Martin Karlsson’s Degradation – “Too Far Gone”/ “Barbwire (Couldn’t Keep Me Away)” (Latta Bordor Records)

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Martin Karlsson’s Degradation’s debut 7″ is a nice surprise for fans of garage-pop and proto-punk. On “Too Far Gone”, the Swedish group sounds as if they’re cut from the same cloth as those late-’70s UK groups that straddled the line between power-pop or pub rock and punk rock. It’s a fun song with a helluva catchy chorus, but Martin Karlsson’s Thunders-meets-Bators vocal – part drunken sneer, part heart-on-sleeve tough posture – is what gives it a little extra edge. For a guy whose main gig is drumming for garage rock group The Strollers, Karlsson is a natural on the mic. The B-side, “Barbwire (Couldn’t Keep Me Away)”, is a ballad for wounded souls, where Karlsson and team discover that you can in fact put your arms around a memory. As with the A-side, the band loves their choruses big and oft-repeated. Normally that might get annoying, but it all works thanks to a winning combination of simplicity, attitude, and what sounds like a cowbell. More please.

Gnoomes – MU! (Rocket Recordings)

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MU! is album number three for Russian band Gnoomes, who set up shop right on the spot where narcotic noise-pop and experimental krautrock grooves meet. It’s a dandy of a psychedelic journey start-to-finish, squeezing as much color as possible out of traditional rock instruments, taken to new brain-busting heights by heavy digital post-production. If you love sonic experimenters like Eno, Can, Kraftwerk, MBV, Wire, and Spacemen 3, then you’ll get where the band is coming from, but there’s something really alien about the way Gnoomes contort those influences into a new whole. Take the song “Irma” for example: The tight rollicking beat could have come from Tago Mago, and Slowdive heads would approve of those beautiful guitar sounds; but there’s also dense layers of vocals snippets placed atop one another that create a highly disorienting effect. By the time the song kicks into its’ psychotic double-time crescendo it sounds downright futuristic. What I find most interesting about MU! is that most of its nine songs barely seem rooted in any kind of traditional song-structures. What that means is that, unlike the bands that influenced Gnoomes, the songs on MU! would be almost impossible for another band to cover (“Glasgow Coma State” is perhaps the only exception). MU’s songs are built to deliver a certain type of sonic nirvana and I just don’t see a way a band could take a song like “Sine Waves are Good For Your Health” – which is basically six minutes of kaleidoscopic headfuckery over rolling tom-toms – and do anything to make it their own. It’s exciting, heady stuff, and I’m pretty sure it will place high on my year-end list of best albums. I’d also imagine it sounds devastatingly good when you’re frying up on your favorite drugs.

KRGA – “Mysterious Lady”/”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Hoser Records)

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I have a lot of questions about this single; most importantly, who are KRGA? An internet search revealed shockingly little, except that they’re a Chicago four-piece, named after singer Ryan Krga. The vinyl itself comes in a generic brown paper lunch-bag sleeve, with just the KRGA logo on it so there’s no information or clues there. Heck, I’m not even sure why I was sent this to review since it came out on Hoser Records, yet it was part of a promo package from Hozac Records. Pretty much all I can tell you about KRGA is that they’re the band behind this six-minute single which deftly blends power-pop and junkshop glam like it’s 1973 all over again. The A-side, “Mysterious Lady”, is simple, unfussy stuff with vocals that vacillate between plaintive Chris Bell and wispy stoned out third-tier glam like Milk’n’Cookies or Brett Smiley. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is more of the same, this time packed up in world-weary ballad form, replete with piano and dueling slide guitars adding even more legitimacy to the whole “this sounds like it came straight from the ’70s” vibe. Quite beautiful stuff really. It would be cool if more modern bands followed the same breadcrumb trail as these folks.

The Embrooks – We Who Are (State Records)

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After a decade-long hiatus The Embrooks returned to action in 2016 with a killer two-song single that whetted my appetite for more. Now they’ve gone back to the lab for a bit (which, in this case, is their own North Down Sound studio) and emerged with a new full-length, We Who Are, that doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. The band piece together the best elements of that brief period from 1964 to 1967 when rock groups began to incorporate exciting shards of experimentation into their sound, but hadn’t fully arrived at psychedelia. Picture mid-60s highpoints like Roger The Engineer, Face To Face, Between The Buttons;  U.K. Mod bands like The Sorrows and The Creation, with a dash of pre-punk high-energy excitement from The 13th Floor Elevators, or even pre-Kick Out The Jams MC5, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this trio of scene vets are up to. No matter the year, there’s always a handful of bands out there mining this territory (some of the current crop are signed to the band’s label, State Records) but the Embrooks are a class above at this point, with fiery performances (everyone’s on point, but Lois Tozer’s drum attack in particular impresses throughout), great production, and high quality songs. Highlights include the double-time rave-up at the end of “Don’t Look At Me” punctuated by a flute of all things, a toughened up cover of The Hollies’ “Have You Ever Loved Somebody” and the slinky 12-string guitar riffs on the folk-rock inspired “Til Tomorrow”. Great songs, great musicianship – this one’s got it all. I just wish I’d known about it in time for my year-end Best of 2018 list.

