Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Unforgettable Debut – Ledbetter Heights

Like many music fans, I first heard Kenny Wayne Shepherd when “Blue on Black” took over the airwaves in 1997. I was instantly hooked despite being into a lot of alternative music. I assumed Trouble Is . . . was his first album because he seemed to come out of nowhere. I also thought he was the lead singer in the band. Boy, I had a lot to learn.

On September 19, 1995, Shepherd (who was only 18) released Ledbetter Heights, his scorching debut thatintroduced a new generation to the power of the blues. Shepherd, a self-taught guitar player, started playing at the age of seven, after attending a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert. Thanks to his dad, who was working promotion for the show, Kenny was able to meet his idol. The impact SRV’s playing had on his impressionable young mind (and fingers) is undeniable.

The album wastes no time getting down to business with the heavy, in-your-face rocker, “Born With a Broken Heart.” This track is best described by its second line, delivered soulfully by Corey Sterling: “Keeps getting’ stronger, like a slow rollin’ train.” At the end of the ride, this train is nearly off its tracks, and the listener is treated to a thunderous jam session crackling with electrifying leads. Kenny and his band drive down a similar road with “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime),” a hard-edged blues assault originally written by James “St. Louis Jimmy” Oden and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf for his 1971 album The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.

In addition to a clever name, “Deja Voodoo” wields a groove that grabs you and doesn’t release its grip for six minutes. It’s near impossible to stop your head from bobbing back and forth with pure gratification. The first time I heard it, I was confident it would remain a moody, slow-burner until a minute and a half in when the band unexpectedly kicked things up a notch. This rock n’ roll sneak attack occurs again in “Aberdeen,” a tune originally done by blues legend Bukka White. The track is rich with slide guitar and a knee-slapping acoustic rhythm until the bass and drums furiously explode onto the scene. A simple song, enjoyable enough to relax with on the porch while sipping a cold one, magically turns into a hellacious barnyard burner.

If you’re feeling down, that “bluesy” mood is no match for Ledbetter Heights. The album succeeds remarkably in lifting spirits, thanks to upbeat romps such as “What’s Goin’ Down” and “Everybody Gets the Blues.” The latter focuses on daily struggles we all go through, but does so in a lighthearted way with inspiring words of wisdom:

“It don’t matter if you’re black
It don’t matter if you’re white
You know you got to get it wrong
 To have a chance to make it right.”

Shepherd also wasn’t afraid to slow things down. “While We Cry,” a live cut, is a calming instrumental that takes inspiration from Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and SRV’s “Lenny.” It also sounds wildly similar to Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter,” the B-side to their 1992 hit “Jeremy.” This has sparked some internet debate over plagiarism, but both parties claim the tunes are original without any arguments. There’s a wonderful hypnotic effect to the song that can ease your worries in an instant. Sharing a comparable power is “Riverside,” a laid-back number that goes well with any campfire gathering.

Overall, the ‘90s were a great time for music with guitars, and this album is no exception. None of the originals or covers feel out of place, and the tracklist flows effortlessly between heavier and lighter moments until climaxing with the fast-paced title track. Thanks to the producer, David Z., everything is excitingly crisp when the volume knob is turned all the way to the right. 25 years later, Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Ledbetter Heights still deserves a spot on your shelf next to all the other great ones.

Alice in Chains: Lifting Faces Since 1990

The second the grimy opening riff from Alice in Chains’ “We Die Young” worms its way through your earholes, it’s impossible not to headbang like it’s 1990 – the year their debut gave rock music a much-appreciated Facelift. Sadly, the song became a painful reality when founding members Mike Starr and Layne Staley lost their drug addiction battles. If only the lyrics, “Take another hit / and bury your brother” weren’t so literal.

Alice in Chains is the one band metalheads agree on. Go ahead and check the comment sections if you don’t believe me. This stems from the fact that they bathed in the musical blood of the godfathers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath. One can’t help but get sucked into the void by “Bleed the Freak,” a deranged jingle that owes its nastiness to the one and only Tony Iommi. The chorus oozes with raw power. Vocalists today who spew indecipherable growls into a soaking wet microphone need to clear the hairballs from their throats and take careful notes. This is how you properly tap a vein with metal.

The uneasy creepiness of “Love Hate Love” harkens back to a timeless piece of doom called “Black Sabbath,” only instead of singing about the great Satan, Layne took a more personal approach. His eerie message to a “little girl” is more maniacal than Ozzy Osbourne’s haunting cries about a “figure in black.” Staley’s sick, malevolent words wouldn’t be out of place in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:

“I want to peel the skin from your face
Before the real you lays to waste.”

These chilling comments are quite fitting, given the album title. Just as Leatherface is inseparable from his saw, Jerry Cantrell shares a similar bond with his axe. Sean Kinney and Starr expertly gave him the space he needed to enhance an already epic composition with one of his most impressive leads.

