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 of 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.

Exploded View – Exploded View (Sacred Bones)

Exploded View are a new band, but you might know its members from other projects. Singer Annika Henderson has released music as Anika on Geoff Barrow’s Invada imprint, and her Mexican-based band is Martin Thulin, who’s produced Crocodiles; Hugo Quezada from the band Robota; and Hector Melgarejo, who plays with Jessy Bulbo. Together they’ve made an exciting debut album of songs that were improvised without any overdubs, only using first takes. That may have you imagining an album of messy jamming splattered around half-formed ideas, but that’s not the case. In fact, I heard the album several times before learning about the band’s recording techniques, and never suspected anything out of the ordinary. They avoid succumbing to the pitfalls of improvisation by valuing mood and economical playing over displays of flashy technique. It’s hard for the 1-2 note spacey dub grooves of “Lost Illusions”, “Call On The Gods” and “Killjoy” not to remind you of Can, but I also hear the influence of Silver Apples and Throbbing Gristle’s proto-electronica bleeps and bloops, and hints of No Wave in the occasional metal-scraping guitar tones. The music is great, but Annika Henderson’s performance behind the microphone is equally interesting, mixing the mystical wisp of Damo Suzuki with Nico’s Germanic intonations. It’s a malleable voice too, guiding listeners through lighthearted dub-disco (“Orlando”) just as well as a chilling condemnation of people who remain silent against the violence of war (“Larks Decending”). This is heady, inventive stuff (the rhythmic robotic mumbling on “Call On The Gods” is literally something I’ve never heard before) and as of today (8/13) it’s the best debut of 2016.

State Records – Three Singles (State Records)

I recently received three limited-run singles from State Records…and here’s reviews of all three:

The Embrooks: Nightmare / Helen

I’d lost track of The Embrooks after being unimpressed by their 2000 album, Separations, but after a 10-year hiatus the UK trio are back in business with this new two-song single, and much to my surprise, it smokes. “Nightmare” is a speedy garage rocker, which is part Who/Creation freakbeat, and part high-energy Detroit proto-punk. A new recording of their old song “Helen” is thankfully more of the same hard-hitting stuff, with a slightly poppier feel and some stinging guitar fuzz slathered all over the back half. Everyone in the band sounds like they’re giving it their all on these songs, but Lois Tozzer deserves accolades for attacking her drums a bit like a young Keith Moon. Hopefully this single leads to more new material.

Thee Jezebels: Black Book / Cried Over You

UK trio Thee Jezebels’ debut 45 is four minutes of fuzzed up garage rock, the same way it was played fifty years ago, but with a pinky dipped into early punk rock. Both songs are rudimentary, and the recording is pretty lo-fi, but who cares? You can say the same thing about early-Kinks, Link Wray and Billy Childish, and they’re great. The key here is fun, and it sounds like Thee Jezebels are having a blast.

The Missing Souls: Sweet, Sweet Sadie / The Alligator

The Missing Souls are a French quartet with an album and some singles to their name, despite forming only two years ago. Their latest 45 is as perfect a recreation of garden variety mid-’60s garage rock bands as their name is. The A-side cover of The Teardrops’ “Sweet, Sweet, Sadie” has all the fuzz guitars, organs and guitar rave-ups you could possibly want. It’s cool, but I prefer the B-side cover of “The Alligator” by The Us Four. The guitars get a little crazier, the groove is a little stronger, and the cheap-o recording sounds just about right. Oh, and the alligator in question is a type of dance of course! Neither song will make you smarter, but I bet they can kick a party into overdrive.

Mick Harvey – Delirium Tremens (Mute)

A few years back I posted a positive review of a reissue of Mick Harvey’s mid-’90s Serge Gainsbourg covers albums – Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants – and now I have to praise it again since its release inspired Harvey to revisit the concept almost two decades later and record the songs that would become Delirium Tremens. The concept of Harvey recording English translations of Gainsbourg’s songs hasn’t changed, however Delirium Tremens exists in an entirely different cultural context. Back in the ’90s these albums were like a public service for music geeks since Gainsbourg’s albums were hard to find, and even if you snagged one you didn’t know what he was saying unless you spoke French. Of course, since then the internet has made everything readily available, so Delirium Tremens is now simply one good performer covering the songs of another. That it begins with a mid-70s obscurity called “The Man With The Cabbage Head” (or “L’homme a Tete De Chou”) tells you right off the bat you’re not gonna hear Gainsbourg’s best known material. Harvey’s already recorded most of those songs anyway, so instead he digs beneath the surface to find gold in obscurities. He does just that with a set of largely unfamiliar songs that showcase his natural fit as a Gainsbourg interpreter as well as the arranging skills he’s honed over decades working with Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and his own solo projects. “Coffee Colour” and “Deadly Tedium” are both jazz cabaret, with witty lyrics and inventive playing from an interesting cast of backing musicians. “I Envisage” is a different beast altogether, with a none-more-black, almost Joy Division-like, performance that matches the bleak visions of Gainsbourg’s lyrics perfectly. “SS C’est Bon” is a Holocaust-era black comedy with rapid-fire lyrics that are hard to understand amidst the chaotic music, but worth looking up for a lesser-heard example of Gainsbourg’s warped genius. The album ends with Harvey and Katey Beale doing a stunning version of “The Decadance” which isn’t that far removed from the original, but is beautifully arranged all the same. It’s a perfect ending to a great album, and an exciting look ahead to Harvey’s fourth album of Gainsbourg covers – focusing on his work with female singers – planned for later this year.

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris and Jim Ruland (Da Capo Press)

Keith Morris isn’t the kind of guy you expect to write an autobiography. The introspection and sheer volume of commitment needed to recap sixty-plus years of living didn’t seem possible from a guy best known for writing 50-second songs about getting fucked up and breaking stuff. However, he and co-writer Jim Ruland have done the work, and the resulting book is a joy. Although Keith’s best-known for fronting Black Flag and The Circle Jerks in the late-’70s and early-’80s, their stories are already so well-documented elsewhere that it’s Morris’ life before and after that era I found the most interesting. He paints a vivid portrait of his participation in ’70s beach-burnout culture, ’80s Hollywood glitz’n’glamour (including parties with Motley Crue and a crack-smoking session with David Lee Roth!) and the ’90s alternative rock explosion, and how all those things shaped the man he is today. It’s especially interesting to hear the Morris of today – sober, wiser, moral – reflect back on his wild years, and he’s got a good sense of humor about it all now that it’s in his rear-view mirror. My Damage isn’t just a collection of drink and drug stories though. Morris also lets readers in on the hard times he’s endured, from career lulls, battles with diabetes and, worst of all, business dealings with Greg Ginn. Unfortunately My Damage has no passages about how a white guy in his sixties maintains such lengthy dreadlocks – a missed opportunity in my opinion. However, the book confirms what Keith Morris’ appearances in other media have led me to believe: he’s a funny and insightful guy who’s lived an interesting life, which makes for an excellent book.