Ernan Roch – La Onda Pesada De Ernan Roch (Shadok’s Music)


Little was known about this obscure Mexican artifact from 1970 until very recently, when an intrepid fan tracked down Ernan (real name Hernan Rocha) on the internet to shed some light on this intriguing album, which had only been available as a bootleg for the past several decades. Rocha’s music was inspired by the then-popular style of introspective songwriting largely derived from the Beatles and Neil Young, with  perhaps a hint of Donovan. If you want good reference point for understanding the sound of this album, Rodriguez might be your best bet, though Ernan’s lyrics dealt more with the spiritual than the political. The reason any of this still matters in 2014, is that the album is pretty damn good. Album opener, “The Train” is Ernan and his backing band’s (a group called El Amor) greatest achievement – an”expression of existential angst”, to borrow a quote from the liner notes, that’s part “Down By The River”, part “Season Of The Witch”, and features some great fuzz guitar working in compliment with Ernan’s evocative singing style. None of the other tracks from this reissue reach the same high water mark as “The Train”, but they still make for some pretty good listening, shuffling between folky and more rock-driven styles. Interestingly, the whole album is sung in English and has no sonic indicators that it’s the work of Mexican musicians.

Charlies – Musiikkia Elokuvasta Julisteiden Liimaajat (Shadoks Music)


Whenever I review an album of proto-metal I’m always hopeful. I’m not foolish enough to hope I’ll be stumbling onto  something as good as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin - too lofty a goal – but maybe, just maybe, I’ll hear something that ranks alongside a Pentagram or Captain Beyond. Finnish band Charlies’ 1970 debut album doesn’t get the job done though. The six track album – actually the soundtrack of an underground film on anarchy – is largely influenced by Zeppelin, with heavy emphasis on showy musicianship and lengthy instrumental passages. Yes, Led Zeppelin spun that format into musical gold, but a lot has to go right in order to pull it off. Unfortunately this recording is so low budget, the guitarist’s tone so benign, and the rhythm section so all over the place (bass player Kari Lehtinen competes with the guitar for center stage too often) that there isn’t anything left for me to recommend. The original album is augmented by six bonus tracks from early singles and rehearsal room recordings. They meander less than the album tracks, but still don’t work well.
Some other fun facts about Musiikkia Elokuvasta Julisteiden Liimaajat:
The song “Sunshine Supergirl” is unfortunately not a Donovan mash-up and is almost nineteen minutes long (drum solo!)
The bonus tracks include a pair of blues covers (“Rock Me Baby” and “I’m So Glad”) as well as Jethro Tull’s “We Used To Know”

Mark Lanegan Band – Phantom Radio (Vagrant Records)


Phantom Radio

Mark Lanegan is a man of many projects, but I always like his solo work the best, where the songs and performances have an added element of intimacy that places him in the same discussion as performers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. He’s been sporadically releasing solo albums since 1990′s The Winding Sheet, and I love them all. Knowing that, I approached Phantom Radio with a bit of trepidation, brought on entirely by the pre-album press which discussed the influence of New Order (a band I’ve never liked much) and noted that the album began its life as a series of recordings on an app called Funk Box. Was Lanegan about to start following trends and go electro-pop?

 

Thankfully the answer is no. Sure, many of the songs on record are based around programmed beats and other electronica sounds, but Phantom Radio is nowhere close to being dance-floor fodder. If anything the music is based more the hypnotic proto-electronica of Kraftwerk than anyone else, which works great with Lanegan’s distinctively deep vocals and darkly introspective lyrics. In fact, this may be his best batch of songs in twenty years. The only place where I hear any echoes of New Order is on “Floor of the Ocean”, which has a bass-run that can only remind you of Peter Hook – but, unlike New Order, this song has a good singer and lyrics. “Torn Red Heart” is, for me, the album’s centerpiece, a heart-wrenching ballad with a heavenly trajectory that could very easily have come from a Spacemen 3 as from Mark Lanegan. It ends with the hard-driving “Death Trip to Tulsa” with a title referencing songs by the Stooges and Neil Young, which is a pretty great combo. Each of Phantom Radio’s ten songs are among Lanegan’s best and as of today (November 1st) this is my favorite album of 2014.

 

The promo cd also comes with the five song No Bells On Sunday EP, which you should get if you find it. Standout tracks include “Dry Iced”, a hypnotic number with traces of Suicide’s “Cheree”, and the ethereal title song which has a Joy Division funeral march vibe to it.

