Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I wrote about Walter Hill's excellent 1981 film, Southern Comfort, a number of years ago on this blog, but since possibly no one bothered reading it and it was written before the advent (or at least popularity) of Youtube, I'm going to briefly write about it again. And if you don't care what I think about the film, maybe you should just watch the clips above. Walter Hill made a name for himself in 1979 with two major hits under his belt: Warriors, which he directed and wrote the screenplay for, and Alien, which he produced. You've likely seen both. I have: many, many times. I doubt I've ever met a male - always a male - of my age who at some point in their childhood, adolescence or even full-blown adulthood hasn't watched at least one of those two movies. They were both staple VHS/Beta rental favourites throughout the 1980s, as well as regular re-runs on late-night TV. They're both two of the finer, or perhaps finest, films of their day, Alien being the best sci-fi/horror film of them all, alongside John Carpenter's The Thing from 1982, and Warriors being a brilliant urban/comic-book update on the Samurai theme Hill often runs with in his pics. That Sumarai theme - the noble warriors making their way back home through hostile enemy turf - was revisited by Hill in Southern Comfort, and it's possibly a better film than Warriors, yet it doesn't hold the same notoriety or esteem from film nerds.
Hill wrote, produced and directed Southern Comfort, and even though it never did a whole lot of business, I'd rate it as one of the best movies of the 1980s bar none. Warriors didn't actually do huge business itself upon release, but later gained a following through video rentals. The same never really happened for Southern Comfort, a state of affairs which can perhaps be blamed on Reagan's America not wanting to be bummed out at the time by a downbeat tale which, through metaphor and allusion, was essentially an anti-Vietnam War film populated by a cast of pretty unsympathetic characters. It's set in the Louisiana swamps in 1973 and follows the adventures of a group of National Guardsmen on a weekend training exercise. The unit in question comprises of a crew of mostly brainless rednecks (including Fred Ward, who plays the sharp variety of redneck to a tee), a largely ineffective sergeant (played by ex-San Fran Digger/activist Peter Coyote) and the two main protagonists of the film, a college-educated city boy and his sidekick, played by stone-faced Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine.
Upsetting the local Cajuns through mindless blank-shooting tomfoolery, the unit find themselves on the run through the swamps of Louisiana trying to find their way back to civilisation. In a foreign and hostile environment, they're up against an enemy who knows the terrain, and is intent on disposing them by any means necessary. And, just like the Warriors, most of the good guys are semi-expendable as they're just as worthless as human beings as the enemy they're up against. The only two w/ any brains - the ones you're really rooting for - Boothe and Carradine, at least make it as far as the closest Cajun township. That's the second clip I've put up, and I rate it as the best closing 20 minutes (though only 7 are included above) to just about any film there be. It was shot in a real Cajun backwater town w/ a real Cajun band rockin' it out in real time as its soundtrack. The rest of the film's score is done by Ry Cooder, and it's equally as good. It's heart-thumping stuff, claustrophobic and highly realistic in its slightly washed-out look. I said in the post below, regarding Inception, that the last thing I wanted in an action film was intelligence. Don't take it literally: that's the best combination, and one rarely achieved or even attempted. My beef w/ Inception was that it simply tried to be "clever" but wound up a bore. Southern Comfort is a smart film w/ characters that make sense, great action scenes and comprises a rare glimpse into a culture not often seen in a major movie (or even minor one). Southern Comfort isn't available locally on DVD and never has been, so far as I know, though it used to be regularly played on late-night TV here in the early '90s. I have it on VHS cassette, though since one of my kids thought it would be amusing to stick a sandwich in the video player, it doesn't work anymore. I either gotta get a new video player or order a DVD version online, pronto. At this stage, my only option is watching these goddamn snippets on Youtube.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I've been on a seasonal break the last week, hence the absence, and will now round up the year 2010 in a distinctly quarter-arsed fashion w/ a final post listing some of the physical/audio/visual goods which made the year worthwhile. I mean, it was worthwhile, was it not? 2010 was the most exhausting year I've endured on this planet so far. Not bad, by any means - in fact it was slow 'n' steady and pretty damn enjoyable by all accounts - but raising two infant children takes a toll on my sanity on a daily basis and often drains me of all physical and mental vigour by day's end. Do I sound like I'm complaining? Not for a second. I signed up for it, I've got a job to do and I'd hate to think how dull my life would be without the pressures of parenthood. But nobody actually reads this blog to hear about the trials and tribulations of parenting, so let's get on w/ the show, huh?


