Friday, September 8, 2017

CD Review: Flamin' Groovies' Fantastic Plastic (2017)

Flamin' Groovies' Fantastic Plastic
Who would have thought that, after 38 years, the Flamin’ Groovies would see a reunion of original band member Cyril Jordan and longtime singer/guitarist Chris Wilson to write and record a new album? Well, fellow travelers, the word is true and Fantastic Plastic is the result of this holy matrimony of teenage kicks and cheap thrills. The first Groovies’ flapjack since 1979’s criminally-underrated Jumpin’ In The Night, the new platter was produced by Jordan and guitarist Joel Jaffe and features ten red-hot new tunes penned by the team of Jordan and Wilson as well as a pair of too-cool-for-school covers in NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad” and the Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk To Strangers.”

The Flamin’ Groovies were formed in San Francisco in1965 by guitarist Jordan and singer/guitarist Roy Loney. The independent release of a seven-song 10” EP called Sneakers led to a CBS Records contract, the label releasing the Groovies’ 1969 debut LP Supersnazz. The band’s fast-burning, high-octane blend of ‘50s-inspired and ‘60s-wired power-pop, punk, and garage-rock was easily a decade or three ahead of its time, and CBS dropped the Groovies after poor sales. This forced the band to play major label bingo over the next few years, timeless albums like1970’s Flamingo and 1971’s Teenage Head released by Kama Sutra, later albums released by Sire Records. Loney jumped ship in the mid-‘70s, replaced by Wilson for 1976’s classic Shake Some Action album. The band broke up in 1980 after releasing a couple more rockin’ records that were ignored by a music-buying hoi polloi mesmerized by Top 40 hit radio.

Flamin’ Groovies’ Fantastic Plastic

In spite of their tragic obscurity during the rough ‘n’ tumble decade of the ‘70s, the Groovies’ handful of albums have since become considered important signposts along the pop/rock highway, influencing artists like NRBQ, the dB’s, and the Plimsouls, among many, many others. Listening to Fantastic Plastic, I’m not going to tell you that it’s a “return to form” or that it “sounds as good as the old stuff,” although the long-admirable musical chemistry between Jordan and Wilson couldn’t be re-created in a laboratory with any currently-known scientific equipment. I will tell you, however, that Fantastic Plastic rocks from stem to stern, a dozen sizzling tracks to bend your brain and cause rhythmic spasms in your metatarsus.

Forty minutes of musical bliss rolls out slowly with “What The Hell’s Goin’ On,” a low-slung raunch ‘n’ roll groove asking a question for the ages with a grinding rhythm, greasy fretwork, and drawled vocals that sound drenched in 90-proof whiskey. The whirling energy of “End of the World” harkens back to the band’s psychedelic SF roots, with an understated riff sounding like Blue Oyster Cult on a peyote bender while melodic crescendos of sound wash over your ears. The Groovies’ hit full stride with “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” an obscure Beau Brummels single they give a full 1965 makeover, the band capturing the original’s throwback vibe with Byrdsian jangle and shards of hallucinogenic-drenched guitar.

Just Like A Hurricane

The band original “Let Me Rock” is equally invigorating, solid rhythm guitar and explosive percussion creating a cacophonic backdrop for Wilson’s soulful vocals and the band’s backing harmonies. Squealing guitar licks and dense production create an exhilarating listening experience while the “save our music” lyrics are delightfully retro. The Groovies’ influence on their contemporaries NRBQ flows both ways, and the band’s cover of the Q’s “I Want You Bad” is every bit as heartbreakingly yearning as the original. With a wall of sound blanketing the performance, ‘60s-styled guitars break free to create a vibe while the wistful vox are spot on. The rockabilly-fueled “Crazy Macy” is the unusual misstep here, the crack in the windshield that you’ll stare at for hours, wondering when it’s going to break loose.

Although a technically perfect pastiche of rockabilly sound with manic guitars and machine-gun rhythms, “Crazy Macy” falls short of the high standard set by the other material on Fantastic Plastic. Much better is the British Invasion-tinged “Just Like A Hurricane,” a roller-coaster ride of echoed vocals and claustrophobic rhythms with piercing git licks (anybody else here remember Speedy Keen?). The shimmering instrumental “I’d Rather Spend My Time With You” features noted producer and rock ‘n’ roll archivist Alec Palao on bass and Tubes/Todd Rundgren drummer Prairie Prince for a surf-rock inspired rave-up that reminds of Dick Dale’s classic romps. Fantastic Plastic closes with “Cryin’ Shame,” the Byrds/Roger McGuinn-styled guitar intro evolving into a lovely mid-tempo rocker with gang harmonies and sparkling fretwork balanced atop a steady rhythmic framework.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There’s some mad genius level insanity going on in the grooves of Fantastic Plastic, the Flamin’ Groovies delivering a much better album than one would expect after nearly four decades of creative separation for songwriters Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson. It’s like they dug a beloved old hot rod out of the garage from behind the stacks of old newspapers and worn-out tires and found that, with a little polish and some fresh gas, the monster cranks right up like it’s 1980 all over again.

The Flamin’ Groovies’ first album of the 21st century is by no means a classic on the level of Shake Some Action, but it ain’t chopped liver, either. The Groovies shake off the ring rust to deliver one of the most consistent – and consistently entertaining – recordings of a career that now spans seven decades. Fantastic Plastic promises old school rock ‘n’ roll in a manner unlike just about any other band spinning its wheels these days, the Flamin’ Groovies proudly carrying the torch for an era that refuses to die. Grade: B+ (Sonic Kicks Records, released September 22, 2017)

Buy the CD from Flamin’ Groovies’ Fantastic Plastic

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