Tuesday, March 31, 2009

House Of Large Sizes Waterloo Date

What’s this? Rumors about a House of Large Sizes show? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’ve heard that HOLS are scheduled to play at Spicoli’s Grill and ther Reverb Rock Garden (sic), a place in Waterloo that I’m guessing has something to do with The Reverb in Cedar Falls. Apparently, there is no more Reverb. I’ve been to that place once, and probably anything that doesn’t have a second-story load-in is a better venue for a rock club.
But who gives a shit where they’re playing. The big question is why. Is the economy hurting Mohair Pear to the point where a H.O.L.S. gig will give it a shot of income? Are Dave & Barb just in the mood to put on the guitar straps once again for “Fire” prevention week? Will the band become a more permanent fixture around Eastern Iowa?
Diebler did blurt out “See you in four years, fuckers!” during their first reunion gig, so this is an early surprise.
Comment if you know details. The Waterloo gig is June 27th with “more details soon.”
Until then, dig on some old HOLS, lumpy.
A viddy from the last reunion gigs...this one from Des Moines...December 30, 2007.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Notes From The Iowa Tour Circut

How did I miss this: the Bulletboys are back together (did they ever leave?) and were in Iowa as early as a month ago! Thank God for the internet, as there is video proof that they were in Waterloo on February 25th.
Not that I would ever make the trip up to see them but, you know, it’s good to know the opportunity was there.
You don’t know who the Bulletboys are?
Well, for about a minute and twenty-five seconds, they were the heir-apparent to Diamond David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. It was the late 80’s, Diamond Dave was just starting to annoying people to the point where they were ignoring him, Sammy Hagar was feeling a little more secure in his role as the lead singer of Van Halen, and the rest of us were longing for anything that sounded remotely like the original incarnation of Van Halen.
Leave it to original Van Halen producer Ted Templeman to come to the rescue: he found a near-sound alike and agreed to produce their debut album. With the stars perfectly aligning, the band got signed to V.H.’s own label and thus began the marketing campaign that tried to sucker a bunch of stoned rock fans into thinking that the Bulletboys were the next V.H.
I’ve smoked a lot of pot in my time, but I never got high enough to ever think the Bulletboys could hold a candle to the mighty original Van Halen.
It wasn’t too long after that before grunge effectively put the kibosh on all things metal, but being especially harsh on hair metal and this kind of pseudo nostalgic headtrip. And make no mistake about it, Bulletboys were the worst kind of nostalgia: parasitic retards with minimal talent and even less material. They were a band built on hype, and when that kind of house of cards is given huge budgets that don’t translate to sales, you find yourself in Iowa twenty years after the fact, trying to pay off your debt and uttering pointless patriotic nonsense to a room full of drunks.
This is Iowa hoss, not Edwards Air Force base. So lay off the “U.S.A.!” chants and understand that the reason why you didn’t get the response you were looking for was because we’re tired of that bullshit.
Plus, we were confused when you called it "the fuckin' United States of fuckin' America." We usually just call it the U.S. of fuckin' A."

Here’s the weird thing, I swear that the dude playing guitar with the Bulletboys at their recent Waterloo gig is the same dude that played with Enuff Z’Nuff when they played at a recent Clinton, Iowa gig. I’m not sure what the story is with this guy, but it’s obvious he gets around.
UPDATE: He’s Tory Stoffregen who, evidently, is from Cedar Falls and fronts the band The Black Mollys.
Here's the comparison video: Enuff Z'Nuff in Clinton, Iowa December of 2008. Donnie is apparently back with the band and singing vocals. But who's that dude in the hat with the guitar? Well, it's the same dude that just played with Bulletboys! How does this happen? And Donnie, take off your fucking coat, you're doing a goddamn show!

