The Brian Jonestown Massacre – The Sun Ship (A Recordings)

This brief two-song 10″ is a teaser for the BJM’s 15th full-length album Third World Pyramid, due out later this October. The title-track A-side, taken from the album, finds the band in Beatles circa-Magical Mystery Tour mode. It’s not immediately attention grabbing, but it drifts along nicely, propelled on by a psychedelic “I Am The Walrus”-styled groove and some synth/mellotron flourishes. The B-side, “Playtime”, is exclusive to this release. It’s a little under-developed, but just about gets by on a strong melody that fits snugly with the 1967 U.K. psych-pop vibe of the A-side. With a little over seven minutes of good-not-great music, and a current Amazon sale price of $15.19, The Sun Ship isn’t a very good value – especially when you expect to find the “exclusive” B-side on a future compilation of some sort. However, if you’re someone who geeks out over the intricacies of vinyl packaging, it’s got interesting artwork, cool-looking translucent orange vinyl, and comes in a hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000 copies, so the cost can be somewhat justified.

Harley Flanagan – Hardcore: Life Of My Own (Feral House)

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In recent years there’s been a consistent stream of books, movies, and TV shows covering the vibrant New York music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, and just as many about the crime and violence happening on those same gritty streets. People usually get it all wrong <cough> Vinyl <cough>, but Harley Flanagan’s autobiography, Hardcore: Life Of My Own, gets it all too right. While I personally find his bands (Cro-Mags, Stimulators and Harley’s War) more historically important than enjoyable, Flanagan was one of the few New Yorkers who were neck deep in music and the street life, and his book recalls both in vivid, and often frightening, detail – like it really was, and not romanticized. Born to an alcoholic, but nurturing, mother and a drug-addict criminal father who left the family early on, Harley’s life was insane, pretty much from the start. While most kids his age were playing ball with friends, he was seeing shows at Max’s Kansas City at six (his mother worked there), publishing a book of poems at nine with a forward written by family -friend Allen Ginsburg, living a nomadic life in Europe with his mother, and drumming in a Danish punk band at age ten. Things only got crazier from there, as Flanagan – now a skinhead – and his mother moved back to New York, settling in Alphabet City, back when it was a modern-day wild west of drugs, gangs, fights and any other form of lawlessness imaginable. With constant pressure from locals who didn’t like all the punks “invading” their neighborhood, he dropped out of school at fourteen and hit the streets for the next few years, getting into a daily routine of drugs, alcohol, beat-downs, and crime as he struggled to simply stay alive amidst a minefield of gangs, rival punks, and even a shotgun-wielding hitman in a pig mask looking to collect a bounty on him. It was an ugly life, and Flanagan was a vicious predatory fucker with no real redeeming qualities other than the fact he could play an instrument, though I have no idea how he found time to practice and write with all the chaos around him. As bad as things get, and they get god-awful, you simply cannot turn away from the hundreds of pages recounting the kind of fascinating stories that simply no longer exist in modern New York (which is probably for the best, though people like to wax poetic about the old days). Harley writes about life as a teen squatting in an abandoned San Francisco brewery, living with a pair of brutally violent satanic Nazi skinheads (!) in Canada, and his career in music, of course. While the whole book has tremendous visceral impact, the part I keep thinking of is a chapter on the 1990s where he tells readers he left out a lot of detail because he doesn’t want his kids reading it. In a book where he cops to about fifty crimes, freely uses the word “fag”, recounts separate incidents when he punched a girl in the face, and played a Nazi skinhead concert (to be fair he didn’t know what it was until he got there – though he still played), the notion that there’s stuff so bad he doesn’t want his kids reading it is kinda strange, and potentially frightening. Thankfully, the book has a happy ending, with Flanagan, now 49 and a parent of two, putting his wild days behind him (though he still sees the world through the moral code of the streets) and finding a new career teaching Jiu-Jitsu to children (including Anthony Bourdain’s – he returns the favor by writing the forward). Throughout the book he often says “I could probably write a whole book just on this part of my life”, and based on what I’ve read, I 100% believe him. In fact, I want him to! I also kind of want a “where are they now” section dedicated to all the crazy characters he ran with over the years. Don’t be surprised if Hardcore: A Life Of My Own is turned into a film or TV series somewhere down the road. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t. Simply fascinating stuff.

Cleveland Wrecking Company – Say There’s A Reason/Hat Full Of Dreams 7″(Roaratorio)

