Agony Shorthand

Monday, September 29, 2003

And that’s about as hardcore as my French gets: “Oui”. PUSSY CAT is the latest addition to my 1960s French “ye ye girls” obsession, via a Magic Records compilation of her complete 1966-1969 recordings. Pussy Cat is really Ms. Evelyne Courtois, and a brief bio can be found here. She’s another standout in a long line of top-drawer honking gallic garage pop, from a country whose (female) chart-topping pop output in 1966 is easily of a par with anything going on in the UK or US that same year. This collection has a number of thumping, wall-of-sound standouts, most from the early years of her solo career, including “La La Lu”, “Les Temps Ont Change” and “Ce n’est pas une vie” (a cover of a song I know from elsewhere; but where? Translation is, believe it or not, “Sha-la-la-la-lee”. Little help, please?). It all comes into view when you crank this stuff to 11: the bright colors, the miniskirts, the spinning lights, the bobbing hairdos, the elderly but note-perfect horn section, the frugging boys and girls in the front row, etc. Pussy Cat certainly belongs in the top third of the ye ye pantheon thanks to these songs alone. Like many of us mortals, she is far from perfect – there are too many weak covers of mediocre American & British hits like “Bus Stop”, “She’s Not There” and “You’re No Good” to make this collection an essential listen from start to finish, and by the time the sixties were winding to a close, so too was the interesting part of Pussy Cat’s career. She’s no CLOTHILDE, but who is, right?

I am interested in any suggestions folks might have about other countries that had thriving girl pop scenes in the 1960s. France obviously touches a pleasurable nerve for a lot of folks, because hey, let’s just admit it, difficult as it may be: it’s an exceptionally beautiful language, and a coquettish 19-year-old singing perfectly-crafted, booming pop music is pretty hard to resist. Other candidate languages that roll off the tongue are Spanish, Swedish and perhaps Danish – can anyone hip the rest of us to those countries’ wild 60s girl pop scenes?

TRYIN’ BEFORE I’M BUYIN’….I could probably write reams of text about the RIAA’s decision to sue individual downloaders a few weeks ago, but I’m sure you’ll thank me from refraining. The story is way, way above me – really a classic “Future and its Enemies” case study, something business people, Hollywood types and music fans alike will be referencing years from now. I happen to be one of those folks that HAVE in fact bought several CDs because I took the bands for a Kazaa or AudioGalaxy-based test drive first. Lately I’ve tried a few new artists I was curious about. Here’s what I learned from my illegal, royalty-free downloads!

BASEBALL FURIES “Arch Enemy” and “Get Activated” – I was already a fan of this howling garage punk combo, but hadn’t heard them since their late 90s 7”EPs – what a loss! This is some of the hottest, rawest, ballistic punk aggro since TEENGENERATE. I’m surprised no one nominated this crew as modern heirs to last decade’s garage heroes (Cheater Slicks, Gories, Night Kings et al). I’ve already ordered the CD these tracks come from.

BUFF MEDWAYS “Archive From 1959” – Best BILLY CHILDISH tune I’ve heard in a decade. Cranked-up punk rock with a lot of spit and bite. Not sure if I got lucky with the track I chose, or if this band is the real deal.

CYNTHIA DALL “I Hear Voices” and “God Made You” – Could this be any more boring and amateurish? My mom carries a tune better than Ms. Dall, but she can’t get on Drag City. Former Rollerderby cover star with a SMOG connection – that’s about all I know and all I will ever know, starting right about now.

DANIELSON FAMILE “Good News For the Pus Pickers” – A weird cross between Teddy & The Frat Girls, Cheap Trick and Six Finger Satellite. Either entertainingly annoying or just plain annoying.

HORRORS (various tracks from “Swoop Down” CD) – Very solid In The Red blooze-garage punk, but not amazing enough to rush out & spend some money. Maybe there’s more to this bunch than the first three tracks on this record? Until I find out, I’ll take A FEAST OF SNAKES in a hot Texas minute!

