Bad Times – Streets Of Iron (Goner)

Album origin stories don’t get much more modest or banal than Streets of Iron. Basically, it goes like this: In 1998 three friends (Eric Oblivian, Jay Reatard and King Louie Bankston) met up in Bankston’s hometown of New Orleans, spent one day learning these 14 songs, and another day recording them onto cassette. They called themselves Bad Times to reflect the bleakness of their lives at that moment (for example: Reatard, after recording the album, returned home to Memphis and found that his mother kicked him out of the house while he was gone). Bad Times played one show, in Normal, IL – a place which I know nothing about except that, according to Google, it exists – and that was it. Of course people are still curious about Reatard’s music since his untimely death in 2010, so it makes sense for the album to get a 20th anniversary reissue, with a pair of previously unreleased songs making their debut here.

But, Reatard fans, before taking the plunge, know that Bad Times fall somewhere closer in sound and spirit to his early recordings with The Reatards than his better known solo albums from the back-half of the 2000s. First of all, the fidelity stinks. These songs were recorded on cassette and it shows. Then there’s the vocals which are more often than not full-throated screaming. Lastly there’s the extremely misanthropic lyrics which trace their lineage back to the more amateur end of the late-’70s and early-’80s underground punk and hardcore singles spectrum, complete with teenage tales of alienation, frustration and ugly sexual deviance. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) its warts, Streets of Iron is a pretty addictive listen. The energy is there, and while the songs are crude, beneath all the layers of spit and puke lurk some serious pop smarts which elevate material like “Trapped In The City” and “Listen To The Band” beyond their crud-punk origins. I even like the band’s loose Gary Glitter piss-take,”Glitter Boys”, and the early-GG Allin-isms of “You’re So Lewd”. Streets of Iron may only contain the smallest hints of the side of Jay Reatard that everyone grew to love a decade later, but how many other cassettes recorded in a single day still sound this good 20 years on?


Various Artists – How Is The Air Up There? 80 Mod, Soul, RNB & Freakbeat Nuggets From Down Under (RPM)

Unlike their next door neighbors Australia, New Zealand bands never made a big impact beyond the island in the 1960s. However, it makes sense that New Zealand, an English-speaking country with a large UK immigrant population, would have a thriving rock scene in the wake of Beatlemania. That scene is celebrated on this three-disc set named after the killer garage-rock song by The La De Da’s that opens up disc one. While there’s no sonic indicators of a New Zealand-specific take on mid-’60s music – these songs could all easily pass as the work of British groups – the unifying factor here is how hard these bands play it. Their guitar fuzz stings a little harder, the rave-ups get a little louder and the vocals screams are a bit more unhinged than the kind you’ll find on the average comp of mid-’60s British unknowns. To get an understanding of the kind of raw no-frill rock these guys and girls were laying down, you only need to look as far as the bands they covered – The Pretty Things, The Kinks, The Creation, The Yardbirds, Small Faces, Them and The Who. Five of these songs already appeared on the second Nuggets boxset (and they’re all front-loaded early on disc one here), but a ton of impressive lesser-known material gets aired out too. The first two discs are great from start to finish, but I find myself coming back to the thumping beat of Tom Thumb’s “I Need You”, the lethal fuzz overdose on “Hurtin’ All Over” by The Pleazers, and the Pretty Things-esque savagery of the previously unreleased 1966 song, “Ugly Thing”, by the Coassacks. If you love the harder end of mid-’60s rock, then there’s plenty of it to be had here, with detailed liner notes bringing you the stories behind each of these bands. My only beef is with the third disc which features a lot of the same bands as the first two discs, but covers their forays into blue-eyed soul, a genre I never cared for. All the cheesy horns and Motown-lite affectations sound real toothless following the high energy attack of the first two discs.

Top Ten Albums of 2017

Pre- (r)amble: I have to admit it – I wasn’t paying as close attention to new music in 2017 as previous years. The growing demands of work, family and moving homes, made finding the time to listen to new records much more of a challenge. Perhaps that’s why my top ten list leans a little harder on old favorites than previous years. Or maybe those people just made the best records. Either way, here’s my top 10 favorite new albums from 2017.

