Ray Davies – Americana (Sterling Publishing)


“Ray Davies has written something really good” isn’t exactly a headline-worthy statement – the man has a history of writing great songs going all the way back to 1964 when The Kinks burst onto the scene with “You Really Got Me”. However, with Americana he’s, yet again, written something deeply introspective and enjoyable; this time an autobiography-of-sorts relating to his lifetime fascination with America. Growing up in the austerity of post-war England, America seemed to Ray a place of endless opportunity and adventure, but the America he was presented with as an adult in the high stakes business of rock and roll was far more tumultuous. The rough times stated early, with a four-year ban on touring the states during what was arguably his creative peak (1965-1969). Being forced to sidelines in a fertile market put the band in a financial bind (I was shocked to read that the band often had to stay in low budget hotels in the early-’70s), and the book spends a great deal of time on Davies’ activities in the back half of the ’70s, perhaps not his best period artistically, but one that found him restlessly working to get The Kinks back atop the charts here in the states, where he had taken up residence. Moving here was a bold move for a guy whose songs were typically very British in nature, but new environment meant new influences and made it possible for him to pen songs he never could have written in England (ex: “A Gallon of Gas” about the oil shortage, or the disco of “Wish I Could Fly Like Superman”) and he was ultimately rewarded with the success that he so badly wanted. Americana also spends a lot of time in New Orleans, where Davies moved in the early -2000s to soak up the city’s cultural “openness” which had eluded him in the business-driven hubs of New York and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his stay there was not without problems and he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in 2004 when he was shot and critically injured during a robbery attempt (although he hints that it may have been something more calculated and nefarious than a random robbery). Whether writing about his professional or personal life, or just offering up an offhanded piece of social commentary, Davies (who turned 70 the day I started writing this) always approaches his subject matter like one his classic songs: funny, sentimental, introspective and feverishly enjoyable.

The Bats – Volume 1 (Captured Tracks/Flying Nun)


Volume 1 compiles three early albums from The Bats, one of the cornerstones (along with The Tall Dwarfs, The Chills, The Clean and a host of others) of the New Zealand alternative rock sound of the ’80s and ’90s. The Christchurch foursome were a very consistent band, but, by steadfastly sticking to the same low-key mid-tempo hybrid of folk-rock and post-punk for three decades, that consistency is more of a fault than an asset. Listen to any one of their songs and you will pretty much hear everything the band has to offer; guitars that can only be described is “chiming”, loud bass plunks, drums that are the exact opposite of everything Keith Moon ever did, and singer Robert Scott (also a member of The Clean) painting melancholic pictures with his words and voice. I like The Bats, but having so many similar (and somewhat plain) songs in one place (53 of ‘em, on three discs) is simply too much. Picture a meal with nothing but rice on your plate, and you’ll get a pretty good idea what it’s like to listen to Volume 1. Compiletely Bats collects their mid-80s EPs, where the songs were there, but the performance were still a little shaky and the recording too lo-fi. Their 1987 debut full-length, Daddy’s Highway, is usually regarded as their best and it is a marked step up from the early material, with a much better recording and some sly nods to The Velvet Underground. The set ends with their decade capping The Law Of Things, which again features a step up in terms of recording quality and musicianship. “The Other Side Of You” reminds me Orange Juice (the band, not the drink), while “Time To Get Ready” could almost pass for a less mumbly R.E.M. If you already love The Bats, then you know what to expect from Volume 1 – with the added bonus of remastering, bonus tracks and informative liner notes all accounted for. However, for the uninitiated I recommend dipping your toes in the water with a single album before committing to this exhaustive (and exhausting) set.