This sinister, moody albumisn’t just a Sabbath homage. “Put You Down” sears with unbridled energy and a foot-stomping groove that instantly sticks to the brain, begging to be played at every basement bash. The opening notes to the appropriately titled “Sunshine” couldn’t be more different than its demented predecessors. It’s the brightest section of the record, although something ominous slithers its way through the verses. I often wonder what happened to that “dude” after he got touched by the mother. It’s been 30 years. Where did he go? Has anyone heard from said dude? Is anyone else bothered by this? This song is actually about the death of Cantrell’s mother, but I never got that from it. I appreciate its poetic indirectness.

For whatever reason, Jerry decided to get funky as hell on the surprisingly uptempo “I Know Somethin (Bout You).” It’s one of their more jovial, unusual songs, in company with “Swing on This” from Jar of Flies. Where else will you hear the line, “Your gold key don’t fit my crapper”? Not on a Sabbath record, that’s for sure. If you ask me, this is the track they should have inserted the Eddie Murphy inspired “Sexual chocolate, baby!” line into. Tell me you can’t hear it.

“Sea of Sorrow” always had an ‘80s metal feel but with less spandex and more flannel. It’s badass and original enough to avoid ridicule. Honestly, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Mötley Crüe record, and that’s okay. They could have ditched the fade-out, which was (thankfully) fading away around this time. This thumping rocker would have benefited from a hard ending. They should have just slapped the unpolished demo version on the album, with its sexy, turned up piano parts, played brilliantly by the multi-talented Kinney. That guy never gets enough credit. I wonder if the explosive drum-hit after the line “You opened fire!” was a nod to AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).” What am I saying? Of course, it was. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of FIRE!

It’s evident the effect Facelift (and Dirt) had on ‘90s era metal such as Anthrax’s Sound of White Noise and Metallica’s Load. Despite what people think about the latter, there’s a definite grunge influence at play. I find it weird that fans were okay with Alice in Chains switching their style numerous times and not Metallica, but that’s a futile debate for another time. “It Ain’t Like That,” a song foaming at the mouth with diabolical riffs, should make every band shamefully jealous. Though to be fair, it does seem inspired by “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Neither song is worth listening to unless they are cranked to a window shattering volume.

A tune that needs no introduction, “Man in the Box,” is one I need a break from. I blame radio for constantly shoving my nose in its “spit” for 30 years. Great job neutering a song, guys. Even if it hadn’t been played to severe levels of nausea, I wouldn’t listen to it regularly. It’s too basic compared to their exceptionally diverse catalog. I’d sooner turn up the two weaker tracks on the album, “I Can’t Remember” and “Confusion,” which bury other bands’ best work in the dirt. However, it wields a power that other megahits do not. The lyrics are average, but the way Staley releases them from the deepest depths of his diaphragm forces the most casual metal fan to kneel and scream that exhausted cliché from Wayne’s World. Plus, Jerry Cantrell’s mouth works a talkbox better than Peter Frampton, and his solo has no business being that damn good. Show me the way, Jerry.

Like any great rock album, this doesn’t end without dusting the listener’s ears with a little ditty about cocaine. I believe Ozzy wrote a couple of those in his heyday. The shameless honesty that Staley dispenses in “Real Thing” is as brutal as the chest-rattling bass and drums dished out by Starr and Kinney. His unapologetic lyricism set the foundation for more close encounters with illegal substances, such as Dirt’s “Junkhead,” which was even darker and more authentic. Like so many greats before them, the drugs inspired until they damn near destroyed them all.

Make no bones about it, Alice in Chains set the bar higher than an eight ball with Facelift. As far as debuts, or metal albums in general, it’s rarely been matched. Many have tried, often too hard (*cough* Godsmack), and failed miserably. The significant part these musicians played in altering the landscape of metal cannot be overlooked, as well as the overwhelming acceptance by its notoriously unforgiving community. Staley’s influential, godlike vocal abilities can only be compared to his fellow grunge rocker, Chris Cornell. Something was definitely in the Seattle water back then, and we are all lucky to drink from its river.

AC/DC – 40 Years of Back in Black

Rock and Roll Still Ain’t Noise Pollution

I recently told a friend I’d be fine never hearing “You Shook Me All Night Long” again. He whole-heartedly agreed. Yet, here we are 40 years after its release, and millions still drop their knickers for this mega-hit from AC/DC’s Back in Black. Granted, it’s mostly drunk girls who continue to request it during last call at sports bars across America. Obviously, that shouldn’t be the barometer for great music. Neither should the fact that it’s played 24 times a day on every rock station. Still, there’s no denying the impact this album has had on the world since it first shook us on July 25, 1980.