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Cleveland Wrecking Company were a Bay Area band who played the local circuit with a lot of big names from the ’60s (Grateful Dead, Santana, Joplin, CCR…etc.) , but had their chance at stardom destroyed when their manager took an album advance from Vanguard Records to Mexico to buy pot. Sure, he planned on selling that pot back in the U.S. and using the money on even more studio time, but he got burned on the deal and came back with bupkis. So, outside of a 7″ released by a later incarnation of the band with almost all different members, all we have to remember Cleveland Wrecking Company’s prime by is this two-song 7″ recorded circa 1967-1968 (they don’t remember the exact year, this being 1960’s San Francisco and all). Side A is a studio recording of a garage rock number called “Say There’s A Reason”, which isn’t much from a songwriting perspective, and Jim Moscoso’s quasi-mystical lyrics don’t quite work in 2016, but things really pick up during a thundering instrumental section that recalls the proto-metal likes of Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer, complete with all the fuzz guitar your little heart could possibly desire. The B-side is a live recording of “Hat Full Of Dreams” from either The Fillmore or The Family Dog (again, they were probably too stoned to remember). The guitar is way up-front in the recording, but despite an uneven mix – if you try real hard you can almost hear the drums – the band’s high energy and acid-punk spirit comes through, especially in Norman Beals’ wild guitar solo which borders on free-jazz atonality. Despite their obvious imperfections, these two songs are an undeniably interesting time capsule of a freewheeling era in music, and they’ve got me wondering what could’ve been if the Cleveland Wrecking Company actually got to record that album. I guess we’ll never know.

The Chills – Kaleidoscope World (Flying Nun)

Kaleidoscope World compiles the first six years of The Chills recordings, from their first single in 1980 up until 1986, one year prior to their first full-length, Brave Words. Not too many bands would wait seven years before recording an album – especially once they cracked the singles charts, which The Chills did multiple times in New Zealand – but The Chills weren’t like most bands. On the surface they would seem to be an indie-psychedelic band, but outside of naming an album Kaleidoscope World, they rarely subscribed to any of the genre’s touchstones. They didn’t experiment with brain-tickling sounds, write trippy lyrics, or create lysergic moods meant to enhance drug-altered perception. Instead, leader Martin Phillips examined the “inner-space” of grief, longing and other personal feelings. Actually, his favorite topic during this period was The Chills themselves, with several songs featuring lyrics about what was going on in their world. That actually provided a lot of material for Phillips, with 10 different line-ups over six years – all detailed in the accompanying liner notes – and, sadly, the death of drummer Martyn Bull from leukemia in 1983. The heartbreaking impact of Bull’s death can be directly heard on a short instrumental titled “Martyn’s Doctor Told Me”, and “I Love My Leather Jacket”, the latter of which would appear, on the surface, to be an ode to one on rock’s most indispensable fashion items, but which takes on a new meaning when you learn that it’s about a jacket Bull gave Phillips before he died. As interesting as these songs are, “Pink Frost” was The Chills best known song, and perhaps the best song to come out of the entire New Zealand/Flying Nun indie scene. It’s a meditation on death’s impact on people close to the deceased, and it was the band’s first single released after Bull’s death, yet despite that poignant context, it’s actually based on a dream Phillips had about a girl, and has nothing to do with Bull. The song works so well because of the way Phillips’ lyrics and voice perfectly capture the flood of emotions, and difficult soul-searching that comes with an up-close encounter with death. The album isn’t all doom and gloom though, as the band are equally at home on bouncy pop songs like “Don’t Even Know Her Name” and “Hidden Bay” as the more harrowing stuff. It’s a great album by a highly underrated band, and this 30th anniversary edition, with its remastered sound, archival bonus tracks and in-depth liner notes, is perfect for newbies and committed fans alike.

The Scientists – A Place Called Bad (Numero Group)

While the American and U.K. punk underground spent the late-’70s and early-’80s going nuts over hyper-speed hardcore and Oi, Australian bands never really got over the sound of proto-punk, from The Velvet Underground up through The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. The Scientists were one of the bigger Australian bands of that era, and A Place Called Bad is their first comprehensive career retrospective: a four-disc set covering everything from their 1979 debut single, until their demise in 1987 (though they’ve played the odd reunion concert since).

It’s chronologically ordered, with Disc 1 rehashing the band’s earliest years, when they played ragged-but-right pop-punk inspired by The Rolling Stones and The New York Dolls. A few songs from this era hit the mark dead on – “It’s For Real”, “Last Night” and “Frantic Romantic” are the best of the bunch – but singer Kim Salmon’s lightweight lyrics defang an otherwise potent attack, putting the band in league with soft-punching (if still fun) pop-punk like The Undertones and Generation X. Not bad, but not something you’d want 80 songs of.

Well, things changed drastically in 1981, with the band moving from Perth to Sydney, picking up a new guitarist (Tony Thewlis) and drummer (Brett Rixon) on the way, and taking on a new and improved sound, influenced by The Stooges, Suicide and Captain Beefheart. Those fluffy songs about girls were replaced with noisy, psychotic swamp-punk that welcomed comparisons with contemporaries The Birthday Party, The Gun Club and The Cramps. You could even make a strong argument that The Scientists’ dirty guitar sound from this era – best heard on tracks like “We Had Love” and “Rev Head” – was an influence on the early Seattle grunge sound, with The Melvins and Mudhoney both huge fans. Perhaps their rhythm section was a little too unrelenting in their pounding to make the band as great as their peers or influences, but when they’re on they’re fantastic. “Swampland” is the best example of their output from this chaotic era, but “Solid Gold Hell” is worth mentioning too, with one of Kim Salmon’s creepiest vocal performances. Plus, it somehow sounds exactly like its nonsensical title. This was peak-era Scientists.

