If you’ve spent enough time on this site to get a feel for my musical sensibilities, you’re probably wondering how I ended up reviewing a box set of commercial hard-rock from Rick Derringer’s band Derringer. After all, isn’t he best known for the 1973 butt-rock hit, “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo”? Well yeah, but about a year ago I heard a live version of his song “Beyond The Universe” which had explosive MC5-like energy and insane guitar solos that piqued my curiosity. Reading up on the guy I learned that he has roots in garage rock, singing for The McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy”) and he collaborated with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop in the early-’70s, so maybe there was more to the man than my preconceived notion would lead me to believe.
After listening to these five albums – three studio LPs and two live ones – I’ve concluded that my preconceived notions were pretty spot on. There’s some good moments on these five discs: Derringer’s self-titled debut album from 1976 (he’d released two albums under his own name prior to it) has the aforementioned gonzo “Before The Universe”, and “Let Me In” is good enough pop fun; “One Eyed Jacks” from Sweet Evil sounds like Queen Of The Stone Age twenty years before their first album, and the live albums are goofy ’70s stadium-rock fun. The rest is kinda weak though, with 1978’s If I Weren’t So Romantic, I’d Shoot You the low-point, despite a Patti Smith co-write on “Sleepless”. The members of Derringer are all technically very competent (Derringer, drummer Vinny Appice and bassist Kenny Aronoff have built extensive studio musician’s resumes in the decades since) but for all that highly advanced musical ability, they don’t have the creative spark needed to make interesting songs. Derringer’s voice is frequently a liability and, if you couldn’t tell from lines like “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo/ Lordy Mama Light My Fuse” his lyrics aren’t very good either – unless of course songs about “rocking” really speak to you. Basically if you ever wanted to hear a band that sounds like a generic no-frills cross between Aerosmith and Cheap Trick (comparisons that really come to forefront on Sweet Evil, which was produced by Aerosmith/Cheap Trick-producer Jack Douglas), without the personality that made those bands unique, this is a great find, and a great value at a current Amazon price of $27. If you want classic songs, look somewhere else.
Don’t Get Lost is The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s sixteenth official full-length album, depending on what you do or don’t count as official or full-length. Within that vast discography it falls somewhere alongside Who Killed Sgt. Pepper and Musique de Film Imagine – albums where BJM leader Anton Newcombe and whoever he’s recording with follow their muse down a rabbit hole that puts them a little too far outside their wheelhouse for the good of the listener. They’re artistically interesting records, and exploring the musical areas they cover may be necessary for Anton to keep things interesting after several decades of writing, but they’re also the Jonestown records I reach for the least. On Don’t Get Lost Anton and co. ignore their own advice and do get lost in the groove-heavy experimentation of krautrock and post-punk. Now, you may be thinking the same thing I was when I first read that: “I like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, I like krautrock and I like post-punk. Game on!” Well OK, it makes sense to think that, but Don’t Get Lost is a lengthy mess of aimless experimentation and bad ideas. Or, in krautrock terms, it’s more Popol Huh? than Popul Vuh.
Before I get too deep into my critical drubbing, let me first single out the album’s praise-worthy moments. Don’t Get Lost’s pinnacle is “Resist Much Obey Little”, which, in addition to being a great message for these politically challenging times, is a crisp and concise tune with a strong melody and Joy Division-esque mood. It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also the song that sounds the most like the Brian Jonestown Massacre of old. “Charmed I’m Sure” is a spooky instrumental with squiggly synth textures that actually sounds like it could have come from an early-’70s krautrock record. Lastly, “Groove Is In The Heart” may not be the Deee-Lite cover I hoped for when I saw the song title – and it’s actually a little too close to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sidewalking” for comfort – but the way Anton and frequent collaborator Tess Parks trade vocal lines works really well with the song’s carefree swagger.
OK, now let’s touch on the basket of deplorable music that makes up the rest of the album. There’s ill-advised excursions into trip-hop like “One Slow Breath”, which sounds like a demo for a non-Maxinquaye Tricky song, and “Melody’s Actual Echo Chamber” where Anton (at least I think it’s him) just lists colors over a bland Massive Attack-lite instrumental. Both are completely useless. “Fact 67” is an attempt to sound like New Order, but the mix of cheap drum machines, dull groove, and vocals by Charlatans front-man (and frequent New Order plagiarist) Tim Burgess is a non-starter, and, like most of the songs on Don’t Get Lost, it’s way longer than it should be, at over six minutes. While neither are terrible, sequencing two unexciting instrumentals back-to-back is never a good idea, yet there before my eyes and ears are “UFO Paycheck” and “Geldenes Herz Menz” clogging up the album’s back-half. Even with so many bad songs, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of “Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War” – a lame throwback to the hedonistic sound of early-’90s acid house that nobody wanted. While it might be the worst song in the entire Brian Jonestown Massacre discography, it does allows you to finally understand Anton’s intentions on this album: He wanted to make his version of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, where electronica, dance and dub “come together” in a rock-based context. Unfortunately his ham-fisted attempt at it, comes as close to Screamadelica as Primal Scream’s own ham-fisted attempt at Exile On Main Street-era Stones, Give Out But Don’t Give Up.
