Monday, May 30, 2011

Real Life Record Reviews # 2: GANG OF FOUR

Oh, wait. Wrong Gang of Four. Sorry.
After a shockingly bad 2010, where only a new Jim Jones Review CD and Paul Weller’s last one comes to mind when thinking of exciting new rock ‘n’ roll, 2011 is quietly shaping up as a fine year for music. Surprisingly (or maybe not, come to think of it), its veteran acts who seem to be leading the way with strong new releases. Off the top of my pointed lil’ noggin, new ones from the New York Dolls (see review here), Motorhead, UK Subs, Michael Monroe, and Mike Watt come to mind. (Be expecting reviews of all in this space shortly.) It’s as if the vets are rolling up their sleeves, shaking their graying heads, and grumbling, “Guess we can’t rely on the kids to save rock ‘n’ roll….C’Mon, boys! Let’s get to work!” Glad to see it, too – personally, I get tired of spinning old records and reissues all the time.

Here we go! Much better.
            But that Gang of Four, of all bands, can return with a disc as strong and vital as Content (Yep Roc) is a huge, hulking surprise. For one thing, it’s hard to forget their brief foray into MTV hitmaker-dom. Come 1982, Go4 changed bassists, eschewed the gristle and grind of their initial approach (without losing the funk), and began issuing inoffensive pop hits like “I Love A Man In Uniform.” Sure, the anti-military content got that single banned in a Britain invading the Falklands, but the lighter approach was perfect for Americans who preferred “Rock The Casbah” to “Complete Control.” Suddenly, Go4 were the darlings of suburbanites in parachute pants and asymmetrical haircuts, the sorta kids who were more Johnny Slash from Square Pegs than Otto from Repo Man. I wanted to puke.

Perhaps a pic of the current lineup is in order?

            Personally, I prefer my Gang of Four to be Marxist, funky, and noisy. I want Andy Gill’s guitars to sound like Wilko Johnson jacked into a transistor radio cranked all the way, before being hurled down a staircase. I want taut, hard, groovacious rhythms. I want lyrics that sound like the minutes to the last three Socialist Workers Party meetings chewed up, swallowed, and spewed back over those rhythms. I want dub consciousness, left, right and center.
            Basically, I want “To Hell With Poverty.” I want “Anthrax.” I want “I Found That Essence Rare.” I want all three, preferably played simultaneously, 24-hours-a-day. What a fine racket that’d make it. That’s MY idea of a party.
            Thankfully, Gang of Four delivered with Content.

 (And now for a video for a track on the album I never mention in this review,  "You'll Never Pay For The Farm":)

            Mind you, I didn’t listen to any of the Go4 releases between the inaccurately titled Hard and Content, so I’ve got no basis for comparison. But from my arguably ignorant perspective, this is the most Gang of Four-sounding Gang of Four record in nearly 30 years. Yet it doesn’t sound dated. Blame it on a hard young rhythm section (drummer Mark Heaney and bassist Thomas McNeice) joining Gill and singer Jon King, perhaps. Blame it on young bands like Franz Ferdinand deciding Gang of Four were a proper starting point. Whatever the case, the first thing you notice is Gill’s highly-processed guitar stuttering into opening track “She Said ‘You Made A Thing Of Me.’” It’s a rhythmic element unto itself, and suggests Gill’s paid special attention to Tom Morello, one of his more notable guitaristic progeny. Then the mule-kickin’ rhythm section starts knocking the stall’s wall down, Jon King begins dissecting modern romance, and all is right with the world. This is truly a Go4 record.
            What’s immediately noticeable for anyone familiar with the classic Go4 records are the fatter, juicier sonics, particularly in the guitar department. In the day, Gill preferred solid state Carlsborough amps, for a clipped, neurotic, angsty timbre. It sounded like itchy nerve endings. Clearly, Gill must have invested in the interim in more modern, turbo-boosted tube amplification. His fretwork now roars with a warmer, more rounded, “brown” sound. (Ironic, considering 2nd track “You Don’t Have To Be Mad” features a riff resembling one of Eddie Van Halen’s funkier vintage offerings.)
            Content is no embarrassment. It sits nicely alongside Entertainment, or even newer Go4-influenced acts like the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand. This is a fine, danceable car crash that may make you think as your rump involuntarily twitches. That’s my idea of a dance party!

(And as a bonus, let's watch Andy Gill and Jon King's recent "What's In My Bag?" segment for Amoeba Records. I love that they're fans of Steve McQueen and reckless car chases!)


Monday, May 16, 2011

Just A Thought # 1

Um, Steve? I think you've got something clogging the barrel of that pistol....

Recently, former Crass singer Steve Ignorant undertook a tour of the US where he performed a selection of Crass classics. Reportedly, ticket prices were rather steep to see the singer of the iconic Anarcho-punk band of historic note. Then again, Ignorant was heard, in a recent documentary on Crass, to grumble over how little money he made from the band, and how he’s basically now working shit jobs.

