Wayne Kramer – The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 and My Life Of Impossibilities (Da Capo Press)

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Wayne Kramer celebrated two major milestones in 2018. First, he turned 70 years old in April, and second, he hit the road with an all-star backing group to mark the 50th anniversary of Kick Out The Jams, as pivotal piece of American underground music as any. With so many big things happening, now definitely feels like the perfect time for a look back at his life and career, which you get in this autobiography, aptly titled The Hard Stuff (named after one his 1990’s albums on Epitaph). Of course MC5 fans will relish the opportunity to hear Kramer’s version of events from the band’s history, but, truth be told, there’s already been so much written about them across a myriad of books and articles that the best pieces of meat have already picked off the bone. So, while most who read The Hard Stuff will be ardent MC5 fans, the most enjoyable sections are actually the ones about Kramer’s life before and after The MC5. Early in the book, Kramer (real last name: Kambes…a fact I never knew) recalls how his childhood turned upside-down almost overnight thanks to the twin terrors of an absent father, and an abusive step-father. The damage from his childhood led him to seek out trouble wherever he could find it – which came back to bite him in the ass after the MC5 caved in 1972 under the pressure of drug addiction, mismanagement and bad career choices. Essentially left adrift in the world, with no musical prospects and a serious heroin habit to boot, Kramer spent the next few year trying to fill the holes in his life and wallet with a dangerous concoction of burglary, fencing stolen goods and drug dealing. Unsurprisingly Kramer, never one for smart decisions, got caught in major cocaine sting and was sent to jail for four years. The chapters detailing his day-to-day existence as just another inmate among many, are particularly harrowing.

Released from prison in 1978, the next forty years of Kramer’s life whiz by in just 80 pages. True, nothing in his post-jail musical resume carries the same weight as The MC5 era, but still, he could have easily added some additional depth to this part of the book. What he does let us in on is about twenty more years of irresponsible drinking, drugging and womanizing post-jail, followed by a hard-fought sobriety, ultimately bringing us up to the older and wiser Wayne Kramer of today: A father, a husband, a well respected musician who isn’t hurting for work, and a philanthropist whose non-profit organization Jail Guitar Doors helps inmates through the use of music as an outlook for expression. The Hard Stuff’s lesson is an inspirational one: no matter how far you fall, circumstances can arise which lead you to a better place. Plus it’s just wildly entertaining – I finished it in about two days.


Broadway Lafayette – Subway Zydeco (Hound Gawd!)

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Here’s one of those puzzling instances where a venerable artist with a deep resume (in this case, Mick Collins of The Dirtbombs, Gories, and about ten other bands) makes a great album, yet for some reason absolutely nobody is talking about. Before I get to the music, I have to give it up for the band’s name. As a 40 year New York resident I know the Broadway-Lafayette stop on the NYC subway line very well, but in all my years never recognized its potential as a perfectly clever name for a band that mixes zydeco with a sprinkling of dirty-ass urban rock. And that’s what these guys do on their debut album, which they recorded back in 2015, but is only just getting released now. The thing I love about it is that very little of what Collins and crew are doing falls on the “garage rock” side of the spectrum – instead they dig deep into the roots of zydeco, restoring the original coat of ragged grime that Louisiana’s unique mix of R&B, blues and Creole music is known for.

The band’s sound pretty much revolves around zydeco staples accordion and melodeon, both played by Cyril Yeterian. They never sound like The Rolling Stones, but there’s something intangibly “Stonesy” in the way the instruments bob and weave around each other like two drunks dancing on a bar-room floor. As pitch-perfect as the ragged-but-right musicianship is, it’s Collins’ vocal performance that impresses the most. I’ve always enjoyed his cool deadpan singing style, but here, with the volume stripped back, his voice has a real emotional impact I’ve never heard before. He shows off his talent for strong character-driven narratives on tracks like “Bad Luck Joe” and “One Thing at A Time”, and unveils a unexpectedly tender falsetto on the absolutely stunning “Girl De Hong Kong”. Mostly though, Subway Zydeco just sounds like great fun – you want to hear this kind of music at your local bar. Preferably tonight.