Friday, March 27, 2009

OCD Chronicles: Enuff Z'Nuff-"New Thing"

It was the summer of ’89 and I was going off for a weekend of rock climbing and rappelling for the weekend. On the way to Backbone State Park, I stopped by and picked up a pair of cassette singles-cassingles, I think they were called-perhaps the second most retarded music format of all time, right behind the 8-track.
I don’t know what possessed me to buy a deuce of cassette singles, but it wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. I suppose I still had some affection for the 45 single, but since the record company told me that I couldn’t have a 45 anymore, I was forced to spend money on their tape equivalent. Yeah, maybe I could have bought the cd single of the songs, but the record company told me that since the two or three songs were still on a shiny aluminum disc that they’d have to charge me $5.99 for each one of them. That’s $12 for six songs, two of which were just repeats of another one under the guise of “single version” and “album version.”
Fucking pricks.
One was Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” The other song was E’Nuff Z’Nuff’s “New Thing.”
The appeal of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” is pretty obvious: the song is one of her best, the message is timeless, and the video was awesome.
So what the fuck is up with “New Thing?”
Enuff Z’Nuff had just released their debut album-a stupid looking thing with a Day-Glo peace symbol-and the first single, “New Thing,” began to get a few spins on MTV. The video was a lot dumber than Madonna’s and I remember them looking so stupid that I didn’t want to get caught actually possessing an Enuff Z’Nuff album in my collection.
A few years later, they were labeled as “metal’s answer to the Beatles,” but the reality was that they were just another pop-rock band from the Midwest (like Cheap Trick) that made the critical error of dressing like a bunch of hair-metal dumbasses.
And that’s something you can’t dig out of.
They never did, but this fucking song has remained in my head for nearly twenty years now, that’s a lot longer than that stupid cassette single lasted.
You are warned: the song isn’t that good and the video is even worse.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Residents - Eskimo

Growing up in the Midwest, there were documents of extreme importance to young music lovers. One of these documents was Rolling Stone magazine, whose more recent noticeable irrelevance wasn’t in place during the late seventies/early eighties. Ironically, one of the most problematic issues of the magazine today (a collection of advertisements interrupted by brief snidbits of entertainment information) turned out to be a blessing to a few young Iowa music lovers.
Towards the back of nearly every Rolling Stone publication, prominently featured in the magazine’s classified ad section, was a black and white advertisement for Ralph Records. It featured a leather-clad skull advising readers to “Buy or die!” What Ralph Records was selling exactly remained unclear after reading through the information. Instead, if you provided Ralph Records with a buck, you’d be provided with a 7” sampler of the artists on their label.
A friend of my took a chance on a bill and we gathered in his bedroom to listen to what the San Francisco based company returned back. One of the artists on the sampler was The Residents. The had more tracks on the single than any other band, mainly because their songs were only a minute in length. These songs, as I later learned, were pulled from their landmark The Commercial Album that required all of the songs to be the same length as a traditional radio spot.
The music was weird, but not enough for my friend to consider ordering another title from the Ralph Records’ catalog that was included with his sampler. Based on the glowing praise of one of the titles, he decided to go with Eskimo.
What he received back was even more unsettling than the sampler, but no less intriguing. Eskimo may be a Western band’s first attempt at World Music, but the world that The Residents musically explores is not exactly a hotbed of rhythms, melodies, or instrumentation. And while the musical direction was an unusual choice, what drew us into it was the cover art: the album seemed to be performed by a quartet of tuxedo-clad eyeballs.
Things were a lot less hectic then; as pre-teens, we didn’t have the amount of distractions that kids have today. Yet sitting still through Eskimo was a task of epic proportions. True to the culture they were representing, there is little on the album that resembles traditional Western song structures. The music of Eskimo centers around chilly atmospherics (courtesy of some very appropriate synth work), seemingly traditional indigenous chanting (more on that later) and an apparently honest recreation of the Eskimo’s ceremonial instrumentation. All of this is done on six tracks that are complimented by a story within the liner notes that the listener is encouraged to follow along with while listening to the album in its entirety.
Those forty minutes then seemed like an eternity, particularly as we were expecting some of the same no wave shenanigans evidenced in the band’s offering on the “Buy or die!” sampler.
Or were we just too young not to understand them? Revisiting Eskimo now seems to reveal that The Residents were actually making a pretty poignant statement on the state of crass consumerism and how Madison Avenue will eventually be able to influence cultures thousands of miles away, even those seemingly away from media outlets and commercial zones. Indeed, by the end of Eskimo, you can hear the natives chanting “Coca Cola adds life!” the tag line of the soda company’s ad campaign from the late 70’s.
Started in April of 1976 and completed three years later, The Residents offer up a surprisingly accurate statement in both theory and music. I’m not sure if the Eskimo’s traditional five-note scale is followed entirely throughout this album, but one can definitely feel a legitimate transportation to the northern regions of the planet if you follow the back cover’s direction on relaxing with a pair of headphones while listening to the disc.
Mute Records has done a fine job in the re-issue of perhaps The Residents’ most notorious offerings in their incredibly wide and diverse catalog. The album is presented in its entirety without bonus cuts, remastered with incredible sound restoration and packaged in a book-like case that reveals the original liner note story line and little else in divulging information about the notoriously shy Residents.
Eskimo is devoid of any proper single track to recommend or focus on, so the curious may be better serve to explore one of the bands worthy compilations to determine if these art-rock legends are something you’d enjoy.
After all, it took nearly thirty years before I finally understood the chill that these optic hooligans originally intended for me to understand.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Residents - Duck Stab

