Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Friday, July 13, 2012
Sonny Smith’s reputation to this point has been a pop dude doing double time in the art world. But with Sonny and the Sunsets’ Longtime Companion he makes a serious play for both country-rock and the decidedly dicey proposition of the Breakup Record. While the least of the Sunsets’ releases thus far, it still proves worth the effort, particularly for fans of strong contemporary songwriting.
Pop troubadours don’t usually come with pedigrees that include playwriting and performance art, and that’s just one aspect of Sonny Smith’s persona that’s helped to make him so interesting. To be sure this kind of artistic double dipping can lead to underwhelming and occasionally even irritating results, mainly due to simple creative arrogance.
But in reality musicians have been double and triple dipping into diverse artistic mediums for a very long time; John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Richard Hell all published books for instance. And outside the realm of rock music Tony Bennett is a prolific painter and Louis Armstrong was a truly inspired collage artist.
At this late date artistic multi-dipping is far from any great surprise, but in rock terms the story of Sonny Smith still feels a bit unusual, maybe even fanciful. Out on the road at nineteen years old, playing blues piano in bars? Sounds like the makings of a really good screenplay. Original songs, short stories and even some plays get penned along the way? How Beat. And then that commission from the literary magazine arrives, compelling him to put together a CD of those plays set to music? Really, this is getting almost too good to be true.
But One Act Plays essentially served as Smith’s coming out party, in large part due to the participation of such notables as Neko Case, Jolie Holland, American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel and Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer. The inclusion of the last two names is no accident; Smith’s a San Francisco boy.
But if sensibly touched by the hand of regionalism, his focus reached far beyond the norms of mere geographical musical networking, for the songs behind 100 Records, a project that provided Smith with another large spike in notoriety, all began their lives as part of an art instillation.
100 Records found one hundred different artists creating seven inch picture sleeves for their own fictive bands/performers with Smith then writing two songs to accompany each. Any way it’s sliced an endeavor of this magnitude stood as a major challenge. If only halfway successful it would still reek strongly of failure, presenting an aura of that aforementioned creative arrogance, even if the intention was actually just ambitiousness.
Thankfully for Smith and for listeners he proved up to the task, displaying chops and imagination to spare, and since that time he’s been off to the races under the moniker of Sonny and the Sunsets. 2009 saw the release of Tomorrow is Alright on the Soft Abuse label and last year found him/them on Fat Possum with Hit After Hit.
Both records found Smith honing rare songwriting ability and a breadth of influence that was at times striking in how it all registered as one guy’s inspired output. However, they could also be adequately summed up as blending Smith’s penchant for old-school pop simplicity (like a lot of relative new jacks, he’s a big doo-wop fan) with a smartly applied swath of friendly contempo psyche action. In my neighborhood that’s what’s called good stuff.
Now here’s Longtime Companion, the country informed Breakup Record. Another dangerous and yes potentially disastrous move from a guy who seems to love these kinds of chances, but due to Smith’s talent as a writer and his heretofore lack of interest in waxing overly autobiographical, he avoids falling into the trap of cringe-inducing confessionals, painful polemics or woe-is-me platitudes. In the end Smith delivers his least successful document under the Sunsets banner, though to be fair the record only really suffers in comparison to his previous pair.
Choosing country music as the vehicle for an examination of lover’s heartbreak might seem like cliché. In fact that’s exactly what it is, but instead of straining for a spurious authenticity Smith smartly settles for alt-country legitimacy that works rather well across Longtime Companion’s ten tracks. “Sea of Darkness” comes closest to achieving an actual country aura, thanks to some boldly honky-tonk-like steel guitar. It’s ultimately more Byrdsian than Buck Owens-esque however, and the sound of Smith’s voice, a bit like a smoother, more relaxed Peter Stempfel, is just the kind of thing to make Ralph Emery spit bullets.
Much of the record might be better described as radiating an alt-folky vibe, a sound immediately palpable on opener “I Was Born”, which begins with some home-spun picking only to see those basics embellished with swells of fragile flute. To be sure, it’s a sound by now well worn with precedent, but Smith avoids the trite with subtle touches, in particular the tough simplicity of a hi-hat rhythm, it’s locomotion helping to keep those flutes from sounding too precious, as flutes are wont to do.
“Dried Blood” increases Smith’s vocal similarity to Stempfel, and in fact the tune sounds somewhat like an outtake from a lost (and sadly mythical) Holy Modal Rounders session recorded at the barn of Owen Bradley roughly circa ’68. And the arrival of some rollicking barrelhouse piano midway through the track only adds to this situation.
This, along with a few very brief nods to Michael Hurley, assists Longtime Companion in shaping up as a fresh extension of last decade’s New Weird affairs, closer to Devendra Banhart and Vetiver than his San Fran subterranean-pop cohorts Fresh and Onlys and Shannon and the Clams. But as the record progresses this freakishly folky aspects lessens considerably, replaced by a quality mildly reminiscent of Conor Oberst in Mystic Valley Band mode.
Well-drawn alt-folk, again; the major difference is that Oberst is very much a heart on the sleeve kind of guy and Smith, even when recording an album inspired by the end of a ten year relationship, prefers varying amounts of emotional distance.
Smith’s detachment and his even-handedness help Longtime Companion to transcend its major flaw. Specifically, the record’s first half bogs down with three tracks that needed some editing for length. “Pretend You Love Me”, the best of the trio, unfolds like a fine slice of pop from the ‘70s Laurel Canyon. The song’s duration alone (five and a half minutes, to be clear) isn’t a problem, but when placed between “Children of the Beehive” and the extended country shuffle of “Year of the Cock” the trifecta adds up to a need for the concise.
The record rebounds solidly in its second half however, beginning with the sweet and lean instrumental workout “Rhinestone Sunset”. It all starts in a rather trad-country frame of mind, coming off like one of those honky-tonk breakdowns where every player gets a little time to strut their stuff and toss off some sweet licks, but soon enough the spotlight is given over to synths, electric keyboards and yes those flutes, an instrument that’s a recurring motif on Longtime Companion. And “Rhinestone Sunset” leads into the warm strangeness of “I See a Void”, the album’s strongest individual track, at least at this early point.
The rest of the album just rolls. The prominent pedal steel continues from “Sea of Darkness” into “My Mind Messed Up”, though again its presence signifies far less of a natural Nashville inflection than it recalls the hippie-country sound of CSN&Y’s “Teach Your Children”.
And the closing title track deepens Longtime Companion’s often superb designs as a real player’s record. While the disc assuredly exists to map out a bevy of emotional issues to Smith’s satisfaction, it’s nice to find him not forsaking the musicianship in fleshing out a way forward. Therefore, the album works for us as well as for him.So if the least satisfying Sonny and the Sunsets release, Longtime Companion’s lesser status isn’t any cause for concern. It’s simply a breakup record from a guy that was once more likely to get wrote up in Artforum than in Rolling Stone. In other words, it’s another step in Sonny Smith’s unusual trip. Personally, I’d like to hear him return to that pop smorgasbord approach, but whatever path he chooses from here will be intriguing at the very least.
Mission of Burma have just released Unsound, their fourth record since reforming in 2002, and it continues the odds defying level of quality that marks them as the indie-rock reunion against which all others will be compared. The secret seems to be an unusually high personal standard combined with a desire to not take it all too seriously. That and excellent songs, of course.
I’m just going to come right out and say it; Mission of Burma’s second incarnation is the more impressive of their existence’s two segments, and as strong as the reunited original lineup of fellow Massachusetts residents Dinosaur Jr. has been (both on record and in the club), it still takes a backseat to Burma’s rekindled achievement.
Obviously many, even partisans of the band’s current activities, will balk at this assessment, mainly because their Mk I discography, while the leanest oeuvre of all the life-changing ’80s American underground proto-indie bands, is very persuasively the most accomplished pound-for-pound; a seven inch, an EP, an LP and a live album, and all of them stone classics.
Plus, in the context of first-wave hardcore’s last-stand and subsequent fallout, Burma’s expansive sound and manner of conduct served as a real guiding light for those looking for an alternative to the restrictions of the Loud Fast Rules. In this regard they shared the stage with Hüsker Dü, but the main difference between the two entities was Burma’s music being significantly more cerebral in execution, a reality that helped to keep the blatant copyists at a minimum and the late ‘80s backlash at bay.
Backlash? Yeah, by 1988 actually finding copies of Mission of Burma’s Ace of Hearts releases was a total chore, so the Rykodisc label undertook a stuffed to the gills, eighty-plus minute (the first of its kind) self-titled compact disc that served as the actual introduction for many listeners (such as yours truly) to an already hallowed group.
