Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

The year was 1979, and punk as it was known was dead. The Sex Pistols had broken up, The Clash wa pushing their music towards reggae and dub, Gang Of Four was pushing towards funk, dance and angry noise, and Joy Division was forging into what would become contemporary popular alternative rock. The ability of the public to be shocked by punk music, or any music, had been largely bled out in the preceding years by the antisocial public relations outlet that passed off as a band called The Sex Pistols, and while the spirits of youth and independence retained life across the American underground and would rise again, the most well-remembered acts in Britain around this time seemed to face a decision to break up or grow up. All of the aforementioned bands had seemingly gone off the rails at some point in the early 80s, with 1980’s woeful Sandinista! signalling worse things to come for The Clash, 1983’s laughable Hard the culmination of an imploding initial run by Gang Of Four, and New Order where Joy Division was heading before Ian Curtis’ untimely death.

However, the mass experimentation that can lead to records that completely alienate a lot of fans of earlier work is often also responsible for the most appreciated records of all. London Calling is what The Clash is largely remembered for, and it’s one of the most overrated rock albums around. Gang Of Four pushed boundaries from the off, and their first two albums, Entertainment! and Solid Gold, are excellent. Joy Division’s story can’t really be told by albums alone, with most of their well remembered work not actually appearing on a record (“Transmission”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Atmosphere” all spring to mind), and with the posthumous Closer indicating all too clearly what directions New Order was heading for, their entry into the class of 1979 that includes London Calling and Entertainment! is the only record that really sounds like a Joy Division record.

Unknown Pleasures isn’t entirely representative of the Joy Division we remember, largely catching them at a grim lull. They had largely shed their prior persona of a punk band called Warsaw with aggressive riffs and a weird fascination with the Nazi regime, but hadn’t grasped many of the pop sensibilities that would take hold later in the year and become songs on or around Closer. We’re left with what’s largely thought of as a doom-and-gloom record, although to dismiss it as nothing more would be selling it short, as there are some notable exceptions.

Sometimes having an opening track that doesn’t really fit the rest of the bill isn’t a bad thing, especially if it’s a strong track that might be lost on the listener as a misfit if it were amongst the back half of the record. An upbeat snare followed by a bubbly bass riff introduces “Disorder”, and a reverberant guitar hovers above. Curtis was well into his adopted baritone singing voice by this point, although it’s at its least stressed here, save for the last few lines as strange swirling sounds permeate the mix. Martin Hannett’s infamous production gives the song a sparse sound, which helps it fit in with the album, and the acres of space created allows the bleakness of Curtis’ lyrics to come through, although listeners will take away from the song its simple appearance and Peter Hook’s bass.

“Day Of The Lords” starts off the album’s run of darkest songs, which takes up most of the first side. It lumbers in dourly like a man bearing a giant cross, and most of the song slides in at the lower end of the scale, save for a little guitar picking and some squelching noise during the chorus that drains in from the top. A paranoid-sounding vocal performance from Curtis and some choppy chords from guitarist Bernard Sumner add a hint of seething aggression at times, but it’s the drumming of Stephen Morris during the chorus that stops the song from plodding at all times. With the tone lowered, “Candidate” follows, with a bass that moves like an elephant, minimal guitar work, and a depressed vocal delivery that makes it sound even slower than the previous track, although they have a similar tempo. Some bleak noise that sounds like reversed guitar doesn’t do anything to stop the track sounding like a three-minute coma.

“Insight” follows with a slightly quicker pace, a slightly less negative and more wistful performance from the vocals and bass, and some really stupid laser-disco sound effects to ruin everything. Another track that sounds roughly the same throughout, unlike the first two tracks which felt like they had a sense of dynamic fluidity, leaves the listener with over four minutes of rubbish. With two tracks in a row where you’d expect some strong material to be, you’d be perfectly entitled to think “blimey, this is some depressing tripe!” However, “New Dawn Fades” ironically represents the revival of the album. Some weird backwards noise gives way to a descending bass riff and a simple, memorable guitar piece. Everything becomes very restrained during the verse, with the echoing, metronomic snare cutting through everything. The second time around, the vocals come around with a much more powerful delivery that finally imprints itself. Despite being another slow, gloomy song, “New Dawn Fades” builds on itself, and has some really strong elements that make it stand out and prove itself as a fine song.