The Residents provided me with one of my strangest relationships with any band, one that was shared by a few close friends and a few hallucinatory explorations. The story may sound a little sad, a handful of socially inept Midwesterners with nothing better to do than follow a directionless (and faceless) avant-garde band to the point where we actually scheduled listening sessions the same way other geeks may schedule Dr. Who listening parties. In our defense, we were not social retards but acknowledged weirdoes that perhaps dabbled a little too much with elicit drugs while managing to function at work, play and school. We viewed our gatherings as exclusive and we followed one common band, The Residents, with an almost religious fervor. While some of us may have had passions for other bands that ran nearly as deep, our collective respect for the visually decorated quartet became occasionally excessive.
One more than a few weekends, we fueled ourselves with LSD and sat in front of a stereo, repeatedly spinning records by The Residents and transcribing what we interpreted as the lyrics. After one of these sessions, I actually used the transcription to the band’s “Loss Of Innocence” in an oral interpretation class and received praise from the professor.
Another favorite was “Lizard Lady,” a reptilian story of impossible comprehension that seemed to make sense after a few hits of acid. Working from a compilation album that Ryko put on in the late 80’s (Hell!), our transcriptions proved to be remarkably accurate after I located the lyric sheet to the song from its original album, Duck Stab.
My copy of Duck Stab was on stunning red vinyl, perhaps the best format for any Residents album, but if acquiring a turntable is not practical, Mute Records’ recent re-release of the band’s 1978 effort is a suitable alternative.
Duck Stab finds the band trimming the fat from their prior material and constricting their art-damaged songs into concise, two and three minute long songs. It’s the album (actually a combination of two e.p.’s if you’re a fellow fanatic) that brought them some additional exposure outside of the bay area, selling enough copies to provide (then) record label Ralph Records enough cash to start advertising in the back of Rolling Stone magazine.
This isn’t to suggest that The Residents created a mainstream offering with Duck Stab What they did instead was to enhance their weirdness, providing little in terms of actual pretention while accentuating the real possibility that this quartet had serious mental damage.
Combining a strange blend of Trout Mask Replica absurdity with fellow San Fran native Harry Partch, The Residents place their synth exorcisms alongside guest guitarist Snakefinger’s brittle guitar workouts in what may be their most accessible album to date, which means nothing when you consider how inaccessible the rest of their catalog is.
Duck Stab’s accessibility comes in the form of a few choice cuts that became the focus of college radio and the music press.
One of those, “Hello Skinny,” remains as one of The Residents’ most fascinatingly eerie explorations ever, perhaps because it sounds like such an anomaly within the band’s artistic cannon. The song is propelled by a throbbing bassline and a creepy, double-tracked clarinet that occasionally breaks out in “Oh shit!” squeaks, giving the story line some added worry. That storyline, a freakishly small flea market salesperson, again makes the most sense under the influence of mind-enhancing substances, particularly when the Chipmunks-like refrain of “Hello Dolly” makes its way into the last few seconds of the song.
To recommend Duck Stab comes with a disclaimer: the band would never visit this style and consistency again. While there would be other albums consistently good, they would never follow the same pattern as this, streamlined songs that housed a large amount of disturbia in such as small amount of time.
If you’re prepared for such an exploration, and have a few like-minded friends that also like to mine the tightrope walk of brilliance and mental illness, then Duck Stab is a fine place to start.
Best of all, the newly enhanced packaging comes with those original lyrics, so you don’t have to spend all of that time transcribing them.
But if you’re so inclined to do so, I’ve been there and I completely understand your reasons why.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Here's Johnny!