The problem many older, undeniably grumpy fanzine types had with this once-posthumous flowering was less a musical beef than a case of bitterness (some might say sour grapes) over the perception of many peers and a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies (such as yours truly) leaping onto a bandwagon that five years prior held a surplus of elbow room.
Because of all those ‘80s u-ground entities, let’s call them the Our Band Could Be Your Life bands, Burma was the least appreciated while extant, a fact that’s assisted in making that rather amazing output of their first phase (that’s ’79 to ’83) register as even more remarkable in retrospect. Indeed, listening repeatedly to the pure manna of that Rykodisc CD really drove home that a whole mess of ears missed sailing on a ridiculously beautiful boat.
But in reality Mission of Burma wasn’t ignored, at least not on their home turf, where they were played on both college and commercial FM radio. They were simply misapprehend by many, taken for granted by others, and perceived as too mature by the stubble-domed youth of Boston’s regenerative punk scene. Ahead of the curve and belatedly adored; it all adds up to a situation called Legendary Status.
And any band of that distinction that reconvenes with the intention of releasing new music courts serious disaster. But even if that circumstance is successfully dodged, it’s still a near cinch that no matter how positive a reaction said group’s fresh output receives it will still take a backseat to the old stuff.
Not that many of these bands have the guts to step forth with new material after being anointed with the distinction of cornerstone act, and understandably so, since the fear of public failure is simply too great. It’s much safer to just take the old stuff on tour for the big money grab ala The Pixies or Pavement.
But Burma’s first reunion shows in ’02 and the release of ONoffON two years later were openly about unfinished business; their breakup wasn’t due to intra-band conflict or displeasure with their level of success after all, it was related directly to Roger Miller going deaf.
That ugly affliction called Tinnitus brought them to an abrupt halt. And it was Miller’s rehabbed ears and a general desire for a more appropriate sense of closure, particularly after getting enshrined in the indie-rock pantheon that found Burma back together again. And it all went so well that guitarist Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott, with Shellac’s Bob Weston replacing Martin Swope as tape-looper/soundman, have continued to release records with a refreshing and rather rare general attitude, electing to challenge each other with the task of creating a consistently evolving Mk II discography.
On the face of it this mindset might seem the least any band charging cash on the barrelhead for records or live shows should muster, but the sad temperament behind so many releases old and new falls much closer to the motto “Hey, it beats working for a living”. Unsound, Mission of Burma’s third full-length since reignition, continues their improbable trajectory of quality by both refusing to settle for formula and by persisting in sidestepping the generally impossible expectations of Legendary Status.
To wit, Burma has smartly avoided the impulse to top the elevated standing of their past recordings. Instead, from ‘06’s The Obliterati to this latest release, the stated desire has been to simply make strong, satisfying records from within the general parameters of the Mission of Burma sound, a point of attack that provides far more leeway than expected. The only standard the band has taken to heart is its own; avoid going through the motions.
Much of the vitality in Burma’s second life rests upon the unabashed heaviness of their sound. While ‘82’s Vs. and especially the ’85 live LP The Horrible Truth About Burma indicated the level of raucousness the band was capable of delivering, studio material like ‘80’s “Academy Fight Song” 7-inch and the following year’s Signals, Calls and Marches EP deliberately put the Art in front of the Rock, and added a hyphen for good measure.
However, the band’s three Matador releases and Unsound, their first for UK label Fire, bring forth the power without any hesitation, sounding much closer to the band’s live sound. And this has been achieved without sacrificing those highly defining “art-rock” traits.
In fact, “Dust Devil”, Unsound’s two minute opener, combines these attributes as strongly as anything they’ve released in the 21st Century, blending moments of tough angularity with suitably tight rhythmic propulsion and throwing in their smart and distinctive vocal weave.
But there are surprises in store, such as guitarist Miller’s use of effects pedal on “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan”. Specifically, it greatly emphasizes the psyche/Detroit angle that’s always bubbled under the surface in Burma’s story, for not only did Miller originally hail from Ann Arbor MI (home of The Stooges, dontcha know) but Sproton Layer, his high school band with younger bros Ben and Larry, kicked up some impressive psychedelic dust via some recordings circa 1970.
Those tapes were later issued by the New Alliance label twenty-two years later under the title With Magnetic Fields Disrupted, and the record not only shed valuable light upon Miller’s formative years but also helped to explain why Burma came off so levelheaded and well focused in a sea of youngsters exemplifying the opposite.
But outside of Horrible Truth’s smoking cover of The Stooges’ “1970” and their live take of Barrett-era Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine”, Burma has generally tended toward cultivating their punk (or post-punk, if you prefer) sensibility, as their renditions of Pere Ubu, The Dils and The Wipers testify.
And on Unsound’s “Sectionals in Mourning”, “This is Hi-Fi” and “Second Television” the band continue mining that art-punk reserve with prime results. But “Part the Sea” works up an anthemic, fist pumping head of steam markedly different than anything I’ve heard from Burma before, and “Fell-->H2O” opens and closes with a tidy yet endearingly odd little psyche-funk guitar progression that had me picturing a dusted Robbie Krieger riffing in praise of the peace frog. Like, heavy man.
Due to the inclusion of trumpet the cuts “ADD in Unison” and “What They Tell Me” will bring the highest level of attention to Burma’s stated desire to keep it fresh through mixing up and messing with the program. But the appearance of Bob Weston’s tasty horn licks is far from the only striking departure on “ADD in Unison”, for Miller’s writing on the track’s first half pushes the same lovely buttons as Mike Watt’s work of recent vintage. And any Pedro/Beantown overlap is a mighty fine development to these ears, as is Weston’s spray of loosey-goosey valve-splatter on “What They Tell Me”; did somebody say art-punk?
To close, Unsound is a very well assembled record. Beginning with the short blast of “Dust Devil”, it quickly segues into the disc’s heartiest, lengthier numbers before wrapping up with a galvanizing three-punch combo of effective brevity; “7’s”, “What They Tell Me” and the ripping denouement that is “Opener”, a near instrumental save for the phrase repeated emphatically at track’s end, the last sound’s heard from this superb album: “Forget what you know”.Picking the finest full length Mission of Burma album is a very easy task, for Vs. is essentially a perfect record, one of the ‘80s Ten Best in this writer’s estimation. To decide upon the band’s second best is an endeavor far more difficult, and Unsound has happily complicated the effort even more.
Friday, July 6, 2012
Joseph's Picks Of The Week 7/6/12 - Chain & The Gang and Neneh Cherry & The Thing and The Electric Mess
Chain & the Gang have just released their third album, and it displays and expands upon the musical and thematic attributes that have come to define the work of Ian Svenonius over the course of the last twenty plus years. Taken individually, In Cool Blood is a solid collection of stripped down rock highly influenced by 1960s R&B and early ‘80s post-punk/DIY. But it grows substantially when considered with the rest of the band’s discography, and especially Svenonius’ oeuvre at large.
When Ian Svenonius first burst onto the scene around the turn of the 1990s with Dischord Records’ post-harDCore heavy hitters Nation of Ulysses, he wasn’t particularly identifiable as a figure that would be around for the long haul. NoU (as they were sometimes abbreviated) were boldly conceptual, fiercely polemical and some felt flat-out arrogant.
And above all, they were divisive. Detractors considered them to be a flagrant example of gratuitous playacting, an over-elaborate put-on. Those in favor loved them in the manner some display for sports teams and grand old flags. Svenonius was declared “Sassiest Boy in America” by Sassy Magazine before they even had a record out, though their blistering live show surely did precede them; they came on so strongly that it all seemed destined for brevity, just another in a labyrinthine museum maze of rock music short timers.
But occasionally these brief explosive vessels prove unexpectedly destined for longevity while artists/bands seemingly built to last end up fading out or fizzling away. Following Nation of Ulysses’ disbandment, Svenonius played the front man role in The Make-Up, an equally conceptually audacious entity that produced a surprisingly large body of recorded work and flaunted a live prowess that’s now legendary. The music hotwired mod/freakbeat high style to a platform of youth-centric social consciousness dubbed by the group as Gospel Yeh-Yeh, all before winding to a halt around the close of last millennium.
