Terrorists - Forces 1977-1982 (CD review) (ROIR): This week in inappropriate band names and CD-reissues: NYC's Terrorists, with a collection of 'ol time rock-steady, reggae, dub and ska as only a group of white city kids could have recorded it. That's a lame joke on my part because this is the real deal, authentic to the last detail. Lee "Scratch" Perry was impressed enough to produce and appear live with the band, and The Skatalites' Roland Alphonso lends his sax to a few numbers.
Terrorists latched onto the style two years before the advent of the UK 2-Tone movement and were probably the first American band of its type. These 21 tracks cover the range of their career, and what strikes me most is the consistency in both songwriting and recording. The live tracks are crystal clear. The early tracks deal more in dub while the later ones nod in the direction of the (to be) commercial sound of Bob Marley and mid-paced feel of The Specials.
The literature mentions Terrorists as being punky but all I hear is a faithful rendering of source materials. Operation Ivy these guys ain't. Terrorists managed to be interesting while not turning their backs on a style that often seemed to be insisting on chugging along to keep people on the dance floor all night. All in all, Forces 1977-1982 is a very good CD with endless small rewards.
Tetes Noires - self-titled (LP review) (Rapunzel): A throwback to 1983, when Cyndi Lauper made the world safe for whimsical women. This Minneapolis group of six "black heads" sang everything from a cappella to pop to playground ditties. It might help to think of a nuttier version of The Roches. I caught them by accident in DC and was blown away by their harmonies and humor. 1983 was the tail end of a more whimsical time when eccentric was cool and people took themselves a lot less seriously than they do now.
In ‘84 they released a full-length, American Dream, which was fun if not totally cohesive. It does contain the best female vocals I've ever heard. When Jennifer Holt belts out in "Moonie", "Selling his wares in the chain of Sears stores/Selling their souls on the streets like whores" you'll wonder what conspiracy has kept her out from the spotlight. In ‘87 they released Clay Foot Gods and that was that. Tetes Noires may have been more of a fun project than a real band, and some of their shtick hasn't aged that well, but man, what a time that was when anything went and minds were open to new and fun things. They named their drum machine Barbie.
The The - Soul Mining (LP review) (Epic/Some Bizarre): This was given to me when it came out in 1984 but I wasn't into it at the time. Maybe The The was too popular with the shallowest end of the new wave pool, or maybe Matt Johnson's crooning and studio-entrenched arrangements left me cold. I always liked Flash and The Pan, so that's the brand of hypocrisy I buy. It's fourteen years later and The The is a vague memory in the public's eye. Listening to this you can tell it's the work of a single talented performer who knows his way around a recording studio and all the instruments within. It has the detached, disjointed quality found in most such endeavors. There's something to be said for the human interaction of a real band that creates the soul of a recording. You listen to this and think, "Wow, Matt Johnson sure is a talented technician and musician", but that's about it. Much of the popular electronic new wave of the early ‘80s had that same feeling, which years later makes the genre appear to be the work of enlightened amateurs. Maybe that's who they were.
Side Two of the album is pure crap filler. Side One has the hits "I've Been Waiting For Tomorrow (All My Life)", "This Is The Day", "Uncertain Smile" and "The Sinking Feeling". The strategy was to dazzle 'em all at once, and it works. There's no need to change sides or skip over bad songs to get to the good. There was a dance the new wave posers danced that I call the new wave two-step. I think you can see it in the movie The Wedding Singer. It's a simple motion of twisting your body and swinging your arms back and forth. It’s as original as Billy Idol's sneer. Anyways, you can easily dance the new wave two-step to The The. "I've Been Waiting..." reminds me of Bowie's "Modern Love", and the guitar on "Uncertain Smile" of the Red Rockers. The good songs are good and the bad songs really stink.
Thee Headcoats - The Kids Are All Square // Thee Headcoatees - Girlsville (2 LPs on 1 CD review) (Damaged Goods): Billy Childish (Bill Hamper is his real name) is a low-fi-garage-psychedelic legend who’s been releasing a parade of discs since 1979 under the names Pop Rivets, The Milkshakes, Billy Childish, The Black Hands, Thee Headcoats, Thee Headcoatees, Mighty Caesars and The Singing Loins (I'm probably leaving a few out). In 1984 The Milkshakes released seven albums (!!??). Collecting Billy Childish is a full-time job and an obsession almost equal to Billy's need to recreate 60's garage down to the smallest detail. He records in mono and probably uses period instruments and recording facilities.
The UK's great Damaged Goods label has combined a Headcoats LP from 1990 with the Headcoatees' 1991 debut album (I'm told it’s Thee Headcoatees' girlfriends singing in front of the guys). If you like the esoteric genre of garage punk this release will float your boat all the way to Tuna Town. Like much of the genre, many of the songs are a combination of four other songs, The Kink's "You Really Got Me", The Kingmen's It’s well conceived and executed, and can I recommend this to everyone. The lyrical gimmicks of "Poccahontas Was Her Name" and "Nanook Of The North", and the subtext of a secret desire to create national dance crazes, is re-created so perfectly this stuff is beyond faithful tribute - Billy's traveled back to the future do what comes naturally. It's some of the roots of punk and also cool on its own. Put this on and your friends will think you're the most knowledgeable hipster-doofus in town. Rocking Beatnik Hippies - diggit, man! Yeah!
They Might Be Giants - Then: The Early Years (CD review) (Restless): If you wait long enough, every record by your favorite old band will be released on CD with a booklet and rare bonus tracks. This kills the collector’s market for vinyl but I say live for today. In the new wave ‘70s it was common to release 7”s with alternative tracks and non-LP B-sides. Elvis Costello, XTC and Kate Bush are prime examples of performers who with every album was also good for another half-dozen songs on 7” & 12” vinyl. A recording act since 1985, They Might Be Giants (TMBG) carried on this fine tradition better than most. Hailing from beautiful downtown Brooklyn , John Flansburgh and John Linnel record pop songs that go way beyond generic quirky. They’ve been compared to everyone from Spike Jones to The Residents, yet even though TMBG may borrow from others the final products are gems of original juxtaposition. Restless Records re-released the first two albums (They Might Be Giants & Lincoln) plus 35 tracks from EPs and their Dial-A-Song service (a cheap answering machine that played a new song every day).
With each new release TMBG has slowly moved away from short, clever songs to a polished sound more in line with Ween. Their influences in ‘85 seem to have been REM (50%), The Residents (30%), Weird Al (15%), and XTC (5%). REM made it big as leaders of the post-new wave indie-folk movement, and TMBG’s first hit, “Don’t Let’s Start”, has that alternative acoustic guitar sound down cold. From the Residents they derived a healthy sense of Dada. The Residents were influenced by Captain Beefheart and Zappa, but TMBGs took from the Residents their electronic minimalism and use of found instruments. Where the Residents deconstruct American music, TMBG filter everything through a child’s funhouse mirror. (after I wrote this I found the following in the CD’s booklet, “…to create a unique recording by using a wide array of arrangement strategies. Influenced by The Residents, and other groups working outside the “live band” sound, we created the “rhythm section” of the band from a variety of sources: the Moog synthesizer, an abandoned drum kit, Music Minus One-type records, tape loops and embryonic versions of drum machines designed to accompany lounge acts.” "Fake Out In Buenos Aires" (and especially "Fingertips" from Apollo 18) could have come off the Residents’ Commercial Album.
Weird Al Yankovic is a silly man who plays the accordion and isn’t afraid to polka. TMBG play the accordion and aren’t afraid to play everything from c&w polka to German beer hall drinking songs (“Hope I Get Old Before I Die”). XTC was the most quirky of the clever bands of the ‘70s. Elvis Costello were Joe Jackson were more witty and insightful, but only XTC could get away with the line “Don’t lose your temper cause I love you when you’re wild”. TNBG lyrics are dada in that they are often collages of nonsense elements. From “Absolutely Bill’s Mood” - “I was born in a lighthouse, my mother was the sea/I crawled to school each morning, when it occurred to me/That life’s just a mood ring we’re not allowed to see”. This was also different from William Burrough’s “Cut & Paste” method so well utilized by David Bowie, which literally meant taking beat poetry, cutting out the lines with a scissors and rearranging them in almost random order. TMBG lyrics are devoid of introspection, the cornerstone of beat poetry (and some of the best early punk music).
The songs on Then: The early Years show a band who would do well playing kid’s parties (yikes did this turn out to be true later on). Disc two even has a recording of real schoolchildren singing “Particle Man”. TMBG are an excellent band who pack into each song a healthy portion of pop hooks, wonderful weirdness and silly lyrics you can’t help but sing in the shower. The albums Apollo 18 and Flood followed, both highly recommend. After that, as John and John took advantage of a full band and longer songs. At that point I lost interest. Buy their early recordings and rest assured you done good. Listen to the later ones for free at a used CD store, then decide for yourself.
They Might Be Giants - Flood (CD review) (Elektra): After 92's Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants decided they were really Ween. A larger band led to longer songs, and the results were more self-indulgent and less fun. Flood is, uh, flooded with gems and more proof they could make a mint writing kid’s music. Every song on Floodis catchy and hysterical, especially "Minimum Wage", one of those "what the hell was that!" exercises in dada that makes life worth living. A mature, fully realized work yet charming and silly too.
They Might Be Giants - Mink Car (CD review) (Restless): It's been five years since TMBG's last studio release, the thoroughly underwhelming Factory Showroom. Mink Car is better, and besides a few songs that cater to the hipster doofus impulse of Beck fans this is a great record. A little editing and I'll be listening to this often.
TMBG aren't a kazoo and accordion band anymore but it's reassuring to know they still have some quirky, eclectic DNA left over from their force of personality era that seems a million years ago. The two Johns have more in common with XTC than is generally acknowledged, and four songs on Mink Car ("Bangs", "Another First Kiss", "Hovering Sombreros" and "Finished With Lies") remind me of XTC's modern & comfortable approach to their material. I scored ten tracks as worthy of comparison to great old TMBG songs, while "Mr. Xcitement", "Yeah Yeah" and "Wicked Little Critta" are a bit too Beck. Cigar bars and Vegas, baby! I'd throw in "Man It's So Loud In Here" with this last bunch if the New Order riffs didn't work so well as parody. They also performed it beautifully on Conan O'Brien’s show.
Besides being very clever songwriters, John and John seemingly tackle each song from an entirely different angle. Instrumentation, tuning and attitude change with each song, and no two are remotely the same. My favorite tracks are "She Thinks She's Edith Head", "Bangs" (great bass lines), "Cyclops Rock" (Zappa would be proud), "My Man" (great keyboard effects) and "I've Got A Fang" (even though it almost turns to poop in the middle). Four songs of the seventeen are too trendy for me. Mink Car is great otherwise, and if you think Beck is cool, 1) that's too bad, and 2) this CD will be the greatest thing to happen to you since they started selling chicken and rice on a stick.
Tin Machine Live - Oy Vey, Baby (CD review) (Victory): Oh god does this stink! David Bowie in a bar band. I would have paid a whole week’s allowance to see one of these shows, just to be literally ten feet away from Mr. Jones, but the material really, really stinks. It’s rockin' bar blues with Bowie trying to mutate Lodger and The Man Who Sold The World. It’s indulgent, slow, long ("Heaven's In Here" is 12:05 minutes!) and David's great crooner's voice is bent out of shape by the material. One day Bowie will claim it was an evil clone who played in Tin Machine. Or that it was the drugs (no, he's used that one too many times before). Oh, I'm sure he'll think of something.
Toots & The Maytals - Monkey Man (CD review) (House of Reggae): Toots is great, second only to Bob Marley in my book. Toots smoothly made the transition from 60's Jamaican ska to the slower, more political reggae. He performed with the legendary Prince Buster, for Jimminy’s sake! I believe reggae would never have happened if not for pot, but that's besides the point. Toots had the best sense of melody of all the old ska bands. He wrote "Pressure Drop" and "Sweet & Dandy", the latter the happiest ska or reggae song ever etched into vinyl, and way too short at 2:59. The middle should be extended until every last person on the dance floor falls unconscious from exhaustion. This collection is from ‘68-‘70 and also includes the original version of "Monkey Man", played at 33 1/3 to The Special's supercharged 78 rpm. If you like ska but don't own any of the original Jamaican ska, don't waste your money on crappy ska comps that get old quick. Start with all things Toots and work backwards from there.
Peter Tosh with Mick Jagger - (You Got To Walk And) Don't Look Back (7" review) (Rolling Stones Records): One of the true legends of reggae, in 1962 Tosh joined with Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley to form The Wailers. He left in 1973 to record his own mountain of material, much of it rasta-political. His 1976 debut album, Legalize It, gave Jamaica an early battle hymn to decriminalize the wacky tabacky. Impressed by Tosh's convictions and live shows, Mick Jagger signed him as the first (and I think only) non-Rolling Stones act to appear on the Rolling Stones label. To help grease the wheels for acceptance by radio, the UK, America and therefore the world, Tosh and Jagger recorded the single "(You Got To Walk And) Don't Look Back" as a duet. On the sleeve you can catch Jagger do his chicken walk with Tosh and the inimitable rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar.
The single was popular when released in 1978 but because of Jagger's involvement it's not taken as seriously in reggae circles. It accomplished its goals commercially but wasn't that much more than a novelty. This is too bad because it's a pleasant song and Mick for his part doesn't chew the scenery.
Jamaican security forces nearly beat Peter Tosh to death three times for his activism against the government. That's a lot more than once, I'll say that. In 1978 he was killed in a robbery attempt by an old acquaintance. Some say he was assassinated by the government in a frame-up paralleling the slaying of Malcolm X, a figure with whom he is sometimes equated. I doubt Jamaica had the ability to manufacture assassins a la Lee Harvey Oswald.. They barely knew how to make a phone work.
Peter Tosh was quite the wordsmith, if you find Christopher Come-Rob-Us (Columbus) and political S—t stems (systems) clever plays on words. His personal style was infamously confrontational, therefore his nickname of the "stepping razor" (also my favorite Peter Tosh song). He died with ten children, no will, and most of his money stolen by shady characters. You know that's gotta suck.
Translator - Heartbeats And Triggers (LP review) (415): Here's an underrated ‘80s band who deserve further consideration. Forming in 1979, Translator was a new wave band in the folk rock/psychedelic tradition. They were contemporaries of Red Rockers and Wire Train - other bands that deserve a second listen. If you ever get a chance to see the video for "Sleeping Snakes", please do. Images of war and suffering flash across the screen with shocking urgency. It’s a companion piece to Devo’s “beautiful World”. "Everywhere That I'm Not" was the single from this 1982 album. The next year they released No Time Like Now with the single "Un-Alone". 1985 brought Translator to a new wave scene now firmly entrenched in wimpy dance pap by Culture Club and Duran Duran. In ‘86 they released Evening Of The Harvest and then broke up.
