Friday, December 31, 2010

Dr. Feelgood - Singles: The U.A. Years +

Singles: The U.A. Years + (1989) ****

Pub rock was a now all but forgotten micromovement in Britain's microbreweries in the doldrums of the mid-'70s when the British economy was hurtling towards an Eastern Bloc standard of living and punk rock had not yet arrived to give youngsters with no future a viable outlet for their alienated frustrations.  The idea was to strip rock'n'roll back to its late '50s greaser basics after suffering the airy-fairy pansiness of hippie groovers and the high-falutin' excesses of prog Wakemans.  The answers mostly resulted in the sort of dully conservative bar band generica that has since given the term pub rock the putdown of disparagement it connotes today, but the Feelgoods were very much an exception.  For starters (and probably enders, too) Wilko Johnson was the most influential punk guitarist of his generation, as important in his way to the sound of punk as Johnny Ramone.  The term spikey was, in little-known etymological trivia, coined to described his wirey, slashing, choppy guitar style.  A teenage Paul Weller was certainly paying attention in Woking, as the first two Jam albums are practically tributes to Canvey Island's finest (well, that and some obscure '60s beat group, of course).  Spin the debuts by the Clash and the Damned, and then spin some early Feelgood sides, and don't tell me that you don't notice a whiff of amyl nitrate.  And later chronologically but not lesser, Andy Gill's corrugated metal shards riffage in Gang of Four is now unthinkable in retrospect without a tip of the hat to old Wilko.

The band's first single was released in 1974, but Johnson left in 1977, leaving the band to plug a major hole not only sonically but songwriting wise, as he'd written all of their originals.  The Feelgoods soldiered on undaunted with a string of first-rate singles for a few more years in the late '70s, until petering out by the mid-'80s (this compilation ends in 1987).  By that time, only lead singer Lee Brilleaux remained, as the band had undergone a number of lineup changes.  It seemed that Brilleaux's working-class ethic had pushed the band on a never-ending tour, and the punishing touring schedule had pushed band member after band member out.  It was as a live act that Dr. Feelgood were primarily celebrated as in their time; their studio records were regarded as somewhat disappointing mementos.  Their biggest chart success and most well-regarded album was, in fact, a 1977 live set, Stupidity, originally hastily released to capitalize on their live success but when the band didn't have any original material to record a studio album at the time.  Their '70s studio albums that I've heard were fairly good but nothing special; this collection should reasonably satisfy most music fans' Dr. Feelgood needs.  Tellingly, Wilko Johnson's first song, "Roxette," was written the night before the band was to play a BBC Radio One session, because he reckoned that it would be a bit crazy to gain exposure on national radio with virtually no original material.  So it's no surprise that well-chosen R&B covers are strewn throughout this singles collection, hearkening back to the tradition of early British rock'n'roll bands like the Stones and Beatles early albums. Johnson quickly adapted, however, his early tunes are more than capable updates of trad-rock verities.  After he jumped ship, the band gratefully accepted  donations from drinking buddies like Nick Lowe, Difford/Tilbrook, Will Birch of the Records, and likesuch in the pub rock extended circles, while penning their own sturdy tunage from time to time.

Band bio out of the way, as a 24-song record this album is mostly terrific - sagging towards the tail end of the band's career, but that's to be expected.  Early riff-fest monsters like "She Does It Right" and "Back in the Night," pulsate with the raw rock'n'roll excitement you'd better expect.  "Going Back Home," was co-written with Johnson's idol and chief influence, Mick Green of '50s U.K. rockers the Pirates of "Shakin' All Over," fame.  Covers of oldies such as "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" and "Trying to Live My Life Without You," sit comfortably next to covers of more recent vintage such as Nick Lowe's neo-classic, "Milk and Alcohol".  And straight down the middle is 1978's "Down at the Doctors," their signature tune and perhaps best chance at a stake in the rock'n'roll annals.  "Everybody needs a shot of R & B, so come on down to my surgery," Brilleaux growls in his trademark gruff Kent cigarette enhanced vox; perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he died of cancer in 1994, thus ending the Feelgoods' career (a version of the band still tours, but as an oldies act).  Scholars might describe Wilko's guitar technique as the missing link between Chuck Berry and post-punk, but mostly this is just 24 slabs of greasy, gin-and-cigarette smelly rock'n'roll, sweatily, sincerely, and excitingly played.     

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pissed Jeans - Hope For Men

Hope For Men (2007) **

But is there hope for music?  Or specifically, this band?  Signed to Sub-Pop after the noteriety of their 2005 debut, Hope For Men has more of a proper album feel than Shallow, clocking in at the over-40-minutes standard length and all, and that's not a good thing - brevity is a strength when you're peddling music this deliberately ugly and abrasive; I mean, how much of this can you really stand?  The real problem is that the band is playing slower (and dare I say it, bluesier).  Not that's necessarily a bad thing for a band to slow down, it's just that these songs flop and drag across the floor like the death convulsions of an elk that's been shot in the head.  The debut crashed and keraanged! like a drunken asshole in a china shop.  At least they're still noisy and unbelievably ignorant.  This is music for inbred alcoholic rednecks.  (Compliment)  But drunk, fetal-alcohol syndrome-damaged rednecks should never, ever attempt a ballad, which is what "Scrapbooking," is.  Like most Pissed Jeans songs, the lyrics are about exactly what the title says it is - it's about looking at pictures in a scrapbook.  No poetry or even an attempt to write lyrics in any traditional sense, it's just random observation of a mundane life activity as told by some stoned dude.  Musically (ha ha ha) it's based on one note of bass (note I didn't say one note riff, I mean precisely that, one single solitary note) and chopsticks piano seemingly played by a five year old.  It drags on for over five minutes.  I can see "Scrapbooking," as a Dadaist joke, but that doesn't make it any less jawdroppingly painful to listen to.  The single, "I've Still Got You (Ice Cream)," is about eating ice cream.  That's it.  It's about eating ice cream.  I know they're trying to be funny, reducing the lowest common denominator to an even lower low, but there's only so far the bar can go before stoopid hipster cool curdles into genuinely stupid hipster self-conscious trash aesthetic smarminess.  Like those douchebags at Pitchfork (I'm sorry, redundancy) who gave it an 8.1 while praising its unlistenablity and banal stupidity as positives.  Smarmy hipster assholes who pretend that bad taste equals an above-it-all ironic appreciation of crappy kitsch - what are we gonna with'em?

Pissed Jeans - Shallow

Shallow (2005) **1/2

Well, it's noisy and stupid.  Those are compliments.   A noise-rock amalgam of Jesus Lizard (influenzo numero uno), Melvins, Black Flag, Flipper, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, yadda yabba doo, it's what's you might expect from a group of young working class males from industrially depressed Allentown, PA making a drunken racket after being inspired by the World Wrestling Federation.  Drop in at any random point in any random song and for about 75 seconds it's raw, sloppy, exciting rock'n'roll, the volumes pushed straight to 11 in the Blue Cheer/Spinal Tap tradition, crushing Sabbath riffs and atonally brain-damaged free jazzy guitar squeal-solos.  It's all been done before and better, but if you want some fresh slop, the band live up to their name with squealing maggotry.  (That's another compliment.)  Problem is, oh what a difference good songwriting makes.  Perhaps that's excessive praise - there is zero songwriting on this album, a wisely brief eight-song platter that splatters by in barely half an hour.  It's not just that the lyrics, what little I can mercifully make out, amount to retarded banalities like "I wanna taste those boring girls," "I'm sick!  I got a fever!"; it's supposed to be stoopid, moron, and a title like "Ashamed of My Cum," makes me giggle.  The songs aren't as structureless and random as they appear on first listen, but they still don't seem to go much of anywhere on third or fourth listen, either.  When they do keep it straightforward and simple with a blunt chorus, it's too primitive even by wrestling fan standards ("Boring Girls").  You'd figure a track like "Ugly Twin," would spend its seven minutes plus figuring out somewhere to go, but it's a dull drag; fortunately, none of the other songs are that long.  Gets off to a great start, though, even if "I'm Sick" seems to owe a small debt to the Mudhoney classic of similar entitlement.   Now, next time, the band might invest a little time and effort into writing some actual songs, instead of just grabbing a case of Iron City beer, plugging in, and randomly spewing squeals and distortion. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Stranglers - 10

Away from the curse, he'd swap all his worth to be a man of the earth

10 (1990) *1/2

The Stranglers entered the '90s and ended Hugh Cornwell's tenure with their worst-ever album.  For whatever reason, the band that had once aimed to be the punk rock answer to the Doors now seem to be sincerely attempting to be a '90s update of ? and the Mysterians, complete with not only a faceless cover of "96 Tears," but a shameless rewrite of that '60s chestnut, their original "Too Many Teardrops," - on the same album!  "The Sweet Smell of Success," starts matters rolling promisingly enough; it's by no stretch a great tune, but at least it's got a nice & greasy pub rock feel to it - hurrah, the '80s are over!  And do my ears deceive me, or is Jet Black playing real drums again?   A pity, that though the album has a more organically pleasing sound to it than their last few albums, the material is even more threadbare.  The songwriting mostly consists of pub rock readymades, the kind of music you'd expect to hear for a beer commercial.   A track like "Let's Celebrate," sounds as generic and uninspired as its title.  Greenfield's keyboards are once again pushed up front for most of the album, but instrumentally speaking JJ Burnel's bass is no longer a recognizable sonic feature; he now sounds like an ordinary bass player mixed in a regular rock band.  Of Burnel's three songs, two are flat-out awful:  "In This Place," is a repetitive and horribly sung goth number, while "Where I Live," comically peacock struts in his patented arrogant stud mode.  It sounds like it could a self-parody, but anyway, it's not all that funny.  The final track, "Never To Look Back," is surprisingly a musically strong number that seems to allude to Burnel's teenage right-wing past - "I wore a black shirt, but I never was one."

