Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington D.C. (1980-90) by Scott Crawford (MVD Visual)


 

A documentary on the D.C. punk scene should be an easy win, yet somehow Scott Crawford’s film falls short of expectations. He tells the story of how D.C. became a key stop on the map of American punk through old footage, and interviews with the same talking heads you’ve probably already seen in a ton of other music documentaries (Thurston Moore, Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl…etc.). Yet despite D.C. being the home to a fertile scene with so many unique facets and characters, Crawford’s movie sticks to the basic info you already know, and ignores opportunities to pull new angles out of old stories. So, while you get the headlines of straightedge, Dischord, Revolution Summer, and the idea/ideal factory that is Ian MacKaye, the film ignores other potentially interesting moments.

Among other things, why not explore:

*The Bad Brains leaving D.C. for New York?

*Henry Rollins leaving small local band State Of Alert to join Black Flag in California?

*What it was like for Alec MacKaye to be part of the DC scene, but always under his brother’s shadow?

*When high-school aged Teen Idles travelled across the country to play shows in California?

*The economics of running a label like Dischord?

*What the local D.C. music/punk scene was like prior to Dischord and how those participants reacted to the “new kids” taking over?

*D.C. punks’ fights with other East Coast punk scenes – specifically New York?

These things could have made the story a lot more human than it appears. With these elements missing you’re left with a very watchable, but dry and mild-mannered documentary that’s essentially a Wikipedia page on film, where facts take center stage over people and emotions.

In addition to the 103 minute film, there’s bonus interview footage and lo-fi live performances.

Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe – I Declare Nothing (A Recordings)


2015 has been a very different year for Anton Newcombe, musically speaking, releasing two anomalies in his discography – a mostly instrumental soundtrack to a non-existent French film (Musique de Film Imagine), and this collaborative album with Canadian singer Tess Parks. I’ve listened to BJM long enough to know what to expect from Anton, who writes, plays almost all the instruments, and throws in vocals on two tracks. However, I Declare Nothing’s spotlight is really on Tess Parks, a wildcard to me, as I was unfamiliar with her 2013 album for Alan McGee post-Creation label 359 Music, Blood Hot. She’s got an interesting voice, which combines a gravelly Joan Jett-esque tone with Hope Sandoval’s dreamy melodies. It’s not the most flexible singing voice, but she does her one thing and does it well. As for I Declare Nothing, the songs are rather simple, which is to be expected when one guy is playing most of the instruments, and the whole collaboration feels a bit rushed, yet despite all the limitations, I’m impressed with just how enjoyable it is. “Cocaine Cat” is pure Anton-by-numbers in its melody and chord structure (both of which harken back to “Hide and Seek”) , but Parks’ voice shines on the track, making it a winner. “Gone” is cool too, with a slinky garage-folk beat and Anton’s voice making a rare appearance (he also sings a bit on “Melorist”). I’d like to see what kind of album these two could make with a full-on band and more time to develop their ideas, but for now this will do just fine.

Various Artists – 60 Songs From The Cramps’ Crazy Collection (Righteous Records)


This is the forth compilation of songs from Lux and Ivy of The Cramps’ vast personal collections of ’50s/’60s vinyl oddities to be released on Righteous Records, which has me wondering “how is this a thing?” Don’t get me wrong, I love The Cramps, but they were just a moderately successful cult act. So, how exactly is there enough of a marketplace to warrant four discs of music taken from their record collection? As for me, I was initially excited by these comps, which focused on all shapes and sizes of pre-Beatle oddballs from rockabilly, to surf, to R&B and doo-wop; but now that I’ve spent some time with them, I hear a concept getting stretched super thin and I’m worn out on songs that exist more on “zaniness” than songcraft.

The latest volume is a double-disc with no less than sixty(!) new entries, which is simply too much volume to keep any kind of quality control intact. Worse, with four similarly-themed compilations (not even counting those on other labels) and over one-hundred songs already released, some musical tropes get repeated. There’s a few good rockabilly numbers here, but the only track that really stands out is a doo-wop number by The Blenders called “Don’t Fuck Around With Love”. The song is garden variety doo-wop, but it’s legitimately shocking to hear a song with cursing dating all the way back to 1953, when profanity was almost non-existent in recorded entertainment in America. I just wish the rest of the songs delivered the same shocks.

Really Red – Teaching You The Fear: The Complete Collection 1979-1985 (Alternative Tentacles)


Teaching You the Fear: Complete Collection 1978-85

Politics and punk rock have always gone hand in hand, but the relationship got a little deeper in the early-1980’s when hardcore bands across the country spat endless venom at society, Reagan, and pretty much anything else mainstream America was forcing down the throats of disaffected youth. This was especially true in Texas where The Dicks, Big Boys, MDC and Really Red all lashed out against their straight-laced surroundings. Teaching You The Fear compiles Really Red’s entire recorded output, some of which has been nearly impossible to find for decades.

