Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Red Rockers - Good as Gold

Good as Gold (1983) ***

A couple of years and a label change later, the Rockers re-emerge as a totally different sounding band.  No longer even remotely resembling Strummer & Jones, what we hear instead is a collection of smooth, professionally polished power-pop songs with a dark edge.  The opener, "China," must've come as a shock to former fans when laying needle to disc in '83:  what's this, a rousing, bright, shimmering pop song that sparkles like China and shines like Japan?  A deserved hit, but I'm obliged to say, far and away the best song on this 36 minute, 10 song platter.  The rest of the album shifts into less commercial waters:  what I shall refer to as the genre of 'dark pop', with nearly every tune building its melody around a series of minor-chord progressions, giving this series of mostly anthemic rockers a slightly gothic feel.  Vaguely resembling October era U2 with its glidingly echoing guitar tones and vaguely political existentialist anthemic quality, this is mostly a solid, enjoyable early '80s rock album, if only occasionally exceptional.  Except for the attempted dancefloor annoyance, "'Til It All Falls Down," on which they may have aimed at the Talking Heads but bullseyed the Fixx.  Yuch.  "Running Away From You," unsettlingly resembles "White Wedding," though the resemblance to Billy Idol may or may not be coincidental (both came out the same year, and anyway, it's only the bassline intro where the similarities are noticable).  Aside from "China," "Fanfare for Metropolis," is the only other song that rises above the level of merely good to exceptionally good (that is, makes the mixtape as a song I actively want to seek out and hear again):  a starry-eyed small-town boy's awestruck paean to the Big City lights.  Other than those two songs, there's little to get excited about here, but aside from "Til It All Falls Down," little reason to turn it off for, either.  A fairly good little early '80s rock album, and rarely has a three-star rating been more mathematically appropriate. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Red Rockers - Condition Red

We're gonna rock with revolution!

Condition Red (1981) **1/2

As a counterfactual alternative history scenario, imagine if American hardcore punk had followed in the path of the first Clash album instead of Black Flag and the Ramones.  If you are among those (such as myself) who consider the Clash's 1977 debut to consist of the hottest slab of rock'n'roll ever recorded on either side of the Atlantic, then this laughably second-rate, second-hand imitation from the shores of the Gulf Coast will serve as a sneakingly guilty pleasure after you've worn out "Janie Jones," on the 10,000th listen.  New Orleans in 1981 was not London in 1977 by a insufferably long dole queue's stretch, which makes the Red Rocker's protests somewhat rather silly when not frustratingly scattershot and generically vague.  Musically powerful as it might rock, it's hard to get past the laughable poseurdom of "Guns of Revolution," - the idea of an American proletariat rising up in armed revolution against the 1% was as impractical in the early '80s as it would be today, more a product of a juvenile angry young late teen's "fuck the system," fantasies than a practical political program (just ask the MC5 about "guns, dope, and fucking in the streets").  Peaceful protest on Wall Street is one thing; advocating chasing and gunning down rich people, as if America needed a replay of the French Revolution, is quite another.  These Rockers are much more lyrically tolerable when they tackle subjects closer to the actual mean streets, such as the anti-drugs, "Peer Pressure," and the album's poppiest moment, the generically anthemic "Teenage Underground," which is as meaningless as it is rousing.  Of those attempting to tackle issues of greater political import, only "White Law," which tackles a subject that these Deep South whiteboys would possess a heartfelt understanding of, makes much of an impression - but even then, its rhetoric is overblown and overheated.  The heaviosity and intensity of the track make up for it, however, and actually, about half of these dozen tracks possess a white-hot intensity that make up for the revolutionary silliness and Strummer-worship (though pretty-boy lead singer John Griffith is closer to the wimpy Mick Jones vocal style).  The other half - well, don't.  But only on a lame-o cover of "Folsom Prison Blues," (guest hee-haws courtesy Jello Biafra) and the unintentionally self-parodic "Dead Heroes," do they truly get obnoxious.  Oh, and the finale, "Live or Die," which seems to patriotically contradict "Dead Heroes," seriously blows.  One more point in their favor:  as this was 1981 not 1977 and this is American hardcore punk, the Red Rockers are indeed heavier in their assualt than the Clash's brittle bite.  Which is to say that in an objective sense they rock harder but not harder if you know what I grok.