The All-Music Guide gets it wrong when they claim Translator was heavily influenced by The Beatles. How can I be sure? I wrote an e-mail to lead singer/songwriter Steve Barton and asked him. He lives in San Francisco and recently performed under the name Translator. Maybe there's room in modern nostalgia for great bands like Translator. Here's Steve's e-mail. He seems like a really nice guy:
"The Beatles were certainly a constant with us, although I agree that our records don't reflect that. Only in that we always tried to make each album different than the one that came before it, a la The Beatles. Around the time of "Heartbeats And Triggers", the first album, I was listening to lots of music - including Beethoven's late string quartets, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and old Eno records. That LP was recorded very quickly in San Francisco. The basic music was recorded at our rehearsal studio. That was the producer David Kahne's idea, and a very good idea it was! It was great for us to be in a familiar environment for our first record. The second album we spent much more time on - we were touring a lot then - but still hearing tons of bands from being on the road. I tended then, and still now, to gravitate towards English Rock and Roll. My current faves are P.J. Harvey and Blur. We recorded two more albums, bur sort of lost our direction. Rather than sort that out and continue on, we split up. Translator was an experience that is quite emotional for me. It's actually beyond words (not to sound corny...) My debut solo record will be out in early 1999. That's it for now."
UB40 - Labour Of Love (LP review) (A&M): I love reggae but only for twenty minutes at a time. Drugs might help, or at least make it harder for me to get up and put on something else. UB40 are my second favorite reggae band, after Bob Marley, but this 1983 album of cover tunes, followed in ‘89 and ‘98 by more of the same, turned them into a novelty act seemingly desperate to please, especially since the lyrics of their own songs were politically topical.
"UB40" isn't how one rasta tells another rasta how old he is - it's the reference number on a British unemployment benefit card. When they formed in 1978, four were classmates and all were unemployed. Their first six months were spent in a basement, learning instruments they'd never played before. The instruments were bought with settlement money singer Ali Campbell received after a bar fight. They caught on quick and released an amazing single ("King"/"Food For Thought") in 1980 while touring with The Pretenders. Being a mixed race political band, they easily tapped into the pool of 2-Tone fans whose bands were performing a slow fade from relevance.
Labour Of Love (alternative titles, Please Like Us and Bills To Pay) was a deliberate attempt to crack the American market. Their cover of Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine" rose to #1 in the UK and brought them to the attention of every party-hearty numbnut in the US who loved something exotic as long as it wasn't totally new and different. If you compare their earlier records to this one, it's obvious how big UB40 sold out. In its own way, this is Hooked on Reggae. Their cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross" is at best cute, with its keyboard and drum machin, while Delroy Wilson's "Johnny Too Bad" is barely dusted off. The original is much better.
At this point UB40 became studio musicians for hire, hooking up with everyone from Herb Alpert to Robert Palmer, issuing the occasional improbable cover song ("I Got You Babe" and "Can't Help Falling In Love With You") and album. I envision a small box ad in a songwriter's magazine that reads "Will record your song for $500!!!" If you want to hear something great from UB40, pick up 1980-83, a greatest hits package released the same year as Labour Of Love.
- Ha! Ha! Ha! (CD review): An unexpected
blast from left field,
kicked major post-punk booty in 1977 on their second album while punk was still
Ha! Ha! Ha!
is a far departure from the glam rock and melodic constructions of
Ha! Ha! Ha! probably didn't sell well only because their audience was primed and
ready for Roxy Music+, not loud fast rules. Joy Division fans have long pointed
demos as the band's punk experiment. Few know it, but Ultravox kept up with them
step for step on Ha! Ha! Ha! (both sessions were from 1977).
What drives Ha! Ha! Ha! is a pounding Boogie Woogie pub rock feel and chaotic walls of noise. It's like Jools Holland arranged most of the songs but never bothered to record his keyboard parts. The walls of noise are part Velvet Underground, part No Wave. Together it's manic and quite danceable.
On a few tracks you get a whiff of "Sleepwalk" from their fourth record, which is a great riff to use when needed. The few mid-paced tunes end with an added panicked intensity as if making up for lost time. "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is the best known song from the album, and its lushness did set the tone for their future works. At this point Ultravox is not yet a synth band by any means. They beat the crap out of standard instruments while using keyboards mostly for harsh drones and pounding rhythms.
They have their Eno moments but Ha!Ha!Ha! is not a pretty record (as in weak). It's a great punk record more people should know about. This ain't your puffy shirt new romance crap here, folks. This is great noise you can pogo to till dawn.
Ultravox - Vienna (LP review) (Chrysalis): This is the only Ultravox album I've heard, but it has all their hits I remember from when electronic new wave was pretty cool. This was before Boy George, Duran Duran and other pretty boys in puffy shirts fluttered in as disco gasped its last (carried on as new romance and more recently resurrected as techno, industrial and rave). Ultravox is credited as a direct influence on new romance but at least on Vienna there's not a disco riff to be whiffed. There were more abrasive electronic albums you could say came from the punk spirit, but Ultravox utilized a live drummer, Billy Currie on violin, a viola alternated between beauty and harshness with distinct appropriateness, and the guitar solos more often than not bordered on anger.
The first Ultravox album was released in 1977 with John Foxx up front. 1980's Vienna was their fourth album, with Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon replaced by Midge Ure, once of The Rich Kids. The popular songs at the time from this album were "Sleepwalk", "Vienna" and "All Stood Still". When the mood was right on the floor to move only slightly to a noire beat, the needle hit on "Mr. X". Listening to the entire album again for the first time in years I'm amazed how well each track has held up, maybe even improved. A Roxy Music influence is quite distinct. Currie's work on the strings and piano are neo-classical and breathtaking in their scope.
Ultravox is Gary Numan and The Human League with warmth and humanity. The 1984 Stranglers album Feline seems to be homage to Vienna. As a whole the album is a modern classical soundtrack to a romantic world in decline. Good shtuff.
U2 - Boy (LP review) (Island): When this first album came out in 1980 Rolling Stone's review said it was the work of teenage boys. I scoffed at the time, but listening to this again I have to agree. Very talented boys, but boys still the same. Boys obsessed with being boys just short of the line in the sand drawn by Depeche Mode. What to make of the line "In the shadows, boy meets man", the album title Boy and the song "Stories For Boys"? The album opens with "I Will Follow", their first hit and an evergreen new wave classic. The Edge was probably the most talented new wave guitarist, weaving intricate, distinctive riffs without cock-rock grandstanding. Unlike most new wave bands at that time, U2 didn't record much danceable music. "Out Of Control" is great until the middle, when all of a sudden it downshifts into lofty, spacey atmospherics. I never liked when songs did that because at a new wave club everyone went from dancing to utter confusion: should you try to do a different dance or stand there and not look embarrassed? Bono likes to say he thought he was punk for about a minute. Oh, please - a very short minute. I hear in "The Ocean" an attempt to honor the Velvet Underground, but their big inspiration might really be The Police, who (especially in concert) weren't afraid to use short silences to create atmosphere. While bands filled their songs with as much sound as possible, The Police and U2 let the music breathe on its own. This gives Boy its full and mature sound. The lyrics scream new pubes while the music is cool and experienced. Boy was followed by October and War, two equally fine albums. After that they became exceedingly popular on a few albums that were boring versions of the first three. Over the years I've laughed whenever I read how U2 think they're gods. Silly rock stars.
The Undertones - Hypnotised (CD review) (Ryko): Ireland’s The Undertones are early punk's purest example of a power pop band. "Teenage Kicks" was a hit from their debut EP (and self-titled LP), helped by the fact that any song theoretically about sex was bound to be a smash. The Undertones formed in ‘76 and released their first EP in 1978. Hypnotised, while not as successful, is still a great album. The single was "Wednesday Week", and unfortunate choice ase it sounds a bit too retro-psychedelic. "My Perfect Cousin" backed by the forceful "Hard Luck" could have continued them down the trail they had just blazed. The biggest change from the first and second album was a shift from a hard-edged power chord attack to a more intricate style along the lines of Split Enz, who released their breakthrough True Colours LP the same year. Feargal Sharkey's warbling falsetto is similar to Split Enz's Tim Finn. It's most obvious on slower songs like "See That Girl". The CD release contains five bonus tracks, each excellent. The only clunker on the album is a remake of "Under The Boardwalk", which adds nothing to the original. The Undertones broke up in 1983 after many years of little success, but they may still be together according to the internet. In their later years the band switched to a more soul oriented sound. Pick up these first two albums and you won't be disappointed. The Undertones are great.
Unwed Sailor- The Faithful Anchor (Made In Mexico) & Firecracker (Lovesick) (CDs review): A full-length from this year and a four-song thing from 1999, Unwed Sailor songs are instrumentals that cry out at every turn for singing, which doesn't happen until the very last new track. I read that the duo of Nic Tse and Jonathon Ford call their music "Mathematical Chicago Post-Rock", which means nothing to me either, but it's emo shoe gazing at its best and worst. It's nice - lovely even - but what's the point? It's slow, melancholy soundtrack music to imaginary visuals that would probably mimic Windham Hill videos from the ‘80s, with slow pans of nature scenes. Since Emo is about geek angst I guess the scenes here would be of awkward, bespeckled youths crying into their pillows or being the target of school bullies - All in slow motion, and not a tear missed.
Sometimes the mood is so thick you expect a pedal steel will kick in, but instead there's electrical organ that adds a welcome bit of unexpected bite and tension. At other times I think they should segue into the theme from Peanuts.
Any of these tracks would be a welcome break on an album filled with sweeping emo epics of swirling instrumentation and raw emotional singing. The next step would be to compile all the silences between CD tracks as a new aesthetic of minimalist expression. These are the jokes, folks, and they don't get any better so you better laugh now, but honestly, the tone Unwed Sailor sustains so nicely in each song isn't worth an entire record. If you think it does, you're one pretentious prick.
Velocity Girl - Simpatico (CD review)(Sub Pop): Standard neo-pop from the endless supply of such bands from Washington, DC. The nation's capital clings to its hardcore roots but this new movement is far removed yet right next to it. Anyone who calls Fugazi hardcore is asking for a pinch. I was hoping this would be harder and faster. I recognize some of the band members from DC. It's practically required to work at Yesterday & Today Records in Rockville if you're in a DC band. The female lead singer has a good voice but not much opportunity to push its limits. Maybe live these tracks take on more depth, but from where I'm sitting Velocity Girl is only picking at their instruments. I'll put this on a few more times as background music and see what happens. The melodies are nice. Wait a minute! I'm punk, damn it! Oh boy, I'm tired. Can't work up my righteous indignation like I used to. Where was I? Oh yeah, Velocity Girl - Fa la lee la. Look at the pretty clouds.... Some music demands your full attention while others should never be looked at directly. This needs less jangle and more fuzz noise.
Velvet Underground - Loaded (2 CD re-issue review) (Rhino/Atlantic): The Velvets are probably the most hyped and mythologized band in punk history. In their day they were largely ignored. Whatever fame they had came from an association with Andy Warhol, famous for calmly feeding off the lives of others. He forced Nico on the group for their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and sent them off on his little art/music/light show "The Plastic Exploding Inevitable". This debut established them as heroin-shooting noise beatniks. John Cale's atonal walls of noise combined with Lou Reed's Everyman voice and street smart lyrics to make The Velvet Underground the first great psychedelic thrash band. Their next record, White Light/White Heat, abandons song structure for dark heroin trances. "Sister Ray" is a nice concept, but who but a heroin addict can sit through all seventeen minutes of it? This was followed by The Velvet Underground, no classic but it marks a return from the hell of the prior LP.
Loaded was the Velvet's last studio release and an attempt to make a commercially popular album. Lou Reed left before Loaded was released, and new mom Maureen Tucker wasn't even around to play drums. She's listed as the drummer with “assistance” from three others. Velvet Underground purists may not love this album but this commercial release contains their two most popular songs, "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll", which rate as two of the best rock songs of all time. If your standard for the Velvet Underground is twelve minutes of poorly recorded feedback with bleak drug lyrics, this isn't for you, but the reason the Velvets are so well known today is greatly attributable to Loaded.
Rhino Records issued a two CD remastered set of Loaded filled with alternative and demo versions, plus thirteen bonus tracks. I loved the cleaner sounding songs and learned some about the recording process from the demos and alternative mixes. The booklet that comes with this provides a lot of cool info on the band and how the album was put together. What ended up on Loaded was the best of all versions. On the alternative tracks you hear inappropriate vocals and bad percussion, especially the cow bell on "Sweet Jane". Lou Reed used much of his unused Velvet Underground material on subsequent solo albums. Is it just me or does that come across as creative laziness? A great package and another reason why Rhino Records rules!
The Velvet Underground - Live MCMXCIII (CD review) (Sire/Warner): With this release I have proof of what I've thought but was too afraid (of public humiliation) to say: Harry Chapin was punk - in his own way as punk as the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed enjoyed a sappy love song as much as Harry ever did, and they both told stories of Real Life, in Lou's case the life of beat poet/artist junkie, while Harry explored the ennui of Willie Loman's America - small town drunks and lonely souls who burn themselves with cigarettes out of boredom and self-hate. This ten song CD was recorded in 1993 in Paris when Lou, John Cale, Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison reformed the VU to cash in loads of nostalgia play money. Lou's voice is great and the old hits are here, "Sweet Jane", "Rock N Roll", "Heroin"- and more! Order now! Back to Harry Chapin, gone here is 95% of the droning feedback that comprised the original studio albums. This record sounds exactly like Harry Chapin's 1976 two-album Greatest Stories Live. When Sterling (I think that's him) sings "All Tomorrow's Parties" he sounds like Harry's brother Tom, who toured with the band and belt out a tune or two. For pure VU fans this must be a mixed bag, as on one hand the band's back together (!), but on the other the sound is squeaky clean. It makes you almost wish they'd unlearn their instruments and intentionally try to alienate with distortion. This new old Velvet Underground has been sanitized for your protection.
The Vindictives - Muzak For Robots (cd review): I've tried getting in touch with Joey Vindictive to find out more about this nutty 21-track synth muzak tribute to his band, but his e-mails are dead. I suspect he had nothing to do with this since the titles are in German and the cd is devoid of information on how it came to be. The back thanks Interpunk.com and they may be the only source of this oddity. I knew what to expect as an owner of the 1981-1984 Devo E-Z Listening Disc, which is more eclectic sounding than this one but I'll bet this was worked up on a single synth machine. I love it but the market for wordless cheese amongst remaining Vindictives die-hards must be infinitesimal. I read there's a Vindictives unplugged disc out there. I imagine twelve were made.