In this fresh century Svenonius has proven to be an impressive collaborator across a fairly diverse spectrum of projects. To name three; the eccentric groove-mining of sorta-supergroup Weird War, the pseudonymous “solo-project” flower-power/mod gush of David Candy and the somewhat historically focused and theatrical (at least live) Felt Letters (with Brendan Canty ex-Fugazi). Add to the equation such extra-musical concerns as essayist (his pocket-sized collection The Psychic Soviet was issued by Drag City), internet talk show host (via the program Soft Focus), astrologist as humorist (inside much missed free publication Arthur) and hipster vacation curator (for the Bruise Cruise).
Across all this activity Svenonius has shown an unusual level of astuteness in communicating recurring themes in his work. The surface contrarianism of his ideas, when coupled with his confident, extroverted, some have said dandyish personality, is enough to turn off many observers, and when factoring in the uninhibitedly backward-glancing, deceptively non-groundbreaking nature of the music, the output of Ian Svenonius is often denigrated as an underground self-indulgence. Or, in a nutshell; haters will hate.
And that’s just the way this auteur wants it, I think. Chain & the Gang is another example of this wise musical commentator’s incremental observations/obsessions upon the daily struggles and conundrums that plague contemporary life. In service of these aims he and his band mates employ certain well-honed modes and formulas and are disinclined to care if the at times barbed humor rubs certain listeners the wrong way. Nothing on In Cool Blood tempts listener hostility like Music’s Not for Everyone’s excellent jab at low self-esteem as a lifestyle “Not Good Enough”, but the air of provocateur does remain.
In some cases Chain & the Gang’s methods stretch all the back to Svenonius’ earliest stuff; with the arguable exception of NoU’s post-bop/mid-period Coltrane jazz fixation the progression of his musical proclivities has focused upon styles that were largely neglected or ignored outright beyond their direct fan bases while happening.
Think Nation of Ulysses’ juvenile delinquent/street gang imagery cross-pollinated with post-HC and given a MC5/White Panther-like revolutionary fervor (to some a shtick, yes), The Make-Up’s mod-rock simplicity fused with mock-religious youth-congress theatrics, Weird War’s street-level funk-rock wedded to a post-radical waving of the freak-flag.
More things that stay the same; since The Make-Up, Svenonius has always had a female member/foil, he also holds a severe reverence for the ritual of live music (and how live bands sound best on records), and a definite predilection for the 1960s, an era where in large part rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t yet taken seriously by the establishment.
And again, for a guy who’s been in so many bands/projects Svenonius is one of indie rock’s true beacons of consistency. If his current groups’ have become less elaborate, that’s mainly because he’s gotten so efficient at communicating his ideas. Recently, his swipes from the ‘60s rattle around in a tin can with the aura of bedroom ingenuity displayed by bushel’s full of early-‘80s small label post-punk and self-released DIY artists.
In Cool Blood’s opening track “Hunting for Love” is a perfect example, halfway between a knock-off ‘60s R&B single and something that might’ve been found on self-produced cassette in the racks of the early Rough Trade shop. Plus it features Svenonius making monkey sounds, and I’ve yet to hear it without thinking of the eternally grand “Gorilla” by The Shandells.
The LP was recorded in mono at Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic studio and presents a new lineup of Chain & the Gang. Fresh vocalist Katie Alice Greer really helps cultivate both the old-school R&B and post-punk sides of the equation here. There was already an occasional (and mild) Marvin and Tammi-like aspect to some of Chain & the Gang’s work, but with the addition of Greer it really shines.
Relevant tracks in this context would be “You Better Find Something to Do” “If I Only Had a Brain” and especially “Where Does All the Time Go?” and the fantastic “Certain Types of Trash”, where new bassist Chris Sutton lays down a line of fabulous simplicity that’ll surely kill in the club context. Vivian Girl/Coasting member Fiona Campbell takes the drum seat and does so with the necessary understated flair.
Greer has classic sass, but she also possesses a palpable intellectually-inclined swagger that reminds me of the music offered by “new wave” groups in small college towns in the dawn of Reagan. From a lyrical standpoint, a song like “Free Will” sounds positively concocted in response to a longwinded lecture from some scarecrow-thin old professor. Musically however it’s solidly in the tradition of Pac-10 frat-rock. And Greer’s deadpan on “Nuff Said” really accentuates the atypical bookish qualities that ooze from many of In Cool Blood’s grooves and how they wrap like hip vines all over that ‘60’s inclination.
This is particularly resonant on the two parts of “I’m Not Interested”; on one hand the song feels like it would’ve went down an absolute storm in a crowded faculty bar on a foggy Friday night in late autumn circa 1981. On the other, it’s clearly the work of a mind that’s not only familiar with the two parts of Eddie Bo’s masterpiece “Pass the Hatchet”, he might even own a copy for himself.
But y’know, hardly anybody cared about that Eddie Bo single when it was first released. Just like nearly all those self-produced early-‘80s cassettes floundered in the racks (if even allowed space) and were insanely obscure before Chuck Warner’s Messthetics CD-r series and an avalanche of internet blogs resuscitated a DIY revolution. And that fictional college town new wave band? Never recorded an album, though I like to imagine there’s a live tape in a shoe box somewhere just waiting for rediscovery and retrospective adulation.
In other words it’s all ephemera. Maybe the sharpest trick in Ian Svenonius’ arsenal is that he understands the value of detritus rescued and reevaluated, and the beauty of the small gesture executed for the sheer joy of pulling it off.That’s why nearly all of the records in his discography if taken in isolation can register as being achievements of an amiably mild variety. However, considered together they add up to an impressive sum that shows-off the talents of one of our shrewdest musical thinkers.
Some say Neneh Cherry is back. Nonsense, she and her vastly impressive talents never left. Some say The Thing play a load of formless racket. Hooey, they’re as methodical as an unusually suave trio of Chess Club presidents. Some say The Cherry Thing is a strange curiosity. Baloney, it’s a first-class record that details one of the strongest and most sensible collaborations of recent years.
As concerns The Cherry Thing, there are the obvious correlations and symmetries. Neneh Cherry was the step-daughter of the late great trumpeter/cornetist Don Cherry, he of the now legendary Ornette Coleman groups that basically defined an early dominant strand of free jazz.
And Scandinavian jazzmen Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten play free and hard in an extremely modern context but are also sensibly informed by the innovations of the past; therefore it’s not a bit surprising their name derives from a tune found on Where is Brooklyn?, Cherry’s 1966 Blue Note LP.
But Neneh is far more than just a flesh and blood conduit between a musically innovative ancestor and his young descendents. Some only know her through “Buffalo Stance”, her rather excellent 1988 single or the album that included it, the highly enjoyable Raw Like Sushi. Others are familiar with her follow-up albums’ Homebrew and Man, the latter featuring “7 Seconds” with Youssou N'Dour, an enormous hit nearly everywhere in the world except the United States, presumably because a big portion of Americans find the sound of voices singing in a foreign language either distasteful or unappealing.
It’s also no secret that Cherry began her career in association with post-punk cornerstones The Slits and through the formation of her own band Rip Rig + Panic. Too few have heard that group, for they were at times very good, but even fewer realize the band’s name derives from a masterful 1965 LP from Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Ignorance of this link is no crime, of course. It is worth bringing up however, for here’s Kirk on the significance of the record’s title from the original liner notes: “Rip means Rip Van Winkle (or Rest in Peace?); it's the way people, even musicians are. They're asleep. Rig means like rigor mortis. That's where a lot of peoples mind are. When they hear me doing things they didn't think I could do they panic in their minds…”
Of course, UK post-punk was rubbing up against all sorts of unexpected influences and inclusions during this era, as James Blood Ulmer’s "Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher" makes plain by its turning up on The New Musical Express’ highly representative C81 cassette. But the connection of Kirk’s above statement to the moniker of Neneh’s first band is more than just a cool reference; it also helps to illuminate how she navigated those future commercial breakthroughs with a strong artistic focus and a deep personal integrity always on hand.
Naturally, hanging out on tour busses while her stepdad broke major ground in the blending of avant-jazz and disparate global styles throughout the heady 1970s most assuredly assisted in defining the healthiness of her subsequent path, but it’s apparent that Neneh Cherry’s refusal to compromise to the often damaging concessions of odious commercial concerns should ultimately be credited to her alone; her life, musical and otherwise, didn’t start with “Buffalo Stance” and certainly didn’t end with “7 Seconds”.
As evidence, we have The Cherry Thing, a dialogue between two (or if you prefer, four) seriously inventive entities. And while six of the album’s eight pieces are interpretations of outside material, it’s inaccurate to describe the disc as a covers record; two tracks belong to the pen of contributors and are absolutely key in getting to the LPs crux of intermingling sensibilities.