Judge for yourself --

Friday, March 23, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Lullabies to Paralyze

Lullabies to Paralyze (2005) ***1/2

Nick Oliveri is gone due to drug problems/general fucked-upness, and he's missed, not just his barracuda bass throbbing but his manic intensity, goofball humor, and general wild-ass rock'n'roll presence.  Also seriously missed is Dave Grohl, with the drums noticeably thinner and less beefy without the FF mainman on skins.  That said, QOTSA have always been Josh Homme's baby, and the transition of QOTSA into the Josh Homme Experience isn't that jarring:  despite what some disgruntled fans have to gripe, this is not a major step down for the band.  Oh, it's noticably weaker than the previous couple of albums, with a few too many draggy slow crunchers that hang around far too long on the second half, but the first half is more or less killer (the less consisting of the opening "This Lullaby," sung gruffly by Mark Lanegan).  Should I mention that just as on Songs for the Deaf, there is a concept:  Grimm's fairy tales, which you can feel free to ignore, because the concept basically consists of Homme singing half the songs about witches and wolves, with the rest being concerning the perennial hard-rock subject matter of good'ol sex.  The tone is somewhat raunchier, and not just the lyrical subject matter - the guitar tone and overall feel is considerably bluesier (and bloozier), more warmly (and pleasingly) '70s than Deaf's firmly '00s masters-of-technology bludgeoning sheen.  "Burn the Witch," is practically a John Lee Hooker stomp on steroids, and for the first time Homme unleashes a slow number that's not only bearable but one of the album's highlights, the blues-glammy "I Never Came."  The bonafide hit single, "Little Sister," seems born to blast out of muscle-car speakers down the strip cruising the Wal-Mart parking lot for high school chicks, while "In My Head," begs to be the followup A-side as the album's most relentlessly propulsive and simultaneously poppiest number.  But as I said, the band starts to lose its grip on good material around the midway, with a couple too many 7-minute numbers, which while displaying a welcome addiction to psychedelia ("Someone's in the Wolf," "Blood is Love,") unwelcomely display a bog-standard addiction to banal hard rock lyricism ("Skin on Skin") - namely, a previously undisclosed misogynistic streak.  Disappointing in a band that, while never blew me away with their goofball lyrics, at least kept the subject matter non-stereotypically hard rock-ish, and didn't resort to building a chorus around, "I wanna lick it, lick it, lick it too much!"


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Fall - Levitate

Levitate (1997) **1/2

Fan reviews on are all over the place on this, and I can sympathize with both those who rave about this as one of the Fall's best-ever and those one-star reviews that revolt at this as the worst-ever disaster the Fall have ever spat out of the studio.  One thing is for certain, that both the five and one star reviewers can all agree on:  this is one WEIRD album.  The musical backing for most of the album revolves around heavily mixed WAY up-front drum patterns with Mark's filtered vocals weaving in and out of the mix, sometimes at forefront and sometimes barely intelligible behind the beats, and at seemingly random intervals:  this is one of the most bizarrely mixed records I've ever heard, with constantly alternating shifts that make no linear sense - the dramatic shifts in volume control within songs are extremely disconcerting, in a thrilling "test the speakers" way.  Take "Hurricane Edward," for example - for the first three minutes, it's a (relatively) straightforward minimalistic number in which Mark declaims over a repetitive marching drum pattern, until suddenly the entire track breaks down as Mark seemingly abandons the studio, walks across the street, and records the rest of the track from inside a phone booth (for those of you listening to the CD version, your CD is fine - the skipping at the 4:00-4:15 mark is intentionally built into the track).

Why are the songs so sonically all over the place?  The answer is simple.  The credits clearly state, "Produced by Mark E. Smith".  And being Mark E. Smith, apparently he was drunk as a lord and higher than Lemmy during the entire recording process, with no outside produce to edit out his insanity or every half-baked idea.  What wound up on the table is the most sonically interesting Fall album, ever....but let's not kid ourselves, a lot of the experimentation is flaky and half-baked.  Which wouldn't be such a problem is most of the songs were up to snuff.  This would scratch up to a better rating if I hadn't concluded that there was simply too much throwaway filler to make this an acceptable Fall release.  It's not just the goofy covers - "I'm a Mummy," and "Jungle Rock, this time - fans of late-period Fall simply have to grin and bear those.  The whole album has a lazy, tossed-off feel, as if Mark just said to hell with it and went berzerk in the studio, indulging in all his personal whims with the gee-gaws of studio equipment, having his whimsical fun without bothering to put in the work necessary to cohere these musical whims into actual songs to please music listeners.  How else can you explain (or excuse) a track like "Tragic Days," one minute and 29 seconds of lo-fi violin and industrial sawing noises (someone knocks on the door, rustles some piece of paper, and zips a zipper - track ends).  Self-indulgent?  Um, yes.  Oh, I forgot - there are three covers, technically perhaps four, since the Hiroshima eulogy, "I Come and Stand at Your Door," is repeated twice, once with poetry reading, and once as a pretty piano instrumental with the gratuitously racist title, "Jap Kid".

