When I first started blogging, I filled the empty spaces between compelling new releases with historical reviews primarily covering Oasis and the four bands I heard most while growing up: The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull and The Rolling Stones. With the first four names on that list, I just randomly picked an album based on mood or time of the month, but for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to do The Stones’ albums in chronological order. Because I was primarily interested in exploring the work of the Jagger-Richards songwriting team, I skipped the first two albums and began with Out of Our Heads. I liked learning how The Stones developed as the years progressed, following straight lines and detours along the way. I remember feeling pretty good after reviewing Sticky Fingers, one of their best, and I looked forward to Exile on Main Street, an album that was unfamiliar to me because it was curiously missing from my father’s collection.
I hated it. Still do. I think it’s a fucking mess of an album, a background-music-party-disc created in a heroin-induced haze.
“Why didn’t you warn me, you bastard?” I screamed at my father.
“I thought you’d figure it out when you didn’t see it in my stacks. What the hell did I send you to college for, anyway?”
Exile on Main Street turned me off to the Stones for a long, long time, and I had no intention of ever reviewing another Stones record as long as I could still sashay over our lumpy planet.
Then my gorgeous, voluptuous, damn-I’d-like-to-fuck-her-right-now partner put Some Girls on her list of Desert Island Disks. It reminded me how much I hated ending The Stones’ series on a down note, so I decided to see if I could pick up where I left off. I listened to Goat’s Head Soup, and came away with feeling that “Angie” is the second-most overrated song in history, right after “Stairway to Heaven.” I took one look at the cover of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and said “Fuck that.” Black and Blue didn’t grab me either.
I should have trusted my partner’s instincts. Some Girls turned out to be WAY better than I expected, though my initial reaction was utter confusion.
The confusion arose from the consensus opinion that Some Girls is The Stones’ “punk album.” I listened to it and sure as hell didn’t hear anything that sounded like The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Not one song clocks in at under three minutes, not one song is played at hyper-speed, and if we’re talking punk in 1978, where the hell is the anarchist rage? Punk is also characterized by intense, hyper-active drumming, and one look at Charlie Watts would tell you he’d be the last drummer on earth to go manic on the kit.
If punk did have an influence on Some Girls, it encouraged The Stones to get back to the basics. Some Girls is successful because The Stones rediscovered their sweet spot: cheeky R&B-influenced rock ‘n’ roll marked by a healthy dose of humor, with a touch of country thrown into the mix. The songs on Some Girls could have appeared on any of their albums released during their peak period, from Aftermath to Sticky Fingers (except for the psychedelic detour in Their Satanic Majesties Request). The Stones somehow managed to go backward while moving forward at the same time, for unlike a trip down Nostalgia Lane, Some Girls feels fresh, alive and immediate. Part of the reinvigorated sound came from Ronnie Wood’s ascension to full-member status, but most of the credit for the album’s compelling combination of looseness and sass goes to Mick Jagger, who rediscovered his writing and singing chops just in time to save The Stones from bargain bin irrelevance.
Jagger clearly has his mojo working on “Miss You,” a song that should have been subtitled, “Goin’ Home Revisited.” While that lengthy tune from Aftermath about unfulfilled libido seems disconnected from both time and space, “Miss You” features an insistent, libido-tickling rhythm that I could grind to all fucking night. Trapped in the context of the times, many listeners described this as a disco song, ignoring the simple fact that if disco had never been invented, The Stones still would have come up with a song like this sooner or later due to their passion for American soul and R&B. Instead of the over-the-top orchestration we hear in too many disco numbers, the layers in “Miss You” are a combination of blues harp (courtesy of Sugar Blue) and cool sax (by way of Mel Collins). Collins’ solo helps urbanize the piece, reinforcing the New York feel of the album. Meanwhile, Sugar Blue spends most of the song repeating the melodic refrain until the very end, when he finally steps into the spotlight and delivers a deep-soul solo that expresses the theme of emotional longing more effectively than words ever could. With Jagger on fire and Bill Wyman delivering one of his most active bass parts, “Miss You” sends a clear message that The Stones are in the groove and feeling it.
