Walking Backward
Kravitz, Crow, the Hooters and the Good Old Days

As I’m sure most of you are aware, I’m a reporter at a local paper in a suburb of Chicago. That means I’ve spent the last two days (despite the date up top, I’m writing this on Feb. 16) researching, writing about and thinking about Thursday’s shooting at Northern Illinois University.

I don’t have a lot to say about this tragedy, except that my thoughts are with the families of the victims. And I’m glad to be given the opportunity through this column to think and write about something else for a little while.

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I’m not sure why Glen Hansard isn’t a rock star.

As you may have guessed, I’ve recently caught up with most of the world in seeing (and absolutely loving) Once, John Carney’s love letter to music and its ability to connect people. Its star is Hansard, who also wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and he’s wonderful to watch. He plays a broken-hearted street musician in Dublin who meets a pretty Czech girl, writes some songs with her, records a demo, and then leaves for London to resume his life. That’s it, that’s the whole movie. But it’s magic.

The scene of real-life sweethearts Hansard and Marketa Irglova fumbling their way through “Falling Slowly” at a music store is one of the best bits of film I’ve seen this year. As a pianist who has backed up songwriting guitarists before, I can tell you this is exactly how it happens – Irglova, who actually co-wrote the song in question in real life, fumbles to find some countermelody that fits, and tries out a few harmony vocal lines. By the end, they’re soaring together, and the effect is incredibly moving.

It helps that the song is superb, as is every song in the movie. Hansard is the lead singer and guitarist for a band called the Frames, and after seeing the film, I bought a couple of their records. I’m not sure why they’re not more famous. Despite the Damien Rice-ness of a few of their tunes, they have an appealing sound, and Hansard’s voice is a delight. He has the look, the songs, the voice, the whole thing, so why isn’t this guy a star?

Beats me. But at the risk of jumping on a bandwagon long after it leaves the station, I highly recommend Once. It’s my favorite movie of 2007, edging out No Country for Old Men and Juno. I was expecting a romantic comedy with music in it, and what I got was a genuine, beautiful exploration of music itself, and what it means to two people in orbit around each other. Get the soundtrack, too – if nothing else, you’ll crack up at “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” And if you have a heart, you’ll swoon for “Falling Slowly,” which had better win that damn Oscar next week.

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Somehow, until earlier this week, I’d missed the biggest new release news of the month, at least in my little world.

Next Monday marks the U.K. unveiling of Join With Us, the second album by the Feeling. You may recall that I named Twelve Stops and Home, the band’s debut, my third-favorite album of 2006, praising up and down the sparkling, optimistic, nostalgic pop tunes that cover every inch of it. What I’ve heard of Join With Us sounds exactly the same as the debut, only bigger and more ambitious. I’m excited to hear the whole thing.

But then, I respond well to this type of thing, and many others don’t. It’s the usual purview of music critics to always look forward, to search for the next new thing. There is nothing cool or new about the Feeling – what you get with them, despite the soft-rock tag they’re often saddled with, is 40 years of British pop history put into a blender and served with a wink and a smile. Their music incorporates the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s solo stuff, 10cc, ELO, Supertramp, Queen, and a dozen other ‘60s and ‘70s acts I love.

I’m a big fan of the past, though, and I fear there’s a great danger, musically speaking, in losing our sense of history. I buy new music all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that I reject the innovations of new bands, but they really knew how to write a song in the ‘60s, and I think many younger acts could learn a lot from looking to the past.

If there’s a criticism to be leveled at Twelve Stops and Home, it’s that it didn’t move things forward at all. It’s a pastiche without incorporating those influences into something more modern. That’s valid, although it doesn’t make the record itself any less enjoyable. Musical nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, if it’s done properly – see Sloan, or Jellyfish, or even some of Beck’s efforts. But if you see music as a movement, these bands didn’t contribute any momentum whatsoever.

The same criticism applies to Lenny Kravitz. Here’s a guy who has picked a window in time – basically 1965 to 1975 – and refuses to acknowledge that any music was made before or since. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. His first few albums are unassailable, especially the raw Are You Gonna Go My Way, but he’s been on a backslide lately, bottoming out with Baptism, 2004’s ode to how much Kravitz’ life sucks now that he’s a rock star.

That’s why it’s so good to hear him back in the saddle with his unfortunately-titled eighth album, It Is Time for a Love Revoution. This is the leanest ‘70s rock album Kravitz has made since Circus, and while nothing here is even remotely new or original, it does rock. Love Revolution features some of the most snarling guitar riffs in Kravitz’ canon, and some of his least cheesy ballads, and the result sounds like something pulled straight from Lester Bangs’ record collection. Kind of.

