About Jon Chaisson

Writer, obsessed music listener and collector, okay bassist and guitarist, hoopy frood. Questionable logical circuits, but he gets by.

Favorite Albums: Concrete Blonde, ‘Concrete Blonde’

R-387236-1289198242

I’m trying to remember when I first heard of this band, because I heard of them from multiple places at the same time.  I remember seeing the advertisement for their debut album popping up in all the music magazines.  I remember “Still in Hollywood” getting play on the early episodes of 120 Minutes (it’s the first song of the first episode I ever taped) and occasionally hearing it on the radio.  I remember seeing a lot of positive reviews of it from both journalists and other musicians.

Concrete Blonde was one of those LA-based bands that flew way under the radar in the mid 80s…a critical and industry favorite but never quite hit the big time. They weren’t as punk as X, and they certainly weren’t glam like most of that scene’s metal bands, either. They were an eclectic mix of hard rock and blues, with a bit of country and folk thrown in. Led by bassist and singer Johnette Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey (he and his brother Earle had previously worked with fellow LA weirdos, Sparks), they had turned their previous band Dream 6 into something unique; it was the hard sound of the back streets of LA. It wasn’t about violence or degradation, though…it was about trying to survive, one day at a time.

This was one of those albums that I dubbed off one of my friends early on, but I ended up with my own copy soon after. I loved Johnette’s smoky voice with all its occasional cracks and growls — it was like hearing a more world-weary Ann Wilson — and I loved the ragged melodies.  It was the sound of exhaustion, the sound of refusing to give up even when the world was bearing down on your shoulders.

And I especially loved their cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”, which turned the song from a warning about the music industry to something more sinister.

At the same time, it could be beautifully delicate and tender, such as with “Make Me Cry”, the only accompaniment being Mankey’s acoustic guitar strumming and the occasional overdubbed harmony.

And it was all bracketed by the song “True” — a vocal and an instrumental version — that veered into a bluesy almost Springsteen-like ‘we’ve got to get out of here’ that sets the entire tone for the album.

This isn’t an album that I’d put on repeat or have stuck in my player for weeks on end; this is an album that I occasionally pull out to savor and enjoy. (I did, however, have it on repeat for about a month in the summer of 1989 when I was working for the DPW. It fit my then-current mood of wanting to escape my hometown quite nicely.)  It does feel ever so slightly dated, mostly due to its production; the drums are all flat and there’s a distinct lack of low end, which is a pity considering Johnette really hammers that bass on this record. It’s still a wonderful album and a great example of mid-to-late 80s college rock.

Years later when I started writing Can’t Find My Way Home for the first time (this was around 2009, I believe), I found myself returning to this album as one of a handful of record that fit the mood of the story. And now that I’ve resurrected that writing project again, it’s returned to my playlist.  It’s still one of my favorite albums after all this time.

*

You may of course remember their eventual rise to minor fame with 1990’s Bloodletting album and their radio hit “Joey”, or their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” for the film Pump Up the Volume from the same year, but they never quite achieved that same level of success after that. They put out a handful of albums between 1986 and 1994, and two more in 2002 and 2004, and they’re all worth checking out.

Songs from the Apartment Complex

garden of words apartment

from Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

New mixtape/mp3 playlist!  This one’s Songs from the Apartment Complex, and I have to say this is probably one of the quirkiest mixes I’ve made in a while.  The Apartment Complex story (still working on the title, folks) has evolved into an unexpected direction for me.  Unlike previous book-centric playlists where most of the songs are there to set a mood, many of these tracks here are aimed at specific characters and what kind of person or being they are.  Hope you enjoy it!

  1. The Sound of Arrows, “Stay Free”
  2. U2, “Get Out of Your Own Way”
  3. Ra Ra Riot, “Water”
  4. Beck, “Dreams”
  5. Elbow, “Firebrand & Angel”
  6. Gang of Youths, “What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?”
  7. The Naked and Famous, “A Still Heart”
  8. U2, “13 (There Is a Light)”
  9. Embrace, “Love Is a Basic Need”
  10. The Sound of Arrows, “Don’t Worry”
  11. Shame, “Friction”
  12. Elbow, “One Day Like This”
  13. GoGo Penguin, “Strid”
  14. Eels, “There I Said It”
  15. U2, “You’re the Best Thing About Me”
  16. The Sound of Arrows, “Beautiful Life”
  17. Love Tractor, “We All Loved Each Other So Much”

EDIT: As you may have seen over at Welcome to Bridgetown, I’ve put the Apartment Complex story on hiatus as I’m having even more problems with it than I thought, and need to put it aside for a while. Frustrating, yes. VERY frustrating. But I’m still keeping this up, because I think it’s a pretty interesting mix, and something I’ll listen to when I come back to the project. [And I *am* coming back to it — I just don’t know when.]

