Tuesday March 4, 2014
My first thought when I encountered the music of The Silencers recently is that this is exactly the kind of jittery, jangly, guitar-centered music I should have been listening to back in 1987, but damned if my ears weren't too often otherwise engaged at the time. Of course, that was basically at the same moment I was discovering classic rock music - back when that term did not yet entirely refer to a dusty dinosaur dominated by stagnant, predictable playlists. Of course, it would have been nice to hear this particular Scottish band on my local classic rock radio station of choice a quarter century ago - and, truthfully, I can't entirely rule out the possibility that this unsung band might have been spun on occasion there. Nevertheless, I have to admit I don't remember hearing the band (or this song) then, or even in the years immediately following, when similarly styled bands like U2 and The Alarm became highly familiar to my cassette players.
Even so, such a confession does not stop me in the least from celebrating the excellent track "Painted Moon" right this very moment. Unlike '80s-era U2, The Silencers demonstrate more of a concerted devotion to injecting a strong groove into their music than an insistence on political posturing and abject seriousness. Therefore, the simple but commanding rhythm of this track - combined with the alluring, breathy vocals of frontman Jimmie O'Neill - casts an intoxicating spell over the listener that is not reliant on excessive didacticism or preachiness. As such, a song like this featuring a compelling central guitar riff plants itself into the listening consciousness as an easygoing, friendly and utterly respectable earworm. The Silencers never need to beat their listeners over the head with meaning or context. Instead, the band unleashes a relentless, haunting mid-tempo attack that dances on through, never overstaying its welcome. Unfortunately, that casual brilliance may be part of the reason we don't hear about this band all the time (or ever, for that matter). But that makes for a lovely find any day of the week, that much is certain.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA
Tuesday February 25, 2014
By the late '80s, it should have no longer been a novelty to find African Americans actively involved in the making of heavy guitar rock music. Unfortunately, though, it was. Even worse, it pretty much still is today. That truth deeply puzzles me given that the most groundbreaking, explosive guitarist of all time (Jimi Hendrix, anyone?) was a black American and more than a few of the most influential artists of early rock and roll also had such a heritage. Somehow, though, hard rock music has continued to remain painfully and disproportionately white for going on a half century. Nevertheless, soulful progressive metal band King's X has done its best over the years to change this embarrassing demographic fact, spending its three decades of existence brashly blending disparate genres and employing the inspiring, gravelly, blues-tinged howl of lead vocalist Doug Pinnick to lead the way into, perhaps, a colorblind brave new world. Oh, we're not there yet, to be sure, and I'm as much to blame as anyone, I suppose, for bringing up race in lieu of an exclusive focus on just the music. But these are sometimes the things we think about, I guess, for better and for worse.
In a purely musical sense, King's X is an inventive power trio that rose up during the mid '80s out of the American heartland, stubbornly searching for new ways to deliver distorted guitar riffs, explore spiritual themes, and generally make joyful rock and roll noise. 1989's Gretchen Goes to Nebraska remains one of the band's most seminal album releases, functioning certainly as a provocative concept album as well as a simple display of the group's substantial chops. Along with guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill, bass player and lead vocalist Pinnick eschewed typical musical boundaries in favor of a somewhat improvisational, soulfully visceral take on heavy metal and hard rock. As such, it's little surprise that the band was never quite able to reach mass audiences, and in many ways that remains a positive thing. Ultimately, King's X has been able to carve out a serviceable niche into which music lovers seeking an atypical music experience will happily travel. In some ways, "Over My Head" can be seen as one of the most conventional of King's X tracks, if only because the song rests on fairly simple, minimalistic lyrics and an ongoing central guitar riff. However, Pinnick's positively transcendent vocals - punctuated by occasional screams that must make Little Richard beam with pride - take the performance to an entirely unexplored level of gospel-tinged intensity that should nonetheless capture the imaginations of even the fiercely irreligious among us. King's X has typically bristled when observers insist on labeling the group a Christian rock band, and it's easy to see why. This is a band of the people, most interested in what music can do for us all - regardless of individual worldview.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic
Tuesday February 18, 2014
Regular visitors to this site may have noticed a recent influx of content about African-American artists of the '80s. While part of this trend can certainly be attributed to the fact that February is Black History Month, I generally wouldn't want to skew didactic enough to spotlight black '80s music stars constantly for an entire month. On the contrary, I actually just keep finding myself compelled - after admittedly seeking out more than a few soul, funk and urban contemporary artists lately - to continue sampling and singing the praises of musicians who just happen to be black. The truth is, every time I think I have the '80s Quiet Storm or post-disco landscape covered to an appropriate level, I stumble upon another standout that deserves additional spotlight. Of course, I also ought to at least mention the fact that the proportion of non-white '80s musicians covered on this site could use a boost, even if it does smack slightly of an all-at-once sort of approach. But that's enough of my yakkin': let's boogie!
