Agony Shorthand

Monday, January 31, 2005
STRANGE NOTES 1/31/05.....

That two-week layoff did me right. I listened to a nice handful of music, and now I’d like to tell you about some of it.....Got exposed to the RADIO BEATS a few weeks ago, now I’ve heard their 4-song “Blow You Up” EP in its entirety. These West Virginians light up bonzai hardcore-tempo garage punk like no one since 1988-90 vintage DWARVES, and their lyrics are so friggin’ dumb (“...gonna kill yo man tonight, oh yeah!”) that they’re right at home with the modern nihilistic speed-punk crew. Just 20 times better than others I’ve heard. Watch this space – I think this band’s going to be a regular here.....Any band with Holger “The Oscillator” Zapf is all right with me, and Germany’s REMOTES give me no quarrel. Their sound on their debut 45 “Transylvania Dutch/Do The Die” leans toward an indiefied version of something you’d hear on 1960s late-night FM radio – a free form mix of pop and noise that brings up a head of steam slowly and frothingly. Just as the A-side’s starting to kick into gear with a little Silver Apples-style space noise, it does a 3-second quick fade and is over. The B-side is said to be “ the tradition of ‘dance craze’ classics like the Twist, Watusi or Peanut Duck”. It sounds nothing like these, nor does it bear any resemblance to a dance number in any way. The old bait and switch. These guys are OK!.....I expected I’d swoon over the DONNY DENIM 45 from 1999, since it was a Darren Rafaelli (SUPERCHARGER, BRENTWOODS) vanity project, but in a bizarre case of reverse transfusion, the worst elements of his dopey dopplegangers The Donnas appeared to have worked their way into the great man’s bloodstream, resulting in a 1970s lite-AOR tribute record along the lines of whatever band of hair farmers sang “You supply the night, baby I’ll supply the love” (Toto? Ambrosia? April Wine?). No need to look here, folks, please keep moving....

Did I really need to spend 7 dollars on and forty minutes with the thug-garage Big Neck records label comp “PAIN IN THE BIG NECK”, just to confirm my suspicion that the aforementioned Radio Beats were their sole hotshit band? I did, so now you don’t have to.....A pleasing expanded bootleg version of the ROLLING STONES' mid 60s hit collection "Flowers" crossed my path recently. Beyond the original twelve 45s and album tracks lies a rare galloping B-side I'd never heard from 1965 called "Sad Day", as well as multiple cool backing tracks for stompers like "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby" and "Out of Time". It's certainly for people who need to keep tabs on this kind of ephemera, people likely overrepresented in any Agony Shorthand sample size....Finally, it took me 5 years since I saw them play a stunning free show in a San Francisco park to check out their recordings, but the TIN HAT TRIO are pretty neat. They form a disquieting nexus between classic gypsy folk music, rough-edged blues, and whatever genre it is that the KRONOS QUARTET belong to (“20th Century Classical", the kids call it). On their latest CD “Helium”, the result is a very intense soundtrack for wandering and thinking, much like the feel of Ry Cooder’s “Paris, Texas” if he’d added a traveling caravan of “roma” to pick the pockets of everyone they encountered. I just wish they’d lost the Tom Waits-like vocals on track #2 (wait, it IS Tom Waits), but then I flat-out can’t stand that guy. Perhaps the CD is near-perfect for NPR pledge drives, but you’ll still appreciate it for contemplative listening at home. It’s just weird and distant enough to stay way shy of the mainstream of adult alternative. And that’s where we’ve been since mid-January! Keep your feet on the ground etc.!

Friday, January 28, 2005

Before I read through the liners on this collection, but after I'd dug in deep to disc #1, the 1977-79 collection "25 A-Sides", I had STEVE TREATMENT nailed as a massive Marc Bolan fan. Rollicking, strut-heavy glam chops abound on Treatment's early 45s, but instead of being a full-on electric warrior tribute act, his act was seared with the raw knowledge of 1977 punk rock. Turns out that he and his punker pals were indeed huge Marc Bolan/T.Rex worshippers, and spent the better part of the glam era hanging out closely with the man himself. When punk arrived on England's shores, Steve Treatment and his Bolan buddies Nikki Sudden & Epic Soundtracks gently convinced Marc into bringing THE DAMNED along on tour, which may have been the one gesture that kept Bolan's credibility alive with the sneering punk crowd a few months beyond its natural shelf life. Punk also meant that Treatment and his friends were now free to throw their own musical ideas onto wax; thus were born the legend-producing SWELL MAPS, and the dustbin-of-history- relegated STEVE TREATMENT. For a few months, these acts actually were one and the same. On Steve Treatment's debut EP "5 A-Sides", the entire band that we now know as the Swell Maps were the key players. This record is incredible, and hearing the four tracks beyond "Danger Zone" (which was on an early "Messthetics" compilation) is one of the early musical highlights of 2005 for me. I'll put them all up on a par with the Swell Maps' "Dresden Style", "Real Shocks" and "Read About Seymour" -- all are just as spastic and aggro, and like the Maps, none of them fit into the "punk" bucket as popularly defined. Treatment then played a bit part on some of their early records. Seems like the Swell Maps, in getting a decent record deal and some radio airtime for their 45s, were able to propel their subsequent legend forward a bit, but I can't figure out why the excellent Steve Treatment EP didn't give him the same kind of push.

