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.
Sigh. I have such a hard time getting with the program.
Everybody thinks Dark Side of the Moon is Pink Floyd’s masterwork. I think it’s a bit boring, and not half as interesting as Wish You Were Here or Animals. Everybody thinks Tommy was the greatest thing The Who ever did. “Yawn,” say I, “I’ll take Who’s Next any time.” Everybody thinks Arthur is The Kinks’ masterpiece; I recently caught all kinds of hell from Kinks fans for disputing that conclusion. Everybody thinks Abbey Road was a fitting conclusion to a great run by the greatest band of all time. I think it’s a stinker that shows only that The Beatles hung on about two years too long.
So here I am facing the album that Everybody says is the best thing The Stones ever did and wondering why I’m pretty much alone in thinking that Exile on Main Street is a bloated, busy, overcrowded mass of uninspired music.
Well, at least I can take solace in the fact that Mick Jagger said it wasn’t one of his favorite albums, either. I’ve always thought Mick Jagger was a man of exquisite taste.
My problems with Exile on Main Street apply to just about every track and include:
Dreadful Arrangements: There’s simply too much stuff and too many musicians crammed into nearly every single song. It sounds like The Stones decided to throw everything and everyone who happened to stop by into the mix instead of actually thinking about the sounds and moods they wanted to create. If you look at the arc between Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street, we move gradually from elegant simplicity to more and more complexity in the form of horns, keyboards, choirs and backup singers. They managed the added complexity exceptionally well on Sticky Fingers, but here they threw all discipline to the wind. The greatest crime on Exile is the horribly overdone version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” a shocking turnabout after their exquisitely sensitive version of “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed. And why did they have to include that saxophone on “Sweet Virginia” or those horns that bury everything else on “Rocks Off?” There’s scarcely a song on Exile that doesn’t cause me to wince at some point and shout, “Why the fuck did you have to add that to the mix?” The biggest problem is that all this stuff masks the rhythm and the groove, and while everyone paid attention to Mick and Keith, it was Bill and Charlie that made The Stones go.
Dreadful Mixing: In addition to the sheer quantity of sound, the mixing is simply awful. Mick’s vocals are so muddy and unintelligible at times that I wonder if they bothered to see if his mike was plugged in. Anything’s possible, since they were shipping heroin into Villefranche-sur-Mer like there was no tomorrow and the producer was a major consumer! When you do hear bass and drums, it’s either during the few moments when no one else is playing or because someone accidentally bumped the sliders on the mixer. I’ve listened to the original mix on vinyl from my father’s collection, the 1994 mix from my teenage CD collection and bought the 2010 mix especially for this review. They all suck.
Too Many People Who Are Not The Rolling Stones: There are at least sixteen other musicians, both instrumentalists and singers, on Exile on Main Street as opposed to five Stones. During the recording period, The Stones observed what we refer to today as “flexible schedules,” meaning they pretty much showed up when they felt like it or when their other commitments eased up enough to allow them to grace the recording studio with their presence. The effect of all this chaos is a loss of The Stones’ core sound and attitude. Exile sounds like a large group of people doing Stones covers or a hootenanny of hangers-on and professional druggies.
Witless Lyrics: I mean that literally. The Stones had consistently demonstrated a penetrating sense of humor over the years; the lyrics on Exile are uniformly devoid of wit. In fact, they’re pretty much devoid of anything. There aren’t even any memorable lines that leap out at you. The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. “Moronic Party Album” pretty much sums up Exile on Main St.
When it comes down to it, out of eighteen tracks, I like a grand total of one: “Sweet Black Angel.” Percentage-wise, that would make it my least favorite Stones album, but there are enough faint hints of something decent beneath the muck to put it ahead of the completely unsalvageable Their Satanic Majesties Request. I think Exile is probably a decent party album, if played at that volume where you’re aware of the patterns but aren’t paying attention to the details. By way of decade-based comparison, I like Some Girls a bit better, even though I despise “Miss You” and their pathetic cover of “Just My Imagination.” Since I don’t care at all for Goat’s Head Soup or Black and Blue, I guess Exile wins some kind of consolation prize.
We’ll let the cultured, sophisticated, incisive and extraordinarily perceptive Mr. Jagger have the last word, from the book According to the Rolling Stones:
Exile is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. I’m not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it’s a nice piece. However, when I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I’ve ever heard. I’d love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good and there’s no concerted effort or intention.