Dead Heavens – Whatever Witch You Are (Dine Alone)

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.


Punk Avenue: Inside The New York City Underground 1972-1982 by Phil Marcade (Three Rooms Press)

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.

The Black Angels – Death Song (Partisan Records)

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”.

Max’s Kansas City: 1976 and Beyond (Jungle Records)

While it was hardly amazing, the original 1976 Max’s Kansas City compilation was still interesting as a representation of the kind of (mostly) local talent you could see dropping by the famous New York City hangout on any given night in the mid-’70’s. The main complaint about it has always been that it didn’t include anything from New York greats like Richard Hell, The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith…etc., and the one brilliant act it did include, Suicide, is represented by demos of “Ghost Rider” and “Rocket USA” that pale in comparison to the versions on their debut album. True, nothing on here will make you forget about “Blitzkreig Bop” or “Marquee Moon”, but if you’re a fan of that kind of stuff you’ll probably also like the Doors-meets-Television vibe of Harry Toledo’s “Knots” or the post-glitter tracks from Wayne County (soon to be Jayne County), Cherry Vanilla and The Fast, all of which capture and preserve the anything goes attitude the Max’s scene was famous for. Only Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution” is missing from the original compilation’s tracklisting, supposedly due to licensing issues.

The new “1976 and beyond” reissue on Jungle Records is bursting at the seams with new material, blossoming to an astounding 40 tracks over two discs. All the extra space gives listeners a chance to hear rare 1970s tracks from lesser known Max’s scenesters Jimi Lalumia and The Psychotic Frogs (try not smiling during “Disco Sucks”), The Cellmates, and The Senders whose “6th Street” sounds something like Van Halen for Johnny Thunders fans. There’s also eight 21st century recordings from artists associated with Max’s. These range anywhere from excellent (Senders’ front-man Phil Marcade’s Dylan-esque “All Quite Wasted”) to terrible (“Ruby From the Wrong Side of Town” by Ruby and The Rednecks is grating) and expected (Jayne County reprising her titular “Max Kansas City” not once, but twice). Finally, it ends with five live songs from some bigger names (Sid Vicious, Iggy Pop, Nico, and Johnny Thunders, who shows up with The Heartbreakers and alongside Wayne Kramer in Gang War) which have enough in spirit to make up for what they lack in fidelity. Iggy’s entry is especially interesting – a live recording from 1977 of a song called “Rock Action” that never made it onto any of his studio albums.

It ain’t perfect, and it unjustly ignores Max’s role in early New York hardcore (no Stimulators, Misfits, Mad or Kraut) but if you’re still reading this review, chances are good there’s something here you’ll really like. Track-by-track liner notes from Peter Crowley and Jimi Lalumia add important historical perspective.

Mark Lanegan Band – Gargoyle (PIAS/Heavenly)

There’s a significant difference between Mark Lanegan’s solo albums and Mark Lanegan Band albums. Mark Lanegan’s albums, which go all the way back to 1990’s Winding Sheet, are the folkier ones, with his Jim Morrison-meets-Tom Waits croon surrounded by more organic instrumentation. He brings the same vocal tools to the Mark Lanegan Band’s albums, however, the music behind him is built around programmed electronics. Luckily, his idea of an electronic sound isn’t sleek. The kind of beats he uses sound like an alternate timeline where he spent the back half of the ’80s fronting a New Order / JAMC / Bunnymen type of band, instead of Seattle neo-psychedelic hard rockers The Screaming Trees.

Gargoyle is his fourth Mark Lanegan Band album and it picks up pretty much exactly where 2014’s Phantom Radio left off. The lack of progression may be off-putting for some, but Phantom Radio was my favorite album of that year, so I’m perfectly thrilled to hear more of the same on Gargoyle. The man affectionately known among fans as “Dark Mark” and his rotating cast of supporting musicians (including past collaborators Alain Johannes, Greg Dulli and Josh Homme, among others) are right in their narco-gothic wheelhouse with the opening duo of “Death’s Head Tattoo” and “Nocturne”, even if the song’s titles sound like they were made by a Mark Lanegan Song Title Generator. “Emperor” and “Beehive” are great upbeat songs, though the former closely resembles “The Passenger” and the latter sounds like a lost alternative rock radio hit from 1987, with a decent amount of its sound and style nicked (tastefully) from Echo and The Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar” and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sidewalking”. Lanegan puts together good slow-burning songs too, bringing the tempo down on “Sister”, “Goodbye To Beauty” and “First Day of Winter”. Those with a keen ear with notice that “Sister” lovingly recreates the harmonies from Wire’s “A Mutual Friend” towards the fade-out.