“Hells Bells” remains the most upbeat tribute to a fallen singer ever. Aside from the initial tolling of the bell, it never produces a mournful vibe. I mean, hell, it’s regularly played at football games (which baffles me). I don’t know about you, but the line, “You’re only young but you’re gonna die” wouldn’t motivate me to score touchdowns. Most people don’t realize it’s about the death of their first singer, Bon Scott. In a way, it shows the power of AC/DC to keep plowing forward. Nothing can derail their train, and that message came across loud and proud on Back in Black.

The four lads honored their mate the best way possible: with a big fat wall of sound. Drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams locked down a groove tighter than Bon’s blue jeans. The band also pulled off the most successful replacement in rock history with the high-energy, raspy-voiced Brian Johnson. He delivered a slightly different sound and attitude, but his playfulness and dedication to the spirit of rock n’ roll fit well with AC/DC’s tried and true approach. He only recently stopped singing with them because he was going deaf, and doctors told him to chill, or he’d never hear again. Johnson is a lifer all the way.

Brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young, didn’t exactly pull new tricks out of their hats, but that’s not what they’re about. They stick to their guns, and they do it better than anyone. The back-to-back six-string attack of “What Do You Do for Money Honey” and “Given the Dog a Bone” always knocks me on my ass. They’re the closest to old-school AC/DC. I can picture a shirtless, sweaty Bon belting them out on stage, sandwiched between classics like “Dog Eat Dog” and “Up to My Neck in You.” I get winded just thinking about it. “Shake a Leg” also falls into this category, but the lyrics are cheesier. If I’m told to “shake a leg” one more time, I’m going to grab someone’s fake leg and beat Johnson over the head with it. Thanks for turning my brain into mush with that nasty lead, though, Angus. I hear you.

When I heard “Let Me Put My Love into You” as a wee little guy, I thought Johnson said, “Let me cut your cape with my knife” (instead of “cake”). Therefore, I thought he was talking about comic books. I excitedly asked my old man, “Is this song about superheroes falling in love?” “No, son, it’s about . . . yes. Yes, it is.” he replied. Since then, I’ve always thought AC/DC had superpowers. It explained why Angus Young, even in his 60s, could headbang for two hours straight without breaking his neck. Imagine my elation when “Shoot to Thrill” made its explosive big-screen appearance in Iron Man 2. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me want to shake a leg. Dammit, they did it to me again!

I wonder how many people bought a guitar because of the song “Back in Black.” I wonder how many of those were Gibson SGs with the devil horns. Radio (and film) also bludgeoned me over the head with this track, but I’d be a fool to say it doesn’t still bust my nuts. That opening riff, after Rudd carefully counts in the band, will always hit HARD. When those kids on my lawn say, “It’s a banger,” I’m confident this is what they mean. Angus’ solo slaps like a mother and stands as one of his most memorable.

“Have a Drink on Me” is the reigning titleholder of Greatest Bar Song Ever. However, I’ll never understand the line, “Get stoned!” that’s shouted midway through. That’s not how drinking works, Brian.

“Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is the ultimate song about rock and roll. Yes, they’ve written 20, but this is the best. It’s a giant middle finger to anyone who disagrees. Truthfully, I’ve listened to it 800 times and have no clue what Johnson says at the start of the first verse, and I’m okay not knowing. I’ll just continue to laugh every time because it reminds me of Jim Breuer’s impression of him.

Now that Mr. Johnson has a fancy new hearing aid, it would be bloody gnarly if they tour for this anniversary. It has to be him on vocals. It makes “good, good sense” for Stevie Young to step in for Malcolm (rest his soul). But I’m not okay with Axl Rose performing the album from front to back.

Back in Black has sold over 50 million copies, and it’s not even AC/DC’s best album (that honor goes to Let There Be Rock). Think about how crazy that is. It says a lot about what people gravitate toward, but it also says something about the timelessness of a great hard rock album. As Brian Johnson screamed so eloquently 40 years ago, “It’s never gonna die, never gonna die!”

Pantera – 30 Years of Cowboys From Hell

It’s December 2004. I’m standing in a driveway next to a puddle of my puke. The whiskey isn’t getting along with my stomach. It’s numbing my pain, though, so I pour another blacktooth grin and smile. The cement is littered with broken bottles and shattered souls. I hear my friend shout, “Watch it go!” seconds before a roman candle whizzes past my face, singeing my earlobe. Amidst laughter and explosions, Cowboys From Hell blasts through a cheap boombox. I can barely identify the faces through the smoke, but I know I’ll never forget this night or who I’m with. Instead of mourning, we are celebrating the life of a legend, the only way we know how: with a ridiculous amount of fireworks, booze, and a metal album that changed the genre. We all have different tastes. Pantera is the one thing we agree on. It’s a brotherhood of metal that will never die.