I heard a whole lotta good stuff this year, like I do every year. Some of it old, some of it new. If it's "old" and I'm hearing it for the first time, it's new to me, so don't accuse me of being an old fogey caught in the past. I'm always exploring new avenues of sound, and sometimes I hit paydirt. This year, as I've discussed before, I found myself knee-deep in all manner of old-time rhythm & blues, jump blues, blues, soul-blues, rockin' blues and all combinations thereof. Listening to Bobby Bland, Big Joe Houston, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Percy Mayfield, Jimmy Reed, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Slim Harpo, Jerry McCain, Ike Turner, Elmore James, Stick McGhee and countless others has been as exciting for me as was discovering labels like SST, ESP-Disk, Shimmy Disc, etc. all those years ago. The music might be old, but it keeps me young. Again, as I've said before, you can blame blogs such as The Houndblog and Be Bop Wino Done Gone for this obsession, as well as the belated discovery of the genius of Nick Tosches. His Unsung Heroes Of Rock & Roll book I wrote about here: along w/ Carducci's Rock & The Pop Narcotic, I rate it as the finest book on the subject of what makes rock rock. Every home could use a copy. Hell, every classroom could use a few.

But as for new releases... like I said, I hear a lot of good music on a day-to-day basis. I'm fortunate enough that my job affords me that luxury. But as for new music - recorded and released in the year 2010 - that I would rate as truly great, the kind of record I wish to play on repeat for days on end, that's a rarity. But they do come along. Two records did: Butterflies & Bruises by Elisa Randazzo and the Swans' My Father Will Guide Me Up A Road To The Sky. I wrote about the former here and the latter here. Randazzo's disc is a divorce-themed effort right up there w/ Dylan's Blood On The Tracks and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. You probably won't hear of it held in such high esteem by any major rock critics, but what the hell have they done for us lately? Do they even exist anymore? The internet has levelled the playing field to the point where just about no one seems all that important anymore: it's just another opinion in a sea of many. But that's another story. Whatever the case, Randazzo's debut definitely wins the prize as my totally uncoveted Album Of The Year. And before I forget, I'd like to throw William Parker's Curtis Mayfield tribute in there, too. I wrote about it here. There's a final three I'm happy with.

Reissue-wise, I'll vouch for the following...

The Soundway label hit paydirt w/ this comp' of Nigerian Afro-Rock, funk and psychedelia from the '70s, and I wrote about it here. More than just a cool package that looks hep on the shelf, it's worthy of repeat listens, the kind of which I granted it these past 12 months.

Spanish soul funkateers Vampisoul delivered the goods w/ their second volume of Peruvian soul, funk, psych, garage rock, boogaloo, sunshine pop and the uncategorisable (I'm sure you could categorise it, but I won't) on the imaginatively-titled, Back To Peru II: 1964-1974. As is the case with The World Ends, it's easy to get suckered into these things by the alleged exotic and unusual nature of the music and the swish packaging, only to find that the music within just sounds like a bogus African/Latin version of the terrible sounds which was all the rage in the West at the time. Such is not the case w/ both of these comps. Back To Peru II and the above-mentioned have the goods to prove that the hip 'n' happenin' sounds of their respective countries were not only as good as what was happening in the US/UK and the "developed world", but some of it was even better. There's nothing approaching the Godlike genius of the Stooges or Hawkwind on either record - don't get me wrong - but as mix tapes showcasing their best and brightest, they're both unbeatable.


I don't watch it. Don't have the time nor inclination. The only worthwhile event on the TV comes in the form of a DVD which you place inside a DVD player and view on a television set. Got me? But there was one show aired down here which I didn't dare miss, was not disappointed by and very soon thereafter purchased as a DVD anyhow: Dead Set. Made by Charlie Brooker, one of the people behind the ingenious Nathan Barley series a few years ago (NB is a merciless mockery of hipster fashions which nails the idiocy of youth culture in the 21st century like nothing else before it), it was a modern update on Dawn Of The Dead, though this time the survivors' refuge is the Big Brother house. Since George Romero has completely lost his mojo, judging by the last few embarrassingly bad entries in his seemingly never-ending Dead series, this UK production is the best thing to hit the zombie genre since Shaun Of The Dead. Dead Set also plays for laughs, but not belly laughs. It's smart, well written, well directed and occasionally scary as hell: everything Dawn Of The Dead was back in the '70s, or even its excellent remake from 2004. If television got better than Dead Set in 2010, I didn't see it. Made for TV, but better than most things you'll catch in a cinema.


I have approximately just the amount of spare time in a given year to get through roughly 5-6 books. The two non-music books I enjoyed the most were Rick Perlstein's Nixonland and Lamar Waldron/Thom Hartmann's Legacy Of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Neither were released this year, but if you're into the idea of reading phonebook-sized tomes on American political history ca. the 1960s/'70s, you can't do better than these two. Read about them elsewhere; life is too short for me to divulge right now.

Music books? I wrote about 'em here and here. That'd be the Touch & Go compendium and Tony Rettman's Why Be Something That You're Not history of Detroit hardcore. It's not like the latter was a masterpiece by any stretch, but if you're into the subject material, it was a godsend to finally have elements of the story illuminated in book form.

