Sunday, December 23, 2007

Real Cool

Tommy McCook

Real Cool: The Jamaican King of The Saxophone '66-'77

Sanctuary Trojan US

2005 (Compilation Release) 1966-1977 (Original Releases)

Originally, I was unsure if a compilation such as this was appropriate for our discussion here at The Red Skull, even if the re-release did barely squeezed into our 2 years-and-older window. Conferring with my erstwhile co-blogger confirmed that it was a fit, so I'm gladly reviewing it here. Still, a little discussion on this point is in order.

It is this critic's opinion that the album itself is an art form. When arranged properly, the album is more than a collection of songs, but an artistic statement itself. Adding in the (often) ignored details of cover art and packaging reinforces this notion. This was the source of the trepidation on my part about the inclusion of a compilation. Interestingly, this was most true for a certain period of time. In the 50's and 60's, it was much more common for artists to release singles and EP's. Full length albums weren't the commodity they became in later years. In the present day, we seem to be returning to that mentality with the migration from physical to digital media. If an artist has recorded a great new song, why go through the process of recording filler for a full-length album when iTunes is just a click away?

For now, however, releasing full-length albums is still quite fashionable, much to my delight. In the case of Tommy McCook's golden age in Jamaica, however, that wasn't the case. Real Cool is a collection of the many singles, 7"s, and EPs he released for the legendary Trojan Records label. Compilations like this are a great boon for those like me who were born after these releases and didn't discover them for many years.

This massive (49 tracks!) two disc set contains the definitive solo work of McCook's best years as a pioneer of Ska, Dub, and Reggae. Additionally, it contains fantastic collaborations with other giants of the era. Bobby Ellis, Ron Wilson, The Aggrovators, The Supersonics, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Knibb, Lyn Taitt and others make appearances here. It is a fantastic collection of the the best years of Jamaican music. McCook shows himself to be an excellent band leader and soloist on his own compositions as well as those by Bunny Lee, Lester Sterling, and even Oscar Hammerstein. Through it all, McCook shows comfort and innovation all different kinds of musical styles. This is fantastic as in introduction to McCook's vast catalog, or as a source of some hard to find gems.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sweet Sorrow

Hang Ups

A great deal of the charm in reviewing older albums is the joy we get from watching them age and discovering hidden subtleties and new interpretations of the ambiguity of previously concrete-seeming lyrics. As time passes, it becomes a challenge to tease apart the changing feelings we have of albums that have been nearly constantly playing for years. Do I feel differently because I've grown and changed as a person, or am I hearing something for the first time? The greatest albums grow to become rich layered works of art, never revealing their true intentions to us. We review them to seek to place them in historical context, both in the time they were released, and in the artist's canon. We review them to highlight unfairly overlooked entries. We review them to give a snapshot of our interpretations which will evolve in time themselves.

Then there are the other albums. Albums without any sense of ironic self-awareness or postmodern tricksterism. Albums who reveal themselves to you on the first listen (or even at the record store, while you look at the cover), and yet are fantastic all the same. Goldfinger's high water mark, 1998's Hang Ups, is one of these albums.

What is it about the dreaded sophomore album**? For decades it has been a stumbling block for so many artists. The one theme common to so many sophomore albums, it seems, is the departure. For whatever reason, most artists' second releases attempt to show a different direction in the music. Sometimes it builds on their existing reputation (see Dinosaur Jr's You're Living All Over Me or My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque), sometimes it damages it (See U2's October, or Weezer's Pinkerton***), but it's usually way out there and it usually takes for fucking ever to come out.

Hang Ups was a departure for Goldfinger, in that it's the their only record with a brass section (largely borrowed from assorted acts of the late-90's Orange County music scene.) Lots of ska-style upstroke and much less distortion than any of their other albums. Fishbone's Angelo Moore even drops by on a few tunes to lend his massive genre credibility to this effort.

