1973: John Martyn - Inside Out
Of all the musicians who attempted to marry modern jazz/rock ideas with traditional British folk in the late '60s/early '70s, John Martyn was the most challenging and aggressive. He had others giving him a run for his money, sure -- Richard Thompson attacked the guitar with Sufi focus and clarity; Bert Jansch often employed a sharp, metallic edge in his work; and John Renbourn was capable of guitar maelstroms -- but when it came down to it, no one was as out-there as Martyn, as experimental in their approach, or as violent in their vocal delivery. Martyn could coo with the best of them, but he seemed more at home howling, growling, and slurring his lyrics over wildly distorted -- and Echoplex-laden -- guitar work. And while his early work with wife Beverly often rocked gently like American contemporaries The Byrds or national kin Fairport Convention, his solo albums, starting with 1968’s London Conversation, found him blending American blues, jazz, and world music to startling effect. 1970’s Stormbringer! introduced the Echoplex to his sound, and by 1973’s Solid Air and Inside Out, it had defined it; both albums bare little resemblance to what was going on in contemporary music, let alone folk at that time. But while Solid Air maintained significant footing in folk standards, Inside Out did not. This is Martyn cut loose: long stretches of distorted jazz punctuated by funky drum kit work, Danny Thompson’s slippery, singing double-bass, washes of saxophone, and Steve Winwood’s deft synthesizer coloring.
“It felt natural,” Martyn can be heard saying amidst studio clatter as the album starts, and it’s easy to see why the statement was included on the final recording. For all of Inside Out’s excursions and risks, the record does indeed feel “natural” -- a noted influence of the Coltranes (John and Alice) and their saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Martyn confessed: “The only reason I bought the Echoplex was to try and imitate Sanders’ sustain on my guitar... I pursued the fuzz box and its various accompanying things just to try and get the sustain that you can get from a sax.”
Subsequently, Inside Out embraces multicultural dialog, with American, British, and African ideas all given equal footing. One of two songs not written by Martyn, “Eibhli Ghail chiuin ni Chearbhall” is the album’s most telling moment. A traditional folk melody is rendered nearly unrecognizable by the long passages of feedback and echo, bringing to mind the work of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets. Considering the similarities, it’s not difficult to imagine Eno owning a copy of Inside Out. The second cover, "The Glory of Love," is one of the album’s sweetest moments, a poppy cut of bouncy bass and plucked blues guitar, with Martyn’s worn-in voice sounding genuine and tender.
Martyn’s originals are equally telling of his headspace at the time. Opener “Fine Lines” extols the virtues of friendship, noting the kinship Martyn felt with his collaborators, particularly Thompson, who was one of the few musicians able to keep up with his notorious drug and alcohol consumption. “Make No Mistake” makes explicit reference to said hard-living: "If I can’t be a happy man/ I won’t be one at all/ To be dead drunk on the floor/ To get up and ask for more/ If I can’t get everything I want/ I’ll just get what I can." Maryn’s reputation is legendary; the man was a brawler, prone to exploding, drink-fueled rage, and the music makes no attempt hide this. His voice is most easily recognizable as a punk rock attribute, but his guitar playing is just as defiant. On the largely instrumental “Outside In,” his playing veers from restrained to free-jazz explosive, and “Look In,” buoyed by a tribal, shifting groove, features a bevy of effects pedals, including his signature Echoplex augmented with wah-wah and fuzzed, bluesy leads.
And while Martyn’s work is often defined by its baiting stance, Inside Out is a testament to the struggle between his sneering idiosyncrasies and his desire to create truly transcendent music. “Beverly,” named for his wife, is a gorgeous instrumental, showcasing passion and grace while still incorporating the album's psychedelic touchstones. “Ways to Cry” is similarly unguarded; recalling the pastoral calm of Maryn’s friend Nick Drake, it blends the full band arrangements of Bryter Layter with the soft-focus acoustics of Pink Moon. "If I ever took another one/ I was crying for you," Martyn sings with guilty honesty. “So Much In Love With You” further states the album’s overarching message: “The concept of love is what Inside Out is all about,” Martyn said, and he sings "‘Cause I’m so much in love with you baby/ I just can’t seem to see it clear." The tension between being who you believe you should be and being who you are is ultimately what makes for such a compelling listen. Where previous album’s precariously balanced traditional forms with more experimental ones, the thrust of Inside Out is a personal balancing; the songs are fully out-there, but the spiritual tug of war is still very much occurring.
Martyn’s future work would find him performing with Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, and Lee “Scratch” Perry while exploring and integrating elements of electronica, reggae, and pop into his music. It’s debatable how listenable later albums like Glorious Fool are, but with an early canon containing so many undeniable gems, Martyn’s legacy is secured as one of the most electrifying, bizarrely singular artists of any genre. He passed away earlier this year, and Inside Out is certainly one of the best ways to remember and honor him. It is a contrarian, deeply personal album, featuring many of his most jaw-dropping songs.