Opening with “Cashback”, an outstanding Cherry original that commences with a truly killer and downright funky bass line via Håker Flaten, it sets the stage for the gradual entrance of all the other contributors; first Cherry’s assured voice and words followed by the spry, tough drumming of Nilssen-Love and the reed accents of Gustafsson, who eventually launches into fleet blasts of gruff, agitated glory in his fluid, huge soloing.
Gustafsson’s tone is no doubt formidable, but I think it’s inaccurate to describe it, or for that matter the music of The Thing overall, as being difficult. And the trio’s engagement with cover material of a popular (PJ Harvey, White Stripes, Led Zeppelin) if not necessarily populist nature informs a major part of their admirable desire to expand the possibilities of heavy duty jazz improvisation beyond the ears of the same few thousand global converts.
Sounds Like a Sandwich and Two Bands and a Legend, their pair of threeway blowouts with Norwegian indie rockers Cato Salsa Experience and Windy City multi-horn free master Joe McPhee make the point quite easily; covers range from The Sonics, The Cramps and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Don Ayler, South African trumpet titan Mongezi Feza and the aforementioned harmolodic stringduster Blood Ulmer.
The goal in The Thing’s words is to illustrate “how close musical styles are today, how similar the energy is and can be, and how much today`s audience is melted together, devoted to creative music”. And The Cherry Thing’s second and penultimate tracks bring this home with flawless expansiveness and precision.
Suicide’s magnificent “Dream Baby Dream” has fairly recently been in the spotlight as one of Bruce Springsteen’s gestures of contempo relevance, but its inclusion here sets a tone of beatific, soulful yearning, Cherry’s vocals showing her at the absolute top of her game. And the crispness of Håker Flaten’s vibraphone, the almost martial drumming of Nilssen-Love and the low-end oomph of guest Per-Ake Holmlander’s tuba contrast superbly with Cherry and Mat’s avant-gutbucket wail.
But if “Dream Baby Dream” sets an early highpoint, it doesn’t linger on that achievement, as the ominous brooding bedrock of Mats’ lungs and Håker Flaten’s bowed bass at the beginning of Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die” gives way to a deliciously gnawing groove smartly expanding upon the track’s trip-hop origins, with Cherry’s woozy/bluesy tone interlaced with some exquisite avant-priestess vocal flurries.
From there “Sudden Moment”, the album’s Gustafsson original, opens with a sturdy, accessible tone, so much so that it could be momentarily mistaken for a performance captured at one of those killer ‘70s loft sessions that Douglas Records put out as Wildflowers. The mood of this mode continues even after, oh hell especially after Cherry’s vocals enter the fabric of the fray.
And I haven’t even mentioned the massive instrumental mid-section that builds to a soaring collective passage of gorgeous “ecstatic jazz” ala those masterful late-‘60s/early-‘70s Pharaoh Sanders releases, say Karma or Black Unity for just two swell examples, though unlike some of those extensive sidelong-plus excursions, this is far more abbreviated in its flights of freedom.
Though to be correct, what’s here is not really “free”, at least not in the template of collective improvisation ala early Ornette. And The Cherry Thing is surely not avant-garde in the true sense of term. This is instead what contemporary jazz should actually encompass, specifically a study in adventurousness that is inextricable from the past but in no way beholden to it.
Maybe the most leftfield cover here is MF Doom’s “Accordion”, which is wickedly funky and true to the original, though in the tradition of “outside” jazz the music never overstates its tightness. This is particularly evident in the fiery looseness of Nilssen-Love’s drums, and it underscores one of the record’s best qualities, namely that while obviously the work of much thought and practice it never suffers from sounding rehearsed. Plus, Cherry’s swagger can’t help but remind me a bit of Jeanne Lee on Archie Shepp’s masterful Blasé.
And the reading of her step-pop’s “Golden Heart”, where the processed vocals help to pull this version of an already non-traditional tune (part of the title suite on Complete Communion, another Blue Note classic from ‘66) far away from any jazz-centric norms.
But it’s the take on The Stooges’ “Dirt” that truly seals the deal. The largeness of the opening reed flutter evidences without question that Mats is indeed a monster on whatever axe he wields, and his sawing, swaying and yes even swinging sax line expresses all that is brilliant and everlasting about Detroit’s finest sons.
All the while Cherry emotes like a woman who is not only well acquainted with the spirit of Iggy but can channel his essence with total ease, in the process sending a batch of dime-store divas far back behind the woodshed to work out some new moves. And this time Cherry joins in with the track’s instrumental freak-out, at least before it transforms into a total blizzard of 21st century skronk, a sound not unlike something recorded for the BYG/Actuel label but soaked in battery acid and slid through your mail slot by a postman who looks suspiciously like Kevin Whitehead.
It needs mentioning that “Dirt” isn’t actually on the vinyl of The Cherry Thing. It is however on the CD that’s included with the LP, a gesture that easily proves that all involved with this record’s creation and manufacture clearly get the gist of what’s currently happening on a worldwide musical scale.Winding down with a splendid version of Coleman’s “What Reason”, this release is destined to be one of the finest (and most spiritedly punk) jazz releases of the year, a circumstance that will also make it a clear contender for the best of 2012.
New York’s The Electric Mess are a garage band, but not in the contemporary sense of the term. No, this group could easily soundtrack any number of the dreams that have unraveled on the back of Lenny Kaye’s beautiful eyelids. It’s the unfettered sound of the ‘60s one-hit Farfisa drenched wonder also known as Nuggets, and on Falling Off the Face of the Earth, they largely do right by it.
But before there was a 2-LP set called Nuggets, there was of course the wave of groups that constitute its enduring essence. Garage bands in a nutshell, doing it live in parking lots and rec-centers and teen dances and opening for larger touring acts (but hardly ever in bars). Sometimes these groups managed to release a single or three that either flopped or maybe hit locally, a few actually growing into nationwide hits. The especially fortunate were able to ride regional or national success and collect enough material for an LP or two before breaking up, the tides turning to more expansive, self-conscious and heavily psychedelic rock expressiveness.
To expand just a bit, Nuggets-style action, for those maybe not familiar with its charms, is a short and sweet impulse that encompassed a wide swath of sonic ideas; frat-rock party masters, sometimes with honking sax men (The Kingsmen, The Premiers, Swingin’ Medallions, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs), electric-Dylan knockoffs (Mouse & the Traps), Tex-Mex flavored guitar-organ combos (Sir Douglas Quintet), sly Buddy Holly revisionists (Bobby Fuller Four), those specializing in US-bred reactions to the early Brit Invasion (The Knickerbockers, The Shadows of Knight, The Barbarians, Nazz) and brief snatches of legit proto-punk action (The Music Machine, The Monks, The Sonics, Blue Cheer).
In terms of pure pleasure, it’s a simply fabulous movement with an inextinguishable sound that still provides inspiration for myriad musicians and listeners to this very day. And it’s this corner of the ‘60s that informs the sound of New York’s The Electric Mess. To call them a garage band is to invite potential confusion; one reason is due to contemporary garage becoming so identified with raucous lo-fi punk, a trend that really got rolling back when names like The Cheater Slicks, The Mummies and The Gories began hybridizing these same Nuggets moves with such worthy later developments as the heavier side of Billy Childish, The Cramps at their wildest and the phenomenon of one-shot punk immortalized on the Killed By Death and Bloodstains bootleg LP volumes.
That’s not The Electric Mess’ scene at all, and if that disappoints one, well one will just have to be disappointed. No, these cats strongly recall the wave of garage revival aka retro-garage figures that flourished during the 1980s with names like The Cynics, The Fuzztones, The Miracle Workers, The Steppes, The Inn and The Brood. For the most part, these bands deliberately strove to sound like they’d wrangled through a wrinkle in time directly after playing a twenty-five minute gig on the back of a flatbed truck outside a McCrory’s five and dime.
It was surely a fun sound when done well, but by the end of the ‘80s it had suffered for its lack of seriousness. This was basically inevitable; a slew of these groups cut records, it was by design a scene not conducive to change (i.e. musical progress), and many of the groups extended their love of the music to a love of the era’s fashion (color tinted rectangular glasses, Beatle boots, cloaks, beads, paisley), making them highly dubious to many for diverting from the standard late ‘80s u-ground rock attire of jeans and a t-shirt.
The Electric Mess recall this wave but are not of it, for obviously it’s decades later and to my knowledge wrinkles in time don’t exist. And frankly the contempo landscape is almost totally lacking in bands that specialize in making such a bold statement in pure ‘60s garage adulation. Some hard-hearted cynics will carp that what’s on offer from The Electric Mess is comparable to the wares of a purist Dixieland jazz outfit in the era of John Coltrane. But this misses how there were actually some rather crucial purist Dixieland groups extant in the post-bop/free era; try out the early ‘60s albums of Sweet Emma Barrett for example.
