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Gear Review: Big Sound, Little Muff; Or, this Pi’s for You!

Big Q I can’t answer: “The EHX Big Muff Pi is conspicuous for its very ubiquity. But does it really deserve its exclusive status as the “fuzz of all fuzzes”?’

Few if any axe-grinders have taken to the concert stage without the giant silver wedge of an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi at their feet at one time or another. My first was an army-green Sovtek that I picked up at the local music store/pawnshop I frequented in my teens. I remember being fascinated by the Cyrillic lettering on the pedal’s wooden box, both amazed and confused that this piece of Soviet engineering had found its way to me, in Morristown, Tennessee. I knew nothing of the Big Muff’s long history, or that Sovtek was really just Electro-Harmonix (builder of my first stomp box: a red and black “Small Stone” phase shifter) in exile. That big green wedge was gateway to a whole new universe of tones — and volume — and it was a mainstay at my feet for the better part of twenty-five years. When I sold ‘Big Green’ in order to finance some new gear I coveted, I almost immediately regretted it; despite there being countless new,  Judge-Me-By-My-Size-Do-Youdifferent, and even ‘fuzzier’ options available, I missed the tried-and-true sound of my BMP. After a flirtation with going fuzz-less, I was soon pulled back toward the furry side with the EHX’s Big Muff Pi w/ Tone Wicker, which found a home on my board until, lo and behold, I happened upon the Nano Big Muff Pi — the most unintentionally oxymoronic pedal of all time. How can it be ‘nano’ and ‘big’ at the same time?

Not being a wizard myself, I can’t tell you what kind of spell Mike Matthews and his Brooklyn-based coven slapped on this Lego-brick of a stomp box. What I can tell you is that they somehow shrunk all the best parts of the Big Muff Pi into a teeny enclosure that somehow generates its own unique brand of fairy dust. I have both a newish, big-ass-silver-box “NYC” BMP and a newish Nano BMP, and the Nano stands shoulder to shoulder in terms of in-your-face hairiness, and outshines the full-size BMP in clarity. Maybe my ears are biased, but the Nano actually sounds better to me: just a little bit sharper, letting just a wee bit more of my pick attack come through.

Now, if EHX could just get with the program and start using center-negative 9V inputs like everyone else does, we could really get down to business!




Day 23 – A song that you want to play at your wedding: "Such Great Heights"

“Such Great Heights” – The Postal Service

So, this gives me a chance to gush a bit about how much I love my missus.  I’m not much for big events (I hate most ‘milestone’ events — for myself or others — finding them at best a big let-down or, at worst, a reminder of the impermanence of any given moment of happiness … sorry to be Captain Bringdown), but our wedding is, in my memory, one of those times that really was better than I’d ever dreamed it could be, and it’s all because of who I’d shared it with! Friends and family of ours from all over the country — heck, some from other parts of the world, came together and had a great party. It was a huge conflagration of folks and, I would like to think, an unpretentious and fun experience for all. But, most importantly, it was the wedding that we wanted it to be, and music was very central to it.

Thems some fancy outfits

The Hussy and I actually played “Such Great Heights” together at our wedding — that is, we performed it. As music-nerds, we wanted to not only have a cool playlist for our ceremony — which we did — and great singers for the songs — which we most definitely did, we wanted to play a couple of songs together. The tunes we chose for pre-ceremony were:

Don Eanes (on keys), David Hart (vocals), and Chad Light (guitar)

“Maybe I’m Amazed” – Wings (sung by Don Eanes)

“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” – Death Cab for Cutie (sung by David Hart)

Wedding March: “The Final Countdown” – Europe

Vanessa Bentley

“To Make You Feel My Love” – Bob Dylan (sung by Vanessa Bentley)

We had a great bluegrass band for our reception, Meridian, and they played “Tennessee Waltz” when we came into the barn (yes, our reception was in a barn). After eating and dancing some, we took the stage along with many of our rock and roll compatriots, commenced to rocking. My now-wife and I played “Such Great Heights” and Teddy Thompson’s “Altered State”; the combined forces of many of my bands, past and present, kept it rocking on into the night. The wonderful night.

Day 22 – A song you listen to when you're sad – "End of the Rainbow"

“End of the Rainbow” – Richard & Linda Thompson

The Whole Records is ALmost tHis hapPy

This is a harsh song. Brutal even: “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow / there’s nothing to grow up for anymore.” Whenever I’m sad, very sad, this is the soundtrack playing in my head. Tough stuff. But there’s something about the absolute rawness of the lyric, the clarity —  “I feel for you, you little horror” — that’s somehow cleansing. When you see the world that bleakly, and you’re feeling bleak, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Right?

Day 18 – A song that you wish you heard on the radio – "The Knife Feels Like Justice"

“The Knife Feels Like Justice”  – Brian Setzer

In my opinion this song had it all: a great, Byrdsy riff (it is, quite literally, the reason I own a 12-string guitar);  a strong melodic hook; and a killer lead vocal from Mr. Setzer. However, nobody was ready for Brian Setzer as a cow-punk rock star in late 80’s. The Stray Cats were still fresh on everyone’s mind, Dwight Yoakam wasn’t cool yet, and alt-county was still a half-decade away. So this excellent song, and the kick-a$$ album it came from – which I still own, thank you very much – quickly hit the bargain bins. Still, I dream of the day when I hear this tune bursting out of the radio speakers, where it really belonged … and still belongs.

