Monday, February 28, 2011

Dwight Twilley Band - Sincerely

Sincerely (1976) ****

Twilley hit the charts in 1975 with the modernized-rockabilly for-the-state-of-the-'70s smash, "I'm On Fire," which updated Elvis' classic swagger for the chest-medallion and bell-bottoms age, but failed to deliver a followup in timely fashion; by the time his debut album was released, eighteen long months had passed, thus quashing Twilley's nascent rise to stardom.  A pity, as not only is "I'm On Fire," a perfect single of roots-rock classicism, but this album of relatively diverse pop-rockers ranks as one of power pop's great lost classics. And in its swinging-hipped fusion of '50s Southern rock with '60s British Invasion pop, one of the most distinctive - Big Star were considerably too Anglophile to get the correct dosage of both influences down just right.  With Twilley and partner-in-Beatlemania Phil Seymour recording nearly all the instruments themselves in their downhome Tulsa studio, the sound is attractively sparse with lots of breathing room between the notes, if on the downside a little musty and lacking proper punch & fire due to the somewhat demo-ish origins. 

The opener is naturally - you guesstimated it - "I'm On Fire," and a better intro to a debut couldn't be wished, but there are plenty of more fine songs; if none of the tunes are as great as the single, there's really not a bad or less than good song on here.  The murky psychedelia of the title track, with its mid-break mini-symphony of backwards phased guitars, ranks almost as stellar, and either the jingly "You Were So Warm," or the jangly "Just Like the Sun," could've placed in the charts as a followup single.  The material ranges from the sorta-annoying rockahillbilly chug of "T.V.," to the Raspberries aimlessly driving up and down the strip, "Baby, Let's Cruise," to the "Good Day Sunshine"-piano-isms of "Could Be Love," while maintaining an easy stylistic unity due to Seymour & Twilley's consistency of dusty-musty homebrewed sound.  The duo's Anglophilia rears its haunches most obviously in the homage to black-hills-I-ain't-never-seen (real Anglophiles should get that reference), "England," but even on that cut it's impossible to imagine an English band cutting it:  the sound couldn't have come out of anywhere else but eastern Oklahoma.  There's something arid about it, you know what I mean?  But not sunbaked.  The atmospheric soul clearly hails from the western deserts, but there's more than a touch of southern slapback funkiness to it - just like eastern Oklahoma itself.

The Fall - Perverted By Language

Perverted By Language (1983) ***

First album punk, second album post-punk, third album rockabilly, fourth album noise rock, fifth album shit, and this the sixth album is art rock.  Art groove rock, I should say; only three of the original eight songs (let's ignore bonus tracks until the end of this review) are under five minutes, and surprise, surprise, they're also three of the best tracks.  "I Feel Voxish," throbs with one of the catchiest and danceable post-disco bass lines of their entire career, and at a relatively swift 2:42, "Neighbourhood of Infinity," is even better and my choice for best cut on the album.  "Hotel Bloedel," drags on too long at 3:48, but the melody is lovely, and the scraping violin gives it an Amon Düül II-ish touch.  That track also introduces the presence of the lovely and talented Brix Smith, who lullaby-sings the melody with buried-in-the-mix vocals while even-more-murkily-buried Mark E. recites behind her a tale of Civil War ghosts.  Her influence on the band is going to prove crucial, but not on this album, not yet - aside from "Hotel Bloedel," she barely registers as a presence.

The rest of the tracks linger on far too long.  The problem is that art-rock and primitivism on the whole do not mix:  if you want to perform an eight-minute epic, it helps if you know how to play your instruments well.  Basing a song on one basic nagging guitar riff might have worked if "Garden," had been halved of its ridiculously bloated 8:45 length.  "Smile," is equally primitive, but it works because it's built as an ascending-in-intensity & volume rhythmic assault, and stands out as the album's most excitingly driven track.  "Tempo House," and "Hexen Definitive/Strife Knot," close the remaining sixteen minutes of the album by seemingly going on forever, as both tracks are built on rhythmic vamps whose groove never gets groovy or hypnotic.  Repeating the same four notes of bass for eight minutes doesn't work either, Mr. Hanley.  But to get to those final tracks, first you have to make it past the hurdle of the opening track, "Eat Y'Self Fitter," one of the most annoying tracks in Fallstory (or anybody's).  Oh well, at least its admixture of a heavy bass line and whistling woodwinds sortakinda reminds me of prog-era Move.

Now, the bonus tracks, which are again shoved upfront.  Except for "Pilsner Trail," which concludes the CD, and sucks.  "The Man Whose Head Expanded," is passable faux-psychedelia, and its B-side, "Ludd Gang," is a slice of rockabilly that's even better than the A-side.  The other single included here, "Kicker Conspiracy," is a faux-humorous faux-epic accounting of English soccer hooligans abroad in Italy or Granada or wherever drunk British sports fans throwup and start fights and generally give U.K. tourists the foul reputation they have on the Continent.  The flipside, "Wings," once again dabbles in paranoid psuedo-mystical ramblings about ghosts and time travel, just as in "Hotel Bloedel."  It's got a nice riff and thumping beat to it.

In short, as it mostly consists of length, experimental vamps and grooves, it's one of the Fall's least accessible albums and certainly not a good starting point for entry.  However, a lot of seasoned Fall fans rate this a lot higher than I do and consider this one of their essential classics.  But then again, what do they know - there's a reason I refer to'em as Fallnatics.  Discrimination ain't one of their long suits.

Ooo, lookee below!  First appearance on national TV with John Peel and that dude who played boogie-woogie piano on "Cool For Cats"! 

The Pipettes - Earth vs. the Pipettes

Earth vs. the Pipettes (2010) ***1/2

Only one of the girls who'd sung on Meet the Pipettes is still on board, but that's not the major change: they've ditched the girl group sound.  No longer do they want to be the Shangri-La's, but are intent on vibing like they're Rose Royce at a car-wash disco circa 1978.  Only svengali Phil Spector-cum-Malcolm McLaren wannabe Monster Bobby is still masterminding the pretty marionettes behind the veil of sunglass shades.  The change in sound creates a major problem:  who the hell needs this?  Aren't there already a jillion Spice Girl wannabes riding the post-disco, post-Madonna slutwave that's dominated modern Top 40 since 1985?  One step forward into modernism equals a step forward into genericism.  Luckily, if you sadly resign yourself to what you're getting (and for anyone who was a fan of the first album, oh brother it's going to be a difficult transition to adjust to), what you get amounts to an excellent modern-day pop album.  The melodies are still intact, aren't they?  You can still sing along to all these tunes, and even get a few lodged in your head, right?  You can dance to it?  Decidedly yes.  What more should you expect from commercial pop product?  Some innovation?  A little emotional heft?  Oh shut up, my inner nagging naysayer grumpuss.

Problem #2:  the lyrics are nothing special, and considering that the lyrical content constituted half the hooks on the debut, the lack of edgy missives from the gender wars is a serious hobble.  Aside from some generic bitchy-isms like "Our love is history," and "You've been running around all over town," (yes, seriously, the lyrics are that cliched), there's no edge to their bite.  The songs all cover predictable romance'n'dance fare, the bubbleheaded discoapist travails of the modern high-heeled, plastic-jewelry encrusted, puffed-hair guidette.  Yeah, I know they don't have guidettes in England, but see, that's another problem, the Englishness is gone, too - you can still detect the accents from time to time, but there's another casualty of transatlantic generica. 

