Wand – 1000 Days (Drag City)

1000 Days is the second Wand album of 2015, and the L.A. band’s third full-length in just over a year since debuting with Ganglion Reef in 2014. Their previous album, Golem, released just six months before 1000 Days, impressed with how well the band mixed thundering proto-metal song with psych-punk lunacy – it was the kind of stuff that placed them alongside similarly minded bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall (whose current band The Muggers features members of Wand). While 1000 Days retains elements from Golem’s best songs, they’re now relegated to sections of songs, instead of whole songs. The band try to cover a lot more ground here, frequently turning down the volume for detours into acid-folk, studio assisted psychedelic explorations, and generally calmer brands of weirdness. In fact they jump around from style-to-style, sound-to-sound, in a rapid-fire way I haven’t heard since the Elephant 6 collective of psychedelically inspired bands was big in the late-’90s. Fair game to Wand for wanting to branch out from what they’ve been doing, but most of the songs on 1000 Days aren’t structurally strong enough to weather their almost constant shape-shifting. By peeling back the Sabbath-gone-punk elements and letting acoustic guitars or synths take the spotlight on songs like the title track or “Stolen Footsteps” they expose the thinness of singer Cory Hanson’s voice and bad songwriting choices like beating every good lyric they stumble onto (ex: “I don’t need a thing a thing/Cuz I’ve had every dream”) into the ground with repetition. The bands still stirs up exciting moments like the doomy “Broken Sun” and “Paintings Are Dead” but you have to spend too much time shuffling through standard-issue material to find ’em.

Going Underground: American Punk 1979-1989 by George Hurchalla (PM Press)

Going Underground’s subtitle may be “American Punk”, but the book is almost exclusively about the American hardcore movement. Of course author George Hurchalla couldn’t really use that phrase because of Steven Blush’s similar book American Hardcore. Even though Hurchalla’s survey of the regional scenes that dotted the map of American hardcore in 1980’s has some redundancies with Blush’s better known book, it has enough of its own merits to make it a valuable part of your punk library. Most importantly, it focuses heavily on bands whose stories haven’t already been told in great detail. So, while there are obligatory passages on the big guys – Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains…etc. – there’s an equal amount of ink spent on smaller acts like The Fix, Government Issue, and Toxic Reasons. Even when Hurchalla is talking about the scene’s better known acts he finds new stories to explore, like Minor Threat’s cold war with TSOL, or the night Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys led a one-off group called Lucifer’s Imperial Heretical Knights of Schism for a musical roast of sorts at the expense of the Bad Brains and their new Rastafarian beliefs. Hurchalla’s own viewpoints play a large role in the book too, drawing on his firsthand experiences as a fan living in Florida and Philadelphia, regularly going to shows by local and national touring acts. He also takes a few excursions into some of the music that was important to him during this era that doesn’t neatly fit into the hardcore genre tag, like The Gun Club or the art-punk comp Keats Rides a Harley. Lastly, Going Underground features a ton of photos which capture the raw excitement of the era, most of which I haven’t seen published before. Like the music itself, Going Underground moves quickly, providing a raw and unflinching look into one of the most important youth movements of the 20th century.

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)

A few months ago I was complaining a to friend about what I perceived as a lack of people under 30 making exciting folk music right now. I began to wonder if the art-form was becoming outdated, made quaint by the technological advances and young people not wanting to play music which is at its best when it’s introspective and subtle. Not long after this discussion I discovered Ryley Walker’s music and it quickly shut me up. Walker’s a guy in his mid-20s from Rockford, Illinois, but his music is firmly planted in the open-ended folk experimentation of the late-’60s and early-’70s. There’s no way to listen to Primrose Green and not be reminded of guys like John Martyn, Van Morrison (the album cover has elements of both Astral Weeks and His Band & Street Choir), and Tim Buckley. It’s Buckley’s influence that looms largest on the album, with the jazz musicians Walker has backing him creating a mood similar to Buckley’s Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon. At times Walker’s music colors so much within the lines set down by his inspirations that the album feels like the musical equivalent of a Civil War society reenacting the great battles of the 1860s, but he’s so damn good at it that you can’t help but be captivated. Walker’s voice falls somewhere in the neighborhood of Tim Buckley’s and his guitar playing is top notch, but it’s the way those elements work within the larger context of the musicians around him that makes Primrose Green such a strong listen. I don’t often find myself excited by the jammy sections of a song, but those musical interludes are a highlight here, with the band often taking off into transcendent flights of fancy that can overshadow the songs they were born out of. Take the title track for example. It’s got a strong vocal performance and the lyrics – inspired by a psychedelic cocktail Walker gives the recipe for on the back cover – are solid, but it peaks when the guitar and piano players lay down expressive solos over the inspired rhythm section of drums and double bass. No matter how you slice it, this is powerful stuff, and Walker’s talents prove that folk music still has a place among young people.

Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements by Bob Mehr (Da Capo Press)

Time is often a great equalizer when it comes to recognizing talent in music, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the case of The Replacements. While the band was modestly successful, selling a few hundred thousand copies of their albums at their commercial peak, their legend has grown exponentially since breaking up in 1991. There’s been a Replacements film (Color Me Obsessed), a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, a wildly popular reunion tour, an oral history book, and now this band biography, penned by music writer Bob Mehr. If you’re a Replacements fan then you probably know the basic outline of their history – punk rock beginnings, wild behavior, acts of self-sabotage, signing with a major label, and some truly brilliant albums – but until you read Trouble Boys you really don’t know the full story. Mehr’s book is the definitive telling as his material is well researched, well written and presented in a serious manner more befitting of a biography of Abraham Lincoln than the band that recorded “Dope Smoking Moron” and “Gary’s Got a Boner”.

Had Mehr simply limited his book to chronicling the band’s activities Trouble Boys would have been perfectly enjoyable reading, but nothing more than a typical rock bio. The book is invaluable because he dives well beneath the surface, creating a highly detailed portrait of the band members, their inner circle and their families. The stories about the often broken homes and mental problems that plagued the band go a long way to explain their chronic drug and alcohol abuse and complete disregard for just about anyone that tried to help them reach their full commercial and creative potential. At first the band’s drunk and surly antics come across as funny. For example, at high profile concerts they would often disappoint fans with sets of half-remembered cover songs they were too drunk and stoned to play to completion. However, somewhere around the mid-’80s these antics take on an increasingly dark quality as the mounting commercial pressure put on the band, combined with Herculean cocaine and booze intake, led to some pretty disturbing behavior like lighting money on fire, damaging tour busses to the tune of $60K, frequent firings, and general mistrust within a band that began with two brothers (Bob and Tommy Stinson) jamming in a basement in Minnesota. By the end, the band’s lives spiraled so far away from anything resembling normalcy or health that you almost feel relieved when you reach the part of the book where they break up. Like Holly George-Warren’s recent biography of Alex Chilton (himself the subject of a Replacement’s song, and one of the few people they respected), Mehr has taken readers to the tenuous point at which brilliance and madness meet and painted a wonderful portrait of the artists who lived there.

The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum (Jagjaguwar)

A Coliseum Complex Museum

I’ve been dreading writing about this album. Not because I need to wrack my brains for the right words to explain how I feel about it or because it exposed some kind of hard to swallow truths about myself, but because it’s so damn boring to me. I’ll admit I was excited about The Besnard Lakes when the Montreal group first landed on my radar in 2007 with their second album, The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse. The band found a nice sweet spot for itself in the Venn diagram overlap between Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and Sigur Ros, with widescreen guitar-scapes and big harmonies announcing them as a band to watch. They’ve released three albums since then, each one stubbornly similar to its predecessor, and by sticking so steadfastly to the same formula the band’s faults have shifted to the forefront while their strengths are receding into the background with each passing album. This makes A Coliseum Complex Museum something of a nadir. Those high Beach Boy-type harmonies from husband and wife vocalists Olga Goreas and Jace Lasek, once a main selling point, now sound repetitive and a tool to render what they’re singing about completely indecipherable. Even if listeners could pick the lyrics out from the numbing waves of vocal harmonies, given the obscure nature of the album’s title and song titles like “The Bray Road Beast” or “Towers Sent Her To Sheets Of Sound”, it’s unlikely they’ll have any personal meaning for anyone. If The Besnard Lakes are really enjoying making very insular sounding music over and over again, audience be damned, then they can keep on following the well-worn road map they’ve been using for the past decade. However, if they want to hold people’s interest (which seems to be diminishing) they need to shake things up a bit moving forward.

