Agony Shorthand

Friday, June 30, 2006

When CLAW HAMMER first came up through the Los Angeles micro-clubs, playing low on bills with punk & garage acts like THE LAZY COWGIRLS and their ilk, they were sort of a mystery act that took a while to get one’s head around. Were these guys approximating the MC5 playing for Deadheads? CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND playing acid-laced punk rock? Hampton Grease Band & Roxy Music freaks playing whatever the hell they wanted to play, and playing it really, really loud? Yeah, that one. It took me a couple shows to get the cut of their jib, but in due time they replaced the Cowgirls as “my favorite band”, and from about 1989 to 1993 or so they stayed in the proverbial catbird seat. I started my fanzine Superdope in 1990 and task #1 was to interview and glorify Claw Hammer, so I commandeered the band in their van in an alley at San Francisco’s most unsafe club ever, the 6th Street Rendezvous, and told ‘em I was their biggest fan and would they like to do an interview with me & be friends. They “made the cover” of my edition-of-400, hugely uninfluential magazine, and we did in fact become pals after that. In 1993 I was even their road manager/driver/drinking partner/merch dork on a 40-date North American tour. From that point on – after their first three (maybe two) albums and initial batch of 45s -- it was and continues to be my feeling that their creativity waned a bit and the mojo began to run dry, but when I come back to their early records, especially this very first single from 1989 on Australia’s Grown Up Wrong label, I remember why they were so incredibly special and unlike anyone else going at the time. Allow me to elaborate.

I remember that Eddie Flowers, creator/owner of the SLIPPY TOWN empire and then a sometimes-writer for Forced Exposure, did a piece on the early, early Claw Hammer for said magazine truly before even Los Angeles had woken up to the band (one could legitimately argue that LA never really did). Though I don’t have the article in front of me, Flowers saw the sonic connections that these guys were channeling, and how they funneled them into a sound that really hadn’t been heard before. Claw Hammer, for lack of a better word, were a “greasy” band (not just because of the Grease Band!), in that they played a relatively conventional brand of loud rock and roll that just bled and oozed raw grease and slippery counter-dynamics. When Jon Wahl and Chris Bagarozzi played guitar together, I swear to god at times it was like what everyone said Tom Verlaine & Richard Lloyd were supposed to have sounded like live – unpredictable bits of chaos, pure unbridled energy and extremely amplified sound, but never “showy” nor “flashy”. Just jaw-dropping, that’s all. These guys loved 70s rock – not just the cool stuff that everyone liked back then like The Velvets and the MC5 and the Patti Smith Group – but acts that have only in retrospect achieved complete critical consensus like the aforementioned Roxy Music, early Eno, Big Star, solo Syd Barrett and even (gasp) Steely Dan. They ingested it, turned it out and filtered it through their own experiences as teenage punks (Jon was in an Orange Country hardcore band wholly inspired by the MIDDLE CLASS called The Idle Rich) to create a rich stew of swingin’ punk rock boogie. That spirit was what Flowers captured in his article & what got the world to stand up and take notice – that and their first crop of singles, all of which were incredible.