 

 

 

The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project – Axels and Sockets (Glitterhouse Records)


Axels and Sockets is the third and final volume of the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project series. If you haven’t been keeping score, the project was started by Pierce’s old friend Cypress Grove after finding a cassette of the dead-too-soon Gun Club singer’s unfinished sketches, with the intention of having Pierce’s friends, influencers and influencees bring the songs to fruition. Axels and Sockets features a lot of the usual suspects from previous volumes (Mark Lanegan, Deborah Harry, Nick Cave and many other Bad Seeds past and present) but it also makes a concerted effort to bring the next generation into the fold by including relatively new British acts Honey and Black Moth (both at the behest of British rock scribe Kris Needs). Honey give The Gun Club’s “Thunderhead” a NY Dolls-ish gutter-punk attack, while Black Moth bring a surprisingly metallic level of bombast to “Just Like A Mexican Love”. Interestingly, both bands are led by female vocalists. In fact women are well represented here, with nine of eighteen songs featuring female leads. It shows just how malleable Pierce’s songs were. Opening track “Nobody’s City” fleshes out a skeletal Jeffrey Lee Pierce guitar riff into a full song featuring some heavy hitting names (Iggy Pop, Kid Congo Powers, Nick Cave and Thurston Moore). These days Iggy maintains a pretty adversarial relationship with on-key singing, but the song is spirited enough that you can forgive him. It’s Iggy Pop for chrissakes! Other highlights include Primal Scream sounding better than they have in a decade on Andrew Weatherall’s dub-eletcro remix of “Goodbye Johnny”, Nick Cave and Deborah Harry’s tender duet on “Into The Fire” and former Bad Seed Hugo Race’s darkly enthralling “Break ‘em Down”. All in all, it’s a varied and effective tribute to a great talent. Buy it.

 

Oh, and bonus points are in order for this great painting of Pierce on the back cover by Mekons singer Jon Langford:

 

Oasis – Definitely Maybe: Deluxe Edition (Big Brother)


Oasis get a lot of shit from people – usually something about being ignorant louts who steal the most obvious elements of classic rock for their own gain. Those charges aren’t completely unwarranted, but back before the band succumbed to their own coke-addled hubris and the general bloat of being successful, they were a lean and hungry outfit, best heard on Definitely Maybe, celebrated with this massive three disc 20th anniversary edition. It’s an amazingly self-assured, borderline arrogant, debut for a young band, but behind all their infighting and boorish press-baiting was a tightly rehearsed cadre of music geeks, led by Noel Gallagher and his dual talents for big melodies and stadium rock accessibility. As much as it’s a cliché, Definitely Maybe really does play like a collection of singles (except the lighthearted piss-take of “Digsy’s Diner”) that nicked bits of T.Rex (“Cigarettes and Alcohol”), The Sex Pistols (“Bring It On Down”) and The Beatles (everything else) and added in the band’s own “live for tonight” vibe that resonated deeply with a hedonistic British youth culture that came up with The Stone Roses, Primal Scream and The La’s a few years earlier and didn’t see anything for themselves in the grunge that ruled the airwaves prior to Definitely Maybe. You can pretty much throw a dart in the dark and hit a winner here, but my personal favorites are “Rock’n’Roll Star”, “Up In The Sky” and “Shakermaker” (with a vocal melody from an old Coke commercial). Listening to them won’t make you any smarter, but they’re simply meant to sound great and rock…and they do.

It wouldn’t be an anniversary reissue without some extras, and there’s plenty here to enjoy. There’s remastered sound, new liner notes, period photos, and two discs of extra material. Disc 2 collects all of the b-sides from the album’s four singles. Remember, this was an era when CD singles were big sellers and groups often recorded an album’s worth of b-sides for every album. These range in quality from pointless (a live cover of “I Am The Walrus”), to curiously atypical (“D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman”), to great (“Fade Away” probably should have been on the album). The third disc tacks on 17 previously unreleased songs, mostly live recordings, demos and acoustic renditions of album tracks. It’s interesting as a companion piece, but not particularly essential or revelatory. The first two discs, however, are.

