Friday, March 21, 2008

Re-Issued Audio Yummies: Easybeats, ELO, and Divinyls

Work's been clubbing me upside the head so thoroughly that I haven't been imbibing in much pop culture anything lately. Put bluntly, I ain't had the time...With one exception.

Unlike most sane working stiffs who actually use their lunch breaks to, you know, relax and eat lunch, I hit the pavement and walk my metaphoric arse off during that precious half-hour. Headphones rest on my noggin, connected to an ancient Discman as I get a lungful of fresh air and an earful of music, old and new. Here's what's been getting the blood pumping (and the feet moving) of late--old stuff division.

The Easybeats' biggest claim to fame may have been their international hit, 'Friday on My Mind' (covered by David Bowie on his covers LP, Pin Ups), but Varese Sarabande's compilation CD The Very Best of the Easybeats proves that classic tune was no fluke. With all due respect to the Bee Gees, the Easys really were Australia's closest equivalent to the Beatles, a British Invasion-era pop combo who wrote their own material and played it with just the right blend of finesse and attitude. There's no reinvention of the wheel going on here, but the damn thing spins somethin' sweet.

Guitarists Harry Vanda and George Young wrote almost all of the Easybeats' material, and there's not a bum note among the eighteen 1966-69-vintage tracks assembled here. Want sunny, bright pop? Try on the delightful 'Pretty Girl,' a perfect pop number cut from the same cloth as the Zombies' finest work. How about the greatest garage rock chestnut you've never heard? Get thee immediately to the indescribably cool 'Sorry,' with its stuttering Bo Diddley guitar rhythms and spot-perfect harmonies, and try not to move.

Vanda and Young became an institution Down Under post-Easybeats, producing everyone from disco one-hit-wonder John Paul Young to AC/DC (Malcolm and Angus Young were George's brothers). Fellow Aussies Rick Springfield, INXS, and the Divinyls likewise paid homage by covering Easybeats songs themselves, but the originals--simply put--anihilate all comers. If you think you've heard every great Beatles-era rock group to death, The Very Best of the Easybeats is like wandering into your great uncle's attic and discovering a veritable treasure chest of cool.

Of course, not everything on the old Discman would earn a coolness stamp from your average hipster. Take the Electric Light Orchestra, for instance. Jeff Lynne, ELO's lead singer/songwriter, crafted some of the most alternately fetching and goofy faux-Beatles orchestral-pop froth of the seventies--to extremely profitable effect. I fell hard for the band's lush sound as a wee kid in the late seventies, but a couple of jaundiced decades calcified my early love. Nothing like a well-engineered reissue to turn me back around.

Revisionist wags have derided the Electric Light Orchestra as nothing more than an ornately-gilded singles band--an assessment I had grudgingly reinforced when I recently purchased the band's 1976 platinum record, A New World Record (Hit-to-Miss score: Three great radio hits, mucho fancily-appointed filler) on CD. But the 2006 re-release of ELO's 1975 opus Face the Music proves, to these ears at least, that this singles band crafted at least one pretty solid long-player in their career.

Lynne and company frequently looked asinine when they tried to, ahem, rock ('Poker' is just plain doofy, even when it partly nicks Jimmy Page's guitar riff from 'Kashmir'), and the smarmy prog-rock keyboards on the opener 'Fire on High' definitely stamp a 1970's pull date on the record. But the album's first hit single, 'Evil Woman,' is the closest thing to funky these fussy Englishmen ever mustered up, and Lynne's merge of concisely yummy pop hooks and orchestral grandeur reached its most sustained apex here. 'Nightrider' manages to soar over its cheesy lyrics (always Lynne's Achilles Heel) with some surging strings, and 'One Summer Dream' adds the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds to its composer's laundry list of Beatles influences with beguiling results. The honky-tonk-gone-baroque chug of 'Down Home Town' works better than many of the band's later experiments with country folkiness, too. Most surprisingly of all, nestled among the reissue's bonus tracks is a radical alternate take of the 'Fire on High' intro that veers into avant-garde/horror-movie-soundtrack turf (who'da thunk ELO could be, um, scary?). It's a shame it never made it to the final cut back in the day.

