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Chuck Eddy Gets Collected

Chuck Eddy, the music critic with the sensationalist, foaming-at-the-mouth viewpoints, has spent the past 30 years voraciously consuming new records. And he is almost full.

“The first litmus test is looking at the press release, and if it compares the band to Bon Iver, Animal Collective, or Grizzly Bear, chances are that I’m not going to get to that one,” Eddy says. “And that’s going to be a lot.”

In an essay accompanying the 2009 Pazz & Jop poll that appears in his new book, the idiosyncratic and tireless Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism (Duke), Eddy bemoaned the decline of “salt-of-the-earth stuff” like Bruce Springsteen in “the most whimsically insular prissy-pants indie-rock-centric Top 10 albums list in Pazz & Jop history.” Eddy blamed a contracting journalism industry for forcing out career music crits in favor of will-work-for-free Internet avant-gardists who follow Pitchfork’s every move.

Eddy had a good vantage point: He edited the Voice music section from 1999 to 2006 and was obsessed with Pazz & Jop. While at the University of Detroit in the late ’70s, his discovery of the annual critic’s poll turned him on to rock and roll and diverted his attention from his parents’ deaths. Later, while stationed in Germany with the Army, he submitted to then-music editor Robert Christgau an 11-page “manifesto” that inspired Christgau to start routinely publishing critics’ comments.

But since moving to Austin, Texas, in 2009 with his second wife and their three-year-old daughter, Eddy’s priorities have shifted. He listens to music of yesteryear, he has stopped going to therapy, and he has curbed his worst addiction. “The last couple years, I haven’t submitted comments to Pazz & Jop,” Eddy says. “I’m detaching myself from the conversation in some ways. Like, I kind of don’t care about having an opinion about the Jay-Z and Kanye album.”

Eddy, 50, is still in the game: He works as a contract editor for the online music service Rhapsody and continues to serve as a go-to expert for heavy metal, the topic of his cult-classic book Stairway to Hell. But as a matter of the shrinking music-crit landscape, Rock and Roll Always Forgets feels like a swan song.

It will leave behind a legacy that at first blush seems devoutly contrarian, though according to Eddy, that definition has been misapplied his whole career. “A lot of what I write about—this goes for Debbie Gibson, who I wrote about in 1988 or whatever—is stuff that’s out there that just seems like it’s part of the world that’s being ignored,” Eddy says.

Rock and Roll champions a number of these acts with proprietary arguments, whether heralding Huey Lewis’s Sports in the context of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint or asserting that country acts Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith were tops in all music genres in the ’00s because of their anti-red politics “in a nightmare conservative decade getting its wars on.”

At the heart of the book, though, is a man dealing with the loss of his parents. This is a refrain in many of the chapter introductions, written last year in a state of life-spanning reflection. The subject also figures in his profile of Eminem, “The Daddy Shady Show: Eminem’s Family Values,” in which Eddy tangentially equates the rapper’s against-all-odds struggle to be a good dad with his own.

Eddy’s unflinching ability to connect the dots between what he’s hearing and what he’s living makes Rock and Roll an electric read. It should trip wires in the minds of not just aspiring and current critics but also casual listeners who might not realize how much is below the surface of what they’re hearing. “This,” Eddy says, “is what music criticism used to be capable of.”

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Marissa Paternoster’s Bold Awakening

While on tour last month, New Jersey punk band Screaming Females’ old Dodge conversion van broke down in deathly hot Las Cruces, New Mexico, prompting the trio to cancel their remaining shows and rent a U-Haul truck to tow themselves home, only to break down in Arkansas meth-head country not once, not twice, but three more times, with flat tires.

It was a hellacious ordeal exquisitely recounted by lead (and only actual) Female Marissa Paternoster in a 5,000-word blog entry on the band’s website. But the tragedy only affirmed the do-it-yourself ethic the band so righteously embraces—from the early CD-R solo albums she recorded on her dad’s laptop to drummer Jarrett Dougherty pulling double-duty as their manager to the cover art and T-shirts they design themselves. For this band, DIY is serious business: “I think that when people know that you work really hard to do something you care about, and you do it by yourself and on your own terms,” Paternoster says, “it gives your music and actions kind of like a stamp of authenticity, so that people don’t think you’re phony or you’re, like, lying to them.”

That’s some bold talk for a 23-year-old who could pass for 13 on account of her five-foot frame and raggedy Justin Bieber mop-top, but she backs it up with tough, charismatic vocals and bloody-fingers guitar theatrics, both further showcased on her ravaging proper debut solo album, Holy Hell (out last week under the moniker Noun), and the fourth Females album, Castle Talk, due out September 14. Paternoster wrote all the songs on Hell herself, with occasional musical assists from the boy Females and various friends, along with creative direction from her mom, who designed the cover art. The album is perhaps a little more power pop than the Females’ customary thrash, but what clearly separates it is her move from guitars exclusively to organs and keys periodically, as well as her brutally honest, introspective lyrics, all of which are delivered with the mettle of Sleater-Kinney and the rest of the riot grrrl acts that so influenced her.

“I mean,” Paternoster begins over her cell, aboard her Mazda hatchback (the band’s new ride) as the Females cross the Canadian border on tour with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “more so than the weird, hard-line feminist mentality that’s associated with riot grrrl—which meant a lot to me, but I’d never really identified too strongly with it—I think, just it kind of being queer-centric, especially when I was like 16 and I was very troubled by the fact that I was gay, helped me a lot with stuff. Yeah. Listening to that music made me feel better.”

