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

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Pegboy - Three-Chord Monte / Strong Reaction / Field Of Darkness

After defining the sound of Chicago punk kings Naked Raygun with his simple but direct guitar for the best part of the 80s, John Haggerty decided he’d had enough and formed a new band, enlisting the help of Larry Damore and Steve Saylors on vocals/occasional rhythm guitar and bass respectively, from the recently-disbanded Bhopal Stiffs, rounding out the lineup with his brother Joe behind the drum kit. Pegboy went in to record a few demo tracks with Iain Burgess, and decided that it was good enough to release as it was as an EP. Later packaged on one disc with debut full length Strong Reaction, it nevertheless gets a separate examination because of its initial release as a separate record.

Three-Chord Monte is one of the most charming little puns you’ll find in the often all too serious world of punk, and it’s reinforced by the cover photo of a shady character dealing cards on the docks. It’s also backed up by the opening track, as the riff that permeates most of “Through My Fingers” is indeed one with three chords. The song is remarkably unspectacular, and I still can’t fathom how they spun it out to four minutes. Damore’s flat vocals are a welcome change from the screaming, shouting, or whining that you’d usually get on straight simple punk, but on this EP and especially on this track, he sounds like he’s bunged up with a terrible head cold. The repetitiveness can really get to you on a bad day, which is a shame because it’s otherwise not a bad track. The unimaginative guitar solo coda doesn’t drag it out of mediocrity, and while Pegboy would always be better known for chunky riffs than creativity, how this song was picked to have a music video made for it and everything is beyond me. The lyrical despondency that features on most Pegboy songs regardless of musical mood is in full force here, and on every other track on the record. “My Youth” is more energetic and much catchier, but the combination with the lyrics creates a sort of bittersweet punk anthem, almost like The Bouncing Souls but more inland and closer to hardcore than Oi-punk. Most of the progressions in this song actually have four chords, but I think the least prominent riff in the verse has only three chords, so we’ll allow the song to be here, which is just as well because it’s the best song on the record.

The track fades away, as several of the best Pegboy songs seem to annoyingly do (“Strong Reaction” from the album of the same name, the closer to the mighty Fore EP “Jesus Christ”, and Earwig centrepiece “You” all spring to mind), and just to rub it in, the next track is called “Fade Away”. The guitar neck gets strangled in a more sombre piece that’s marked with a really awkward chorus that doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the song. I think it’s supposed to add a bit more kick to the dreariest track, but there’s no noticeable injection of energy. “Method” snarls a little more, and a more aggressive drum track propels the song to something greater. The backing vocals are at their best, and the guitars cruise and crash at the right times, including the best guitar solo that John Haggerty put down between leaving Naked Raygun and Fore in 1993.

A year later, and the band’s first full length was out. The strikingly plain cover of Strong Reaction reflects the music, and “Strong Reaction” grabs your attention without any fireworks. A monster riff drives the song throughout, and an impassioned but gruff vocal from Damore, whose nose was sufficiently clear by now, leaves us with a classic, and I have no complaints about this being a focus track with a music video made for it. “Still Uneasy” is brighter, shorter, and features a more noticeable bass. The backing vocals are much airier than in the opener. There’s still some beef in the post-chorus riff, and “Still Uneasy” is a good second track which manages to avoid sounding weaker than “Strong Reaction” by being just different enough.

“Not What I Want” is about on par with the previous track. It lacks a particularly interesting riff, but it’s bouncier still, and the classic air of defiance it carries will appeal to the younger punks out there. “What To Do” takes the pace down, and feels at times like a slight dip in form. The guitar lacks energy if not bite, although the vocals are still going strong. It feels like a blip, but is fairly consistent with the stock material at the back end of the album.

The instrumental “Locomotivelung” introduces a new flavour into the mix. Joe Haggerty’s drumming steals the show, but the dual attack of brother John and Damore on guitars is much more vicious than anything else the band did on Strong Reaction or Three-Chord Monte, being the clearest hint at what Fore would sound like. The only downside of this track is that it lacks an ending, which, considering they didn’t put the effort into lyrics, is particularly disappointing, because a crescendo was promising to build in the fadeout. “Superstar” is like “Not What I Want” in that it relies on infectious vocal tuning rather than a really good sequence of chords, and comes across as standard fare.

The song that was actually given release as a single from the record was “Field Of Darkness”, and it’s unlike pretty much any other Pegboy song from this era, in that right from the off, John Haggerty is hitting the higher notes of his guitar well away from Damore’s rhythm, and this makes it stand out in a big way, despite being the standard formula for most two-guitar four-piece units. Apart from trying to cram the song title into a space where there wasn’t room for it, the song’s full of melody and niceness and all that, so it’s no real surprise that it found its way onto a seven inch. “Time Again” brings the sound back into more familiar territory, with an urgent but dull riff that would have been chastised more if it had appeared on another part of the album, but it does the job after the last track, and one of the better solos on the record keeps the song treading water in its own right.

“Believe” takes things down to almost the level of “What To Do” in terms of both speed and mood. A lively solo puts it higher up the pecking order, but it isn’t exactly stellar. The final credited track is “Hardlight”, eighty five seconds of disappointing throwaway material. I’m sure it’s some nod to the past bands that the members of Pegboy have been in, but it doesn’t belong here. The hidden track fades in where the fadeout of “Strong Reaction” left off, suggesting that the band had kept going until someone decided that they’d played enough (at approximately four minutes, the opening track is roughly a minute longer than the next longest track even with the fadeout), proving that those pesky punks were never intending to give the song a structured finish.

The Field Of Darkness single had the same version of “Field Of Darkness” as Strong Reaction, but featured a unique B-side. While “Field Of Darkness” remains a favourite of many who first heard Pegboy material when they heard their favourite band covering it (in my case it was Hot Water Music on a live bootleg), those that have grown into the entire catalogue might well find “Walk On By” to be streets ahead. Despite sounding like it was recorded in a tin of baked beans, it’s bristling with energy and is easy to sing along to, with the trademark uncertainly expressed in the lyrics, and I can't help but like it more than the A-side.