Naysayers will retort that Barrett was actually part of the creation of her style and The Electric Mess is a group of relative youngsters co-opting a much older one. And I’ll reply that co-opting is a huge part of rock ‘n’ roll’s history. Plus, as some of the Nuggets’ O.G.s reach up on seventy years of age (or have already passed; Sky Saxon RIP), they are long past their prime for conveying such kicks.
And on that very topic, I’ve no doubt The Electric Mess go down a storm in the club setting, but on their new effort Falling Off the Face of the Earth, they stake their claim as a party band. Indeed, a fair amount of ink has already been spilled over the effectiveness of the group’s very pro show dynamic, but to my ears this bunch would sound fantastic playing three sets in a creaky three story house stuffed to the rafters with boisterous revelers while some lanky dude in a lawn chair takes it upon himself to guard the keg. Good job, sport.
If this sounds like I’m damning The Electric Mess with faint praise, don’t misunderstand. The best party bands are the ones too good for that status, the combos remembered decades later for making wild nights like the above stand out with sharp, sublime clarity. “I wonder what happened to them…” For numerous reasons, most never make it past the status of local heroes. However, a few…but hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a record, maybe Falling Off the Face of the Earth’s best quality is how it immediately demands the listener to take it or leave it. Opener “You Look Like a Psycho” possesses the sort of Mitch Ryder/Mark Lindsay-gleaned vocal chutzpah that either wins a convert or scores a detractor. But what might get missed is that the Mess’s blatantly 60’s derived clamor is delivered with an intensity that while inaccurately described as contempo is decidedly heavier, denser, and again more pro-like than the immortal sounds that so clearly stoke their fire.
Thankfully, this situation continues throughout the record and helps to elevate songwriting that’s stronger than that offered by the average garage schmoes, particularly on “The Girl With the Exploding Dress”. The toughness of their presentation also helps to keep the use of Farfisa organ, a necessary accoutrement that nonetheless makes for a dicey proposition in a garage state of affairs, register far away from the hackneyed; for instance, the keyboard in “Tell Me Why” blends The Music Machine, Manzarek and a little bit of their own thing, right down to the fleetness of the solo.
On a purely musical level, The Electric Mess step into unpleasant territory hardly at all. They do however take that aforementioned vocal/lyrical quality over the top a few times too often, especially on “Nice Guys Finish Last”. It doesn’t ruin the record, but it does make Falling Off the Face of the Earth feel more like a “captured performance” at times than an album, and perhaps that was the point.
The Electric Mess mildly recall Girl Trouble, a fine garage themed band from Washington state that formed in the late-‘80s and straddled the Sub Pop, K and Estrus indie empires (a group that I’m tickled to find still going strong). But where Girl Trouble always felt like a very cool lark, much of The Mess’s appeal comes from being a bolder, more polished entity. Typical New Yorkers, y’know?
In this sense I can’t help thinking of The Fleshtones, a no big deal sorta band that turned that glorious party-rock aesthetic detailed above into three-plus decades of laid-back (but never mellow) action. Those are definitely big shoes for The Electric Mess to fill (Peter Zaremba was a size twelve, at least), but if they can keep recording songs like “Elevator to Later” and album closer “I’ll Take You Anyway” they’ll get at least part of the way there.
Falling Off the Face of the Earth doesn’t rewrite any books and it won’t change many lives, but that’s clearly not the intention. And on some days this lack of ambition is quite enough.
Friday, June 22, 2012
The “This Summer”/”Cruel Summer” 7-inch is the latest offering from classy ‘90s survivors Superchunk, and while not up to the level of the band’s finest work, that really doesn’t seem to be its intention. Instead, it’s one of the better recent examples of indie rockers gracefully adapting to middle age.
Superchunk, the enduring Chapel Hill NC based quartet whose existence served as the impetus for the creation of Merge Records, forms one of the biggest chapters in a book that’s yet to be written, specifically a detailed documentation on the topic of ‘90s indie rock. But the Merge connection is ultimately only a portion of Superchunk’s huge relevance to said movement, with the label’s first decade taking on a life of its own through defining records from names as disparate as Polvo, The Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel.
No, Superchunk’s deepest importance is in how they wed classicist pop-rock songwriting to post-hardcore structures and energies and in their very no-big-dealness became very much a big deal. And clueless magazine writers were often caught guilty of misinterpreting the meaning of their early foulmouthed anthem “Slack Motherfucker”, detailing it as a celebration of calculated laziness and underachievement.
But those who loved the band already knew that one of Superchunk’s most appealing collective character traits was extra-musical, namely their tenacious work ethic; tour incessantly, write and hone songs, record albums and then tour some more. On top of all this fruitful activity Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance somehow found time to run a label.
With Superchunk there was no detuned guitar soundscapes, no EPs of trip-hop remixes, no exhausting 79-minute compact discs detailing forays into expansive conceptual realms, no unexpected detours into exploratory Krautrock-inspired jams; in some ways the group, purveyor of quality LPs though they were, was really a “live band” in the best sense of the term, particularly early on. The albums brought familiarity and solidity, but the foursome was at their strongest when plugging in, tuning and turning up, and finally throwing down.
Indeed, in the live setting they were a sight to behold and a sound to behear; I personally witnessed them turn the small stage of Lollapalooza’s touring incarnation (locale: The Charles Town Racetrack in Wild Wonderful West Virginia) into a immense dust cloud of sweaty pogo frenzy, interlacing their set-closing behemoth “Precision Auto” with a gleeful go-for-broke cover of Minor Threat’s “Screaming at a Wall” as sung by wiry, witty drummer Jon Wurster.
Superchunk has always been a self-deprecating unit though, often deflecting well deserved praise toward other bands or records they felt were more deserving of kudos. But again, their own releases were actually quite good and occasionally even excellent expressions of their small-scale essence as documented for home use. That documentation established a laudable trajectory of growth, even if their detractors basically chose to ignore it, those naysayers naggingly underestimating this bunch as a mere retread/update of borrowed Buzzcocks and Hüsker Dü moves given a contempo indie spin.
That chapter in the book again; in terms of the great big indie bums-rush of the ‘90s, Superchunk can be portrayed as one line in the sand between those who embraced the phenomenon and those who didn’t. Listeners in favor of the group found a crew of determined and intelligent rock fans kicking out their own rip-roaring jams for the enjoyment of themselves and an audience of equals. Detractors would instead brandish the band’s name as an example of indie rock’s low expectations, or to decry its elevation of attitude over results.
By now it should be obvious on which side of the line this writer resides. If there were lessons to be learned from punk rock and the ‘80s underground bands that soldiered on in its wake, then Superchunk embodied them, mostly because the live shows, the records and the label that released them were all so worthwhile.
And their growth really was a perceptible and rewarding development; from the young fresh rawness of the initial trio of LPs, 1990’s Superchunk, ‘91’s No Pocky for Kitty and ‘93’s On the Mouth, to the palpable leap forward of ‘94’s Foolish and the two expressions of maturity and breadth that followed it, ‘95’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In and ‘97’s Indoor Living, the quartet made a admirable sonic progression.
However, I’m somewhat in the minority in considering 1999’s Come Pick Me Up and 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up as their finest works. And I don’t think it would be inaccurate to surmise that the band themselves would disagree with my qualitative assessment, based mainly on the Superchunk records to appear subsequent to that duo of underappreciated gems.
Both Here’s to Shutting Up and especially its Jim O’Rourke produced predecessor displayed the band at their most far reaching, and I find it a perplexing drag that the cumulative creativity of these efforts are far too often simply categorized as just two more LPs by Superchunk instead of accurately championed as a righteous combo-punch of shrewd and searching songs that greatly transcended the tag of indie.
Well, nearly a decade elapsed before they released another full length record (though there were occasional comp tracks, a few 7-inchs and an EP), and when Majesty Shredding appeared, it became immediately clear that Superchunk were reverting back to a more direct, less expansive period in their history. It was once again about the clarity of ungarnished melodic rock; the aim toward crafting bold advancements in depth and ambition was shifting elsewhere.
For in that hazy hiatus of the Aughts this aura of expansiveness once proffered by the ‘chunk was largely extended through Mac’s former side-project Portastatic, particularly on the excellent 2008 LP Be Still Please. Meanwhile, Wurster was drumming all over the place, most notably in The Mountain Goats and for Bob Mould, guitarist Jim Wilbur was pulling occasional spots in Portastatic, and Ballance, who occasionally gave off the vibe of a somewhat reluctant performer, concerned herself with Merge, the label having bloomed into one of our largest indie labels.