While many may remember the clap-happy version of “She’s Lost Control” that appeared on the b-side of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, a far superior version is found here. Less dance percussion here, instead a much tighter and urgent sound that contrasts with the unravelled lyrics, constantly building up with some memorable guitar work. Not to be outdone, “Shadowplay” follows, and is a splendid rescue job of a song previously recorded with a dreadful vocal for the aborted “Warsaw” album. The booming voice here commands the song, seemingly controlling the tempo, and a well arranged track falls around it nicely. It turns out that much of the album’s strongest material is in the middle.

A couple of short songs follow, taking up less than five minutes between them. “Wilderness” is defined by the up-and-down bass and echoing vocals. One of the few moments of the album that moves and shakes, it has a slightly whimsical nature to it, but doesn’t feel lacking. “Interzone” features a lead vocal from Hook, a deep undercurrent of contrasting vocals from Curtis, and a much punkier guitar. Had this not been produced by Hannett, this could easily have passed off for a punk staple. “I Remember Nothing” closes out the album in a most unemphatic fashion, recalling earlier weaknesses, although it’s a cut above “Candidate” and “Insight”. An unsteady vocal performance with minimal instrumentation provides an air of desperation to this long track, which is seen out with some weird crashing sounds.

There were a lot of songs recorded during the sessions, and it’s inevitable that upon hearing them, you wonder why some of them weren’t included. Three of the six other songs were earmarked for release on the Earcom 2 compilation EP, although only two of them found their way onto it. “Autosuggestion” is another very long track (over six minutes) which almost appears to be similar to “I Remember Nothing”, but for a buoyant bass line, and the scratchy guitar that comes in later at times sounds almost genuinely uplifting, with the increasingly howled vocals not dampening the experience of a pleasurable second half of the song. “From Safety To Where?” is a more awkward number where the vocals sound like they’re trying to keep up with an unusual bass. It’s not doom and gloom, it’s just a bit strange. “The Only Mistake”, which ended up on the Still compilation along with the other unreleased songs from this session, rattles, rolls, and rings. The guitar echoes, but there’s a more dense sonic texture at play here, and the vocals build well like they had on “Shadowplay”.

“Exercise One” has some swarming feedback and one of the most ominous, menacing basslines in existence that continually pounds. The angular guitar work and vocals full of paranoia and dread set against a clappy percussion set leave us with a track that isn’t exactly aggressive, yet seems to embody pure evil, making it an unexpected highlight. “They Walked In Line” was another song from the botched Warsaw LP, although it doesn’t fare anything like as well as “Shadowplay”. The slowed down chords sound lifeless, and the baritone doesn’t sound anything like as convincing as Curtis’ previous mid-level drone. “The Kill”, not to be confused with an earlier track by the same name from an old demo from the band’s days under the Warsaw name (which is pretty awful), is a short, sprightly, and quite fun track with some interesting shapes, and a charming simplicity at times. Despite all this, it doesn’t sound all that far removed.

For what it is, Unknown Pleasures stands up quite well. In spite of a wobble where you’d expect some quality, a terrific opener and a strong run of material from the middle to near the end that exhibits great style and variety ensure that this album will be a favourite for those who are patient with it. Of course, with all sixteen songs from the sessions being available on posthumous Joy Division compilations, you’d be entitled to feel like it could have been an even better record. It’s an unfortunate habit to not have the same vision as the people that created the music, especially when you’re tempted to bend the rules of the era’s vinyl limitations to get what you want.

Personal picks: Exercise One, Disorder, Shadowplay, Autosuggestion
Picks for others: Disorder, She’s Lost Control, Shadowplay, New Dawn Fades
Relative weaknesses: Insight, Candidate, From Safety To Where?

01 – Disorder
02 – Day Of The Lords
03 – Candidate
04 – Insight
05 – New Dawn Fades
06 – She’s Lost Control
07 – Shadowplay
08 – Wilderness
09 – Interzone
10 – I Remember Nothing

Author’s recommended tracklist
01 – Disorder
02 – Shadowplay
03 – Exercise One
04 – Wilderness
05 – The Only Mistake
06 – Autosuggestion
07 – New Dawn Fades
08 – She’s Lost Control
09 – Day Of The Lords
10 – The Kill
11 – Interzone
12 – I Remember Nothing

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Leatherface - Live At The Night And Day Café, Manchester, England, UK, 09/12/2011

Another gig, another trip to Manchester, an even smaller venue than the last time I was in this city. The benefits of going with somebody who really wasn’t bothered were paying immediate dividends, as we were caught in a traffic jam thanks to a late start. Playing pot luck with the parking garages proved fruitful for saving money, but then of course it wasn’t me paying for the ticket. We arrived at the Night And Day Café to find tables and chairs out with a wide, busy bar. The toilet facilities behind the stage were nice and grimy, and you’d get the impression that this establishment was essentially a music venue that was trying to make a few bob during daylight hours. I had a coke (driver’s privilege), and sat down.