If only all the songs (or even half of them) were as fully developed as "4 1/2 Inch," which sounds like it originated as some simply, bouncy rockabilly tune before Mark E. wrung it through his gleeful kaleidescope.  Go listen to that one, now!  I have helpfully provided the youtube below.  This one track effectively summarizes this album gone right.  Right?  I meant gloriously, messily all gone wrong.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Chords - So Far Away

So Far Away (1980) ***1/2

A band as startingly original as their name, the Chords were actually one of the better bands to emerge from the quixotically brief '79-'80 Mod Revival, and like every single one of those power-pop revivalists, will forever live in the shadows of the Jam and the Jam's modfathers the Who.  Unlike many of their contemporaries, though, the Chords had - at their best - both the songs and the muscle to render those comparisons irrelevant, at least for the duration of their best songs.  This is essentially the first two Jam albums beefed up with a twin-guitar attack that enables the Chords to rock more mightily than all but Paul Weller's very finest tunes.  The Jam never rocked this hard (or one-dimensionally); after The Modern World, the Jam actually didn't do punchy mod rave-ups that often, opting for a thinner, more expressively colored pop sound that owed more to Revolver than My Generation.  So the Chords are 'purer' Mods than the Jam were in 1980; the Jam if the Jam really were the hard punks punching out "Substitute" rewrites that some people mistook the Jam for.  And if you're already sick of the Jam comparisons, well, I'm sorry; every single reviewer who has ever reviewed the Chords' one and only studio album has to, because - have you heard them?  Inexplicably, the singer even goes so far as to mimic Weller's colorless bark (why would anyone want to do that?!).  The good news is that this album is easily better than the first two Jam albums (not the rest of the Jam's output, no no no - I'm not crazy!).  Like I said, the presence of two guitars enables the Chords to punch you in the ears with a sound that corrects the thin production mistakes of Weller's sadly one-guitar lineup:  this rocks as hard as any (non-hardcore) punk band of the era - the Buzzcocks or early Clash wouldn't have been ashamed to sit in this company.

At their best the Chords perform what a great punk band should do:  to make the listener think, for the three minutes that it's flowing through the speakers, that this is the greatest song ever by the greatest band ever.  Of course once the thrill sweats off, the rational mind rejects such a thesis, but while they're on, they're on - singles "Maybe Tomorrow," and the even better followup, "Something's Missing," feel perfect:  as perfect as raw, angry intelligent hard rock gets (which, seeing as that's one of my favorite kinds of music, means as close to perfect as music gets to me).  The title track might even roar mightier, the nearly five-minute epic that takes a more measured pace to arrive at a surgingly bitter chorus, and may stand as the band's signature tune.  And then --

-- and then.....

-- and then.....

....the Chords suffer the same problem the Jam suffered on In the City and This is the Modern World:  for every hit there's a miss.  They even have to pad out the original 12-track album with a pair of covers:  Sam & Dave's "Hold on I'm Coming," raves up excitingly enough, but is unnecessary, as is "She Said, She Said," - the lads do a fine job and it's a highly enjoyable listen (how could it not be?  What a great song!), but by no means replace the original (how could they possibly?!).  More problematic is the banality of such material as "What Are We Going To Do?" and "Breaks My Heart," and....frankly, half the album.  As such, the original 12-track album would likely garner a mere three stars, but an extra half-star is appended due to the appendages of bonus tracks that append contemporaneous singles A's & B's, bringing the total of memorable and exciting songs on the disc to an acceptable dozen or so, more or less.  Less, actually, and I should still not give the CD a particularly high grade, except that as I said when this band gets it all right, it's more than just alright - it's as awesome as stumbling across an undiscovered 1966 Who A-side.  And since occassionally soaring to greatness matters more than sustained goodness that never gets transcendent, this album earns a higher score than many technically "better" albums.

And angry young men these south London mods are.    Like the Jam, the Chords lack a sense of humor, but likewise their fierce righteousness only adds to the intensity of their music.  No time to crack jokes while the British welfare state is crumbling to bricks and mortar around you, eh mate?  Songs like the single, "The British Way of Life," paint as grim and bitter as possible a picture of the land of tea & crumpets & passive-aggression behind a veil of clenched-teeth politeness & civility.  "In My Street," may overdo it with the "we're all potential suicides," chorus and its ultra-cynical portrait of English neighbors that smile in your face and laugh when you fall, but hey - life was pretty miserable back in the pre-Thatcherite U.K., wasn't it?  Not that I was there or anything.  I've only got my info second-hand from the one million late '70s punk era records offering one billion complaints. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Chameleons - Script of the Bridge

Script of the Bridge (1983) ***

This is one BOMBASTIC album.  Big '80s all the way, emphasis on both '80s and big in every way:  cavernous drums booming as the vocalist declaims as if he's Bono hurling from his throne in the heavens, with gushingly oversized heartfelt emotions unheld in check, and the band stroking every angular guitar lick for maximum effect, as the sound washes over the ears with melodramatic intensity.