Being one of those albums that have a good sound to them without doing anything spectacular, Strong Reaction is as good a record to have in your collection as any Naked Raygun record. While 1994’s Earwig has some better songs and certainly better songcrafting, Strong Reaction just gives a great experience, and coupled with having just about enough good tracks, stands out as the most memorable and essential Pegboy release for most people. Three-Chord Monte is a worthwhile addition, although that’s easy for me to say because I accidentally bought it when I bought Strong Reaction. It’s unfortunate to say that the Field Of Darkness single is only for vinyl nerds and the hardiest of Pegboy collectors, because everyone who’s heard the band and doesn’t hate them would think that at least one of the two tracks on it was the best thing they’d heard that week.

Personal picks – Strong Reaction, Walk On By, My Youth, Locomotivelung, Method
Picks for others – Field Of Darkness, Not What I Want, Method, Still Uneasy, Strong Reaction
Relative weaknesses – Hardlight, Fade Away, What To Do


Three-Chord Monte
01 – Through My Fingers
02 – My Youth
03 – Fade Away
04 – Method

Strong Reaction
01 – Strong Reaction
02 – Still Uneasy
03 – Not What I Want
04 – What To Do
05 – Locomotivelung
06 – Superstar
07 – Field Of Darkness
08 – Time Again
09 – Believe
10 – Hardlight
11 – (Untitled continuation of Strong Reaction)

Field Of Darkness
01 – Field Of Darkness
02 – Walk On By

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Bouncing Souls - Live At The O2 Academy Islington, London, England, UK, 03/08/2011

I’ve been against the idea of playing a full album from front to back at a live show, from about the time when I heard of the concept. Surely the point of going to a gig is to get something you can’t buy on a studio recording. The energy, the suspense, the sweat, the ringing in your ears, and some classic songs mixed in with new ones to guarantee that you finish the night with a sore throat. Nevertheless, this was The Bouncing Souls, and they were doing a slightly different take on it, so I had to try. They were playing all eight albums over four nights in a few select cities, one of which was London. There are advantages to this. The band gets to stay in a hotel and chill out for a few nights rather than hauling their team around every night, which must seem ever more appealing to bands that have been on the road for more than a couple of decades. Fans can select which pair of albums they want to listen to rather than just have the latest release shoved down their throats. It isn’t that Ghosts On The Boardwalk is a bad record, but I don’t think that playing any entire record front to back is a very effective way of selling that record on a tour supporting that record. In my case, I was quite lucky that my two favourite Bouncing Souls albums were being played on the third night, so I talked two friends, each of whom I’d seen the band with once before at different venues in Birmingham, into seeing them perform How I Spent My Summer Vacation and Anchors Aweigh.

Because it was London and there was congestion and petrol to weigh up, we decided to train it down, and cram into a family room in a cheap nearby hotel so that we could stay the night. Having met up at the train station on a hot and humid Wednesday, we walked to the hotel and booked in at around half five, got changed and headed more or less straight to the venue. Surprisingly few people had turned up in time for doors, and we found out why. After chatting with the one couple that had arrived before us, they explained that quite a lot of people had bought the VIP option of going to all four nights. After waiting for an hour and a half inside the venue before anything happened, we found out that there was only one support act and that people who’d been there before knew better and didn’t waste their time. Eventually, local four-piece Pacer got on stage and motored through a series of pop punk. Think guitars reminiscent of the main act, but with less intrusive drumming and half-shouted half-screamed vocals, with a lot of complaining about the media in the lyrics. It was played pretty loud, and I’m beginning to wonder if support acts should be turned down a little so that those nearer the speakers can still hear the main act with good clarity. Their set can’t have been much more than half an hour, and they were soon taking their instruments off the stage.

A cheesy, amusing introduction imitating a boxing match between the two albums brought an introduction to How I Spent My Summer Vacation, replete with the music from Rocky, and a scantily-clad female walking around holding up a vinyl copy of the album as if it had Round 1 printed on it. Perhaps due to the late start, the band walked on, picked up their instruments and immediately rocketed through their first set, only stopping to breathe twice, one of which was to fix a couple of bolts on Bryan Kienlen’s ailing bass guitar. As well as hearing the songs we would have heard anyway (“That Song”, “True Believers”, “Gone”), it was great to be able to hear some songs in a live setting which would otherwise rarely if ever have been played, including the brisk “Better Life”, and my personal favourite, the high energy “No Comply”. On the other hand, the interaction the band afforded the crowd was much lower than usual. Greg Attonito ventured towards the crowd once, thought better of it, and stayed back. He’s always been relatively calm as lead singers go, but his cheerful nature seemed to be absent, and he spent most of his time off the microphone tapping his feet and looking at the floor. I can’t be sure whether he was as tired as he looked, or whether he was still struggling to remember some of the songs, although I suspect the former. Either way, this wasn’t the buoyant individual who would hop around, stick the microphone into the crowd, and even help crowd members with cameras out by taking photos of them, something I’d seen on both previous occasions.

The crowd was in a surprisingly physical mood compared to the last two times I’d seen the band, and both of my companions dropped out before “Private Radio” had even finished, and watched the rest of the show from the bar. To make matters worse, towards the end of this first set, a crowdsurfer went directly over me in an unpleasant manner. I didn’t think it’d be too much of an issue as the staff had spotted him early and as many as five of them formed a neat formation in front of me, and looked ready. However, instead of lifting the crowdsurfer over the top like they were usually able to do single-handedly, they pulled him down onto the back of my head and neck. I sustained a neck injury from having his weight rolling my head forward and then pinning it down and compressing it. Sometimes I wonder if crowdsurfers are the only ones whose health matters. I was hoping to not be compelled to discuss the issue at all, having documented some views on crowdsurfing after the incident-free Buffalo Tom show earlier in the year, but alas, I’m angry.