THE KILLS “Fried My Little Brains” – Good skuzzy riffage and lowdown production, mitigated by tired “bad girl” BOSS HOG-style vocals & attitude. Very Amrep 1989!

MISTREATERS “Good Thing” – Smoking Lazy Cowgirls-style thug punk with barking, rasp vocals. I’d definitely like to hear more. Legally!

MUM (several tracks) – This group of Icelandic up-and-comers sounds like an elfin gang of 2-inch fairies and pixies holed up deep in the woods, bent on creating weird yet joyful Cocteau Twins-inspired electronic cut-up music. And as I have a soft spot for both the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush (don’t tell anyone!), MUM take some of the better aspects of both and update it for our age. I may even now get the CD and pay $18.98 at Tower Records just to prove a point, but I guess I’d still like to hear more – this could be a one-trick dorm room flavor of the month.

STARLIGHT DESPERATION “Messed Up Head” – Also quite good Devo-meets-Clawhammer indie panic/grind. The woman from “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs” likes them; does that mean we can’t?

USISAMONSTER “Dub”, “Trippa Bobbipa” and “Ropetwine” – Skittering, crazed modern no wave that sounds really, really promising. I peg these guys as akin to former Matador underperformers CIRCLE X; strangely obtuse in some places, wild and screaming in others. I intend to follow up with the Load Records executive team and get the full story.

Friday, September 26, 2003
UPDATE: I WAS WRONG…..In my post on the Top 63 songs of all time a couple of months ago, I highlighted the ROLLING STONES’ masterwork as being “Loving Cup” from Exile On Main Street. Genius. No question about that. But how could I have given short shrift to the absolute perfection of “Gimme Shelter”?? I hereby replace my previous choice with “Gimme Shelter” – a brilliant, genre-defining piece of work that’s probably one of the ten best rock songs ever written. That it was rewarded accordingly as a “hit” is rare justice, and perhaps why I went the more difficult route of choosing an obscure album track. Rock dorks are like that, aren’t we?

A BIG BRONX CHEER FOR THE WORST ROCK MOVIES THIS CENTURY….I don’t think I’ve got it in me to compile a list of the worst Rock & Roll-themed movies of all time, but I certainly have an idea about the worst of recent, 21st Century vintage. That’s easy: “24 Hour Party People” and Todd Haynes’ (an otherwise beyond-reproach director) “Velvet Goldmine” (which is actually from 1998). Both looked so promising, too: the former was directed by Michael Winterbottom (“The Claim” and “Welcome to Sarajevo”) and dealt with the rise and fall and rise again of the Manchester, UK punk and post-punk music scene; the latter was loosely linked to the glam era & had fictional representations of Iggy Pop (“Curt Wild”), Bowie and others of the time. My wife and I watched “24 Hour Party People” a few months ago and kept looking at each other in disbelief – “what the f**k is this film about??”. Sure, there’s a fake Sex Pistols, a fake Joy Division and even a fake Durutti Column (!), and then a whole mess of fake “Happy Mondays” that’s the final nail in the coffin. Not because it’s “fake” per se, but because Winterbottom invests their fictional personalities with dozens of random one-liners that are completely apropos of nothing, and because it’s almost impossible to generate any sympathy or feeling for Manchester scene celeb Tony Wilson, who “hosts” the entire film (played by Steve Coogan). He’s not funny, he’s not interesting, he’s just – there. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a disjointed mess of a film – ostensibly it’s about Wilson and his “larger than life” role in developing the Manchester scene, but if you can make it through the final 10 minutes you have a higher pain threshold than we did. It was that bad – we couldn’t even stomach the final death throes just to say we completed it.