When people argue over whether lyrics or music are more important, they're making the mistake of looking at music-creating in far too binary of a manner.  Lyrics are certainly one element that's important in a well-constructed song in the popular music form, along with rhythm, arrangement, vocals, chord progression, melody, etc.  One element that is vital is the hook.  Now what is a hook?  A hook can be defined as something that makes you remember the song; a piece of the song that can occur once or several times that enables the song to lodge into your brain.  The point I'm making is that lyrics can equally serve as hooks just as well as melody lines or drum beats.  So, by downgrading the lyrics on their second album, the Pipettes have thrown out a massive databank of hooks, a source that served them so well on the first album.  Where are the twists and turns to these curves?  Have I mentioned that the girls look a lot uglier in their current incarnation?  Since they were hired mostly for their visual not musical appeal, it's fair game for sexist commentary.  And oh, how I miss the sexist commentary of the original girl-group Pipettes.  This is a catchy, solidly tuneful and danceable disco-pop album if you like that sort of thing.  Do I ever wish to hear it again?  No.  But I don't want to look like a snobbish hypocrite for completely writing it off just because it's in a genre I don't like.  In other words, the numerical rankings are just a rough, rough shorthand; actually read the reviews if you want to know what a record's about.

P.S.  One more point about how lyrics can ruin/elevate the music:  "Our Love Was Saved By a Spaceman," is by far the worst track, and guess why?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Fall - Room To Live

Room to Live (1982) **

So Hex Enduction Hour was apparently too polished for Mark E.'s liking and thus he rounds up the band, throws'em in the studio, and bashes this lengthy EP/LP hybrid (36 minutes, long enough for an album for me) out quickly to capture an off-the-cuff, loose feel.  As if previous Fall LPs weren't loose and off the cuff enough in the first place.  Predictably, it's a disaster, the first Fall album not worth your money or downloading time.  The songs are underwritten, mostly hanging on one repetitive riff and dragging on for four or five minutes, and not hypnotically, but boringly.  "Detective Instinct," is the worst offender in this category, as Mark simply mutters the title chorus as a hook for nearly six minutes, while the band trods behind him musically adrift and directionless.  Too many of the songs sound like they were written on the spot, and even if they weren't written in five minutes, they were certainly performed in five minutes with no rehearsal, as even a cursory listen makes clatteringly clear.  Mark's vocal melodies are still as strong as ever, which suggests that he had these songs formed in his head before he stepped in the studio; however, he did not give such forethought to the band's music, or apparently give them a chance to brew up some interesting chords and changes to match Mark's lyrics & vocals.  "Marquis Cha-Cha," shows the failed potential:  with its attempt at Latin rhythm and compelling lyrics about the Falklands War, it could've been an ace tune if given more time to develop and a band that had played it more than once.  "Joker Hysterical Face," which opens the platter, also shows potential, with its intriguing politicized lyrical sloganeering and sharp little guitar hook/riff.  "Papal Visit," on the other hand, is completely unsalvageable, and by far the worst-ever Fall track so far: six minutes of hideous scraping violin while Mark mumbles unintelligibly about Pope John Paul II.  The CD does have two bright spots, a pair of bonus tracks that were originally released as a single and by themselves making the album not totally unworthwhile for Fallnatics, as they are actually produced and fully developed songs that are a million times better than anything on the album itself.  "Fantastic Life," is overproduced synth-pop, of all things, the Fall's first foray into such waters.  Even better is "Lie Dream of a Casino Soul," a cheeseful of keyboard garage pop in which Mark contemplates cutting his dick off because it got him into too much trouble.  The reissue adds a few live cuts as bonus tracks, but so what, who cares, they're not all that worth hearing.  A serious step back from the sound of Hex, but hey, they've got fifty albums, they're allowed a dodgy one or dozen.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hugh Cornwell & Robert Williams - Nosferatu

Nosferatu (1979) **1/2

This is either a 0 or 5 star album depending upon the listener's proloctivities, and thus the average mean of 2.5 is mathematically derived.  Actually, it's not that extreme: pairing with then-Magic Band drummer Robert Williams, Cornwell's first solo effort not so unexpectedly sounds like a self-consciously bizarre cross of the Stranglers and Captain Beefheart.  It's as much Williams' showcase as Cornwell's - though they are Hugh's songs, his rhythmic clatterings help give the album quirky sonic flavoring.  Forget my first sentence - it's pretty accessible compared to most of Beefheart's music.  But what isn't?  This is dark, challenging, and unaccessible music by almost anyone else's standards.  Combining goth atmosopherics and tunecraft (just look at the cover and title - Nosferatu was the name of a silent vampire film classic) with the angular discordance of Beefheart is an ambitious move - and while this album can be an interesting listen, it's not always an enjoyable listen.  This challenging music too often demands more from the listener than repeated listens eventually deliver.

The problem is not so much the sound - which is, after all, what's intriguing here - but the songs, which seem too self-consciously quirky and offbeat (in both the weird and rhythmic sense) to fully work.  On first listen, the only track that stood out in memory was a fair cover of Cream's "White Room,"; but that's because it's the only song here that's even remotely commercial, and was likely thrown on the LP simply to ensure at least some airplay & sales.  Not that there aren't some poppy moments - the closer, "Puppets," is pure electropop, and "Wrong Way Round," is nice'n'sleazy Stranglified pub rock anchored in choppily angular Beefheartesque guitar squiggle.  So you can see how even the poppier numbers have too many discordant edges to go down smoothly; every time you latch onto what resembles a danceable beat, Williams deliberately throws the rhythm off-kilter, and every time Cornwell delivers a smart hook, the hook gets too smart for itself and twists in a contrary direction.  The title track that opens the longplayer may get its hooks jammed too fast but at least it's fast and barely over a minute & a half long, and has the distinction of being perhaps the first (only?) example of Goth No Wave.  "Wired," is even more No Wave-ish with its honkingly atonal saxes and crosswire rhythms, and abjurance of melody - Cornwell plays his vocals for odd rhythms rather than melodics.  The approach isn't so effective on creepy crawlers like "Losers in a Lost Land," and "Big Bug," which seem to stretch on endlessly at their respective 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 minutes.  "Irate Caterpillar," is perhaps the emblematic track, in that there's nice psychedelic pop number inside, if you squint at it hard enough, but so doused up in quirkily discordant Beefheart-isms that you wouldn't notice at first.

Verdict: frustrating.  After repeated listens I've grown to sort of like this album, but I can't in good conscience really recommend it for the average listener.  Certainly not an unsuspecting Stranglers fan, as aside from Cornwell's trademark vocal mannerisms, there's little here resembling his band's more polished and commercial material.  Perhaps some of the weirder tunes on Black and White - imagine an entire album of tracks like "Do You Wanna?" and "Rise of the Robots".  If that prospect sounds appealing, then indulge in this indulgence.  It's easy to see why Cornwell felt that he had to do this album outside of the Stranglers, as the music herein is considerably removed from that band's sound.  An interesting experimental sidetrack to footnote the Stranglers' ouvre.     

The Fall - A Part of America Therein

A Part of America Therein (1982) **

"From the riot torn streets of Manchester, England to the scenic sewers of Chicago," it's another Fall album, and eh, so what. Track listing:

1 The N.W.R.A. Hanley, Scanlon, Smith 10:57
2 Hip Priest Hanley, Riley, Scanlon, Smith 7:58
3 Totally Wired Riley, Scanlon, Smith 4:06
4 Lie Dream of a Casino Soul Hanley, Riley, Scanlon, Smith 2:57
5 Cash 'N' Carry Hanley, Riley, Scanlon, Smith 6:42
6 An Older Lover Hanley, Hanley, Riley, Scanlon, Smith 6:50
7 Deer Park Burns, Riley, Scanlon, Smith 4:30
8 Winter Scanlon, Smith 7:35

Thank you cut & paste from the All Music Guide. As you can see, most of the material is the slower stuff, and that's not good. I love the version of "Totally Wired," on here, though. "Cash 'N' Carry," has Mark changing the lyrics to "C'N'C S Mithering", and is notable for the jibe that there are two types of factories in Manchester, factories that create dead men and a Factory that lives off a dead man. "I think you know what Factory I'm talking about." You see, the Fall's chief rival in late '70s Manchester was another band signed to label called Factory Records, and their lead singer -- oh, forget it, if I have to explain the joke, it's not funny anymore. Anyway, I don't care much for the song selection and it sounds like it was mastered from field recordings from the backstage loo. It is contained in its entirety on a two-fer CD with the extended EP Slates, which is the only reason I'm reviewing it. I mean, I listened to the damn thing, I might as well get a review out of it for my pains.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jean-Jacques Burnel - The Euroman Cometh