My favorite theatre is Collins Road Theatre. It’s a six-plex theatre that features second-run titles and popcorn you can put your own butter on. They don’t play any commercials at the beginning of the movie and they have silly little contests at the start of the movie where they give away free popcorn. Every weekend, they play cult movies at midnight like The Warriors, Blade Runner, or some other awesome movie.
One of the weird things they have is in the lobby. The picture your looking at is a painting of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Notice the huge and abundant teeth that the artist has given him. There are other painting there too, and they are equally disturbing and just as poorly executed. Not that I could do any better, but you get the idea. You should see the rendition of Rocky.
We’re kidless during this spring break, so that means the wife and I get to act like a couple again. We decided to go to the movies and I checked out a few of the showtimes. I noticed Frost/Nixon and Revolutionary Road were playing and decided that the wife would probably want to see the latter more than a docudrama on Dick Nixon. I was cool with that; I saw Kate Winslet in The Reader a few months ago and I heard good things about her performance in Revolutionary Road. Evidently, I must have gotten the showtimes confused because we went to the theatre, got the tickets, and were directed to our movie room. We open the door and-fuck-darkness and the movie had already started. We find a few open seats and quietly sit down. We’re trying to figure out what’s happening and after ten minutes of this the credits begin to roll. We had effectively caught the ending of our movie before it even began.
We had to go back out to the lobby until are showtime began seating, forcing me to look at the horrific teeth of Jack “Torrance” Nicholson.

Friday, March 20, 2009

University of Nothing's Impossible

Fuck it. I wore my UNI “Road To Detroit” t-shirt for casual day even though they lost. There were a few Panther supporters at work so we all played hooky from our normal duties and hung out in front of one of the big screens in the cafeteria. I thought for sure during the last two minutes that they’d be able to take the game.
Understand: I’m in Hawkeye country. Everyone around here is. It’s only when you get to around Des Moines that you start seeing any evidence of the Iowa State Cyclones. But underneath Eastern Iowa’s yellow and black contingency is a substantial amount of Northern Iowa graduates. The school breeds a lot of teacher and accountants, and then you had the likes of me that was neither. It’s cool that they’ve got a football and basketball program that consistently puts together winning seasons and that it’s getting even more recognized. When I was there, the UNI dome was barely half-full, even when they were posting wins. Now, it’s not uncommon for the dome to sell out their games. And their basketball team has a new facility; they too were in the dome for their games until a few years ago. I haven’t been to the new place. The last game I saw was when they beat Iowa in the dome. It was about ¾ full for that game.
There is one reason why I went to UNI. They were the first one to accept me. A small private school called Morningside College pursued me before them-the result of an Episcopal priest calling his alma matter to advise them that I was interested in their theology program-but I balked after learning how much tuition would be. Yes, there was a moment in which I considered going into the priesthood but I couldn’t work my young mind around the entire notion of the faith required for that path. I was still questioning God at that time, and I enjoyed having pre-marital sex and smoking pot.
I then got cold feet to the point where I went to community college immediately after high school. I got really baked the night before my ACT test and totally bombed the pre-college assessment. Even though I clepped out of my English and social studies courses, I was an average math student. My shitty ACT scores affirmed this and my state of mind actually contributed to poorer showings in areas that I was supposedly good in. The experience left me a little shell shocked; I didn’t want to go off to school and immediately flunk out and have to move back home. I decided just to stay home, go to community college and get all of my math and science shit out of the way before dropping a bunch of money at a four-year institution. I got my prerequisites out of the way and in the spring, I began to send off letters of interest to four schools: UNI, Iowa, Western Illinois University, and Northeast Missouri State (now Truman University). I got a response back from UNI first, WIU second, Iowa third, and not a goddamn thing back from those fucks in Missouri.
I learned a lot at UNI…mostly off campus…and for that, I’m incredibly indebted. Not in a financial way, mind you, they received a substantial amount of money, so monetary rewards are not an option. At one time, there was a large contingency of original music coming out of Cedar Falls. Nowadays? Not so much. Instead, I lend my support behind the university’s football/basketball program, a final nod to the institution that helped shaped where I am today.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's March Madness, Fuckholes