Of the Cornwell-sung songs, "Out of My Mind," is passable retro-psychedelia, and yes, that is damning with faint praise.  "Man of the Earth," might have had potential with better production and a more inspired musical performance, even if it is a blatant Ray Davies rip - c'mon now, Kinks ripoffs are generally by definition at least pretty good, aren't they?   Like I said, the material is pretty threadbare.  None of the songs I've mentioned so far in this review are particularly good or anything; some are just less blatantly sucky than the others.  The most fun you can have with this album is poring over the cover and trying to see how many of the characters you can identify.  Let's see....Castro is pretty obvious, as is Arafat, and there's Khadaffi in trademark shades, and that must be an actor playing Thatcher in drag.  That's a pretty piss-poor impersonation of the Pope, if that who it's intended to be.   Indira Gandhi is the lady on the right?  Wasn't she dead at this point?   It's 1990, so Bush, Sr. should be in there somewhere, but I can't spot him.  Oh hell, this is a lot less fun than Sgt. Pepper's.

No embedded Youtubes this time, as the representative track I found declares "embedding disabled by request."  And it should tell you something about the quality of this album and how low it is esteemed by fans that there are practically no fanvids available at this time for hardly any of the songs.  So follow the link to "The Sweet Smell of Success" if you're curious.  It was the single and probably the best track on the album, for what little that's worth.

The Stranglers - Dreamtime

I didn't think of vengeance.  Don't forget I loved you once

Dreamtime (1986) *1/2

The Trouser Press review of this album laments that, "There's hardly an identifiable trace of the once-great band in these grooves," and I suppose that I should simply concur and end my review with that eulogy in mind, but my readers expect a bit more in-depth analysis than that, don't they?  So I must perform my duties and not only willingly listen to this wretched nightmarescape one more time, but listen closely enough to develop some interesting things to say about the various tracks.  The sound is similar to that of Aural Sculpture, with tacky synths, drum machines, and intrusively peppy horns watering down the Stranglers' classic sound to bland, faceless '80s rock; but unlike the 1984 LP, there simply aren't enough halfway decent songs for the listener to bother beyond the opening track, "Always the Sun," which is far and away the strongest piece of music on here.  It's easily their best song since "Golden Brown," and has become a live highlight of their reportoire, but one great song does not a good album make.  "You'll Always Reap What You Sow," is a lush, pretty country-ish ballad with pedal steel added to the mix; "Ghost Train," the second single, is acceptable I guess, with Hugh singing a strangely Bono-ish tenor - it's good that he's learned how to finally sing conventionally, but who cares?  "Too Precious," is half a good song, but goes on far too long, and seriously, that's it - the rest of the album is worthless crap, the kind of facelessly generic "80s music" the teenage kids' band played on some '80s sitcom like Family Ties or Nickelodeon or something.  "Shakin' Like a Life," sounds like the freakin' Stray Cats in swing mode, for pity's sake, and "Big in America," seems to humorlessly parodize Johnny Cash's vocal style, but with a horn section splattered all over the perfunctorily chugging rockabilly.  1986 may have been historically one of the worst years for rock music, and the Stranglers live up (down?) to current trends.  "Look how the mighty have managed to fall," Cornwell sings at one point, and I couldn't have put it better myself.

The Stranglers - Aural Sculpture

Brother, you better watch out for the skin deep

Aural Sculpture (1984) **1/2

Feline and La Folie may have softened the band's sound but at least the music was identifiable as the Stranglers; this is verging on generic mainstream '80s pop, still with the tinny fake drums (sod off, Jet Black, you lazy old fucker), cheesy Casio keyboards, but now with a horn section and black female backing vocalists to add to the shittiness!  Sometimes you wish musicians would stay on the drugs if they're going to morph into bland yuppies when they come off the high.  The album still recieves a fair grade because the Stranglers were always first and foremost a pop band - never more than play-acting at being punks, and their psychedelic-prog experiments were just that, experiments - and thus there are a handful of good '80s pop songs scattered here and there.  But the Stranglers, as we love or loathe them, are no more.  As expected, this considerably more commercial direction restored the Meninblack to the pop charts, which is why the term "sellout" was invented.

Oh sure, it's not all that bad.  "Skin Deep," is a creamily melodic warning against fake friends that's as memorable as any of their singles.  "No Mercy," fits in the funky horn section and soul choir better than you'd expect, and even boasts some appetizingly rough growling from Hugh on the vocals, though this is the last type of thing you'd normally expect from the band.  "Uptown," is a fine toe-tapper about cocaine using racehorses as a metaphor, with a catchy little acoustic riff driving the proceedings.  "Laughing," an ode to the recently deceased Marvin Gaye, at least sports some jiltingly odd lyrics to counteract its soporific soft rock ballad backing ("but lead poisoning from your daddy to me just didn't seem fair").  "Souls," is pretty if featherweight mildly psychedelic soft-rock.  The rest of the album doesn't reward relistening, with Burnel's pompous and horribly sung (I wish he'd just stick to shouting as in the days of yore) attempted epic geopolitical statement "North Winds," the nadir.  Or is that the brassily headache-inducing "Punch and Judy"?  The tuneless, clattering closer, "Mad Hatter"?  Hugh's travelogue of "Spain," of which the only interesting fact of note is that it has one of Franco's descendants reading a radio message in Spanish over the mid-section?  There are enough decent tunes to salvage this from being a total waste, but this is the jumping the shark moment for the band, and all but true fanatics can safely jump ship.  Unless you happen to enjoy dated mainstream '80s pop, then by all means partake.  However, if you are that kind of music consumer, I'm scratching my head at you'll see of merit in the early Stranglers.  So those two groups, Stranglers fans and fans of this album - this, I do not see much overlap.

The quite generous eight bonus tracks are, with the exception of the two instrumental remixes, are generally of somewhat higher quality than most of the album proper, and thus quite the bargain.  The mainstream '80s sound is still firmly in place, but the likes of "Head on the Line," "Here and There," and "In One Door," aren't that bad as far as '80s synth-pop goes.   The real treats are saved for last:  two more installments of the Vladimir saga, "Vladimir and the Beast," and "Vladimir Goes to Cuba".  This pair of parodies of Eastern Bloc Soviet-era mentality are hilariously wonderful enough all by themselves to warrant a full star upgrade of this album's rating.   But....nah.  To do so would be disengenously counter-revolutionary to the ideals of our blessed Workers' Paradise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Stranglers - Feline

The beasts from the end of the century adorn themselves with jewelry

Feline (1983) ***1/2

Perhaps the success of "Golden Brown," encouraged the Stranglers to pursue this direction, a complete return to their soft-rock roots that owes precious little to punk or much rock, for that matter.  This album gets short shrift from many fans as boring for that reason, but the elegantly chilled atmosphere and lush melodies are top-notch; anyone who enjoys Roxy Music's swansong Avalon should find much to luxuriate in here, but with more grounded and less ethereal songwriting.  It's deeply European in tone, combining the cold Teutonic elements of synthesizer pop with the warmer Mediterranean touch of acoustic and Spanish guitars.  The band themselves were not wholly satisfied with the blend, and the drum machines mark this as a dated product of the early '80s.  Sadly, La Folie was the last Stranglers album that Jet Black didn't program his drum parts for; the end of a mighty rhythm section is a thing to mourn.  Unlike La Folie, however, this is not an overtly commercial album; the tunes are a tad too arty and abstract, with the emphasis on moody atmosphere more than immediate hooks and choruses.