Honestly, this review could be about any one of those first four 45s – this one, “Sick Fish Belly Up/Moonlight on Vermont”, “Candle Opera/Drop” or “Brother Brick Says/Don’t Walk Away”, so maybe I’ll cut it short and give you the name, rank & serial number of the “Poor Robert” 7”EP. The other two tracks were a frantic cover of the Beatles’ (!) “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”, and a harmonica-blastin’ fast Beefheartian blues called “Car Down Again”. “Poor Robert” itself is a majestic 5-minute-plus tale of Robert “Wild Man” Fischer as told by a third party. Jon once told me the story behind it, but I forget now. I haven’t heard from any of those fellas for years now so I figured it was safe to write something nice about them without coming across as a backslapping logroller – and besides, I still love those early Claw Hammer records and play them repeatedly to this day, this one only being the most recent listen. I do hope you will join me in contemplative worship of them.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The EASTER MONKEYS often are talked about in rapturous tongues as a sort of missing 1980s Cleveland 2.0 band that never got anything near their due. I think there’s something to that. Every time I’ve heard them in passing, either on a comp or whatever, I’ve always made a mental note to dig deeper into their work & just never get around to doing so. Recently a friend made a CD-R of this 1991 album, a posthumous LP-only collection of their stuff, and I can almost see what the racket’s about. The Easter Monkeys were an undeniably intense practitioner of dark post-punk bleakness, with a sound similar but more dissonant than compadres SPIKE IN VAIN (more about them another time). Tracks like “Take Another Pill” and “Nailed To The Cross” have that layered, full-bore factory-smelter sound of MISSION OF BURMA’s “Weatherbox” with a little more punk action than Burma conjured. Those two tracks, taken by themselves, would have made for an absolutely devastating 45, and would have cemented them into legend alone. It’s funny, since I don’t know much about the Easter Monkeys (just that Jim Jones from the ELECTRIC EELS was in the band), I can easily picture them of a scene with ghoulish death-punks like 45 GRAVE and maybe even KILLING JOKE, but another track will come along, something lighter maybe, and that’ll just seem preposterous. “Splendor of Sorrow” sounds like the sort of record that’s going to be slowly picking up converts and belated accolades for decades to come for a band that very few knew of at the time. I’m just glad I was only 25 years late.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006
MISS ALEX WHITE / THE HUNCHES – Friday June 23rd 2006, Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco......

Folks have been telling me for years now how amazing THE HUNCHES are live, and I will say this for ‘em: they’re solid. Solid in the sense that when the ass-tight rhythm section & freakout guitarist are cooking up a head of steam, their sound is as thunderous & raw as it is on their records. In fact the ham-handed melodic stuff that sort of mars their albums comes off much more steamrolling live, and I think it’s because this band are practically olde-timers (like four years and going!) by the standard of modern garage punk acts. That guitarist was really something else. I was warned about the singer’s flop-on-the-floor, look-at-me-I’m-a-stumblebum act and how, um, “disappointing” it would be, and let’s just say I was disappointed as warned. Some people just have a greater need for validation that others. I swear he couldn’t have pulled off a better John Brannon circa ’88 look and shredded-vocal sound if he’d tried. No, of course he’s not apeing Brannon, you guys, don’t be silly. Like I said, solid. I think they’ve got a few tricks left. MISS ALEX WHITE (not sure if it was “The Red Orchestra” backing her up live) put out one of my favorite records of 2005, and on the evidence this evening, she’s going to be a favorite rock & roll mindblower for years to come. She blew in from Chicago with an armload of excellent gassed-up Ameripunk, both from her album & thereon – the new stuff I didn’t recognize was just great & will hopefully find its way to vinyl shortly. White & her band played a loose & rough version of Los Angeles punk circa 1977-79, cut with a pinch of girl-group harmonies and some tuff leather-rawk every now & again. A winning combination no matter how it’s diced. I guess I didn’t expect it to be as good as the record, and it was better. Now that’s a fine night out.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Once we got on board with these guys we were on, and this new 45 on Sub Pop – their new label – gives us no reason whatsoever to disembark. “Don’t Need To Smoke…” harkens back to pummeling “My War”-era BLACK FLAG moving their “life is pain, I want to be insane” BS along an earthworm FLIPPER bassline before it just sorta takes off and screams for the rest of the song at a mid-level ramalama tempo. I say ramalama, my friends, because I get this weird sense of déjà vu when I listen to the ‘Jeans of watching the Laughing Hyenas kicking out the MC5’s “I Want You Right Now” circa 1990 or so, so intense is their delivery. I don’t usually cotton to the brutal, sweaty, urrrrrgggghhhhrrrrrroowwwww sounds of bands like these, but man, these guys smoke. “Love Clown” is fast and just as heavy, more like DRUNKS WITH GUNS covering the FLESH EATERS’ “Hand of Glory” with cocaine in the brain. Hey, you think the band appreciates unimaginative comparisons such as those I’m making? Man, I sure would, and yeah, they’re that good. Keep the hits coming, Jeans!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Despite visions of Josie & The Pussycats and sugary Saturday morning TV snacks every time I spin this one, I have to admit that this 2001 CD from Germany’s CURLEE WURLEE is a nice, fat ripsnorting guilty pleasure. I found them while clicking around the information superhighway one evening, and read about this garage/party band that sounded like a 60s French ye-ye act playing a bazillion miles an hour, and I said what the hey – an mp3 costs nothing. Expecting little, I found myself downright charmed by this act & picked up this CD, whereupon the charming continued. I’ll throw out my usual self-protecting caveats and own up that the band’s sound is closer to something you’d find Japanese teenage girls screaming about than, say, thirtysomething bearded record collectors, but if that’s cool with you then it’s certainly cool with me. Curlee Wurlee (hot name!) split the difference between the aforementioned 60s pop bombs and a real slicked-up version of some 90s garage band like THE MUMMIES, with a bratty-sounding female singer who alternates between French and English. Every song is bang-bang-bang, over and done with in less than 2 minutes & usually rushing by at Concorde speed, with a ringing Hammond organ that’s been moved way to the front of the mix. I mean, what’s not to like, right? Some of it’s even pretty tuff, too, like the roaring “Dustbin Life”, which even the beer-slammin' crew over at Terminal Boredom could probably stand behind with pride. If you fancy the fast-paced "beat" sound, don't recoil at the notion of a "dance party", and have nearly unlimited patience for cuteness, then do I have a record for you, punker!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
BBQ / DEMON’S CLAWS, Saturday June 3rd 2006, Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco.......

