As published in The New Mexican
When I heard "Once Upon a Time," the first song from My Secret Life, the new album by Eric Burdon, I was disheartened. Here's another washed-up old rock star pining for the good old days and that old-time rock 'n' roll. The second track, "Motorcycle Girl," which has a taste of Burdon's classic shouting and some flamenco-pop guitar, was better, so I didn't turn the CD off.
And good thing. The third song, a beefy minor-key blues-rocker called "Over the Border," is a berserk Tarantinoesque tale of drugs, paranoia, murder and betrayal. Burdon growls, wails and struts over the bound-for-battle B-3 organ of Mike Finnigan. Burdon attacks it as if this is the song that's been waiting for him all his life: "30 years on the highway running/I've got a trunk full of guns no love and no woman," he bellows in the bridge, his voice barely showing any age.
Burdon's been running down the highway for well more than 30 years. His old band the Animals is the most underrated British Invasion group. Sure, "House of the Rising Sun" is a mainstay of oldies radio. And "We've Got to Get Out of This Place" is used for great comic effect in Fahrenheit 9/11, as Michael Moore discusses the bin Laden family and other Saudi Arabians slipping out of the country right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But the Animals never got the respect bestowed upon the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks. Maybe it's because they were too meat-and-potatoes looking to become the darlings of French fashion magazines, like the Stones were. Or maybe it was because the Animals wrote little of their own material, most of which was old blues tunes and souped-up Brill Building offerings.
While others of his generation have remained in the public eye, Burdon basically sank from view after splitting from War, the influential funk-rock band he made famous in the early '70s. But he's been plugging away ever since, recording for tiny, unknown labels, doing an occasional Animals revival, playing casinos and living the blues he sings.
"Over the Border" is definitely the highlight of My Secret Life, but there are other gut punchers too. "The Secret" is full of crime and voodoo, while "Highway 62" is a tale of drugs, death and motorcycles.
"Black and White World" is a garage band/ska romper with an electric organ that recalls original Animal Alan Price.
Though the opening song, in which the singer yearns for the days of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley and other singers, is a sentimental dud, Burdon does some tribute songs here that work. "Jazzman," featuring cool sax and trumpet, is a Van Morrison-worthy ode to Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and "Philly" Joe Jones. "Can't Kill the Boogieman" is a pounding invocation of the late John Lee Hooker. This is appropriate. Jillions of Americans, including me, were led to Hooker via the Animals' version of "Boom Boom."
And there are a couple of impressive covers here. Burdon does a slow, gospelish version of the Talking Heads' "Heaven." And the title song is a soul ballad written by Leonard Cohen.
This is such a rockin' CD, it makes me want to seek out some of Burdon's other little-heard works from the past 30 years.
Ashgrove by Dave Alvin. Like Eric Burdon, Alvin pays tribute on his latest record to venerated old blues sages whose music moved him as a youth.
But the title song, a stinging blues shuffle named for the long-gone Los Angeles blues club where Alvin saw many members of the blues pantheon, isn't just a nostalgic look at the good old days. There's a gnawing dread and bitter regret here that undermines the happy boyhood memories. "Tryin' to make a livin', tryin' to pay the rent, tryin' to figure out where my life went," Alvin moans.
But not all is despair. As the song progresses Alvin makes it clear that his chosen path as a musician, "raising the ghosts" of Big Joe and Lightnin', not only gives him purpose, but gives a little joy and maybe even a little hope to the people he plays for.
Songs as good as this - and albums as good as this - indeed are beacons in difficult times.
And this is only the first song on the album, which is packed with jaw-dropping tunes; thanks mainly to Alvin's understated electric guitar, aided by guitar and steel-guitar monster Greg Leisz, the music is nearly as moving as the stories Alvin sings.
Some of my favorites:
"Nine Volt Heart," featuring Chris Gaffney on background harmonies, is the story of a kid whose life is changed by a car radio, which he discovers while his mom is looking for his dad in a bar.
"Out of Control" is a classic Alvin tough-guy tune. The narrator is a speed-dealing pimp who sits in his car with a gun as his girl is "puttin' on a show for some chump" in a motel room, and he sometimes calls on his ex-wife who's found the Lord, but he still likes to get "out of control."
Alvin wrote "The Man in the Bed" for his late father. Though he's weak and helpless and hospitalized, the old man has the spirit of the wild youth who rode the rails in the Depression and fought in World War II and organized unions, and who knows that he could have broken the heart of the young nurse tending him. "The man in the bed isn't me/Now I slipped out the door and I'm runnin' free." Alvin sings this sad acoustic waltz softly, as if he doesn't want to wake the subject of his song.
This is Alvin's first album of new original material since 1998's Blackjack David. After an album of folk tunes (Public Domain) and a live album (Out in California) I was beginning to worry that Alvin had lost his muse.
Those fears can be put to rest.
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