...And for the fourth time since 2004, Northern Iowa is in the tournament. Need I remind you that none of the other two Iowa universities are in? Should I mention that they beat those fags at Illinois State to get into the dance? Is it understood that my cousin graduated from Illinois State which makes him gay by default? Go Panthers! I spent $18 on a fucking shirt, so you'd better win at least one game.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Portishead - Third

Portishead was one of my ex-wife’s favorite bands. When we split and went through the obligatory “yours” and “mine” division, she got to keep the Portishead albums. She also got to keep the Morcheeba and Boards of Canada records, but I don’t really miss those. I did, however, miss those Portishead releases.
But because Portishead conjured up unfavorable memories of a part of my life, I resisted acquiring Third, the band’s first album in nearly a decade. They hold for me a soundtrack of depression, a couple dreading middle age to the point that they look for any opportunity to deaden the pain. Considering this, I still remember how good they were at that soundtrack.
Another reason why I held back was the reality that I am in a much different place now and I really have no interest in reliving the dread that was ten years ago. At the end of the day, I needed to reclaim some of my music that was tainted from a failed relationship and, as is the case of Portishead, needed to stop being afraid of the music that was introduced by *her.*
I’d like to report that Portishead is in a different place too, but alas, not much has changed from a lyrical standpoint. Beth Gibbons sounds as miserable as ever and the content of her themes…like herself…are older and more complex. So, what’s she been up to for the past ten years? She answers in words most middle-age people can understand, “I struggle with myself/Hoping I may change a little/Hoping that I may be someone I want to be.”
Musically, the genre that they practically invented is gone. Perhaps the two musical composers responsible for Portishead’s previous forays, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, understand that their former explorations have found a strange companion inside high-end retail clothing outlets around the world, seemingly reinforcing the pathos of shoppers who know they’re paying way too much for the shit they’re buying.
The pair goes beyond their past by incorporating more analog instruments, strange, yet simple arrangements, and through pushing the rhythms down in the mix. The result is an impressive display of sounds that is blatantly Portishead without really sounding the same.
The first comparisons I can come up with is the difference between Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and the follow-up Closer. While Portishead certainly doesn’t sound like Joy Division (although they do mind similar ground on the outstanding “We Carry On”), it’s the best analogy I can come with when looking for two albums with very different textures, yet obviously originating from the same band. And while it only took Joy Division a year to find the formula in order to accomplish this, Portishead took their own sweet time making Third.
In scaling back the cinemascope samples and trip-hop grooves, Portishead has made the album you listen to after the therapy session or marriage counseling. It’s the mental ache that hits when the antidepressants wear off, spotlighting the dull reality that life is a lot harder that anyone let on to when you were growing up.
Like those feelings, Third is a very unsettling listen, both thematically and musically. It’s not something you’ll want to return to very often as it paints a very clear picture of how heavy our baggage has gotten over the past decade. Nonetheless, it’s an album who’s art is undeniable. No wonder some long-time fans are struggling with it; Third is a mirror that reflects our most uncomfortable neurosis right back at us. Despite this, Portishead has made an album where feeling bad has never sounded so good.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Clash - Live At Shea Stadium

