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Sound Grammar

What We’re Listening to This Week



Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics (Beeswing, 2014)

For decades, Richard Thompson has had to endure a chorus of rock critics bemoaning how “under-rated” he is. That must get tedious after releasing one sterling record after another. Under-rated by whom, I’ve often wondered. Surely not other musicians. Surely not songwriters. Thompson is a daring and nimble guitarist, perhaps the best modal guitarist in rock history, but he’s an even better songwriter–one of the greatest of the last 35 years (Wall of Death, Calvary Cross, Shoot Out the Lights,  I Misunderstood, Strange Affair, When the Spell is Broken). Acoustic Classics features 14 stripped down, austere versions of some of Thompson’s best compositions. But that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t rock. Mandatory Nader Advisory: strap yourself down before you play “Valerie.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Hypnotic Eye (Warner, 2014)

Last week, I was talking with an aspiring songwriter in her 20s and she told me how much she hated Tom Petty. I was surprised. I told her I didn’t think Petty was capable of writing a truly bad song. Of course, Petty isn’t really capable of writing an entirely new song either. His latest record, Hypnotic Eye, is filled with great music from beginning to end. It also sounds like almost every other Tom Petty record. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. Tom Petty is stuck in a groove and he’s going to keep riding it to the end. And that’s just fine by me.

Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod, 2014)

The last time I saw Billy Joe Shaver he was playing in a cramped former Chinese joint in old town Portland and “man, did he look pretty ill.” That must have been 10 years ago and Shaver’s still out there on the road, defying the odds, writing gritty songs about booze, doomed affairs and how he’s disappointed Jesus time after time. Shaver is a deft songwriter in the Austin mode. But his voice is ragged and ungainly. Occasionally, his singing lends a certain grim gravitas to the lyrics. Most of the time he sounds like he’s crawling through a heap of barbed wire. Like mescal, Shaver is an acquired taste. It burns going down, but usually delivers the goods in the long run.

Pixie Lott: Pixie Lott (EMI, 2014)

Pixie likes nail polish, silk and lip gloss. Pixie likes stilettos, Mojitos and Amy Winehouse. Pixie might just like to sleep with you. But I’d refrain, boys, because as Pixie confesses in her taffeta-voice: “Here’s something you can’t understand, how I could just kill a man.” You’ve been warned.

Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits. His latest book, Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (co-edited with Kevin Alexander Gray and JoAnn Wypijewski) will be released in June by CounterPunch Books.



Ramones, Ramones (Warner/Rhino, 1976)

Ramones, Leave Home (Rhino, 1977)

Ramones, Rocket to Russia (Rhino, 1977)

Ramones, Road to Ruin (Rhino, 1978)


It’s hard to believe they are gone. With the death of Tommy Ramone last month, all four original Ramones have now passed. Not a single member of the pinnacle band reached the age of 70 – most never turned 60. Was it hard living? Two long decades on the road? Over the course of 22 years the Ramones played 2,263 shows. Dee Dee battled addiction, and cancer got the better of Tommy, Joey and Johnny. This past week I went through the band’s entire early catalogue, from their self-titled debut in 1976, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia from 1977 to 1978’s Road to Ruin. Perhaps it was nostalgia, or the fact the Ramones have meant so much to so many people, that I was deeply saddened to hear about Tommy. That pain, however, is a place their music has always taken me. Despite the perception the Ramones were upbeat, I’ve always had a different perception. Joey in particular was dark, lonely and full of self-doubt. Dee-Dee had his bouts of depression. Just take a listen to I Just Want Something to Do from Road to Ruin, We’re a Happy Family off Rocket to Russia or Dee Dee’s street-wise 53rd & 3rd from their first record. In a way, it’s amazing that so much can be gleaned from a little three-chord band from Queens. That’s more than just punk rock, that’s a sign of true art. Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!

Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He lives in the LBC.



Some Velvet Evening: “No Law Against Talking

A while back an expatriate friend of mine who knows a hell of a lot about country music hipped me to this duo from Michigan who are somewhere to the left (or is it the right?) of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in that they play old-time Nashville country duets that are a hell of a lot close to 1950 than now.