Yet Steve Treatment had a fine rock career well beyond this initial blast of sound. "25 A-Sides" collects his next couple singles as well, in addition to unreleased material recorded at the very end of the 1970s. Most tracks are in the same vein as the first single -- very raw, very homemade-sounding, very British experimental glam rock. Treatment had no quarrel with overlaying a truckload of effects, echoes and delay on just about everything he did, so it all sounds as if it was recorded in a huge empty warehouse on unmistakably cheap equipment. The first CD breaks down about halfway through and starts to recycle some of the earlier tracks, but if you're a Steve Treatment completist then you'll be a happy guy. The second disc, "Your Friends Are In The News", collects multiple recordings of his from the latter two decades, still well aligned with the DIY spirit and virtually as raw and unkempt. Like "new wave" never happened! Just not as exciting. But your life is short, right? And you've got a lot of music you need to listen to, am I correct? You therefore won't need to spend much time with this one, but I wouldn't miss out on this package overall if it means you're never going to hear those first couple Steve Treatment singles. Thanks to JR for getting me involved with this.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Have had a hard time taking a firm position on calypso music until I heard this one, but I think I've arrived at a verdict. I'm in favor. My only previous exposure to it, other than hearing Harry Belafonte sing with a horrible fake Caribbean patois in "The Jungle Book", was a 1999 collection called "Fall Of Man: Calypsos On The Human Condition", which, like this CD, featured Trinidad-based storytellers spinning their yarns on old 78rpm records from the 1930s. Many of the players were the same as well (THE TIGER, ATILLA THE HUN, THE LION) leading me to conclude that, given Trinidad's size and likely microscopic "scene" in the 30s, those guys were pretty much it for top-notch calypso recording artists. Calypso's a funny sound. It resembles nothing so much as what I've come to know as cartoon music, given that, "Jungle Book" aside, the sounds seem to have adorned many a Warner Brothers cartoon set in exotic locales, perhaps one of those wacky racist ones where Bugs Bunny encounters a whooping group of African savages and they chuck spears at him before throwing him in a pot. Then again maybe I'm wrong, and the loopy horns and waltz-like "island" flourishes that characterize calypso music are just FUNNY sounding in and of themselves. But that's kept me from taking it completely seriously, because the music, combined with the wisecrackin', heavily-accented rhymers who tell these tall tales makes calypso sound more like a cool-sounding antique curiosity than something you'd really want to crank up at home.

Along comes my birthday and my pals DP & AFL, knowing I'm a fan of the pre-WWII age and looking to get the man who pretends he has everything something he definitely doesn't have, buy me this CD. It's an eye-opener. Trinidad went through one of the most volatile periods in its history during the 30s as they marched to independence -- you had labor struggles, government crackdowns on rabble-rousers and full-on riots in the streets. There to document it on 78s (usually when the government was too clueless to censor them) were the aforementioned, and a few others like THE CARESSER, THE GROWLER and THE TURDBURGLAR (all right, I made that last one up). These guys figured that come hell or high water, the story of Trinidad's underground patriots & rebels had to be told, so in this inimitable, loony style of theirs, proceeded to bust out these crazy rhymes. Special mention goes to my man ATILLA THE HUN for a couple of world-beaters on this collection: "Treasury Scandal" and "Where Was Butler?", subject matter notwithstanding, have the feel of a man using humor and lyrical cleverness to calculatedly mask a seething anger and frustration. And the music's especially carnival-like on these two numbers, though the basic structure of all of them is essentially the same. If I evaluate the music's immediacy and primal connection against other pre-WWII recorded forms like blues, hillbilly or European folk, it tumbles into a far lower tier. Conversely, if I look at it as an entertainingly odd product of its times and surroundings, it comes off pretty darn well.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005
MASTERPIECE : THE KINKS' "WICKED ANNABELLA".......This track from the otherwise bucolic "The Village Green Preservation Society" is a bonafide scorcher, one that nearly replaces "Shangri-La" as my #1 favorite in THE KINKS' pantheon of top-drawer rock songs (a pantheon that you may remember I only seriously began exploring last year). "Wicked Annabella" just seethes with perverse delight, a tale of a crazy witch told by a cackling old codger to frighten his grandkids, but more importantly, it stomps like a mother. The chords that are aggressively hit in the chorus on the words "hair", "face" and "eyes" are just monstrous, and more reminiscent of The Kinks' early hard beat career than the rest of "Village Green....". And those drums! I don't know the name of the Kinks' drummer, Stu Stuart or Phil Phillips or Eric "Stumpy" Joe or something, but he sounds like Max Roach all beaned up on shermans on this one. Full of rolls and fills that just flat-out work. What a song. I can't stop punching the repeat on my yuppie music-playing device.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

