Frankie & The Witch Fingers – Zam (Greenway Records)

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Zam is the fifth LP from Los Angeles band Frankie & The Witch Fingers, and their first for New York-based label Greenway Records. The band – none of whom are named Frankie – plays what you would call “psychedelic rock”, but that can mean a lot of things these days, so let’s drill down to specifics: They’re, sonically, if not socially, a part of the West Coast psych scene centered around acts like Ty Segall, Wand, Oh Sees, Meatbodies…etc. Like those bands, the music on Zam travels across several genre tags. It can be heavy like metal, or high-energy like garage rock and punk; but the one constant is that it’s always aims for brain-busting psychedelia. Opener “Dracula Drug” is a pretty good microcosm of Zam as a whole. It’s long (the song is almost nine-minutes, and the album is a full hour), with sections that ebb and flow between moods like an acid trip. The first two minutes build up almost like an early Feelies song, but then it explodes into a monstrous garage-riff that could pretty much pass for an unreleased Oh Sees track. There are even some horns that come in closer to the crescendo, which fits because there’s often something mildly funky lurking underneath the surface on Zam. If Frankie & The Witch Fingers aren’t exactly James Brown, you can tell they at least listen to him. The band aren’t opposed to getting a little jammy either, but their flights of explorative fancy are tactically based, more rooted in the VU/Can tradition than some endless Grateful Dead/prog-induced snoozefest. If there’s a complaint to be lodged against Frankie & The Witch Fingers it’s that their songwriting and performances aren’t as strong as their peers, and even the more streamlined tracks like “Work” and “Cobwebs” are just begging for someone like Ty Segall or Oh Sees to turn them into classics. Still, if you really like those bands and you want more of that same sound and vibe, Frankie & The Witch Fingers have it covered.

The Fall – 1982 (Cherry Red)

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I’m not too fond of this new relatively new music format of compiling everything a band recorded in a single year into a multi-disc set. Seems like a crass way to corner fans into spending more on their old favorites. Perhaps after decades of free downloads and streaming services these kinds of fan-unfriendly releases are necessary to help keep the industry afloat. If that’s the case, then so be it. At least this six-disc set focuses on a great band, The Fall, at a high point in their career, 1982; so that should be good right? Well, yes and no.

The centerpiece of this collection is Hex Enduction Hour, on of The Fall’s greatest albums. Recording sessions were split between Iceland and an abandoned cinema in Hedfordshire, and the album marks a period when the band featured two drummers. Other than that, and a few more comparatively polished production touches, it’s business as usual for Mark E. Smith and crew as they rail against everything that was mundane and dreary in Thatcher’s Britain. “The Classical”, “Hip Priest” and “Who Makes The Nazis?” are the album’s most recognizable tracks, but the two versions of “Winter” and “Just Step S’ways” are lesser known treats that are well worth your time. I’m partial to Dragnet, but if you wanted to call this the Fall’s best album, I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it.

Hex Enducation Hour was enough of a success that it actually earned The Fall a spot on the UK album charts (#71) and increased interest in the band led to a tour of Australia and New Zealand (more on that later). Prior to embarking on that tour the band quickly convened in Cargo Studios in Rochdale to bash out what would be their follow up mini-album, Room To Live (Undeniable Slang Truth). The sessions, helmed by manager/auxiliary member Kay Carroll, were far rougher and more experimental than the ones that birthed Hex Enduction Hour. Smith pretty much turned everything that people liked about Hex Enduction Hour on its head, getting rid of the double drums, and having certain band members sit out on certain tracks. These seven tracks feature a few diamonds in the rough (“Joker Hysterical Face”, “Marquis Cha-Cha” and “Hard Life In The Country”) but “Detective Instinct” and the clattering “Papal Visit” probably haven’t been featured on anyone’s Best Of The Fall mixtapes. There are six bonus live tracks, but the sound quality is uniformly poor.

That’s it for the studio albums. There’s a hodge-podge disc that compiles a four-song Peel session from 1981, a two-song single (“Look, Know” and “I’m Into C.B.”), and another handful of concert tracks. The Peel Session and non-album single are both top notch, but The Fall’s charms have never translated well to live recordings and these (including a song from 1987??) are no different. Unfortunately, the remaining three discs are all concert recordings. There’s two discs of live material originally released in limited quantities as In A Hole and In A Hole +, mostly recorded in Auckland on their post-Hex Enduction Hour tour. The quality and the playing are dodgy, but at least, buried somewhere in the murk, you get to hear them cover Deep Purple’s “Black Night” for about 90 seconds. The final disc is a recording of a concert in Melbourne a few weeks prior to the Auckland date, given the unimaginative title of “Live To Air In Melbourne ’82. It’s a great setlist, covering most of the highlights from Hex Enduction Hour and Room to Live, but nothing here beats the studio versions.

