This is a messy compilation of Miles Davis recordings that have been used in films. The music obviously isn’t the problem here, with a cross-section of Davis’ work from 1953 to 1960 represented. As great as the music is, the fact that these songs appeared in movies is the only common thread holding them together and even within that vague construct the score for Louis Malle’s Elevator To The Gallows (which is some of Davis’ best early work) is the only music Davis specifically recorded for films. The rest were simply pulled from Davis’ album and dropped into films like Lenny, and Kerouac – The Movie, among others. Like previously reviewed albums from El Recordings, a good set of liner notes are needed to make the case for this album to exist, yet the ones we get only reinforce the murky premise. Why are the liner notes more focused on the movies these songs soundtrack than the songs themselves? Why does it take four pages of text before Miles Davis is even mentioned? Why does the album include snippets of dialogue from Lenny and Kerouac – The Movie? Exactly what is this album supposed to be celebrating?
As lead singer in Agnostic Front, Roger Miret is a central figure in New York hardcore. It’s a genre I don’t listen to much these days, but I still find its history endlessly fascinating. Roger’s autobiography takes readers back in time to when the New York scene was made up of a small but dedicated group of kids mostly like Roger – teenage runaways from abusive families living in poverty on the streets, united by this new music that was too aggressive and fast for most people to make sense of. Left to their own devices on the dangerous East Village streets, fights, abandoned buildings, drug dealers, local gangs and a host of other threats were a part of everyday life and you can really feel that tension and danger, mixed with the explosiveness of the music, throughout My Riot.
If Roger and co-author Jon Weiderhorn had limited My Riot’s scope to the history of Agnostic Front and the New York Hardcore scene, they would’ve had more than enough material for a great read. However, Miret’s non-musical story is often more interesting than his musical endeavors, and it’s when he’s off-stage that the book really kicks into overdrive. The sections on his family fleeing to America from Cuba in 1968, and the subsequent physical abuse they suffered from his father and step-father are flat-out harrowing, and go a long way to explain why ended up on a destructive path at such a young age. The book also covers Miret’s secret double-life running drugs up and down the East Coast while on tour, and the four years he spent in prison on a cocaine possession charge. Miret’s stories – especially those from his prison years – are ugly reminders of what happens to people when they’re damaged to the point of losing their humanity, and there are times when all the unnecessary violence and lunk-headed machismo make him a hard person to like, but there’s some much needed levity in the book too (don’t miss the story about Agnostic Front getting hired to play a Bar Mitzvah!). Thankfully My Riot’s ending is a happy one, with an older and wiser Miret staying out of trouble for the most part, and taking up residence with his family in Arizona of all places. He’s still out there with Agnostic Front too, reaping the benefits of today’s kinder and more lucrative punk scene. Fan or not, My Riot is a great look back at a singular time in musical history, written from a very singular perspective, and it was almost impossible to put down.
If you’re a Peter Perrett fan, you should be happy How The West Was Won simply exists, regardless of how good it is or isn’t. After achieving cult status via three great albums with The Only Ones from 1978-1980 he’s largely been watching the decades pass from the sidelines, a victim of the drug addiction that he wrote about in underground classics like “The Beast” and “Another Girl, Another Planet”. He’s resurfaced sporadically – a brief spell in the mid-90s as The One, and some gigs with The Only Ones a decade ago – however, How The West Was Won is the first time in a long time that Perrett’s given us an indication that he’s in good enough shape to give a music career another go.
All the years of hard living are evident in his voice, though Perrett – now a newly minted senior citizen, and reportedly suffering from C.O.P.D. – wasn’t exactly Pavarotti as a young man, so the impact isn’t all that damaging. If his voice is less forceful, Perrett’s lyrics are still as sharp as ever. The opening title track, where he details his love of all things American over music derived from “Sweet Jane”, will certainly turn a lot of heads with its mentions of Kim Kardashian, J-Lo and terrorism, yet I’m more interested in his ruminations on romance (“An Epic Story”, “Troika”), addiction (“Hard To Say No”) and his struggles to get through life (“Living In My Head”, “Something In My Brain”). He’s led an interesting life (Nina Antonia’s biography, The One and Only is highly recommended), and he lets his experiences inform his songs, which is exactly what you want. The backing band, helmed by his sons Peter Jr. and Jaime, is a huge problem though. From what I’ve read they wanted the album’s focus to be their father’s lyrics and voice, but the music isn’t just unobtrusive, it’s aggressively boring. It wouldn’t be fair to expect the next generation of Perretts to play with the same fire as The Only Ones, but they sound like they could be writing for any ol’ generic singer-songwriter. Their benign playing manages to undermine all the good things Perrett brings to the table and ultimately sink the album. Hopefully Perrett finds more suitable backing for his next outing…and he better not wait another twenty years either!
