The Two Americas – U2 live at Soldier Field

How long must we sing this song? – U2

Thirty years after conquering the world with their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree, U2 are resurrecting the much-beloved late ‘80s rock landmark for another run of stadium shows. While on the surface the concept smacks of a nostalgia-fueled cash grab, the themes U2 first  grappled with in 1987 (particularly of an America divided by infinite potential and its seedy, self-destructive underbelly – hence Joshua’s working title The Two Americas) are perhaps even more resonant in 2017. Never a band to dwell on the past, U2 have re-contextualized the material while staying true to most of the iconic imagery and song arrangements, the end result being a tour of old songs with new things to say.

Another bonus for U2 in revisiting The Joshua Tree live is that they are much more polished stadium performers now, utilizing state-of-the-art visual and sonic elements that didn’t exist in 1987. On that first go around, the band struggled with crude technology along with graduating from an arena band to a multiplatinum monster playing the largest venues possible. The scale was overwhelming for a group built on the idea of inclusion and intimacy with its audience (the ethos imprinted in its very name -You Too). The massive success, including landing on the cover of Time magazine, was tempered by frustration on the road as they came to grips with how to play to audiences of that size.

Fast-forward thirty years and U2 remain one of the top two stadium acts in the world along with the Rolling Stones. The challenges presented by The Joshua Tree and its world-beating success were effectively slayed by the band in 1991 with their second masterpiece Achtung Baby and its accompanying ZooTV tour. A multimedia sensory assault with a humanitarian underpinning (and hailed as “the Sgt. Pepper’s of rock tours” by Robert Hilburn of the Lost Angeles Times), ZooTV set the template for the rest of U2’s stadium presentations including this year’s Joshua Tree victory lap.

As Roger Waters did with his own rebuilding of The Wall in 2010-2013, U2 have managed to strike the right balance between staying true to the original, slightly scaled-back presentation with tastefully updated visuals. At Soldier Field in Chicago, the B stage that was first introduced during their ZooTV run set the mood for an effective opening salvo. Coming to the stage alone, the always-solid Larry Mullen Jr. hammered out the iconic snare opening to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” as the rest of the band filed out one-by-one to heroic fanfare. The Edge’s signature chime enveloped the stadium air as Bono belted the opening cries. Once Adam Clayton’s bass dropped in during the second verse, the band locked in and established a sonic power that would not let up during most of what followed. There was also no mistaking the new subtext in the song’s opening lines “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away”. U2 would spend the rest of the night making connections between the sins of the past and the present.

The band followed up with “New Year’s Day,” live rarity “A Sort of Homecoming,” and requisite singalong “Pride”. Having effectively started the evening playing a pseudo club show in the middle of a stadium setting, goodwill was established long before they got to the main course. When they finally did, it was a largely-faithful re-creation of The Joshua Tree, including (thankfully) the original track sequencing. As the classic atmospheric opening to “Where the Streets Have No Name” slowly built and the band moved to the larger stage, the screen backdrop came to life and bathed the audience in incandescent red. Once the Edge’s still chill-inducing arpeggios rang out, the concert everyone came to see began proper. It was classic U2.

Luckily for audiences, The Joshua Tree has one of the greatest triple-track openings in rock history.  After “Streets” came “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”. In fact, throw in “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Running to Stand Still” and you have one of the best sides of vinyl ever. The range of dynamics and emotions in these songs still retain most of their power. Side two, while not as outright impactful, still creates a range of moods that linger, especially the slow-burning “Exit”. They are the deeper cuts in the catalog that even Bono joked the band needed to reacquaint themselves with. It was also the trickier of the two sides to present live (the re-imagined and mellower “Red Hill Mining Town” being perhaps the only key disappointment of the current Joshua set). Had it not been for the context of this tour, the running order of these songs would definitely have been changed by U2. No band would ever close a stadium show with a song as low-key and melancholic as “Mothers of the Disappeared”. It’s the primary challenge of the live versus recorded presentation of The Joshua Tree, but to have rearranged the track sequencing would’ve also stripped much of the potency of the whole concept (and betrayed most audience expectations). Part of the greatness of albums like The Joshua Tree (or Dark Side of the Moon, Nevermind, etc.) is the specific way the songs play off of each other within the context of the greater whole. While rearranging the Joshua set for live dynamics was considered during rehearsals, thankfully it never came to pass.