1. Fine Lines
2. Elbhli Ghail chin Chearbhail
3. Ain’t No Saint
4. Outside In
5. The Glory of Love
6. Look In
8. Make No Mistakes
9. Ways to Cry
10. So Much in Love With You
1997: The Misfits - Static Age
Like many of their punk-rock peers, The Misfits' popularity has grown exponentially since their humble beginnings in Lodi, New Jersey, a satellite to the blossoming punk scene in New York. Unlike many of their peers -- The Ramones, Black Flag, The Damned, just to name a few -- there has been little critical reassessment of their career over the past three decades. Even devotees of ’70s punk tend to regard the band as a bit of a guilty pleasure, which is unfortunate; The Misfits' early output holds up much better than most of their contemporaries -- and yes, that's including The Ramones, Black Flag, and The Damned.
Static Age is a peculiar document, the debut album that never was. Recorded in 1978 on 30 hours of donated time from Mercury Records (Both the Misfits and Mercury were using the name “Blank Records” to publish music; Mercury traded them a recording session for the exclusive rights), the session was meant to yield the band's first full-length. When Mercury passed on its option to release it, The 'Fits decided to split the tracks up among the Bullet, Horror Business, and Beware EPs. Even so, a good chunk of music would not see the light of day until 1986, with the posthumous release of the basement tape-quality Legacy of Brutality. It was another 10 years before Static Age was released in its entirety, this time as part of the band's boxed set. Then, as a huge “fuck you” to anyone who bought the set, Caroline released the album as a stand-alone disc one year later, remastered with bonus tracks.
So that's the history. How's the album? Well, for a collection of songs that was never intended to be released as a cohesive whole, it hangs together incredibly well. The collection, curiously enough, starts off on its weakest footing, opening with the title track and chasing it down with “T.V. Casualty,” two takes on what is essentially the same song (look up the guitar tabs; they're practically identical). Things really start getting interesting with “Some Kinda Hate.” It's the kind of song The Misfits became famous for: ’50s Buddy Holly-style rock 'n' roll as seen through a sleezy ’70s punk lens, a chorus of “whoa-oh-ohs,” and Glenn Danzig crooning about tortured babies and copulating maggots like Roy Orbison possessed by the ghost of Ed Gein. It is followed immediately by “Last Caress,” perhaps the band's most recognizable track. It's also the song that owes the most to The Ramones (listen closely and you'll hear the same chord progression as "Blitzkrieg Bop”). Nonetheless, the song takes on an energy all its own, faltering to a standstill at 1:23, just long enough for Danzig to wail, “Oh sweet death, one last caress.” At that moment, you buy into it. Never mind that only a minute earlier he was boasting about raping your mom or killing your baby, you are completely and unironically on-board with whatever this guy has to say.
Static Age is clearly a product of a certain place and time, but its tracks carry a surprising range of diversity. “Bullet” looks forward to the kind of blazing hardcore The Misfits would embrace on the Earth A.D./Wolfsblood LP, while “Hollywood Babylon” and “Teenagers from Mars” revel in the kind of surf-rock guitar The Dead Kennedys would make their signature. “Come Back” and “Theme for a Jackal” are proto-goth masterpieces. Guitarist Franche Coma, drummer Mr. Jim, and bassist Jerry Only might have been interchangeable (Coma and Mr. Jim would both be gone by 1979), but every riff and fill they play is brimming with piss-ant attitude.
The sound quality of Static Age's ’97 remaster is significantly improved over the boxed set version and light-years beyond the four-track-in-a-cavern sound of Legacy of Brutality. Of the bonus tracks, “In the Doorway” -- a Doors-like ballad exclusive to this release -- is a real gem. Plus, as an added bonus, there are nearly nine minutes of studio outtakes. Revel as Danzig chides Jerry Only for breaking a string! Marvel as Franche Coma complains he needs to sit down! Overall, it's an attractive package that more than holds up as one of the best punk records that almost never came out of the ’70s.
1. Static Age
2. TV Casualty
3. Some Kinda Hate
4. Last Caress
5. Return of the Fly
6. Hybrid Moments
7. We Are 138
8. Teenagers from Mars
9. Come Back
11. Hollywood Babylon
14. Theme for a Jackal
16. Spinal Remains
17. In the Doorway
18. Outtakes 1
19. Hidden 2
2008: The Lines - Flood Bank
In Euclidean geometry, any straight-line section can be extended ad infinitum. But putting the math where the rock is proves difficult with ’80s dub/post-punk quartet The Lines. They were the musical equivalent of Einstein’s disproof of Euclid’s line theory in 1919; bending genre like gravity bent light rays. The disheartening fact remains: Rico Conning (vocals/trombone), Joe Forty (bass), Nick Cash (drums), and Mick Lineham (guitar) barely left a dimple in England’s music scene. Self-regulating themselves to the doldrums of the perpetual second act, the avant-punk-funkers remained in the cerebral shadows. It’s a typical post-punk story if you’re not The Fall or Mission of Burma, and Acute Records’ compilation proves that this apparent non-success was wholly The Lines’ fault. They just weren’t very good spokesmen for their dubby (“The Landing,” “Bucket Brigade”) and Can-esque freak-outs (“Flood Bank”).
