Those among you who know We’re An American Band mentally corrected me a minute ago. There’s actually a fair amount of red, white and blue on the inside cover.

Though … well, that’s not where your eye is drawn when you look at the picture:

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If you were gay in 1973, you could enjoy this picture as a rare over-the-counter glimpse of male nudity, as an old acquaintance of mine who was gay in 1973 (and still is now) once described it to me.

If you were straight, you could take droll pleasure in considering any one of a number of questions and considerations:

What is Craig Frost looking at (or for)? Is someone standing just out of shot holding up his clothes?

Could Mel Schacher look any more emaciated, or any more pissed off?

Is it coincidence that Mark Farner, who seems to be enjoying the moment the most, is also the band member with the least body showing?

Why do I get the feeling Don Brewer is about to offer me cab fare and an invitation to see him backstage the next time he’s in town?

Is there some corollary between “American” and “naked” I’m missing? Did someone think, “Nothing says ‘American band’ quite like going naked”? (I mean, they could have dressed up like Uncle Sam and had their pictures taken at the head of the Flint Fourth of July Parade or something.)

If this is what they opted for, what kinds of ideas do you think they rejected?

And, from a modern-day perspective: Should we all thank Rock n’ Roll Jesus that there were basically no music videos in 1973?

4. Empty calories. Every album, even the great ones, has some filler tracks — a couple tunes that don’t shine as brightly as the others, and are pretty much there so the record can reach the required running length.

For whatever reason, I long ago recognized “Ain’t Got Nobody” — which holds the ideal filler-track position of Side Two, Track Two — as the epitome of the Seventies album track.

It’s not bad; it’s not good; it transcends both badness and goodness and lands in a hollow, unfulfilling sort of Beigeville.

This is a slippery thing to define, of course. What constitutes true mediocrity? And if the song stands out for something in my head, then it cannot be truly and completely empty, can it?

All I can do is rattle off the factors that make “Ain’t Got Nobody” a definitive example of the genre.

There’s the banal lyrics (“If she don’t come back, I’ll have a love attack”) … and the way the tempo bounces between plodding and double-time just for the sake of changing … and the use of two repetitive chords for most of the song … and the double-negative title …

… and, I dunno. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and maybe other people see “Ain’t Got Nobody”  as a hidden gem. To me, it is a peak of professionally produced but totally forgettable Seventies rock.

It’s not embarrassing. It’s not a fiasco. It’s just … there. And the album got finished.

5. Continuity. We’re An American Band closes with “The Loneliest Rider,” a stomping paean to the plight of the American Indian that might have been a real knockout in the hands of a better band. (Farner, who wrote and sang it, is of partial Cherokee ancestry, which I suppose redeems the simplistic poetry of his lyrics.)

Whatever its faults, “The Loneliest Rider” is perfectly placed for some of the continuity games that we music bloggers love to play.

The album begins with Brewer singing about being “on the road for 40 days.” The album ends with the last Indian riding a grimmer road — a road to oblivion reminiscent of the Trail of Tears.

“The Loneliest Rider” explicitly reminds us that the America that party-hearty Brewer traverses in the opening song (Little Rock and Omaha, anyone?) is built on land taken from its earliest inhabitants.

The album also begins with the energetic cowbell-driven thump of Brewer’s unaccompanied drums … and ends with the gradually faded-up sound of unaccompanied Native American tribal drumming. (A suitable place for the American Band to bring it all back home, no?)

In the hands of any other band but Grand Funk, this sort of full-circle stuff would be seen as Important … and Thematic … and Strong Meat. It may well have been coincidental, but I’m willing to give them credit.

Making music.

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The short version:

It took me almost 40 years to finish, but my first solo album has been released to the world.

(It’s not really an album, actually. At six songs, it’s really an EP. Just to be precise.)

No, seriously. I wrote and recorded a batch of songs and put ’em out online for anyone to download and listen to. Humor me, and sit through my manifesto, and I’ll tell you how and where.

The long version (pack a lunch):

Pop music blogging is all well and good.

But at its heart, it’s a reactive exercise. You’re discussing or debating something somebody else created. Whether you’re shredding it or singing hosannas to it, someone else is still doing the hard work, and you’re riding on their back.

Over time, that’s started to grind on me.