Another book I only just received on Xmas day but which should also be added to the pile is the one below: Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly's Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide To Punks On Film. What a brilliant idea and what an execution. A book like this was long overdue. Ever since I was but a wee lad, my brother and I were quite obsessed w/ punks in movies, whether it was real punks, fake punks, real punk bands on a soundtrack or hack-job New Wavers playing the part. Now it's all been documented, from the obvious (Repo Man, Decline of Western Civilisation) to the obscure (take your pick, there's a ton of foreign films I haven't seen here, but will before I croak). There's great interviews w/ everyone from Dave Markey to Alan Arkush to Lee Ving to Ian MacKaye, the writing is uniformly smart & funny (with a level of smart-arsery often reminding me of Jim Goad's Answer Me!) and there's just enough ommisions for me to write them an email one of these days. They encourage it, and hopefully subsequent pressings will add and amend a few issues. Well... whilst I'm here: Hiding Out from 1987 is mentioned due to its inclusion of various high school New Wave/punker types in its cast, so why not also mention the fact that it features Public Image Ltd. and the Lime Spiders on the soundtrack? And 1985's Just One Of The Guys, one of the finest teen-angst pics of its day, just happens to feature The Stooges' "Dirt" in a crucial high-school cafeteria scene. Hell, if you're going to base an entire book on train/punk-spotting, you may as well get all the details right.


I saw exactly two films in the theatre this year: Toy Story 3 and Inception. The former wins the trophy; the latter was an overblown, over-hyped and over-rated pile of baloney lauded by those who apparently crave "intelligent action films". The last thing I want in an action film is intelligence. Inception's storyline tied itself in knots within 30 minutes, the characters were like cardboard cut-outs from a rejected Dan Brown novel and I have better things to do w/ what minimal spare time I have than watch mediocre cinema dressed up as something "important". Toy Story 3 was funny as hell, w/ characters which made more sense than Leonardo Di Caprio flicking his fringe out of his eyes in a CGI landscape, jokes which actually made me laugh out loud in the theatre, and a storyline which picked up the pace from the opening scene. Hollywood may be full of assholes, but occasionally they get it right. Toy Story 3 was such a film.


The Boredoms. I wrote about it here. Nothing comes close. Well, one did, and that was the Laughing Clowns and the Dirty Three sharing a bill at the Forum in January. I wrote about that here. I saw The Fall earlier this month, and whilst it was good, and indeed much better than anyone expected, Mark E. Smith's uncanny impresssion of a drunken, toothless vagrant isn't what brilliant rock & roll shows are all about. But for what it was, I'm not complaining one bit. Peter Brotzmann's solo show for the Jazz Festival should also be noted. I wish he'd backed it up w/ a hot rhythm section - and since veteran skinsman Han Bennink was also in town, I don't know why they didn't play together for the show - but the curio factor of seeing such a legend play in the flesh was rewarding in its own way.

I believe that sums it up. People still ocassionally write to me and ask me what I think about Chris Stigliano's sabre-rattling over at Blog To Comm, but I don't have much to say on the matter. His "Ordinary Guy" schtick got old about two decades ago, and given his fandom for classic underground rock, B & W avant-garde cinema, comic books and strange aversion to lesbian porn, I'd suggest that he has about as much in common w/ the average blue-collar slob as Quentin Crisp, but I doubt he'd listen. Let him enjoy his tantrums. I alluded to one such tantrum here last year, and his mindless hissyfit still cracks me up. Life is too short to wallow in the doldrums Chris seems to enjoy, and since I'm not yet convinced of anything happening on the other side of this existence, you may as well enjoy your time here while you can. And on that cheery note, I'd like to extend warm wishes to all the nice folks who write to me, contribute intelligent comments to the blog's message boards and especially those fine folks who send me free shit. Writing all this crap is a pleasure, believe it or not, so onwards and upwards for '11!