A Place Called Bad’s back-half is less successful. Disc 3 covers the band’s final years, with several line-up changes, and poor production weakening their core sound. Kim Salmon, the band’s only constant member at this point, tries to salvage the situation with some of his darkest lyrics and most intense performances yet, but he’s actually throwing too much of himself into these songs, sometimes abandoning melody in an attempt to create almost murderous moods (a complaint I’ve also had about The Birthday Party, so if you like them, this may not be an issue). Even on the way out they still occasionally found the right alchemy on a few classics like “Atom Bomb Baby” (though “She looks real pretty/I’m her Hiroshima City” isn’t exactly great poetry).

The final disc compiles twenty-two live recordings, including twelve from a single show at the Adelaide UniBar. The performances are as intense as expected, but the lo-fi sound makes it challenging to listen to. It does contain a few songs that were never recorded in the studio, though, making it a nice bonus for fans.

If you want a bang-bang Scientists album, where every song is a killer, you’d probably be better served by a one-disc best-of. But if you love the band and want more, A Place Called Bad is a great opportunity to get it all at once.

Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)

I’m going to jump right into this with “The Roundabout”, the sixth song on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, and also its best. It’s the best because it strikes the right balance between Ryley Walker the singer/songwriter, and Ryley Walker the musician; a struggle of push-and-pull that’s been playing out over his discography. Walker writes good songs, but his voice doesn’t have a ton of character and sometimes his lyrics aren’t as clever or poetic as he thinks they are (lines like “Spend your mornings thinking about the night/Don’t carry fire, you can use my light” make me groan). Musicianship is another story, and Walker and his bandmates are on fire here, often recalling the cutting edge melding of folk and jazz Tim Buckley explored on Happy/Sad, Starsailor and Blue Afternoon. Sometimes those instrumental passages are so good, they make you wish Walker would turn the microphone off and just keep playing. The album’s opening duo of “The Halfwit In Me” and “A Choir Apart:” have Walker struggling to place his words into the songs’ relatively fast tempos, while still conveying some kind of meaning or emotion. Golden Sings’ slower songs are a better match, giving Walker enough space to play around with cadences and put more soul into his vocals, while still having enough leftover space for instrumental displays. The problem is there’s too many of these songs, saddling the album with a sluggish tempo it never quite overcomes – although the album-ending “Age Old Tale” is phenomenal, recalling the title song from Neil Young’s On The Beach, with an intoxicating dream-like feel that make its 8+ minutes seem short. Walker has the tools to make a classic album at some point in his career, but we may need to be patient until he finds the perfect balance between his strengths and weaknesses.

I’m A Freak, Baby: A Journey Through The British Heavy Psych & Hard Rock Underground Scene, 1968-1972 (Grapefruit Records)

By 1968, a new breed of long-haired U.K. bands was sprouting, armed with gigantic amps and loud, aggressive, songs influenced by the high-volume of Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Blue Cheer, among others. I’m A Freak, Baby is a three-disc set celebrating these bands, who from ’68-’72 invented new forms of angry blues, deranged prog-rock, and brain-melting psychedelia that would set the stage for all the heavy metal and punk rock that was lurking just around the corner.

It’s an under-celebrated scene. One which defies easy categorization and doesn’t even have a widely accepted genre name that can be slapped on it (you could call it proto-metal or heavy-psych, but I’ve also heard it called freak-rock, a more accurate catch-all). This new boxset gives you the best tracks from 48 freak-rock bands, running the gamut from Rock and Roll Hall Of Famers (Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac on the ascent, and The Yardbirds’ last gasp before morphing into Led Zeppelin), to songs that were previously unreleased until now (The Kult, Hellmet and Barnabus).

While most of the tracklist is dedicated to hard rockers, the scene’s punkier side comes out in streamlined tunes from Stack Waddy, Crushed Butler, The Deviants and The Pink Fairies (whose “Do It” is one of the all-time great proto-punk anthems). Jerusalem and Iron Claw show how Black Sabbath’s influence spread quickly, with doom/downer classics “Primitive Man” and “Skullcrusher”, the latter of which provoked legal threats from Sabbath’s management for sounding so much like them. The seeds heavy metal’s next generation are here too, with songs that would be later be covered by Judas Priest (Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown)” – a stone killer that has nothing in common with the soft-rock they’d later be known for) and Iron Maiden (“All In Your Mind” by Stray), as well as a song called “Falling” by a completely different band called Iron Maiden from the late-1960s. However, it’s Lemmy ghost that looms largest over this set, which is dedicated to his memory. First he’s in there as the singer on Sam Gopal’s 1969 song “Escalator”, which sounds a lot like Motorhead would have if Phil Taylor played tablas instead of drums. Then there’s his pre-Motorhead band Hawkwind, who are here with an unreleased pre-Lemmy single, “Sweet Mistress of Pain”, from 1969 when they were still called Hawkwind Zoo. Lastly, while there’s no direct connection, I’ll be damned if the box-set’s title song, recorded by Wicked Lady in 1972, doesn’t sound exactly like Motorhead’s amphetamine rock, three years before their first album.

There’s tons of great material, with remastered sound, informative liner notes, and a reasonable list price (under $25 on Amazon) to boot.