Thursday, October 05, 2017

Bobkat'65-This Lonely Road


You gotta love debut releases like this 2017 one from Get Hip, one of my long-time favorite record labels. This trio, from Asturias in Northern Spain, is deeply immersed in the mid-sixties American garage rock girl group sound. On the surface, the sights and sounds are so immediately striking that they could crossover to the Burger, Lolipop, and/or Hardly Arts sets-not adverse to twang and reverb. Underneath, the roots are so buried that this record will have ardent acolytes reaching for their TeenBeat Mayhem! book, discovering a mostly hidden Hamtramck poet and reconsidering forgotten garage compilations. In other words, they are a contemporary combo playing genuine garage rarities and doing it well.  In the process, they forge their own sound that allows them to set themselves apart from others who have traveled along this midnight road.  To mention specifics, they sound in the vicinity like the recent past (Denise James, cub, Dreamdate) peeled away to reveal the golden past (Luv'd Ones, the Chymes, the Continental Co-ets).



The album sets forth with some "For Your Love" Yardbird-ian chords and continues crackling along until the fuzz comes storming in.  The exuberant "Try" is a cover of a '66 curio from the Cobras of Danville, IL.  This is Ernie Douglas rock 'n' roll at its epicenter and Bobkat'65 push their own brimming harmonies to the fore. This song in particular conveys their ability to use these records as starting points towards shaping their own sounds through the mists of time. "Gone Gone Gone" was devised by Hamtramck Renaissance poet Richard Wohlfeil and comes across like the kind of mean-street-lore that would snake charm the Detroit Cobras. Two originals ("Hey You Boy (Stay Away)," "I Don't Care") appear around the mid-point mark and have the raucous sound of the Pleasure Seekers denting into the Smears in the Garage. "Loneliness is Mine" was sourced from the Esquires of Irving, TX and the trio emphasizes the twang along with crashing reverb tanks to convey a sense of Dallas town dramatics.  Ana & Paula's voices, in unison, build to take the song into brooding Shangri-Las Land. "To Be Like You" was originally done by the Missing Lynx a folk-rock outfit from Great Falls, Montana.  The down, down, up, up, down is not only the standard folk-rock strum pattern, but also signifies the overall moodiness as well.  Their aligned voices and mid-tempo pacing express the sense of equilibrium, harmony, and hard-fought wisdom found along This Lonesome Road.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Flamin' Groovies - Fantastic Plastic


It has been 25 years since the legendary Flamin’ Groovies released their last studio album Rock Juice.  While the band resumed actively touring around the rock ‘n’ roll world in 2013 (Japan, Australia, Europe, U.S.A., Canada), fans have been clamoring for a new full length.  They have selectively introduced many of these songs in their recent live repertoire and now have delivered the recorded goods on Fantastic Plastic. Initially I had my doubts as things get off to a pretty shaky start (vs. a shakin’ one).  The album opens up with “What the Hell is Going On” that sounds too much like the “Honky Tonk Women” done by a local bar band inspired by the Fabulous Thunderbirds or the Georgia Satellites.  “End of the World” is too derivative with its reformulation of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by BÖC hinged upon the Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.”



However, things truly click into place when the recording reaches the showcase third and fourth positions.  The Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers” has been a long-time favorite and here the Groovies, place their truly distinctive style on it.  With “Let Me Rock,” Chris Wilson is in his element and in full command.   I can envision him on the other side of the stage, adorned with his scarf like Snoopy vs. Red Baron, and belting out this exuberant new classic in full rocking mode.  Within is an instrumental passage that highlights the power & glory of the rhythm section comprised of Victor Penalosa (the Phantoms, the Quarter After, the Zeros) on drums and original member George Alexander on bass (both who were in this “new classic” lineup from 2013-2016).  Additionally, the song reveals the clear influence the Groovies had on their guitar-driven followers ranging from the Dictators and the Barracudas through the Hoodoo Gurus.  The “good timey” backing vocals place a smile on the face that reminds me of one their original influences and once label mates-the Lovin’ Spoonful.