“Psycho Holiday” becomes the theme song for the night. It defines our thoughts and actions shamelessly to the letter. “Done too much alcohol” is the understatement of the century. Six people I never met show up with more beer. They look like low-life thugs, but after five minutes, we bond over our love for groove metal (and cans of Bud). The wife-beater guy is cross-eyed, but his pupils grow wide with elation when I bring up Vinnie Paul’s explosive double-bass drumming on “Heresy.” Once the shirtless-guy with tribal tattoos finishes rolling a blunt, he doesn’t shut up about how underrated Dimebag Darrell’s solos are on “Medicine Man.” I concur 100%, and it’s not the cocktails talking. Part of me wants to argue that “Floods” from The Great Southern Trendkill is better, but it’s not worth it.

The mood slightly shifts when “Cemetery Gates” plays. We knew this was coming. Some weep. Some just shake their heads. There are bro-hugs throughout the room. We all do a shot. Someone declares it the greatest metal ballad ever. An argument is made for Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” The latter receives snickers from the metal elite. I stay out of the debate. I’m drowning in thoughts (and liquor). I suddenly realize I’ve never known who Phil Anselmo is singing about, and I’ve never cared. The song is that good. I’m not big on ballads, but it’s top three for sure. Now, unfortunately, I will think of Dimebag when I hear it. It became his song when that madman took him away from us.

A couple of people in the living room push through the sadness by trying to replicate Anselmo’s outrageous falsetto at the end of “Cemetery Gates.” We all agree it’s the only thing that dates the record, but in a good way. The dogs in the kitchen bark hysterically in disagreement. I can’t wait for someone to attempt “Shattered.” I decide it’s much easier (and more fun) to play air guitar on the coffee table. As I shred my invisible axe inches from the ceiling fan, Dime’s screeching notes cry wildly into the night, and we all let out an audible sigh.

In the moment of silence before “Domination,” a friend’s girlfriend asks, “If the Crüe is so bad, why is their poster on the wall?” We chuckle as he explains to her it’s actually Pantera from their glam metal days when Dimebag went by “Diamond” Darrell. “Wow,” she says. “Thank god they got rid of the spandex.” I receive a round of applause when I swear to the household that Vinnie yells, “Farts stink like a motherf**ker!” in the beginning of “Domination.”

My straight-edge friend sits next to me on the couch and hands me a red Solo cup of water. I’m disappointed it’s not vodka. He explains why “The Art of Shredding” is Pantera’s greatest song because it’s “Punk as f**k” and “You can hear Rex Brown’s bass!” I tell him the bass sounds like robots on motorcycles, and we need to get out of the house before The Terminator finds us. As I start to leave the room, the breakdown in the song stops me. I almost snap my neck headbanging like it’s 1990. The room joins me, and it’s nothing but hair and flannel and wallet-chains whipping around in pure heavy metal fury for the next two minutes.

After Cowboys From Hell ends, I ask if I can put on my VHS bootleg of Pantera opening for Black Sabbath in Philly, back in 1999. Everyone excitedly approves. They opened with “Domination.” I continuously, drunkenly tell everyone how it was a perfect choice because “They completely DOMINATED the arena!” A random girl takes the cold bottle of Jäger from my hand, replaces it with a glass of water, and walks me outside. Apparently, I need some air. I tell her it feels like I was hit with a “Primal Concrete Sledge.” It feels like Phil is living inside my head. She tells me I probably just need “The Sleep.” I tell her she’s pretty, and I ask her if she knows that “Primal” was written in the studio during the end of the Cowboys recording session. Judging by the look on her face, I don’t think she does.

Just as I’m thinking I might have a shot with the girl, the cops show up. Bastards! I guess we were too loud for the neighbors. I run to the stereo to throw on Pantera’s cover of “The Badge,” but one of my new thug friends stops me. Luckily, the police never come inside, even when someone yells, “So they can lick my sack!” from the bathroom window. I’ll always giggle when I think about that moment. To this day, I’ve never heard another line like that in metal, and I doubt I ever will. That’s quite the accomplishment. After being forced to lower the music, the party fizzled out, but our love for Pantera never has.

It’s 2008, and I’m getting Dimebag inked on my leg. My tattoo artist is asking if I’m okay. I’m so hungover I’m falling asleep. Per my request, “Message in Blood” is pumping through the speakers. Other patrons and artists in the shop are pleased. I hear them share their own Pantera stories. As the ink master drills into my skin, he praises Dimebag’s nasty riffing in the song. I nod in agreement as I stare down at the bloody icon on my calf. Four years later, at a metal festival, a very inebriated man sees my tattoo and stops me. He’s teary-eyed and says, “Thank you,” repeatedly. We share a bro-hug and go back to enjoying the metal.

