The Proper Ornaments – Wooden Head

If your favorite Jesus and Mary Chain album is Darklands. If your favorite Velvet Underground album is their self-titled third. If your favorite Creation Records band is Teenage Fanclub. These are some of the potential reasons why you might love The Proper Ornaments and their debut album Wooden Head. The band are actually a duo of Max Claps and James Hoare (the latter also plays in Veronica Falls) handling the singing, songwriting and guitars, with bass and drums rounding out the sound. To be honest their songs are good, but nothing special. You won’t turn to them for jaw-dropping walls of sound or aching vocals to pull at your heartstrings. You will however look to them for unpretentious mid-tempo fuzz pop with good melodic sensibilities and ’60s-styled harmony singing that you don’t hear enough of these days. The band also throw the listener a few musical curveballs to keep things fresh over the course of 14 tracks, like “Ruby” and “Tire Me Out” which are both heavily steeped in the melancholic sound of New Zealand indie acts like The Bats and The Clean. My favorite song on Wooden Head is also the one the rips the hardest, “Step Into The Cold”, which may not be much more than an amped up version of The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” with added vocal harmonies, but is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.

Cem Karaca – Nem Kaldi & Edip Akbayram – Nedir Ne Degildir (Pharaway Sounds)

Once it hit big in the late-’60s, bands from all over the world began embracing psychedelia, creating weird local permutations of the sounds from the latest Beatles, Hendrix, Doors and Floyd records. Turkey has always been one of my favorite breeding grounds for psychedelic rock, probably because acts from there didn’t try to sound exactly like Western bands, and maintained a strong sense of “Turkishness”, using distinctly local melodies and instruments like the Baglama and Zurna. It’s these elements that give the music an exotic quality that transports you to someplace different, which was kind of the point of psychedelic rock in the first place. Anyway, Pharaway Sounds recently reissued albums by two of the best performers of Turkish psych-rock, Cem Karaca and Edip Akbayram, complete with remastered sound and in-depth liner notes.

Cem Karaca’s album, Nem Kaldi, is a grab-bag of singles from the ’60s and ’70s and, as you might expect, it’s all over the map. Besides Karaca’s booming Scott Walker-esque voice and melodramatic delivery, there aren’t many constants from song to song, running the gamut from highly-orchestrated Curtis Mayfield-styled funk (“Oy Bobo”) to soft-psych balladry (“Baba”) to crazed funk-prog (“Namas Balasi”). By constantly shifting styles (and sound quality) from song to song  Nem Kaldi is somewhat tiring, though the highs are strong enough to make it all worthwhile. The highest of those highs is “Unutamadigim”, a surprisingly heavy rocker with manic double bass drums and swooping synth squiggles pushing the song further and further out into the stratosphere with each passing second.

Edip Akbayram’s Nedir Ne Degildir gets the nod here as the better of the two albums. It has the advantage of being an actual album, rather than a singles compilation, so the sound quality and backing band (Dostlar) are the same from song to song. The album dates from 1977, long after this type of psychedelic rock had faded in most parts of the world, but Akbayram still gets a lot of mileage from the sounds of the previous decade, mixing hard rock histrionics, with proggy keyboards, funky beats and lots of those great sounding Turkish instruments that you don’t get to hear very often in the Western World. Favorites include “Arabam Kaldi Yolda” with its instrumental section sped up from manipulated tapes (like “War Pigs”), and “Adam Olmak Dile Kolay” which features an amazingly in-the-pocket instrumental section that pretty much rules. In addition to psych-heads, cratediggers should check this out too, as there’s wealth of funky beats here waiting to be turned into hip-hop tracks.

Ernan Roch – La Onda Pesada De Ernan Roch (Shadok’s Music)

Little was known about this obscure Mexican artifact from 1970 until very recently, when an intrepid fan tracked down Ernan (real name Hernan Rocha) on the internet. Rocha’s music was inspired by the introspective songwriting of The Beatles and Neil Young, with perhaps a hint of Donovan. If you want a good reference point for the sound of this album, Rodriguez might be your best bet, though Ernan’s lyrics dealt more with the spiritual than the political. The reason any of this still matters in 2014, is that the album is pretty damn good. Album opener, “The Train” is Ernan and his backing band’s (a group called El Amor) greatest achievement – an “expression of existential angst”, to borrow a quote from the liner notes, that’s part “Down By The River”, part “Season Of The Witch”, and features some great fuzz guitar working in compliment with Ernan’s evocative singing style. None of the other tracks from this reissue reach the same high water mark as “The Train”, but they still make for some pretty good listening, shuffling between folky and more rock-driven styles. Interestingly, the whole album is sung in English and has no sonic indicators that it’s the work of Mexican musicians.