Most of the band disappeared through the back curtain for a five minute breather, soon followed by guitarist Pete Steinkopf who finished “Gone” alone. A very similar introduction was given for Anchors Aweigh, after which the band came back and continued at their uncharacteristically fast pace. Again, the crowd experienced regulars such as “Kids And Heroes” and “Sing Along Forever” as well as less frequently played gems like “Inside Out” and “Highway Kings”, another personal favourite. The crowd had mostly calmed down after the initial crush of the first three songs, although my knees were getting more and more painful after being flattened against the barrier for long enough, and I had a particularly sore rib, thanks to some troglodyte in the next row back who clung onto the top of the barrier like a Scotsman on a five pound note with his knuckles digging into me. What struck me as odd about this set was that “The Day I Turned My Back On You” was actually skipped. Otherwise, the album was there in completion including the bonus track (not with the two minutes silence). I usually like to have a gig end on a powerful note, but the semi-acoustic “The Fall Song” was a nice way to end the gig on a relaxed note. Maybe it was because I was tiring of dodging people doing music video stunts over me, or maybe it was because the band seemed more comfortable at the slower pace.

There is no substitute for the excitement of wondering what the next song is, and feeling the excitement of a personal favourite, the will to sing or dance to a staple, or the appreciation of hearing something rarely aired being plucked out of the past. There was no encore, so there were no surprises other than the missed song. I suppose you can’t blame the band, given that they had been playing a lot of songs this way for some time by this point, and looked exhausted and a bit fed up, although it would have been nice to have them play a couple of extra tunes, perhaps from the split album they did with Anti-Flag in between the two featured records. A bad night’s sleep thanks to the heat, and a walk back to the station the next morning in pouring rain in which it was still too hot to wear more than a t-shirt, gave me plenty of time to weigh up the pros and cons of this concert. After mulling it over for several days, I’m still not sure whether it was worthwhile. What I have learned is what I suspected all along, that full-album shows are not as good as regular shows. The Bouncing Souls looked completely drained, and even the ever-powerful Michael McDermott seemed to be feeling the effects of a tour that they may well look back grimly on. Judging by the introductions, they hadn’t lost their sense of humour with age, so I can’t see what else could be at fault. What I perhaps haven’t learned is that I just might be getting too old to keep doing this, especially if I can get injured without going near the circle pit and not resist complaining about it.

(Given the nature of the show, there is no need to provide a setlist.)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Firehose - Fromohio

The Minutemen are fondly remembered by most as heroic 80s punk rockers, with some smart messages entrenched in a working class spiel, but mainly for the blend of punk and jazz and funk that set them apart from their peers. Comparisons to early Gang Of Four have been drawn, although it’s fair to say that the British band relied more heavily on a hard funk influence to their rhythm section, whereas the Minutemen had a wider range. Towards the end of the Minutemen catalogue, bits of country began to surface, but didn’t dominate the mix. After guitarist D Boon’s death, Ed Crawford drove from Ohio to California to talk bassist Mike Watt, drummer George Hurley, and The Unit into forming a new band, and thus Firehose was born. The band released five full lengths and a light dusting of singles and extended plays, although at some point The Unit was forced out of the band after a violent altercation with Hurley, although there are rumours that a barber was involved. Crawford brought a more distinctively country-flavoured edge with his guitar and vocals, Watt’s bass playing became more eclectic, encompassing more swing, and Hurley’s agile drums mostly stayed true to the freeform jazzy talents that we remember him for. What we ultimately got were five albums that were all different, but all the same in many respects, including genre-bending and inconsistency.

Fromohio was the third of those full length records, and is perhaps the one with the strongest southern lilt, which is in evidence almost immediately. A brief jazz-funk introduction of cymbals and an angular guitar give way to a more full-bodied good-ol’-time rock. “Riddle Of The Eighties” is quite the swinger, as is Crawford’s vocal contribution, but it features plenty of stop-start dynamics. “In My Mind” has an even older sound to it, but has an irresistible flow to it. The vocals are relaxed a little, delivering nothing but simple verses, the cymbal-heavy drumming features a four-on-the-floor beat in the background, the bass keeps swinging buoyantly, and the guitar work is wonderfully suited, switching from some upbeat acoustic-sounding strumming in the verses to neat high-end twangs in the breaks, the last of which segues neatly into a little guitar solo to finish with a flourish.

The harder funk Watt is better known for employing makes its first appearance introducing “”Whisperin’ While Hollerin’”. A more snare-heavy rhythm and paranoid vocals and guitars give this track a stark menace after what came before it. A brief solo and a few other high notes punctuate what is very much a bass-led song. We’re entering a largely funk-driven part of the album at this point, but we’re kept in with the opening theme with the first of three little sound pieces. Crawford does a little instrumental take on a classic guitar piece with “Vastopol”, a whiskey-drenched tune originally by Elizabeth Cotten, whose death was referred to on the previous album, 1987’s If’n. It’s a bit stuck out at this stage, giving the classic inconsistency, but it serves well to keep the album tied in.

“Mas Cojones” is a bit of a mess. It doesn’t really have a beat to it, the sparse guitar and bass work sound a bit disappointing, and the vocal interplay between monosyllabic Crawford singing and one-sentence spoken lines courtesy of Watt don’t really gel. There’s a brief moment where the instruments fall into place and give us the promise of a restrained build up, but this fails to materialise and the song carries on as it started. “What Gets Heard” is a better track, featuring a much more aggressive bass line, Watt’s much deeper voice doing some singing, and some scratchy guitars that sit well above the mix. “Let The Drummer Have Some” is another little sound bite, this time of Hurley mostly working cymbals, with a few other bits clattering around.

A marching drumbeat, acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies introduce “Liberty For Our Friend”, which is as funky as a Cornish pasty, and not quite as exciting. Save for the drums, it sounds like a campfire song, conjuring images flannel shirts on logs, and roasting marshmallows. I hate marshmallows. “Time With You”, which was released as the promotional single for the album, follows, and brings back some much needed pop and swing. Great guitars lead the way, backed by timely drumming and smooth bass. There are more hooks crammed into this track than in the last five put together, and the guitar movements flow into each other brilliantly.

