Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CD Review: Them Crooked Vultures

When reviewing a new band made up of established musicians, the temptation is to search for comparisons to past works, to evaluate the new based on the old. Sometimes it bears fruit, Chickenfoot is, after all, nothing but another bad Joe Satriani album, admittedly with vocals. them-crooked-vulturesUpon listening to Them Crooked Vultures debut release, the comparisons are begging to be searched out, but the search bears little fruit.

Them Crooked Vultures line-up consists of three significant artists in slightly different areas of rock: Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones; Foo Fighters front man/Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl on drums; Queens of the Stone Age guitarist/singer Josh Homme fronting the band. The result is heavy, pounding rock that hints at the bands roots without ever stealing from them.

During the pre-release live shows Them Crooked Vultures have performed, drummer Grohl has aped his Foo Fighter drummer Tyler Hawkins, with a drumming style that can best be described as bombarding. Constantly in motion, the drumming doesn’t let up. On recording, however, Grohl displays a much more restrained drum style, preferring to stick with the groove, and let the song shine. It is both effective and enhances the music. On the other hand a band fronted by the singer/guitarist from one band is bound to have similarities between the bands. This happens less frequently than you would expect with Queens of the Stone Age/Crooked Vultures front man Homme. Of course it has hints of Queens, as lead singer that’s inevitable. But the risk is always that such a band as Them Crooked Vultures will be an extension of what the front man has always done, and the risk has been nicely avoided here.

Another risk posed by this grouping is that Them Crooked Vultures would become karaoke Led Zeppelin, with Homme having a perennial turn at the microphone. Dave Grohl is an avowed John Bonham fan, and teaming him up on drums with Bonhams rhythm mate Jones, the risk is real that Homme would be playing guitar and singing over an unmistakably Zeppelin back beat. This rap is, too, nicely avoided. Sure, Jones pulls out the clavinet and vamps Trampled Underfoot during Scumbag Blues, the effect is, however, subtle and in the background. In fact, the song borrows far more from Cream than any other known influence. Jones really noticeable creative contribution to this effort is in the arrangement. The songs, almost without fail, twist and turn, bridges with no connection to the song, Codas from left field, time changes, all staples of the Led Zeppelin catalogue, and common through this disk.

If we’re comparing Them Crooked Vultures to Led Zeppelin, however, it should also be noted to the negative that what Them Crooked Vultures lacks is some of Jimmy Page’s famous, “light and shade.” There are few respites from the very heavy, grinding hard edges rock music. No ballads, no light spots outside of psychedelic 60’s tinged Interlude with Ludes, that sounds like a reject from Jones days producing Sunshine Superman, a brass band coda on Mind Eraser no Chaser, a Bontemi Organ ending to Caligulove, and the piano intro to Spinning in Daffodils. The otherwise lack of breathing space may be the bands weakest spot.

It’s strength? The songs. A constant array of solid blues based rockers, including the opening single, the eminently catchy New Fang, No One Loves Me and Neither Do I, The Bowie meets Hendrix Mind Eraser, No Chaser, Elephants, Bandoliers and the aforementioned Scumbag Blues. All superior songs that more than compensate for a few weaker numbers towards disks end.

Being a fan of earlier rock and roll, I like to play a game with new CDs that come out. I trim the song line-up down to 8 or 9 songs - 40-45 minutes of music - as an LP would have been in the 70’s. It offers a fairer comparison between a newer CD and an older album, where much of the excess that makes it to a CD would get cut in mastering. Here’s what I get
Side one

No One Loves Me
Mind Eraser No Chaser
New Fang

Side Two

Scumbag Blues
Warsaw or The First Breath You Take

That’s an album that belongs in my collection. Two sides of great music that blend together into a nice whole. A great album. As it is, Them Crooked Vultures is one of the best albums in a long time, strong songs played with extremely high musicianship in an album of unapologetic rock. What more where you looking for?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kitchener Nov 4, 1969

[caption id="attachment_174" align="alignright" width="144" caption="This as began appearing Oct. 11, indicating the show had been booked approximately four weeks before the show"]img002[/caption]

In November 1969, Led Zeppelin was a young rising band. Their first album, released in January of 1969, went to number 11 in the Canadian album charts. They toured North America relentlessly, including 3 stops in Toronto, beginning their fourth American tour on October 17, five days before the release of their second album. That second album would reach number one worldwide and launch Led Zeppelin into the 1970s, the decade in which they would dominate the rock world. The only single from Led Zeppelin II, Whole Lotta Love, would go on to reach number 4 in the Billboard charts and become one of rock's ubiquitous classics. Led Zeppelin was on the rise, and Kitchener Ontario, population approximately 100,000, would have an opportunity to see Led Zeppelin before they became too big for shows in front of 2,000 people.