As we were late, the first support act, The Fractions, was doing a sound check by this point. Usually, I’d want to stand and check out support acts, and just stand a bit further back if it wasn’t my thing, but Mr Excitable wanted to sit down and drink his ginger beer. I’m usually fairly defiant, but when I heard the horn section doing the sound check, I decided that sitting down and enjoying my coke wasn’t such a bad idea after all. From what I heard, The Fractions had a pretty decent rhythm section, but brass has no place in rock music, and we ended up having mid-pace ska blasted at us for half an hour. I just plain hate ska.

The usual break between sets, no more coke, and a bad back from sitting down for too long left me feeling somewhat restless, but Grumpfeatures was in a mindset to sit down for the entire gig. If you’re into opera I could understand that attitude, or if you’re too old to stand up for significant periods of time, but otherwise, I don’t really get it. You pay your money to see the bands, and then sit down while everyone else stands in front so you’re getting nothing but sound bouncing off the walls. Even at £8 a ticket, that’s not much of a deal. Nevertheless, we sat down behind the crowd again, much thicker this time, through the set that The Great St Louis was going through. It was a shame, they had a couple of good tunes in there, although it wasn’t mind blowing or anything. Having done a little research after, the “Leatherface meets Social Distortion” label that everyone seemed to have slapped onto the outfit wasn’t entirely unwarranted, but I think it makes more sense to describe them as “a slightly more restrained Milloy”. Certainly not groundbreaking, but solid.

Enough was enough. I got out of my chair, marched forth through the small crowd, and parked myself on the front row, Cheery O shuffling along in tow. No barrier in this 400-capacity room, just a bunch of speakers, which made for great armrests. I picked up a pick that someone from The Great St Louis had presumably dropped onto one of the speakers, and parked myself on it. A broken mic stand saw bassist Graeme Phillskirk donate his to drummer Stefan Musch (I was wondering if he was still in the band, with the Viva La Arthouse live release crediting a Steve Owen on drums), and without much chatter, the main act launched into their set.

And it came thick and fast. “My World’s End” kicked off proceedings with an energetic start, much as it had injected life into The Stormy Petrel (albeit in the second slot there), from which four of the first six songs were taken. Mush staple “I Want The Moon” kept the energy at a pretty high level, before Leatherface slowed down the set with some more paced songs. Recent album opener “God Is Dead” was followed by the far superior “Watching You Sleep” from Horsebox, and the new album’s focus track “Never Say Goodbye”, with the excellent “Diego Garcia” rounding off the new album promotion section, albeit with minimal backing vocals. It was fairly apparent that Frankie Stubbs wasn’t in a particularly chatty mood, as the band were going from song to song at a surprising pace. Despite the speed, Frankie seemed to do quite a bit of interesting dancing (think drunken uncle at wedding), and Dickie Hammond managed to look half asleep, his eyes shut whenever I looked over, but the hands kept working.

As much of a blur that the set was, it was always going to be easy to recall highlights, as the rest of the songs were mostly a collection of well known songs and fan favourites, with just about all full-length releases checked off. A couple of other songs from the new album crept in, including the brilliant “Broken”, but the show was inevitably stolen by staples “Peasant In Paradise” and the closing “Dead Industrial Atmosphere”, as well as the welcome surprise “Colorado Joe/Leningrad Vlad”.

A solitary stage diver went around the side and dove in maybe eight to ten times. Were it not for the fact that he was obviously a regular and with a fairly large group of people who seemed to enjoy it, he’d’ve been walking home without shoes. Unlike the company I was with, I won’t rant on about it for an hour. It’s just sad, especially if you’re going to do it during “Broken” or “Pale Moonlight” of all songs. The encore consisted of Mush classic “Not A Day Goes By” and singalong cover “Hops And Barley, but all I can really remember is the vibration of the speakers on my knees, a flailing elbow smacking me just below the left temple, and finding another pick about two inches from my hand, I assume Frankie dropped it. With no competition at all, I stretched forth and took a copy of the setlist, left the building, found the car, got the hell out of Manchester, and got constantly bombarded with “can we stop at McDonald’s?”