"The European Female," was the obvious choice for a single, and it did manage to scrape the Top 10; like the rest of the album, it's a lushly chilled ballad, at first glance hook-free and overly reliant on atmospheric, painterly touches.  I do realize that not all European females are sophisticated ingenues breathily intoning in sexily vampirish accents about erotic existentialism, but allow a Yank his fantasies of exotic beauties across the pond, eh?  "Midnight Summer Dream," was another single, which just shows how uncommercial the album was:  Hugh talk-singing a tale of a remote night long ago spent listening to an old man impart wisdom, with the music recreating the appropriately somber and slightly mystical backdrop.  Far superior to either of those, however, was the third choice for a single, "All Roads Lead to Rome," a Kraftwerk rip that in the tradition of "Dead Loss Angeles," criticizes decadent modern American society, but in a much more subtle way with its parallels of ancient Roman society and its chariots and peasants.  It's easily the best track on the album, perhaps because it's the liveliest; the rest of the songs barely creep by this side of lower-mid-tempo.

The other six tracks are of uniform quality and roughly uniform sound:  a bit of a Caribbean rhythm on "Paradise," a critique of modern colonialist exploitation; more emphasis on Spanish guitar when it gets to the chorus of "Let's Tango in Paris" - enough subtle touches to give the album a bit of variety and color, but the songs flow together all as a piece very smoothly.  Too smoothly for a lot of listeners, but get past the snooze factor and you'll find the loveliest melodies on any Stranglers album ever.  Just be forewarned and know what you're getting into:  this is a soft-rock album, full stop.  I believe it was at this point that the Stranglers actually momentarily considered changing the band name, since 'the Stranglers' did not reflect at all the elegant, Eurosophisticate music they were then making.

Of the six bonus tracks (seven on the U.S. edition), they're mostly not worth mentioning.  "Vladimir and Olga," is very much the exception, a hysterical spoken-word Cold War spoof involving drugs and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  It's the type of B-side that was made to be a B-side in all the right ways, and gave the band material for a running gag that would span three more B-sides (unfortunately separated on several different album reissues; would be nice if someone programmed all four in running order as one uninterrupted track, wouldn't it?)  Also, "Golden Brown," was tacked on as a bonus to the American edition; stylistically it fits on better with the rest of the moody soft-rock here than it did on La Folie, not that it really meshes that well with any other songs in the Stranglers' ouvre.

The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth

I've got nothing to say, I've got nothing to say, I'VE GOT NOTHING TO SAY!

First Impressions Of Earth (2006) **1/2

The median song length hovers between 3 1/2 to 4 minutes long, and clocking in at nearly an hour, the Strokes' third album is nearly as long as the first two albums combined.  They've dropped the distortion effects on the vocals and instruments a bit, sounding like a straightforward rock band than before, but the difference in effect is slighter than you'd expect - the Strokes still sound like the Strokes, the scrappy little garage band that could.  Note past tense.  The one song that offers a stylistic departure, the above-quoted "Ask Me Anything," a mellotron ballad, is by far the worst tune on the disc; there's no doubting Julian Casablancas' sincerity in which he repeatedly confesses his vapidity, and later on in the closing track, "Red Light," he sings of "an entire generation that has nothing to say."  From the looks of a great swath of  '00s culture, that does sum up many kids of Gen Y, and if hipster zines like Pitchfork are going to anoint a garage-new wave retread with zero originality (fun as it was) such as Is This It?  as the greatest album of the decade, that only nails the coffin shut.  But oh ye of little faith, today's whippersnappers can surely do better than this.  Even if they have nothing to say, that's nothing new - very little rock'n'roll has ever been of any greater social import than dope and fucking in the streets.  A little creativity, however, is never too much to ask, no matter how seemingly used up and spat out the rock cliches were by the Iraq Occupation era.

The seeming paradox that most of these songs aren't all that bad and yet listening to this album in one sitting is such an excruciating experience can be doped out in the first sentence of this review.  The Strokes are a garage rock band with limited ideas and limited technical abilities, and thus it is simple:  shorter & faster = better; longer & more midtempo = suckier.  A typical Strokes song on this album is to take a catchy little ditty that starts off promisingly enough, and then drag it out by repeating the chorus five to six to seven times until it's bored into your bored skull.  At 4:38, the endless chanting of the title of "On the Other Side," which Casablancas mistakes for a vocal hook, is the worst offender.  "You know what to change, but not in what way," he advises another in "Vision of Division," which shows off the lead guitarist's recent discovery tweedly-dee pop-metal runs to annoying effect (another annoyance of the record; he doesn't have to show off his newly learned trick in half the damn songs).  Well should the Strokes take such advice.  The Interpol-ish "Electricityscape," can be easily overlooked as the best song, stuck where it is smack in the middle of the album; but it's a slight stylistic departure, not a viable path forward.  And there's the problem - with 14 songs stretching out to nearly an hour, all in the same style with only slight differences, cherrypicking the highlights is one difficult job, and given that the highlights are not really that high, it's not unreasonable for the listener to ask, "Why bother?"  I should mention "Evening Sun," which stands out if only for unexpectedly shifting from ballad to rocker at the 2:15 mark - not that it's that good, but it is one of the album's only genuine surprises.  But that's as much as I'm going to bother myself any further.  The Strokes shouldn't expect any more patience from their fans and listeners, because the reward to effort ratio doesn't make this album worth it.


The Stranglers - La Folie

To distant lands / Takes both my hands / Never a frown with golden brown

La Folie (1981) ***

After the debacle of Meninblack, the Stranglers set out to reverse the course of their fortunes and deliver a self-consciously commercial album.  With the exception of the title track, all of the songs are three to four minute pop songs, and it worked, setting the Stranglers back on top of the pop charts with their biggest smash single ever.  Yes, this is the one with "Golden Brown," on it, the only waltz to ever occupy the #2 position on the U.K. charts.  Reputedly about heroin, it's a beguiling harpsichord-drenched, vaguely Near Eastern gem of burnt-amber beauty, and deservedly their signature tune:  the Stranglers managed the feat many pop groups aim for, penning a standard, even if it's a million miles from the heady days of punk.  The rest of the album sounds nothing like it, of course - what did you expect, an entire album of genteel soft-rock waltzes?  Nah, it's mostly standard New Wave pop, heavy on the synthesizers but not quite synth-pop yet (too many snaky guitar lines intruding into the hooks).  And then the Stranglers shot themselves in the feet again by releasing as the followup single to their biggest hit, "La Folie," a retelling of a Japanese short story about a man who erotically devours his lover.  It's six minutes.  It's about cannibalism.  It's sung entirely in French.  It was, needless to add, not a hit single.

"Tramp," as Hugh grouses in his Song by Song book, should have been the followup single, as it possesses a compellingly melodic tune and catchily dour/uplifting chorus, telling its relatable tale of a lonely homeless man in search of love in the call of the wild.  Like Meninblack, it's a concept album, but a much more commercially minded concept:  in French, the title means "the folly," which refers to the greatest folly of all - love.  Not that the album limits its scope to merely romantic love, as  "Let Me Introduce You To The Family," makes clear (the Stranglers as the Sopranos).  The strikingly scathing lyrics of "Everybody Loves You When You're Dead," may or may not have been inspired by the recent death of John Lennon; it works as a catch-all sentiment for many celebrity deaths.  "Non Stop," is the most lyrically intriguing, as Hugh imagines what it must be like to be a nun committed to only one man in her life, but she doesn't worry because as he slyly hints, "she's got the best lover / better than any other," which compensates for her celibacy.  "Pin Up," revisits old sexist haunts from a more mature, humorous perspective, as submarine sailors stare at mermaids pinned to the walls; "It Only Takes Two To Tango," isn't a love song at all, it's the lone political statement, about U.S.-Soviet nuclear WWIII relations.  "Ain't Nothin' To It," also veers from the program, as the lyrics are adopted from the autobiography of jazz legend Milton Mezzrow; unfortunately, Cornwell's attempt at old-school rap works about as well as you'd expect from an Englishman born in 1949.  But it's not as embarassing as JJ Burnel's self-delusion in "The Man They Love to Hate," in which he declares, apparently with a straight face, that "all the girls have fallen for the man they love to hate."  The pain and suffering a man must bear when every woman is in love with him.  My heart bleeds.