The Damnation of Adam Blessing – The Damnation Of Adam Blessing and Second Damnation (Exit Stencil Recordings)

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The Damnation of Adam Blessing were a Cleveland outfit who were popular locally but didn’t trouble the waters nationally all that much when they released these two albums back in 1969 and 1970. Like many bands operating at the time, their self-titled debut and follow-up, Second Damnation capture the sound of experimentation and transformation, as the band were looking beyond their previous psychedelic and garage rock incarnations (members had played in The Alarm Clocks and Dust), and embracing the heavy sound of The Jeff Beck Group, Mountain and Cream.

Their debut album is admittedly a messy personality crisis of a record that will have you wondering just who these guys really were. Were they the hard-rocking psychedelic voyagers you hear on strong tracks “Cookbook” and “Le’ Voyage” (the latter of which has a bit of an MC5 feel to it)? Were they simply a good-time rock band looking for easy thumbs ups from stoned concert audiences, as demonstrated by uninspired covers of “Morning Dew”, “You Don’t Love Me” and “Last Train To Clarksville”? Or were they looking to split the difference between those two sounds as heard on the album ending trio “Dreams”, “Hold On” and “Lonely”. Clearly, the band were sending mixed signals. The only constant was singer Adam Blessing (whose real name was decidedly less dramatic – Bill Constable), whose voice was forceful without resorting to the over-indulgent histrionics that sunk so many other hard-rock bands from that era. He definitely could have benefitted from a better backing band though. Don’t get me wrong, these guys were perfectly competent musicians, but their playing was too timid to leave behind a lasting impression.

Released less than a year later, Second Damnation is a much stronger album. The band were road-hardened, including a recent spot at the Cincinnati Pop Festival (where Iggy Pop famously slathered peanut butter over himself) in front of tens of thousands of fans. The album was more cohesive and the songs hit much harder than anything on their debut. The same band that sounded tentative just a few months earlier now sounded limber and completely in control over the nuances of dynamics and tempo. “Driver”, a hard hitting beast of song, stands out above the rest, but even “Everyone”, a tender ballad about loneliness featuring vocal harmonies from Adam’s brother Ken, works this time out. “Back To The River” was a snappy little tune that made it as far as #102 on the Billboard charts, but that was as far as the band would get. Frustrations quickly arose within the ranks due to poor album distribution and a lack of national touring opportunities. Two more albums followed (including one under the name Glory) before they called it quits.

The new vinyl reissues were sourced from the original masters, so they sound phenomenal. There’s no extra material, but both feature informative liner notes by Doug Sheppard of Ugly Things Magazine, which are a valuable bonus.

Painted Doll – Painted Doll (Tee Pee)

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One of the great things about music is that it gives people from different walks of life something to bond over. Such is the case with Painted Doll, a band that came about when Dave Hill, a writer, comic and musician who’s played Cobra Verde, and Chris Reifert, a veteran death metal drummer whose lengthy resume includes time in Death and founding Autopsy, bonded over their love of ’60s/’70s music. That bond ultimately led the duo to test their musical chemistry out in the studio, which in turns leads us to this ten-song debut album on New York indie label Tee Pee. Once you get over the shock (and perhaps even hilarity) of hearing Reifert, a guy you may remember from such gore-drenched “classics” as “I Sodomize Your Corpse” and “Necrocannibalistic Vomitorium”, playing music that takes cues from Love, T.Rex and The Kinks, the songs start to speak for themselves…and they’re really good! Perhaps Painted Doll won’t blow your mind with a shockingly fresh take on hard-psych (in fact, album openers “Together Alone” and “Carousel” are almost completely indebted to “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “Cosmic Dancer”, respectively), but Hill delivers sugary power-pop hooks and harmonies to perfection, the guitar work is unexpectedly accomplished, and Reifert’s drumming is powerful yet tasteful (don’t worry sissies – no blast-beats here!). They also stop short of leaning on any period affectations; so as much as Painted Doll’s songs are inspired by the sounds of yesteryear, they stay modern and completely free of retro-kitsch. Highlights include “Hidden Hand”, “Eclipse” (which sounds a bit like Monster Magnet – a band Painted Doll have played shows with) and the closing Doors-y cover of “I Put A Spell On You” where Hill wisely keeps the vocals on simmer, avoiding any temptation to try and out-do Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ downright possessed original.