I actually thought the gig was pretty good. The crowd as a whole was pretty orderly without coming off as disinterested, one of the support bands was decent, and the main act, an aging band, surpassed expectations slightly. If I learned anything, it’s that going solo is probably worth the extra expense, or maybe my friends are too old for this, because while I was on the verge of throwing the towel in this year, I’ve realised that I’ve got a few shows left in me yet. I just need to experience them on my terms, and I’d encourage anyone to question to themselves why they’re trying to talk other people into going with them.

01 – My World’s End (The Stormy Petrel)
02 – I Want The Moon (Mush)
03 – God Is Dead (The Stormy Petrel)
04 – Watching You Sleep (Horsebox)
05 – Never Say Goodbye (The Stormy Petrel)
06 – Diego Garcia (The Stormy Petrel)
07 – Little White God (The Last)
08 – Peasant In Paradise (Fill Your Boots)
09 – Hoodlum (Dog Disco)
10 – Sour Grapes (Horsebox)
11 – Disgrace (The Stormy Petrel)
12 – Broken (The Stormy Petrel)
13 – Colorado Joe/Leningrad Vlad (Cherry Knowle)
14 – Not Superstitious (Mush)
15 – Pale Moonlight (Minx)
16 – Dead Industrial Atmosphere (Mush)
17 – Not A Day Goes By (Mush)
18 – Hops And Barley (split with Wat Tyler)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Leatherface - The Stormy Petrel

2010 was a pretty bleak year in this rocking world, with Viva Death’s Curse The Darkness being the pick of the bunch with its jagged lines and insanity in the music. Hot on its heels was another album infused with madness, but it comes through the microphone of Frankie Stubbs rather than the hands of Scott Shiflett. Stubbs is one of rock’s most beloved crazy mumbling old granddads, and while he may never write something quite as warped as Dog Disco’s “Red Diesel”, his gravelly tones and obscure lyrics are backed as strongly as ever by a solid wall of rock that rarely wavers, unlike the man’s fashion sense, which saw him looking like Fidel Castro around this period.

“God Is Dead” plods forth to open proceedings, and while it’s not horrible, it doesn’t really let us into the strengths of The Stormy Petrel. It lays the formula bare and exposed, with a heavier bias on one line refrains and the switching of gears with guitar moods. While the dual guitars on the BYO Split Series Volume 1 release and Horsebox album maintained a stoutness through most of the material, and Dog Disco had been particularly aggressive, the return of founding member Dickie Hammond to the outfit sees two fairly distinctive feels. The Stormy Petrel doesn’t snarl like its predecessor at all on the majority of its songs, and the sound usually steps clearly from gentle and nice to a bit less gentle and nice and a bit fuller, and back again.

“My World’s End” is an early enough encroachment into this pattern that you’re halfway through the album before you’ve decided what the general sound is. The aggression isn’t as explosive as the previous record, and it’s further hampered by an increasingly hoarse Stubbs, and the efforts of the new rhythm team being squashed. Bassist Graeme Philliskirk and drummer Stefan Musch aren’t exactly inaudible, but you feel that they’re mixed down too much, with the exception of one rattling hat on Musch’s kit, which you notice all too much while it’s there and all too confusingly when it’s gone and you hear how much quieter the rest of his kit is. Nevertheless, the overall ominous effect is achieved, and it’s a decent track that kicks the album into life a bit more where “God Is Dead” couldn’t quite manage.

This is one of those albums where the meat is in the middle. Not necessarily all the best bits, but where the sound of the album is imprinted. “Never Say Goodbye” was considered a focus track, and it has a reasonable pace, a distinctive guitar piece that sets itself apart as a lead guitar, typical melodies, halfway sane lyrics, and a sort of catchiness. Back in the 90s, the band would release this as a single like “Do The Right Thing” or “Not Superstitious”, but alas, the world had moved on, the music world had moved gradually online, and John Peel was too busy resting in peace to back the band, so no such release materialised. Like the aforementioned singles, there isn’t much about this song that stands out, it’s simply one of the band’s more refined songs. Apart from being a little bit more charming, toothless, and radio friendly, this song is very much a representation of the album’s sound.

