Steve Wilson. On music.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires - There is a Bomb in Gilead (Alive Records)

Lee Bains III is the prodigal son, raised on the Good Book Jesus, corrupted by punk-rock and working out his own adult reconciliations between the two. It’s the blessing and curse of being Southern. From Jerry Lee Lewis to Tyler Keith (Preacher’s Kids), and all the way back to Robert Johnson, artists, black and white alike, have been torn between Saturday night and Sunday morning; ever since moonshine and lusty women first presented a challenge to the Christian life. Crap - that was probably in the fifth Century; in southern … France, or somewhere.  Hell, I’d have to get out my History books. Like I say, it’s nothing’ new. Bains and his Alabama boys, the Glory Fires, aren’t reinventing the wheel, just grinding the sucker. And it yields a great ride.

Even if there’s nothing new under the sun, each generation and every new artist has the opportunity to put its and his or her own spin on the eternal conflicts. On There is a Bomb in Gilead, the Glory Fires debut, Bains brings the sensibilities of a literary education to his talks with Jesus and his hallelujahs to Joey Ramone. I don’t say this just because he makes literary references, like the one to Walker Percy (“go ahead take my Walker Percy, go ahead and take the t-shirt by brother got when he saw the Ramones”), but because his melancholy and moral musings are offspring of Faulkner and O’Connor’s world. “Everything You Took,” the ditty with the Percy/Ramones lyric, establishes the artist’s lifestyle essentials: rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts and books. And essential they may as well be since he’s losing his gal. He’s clearly hanging on to a thread, clinging to “every little hope that you give me.” But the lady sounds to me like she’s moved on.

The singer’s wrestling with virtue resounds in “Ain’t No Stranger,” rhyming contrition and perdition, by God – and reminding the almighty that he may be prodigal, but he’ s “no stranger.” Bains and lead guitarist Matt Wurtele slash through the Willie Mitchell groove with guitars that are more Keith Richards and Ron Asheton than anything Memphis or Muscle Shoals. “Centreville” sustains the rocking pace. It’s Skynyrd after the Pistols (and Some Girls), Bains spitting out lyrics about guys who are “over educated and under-employed.” Perfect, it captures the new Birmingham, or hell – Boston, as the United States becomes the new Spain. Imagine Tony Joe White amped up and all pissed off. That’s what Bains sounds like on “Centreville.”

Monday, May 28, 2012

Corporate FM: A Film by Kevin McKinney and Jill McKeever

The depth of my experience with and feeling for popular music, especially rock ‘n’ roll, combined with reasonable skills as a writer, gives me a modest confidence when I share my opinions about music with you. I have been a life-long fan of cinema, but the range and intensity of my experiences film just aren't that remarkable. I by no means consider myself a film critic. I'm just a reasonably bright guy who likes movies.What follows makes no attempt to be a film review. It is an endorsement.

Sunday afternoon I saw Kevin McKinney and Jill McKeever's  documentary Corporate FM. In the interest of full disclosure, I play a small part in the film; I am among those interviewed. Working with Kevin and Jill I had a fairly strong sense of both their talents and objectives. And I felt confident that this film would be worth seeing. More than worth seeing, Corporate FM makes an entertaining and important statement.

Corporate FM concerns the corporate takeover of the people’s airwaves as expedited by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, legislation that allowed corporations to own several stations in a given market - market hegemony that had previously been forbidden by the law. The film succinctly chronicles the legislative folly that cleared the way for this assault on communities and free speech.

As someone who in some ways had tuned out commercial radio even before Clear Channel and their ilk turned it into pablum, I wasn’t certain how the filmmaker's eulogy for the likes of KLZR in Lawrence, Kansas would play. After all, there are plenty of us who found college, community and public radio superior, and perhaps sufficient to our radio needs. But Corporate FM  illuminates the ways which commercial FM’s demise effects us all, even if you're the kind of underground sort who thinks that the ascendance of bands like R.E.M., U2, Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins, impossible without commercial rock stations, was inconsequential culturally.  

