Archive for the ‘punk’ Category

Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

Television
It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Hundred-word Reviews: Reissues

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Those CDs continue to pile up here at Musoscribe World Headquarters. And even after I cull the unsolicited or semi-solicited ones that don’t make the cut for coverage, I still end up with more music than I can possibly cover in the depth of detail I’d like (and that they deserve). So occasionally – and more often of late – I schedule a group of hundred-word capsule reviews in which I endeavor to hit the high points. All of these are worth your time. Toady’s batch are all reissues of older releases, several of which are somewhat rare.


Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys – Albion Doo-Wah
This little-known outfit was initially championed by no less a luminary than Jimi Hendrix, who produced their debut album. This, their second, was no more successful in the marketplace, but it remains an interesting listen. From the opening track, “Riff Raff” onward, the band leans in a city-headed-country rock direction, with the results sounding like some cross between The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble and The Band. Some of the truly deep-fried tracks like “Turkish Taffy” are only partially successful, but the genre hybridization of “Boonville Massacre” still sounds delightfully fresh and appealing forty years later.


Mason Williams – The Mason Williams Ear Show
Like the above title, this is the second of two Real Gone Music reissues by a mostly (and unjustly) forgotten artist. Released a mere nine months after The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, this album very much continues in a similar musical vein (how could it not?). For many artists, such a rush-release schedule wold result in an album full of half-baked, tossed-off tunes, but it would appear that Williams was a prolific composer of quality material. Like the last record, this one is full of eclectic mainstream pop Americana (though in its formal sense rather than its 21st century one).


Surf Punks – Locals Only
Neither the best nor the worst of its kind, this album is a reasonably successful amalgam of comedy rock and surf music. The titles tell you the story: “No Fat Chicks,” “Born to Surf,” “Spoiled Brats from Malibu.” It’s fun enough, and with the principals’ connection to Captain and Tennille (drummer/composer/producer) Dennis Dragon is the brother of “Captain” Daryl Dragon) one can be all but certain that there’s a commercial appeal to these bratty tracks. And there is; it’s more revved-up garage rock (with party trappings) than anything approaching punk. A welcome dose of 80s nostalgia.


The Alabama Stare Troupers – Road Show
A curio from the anything-goes early 1970s. An all-star (sic) lineup takes to the road – presaging Bob Dylan‘s Rolling Thunder Revue – and one show is documented as a tour souvenir. Don Nix (his Living by the Days was also reissued) rounded up country bluesman Furry Lewis and vocalist Jeanie Green plus assorted musicians and a choir. The result 2LP didn’t sell like hotcakes. But Furry Lewis – who gets half of the first CD – is in fine form, and the full-band tracks – sounding very much like The Band with a choir – are soulful and enjoyable.


The Lords of the New Church – Is Nothing Sacred?
Give this CD five seconds of your time, and you’ll say “1983.” But “Dance With Me” – the most well-known track from the Gothic rock band led by former Dead Boys singer/guitarist Stiv Bators – still sounds great. Sure, it’s more than a little reminiscent of Duran Duran, The Church and Billy Idol, but this foursome – with punk veterans from The Damned, Sham 69 and The Barracudas – earned their punk/new wave cred honestly. Two other Lords studio albums – their 1982 debut (their best) and 1984′s The Method to Our Madness – have also gotten reissue.

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Hundred-word Reviews: DVDs

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Reviewing DVDs takes more time than albums, since when previewing them, I can’t do much else than sit there and watch. So it takes me awhile to get to DVDs. Thanks to the recent snowpocalypse/snowmageddon/your choice of silly weather epithet, I’ve had some time to curl up in front of the TV with a nice scotch and a critical mindset. So here you go.

Lou Reed Tribute (3DVD)
This is actually a repackaging of three titles already available. The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou is reviewed here. The Velvet Underground Under Review is a very good overview of both the band’s career arc and its influence. It is marred only by dreadfully monotone narration, quite unusual for a title from the usually reliable Sexy Intellectual. And Punk Revolution: NYC Part One is also lively and informative. It fails only in its deceptive characterization of Debbie Harry as a newcomer to music; one guesses her stint in art-folk band Wind in the Willows didn’t fit the punk narrative.

