Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review of The Good Rats' "Tasty"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website this morning:

It's hard to believe today, but in the 1970s, Long Island had a vibrant original music scene. The legal drinking age was 18. The vehicle seizure laws for DWI arrests were decades away. MADD wasn't yet mad. SADD wasn't yet sad. Consequently, on a suburban island where everybody drives everywhere, there was a vibrant club scene for live music, with large clubs that would pack them in on the weekend, and sometimes even during the week. Out of this scene came bands like Twisted Sister and Zebra. And the kings of pack, standing a step above them all were The Good Rats.

For awhile, it seemed like The Rats were going to break it big nationally. The played venues like Madison Square Garden, The Nassau Coliseum, The Philadelphia Spectrum and even The Hammersmith Odeon in England, playing on the same bill and sometimes headlining for bands like Rush, Journey, Kiss, Meatloaf, Aerosmith and Ozzy Osborne, and all the while receiving FM airplay across the country.

Why they didn't make to the same heights as these other bands is unclear. Some have suggested that at some point, they ticked off the wrong record executives and got blackballed for it. Regardless, if you listen to the Good Rats' music, you hear a hard rock band that elegantly mixed in elements of jazz and blues, a band with strong musical fundamentals and a powerful vocalist who was also a sophisticated songwriter. And as most Rats fans will tell you, Tasty is the band's masterpiece.

Weighing in at 10 songs, the album is a lean, mean masterpiece. It showcases the band's best-known song, the quirky title number, which still gets a little airplay today on so-called classic rock stations, plus a number of other first-rate tracks.

"Tasty" is an atypical number for the Rats. It starts out quietly, as lead singer Peppi Marchello sings about how various ex-band members were replaced, such as the "flying guitar man" who was "going nowhere fast", or the "man named Crazy Ott" who "overplayed his bass a lot", each fired from the band because they couldn't play "tasty". As the song progresses, the tempo picks up as each of the current band members gets to show off their chops. It's kind of a novelty number, but a clever one. Although it's probably their most famous song, it's not the best one on the album.

There are at least 3 songs on Tasty that I'd rate as "excellent". The first is "Injun Joe", based on the Mark Twain character. This is a mid-tempo song that features a driving Native American drumbeat, some of Marchello's angriest lyrics (as the title character rails against society with lines like "I'm gonna take their black robes/I'm gonna wipe my waste on them,") and an excellent instrumental bridge that allows guitarist John "The Cat" Gatto and the rest of the band to shine.

Also top-notch is "Papa Poppa", a powerful rock number that laments the personal frailty of the younger generation who get drawn into things like religious cults because they "worship Mother Dear," even as they cry out for rescue: "Papa Poppa, where have you gone? ... Disciplinarian, where have you gone?" 

Perhaps the best of all is Marchello's most autobiographical song, "The Songwriter". This song closes the album, and by the end of Marchello's career, it was also the song The Rats used to close almost all of their live shows. "The songwriter can make you laugh or cry," he sings. "He's pumping gas at night just to survive/And all he asks of you is to sing his songs/and put his name in lights where it belongs."

All of the other songs on Tasty are at least worthwhile. The basic sound is hard rock, but with some sophisticated embellishments, and a couple of unconventional numbers thrown in for good measure (besides the album's title track, there's a tongue-in-cheek song called "Fred Upstairs and Ginger Snappers" which sounds like a number from a 1930s dance film). Marchello's vocals are somewhere between Geddy Lee and Meatloaf, the songs feature strong two- and three-part harmonies throughout, and while Gatto's guitar playing stands out, the rest of the band (Mickey Marchello on rhythm guitar and vocals, Lenny Kotke on the bass and Joe Franco on drums) are no slouches either.

Peppi Marchello and The Good Rats may not have ultimately seen their name "in lights", but they were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Tasty was one of the reasons why. Hopefully some new listeners will give it a listen, and partake in some of the pleasure it's given Rats fans over the years.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Sneak peek: My next Sputnik review, hopefully in a week or so, will be of Memories of Love by Future Bible Heroes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick's "Sunfighter"

One of the things I like about the Sputnik Music site is it gives me a chance to review some albums (old or otherwise), to expose them to some people who may never have heard them.

The first review I wrote for the site was for Paul Kantner and Grace Slick's 1971 album Sunfighter. I'm copying it for you here:

Sunfighter was released in 1971 by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, a year before the dissolution of Jefferson Airplane and 3 years before the start of Jefferson Starship. For my money, it's stronger than anything they ever recorded with either of those two bands, a true unknown jewel of an album.

It starts right off with a bang with "Silver Spoon," Grace's ode to cannibalism, and how great is that? With lyrics like "Your mama told you never /To eat your friends up with your fingers and hands/But I say you ought to eat what you will/Shove it in your mouth any way that you can," this song grabs you right from the start and never lets go. I'd always assumed the song was a tongue-in-cheek critique of man's (or in this case, woman's) cruelty to man, but it turns out that Slick wrote this as a slap in the face to militant vegetarians. Regardless, the combination of a really superior Slick vocal, a piano line that holds the song together, and sprinklings of Papa John Creach's electric violin, makes this one of the two strongest tracks on the album.

The other is "When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves," Kantner's nod to the feral life, wherein he imagines himself running through the hills at night with his pack while Gracie taunts him (and us) "I suppose you could yell at your dog/He'd be barking his face right back at you!" This song has a great slow guitar intro, then picks up the pace as the wolfpack launches into action.