Charlies – Musiikkia Elokuvasta Julisteiden Liimaajat (Shadoks Music)

Whenever I review an album of obscure proto-metal I’m always hopeful that I’m on the verge of a discovery. I’m not foolish enough to think I’ll stumble onto something as good as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin – too lofty a goal – but maybe, just maybe, I’ll hear something that ranks alongside a Pentagram or Captain Beyond. Finnish band Charlies’ 1970 debut album doesn’t do it for me though. The six track album – actually the soundtrack of an underground film on anarchy – is largely influenced by Zeppelin, with heavy emphasis on showy musicianship and lengthy instrumental passages. Yes, Led Zeppelin spun that format into musical gold, but a lot has to go right in order to pull it off. Unfortunately this recording is so low budget, the guitarist’s tone so benign, and the rhythm section so all over the place (bass player Kari Lehtinen competes with the guitar for center stage too often) that there isn’t anything left for me to recommend. The original album is augmented by six bonus tracks from early singles and rehearsal room recordings. They meander less than the album tracks, but still don’t work well.
Some other fun facts about Musiikkia Elokuvasta Julisteiden Liimaajat:
The song “Sunshine Supergirl” is unfortunately not a Donovan mash-up and is almost nineteen minutes long (drum solo!)
The bonus tracks include a pair of blues covers (“Rock Me Baby” and “I’m So Glad”) as well as Jethro Tull’s “We Used To Know”

Mark Lanegan Band – Phantom Radio (Vagrant Records)

Phantom Radio

Mark Lanegan is a man of many projects, but I always like his solo work the best, where the songs and performances have an added element of intimacy that places him in the same discussion as performers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. He’s been sporadically releasing solo albums since 1990’s The Winding Sheet, and I love them all. Knowing that, I approached Phantom Radio with a bit of trepidation, brought on entirely by the pre-album press which discussed the influence of New Order (a band I’ve never liked much) and noted that the album began its life as a series of recordings on an app called Funk Box. Was Lanegan about to start following trends and go electro-pop?


Thankfully the answer is no. Sure, many of the songs on record are based around programmed beats and other electronica sounds, but Phantom Radio is nowhere close to being dance-floor fodder. If anything the music is based more the hypnotic proto-electronica of Kraftwerk than anyone else, which works great with Lanegan’s distinctively deep vocals and darkly introspective lyrics. In fact, this may be his best batch of songs in twenty years. The only place where I hear any echoes of New Order is on “Floor of the Ocean”, which has a bass-run that can only remind you of Peter Hook – but, unlike New Order, this song has a good singer and lyrics. “Torn Red Heart” is, for me, the album’s centerpiece, a heart-wrenching ballad with a heavenly trajectory that could very easily have come from a Spacemen 3 as from Mark Lanegan. It ends with the hard-driving “Death Trip to Tulsa” with a title referencing songs by the Stooges and Neil Young, which is a pretty great combo. Each of Phantom Radio’s ten songs are among Lanegan’s best and as of today (November 1st) this is my favorite album of 2014.


The promo cd also comes with the five song No Bells On Sunday EP, which you should get if you find it. Standout tracks include “Dry Iced”, a hypnotic number with traces of Suicide’s “Cheree”, and the ethereal title song which has a Joy Division funeral march vibe to it.

The Incredibly Strange Record Club Volume 1 (Righteous Records)

This is the third compilation I’ve reviewed compiled from largely unheard late-’50s and early-60s records that were well loved by The Cramps. If you love The Cramps, as I do, then these collections of whacked out rockabilly, novelty flops, and other flavors of pre-Beatles weirdness are pretty easy to like. Here the focus, as the title informs us, is on strange records; which translates to twenty six oddball numbers including several with gibberish lyrics (“Mope-itty Moope”, “Okeefenokee” or “Mumbles”) or jokey novelties (“Fungus Among Us”, “Lost (Cricket In My Ear)”, and “You’ve Been Torturing Me”). Like most of these collections, each song has something pleasing about it, but one towers over the rest, and it’s Tommy Blake’s “F-Olding Money”, which leads off the album. It’s pretty much “Summertime Blues” with a crazy effect on the vocals, but the performance is raw and rather brilliant. No wonder The Fall covered it 40 years later.

33 1/3: Gang Of Four – Entertainment! by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Bloomsbury)

Gang of Four’s debut album Entertainment! seems like an album tailor made for a 33 1/3 dissection. Not only did it take on the excitement of punk rock and contort it into new shapes with the addition of funk and reggae, but it’s also dense with lyrical commentary on subjects ranging from consumerism to alienation and sexism. Yet somehow, Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s book on the album falls flat. My problem with it is that Dettmar concentrates so heavily on the lyrical commentary, and tackles it in such an academic way, that reading it feels like classwork and not a pleasure. Sample sentence:
“Whereas one of the signal accomplishments of cultural studies has been the destruction of the convenient binary opposition between “consumer” and “producer”: consumption is not an entirely passive process, we now realize, but an activity involving real choices and creativity.”
So, are we having fun yet? Perhaps I wouldn’t mind the book’s scholarly tone if it at least provided new insights into the album, but reading it hasn’t enhanced my understanding or appreciation for Entertainment! at all. Without that there isn’t much about it to recommend.