Song of the South: Duane Allman & the Rise of The Allman Brothers Band
Though unfortunately named after a controversial Disney film – one guesses the British producers are unaware of this – it is nonetheless an excellent look at Duane Allman and his music. Remarkably, it includes music clips form his early project that are not found on the sprawling, essential Skydog CD compilation. The film – via commentaries from authorities including the always-sharp Mark Segal-Kemp – points out how The Allmans effectively beat The Grateful Dead at their own game for awhile there. This DVD is one of the best of its kind, from an outfit that gets better with each release.

Here’s Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection (4DVD)
This is a real gem, viewed from several viewpoints. It showcases the talents of an all-around female entertainer, hosting her own TV show, at a time when such a thing was unusual, to say the least. But for me, its greatest value is as a video time capsule of American mass popular culture on the eve of The Beatles‘ conquest of our shores. An early skit with Dick Shawn pokes fun at hip culture in a way that makes you embarrassed for both of them, but it accurately reflects how things were. The included commercials only heighten the entertainment value.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
While not a perfect film – a few areas of the band’s history are left curiously unexamined, and the Ken Burns video effect is a tired visual device – this documentary film remains essential viewing. Dubbed “the definitive story of the greatest band that never made it,” from where I’m standing that’s no hyperbole. Paired with an excellent soundtrack, this film tells the story better than one might expect, owing to the fact that there’s surprisingly little documentation on the band. I cried several times when I first saw this film; the music is moving, and so is this DVD.

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Clearing the Backlog: Ten Micro-reviews

Friday, December 6th, 2013

As the end of 2013 closes in, I look at my inbox and see a massive stack of CDs. Best as I try, I don’t always follow a first-in/first-out policy with regard to covering releases I find worthy. And while my occasional capsule reviews do help reduce the pile of CD on my desk, today I realize that more drastic measure are necessary. Each of the following albums deserves more space than I’m about to give, but waiting until I have time and space would likely mean that some never get covered at all. So instead, I give you some exceedingly brief (50-word) reviews, with the additional comment applicable to all: these are worth hearing. All feature new music for 2013.

Pete Anderson – Birds Above Guitarland
Loping electrified blues with feeling. Tasty electric guitar licks (hints of c&w among the blooze) with soulful, greasy backing by a crack team, compete with horn section and Wurlitzer electric piano (almost always a good thing). Anderson can sing, too. Delaney and Bonnie‘s daughter Bekka Bramlett guests on one track.

Nathan Angelo – Out of the Blue
Neo-soul, Motown revival…whatever you care to label it, the funky sounds of Angelo’s debut are fetching indeed. Album opener “Get Back” (not the Beatles classic) is perhaps little more than a rewrite of The Jackson 5ive‘s “I Want You Back,” but it’s still fun. For fans of Mayer Hawthorne.

Chris Biesterfeldt – Urban Mandolin
I’m all in favor of outside-the-box musical approaches. And I believe this one certainly qualifies: a jazz trio led by a mandolin player. He charges his way through reinventions from among the best – Charlie Parker bebop, the soul-jazz of Jimmy Smith, the fusion of Chick Corea, even Frank Zappa.

The Bottle Kids – Such a Thrill
This isn’t a “they,” it’s “him.” Eric Blakely is the latest in a long line of powerpop do-it-all auteurs, and he knows his way around a Beatlesque hook. Harmonies meet guitar crunch and the result is as good as the genre gets. He sounds like a “them.”

Hickoids – Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit
The title has nothing to do with Harry Chapin (the king of maudlin), thank goodness. Instead, this is a comedy-leaning meat’n'potatoes rock album. Jeff Smith roars while the band spits out licks behind him. The production is on the homespun side, but that fits the loose vibe of the music.

The Nomads – Solna (Loaded Deluxe Edition)
Who would have ever predicted that in the 21st century, uncompromising punk rock would be made by middle aged guys? Guys from Sweden, no less, the land of ABBA. Anyone who digs no-bullshit rock (see: Smithereens, Sex Pistols) will get a charge out of this. It’s also available on vinyl.

Third of Never – Downrising
Arena-sized riff rockage with soaring harmonies and fret buzz, but without all the trappings of strutting rock-star poseurs. Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds) does this outfit as a side project. Kindred spirits Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (The ‘Oo) guest, but it’s great at its core anyway.

Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders – 14th & Nowhere
Familiar chord progressions delivered in a spirited, barroom-brawl country-rock style. Fifteen songs, zero bullshit. Sample/representative song title: “Small Town Rock Ain’t Dead.” Guitars, guitars and more guitars (and hardly any keyboards). Earle Mankey pops up on banjo(!) Infectious and fun, this will delight fans of Jason & the Scorchers.

Vegas With Randolph – Rings Around the Sun
In reviewing their last album (Above the Blue) I made comparisons to Fountains of Wayne; this time out VWR have asserted a bit more of their own identity. It’s still catchy, intelligent and slightly adventurous powerpop, with a slightly harder edge. Maybe the Seattle recording studio helped conjure that vibe.

Steve Weinstein – Last Free Man
Reading the press kit I learned that Weinstein is both a philosopher and physicist, and that the album includes protests against our modern surveillance society. None of which I found especially appetizing propositions, so I was surprised to find a tuneful, friendly album in an earnest, heartland Tom Petty mode.

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Album Review: Various Artists — CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

When endeavoring to judge the merits of a soundtrack album, there’s always the quandary of what measure to use. Should one judge it on the merits, strictly as a thematic collection of songs? Or measure it as an audio companion to the film?

With regard to CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, I’m going with the former. There are two reasons for this. The first is practical: I haven’t seen the film yet (it premieres in New York City tonight). The second is more subjective: I like the disc a lot, but suspect it works far better viewed as a collection than as an adjunct to the film.

Twenty songs on a single disc means that CBGB gives good value for the money. And the selections are – almost without fail – uniformly excellent, both thematically and just-plain musically. Now, some of the artists on this set never got anywhere near the famed Bowery club, and if they did, it wouldn’t have been called CBGB then, anyway. Since the club opened in 1973, The Count Five (responsible ofr the classic nugget “Psychotic Reaction”), the (original) Stooges (1969′s sonic barbed wire of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”), and The Velvet Underground (“I Can’t Stand It”) all folded too soon to experience the glories of the club’s notoriously filthy restroom. But the aesthetic of all thee bands – in turns, garagepunkpsych, dark proto-alternarock and anarchic punk – is wholly in line with the outsider sensibilities the club engendered.

CBGB plays much like the various entries in Rhino’s 1990s DIY series, most notably Blank Generation: The New York Scene (1975-78). Surveying as it does a host of NYC bands (and/or bands associated with the city’s nascent punk/new wave scene), CBGB serves as a tidy sampler of the various styles of music showcased at the club. And drawing from the original versions means that listeners aren’t subject to something odd and potentially displeasing, like, say Stana Katic (who’s otherwise quite lovely) singing in Genya Ravan‘s stead. (Apologies to Val Kilmer).

There are, natually some serious omissions. No New York Dolls? How did that happen? (It’s probably own to licensing.) No Suicide? That one’s a little tougher to figure. And what exactly The Police (“Roxanne”) are doing here besides adding some non-punk hit value is also a tough question to answer (Joan Jett might have made a bit more sense).

But such arguments are mere quibbling. Taken as a bunch of songs, CBGB is a fun, nostalgic listen. No, MC5 don’t really fit in here – they rocked way too hard; only Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” comes close to that level of intensity here – but there’s rarely a time when “Kick Out the Jams” isn’t welcome. Also welcome is Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers‘ reading of “California Sun,” one of the lesser-heard tracks on this set. At just a shade over an hour, you’ll likely be surprised how quickly it blows by.

A pair of modern-day tracks are admittedly relevant yet odd. The production values on a 2013 re-recording of Blondie‘s “Sunday Girl” feel a little too modern to fit seamlessly, though Debbie Harry‘s voice seems more intact that you might’ve guessed. And CBGB club owner Hilly Kristal gets the last word with a ditty called “Birds and the Bees,” recorded way back in…2005. As far as his singing and songwriting abilities, let’s just say that Kristal was an important club owner. On the upside, weighing Kristal’s presence reminds us that Joey Ramone (“I Get Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Back Up)”) was a better singer than he often got credit for.

With those DIY discs long out of print, CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is a concise sampler of the late 70s NYC musical scene., and for that alone it’s worth picking up.

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Album Review: The Monochrome Set — Volume, Contrast, Brilliance

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Note: be sure to read all the way through; there’s a new Monochrome Set DVD reviewed as well.

The Monochrome Set were one of those bands who never broke stateside. Though they enjoyed critical and (limited) commercial success in their native England, in the USA they were all but unknown. With a sort that seemed like a cross between early XTC and The Jam with a cafe society vibe, in some ways they’re the musical missing link between Paul Weller‘s first group and his Style Council releases.

