Life, Love & Hope, by Boston, Frontiers
What the ...?, by Black Flag, SST
In the late ’70s, if you loved Black Flag, which was led by guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn, it generally meant that you had some thoughts about corruption and complacency in American culture, and that you hated expensive-sounding rock bands like Boston, which was led by guitarist and songwriter Tom Scholz. If you loved Boston, it meant primarily that you lived somewhere near a radio.
But since they are releasing fairly dismal new records on the same day, we might consider what they had in common. Black Flag and Boston were founded in 1976 by young electronics ninjas on opposite coasts: Ginn running a mail-order radio equipment business in Hermosa Beach, California, and Scholz working at Polaroid in Massachusetts after graduation from MIT. Black Flag’s no-budget guerrilla touring plowed a circuit for punk bands, and helped make it America’s most important punk band. Boston’s perfectionist first album, full of double-tracked big-melody hooks — it has sold more than 17 million units in the United States — was mostly recorded in Scholz’s basement, for a small sum.
Both Ginn and Scholz have fought to keep legal control over their music and the names of their bands. Tall and long-faced, they look analogous, if not alike. And both are, or were, exceptional riff composers. Early Boston songs were consonant, gorgeous, large-scale etudes of idealized love and yearning, sung in a full tenor by Brad Delp, and troweled over with Scholz’s high-shine guitar textures. Black Flag songs, as shouted over the years by Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena and Henry Rollins, were small and dirty, in constant attack, with bushwhacking solos by Ginn and his wet-cardboard guitar tone.
Maybe we’re not ready to put these groups’ songs in the same vitrine. But it is worth asking why a grandly inoffensive anthem like Boston’s More Than a Feeling can, many years later, give a listener more or less the same thrill as its spiritual opposite, which might be Black Flag’s No Values.
Boston is now mostly Scholz himself, playing all instruments; many of the lead vocals on its new album, Life, Love & Hope (Frontiers), are old tracks made by Delp, who committed suicide in 2007, at some point during this record’s long gestation. (A few tracks, strangely, are remixed versions of songs from Boston’s last album, Corporate America, released in 2002.) The songs come with soaring sentimental choruses, but brittle rhythmic foundations — you will miss Sib Hashian, Boston’s old drummer — as well as deeply grandiose or cornball keyboard parts.
Where Delp is absent, the singers Tommy DeCarlo or David Victor commit passable imitations, or Kimberley Dahme provides bland contrast. Scholz mellowly sings one track himself, wheezily; another, Last Day of School, has no singing at all, and feels nude because of it. But who’s hurt by any of this? Few will complain about any subpar Boston album’s cheapening the band’s legacy, partly because this record — and, to some degree, the whole band’s career — reduces to one man’s inward hobby, a project of self-satisfaction.
You may hear much more of that legacy-cheapening talk around Black Flag’s latest release, What the ...? Like Life, Love & Hope, it has an authentic vocal presence: Reyes, who sang on Black Flag’s Jealous Again EP in 1980. (He was the voice behind No Values.) Otherwise, it’s Gregory Moore on drums, and Ginn on guitar, bass and theremin, his recent fascination. It’s often only functional, crucially low on thrills; the riffs, over barely changing, stock-punk rhythm patterns, have no breathing space.
Like the Boston record, What the ...? includes songs that seem like sketches: Now Is the Time, This Is Hell, The Bitter End, Outside, Give Me All Your Dough. As with the Boston record, even as the band’s central force pumps away front and center, you find yourself admiring the singing — Reyes works his petulant bellow hard, despite boilerplate-cynicism lyrics — and recalling how good Black Flag’s drummers were before this one. And it can make you think about how a band may need a driver and a controller and an obsessive, but how necessary and miraculous it can be when that person yields power to others. Reyes, in an announcement on his Facebook page last week, wrote that he was fired onstage during a Black Flag show in Australia on Nov. 24. You wonder whether, even as Black Flag, Ginn needs anybody else; with music at this low level of inspiration, machines would take care of whatever he can’t generate himself.
— BEN RATLIFF
Days of Gold, by Jake Owen, RCA Nashville
Life’s a beach — an endless blur of them, really — on Days of Gold, the fourth album by the affable country rogue Jake Owen. And it’s clear that we should have seen this coming. Last year around this time, Owen released an EP, Endless Summer (RCA Nashville), that included a mildly suggestive come-on (Summer Jam) and a set of instructions (Pass a Beer). Turns out that was just the warm-up.
Owen, 32, grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, so this is his native habitat. Some of the songs on Days of Gold, notably the summer-bliss title track, hail surf and sand as a beau ideal, a state of mind. Elsewhere, things get a lot more literal: Beachin’, with its dismal, rapped verses and raise-your-cup chorus, or Drivin’ All Night, which begins with what might be this album’s emblematic setup:
There wasn’t nothing as pretty in Panama City as you
That’s what I took away from that spring break that year
And there wasn’t no shortcut down to LSU
But it wasn’t like it was hard talking me into
In case this isn’t obvious enough, inebriation and seduction intertwine to form Owen’s other major theme here. The word “tipsy” forms a pivot point in one song, and the title of another. And in Tall Glass of Something, he grouses, “Ain’t no beaches ‘round here,” using that as an excuse for more carousing.
Strikingly, Owen had no hand in writing any of these songs: About half the album’s tracks bear a credit by Jaren Johnston, and others bear the fingerprints of first-call Nashville songwriters like Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorley and Shane McAnally. Their best efforts home in on Owen’s capacity for open heartache, epitomized by the ballads on his previous album, like The One That Got Away and Alone With You.
What are the keepers? For starters, Life of the Party, a solid new entry in the putting-on-a-good-face subcategory of heartbroken country songs, and One Little Kiss (Never Killed Nobody), which feels like a worthy sequel to Alone With You, another that contemplates stirring the embers of a dead romance. “Thought I’d be fine to see you one more time,” Owen sings. “Yeah, right.”
— NATE CHINEN