Three Quick Ones, While He’s Away
Short Takes on Lowery, Rae and Pearl Jam

I’m writing this on Sunday, January 30, and I’ve just returned from David Alexander’s memorial service.

For those lucky enough to have met him, David was probably the most interesting person you knew. He was a stage magician for four decades, having learned from some of the most celebrated illusionists in the world. He spent time as a publisher, an editor and a private detective, and is the only authorized biographer of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. He has also amassed the largest collection of silhouettes in the world, and was working on a book about the art form when he died last month.

I met David several years ago, when he started on as deputy director of Sci-Tech, Aurora’s science museum. But I wrote about him because he was just so damn interesting. I went to his house for the interview, and while there, he performed some of his illusions for me, including one in which he produced a glass of water from an empty black bag. This trick is apparently one that very few people in the world know how to do, and seeing it up close was incredible. The two of us talked pretty frequently after that, and I enjoyed every one of our conversations.

David died of a heart attack last month while investigating a leak at a rental property he owned. He was 66 years old. Today’s memorial took place at Ballydoyle Irish Pub, and included bagpipers, Irish dancers, toasts and several tearful testimonies. I thought I knew a lot about David’s life, but I knew nothing. That paragraph up there, listing his accomplishments? That’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Today we heard from magicians and MacArthur fellows, artists and loved ones, and I learned so much about David and the mark he left on the world.

The overriding message of today, and in fact of David Alexander’s life, is this: do something interesting, all the time. Here’s a man who never wasted a day, who did enough for 10 lifetimes. And he also took time to meet people, and mentor them, and give generously of his enthusiasm and talent. He was simply remarkable, and I feel lucky to have met him. And I hope his life will serve as an inspiration for me to do more interesting, scary, amazing things.

Rest in peace, David. And thanks.

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I’m under the gun again this week, but that’s okay, because the real onslaught of new music hasn’t really started yet. It’s coming, though. In addition to the albums already mentioned in this column, the past few weeks have seen announcements for new albums by The Strokes, Richard Ashcroft, Duran Duran, Panic at the Disco, Robbie Robertson, Alison Krauss, Low, Panda Bear, Explosions in the Sky, and Okkervil River. And it just keeps on coming: the big news this week is Fleet Foxes, who will release sophomore disc Helplessness Blues on May 3.

But none of that arrived this week. This week we only got a few, and none of them are worth a full review. So I’m gonna give you some drive-bys this time, quick takes on three records that aren’t essential by any means, but are still pretty good. I’m not upset that I bought any of these, and I don’t think you will be, either.

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David Lowery, The Palace Guards.

For a guy who’s had a long and varied career, David Lowery has flown pretty much under the radar. He somehow stumbled upon one of the greatest band names in history his first time out with Camper Van Beethoven, and in the ‘80s released a string of quirky, funny, often brilliant records. But Camper Van’s only hit was a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” and most people don’t even know that.

His second band, Cracker, scored his second hit, the semi-ubiquitous “Low,” which rode the grunge train to radio play in 1993. (You’d know it if you heard it.) Cracker may be a one-hit wonder to most, but they’ve made nine albums, and established themselves as a respected country-rock outfit, albeit a respected country-rock outfit no one really knows.

So here’s Lowery’s first solo album, The Palace Guards, and it’s yet another solid, unexceptional, enjoyable effort no one will hear. But that’s all right, because his fans will dig this. It basically sounds like a late-period, country-inflected Cracker record, all serious songs with sly lyrics sung in Lowery’s lazy-hazy voice. It feels like something he threw together in a weekend, but as usual with Lowery, that’s not a bad thing.

With only nine songs in 39 minutes, you probably won’t expect The Palace Guards to be as varied as it is. It opens with a shambling mess called “Raise ‘Em Up on Honey,” acoustic guitars falling all over pedal steels while stomps and claps provide the only percussion sounds. The title track is deceptively tricky, while “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me” is a three-chord grunger that could fit on an early Cracker album. And somewhere in there is a note-for-note cover of Mint’s “Ah, You Left Me,” sweet and breezy.

My favorite song here sports the unlikely title “I Sold the Arabs the Moon.” It’s a dreamy waltz with some nice violin work, and lyrics that make no sense, but convey terrific images: “I was the man who sold the yankees the sky, the black of the night and the blue of the day, the endless horizon of hope and desire…” The quieter second half of The Palace Guards shows off Lowery at his best – none of this will set the world afire, but it’s all pretty enjoyable.