Pure Hell – Noise Addiction (Cherry Red Records)

 Noise Addiction: 1978 New York & London Sessions
Pure Hell were an early punk band, operating out of Philiadelphia from 1974-78, occasionally making the short drive over to New York City to mix it up with the scene over at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. They managed to release only one single, a 1978 cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”, but recorded enough material for an album which was shelved by manager Curtis Knight (an R&B singer best known for working with a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix) after a disagreement with the band. Now decades later we have that album coupled with a DVD of a televised performance, and while the band’s backstory is fascinating (an undiscovered all black East Coast punk band with roots in proto-punk has me thinking of Detroit proto-punkers Death and screaming “take my money now!”) the music tells a different story. Make no mistake about it, these were cartoon punks, with a standard issue “punk” image, pedaling a cheap sense of nastiness. I mean, just look at these clowns:

I could forgive the schlocky image if their songs were any good, but they ain’t. If I wanted to be charitable I’d say Pure Hell sounded like a poor man’s Dead Boys, which is true on the surface. But, The Dead Boys could write songs. Pure Hell couldn’t, so instead they went for shock and outrage, as if they saw the media coverage of The Sex Pistols and decided they could get over with that. Dumb, oh-so-“punk” slogans masquerading as song titles like “Noise Addiction”, “No Rules” and “Rot In The Doghouse”, give you an idea of what the band was about. Try to look past their bad ideas (though I don’t blame you if you can’t) and you’ll also see huge deficiencies in Pure Hell’s musical approach. The guitarist plays too much, the singer is cheesy, and the rhythm section is stiff. In summation, dear readers, this stinks.

The Pretty Things – Live At The BBC (Repertiore)

Ever since they began seeing release in the 1990s, material recorded live at Britain’s BBC studios has made a nice addition to the discography of any respectable UK band from the ’60s/’70. The Beatles, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Bowie, The Zombies…pretty much everyone but the Stones and Pink Floyd have put out a Live at The BBC disc (both recorded enough material there to release one). Now it’s The Pretty Things turn, and they’ve unleashed a whopper, with no less than four discs spanning eleven years, from their earliest session in October of 1964 through to 1975, one year before the band went on hiatus. With so much material there are some serious peaks and valleys for listeners to navigate.

The first disc is an absolute highlight, with twenty five songs charting the band’s 1964-1971 prime. Their tough-as-nails R&B origins dominate the first ten songs, and they all sound fresh today. Whether paying tribute to the American blues songs that inspired them (“Big Boss Man” and “Roadrunner”) or lashing audiences with originals like “L.S.D.” or “Midnight To Six Man” (which gave this blog its name), the band play like they’re out for blood, even outstripping the ferocity of the studio versions in a few cases. The next two sessions capture the band’s heady psychedelic years, with S.F. Sorrow-era  tunes like “She Says Good Morning” and “Defecting Grey” all sounding as good in the more immediate recording environment of the BBC sessions as their original album versions. The real revelation from these more experimental tracks is a wah-wah drenched number from ’67 called “Turn My Head” which, as far as I know, was never properly recorded in the studio. The final nine songs from 1969-1971 mix folkier numbers like “Spring” with heavier fare like “Sickle Clowns”. They’re interesting, but you can hear the band struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing times, unable to wow you like the newer sounds of Led Zeppelin or David Bowie (both of whom would play major roles in keeping The Pretty Things afloat in the ’70s).

The next three discs are awful. The ’70s could have been a great time for The Pretty Things – bands from the ’60s were treated like gods, David Bowie covered two of their songs at the height of his popularity, and they were signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label Swan Song – but there were endless line-up changes (Phil May was the only original member) and the music they made during this period sucked so badly that nobody paid much attention. From the sounds of these sessions, the band were trying to find some kind of crossroad between The Who, Led Zeppelin and CSNY, but all they happened upon was a heap of turgid jazz-rock that has nothing in common with the band you loved just a few years earlier. The only respite you get from crap like “Onion Soup” or “Come Here Mamma” comes when they dip back into their earlier catalog (“Big City”, “Roaslyn” and “Route 66”). Not that these versions compete with the originals, but at least they’re brief and to the point.

Not only is 3/4 of the music on this set terrible, but, to add insult to injury, several songs on these discs repeat themselves. Not different versions of the same song – the same recording. This includes an entire five song set which appears twice on disc 3! I guess the thought in including them twice was that the 2nd versions came from a rebroadcast of the same set and have different DJ intros, but there isn’t a single mention of this on the packaging, which makes their inclusion seem pretty dubious. Besides, who cares about DJ intros? There isn’t a DJ alive or dead that can make you want to hear live versions of “Havana Bound’ or “Love Is Good” more than once.

By all means, figure out a way to get your hands on the white-hot first disc of this reasonably priced set, but don’t expect the other three to do anything other than collect dust.