Friday, December 17, 2010

I was going to write about the New York Dolls today, and then news filtered through of Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart's death, so I'll save that for another time. Then again, given the number of tributes to the guy which are currently clogging up the 'net, any "tribute" I pay will be redundant. But again, redundancy has never stopped me before. I haven't listened to Beefheart a great deal the last decade, for the very reason I haven't listened to the music of the Stooges or Miles Davis: when you know the music that well, there seems little point in actually listening to his records on a regular basis. I flogged the guy's discs into the ground the previous decade. These days, if I need a fix of his sounds, I usually head for his more straight-forward albums. Not his oft-maligned '70s discs such as Bluejeans and Moonbeams or Unconditionally Guaranteed (both of which have their moments of greatness), but his debut, Safe As Milk, or his swansong, Ice Cream For Crow. I wrote about the latter here, as well as a piece on The Spotlight Kid here, both many moons ago. An excerpt from the former article later wound up in a press release for a Virgin/EMI reissue, so I guess someone out there liked what I wrote (or was hard-up for copy). There was an interview w/ a musician I read some years back - can't remember who it was - and the person in question stated that they loved the music of Beefheart for its unabashed strangeness, which he felt was a true reflection of its creator's eccentricities, and noted that this contrasted greatly w/ that of the music of Beefheart's pal Frank Zappa, whom he thought tried way too hard to be "weird" but fell flat on his face for his efforts, his music coming across more like the try-hard efforts of the class clown too fond of boobie jokes for his own good. Or something to that effect. I love Zappa's early works, too. Grab your ears around Freak Out!, We're Only In It For The Money, Absolutely Free, Uncle Meat, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Lumpy Gravy or Hot Rats, and you've got some of the best audio documents of their era. But I get the point. Beefheart's music had heart and soul, two things Zappa's music sorely lacked. The good Captain couldn't make music any other way. For a brief period in the early '70s he tried, and failed. By the early '70s, Zappa had crawled up his own backside and barely made his way out again for air. Captain Beefheart's music was strange according to the standards by which most people judge music, but I find it just as strange that most people would want to listen to the music they do. That music merely reflects the boring personalities of the people who make it, and there has to be more to the possibilities of sound than that. Beefheart explored the possibilities that few others travelled, he did it better than just about anyone else, and for that you oughta be grateful. The world would be a much more dull place had he never existed. Most of my musical heroes are now dead, and there goes another one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two great songs from the sadly deceased JOHN MARTYN, ca. 1977. At the same time as these songs were being performed, other people in all corners of the globe were busy making a god-awesome racket which has moved my heart & loins for 25 years now, but if these Martyn songs don't have the same effect, then I can only assume that: A) you've got a heart of stone, a brain of lead and taste in your backside; or B) you only like the punk stuff I write about. Or a combination of both. Martyn died two years ago next month, and now feels like the right time to present some of his music. There's far too much irony in music these days. You need to listen to a guy who sang it like he meant it. A while ago, a friend of mine burnt me a DVD w/ all of his Old Grey Whistle Test performances, and it's one of the few music discs I've been able to sit through for repeat viewings. OGWT was hosted by a stodgy old git by the name of Bob Harris, a man who looked like he stole his wardrobe from the cast of Robin's Nest, though I'll give him credit for putting on the likes of Tim Buckley, Curtis Mayfield, New York Dolls and plenty other worthy folk on his program. Such performances are all worth a look and all available for easy viewing via YouTube. But back to Martyn. A Scottish bull of a man, he cut a swag of excellent records for Island throughout the 1970s such as Stormbringer, The Road To Ruin, Solid Air, Bless The Weather, Insideout, Sunday's Child, Live At Leeds and One World. In the late '70s he became friends w/ the musically useless Phil Collins, a friendship which lasted until his death. Collins gave Martyn's career a boost by producing some of his music, notably Grace & Danger from 1980, and things got decidedly slick, AOR and beyond my realm of interest. That's OK. That happened to a lot of old timers when the '80s hit. He made somewhat of a comeback in the 1990s when The Wire put him on the cover (and I'll admit that that was when I first became aware of him) and released a slew of records which harkened back to his more earthy, folky and occasionally avant-garde sound of the '70s. By the time of his death, he was a bloated, wheelchair-bound alcoholic who'd had part of one of his legs amputated due to diabetes complications, but he still played often and was still excellent when he did. His "classic" sound hovered somewhere in the vicinity of his pals Richard Thompson and Nick Drake, the Brit folk sound of the day, but his music stretched further than either. In the early '70s, he'd become interested in the music of Pharoah Sanders and Lee Perry, and incomporated elements of spiritual jazz and dub reggae into his sound, the best example of this unusual meeting being his brilliant Insideout LP from 1973. I wrote about it here, if you care: one of the earliest entries on this blog. It's a Desert Isle Disc you've likely been ignoring for far too long. You'll notice in his live version of "One World" above, particulary during the chorus, that the man is fond of what is known to some as the "sex face" when hitting the guitar's high notes. I'll forgive this trivial faux pas for the fact that it means he's putting himself right inside the song. The title track from his 1977 album also happens to be one of the best he ever wrote, a fuzzed-out drone w/ deep, slurred vocals which sounds like the direction Tim Buckley should've gone back to (a la Starsailor) if he'd halted the diminishing returns of the white-boy funk routine he was engaging in when he croaked a couple of years previous. Even better is Martyn's version of the traditional tune, "Spencer The Rover". Originally released on 1975's Sunday's Child, I can't tell you how it compares to other versions of the song (for I've not heard any), though Martyn's treatment makes it sound like the saddest song ever penned, the minimal, cyclical guitar patterns a perfect accompinament to his semi-whispered vocals (perhaps moreso on the sudio version). This track is why we have ears. John Martyn was one of the best there ever was, and to state a simple fact, that's also why you should watch these clips. They're not here just for show. Over and out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Let's discuss the Bad Brains... This entry is inspired by the fact that lately I've been playing this very album every day on the way to work in the car. The trip itself is only about 10 minutes or so - close enough that I probably really shouldn't be driving at all - and just the right length of time to digest a good 5 or 6 songs which get the adrenalin pumpin' and ready to start the day. It's a cure-all for life's woes which hit me at that time of the day, an embodiment of the redemptive powers of music. Sorry, am I getting too heavy here? For some folks it's Bruce Hornsby. Others it's Bon Jovi. Lately, for me, it's Bad Brains and their debut self-titled full-length cassette (and long since available on LP and CD) on ROIR from 1982. Back in highschool, my main Bad Brains fix was via their Rock For Light LP, and for me it still remains their highpoint, but since I only own it on LP, it's the CD version of their debut which is getting the flogging. Perhaps all of that's not very interesting, but the story of the band is.