The title “When The Whip Comes Down” initially excited this kinky girl, but alas, the song has nothing to do with the more refined erotic arts. What it does have to do with is being gay, and while you might think my bisexuality might give me some magical insight into the psyche of the gay male narrator, the life experience of a bisexual woman is as far apart from the experience of a gay male as I am from celibacy. While pure lesbians tend to view bisexual girls with feelings ranging from distrust to hostility, most heterosexual men I’ve met are okay with bisexual women because they think they’re going to get a threesome in the bargain (NOT!). Gay males, on the other hand, are much more likely to get the shit beaten out of them by the same guys who want to get into the sack with my partner and me. Since I grew up a few blocks from The Castro, gay men are a part of my definition of “normal,” which has sometimes blinded me to the shit they have to deal with—it’s unthinkable to me, so it takes a while to register.
Here Jagger conjures up a gay dude who abandons L. A. for the Big Apple to become a “garbage collector,” a euphemism, not an occupation. While the move raised his status from “faggot” to “gay,” the attitudes of the populace are anything but an upgrade (“Wherever I go they treat me just the same”). While we all have to sacrifice something in order to make a living, our hero faces more workplace hazards than the average moke:
Yeah I’m going down Fifty-Third street
And they spit in my face
I’m learning the ropes
Yeah I’m learning a trade
The East River truckers
Are churning with trash
I’ve got so much money
That I spend so fast
Having been spat on by homophobes a couple of times while out with my girl, I’m befuddled by the hero’s willingness to turn the other cheek and write it off as part of the deal . . . but this was 1978, less than ten years after The Stonewall Riots and only five years removed from the change in the DSM that ended the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder. To make a living in such an environment, he is forced to work the streets, where the men who are “churning with trash” seek someone to relieve their secret burden:
Yeah, some called me garbage
When I was sweeping on the street
I never roll
Oh I never cheat
And I’m filling a need, yeah
I’m plugging a hole
My mama’s so glad
I ain’t on the dole
Both buyer and seller are part of the garbage cycle, and like the movement’s adoption of the formerly pejorative word “queer,” our hero wears his “garbage man” status like a badge. Economics student Mick Jagger even assigns him a sense of legitimacy by giving him credit for his sensitivity to the laws of supply and demand with the fabulous pun, “I’m plugging a hole.” But even with his stellar work ethic and commitment to quality customer service, he’s still a homosexual in a heterosexually-biased culture and the whip is always going to come down . . . again, again and again. A damned courageous song for its time, “When the Whip Comes Down” features a non-stop relentless attack with dual guitars and as much energy as Charlie Watts can muster. It’s still not punk, but hey, it’s The Stones rocking out, so who the fuck cares?
Next up is the cover of The Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination.” I approached this song with great trepidation, fearing another lame copycat attempt at the Motown sound as in “My Girl.” My trepidation vanished about four lines into the song when it hit me that the arrangement was pure garage, just a bunch of guys in the studio playing around with a song that caught their fancy. Stripping the song down to its essentials and playing it at a faster tempo actually allows the listener to better appreciate the melody and chord progression of the song, and while The Temptations version will always remain the gold standard, I have to give The Stones credit for revealing the fundamental structure that made “Just My Imagination” a great song in the first place.
Some Girls wouldn’t be a great Stones album unless they pissed somebody off, and with the title track they wound up pissing off both the usual suspects (feminists and Christians) as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his dual roles of civil rights activist and shepherd to the flock. Before we get into all that hoo-hah, I want to say I love the feel of this song. Most of it is a two-chord pattern with plenty of drone, a mesmerizing combination that allows the three guitarists (Jagger included) and Sugar Blue a lot of latitude with fills and responses. The original cut ran twenty-three minutes, largely because of its vast improvisational potential. That potential is what put The Stones in hot water with the Purity Police, as Jagger improvised the most offensive lines in the song.
We all know that Jagger and Richard were big league Johnny Appleseeds, offhandedly shooting their wads in various locales making up a large part of the planetary landmass. We also know that many women were desperate to fuck rock stars, and while some really thought they were in love with their idols, we can assume that the majority of the women plunked by The Stones were probably motivated by pecuniary considerations. Fucking groupies is often a mutual exploitation arrangement where both parties use the other to get what they want: sex, money, property, notoriety, whatever. The evidence from various interviews indicates that members of The Rolling Stones had indeed been engaged in sexual escapades with groupies, that they fucked available women wherever they could find them on multiple world tours, and had no discriminatory restrictions related to race or color. They were equal opportunity fuckers, and for all I know and with the flurry of scientific advances in the study of erectile performance, they may still be.