Do you need this record? As much as you need anything Lowery’s done, which is to say, not really. It’s hard for me to say Lowery’s unjustifiably obscure. But he seems perfectly happy to keep making little records like this one, and I hope he does. Word is he’s resurrecting Camper Van Beethoven shortly, and working on new Cracker material, and I’ll keep on buying his stuff, even though none of it knocks me out. Lowery is the very definition of a middling artist, doing just enough to keep me interested. So far, it’s worked, and The Palace Guards is no exception.

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Corinne Bailey Rae, The Love EP.

I adore Corinne Bailey Rae. The English singer’s second album, the massively underrated The Sea, pulled in an honorable mention from me last year, although it sank without a trace over here. Rae has an incredible, soulful voice, and on The Sea, she used it to get down into the pain of her husband’s death, and thoroughly break your heart. Seriously, the album’s fantastic, and you should buy it now.

But Rae’s not all sadness and shadow, as evidenced by The Love EP, a five-song romp that fully restores her sense of wonder and joy. It’s all covers, but it’s all fascinating covers. It opens with an awesome hip-shaking take on Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” then slams into a loudloudLOUD version of Belly’s “Low Red Moon.” (Yes, Corinne Bailey Rae sings a Tanya Donnelly song, and she doesn’t strip it down or jazz it up. It’s raw and crackling.)

Those are not my favorites. They’re the warm-up acts. When Rae and her crack band dig into a stunning, soul-anthem take on Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” the EP really gets going. Sweet piano, terrific drums, unstoppable bass, and a choir of backing vocalists take this to extraordinary heights. And then she performs a minor miracle: she gets me to like Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” one of the sappiest ballads ever written. In Rae’s hands, the song sounds like an old standard. Her angelic voice dances atop a nimble acoustic guitar, and brings more authenticity and weight to this song than it probably deserves. It’s gorgeous.

The finale is a 13-minute live jam on another song I hate, “Que Sera Sera.” Once again, Rae makes me eat my words. This is astonishing stuff, Rae inviting John McCallum on stage to share vocal duties, and leading her fantastic band through one jazzy twist after another. The coda alone is worth the price of admission. If you steered clear of Rae’s last album because it sounded too morose, too depressing, then you owe it to yourself to buy this EP. It’s a terrific taster from an artist worth watching.

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Pearl Jam, Live on Ten Legs.

I give Pearl Jam a lot of credit. They exploded onto the charts with album number one 20 years ago, and quickly became one of the most famous bands in the world. Since then, they’ve done absolutely nothing to retain that position. Nine studio albums, no hits to match “Alive” and “Even Flow” and “Jeremy.” Just five guys who want to be in a rock band, making frankly rough-and-tumble music that hasn’t changed much in two decades. They could have gotten all pretentious on us, making concept records and going electronic and turning into Billy Corgan, but they didn’t. They’re like a classic rock band now, soldiering on to the beat of their own drummer, making the music they want to make, without worrying about who’s listening.

Oh, and they positively smoke live. Just check out Live on Ten Legs, their latest concert document. This is a rock band at the height of its powers. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready lock into a powerhouse groove on every song, Eddie Vedder sings and screams his little heart out, and Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron make up a rock-solid rhythm section. This is meat-and-potatoes stuff, with riffs aplenty and very few jammy moments. Just a great band doing what they do.

That said, is another Pearl Jam live album necessary? Probably not, no matter how good it is. Don’t get me wrong, this one’s very good. The band trots out some old workhorses, like “Animal” and “Yellow Ledbetter,” but hits on a few surprises as well, like “Spin the Black Circle” and “State of Love and Trust.” They rip through four songs from their latest, the quick-as-a-bullet Backspacer, and take on a pair of fascinating covers: “Arms Aloft,” originally by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, and “Public Image,” the signature track from John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd.

And when they do stretch out, the results are wonderful. “Rearviewmirror” will never be my favorite Pearl Jam song, but the seven-minute version here is terrific, and concert staple “Porch” justifies its inclusion with a stunning extended rendition. I’ve heard “Alive” and “Jeremy” more times than I want to count, but those are the only black marks on a swell live collection. Necessary? Not in the slightest, but it’s pretty great nonetheless, and further proof that Pearl Jam is one of the few bands to make it out of the ‘90s intact. They did it by sticking to their guns – listening to this, you’d never know these guys were once impossibly famous, and that’s a very good thing.

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Next week, a strange brew, with Cut Copy, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and Amanda Palmer. Those three have nothing in common, and I have seven days to come up with a theme. Wish me luck.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.