This album was probably last year's biggest surprise. Literally, since the CD showed up unannounced in my mailbox one day, the gift of a friend travelling in New Zealand. It was here that I first heard every single one of the "innovations" of R.E.M.'s Up, as performed by a fairly close-knit collective of South Island musicians. This is late-night music for when you want to make it to the dawn of the next morning (which is the difference between this and, say, Portishead): warm, mostly slow (despite the inclusion of the occasional ripper like Jetty's "White Boys On Punk"), half-electronic, hypnotic. Demarnia Lloyd is the one to watch for, with beautiful slow burns both solo and with Cloudboy (check out the molasses-textured opener, "Pretty"). Maximum bonus points for "Universe of Love," a tender and wide-eyed welcome to our world from Peter Gutteridge to his newborn baby. Perfect. (MH/Fall 1999)
(no label; ARC -- 135 High Street, Dunedin, NEW ZEALAND)
Built For Speed: A Mötörhead Tribute
It's refreshing to see today's hardcore bands actually pay homage to the old-school metal bands that were obviously very influential on the genre. I remember when anyone at a punk show wearing a Mötörhead shirt would get beat senseless, or at they very least, spit on. Thankfully, a lot of the boneheaded attitude of hardcore is past, and these days the bands aren't afraid to admit that they were hell bent for leather at one point. The tribute album is pretty damn solid, and surprisingly faithful (for the most part) to the source material. Blood For Blood kick it off with a raucous bar version of "Ace Of Spades," which is probably what Mötörhead's version would have sounded like if they'd come from Beantown instead of Britain. Next, the always-entertaining Groovie Ghoulies give us a fist-pumping version of "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." Electric Frankenstein puts their psychedelia-hardcore signature on "We Are the Road Crew," and the result is pretty fucking cool. Zeke's version of "I'll Be Your Sister" sounds like Mötörhead by way of Mudhoney and MC5; I'll let you be the judge of that analogy. Is that Nick Cave doing a cover of "Bomber"? No, but Terra Firma's version is the next best (or worst, depending on your feelings on Cave) thing. And what would a tribute to the premier speed freaks of metal be without an appearance from Speedealer? Fittingly, they cover "Mötörhead" and do a damn fine job of it. Only Skarhead and Integrity drop the ball on this album, turning in boring versions of "Sweet Revenge" and "Orgasmatron," respectively. It had to be pretty hard to fuck up two of Mötörhead's best songs, so at least they worked at it. (MHo/Fall 1999)
(Victory Records -- P.O. Box 146546, Chicago, IL. 60614; http://www.victoryrecords.com)
The Beatles touched down on U.S. soil on February 7, 1964, and everything changed. Everybody knows about all of the innovators: the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Motown. But what about all of those who were content to follow in the footsteps of their new heroes, who didn't want to be the "next" anything but just the local version of the Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds? The answer to that question is on this marvelously expanded edition of Lenny Kaye's Nuggets collection, a snapshot of the most glorious dead end American rock 'n' roll ever backed itself into.
Countless rock histories point to the original Nuggets album, released in 1972 as a double LP and included here in its entirety as disc one, as both the first serious (i.e., not quick and cheap) oldies package and the first real critical acknowledgement of mid-'60s garage punk. It was one thing to enjoy the kicks of the Knickerbockers' "Lies" (still the best and most deadly accurate Beatles rip ever) and the Electric Prunes' shuddering "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" at the time; it was quite another to declare that they were worthy of preservation years after the fact. Time, of course, has been kind to the genre: countless contemporary bands aim for the sound and attitude of the bands here (without, interestingly, being able to expand on it in any substantial way) and it's easy to find full-lengthers by many of the participants (well, not impossible, anyway).
Still, even die-hard garagists most likely don't have everything here (who doesn't have a 45 of the Human Expression's "Optical Sound" in their stacks?), and certainly not on CD. And a neophyte with a lot of money to drop and a desire to cover as much ground as possible right from the start won't find a single better place to start (until Rhino issues disc one as a self-contained unit). Over the course of 4 discs are just about every single great garage record from the mid-'60s: "Dirty Water," "Psychotic Reaction," "7 and 7 Is," "Laugh Laugh," "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)," "She's About A Mover," "Little Bit O'Soul," "I Want Candy" and more. The beauty here is that the songs you know serve as anchors throughout, giving you someplace to rest after navigating uncharted territory. And you know more of these songs than you might realize, both in their original forms and in the countless covers that have popped up throughout the years (a quick mental scan notes versions of Nuggets tracks by the Bangles, the Undertones, Bow Wow Wow, the Divinyls, the Cars, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix).