This is the one that a contributor to "Lost In The Grooves" said was the dub LP to end all dub LPs and certainly the one SCIENTIST record that I needed to get ahold of. So I bit. I wouldn't go that far -- I don't even think it ranks with "Scientist Meets The Roots Radics", which I reviewed two months ago, for bleary-eyed, slump-in-your-fat-chair-with-your-fat-pants-on headphone dub. But it still rules. The more I piece together the more it becomes clear that young SCIENTIST had quite a hot hand in his Kingston studio for about 3-4 years around 1980-84. That's when I used to see his platters in the bins of various record stores and got a good chortle at the wild hand-drawn and -painted covers; his super-heavy, ultra-low bass dubs were fixtures on San Francisco-area radio programs like "Midnight Dread" and the Spliff Skankin' show (hey, I didn't pick his dumb name). But at the time I thought he was the albino guy. In any event, "Scientist Rids The World..." has a "spooky" theme and a handful of monster sounds, but for the most part keeps it uncluttered from goofiness and instead focuses on manipulated, unwound and respindled reggae grooves. They are mostly shorn of anything "pop"-like and are naked with deep bass, echoed drums and a variety of trebly horns, guitars and what sounds like phasers looped in from twenty planets away. Perhaps I don't cotton to how much crooning vocal Mr. Scientist left in this time, but the backing band are the ROOTS RADICS and the "riddim", shall we say, is rock-solid. Another deep notch on the young man's mixing desk for sure, just not the one I'd start with.

Friday, January 07, 2005

You'd like to think that there were camcorders & video recording devices abounding during the punk & early UK DIY eras, but the paucity of visual material of some of the pioneer acts of the age proves otherwise. I've seen almost all of the FALL stuff from this time, and given that landmark band's decided lack of visual (and commercial) appeal, surely there'd have to be some YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS video/DVD stuff out there too, what with their sparse melodies, cultish fan base and cute-as-a-button singer? Well, this is it -- a two-night stint recorded at New York City's Hurrah Club in 1980, the sole visual document of the band playing live in any format. It also happened to be the last shows they ever played, though I don't get the sense that they knew this at the time. If you're a fan of the band, and I am, you'll certainly appreciate a glimpse of their no-frills, hush-hushed minimalism in the flesh. Warm, skeletal drones like "N.I.T.A.", "Final Day" and "Credit In The Straight World" sound just as pleasant and simple in front of an audience as they do on the records. The drum machine is fired up, the keyboard hums softly, and the band makes their strange, uncompromisingly eerie pop music, the likes of which is truly theirs alone. However, "no frills" extends to the live package as well -- it's not as if they're up on stage kicking out the motherfucking jams like the Motor City Five or anything. Singer Alison Statten stands stock-still and mouths the words of her very fine songs, while her compatriats Stuart and Phil Moxham move a 'lil tiny bit when the tempo of the song subtly changes. Anything else would, in actuality, come off as completely ridiculous. And did I notice some very loud catcalls at the end of the second night's set? As the band was walking off the stage for the last time ever? Perhaps they were opening for The Misfits or the Bad Brains and the crowd was getting ready to slam their asses off. I think it's worth some investigative follow up. I'll get right on it. In the meantime, check out this incredible labor (or "labour") of love website on the band. And by all means, buy the CD reissue of "Colossal Youth" and make it an essential part of your musical life!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