This is BIG music.

Which, once you've gotten over the arena rock shock of the opening track (the pounding "Don't Fall") and let your ears sink in, can make for an engaging sound: sonically, the textures wash over the ears soaringly enough to justify the band's outsized ambitions.  Arriving on the scene a little too late to be true innovators, the Chamelons (UK in the US, but who cares about whatever lame American band inadvertantly ripped off their name?) take inspiration from a melange of post-punk influnces - U2, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Teardrop Explodes, U2, Joy Division, and U2 - which, in other words, makes them sound like Radiohead circa Pablo Honey or Interpol circa now.  Or in one of my snarkier moods, Simple Minds.  Or the Waterboys, probably, except I've never heard any album by the Waterboys, so what me worry?  Oh, and minus any traces of discernible humor, and minus any such notions as sonic variety.  At an hour's length (not quite the norm in the early '80s; the U.S. import was butchered to fit onto vinyl), this album feels like one big, long track.  There's enough individuality to individual tracks to make some of the songs independently memorable, but yeah - the band employ the same hyper-melodramatic approach that it takes a few listens for those individual tracks to stand out from the hot porridge of boiling intensity.

So I can safely file this away under the second tier of post-punk bands:  while they do have a unique and somewhat enjoyable, well-sculpted sound, after quite a few listens I've yet to recall one truly memorable song on this disc.  Oh, it's not as if I can't stick snatches of verses and chorus lines in my head, but none of the songs rise to the level of exceptional:  nothing here to snip out for the mix-tape.  There are plenty of excellent, even thrilling moments scattered throughout, but that's what I said - bits of brilliant moments.  There's something rather hollow underneath the bombast (as is usual with bombast), like a britely colored, puffy balloon ready to burst.  Not just the huge, cavernous sound, which is full of big holes (mixing the vocals and guitars WAY up at the expense of the bass lines creates a vast distance between all that stuff on top & the drum sound - there's a veritable canyon of emptiness between the vocals/guitars and the drums), but the emotional impact as well.  You get the feeling that the Chameleons are straining for big, deep feeling, and not quite reaching it.  Take the six-minute final track, "View From a Hill," - it mimics the feel of 'gorgeously epic' but it's all surface sheen.  A band crafting the sense of gorgeous and epic out of a fistful of elements without actually managing to create an epically gorgeous song.   As with many second-tier bands, at their best the Chameleons manage to recall the glories of their predecessors while never transcending those influences.


Friday, March 9, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf

Songs for the Deaf (2002) ****

Messago to Josh Homme:  ou-yay are-ay ot-nay unny-fay.  The fake radio station concept isn't nearly as clever as it was the first time around in 1968 (who would've thought up such a concept?  Who, I ask you?  Who?)  Frankly, Homme's sense of humor makes him sound like a douche - you know, the type of smirking douche who would actually use the word 'douche'.  Homophobia is for faggots.  Anyway, the radio broadcasts are easily ignored, but not so Homme's lyrics:  the harder he tries to be clever, the dumber he sounds.    Which I'm not sure is preferable to Nick Oliveri's upfront drug-crazed stoopidity schtick, which apparently is no schtick at all - he genuinely is the drug-crazed lunatic he claims to be on "Six Shooters" (the lone track that flat-out s-u-x, and h-a-r-d) and the opener, "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire," (which does not suck - no, it's pretty exciting).

But who listens to QOTSA for lyrics, man?  The only thing we seasoned listeners and zot-faced tweenagers ask from our hard rock is that it rocks.  And once again, the Queens deliver the goods.  You want heavy?  These boys can give you heavy, and heavier than ever before, because on this album the missing link has invited himself to the drum stool:  Dave Grohl (famous hell, you know).  His monster truck rally drums pound (and do they pound!) the final nail into the mixed metaphor that is QOTSA's modernized Cream.  QOTSA have arguably released their best album ever, and yet.....while the band is tighter, more powerful, heavier, harder, punchier, yadda zinga zooba, it's still a draw with the previous album, as this album has one notable and glaring flaw:

It goes on forever and it all sounds the same.