As mentioned, the band has always had a knack for well-chosen covers and for making them their own (e.g., “There’s a Place” by the Beatles).  Still, it's really surprising to hear them give a 12-string Byrds-ian treatment to the recorded version of “I Want You Bad” by NRBQ.  When they unleashed this song in Arizona on the 2016 Labor Day Weekend they played it pretty straight-up, but the emphasis on jangle here takes it to another level. The yearning “She Loves Me,” with its layered harmonies and stacked guitars, takes us back to their yin & yang sound of their Sire & Bomp years -which was all about sonically and visually evoking much needed mid-‘60s majesty in the mid-to-late‘70s. It is an unexpected delight to hear the instrumental “I’d Rather Spend My Time with You.” Instros are somewhat anomalous
 in their world and they cast it out in a continental Shadows style that lifts off the ground with its jet streamlined sound.  “Cryin’ Shame” rolls over the odometer and brings everything back home by encapsulating everything wonderful (lavish harmonies, jingle-jangle guitars and underlying rhythmic propulsion) about this resounding California born and bred band who have been dashing past forward for over 50 years.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Ted Leo-The Hanged Man

One night in fall 1993 I turned on WVFI-640 AM (then “broadcasting” through a carrier current system to the residence halls at Notre Dame via electrical outlets). Right after the Ventures' cover of "Sukiyaki," Ted Leo expounded upon "The Show” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s vocals on the B-side, where Slick Rick covers Taste of Honey's 1981 version of “Sukiyaki."  Later, Leo mentions Ludella Black of Thee Headcoatees before he plays the Smugglers' version of “Miss Ludella Black” by Thee Mighty Caesars.  Through his commentary, references, humor and music, it was like that “New York station” both cosmopolitan and subterranean- way beyond the realm of the typical student and/or college radio DJ in '93.  Later in his show, he would spin more Ventures and April March’s “Voodoo Doll” single.

Lookout Mountain Rock
Outside of his legendary work in Chisel, I consider his trio of Lookout Records albums his strongest and most immediate, not only for their Big Star riffs, but also for the mod and Moby Grape moves as well.   It all came together in 2004’s “Shake the Sheets” which matched up succinct stripped-down songs with graduate school idealism, street-level politics and a heart extended towards the disenfranchised, the discounted and the downtrodden. Playing the album in a context of a Southwestern college town, with its atmosphere somewhat already attuned to the consideration of the common good, this stack of songs naturally fit in like the mountains on the horizon.

This all brings us to this year 17 solo album The Hanged Man. The muffled production sounds, at times, like it’s already in need of remastering and the front cover art is too much like the sideshow art previously employed on Attack of the Smithereens way back in 1995.  Before it reaches its midway point, the album starts to drag and plod with overwrought songs like “William Weld in the 21st Century” and “The Nazarene.” Musical traction is lost within the overextended length and weight of these back-to-back songs.  (If this was Lou Reed in an experimental mood, we would just give him a hall pass and go on to praise his pierced together sheet metal guitars in the next sentence.)

However, who am I to criticize as Leo has suffered through some truly disturbing life circumstances and there are way more serious matters to attend to in life than subjective opinions regarding the production and packaging of recorded sounds. By confronting his confusion, internal strife and past circumstances beyond control through his gift of music, Leo's encouraging others with similar experiences towards possible healing and reconciliation.  It takes an artist of a certain elevated & noble level to take his/her own pain and suffering and transform/transcend it through art and actually make life better for others-- it all leads to the definition of soul.
Wednesday Week
“Used to Believe” sounds like Falkner (Jason that is) in which the chorus rides those immersive aquatic 1001 strings from “You Only Live Twice.”  There is also a stunning moment that is flecked by one of those spinning out, coiled and braided guitar solos before going back into this song already in progress. Also surging forward is “The Future (Is Learning To...)” where Leo reaches the summits of his Lookout years with a rousing chorus buttressed by verses of Century 21 Joycean word play that wraps around to hold up the towering melodies. With its jaunty marching cadence, “Run to the City” covers the attraction (work & culture) and repulsion (unaffordable housing & damaging commutes) of coastal cities with a switch of a preposition.

