The United States of America – The United States of America (Esoteric Recordings)

The United States of America released this, their only album, in March of 1968. The Los Angeles five-some were an interesting assemblage of influences gleaned from the psychedelic rock underground, with an added art rock element derived from their use of avant-garde electronics and edgy leftist politics (there is a song called “Love Song For The Dead Che”). As a rock band they were pretty clumsy and typical of the era’s average West Coast ballroom-psychedelic act. This side of the band features heavily on “Hard Coming Love” and the embarrassingly bad “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar”. It’s really the band’s forward-thinking use of electronics that gave them an element of excitement, and made them unique. It’s what made them a hit with critics. It’s what made Nico (reportedly) want to join them after being booted from The Velvet Underground. It’s why we still remember this album over 4.5 decades on. After all, how many other bands in 1968 had a member who played ring modulator and electric violin, but didn’t have guitarist? While they didn’t go as far out with their use of electronics as The Silver Apples, they did get some really adventurous sounds out of their equipment, which, when paired with Dorothy Moskowitz’s vocals, gave tracks like “The American Metaphysical Circus”, “Cloud Song” and the LSD anthem “Coming Down” an other-worldy feeling that bands like Stereolab, Broadcast and Portishead picked up on decades later. This reissue doubles the original album’s ten songs with out-takes and alternate versions of album tracks – though they are the same ones featured on Sundazed’s 2004 reissue and in the same running order, no less. Esoteric’s reissue has been newly remastered and features new liner notes from rock scribe Sid Smith, so there is a reasonable case to be made for buying it again.

John Cale & Terry Riley – Church Of Anthrax (Esoteric Recordings)

John Cale is one of the most under-rated people in rock history, having almost single-handedly laid the musical and attitudinal groundwork for what would later come to be known as alternative rock. In addition to giving the first two Velvet Underground albums their groundbreaking avant-garde edge, Cale also produced masterworks by The Stooges, Patti Smith and Modern Lovers, performed on great albums by Nick Drake and Brian Eno, and made his own brilliant solo album, Paris 1919. Church of Anthrax, his collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley, featured recordings made as far back as May 1969, making it the first album Cale recorded after leaving The Velvet Underground. However, it sat on a shelf for almost two years due a lengthy mixing process that caused Riley to walk out on the project in disgust. Given the participants and the vintage, it should have been a classic but in reality the album is more of a missed opportunity – a collection of interesting ideas, but underwhelming executions. The opening title track is a nine minute improvisational jam session that rhythmically reminds me of a hybrid of Can and electric-Miles Davis, but with Riley and Cale’s long-winded indulgent noodling ruining whatever coolness the song may have otherwise had. “The Hall Of Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles” is better, with Cale and Riley’s meditations on the piano and soprano saxophone, respectively, beautifully intertwining with one another. “The Soul Of Patrick Lee” is the album’s only song to feature vocals, yet for some unknown reason they’re sung by Adam Miller, whose voice sounds so much like Cale’s that you wonder why he didn’t just record them himself (oddly enough, Miller would go on to write hit songs for teen sensation David Cassidy). “The Ides Of March” is another long improvisational piece, with dueling drums at the outset giving the track something of a New Orleans feel which Cale and Riley obliterate in a haze of minimalist piano attacks over the course of the next 11 minutes. It ends with “The Protégé”, another instrumental, this one sounding like a warm-up for Cale’s trio of mid-‘70s slithery rock albums. Cale and Riley spend just about all of Anthrax’s thirty-four minutes standing on the precipice of something great, without ever really finding it, which leaves the listener feeling frustrated and mildly dissatisfied.

A Vicious Love Story by Teddie Dahlin (New Haven Publishing)