But of course Weller had nothing to do with the Monchrome Set. Led by the one-named Bid (on vocals and guitar) and ably backed by the cleverly-monickered Lester Square on lead guitar plus drummer J. D. Haney and bassist Jeremy Harrington (the latter was replaced in 1980 by Andrew Warren), the band played a unique set of songs (all composed by Bid solo or with various bandmates) that remain stylistically difficult topin down. There are hints of dub, ska, punk, new wave, no wave…you name it. Ansd Bid’s laid-back vocal style adds a romantic, devil-may-care air to all of the songs, regardless of the style in which they’re played.

Volume, Contrast, Brilliance…Sessions & Singles Vol. 1 (there would never be a second volume) collected odds and ends form the group’s heyday (1978 through 1981, with a few stray tracks from 1986). Originally issued in 1991 on Cherry Red, the album is now the latest in high-quality, vinyl-only releases form UK-based Optic Nerve. A splendid purple-blue vinyl LP encased in a sturdy sleeve, the reissue also includes a lovely three-color poster depicting the album’s cover art.

The album bookends many of the radio tracks with brief intros and radio interviews that show the band’s sense of humor (check out some of the song titles, such as “Silicon Carne”), and the fact that radio programmers often didn’t know what to make of them.

Perhaps the finest track on the set – both musically and lyrically – is “The Ruling Class,” from a Do It radio program session in 1981; here the band sound a bit like Jazz Butcher. “Viva Death Row” is oddly reminscent of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns at their most rickety, crossed with the danceable white funk of Gang of Four. Decidedly uncommercial-sounding, The Monochrome Set are nonetheless intriguing and often fun.

But wait, there’s more!
That a Monochrome Set live visual document should even exist is a surprise; even more so that said video captures the group in one of its few American performances. Dating from early in the band’s career, the newly-released M-80 DVD shows the original lineup onstage at a “new wave” music festival in Minneapolis MN. With only about a half dozen songs in common with Volume, Contrast, Brilliance, this DVD includes an enure 18-song set in pretty good audio quality.

That’s the good news, however. The images (which I’m pretty sure were originally shot on black-and-white video rather than film) look as if they were downloaded off of YouTube. Pixelated and blurry, the video is watchable, but not much more than that. And the band adopts a jaded attitude onstage: they play at top speed, but Bid and his mates affect a bored vibe throughout. The contrast between high-speed, off-key playing and monotone, off-key singing might have been tres cool in 1979, but watching it on this poor quality video, it’s none too exciting. In particular, Jeremy Harrington’s pulsing bass work is rendered flat here, though that may be down to the audio mix rather than his playing. Regardless, M-80‘s existence is more than justified by its rarity. Just know that you’ve been warned.

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Iggy in ’80

Monday, August 26th, 2013

It was 1980. I was all of sixteen, and enrolled in a private high school that had only gone co-ed the year before I started 9th grade. I lived in the white-bread suburbs of North Atlanta, and my idea of going to “the city” was getting my Dad (or one of my friends’ dads) to drop us off at the mall where we’d catch a MARTA bus into Buckhead. Now, Buckhead wasn’t (and isn’t) the city-proper; in those days it was a conglomeration of high-end shopping malls, restaurants, stately older homes, and Oz Records.

No points if you guessed that Oz was our favorite (read: only) Buckhead destination. This large record store not only had a great selection, it was equipped with a used department; there I scored copies of relatively recent titles such as Wings at the Speed of Sound and Gary Wright‘s Dream Weaver for not much more than $2 or $3. And they had bootlegs, too…but that’s another story.

Point being, really, that I lived a safe, somewhat provincial life. One semi-edgy thing that I did do was spend study hall or free period with some of my good friends (usually Randy, David and/or Eddie – how’s that for a bunch of suburban-sounding names?), listening to albums we’d each bring from home. We’d check a portable phonograph out from the school library, and take it down to the breezeway (the classroom buildings were sort of built on stilts), find an outlet and spend an hour or so spinning new music. Those times would be my first exposure to groups like The Psychedelic Furs (they had just released their first – and best – LP) along with some true “outsider” acts and titles. While I’d as often as not bring something along the lines of a George Harrison LP, my friends would turn me onto things like Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music, Half Japanese, The Residents and other decidedly uncommercial offerings.