The sixty-page booklet is great, with informative notes from Daryl Easlea, but unless you’re a Fall lifer who needs to hear it all, you’re probably best off buying Hex Enduction Hour and Room To Live separately and calling it a day.

Velveteen Rabbit – Velveteen Rabbit (Hozac)

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The spine of Velveteen Rabbit’s debut LP lists says it came out in 2019, but sonically speaking, the year is pretty much always 1972 for this NYC band. The sound captured in these vinyl grooves transplants you back to a time when Paul McCartney was in Wings, Alice Cooper was still cool, Chris Bell was still in Big Star, and glitter was king (or “queen” perhaps.) These were pretty great times for rock music, so it’s only fitting that these ten songs are also pretty great. “Knock ‘Em Dead”, “The Gunman” and “Oh, Logan” are hard-rocking, mildly psychedelic and uber-fun examples of everything that was good about the original glam scene, but the ballads are where Velveteen Rabbit make the biggest impression. “Guitar” is an ode to the joys of guitar playing that doesn’t just sound like a lost Big Star song; it sounds like an amazing lost Big Star song! The vocals really hit home, like a carbon copy of Chilton and Bell at their most fragile and beautiful. “Star In The Making” is a space-glam ballad that would have sounded perfectly at home on Ziggy Stardust, which is about the highest form of compliment you can give a glitter/glam track. Things get funky on “I’ll Be A Boy For You”, with parts that are reminiscent of Prince and The Stones tossing some grit on top of the glitter and lamé. Remember Velveteen Rabbit’s 2018 single, “Mind Numbing Entertainment” b/w “I Wanna Be Your Woman”? Well the album ends with new souped-up versions of both songs, with production helmed by a mysterious character only identified as…. um… Eddie Cockring. Really, this album has a lot to love – the songs, sounds, style, and production are all uniformly excellent. Buy it now, sucka!

The Linval Thompson Trojan Roots Album Collection (Doctor Bird)

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Let me try to make sense of this confusing 2-CD collection. It’s actually a compilation of three different reggae albums – Linval Thompson’s I Love Marijuana, Big Joe’s African Princess, and Trinity’s Rock In The Ghetto – with ten bonus tracks. The common thread across this music is that it was all released on Trojan’s Attack label between 1978-1980 and feature Linval Thompson, who first rose to prominence as a vocalist in the mid-70s, but found himself shifting more towards production as the decade drew to a close. It was an exciting period in reggae; the roots sound was still dominant, but dancehall was starting to bubble up from beneath the surface.

The title track of Linval Thompson’s I Love Marijuana is tremendous – as powerful a reggae ode to the virtues of marijuana as Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” – but Thompson’s silky almost-falsetto vocals are a real treat throughout the eleven songs. The topics Thompson tackles may be overly familiar to anyone with a sizable collection of ’70s reggae – ghetto politics, peace, love, women, and weed, with surprisingly little Rastafarianism – but the songs are snappy and sincere. You can really feel the heat and the poverty of Kingston pouring off these tracks. In addition to his own original compositions, Thompson sings a pair of tunes penned by Ken Boothe (“Not Follow Fashion” and “Just Another Girl”), and “Starlight” by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

Thompson produced Big Joe’s African Princess, which also came out in 1978 and repurposes some of the musical tracks from I Love Marijuana as backing tracks for the man born Joseph Spalding to toast over. I’m not crazy about toasting in general (if you’re unfamiliar with the style, which is also known as “chatting” or “deejaying”, think of it as a Jamaican precursor to rapping) and Big Joe isn’t one of the bigger talents in the genre either, lacking the flash and finesse of someone like Big Youth, U-Roy or Doctor Alimantado. I like how Thompson uses echo to give Joe’s voice a booming, almost biblical, feel; but that’s not enough to make African Princess a must-hear album.

Trinity’s Rock In the Ghetto is, again, a Thompson-produced toasting album, but this one was came out in 1979. It’s a smoother sounding album, and Thompson’s production inches even closer to dancehall, keeping the vocals upfront and unclouded by echo, and the music tracks super crisp and punchy. Trinity is a better toaster than Big Joe, too. Sure, he stubbornly sticks to the same over-used vocal cadences and lyrical tropes that you hear on most toasting records from the ’70s, but songs like “Pope Paul Dead and Gone” – which appears on the album, and in extended disco-mix form as a bonus track – and “Dangerous Rockers and Ting” showed that Trinity could step outside genre conventions and take a more unique lyrical approach.