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1. Mark Lanegan Band – Gargoyle (Heavenly Records)
Gargoyle is Lanegan’s 2nd consecutive album where he fuses his dark musings to ‘80s-style electronic beats. Like its 2014 predecessor, Phantom Radio, it’s the best album of the year.
Full review

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2. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy (Artificial Plastic)
The first Jesus and Mary Chain album in almost 20 years picks up pretty much exactly where they left off. Re-using a bunch of songs they’ve recorded on different projects since disbanding in 1998 is perhaps a bit lazy, but those songs are great, and having them back in action is a thrill.

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3. Sparks – Hippopotamus (BMG Records)
Even though they’ve been going at it since the early-‘70s, this was actually my first exposure to Sparks’ music. The Mael brother may be senior citizens now, but their twisted take on pop music is as sharp and relevant as ever.

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4. Robyn Hitchcock– Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc Records)
Over 35 years into his solo career Hitchcock releases a self-titled album which features him fronting a full-blooded rock band for the first time in about a decade. All ten songs are great, but “Raymond and The Wires” is my favorite. Nobody else would start a song with lyrics like “My eyes have seen the trolleybus, on her pneumatic tires”. Genius.

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5. Mick Harvey – Intoxicated Women (Mute)
Mick Harvey’s final album of Serge Gainsbourg covers has him focusing on Giansbourg’s duets with women. I kinda wish he’d keep making more albums of Gainsbourg covers.
Full Review

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6. Warhaus – Warhaus (Play It Again Sam)
Warhaus are a relatively young Belgian duo that fit in seamlessly with latter-era Lenoard Cohen, Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan, Tom Waits and the like. If there’s any soul left in the music world hey should start getting some recognition real soon.

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7. Guadalupe Plata – Guadalupe Plata 2017 (Everlasting Records)
Another European band, this time from Spain. They play dark blues music that reminds me a bit of The Gun Club, if they were a little more Morricone and a little less Ramones.

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8. Black Angels – Death Song (Partisan Records)
I was a little hard on this album when I reviewed it because I was hoping that The Black Angels would write something a little deeper this time out. Well, even if Death Song is frequently as shallow as its jokey title, there’s still enough powerful psych rock here to keep me spinning it again and again.

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9. Stag – Midtown Sizzler (Self Released Records)
Just good solid ‘70s-inspired rock on this Seattle band’s debut. “Bedazzler” is a slice of T. Rex glam-pop nirvana.
Full review

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10. Gnoomes – Tschak! (Rocket Recordings)
I don’t know much about Gnoomes, nor do I own Tschak!. While I feel a bit weird including an album that I’ve only heard a few times on Spotify, Tschak! reminds me of a modern day take on classic German experimental rock of the 1970s. Faust, Neu and Can are all deeply embedded in the grooves, but Gnoomes’ execution of these ideas is thoroughly modern and cutting edge.

Stag – Midtown Sizzler (Self Released)

This is Stag’s debut album, but the Seattle band is made up of rock vets you may know from their prior work in bands like Alcohol Funnycar, Sanford Arms, That Petrol Emotion, The Mellors, and couple of others. Stag’s “thing” is a potent concoction of ’70s power-pop, punk and glam that’s refreshingly ignorant of the past few decades of “progress”. It’s the kind of stuff greying rockers of a certain vintage (myself included) go nuts for, and sure enough Midtown Sizzler delivers the rifftastic rock’n’roll thrills we all want but rarely get these days. Stag doesn’t go to great pains to mask the inspirations behind their songs, and half the fun of the album is playing “name that influence” for it’s brief twenty-five minute runtime. “Come On” is pure Faces pastiche, “Rosemarie” is a Cheap Trick-ified stab at early-Who, and there’s a feint hint of The Saints’ soul-punk explorations lurking beneath the surface throughout several songs. The band peaks on “Bedazzler”, an almost perfect recreation of anthemic early-’70s glam rock a la T-Rex and Gary Glitter. I don’t know why songs like this can’t be hits anymore, but it’s a damn shame. The only song I didn’t really connect with is the Badfingers-style ballad “Pictures”, which is decent but not affecting enough to warrant it’s spot among all those upbeat rock tunes. Even with that one miss, Stag’s opening volley has something exciting for people who like their rock fun and pretension-free.