So when my friend and classmate Randy suggested I go with him to an upcoming concert, I knew it would be pretty well outside my frame of musical reference. To that point, I had only been to a few concerts, most notable among them my very first: Electric Light Orchestra in October 1978. (Yes, that was the spaceship/hamburger bun tour. Pretty cool.) This show would be taking place at a (then and now) legendary club in midtown called 688. The artist in question would be doing a five- or six-day residency, and while 688 was most definitely a bar (and a punk one at that), this residency was to include a special “teen night.” So we could get in on this no-alcohol club date.

So having convinced my parents that we’d be safe, I went to the local record store (“S.E.A.T.S. Outlet”) and bought my ticket to see…Iggy Pop. Now, I had never heard The Stooges, nor any of Iggy’ subsequent work, so Randy set about schooling me. He brought in the Bomp Records green vinyl Kill City, and I thought, well, wow. This is some pretty abrasive, angry stuff. Then he played me Iggy’s then-current album, Soldier. That was a little easier to take, I thought. I think Randy might have brought in and played The Stooges, but I am sure he didn’t turn me onto Fun House.

Having heard these records, I felt reasonably confident that I knew what I was in for.

I was wrong.

Monday, September 15. We arrived at 688 when it was still light outside. The area around the lonely, dingy white concrete block building at 688 Spring Street looked like a fairly dangerous place to be once night fell, so as soon as the doors opened, in we went. The place was dark and pretty decrepit. There was a bar near the back of the smallish room, but as I recall it wasn’t open, even for sodas and such. There was no snack bar.

The stage was no more than two or three feet higher than the main floor. And it was no larger (and in fact probably smaller) than the stage I recalled from my old elementary school’s cafeteria. The ceiling was pretty low, too. So while I had very little prior concert exposure, I could see that this would be a different experience. Unlike the Omni sports arena or Fabulous Fox Theatre, there were no seats! We’d have to stand the whole show.

I did notice that on the right-hand side of the stage, someone had scrawled in large, crude black lettering the entire setlist. A few of the song titles looked familiar: “Search and Destroy” from Raw Power, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun.” (As it happened, Iggy’s set list would remain on that wall, enshrined for history, as long as 688 remained open.)

A little while after the supposed official start time, the band came out. While I didn’t know (much less appreciate) it at the time, I would later learn that the bassist on the tour was Glen Matlock, most well known as the man who was kicked out of the Sex Pistols in favor of non-musician Sid Vicious. I don’t recall even knowing who the other players were.

And there’s a good reason for that: when Iggy Pop hit the stage, everything else became secondary. Almost immediately, he stripped down to bikini briefs and socks. I laughed (to myself; I didn’t want to get beaten up by some hardcore fan) as I noticed that they were a matched set: lavender with what looked like little crescent moons or some other pattern on them. I wasn’t about to get close enough to find out for sure.

Iggy grabbed the mic in that Iggy way of his, and roared into it, “Anybody got any drugs?” I didn’t know what to think; was he joking?

He was not, and the crowd did not mistake his request for a joke. From all directions, hands extended toward him, offering all manner of illicit substances. He received all of them, consumed them all on the spot, and then the show started.

I’d like to be able to recount the evening’s details from this point on, but I was so unnerved by what I had just witnessed that the rest of the evening went by in a blur. I do recall that it was very loud, that Iggy jumped into the audience several times, and that every few minutes an audience member would storm the stage, only to be violently manhandled by bouncers back into the crowd. Iggy didn’t do anything that involved broken glass or peanut butter.

I suppose I enjoyed the show. But more importantly perhaps, I think I realized that I had witnessed something historic. I saved my ticket stub (I still have it) and on the way out, I pulled the black-and-white concert poster off of the grimy wall. Some thirty-three years later, it is framed and proudly displayed on my living room wall.

I’d return to 688 a number of times in subsequent years (once I turned eighteen). Some of the more memorable shows I witnessed included LMNOP and Alex Chilton. When I saw the latter, there was a sort of nerdy guy standing next to me in the crowd, wearing an FFA jacket. I stared at him for a moment, and finally worked up the courage to ask him: “Are you Mike Mills?” The bass player for R.E.M. said yes. But while that was cool, nothing would really compare to the experience of seeing Iggy Pop on that stage in his socks and undies, singing to us teenagers that he wanted to be our dog.