The appearance of the “This Summer”/”Cruel Summer” 7-inch finds Superchunk continuing their recent course and knocking out a pair of stray tracks en route to their next full length, and happily the results retain the standard of their work over the last decade. And to clarify, while the band has returned to a more stripped down approach, they haven’t regressed.
What’s largely gone is the wider instrumental palate (plus Mac’s falsetto) from ’99-’01, the group’s most exploratory songwriting (beginning with Foolish and culminating strongly with Here’s to Shutting Up) and the two guitar tangle of McCaughan and Wilbur at its snakiest (heard best on Come Pick Me Up). What’s here is the unfettered maturation as detailed by Superchunk’s growth expressed through a reassessment of the no-frills attack they wielded so expertly in the ’90-’94 period.
To elaborate, “This Summer” opens with Mac’s well-familiar vocal rasp delivering lyrical sentiments undeniably derived from the school of Springsteen, with the first near-minute of the tune registering very much like something from an upstart songwriter circa ’83 that’s been blown away in equal measure by The River, Marshall Crenshaw, and the glories of straight-up power pop.
Then the full band kicks in, as heavy yet adept at navigating crucial pop hooks as ever they were via On the Mouth or even Foolish (probably their best album in the equality of songs and delivery). “This Summer” is over in three and some change, and if it doesn’t equal Superchunk at their absolute best, it’s still a very worthwhile proposition.
Just as importantly, the music sounds as inspired as always. And the flip is a well rendered cover, specifically “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. For those unfamiliar with Superchunk’s modus operandi regarding the material of others, this seemingly unlikely song is no piss-take; the band has previously tackled numbers by names as diverse as Sebadoh, Bowie, The Verlaines, Government Issue, The Chills, Motorhead, Adam and the Ants, Misfits and Destiny’s Child, treating them all with the same level of respect.
“Cruel Summer” retains recognizable elements of the original, but its unabashed rock orientation is to my ears a big improvement upon the rather brittle veneer of Bananarama’s synth-pop gush. Interestingly, I can’t shake hearing a big similarity to the attempts of many early-‘80s SoCal punk acts to integrate elements of trad rock into their sounds. Difference is, those attempts nearly always sounded lousy and “Cruel Summer” sounds quite jake. It is perhaps a bit like something Agent Orange could’ve pulled off around the time of When You Least Expect It. But of course, they did not.It’s tempting to evaluate Superchunk’s recent material as an admirable gesture for loyal fans, but the quality of the work has proven strong enough to continue roping new listeners into the fold. And with this seven-inch the trend continues.
Van Dyke Parks is easily one of the most eclectic and engaging musical minds of the last fifty years. Largely known for his involvement as lyricist in the resurrected phoenix that is The Beach Boys’ Smile, he’s also put his stamp on an array of important works, none better than his own 1972 masterpiece Discover America.
Please consider for a moment the impressive range of Van Dyke Parks. Yes, in addition to Smile there is his arranging for “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book. He’s also served as a producer and/or arranger for records as diverse as the debuts of Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits and Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and contributed as a player to Tim Buckley’s first album, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, Linda Thompson’s Fashionably Late and Vic Chesnutt’s Ghetto Bells. The guy even composed music for TV commercials, including work for Datsun automobiles and the figure skating mayhem known as the Ice Capades.
But to really crack the delicious and nourishing nut that is Mr. Parks, inspection of his solo work is an absolute must. Song Cycle, his 1967 debut is in obvious retrospect one of the truly amazing introductory statements in all of 20th Century music. I say obvious because hardly anybody bought the thing when it came out. This was due in part to his low profile. While he’d released a couple singles on MGM, he wasn’t exactly stormtrooping the era’s cultural radar.
But the main reason Song Cycle was destined for a second life as a cherished cult magnum opus lies in how Parks’ thoroughly non-trite baroque pop and gently psychedelic sensibilities synched-up with both his uncommonly deep and diverse interest in the history of popular song and the man’s shrewd ear for value in the contemporary (the record featured covers of both Newman’s “Vine Street” and Donovan’s “Colours”). With tenuous ties to the rock scene and a lack of capital with the rising tide of youth culture, it’s really no surprise Song Cycle took four years to recoup its admittedly large for the era $35,000 budget.
Ambivalent about his lack of success but undaunted, Parks bided his time by working with other artists through Warner Brothers. He did release a single in 1970, “The Eagle and Me”/”On the Rolling Sea When Jesus Speak to Me”, combining the A-side’s ‘40s-era Arlen/Harburg Broadway show tune with the flip’s radically interpreted cover of a gospel song by legendary Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence. If the deck was stacked against Song Cycle in ’67, then by 1970 this single didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in a Hollywood hot tub. Needless to say, the record was scarce, apparently even at the time, to the point that many of Parks’ fans didn’t even know of its existence until Rykodisc utilized it as bonus tracks in their compact disc reissue program of his stuff.
If it appears that I dwell on this seeming one-off obscurity, it’s for a very good reason; the record sheds crucial light on what’s often been perceived as Discover America’s severe change in direction (and I’ll add that both tracks are now available on Arrangements Volume 1, a brilliantly enlightening collection of Park’s early collaborations and MGM stuff released on LP and digitally through his own Bananastan label). For if his second solo effort’s levels of stylistic departure still leave some people stumped, that once neglected single provides a key to understanding.
Discover America is a concept record, but not in the potentially frightening way familiar to rock bands with a surplus of aspiration. Simultaneously a tribute to classic Trinidadian calypso and a loose rumination on American history, it might initially (and for a while after that) seem to be totally out of step with the norms of 1972. But look closer and it becomes clear that it fell right into the decade’s breadbasket for nostalgic longing, a then somewhat new impulse that largely located the 1950s as The Good Old Days (think American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha-Na-Na, chart hits by Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson, Grease).
Naturally, Discover America’s lasting importance is due in large part to its complexity and subtlety, factors that when combined with its seemingly casual, highly appealing music caused it to slip right by most critics at the time as merely an odd, inoffensive trifle. But make no mistake; Discover America is a rare and vital combination of sincere accessibility and bold, multifaceted ambition.
The proceedings start off rather strangely. A one minute clip of the great calypso singer Mighty Sparrow’s “Jack Palance” is immediately followed by “Introduction”, a twenty-five second bit of spliced tape recordings featuring an old man with a voice like heavy-duty sandpaper; meant to signify the talk of tour guides that frequented the busses of the album’s cover, to be frank the first time I heard it I was quite blindsided by its similarity to Captain Beefheart’s “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back”. And then to move directly into Parks smoothly crooning a cover of The Roaring Loin’s “Bing Crosby” provided a momentary study in sweet discombobulation.
Those worried over a lack of expertise regarding calypso need not be, for it’s as welcoming a musical form as there is. And it’s perfectly fine to ignore my advice; well done calypso reissues are numerous and widely available, with Rounder Records’ Roosevelt in Trinidad; Calypsos of Events, Places and Personalities being particularly illuminating as it includes originals of three of Discover America’s tunes, “Bing Crosby”, “The Four Mills Brothers” (also by The Roaring Lion) and “FDR in Trinidad” (by Attila the Hun). Parks shows the depth of his interest by including two from Lord Kitchener, three pieces of traditional origin and a fascinatingly strange tongue-in-cheek reworking of Sir Lancelot’s “G-Man Hoover”, a celebration of J. Edgar, late of the FBI.
But he didn’t limit himself to Trinidadian works. Two Allen Toussaint covers appear, “Riverboat” and a deliriously grooving cover of “Occapella”, very likely the album’s highpoint. And “John Jones” by ‘60s Trojan Records’ reggae singer Rudy Mills is given a lazily swinging treatment. But Lowell George’s “Sailin’ Shoes” is also present, and in markedly different form from the Little Feat original (released the same year!).
In fact Little Feat’s George and Roy Estrada both contribute to “FDR in Trinidad”, so fans of that band and George’s distinctive slide playing in particular should take note. But the most interesting instrumentalists included on Discover America are The Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band, whose excellent Esso LP from 1971 was produced by Parks. Their mastery brings an authentic flavor that contrasts well with the record’s atmosphere of broad interpretation, specifically on the traditional “Steelband Music” and the quietly prescient statement on multiculturalism that is the LP’s coda, a short bit of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”.
