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Madison’s ‘Smart’ music history

Continue reading Madison’s ‘Smart’ music history

Music Reviews: Pet Shop Boys, Sturgill Simpson, Ronnie Spector

superPet Shop Boys :: ‘Super’

Pet Shop Boys take another drink from the fountain of youth on their 13th album Super, yet another impressive dance record coming more than 30 years after their debut single “West End Girls.”

Producer Stuart Price takes his second look at the work of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe with this record, written in Berlin and recorded in Los Angeles, and the record delves into the nightclub scene with the usual aplomb. Tennant is a keen observer with sharp storytelling skills, best seen on tunes like “The Pop Kids,” a tale of 1990s club-goers, and “Twenty-something,” another song that looks 15 years back and reflects on how traditional careers have become more elusive in the modern age. Lowe has an uncanny ability to keep even the most overfamiliar keyboard sounds from drifting to the far side of cheesy and there’s enough variety to ensure that none overstays its welcome.

Some slow tunes and instrumentals cleverly break the dance music dominance. The protagonist of “The Dictator Decides” agrees the world would be better off without him, and Tennant sees the tracks of the machines’ tears on the poignant “Sad Robot World.” (Pablo Gorondi/AP)

SturgillSturgill Simpson :: ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

Sturgill Simpson defies categorization, and exceeds expectations, with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an exploration of life’s journey inspired by the birth of his first child.

Simpson funks up his country twang with a rousing horn section while keeping a rocking and rollicking edge underneath his probing lyrics. Heck, he even throws in bagpipes, a cello, a violin and a killer cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Simpson, like all great interpreters, makes the Kurt Cobain song sound like his own, and it fits in perfectly with the mood and theme of A Sailor’s Guide.

The record’s final tune, “Call to Arms,” is just what it sounds like. Simpson decries what he’s hearing on TV and radio, and with the horns and guitars growling behind him, urgently declares, “The bull—-’s got to go!”

Rock, country, Americana. Whatever. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a thrill. This compact 39 minutes of pure joy has got the kind of energy that makes you instinctively lean forward just to try and keep up. (Scott Bauer/AP)

RonnieSpectorRonnie Spector :: ‘English Heart’

In 1964, Ronnie Spector toured Britain with the Ronettes just weeks before the Beatles arrived in America. English Heart is her tribute to that British Invasion, in turn influenced by her band and former husband Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.”

While Spector is often cited for the power of her pipes, these 11 songs are styled more around subtlety and insinuation, and producer Scott Jacoby has wisely favored the feel of the 1960s originals over exact recreations of their sounds. There are exceptions, like the thumping drums and Farfisa organ on the Dave Clark Five tune “Because.” Conversely, electronic percussion on “You’ve Got Your Troubles” (originally by The Fortunes) lends a contemporary touch, contributing to the accommodating combination of old and new.

Spector wisely covers smaller but superior U.S. hits like Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” and Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” instead of the usual smashes. A version of the Rolling Stones’ semi-obscure “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls” — with the daughter of her late sister (and fellow Ronette) Estelle Bennett and cousin Cindy Mizelle -— is pure joy. (Pablo Gorondi/AP)

Mellower with age, Bob Mould still plays fast and loud

When thinking of gay artists in popular music, the alternative rock genre rarely comes to mind. However, 53-year-old out artist Bob Mould can fairly lay claim to being an elder statesmen of alt rock. He was a co-founder of legendary punk band Hüsker Dü and, through his later band Sugar and a series of well-received solo albums, he’s been a guiding light in the alternative rock community for 25 years.

Mould brings music from his current album, Beauty & Ruin, to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall on Sept. 17.

While Mould may accept his identity as a gay icon, he’s much different from the stereotypical gay rock star. Sober since 1986, he eschews glitz and glamour. But he’s been a serious supporter of his community for decades — first in New York and Washington, D.C., and today in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, where he’s an active member of the local “bear” community. 

Mould released his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, in 2011. The book is a revealing look at the life of gay musicians in the U.S. punk scene in the 1980s, before it exploded into the grunge of the early 1990s.

Mould had a public reputation of being brutally angry if not actually scary. He famously lashed out at President Ronald Reagan’s perpetuation of public ignorance about the AIDS epidemic, calling it “the coal that fueled that train of discontent for hardcore (punk) for so long.”

“I was a young, confused homosexual living in a country that refused to acknowledge me as a human. That will make you angry,” Mould told Spin magazine.

Mould’s sexuality was an open secret for many years. He began his first long-term relationship in 1983 at age 22, but only came out in 1994 after journalists threatened to out him.

Mould co-founded the seminal punk band Hüsker Dü while a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1979. The trio came together over a mutual love of the Ramones. The band quickly evolved into a hardcore punk group and released the legendary albums Zen Arcade, Flip Your Wig, Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories before unraveling in 1987.

Hüsker Dü’s collapse came too soon to see alternative rock bands like Nirvana blast into the pop mainstream in 1991. However, Mould is quick to remind interviewers that he was on the short list to produce Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind, and without their commercial success, his post-Dü band Sugar wouldn’t have seen its debut Copper Blue become such a success in 1992.