Yeah, it’s been a few weeks since this event took place, but I guess I just needed to let it marinate a bit & clear out some mojo before sharing with you. A few weeks ago San Francisco’s HEMLOCK TAVERN had one of their “Coalition of Aging Rockers” specials, shows that cater to the 30-and-up crowd and which start around dinnertime & end around 9-something. Just my style. A couple of beers (careful, not too many now, fatty!!), free earplugs, back in front of the TV by 9:30 – love it. Except it didn’t work out that way. First up were Montreal’s DEMON’S CLAWS, who’ve just released their second record on the fine HOOK OR CROOK label. I’d heard a couple mp3s from these trash/blues partyers, but live they were even better – like a punk-tempo BOOKER T & THE MGs with the farfisa cranked way up, with maybe a little bit of stumbling countrified GIBSON BROS action in the mix as well. Way more “R&B” than their recorded stuff, perhaps indicative of a new direction – one that’s obviously a winning career move, as they’ve just been snapped up by In The Red for their next record. I liked ‘em. BBQ is the one and the same BBQ from “The King Khan and BBQ Show”, whose excellent 2005 record we reviewed right here. He’s a one-man drummer/guitarist/singer extraordinaire, with a great ear for a gutbucket garage tune. He came out from Montreal with the Demon’s Claws guys and fit right in with a real nice set of bouncy, greasy, dirty white man’s soul. I kinda figured there was another fella hiding underneath the drums with an extra guitar, but since there wasn’t, I decided that BBQ was truly the real deal. He did this thing on almost every song where he’d slow the tempo down abruptly, like he was about to go into a medley or something, getting you all hopped up for some new song, and then boom – right back into the one he was playing. What a nut!

Left the club to get a burrito and came back to say some goodbyes, only to find the Demon’s Claws’ bass player standing on top of his van, blatantly "dangling his participle", if you know what I mean, & barking at the top of lungs in French (or “French-Canadian”) as everyone cracked up on the ground below – somehow in the moment got talked into following these wahoos and a few friends to the Parkside club, where both bands were going to play again at a super-secret, cobbled together “night show”. A night show!?! But I’m 38 years old..... I went anyway, and it was clear from the start that Demon’s Claws were going to make this day their big-time alcoholiday. Yelling, breaking things, fake fistfights, stumbling all over each others’ feet – sure, you could say it was kids being kids (whippersnappers!), but I like my drunks funny & charming, not annoying & dull. You ever get the feeling that some folks are trying & create a wild, unhinged atmosphere for everyone else while drinking, and are just spectacularly bad at it? That’s these guys. Good thing their music’s right-on. I half-watched two opening bands, one that dressed like The Kinks circa 1966 & who were OK & and another from Olympia called THE OLD HAUNTS (loud and hard slop-metal that ground my ears into a pleasing pulp), and then pulled my often-imitated, never-duplicated disappearing act. Word from my correspondents still left in the club was that Demon’s Claws barely even hit the stage, they just got up there and threw things at each other & jumped into the crowd without actually plugging in. That must have been hilarious! Now where’s my Metamucil?