Violent Femmes - Add It Up (1981-1993) (CD review) (Slash/Reprise): To me they were a one-album wonder who eternally toured on their strong 1982 debut and popular MTV video. I never bought their other recordings, the last from 1995, so this retrospective CD serves as the basis of my review of their career. Often chosen by the label and not the band, these comps are usually interesting. Since the Violent Femmes didn't have enough hits for a greatest hits collection, the selections reflected what the label thought would appeal to the widest cross-section of buying fans. This CD is well paced and the live selections present the band as great in concert. I saw them live decades ago and the Femmes were both bored and boring. Are they still around?
There's a healthy number of b-sides and unreleased tracks, which makes this CD more than your average rehash from the back catalog. The liner notes for "Dance, Motherfugger Dance!" reads, "After we recorded this, the master tape disappeared for many years. Then a finished mix mysteriously showed up at our record company's office. Anyone knowing who mixed it or the whereabouts of our original master, please contact us."
You hear influences and popular contemporaries in this material, including The Velvet Underground (especially the singing at times), the first Soul Asylum LP, The Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants (maybe just in quirkiness) and Ween. Blues, country, rock and even some twisted jazz vie for attention. Are the Violent Femmes a gimmick band? Possibly, considering they’re educated white guys from the big city. You do have to credit their professionalism, hooks and all-around cleverness.
The more I listen to this the better and historically stronger it gets. They won't get their full due in their lifetimes, I'll tell you that much.
Voice Farm - Voice Farm (LP review) (Ralph): I never expected limp-wristed electro-lush pop to come from The Residents' record label. They're both from San Francisco, and maybe their first album from five years before was weirder and more experimental. When I say limp-wristed pop, I really mean it. These are songs that make you want to wave your limp-wristed hands to and fro, left and right. Singer Charly Brown reminds me of Howard Jones and that whiny guy from Tears For Fears. I detect a serious attempt to create something approaching the classy romanticism of Roxy Music but there's too much gimmick and not enough originality. It's so lightweight it doesn't make a difference, and the possibilities not worth considering.
Voice Farm sample movies and are on top of the latest studio tricks circa 1987. Voice Farm hasn't aged well, and I'm embarrassed someone in the hallway might hear this seeping out of my apartment. I want my neighbors to fear me, not wonder about me. "Reconstruction" reminds me of Devo's Shout album. That's not a good thing for either band. If you hear a more fey reggae version of "Nowhere To Run" you have my permission to kill somebody. One of the female background singers on "Hey Freethinker" has to be the same person I hear on The Resident's Freak Show. "Mama Made Me Do It" is the only decent track on the LP, and hearing it on a Ralph Records comp impressed me enough to make me pick this up. Oh well, it was only four quarters. 100 pennies I'll never have back again. (sob).
- Best Of (LP review):
The Best Of The Waitresses
is a nice little record. Best known for "I Know What Boys Like", The Waitresses
was the brainchild of Chris Butler, who recruited
as lead singer once he secured a recording contract.
Donahue died in 1996 at the age of forty from lung cancer. They're more an
interesting band than a great one, a part of the early ‘80s new wave sub-genre
of hyper-nerd impulses, eccentric fashions and light frivolity which might have
begun with the B-52's and ended with Cyndi Lauper.
A lengthy band history is here. You can't mention The Waitresses without thinking of Su Tissue of The Suburban Lawns. Both band's singers were nerdy, skinny, eccentric art-types you suspected were both geniuses and totally nuts. Let's throw in Human Sexual Response, Holly Beth Vincent and Toni Basil for yuks. Donahue's voice was distinctive for its flexibility and comic abilities, often comparable to the B-52's.
The Waitresses were a large band with horns who switched styles to fit the bill. Their sound mostly adheres to the white funk of Tina Weymouth's Tom Tom Club, but they tackle ska beautifully on "No Guilt", keep up with the B-52's on "Jimmy Tomorrow" and sprinkle in what I can only describe as cabaret new wave. Cabaret new wave will never come back in style since it’s Huey Lewis and The News being goofy.
This fifteen track collection could stand to lose one or two songs but it's a fun record that holds a few surprises, especially "No Guilt", "Bruiseology" (like Romeo Void) and the perennial "Christmas Wrapping".
Wall Of Voodoo (review) - In the early ‘80s I worked concert security all around the Washington, DC area. The biggest assholes I dealt with were Dan Fogelberg and Simple Minds. The nicest were Jackson Browne and Wall Of Voodoo's Stan Ridgway (Wall of Voodoo played with PIL and Minor Threat). I managed to get on their tour bus and Stan sat next to me, asked me my name and then wanted to know a little bit about myself. Since then I've put Stan on a very high pedestal. Based on my readings, everyone who knows Stan has a very high opinion of him too (besides former band-mates maybe!).
The history of the band is interesting and goes a long way in explaining their sound. Stan started the group as a soundtrack company specializing in cheap sci-fi and B-movie work. The soundtracks to what, hallucinations and horror scenes in off-off-Hollywood films? The kind where scenes start with the actors standing idle because they're slow getting into character when the director yells "Action!"? It's a good thing Stan formed a conventional band. Right now he’s part of a project called Drywall, an "electro-experimental combo" that records ambient sounds. I've heard some of it, and it’s really boring. Another tidbit is that Wall Of Voodoo didn't own samplers to capture sounds and music, so Stan recorded bits on cassette tapes and tossed them in and out of a standard cassette player on stage during gigs. Now that's DIY!
This description of Wall Of Voodoo's sound comes from an article via the internet, "… A strange blend of electronic experimentation and earthly industrial rhythms mixed with elements of country and western, soundtrack music, and atonal textures that stood out in stark contrast to almost any band's music of that period. Usually centering around a minimal metallic beat and jagged, interlocking keyboard figures, Ridgway's unique style of singing and writing illuminates stories, often in grand cinematic scope, of an urban metropolis gone mad. Developing a blend of film score -like themes and urban paranoia -- Stan's characters bleed their own psychological condition into the landscape. Old West mythology, sci-fi terrains and the Last Frontier of America collide headlong into images of loss, pathos, and modern reality. This is all mixed with a sardonic wit juxtaposed with a serious side that is both hard to miss and difficult to detect."
While beautifully written, this description falls short:
1) Wall Of Voodoo were a creative and original band, but were hardly alone in their approach. Throbbing Gristle and the early works of Joy Division, Gang of Four and Wire explored the limits of jagged electronic minimalism. Andy Partridge's guitar work for XTC during that period was just as creative and jarring. Voodoo's distinctions were their use of a rhythm machine as a crazed cha-cha metronome, Joe Nanini's nods to Johnny Cash's guitar style and an affection for Ennio Morricone's soundtrack work for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (A Fistfull Of Dollars; The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly), Stan's lyrical take on the mythic west as experienced from LA to Las Vegas (on I-15), and Stan’s distinctive side-of-the-mouth singing.
2) Stan's role as literary heir to Raymond Carver didn't start until the last album, Call Of The West. He became a full-time noire storyteller during his solo career with songs like "Drive She Said" and "The Big Heat". Most Wall Of Voodoo lyrics don't make much sense, "I was walking through the jungle/And I was looking for good business/Something to take away the risk/Break or bust or call it quits/See an object in the air/See an object touch my hair/My energy is draining/Touching down on my arm/I'm feeling kind of sleepy now" (from "Tse Ste Fly"). It's important to stress that the band's success was a group effort. Stan gets much of the credit for Wall Of Voodoo, but he mostly contributed lyrics and his quirky singing style. Joe Nanini (percussion, drums), Chas T. Gray (synthesizer, bass), and Marc Moreland (guitars) each added their own stamp on the final product. Really listen to the craftsmanship they bring to their playing. While they all play minimalist structures the instruments combine in a way where the results are more innovative and powerful than the sum of its parts.
Writing band reviews requires me to listen to albums over and over, which quickly becomes a chore. Stan's work with Wall Of Voodoo on one EP and two albums got better and better each time I listened, and I think they’re the most under-rated new wave band around. Maybe the success of "Mexican Radio" made them a one hit wonder in people’s minds, but everything they've done is as powerful and fun today as it was way back when. When Stan existed Wall Of Voodoo kept on with a new lead singer, Andy Prieboy, but the results were mixed and the band too strongly associated with Stan Ridgway. Don't buy the greatest hits collection. Buy the albums, working backwards from Call Of The West.
Wall Of Voodoo 12" EP (1980): Four songs and two soundtrack experiments. Joe Nanini is a percussionist in that he's not playing a conventional drum kit. More often than not he's banging away at temple blocks, cowbells and assorted third world instruments. Each song is centered around the rhythm machine, which forces each band member to work within its restrictions. Thankfully Wall Of Voodoo is talented enough to shine within these confines. Marc Moreland's guitar work is probably the best in new wave. The hit is the remake of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire", which established their sound and gimmick. "Struggle" is a disturbing instrumental piece while "Grandma's House" would work well in a sequel to Eraserhead. In 1991 Restless Records re-released this EP on a CD with ten extra live tracks from ‘79. It’s well worth the money.
Dark Continent LP (1981): A continuation of the EP, this album is just as good but it got lost in the deluge of product coming out of IRS Records. "Back In Flesh" was chosen to represent the band in the concert movie Urgh! A Music War (where they were forced to change"f--k You!" to "screw you."). While similar all the songs are great, and Moreland's guitar work is once again excellent.
Call Of The West LP (1982): A classic of the genre. No longer basing each song on the whims of the rhythm machine, Stan blossoms as a writer and pens stories of substance and passion. "Lost Weekend", while taking the name of the motion picture about alcoholism, draws you into the story of a working-class Joe who loses all his money in Las Vegas and laments missed opportunities in his life. "Mexican Radio" was their one-hit-wonder hit, with MTV playing the video into the ground. It deserved to be a hit and it was. The album closes with "Call Of The West", an epic of the modern American West. Mumble along with Stan as he quotes the drunken liquor store owner, "There's a conflict. There's a conflict between land and people. The people have to go. They've come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini bike, to have their own CB radios, and air conditioning, good plumbing, for sure, and to sell Time/Life books, and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning, and maybe.. maybe to own their own gas stations again, and to take drugs, and to have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie, and to spit out the window of your car without having the wind blow it back in your face".
The Wallflowers - Bringing Down The Horse(CD review) (Interscope): This sold a bazillion copies, didn't it? Bob Dylan's son Jakob has taken from Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits and his father's best work with The Band to produce a professional slab of alterna-Rock. Not that I'll listen to this again but I give The Wallflowers all the credit in the world.
I'm a sucker for old Dylan, and especially The Band, which brings me to another point. Punks like to think they suffer, like punk is the world's most relevant music of oppression and hope. It's a delusion. Nothing compares to old blues and gospel. Right now I'm listening to the soundtrack to the greatest filmed concert of all time, The Last Waltz. Muddy Waters is singing "Mannish Boy". Before that I jammed to "The Weight" with The Band and The Staple Singers. Punks don't deserve to be on the same planet with Muddy, not the same universe as Poppa Staples. Punk is a middle class diversion, a walk on the wild side for kids who at least have options.
Kim Wilde - Kim Wilde (cd review): Everyone of my generation knows Kim Wilde through her 1981 hit "Kids In America", a guilty pleasure that's aged well due to pep and harmless fun winning out over the cheese factor. I didn't know much about her until I picked up this remastered cd of her debut album, and I'm surprised at how good it is from start to finish. If I knew then what I know now I'd have bought it then.
Born Kim Smith in 1960 she adopted her musician father's stage name and collaborated with her father and brother Ricky to write the tracks for her debut, helped immeasurably by the studio work of her one-off backup band The Enid. Kim Wilde defined an aspect of new wave that easily devolved into the crap found on the Flashdance movie soundtrack, but the debut is solid. Part of it is probably her father's history as a songwriter-for hire. Kim quickly fell into that trap herself with her 1982 follow-up, Select, alternating between the new wave of her debut and a funk-disco sheen inspired by Blondie's quick rise to shallow fame. Wilde hit American paydirt in 1987 with a craptastic disco cover of "You Keep Me Hangin' On". 'Nuff said about that yellow piss road.
The remastering job is perfect. The production is high but not overdone - not glossy but the optimized recording of a powerful and professional band. Instrument separation is easily heard with headphones, and there's layers of added touches that make each song that much more interesting. Lyrically it's for the most part generically peppy and anthemic, typical of the time and place.
It opens with "Water On Glass", about as energetic a song as you'll hear with a mid-paced rhythm. You can tell right away she's giving Blondie a run for their money. "Our Town" has The Enid adding layers to layers, and the synths are more abrasive than you'd think for what's a pop record. The harmonies are great too. "Everything We Know" sports a nice dub reggae bass line. Kim's singing is close to Deborah Harry's. The lyrics to "Young Heroes" are cotton-candy anthemic that doesn't rise above "We only wanna stay young, we only wanna be free. He doesn't wanna be you, she doesn't wanna be me. We're young heroes", but the occasional military drumroll and driving beat you can dance the Pony to had me at hello, my name is Herbert. The hit "Kids In America" is The GoGos and Berlin smushed together, and single-handedly launched the career of The Epoxies (a shamless plug, kids. But no, seriously, their best songs sound like "Kids In America"). "Chequered Love" was another hit from the record, and it has a big sound, like the rest of them actually. "2-6-5-8-0" is a straight up ska pop classic, and it's the sleeper of the disc. What a happy song, and anyone who doesn't smile as they listen to it is a big 'ol meanie (and most likely a douche). I'm placing it as #3 on my list of happy ska songs, after Toot's "Sweet And Dandy" (the gold standard) and Bad Manners' "Lorriane", the happiest song ever about domestic violence. "You'll Never Be So Wrong" is the first restrained song, giving Kim a chance to show off her torch singing range. There's a slight country feel that Rubber Rodeo could have hit out of the park for their own benefit. "Falling Out" is another shiny pop anthem with generic lyrics that can only come from the heart of a songwriter for hire. It's not bad as a new wave dance song. "Tuning In Tuning On" ends the album with slow, heavy synth lines and abrasive, squiggly synth nuggets that would make Gary Numan proud, if not jealous in a commercial sense. There's three bonus tracks but I'll save that for my dissertation.
From start to finish Kim Wilde's self-titled debut album is a major accomplishment, with standard lyrics bowled over by impressive melodies and titanic studio production work. It's shiny yet pushy, with layers of sound that reward repeated and concentrated listening. It's more than it appears to be on the surface, and for commercial product it's also subversive in that it introduces the average top-40 numbnut to weirder and more abrasive sounds. This one's a classic.
– Smile (CD review): I could always take or
leave the Beach Boys, mostly leave. The falsetto singing reminds me of Frankie
Valli and I can’t figure out the appeal of castratto. Being from New York I also
have no interest in surfer guys and chicks. Their catalog grows on me but I
rarely consider throwing on a Beach Boys disc.