“Velvet Goldmine” was not that bad, just a big flaccid letdown after a lot of hype (we rushed to see it on opening weekend, before all the bad reviews came in). Ewan McGregor as Iggy Pop? Sounds good to me – but his brief cameo mugging and grunting and sticking out his tongue through a bogus “TV Eye” is just abominable. You’ll be begging to watch him get flogged again in “The Pillow Book” after suffering through this performance. The film spirals into a homoerotic “mystery” featuring the disappearance of the Bowie-like glam star at the height of his popularity, and the dogged reporter determined to crack the case. That is, when Haynes even sticks to that flimsy story. I don’t have a problem with Todd Haynes at all – his “Safe” was a fantastic, mind-boggling film, and “Poison”, “Far From Heaven” and of course “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” were fine as well. But watching Jonathan Rhys-Myers pouting like a decadent Roman God and making kissy faces at the camera for 2 hours while muttering more apropos-of-nothing dialogue (do you sense a pet peeve?) was just too much. This is arguably not a rock and roll film, so it’s probably more a problem of how it was marketed. If you haven’t been flimflammed into seeing this one yet, don’t bother. Whew. That’s enough ranting for today. Any more nominees for worst rock film of all time?

Friday, September 19, 2003
"HISTORY OF ROCK WRITTEN BY THE LOSERS"....Anyone you recognize in this article from The Onion? "The social misfits who chronicle rock seek not only to log facts, but also to influence public opinion about obscure rock issues, something most people care little about". Yeah, what's wrong with these losers? Get a life, right?

Thursday, September 18, 2003

You know how some people are always asking couples how they met? For these kindly inquisitors, all romantic beginnings set the full context for everything that followed (never mind what really happened as the couple came to truly know each other). I'm kind of the same way when it comes to music. It's mildly exhilarating to learn of individuals' discovery processes; those happenstance instances where their musical tastes experienced a tectonic shift, or when they were introduced to a band or genre that ended up setting their standards for years to come. You know; the older brother who played you the Velvet Underground for the first time; the time you stumbled into the Minutemen show; the Skip James track you downloaded because someone said you might like it. I love that shit.

I was very recently presented with a crisp compact disc version of the LAZY COWGIRLS' "Tapping The Source", the popularly-recognized best record from a truly formative rock and roll band for me. My over-involvement with them led to a real love for raw garage-oriented rock; the deep discovery of bands such as the MC5, NY DOLLS, RADIO BIRDMAN and even the SHIT DOGS; and a period in which I bought more 45s of this "sound" than anyone would consider healthy. Listening to it again inspired a torrent of insular words. The Lazy Cowgirls showed up at the right time in my life, when I was 18 years old and ready for a home-town band to rally around. In 1986 these newly-minted Los Angelinos played a bill in Santa Barbara, California with AGENT ORANGE, the MENTORS (yes! The Mentors!), AGGRESSION and at least 1 or 2 other horrid hardcore bands. I attended with hopes of hearing Agent Orange play "Bloodstains", but it was the Lazy Cowgirls who blew me clean away. These guys were the most incongruous garage-based punk band imaginable; total Indiana hicks with farm boy accents as deep as you can imagine; a balding, slightly overweight frontman who was MC5-style energy personified; and a total steamroller approach to the "live event". This approach boiled down to revving up the audience to religious levels, bashing it out for 45 minutes, then wrecking everything on the stage after an 8-minute scream through "You're Gonna Miss Me"; (always, always the set closer). Before that show I knew of the band from their debut LP "The Lazy Cowgirls", which was mostly notable because it was produced by Chris D. of the FLESH EATERS, who were a godhead band for some of my influential peers at the college radio station I was DJ-ing at (and who at this time were in the process of becoming my "favorite all-time band").