Monday, June 19, 2006

When I was a young lad playing punk rock music on college radio, one of the hot Southern California acts of the day were TEX AND THE HORSEHEADS. A bunch of my pals who were into The Flesh Eaters, Green on Red and the Gun Club loved 'em, likely because they gave off much of the same reckless, hard knocks, let's-drink-ourselves-stupid vibe. Me, I never really got into them. I always thought singer Texacala Jones was forcing a stupido slurred hick/banshee accent into every word she spat out, and maybe at the time there was a little too much "cowpunk" going around for my tastes. But then someone upped & digitized their first 2 records for me, and now I'm sort of on board with the Horseheads again. The first self-titled one came out in 1984, and wonder of wonders, I detect a distinct "paisley" vibe in Mike Martt's guitar playing, which makes perfect sense when you figure the hot denizens of LA nightlife just shortly before that were bands milking much the same sound. The songs are pretty good, though, and Tex isn't nearly as annoying as I remembered. This record's got a real rough, bottom-feeding country-tonk sound for the most part, and tracks like "Short Train" do them justice and sound like a cool little brother band to the GUN CLUB.

The second one, "Life's So Cool" from '85, was the one everyone was going nutzoid for back in the day. It's a pretty wild ride - no doubt about it, this band who sang about drinking and drugs in nearly every song weren't dillitante-ing around - they lived it, and you can hear it in the songs, which often sound like a broken bottle going up and down the strings & a lushy frontwoman falling all over herself. "I'll Quit Tomorrow" just might be my favorite drinking song ever. Production was clean, though, and that maybe keeps it from being the over-the-top barnburner you'd want it to be ("Hidden By Hills" and "Bartender Sam" are smoking, though). Seems the band was a little too long on image and short on chops, but hell, I know if they were opening for someone now (they're back together!) I'd probably go if only to hear a few of the better tunes and see what 25+ years of alcohol abuse looks like. If you get a gander at either of these in the used bins under six bucks, give it a go.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Back when the revelatory “Having A Philosophical Investigation With The Electric Eels” LP came out in 1989, I and many others were so overjoyed to hear the lost recordings of the incredible 1975-76 Cleveland proto-splatter-punk kingpins the ELECTRIC EELS that the notion that there might be more would have been too much to take at the time. Sure enough – a few years later Homestead put out the classy “God Says Fuck You” CD comp, tacking on a heaping pile of later-period experimental jazzbo Eels to compliment the rough and uber-raw guitar destroying Eels of “Agitated / Cyclotron” 45 fame (the second greatest 45 of all time, after Pere Ubu’s first, if you ask this guy). As Eels mania grew and then gelled, more killer stuff began to spill out that continued to add to the legend. A kind gentlemen soon sent me a murky tape of the band playing live both at a club and in their practice space, and there were outrageous songs so amazing that you couldn’t believe they hadn’t made it to vinyl yet, most notably the dirty retardo punk snarl of “You Crummy Fags”, and the band’s bizarre acapella cover of an orange juice commercial (“Roll On Big O”). Even that was soon rectified with the 3xEP “Those Were Different Times” collection, featuring another hot batch of archival Eels noise, including the aforementioned two tracks, along with great stuff from fellow travelers THE MIRRORS and THE STYRENES.