The ten bonus tracks are a nice addition too, including Barry Brown’s classic “Mr. CID” and some spaced-out dubs from Scientist.

Trampoline Team – Trampoline Team (Hozac)

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Trampoline Team are a New Orleans trio that whips you with a particularly fast and fierce brand of punk rock lashes. Their last album was even called Make It Faster. Their new self-titled album is their fastest yet. The tempos are uniformly speedy, the recording is consistently vicious, and singer Sam DeLuca keeps her middle finger permanently raised high. If I’m making comparisons, I’d say Trampoline Team remind me of that 1979 moment when California punk rock, led by bands like Rhino 39, The Germs and Black Flag, began to shift to hardcore. That’s an exciting comparison, but they also recall live clips of latter-day Ramones, when they started playing their old songs so fast that they just about lost all the melody and meaning that made them great. And that’s the sum of everything interesting and frustrating about Trampoline Team. You can’t question their dedication to all things visceral and high energy, but the unwavering uniformity of their full-on sound just steamrolls all hints of melody and nuance into submission, producing diminishing returns as the album hurdles towards its end, just twenty-five minutes after it started. That’s OK though, Trampoline Team will probably have a bright future as an opening act for bigger punk bands’ New Orleans tour dates. “Pay The Price” is a pretty good song though.

Disco Junk – Underage Punk (Hozac)

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Based on what I could glean from their Facebook page, Disco Junk are now a trio, but this seven inch single was recorded by Billy Twyford and Lachie, two barely high school-aged teens operating out of Melbourne, Australia. It’s pretty crude stuff, musically speaking – though that’s actually a compliment. Picture an alternate universe where Billy Childish ends up singing for the Teen Idles (while somehow picking up a distinctively Australian accent), and you’ve got a general idea of what Disco Junk are up to. These songs are overstuffed with bad attitude and feelings of alienation, and the lyrics are pretty much a list of different things singer Billy Twyford hates. The punchline from opener “Mutual Hate” seems to sum up Disco Junk’s worldview nicely: “You hate me and I hate you”. Twyford even seems to hate the song, letting out a blood-curdling scream at the 1:20 mark that brings it to a crashing halt, perhaps prematurely. “Outta Melbourne” expands the radius of Twyford hate explosion outwards to cover the entire city of Melbourne. It’s got a three-minute runtime and even sports a guitar solo, which makes it about as close to a pop song as Disco Junk gets; but only if your idea of pop music is Jay Reatard at his most ornery. Next up is the title track, a proper blast of youthful righteous hardcore energy, lasting for just 40 raging seconds. Underage Punk ends with “Defenestration”, which is – what else – more nihilistic punk rock! The thing is, Disco Junk are pretty good at it, and they’re so incredibly young that there’s plenty of room for growth (both in terms of height, and musical maturity). I’d keep an eye on them.

Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers – DTK: Complete Live At The Speakeasy (Jungle Records)

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DTK (that stands for Down To Kill, folks) captures Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers live at London club The Speakeasy in March of 1977; the same month they would record their timeless studio debut, L.A.M.F. You get the full audio side of the Heartbreakers live experience on this album – the band plays with rock and roll chops that harken back to the ’50s and ’60s, but cranks it up with punk attitude and speed (in both its velocity and chemical-based definitions). Plus, you get to hear Thunders and guitarist Walter Lure berate the audience, and occasionally each other, with Noo-Yawk accented in-between song put-downs, along with a few other vulgar asides peppered in. It’s a great proposition, but if you’re looking for the best Heartbreakers live album, go with Live At Max’s, which was recorded a year later on home turf in NYC and also put out by Jungle Records. The sound on DTK is good, but the Max’s disc sounds fuller and it has a better setlist. DTK is actually two short sets recorded on the same night, with significant overlap between them. So, even though there are 15 songs in total, five are repeat performances. Still, The Heartbreakers were so white-hot at their peak you could give me a lo-fi album of them playing “Get Off The Phone” fifteen times back-to-back and it would still be a livewire listening experience, dripping with the spirit of rock and roll.
In addition to the two sets, the DTK package has Kris Needs’ original liner notes from 1982, and a more recent interview with the last Heartbreaker standing, Walter Lure, conducted by Thunders biographer Nina Antonia.