Open Skies, Electric Miles and a Guy Named Glen
Three Good Reasons to Like 2001

I got an e-mail from Shane Kinney, drummer for the Portland band Broken Clown. Kinney’s one of the funniest people you’d ever hope to meet, as well as one of the nicest, and his band is one of the only Portland-area groups to remember what real rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like. They’re loud, abrasive, distinctive, hilarious and terrific. If you don’t believe me, go to and check them out.

I’m going to ask a favor on Shane’s behalf. Go to, website for Portland’s only “modern rock” station, and request Broken Clown’s tune “Feelgood Hit of the Summer.” The band’s trying to get the tune into rotation on the notoriously local-phobic station, and your votes could seriously help them out. The Portland music scene provided me with my first professional writing gig, and I’d take it as a personal favor if you’d help me give a bit back. Thanks.

Oh, and while I’m shamelessly plugging the boy, surf on over to to read his columns and other funny bits. His second (and rapidly becoming first) career is as a stand-up comedian, and he’s a natural.

The new music well is overflowing in the next couple of weeks, especially on the 15th, when we’ll get the new Cowboy Junkies, the new R.E.M., the new Tool and the long-awaited new Weezer. Megadeth lays another egg on the 15th as well, called The World Needs a Hero. I logged onto in the vain hope that this record would be better than the last three. My spirits rose when I saw that Vic Rattlehead, the band’s erstwhile mascot, will make another cover appearance for the first time since Rust in Peace in 1992.

And then I heard the song, “Burning Bridges.” Feh. Crap. Ass. It sucks mightily. I think I’m all done with Dave Mustaine.

Anywho, with the new Black Crowes coming next week, and no end in sight for the new stuff until October or so, I realized that if I wanted to mention some of the great new releases I’ve picked up in the past month, I’d have to do it this week. Already, 2001 has it all over 2000, and here are three of the reasons why:

I can’t understand why G. Love is not a superstar. His laid-back, hip-hop-inflected funk has actually gone in and out of vogue twice since he started his career in 1993. To his credit, he’s never done anything differently, and yet he remains ignored by the radio gods. Meanwhile, Sugar Ray cops his style (badly) and gets rewarded with hit after hit. I don’t get it.

The fifth album by G. Love and Special Sauce, titled Electric Mile, sounds just like the fourth album, which sounds just like the third album, and so on. Ordinarily I’d be adverse to this lack of artistic growth, but it meshes perfectly with G. Love’s easygoing style. For the entire running time of Electric Mile, Love sounds like he’s just woken up in a peaceful field of flowers and smoked a big fat doob. This is not a tortured soul. In G. Love’s world, everyone can just get along.

I was a big fan of Love’s first album, and since he hasn’t changed a thing since then, I’ve liked everything since. Electric Mile shimmies and shakes in all the right places, and Love seems to know exactly when in a song to demonstrate that he really can play that guitar. Love was merging folk and hip-hop years before Ani DiFranco got around to it, and he turns in another couple of acoustic-based, Bob-Dylan-meets-the-inner-city anthems in “Free at Last” and “Sara’s Song.”

Electric Mile, like all of Love’s albums, wafts on a sweet, sweet vibe. Even when he’s decrying social ills (“Parasite”) or describing his own death (“Poison”), that vibe remains. Electric Mile is another in a series of G. Love albums that never try too hard and succeed winningly because of it. Now, if we can just get “Unified” or “Shy Girl” on the radio…

I have a friend (hi, Chris) who thinks that Glen Phillips, singer for the now-defunct acoustic pop group Toad the Wet Sprocket, is a great lyricist. While I’ve always liked Toad, I never paid too much attention to their lyrics, so when it came time to hear Phillips’ solo album, called Abulum, I read the words first.

Chris, you were so right.

Maybe it was there all along, or maybe the breakup of his band brought something out in him, but Phillips has crafted a great set of lyrics for his solo debut. If the music doesn’t quite match up to the standards set by the lyrics, well, that’s okay. Every song is, at the very least, memorably singable, and that just puts the focus back on the lyrics anyway.