“If’n” starts with a funky little riff, descending guitars meet climbing bass notes. Some gentle acoustic guitar kicks in with some gentle crooning, and a Watt one-liner does a much better job recycling the music sequence than on “Mas Cojones”, and after a couple of them, a more lively piece kicks in, and then the song leaves gently. Rolling drums see “Some Things” jump into the breach with plenty of life, and there’s plenty of pace even in the quietest bits. It’s an unspectacular but fun track, so while it doesn’t win any awards, it keeps the album flowing nicely.

This purple patch on the album culminates with “Understanding”, which shines without breaking into a sweat. The cruising opening riffs give way to some subtle bits, as indeed many songs on the album have done, but each time that opening sequence comes in, you get a comforting feeling and start bobbing your head. Crawford’s vocals here are some of his best, and Hurley’s drumming is intricate without being flash, and we’re left with the highlight of the back end of the album. Another Hurley solo, appropriately titled “‘Nuf That Shit George”, is the last of these little musical interludes, and is forty seconds of mostly scattergunned lower end drums. The album closer, “The Softest Hammer”, is a slow track with echoing vocals, and it doesn’t really do anything for the first half. A build up this time does lead to a more powerful part of the song, although the sluggish pace is continued. Somewhere in the din, you can hear the screams of “It’s Ed from Ohio”, which is a factually correct piece of information.

Fromohio is probably the Firehose record that is the most shy of really great songs, but while the inconsistency is there, the overall standard of the music is just as good as any other Firehose record, perhaps even the best. If you’re in the mood for a good ol’ time, there’s a handful of really good ol’ rock to sink your teeth into, particularly with tunes penned by Crawford, who, like Boon before him, typically wrote the catchier songs compared to Watt’s tougher songs. Nevertheless, if you’re feeling the funk, then there’s something here for you too. While nothing here quite stacks up to “Sometimes” and “For The Singer Of REM” from If’n, Fromohio overall outguns its predecessor in all departments, and was a fine way for Firehose to finish the chapter and start on the heavier sound that permeated Flyin’ The Flannel and Mr Machinery Operator.

Personal picks: In My Mind, Time With You, Understanding
Picks for others: Time With You, What Gets Heard, If’n
Relative weaknesses: Liberty For Our Friend, Let The Drummer Have Some, Mas Cojones

01 – Riddle Of The Eighties
02 – In My Mind
03 – Whisperin’ While Hollerin’
04 – Vastopol
05 – Mas Cojones
06 – What Gets Heard
07 – Let The Drummer Have Some
08 – Liberty For Our Friend
09 – Time With You
10 – If’n
11 – Some Things
12 – Understanding
13 – ‘Nuf That Shit George
14 – The Softest Hammer 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Face To Face - No Authority / Don't Turn Away / Over It

A slice of nice, basic pop punk. Face To Face carved out a name for themselves in the early to mid 90s with a few “classic” (no malevolence intended, I just disagree with it, disagreeing is what I do) melodic punk records, and then got criticism from most angles for changing their sound to an almost gloomy alt-rock style on 1999’s Ignorance Is Bliss, and then got another barrage of insults for changing it back. The band broke up after 2003’s How To Ruin Everything, took part in some side projects (most notably bassist Scott Shiflett and vocalist/guitarist Trever Keith in the impressive Viva Death) and reunited a number of years later after the coast had cleared and all most people remembered of them was those earlier albums, reinforcing this with their live shows. Indeed, eleven of their twelve-song set supporting Dropkick Murphys in Manchester in April 2010 were from the first three records. The following year, the slightly underwhelming Laugh Now Laugh Later was released, but for its shortcomings, confirmed that Face To Face were back to stay and carve out a living again, rather than live entirely off the fat of the nostalgia of old fans for a decade or two.

The band’s first long player, Don’t Turn Away is often cited as their most loved/influential record, although it’s not a runaway winner. 1994’s Big Choice and the self-titled album that followed two years later retain high praise from modern pop punk circles, but the 1992 debut had a simpler formula, and borrowed the iconic head-in-knees kid idea from Minor Threat’s first record for the album cover. So that’s what we’re looking at, but along with some related releases, and because I’m a stick in the mud for chronological order, we’ll start with the No Authority single.

The A-side of this single, which came with about three different covers from the folks at Dr Strange, is a different, rougher version of what would appear on the album. Low-end guitar, steady pace, vocal melodies, and all the other things you’d expect from a listenable but uninspiring three piece still in relative infancy. Two B-sides were provided, the first of which is “Don’t Turn Away”, which was left off the record bearing its name. Keith’s vocals, which proved to be quite capable as time went by, are horrible on this side of the disc, which is rounded out with a dire cover of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another”. Face To Face’s covers have always been hit or miss for me, and this falls into the latter category. What we’re left with is a single that doesn’t really showcase anything, other than the competency of the early rhythm section of Matt Riddle and Rob Kurth.

Don’t Turn Away was eventually patched together (the material that made up the album was recorded with two different engineers) and released on the same label. The opening track, “You’ve Done Nothing” seems to pick up where the single left off, although a slight change in the music halfway through showed that they weren’t going completely by numbers. “I’m Not Afraid” is a bit more interesting despite being musically a bit simpler and slower. A lot more work’s been applied to the vocals and backing vocals, and it pays dividends.

“Disconnected” is the song that really got Face To Face off the ground. Riddle’s bass is more complex in parts, some guitar muting and harmonics, and a catchy, layered chorus helped the album sell too fast for the label, which is why my copy of this, as well as the Disconnected single released the next year, were on Fat Wreck Chords. “No Authority” is here, rerecorded, and with a new intro with just drums and then some bass added. It’s essentially the same song apart from that, but the better production helps it to sound a little less lacklustre.