The highly informational 16-page booklet enclosed with Acute’s second foray into The Line’s truncated oeuvre reveals a band always on the brink of financial collapse. Two unearthed (and highly rare) press interviews reveal a forthcoming Conning. The Syd Barrett-esque frontman detested synthesizers just about as much as he hated the press comparing his band to XTC. His thoughts in the August ’81 issue of Zig Zag are very telling: “[Our] music takes time. The songs demand you to get involved. People don’t take time, that’s why they don’t get into the records. They don’t grab you at first. But they’re long lasting. We’re happy we’re making something that won’t be fashionable. The last thing we want to do is affiliate ourselves to any cult though. That’s an albatross.” The slightly snarky author of the piece put it best with a curt aperçu during his introduction: “The Lines would never have a backlash when there hasn’t been a frontlash.”
The fundamental shackle for The Lines, and invariably Flood Bank, is that we only got to see the group on the verge of something larger than themselves. They groped in the shadows of their new environs (Blackwing studios) with the New Wave producing/engineering team of Eric Radcliffe (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Yazoo) and John Fryer (Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails). At the end of their first album, 1981's Therapy, The Lines were “at the end of a stage,” and not merely metaphorically; it was where they flourished. Naturally, the cover of this new compilation is a photograph of the band playing live.
Therapy took them seven days to make, but their followup, Ultramarine, didn’t go for broke as much as it could have. It’s a brick to the face of synth-pop, sheathed with bubble wrap. Regardless, both LPs -- shuffled for Acute's “pulp fiction mix” -- garner some of your attention. The strange tracklisting is initially jarring but makes sense in light of the original material; every Lines album is a compilation if you think about it. These two early works catch Furty and Conning raging against the conservative establishment elected in South London circa 1979 and welcoming infants into their households. That poignant equilibrium becomes audible when the bottomless bass and skittering drum groove of “Stripe” turns into a high-spirited whistle and piano street shuffle. “Tunnel Party”’s ramshackle drumming is readily outfitted for Bacchanalian anarchy, while Lineham’s propulsive rhythm guitar gives the party some legroom.
Therapy and Ultramarine swing between imagist krautrock interloping and grisly street machinations. These shifts are only subtle because of Conning’s improvisational vocal performance, and he nails the dichotomous relationship on the shimmering “Fury.” Of course, the downright experimental tone bursts on the buzzing “Disenchanted” tend to get on your nerves. Despite this, Conning’s stentorian trombone on “Ursa Major” and “Airlift” are other emotive highlights. Both albums focus on the slowly unfolding rhythms of the street over an academic/commercial melodic structure.
There’s a mathematical exactitude to The Lines, thanks in no small part to Forty’s beats, but also an overall jazzy mood. Flood Bank is a rare find overflowing with post-punk for the street and the bedroom. If you own this and Acute’s excellent singles compilation Memory Span, you pretty much have The Lines’ whole discography. The Londoners were definitely the clichéd “so underrated it hurts” stories of the ’80s but managed to carve their emotions into the pavement. Between 1978 and 1983, they released five singles, one EP, and two LPs to mixed reviews and little sales. Time invariably concealed their trajectory, as these few records have become rare and expensive collector's items, never released on CD until now. Let’s hope gravity rewrites history again just like it did with geometry.
1. Come Home
4. Blow a Kiss
6. Bucket Brigade
7. Tunnel Party
8. Ursa Major
9. The Landing
10. The Gate
11. Have a Heart
12. No Hiding
13. Flood Bank
Full disclosure: my dad, who died five years ago, loved this record, a fact that will likely cloud my judgment. In fact, I’m counting on it: I decided to check out Here They Come! as an exercise, a way to understand his tastes. He was a guy who knew what he liked and knew when he needed the things he liked. As a music obsessive, I’m the same way; he was no addict, but we shared a belief that music can heal almost all wounds.
Here They Come! was the debut record by Paul & The Raiders, a band that started in Boise but relocated to Oregon. They quickly became a sensation in the Pacific Northwest, but because of promotional opportunities pending a scheduled TV appearance, the band’s first album came out two years after Columbia signed them. That two year-gap -- between 1963 and 1965 -- is clearly evident on Here They Come!, with a first side devoted to early-'60s garage rock and a second mainly focused on Rubber Soul-era balladry.
This dichotomy works surprisingly well, giving the record a focused, concept-album feel. The live tracks on side one show how Paul Revere & The Raiders became an act that knew how to get the party started. The album starts, in fact, with the sounds of a crowd ready to have a good time -- a few stray claps and some random exclamations as the band tries out their Hammond B3. The notes get louder, the drums rumble, and an announcer says the band’s name as if introducing Cassius Clay. They launch into the barnburner “You Can’t Sit Down” as if only rock ‘n’ roll will keep them alive.