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Album Review: The Vibrators – On the Guest List

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

One argument that’s endlessly trotted out is that 70s punk rock – especially the UK version of it – was a musical reaction to the self-important, overblown pomposity of much of that era’s arena rock. And while there’s an element of truth to that argument, many of the punk wave’s best acts were unafraid to take a hint or two from what was good about what had come before. Joe Strummer‘s pre-Clash group The 101ers, for example, sounded a lot like Star Club-era Beatles. And Billy Idol‘s first group Generation X went so far as to wear their influences on their (torn) sleeves, with tracks like “Your Generation” (I mean, c’mon) and a cover of John Lennon‘s “Gimme Some Truth.”

Along with groups like The Stranglers, the direct yet melodic side of UK punk included The Vibrators. While the original lineup lasted just over three years (1976-1980), they turned out some catchy tunes, and had fun doing it. Several members reunited a few years later, and released a string of albums. Now in 2013, two of the original lineup (singer/guitarist Knox and drummer Eddie) are joined by two other ace players, plus former Vibrator Pat Collier behind the production console, for a new release titled On the Guest List. And – this is the part that makes the album especially notable – a long list of friends and associates drop by to lend a hand.

Such endeavors can go one of two ways. Oftentimes when a band brings in a lengthy guest list, it’s a slightly pathetic bid for relevance. “I’m still here,” it often screams. But when – as with On the Guest List – the songs on offer are a mix of thirteen high quality new tunes alongside a trio of remakes, that’s a good sign.

The funny thing is, these songs don’t really seem to even need the guests, impressive though they are. Whether it’s MC5‘s Wayne Kramer on “Prisoner in the Mirror,” Ty Segall on “Automatic Lover” or The Vibrators’ old pal Chris Spedding on “2nd Skin,” the end result still sounds like nothing else but the Vibrators.

And that’s just fine. Buzzsaw guitars are joined by singalong choruses led by the gruff Knox. The production style is clean and straightforward, befitting these grandfathers of the punk scene. No keyboards but lots (and lots and lots) of guitar is what listeners will find within On the Guest List. That list includes members of other key acts from the late 70s: Die Toten Hosen, The Dictators, U.K. Subs and the aforementioned Stranglers), and the resulting collection offers winning cuts like “Baby Baby” and the rife-with-riffage “Birdland is Closed.” And “Rock ‘N’ Roll Clown” shows that The Vibrators can do country-influenced rock as well as, say, The Blasters if they wanna. (Dash Rip Rock‘s Bill Davis helps out.) Unsafe at any speed, “The Ohio” careens wildly, as does a remake of early single “Whips and Furs.”

Fans of punk and of straight-ahead rock are advised to get On the Guest List. Recommended.

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Album Review: Hymn for Her Presents Lucy and Wayne’s Smokin’ Flames

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Rock’n'roll doesn’t have a long list of successful male-female duets; at least not ones that, y’know, rock. Other traditions have done well with the duet format: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, the one-off Frank and Nancy Sinatra duet, and others. But when it comes to hard-driving rocking, there just haven’t been many of note. Perhaps the best of the sixties was Jefferson Airplane‘s Marty Balin and Grace Slick. Try as I might, I can’t think of a single rocking duet act from the 70s (and no, Donny and Marie Osmond do not count). In the 80s we were fortunate to have John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X.

And it’s that last duo who spring immediately to mind when I hear Lucy and Wayne’s Smokin’ Flames, the new album by Hymn for Her. The comparison isn’t perfect: Hymn for Her lean in more of a cowboy country direction than X did, but this music is pretty compelling, strong stuff.

The arrangements are quite spare; the songs were all performed live to the recorder. And the instrumentation echoes another well-known male-female outfit, The White Stripes. But the dozen songs on Lucy and Wayne’s Smokin’ Flames rock with malevolent glee in a way that Jack and Meg White didn’t always achieve, and – more importantly – when I listen to these tracks, I don’t think to myself, “Boy, this act could really benefit from a bass player, and maybe even a keyboardist.” In fact, the instrumentation – wiry acoustic guitar, distorted electric guitar, and lots and lots of foot stomps – serves these songs in such a good way that embellishing them further would take away from their power.