Most of the best songs on Don’t Turn Away are in the middle of the record. “I Want” sees Keith starting to flirt with the higher strings on his guitar, and while the riffs are still simple enough that even the writer of this review can play them with his notorious “spazz-hands”, they’re some of the better ones on the album, and Keith’s vocals are on relatively good form. The lyrical content which looks for solutions from negative situations became the quintessential Face To Face song. “You’ve Got A Problem” is a more accusatory, aggressive song, and was the one used by Fat on their first record sampler. That seems a bit odd, given that “You’ve Got A Problem” doesn’t sound either representative of the record, or a top track.

“Everything Is Everything” slows the pace a little, and the backing vocals range from major presence in the chorus call and response (well, call and “ahh ahh ahh

After an increasingly strong sequence, “Nothing New” sounds sluggish and flat, Keith’s vocals dip in form, and higher guitar notes don’t save the listener from feeling underwhelmed. “Walk Away” tries to be more energetic, but more vocals in the same vein as the Blondie cover and an uninspired chorus really leave you feeling as though the album’s starting to do as so many have and run out of steam.

Before you give up on the album, some bass and rolling drums bring in “Do You Care?” This energetic number sees better vocals, better harmonies, and a better chorus, providing a much needed lynchpin to the record. With the wheels still on, the album closes on a mediocre note, with vocals veering either side of form, but it does enough to not leave a bitter aftertaste.

The Disconnected single gets skipped over because its B-sides can be found on Over It. The split with Horace Pinker also gets ignored because it opens up a can of worms too many (I’m not reviewing Horace Pinker here), and of the two tracks Face To Face provide, one is on Over It, and the other is a painful Violent Femmes cover.

Chad Yaro was added as a second guitarist somewhere along the line, and Over It appears to be a trial for the band formula as much as it was a trial for the record label. The first half of the EP contains rehashed songs from Don’t Turn Away with this slightly fuller sound. “I Want” opens proceedings with a slightly protracted intro, and a quicker pace than the LP version. While not disgracing the original, it’s not quite as good, as “I Want” worked well at the tempo it had. “Nothing New” doesn’t sound very different at all save for the different backing vocals. This version of “Disconnected” was the version that became popular and made a name for the band, and while I prefer the more basic version on the album, this version stands up just as well with the extra meat from the guitars.

The excellent “A-OK” is the only pick of the bunch here, and it would be released on Big Choice the next year to be a highlight. Pounding drums, good vocals, great guitars, and some space for the bass to break out make for an infectious song that fares as well as anything on Don’t Turn Away. I can’t imagine why they decided to mess with the formula for playing it live, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Like “A-OK”, “I Used To Think” was a B-side on the Disconnected single. A menacing start gives way to a pretty solid song, but it’s the uplifting backing vocals that steal the show from Keith’s chorus.

“Don’t Turn Away” gets rehashed in the same way that the first three tracks did, and while it’s a significant improvement over the original, it’s still not a great song. It’s energetic enough, unlike the moping start of “Not Enough”. However, this song, from the Horace Pinker split, turns out to be a great song. Despite not containing anything particularly outstanding, and a negative, defeatist mantra, the song somehow manages to come across as uplifting. The elusive concept of changing of pace rears its head to give the listener that shot-in-the-arm effect a couple of times to round out what can best be described as a decent quality collection of scraps.

No Authority is really only for collectors, Disconnected is in the same boat, the split with Horace Pinker is only of value to Horace Pinker fans, and Over It is good but derives too much from other records. Being unable to decide whether the dynamic is one of a high bass and low guitar duelling, or a more rangy power trio, and being unable to even confirm whether or nor Trever Keith can sing, a classic record Don’t Turn Away is not. Being simplistically upbeat, catchy, relatable, and something you can sing along to without relying on high speed and boisterous yelling, a great record Don’t Turn Away is. It rates highly because it manages to kick arse without doing anything special, although I do wonder if I’d rate it higher if it were recorded in one go. If you dig that sort of rock, pick this up. If you’re looking for some more intelligent craft, try Ignorance Is Bliss and the So Why Aren’t You Happy? EP, or try a different band.

Personal picks: I Want (old), A-OK, Not Enough, I’m Trying, Pastel
Picks for others: Disconnected (new), I’m Trying, A-OK, I Want (old), Do You Care?
Relative weaknesses: You’ve Done Nothing, Walk Away, One Way Or Another


No Authority
01 – No Authority (old)
02 – Don’t Turn Away (old)
03 – One Way Or Another

Don’t Turn Away
01 – You’ve Done Nothing
02 – I’m Not Afraid
03 – Disconnected (old)
04 – No Authority (new)
05 – I Want (old)
06 – You’ve Got A Problem
07 – Everything Is Everything
08 – I’m Trying
09 – Pastel
10 – Nothing New (old)
11 – Walk Away
12 – Do You Care?
13 – 1000 X

Over It
01 – I Want (new)
02 – Nothing New (new)
03 – Disconnected (new)
04 – A-OK
05 – I Used To Think
06 – Don’t Turn Away (new)
07 – Not Enough

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fugazi - In On The Kill Taker

While Steady Diet Of Nothing was more dextrous and intricate than the largely anthemic 1990 release Repeater, or the Fugazi, Margin Walker and 3 Songs extended players that came out between 1988 and 1990, the 1991 album didn’t fully take the shackles off, held back further by the flat self-production. Thus, as Repeater remains regarded as an essential punk rock album, the more ambitious Fugazi was borne out in the years following, as more songs were crafted for their next album.

In On The Kill Taker caused an initial furore before consumers even cracked open the disc. The band were big enough for larger stores to sell their records, but, barcodes being a requirement, most record labels integrate one into the back cover. Helped by the fact that guitarist Ian MacKaye happened to be co-founder and co-owner of Dischord records, band and label had the same viewpoint that the band’s art package was not to be disturbed, and managed to wrest a compromise. An external sticker with a barcode on was to be used so that SoundScan could do its thing. With the long list of ethical stances and confrontations Fugazi accumulated in their time, this one was largely lost in the din of the record itself, although it’s nice for me to have an album with no barcode sitting on my shelf. Having said that, all the barcode would have covered is some incoherent rambling. The artwork is pale pastel blues and yellows, with old style typewriter font and messy scribbling in amongst lined paper and the Washington Monument, with some black in the inlay and a rambling letter, a plain blue disc, and a bit between the CD and the back cover that resembles one of those newfangled post-it notes with lines on them. I’m sure they didn’t exist in 1993, and it’s just some yellow lined paper worked into the booklet, but I like the way that it looks as if the band stuck a personalised post-it note under the CD, even if it does just repeat “I will not lie” a dozen or so times.

