Murphy’s Law

Reviews, Essays and Ruminations

Archive for January, 2007

The Melvins: A Senile Animal ( Review)

Posted by bullmurph on January 19, 2007

The Melvins

A Senile Animal


US release date: 10 October 2006
UK release date: 9 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Another year, another great Melvins release.

With considerable confidence, it can be assumed that the following name has never appeared in any review of a Melvins recording: Woody Allen. Perhaps because, for starters, the work and sensibility of that diminutive and reticent filmmaker could not be more opposite from this very aggressive and deliberate band. Plus, one makes movies; the other makes music. And yet, a case could be made that the Melvins are steadily establishing themselves as the Woody Allen of rock and roll: efficient, productive, reliably original, and influential. They churn out new albums at a steady clip which hard core fans snatch up, and most everyone else gives a miss. Like most great things in this world, they are an acquired taste but after they get their hooks in you, it’s on. They are the kind of band you almost hate to love, because once you are on board, you eventually understand you’ll have to own everything they make. And, unlike Allen, the Melvins show no signs of slowing down or slouching toward stale self-imitation as they approach dignified middle age. All of which is to say, their latest release, A Senile Animal, is business as usual, and business is as good as ever, and better than one could reasonably expect, given that this band has been cruising along since the mid-’80s.

The good news is that this album comes highly recommended, and is actually an ideal introduction for neophytes. Which isn’t to say A Senile Animal is exactly accessible; this is the Melvins, after all. Still, if you unfamiliar with their body of work, this is as good a spot as any to jump in and, once converted, start working your way backward through the intimidating catalog. For casual fans (are there any?), there are enough new twists to make this an essential listen: this band burns through bassists the way Spinal Tap did drummers, therefore newcomer Jared Warren joins the fray this time around. And there is a new drummer! (What? How on earth could they ever get rid of Dale Crover? They didn’t! There are two drummers in the new configuration of the band. If that sounds at all gimmicky, disabuse yourself of any misconceptions: it is an inspired move that pays significant dividends.)

The onslaught is immediate, and the new line-up wastes no time flaunting the singular strengths of all involved. Coady Willis, the second drummer, augments the inimitable sludgy framework that Crover has supplied for the last two decades: the first twenty seconds of “The Talking Horse”, with seemingly double everything, drums (crashing cymbals and double-time rolls), actual vocal harmonizing (!!) and the signature slow-mo chainsaw guitar sound of Buzz Osborne (King Buzzo). As “Blood Witch” bleeds into “Civilized Worm” (more vocal harmonies—all four members are credited with vocal contributions, and it’s pleasantly apparent throughout), the drum assault is never flashy, never superfluous, and it is obvious the band made an inspired decision to double a good thing. At the one-minute-46-second mark of the third song (“Civilized Worm”), an authentic Melvins moment occurs: the guitar growl grinds down to mud, a smattering of trash-can rattles and then … nothing; then a pulse—after skipping a beat, the riff returns. Bliss.

Speaking of riffs, let’s talk about King Buzzo for a moment. the Melvins have always drawn comparisons to Black Sabbath, which while complimentary, are a bit lazy and unimaginative. Sabbath certainly had their sound, and spawned a million miniature hair metal monstrosities, but it is to the Melvins’ considerable credit that they’ve carved out their own original, influential sound, something very few bands ever achieve. Tony Iommi, the metal-riff master, had an eight-year run while at the top of his game with Sabbath; Buzz has been pulling oily, oozing riffs out of his ‘fro for more than twice that, and is steadily making a case as one of the indelible, if all-time overlooked guitar gods. Over the top? Spend some time with “A History Of Bad Men” and consider that craftsmanship alongside his incandescent contributions to side project super-group Fantomas: just in this young century, Buzzo has delivered goods that many musicians would kill to call an entire career. It is almost too much to ask for, but King Buzzo is actually getting better with age, and continues to refine and define a sound that is his alone.