If I haven't discussed much of the music yet, well, that's because I don't find much of the music all that interesting.  Disciplining themselves to the art and craft of simple pop songs, the songwriting's up since the last album, but the performances are muted and rather dull, as if the energetic life has been sucked out of the band:  they're going through the motions.  By no means a bad album, it's simply not that compelling:  it's standard New Wave pop, nothing more, nothing less.  It's more thinly produced than Meninblack and more dated-sounding in parts; some of the songs work fine, and some don't work very well at all - it's a collection of songs.  Thus the band live or die by the strength of their material on this album, eschewing any lengthy soloing or ferocious intensity or production gimmickry.  A surefire recipe for boredom unless you've got some really good songs, which the Stranglers only manage about 50% of the time on this longplayer.

There are six bonus tracks on the reissue, which seems quite generous until you actually hear them.  "Cocktail Nubiles," is a seven-minute goof; as billed, it's "Bring on the Nubiles," performed lounge style, with many false starts and studio chatter.  Unless you're fascinated with the voice of Hugh screwing around in the studio and cracking bad jokes, eminently skippable after one listen.  "You Hold the Key to My Love in Your Hands," is an obvious sexual reference; the title is more clever than the rest of this musical throwaway.  "Love 30," is an instrumental hangover from the psychedelic period; it sounds like some other song played backwards, but probably isn't.  "Cruel Garden," allows Hugh to show off his Spanish guitar technique; it's OK but no great shakes.  "Vietnamerica," is another pun, but far more substantial musically and lyrically; it was meant to be a single to break them in America, but got lost in the shuffle, I believe.  Pity, as it's a nice little tune.  That leaves the best for last, "Strange Little Girl," which was a major hit, and deservedly so, as it's one of the Stranglers' loveliest tunes.  Co-written in 1974 with their original guitarist, Hans Wärmling, who shot back  off to his native Sweden before the band fully gelled, like "Golden Brown," it's a haunting soft-rock tune; it concerns the travails of an innocent country girl who runs off to the big, dangerous city.  Tori Amos covered it, but don't let that hold you against the song.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Stranglers - The Gospel According to the Meninblack

I'm reading all the signs and I'm learning how to bring them back

The Gospel According to the Meninblack (1981) ***1/2

The Stranglers were riding high in 1979, with a string of hit singles and four successful albums; successful enough to indulge in the rock star vanities of concurrent solo albums - both Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell released side projects that year, neither of which are particularly worth the bother hearing even for hardcore nooseplay fetishists (which won't stop me from getting around to reviewing them dutifully, eventually).  After entering the charts with a #1 album (no matter how much payola Stewart Copeland's CIA-connected patriarch paid, the truth shall out!) the only predictable direction was down.  Well, they could have continued to soar by conquering America, but like the Jam the Euromen did not want to cometh back to the shores of Yankistan after a few tepid toe-dipping dates across the pond.  In another act of synchronicity with the Police, the Stranglers had instead planned a 1980 world tour touching on then-remote backwaters such as India and North Africa that had never seen major rock acts before; however, events that year would make that dream impossible.  Cornwell was busted for drug possession and spent four months as a guest of Her Majesty, thus temporarily derailing the Stranglers' career at a critical juncture.  The Stranglers' fortunes would have plummetted in any likely event, however, given the deeply uncommercial nature of their followup to The Raven.

A bit of time in the stir gives a man a chance to catch up on his reading, and Cornwell's dipping into the Holy Book no doubt influenced the conceptual direction, in which the Stranglers follow the Jethro Tull route and deliver a muddled critique of organized religion.  Or something.  As with most rock concept albums, the idea is more than a bit vague and not seemingly thought through very well:  a space alien ventures to Earth, is mistaken for the Messiah, and accidentally creates a new religion; the space alien may or may not have been the historical Jesus - who knows?  The album is full of sci-fi and Biblical references, as well as quite a bit of long instrumental passages - it's full-out prog rock, modernized psychedelia, without a trace of punk in sight.  It's completely lacking in the aggression and sleaze that made the Stranglers' infamy; alas, it is also lacking in the accessible pop tunecraft that made the Stranglers' bank accounts.  "Two Sunspots," and "Thrown Away," are excellent pop singles, and that's that - the album tanked on the charts, selling less than 50,000 copies and jeopardizing the band's record contract.

It is, however, the best-sounding Stranglers album; the band obviously expended a lot of time and effort in the studio, creating an appealing density of sound with skillful playing and production effects.  It is not, by either modern standards or even the standards of 1981, a techno album; by the early '80s there were already too many new romantic and post-punk synthesizer bands like the Human League already dabbling in synth-pop for the Stranglers to offer anything truly revolutionary.  It was, though, cutting edge, and still sounds quite modernistic today, considerably less dated than any of the other Stranglers' albums.  "Waltzinblack," still sounds creepy after all these years, an instrumental of carnival music from hell.  Clowns - who doesn't find'em creepy?  The dank, medieval "Hallow to Our Men," which closes the album, is my favorite track, with its beautifully haunting synth melody.  I almost wish I could rate this a bit higher, but despite the richness of sound, that can't cover up the relative paucity of some of the songwriting.  Studio trickery can't disguise the lack of memorable hooks in the likes of "Four Horsemen," or "Just Like Nothing on Earth," (which was, astonishingly, the first single - no wonder this album bombed commercially!).   All in all, Meninblack is an interesting and admirable experiment, but not a wholly successful one.

Curiously, the bonus tracks do not include the concurrent single, "Who Wants the World?" which lyrically and conceptually was directly tied to the project.   You do get "Top Secret," which bears a superficial similarity to "Bear Cage," and is likewise listenably average; the lyrics are about Nostradamus.  Real chart topping stuff!  The album's photonegative single, "Maninwhite," is about the then-new Pope John Paul, complete with sampling of one of his speeches in Polish.  Why such danceable fare of great appeal to hickey-necked teens never made the charts, I for one shall never figure out.  "Tomorrow Was Hereafter," is a leftover from their pre-1977 days with awful hectoring vocals courtesy Burnel and an awesome psychedelic instrumental freak-out towards the end.  Fits in musically, if not so much lyrically, with the concept.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Stranglers - The Raven

The northern seas are cold but they're our own

The Raven (1979) ****

The Stranglers were a major rock band by 1979 and could no longer credibly pass themselves off as street punks, and thus comes a shift in direction.  This album actually topped the U.K. charts during its first few weeks of release, but was kept off the #1 spot due to a clerical error that ascribed that honor to another fresh new quasi-punk band hawking their concurrent LP, Regatta de Blanc.  An enterprising rock scribe could pen an alternate history novel where the Stranglers became global superstars instead of Sting, Summers, and Copeland, but truth is that the Police were just beginning and the Stranglers were already in decline.  A slight decline, of course, as one can ascertain from the positive grade given above, but the beginning of the end nevertheless; the Stranglers would never quite recover the glory of those first three LPs.  The differences are not slight; The Raven is a considerably more polished and glossily produced affair than previous offerings, that almost completely abandons punk aggression for a more expansive, state-of-the-art mainstream rock sound.  Not that this is a pop sellout by any means; only one song, the hit single, "Duchess" involves traditional boy-meets-princess pop subject matter at all.  It's just that the Stranglers' ambitions have evolved beyond street-level punk at this point, and now that they are one of the premiere rock bands in Britain, it's time for some sort of Big Statement.  Thus, this album and the next (The Gospel According to the Meninblack) emphasize their progressive and arena rock elements, to the expense of their punk and pop sides.

I'll be honest, my first impression upon hearing this after the first three was to write this off as slick and lifeless, cold and full of dated New Wave synthesizer rock.  Adjust yourself to the icy blast of the new wave, because the gritty punk rock is never coming back.  The Stranglers play up the icily detached element of New Wave as opposed to the bouncy post-disco fun aspect; like Black and White, the tone is grimly serious - I don't think they crack a single joke, not one, not once, nada.  A title like "Baroque Bordello," promises the good ol' sleaze of yore, but when you actually listen to the track, it turns out to be.....well, the opposite of evocative of lustful feelings, at least musically speaking; the band gets the baroque part right, creating an elegantly decadent air, but it's the mummified elegance of an aristocrats' court in well-perfumed decay, and the lyrics are sung from a detached observer's perspective.  "Ice," is even....well, icier, and sounds like Kraftwerk fencing with Genesis.  Even the putative love song, "Duchess," which dizzily swirls by on a wave of hyperkinetic keyboards for exquisite power-pop, is oddly dispassionate from an emotional perspective.  Well, Hugh did break up with her not long after, anyway.