The Vacants Lots – Departure (Sonic Cathedral)


Departure is an album that I like parts of, but I don’t think many others will care about it. My affinity for the Vermont duo’s debut comes from a handful of songs that remind me of Spacemen 3. Call me shallow (you wouldn’t be wrong), but I love Spacemen 3 enough that I can like an album based on that simple criteria. Nothing on Departure reaches the same level of Spacemen 3 sound-alike as The Vacant Lots’ pre-album single “High and Low”, but the band hits a lot of the same notes as the Rugby psych-rock legends. The throbbing garage-rock sound of Spacemen 3’s debut album is represented on album opener “Mad Mary Jones”, and the luminous psychedelia of the final Spacemen 3 album (Recurring) weighs heavy over “Paint This City” – my favorite song on Departure. Not enough of a Spacemen 3 connection for ya? Well the band’s logo is a modified version of the hypno-spirals from The Perfect Prescription, and the album was mixed and mastered by Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember.
 
All those Spacemen 3 connections make for some good moments, but look past them and you’ll see that The Vacant Lots don’t have any appeal of their own. Most of their songs are based on paper thin song-writing premises that they drive into the ground with mind-numbing repetition. As musicians their playing would best be described as amateurish, and they sidestep the more challenging elements of song-craft, like tempo shifts or melodic exposition. The album is poorly produced, the singing is weak, and the less said about the frequent forays into spoken word pretension, the better – especially “Make The Connection” which aimlessly drones on for ten chord-changeless minutes.

 

Mick Harvey – Intoxicated Man/Pink Elephants (Mute)


 

During a period of downtime with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in the mid-’90s, Mick Harvey set about translating and recording two album’s worth of covers from Serge Gainsbourg’s thirty year discography, 1995’s Intoxicated Man, and Pink Elephants from 1997. These days Gainsbourg is a well-known figure, with a biopic and multiple tribute albums cementing his reputation as an influential artist. But back then his following outside of France was small, and his music difficult to come by. Harvey hoped to spread word of Serge’s brilliance beyond the confines of France with these albums, and translated the lyrics into English to make them accessible, but also to let Serge’s non-French fans in on what the hell he was saying in those great (and often downright filthy) pop songs, Yes, in 2014 you can find and translate the lyrics to just about anything with a few mouse clicks, but back then it wasn’t so easy. With the exception of the translations, Harvey’s versions stay pretty reverential, keeping the melodies and much of the original instrumentation fully intact. Intoxicated Man is the more developed of the two albums, with Harvey employing a host of outside musicians to flesh out the songs. Most notable of these is Anita Lane, who handles the roles of Brigitte Bardot (which includes lead vocals on “Harley Davidson”, a Gainsbourg-penned number he gave to Bardot to record) and Jane Birkin. The leftover recordings from Intoxicated Man were released as Pink Elephants, with Harvey playing most of the music on his own, handling more instruments than any one man should know how to play. Once again Anita Lane does the female vocal parts, including a duet with Nick Cave on the sweeping love song (of sorts) “I Love You…Nor Do I” (or “Je Taime…Moi Non Plus”).

 

This new edition includes both albums, remastered, in one double-disc package. It also has two previously unreleased bonus tracks: a version of “Dr. Jeckyll” where Harvey swaps out the swinging-sixties mod-pop of the original for a surprisingly noisy Jesus and Mary Chain-ish reading, and an effectively tender “Run From Happiness”.

 

It’s great. Buy it. But first watch what happens when a drunk Serge Gainsbourg met Whitney Houston on live tv:

Zorch! Transfusion Time with Nervous Norvus and Red Blanchard (Righteous Records)


Red Blanchard was a popular West Coast radio DJ in the mid-’50s, known for his show’s mix of hipster jive-talk, comedy sketches and novelty song playlists. His show inspired singer Jimmy Drake to record a bunch of songs in the same tradition, which he sent to Blanchard, who liked what he heard and collaborated with Drake (working under the name Nervous Norvus). Zorch! is a compilation of 23 songs the pair recorded, together and separately, over the next few years. I like to hear a good novelty song once in a while but sitting through 23 songs of daffy hipster jive is not my idea of a good time. I can take the duo’s unique combination of jive lyrics, wacked out sound-effects and hillbilly music for a few songs – “Transfusion” and “Ape Call” are damn good – but the joke gets tired quickly. The first half of the album works, but the back half – a messy conglomeration of songs the pair recorded solo and covers of “Transfusion” by The Four Jokers and Scatman Crothers – is pretty unlistenable.