Still, given the band’s self-proclaimed principles versus the overt goal of this tour (and the guarantees Ignorant was asking for), shouldn’t it be dubbed The “Do They Owe Us A Living?” Tour? And I sure hope some fans invoked the proper spirit of Crass by purchasing some generic t-shirts at a Goodwill, turning them inside out, and breaking out the stencils and spray paint. The legend they could plaster across the fronts of those shirts? “PAY NO MORE THAN $5 FOR THIS SHOW.”

Just a thought…, (he smirks).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Real Life Record Reviews # 1: New York Dolls' latest

Yeah, any excuse to re-run this pic of Syl Sylvain and I.... (pic: Marty Havlik)

It's no secret, my love of the New York Dolls. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me doesn't even need for me to explain it, explain who they are, explain their importance. (Shit, the biggest non-secret in the world is how much I especially owe Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, musically and style-wise.)  I certainly have rejoiced in their decision to reform in 2004, around the core of surviving members Syl Sylvain and David Johansen (and bassist Arthur Kane, who tragically passed away literally days after playing the Dolls' first gigs since 1975). Live, the band is every inch the New York Dolls: That balance of wayward energy and solid guitar raunch and downtown wiseass attitude and Brill Building songwriting and a headful of snot. I have had no complaints there, even with only two original Dolls there.

Still, as this interview I did with him last year proved, Syl Sylvain felt something was wrong. He did not feel the new band was living up to what he felt was the Dolls' "gold standard," as he put it, and that the input of the newer members of the band had compromised the records they'd released in their second act. Indeed, while I found myself enjoying the latter day Dolls albums and felt they'd even created some new Dolls classics (such as "Dance Like A Monkey" and the b-side "Beauty School"), the records felt for the most part like really good David Johansen solo albums. Not a bad thing, but not the New York Dolls.

Apparently, Johansen finally heard what Syl was saying. March saw the release of sessions the Dolls completed last year in England, with the latter day core of Johansen, Sylvain, and drummer Brian Delaney augmented by producer Jason Hill standing in on bass and Blondie guitarist Frankie Infante taking over the Johnny Thunders slot from Steve Conte. (Conte, alongside Dolls reunion bassist Sami Yaffa, has moved on to Yaffa's fellow Hanoi Rocks alum Michael Monroe's current band.) Entitled Dancing Backwards In High Heels (429 Records), the Dolls' fifth LP manages a neat trick: It lives up to Syl's cherished "gold standard," while totally breaking form and advancing the Dolls' sound quite a bit.

The production feels totally alien and quite modern in a lot of respects. You could play Dancing Backwards alongside bands like The Kills and The Raveonettes and it would not seem out of place. But ironically, this very Dolls-y record is the one that sounds less like classic Dolls while still being classic Dolls: There's less guitar raunch per square inch than on any of their records. If anything, Dancing Backwards is a salute to the band's firm roots in girl groups and Brill Building songcraft.

The songs totally carry this record, starting from Johansen's plaintive heart-in-his hands lovers' plea vocal in the opener, "Fool For You Baby." And what you hear, for the most part, is atmospherics: Lush reverb, raindrop background vocals, the warm, ever-present hum of a Hammond B-3. And this production style persists, right through a faithful rendition of Patti LaBelle and The Blue Bells' "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman," swooping strings and all. Even the most Dolls-y track on the record, the anti-hipster/stay-outta-my-city rant "I'm So Fabulous," relies less on powerchords and Thunders-oid amphetamine-Chuck-Berry lead guitar than it does on layers of sax, harmonica, and piano. But it still sounds thoroughly in The Tradition, and Johansen's vocal venom is righteous to behold.

One of the most interesting touches here is the remake of "Funky But Chic," a tune Sylvain and Johansen wrote in the latter stages of the Dolls which didn't get recorded until Johansen included it on his first solo LP in 1978. It beggars a question I've long asked Syl: Will the Dolls finally give proper studio treatments to the great material they wrote for a proposed 3rd studio LP, like "Red Patent Leather" or "Teenage News?" My mouth certainly waters at that idea.

All in all, Dancing Backwards In High Heels has gotten strong play here in the temporary Denver Napalm HQ. There's nothing embarrassing about this record. It's a strong LP that both screams "New York Dolls" while breaking form at once. I could make a really good compilation mini-album out of the strong material from the last two New York Dolls LPs. This is the first one they've done since reforming that's strong all the way through. And that's a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bad Ideas and Strange Bedfellows (Number One In A Series)

Well, this one caught my attention about three years late. But would you believe The Fall covering Merle Haggard?!

*blink* *blink* Yeah, I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall the day Mark E. Smith arrived at this decision! "Let's cover 'White Line Fever'-uh! I love-uh that Bakersfield sound-uh!"

No, not one of The Fall's finer moments. Still, you can find on their 2008 LP, Reformation Post TLC.