After that "tectonic shift" of a show, I saw the Lazy Cowgirls, no kidding, at least 25-30 times; every time they played in Los Angeles from 1986-1989, I and a posse of similarly-oriented drinkers with fake IDs would head down to the Anti-Club or Raji's to watch them deliver. I think there were at least two caravans up to San Francisco/Berkeley to see full weekends of shows there as well. Sick! I'd tell anyone who asked that they were my favorite current band. New records came out, the lineup changed a bunch, the band soldiered (and continues to soldier) on, and I more or less forgot about them around 1995 or so. I hear they're now a "bar rock" band a la the Stones or Divine Horsemen. Might be worth checking out one of these days for shits & giggles, right? So I listened to "Tapping the Source"; again this week, this time attempting to hear it with the ears of a man unencumbered by all the baggage collected in the previous paragraph. I have to say it still holds up! No, not in the sense that it's a life-changer, but it is still a drop-dead raw and searing 4-track punk rock record, with every single track cranked out in glorious shit-fi. "Goddamn Bottle" was the "hit", but this record also has the longtime show opener "Can't You Do Anything Right?", "Mr. Screwdriver", and my fave, "Bullshit Summer Song". If I was hearing it for the first time I'd probably call it a real good record, and would maybe pull it out for a spin every year or so. Subsequent four-on-the-floor bands such as the New Bomb Turks owe a huge debt to these guys, as it was the Cowgirls who did the Ramones/Stooges/Dolls hybrd first and certainly the best. It (strangely) sounds fantastic on CD, as well.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

After years of grumbling from NEIL YOUNG-come-latelys like myself, four of his late 1970s/early 80s releases are finally out on CD for the first time: “On The Beach”, “Re-ac-tor”, “Hawks and Doves” and “American Stars N’ Bars”. This is likely big news for those of you who’ve been scouring the bins for the original vinyl; a couple of these just seem to have disappeared and have been commanding collector prices, despite their popularity and large print runs at the time. The one I didn’t have a digitized version of already is “American Stars N’ Bars”, so I set about to right that wrong. While Young gets many kudos for the more mournful and bitter “Tonight’s The Night” , “Zuma” and “On The Beach”, he also added a touch of levity and barroom fun to some of his records, and this one certainly fits in that camp. It’s cobbled together from a bunch of different recording sessions in the mid-1970s, but you’d never know it – only the majestic, roaring 10-minute Crazy Horse opus “Like A Hurricane” stands out significantly.

“Stars N’ Bars” is really an album chock full of weed smokin’, Laurel Canyon countrypolitan honk. I got to thinking: the line that separates 1970s Neil Young from, say, the Eagles is strangely not that pronounced (e.g. this record’s backing vocals from Canyon doyennes Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson), and their FM radio fan bases certainly overlapped during this era. Yet the former stands tall today because of his unorthodox vocal style, his remarkable consistency despite frequent stylistic diversions, and his amazingly hard-rocking, guitar-drenched band. The latter, well, they just flat-out sucked. This record has a number of fantastic songs that didn’t make it to “Decade” and which I’d therefore never heard until this week: “Saddle Up The Palomino”, “Bite The Bullet” and “The Old Country Waltz” are all top-drawer. “Homegrown” takes me back to my 8th grade classmates expounding on their love for “killer green indica homegrown skunk bud” without having the slightest idea what they were talking about. If this one wasn’t an anthem of sorts to them and their stoned siblings, I’d be quite surprised. The long and short of it is that “American Stars N’ Bars” is yet another 1970s Neil Young CD unarguably worth owning, and since they’re blowing it out at “the nice price” of $9.99, I’d reckon you might want to check your wallet for that ten-spot right about now.

Monday, September 15, 2003
A-FRAMES : “A-FRAMES 2”…..Second winner in a row from this Seattle “blank-wave”/ garage punk combo, despite a ridiculously overblown robotic persona that has had me teetering between loving them like brothers and laughing at them mercilessly. So let’s start with the good: just like on their debut, the A-FRAMES play tight, vibrant and raw electro-punk without any actual electronics. They are cold heartless drones mining their trade in a barren, uncaring world, and they’ve got the Joy Division-esque titles (“Archaeology”, “Sensation”, “Statement”) to prove it. And they rock the fuck out. Just to pick a couple of the standouts – “Modula” and “Futureworld” are two of the hottest slices of clanging, aggressive rock and rock I’ve heard in a while, and there’s no doubt that this set have got to really tear it up live. They’ve got the choppy, staccato burst of guitar noise thing down, and every track has got a riff that’ll worm its way into your noggin but good. There is very little (if any) filler material spread amongst this disc’s 15 tracks, either, which is pretty goddamn rare. I would definitely peg the A-FRAMES closer to the stomping garage rock side of the fence than toss them in the retro new-wave camp, and they’re about a dozen times more creative and talented than the still-likeable but more synthetic LOST SOUNDS. They’re helping to take a staid genre to a pretty exciting place.

