Friday, April 12, 2024

Archive Review: Temple of Soul’s Brothers In Arms (2008)

Temple of Soul's Brothers In Arms
In the world of rock music, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons is pretty much a known quantity. Almost 40 years blowin’ the sax behind Bruce Springsteen as a member of the E Street Band kind of makes one a household name (in my house, at least). Although not as famous, perhaps, Narada Michael Walden is nevertheless pretty well-known in R&B circles as a noted songwriter, producer and musician.

On the other hand, T.M. Stevens is a question mark for even the most hardcore rock aficionado. Chances are, however, that you’ve heard Stevens pop his bass strings more the once over the past 30 years, the in-demand session player lending his talents to hits by folks like James Brown, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, and Tina Turner, among many others. Stevens was an official member of the Pretenders for a while, toured as part of Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul band, and was an integral piece of Steve Vai’s early ‘90s band (you know, the one that made the great Sex & Religion album).

Stevens has also released better than half-a-dozen wickedly adventurous solo albums, the artist blending African rhythms and hard-rocking guitar with a Bootsy Collins strut that he calls “heavy metal funk.” Japan and much of Europe have already fallen prey to Stevens’ musical charms, and America is in his sights. In other words, Stevens has mad chops – and more than enough experience to brag about said skills.

Temple of Soul’s Brothers In Arms


The Big Man, Clarence Clemons
Clarence Clemons
So, what happens when you throw saxman Clemons, drummer Walden, and bassist Stevens into a recording studio together? Well, add the talents of veteran guitarist Vernon “Ice” Black (who has played with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Herbie Hancock, among others) and you have Brothers In Arms, the lively and engaging debut from the looseknit company of friends hereby known as Temple of Soul. An electrifying and edifying mix of swaggering soul, raucous R&B, and get-up-off-your-ass funk, Brothers In Arms is an album elegantly out of time.

Too often, any assembly of superstar talent strives for the mediocre and still fall short of the mark. There’s just no chemistry among the players, and too often such bands are put together by marketing committee rather than by invention. Not so in the case of Temple of Soul…these guys are all seasoned professionals, hardcore musicians and true believers that have survived for decades on brains and skill in an industry that delights in the destruction of its brightest talents. All four of these guys have circled the other’s individual universes for years and, in some cases (like Stevens and Walden, or Walden and Clemons), they have worked with each other previously.

Thus, there is an innate chemistry that is, perhaps, the most delightful aspect of Brothers In Arms. These guys are all performing like it’s their first dance, and the sheer magic that jumps out of these grooves is a refreshing change from the cynical music-making that passes for commerce these days. Throughout the ten songs here, each band member’s individual strengths are on display, meshing together into the seamless creation of joyous noise. Brothers In Arms offers an inspired mix of rhythmic genres. The album-opening groove of “Anna” dances perilously close to disco territory, to be pulled back from the brink at the last moment by some fine saxwork and deep baritone vocal harmonies. “Seeking Further” hits a Sly-stoned beat behind leathery, soulful vocals and a hard rock foundation.

Jazzy Outtake, an interstellar Sun Ra workout

 
T.M. Stevens
T.M. Stevens
At the center of Brothers In Arms are two shining instrumental tracks that frame the band’s talents perfectly. “Temple of Soul” begins with a high groove and the chanted line “brothers in the temple, brothers in the temple of soul” before kicking into a fluid rhythm that is accented by Black’s taut, emotive fretwork and Clemons’ old-school, King Curtis-styled sax blasting. “Ode To China” gets a little exotic, with delicate Asian instrumentation layered boldly behind one of The Big Man’s most emotional sax performances, along with the one-two knockout punch of rhythm kings Stevens and Walden.

A fiery cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” seems like it might have been Stevens’ idea in the studio, the classic rock chestnut re-imagined here as a P-Funk romp-n-stomper with some passionate six-string bending courtesy of Black and an imaginative bass line almost hidden in the mix beneath the gang vocals. “Love Me Tonight” sounds like vintage ‘70s soul, all sweetness and light with a slick soundtrack and G.Q. sheen, Barry White style vocals, and a turn-down-the-lights vibe.

Brothers In Arms closes with “Jazzy Outtake,” a breathless, nearly 13-minute instrumental jam by the Temple of Soul guys, each musician adding notes in orbital proximity like some sort of interstellar Sun Ra workout. This song might not be for everybody – free-form improvised jazz seldom is – but in this framework, given the varied experience and abilities of the four contributors, the song illuminates rather than irritates, running the gamut of moods and shades of blue. There are elements of soul, reggae, rock, and blues thrown in, cemented with an anarchic jazz spirit.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Suffice it to say, Brothers In Arms is a heady brew indeed, the sort of creative collaboration between equally talented artists that seldom plays in the commercial marketplace of hype and illusion, but shows longevity nevertheless, running the distance and proving inspirational fuel for generations to follow. Temple of Soul is the kind of band, once rediscovered, that critics and musicians will be effusively praising a decade from now … beat the rush and jump on the TOS bandwagon today! (Slam Alley Productions, released 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog…

Archive Review: Various Artists - New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol. 2 (2002)

New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol. 2
For the past year or so the mainstream music press has been wetting itself over the “new rock ‘n’ roll” or “new garage rock” or whatever you want to call this mini-revival that we’re currently experiencing. Of course, Sha Na Na told us that “rock ‘n’ roll will never die” and, if Bowser sang it, then the Reverend believes it. Truth is, rock never went anywhere – it has been underground these past few years, hiding from corporate marketing geeks and fermenting, like grape in a jug, until the heady brew popped its top and we had the Strokes, the White Stripes, etc. Of course, for every great white wonder like Jack, there are dozens of bands like the Sons of Hercules and the Chesterfield Kings that carried the garage rock torch in obscurity for years while true believers at labels like Estrus and Crypt and Get Hip cranked out some righteous vinyl. Truth is, kiddies, there ain’t nothing new about the “new rock.”

Rather than bore you gentle readers with a 5,000-word essay on the Motor City roots of the garage rock revival, the Reverend will instead instruct you to run out and grab a copy of New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol. 2. A twenty-two song comp with lots of energy and attitude, this labour of love is the effort of a couple of British rock fans/musicians to put some balls back into the UK music scene. Growing out of a series of concerts, etc (read the liner notes fer chrissakes!), New Blood offers up producers Pete and Tom’s idea of the garage revival’s “cream of the crop.” The set includes some of the usual suspects, bands like the Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, (International) Noise Conspiracy, and the Mooney Suzuki, all of which were at the forefront of this garage thingie a year or so ago. Solid mid-card players like the Datsuns, the Von Bondies, the Catheters, and the Flaming Sideburns also step up to the plate with fine results while relative newcomers like Modey Lemon, the D4, and the Hotwires are ready to make an impact on the “new rock” scene.

Although the Reverend could bitch about the exclusion of some seaworthy performers (the Hellacopters, DOLL, the Paybacks), all in all, New Blood: The New Rock N Roll Vol 2 is a fine introduction to a growing worldwide rock ‘n’ roll phenomena that has its roots in three-chord, ‘60s-styled rock minimalism. If this is your first taste of the (major label) forbidden fruit, the Reverend would recommend you check out other current “new rock” comps like Epitaph’s How We Rock or take the plunge and buy the first Nuggets box set. Your ears will be glad you did. Now where did I put that Seeds album… (Artrocker, released 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Monday, April 8, 2024

Funkateer T.M. Stevens, R.I.P.

Funk basssist T.M. Stevens
Word comes from our friend, blues guitarist Eric Gales, that funk innovator T.M. Stevens passed away on March 10th, 2024 at the age of 72 after a lengthy battle with dementia. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve likely heard the talented and influential bassist play on records by legends like James Brown, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker, and the Pretenders, among many others. Stevens also enjoyed a lengthy solo career, as well as playing in bands like Vai (with hot-shot git-slinger Steve Vai), Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, and Temple of Soul (with the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons).