On “Trash the Sun,” the duo engage in spoken dialogue, but Lucy Tight‘s vocals are run through a processor that makes them sound like an old land-line telephone. The lyrical nod to David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity” is clever in the extreme. Some of the tracks are manic blues numbers (“Rosa Parks Blvd”) and others evoke a windswept, southwestern desert vibe (“Landescape”). Rarely has a two-piece achieved so much emotion-laden musical texture with such basic instrumentation.

Tight and partner Wayne Waxing have a clear love (and facility) for wordplay: witness the title “Lucy Fur” (say it out loud and fast if you don’t get it). And while the music provides the backdrop for the lyrics, the music itself is interesting enough that one can ignore the words at will.

Just when you start thinking it’s going to be one nonstop hell-in-a-bucket ride, the duo switch gear and deliver the lilting, fragile “Burn This.” And while I’m generally not a fan of the banjo, “Dark Deeds” – which sports an intro that features that instrument plus slide guitar – is quite effective, due in no small part to the loose-limbed duet vocals.

The disc ends with a left-turn: the torchy “Passion,” a number that spotlights the sultry, sexy vocals of Lucy Tight. When the song ends, you may be tempted to sit quietly for a moment to allow it all to soak in. Then, after a suitable pause, play the whole thing again.

This album was crowd-funded using a Kickstarter program; that platform is rapidly becoming a viable means for financing all manner of creative projects (more related news on that in this blog very soon). An then right out of left field we have a tie-in product, a hot sauce concocted by the duo plus some Orlando friends. Based on a recipe that includes bananas(!), jalapeños and paprika, it’s unusual (to say the least) but delightful for those who like that sort of thing (and I do). It delivers quite a kick, which means that it pairs nicely with the music on Hymn for Her Presents Lucy and Wayne’s Smokin’ Flames.

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Album Review: The Scenics – Dead Man Walks Down Bayview

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

I don’t pretend to know much (or anything) about the Toronto music scene. But I feel safe in my assertion that The Scenics aren’t typical of whatever it sounds like. With a country-punk vibe that owes as much to Johnny Cash as to The Replacements, The Scenics are in fact a highly-regarded punk band that have been active since the 1970s. Wedding a ramshackle jangle and melodic songs to a punk aesthetic, the group ends up with a singular sound not especially redolent of few others act I could name. But fans of Mekons will delight in finding a few similarities and a compatible sensibility.

When – as on the oddly-titled (and decidedly NSFW) “A Fox, Her Fur, and Where She Parks It” – the band ostensibly aims for a tender, romantic vibe, the result is equal parts that and something vaguely sinister and disturbing. But then “When You Come Around” feels like a Paisley Underground update of The Byrds, albeit with more, er, uncommercial-sounding lead vocals. Speaking of commercialism, the group’s sturdiest tunes evoke memories of when The Velvet Underground attempted (quite successfully, as it would happen; see Loaded) to craft pop music. But just when things start to sound a bit like the aforementioned pop music, the band takes a turn toward dissonance, with jagged guitar lines and a woozy, slightly off-kilter beat, with buzzing guitars and clattering drums. And the songs – like “Growing Pains” – are all the better for it.

It’s manic psychobilly time for “No Sleep,” which feels like a cross between Jason and the Scorchers and The Damned. “O Boy” takes a similar approach, putting creamy harmonies behind a much less refined lead vocal; the two textures play off one another nicely. The story-song “I Can’t Be Careful” is reminiscent of “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” (VU’s Loaded again). As it happens, The Scenics are serious Velvets fans, having gone so far as to release the live collection How Does it Feel to Be Loved: The Scenics Play the Velvet Underground in 2008. The group has clearly learned from the Velvets’ approach, and applied those lessons to their own original material.

The production style on Dead Man Walks Down Bayview is free of artifice, as close (one suspects) as the group to come to an accurate document of their onstage sound. (By the way, after a 26-year break from live performance, the band returned to the stage starting in 2009.)

Both guitarists – Andy Meyers and Ken Badger – write the songs, and each guitarist takes the lead vocal on his own material. Some listeners may find Badger’s guttural vocals a bit harder to take, but his compelling and oblique lyrics make sticking with it a worthwhile effort most of the time. (Though you earn a merit badge of some sort of you can endure all nearly nine minutes of “The Farmer.”)  Meyers’ vocals are much more conventionally pleasing; one suspects he’s more involved in vocal harmonies as they occur.

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