The not-so good? The haphazard use of every five-dollar scientific word in the book might strike some folks as utterly preposterous, and when delivered in this loony robot voice straight out of 1950s monster movie, well, it’s hard not to take a step back and wonder if this might just be a bit embarrassing to be caught liking. In fact, the guy singing reminds me of a California surfer brah trying to trade his natural, god-given Jeff Spicoli voice for the imagined voice of a tormented man made of bolts and steel. Everything is sung as if there were dashes between every syllable (“Au-to-mat-tic / She’s-er-ra-tic” is one such couplet). Pretty bold. You know what? You can laugh all you want – I still think these guys rule. I’ll Jukebox Jury them in a decade or so and see if I feel the same way in my forties.

MONOSHOCK SINGLES COMP.....Breaking news from S-S Records: "Received an email today from Scott Derr, formerly of Monoshock, and he says that the S-S Records / Monoshock seven inch/comp/outtakes cd is gojng through the remix stages as I write this. Scott sez that the cd looks like the 3 7"s, some of the first four track recordings, some outtakes from the Walk... sessions, and the comp tracks. Look for a mid winter release...". How about that? All three of their mid-1990s 45s are fantastic CRIME-style panic punk. I even put the first one out myself on my short-lived label WOMB RECORDS. Glad the world will finally get to hear them (and I have some of the debut lying around if you're interested -- just let me know).

Friday, September 12, 2003
ACID/MOD/PUNK DISCOVERY OF THE MONTH…..Many thanks to JB for turning me on to an amazing 1967 psychedelic heavy-guitar scorcher from LES FLEUR DE LYS with SHARON TANDY called “Hold On”. It just showed up randomly on a CD-R comp this great American made for me, and it’s one of the more outstanding slices of 1960s acid garage punk I’ve ever heard. The band has been comped many times elsewhere with different tracks (I was only familiar with the ubiquitous “Circles” and another called “Mud In Your Eye” from Chocolate Soup), and this particular number was actually a re-recording of an earlier FLEUR DE LYS number, this time with breathy, addled female vocals. For you lovers of wild-ass distorted guitar solos a la the Twilighters’ “Nothing Can Bring Me Down”, here’s some champion axe work (jesus, do I sound like a Goldmine catalog entry or what?). These Brits have had most of their 45s (including “Hold On”) collected onto a CD called “Reflections”. If you want to do it the difficult, forgot-to-shower, Saturday morning record-swap meet way, you can also find this fantastic track on the LP compilations “Rubble, Volume 4” and “Rubble, Volume 8”.

Thursday, September 11, 2003
LIGHTINING BOLT : “WONDERFUL RAINBOW” CD….Easily one of the most exciting bands of our young century thus far, LIGHTNING BOLT got a lot of head-nodding & hosannas with their second all-destroying CD “Ride The Skies” in 2001. The chattering cognoscenti of ardent noise hounds, late-night scene mavens and straight-up rock and rollers pegged the Providence duo for immediate elevation to the critical canon, a designation which I’m happy to say they continue to earn on the recent “Wonderful Rainbow”. Lightning Bolt, as it has been said, do more with a bass and a set of drums than seems humanly possible. As their best, they sound like they’re channeling MOTORHEAD, BLACK FLAG, experimental noise freakout bands, 60s biker rock and ORNETTE COLEMAN all in the same track. No guitar! Unreal – I had to check the website to make sure I wasn’t wrong on this, because it sounds like brother Wayne Kramer, Greg Ginn and Lemmy all plugged in and feeding back at ear-shredding volume. On a bass! What do they feed these kids today?