You probably already know it: four black teenagers from Washington DC with a great interest for the noodling jazz fusion of Mahuvishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever, as well as the likes of Hendrix and P-Funk and early-'70s UK heavy metal such as Black Sabbath and Budgie ("doomsday music", as the band called it), form a fusion band in the mid '70s called Mind Power. It was in this context of musical-prowess-worship that the band honed their chops. Unlike most punk rock slobs who were inspired by the Ramones upon first listen to pick up an instrument, these guys had already done all the groundwork. Bad Brains were equally as influenced by the Ramones, along with the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols, and dropped the straight fusion nonsense pretty quick, diving headfirst into the realm of hyperspeed punk rock, aided and abetted by their superior skills as musicians. The concept of skilled musicianship is an issue I've chewed over in recent years when my mind should probably be elsewhere, and I've come to the conclusion that in the genre, it's a vastly under-rated talent.

The anyone-can-do-it ethos is something to be encouraged - always has been and always will be - but it's a fact that not everyone should do it, and the combination of skilled and expressive musicianship and the desire to make great and powerful rock 'n roll (and the definition of that is purely subjective, so let's not dwell on it) is one which can't be beat. All the best hardcore bands of the era possessed the necessary chops and used it: Minor Threat, Black Flag, Big Boys, Die Kreuzen, hell, I'd even throw the Dead Kennedys in there. These were real musicians who'd honed their craft, not part-timers blasting out indistinguishable three-chord thrash. Now, lest you're starting to think you're reading Modern Guitar magazine, let's change the subject.

Below are two clips of the band, one from CBGBs in 1979, and one from the same venue in 1982. The sound in the latter is tougher, faster and heavier, and the band is starting to look like it's weathered a few tours under its belt, but it's unmistakably the same band. The band in the former looks almost innocent in comparison: like young punkers from nowheresville (and Washington DC, except for a few other noteworthy bands, was pretty much nowheresville, musically speaking, back then) in the big smoke for the first time, still shaking off their Brit-punk obsessessions and forging their own identity. Face it, if you walked into CBGBs in 1979, which was a time when New York's original "punk rock" scene was on its last legs, and witnessed just a few minutes of the band's onstage power, you'd just about lose your shit. I challenge anyone reading this to compose a convincing argument otherwise. The dynamics, the songwriting skills, the chops, the wild charisma of the band's presence - and, hey, I'm going to have to mention it - the apparent novelty of an all-black punk rock group (a distinct minority-within-a-minority) playing the music faster, more powerful and possibly better than anyone else before them would add an extra thrilling element to them as a band.

During that same year, the band had recorded a demo in DC w/ Dischord veteran, Don Zientara, in his basement. It was later released as the Black Dots LP/CD. If you're a fan, it's essential. And if you're a fan, you probably don't need me saying that. It's got tracks which later reappeared on their ROIR and Rock For Light LPs, as well as some which never surfaced anywhere else. The most infamous of these, or the one which always gets mentioned, is "Redbone In The City", which musically is a direct facsimile of the 'Pistols' "God Save The Queen", complete w/ HR growling out a Rottenesque snarl. It's a hoot, and shows the band at a crucial stage of their development. When they were being more original and finding their own musical voice, such as on "How Low Can A Punk Get?", they were all the better for it.

In 1981 they made the big move to New York from DC, after having basically kickstarted that now-famous scene by inspiring the likes of Ian MacKaye, Hank Rollins and co. to start their own bands, and knocked the city on its head. Any NYC HC bonehead from the period, even the smart ones like Jack Rabid, will tell you that the Bad Brains were the band to see ca. 1980-'83, and towered over every other band in the city. Given the level of NY's HC talent, that's possibly not such a big achievement, but you get the idea. That year they recorded this album at the 171-A Studio in NY, a streetfront venue/hangout for the city's punkers and old-school White Panther/Yippie beatniks, and released it on cassette in 1982.