Entertaining as the rest of the disc is, though, Face the Music's crowning track remains the US Top Ten hit, 'Strange Magic.' The languid tempo, grand harmonies, cascading strings, and masterful wall-of-sound production (always Lynne's greatest strength) combine to make this one of the most ravishing ballads of its day...Goofy lyrics and all. It's one of those rare singles that I could literally listen to dozens of times in a row without tiring of it.

Would that every good album got the treatment alloted to Face the Music. In an age when overstuffed 'anniversary editions' of past hit records are the rule, Caroline Records' bare-bones CD reissue of Desperate, the corking 1983 debut from Australia's Divinyls can't help but disappoint at first glance; no bonus tracks, no outtakes, no alternate mixes, no nothin' but an 'authentic reproduction of the original album artwork' (at least it's more eco-consious than the usual plastic CD jewel case).

Oh, yeah, wait. I guess there's the ten sublime rocking pop songs that form the original album in the first place.

Frontwoman Christina Amphlett's voice was an odd, tough, and strangely sexy amalgam of Pat Benatar, Lulu, and Lene Lovich (my wife's analogy--"Cyndi Lauper channeling a really scary Japanese schoolgirl"--comes pretty close, too). Her lyrical stance and unique singing tangentially bring to mind the great Chrissie Hynde, but Amphlett's howling bravado was always burnished by a vein of vulnerability. She and guitarist Mark McEntee made one combustive songwriting team on Desperate, combining distinctively Australian pub-rock spit with new-wave pop polish.

Every song on Desperate rules. 'Siren' and 'Only U' stir up the kind of spastic energy that modern femme-fronted bands like Paramore will never, ever attain. And 'Only Lonely' toughens up an irresistible sixties paisley-pop chime with catchy Ooh-Oohs and Amphlett's sexually-assertive lyrics ("He said,'Come on baby, not on a first date/ so I said, 'OK, baby: How long must I wait?"). It shoulda been a monster hit outside the land of Koalas (take a You Tube look/listen if you don't believe me). They even pound out a raucous cover of the Easybeats' 'Make You Happy'. Best track honors, though, go to 'Ring Me Up,' in which McEntee makes with chunky Led Zeppelin power chords while Amphlett punctuates her urgent delivery with spontaneous, near-coital squeaks. It is, categorically, one of the sexiest rock songs I've ever heard.

Amphlett and McEntee still plug away as the Divinyls today, and everyone in the world knows their popular 1991 hit, "I Touch Myself." But Desperate remains the band's pinnacle, and one of the most perplexingly-underrated debuts of the 1980's.

Incidentally, I have been listening to a lot of new stuff, swear to God. But I've been rattling on long enough already, and it's time to throw on the old headphones again.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Thanks, Mom.

My mom is the greatest. Just saying.

Of course, everyone in their right mind should say such things about their mom. But all partisan bias aside, my mom really is the greatest.

Anna Prizina grew up in a modest working-class home in Arkansas in the 1940s and '50s. She essentially raised her three siblings on her own in the wake of her father's untimely passing and her mother's mental illness, and was out working assembly-line jobs while still in her teens. She met a blustery-but-loveable serviceman named Gerald Kay, fell in love, and together they built a stable family despite the tumult of military life.

She's a sensitive and very soulful woman with kind eyes that instantly make you feel comfortable and safe: That great warmth is probably her paramount gift as a parent and a human being. She taught me a lot about consideration, kindness, humility, and working hard for your place in the world. A devout Catholic, she's one of the few genuinely religious people I know who's never hypocritical, judgemental, or sanctimonious. And you can pretty much blame Ma for my horror-lovin' hide--I became such a horror movie addict in large part because of my mom's and my shared love for scary things. My dad, an Army sergeant, served in Vietnam and was frequently overseas, so Ma essentially raised my brother and I on her own for long stretches. She did a pretty damn good job, if I may say so.

My mom's been on my mind a lot lately, because about three weeks ago she suffered a mild stroke that landed her in the hospital for three days. Thankfully, the stroke wasn't major, and she's since recovered impressively. The small portion of her brain damaged by the stroke is nearly 100% healed, she's experienced no memory loss, no slurred speech, no compromise in her mobility. The episode was a major wake-up call--her weight, diabetes, and high blood pressure decisively contributed to her stroke--but she's seeing a dietician, has shaped up her eating habits, and is taking brisk walks again. I think she'll be all right.

So my apologies, dear reader, for being MIA for the last month. And Mom, I love you more than life. Just saying.