This 8-song set contains two absolutely ballistic, sound-modulated overloads called “Assassins” and “Dracula Mountain” respectively – both had me grinning from ear to ear & shuffling the band into various mental top 10 lists. I noted and filed that the record was mixed with Mike McHugh, who’s known more for working with In The Red-style garage punk bands than avant-noise kingpins, and the sheen of traditional straight-up 4/4 rock actually shines through the chaos in a lot of places. The drumming is terrific, too – Brian Chippendale attacks his kit from all angles, it seems, and the result is a militaristic assault that reminds me of 1980-90s antipodean heroes VENOM P. STINGER. My only beef with the Bolt is a sometimes annoying tendency to run a riff so far into the ground via repetition that a 4-minute killer turns into a 6-minute riffarama in need of some serious lopping. There’s also a bit of wank for people who enjoy rock musicians gettin’ all experimental and shit (the title track, for instance). But the beefs are few, the sounds are raw, heavy and alive, and I can’t wait to see these guys do some damage live next month on their in-progress US tour.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

I flinched and plunked down the $25 or so it took to get this JSP Records four-CD box set of one of the great early bluesmen, BLIND WILLIE McTELL. Sure, I had most of the 20s & 30s stuff in other formats, but now with the copyrights expiring, it’s full throttle for cheap box sets of olde Americana, and JSP are leading the way. This set covers all of McTell’s known sessions from 1927 to 1940, including recordings issued on the sly for other labels as “Blind Sammy” and “Georgia Bill”. The draw is certainly McTell’s wholly unique, virtuoso, hammy, frenetic guitar style and his pure-as-velvet vocals. He could play the down & dirty “blues” at times, yet one gets the picture that this guy was having an absolute blast playing his music, and that he was a first-rate gentleman to boot. Classics like “Broke Down Engine Blues”, “B & O Blues” and the hilarious “Ticket Agent Blues” display a songwriter with few peers & an entertainer I’d kill to have seen. He’s also a pro as swapping double entendres with guest female vocalists “Miss Cora” and Ruth Kate Williams (who later became his wife).

This box set contains all the tracks on the Yazoo and Document “compleat” recordings and then some, 84 in all. The final disc consists of an unheard-to-me 1940 set McTell recorded for John Lomax (father of Alan) in Atlanta. As the liner notes state, “This recording was something of a swansong for the then-fading country blues. In the 1940s, an urban form was evolving as stars like John Lee Hooker emerged. Sooner rather than later, all of them would adapt to the electric guitar”. But McTell was totally on his game, doing a fair number of religious numbers as well as telling stories and shucking & jiving with Lomax in the studio (some of this banter was lifted for a White Stripes record, their second record I believe). Lomax tries to pin him down to say something about the overwhelming oppression of life in the South, and the unflappable McTell will have none of it. He just wants to keep playing. A great set to have on the shelf – and incidentally, a surprising soother for week-old babies as well.

Monday, September 08, 2003
AISLERS SET : “HOW I LEARNED TO WRITE BACKWARDS”…..Their track on the 2003 “Frisco Styles” comp was such first-rate, complex pop music it got me curious, so I picked up a used copy of the AISLERS SET’s most recent CD from a catalog that numbers three full-length discs and a smattering of singles. It’s really strong – if you have a hankering for exceptionally well-crafted, UK post-punk & 1980s Postcard records-inspired pop, you’ll find one of the best paced & least cookie-cutter examples of it here. Vocalist Amy Linton has got a terrific voice, and in the “twee pop” world I think it’s pretty obvious that if ya can’t sing, take a hike. She can sing. (I once saw her previous band HENRY’S DRESS play with a bunch of garage punk acts & I daresay the “Dress” held their own with the drunk rockers). “Langour In The Balcony”, my pick for top track out of the eleven here, gallops forward at a punk rock tempo but is leavened with breezy vocals, crisp production & great washes of atmospheric sound. Likewise with the opening “Catherine Says”, a finger-snapping good time paen to loving Jesus without anyone knowing about it (no, this isn’t Christian rock). Not being particularly clued-in to their scene, I’m still pretty sure that the AISLERS SET are considered major players in the sunshine pop world, and that they might be getting some shrugs from the scene’s fanatical outliers due to “How I Learned To Write Backwards”’ non-conformity (some slow, languid songs; semi-experimental pacing in parts, etc.). But what do I know. It’s just a really good disc & well worth giving a go to.