Mississippi native Alexander O'Neal is certainly a lesser-known contemporary of Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson and Ray Parker, Jr., but that's not necessarily reflective of the immense power and majesty of his voice. Specializing in highly romantic, slow-burn ballads full of longing and tenderness, O'Neal generated a number of singles during the latter half of the '80s that deserved a fair shake at becoming '80s pop classics. The reality that he never placed a single higher than No. 25 on Billboard's Hot 100 doesn't take away from the tremendous appeal of this precise, emotive singer. 1985's "If You Were Here Tonight" makes liberal use of electric piano that threatens to sound dated at any moment, but somehow the slick production remains restrained enough to allow O'Neal's sultry, nuanced vocal style to retain top billing. Production, of course, held significant importance for all Quiet Storm recordings of the era, but in this case songwriter and producer Monte Moir carefully maintains a fervent, welcome balance between instrumental heft and one of the era's great soul voices. A significant number of young adults are probably walking around today in no small part thanks to this track, perhaps played late at night by their parents, with the lights down low. I'll go ahead and stop right there before things get uncomfortable.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Tabu/Epic
Tuesday February 11, 2014
Though he surely wouldn't know it, veteran blues and soul singer Clarence Carter ingratiated himself significantly during the mid '80s with an unlikely audience of teenage boys in North Carolina. Such a story probably could come out of quite a few other Southern locales as well, but what really distinguishes Carter's 1986 track "Strokin'" is not necessarily its moderately raunchy but refreshingly frank sexual content. Instead, I find myself still amazed that my friends and I hadn't uncovered some relic of the '70s but instead a contemporary tune by an African-American performer who had seemingly been locked in some sort of pop culture time capsule. We may have been introduced to this artist from a random soul compilation album's TV commercial and been drawn to him at first on a novelty basis, but ultimately Carter deserves note simply for persevering in his attempt to continue making genre-bending, renegade music regardless of commercial trends.
Carter had actually enjoyed a couple of Top 10 pop hits during the late '60s and early '70s, and throughout the latter decade he was somewhat of a fixture for a fairly wide soul audience. However, by the mid '80s, his career had seemingly run out of steam, at least from any remotely commercial perspective. Nevertheless, "Strokin'" gradually became a signature song, playfully filling a mid-'80s void for bawdy soul-blues showmanship. The song's lyrics would probably qualify as the painfully juvenile musings of a middle-aged man if not for the down-home, disarmingly earnest delivery of Carter. Aside from the tune's catchy, laid-back groove - which features some sneaky-good guitar playing - highlights include a lengthy spoken-word section in which Carter asks his listeners rather specific questions about their sex lives. Then, unabashed, he relates some tales from his own sexual romps, coining a new word for abject pleasure with "sassified" and also flirting with the need for outright censorship when his lyrics playfully dance around what could at any second turn into highly explicit rhymes. Beyond the chuckles the song still induces, "Strokin'" ultimately holds up far better than a contemporary rock track that covers similar ground, Billy Squier's "The Stroke." After all, instead of trying so hard to attain some kind of clever double entendre, Carter just comes right out and says what he means, including details about how such a straight-up approach makes him and his sexual partner feel. This directness refreshes even as it surprises the listener with unexpectedly blue content, and that's why Carter's achievement here clearly transcends the somewhat dismissive label of novelty.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Ichiban