The Incredibly Strange Record Club Volume 1 (Righteous Records)


This is the third compilation I’ve reviewed from Righteous Records based on largely unheard late-’50s and early-60s records that were well loved by The Cramps. If you love The Cramps, as I do, then these collections consisting of whacked out rockabilly, novelty flops, bizarre R&B and other flavors of pre-Beatles weirdness are pretty easy to like. Here the focus, as the title informs us, is on strange records; which translates to twenty six oddball numbers including several with gibberish lyrics (“Mope-itty Moope”, “Okeefenokee” or “Mumbles”) or jokey novelties (“Fungus Among Us”, “Lost (Cricket In My Ear)”, and “You’ve Been Torturing Me”). Like most of these collections, each song has something pleasing about it, but one towers over the rest, and it’s Tommy Blake’s “F-Olding Money”, which leads off the album. It’s pretty much “Summertime Blues” with a crazy effect on the vocals, but the performance is raw and rather brilliant. No wonder The Fall covered it 40 years later.
Deduct points for the back cover’s Bill Hicks quote about drugs and music which is rendered meaningless by accidentally leaving out the word “drugs”…

Slowdive, Live at the 930 Club, October 22, 2014, Washington, DC


Slowdive seems, on record, to float away, barely tethered to pop and rock history, a contrast to other other shoegaze acts that make up the “big three,” My Bloody Valentine and Ride. MBV was and is rooted in the Beach Boys, 1960s girl groups, and the Brill Building sound, and Ride wouldn’t exist without the jangle of The Byrds and the mod scene of the late 60s. Slowdive only hinted at MBV’s guitar squall and Ride’s nod to influences, instead crafting slight, ethereal songs on Just for a Day, eventually becoming so ambient that the group recorded with Brian Eno, and dissolved while working on the experimental Pygmalion.

In concert, however, the group rocked, combining the best of all worlds. “This is a pop song,” announced singer-guitarist Rachel Goswell, before starting Souvlaki’s lead track, “Alison,” and so it was, clearly indebted to The Byrds, as was concert opener, “Slowdive.” Torrential sheets of guitar–I counted over twenty-five pedals between Goswell, Neal Halstead, and Christian Saville, all of which got a workout on “Crazy For You”–filled the venue, grounded only by Simon Scott’s expert drumming, which focused on snares and hi-hats early in the set. Bassist Nick Chaplin alternated between the traditional rhythm section and threatening to blast off with the guitarists.

Befitting the shoegaze moniker, the vocals were buried in the mix at times; one could barely hear Halstead’s flat, slightly nasal voice and Goswell’s was sometimes reduced to coos, especially when she contributed to the three-guitar attack. Saville turned the solo on “Souvlaki Space Station” into a slide guitar clinic, an alt-country, sci-fi, spaghetti western that exploded into ambient noise. Even the dream poppy “Catch the Day” and the hushed, folky “Dagger” got workouts, drenched in reverb and delay.

Unlike MBV’s live struggles last year, Slowdive didn’t show many signs of rust. Goswell joked with Halstead throughout, and the only false start was corrected without tension. The band live-premiered the b-side “Albatross,” a post-rock song that follows the “loud-quiet-loud” formula they helped to pioneer.

In 2013 I saw MBV live. This year I saw Slowdive. It’s your move in 2015, Ride.

33 1/3: Gang Of Four – Entertainment! by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Bloomsbury)


Gang of Four’s debut album Entertainment! seems like an album tailor made for a 33 1/3 dissection. Not only did it take on the excitement of punk rock and contort it into new shapes with the addition of funk and reggae, but it’s also dense with the band’s lyrical commentary on subjects ranging from consumerism to alienation and sexism. Yet somehow, Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s book on the album falls flat. My problem with it is that Dettmar concentrates so heavily on the lyrical commentary, and tackles it in such an academic way, that reading it feels like classwork and not a pleasure. Sample sentence:
“Whereas one of the signal accomplishments of cultural studies has been the destruction of the convenient binary opposition between “consumer” and “producer”: consumption is not an entirely passive process, we now realize, but an activity involving real choices and creativity.”
So, are we having fun yet? Perhaps I wouldn’t mind the book’s scholarly tone if it at least provided new insights into the album, but reading it hasn’t enhanced my understanding or appreciation for Entertainment! at all. Without those key elements there isn’t much about it to recommend.

 

 

 

33 1/3: Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation by Pete Astor (Bloomsbury)


You may know the name Pete Astor from his time as the singer for The Loft and Weather Prophets, two rather likable bands from the early years of Creation Records. Well, in addition to his credentials as a performer, he also has a position giving lectures on Musicology at the University of Westminster, so he understands rock from an academic perspective as well as a visceral one. This makes him just about the perfect person to write the book on Blank Generation, an album that brilliantly combined the intelligence of Hell’s poetry with the rebellious force of rock music. Astor comes through big time here, combining personal stories regarding Hell and the album, with an explanation of a wide range of influences that, when combined, made Blank Generation such a powerful statement, musically, lyrically and aesthetically. Personally I’ve loved the album ever since I first heard it about 15 years ago, and even though I’ve read Hell’s autobiography and countless other books on the early years on New York punk, Astor adds a lot of new information and perspective to the story. Take the album’s title song for example, a well known (a often misunderstood) classic, yet I never realized that it was a combination of the chords from Ray Charles “Hit The Road Jack”, and a novelty single called “I Belong To The Beat Generation” purposefully designed to create a statement similar to The Who’s “My Generation”. The book also gives just due to The Voidoids, explaining the crucial role guitarists Ivan Julian & Robert Quine, along with drummer Marc Bell, had in enhancing Hell’s visions in a unique and actually quite accomplished way. Astor details their pre-Voidoids resumes, showing that these were no punk amateurs – not even close. As with any volume of the 33 1/3 series, the book’s success lies squarely on whether or not it makes you think differently about the album and if it made you want to listen to it again with fresh ears. Mission accomplished on both fronts.