Make no mistake, this was an album about goodbyes. From the opening track, a farewell to the feelings of being in control of one's own life, to the closer (Chris Cayton, a song reminiscing over the fate of an estranged friend), this album's tone remains constant. It's an album about loss and about the other kind of hang-up: things we can't get around. It's an album of questions without answers.
"Where are you now? Were you just toying with me? Did you need me to play all your high school games?"
"I wanna know you, is it too late to even try? I hardly know you, another 20 cent goodbye."
"Got some question about your life/don't how you'll ever make it through"

Don't let me convince you that this is a depressing teen angst anthem record. Through it all, the tone of the record is also of survival. It's rough, but we'll get through it. By the time the final song comes around, we're celebrating the time we had with our lost friend, not lamenting the end of the friendship (the reason for which is never even stated). And even the end of the album isn't concrete, as a hidden track (which is one of the strongest tracks on the album) greets the patient listener.

Hang Ups plays its hand openly from the beginning. From the CD booklet which is presented in the form of the yellow pages (with humorous ads), to the CD label which looks like the dialer on a rotary phone, to the album cover or a phone cord in the shape of a noose. Like a Mariano Rivera cut-fastball, you know what this album packs, but it does it so well that it doesn't matter.

** Have you ever noticed this is true of movies as well? The 2nd entry in any movie trilogy is the WTF one. Karate Kid II, Temple of Doom, Empire Strikes Back, the second Mad Max movie, you name it!

*** Whatever you may think of these albums now, they were commercial and critical failures when released.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Don't Fight The Feeling

Editor's note: I really meant for The Red Skull to be up and running at 100% with a few more writers by this point. In case you don't read Beneath The Underdog, my personal blog, you might not know that my girlfriend, Amanda, was hit by a car two weeks ago. She's okay, but I've been distracted from writing and making this blog a little more presentable. I'm writing this post before I head off to the beach for the weekend, but look forward to more new content, things like link bars, writer information, and hopefully more writers. If you feel that you'd like to write for the Red Skull, send an email to

Live albums are tricky propositions. The traditional rock live albums are drunken retreads through the hits. There are notable exceptions, Live at Leeds, Band Of Gypsys, The Horrible Truth About Burma to name a few.

The live soul record is an entirely different beast. There are three and a half live Otis Redding albums (the half being the split LP Live At Monterrey which he shares with Jimi Hendrix). Each of these are revelations, pure soul sweat flying off of who was already the grittiest soulman of the sixties.

There's revelations, and then there's REVELATIONS. In my opinion, Sam Cooke had the greatest voice I've ever heard. Something so perfect, without pretensions standing in the way of understanding the man who's singing. At the same time conversational, gritty, and smooth. Sam Cooke was stuck in the late fifties and early sixties, though. In that pre-Motown era where soul singers were often pitted against lilly white choral arrangements, syurpy strings, and sub par material. The early singles tower over the albums they promoted, while Cooke's voice never falters, he's bogged down by poor material. Towards the end of Cooke's life and career, he fought for and won his autonomy. In charge of his master tapes, the material he performs and releases, and who plays on his records.

Only three records came out of this period of new found freedom. Night Beat, Ain't That Good News, and Live At The Harlem Square Club. Here is where the revelation lies, recorded in a small club with a vociferous audience, Cooke gets loose and dirty. The audience and Cooke feed off of each other's building energy. Cooke is like a preacher with a newly constituted religion, spreading the gospel of dancing. Whipping everyone into a frenzy. Cooke lets go of the vocal control typical of his studio recordings in a screaming, voice cracking blaze of glory.

Throughout the performance, Cooke invents dances, (prompting the audience to "spin their hankerchiefs 'round"), laughs and jokes with the audience. The band is atypically tight, with perfect timing and anticipation of Cooke's every move. Unfortunately, this is the only recording of this sort from Cooke. His other live LP, Live at The Copa, is a mostly milquetoast affair, targeted right at the audience that was devouring the day's crooner mediocora. Here on Harlem Square Cooke is tipping his hand towards the direction he planned on taking. Unfortunately, Cooke was murdered the next year. Thinking of the material Cooke would have made during soul's late sixties early seventies Renaissance really breaks your heart. How would Cooke have replied to What's Going On and Music Of My Mind? With that depressing thought, I'll turn this record back on, and not fight the feeling.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Middle Child

Dinosaur Jr
Without A Sound

Michael Schumacher won so many F1 races that they seem to run together. Feats of motorsport which would be the highlight of a lesser pilot’s career are forgotten in the string of a dozen years of incredible drives. From Belgium ’92, to Italy ’06, who can remember them all? How about in Indianapolis 2003, when he blitzed through a rain-soaked field (in front of a rain-soaked Cangrejero) to secure his 6th World Championship? 7 wins in Canada and France. 2nd place in Spain with only 5th gear? 1st place in Austria after his Ferrari caught fire. It’s easy to lose track and see his career as a giant blur of prosperity, individual accomplishments being overlooked for the whole.