Barry Brown – The Thompson Sound 1979-1982 (Hot Milk)


The Thompson Sound refers to this collection’s producer, Linval Thompson, who was himself a reggae singer of some renown before concentrating more on the production side of the business in the late-’70s. He’s a perfectly good producer – not as unique as a Lee Perry or King Tubby, but he gets the job done – but an odd choice to work with Barry Brown because the two shared an almost identical high tenor singing voice. Perhaps Thompson saw a younger version of himself in Barry Brown, who was just 17 when their partnership began in 1979. The Thompson Sound is a collection of singles and a previously unreleased album the two laid down but held back because there was already a ton of Brown’s material flooding the market. It’s a mixed quality set, with the singles (“Please Officer” and “Ketch A Fire” – the latter of which uses the backing track from Thompson’s earlier “Everybody Needs Money”) both fiery numbers, but the later album tracks suffer from weaker performances and a shift in tone away from the rootsy sound of ’70s reggae towards the coming dancehall sound of the 80s. The album also makes the classic reggae mistake of placing dub tracks immediately following their corresponding vocal track. I can’t speak for others but I know I don’t want to hear the same rhythm track twice in a row, and usually end up skipping the dubs. There’s no shortage of better reggae albums out there, but if your collection already runs pretty deep, then The Thompson Sound is worth a listen.

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Times of Alex Chilton by Holly George-Warren (Viking Press)


Alex Chilton’s life is a challenging one to capture in biography, with a rare riches-to-rags trajectory; topping the charts with his first recording – The Box Tops’ “The Letter”- at the young age of 16 followed by a long unraveling period that included amazing work with Big Star and a  messy solo career. Author Holly George-Warren’s handles the wide scope of Chilton’s life and music well, providing an Everest-sized amount of facts and first-person accounts from the people who were there. The author was, herself, one of those people, having spent some time with Chilton when he produced an EP for her band Clambake in the mid-’80s, although she wisely saves that bit of personal info for the Epilogue. The book really gets you wondering what life must have been like for Chilton, having had so much success at a young age, and then spending several decades swimming upstream against an ever-strengthening current. For me, A Man Called Destruction is a pretty sad story of a guy who was a brilliant writer and singer, but also clearly tortured by heavy personal demons (there are multiple suicide attempts, domestic abuse, and other forms of self-destructive behavior), but it’s such a well-researched and well-written book (I couldn’t find any spelling or grammar errors – a rarity for a rock bio) that you’ll be feverishly turning the pages to see where Chilton’s journeys take him next. Highly recommended.

Hollywood Brats – Hollywood Brats (Cherry Red)


Hollywood Brats

It’s all too easy to think of the Hollywood Brats and just some British cheapo rip-off of The New York Dolls. Both dressed in outrageous – and frequently androgynous – clothes; both recorded debuts in 1973 (the Brats’ album getting shelved until 1980) and both played streetwise glam-rock that would prove to be a sonic precursor to punk. However, the Brats were likely just synthesizing the same influences at the same time as their NY counterparts – welding their own bad attitudes to the visceral pleasures of Chuck Berry, The Stones, girl-groups and garage rock misfits in an era of overblown stadium rock pomposity. Their only album, recorded in London’s famed Olympic Studios just a few months after the release of the first Dolls album, may not have opened many doors back in the day, but 40 years on it sounds amazing. “Another School Day” and a tarted up cover of “Then He Kissed Me” (with original gender roles intact) were good ol’ glam rock rebellion, but it was on wild careening tracks like “Chez Maximes”, “Nightmare”, and especially the closing “Sick On You”, that the band excelled, standing neck and neck with any other proto-punk greats of the era.

 

The 2014 edition doesn’t feature any remastering, new songs or updated liner notes – just a new layout. So, if you already own an older version there’s no need to update. However, if you’re new to the band then you should definitely check this album out immediately.