Twenty Years On: April 1998

April 1998: I’d just broken in a new notebook to continue the longhand writing of The Phoenix Effect, the predecessor of the Bridgetown Trilogy, still writing it in the mornings before starting my Day Job at HMV.  It was also around this time that I’d started ramping up the road trips in my trusty ’92 Cavalier, making weekly trips all around Massachusetts and New Hampshire for comics, books, and used cds and tapes.

Stabbing Westward, Darkest Days, released 7 April. Louder and angrier than their previous albums, yet more melodic and introspective. Saw these guys open up for Depeche Mode later in the year and they were by far one of the loudest bands I’d ever heard in my entire life.

Tones on Tail, Everything!, released 7 April. Okay, technically it’s missing 3 remixes (which were released as a promo EP called Something! the same day), but essentially this is the entire discography of the band that features Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins (Bauhaus, Love & Rockets) and bassist Glenn Campling. More post-punk than Bauhaus and not quite as psychedelic as early LnR, but just as fantastic.

Massive Attack, Mezzanine, released 20 April. I just mentioned this one in a previous post about perfect albums, and this is indeed a perfect album. While previous albums Blue Lines and Protection were great trip-hop platters, this one blows them both away. The cover outside fits the sounds perfectly: dark and dangerous moods like the beetle, and delicate and spacious as the white background. And “Teardrop” is indeed one of the best 90s songs ever, and up there as one of my favorite songs of all time.

The Urge, Master of Styles, released 21 April. This band could easily be confused with metal-funk buddies 311, but they’re just as bright and fun. Nick Hexum from 311 pops up on their surprise hit from this album. They’d put out a few more albums over the years, though never quite achieve huge success.

Bernard Butler, People Move On, released 21 April. The ex-Suede guitarist released his solo debut, and it’s a hell of a great album. I know numerous Britpop aficionados who swear by this record. It didn’t quite click with me right away, but eventually I realized just how fantastic it really is. Definitely worth checking out.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets, released 28 April. A much darker, maybe even a bit weirder album from the DMB gang, I seem to remember it dividing fans. Some (like me) loved it for its evolution away from his poppier jam-band style and more into straight ahead rock, while others wanted more of his pop-single sound. Regardless, it’s a great record.

Eve 6, Eve 6, released 28 April. This was a band that I found myself listening to far more often than I expected to, and it’s due to their flair for writing extremely catchy hooks and fun lyrics. A perfect example of the great readio-friendly alt-rock that was out there at the time.

Francis Dunnery, Let’s Go Do What Happens, released 28 April. I believe I first heard “My Own Reality” from a CMJ cd mix, but as soon as I got a promo of the album I was hooked. Dunnery’s music is quirky and introspective and amazingly catchy. His solo career has been relatively obscure and laid back, but he’s also a fantastic producer and backing musican, having worked with Ian Brown, Chris Difford, and Robert Plant.

VAST, Visual Audio Sensory Theater, released 28 April. One day the WEA rep handed me this album and said “listen to this, it definitely sounds like something in your wheelhouse.” How right they were! Jon Crosby’s one-man band is a tour de force of epic soundscapes, alternating between hard alt-rock, goth, and delicate balladry. And he’s still going strong 20 years later, putting out his own albums and EPs at his own website.

*

Up next: May 1998!

Thirty Years On: April 1988

April 1988 will of course be the month when The Flying Bohemians were born. I’d floated the idea of starting a band of sorts sometime in March if I’m not mistaken, but it wasn’t until the following month that Chris and Nathane and I made any serious plans about it.  It would be after their spring break trip, so the band would have its auspicious debut jam session on the 22nd of that year.  Meanwhile, I’d started songwriting in earnest, pulling out lyrics old and new that could possibly used for our future sessions.  I still had a hell of a lot to learn at that point, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Meanwhile, here’s some of my favorite tunage that was getting play both on college and AOR radio, and on my turntable and tape deck.

Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick, released ?? April. Third album from the geekiest synth musician out there. It wasn’t a big seller at all, but it was definitely a fun listen. It’s got some of his goofiest songs on there.

Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack, released ?? April. I’d picked up this soundtrack simply because it’s got an excellent line-up: MARRS, New Order, Depeche Mode, Prince, and Bryan Ferry, to name a few. The movie hasn’t aged well at all, nor has the book (though its unconventional use of telling the story entirely in second-person present tense POV did open my eyes quite a bit as a burgeoning writer at the time), but the soundtrack is still quite excellent.

The Wonder Stuff, “Give Give Give Me More More More” single, released ?? April. A ridiculously fun and witty British band from the Midlands, these guys were a listener’s favorite on college radio almost immediately upon arriving in the US. It would be another few months before their album would drop, but this was an excellent teaser.

Joe Jackson, Live 1980/86, released ?? April. This is an excellent live cross-section of his hits, including an absolutely amazing reinterpretation of his US hit “Steppin’ Out”, turned into a slow, elegiac jazz piece here. I remember ordering this from Columbia House back then just for that one track alone.

Graham Parker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister, released ?? April. WMDK and other AOR stations loved playing Parker’s stuff over the years, and this one got a lot of play as well. I used to love this particular track quite a bit.

In-D, “Virgin in-D Sky’s” single, released ?? April. Ah, Belgian techno…you never quite caught on here in the states, but I loved you just the same. Two club DJs from Antwerp got together and recorded three dance singles (and calling the style ‘New Beat’), and this was the one that somehow caught on with college radio.

John Adams (composer), Nixon in China, released 5 April. I remember this one coming out because it was such an unconventional subject for an opera. That, and Main Street Records down in Northampton had it set up on their endcap at the front of the store, so whenever we walked in, the first thing we’d see was the box set. It would be a few years before I’d finally give it a listen, and many more years until I finally saw it live (with Adams present, as he’s a Bay Area local!). It’s a strange one, sure, but it’s quite fascinating.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Barbed Wire Kisses, released 18 April. The J&MC’s first collection of b-sides and rarities (they’d release quite a few over the course of their career), it’s an interesting mix that showcases just how far they’d come, from their early feedback screech to their sludgy alt-rock. [Also, the first of a few albums that were ‘borrowed’ from the radio station I worked at then…I mean, was an AM, low-watt, lite-pop, satellite-fed station ever going to play this? I highly doubted it.]

Erasure, The Innocents, released 18 April. I absolutely adored this album when it came out, and “Chains of Love” became one of my favorite tracks of the year to to that point. Another band given a lot of love and promotion by Sire (thanks again, Seymour Stein!), this was heavily played not just on 120 Minutes but during regular daytime MTV. Classic album worth having. [Also, another ‘borrowed’ album. Heh.]

Soul Asylum, Hang Time, released 25 April. One of many punk bands from Minneapolis, these guys were often seen as the slightly less inebriated little brothers of the Replacements, but they rocked just as hard and recorded solid albums right alongside them. They’d finally get their share of major fame in the mid-90s, but this album — their first for a major label — was the one that pricked up the ears of the college radio crowds.

X, Live at the Whisky a Go Go (On the Fabulous Sunset Strip), released 29 April. Another live album that got a lot of airplay on the college radio and AOR stations, it’s an excellent mix of all their classic underground favorites. This was actually the first X album I owned (again, thanks to Columbia House) and “Hungry Wolf” soon became one of my favorite tracks of theirs.

*

Up next: May 1988!

FM

fm movie poster
Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite records that I used to love taking out of the library — aside from The Beatles 1962-1966, which I did not yet own — was the soundtrack to a 1978 movie called FM.

It was an amazing double-album filled with huge rock hits of the last few years: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, and more…and of course Steely Dan’s classic theme song.  Pretty much a perfect cross-section of what would become the classic rock genre in future radio programming.  [It’s still available on CD at this time, by the way, and highly recommended.]