After the departure of Lou Barlow, J Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr became pretty much a solo project. Mascis compiled a string of solid releases, much like Schumacher compiled victories. 1994’s Hand It Over was effectively Mascis’ first solo album, as he wrote and performed all of the songs nearly single-handedly. In the year of Schumacher’s controversial first world championship, Mascis released an album which was undeniably Mascis. I doubt any guitar beyond his iconic Fender Jazzmaster was used. This is an album filled with tremolo and fuzzy feedback on every number. The extended solos first seen in the previous years’ Where You Been are back, and tighter than in that classic release. Musically and lyrically, the ideas first explored in that album are expanded on here and brought to their natural conclusion. Mascis seems as comfortable as ever with his vocal range, and his singing seems like an integral part of the music, and not an additional layer conspicuous in its high pitch.

Without A Sound wasn’t the best album from Dinosaur Jr’s career, but it may have been the most indicative of what made their sound so great.

How the Mighty Fell

Terror Twilight

There’s a moment in Lance Bangs’ introspective Pavement documentary “Slow Century” where a band member (I believe it was Malkmus) states that he doesn’t want the then-upcoming album, Terror Twilight, to be the band’s undoing. He’s specifically referring to the decision to hire Nigel Godrich (of OK, Computer fame) to produce the album. Watching the DVD gives one the feeling that Pavement was on life support at the time of the recording anyway, so Terror Twilight can’t be said to have fired the fatal bullet. However, it sure as fuck did not call the ambulance.

Honestly, it’s 11-tracks of Malkmus masturbating into my stereo speakers. It’s a terrible swan song for what was a great band in lush 24-track sound, like a gilded pile of excrement. Gone are the noisy anthems of Slanted and Enchanted. Gone is the clever wordplay and layered guitar work of Crooked Rain and Brighten the Corners. Gone is the sheer brilliance of Wowee Zowee. Take all that away and you’re left with very little. I picture a half-smirk on the band’s faces during recording, as if they knew it was crap and they went ahead and released it anyway. Toothpaste Jones said there would be negative reviews, and I couldn’t think of any better place to start than here. (Bonus fun: check this sloppy blowjob of a Pitchfork review, especially the final paragraph)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Looking Back

Coming Up

Lead Guitarist and co-founding Suede member Bernard Butler left the band midway through the recording of their sophomore effort, Dog Man Star. By all rights, this should have been the end of the band. At the time, I thought it not unlike the Smiths without Johnny Marr. (Speaking of whom, am I the only one who still thinks it’s strange that he’s with Modest Mouse now?). Butler’s ability to craft driving rhythms with hook-laden fills and dynamic solos was the perfect match for singer Brett Anderson’s haunting, thin voice. Replacing him with a mere teenager was not a good sign for the upcoming Coming Up.
Instead of a disaster, however, the resulting album stands as one of Suede’s finest. Richard Oakes infused an energy which was lacking in their previous releases. Amazingly, however, the band maintained the dark tone of its lyrics. The resulting mix is a wonderfully pleasant and unique sound. The mixing of this album featured Oakes’ guitar work and diminished the role of the bass guitar, yet somehow the final product has quite a full sound. The opening track, Trash, establishes the tone of the album right away with lyrics such as "We're Trash, you and me/we're the lovers in the streets/ we're the litter on the breeze". Like much of Suede’s work, a picture of a seedy and dark world of the London club scene is presented. The album goes elaborates on this scene with tracks like The Beautiful Ones, with lines like “high on diesel and gasoline/ psycho for drum machine/ shaking their bits to the hits”. Through it all, Richard Oakes’ riffing dominates the sound, showing that the band would indeed survive and thrive after the departure of Butler.
Suede’s Coming Up spends most of its time describing a world I am wholly unfamiliar with, and have grown no more familiar with over the decade following its release. Listening to it now, however, I find the album has lost none of its luster and remains an enjoyable experience.