Frontman Mark Lindsay sings “stomp and shout and work it on out” a few times in these early tracks, and he’s a consummate showman throughout, whooping like James Brown and screaming like Roger Daltrey. His band is no less exuberant, and the rhythm section here is especially incredible; drummer Mike Smith’s fills on “Money (That’s What I Want)” are nothing short of explosive. Audiences must have loved these guys (though I choose not to use the crowd on this record as evidence either way; I swear I heard the same “woo!” and clap pairing multiple times. I smell studio trickery).
Side two works equally well, but in different ways. Paul Revere & The Raiders clearly knew their way around their instruments, as evidenced by the slow R&B track “Sometimes,” which hints at the fuzzy psychedelia of the late-'60s. It’s a heart-wrencher, as is the next track, “Gone,” which lets the Hammond organ that was used to start the party wind things down. The band also tries their hand at “Fever” and “Time Is On My Side,” both gems filled with wailing guitars and Lindsay’s raspy delivery.
I suspect I’d love this record without my dad’s influence, but, of course, I’ll never know; when I listen, I can only picture him humming along to bass lines and tapping his foot in time. My sister and I both got married within a couple years of each other, both shortly after my dad died. We shared a wedding band, and they played a Paul Revere song at both occasions, in his honor. They stomped, shouted, and worked it on out as much as a wedding band could, and both times, as guests danced furiously, it reminded me of my dad’s love of making people happy. In this, he shared an interest with Paul Revere & The Raiders, a bunch of crowd-pleasers who believed in the power of fun.
1. You Can’t Sit Down
2. Money (That’s What I Want)
3. Louie, Louie
4. Do You Love Me
5. Big Boy Pete
6. Ooh Poo Pah Doo
9. These Are Bad Times (For Me and My Baby)
11. Time Is On My Side
12. A Kiss to Remember You By
A few years ago, a good friend of mine turned me on to Big Star. Although I had heard some of the band’s songs here and there, he lent me his vinyl copies of Number One Record and Radio City, explaining that most of my favorite artists were already devoted Big Star fans. After that, it was all over. I spoke with him about my developing obsession with the group, and he sagely informed me that Big Star is not the kind of band you just like. He couldn’t have been more right. Years later, I’m the kind of guy spending $30 on import copies of Thank You Friends: the Ardent Records Story for the Rock City and Ice Water tracks; the kinda guy grooving on songs by The DBs and Chris Stamey written about members of Big Star (“Paper Hat,” anyone?); the kind of guy seething with righteous fury as the DJ at my favorite bar tells me he scored an original pressing of the “I Am the Cosmos” single for 99¢ at the record store where I work. The cultish nature of the band naturally leads to a peculiar kind of rock ‘n’ roll archeology, where any desperate scrap of Big Star lore is dug up, be it apocryphal or disputed. Unearthing each pop gem associated with the band prompts a same rush of giddy excitement, like a desperate religious fanatic uncovering some new piece of scripture.
But even among us true believers, the solo work of Big Star main-man Alex Chilton is a mixed bag. With the exception of his art-punk, deconstructionist debut Like Flies on Sherbert, Chilton’s solo work has largely been written off as trite genre exercises in jazz, soul, blues, and polite pop (and plenty of of fans despise Like Flies on Sherbert, too). Chilton’s lyrics are often especially suspect, and that’s when he even bothers to write songs, with most his records containing more than a few covers. Tight Shoes and Loose Pussy, his last proper solo effort, contains no originals and, sure enough, finds Chilton taking on a collection of jazzy, blues-beholden soul tunes. Those put off by this sort of breezier fare will find plenty to despise. There’s nothing as golden-hued as the first two Big Star records, and those looking for the immaculate bummer vibe of Third/Sister Lovers will be offended; all 12 tracks here are upbeat, even the country-soul, tear-in-my-beer numbers. There’s none of that famed Chilton anguish, and the sparse accompaniment of bass and drums is all that’s left to embellish Chilton’s vocals and guitar work.
But if one can separate the man from the myth for a moment, it becomes apparent that Loose Shoes... isn’t a bad record. In fact, it’s mostly a pretty good one. Opener “I’ve Never Found a Girl” does well to set up the record. Yes, it’s breezy, informed by a swaying, jazzy lilt and a perfectly bouncy bass line, but those writing Chilton off as a mellow standards singer really aren’t listening: Chilton’s singular voice oozes a certain punkness, a raw quality that sounds the way Elvis’ sneer looks. His guitar playing is aggressive, too, a tangled mess of jazz chords and whammy bar leads, delivered with biting treble and a bit of overdrive. It’s not often that people note Chilton’s six string prowess, but tracks like his take on Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Hook Me Up” and the albums instrumentals, “April in Paris” and “Shiny Stockings,” all reveal a nuanced, deft player, not afraid to get a bit nasty, as if the madman approach of Like Flies... was subtly integrated into his traditionalist leanings. Chilton works tiny wonders with his selected pallet. On “The Oogum Boogum Song” he offers pure pop, while “I Remember Mama” echoes the thumping, yearning rustic soul of The Band. “If You’s a Viper,” a cute ode to weed fueled runs to the liquor store, snakes and twists like its namesake. It’s all far more subversive than cursory listens suggest.