What slowly becomes obvious is that Parks genuinely loves Caribbean music; while respectful the record is never self-servingly so. And its concept holds a real point-of-view, examining the value in how other countries see and celebrate American culture. I’ve played the album many times specifically looking for a flaw, but by the start of the second side have always forgotten the task at hand.Okay, at thirty-seven minutes and change, it still manages to feel too short. But the results of combined listening with Esso and Mighty Sparrow’s very fine 1974 Parks-produced Hot and Sweet LP are simply splendid. They extensively detail not only the huge scope of Parks’ interest and talent, but also show just how much amazing music is out there just waiting for discovery.
Friday, June 15, 2012
It’s true that punk rock anthologies multiply like cages full of randy rabbits on aphrodisiacal meds, but for fans of the style The Bizarros’ Complete Collection 1976-1980 deserves a high place on the shelf. It makes a strong case for the band as one of Ohio’s finest “lost” early punk acts, and it’s a tribute to Windian Records’ good taste that their work can currently be easily found.
Regarding punk rock, a whole lot happened between the release of The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy!, arguably the first unhyphenated punk record (which hit racks in early 1975), and the screaming back-alley birth of hardcore (which reignited punk as a defiantly underground phenomenon for the ‘80s). And for some young pups in the here and now, punk rock essentially begins with hardcore, which is frankly a grave error in judgment; simply put, a walloping heap of the most interesting stuff in punk’s dysfunctional lifespan occurred early on, when discerning observers were cottoning to it as a necessary break from the staleness of the ‘70s, the new form having yet to become synonymous with commercial failure.
Indeed, early in the game the majors were more than willing to give punk rock a shot. Just look at the New York scene, where all the main early players with the exception of the Heartbreakers (who were doomed) and Suicide (who were just too freaking weird) were signed-up to big American labels. And it happened all over, not just in Gotham; Boston’s DMZ and Willie “Loco” Alexander & the Boom Boom Band were both successfully courted by the big leagues, in their respective cases by Sire and MCA.
The state of Ohio, now justifiably legendary for its early punk scene, also saw a high level of A&R guys sniffing around looking for the Next Big Thing. Much of this action centered on Cleveland. That’s where NYC-defectors and Sire-signees Dead Boys were from, and it was also home to Pere Ubu, the brilliant avant-garage unit that eventually signed to Blank, the punk-centric subsidiary of Mercury Records. Blank ceased operations after just two LPs, those being Pere Ubu’s masterpiece The Modern Dance and The Suicide Commandos’ brilliant and horribly slept-on Make a Record; that was how quickly the winds of negativity spread regarding punk rock’s lack of sales potential.
The city of Akron also fostered an interesting early scene, the most famous act being those Spud Boys from Devo. But there was also Tin Huey (whose debut Contents Dislodged During Shipment was issued by Warner Brothers in ‘79), the Rubber City Rebels and The Bizarros; these last two teamed-up for the From Akron split-LP on indie Clone Records in ’77. Subsequently the Rebels went westward in hopes of elusive fame and The Bizarros recorded material for a planned release on Blank, said album eventually hitting racks as their self-titled debut through Mercury proper in ’79.
That record, often discussed betwixt those with a heavy jones for obscure documents from the early punk scene, forms a hefty portion of Windian Records’ double-LP Bizarros’ anthology Complete Collection 1976-1980, another welcome reissue from a label that’s fallen into a fine habit of providing retrospective vinyl for underappreciated entities in US punk rock’s genealogy. And Complete Collection is easily their finest top to bottom excavation effort thus far, for a handful of reasons.
For starters and most importantly there’s the music, as worthwhile a batch of formerly underexposed early American punk action as has been released, right up there with such august names as Ontario’s Simply Saucer, Detroit’s Death, Davis CA’s Twinkeyz and from Boston a trifecta of the aforementioned DMZ, Nervous Eaters and La Peste.
Unlike some of their Ohio brethren, The Bizarros weren’t a self-consciously arty band, instead working in a mode clearly molded by Richard Hell. Both of Hell’s bands (remember that before the Voidoids he was an early member of Television) influence the majority of Complete Collection’s material, but not in a trite fashion; the main connection shapes up in the vocals and phrasing of lead singer Nick Nicholis.
Inspection of The Bizarros’ DNA also delineates the clear presence of The Velvet Underground, and it’s equally laudable how the band avoids coming off like a bunch of Reed-centric idolaters. This is perhaps due to the Velvets being “just” a vastly important band during this era, not yet having grown into a truly legendary one.
That is, these guys grabbed from VU but didn’t resort to copying them in the manner of many bands that sprouted up like urbane weeds roughly a decade later, so it’s therefore very wise to shun categorizing The Bizarros as an interesting curiosity residing quite a few rungs down the qualitative ladder from their more famous contemporaries. No, The Bizarros are clearly equals to not only more celebrated late-‘70s obscurities like fellow Ohioans Electric Eels, but they also deserve to be considered in the same breath as any first wave North American punk unit.
And it’s a very punk move to compile The Bizarros’ music in a non-reverent, non-chronological manner. I mean, hardly anybody bought the Mercury album when it came out, so why remained yoked to that LP as the only way to anthologize their work? And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the band members themselves played a part in the decision to eschew a museum-like presentation of this material.
This isn’t intended to give off any anti-intellectual vibes. When the scholarly approach works, it’s certainly very cool (maybe the coolest), but Complete Collection was obviously designed and sequenced for a maximum listening experience instead of just being collector bait. And yet the fact that the music is spread across four sweet sides of surely collectable vinyl helps to easily elevate it over the often shoddily produced CD collections of punk-era stuff that flooded the market during the early-‘90s digital disc boom.
To expand; for every high-quality collection of needed punk-era stuff, there was a slew of crappily conceived productions that sounded muddy, tinny or sterile (poor mastering being an inescapable bugaboo of the whole CD era), looked like they were designed on some slouch’s personal computer, and invariably included liner-notes from a dodgy old nostalgist manhandling moves from a 5th generation Jon Savage fakebook. Ugh. But was there any real choice regarding buying these things? Of course not; it had to be done.
Thankfully we now live in a more enlightened age, and Windian Records are close to if not the current leaders of the pack regarding punk reissues as something other than mere product. Complete Collection just oozes punk love before it even gets onto the turntable, and once the platter is on the player the ambiance substantially grows. Of the previously released tracks (in addition to the spilt LP and the Mercury disc, they also pumped out three indie 7-inches), I particularly enjoy “Mind’s a Magnet”, which comes off very much like the early Pink Floyd if they’d grown up in Texas and recorded for International Artists (with Hell for a singer, natch).
But “Lady Doubonette”, with its sly, almost funky bass line and highly developed guitar playing for the period (not to mention some smart late-song keyboard) impresses because it doesn’t sound overtly like any other band operating at the time. Sure, there are the requisite VU touches, but the tune ultimately doesn’t connect like anything the Velvets would’ve concocted.
Plus, the vocals of Nicholis are too relaxed on this cut to be in the lineage of Hell; it’s almost like he’s an extremely relaxed, non-angsty Jon Richman. And “Artie J” nods toward the enduring pop sensibility that Television occasionally asserted, in the process crafting a reminder that in its earliest days, American punk was more than just the oppositional movement it’s often portrayed to be.
For those already familiar with The Bizarros’ extant work, Complete Collection also includes some previously unreleased live tracks of primo quality, presenting the band in tough, raw form. Of particular note is a swaggering cover of The Music Machine’s eternal gem “Talk Talk”; replicating the essence of that unimpeachable classic is no easy feat, and these cats do it with aplomb.
Some later demo material finds The Bizarros pursuing an explicit power-pop direction, most notably on “The Beat”, and if this prospect bothers you, well please loosen up, grouchy. As the commercial door was slamming shut on punk, bands subsequently reacted in a variety of ways; this was one of them, and it sounds far better than most avenues some thirty odd years later. “The Beat” is strong enough to satisfy any Plimsouls’ fan, and dare I say it, any partisan of The Nerves or Paul Collins’ Beat, so you know it’s on the right side of history.
As is this whole anthology. Is the music included here as strong as Blank Generation, Marquee Moon, or The Modern Dance? In a word, no; but those three records are in league with the greatest rock albums ever recorded. What’s highly impressive is that the sum total of The Complete Collection 1976-1980 ain’t far behind at all. Based on the evidence here, I’d rate these Akron gents as the equals of San Francisco’s Crime. And if that sounds like heresy, please listen before crying foul.The music of The Bizarros sounds remarkably fresh in the present tense, and current hearing also lends a small taste of what it must’ve been like to bear witness as a vital new thing transpired to the joy of very few. Here’s to them for doing it anyway and to Windian for putting this stuff back in racks with panache.
