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Mark Lanegan Band

All musicians aspire to create a mood with just a few notes, but few have succeeded quite like Mark Lanegan. Ever since his days with pre-grunge firebrands Screaming Trees (“Nearly Lost You”), his craggily voice need only hum and all the music around it seems shrouded in some dusky veil. Multiply that effect and you get some approximation of the pensive, singer-songwriter rock he creates in his own name, most recently on February’s excellent Blues Funeral. Now just imagine his stage persona.

Thu., May 10, 7 p.m., 2012

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The Grammys: Rock and Grohl

Sunday night’s Grammy awards were touted as the night America would be introduced to a pop-skewing, Americanized, thumpy version of “dance music.” But Dave Grohl had other ideas.

Grohl was one of the artists who took to the stage for three performances Sunday night, two with his band of rock survivors Foo Fighters and one as part of a show-closing jam where a gaggle of the older white men who had appeared earlier in the evening—Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh—displayed their chops while playing the medley from Abbey Road. (Bonnie Raitt, herself a guitarist with fairly substantial bona fides, was a startling omission from this salute to the past, as was the night’s big winner, Adele, who, though not a six-string whiz, surely would have given a fantastic assist on vocals.) He also took some time during his acceptance speech to rant a little about trends that he considered troubling.

Accepting the award for Best Rock Album for Wasting Light (RCA)—which he recorded with the help of his old pal Butch Vig—the former Nirvana drummer said: “This is a great honor because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine.” (How tricked-out that garage is, he didn’t let on.)

He continued: “To me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [the heart] and what goes on in here [the head].” He probably would have talked longer, but his speech was cut off from the viewing audience by the bully-club keyboards of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and the ever-smiling, overemployed Ryan Seacrest.

It was an odd outburst, though one in keeping with the unspoken themes of the night; the show promised to be a step into the future, with performances by Nicki Minaj and various dance producers heavily hyped in the run-up. But it was bracketed by veterans. In addition to the Beatles tribute closing the show, Bruce Springsteen opened it with his Magnetic Fields-gone-Obama-rally anthem “We Take Care of Our Own.” And the Next Big Hope Adele, whose music won all three of the genre-agnostic categories it was nominated in (Record, Song, and Album of the Year) is, while a spellbinding performer with an undeniably heartbreaking voice, definitely a throwback to the Dusty in Memphis era.

Grohl didn’t steer entirely clear of newfangled fakery. Foo Fighters’ second performance was part of an oddly sequenced “tribute to dance music” which had his band sharing the stage with the mouse-head-wearing Canadian DJ Deadmau5. After the Foos blazed through their track “Rope,” Deadmau5 took over, and the cameras happily cut to Grohl, wearing a Slayer T-shirt and a blazer and a shit-eating grin, jerking his body to the beats and drops emanating from the stage. But Grohl’s tirade about machines and imperfections made me wonder if he’d heard the new album by his fellow grunge-era refugee Mark Lanegan, Blues Funeral (4AD); the imperfect and human are placed side-by-side with the mechanical on the album, and the results are often arresting.

Lanegan’s voice was one of the more distinctive of the alt-rock era, its weariness telegraphing itself from note one. It’s a cracked instrument made even more stunning by its wear and tear, like those super-high-definition photographs of people that don’t get airbrushed, that instead show the lives the subjects have lived by exposing and even highlighting every wrinkle and mole and imperfection. In the early ’90s, his former band Screaming Trees’ bombastic alt-era classic “Nearly Lost You” flirted with MTV notoriety; its placement on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s love-in-the-time-of-grunge chronicle Singles introduced the band to more casual fans of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and it’s one of that album’s most indelible tracks. Lanegan’s burr grounded his band’s thick cloud of feedback and snaky, Hendrix-inspired guitar line; the wistfulness with which he sang the chorus’s first words right before the riff came blasting in tugged at heartstrings.

