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What happens when rockers get old?

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The Eels
Gus Black
The Eels

Artists Derek Smalls and The Eels lead musical meditations on what it means to age.

Each week, Take Two contributors review some of the most ear-catching new releases. This week, Steve Hochman takes us on a musical journey through the rock-and-roll scrapbook.

Artist: Derek Smalls

Album: “Smalls Change”

It Don’t Get Old''

Smalls Change

Steve Hochman says:

Under the wig and whiskers, woven into the wit and whimsy and bloated rock ’n’ roll bluster of this belated solo debut from Spinal Tap bassist Smalls are some poignant, even touching meditations upon aging. As it happens, “Meditations Upon Ageing,” yes, with the errant “e,” is the subtitle of the album. But then that was always key to the Spinal Tap oeuvre. The 1984 rockumentary showed us a group whose time had come and gone, now powered by equal measures of desperation and obliviousness. The reunion tour a decade later was replete with gags about it — the putative sponsor was an adult diapers brand. 

All these years later, some measures of self-awareness have taken hold, and Smalls is ready to take stock. Sometimes you have to dig way under the bluster, not to mention the crude sexual boasting and undyingly adolescent allegiance to the rawk life — the “it” of the song “It Never Gets Old,” even if he has. “Hell Toupee”? “MRI”? You get the idea, but it’s there, and sometimes right there on the surface, as in the pointedly ponderous title song. 

Of course, under the wig and whiskers is Harry Shearer, the master satirist, writer, filmmaker and voice of dozens of beloved “Simpsons” characters, who created Spinal Tap with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and director Rob Reiner. 

What made Spinal Tap such brilliant satire, which far outshone and outlived many that it skewered, is how close it hewed to reality and, most significantly, how lovingly it did it. After living with Small for all these years, it seems Shearer’s love for him has only deepened (along with Smalls’ craggy croak of a voice). How much of this battle with mortality is Shearer’s too? Draw your own conclusions.

To pull this off, he enlisted an impressive roster of fellow travelers, including guitarists Steve Vai, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter,  Peter Frampton Richard Thompson and Toto’s Steve Lukather, drummers Jim Keltner, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins. Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen guests on “Memo to Willie,” a jazz-rock rumination on erectile dysfunction. The title track features operatic vocals by Greek diva Carmena Popallova (that’s Judith Owen, Shearer’s considerably talented singer-songwriter wife). And there are several nice references to old Tap tunes, including “Gimme Some (More) Money,” a sequel to the minor ‘60s hit by pre-Tap band the Thamesmen, co-written by McKean in his David St. Hubbins guise, and featuring vocals from David Crosby.

Longtime Tap fans might be disappointed, or perhaps relieved, that we don’t get the “Jazz Odyssey,” the freeform excursion heard in a snippet in the original movie. But take solace in the majesty of the closing, the nine-plus-minutes epic, “When Men Did Rock,” complete with twin guitar leads, blaring horns and soaring strings and roiling organ and synth solos from prog-rocker Rick Wakeman of Yes. Men still rock. They just creak more while doing it.

Artist: Eels
Album: “The Deconstruction”

The Deconstruction

Today is the Day

Steve Hochman says:

“The deconstruction has begun,” sings Mark Oliver Everett, a.k.a. A Man Called E, a.k.a. The maestro of the Eels, to open this new album, “Time for Me to Fall Apart.” 

If mortality lurks around the corner for Derek Smalls and Harry Shearer, it’s right there in the middle of the road for Everett.  That’s nothing new for him, and if you heard him on “Fresh Air” last week, you know all about it. Twenty years ago, the second Eels album “Electro-Shock Blues” was an emotional exploration of his sister’s suicide and mother’s cancer death, leaving him the last member of his family. His award-winning 2007 documentary, “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” was a voyage of discovery about his father, physicist Hugh Everett and his many-worlds quantum theories, who died of a heart attack when his son was just 19. Mark discovered his body. His last album, “The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett,” as self-reflexive as the title makes you expect, was released just as he approached 51, the age at which his father died.

Having passed that personal milestone/millstone, he now seems to have come to a point where he sees that mortality in the road, shrugs, and moves around it. There’s more to life than death. In “Rusty Pipes” he references “the party that you don’t want to be ever invited to, but you’ll be going anyway.” But right after that, in the interlude “The Epiphany,” he sings, “I can’t go back, but I can make today a memory to last,” leading right into the bubbly dawning of  sunshiny “Today is the Day.” If darkness at times has been the rule with Everett, here it serves more to reveal the light.

“The world is a mess,” he writes in a note about the album on his website. “This is just music. Music by someone who tends to believe that change starts in your backyard. I’m optimistic enough to believe that kind of thing can still help people.”

That carries into — and is carried by — the music throughout the album. Even the most muted emotions are borne on bright tunes, even Everett’s most dour tones drawn from the darkness into the light. “Be Hurt,” he advises in a song toward the end of the album. But the real message, it seems, is don’t let that hurt be all you are.

Artist: God’s Children
Album: “Music Is the Answer: The Complete Collection”

Music Is the Answer

Steve Hochman says:

In an earlier era of this radio station, Saturday nights belonged to a DJ known as Sancho — Daniel Castro Ph.D., in so-called real life — who mined the musical riches rooted in East L.A. and Mexican-American culture, from Richie Valens through Los Lobos. One key band in that was Thee Midniters, whose mid-‘60s evolution from garage-rockers (a 1965 regional hit version of “Land of a Thousand Dances”) to emerging Chicano consciousness (1967’s “The Ballad of Cesar Chavez” and “Chicano Power”) reflected and fueled a cultural rise and whose “Whittier Blvd.” remains a boisterous community anthem.

“Music Is the Answer” documents a subsequent, brief and largely lost chapter of that. In 1970, three years after the Midniters broke up, core members Little Willie G. (Willie Garcia) and Lil’ Ray (Ray Jimenez) reunited to form God’s Children. In the intervening time, what their prior band had been part of had flourished into new sounds and new possibilities, along with pop culture around it, from the psychedelic salsa-rock of Santana to the Latin dance-soul of East L.A.’s El Chicano and Tierra. Garcia and Jimenez approached their new project with great ambition to move their music forward, bringing in Lydia Amescua as co-lead singer and broadening the range of sounds, even adding choreography to the stage presentation. A deal came from Uni Records, but only a few singles resulted, with little exposure. And that was that.

Now, though, the entire recording catalog of God’s Children — 14 tracks, eight previously unreleased, including several versions of a couple of songs — reveals the ambition in action, at times tentatively, but with great promise. 

The quasi-trippiness of “Music is the Answer,” the pumping beat of “Makes No Difference” and the soul balladry of  “Go Away” and “Brown Baby” all show a vision that had it gotten more exposure could have stood alongside El Chicano, Malo, Tierra and others that helped shape that era of Mexican-American pop.

Rock historians might be drawn to the six previously unreleased recordings that have the group backed by the famed Wrecking Crew studio sessions, including Leon Russel on piano, Carole Kaye on bass and Hal Blaine on drums. But it’s the earthiness of God’s Children’s sessions here that give the best glimpse into something that deserves another shot all these years later.

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