What The Stones do in “Some Girls” is simplify their experience by using stereotypes, always a dangerous practice, but not all that much different from what The Beach Boys did in “California Girls.” The first set of stereotypes in “Some Girls” are a catalog of the different manifestations of female greed in various cultures (French girls want Cartier, Italian girls want cars, American girls want everything in the world). These are pretty tame accusations; the first two are backhanded compliments (French and Italian girls are style-conscious, well, duh) and the third is a teeny dig at American materialism. We then learn that English girls are prissy (another stereotype that has the positive connotation of “selective”) and that white girls are funny and sometimes annoying (as are all girls). I can’t see any of these targeted groups calling for a Stones boycott based on such lightweight jabs.
Then they clearly cross a big red line:
Black girls just wanna get fucked all night
I just don’t have that much jam
Chinese girls are so gentle
They’re really such a tease
You never know quite what they’re cookin’
Inside those silky sleeves
Whoa, dude! I’m hearing that you think black girls are primitive animals who still hear the jungle cry and can’t control their instincts . . . and that you’ve been watching too many movies depicting Asian women as “devious Orientals.” What? Say that again! “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologize.” Hold that thought . . . let me scan the lyrics for supporting evidence . . . no, I’m not seeing anything there. Sorry . . . I missed that, Mick—could you repeat that please? “If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad.” Getting a little touchy there, are we? Okay, let’s accept your argument that you were just trying to have fun and you didn’t think people would be stupid enough to believe you meant what you said. Then why did you later change the lyrics in live performances to eliminate those lines? And while I have you here, why did you change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for Ed Sullivan? You’re just going to stare at me, Mick? Why can’t you just admit that you blew it by not providing a stronger context and move on? Hey, I defended you over “Under My Thumb,” I stood up for you after “Stupid Girl” and I even went to bat for you on “Brown Sugar.” But Mick, this time . . . if satire was your intent, you really should have done a better job of establishing the narrator as a blind, insensitive jerk right from the start. Maybe if you’d moved that verse with the lines “Some girls give me children/I only made love to her once” we would have understood we were dealing with an irresponsible asshole and heard the lines through that perspective . . . if that’s really what you intended.
Intent is pretty clear in “Lies,” a dual-guitar ass-kicking ripper of a song where The Stones rock for no other purpose except to rock. Flipping over to Side Two, we get a nice change of pace with the hilarious, “Far Away Eyes,” a pure country number marked by Ronnie Wood’s outstanding pedal steel guitar and Mick Jagger’s approximation of a hicksville accent. Speaking of stereotypes, naïve people the world over believe that California is a place of sand, sun and liberal mores, but there’s a good-sized chunk of California where it feels like more like Oklahoma than Malibu. “Far Away Eyes” satirizes hick culture and its strange mixture of fervent Christianity and loose sexual morals, presented here as relatively harmless, but this was long before anyone realized that a group of stupid, superstitious people could coalesce to elect an equally stupid blatant racist to the most powerful job in the world:
I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord by your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this
That I ran twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
I had an arrangement to meet a girl, and I was kind of late
And I thought by the time I got there she’d be off
She’d be off with the nearest truck driver she could find . . .
Of course such a loser wants a girl with “far away eyes,” because stupid is as stupid gets.
It’s back to kick-ass mode with “Respectable,” a song Jagger described as a “Punk meets Chuck Berry number.” We’ll ignore the attempt at relevance-oriented marketing and simply congratulate The Stones for giving us another number that hauls serious ass. It’s followed by the Keith Richards confessional, “Before They Make Me Run,” which deals with his legal and personal struggles with heroin addiction. Keith can’t sing worth shit, but the song has a certain vulnerability to it that makes it charming, and Ronnie Wood’s steel pedal guitar sounds even better in a rock context.