The Euroman Cometh (1979) **

JJ recorded this album all by his own self during studio downtime during the Black and White sessions, using a drum machine for to aid his instantly identifiable bass.  The sound is electro post-punk, indebted as much to Kraftwerk and Donna Summer as much as the Stranglers, and is not unappealing - very, very odd and several degrees in weirdness from commerciality.  The songwriting is....uh....not all there, and the album as a whole is, frankly, awful.  But there's enough of a tantalizing bizarreness to bring me back, to render an album full of such silly and unlistenable songs a sometimes agreeable listening experience.  Stranglers fans should probably give this platter a download and a good listen at least once (for godsakes' don't spend any actual money on it) simply for the sheer weirdness of it all.  Most of the songs sound like the rough, underwritten one-man-band studio pissoffs that they were, even if it's clear that JJ's heart was devoted to it, but at least two tracks are triumphs.  "Freddie Laker (Concorde & Eurobus)," towers over everything else here and could pass for a great lost Chairs Missing era Wire single, as Burnel alters his voice electronically to mimic the roar of jet engines in a tribute to the airline magnate of the title.  "Do the European," dances this mess around in a twisted academic treatise of post-modern disco, and isn't quite as good but still a worthwhile track.  The rest is mostly crap like the puerile "Crabs," not so offensive for the VD subject matter but for the puerile simplicity of its a-3-year-old-could-have-written-and-performed-this music.  "Pretty Face," is an unpleasantly frenetic and harmonica-drenched cover of a soul obscurity, and "Triumph (of the Good City)" a novelty instrumental dedicated to the motorcycle of the title, complete with the sampled sounds of it revving up.  A few tracks contain pleasant touches such as the ominous bass line in "Euromess," and the engaging pop melody of "Jellyfish," but not enough to save them from underperformed, underwritten, underbaked, overblown crapstacular status.

I've gotten so far into this review without mentioning the theme and lyrical content, which is the first matter that should grab any listener's interest, as titles like "Euromess," "Do the European," and "Euroman," make clear, as do JJ's singing of one song in German ("Deutchsland Nicht Uber Alles") and another in his native French ("Tout Comprende").  The political concept of pan-European Unionism was simple but ahead of his time, and Burnel self-righteously indulges in his pan-nationalistic Eurochauvinism on this piece of self-indulgent political propaganda.  It's not subtle at all and unshockingly JJ's Euroband did not tour on any North American dates.  Anyway, such a political stance shouldn't be surprising coming from a cosmopolitan hybrid of French & English parentage & loyalties, but devoting an entire album to Europa Uber Alles seems a wee bit over the top.  Like I said, it's worth a listen due to its sheer oddness:  not so much the lyrical content, but the Europeanized very circa 1979 sound that sonically signifies this album as actually unique, as the world doesn't have enough Kraftwerk-influenced post-punk psuedo-disco lo-fi-but-high-tech albums as it needs.  The album has a sort of perverse pull on my earlobes from an intellectual standpoint (neat sounds), but can't stop me from eventually concluding that, aside from two standout tracks, this indeed is pretty awful.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Fall - Hex Enduction Hour

Hex Enduction Hour (1982) ***1/2

There are certain albums that hardcore fans drool over as the ultimato and casual fans are considerably more lukewarm towards and newbies shouldn't approach with a ten foot pole, and this is one of those albums.  Though it contains two of their best-known songs, "The Classical," and "Hip Priest," this is not an accessible album.  Let's review our progress so far, shall we?

Album #1 - punk
Album #2 - gothy post-punk
Album #3 - rockabilly
....and so this, Album #4 - noise rock

An oversimplification, but you get the general drift of the Fall's evolving musical directions.  It's easy to see why hard as cider fans clamor over this clamor, as previous Fall studio efforts didn't approach the density of this attack - finally, an album that seems to capture in the studio the full-bodied assault of the Fall whirlwind live.  Two drummers are in the lineup, and the Fall don't use that extra for fancy showing off, he's there to double up on the beat for a rhythmically denser attack, as the grand opener, "The Classical," clatters with a positively ferocious rhythmic drive that, combined with Scanlon/Riley's industrially clanging guitars used not as leads or even color but as one more arsenal in the rhythm section, slams me up the wall and throws me across the room and back again for good measure.  It may very well indeed be the Fall's finest five minutes and up there with "Janie Jones," as one of the most throat-grabbing opening album cuts ever.  According to legend, "The Classical," cost the Fall a deal with Motown, as thirty seconds in Mark E. shouts from behind a veiled megaphone:

This is the home of the vain!
This is the home of the vain!
Where are the obligatory niggers?
Hey there, fuckface!
Hey there, fuckface!

Hey there yourself, I'm not censoring my Fall reviews, I'm quoting the man exactly as he "sings" (ha ha) it.  Political correctness aside....OK, this probably isn't a case where you can easily put political correctness aside, it's a pretty unsettling rant by any objective standard.  So let's deal with it as it is and move on.  The album is more or less evenly divided between relentlessly noisy rockers and sparse to the point of arid and seemingly go-nowhere ballads, the latter of which "Hip Priest," is the centerpiece of side one.  It's a nearly eight-minute breather smack in the middle, and I was bored with it at first (as I was with all the slow ones on this LP), but I've grown to appreciate this slow-building mock-epic mockery of music journos.  Played at the end of Silence of the Lambs in case you didn't notice (or cared).  The other three raconteurs on side one are all poundingly repetitive blasts of rhythmic noise, none nearly as good as "The Classical," (but oh what song in the universe possibly could be?), and all great, and all a bit too similar to each other, and all carrying a handful of poorly played notes too repetitively for several minutes too long, and oh that glorious cascading wave of decibel intensity V-O-L-U-M-E.  "Winter," and "Winter 2," are two parts of the same song, which had to be split over two separate sides in the days of vinyl, but in the post-vinyl era the split makes no sense.  Anyway, I find it kind of a drag, but there's something there that suggests I might find it interesting if I play it a few more times.  Hasn't worked the dozen or so times I've listened to it over the years yet, but you never know.  "Just Step S'ways," is the simplest and most direct track, a catchy-as-rubella slice of non-noise rock garage psychedelia that was initially my favorite song on this album, but is now merely my second favorite.  Could've should've been a Sonics cover but it's a Fall original.  "Who Makes the Nazis?" about the Fall's experience running into longhorn rednecks touring the American South, and "Iceland," about the country where they recorded this album (yes, the Fall are more or less directly responsible for Bjork, as any cursory listen to the Sugarcubes can verify), are pretty boring go-nowhere slow drags.  Some nice bass work on the former, though, and the latter....nah, I don't feel like listening to it again just so I can find something nice to say about it.  That leaves the ten-minute closer, the horrendous "And This Day," a "Sister Ray"-level trainwreck of tribal beats and noise and repetitive chanting of the title, a track that even hardcore Fall-natics have difficulty defending.

The bonus tracks are a small bit of a tangle, so pay attention.  The initial reissue was a single disc appending the "Look, Know" b/w "I'm Into C.B." single.  That's the one to get, because "Look, Know," is the only bonus track worth hearing - a plodding funk-ish vamp with tinkly piano as a cream-on-crop touch.  "I'm Into C.B." is rockabilly crap.  The second reissue, for some godsunknown reason, omits "Look, Know" but keeps its B-side "I'm Into C.B.," and adds an entire second disc of useless Peel sessions and live tracks.  There are a couple of live versions of songs unrecorded elsewhere (for good reason), the unendurably nine-minute go-nowhere noisefest "Session Musician," and the self-descriptively entitled "Jazzed Up Punk Shit."  None of these are worth your time.  Either get the one that specifically has "Look, Know," on it, or just snag the original CD sans bonus tracks on the cheap.