While he is quite the enigma, Leo has been consistently “small-c” catholic in scope and “small-m" methodist in his adherence to noble DC DIY tenants. Yet, I don’t understand his incessant Twittering which seemingly goes against his discerning denouncements of our current culture’s desire to (over) document everything and miss the moment or his frequent plugs to read the writings of Jaron Lanier (where the computer scientist states the obvious about the blatant misuse of technology). There have been shows where too much talk broke up the continuity of the rock.  Other times, he’s ridden the edges of a guitar sound propelled by his fluid fretboard power that satisfyingly clanged and spiraled up to the stratosphere.  Still, he has more than earned his platform and has the right to believe that the ordinary working person has much more agency than what is seemingly possible-especially in these current conditions where unchecked power pretty much rides roughshod or gets easily pardoned.

What if We Give it Away?
While critics will rightfully cite that Leo is "Steppin’ Out" in full-on Sophisti-pop mode and dress—most directly on the deceptively simple, swank and sanguine “Can’t Go Back."  Leo, himself, might mention tragic figures like the late- Scott Miller again or conflicted souls like Emitt Rhodes among his seemingly infinite continuum of musical influences.  For the most part, The Hanged Man reminds me of This Sounds Like Goodbye by Ken Stringfellow and other moments hearken back to his experimental first post-Chisel solo album tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists, which has also stood the test of time.

With the Clash as his North Star, Leo has never been afraid of breaking form in order to stay away from formula.  Sure, he has had his share of missteps and misfires, but he has continually pushed his limits, challenged listeners and diversified. His back catalog features several stylistic ventures into disputed musical territories-especially when he signaling the schisms and conveying distress. The remarkable guitar tones and crackling production of “Little Smug Supper Club” is actually reminiscent of Don Gehman-produced Scarecrow-era John Mellencamp.  This mini-epic not only questions the level of devotion to beliefs, but also the beliefs themselves by those who live the lifestyle.  Or in other words the dangers of repetitively reconfirming predisposed assumptions and beliefs.

Like a Phil Ochs for the lost Generation X, Leo has long been attuned to deciphering shifting atmospheres and  the evolving present. He can also be sagacious about the past, which he amplifies in the twangy form of “Lonsdale Avenue.” This standout song masks displacement and the ultimate loss of life on earth, but rings to remind us to use life’s challenges as catalysts to both deepen our understanding and continually evolve. The Hanged Man presents a circling back to his experimental first solo album, some semblance of home, and Leo's continued quest for the impossible dream. In short, he's beginning to see the light, that can only be brighter after all the darkness.
                                          
It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World-1993 mix tape by Ted Leo

Monday, September 04, 2017

Rufus Harley-Re-Creation of the Gods

His jazzy spaced-out bagpipes rendition of the groundbreaking "Eight Miles High" by the Byrds was my first encounter with the music of Rufus Harley.  Intrigued by further releases like his spiraling cover of "Windy," (which was reported to have brought audiences to their feet) I recently plunged into the 2006 Rhino collection Courage which offers his complete works (comprised of four albums) for Atlantic Records. This set is packed with that pervasive snaking, stinging and buzzing sound created by the inherent sustain of the bagpipes. Harley is able to express the melody via the chanter while delivering true distinction through the three drones. During his most active period of 1965-1970, he was reviled by old guard critics, embraced by listeners and respected and championed by fellow musicians like Coltrane, Herbie Mann and Sonny Rollins. This adventurous, idiosyncratic and frequently incandescent music also features strong elements of Latin jazz percussion (think Willie Bobo) which add additional dynamics and propel these songs forward. As an aside, these '60s recordings have taken me on a round trip from my first cassette The Crossing by Big Country in 1983 to now. To think all this would begin with Big Country's guitar emulations of the bagpipe!  

This brings us to 1972's Re-Creation of the Gods, which many hail as his crowning achievement with its nods to the triangular power of community, church and cosmic consciousness as expressed by his quartet. While embraced by the crate diggers for incorporating funk, hard bop and ground level storefront production, initial listens left me ambivalent and unmoved. The stacked strands of bagpipes, B-3 organ, bass, drums and desperate baby cries act as overlapping obstacles in that they cancel out much of the surging momentum or sense of melodic wholeness found on his previous works. It took some repeated listens to sense and begin to appreciate the looseness and density that some listeners will instantly embrace. Still, I gravitate towards his previous Atlantic releases and would first reach for his 1970 album King/Queens (presented in its remastered entirety on Courage) and includes the aforementioned soaring "Eight Miles High" and "Windy." On this final album for Atlantic, Harley taps into upper echelon Pacific Coast pop while offering promise land possibilities.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Bob Morrison-Columbia Singles