As it happens, most of the best cuts are indeed in the middle. “Nutcase” features buoyant ascents and descents, a steady driving beat, more energy, and the return of some hallmark crazy lyrics. The cold curry breakfast from “Bakelite” is recalled, and a catchy chorus seals the deal for one of the album’s shortest pieces. “Broken” follows and slows things right down, with a simple guitar riff opening up and stealing the show from the rest of the whole album. Like “Nutcase” before, it benefits from not hanging its coat on one line, and another great chorus with well timed backing vocals, along with great build-ups, ensures that a sense of power stays with the song despite its pace, and makes it the pick of the record. Without stalwart drummer Andrew Laing in the band for the first significant time, the backing vocals on the record are unsurprisingly restrained, but Hammond and Philliskirk deliver when it counts. The rhythm section feels like it has gained momentum too, with the bass given room to breathe on both songs.

“Another Dance” follows, and unfortunately doesn’t build on the success of its predecessors, finding itself somewhere between the opener and “Never Say Goodbye”. A nice but forgettable opening riff gives way to simplistic guitars and bland vocal melodies, and a decent wind down and wind up unfortunately only leads to more of the same. “Diego Garcia” is much more interesting, with an initial lead guitar that recalls At The Drive-In, more politically charged lines (expressing sympathy to the relocation of inhabitants in the name of the United States building a military base on the British-owned atoll), and an excellent breakdown where the backing vocals shine.

Next on the menu is “Monkfish”, which is a steady, if unspectacular track. It’s fairly sulky, with Stubbs’ lyrical lunacy punctuated with a couple of unconvincing whoops (did they ever fully recover from accidentally mixing those screams into “How Lonely”?). The chorus, which barely avoids being a monolinear refrain, is a nice change up that gives the song some substance, if not style. “Disgrace” follows, and is a bit on the strange side. A level of aggression is displayed unlike anywhere else on the record. It may not match the level of “Red Diesel” or “Rabbit Pie Alibi”, but it sounds like it could be a slightly slower “Dustbin Modo”, with a snarling riff and Stubbs cramming in lines where lines don’t fit, with more swearing than usual. Next thing you know, you’ve got a cheery one line chorus that’s a complete non sequitur at first, and the second time through the song appears to lighten up, although it’s a short enough song that it doesn’t really last.

The album certainly hasn’t taken a nosedive by this point, but does sound a little thin on ideas. Luckily for us, a couple of strong cuts ensure that things don’t tail off. “Belly Dancing Stoat” chugs along quietly, and aside from more intricate riffs, manages to succeed without anything spectacular. The songs build up nicely, nothing’s leaned on too heavily, the backing vocals are again used well, and there’s an excellent dynamic without any pace changes being used. “Isn’t Life Just Sweet?” isn’t actually an original piece of music. An unreleased instrumental recorded during the sessions for their half of BYO Split Series Volume 1, tentatively titled “Unfurnished”, is rerecorded, tinkered with, and has lyrics applied to it. It’s not a bad song, but although the instrumental sounded like it needed words, “Isn’t Life Just Sweet?” doesn’t convince me that Stubbs found the right ones. The instrumental break which had originally featured a nicely building if unspectacular dual lead sounds more like a three-step building dual rhythm here. If you know “Unfurnished” you might be a little underwhelmed, but otherwise it’s a solid track.

“Hope” finishes the album in an unusual style. The extra instrumentation used gives it a sort of seafaring air, which probably has something to do with the title of the record. However, it’s not the strongest way to finish the record, and hearing Stubbs using the perpetually annoying cheap walkie-talkie vocal effect in the verses is particularly disappointing. Yet another solitary line makes up the chorus, and while it’s not the worst on the album, that it’s used as much as it is, particularly when seeing out the album, really drives that particular weakness of the record home. The music, for its oddities, isn’t so bad, and had the verses been stronger and sung through a microphone instead of an answering machine, I would probably be praising “Hope” as a nice closer.

With half a dozen years gone by, and with Stubbs the only member of the band since Dog Disco performing here, it was inevitable that The Stormy Petrel would sound significantly different. While undoubtedly one of the finest records to come out of 2010, it doesn’t stack up that brilliantly as a piece, and I wouldn’t rank it as highly as Mush, Minx, Horsebox, the split disc, or even Cherry Knowle or Dog Disco. That being said, this has just as many, if not more, great tracks on it than any of the aforementioned. The songs are of such strength that I couldn’t strip away a couple of bland tracks and rearrange to come up with a shorter but better album, and am simply left grinding my teeth over the flaws that prevent this from being a genuinely great album. With all said and done, if you’re in the mood for some good solid rock without wanting to listen to a full album as a singular experience, The Stormy Petrel is as good an addition to your shelf as any.