But it’s not all fantastic. “You Got a Booger Bear Under There” goes for a raunchy, sex-soaked vibe, but sounds as awkward as the title suggests. Maybe Isaac Hayes could pull this kind of thing off, but Chilton doesn’t, and it’s the album’s longest track, painfully dragging on two minutes longer than it should. “Lipstick Traces” sticks too close to a formula, illustrating why Chilton’s solo work is so problematic for many of his followers. The guy practically defines a genre (with much respect to his Big Star writing partner Chris Bell), but here he is, cranking out such plainly uninspired stuff. At least in the instance of Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, the bad doesn’t outweigh the better, more surprising fare, which helps establish the album as one of the finest of his solo canon, a sort of grown up, medicated Like Flies on Sherbert minus the false starts and James Luther Dickinson (sadly).
It’s hard not to be reminded of another power-pop icon, Rivers Cuomo, who crafted his Third as his sophomore record with Weezer, Pinkerton. It famously tanked like its spiritual forefather, and while both records have grown to cult status in the years following their release, it’s hard to blame Chilton and Cuomo for retiring into the confines of pop recipe: less heart, more theory. The risks and naked honesty to these beleaguered songwriters just didn’t pay off, no matter what us basement-dwelling rock critics say to the contrary. Luckily, Alex Chilton still has the knack for a catchy tune, which constantly hints at a once obvious greatness. He’s still around, tossing us little bones like this record when he feels like it. There’s not a lot of meat, but if you gnaw for awhile, there’s certainly some tasty marrow.
1. I’ve Never Found a Girl
2. Lipstick Traces
3. Hook Me Up
4. The Oogum Boogum Song
5. If You’s A Viper
6. I Remember Mama
7. April In Paris
8. There Will Never Be Another You
9. Single Again
10. You’ve Got a Booger Bear Under There
11. Shiny Stockings
12. Goodnight My Love
Spreading hype and rumors about your own band is a ballsy move that can be viewed in one of two ways; either as a creative PR trick, Kaufman-esque in intent, or as a deceptive, dishonest way to amass a fan base. For years, bands like The Residents have lived in anonymous infamy, and in this age of bedroom projects, one-man bands, and home-recorded albums, it has become almost commonplace for artists to bolster their own sense of mystery and intrigue.
Velvet Cacoon have built their career on a foundation of mystery, hype, and rumors -- most, if not all, self-generated. Many of these tales can be sourced back to front man Josh (possibly the group’s only member) who initially set about creating a rich tapestry of stories to sucker/allure legions of metalloids into Dethklok-like levels of devotion. For those who haven’t heard the yarns, here are just a few regarding their 2004 cult classic Genevieve: the album was written and recorded under the influence of vast amounts of dextromethorphan (which, for the layman, is the active ingredient in some cough syrups); due to the band’s politics of “deep ecology,” an eco-fascist philosophy espousing the theory that nature is more important than humans, no electricity was used in the recording of the album; instead, front man Josh “invented” a diesel-powered guitar called a “dieselharp” that was “amplified and recorded underwater in various sized aquariums” (reminds me of an episode of Metalocalypse).
In addition to these claims, early interviews with Josh and band partner Angela (possibly a figment of his imagination?) tell stories of intensely violent live shows, including public bloodletting and mutilation, the death of their drummer from falling off a cliff while drunk, communication with the spirit world through electronic voice phenomenon, and many other bits of ballyhoo. Of course, the metal world is no stranger to fabricated tales. By now we all know the story of the bound and tortured midget from Abrubtum was a hoax, and the whole dead drummer thing was already done by Spinal Tap.
In the wake of these tales of mayhem surrounding Velvet Cacoon, metalloids have spent countless hours on internet message boards discussing and debunking rumors with the zeal of an especially neurotic conspiracy theorist poring over the Zapruder film. Now, many of the hoaxes have been admitted, including the diesel-powered guitar that never was. The supposed intensity of their live performance is also difficult to corroborate considering the lack of any real evidence of the group ever playing a show at all. In addition to all this, VC was exposed as having plagiarized large parts of their discography from the Black Metal sound, which only angered metal purists more.
The only aspect of their personal mythology that may be true is the band’s alleged drug use. Taking cues more from William Burroughs than DJ Screw, Josh and Angela claim to have snorted a pre-prepared powder of dextromethorphan rather than drinking it in a cough syrup or crushing pills of Mucinex DM, like a junior high school student would. They say their music is inextricably connected to the disassociation brought on by the drug and that to really “understand” VC’s music, one must at least be on the “fourth plateau” of a DXM trip, where communication with the spirit world begins. For me, boasting about drug use is about as juvenile as wearing corpse paint, but perhaps there are those out there impressed by the ability of pretentious USBM’ers to guzzle cough syrup.