I recently bought some homemade surf comp tapes, and while there’s no Beach Boys I do get a kick out of some of the tune,s and a few are really, really bad (in a good way). The Surfaris do a song called “Surfer Joe” that sounds like “The Monster Mash”, spoken lyrics and all. Then there’s Jan and Dean, who sound like a parody of a comedy sketch.
This weekend I put on The Queer’s Don’t Back Down, the best of their albums influenced by the Beach Boys. I said to myself “Self, maybe you should explore The Beach Boys”. Smile is where I start.
Smile is a legendary album started in 1967 and both finished and recorded in 2004. There were 85 original recording sessions that led to no finished album. That’s a lot of work. Fans and critics are collectively crapping themselves over how great this is, and I’ll grant them that even though I find Smile to be well recorded, pleasant, interesting and not the answer to any great existential question.
There's a definite nod to the Beatles and I never realized how much XTC were cribbing from these guys since at least Mummer in 1983. Here’s some lyrics from “Vega-Tables”. Some may find this silly. I think they answer the great existential question:
I'm gonna be round my vegetables/ I'm gonna chow down my vegetables/ I love you most of all/ My favorite vege-table/ If you brought a big brown bag of them home/ I'd jump up and down and hope you'd toss me a carrot/ I'm gonna keep well my vegetables/ Cart off and sell my vegetables/ I love you most of all/ My favorite vege-table/ Oh oh taba vega vegel/ I tried to kick the ball but my tenny flew right off/ I'm red as a beet 'cause I'm so embarassed/ Oh oh dum do dum de dooby do/ Oh oh dum do dum de dooby do/ Oh oh dum do dum de dooby dooh yeah/ Oh badumday oh dum do dum de dooby do/ Oh badumday oh dum do dum de dooby do/ Chomp chomp chomp chomp do-do-do do-do-do/ Bop bop bop bop do-do-do do-do-do
It’s upwards and onwards to Pet Sounds!
The White Stripes - White Blood Cells (CD review) (Sympathy): This made many best-of lists so I borrowed it to see what the stink's all about. I'm happy for fellow Long Beacher Long Gone John that The White Stripes stayed with his label for this, their third release. Former spouses Jack and Meg White make a lot of noise with just a guitar and drums, but it's not my brand of cat food.
I can see how this would appeal to rock critics, the ones who constantly cite Dylan's Basement Tapes and wrote college thesis’s on how blind blues men are inherently superior to sighted ones. White Blood Cells is noisy lo-fi blues rock with serious glam and hard rock pretensions. I'm sure this is great stuff for what it is, but why am I thinking of Country Joe & The Fish while listening to "Hotel Yorba", and do I want to?
I'm completely lost when it comes to popular music.
The Wipeouters - P'Twaaang!!! (CD review) (Casual Tonalities): Did anyone believe Devo's crapola that this CD is a collection of tunes written in their junior high, pre-spud surf garage days? A few early reviews and interviews took this at face value. Either they didn't listen to the thing, knew nothing about Devo or were in on the (non) joke. My first thought listening to this was: why didn't they release it as a Devo album? Most of the tracks are instrumentals but they didn't need to be, and "Shut Up Little Man" should be on a Devo greatest hits package. Maybe this way there's no pressure to tour (which they do anyway) and they wouldn't have to answer the same stupid Devo questions all over again. What you do have on P’Twaang!!! are thirteen great tracks derived from the musical archives of Mutato Muzika, the soundtrack-theme-music-commercial-ditty-on-demand company run by Mothersbaugh brothers and Gerry Casale. These songs are given surf titles and worked within that genre well enough not to warrant a breach of contract suit, but this is as garage as the Trump Plaza. Devo are studio wizards and the quality of everything is top shelf all the way. Dick Dale fans might turn up their noses but this will satisfy any Devo fan to no end.
Surf is a mostly instrumental form which incorporates a wide spectrum of influences including r&b, c&w, spy, rockabilly, jazz, flamenco, Latin and middle eastern influences. Ska would be surf if it wasn't so damn ska. Surf is really anything exotic that reminds you of vacations in fun places. Surf is a sunny beach while you freeze your nuts off waiting for the bus in Chicago, and the scent of adventure and danger after another day filling out form 109243B a hundred times at the office.
I doubt P P'Twaaang!!! is a CD business card for Mutato Muzika. They're so famous they're getting paid by Nokia to come up with cell phone ring tones. I imagine the unused idea pile was getting too high, so why not make a record? Two songs recall early Devo tunes on the EZ Listening Disc CD put out on Rykodisc, but this time they're dressed up in faster, brighter productions. You'll hear some B-52's and Wall Of Voodoo, along with a nod to The Residents, who need to learn from Mutato how to write more effective contract soundtrack material.
"Dangerdog" is built around a slightly deconstructed part of Devo's "Peek-A-Boo". "Surf's Up On Goon" has a neat witchdoctor feel and a flute riff from The Residents' God In 3 Persons. The use of tuba is great. "Twist 'N' Launch" is a rehash of Devo's "Happy Guy" and not surf at all. "Ravin' Surf" has a great Ennio Morricone guitar sound that Wall Of Voodoo played in the way it is done here. Devo came close, like in "Beautiful World", but they never went for the deep sound they do here. A long track at over seven minutes, the middle is too dance oriented, whichreminds me of Yello Magic Orchestra on a lush day. The song ends with a nod to "Mongoloid".
"Rocket Power Theme" was from a cartoon. "Wedgie Wipeout" has the western guitar that's party the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut". I like the sitar on "Wounded Surfer" but they lost me on the funky college-groove parts. "Luna Goona Park" is a freakin' steal from "Palisades Park", written by Chuck Barris of all people. I'm amazed The Silicon Teens didn't cover this first, and Barris didn't get a credit and a check. There’s a sweet farfisa organ on "Nubbie Boardsman", and "Rocket-ful Of Power" feels like The B-52's "Planet Claire". "Shut "Up Little Man" is completely out of place on a surf album, but it's a great old-time Devo tune with references to Spuds and the infamous Swell Noodle Map. It's anthemic, fast and for Devo a stadium sized rocker.
This is a nice record for Devo fans and an odd set of bleeps, bloops and odd sounding guitar and keyboard sounds for the idiots of commercial radio to pass over. It grows on you, like a cold sore from the lip.
XTC (review) - “Clever” -- the blessing and curse that will always be attached to one of the most, well, clever bands in new wave history. Andy Partridge’s lyrics are known for their cute play on words (“Don’t lose your temper cause I love you when you’re wild”), but they rarely had the bite of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson or Graham Parker, new wave’s original angry young men. But they didn’t make music as deliriously quirky and bouncy as XTC. Hailing from post-industrial Swindon, UK, XTC released their 3D EP on Virgin Records in 1977 during punk’s heyday. Periodically but rarely lumped into the punk camp, they were not that angry and in person couldn’t pose a threat to your grandmother. Some trivia up front, Adam Ant stole his "Ant Music" idea from an XTC concert flyer.
XTC’s career can be divided into three phases: the herky-jerky kings of bizarro-pop (3D EP, White Music, Go 2), the new wave hit machine (Drums and Wires, Black Sea, English Settlement), and the low-rent squires of British country life (Mummer, The Big Express, Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons, Nonsuch and The Apple Venus CDs). Throughout the years, on scores of 7”s and EPs, they’ve released one of the largest volumes of bonus songs and live tracks. Their singles are also famous for their clever (there’s that word again) use of packaging. The sleeve for the limited edition “Making Plans For Nigel” 7” unfolds into a game board with a spinner and cut-out characters. “Sgt. Rock” came with a large cartoon lyric sheet/band poster, while “No Thugs In Our House” used the sleeve to create a theatrical stage where enclosed cut-out characters could be used to act out lyrics printed in the form of a stage script. Way back in ‘78, the cover for Go 2 was a long typed message that generically described of the album and its purpose, and you needed to line up the enclosed lyrics sheet with the back cover just right to read the song list.
The best way to comment on XTC is through their releases:
Herky-Jerky Kings of Bizarro-Pop
The band consists of Andy Partridge (guitar/lead vocals), Colin Moulding (bass/vocals), Terry Chamber (drums) and Barry Andrews (keyboards/vocals).
3D EP (1977): In three songs the sound of XTC is firmly established. “Science Friction” promotes equally the skills of all the band members. Andy attacks his guitar to produce the most jagged mixture of ska and chord riffs anywhere west of early Gang Of Four. Terry maintains a steady fast pop dance beat, intentionally not interacting with Andy’s ska guitar pulls. Colin plays bouncy and creative bass guitar while Barry creates a twisted-carnival fun-house atmosphere with his farfisa organ. The stop & go rhythms defy you to dance and then make you spastically trip over yourself when you do. Mostly there’s Andy’s voice - puns and wit delivered in a voice that prefers to stutter and hiccup the words. If you listen to just Andy Partridge on the first few albums you’ll hear the most under-rated singer/guitarist in the history of new wave. His playing is jagged, intense, pissed and often discordant with the rest of the song, while his voice is an acrobatic marvel that's its own Spike Jones production number. “She’s So Square” is a more straight-forward pop song while “Dance Band” represents the other side of early XTC - slow, robotic dance anthems for manipulated and alienated youth (a theme expressed often in early new wave).
WHITE MUSIC (1978): Not a great album but interesting all the same. Andy may be answering the world by declaring “This Is Pop”, but the album was too weird and primitive to make an impact on the pop world. “Radios In Motion” has the distinction of the lyrics, “A Bop Bah Ooo”, but the overall effect is of a band rushed too quickly into the studio. “Statue of Liberty” has novelty value, but the cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” goes on too long and seems out of place (a time filler, maybe?). Colin’s three contributions are maniacally quirky and robotic. He won’t find his true voice until Drums and Wires.
G0 2 (1978): This is what White Music could have been with more time and effort. A very under-rated album that deserves another listen. The opening song, “Meccanik Dancing”, champions robotic pop as proudly as “This Is Pop” did classic pop. There’s lots of great songs here, “Crowded Room”, “Beatown”, “Are You Receiving Me?” (it’s the single but not credited anywhere on the record), “Red”, and I challenge anyone not to bounce around like a cretin when the needle lands on “Jumping In Gomorrah”. The end of side two drags, but a fine album and a foreshadowing of the success to come
GO + (1978): Early purchasers of Go 2 found this 12” EP with a neat-o poster included. The five songs are minimalist dub remixes of other XTC songs. There’s sped-up reverse instrumentation and “scratched” in words that foreshadow hip-hop. The sound is tinny and the songs go on too long but it’s nice to hear what Andy was up to in his spare time when he wasn’t collecting toy soldiers. In 1980 he released The Lure Of Salvage, eleven more of the same (which sold well in Japan). “Beat The Bible”, a re-do of “Jumping In Gomorrah”, gets the full Residents treatment (Andy later sang “Margaret Freeman” on The Resident’s 1980 Commercial Album.
New Wave Hit Machine
DRUMS AND WIRES (1979): This album, along with Devo’s Freedom of Choice, Iggy Pop’s New Values, the B-52’s debut, Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! and Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks (this is my list, putz!), were the best and most popular albums of the early new wave era, when it looked like new wave would steal the airwaves from the dark cloud of disco. Drums And Wires is solid, fun, simple, clean, funny, clever and you could dance to it without the spazz factor! When Barry Andrews left the band (to form Shriekback), Andy panicked that XTC couldn’t succeed without keyboards. Dave Gregory was brought on as second guitarist and it all worked out swell. In a way Barry Andrews kept the band back with his circus-fun house style. This worked well in the past but XTC needed a cleaner and more accessible sound. Drums and Wires opens with the infectious “Life Begins At The Hop”. Word has it Pete Townsend and his wife provide the hand claps on this track (another source says it's Sting and his wife). The 7” version of “Ten Feet Tall” is better than the LP version. “Making Plans For Nigel” was XTC’s first hit. “Outside World” is great and “Complicated Game” possibly the most intense song they’ve ever recorded. Listen to it really loud with headphones, and listen to Andy beat up his guitar while he sings along with his echo. The more you drink the creepier this one gets. Colin finally steps up to the plate and writes some hits in “Life Begins At The Hop” and “Making Plans For Nigel”. Drums And Wires very, very good record.
BLACK SEA (1980): I have no idea who thought of releasing this in a plain black plastic bag (think Spinal Tap). The album cover is nice enough without words on the front, but from a marketing standpoint someone was out of their mind. Sporting a fuller sound this time around, Black Sea is packed with its share of hits - “Respectable Street” (cleaned up for the single, replacing the words “abortion” and “sex position”), “Generals and Majors”, “Living Through Another Cuba”, and “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)”. Andy thought "Sgt. Rock" was a horrible choice for a single but he’s never been a good judge in that regard. A fine album, and make sure to check out the great drumming on “Travels In Nihilon”.
ENGLISH SETTLEMENT (1982): A double album in England and a single disc in the US. The American album didn’t use all the best songs and there’s not enough good material for a double album. Three sides have only four songs, and side two has only three songs! Most of these tracks are stretched out too long. The hit single was “Senses Working Overtime” but I’m more partial to Colin’s contributions, especially “Runaways”, “Fly On The Wall” and “English Roundabout”. “Down In The Cockpit” was pretty darn clever, though.
Low Rent Squires Of British Country Life
MUMMER (1983): Drummer Terry Chamber left around this time because Andy Partridge decided XTC would no longer be a touring band. Andy had suffered a series of nervous breakdowns brought on by stage fright, and Terry enjoyed touring. He also was fed up with the band’s lack of financial success despite good press and legions of fans. Since then XTC has been a studio-bound three-piece who hire studio drummers. Mummer is a lovely record but there’s not a lot going on. “Great Fire” was a horrible choice for the single. “Funk Pop a Roll” is the only song with any bite and fury. “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages” is decent, but on the whole the album is b-o-r-i-n-g.
THE BIG EXPRESS (1984): A limited edition had round dust covers (poorly) cut to fit the train wheel photograph on the front. Not much better than Mummer, the song title “The Everyday Story Of Smalltown” sums up Andy’s diminished view of the universe. The Kings Of Clever had become the Kings Of Quaint, in their case of idyllic British country life (quite an irony when Andy says of Swindon, “So much ugliness crammed into such a small place. How do they do it?”). The packaging for the “This World Over” 7” was great - it came with a stack of tourist postcards that all said “Greetings From..(Moscow) (London), etc.” except that the photo was the same landscape leveled by a nuclear explosion. Diehard fans liked these last two albums but someone or something was needed to keep XTC from falling off the map entirely.