The panoramic title track stands as one of the band's mightiest songs, as they aim for the epic sweeping feel of a Viking longship sailing icy seas, led by the black feathered companions, and succeed; the opening track, the brief instrumental "Longships," introduces the Teutonic imagery.   But it's another set of themes that make more of a lasting impression:  this is the Stranglers' big political statement, as they turn their eyes from the dank alleyways of inner city London to geopolitics on a global scale.  Thus the self-descriptive "Dead Loss Angeles," joins the lengthy list of rock and pop songs scathingly putting down the southern California lifestyle.  Musically it's an interesting and successful experiment in that it has no guitar, but instead Cornwell doubling up on bass with Burnel.  And it is noticable that it's a guitarist plunking away at a bass, the way that Hugh plays his lines.  "Nuclear Device," is a character assassination of the power-mad governor who almost turned Queensland, Australia into an authoritarian nightmare back in the '70s.  Given the subject matter, it seemed an odd choice for followup single to "Duchess," but there wasn't much competition, was there?  So much for the sell-out charges.  "Shah Shah a Go Go," deals with the then-current Iranian Revolution; in keeping with the rest of the album's air of detachment, the Stranglers refuse to offer opinion, but merely observe headlines.

Sadly, by this point, hard drugs had entered the band's world, with both Burnel and Cornwell dabbling in heroin.  "Don't Bring Harry," is a hauntingly effective self-warning from Burnel that he did not heed.  The Stranglers had begun as a soft-rock band before jumping on the punk craze, and this startingly nonchalant return to their roots demonstrated that by 1979, punk as a fad was indeed dead and the Stranglers need no longer even bother to pretend that they still cared.  Unfortunately, the ill effects of the drugs spilled over unto the final two tracks, "Meninblack," and "Genetix," which are psychedelic atrocities complete with backwards instrumentation, electronically treated vocals, and gibberish about aliens that suggested they'd been listening to Devo records on mushrooms.  Harbingers of shapes of things to come, for the next LP would run with those ideas for a full-blown psychedelic concept album about space aliens - for better or worse?  Read the next installment of this blog to see.

The four bonus tracks are the weakest batch yet.  "Bear Cage," is an enjoyable if unexceptional single, that keeping with the newly politicized Stranglers, is sung from the perspective of an East German who feels like he's wasting his life in a country where he has no economic prospects for a hopeful future.  "Fools Rush Out," is the bouncy but forgettable B-side.  "N'Emmenes Pas Harry" - you can figure out what that track is all by yourself, can't you?  And "Yellowcake UFO," is just "Genetix," played backwards.  Real psychedelic, guys, just like the B-side of Napoleon XVI's "They're Coming to Take Me Away."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Stranglers - Live (X-Cert)

Did someone say, "Wanker"?

Live (X-Cert) (1979) ****

As it says, it's a live album.  Twelve tracks on the original LP, seven more added as bonus tracks to the CD for a grand total of nineteen.  Songs are nearly equally drawn from the first three albums and singles from the same era.  These must have been good nights, as the songs sound not significantly different from the studio versions, only rougher, faster, more agressive, less polished - in other words, a live album.  What you don't get are the visuals so crucial to the live Stranglers experience at this point in history.  That means no strippers gyrating topless to the strains of "Nice 'N Sleazy".  Or, for the ladies in the audience, the sight of Jean-Jacques Burnel pulling down his pants to join in the nude and rude fun.  I could insert a joke here, but I just finished my lengthy Black and White review and am tired, so I'll content myself with just stating the facts.  You also miss out on the spitting, that gobbing of the fans that so upset a young Simon Cowell.  You can't really package spit.  Much less preserve it for three decades.  The Stranglers were very anti-gobbing, BTW, a stance that Hugh Cornwell makes forcefully clear.  His between the songs banter is mildly amusing sometimes, not really that dumb or offensive or interesting.  Not much to say about old Hugh.  Not much else to say about this album.  It's a live album.  You can only review a live album in so many ways when you've already reviewed all the songs on the studio albums.  It works fine as a greatest hits/introduction to the band, which is why it gets four stars, and at nineteen songs, it's quite the bang for your buck.  They don't use bucks in England.  They use pounds.  The Stranglers never made it past first base in America.  Zero hits.  First four albums were only released as imports in the U.S., I think.  So I should have said something like 'power for your pounds'.  Which sounds stupid, but hey, it's the best I could do in the thirty seconds I spent thinking about it.

The Stranglers - Black & White

I will force my body to be my weapon and my statement

Black and White (1978) *****

Having exhausted the well of songs left over from the pub days, the Stranglers entered the studio in 1978 for a set of all-new material.  The results are a few strides forward in musical sophistication while not abandoning the well-established formula of the first two albums:  it's definitely of a piece with the early Stranglers sound, but the arrangements and (especially) the words have grown a mite more complex.  Only two songs dabble in interpersonal relationships, with the rest advancing to more arrestingly novel fare, sometimes explicitly political, sometimes more esoteric.  It's a more decidedly uncommercial, weirder and more difficult album than Rattus or Heroes, and only produced one major hit, "Nice 'N Sleazy," which almost brought court action from Sinatra's lawyers for the insult.  The title may define the aesthetic of the early Stanglers attitude, though the verses strike out for more arcane shores, recounting sagas of Viking plunder with vaguely Old Testament aplomb.  Musically, it's a terrific slow thud of a groove, punky reggae done right, more skillfully and imaginatively than the Clash or Slits ever accomplished: JJ Burnel's bass lays down the convoluted, grunting hook while Hugh Cornwell's guitar slashes away in short jagged chops, and Dave Greenfield splashes bizarre, Pere Ubu-esque synth splatterings all over the place.

When I first heard this album, I wasn't sure what to make of it; it sounded like equal parts brilliance and crap.  Unlike the straightforward pop-punky thrustings of Heroes, the Stranglers here are in an experimental mood and nearly every song is a small to significant alteration with formula.  Some of which works thrillingly, some of which doesn't, which is another way of saying that this album must be taken as a whole greater than its individual parts.  It's perhaps best to view this album as not divided between a black and a white side, but between A-sides and B-sides.  The top-notch tunes are their finest work, and while the weaker tracks aren't up to that high standard, are at the very least interesting changes of pace, exploring stylistic avenues beyond the Stranglers' usual ken, and only one of those do I consider truly grating.  "Enough Time," not so coincidentally is Cornwell's least favorite track on the album, and it closes out the album on a low note with a harsh metallic grind, Hugh tunelessly shouting a chicken-little warning about impending environmental catastrophe; the music is as ugly and unappealing as its subject matter of industrial skies collapsing into black, which may or may not have been intentional.

The album gets off an a breakneck start, as the schoolboy military fantasy "Tank," is almost certainly the fastest song the Stranglers ever put to vinyl, with Jet Black's frenetic drumming in overdrive and Greenfield's fingers fluctuating at lightning capacity.  One good thing about the Stranglers is that they knew how to pace an album, as once you've caught your breath they ease into the groove of "Nice 'N Sleazy," and then the even slower, softly carnivalesque "Outside Tokyo".  Not much to say about that third track, a meditation about Japanese timepieces that circles around to nowhere, but it's a fair if insubstantial way to wind down before the watch winds back up for "Hey! (Rise of the Robots)".  Inspired by Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, it's a frenetic almost No-Wavish jam driven by atonal sax wailing courtesy of Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex.   So, out of the first four tracks, that's two A-sides, and two weird B-sides.  Next comes another A-side, "Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front)" based on Cornwell's experience during his residency at Swedish university as a biochemist.  It certainly gained the Stranglers some noteriety in that country, as the Swedes did not take kindly to the portrait of their homeland as a deadly dull "hypochondriac tombstone" where there's "too much time to think, too little to do."  The first side of the album (can't tell if it's the black or white side, since I have this on CD) closes with another six-minute prog epic, "Toiler on the Sea," - more Vikings, and it gave Flock of Seagulls a band name.  It's sobloodyfuckingfantastic!   Perhaps my favorite Stranglers track, it boasts a brilliant dynamical arrangement that shows off every instrument - drums, bass, guitar, keyboards - as lead.  This is how a band should sound as a band.    

Flip it over and we must shelter inside for "Curfew," a paranoid Cold War fantasy scenario of a Germany overrun by Russian invaders because "she had gone soft from the American dream," leading to England being overrun as well, with the British army holding off in Scotland.  Greenfield's keyboards are mixed way up to almost Genesis levels here, while Burnel barks militantly.  OK, I've figured it out, this is the Black side, as nearly all the songs invoke the night.  "Threatened," conjures the grim atmosphere of a dark, poorly lit urban night, as Burnel muses philosophically about how he doesn't believe that "things can be pretty or ugly," though he almost ruins the mood by melodramatically interjecting the silly, "Bring me a piece of my Mummy / She was quite close to me," as the big statement.  "In the Shadows," which actually was the B-side of a previous single, aims for a similar effect but is considerably less successful, though the music is creepy enough to match the lyrics about walking along a deserted street at night and being spooked by any bit of sound disturbing the eerie quiet.