It’s 2020, and a weird mix of sadness and joy comes over me while staring at the cheesy Cowboys From Hell cover. The Abbott brothers on the left are gone forever. In the grand scheme, they were a powerful, short-lived force. They aren’t grinding the axe anymore, but their influence can be heard loud and clear on popular metal bands today, such as Black Breath and Gojira. I listen to Pantera so often that I forget they’re no longer a band, and never can be again. Talk about a “Clash With Reality.”

Thirty years ago, over a flanger-filled guitar loop from hell, Anselmo confidently uttered the words, “We’re taking over this town.” And Pantera did just that. That statement introduced the world to a revolutionary album that is still felt throughout the metal scene today.

AFI – 25 Years of Answer That and Stay Fashionable

What is punk rock? Answer That and Stay Fashionable. AFI’s debut was released on July 4, 1995. It remains an exciting album that you don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy.

The title originates from an episode of The Comic Strip (a British, Spinal Tap-type series) called “Bad News Tour.” The cover was an ode to the Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs. These guys weren’t just four-chord wonders; they were also film nerds.

This wasn’t my introduction to AFI. That honor goes to Black Sails in the Sunset. I owe a debt of gratitude to a punk friend (mohawk and all) who played that album relentlessly at parties. For him to like music, it had to be fast. AFI certainly had the speed, but I was shocked at how strong the lyrics and melodies were. Soon after, I discovered the similar-sounding, The Art of Drowning, and I was hooked. Other friends, who typically preferred alternative rock, also dug those records. Once I started exploring AFI’s punk roots, I was pleasantly surprised. The songs were simpler, but not bad by any stretch.

As much as I love punk rock, it can become repetitive. Many records sound terribly dated. Some of that has to do with cheesy, adolescent lyrics. Davey Havok indeed wrote his share for this album. Though truth be told, these lines from “Cereal Wars” still make me chuckle: “Give me sugar not nuts and twigs! Do I look like a f**kin’ squirrel to you?”

A song like “I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But Mom Won’t Let Me Get One)” means nothing to my old ass now, but I’m sure it does to plenty of kids. Hearing it today makes me yearn for more comfortable times when my biggest problem was not being allowed to stay out late. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the aggressiveness of “Open Your Eyes” still makes me want to thrash around in a pit (my back be damned!), and the anarchy-fueled lyrics of “Half-Empty Bottle” fit well in our current frustrated climate:

“I’ve got the cure when passive protest just won’t do
Just flick my Bic as I hold it to the fuse
Smash it up! Break it down!
Bring it down, down to the ground!
Tear it up! Burn it down!
Burn it down, down to the ground!”

Production can make or break any album. Luckily, this was produced by Tim Armstrong (singer for some band called Rancid). That little group also released a record in 1995 called …And Out Come the Wolves. I’m not saying AFI’s first album is equal to that juggernaut, but it sounds rad when you blast it in your backyard after numerous cans of cheap beer. Or so I’ve heard.

Another Rancid trademark is Matt Freeman’s catchy, skillful basslines. You can hear him loud and clear over two guitarists hammering out crunchy riffs and solos. What’s impressive about AFI’s debut is that Geoff Kresge’s bass parts stand out similarly, alongside Markus Stopholese’s in-your-face axe attack. Kresge plays killer stuff on songs like “Yürf Rendenmein” and “Your Name Here.” Most punk songs make me want to pick up a guitar. These make me want to slap da bass. He’s in sync with the drummer, Adam Carson, every step of the way. Tempo wise, they could give Metallica a run for their money. In fact, I’ve always thought “The Checkered Demon” owed a lot to “Motorbreath” from Kill ‘Em All.

AFI has taken a stab at many styles throughout their 25-year musical journey: punk, hardcore, industrial, emo, horror, goth, etc. Like all great bands, they’ve evolved while staying true to themselves. In the early days, the influence of bands like The Misfits and 7 Seconds was undeniable. Most songs on Answer That and Stay Fashionable are under two minutes long or close to it. They couldn’t replicate it today if they wanted to (and I doubt they do). Their debut will always be an amusing snapshot of a time when punk music could still sound original.

This isn’t Dark Side of the Moon or even London Calling. But it’s fun, urgent, honest music that will lift your spirits and enhance any party (even an adult one) within seconds. As far as loud music with guitars goes, what more could you ask for? Answer that and . . . well, you get it.

Pearl Jam Drops a Gigaton Bomb

Put your seatbelt on and buckle up for the ride. This uplifting album pairs well with wine, moonlight, campfire, fresh air, and distancing.

Pearl Jam checks every box on Gigaton that has made them so great throughout their 30-year career while sounding like a completely new band. Their 11th record has a vibe of its own, which is exciting if you’re a diehard fan or a newcomer. It may be their most spiritual album to date. There are moments when it seems to lack direction, but strangely, that works in its favor. It’s honest and human. It contains more emotion than technique, and in my opinion, that’s when these Seattle rockers succeed the most.