SKYLARKING (1986): “Dear God” wasn’t even on this at first. It was on the B-side of the “Grass” 12”. The song hit the radio somehow and attracted trouble from religious people who knew an anti-religion song when they heard one. Bomb threats were called in. Hearing a schoolboy declare that the one thing he doesn’t believe in is God probably threw them over the edge. On subsequent prinitings “Mermaid Smiled” was axed in favor of “Dear God”. By now everyone knows of the running battles during these recordings between Andy Partridge and the producer, Todd Rundgren. In this case Todd was just what they needed, someone to come in and slap them into shape. Todd forced the band to filter out bad selections in favor of songs he could work into a coherent and commercially viable theme. Who knows what “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” would have sounded like if Todd hadn’t made it swing like cool jazz. A concept album, Skylarking moves from Summer to Winter, from day to night, from happiness to sadness to rebirth. This is the best album they’ve ever recored (maybe tied with Drums and Wires), on line with Bowie’s Scary Monsters as the right album at the right .
ORANGES AND LEMONS (1989): They should have called this one A Few Oranges And A Lotta Lemons. Like English Settlement, this is another double disc, the songs are too long and there’s even less good material to begin with. With Todd Rundgren long gone, the band is free to once again over-indulge themselves. There are two excellent songs here. “The Mayor Of Simpleton” is everything an XTC song should be: sweet, clever and so full of catchy hooks you’ll lose an eye. It was a great new wave dance song when new wave was long dead and buried. Once again Colin comes through with “King For A Day”. I bet this song has made the most money for the band since I hear it whenever I go shopping. There's a heavy Beatles influence on this record that I could take or leave.
NONSUCH (1992): The album with “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”. I like this song but it kills me that someone thought they had to electronically augment Andy’s voice when he sings “Hanging there he looked a lot like you, and an awful lot like me.” “My Bird Performs” and “Dear Madam Barnum” are good but there’s an out of time cymbal sound throughout “The Disappointed” that makes me tear at my own flesh. It is though a much better record than Oranges and Lemons. This would have been a disaster if they tried to fill it out as a double album.
For a time after this XTC were without a record contract, and the band felt badly burned by their association with Virgin Records, who, like the mafia does with street soldiers, tried to keep them poor and on the road . Andy claimed to have three albums worth of songs for their next release. Free words of advice for the band: no double albums, keep the songs short, and bring back Todd Rundgren.
XTC - Apple Venus Vol. 1 (CD review) (TVT): I love this CD. I'm surprised how much I love this. It's the best thing they've done since 1986's Skylarking, and that owed its lunch money to producer Todd Rundgren beating Andy Partridge into artistic submission. Andy's generally a horrible judge of his own material. This is the man who scratched his head when "Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down" didn't make them famous. Who didn't want "Dear God" to see the light of day. Free from Virgin Records after a self-imposed strike of seven years, I imagined Andy (and co-dependent partner Colin Moulding in the Dave Davies role) would release a failed collection of b-sides, leaving the best material as demos for the fans to mull over and ask "what if?....". Something tells me Andy, a hair-pulling pain in the ass, may have actually learned something from the hated Todd Monster and reigned in his own worst instincts for this absolutely incredible collection.
The true genius of the work comes from the organic, analog quality of the production, which compliments the material's themes of seasons of nature and seasons of life. To get the full effect you must listen with good headphones. This is the rare CD that allows you to visualize the orchestration in the way a $15,000 stereo system and gold-master vinyl album can. While orchestral and soft, Apple Venus demands you play it loud.
Think of this as a sequel to Skylarking infused with the provincial leanings of Mummer and The Big Express, two albums that parallel Ray Davie's romanticized visions of British working class life. XTC borrow heavily here from The Beatle's use of orchestra from the Yellow Submarine era, but their world is gritty Swindon, not city office towers. XTC's world is of the low-rent country squire whose estate consists of a three room home with a leaky roof and not enough beer in the fridge. XTC may have always been relatively poor, even as world-famous musicians, but their pride is British in its veneer of class and empire.
This is Volume 1, an orchestrated, subtle collection. Volume 2 will be out soon but it has yet to be recorded. It will be a straight rock album. In my perfect little world it would look back to the new wave three-minute pop of Drums and Wires and Black Sea.
my pants if it was.
Here's notes on each song:
“River of Orchids” – Already considered a modern classic of cyclical composition, this can be compared to Glass and Reich, but there's no minimalism on display. It should have been a single. It’s one of their best, definitely the most complex with its stacking of endless layers of simplicity.
“I'd Like That” - A single with no drums. Great for the "Hambone" hand-slapping as the only percussion. Dig the crazy hambone solo at the end. It reminds me of "Great Fire" somehow.
“Easter Theatre” - Beatle-esque use of strings and horns as in "Eleanor Rigby". Sounds very Skylarking, especially "Ballad For A Rainy Day".
“Knights In Shining Karma” - Acoustic baroque, almost cool jazz. The Renaissance Fair geeks should go for this like goths to romanticized self-pity.
“Frivolous Tonight” - In true Colin Moulding fashion, he gets only a few swings at the bat but he hits clutch grand slams then fades into the dugout. His two contributions are of the same mold - Noel Coward meets Ray Davies. Music for a penny-theatre play that will never be made, and a missing track from the Kink's Soap Opera. "Frivolous Tonight" takes place in the second act of a play I'll call "Swindon Confidential", in the scene where the fine citizens of post-industrial Swindon meet at the local pub after dark to be amongst friends as they bury their troubles in warm beer, gossip and laughter. Colin moves from table to table, dancing a soft shoe, as the local gentry sway along and raise their glasses. I've heard this song described as depressing. Utter nonsense - this is the happiest song XTC has recorded in years. The truth and beauty of “Frivilous Tonight” are monumental. Join me as I wave a straw hat over my head as I dance 1,2,3, left kick..1,2,3, right kick.. repeat till done. The horns on this just kill me. My personal favorite.
“Greenman” - XTC fans are having a hard time figuring this one out. It's a combination of the XTC demos "The Troubles" and "Terrorism", modified with African leanings for the next installment of "The Lion King". Also note the kooky horn intro you'd only expect from They Might Be Giants.
“Your Dictionary” - This would have been a single if not for the naughty words spelled out but still too obvious for airplay. If it ever gets big I assume they'll do a bleeped version that will make people run to the store so they can own the uncensored CD. P.T. Barnum is alive and well in such matters. It’s a very bitter song written in the aftermath of Partridge's divorce. Not since the prime of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson (whose piano style is copied here) has a song dripped with such bile and poetic symmetry. I'm not one to dwell on lyrics, but this one is worth pondering. There's a full Beach Boys melt-down at the end.
“Fruit Nut” - Another Moulding number from the same play. Utterly joyous and a real thrill for all you Kinks fans who stuck with the Davies brothers in the mid to late ‘70s. 1,2,3 kick..1,2,3 kick..
“I Can't Own Her” - Opens like "Money For Nothing". Sung like Joe Jackson would if he was still relevant.
“Harvest Festival” - A season cycle song, like the end of Skylarking. Autumn turning into Winter. The cycle of death from cold, and life from marriage. Quite a juxtaposition but it works. It’s sadness with the hope of hope. The kazoo-sounding part reminds me of the Lollipop Kids song from The Wizard of Oz.
“The Last Balloon” - The end of the cycle. Melancholy you can cut with a spork. Herb Albert horns. Me sad now. This could be from the last act of Colin's imaginary play.
XTC - Transistor Blast: The Best Of The BBC Sessions (4 CD Box Set review) (TVT): TVT is XTC's new label, and this box set is how in 1998 they showed their respect for a band whose history stretches back nearly 25 years. Since it retails for $49.97 I'm not going to review it for newbies who wouldn't drop that much on CDs. Transistor Blast is for XTC freaks and geeks, and the only question is, is it worth the money? While everything is highly recommended, I don't know if I can advocate spending fifty bucks on music, even XTC.
I was a member of the XTC fan club "The Little Express". I collected and traded my share of live bootleg tapes. After the curiosity factor is satiated, I don't see the need to accumulate live tapes. You listen a few times, figure out what the band was like live, and then move on. CDs #3 & 4 contain concerts from ‘78, ’79 and ‘80. With all the fan sites I imagine tape trading is as common as hooded sweatshirts at SXE concerts. Is it really worth the money for shows most fans in a position to pick this up probably already own? CD #3 clocks in at 39 minutes, 40 seconds, while CD#4 is 56 minutes, 25 seconds. Could the live stuff be edited down to the 74 minute capacity of a compact disc and the earth not spin into the sun? Maybe, maybe not. Fans are nuts, and I assume Transistor Blast is a discography of everything XTC recorded for the BBC. It's your money, just don't cry poverty if you're the compulsive anal-retentive type.
The real reasons to own this are on the first two discs - 25 tracks from various BBC studio sessions in ‘77, ‘78, ‘79, ‘82, ‘84, ‘87 and ‘89. John Peel was the most famous of the BBC DJs, who by musician's union rules are required to air a percentage of live, non-recorded music. XTC recorded for Peel, Kid Jensen, Bruno Brookes, Richard Skinner, Andy Kershaw and a show called "Sunday Live". I don't know how much studio wizardry is involved in BBC sessions, but the results are usually an interesting combination of live, demo and studio quality work. The earliest (Barry Andrews on keyboards) tracks are great because the inherent frenetic jaggedness of each song is allowed to run ragged. XTC's new-wave hits are great because of the variations on lead and second guitar. Material from English Settlement to The Big Express are pretty straightforward and equally gain from the live feel, and lose from lack of studio embellishment. The tracks from Skylarking cannot come close to the layered textures of the studio recordings so you'll either view them as great demos or just average. My favorite tune is "This World Over", the best song The Police never wrote. The stereo quality of these recordings is excellent.
The best of CDs 3 & 4 should have been collected on one disc and the retail price brought down fifteen dollars. The name of the box set are lyrics from "This Is Pop".
XTC - Wasp Star (CD review) (TVT): So this is the promised great return to former great guitar XTC greatness? Not exactly. If Apple Venus Vol. 1 was less an orchestral album than a return to the formula which made Skylarking so memorable, Wasp Star (aka Apple Venus Vol. 2) is a studied recycling of songs from Nonsuch and Oranges and Lemons. The results are better but almost as uneven.
Early XTC records are fairly consistent in their quality. Starting with Mummer in 1983, Andy Partridge lost his love of kinetic playfulness and settled into recording a few single-worthy songs surrounded by slow, pastoral Beatlesque tunes. Producer Todd Rundgren had to battle Andy's miscalculations and panicked childishness to make Skylarking, an album that revitalized the band's reputation. Andy hated Todd for it, and he recorded Oranges and Lemons, a mostly bland record, as a two record set, maybe as overcompensation for Rundgren's temporary retooling of Andy's plan of built-in obsolescence.
When guitarist Dave Gregory exited over creative differences, I figured nobody was left to keep Andy's impulses in check, and the next XTC record would be their worst and probably last. Colin's a hero of mine but I see him as Dave Davies to Andy's Ray Davies. To my shock and surprise, Apple Venus Vol. 1 was a great record and a humble acknowledgment that Todd was right and Andy was wrong. Wasp Star, to have been effective and consistent with how it was promoted, should have harked back to at least English Settlement. I think a return to the aesthetics of Drums and Wires would have elicited orgasmic spasms of joy from the music press and rekindled interest in pre-disco new wave (2007 update: which happened anyway).
What you really have with the new CD is a studied analysis of what worked and didn't work on Nonsuch and Oranges and Lemons. While not a great record, Wasp Star is still very good.
I won't hold it against Andy that he's recycling riffs left and right, especially "Mayor Of Simpleton" and "The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead". Listening the first time I spent most of the time smacking my head wondering where I heard this and that melody or chorus before. Colin continues his beautiful march to beerhall-Noel Coward-Ray Davies nirvana. Here's how the songs fare:
"Playground" - a big, slow electrified acoustic guitar riff. The cuteness of the child-sung chorus in the middle is offset by the fact that it's Andy's own daughter. That makes it sweet as long as she got cash out of the deal. "Stupidly Happy" - dig that Rolling Stones guitar, an inversion of "Start Me Up". Undig that 1/8th rap singing and side-step shuffle groove. Nice addition of a second guitar in the middle after the lyric "Form the strings of a big guitar." "In Another Life" - Colin, a personal god, continues to write for the same unproduced stage musical he began with Apple Venus Vol. 1. Colin's a sentimental softie and so am I. Another soft shoe, top hat and cane classic. He wrote this song to his wife, who suffered a long-term illness. That's love, baby! "My Brown Guitar" - put me out of my misery and tell me what earlier XTC song Andy's ripping off. "Boarded Up" - I thought it was Andy who wrote about buildings as if they were people, but Colin penned this. Noel Coward lives! "I'm The Man Who Murdered Love" - a computer figured out how to make a hit song, manufacturing what should have been titled "The Ballad of Mayor Peter Simpleton". "We're All Light" - a sequel to "Greenman", this is a buoyant tune that would work well in a Disney cartoon. A very happy number, in the best sense of the term. "Standing In For Joe" - Colin, three for three! Lyrically this is Beatles meets Ray Davies meets Kate Bush. A story you can act out in your mind while you listen. "Wounded Horse" - John Lennon's dead but he lives on in Andy's pen and guitar. "You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful" - the horn section is another rehash but otherwise this is very good groove music. "Church Of Women" - Dub reggae with ukulele? Uninvolving yet kinda interesting. Nice to hear Andy play with his voice again. "The Wheel And The Maypole" - a peppy little tune but I was hoping they'd go out with a bang, like how "Funk Pop A Roll" closed Mummer, evoking Elvis Costello stopping "Alison" on SNL to tear into "Radio Radio".
XTC – Homespun (CD review) (TVT): After hearing PJ Harvey’s wonderful 1993 collection of Rid Of Me demos, I figured such things were a way for fans to trace, at least in their own minds, the creative process that begins with a 3:00 AM bathroom epiphany and ends with a full-blown studio track supplemented by a full band, backup singers and the Cleveland Oboe Quartet. The problem with Homespun is that most of the tracks are at least half finished, like starting a 300 page biography at page 150. In that respect I’m a tad disappointed. On the plus side, Apple Venus Vol. 1 was so great you can’t go wrong with this, even if they are for the most part past what anyone would call the demo stage of production.
Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding write liner notes for the demos that trace their origins and progression from mind to studio, which also supplements what you’ll find in the book XTC: Song Stories. There’s enough background between the two to keep even the most rabid XTC fan happy, so let’s go to the tape for what I heard:
“River Of Orchids” – the finished strings are there. Andy’s experiments in harmonizing and spoken phrasing are interesting but thankfully didn’t make the final cut. Too many high octaves that strain his voice and come off as falsetto. “I’d Like That” -- in two parts, the first a slow, slow acoustic guitar rough demo, which quickly gets booted by a faster, richer take. The Beach Boy elements are highlighted out the wazoo. I love the hand slap against leg percussion. "Easter Theatre" & “Knight In Shining Karma”-- so close to the finished product they're more like alternative takes. "Frivolous Tonight" -- now THIS is a demo! Raw, using whatever was in the shed at the moment. Love the bass guitar. Very much of a Beatles feel. "Greenman" -- nice separation of the instruments, and Andy's layered backup vocals are better than usual. "Your Dictionary" -- If Elvis Costello wrote this in ‘78 it would have been known as one of the greatest moments in rock history. The strings and piano on the demo come across beautifully. "Fruit Nut" -- another stunning demo from Colin that sounds like all the neighbors came over with kitchen utensil instruments. "I Can't Own Her" -- nearly finished product. "Harvest Festival" – a raw acoustic guitar demo with a slightly buzzing string effect in the back leading into a polished studio alt-take. "The Last Balloon" – a nearly finished version.
