Love For The Band Whose Debut Was One That “No One With Ears Would Give A Second Listen”

October 8, 2011

It was some time in early autumn of 1990 when I read that assessment of Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut in a copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide.

I tucked the book back onto the shelf and, as I left the bookstore, reached up and felt the sides of my head.

I had ears – I needed somewhere to put my ear buds – and, in my backpack, I had cassettes that contained all three albums by the trio of Los Angelenos.

I’d missed Concrete Blonde’s Trouser Press-disapproved debut from three years earlier and the 1989 follow-up, Free, had also gone unnoticed by me.

(though I had seen – and taken note of – the video for God Is A Bullet a few times on MTV’s 120 Minutes)

I finally became hip to the apparently unhip band with Bloodletting and that discovery was also made watching 120 Minutes late one Sunday night with the video for Joey.

Joey, a plea to an alcoholic, became an unexpected hit single – reaching the Top Twenty on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 in the US – and Bloodletting, a spectral brew of gothic-tinged, punk-influenced alternative rock, was a fixture in my Walkman throughout the autumn and winter.

The two earlier albums were soon added (and enjoyed) though neither Concrete Blonde or Free got listened to as much as Bloodletting.

(few albums were listened to as much that winter as Bloodletting)

I remained a devotee of Concrete Blonde up through 1993’s Mexican Moon, on which there was a windswept, Southwestern vibe, and was bummed out when the band split shortly thereafter.

(though I did have the good fortune to see them live)

Pretty & Twisted, which saw Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano join with ex-Wall Of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland, offered an enjoyable fix with their lone self-titled album.

And then, unexpectedly, Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey united with Los Angeles-based Chicano punk band Los Illegals for 1997’s Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals before vanishing again.

Napolitano and Mankey have reunited a few times since, but I haven’t heard much aside from Group Therapy a decade ago and that album didn’t really pull me in.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s with the music of Concrete Blonde.

There are still stretches of a few days, every so often, during which I will dial up some of the one hundred and fifty-some Concrete Blonde tracks on the iPod.

And Trouser Press be damned, I can’t help but think that Concrete Blonde was one of the more underappreciated alternative rock acts of their time and much of their music still sounds pretty cool two decades on.

Here are a pair of songs each from a quartet of Concrete Blonde albums…

Concrete Blonde – Joey
Concrete Blonde – Tomorrow, Wendy
from Bloodletting (1990)

The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles often provided a backdrop as well as the film noirish characters to populate Concrete Blonde’s songs as in Joey, their best-known song which addressed addiction. The mid-tempo track was highlighted by Napolitano’s raw vocals and Mankey’s serpentine guitar.

On Bloodletting, the band conjured an atmospheric vibe that was almost dreamy and no song was more haunting than Tomorrow, Wendy, a song about a woman dying of AIDS and written by another ex-Wall Of Voodoo member, Andy Prieboy.

Concrete Blonde – Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man
Concrete Blonde – Les Cœurs Jumeaux
from Walking In London (1992)

Following up their greatest success, Concrete Blonde returned with the eerie Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man, a song driven by Mankey’s twangy guitar as Napolitano recounts a tale of spectral seduction that, apparently, was based on an experience she’d had at The Driskill Hotel in Austin.

Les Cœurs Jumeaux is a bit of a departure for the band, a lush, romantic ballad partially sung in French that conjures up the feel of a walk along the Seine on a moonlit night.

Concrete Blonde – Mexican Moon
Concrete Blonde – Heal It Up
from Mexican Moon (1993)

As much as the urban vibe of Los Angeles provided inspiration for the music of Concrete Blonde, the band also incorporated elements of Hispanic music and culture – subjects of particular interest to Napolitano – into the mix. Rarely did this fusion prove more effective than on the shimmering, evocative title track to their 1993 album.

Heal It Up strips things down to a straight-ahead, snarling rock song delivered with some ferocious vocals from Napolitano.

Concrete Blonde – Everybody Knows
Concrete Blonde – 100 Games Of Solitaire
from Still In Hollywood (1994)

Concrete Blonde performed a lot of cover songs during their career, mining the work of acts including Cheap Trick, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, and Bob Dylan, putting their distinctive twist on the material.

Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows found the band in fine form as the trio turned the song into a brooding rumination on the darker aspects of human nature.

A previously unissued B-side, 100 Games Of Solitaire is an ode to wanderlust where “any place with a bar and a bathtub’s all right.” Twangy and grungy, you almost feel the need to shake the dust off your boots by the song’s end.


Blinding Myself With Science*

October 5, 2011

There was a period several years ago when my friend Donzo and I declared our dream of being scientists, vowing to create a ham ray gun which would turn any targeted object into ham.

(maybe I declared it and she humored me)

Surprisingly, I haven’t become a scientist and the ham ray gun never got beyond the conceptual stage (which is good as the military applications of this device are too frightening to imagine).

Donzo and her now-husband did send me a lab coat and a canned ham for my birthday one year.

It’s not like I’ve ever been especially interested in science. Sure, if there’s fire, shiny objects, or extraterrestrials involved…

But I am reminded as I watch an episode of Futurama that Prof. Farnsworth was undoubtedly my favorite character. I find his absent-minded enthusiasm/cynicism infectious and downright delightful.

And Prof. Farnsworth could certainly be a descendant of Doc Brown from the Back To The Future flicks. There are far lesser dreams than to aspire to the heights of either of these great men.

As a child, it was impossible not to be impressed by the nimble mind of The Professor on Gilligan’s Island.

(later, of course, the focus shifted to Mary Ann)

But that’s not the point. Merely typing the names of this trio of visionaries inspires me. No, there is no obvious, apparent reason or need to invent a ham ray gun, but that’s not the point either.

It’s science! And sometimes you simply need to invent because you can (like clonin’ dinosaurs and makin’ Jell-O).

Here are four slightly scientific songs…

Thomas Dolby – I Love You Goodbye
from Astronauts And Heretics (1992)

You expected She Blinded Me With Science, yes? Well, there’s more to Dolby than that one song and I Love You Goodbye is one of my favorite songs of his. It’ll likely surprise you if all you know is the former song.

However, even if the song doesn’t suit this post thematically, Dolby has always struck me as scientist-like. Also, his doppelganger, Food Network personality Alton Brown injects his take on cooking with plenty of science.

Kate Bush – Experiment IV
from The Whole Story (1986)

Like a lot of folks, I discovered Kate Bush in 1985 with her lone American hit, Running Up That Hill, but it was her compilation The Whole Story that was my first purchase a year later. Experiment IV was the obligatory unreleased/new track and it’s quite scientific.

Johnette Napolitano – The Scientist
from Scarred (2007)

If you asked me to list my favorite female rock vocalists of the past twenty-five years, there’d certainly be a place for ex-Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano. I have a feeling that even I would be surprised at how high I’d have her.

As for The Scientist, it’s a perfect showcase for that voice. Coldplay’s original version made me shrug with indifference, but Johnette’s take on the song is impossible to ignore.

Dot Allison – We’re Only Science
from We Are Science (2002)

Dot Allison first appeared on my radar with her band One Dove in the ’90s. The group only released one, under appreciated album before Allison embarked on a solo career toward the decade’s end.

I interviewed Dot following the release of her second album, We Are Science. Had the idea of the ham ray gun existed at the time, perhaps I would have asked for her thoughts.

That aside, she was a sweetheart and the only downside was that the combination of her Scottish accent and the fact that she spoke in hushed tones made transcribing the tape slightly maddening.