The frantic, hard-edged urgency of “Who Ever Said” kicks off the album brilliantly. Its unpredictability sets the framework for the ambitious twelve-song journey (and longest album to date). This is one you’ll instantly want to sing along to, even if you’re not sure what Eddie Vedder is saying. Mike McCready’s guitar furiously wails all over the song, as it does on the track “Never Destination.” Oddly enough, the one tune McCready wrote (and produced) himself, “Retrograde,” is quite the opposite. With this peaceful number, we are treated to an atmospheric, soulful sound that would be at home on Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack.

At first, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” feels out of place on the record (and within their catalog), but maybe that’s the point. Perhaps out of place is its place, like many of us in the world today. Kudos to them for not being afraid to take a few steps out of their comfort zone. This song also features an interesting round of musical chairs which sees Mike McCready handling percussion duties, Stone Gossard on the bass (its driving force), and Jeff Ament adding a layer of personality with spacey keyboards and laid-back guitar strumming. The leads are still tackled by McCready, and the Jimi Hendrix influence is undeniable. No complaints here.

The sounds and emotions throughout the rest of the inspired collection range from fun and punky, to subdued and reflective. The Matt Cameron penned, “Take the Long Way” is sure to please grunge fans due to its fast-paced Soundgarden vibe. It sounds like an unreleased track from their album, Down on the Upside. “Quick Escape” is a heavier, standout track which features a groovy bassline by Jeff Ament, and more impressive fretwork from McCready, who sounds like he’s channeling the painful cries of Mother Earth.

There’s no lack of quality in the words department either. Lyrics like the following, from “Seven O’ Clock” and “Alright” respectively, are so appropriate considering our current climate, that you’d think Vedder is a time-traveling wizard:

“For this is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance / This f**ked up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck.”

“It’s alright to shut it down / disappear in thin air, it’s your home / it’s alright to be alone.”

Meaningful lyrics will never go out of style. The thoughtful poetry sprinkled throughout Gigaton will require much more attention and interpretation from this rock n’ roll listener. All the great ones do.

Speaking of great ones, “Comes Then Goes” is a lovely acoustic number which is most likely about the late, great Chris Cornell. This would be appropriate given how close he was with Eddie. It’s a fitting tribute that seems to draw from his spirit (and others that we’ve lost), serving as a reminder to never let go of their memory. It starts a wonderful wind-down to a rollercoaster of an album.

Concluding this spiritual awakening is “River Cross,” a song that would work well during the end credits to a film with a happy ending. It leaves you with an intense feeling of hope, thanks to the beautiful pump-organ work by Vedder, and introspective lyrics that come from a place of frustration as well as perseverance. “Let it be a lie that all futures die” is a statement we can all get behind.

Things I Would Like to See Before I Leave This Earth

Beer bottles with built-in breathalyzers
Asian kids with random English words tattooed on their arms
A man with a collection of urinal cakes from every city in the United States
Street signs for prostitute crossing
Kites that say, “Take me higher, Jesus!” under a picture of Scott Stapp
A package of scrapple with ingredients that read, “Random stuff someone dropped on the carpet.”
Baby powder that acts as Viagra
Bats that grow to be the size of bears
Pho flavored pizza
Laundromats that sell trash bags, butcher knives, and Big League Chew
An inspiring romantic comedy centered around a postman in a wheelchair
Traffic signals that shoot laser beams at your car when the light turns red
A parking lot downtown that is free
Socks that expand into puffy foam cushions when they get wet
A bicycle made entirely out of skeletons
Paper shredders that turn documents into an assortment of fancy cheeses
Plants that grow everyday household tools
Edible, liquor flavored silly string
Invisible baseballs
A basketball game played on pogo sticks
Glow in the dark chopsticks (for ninjas)
Rum flavored toothpaste (for pirates)
Moon block lotion (for werewolves)
Cheesesteak flavored coffee (for Philadelphians)
A gym that plays the Ultimate Warrior’s entrance music every half hour
Candy bars with anti-melt technology
A flag for the planet Earth that is the shape and texture of a Dorito
An after-hours strip club run by ugly sweater-wearing grandmas
A tattoo of a man giving a tattoo to a man of a tattooed man getting tattooed while eating a fish taco

Pearl Jam’s Binaural Was Light Years Ahead of Its Time

Twenty years later, I still think Pearl Jam’s Binaural suffers a bit due to Tchad Blake’s muddy production. Punkier songs like “Breakerfall” and “Grievance” feel bogged down and muffled by the heavy bass tone. It’s a shame you can’t always hear Mike McCready well in the mix because he really played his ax off.

But, the more I think about it, this record might have sucked with “better” production. Maybe this is precisely how it should sound, for such weird and dark content. The album is named after the binaural recording technique, which uses two microphones stuffed inside the ears of a mannequin’s head to create a 3D stereophonic sound. I can safely say this experiment was successful on a few songs, as I am frequently sucked in by their gravitational pull.  