I think from time to time of Matt Resnicoff, a talented writer whose work used to appear regularly in the Guitar Player and Musician magazines I read as a teenager in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

(Resnicoff is most frequently remembered for a circa-1991 Musician cover story in which he depicted Eddie Van Halen as a drunken, irrelevant one-trick pony, scared to go outside his comfortable musical pocket. The ensuing 20 years have only confirmed the accuracy and prescience of Resnicoff’s vision.)

As it turned out, Resnicoff was also a skilled guitarist and producer, and he quit the writing scene to go into music. I don’t know the guy, but from what I understand, he seems to have decided that a life spent in musical creativity was preferable to a life spent sitting on expensive leather couches, talking to other people about their musical creativity.

I don’t think I’ll quit music blogging the way Resnicoff quit writing. As my friend Jim Bartlett, an excellent music blogger, likes to put it: “Gasbags gotta gas.”

But I liked the idea of sticking my neck out, and balancing the ledger a little bit, and getting some sort of semi-original creative work out there to counterbalance all the time I spend writing about other people’s efforts. Let everyone else have an opportunity to pick on me if they want.

Of course, I know that six scratched-together songs do not really even the score. Thirty years from now, people will not be discussing my lyrics or picking apart my choice of cover art online, the way music bloggers like me do to world-famous artists. I doubt two dozen people will listen, if that.

But, no one can accuse me of merely being a spectator who second-guesses others while producing nothing of my own.

Plus, making my own music has been a running joke/personal reference for years and years and years — going back to high school, the last time I was in a regularly practicing and performing band.

I’d come across a funny or unusual phrase — in a news story, say, or in conversation — and quip, “There’s the title of my first solo album” … thinking each time that, hey, wouldn’t a recording project be a new and interesting personal challenge?

So, years later, I finally bit down and did it.

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On the other side of the ledger from Resnicoff is a local musician I once knew. (I’m not gonna say whether “local” was the Lehigh Valley or somewhere else, to spare the poor guy some embarrassment if he stumbles across this.)

This guy had recorded a solo album, and I ended up with a copy. And it was … well, it was dreadful.

The guy couldn’t sing, even in a Dylanesque bad-but-good way. He was playing a poorly tuned 12-string acoustic guitar. The fidelity of the recording suggested he was singing and playing at the top of a staircase, while recording himself with a battered old boom box at the bottom. (He also didn’t write all that engagingly, which didn’t help.)

That put me off trying to make my own recording, literally for years.

Remember (name redacted)’s album? I would ask myself. That was embarrassingly bad — and that guy played in bands for years, so you’d think he knows what he’s doing. It’s harder to write good songs and make a decent-quality recording than you think it is. Don’t risk embarrassing yourself. Just don’t do it.

It took a lot of things to overcome that. Downloading Audacity sound-editing software for my PC was a first step; I learned it was possible to layer a couple of sound tracks on top of each other in a listenable way. The gift of a secondhand MacBook from my brother helped too, after I discovered that Garage Band was probably even easier and more intuitive than Audacity.

Goofy as this sounds, some of the people I’ve met on Twitter over the past few years have influenced this project, too. I know a number of interesting, cool, likeable, creative people here in the Lehigh Valley who have publicly espoused a “just do it” philosophy.

Don’t wait for someone else to make something cool happen, they say, and by all means don’t sit around complaining that nothing cool is happening. Go out and do something. Shake it up. Stick your neck out. Be creative.

(Or, as my man Graham Parker sang: “Get started. Start a fire.”)

There are some things I did not have that I would have liked, and that I used as excuses not to get started. A drummer was chief among them. No, actually, a good singing voice was chief among them. I fully recognize that I do not sing very well, and for a long time, the idea of my voice droning off-key was a major deterrent to making my own music.

But finally I decided to use the tools I had on hand and do the best I could with them.

So I did.

# # # # #

I am led to believe it’s popular nowadays for solo singer-songwriters to perform under band names (viz. Owl City.) I thought about that for a while — maybe making some music and sneaking it out under a generic name as though a band had made it, so if it got universally mocked, I could still keep my distance.

In the end I couldn’t do that. Putting out the music under a name other than my own felt dishonest, and contrary to the spirit of the project. The whole idea is to stick my neck out and challenge myself.