Anyway, about the music that had to cut through this. A bleeping guitar fades in, and then another high-pitched guitar joins in, followed by the rhythm section. Bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty manage to sound ominous and yet funky, which they do so often and so well. All give way to a snarling guitar, and then, on the minute mark all come in, joined by a noticeably venomous MacKaye bellowing out social critiques. The only weak point in the quite brutal onslaught of “Facet Squared” is the pace, which sounds quite pedestrian once the song gets going despite the guitar thrashing, which is exaggerated primarily by some uncharacteristically dull drumming. The same can’t be said of “Public Witness Program”, introduced by a rapidfire snare. While “Facet Squared” was like being slowly clubbed to death, Guy Picciotto’s first contribution is nimble and incisive. Piercing vocals puncture a song delivered at a blistering pace that leaves everything from the previous record in its wake. A simple but vicious guitar solo is punctuated with… hand claps? “On a Fugazi record? It’ll never work”, you might say. Yet, despite being one of the last sorts of cheery things you’d expect on any Fugazi record, let alone this cutting track, it actually works quite well.

Suddenly everything goes very quiet. Some very subdued guitars intertwine. MacKaye is whispering, and the music sounds very threatening, and it occasionally erupts briefly. A loud snare, a shouted word, or a few rising notes from rising guitars, but it always pulls back. We’re brought back to the less disturbing guitars intertwining. Two minutes in, “Returning The Screw” appears to come to a quiet stop, but then the guitars come in again, gently building up, until the band suddenly explodes into life. MacKaye is again full of bile, sounding more like himself from his Minor Threat days. The song abruptly ends, and some more subdued guitar noodling builds itself in. This isn’t “Returning The Screw” anymore though, and “Smallpox Champion” starts charging at full tilt soon enough. Picciotto delivers what is perhaps his most directly political Fugazi song, a trait usually aligned with MacKaye’s writing, and cuts into the treatment of native American tribes with gusto, preferring to associate the actions with the America he lives in rather than, as the nationalist way of thinking would rather have it, foreign colonists that don’t represent the star-spangled banner. The music cuts out briefly, save for some downplayed drum clicking, but starts roaring forth again after a couple of seconds. The final minute sees some slightly more palatable guitar, some much funkier bass, and some catchy chanting, although the aggression isn’t shelved.

After another sharp stop, “Rend It” begins straight away with clattering instruments. Picciotto gets a second track in a row, in the first part of a three track segue, but the songs continue to be unpredictable. “Rend It” perhaps represents In On The Kill Taker as well as anything on the album. Complete instrumental silence follows the end of the descending instruments, cut only by Picciotto’s searing vocals. The guitars wince in the background after a verse, and then everything winds up for the chorus of jagged riffs and harsh vocal harmonies. Some MacKaye screams followed by Picciotto wails see out the song. Before the track can fully fade out, some clean sliding guitars are followed by quietly spoken vocals for MacKaye’s “23 Beats Off”. Some distortion gets added in and MacKaye clears out his lungs to build up the track, but the other aspects are kept in check. A more menacing guitar with some bending strings comes in, and the second windup is more penetrating. The song gives way to feedback and a solitary drum. However, there’s nearly four minutes left on the track. It’s all feedback solos, and not particularly crafty or tuneful ones at that. What was a great track has more or less been ruined, and it’s no surprise that this was truncated to about a minute on the rare occasion that it was played live. The feedback dies away almost enough, but another segue is made into “Sweet And Low”. Although he’d provided backing vocals in the earliest days of the band before Picciotto joined, Lally’s vocal debut for the band wouldn’t come until 1995, with “By You” featuring on Red Medicine. “Sweet And Low” almost was, but Lally couldn’t find the right words for his composition. It’s got a nice bass sequence to it, but overall it’s a bit boring, and very placid.

Canty introduces Picciotto’s “Cassavetes”, which brings back scratching guitars. Apart from the drumming, the track isn’t particularly special, but brings us back into more familiar territory, and sees Picciotto reminding us that he hasn’t forgotten how to roll his an R like he like on “Dear Justice Letter” on the previous album. “Great Cop” sounds almost like a hybrid between the opening two tracks, with MacKaye’s anthemic vocals and the directness of “Facet Squared”, but with a little more urgency, and less screwing around. “Walken’s Syndrome” gives us another dose of raw feedback, but less than thirty seconds in, the song announces itself. Picciotto continues his cinematic theme, referring to the car crash described by Christopher Walken’s character in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (if memory serves me correctly, Jawbreaker added soundbites from the very same soliloquy to the beginning and end of “Jet Black”, released a little later on 1995’s controversial Dear You). Following from the previous track, “Walken’s Syndrome” is unflinchingly relentless and acerbic, and ten songs in, the first-time listener is completely drained.

After an exhausting effort, Fugazi finishes with a couple of heartfelt radio-friendly love ballads, with the one exception in that they don’t actually do that. The violent nature is gradually reined in, but MacKaye and Picciotto each sign off in style. The former provides “Instrument”, full of gloom, extended, strangled vocals, a belittled groove, and a supreme final minute as quickfire guitar noise gives way to powerful riffs and strong vocals. Picciotto has the final say, and his amazing vocal performance on the album (I don't like his voice, but it's been on top form throughout) finally seems to be tiring, dying amongst the classy string picking of “Last Chance For A Slow Dance”. But it’s not to be. Despite the slow tempo, the instrument power comes in during the chorus, only to be beaten by the vocals. A lonely guitar piece closes out the album with a hush.