Back in 1984, the Who released one of those “cleverly” titled Who albums called Who’s Last. It was a posthumous attempt by MCA records to cash in on The Who after the announcement that the band would call it quits. The album was a lackluster affair that later turned out to be a bit premature with the entire farewell connotation.
The idea of The Clash playing at Shea Stadium is a bit misleading too as they were on the bill after David Johansen’s set and just before, you guessed it, The Who. The entire “passing the torch” motif looked good on paper, but the unfortunate reality was that The Clash themselves were also reaching the end of their career. It’s also important to note that, despite initial reports that The Clash’s fans rivaled The Who’s in actual numbers, most people in attendance remember a pretty hostile Who crowd, booing the opening act in the hopes that they would get off the stage.
The reality then must come from the content, and when you compare the audio evidence, you hear immediately that the band with the tightest set was the band that still had something to prove.
While far from being the best Clash show ever (and, no, it does not rival such live landmarks as Live At The Apollo or Live At Leeds like the press release states), it does provide a glimpse of The Clash’s live prowess even when internal strife may have been pulling the band apart behind the scenes.
The London Calling material sounds tight and well rehearsed and the older material is a careful selection of crowd-pleasers (“I Fought The Law,” “English Civil War,” “Tommy Gun”). The surprise is the two Combat Rock selections (the hits, of course) which feature rough arrangements when compared to their studio counterparts.
There is very little experimentation and nothing that hints at The Clash’s reggae influence is present. “The Magnificent Seven” is the extent of the band’s early rap direction, probably included on the Shea set because it actually receive some radio support around the N.Y.C. area when Sandinista! was released.
The song selection, the pacing, the energy, it’s all fairly representative of a band given forty-five minutes as an opener for a huge headliner. The Clash sound like they’re trying to utilize every minute of opportunity and, for the most part, they succeed. Did they win over many Who fans? Probably not, but it’s pretty indicative of the band’s willingness to walk into a hostile situation and prove it where it matters the most.
I’m sure there’s a lot of people in attendance for this performance that now count themselves as Clash fans, but they got their on their own terms. This performance is merely one step to get to that point, a satisfying piece of audio evidence for the faithful and a late catalog curio for those starting out. In other words, you already know what Clash albums you need to start with, but at least now you’ve got a chance hear where the band ended up.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ozzy Circa '82

At first, I didn’t believe it, but I believe everything that’s posted on I’m Gonna Blog A Little Bit Over Here. Apparently, Ozzy Osbourne…scratch that, Sharon Osbourne…is trudging out the family again for another season of The Osbournes.
Now before you think that it’s all about the old reality TV of old-you know, the one where Ozzy trots around like a brain damaged grandpa and Sharon tries to make him go on tour again to fund her insatiable lust for shit-please understand that his wife is all about keeping the Osbourne name relevant.
It’s a fucking variety show!
Yessir, just like those variety shows from the 70’s except with more profanity and a pair of spoiled twenty-somethings that’ve never worked a day in their life and never even bothered to graduate high school. And just like those variety shows from the 70’s, this one looks to be just as unfunny.
I used to like Ozzy-the wife still does in fact-but even she agrees that the preview for the new Osbournes show verges on being unwatchable. I’ll even admit to liking that first season of the Osbournes when it still had the element of reality to it.
But then it became obvious that Sharon liked her newfound celebrity and the extra paychecks that came with it. It was enough to make me long for the Ozzy of old. The one where he appeared, glossy eyed at interviews extolling the virtues of being drug free, the hardships of managing John Osbourne and Ozzy Osbourne, and the appeal of Adolf Hitler.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Axe - Nemesis