Born Thomas Michael Stevens in July 1951, the young musician was attracted to music at a young age. “I was born in the Bronx, where hip-hop was invented,” Stevens told me in a 2002 interview, “there’s a lot of rich culture here.” A young Thomas Stevens was barely in his teens when he first picked up a guitar. “I was in the Boy Scouts and the scout leader of my troop loved the guitar,” remembers Stevens. “In particular, he loved jazz and he’d go ‘I need somebody to play with me.’ I’d say, “I can’t play,’ and he said ‘well let me coach you a little bit.’ So, I went to his house after the scout meetings and he’d show me the chords.”

Accompanying his scout leader, Stevens began his musical education. “He was a Wes Montgomery freak and he’d start playing and I’d try to play these chords behind him,” says Stevens, “but I noticed that I was gravitating more towards what I didn’t realize then was the bass, what the bass player did. Before you know it, the bass took me, I didn’t choose it.” The young bass player worked after school and on weekends to buy his first guitar. “I used to work in a senior citizen’s home, washing dishes, and saved up while I was going to high school, and saved up and finally bought my first bass…and I still have it,” says Stevens. “Back then, I didn’t have any money, so I carried it around in the box that it came in until it disintegrated. I’d show up with that raggedy box but I’d pull out that bass and start wailing on something.”

Funk basssist T.M. Stevens
The second stage of Stevens’ musical education came in the streets. “I was too young to play clubs so we played ‘after hours,’ clubs in the Bronx that opened up when the clubs closed,” says Stevens. “All the bartenders, streetwalkers, the pimps and whoever wanted to party would come to these clubs. Because they were illegal clubs, it didn’t matter that I was underage. These were the people who encouraged me to play. They called me ‘young blood,’ they’d say ‘young blood, you’re sounding better and better. I like the way you played that James Brown,’ and they’d give me a ten-dollar tip, to encourage me.”

Stevens attended college as a medical lab tech major but dropped out to purse his dreams. “It was struggle city,” says Stevens, recalling his difficult early days as a musician. “I played the amateur hour at the Apollo and I had this raggedy amp and it just wouldn’t go, so the house manager started playing bass along with me to help me sound better,” says Stevens. “We didn’t have the gear, there was some falling on our face just like anybody struggling to get up there. Then I got this play, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, written by Vinnette Carroll, it was a black musical. I auditioned for the play and we went into the rehearsal studio and the guy asked ‘can you read music’ and I said ‘yeah!’ knowing I couldn’t read a thing. We got into rehearsal and I would watch the piano player, this gospel piano player, and I’d watch his left hand and I picked up his bass line, so I fooled them for a month. They realized that I couldn’t read the music, but they kept me on because they said that they loved my spirit.”

Performing with Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, Stevens came to the attention of singer, songwriter, and producer Narada Michael Walden. “We did a matinee on a Saturday and we were right across the street from a percussion center,” remembers Stevens. “Walden was going in to buy some drums or something and I was introduced to him and we liked each other. The next thing I knew, I was giving up a nice salary, a constant salary, for a whole lot less money to go out on the road. But I did it, went out on the road opening for Billy Cobham, that was my first band.” The association with Walden would pay off in experience and in status, Stevens co-writing the Top Ten R&B hit “I Shoulda Loved Ya” with Walden in 1979. Stevens later played bass on the legendary 1981 self-titled album by Space Cadets alongside P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

Constant touring as a hired gun would lead to further session work for the talented bass player. “New York at the time was a fertile field for talent. There were so many sessions,” Stevens remembers. “We couldn’t keep up – I used to do four or five sessions a day. Somebody called me to try me on one session because I had co-written Narada’s hit and they loved it. From one I went to the next to the next to the next.” One of Stevens’ early sessions was playing with one of his idols, the legendary James Brown on sessions for Brown’s 1986 Gravity LP, which yielded the Top 10 hit single “Living In America.”

“The James Brown record was also my vocal debut,” remembers Stevens. “I did the bass, but I wanted to stay and see what Mr. Brown was going to do because he’s a hero! The background singers got caught in traffic and they needed the backgrounds done, so that he could get his parts on. Dan Hartman was producing, told me to stand up and sing. I said, ‘I’m not a singer,’ he said ‘you are now!’ So, I put some headphones on and sang ‘living in America’ and James said ‘that was great!’ I wasn’t thinking, I had no experience singing, and ended up singing background on the entire record along with playing bass. When the record came out and it was such a big hit, I started singing lead and I haven’t shut my mouth since!”

T.M. Stevens' Shocka Zooloo

After better than ten years of sometimes-lucrative session work, Stevens began to think about pursuing his own artistic vision. Stevens’ solo debut, titled Boom, was released in 1985 in Japan and Germany, and made quite an impact. “My first album came out and it was so unusual. You have your guitar heroes, and bass is generally a more supportive instrument. If you stop to think about it, there aren’t that many bass players leading bands,” says Stevens. “You have Larry Graham, Doug Pinnick from King’s X, Phil Lynott, there’s not so many. So, I came up at a time when there was nobody, especially anybody playing funk, so I had my own little niche. That’s how it took off.”

The modest success of Boom led to subsequent tours of Japan and Europe and the release of Stevens’ 1996 album Sticky Wicked and a third album, Radioactive, in 1999. With 2001’s Shocka Zooloo, Stevens created a style that welded elements of P-Funk and Sly Stone with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones that he called “heavy metal funk.” Stevens recruited a top-flight crew of imaginative players to back his flights of musical fancy on the album, including guitarists Stevie Salas, Al Pitrelli (Megadeth), and Chris Caffery (Savatage); and drummer Will Calhoun (Living Colour). While the album – his first stateside release – didn’t make much of a commercial splash, it served a much deeper purpose for the artist. “I was able to make it naturally, so whatever success it has or doesn’t have, I’m fulfilled as an artist,” says Stevens. “I was able to put down on tape what I felt. If people are digging it, it’s like the cherry on top of the soda!”

Stevens recorded one album with Temple of Soul – 2008’s Brothers In Arms – with Clarence Clemons, Walden, and Vernon “Ice” Black, and he hooked up with guitarist Pat Travers and drummer Carmine Appice as a power trio, releasing the It Takes A Lot of Balls in 2004 and a live album documenting a House of Blues performance in 2005. Throughout much of the 1990s and ‘00s, Stevens paid the bills through his studio work, contributing his fluid and funky bass lines to albums by artists as diverse as Billy Joel (the chart-topping River of Dreams), 2Pac (the posthumous The Rose That Grew From Concrete), Taylor Dayne (Soul Dancing), Cissy Houston (He Leadeth Me), and fellow fat-string maestro Victor Wooton (Soul Circus). Stevens’ last recording credit was a 2008 live album with the Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s backing band.

Whether he was playing rock, funk, jazz, R&B, pop, heavy metal, or even gospel music, Stevens imbued every performance with a deft hand, his vast musical knowledge, and no little passion. That Stevens never achieved mainstream stardom with his innovative and entertaining solo albums is less the bassist’s fault than a judgement on the music industry’s lack of vision. Nevertheless, T.M. Stevens enjoyed a career that spanned four decades, lending his immense talents to some of the biggest records of the era.

All quotes above are from my 2002 interview with Stevens for Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine 

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul with T.M. Stevens

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul with T.M. Stevens, photo courtesy of Little Steven

 

Friday, April 5, 2024

Archive Review: Joe Bonamassa's So, It's Like That (2002)

Joe Bonamassa's So, It's Like That
The blues industry (what would Muddy think of that?) has been, well, singing the blues lately, and justifiably so. Seems that blues-oriented clubs and festivals are seeing audiences drift away, labels are experiencing reduced sales and many blues artists themselves are returning to their day jobs. It seems that in today’s go-go corporate music world, there’s just no room for the blues. Here’s a sage and humble prediction for y’all – all it’s going to take is one red-hot young guitarslinger with rock roots and a love for the blues to pull listeners away from their “new garage,” “nu metal” and “new pop” and back into the big muddy of the blues. This humble scribe nominates Joe Bonamassa, his So, It’s Like That every bit the tonic that the doctor prescribed.

