Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
If any CD can test your tolerance levels, it's Leisure Noise. On three separate occasions, it stared up indignantly from high atop my trade-in pile as if to say, "It's because I'm Gay Dad, isn't it?"
Gay Dad is a provocative name, to be sure, but it's one that also suggests a father who embarrasses you in front of your friends. On the first few listens, "Black Ghost" sounded more like the Alan Parsons Project than something new and exciting outta England. Ditto for the band's overproduced first single, "From Earth With Love," which suggests Supertramp trying to be Supergrass. The second single, "Joy," fares a lot better, where the band makes like Pulp covering Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line" and deciding it can write a better song halfway through. Even better than that was single number three, "Oh Jim," which gently pinches the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" for its verses and Radiohead's "High and Dry" for its choruses.
At first, you find yourself not wanting to root for an album that gives you flashbacks of The Bends, but then you begin to admire the band's maddening multiple choices:
A) Front man Cliff Jones singing "I see you," like the Byrds song of the same name, regardless that it's going half-speed over the interstellar overdrive of "Dim Star."
B) "Black Ghost," where Jones sings "free me" in falsetto just like Roger Daltrey's full-throated tilt in McVicar.
C) Whoever the whooshing bass player is (the CD lists no personnel), he's Gay Dad's chief secret weapon, filling all the empty spaces like blue fluid in a lava lamp.
D) Sampling an obscure record like "The Bublight" for six seconds as a heads-up to the Joe Meek Appreciation Society.
Having a healthy rock hero worship makes sense since Gay Dad is fronted by a former British music journalist. Much of his limey press brethren have dismissed Cliff Jones and company with NME headlines like "Future of Rock and Roll or Third Rate Industry Hype?" Maybe with all the monochromatic acts out there now, it takes too much work to process a band with elastic eclecticism. Can you fault a group for having too many good ideas? While this isn't a perfect album, you get the feeling that one may be waiting just down the road, when Jones finally figures out who he wants to be and surpasses that.
From Gay Dad, we go straight to . . . Gray Dad -- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's long-awaited reunion record, Looking Forward. After one spin, I was ready to dismiss this with a one-line Gene Shalit review like, "I'm looking forward to trading this in." Maybe it was seeing one formerly loathed CD ingratiate itself into heavy rotation on my home system, or just the peace and brotherly love sentiments that bedevil us all during the holiday season, but suddenly I found myself wanting to give this CSN&Y album a chance. I know, I know, bad idea. But if you're like me and never had any grandparents, you don't much mind having old people around repeating the same stories over and over.
If you've heard even one CSN album, you know the drill. Invariably, Crosby will sing about somehow wanting to wave his freak flag -- last album he wished he was a camera! Stills will probably grump about some injustice that's disturbing his personal space or complain about a woman who doesn't understand him. Nash will remind us about the children or some ecological disaster and invariably there'll be a song about sailing a boat somewhere.
That pretty much holds true for Looking Forward, except Neil Young's presence ups the ante from zilch since he's still considered a major artist. The press release story that these old friends suddenly found themselves reuniting without planning it is fairly ludicrous. It's been almost six years since the last CSN album, and the group was apparently in the midst of working on a "self-financed/ produced album," which means even Atlantic -- their label since inception -- finally lost faith in the franchise. Eventually, they wound up on Neil's label, and his climbing aboard the Gray Dad barge seems like a generous career-saving gesture.
Neil supposedly "recorded way too many songs" for his next solo album and contributed four here -- you don't suppose he gave them the best ones, do you? He probably had no problem parting with "Slowpoke," which sounds like "Heart of Gold" whirling around in a blender.
CSN and sometimes Y were never a real "band," more like four solo careers fighting for album space. It's pretty telling that the only time they've ever had dual lead vocals on a song was "Wooden Ships," a song Crosby and Stills shared writing credits on. When you hear Young take a verse after Nash on the pretty "Sansibel," it's less out of a sense of "gee, we never did this before" and more likely because no one in the band wrote it. Or maybe because it's another song about sailing a goddamned boat.
If every CSN&Y album reeks of a cutting contest, it's no surprise that Young's farts come out smelling like potpourri. Nash's stash comes in a distant second by virtue of writing the least offensive songs in the batch. No one really comes in third here; it's more like a two-way tie for last. Crosby turns in two boring songs, one about wanting to "Stand Up and Be Counted" and the other a meandering meditation of how Crosby would like to teach his children well.
