Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Far West - The Far West (2011)

As surely as the Far West conjure up some authentic sour mash Americana on this debut, they do so with a subtle originality that lifts them above any usual expectations of the genre. So while banjo and fiddle twang under the high lonesome whine of the pedal steel, and almost every song is devoted to cry-in-yer-PBR loserdom, the entire enterprise is steered away from straight country by the laid-back drive of the band and the vocals of  Lee Briante. Briante possesses a voice that pleasantly echoes John Prine, although he replaces Prine's wise-ass twang with a jaded L.A. drawl that suits the proceedings perfectly. For sonic touchstones, consider the country side of Exile-era Stones or, to get even more specific, imagine "Far Away Eyes" if Gram Parsons had stuck around long enough to kneel on Jagger's chest until he promised to sing the song like he meant it, without the wink of condescension and the fake accent. Overall, the album might suffer slightly from a sameness of tempo, but stand-out tracks like "Bound to Lose", "Bitter, Drunk, & Cold", and "Best Company Misery Ever Had" sound nothing less than timeless. An impressively strong first album that makes me excited to hear how much further west the Far West are gonna go.

Sons of Freedom - Sons of Freedom (1988)

Superimposed over a snarling dog on this album's cover are the words "never retract, never retreat, never apologize, just get the thing done and let them howl", and it's as much a statement of purpose for the band as advice to the listener. At the time of its release, Sons of Freedom's thick, oppressive rock was heavier than metal, yet cleaner than the grunge revolution it preceded by mere months. Jim Newton's borderline whine stood in front of guitarist Don Harrison's bullying wall of volume and the sledgehammer throb of the rhythm section, all made even more intimidating by Matt Wallace's big league production. The spectacularly neanderthal opener "Super Cool Wagon" is followed by the pounding "The Criminal", and from there on in the album doesn't let up until the six minute plus closing sludgefest of "Alice Henderson". A lost, minor classic.

The Saints - (I'm) Stranded (1977)

Sure, it sounds like it was recorded on a RadioShack C-120 cassette in an aluminum shack during a hailstorm with the treble turned up to ten, but what a buzz this album still delivers! The cranked momentum of the manic title song amazingly leads into more dementia, stopping for a breather only during the six-minute stomp of "Messin' With the Kid" and the (comparatively) Dylanesque "Story of Love", and then racing to the finish line with the mind-melting Stooges-style riff-insanity of "Nights in Venice". Ed Kuepper's lead guitar is all fuzz and treble throughout, spinning flashy solos where punks weren't supposed to do such things, and Chris Bailey's gruff howl attains a tuneful charisma seemingly through the force of will. It was a jawdropping surprise in '77; it sounds even more surprising now.

The Replacements - Let It Be (1984)

The Replacements' crowning glory and the album before they started hitting their collective heads against the indifference of major labels. This is also the album when Paul Westerberg first comes into his own as a songwriter, and he seems ready to try his hand at everything, from pure pop to punk to metal to heart-on-the-sleeve balladry - but it's his band, that bunch of miscreants he played with, that keep these songs grounded and sonically related. Quite simply, the Mats rocked like few others have ever rocked, and they accomplished the feat of simultaneously not taking themselves seriously while making every tiny gesture sound like a full-on heroic stand against every injustice ever perpetrated against humanity. And yeah, it really is that good, if you want to hear it.

Dom Mariani - Popsided Guitar: Anthology 1984-2004 (2005)

This two disc anthology certainly makes the case that Dom Mariani is one of the most unjustly ignored rockers of the past two decades. He's been the main songwriter/singer/ guitarist for (by my count) six different bands in that time, three of which are responsible for stone cold classics (the Stems' debut At First Light... Violets Are Blue, the Someloves' only full-length Something Or Other, and the DM3's Road To Rome and One Time Two Times Three Red Light). Of course, none of of those albums have made the tiniest ripple in North American charts, so I can only hope Mariani sells truckloads in his native Australia. After all, there's gotta be some kind of justice in this world, doesn't there?

One thing that's immediately impressive throughout the entirety of this set is Mariani's consistency. Whether in the context of the garage/psyche revivalism of the Stems, or the sweet pop of the Someloves, or the more muscular power pop of the DM3, his emphasis is always on indelible hooks. He's also an ace guitarist, as evidenced by the blistering solo at the end of the DM3's "One Times Two Times Devastated" as well as the three instrumental tracks by the Majestic Kelp (on which Mariani sounds like the direct descendant of the Ventures and the Raybeats). And to give a little hope for Mariani's future, his most recent combo the Stoneage Hearts clock in with the pounding "Rock And Roll Boys (Rock And Roll Girls)", which zips by at a Ramones-like pace while Mariani sings lines like "I wanna hang with Mick and Keith, and play my guitar with my teeth."

It's almost hard to believe that someone so good can be ignored for so long. If you're a fan of Big Star, Badfinger, the Hoodoo Gurus - or any ultra-melodic pop/punk band of the last twenty years - then this collection is guaranteed to amaze you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spoon - Gimme Fiction (2005)

When band leader Britt Daniel attempted to describe the direction he was taking on Gimme Fiction as "Marvin Gaye meets Wire" he came close to hitting the bullseye. Like early Wire, this is taut guitar rock that traffics in tension more than release; and like Marvin Gaye, it's brimming with soul and groove. But as far as sonic antecedents go, I'd also add John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band in there, mostly due to Britt's vocal similarities, but also because of the confident and deliberate use of space to cushion each near-majestic chime of the keyboard. When Britt hits the chorus on opening song "The Beast And Dragon, Adored" he sounds like he's channeling the very soul of Lennon himself and, fittingly, he does so while declaring his rediscovered belief in rock and roll.