Even at the tender age of 24, Bonamassa has spent better than half his life in the music biz, gaining valuable experience as a member of the short-lived band Bloodline and also playing with folks like Jethro Tull and B.B. King. Bonamassa’s storied pedigree has served him well, however, providing a confidence and maturity to So, It’s Like That, his second album, that contemporaries like Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Johnny Lang lack. His voice has developed into a warm, friendly ‘70s-styled rock ‘n’ roll yelp that is capable of both dizzying highs and mellow lows. Bonamassa’s songwriting has also grown since his solo debut two years ago, bringing fresh wordplay and perspective to the standard blues fare of love and betrayal.

Let’s be honest, tho’ – the reason that the casual listener will pick up on Joe Bonamassa is because of his six-string talents and So, It’s Like That offers a healthy dose of state-of-the-art guitar pyrotechnics. The fiery riffage that kicks off “Lie #1” is Hendrix-inspired and completely sanctified, Bonamassa adding multi-layered rhythmic flourishes beneath incendiary leads in this raging tale of betrayal. A hard rock beat opens “Takin’ The Hit” as Smokin’ Joe drops into a funky groove in this radio-ready rocker while “Under The Radar” uses overdubbed guitars to create a grand circular riff to smack you in the head. The title track kicks off with a Stevie Ray-influenced shuffle, Bonamassa trying on his best Texas drawl to drive the tale of woe home with some nimble fretwork and explosive rhythms.

A bright young talent that continues to amaze, the subtle phrasing, raw power and incredible tone that Joe Bonamassa brings to his playing reminds this humble scribe a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, an obvious influence running throughout So, It’s Like That. Short-term memories may not recall that the blues were in similar doldrums back in the mid-‘80s as the country embraced “new wave” and “nerf metal” and MTV. Stevie Ray came along, channeling influences like Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Lightnin’ Hopkins through his two hands to create a rock-friendly, blues-based sound that rekindled interest in classic blues and ignited a decade-plus cycle of blues fandom that is only now weakening. Joe Bonamassa has a similar vibe to his playing, mixing ‘70s hard rock and ‘80s guitar fury to create a sound that is at once both fresh and familiar and quite capable of blowing the dust from the blues, dragging the art form screaming and kicking into the new century. (Medallist Entertainment, released August 13th, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Archive Review: Transatlantic's SMPT:e (2000)

Transatlantic's SMPT:e
The “progressive rock” label isn’t an albatross that too many bands are quick to hang around their necks these days, which makes the press materials accompanying SMPT:e – a clever acronym representing Roine Stolt, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Pete Trewavas – all the more confusing. Transatlantic has proudly taken up the prog-rock mantle and they don’t care who knows. A literal alt-rock supergroup, composed of various members of Dream Theater, Marillion, and Spock’s Beard, these guys have obviously done their homework, polishing off those old Yes, King Crimson, and ELP records and taking heavy notes. The five songs on SMPT:e may have their roots in 1970s-styled, classically-influenced progressive rock but Transatlantic has brought the genre into the new millennium with some fresh new ideas and more than a few original hooks. Even the cover artwork for SMPT:e resembles one of Roger Dean’s hallucinogenic paintings that used to grace so many prog-rock album covers.

SMPT:e opens with an obviously Yes-inspired thirty-minute track titled “All of the Above” which manages to imprint each of its six suites with a different sound and feel. Mixing elements of classic rock and improvisational jazz with prog-rock roots, “All of the Above” never drags or annoys in spite of its considerable length. Other cuts also manage to breathe new life into the prog-rock corpse: “We All Need Some Light” is a dark-hued, melancholy work while “Mystery Train” is a syncopated, more upbeat number that utilizes the various band member’s voices in creating some nice harmonies. The lone cover on SMPT:e is the appropriately chosen Procol Harum’s “In Held (Twas) In I,” offered here as an extended aural painting, a textured composition complete with zen-like spoken word into. A complex, multi-layered, and ambitious work, Transatlantic’s SMPT:e is a hard album to get a handle on, but one well worth the effort. (Radiant / Metal Blade Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000

Friday, March 29, 2024

Archive Review: Trick Daddy's Book of Thugs, Chapter A.K., Verse 47 (2000)

Trick Daddy's Book of Thugs
The world of hip-hop is getting crowded with rappers only half as clever as they think they are, spitting out histrionic “gangsta” rhymes that are so feeble that you’d think that Vanilla Ice was ghostwriting the shit. Trick Daddy, on the other hand, isn’t one of those whack wannabes, but rather a Southern-fried master of rhyme with street smarts a plenty and the good sense to step away from the mic when guest stars like Mystikal or Society step up and get the job done. Not as well known, perhaps, as Master P’s roster of rappers, or as newsworthy or Puff Daddy and his crew, Trick Daddy is nonetheless a serious contender for the crown worn so proudly by Tupac, Book of Thugs a logical extension of Shakur’s “Thug Life” mythology.

In between the sexual braggadocio and ghetto tales on Book of Thugs are some fine rhymes and smooth tunes. “Get On Up” is a funky, “the roof’s on fire” styled barnburner assisted by the Lost Tribe and Money Mark. “America” is a haunting, insightful look at modern oppression in a country where the majority of young African-American males are imprisoned, or have been. “Shut Up” features the beautiful Trina, Duece Poppito of 24Karatz, and Co of Tre +6 in a battle of the sexes with complex verses and more pop culture references than you can shake your gat at, backed by chaotic music that includes ringing cell phones. “Thug For Life” and “Thug Life Again” revisit old turf with a fresh perspective, the first song showcasing the talents of Kase and Mystic of the Lost Tribe, the second featuring Money Mark. A rock-solid collection of songs, Books of Thugs, Chapter A.K., Verse 47 is a bull’s eye shot from the new hip-hop capital of Miami, Trick Daddy and his Slip-N-Slide crew joining rap’s elite talents. (Slide-N-Slide Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000 

Archive Review: Black Rob's Life Story (2000)

Black Rob's Life Story
The bulk of these tracks have been sitting in the box for a couple of years, rapper Black Rob patiently waiting for beleaguered Bad Boy boss “Puffy” Combs to release his debut disc. Now it’s Rob’s turn at the plate, batting in the place of the legendary Notorious B.I.G. in the Bad Boy line-up and these ears tell me that he’s hit a home run with Life Story. It’s a tribute to Rob’s skills as a songwriter and performer that the rhymes he recorded even a couple of years ago play as fresh and contemporary as those captured on tape a month or so ago.

Life Story is a cathartic collection of material, with Black Rob drawing on his own experience, writing songs in prison in anticipation of his shot at the brass ring. The resulting collection of songs is brutally real, and sincerely heartfelt, the first shot from a major new hip-hop talent. Guest stars abound on Life Story, from the scandalous, always sexy Lil’ Kim and the underappreciated Mase to the chairman of the board himself, Puff Daddy. It’s Rob’s commanding presence, however, along with his finely delivered rhymes that dominate the proceedings on Life Story. Much like other young talents like Beanie Siegel and Sisquo, Black Rob is stepping out of the background with a set that earns the artist a well-deserved spotlight of his own. (Bad Boy Entertainment)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000

Friday, March 22, 2024

Archive Review: The Forty Fives' Get It Together (2000)

The Forty Fives' Get It Together
A single glance at the cover of Get It Together – ultra-cool blue tinting and black bars across the front end of what appears to be a Dodge Challenger – would lead one to believe that they’d be in for some serious retro shit with this CD. After a single spin of this turbo-charged effort from the Forty Fives, you’d know that your first impression was right. Fuck trends, the Forty Fives kick out some honest jams with Get It Together, reminding one of the halcyon days of rock when a man cruised around the city streets in a high-powered, solid-steel muscle car and cranked tunes out of the stereo eight track.