Where did this come from?  While Dion's once long lost folk-rock recordings, as heard on Kickin Child: Lost Columbia Album 1965, are receiving warranted recognition, I didn't know of the wanderer's label mate until this summer.  Being on Columbia Records in the Mid-60s, there will be the automatic associations with Bobby Dylan.  Yes, both Dylan and Morrison were "discovered" by John Hammond and there are times of that wild mercury flight of fancy lyricism beading up on minor key songs like "I Looked in the Mirror" and "I Fall to You." These self-reflective songs express Morrison's valiant and tricky attempt to align the emotional depths of the heart with the vast dimensions of the mind. Other less mystical songs present a versatile artist with a clear and competent voice working with material that is all over the sixties stylistic map-even veering into overgrown areas entangled with copious use of strings.  Leaning in a Bobby direction (Vee & Vinton this time) on "Let Her Go, Little Heart," he evokes Gene Pitney being inspired by David Gates' "Never Let Her Go" a decade before this could even be possible. Representing the accelerated stylistic shifts of the '60s, this collection begins with the initial shock of a monster fuzz-laced number "Hey! Puppet Man," which has propped up on a few garage compilations over the years.  The 1966 single "Wait" stands out as his peak pop moment and is arguably his strongest showing.  This John Simon-produced 45 bounces merrily along side of the Cyrkle while shining like a Boyce & Hart commissioned gem for the Monkees.  While the cover image presents Morrison as an over-earnest, but well-intentioned folkie, he had an ace up his houndstooth sleeve.  Morrison later co-wrote "You Decorated My Life" for the Gambler himself-Kenny Rodgers.  It is his own songs, even if they came nowhere close to the charts, that cross the decades sounding fresh and enduring. Once considered second-tier, singles like these now sound frequently remarkable, as they still reflect, sans overexposure, the rapid transitions being made in those tambourine times. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Isasa-Los días


Isasa plays and composes in the American Primitive tradition or what could be flipped as Primitivista España as the musician is based in Madrid. Besides the requisite acoustic guitar as the foundation, he also incorporates a Weissenborn lap slide guitar and banjo into the frameworks found on his second solo album released in late 2016. With the fretwork infrastructure in place, he shapes his sonic sandcastles in the air.  In these realms, he plays in the ethereal open spaces between the finger-picked notes and the rounded off slide notes, while allowing ample room for listeners’ imaginations.  The musician admits that he needs the tangible instrument in his hands when he is composing and is not one of those artists where melodies hit like a flash of lightning and later the instrument is utilized to decipher, translate and express the inspiration. With this background knowledge, he knows that deliberate practice (aka focused work) can make momentum and sometimes summon the muse that won’t instantly beckon him to compose off the top of his head. Being a creator of all-instrumental music, he’s already working in the realms of the implicit, with the music‘s inherent ability to express and evoke feelings that are beyond the capacity of words.  In translated interviews, he emphasizes the importance for others to bring in their own set of unique experiences in order to make their own interpretations of his music. These fluid sounds bring listeners to the point of reflecting on the subtle and mostly forgotten experiences which stack up to change us (hopefully for the better) as individuals. The lone banjo number, Gorrión (i.e., Sparrow), is actually the standout song on the album and could have fit in on the seminal The Banjo Story-Vol.I compilation from 1963.  Hopefully, he will continue these banjo explorations on future recordings.  Later, “Rondo de Segovia” unfolds to reveal Middle Eastern motifs & Indian ragas running alongside the Spanish accents and flair. The quixotic spirit is imbued in the notes, heard from the strings and felt in air on Las días.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Tak Shindo-Far East Goes Western

