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

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 for 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, naturally some serious omissions. No New York Dolls? How did that happen? (It’s probably down 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 (queen of the cover version 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 Thunders 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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