Album Review: 45 Grave – Pick Your Poison

Way back in 1981, a bunch of L.A. scenesters put together a compilation album called Hell Comes to Your House. The now-rare (I have a copy!) punk/proto-goth/death-rock LP featured tracks by eleven local acts, none of whom had made the big time at that point. To modern audiences, the most familiar names on the record would be Social Distortion and the teenage Red Cross (facing legal action, the latter would soon change their spelling to Redd Kross). All of the acts – save one – got one or two cuts on the record. But an outfit called 45 Grave got three.

Though musically informed and influenced to some degree by the hardcore scene, 45 Grave’s music owes as much to The Doors and early XTC. While the vocals of Dinah Cancer (not her, um, Christian name, natch) bear the influence of such crooners as John Lydon, there’s a melodic sensibility on the three tracks – two midtempo and one speedy – that suggested big things might be in store for 45 Grave.

Depending on how one defines “big,” that’s what happened: the group released a pair of highly-regarded (but not massively unit-shifting) LPs and broke up by the mid 1980s.

At the risk of torturing a theme, here’s an update: 45 Grave is back from the dead, and just in time for Halloween. Cancer (born Mary Sims) has put together a new lineup of the band. And while none of her original bandmates are present, Frank Agnew, the guitarist from another early 80s punk sensation (The Adolescents) is wielding his bloody axe. Released on a variety of formats (including lovely clear yellow vinyl), Pick Your Poison serves up ten tracks that are easily worthy of the band’s legacy.

Equal parts garage rock (with tight and taut playing throughout) and SoCal swagger, Pick Your Poison is no lunkheaded punk. Yes, the lyrical themes remain what one might expect; the titles alone tell the tale: “Night of the Demons,” “Highway 666.” But there’s a winking sense of humor that sets these tunes apart from, say, the he-actually-meant-it 80s work of Roky Erickson. The rubbery bass and chugging rhythm guitar of “Night of the Demon” provide superb backing for a shout-along song perfect for a Halloween party. The rhythm section of Brandden Blackwell (bass) and Tom Coyne (drums) ably supports the songs, keeping the emphasis on swinging, propulsive music. And since both Agnew and Blackwell sing backing/harmony, there’s a stronger vocal presence throughout Pick Your Poison than on many albums of this type.

“Child of Fear” displays a subtle approach, with doomy church bells and picked guitar figures, showing that goth-rock need not be full-throttle to be effective. “Akira” even serves up some funk-metal, and the band manages the feat of venturing outside their pigeonhole and making it work extremely well. And “A Desert Dream” is an impressionistic instrumental built around a jangly piano and slide guitar; it, too, is unexpected within the context of a goth-rock outfit. But on Pick Your Poison, the new aggregation of 45 Grave seems intent on showing they can’t be fenced in.

“Lucky 214” chugs along like Judas Priest, but without the arena-rock trappings, and with a tantalizingly brief piano bridge that sounds like 45 Grave have been listening to Quadrophenia lately. The trumpet-led outro also recalls The Who.

“Johnny” is a honky-tonk romp; at this point it’s hard to call such tunes stylistic departures, because 45 Grave are all over the place on Pick Your Poison. If their brand of cowpoke ballad sounds more like what The Blues Brothers had to play to survive at their chicken-wire gig, so be it. The band’s undercurrent of snarky humor is always present; in contrast to Sex Pistols, 45 Grave’s motto could well be, “We don’t mean it, man.”

The final track on Pick Your Poison is perhaps the most uncharacteristic track on a varied album. Featuring a horn section that sounds a bit like early Oingo Boingo, perhaps the title “Winds of Change” hints at the point of the whole exercise. The catchy song also features a stinging Agnew guitar solo. No word if the Miles Davis credited on trumpet is some sort of from-the-grave in-joke.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.