Friday, August 21, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Best Of The J. Geils Band

This one’s for Matt, since he asked.

In the early 80s, my mother moved to New York to pursue her lifelong ambition of becoming a professional actress. I know, I know…her and about a million other people, right? Unlike some of those others, however, my mom had some reason to be confident. She had just received her graduate degree from the University of Michigan and was by all accounts an extraordinarily talented performer. Of course I’m going to say that, being her son and all. But I’m just repeating what I’ve been told. I only saw her act a handful of times.

Anyway, to pay the bills she took a job working for a guy named Ken Kragen. Kragen was (and still is, as far as I know) a music manager. He’s apparently one of the folks who helped put together the roster of talent on the USA For Africa song “We Are The World”. I’ve no idea what my mom’s job actually was. Kids in their early teens don’t often trouble themselves with details like that. I assume she was an assistant or something like that.

She was never particularly happy working this gig, which should surprise absolutely no one. I think it’s written in the Struggling Artist Bylaws that you must despise your soulless day job, no matter what it is, how much it pays or how much freedom it allows you to pursue your own dreams. But for me, living thousands of miles away with my father in Montana, it was the coolest job ever. For one thing, she was in New York City, which may as well have been Mars to me at the time. Even more important, I got free records out of the deal. Lots and lots of free records.

A lot of these freebies were 45s, promotional singles sent out by record companies to radio stations and apparently everybody else who worked in the music industry. It seemed like I’d get a new batch of 45s every couple weeks. I hoarded them at first but when I realized how many I was getting, I started a new routine. I’d listen to each new batch and separate them into two piles. The ones I liked, I kept. The ones I hated became target practice. If you want to feel like Hunter S. Thompson, go into your backyard and play skeet with a stack of crappy REO Speedwagon singles.

I also got free albums from acts that Kragen represented. At the time, these included the likes of Kenny Rogers, Naked Eyes and…The J. Geils Band. The J. Geils Band was at the height of their commercial popularity when my mother worked for Kragen. The album Freeze-Frame came out and the single “Centerfold” was inescapable. Mom sent me a copy of Freeze-Frame and I must have mentioned that I liked it because the next thing I knew, a large box arrived with about half a dozen catalog albums on vinyl and cassette.

Now I liked Freeze-Frame just fine but it wasn’t as if these guys were my new favorite band, so I didn’t dig into the records immediately. But my mom kept asking if I’d listened to any of it during our weekly phone calls. This was unusual. She hadn’t cared one way or another if I listened to any of the Kenny Rogers albums she’d sent me. I figured I’d better give it a shot and decided the best place to start was a greatest hits compilation, 1979’s Best Of The J. Geils Band.

As soon as the needle hit the vinyl, I was taken aback. It was unquestionably the same band that I was familiar with. Certainly Peter Wolf’s distinctive growl of a voice was instantly recognizable, albeit even growlier. But the 80s pop sheen of “Centerfold” was gone. This was grungier, looser and steeped in R&B and the blues. My ears perked up from the first track, “Southside Shuffle”, but I stopped whatever else I was doing and really paid attention when “Give It To Me” came on. It starts as a perfectly enjoyable pop-rock song, then shifts gears midway through to become a fierce, funky band free-for-all. From then on, I was hooked.

In retrospect, Best Of The J. Geils Band is kind of an awkward and clumsy compilation. There’s virtually no flow to the track sequencing and live cuts appear with no warning next to studio tracks. But the album still holds a special place in my heart. This is where I first heard great songs like “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party”, “I Do” and “Musta Got Lost”. It also showcases some of the best harmonica work ever, courtesy of Magic Dick. One listen to Dick’s virtuoso performance on “Whammer Jammer” will make you forget everything you think you know about the harmonica.

After the success of Freeze-Frame, Peter Wolf left the band and Seth Justman took control for their follow-up album, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd (more on that curiosity in a future installment of Jahnke’s Record Collection). After that, the band broke up, unfortunately before I had a chance to see them live. However, there is hope. The full band, including Wolf, has recently reformed to play a few gigs, mostly out east. It sounds as if they’re enjoying being back together and, more importantly, their live performances are just as powerful as ever. My fingers are crossed for a more extensive reunion tour. If they come out to LA, you can bet I’ll be in the audience, getting down with “Detroit Breakdown” and thoughts of my mother dancing in my head.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Metallica - Ride The Lightning

This may come as a shock, considering my well-known reputation as the hardest of hardcore bad-asses, but I was never much into heavy metal growing up. I liked some of it but I was mainly interested in bands with monster connections: KISS, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, that kind of thing. I dismissed most of the 80s hair bands out of hand and only tuned into MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball when I was more than usually bored.