This brings us to a few of the potentially polarizing factors of this show. First of all, there’s Bono. Certain rock and roll front men, particularly those not tethered to an instrument, tend to be larger-than-life showboats. It’s a large part of what it takes to work a stadium crowd. Bono was a stadium performer while still working the club scene in U2’s formative days. He’s over-earnest, hammy and bombastic, but with an undeniable charisma that keeps you fixated. Like Jagger, his persona is one that now verges on unintentional self-parody at times. But the sincerity of his delivery ultimately wins you over (or not). As for his vocals (another love or hate it signature), for the most part he sounded strong. While his upper-register belting is not as commanding as his late-80s to early-90s peak, he hit his key moments. There were also subtle factors like the sound mix, lowered keys on certain songs, as well as the Edge’s own strong harmonies that helped bolster things on the vocal side. For the most part, no one in that massive Soldier Field audience had cause for complaint. The songs sounded good-to-great, both on the instrumental and vocal front.

The second and potentially more alienating factor was the undeniable political subtext that ran throughout the entire show. U2 have never shied away from taking a stand on current events. Between references to the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London to the polarizing political climate in the States, this was definitely a show reflective of Trump’s America (as the original was of Reagan’s). While not as outright antagonistic as Waters’s current Us & Them tour, 2017’s The Joshua Tree has plenty to say about the corrosive effect of ideological division and the abuse of power. Bono most certainly had his soapbox moments during the show, so depending on how tolerant you are of politics and sloganeering mixed with your entertainment, you either found it engaging or tedious. Again, nobody at Sunday’s show looked too bothered by it all, but it did skirt with heavy-handedness at times. Though their intention is more humanitarian than political, it was sometimes a bit much.

Once they finished the Joshua set, the band came back for a few encores (is it even fair to call them encores anymore when they are clearly built into every set?), mostly a condensed run-through of greatest hits including “Beautiful Day,” a crowd-pumping “Elevation,” and “One”. And in an effective piece of theatrical symmetry, the band closed the show on the B stage with the new “The Little Things That Give You Away”. It was a well-planned bookend that shifted the focus away from spectacle and back to the four band members and its fans. It also pointed the way past nostalgia to U2’s imminent future.

Overall, the tour will prove to be another in a long list of triumphs for U2. The audience clearly got what it came for, but in the process was also challenged a bit. This wasn’t just a feel-good rock show. It made you think, whether you wanted to or not. The show also felt oddly intimate considering the capacity audience of over 60,000 at Soldier Field. The inclusion and unity that U2 have always preached was brought to life. In essence, U2 is really the world’s most successful Christian rock band and one does get the sense of a travelling revival on display at their shows with Bono, the evangelist with the Christ complex, preaching from the largest pulpit possible. Thankfully, they have great songs for the faithful masses to sing along with, anthems that are now as much a part of the fabric of America as the dualities that first planted the seeds of The Joshua Tree.

Euphoria Mourning

In my time of dying I want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home
Well well well, so I can die easy
– “In My Time of Dying” by Led Zeppelin

 

As 2017 began, I had hoped the black plague of untimely rock star deaths that blighted most of the previous year had come and gone. Sadly, that is not the case. On Thursday, May 18th I woke to the news of Chris Cornell’s tragic death at the age of 52. To say I was shocked is an understatement. While the dark and depressing details had yet to emerge that morning, Chris Cornell is one of the last iconic musicians I would have ever pegged for an early, self-destructive exit. Yes, he emerged from a music scene rife with premature deaths (Andrew Wood, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain). Yes, the music that defined “grunge” was the sound of existential misery and the fight for meaning in a meaningless world. Yes, that music was born in Seattle, a city known for its endless rain and high-depression and suicide rates. And yes, Soundgarden’s song catalog was almost exclusively a paean to the dark side of life: “Fell on Black Days,” “Let Me Drown,” “Ugly Truth,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” “Zero Chance,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Black Hole Sun” and, most prophetically, “Like Suicide” and “Pretty Noose”. Yet for all the creative alliances with his shadow self, Cornell never came across as outwardly tortured as his contemporary Kurt Cobain (or even a young Eddie Vedder for that matter). He’d had his battles with addiction and the music business during the crazy heights of the ‘90s grunge scene and his first marriage to manager Susan Silver ended in bitter divorce, but he somehow survived pretty much intact and externally none the worse for wear. He was part of the Mount Rushmore of grunge (along with Staley, Cobain and Vedder) and had navigated a career that now encompassed the best of all creative worlds. He’d also managed to find stability and, by all outward appearances, genuine happiness in marriage and fatherhood the second time around. For his legion of passionate fans, this is where the mysteries truly begin.