Some Girls features one of the strongest finishes of any Stones album, beginning with the semi-slow number, “Beast of Burden.” Keith Richards came to the studio with a shell of a song and relied on the rest of The Stones to flesh it out. The prerequisite for such an approach is the musicians have to be able to easily slip into the groove, and this is where the remarkable chemistry between Richards and Ronnie Wood pays off huge dividends. There is an instrumental-only take on YouTube that I absolutely adore and highly recommend. You’ll hear Keith on the right channel and Ronnie on the left, but what you may not notice (because the guitar work will immediately draw you in) is Charlie Watts playing the base rhythm with the clear punctuation the guitarists need as a foundation for their explorations. The musical dialogue between the two guitarists as they trade off lead and rhythm roles and integrate harmonic solos into the mix is a fascinating journey—you can hear them sensing each other out, one offering a possible direction and the other responding almost immediately to the new musical idea. In many ways, I prefer the instrumental version to the original, but I do think Jagger does a damn good job with the emotional content as he sings at the higher end of his range. The lyrics that pop out at me are those that define the “real man” paradigm—men are expected to be hard enough, rough enough and rich enough, and anything less than enough simply won’t do. Putting aside the double entendre of “hard enough” for a moment, I’ll point out that the paradigm is the source of all toxic masculinity. The men who commit acts of domestic violence don’t act out of a position of power but from feelings of inadequacy about those three qualities, and lacking any kind of self-awareness, blame the broad for all their troubles. In this song, the narrator is a gentler sort of fellow unlikely to resort to violence, but it’s still tragic that he has to live with perceived inadequacy because of a dated philosophy of what it means to be a man. I also hope that those who whine about The Stones’ allegedly unrelenting sexism will take note that Jagger placed the gent in the position of supplicant, begging for attention from a woman who holds all the cards. Power in relationships is not always dictated by gender or worn-out rules of behavior.
We end with my favorite song on Some Girls, the marvelously manic “Shattered.” We’ll get to the New York-in-the-70’s aspect of the song in a sec, but there’s one tiny passage I can’t restrain myself from singing at the top of my lungs whenever I hear it, because it is the relentless message of my inner consciousness bursting through the layers of bullshit I wear as I go about the world trying to make a living:
Work and work for love and sex
Ain’t you hungry for success, success, success, success
Does it matter?
Yes, I work and work for love and sex and THAT matters. I have no hunger for success and that DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL. Work leaves me in tatters! Shattered! Let me the fuck out!
Back to the real story . . . Jagger says he wrote the lyrics in a New York taxi, and there’s no reason to doubt his word. The Stones had been spending more time in New York City during the 70’s, and the Big Apple of the 70’s was nothing like the sanitized and safe version of New York that exists today. The city was in deep financial doo-doo, the infrastructure was falling apart, crime was commonplace and tensions between the various ethnic groups and political factions were at their peak. I recommend the book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mailer if you want to learn more. Note that Mailer’s story of New York’s decline is integrated with the ascension of the Yankees under Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson, so if you’re not into baseball, forget about it, and by the way, I don’t want to know you.
Jagger’s sprechgesang commentary on the state of Gotham is expressed with sincerely-felt disbelief at the craziness of it all: how can a place with so much wealth and power seemingly self-destruct before one’s eyes?
Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes our town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street
And look at me, I’m in tatters, yeah
I’ve been battered, what does it matter . . .
. . . Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown
What a mess—this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered
It should be noted that The Stones didn’t flee New York in response to the decaying environment. Even in its worst times, there is no place on earth as endlessly compelling as New York, whether you like it or not.
What makes the song so compelling is the combination of Jagger’s maniacal vocal, the simple but remarkably effective two-chord riff, and the haunting, almost random appearance of low-voice vocals in the background (shattered, shay-oobehy). The feeling of a song unstuck in time and space is intensified when Charlie Watts does a virtual disappearing act and limits his activities to the high-hat—when that happens, I feel like the lights have suddenly gone out and I’ve lost all connection to reality. Brilliantly arranged and expertly performed, “Shattered” is a remarkable expression of the modern just-beneath-the-surface madness we all feel as we make our way through the inexplicable worlds we have created.
While I’ve think they’ve taken the farewell tour thing way too far for way too long, Some Girls is a piece of The Stones at their best—rocking, rolling and riffing with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. It ain’t punk in terms of genre, but as my father will righteously claim with all his heart and soul, The Stones were the original punks, with a stellar record of defying the stricter social norms of the time.
And though Mick Jagger is now Sir Michael, had nice things to say about Maggie Thatcher and still supports the Tories, he still had his moments—and Some Girls contains some of his best.