I approached Steve Jones’ autobiography with a small sense of trepidation – did I really need or even want another retread through Sex Pistols history? There’s so many books and documentaries on them that their story feels fully told, with no room left for surprise in a subsequent retelling. Luckily, guitarist Steve Jones has had a pretty fascinating life in and out of the band, and even if the public’s never-ending interest in the Sex Pistols is the reason this book exists in the first place, there’s a lot more to it than just that. I found the sections on Jones’ childhood the most interesting part of Lonely Boy, with family drama, sexual abuse, ADHD and dyslexia filling him up with the anger and confusion that exploded out of him in his guitar playing and hedonistic lifestyle. It also gives a glimpse into the grim future that might have awaited Jones had he not discovered music – he was an accomplished thief in his teens, often stealing equipment from well-known bands with surprising ease. He even offers up the theory that David Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust documentary is almost unwatchable because he and his friends stole a bunch of essential camera equipment before filming began. Stealing, like many things, became a compulsion for Jones. Of course, he wasn’t always successful at it, and began to build up a pretty impressive rap sheet, so it’s probably a good thing that music gave him a way out. I guess old habits are hard to break though, and after the Pistols’ break-up he found himself pilfering purses on the streets of New York in the early-’80s just to get by. I wish he delved a little deeper into these lean years, since New York was such a crazy and dangerous place at the time – especially in the Lower East Side, where he took up among the burgeoning New York Hardcore scene – but, given that he was in the throes of a serious heroin addiction, I imagine his memory of events isn’t great more than thirty-five years later. The story has a happy ending, with Jones, now 61 years old, living in Los Angeles and hosting a successful radio show, Jonesy’s Jukebox, where he entertains listeners with candid interviews and free-form playlists. Lonely Boy proves what his radio listeners already knew – he’s got more than his share of amazing stories, and an ability to tell them with wit and a survivor’s sense of perspective, all of which make the book almost impossible to put down. In fact, I happily devoured the whole thing on a L.A.-to-New York flight, where it all but made time fly.
The Move had a lot of great songs, but never put together an album you’d call a classic. There were always a few numbers where they’d overreach – which is something I guess you should expect from a band with multiple songwriters and musical interests spanning everything from rockabilly to heavy-psych, baroque orchestrations, MOR pop and R&B. There’s no way they could do all these styles well, and inconsistency is just a fact of life with The Move, which is why this Best Of package is the best way to hear them. Magnetic Waves of Sound collects twenty-one songs spanning their 1967-1972 run, but it’s heavy on the early years, which is good since that’s their peak era, when they could regularly whip up psychedelic freakbeat magic on tracks like “Fire Brigade” and “Walk Upon The Water”. The band’s pretentions got the best of them later on, but they still kicked out a few solid jams like “Do Ya” and “California Man” as they sputtered towards the end in 1972 (though they would morph into ELO around that time). Magnetic Waves features most of the gold, but as is standard for compilations, you could argue about what did and didn’t get selected for inclusion. I’d personally swap out the 7:43 lesser re-recording of “Cherry Blossom Clinic” for “Omnibus” and “Yellow Rainbow”, but I guess others would disagree.
Magnetic Waves also comes with a DVD of twenty-one BBC an German TV broadcasts from 1967-1970. The performances (some live, some lip-synched) track The Move’s evolution from sharp-dressing ’60s mod band playing adventurous three minute pop songs, to the long-haired proto-metal/glam band they would become, going through almost a complete line-up change in just three years, which saw power shift over to Roy Wood, the only constant member other than drummer Bev Bevan (who ended up in Black Sabbath in the 1980s). Despite their name, the band doesn’t move very much on stage – probably because everyone needed to stay close to their mics – and the live performances stay pretty close to the studio versions, but there isn’t a ton of good footage of bands from this era, so you’ll take what you can get and you’ll like it. If you want most of the Move’s great songs, but don’t want invest in their full discography, this is a great way to get most of their best stuff in one place.
I saw H.R. (aka Human Rights, born Paul Hudson) do a show at Tramps in New York sometime around 1997-’98, and it was one of the strangest, and most frustrating, concerts I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t know much about his solo work, and was just going to see “the guy from Bad Brains”, figuring he’d be playing that kind of music. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After making the crowd wait for over an hour, H.R. took the stage, using opening act as his backing band, for a set of decent reggae that I don’t remember much about anymore, except that the guy on stage had very little in common with the guy I thought I was seeing. H.R. was a legendary performer – like an exploding firecracker in concert, but the guy I saw was placid and distant, like he was on another plane from the rest of us. A year or so later, I had the opportunity to see him at Irving Plaza with the reformed Bad Brains – or Soul Brains as they were now being called because H.R. decided he didn’t like the negative connotations of the word “bad” anymore. “OK,” I thought, “forget about that other show. This is the almighty Bad Brains – the real deal revolutionary punk rock I’ve always wanted to experience.” Nope. The band sounded great, but the H.R. was, yet again, a shell of his former self, barely putting any effort into his singing, and standing almost perfectly still. Did he not want to be there? Was his relationship with the band bad? Had he lost his mind?