Gene Clark - Roadmaster

Roadmaster (1972) ***1/2

After a string of commercial failures (if artistic triumphs), Gene Clark was such a commercially dubious proposition that the record company only released this in Holland, because the Dutch were apparently the only countrymen with ears wise enough for White Light to sell like tulips in Dikeland.  It's an uneven album of odds and ends, with material culled from several different sessions over several different years.  The opener, "She's the Kind of Girl," sounds like it was written by the Clark of a decade earlier, as it's the kind of simpler teenbeat fare fit for the Byrds '65 - and it's unsurprising that it is, indeed, an outtake from the Byrds' failed 1973 reunion.  It's delightful Beatlesque folk-pop and gets the album rolling off on a good start.  The next track, "One in a Hundred," had appeared in a more downbeat version on his 1971 solo album, but reappears here in a sprightlier reunified Byrds version; "Full Circle Song," is another Byrds cut, one that would turn up a year later on the Byrds' s/t.  "Here Tonight," and "In a Misty Morning," are pop-country ballads featuring the Flying Burrito Bros. (sans Gram Parsons) as backup band, and are quite good, though the gloop of syrupy strings on "In a Misty Morning," drag it down a bit.  So, the first five songs are fine examples of Clark and his songcraft in strong form, and crucially containing one virtue that White Light lacked - diversity.  From then on the parts that this longplayer was cobbled together from start to creak.  "Rough and Rocky," is a fair Flatt & Scruggs cover, slowed down to mournful soulfulness, but the title track finds Clark in strutting cock-of-the-road posturing, a style that doesn't suit his gentlemanly, taciturn persona at all.  The soggy remake of the classic Byrds B-side, "She Don't Care About Time," slowed down several tempos, doesn't work and comes off as unnecessary padding.  The other three ballads that close off the record are mostly gloopy and forgettable pop-country with strong gospel feels. though they have their lyrical and melodic moments.  Despite its unevenness - unsurprising given the hodgepodge nature of the source material - another solid winner from one of classic rock's most perplexingly underrated singer-songwriters.  Almost as perplexing as how a tune as first-rately Byrdsy as "She's the Kind of Girl," got left off their underwhelming 1973 reunion album.  Why, McGuinn?  Tell me why?  Why?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gene Clark - White Light

White Light (1971) *****

First let me point to the obvious flaw:  all nine of these tracks, with the exception of the sprightly title track, cover the same stylistic ground at a similarly slow pace in an overwhelmingly melancholy mood.  That is to say, this album is a mood piece, and so points should not be deducted for that, as it's one of the landmark LPs of the singer-songwriter movement of the late '60s/early '70s.  Yes, there is a noticable Dylan (John Wesley Harding-era) influence, but who didn't?  Neil Young?  Lou Reed?  John Prine?  Leonard Cohen?  Nope, no overt Dylan influences I can see in those artistes, nada nicht  沒有 ничто zip.  So, those two problems out of the way (it all sounds the same and breaks no innovative ground), what we have is an album of exquisite gorgeousness.  Like all moody mood albums you have to be in the mood for it, and that mood is moody:  Clark's forte is tortoise-paced melancholy pop-country ballads brooding on failed romance, and here you get seven A- to A+ level of'em (I already mentioned the title track as an exception, and the other is a cover of Dylan's "Tears of Rage," that matches/outshines the Band's depending on whether you like the Band at all).  The lyrical contents are generally generalized to abstraction, though it's often pretty clear what he's vaguely paintbrushing at - another failed love affair, eh?  ("With Tomorrow," "Because of You").  So I won't dwell on the lyrics.  The arrangements are sparse but not starkly so, based around Clark's acoustic guitar strummings with substantial fills from organs feeding the warmth; this is a mightily pleasant album to listen to sound-wise.  At nearly five breathtakingly lovely minutes, "For a Spanish Guitar," is sonically the stand-out track with the skilled pluckings of said instrument and lonesome harmonica adding to the aura of lush but stripped-down gorgeousness.  I once recommended this album to a friend who was into Gram Parsons and Nick Drake as a midpoint amalgamating the best of both, and that's a fair summation I might as well stand by.  With the focus squarely on the intimate delivery of his songs and fortunately armed with some of the strongest material in his catalogue, naturally this is the highlight of Clark's career and though a commercial bomb at the time, has gone down in recent MOJO-subscriber reissue-nerd years as a lost five-star classic essential for rediscovery.  And unlike a lot of "lost classics", it really does earn its belatedly feted reputation.

The Fall - Slates

Slates (1981) ****

A six-song 10" EP, under 24 minutes long, that contains all sides of Fallmusic up to that point (punk, prog, rockabilly, pop, noise rock), and every one of those tracks presenting the Fall at their very best; in fact, if this had been a full-length LP, it would have easily ranked as their greatest album, but it isn't, it's an EP, and for once I'm penalizing for length.  Plus the nagging doubt that no Fall release can really rise above the four-star level (which is a pretty darn high level, anyway).  "Middle Mass," starts the slab off on a ploddingly noisy note, as the band stop-starts before shifting to a more melodic bridge halfway through.  "An Older Lover, Etc.," crests on a bass line WAY up in the mix as Mark E. unfolds a tale of romantic betrayal and middle-aging hipsters recalling boring tales of teenage sex in the '60s:

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)
 Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP.

Ah, sorry, that's Philip Larkin, not Mark E. Smith, but he might as well have sung that on this track.  The tension in the track builds with dramatic intensity with one of Smith's best vocal performances (there, I said it), making it possibly the stand-out track on this six-song release.  "Prole Art Threat," is the shortest track at under two minutes, no bridge or even a chorus, just a relentlessly driving monster of a bass attack.  "Fit and Working Again," is a bit of throwaway rockabilly with jangling acoustic guitarisms, but the chorus is tastily memorable - just try getting that catchphrase out of your head once you've heard it.  "Slates, Slags, Etc.," is the noisest and most ferociously punk attack on this disc, and after its six and a half minute assault you get to catch your breath with the catchily guitar-pop ditty, "Leave the Capitol," which is almost smooth (said almost) and melodic pop, of all things, a Fall first.  So if you're totally new to the Fall, I would recommend this as an ideal starting point - it's short and won't take up too much of your time, and covers most of the Fall's bases with consistently top-notch Fallmusic material.

The Fall - Grotesque (After the Gramme)

Grotesque (After the Gramme) (1980) ****

For a lot of people, this is where the classic Fall sound begins, as Mark E. reveals that punk rock was never but rockabilly played really, really fast, as the furious opener, "Pay Your Rates," makes clear with its Gene Vincent after-playing-Pong-for-seven-hours hard and bouncy attack makes clear.  You could say that parts of this sound like '69 era Stones covering the Johnny Cash songbook and you wouldn't be far off (the magnificently jangly "New Face in Hell," is a particularly fine "Street Fighting Man," rip).  But as always they sound like nobody else but the Fall.  With what is now regarded as the classic early Fall lineup in place - Steve Hanley on bass, with Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley on tag-team guitar - there aren't that many particularly low points on this missive, unusual for a Fall LP (or anybody).  "W.M.C. -Blob 59" is a lo-fi experimental waste, but it's less than 90 seconds long, so kwitcherbichen'.  Still, it's lacking a little something - rockabilly can be quite harshly unappealing music, you know? - to truly knock this out of the soccer stadiums as the Fall's shining hour: personally I'd still rate it slightly lower than Dragnet and Witch Trials, even if technically it's better, with more diversity and a brighter, more open sound.  Probably because I'm not too huge a fan of primitivist rockabilly in the first place, and maybe because aside from "C'N'C S Mithering," there isn't a truly knockout track among this porridge of consistency.  But oh, that "Mithering," - it's a nearly eight-minute spoken-word piece undergirded by a bed of basically strummed acoustic guitars and snapping drums.  The way those drums snap! dryly is worth the hypnosis alone; Mark's voice doesn't even enter until a full minute and a half in.  And when it does your ears can't let go:  another rant against the music industry, California and Herb Alpert and some unnamed English group consisting of "four wacky proletarian idiots" are just a few of the targets.  The way that Mark E. sneers, "See ya mate, see ya mate, see ya mate," is the definition of withering contempt.  And the way it ends and suddenly segues into the ultra-speedy rockabilly jangle, "Container Drivers" (truckers) is inspired.  If all the tracks had sounded like "C'N'S Mithering," this would be a five-star effort, no doubt.  But if every track sounded like "Mithering," it wouldn't be a very good album, now would it?  Could you take an entire album of crudely backed spoken word pieces like that?  Nah.  This album marks (ha, no pun intended) a slight change of direction as the vocals and lyrics get pushed more upfront; the other major slow epic on this album, "Impression of J. Temperance," works the same angle - it's no wonder that some early critics first exposed to the Fall via this album referred to their music as beat-poetry readings with crude three-chord backing.  "In the Park," delivers more quoteable punchlines in a dispiritingly funny sex farce as Mark E. declaims, "You thought it'd be great!  You thought it'd be great!  But a good mind does not a good fuck make," and his tryst in the woodlands only goes downhill from there.  The album closes with nine minutes of "The N.W.R.A." which stands for "The North Will Rise Again," a would-be anthem for northern industrial hard men as opposed to those soft southern English fairies.  It shouldn't work at all, with the band out of tune and seemingly only playing the proper notes when they feel like it, and only change up after Mark yells, "Switch!"  But it does, in spite of itself.  Perhaps that's what's lacking in this album - it sounds a bit too loose and off the cuff, as if the band wrote and rehearsed and recorded these songs in a matter of hours.  But that's the Fall for yew.