I’ve been a huge Chris Cornell fan ever since the early ‘90s. Weaned on classic rock, it was so refreshing after years and years of being subjected to party clown hair metal and the dance pop of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and C+C Music Factory on constant radio and MTV rotation, to watch the alternative music scene explode and wipe the slate clean. For all the labels like “grunge” and “alternative,” it was essentially the return of guitar-driven rock; this time, from the perspective of the disenfranchised. It was also the return of socially conscious sensitivity in the songwriting, with genuine rage and indignation defining most of the anthems of the era like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Jeremy”. While never as fully mainstream as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden were the true pioneers of the Seattle scene and musically more diverse, virtuosic, and hard-hitting. Using complicated time signatures and muddy, droning guitar tunings, the band rocked harder and heavier than pretty much all of their contemporaries. With influences ranging from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to psychedelic-era Beatles, Soundgarden sounded both current and classic at the same time. And then of course, there was The Voice.

Chris Cornell could sing. Really sing. Having picked up the mantle of ‘70s-era Robert Plant, Cornell’s voice could be startling in its raw, operatic power. It was a voice that enthralled both men and women equally. I was blessed to see Chris perform live during Soundgarden’s reunion era and his solo acoustic shows and can readily attest to the visceral and enrapturing spell of his singing. He was the real deal and to share a room in his magnetic presence is something I will never forget. He also had incredible depth as an artist. While his rock and roll vocal chops are unquestioned and respected by all peers, Chris was equally rooted in R&B and folk, genres he would explore throughout his solo career following the dissolution of Soundgarden after 1996’s Down on the Upside. The sensitive singer-songwriter side would emerge in his contribution to the Singles movie soundtrack (“Seasons”) and his first solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning (re-titled Euphoria Mourning in recent reissues due to Cornell’s original intention, the album is filled with many undiscovered gems like “Moonchild,” “Sweet Euphoria” and “Steel Rain”). He would also band together with members of then-defunct Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave. The supergroup would produce a string of memorable fan favorites like the blistering “Cochise,” “Like a Stone,” “I Am the Highway” and “Be Yourself”.

For 2007’s solo Carry On, he tapped into his R&B side, with the great takeaway being his epic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”. He crashed and burned with 2009’s Scream, an ill-conceived foray into Timbaland-produced EDM. As a fan of Prince and soul music, Cornell experimented with taking his vocal gifts into completely new sonic terrain, but to his longtime rock base it seemed like he’d lost his mind, chasing then-current music trends (and bad ones at that). Scream was very poorly received, but in hindsight is the only creative dud in his entire catalog, an incredible fact for someone with his output and longevity.

Personally I am thankful for the Scream album, as the critical and commercial failure seemed to refocus him. Not long after, Cornell reunited with the members of Soundgarden for a tour that soon re-kindled the creative spark in the group. They followed the reunion tour with a strong (and unexpectedly final) studio album, 2012’s King Animal, and would tour off and on until the night of Chris’s passing. He also managed to balance life in Soundgarden (and a brief Temple of the Dog reunion) with his ongoing, and equally compelling, solo career. It was the ideal Neil Young career model, being both rocker and acoustic troubadour, which both Cornell and Vedder followed faithfully. His solo acoustic tours produced 2011’s Songbook, a live album keepsake of truly stunning performances, especially set opener “As Hope and Promise Fade”. The acoustic jones would also produce his final and arguably best solo album, 2015’s Higher Truth. Filled with bittersweet poetry and organic arrangements that blanketed his still-unmatched vocals, Higher Truth was a creative triumph and one last excavation of deep insight, heartache and ultimately love from an often underrated master.

As further details surfaced throughout Thursday and Friday about Chris’s death, the story became even more heart wrenching. At the same time, the myth-making media machinery went into overdrive. There were the cryptic final Facebook and Twitter posts (fans will forever read into the #nomorebullshit hashtag in Cornell’s final tweet). During “Slaves & Bulldozers,” the final song of Soundgarden’s Wednesday night set in Detroit (Rock City of all places), Cornell slipped in the refrain from Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”. While the official cause of death is listed as suicide (by hanging) with rampant speculation about the amount of prescription medication involved, it still leaves a black hole of uncertainty as to how much, if any, premeditation was involved. Did Chris plan on taking his life that night? Was it just the result of one too many Ativan’s (an anxiety medication often prescribed to former addicts)? It’s still too soon to know, but certain things do not add up and probably never will. The real answers died with Chris that night.