So when “The Eyeball of Hell” showed up in 2001, with even more unreleased Electric Eels snazz, the gods were truly smiling. Remember this is a band that never even put out a 45 in its lifetime, despite being perhaps the crudest exponent of BEEFHEART- and STOOGES-filtered garage art punk – and maybe one of the most ahead-of-their-time bands of their, uh, time. I was just stoked that the original version of “Agitated” finally made it to LP or CD, and that it was followed up by “Cyclotron” – just ear-shattering, stumbling, basement genius, with more fuck-off moxie and balls than any of the hallowed class of 1977. There was some previously-unheard stuff that blew me away, too – like the frantic “Zoot Zoot” and “Dolly Boy”, as well as their take on “Dead Man’s Curve”, which vocalist Dave E. just owns with one of the most ludicrously over-the-top performances of all time. The CD also tacks on some of the band’s classics like “Anxiety”, “Jaguar Ride”, “Cold Meat”, the ominous death-dirge "Natural Situation", and fine alternate versions of “Refrigerator”, “Bunnies” and “Spin Age Blasters”. And since we’re being honest here, let’s call attention to the numbers that prove the bottom of the trough was finally being scraped – misformed pseudo-experimental tracks like “Girl”, “IQ 301-Man” and “Jazz Is (Part 2)” are a tough listen no matter how big a fan one is of the other stuff. Let that in no way dissuade you from immediate purchase of this one, though – in fact, given the complete unavailability of the other ones, this is likely the one you’re going to find if you’re ready to dive into the single best example of pre-punk era unearthings, SIMPLY SAUCER notwithstanding.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

If there’s a strain of 60s-70s Jamaican music you’re itching to get better acquainted with, it’s usually a no-brainer to try out one of those Trojan 3xCD box sets. We’ve talked about a few of these before on this site & I’m a big fan of the $15-$17 price point for these things, which usually give you over 3 hours of music, much of it unavailable elsewhere or only on rare 45s and long-gone LPs. I will say that Trojan are milking the concept to death – witness relatively recent comps like the “Christmas Box Set”, the “Reggae Chill-Out box set” and the “Tribute to Bob Marley” box set – but those are more than counterbalanced with the 9 discs of outstanding dub that one can procure by picking up their three dub box sets.

The “Trojan Dub Rarities” box set is just as worthy as the other two, and has been on constant headphone duty for the past several weeks. I’m not sure how much more “rare” these sides are than others – even a neophyte like me has heard a few of these before – but the lineup is stellar and the dub is just full-tilt drop-out. You get deep killers from classic mixers like THE REVOLUTIONARIES, THE UPSETTERS, ROOTS RADICS, and THE OBSERVERS, along with weird, sparse version b-sides to 45s from AUGUSTUS PABLO, TOMMY McCOOK and a host of lesser names – some of which are the best things on here. I’m taken with a crazy echo-laden monster called “Twenty-Eight Version” by THUNDERBALL that just cooks, and another by QUEEN TINEY with backup by THE AGGROVATORS called “Natty Dread Time Dub”. Yet what really impresses me about the set is that I never once feel like I need to skip a track when it’s booming out of the headphones into my cranium – none of it’s electronic, none of it’s novelty crap, and all of it is sizzling. A better price-to-quality ratio is unlikely to be found when investigating this rich form, so Agony Shorthand says check it out.

Monday, June 05, 2006

When a modern band gets some attention from both S-S and Polly Maggoo Records, it’s a pretty sure bet that they’re something special. I think the S-S record by France’s CHEVEU reviewed in April here was a fantastic blast of electrospasm punk & this one’s easily as good. “Superhero” has a murderous 007/Batman riff & bunch of super-agitated talking and fumbling, with odd squeaks and keytones throughout. It’s a devastating song for playing late, late at night, and Exhibit A for those who don’t believe that a whole new strain of strange punk music has been invented these past couple years. “Clara Venus” is like a frantically uptempo Cabaret Voltaire & only lessens the pulse by a whisker. Wow. One of the best 45s of 2006, I don’t care that it’s June 5th, it’s gonna be on the list!

Friday, June 02, 2006

I am fortunate enough (I think) to be able to say that I saw the DREAM SYNDICATE live a few times in the 80s, but I'm not so lucky as to have caught "the Kendra lineup" - the 1981-82 one that recorded one of my Top 10 fave records ever, "The Days of Wine And Roses". Kendra is KENDRA SMITH, and she's always been sort of a witchy psychedelic mystery lady. She was persona non grata for a year or so after the album (the album), and then all of a sudden she had this new band in 1984 with Dave Roback from the RAIN PARADE called CLAY ALLISON & a great gentle psych EP, and then a couple years later, pop - out came the 1987 album by her new band OPAL, who were actually the same band, and on SST records no less (then regularly polluting the bins with October Faction and Swa records). No tours, no big hoopla, just a fantastic psychedelic/kraut/paisley guitar record that sounds even better to my ears in 2006 than it did back then.