There’s a part at the end of “Girls Girls Girls,” the last song on side one of Axe’s album Nemesis, where leader Bobby Barth shows some ladies his penis. It’s a spoken word bit, some comic relief as the girls all laugh at the site of his penis.
It may be the most memorable thing about this record.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Axe (read: 99% of you), they were a hard rock band out of Florida that was a pubic hair better than the hard rock band playing down the street from you right now. They penned just enough decent tunes to get a major label deal and to get a few minor chart entries on rock radio.
They opened for a lot of more famous hard rock/metal bands, and indeed, I got a chance to see them open for Quiet Riot. It was during the tour for Nemesis…wonderfully titled the “Yo Mama” tour…and they were better than the headliner that evening.
But Quiet Riot had the better (and more successful) album.
This should clearly tell you that Axe’s home was on the stage and not in the studio. Nonetheless, because of that very enjoyable live show, I have sought out…some would say endured…two of the band’s most popular albums and this review represents the final foray into this virtually forgotten act.
Sure, the band soldiered on for a few more efforts, strangely several years after they called it quits when Nemesis was originally released. You see, one of the band’s key components, guitarist Michael Osbourne, was killed in a car wreck. After his death, the band (specifically Bobby Barth) found it too difficult to continue and they hung up the Axe moniker.
It’s kind of a shame as Nemesis found the band moving ahead towards a fairly decent sound. It’s heavier than it’s proceeding album Offering, but it ultimately fails because it shares a lot of that album’s major problems. The production incorporates a limp-wristed production strategy that pushes the keyboards way up (and stupid sound-effects) and flatlines the drums entirely. The guitars have some decent bark and tasty riffs, but the moment you find yourself being drawn to them, a dumb keyboard moment comes around and ruins everything. This is strange because I remember the keyboardist being one of my favorite part of their live shows.
There are a few songs with decent melodies and some potential bite, but because of the lukewarm sound, Nemesis comes across like a nameless effort from some anonymous outfit that scored a lesser known Sly Stallone movie.
Yes, Axe and Survivor tend similar fields, but only one of those bands got the break. It’s not because Axe had lesser talent, for sure, but they certainly didn’t have any allies when Atco records allowed them to be paired with whoever sat behind the control room window.
That’s kind of a shame as Survivor got the bigger share of the market; they were essentially studio musicians that suddenly wanted to have a some recognition. Axe, on the other hand, was a bunch of road musicians that wanted the same level of recognition. The difference is that Survivor had the chops to pull off a few radio hits while Axe should have stuck with what they knew: capturing their live sound and forgone the idea that they were radio ready. It could have been just a matter of time before radio finally was ready for them, thanks to some slow growth by gaining fans on the road where they were more at home.
Unfortunately, tragedy prevented Axe from discovering the success that they obviously wanted so much.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Power Of The Riff Compels You!

I don’t know about anyone else, but I totally have a boner for the new Mastodon album Crack The Skye. I’ve already pre-ordered it-no, it wasn’t the deluxe limited edition version. I figured that the album was enough (along with the making-of DVD that came with it) and it saved me enough dough that I could get a few more cd’s-making this first cd purchase of 2009.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but cd sales are low, so I think that I’m not alone in my cd buying habits. You want to know something? While browsing around, I noticed that there are bunches of albums that have found their way into “bargain price” categories. For example, you can pretty much get the entire early Ramones catalog for under nine bucks per disc. So guess what else I bought in addition to the new Mastodon album? Why labels don’t figure this out is beyond me. There was a time when it was not uncommon for me to drop close to a $100 every other month for cds. Now, that figure is closer to a couple times a year, mainly on titles that I know I’ll like thanks to downloading them for free first. Most of those titles, by the way, are ones that I just need to fill out my collection; very few new discs make the cut.
The Ramones disc was a no brainer. I would probably pay the same price for an album download, so why not get the real thing along with the artwork and better sound quality? I did put back a bunch of titles, simply because I couldn’t justify the price. Seriously, why are labels so insistent on leaving prices at $15? I don’t care about the bonus material! I don’t care about the packaging! And, newsflash, nobody else does either! I would love for some of these bands to see that I didn’t buy their shit because I didn’t perceive it to be a very good value. But $6.99 for Road To Ruin? Please. I noticed a Peter Tosh album that I’ve wanted for quite some time had also been reduced. Guess what? Picked that one up too.
It’s true, the Mastodon title is new and I’ve only heard one song off it. That song is found on the video below, a video so awesome that I’m confident that the rest of the album-even if it’s only half as good as this song-is worth the purchase price. The purchase price, by the way, contains that aforementioned DVD.
However, seriously, whenever the video features killer hooks, a homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the fucking abominable Snowman, you know it’s good.