Hell starts with the brooding “Black Lamb,” a piano ode to someone whose hair Paternoster possibly regrets pulling, wherein she quivers, “I will win the contest/When my best friend dies.” I ask her what that means. “I don’t really wanna tell people what to think or how to feel about a song,” she replies, belying less a lack of transparency than a combination of a songwriter’s boredom with self-analysis and the complexity inherent in such a mysterious song, seemingly a first-person tale of obsession wrapped up in a sexual-identity reawakening.

An easier song to dissect is “Old Friends.” It starts with a scuzzy guitar riff on repeat, Paternoster’s ascending bark augmented by another overdubbed vocal, keys, and drums. That turns into a drum solo, which advances the crescendo, but then it all collapses, leaving you to wonder where your own friends have gone. Paternoster, as Noun, defies her age with these two-and-a-half-minute nuggets of affliction and healing, including the album’s title track, a peerless, dark-as-night song about finding your own religion. Even that, she intends to do herself.

The Screaming Females play the Voice’s Siren Festival July 17

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All Roky Erickson Needs Is Love

It’s Record Store Day, and Roky Erickson has just finished signing autographs at Waterloo Records in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Now, he’s treating himself to ice cream—rocky road!—as his partner, Dana Morris, shows him a book of bumper-sticker photos she just bought. One is written upside-down. “If you can read this,” Erickson begins, reciting it word for word, “then you are crazy as a nut.” 

That’s not how the bumper sticker ends—it says something about rolling your SUV—but perhaps this is Erickson’s way of acknowledging what he is not. Namely, crazy as a nut.

Most crazy people don’t come back from the insane asylum, electroshock treatment, illicit drug use, and alien encounters that have besieged Erickson these past 40 years, as is startlingly conveyed in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. And they certainly don’t record a triumphant comeback album at 62, as he has now done with True Love Cast Out All Evil, a glorious new collection of autobiographical numbers culled from his old songbooks and meticulously recast by Will Sheff and his Austin rock band, Okkervil River.

“When I heard the songs,” Sheff explains, “there were 60 to choose from, and there are songs like ‘Please, Judge’ [a broken-down piano ballad with a chorus of cicadas, written by Erickson while at Rusk State Hospital following a drug bust in ’69] and ‘Be and Bring Me Home’ [another incarceration song, with redemptive effects fit for an Irish pub following a wake] . . . I just really fell in love with the songs. I knew that as long as I didn’t screw it up, the songs would speak for themselves.”

True Love is truly symphonic, with tranquil touches and a rise-and-fall-and-rise completeness. It’s a much different feel from when Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators beat the Grateful Dead to psychedelia with 10-plus-minute, peyote-laced jams, later inventing horror rock (heavy metal, really) with songs like “Two Headed Dog” and “Bloody Hammer.” True Love is the at-peace Erickson, his voice front and center, shedding his various myths. (Have you heard the one about the time he levitated?)

Sheff asks Erickson to name his favorite song on the album. “Well, the one you like,” Erickson replies. “I like ‘Fore’ [as in “Forever,” a dreamy Roy Orbison–inspired song about “the pleasure of knowing one’s own name”]. And I like ‘I Am’—’I Am Satan’s All-Purpose Love,’ or something like that.”

“Wait, which song is that?” Sheff asks.

“I am,” Erickson starts singing softly, “dum, dum, I am Satan’s all-purpose love.” He then quotes the Greek-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff: “Life is only real, then, when I am.”

Erickson drank a lot of vinegar and honey to preserve his voice for these songs, a trick he learned from his mom, a classically trained singer. Sheff also helped him prepare by playing him old r&b music before each session. Indeed, the Okkervil River gang helped him focus. “Sometimes, you just have to make sure that you have guidance,” Erickson says. “Because some things can really be, I guess, annoying to people, and so I try to always just have faith that I’m doing the right thing and have patience. If you do it, do it right.”

I ask Erickson what love means to him, in reference to True Love‘s title track, a song he says his mom asked him to write, and whose titular refrain he sings with Elvis-like bravado.

“Well, I like that song by the Beatles,” he replies, attempting to sing it: “All you need is . . . help . . . somebody to help you write a song.”

“Do you think love is a really important thing to have in your life?” Sheff asks.

“Love is a good thing, yeah.” Just then, a little boy comes over, says hi, and grabs Erickson’s doughy hand, as if to shake it. Erickson obliges and says, “OK, thank you.”

Roky Erickson and Okkervil River play Webster Hall May 25

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Q&A: Crazy Heart Author Thomas Cobb on His Character Bad Blake, Deer Tick, and Why Chet Atkins Killed Country

Bad Blake, the main character in Crazy Heart, played onscreen by Jeff Bridges, embodies the ugly side of the glorified outlaw-country lifestyle. He’s a stone-cold drunk. He’s been an absent father to his son, who’s now grown and wants nothing to do with him. And he’s jealous of the success of his musical partner in crime, Tommy Sweet, who he considers a sellout now that Sweet is playing mainstream country. But all of this changes, and 57-year-old Bad finally grows up, when he falls for small-town journalist Jean Craddock and her adorable little son.

This road-to-redemption story is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Cobb. Cobb wrote the book under the tutelage of postmodernist Donald Barthelme, borrowing from his own experiences covering country for a music magazine in the ’80s. Were it not for Barthelme, Cobb says, the book “never would have seen the light of day,” and Cobb would have never been prompted to break Bad’s ankle halfway through the story.