Don't be afraid of the unfamiliar, though. One of the beauties of a set like this is getting it for the songs you know and then digging deeper into unknown songs and bands. And there's certainly plenty of obscure but excellent cuts here by bands like the Remains, the Dovers, the Rare Breed, Clefs of Lavender Hill and the Brigands. Also check out familiar faces in not-so-familiar guises: Warren Zevon doing the hippie folk-rock thing in Lyme & Cybelle, future Mountain king Leslie West showing off his soul chops in the Vagrants' cover of "Respect," Captain Beefheart pounding through damn near the rumbliest blues you've ever heard ("Diddy Wah Diddy") and Creedence Clearwater Revival in toto, disguised as their earlier Golliwogs incarnation and blasting through "Fight Fire" like it was their last chance. And then there are the flat-out oddities: the Monks' lockstep "Complication," the Elastik Band's truly evocative "Spazz" (which mixes fuzztone guitar, carnival organ and Beefheartian drums like they were meant to be wedded), Kim Fowley's "The Trip" (which finds the future Runaways svengali free-associating from line to line in a more wigged-out version of what John Lennon would do several years later in "Dig It") and, possibly the most bizarre thing I've heard in years, the Barbarians' "Moulty," in which singer/drummer/unidexter Victor Moulton describes the accident that cost him his hand and looks for that special girl who'll fill the void in his soul, while a backing group which may or may not be the Band (the as-ever-for-Rhino extensive and wonderful liner notes are unclear on this issue) pounds away at what sounds like a demented version of "Hang On Sloopy." It is absolutely brilliant.
It's amazing how much mileage there was to get out of a fat bass, a fuzztone guitar, a dinky organ and a double-time raveup (with a bit of jangle thrown in, here and there). There is certainly more here than anyone could possibly love, and I'd be lying if I claimed that there weren't a few snoozers here and there. But the brilliance of this music is that it's like the famous Chicago weather: if you don't like it, stick around for 3 minutes and it'll change (besides, it's good not to get too overstimulated over the course of five hours). And sure, there are a few major milestones that are MIA: the two obvious ones that I can spot are the Monkees' "Stepping Stone" (hey, they may have been phonies, but they were dead-on phonies) and, inexplicably, "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians, which defined the genre as far as I'm concerned, even moreso than "Wooly Bully" or "Louie Louie," both included here. Still, when the alternatives are along the lines of Gonn's devastating "Blackout of Gretely" or the apocalyptic "Shape of Things to Come" by Max Frost & The Troopers (which was a puppet band for Brill Building hacks, for God's sake), well, even the star has to step back sometimes to let the supporting players have their moments. (MH/Fall 1999)
Only The Strong
This compilation contains some pretty damn good up and coming hardcore acts (and they even threw in some seasoned vets -- Agnostic Front and Built To Last both make appearances) with few low points. The tracks that really got me going were the drilling "Empty Skies" from Buried Alive, Vision's "Folk Hero," "The Way Things Were," from Connecticut's Voice of Reason (which was produced by Jamey Jasta), and In Truth's "Counting Sins" (is that you, Chuck?). Agnostic Front's "Bloodsucker" is a pretty good slab of hardcore as well, but I didn't care for it as much as their Epitaph stuff. On the other end of the spectrum, Cold as Life's "My Own Worst Enemy," Death Threat's "Disgrace" and Hoods' "Above this World" show just how much hardcore can suck if not done properly, and the tracks come off as nothing more than bad metal without the spiky logos. Unconquered's "Vision" almost falls into that category as well, but they do have a spiky logo. By and large though, this compilation showcases a lot of quality acts that could be the next wave of hardcore. (MHo/Fall 1999)
(Victory Records -- P.O. Box 146546, Chicago, IL. 60614; http://www.victoryrecords.com)
Serial Killer Compilation
This is an interesting compilation, from the soft-core lesbian porn (sorry guys, no actual nudity shown) on the cover to the songs on it. This particular compilation was funded by the Serial Killer people (clothing and skateboards) and distributed by Fearless Records. That, in itself, is a plus because Fearless has (er, had) some great bands to begin with. So anyways, while most comps contain throwaway tracks from the bands' various albums or album cuts, this one actually contains some winners. For starters, the selection of bands here is good...Queers, Pulley, No Use for a Name, Blink-182, 30footFALL, Jughead's Revenge, Strung Out, etc., etc., etc... The comp gets extra bonus points for the inclusions of Houston slip-hoppers I-45 and Colorado's unique punk rockers The Hate Fuck Trio. Rock on. Other winners include No Use for a Name ("A Postcard Would Have Been Nice," off their last record), 30footFALL (an ear-piercing cover of Radiohead's "Creep"), and expecially Jughead's Revenge (the super-catchy "Hit and Run").
As with all comps, this one also contains some throwaway tracks -- while Blink-182's inclusion is good, it is not a notable song for them ("Zulu" off their Dick Lips single). The At the Drive In inclusion is also called-for, but not their best track; their inclusion on the last Fearless Records Comp (a cassette) was much better. So, anyways, for the better part, this is good. I-45 makes a great ending for it, redoing "The Bike Song" with hardcore group Cult Ceavers by their side. That alone is worth the money. In compilation terms, there are enough good tracks to overwhelm the bad ones and make this worth your cash. (CW/Fall 1999)
(Fearless Records -- 13772 Goldenwest St. #545, Westminster, CA. 92683; FEARRECORD@aol.com; http://www.fearlessrecords.com/)
The kids today love their ska. With at least three distinct generations of the stuff disseminating pretty widely throughout the country (and other parts of the world), it's pretty easy-access stuff, and if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably the largest underground music out there. So why is it that the big successes seem to be compromises? The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish throw-in some hardcore and pop, Goldfinger creates a punk hybrid, Sublime adds rap to the mix. And don't get me started on No Doubt. When it's time to put their money where their mouths are, the kids panic and get terrified of the real stuff.
