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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Mighty Lemon Drops were one of the better second-tier acts to emerge from the ‘C86 scene’ of mid-’80s UK indie rock bands. The West Midlands group made their way by cross-pollinating the adrenaline rush of garage rock and punk with the darker side of ’60s psychedelia. It was a promising conglomeration of influences and its promise was often delivered on with great songs, however, the band spent their careers dogged by constant comparisons to Echo and The Bunnymen. These comparisons were completely warranted, as it can be hard to tell the two apart sonically; although Mighty Lemon Drops singer Paul Marsh was more contented to devise lyrics out of basic rhymes (head/said, fine/mine, hide/side) than Ian McCulloch was. Uptight collects twenty-four tracks from The Lemon Drops’ early days, sourced from demos, BBC sessions, singles and EPs. The four songs from the Like An Angel EP are the best ones, including my personal favorite “Sympathize With Us”. Perhaps the song is little more than The Bunnymen rewriting The Doors’ “L.A. Woman”, but it works well despite its obvious origins. A trio of songs recorded a year later for the C86 cassette compilation show the band getting more comfortable with the recording studio while still retaining the Velvets-meets-Nuggets attack fans had already come to expect from them. The album closes oddly, with eight songs from the band’s earliest recordings – the Some Of My Best Friends Are Songs cassette. It includes some of the same songs found elsewhere on the album (including the aforementioned “Sympathize With Us”) but a bad recording makes these versions far less enjoyable. Even a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again” misses the mark. Yes, Uptight is a mixed bag, but the high points make it worth investigating.