Metallica didn’t enter my life until I started dating a young woman named Tisha in the early 90s. Tisha was, and is, a bona fide hardcore bad-ass. She grew up on metal and Metallica was her favorite band. She was such a devoted fan that, in high school, she had a personalized license plate with the band’s name. For most bands, I’d think that was a really stupid thing to do. But somehow, with Metallica it’s beyond cool. I even thought so at the time when I didn’t really know much about the band.

The first Metallica album I heard was their self-titled 1991 blockbuster, known familiarly as The Black Album. The success of that album made it kind of difficult to avoid if you were listening to any popular music at the time. Still, I was impressed. I’d unfairly dismissed most heavy metal as an impregnable wall of noise and Metallica was definitely not that. This was a controlled, precision aural attack. I liked it.

I worked backward from there, familiarizing myself with the band’s earlier albums and generally found that I enjoyed them even more. Naturally, I soon gravitated toward the band’s 1984 album Ride The Lightning. I looked at the track listing, saw the album closed with a tune called “The Call Of Ktulu”, and my monster-lovin’ brain got all excited. As it turned out, the song is an epic instrumental and I may have dug it all the more for that. I could shut my eyes and easily envision Lovecraft’s Elder Gods being summoned to spread hell across the planet.

I continued to be impressed by the seriousness of Metallica’s lyrics. While other metal bands I was familiar with tended to sing about the most primal urges in the most idiotic way possible, these guys wrote songs about suicide, war and capital punishment. Sure, it didn’t have the literary aspirations of Nick Cave but compared to most of what was out there, it was downright poetic.

More important than the words, I was learning to listen to the music. Songs like “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Fade To Black” still had the sonic overload I was familiar with. But a closer listen showed method to the madness. Everything was tight, precise and done with purpose. The music was primal yet sophisticated, hitting a part of the brain that had gone untouched for too long.

My appreciation for metal has continued to grow to this day, although once a band gets too close to sheer noise I tune out. As for Tisha, she eventually became my wife, then amicably my ex-wife. Learning to appreciate Metallica is probably the least of the valuable life lessons I learned from her but I thank her for it nevertheless. I still go back to these early Metallica albums, turning the volume up as loud as I dare. Of course, a real fan would turn it up as loud as they could and never mind the neighbors. I guess I’m just more of a soft-spoken, considerate bad-ass. I hold the door for chicks at the biker bar and if I have to shove a broken bottle into somebody’s face, I always ask before I grab yours.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection

There is no “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the Electric Theatre website for the simple reason that I am not asked questions very frequently. However, one that has come up on more than a few occasions is, “Why don’t you write music reviews more often?”

The question always surprises me since, if you’ve actually read any of the few music reviews I’ve done for my buddy Matt Rowe’s MusicTAP site, I would think it’s fairly obvious why I don’t do more of them. I’m not very good at it. Don’t get me wrong. I love music with a passion. All kinds, from classical to country to rock to the hippity-hop that’s so popular with the kids these days. I recently did an iPod purge. I tend to listen to the thing on shuffle, so I got rid of hours worth of music that didn’t really work in that style. That still left me with over 5,000 songs.

I feel as though I know a little bit about music. I’ve co-written a few songs, there are a couple of instruments I can pick up and make sound like something (although I’d never say that I know how to play them), and I’ve immersed myself in a relatively diverse range of music over the years. In other words, I know just enough about music to realize that I don’t really know shit.

Movies are a different story. I can review a film and explain why I liked or disliked it. If someone asks how I’d improve it, I can come up with an idea or two. I can’t do that with music nearly as well. If someone asked me how I’d make a song that I didn’t like better, I’d just shrug my shoulders. I can do fairly well if the topic is someone whose work I admire. I could explain why Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a better album than Lucky Town, for instance. But I’m not sure that I could tell you why I think Lucky Town is a better album than Garth Brooks’ No Fences, other than to say I like Bruce Springsteen and hate Garth Brooks. Why do I hate Garth Brooks? I dunno. I just think he sucks, that’s all. That’s not exactly an insightful critique.