Some folks, some of them even famous, rate it as the best hardcore punk album of all time. I don't agree with them (Damaged still gets the vote: discuss), but I won't argue the point. In its own way, it's perfectly valid. Whilst there's a few superfluous reggae tracks which 90% of listeners probably skip (the band wrote competent and sometimes even good reggae music, but it was never remarkable), there's more than a few tracks you could stake your life on: "Pay To Cum" (originally self-released as a 7" in 1980), "Banned In DC" (the opening drum roll and subsequent explosion into a breakneck polka beat as HR lets out a scream still gets me punching imaginary walls like a goddamn loser), "Sailin' On", "Right Brigade", "The Big Takeover" (the thumping kick-drum lead-in which again erupts into an almost Sabbath-like swing before racing into more hyper-drive punk is one of their greatest moments), the ferocity and anger of "Fearless Vampire Killers" - they're all songs which rate as some of the best ever laid to tape by a band claiming to play rock 'n' roll music.

The band had hit the skids by 1983 after they'd became embroiled with a particularly nasty incident w/ the Big Boys in Austin (Google it if you don't know it, I'm not going into it here) and then had their gear stolen in Boston. None other than The Cars' Ric Ocasek, a man who was convinced they were the best band in the land, came to the rescue, bought them new instruments and put them into the studio to produce their epochal Rock For Light LP. For me, perhaps for sentimental reasons (I bought it when I was 15 and played it every single day for at least 6 months), it remains my favourite recording of theirs. Others complain that Ocasek took a bit of the bite out of their sound, but I don't hear it. Maybe the guitar could be turned up a touch in the mix (on the Caroline reissue from the '90s it is, so don't complain now), but I suspect that people just like to complain and pick holes in the efforts of famous people meddling with their fave underground rock combos (see Bowie/Stooges).

The band split soon thereafter and have been back and forth as an operating and non-operating entity ever since. Some of their subsequent recordings possess similar goods: I Against I and Quickness, from 1986 and 1989, respectively, have their moments of greatness, though the band were starting to incorporate funk and metal sounds into their musical brew (sometimes edging awfully close to the audio-atrocity known as "funk-metal"), and their '90s recordings, or the little I've heard of them, belong to a different band, or at least a band who couldn't claim me as a fan. The group subsequently redeemed itself to an extent with the fine Build A Nation album in 2007, a recording which stylistically took them back to their early '80s HC roots, and now they rate as an almost heritage-rock band of the underground. All manner of people who play in famous rock bands you'd never want to listen to hail them as a defining influence on their music, though it shouldn't be forgotten that they also inspired the creation of a whole lotta great music 30 years ago.

A couple of years back, SPIN magazine published a list of what they considered to be the 50 most important and influential musicians in the history of rock music. The Age newspaper ran a story on it down here, as it had created the predictable controversy such lists inspire. They asked a few local rock celebs for their comments; Spencer P. Jones was aghast that SPIN considered Fugazi more important than The Who, and Bruce Milne remarked that he thought the inclusion of the Bad Brains high up on the list, w/ the absence of Black Flag, whom he noted he thought to be much more influential despite his great fandom for the 'Brains, was an example of the list's token nature and SPIN's desire to appear as nice liberal folk. He's right, of course, but that doesn't diminish any of their greatness as a band. They deserved to be somewhere on that list. The story of the band is way too complex and varied to be given its due in a simple blog entry; I've just skimmed the surface. You know what you need to do, and if you've already done it, then let's collectively praise Jah for the genius of the Bad Brains.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Here's a live clip of a track from what will likely be my favorite album of 2010. It's Elisa Randazzo's Bruises And Butterflies, released on Drag City. I didn't expect it either. I simply received a promotional copy and gave it a spin, knowing nothing of her, and its allure took hold pretty quick. I wrote about it earlier in the year here. Don't be underwhelmed by this video - it's the only remotely decent one I could find - as the audio, particularly in the first minute, isn't that hot. And visually, if you knew nothing about her, you might immediately suspect you're watching footage from some sprout-eating jam-band hippiefest. But persist, and you might find the depressive west coast folk-rock vibe your thing. Her songs are excellent, her vocal delivery pitch-perfect. Alternately, you might think I've lost my mind. Whatever the case, I've had it on high rotation again the past fortnight, and unless someone can knock my socks off in the next three and a half weeks w/ something, it's likely my pick as release of the year.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

I don't really feel like writing much right now, so I'll post this clip. It's the Descendents live, and I'm guessing it's probably from the late '80s, maybe '87 or '88, just before Milo split once again and they morphed full-time into ALL. I saw ALL when they played here 20 years ago. My memory's pretty good for the kind of trivia most people on earth have no reason to care for, and I'm pretty sure it was actually 20 years ago this week. Early December, 1990. If I'm off a month or two, you'll have to forgive me. Two. Fucking. Decades. That figure depresses me a little. It was the summer break after my first year at university and I was stuck in the accounts dept. of a large insurance company doing shitwork (re: temp work) no one else in the office wanted to do. To this day, I still couldn't tell you exactly what it was I was doing. I'd leave every day at 5PM w/ a big question mark over my head wondering if my paper-shuffling was fulfilling any purpose. The work sucked, my co-workers were insufferable dullards (accounts departments in insurance companies attract a certain type), but the pay was excellent and I had money to burn. It all went on records. On top of that was a ticket for ALL's show at the Prince Of Wales.

ALL took the worst "cute"/teenage-love/nerd-worship aspects of the Descendents and made it their primary focus. They sucked. Their records sucked, their live show sucked. My main memory of the night is boredom. And Bill Stevenson's primadonna/asshole attitude on stage, which turned a lot of people off. I didn't expect a whole lot and got less than that, but they did at least give an obligatory run through a couple of Descendents classics.

Skip to 1998: I'm selling a pile of my noise LPs and CDs to my good buddy Mark Harwood. Incapacitants, Hijokaidan, Whitehouse, Merzbow... he took a bunch of them. I still like some noise, but I don't need five Hijokaidan albums. Whilst at my place to pick up the discs, he flipped through my records, passing judgment on every single album like only a hearty music nerd could. I sat there verbally shooting back at his yays or nays. I doubt either of us would do this kind of thing at this stage of our lives, but we were young(-ish), stupid and full of our own shit. When he hit my copy of Milo Goes To College, he went into a near-apopleptic bluster.

Why the hell do you have this? You got any Blink-182 albums you're hiding from me, Lang? I reacted w/ equal bluster and fired back. You can't blame the band for the zillions of worthless chowderheads they inspired to pick up an instrument and form a worthless rock band. Back in the day, man, lemme tell ya, they were THE BOMB. And so it went. Mark's gateway to left-field music was via the Birthday Party/'Neubauten route. Punk rock passed him by and meant little, if anything. The world was then in the thick of the pop-punk buzz, w/ the likes of Green Day, NoFX, The Offspring, Pennywise et al selling millions of albums: all of them rubbish and all them more or less inspired by the band known as the Descendents.

And all that doesn't make Milo Goes To College any less brilliant, a raw, juvenile, foul-mouthed and totally un-PC slice of classic teen-punk. Played by teenagers. They released a couple of other fine discs, too, namely I Don't Want To Grow Up, Enjoy! and Liveage!, and I could even stretch it a little further and say that their reunion album from 1996, Everything Sucks, wasn't half-bad either. I was working for their Australian distributor at the time and heard the album several dozen times, whether I liked it ot not. Perhaps it was acceptance through osmosis, but it sounded just fine to me, like the band had barely missed a beat since the 1980s.

So what's the relevance of this? The Descendents play here for the first time ever in just less than 2 weeks, and I won't be seeing them. They're playing at a huge punk/metal/hardcore festival held at the Royal Showgrounds w/ about three-dozen bands I either don't know or don't care for, and thus I'm not paying the inflated ticket price for simply one act of interest. No sideshows, nothin'. What a drag. I'll have my fill of old geezers the next few months - The Fall, Wire, Swans, Hawkwind - but if the Descendents would play a sideshow (and I'm guessing they can't for contractual reasons), I'd be there. That's the kind of nostalgic old fuck I am. But more than that, I'm a lover of fine music.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Two old geezers make a go at it in 2010. Two old geezers whose music of yore I am, and forever shall be, a huge fan of. One sinks and one swims.

First on the chopping block is a man by the name of BRIAN ENO. His voluminous output from the years 1971 - 1984 is beyond reproach. There's a good dozen-plus LPs I'll throw at you right now which you need sittin' pretty somewhere within your immediate vicinity: Roxy Music's first two albums, Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Discreet Music, Before And After Science, Music For Films, Music For Airports, On Land, Apollo, both LPs w/ Robert Fripp & both LPs w/ Harold Budd... Wait I sec, have I said this before? Am I boring you? That's 15 albums you need. You got 'em yet? Post-'84, I've paid little attention to his music. He hasn't actually released a great deal of it, and I do recall enjoying a collaborative disc he did w/ John Cale eons ago when I heard it, but from the mid '80s on, other than his famous production work w/ schlebs like U2, I won't claim to know a hell of a lot about his period of his music. Judging by his latest album, I haven't been missing out on much.

There was a whole lot of hoopla made earlier in the year when it was announced that Eno had inked a deal w/ famed UK electronic label, Warp. There's a few discs by Autechre, Broadcast and Aphex Twin which I think are pretty OK, for what they are, but otherwise this record contract means zip to me. However, I'm not oblivious to the implications: one of the founding fathers of electronic music as we know it today signs to one of his country's pre-eminent contemporary electronic labels. Hopes were high. Hell, my hopes were high. And here it is: Small Craft On A Milk Sea, credited to Eno and his collaborators, Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams.