Dead Heavens are a relatively new band, first coming together in 2013 as a live backing for singer Walter Schreifels on tour, and then morphing into their own thing over the subsequent years. Despite the recent born-on date, they have a pedigree stretching back over three decades of New York underground rock. Schreifels and drummer Drew Thomas are best known for playing in well-loved hardcore & post-hardcore bands (Gorilla Biscuits and Quicksand for Schreifels, Bold and Into Another for Thomas; and both were in Youth Of Today at some point), guitarist Paul Kostabi was in an early lineup of White Zombie, and bassist Nathan Aguilar plays with indie rock band Cults. Mixing all of Dead Heavens’ members histories in a blender in 2017 could create just about any musical style and I wouldn’t be that surprised. That they landed on a mix of turn-of-the-’70s hard rock and ’90s desert rock is disappointing. Not that those are bad things, but there’s already a ton of bands out there trying to sound like Sabbath, Hendrix, Kyuss…etc., and Dead Heavens don’t do much to distinguish themselves from the bong-rattling pack. The lumbering rhythm section, psych-blues guitar noodling, and general stoned-out vibe are everything you’d expect to hear from a band playing this kind of music today. Not once on Whatever Witch You Are did they surprise or exceed expectations. Heck, they even use the same Master Of Reality shade of purple lettering that most of today’s heavy psych bands use. I’d forgivethe lack of originality if the songs were great, but unfortunately they underwhelm throughout, with the exception of “Adderall Highway”. Yes, it’s a Hawkwind rip-off, but at least the band sounds intense and Schreifels’ vocals aren’t as one-note as they are everywhere else. The closing suite of “Silver Sea” and “Experience To Liberate” is pretty enough, but the song it’s trying to emulate, The Velvet Underground’s “Ocean”, is prettier….and just all around better. That’s Whatever Witch’s problem in a nutshell – it’s almost always painfully obvious who/what Dead Heavens are trying to sound like, and the original is always far better.
I didn’t know much about Phil (aka Philippe) Marcade, nor his band The Senders, prior to reading Punk Avenue, but that didn’t stop me from loving the book as I quickly blew through its 246 pages over the course of a weekend. Punk Avenue isn’t really a biography as much as it’s a recollection of incidents from his life between the ages of 18-28. The stories Marcade tells are, at their core, pretty standard tales of young-adult hijinks, which normally wouldn’t be that exciting. However, Marcade’s partying tales play out against the fascinating backdrop of 1970s New York, specifically the burgeoning Downtown punk scene, where the French transplant found a home in the midst of the action, crossing paths with the steady stream of musicians, drug dealers, girlfriends and gangsters that were roaming the streets during that heady era. Johnny Thunders, Blondie (Deborah Harry wrote the preface), The Ramones, and a host of others play a big part in Marcade’s story and the interactions he had with them all, musical and otherwise, are recounted in honest, and often hilarious, detail. The story takes a dark turn as the ’70s become the ’80s; AIDs was spreading quickly and Marcade’s hard partying ways turned into a nasty heroin addiction. Luckily Marcade survived it all, faculties intact, and even if Punk Avenue isn’t likely tell you anything about the ’70s Downtown NY scene you didn’t already know, it’s just insanely entertaining stuff and a must read for anyone whose copy of Please Kill Me is in tatters from over-reading (like me). My only complaint, and it’s admittedly a small one, is with the front cover. Not only is the layout too similar to the original edition of Please Kill Me, but it also uses that stereotypical “ransom note” type of font associated with British punk.
It only takes the first minute of “Currency”, the opening track of the fifth Black Angels album, for the now-familiar Black Angels sound to rear its head. Various permutations of the song’s pounding mid-tempo groove and tom-heavy drums have been part of pretty much every Black Angels release going back to their 2005 debut EP. While that formula has created a strong “brand identity” for the band (Death Song is their third straight album to debut in the Billboard Top 100, assuming that still means something in 2017), it’s somewhat frustrating that they aren’t progressing from release to release, or delivering any surprises. As much as I like Death Song (the album – not the cheap Velvet Underground pun of the title) I’m at the point where I want The Black Angels to give me something more to consider than the same ol’ Velvets/Stooges/Spacemen 3/BJM/13th Floor Elevators-inspired sound I’ve come to know all too well from them. “I’d Kill For Her” and “Comanche Moon” put the formula to good use, with an inspired mix of Nuggets’y garage-pop song structures and narco-psychedelic noise-mongering. “Grab As Much (as You Can)” is great too, as long as you don’t pay too close attention to the lyrics (never the band’s strength) and are OK with them stealing the guitar riff from Johnny Kidd and The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”. “Estimate” and “Half Believing” are weaker, with the band attempting a po-faced seriousness they don’t pull off convincingly. “Medicine” sounds a lot like Clinic, another VU-inspired band that spent part of the 2000s stubbornly putting out songs that sounded like minor variations of other songs they’d already released, before shaking things up with Bubblegum in 2010. Were Death Song the first Black Angels album I’d probably be a lot more excited by it, but, to quote a Black Flag song title, “I’ve Heard It Before”.