Recently, I’ve wanted to experiment with more music reviews. Sure, part of the reason is because I like getting free CDs. But the bigger reason is it’s a challenge and gets me out of my writing comfort zone. Since I clearly haven’t been able to come up with a better use for this blog, this seemed like the best place to do it. But these aren’t going to be your ordinary music reviews.

Jahnke’s Record Collection is meant to be a magical mystery tour through all of the recorded music I’ve accumulated over the past few decades. Every so often (ideally once a week but we’ll see how that goes), I’ll pull an album at random off the shelf and give it a listen. Occasionally I’ll be talking about the music but primarily, I want to explore why I have this crap and what it means to me. I’m fascinated by how our relationship to music changes over time. An album can require repeated listenings before it begins to grow on us. Contrarily, a record that was once a favorite can suddenly turn into utter garbage. I have a tendency to hold on to stuff for…oh, pretty much ever, so I’m sure there’s going to be some truly embarrassing gems in here.

One more thing. Most of my collection is on CD but some of it is still on vinyl and cassette (I used to have some 8-tracks but regrettably got rid of them years ago). Regardless of the format, I’m still calling this Jahnke’s Record Collection. As far as I’m concerned, the word “record” is simply an abbreviation of “recording”. So yes, CDs are records too. Go split hairs someplace else.

Now then, let’s begin with one of the worst albums by one of my favorite artists…

Bruce Springsteen - Human Touch

I’ve been a die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan since my early teens. Even so, the early 90s was a tough time to remain among the faithful. Bruce had broken up the E Street Band, moved to Los Angeles, and hadn’t released an album since Tunnel Of Love back in ’87. So in 1992, when it was announced that he was releasing not one but two albums of new material, I was understandably excited. Sure, he was using session musicians instead of the venerable E Streeters but it was Bruce! How could it be anything less than awesome?

As it turns out, it could be considerably less than awesome in quite a number of ways. I was never one of those fans who thought Springsteen was incapable of writing a bad song. But up ‘til now, he hadn’t recorded anything quite so…bland. Human Touch committed the worst sin an album could make: it was forgettable.

Which isn’t to say I hated the whole thing (or its companion, the aforementioned Lucky Town). Between the two of them, you could put together a reasonably decent album. No classic, by any definition, but at least something you could listen to and enjoy. But far too much of Human Touch was taken up by mediocre songs that barely resonated in your ear even as you were playing them.

At the time of the album’s release, I was about to get married. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that songs like the title track and “Cross My Heart” appealed to me quite a bit. They still do, truth be told, even if they now seem a little bit more boring than they once did. And Springsteen does offer up at least two keepers here: the truly sad and painful “I Wish I Were Blind” and “The Long Goodbye”, a strong rock song with lyrics that are almost shockingly bleak.

But by and large, Human Touch is dominated by some of the most boring songs Springsteen ever committed to tape. Tracks like “Soul Driver” and “With Every Wish” are just about as dull as music can get before it turns into white noise. And then there’s “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”. “Weird Al” has written better songs on this subject before. No slam against Mr. Yankovic, whom I admire quite a bit, but when Bruce Springsteen can’t out-do “Weird Al”, something’s out of whack with the musical universe. To be fair, Little Steven did the best he could with his remix of this song and he joined Bruce for a blistering live version on Saturday Night Live. It’s the only performance of this song I’ve ever enjoyed.

Human Touch was still an important album in my musical development in that it was one of the most disappointing records I’d ever heard up to that point. It and Lucky Town were released on the same day but I was so underwhelmed by what I heard here that I didn’t bother to pick up the other one until months later. The album made me consider perhaps for the first time what it was that I responded to in Springsteen’s music in an attempt to figure out what was lacking here. The fundamental element was passion. For the first time, I was hearing Bruce Springsteen simply go through the motions. It would happen again. I’m still a fan and have found much to enjoy in later albums like The Rising and Working On A Dream. But I’m still waiting for another album of all-original songs that blows my mind the way Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Born To Run did. It may never happen but that’s part of being a fan. The hope that it might.