For me personally, it ultimately doesn’t matter what really happened. Whatever it was that led to Chris’s demise, it still comes down to a tragic end for a gifted and brilliant artist – one of the best of my generation. While my own shadow side would love to know and understand what was on Chris’s mind that final night after show time, the answers might already be staring me in the face in the rich, deep and slightly tortured legacy of his art. His words and music triumph over the demons that ultimately took him away. The same finely tuned sensitivity it takes to create work of this caliber can also make life itself quite unbearable. Whether or not that was Cornell’s final dilemma remains to be seen (or not). All I have now is gratitude for what he gifted me through his incredible songs and performances. Looking like the long-haired rock god he was to the very end, Chris Cornell gave us everything he had before slipping off into the Superunknown. From the bottom of my heart Chris, I thank you for the trail you left behind.

 

Won’t you take one link from this misery chain
Keep it to remind you of a long forgotten time or a place
So that you recognize it ‘til it’s understood
And that every trace of this misery chain is gone for good
‘til every trace of this misery chain is gone for good
Chris Cornell (1964-2017)

 

 

 

 

Review: You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen

Another tablet of grim mortality and haunting beauty from the master

Continuing a late-career renaissance that began with his return to the concert stage in 2008, Leonard Cohen is redefining the creative life span of the singer-songwriter. At 82, Cohen has just released his latest album You Want It Darker, a collection teeming with poetic, bittersweet power.  Following 2012’s excellent Old Ideas and 2014’s solid Popular Problems, Cohen continues to delve deeper into his obsessions (spirituality, mortality, relationships gone wrong) with the unwavering eyes of a man who knows his time is running out.

The album opens with the title track, an instantly classic Cohen meditation that manages to sound atmospheric, sinister, and sensual all at once. Cohen’s voice is now far removed from the one that was featured quite meekly on 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.  His gravelly baritone now carries the weight of deep authority and hard-earned wisdom. It is not for everyone and certainly not a Top 40 staple, but it’s become a distinctive signature that fully compliments his writing style. When he sings “I’m ready my Lord,” with the gravity and resignation so clear in his delivery, it is like the encapsulation of his entire body of work and personal quest.

Produced by his son Adam, along with longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, You Want It Darker benefits from simple, tasteful arrangements that wisely place Cohen’s voice and poetry front-and-center. Each song is ruminative in a way only Cohen can pull off: the sacred and the suffering all delivered with biting wit as on “Leaving the Table,” where he bids adieu to his infamous ladies’ man persona with the words “I don’t need a lover/The wretched beast is tame.” On “Treaty,” he owns up to the existential angst of his years by admitting “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.”  This is not easy listening, but that is not what the Cohen faithful seek.

Along with the pervasive gloom (or simply the mood of mortality now fully felt and expressed), Cohen also writes with characteristically heartbreaking beauty: “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” may be about a lover or about God (or both), but the haunting images of desolation and darkness only serve to underscore how lost the singer would be “if I didn’t have your love to make it real.” As on the album cover, Cohen might be ready to step into the light, but he still has one arm draped over the darkness. If You Want It Darker is Cohen’s final artistic statement, it is a faithful and uncompromising summation of all that has come before and a shining inspiration to any artist in search of longevity and relevance well into seniority.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week

Beatles 101 for the post-Anthology generation

The story never gets old: four talented working-class boys jump on a nascent musical movement and ride off on a world-conquering hero’s journey filled with joy, brotherhood, tragedy and triumph. For over 50 years, the details of this story have been forensically sifted through by fans, critics, scholars and detractors to the point where seemingly nothing new could be said about the Beatles and their music. So what is the point of a Beatles documentary in 2016, aside from presenting a fresh take by a first-rate director? Aside from educating a new generation on the genius and integrity of the band, Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week turns out to be as fun and affecting as its subject matter.

Featuring candid and affectionate new interviews with surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (as well as miscellaneous historians, musicians, and celebrities), the film focuses mainly on their hectic and often chaotic touring life from the early to mid-‘60s, before Beatlemania turned sour and led the foursome to an inspired, but insulated studio existence.

While worthy of a documentary of its own, the formative Hamburg/Cavern years are fast-forwarded through in order to get to Howard’s real focus: the Beatles’ impact on American culture, beginning with their arrival at JFK International Airport in February of 1964 amidst fan and press hysteria before taking the stage for their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unbeknownst to most of the 73 million viewers who tuned in to the performance, the Beatles were already polished and road-hardened veterans of their craft, as capable and charming in press conferences as on stage. Along with their unique appearance, this gave them an otherworldly aura before their true legend as first-rank artists even took root.

From there, the documentary speeds through its 2 hours and 18 minutes in a blur of energetic performances (many unearthed for the first time), had-to-be-there-to-understand fandom, and warmhearted commentary. Howard places this in proper context, with many of the tumultuous cultural shifts of the ‘60s (the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement) providing a tense backdrop for the escapism of Beatlemania. The band not only shaped the times, but were very much shaped by the times, which goes a long way in explaining why their impact has never been fully replicated since.