Lint (Heatmiser- Mic City Sons)

Editor's note: The Creedence Overview is going to be a weekly installment situation. Look for Bayou Country on Friday.

What would it sound like if you placed the greatest songwriter of the last twenty years in a workman-like grunge band? Heatmiser. Widely dismissed during their time, Heatmiser consisted of Neil Gust, Sam Coomes (Quasi), and Elliot Smith. It strikes me that in all the Smith related posthumous releasing, at least this record wasn't reissued. It's a fantastic record (sorta), and Smith's songs sit on the same level as his solo material.

The album starts off with two Smith numbers, the surprisingly confident rocker, "Get Lucky", pairs Smith's Beatles melodies with a loosely over driven guitar riff, lines are even traded with Gust, and punctuated with perfectly placed "whoahs". Here Smith and Heatmiser sound like an actual group, unlike the rest of his songs on this record, where it's more like Elliot Smith featuring Heatmiser. I'm not sure if that's because this is their breakup record, or if Smith's songwriting just doesn't really mesh with the band's sound. (This is the only Heatmiser record I've heard.)

"Plainclothes Man" starts out more in the classic Elliot Smith chiming acoustic guitar style, when the band slowly creeps in, and lends some tension to an already dark song. The one thing that has always impressed me about Elliot Smith is how easily he can put plain words in places where other songwriters would put metaphors. Here Smith plaintively sings that he "only needed alcohol". It's so plain and direct, yet is so clearly not pedestrian. His pain is there, and needs no explanation. Unlike subsequent misery hounds, like say, Linkin Park, who have to use the word pain, over and over again.

Gust is just as miserable as Smith, just not as charming. The balance of the record tilts toward him, and without Smith adding beauty to the straight bleakness, Heatmiser would be more like Bush with a little more credibility. Maybe I'm being too mean here, I said this was a fantastic record just a few paragraphs ago, and it kind of is. Gust isn't so bad, as much as he's just a real downer. He has some really good songs here, "Rest My Head Against The Wall" is a drunken stumble through a bad week, with loose and detuned acoustic guitars. When listened to by themselves, Gust's songs are impressive, confident in their misery. Together they seem to run into one another, until they're broken up by another Elliot Smith song.

If I weren't forced to compare Smith and Gust, I'd probably find Gust to be the frontman of a perfectly serviceable second tier grunge-era band. And I'm sure that "Low-Flying Jets" will be a highlight of the inevitable '90s Nuggets-styled boxed set (we'll call it Lint). But Gust sits there, distracting me from what would be a perfect little Elliot Smith ep. Like if Kurt Cobain shared half of the songs on Nevermind with Sponge. That's still too hateful, yet, I can't help it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Norman Conquest

Teenage Fanclub
Songs From Northern Britain

It took the balance of a decade, but in 1997 Teenage Fanclub broke through the heavy press of their influences and made the definitive album of their career. Don't get me wrong, their early work was nothing short of brilliant. However, the preceding albums were all infected with the overbearing flavor of their contemporaries and predecessors. 1989's A Catholic Education was a clear product of the British shoegaze scene, and sounded like it could well have been a collaboration between J Mascis and Kevin Shields. Spin Magazine's 1991 album of the year, Bandwagonesque and it's 1993 follower Thirteen are more reminiscent of the heavy influence Big Star and Neil Young have had on this band. Through these first albums, the band's trio of songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley) crafted power-pop anthems rich with harmonies. The ever-present steadying hand of Norman Blake ensured that there was a continuity to each of the albums, and maintained their coherent sound. 1995's Grand Prix was a sort of break with tradition from the earlier albums. It was almost as if one could perceive the hand of Blake relaxing to allow the three distinct styles of songwriting to stand out. Instead of a resultant discord, however, the album stood as their tightest release to date. It discarded with Thirteen's lamentations on the trappings of fame and instead gave us an album lush with personal anthems from a triumvirate of perspectives. Looking back, it appears Grand Prix was a perfect (and necessary) predecessor to 1997's Songs From Northern Britain.

