This is kind of embarrassing. The wife and I went to a "festival" deal a while back up on Washington, one that featured a couple dozen of Houston's better and yet more obscure bands/performers/whatever and ran on both sides of the "Pamland" area of Washington -- people were playing at Fat Cat's, Walter's, and Silky's, and kids were meandering back and forth across the street and milling around in parking lots, bumming cigarettes before heading back into one club or the other. We couldn't stay long, unfortunately, but we happened to wander into Fat Cat's (or Mary Jane's, or whatever they're calling it these days) in time to catch a turntablist set.
Now, the embarrassing part is that I can't for the life of me remember the name of the turntable crew -- I have a vague recollection that it was something kinda corporate-/sinister-sounding, like "The Trust" or "The Commission," but I really have no idea beyond that [Ed. Note: I'm told it was "The Truth," but apparently they're not around anymore.]. They were good, and interesting to watch, especially for an uncoordinated fool like me who can't even dribble a basketball properly, much less scratch on two turntables at once. After a few "songs," though, the whole thing got a bit boring; sadly, there is a reason I don't listen to my Peanut Butter Wolf or X-ecutioners CDs all that often.
Luckily, I think the turntablists realized just in time that the crowd was tuning out, and they motioned to this kid sitting on the sidelines, down off the stage. He got up, said a few words (I don't think he ever even mentioned his name, but I could be wrong, my memory being what it is), and then started rapping over the tracks the turntable guys were laying down. And damn, he was good. He started off a bit shakily, seemingly nervous, but closed his eyes and just let it flow, and...well, all of a sudden I wasn't bored anymore, and neither was most of the sparse crowd.
I have no idea if he was freestyling or not, honestly; the whole thing could've been rehearsed, and maybe he practiced some with "The Trust"/"Commission"/etc. The thing that surprised me the most, though, was the nonchalance of it all. After he'd rapped over the beats for about twenty minutes, he said "thanks," then turned and ambled off the stage, just as he'd come up, and the turntablists started to break down their equipment while he smoked a cigarette off to the side. The whole performance encapsulated one of the things I love most about the Houston music scene: nobody gives a damn what anybody else thinks, or even if anybody else is listening, and they just do their own thing.
Okay, so maybe that's simplifying things a little, and it's probably not a good idea to paint all Houston musicians with that same brush, but it's true that most of the bands and musicians I've liked over the years have been less concerned with appearances and fans and money than they have just making their own sometimes bizarre kind of art. The Swarm of Angels, Blueprint, Linus Pauling Quartet, the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, The John Sparrow, Freedom Sold -- they're all bands that put what they wanted to do first, way above being popular, making money, or getting good reviews. Crazy as it may sound, I like that. The Washington Ave. festival performance was the same kind of deal; these guys got up and did their thing, not caring that the audience watching couldn't have filled a Starbucks, much less a mid-sized club like Fat Cat's, and if anybody liked it, hey, that's great.
The rapper's name, as it turns out, was Babel Fishh (aka Scott Huber, one third of the ambient trio Scotch Tape Portraits), and his self-produced CD, Exit Lever, is as bizarre, surprising, and willfully ignorant of the "rules" of rap as the performance I happened to see. The album starts off with disjointed noise, ugly and jarring and punctuated by blasts of crazed horns, and then finally drifts into a stream-of-consciousness-sounding rap that makes absolutely no sense but sounds as far from the Dirty South as you can get. Fishh's style resembles that of the Bay Area weird-rap Anticon collective more than anything else -- he employs the same kind of flat, deadpan delivery and too-damn smart metaphors as cLOUDDEAD, as well as some of the smart-ass sarcasm wielded by Slug of Atmosphere, although there's little of the latter group's streetwise sensibility in evidence.