Personal picks: Broken, Nutcase, Belly Dancing Stoat
Picks for others: Broken, Diego Garcia, Never Say Goodbye
Relative weaknesses: God Is Dead, Another Dance

01 – God Is Dead
02 – My World’s End
03 – Never Say Goodbye
04 – Nutcase
05 – Broken
06 – Another Dance
07 – Diego Garcia
08 – Monkfish
09 – Disgrace
10 – Belly Dancing Stoat
11 – Isn’t Life Just Sweet?
12 – Hope

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Jawbreaker - 24 Hour Revenge Therapy

After a promising start as a pop punk outfit with a gritty edge on Unfun, Jawbreaker began to experiment quite heavily, and the material on the Bivouac LP and Chesterfield King EP in 1992 came across as a confused mess. The songs weren’t bad, but a lot of energy was removed at times, leaving us with a record and a half of either flat or angry material. Despite the fact that the erratic nature of the formula brought up some great tracks (“Parabola”, bassist Chris Bauermeister’s “Sleep”, and “Face Down” spring to mind), the song from this part of the band’s history that gets revered above all others is “Chesterfield King”, a dull-sounding, ill-fitting cheery track that fails to live up to the hype.

The reason why a dull track became so celebrated? Not as shocking as you might think. Jawbreaker took their new sound and applied it to a more sensible rock formula. 1994’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy had just as much creative flair, but it was channelled into a more relatable vein rather than diluted in multiple directions. Nevertheless, it signalled a return to a sort of melodic punk, although the music was more mature. This was the music that Jawbreaker were remembered for, and “Chesterfield King” was the only thing from the Bivouac era that vaguely fit that mould.

The hoarse post-throat surgery vocal delivery of Blake Schwarzenbach gives the album a different feel, as well as being the subject of some of the lyrical content. Indeed, the last recorded track before surgery, “Kiss The Bottle”, sees Schwarzenbach’s voice resembling that of Rancid’s Matt Freeman, and I dread to think how 24 Hour Revenge Therapy would have turned out with that style of mad drunkard Louis Armstrong performance.

Immediately signalling a more lively performance, the drum roll that ferries “The Boat Dreams From The Hill” into port is anchored by simple but fun guitar chords, something the band had seemingly forgotten about. Without going overboard, it announced to the world that Jawbreaker was back to doing what it did best, but with a better sound. “Indictment” is one of what would prove to be some infamously ironic digs at major labels (1995’s Dear You album was released on DGC Records, and featured a smooth, smoky new singing voice from Schwarzenbach), and featured a slightly more restrained pace, but you can hear the busy drumming of Adam Pfaler wrestling to be noticed despite its blunted sound. With a working title of “Scathing Indictment Of The Pop Industry”, one of Jawbreaker’s most preachy songs proved to be the most flippant.

The band’s shortest track in their career, “Boxcar” is the only one to limbo underneath the two minute mark. Despite being another fingerpointing track, it highlighted a more historically agreeable sentiment. The expressed disillusionment with the punk scene may not have been the primary reason that they sounded so different a year later, but would have been a conspiring factor in their breaking up in 1996, when that scene had become as disillusioned with the band and booed the three-piece they once loved. The track itself is a bit more energetic and concise than “Indictment”, and although that was no bad track, having the similar but marginally better “Boxcar” after it makes it seem a little weaker than it actually is. Like “The Boat Dreams From The Hill”, “Boxcar” was rerecorded back in San Francisco in August 1993, after the band decided they weren’t happy with the versions recorded alongside what would become the bulk of the album that May in Chicago with Steve Albini.

“Outpatient” is where the music becomes more musically interesting. A relaxed intro eases its way in with Schwarzenbach painting pictures of hospital events around the surgery. With the shortest three tracks out of the way, “Outpatient” is stretched a bit thinner, giving Bauermeister’s four strings a chance to make themselves known, and the pace and energy change step a couple of times. There’s an instrumental break in the middle of the song that’s a bit dull, but it’s a minor blemish, leaving us with a track that stands out from those preceding it without making us dismiss them as trite. “Ashtray Monument” sees a temporary return to a more punk sound, although it’s more aggressive and features palm muting. This song is notable for introducing a more sincere anger to the record, a memorable pre-chorus hook, and Schwarzenbach’s inability to say the word “bottle” without a magic letter H. For a long time I wondered why there would be a “butthole on the nightstand”, but this is far less amusing to me than the aforementioned final track before these, "Kiss The Bottle", which of course our man sings as "Kiss The Butthole".

