Posts Tagged ‘The Cowboy Junkies’

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Various artists

I’d like to have a few words with you today about country and western music, which has been handed down to us from our forebears, who were probably trying to get rid of it. Not only has no one succeeded in this quest, those of us who make our living in the music-writing dodge and the rest of us who write stupid blogs must reluctantly admit that country has influenced every aspect of rock ’n’ roll. (Except for the music of Yes. Too bad, because Tales From Topographic Oceans, which has a running time of three days, cries out for banjos and at least a couple of songs about railroads or prisons.)

In searching for the countrified man, woman, or lonesome coyote who first infiltrated rock you can find no end of candidates but the one I wish to concentrate on today is Gram Parsons, who overdosed in 1973 in Joshua Tree National Park. Though this sad event pretty much rang down the curtain on Mr. Parsons’ life and career it by no means arrested his influence, and I don’t just mean the title of the 1987 U2 album. Parsons altered the course of the mighty Byrds, created the hybrid called country-rock, gave Emmylou Harris her break, influenced artists as diverse as Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Wilco, and became the kind of cult figure I would like to become if I had any talent and if I didn’t have to die first. His second album, released the year after his death, was Grievous Angel. Hence the title of this collection of covers from his abbreviated time on this planet, released on Grievous Angel’s 25th anniversary.

Let me state forthrightly that I never paid attention to Gram Parsons when he was alive and I haven’t paid attention to him since his passing, but though my knowledge of his music is zero and though I approach country music as reluctantly as I’d approach the front door to Bob’s Country Bunker I have come to appreciate Return of the Grievous Angel. If like me you’re looking for a relatively painless way to mosey on up to this painful music, this may be the album for you.

My father loved Hank Williams’ music
When I describe a song as being “too country” I am probably remembering being trapped in the car while Hank wailed away on the radio. My father moved on to muzak and then silence while I headed in almost every direction that wasn’t country. Some of the songs on Return of the Grievous Angel are so country that they disturb my sleep. However, I can state unequivocally that several songs lurking in this lineup are quite interesting and that three are sublime.

Gillian Welch turns “Hickory Wind,” a meditation on lost youth, into something almost spiritual. Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris sing like angels on “Juanita,” which, though it is sung in waltz time, is not one of your more upbeat numbers:

No affection were the words
That stuck on my mind
When she walked out on me
For the very last time
Oh, mama, sweet mama
Can you tell me what to say
I don’t know what I’ve done
To be treated this way

The song that laps the field, though, is “Ooh Las Vegas,” as covered by The Cowboy Junkies. “Ooh Las Vegas” is the story of a man lost in an artificial world:

Well, I spend all night with the dealer
tryin’ to get ahead
spend all day at the Holiday Inn
trying to get out of bed

This is so not Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” (“I’m just the devil with love to spare!”). But it is the song the intensely quiet Cowboy Junkies were born to play. While in the past I’ve often wondered whether I was listening to one of their songs or just the wind in the willows, here they produce real pathos, virtuosic singing, and a knock-down punch. Their interpretation rocks so hard that after 13 years of listening to it it only occurred to me when I began writing today’s post that I should give the original a go. I did. Parsons had a pretty good song up his sleeve, but his Foggy Mountain Boys delivery is too happy. The Junkies are the ones who understood what he meant and the ones who bring it home.

Return of the Grievous Angel may not be everyone’s Rocky Mountain high, but it deserves your attention. Gram Parsons deserves to be remembered. And Yes still deserves banjos.

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
This is a tough choice for me, because I hate rap, plus one of this group’s founders (long gone) talked a lot of smack about Jews. But Public Enemy is one of our most influential bands, and this is probably their best album of the 1990s. It’s certainly one of the best album titles of any decade. I give them credit for staying true to their politics and to the album format (they’re releasing two of them this summer) for 25 years. In a recent interview, when asked to pick three albums that would best explain modern music, Chuck D said they’d have to be by Run-DMC, The Beatles, and James Brown. Those are three good picks.

Random ’90s Pan of the Day
Candlebox, Candlebox (1993)
This band will never get anywhere near my list of the Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner(with the album having the same name as the band), even though this disc contains their big fat stupid hit, “Far Behind.” Grunge can be hard enough to take, but this 1% low-fat grunge did not convince me to ask for more.

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: Computers explained!

Lady Gaga in concert
The Rose Garden, Portland, Ore.
August, 2010

This summer I won two tickets to see Lady Gaga. I was trying to win tickets to Arcade Fire. You take what you can get in this life.

Her concert lasted two hours, in which she demonstrated her ability to fill 45 minutes with good songs. The evening, a drama that could only have been choreographed by Wagner and Tolkein while both were seriously faced, included a UFO, a haunted truck, a slice of subway, a jungle gym, surreal videos, blood, trap doors, platforms shooting out of the stage, platform shoes, a burial, a resurrection, taekwondo-style dancing, and enough stilettos to stake a circus tent. And wigs, including one that looked like a mushroom cap. I want one! All we were missing were bagpipes, artillery, and a miniature version of Stonehenge.

Lady Gaga and her court, when not hurling themselves into every song at Warp 6, were busy changing clothes, except the guitar player, who took his shirt off but should have left it on. (Up in our private suite, Special D wore a white feather boa, which she occasionally loaned to admiring gay men.) In the middle innings, Gaga cooled down by playing two songs solo at the piano. Someday she’ll look back at this interlude and wish she were dead. I certainly did during her inane warbling. I give her credit for setting the piano on fire, but I take it back because the piano was not consumed.

Nevermind this acoustic crap. What about the songs that made her famous? Can she write or is she just bluffin’ with her muffin? Let’s examine the thematic material in Lady Gaga’s oeuvre. No, let’s not. Let’s confine ourselves to “Telephone”:

Situation: The singer is dancing at a club.
Problem: Everyone is calling her.
Result: She’s stressed.
Resolution: It occurred to me that she should stop answering her phone, but this hypothesis was not tested or even considered.
Lesson: Stress is bad, but stupidity makes it worse.

That leaves the actual music. Lady Gaga stuffs so many happy hooks into each song that they can’t be dislodged from the fluffy insulation inside your brain. (In that respect her sound is like the seamless, vacuum-packed assembly line that was Boston, except you can dance to it.) For 24 hours all I could hear in my head was “Poker Face.” Even while I was asleep, dreaming about dinosaurs or cheerleaders, they were dancing to “Poker Face.” At least it’s her best song.

To rid myself of this neuro-plague I counterattacked with an hour of music that was the opposite of Lady Gaga’s: thoughtful, intricate, subtle, quiet. Alas, the Cowboy Junkies are too quiet. I could still hear “Poker Face” while listening to “Sweet Jane.” What’s the next notch above the Cowboy Junkies? That would be Coldplay. But I was afraid of swapping “Poker Face” for “Yellow.” I finally hit on the freeing formula: the neo-human, glacier-fed, synthesized wall-of-drone of late-’70s David Bowie. I listened to Station to Station, Low, and Heroes. Twice. Done!

We hear a lot about Lady Gaga’s influences. There are the big names, like Queen, Kiss, and Madonna, and the lesser-known but edgier bands, like Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls. You could even make a case for Grace Jones, at least during her disco years, and for raw chutzpah her only peer is Tiny Tim.

But to me, Lady Gaga will always be Prince in a bikini.

And yes, I enjoyed her show. Especially when they fired her out of a missile silo and she landed on her 6” heels without a waver or a wobble. How I wish I had that woman’s knees! I’d put them on eBay.