For rock 'n' roll fans, these are troubled times. Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with the emergence of the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, Limp Bizkit or any of the other cretins currently occupying the upper echelon of Billboard's Top 200. Manufactured pop stars, media-created phenomenons and shitty musical trends have a history as long as that of rock itself. Granted, the practice of packaging artists has taken a disturbing turn with record labels' most recent marketing device of peddling kiddie porn via ex-Mouseketeers like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. (If you have any doubts as to the selling points of the latter, check out the pre-boob job picture on the cover of Spears' multimillion-selling debut and note, as Magnet magazine columnist Phil Sheridan did, the hem on Spears' denim skirt "flipped back just enough to draw attention to what hockey types call the 'five hole.'")
Undoubtedly, such tripe will always have a place in the pop music landscape. What's of greater concern is the pathetic state of rock's once great icons. Most of them are either still dead (Johnny Thunders), completely forgotten (Ian Hunter) or both (Pete Ham). Worse are the ones that haven't completely faded from public view. Some are former rock poets trudging along as second-rate Andrew Lloyd Webber wanna-bes (Pete Townshend), bacchanalian wild men suffering through midlife crises (Iggy Pop) or musical trendsetters turned bloated stadium corpses trundling out tired high-dollar road shows and live-album souvenirs (the Rolling Stones).
The point of all this ranting, my friends, is that I have found -- to quote the inimitable Screamin' Huey Lewis -- the heart of rock and roll still beating in the form of The Go. The Detroit five piece's new album, Whatcha Doin', is easily and quite simply the best record of the year. No rush of flowery adjectives would be as effective in describing the band's sound as pointing to their influences, both obvious (Stooges, MC5, Who) and more subtle (T-Rex, Fugs, Deviants).
Singer Bobby Harlow is another in a long line of talented Michigan shouters, with a voice that oozes back-seat sexuality and rock and roll salvation at the same time. He works those twin poles of expression with amazing conviction, following a line full of predatory menace ("You know what I mean/Give me what I need") with assuring redemption ("Don't cry baby, it'll be all right/Rock and roll will give me what I need.")
Unlike the effective but unmelodic machine gun attack of the MC5, The Go knows how to use tasty hooks to reel listeners in. Check the choruses of "Tired of the Night" and "You Can Get High" -- songs that merge guitar-smashing energy with focused pop songcraft.
At just over 38 minutes, the 12 song disc aims for economy with only half the songs clocking in at more than three minutes. Still, the band doesn't favor punk/garage simplicity to the exclusion of other important influences. Like any group of good Detroit youths, a strong R&B feel permeates the music of The Go. Flashes of the Rationals, Mitch Ryder and other like-minded soul screamers can be heard on "Keep on Trash" and "Meet Me at the Movies." While the band's funkier side comes through in "On the Corner," a cut (complete with opening ooh- and uhh-yeahs) that positively bulges and struts in a way that flaccid '70's rockers like Lou Gramm and Paul Rodgers only dreamed of doing.
The guitars of Jack White and John Krautner bristle with chunky riffing that plays like a refresher course on rock and roll simplicity tracing all the way back to Chuck Berry, through to Steve Jones and points in between. Bassist Dave Buick and drummer Mark Fellis man the bottom with a similar nod to the days when a fat beat actually had something to do with a live rhythm section.
To some ears the production on Whatcha Doin' may sound lo-fi. And it is, but not in any four-track-basement-dwelling guru kind of way. The sonic treatment on the album is 100 percent garage. But the band (and the tasteful retro-minded knob-turning of producer Matthew Smith) doesn't attempt to hide its affinity for pop accoutrements like properly placed hand claps, shoutin' harmonies and shakin' tambourines.
Granted, The Go is covering familiar ground. In its long gone heyday, the best rock and roll was loud, fun and meaningful. Whatcha Doin' proves that it can be all those things once again. -- Bob Mehr
The Arizona musical highway is littered with plenty of corpses, particularly when it comes to those shooting stars of the mid '80s whose occasional brushes with national and international acclaim cruelly set them up as road kill. This was, recall, the pre-Nirvana era.
In the case of Tucson psychedelic roots-rockers Green on Red, geographical relocation (first, to Los Angeles, then, following a major lineup shuffle, to England) helped keep the curse of the desert at bay, but eventually that curse found its way across the pond and into a syringe. Technically, no one died, but a lot of dreams were dashed, and more than a little promise was squandered.
Thankfully, Green on Red founding member Chris Cacavas steered his destiny along a different route. Following the aforementioned split in '87, he wound up in San Francisco and put together a new band, Chris Cacavas & Junkyard Love, issuing a pair of excellent albums for the Heyday label in '89 and '92. Cacavas then spent the bulk of the '90s focusing his sights on Europe, where pretty much any Yank with a folksy/bluesy guitar sound could earn a steady living releasing records and touring.
That's where Dwarf Star comes in. It is not, despite the CD's '99 copyright date, a new recording, but rather a reissue of the songwriter's 1995 album. However, it was released in Germany on the Return to Sender label as a hard-to-find limited edition. (The label also issued Cacavas' '93 album Six String Soapbox plus recordings from Giant Sand, Steve Wynn, and others.) So, it's a welcome release.
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Significantly or not, Cacavas' reintroduction to the U.S. market is one of his more low-key efforts, with Dwarf Star finding Junkyard Love doing the unplugged thing, and to great effect. Cacavas can rock out with the best of them, but his upper-register, slightly fragile vocal style -- roughly, a cross between Alex Chilton and Neil Young -- is fully complemented by the semi-acoustic arrangements and boozy/woozy ambiance that are registered here.
In fact, the first cut is named after some misbegotten dive ("The Crying Shame"), and, against a backdrop of twangy dobro and acoustic guitars riffing on a melodic "Sweet Jane" variation, Cacavas none-too-delicately chronicles one of his favorite subjects: misery ("Self-control's up on the shelf/I checked in here to drown myself/Set up another/So much pain I can't forget/With your help I'll get there yet"). That subject turns out to be a recurring one; in the solo acoustic ballad "Riverside Drive" Cacavas predicts that "bitter tears will soon be wept," while his lone cover choice, not so coincidentally, is Matthew Sweet's "Someone to Pull the Trigger."
Misery and self-loathing have always been fertile ground for songwriters. Unfortunately, that territory has been staked out of late by alterna-bands whose concept of misery revolves around not having gotten, as a kid, the proverbial pat on the head from Mumsy and Daddy. Cacavas, true to his traditionalist roots, invokes classic imagery to suggest something deeper. The opening line "driving my Barracuda in the middle of the night," for example, in "Honking at Demons," can be taken at face value, but when the singer's musings turn to dark memories and even darker fantasies, it's clear that the nighttime journey involves more than just gassing up and peeling out. The song has an astonishing purity to it. Its lachrymose accordion, tense guitar strums and hesitant, subtly martial percussion are the very models of sonic introspection.
As a songwriter, of course, Cacavas honks at his demons in order to exorcise them. And most likely the "I" in at least some of his songs is that of a writer's character speaking in the first person. Of course, this is a man who sings "I like Lyle Lovett/I'd like to shake his hand/He can write a song/That I can understand" (in "I Like Lyle Lovett"). Lovett, of course, is not exactly known for stockpiling sunnier-than-thou ditties. But misery, as the saying goes, can be sweet. Especially if you've got someone like Cacavas on the other side of the bar, ready to pour the drinks and willing to commiserate. -- Fred Mills Go to Stan Freberg