The third track recorded in San Francisco was “Condition Oakland”, and all of Schwarzenbach’s pompous poetry love comes to the fore. Charged, dynamic riffs steam along while the frontman talks about hoping to hear railway tracks sing and being an avid reader, but at least he admits that he’s crazy in the chorus, which is the highlight of a great track that’s marred by the use of sampling at the end. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is very light on sampling as far as Jawbreaker records go, but it’s no less welcome. Beatnik Jack Kerouac rambles along to the piano of Steve Allen in periods of musical respite. Schwarzenbach may love Kerouac, but the only notable bit for me was mishearing him, thinking he said “…you can always see above the lesbian alley, puffs floating by from Oakland…”, and I was disappointed to find out that this was inaccurate. “Ache” was originally rejected from the Bivouac sessions. The chorus sounds a little like the one lively part of “Chesterfield King”, but the rest of the song is slow and downbeat, and we’re left with a song with an ebb and flow that complements “Condition Oakland” remarkably well. Bivouac’s loss is 24 Hour Revenge Therapy’s gain.

The highlight of the record comes fairly late on. “Do You Still Hate Me?” is vibrant and fairly direct, but it’s a cut above the likes of the opening tracks, and then some. A solid opening riff, fast work from Pfaler, an airy sing-along chorus and a simple but catchy yell-along-hoarsely post-chorus all contribute to the most tangible evidence of the band at the top of their game. No singles were released from the record, but if one was, this was the A-side, no question. “West Bay Invitational” brings back the sort of ill-tempered guitar that we saw in “Ashtray Monument”, and it’s of roughly similar quality for the most part, but without any vocal riff to take your attention as much. It’s no slouch, but fails to shine how most of the tracks have.

Ploughing to the back end of this album, “Jinx Removing” comes next, and it’s exactly what “Chesterfield King” wanted to be. An uplifting, slightly silly love song full of energy gives us the perfect cure to the stressed “West Bay Invitational”, while “Chesterfield King” failed to make a dent into a largely sulking album. Nevertheless, the record finishes in a downtrodden fashion. “In Sadding Around” builds up steadily. Bass meets palm muted guitar and low end drums, a sullen voice joins in, and then a feedback swarm slips into the background. The drums build up, a chunky snare steps up, the palm stops muting the guitar, and finally the chorus brings everything together with full drumming and a brilliantly sung chorus. An extended second chorus sees the album out, and while it wasn’t the kiss off that we were looking for, it’s a fine one that the album deserves.

What the album didn’t deserve was to be shortened. Also recorded during the Albini session were two songs that remained unreleased until the Etc compilation brought them into daylight. “First Step” is a little unusual in the way the guitar sounds at times, but its frenetic guitar work, outstanding tempo shift, tidy bridge, and sound vocal performance all point towards an album highlight. “Friends Back East” is a shorter number with a bouncy opening guitar and powerful kick in the hind legs, the last verse ending on the memorable line “my life’s a running joke, what am I running for?” as the guitar grits its teeth some. Both of these songs could have easily been added to the record without diluting the quality, in fact strengthening it.

24 Hour Revenge Therapy isn’t perfect, but it’s close. The lyrics are great for the most part, Schwarzenbach being poetic without being at his most indulgent, and his vocals are on top form, with this rough voice being the best and most convincing of the voices he’s adopted over the years (although his more relaxed style came good on the first Jets To Brazil album, 1998’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary). The rough sound works well, and the guitars stand out whether they’re at full tilt or reined in, without being too loud. Even though the drums are given a flat sound, they still propel the band, and the often understated bass fills the sound out nicely without trying to outdo anything around it. Almost everything works to perfection, and it’s a shame that the album could have been two tracks longer and still just as good. It almost feels insulting to rearrange the album to include the other songs, but it’s something I was compelled to do with the quality of them. There are so many fine tracks on here that it’s hard to pick two or three favourites, and even singling out weaknesses as only relative weaknesses is difficult to do.

