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