If you couldn't guess it from the Douglas Adams-inspired stagename, Babel Fishh is less of an alley-hardened battle rapper and more of a geeky, deep-thinking street poet, with a touch of both sci-fi freak Mike Ladd and ex-Soul Coughing frontman/poet M. Doughty to the whole mess. Some of the tracks on the CD are nothing but noise, percussion, and samples ("Patsy Montana," "Cafeteria Smile"), and I can generally do without those, but it's worth trawling through the rest for good stuff like "A Fish Named Nameless," which weds a cheesy PSA with the most rhythmic, driving rhymes this side of Aesop Rock's best stuff, "Clango," which is slower and more deliberate, a plodding anti-capitalist rant that namechecks Santa Claus, Smoochy the Rhino, Osama bin Laden, and Elvis all in the span of four or so minutes, "Nobody Likes the Wolf," which combines bizarre vocals with a dangerous-sounding bassline, and the spacey, all-over-the-map track "In Any Incompletion or Misspelling Your Upper Lip."
Some of it's beyond me, I'll admit (as is a lot of cLOUDDEAD's stuff, I should note), and I would hardly call this easy-listening music -- it requires a lot of attention and a seriously open mind, but the effort is worth it. Will I keep this in the car so I can slap it into the stereo on lonely, late-night drives? Okay, no, probably not...unless, of course, I'm driving off into some kind of paranoid, robotic, acid-trip future and need a good soundtrack. (JH)
(Household Nameless Records -- http://www.householdnameless.cjb.net/; Babel Fishh -- email@example.com)
There comes a moment about halfway through "Stealing Rosemary" when it seems like the Bangles just might pull this sucker off. The second song on Doll Revolution, "Rosemary" is the type of darkly psychedelic pop that characterized the Paisley Underground scene from whence the band sprang two decades ago, and its harmonies and minor-key guitar chords would have fit snugly on the Bangles' self-titled Faulty Products EP. The song has the tremendous good fortune to follow in the wake of the opening cover of Elvis Costello's "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)," which kicks down the doors of fifteen years of dormancy as a recording unit (the lagtime between tours is closer to an even decade) by providing a better Josie & the Pussycats tune than 92% of the songs on that movie's soundtrack. With its caustic spark and Nuggets-like drive, it sounds, in the best possible way, like the band never changed an iota from its All Over The Place-era peak.
And then it all falls apart, just as you knew and feared it would, with "Something That You Said," which is precisely the sort of bland, mushy Adult Contemporary pop that killed the Bangles in what could have been their prime. And from that moment on, you realize that it's going to be every song for itself, and you settle in, weary. In a strangely touching show of democracy, just about everybody in the band gets an opportunity to waste the listener's time. The wretched "Something" lets Susannah Hoffs get hers out of the way early, and if none of the other songs are as flat-out awful, that's cold comfort considering that "unobjectionably tolerable" wasn't even on the radar for All Over The Place or most of Different Light. But that doesn't stop bassist Michael Steele from chucking out "Nickel Romeo" and "Between The Two," neither of which sound like much of anything at all, or drummer Debbie Peterson from setting up a holding pattern with "Here Right Now." She also spearheads the redundant "Lost At Sea," which uses All Over The Place's masterful "Dover Beach" as a pushing-off point and wears itself out trying to swim back.
Even with filler, though, there's a pretty good Bangles EP buried within the confines of Doll Revolution; you sort of have to work to find it, but it's well worth the effort. Democracy, it turns out, works both ways, as everybody gets at least one chance to shine. In addition to snarling her way through "Tear Off Your Own Head," Hoffs delivers "I Will Take Care Of You," which uses the same riff from "Feel" that every Big Star devotee is apparently legally bound to incorporate into at least one of their songs, but the song's soul is rooted in "Give Me Another Chance," and I found to my astonishment that it worked like crazy on me by the fourth or fifth time I listened to the album. I'm willing to credit Debbie Peterson with the group-vocalled "Ride The Ride" (a sort of musical sequel to Different Light's "Let It Go" that's more successful than "Lost At Sea"), since her voice always seemed to be positioned dead center of the band's harmonies. Steele contributes "Song For A Good Son," as darkly pitched as "Stealing Rosemary" but jangle-free and possessed of a vocal that sounds as haunted, though for less obvious reasons, as the one from "Following" that was, along with "September Gurls," the reason she became my favorite Bangle (I have no regrets).