Personal picks: Do You Still Hate Me?, First Step, In Sadding Around
Picks for others: Do You Still Hate Me?, Jinx Removing, Boxcar
Relative weaknesses: Indictment, West Bay Invitational

01 – The Boat Dreams From The Hill
02 – Indictment
03 – Boxcar
04 – Outpatient
05 – Ashtray Monument
06 – Condition Oakland
07 – Ache
08 – Do You Still Hate Me?
09 – West Bay Invitational
10 – Jinx Removing
11 – In Sadding Around

Author’s recommended tracklist
01 – The Boat Dreams From The Hill
02 – Friends Back East
03 – Boxcar
04 – Outpatient
05 – Ashtray Monument
06 – Jinx Removing
07 – Condition Oakland
08 – Ache
09 – Do You Still Hate Me?
10 – First Step
11 – West Bay Invitational
12 – Indictment
13 – In Sadding Around

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Hot Water Music - The Fire The Steel The Tread

After a triumphant return to the stage, the members of Hot Water Music got together and put out a couple of studio recordings. The first was a cover of “True Believers” by The Bouncing Souls, a song that they’d played live, which was released as a split single with that band covering “Wayfarer”. We were never going to learn too much about what the band would sound like from this 2010 release, and so it was the next year, along with promises of a 2012 full-length release, that we were treated to a new 7”/download. The first new material since the achingly disappointing The New What Next in 2004, it could have gone anywhere. Would it be a salute to the days of old? This was unlikely given the band’s personal preference for their Epitaph-era work. Would it sound like The New What Next or their previous, better Epitaph work (A Flight And A Crash and Caution)? Would it sound a bit like Chuck Ragan’s solo material, which had gone from just the vocalist/guitarist and an acoustic to a full-blown country backing band? Would it draw from the other three members’ time spent playing as The Draft, or other vocalist/guitarist Chris Wollard’s other work as head of The Ship Thieves?

Well, over the course of two songs, the answer is “most of the above”. The A-side of The Fire The Steel The Tread, which goes by that title, is a Ragan-penned piece that sounds like a country tune that’s been beefed up with electric instruments. Ragan’s voice sounds horribly withered, and every line is sung in dual to keep it up in the mix. The vocal melodies are somewhere between country and old fashioned road warrior rock (which shouldn’t be surprising given the title and lyrics). The classy rhythm section is held back, as George Rebelo’s drums are reduced to a sluggish pounding, and Jason Black’s bass is almost impossible to detect in the mix, so I don’t really know what he’s doing.

I have to confess to being disappointed. There are traces of The New What Next, and copious doses of Ragan’s solo work, which have been possibly the least effectual releases that any of the four members of Hot Water Music have been involved with in the ten years before this release. “The Fire The Steel The Tread” embodies elements of just about everything I was fearful of that might have gone wrong. I’d always typically preferred Ragan’s songs to Wollard’s. There’s just something about the classic anthems of hope from what used to be one of rock’s most coarse vocals that just made you believe that every word and every note was meant, and it’s all missing now, the chords, the lyrics, the voice. The only thing worth salvaging from this song was some of the higher-end guitar work, which barely hauls itself out of the mix.

The flipside is the contribution of Wollard, and I did not expect it to turn around my feelings of sheer dread for how bad the next full length would be, given my penchant for liking his songs less historically. Nevertheless, I gave it a spin. Lo and behold, all the best ingredients seem to have gone into “Up To Nothing”. The guitar work comes over as a blend of The Draft and Caution, the finest of Hot Water Music since signing for Epitaph. It’s catchy, infectious, and lively, and a much more animated Rebelo can be envisaged behind the drum kit. The backing vocals work a treat, the choral refrain is memorable, and Wollard’s voice hasn’t suffered anything like as much. Of course, there are flaws, but these are in the mix. Again, Black isn’t heard, and you get the feeling that the vocals could just be mixed a little better, but these are minor blemishes on a faith-restoring song.

I’ve learned better than to be optimistic about anything, and the label that the band signed with to release the new LP looks to be so packed to the rafters with emo bands that it makes Epitaph look like they’re still in their glory days of the 80s and 90s. I’m not sure what the label expects from the band, or is just happy to have the name of a well-known band on its roster. Where do No Idea Records come in this time? In a way I’m glad that the quartet is moving on slightly, and The Fire The Steel The Tread does at least hint that what’s to come will be better than The New What Next. However, the thought of Hot Water music drawing out a legacy of below par records, after such a golden first decade together, is a sad one indeed. There’s nothing here for anyone who’s only a fan of the 90s material. Even the artwork continues in the vein of the uglier Scott Sinclair art present in The New What Next, whilst also bearing a resemblance to the artwork on the singles that The Draft put out. If you like Caution or Chris Wollard, the B-side is of great value to you. Unless the band put out enough loose material to fill up a third compilation album, these tracks probably won’t see release on a proper record.

Personal pick: Up To Nothing
Pick for others: Up To Nothing
Relative weakness: The Fire The Steel The Tread

01 – The Fire The Steel The Tread
02 – Up To Nothing