Monday, March 10, 2008

No. 401: (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)

Band: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Album: (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In addition to "Freebird," the album has "Gimme Three Steps" and "Tuesday's Gone," all classics within the Skynyrd catalog. Taking a page from the Allmans, Skynyrd's three-guitar attack and lush production from Al Kooper made for their most accomplished and complex record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not the biggest Southern rock fan (more on that in a bit), but this album is certainly a classic.
Best song: "Freebird" is a rock and roll classic.
Worst song: I don't like "Mississippi Kid."
Is it awesome?: Yes, actually.

For the vast majority of my music-loving life, I've professed an antipathy towards Lynyrd Skynyrd. I mentioned it in passing in my Allman Brothers piece (and in my "Paranoid" piece), but moreso in talking to anyone who would listen, I would mention how much I didn't like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Mostly, I'd mention things like their showing the rebel flag at their shows (or calling an album "The Last Rebel"), the amount of twang in their vocals, their celebration of the American South (and the subsequent feud with Neil Young), the silliness that is people shouting "Freebird" at concerts and my general thought process that Skynyrd fans are uneducated, NASCAR-watching, American beer-drinking folks.

In short, it was mostly racism/classism/whatever. It was prejudice.

Sometimes, this type of assumption works and sometimes it doesn't. I've heard a fair amount of Molly Hatchet songs now and can definitely conclude that Molly Hatchet stinks. The Allman Brothers are simply a Southern Grateful Dead and I don't like the Dead. Mountain is terrible. A lot of Southern rock really sucks.

In my defense, part of music's draw is that we can identify with the artist's emotion and storytelling. The best love songs conjure up our own past relationships and the artists we often identify with most are those who speak to our experiences. This is, to be honest, why I don't like blue collar rock or Southern rock. I have never uttered the phrase "kinfolk" outside of total irony or mocking, yet Skynyrd uses it on the song "Poison Whiskey." Of course I'm not going to immediately identify with that.

However, to say Skynyrd totally sucks were premature. I was going off the ill-researched impressions of Skynyrd fans and painting the music as such. In short, I hadn't listened to much of the band.

Two things turned me. The first was when Built to Spill covered "Freebird" on their 2001 tour and subsequent release (to college radio) a single of the band playing it live. I saw BTS on that tour and they played several covers (Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" and George Harrison's "What is Life?" being two others I saw them play), but "Freebird" was one of the encores and the highlight of the show.

In my listening to BTS play the song on my iPod in the subsequent time since that show, I've come to appreciate two things. First, the musicianship of BTS is pretty amazing, to replicate the complexity of the solo note-for-note is amazing.

More importantly, though, the song is a beautifully written piece of music. Despite the overall simplicity of the song's lyric (birds are free. I gotta be free like a bird. So I can fly.), it's achingly sang by Ronnie Van Sandt, and, really, the vocals play second fiddle to the actual musicianship of the band. Slide guitars are almost always effective in augmenting an acoustic song (George Harrison's version of "If Not For You" is a great example) and "Freebird" is no exception. The song's slow, almost gospel beginning is sweet and uses the slide guitar to maximum advantage to then break into, well, something. It's probably best described as one of the best guitar solos in the history of rock and roll.

I was talking to a friend of mine last week about it and said "I used to hate this song. Boy, was I wrong. If you like awesome guitar playing and melody, you have to like 'Freebird.'"


Of course, the record isn't just that song. The popular "Tuesday's Gone" is a '70s classic and like all great sad love songs, puts melancholy into song well. Producer Al Kooper's (yes, that Al Kooper) mellotron makes for a more lush arrangement on the whole album, and "Tuesday's Gone" is the perfect example of this (though, his organ-playing on "Freebird" is a strong case, too).

"I Ain't the One" and "Gimme Three Steps" are based around strong guitar riffs and Ronnie Van Sant's wild west lyrics. Each is undeniable fun, though I'd hardly claim either is a classic. "Simple Man" is a little overwrought, but, still a really strong track. And "Poison Whiskey" is a bizarre lyric, but a cool riff.

Certainly, the centerpiece of the album is "Freebird" and that song is a classic on par with some of the other epic songs in music history ("Stairway to Heaven" is probably the best analogue). But, (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)is a great album. I'm glad I was wrong about Skynyrd.


kellydwyer said...