Believe it or not, despite the catchy rockers like “Bring it On” and “Love Love Love,” the highlights here are the slower songs. “A Long and Sad Goodbye” ranks with Kravitz’ best work, and the guitar solo that makes up the last two minutes is terrific. That’s not to say the foot-stompers are bad, though. I even like the loose “Dancin’ Til Dawn,” which brings in a rare outside musician, saxophonist Lenny Pickett, to add some organic ‘70s disco-funk feel. (Kravitz again played most of the instruments here, except for the odd guitar flourish and string arrangement.)

The problem with Love Revolution is the same one that’s dogged Kravitz for his whole career – he may actually be the worst lyricist in rock ‘n’ roll. Here is the opening from “Will You Marry Me,” just as a f’rinstance: “I want to do this thing, I don’t want no drama, mama, it’s love I bring, ooh.” Later he rhymes “passion” and “fashion” (as in “love never goes out of…”), and romances his girl with this couplet: “You are my favorite attraction, you give me real satisfaction.”

Here is the chorus to “Good Morning”: “Top of the morning to you, good morning to you, eh hey, oh oh oh oh oh, it’s another day in the world in which we live.” Seriously. I know most rock lyrics from the ‘70s were stupid, but Kravitz clearly has nothing to say, and gets by on the strength of his music and melodies. Which, admittedly, are quite strong on this album.

Well, there is one moment where the lyrics take the stage. Everyone and their sister is making a political statement about the war in Iraq these days, and Kravitz is no exception, although he waits until the final two tracks of Love Revolution to do so. “Back in Vietnam” is a sterling rocker, one that makes me think of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote, “I don’t do quagmires.” It’s saddled with terrible lyrics, of course (“We’re gonna fly over the world inside our giant eagle, we do just what we want and don’t care if it’s illegal”), but the point is clear.

Faring much better is the semi-fragile closer, “I Want to Go Home.” Sung from the point of view of a soldier who has lost his faith in the war, this song is the most poignant thing here, and Kravitz to his credit keeps it simple and sparse. It’s a good closer to the first Lenny Kravitz album in ages that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Kravitz spent three years writing songs for Love Revolution, and it shows – it’s his strongest set of tunes in 15 years.

Also returning with a surprisingly strong record is Sheryl Crow. For some reason, I can’t stop buying her albums – I haven’t unconditionally loved one yet, and I downright hated the last two. But the good stuff from her self-titled album and The Globe Sessions keep me coming back, I guess. I heard good things about Detours, Crow’s sixth album, so I bit the bullet once again. And finally, Crow has crafted an album that doesn’t immediately make me regret buying it.

Detours is no masterpiece, but in its best moments, it’s an old-time protest folk-rock record. It opens with “God Bless This Mess,” an acoustic ditty that references 9/11 and the Iraq war (“He led us as a nation into a war based on lies”). Within two minutes, you know where Crow stands, and what kind of political record you’re about to get.

What you may not expect is some of Crow’s most incisive songwriting. Single “Shine Over Babylon” is a slow burner about the cost of freedom, and it reads like (forgive me, rock gods) something Bob Dylan might write. Even better – brilliant, in fact – is “Gasoline,” a dystopian anthem set to a ‘60s Rolling Stones backbeat. It tells a tale of “way back” in 2017, when the world’s people finally riot over the price of gas. The song is the undisputed highlight of the record.

There are lowlights, too – quite a few, actually. “Love is Free” is too simple to live, and “Out of Our Heads” is just plain bad, its salsa-disco rhythm backfiring in the worst way. “If we could only get out of our heads and into our hearts” is a lamer chorus than anything Kravitz has come up with. (The fact that it follows “Gasoline” isn’t in its favor, either.)

In the album’s second half, Crow abandons the protest songs for reveries on her failed romance with Lance Armstrong, and the worst of those – “Diamond Ring,” “Now That You’re Gone” – drag this album down. Returning producer Bill Bottrell has given this record an appealing rough edge, but he’s also segued all of the tracks, so it plays like one continuous thought. In that context, it’s harder to ignore the lousy tracks.

But like Kravitz’ album, Detours ends well. “Love is All There Is” takes a sweet George Harrison-style melody (and guitar sound) and weaves a fine mid-tempo pop song out of it. And the closer, “Lullaby for Wyatt,” could have been a sappy ode to Crow’s son, but instead, it’s a clear-eyed look at the joys and pains of parenting. (“I could shape your mind, but why waste my time, my dear, there’s so much more to know than I can show you…”) The last couple of tracks are so good that they wash away the worst bits of the album, and leave a good impression.