Various Artists – Looking At The Pictures In The Sky: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1968 (Grapefruit)

This three-disc box-set is a sequel to last year’s collection of British psychedelic songs from 1967, Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds. Perhaps 1968 wasn’t as important a year for psychedelic music as 1967, with The Beatles, Dylan and The Rolling Stones all dropping most of their trippy affectations and getting back to their roots, but there were still plenty of kaftan-wearing U.K. bands making music adorned with whacked out studio trickery and far out lyrics. While there are some great moments scattered among Looking At The Pictures In The Sky’s seventy-eight songs, it’s such a heavily flawed set that I can’t see anyone but the most ardent ’60s psych collectors feeling satisfied with it. First, none of the era’s more popular bands are here, so there’s no Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Who, Hendrix…etc. to blow your mind. It’s left to a b- (and sometimes c- and d-) team headed up by a few big-ish acts (The Move, The Pretty Things, and early outings from Status Quo, Procol Harum and Jethro Tull) to try and deliver the big thrills. Then there’s the issue of the kind of material that the compilers selected for inclusion. There’s a few harder moments from mod-leaning bands like The Factory, The Five Day Week Straw People, and The Attack, but most of these songs are innocuous pop tarted up with a few psychedelic affectations (usually sitars or phasing) to cash in on the post-Summer Of Love hangover. Let’s take the horribly titled “What’s the Rush, Dillbury” by Paradox for example. For all the studio trickery the band used, at its core is a song so soft and empty, Herman’s Hermits might have rejected it. Unfortunately, a good portion of this set falls into that trap, and most of the better material is easily found on other, better, UK psych compilations.

Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains Documentary by James Lathos (MVD Visual)

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You could make a pretty strong argument that Paul Hudson (aka H.R.) is one of the most influential front-men of the last 40 years, blazing a trail of white-hot hardcore, metal and reggae with The Bad Brains that has left an indelible mark on countless bands that mattered, including Nirvana, The Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine and The Red Hot Chili Peppers just to name an extremely famous few. Despite all the acclaim he’s rightfully received, he’s never had mainstream success. He’s had a couple of opportunities for big things with The Bad Brains – major label contracts, tour offers from U2 and The Beastie Boys…etc., but they’ve always been sabotaged by his own erratic behavior. The film follows the mercurial singer’s history and tries to piece together why the HR of 2017 is almost nothing like the HR who inspired so many in the ’80s and ’90s (spoiler alert: it’s untreated mental illness, mixed with strong religious convictions and possibly some drug abuse). Director James Lathos tells the story with a mix of archival footage and modern-day interviews with HR’s peers, associates and those that he’s influenced. It’s interesting to get a glimpse into HR’s, shall we say, “unique” mind-set, but there’s some missed opportunities here. There’s the glaring omissions of core Bad Brains members Daryl Jennifer and Dr. Know who declined to participate (the latter for health reasons), but in general the movie has a ton of redundancies with Lathos’ HR book which came out earlier this year. Not only do the book and movie share the same title and cover photo, but they appear to be built from the same source interviews, leaving fans feeling like they need to own one of these two, not both. Had the DVD included some cool bonus features (music videos, live performances…etc.) or explored some different ideas, I would give it the nod over the book. Without those (there are literally no bonus features) the book’s depth makes it the winner of the two.

Acid Baby Jesus – Lilac Days (Fuzz Club)

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Acid Baby Jesus’ first two albums were great slabs of damaged heavy psych with a twisted sense of humor, but on Lilac Days they try to achieve the same effect with prettier songs played at lower volumes. If you’re looking for reference points for their newly minted sonic approach, consider Lilac Days as the sound of Acid Baby Jesus discovering The Byrds, The Turtles and Buffalo Springfield; replete with 12 string guitars, bouncier beats and generally sweeter sounds. It’s not bad, and it’s kinda interesting to hear a band from Greece trying a very American style on for size, but damn if I don’t end up missing the mind-bending darker sounding stuff. The problem is that, unlike those inspirational West Coast bands from the ’60s, Acid Baby Jesus don’t write great pop tunes, aren’t great harmony singers, and their rhythm section kinda plods. Even when they get a little punkier on “Me and Panormita” and “Guide Us In”, the quicker pace is wasted on benign performances that don’t raise much action. Even on a less than stellar album, guitar duo Noda Pappas and Dale MacDonald manage to impress with neat little tricks like the Eastern scales on the title track, or the warped jangling notes that make “Faces Of Janus” far more interesting that it would have been otherwise.