I misread one line in this review, and thought you wrote, "I've seen my fair share of Molly Hatchet shows ..."

That struck as a little odd, until I re-read. I'm kind of pissed that I re-read it. I kind of like the idea of RG finding his way to county fair after county fair, a full-on Hatchethead.

Now that I think about it, the ability to call oneself a Hatchethead would seem like reason enough to become a fan of Molly Hatchet.

On another front, I remember a friend and I going down a list of Hatchet album titles in my RS almanac during junior high, and remarking about how they all sounded like things the gym teacher from Beavis and Butthead would yell.

AND, I've completely made another comment entirely about myself.

R.J. said...

No, dude, I've heard a lot of Molly Hatchet on the radio. I almost immediately turn it off. I don't care for Molly Hatchet.

I used to wonder who buys all this Southern rock, but then realized that I grew up in the suburbs of a northern city where guns are basically banned and there are bumper stickers that say "Face it, you lost" with the confederate flag on them. So, there's that.

padraig said...

molly hatchet does suck, but i feel a little obligated to defend Mountain, or at least their first album - I started listening to em' mainly cause one of their songs had a drum break that's been sampled in hip hop a million times and used on a slew of really famous beats. their first album, (which doesn't include that drum break) is pretty great if you're into the classic powerful rock trio, which admittedly I'm usually not - somewhere between Cream (their bassist was Cream's producer) and Blue Cheer. also, kinda ironically, despite their association with southern rock they're actually from NY - the fat guitarist dude talks with a ridiculous Long Island accent.

also, I hear where you're coming from re: Skynrd - I grew up with them on the radio too. these days the only song of theirs I still enjoy is "Simple Man", probably precisely because it is so overwrought.

R.J. said...

Padraig, I have to say, my thoughts on Mountain are mostly peppered by my hearing of only a few selected Mountain songs. I'm not a fan of any of those songs. I was not aware that they were from Long Island, though. Doesn't make me like 'em, but still.

Skynyrd, or at least this album, is good. I went into it thinking I'd hate it, but those songs are really fun. "Freebird" is a classic, certainly, but the emotional force behind "Tuesday's Gone" and "Simple Man" is pretty impressive. Sure, I think the songs are a little melodramatic, but there's value in that sometimes.

padraig said...

don't get me wrong - I'm not saying Mountain is all that great, just that they're a cut above generic southern rock like Hatchet or .38 Special or whatever. the only reason people even associate them with it is the title of "Mississippi Queen", I think - the same way a lot of people still think John Fogerty and co. were actually from southern Louisiana, though the dudes from Mountain weren't disenguous about it in the same way. they predated the rise of Skynyrd/Allmans by a few years (they played Woodstock) and like I said, along with Blue Cheer they're really more in the Hendrix/Cream power trio tradition. hell, I'd rather listen to Pharoahe Monch or Ghostface than any of that stuff, but you get my point.

and I agree that Skynyrd's first album is pretty undeniable - the politics seem dodgy but I think that, like many musicians, it's a segment of their fanbase more than the actual dudes themselves - people misinterpret those lines from "Sweet Home Alabama", which I always took as being critical of George Wallce, the infamous segregationist. I thought it was mostly just pointing out Neil Young's, and more generally Northerners hypocrisy, which I whole-heartedly support. Ronnie Van Zant even said he didn't agree with Wallace cause he didn't like his views on race.

R.J. said...

I'll couch this in a few statements that sound like I'm waffling, so maybe I am, but let me say that I grew up in the suburbs of a Northern city with friends from all different walks of life. New Trier Township, as I know it, only sees one color: Green. Still, the idea of "Southern Culture" is one that I can't really ever wrap my brain around.

Also, Ronnie Van Zandt died years before I was even a thought in my parents' heads. I can't speak to the culture of the 1970s from anything other than the massive amount of TV I've seen and the stuff I've read.

With all that said, I cannot and will not ever understand how Southerners can embrace the rebel flag. To a Northerner like myself, it symbolizes little other than racism and the opposition forces in our civil war. I am not a flag-waver by any means -- the only flag I actually own is a Chicago flag -- and I am a patriot in that I believe in the Bill of Rights over everything. But, to celebrate the Confederacy? That's just ludicrous.