Yachts - S.O.S. (LP review) (1979) (Polydor): Power Pop is punk's embarrassing older cousin. Punk didn't appear out of thin air - it came from other sources like surf music, 60’s garage rock r&b, Motown and the original British Invasion. Blondie rehashed girl groups. The Ramones revived Phil Spector's wall of sound. Power Pop bands play relationship songs you dance to and not think about too deeply. A catchy tune, easy words to sing along with, 45s in jukeboxes - that's what pop's always been about. Recent power pop punk bands like Green Day, Vacant Lot and The Parasites play faster and aren't usually that optimistic, but they do come from the same power pop tradition of short, catchy songs you can dance to. Power Pop saw a revival in the late ‘70s with the ascent of new wave, itself considered by many as watered down punk. At least new wave was more honest about its roots. Punk pretended like everything else never happened. Power Pop bands like 20/20, The Jags, The Records, The Beat, The Romantics, The Rubinoos and The Yachts may have been one hit wonders but new wave was happy to have one or two songs from each band to keep the dance floors hopping. The Yachts had a hit with "Yachting Type" and came out with two albums in ‘79-‘80. S.O.S. was their first and by far the better of the two, which isn't saying much. In addition to "Yachting Type" there was "Semaphore Love", but otherwise the songs fall into a pattern of boring sameness. The songs lack an interesting edge, and while the lyrics are clever they pale in comparison to XTC, The Rezillos and The Buzzcocks. I love the single, but otherwise The Yachts didn't have a chance. Maybe the album was too safely recorded and mixed. The live version of "Suffice To Say" show some promise, but it's too little too late.
Yellow Magic Orchestra - Yellow Magic Orchestra (LP review) (EMI): Hellllooooo...KITTY! Hellllooooo... lunchtime schoolgirl prostitution! Also known as Monster Island, Japan's is the most schizophrenic society on the planet. Their obsession with cute is, uh, cute, while their sexism and racism is, uh, barbaric. America turned two of their cities into nuclear furnaces yet they worship America and American culture, consistently following the most obscure American music trend better than Americans do. Maybe it's a ploy to keep us docile while they work to win the Hundred Years War they threatened after WWII. Maybe. And, either in contrast to, or because of, ancient Japanese codes of morality, family and honor, Japanese men seek out pornography like pigs to slop.
Running from 1978 to 1985, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) are gods in electronic music circles. At least on this debut LP they sound like a combination of the song "Popcorn", Roxy Music, Kraftwerk (just a little bit), a lounge act, a wedding band, bad soundtrack music for aerobics tapes and purveyors of the kind of traditional Japanese riffs made popular in generic martial arts films shown on Kung Fu Action Theater. Try as you might, most of the time you don't know if they're being sincere or campily ironic. The answer may be somewhere in between. The tunings are a bit off and you get the sense someone's trying to subtly sabotage the works. YMO was founded by Ryuichi Sakamoto, famous for his work on motion picture soundtracks and for his highly acclaimed performance in the Bowie film Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence. Some singing is spread out in English, French and Japanese, and often there's a keyboard riff emulating words like Muzak.
"Computer Games" was YMO's biggest hit, and if anything is a relic of the arcade days of Pong and Ms. Pac Man, this is it, a literal "Disco Duck" of its time. It starts with the noises of various arcade games, creating a symphony of beeps and boops. Then a cheesy slow disco beat kicks in, followed by the guy from Popcorn playing vaguely Japanese sounding keyboard progressions. I imagine in the imaginary video (in my head) this is when the video game players leave their machines and start break dancing. The only endearing quality this novelty song has is a progressive layering of tracks at the end, which create a swell of weirdness.
"Firecracker" is a continuation of the basic sound of "Computer Games". "Simoon" might as well be introduced on stage by a maitre de announcing "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Route 46 Airport Hotel lounge. Be sure to tip your server, and may I remind you there is a two drink minimum." The truncated cha-cha beat is nicely off-center. On "Cosmic Surfin'", the Silicon Teens and the Popcorn guy play lite jazz with muzak singing. Freestyle jazz bass is its only saving grace. "Tong Poo" has a simple disco beat with a keyboard riff that sounds Japanese but, slowed down, is a classic American Western movie motif. Compared to this New Musik sounds like GG Allin
That being said, there is a track on the album called "La Femme Chinoise" that is not only very good, I think a few other folks cannibalized parts for themselves. It's probably just a co-inky-dink that a keyboard riff invites you to sing along with David Bowie on "Ashes To Ashes" as he croons "I'm so happy, hope you're happy too", but OMD owes royalties for what they took to make "Genetic Engineering". Ultravox should also cut a check for the part the sounds dangerously like "Mr. X".
There's nothing to hate and a lot to laugh at (or maybe with?). The dance beats are as generic as they come but what surrounds it is often ingenious and sometimes even delightfully askew. "Computer Games" is a quaint artifact and "La Femme Chinoise" a valuable treasure. The rest is up for grabs. This is a record you have to play for friends to see what they think. You don't want to go in saying you like it or anything. You might get your ass kicked!
Yo La Tengo - Fakebook (CD review) (Restless/Bar None): I've never listened to Yo La Tengo before, but they come highly recommended by critics in the know. Recording since ‘86, the core of the band is a male/female duo from Hoboken, NJ. Yo La Tengo are known for their understated acoustic and electric guitar work, but I think what makes them such favorites of the critics are the comparisons they can make to The Velvet Underground, Television and NJ legends The Feelies. Ira Kaplan's voice sounds a lot like Lou Reed - if Lou could carry a note. Fakebook is a beautifully rendered combination of folk & steel guitar, which adds cool Western chic to each song, on covers from The Kinks, John Cale, NRBQ, Cat Stevens, The Flamin Groovies and others. An excellent CD, and fans of Beat Happening might enjoy this. It’s reflective but in no way wimpy.
Warren Zevon - Stand In The Fire (recorded live at the Roxy) (LP review) (Asylum): Warren Zevon has (or maybe had) the looks of Thomas Dolby, the voice of Tim Curry, the wit of Randy Newman and the literary sensibilities of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. He's more forgotten now than I thought he would be, considering the cross-cutting popularity of "Werewolves Of London" and the strength of his 1978 release Excitable Boy, a triumph of what I call the Springsteen branch of new wave. The reasons: new wave, a genre that encouraged intelligence and was therefore open to Zevon's strengths, died; alcoholism put his out of the game for two precious years; and the quality of his newer work didn't match up. He began his career in 1969 and failed miserably. He did well when Linda Ronstadt covered his "Poor Poor Pitiful Me". 1976's Warren Zevon was a critical success and Excitable Boy earned a spot in new wave's Angry Young Man hall of fame. Once featured in the 1986 film The Color Of Money, "Werewolves Of London" earned classic status, sure to rile up everyone from bikers to preppies, along with us old new wave types with failed literary aspirations.
This live album from 1980, after Zevon's bout with debilitating booze-lust, is ok. The pacing is too slow for me now in 2001, and in the rhythms there's a glam rock pacing like the "band commander" who leads a marching band while raising his knees high with every step and waving a big ornamental baton up and down and left and right. The use of studio pros makes this professional sounding, a quality I'd like to see more of in live recordings, but after a point it’s too safe and I yearn for some reckless abandon. It's a quality of Zevon's lyrics lacking in the instrumentation so the record comes off as a little sterile. It's nice to hear "Lawyers, Guns and Money" no matter the circumstance.
"Sleep When I'm Dead" shares an ongoing riff with The Knack's "My Sharona", and "Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger" borrows too much from "I Want Candy". It’s not a bad record by any means but it lacks the sense of danger you'd expect from a guy who sang "He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom // And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home // After ten long years they let him out of the home // And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones // Well, he's just an excitable boy".
Warren Zevon - Mr. Bad Example - (cassette review) (Giant): 1978's Excitable Boy is a great record. Zevon leapt ahead of his contemporary Randy Newman with a worldview that was a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Clockwork Orange. "Werewolves of London" is the coolest piano rocker of my generation, and what better way to sum up the situation at hand than the first words of "Lawyers, Guns, and Money": "Well, I went home with the waitress/The way I always do/How was I to know/She was with the Russians, too." Randy Newman proved to be the better man but Warren Zevon has managed to stick around with the help of very powerful friends. While definitely an underacheiver, Zevon's life and career have been intriguing.
Born 1947 in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents, Zevon was a student of the classical composer Igor Stravinsky. He turned to writing rock music for himself and others, most notably Linda Ronstsdt, who covered "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and others with great success. In the early 70s Zevon was The Everly Brother's musical director, which put him in contact with many people who admired his abilities and interesting personality. His debut album featured backing vocals by The Eagles, Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (I'm so old I remember when both Nicks and Ronstadt were hot babes!).
He hit it big with Excitable Boy and then became a successful full-time alcoholic. In 1986 R.E.M. recorded a single with Zevon ("Gonna Have A Real Good Time") and Zevon's star rose once again when "Werewolves of London" was featured in the film The Colour Of Money. A few albums later in 1991 he released Mr. Bad Example, which I found new at a dollar store. That's about how much it's worth.
"Mr. Bad Example" is a great song, like The Pogues tossing Excitable Boy into a blender and spitting something good out. The rest is too safe, like studio musicians were brought in and told to be competent but not stand out. Maybe I'm just supposed to marvel at Zevon's lyrics and fall under the spell of his gruffly beautiful baritone voice. I do and I have, but the songs are slow, weak and listless. Was "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead" written for the movie or was it the other way around? If it was written for the film it's the biggest hack job in music history. On the web I read Warren may be without a record contract. He'll be back. He has too much talent and too many friends. Someone needs to punk this guy up a bit.
Amy Winehouse - The Ska EP (review): I am not and have never been a member of the Amy Winehouse party. I've never knowingly heard a song by her and whatever I've read in passing leads me to believe she's a skanky ho possessing undeserved talent. Via this blog I did trip over her four-song fan club EP featuring faithful renderings of 2-Tone material and found it entertaining. She covers three Specials hits ("Monkey Man", "Hey Little Rich Girl" and "You're Wondering Now") and gives similar treatment to the Sam Cooke's 1961 tune "Cupid". She put together an excellent band and probably kicked it Olde Skool! (It hurt me to type that as much as it did for you to read it). Golf claps all around for Amy Winehouse's respect for good music.
On the other end of the spectrum she truly mangles "Free Nelson Nelson Mandela" on this video from a 2008 tribute concert:
There's not a single note in the video she doesn't warble into parody.
Give Me The Cure: 18 DC Bands interpret The Cure to benefit AIDS Research (comp CD review) (Radiopaque): For all intents and purposes The Cure is R.E.M. for the mirror & makeup crowd. They both crank out the same relatively high level of pop. R.E.M. fans proudly wear their college rings while Cure fans' faces never tan and are usually highly cosmeticized. R.E.M. fans drink beer. Cure fans look at themselves in the mirror when they dance. Gah bless their pointy widdle alt-rock post-punk heads!
Tribute albums are a minefield. I can't say which is a bigger potential waste of money and/or only of interest to die-hard fans -- tributes or live albums. Most bands are better in the studio (I don't see the live concert experience as a spiritual, communal event like some), sound quality usually lacks and some bands replicate their records to the point of karaoke. Tribute albums are limited by the bands they can get, the type of bands the organizer wants for the record, and what the bands throw together in their given time. Are the bands promoting their own sound or the band they're covering? There's a fine line between reinterpreting a song and pretentiously butchering them beyond recognition to make it instantly recognizable to your own fans. Even worse, to cruelly deconstruct songs out of artistic contempt for being asked to copy someone else's art, or in this case jumping someone else's train. I imagine in many cases bands are clueless as to what they're supposed to do on tribute comps.
A 1995 charity CD from Washington, DC, Give Me The Cure contains eighteen Cure covers by way-post-Dischord bands that in my book made the early ‘90s scene a snooze-o-rama. Not that I wish your average Edsel or Jawbox any ill will, but I've never been able to find much in Simple Machine bands to hold my interest beyond "isn't that pleasant." Brushing aside the horrible opening Shudder To Think cover of "Shake Dog Shake", most of this is either nice, interesting or actually decent. The Ropers nicely capture the drum zen of "Jumping Someone Else's Train". I also liked Glo-Worm's "Friday I'm In Love", Tuscadero's "Boys Don't Cry", My Life In Rain's "Pictures Of You" and Trampoline's "Charlotte Sometimes".
Grosse Pointe Blank Soundtrack (CD review) (London): I go on the record as saying John Cusack is the coolest guy in the movies. Always cooler than the Brat Pack, you can't go wrong with any film he's in. Say Anything and The Sure Thing kick the ass of The Breakfast Club any day of the week. Other actors who turn movies into keepers are Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Campbell and Wallace Shawn.
Grosse Pointe Blank lacked the vicious wit of Heathers but I still enjoyed it. This is mostly a collection of ‘80s new wave hits. John has his fingerprints all over the film and I wouldn't be surprised if he helped pick these tunes too. I could have done without Faith No More and Guns N' Roses' cover of "Live & Let Die" but I've only recently accepted the world is not as perfect as I am. Without ugliness there cannot be beauty, you know? The Violent Femmes contribute two versions of "Blister In The Sun", which highlights the fact that they were a one or two hit wonder. I've never heard the Specials' cover of "Pressure Drop", and it’s great as usual. That reggae classic is idiot proof. The Clash contribute "Rudie Can't Fail" and "Armagideon Time". Other bands on the soundtrack are Johnny Nash, The Jam, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Pete Townshend, and Bowie singing with Queen. All in all a pleasant mix from a fun little film.
Hey Brother...Can You Spare Some Ska (Comp CD review) (Vegas Records): All compilations of new, readily available music should retail for $3.99 as this does. Why do it for profit? With so, so, so much to choose from and so little money in the pocket, what better way to grab attention to your label than a cheap comp? Lookout does it once a year. Fat Wreck Chords does too. It only makes sense.
This 24 track ska sampler from Newport Beach's Vegas Records is an interesting cross-section of the various styles that all call themselves ska these days. The comp leans toward the large horn section "roots" movement, but other styles are represented, even scratching and reggae (reggae is ska under the influence). My Superhero's "Another Kind" even manages to sound like The Mr. T Experience. Modern, big horn section ska tends to distinguish itself in the intros, breaks, and transitions. Most of these bands do a good job of avoiding cheap steals of Secret Agent Man riffs, so I recommend this to everyone. My favorites are Jeffries Fan Club, My Superhero, Cousin Oliver and Attaboy Skip, a sentimental choice because I used to know one of them when I lived in Las Vegas.