The bonus tracks this time are loaded up on the front of the album, so if you get the reissue it doesn't start with "Pay Your Rates," but "How I Wrote Elastic Man," a snappy ditty that was originally entitled "How I Wrote Plastic Man," but had to be changed due to some copyright issue (you can still hear Mark singing the original chorus, he didn't change that at all).  "City Hobgoblins," was its B-side and one of my favoritest Fall tunes evah, a charming sub-nursery rhyme about, well, goblins.  "Totally Wired," is another one of the band's key A-sides, a throbbing rockabilly-ish ode to caffeine and god knows what other speedy and more illegal stimulants.  And finally there's that single's B-side, "Putta Block," which sounds like a classic B-side: a totally uncommercial, highly experimental throwaway that would have fit nowhere else but on a B-side and is absolut brill, as the Brits say.

BTW, I almost forgot to mention that this album marks Mark E. Smith's coinage of the term, "Country and Northern," to describe the Fall's music.  Which fits this album perfectly.  This is what you get when you spin a lot of Link Wray records and then play Pac-Man for five hours straight to rack up the highest score on the arcade machine and then waltz off to the garage to meet your mates and try to recreate '50s greaser rock under the influence of some dodgy mushrooms you'd scored from some shifty character you met behind the back of a 7-11.   

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dillard & Clark - Through the Morning, Through the Night

Through the Morning, Through the Night (1969) **1/2

This isn't really a bad album if you lower your expectations to that of a mainstream '60s country record (note I did not say country-rock).  But from Clark we expect better.  One of the problems is that there are only four Gene Clark originals, and of those, only "Polly," is up to his usual darkly-lit standard.  "Corner Street Bar," in which he inexplicably adopts a snooty faux-upper-twit British accent, may indeed be the worst song he's ever written, a dreadfully failed attempt at comic barroom sleaze.  Of the two remaining Clark songs, "Kansas City Southern," is a pretty good mid-beat country song about that traditional country theme, train hoppin', and the title track is soggily maudlin but prettily melodic in Clark's by-then-patented glacially-paced tortured ballad mode.  The rest are shitkicker covers.  There's some shitkicking gospel ("I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy"), some chirpy bluegrass ("Rocky Top"), some maudlin honky-tonk balladry ("Four Walls"), and surprisingly, a cover of Lennon/McCartney's "Don't Let Me Down," that closes off the LP.  It doesn't work, because Clark's shaky vocals lack the gritty aluminum howl of Lennon's, whose vocal hook made half the original song's appeal.  Since there are only four Gene Clark penned tunes and none of those are soul-wrenchingly essential, this is recommended only to Clark completists.  But as luck would have it, this little LP is paired on a two-fer CD with the first Dillard & Clark album, so you get to hear it for free if you pick up Fantastic Expedition.  And if you cherry-pick the good songs from both LPs with the CD programmer, you've got yourself a bonafide four-star Gene Clark album.  The band split shortly after this commercial dud of an album, and so by the next review we rejoin Gene Clark's solo career proper.

The Fall - Totale's Turns (It's Now or Never)

Totale's Turns (It's Now or Never) (1980) ***

"The difference between you and us is that we have brains," Mark E. infamously baits the audience during the brief band-intro before they rip into "Fiery Jack."  The difference I notice is that live the Fall are even more sloppily raw and cacophonous than in the studio, which is to be expected but still saying something: even by Fall standards, stretches of this sound like little more than the musicians banging and crashing into each other while Mark E. rants on top of the free-form noise.  It's a mighty wind, to be sure, but certainly shouldn't be a neophyte's intro the Fall:  the album sounds as cheap and shitty as it looks.  Now this being the Fall those are not necessarily slurs but recommendations.  I said not necessarily; the bloody rawness carries excitement but, yeah, as you might expect some of this can be pretty rough going.  I have no intention of reviewing all of the 50,000 crappy and not-so-crappy live releases of the Fall, legit and semi-legit and completely illegit, but I'll make an exception for this because:

a) It's their first live album
b) For years it was one of the few easily obtainable (that is, obtainable, period) Fall records available in the U.S.
c) It's a pretty good set, even though at that point they only had two albums out, and the band rock out if not live at Leeds at least live at some northern England industrial go-nowhere shithole
d) There are three new studio tracks

The studio tracks come near the end.  "Cary Grant's Wedding," sounds like it could be live, though, it's so under-rehearsed and noisily raw, and this time those aren't compliments.  Much better is 'That Man," the first catchily melodic Fall pop song.  It's an outtake from Dragnet and I can see why it wasn't included, as its sprightly jingle wouldn't have fit onto that dark LP's mood at all; anyway, it's nice to shake hands with it here, and I don't think you can find it anywhere else.  You can even have fun changing the chorus to "Batman, he loves you!"  There's a extremely, extremely, extremely lo-fi home recording of "New Puritan," that literally sounds like Mark E. was recording it while cowering under a toilet.  It's probably not a version I'd like to listen to more than twice, as the more widely available Peel session version is much, much superior, but Fall completists, go for it.   As for the remaining half hour of live rant, I think I already described it, didn't I?  What do you want, a tracklisting?  Aside from the hilarious intro quoted in the first sentence, Top 3 ad lib moments from Mark E.: 

1) "Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah?! Well... don't make a career out of it."
2) "Will you fucking get it together instead of showing off?" Mark yells mid-song during "No Xmas for John Quays," at either the bass player or drummer (maybe both)
3) Mid-way through "Rowche Rumble," he alters the chorus to, "The promoter is a jerk!  The promoter is a jerk!"