A sociologist might have looked upon this ritual as a sort of rapidly moving mating dance but it was more like a “coming-of-age” music thing – attracting the opposite sex was just an additional benefit. The Forty Fives sound like the best of what was playing on those car stereos in the late sixties and early seventies, skillfully blending surf guitars, Motown soul, Beatlesque Britpop and roots-rock with a garage feel. With a musical mix like that you’d expect Get It Together to be a lively affair, and it is, jumping off the line like a heart attack and hitting 100mph before you can blink an eye. If you have to ask, you never lived it, bunkie. This is real sledgehammer rock ‘n’ roll for guys who like it straight, no chaser, and if none of us can revisit those old days again, the Forty Fives are living proof that the memory lives on… (Artemis Records)     

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000 

Archive Review: The Tarbox Ramblers' The Tarbox Ramblers (2000)

The Tarbox Ramblers
Listening to the Tarbox Ramblers CD is like taking a trip back in time to a different musical era. This talented foursome renders authentic covers of antique songs like a counterfeit artist kicks out phony C-notes – seamlessly and with a great deal of skill. Mining a musical milieu that is exclusively early twentieth century, the Ramblers deftly jump from delta blues to pre-war jazz to jug band hoedowns. The results are intoxicating, each song bringing with it a welcome rush of recognition as the Ramblers lend a contemporary feel to this traditional material without robbing the songs of their rustic roots.

Among the high points on this self-titled debut are a knock-down version of Bukka White’s classic “Shake ‘Em On Down,” the mesmerizing prison song-styled “Stewball” with call-and-response vocalization and a magnificent, laid-back reading of “St. James Infirmary.” Although they add a few lyrics here and there and have arranged the material in a manner that is guaranteed not to scare away the weak of heart, the Tarbox Ramblers nonetheless offer a great deal of respect to these songs. They treat the material with the reverence that it deserves even while having a lot of fun performing it. For anybody interested in early American music, I’d heartily recommend the Tarbox Ramblers’ debut as a primer, a gateway to greater pleasures beyond. (Rounder Records)    

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000 

Friday, March 15, 2024

Archive Review: Osker's Treatment 5 (2003)

Osker's Treatment 5
Back in the day, if one had a mind to, you could drive up to Birmingham, Michigan (home of the legendary Creem magazine) and cruise down Woodward Avenue all the way into downtown Detroit. There was no reason, really, to do so – any such trip would take about an hour and put a carload of overzealous alkies at risk in several police jurisdictions. Sure, there’d be stops along the way – at burger joints, clubs, wherever – looking for something else to drink, something happening or somebody special. Mostly we did it just to get our ya-ya’s out, driving down the highway with the windows down and a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack fueling our youthful dreams of a better place. A good cassette deck might boast of a playlist that included Iggy & the Stooges, the MC5, Ted Nugent, and maybe indie artists like Destroy All Monsters, Flirt, or the Mutants.

Osker’s Treatment 5 would have fit in right nicely with that weekly tradition. Cranking out the same sort of high-voltage tuneage that used to accompany us on those much-anticipated Saturday night drives, Treatment 5 is chock full of snotty vocals, ringing guitars, and relentless rhythms. Powerful punk rock with a vital edge, songs like “Life Sucks,” “Lucky,” or the appropriately reverent “Radio” would sound great blaring out of a car radio, driving towards whatever conclusion fate has in store. Mining a musical vein not unlike early Green Day or Offspring, Osker puts enough frantic energy into their material to prevent it from being watered down by pop influences. As a result, Treatment 5 is a non-stop rock ‘n’ roller coaster, a thrill-a-minute punk rock ride that you’ll want to take time and time again. (Epitaph Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000

The View On Pop Culture: John Hiatt, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello (2003)

John Hiatt’s Beneath This Gruff Exterior
V2.66

Next year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees were recently announced, the list including the late George Harrison, Bob Seger, and Prince, among others. The foundation that nominates inductees has consistently overlooked many credible “hall of famers,” especially in the genres of punk (no Sex Pistols), heavy metal (no Black Sabbath) and R&B artists (too many to mention). Of course, not every performing musician can, or should be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but too many excellent artists/bands have been overlooked to believe that the process has any intelligence behind it at all.    

As a recording artist, John Hiatt has never achieved much more than cult status. He has never sold a lot of records; certainly not as many as other artists have recording Hiatt’s songs. Over the course of almost thirty years, however, Hiatt has forged a career of quiet excellence, creating nearly twenty consistently solid albums and writing hundreds of remarkable songs that lesser talents will be recording for decades to come. Entering his fourth decade of writing and performing, Hiatt epitomizes the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, and if he never makes the Hall of Fame, it will be that institution’s loss.

Hiatt’s Beneath This Gruff Exterior (New West Records) is another fine effort on the part of the underrated songwriter and his top-notch band the Goners. For those unfamiliar with Hiatt’s creative “modus operandi,” he pens literate songs that are peopled with brilliant characters – losers and lovers, the lost and the redeemed. Hiatt’s rough, soulful vocals are kind of like a frayed blanket, scratchy and worn but warm and familiar. The music is a mix of roots-rock, Memphis soul, Delta blues, country and folk, which is why Hiatt’s material lends itself so well to various interpretations. Beneath This Gruff Exterior showcases both Hiatt’s songwriting skills and the road-worn chemistry of the Goners. Hiatt is not a bad guitarist, but he smartly steps aside and lets maestro Sonny Landreth fill his songs with whiplash slide work and a hint of bayou swamp-rock instrumental gumbo. The seasoned rhythm section of bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Bevins keep an admirable beat beneath the festivities so that the magician Hiatt can weave his lyrical tales.

The radio-ready "The Nagging Dark” rolls along like the runaway hearts of the song’s characters while “Circle Back” remembers the fleeting nature of friendships and family and the passage of time. “Almost Fed Up With the Blues,” fueled by Landreth’s red-hot picking, is a brilliant anti-blues blues song, the protagonist sick and tired of being sick and tired. Hiatt’s imagery on “The Most Unoriginal Sin” is nearly the equal of vintage Dylan, Landreth’s shimmering fretwork creating an eerie atmosphere behind Hiatt’s somber vocals, the song’s star-crossed lover doomed before the first chorus strikes. Beneath This Gruff Exterior may not be the hall-of-fame caliber talent’s best album, but it doesn’t fall far from the top.

Pearl Jam's Lost Dogs
As one of the two most important rock bands to come out of the early ‘90s Seattle scene, Pearl Jam are pretty much ensured a spot in the hallowed hall. With the band’s multi-million selling 1991 debut Ten, Pearl Jam created a blueprint for much of the rest of rock ‘n’ roll to follow during the decade, spawning dozens of sound-alike bands. During the ‘90s, though, Pearl Jam deliberately turned its back on stardom, eschewing the trappings of celebrity in favor of making honest and, at times, difficult music that will take critics years to digest. With literally over a hundred live performance discs released, it’s hard to believe that Pearl Jam built its legacy on the strength of a mere seven studio albums.

Lost Dogs (Epic Records) is a two-CD collection of rare tracks, obscurities and B-sides compiled by the band. Presenting only a portion of the wealth of unreleased/barely-released material allegedly recorded by the band, Lost Dogs is nevertheless a nice bookend to Pearl Jam’s major label years. The thirty songs here include a couple of legitimate hits, including “Last Kiss;” a handful of the band’s live staples, like “Yellow Ledbetter;” and some great undiscovered songs like “Hitchhiker” and “All Night.” Hardcore fans probably have a lot of the songs here, but it’s nice to have it in one two-disc set with song-by-song liner notes by the band members. Pearl Jam’s importance and influence on rock ‘n’ roll has yet to be truly measured, and as the band begins a new era among the ranks of the indie label world, who knows what great music they’ll create in years to come?                  
   