"Happy Nightmare Baby" for years actually took a backseat in my eyes to the posthuomus 1989 OPAL record called "Early Recordings", which had all the Clay Allison stuff + a few extras. That one was really folky, sometimes-acoustic Velvet Underground-inspired shaman rock, with a lot of the mystical swirling weirdness of their later stuff only hinted at (and it's great). But today I'm thinking "Nightmare" is the real lost classic. Roback plays guitar & feeds back like the lost son of Syd Barrett and Michael Karoli, but in a really restrained, strum-and-nod off sort of way that sets the flickering-candle mood perfectly. It's funny, I saw Roback live with MAZZY STAR around 1990 and his stage presence - dressed in black head to toe, sulking, unsmiling, totally too cool and "above it all" - was so off-putting that I mentally wrote him off as a big poseur for years. But that wasn't very fair, now was it? And Kendra Smith's vocals are just the most, you know what I mean? The careful, even way she doles out her words is a beautiful thing, most fully realized on the classic "She's A Diamond", a blues that's maybe the best thing they ever did. I'm also partial to the psych-by-numbers "Magick Power", which could have come off "Piper At The Gates of Dawn" (it's that good). A record with some obvious staying power this great should have been released on CD, don't you think? I think it may have been at one time, but good luck finding it now. That ain't right; for now, go visit Endless Mike - he'll set you up.

Oh and hey - I have a question as well: Did OPAL really ever play live? I lived two hours from Los Angeles during their lifespan and never once heard of a show. Did you?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Every couple years or so our old friends the COUNTRY TEASERS seem to come around with a new one chock full of jaunty skiffles, nasally rants and weirdo keyboard-based dirges, and every couple years the payoff amounts to about a solid B-, give or take a grade. Oh I've sort of said otherwise in the past, but the march of time & the wisdom of age has helped me to understand why I'm seeing the glass as half empty this time. To read the hyperbole spilled out on these guys every release, you'd think that these discs were something you'd wanna put on time & again, day in and day out all year, because these guys are such a wildly inventive gas. I don't know about that; I can honestly say that for all my respect for this act, dragging their discs out of storage for repeat play doesn't happen a whole hell of a lot. Allow me to explain. First, let's establish what's good about this CD and about the Teasers in general. I've always liked the total ramshackle construction of their songs & the fuck-all way lead nihilist Ben Wallers slurs out his words. Everything about the band appears to be so inborn & with nary a thought to what folks think that they're capable of some real naval-gazing bedroom genius at times. Every record has a couple of doozies. When they're hitting on all six cylinders, a better FALL-inspired Northern European post-punk aggro country band can't be found. You'll find that band on this record's "Points of View" and closing "Please Ban Music/Gegen Alles", and it's a real treat.

My concerns lie on two fronts. Ever since a friend gave me a tape of this at-the-time-unrecorded band around 1992 or so, I've quickly tired of Wallers' insistance on punctuating every record with his giggle-giggle-I'm-so-bad "transgressive words" -- "Jew", "coon", "Hitler", "blacks", "queer" etc. Once you get a politically incorrect titter out of the listener - and believe me, I will always love a smartly-delivered right hook to the word police -- what's left? It appears that entire songs continue to be built around slipping said words into the lyrics, and that's about as boring as bean curd. But that's not as big a deal as the aforementioned staying power of the music. You folks that talk about the Teasers like they're consistently awesome and are such brave radical musical iconoclasts, are you seriously cranking this up and playing it for your pals? Because a large chunk of it's dull dull dull, meandering with no direction forward, backward nor home - just made-up-on-the-point garbage (or highly calculated to sound that way, I don't know). I read three reviews of this thing already just this past couple weeks that posit that it's the goddamn musical second coming. Midheaven Mailorder, flacking for this thing on their web site, ask the very easily answerable question, "Is there another current group operating at such a high level musically or lyrically?". Wow, probably not, right? The evidence is overwhelming! Seriously, did you guys even listen to this thing? I repeat myself -- The Country Teasers are a solid B- band all the way around, and this thing comes off the shelves for reevaluation again in 2008 at the earliest.