One thing I’ve always liked about Phillips is that he’s one of the only male songwriters who seems to hate men as much as some female songwriters do. (For a good example, see “Hold Her Down,” on Toad’s third album, fear.) Here he takes deadly aim with a song called “Men Just Leave” that’s a definite highlight of the record. Dig this:

“There’s a place in the desert where the men all meet/They park their vans in the shade and talk about Kerouac and the works of the Beats/Let their dogs play together, drink beer and they sing/They’ve all got a secret treasure, wallet pictures in their pockets of the kids they never see/One and one ends up to be three, don’t need to have love, don’t need to be sweet/But when the air gets heavy and it’s hard to breathe, the women get stuck and the men just leave.”

If you can imagine this, that’s sung to a jolly acoustic accompaniment. Later on, he offers a cautionary tale about men who prey on women called “Professional Victim”: “They can smell the weak ones and just pick you off like a pigeon/And each one is worse than the last one until you’re a professional victim.” My favorite is the last line of that song: “All the pretty girls and the stupid boys make the same mistakes until they’ve got no choice.”

For all his gender politics, Phillips is at his best when he’s observing and describing. “Fred Myers” is a terrific portrait of happy-go-lucky homelessness, and “Trainwreck” describes its protagonist thusly: “She was as desperate as a salesman at a company that’s folding, but they haven’t told the staff yet that they’re bankrupt and backordered, and they’re funneling the pensions to the CEO’s back pocket so in one week they’ll have nothing.” That fits the melody perfectly, by the way.

In “Drive By,” Phillips remembers a fateful trip with his dad to shoot the neighbor’s dog. Along the way, the young Phillips prays to God: “Dear God, if you save this dog, I will never get high, I will never jack off/I will be all the things that I should but have not/ I’ll be a good boy from now on.” I won’t spoil how the song ends up, but it’s poetic storytelling.

The whole record is filled with gems like those. They’re all sung in Phillips’ sweet tenor, and much of the aggressive nature of the last two Toad albums has been thankfully excised. Phillips, like Freedy Johnston, never sounds right with swirls of electric guitar all around him. He’s better with a bed of acoustic guitars beneath him, and all of Abulum fits
that bill nicely. It’s a sweet surprise, and one that makes me want to go back and read the lyric sheets from his old band’s records.

I mentioned Iona’s new one about three or four weeks ago, and never got around to reviewing it. As much as I despise labels, the one Iona has come up with for themselves works as well as any: they’re a Celtic progressive band. In other words, imagine Dream Theater and Clannad getting together for a jam session. It sounds much better than you’d think.

Open Sky, the seventh Iona album, is worth getting just for the panoramic wide-angle photography that adorns the cover. The music inside is just as beautiful. The idea of a Celtic progressive band works so well that it’s a wonder no one’s thought of it before. The opener, “Woven Cord” (reprised from last year’s live album of the same name), is like a mission statement: thudding, cinematic drums and powerful bass guitar supporting a complex yet hummable melody played simultaneously on soaring electric guitar and uilleann pipes. There are synth washes atop tin whistles, violins and Celtic harps, and every once in a while, there’s a stunning Dave Bainbridge electric guitar solo. Floating above everything, an instrument in its own right, is the voice of Joanne Hogg.

Open Sky is the most complete Iona album. It flows like a single piece better than any of their other works, connected by lovely instrumentals like “A Million Stars” and buoyed by some of their most transcendent melodies. “Hinba,” especially, is a stunner. The album’s centerpiece is unquestionably the 22-minute “Songs of Ascent,” which drifts perfectly from melody to melody, instrumental save for a short section at the beginning. Unlike some progressive rock, this doesn’t noodle about. It sets glorious moods through jaw-dropping musicianship and arrangements, and somehow, it makes its bizarre blend of styles work. It’s best in one long 73-minute sitting, since it’s one of those albums that makes you feel as if you’ve been somewhere when you’re done with it.

As you may have guessed, I didn’t finish this whole thing on my lunch break. It’s now well past 10 p.m., so I’m going to say goodnight. Next week, Lions by the Crowes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.