Elvis Costello's Get Happy
Inducted into the Hall of Fame last year along with his backing band the Attractions, singer/songwriter Elvis Costello may well receive a second induction in the future as a solo artist. Rhino Records has done an excellent job reissuing Costello’s entire recorded oeuvre as low-priced, double-disc sets overflowing with bonus material and extensive liner notes by the artist. It’s been a veritable bonanza for Costello fanatics, no single album so much as the recently reissued Get Happy!! No small creative achievement when it was originally released as a 20-track vinyl album in 1980, Costello’s overlooked fourth album recasts the angry young punk as a blue-eyed soul crooner.

Get Happy!! ventures into Motown-styled pop, Stax-flavored R&B and classic Northern soul all delivered with punkish intensity by the world’s best rock band. It’s a magnificent collection, with highlights like “New Amsterdam,” “High Fidelity,” and “Riot Act” standing tall among a strong collection of songs. The “bonus disc” offers an astonishing thirty more tracks, highlighting both Costello’s prolific late ‘70s songwriting and the Attractions’ unflagging devotion to the material. No mere rehashing of unnecessary crap, the second disc provides valuable insight into Costello’s work with wonderful alternative takes, live tracks and early versions of songs that would appear on later albums. If you stopped listening to Elvis Costello with 1979’s Armed Forces, you owe it to yourself to discover Get Happy!!

Costello’s 1981 album Trust (Rhino) proved to be somewhat of a departure for the artist. The album benefited from the immense workload taken on by Costello and the Attractions during the previous four years: four full-length albums, numerous tours and over 100 recorded songs shaped the composer and his mates into tight musical machine. As such, they tackle various styles and musical experiments with confidence and gusto. The beginning, perhaps, of Costello’s turn towards more “serious,” adult-styled music, Trust holds several gems, from the raucous “From A Whisper To A Scream” to the manic pop of “White Knuckles” to the charming “Pretty Words.” The bonus disc includes 17 songs and, while none are as revelatory as the material included with Get Happy!!, there are some nice moments, such as “Black Sails In the Sunset” and “Sad About Girls.” Considered by Costello connoisseurs as the artist’s last great album with the Attractions, Trust is well worth checking out. (View From The Hill, 2003) 

Friday, March 8, 2024

Archive Review: Metallica's S & M (2000)

Metallica's S & M
Working with a symphony orchestra is a lengthy, time-honored tradition in rock ‘n’ roll. Procul Harum did it, as did the Moody Blues, among others, while extraordinary guitarist, music satirist, and rock icon Frank Zappa used to write his own symphonies and hire the orchestra to play them. So it should have come as no surprise, really, when Metallica decided to collaborate with the San Francisco Symphony for a couple nights of heavy metal sturm und drang. The result, captured by the two-CD set S & M, is quite stunning. Although the recording has stirred up mixed feelings among hard-line, old-time head-bashers, the twenty-one songs presented here are a wonderful pairing of Metallica’s brand of grandiose hard rock and the dignity and electricity of a classical symphonic setting. Classical composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner were the rock stars of their day, and any music lover recognizes the majesty and power of their works. Metallica’s James Hetfield has always been one of the more larger-then-life, Wagnerian songwriters in rock, so the virtual “greatest hits” line-up on S & M showcases the band’s talents in a different light.

Metallica sacrifice none of the iron and steel sound of their material here. In fact, Hetfield’s voice sounds even more powerful and dominant, soaring to new heights for these performances, while the rest of the band enthusiastically kicks ass as well. The San Francisco Symphony gets to show its considerable chops on a very different style of music, both entities playing well off each other, infusing songs like “Enter Sandman,” “Until It Sleeps,” “Master of Puppets” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with new life and energy. Ever the fan favorites, Metallica include a couple of cool new tunes in “Human” and “No Leaf Clover” among the better-known material. If you’re a music lover unfamiliar with Metallica, you should check out S & M and if you’re a long-time fan of the band who have written them off as ‘has-beens’ you should listen to S & M again. If the potent mix of Hetfield’s vocals, Kirk Hammet’s raging guitar and the San Francisco Symphony’s swirling strings and loud percussion on “Wherever I May Roam” doesn’t send a surge down your spine, then you’re either dead or too fucking stupid to appreciate art when you hear it. (Elektra Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000

The View On Pop Culture: Jet, The Juliana Theory, Ted Leo (2003)

Jet's Get Born
V2.65

If you’ve read this column, or any other music-oriented scribbling during the past year, then you are probably aware that a full-fledged “garage-rock” revival is underway. What all the scribes and rock crits are actually trying to say is that after a decade of grunge, alt-rock, hip-hop, and nu-metal (all of which have their charms), there is a new wave of honest-to-Chuck Berry, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll edging its way onto the airwaves. Three chords, no waiting, and good times are right around the corner (if you live in Detroit or NYC, maybe). Led by bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Vines, the new “garage-rock” revival is nothing more than the Seeds and the Barbarians dressed in modern garb for 21st century sensibilities.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some great music being made behind the commercially-driven trend. The major labels, may Elvis smile down upon ‘em, can’t help but root up a truffle every now and then in their blind attempts to discover the “next big thing.” Around these parts, the biggest thing to hit the box this month is from Australia’s Jet. The band’s debut, Get Born (Elektra Records) is the most bone-rattling, toe-tapping collection of rock tunes to come down the pike since Julian Casablancas of the Strokes discovered a hair style that he liked. As measured by the Reverend’s trusty riffometer, Get Born averages an impressive forty-thrills per minute.

Get Born rips open its own shrink-wrap with the pavement-pounding “Last Chance,” kicking off with a monster drumbeat, slash-n-burn guitar riffs, and young, loud and snotty vocals reminiscent of the Yardbirds in the band’s prime. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” is the best White Stripes knock-off that you’ll hear this year, a full-blown blues-rock rave-up that roars like a rabid freight train ready to twist off the tracks. The rest of Get Born is equally audacious, songs like the fuzzbox romp “Get What You Need” and the bouncy “Rollover D.J.” mixing sloppy, Nuggets-inspired throwback rock with vintage ‘70s vibe (think Mott, as in the Hoople) and chart-happy ‘90s-styled Britpop (i.e. Oasis). Unlike a lot of garage-rock poseurs hopping on today’s bandwagon, Jet sound like they were weaned on old 45s, delivering the real goods with a smile and a sincerity largely missing from their kissing cousins in America.

Somewhere in the shadowy Netherlands between punk rock and hardcore lies the audience-friendly musical sub-sub-genre dubbed “emo” by my fellow rock crits. Featuring personal, almost confessional lyrics that are actually sung, rather than shouted behind the glorious din of instrumentation, the style has spawned its own heroes in bands like the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World. Emo is beginning to creep into the mainstream, and the Juliana Theory will be at the forefront of the movement when the masses embrace the music as their own. The Pittsburgh band recently jumped from the indie ranks into a major label deal, releasing the impressive album Love (Epic Records) in late 2002.

Live 10.13.2001 (Tooth & Nail) is the last gasp for the band on its former label, and not a bad document of the Juliana Theory’s indie rock roots. Recorded live in the band’s hometown just weeks before signing with Epic, Live 10.13.2001 draws its material from the Juliana Theory’s first two albums. The performance reveals a band in transition, discovering its power and evolving beyond the cultish emo audience and into a radio-friendly, ready-for-primetime rock ‘n’ roll band. Songs like “Music Box Superhero” and “Into the Dark” showcase soaring vocals matched by rattlesnake guitars and earth-shaking rhythms, intelligent, emotionally accessible lyrics reeling in young listeners like a trout gobbling an worm. With decent songs and a sound that connects to the audience, Live 10.12.2001 is a welcome addition to the Juliana Theory canon.