Blues Funeral (credited to the Mark Lanegan Band and produced by Alain Johannes) has a couple of tracks that hew to familiar rock templates. On “St. Louis Elegy” Lanegan moans over a shuffling riff and subtly threaded organ line; “Gray Goes Black” is a desolate tune for a nighttime drive, its shadowy guitars recalling the mournful AM-radio pop of years ago and the gloomy goth tableaux of the Cure. Yet what makes the album on the whole work so well is the melding of new wave ideals and his worn, wounded instrument. Although there are traditional “rock” tracks, some of the album’s most stunning moments come when his voice collides with the synthetic. “Ode To Sad Disco” combines a sad shooting-star guitar line with a methodical dance beat that sounds inspired by the DFA catalog; “Harborview Hospital” has a synth-spangled outro that brings to mind New Order getting lost on a dancefloor, and it could probably extend another eight minutes past its four-and-a-half-minute cutoff point and still be absolutely mesmerizing; the stomping “Quiver Syndrome” places Lanegan’s voice alongside a sparkling pop chorus reminiscent of the Dandy Warhols’ most decadent tracks. Throughout, the lyrics chronicle pain and sadness. Despite the mechanics at work, there’s no party rocking happening, let alone enough to warrant an apology.

Perhaps Grohl was ranting against common ideas of what pop is right now—the Auto-Tuned straw women who lurk around every corner, waiting to have the melismata they can’t hit in live sessions manipulated into existence by masterminds with supercomputers. Blues Funeral, though, shows how the imperfections of man and the shortcomings of the machine can blend into something beautiful, a piece of art that heightens and highlights the humanity at its core.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Soulsavers

With their last two albums, British production team Soulsavers have managed to take the moody electronica usually wasted on restaurant ambience and magically imbue it with the real-life God/sex/death heartwork of gospel. Maybe it’s because they’ve become so closely intertwined with perennial wounded soul Mark Lanegan, who will be performing with them tonight. Or maybe because after 20 years of downtempo, someone’s finally forging that balance where crossover soultronics can sound like the new folk music instead of the shitty Sopranos theme song. With Jonneine Zapata and Red Ghost.

Tue., Sept. 22, 8 p.m., 2009

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Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell Struggle To Be Anything Other Than Odd

Even when they don’t work out artistically, oddball musical pairings are usually worth their weight in gold as entertainment—consider “Ebony and Ivory” or Jay-Z’s Linkin Park dalliance or any new-millennium Santana. On Sunday at Devil Dirt, the sensitive-chick/grizzled-rocker trend most recently exemplified by Krauss/Plant continues, thanks to Isobel Campbell (Belle and Sebastian’s most precocious alumna) and Mark Lanegan (the growly Seattle alt-rock veteran), with their once U.K.-only sophomore release finally coming Stateside now that nobody here can afford expensive imports anymore. But will it blend?

A worthy second album (following 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas) would dispense entirely with the ain’t-it-cool factor, but unfortunately, these songs saunter and lope without ever really climaxing, as if each singer is afraid to stand on the other’s shoulders and do something dramatic. Although Devil Dirt has its rewarding moments, they’re usually matters of arrangement rather than execution or personality, which means it’s more about the chemistry of boy-meets-girl than about the specific boy or girl. That’s unfortunate, because both Lanegan and Campbell have tremendous track records that might congeal brilliantly if they’d just get over themselves and stop trying to coast on the strength of the premise.

It doesn’t help that this is such a lopsided affair. Aside from the awkward blues and her gorgeously deranged murmurs on “Come on Over (Turn Me On),” Campbell is relegated to a background role here, despite having written so much of the material. Instead, Lanegan dominates with a dreary drawl he might have yoinked from Leonard Cohen or Vic Chesnutt—a perfectly considerate move given that he’s working with one of the architects of twee-pop here. But for a guy best known for his work with whoop-ass rabble-rousers like Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, it’s a bit too far afield. Remember: It’s not really contrast if you hedge your bets first. Just ask Run-D.M.C. or Aerosmith.

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TK Webb Stumbles Out of the Woods

Over the last decade, hard rock has flushed itself straight down the shitter. Turn on the radio, and your choices are either K-Rock hell or some Foreigner/Foghat/Boston triple-shot that’s been knocking around since ’77. Indie brats offer nothing better; in fact, they’re worse. Check out any webzine with an American Apparel banner: Either it’s obsessing over Stoner-Rock Clone #64,832 or the likes of Howlin’ Rain and MV & EE, retro hacks who drop more bell-bottomed clichés than That ’70s Show and Chris Robinson combined.

