Tag Archives: Sugar Stems

The Connection – Let it Rock – Review

Let it Rock Cover

CLICK TO BUY THE BEST ROCK ALBUM IN YEARS!

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 MakersThat 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!

Cigarette!

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.

 

Sugar Stems – Can’t Wait – Review

sugar_stems

I have been assured that those are not real worms on the album cover, but root-beer flavored Gummi Worms. Still disgusting, but not grossly, slimily, creepily disgusting.

The sound of Sugar Stems is as far away from wormy and disgusting as you can get, and even though they’re Milwaukee-based, they have nothing in common with Laverne & Shirley except there are two girls and two guys (and no, the guys are not named Lenny and Squiggy). What they are is an engaging power pop band with surprising lyrical depth whose music should be featured regularly in Little Steven’s Coolest Songs in the World if there’s any justice left in America.

Can’t Wait gets off to a drag race start with “Greatest Pretender,” with guitar and drums flying down the road, building energy for Betsy Heibler’s superb vocals. I love vocalists who can really do descending glissandi, like Little Richard does so well on the word “gal” in the second line of the verses in “Tutti Frutti.” Betsy performs this trick like a champ on the last word of the verses and it gives me the chills every time. I also love the way her voice fades directly into the guitar riff at the end of the first chorus. “Greatest Pretender” is a power-packed song with no empty spaces: it just rocks.

However, the tension between the cheery power pop melody and the edgy lyrics is what raises “Greatest Pretender” to another level. The narrator in the song is a chick who strives to fulfill his every need and fantasy, but the little prick is completely unable to keep his pecker in his pants when other female opportunities present themselves. Our heroine is engaged in a two-front war: one with her lothario and the other an inner war with her identity and self-worth:

I am the blood in your veins
And I am churnin’ like a hurricane
One day I’m gonna throw it all away
I am the air that you breathe
And I am your worst enemy
I am whatever you want me to be

‘Cause I’m your greatest pretender, you know (3)
And I’m all your whores.

“Like I Do” opens with a riff kind of like a high-speed version of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” leading to a solid rocker where Betsy combines sass and sweetness as she muses on the classic chick theme, “it won’t get any better than me, asshole.” The little touches of harmony from bass player Stephanie Swinney Conard show once again how small things can often have more power than the grandiose. Not a band in a hurry to slow down, next up is the title track “Can’t Wait,” featuring lower-register harmonies from lead guitarist Drew Fredrichsen and a driving, crashing beat from drummer Jon Heibler.

We finally slow down a teeny bit (not that I was complaining) with “Landline Static,” a mid-tempo life-on-the-road number powered by acoustic strum, a song with a bit more musical complexity but still very accessible. I love the way Betsy splits syllables on this song (lie-ayne, sky-aye, Ju-lye-aye), but even without those great touches, this is her strongest vocal on the album, full of confidence and clarity, with a tinge of country. It’s also a beautiful song with a pleasing melody and strong lyrics. I love the brilliant refrain, “When you’re all alone, a million miles from home, you know you can go back like landline static on the telephone,” a feeling of irresolvable distance I get when I’m on the road and my honey is at home—even with video it’s not the same as having all five senses engaged in the experience of another person.“Landline Static” also demonstrates that Can’t Wait is much more than your garden-variety pop collection.

Reinforcing that perception, “Magic Act” opens with an introductory passage of acoustic guitar blending with organ and either a marimba or a xylophone, creating a delightful moment of fantasy and wonder. The song then shifts to a groove kind best described as Keith’s “98.6” on steroids and amphetamines, with a high-speed whirling melody and tight rhythms. The story of another experience with a wayward lover is engaging and Betsy delivers them with the snappy soulful attitude you hear in Gladys Knight’s best stuff. Drew Fredrichsen then steps up to the mike for a turn as lead vocalist in the raw guitar-and-snare driven melodic rocker “Get to You.” Drew has a warm, engaging, slightly husky voice that was designed for melodic rock.

Betsy comes back with a defiant vocal in “Told You So.” With its tagline, “the world you live in is so fucked up,” one might get the impression that this is a protest song of sorts, and it is—a protest against people who take a doom-and-gloom attitude towards the world and instead of doing anything about it, just “bottle it up, keep your mouth shut.” It’s kind of like Bjork’s “Army of Me,” directed at the passive-aggressive. It’s followed by the toe-tapping, “Make Up Your Mind,” a relationship frustration song with some fine guitar work from Drew Fredrichsen.

“Love You to Pieces” is another mid-tempo song with a slight country feel that describes a love-hate relationship with some of the strongest and most emotionally honest lyrics on the album. The song deals with the classic tension of the opposites that passion can excite (and the confusing desires it often carries with it):

Always liked the taste of birthday cake
Until you took a piece and put in on my plate,
And said, “Baby, what do you think of me now?”
Well, I chewed it up, I spit it out.

I wanna hug and kiss and hold you all night
But sometimes when I do I want to kill you at the same time,
If I could find a way to just hold you tight,
I would wrap my arms around you ‘til I’m choking off your air supply.
Ready or not, I’m coming over,
You can run but you can’t hide and I keep getting closer
No matter how bad it hurts, I love you to pieces.

Never liked the way that my face looked
Until you told me I was beautiful and I got hooked
On loving myself, yeah, much more than you,
Straight to my head, honey, what could I do?

Many women find themselves addicted to male validation, a craving as strong as the addict’s need for a heroin fix. The tendency in the female half of the species to develop greater emotional intelligence is a double-edged sword: yes, it makes us better facilitators but it also leaves us vulnerable with people (male or female) who approach relationships from the perspective of me-me-me. Despite the emotionally complex story line, the song flows naturally and easily, leaving room for the listener to appreciate the subtleties in Betsy’s wonderful vocal.

Equally challenging from a storytelling perspective is the album’s surprisingly cheerful closer, “Six Feet Under,” a song that reminds those who pray for something better in an afterlife, “Don’t hold your breath, you might not get what you want when you’re six feet under.” This is one of Betsy’s more straight-line bubblegum deliveries, supported by sweet spot harmonies, and the disarmingly innocent sound of the song creates another ironic contrast.

The more I listen to Can’t Wait, the more I love it and the more I appreciate its depth and complexity. If you don’t feel like tuning into the fascinating tales described in the lyrics, you’ll still have a marvelous listening experience, as the melodies are delightful and the band is as tight as can be. Sugar Stems is a marvelously talented group with a clear idea of who they are and where they want to go, and with a lead singer like Betsy Heibler, they deserve to go a long, long way.

I could still do without the Gummi Bears, though. Maybe if I soak them in vodka . . .

 

%d bloggers like this: