Thursday, 24 February 2011

Leatherface - Compact And Bijou

Every vaguely melodic, vaguely punk band in America that was cool at some point in the 90s cited Leatherface as a strong influence, almost entirely on the basis of 1991’s Mush. While I’d agree that it probably is their finest work, this has always struck me as an odd perception about a band that hasn’t put out a record that’s been widely panned, nor a record or single that’s charted. What came before wasn’t as consistently well crafted, and what came after occasionally lacked some bite and didn’t sound quite as upbeat. The first full-length that followed in 1993, Minx, was noticeably flatter, and harder to access immediately than Mush. It wasn’t much worse at all overall, but the fact that it took a few spins to actually appreciate put it at a disadvantage next to its instantly likeable predecessor.

This change wasn’t completely sudden, however. A somewhat forgotten extended play was released in the year in between, combining elements of the infectiously bouncy Mush and the more thoughtful Minx. “Games” is the first track on Compact And Bijou, and while it does sound more reined in than a lot of the Mush material, it does have very similar-sounding instruments. The drum track, while not that high in the mix, does sound a bit aggressive in relation to the guitars and vocals at times. Frankie Stubbs wasn’t exactly writing silly little ditties before, but his infamously gravelly voice espouses more pensive lyrics, which rhyme with the slightly more sullen tones in the guitars. Having said that, it’s still got quite a bit of energy to it, and it’s got a neat guitar solo.

The next track runs in a similar vein, but sounds a little more Mush-y. Shoot me, I like terrible puns. Whereas “Games” was sufficiently different, “Live For You” sounds like it could have been wedged into the back end of Mush, or at least in the bonus track section. It’s brisker, simpler and catchier, but not quite as good. “Pale Moonlight” is a moody acoustic number with a hint of piano. It’s a bit of a downer even with the slight change in tone from prior material taken into account, but although the song was powered up into an electric rock song and stuck on the end of Minx at the last minute, this acoustic version is better, as is the hilarious punk cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” that was cut from Minx to make way. At the end of the day, this was an EP of homeless material, and there are only so many B-side slots, and a whole album full of mismatched scraps wouldn’t have gone down too well, so an extended play was the best way to present the material.

Speaking of punk covers, Leatherface did quite a few in their time, with Presley, Bob Dylan, Elton John and The Police among their victims. This time Frankie and his chums set their sights on Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution”, and to aficionados of “real” music, they absolutely butcher it. However, if you’re accustomed to Frankie’s voice, which is very much an acquired taste, and like yourself a bit of high energy rock, then you might agree that the band have actually done a good job souping it up, and while it may not be their very best (“Message In A Bottle” is a more realistic contender) or most humorous (the punk rock version of “You Are My Sunshine” takes all the biscuits, and any biscuit analogues like Jaffa Cakes), but it’s pretty good. That’s your lot for those who bought the 10” placemat, but for those with the 12cm coaster, you get a bonus track. It’s a cleaned up recording of a song from the I Want The Moon 7”. This version of “Dreaming” doesn’t have the mental guitar solo, but sounds cleaner, more cohesive, and generally more powerful. The solo that is present isn’t as randomly heavy metal, and the faint sound of Stubbs sounding like he’s vomiting during the break isn’t really any worse than the faint tape loop in the old version, and so it was this version that survived to be used as a B-side twice more. Having said that, a superior version was recorded in 1991 for BBC Radio jockey John Peel for the first of three brilliant sessions (the opening track of this EP also saw a superior version in the 1992 Peel session).

This EP is essentially a home for loose ends, and isn’t essential to new fans of Leatherface. However, that isn’t to say that it’s worthless. “Games” is a fantastic and distinctive track, and ultimately what made Compact And Bijou worth a separate release from the full length albums that sandwich its largely forgotten place in the Leatherface canon. If you like Mush, Minx, or both, then there’s definitely something on here for you.

Personal picks: Games, Talkin’ Bout A Revolution
Picks for others: Games, Live For You
Relative weaknesses: Pale Moonlight

01 – Games
02 – Live For You
03 – Pale Moonlight
04 – Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution
Bonus track
05 – Dreaming

Monday, 14 February 2011

Bad Religion - Generator

They made an essential early 80s punk record. They went off the rails and went prog-rock, and broke up. They reformed and played a huge part in late 80s punk revival with some more mature punk albums. Then they matured a bit more and produced some great punk-heavy rock albums in the early 90s, a time which saw them picked up by a major label. Then they went off track again and produced a couple of relatively weak albums that, while not terrible, were perceived as such after a run of well-received albums. A return to the home label and a return to form followed in the early 00s, and now they’re staying relevant by becoming a caricature of sorts, blending their successes in the late 80s, early 90s and early 00s with some heavily exaggerated songwriting.

Whilst having three of their four original members and their original fifth member still with them, in a career spanning over thirty years and fifteen studio albums, is an impressive feat, Bad Religion have had more line-up changes than this line-up suggests, and some, though definitely not all, of the changes in sound can be attributed in part to some of these. 2002’s “return to form” album The Process Of Belief saw the return of guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz and the introduction of drummer Brooks Wackerman, seeing the band expand to six members. Gurewitz is often credited with the return to form, and is the suspected cause of the band’s sonic demise starting in the late '00s. That’s not to say that they don’t still put on a great live set. Touring without Gurewitz has allowed Greg Hetson and Brian Baker more space to show off their chops, and the band seem to have fun on stage whilst giving a pretty intense show with a plethora of great songs to put out. Seeing an increasingly balding Greg Graffin mock-disc jockeying on a turntable that obviously wasn’t meant to be on the stage a couple of times during a Birmingham show ranks among the funniest things I’ve ever seen at a gig I’ve been to. When I read that Bad Religion would be supporting a Rise Against tour, I nearly choked on my own spit. I’m not sure whether this represents the symbolic decline of Bad Religion, or the continually lofty heights that those pesky radio-rock irritants from Rise Against seem to be achieving by using established punk rock acts as stepladders.

One of the less prominent line-up changes was the departure of drummer Pete Finestone in 1991. Finestone featured on Suffer (1988), No Control (1989), and Against The Grain (1990), Bad Religion’s most consistently brisk works. The introduction of Bobby Schayer to the drum kit saw slightly less frantic drumming on Generator. This darker, more intricate album has its slower moments, and more obvious tempo changes, and although it contains many traits from the previous records, there was a significant change in direction, hinted at on the previous record in songs like “Anesthesia” and “Faith Alone”. That there were such hints makes you wonder if the album would have been all that different with Finestone still pounding the skins.

The title track opens up proceedings at a noticeably slower pace than “Modern Man” or “Change Of Ideas”. With a few screams, some occasionally aggressive guitars and quickening drum fills disguising what is closer to a ballad than anything Bad Religion had put out thus far (although not as close as many songs on future records and even songs later on this record), “Generator” is easy enough to identify as a Gurewitz song, with a relatively simplistic set of lyrics that challenge Graffin’s note holding rather than the more tongue-twisting songs penned by Graffin himself. After a muted introductory piece, the music stops, and suddenly Graffin’s urgent “Too Much To Ask” kicks into life at a much brisker pace that recalls Against The Grain, and is one of the tracks here that would have fit well on that album but for the unusual intro.

“No Direction” is one of the tracks that define Generator. The pace is reined in a fair bit, the guitar chords ring out that bit longer, and a sullen menace permeates the track rather than the trademark direct anger. This is reflected not just in the music, but the slightly more coarse vocal delivery that Graffin demonstrates on the record, which proves to be more effective on slower songs such as this one and “Generator”. It’s also the track where Graffin refutes accusations that the band is preaching. “Tomorrow” threatens to go back to the classic sound, but darker undertones keep things in theme, and there are some of the best changes in tempo that Bad Religion have pulled off in this song.

Having been given three songs in a row, Graffin puts the pen down and sings a trio of Gurewitz songs. “Two Babies In The Dark” has a strange bluesy tint to the lead guitar, giving a distinctive character to an otherwise mostly inane song, particularly in the coda, which gradually grinds to a halt and doesn’t prepare us at all for “Heaven Is Falling”. A track with a strangely uplifting vibe that’s somewhat at odds with its lyrical content, a fairly direct criticism of the Gulf war. These juxtapositions don’t always come off, but a powerful musical performance leaves us with a great little track with smart lyrics and measured use of the backing vocals that sweeps away any doubts sewn by the previous track. “Atomic Garden” starts off with some... is that a keyboard? Littered with metaphors, it’s a jab at nuclear proliferation with a very thin veil of teeny pop, created entirely out of those metaphors.

The album is seen out with Graffin-penned material. “The Answer” is in a similar vein to “No Direction”, but chastising those that wish to be followed rather than just focusing on those looking for something to follow. It’s all a bit of a downer, being walked through examples of people in history who claimed to have the solutions meeting their demise. “Fertile Crescent” starts quietly but kicks into life after a few bars, and is another track that could have worked on Against The Grain. Recalling historic human failings and suggesting that intrinsic human nature is to blame is something often discussed by Graffin, who went on to get a doctorate in evolutionary biology. So it’s no surprise that this theme is a recurring one throughout Bad Religion’s albums, making “Fertile Crescent” quite standard fare.

A diatribe to god, “Chimaera” is another apparent criticism of our favourite species directed at the creator who’s apparently scarpered and left us to our own destructive devices. Some atypical gaps in the vocal flow help the song stand out, and one of the more memorable guitar solos, a short and simple but effective two-part piece, make “Chimaera” the highlight of the back end of the album. Following that highlight is a quite bizarre end to the album. The eleventh and final song, making Generator the band’s shortest in that respect, “Only Entertainment” is a strangely danceable tune that sounds far more alien and peculiar to chronologically loyal Bad Religion fans than anything else on the album, and is probably the only track that still sounds a bit jarring to those familiar with the band’s entire output. Rich backing vocals are typical Bad Religion currency, but here they’re used to bend the genre heavily towards a sort of morbid pop, substantiated by the minimalist interplay between the guitars. Only the lyrics, which criticise television and our dependence on the device designed to assault our senses, keep this track on the ground. One would be left quite disjointed by this affair, unless one bought the reissue, in which case one would not have the time to reminisce, for the reissue contains the 1991 versions of two of the songs featured here that were released on a split single with speaking man Noam Chomsky that sound quite like demo versions, featuring Pete Finestone’s last recordings for the band. This version of “Fertile Crescent” has a solo that’s about an octave higher and more intricate, and “Heaven Is Falling” has some quite different backing vocals. So other than being completionist items and having a rougher sound, there is extra audible value to these tracks. The single was released with the intent to be a protest to the Gulf war, and being released that year, the two songs were all the more relevant.

Generator is perhaps the darkest record Bad Religion made. Not so much because the cover is mostly black, although the album’s artwork is pretty grim, but sonically this is the album that saw the greatest substitution of anger for the macabre. With that substitution came (relatively) longer songs, and the only songs that are essentially under the two minute mark are “Tomorrow” and “Heaven Is Falling”, the latter attempting to bypass this statistic with a long feedback exit in both versions, but those punks can't fool me. Like many albums produced by rock bands that get labelled as “the dark one”, Generator is underrated for what it is, but appreciated as a turning point in the story of Bad Religion.

Personal picks: Heaven Is Falling, Chimaera, Tomorrow
Picks for others: Generator, Atomic Garden, Heaven Is Falling
Relative weaknesses: Two Babies In The Dark, Only Entertainment

01 – Generator
02 – Too Much To Ask
03 – No Direction
04 – Tomorrow
05 – Two Babies In The Dark
06 – Heaven Is Falling
07 – Atomic Garden
08 – The Answer
09 – Fertile Crescent
10 – Chimaera
11 – Only Entertainment
Bonus tracks
12 – Fertile Crescent (demo)
13 – Heaven Is Falling (demo)

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Hüsker Dü - Warehouse: Songs And Stories

Hüsker Dü made a remarkable transformation in the space of about five years. Up until about 1982, they were a below par thrashy hardcore band trying to emulate Black Flag. Then some more complicated shapes were thrown in, and then more intricate concepts. The hardcore was leached out and replaced with increasing layers of pop sensibility and pop senselessness alike. 1984’s double vinyl Zen Arcade showed cracks of piano and acoustic guitar appearing, but they were largely slaves to the idea of a concept album that largely retained the thrash element. New Day Rising followed in early 1985, and came across as a good pop-punk album but with the ridiculous amount of fuzz that came from guitarist Bob Mould’s amp. The last release on Black Flag’s SST label, Flip Your Wig, came out later in the same year and saw the fuzz taken out to reveal a more standard rock sound, which came across as a little flat despite having plenty of good songs on the record. The first release in the aftermath of a trailblazing move to Warner Bros was Candy Apple Grey, which was a very diverse and indulgent affair with lots of slow tempos, alternative instruments, and coma-inducing songs. 1987’s Warehouse: Songs And Stories was another double plastic that saw a return to more of a straightforward rock style, with extra instrumentation being pushed back to complement rather than saturate the record, and also saw the end of the band after tensions between Mould and drummer Grant Hart, who were the two primary singers and songwriters for the band, finally became too much. After Warehouse, there were rumours about the next album having horn sections and other gimmicks, so perhaps it’s just as well that they split up when they did.

About the only things that remained consistent throughout the band’s career were the membership (bassist Greg Norton wrote a few songs in the early days and “Everytime” from the Could You Be The One? single, but otherwise just loyally played bass) and the cover art, which was terrible almost without fail. The cover of Warehouse was no exception. Just look at it! Holy mackerel! It follows in the footsteps of the progressively ugly covers on Flip Your Wig and Candy Apple Grey, which both look like a group of people vomited onto a canvas after bingeing on fruity girl cocktails, but this time they didn’t even have the decency to cover a tenth or so of the cover with the band and album names, leaving the eyesore comprehensively exposed for maximum retina-scarring efficiency. Luckily, unlike Candy Apple Grey, the quality of the music doesn’t reflect the quality of the art so perfectly, for the most part.

The album doesn’t start immensely strongly. “These Important Years” comes across as a bit drowsy for the most part, and relies on vocal hooks, and despite Bob Mould’s proven (later in life) ability to craft great pop songs, his voice isn’t powerful enough to carry the song. It finishes fairly strongly, but it’s nothing to write home about. “Charity Chastity Prudence And Hope” is just as bad as its title implies.  Grant Hart has nine compositions entirely to his name out of the twenty on this collection. He hadn’t had as much as a half dozen on any previous records, including the twenty-three-track Zen Arcade. Such was the nature of the creative side of the feud between Mould and Hart that the latter decided to up his contribution to the album to try to match the former, the likeliest cause of Norton’s fantastic “Everytime” (which saw a lot of play on live sets) being omitted. This was a grave error which brought into painfully sharp focus Hart’s songwriting limitations. Basically (an apt word if ever there was one in this context), the chorus on a Grant Hart song would be the iteration and reiteration of the song title, or something very, very similar. Now, take that formula, and apply it to this song title, and you have the worst song on the album. As if that accolade wasn’t bad enough, Hart makes even more mistakes. Not only was there the utilisation of himself as his own backup vocalist, which was vain and impractical for live concerts, he also decided to only do the more adventurous percussion on his own songs, leaving fairly bland drum tracks on Mould’s songs. This backfired with hilarious consequences, especially in this track. Not only do you get to hear the ridiculous chorus again and again, but you get to hear it accompanied by a glockenspiel. A glockenspiel!

So you’re two tracks in, and you’re probably having thoughts like “wow, I’m glad I didn’t waste my money on the record like the writer has” or, if you have committed funds to this album, things like “what have I done?”, “you know, maybe Candy Apply Grey wasn’t so bad”, and “hey, I can think in italics!” Well, you can think again. Well, on some of those points. I do own the album on compact disc and can assure you that the visual artistic horrors extend beyond the cover sleeve. However, rescue is at hand. Some silence to collect your thoughts, and then Mould’s “Standing In The Rain”. It doesn’t start off spectacularly, but it’s nice, tidy pop, and the vocals and Hart’s backing vocals that see out the last minute or so seal up the track and leave the listener feeling like he’s finally heard a winner. Hooray! Sticking to the take-it-in-turns formula, Hart comes back with “Back From Somewhere”, and by Jove, it doesn’t have a chorus taken from the title, or any chorus at all for that matter. Even Hart’s silly rhymebusting “Still now my eyes are burning / with the sight of your returning” can’t spoil the fact that he’s actually tried. A simple song with a simple solo for the most part, and the sudden slowing down of the tempo about three quarters of the way in works rather well. Has Hart learned from his mistakes? Find out next time! Same bat-disc, same bat-review. Not to be outdone, Mould throws on one of the album’s highlights. A slow start suddenly speeds back up, and a call and response pattern sees Mould singing the verses and Hart doing what he does best (singing the song title a lot). A powerful pre-chorus leads into a simple but memorable chorus with some great guitar work and vocal harmonies filling the song out well. It eventually fades out, only to come back for one final chord.

Three great songs in a row, nobody saw that coming after the start. The return of Hart with another one of his terrible songs isn’t enough to plunge this record back into Candy Apple Grey territory, but it does derail a promising comeback. Aside from the feeble attempt at an aggressive drum track and a vocal delivery that is awkwardly off at a wide angle from the lyrics, the lyrics themselves are diabolical. Look them up at your peril. I don’t usually pick on songwriters too much for lyrical content, but the average twelve-year-old can write better than this, and the amount of times that the title is repeated during this song has surely been enough to send people in their droves to sign up for the armed forces, either to irritate Hart, or to go somewhere where luxuries such as personal music players weren’t allowed. Mould’s “Could You Be The One?” is very simple and direct, but it comes packed with melody and comes across as a much more intricate and clever track than it really is. Of course, Hart thought he knew better, and made all the same mistakes again in a defamation of Mould called “Too Much Spice”, an ironic attack at Mould’s indulgence considering that he was cleaning up and Hart had sunk further into heroin addiction. Whilst no more Hart songs were as bad at the three rotten eggs he’d served up by this point, it’s pretty hard to forgive him.

“Friend You’ve Got To Fall” sees more catchy pop and some neat guitar from the man we can trust. It seems that Mould can do no wrong at this point, a diagnosis aided and abetted by the haplessness of his creative nemesis/sidekick. The solos rhyme with the songs, and everything simply works. At this point, the songwriting pattern is temporarily eschewed for another Mould track, and he doesn’t disappoint. “Visionary” is a more brisk, punk-sounding number that brings a slightly grittier edge, recalling New Day Rising, but stays true to the melodic pop sensibility he achieved on the majority of this record. For all of the brilliance of the other songs of his showcased, the slightly different angle is a very welcome addition.

Hart tries to redeem himself by doing something a little different. Instead of trying to incorporate accusing lyrics into upbeat pop music, he serves up a slightly gloomier tale of “She Floated Away”. The glockenspiel makes an unwelcome return, and to rub it in, a flute that sounds exactly like one of those cuckoo clock birds is also thrown in. He’s trying again, but he’s got it wrong. Mould goes down the same road in “Bed Of Nails”, and, of course does a better job of it. Having said that, it’s not his finest moment, and it comes off as being a bit dull, although still better than most Hart songs. “Tell You Why Tomorrow” stays in line with its immediate predecessors, and although the chorus pattern is still there, the verses have a catchy enough tune to them. It’s almost a good song, but not quite. If you were sitting on the fence, the cuckoo clock chimes in at the end to make your mind up for you.