The band hailed from ultra-conservative Houston, and were not shy about expressing their opinions. Over the course of 44 tracks they mouth off on a variety of issues, including racism, starvation, nuclear war, entertainment as commerce, and the mob mentality of small-minded punks. With such intense socio-political fervor it’s not surprising Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra was a big fan, remastering and releasing this double-disc retrospective on his Alternative Tentacles label.

It begins non-chronologically with 1981’s Teaching The Fear. You’d have to call the music hardcore, but Really Red’s approach to the genre was anything but standard, sporting a musical vocabulary that included post-punk, free jazz, and even a double-time VU-styled number called “Nico” (and yes, it’s about Nico). 1985’s Rest In Pain follows, and while the music is similar, there’s a less appealing metallic edge to it. It does however feature a live cover of Red Krayola’s “War Sucks” and a 19-minute sound collage (“Just The Facts Ma’am” – which is separated from the rest of the album and relegated to the final track on disc two) which again shows how much more diverse they were than your typical hardcore outfit. Disc two features early singles, compilation appearances (punky cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” anyone?), live tracks, and the New Strings For Old Puppets EP from 1982, which has a more standard hardcore sound, but also some of their best songs, like the absolutely raging “Teenage Fuck Up”.

The liner notes are essential too, featuring an interview with Really Red’s singer Ronald “U-Ron” Bond, who details how hard it was to be part of an underground culture in a haven of extreme conservatism. He also explains why the band often ignored punk and hardcore convention – quite simply, they already had a good decade or so of music fandom in them before hardcore was hatched, as evidenced by Bond’s stories of seeing The MC5, Velvet Underground and 13th Floor Elevators live in his teens. Fascinating stuff.

Garage D’Or Records – 11 Album Mega-Review


I recently received a package of eleven CDs from Garage D’Or Records, including many of the label’s releases from three decades as prime documenters of the Minneapolis music scene. Since there hasn’t been much else to review lately, here’s a rundown of all eleven albums:

The Suicide Commandos – The Commandos Commit Suicide Dance Concert

This is a recording of the last Suicide Commandos concert, which happened at Jay’s Longhorn in Minneapolis on 11/24/78. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, you should investigate their lone studio album (Make A Record) first, a fiery platter of Midwest rock and roll released on Mercury’s punk subsidiary Blank Records in 1977. But, if you have that album, and you need more Suicide Commandos in your life, this live album is a corker. The Commandos (they dropped the “Suicide” from their name by this point) split time between originals and well-selected covers over the course of 32 songs (selected from 50 played that night!), attacking each with the kind of live-wire energy you expect, but also a level of musical precision that most “punk” bands couldn’t match.

The Suburbs – High Fidelity Boys: Live 1979

Another 32-track live album recorded at Jay’s Longhorn, this time documenting Minneapolis five-some The Suburbs sourced from several concerts throughout 1979. I have to admit this is my first exposure to the band, who were popular locally for about a decade from 1977-87, but couldn’t break through nationally. It’s not a good one either. While I imagine these shows were fun for those who attended, the recordings are lo-fi, and the band’s defining characteristics are an unfortunate mix of bad vocals and sloppy playing. Skip it.

L7-3 – Men of Distinction

L7-3 were Chris Osgood and Dave Ahl’s post-Suicide Commandos outfit, with local engineer Steve Fjelstad on bass. Men Of Distinction collects their recorded output for the first time, featuring 18 tracks from 1980-81 that sat on Fjelstad’s shelf until 2009. Much like The Suicide Commandos, the playing is tight and energetic, but with a meatier bottom end, likely a bi-product of having a bassist also do the engineering. This album should be a revelation of New Wave and Punk Rock crossing paths, but I can’t quite jive with Osgood’s goofy Devo-aping vocals.

Barefoot & Pregnant

A 1982 compilation meant to document the burgeoning Minneapolis rock scene. While the album is well-known in some circles for featuring rare early recordings of The Replacements, Husker Du and Loud Fast Rules (who would become Soul Asylum), don’t go forking over your money just yet. These songs all came from really crappy cassette recordings, so it’s not a great representation of any of the bands. In fact, you can almost hear The Replacements’ contribution (a cover of “Ace Of Spades”) beneath the tape hiss if you try really hard. While the comp is commendable as a document of the different elements that made up the local scene (everything from Mecht Mensch’s thrashy hardcore to Lou Santacroce’s solo country/blues) the sound quality is consistently awful.