Cobb has since published two more books, but neither has resonated like Crazy Heart, which on film boasts three Oscar nominations: Best Actor for Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake, Best Supporting Actress for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean Craddock, and Best Original Song for Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett’s “The Weary Kind.” (Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet wasn’t too bad, either.)

In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, I spoke with Cobb by phone from his home in Rhode Island, where he’s relocated after stretches in Arizona and Texas. Cobb talked about the differences between the book and the movie, why Chet Atkins killed country, and the price people are willing to pay for a hardcover edition of Crazy Heart.

A lot has been said about who Bad Blake is based on. Jeff Bridges seems like Waylon Jennings to me. Who’s your Bad Blake?

Well, you know, the book is 20 years older than the movie. Waylon Jennings was somebody I actually thought about as possibly starring in the film as Bad. He wasn’t a great actor, but he was a good singer and he was a great guitar player-sort of the whole Bad Blake persona. The physical model for Bad was Hank Thompson. I had seen Hank Thompson opening for Conway Twitty at an arena show in Tucson in the late ’70s, and the image of that stuck with me. I thought it was a tragedy that Thompson was opening for a lesser talent.

Was there a particular inspiration for Bad Blake’s name?

The beginning of the name came from a sentence that just popped into my head: “Bad’s got the sweats again.” The “Blake” part came from William, and from a friend in graduate school, and some people I had known in Tucson.

You used to write about country music, correct?

I did. I wrote for a magazine called Newsreal. It had been a monthly alternative paper, and I wrote a column called “Lowlife.” When it became a music magazine, I did country music because I was the only one who would listen to it.

One of the cool undercurrents of the movie is the difference between real country and pop country. What is the point that’s trying to be conveyed there, by the Bad Blake/Tommy Sweet contrast?

Country music has always seemed to me, at least in the last 40 years, to be on a kind of steady descent. Bad Blake at one point in the novel says that Chet Atkins made a huge market for country music with his “countrypolitan” sound-making country seem a little bit more sophisticated-and in doing that he ruined it. And that was me talking.

I mean, Garth Brooks, when he came out, seemed like just a travesty. And now I sort of look back at Garth Brooks kind of fondly, when I look at some of the people who are around-which is not to say that there’s not great country music out there. Actually, I listen to a fair amount of alt-country.

Like Lucinda Williams or something?

Yeah, I love Lucinda Williams. Absolutely. And Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore-all the Flatlander guys. And Guy Clark. And Lyle Lovett. We have a local band here called Deer Tick that’s good.

Wait, is Tommy supposed to be Garth Brooks?

No, no. Actually, only one person ever figured out who it was, and that was this great country writer from the Houston Chronicle named Bob Claypool. Tommy was Willie Nelson.

Your book took 20 years to make it to the screen. What was the hold-up?

Well, it was optioned a number of times. Chuck Barris optioned it-The Gong Show guy. He was about ready to go with it and then decided he wanted to take off and sail around the world on his yacht instead. An actor optioned it and used it as an episode for L.A. Law-just a complete rip-off. I was totally surprised when [director] Scott Cooper was able to actually get that thing greenlit.

What was his attraction to what is a pretty obscure book?

He’d been trying to make a movie based on the life of Merle Haggard and had traveled with Merle on a couple of tours. But Merle, like Bad, has been married a number of times and the legal complications were just too severe with all of the various parties competing for a piece of the action. He realized he couldn’t make it and he was telling one of his friends, and his friend said, well, you ought to read this book Crazy Heart.

What do you think are the biggest differences between the book and the movie?

There are two things. The most obvious one is that the ending has been changed. They went with a somewhat less dark ending. They did shoot the original ending. Scott Cooper would have preferred to keep it, but he did not have authority for final cut.

The other thing is, there’s a scene where Bad drives to L.A. and visits his estranged son. And that was also shot, and also did not make the final cut of the film. That’s a scene I would have loved to have seen. I heard great things about it-that the actor who played the son was very good.

Tell me about the dark ending.

In the book, Bad ultimately falls off the wagon. He’s last seen in a ditch, in the rain, with his van broken down, and a woman asleep in the van.

I like to collect hardcovers and plan eventually to buy a copy of the book with a dust jacket.

You’re sort of a year too late. There are only first-editions of the hardcover. You could have picked one of those up for about a buck this time last year. And now they’re running around a $100, up to a $1000. It’s ridiculously overpriced. I collect books and I think it’s probably worth 50 bucks. Maybe.

Yeah, but it’s the zeitgeist right now.

Right. Apparently, somebody did sell that copy that they were asking $1000 for.

Wow.

I know. Send me that guy’s address.

How else has the popularity of the movie benefited your career?

There are all sorts of things going on right now. The book is being reprinted. There are various audio books that I’m reading for. But there are also things like you called me. You weren’t going to call me last year.

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Interview: R&B Porn Godfather Andre Williams on Why Coke-Dealing Stories Are Better Than Alcoholic Tales, His New Book Sweets, and More

“I have lived like a king, and I have lived like a bum, and I have lived like a tramp.”

Andre Williams, the septuagenarian godfather of r&b porn, spits hard-ass truths. He knows no better, having spent large chunks of his life on the streets, addicted to booze, drugs, and flesh.