Last week was a drag. All the shit going down at the job was weighing me down, and even with my honey back in my arms again, I still felt antsy, anxious and out of sorts. After a fitful sleep, I awoke as usual to the sound of my iPhone at 5 a. m. and did my usual routine: grab the iPhone, check the blog, check Twitter, grab my cigarettes, go to the kitchen, make coffee, take a sip, light a cigarette and think about the day ahead. I checked my Reminders app to see if I had anything planned and my note read, “Connection.” At first, I didn’t know what the hell that meant, so I sipped some more coffee, took a few more drags and finally realized it was a reminder to listen to the new album by The Connection, which I’d downloaded the night before. “After work,” I promised myself, then went to the bathroom, peed, showered, gave my hair a few blasts of heat, wrapped it in a towel, grabbed my makeup kit and thought about the colors I’d wear that day as I walked over to the makeup table. After some hemming and hawing, I selected the complementary makeup, then gave my face a once-over in the mirror.
I looked like hell. Tired, droopy, blah. I was not happy. I looked down at my makeup kit and told it, “You can’t fix this face today.” I got up and went back to the kitchen, lit another cigarette and unlocked my iPhone. It opened to the Reminders app and the word “Connection.” “Fuck it,” I said. “Maybe it’s a sign.” I still had to wait for my hair to dry anyway, so I put my cigarette in my teeth, walked over to my little music corner, slipped on my headphones, woke my computer from its sleep, got settled, opened iTunes, found the playlist for Let It Rock and clicked the play icon. Wham! Geoff Palmer filled my ears with the most glorious guitar riff I’d heard in what seemed like centuries, riding the waves of an irresistible beat before settling down to rhythm chords. Then Brad Marino filled my ears with a lead vocal that shook me to the core as he belted out a set of beautiful, anti-conformist, fuck-it-all lyrics:
I don’t do dishes no more,
Well I just throw ’em away.
And I don’t answer my phone
‘Cause I got nothin’ to say.
Well, I don’t need no more friends,
‘Cause they just get in the way.
I don’t care about nothin’ at all
Except myself these days.
I’m on the wrong side of twenty-five,
Just tryin’ to stay alive,
All work and no play,
Another wasted day.
People always said it would be this way,
But I always said I’d never live to see the day.
I can’t even begin to describe the feelings of elation, joy, relief and excitement that came over me in waves . . . it was like the song set off a chain reaction of soul-level explosions urged on by The Connection’s relentless attack. I fucking cried! No shit! Then I listened to it again and this time I started giggling and dancing and shouting out the fragments of the chorus that I’d managed to master. I howled in ecstasy when they did the stutter-beat on the phrase “can’t calculate my wage” in the second verse, waking up my partner, who just popped her head into the room and smiled at me. When “Wrong Side of 25” finished, I paused the playback because I knew I had to go to work, but I wasn’t dreading it anymore . . . and I had something to look forward to that would help get me through it all: the rest of Let It Rock. And from time to time over the course of the day, a couplet from an old song my mother loved kept popping into my head, bringing a little smile to my now-recovered face:
Oh, gimme the beat, boys, and free my soul,
I wanna get lost in your rock n’ roll and drift away.
Dobie Gray understood. There is nothing like rock ‘n’ roll to clean out the stupid bullshit in your head and get you back in touch with who the fuck you are. Great rock ‘n’ roll has more healing, sensual and liberating power than any form of music I know, because the fundamental message of rock is “Goddamnit, let yourself go!” And there is no one—no one—on the scene today that does rock ‘n’ roll better than The Connection. Their music takes us back to the early days of rock innocence and exuberance when people like Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones and The Fab Four sang songs that affirmed the uncontaminated perceptions of youth that a.) sexual desire was nothing to be ashamed of and b.) the system is a joke, so don’t let it get you down. Even more importantly, Let It Rock is not just a trip down Nostalgia Lane. The Connection prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that rock still has its vibrance, its power and its relevance in the 21st century.
Boy, this post is already pretty long and I’ve only covered one song! I’d better get off my beautiful ass and get to work! The first thing you notice about Let It Rock is that The Connection have jacked up the power since New England’s Newest Hit Makers. That album featured the thinner sounds of British Invasion 60’s singles, while Let It Rock has a fuller, fatter sound. What’s cool is they manage to accomplish this transition without falling into the trap of overproduction and taking the life out of the music. It’s still great dance floor music, but with more oomph.