The next two songs are stitched together with no fadeout separation between them.  While the album's lone piece of misogyny, the uber-creepy "Do You Wanna," (one of Greenfield's last vocal spotlights on a Stranglers record) isn't much of a tune, it does have a twisted, bizarrely funky fractured groove, and comes out just this side of working due to its flat-out weirdness.  The way that track flows directly into "Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)," is stunning, one of the best uses of non-separation of tracks ever.  It's about Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist and rabid nationalist who committed ritual seppuku in 1970 after a failed military coup.  Just don't scare your neighbors by chanting the insanely catchy chorus too loudly.

There are several bonus tracks, only one of which is worth your time.  "Mean to Me," is a throwaway rockabilly numbers probably written and performed in five minutes; "Tits," is pisstake that seems to parodize their reputation for sexism; "Sverige" is "Sweden" in Swedish; and "Old Codger," is just that, some smelly old fart talking in Cockney rhyme over a perfunctory Stranglers track.   That leaves their cover of  the Bacharach/David chestnut, "Walk on By," and it's a doozy:  they take the pop oldie and stretch it out for six minutes, stalking into deep Stranglers-fied psychedelic territory, with lengthy, fluid soloing from Cornwell and Greenfield.  Brilliant!  It's difficult to say whether this or Rattus is the quintessential Stranglers LP.  If it's great tunes you're after, then the debut is the place to start; but if you're interested in a somewhat more challenging but more musically advanced listening experience, then Black and White is your noose of choice.  Auto-erotically asphixiate yourself to both! 

The Stranglers - No More Heroes

I feel like a wog, I get all the dirty shitty jobs

No More Heroes (1977) ****1/2

A hastily assembled followup tossed out to the ravenous public barely half a year after the release of Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes feels like something of a disappointment, and indeed, about half of these songs were initially recorded for the Rattus sessions but passed over for stronger material that made up the nearly-flawless debut.  Like a lot of bands that struggled for years in the pubs and clubs, the Stranglers had a considerable backlog of unused material to fall back upon, but it's easy to see why such gang choruses as "Dead Ringer" and "Bitching" were held back - they're hard-hitting and exciting in a crude way, but clearly playing for the B-team.   At this point the reader must be glancing at the very high rating and the fact that I am referring to the album as a sophomore in the slumps, and in actuality, the original album would probably recieve **** - a weak ****, but the three bonus tracks raise the level to an unequivocal ****1/2.  And a four star LP is by definition an excellent album - it's only disappointing in comparison with the debut.  There's only one truly wretched song found herein, the six-minute closer "School Mam," an embarassingly juvenile sex fantasy that tries to work as a spoken-word piece of gruesome gross-out poetry like the VU's "The Gift", but it.....well, I never liked "The Gift," it sucked, too.  It's the final track, so you can shut the album off after "English Towns," a lonely cocksman's lament of  "No love in a thousand girls."  Life must be rough sleeping with a different beautiful woman every night yet still a solitary, loveless soul.  Poor JJ.  OK, the chorus is resonant, maybe even tragic if you let it be, from a certain perspective - finding true love isn't easy, and if Monsieur Burnel has to sleep with another 1,001 groupies to find The One, then sacrifices must be made for the quest.

Anyway, this album was released in late '77 as opposed to early '77, and in such a momentous year the changes in the punk landscape were evident:  this album is angrier, nastier, musically more aggressive and hard rocking.  Not to mention a whole lot filthier.  I'm no expert on the history of smut in popular culture, but I believe that No More Heroes marks a small milestone in violating the FCC standards.  I'd be pleased if someone could give me some counterexamples, but I do not believe there had been, up to that point in our year of the Lord 1977, a mainstream pop/rock album with this many cuss words.  Mainstream, I said, an album that actually went gold and made the pop charts, not some obscuro foul-mouthed comedy record by the Fugs or Deviants or somebody.  "Bring on the Nubiles," alone would have broken the Stranglers into Guinness, as Hugh uses the word "fuck" an astonishing eight times, which may not seem much until you hear how non-shy about he is about mouthing it.  Yeah, now I've got your curiousity up, anyone taking bets on which song is most likely to be immediately ransacked on the Youtube search engine after newbies have read this review?  Have fun.  You know you love a good snigger.

Same as with the debut, the pacing is handled well, with the two A-sides stuck right in the middle.  The title track is by a good margin the strongest track on here, introducing a welcome political edge to the Stranglers' lyrical reportoire as they mourn fallen idols from Leon Trotsky to Lenny Bruce, while musically it boasts one of the most insistently powerful rock intros ever - once the swirling hooks sink in they don't let up, and it's one hell of a ride.  "Something Better Change," also brandishes an unforgettably mighty chorus and swirling keyboards, though I'm not sure exactly if the main hook resides in the bass as well.  

There are a couple of other very strong tracks that are almost as good as the singles, but not quite.  "Dagenham Dave" tells the sad real life tale of an obsessed fan and friend of the band who committed suicide, and is as rousingly anthemic spit-in-the-face-of-death as an Irish wake.  The opener, "I Feel Like a Wog," is a menacingly mid-tempo, repetitive and amelodic grind with half-spoken, half-spat vocals from Hugh that conflate alienation with racism.  The track is clearly sarcastic, deeply angry and bitter, and frankly, only an idiot with the brains of a National Front gorilla could possibly misinterpret it as some sort of neo-fascist anti-immigrant rallying cry.  Which, of course, given the brains of your typical neo-nazi skinhead, they did.  Not the Stranglers' fault that half the population possess below average intelligence.  I suppose that bands should be careful using racism as a song subject because it's possible that they might be misinterpreted.  For that matter, I suppose that bands should never, ever use any sarcasm in any of their songs, because many people can misinterpret sarcasm.  Let's go further, just for safety's sake we shouldn't even use sarcasm in real life.  You never know when the person you're telling a good old racist joke to might be some politically correct, pinko commie fag.

A couple of songs I haven't mentioned yet, "Burning Up Time," and "Peasant in the Big Shitty."  There, now I've mentioned them.  The bonus tracks include the other side of "Something Better Change," the even more awesome "Straighten Out," which was why it was not a B-side, but a double A-side!  The spoken intro makes oblique reference to cannibalism, and the structure is a little bit aconventional in that there are three verses, three choruses, and then a keyboard solo to close off the song.   "5 Minutes," sounds like it was recorded at a later date, as it fits the Black & White or The Raven sound more than No More Heroes (hint:  it was, in late 1978 I believe).  "They came along on a Saturday night / They killed the cat and they raped his wife," - sounds like lyrics were inspired by Straw Dogs, but once again JJ Burnel is singing about a real life incident in which some friends' apartment was burgled and one of the girls there sexually assaulted.  He allows himself a bit of violently spat cursing as an aside near the end, in his native French, which roughly translates (I looked it up on a Youtube commentary) as "Watch out when I get my hands on you, motherfuckers!"  The B-side to that single was "Rok It To The Moon," a sci-fi goof inspired by Cornwell catching wind of Devo live in '78, and no less fun for being the well-intentioned homage it was.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Strokes - Room On Fire

Room on Fire (2003) ***

"I want to be forgotten," introduces the first line, and congratulations, Julian Casablancas, you've succeeded: it's the cusp of the second decade of the 21st century and no one cares about your little band anymore.  Oh, what bright hopes we had for your futures in 2001, but your second album defines the term sophomore slump.  There are no artistic advances and the songs sound like outtakes from the debut.  There are two changes, one for the neutral and one for the worse.  The lukewarm news is that the songs have more of an '80s new wave feel, with guitars uncannily whistling like synthesizers (how did they do that?  Seriously, that's a really cool guitar effect!  How did they do that?!)  Bummer: the songs are a few centimeters slower.  Only a few fractions, but with a formula so tight and fragile as the Strokes', a few decimal places throws everything off kilter.  There are still cute little hooks all over the place, the melodies aren't lacking, and the choruses seem to have actually improved a bit.  But, alas, minus the heady speed of the debut, what we're left with is eleven unexceptional glam-garage numbers all performed in the same style with an increasingly soul-less perfunctorism.  The sound and songs hew so closely in exactitude to the debut, and yet so fail to inspire me with more than an appreciative nod of, "not bad, lads," that it made me question what I'd seen of such great worth in the debut.  Well, the debut still is great, and the followup is....pretty good.  I'm not lying, see those stars I gave it?  That's a good grade.  It's pretty good.  Nothing great.  And since the great is the enemy of the good, I feel no compulsion other than my duty as a reviewer to listen to this when there's so much better music out there begging for my time.  Oh, it's not bad, offensive, or unenjoyable in any way.  If someone plays it at a party, I'll get up and dance.  I'll hoist a beer to it if it comes on a jukebox in a bar.  If I hear it on the car radio, I won't change the channel.  But walking into my room, glancing around the room at my thousands-strong CD collection, and out of all those choices, picking this disc?  No.