Musically, Genevieve is nothing groundbreaking, but you’ll recognize aspects of your favorite black metal bands (Burzum, Darkthrone, Blut Aus Nord). A fairly standard back and forth sway of vacuum cleaner narcosis permeates the entirety of the album. The militaristic stomp of drum machines meshes well with Josh’s vocals, which, when pushed way back in the mix, sound like a spot on Smeagol/Gollum impersonation (precious). While some aspects of the album are derivative, others are more inventive; nearly every track ends in an almost resurrective ambience. For instance, "P.S. Nautical" culminates with what sounds like a drowning piano and a symphony of miniature bells, while "Avalon Polo" drawls on victoriously before trailing in the sweet strumming of an acoustic guitar. VC's strength lies in straddling the line between metal and ambience (like all good black metal should), which is no more evident than on "Bete Noir," a 17-minute dark ambient track that closes the album in the most ominous and Stygian of ways.
What we have in the end is a decent metal album overshadowed by the controversy and lies, which begs the question: was all the hype needed to sell an otherwise pedestrian album? I'll let you know when I get to the fourth plateau.
2. P.S. Nautical
3. Avalon Polo
5. Fauna & Flora
7. Bete Noir
Every culture, subculture, genre, and category has its wonks. Improvisational comedy is no exception; its biggest snobs scoff at Robin Williams’ zany talk show antics, and they eschew the hackery of television shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? by decrying the lack of characters and scenework. I am one of those snobs.
I know, I know: there are other, more important things worth defending, such as root canals and the oeuvre of Milli Vanilli. When done poorly, improv is an interminable, execrable experience. However, when improv is done well, it is downright transcendental. Scenes, characters, objects, motivations appear out of nowhere. Long-form improv is less about laughs than it is about creating worlds out of nothing; the laughs come naturally when appropriate (or inappropriate) objects, people, and settings suddenly appear with clear, natural motivations. Simply put: long-form improv is about story and characters, while short-form improv is about games and zingers. Not that I’m biased.
End snob rant, enter Nichols & May, two of the most capable and brilliant long-form improvisers in history. Their second record, An Evening With Mike Nichols And Elaine May, is considered their best, but you can read about that elsewhere (and do, because it’s flat-out amazing). Their debut, Improvisations To Music, is a different matter, because it’s a snapshot of two stage actors trying out their craft in the studio for the first time, with mixed results.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May honed their abilities with the Compass Players, a Chicago theater group that later became Second City. They brought their improv act to clubs and eventually became a Broadway sensation (a period partially documented on An Evening With…). Improvisations To Music finds them between these milestones.
What works best on the album are the variations on genre: the Hitchcockian spies of “Mysterioso” who speak in increasingly ridiculous code (“Go to the Good Humor man... order a Fudgicle”), the dentist and patient stuck in a Douglas Sirk melodrama (“If I can teach one Saudi Arabian the rules of dental hygiene as I have learned them…”). Each highlight, especially the dentist scene, are exercises in pace, and they build to climaxes with subtle endings. Credit is also due to pianist Marty Rubenstein, who provides perfect, unobtrusive accompaniment.
What doesn’t work just feels arbitrary, such as the jaunty “Everybody’s Doing It,” a questionable parody of beat poetry using corporate and ad speak. It is either unfunny or simply too dated to work. Other skippable tracks are simply dull, such as the conversational “Tango” and the father-daughter scene “Chopin,” which gets points for sad drama but not much else.
Improvisations To Music is interesting for everything it is not: namely, a fitting start to huge careers. Mike Nichols especially flowered shortly after the duo broke up in the mid-’60s, going on to direct countless Broadway hits, as well as films such as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Elaine May became a successful screenwriter and playwright (and teamed again with Nichols on The Birdcage and Primary Colors, which both featured May’s screenplay and Nichols’ direction). For the duo’s masterpieces, and to see what happens when ridiculous situations build naturally to absurdity, check out An Evening With Mike Nichols & Elaine May. For the moment before it all exploded, start here.
1. Cocktail Piano
3. Second Piano Concerto (The Dentist)
4. Everybody’s Doing It
5. Bach To Bach
7. Sonata For Piano And Celeste
In the 1960s, the idea of music as an outlet for those struggling to find their place in a materialistic and corrupt world was becoming especially pronounced. Goodbye and Hello, in this sense, is certainly a product of its time; these melancholy folk tunes highlight the feelings of disappointment and disenchantment resulting from the tumultuous ’60s. Still, on this album, Tim Buckley delves beyond folksy reactions to politics.
That depth resides in Buckley’s soft-spoken, lyrical delivery. With a multi-octave range of possibilities and the gently wailing, melodic capability of his voice, he transcends the then-familiar sight of a man and his guitar, speaking to a people, a country, and a time. In “No Man Can Find the War,” the poetry is undeniable throughout. Yet when he finally asks “Is the war inside your mind?” we shift from the political to the individual, from the physical manifestation of war to a metaphorical one. There is a war in Tim Buckley’s mind.