The Nils – Brave New Waves Session (Artofffact)

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The Nils recorded these nine songs in a single session at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (Canada’s version of the BBC) in March of 1988, one year after the release of their self-titled debut album. The session captures an awkward time in Nils history, right after bassist Guy “Chico” Caron had quit in response to their record label (Profile) abruptly sending the band home from a promising US tour due to bankruptcy. Caron’s absence forced The Nils into a musical version of a power-play defense, pushing second guitarist Carlos Soria over to the bass, while giving singer Alex Soria no choice but to turn the volume on his guitar way up to try to cover the gaps . While this loud-guitar trio version of The Nils doesn’t have some of the prettier nuances of their studio recordings, oddly enough, they sound a lot like Dinosaur Jr. here; especially with Soria’s slurred vocal style. There are six band originals – “River Of Sadness” being the strongest of the bunch – and covers of The Who (“Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand”), Tim Hardin-via-The Small Faces (“Red Balloon”) and Men Without Hats (“Pop Goes The World”). It’s their cover of Men Without Hats (you know – the “Safety Dance” band) that resonates the most because it hints at how easily a few poppy hooks could have turned the band’s fortunes around, had Profile bankruptcy not forced them to wait on the sidelines for four years during the alternative rock boom of the early-’90s. Brave New Waves Sessions ends with an interview with CBC host Brent Bambury wherein the band discuss the origins of several songs on the disc, while sporting one of the thickest Canadian accents ever recorded to tape.

Soft As Snow – Deep Wave (Houndstooth)

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I wouldn’t normally expect from a new group playing music heavily inspired by ’90s electronica, but this Nowegian duo do just that yet they’ve won me over. While the music is a creative brew of lo-fi industrial klang and menacing trip-hop paranoia, I’m mostly here for singer Oda Egjar Starheim’s stunning vocals. A bevy of effects and heavy reverb make it almost impossible to discern what she’s saying, or even what language she uses (it could be English for I know) but her vocals are mostly a mechanism for delivering melodies and texture, not narrative. This approach creates a shoegaze-like air of mystery and confusion that at times reminds me of The Cocteau Twins. Soft As Snow (whose name comes from a My Bloody Valentine song-title) explores a variety of tempos and dynamics on Deep Wave, but they’re best on songs like the title track and “Sleep Slip”, where they slow things down to a crawl and give listeners a chance to marinate inside the hypnotic moods they’ve created. An unexpected joy.

Wire – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154: Deluxe Edition (Pink Flag)

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When Wire originally released these three albums, once a year between 1977 and 1979, they weren’t just on the cutting edge of the late-’70s British rock vanguard; they were a step ahead of everyone else, consistently injecting incredible new sounds and ideas into the art-form. I would argue that, outside of Brian Eno, nobody brought more interesting sounds and concepts to the table then Wire did in the 1970s. Yet, despite the critical praise they received, the London group never really enjoyed the same level of success as their punk and post-punk peers (PiL, Joy Division, Gang of Four). It’s a shame their bankbooks weren’t the same size as their talents, but I understand why. Wire were always a bit too obscure for the mainstream, they never presented an identifiable image – you could stare at a band photo for 20 minutes and still not recognize them on the street an hour later – and always deployed overtly intellectual ideas born out of an art-school background. This approach, perhaps best typified by song-titles like “French Film Blurred” and “Map Ref. 41N 93W”, was brilliant, but it wasn’t going to win them many fans in the Sex Pistols/Clash set.