There is also plenty of hippie chic and San Francisco psychedelia throughout the album, in songs like the title track "Sunfighter", a number that laments the destruction of the environment, and the beautiful rolling piano of "Million", a song about people coming together.

The album cover depicts two hands rising up out of the ocean and holding up a naked baby, who, in fact, was Kantner and Slick's daughter China Kantner. And although I think that their ode to her, "China" is actually one of the weaker tracks on the album, it's notable for the unfortunate first line"She'll suck on anything you give her," a lyric I'm sure the child really appreciated when she reached middle school. (Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad!)

"China" excepted, though, the album is generally first-rate, featuring most of the members of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship playing on various tracks, plus guest musicians and vocalists like Jerry Garcia, David Crosby and Graham Nash. Even the two shortest numbers, "Diana" and "Diana 2" pack an impact, as they are both not only worthwhile odes to the Roman hunter goddess, but also social commentaries.

Paul Kantner passed away this past January, but Sunfighter is great example of some of his, and Grace Slick's, finest work. It's an album that captures the spirit of the early seventies and it's also just a great deal of musical fun. I recommend it to all listener's open to the sixties/seventies San Francisco sound.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Late September, and I'm So Behind

You'd think that with me hardly working all summer, I'd be all caught up on my new-music listening, but it actually works the other way. I've gotten so used to doing my new-music listening in my car, driving to and from work, that when I'm not working I actually get further behind. So I'll be really lucky to even have my Best of 2016 lists done by March like I usually do. Pretty sad.

Best new stuff I've heard since my last post are the new Garbage CD, which didn't grab me at first, but then it grew on me, and new the CD by Tegan and Sarah, which is catchy, although I have to say it seems like more of the same from these two. I'm not complaining (maybe I am?) -- I like what they do, so more of it is OK. But it doesn't seem like they're challenging themselves (or their listeners) at all, so I don't know. I'm still sorting out my feelings about it.

Meanwhile, I've got so much new music for 2016 that I've decided (reluctantly) to toss the Nightwish album out of contention for the Best of 2016 stuff. I love the album, but it's really from 2015. Would have likely made my Top 10, though.

While I've had some downtime, I've been continuing to use the Sputnik Music site. It works kind of like Wikipedia -- it's user driven. So I've been updating webpages in some of the more neglected areas of the site, including their obscure '80s bands (like Haircut 100), their southern rock bands (Poco, anyone?), and their (God help me!) soft rock bands (think Christopher Cross. OK, don't). I've also added some obscure novelty bands, like Killer Pussy, the Sic Fucks, Total Coelo and The Chainsmokers.

One thing makes me kind of sad, though. The majority of the site's users seem to be college kids and twenty-somethings, and there are a lot of metal heads on there. It can be kind of cool in some ways. For example, someone recently created a list of their top 20 (or so) albums by Finnish Death Metal bands. Now, I wouldn't have thought you could even get 20 different Finnish Death Metal albums in the U.S., and I'll be damned if I don't check a couple of them out -- I'm all about experiencing new things. So the site can be very educational.

But interacting on the site has really driven home to me that no matter how much you love music, and how determined you are to stay up to date with new music, sooner or later, your tastes just become more peculiar to yourself, and it's just impossible to stay relevant to the music of today.

You'd have thought having kids would have taught me that, but I've always just figured that your kids have to hate your music whether they really do or not. It's automatic. They'd get kicked out of the union if they ever admitted they liked something you like.

But my interactions on the Sputnik site have driven home to me that it's just impossible for a 59-year-old man to hear music the same way a twenty-something does. When I listen to '70s music, I'm remembering when it was still new, but when they listen to '70s music, they hear it as oldies, something from the distant past. And I hear new music differently, too. I hear it through ears experiencing it in context with almost five decades worth of music listening, while they're hearing it almost fresh.

So even the new stuff I like is very different from what they like, and it's not true just of me vs. the metal kids, but even of me vs. the alternative kids. I liked last year's Sufjan Stevens album, for example. I thought it was quiet, with some moments of real beauty. But there was also something a little off-putting about it. I think because of the subject matter, there's an aspect of it that was unpleasant, sort of like having to visit a friend in the hospital.

But these kids love it! It was near the top of almost every Best of 2015 list I've seen on the site. And stuff that was simpler, but for me more enjoyable, like the new Matt and Kim album, is kind of looked down on there. The number one alternative album of 2016 on Sputnik Music so far is the new one from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a band I've just never been able to drum up enough interest in to even check out.

I don't know. Maybe this is just particular to the users of this site. But I've noticed that even on YouTube, reviewers I like such as John of ARTV review a lot of stuff I like, but he hears it way differently than I do. And I have the uncomfortable feeling that a lot of what I'm hearing as cutting-edge pop rock, they're hearing as (gulp!) generic soft rock.

Basically, I think what I'm saying is I just can't get these damned kids off of my lawn!

Ah, what do they know? I think it's really that my taste is right, and theirs is underdeveloped. At least, that what's I'm going to keep telling myself.


On a completely different subject, I recently watched The Eurythmics' Peacetour concert DVD, and I thought it was first-rate. It inspired me to go and listen to their Peace CD, an album I never gave that much attention too. Unfortunately, the results for that were mixed. The first half of the album is excellent, but the last third or so is kind of boring. I do recommend that concert DVD, though. It features the best of the Peace album, plus a bunch of their classics. And Annie Lennox was in fine voice that night.


Anyway, I have to go take some Geritol and wring out my Depends.

Later, guys.