"Jimmy Page is Led Zeppelin." So begins the K-W Records Jim Clements in reviewing Led Zeppelin's Nov 4, 1969 show. The concert was performed to a less than full house of 2,000 fans, mostly university students. Iron Butterfly had played the week before at University of Waterloo, and $4.00 and $5.00 for tickets was considered high for the time. The show was shorter than usual Led Zeppelin fare: drummer John Bonham was ailing, and his showpiece Moby Dick was missing from the set list, as was Jimmy Page's Indian themed solo White Summer/Black Mountain Side due to a blown amplifier. Singer Robert Plant was having voice problems as well. The three issues combined meant the usual 90 minute set was a 45 minute affair.

For all the above, reviews of the evening were positive, noting the skill of the musicians, Page's virtuosity ("he stuns and amazes..." says Dave Fairfield), Plant's vocal counterpart and solid back beat of the rhythm section. The crowd was "with it..." according to Jimmy Page, calling for an encore despite the problems the band encountered. Kitchener Memorial Arena was a less than perfect acoustic environment, yet the set up was done "in such a way that everyone could see and hear the performance."

[caption id="attachment_173" align="alignleft" width="116" caption="Jimmy Page with his sunburst Les Paul"]img001[/caption]

An enthusiastic audience is hardly surprising. Led Zeppelin would go on to become very well known for their outstanding live shows and from the very first shows they were noted as exceptional. Yet their was little of the shows in late 1969 that would resemble the Led Zeppelin concerts that the band would become so well known for. Granted, Jimmy Page had replaced his paisley telecaster guitar with a sunburst Les Paul as his main stage instrument. The guitar, sold to him by Joe Walsh, is the one he would use to define what rock guitarists should look like, and be immortalized in Paul McCartney's Rock Show. But little else would be familiar to those who saw Led Zeppelin even a year or two later. The set list was dominated by songs that would soon be gone: Good Times Bad Tomes, Communication Breakdown, I Can't Quit You Babe, What is and What Should Never Be, How Many More Times. All would cease to be performed in the near future. Whole Lotta Love, not yet in their set list, would become a vital component to the Led Zeppelin experience within a month.

Noted in later years for his strong stage presence, on this night Page, "rarely took his eyes from the guitar long enough to look at the audience." Stage clothes in 1969 lacked the pizazz of later years, Page appearing in Kitchener in jeans and a peach t-shirt, Plant in jeans and white t-shirt with black logo. Page was at this stage, however, playing his guitar with a violin bow, a holdover from his days with the Yardbirds and a showpiece of Led Zeppelin shows from their first show through to their last performances in 1980.

[caption id="attachment_175" align="alignright" width="126" caption="The ad changed the day of the concert"]img003[/caption]

If you saw Led Zeppelin in Kitchener on November 4, 1969, you saw a Led Zeppelin vastly different from the band who travel the world by private jet in a few short years. Two years away from Stairway to Heaven the music was much more raw, the performance much less polished. But you also saw a hungry band of talented musicians, paying their dues, giving an undoubtedly powerful performance. If you saw Led Zeppelin in 1969, you saw them when it was virtually the last chance to see them in an intimate environment. Beginning early 1970, they would play major halls and arenas, and never return to smaller venues.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mind Eraser No Chaser Free on iTunes

Them Crooked Vultures, who's debut album is due for release Nov 16 release her in North America, have made the albums second single, Mind Eraser, No Chaser available for free download on iTunes. This offer is available until Monday November 9th.

While you are there, the first single, New Fang, is available for $1.29, and the album can be pre-ordered for $11.99.

As well, the album, in CD or vinyl format, can be pre-ordered from Amazon