This column began in October 2002 and has featured 250 reviews to date. The only unifying factor is this author's restless, never-ending pursuit of interesting sounds. There've been bad reviews for my musical heroes and giddy listens to myriad emerging acts. Here, the playing field is leveled, rookies and old-timers on equal footing. Each installment strives to use music as a lens on the world, to expand our ears beyond the extremely finite boundaries of corporate-controlled radio and record labels. Not everything has received glowing praise but how credible would this be if every review were a rave? What you can count on is my honesty and my apostolic passion. When we let music really truly seep into us, there's so much that comes up, and rather than dismiss that soulful flood, I enthusiastically surf it. If you've ever wondered what I've been up to here, well, there it is in a nutshell.
A million and one thanks to those who read this thing. Without you I'd be just another tree falling in a very big forest. I appreciate the notes, both praise-filled and critical, I've received over the last few years. It's a dialog that always enriches what I do. Your time and thoughts are valuable to me.
This edition focuses on the rapidly growing music DVD world. From this point forward, Cook's Corner will regularly feature new DVDs as well as the usual wide-ranging audio cavalcade.
Pick of the litter:
Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South – Live At The 40 Watt (New West)
The dilemma with most straight concert videos is an intrinsic static quality the small screen brings and a tendency to preach only to the choir of existing fans. Not so with the Truckers' two-night stand at Athens, GA's legendary 40 Watt Club, which is so blazingly kinetic, so bloody true, so kick-ass happy-slappy good that it may be what folks use to convert others to DBT's cause. It's obvious, seeing them on stage, that there's absolutely nothing they'd rather be doing. They sweat out the pure bestial essence of rock 'n' roll - all wild eyes, bloody fingers, and whiskey tongues. Singer-guitarist Mike Cooley's dark river voice starts us in the lowlands with "Where The Devil Don't Stay," and the ensuing hours are a bare-knuckle scrape-up between white light and shadows. Like The Band, the Truckers are songwriters who pen material that breaths and evolves live. That's abundantly clear on this set. The easy-going dressing room rambles, and lighter moments like Cooley marrying fans on stage throw gravy on this home-cooked nourishment until the next Southern masterpiece breaks free from their grip.
The Mother Hips: Stories We Could Tell (Packbackfilms)
"They're the best band nobody has heard of," comments a fan in the first minutes of this love letter to these California Soul rockers, and that couldn't be truer. They have the pithy pop brilliance, the seemingly effortless rise, of The Beatles, Gram Parsons, the Hollies, and thick, groove-filled '70s hard rock, but without ever mimicking these root sources. Their sound is their own, infused with a distinctly West Coast vibe, peppered with truths that soak in deep with repeated listens. Greg Loiacono and Tim Bluhm are two of the finest songwriters today, and it's a damn shame that kind of talent doesn't always equate with success. But dollars and headlines aren't what make a band great. This documentary traces their early days in Chico up through their decision in 2002 to put the band on indefinite hiatus after ten years (they do play occasional shows these days but nothing like in the past). What elevates this above the pack is the clear-eyed view of the Hips history that doesn't gloss over the rough spots, embracing them warts and all. The sheer cost to body and spirit of making one's living on the road is explored beautifully here. Not everyone appreciates what it takes to travel constantly AND perform at the end of every journey. This lends a fresh appreciation for highway kings like the Hips. Filmmaker Patrick Murphree shows us their tenacity through numerous setbacks and continually offers insights into the band. In addition to the nearly two-hour documentary, there's a pile of extras including unedited concert footage from an amazing performance December 21st, 2002 at the Great American Music Hall. To share the feeling one's favorite band has engendered is a rare thing. This DVD succeeds in doing just that in this celebration for existing fans, which also works as a great introduction to a group that deserves more listeners.
Looking For A Thrill: An anthology of inspiration (Thrill Jockey)
This disc is based on a cool idea – sit a hundred musicians and producers down and have them tell stories of "defining moments of musical inspiration." Thrill is an indie rock oral history, Studs Terkel with jet black hair and a garage rehearsal space. It begins with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) talking about the power of drawing from the unknown and then gets luminaries like Steve Albini, Bjork, Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose, Banyan), and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) to open up. Nobukazu Takemura offers an inspired mixture of other unknown voices telling stories accompanied by his own subtitled thoughts running concurrently. It's something you'll rewind a couple times to really absorb, something you may be inspired to do with a number of segments. Some entries are needlessly arty and skip-worthy like Tortoise's John McEntire's overly-processed vocal gymnastics. You can view this by instrument, by theme, alphabetically, or by simply letting the five-plus hours of stories pour out as sequenced. However, the rough musical snippets and herky-jerky digital editing is tiring in long doses. It also leans too heavily on Thrill Jockey's roster, which makes it feel like a promotional video at times. Overall, the good outweighs the bad, and you can't help but dig that all profits from this DVD will go to Greenpeace.