It’s almost incomprehensible how much artistic growth and life experience the Beatles managed to compress in the short amount of time covered by this documentary. In the span of 7 years, the music went from innocent, joyful pop to avant-garde surrealism, just as the group morphed from cheeky, suited-up mop tops to world-weary hippie wise men. If you were to write it as fiction, no one would believe it. As it stands, it did happen and this film is concrete proof (in addition to all of the other luck that surrounded the band throughout its journey, they were the most well-documented entertainers of their time). There is still nothing comparable to the phenomenon of Beatlemania at its peak. Their value as artists and entertainers is largely unquestioned. As we learn in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, the human beings behind the myth were equally worthy of the adoration.

 

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is currently streaming on Hulu and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18.

Arrested Development – The Troubled Legacy of The Police

[The following piece was first published in 2009]

I had a very odd reading experience recently. As a fan of rock history, I try to keep up with any decent biographies that crop up, especially of favorite artists.  While at Borders a month or so ago, I came across Chris Campion’s Walking on the Moon: The Untold Story of the Police and the Rise of New Wave Rock. Being a huge Police fan, I eagerly grabbed the first serious bio written about the band (outside of the principal players) in ages, forked over the money, and headed home expecting a fun and insightful look at the blond trio’s compelling story.  At the book’s conclusion about 270 pages later, I found myself a bit depressed by Campion’s thoroughly clinical and joyless take on the subject matter.  While well-written and detailed in its research, the book is startlingly imbalanced.

While not an Albert Goldman-level hatchet job, Campion’s book is more a damnation than a celebration of the band. Not every rock bio has to be fawning in its approach or devoid of journalistic integrity, but with most of the best ones you at least get a sense that they were written by fans.  While detailed in recounting the group’s calculated and meteoric rise, Campion has virtually nothing positive to say about the band and offers no additional insights about the music itself. There is no real acknowledgment of their incredible talent as players and no appreciation for the songs or albums. The book is really about the group’s cunning management via the equally legendary Miles Copeland, with the implication being that it was clever strategy and not the songs themselves that drove the Police to world domination in the early ‘80s.

The book is symptomatic of a larger problem that faces the Police: history has not been kind to the band.  By 1983, there was no doubt that the trio had secured a place in rock history among the greats. The group released their fifth album Synchronicity, which catapulted straight to no# 1 along with what has since become their signature single “Every Breath You Take,” a deceptively seductive song about a stalker.  They were already being written about as heirs to the tradition of intelligent and crafty pop once staked out by the Beatles, and with their similar upward trajectory as well as their own Shea Stadium moment on record, there was no denying the similarities. They straddled that fine line of being a pop group (girls loved them), while having rock cred as players with chops (guys loved them too).  And by this point most critics, once resistant to the band’s lack of punk credibility, photogenic looks and unavoidable presence, had come around. Synchronicity and the world tour that followed, was largely greeted with enthusiastic praise. And the group topped Rolling Stone magazine’s annual reader’s poll that same year. From that point on, the group was minted and poised for greater and greater things.

Perhaps it was the decision, largely driven by chief songwriter/bassist Sting, to call it quits while at the very top, another Beatlesque move calculated to leave the audience wanting more. Or maybe it has to do with Sting’s largely MOR solo output since disbanding the group. One way or another, time has robbed the band of its once-omnipotent aura.  Their legacy has not grown in stature in the way that, for example, Led Zeppelin’s or Pink Floyd’s has.  They no longer crack the top 10 of any 100 best album, song, or band-of-all-time polls. Though songs such as “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and the indomitable “Every Breath You Take” have withstood the test of time, the Police have not fully transcended their era like most of the elite, classic-rock greats have. They have not joined “The Canon” as once expected, which is a shame as, based on talent alone, they are certainly worthy.

While not doing himself any favors with the guardians of rock history as a solo artist, particularly with his lute and “winter” music (not to mention bragging about his tantric sex practices), Sting is a uniquely talented and complicated figure. Most songwriters are either gifted with a strong sense of melody or a unique way with words. Sting was one of the few in rock history gifted with both. His Police songs have pop hooks that would’ve made Lennon and McCartney envious and his best lyrics (when he stepped away from the rhyming dictionary) dealt with power, control, and twisted love in a way far removed from most pop song conventions. Long before Live Aid, Sting was writing about the plight of the Third World in “Driven to Tears” (from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta).  And from his dark, but spiritual meditations on 1982’s Ghost in the Machine to the more personal and psychologically troubled songs on 1983’s Synchronicity such as “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Sting rose to the level of first-rank songwriters (all this without mentioning his keening, signature tenor and melodic bass playing). Though rife with intellectual pretensions, his best Police songs (and loose album concepts) were all the better for the scope of his ambition. The ‘80s really needed him, but he certainly would not have made it to true superstar status alone.