Hey Brother...3(Comp CD review) (Vegas): The third edition of this affordable series ($4.99) features swing music along with the usual ska (and a bit-o-punk-and-pop). Swing is hot and it segues well with ska, so here we are. The opening tune is "Baseball Bat Boogie" by Dem Brooklyn Bums, and if you think a song about you and your thug friends beating a guy to death with baseball bats is funny, you'll love this. I was disgusted. They should have buried this one, but there it is up front. Hooray for scumbags! It's nice to hear more Five Iron Frenzy. They'd be huge if they weren't a Christian band. The last song is rap. I got my yo-yo, I'm wearing a hood in my crib and my diaper smells funky.
Another solid comp and worth the money. Scratch off the first and last songs. Swing is a bigger fad than even ska. White people who listen to rap are poseurs.
Messages: Modern Synthpop Artists Cover OMD (Comp CD review) (Oglio): I never got over the fact that my beloved new wave music of the ‘70s turned into dumb commercial lite-disco in the ‘80s, and, AND!, that electronic music became flat-out dance floor disco for sex robots. OMD used to be cool, then for money they gave in to the lowest common denominator of their lamest fan base. They were around for a long time and had little in the bank to show for it. I understood but stopped buying their albums. I saw them live as both a great band (early) and a dog and pony show (later), and MAN that early show was great.
Oglio Records has a fine catalog of eccentric music, and you should visit oglio.com. They put out this sixteen band tribute to what is now considered a founding synth-pop band. I was afraid to put this on because what if it was all techno, where the beat never changes and the food I've just eaten is then called vomit once it exits my face? I was offended a few times the first time I put this on, but also surprised by how well some of these bands interpreted the originals.
"Messages", covered by Ganymede, starts off annoying but at least there's no endless beat, and it has enough Kraftwerk in it to make it interesting. The treated voices are inappropriate. "Hold You" by Color Theory is well done, with organic sounding instrumentation and a seemingly improvised piano accompaniment. The lead and backup singing are both excellent. "Bloc Bloc Bloc" by Cosmicity is the worst New Order rip-off imaginable. Put your hands in the air like you just don't care! This is what I feared when I put this CD on.
"Secret" by Intact made me unhappy at first but I've grown to like it. It's not anything I'd admit to at the next skinhead show I attend, but hey. The singer is strong and effective. If not for the added layer of synths this wouldn't be as good. "Souvenir" by Electrosquad sticks close to the original, probably due to the slower speed, and nicely keeps all the charms intact. Paul Humphreys' voice never clicked with me so I prefer this version, which is otherwise in the spirit of its source.
"We Love You" by Dark Distant Spaces works the dance beat too hard, but besides that it's ok and the keyboards are neat. Not that I'll listen to it again, but I am grateful they make the beat stop for a second or two here and there. I love "The Beginning And The End" by House Of Wires because they cover a classic last-song-on-the-side track, where the sound of steam and factory machines took their bows. House Of Wires display talent and command of the studio, and it's a sweet cover.
The Faint cover "Enola Gay", and a lesser band could easily take a straightforward track like this and set it to one hard and never ending beat. The Faint deconstructed the original and inverted the rhythms, which makes it more interesting. A lot of weirdness is going on and I like it. Colecovision covers "Joan Of Arc" well, which is harder than it looks. The original is a beautiful waltz and one of OMD's best. Colecovision's singer, Miss D, has a rich voice and she expresses Andy McClusky's crooning style nicely. I will say though that her exact pronunciations are distracting.
The less said about "Dream Of Me" by The Virgins, the better. Liquid Fiction takes "Electricity" and makes it the techno trance number I feared most. Urghhh! Underpass do a great version of "Radio Waves". That horrible Liquid Fiction band is melting away... "Tesla Girls" is given a whimsical turn by Macondo, and it's a hoot. The original was unintentionally funny. "If You Leave" by Dyed Emotions doesn't make the below average original any better. I don't think it's possible to ruin "Messages", and White Town do the most straightforward cover of any band on the comp. That being said, there's no reason to not just listen to the originals. Carol Masters ends the show with an acoustic and Spanish guitar version of "Secret", which evokes images of a campfire and swaying to and fro. The guy sings with a pronounced frontal lisp.
Messages: Modern Synthpop Artists Cover OMD was far from being a nightmare and I'll transfer a solid two thirds of it to another disc for later enjoyment. The recording quality is excellent and each band seems to know what they're doing in the studio, even if the end results vary.
Nuggets (4 CD box set review) (Rhino): Garage Rock from the late ‘60s is a chapter of American music known more by reputation than experience. Nuggets (full title Nuggets - Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968), the classic 1972 double album that collected hits from the American underground, has long been out of print. Various Pebbles and Nuggets compilations have been around for years but are seemingly hard to find. Rhino Records, masters of the re-issue, have packaged 118 songs into a four CD boxed set, including the original Nuggets. It also comes with a book of information. It’s quite a value considering each CD is double-length.
Even better is that the songs are universally excellent no matter if you're a punk or a psychedelic hipster. Rhino made a conscious decision not to market this solely as an oldies collection, which it is not. I've read reviews saying these were the original punk songs. That depends on what you think punk is. Sure the original Nuggets groups influenced bands that later started the fledgling punk scenes of the ‘70s. What they heard on these recordings was raw enthusiasm and bands that played harder and louder than the competition. Some of these recordings have a punk quality but are also rooted in their time. These garage psychedelic rockers represent the soft white underbelly of the late ‘60s. You hear the influence of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five and other popular bands of that time. Nobody reinvented the wheel - they just thought they were cooler than the rich guys on the radio. Did a lack of talent force some of these bands to play too loud and too fast for popular consumption? Probably. Is this then the true definition of punk? I'll leave that for you to decide.
In the 1972 liner notes Lenny Kaye writes, "The name that has been unofficially coined for them – ‘punk rock’ - seems particularly fitting in this case, for if nothing else they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on-stage outrageous, the relentless middle finger drive and determination offered only by rock and roll at its finest." I doubt any of these bands wished for obscurity. Whatever attitude they copped was a statement on popular style. They all posed for publicity photos! Any of these bands would have given their left one to sell a million records. I think it’s more accurate to say Nuggets bands were garage, not punk.
The original Nuggets record was compiled by Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's guitarist, on orders from Elektra Records president Jac Holzman. Holzman notes "In the first half of the sixties, British groups - the Beatles and especially the Stones, then some others like the Animals and Eric Clapton - had taught young Americans lessons from American roots music. In the second half of the decade, garage bands, building on the instrumental riffs of West Coast surf bands like the Beach Boys and the Ventures, created very tight, AM-oriented pop-rock-punkish records. They were a category of their own, and I thought it would be wonderful to assemble a representative survey of these groups."
In 1972 it was rare indeed for out-of-print singles to be compiled as a historical reissue for the purpose of re-igniting interest in a style of music whose time had passed. Reading the extensive liner notes it's important to understand that parts of the recording industry were regional in nature, and what sold well in one part of the country was often not promoted elsewhere. Just like professional wresting before the WWF went national (great comparison, huh?). In a note of irony, in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s (I forget), the Standells' "Dirty Water" ("Well I love that dirty water/Oh Boston you're my home") was a novelty song adapted for every other radio market with a nearby body of water. It was literally "Oh (your city here) you're my home". There also existed rock dance clubs where white folks clumsily moved about to hard rock. Don't ask.
I took notes on these 118 songs but I'll mention just a few. The original "Hey Joe", performed by the Leaves (later made famous by Hendrix), is a rollicking, bass-driven number great beyond words. "Moulty" by The Barbarians is bizarre because it's sung by its one-handed drummer, and is a plea for a "real women" to not "turn away" from his love. It's hard to get past the opening spoken-word part where he recounts losing his hand in an accident. Supposedly Moulty was conned into recording the track and was so pissed when it was released that he chased the record company president around his office, breaking records over his head. Classic! Minor Threat fans take note: The original "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" by the Standells is here. Residents fans note: a bunch of the covers on Third Reich and Rock can be found within. Dukes of Stratosphere fans: you'll love this too. Best of all: check out the promo still for the Electric Prunes. I swear, one of those guys has the head of a ten year old on top of a hulking twenty year old body.
Most of these songs are great and I highly recommend this collection to every supposed punk rocker. Some of it is hard, some of it is soft, and some of it is plain silly, but each song is intriguing in its own way. By the CDs, read the booklet, and then you too can be as cool as the record store clerks who snarl at you when you ask if "The Sonics" on their t-shirt is a new ska band or something.
On Your Mark...Get Set...Go! (comp CD review) (Steady Beat/Stiffdog/Vegas Records): This thing retails for $1.99, which means Tower will sell it for five bucks and you'll see it used for the standard $7.99. It's a group effort from three California ska labels that concentrate on retro- first wave dancehall ska. I don't mind old ska but too much of the genre consists of dull instrumentals whose gimmick seems to be the periodic James Bond or Secret Agent Man surf riff. If not for the Specials and, later on, Operation Ivy, I doubt as many people would give two yawns about what was recorded in 1967 by bands featuring big horn sections and no singing. Yes, what I'm saying is that first wave ska is only interesting because punk bands took it and made it something else.
Of the six tracks from Steady Beat Recordings, five sound like the same band. Only the Irie Beats pep it up and throw in some lyrics to keep the brain working. If the goal is minimalism, if it's recreating what it must have sounded like in Jamaica almost forty years ago, then Steady Beat is your one stop shop.
The seven tracks from Stiffdog Records are solidly third wave, but Melting Pot sings rap over a heavy beat. Ugh!
The last seven tracks are from Vegas Records, who put out enough cheap comps in a year to give you no excuse for not owning any. Bank Of Brian's contribution stands out because of the electric piano effect they work throughout. Only a few bands here are ska: 4-Gasm are a talented garage girl group who sing like Siouxsie Sioux; The Iron-Ons sing power pop and Action League once again satisfy by treading a line between Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parker.
It's only two bucks so there's no reason not to pick this up. Program off the (c)rap song and what you have is decent background music for when you iron shirts or count change.
Potatoes: A Collection Of Folk Songs (LP review) (Ralph): Released in 1987, this collection of thirteen oddball “traditional" folk songs was one of Ralph's chronicles of the influences and evolution of American popular music. The liner notes warn, "Folk music is a reflection of life in the world. Given the world of today, folk music aficionados should be prepared for some novel twists. However, they shouldn't be surprised to hear traditional strains as well." In other words, these are not all pure folk songs by anyone's definition.
Ralph stretched the definition of folk to allow their stable of artists to contribute whatever they felt fit the mold. The Resident's cover Hank Williams' country hit "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", Negativland slap around some acoustic instruments during a narrated recipe for scrambled eggs, Mark Mothersbaugh records an ode to Akron, Ohio he wrote in 1976 ("It's more than a town to me/ It's more than plain/ It's a city of pain/ It's one big factory!"), Blitzoids give "Fire On The Mountain" the Weird Al treatment, Renaldo & The Loaf prove the Resident's equal on an old Liverpool sea chantey, and Snakefinger sings a slow dirge.
The real treats are an old recording of "The Billy Bee Song" and Maria Marquez and Frank Harris singing "Canto Del Pilon". "The Billy Bee Song", a scratchy archival recording by an unknown Appalachian girl, is sung in the style of the playground but deals with adult sexual issues which reflect the image of hill-folk marrying off their children at a young age, who then have children themselves as soon as biology allows. "Canto Del Pion" is a beautiful Venezuelan folk song sung traditionally by women mashing corn. While they work, gossip and current events of the town are expressed in pitch and rhythm. The effect is Sade meets Laurie Anderson. It’s an effective and hypnotic blend of world and electronic music.
Revenge Of The Killer B's (LP review) (Warner): That Warner released this 1984 sequel to Attack Of The Killer B's just goes to show there was a large enough market for obscure b-sides from bands like the Talking Heads, B-52's and Depeche Mode. Or maybe it cost very little to repackage old material, so what the hell. What makes this album worthy of further consideration is that it was one of the last times bands of such diversity were put together for a dying breed of eclectic record buyer. Music is now marketed and consumed in tightly defined niches which the record industry scratches until blood gushes in rivers.
The American Top 10 is the end-product of enough corporate synergy to make The Monkees a crusty garage band in comparison. The UK charts have always been famous for having performers like Tom Jones and The Stranglers vying toe to toe for position, while the US Charts run the gamut from the Spice Girls to the Backstreet Boys. People's attention spans are shorter than ever, more than was once thought humanly possible. This new herd of slack-jawed consume-o-trons like simple, easy, flashy, sexy, cool musical accompaniments to the fashion and lifestyle purchases dictated by corporate/media synergy, to be discarded and replaced every few months, depending on the limits of your credit card limit.
In the mid to late ‘70s it was common to be into all kinds of music. People's knowledge of music and music history was deeper, and more people internalized the genealogy of music that led from blues to rock to new wave and punk. You had the disco people and everyone else, who all hated disco. Where once people took pride in the diversity of their music collections, now to fit in you grab onto a style and hold on for dear life. Even this requires more time and effort than most want to commit, so they dress the part and pretend Attitude can replace personality. In other words, there are more posers now then ever.
The following bands are on this comp: Aztec Camera, B-52's, Marshall Crenshaw, Depeche Mode, Echo and The Bunnymen, Fleetwood Mac, Kid Creole and The Coconuts, Madonna, Pretenders, Rank and File, Talking Heads, and Tom Verlaine. Maybe Warner Bros. thoughtlessly tossed these groups together to appeal to as many buyers as possible. Relevant songs are: Depeche Mode, "Sometimes I Wish I Was Dead"; Rank and File, "Post Office"; B-52's, "Moon 83"; Pretenders, "Money"; Talking Heads, "I Wish You Wouldn't Say That"; Echo and The Bunnymen, "Way Out And Up We Go"; Tom Verlaine, "Your Finest Hour"; Aztec Camera, "Set The Killing Free".
Seven Unlucky Sevens (comp CD review) (Slampt): I didn't figure England to be a haven for lo-fi bands, but once again I'm proven wrong. Newcastle's Slampt Records has an active roster of bands that would easily fit on the K Records label. Lo-fi is a little bit folky, a bit more beatnik hipster doodling, and sometimes a nod to The Velvet Underground. A lot of lo-fi bands also feature male/female singing duos with a guy who can't sing but is quite sincere, and a woman with a nice voice who's often indifferent and prefers to sing at the pace of talking.
