Saturday, December 31, 2011

Holy moly, 2011 came and went like that! And what a tumultuous year it was; not so much for me (business as usual on nearly all fronts), though a shocker for many others - some close to home, some far away. If the 20th century was the period of great ascension amongst the human race, in terms of technology, medicine, communication, entertainment etc., then my general feeling about the 21st century is that we're on a downhill slide, but then again, there was probably someone saying the exact same thing about the previous century in 1912 (as well as others hailing the forthcoming conquests of the 20th century as they set sail on the Titanic). In other words: the more things change, the more things stay the same. The only big change I have coming up in the next month is that I'm about to enter my 40s. I'm looking for big changes in my life, but only I can make them. And all that Z-grade philosophising and therapy is a roundabout way of saying this: one thing which will never change is my ability to belatedly give mention to great releases from years past, and today is no exception.

I didn't mention reissues in my round-up of 2011 as there's simply too many to list. Off to the top of my head, I'll mention... the Opika Pende 4CD/book box set on Dust To Digital, documenting rare African 78s from many decades past; the Bobby Robinson 4CD box on JSP (Robinson was a producer/arranger/songwriter/label boss responsible for many killer sides, from Elmore James to Red Prysock, and this set is a non-stop good time); the Italo Funk Experience CD on Nascente (I reviewed their French Funk Experience set earlier in the year; this series of weird & wonderful territorial gems is the bomb); the Johnny Otis series on Ace, digging up more gems from the '40s/'50s vaults); the Shattered Dreams: Funk Blues 1967 - 1978 set on BGP/Ace (which details the transition of old blues players in the late '60s/'70s into a more contemporary, funkier style of playing. My exposure to this period of music previously had it pegged as one of great bogusness. This CD puts that theory to rest: lots of great tracks here, by Johnny Otis, Lowell Fulson, Icewater Slim, Little Sonny and more); the 2CD Mark McGuire retrospective on Mego (young folks/hipster tunes, for sure, but that doesn't necessarily make it bad. McGuire is a member of avant-synth/drone combo, Emeralds, and releases cassettes/CD-Rs of his tunes like you & I have hot dinners. This 2CD compiles his best material. He has one or possibly two tricks: run a guitar through a series of effects pedals, echoes and loops and repeat... but it's an effective trick), etc. etc. Above is one which requires special mention. It possesses the mouthful-and-a-half title of Psych Funk Sa-Re-Ga! Seminar: Aesthetic Expressions of Psychedelic Funk Music In India 1970 - 1983. Wow. It comes on either CD or 2LP and both sets are handsomely packaged c/o the folks at World Psychedelic Funk Classics. I've got a few Indian and/or Bollywood compilations in my collection, but for me this one's the best of 'em all. Many of the tracks are hideously obscure soundtrack "incidental" pieces of music, from what I can gather they're taken from Z-grade Indian psych cash-in films (they're the best kind!), and many contain "personnel unknown". Some aren't remotely "funky" in a musical sense (I'm thinking obvious bass licks and danceable rhythm sections), though let's not split hairs: the opener by the Black Beats, "The Mod Trade" from 1971, is a killer slice of barely-together surf-influenced garage rock which sounds like an early, instrumental VU number. There's also a mighty strange track featuring kraut saxophonist, Klaus Doldinger (from fusionoid numbnuts, Passport) called "Sitar Beat" which features no Indian musicians (just Germans, including a guy from Embryo) and wasn't even released in India, so its inclusion means that the theme for this comp' is, err, "loose". But a winner it be. There's a zillion of these far-out comps from faraway lands in the market at this point in time. I've heard a heap of them - Turkey, Japan, Nigeria, USSR, Indonesia, etc. - and this is one I spin often.

Unless you're prone to a little feet-scufflin' jig, you won't be dancing to anytime soon to any tracks from Whaur The Pig Gaed On The Spree: Scottish Recordings by Alan Lomax, 1951-'57 (2s & Fews/Drag City). It was compiled by Scottish indie-folk musician, Alasdair Roberts (who has a bunch of recordings available via Drag City), who's a great enthusiast and fan of folk music from his homeland. I'm descended from the Scots, too, so there's interest on my behalf which goes beyond the perfunctory. Alan Lomax - one of the great recorders of sound throughout the globe in the 20th century - was living in London in 1951, working as a radio producer and field recordist for the BBC, as well as being under contract to Columbia Records to curate a series of LPs entitled World Library Of Folk and Primitive Music (where the hell can I get a job like that?!). He was about to draw tracks from the BBC archives from the 1940s for the English edition when he happened to meet Scottish poet, collector and radical, Hamish Henderson. Their meeting changed Lomax's mind, and he spent that summer dragging his audio gear around Scotland, recording Gaelic work songs, pipe tunes, ballads, sea shanties and more. The music of the Scots, a proud people deeply knowledgable of their own musical heritage and whose sense of community ran in tendem w/ Lomax's definition of folk music as a people's music, had Lomax recording hours and hours of music over the subsequent years of the 1950s. And this collection - available only on LP, but one w/ exhaustive and detailed liner notes - puts together the best of them (or what Roberts deems the best). A fair bit of it is a capella, some is accompanied by guitar or fiddle, and there's even a bagpipe tune to round it out. I have a deep love for the traditional folk music of the British Isles, whether it's the real thing as presented here (or on this collection) or one reconfigured by musicians steeped in the rock idiom (from Fairport Convention to Trembling Bells). Whether you're partial to this will determine as to whether you care for this collection's existence. It's beautifully put together and annotated and documents the lives and songs of people most likely long dead. It won't be the feel-good hit of the summer, but it'll keep you warm on those cold, wintery nights.
This release was - and remains - very strangely enough, one of my favourite releases of 2011, and yet I forgot to mention it last week. It is, indeed, a very strange beast. The band is When Saints Go Machine; the album goes by the name of Konkylie. The band is on a major in their homeland where they're a top 10 pop act. Other countries will have to suffice w/ the album's licensing to the German indie, K7. I stumbled across this one whilst at work. After reading the bio, which namedropped Arthur Russell and Talk Talk and gave mention to its homeland success, I figured it was due for a spin. How could I possibly sell copies of this in Australia? Does a top 10 in Denmark count for anything down here? The answer to the first question is: with great difficulty; the answer to the latter is quite obviously "no". This record is a thousand miles removed from much of the music I've trumpeted here over the past 8(!) years: this would never have fitted in on SST, FMP or ESP-Disk'; you would never mistake it for a hidden krautrock gem and nor could it ever be mistaken for a classic slice of 1940s booze-soaked rhythm & blues. It is, for all intents and purposes, a synth-pop album, one w/ the kinds of tunes which top charts. It could well have been released in 1985, so strong is its '80s-retro aura, but it's too smart, too adventurous and way too good to be mistaken for some of the lesser lights of that decade. Perhaps the group's main appeal is the vocals of lead vocalist Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild: he has the sweet, high-pitched nuances similar to that of Arthur Russell, Talk Talk's Mark Hollis and Antony Hegarty (from Antony & The Johnsons). His voice sounds fractured and possesses great depth and emotion - it undoubtedly makes for a highlight - but all that would be for naught if the songs weren't actually good. They're better than that, they're great. For better or for worse, this is arty synth-pop: you could compare it to 2nd-LP Suicide, Arthur Russell, late-period Talk Talk, Byrne/Eno, Another Green World, etc., but you could also say that this possesses the outright mersh qualities of say, Pet Shop Boys(!), Depeche Mode or mid '80s Yello (think Ferris Bueller). In fact, a good deal of this wouldn't have sounded out of place in an '80s slice of teen drama c/o John Hughes, and the track "Kelly" really could've been a chart-topper throughout the whole Western hemisphere ca. 1986, but that was not to be. There's 10 slices of primo art-pop here - great songs, all - and WSGM's combination of electronics, percussion and pining vocals is something I can dig a whole lot. I probably say this roughly once a decade, so I'll clear my throat and utter it: When Saints Go Machine's Konkylie is simply great pop music.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Huh... Xmas has been and gone and I didn't even get to post anything about it. But hey, you don't need some blogger schlep wishing you well: that's for family & friends. Haven't been here for 2 weeks because the lead-up to Xmas - being in the wholesale business - is non-stop chaos, the last thing I care to do in the evening being contributing to this blog, but the year's nearly up, and so I must give some sort of a half-arsed appraisal to the year that it was.

I'll leave political and world events to those who wish to comment on them (I usually do, but not here), so let's just cut to the chase and give a listing of some releases from 2011 which floated my boat. It was a bumper year for Australian music, and you'd better savour that remark, as I don't believe I've ever uttered it before (and may never again). There were the albums by Melbourne outfits, Dick Diver and Twerps. The former released New Start Again on the Chapter label and it developed into what one likes to call a sleeper, a grower and all things between. Featuring Al Montfort from The UV Race and Total Control (and others... and believe me, this is hard to write coz I work with the guy!), DD mine a relaxed, VU-damaged pop/rock sound which to me incorporates all the best elements of 3rd-LP VU, Marquee Moon (particularly the twin-guitar interplay), The Feelies, early Yo La Tengo and the 3 or 4 Go-Betweens songs I actually like. It's distinctly Australian in sound, though I doubt foreigners would have a hard time placing it in the scheme of things. It took a good half-dozen listens to take hold, but once it did, its sublime, subtle hooks and observational lyrics grabbed me and haven't let go yet. Twerps are DD's "brother/sister band" of sorts, being on the same label, playing shows together, etc., though their sound borrows heavily from the NZ/Flying Nun school of sound. In fact, if their self-titled debut had been released on Flying Nun ca. 1987, you wouldn't have batted an eyelid. Ace songwriting, too. One which came right out of left field and bowled me over is Lost Animal's Ex Tropical, released on the Sensory Projects label. This is probably my fave Australian release of '11. Lost Animal is basically one dude - Jarrod Quarrell - who was one of the prime movers in indie supergroup St. Helens a couple of years back. I never saw nor heard 'em (despite the presence of several friends in the line-up), but Lost Animal's approach to sound is a kind of sparse, dub-influenced and dramatic art-rock which to me brings to mind early '70s Eno, Berlin-period Bowie, primo Serge Gainsbourg and the kind of scattered, suit-wearing junkie-rock perfected by Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard. Ex Tropical possesses a decadent sleaze which, if it wasn't done so damn well, I'd be prone to dismiss as one big pose, but the strength of the material is astonishing. "Lose The Baby": that's the track you need to hear. Total Control, featuring Mikey from Eddy Current (and more) and Dan Stewart from The UV Race, Straightjacket Nation, etc. also put out a fine, fine release. It took me a while to come around to this. I'd seen them live a few times and been kind of underwhelmed by the obviously late '70s post/electro-punk sound they were aiming for (heard it too many times), but on their Henge Beat album (Total Control/Iron Lung), it coalesced into something more than the sum of its parts. Again, I'll throw around names like Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, Screamers, Suicide, et al, but TC are better than mere imitation. The songs, the riffs, they come together to form a whole - one which sways from the purely electronic to honest-to-Pete rock & roll - which makes sense. It sounds like 21st-century music I could actually give a damn about. Lastly, there was The Necks' latest, Mindset. There's not much more I could say about The Necks which I haven't said before (and I've said plenty about 'em before if you care to peruse this blog). Mindset has two 20-minute songs (and for the first time ever, in fitting w/ the song format, they've also released it on LP) - "Rum Jungle" and "Daylights" - the former being the noisy track, all hammering organs and beating drums, whilst the latter is the sound of sparse piano tinkles and light brushes. This band can do no wrong - they have done no wrong - so you need this one to complete the set.

Internationally, the UK's Trembling Bells put out a killer I reviewed here earlier in the year. The band possess an obvious reverance for British folk-rock of yore ('60s Fairports, in particular), but mesh up ye olde stylings w/ Brit psychedelia of the Syd's 'Floyd/Soft Machine variety, as well as the occassional bombastic sense of harmonic expansion one would usually gild from a Dirty Three platter. A great combo, and they have the songs to prove it. I finally came around to San Fran psych-rock quartet, Wooden Shjips, in 2011, and you can probably thank my line of work for finally alerting me to their sounds. Their critics would dismiss them as a one-trick pony - take a hot riff semi-stolen from the Velvets or Roky or Neu! or whoever - and run it into the ground, mumble something over the top and repeat until finished. Perhaps that is an accurate description, and my only retort is that, judging by their West album (Thrill Jockey), released earlier this year, it's a formula which could still do w/ some more milking before I get bored with it. Both Trembling Bells and Wooden Shjips are unashamedly retro in approach - they make few concessions to the sounds of today as we know it, and it's for that reason I can stand, nay, enjoy, listening to them. Michigan-born brassman, Colin Stetson, put out a puzzling, difficult and rather amazing disc earlier in the year, New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges, on the Canadian Constellation label, one which I only bought recently but which must be mentioned. Stetson is mostly known for his voluminous session work, with everyone from Tom Waits to mega-selling indie-rock nudniks The Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his solo work is something else. He plays mostly baritone sax in a circular, atmospheric and repetitive fashion, one not too dissimilar to some of Evan Parker's solo works on the FMP label, the result being a kind of deep and dark industrialism far removed from the world of jazz. New History... also features the vocals of one Laurie Anderson on several tracks - a woman I loathe for reasons too detailed and petty (and possibly unjustified) to go into here - though even she can't spoil the good times to be had. This one's "difficult" but ultimately very rewarding. Speaking of Anderson, I must give special mention to her, ahem, "better" half, Lou Reed, and his collaborative effort w/ mega-selling manchildren, Metallica, Lulu. I procured a freebie of this 2CD set a month or more ago, and for me, regardless of what anyone on planet earth says, it stands as one of the most bizarre, awful, brilliant and utterly unique releases of the past 12 months, if not the past 10 years. The Wire magazine rated Lulu as # 9 in their Top 50 releases of the year, and David Keenan's review in their November issue stands as the only sober and well-reasoned summation of its contents I've read of it in print thus far. Metallica will likely never record another great album in their lifetime (I highly rate their first 3, which I only belatedly came around to about a decade ago), and Reed's chances aren't particularly great, either, but the meeting of these two seemingly incongruous forces of egos, bullshit and bravado has created an entirely different beast. Sure, it rambles, and yes, James Hetfield often comes across like an embarrassing kid trying too hard to impress his grouchy uncle (that's Lou), but anyone w/ an interest in left-field music needs to give this a listen w/out prejudiced ears. The fact that it seems to go on forever (two discs totalling near a 90-minute mark) - as if editing out 10 minutes to make it fit a single CD (something I'm sure the record company was praying for) would spoil its grandiose plans, only makes it even better. It's a startling and absurd mixture of barely-together grunt-metal, raging speed/thrash and extended drones (mostly on disc 2), all laced together w/ Reed's drunken, croaky "poetry". Lulu is a great Lou Reed fuck-you platter, and I'll also give Metallica credit for being just smart/dumb enough to go along w/ it all.

I only watch TV that comes in DVD box sets, and my vote goes to Breaking Bad, a series I've only been exposed to in the last few weeks, despite nagging from friends for the last couple of years. I have now witnessed the first 3 seasons, and for me it stands up there in the Great Television Of The 21st Century pantheon, that select group of shows inhabited by the likes of The Sopranos, The Shield, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood and Six Feet Under. Curb Your Enthusiasm is essentially just a smart and very funny sitcom, but like the others mentioned, Breaking Bad unfolds and reveals itself like a good novel, each episode playing like a chapter in a book as you slowly watch the show's main anti-hero (all these shows possess an anti-hero: it's the formula for good TV as we know it today) steps deeper and deeper into a world of shit. The main protagonist is the highly intelligent yet similarly under-achieving high-school science teacher, Walter White. He's just been diagnosed w/ terminal cancer and has a pregnant wife and disabled son to take care of. Seeing possible financial troubles for his family in the near future, he goes into the crystal meth trade w/ a deadbeat ex-student of his, his brilliant scinetific mind cooking up the best batch of the stuff the southwest has ever seen. He soon learns that once you dip your toe into the drug trade and make an impression, it's hard to get out. On paper, the storyline sounds potentially awful and unrealistic (or just plain awfully unrealistic), but the clever writing and ace performances, and the way the story slowly and convincingly unravels and begins to involve larger forces beyond White's control (or even knowledge) make it absolutely gripping. Folks, they're still very occasionally making TV for people w/ grey matter between their ears, and Breaking Bad is one of the best of them.

Movies? Books? I have no idea what happened this year. I'm the last person you should be asking. I'll be back before the year's out for more blather.

Friday, December 09, 2011

In the past week, I have witnessed the American hardcore punk rock band Off! not once, but twice. They lit a fire under my ass and made me want to dance. Well, I would've danced, except the slam pit looked like a match to the death and I got all scared. My brother partook and has the bung knee and bruises to prove it. Fuck that, I'll just tap my feet. They've got an ace 16-track CD on the Vice label, of all people, which compiles their four 7" EPs (which is also available as a handsome 7" box complete w/ Pettibon art. They rip out a mean, lean, short, fast & loud punk rock which sounds like the last 30 years ceased to exist. It's part Germs, part Adolescents and part Nervous Breakdown sped up to breaking point. It ain't nothing new, that's a given, but does it give me a blast? You bet. A truly good sound never ages, and Off! are to be given credit for being a real band: a fearsome foursome who aren't just living off past glories, but emitting a sound which, dumb as this may sound, is also totally fresh. Would I care for them if not for their pedigree? Likely not, but I never said I was consistent. Ginn probably thinks Morris is a first-rate retrograde asshole for being in a band like Off!, but I'll ask you this: what would you rather listen to, Off! or the last 20+ years of Ginn recordings? I thought so.
Anyway, let's speak of one of the bands from whence they came, namely the Circle Jerks (I've written about Redd Kross before, but may do it again in the future). Off! are made up of Keith Morris, Steve McDonald, Dimitri Coats and Mario Rubalcaba. The latter two have done time in bands such as Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Earthless and Burning Brides, bands who mean little to me and hence I won't be wasting your or my time tackling their respective output and where it fits within the musical universe. No disrespect to either - Mario is a mean and wild skin-hitter and Dimitri slashes out a cool Ginn/Ashton-style guitar - but I've never even heard the Burning Brides, Hot Snakes or Earthless (who toured here not too long ago and whom I heard good reports of), and haven't listened to RFTC since I lost a cassette a friend made for me of their early singles back in about 1993 (though I recall liking some of the tunes). So on w/ the show it is...
The Circle Jerks' '80s discography is a wildly uneven beast, though one I can claim great sentimental attachment to. Along w/ the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, they were the first US HC band I claimed fandom for all those years ago (1986, to be exact. What, you missed the silver jubilee party?). High on the fumes of the Repo Man soundtrack, I went out and bought their debut, Group Sex (1980) and 1985's Wonderful in one hit. More on the latter soon. The debut is absolutely one of thee classics slabs of SoCal punk rock destruction. It's duration is a mere 15 minutes, but it packs more twists & turns, lyrical barbs and ge-u-ine musical invention within its quarter hour than most punkers packed into their complete discographies (actually, most of which didn't go beyond a mere 7", but the point has been made). Along w/ the likes of (GI), Damaged and Adolescents, it remains my fave piece of fast-paced LA mayhem from the period. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.... you know the CJ story, correct? Formed by Keith Morris once he was booted from the 'Flag in '79, along w/ Greg Hetson, fresh from Red Cross, bassist Roger Rogerson and sticksman, Lucky Lehrer. They hit the scene quick - supergroup that they were - and made a big splash in the suburban HC market within months of their debut. Sure, they ripped off some tunes from 'Flag and the 'Cross, but musical thievery is what makes the world spin on its axis. You can see footage of 'em here from Decline Of Western Civilisation: during their peak years they were a white-hot unit. Bozo punk-thrash w/ a beer-clutching singer at the helm, though they could pen some hot riffage (I'm thinking of tunes like "Beverly Hills", "Back Against The Wall", "World Up My Ass", "Red Tape" et al), though they never went down the life is pain/I want to be insane world of heaviness & gloom that the 'Flag fellows travelled down. I love that path, too, though the 'Jerks could be kinda dumb and almost, err, "funny" w/out merely being a precursor to Doggy Style. Got me? Group Sex was a huge indie hit for the Frontier label and helped keep a roof over their heads until Suicidal Tendencies hit paydirt a coupla years later.

The band switched labels for '82's Wild In The Streets. The edition I have - an old LP from the '80s - is on Step-Forward Records, some fly-by-night mob whom I know nothing about (the band had an old-school rock & roll manager, so who knows what production/label team he hooked 'em up with). Some subsequent reissues have been put out through Frontier (even via Epitaph at one stage), so who the fuck knows who owns the rights to this one. When I said the 'Jerks were uneven, I wasn't lying. WITS is still a great platter, but it sounds like it's under-rehearsed, sloppily produced and mixed out the ass. The title track is a mover (a Garland Jeffreys cover, in fact), and having just listened to it for the first time in a number of years, there's a bunch of tracks I'll equally vouch for ("Murder The Disturbed", "86'd", "Political Stu"), though there's something about it which doesn't quite make up the greatness of the debut. Subsequent reissues have been re-mixed and -mastered, so maybe they give it an edge the original version lacks. The material's there, but the production and execution doesn't always hit the mark. Still, for '82 punker action, this one's a keeper.

1983's Golden Shower Of Hits is a bit of a clunker. It was the last to feature Rogerson & Lehrer (he's apparently a successful attorney these days; down here we call 'em lawyers), and was released yet again on a different label: Allegiance. You know 'em? Me neither. That may explain why it's never been reissued. Or if it has, I've never seen it nor heard of it. Or maybe it remains out of print simply because it isn't that good. It's got some turkeys ("Junk Mail"... an anti-junk mail song? Sounds like they're reaching), and a good half of it simply sounds uninspired, but it's not a total write-off: "Rats Of Reality", "Product Of My Environment" and the tunes featured on Repo Man, "Coup D'Etat" and a reconfigured "When The Shit Hits The Fan" are hot, and the title track, a medley of schlock by the likes Karen Carpenter, The Association, Paul Anka and The Captain & Tenille is pretty, err, "funny" (tune's good, too). Some of GSOH is strictly punk-by-numbers autopilot material, though, and for me it's my least fave disc of theirs.

Another record, another label. 1985's Wonderful is where, pardon the pun, the shit hit the fan. Folks loved or loathed this. W/ a new rhythm section (featuring actor Zander Schloss on bass) in tow, the band made a direct stab at the hard rock/metal market... sort of. Released on Combat Core (the "punk" sub-label of metal empire, Combat), the production gives it that big, "rock" sound, Greg Hetson grew his hair out to Boltonesque proportions and there's no doubt this was the band trying to hit the big time. This rousing endorsement aside, I dig this a lot. Call me a sentimental old fool - that may just be the sole reason I do like it - but it's got some strong material, and despite the concessions made to the HM market with the production and slightly slower, more accessible material, there's righteousness buried within its grooves. I thought "heavy metal" (as it was known and recognised in the '80s) was a genre filled w/ total bogusness throughout my teens years (it still mostly is, but I'll tackle that non-issue at a later date), but Wonderful keeps things pretty simple and upbeat throughout. If anything, it's really a sell-out to "rock" - just plain, old simple "rock" - and that's not such a bad thing to dabble in, huh? It's got a lot of great tunes: the title track, "Making The Bombs", "Dude", "Karma Stew", "Rock House", "I & I", et al and nary a clunker in sight (even the party anthem, "Heavy Metal Weekend", has its charms). If you're hearing Wonderful for the first time in the year 2012, it may register a big, fat zero to yer ears; as a semi-mersh punk/rock album made in '85 and heard by these ears in '86, it still manages to weave a manner of half-arsed magic throughout my senses.

I bought 1987's VI upon the week of its release. Again, there's another label change, this time to megacorp indie, Relativity (a fake independent label/distro owned by Sony, whom I believe also owned Combat), and the back cover shot of the band had 'em looking like the years hadn't been kind to them: Morris looked like he'd crawled out of the sewer and Hetson was beginning to resemble an audition for the part of either Barry Manilow or Peter Frampton in a musical. I remember the review by Tim Yohannon at the time in Maximum Rock & Roll: he actually liked it. No more mersh HM flirtations, no tuneless thrash: just four-to-the-floor punk 'n' rock 'n' roll. Or something to that effect. A few folks thought this was a "return to form" after the disaster of Wonderful, something I disagree w/ for a couple of reasons, them namely being that Wonderful is a better record than this, and indeed it's a better record than its predecessor, but hey! VI is still a worthy addition to the CJ's canon of song, so to speak. It's got a rippin' cover of Creedence's "Fortunate Son" as well as blazing originals like "I'm Alive", "Living", "All Wound Up" and "I Don't", the production is still slick though contains enough rust to power the songs, and lyrically it's got a more personal angle, detailing Morris's degenerate lifestyle at the time (he cleaned up years ago). All in all, a worthy way to see out the band before they called it quits for many a year and Hetson made a comfortable living playing w/ the mega-successful yet shit-boring Bad Religion.
If you could divide up the 'Jerks' '80s discography, it's into two distinct camps: the classic early SoCal punk in Group Sex and Wild In The Streets and the big-league rock & roll of the latter two. Golden Shower Of Hits stands in no-man's land, being a record I would deem as being too full of mediocrity to rate much of a mention beyond the mandatory collection-filler. Like I said, it's a wildly uneven affair, but stacking 'em all up to each other and spinning in succession will have it make sense, and put the weaker material into a better light and perspective. And what the fuck, Keith Morris is a fuggin' icon in my book, one of the original smart-arsed suburban dweebs partly responsible for the creation of the glorious music form of the original hardcore punk seed, and for that we should all be eternally grateful. He talked his ass off between songs at the Off! shows, and I was happy to hear that slacker, Californian drawl all night. He's the real fuckin' deal, pal. Below is a great clip: the short-lived line-up featuring Chuck Biscuits on skins, whacking furiously as the band tore through a few songs from Golden Shower... (which sound much better in a live context) at what appears to be a pro telecast taking place in a medium-sized arena. Anyone know the story behind this?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Oh, the irony! It's not lost on me! After having just given a half-baked review of Simon Reynolds' Retromania, what do I decide to do? That's right: give a quick spiel on one of the most unashamedly retro contempo bands of them all, Sweden's Dungen. This quickie is inspired by my raving for the recorded works of Sweden's Turid just two posts below; after a dozen rotations of the lovely lass - musically speaking - I thought I'd skip four decades and stick to the same region by spinning the wares of that country's great white hope of the 21st century. Dungen were kind of a big deal roughly half a decade back - a "buzz band", you might say - though their unwillingness to play the game, to do anything but play by their own muse, has seen them slip back into the comfortable jacket of being a "cult band". You following me? They had a couple of albums - 2004's Ta Det Lugnt included - released on a subsidiary of the Virgin label in their homeland; their 2007 opus, Tio Bitar, was licensed on CD Down Under on the indie-via-a-major imprint, Ivy League and they toured here at the time with (gulp) Wolfmother! (surely one of the most shitawful excuses for a rock band this century) But don't judge 'em by the company they keep. They left Virgin coz it wasn't their scene (maaan), and all this background material is perhaps immaterial to the one very important fact: they make fucking great records. Really, really great records. Along w/ another contempo fave of mine, the UK's Trembling Bells - a quartet I raved about earlier in the year who shamelessly mine a Fairports/Incredible String Band/Syd's 'Floyd realm of sound - Dungen sound like a band caught in the wrong time frame, but their appropriation of this musical timewarp is handled w/ such care and attention to detail that even the hardest of heart would forgive them for their musical grave digging. Dungen really is just one guy: Gustav Ejstes. He is the one constant, the singer, songwriter and renaissance man, although he has kept a steady band under his wings in recent years, one which cuts it ably in a live setting, too. Whilst their two more recent albums - 2008's 4 and 2010's Skit I Allt - have seen the Dungen sound paired down to a slightly less ornate setting, lighter on the psychedelic overload and stronger in the baroque art-pop dept. (I compared 4 to Roxy Music, Amon Duul 2 and Scott Walker a coupla years back on this blog), there's zero drop in the quality dept.: it's just the sounds of a band moving on. The high point for myself, and many others, remains 2004's Ta Det Lugnt, a 2LP magnus opus which very well could've been released in 1971, and if it had, you'd possibly like it a whole lot more. It was released this century, and that's no reason to dismiss it. Available as a 2LP set on the Swedish Subliminal Sounds label, if you read this blog for the music recommendations and not the showbiz gossip, then you know what must be done: it involves the exchanging of hard-earned cash for goods. A 13-song meisterwerk featuring tracks both long & short - from 55 seconds long to 8 1/2 minutes - it runs the gamut from gentle, flute-laden acid-folks ballads to elongated psych-rock jams to jazzy, Soft Machine-style excursions to light, baroque sunshine-pop and even Zep-style riffin' hard rock. Amongst all this remains their constant worship of Swedish underground rock from the '60s/'70s - International Harvester, Trad Gras Och Stenar, Parson Sound, et al - and others from the "progg" scene (follow that link for a layman's explanation of what I speak of). All of this, of course, has been done before. You could even say it's been done better. Rock & roll isn't moving forward, it's feasting on its own corpse, etc., etc., etc. All true and I couldn't give a fuck. Dungen also have the songs to back it up. I just listen to those whose musical output, whether it's ahead of its time or way behind its time, floats my boat. Dungen do it. Every fucking time.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Allow my two cents to be thrown in the pot regarding Simon Reynolds' latest tome, Retromania (Faber & Faber/2011). I'm familiar w/ some of Reynolds' writing over the years, mainly the articles he'd occasionally pen for The Wire, as well as his book, Rip It Up & Start Again, from approx. half a decade ago. The latter was actually a pretty good one, too, one which dissected and put together the post-punk diaspora which exploded throughout the globe in the late '70s and early '80s into a comprehensive (and comprehensible) narrative. He has a fairly simple and approachable style of writing, conversational like a zine/blog writer, yet he also isn't afraid to throw a few pieces of academic lingo and analysis around. Much like many a Limey music journalist, he also isn't afraid to discuss - and sometimes even create - the occasionally ludicrous music genre (such as "hypnagogic pop" and "hauntological": the kind of phrases I couldn't possibly say w/ a straight face), though he's been living in the US for 15 years now (and recently moved from NYC to LA), and "gets" rock & roll far moreso than most of his fellow countrymen (his chapter on SST in the 1980s from Rip It Up... was pretty spot on).
But anyway, it's 2011, popular and unpopular music hasn't given the masses nor underground a major kick up the backside for about a decade now (possibly debatable, but that's his stance [and mine]), and Retromania is Reynolds' attempt to tackle the topic of the state of music in the year 2011, where technology has taken us and where it's likely to lead us. The rapid change of technological advances the past 5 years, and the way it's changed the musical landscape and the way we approach it and listen to it, has left myself and some of my compadres more than a little dumbstruck. The instant gratification of the internet, iphones, downloads etc. almost has me forgetting what life was like before such gadgets came along. Whilst I'm prone to complaining about the get-it-now culture swallowing the minds of the youth of the land, I'm as guilty as anyone in my exploitation of said technology.
But back to the book.... for the most part, Retromania puts to paper what's been swimming around my head the past few years regarding contemporary music: why, in the 21st century, does the new music I'm hearing not excite me like the music of old? Is it all really that unoriginal, or is it simply a sign of my own age? Do 19 year-olds voraciously devour the hot, new underground sounds in the same manner I did 20 years ago? Does it resonate w/ them in the same way it did for previous generations? In short: has music been cheapened and de-valued? There's no definitive answer for any of this, although Reynolds does claim there to be a general malaise in the originality dept. the past decade, and this can be blamed on the omnipresent nature of information and our ready access to just about any music from the past & present at the press of a key, something bordering on information overload, and something which has led to a near-parasitic music culture which is constantly feeding on itself, almost unable to search for new ideas. In other words, its sense of forward momentum, of breaking new ground, has been lost, or at least stalled. Regional scenes are not given time to develop anymore as they had in the past (think of everything from the blues/R & B of the '30s/'40s - the west coast practitioners had a very different sound to those of the south or the east - through to the distinct HC/punk scenes of the early '80s), as an artist can display their wares to the world via Youtube/Myspace/Facebook/ etc. after one practice, and possibly find themselves being plagiarised in Finland or Estonia within 24 hours... but I digress. Retromania is more fun that that. It's not a whinge nor a Luddite manifesto, and also willingly acknowledges the benefits the internet has brought music fans throughout the previous 15 years.
The first half of the book, in particular, had me interested: it dissects the culture of record collecting and how this relates to the changing world of the 21st century. The story of his son as a five-year-old living in NYC and obsessed w/ collecting bus maps, is both hilarious and illuminating. Reynolds would take his son on weekend bus trips throughout the burroughs so he could collect the maps, until one day he simply said to his son: Why don't we just go to Central Station and pick up all the maps there are in one quick & easy grab? His son was horrified at the suggestion, and at that point the author knew he had the collecting bug like his old man: it wasn't just the collection per se, it was the journey in the acquiring which made it such a passion.
Reynolds interviews and writes about some infamous collectors and label folks well worth reading about - John Kugelberg, Miriam Linna, Crypt's Tim Warren - and for me this was the most interesting part of the book. The latter two, in particular, have always held the belief that, if I may paraphrase, it may be old, but if it's new to me, then it's new, and that's something I can relate to (at least that's how I justify my hopelessly backward-looking music obsessions). Reynolds also gives some major page space to the current trend of famous musicians curating festivals, the constant revival/reunion circuit (something which has a particular stronghold within the punk/independent scene of the '70s/'80s) and the labels dedicated to reissuing old material. I can say this from experience, having worked in the, err, "biz" the past 15+ years: it's a lot easier selling older material tarted up at the right price than it is breaking a new band, no matter how brilliant you may think them to be. Believe me, a well-annotated and -packaged Ella Fitzgerald box set marked at the right price (ie. - dirt cheap) moves faster and more steadily than 99% of "hot" "new" releases.
Reynolds lost me halfway through the book for a few-dozen pages when he started writing about the world of fashion and its constant recycling, but that's probably just because I have zilch interest in clothing (I found a look which suits me 25 years ago and I've stuck w/ it ever since), though it picks up the pace again when discussing contemporary artists he rates (ones I mostly don't), "futurism", sci-fi writing and the 20-year cycle of nostalgia. My workplace is a few doors down from a "community" high school (basically an "alternative education" facility), and it nevers ceases to crack me up when I walk past a big group of its students on the way to work, many of them decked in subcultural uniforms from decades past: there's the death/thrash metal kids wearing Kreator, Destruction and Sodom patches on their denim jackets, the HC kids w/ Bad Brains and Black Flag t-shirts and the crusties w/ Crass and Rudimentary Peni hoodies, smoking out the front on most mornings. There's even a small group of retro-stoners, clad in Led Zep and Hendrix tees, looking like extras from Dazed & Confused. Several times I've walked by in a Black Flag or Sunn O))) t-shirt, only to hear one of them mutter to me, "Cool t-shirt, man". No one's ever commented on my Louis Jordan top, but that's no surprise. Some of the kids wear Darkthrone and Burzum shirts, but none of them sport truly new and contemporary bands on their apparel. If I didn't feel approx. 100 years old in their vicinity, simply as a matter of social research, I'd ask them why they don't appear to listen to contemporary music, but each time I chicken out.
Reynolds is quite taken by the current crop of "hypnagogic pop" bands 20-somethings are entranced by in the 21st century. Hypnagogic pop? I was hoping you wouldn't ask. Loosely speaking, if I have this correct, it's a term attached to a certain retro school of sound which feeds on various forms of pop from decades past: '70s yacht-rock, '80s synth-pop, New Age, kraut, etc. Ariel Pink is the most famous poster boy, though others, like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, also get major props from more "adult-oriented" publications such as The Wire. Ariel Pink has one great song I can vouch for (hear it here); Mark McGuire and his outfit, Emeralds, even have their moments (there's a great 2CD Best Of on the Mego label; his schtick is looped guitars and electronics which possesses a kraut/Terry Riley vibe); even Oneohtrix Point Never I have enjoyed... but is this the best there is to offer? It's not music to get excited about, and in my grumpier of moods, I'm prone to dismissing all of this stuff as vacuous hipster nonsense few people are likely to care about in 12 months time, let alone 10 years. Taking full advantage of the technology at the tip of my fingers, whilst reading Retromania, I browsed Youtube to hear tracks by Boards Of Canada and the "hauntological" (don't ask) sounds of Advisory Circle and The Focus Group and found myself distinctly underwhelmed. I wanted to be excited by these groups, but I wasn't. I doubt there's ever been a poll conducted to determine whether my reaction is a widespread phenomenon amongst Gen X music nerds who appear to be almost incapable of appreciating 21st-century "young people's music", so you'll just have to accept that as being the opinion of one man.
But Simon Reynolds is a professional music writer, which means he has to - and obviously does - find something of value in these bands, and if he didn't, he may as well give up his profession or enquire about vacancies at MOJO magazine. 21st-century music, both underground and mainstream, may be rife w/ plagiarism, unoriginality and a parasitic nature almost unprecedented - and perhaps much of this can be blamed on technology - but you can't fight it, and I shouldn't resent those born at the wrong (or right) time who are growing up in this climate of rapid change.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Here's an excellent release which has come straight of nowhere, or, to be more specific, Sweden ca. 1971 - 1975. Released on the RPM label out of the UK, Stars And Angels compiles the best tracks from Turid Lundqvist's three LPs she released on the Silence label in the '70s. You're unfamiliar w/ her works? I was, too. Born in 1949, she'd been playing around since 1965 and was signed to the Metronome label in the late '60s, although her recordings from the time went unreleased (and were apparently erased). The extensive liner notes paint an interesting picture of the music scene of the time. You may already know of some of them: Parson Sound, International Harvester, Trad Gras och Stenar and the Baby Grandmothers. The Subliminal Sounds label out of Sweden has reissued a lot of this stuff the past decade, as well as recordings by the excellent contemporary Swedish psych outfit, Dungen, and it's well worth digging your claws into. Parson Sound let out an almighty low-end, drugged roar, like White Light/White Heat played at a crawl, and International Harvester could be considered a brother/sister band to the original, communal Amon Duul. The Baby Grandmothers played more high-energy rock & roll, sounding like a strange, Nordic take on '60s garage punk and Blue Cheer's first disc. To tie this all in, The Baby Grandmothers' Kenny Hakansson accompanies Turid on most of the tracks here, lending the songs a sublime, acidic quality they may not have otherwise possessed. And that's not to imply that Turid herself is any slouch: her vocal mannerisms sometimes earned her comparisons to Melanie and Joni Mitchell (the latter is occasionally spot on), although her music is way more fried and exploratory than either, thus equally earning comparisons to left-field troubadours such as Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs. You could even compare her music to that of Joanna Newsom, but A) Turid was there first; B) Newsom's music annoys me; and C) I don't see how comparing an artist of 40 years ago to a contemporary one necessarily paints a flattering portrait for either singer (ie. - you're either saying that Newsom's approach is dated or contrived [a distinct possibility] or that Turid's music is boring enough to sound contemporary). But anyway! There's 17 tracks here of wistful and occasionally fruity psychedelic folk music, and despite the frostbitten conditions they were recorded in, they possess a colourful, sun-drenched aura, and given their accessible nature - there's plenty of great hooks here - it has me thinking the cult of Turid is most certainly worthy of breaking out further than the miniscule following she enjoys outside of her homeland. There were plans for her to move to the UK and sign to John Peel's Dandelion label, but it never came to fruition. She would've made a perfect label mate w/ Bridget St. John, and her music fits in nicely next to other UK u/ground eccentrics of the day such as Comus, Jan Dukes de Grey, Twink, pre-T-Rex Bolan, etc. The liner notes tell an interesting story: there was a musical movement in Sweden in the '60s/'70s known as "Progg"; not "prog" as in progressive rock, but one built on a DIY/anything-goes ethos where musical ability meant little. The movement was also highly political, but like most such movements, whether it's the Yippies, Red Army Faction or Weather Underground (though there's no mention of armed struggle amongst the Swedish Proggers), it petered out by the end of the decade, possibly superceded by punk. I have no interest in pursuing musical obscurities for their own sake in the 21st century - that's a waste of everyone's time - the music Turid Lundqvist recorded in the first half of the 1970s stands on its own, regardless of who has or hasn't heard of her before, as something worth pursuing. Along w/ Jan Dukes de Grey and Bridget St. John, this is one of my fave early-'70s (re)discoveries of recent years.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I first saw the 1975 film Race With The Devil on VHS cassette some time around the dawn of this century. I walked into the video store, stumped as to what to rent, and asked the guy behind the counter for a good, thrill-a-minute action flick I likely wouldn't have seen before. I don't usually ask total strangers for recommendations, but the guy in question was an older rock & roll dude from the area who owned the store, knew his films and was prone to playing a bit of Can, Amon Duul and Cluster over the store speakers (hell, I walked in there one day and he was playing F/i!!). I'd accept his verdict. He recommended the Peter Fonda/Warren Oates suburbanites-on-the-run-from-murderous-Satanists thrill-ride, Race With The Devil, directed by Jack Starrett, a man who cut his teeth making biker exploitation flicks in the '60s and wound up as a bit-part actor in schlocky '80s TV fare such as Knight Rider.
I watched the film for the first time in over a decade just the other night. Far from disappointing me - I liked it a whole lot the first time around - it possibly impressed me more with a re-viewing. When describing it to a friend yesterday, I said it was an A-grade B movie. That is, the basis of the film is a total B-movie premise, and in lesser hands and w/ lesser actors it may well have totally sunk from view, but w/ a tight script, characters that make sense, actors who can actually act and hot stunt/action direction, Race With The Devil is superior drive-in fodder.
The film starts out establishing the main male characters: Fonda plays a professional motorbike rider whose form has recently slipped, and Oates is his best friend, confidante, owner of a successful motorbike store and repair centre and also an ace on two wheels. There's some early riding scenes as the two of them duke it out on the dirt hills, just to show that they're not totally stripped of all machismo in their dorkoid suburban surroundings. When push comes to shove, they may indeed fight back. Oates is usually known for playing the perrenial tough guy, so to see him playing someone so gentlemanly - the two of them are decent and likeable characters - is a refreshing change. Even more refreshing is seeing Fonda act beyond his usually wooden parameters. I usually rate him as one step above Charles Bronson, but this time his performance his believable and sympathetic.
So anyway, Oates has bought himself a mega-deluxe motorhome w/ all the mod cons (even a microwave oven!), so he and Fonda and their respective wives, played by Lara Parker and M*A*S*H*'s Loretta Swit, decide to take it on the road - their own self-contained home - to the back of beyond for a vacation. First night on the road, camped by a creek in the middle of nowhere, Oates and Fonda witness a firelit Satanic ritual across the water where a young woman is sacrificed. Both in shock, and not yet seen by the perpetrators, the shit hits the fan when Swit turns the outside light of the motorhome on, yelling for her husband to come inside, and they're spotted. Soon, the chase is on. But the film is not just 20 minutes of build-up and character development and then 70 minutes of road thrills. The action ebbs and flows, lulling you into a false sense of security that the foursome are finally safe and OK - even in the arms of the local police or at a well-lit, highly populated camp site - only to find they're back in imminent danger once again. It's an excellent example of the post-Manson paranoia of the time, but in a twist, and without meaning to give too much away, the Satanists aren't hippies or counter-cultural cut-outs.
Race With The Devil is a great snapshot of its time: lots of bad fashion, biege colours and a big dollop of whitebread Amerika. The foursome think they've found safety in their self-contained house-on-the-road, but at every turn it's shown to be a fallacy. When the situation seems hopeless, I found myself muttering in my mind, I'd be straight on the iphone to the FBI, but you've got to keep saying to yourself: those were different times. Technology has made it hard to get lost on a map in the US of A in the 21st century. Back in '75, there was still a sense of space between people and towns. When you're out of reach of the proper authorities, you may well be screwed. As they are.
Race With The Devil reminds me a bit of another superior B movie made over 20 years later: 1997's Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh. You've probably skipped over it a thousand times down at the local DVD rental establishment, but like Race With The Devil, it's a great white-suburbanites-in-peril flick, again set in the middle of nowhere (this time in the southwest deserts of America), w/ characters that make sense, both in their actions and motivations, a tight script and ace direction. Kurt Russell has surely made more bad films than good ones in his life, but I'll stand by Breakdown as one of the latter. Regardless, Race With The Devil is an intense, well-made action/thriller/horror flick I'd recommend to anyone and everyone. The feeling of hopelessness and dread throughout is almost too much to bear. In many ways, Race With The Devil is a much better film than it should be, and that's not a bad thing at all.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bloody hell, the frogs can indeed rock when need be. These two clips from Metal Urbain have given me a slap across the face the past week, the combo of jagged Stooges riffs and electro scuzz the finest beats this side of early Chrome or Cabaret Voltaire. Hell, if the Screamers had added a James Williamson-style guitar-slinger to their electroid mix, they mighta sounded a whole lot like this. Which goes to show that great ideas - necessary ideas - can often spring up around the globe from disparate sources at an identical point in time, w/ none of the seperate players being aware of each other's existence. Or something like that. Or maybe Metal Urbain were simply a great fucking rock & roll band, and these clips have fried my brain at least a little. Got an anthology CD 'round these parts somewhere, I'm gonna have to dig it out.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Who's to say what makes great rock & roll anymore? If you were to believe some of the self-appointed arbiters of taste, you'd certainly believe that Lou Reed and Metallica's new collaborative effort, Lulu, ranks among the worst albums ever recorded. If it truly is, then I'm rather curious to hear it, but the barrage of negativity - as if these professional critic types are simply looking for something, anything, to get excited about in 2011, even if it's from a wholly negative perspective - has worn me down to a calm indifference... and I haven't even heard the thing yet! And anyway, if it is as terrible as some people are saying it is, then that's merely following a distinct career path both parties have followed the past few decades. Lou Reed released Ecstacy in 2000, and it wound up being my favourite release of that year. His career has been a total rollercoaster ride to the highest peaks and the deepest valleys, but that's Lou. He doesn't give a fuck what you think. Maybe he should, and if he wasn't such a flaming asshole he would, but I'd also be disappointed if he did. Metallica, on the other hand, hit their peak during their first three albums in the early/mid '80s, and haven't reared their heads out of the muck for any extended time since. I've actually heard their St. Anger album, and it beggars belief that Lulu could be worse, but it may well be. Some chowderhead gives Lulu a blasting here at Pitchfork. When a friend recommended I read it, I blasted back that I found it incomprehensible that someone at Pitchfork would actually know anything about what makes good rock music, but the review, in hindsight, probably hits the nail on the head most of the time. Still, I'd rather watch the clip above - Loutallica obliterating "White Light/White Heat" on British TV - than one by the Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver. It's not that Metallica sound that bad, it's that Reed sounds like he couldn't be bothered. He's sounded that way for decades, you'd better get used to it. There's also this review from Volcanic Tongue. That's the other side of the story. I can't vouch for the opinions, but I'm glad someone wrote it. In a career of Fuck Yous, Lulu may be Reed's biggest middle finger yet. Frankly, if it's upset people as much as it appears to have, then it must have something going for it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Originally released on the Prestige label in 1960, Eric Dolphy's Outward Bound was also the very first "jazz" record I bought. I purchased a secondhand vinyl edition of this back in the heady days of the early '90s - 1993, to be exact - when I was dead set on exploring the four-letter music form which until then had evaded me. Dolphy seemed a good place to start - his work w/ Coltrane, Mingus and Ornette Coleman alone put him up there in the pantheon - and the single-digit price tag didn't scare me at the time, either. It didn't blow my head off upon first listen - I guess I was looking for something more musically ferocious, given my penchant for "noise" back in the day; I encountered that soon thereafter w/ a self-titled Albert Ayler bootleg purchased in the ensuing months, one which set my on track for becoming a lifelong jazz dork thereafter - but it's stayed w/ me ever since, a sentimental fave and one I'll clutch 'til I'm under the ground, if possible. Dolphy left this mortal coil in '64, due to diabetes complications, an incalculable loss to the music world, as he had only in his last few years started to really hit a stride which would, had he lived, likely seen him as one of the great innovators of the '60s. His last few discs, notably Out To Lunch (Blue Note/1964), Conversations (1963), Last Date (1964) and Iron Man (ditto) see him branching out into a wilder, more expansive sound, and that's not counting the dozens of bootlegs from this period (most of them documenting European tours of the time) which demonstrate his progressively expressive and outward-bound (fnar!) forays on his instruments of choice: alto sax, bass clarinet and the flute. Check out the clip below for an excellent example of just how phenomenal a player he could be. On Outward Bound, Dolphy is accompanied by the great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, a guy who cut a stack of killer hard-bop/free discs in the '60s, either as a sideman or headliner, before blowing his wad w/ some lightweight/mersh atrocities in the following decade (something which seemed to ruin his legacy for many observers), Roy Haynes on drums, Mingus sidekick Jaki Byard on piano and Blue Note mainstay George Tucker on bass. Dolphy cuts loose on a few extended solos on tracks such as "G.W." and "Les" and you can see where his music is heading, though it mainly sticks to a sound rooted in '50s hard bop. The revolution hadn't happened yet, though that doesn't mean you won't have a real good time listening to it. As my current jazz obsessions have recently veered towards the Yusef Lateef/Jackie McLean/Andrew Hill school of avant-bop sounds - giving the more hard-line screeching a break for a while - Outward Bound sounds better to me than it did back in 1993. The album itself is still readily available on both LP and CD in various editions on various labels (it's now public domain in the EU, so the onslaught of reissues by anyone and everyone begins), and since any and every disc w/ Dolphy's name on it is worth its price, you know what you should do.

Seymour Stein, owner/founder of Sire Records (prior to it being bought by Warner Brothers), is often seen as a caricature of the music biz, a cigar-chomping fast-talker who possibly embodies all the negative aspects of the industry he works in, but I'll give him credit for at least giving brief exposure to a few artists who would've been lucky to've released anything in their lifetime other than maybe a Bomp 7" (which DMZ did in 1977) when he opened his wallet during the punk/new wave explosion in '77. Sure, he dropped most of 'em like a hot potato when he realised they weren't gonna make him a mint soon thereafter (he was a businessman, not a true believer), but the documents remain. One of the documents is this disc, a release which has escaped my ears until now. It's recently been reissued on vinyl c/o the good folks at 4 Men With Beards, and one glance at the cover above may render me an excuse for my tardiness: THAT COVER SUCKS. I recall seeing it several times over the years at shops such as Au-go-go, when that establishment was still open and would put high-priced rarities on its wall, and despite its rep as a lost punker classic from the '70s, I always found it hard to get beyond that cover. At its best, it might've been a Cheap Trick/Cars blend of new wave/pop nonsense; at its worst, it looks like it belongs in the Boston/Toto/Journey school of '70s atrocities. It is, of course, neither. DMZ existed for a few years in the mid/late '70s and hailed from Boston; early member Dave Robinson had spent time in the Modern Lovers and later did play in The Cars, but for many they're remembered for basically morphing into the long-running Beantown garage outfit, The Lyres, the group singer Jeff Conolly formed after their dissolution (bassist Mike Lewis joined 'em, too, later on). What's so special about this release - one many punk rock releases from '77/'78 unfortunately can not claim an equal boast to (especially for a full-lengther) - is the quality of the songwriting and its ability to really rock. The sound is sharp, punchy, relentlessly upbeat and sympathetic to their aims: rockin'. Perhaps most strangely of all, you can thank none other than Flo & Eddie - the Turtles/Mothers Of Invention dudes - for the production job: the rhythm section of Paul Murphy and Rick Corraccio is hot, the guitar cranked high in the mix and Conolly's yelps the crowning glory atop all of this. DMZ's sound was caught somewhere in the mix between '60s Nuggets rock (there's a cover of "Out Of Our Tree"), early '70s proto-punk (New York Dolls and Raw Power are all over this) and the fast-paced no-frills shenanigans of the Ramones. A pretty good combo - a tried a true combo which possibly now amounts to a musical cliche flogged into the ground these past 35 years - but DMZ were there at the beginning and, judging by this sole studio long-player, did it better than most others. Long obscured to all but a few diehard collector nerds, it's now out and about and available in the few worthy record stores left on this planet. It's 11 tracks of high-octane rock & roll malarky - something I'm prone to dismissing, but something I also get down on my knees and worship when it's done w/ aplomb - and in this case I'll give DMZ's LP a shamefully belated two thumbs up, Fonzie style.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I've got a few spare minutes, so let's see what's been floatin' my boat in these neck 'o the woods of late. The above box is one which is high on the list. I must admit - hell, I will admit - that the name Mickey Newbury didn't register in my mind until a few months ago when this 4CD box set was thrust in my paws by a colleague w/ the strict instructions that I must digest, toot sweet. Such a confession is one I'm not proud of, and in retrospect it's odd that I'd never come across his wares, considering my fandom for his contemporaries (Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings), but here we are and that's the story. Newbury was a Texan-born singer-songwriter - one most famous for his songs which were made into hits by others - who made a big splash in the Nashville/Acuff-Rose scene in the '60s and perhaps an even bigger splash in the burgeoning outlaw country music crew of the 1970s. Those who've covered his songs range from the good to the bad to the ugly (from Joan Baez and Tom Jones through to Kenny Rogers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, Bobby Bland, Willie Nelson... the list goes on) and right on through to The King himself. You can compare the two versions of his most famous song, "American Trilogy", below. Newbury's is quiet and delicate - a ballad supreme - whilst Elvis' is a blustery showtune spat out with pure spirit wrapped up in a glittery suit complete w/ karate kicks. I'm prone to dismissing Elvis as a monumentally over-rated dunce who landed himself in history at just the right time and place - hell, why would you listen to Elvis when there's Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard? (and don't even get me started on the genius of Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris et al) - a man whose tastelessness knew no bounds, and then I see a clip like the one below and am struck by the man's godlike stage presence. His rendition has an extra coating of cheese, but by golly, that's no reason not to like it. Both versions possess their own unique sense of beauty, and for very different reasons. But that's enough about Elvis. Newbury released 3 LPs between the years 1969 - 1973: Looks Like Rain, 'Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help The Child on the Mercury and Elektra labels. They're collected here on this deluxe box set - designed and put together by the folks who designed the similarly lavish Charley Patton and Albert Ayler sets for Revenant, so you know it looks nice - put out by the UK impint, Saint Cecelia Knows. The LPs have also been reissued individually in the US by the Drag City label. There's also a 4th CD in this set which puts together demos, a radio session from 1970 and publishing-company demos of Newbury songs made famous by Roy Orbison, Ray Charles and others. The collection of music contained within the four discs features some of the most stunning examples of pure songcraft I've had the pleasure of hearing since Townes Van Zandt blew the lid off my head w/ his debut back in the late '90s (I was late to the game then; I guess I continue to be). Newbury's delivery and song style isn't far removed from Van Zandt... in fact their style is so close at times that I could mistake one for the other, although Van Zandt's has a heavier country/folk bent, whereas Newbury mixed his w/ a more Tin Pan Alley Nashville sound, one leaning towards the Jimmy Webb school of slick, urban countrified sonics (not a bad thing). Newbury released a few more discs after these, though was largely musically inactive from the 1980s until his death in 2002. Any songwriter you'd give a damn about in this lifetime owes him a debt, and some of them give their due in the liner notes. The power of his songs are immense, w/ subtle changes of mood which power them along w/ an emotional gravitas like few others. Note the shift in key after the first chorus run on "American Trilogy": it moves the heart and loins. There are many other songs present here which similarly achieve such an aim ("Write A Song A Song/Angeline", the first song on the set is a definite contender for his greatest piece of music), and over time I'm sure I'll discover more. The packaging is incredible (there's now a cheaper, less deluxe edition available - actually the one I own - with the kind of design/layout which still shames most others), the music unbeatable and for me it gets my vote as one of the best reissues of 2011. You. Need. It.

The Washington DC band known as Lungfish are one I've been meaning to give the obligatory props to the past 6 months, and now I shall finally, if perhaps too briefly, fulfill my promise. They're a band who've been on my musical radar for over 20 years but one whom I'd never taken the time to actually listen to until roughly a year ago (despite the urgings of several friends who've been committed fans since their early recordings). They have 11 full-length recordings released on the Dischord label, and for now the band remains on hiatus as members pursue other projects. One of these is guitarist Asa Osborne's Zomes project (whose latest recording on the Thrill Jockey label I reviewed earlier in the year), a kind of basement electronics gig somewhere in the Suicide/Cabaret Voltaire realm, as well as main man Daniel Higgs' various musical outings. Higgs is also well known as a tattooist in great demand (he himself is heavily inked, and combine that w/ a beard of great girth and he cuts quite a striking figure), and his eccentric musical outings outside of the Lungfish brand are well worth investigating. He cut a great, rustic, Sandy Bull/John Fahey-ish LP on the Holy Mountain label a few years back, and his double LP, Say God, released again on the Thrill Jockey label last year, is a recording of great weirdness and beauty, the kind of disc whose peculiarities (it's essentially Higgs yelping out his poetry to the minimal backing of a harmonium and little else) tests the listener, but for those who are up to the test, great rewards can abound. But Lungfish are something different. They could be pegged as being a post-HC DC band of the Dischord mold, but I think they're a whole lot better than that. Higgs cut his teeth in '80s HC unit, Reptile House, and the band occasional deliver w/ the ferocity of their punker past, though the musical pace is rarely, if ever, raised above the medium level. One observation many make of the band is this: every album they've made sounds the same; nearly every song sounds the same; essentially, they've been remaking the same album over and over for 20 years. Such observations are correct, but it's a hell of a formula. For my money, the music of Lungfish is caught in the nexus of Master Of Reality-period Black Sabbath and Joy Division ca. Unknown Pleasures: that is the musical meeting point. There's the thick fuzz and stoner groove of primo 'Sabbath combined w/ a slightly Angloid post-punk vibe, driven by melodic bass lines and a vocalist purging whatever from his system in the process. And this formula has been repeated over and over throughout the years. It might sound dull, but it ain't. They rarely, if ever, cut loose; their music is meditative, hits a groove and sticks with it. Album after album. Some folks have named it "Zen-punk". That just sounds fucking dumb... so I'll use it, too. I've got 5 or 6 of their discs, and I like 'em all, particularly Pass And Stow (1994), The Unanimous Hour (1999), Necrophones (2000) and Love Is Love (2003). Which doesn't mean it's all great. I have, for instance, listened to 1991's Talking Songs For Walking and really disliked it, its slick, lifeless production made it sound like the kind of dud alt-rock I thought sucked at the time (and indeed, continues to suck). But from what I can gather, that one's an anomaly. The band known as Lungfish have cut a long, strange and unique path w/ their singular vision, a mixture of mid-tempo sludge combined w/ Higgs' spiritual rants, and I for one am glad they made the effort.

Lastly, I present for you something really special. My buddy Richard Stanley alerted me to this gem just the other night, as he proudly showed me his copy of a rare Village People 7" (I don't get to say lines like that often enough). Yep, the Village People. In 1981, they recorded and released a truly embarrassing and strange stab at New Romanticism by the name of Renaissance. Predictably, it tanked. If ever there was a record worth its 20 cents simply for its cover, then Renaissance is it (Google it, and I'm told that the non-US version is the one). I'm also told its stature as a truly craptacular classic now earns it a few dollars more on the collector scene. But I've since discovered that its worth lies beyond the merely ridiculous. It also happens to feature this track, "Food Fight" (more alleged facts: some versions of the LP don't contain the song, and that for some territories it's only featured as a B side to some crap single they released from the album... at this point in time, you really have to ask yourself: do you care?). As a novelty New Wave/punk cash-in track, it's phenomenal: a relentlessly upbeat pop-punk jumper which is possibly better than the 2 or 3 Dickies songs I actually like (the band this track most resembles). I don't get to say this often enough: sit back, press play and enjoy this Village People track.