Ted Leo's Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead
In the perfect world that critics and the crazed like myself are always referring to, Ted Leo would be a fat and sassy rock ‘n’ roll superstar and Justin Timberlake would be a mere footnote in the annals of popular music. Leo has been around for over a decade, fronting the influential tho’ little-known band Chisel and working the solo angle with his mates the Pharmacists. Leo released the excellent Hearts of Oak (Lookout Records) earlier this year, the album a shoo-in for many rock crit’s end-of-the-year “best of” lists. The lengthy nine-song EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead (Lookout Records) is a nice follow-up, a tasty collection of new songs, covers, and a couple of overlooked tunes from Hearts of Oak filling out a highly recommended disc.                
 
Leo so effortlessly mixes punk and folk-rock with shades of British mod and Stax-styled soul that one wonders why the world hasn’t recognized his genius. Influences here include Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello, the Kinks and the Jam, but with a world of music to draw from, Leo isn’t one to be limited to a single style. His voice is a passionate, high lonesome wail that reminds me of the substance, if not exactly the style, of Roy Orbison’s wonderful vocals, Leo capable of great verbal gymnastics. The verbose, poetic lyrics of songs like “The High Party” and “The Sword In the Stone” and the title track showcase a sardonic intelligence and clever wordplay, evincing a certain world-weariness, syllables rolling off Leo’s tongue like rainwater from a tin roof.

The choice of cover songs is spot-on, Ewan McColl’s charming “Dirty Old Town” reverently delivered as a fast-paced raver while Leo easily mimics Neil Finn with a spry reading of Split Enz’ “Six Months In A Leaky Boat.” Leo’s original “Loyal To My Sorrowful Country” is a tour de force, the patriotic artist turning his back on a country that has turned away from its people, Leo’s energetic six-string work channeling every musical dissident from Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg. Why waste your hard-earned money on commercially approved dreck like Sheryl Crow or Clay Aiken when an artist as thought provoking, intelligent and entertaining as Ted Leo waits on the fringes of pop culture? (View From The Hill, 2003)

Friday, March 1, 2024

Archive Review: Joseph Arthur's Come To Where I’m From (2000)

Joseph Arthur's Come To Where I’m From
Joseph Arthur is the latest in a long line of acoustic-based folk-rock troubadours that probably began with Tim Buckley and will carry on in an eternal, unending cycle of songs appealing to teenage girls needing a sensitive male artist to swoon over. Not that I have anything against such artists – they’re certainly preferable to the pre-fab and coldly-calculated pop dreck of boy bands like N’Sync. Truth be told, there was something morbidly satisfying about Buckley’s suicidal death-wish poetry and anti-celebrity introversion that even brought down as stalwart a rocker as Kurt Cobain (not to mention probably cursed his son Jeff at birth).

With the exception of a couple of songs, however, Arthur only displays two speeds on Come To Where I’m From – morose and moroser. Those exceptions can be pretty crunchy, like the Nirvana-styled “Exhausted” or the rambling “Creation of A Stain.” More often than not, however, Arthur merely provides us with a teasing false start, as with the wickedly distorted guitar that opens “History” or the discordant percussion that frames “Eyes On My Back.” Mostly Arthur merely drones on above a lush musical soundtrack produced with his usual deft hand by T-Bone Burnett. If you’re into the sensitive, troubled troubadour kind of thing, you’ll find that Arthur does it as well as anybody on Come To Where I’m From.

Personally, I’ll take my pain straight, no chaser, with blues artists like Robert Johnson or Son House, or just bludgeon myself into an uncaring, blissful state with a glorious din from the likes of Motörhead. Either way, I’ll wake up in the morning with only a fraction of the self-loathing and lack of respect felt by Arthur and his ilk. Extra bonus: the cover art and inside graphics for Come To Where I’m From are from paintings by Arthur, a sure sign of multi-artistic compulsion. (Real World/Virgin Records)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000

The View On Pop Culture: Corb Lund Band, Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, Gordon Lightfoot Tribute (2003)

Corb Lund Band's Five Dollar Bill
V2.64

There are a lot of imitation cowboys shuffling down the streets of Nashville’s “Music Row” these days, with snakeskin boots, tight jeans and hats blocked just right. It’s a safe bet that none of them have even a small portion of the soul, guts and, most importantly, the understanding of country & western musical tradition that Canada’s Corb Lund shows with Five Dollar Bill (Stony Plain Records). The third release from the Corb Lund Band, which includes moonlighting members of the Smalls and Nickelback, this one came out last year but as it just now crossed your columnist’s desk and demanded my attention, we’re going to let it swing…
 
The opening title cut of Five Dollar Bill rocks harder than the Broken Spoke Bar on Saturday night, noted pedal steel maestro Dan Dugmore adding his twangy flourishes to this spry tail of (dis)honor among thieves and whiskey running between Canada and the United States. The rest of the album offers an inspired blend of countrified rock, blues, and swinging honky-tonk with lyrics that are smarter and more entertaining that anything the scribes in the Music City are scribbling these days. “Apocalyptic Modified Blues” mixes Biblical and mythological imagery with a talking blues undercurrent in creating a story of woe and despair. “Time To Switch To Whiskey” offers a sure cure for what ails you while “Roughest Neck Around” is a larger-than-life tale about a modern-day John Henry. As we say down here in the lower 48, Five Dollar Bill offers up real poop-punting cheap thrills, Corb and his Canadian cohorts serving up country music more authentic than anything you’ll find coming out of Nashville.

Steve Wynn's Static Transmission
Steve Wynn
is one of those greatly underrated artists that critics love, a songwriter and performer of unusual depth and atypical perspective. As founder of ‘80s cult band Dream Syndicate, Wynn spearheaded LA’s “Paisley Underground” movement with feedback-soaked, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll that was easily a decade ahead of its time. Wynn’s lengthy solo career has had its ups and downs since his first album in 1990, tho’ it’s been mostly up as of late. Static Transmissions (DBK Works), credited to Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, represents another solid effort of what could be called, for lack of a better term, “psychedelic folk music.”
 
The tunes on Static Transmissions feature Wynn’s imaginative songwriting and wan vocals, blending folk sensibilities with ‘60s rock influences and ‘80s punk attitude. “Candy Machine” is a fuzz-drenched story-song with beautifully chiming guitars and muddy sound complimented by a melodic hook; the song belongs on modern rock radio, where it would force many bland rock wannabes back to their day jobs. A percussive guitar riff transforms into a slinky, psychedelic wall of sound on “Amphetamine,” a rocking road song with explosive six-string work and unrelenting energy. The hyperbolic instrumentation that introduces “One Less Shining Star” leads into a shimmering dirge of sound and obscured vocals while “Hollywood” cuts like Bob Dylan, or maybe Dan Bern, providing a gutsy look at California’s famed city of dreams. Truth be told, there’s not a bad song to be heard on Static Transmission, Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 delivering one of the year’s best, if sadly obscure, rock albums.

During a recent visit to the Reverend’s hometown, my old buddy John W. was extolling the virtues of legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Anybody who listened to the radio at all during the ‘70s and ‘80s would have had to be deaf not to recognize Lightfoot’s trademark baritone and literate songwriting. Beyond the hits – larger than life tunes like “Sundown” and “If You Could Read My Mind” – I have to admit that I didn’t know much about one of Canada’s favorite sons. After our conversation, what should cross my desk but a copy of Beautiful: A Tribute To Gordon Lightfoot (Northern Blues Music). Usually tribute albums are a spotty proposition, and it seems that Northern Blues has been releasing more compilation discs than real albums as of late, but after a few spins of Beautiful, I have to admit that they got this one right.

Beautiful does a wonderful job of honoring Lightfoot’s considerable songbook. Featuring mostly (heck, maybe exclusively – what do I know?) Canadian artists, Beautiful offers up talents like Bruce Cockburn, Jesse Winchester, Maria Muldaur, and the Cowboy Junkies. As is usual with affairs of this type, some performances work better than others do, and it’s not any different here. Jesse Winchester turns in a fiery reading of “Sundown,” sounding like dusk on the Bayou, while Cockburn’s somber take on “Ribbon of Darkness” stands in stark counterpoint to Marty Robbins’ 1965 hit with the song. James Keelaghan frames Lightfoot’s classic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” perfectly, evoking images of the wild lands tamed by the iron rail while the Tragically Hip bring appropriate power and passion to the social commentary of “Black Day In July.”