Ever since these disappointing shows I’ve wondered what happened to cause the man to undergo this transformation. Was it simply mental illness, or was there something deeper that caused him to turn his back on everything fans loved him for. Author, and long-time New York Hardcore fan, Howie Abrams teamed with James Lathos (who recently released a documentary on H.R., also titled Finding Joseph I) on this oral history which delves into H.R’s unique psyche, and help fans understand some of the things – though not everything – that made him who he is today. The book doesn’t have input from some important folks (bandmates Dr. Know and Daryl Jennifer are missed) but the authors get some fascinating stories from his brother Earl, childhood friends, and tons of other musicians he’s encountered and inspired over the years. And it’s fascinating. In fact, I read the whole damn thing in under 24 hours, completely unable to put it down once I’d been hooked. The book is great because H.R. is such a complex character that it often reads like three different biographies rolled into one. You get the musical innovator whose band single-handedly ignited entire hardcore punk scenes in Washington D.C. and New York, the deeply spiritual Rastafarian who left punk for reggae, and the latter-day H.R., exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior and living semi-homeless after sabotaging multiple chances at commercial success. While the book covers a lot of hard times – and it’s undeniably frustrating to see someone as talented as H.R. sink deeper and deeper into mental illness – the story has a nice ending, with the singer happier and healthier than he’s been in a long time, thanks to a new wife who has been getting him the medical and psychiatric attention he’s needed for a long time. Needless to say, if you like punk rock, this is an essential read.
- David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia Records)
It’s hard to believe Bowie’s been gone for almost a year now. It’s also hard to believe that just days before he left us he put out his most artistically satisfying album in close to 40 years. Blackstar was highly adventurous in its mix of theatrical rock, heavy jazz and ambient textures. It was also a rare instance where an older artist tries to sound current and totally pulls it off. He is missed.
- Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
Continuing down the same path as Push The Sky Away (my #1 album of 2012), Skeleton Tree finds The Bad Seeds keeping the instrumentation sparse, and Cave’s calm-yet-haunted meditations on life and death more open ended and free-form than ever before. A textbook lesson on how to age well as an artist.
- Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (Loma Vista)
It’s been a long time since the last Iggy Pop album I liked. In fact the last one – Lust For Life – came out in 1977, four months after I was born. Collaborating with Josh Homme was a great idea, but the real stroke of brilliance here was revisiting the sound and style of Iggy’s Berlin-era albums (Lust For Life and The Idiot) which they recapture perfectly. If this is truly Iggy’s last album, then album-closer “Paraguay” will go down as one of the greatest kiss-offs of all time.
- Exploded View– Exploded View (Sacred Bones)
A new band, Exploded View’s album is a captivating brew of krautrock/dub/no wave made from first takes and improvisations. It’ll have you thinking of Can, Portishead, Silver Apples, but it has a vibe all of its own. I’m shocked and disappointed this album didn’t make a bigger splash. This is exactly the kind of new band we need right now.
- Mick Harvey – Delirium Tremens (Mute)
Mick Harvey’s third album of Serge Gainsbourg covers was great. The songs are a bit more obscure than the first two volumes, but they effect they have is no less impactful. Thankfully the fourth volume is scheduled for release in early 2017.
- Brigid Mae Power– Brigid Mae Power (Tompkins Square)
Irish singer Brigid Mae Power’s latest has a slow and hymnal quality to it. She’s usually accompanied by one or two instruments, playing a few chords and notes bathed in a heavy organic echo. But that’s all you really need to compliment that ethereal voice of hers, which produces the same emotional effect as listening to Slowdive, without sounding anything like them.
- Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)
I was a little hard on this album in my review. But I can be the bigger man and say I was very wrong. Even if there’s an occasional duff lyric, this is a great album start to finish and Walker’s guitar playing is something to marvel at.
- Higher Authorities – Neptune (Domino)
Does anyone else even know this album exists? Higher Authorities are a side project of Clinic’s Ade Blackburn and Jonathan Hartley, who gave these songs over to producer/mixer Adrian Sherwood to add all kinds of swirling dub effects and weedy noises. Like Clinic, with the punk removed and the psychedelia turned up to 11.
- The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Third World Pyramid (A Records)
Another album I was kind of hard on in my original review (boy, I can be a jerk sometimes). Third World Pyramid wasn’t very cohesive, despite just nine songs, but there’s some great songs within all that musical schizophrenia. I find myself frequently revisiting the title track, which features Tess Parks on vocals.
- Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
I’m still pretty confused by this album. Thom Yorke’s vocal range is diminished, it’s hard to get a sense of who’s playing what instruments (assuming this wasn’t all made by computers), and there’s some lesser material that probably should have been cut. But hey, it’s Radiohead so even a lesser album is worth listening to, so….um…#10?
Some other interesting albums from 2016:
Charles Bradley – Changes
Tobacco – Sweatbox Dynasty
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service