The opening chords of “It’s Not Peculiar” bring Mould’s pop-oriented rock back to the fore and signal the end of the moping section of the record. It doesn’t bring any pace back to the record, but the return of soaring tunes alongside an unusual vocal staccato make the song much more charming than the last few. “Actual Condition” is a strange track. Although a few of Mould’s guitar solos had leaned towards a classic rock n’ roll sound, almost everything about this song is rodeo-friendly, and quite fun. Enough of all that, said Mould, who put in “No Reservations” at this point, another longer, slower slice of pop, but a more brooding and contemplative one, with a mandolin that fails to offend. It’s another one of those songs where the vocal harmonies at the end put a seal on a good song.

Mould gets another go at putting two songs back to back, and be aghast, for he puts a foot wrong. A really annoying throwaway riff combined with an unwelcome keyboard synthesiser-majib will have you cringing throughout “Turn It Around”. Hart tries to take advantage of this by putting in another rare song of his that doesn’t constantly recycle the title of the song as the chorus, instead putting it at the end of every verse, and then chanting it at the end. A slight twist on a recurring theme, cunning, but not cunning enough! Despite being released as the album’s third single, “She’s A Woman (And Now He Is A Man)” is quite bland and uninteresting, and doesn’t compare to the concise melodies of “Could You Be The One?” or the anthemic qualities of “Ice Cold Ice”.

Bob Mould signed off the Hüsker Dü catalogue with “Up In The Air”. More mandolin picking is present, but fear not, it’s another one of Mould’s well-crafted pop songs. Despite not having a memorable guitar riff, the layered vocals are as infectious and memorable as anything on the record. The last writing credit is in Grant Hart’s name, and the big question is whether he managed to overcome his at best unreliable song output to give us a good song to close shop with. He does, sort of. It’s decent enough, although a bit slow in parts, but to give the song a worthwhile edge, a secret weapon has had to be unleashed. The quiet man stands up and delivers, saving Hart from a mediocre song. Greg Norton’s bass barely featured in the band’s recording mix since Zen Arcade, but it singlehandedly propels the song through the verses before Mould’s guitar takes a long, noisy coda with Hart’s title repetition into a drawn out fadeout.

Warehouse: Songs And Stories is packed with filler, for no other reason than Hart wanting to put as many of his songs onto the record as possible. Whether he thought every one was a good song or whether they were simply to spite Mould, the truth will never be known for sure. But to have eschewed Norton’s “Everytime”, a decent rocker that stacks up well against anything Hart put on here, because of internal strife, is a damned shame. The record is still a good one, but could never be considered a great one. It would have been a really good Mould solo album with only a couple of weak points, but given that the album was written as a Hüsker Dü album, I’ve supplied what I believe the record could have best looked like had someone had the sense to cut it down to a single 12” record.

Personal picks: Ice Cold Ice, Up In The Air, Visionary
Picks for others: Could You Be The One?, Ice Cold Ice, Standing In The Rain
Relative weaknesses: Charity Chastity Prudence And Hope, You’re A Soldier, Too Much Spice

01 – These Important Years
02 – Charity Chastity Prudence And Hope
03 – Standing In The Rain
04 – Back From Somewhere
05 – Ice Cold Ice
06 – You’re A Soldier
07 – Could You Be The One?
08 – Too Much Spice
09 – Friend You’ve Got To Fall
10 – Visionary
11 – She Floated Away
12 – Bed Of Nails
13 – Tell You Why Tomorrow
14 – It’s Not Peculiar
15 – Actual Condition
16 – No Reservations
17 – Turn It Around
18 – She’s A Woman (And Now She Is A Man)
19 – Up In The Air
20 – You Can Live At Home

What the one-disc LP should have looked like:-
01 – Up In The Air
02 – Standing In The Rain
03 – Back From Somewhere
04 – Ice Cold Ice
05 – Everytime
06 – It’s Not Peculiar
07 – Visionary
08 – Tell You Why Tomorrow
09 – Friend You’ve Got To Fall
10 – Actual Condition
11 – Could You Be The One?
12 – No Reservations
13 – You Can Live At Home