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dillard & Clark - Fantastic Expedition

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968) ***1/2

Historically this may be the first country-rock album, but who really cares about that - the style seems to evolved so naturally, from the Byrds' initial ventures into the territory, that it hardly matters and who-got-there-firsts are difficult to pinpoint as so many musicians were working in the style.  Fronting a duo with banjo man Doug Dillard, the album is evenly split between traditional melancholy Clark balladry and more straight-up country songtwangs, and that's the problem:  for every lovely heartbreak as "Train Leaves Here This Morning," (covered enough that it sounds like and deserves to be a standard) there's a shitkicker like the hillbilly gospel stomp, "Git It On Brother," that does absolutely nothing for this small-town slicker 40 years removed from '60s rednecks.  Perhaps I'm not being fair, but music is subjective, and the country songs do less than nothing for me.  That said, the surfeit of excellent songwriting when Clark's in the mood to brood pop-melodically over failed romances (as opposed to kicking the shit or praising jay-zus) allows me to overlook the country leanings.  Yeah, I know, I'm supposed to appreciate those leanings as groundbreaking, but country is simply a genre that Gram Parsons handled a lot better; Clark's forte is pop, most decidedly so.  On the other hand, the countryish songs are the only rousing tunes here; with the exception of the A-side, "Why Not Your Baby," which combines banjos and syrupy strings to slightly odd but pleasant enough effect, the pop songs are all crawling ballads.  "Why Not Your Baby," is the only track that would have fit in the style of his debut solo album, as Clark ventures into more lethargic melancholy territory for many of the other tracks.  Some listeners might fall asleep without getting past the glacial pace of the opener, "Out on the Side," but just bite into the darklit thrummings of the haunted "The Radio Song," which finds Clark driving the backstreets of Memphis on a Kentucky rain night.  Speaking of the Elvii, the album ends with an incongruous cover of "Don't Be Cruel," that doesn't fit in here at all - as a rocker, Clark makes a great country-rocker.  Guitarist Bernie Leadon later went on to help found the Eagles, but don't let this album setting those foundations hold you against it; it's a really good album, better than I've let on so far, as several of Clark's ballads are dash-darn essential.  It's just that several of the hick numbers are just too hicky for me.

Tommy Keene - Ten Years After

Ten Years After (1996) ***1/2

If you're expecting a tribute to Alvin Lee's bloozy classic rock combo, you must not know Keene:  it's yet another power-pop gem that skirts the line between alternative and mainstream rock, though by the mid-'90s an entire generation of Goo Goo Third Gin Blossom Blinds had made the patented Replacements/Keene mid-'80s the mainstream sound.  So don't complain that this sounds generic, kids, give the old man some credit, it's his style, he's entitled to it.  Some of the rockers sound a bit forced, but that's par for course on most late-period Keene albums, and anyway, "Today and Tomorrow," kicks with punchy urgency.  A pair of mid-tempo ballads are the highlights, with the stunning, "Silent Town," one of my favorite all-time Keene tunes, and the moody "Before the Lights Go Down," not far behind:  Keene is always at his best when he's the most rueful and melancholy.  Once again he throws in some alternately wistful and bitter balladry ("If You're Getting Married Tonight," "Your Heart Beats Alone"), though perhaps the country-ish leanings of "You Can't Wait for Time," were a slight - slight - mistake.  The album ends with the band running halfway through the Who's "It's Not True," before shutting off without even bothering to reach the chorus.  The sound is more Happy Times hard and dry rocking than Places jingle-jangling (I know which style I prefer, but oh well).  Another unsurprising album of really good Keene tunes; after such a long absence, it's good to have one of the few pleasures you can rely upon in this world.

The Fall - Dragnet

Dragnet (1979) ****

The Fall's second album steps sideways from the pure punk ravers of the debut for a more grindingly rhythmic attack that is at once more murkily underproduced and feigning towards classic rock stylistics:  "Flat of Angles," slide guitar-fest could almost pass muster as an Exile-era Stones outtake.  The songs are less immediately hooky than the debut, as the emphasis starts to stray more on overall sound:  this one's got a dank, murky, underproduced cellar-dungeon atmosphere to recommend it.  In other words, it's a Fall album in that it sounds like all the other Fall albums except that it sounds uniquely unlike all the other Fall albums.  Lineup changes:  minus Martin Bramah and plus Craig Scanlon, who introduces a more scratchy and clanging style as opposed to Bramah's high-end glass sharding.  More importantly, in steps Steve Hanley on bass, who would provide many an awesome rhythm'n'hook line to Mark E.'s rants for the next couple of decades. 

It's more rhythmic, as I said:  the opener "Psykick Dancehall," would be nearly disco-danceable if not for the lo-fi production and scrappy guitar racket; as such, it's just danceable.  More doomy, too, as tracks like "A Figure Walks," and "Before the Moon Falls," creep along with a lovely dark menace; Mark was right, funny how the power of repetition can make a slow brooder quite hypnotic if treated right.  There are punk ravers, "Printhead," "Dice Man," and "Choc Stock," listed chronologically and in order of quality (funnily enough), less inspired and less of'em than on Witch, but pogo-screech fun enough.  I kept misinterpreting the tribalistic "Muzorewi's Daughter," as "I'm Mussolini's dog-ah!" until I actually glanced at the title.  I still have no idea who Muzorewi is; all I know is, the trick of alternating plodding red injun rhythms on the verses before leaping into fastly, forcefully shouted choruses works darn swell.  "Your Heart Out," is the standout for many listeners, because it's got the prettiest melody, one, but I think that most listeners are fond of it mainly because, two, Mark E. declaims out these self-descriptive lyrics: "I don't sing, I just shout / And all on one note."  But perhaps the centerpiece is "Spectre vs. Rector," a nearly eight-minute experimental piece that starts out as a typical slow Fall plodder before, a few minutes in, disintegrating via tape technology into a splice'n'dice effort: a multi-song suite, if you could call it that, and the first lengthy experimental Fall track.  I'm still not sure if I like it.  The final song, "Put Away," I can't quite remember, probably because it falls unenviably as the followup track to "Spectre vs. Rector".

Oh yeah, there are bonus tracks, a whole extra disc of them, but only four are necessary: "Rowche Rumble," "In My Area," "Fiery Jack," and "Second Dark Age," which I all reviewed on the Early Years comp.  They could have easily found room on Disc 1 for these four bonus tracks, but to justify adding an entire bonus disc, they stretch it out with rehearsal tapes for all of the above four songs.  So, goody, you get not one but five run-throughs of "Rowche Rumble" (one a false start)!  It's called a rip-off, kids. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fall - Live At The Witch Trials

We are the Fall
Northern white crap that talks back
We are not black. Tall.
No boxes for us.
Do not fuck us.
We are frigid stars.
We were spitting, we were snapping "Cop Out, Cop Out!"
as if from heaven.

Live At The Witch Trials (1979) ****1/2

As debut intros go, the spoken word bit that prefaces "Crap Rap 2/Like to Blow," would have been immortalized as the greatest opening lines to a debut album by a great rock band ever, except that "Crap Rap," is actually the second track; the plodding "Frightened," opens this longplayer, the repetitively churning rhythm section thinly thudding under Martin Bramah's translucent high-pitched guitar spitting out fragile glass shards and, of course, Mark E. Smith's characteristic (does he ever change?) sourpuss poetry-chant vocals.  Hearing this album another hundred times again, I decided after all that it's appropriate for this album to start off with a slow one instead of the anthemic statement of raw punk roar and intent that is "Crap Rap".  Eases you in and sets you up, you see?  Wouldn't have been nearly as effective to immediately dash in with a bloody assault of noise.  Repetitively churning well describes the sound of this album.  It's a deliberately ugly sound, the missing link between post-punk and punk proper (but oh, was there ever a need?  Nearly every post-punk band can be described as a "missing link" to punk.)  Recorded in one day and mixed the next, and sounds it, this still manages to somehow come across as more professional and polished than later early Fall releases.  This is entirely relative to the Fall, as they exist in their own private sonic universe; compared to anyone else, it's raw and under not over produced.

As per the typical pattern with each new Fall release, the band playing the music contained inside this container wouldn't exist in this form by the time of the next LP, as members quit/fired due to Mark E. Smith's slaver misanthropy.  So it's the only Fall album where you can taste the glassy guitar sounds of Martin Bramah, whose lack of a buzzsaw attack immediately sets this apart from the punk pack; his plink-plunk little lines when he's creeping around on lead and thin jangly-aggressive strums when he's on rhythm are amateurish-influential on subsequent indie-punk.  Amateurishly influential is an adverb-adjective combo quite fitting for the first Fall LP.  I already mentioned the cement churn of the Mark Riley/Karl Burns rhythm section, so how about the ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-lo-fi keyboards of Yvonne Pawlett's electric piano, which connects the microdots to '60s garage punk and leavens the proceedings with some not unpleasantly musical cheese.  As John Peel described his favorite band, they are always the same and always different:  every track sounds the same in the same sort of style but every track is uniquely different, memorably sounding unlike the rest.