So yeah, Detours doesn’t totally suck. And it does have a strong sense of history wrapped up in its protest anthems and ‘70s-style rock songs. I suppose I’ll buy the next one too. Dammit.

But enough about bands that draw from influences before I was born. How about this – one of my bands, from when I was a kid, is back with a new record that tries to recapture their old sound. It’s nostalgic, but for a specific sound and time that few are trying to relive, and for that, I kind of love it. I remember this sound, and it trips very specific memories in me. I can’t say this is a very good album, but it’s my favorite of the three.

I’m talking about the Hooters, who are back after 15 years with Time Stand Still. And for me, it does just what the title promises.

Remember the Hooters? They made a few popular records in the ‘80s, had a few hits (“And We Danced,” “All You Zombies,” “Johnny B.”), disappeared under the weight of their most ambitious and least successful album (1989’s Zig Zag), and no one really missed them. Most people overlooked the unique qualities of the band – they play a million different instruments, from mandolins to zithers to pennywhistles to Hohner hooters (natch), and they can turn any mainstream-sounding rock tune into a folksy jig. Most just think of them as an ‘80s corporate rock band, and I can’t really figure that out. They’re competent and professional, of course, but they’re so much more creative than that.

While I liked Nervous Night and One Way Home, I loved Zig Zag. The acoustic stomp of “Deliver Me,” the lovely mandolin-and-synth lament “Heaven Laughs,” the on-the-nose protest “Give the Music Back,” the left-field half-reggae cover of “500 Miles,” I loved it all. This was unlike anything on the radio at the time, so it’s not a big surprise that it didn’t chart. Their subsequent stab at mainstream rock success, Out of Body, wasn’t very good and didn’t put them back in the spotlight, and I figured that was it. Like so many other bands I loved as a kid, they made their best record and faded out.

Hooters mainstays Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman did okay for themselves, though. Bazilian is probably still collecting checks for writing “One of Us,” Joan Osborne’s big 1995 hit, and Hyman is likely best known as the writer of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Hyman’s also worked with artists as diverse as Ricky Martin and Dar Williams.

But now here’s Time Stand Still, an album which fulfills the Hooters’ mission better than any save Zig Zag. In the decade and a half between Hooters albums, their propensity to tear down genre walls has become a lot more accepted, and this album has some of the group’s best rock-folk-jig-reggae mixes yet. The clever thing is, if you’re not listening closely, it’s easy to dismiss this album as a bunch of middling rock songs. But just about every song has a Hooters-style twist to it.

Opener “I’m Alive” coasts on a melodica melody and a crunching guitar part, matched and exceeded by the title track, its mandolin riff anchoring and buoying it. The band does a cover of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” and I was initially wary – I’ve heard that song way too many times to enjoy it. But they do a smashing job Hooters-ing it up, and the middle section, all accordion and recorder, is pretty great. So they accomplished the impossible by track three – they got me to like “The Boys of Summer.”

The rest of the record is good, but not great. “Until You Dare” (originally on Bazilian’s solo album The Optimist) is a bit of a cheesy ballad, pleasant as it is, and “Morning Buzz” gets by on its mandolin-fueled verses before crashing on the rocks at the chorus. But I love “Where the Wind May Blow,” the most compact mix of rock and folk here. In fact, this song is the quintessential Hooters track, showing off what they do better than anything else here.

The rest? The rest is very good, including the sea shanty “Catch of the Day,” the sweet “Ordinary Lives” and the lengthy “Free Again.” The bonus track, “White Jeans,” is a swell addition, a paean to bygone years set to a thumping beat. It’s only here that the Hooters betray any sense that they’re an old band looking back on their glory days, but they do it with a wink. I’m very glad to have this album, even if praising it damages my credibility in critical circles. There’s just something about this band that gets me every time I hear them.

Was music better back then? Was it better in the ‘60s and ‘70s? There’s a good argument to be made there, especially considering how awful most of the crap on the radio is these days. But unlike the ‘60s and ‘70s, the best stuff is under the radar these days. There are still bands pushing music forward while learning from its past. You just have to dig to find them. But it’s always worth it.

Next week, yet another gaze backwards into music history with the Feeling. Also coming up are new ones from Mike Doughty, Ray Davies, American Music Club, Richard Julian and the Black Crowes. It’s a good time to be alive.

See you in line Tuesday morning.