What McKinney and McKeever do so well is place the devouring of FM radio by corporate interests in the larger context of a political economy gone mad. Corporate media giants like Cumulus, and the aforementioned Clear Channel, have replaced local voices, often from varying political perspectives, with national, consistently conservative, voices. The result is the advent of a corporate Pravda or Izvestia of the airwaves. As a kid who grew up with something called the Fairness Doctrine (, this is remarkable indeed. Seventy percent or more of all opinion reflected on commercial radio in 2012 is not only conservative, but radically so. And it goes unchallenged in the closed circle of corporate FM.

Of course, in the process of eliminating local and dissenting voices and creating ever-narrower music playlists, Clear Channel and Cumulus eliminated thousands of radio jobs, replacing local disc jockeys, program and music directors, reporters and other station personnel. The impact on local businesses has been profound as well, as the majority lack the financial resources and access to marketing dollars that corporate advertisers take for granted.

As McKinney puts it, they eschewed Michael Moore’s ambush journalish, exemplified by Moore’s chasing down GM’s ‘Roger’ in Roger and Me or Charlton Heston for Bowling in Columbine, in favor of letting the film function as blatantly partisan, a polemic told as both love story and lament through the eyes of those closest to it, many of whom may not have thought in particularly political terms prior to the experience, but who bear witness now. These are folks whose politics may not have been particularly anti-corporate, but they've been radicalized by brutal experience.

In summary, far beyond what the disappearance of a radio station may mean to a local music scene or the career development of individual artists, this is a story about what corporate behemoths, whose profitability is based on the anti-social imperatives of capital equity firms, can do to communities. And ultimately about putting corporate ‘freedom’ in front of the people’s.

I feared that the film's emphasis on regional events, especially the sad saga of Lawrence's KLZR, might provide too narrow, too provincial a focus. That fear was unfounded. The locals who testify state their cases effectively, and the universal resonance of this regional history is clear. In other words, they tell a bigger story and do it more persuasively than I anticipated.

My testimony doesn’t do justice to the film, frankly. What I would like for you take away from my remarks is simple, however. “Corporate FM” is a story worth absorbing. It's already been recognized locally, having won the award  for Best Heartland Documentary Feature from the AMC Theatres Kansas City FilmFest 2012. Like a great local band it deserves a wider audience.

You should see it if given the opportunity. 

If you have a few bucks chip in to their Kickstarter fund: (

I’ll be back to music soon. Look for a piece on Lee Bains III and the Glory Fire’s album There is a Bomb in Gilead in the next day or two.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum Records)

The drone and rush of Spacemen 3 was dark, dirty fun. Like the Jesus and Mary Chain they brought a dash of demi-monde cool to the synth-pop Eighties. When they broke up, guitarist Jason Pierce initiated a new project called Spiritualized, a band who didn’t reject Spacemen’s ethos, but certainly gave it grander dimensions. 

Pierce has woven strands of Velvet Underground ‘rush and on my run’ thrust, lysergic propulsion (think 13th Floor Elevators, and yes, even Pink Floyd), the epic pop pretensions of Phil Spector, and American gospel sounds throughout Spiritualized’s twenty-year history. The band’s apotheosis, Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space, a classic statement of Pierce’s vision was released in 1997. Subsequent releases have to varying degrees retreated from or refined that classic. Good records, all of them in my estimation, but nothing stunning 

After 2008’s Songs in A and E, Pierce revisited Ladies and Gentleman, mounting extravagant live productions of the album. Immersed in his own classic and moved by audience response, Pierce determined that any new release from Spiritualized had to meet that standard. With Sweet Heart Sweet Light his mission is accomplished. It embraces Ladies and Gentlemen, but deepens and matures its sensibility. 

Where some of the band’s recordings hid behind a patina of noise and attitude, Sweet Heart is transparently detailed, achieving a clarity of pop production that would flatter halcyon period Beach Boys or the Beatles circa Magical Mystery Tour

With Pierce undergoing chemotherapy as treatment for liver disease, most of the basic tracks for Sweet Heart were cut in his home studio with a core quartet of Pierce, guitarist/bassist Tony Foster, keyboardist Tom Edwards, and drummer Kevin Bales. Pierce then convened sessions in Iceland (for orchestration) and Los Angeles (backing vocals).