Buckethead: Secret Recipe (self-released)
A choking and strangulation caution takes the place of the usual FBI warning, and then we're given a Buckethead "Do-It-Yourself Violence Doll" to poke, prod, and pull apart. As strange as it's been to see the KFC bucket-wearing guitar hero on the red carpet at the Grammys and picking for the short-lived Guns N' Roses return, this two-disc buffet of weird is infinitely odder. There's a hefty discography, music videos with Praxis and others most of the world never knew existed, and a full Boston concert from April 2004. This is ridiculously interactive – pull the doll's string for a series of unearthly gurgles, check out his leprosy action grip, or peek inside the bucket for a terrifying glimpse of impaled chickens spinning on hooks. There's a constant locust buzz of his "out there" guitaristics, and Bootsy Collins narrates the menu selections. The animation is a fever dream, Hieronymus Bosch made to rock. Being stoned may not be enough to fully grok this slab. A few lines of granular bathtub meth or some metallic peyote buttons could be required to take it all in. The bad thing is you may not be able to find this anywhere. My copy arrived in an unmarked mailer with no press sheet or anything, just the DVDs. A hard target search of the Web produced only questions about its origins, but it's definitely worth the hunt if you savor the bizarre antics of one of today's most thoroughly unique creators.
Marillion: Marbles On The Road (Racket Records)
Last year's Marbles was a vibrant, emotional rock album and one of the best in the often prog-slandered Marillion's long career. In addition to their usual dramatic flair, their more recent work has touched on the majestic sparkle of Radiohead and '70s Pink Floyd, further testifying to the creative stamina of these beautiful survivors. The melodic grace of their work often hides how complex this stuff is - a challenge to get right in the live setting. This DVD (available in single and extra-packed double disc formats) shows a reliably powerful, tight concert act in full flight. As tradition dictates, the show is a reproduction of their latest album in its entirety in addition to a smattering of past favorites. There's some video screen gymnastics, but for the most part, this is a straight pro-shot concert taken from two nights in London last July. Those unfamiliar with these songs may be a bit lost, but there are plenty of immediate, visceral kicks from Steve Rothery's Gilmour-esque six-string poetry, the artfully pummeling rhythm team, and especially singer Steve Hogarth's pure pop pipes. As always, their naked affection for their fans and unguarded humanity shines through every minute. Good blokes, Marillion, and this is them in their natural setting – playing their songs with gusto and wet-eyed sincerity in front of those who love them best.
Vintage Stash selection:
Iron Maiden: Part 1: The Early Days (Sanctuary/Columbia)
Few metal acts that rose to dominance in the early '80s are still around as anything but a punchline, but Maiden endures. They are 25+ years strong and still kicking with the same burly pub rock fueled bigness. Their speed and sincerity have always set them apart from their peers, equal parts leather-studded blokes and Samuel Taylor Coleridge poets - a curious mixture that in lesser hands would fall flat on its hairy face. This double DVD traces Maiden's beginnings with original singer Paul Di'Anno, who sang on the first two albums in 1980-81. The documentaries show the tumultuous road to their true line-up, but no matter what frustration they faced, they soldiered on with high spirits. As the fantastic early concert footage shows (including a boffo previously unavailable '83 show from The Number of the Beast tour), these guys mean it – on every night and in every way. Their dramatic flair with huge sets and endless variations on their mascot Eddie are icing on the brutally heavy cake. They've always been very likeable and their open book storytelling here only increases that warm feeling. Iron Maiden still plays with the same vivaciousness today, true to their bar band roots even as they've grown to stadium size. Seeing them build their vision from the start is fascinating and inspiring. This is a great sign that future volumes in their official history should be equally satisfying. The band will be revisiting these early days this summer when they perform at Ozzfest 2005, where they plan to play songs almost exclusively from the first four albums. Huzzah!
We'll be roaring back in a few weeks with reviews for new long players from Cyro Baptista, The Church, Josh Rouse, Subarachnoid Space, and more. Be good to yourself in the meantime...
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