The sheer catharsis of this record is unrivalled. Many good records manage to balance flow and juxtaposition well to give you a sense of dynamics, but never as Fugazi did it here, so absolutely. Even the weakest section between the wall of feedback at the end of “23 Beats Off” and the calmness of “Sweet And Low” only serves to highlight the extremities that this album achieves, and these overindulgences seem not just forgivable, but almost necessary ingredients to achieve the phenomenal listening experience of it.

It may come as no surprise that there was trouble making this record. The band attempted to do some recording with Steve Albini, but remarkably couldn’t achieve a sound they were happy with, so they went back home to record in the Inner Ear, and it’s hard to conceive that this was a mistake, despite Albini’s reputation. It may not be my absolute favourite album, as I don’t see anything wrong with going for ones that work for me. However, of all the albums that I would ever have considered in my top ten, or even top twenty records, In On The Kill Taker is perhaps the most poignant definition of a boundary-pushing unit at its creative peak. While Steady Diet Of Nothing was at times carried through weaker moments by the rhythm section, the entire band is on the money for almost this entire album.

Personal picks: Public Witness Program, 23 Beats Off (first half), Smallpox Champion
Picks for others: Smallpox Champion, Last Chance For A Slow Dance, Instrument
Relative weaknesses: Sweet And Low, 23 Beats Off (second half)

01 – Facet Squared
02 – Public Witness Program
03 – Returning The Screw
04 – Smallpox Champion
05 – Rend It
06 – 23 Beats Off
07 – Sweet And Low
08 – Cassavetes
09 – Great Cop
10 – Walken’s Syndrome
11 – Instrument
12 – Last Chance For A Slow Dance

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Hüsker Dü - New Day Rising

You’ve just produced a pretentious double album, where do you go? If you’re The Beatles, keep producing crap, because you’re The Beatles and you suck. If you’re Bob Dylan, keep singing like a drugged cat on a chalkboard, because that’s your thing that you do. But if you’re Hüsker Dü, you rein it in a little and produce some happier songs. Zen Arcade was a dual petroleum slab combining their earlier brand of ineffective thrashy hardcore with psychedelic instrumental posturing, giving us a few good songs, a number of okay songs, and plenty of cheap filler. Nevertheless, it was praised for its invention, although it didn’t make the top 500 album list from Rolling Stone, which drools over The Beatles, Bob Dylan, token credibility-grabbing nods to the spheres of other genres and other types of rock, and double albums (evidenced by Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime making the back end of the list, four double albums in the top ten, and of the top ten, twelve of them are Beatles and Dylan records). The presence of The Clash’s Sandinista! seven places above the Minutemen double LP can only be attributed to the fact that the people who compiled the list were aroused by it being a triple album, because it was a triple stinker in terms of quality.

However, being regarded as influential on rock as they apparently have been, those boneheads had to fit Hüsker Dü in somewhere. Scraping in at 495 on the list, compiled in 2003, at the opposite end of the list where the captains of the industry were voting on the records they wanted to keep selling, was the follow-up single disc New Day Rising. The fuzz remains, but the ambitious sprawling influences on Zen Arcade have been replaced by straight rock, and hardcore was instead blended with a strong dose of melody and familiarity.

Having said that, this is no flawless frisbee. For what is essentially a much more concise record, we’re given something of a soundpiece to start with. Pounding drums, an upbeat guitar and a positive mantra (literally the album title, over and over) give us the signal that the band’s in a different mood. However, it just keeps on going. The mantra becomes gradually sort of howled and screamed by the band members, which is probably supposed to be symbolic of how they’re still hard, or giving us false hope, or painting an aural picture reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, or something else we don’t care about. Anyway, it gets boring after a while. “New Day Rising” is followed by Grant Hart’s “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill”, which has a long title because the chorus is a longer line than Hart usually challenges himself to repeat during most choruses. For a track with a reasonably aggressive guitar, it’s quite a fun track, except for the vocals. Whether you like his voice or not, having it so low in the mix really messes with your ability to listen to the song.

A poor start. Have the media moguls screwed up again, even on their attempts to claim some integrity? Bob Mould strikes back with what would become a trademark. “I Apologize” has the fuzzy guitar and occasional strangled scream of the Hüsker Dü of old, but more pop melody than their entire double album from the previous year. And there’s plenty more to come. “Folklore” lasts all of ninety-six seconds, Mould’s vocals are rushed, the guitars are rushed, Hart is screaming in the background, and it’s not as sugary as the previous track, but it still smacks of a band getting a more palatable sound, although they were still some way from 1987’s Warehouse: Songs And Stories. So they’ve even picked a transitional record as their favourite Dü record?

“If I Told You” sees a rare writing collaboration between Mould and Hart, with the latter providing lead vocals. This is more or less unheard of, given the infamous friction between the two. Hart clearly wrote the chorus, and some of the vocals are garbled, but it’s still got plenty of friendliness to it. The album’s promotional track appears even more so, but “Celebrated Summer” is a bittersweet summer anthem. Greg Norton’s buoyant basslines and cymbal-heavy percussion courtesy of Hart that are pretty consistent throughout the album are here as strongly as anywhere. Mould’s ambivalent ode to summer contains plenty of half-shouted vocals and aggressively played guitar, albeit with brighter chords, but once in the middle and at the end, everything’s stripped away bar a picked guitar and a couple of whispered lines. The band gradually builds back in along with the tempo after the first respite, and we get a good chunk of extra song before the second one closes the song out gently.

After closing out an accessible song so quietly, you’d expect to be kicked in the nuts with a more aggressive stomper of a track. Judging from instrumental rehearsals, that’s exactly what they were planning to do. Instead, we’re served up with “Perfect Example”, which sounds like the outro to “Celebrated Summer” being recycled, given a gentle band backing and a touch of distortion. Mould rambles and is barely audible, and while it’s not horrible, it’s a shame to end the first half of the album with it, especially knowing that a different track was going to appear in that spot.