Kitten

Similar in concept to the aforementioned Barefoot & Pregnant, the Kitten compilation ups the shitty sound quality quotient with songs recorded from two nights of live shows at local punk dive Goofy’s Upper Deck. If Husker Du sound sloppy and out of tune on their three songs, then what chance do garden variety HC thrashers Todlachen, Ground Zero and Willful Neglect stand? Loud Fast Rules, moonlighting under the moniker Proud Crass Fools, deliver the only highlight with their album-opening take on CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising”.

Man Sized Action – Five Story Garage

Although Man Sized Action were part of the Minneapolis scene dating back to 1980, 1984’s Five Story Garage was just their second album. The album’s eight songs sound great and are performed with the kind of verve you want to hear from a band spawned during the hardcore zeitgeist. Perhaps you could make an argument for Man Sized Action as an alternate version of Mission of Burma or Husker Du (whose Bob Mould recorded their first album in 1983), or even a next generation take on Wire. That’s an interesting proposition; however, they’re a decidedly second-tier talent, displaying very little grasp of songwriting or band dynamics. Everything sounds pretty similar from song to song, which is a real shame. Eight bonus tracks from a 1986 concert give a glimpse into what a third Man Sized Action album might have sounded like had the band stayed together. To me it just sounds like more of the same.

Baby Grant Johnson – A Lonesome Road and All Over Your Town

Two albums, dating from 1997 and 2000 respectively, in the early folk-blues style. A mix of covers and originals, Johnson’s voice doesn’t have the natural grit and grime needed to pull this kind of music off. He sounds a bit like Paul Westerberg, which is great for fronting The Replacements, but wrong for acoustic covers of Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes and the like.

The Blood Shot – Wake Up and Die Right and Straight Up

Early hard rock and heavy metal rule the day on these two albums, dating from 2003 and 2004. Normally that’s my musical sweet spot, but The Blood Shot are at best clumsy practitioners, and at worst complete amateurs. Andrew Kereakos sings like any random guy in his twenties, the production stinks, and their cover of Pentagram’s “Forever My Queen” is as horrible as the original is amazing.

Mazhar ve Fuat – Türküz Türkü Çagiririz! (Shadok’s Music)


I like late-60s and early-70s Anatolian rock reissues. The combination of hard-edged psychedelia and Turkish folk motifs, best exemplified in albums from Baris Manco, Erkin Koray and Cem Karaca, usually makes for a fun listen. However, this 1973 album is one of the weakest in the genre. The band’s two principle members (Aziz Fuat Guner and Mazhar Alanson) first bonded as Beatles-loving teens in 1966, and seven years later they recorded their sole album together. By that time their tastes had moved on to folk rock with mild remnants of psychedelia, which is good and well, but their execution leaves a lot to be desired. The duo’s biggest flaw is their vocals, which are largely devoid of emotion or personality. In fact, the two songs with lead vocals from an unnamed female guest singer (good luck getting info from the clumsy liner notes) are the album’s best. But singing isn’t the only shortcoming – the duo also fall victim to stale songwriting and boring musicianship. The worst offender is the album’s only English-language song, “Upside Down”, which combines generic hippie-dippy folk-rock and terribly dated protest lyrics about how “we gotta turn the whole damn thing upside down”. Oddly enough, songs from this album have been repurposed as beats for Action Bronson and Oh No tracks. So there’s that.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Musique De Film Imagine (A Recordings)


Paying homage to the great European film directors of the ’50s and ’60s through a largely instrumental soundtrack to a film that doesn’t actually exist? That’s a pretty far-fetched premise for most bands, but The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s music has often required (and rewarded) a certain open mindedness and suspension of disbelief from listeners, so it’s no surprise that they’re tackling such a lofty concept. I’ll warn you now: don’t pick up Musique De Film Imagine expecting it to sound like any of the other albums in the BJM discography, because you’ll be disappointed. Pick it up if you like the band, but also like soundtrack music. This means that you don’t get to hear Anton’s voice on the album, or anyone else in the band’s voice for that matter. “Philadelphie Story” and “Le Sacre du Printemps” are the only songs to feature vocals, but both are sung in French by non-band members SoKo and Asia Argento, respectively (yes, Asia Argento the actress). Elsewhere, just like a “real” soundtrack, there are several incidental pieces and full band instrumental explorations that develop repeating themes and motifs over the album’s forty minutes. While I probably won’t be listening to Musique de Film Imagine as frequently as other BJM releases from the past 20 years, it still works well as a cohesive piece of film music, reminding me of Air’s soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides or perhaps some of Tindersticks’ soundtracks for Claire Denis’ films.