While his foray into African sounds and instruments on 1958’s Mganga! is justifiably his most recognized work as it bears all the elements of Grade A exotica including some remarkable  Afro-Cuban percussion, this one might be his most representative of his East-West experience as a Nisei. Takeshi "Tak"  Shindo was born in Sacramento in 1922 and had the severely conflicting experience of being interned at Manzanar for two years and then serving in the U.S. Army starting in 1944.  He exhibited the Japanese way of ganbaru with his determination to make it through those times of extreme adversity and hardship.  After the war, he was a renaissance man in that he led his own Latin-Jazz band, studied at USC under Miklós Rózsa, collected Japanese instruments and acted as an advisor and content provider for Hollywood when it came to Japanese music.  1962’s Far East Goes Western (produced by Quincy Jones) displays Shindo’s ability to take a concept beyond the novelty factor and lay down some enduring tracks. His main approach was to incorporate Japanese instruments to complement and convey the Western melodies.  In this case, Western is specifically the campfire and soundtrack songs of America’s Old West. This was actually not too much of a stretch for Shindo, as he composed music for famous television Westerns like Gunsmoke and Wagon Wheel throughout their '50s heyday.  In several of these textured songs, the shamisen outright replaces the banjo and gongs provides the punctuation points between measures.  In other moments, the koto accents such famous numbers as “The Ballad of High Noon” (aka “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’”). "Deep in the Heart of Texas" even has a vibraphone run that would not sound out of place on an Emil Richards record.  By overlaying these Japanese elements and jazz embellishments over the recognizable Old West melodies, he created enchanting new sonic realms while adding commendable contributions to the overall exotica/ lounge/mood music movement of the mid-century. Fittingly, Shino would later go on to compose the music for the Japanese Pavilion at the EPCOT Center when it opened at the Disney World Resort in 1982.  During the exotica revival of the mid-nineties, the adventurous music of Tak Shino would finally receive its due recognition.  What is more remarkable is his own life as a Nisei, which required sacrifice for his own individual survival and the arduous task of working in the interstitial spaces in order to improve relations one song at a time.

The Flight 13: Make a Hit Record

Rising out from the unpredictable crosscurrents of the old pueblo of Tucson and bordertown of Nogales, the Flight 13 are ready to begin their ascent.  Like the now shuttered Western Plaza,  they play straight up rock 'n' roll which is actually an out of left field rarity in these seemingly protracted yet repetitive times.  Standing out from the glut of slapdash "We Don't Give a Hit" pretenders, this one lifts off with another top flight mid-fi production from Matt Rendon.  Leading off is the potential big hit, "Cast the Night Out" which is like the Resonars and the Chocolate Watchband making their mark at the love-in. "The World that Makes You Mad" features prominent flute flourishes along with a guitar riff that reminds me of getting a haircut and hearing "Lovefool" by the Cardigans overhead at Great Clips.  Things get back-to-basics with the stripped down rip cord rock 'n' roll of  "Catch a Move On" which recalls the Real Kids and "You Make it Move" by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (and later covered by the Insomniacs).  Adorned with organ and horns, "No Disappearing" addresses the "The Singer Not the Song" shadows once cast by Rolling Stones and Alex Chilton.  The wham-bam highlights continue with the pelting at the windows and spiraling forever changes of  "Rain and Love." A guitar tone reminiscent of Duran Duran can be heard in "Venomous Planet." "Ancient Dust" is all ratcheted up with Jaggerisms in the verses until it breaks wide open to a welcomed Chocolate Watchband overlook chorus. "Urchin Mind" percolates up with an electric piano between tremoloed Alice Cooper-ish vocals and considerable David Axelrod beats. The stomping Get Hip sound - that is the '80s garage revival recordings of the Cynics and the Town Cryers, along with their Nuggets & Pebbles bedrock predecessors can be heard in "What They Want." (The band's name is actually a direct reference to the song "Flight Thirteen" by the legendary Tucson '60s combo the Dearly Beloved.) Meanwhile, "The Easiest Thing" veers off in the direction of the desert mirage psych of the Mystic Braves. The Back in the USA  shuffling and quavering street rock of "Hassle" laments being forestalled at every turn and connects the dots between the MC5 and CCR.  Rock 'n' roll like this has been pretty pushed off the radar and regulated to corners of the internet here in Century 21, however this fringe contains the musical essence of the past and a departing point for take-off. For now, the Flight 13 are ready to breakthrough the everyday holding patterns and take listeners to exciting new destinations.