The Police is drummer Stewart Copeland’s band and without his initial drive and vision, Sting most likely would’ve ended up an unknown jazz wannabe or fringe songwriter at best.  He dragged Sting along on the crest of 1976’s punk rock movement in England, added muscle and firepower to his singing/bass playing, had the concept and name for the band, and contributed a completely unique (to rock) polyrhythmic drumming style that would become a key signature of all great Police music. He was also the most interesting member of the band to watch in a live setting with his manic energy and long, flailing limbs seemingly all over the kit at once.  While by no means a songwriter’s drummer (he completely lacked the restraint and humility), he was the last of the truly great stickmen before the plague of the infamous gated drum sound of the mid-‘80s took over. He was also the perfect foil for Sting’s more introspective personality.

By his own admission, Sting would not have been able to fully flourish as a songwriter without Andy Summers’ equally unique guitar playing.  With his long history in the music business (he was a contemporary of Beck, Page, and Clapton), Summers was probably the furthest thing from punk possible. But his sophisticated extended chords and use of space, textures, and echo effects were also very far removed from the self-indulgent and pointless guitar solos coming from the lazy dinosaur acts at the time. In that sense, he was the perfect guitar hero for the New Wave era, as well as the ideal third element needed to fully alchemize the Police magic. For all of his subsequent success as a major solo star, Sting has never worked with better players; guys who were in a position to challenge his lesser ideas and toughen up his songs.

In 2007, 30 years after “Roxanne” first charted, the Police finally bowed to inevitable and gave fans the official swan song tour. One of the last major holdouts of the big bucks reunion lure, the band hit the road for a world tour that extended well into 2008, eventually becoming one of the most commercially successful of all time.  This spoke volumes about their enduring popularity, at least with first-generation fans of the band that had waited 23 years since the final Synchronicity show in Sydney, Australia to see them perform live once again. But did they deliver on the (too) high expectations? Reviews were largely positive across the board (if you discount Stewart Copeland’s infamous blog entry ripping on the tour’s debut in Vancouver). While the performances lacked the coked-up intensity of the early ‘80s, the reunion was a huge gamble that paid off more than it didn’t. No one was screaming “fiasco” and none of the band members embarrassed themselves. Sting still had the voice and ripped physique, Stewart still had the hyperkinetic chops and wowed audiences with his star turn on “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Andy was the overall MVP of the tour, nailing impressive solos on “When the World is Running Down…” and “Driven to Tears.”  While the early performances never fully gelled, by the time they returned to the states in early 2008 they were as tight and muscular as they’d ever been (taking into account several key and tempo changes in the material). Once again, the future held promise. And once again, the band made the same decision: to walk away at the top. Or perhaps the decision was to walk away from potentially killing one another in the studio.

In some ways, the Police deserve credit for sidestepping the typical rock and roll pitfalls. There were no drug casualties. There was no poor reunion album to tarnish their recorded legacy (they are 5 for 5 there).  They never overstayed their welcome (something U2 missed the boat on ages ago). They’ve wrapped up the loose ends with one another and with their fans. And the songs have lasted. They still sound crisp, particularly on the first three albums, due to the tasteful three piece power-pop aesthetic.  As with the perfect instrumental combination of guitar, bass, and drums, the artful blend of existential lyrics and upbeat, catchy hooks will always work in rock and roll. The Police were masters of the form. They started as pseudo-punks, but eventually created their own unique sound, which is something very few acts in rock history have accomplished.  They are Hall of Famers, but deserve much more credit than they’ve been given and they certainly deserve a better book than Chris Campion’s disheartening work.

A Good Time Victory Lap

Here they come and they are not monkeying around

Fifty years (!) past the original wave of Monkeemania comes a new album from 1966’s made-for-TV pop group the Monkees. Having slowly gained more and more credibility with the passage of time and excellent touring work, the surviving members of the group (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork) and custodians of the brand are marking this milestone anniversary with an onslaught of Monkee product. While reissues of the TV show and classic back catalog of albums are a no-brainer, there was genuine risk involved in putting together a new studio album. Past attempts at doing this (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus) have produced greatly mixed results. Considering how most people engage with vintage acts today, there really is no need to even do so. It is much easier for an act like the Monkees to simply trot out their old hits, of which there are many. The only reason to produce a new record would be to add to an already significant legacy, which in the case of the Monkees is a pretty Herculean task.