The Chicago native began his musical career in mid-’50s Detroit, where he cut tracks including “Bacon Fat,” “Greasy Chicken,” and “Jail Bait.” Whether giving the lowdown on a new dance move or swearing off 15-year-old girls, Williams lyrics were dispatched with candor, humor, and verve.

Williams eventually graduated to Motown, where he worked with a young Steveland Hardaway Judkins, who Williams would later nickname Stevie Wonder. A stint writing and recording songs for Chess Records followed, before a partnership with Ike Turner exacerbated Williams’s vices and he plunged into a downward spiral.

Williams emerged two decades later, in the mid ’90s, with a string of albums, a documentary film, and a dapper new wardrobe. Despite subsequent relapses and poor health, he’s maintained a hustler’s stamina. The 73-year-old has three new albums in the pipeline and he just released his debut work of fiction, a short-story and poetry collection entitled Sweets, which was edited and published by Miriam Linna, co-owner of Norton Records and short-lived drummer for the Cramps.

I talked with Williams in advance of a reading of his book at St. Mark’s Church this Friday, February 5-also featuring cultural critic/underworld chronicler Nick Tosches and Patti Smith guitarist/music critic Lenny Kaye-to hash out the inspiration for his coke-dealing title story, his obsession with women, and whether he’d rather have fame or fortune.

It took a couple of days to get Williams on the phone because of his emergency trips to the hospital. During the wait, this quote from Marah Eakin, one of his recording label’s publicists, took on new meaning: “Andre is truly a mystery to us all. He just graces our presence with his suits and cologne and songs.”

This will be bad-ass.
This will be bad-ass.

What’ve you been in the hospital for?

For years I’ve been taking Dilantin, and I went to a new doctor and the new doctor overprescribed my dosage. And for almost that whole month I was taking that dosage, I wondered why I was blacking out-everything was going wrong, my whole system was breaking down. And then I went to the doctor just in time to catch it, before it took me out.

I hope you’re feeling better.

Oh, I’m feeling great. I’m feeling great.

So I read Sweets. Was it easy or difficult for you to write it?

The [title] story is true, but I colored it up and put different names and different places and everything to where it couldn’t be identified. So the only thing I did-the genius that I am, if that’s what you want to call it-is I figured out a way to manipulate the real into fiction.

What compelled you to tell the story of a coke-dealing operation?

I talked to Miriam during the time that I was going through this recovery procedure, and Miriam said, “Andre, since you don’t have anything to do”-because I wasn’t running around drinking and drugging, doing a whole lot of irresponsible things-“why don’t you write one of your life episodes?” She said, “Just write it piece-by-piece and I’ll try to put it together. Send me four or five pages every week and I’ll send you a little cash to carry you along.” Without Miriam, it couldn’t have happened.

But why a coke-dealing story as opposed to, say, a story about a drunk?

Well, ’cause a coke-dealing story is always more interesting than an alcoholic. A drug-addict story catches the eye and the interest of people more than an alcoholic because of the fact that 80% of the people have an alcoholic person in their family, so that’s nothing new. You feel me?

Yeah. To me it seemed like The Wire.

Exactly. You hit it on the head.

Andre Willams. Photo by Christy Kane
Andre Willams. Photo by Christy Kane

I found it interesting that both “Sweets” and the second story, “I Wanna Know Why,” had female protagonists.

My thought was, in this day and age, everybody is interested in women. If you notice there’s more women news commentators; there’s more women in men’s positions. So women have become a point of interest, and many have become an interesting story of struggle.

It would be interesting to write from a woman’s perspective, but I think it would be hard because I’m a man.

No, it wouldn’t be hard for a man if a man has led women into that. Like, I have pimped in my life. I have made women go through struggles.

You think you’ve done more females wrong, or more females have done you wrong?

I have allowed more girls to do me wrong in order to realize that I have been done wrong by females. In other words, I had to let experience teach me how to make the next move. In other words, I wanted a female to do this to me so I knew how to do that to the next female. So the answer to your question, I think it was 50-50.

What can we expect of the reading at St. Mark’s Church?

The plan is for it to go almost exactly like we doing right now, for me to tell it like it is, like it was, and how I think it’s going to be. And keep it all real.

Do you just read, or do you just talk?

Right off the top of my head, just like I’m doing with you.

The folks at Bloodshot Records told me that you’re working on a new album. Tell me about it.

Since we’re talking truthful, I have three albums being worked on at this time. The first album is the Bloodshot album. It’s completed and ready to be dropped a-s-a-p. And I finished the Canadian album-the album that I completed almost two years ago, with Jon Spencer and the Sadies-but it has not come out yet. I’m now presently working on a New Orleans album. I have six tracks finished on that project.

So that’s my whole wrap-up. The reason why I’m doing this is that I’m 73 years old, and in case I become disabled, that I can’t function financially to take care of myself, I’ll have enough product following each other where I can support myself-that I don’t just fall into the poorhouse tomorrow.

I saw the Agile Mobile Hostile documentary on you, and you seem like you haven’t been given the respect that you deserve. Would you rather have fame or fortune?

This might sound kind of harsh to you: I don’t give a fuck. I just care about saying it like I saw it. And whatever comes out of it, I wanna be able to deal with it. If it’s a million dollars, I wanna be able to spend it lavishly. If it’s ten dollars, I wanna be able to spend it wisely. I have lived like a king, and I have lived like a bum, and I have lived like a tramp. So it don’t matter to me how this thing winds up.