There's a few problems I have w/ it. For one, the songs are too short. There's 15 tracks, and they're squeezed into a 45-minute time frame. None of them are really given room to develop. Apollo, too, from 1983, had relatively short songs, though the craft of each individual track most definitely made up for their relative breadth (it is, in fact, my favourite Eno disc of them all). Not only that, but the Eno of yore had a real sense of compositional warmth and texture. Albums like Music For Airports and Apollo may sound deceptively simple and minimalist in retrospect, but there's a lot going on underneath the surface. The enveloping layers of sound of Apollo, or the muzak take on Morton Feldman of Music For Airports are nowhere present here. Nor is the glam-punk of Here Come The Warm Jets or the pop-art electronics of Another Green World. But that's OK, because Eno shouldn't be simply revisiting old sounds. Unfortunately, most of Small Craft... sounds no different to any other generic "contemporary electronica" album you might find on Warp on a bad day (I'm assuming they release great contemporary electronica albums too, but like I said: you're asking the wrong guy if you want confirmation of that). It possesses an awful digital quality which has me thinking much of it would make better soundtrack pieces to a contemporary Gen-Y BBC drama series. Not my idea of a good time.

There's one glimmer of hope, but it's short-lived. Track 6, "2 Forms Of Anger" takes a couple of minutes to get started, slowly developing like an industrial-damaged Coil track, and then in the last minute (and there's only three of them) grinds into a gen-u-ine rock & roll track which could've been lifted from Here Come The Warm Jets or Taking Tiger Mountain. The scratchy guitars drive it along and it feels like it's going to break out into something really good. And then it stops. Some of Small Craft... could pass for a series of half-decent Autechre offcuts, but the bulk of it doesn't sound like an album which took a craftsman like Eno 5 years to make. More like something he wrote during his lunch break.

On the other hand, there's Michael Gira and SWANS. They hadn't released an album since Soundtracks For The Blind in 1996, at which point Gira disbanded the group and started various solo projects, as well as The Angels Of Light (AOL). I have a couple of AOL's CDs and they've never budged me an inch. And Swans usually budge me a mile. Records such as Cop, Children Of God and White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity are huge enough to move mountains. When I speak of what I consider to be truly great American bands of the last 30 years, bands such as Black Flag, Minutemen and the Meat Puppets - bands who forged all-new hybrids of sound and created musical legacies of their own - I'll always throw Swans in there, too. Their best albums - and there are a few other excellent albums not yet mentioned - have moved my mind and loins for 20 years now, and thus, slobbering fan-boy drooling aside, you can tick the box which counts me as an admirer of Gira's work.

Angels Of Light were a slightly different proposition. From what I've heard, the grand drama is forsaken in favour of a more folky feel, and whilst I love Fairport Convention and Pentangle as much as the next guy, Gira's appropriation of that sound for me just didn't work. A few nice tunes, but ultimately there was something amiss, and I never found Gira's voice suitable to the material. So, it's 2010, Michael Gira is now in his mid 50s, and he's reconvened the band, Blues Brothers-style, and roped in a few old heads from the past, most notably Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn - and not Jarboe - for My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (catchy, huh?) on his own Young God label. My expectations were tepid, possibly gearing for The Big Disappointment, but I have been richly rewarded.

I've owned My Father... (not writing that again) for only a week, played it possibly 15 times, and yet I'm convinced I probably won't hear a better contemporary "rock" album than this in 2010. The opening track, the near-10-minute "No Words/No Thoughts", booms in with whalloping drums and a Branca-style guitar army before Gira begins to bellow his words halfway through. It sounds like the last 20 years of music never happened, and it sounds good. Track two, "Reeling The Liars In", reminds me of some of Gira's best non-Swans work dealing in a quieter vein, such as those World Of Skin LPs he did in the '80s, or the Gira/Jarboe 3-LP set, Drainland, they recorded and released in the mid '90s (seemingly mostly forgotten now, but they're definitely worth a shot), dirgey ballads pulled off w/ aplomb only by men of years such as Gira. Tracks 3 and 4 are the standouts: "Jim" is a slightly less violent take on the pummel of the opener, whilst "My Birth" is 4 minutes of thunder which combines the heaviness of Cop and the more grandiose cheese of White Light... : a perfect sonic meeting of my two very favourite aspects of Swans' ouvre. Better yet, none of this just sounds like a rehash, or that Gira and the band have deliberately gone out of their way to "give the fans what they want". Swans aren't that sort of band.

For my two cents, they have given the fans what they want: as strong an album as you could expect for a band comprising of various folks in their 40s and 50s, some of whom have been doing this for 30 years, to make right now. Gira's lyrical charms are still present throughout (and I've never considered Swans to be a nihilistic band a la Whitehouse, for they're far more interesting and complex than that), and he's singing like he still means it. My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky sounds fresh, forceful but never forced, and inspired. Everything Eno's album isn't. Like Eno's disc, it's also 45 minutes long, but it left me wanting more. Eno's didn't leave me wanting anything, except to maybe put a different album on. Gira still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and I sense there's more treats on the way in the future. I hope Eno wakes up from his slumber and does the same.