Of course, as per the above, the real stuff is really damn hard to locate these days. So Grita! takes the opposite tack, and looks to marginalize it even further with Skaliente, focusing (or so it would seem) on Spanish-language and Hispanic-related ska. The plan almost works, probably because Latino and ska seem to fit a lot better than many of the other hybrids; maybe it's because to get from Jamaica to the U.S.A., you've gotta get past Cuba or Mexico. Maybe there's something in the Caribbean. Who knows? In any event, most of the songs on Skaliente are sung in Spanish, and for English speakers, a couple others may as well be (I can't tell what language Skunk's "Ongi Gaizki" is in).
The best tracks are, naturally, the ones that hit their groove and don't lose their nerve along the way. The first three cuts are all winners, especially Rancid's kickoff "Lethal," which is slow, hard and brutal as hell. The Allstonians' (mostly) instrumental "V.F.W." gives a nice little downshift, despite what I'm pretty sure is a faster tempo. "Hey Santera" by Viva Malpache! tenses up its chorus by adding distortion, but it manages to avoid the pitfalls of ska-core (and, come to think of it, alt-rock) by not deciding that the distortion is the point from there on out. Later on, Hepcat's incredibly supple "Rudies All Around" celebrates rudeboy culture and is probably the closest you will ever come to an island tour in a 4-minute song.
The worthwhile songs tend to be outnumbered by the lesser cuts, though. Los Skarnales' "De Repente" is actually a quite nice slow ska groove, which is why it's a disappointment when the double-time midsection comes as enough a downer to derail the song. Skunk's cut is zippy but aimless and struggles to find a conclusion. "Tengo Tiempo Para Ti" by the Voodoo Glow Skulls doesn't even seem to be ska; it's as though a hardcore group bullied its way into the party. The most egregious mistake, however, belongs to the Blind Pigs covering "Revolution Rock" (yes, that "Revolution Rock"), which not only doesn't fit in thematically with the rest of the CD but switches from ska to punk midway for no good reason. One or the other, fellas, one or the other.
This mixed bag seems to indicate an interesting dilemma that's been becoming more apparent in recent years: has ska finally reached a level equivalent to blues, where it's simple as pie to play but hard as hell to play really well? There's a lot of great music being made out there, and there's a lot of tripe. It's just too bad that the two have to be found side by side. Skaliente is exhibit A. (MH/Fall 1999)
(Grita! Records -- P.O. Box 1216, New York, NY. 10156; email@example.com; http://www.grita.com/)
We Plead the 5th
The recently-released compilation from Good Guy Records is a ska/punk fan's wet dream. In addition to showcasing the best local talent in the two genres, Good Guy was also able to procure the likes of national acts, such as The Facet and Slow Gherkin. Unlike most compilations, the vast majority of tracks on here are great, with few low points throughout. The comp starts off with a bang with the one-two punch of an O'Doyle Rules power-pop-ska track "Short-Lived Happiness," and then goes into some quality ska with Slow Gherkin's "Shed Some Skin." It's these two songs that had me hooked, and kudos to the engineer for putting them first, because they dispelled any fear I had of this being an amateurish, badly-recorded comp. The punk stuff kicks in with Pain's Green-Day-meets-ska tune "Antidote," and only gets better with the next track, "Me," by Unsteady, one of the best ska bands that I've heard in a long time, with a bona-fide singer as vocalist. "Cassette," by Missile Command, is also a great track that I can't get outta my head. There are some small recording issues with some of the tracks on the album, but they are almost negligible because the content is so damn good. You can't blame some of the bands on here for recording "by any means necessary," but let's hope that this comp gets those "lo-fi" bands some attention so that they can really showcase their talent. (MHo/Fall 1999)
(Good Guy Records -- P.O. Box 90368 Houston, TX. 77290-0368; http://members.aol.com/whytb0y)
Okay, I admit defeat. I've listened to this album a good dozen times now, and it still totally defies any easy comparisons. So, what can I say? Well, this seems to basically be two pop kiddos with serious hip-hop fixations and a love for silly, funky, beats and keyboard melodies. Things that come to mind as similar are Lou Barlow's Folk Implosion (remember, that "Natural One" song?), or maybe Buffalo Daughter, particularly on poppier songs like "Compound Elements" and the ultra-spacey "Tune in Tokyo." They take plenty of sharp right turns, though -- "What are Fairgrounds for?" mixes in a weird hillbilly influence, and comes off sounding like Luscious Jackson drinking moonshine right from the jug, and "Swiss Timing's Boomkit" vols. 1 & 2 showcases some smoove scratching, heavy beat-laying and sampling. The whole thing ends with a bizarre skit(?) about sampling and music that's just plain freaky, but entertaining anyway...which pretty much sums up this album. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Slabco Records -- 1626 21st Ave., Seattle, WA. 98122; http://www.slabco.com/)