Despite personnel and influences changing from song to song Gargoyle is a very cohesive listening experience. It’s Mark unique vocal register and lyrical approach that tie it all together perfectly, and as of right now (May 19th), it’s the best new album I’ve heard in 2017.

Jim Jones & The Righteous Mind – Super Natural (Hound Gawd!)

One of the best onslaughts of real rock and roll music I’ve ever seen came from a Jim Jones Revue concert in New York City in 2014. I could talk about the way their songs tapped into the original energy of rock and roll or I could praise the ferocious cool of the band’s performances, but the thing I’ll always remember about it was the insane volume. My ears were ringing the next day, even though I wore ear plugs the entire time. Now that’s a proper rock show! Anyway, the experience cemented my love for the band, and I was saddened when they broke up just a few months later. Not surprised though, since the room they played was half-empty. Now Jim Jones is back with a new outfit, The Righteous Mind (bassist Gavin Jay is the only JJR holdover), and a debut album where things are a little different than before, but not necessarily for the better. 

Jones himself is still a wild-voiced front-man, though he scales back some of his Little Richard/Gerry Roslie/Iggy-isms to make room for Waits-inspired growls, a surprisingly sensitive falsetto (“Shallow Grave”) and a creepy croon (“Everyone Buy Me”). Musically, things are a bit shaky. The band play speaker-frying Stooge-punk accented by rollicking pianos, kinda like The Jim Jones Revue did, but the songs are noticeably longer and more complex. By going long (only one song is under four minutes) they lose some of that crucial pulse-quickening backbeat amidst long jam sections, making it harder to latch on to melodies. Worse is the guitar playing. I can’t tell if it’s Jones (he’s listed as lead guitar) or the band’s other guitarist Malcolm Troon, but there’s some squelchy tones and a penchant for dive-bombs that might work for Slayer, but not here. Even if all of the ten songs on Super Natural have really engaging sections (“Shallow Grave” and “Something’s Gonna Get Its Hands On You” are the best ones) they also have at least one part you wish they’d edited out. Maybe the next one will be better. 

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Pol Pot’s Pleasure Penthouse (A Records)

Five years after its first official release (assuming you consider a run of 500 cassettes an official release) this relic from The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s earliest days is getting another limited release, this time as a 2LP blue vinyl Record Store Day 2017 exclusive. The album is only getting modest exposure because, as Anton Newcombe’s liner notes explain, it was never meant to be heard by a lot of people. These are cassette recordings he made back in 1990-’91 to teach himself how to write and record songs. So, don’t come to it expecting cohesive flow, pristine fidelity, stunning performances or highly developed songs. That said, as a document of a process, it’s pretty good. As far I know, “Evergreen” and “Fingertips” are the only songs to survive this era and find their way onto an official release (on 1995’s Methodrone and a b-side for a 2015 single, respectively) but I’m actually surprised Anton hasn’t revisited a song like “Rotary Eight” or the Bunnymen-esque “Pictures of Us” yet. It’s hard to discern the finer details in the lo-fi murk, but there’s definitely good melodies in there begging for a better recording. “Psychedelic Sunday” is another keeper, and I’ll be damned if its combination of hard-driving beat, noisy guitars and whispery vocals don’t sound like the blueprint for everything A Place To Bury Strangers did over a decade later. While four sides of homemade cassette recordings from over a quarter of a century ago aren’t the building blocks of an album I’m going to frequently reach for when I want to hear The Brian Jonestown Massacre, it’s still a fascinating snapshot of a work in progress that hardcore fans of the band (myself included) will enjoy.