If you can pry your ears away from “Wrong Side of 25,” you’ll find that the rest of the album is chock full of rock ‘n’ roll delights that cover a wide range of styles in this most flexible medium. “She’s a Keeper” opens with that Rickenbacker-Vox guitar tone that characterized the pre-progressive years of the British Invasion, leading into a bouncy, power-driven melodic rocker that takes advantage of the full chord palette of the era, shifting between the majors and minors while never losing the flow. Touches of hand-clapping and harmony add to the flair, and Geoff Palmer continues playing the hot hand with a fabulous lead guitar solo. The coda with its vocal interplay between Brad and the fill vocals is certainly Beatle-esque, but the energy and commitment the band brings to this song raises it way, way above the crap from official Beatles imitators. The Connection take the conventions of the era and breathe new life into them—and hey, great melodic, harmonic rock never gets old.
So, that’s two killer songs to open the album, but fuck it—let’s make it three! “The Way Love Should Be” is another melodic rocker that features more great vocals, an exciting roll-filled drum part from Zack Sprague and a nifty little piano piece from Kris Rodgers, best known in these here parts for his work with the Fabulous Baker Boy (Kurt, that is). The chorus, with its call-and-response vocals off the classic rock mantra “come on” is to die for, and I love the way the song ends with the singers holding a steady note over changing complementary chords before rising to the closing “oooh,” much like the horribly underrated “It Won’t Be Long” that opened With the Beatles. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Wait, it does! Just when I thought it was time for the typical filler material found on most records these days, they give me “Crawling from the Wreckage (On a Saturday Night).” Well, bring it on, boys—this chick can take it! This is a no-bullshit, party-song rocker driven by solid bass from Bobby Davis and The Connection’s endless reserve of pure energy. This is one of those songs that confirm the wisdom of my decision to forgo undies and dress in skirts, a fashion choice that makes it very convenient for a girl to slide her fingers down to the G-spot and release a little sexual tension from time to time. Why let stress mess with the vibe? Goddamnit, let yourself go! And I did! Several times! Here, try it for yourself!
And damn if they don’t knock me on my ass again with the next song, “Nothing About Me.” If there’s one song that demonstrates the growth of The Connection since New England’s Newest Hit Makers, this is it. A mid-tempo song that flows like a gentle stream, the lyrics deal with the tension that emerges in a relationship where one party (in this case, the girl) assumes that after the initial excitement has worn off that the other party will settle for good old-fashioned convention, channeling sexual urges into the acquisition of material goods just like every other drone in the U. S. A. In this sense, the internal dialogue expressed in the chorus brilliantly describes the frustration of the person who senses repression lurking in the future: “She thinks she knows . . . she knows nothing about me.” That is a powerful and often painful revelation for someone longing for authenticity: it’s like the other person has stripped away all of your individuality and turned you into a frail stereotype ready to be packaged into one of the “Little Boxes” that Malvina Reynolds wrote about in the early 60’s. The arrangement on the song is subtle, complex and sensitive, with understated but effective drumming, splashes of piano (the opening run is stellar), bits of slide guitar and harmonica, and those always fabulous vocals. Going into the experience of Let It Rock, I was hoping that The Connection’s lyrics would measure up to the recent standard set by Sugar Stems, who proved that power pop can handle more complex stories without getting bogged down and burying the energy in abstraction. On “Nothing About Me,” the boys came through big-time.
Despite all the excitement so far, I have not lost touch with my acute critical sensibility, so I have to say that “Susan” didn’t quite hit the mark for me. A country-tinged tune with a catchy melody, I think I would have liked it more with a two-part Everly Brothers harmony and a less choppy rhythm. The band gets back into the groove pretty quickly with the straightforward rocker, “Thinking About Leaving.” Geoff Palmer’s lead is notable for not overplaying his hand, breaking up the listener’s expectations with sudden pauses in the flow of the solo that have the effect of increasing the listener’s interest. I also love Zack Sprague’s work on the ride cymbal, the kind of subtle touch that drives me wild.
