Hank Williams III is the biggest ripoff in American music since Hank Williams Jr. His name isn't even Hank. It's Shelton. He adopted the name?"Hank III," his album reads, like a movie sequel?late in his youth for the sole purpose of capitalizing on a valuable trademark. His songs are weak. And he doesn't even write most of them. At least his estranged father can say that he writes music, even if that means the theme to Monday Night Football. And then there's the matter of his grandfather, a founder of country music as well as its last real survivor before the style was transformed into modern pop. Hank I's music, following in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers and the black blues singers who instructed him on how to play the guitar, painted a grim portrait of America as a lonely, desolate, purgatorial highway with predators and hellhounds around every turn.
Hank III's songs are just about getting fucked up and hootin' and hollerin'. Shelton Williams, 26, reportedly spent his early years with little or no connection to Bocephus or the rest of the Williams clan, raised by his mother. He hung out in Georgia and eventually played in some punk bands. Then he got the idea to masquerade as the scion of the Williams family of country music. His debut was The Three Hanks, released by Curb records in 1996, a piece of exploitation matched only by "There's a Tear in My Beer"?Bocephus again.
Tonight the Rodeo Bar is packed with people just dying to get one glimpse of the grandson of Hank Williams, and who can blame them. But there's nothing to see, or hear. The guy looks a little like Hank I. So do half the guys in here, minus all the arm-length tattoos. So he has a voice that sort of sounds like granddad. So what. Pinch your nose and you can do the same. On the Rodeo Bar's p.a. system, the low end of Hank's mic has been cut out to make his voice more closely resemble the thin whine of Hank I's old records. His songs are harmless ditties that chug along, a pantomime of his grandfather's music that is only half alive; what life it has is due only to its essential deviousness.
I would like to hear what the real Shelton Williams sounds like. He's got to have some real emotions. He grew up without a father and has a $300-a-week pot habit. Why this elaborate disguise? Why drop punk? If that's what he loves, and if that's where he's found his voice?not the voice of a relative he never knew who died nearly 20 years before he was born?then why not stick with it? I can think of no American musical descent more fascinating or telling than a line that goes from the proto-country of Hank I to the bloated glitz of Hank II to the punk rock of Shelton, the prodigal grandson. Come on, Shelton, let it out.
Home Brownies (February 26)
Five years ago, Home seemed to have one foot in a Rick Wakeman sort of morass?with their straight-faced time changes and lyrical stiffness, it always surprised me that hipster labels like Emperor Jones and Jetset would bankroll their silly playing?but they've quietly tamed their indulgences and emerged with a direct and beautiful album. Home XIV was produced by Dave Fridmann of Mercury Rev, who also did the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin. And it does sound both cleaner and fuller than any of the previous records. But Maurice Starr and Max Martin aside, producers don't usually write the songs, so let's give the guys in the band some credit. Yes, the lyrics have a little too much Myth of Sisyphus/Utopia Rising/I Believe the Children Are Our Future nonsense ring to them, but they're grafted to melodies that don't shift gears every eight measures, i.e., you can sing along and not worry about a punched-in conch solo interrupting your reverie. These are catchy little three- and four-minute deals, many of which go like this: verse/chorus/verse.
I attended the release party for the album, and what stands out in my memory is the sport coat worn by keyboardist Eric Morrison. It blew my mind, because I still have nightmares about catching Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or was it Powell?) on television when I was 14, and Keith Emerson had a jacket just like it. Emerson was even more pretentious than you can imagine; he quoted Copland and Mussorgsky in his solos, and then he'd walk around the keyboard and play from the other side. Just as a gimmick.
I'm not bringing this up because I have a problem with Morrison's fashion sense (I've been known to wear tweed myself), but because all those ELP associations didn't just flutter away after a few songs. As much as I wanted to believe that XIV was a clean slate, the roots are too deep. I should have known from the number of effects pedals before me that I would hear no spartan quartet. They opened with one of the two songs on XIV that I don't like, which is called "Children's Suite:3: Displaying Prizms" and sounds like "Point of Know Return"-era Kansas interpreting the E.T. score. The next hour and a half was an unfocused haze, but a steadily improving venture, in that its indulgences started to sound dirtier and druggier, more Spaceman 3 psychedelic than Gentle Giant psychedelic. At the end they were kind enough to finally perform the anthemic "Burden," the first proper song on XIV, but by then it sounded...well, too stripped down, too concise. Where were the keyboard flourishes, the layers of African percussion? I realized I'd been there too long, went home, and put on a Neil Young record.
Primal Scream The Palace, Melbourne (January 28)
"I watched that Clash film the other day. I was almost in tears. That band were so much in love with their music," said Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie recently. "Music today seems so loveless and so conservative."
It must be difficult being Gillespie. People expect so much of you. Wanting to get higher. And higher. Expecting continual revolutions in the wake of 1991's epoch-defining Screamadelica. Never understanding that the secret of music is to get wasted and stay wasted. But they should take a look at Primal Scream. They should listen to records like the nihilistic Kowalski and much misunderstood Give Out but Don't Give Up. Primal Scream aren't about revolution, they just want to have fun. ("What is it that you want to do?/We want to be free to do what we want to do/We want to get loaded and have a good time.") Turn the lights on low, freak out. Play "Moving On Up," the whole crowd singing along. Rap like the genre's just been invented ("Pills"), inciting people to riot/dance with your fucked-up speech. Sink down into a deep, stoned trance with some of the funkiest bass riffs ever made by white boys.
Primal Scream may be on the cutting edge of dance, through their association with Chemical Brothers and David Holmes, but Gillespie, like Joe Strummer before him, is in love with rock 'n' roll as the Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone and the MC5 defined it. Loud, in-your-face and aware.
Gillespie tonight barely says a word to his audience. He bobs and weaves and feints like a boxer who could be knocked down by a punch from the weediest of opponents. The muscle comes in the three guitarists?My Bloody Valentine's noise-terrorist Kevin Shields foremost among them?and massive, pumping bass lines from ex-Stone Roses Mani. They rage through a surprisingly lively version of "Rocks." It's no surprise they finish the evening with a highly charged version of "Kick Out the Jams!" Their whole shtick nowadays is an extended call to arms. To rock. Rock is almost dead, but you're still in love with rock 'n' roll. What to do? Pump the volume up, take the stage with a blistering, stunning array of strobe guns and flashing lights...and then pump the volume some more. Primal Scream are so loud they make teeth vibrate. The new single "Swastika Eyes" is almost enervating in its intensity, fully spiteful. And yet it's obvious they'd turn the volume up higher if they could. Primal Scream are such a cliched, classic rock band in so many respects?the guitar freakouts, the covers ("I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night"), the rock encores, the way Gillespie holds his tambourine like a younger, sleazier Jagger. But it's because they're so in love with rock 'n' roll that they have to keep reinventing the genre and creating songs like the four-on-the-floor "Exterminator" and jazz-centric "Blood Money." That's why "Accelerator" is so frantic and distorted, why "If They Move, Kill 'Em" sounds light-years ahead of its time. If Primal Scream stops, the rock might stop. And that would never do.