For this writer’s money, tho’, it is Maria Muldaur’s haunting reading of “That Same Old Obsession” that defines Beautiful, the song showcasing both Muldaur’s immense talents as a vocalist and Lightfoot’s ability as a timeless songwriter. Terry Tufts, Blue Rodeo and Ron Sexsmith all deliver solid performances of lesser-known Lightfoot gems while Aengus Finnan’s original song “Lightfoot” is an impressive tribute to the artist and a fitting way to close the album. Beautiful is a fine collection of songs and an inspired tribute to the musical treasure that is Gordon Lightfoot and well worth finding a copy! (View From The Hill, 2003)

Friday, February 23, 2024

CD Review: Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981 (2024)

Blank Generation CD box set
Multi-disc punk rock compilations are a dime-a-dozen these days, and I’m lookin’ for the guy supplying the coin. England’s Cherry Red Records has done yeoman’s work in digging up and offering long-lost punk obscurities with a seemingly endless stream of chronological clam-shelled box sets that are all worthy of your patronage. However, with the label’s recently released Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981, they’ve outdone themselves. A deluxe five-CD box set packaged in a 5.5”x7.5” hardbound book, Blank Generation offers up succinct liner notes with plenty of B&W and color photos, making it as much a historical document as it is a collection of great music.

While the set certainly ain’t cheap – I paid $50 and change for my copy – it works out to roughly a sawbuck per CD (or less than 42-cents per song). Considering the rarity of some of tracks here, any one of which you’d pay double-dollar collector’s prices to acquire on a 45rpm slab, Blank Generation is a steal for the dedicated punk rawk fan. It’s the music that we’re all here for, and Blank Generation features 130 tracks from North American punk, post-punk, and punk-adjacent bands and their various progeny. Some of the bands included verge on being household names – Blondie, Devo, and Patti Smith come to mind – while others would still be familiar to anybody that followed music rags like Creem, Bomp!, or Trouser Press back in the day.

So, let’s get the niceties out of the way, shall we? Yes, Blank Generation includes well-worn punk “classics” that have become ubiquitous and tediously familiar for nursing home residents after nearly five decades. Scratch the obvious Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ title track off your bingo card; ditto for the Heartbreakers (“Chinese Rocks”), Pere Ubu (“Final Solution”), the Avengers (“We Are the One”), the Weirdos (“We Got the Neutron Bomb”), the Germs (“Lexicon Devil”), X (“White Girl”), Minor Threat (“Minor Threat”), the Ramones (“Rockaway Beach”), Dead Boys (“Sonic Reducer”), and the Dead Kennedys (“Holiday In Cambodia”). Sure, these are all great songs, but even the most half-assed punk fan is sick to death of hearing them by now.  

Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981


Blondie's Blondie LP
However, even for those bands you probably know, Blank Generation digs a little deeper into the punk bag and plucks out plums that qualify as “deep cuts” by any standard of measurement. Take Blondie, for instance…you might expect to hear hits like the disco-punk “Heart of Glass” or the new wavish “One Way Or Another.” Instead, the producers/compilers chose “Rip Her To Shreds,” an original track from the band’s indie label debut. Framing singer Debbie Harry in less of a 1960s-styled pop style, her lyrical delivery here is snotty, punkish, and insulting to the nth degree, Harry’s snarl accompanied by dense instrumental clouds that evoke both previous-decade garage rock (especially the chiming organ) as well as looking forward to the dawning of the “new wave” 1980s   

The Modern Lovers’ “Someone I Care About” is a wonderfully ramshackle and somewhat angular garage rock-adjacent track with instruments that are seemingly working at cross-purposes in a valiant sacrifice for the musical greater good. Jonathan Richman’s vox are off-kilter and wailed above the consistent din of the soundtrack, which makes for an exciting and invigorating performance (plus, it’s not the often-compiled “Road Runner,” no matter how great it may be…). An almost-forgotten track from 1976’s Radio Ethiopia, the Patti Smith Group’s “Pissing In A River” later fit comfortably onto the 1980 Times Square movie soundtrack. It’s a damn fine slab o’ estrogen-fueled heartbreak, punkish in intensity and cinematic in delivery with a lofty, art-rock soundtrack with haunting keyboards and slashing guitars to paint a painfully dark portrait. But it’s Smith’s emotionally-tortured vocal performance that raises the song above the punk rock ghetto.   

Q: Are Devo a “punk rock” band? A: They are Devo! Falling off the evolutionary ladder somewhere along the line, the beloved band from Akron, Ohio were alternately punk, new wave, art-rock, and surreal unlike any we’d ever heard before. Hailing from their 1978 debut album, Devo’s “Come Back Jonee” was produced by the definitely “not punk” Brian Eno (who also worked with the new wavish Talking Heads). An oblique song with nearly-buried vocals barely rising above the pogoing backing instrumentation (which incorporates guitar, synths, drums, and other noises), it’s punkish in spirit if not execution. By contrast, Wall of Voodoo’s “Call Box 1-2-3” sounds more like Devo than “Come Back Jonee,” the song evincing the same sort of ‘odd bodkins’ ambiance; bouncy, semi-irritating instrumentation; and strangely-phrased Stan Ridgeway vocals that come close, but still miles away from their college radio hit “Mexican Radio.”

Exciting, Supersonic Sounds


Destroy All Monster's "Bored" 45rpm
The box includes a lot of truly obscure tracks as well, many only originally available on 45rpm slabs and a tad bit pricey to acquire via Discogs or eBay these days. Cherry Red seems to have front-loaded the most familiar songs and artists on the first two discs, ‘cause the tracklists get weirder, funkier, and punkier with CDs three through five. That’s not to say that the first couple o’ flapjacks are lacking in obscurities, though…take Destroy All Monsters’ “Bored,” a band and song that barely crept beyond the borders of Wayne County, Michigan in 1978. A Motor City “supergroup” of sorts, featuring Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Michael Davis of MC5, and fronted by the gorgeous femme fatale Niagara (née Lynn Rovner), they were a great live band and “Bored,” their first single, established the template for much of what would follow. Niagara’s voice barely floats above the clashing guitars and cascading drumbeats, but the effect is otherworldly and enchanting in its ennui.

Long before legends like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü emerged from a thriving Minneapolis music scene, the Suicide Commandos were rockin’ stages with their loud ‘n’ fast punk rock sound. Signed to Mercury Records’ Blank label (along with Pere Ubu), they only released a single studio album, but their Make A Record album is well worth tracking down. The band’s “Match/Mismatch” is a good example of this unduly-obscure band’s range, displaying just a bit of the art-rock noise their friends and labelmates Pere Ubu pursued, but mostly just cranking up the amps and cranking out three-chord, supersonic rock ‘n’ roll with turbocharged instrumentation and passable – not laughable – vocal harmonies, that blazed a trail for other Minnesota bands to follow…artists like Curtiss A, whose “I Don’t Want To Be President” hits your eardrums like an earthbound meteor. The self-professed “Dean of Scream,” Curtiss Almsted kicked around the Twin Cities for years in a number of bands, but never recorded anything as potent as this 1979 Twin/Tone Records single.