PINK AND BROWN : “SHAME FANTASY II”…..Another tight rawk/noise/panic set from the Load Records stable, this one from what I believe is a now-defunct San Francisco band featuring a COACHWHIP and another guy dressed in a wacky body suit (one’s “pink”, the other’s “brown” – haw haw haw haw!). This muffled vocal, live-to-disc set has got a dense, almost jazzy squeal to it in punches, but is pretty much straight-up sped-up noisy rock when you get to the meat of it. Each song is a subtle variation on the one before it – and there’s a lot of ‘em. Perfect for the middle slot on a Tuesday night bill, one where you’ve decided to invest a little effort to see the headliner and maybe see a new opening band you might dig. These guys come on around 11 and rev up their set – it’s kinda loud, & you curiously wander in from the other room to check it out. Two numbers in, you’re thinking, “yeah, I think I could maybe watch this”. An identical-sounding two numbers later, you’re scanning the crowd for people you know. Another and it’s off to the bar for a beer. Shit, what time is it again? One more and you’re back by the pool tables again, wondering if you really need to stick around for that headliner you came to see. It’s getting late after all, & you have to go to work tomorrow. Are these guys done yet? THAT’s Pink and Brown, folks. I think we’ve all been here.

Friday, September 05, 2003
MASTERPIECE : PERE UBU : “HEART OF DARKNESS / 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO”….is pretty much my all-time favorite record. It really, truly doesn’t get any better than this. Interesting, too – when I first heard PERE UBU I was certifiably, positively not impressed, but then, I was 16 years old and watching their bizarre performance of “Birdies” on a VHS tape of “Urgh, A Music War”. It was only late in college that I actually heard this record and “The Modern Dance” , and quickly became a worshipper – but I’m still working on trying to enjoy their other ones (“Dub Housing” excepted). I wrote a review of their landmark debut 45 for my own fanzine in 1997, which I will now attempt to re-create and update with new phraseology.

The handful of underground freaks who were habitually rolling the dice with weird-looking records in 1975 must’ve thought they’d been handed the keys to the kingdom when they stumbled upon the “Heart of Darkness / 30 Seconds Over Tokyo” 45. To listen to the first Pere Ubu record and then realize it was made over 28 years ago is to stand amazed at its complete inventiveness and left-field creativity. Like great artists in every conceptual medium, Pere Ubu opened up new doors that others had never considered pushing. Krautrock had certainly unlocked some portals in the preceding years; naturally the Velvets and Stooges had opened many more. Yet Ubu uniquely began their career in a medium that will forever bookmark their place in rock history: the 7” single. Without an opportunity to foist whatever scant filler they had upon an uncaring populace, they cobbled together their own small record label, chose their four best numbers, and unleashed two of the greatest singles the world will ever know (the other being “Final Solution / Cloud 149”)

“Heart of Darkness” is a quietly intense, masterful song. It has the single greatest bassline I can actually pick out of a record – a gently disturbing, rolling groove that is the rock for Peter Laughner’s & Tom Herman’s guitar electro-static bursts. David Thomas, perhaps realizing from his days of shouting as “Crocus Behemoth” in Rocket From The Tombs that he was not blessed with a particularly charismatic set of pipes, brings his vocals down to a breathy whisper-speak that heightens the building tension of the song. I don’t believe any band save the Velvet Underground had created as brilliantly sinister a rock n’ roll number up to the point of this record’s release.