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On the Haunting Songs of Chuck Prophet

Chuck Prophet’s ¡Let Freedom Ring! is a Born in the U.S.A. for our time. Not that the Californian troubadour and self-described “hustler” behind this 25th-anniversary update of Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the irony of the American Dream deliberately set out to cop the Boss’s monumental mojo, but the similarities between the two records are uncanny. Both are concept albums of sorts that manifest patriotism through disenchantment, and both rely heavily on marginalized characters to expose socioeconomic woe.

“I’ve been saying they’re political songs for non-political people,” Prophet explains over the phone from his San Francisco home. “But what I really mean is that I’m not a particularly political person, but the characters in these songs are all living in a kind of anxious time.”

¡LFR!‘s title track—a nod not to the Liberty Bell but to the NYSE—exemplifies that anxiety through retirement-plan decimation. The buoyant, power-pop music deceptively suggests a feel-good anthem, but once the lyrics unfold, a Social Darwinistic tale is told, of Bernie Madoffs leeching off Average Joes—”The hawk cripples the dove,” as Prophet puts it—who reduce their victims to blind-drunk poor boys. Elsewhere, “Barely Exist” continues the Springsteen parallel, with Prophet replacing the Boss’s struggling blue-collar worker with a struggling Mexican immigrant. Over a fragile beat and sparse guitar notes, he sums up the day laborer’s plight: “You gotta be strong/But when you got asbestos in your Kool-Aid for breakfast/There’s no good way to look alive.”

“I think we go too far out of our way to define ourselves by our borders,” Prophet says. “Hundreds of people die every year trying to get into this country, just for the opportunity to clean our toilets and change our babies’ diapers, and if it’s somebody who’s just trying to provide for their family, how can you criminalize that? And, really, isn’t that the least of our problems right about now?”

The beauty of ¡LFR! lies in its raw, no-frills approach. Lightning-rod guitars spark a combustible rhythm section. Songs of radio-friendly length emerge from only a couple of live takes. Down-tempo and uptempo numbers play well in the same sandbox. Witty lyrics with rich imagery—it’s hard to shake “By the time her shoes wore out/She was giving blood” from “What Can a Mother Do”—demonstrate a mastery of language, like the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of folkie Todd Snider as delivered through Tom Petty’s voice were it even more reliant on stoner/surfer cadences. Other gems include “Sonny Liston’s Blues,” a riff on the monstrous former boxing champ’s loss to Muhammad Ali as symbolic of good over evil (replete with air-guitar-inspiring passages on a Gretsch that Prophet says was “strung up heavy”), and “Where the Hell Is Henry?,” a 2’17” identity-theft gut punch about a con artist masquerading as a Kennedy.

Prophet recorded ¡LFR!—his ninth solo album in a career better known for its songwriting and producing contributions to the oeuvres of Alejandro Escovedo, Kelly Willis, and Warren Zevon, among others—in Mexico City, in a state-of-the-art (circa 1957) studio. The conditions were less than ideal (swine-flu mania, earthquakes, drug wars on the periphery), but Prophet says the duress made a band out of the ragtag crew. “One thing I could never have predicted is that in Mexico City, the power goes out, like, five times a day,” he says. “And, of course, every time it would go out, it would be in the middle of a completely magical sort of Marquee Moon moment. And so every take you hear on the record, there’s, like, triumph at the end of it.”

Chuck Prophet plays the 92Y Tribeca November 27

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In Defense of Pearl Jam’s Backspacer

Eddie Vedder has finally shaken the dead guy who has been haunting him. Two decades ago, Kurt Cobain dogged Pearl Jam as sellouts, dismissing his grunge rivals as “cock-rock fusion” and their gala debut, Ten, as insufficiently “alternative” because it had too many guitar leads. Ever since, Vedder has been out to prove the dead guy wrong, overtly or covertly. But with the release of Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s half-awesome, half-blah ninth studio album, Vedder and the boys from Seattle have come to the realization that maybe they are sellouts of a sort—and that there’s nothing wrong with that, if they’re comfortable with who they are as a band and with the contradictory decisions they’ve made.

The strongest evidence of the band’s newfound disposition lies in their unexpected partnership with Target. The big-box giant is the only place you can buy Backspacer, save for the band’s own website and randomly selected “indie” music stores. It’s a controversial, aggressively capitalist move after years of towing the line against corporate America. But this new music, too, proves that Pearl Jam aren’t concerned with living up to expectations. Instead of trendy Bush-bashing or third-person narratives about marginalized youngsters common in his prime, Vedder now favors first-person introspection and meditations on mortality.

There’s also a focus on the band’s prowess as a unit, as opposed to an all-Vedder-all-the-time approach. Prime examples include “The Fixer” (a song literally about collaboration, penned by drummer Matt Cameron) and “Johnny Guitar,” a grease-in-the-hair, cigarette-pack-in-the-T-shirt-sleeve jam with a totally unorthodox arrangement, also compliments of Cameron. Indeed, Pearl Jam are at peace here, but not yet complacent, diversifying in the autumn of their career, while contemporaries like U2 or Wilco are either getting more contrived or sticking with what’s tried-and-true.