Everyone visiting this site should be somewhat familiar with Sid Vicious and his infamous self-destructive persona by now. Vicious’ (born John Ritchie) brief tenure in the public spotlight was marked by scandals, fights, drug addiction and the alleged murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a New York City hotel in 1978. Unfortunately these headline-grabbing acts ended up defining the mainstream public’s perception of punk rock for years following his death in 1979. Teddie Dahlin’s book, A Vicious Love Story, shows readers that there was a different side of Vicious, which is what makes it a revelatory read. Living in Norway, a sixteen year-old Dahlin was drafted in to be The Sex Pistols’ interpreter during a two day tour stop in Trondheim. Dahlin wasn’t particularly a fan of The Sex Pistols or punk rock, but she took the job anyway and almost immediately found herself falling for the charms of Sid Vicious, who she paints as a shy and insecure person haplessly caught up in his band’s whirlwind of media outrage and manufactured chaos. Their romance ended forty eight hours later when the band rolled out of town, but during that time Vicious spoke repeatedly about wanting to dump his girlfriend Nancy Spungen for Dahlin, creating a tantalizing “what if” scenario for fans to ponder (although it also makes you wonder how many other girls Vicious told a similar story to on tour). A Vicious Love Story isn’t the most professionally put together book I’ve ever read – there are errors, the margins on every page are laughably large, and many of the pictures are rotated 90 degrees from horizontal – but even with those faults, it’s kind of refreshing to read about a mythic band like the Pistols from the perspective of someone who wasn’t a musical writer, or even a fan. Dahlin’s tale includes many conversations recounted line for line and minor details of seemingly mundane events from those romantic days more than three decades ago, which means she either has a perfect photographic memory, or she’s filling in some gaps in order to flesh out the story. Either way, A Vicious Love Story is a good read, so I’ll forgive the author for any minor embellishments or truth-bending. Her first-hand tale is supplemented by quotes and additional perspective from those who travelled in the Sex Pistols’ orbit, like roadie Roadent, Casino Steel (The Boys), Viv Albertine (The Slits), and others. Good stuff.

The Fleur De Lys – You’ve Got To Earn It (Acid Jazz)

This compilation is a mess, both wonderful and maddening at the same time. I guess that kind of makes sense though, since The Fleur De Lys were something of a mess themselves. At their core they were a mod-psych (or ‘freakbeat’ if you prefer that moniker) outfit, with several brilliant songs to their credit that could compete with genre heavyweights like The Who and The Yardbirds. They even do a cover of The Who’s “Circles” that trumps the original. Despite these fits of greatness the band also suffered a severe identity crisis during their 1964-1969 lifespan, cycling through eleven members with drummer Keith Guster the only constant member throughout. To add to that confusion, during that time they changed names from Les Fleur De Lys, to The Fleur De Lys, recorded singles under alternate names like Shyster and Rupert’s People, and acted as a backing band for singer Sharon Tandy. Instead of coherently collecting the band’s work You’ve Got To Earn It only adds to the mountains of confusion. Keith Guster’s liner notes say “finally, a real Fleur De Lys compilation”, but he never explains what he means by this, and the previously released Reflections comp is actually far better! Both have significant song overlap, but Reflections has a few white-hot numbers (“Daughter of The Sun” and “I Like What I’m Trying To Do” among others) missing from You’ve Got To Earn It, even though it’s forty-seven minutes runtime certainly leaves more than enough blank space for them. Perhaps they also could have included their recently unearthed cover of “Crosscut Saw” from a BBC session which Guster calls “amazing” in the liner notes, yet despite it’s amazingness didn’t make the cut here. Another recently unearthed cover, The Temptations’ “You’ve Got To Earn It” did make the cut, and even gives this collection its’ title yet isn’t anywhere near as exciting as the band’s best material. If you want to hear great Fleur De Lys songs like “Hold On”, “Mud In Your Eye” and psychedelically titled “Gong With The Luminous Nose” (don’t forget, this was 1967), then You’ve Got To Earn It gives you that chance. If you’re looking for the final word of The Fleur De Lys, this ain’t it.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and The Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon (Bloomsbury)

I read a lot of books about music, some for fun and some to review here. I like almost all of them, but I don’t kid myself. I know that most of them are appealing simply because I’m interested in learning more about music, and not because the writing is particularly well executed. Respect Yourself is the rare music book with an exciting subject matter, in this case it’s the multiple rises and falls of Stax Records, that’s also really well written. Author Robert Gordon’s lyrical prose and exquisite word choices, are difference maker, elevating the book beyond just a good story, simply told. For example:

Stax stood tall as a symbol of opportunity, a beacon in the neighborhood, the glow from the ascending stars ensconcing nearby residents.

You won’t find a sentence like that in Motley Crue’s The Dirt.