Maybe that decision will bite me on the arse; maybe it won’t.

(By the way, if anyone remembers the post in January when I wrote, “If somebody does something that’s cool in concept but embarrassing in execution, which side wins?,” this is the project I was thinking of. The jury is still out as to which side won — but in a couple of paragraphs you’ll have the chance to cast a vote.)

# # # # #

The EP has been uploaded to Bandcamp as a name-your-own-price download. That means people can download it for free if they want — and I expect people will do that. It doesn’t bother me.

For one thing, home recordings by an amateur who can’t sing and only knows four chords aren’t really worth much.

For another, I only expect that family and a few friends will ever download this; and I didn’t undertake this project so I could beat my friends and family out of beer money. That’s not what this is about.

Gasbags gotta gas. But here, after almost 1,300 words, is the payoff:

I have finally crept out of my comfort zone and tackled a project I’ve wanted to do for years.

After decades of yakking, joking and wishful thinking, the first Kurt Blumenau solo album actually exists. It’s called Summer Games, and again, it’s available on Bandcamp. Click here to get to the page.

If you’ve read this far, consider downloading it (again, free’s fine). If you do, by all means let me know what you think. And if you find something to like about it, consider sharing it with others.

Thanks.

Summer Games

Beginnings.

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Another dispatch from the Hog Butcher to the World.

It occurred to me the other day that, as a longtime fan of Chicago’s ’70s records, I ought to take some time during my first visit to the Windy City to make a pilgrimage to Walt Parazaider’s old apartment building.

According to an oft-repeated story, the original members of the band (except for Peter Cetera, who joined a little bit later) gathered in woodwind player Parazaider’s apartment on the North Side of Chicago in February 1967. Sharing a handshake, they agreed to pursue their vision of a jazz-tinged rock band with horns — originally under the name the Missing Links, then as the Big Thing, then as Chicago Transit Authority, and finally as Chicago.

I am just the sort of person to actually try to do something like this. Unfortunately, I’ve never come across a version of the story that states exactly where Parazaider was living at the time.

And unlike Boston, which recently placed a plaque at 1325 Commonwealth Ave. at the site of the first apartment shared by Aerosmith, the city of Chicago does not seem to have placed any public notices at the site of this momentous event. Apparently, eighteen platinum albums are not sufficient to draw the notice of the City that Works.

I note, though, that Parazaider holds a degree in classical clarinet from Chicago’s DePaul University. Since some versions of the story describe his digs as a “student apartment,” I’ll take the liberty of assuming he was still living in the vicinity of the college in 1967.

While riding the Chicago Transit Authority (no, the other Chicago Transit Authority) Red Line train to Wrigley Field the other night, I passed the Fullerton stop. The Fullerton stop backs up to DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, home to the college’s School of Music and, presumably, the general neighborhood where Parazaider was living. (DePaul’s soccer field is immediately adjacent to the train stop and can be seen from the train.)

So, while I can’t say I’ve seen the building where Chicago got started, I’ve probably at least seen the train stop where Robert Lamm, Terry Kath et. al. got off when they began their adventure.

Sure, why not.

That baby talk.

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I am in Chicago on business, drinking $4-a-sixpack beer and looking out at the Perrier-sipping shoppers on the Magnificent Mile from my fourteenth-floor hotel room.

I should probably be out enjoying the nightlife. But I am a solitary sort; and besides, a severe thunderstorm watch is in effect for Cook and surrounding counties, and I have no special desire to get soaked.

While out and about today, I did see a street sign for the Maxwell Street Sunday Market.

The famous open-air market has been moved twice in the past two decades or so. So it’s no longer in exactly the same place it was in the summer of 1979, when John Landis filmed John Lee Hooker and a band of Chicago blues veterans performing “Boom Boom” for the movie The Blues Brothers.

That scene confused the hell out of me when I first saw it as a kid. I couldn’t get my head around this sleepy-looking old guy mumbling about “that baby talk” in between vulpine growls of “a-how how how how!”

It seemed remarkable that two guys could drive so smoothly through a street thronged with foot traffic and not hit anybody, too.

Watching that scene through an adult’s eyes, Elwood Blues’ driving is still pretty unlikely, but I have a little better handle on “Boom Boom” than I did when I was 10.

Here’s the scene: