Monday, December 22, 2014

100 FLOWERS


Another essential slice of West Coast post-punk given the reissue treatment c/o Superior Viaduct... have I recently been employed as their international marketing and publicity manager? No. There's no hidden agenda here: just a desire for folks to get their listenin' gear 'round only the best sounds. 100 Flowers' sole self-titled LP from 1983, originally released on their own Happy Squid imprint, is one such release.

Curiously, I owned the original of this at one point - purchased at the dawn of the 1990s - and stupidly sold the darn thing at the tail-end of that decade when I culled a pretty major chunk of my collection in an attempt to 'clean house' (didn't work). So I foolishly sold 100 Flowers, and now I've bought it back. 100 Flowers, as you perhaps should know, were basically the Urinals under a different moniker. The Urinals made some of the most inspired American documents in sound during their era, and you can read a quarter-arsed article penned by moi on the outfit here, one penned and published 15 years ago(!). That decade and a half came and went like it never happened. Phew!

The Urinals' primitive art-brut raunch was a thing of utter beauty, inspired everyone from the Minutemen (obviously) to Yo La Tengo (who covered 'em) and will live in the hearts and minds of all with a clue for eternity. 100 Flowers took a slightly different approach, and probably never quite reached the same critical/cultural kudos of their predecessor, but that's no reason to ignore 'em (or sell your goddamn copy of the original pressing). The trio - that's John Talley-Jones, Kjehl Jonanson and Kevin Barnett - took the basic minimal template of the Urinals but embellished it slightly with a more pop sensibility and eclectic approach. If I was going to dumb it down to a soundbyte - and I will - I'd say the band is caught somewhere between the sounds of the Minutemen ca. 1983 and The Feelies ca. Crazy Rhythms. There's a jagged, tight-assed approach and herky-jerky sensibility - hopped-up punk-inflected rock which is neither 'rock' nor 'punk' - combined with an LA art vibe which hovers around the same quarters as the likes of Boon & co. and Pagan Icons-period Saccharine Trust. None of this, of course, is a bad place to be. 100 Flowers would've fit in snugly in the SST roster, but you'd have to wait for Kjehl Johanson's next outfit, Trotsky Icepick, before that would happen (and the first three 'Icepick LPs are pretty fab, in a more pronounced and expansive Angloid Magazine/Chairs Missing manner). 15 short, sharp tracks, and the opener, 'Without Limbs', had it been released in an alternate universe, should've been a hit. It wasn't.

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Below is a magnificent clip of the band playing the old Urinals chestnut, 'Surfin' With The Shah', with D. Boon and Keith Morris, joining them on stage. Alas, I was not there, and surely neither were you.


MONITOR



Let's take a brief skip through another Superior Viaduct art-punk/dark-wave/whatever release from the past couple of years. This ain't the first word nor the last on this one: just my word, which likely counts for zip outside of this blog. The quartet known as Monitor is one which has orbited my brain for well over 25 years - you'd read about 'em in Flipside, Hardcore California, LAFMS-related shenanigans and their links to the Meat Puppets, but you couldn't find their sole self-titled LP for love nor money Down Under. In keeping w/ SV's resurrecting-the-dead activities, their LP from 1980/'81 is one well worth wrapping your ears around.

Linked up w/ the LA-based art collective known as World Imitation Enterprises, Monitor had been on the scene, creating 'happenings' and performance-art gonzoid goings-on since the late '70s, skirting the peripheries of the very happening Los Angeles punk scene (a fantastic magnet for art weirdos citywide), claiming brother/sisterhood w/ the likes of Nervous Gender, B People and Boyd Rice, yet somewhat existing in their own universe. They also apparently shared management w/ the Meat Puppets, which is where their associations sprung from (more on that soon). All of this is terribly interesting - it really is - because for me, as you well fucking know, the LA underground scene of the late '70s/early '80s holds a perpetual fascination. But all of this context for Monitor's existence probably wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if their one, solitary LP wasn't worth more than a cursory spin and a quick filing in the collection, only to be bared and exhibited when hep friends come to visit. Such is not the case.

The group emitted a mighty listenable and tasty stew of minimal, slightly No Wave-ish tribal rock - jagged keyboards and thumping toms - which surprisingly never goes off the deep end into Art Heck, but instead is fairly melodic and song-based. They woulda fallen off their collective chair at the time had the comparison come up in print, but a bunch of this reminds me of Pink Floyd ca. More/Umma Gumma, and I would contend that that's not a bad thing. In the spirit of the times, however, there's too much existential dread of display here for Monitor to be mistaken for hippies, and had this been released on Rough Trade at the time, interspersed with slightly similar outings from the likes of the Raincoats and Scritti Politti (when they were dreadlocked agit-rockers), it might have found its place. Closer to home, I'd also file 'em next to Savage Republic, minus the Arabic flirtations. 'Pavillion' is one of the best tracks, and a good representation of their sound. The Meat Puppets actually contribute a number here, 'Hair', and it must be heard to be believed. Apparently Monitor let the band contribute the song in question as a gesture that they themselves couldn't reach the dizzying heights (and pace) of the brothers Kirkwood, but for some reason felt it needed to be slotted amongst Monitor's more mannered drones. 'Hair' is a total anomaly on Monitor, but it's a good one. At this stage, the Pups were an absolutely ferocious power-trio who could even the most boneheaded HC outfit a run for their money, but of course, you've heard their 7" EP from the time. I have spun Monitor a lot the past 12 months: it is so much more than a mere curio item. Get it. As for what its members are up to now, I'd like that question answered, please.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

IN PRAISE OF... SOME DESCENDENTS ALBUMS PEOPLE DON'T OFTEN PRAISE

What the fuck. Blogger tells me my visitation stats go up when I discuss PUNK ROCK, so I'll give the punters what they want. The past three months has seen my heavily revisiting the Descendents' mid- to late '80s catalogue, and if you can give me a reasonable explanation for this strange turn of events, outside of a pathetic midlife crisis, then you can inform my therapist. I can't quite pinpoint the exact moment when this all began, but you can possibly blame Spotify - that's right, blame Spotify for everything - and the random nature in which I frequently use its wares. The urge hit me, the urge became a daily compulsion, and lo and behold, within 2 weeks I had purchased, as a man of 42 years of age (getting awfully close to 43), the band's I Don't Want To Grow Up, Enjoy! and All LPs from 1985, '6 and '7, respectively.

Y' see, I had never actually owned any of these discs. I previously only owned Milo Goes To College, and that was it. My brother had/has the latter Descendents discs, and as I have explained time and again - as was the case with the Cramps and Ramones - when a sibling owns the catalogue of a certain artist when you're growing up, and you ingest said catalogue a lot during your formative years (enough for a lifetime, in some cases), it can take a good 20-year period before you wind up owning the records of your own will at a later date. Anyway, this is all very fucking fascinating - the crux of the matter is that I bought 'em, Greg Ginn can continue to get high off the sales and now I'd like to discuss 'em.


I Don't Want To Grow Up was originally released in 1985 on Watt/Boon's New Alliance label (later issued in 1987 on SST, when the imprint was sold to Ginn and co.), and was the band's first reformation album, after they went on hold for two years while Milo Aukerman went to college and drummer Bill Stevenson travelled and recorded like a man possessed with Black Flag. It's definitely a different sounds to its predecessors: Milo Goes To College possesses a raw, punchy garage-rock sound not unlike Angry Samoans (the 1981 Fat EP is an even rawer and more hardcore affair, an awesome slice of SoCal teen-punk damaged by Jealous Again), but the follow-up, certainly influenced by Stevenson's time in the 'Flag fold, saw the band develop a slightly 'heavier' and musically sluggish approach. Not that it's bad by any stretch, but the music's tempo sometimes sounds a tad askew, such as on the opener, 'Descendents' (am I wrong in saying that it sounds like the music has almost been cut at the wrong speed?). Anyway, this is by no means a turd on any level, featuring A-grade cuts like 'Can't Go Back', 'My World' (Milo channelling Loose Nut-era Hank there), 'Silly Girl', 'Good Good Things' and more. The one odd duck is 'In Love This way', which trades the heavy rifferama for a light twang and upbeat pop tune, recalling the band's roots ca. 1979 with their very embryonic 'Ride The Wild' 7" (when they were a Devo/Beach Boys-influenced New Wave band). Back in high school I thought the track in question sucked, even comparing it to The Smiths (the ultimate insult of the era), but that was a statement opined from a clueless teen and not an audio fact. I Don't Want To Grow Up is a good, good thing. I'm giving it a B+.


1986's Enjoy! was an even better thing, and certainly their most eclectic disc to date. The band's rampant misogyny and toilet humour went unabated and unchecked, and I'd be far less forgiving of some of the record's stupidity and lame fart jokes if the music itself wasn't so great. Milo Aukerman and Bill Stevenson remained in the band, as did guitarist Ray Cooper, and for the album they roped in Doug Carrion, who only ever played on this Descendents longplayer. Produced by Stevenson, it has a fairly dry sound with a super-tight rhythm section and a guitar which bleeds no warmth, but the almost tight-assed, sterile sound works to its advantage. There's some more metallic stews happenin' here, such as 'Hurtin' Crue', which sounds to me like more of a metal pisstake than the real thing, as well as mid-tempo Hard Rockers like 'Days Are Blood', which again saw Milo delving into a Rollinsesque life-is-pain schtick, the kind of thing which would be a riches of embarrassments in lesser hands, but in the case of mid '80s Descendents, it showed the world they were growing up. There's some primo New Wave-influenced punker aktion on display here - 'Get The Time' and '80s Girl' - and the cover of the Beach Boys' 'Wendy' is owned by the band, fitting in perfectly with the proceedings. Enjoy! remains an excellent example of  underground American rock & roll from the mid '80s. Amen. I'm giving it an A-.


For some, All is where everything went pear-shaped. Carrion and Cooper were out, and Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez were in. It was also the first album from the band to be released on the SST label at the time. After the disc's release (and a tour), Milo went back again to college, the band recruited Dag Nasty's Dave Smalley in as singer and they changed their name to All. All were too sugary-sweet for my likings: I saw them play here live in 1990 when they toured (with singer Scott Reynolds) and I thought they blew chunks, but that's a different story. By 1987, the band had transformed into something quite different. I recall this disc getting largely negative reviews at the time by the likes of Maximum Rock & Roll and Flipside, and I'm pretty sure that Byron Coley slagged it in Forced Exposure (he'd previously been a big supporter), and whilst All's sound is a thousand miles removed from the simplistic 4/4 punker angst of Milo Goes To College, it's mega-complex, muso-damaged approach is nothing to sneeze at. Then again, I never sneezed at Black Flag's Family Man LP - a record many people openly laughed at - and that's what this album largely resembles, albeit w/ a SoCal pop edge and no spoken-word segments breaking up proceedings. Egerton does an ace Ginn impersonation - that's probably why FLAG hired him to play leads just the other year -  and since Stevenson played on Family Man, his contribution is no stretch. Fact is, if any record is going to claim the throne of the great '80s Californian pop-punk jazz-metal disc, then All is it, and if you want to debate the point, the comments box is willing and available. A track like 'Van' is an obvious case in point. But for straight-up hooks, you also get 'Cameage', 'Coolidge' and the perennial 'Clean Sheets'. For heavier material there's 'Iceman' and the epic 'Schizophrenia'. What sounded like a stinker on legs 27 years ago - 27 fucking years ago! - sounds fresh to me. It sounds great to me. All is absolutely one of the best things they ever did, and I mean that. That's an A from me.

One thing to keep in mind regarding the Descendents is that, to ever-so-loosely paraphrase Winston Churchill: never before has a band so great inspired so many bands so horrible. I will lay the blame quite fairly and squarely at their doorstop for inspiring much of the crud which passed for pop-punk from the late '80s and beyond, especially the particularly virulent strains of Fat Records and Epitaph guff (they recorded two albums for the latter when reuniting in the '90s/'00s - 1996's Everything Sucks is actually pretty damn good), and for this reason they can be a tough band to recommend to those who, err, weren't there, man, because a first-time listen in the 21st century could be a frightening and possibly off-putting experience, especially for these three platters. But for veteran arseholes like, perhaps, you and me, they're worth reinvestigating and reappreciating, or, for those who never gave a shit about anything they did after their '82 debut, the eclectic brew of I Don't Want To Grow Up/Enjoy!/All are well worth sticking yer snout into.

Monday, December 08, 2014

TUXEDOMOON



Better late than never, I guess. And late I often am. I've known of the band Tuxedomoon since I was but a wee lad - 14, in fact, when I was the recipient of the Hardcore California  tome for Xmas. That weighty slab of pictures and words was a godsend for myself and many others around the globe, and one of the very few widely available books giving the early Californian punk/hardcore/new wave/experimental scenes a serious look-at. Actually, it was possibly the only one, too, but it remains, as they say, 'a classic of the genre'.

Alongside pics and blurbs on punker heavyweights like the Circle Jerks, Germs, Fear, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag et al, there were reams and reams of text, praise and impressive black & white photography dedicated to the more art-damaged spectre of the punk diaspora which hit the west coast at the time, folks like the Residents, Chrome, Monitor, Factrix, Boyd Rice, the Los Angeles Free Music Society and the types of miscreants floating around the Ralph and Subterranean offices, or maybe even Joe Rees (RIP) and his estimable get-up at Target Video. This artwave scene - yes, let's call it that - has always held great fascination for moi. The stayers & players, movers & shakers seemed a different breed to the jackboot & bandana crowd, although their more, err, sophisticated sense of rage and loathing still placed them somewhere within the punk rock gene pool, only distanced by perhaps a few more years at some Cali art-school under their belt (and hard drugs consumed). Of course the other aspect of great fascination here remains the sense of crossover and musical cross-fertilisation between the seemingly bumpkin/suburban hardcore scene and its more urbane, artier cousins, with labels such as Subterranean and Alternative Tentacles up north and SST and New Alliance down south being the great documenters of both sides of the coin.

The Superior Viaduct label - you surely know of this operation - has and continues to be the great 21st-century documenter of this peculiar and highly interesting strand of American post-punk, and you should snap up pretty much everything they do, and pronto. Of course their reissue programme cuts a wide and impressive swathe, also bringing other left-field notables into the fold, from Alice Coltrane to Heldon to Glenn Branca to Peter Jefferies to Leslie Winer, but for me, the label's identity is built on keeping the flame of early Californian art-punk alive in a world which largely doesn't give a shit but should (that's OK: the world didn't give a shit back then either). In the SV catalogue, you'll find some choice noise from the Residents, 100 Flowers/Urinals, Black Humor, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Monitor, Negative Trend, Sleepers and more - and in due time I will run through a few of these titles in greater detail - but for now let's quickly summarise the worth of Tuxedomoon's first two 12" EPs.

They would be No Tears from 1978 and Scream With A View from a year later. Tuxedomoon were formed in the mid '70s by San Fran artheads Steve Brown and Blaine Reininger and, having seen umpteen photos of the ensemble they led decked out in theatrical settings with electric violins and stacks of keyboards and electronic gear, and given the fact that they made it semi-big in Europe and relocated to France for their troubles, I figured they were tre boring and gave them short shrift for the past 25+ years. Who'd wanna waste time with such lightweights when you've got the likes of Alien Soundtracks and Fingerprince to consume? Well, there's room for all. Superior Viaduct don't waste your goddamn time with foppery, and these two EPs are simply ace examples of synth-punk coldwave and other nonsense terms understood (or cared for) only by folks like you and me. Rather than sounding like some sort of austere and utterly uninvolving art-fartery - which is what I had Tuxedomoon pegged as - the sonics here are raw and dynamic and an absolutely crucial link in this period of post-punk west coast rock & roll. Yes, I just used the R & R term, and for these discs, they are indeed applicable.

No Tears' title track is the clincher here, perfectly encapsulating the spirit of the desperate times, and the other four cuts present provide enough atmospherics and grime to make me wonder why, after nearly 25 years of rabid Chrome fandom, I never bothered taking the slightest leap in the Tuxedomoon direction. Scream With A View has a slightly fuller and cleaner sound, but only marginally so, and the primitive analogue warmth still seeps through. These are goddamn essential recordings. 20 minutes each: that makes for at least one great album's worth of material (and a subsequent stream of their debut LP from 1980, Half Mute, which buzzes at a nice Metal Box/Cab. Voltaire angle, has me convinced there's at least TWO albums worth of great material there). If nothing else - and it's not worth much of anything else - use this blog as a buyers' guide: these two recordings are well worth buying. Glorious art brut from a lifetime ago. The sound has been replicated and approximated time and again since (this local Melbourne band is currently doing it very well indeed), but the 1970s recordings of the outfit known as Tuxedomoon still sound fresh and exciting in this universe. File next to: Screamers, Chrome, Residents, Metal Urbain and other worthies.

Monday, December 01, 2014

NATIVE CATS



The Tasmanian duo known as the Native Cats have been a constant in my CD player the past 12 months, and that is an odd wonder. I have known of their existence since they formed seven-odd years ago. I have been friends with one half of the band - bassist Julian Teakle - for over 15 years and have followed his music proclivities in other outfits (such as The Frustrations) even longer. At the risk of embarrassing the gent, he is one of the leading lights and indefatiguable spruikers of the Hobart music scene, so much so that I fully expected him to greet me at the airport like a local ambassador when I spent a week down there last year with my family. I had to make do with a pleasant lunch in Julian's company instead.

The oddness springs from this fact: prior to approximately a year ago, I didn't really like the Native Cats. I had seen them play several times on their rare sojourns up north to the mainland (need I discuss the geography of Tasmania? If so, consult a map) over the previous 5 years, and despite my friendship with one half of the band, they made little sense to me. Fact is, I couldn't figure what Teakle and singer/keyboardist/melodica-player (melodicist?) Peter Escott were attempting to achieve with their music, even though various friends of mine considered them a bold, original and formidable outfit. At some point last year, much as I did with long-time Melbourne rock & roll institution (sorry, Joel), Hoss (more on them at a later date), I took it upon myself to assess and more importantly reassess their music and an epiphany took place. It was like I had seen the goddamn light and my blind eyes could see.

Since their inception in 2007, the group has released three full-length albums and a number of 7"s (one with renowned scuzzbags UV Race) and toured the US, playing Gonerfest in 2012. Those full-lengthers are: 2009's Always On (Consumer Productions [CD]/Ride The Snake [LP]), 2011's Process Praise (Rough Skies [CD])/Ride The Snake [LP]) and 2013's Dallas, an LP/CD released on the more well-known RIP Society imprint. I should also note that both Consumer Productions and Rough Skies are Teakle's own label, and Ride The Snake is a US label which licensed these releases for vinyl. I have had, since their respective releases, all of these titles in my possession, since Julian takes it upon himself to send me copies of everything he does. He will learn, perhaps for the very first time, that I am greatly appreciative of this and his generosity hasn't been in vain.

Musically, the Native Cats traverse some broad and difficult fields. They follow no obvious precedents, although the sounds they emit do have its approximate ballparks. When people ask me what it is they do, I say that they have to imagine an Antipodean, insular and end-of-the-earth musical collage which brings in elements of Suicide (second album), New Order (first album), Young Marble Giants (their only album) and The Fall (pick one of the better, but more accessible albums: say, Bend Sinister). Their music can be frustratingly minimalist: Escott's deadpan lyrical observations (always personal) skewed over a basic drum-machine pattern with Teakle clunking bass lines anchoring it all; sometimes there's a brief flourish of melodica or a clanging noise or synth whoop on top (Escott uses a pocket-sized device to create these extracurricular flourishes). But taken as a whole, and taken as a statement of two over three full-length LPs (and then some), the Native Cats are doing something very special.

For my two cents, the discs to really get are the 1st and 3rd albums, the first being the most accessible and melodic of the lot (listen to a cut here), whilst their most recent effort features lengthy, bass-heavy dirges which add some weight to the proceedings (listen up!). The Native Cats: they've hit a spot, and I never saw it coming. I ride my bike to work three days a week - headphones on - and it's a good way to clear the head and spin an eclectic mix of tunes. Napalm Death one day, The Feelies the next. The 'Cats have been on repeat for a long time, but the repetition hasn't bred contempt just yet. Their obtuse and esoteric take on 'rock' has helped soothe my troubled soul, and for that I'm thankful.


I can't complete a post on the Native Cats without mentioning frontman Peter Escott's brilliant debut album on the Bedroom Suck label, The Long O. It's one of my favourite releases of 2014. It's a truly personal album which eschews the beats of his duo recordings with Julian and instead concentrates on ballads, jaunts and even occasional ditties behind the keyboard. It's received wide (and very positive) coverage from some of the big guns in the UK (where it is released on the Fire label) - people like The Wire, Uncut, even NME - and if I was going to simplify it to the point of a sound byte (I will), I'd say that if any record this decade approximates an Australian take on a Daniel Johnston/Kevin Ayers hybrid to beautiful effect, then it's Peter Escott's The Long O. You can and should watch a clip here.