Speaking of wild, my fingers go wandering south once again with the amazing “Girls in This Town,” where The Connection prove they can do R&B rock with the best of them, which in this case means The Rolling Stones. Of course, I’m referring to the real Rolling Stones of the days of Sticky Fingers and not whoever that motley group is on what, their fifth farewell tour? “Girls in This Town” actually sounds more like the style on Exile on Main Street, an album I don’t particularly care for because The Stones mucked up the recording process with too much heroin. The Connection don’t make that mistake: the vocals are clear, the mix balanced, the piano sharp, the Jagger-Richard-like harmonies in sync. Though I would have liked to hear a bit more growl and volume from the sax, the piece fucking works. The first shift into the chorus elicited another banshee howl from yours truly and triggered the telltale sign that a great rock number is on the air: involuntarily undulating hips. This is such a strong dance number that even the most self-conscious and awkward geeks on the planet will be forced to get up and boogie. Goddamnit, let yourself go!
“Haze” is a song that grew on me over my three pre-review passes through the album. The music reminded me of two quite disparate numbers: Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young” and Penelope Houston’s “Secret Sign,” but “Haze” is more melodic and delivered with more tightness than either of those numbers. “Day by Day” is an energetic piece, to be sure, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of hit-the-road outlaw songs established by Fastball in “The Way” and by the blessed Richard Thompson in “Shane and Dixie.” Much better is the harmonically rich “Not How It’s Going to Be,” where the percussion sometimes mirrors the sound of a ticking clock, supporting the lyrics that describe the wasting experience of waiting for someday to come. The quirky lead guitar riff adds spice and color to the mix, making this a very intriguing piece indeed. It’s followed by one of two cover songs on the album, The Rolling Stones’ “Connection,” featuring great harmonies and energy but somewhat diminished by overly busy drumming in a song that really calls for something more in the style of Charlie Watts.
“Melinda” is another fascinating song that demonstrates The Connection’s growth into new areas of musical expression. The lyrics present an artfully ambiguous slice-of-life story of a fragmented relationship and psychological decline:
Melinda had her second baby,
I haven’t seen the first—someday, maybe.
Well, if I make it into that part of town,
You know it’s kinda hard for me to get around . . . all right,
I write the songs, she sings along,
I write all of her favorite songs.
I thought I had it all together
Until the mood changed like the weather
Well, yes she used to be my kind of girl,
But now she lives in a whole ‘nother world.
We can’t tell if the guy is a jerk for abandoning this girl after knocking her up twice or if he’s a sensitive soul trying to relate to someone who has plummeted into melancholy and depression, making it difficult to connect except through the unconscious messages of music. The best part is that the tension remains unresolved, as do many uneasy situations in life. The music is fabulous, from Geoff’s licks to Bobby’s bass, and Brad delivers yet another first-rate lead vocal. The real test of a great lead singer is that even after a dozen songs you look forward to hearing his voice on the next track, and Brad Marino passes that test with flying colors.
The album sadly ends (“NO! NO!” she screamed.) with Chuck Berry plagiarizing Chuck Berry, dropping the chorus on “Johnny B. Goode” for a set of guitar riffs and retitling it as “Let It Rock.” The band nails this sucker, hitting all the right notes and driving that beat home to the finish line.
Whew! I’m exhausted! The good kind of after-a-great-fuck exhausted! Cigarette! Let’s play it again!
Even though I’ve entered a ton of words on the page, I don’t think I’ve even begun to describe what a revitalizing experience it is to listen to Let It Rock. When I was listening to Sigur Rós’ latest work a week or two ago in preparation for that review, there was something about the experience that I couldn’t find words for until now. You know what? I’m fucking sick to death of “dark” music. I’m tired of all the pseudo-intellectual, self-obsessed, let’s-crawl-into-our-assholes-and-die music that my generation buys in droves. The pretentiousness and artistic arrogance inherent in such music creates sheltered cul-de-sacs where self-absorbed people can pat themselves on the back for being intellectually superior and for having disconnected themselves from the pettiness of the real world. We live in a time where people are depressed because it’s fashionable to be depressed, so you can show everyone how fucking sensitive you are to the existential gloom that surrounds us.
Fuck that. I’ll assume I’ve only got one life to live and I intend to live the fuck out of it. Let me remind the dark forces of artistic pretense that many of the truly great artists who changed the course of music history (Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, to name a few) infused their music with a joy that lifts the listener’s spirit.
Let It Rock does just that. It is a glorious expression of the sheer joy of unabashed rock ‘n’ roll, the music that never dies.