While the title reference's the band's home in Scotland, the album is about many places. The opening track, Start Again, is an homage to the practice of finding one's roots. It's a lush Norman Blake tune with Wilsonesque three-part harmony throughout. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. They sing of going to the country in the highlands and taking the long way round. It's an album about enjoying the place you're in and finding other places you'll enjoy more. It's simply amazing that the album which best describes the artists came so late in their career. The songwriting is split equally, with Blake, Love and McGinley each contributing 4 tracks. McGinley's acoustic takes on Americana can seem out of place among Love and Blake's 'Bellshill Beach Boys' numbers, but his excellent "You're Love is The Place Where I Come From" is a perfect accompaniment. If you're interested in these Glaswegian troubadours, this album is the place to start.

Monday, November 5, 2007


I set myself up. I carefully handcrafted a bear trap, and I stepped right into it. I boldly declared that I was going to write an overview of the entirety of Creedence Clearwater Revival's output. It's a huge undertaking, and I decided to make it the inaugural post on this blog. Seven albums plus a live album. I decided the best way to go about this would be to write about at least an album a day. So as to not over do it.

First, maybe a small bit of background on how I feel about Creedence. When I first got my record player, my first mission was to get all of Creedence's LPs. It was (is) a search that has taken some time. It's a lot harder to find a good copy of Bayou Country or Willy And The Poor Boys than it is to find the omnipresent Cosmo's Factory. Nearly impossible to get your hands on

Mardi Gras, their big flop, the nadir of the career. When Fogerty let go of his iron fist on the rest of the band, they floundered and broke up. Fogerty is almost like James Brown, Brown, a famous dictator, kept his band in check. Even when he was surrounded by some of the greatest musicians alive, it was his way or the highway. Fogerty folded, though, and made a terrible album.

At their peak, Creedence was like an American Beatles. Hit after hit after hit. No White Album ever came out of Creedence, but that'd be expecting too much. Creedence has been regarded as a singles band for a long time, yet every album is incredibly solid, if not for at least one instance of filler on each album (except for Cosmo's Factory which is nearly perfect). Maybe Creedence was more of an American Rolling Stones. Just without the lechery.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

One thing you'll notice throughout Creedence's records is they have an affinity for older r&b songs. If these songs didn't contain enough menace, Fogerty was there to make sure they were dark, dark, dark. Their first, self titled album starts with the evil stompings of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You". As with most songs on this record, Creedence stretches it out, revealing themselves to be one of the most proficient jam bands of the era. Their "jams" were more one note droning, akin to Neil Young and Crazy Horse on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Nothing is particularly long on Revival, reaching only as far as 4:41, so much as masterfully arranged. The songs drop away from themselves at just the right time for the band to come in and work out and give some swampy foreboding.

Two songs on this record point towards what will happen over the course of the next couple records, the earnest "Porterville" points towards the blue-collar anthems that would make Creedence their hay. While "Walk On The Water", one of the few Fogerty-penned songs here (along with "Porterville"), it sounds horrifying. It points towards the longer numbers and the light experimentation and tinkering with formula that would color each successive Creedence album. Backwards tape noises slipping into nervous spots, one insanely over driven guitar counterbalanced by a clean guitar, in a rhythm showdown, snaking together till they duel it out in solos that sound like they were recorded with the intention of being played backwards. Backwards tape noise interjects little demon hisses and moans as the solos die out, one last burst of rhythm, and the song and the album fades away. This song is semi-famously covered by Richard Hell on Blank Generation, which was the version I was acclimated to until I finally heard this album a few years back. Creedence doesn't get enough credit for being forebears of punk rock. Their raw sound, adherence to early rock standards, populist rhetoric, hating hippies, all very punk rock.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Welcome To The Rain Forest

The rain forest is a jungle, right? And vice-versa. Welcome to The Red Skull, a blog dedicated to evaluating old music with a critical eye. I guess I should explain that a little more. By old music, I'm not limiting this to classic rock or anything exclusively "old". Maybe old is the wrong word.

I started this blog in the hopes of this being a collaborative site where music writers can work on things other than new or upcoming releases. The overwhelming majority of music sales today are from back catalogs, so I think now is a perfect time to begin turning a fresh eye to this music.

As it stands, I'm the only writer on this blog, that will hopefully change soon. Of course, you're invited to submit work and become a writer. The only criteria being that the record(s) in question can't be from the last two years. This isn't necessarily a nostalgia page either, I fully plan on expressing disappointment or outright contempt.