As she was during the glory years, though, it's Vicki Peterson who proves to be the band's secret weapon. If most of the Bangles' best-known songs were written by outsiders, Peterson's songs were often their equal or better, which makes her bringing in "The Rain Song" and "Mixed Messages" from her stint in the Continental Drifters seem like a subtle attempt to have the best of both worlds. If the Drifters' country-tinged originals were marginally better than the versions here, which could have been Banglified a bit more, Peterson's old schoolchums still do a fine job, and I have documented proof that I called "Mixed Messages" as a Bangles tune in 1995.
Vicki doesn't get a passing grade simply by resubmitting work from another class, however, as evidenced by "Single By Choice," which loses the contest for the best track on the CD to "Tear Off Your Own Head" and must console itself with being the best song. A terrific, Amy Rigby-like number that addresses big romantic questions that most people don't even know to ask, "Single By Choice" sounds nothing like the Bangles, with a rumbling, tremoloed drop-D guitar drone pulsing its way through. A song like this wouldn't have even been an option for the first-go-round Bangles; the pop marketplace just wasn't open to lyrics that so clearly flouted some of the basic assumptions of both pop songwriting and adult interaction, and the band would have sounded like idiots trying to pull it off in their 20s. By now, though, Peterson has seen enough to know exactly what she wants, and what she doesn't want, and she states in clear and simple terms why she could never be happy following somebody else's script as the gorgeous harmony that her bandmates sound like they'll never lose backs her up, making it mournful but without regret and not a little triumphant. It may not be precisely the Bangles I've loved since that copy of All Over The Place fell into my hands in college, but for just over half of its duration, Doll Revolution presents to the world a Bangles that I'm more than happy to welcome back. (MH)
(Koch Records -- http://www.kochrecords.com/; The Bangles -- http://www.thebangles.com/)
Bastards of Melody
I wrote a review of the first Bastards of Melody CD we received last year (you can find it elsewhere in this rag) -- I loved 'em then and I still love 'em now. This is some very good contemporary pop. The writing is clever, the arrangements are tight, the melodies are...well, they are called the Bastards of Melody, so what did you expect? Paul Crane is able to put together some hellacious melodies with apparent ease. This outfit performs the songs with a seasoned fluidity that most bands wish they could get on CD. Here's excellent playing, without the overextended solos or fillers people usually throw in; there's not much self-indulgence here. But poor BoM -- nearly every song is about that lost love, breakup, problems in relationships, etc. I love it. "Right Here Waiting," "Cheat," "Ball & Chain"...the song titles give you some clue. Straight-ahead, top-notch new pop, sort of like a happier Replacements. Clever, fun, and upbeat even with the heartbreak. All the songs have a feel that you've probably heard before, but the Bastards seem to be able to do it in a fresh and fun way.
Like the last disc, I would recommend this for anyone interested in a good lesson on pop song writing -- now, don't get me wrong, I don't mean Michael-type pop. Garage band pop is the game here. My only complaint is that the mixing and mastering seems to have washed out a little of the excitement I heard on the last disc. It's almost too polished for my liking, but that's a personal deal, isn't it? I'm sure they are very happy with the product, and you would be too, I just like to see and hear more of the warts before the processing washes 'em all out. Last time I said it was just a matter of time before we would see these guys on Letterman; I'm still waiting. Super recommended. (BW)
(Face Down Records -- P.O. Box 1733, Burlington, NJ. 08016; http://www.facedown.net/; Bastards of Melody -- http://www.bastardsofmelody.com/)
Three Humid Nights in the Cypress Trees
So I listened to the latest offering from Floridian rockers Bloodlet, last year's Three Humid Nights in the Cypress Trees, and in the end I found myself wanting more. The members of the band have talent, no question about that, but certain things just didn't sit right with me.
Let's begin with the quality of the recording itself. The record was intended to have a raw sound, but there's a difference between sounding unpolished and sounding crappy. This album sounds as though it was recorded on a 4-track behind a foam wall in someone's garage. It has no depth at all, no weight. By way of comparison, Metallica's latest, St. Anger, was intended to have a garage-y, cut-and-paste-y, bad edit-y type of vibe, and they succeeded on all fronts without sacrificing the underlying weight of the rhythm and bass guitars and the drums.