“30 Seconds Over Tokyo”’s subject matter is self-evident from the structure of the song itself. It menacingly attempts – some might day chillingly succeeds – to re-create the do-or-die nature of a pilot assigned to deliver death from above. It features jarring, fried analog synthesizer that compliments another deeply intense, brooding backdrop of guitar, bass & drums. The song sputters and coughs in a hailstorm of synth noise and Thomas’s repeated muttering of the song’s title to bring this masterpiece to an abrupt, crashing end. As cliché as it sounds, I am still spooked by the ending of this one in a way that few songs have ever moved me. That original Pere Ubu unit – Thomas, Laughner, Herman, Krauss, Wright & Ravenstine – were among rock’s most cohesive and forward-looking. Once they’d staked their place in 7” history, they unfortunately were never again documented in this configuration (Laughner ended up bringing his tragedy-defined life full circle by Their self-referential term “avant-garage” couldn’t have been more appropriate, as no other band in ’75 could legitimately claim to push the boundaries of emerging rock and roll form as wonderfully and as artistically as Pere Ubu did.

Thursday, September 04, 2003
MOVIN’ WITH NANCY….Last night I watched a newly-released DVD edition of a 1967 NANCY SINATRA television special called “Movin’ With Nancy” (brought to you in living Technicolor by Royal Crown Cola!). I saw that it featured some Nancy numbers with LEE HAZLEWOOD, and being an admirer of the latter & his duets with the former, I gave it the old college try. Well, I’d hoped it was going to be a Nancy-hosted variety show, with wacky skits and corny interludes, and in a way it was – but really this hour-long show is all about Nancy traveling from location to location and outfit to outfit for a series of primitive (but well done, in their way) music videos. Sometimes Dean Martin shows up; hey, look, here’s Sammy Davis Jr.; and in the most nauseating & cloying number imaginable, a maudlin tribute to dear old dad. Of course her duets with Hazlewood steal the show – they do “Some Velvet Morning”, in which a very narcotized-looking Hazlewood comes riding in on horseback, and a funny romp through “Jackson”, which looks like it was filmed among tract homes in suburban Canoga Park or Downey. The lip synching is bad, the dance numbers are hilarious, and the whole thing makes one wonder how the NBC audience sat through it without excessive fidgeting, without a pause button, and without the benefit we have in 2003 of enjoying it for kitsch value. Get it at Netflix if you’re still so inclined – my copy should be restocked by tomorrow.

THIS JUST IN….Our Portuguese correspondent JM, who is somehow way up on this news flash despite having to transcend an ocean to get the gossip, relays the breaking story that the oft-rumored CRIME box set is truly weeks away. The word of the street is that Revenant has it slated for release next month (!), and that it’s actually a double CD of all known Crime material & is called “A Brief History Of Crime”. You mean they couldn’t have taken every piss take & home demo and shoehorned it into 7 CDs like the Charley Patton box? Nuts. There goes the Grammy. Can anyone confirm this sizzlin’-hot rumor?

THE INSANE PATHOLOGIES OF THE MUSIC OBSESSIVE….Mark Murmann captures nicely some of the bizarre music buying/listening traits I know he shares with many – like me – in his blog Blitz My Brains (which has a new address, by the way; re-set your bookmarks to this one):

A recent record binge, fueled by a fat student loan check has left me with a towering stack of records on my desk. My "To Play" pile. You see, I have a small neurotic process I go through when I get new records. Enter the records into my database, a spreadsheet program that helps me keep track of what I have and what I don't. Laugh if you want, but about half of my collection lives in a small storage space in Southern Indiana. Even a fair number the records I have here in Berkeley are holed away in boxes, or tucked onto shelves in the closet. Every month or so I have to thin out my singles, pull stuff I haven't played in a while to make room for the new. With LPs, for any new record that gets added to the shelves, one has to come out, go in the closet.

After entering the record into my database–information on band, title, label, year, country, condition and special notes (color vinyl?, etc.)–I play the record. Before any record gets filed, it gets played. Stuff that sticks, that catches my ear, sits out for repeated play.

Naw, you don’t really do that do you? Eh, that happens to be almost my exact “process”, minus the database entry part (I do that when I have time but it’s just band & title -- maybe I'm normal after all?). Is it because our moms didn’t love us enough when we were newborns?