The aftorementioned "Frightened," is one of the slow songs, as is the nearly eight-minute closer, "Music Scene," which is a scabrous attack on guess what.  "Mother-Sister!" appears to be some sort of Freudian neurosis, though Mark intros the track with, "What's this song about?" "Uh....nothin'."  "Two Steps Back," self-referentially states that, "Everybody likes me but they all think I'm crazy," which for once Mark E. Smith connects with me emotionally as a statement I can relate to.  The others are faster ones, some of them even pretty fast, like "Industrial Estate," the simplest punk blast here, with its "Yeah, yeah!" chorus and easy to decipher (nothing to decipher, really) lyrics about living in a polluted urban slum.  "The air in here will fuck up your face!"  The title track is a mighty spoken word piece where Smith proclaims allegiance to the Puritan ethic and non-sympathy for spastics; "We were early, we were late," as the piece segues into another driving raver of a drunken dream, "Futures and Pasts."  "Rebellious Jukebox," leaps out as the most likely to succeed as an A-side, coasting on Bramah's catchiest ringing guitar line, and "No X-Mas for John Quays," (no no-prize for spotting the pun) contains some of the sharpest and funniest lyrics on the LP, with random references to cigarette machines, Frankie Lymon ("tell me wh-Y!"), and the Idle Race.  The Idle Race?  Who else was talking about the Idle Race in 1979?  I haven't mentioned "Underground Medecin," yet.  That's because I don't like it.

This is probably the best Fall album; I don't know, my opinions keep shifting depending.  Just look at the track-listing, it's already got more good songs on it than any Stooges album - "Crap Rap," "Industrial Estate," "Rebellious Jukebox," "No X-Mas for John Quays," ah man, these are freakbeatin' classics.  Still, there's always something a bit too raw and too sloppy and too repetitive in the performance for any Fall album to receive the highest grade.  The ramshackle edges are crucial to the band's stumbling and lurching charm, but also a sort of Achilles' heel.  And I do have to be precisely in the mood if I'm going to take forty minutes of Mark E. Smith's one-note emotional inventory; does he ever display any other mood than sneeringly pissed off?  Ah, screw it, the Fall are great.  The two-disc reissue is one to look out for, as it not only appends nearly half of the songs contained on The Early Years reviewed below, but their first Peel sessions plus an entire concert from 1978.  Quite the catch-ah!

Tommy Keene - Sleeping on a Rollercoaster

Sleeping on a Roller Coaster (1992) ***1/2

The commercial debacles of his two major label LPs must have soured Keene on the music biz, as this 5-song EP was his only release during the eight-year stretch between 1989's Based On Happy Times and his return in 1996 with Ten Years After.  While none of these five songs leap out as eternal Keene klassiks, he yet again releases a consistently excellent selection of tuneful, sparkingly performed songs in the style he'd patented and perfected circa the mid-'80s.  So let's not subtract points for brevity; any five of these tracks would've made fitting additions to any random Keene album at nearly any point in his career.  You have to admire a man who delivers such sonic consistency; like another web reviewer, Scott Floman said of Al Green, he's so consistently good he's almost boring - but no, not really, not boring at all.  Curiously enough, not contained herein is the title track, which wound up on The Real Underground compilation for some inexplicable reason, as stylistically it would have fit in fine (and is slightly better than the other five tracks, but only slightly).  The sound is less unpleasantly dry than on Happy Times, a mid-way point between that LP's more rockist drive and Places' jingle.  "Love is a Dangerous Thing," and "Alive," are driving pop-rockers, the first likely the best choice for a commercial single (which is likely why it's the lead track, eh?).  "Driving Into the Sun," and "Down, Down, Down," shimmer more mid-tempoishly and are somewhat less catchy but fine.  Finally, the less than twenty minute maxi-single concludes with a spacious ballad, "Waiting to Fly," with mild, very mild psychedelic touches as backwards guitars fade the record out.  And there's that.  It's on Matador, so perhaps they could attach this EP as bonus tracks on a reissue of one of the other albums like Ten Years After he recorded for the label.  Till then, enjoy it as a koncentrated dose of killer Keene. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff

Superfuzz Bigmuff (1990) **1/2

Even at the time I realized as a teenager that grunge was little better than the hair metal it putatively replaced, the same old overwrought metallized post-Sabbath sludge dressed up in flannel instead of hairspray.  Mudhoney were infamously the Seattle scenesters that couldn't find mainstream success alongside their peers Soundgarden, Pearl Jam (half of whom had incestously played in the grunge-seminal Green River in the mid-'80s with approximately half of the guys who would form Mudhoney), Nirvana, and Alice in Chains.  They were right there alongside, but instead of Nirvana's not-so-secret melodic pop heart, or the rehashed Led Zeppelin theatrics of GardenJamChains, Mudhoney plainly aimed their aesthetic at the charms of gloriously sloppy garage band Stooge-isms.  So it's not really surprising in retrospect (or then-ro-spect, either) that the Honey didn't click to pick: kids like their rock stars writ large, and the Muds were self-consciously small.   This is music designed for sweaty, beer-soaked clubs, not arenas.  It is identifiably, even stereotypically grungey in the gauzy guitars sludging around dirtily and slovenly, but that's only in past-ro-spect, as the M-H's were coining the cliches.  And it's a nice sound, on the whole, when they get it right.  It's an obnoxious sound, on the whole, when they don't get it right.

Another reason that Mudhoney couldn't have made it to classic rawk FM was that radio programmers and stoned teenagers and collegiate wannabehipsters insist on the fake emotional grandeur, the sensitive snout not-so-hidden underneath the macho bluster, that is classic rockist butter on the bread.  Outright cynicism usually doesn't play well, and sneering contempt is the only emotional range Iggy-shrine vocalist Mark Arm has on offer.  But a sneering contempt for what, exactly?  Well, it seems as is the case with many a modern day hipster, he goes through the ritualized motions of punk without bothering to understand the need for (or understand, period) content.  The only time all the relentless cynical lip-curling focuses on a tangible target it's merely standardized and thereby boring old misogyny ("You Got It (Keep It Outta MyFace") ).  Not that the lyrics would really matter if the band's attitude lived up to their attitude, or if they stumbled across a handy riff or three.  Which is why "Touch Me I'm Sick," their first (and best) single remains a slop-rop classip; lyrically, it's about precisely nothing, but who the fuck cares?  The flipside to that 1988 debut "7 is the almost-as-tasty slidefest, "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More," the title (but not the tune itself) linking the HoneyMuds to the mid-'60s Jagger-Ape Chocolate Watch Band legacy.  There's precious little else here that matches that initial fuzzbomb, with the ringing loud and clear as an exception, "In 'N' Out of Grace," which is not an attempted jingle for a West Coast burger chain but I wish it would be - it's stomping and greasy (yeah, both at the same time, and that's a good thing).  So, in a peanutshell, a garage band is let down not so much by their charmingly sloppy performance but by ridiculously inconsistent songwriting.  There are, like, three wickedly good songs, total, dude.  About on par with the batting average of your average '60s Nuggets one-hit blunders, but it's the '90s - standards for a good hard rock album have risen.

The Plimsouls...Plus

The Plimsouls...Plus (1992) ***1/2

As one-third of the greatest LA power-pop trios to never record a full album, Peter Case contributed one tune ("When You Find Out") to the Nerves' 1976 eponymous four-song EP before the three songwriters/musicians went their separate ways, with Paul Collins forming the Beat ("Rock'n'Roll Girl") and Jack Lee basking in the royalties from Blondie's cover of the Nerves' "Hanging on the Telephone".  Case hooked up with the three Mexican-American Angelenos pictured on the cover of this compilation (not hard to guess which one's Pete) to form a beat combo entitled after the Beatles' sneakers.  Centered around Case's sharp songwriting chops and sharper voice, a distinctive Lennon-ish vox that slices in a not-unpleasant way (Gregg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs would essay a similar style a decade later), and beefed up by guitarist Eddie Munoz's slicily angular guitar riffing that's sharp and trebly cutting to match, the Plimsouls' blend of garage pop-soul has held up well.  This 20-track compilation pads out their eponymous 1981 LP with the 1980 Zero Hour EP, with some outtakes and B-sides thrown in for good measure.