As a child, Mould’s father was a major influence on his musical and personal development. He introduced Mould to pop and rock music through a collection of jukebox singles that remains a treasured possession. Mould bought the first Ramones album for his 16th birthday when his father took him to a record store and let him pick out his own gift. The elder Mould also  financially supported his son’s early music career. 

But the father-son relationship was often difficult, and it occasionally veered into potentially abusive territory. Speaking to NPR in June, Bob Mould said, “You know, my dad, he was a drinker. He liked to drink. Weekends could be tough.”

His father died in 2012. His latest album Beauty & Ruin addresses the past while moving forward into the present. It is structured around the four themes of loss, reflection, acceptance and future. That’s best seen with “The War,” which ends side one of the vinyl edition of the album, and “Forgiveness,” which begins side two. They give a clear audio representation of Mould’s difficult transition from reflection to acceptance.

He says that he’s finally left behind much of the rage that fueled his punk music in the 1980s. There’s a new sense of fun and even humor in his music. That might be a shock to some and a very welcome shift to others. Mould told GQ magazine in a 2011 interview that many of his fans “would prefer to see me miserable.”

Despite the changes in his personal life and outlook for the future, do not expect a Mould concert to be quiet. While there are likely to be acoustic touches, expect to experience music fast and loud when Mould takes the stage at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall.


Bob Mould performs at 8 p.m., Sept. 17 at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. Fourth St., with opening act Cymbals Eat Guitars. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling 414-286-3663 or visiting pabsttheater.org.

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Campaign to preserve Kurt Cobain home in Aberdeen

A Portland woman has started an online campaign to save the childhood home of Kurt Cobain in Aberdeen, Wash., as a museum to the Nirvana grunge rock icon.

KXRO reports Jaime Dunkle hopes to raise $700,000 through gofundme.com. She says the house will not be fixed or updated but will remain as it is because “it’s real.”

Cobain’s mother put the bungalow on the market last September for $500,000. It was last assessed at less than $67,000.

The house is a short walk from a riverfront park dedicated to Cobain’s memory, and the family said it would welcome a partnership to make the home into a museum.

Butch Vig goes alt-country in new band

Wisconsin native Butch Vig has high-profile production credits, including Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Sonic Youth’s “Dirty,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish,” Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” and Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown.” As a musician, Vig played in the 1980s Madison band Fire Town and then gained visibility as a member of Garbage, featuring Shirley Manson on lead vocals.

Famous for hit singles such as “Stupid Girl,” “Queer,” Only Happy When It Rains,” “Push It” and “Special,” Garbage returned in 2012 after a seven-year hiatus with the “Not Your Kind of People” disc. Vig also reunited with Fire Town bandmate Phil Davis, along with Pete Anderson and Frank Anderson, to form the alt-country band The Emperors of Wyoming. That band’s eponymous debut owes more to Fire Town than Garbage.

I spoke recently with Butch Vig about the new band.

Gregg Shapiro: Emperors of Wyoming reunites you and former Fire Town bandmate Phil Davis. Was that inevitable or unexpected?

Butch Vig: A bit of both really. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and Phil has continued writing songs. But we live in different cities, so it was damn near impossible to actually record songs together until the technology made it possible to collaborate from our home studios via the Internet. Once we started file-sharing song ideas, the process happened quite easily.

Fire Town emerged from a 1980s Wisconsin music scene that also featured the BoDeans and Violent Femmes. Do you think that Wisconsin musicians got a fair shake at that time?

The music biz doesn’t really give fair shakes to anyone – either you’ve got songs that find an audience or not. Both the Femmes and BoDeans had a lot of success, maybe not Adele “21” success, but they’ve had long careers.

I notice that West Allis and Highway 43 get shout-outs in “Cornfield Palace.”

Well, almost all of the songs have references to Wisconsin. Avalanche Girl is a true story about a whirlwind road trip I took with a 21-year-old femme fatale when I was a naive 16-year-old. Phil sings about the Kickapoo River and “shooting Stite,” which was cheap malt liquor we used to guzzle.

If Emperors of Wyoming were invited to play Country Thunder in Twin Lakes in July 2013, would you go?

We have yet to play a live gig, but it’s something we’re talking about. It’s been tough because we all have full-time jobs and families.

Is Emperors’ target audience more Country Thunder or insurgent country or a combination of both?

I’m not sure where EOW fits in. I think of us as alt-country, whatever that means. “Avalanche Girl” is starting to get airplay on a variety of radio stations, not just country.

You’ve had involvement in a variety of musical styles. Which genre reflects your personal music taste?

My mother was a music teacher. I was exposed to all styles of music growing up: Top 40, Frank Sinatra, rock ‘n’ roll, country music, classical, musicals, jazz, polka music, etc. I would say the new wave/punk explosion in 1979 was a big moment for me.

One of Garbage’s biggest hits was the song “Queer.” Although not specifically a gay song, it was embraced by the LGBT community. Do you have a gay following?

Garbage had a very diverse fan base: all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. Shirley has always talked about feeling like an outsider, and I think a lot of our hardcore fans can relate to her lyrics.