Shalamar - The Look

From a career standpoint, Shalamar and Prince shared similar chart space around the same time, but that’s where the distinction ends. While Prince began as a master of multi-instrumentalist R&B, Shalamar was the creation of a Soul Train producer. Because of this, Shalamar has had a credibility issue with every subsequent release.
When the line-up incorporated the very real talents of Howard Hewitt and Jody Watley, that credibility problem diminished somewhat. The band continued to post R&B chart hits, but mainstream pop success was not in the equation. To address this, they looked a how Prince began to transition to the pop charts and began incorporating a similar strategy.
That strategy is in full force on the band’s eighth album, The Look, a ten song collection of Xeroxed slow-jams and their most recent foray into tightly wound new wave funk. Using a blueprint that’s blatantly taken from the Purple One’s early 80’s output, Shalamar’s new direction is somewhat refreshing.
The best of the lot are “Dead Giveaway,” The Look’s first single and minor hit, the Jody Whatley showcase “Disappearing Act” and the album’s slick opener “Closer.” But the rest of The Look relies on interchangeable ballads and an ill-advised anthem “No Limits (The Now Club)” which sounded like “now” was really “yesterday” the moment it was released in 1983.
Shalamar did manage to gain some new fans with their new direction-how else do you explain how a white teenage boy from Iowa even acquired a Shalamar album-and it thankfully didn’t alienate the band’s urban hit radio following. The taste of success did prompt Jody Watley to consider bigger sales as a solo artist and even Hewitt left after one more Shalamar album.
That last album, by the way, featured a virtual Prince look-alike in the line-up and contained the band’s biggest hit, “Dancing In The Sheets,” that found an audience thanks to it’s inclusion on Footloose. All of this hints that perhaps the band’s newfound direction that began with The Look may have been the right answer, but it wasn’t enough to save Shalamar from their own disappearing act.

Here's a video from some television program in the early 80's showing Shalamar performing what may be the best song from the album followed by the worst one. The footage features unexaplained cuts to a couple of cigarette boats racing. Perhaps it's another one of those 80's phenonmenons where we needed to have constant reminders of shit we couldn't afford.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Broken West - Now Or Heaven

With the amount of time that The Broken West spent on the road supporting their debut I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, one would expect the band to pull out the leftovers for album number two. Surprisingly, the band makes an unexpected left turn with Now Or Heaven and they manage to execute this sea change with an unexpected authority that will have you questioning how they manage to pull such a Houdini with so little free time to contemplate new directions.
From the sounds of it, the road deadened The Broken West’s sense of optimism. Whatever it was that they saw through the windshield of their van over the course of a year clearly wiped away that wide-eyed possibility and traded it in for the reality that the world ain’t always a pretty place. And when you pin that against the band’s inherent sense of melodic beauty, you come up with some remarkable results
This is nowhere more evident than “Ambuscade,” an exercise in the sudden realization that some of those you encounter could be “ruthless people.” Propelled by tight rhythms and a punctual bass line, singer Ross Flournoy admits by the second verse that “Hell, I know much better now/Took a while to figure out/Living in the lion’s den/Turned me into one of them.”
To call Now Or Heaven a “maturation” is an understatement. There are moments when the band sounds like a different unit at some points, mining more from old Wire Train records than the power-pop nostalgia hinted throughout their debut. It’s a bold decision, particularly when you consider the thousands of miles the band logged trying to win new supporters. No worries: there are enough recollections to I Can’t Go On to place it next to this one and the new sense of experimentation opens up big possibilities for the band’s output to come.
And let’s be honest: power pop…as enjoyable as it may be…has been strip mined to near extinction and Flournoy and company appear to have no desire to be pigeonholed as a nifty power pop outfit any more. While they were completely adapted at that genre, it’s clear that the wide-open spaces they saw while on the road instilled an inherent need to not allow themselves to be fenced in on their second effort.
With Now Or Heaven, The Broken West’s have found their aural fence-cutter that provides them with a chance to roam free. It’s atmospheric, layered with broad strokes of sound, and propelled by more prominent rhythms. What’s more exciting is its restlessness, the slow evaporation of their sanguinity since the first record. Not only did discontent stir The Broken West to make an album like Now Or Heaven, it helped make it good enough for the rest of us to want to keep following them, regardless of what road they’ll take next.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

The Broken West make their third Iowa appearance at The Picador next Friday, March 13.