Exceptions do exist. The Black Keys and the Drive-By Truckers are both solid, if a bit samey-same. Neil Michael Hagerty is an icon, of course, even if his latest project, the Howling Hex, is a bucket of cold noodles. Grunge daddy Mark Lanegan is another keeper: At his best, the former Screaming Trees frontman is the modern-day equivalent of early Humble Pie or vintage Rod Stewart—a folkie in love with pummeling riffage as much as he is confessional lyrics and acoustic blues.

My current fave, though, is TK Webb, who just released Ancestor, his first disc for Kemado Records (also home to Dungen and the Sword). All the stuff I said about Lanegan applies here as well: The Kansas City–bred guitarist/singer/songwriter cranks out loud jams while reaching across entire universes and somehow finding the common link between country blues, classic rock, and early-’90s grunge. Amazingly enough, Ancestor is the dude’s first attempt at straight-up hard rock. Before putting together the Visions, his current backing band, Webb did the loner-bluesman shtick, and did it better than anybody outside the Fat Possum stable. Track down 2006’s Phantom Parade—in my humble opinion, it’s the only album in the last 20 years to really flesh out the ragged sway sweeping across side two of Exile on Main St.

Webb ditched the rustic stuff because, like a lot of us, he grew tired of all the trust-fund assholes in Brooklyn (and L.A. and San Francisco) who dress up like the Manson Family. “I found myself lumped in with that whole freak-folk thing,” he says. “It’s an avenue for a lot of people who don’t have any talent. That’s pompous, but true. Anything folkie, especially country blues, is such a formative thing for me that it’s kind of sacred. People jumping on it is a bummer.”

I knew Ancestor was a product of self-distancing even before Webb gave me the quote of the month. Right from the opening groove, the album shuns all obvious affiliations. It’s damn near archetypal in that the music feels neither vintage nor modern, underground nor mainstream. As with Royal Trux during its Thank You/Sweet Sixteen phase, or even Fleetwood Mac near the end of Peter Green’s reign, the Visions operate on two planes by design. On the surface, Ancestor is so artless, so unadorned, so inward-looking that the first few spins make you think they’re just another pack of six-string Neanderthals on barbiturates, slowly humping the obsidian ripple of a tar pit. Make it past that, however, and you realize that their sly rhythmic power, which never leaves second gear, derives not from volume and force, but subtle arrangements woven from gnarled blues-rock grooves and shards of rusted fuzz. As Webb points out: “A lot of the best art is based on that—something totally fucked meets something totally beautiful.”

That aesthetic is the cat’s meow, if you ask me, a guy who believes that Peter Green and the Trux, not Zeppelin and the White Stripes, represent hard rock’s apex. Of course, I’m in the minority. Most fans of this kind of music don’t want to work to get it; they just want bong-a-rific freedom rock with big, dumb riffs and sweaty mugging. That’s the age-old stereotype, and there’s always a new generation of meatheads willing to perpetuate it. But hey, I guess Webb understands all this, or else he wouldn’t croak a line like: “I need you to tell me no/Until I think it’s yes.” Right?

TK Webb plays Bowery Ballroom September 17

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Gutter Twins Unite

There were a few phrases I promised myself I wouldn’t utter when sitting three feet from Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan, two of ’90s alt-rock’s most worshipped frontmen. Alt-rock, for example. Flannel shirts. Heroin. Reunions.

I succeeded in avoiding those first three. But in a fit of stammering, passive-aggressive non-rage, I let it slip: “With everyone hopping on the reunion bandwagon, you guys seem to keep pushing forward.”

Lanegan, who was the life of the consistently ignored garage/grunge Seattle act Screaming Trees, just starts shaking his head, back and forth, back and forth. Before he can breathe any sort of fire toward me, Dulli, who led the guitar-sleazy Afghan Whigs, chimes in as if he’s been waiting for this moment. “We’ve both been asked numerous times to re-form, and have been thrown large sums of money to do so, but I’m of the opinion that bands have a finite lifespan,” he says. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke exhale from both their mouths. “If you stay a band forever, great. If the end comes, then it came for a reason. It’s like any relationship—it has done what it needed to do.”

Lanegan is much more direct, though he’s looking off in the distance. “I have absolutely zero interest,” he declares in his low, gravelly voice. (He looks and sounds more like Tom Waits by the day.) “I want to stay in here, now.”