Thankfully, the brain trust at Rhino Records including John Hughes, Mark Pinkus and the ever-reliable archivist Andrew Sandoval came up with the perfect strategy: go back to the Brill Building formula of the early records while aiming for the high-water mark of 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. This involved digging up unfinished recordings from the group’s heyday along with enlisting a new crop of tunesmiths simpatico with the Monkees’ aesthetic. Another key decision was paring the surviving members with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne as their producer. His sensibilities along with his multi-instrumental and songwriting talent prove to be a perfect fit for gently guiding the Monkees into 2016. Each member of the Monkees also contributes strong original material (and instrumental support) to Good Times!

 So the big question here is did they pull it off? As a longtime follower of the group (being a child of the ‘70s re-runs of the show) and more than familiar with all of the larger-than-life, bizarre twists and turns in their history together, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Good Times! is far better than could reasonably be expected and a true gift to fans. Perfectly conceived and beautifully executed, it arrives as an effervescent time capsule of the ‘60s and more than achieves its lofty goal of standing tall with their best work.

The album opens with the title track “Good Times,” salvaged from a surviving demo by the late songwriter Harry Nilsson who posthumously gets to sing along with old friend Micky Dolenz (much like the Beatles created “Free as a Bird,” but done here with a more seamless vocal mix). It’s a rollicking start, reminiscent of a Ray Charles R&B groove and a nice showcase for both singers. In fact, Dolenz sounds great throughout the entire record, whether singing lead as he does on most tracks or providing some of his signature harmony parts. Though his voice has a slightly more mature timbre to it, his range is still incredibly strong and he sounds vibrant (and youthful) on tracks like Andy Partridge’s “You Bring the Summer” and the stomping “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)”. With Davy Jones now gone, Dolenz lives on as the voice of the Monkees.

Speaking of Davy Jones, he is thoughtfully (and effectively) included on Good Times! in the form of a vintage recording of Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love”. Tastefully completed, the song is Jones through and through, providing the requisite corny (but welcome) love song that was his stock-in-trade on all Monkees albums. It’s a real treat hearing his boyish vocals once again. Peter Tork, the group’s soul and multi-instrumentalist is also perfectly showcased on this album. On both “Little Girl” (originally written by Tork as a song for Davy) and Goffin & King original “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” his voice sounds the best it ever has, warm and supple. His banjo prowess also makes a few key appearances as well.

This brings us to the wild card of any Monkees reunion: the appearance of Michael Nesmith. The once-ornery Texan has always hovered as a big question mark over any attempts to re-kindle the brand since they originally disbanded in 1970. Having made significant contributions to music since going solo and well worthy of inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own, never mind as being a member of the Monkees (his genre-defining work with the First National Band and coming up with the concept that would later morph into MTV), Nez has always had a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to any reunion projects. He did spearhead the spiritual follow-up to Headquarters, 1996’s Justus, but has kept his touring participation minimal. That said, any serious attempt at a new Monkees record needed his voice in the mix. His Monkees songs have always been among their best, providing the deep cuts in the catalog that bear repeated listening. On Good Times!, Nesmith again provides the gravitas: “Me & Magdalena” is easily one of the best things the Monkees have ever recorded. Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the song is wistful, breezy and bittersweet with the classic Mike and Micky vocal harmonies front and center. The Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller-penned “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is Head-trippy, with Mike’s spacey vocals sounding straight out of ’67/’68. Nesmith also contributes “I Know What I Know,” a plaintive piano ballad that is a real departure from the rest of the material here (as well as their entire canon). The song starts off quite naked and gives way to fuller orchestration. It’s unlike anything in the Monkees discography and makes for an effective penultimate track on the album.

Everyone involved in this project deserves major kudos. There is a lot of heart and soul behind Good Times! and if it proves to be the group’s swan song on record, it is a more-than-worthy one. Faithfully retro without being kitschy, it covers the group’s entire trajectory, from the innocence of the first two albums and the psychedelia of the middle period, straight through to the roots sound of the Nesmith-led late ’60s work. It’s a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. As promised, you’ll have a good time.

 

P.S. The iTunes version of Good Times! includes two bonus tracks that are equally notable: Zach Rogue’s “Terrifying” is worthy of inclusion on the album proper and the melody and harmonies of “Me & Magdalena” work nearly as well in the up-tempo second version. Worth seeking out.