If A Senile Animal lacks the effortless intensity of, say, Stoner Witch, it is worth noting that a positive review of that album in 1994 very well may have observed that it did not have the effortless intensity of, say, Bullhead. So, is this a more refined Melvins? Maybe. Or more to the point: who cares? If the pace is a bit brisker here, the old school sludge is very much in effect, alongside the double-drums and layered vocals. Out of several viable candidates, the album’s high point may be the second-to-last track, “The Mechanical Bride”, which calls to mind the sublime “Hag Me” (from Houdini): it’s all in there, the centrifugal force of that muddy undertow—the sound of a band jamming in their own time, as though a collective joint pain forces the pace to roil at its own speed, simmering in its own fevered juices. It is the sound of an impossible pain that somehow feels good. It is the sound of the Melvins.


— 19 January 2007


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Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Live at the Fillmore East ( Review)

Posted by bullmurph on January 19, 2007

Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Live at the Fillmore East

(Reprise/Warner Bros.)

US release date: 14 November 2006
UK release date: 13 November 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Crazy Horse rides again, for the first time.

There is considerable controversy surrounding this anxiously awaited release. For Neil Young fans, this is an unexpected gift—a live show of the first, short-lived incarnation of Crazy Horse in all their ragged glory. For Neil Young freaks, this is an overdue, unconscionably abbreviated version of a two-night stand at the Fillmore East that has long been legend. The verdict? For anyone who enjoys good music, this is a no brainer that comes heartily recommended, period.

Long story short: it is well known amongst aficionados that the always enigmatic Young has compiled a veritable treasure trove of live recordings that he—in typical fashion—predicted would begin to see the light of day over a decade ago. The hope was—and remains—that this disc signals only the beginning of a thorough appraisal of Young’s live career via “official” bootlegs, drawing inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan’s critically worshipped and well-received series of sanctioned releases. So far so good. So what’s the problem? Well, this particular concert (actually a two-night engagement: March 6 & 7, 1970) was more than twice as long as the material collected and presented, leading to inexorable, and somewhat understandable claims of carelessness and even greed. If this inaugural release does not warrant a two-disc set, why not at least use up all 80 minutes available on the one disc (or 60, or 50)? Clocking in at 43 minutes, it is not unreasonable for the consumer to feel a tad cheated, particularly in our pirating-for-free era that has given rise to an online community that illicitly trades live recordings. One might conjecture that the bean counters at Reprise Records would want to entice as many legal and lucrative transactions as possible. Of course, there is the rub: how long until we see the “original, remastered and complete“ version of this show hitting the streets for double the price?

For all the folks aghast that Neil Young did not contribute detailed liner notes, or commission a self-serving essay by a pointy-headed musicologist, they should be the first ones to understand that this is not how the man operates. Indeed, the fact that Young is still alive and kicking and making music is sufficient cause for respect, and appreciation (and possibly awe: Young lived as hard and fast as many of his compatriots, yet his pace and output have scarcely slackened over the years). In short and in sum, one can hardly fault him for refusing to rest (or rust) on his laurels and journey through the past—he already lived it, and he’s still living.

Ancillary baggage hopefully accounted for and dispatched with, only one issue remains: what does this concert sound like? It sounds like what it is: a remarkable document of one of the better bands of its time, performing live with palpable purpose and passion, achieving something pretty close to perfect. To appreciate why Young seems so enervated on these proceedings, it’s important to remember that he was, at the time, emerging from the first of many moves that seemed inscrutable and career-killing when he made them-in this instance having bolted from the hugely popular and influential band Buffalo Springfield. His first, eponymous solo album was somewhat slight, but still wonderful in its way, not straying too far from the distinctively psychedelic folk sound he’d developed in the mid-to-late ‘60s. It was the following year, on his second album, that rock’s real chameleon made his first major transformation. No one could have predicted the way Young—and his new band Crazy Horse—would sound because no band ever sounded like them before.