I don’t remember the movie ever playing anywhere close at the time of its release (April 1978), but then again, I was only seven at the time.  The soundtrack was good enough for me.  Still, it would be another few years before I finally saw it when it was shown on one of the local independent TV channels a few years later.  I enjoyed it, even if some of the more mature issues (like Eric Swan’s sexual encounters or Mother’s consistently-baked persona) went right over my head.  The short version of the plot is that Q-Sky, an LA-based rock station with committed fans but not much profit, is being threatened by upper management to play more commercials and less music to make more money.  The stalwart deejays (your classic tropes here: the smooth-talking overnight guy, the ex-hippie still living in the previous decade, the young and spunky morning host, the cute and friendly girl everyone loves, the popular prima donna, and so on) decide to go against upper management to keep the station alive and rockin’ at whatever cost…even if it means going on strike.

[There are definitely shades of WKRP in Cincinnati here, but please note that the show was actually in pre-production talks when this movie came out; they’re not connected to each other in any way.]

It wasn’t until I read Richard Neer’s 2001 book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (also highly recommended) that I renewed my interest in the film.  It took me another number of years to finally find a dvd copy.  Years older and more knowledgeable about the way radio works, I’d discovered that the movie, for all it’s worth, was actually quite accurate in its portrayal of a radio station’s ups and downs during that time.

FM rock radio was in fact becoming the preferred choice for younger listeners by 1978, bypassing AM radio’s previous popularity — thus the riff ‘no static at all’ in the theme song.  It was also the zenith of rock radio to that point, with numerous bands releasing platinum and gold selling albums that are still highly regarded to this day.  At the same time, however, the financial woes of running a popular radio station had started taking its toll on the programming.  It was becoming harder and harder to be a free-form station where the deejay could play anything they wanted, when the business itself needed to make a profit to stay alive.  FM was in fact a spot-on commentary of this, even when it veered into the occasional Hollywood movie silliness.

Running a radio station nowadays is still just as hard as it’s ever been.  The issue is that it’s not built to be a moneymaker; it’s built to be a community service.  It provides free entertainment and information to its listeners; its money is made from its advertising or donations and fundraising events.  Most owners and station managers try to keep the moneymaking part of the business as unobtrusive as they can.

But that’s another post altogether.  I’m just here to talk about one of my favorite movies and soundtracks!

Recent Purchases, March Edition Part 2

Here’s another huge blog entry featuring some truly excellent tunage from an excellent month of releases.  Enjoy!

The Naked and Famous, A Still Heart, released 9 March. Another ‘unplugged’ album, and it’s a lovely one, with a mix of old favorite tracks from the band mixed with some excellent new ones, including a cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”.

David Byrne, American Utopia, released 9 March. The always twitchy, always worldly Byrne treats us to another great album of the odd alt-pop he does so well.

Embrace, Love Is a Basic Need, released 9 March. I love this new record of theirs. It’s tender, it’s beautiful, and it’s got a hell of a lot of heart to it. One of their best records.

The Neighbourhood, The Neighbourhood, released 9 March. Proving they’re much more than just a one-hit-wonder with “Sweater Weather”, this band continues to release fascinating and slightly weird music worth checking out.

Editors, Violence, released 9 March. One of my favorite bands of the last decade or so, their new album isn’t as dark as the previous one, but it’s just as tense.

The Decemberists, I’ll Be Your Girl, released 16 March. A slight change of sound and mood for this Portland band, finally embracing their 80s post-punk influences. Very unexpected sounds, but they pull it off beautifully.

Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism, released 16 March. Cover albums don’t always work as well as we wish they would, but this one is absolutely stunning, covering 80s and 90s R&B hits from Prince, TLC, Funkadelic, Al B Sure, Janet, and more. One of my favorite albums of the month, hands down.

Preoccupations, New Material, released 23 March. After changing their name to a much less controversial one (they were formerly known as Viet Cong and released one album under that name), they’ve only gotten better and better. Their new record has a distinctly late-80s-college-radio sound (this particular video even looks like it would have been right at home on 120 Minutes back in the day) that I love so much.

Failure, In the Future EP, released 30 March. Failure returns with a new project, a science fictional-themed album that will be released as a handful of EPs (and will be released as a full album later on). Looking forward to more from this amazing band.

*

Coming Soon: April releases!