Day 15 – A Song that Describes You: "Vincent O'Brien"

M. Ward – “Vincent O’Brien”

“He only sings when he’s sad / But he’s sad all the time, so he sings / the whole night through / Yeah, he sings in the day-time, too.”

My wife picked this one, but only, she says, on the basis that I  used to put it on all the mix CDs I made. I guess that’s code for “this song describes me”? Probably.

Like Luli once described herself, this song is “sad, and angry, and sad” in equal amounts. Like me. But it’s also quite nice and easy to get along with in places, and I’m also that. Anyway, I think you’ll like it, or I wouldn’t have put it on that mix CD I gave you …

The lyrics:

He only sings when he’s sad

But he’s sad all the time, so he sings the whole night through

Yeah, he sings in the day-time, too

He only dreams when he’s sad

And he’s sad all the time, so he dreams the whole night through

Yeah, he dreams in the day-time, too

There may be  mermaids under the water

There may even be a man in the moon

But Vincent, time is running out

You better get yourself together soon

Out of Buffalo, the man

Below the belt, he swung, and then after the bell has rung

Another cheap shot, here it comes

Another cheap shot, here it comes

He only laughs when he’s sad

And he’s sad all the time, so he laughs the whole night through

Yeah, he laughs in the daytime, too

There may be  mermaids under the water

There may even be a man in the moon

But Vincent, time is running out

I hope you get yourself together soon

I hope you get yourself together soon

Brian & the Nightmares … the beat goes on

Some of you may have read the remembrance of Brian and the Nightmares I wrote for their reunion get-together (originally in the local entertainment paper and more recently posted to this blog) in 2002. Very recently, another Nightmares fan posted video –originally shot for a local cable show — of that gig to YouTube. As a public service, I’ve assemble it below.

If you remember the Nightmares, this is a great reminder of their unique energy and musicianship. If you weren’t around or didn’t get the chance to see them during their late 80’s heyday, do yourself a favor and catch a sampling below.

I can honestly say that I’ve never been in a band, post-1988, that I didn’t in some way compare, unfavorably, to the focus and energy of the ‘Mares: it’s a goal that I’ve always shot for, and whenever someone has said to me, “man, your band is tight,” I’ve always wanted to say, “then you never saw Brian & the Nightmares!”

“Bored Games”

“Easy Way Out”

“Desperate Highway”

“Lizard Song”

“Primitive Rose”

“Keep on Walkin'”

“She’s So Tall”

“Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” (Standells cover)

“I Am A Rock” (Simon & Garfunkel cover)

“Can’t Touch an Angel”

“Little Bit of You”

“Route 66”

“All You Want to Do Is Sin”

And from way back in 1989 … Brian, Kurt, John and Mark doing “Warm California Sun” (Rivieras/Ramones/Dictators) and “New Kind of Kick” (The Cramps)

Our Band Could Be Your Life

Finished reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life today while taking care of Luli, our two year-old, who was illin’ with a stomach virus; lawyer-mom had to lawyer, and things at work have reached a state of chaotic equilibrium, so I took a sick day for the team. Since vomiting and diarrhea are conditions discussed in Azerrad’s book, I considered this an opportunity to get back to some aspects of the gritty life of a traveling semi-professional musician. However, Lu didn’t appreciate my spontaneous homage to Mudhoney when I let rip with a “touch me, I’m sick” after she puked on the porch. That kid has no sense of humor.

The book is definitely worth reading. The chapters on the Minutemen and Fugazi are the most inspirational; the ones on Beat Happening and Sonic Youth the least; the ones on the ‘Mats and Husker Du are just plain sad. The Mudhoney chapter is more about Sub Pop than it is about MH, but that actually works — indie labels (other than Ian Mackaye’s Dischord) take such a verbal beating that having  a chapter that actually gives a little perspective as to why indie label owners are a$$holes/crooks at least somewhat levels the field. It’s a tough and mostly thankless job.

Thought I’d post some vids here of songs/bands that the book made me revisit. Enjoy!

Fugazi – “The Waiting Room”

The Minutemen – Trailer for “We Jam Econo” (documentary about the MM); film is definitely worth seeing, but read the Azerrad book before you see it … really fills in the gaps, especially regarding their political beliefs/stances.

Black Flag – “Six Pack”

The Butthole Surfers – “Who Was in My Room Last Night”

The Replacements – “Bastards of Young” (the legendary first ‘mats video)

Big Black – “Bad Penny”

Husker Du – “She’s a Woman and Now He is a Man”

Husker Du – “Makes No Sense at All”

Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick”

Sonic Youth – “Expressway to Yr Skull”

Dinosaur Jr – “Forget the Swan”

Minor Threat – “In My Eyes”

Mission of Burma – “Academy Fight Song”

The 120 Minutes Archive

The 120 Minutes Archive – Playlists & Videos – A collection of episodes from MTV’s alternative music series.