OK, technically that's two flaws.  And every album these days lasts over an hour (fuck you, CD running length), so maybe kids raised on a steady diet of nothing but hour-length CDs have generationally had their ears rewired to accept such lengths without boredom and monotony.  I, however, have my ears wired so that 22:22 minutes is the scientifically optimal length for side one, before you  switch over to side two.  So maybe that's not a legitimate complaint for Gen Y.  But the monotony of sound?  That is a legitimate gripe.  And see how these two flaws compound each other when combined?  It's like swallowing sleeping pills on top of alcohol.  Anyhow, it's not as if there isn't some variety; but while, "Mosquito Song," is a noticable improvement over their previous ballads (OK, a vast improvement), it comes foolishly as the final song - which does not make the preceding 13 tracks in a row any less monotonous.  Maybe it's the unvarying guitar tone - the exact same problem I have with the New Pornographers (the problem, not the guitar tone).  It's a problem that in particular seems to afflict a few too many bands of our age.  QOTSA try to cover this up with the production trick of dramatic volume shifts (soft, LOUD) but that's annoying more than anything, and besides, PJ Harvey did that to better effect a decade previous.

Now, upon reading this review, one might get the impression that I dislike this album.  Zounds!  (That means, "God's wounds!" in Elizabethan English.  See, that Master's degree study has been useful for something beyond, " 'Twouldest thou likest fries with that, m'lady?")    "No One Knows," pounds away with heavy pop hit single sheen; "First It Giveth," driveth alongeth with a most drivingesteth basso profundo line; "The Sky is Falling," mixes goth-psychedelia with Sabbath crunch most heavenly. "Go With the Flow," "Gonna Leave You," and "Another Love Song," (nice '60s-ish roller rink organ [barely noticable at first] in the background) are just excellent pop-garage-metal numbers, and....well, there are good things to say about most of the tracks, aren't there?  Definitely more hits than misses (90% last time I crunched the numbers at my day job as an accountant for the Jamaican drug trade).  This is more or less as good as hard rock gets in the '00s.  Never mind my bitchin' & quibblin'.

Oh, you say the '00s are over?  Done?  Two years it has been?  My, how time flyeth.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Fall - The Light User Syndrome

The Light User Syndrome (1996) **1/2

The last album actually had me looking forward with enthusiasm to new Fall music.  This album reminds me that I've listened to over twenty albums by the Fall, far more music by any one band than I ever need to hear in my life, and I have no particular desire or need to listen to another note from Mark E. Smith's bandmates.  After some musing, I realized that perhaps the major flaw with this album is the departure of long-time guitarist Craig Scanlon:  there's an uncomfortable hole in this wall of sound, and it's Scanlon's clattery-clangey guitar washes.  The guitar parts on this longplayer are distressingly banal, and having learned nothing from the relatively short'n'snazzy Cerebral Caustic, once again the Fall present us with an album that puts the long in player.  Someone needs to whisper in Mark's tone-deaf ears that any 15 track album that stretches on for over an hour is going to seem like it's a never-ending goes-on-forever endurance-piece.  Even the goofball covers are third-rate, with Smith handing over vocal duties to Mike Bennett's godawful fake country drawl on the Johnny Paycheck cocaine-admonition (he takes the lead on the original "Cheetham Hill," for some likewisely inexplicable reason).  There's a weird juxtaposition of minimalist arrangements and underproduction ("The Ballard of J. Drummer", all marching snare drums & moody background synths), and overblown, overheated bombastic rock performances.  It seems that the Fall are trying to combine their dancey early '90s experimentation with their more traditional garage-guitar sound, and while the approach occasionally works fine enough, it's one shade less than enough for true enjoyability:  this is the roughest and most abrasive album they've recorded since.....well, I was going to say Grotesque, but more like ever.  "Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain," is so ridiculously bass-heavy it's some new sort of sonic achievement - which isn't so far as to say it's an actually good track.  In short:  this album is rough on the ears, even by the Fall's usual standards.  In other words:  newbies, beware.  If you're already a fan, there are about 1/3 of a CD's worth of quality Falltracks, and thus justify purchase for the committed fan ("He Pep!," "Oleano," "DIY Meat,"  and especially the catchy as measles, "Spinetrack").  Oh, and they're back to composing l-o-o-o-n-g songs again:  "Interlude/Chinilist," succeeds despite the seven minute running time (maybe because it's three songs squooshed together as one long track), but the ridiculous "Coliseum," stretches out to an insane eight minutes without ever altering its basic disco groove, or even building up to a chorus.  Repetition, repetition, repitition, blows, blows, blows.