As with the debut, a song by song analysis seems more trouble than it's worth, considering that all of the songs sound the same.  Some are better than the others, but once you've heard one Strokes song, seriously, you have indeed heard them all.  "12:51" stands out immediately as strong enough to be the lead single, and hey, guess what - it was!  Since I wasn't physically in America in 2003, I had no way of knowing that and thus wasn't unduly influenced by radio exposure.  In fact, I didn't even hear this album until 2006, when I bought a bootleg copy for 35 pisos in a Manila black market.  That's around three quarters, which is a fair price to pay for this album.  Heck, I might even pay twice that, if I had to do it again.  I'm dating myself, aren't I?  Physically buying albums in real life spaces.  Kids today illegally download tracks, and one track at a time, they don't have the attention span to sit through those fuddy-duddy 20th century artifacts called albums.  Today's consumers have revived music peddling as a singles' market.

But back to the Strokes.   "Under Control," is a teensy bit different as a stab at a more mainstream-ish pop ballad, not that it really works, and the lyrics of "Meet Me in the Bathroom," are self-descriptively sleazy, and.....forget it, I don't feel like this.  It's a Strokes album.  You know what it sounds like.  Buy it or download it or whatever if you want to.  I don't care.

See, kids?  Repeated exposure has left me as bored and disaffected as Julian Casablancas.  Careful with those lines of coke and groupies, Eugene.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Stranglers - IV Rattus Norvegicus

The worst crime that I ever did was play some rock'n'roll

IV Rattus Norvegicus (1977) *****

It takes at the maximum fifteen seconds into the album to realize that unlike most of the other 1977 vintage U.K. punk rockers, the Stranglers were not interested in 1965 Who/Kinks revivalism as their basic musical template.  Their Rosetta Stone of roots was clearly the Doors, as Dave Greenfield's keyboards trip up the stairs in an ascending, repetitive swirl that foggily conjures the ghost of Ray Manzarek (who wasn't then and still isn't dead, but might as well have been since 1971).  Ah, but the Doors did not possess as a weapon in their arsenal a throbbing, menacing bass line carrying the heavy rhythmic thrust, making this more danceable than any tune in the Lizard Kings' canon.  "Sometimes," as potent a musical brew as it was, earned the band a bit of 'copyist' grief from critics due to the obvious similarities to a heralded '60s band, but it's a misleading impression, because that opening track is by far the Doors-iest number in the Stranglers' ouvre.  The lyrical message is anything but peace and love: "Someday I'm going to smack your face, beat you honey till you drop!"  Based on a real incident of guitarist/singer Hugh Cornwell striking his girlfriend after discovering he'd been cuckolded, the good, bad, and just plain ugly sides of the Stranglers are laid bare on the opening track of their first album:  powerful, pungent music delivering a morally ambiguous message.

But lest you prepare to settle in for an entire album of rousing punk anthems, the second track already throws a curveball.  "Goodbye Toulouse," is melodic, level-headed pop that combines churning, Velvets-style guitar'n'rhythm riffage to an almost Roxy-esque elegant vocal melody concerning the demise of the southern French city in a catastrophic earthquake.   "London Lady," boogies along punkily, however, and brings back the misogyny as well in a savage put-down of a punk scene groupie (Caroline Coon, to be specific, rock journo who did snag her own rock star boyfriend, Paul Simonon of the Clash).  With its slashing guitar riffage and bubbly bass lines, it's musically speaking the closest to traditional punk on this particular Stranglers record, with the keyboards uncharacteristically shoved to the background.   Even more misogynistic is the album's nadir, the bluesy "Princess of the Streets," an attempted love ballad of all things.  I say 'attempted' because any self-respecting lady would be showing her man papers if he tried to serenade her with these lyrics:  she's real good lookin', in high heels and leather, "what a piece of meat" - and Jean-Jacques Burnel, apparently oblivious, wonders, "She's gone and left me / I dunno why".  Why, indeed.

That slow one works as a breather as the album sets up for the trio of A-sides that form the centerpiece of the record.  "Hanging Around," boasts mildly blasphemous lyrics imaging Jesus floating above a seedy inner-city drug market and a beguiling guitar-keyboards point/counterpoint on the mid-section solos.  "Peaches," sets out to prove the point that an artist's dumbest song will be his biggest hit, and while this Benny Hill interlude is one of the weaker tunes musically, it's not that bad, and can be highly enjoyable if you give in to the stupidity of your inner grunting male chauvinist.  After all, Hugh isn't doing anything but describe how your average heterosexual male with a working set of testicles feels when he goes down to the beach.  And it's not as if hot girls don't realize that when they dress skimpily they're going to get a lot of slobbering male attention, right?  Really, I don't understand why they get so upset when I'm staring at her ass and licking my lips and moaning,, "Work it, baby!" as encouragement.  Can't she appreciate a compliment to her feminine beauty?  Women.  Will never understand them.  Anyway, after "Peaches" arrives the band's first single, "(Get a) Grip (On Yourself)" which was almost certainly the only Top 40 U.K. hit to boast not one but two parentheticals.  Lyrically it's a standard number concerning the travails of working musicians living hand to mouth and redemptive power of good old rock'n'roll.  It mentions aliens in the final verse, which foreshadows an ominous direction in the band's near future.

JJ Burnel swabs another vocal spotlight on the next number, "Ugly," which serves as the album's vocal lowpoint and lyrical - well, not exactly highlight, but certainly the most interesting.  Like a lot of the beautiful people, JJ's mind from time to time ponders philosophically what it must be like to be unnattractive to the opposite sex.  Burnel develops some quite novel theories, such as "It's only the children of the fucking wealthy that tend to be good-looking!" that he absurdly bellows as the track's melodramatic show-stopper (I hesitate to call it a "tune") as well as more banal observations from evolutionary psychology such as, "An ugly fart attracts a good-looking chick if he's got money," complete with a bizarre aside about Jews and backing vocals harmonizing on the word "fart".  And for the coup de grace the album closes with the four-part prog epic, "Down in the Sewer," about being stranded underneath the gutters and reduced to fucking rats to breed and survive.  Greenfield's jolly keyboards make parts of it sound like baseball music.  Appropriately, it ends the album with the sound of a flushing toilet.

The reissue comes with three bonus tracks, all worth the time.  "Choosey Susie," is a bouncy pop A-side, a little overly basic in structure and simple melodicism, with lyrics about JJ staying up all night with his girl and fucking until they're weak and she bleeds.  Nice lad.  Comparing her to Lot's wife is a nice little touch.  "Peasant in the Big Shitty," was the B-side, a live version of an eerie Greenfield-sung number that would turn up in barely differential studio form on the next LP, but it's nice to have anyway.  Finally there's a throwaway rockabilly number left over from their pub rock days, "Go Buddy Go," which keeps it dumb and simple and catchy and was unsurprisingly another hit, if not exactly their most musically adventurous tune.

In sum, this is a perfect debut in that it not only drops hints of great musical ventures and directions to come, but already fulfills all those promises with perhaps the band's best-ever batch of tunes.  It's arguably their best album, and I love it enough to remember all the words without skipping a beat.  Well, except for "Princess of the Streets," but you can't win'em all.   Humorless feminists should naturally give this album a wide berth, but hey, by my count a good 50% of these songs deal with matters non-sexual/sexist.  If you can get past that and are looking for elements of pop, punk, prog, and psychedelia shredded together with a dark, '70s street-grit flavor, then this is a mugging right up your alley.  Sleep tight and don't let the rabies-infected sewer rats bite.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Stranglers - Band Introduction

You either love or you despise, there's just no time for compromise

To call the Stranglers underrated is to praise them with faint damns.  Few bands have been so reviled in their time, with the unfortunate effect that their role has been whitewashed out of punk history as if victims of a Stalinist truth comission.  The Rolling Stone Album Guide of 1991, as introduction to a string of 1 to 2 star reviews, described them as "repulsive even by punk standards," and they have the historical honour of being one of the first targets in print of a teenage Julie Burchill.  Even a pubescent Simon Cowell confessed not long ago that attending an early Stranglers concert turned him off rock music forever.  (For such small favours, we are eternally grateful.)  They didn't have the benefit of public noteriety feeding a frenzied fawning of rock journalists praising their every outrage, as did the Sex Pistols; to the contrary, while their calculated outrages caught them some press attention, the effects inspired were entirely negative - simple outrage, the critics reacting with disgust, not validation of rebel cool.  So, despite their success as the first punk band to score a string of smash singles and albums (it was they, not the Damned, who released the first U.K. punk LP in Feb. '77, contrary to punk trivia lore), they have been written out of the history books as slimy old perverts who weren't really punk and weren't really important.  Neither of which is true.