This CD is a 44-song compilation of seven EPs from various Slampt bands. Avocado Baby are close to Beat Happening in every way. Pussycat Trash fancy themselves closer to Thee Headcoates and The Cramps. Unseen has a thing for The Velvet Underground. Golden Starlets provide more Crampy Headcoates noise whilst Milky Wimshakes are a little too fa-la-la, but "Yeah, it's true" is a keeper. The Yummy Fur, not to be confused with the comic book of the same name, will bring a smile to Minutemen fans. Missy X closes out the set and they record an enjoyable set of drones, even using a saxophone, the greatest noisemaker in the whole world. It’s very arty stuff.
I like this compilation. The women who sing in lo-fi bands are either way too sexy or too cruelly indifferent sounding. Either way I think it's great. I put this on when I'm doing stuff like reading the paper. I can play it very low and not feel I'm missing out on something. Is lo-fi even supposed to be played loud? Here's another unrelated and shameless plug for Meatjoy, an old Texas lo-fi band whose hand-made album covers are highly sought collectibles.
SFX #4 (cassette review) (SFX): Like it says on the 8 1/4"X 11 1/2" cardboard backing this cassette was attached to with a long grocery twist tie, "The Only Music Magazine On C-60". A short-lived folly in ‘81-’82, as are CD-ROM magazines today, SFX was intended to succeed because it was new and innovative. The gimmick lasted only as long as the company's finances, and the reasons why SFX failed and every CD-ROM magazine has or will fail are basically the same. As an information medium an e-zine or cassette zine cannot compete with the printed word on paper, just as the visual medium of CD-ROM technology can't compete with television's accessibility and push button ease of use.
This issue of SFX contains interviews with the Human League, Depeche Mode, OMD, Steve Strange, James Brown and a piece on record industry A&R men. It sounds like any of a number of radio shows produced at the time, all free to the ear. Therefore there was no reason to buy this unless you were at the record store and just had to get it because your favorite band's on it, and it's your goal in life to go broke in their name. Here's some other advantages of print magazines: they're filled with hours of material you can read any where, at any time and at any pace. You can keep it next to the toilet (where god intended) or put it out on the coffee table for other music geeks to admire. Until you're satisfied, a magazine's life can last forever. This cassette format is 60 minutes long and then it’s good night nurse. Listening to SFX I missed a lot while being distracted by other things, and, to be honest, it's dull. Dull, inefficient and free elsewhere - that's why SFX never had a chance. Flipside put out a few cassette mags themselves. Ever seen one of those?
Slee-Pee Mix (EP" review) (My Room Records): I had credit left after trading in CDs so I pulled this from the dusty 92 cent box kept at big-toe level. Two of the bands listed on the back were Goodnite Moon and Sarcastic Bitch, so I figured it somehow had to be interesting. Slee-Pee Mix s a nice DIY lo-fi record, and it's making me think about all kinds of things.
My Room Records operates out of Sierra Madre, CA, and as far as I can tell it's run out of a bedroom, hence the name. Records are also recorded in this bedroom. Their web site, with its crayon lettering and scanned pictures of My Little Pony, looks like the work of a ten year old, but in this age of irony it can't be what it seems. The cuteness is dollars to donuts a diversion from the Grrrl power-brand confident, ironic energy that permeates the music itself. All five songs are lo-fi, which I like even if I don't go out of my way to buy it. It's pleasant, catchy, and what would get me into a coffee house if I knew one of these bands was playing.
My Room Records puts out cassettes, records and t-shirts from fellow travelers of a scene I know little about since I don't hang out in coffee houses and don’t define myself by a sense of bemused detachment. The sense I get from lo-fi people is that they enjoy pretending you don't exist by looking at you and past you at the same time.
Lo-fi bands are for the most part small (many have only two members), acoustic and intentionally a little off key and time. Most lo-fi bands I've heard feature female singers, and I've yet to hear a bad lo-fi singer. The mixture of sweetness, intelligence and cynicism these singers wield is lo-fi's big selling point. The music itself is garnish.
This is a very good record and a fine addition to my small yet growing lo-fi collection. Like I say, I don't seek this stuff out but I'm always glad when I trip my big toe over it.
The Stiff Records Box Set (4 CDs review) (Stiff/Demon): There's a long out-of-print paperback on the history of England's Stiff Records, written by label historian Bert Muirhead. It’s well worth the money if you can find it. In the late ‘70s Stiff was the coolest label around, yet in some minds Stiff was never more than a hapless pub rock label lacking focus and standards. Flying by the seat of their pants, Stiff released the first and best punk single (The Damned's "New Rose"), gave Elvis Costello both his start and his stage name, and was the most open-minded label of the UK punk scene.
What’s pub rock? Rock music played in pubs. In the ‘70s pub rock was proudly retro. Well known pub rock groups were Dr. Feelgood, Roogalator, Ducks Deluxe, Mott The Hoople - even The 101ers, Joe Strummers' sloppy r&b band. Within pub rock you can hear drinking songs, dancehall ditties, cabaret, vaudeville, doo-wop, r&b, power pop and piano blues. American counterparts include Southside Johnny, Bruce Springsteen and Randy Newman. Early UK punks claimed to hate pub rock even though some of their personal heroes came from these bands. Possibly pub rock was too closely tied to the Teds, England's answer to America's trailer park dwelling, Elvis Presley-worshipping greasers. Teds hated punks with a passion, but in England everybody hates everybody anyway.
Seeded with a loan of 400 pounds from Dr. Feelgood's lead singer, Lee Brilleaux, pub rock managers and promoters Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson founded Stiff Records as the UK scene's only forward looking independent label. Their first release was Nick Lowe's "So It Goes" single in 1976, and even with no distribution it was voted single of the week. Having neither good distribution nor record industry experience, Riviera and Robinson made up the difference in gimmicks, humor, and balls. How else to explain the motto, "If It Ain't Stiff It Ain't Worth A F--k". Stiff released an intentionally blank 7" called "The Wit And Wisdom Of Ronald Reagan".
They also started the trend of picture sleeves, now taken for granted. They were helped by England's small yet ferocious music press, which actively sought out new artists and trends. Like all independent labels not interested in ruling the world, they lost bands at their peak and periodically lost their shirts by signing the wrong bands at the wrong times. Hits here and there kept Stiff going for years but nobody money in the process. The remains of Stiff are now owned by Demon Records, actually Jake Riviera and Elvis Costello.
The most popular acts on Stiff were: Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Madness, Devo, Graham Parker, The Damned, Dave Edmunds, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric, Tenpole Tudor, Tracey Ullman (!), Dr. Feelgood, The Pogues, Desmond Dekker, and The Untouchables. Listening to these four CDs, what hit me the hardest was how Stiff signed some of the best and the worst new wave and punk acts of all time.
Disc One: Highlights: Nick Lowe "So It Goes", The Damned "New Rose", Richard Hell "Blank Generation", Elvis Costello "Less Than Zero", "Watching The Detectives", The Adverts "One Chord Wonders", Ian Dury "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll". Hidden Treasures: Max Wall "England's Glory", Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias "Kill", Mick Farren "Let's Loot The Supermarket Again Like We Did Last Summer, Jane Aire And The Belvederes "Yankee Wheels".
Disc Two: Highlights: Nick Lowe "I love My Label", Devo "Jocko Homo", Lene Lovich "Lucky Number", Wreckless Eric "Take The Cash (K.A.S.H.)", Madness "One Step Beyond", Ian Dury "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick". Hidden Treasures: Lew Lewis Reformer "Win Or Lose", The Rumour "Emotional Traffic".
Disc Three: Highlights: Madness "My Girl", Desmond Dekker "Israelites", Graham Parker "Stupefaction", "Mercury Poisoning (live)", Department S "Going Left Right", Joe King Carrasco "Buena". Jona Lewie "You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties" (a guilty pleasure like no other), Any Trouble "Trouble With Love", The Equators "If You Need Me".
Disc Four: Highlights: Belle Stars "Sign Of The Times", The Untouchables "Free Yourself", King Kurt "Destination Zululand", The Pogues "Dark Streets Of London", "Sally MacLennane", Kirsty MacColl "A New England" (it's impossible to do this one wrong).
A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs of XTC (CD review) (Thirsty Ear): I knew this was going to be trouble when the first song, "Earn Enough For Us", is credited to the album Black Sea. Like, duh, that was from Skylarking. A Testimonial Dinner is David Yazbek's labor of love, and his short XTC history is pretty good except when he writes about XTC's decision to abandon the frenetic facings of "Life Begins At The Hop" for slower, more intricate songs such as "Senses Working Overtime". Here he writes "Die-hards in mohawks were aghast". Wha? Only the village idiot would go to an XTC concert dressed like Sid Vicious. XTC was one of the defining new wave bands, one of the best. They were not punk. Please.
This album on the whole is exceedingly average, populated by the likes of The Rembrandts, The Verve Pipe, Reuben Blades, They Might Be Giants and Joe Jackson, who contributes the only song close to the spirit of the original in his cover of "Statue Of Liberty". If I'm not mistaken, Terry & The Lovemen is a side project of XTC's Colin Moulding. I wish They Might Be Giants recorded "25 O'Clock" back when they still played toy instruments and wore tall hats. Here they exhibit almost none of their famous humor. Sarah McLachlan's soulful version of "Dear God" is a pretentious political statement. All in all, the take on XTC is of a folk/lounge/alternative band. They could be that too, but in 1980 they played some of the most deceptively jagged new wave dance music around. Nobody could touch Andy Partridge's singing style, equated by one reviewer with hiccupping. And for such poppy pop nobody tore at his guitar like Mr. Partridge. Maybe having The Rembrandts cover "Making Plans For Nigel" was a good marketing decision, but an XTC tribute comp should be as experimental as the band. Other old new wave bands should have been forced out of retirement to record great old songs like "Complicated Game" and "Outside World". Why wasn't I consulted?!
Trojan Box Set: Ska Revival
is a sweet source for Jamaican music; ska, rocksteady, dub, lovers and roots,
releasing almost fifty affordable box sets of everything from ganja reggae to
Nyahbinghi (bless you!). I own the rock steady box and this, my prize
possession, the ska revival three-disc box. The
reviewer seems to be offended by it, but for a second wave fanatic like me this
is a gold mine. Search for ska revival at the Trojan site to listen to samples
of each track, and if you want to buy this please don't ask for a box of
The collection focuses on the best bands of the 2-Tone era and contains studio and live tracks not readily available to the average ska fan who bought the major albums and splurged on Dance Craze . It does not contain Madness or The Bodysnatchers, which means they consulted me in my sleep. Madness were pricks and posers while The Bodysnatchers never measured up. You have the Beatles and Rolling Stones of ska, The Beat and The Specials (also as the Coventry Automatics and Desmond Decker and The Specials), The Selecter (their hits make me forgive the filler) and Bad Manners (much better when not a novelty cover band).
All the great songs are here in versions you've probably never heard, and the obscure tracks are keepers. Second wave ska was the happiest music going, even and somehow especially when Buster Bloodvessel sings about wanting to murder his girlfriend in the sucker-in-love classic "Lorraine".
If it gets any better than this your priorities are all screwed.
When Worlds Collide: New Wave Vs. Lo-Fi (7" review) (AAJ): I'm firmly convinced 7" records exist as a form of exercise, or an oddly nerve-wracking leash not unlike an unwatched infant or pot about to overflow. To review this four song EP I've bounced up and down from my chair enough times to qualify for a slice of cheesecake. The things I do for you, the kids. No, not you, the kids next to you.
This EP was sent by AAJ Records out of Tallahassee, FL. It's humid down there and the flying roaches are huge. The label's web site (www.aaj.nu) is clean yet cluttered. The ".nu" is an internet country code for an island paradise called Niue. The label wanted "www.aaj" and Niue is a whorish pile of dirt for sale at any price. AAJ is run by one Lee Grutman, aka "The Amazing Lee" of local pick-up band Invaders From Another Planet. Mike Coleman of Ancient Brain cashes the label's checks. The Replicons are a front band of fake names and bios for any of a number of Lee/Coleman cronies. The Full Sign have the brothers Hamilton (Bruce drums for Ancient Brain) involved with a group of women singing and who knows who on other musical smash strum thingies.
Invaders From A Forbidden Planet and Replicons account for the new wave side, flipped by the lo-fi The Full Sign and Ancient Brain. I've never thought of these genres as two ends of a scale, but that's not the lesson of the EP. The deal is that the wacky eclectic music community of Tallahassee and environs have what must be a thriving if not just a fun scene for those involved. With AAJ Records these people record stuff and release them in cool looking packages. Grutman and Coleman then market them with a passion. Like I always say, when I get something in the mail you know every other option has been exhausted.
I don't know these people. I've only known people like them. I envy the hell out of them for making things happen, especially good times and memories. From what I've gathered, Invaders From A Forbidden Planet is The Amazing Lee's avenue for any pop creation that's woken him up at 3 AM. Styles change, band members change, bands form and disband by design, and all the good stuff gets recorded. That's a scene at its best, kids. DIY with something to show besides a slogan.
The Invaders' "Josie" is a Mute/Silicon Teens/casio new wave dance tune that if not inspired by Helen Love's "We Love You" -- well, that's just not possible. There’s no foul because this makes me bounce up and down. It’s bubble gum and more fun than adults are normally allowed to have. Replicons, with band members Recombinant Clone, Polymer Mutagen, Cosmid Vector and Amino Acid, provide "Plasmid Conjugation" - a nod to the mighty Servotron. More casio wave with a Devo corporate theme feel. I could listen to hours of this brand of silliness. The Full Sign recorded "Another Day In England", what happens at the coffee shop before closing time when everyone's invited up to bang found objects together to create joyful noise. I love lo-fi stuff and I can't explain why. Ever since Texas band Meatjoy I've been a total loser for the sloppiest lo-fi imaginable. Ancient Brain is a straight band, what the promo info describes as "lo-fi meets The Steve Miller Band". It’s not special but the sax is nice. Extra points for the ending where a Nixon imitator belts out lyrics karaoke style.
The new wave tracks will end up on my stack of 7"s I need to record some songs off of on a cassette. 7" records are work.
Wonder From A Quarter Acre (comp CD review) (Augogo): Australia's Augogo Records is pretty cool. They put out a great Cub rarities CD, for which I am eternally grateful. They run an impressive gamut from Doo Rag to Hellacopters. This comp has much shoe gazing, a little emo and too many quiet parts that made it seem my CD player had stopped working. Only two tracks stand out, "The Chorus Is Suffering" by Art Of Fighting and "Bit" from Sphyzein. Otherwise, a better name for this comp would have been "Sounds Of Silence" or "Fear Of Audibility".
I'll list the other bands so you'll know whom to avoid if you want to stay awake: The Avalanches, El Mopa, S-Bahn, Sea Scouts, Litre Dolby and The Golden Lifestyle Band. If they represent a movement, it should be crushed with tanks.
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