It’s not hard to see how Pearl Jam landed in this predicament. After their initial thrall of mid-’90s success (despite Cobain’s derision), they developed an iron-clad ethical compass, transforming into, first and foremost, a band of integrity—occasionally, to the music’s detriment. The Ticketmaster court battle. The activism. The anti-corporate loathing, made manifest in Vedder’s tearing down of ad signage at concerts. All rocking notes. The trouble is that Pearl Jam tickets now usually cost a small fortune. Their widespread benevolence has undermined their intent toward any cause in particular. And, obviously, Target.

There’s a flipside to that, though, because after eight albums with Sony, the band is releasing Backspacer themselves. It’s not clear which party made that decision, but it doesn’t really matter: Pearl Jam don’t need a major label. Chances are they’re stoked to dictate their own marketing, release music when and how they want to, and, of course, increase their margins (the band will reportedly make $5 on each copy of Backspacer, whereas they’d make roughly a third of that under previous conditions). Besides, what’s so wrong with exercising a little entrepreneurialism, creating a new paradigm in an industry without one? If the superfans who pre-ordered the record through the band’s website want access to the live performances available only on the Target disc, well, then they’ll just have to buy the album again.

But back to the music. Backspacer, a mere novella at only 36 and a half minutes, was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who helmed what many Pearl Jam connoisseurs consider the band’s four finest albums—Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield—before going on hiatus. O’Brien is responsible for honing the band’s ragamuffin sound into something that emphasized musical virtuosity, lyrical focus, and fewer cock-rock guitar leads, an excellent philosophy largely ignored on their last few albums and wisely resurrected here, albeit intermittently.

The first five songs are brilliantly sequenced, wide-ranging in texture, and ridiculously melodic. Furious opener “Gonna See My Friend” finds Vedder shredding his nodes as he riffs (maybe) on staging an intervention for a long-lost friend, followed by “Got Some,” with Vedder barking more words of encouragement, building on the previous song’s momentum. “The Fixer” is a total about-face, a pop song with just enough snazzy guitar licks to qualify as rock despite the buoyant “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” refrain that’ll have Jonas Brothers fans singing along en masse by Christmastime. Then comes potential sleeper hit “Johnny Guitar,” featuring some of Vedder’s most adventurous phrasing, rounded out by “Just Breathe,” an acoustic leftover from Vedder’s splendid Into the Wild soundtrack that finds him passionately lamenting, “Yes, I understand/That every life must end.”

The record’s second half unfortunately trades in retread topics and middling music that seemingly calls for everyone to play at once, on top of each other, without any regard for nuance. “Amongst the Waves” is yet another ode to surfing that tries—but fails—to live up to the epic, grunge-era classic “State of Love and Trust.” With “Speed of Sound” and “Force of Nature,” the titles pretty much speak for themselves. The only highlight, really, is the strings- and horns-inflected closing track, “The End,” and that’s because it ends like a ruptured aneurysm on the lines “I’m here/But not much longer.” Too morbid for comfort? Sure, but Kurt Cobain can’t say the same.

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Interview: Nels Cline on Masturbation, Thurston Moore, and Wilco’s New Record

“I’m a really big fan of Sonic Youth, and I kind of don’t make any bones about it.”

Jeff Tweedy pulled a rabbit out of his beard when he landed Nels Cline in Wilco following Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Screwing with that album’s winning formula by introducing an off-the-wall competing guitarist on its follow-up, A Ghost is Born for the tour in support of Foxtrot’s follow-up, A Ghost is Born, was arguably idiotic but no doubt genius. Cline, an L.A. born-and-bred guitarist of infinite variations, proceeded to spew his electric load all over live renditions of Ghost songs, in effect challenging Tweedy to jerk off with his own guitar-playing, which suddenly was possessed by Neil Young circa the album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. By accident or by design, Tweedy had, in Cline, installed a permanent challenge to his already “A” game.

Throughout his five-year run with Wilco, Cline has additionally released more than a dozen albums of his own, in various configurations. His latest, Coward, is an elegant, meditative, “me, me, me”–as in he plays all the guitars and all the effects–project that was 25 years in the making. I caught up with the 53-year-old guitarist in advance of his solo show at the Stone this Sunday, wherein he will mostly forgo the multi-layered songs on Coward in favor of his “usual, semi-premeditated sonic investigations.” Our topics of discussion: masturbation; how he and his twin brother, a drummer, were influenced by the ’60s; and why an eccentric like him is still attracted to a mainstream band like Wilco.

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I have one of your old records, Ash and Tabula, and, you know, it’s pretty aggro. But Coward sounds a little like John Fahey–more casual. What gives?

The record that you mentioned with Tom Rainey and Andrea Parkins [Ash and Tabula]–like, some of the records I put out are completely improvised. The records with my trio, the Nels Cline Singers, and with myself, in this case Coward, are not only improvised records but records that reflect my compositional interests. Coward is a particularly unique project, not just because it’s an overdub project, but also because it’s not a collaboration with anybody. I just indulged all my fascinations with microtonality and overtones–that’s what’s going on there.

So the new songs are compositions, not improvisations?

There’s a combination of both things on the record. For example, certain songs, like “Prayer Wheel” or “The Divine Homegirl” or “The Nomad’s Home”–some of them are songs, with melodies and chord changes and rhythms. Other pieces, like “X Change(s),” are kinds of experiments in basically improvising with myself and string instruments. Obviously, if I did something as I was improvising on this record that I didn’t like, then I could hear it. So there’s a certain amount of preconception that’s inherent in just giving it another try. But I tried not to hack away at it over and over again and lose its spontaneity.

Do you play to impress sophisticated listeners, or do you play to educate a curious listener, maybe like a Wilco fan who wants to learn more about some of this avant type of music?