For a lot of that, the Stranglers have only themselves to blame.  It's one thing to react negatively to a harsh review.  It's another to take direct action by physically assualting your critics.  It's on an entirely different plane of beyond the pale to kidnap a rock journalist, tie him up, and leave him dangling several stories from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  That last sentence was not metaphorical.  But why all the hostility in the first place?  Well, there were several reasons, but at this point in history, over thirty years on, only one reason still bears any genuine validity. 

1) They were too old and they didn't look the part - So they weren't punk fashionistas, and they weren't bored teenagers but men in their late 20s (Jet Black, like Andy Summers of another "phoney" punk band the Police, was in his late 30s!).  These charges are totally irrelevant and can be summarily dismissed to the rubbish bin without the bother of a rebuttal.

2) They were cynical opportunists jumping on the punk bandwagon - If you're going to write off every cynical opportunist in the showbiz industry, it's going to be a mighty empty industry.  Besides, Joe Strummer started out as a hippie in a pub rock band, and so did almost everybody else in the original wave of punks.  Punk rock wasn't Year Zero.  Everybody had pre-punk roots.  The Damned had Love albums hidden in their closets and Glenn Matlock loved Paul McCartney.  So phooey.

3) They weren't really punk!  They didn't have buzzsaw guitars!  They had guitar solos, and worst of all, prominent keyboards! - If punk rock is going to be that narrow-minded, then it's not a genre worth bothering with.  Anyway, all of the original punk bands that had the talent to do so evolved beyond basic punk after a few years.  The distance between the Buzzcocks and Magazine; the first and third Wire albums; The Clash and Sandinista!!! - the difference is, the Stranglers being more seasoned musicians, started out with the musical chops to accomplish their arty ambitions from the get-go.  They didn't need to evolve so drastically.  They didn't start out as buzzsaw minimalists because it would have been stupid and dishonest for them to do so.  Besides, as far as attitude is concerned, they had nastiness in spades.  Which actually proved problematic, for their music as well as their public relations.

It's pretty clear that the reasons the Stranglers aren't included next to the Clash and Pistols in the punk heirarchies has everything to do with punk fashion-consciousness of the late '70s and very little to do with the actual music.  And as such, the blatherings of trendy rock journalists trying to fit in with their peers over three decades ago can be safely ignored, and the Stranglers can (and should) be judged solely on the quality of their music.  And here's where the final and only truly valid criticism comes in.

4) They had problems with women - It's no secret that misogyny has a long and storied history in the annals of rock and its granddaddy the blues.  The Stranglers indulged their anger at the fairer sex at times with a disturbing zeal.  I'm usually not that easily offended, but beginning your first ever album with a song that seems to advocate wife-beating is seriously getting off on the wrong foot.  You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the Stranglers did it twice - their first two albums are full of violent, sexist rantings that portray women as pieces of meat (actual lyric) useful mostly to "lick your little puss and nail you to the floor".  Yes, I know that it's at least partially an act, same as AC/DC singing about big balls and love at first feel; that the Stranglers were having a laugh and a juvenile snigger - but there's a genuine menace to their early records, a grimy nastiness that's unsettling and can be repulsive if you let it be.  But in their defense, it's 2010.  For better or worse, the Stranglers' misogyny has long since been superseded by a factor of 10x by Guns'n'Roses and Eminem and hundreds of other gangsta rap and heavy metal groups.  Just as the Stranglers made quaint the attitude of the Rolling Stones, whose nasty yet heartfelt 1960s misogyny made them the original bad boys of rock'n'roll, so the Stranglers' outrages seem quaint by modern standards.  Such is moral progress.

And to add to the defense, the misogyny only really infects the first two albums, which were calculated punk shock tactics.  There's still a bit of the old women-as-sex-objects hangover on the third album, but by 1979 it - and punk - was for all intents and purposes gone.  The problem with that is, you see, that their musical legacy rests mostly on those first three albums (but certainly not entirely, as they continued to release excellent singles for several more years).  So their best albums are also their cruellest and most twisted.   There's a considerable drop-off in quality from their first three albums to their later work, but in truth, they didn't really start to stink up the joint until well into the '80s.  Their worst crime was carrying on far too long (jesus, they're still around, and no, I'm not reviewing any of their post-1990, post-Hugh Cornwell albums - I've heard them, alright, only to confirm that they are indeed as awful as their reputation).  But you can say that about a lot of rock bands.....most bands, it seems, these days.

So let me introduce you to the family.  One other reason that I'm not reviewing any '90s or '00s Stranglers albums, aside from the fact that they stink, is that the Stranglers are one of those bands where every member is a distinct and crucial musical personality: take away one and the the results are like the Who minus Keith Moon.  Even drummer Jet Black, who born in 1938 is certainly the eldest punk rocker still in existence as a working musician.  While his drumming was never splashy enough for me to pay any special attention, I am again no conisseur of drummers and my ears can only tell when a drummer is bad, which he ain't.  The Stranglers always had a great rhythmic drive and as 1/2 of the rhythm section, I have to give Jet some credit.  Besides, he wrote their biggest ever hit, "Golden Brown," which kept the band solvent at a low ebb when they considered breaking up.  His fleet of ice cream vans kept the band solvent and employed when they were struggling in the pre-record contract days, too.  So huzzah, though I've heard reports that he may well be retiring (and the band with him) at his advanced age sometime in the near future.  

The keyboardist, Dave Greenfield, may or may not have an actual personality; he keeps so mum during interviews, and like Jet Black, writes virtually no lyrics, so it's hard to tell.  But the old hippie-looking fellow with the handlebar mustache provides the musical color for the band and his prominent keyboards are the Stranglers' most instantly identifiable sonic feature.  While every instrument in the quartet is a lead instrument that's mixed equally with the others, his keyboards are more equal than the others.  Greenfield sang about three or four numbers in the early days, but gave up singing lead pretty quickly; his voice has an eerie, sinister quality to it, but that's it - nothing special.

That leaves us with the two frontmen.  Jean-Jacques Burnel could be the Evil  Mirror Universe twin of Sting:  a dark-haired English bassman of French parentage who is far too pretty for his own good and knows it, a karate black-belt obsessed with motorcyles, Japanese warrior culture, and European Pan-Unionism (not necessarily in that order).  Possessed of an obnoxious arrogance beyond belief, that I suppose comes naturally when you're young, intelligent, extremely good-looking, and can kick the ass of all the members of the Sex Pistols, Clash, and Pretenders in a drunken barfight without breaking a sweat, Burnel's "barracuda bass" is a wonder of nature.  Well, of modern technology at least, and it's a wonder why more bass players haven't imitated that sound.  Maybe because most other bands wouldn't allow the bass player the ego room to crank it up that loud and grungey?  More's their loss.  He also sings about a quarter of the songs, more so on the early records, less so on the later records, and of course more so on the post-Cornwell records, but I already said that I wasn't going to review those.  Anyway, he's a horrible singer, mildly effective as a thuggish shouter, and the less said of his vocals, the better.

Lastly but not leastly is Hugh Cornwell, alternately lead and rhythm guitarist depending on how much give and take there is between him and Greenfield's keyboards.  He sings the lion's share of the songs and seems to split the lyric writing 50/50 with Burnel (the music writing sounds like a four-way split between the band members, and that's how the songwriting royalties are billed).  He actually is in care of an effective singing voice, a gruff conversational bark that well suits the blunt, street-level lyrics of the early Stranglers.  Later on, he learned to actually sing as the band grew softer and more pop, and did a fair if not exceptional job of it.  A former biochemist and Phd. candidate who manages to come across as a down-to-earth bloke without either hiding or showing off his brains, he's a charismatic frontman; he comes across as a rather likeable chap swilling ale and having a pub discussion about politics, religion, UFO conspiracy theories, and whatnot down the local.  After band tensions had simmered to the point where Cornwell suffered the fists of fury of Burnel, he quit the band in 1990, leaving the Stranglers as headless as Mott without Ian Hunter or the Floyd without Roger Waters.   Yet limp on they did, well unto the present day.   Anyway, I'm only going to review the ten albums released by the classic lineup, from the brilliant bile of the early days to the awful eighties.