The band fit in snuggly with the skinny-tie post-Knack power-pop crowd of the time but with an R&B grit and soul fire that most of the other whitebread representatives of that ilk lacked, covering "Mini-Skirt Minnie," Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose," and "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," to more perfunctory than exciting effect, though their turbo-charged zoom through the Easybeats' "Woman," is a stroke.  Case's originals make up for a slight lack in melodicism with forceful delivery in vocals and band performance as well as sharp (there's that adjective again) hookcraft.  The likes of "Zero Hour," and "Nickels and Dimes," buzz on the strength Munoz's sour-tart truncated riffage.  The boppy, Marshall Crenshaw-ish "Everyday Things,"; the driving blasts of "Hush, Hush," and "Now," (can't wait, gotta get it on this night, babe); Tom Petty-ish heartland rockers "Lost Time," and "Great Big World,"; and the sprung-from-stone mid-tempo outtake, "Memory," are as well all clear highlights.  An enjoyable if minor classic that'll please fans of the form, in toto.  (Not Kansas, no not anymore.)  The 'Souls, or the Plims as I like to call'em, went on to release a major-label followup that wasn't quite as good, but did score a coup in 1983 with the inclusion of their best song, "A Million Miles Away," (not on this disc, natch) prominently in the teensploitation smash Valley Girl flick where you can witness a very young Nicholas Cage ham it up as badly as the rest of his career, thereby scraping the band a minor hit on the farthest ends of the charts and allowing them to limp on a bit further before the inevitable breakup.  Case went on to a solo career as some sort of folkish singer-songwriter and the band reformed in the early '00s to record a third album, but I've never heard none of that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Magazine - Secondhand Daylight

Secondhand Daylight (1979) ****

Magazine's sophomore LP certainly lives up to its cover: dark, chilly, brooding, desolate, as titles like "Permafrost," and "Rhythm of Cruelty," might clue you in.  Though still much indebted to the style they'd pioneered on Real Life, the band slows down for a more ponderous approach and downplays the rock guitar in favor of Dave Formula's frosty sci-fi synths.  It's a considerably less accessible record than the debut due to the slower pace and subsequent lack of danceable rhythms (not that Magazine were particularly danceable in the first place), and as the way such matters go will be/is/was beloved by their cult and shunted off by the mainstream critics & masses as not quite up to the debut.  The two LPs are a dead heat in my reckoning.  The same problems that plagued the debut are still nettlesome:  chiefly, Devoto's dire singing, which will no doubt turn off 90% of initial listeners but oddly grows on you, even if his most ardent supporters would be loathe to go so far as claim that they love it.  And then there's the Teutonic seriousness that makes Ian Curtis look like a happy-go-lucky lad in comparison, and overinflated operatic melodrama that would make Springsteen blush.  Those last two factors are also crucial aspects of the band's appeal; a happy, bouncy danceable Magazine penning modest little two-and-a-half minute pop jingles is impossible to fathom (at least at this point in Devoto's this space for upcoming developments), and who would desire that in the first place?

The difference between the openers on their first and second albums is telling.  Both started off with a minute or so of instrumental keyboard tunefulness, but whereas "Definitive Gaze," was propulsive and bursting, "Feed the Enemy," stalks a harsh, hollow musicscape with grim foreboding before Devoto unravels his enigmatic tale of survivors of a plane crash in hostile foreign territory.  The lyrical edges are generally sharper and more focused this round than before, as Devoto alternately intones icy detachment and spits sarcastic venom; sex seems to be his (oh so typical) target, as he rails against a lover who's "too damned good looking for your own good," in the aptly titled ode to sadomasochism, "Rhythm of Cruelty," that would pass as musically the choice cut for A-side single if not for the lyrical content.  Elsewhere he rants, "here comes the love of your life..." adding the sarcastic world-weary punchline, "...once again," "another sick monkey with an angelic face," in the punkish raver, "Believe That I Understand."  He boasts on the lyrically most infamous track, the closer, "Permafrost," that he plans to "drug and fuck you on the permafrost," as the band offers icy "In Every Dream Home a Heartache"-derived synth-goth.  The highlight to me however is the two-track stretch that begins with the pretty, Eno-ish instrumental, "The Thin Air," that segues into the nearly 7-minute epic, "Back to Nature," that could almost pass muster as a Lamb Lies Down on Broadway era Genesis cut, with its epic synth-prog majesty mingling with dankly gothic medievalisms. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Magazine - Real Life

Real Life (1978) ****

Abandon all punk all ye who enter here.  After quitting the Buzzcocks after the seminal ("Orgasm Addict") Spiral Scratch EP, singer/lyricist Howard Devoto tilts full shove into art-rock mode:  this sounds more like Genesis on steroids than anything else, with its melo-melo-MELO-dramatic flourishes and smothering weight of synth-heavy keyboards.  A modernist goth Genesis, mind; this is another one of those albums where the music inside more or less accurately reflects the cover.  Better than that, actually, as the cover is pretty amateurishly crappy, isn't it?  Mastermind he may be, Devoto is actually the weak link musically.  His eerie venomous off-key spit suited garage punk to a tee, but on this more melodic fare, his portenteously delivered vocals let down the drama:  it helps to be able to sing when you're being this melodramatic.  Keyboardist Dave Formula dominates, but guitarist John McGeoch (later of Siouxsie & the Banshees and PiL) peels off enough hooky riffs to keep this squarely in the realm of rock not synth-pop, and in post-punk fashion, bassist Barry Adamson has his moodily grunting lines pushed forward in the mix.  Ah, forget what I said, this doesn't sound like Genesis at all unless all keyboard-heavy rock does, that was a lazy comparison:  touchstones are more typical post-punk likes as early Roxy Music and Berlin-era Bowie/Iggy. 

The nine tracks mostly fall into the category of mid-tempo mini-melodramas, with dashes of punky energy.  The lead single and band's most famed track, "Shot By Both Sides," is in fact a recycled Buzzcocks tune co-written with Pete Shelley; the Buzzcocks rewrote it as "Lipstick," and Magazine as this tune, a paranoid bleat of an outsider who gets squeezed from both sides of the ideological/punk gang spectrum and finds himself running "to the outside of everything."  It's simpler, punkier, and more direct than most of the other tracks, and generally the better for it, though it doesn't overshadow the other material:  it's a consistent album of evenly flowing quality and stylistic unity.  "Recoil," is another frenetic punk blast, and the closer, "Parade," also sticks out by virtue of being a ballad, with the hook-chorus line, "Sometimes I forget that we're supposed to be in love."  That icily modernist emotional detachment sets the tone for this debut and pretty much the rest of Magazine's entire career (which would get even icier on the followup LP), whether it's the quirkily cold sci-fi hooks of the opener "Definitive Gaze," or the retelling of the JFK assassination from an omniscient third-party point of view in "Motorcade."  The carnivalistic waltz of "The Great Beautician in the Sky," may come across as a little hokey, but it's followed by perhaps their defining slice of mid-tempo building drama, "The Light Pours Out of Me," which is oddly rousing in a detachedly anthemic way even if I couldn't have the faintest clue of telling you what it's about.  As one of the founding musical cornerstones of that vaguely but easily defined genre known as post-punk, this is only a shade less essential than the first three Wire albums and much more listenable than what John Lydon was pantomiming at the time.  The definitive gaze of this darkly gothic, melodramatic synth-rock works its mope-rock hypnosis compulsively and compellingly.