Friday, June 15, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 6/15/12 - The Bizarros and The Melvins

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.