If you were heartened and educated by last year's terrific reissue of THE ZOOMERS' only 7"EP + an early cassette on the "Exist" CD, as I was, you might want to tiptoe precipitously before giving this one a go. This contains material created by "Zoomer", the man who monikered the band or vice-versa, recorded between 1984 and 1989. Outside of a zonked-out weirdo power pop track that starts things off ("Johnny Has a Good Thing") and a strong couple of similar numbers deeper in, I had a hard time connecting with the synths and the 80's new waver stuff. Even with my Members Only jacket on. Sure, I like "Rock of the 80s" as much as the next guy, but this CD's missing the "....phasers, delay effects, plinky keyboards and distortion pedals, layered on top of genuinely offbeat song structures..." of his early 80s material. Oh, it's buried in there at times, but it does little to transcend the mediocrity of the fairly straight-up material. They say you only get one shot in life, and Zoomer and his crew appear to have sank that shot from three deep in Baton Rouge around 1980.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Call me a dreamer, a starry-eyed dreamer, but I've always considered Mr. Don Howland something of a "hero". It started with the GIBSON BROS, one of my favorite bands of the 80s; the foremost name in post-60s blues excavation & the penultimate name in raw roots trash (right before THE CRAMPS). Howland, along with his pal Jeff Evans, was the prime mover in this freewheeling combo, and those two turned me (and undoubtedly a few others) onto a bunch of incredible names from long ago: Furry Lewis, Charlie Feathers, Skip James (thank you!!!) and acres more. Then there's his scattered columns from decades past in the Village Voice and elsewhere touting various hep bands -- not only did I see him cover the CHEATER SLICKS, GORIES and CLAW HAMMER (like, oh my god you guys, my three favorite bands!) in the same year (1991? '92?), but his writing style was a rather cynical, snide yet gracious one, very funny and not especially serious nor self-involved. Someone whose style, such that it was, is one that many scribes could take a cue from. And then he goes -- wham -- and quickly puts out 3 killer records under the BASSHOLES moniker right after the Gibson Bros implosion: the In The Red and Sympathy 45s and the "Blue Roots" LP on In The Red. Pretty impressive! I sure was.

I've been fortunate enough to break figurative bread with the great man in an interview we did back in 1993, and we shared an adult beverage together once on the Bassholes' only swing through San Francisco -- perhaps 1995 or so. I'll come clean and admit that I haven't always been fully enamored with everything the 'Holes have put out...I'm pretty sure that "Deaf Mix Vol. 3" LP lost me for a while, but I came back with bells on when I heard the 1998 "When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again" CD, the most stripped-down, knockout punk rock blues record I've ever heard. Two man live-to-master cranial-scrape of the highest order, and the primo example of what a two man roots/garage band can do with four legs & four arms. This one, of all the ones, was especially pissed off and bitter. I know not why. But since then there've been all sorts of rumors that Howland was plotting another stab at greatness, and sure enough, here comes a new LP/CD in a matter of days. To wet the proverbial whistle, Secret Keeper Records (last seen putting out the LABIATORS 2x45 and some CHEATER SLICKS vinyl) have pulled together all those early Bassholes 45s onto one jam-packed CD, throwing in some primitive unreleased obscurities for good measure. You get those two early hell-bent-for-panic 7"EPs, "98 Degrees in the Shade" and "John Henry" kicking things off in fine style, as well as some other rawness-infused 45s scattered amongst various labels of indiedom past (even the one with the GERMS cover!). The unreleased stuff is just as uncouth and frustrated as the rest of Howland's catalog, and while none of it stands as proudly and as ringingly as the official stuff, it adds a tasty layer of blister-inducing icing just the same.

One Bassholes hallmark that's driven me away at times and yet keeps me interested still is Howland's utter unwillingness to kowtow to anyone or anything; in translation, this means he'll put out a nearly unlistenable avant-retard song like "Changes Had To Come" or "Jesus Book" -- just because it's fun. Second takes be damned. He may as well staple his actual middle finger to the sleeve sometimes (the nearest facsimile was a xeroxed flip-off on the first EP). And sexual tension and, indeed, pure relational anger runs rampant all over his oevre, making one ponder if that's what it is that makes the chords scream, the vocals snarl and the cymbals crash the way they do. I reckon it's been the lifeforce of worthwhile anti-social behavior for millenia now. Leave us not forget the percussive contributions of Rich Lilash and later, "Bim" on these early Bassholes records, either -- both guys are suited for the two-man band racket to a T. I'm really glad to have all this goodness in one neat place. This collection's surely got the raw meat for those willing to show some patience as blues-based, basement-stupid, neanderthal-primitive high intellectual art filters through the ear canals.