Reign of Disdain

He looks like a million dollars, is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion with only three-and-a-half years on the main roster, and is poised to be a main eventer for as long as he remains healthy. So what the hell is the problem with Roman Reigns and why is the so-called “WWE Universe” so openly hostile towards him? I mean, this guy is getting some of the greatest heel heat since John Cena. The problem is, again like Cena, he’s another polarizing babyface (good guy in pro-wrestling parlance). It’s all pretty simple really and could’ve easily been avoided by anyone who is even halfway familiar with Wrestling 101, which excludes most of the current WWE writing staff.

Roman Reigns has been very poorly served by WWE booking (basically, those in charge of charting the pre-scripted course all WWE talent follow). This comes from the top down, so ultimately it falls on owner Vince McMahon’s lap. It has nothing to do with Roman Reigns, who is a much better athlete and performer than he needs to be and is still a young talent learning the game. Reigns could easily coast on his looks and size much like Kevin Nash did for his entire career, but Reigns has much more heart for the business than that. The real shame is that Reigns, originally a cool villain, was organically gaining traction with the fans before Vince decided Roman was “THE guy” and proceeded to force him down the everyone’s throat as a fan-favorite waaay ahead of schedule. Now Reigns gets the same dueling chants that follow Cena to this day: woman and children love him; men and smart marks (knowledgeable fans), not so much.

Reigns made his main roster debut in November 2012 as part of a super-cool heel group of young talent called The Shield. Decked out in S.W.A.T. gear, it was a great gimmick and the right balance of talent with Dean Ambrose as the brains and mouthpiece, Seth Rollins as the Shawn Michaels-like wunderkind worker, and Reigns as the silent, but deadly muscle. All three were genuinely over with the WWE audience and could’ve ridden the wave of this gimmick (and merchandise sales) for at least another two-to-three more years than they did. Instead, they were disbanded in June 2014 to allow for each member to become an individual star, with a top spot specially earmarked for Reigns. He had the right size, the right hair, and the right pedigree (being part of the same Anoa’i dynasty that produced Yokozuna, Rikishi and, in a roundabout way, The Rock). His key weakness, not being particularly dynamic on the microphone, was actually a plus while part of The Shield, creating an aura of mystery around him. So there was no way this could not work, right??

Wrong. It was too clear and simple for the WWE not to mess up. They turned Dean Ambrose into the second coming of Brian Pillman, gave Rollins the heel spot, and tried making Roman the fan favorite. What happened? Ambrose gets over with his goofy shtick, Rollins gets over with his unbelievable athleticism, and Reigns gets rejected by the majority of fans who see through the backstage machinations and pandering. Had Reigns been allowed to remain a villain for at least another year or two, and been aligned with a brilliant mouthpiece like Paul Heyman while building up a great highlight reel as the company’s top bad guy, fans would’ve naturally clamored for him to emerge as a hero down the line, as they have for all great company heels dating back to “Superstar” Billy Graham. Heyman managing both Reigns and Brock Lesnar (another heavyweight superstar weak on the mic, but nonetheless super-over due to intelligent booking) could’ve been epic, filled with great teases until the time was right to present Reigns vs. Lesnar as the climax of a long-term, well-thought-out storyline – and finally the beginning of Roman’s face turn.

All of that aside, the truth is that whether fans like it or not Reigns is still money. As the company learned with Cena, the polarized audience reaction still translates into cash. The kids who snatch up the t-shirts and dolls are with Roman. And the “smart” fans continue to buy tickets to root against him. As in any form of entertainment, the worst reaction is no reaction. Passionate dislike can be unbelievably profitable, just ask Floyd “Money” Mayweather. But it’s also a bit jarring when it is obviously not the kind of reaction the WWE or Reigns had in mind. In the long run, the brand name supersedes the individual stars of the WWE anyway. As CM Punk once said in his infamous “pipe bomb” promo, the wheel keeps spinning regardless.

So where do Reigns and the WWE go from here? He is undoubtedly a star and we seem to be stuck with him in this current role for quite a while (WWE can be quite obstinate that way). Right now, he is embroiled in the early stages of a feud with A.J. Styles, probably the best possible opponent for him, both athletically and storyline wise, until Seth Rollins returns from his untimely injury. So far, both Reigns and Styles are “good guys,” but the seeds have been planted for several interesting possibilities. As we saw in their match at Payback last weekend in Chicago, Reigns was nearly booed out of the building in his first title defense as champ, while Styles definitely ascended to the next level as a believable main eventer. The match itself, while almost comically overbooked, succeeded in sustaining fan interest in their feud. But now a clear-cut villain must emerge in order to take this rivalry to the next level. Will it be A.J. Styles and his New Japan posse the Bullet Club or will WWE go with an Attitude-era swerve and give us an unexpected, dramatically-effective heel turn from Roman Reigns? Though I wouldn’t bet on the latter, only time will tell.