It’s not a bit surprising that a band on a label called Ipecac has released a record titled Freak Puke. The pleasant twist is that in reverting back to a trio with bassist Trevor Dunn, The Melvins have delivered their best release since 2006’s (A) Senile Animal.
The Melvins, by my count eighteen studio albums strong (not including collaborations), have become one of the longest-serving examples of the “heads down/amps turned way up” mode of rock ‘n’ roll expression, a style not known for its survivalist tactics. While the vast majority of groups specializing in music of comparable heaviness understandably lack the stamina and depth of creativity for creating worthwhile records over a period of more than a few years, The Melvins have managed to stay interesting for close to thirty.
Part of the secret might just be their refusal to fall comfortably into one single camp. Often hailed in mainstream coverage as a “godfather of grunge” due to geographical location and their music’s motions toward a punk/metal hybridization, and most importantly because of their close ties to Mudhoney and Nirvana (if not to Sub Pop proper), The Melvins were surprisingly (and in retrospect, understandably) indifferent to cultivating a forefather-esque association with a rock movement that would inevitably culminate in a big ol’ nasty backlash.
Signing the rather predictable ‘90s major-label deal with Atlantic (who just as predictably didn’t really know what to do with them), the then trio of guitarist Buzz Osborne (aka King Buzzo), drummer Dale Crover and not long for the band bassist Lori “Lorax” Black (aka child actress Shirley Temple’s daughter) retained a close relationship to the indie scene that spawned them, again as if sensing that the tide would inevitably turn in the other direction, with bands of their ilk being hung out to dry if found too dependent upon the corporate teat.
But after deeper investigation The Melvins’ relationship with the indie landscape is one of the more unusual aspects of their back-story. While it made total sense to see their releases on such labels as Sympathy For the Record Industry and Man’s Ruin, and for the band to foster a long-term liaison with Amphetamine Reptile (one of the noisier imprints to soldier out of the late-‘80’s underground), it left some observers scratching their heads to find them amongst the participants in Calvin Johnson’s International Pop Underground Convention circa 1991.
The difference between Tom Hazelmeyer’s Am-Rep and Cal J’s K Records (where Melvins’ tracks could be found on cassette comps as early as 1984) can be illustrated by how each label’s fans might choose to spend their spare time: in the case of Am-Rep- target practice, cigar smoking, bidding on ltd edition Frank Kozik silk-screens on eBay; regarding K- vegan picnics, volunteer work, self-publishing zines.
I generalize to make a point; as an unabashed fan of both labels (and the quite important, still vital scenes they helped to document) I also understand how rare it was for a band to be a part of both. Indeed, the only other figure to gain similar acceptance from these highly oppositional (if not completely incompatible) scenes is Brit garage titan Wild Billy Childish.
All this wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t also signify the underlying breadth of the band’s sound, an expansive exercise in the heavy and the slow that’s too often summed up as just a variation on metal, be it stoner, sludge, doom or drone. But to reestablish the point made above, the greater number of bands caught simply dishing out predictable helpings of heaviosity nearly always expire creatively before they hit the five year mark. That these guys have been pumping this stuff out for nearly three decades is testament to the fact that they’re actually up to far more than the average post-Sabbath skunk-smoking muck-meisters.
This is all no great secret. However, The Melvins are more than a little bit self-deprecating regarding the significance of their activities and quite backhanded at times in referencing the experimental background of some of their collaborators. For instance, in the liner notes to 2005’s A Live History of Gluttony and Lust, a live in an empty warehouse in-sequence recording of the band’s ’93 Atlantic debut Houdini, Buzz tongue-in-cheekily describes the activities of the album’s bassist Trevor Dunn as being limited to the “drowsy, headache-inducing, goose-honking New York ‘jazz’ scene”.
In actuality, Trevor Dunn was a member of Mr. Bungle and the avant-metal supergroups Fantômas and Tomahawk while doing some of his most interesting work with his own group Trio-Convulsant (with incredible guitarist Mary Halvorson and superb drummer Ches Smith) and in the live context with such acts as The Nels Cline Singers and the amazing Rova Saxophone Quartet.
The Melvins in contrast, if a band willing to set the controls for outbound territory throughout their career, still generally kept those flights of oddness/abrasiveness well within the tradition of noisy punkish audaciousness, not at all far from the sonic strategies employed by such acts as prime Flipper and pre-crap Butthole Surfers. From this angle, it’s easy to have fun side-stepping the generic while ticking off the squares and coming up with some truly off-the-wall material, all while not having to worry about it getting taken too seriously by stuffy art-scene interlopers.
Hooking up with Greg Werckman and Mike Patton’s Ipecac label (roughly the left-field heavy rock equivalent to John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint, though far less prolific) changed this a little bit, though some punk rock attitudes do die hard. That is; if Dunn, a player born from the wilds of the mid-‘80’s Cali-rock scene, has no qualms about mixing it up with rockers, jazzers, “new music” experimenters or even restless contemporary singer-songwriters like Sean Lennon, it seems clear that The Melvins have been a little bit hesitant over getting unreservedly connected to someone else’s avant-garde.
Naturally, this is utter nonsense. Groups like Sun O))), Earth, and Boris have stepped to the forefront of progressive metal largely because they’ve proudly refused to be defined by its restrictions. And based upon their new full-length, again self-disparagingly credited to Melvins Lite, whereupon Trevor Dunn stands in for the duo of Jared Warren and Coady Willis (collectively known apart from their membership in Melvins as the duo Big Business), it might be time for Osborne and Crover to ditch their issues with experimentalism once and for all and let their avant-freak flag fly.
Beginning with 2006’s (A) Senile Animal, Melvins included the pair of Warren and Willis, expanding the group for the first time into a legit four-piece with Crover and Willis acting as formidable double-drummers. Prior to this, the band hadn’t released a studio album since 2002’s Hostile Ambient Takeover, mainly due to the absence of bassist Kevin Rutmanis, and the fresh movement detailed by (A) Senile Animal was a welcome and successful wrinkle in their development.
This was largely extended through 2008’s Nude with Boots, but 2010’s The Bride Screamed Murder proved to be one of The Melvins’ lesser albums. To be blunt, too much consistency appears to be contrary to this band kicking out top-flight work. And in the past, they seemed to sense this, bouncing around from more straight-ahead “normal” albums like Stoner Witch and Stag to the screwy patience-testing of Honky or Colossus of Destiny. Perhaps hooking up with Warren and Willis proved so fulfilling that they temporarily lost track of what made Melvins tick.
Freak Puke does hold a few lesser songs, but on the whole it’s succeeds quite nicely in combining The Melvins’ stylistic attributes with the rather huge sounding and at times sweetly expansive amplified acoustic bass, especially on opener “Mr. Rip Off”, which begins with just the largeness of Dunn’s bowed instrument before shifting into an environment of relative rock tranquility.
The brief two minutes of “Inner Ear Rupture” is also essentially a showcase for Dunn, additionally serving as a preamble for “Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out”; that track begins with some bowed bass that could possibly leave a smile on the mug of a Steve Reich fan before sharply detouring into some bold buzzsaw riff-rock and culminating in a short rhythmic exchange halfway between an arena-rock instrumental showcase and a post-jazz-fusion exaltation in chops, but with a crucial punk edge. The verdict; these guys are splendidly shifty in how they blend such a wide range of seemingly irreconcilable influences.
And there’s actually something more than sarcasm in the moniker Melvins Lite. This is mainly palpable through the singing voices of Crover and Buzzo. But a lot of the songwriting, if not pop inclined, does fall to the more melodic side of The Melvins spectrum. So it’s ultimately of no great shock that the band’s cover of McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” succeeds so well. If the undistinguished rocking of “Leon Versus the Revolution” provides the record’s low-point, the band does get in some quality crunch on the title track and in much of the similarly broad “Worm Farm Waltz”.
But it’s the lengthy closing track that leaves a lingering impression of positivity, initially furthering Freak Puke’s melodic agenda before upping the tempo and taking flight into a fine mid-section that really doesn’t recall any of The Melvins’ extensively annotated prior motion. It does end with some spacious and attitudinally punk audio mess-around, and that’s certainly indicative of the band’s creative wheelhouse. As such it’s very cool.As much as I’d theoretically love for these wily jokers to full-on embrace the experimental, in the end maybe I don’t want them to change too much. Perhaps Freak Puke serves as a happy medium.