Billy Childish – Punk Rock Is Nicht Tot!: The Billy Childish Story 1977-2018 (Damaged Goods)

Punk Rock Ist Nicht Tot

Forty-eight songs should be more than enough space to anthologize a musician’s output – even four decades’ worth – but for Billy Childish, whose discography includes over 100 albums (he’s a prolific visual artist, poet, and author as well), it’s a simple scratching of the surface. With so many different Childish bands and albums to cover, Punk Rock is Nicht Tot! is best treated as a sampler of some of the man born Steven Hamper’s career highlights, from his earliest lo-fi recordings with the Pop Rivets from 1977, all the way through to music he recorded last year with his current band CTMF. The band names may change every few songs, but there’s a very distinctive artistic aesthetic at work throughout, derived largely from early Kinks, Link Wray, the first few punk singles, Bo Diddley, Chess Records, and pre-psychedelic garage rock, as well as some unexpected detours in ska, folk, soul jazz…basically, every form of raw music from the past 65 years that can be played by bands (he’s not rapping) has a place somewhere in the Childish universe, where they get filtered through his unique lyrical worldview consisting of angry punk sentiments (“You Make Me Die”), deeply personal reflections from his life (“Christmas 1979”), and a recently increasing interest in obscure history (“Headlong Fly The Aceans”).

Punk Rock is Nicht Tot! gives Childish newbies an opportunity to figure out where you want to start building your Childish collection. Do you want the early Who-isms of The Buff Medways, the Kinks/Link Wray gone punk of Thee Headcoats, the all-female Headcoats offshoot Thee Headcoatees, or any of the eighteen other projects covered here? True, Childish has covered a lot of musical ground over the past forty years, yet it’s all but impossible to detect any artistic growth or hear any sonic indicators of when any of this music was recorded. The track-list might follow Childish’s output in chronological order, but, with exception of his punk beginnings in The Pop Rivets, you could pretty much play this collection in reverse order and not notice any difference in the performances or songwriting over time. Not that any “development” is needed, or even wanted, in this case. Childish clearly found his corner of the music universe early on, and has been tending to it ever since, ignoring all trends and flavors of the month, except to occasionally goof on them in songs like “A Song for Kylie Minogue” or the curiously omitted “We Hate The Fucking N.M.E.” The best part is, he’s still out there making great art (a new “Wild” Billy Childish album with CTMF comes out in just a few weeks) and you don’t have to have much of an imagination to guess what it will sound like, or worry if it will be any good…it most definitely will.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story: Keep Music Evil by Jesse Valencia (Jawbone Press)

Keep Music Evil: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story

I saw The Brian Jonestown Massacre live some 6-8 times from 1998-2005, and each time was a fascinating experience. On any given night you might hear some great psychedelic music, you might get a long night of inter-band fights and rants, or some combination of the two. No matter the outcome, you were always assured of one thing – something you saw or heard at the show would stick in your memory for a long time. The band – a loose and ever-evolving conglomerate of spaced-out loons centered around Anton Newcombe – seemed tailor-made for some kind of biographical accounting. Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary Dig! told their story up until that point, but it focused too heavily on the more sensationalistic aspects of the band, minimizing the hard work and artistic foresight that made them worth caring about in the first place. Keep Music Evil carries the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s story through to the modern day, and attempts to right some of Dig!’s historical wrongs by painting a more well-rounded portrait of the band’s activities and musical output.

I’ll give author Jesse Valencia this – he put a lot of time and effort into this book, having spent almost a decade gathering and collating information from 125 people in, and connected to, the band, even using my interview with Anton for a brief quip on the recording of Thank God For Mental Illness. That Anton Newcombe didn’t contribute directly to the book is unfortunate, but hardly a stake in its heart. Dave Simpson was able to write The Fallen, a great book on The Fall – a band whose story has some obvious parallels with the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s – without Mark E. Smith’s input; and besides, Anton’s accounting of his past is usually driven by egotistic hyperbole rather than historical accuracies and insights, so it’s no great loss. The real issue with Keep Music Evil is simple – Valencia is the wrong “writer” for this story. The word “writer” is in parentheses because the book has so many mistakes, formatting issues, poorly structured sentences, and incorrect word choices that it’s hard for me to include Valencia in the same professional umbrella as Kurt Vonnegut. Focusing on the one slice of the book that takes place in New York – where I can fact-check Valencia – and a litany of mistakes are uncovered. Valencia refers to a show with Dead Meadow at The Mercury Lounge – it took place at The Bowery Ballroom. Valencia further twists the knife in the Bowery Ballroom’s back by referring to it as being in Brooklyn (it’s in Manhattan). He also refers to an apartment in Manhattan on 1st Avenue and Avenue A, which is logistically impossible since they run parallel to each other. None of these errors are terribly important, but they make me wonder just what other mistakes are out there masquerading as facts. There’s also times when Valencia’s prose-work is just straight up annoying, like when he refers to Mara Keagle’s vocals on “Anemone” as “like mercury crawling down the tip of a ballistic missile”. I have no idea what that description is meant to convey, and I bet he doesn’t either. Even if I could forgive all the mistakes and bad writing (did anyone actually copy-edit this book?) the story of The Brian Jonestown Massacre is just too vast, with too many people shifting in and out of the band’s orbit for Valencia ‘s meager talents to herd the long list of characters and events into an organized and coherent whole.

In the prologue, Valencia mentions that he first heard The Brian Jonestown Massacre in 2008 after taking four hits of acid. Based on the book he’s written, maybe he should have stopped at three.

The Night Times – “Watch Your Step”/”I Got My Mind On You” (State Records)

While most modern day garage rock revivalists tend to cherry pick from the best aspects of the genre (i.e. ones that haven’t dated), this Los Angeles band simply sound like your average work-a-day group that played teen dances and maybe kicked up a little local radio action in the mid-’60s. The musicianship, the writing, even the screams that kick-off the guitar solos on this two-song single, sound like the work of a band just getting their feet wet. Even if nobody could possibly confuse The Night Times for the Stones, or even The Chocolate Watchband, that’s perfectly OK, because there’s a lot of charm and verve to be found in their amateurism. Think of them like a modern day version of Los Saicos, or one of the many faceless bands on Sundazed’s Garage Beat ’66 comp series. If nothing else, this single may be the closest a modern band has come to sounding like a mid-’60s original.