In fact, Buckley is at his very best when confronting the torment buried within, rather than in the politics or war going on around him. “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” references his failed marriage with Mary Guibert (mother of Jeff Buckley), the “Flying Pisces.” The tune is undoubtedly epic, filled with queens and charming dancers and seascapes. Ultimately, however, Buckley abandons the fantastical for safe and steady ground, as the song culminates in a series of pleading howls: “Please come home.” Who pleads is not made clear -- the Flying Pisces? the abandoned child? Buckley himself? Yet the grief and desperation remains personal and, above all else, human.
The voice of protest comes from a place packed full of emotion and turmoil, yet adding politics to the mix hardens and toughens any outcome. The war outside is something to talk and sing about, but considering the war in Tim Buckley’s mind, Goodbye and Hello becomes not only a product of its time, but a product of human experience, in life, love, and loss.
1. No Man Can Find the War
2. Carnival Song
3. Pleasant Street
5. I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain
6. Once I Was
7. Phantasmagoria in Two
9. Goodbye and Hello
10. Morning Glory
In the movie Booty Call, Jamie Foxx’s character, Bunz, relates a story about growing up with a cheap TV on which it was impossible to read subtitles; therefore, he watched a lot of movies with only foreign-language accompaniment, particularly kung-fu flicks. After a while, he tells acquaintances at dinner, “I started being able to understand the motherfuckers.”
I’m not going to claim that after dozens of listens to Signor Rossi – a reissue of an out-of-print collection of soundtrack music from the animated TV show of the same name – I can understand Italian any better. I can still only make out the words that mirror their counterparts in the Spanish language. That’s it. However, now that I’ve absorbed a SHIT-ton of these delightful cycles of cheeky voices, sounds, and instrumental blurts, I feel a certain kinship with the characters and, especially, the tunes.
Part of their charm is that they simply couldn’t have been created in any other environment. This is cartoooon moooosic throooo and throooo, and as such it’s technically one of the only examples I’ve heard of its kind. There are snips and snatches of Ennio Morricone flourishes and other signatures I’m sure many-a soundtrack composer used back when this batch of songs was whipped up, but, for me, the constituent parts have no clear precedent, which is a mind-blowing thing if you’re used to being pelted by four-member units with a singer-guitarist-bassguy-drumdude lineup.
The lack of linguistic understanding even allows me to focus more closely on the instrumental deviations and the actual sounds being made by the singers’ mouths. Which is to say, my mind is uncluttered by the need to make sense of what's being said, a state of purity that’s more liberating than you might think. Not to mention that there’s a lot of ‘bop-ba-bop-ba’ stuff that’s as communicable as the International Language.
I never expected to derive such pleasure from a complication such as this, and now that I’ve finally allowed myself to look up a few of the cartoons themselves, I’m convinced this stuff might have influenced The Critic. Or maybe not.
1. Herr Rossi Sucht das Glück - Millerc
2. Rossi Easy Background
3. Parapapa "Perepepe" Choir
4. Sicura E Trac, Pts. 1-3 - Nichetti
5. Bim Bum Bam Patabum Choir
6. Qua Qua Qua - Marrow
7. Tutankamen Cha Cha Cha
8. Wild Wild West
9. Viva Happiness - Nichetti
10. La Canzone di Merlotto - Nichetti
11. Bu Bu Buana Bu
12. Krimi Slop
13. Gatto Blues
14. Vita Da Can - Nichetti
16. Signor Rossi Chac Chac Chac
17. Doctor Frankenstein
19. Salamek Zumpalla
20. W La Felictà - Nichetti
21. Ogni Estate Za Za Za - Nichetti
22. Fish Song
23. Qua Qua Qua
24. Marcia Della Fattoria
25. Spooky Twist
26. L' Allero
27. Hills & Guitars
28. Ol' Man Rossi
29. W La Felicità - Nichetti
30. Sicura E Track - Nichetti
31. Qua Qua Qua - Marrow
32. W La Felicità - Nichetti
33. W La Felicità
At least for me, Geffen Records' release of a White Zombie boxed set was the most shocking yet eagerly-anticipated musical event of 2008. After decades of longing for the seminal heavy metal group's self-released ’80s material to receive a CD reissue, most of us had grown resigned to its unlikelihood. Horror film icon and rock ‘n’ roll "boogieman" Rob Zombie has done little to disguise his dislike for his band's early work, including their major-label debut La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1. And yet, against all odds, here it is: a compilation of the band's entire (well, almost-entire, but more on that later) output in a neat, handsomely-packaged set of five discs.
Each CD functions as a snapshot of the band's evolution, beginning with their earliest, hardcore-influenced EPs. Zombie's voice is recognizable but still far from the hell-hound growl that would become his trademark. The way he skates over the full-speed-ahead guitar shredding recalls the lo-fi brilliance of T.S.O.L. or Earth A.D.-era Misfits. Queasy, lurching numbers like the Birthday Party-esque “True Crime” or the crashing, frenetic “Cats Eye Resurrection” got the band lumped in with the New York no-wave scene, yet one need only turn to tracks like “Pig Heaven” or “Eighty-Eight” to know that, even then, White Zombie had more in common with Slayer than Swans.
The second disc captures both the best and worst of White Zombie's pre-Geffen output. In 1987, Soul Crusher was considered a minor masterpiece, being embraced by such rock luminaries as Thurston Moore and Kurt Cobain. The debut album's 10 songs are consciously dissonant, replete with disquieting tempo-shifts, staccato drum-fills, and layers of squealing multi-tracked vocals. It marks Zombie's first use of B-movie sound-clips, an embellishment that would eventually become their hallmark.
Next to the roiling madness of Soul Crusher, Make Them Die Slowly is a bit of a yawner -- understandable considering Caroline Records gave the band just a few days to write and record an entire LP. The result is a hodge-podge of poorly-produced, overlong, and often indistinct songs. While a few tracks rise above the din -- the plodding “Murderworld” does a groovy about-face at the midway point before dissolving into thrash-metal bar mitzvah theme -- the most compelling reason to listen is to hear Rob Zombie's voice finally mature.
The set's biggest stylistic leap occurs between the second and third disc. The addition of Chicago's Jay Yuenger solidified White Zombie around a far more groove-oriented sound. Within the space of a single EP, God of Thunder, the whiplash-inducing approach to songwriting was abandoned in favor of a funkier, more technically polished style. The title-track, a superb cover of the Kiss song, is the work of fully confident, self-assured group of musicians. Along with “Love Razor” and a reprise of “Disaster Blaster,” these could have been lost tracks from their Geffen years.
La Sexorcisto and Astrocreep: 2000 are both very well-known albums and need no further praise from me. I'll only add that it's nice to have all of White Zombie's compilation and soundtrack cuts (of which there are surprisingly many) finally collected in one place. These constitute some of the band's best work, including the punishing “I Am Hell,” “Feed the Gods,” and “The One,” which displayed Rob Zombie's growing infatuation with electronics that would come to full fruition in 1998's Hellbilly Deluxe.
The set's videos and live footage are a mixed bag. Compared to the Nirvana boxed set, With the Lights Out, which featured home-movies of the band playing in their parents' basement and other memorable gems, the offerings here are a bit of a letdown. The videos range from outstanding (“I'm Your Boogieman,” “More Human than Human,” “Thunderkiss '65”) to forgettable (“The One” -- god, could they look a little more bored?). It's always cool to watch old concert footage and be reminded of what your favorite artists looked like way back when, but there aren't any recordings of the band prior to La Sexorcisto, and hey, how do they not have a single performance of “More Human than Human?"
The hardest of hardliners will point out the conspicuous absence of Super Sexy Swingin' Sounds and the KMFDM remixes of “Thunderkiss '65,” but both releases are readily available at any decent record store. I, for one, applaud the omission, but am a little irked they didn't include any of the unreleased demos that have been floating around the bootleg market for 20-some-odd years.
As for the packaging, it's everything you've come to expect from a Rob Zombie release: his lavish, Big Daddy Roth-inspired B-movie artwork with plenty of photography of the band through its various incarnations. Some kind of retrospective essay could have given context to the chaotic sounds of White Zombie's tumultuous beginnings, but it's a minor complaint.
When all is said and done, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie might not be the exact collection Zombie fans were been hoping for, but it's more than most of us ever expected. All those who followed Rob Zombie's career through the ’90s will find plenty here to sink their fangs into, and taken on their own merits, these recordings hold up well compared to other hardcore/noise rock/heavy metal contemporaries. I'm glad that Geffen saw fit to disturb this corpse's slumber.
1. Gentleman Junkie
2. King Of Souls
3. Tales From The Scarecrowman
4. Cat's Eye Resurrection
5. Pig Heaven
6. Slaughter The Grey
8. Fast Jungle
9. Gun Crazy
13. True Crime
2. Shack Of Hate
3. Drowning The Colossus
4. Crow III
5. Die, Zombie, Die
7. Truck On Fire
10. Diamond Ass
12. Disaster Blaster
15. Acid Flesh
16. Power Hungry
1. God Of Thunder
2. Love Razor
3. Disaster Blaster 2
4. Welcome To Planet Motherfucker/Psychoholic Slag
5. Knuckle Duster (Radio 1-A)
6. Thunder Kiss '65
7. Black Sunshine
9. Cosmic Monsters Inc.
10. Spiderbaby (Yeah-Yeah-Yeah)
11. I Am Legend
12. Knuckle Duster (Radio 2-B)
14. One Big Crunch
15. Grindhouse (A Go-Go)
17. Warp Asylum
18. I Am Hell
1. Children Of The Grave
2. Feed The Gods
3. Electric Head Pt. 1 (The Agony)
4. Super-Charger Heaven
5. Real Solution #9
6. Creature Of The Wheel
7. Electric Head Pt. 2 (The Ecstasy)
8. Grease Paint And Monkey Brains
9. I, Zombie
10. More Human Than Human
11. El Phantasmo And The Chicken-Run Blast-O-Rama
12. Blur The Technicolor
13. Blood, Milk And The Sky
14. The One
15. I'm Your Boogieman
16. Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks And Cannibal Girls