The Rise of a Power Pop Phoenix

Let Go 

The frequent comparisons to Weezer that plagued them since the release of their hit single "Popular" (which was also produced by former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek), from their debut album High/Low [Elektra-1996], eventually turned into an albatross when clashes with their label, Elektra, over the commercial viability of the followup album, The Proximity Effect [MarDev-1998], led to the label dropping the band. So that's it, right? Just another '90s one-hit-wonder, huh? Not quite.

Getting their house in order over the next few years, the Brooklyn-based trio emerged from their hiatus with an engaging, gimmick-free collection of top-notch guitar pop. The crunchy guitars from High/Low were still present, but a lot more subtlety, maturity and definition to Nada Surf's overall palette accompanied them on Let Go.

Sounding uncannily like a band that's assessed their gifts and weaknesses, balanced them out, and delivered their very best, Let Go was not only our favorite album of 2003, but its success was the inspirational tale of a band rising from the ashes of an ostensibly doomed career and re-establishing themselves as one of the main purveyors of their style of music. Many had left these guys for dead after “Popular” had supposedly condemned them to one-hit-wonder/where are they now? status, but they bounced back and released one of the best records of the past decade. And modern day power pop fans are all the better for it.

Thank You, Friends

Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93

Going for one of the best and most brazen examples of ‘the-worst-they-can-do-is-say-no’ in rock and roll history, in 1993 two staffers at the University of Missouri’s radio station decided to call a notoriously mercurial underground legend and get him to reform his long defunct band and perform on their campus. Luckily for them, Alex Chilton was in a good mood that day.

Big Star had disbanded almost 20 years prior so once Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens were on board, the latter contacted Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, who filled in for the deceased Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel who was not interested. Auer and Stringfellow seemed an inspired but hardly random choice: The Posies were noted Big Star acolytes and had recorded a cover of Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” as a single. 

Titled in a rather matter of fact fashion, Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, the resulting live album, manages to be both breathtaking and irreverent with a set list culled in large part from Big Star’s first two albums #1 Record [Ardent/Stax-1972] and Radio City [Ardent/Stax-1974]—“Thank You, Friends” is the lone representative from the contested Third/Sister Lovers album [PVC-1978]—as well as “I Am the Cosmos” and a couple of T-Rex (“Baby Strange”) and Todd Rundgren (“Slut”) covers.

The Chilton/Stephens/Auer/Stringfellow lineup remained sporadically active—they even managed to record a studio album, In Space [Rykodisc-2005]—right up until Chilton’s death in March of 2010, but this album documents the start of the unlikely but welcome reunion that was set in motion one spring day, under a tent in a field on the campus of a college in Columbus, MO.


Nothing's Shocking...But Still Fun

Live in NYC

While about to check the tracklisting for the new Jane’s Addiction live album we found ourselves wondering if a particular track would be on this release. And there it was: “Whores”, the fiery non-studio track originally on their debut full-length, the self-titled live album [XXX-1988], placed here as the leadoff track. A pleasant surprise but not an unexpected one, on an album with very few, if any unforeseen selections. And understandably so. 

But one of them is the stripped down version of their hit “Been Caught Stealing”, which deprived of all the bells and whistles of the recorded version actually sounds like a trademark hard rockin’ Jane’s Addiction song if a bit generic.

Otherwise, the guys chose to stick to the big guns: “Ocean Size”, “Three Days” “Mountain Song”, “Stop!” and of course, “Jane Says” are all here—as well as token songs from their catalog: “Just Because” from Strays [Capitol-2003] and "Irresistible Force (Met the Immovable Object)" from The Great Escape Artist [Capitol-2011], the latter being the only entry from an album they were ostensibly promoting at the time. Obviously, Live in NYC was not intended to be a document of said tour but more a snapshot of a veteran band performing the highlights of their repertoire while demonstrating they still can capture the power and majesty of their younger days on any given night.

[Album cover artwork courtesy of the All Music Guide.]


Reaping What You Sow: 'Siembra' Turns 35

Considered, arguably, salsa’s finest moment, as well as the towering achievement of Panamanian-born, Harvard-educated, former Fania Records mailroom clerk Rubén Blades and bad boy prodigy from The Bronx Willie Colón, Siembra, with one lone exception, was penned entirely by rising star Blades and remains his most impressive batch of tunes. Kicking off with "Plastico", a blunt attack on empty consumerism and racial/class-related prejudice, capped off with a rallying cry for Latin American unity, the album is undoubtedly a reflection of the harsh times in which it was created. 

However, Siembra is rarely heavy-handed in its approach, as evidenced by the inclusion of a tender love song such as "Dime", with its joyous and infectious swing, one of the album's definitive moments. (Much props to Colon for his killer arrangements throughout.) It also happens to be home to "Pedro Navaja", a re-imagining of "Mack the Knife" as a tragic Lower East Side slice of life; it is Siembra's best known track and one of the great anthems of modern Spanish-language music.

A landmark recording universally beloved in Latin America 35 years after its release, Siembra is both the best-selling salsa album of all time--hovering, purportedly, in the 25 million copies range--and considered to be "one of the indisputable masterpieces of 1970s New York salsa". There are those who believe it's the salsa masterpiece. Three and a half decades later, we're not inclined to disagree.


Some Kind of Anger

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the release of, arguably, the most polarizing record in the Bay Area quartet's catalog--until Lulu [Warner Bros-2011] came along, of course--their first of the 21st century; first without long-time bassist Jason Newsted; last on Elektra records; and final installment of the Bob Rock era (1991-2003). Its recording also served as the backdrop for the controversial Some Kind of Monster documentary.

Although St. Anger's songs have completely disappeared from Metallica's set lists in the last 5 years--the lone exception being the 30th anniversary concerts in 2011--and critical rehabilitation has yet to set in, the most common complaints by old school, die-hard fans (ballads; four minute, radio friendly tunes; musical experimentation) are nowhere to be found on this one. Go figure. Guess that snare sound really pissed people off, huh?