The younger version of me may have also been experimenting, but I distinctly remember playing “Of the Girl” on a boombox in my darkened bedroom, feeling like I was trapped inside a tunnel with the band. McCready seemed to be pulling Hendrix from his grave with his guitar strings. Each note slithered through my body, creating a bond with my soul that I had no control over. To this day, I still feel like I share a symbiotic relationship with the song, and I’m quite okay with this. When Eddie Vedder sings, “How he makes his getaway,” he’s clearly referring to me pressing play.

“Nothing as it Seems” is a masterpiece you have to listen to on headphones. It will transport you to another planet (one you’ll wish you could live on forever). I’m certain McCready figured out intergalactic time travel during this recording; he just chose not to tell anyone. I can’t hold it against him. His jaw-dropping leads sound like he’s giving birth to 10 billion galaxies. This, juxtaposed with the way Stone Gossard quietly strums his acoustic guitar, is pure brilliance. I don’t think aliens could achieve perfection like this in a trillion years. To top it off, the song was written by Jeff Ament on his upright bass. This makes zero sense to me. What is happening here? Nothing’s as it seems.

The Eagle Nebula, an open cluster of stars 7,000 light years away. Source: Binaural album artwork.

Back on earth, the Gossard-penned “Thin Air” is one of my go-to campfire jams. It has a chill, country vibe that I love, without being too twangy. It’s soothing when Vedder lowers his voice and sings, “There’s a light. . .when my baby’s in my arms,” over just the bass and drums. Troubles melt away, and I instantly want to hug my lady. I swear it has nothing to do with the wine I’ve been drinking all night by those roaring flames.

Another track they nailed the sound for was “Light Years.” This grief-filled tune is reminiscent of Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days,” but more hopeful. That band’s former drummer, Matt Cameron, somehow kept the rhythm both tight and loose. He is a wizard, and the sticks are his magic wands. As a fan, it’s nice to imagine this song is about how awesome we are. “We were but stones, your light made us stars.” You’re welcome, guys.

Many people have dismissed this as a boring release, but that’s not fair. It was Cameron’s first studio appearance with the band, which alone is exciting. The grunge veteran added his own flavor to the Pearl Jam sound. You can thank him for “Evacuation.” Hardcore fans often place this at the top of their “worst of” lists, bashing its simplicity and silliness. I happen to enjoy it. It’s just plain funky. It makes me think of The Clash whenever I put it on, and that can never be a bad thing. It also has the distinct honor of teaching me the word “wanton” (a cruel/violent action that is deliberate and unprovoked). It’s interesting how Eddie wrote the line, “The sirens scream wanton attention.” It sounds like he’s saying “wanting.” I thought this for years, before noticing the correct diction in the booklet. No, the sirens do not want attention (though that works just as well during an evacuation). In my defense, this isn’t as bad as McCready believing the lyric to Kiss’s “Rock and Roll all Nite” was, “I wanna rock and roll all night, and part of every day.” That story killed me when I heard Eddie tell it on their Live at Benaroya Hall album. I remember thinking, “I’m not alone!”

Vedder’s ukulele number, “Soon Forget,” is entertaining too. I always chuckle when I hear the lines, “Sorry is the fool who trades his soul for a Corvette / Thinks he’ll get the girl, he’ll only get the mechanic.” Pete Townshend’s influence is undeniable, which is why Eddie scribbled “Thanks P.T.” on the lyric page.

I’ve always found the dreamy “Sleight of Hand” to be equal parts depressing and inspiring. The words hit hard if you’ve ever found yourself at a job that’s slowly draining the life out of you:

                                            “Routine was the theme
                        He’d wake up, wash and pour himself into uniform
                                Something he hadn’t imagined being
                                      As the merging traffic passed”

It’s easy to hear this and think, “F**k, that’s me,” and sink further into a rut. It’s also possible to take these words as a warning and make positive changes in your life, so you no longer have to travel the same mundane road. The choice is always yours.

Pearl Jam made a clear choice on what they wanted to do with Binaural. It didn’t all work out for the best, but what did is light-years above other albums from the past twenty years.

Priced to Sell

It’s funny when items are marked “priced to sell.” Isn’t everything with a price priced to sell? Isn’t that the goal? If not, why the price? Would you consider giving it away? I like free stuff. Hey look, this pizza is “cooked to eat.” I love cooked pizza! Give me that cheesy goodness.

Is Samuel Bayer’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Really That Bad?

When this reimagining of A Nightmare on Elm Street was released ten years ago, it received less than favorable reviews. Some horror fans didn’t bother to watch it. Understandably, most people had no interest in seeing anyone other than Robert Englund play Freddy Krueger. They were afraid Jackie Earle Haley would tarnish the image of their beloved horror icon. But, were their fears justified? The answer is yes, and no.