The second half kicks off in a jaunty mood, despite the track being called “Terms Of Psychic Warfare”. Hart sounds like he’s gloating, there are some high-pitched backing wails, and the guitar and bass riffs are cheery to the point of being quite irritating. On the plus side, not only is the title not the chorus (can you imagine having that line repeated at you and not hating it?), Hart manages not to utter it in full a single time. Outrageous! Mould gets back at the helm and gives us a song with bipolar disorder. Nervous, scattered drums, anxious guitars, and incoherent mumbling make up the verses. The music winds up into faster tempos with a howled choral refrain that recalls Zen Arcade and the Metal Circus extended player, leaving us a song that may not be a highlight, but has a very interesting character.

Following in the footsteps of “59 Times The Pain” is “Powerline”, a shorter and more level-headed song that has a more hypnotic quality to it, with its metronomic snare and relatively smooth guitar, and Mould’s vocal delivery subdued slightly in volume, but not to the damaging extent of “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” or “Perfect Example”. The frenetic, rising guitar solo at the end is almost in danger of being too low in the mix as well, which sees Norton’s swirling bass surprisingly high up, but it holds its own, and a relatively straight song garnished with plenty of small unusual nuances becomes something much more interesting. Some old-time feel-good piano prances above the mix in Hart’s final offering, “Books About UFOs”. He espouses his infatuation with a girl who’s obsessed with astronomy. Sweet occasional backing vocals, a charming guitar solo dated not too dissimilarly to the piano tinkling, and a sort of spoken verse section make “Books About UFOs” stick out like a sore thumb, and while it may not be representative, it is quite infectious.

From here, the album sounds like it’s gradually regressing into Zen Arcade mode. “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About” hybridises melodic choruses with an aggressive chorus, and isn’t especially memorable. “How To Skin A Cat”, on the other hand, is memorable, if perhaps for the wrong reasons. Mould’s amusing but slightly disturbing business proposition for skinning cats for free is backed by an incomprehensible din. For an album that has pushed songs with structure consistently since the opening salvos, you can’t help but feel that there’s no place on it for this steaming pile of sonic gloom. “Whatcha Drinkin’” sounds quite generic, although a nice tempo change gives it a little bit of flavour. It’s passable as a back-end-of-an-album track, but needs better support than “How To Skin A Cat”. “Plans I Make” is the closer, and it’s a fast rager that almost recalls Zen Arcade in its most aggressive moments, brighter chords being all that separates it from “Indecision Time” or “Pride”. It descends into another din, with some anguished screams from Mould. Nevertheless, it too is easier to forgive than “How To Skin A Cat”, having some sort of song structure in the first half, and its descent into chaos doesn’t disrupt the flow of the album, bookending it as it does with the other acceptable mess of a track, “New Day Rising”, which was inexplicably included in Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitar tracks list, once again scraping the bottom, indicative of credibility-searching.

So what of the two tracks that didn’t make the cut? “Listen” and “Erase Today” are fine, powerful Mould rockers that fall under the two minute mark. “Listen” is bright and punchy, but was substituted for “Perfect Example” for reasons which can presumably only be explained by artistic licence. “Erase Today” is a little more reserved, and was cut in favour of “Powerline”, which makes sense at first glance, and would be easier to swallow if “How To Skin A Cat” had also been cut out.

Despite all of its shortcomings, the one thing Rolling Stone did right in this scenario is pick New Day Rising as the Hüsker Dü representative. It contains enough of the ear-shredding distortion and aggression of their old days, and the melodic songcraft of their final years. It even has a cover that violently assaults retinas less than most of the band’s catalogue. However, in part because of these reasons, it’s hard to visualise many people actually picking it as their favourite album, but a second favourite is more feasible. If you like their smarter compositions, there’s Warehouse, if you like their more experimental hardcore, there’s Zen Arcade (how many times have I referred to it here?), and if you want music to throw chairs to, there’s Zen Arcade again, or better yet, Metal Circus. As is the way with Hüsker Dü review, a “should have been” tracklist is provided. I’ve even put my neck on the line and explained the logic (or lack thereof). “If I Told You” is swapped in position with “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” to make the album more accessible before waiting for the third song, “I Apologize” moves below “Folklore” to ensure that “…Heaven Hill” is surrounded by clear catchy songs. “Listen” takes its rightful place closing out the A-side, and the B-side begins with “59 Times The Pain”. “Books About UFOs” is brought up the list a bit, “Erase Today” comes in, and “Terms Of Psychic Warfare” is dropped further down to prevent the album sound like it’s tailing off into the past.

New Day Rising is nevertheless a good hardcore experience in its current form, and I’d recommend it to anyone who listens to punk or altenative rock (are they the same thing now?). There’s no point recommending it to hardcore fans because they will already have heard it. Don’t do it because it’s in a Rolling Stone list, because taking that list seriously means that you like The Beatles. Having said that, don’t check it out on my say-so either, there’s no such thing as too much research, unless your sources are trying to sell you the Capitol Records catalogue.

Personal picks: Powerline, Celebrated Summer, Listen
Picks for others: Celebrated Summer, I Apologize, Books About UFOs
Relative weaknesses: Perfect Example, How To Skin A Cat

01 – New Day Rising
02 – The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill
03 – I Apologize
04 – Folklore
05 – If I Told You
06 – Celebrated Summer
07 – Perfect Example
08 – Terms Of Psychic Warfare
09 – 59 Times The Pain
10 – Powerline
11 – Books About UFOs
12 – I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About
13 – How To Skin A Cat
14 – Whatcha Drinkin’
15 – Plans I Make

Author’s recommended tracklist
01 – New Day Rising
02 – If I Told You
03 – Folklore
04 – I Apologize
05 – The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill
06 – Celebrated Summer
07 – Listen
08 – 59 Times The Pain
09 – Books About UFOs
10 – Powerline
11 – Erase Today
12 – I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About
13 – Terms Of Psychic Warfare
14 – Whatcha Drinkin’
15 – Plans I Make