Some Velvet Evening is Carrie Shepard and John Holk, and they’ve studied the country duets from the Louvin Brothers up through Porter and Dolly and Conway and Loretta.  There are times on songs like “One Night of Sin” where you almost expect Mama Maybelle Carter to come wandering into the room with an autoharp.  Occasionally their lyrics bring them up to the present, but most of the time they take you to another time or place.

Peter Stone Brown is a musician and writer in Philly.



While on the train traveling through beautiful landscapes of Scotland, on our way to see Tom Jones perform at the festival in the highlands…

She Cried by Frank Yamma, black fella country soul from the never never land near Alice Springs…

Boris Grebenshikov,  Nas S Toboi Naebali, from the band Aquarium, the Bob Dylan of Russia… about two soldiers abandoned by the high command,  translates as You and Me are Fucked

Fela Kuti, Coffin for Head Of State

Ana Moush Kafer by Zaid El Rahbani, the son of Fairouz, the greatest singer in the Arabic language right now: I am not the Unbeliever, poverty is the Unbeliever…

Sally Timms is a musician and songwriter and member of the Mekons. She lives in Chicago.



It’s Only Rock and Roll—The Rolling Stones.

This was the last studio album by the Stones to feature Mick Taylor on lead guitar on seven of the ten tracks.   Every disc afterwards would find Ron Wood, formerly of the Faces, sharing licks and chords with the Glimmer Twins’ better half, Keith Richards.  While the combination of Richards and Wood defines the sound of the Stones probably better than any of the previous guitar pairings the band featured, no guitarist in the Stones ever played lead like Mick Taylor.  Indeed, Mick Taylor was the only Stones guitarist who ever played a genuine lead guitar.  This album’s production is a bit embellished, especially when compared to the murky swampiness of the previous exercise in the blues that preceded it, Exile on Main Street.

This album is representative of the state of rock in 1975. The cover art is an almost Boschian painting by Guy Peelart that reeks of hedonism and excess.  Mick Jagger whispers, snarls and even sings lyrics that are sometimes the viewpoint of a rock musician quite removed from the daily reality of his audience.  Other times, the songs are come from the lives of members of that audience was like. The title song is a celebration of rock and roll’s ability to take all of its participants to another, usually better place.  As far as I’m concerned, this was the second to last consistently worthwhile album the Stones released.  Some Girls, released in 1977, would be the last such disc from this band that never dies.

Listen Whitey!Various Artists.

This past Thursday (August 7) was the 44th anniversary of Jonathan Jackson’s ill-fated attempt to free his brother political prisoner and Black Panther George Jackson.  This collection of Black liberation songs and speeches includes Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” which is why I included it this week.  Also included are a version of Gil Scott Heron’s classic “Winter in America,” the Original Last Poets doing “Die Nigga,’” a gospel-influenced song from Panther Elaine Brown titled “Until We’re Free,” and a multitude of other tunes.  The disc, which came with a book also titled Listen, Whitey is both educational and inspirational.  It is more than a collection of speeches and songs.  It is a testament to a time when Black people (and their allies) in the US not only forged a revolutionary politics, but also a revolutionary culture.

Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.



Sir Neville Mariner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Fantasia on Greensleeves  with orchestral works by Vaughn Williams, Delius, Elgar, Warlock, and Butterworth

At a spritely ninety Mariner will become the oldest conductor ever to lead a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall this weekend in London.  Recorded when Mariner was a mere seventy-three, this rich English fare will either make you yearn for long English evenings and views of fields and hedgerows or feel dangerously overheated from so many nostalgic, full-fat calories. Consuming the entire two-CD set in one sitting may require the post-prandial purgative of Wodehouse’s Jeeves or Strachey’s Victorians. Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad Rhapsody heard here was played this past week at the ceremonies in Belgium marking the start of World War I. Listening to its sweeping beauty now with wars raging around the world, one may ask if any calm before a storm could ever be lovelier and at the same time more terrifying.

David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.



Church Clothes, Vol. 2:  Lecrae

Time Waits for No One:  Mavis Staples

Jerk Off: Tool (live bootleg, Sacramento 2002)

Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential.