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  Listen Up! 2/26/04 Listen Up!

Thursday, Feb. 26

The Long Ryders, “State of Our Union,” Prima Records. This import reissue of the Long Ryders major label pseudo-breakthrough album from 1985 adds four rarities to an album that didn’t completely capture the strengths or weaknesses of this important band. I’ll say it right here: if it wasn’t for the Long Ryders, and their 19th century rural imagery and country flavorings mixed with their garagey rock’n’roll, the whole alt-country thing wouldn’t have happened the way it did. I know for a fact Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo liked these guys a lot, and it was bands like this – heck, quite likely especially this band – that created the zeitgeist necessary to turn that band from a straight Neil Young rock tribute to the country explorations that made them famous. That said, even at the time, I didn’t like this album nearly as much as “Native Sons,” their warmer, more tuneful indie debut LP. “Looking For Lewis and Clark,” arguably the first specific call to seek connections to history for making sense of the 1980s reality, is a great song, and the record is never less than full of rocking cheer. But, the tunes just aren’t that memorable. I am very impressed by the bonus track “If I Were a Bramble and You Were a Rose,” featuring guest vocal harmonies from the great Christine Collister. But, most of the ones that made the actual album are knocked out riff-rock lacking in hooks, though not enthusiasm. I remember these guys being a terrific live act, not to mention nice guys. After all, in 45 and a half years of living in St. Louis, the only time I ever went up in the Arch was to hang out with this band.

Sparks, “Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection,” Rhino Records. Thirteen years ago, Rhino released this compilation. I have to admit, I’ve never spent nearly enough time listening to these guys. I was always vaguely aware of them, but never owned any of their records. This collection is full of fun, quirky pop songs with dance beats, and yeah, the dance beats of the 80s are a little more robotic than the far more interesting ones of the 70s. But, all of these songs are worth hearing, because these guys live in a far more unusual plane of existence than the rest of us.

Various Artists, “The Q People: A Tribute to NRBQ,” Spirithouse Records. This album suffers from what everybody says all tribute albums suffer from. The idea seems like a good one; take some of the best songs from one of the most inventive rock bands in the world, and let people bring themselves to new, fresh arrangements. As anyone who’s ever heard NRBQ cover other people’s material could tell you, the best way to approach a well known song is to act as if you’ve never heard it, and just play it like you feel it. Unfortunately, the only people who take this advice on this record are the likes of J Mascis and Widespread Panic, who owe no fealty to the originals, but who are so incredibly pathetic themselves that you cringe to hear what they do. Meanwhile, you’ve got Los Lobos delivering a safe take on “Never Take the Place of You,” and that’s a highlight. I was out of the office while Steve Earle sang “A Girl Like That,” which could genuinely be good. Bonnie Raitt’s 20 plus-year-old version of “Me and the Boys” sounds great, but it’s a ringer. And the 16-minute tribute from Sponge Bob Squarepants might come closest to capturing the Q’s famous humor, but it’s darn near unlistenable to me, a man with no children to help him have a clue who these characters are supposed to be. Sad. I had high hopes for this album, but all it’s doing is making me want to put on the original records. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

--Steve Pick


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