I could waste (er, spend?) a considerable amount of time on this site. 120 Minutes  introduced this small-town southern boy to a lot of great music. Definitely worth diving into!

via The 120 Minutes Archive – Playlists & Videos – A collection of episodes from MTV’s alternative music series.

Brian and the Nightmares Remembered

It’s 10 o’clock on a chilly, November night. You cross the street to the tiny barbeque joint and from the curb you can already feel the energy inside. You’re excited, but you approach the doorman with reticence – you’ve been told that your name is “on the list,” but if it’s not you’re out of luck, because you aren’t legal, you’re only 18.

At last, you squeeze through the door. Bodies are already packed to the point of having to breathe and move as one. You somehow make your way into the middle of the crowd, wedged between a couple of girls with long, dyed black hair and a red-faced guy wearing a dirty John Deere cap. On stage are the musicians – they have to be onstage, because there is literally nowhere else for them to be. Even on that small stage, bathed in the meager glow of a few track lights pointed in their direction, they look larger than life.

Before you have the chance to really register what’s going on, the drummer, whose long, lank hair reinforces his resemblance to an un-permed Tommy Lee, strikes the count on his hi-hats – “one, two, three …!” You feel, more than hear, the music as it rolls through the room. You’d dance, if there was any room to do so; instead, you move with the crowd as it responds to the bass and drums, locked together in a ferocious 4/4 assault. The singer, miraculously, cuts through the wall of sound with a baritone that is both Hank Williams-thin and Springsteen-powerful. With his black hair, hat, coat, boots, and faded black pants, he looks like some sort of nineteenth-century “medicine show” barker. He stands at the microphone, his big, hollow-bodied Rickenbaker guitar in hand, singing and blowing harmonica like a preacher delivering a hellfire and damnation sermon while cursed with the knowledge that he has some serious sins of his own to pay for.

To his left is his foil, his black, shaggy hair bouncing, by turns smiling and frowning, playing his worn Telecaster with a speed, fervor and accuracy that betrays many nights holed-up alone in his bedroom with a guitar, surrounded by records. He seems to be in a world of his own, and when he comes forward to take the microphone, he sings with a sincerity and emotion that makes even his most humorous lyrics seem heartfelt. On the opposite side of the stage the bassist stands stock-still, impervious to the chaos going on around him. All that seems to move are his hands and fingers; his only flourish is his right wrist snapping to emphasize a chord change or to follow the song’s dynamics. In contrast, the drummer is all movement, playing hard and fast, digging into the beat, staying inside the music while keeping it right on the precarious edge between order and confusion.

You are watching Brian and The Nightmares, circa 1988: Brian Relleva, Kurt Hagardorn, John Smith, and Mark Ryalls. You are where I stood on that chilly November night at Quarterback’s Barbeque, the night that changed my life, the night I was saved by rock and roll.

Paul Westerberg (Great Rockers You Should Know, #3)

Paul Westerberg is probably best known by fans of 80’s alt-rock as leader of The Replacements, the Minneapolis band who evolved from crude, shambolic, punk (Sorry, Ma …) to crude, shambolic folk-rock (All Shook Down) over the the course of their decade-long career. Along the way he wrote era-defining tunes (“Bastards of Young” ), beautiful pop songs (“Skyway)” and hilarious sing-alongs (“Waitress in the Sky“).

Well known for their inability to finish (or even start) a show sober, the ‘mats burned a lot of bridges (e.g. a high-profile opening slot on a US Tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that went off the rails quickly), and eventually dissolved during the recording of All Shook Down (1990) which was basically a Westerberg solo album. [I was lucky enough to see a show on this tour, at the Bijou in Knoxville, TN; Westerberg (jokingly?) fired the whole band three or four times during the show, but they ended good-naturedly enough, encoring by switching instruments and playing a ramshackle version of one of their early tunes, “Hootenanny.”]

While the ‘mats recording career was fairly brief, and their record sales low, their influence was long-lasting: extremely successful 90’s and 00’s bands like the Goo Goo Dolls (who opened for the ‘mats on their last tour, and whose first radio hit, “Name,” is Westerberg-ish in the extreme) and Green Day freely and happily admit their debts to the band, just as Westerberg often did (even penning the tune “Alex Chilton” en homage to the Big Star front man, a huge influence on the ‘mats).

Westerberg’s twenty year-long solo career has had its ups and downs, but the past decade has seen him growing in both productivity and consistency. I got to see him back in 2006 at the Orange Peel in Asheville, NC, and it was an incredible (and seemingly sober) show; he played “the hits” from his ‘mats days, but also put his best solo material front and center. The solo stuff not only holds up, but surpasses, in my opinion, his earlier work. Westerberg’s gift for combining beauty and melancholy are in full display in the two songs below: enjoy!

“It’s a Wonderful Lie” (1999)

“Let the Bad Times Roll” (2002)

If you enjoy them, you can check out more at Paul’s Official Site.