The place and time he speaks of has been a productive time for them both. Lanegan’s been a touring member of Queens of the Stone Age, while cutting several solo albums of brooding, moody lo-fi rock and a duets-style record with Isobel Campbell. Dulli’s been mostly consumed with his swamp-rock soul band the Twilight Singers. Both command dedicated cult followings, while other grunge-era artists have simply drifted off to the bargain bins and county fairs, content with regurgitating that song, whatever it might be, for those who still wish to remember.

Their respective successes aside, this is an odd pairing. Dulli is vivacious and chatty; Lanegan is reserved, introspective, and intimidating. Dulli wants to chat about current bands like Yeasayer and MGMT; Lanegan stays solemn. Recent press tends to revel in their prior drug habits and petty skirmishes with the law, mythologizing them to a certain extent, relegating them to that Singles part of our collective memory. But they’ve moved on. Trust me.

They just move slowly. A little over four years ago, Dulli and Lanegan began work on Saturnalia, their debut as the Gutter Twins. It’s finally done. And the result’s a bit grungy, sure—but there’s also an undercurrent of dark, sinister country and blues that suggests they’re not just rehashing old times. String arrangements pop up here and there. As do mandolins. Loss, death, religion, and faith are recurring themes, swiftly dealt with. The first track they cut together, “All Misery/Flowers,” has Lanegan and Dulli singing softly in unison, while Dulli plays with some eerie high-pitched wailing sounds over a prominent drumbeat. Most of the album is like this: Lanegan’s deep voice hovering over Dulli’s controlled whine as they toy around with various mood enhancers, aural and otherwise.

“I was happy with it,” Lanegan allows cautiously. “Proud of the way it turned out. Which is saying a lot.” Dulli, naturally, is much more excited, praising the record’s eclecticism, but Lanegans’s growl takes hold. “Obviously, there are elements of what people have done before—because to make something completely different, we’d have to make a classical record or something,” he says, half-snarling. Dulli lightens the mood: “Or a reggae album, which we discussed.” In a rare outburst, Lanegan chuckles for a brief moment before retreating back down below.

The Gutter Twins play Webster Hall March 19, websterhall.com.

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Go Your Own Way

With Nick Olivieri and Dave Grohl gonzo, and Mark Lanegan’s contributions limited to 90 seconds, the heart of Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme, is all alone in the super-unknown, left to pursue both his grunge-pop monomania and his heretofore disguised love of two-headed-dog-eared horror tropes (“Someone’s in the Wolf,” “Burn the Witch”) and Mario Bava backdrops (“You’ve Got a Killer Scene, Man”). Not that big names and bigger egos streaking across the studio ever kept Homme from taking care of business—it’s to his credit that the drummer on their new Lullabies to Paralyze sounds no different from Grohl on the last record (aside from the fact that the new drummer is the new drummer, and Dave Grohl is famous). It’s also to Homme’s credit that guest appearances by Billy Gibbons, Brody Dalle, and Shirley Manson amount to drive-by Hitchcock cameos. The “Little Sister” woodblock and that Stooges piano (speaking of dog-eared) get more of the spotlight, as well they should.

Some brah on a message bored bitched about Nick O being the source of the band’s ROCK, man, and without the ROCK, QOTSA is SOL, which isn’t fair to the group of cats Nick left behind. They still cuss (in case you for-fucking-got), and they still gab about drinking and screwing and dabbing their noses in the c-c-c-c-c-cocaine, so all’s good in that regard. But, really, when the leader of your ROCK group is prone to singing in a falsetto fluttering between Joe Elliott and Roy Orbison while asking questions like “Why’d you have to be so cruel?” and “Where have you gone again, my sweet?” and writes fantastic three-minute gems that get stuck in your head (“In My Head”), it’s time to face facts. Axl Rose likes Elton John, Lars and James need to cry every once in a while, Ozzy is Bill Cosby, and Josh Homme is Hot Topic’s version of Lindsay Buckingham, except that Homme’s big big love is the slow slow burn (seven-minute tales of wander like “The Blood Is Love” and gorgeous ballads like “Long Slow Goodbye”), and Homme’s “Tusk” (the hidden track) is much more demure. Though he’ll probably spit on my grave for saying that.


Queens of the Stone Age play Webster Hall March 24.