Gordon is also a subject matter expect, having written about Memphis and its local music scene for over thirty years. His knowledge enables him to frame the label’s story through outside elements of city politics, civil rights upheaval (a key important element in the story of a white-owned Southern R&B label with an interracial house band, Booker T. and The MGs), and a cadre of local characters that came through the label’s doors at 926 East McLemore Ave.

As for the story itself, it’s a great one, with two distinct halves. The first half covers the period from when co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton launched the label as a small neighborhood enterprise in 1957, through the death of its biggest star Otis Redding and the loss of the back catalogue to Atlantic Records in 1968. The second tracks the label’s re-launch under new co-owner Al Bell, who brought label back from the dead and returned it to the spotlight when Isaac Hayes’ genius album Hot Buttered Soul turned him into a superstar. Bell also ushered in a new, uglier, capitalistic mindset at the label, marked by violent gun-toting enforcers, endless nonsensical business acquisitions, and generally shady activities. Of course, it didn’t end well, with bankruptcy shutting Stax’s doors in 1975, and Bell up on charges of bank fraud (he would be acquitted). Amazingly, Gordon makes you care about the business side of Stax as much, if not more, than the musical – the stories about radio promotions men as satisfying as those of the label’s roster of hit-makers. An important inclusion in any music geek’s library.


The Socks – The Socks (Small Stone Records)

A group of four French guys calling themselves The Socks, doesn’t exactly scream “killer heavy metal” but this debut full-length is a pleasant surprise to say the very least. The Socks are part of an exciting scene of globe-spanning bands who’ve come up in recent years sounding heavily indebted to the early days of hard rock and heavy metal. Like the other top bands of this new movement (my faves are Kadavar and Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats), The Socks steadfastly ignore just about everything from the last 35 years and play metal like it was in the beginning, simply the next step in a natural evolutionary process that fused together elements from garage rock, psychedelia, and progressive rock to make something evil, aggressive and new. Sure, sticking to the original formula comes with its downside, like dopey lyrics about dragons and evil gypsies and such, but those eye-rolling moments are made digestible by the band’s heightened musical abilities. Like their heroes Deep Purple Led Zeppelin and (especially) Black Sabbath these guys can actually swing, something of a lost art-form among heavy bands. There are some slow doomy moments, some hazy psychedelic moments, and even some doomy psychedelic moments like “Lords Of Illusion” but for the most part they just rear back and “go for it” with aplomb and pretty high success rate. Nowhere do they go for it harder than “Some Kind Of Sorcery”, in which the band goes from zero-to-60 in less than one second and continues to trample you like a herd of runaway elephants for the next four minutes. It’s the album’s greatest achievement and one of the best songs I’ve heard so far this year.

Death Of Samantha – If Memory Serves Us Well (St. Valentine Records)

The night before a reunion show has to be a nerve-wracking one, filled with sweaty palms, self-doubt and last minute attempts at remembering songs you haven’t played in years. It definitely doesn’t seem like a great time to record an album, but that’s exactly what Cleveland’s Death of Samantha did with If Memory Serves Us Well, laying down eighteen songs from their 1984-1990 back catalogue at a band rehearsal the night before a reunion gig in 2011 – their first show in almost two decades. If the idea of a reunited band releasing a rehearsal recording has you picturing If Memory Serves Us Well as a poorly recorded collection sloppy performances, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I’ve never heard any of these songs in their originally recorded form, so I can’t compare these versions to the originals, but I can, however, tell you that these songs smoke. The band are firmly rooted in the tradition of adventurous Midwestern bands like The Stooges and Pere Ubu, but with their own unique sense of poetry and passion. I can imagine them playing bills with similar-styled contemporaries like The Gun Club, Leaving Trains or The Dream Syndicate and easily holding their own. Everything that the band does is great, but I’m most impressed with the guitar interplay of singer John Petkovic  and Doug Gillard (both of whom would go on to play with Cobra Verde and Guided By Voices, among others) which is part Keith Richards/Ron Wood drunk bob ‘n’ weave, and part Verlaine/Lloyd’s highly refined cosmic explorations. Liner notes by mega-fans, and people who know their shit, Thurston Moore, Mark Lanegan, Robert Pollard and Byron Coley are just icing on the cake. Now if someone would only reissue the band’s back catalogue…