I don’t do either one. I play what I like to play. I mean, I’ve never sold many records so it’s not like I’ve been thinking about sales. I just make something that I think my friend Jeff Gauthier, whose label I’ve been recording on, and my friends would probably enjoy, and say, “Hey, good job, Nels.”

Do you have a pet bird?

No.

I hear a bird chirping.

Oh, it’s just the great outdoors of Glendale, California.

Are you playing an acoustic on the album, or is that a steel guitar?

There’s all kinds of stuff. But it’s a mostly acoustic record.

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Would you say that acoustic is a departure for you?

No, I think that’s just probably perception, because there was a time when nobody had any awareness of me, when I played mostly acoustic guitar, but that was in the ’80s. The electric guitar certainly has been my main thing, in the public eye, especially. I’m interested, obviously, in the possibilities of that instrument because it’s so malleable … so all the stuff people concentrate on, about my pedals and all that, come into play and they’re really not an attempt at novelty so much as just, you know, enjoying the potential the guitar has to go in many different directions, different sounds, different aesthetics. That’s why I think I can play in Wilco and then play in improvised-music settings, whether avant-garde or not.

Tell me about the “Onan (Suite).” Is that a song cycle about a great masturbator?

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, it’s just, uh … I don’t know how … I can’t really describe it too much … . Let’s just say it’s semi-serious. I’m kind of taking the piss out of myself–as a guitar, you know, whiz, or something–by saying on this whole record that I’m playing with myself. So there’s an element of humor to it. But at the same time it’s actually trying to address a certain idea about eroticism and about abstraction in sound. It doesn’t really need a lot of elucidation. That piece is supposed to be just a fun, trippy thing to traipse through.

Thurston and Nels

So, “Thurston County,” doesn’t it kick into a Sonic Youth song from Daydream Nation?

It sounds like a Sonic Youth riff, but it’s not. It’s just something that sounds like something that Thurston [Moore] would write. But that opening, what I call the sort of verse, I mean, Thurston has a million songs with that line in it.

Are you guys buddies?

Yeah, yeah. Thurston and I have put some records out where we play together. But I’m a really big fan of Sonic Youth, and I kind of don’t make any bones about it. I’ve pretty much made it clear for years that a lot of ideas that I have about sound were refined in my head by my exposure to Sonic Youth. They’re very influential to me, and I cherish them. So basically, when I came up with “Thurston Country,” it was after I thought I’d finished the record, and I was listening to the whole thing, and it just felt a little bit too slow, so I basically wrote and recorded and mixed that song in one evening, kind of as a last-minute effort, and decided not to worry about the direct Thurstonian aspect of it and just kind of send it his way, as a nod to him.

I was reading on your website about your twin, Alex, and I thought that was cool that you guys were releasing your albums at the same time. Why don’t you guys play together more often?

He’s doesn’t like to tour. I’m always gone. But we used to do everything together. We played at our elementary school graduation, with our band Homogenized Goo.

How do kids that young think of Homogenized Goo for a name?

It was the ’60s. This was before Traffic had that song “Medicated Goo” even. We were listening to rock-and-roll and psychedelic music, and looking at pop art and surrealist and dada art, and just getting into that, getting into absurdity, and getting into … you know, the whole vibe of the day was kind of all about fun, mind-expanding stuff. It was a great time to be entering puberty. A little confusing maybe, but great, really exciting. In my music, I think the electricity and the freedom and the curiosity of that era still resonates with me.

You express such interest in wide-ranging influences and liking to collaborate with so many different people. Meanwhile, it would seem that Wilco is becoming an increasingly mainstream band. What about that band still attracts you to it?

I don’t see the band as becoming increasingly mainstream, for one thing, if you listen to their early records. What’s attractive to me about Wilco is–well, there are so many things–we don’t have to do anything we don’t wanna do. There’s no pressure to play the hit over and over. There’s no pressure to be anything other than whatever the hell we feel like being. Beyond that, I have to say, without sounding like some kind of Hallmark Greeting Card guy, or something, that the people in the band are fantastic musicians and great people.

What can you tell me about the new Wilco album?

It’s kind of all over the place. It’s got some stompin’ rockers and it’s got some really poignant, quiet songs–more folk-country kind of stuff. There are some really colorful, orchestrated–the band orchestrated, I mean, not like an orchestra–pieces that I think show a lot more of the flexibility and the potential of this band. One of the pieces on there is actually just a mixed version of a demo that we did when we barely knew the song. Jeff [Tweedy] really liked the way it felt, and so he just finished the lyrics and redid the vocal.

You got a song title?

“Bull Black Nova.” It’s pretty ripping. But there’s some very, very beautiful, lulling, kind of gentle material also. And then as far as the lyric content, there is an overarching, I think, sensibility or theme, but I’m gonna leave you to discover what that is.

Nels Cline plays this Sunday, May 10 at the Stone on Avenue C at East 2nd Street.

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Back to School With the Butthole Surfers

Gibby Haynes is 50, but he’s still off the wall like he was in the ’80s, when he and the rest of his Butthole Surfers were passing off hallucinogenic-fueled performance-art shows as “music” for the likes of a young, impressionable Daniel Johnston and other Austin freaks looking to get their psych on outside of cosmic country.