A New Krueger

Jackie Earle Haley plays a darker Freddy Krueger.

Haley’s depiction of our favorite sweater-wearing maniac features a deep, booming voice, which sounds an awful lot like his portrayal of Rorschach in Watchmen. You’ll want to turn the bass down if you’re watching this on a decent stereo system. He is the definition of creepy, and his words will chill you to the bone in a way that Freddy never has. He’s tougher and meaner than the Krueger of old. It’s this anger and realism that elevates the character to a disturbing, new level. In one scene, he hangs his victims by their feet like cattle in a butcher shop. When he tosses Kris around her bedroom and slices her chest open, it feels like you’ve witnessed a Mortal Kombat fatality. As far as the look, his makeup isn’t as pleasing to the eye, but I suppose a burn victim isn’t supposed to look cool.

Kellan Lutz plays Dean, Freddy’s first victim.

Starting things off inside a diner on a rainy night, it isn’t long before we see our first kill. Dean (Kellan Lutz) is forced by you-know-who to slit his throat in front of his terrified girlfriend, Kris. Slasher fans will wish this death was a little gorier and more creative, but it was smart on Freddy’s part to not raise too much suspicion just yet. It’s also an effective way to make Dean’s friends wonder if he was simply crazy or off of his meds.

Lies and Deceit

When questioned why she doesn’t remember appearing in Dean’s childhood picture, Kris’ mother feeds her the bullshit line, “Who can remember being five years old?” Actually, most of us can, unless of course, we experienced great trauma at the hands of a murderer with a charred face and blades for fingers. This glaring red flag gives you a suspicious, uneasy feeling about the adults. More than the original, this story focuses on their dishonesty. You start to think maybe Fred isn’t so bad after all, and it’s the parents who are evil. It’s possible Krueger has every right to be angry. “How do you know he was guilty?” asks Quentin. That is the big question. They do a great job of making the truth uncertain.

Fred’s Cruel Intentions

When Nancy (Rooney Mara) and Quentin venture into Freddy’s room in the basement of the school, it’s an intense moment. Up to that point, you still wonder if he’s innocent. When Quentin finds disturbing pictures of Nancy, it seals the deal on what a bastard Fred actually was. It’s an interesting choice by Bayer to not show us the pictures. It leaves it up to our own twisted imaginations. Quentin explains, “He’s not after us because we lied. He’s after us because we told the truth,” to which Nancy adds, “He brought us here so we would remember what he did to us.” This is the part that’s really messed up. The only problem is that it’s a little too late. Because of the odd pace, I had no emotional attachment to the kids. I had no sympathy for them because I never saw them lose their innocence. This scene could have packed a really powerful punch much earlier in the film.

Shuddersome Scenes

Nancy (Rooney Mara) is trapped inside an unsettling nightmare with Freddy Krueger.

Krueger’s creepiness is on full display in the last act. We are treated to such menacing lines as “Why are you screaming? I haven’t even cut you yet,” and, “Your mouth says no, but your body says yes” (made extra unpleasant by the fact that he says this over top of a helpless Nancy in bed). The writers continuously allude to the idea that she was raped. At one point, Krueger asks, “How’s this for a wet dream?” while Nancy fights to not drown in a hallway full of blood. It’s a great image and one that makes you wish Fred manipulated the environment more. An interesting aspect of his powers was always that he could basically do anything while inside the dreamworld.  

A Memory or Just a Dream?

The familiar theme music gives you a nice nostalgic feel. However, for the most part, the remainder of this remake does not. Often there is more blood, just for brutality’s sake. Some scenes are recreated with the effects slightly enhanced, such as Freddy emerging through the wall of Nancy’s bedroom. And we get the classic shot (twice) of Fred scraping his fingers on the boiler room wall.

Jackie Earle Haley leaves his mark on the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

There are other nods to the original film. Nancy burns her arm with the car’s cigarette lighter to stay awake, in the same spot the first Nancy burned herself with a hot pipe. Krueger is seen using a garden cultivator at the school, just like the one Rod used to scare his friends with in the first film. And in the last scene, Freddy comes crashing through a living room mirror, exactly as he did all those years ago in Nancy’s bedroom. These are fun to spot as a fan, but they don’t exactly add value to the story.

Is This Nightmare Worth Revisiting?

This version isn’t bad, it just isn’t up to the A Nightmare onElm Street standard. It would stand out more if it were the first tale in the franchise. Overall, this has a way darker feel. It’s not as campy as the original, which featured some corny acting. Wes Craven’s film feels like a Halloween movie, while this one does not. Bayer attempted to cut the cheesiness from his remake, and he succeeded. If you’re in the mood to see Freddy with less humor and theatrics, this is the way to go. Haley is slow, methodical, and downright vicious. In that regard, it’s unique for a Freddy film, but not for the horror genre itself.