Even that torture can't compare to Stills, whose freedom rock these days sounds more like your crabby neighbor yelling, "Hey, you kids, get away from my car!" The press release claims Stills' "Seen Enough" was "inspired by Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.'" If you ever wondered what that list of gripes would sound like slowed down enough so Burl Ives could reel them off, be my guest. Makes you wish Stephen would just cover "Silver and Gold" and "Holly Jolly Christmas" -- kids would really love him for that. Instead, he pushes for a third song on this album, an unprecedented feat unless your name is Neil. Too bad "Faith in Me" is Stills' excuse for pulling Joe Vitale and his timbales out of storage -- so he can write a song that the rasta lobster in The Little Mermaid might want to cover on his next LP.
Relics that they are, Gray Dad has one thing Gay Dad doesn't have, and that's tons of personality. Take the title track, "Looking Forward," where Young dares himself to write a song for the album without using the word "old" and then proceeds to use it twice. Looking Forward won't give CSN&Y relevancy in today's youth-obsessed world, but maybe that's not the point. I once heard a guy complain that when he went to a CSN concert, he watched them high-five each other after every single number. It makes you think it's not whether you win or lose the audience that counts, but just getting through the damned song without kicking the bucket. -- Serene Dominic
The Okra All-Stars
The Okra All-Stars
Hammer and Nails
A double helpin' served up by Dave Schramm (ex-Yo La Tengo, Schramms) and some friends. First up: the Okra All-Stars, whose sense of cheek is matched only by their bubbling-over pool of talent. Less a group and more a collective with four lead vocalists who swap off, the Okras' instrumentation is diversely rewarding: loads of stringed thangs like Dobro, mandolin, hacksaw fiddle, electric tremolo guitar, lap steel, etc. Ricky Barnes, Hank McCoy, Jeb Loy Nichols and Schramm sing their hearts out with the easy conviction of West Virginia hillbilly siblings (Schramm is also one of the nine instrumentalists), traversing territory that'll be instantly familiar and appealing to fans of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Doc & Merle Watson, Coal Porters and other broad-based country/bluegrass/rock outfits.
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Worth noting: covers of "One of These Days" (sweet and tender, with a terrific vocal duet between Barnes and McCoy) and "Purple Rain." For the latter, Schramm's backwoods tenor is oddly but perfectly suited, and the twangy arrangement suggests that a full volume of The Artist's material for the Pickin' On . . . series, which has yielded bluegrass treatments of Dylan, Springsteen, Hendrix, the Dead and Neil Young to date, is in order. Maybe featuring Schramm collaborating with Yo La's James McNew, who has himself issued a cassette-only collection of Prince covers, That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice . . . but I digress.
Actually, perhaps I should diverge by way of segue: Schramm left Yo La after its first album, 1986's Ride the Tiger, and proceeded to issue a string of low-key but exceedingly fine albums with his band the Schramms. (Last year's Dizzy Spell is highly recommended.) He also did a limited-edition solo album, Folk und die Folgern, for Germany's Return to Sender label (not so coincidentally, that label featured the A&R involvement of one Pat Thomas, now head of Innerstate, which released the Okra All-Stars record); and he moonlighted with class acts like Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, Richard Buckner, the Replacements, Freedy Johnston and more. Now Schramm's got his proper U.S. solo debut, and I'm pleased to say, Hammer and Nails is as sweet a listen as they come. Not only does he reprise "The Way Some People Die" from Ride the Tiger (here, as a kind of Nebraska-style harmonica/acoustic guitar number), he boldly adapts an Emily Dickinson poem as "Funeral Song" to great effect (it suggests Townes Van Zandt doing "The Times They Are A Changin'").
Elsewhere, one encounters strummy country-folk numbers ("From a Word") and haunting, ethereal instrumentals; "Lambent Lullaby" is clearly informed by some of John Fahey's more straightforward picking excursions, while "Ragle Gumm" is delicate, sparse and sepulchral, with Schramm whispering the words over an arrangement of twangy Dobro and minimalist organ. In general, this album provides a wealth of gets-under-your-skin material suitable for early-morning meditation, midday relaxation or late-night commiseration. -- Fred Mills