Their 1977 debut album Pink Flag, sounded closer to punk rock than anything else in the Wire discography. With twenty-one songs whizzing by in thirty-five minutes there’s a strong argument to be made for its influence on the first wave of hardcore punk bands, many of whom covered songs from Pink Flag. However, even if the album frequently reveled in punk’s directness and simplicity, Wire’s take on the genre never resorted to the cheap posturing and sloganeering that so many other British bands latched on to. Sprinkled in among Pink Flag’s hyper-speed attacks were a few slower songs like “Reuters” and “Lowdown” that pointed the way forward, building the framework for the post-punk scene that would rise in Pink Flag’s wake. If most punk bands sounded like they were taking a flamethrower to society, on these songs Wire sounded like they were ordering a drone strike; colder and more clinical, but just as deadly. While you could never accuse Wire of playing it for chuckles like The Dictators or The Rezillos, bouncier songs like “Three Girl Rhumba” (which Elastica borrowed for their hit “Connection”), “Fragile” and “Feeling Called Love” at least dropped hints that Wire might in fact have a “fun” side.

Pink Flag was a defining statement in punk-rock minimalism, yet by the time the album came out Wire were already looking ahead to a more expansive sound that would be 1978’s Chairs Missing. The band were advancing at such a fast pace, that a concert from the week Pink Flag was released featured just two songs from that album in the set-list. Wire were still an aggressive band on Chairs Missing, but producer Mike Thorne placed more emphasis on texture and ambience, adding all kinds of guitar effects, keyboards and synthesizers to the mix. While some critics felt the album revealed Wire as closet prog fans (“French Film Blurred” and “Marooned” sounded like a malignant Pink Floyd), expanding their sonic palette made it possible for Wire to bring the obscure ideas behind songs like “Outdoor Miner” and “I Am The Fly” to life. Now they could write a song called “Being Sucked In Again” that actually sounds like the listener is being sucked in (though it’s unclear exactly what mechanism they’re being sucked into). Even with their newly developed penchant for ornate studio effects, at their core Wire were still a hard-hitting band. “Sand In My Joints” and “Too Late” were both close cousins to punk rock (the latter nicely covered by Yo La Tengo) and I’ve always thought that someone like Voivod or Tool could do a great cover of “Mercy”.

If Chairs Missing placed Wire within the post-punk vanguard, their 1979 follow-up, 154 (named after the number of concerts they’d played at that point), found them practically moving beyond rock music altogether. The tempos were slower, the vocals more arch, and the atmospheres that once surrounded their songs now were the songs. By expanding their sonic palette even further on 154 Wire imbued songs like “A Touching Display” (which features a viola), “A Mutual Friend” and “40 Versions” with an other-worldly quality that could be considered as influential on future goth and shoegaze bands as early Wire songs like “12XU” were on punk. The band (and it seems strange to call the version of Wire heard on 154 a “band” as they rarely ever sound like four guys recording music in a room) were on a creative high, but they soon began pushing the avant-garde limits of their music past their breaking point. The post-154 tracks on the first of the album’s two bonus discs are a clattering mess – all idea, with no execution. The 154 tour would confuse fans even more with all new songs and a Dadaist stage show. The band broke up soon thereafter, though they would reunite twice, and are still active.

All three albums are remastered, though I don’t hear much difference from the last round of reissues from 2006. They also each come with an 80-page book of photos, lyrics, interviews and other ephemera. I only received digital files of the music to review, so I can’t offer any comments on these. Lastly, each album comes with bonus material from singles, demos and alternate mixes, some of which has never been officially released until now.

The demos are an interesting addition. They’re consistently well recorded and demonstrate just how solid the band was, even when stripped of the bells and whistles they would gain in their album recordings. More interestingly, the demos debut a few songs that never made it onto the albums, and also offer up fresh looks at some familiar tunes via different arrangements or alternate lyrics. It’s also interesting how the demos for Chairs Missing sound more like Pink Flag-era recordings, and the demos for 154 sound like they were recorded for Chairs Missing. Surprisingly a few of Wire’s earliest, and punkiest, demos didn’t make the cut, with songs like “Just Don’t Care”, “TV” and, um, “Mary Is A Dyke” left out in the cold.

If you’ve never heard these albums, I recommend buying all three immediately and repeatedly basking in their genius. However, even serious fans who already know what I sometimes refer to as “the holy trinity” back-to-front, will find a new set of wonders to marvel at within these expanded editions.