Pure Hell's Noise Addiction
Crime
’s “Hot Wire My Heart” provides another electrifying jolt of high-voltage punk rock, the San Francisco band early adopters of the aesthetic, releasing the song as a single in 1976. Produced in glorious lo-fi with a veritable wall of noise behind the vocals, the band’s amateurish first effort is nevertheless incredibly effective, with ringing guitars and shouted vocals delivered with more ‘joie de vivre’ than better-produced, bigger-budget label releases. On the other side of the country, Pure Hell was terrorizing Philadelphia audiences with “Noise Addiction,” the first African-American Afropunk outfit every bit as young, loud, and snotty as any band working the ‘bucket o’ blood’ club circuit and one worth your time to discover. They’ve been a lot of things over the years – punks, power-pop, alt-rockers, bluesmen – but Red Kross was, perhaps, never punkier and prouder than on the slash ‘n’ burn “Clorox Girls,” from their self-titled 1981 debut EP on Posh Boy Records, which needs less than a single frantic minute to burn itself into your medulla oblongata.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Pagan's Street Where Nobody Lives 45rpm single
There are a lot of other exciting sounds to be found on Blank Generation; too many to ramble on about here, to be sure. But if your musical tastes run towards the punk, post-punk, and power-pop oeuvre, you’ll probably dig tracks by Television (the wiry “Friction”), the Dictators (the mondo “I Live For Cars and Girls”), the Residents (their mutant cover of the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction”), the Dils (the jaunty “Mr. Big”), the Bags (the high-octane “Survive”), Pagans (the amped-up garage rock gem “Street Where Nobody Lives”), Chrome (the syncopated electro-punk of “New Age,”), Non Compos Mentis (the power-pop/hardcore mashup “Ultimate Orgasm”), and DMZ (the Boston-bred “Bad Attitude”) who, in turn, begat the Lyres (the‘60s-styled proto-punk “Buried Alive”).

I’ve been writing about this stuff since the beginning, decades “frittered” away banging my head against the proverbial wall, and the Blank Generation box still manages to offer up cool bands I’ve never heard before (Black Randy & The Metro Squad, the Young Canadians, the Dishrags, Crash Course In Science) or had only read about in dog-eared copies of Bomp! and Trouser Press (Cleveland punks Mirrors and Electric Eels, New Math, the Middle Class, Howard Werth, et al).    

For you young ‘uns who didn’t enter this metaphysical plane of existence until the changing of the millennium, a lot – a majority, maybe – of these tracks will be brand new to your hungry ears. As such, Blank Generation is either the only punk rock compilation set you’ll ever need, or a welcome catalyst for further investigation into the early history of the genre. For those of us who rode that hobby horse from the beginning, before the paint began to chip off and tarnish set in, Blank Generation is a reminder of how fresh, new, and exciting rock ‘n’ roll can be. Either way, this is a set worthy of inclusion in even the most comprehensive music library. (Cherry Red Records, released 2023)

Buy Blank Generation from Amazon

The View On Pop Culture: R.L. Burnside, Skip James, Walter Trout, Furry Lewis (2003)

R.L. Burnside's First Recordings
V2.63

THE YEAR OF THE BLUES


By now you’ve watched every episode of the PBS documentary on the blues and you’re ready to celebrate the Congressionally-declared “year of the blues’ with a few new CD purchases. Well, you could choose from among the officially-sanctioned CD tie-ins to the PBS series, titles from deserving folks like Muddy Waters, Son House, and the obscure J.B. Lenoir. But if you really want to expand your musical vocabulary, look beyond the hype and marketing and discover these artists who offer several different shades of blue.

There are very few of the classic Mississippi bluesmen remaining, R.L. Burnside one of the last of a dying breed. Perhaps the best known of modern-day blues stylists, Burnside’s work has crossed over to a rock-oriented audience via collaborations with garage-rocker Jon Spencer and through the groundbreaking Come On In album. Remixed with an edge by Thom Rothrock and Alec Empire, the studio effects and loops enhancing Come On In only intensified Burnside’s already powerful performances, the resulting songs familiar to many listeners from movie and TV soundtracks.

The long-overdue reappearance of First Recordings (Fat Possum) on CD shows Burnside in a different light. Captured live in Mississippi by producer George Mitchell, these 1968 recordings – just R.L. and a beat-up acoustic guitar – preview the power and grace that will become Burnside’s legacy. Performing traditional juke-joint country blues in his Mississippi Fred McDowell-influenced “hill country” style, Burnside blazes through red hot readings of “Poor Black Mattie,” “My Time Ain’t Long” and his trademark “Goin’ Down South.” The recordings have been cleaned up to please modern ears, but Burnside’s hypnotizing vocals and strong, percussive guitar style are always a joy to listen to, First Recordings a welcome addition to the blues lexicon.

Skip James' Studio Sessions
Country bluesman Skip James is considered by historians to be one of the most important figures in the history of the Delta blues. A troubled man haunted by the dichotomy of sin and salvation represented by the blues and gospel music, James’ unique guitar style and songwriting skills have inspired and influenced musicians across decades and genres, from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton. A long-lost collection of previously unreleased material, Studio Sessions: Rare and Unreleased (Vanguard Records) had the potential to be a real gem, the sort of rare find that escapes the vaults from time to time. Unfortunately, it is only mildly interesting to the most hardcore of blues fans.

Recorded in 1967 near the end of his life, the collection offers an obviously world-weary James spinning through a selection of mostly Gospel-oriented tunes. There are times when James’ haunting, otherworldly vocals soar – most notably on “One Dime Was All I Had” – and his bordello learned piano playing takes flight on numbers like “Omaha Blues.” The purchase of Studio Sessions should be reserved until the newcomer to James’ unique talents has digested the artist’s Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo) from 1931 or the latter-era collection Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (Biograph) from the early-60s. Then you’ll know what all the brouhaha over Skip James is all about.    

Walter Trout's Relentless
Walter Trout
is a blues-rocker of the Stevie Ray Vaughan school, mixing lightning-quick fretwork with traditional boogie styling, appealing to fans of amped-up guitar pyrotechnics. Trout earned his bones backing legends like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton; he played in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and propped up Canned Heat for a while in the ‘80s. I must admit that I’ve found much of Trout’s studio work to be a snooze, but the recently released Relentless (Ruf Records), which captures Trout and his fine band the Radicals performing live in Amsterdam, has prompted me to reconsider.

The stage is obviously Trout’s element, the guitarist filling every song with incredible energy and, well…relentless six-string riffing that would please any blues-rock enthusiast. Trout’s whiskey glass vocals are appropriately suited to the music and what he lacks as a songwriter he more than makes up for with power, sweat and passion. The rocking declaration “The Life I Chose,” the Hendrix-inspired ballad “Cry If You Want To” or the anthemic “Collingswood” showcase an artist seriously in love with the blues. A lifer who may never get rich from his craft, Trout is nevertheless determined to make his mark playing the music that he loves and Relentless is a fine step in that direction.        

Furry Lewis' Good Morning Judge
Walter “Furry” Lewis
was a fixture on the Memphis blues scene for years beyond count, recording his first songs in the ‘20s, retiring from music in the ‘30s and being rediscovered in the ‘50s. While most of the original country bluesmen had fled the Delta for Chicago, Detroit and other points north, Lewis remained on Beale Street, traveled the Southeast in medicine shows and, along the way, forged a musical legacy that stands up with the greatest artists of the genre. The timing of the release of Good Morning Judge (Fat Possum Records) couldn’t come at a better time as it is one of the strongest collections of Lewis recordings that is currently available.

Recorded by producer George Mitchell in Memphis circa 1962, Good Morning Judge offers Lewis in fine form. The opening title cut is hilarious, Lewis stating that “I got arrested once,” and then going on to deny accusations of murder, fraud, forgery and even loitering, his light-hearted lyrics covering the deadly seriousness of institutional racism, his vocals accompanied by slinky bottleneck guitar. In fact, much of Good Morning Judge showcases Lewis’ unique and intriguing six-string style, the elder bluesman filling songs like “Blues Around My Bed” and “Roll and Tumble Blues” with spry energy and soulful performances. “Don’t You Wish Your Mama Had Named You Furry Lewis” and “Furry Lewis Rag” revisit these traditional blues tunes with more braggadocio than any hip-hop microphone fiend could muster. A wonderful introduction to the lively wit, musical talent and immense charisma of Furry Lewis, Good Morning Judge should be on the shelf of any serious fan of the blues. (View From The Hill, 2003)