Their masterpiece, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is the big bang that spawned guitar grunge and the iconoclastic figure the flannel-clad Young cuts on the album cover, of course, would find its way onto countless stages and music videos more than 20 years later. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unvarnished and unpretentious as rock ever got, and that is one of the myriad reasons it has retained its unique vitality to this day. The production is clear and crisp, but it has that garagey vibe that has caused more than a few fans to wonder: what did these guys sound like live? The answer, finally available for those not fortunate enough to be around them in 1970, is, unbelievably: better.

The three songs taken from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere reveal a band that is tight and locked in: the confidence and chemistry of their interplay sound more like a band that had played together for years, not months. Put simply, Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) are the ideal rhythm section for Young, and it speaks volumes that for all the styles and big-names he’s worked with over the decades, he continues to record and tour with Crazy Horse today. They surround Young like bark on a tree during the shorter, focused tracks, like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and an early, more aggressive version of “Winterlong”. On the longer workouts, they offer Young a safety net of sound that frees him to indulge his irrepressible energy and ideas. It is, incidentally, on those longer songs (“Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”) that the contributions of guitarist/vocalist Danny Whitten can be properly assessed, and appreciated.

The wasteful death of Whitten from a heroin overdose barely two years after this recording devastated Young, and while the tragedy inspired some of his best and most haunting work (“The Needle and the Damage Done” from Harvest and the deeply personal and dark classics Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach), it also cast a gloomy shadow Young fought for years to emerge from. Whitten’s loss was crippling not only to Crazy Horse (though he was ably replaced by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro who has remained with the band ever since), but to rock music: aside from frequent collaborators Crosby, Stills and Nash, it is arguable that any single musician pushed Neil more or provided a natural and positive pressure that brought out his fighting best. To hear Young trade licks with Whitten is truly something to savor: you can catch yourself nodding along and suddenly realizing, “Holy shit! This is rock and roll”.

Nothing can really touch the studio version of “Down by the River”, but the sizzling take on “Cowgirl in the Sand” surpasses the original, making it-improbably-sound almost safe by comparison. Whitten and Young go for broke, and the entire band is on fire, churning out a take that is at once longer, louder and more dangerous: no words from Young could articulate what the loss of Whitten signified, it’s obvious in one listen. Whitten’s original number “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” was, until now, known from its inclusion on the seminal Tonight’s the Night, and now it is put in its proper, unedited historical context. In Young’s introduction to this song, his indication that he planned to record an album with Crazy Horse providing guitar and back-up vocals is a revealing-and tantalizing-tribute to the respect he had for his band mates’ abilities.

Finally, the most intriguing, and possibly most enjoyable song is the short, sublime “Wonderin’”. In typically optimistic fashion, Young introduces this tune as one that will show up “on the next album”; fans would actually have to wait until 1983 to hear it recorded in a radically different (see: rockabilly) form. On this number the services of Jack Nitzsche, who contributes electric piano, are most evident. His understated playing is never particularly noticeable-not surprising with the ceaseless twin guitar assault-but nevertheless serves purpose, providing contours and further space for Young and Whitten to thrash around.

And so, despite minor quibbles about its completeness, it is hard to fathom why any fan of Neil Young could pass on this release, which also comes strongly recommended for anyone who wants to hear live music performed with honesty and intelligent abandon. Context, as always, is key in rendering some final thoughts: indispensable as a historical document of what Crazy Horse sounded like in concert, Live at the Fillmore East is essential. And when one considers that Young was less than two years from dropping Harvest, the scope of his astonishing gifts and vision come into fuller focus: this perennial outsider was never a self-conscious stylist. As he famously remarked, traveling down the middle of the road became a bore so he headed for the ditch. Every time people have wondered (sometimes with good reason) where the hell he was going, he has always had the last laugh, proving that he knew where, and who, he was. As for the glories of the moment or remembrance of things past? Those things are already gone. Besides, everybody knows this is nowhere.


— 12 January 2007

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