Britt's songwriting has always been effortlessly melodic, but here there's melodies upon melodies, more unfolding with each new listen - which almost has to count as a magic trick, because on first blush everything sounds so straightforward you'd expect to tire of it after a second play. On their previous release (Kill The Moonlight) Spoon had pulled the same trick while stripping their sound down to its barest essentials. This time out they've allowed themselves a logical progression to a wider sonic palette, and the results are simply astounding. You may need to invest some time before the slowburn of "The Delicate Place" actually singes, or before the seemingly obvious stomp of "The Infinite Pet" gives way to the dynamics lying just under its skin. Likewise, the jangly pure pop bliss of both "Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" and "Sister Jack" is immediately accessible, but don't make the mistake of assuming that's all they've got to offer.

On Kill The Moonlight's opener "Small Stakes", Britt Daniel declared that his ambition lay well beyond the constricting walls of indie rock. Gimme Fiction razes those walls to rubble.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reigning Sound - Time Bomb High School (2002)

Time Bomb High School opens with "Stormy Weather", and Reigning Sound attack that old Doo Wop chestnut with abandon, making it twist and shout where it once only strolled. It's like they snuck their grampa's old Edsel out of the garage and fuel-injected the crate, replacing polite melancholy with desperate vocals, distorted guitar jangle, a roller-rink organ swirling in the mix. And this souped-up jalopy is held together with tape and glue and hormones, threatening to break apart in a fiery crash before it gets anywhere near Dead Man's Curve. A total thrill ride, in other words.

That opening shot is no mistake. Ex-Oblivians auteur Greg Cartwright's new combo is hellbent on bashing out punk rock like the last 25 years of punk never happened. They gnaw on the same roots that formed bands like the Standells and the Sonics; they dip in to the same melting pot of American music that later forged the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, and the Ramones. Cartwright's original compositions match the structure and melody of his influences. Songs like "Reptile Style" and "Brown Paper Sack" sound like immediate classics from a parallel 1950s universe, churning with an adrenalized rush of Memphis soul and garage punk. Some heart-on-the-sleeve ballads help pace the album, but there's never a fear that this sock hop will end with a waltz.

This is the sort of archeological dig that rock bands often get lost in, returning to the surface with nothing to show but an academic dissertation and a whiteface of lime chalk. But Reigning Sound seem to have dug deeper than most, with less respect and a clumsy exuberance, unafraid of shattering a few fossils, and in the process they've uncovered something new and exciting.

The New York Dolls - Too Much Too Soon (1974)

The New York Dolls precocious first album justifiably gets all the credit as the groundbreaker, but their second (and officially last) album Too Much Too Soon, might be a truer picture of an oft-misunderstood band.

For one thing, the deep rhythm'n'blues roots of the Dolls are laid bare here in the covers of "Don't Start Me Talkin'", "(There's Gonna Be a) Showdown", and "Stranded in the Jungle". That love of old Stax/Volt r'n'b suggests that maybe the Dolls weren't so much a second generation threat to the status quo of the industry as just a good ol' hormone 'n' drug-fueled white boy version of Wilson Pickett.

The r'n'b roots also offer evidence of what a great band they were. The covers didn't come across as bar band bland, nor did they sound like overly reverent studies in musical theory. Instead, the Dolls made them their own, rebuilt them from the ground up starting with the drumming perfection of Jerry Nolan and the guitar and bass rhythm section of Sylvain Sylvain and Arther Kane, respectively.  The icing on the cake was the lead guitar insanity of Johnny Thunders, whose guitar tone alone launched a thousand punk bands.

And while among the original songs here there may be nothing as immediately striking as the debut's "Personality Crisis",  there's still no way to discount a song like Thunders' "Chatterbox" as anything other than classic. As well, in "Human Being" the Dolls muster up a genuine anthem, an apology for weakness of character that is belied by David Johansen's sneering, insolent vocals and by the frenzied stomp of the band. It's five minutes of glorious rock'n'roll transcendence, bolstered by their utter belief in the power of the music and proof positive that, while the Dolls may say they're sorry for their sins, they sure as hell don't mean it.

Which is, in other words, as perfect an encapsulation of rock 'n' roll attitude as you'll ever find.

The Leaving Trains - The Lump In My Forehead (1992)

By the mid '80s the anarchic Leaving Trains had already been banned from playing every club in Los Angeles and, in regards to their own toxic levels of inebriation and insanity, they would have been well advised to go in any direction other than deeper. But they weren't finished with plumbing the depths by a long shot, and The Lump In My Forehead, released in '92, proved that the Trains were the genuine article when it came to unhinged punk obnoxiousness. The fact the album opens with the vitriolic, contemptuous name-checking of "Bob Hope" should give fair warning that no cows are sacred in the Leaving Trains universe, and songs like "She's Got Bugs", "Gas, Grass, Or Ass", and "Women Are Evil" further illustrate the band's uncanny ability to locate the boundary lines of accepted behavior and urinate all over them. The antisocial fun reaches its apex in "I'm O.K.", a six-minute story-song that details a suburban dad's murderous wig-out and subsequent societal redemption thanks to the miracle of modern meds. It's both disturbing and hilarious, oozing equal amounts of bloodshot depravity and clear-eyed satire, and if there's any genius in the Leaving Trains it's that they balance both those extremes so often and so effortlessly. If the music itself was just a little more inspired these guys would've been truly dangerous.