“It’s a big que sera, fuckin’ Hallmark, fuckin’ Valentine’s Day, kinda fuzzy- feeling dealie,” Haynes says over the phone about the Surfers’ classic lineup—including guitarist Paul Leary, bassist Jeff Pinkus, and stand-up drummers King Coffey and Teresa “Nervosa” Taylor (the weirdo in Slacker who tries to pawn off the Madonna pap smear)—reuniting for the first time since their 2002 reincarnation at Japan’s Fuji Festival, this time for a 14-date run with the Paul Green School of Rock Music All-Stars.

How ass-backwards. The Surfers are (or were, back in the day) totally X-rated. Among other acts of decadence, their shows featured a naked dancer named Kathleen Lynch, a/k/a “Ta-Da the Shit Lady,” whom Haynes reportedly had sex with onstage while Leary punctured the club’s speakers with a screwdriver. They used films of penis-reconstruction surgery and Faces of Death–type car wrecks as backdrops. And, of course, they got a real kick out of cross-dressing and arson, too. Meanwhile, the fact that the 2003 movie School of Rock is based on the grade-school bashers who receive tutelage at the Paul Green School of Rock Music chain (with Jack Black starring as a non-anal version of Paul himself) just about says it all. But this is of little consequence to Haynes, who insists that Surfers gigs are way tamer than in the olden days and that it’s now more or less about the music.

“It’s just really fun,” he adds of the collaboration, facilitated by fellow shtick-rock band Ween. “I mean, they’re kids, and some of ’em are really, really talented. You can see the ones who are gonna be totally fucked up when they’re older.”

Of the 20 or so All-Stars nationwide who’ve joined in on the stateside and European shows leading up to the Webster Hall finale, only two had a clue about the Surfers at the onset of the project: bassist Aaron Sheehan, 16, and bassist/guitarist Max Johnson, 18, both of New Jersey. “I’m always attracted to things that aren’t put together totally,” Sheehan says of the Surfers’ music, which was passed down to him by older cousins. “There are a lot of different elements to it, and it’s not all structured. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, I guess. And I like making noise, you know?”

Seminal Surfers albums like Psychic . . . Powerless . . . Another Man’s Sac, their 1985 debut, with its innovative tape-looping up against Haynes’s perverted, bullhorn- amplified, “Gibbytronix”-inflected gibberish, are indeed lessons in coordinated chaos lost in translation as noise. But in order to properly convey the older, borderline- improvisational hardcore-punk songs that constitute most of the Surfers’ set lists on this tour, some live theatrics are essential. That’s where Sheehan and Johnson strike again: The smoke machines, projectors, and strobe lights are part of their double-duty tour, thanks to their work in the same capacity during a string of Haynes solo shows in New York (where he relocated five years ago) that preceded this tour. “By now, we’re into a groove on how to do that,” says Johnson, who also plays in a band called the Will.

“Paul Green tells you how much smoke and when,” Sheehan adds. “And if you do it wrong, you’re hearing about it. But it’s really simple stuff. A monkey could do it—you know, press a button, turn a knob.”

Asked what his friends outside the Paul Green School think of his run with the infamous gutter punks—whose only real hit, “Pepper,” came too late and wasn’t at all representative of the fractured, insane style that influenced, at the very least, Kurt Cobain, Beavis, and Butt-head—Johnson says: “The ones who know the Butthole Surfers are more than amazed. But finding, you know, just normal kids who are huge Butthole Surfers fans in high school these days is not . . . it’s not the biggest gene pool to pull from.”

The Butthole Surfers play Webster Hall July 29

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Seun Kuti Carries the Afrobeat Torch

It’s hard to know what Seun Kuti makes of high-profile celebrity adoptions of impoverished African children, à la Madonna or Brangelina. It seems the youngest son of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti (and bro to Femi, a prominent talent in his own right) would think the problem of Africa is its own to solve. To him, those babies might be lost warriors in the fight against the corruption and genocide that have oppressed his brothers and sisters for so long. On “African Problems,” off the 26-year-old’s thrilling debut, Seun bears his burden: “I must try to teach the peoples a new mentality/Make ‘dem appreciate Africa’s superiority.” Giving momentum to his empowering diatribes is Egypt 80, the second incarnation of his father’s classic band—their percussion, keys, guitars, and horns (including Seun’s own sax) locking and loading effortlessly into sultry, long-form jazz and funk jams as reminiscent of the J.B.’s as his own father’s work.

Indeed, Seun takes what his father did best—rampant politicizing and infinite grooving—and updates it by beefing up his English and adding occasional samples, like bustling cityscapes. But he’s still fighting the same fight, against the same enemy. See, three decades ago, his father’s polygamist commune was pillaged by Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo because Fela’s song “Zombie” called out Obasanjo’s troops. Nowadays, Seun finds himself in the same predicament: waiting for reprisal from Obasanjo after railing against him on cuts like “Mosquito Song,” which addresses the government’s failure to thwart malaria by neglecting to teach Nigerians about basic hygiene. That scathing criticism takes a stirring call-and-response form on “Don’t Give That Shit to Me,” a nine-minute romp wherein Seun and his bandmates trade shout-outs: “Disunity/In Africa/Disadvantage/ Among Africans/Dishonesty/In my country.” Given this democratic approach to rabble-rousing, Seun clearly realizes that the revolution needs all the help it can get, and while he’s probably appreciative of celebrity aid and the awareness it can bring, he no doubt wants those adoptees to return home once they realize how badly Africa needs them.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 play Central Park Summerstage July 6