Another thing that irked me was the fact that Bloodlet joined the ever-growing "Learn to Fly" club with this album. You know, the club with members Pink Floyd, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and the Foo Fighters? I'd guess the band wanted membership something awful because Three Humid Nights has not one, not two, but three songs named "Learn to Fly" -- "Learn to Fly: Ascent," "Learn to Fly: Descent," and "Learn to Fly: Impact." Isn't there another song title that could be used that conveys the same meaning?
There are some good things about this album, one of the best being Scott Angelacos' vocals. Talk about range; one minute he's screaming his head off, Tom Araya-style, the next minute he's adopted a Les Claypool-esque hillbilly twang, and then after that he's growling in Max Cavalera's almost death metal style. For lack of a better word, it's pretty cool to hear the variations -- it's something you definitely don't hear every day.
The drummer, John Stewart, Jr., also proves himself to be better than your average skin-banger. What struck me with his style was that he doesn't seem to have a "bag of tricks" that he recycles over and over to fill the songs. Take, say, Alex Van Halen, for instance -- if you've heard him play one song, you've heard him play them all. He's predictable. Stewart plays what is best for the song, eschewing fills and cymbal crashes when necessary. Along with bassist Art Legeue, Stewart creates what many metal bands have yet to discover: a rhythm section (gasp!).
The guitar playing could use a little work -- most of the songs are too long to warrant only one riff, so they become repetitive (I know metal is repetitive by nature, but there has to be some variety). Also, many of the songs have agonizingly slow, brooding/screaming segments, which I'm hardly ever crazy about. On other albums, these usually serve as a buildup to some sort of heavier, faster music, be it a guitar solo or whatever. On Three Humid Nights, they just left me hanging, depressed and brooding.
I see many good things musically in Bloodlet. It seems that they need to radically improve the quality of their recordings and adjust their arrangements a bit. Three Humid Nights is a decent record -- after a listen or two it'll probably grow on you. You might want to download it first, though. (CM)
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine, Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/)
Firepower Is Our Business
Early on in the Jack Black movie School of Rock (which I highly recommend, by the way), our wild-eyed protagonist querys a uniformed class of ten year-olds about the ultimate point of rock 'n' roll. "Sex?" No, he shakes his head. "Getting wasted?" No, again. "Sticking it to The Man?" Yes, he says, that's what it's all about. Like the professional football players and mutual-fund managers of the '60s, rock musicians were viewed, by and large, as being no better than common criminals, and indeed, the best ones (Stones, Kinks, Who, Zeppelin) not uncoincidentally indulged in all sorts of highly antisocial piss-off-the-parents behavior, which, arguably, is why the kids listen in the first place.
So it came as something of a mild shock to me to be confronted with these guys, despite their calling themselves "The Bodies" (okay, namechecking the Sex Pistols, maybe, fair enough start) and arriving wearing pseudo-badass Adam-and-the-Antsesque face paint, and their reactionary musical agenda, and I'm not talking about their just being retro, although they certainly are that. This is uptempo, major-key melodic shout-along (though benign and edgeless) punk not quite unlike that of the Misfits, but there all similarities end. Despite the length of this EP (7 short songs clocking in at 15 minutes total), the lyrics are unfailingly polite, grammatically correct, and the f-word (the only profanity, as far as I can tell) surfaces just twice.
Most irritatingly, these would-be punkers are right-wing party music for the Young Republican set, and over the course of this record, they celebrate vigilantism ("Street Trooper," "Justice"), just saying no to drugs ("(Take You Out) Tonite," "Just A Memory"), and even the power of the US military ("Fly The Flag"). The two vaguely anti-authoritarian songs, "Drunk Tank" and "Innocent" (the best song on the record) are about being hassled by the cops, but even that fits with a distinctly libertarian theme. This is passable enough, and in spots they tear it up like any decent garage band would, but you can bet they're always home in time for Sunday dinner after practice. I wish all of them well in their future careers as A&R reps for corporate labels. (MA)
(TKO Records -- 3126 W. Cary St. #303, Richmond, VA. 23221; http://www.tkorecords.com/; The Bodies -- http://www2.vom.com/~radio77/bodies.htm)