Sunday, January 3, 2010

S - Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs - "Li'l Red Riding Hood"

You may not believe this, but there is more to Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs than "Wooly Bully" & the title cut of this record. Maybe not much more, but enough that it's a shame to see them relegated into two hit wonder status.

Like you, I was convinced that on the times that I did think of Sam & his buddies, I ended up more annoyed than anything, for, with the exception of "Stand by Me", are there any other 60's classics as overplayed as "Wooly Bully"? Sure it's a fun song and all, but you can't always be drunk (you may not believe that either, but it's because you're drunk). What changed my mind about Sam's relevance was the release of "Turban Renewal", the greatest tribute record of all time, brought to you by the benevolent souls at Norton Records. Remember in the 90's when tribute records were all the rage? Any artist of relevance had to be canonized with a cd full of their work being ruined by flavor of the month bands? Everyone had one - even cult artists like Syd Barrett & Skip Spence, as well as industry giants like Led Zeppelin & Leonard Cohen! And they all SUCKED!! Cheaply recorded, cheaply performed, cheaply packaged, they all reeked of ripoff (okay, the Skip Spence one was not too bad). But "Turban Renewal"? Excellent. The lineup was stellar, featuring some of the greats of low-fi garage punk (Untamed Youth, Devil Dogs, Nine Pound Hammer, the A Bones, Teengenerate) as well as underground legends (Hasil Adkins, the Lyres, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Roy Loney) performing the suprisingly awesome catalog of this "one hit wonder". True, some of these versions are, to my ears, a lot better than the originals due to the increased energy & volume, but certainly I realized Sam the Sham deserved a second hearing.

So I got this, their second record. And it's...okay. Never less than pleasant, but not some lost classic either. If you know "Wooly Bully" (and who doesn't), you know their sound: garagey cheesy organ-driven pop tunes with Tejano overtones. The Pharoahs are pictured on the record, but not identified, so I have no idea who's playing what, or if anyone from the band wrote these songs (singer/leader Sam Samudio co-wrote only 2 songs on this disc; one of them, "Pharoah A Go Go", is simply "Wooly Bully" without lyrics.) Most of the songs are somewhat humorous (the title track (obviously the best song on the record), "Deputy Dawg", "Green'ich Grendel", "The Phantom"), with only a couple of flat out lemons (due to "...Riding Hood" hit status, maybe they thought they could duplicate its success with junk like "Mary is My Little Lamb" & "Little Miss Muffet". Bad idea. Jeans. Plus I'm not sure if this version of "Hanky Panky" came out before Tommy James' better known classic, but it's absolutely rotten.) The record ends with its second best track, the goofy frat-rock of "Grasshopper" ("if she was a bottle, I'd want to be the stopper / I'm so glad she's not a blade of grass / cause that would make me be / a little grasshopper". That's actually pretty cute.)

VERDICT: go buy "Turban Renewal" here!!!!
VIDEO: I don't know if this is awesome or awful: it's certainly awkward when Ed Sullivan calls them all over then sends them away just as quickly. That said, "Ring Dang Doo" isn't on the album I just reviewed, but it was that or "Wooly Bully" again. Last plug for "Turban Renewal": listen to the Devil Dogs' cover of "Don't Try It". It SMOKES!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

R - The Ramones - "Leave Home"

Ah, sweet sweet Ramones, wash over me and beat me senseless.

Said it before, will say it ad infinitum: had the Ramones broken up after their third record, they would go down in history as the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Not one artist or band can match the mind blowing greatness of "The Ramones", "Leave Home", & "Rocket to Russia". They were perfect: perfect sound (both retro & futuristic), perfect songs (right to the point, catchy as bubblegum and adrenalized as punk), perfect image (da brudders!), even perfect song introduction (there's nothing that prepares you for some intense jumping up & down better than Dee Dee Ramone yelling "onetwofreefaw!") You simply can't claim to like rock & roll without embracing these three records as tightly as you would your best girl or guy. Fanfreakintastic.

The Ramones's sophomore effort sometimes gets short shifted as the middle child in their holy trinity of goodness, which is wholly unfair, as it easily equals the first in songwriting and easily surpasses it in execution (the songs are tighter & faster, & the production is WAY better (like adding the sound effects on "Pinhead" & the backing vocals on "You're Gonna Kill That Girl"). It's really hard to write about this record, as I can't readily think of as many synonyms for "perfect" as needed without grabbing a thesaurus. Difficult to see how songs this melodic & well crafted failed to make a dent on the charts, yet obvious that they didn't stand a chance in the discofied pop charts, The Ramones really should've had their own cartoon ala the Beatles: imagine the plot lines to accompany songs like "Suzy is a Headbanger" or "Beat on the Brat" - truly a missed opportunity by Hanna-Barbera.

Anyway, if you hadn't already guessed, I love this record. 14 songs with a total running time under 30 minutes (the longest song, "Pinhead" at 2:42, is shorter than David Freidberg's bass solo on the previously reviewed Quicksilver record), you are truly left wanting much much more, but it's better that way. The Ramones weren't into padding this early in their career. All four Ramones (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, & Tommy) are all on top of their game, & it's a fun, FUNNY listen. Though sometimes flirting with bad taste ("Glad to See You Go"'s " shout-out to Charles Manson, or "Commando" flirting with Naziism), they don't go too far over the edge to get the laugh, & mostly it's at their own expense ("Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" or "Carbona Not Glue"). On top of that, "Leave Home" has, in my opinion, their greatest cover: "California Sun". Their version makes the original totally obsolete, and even blows away the Dictators' hysterical cover from two years earlier. When side two fades out, you can't help wanting to turn the record over and play it again. So you do!

VERDICT: GABBA GABBA HEY! Long Live the Ramones!!!
VIDEO: from London at the end of 1977, this video truly captures the Ramones at their peak, right before the departure of Tommy (Marky, his replacement, played far too fast, which undercut the melodies of the songs). Watch how Johnny & Dee Dee are in constant motion, with Joey a truly commanding presence at the center. The last three songs in this video are from "Leave Home", but just go ahead and listen to the whole thing: 5 great songs in 10 minutes from a white hot band, what more could you want?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Q - Quicksilver Messenger Service - "Happy Trails"

As a musician, I.....

Sorry, I crack myself up sometimes - gotta start over.

As someone who has created noise with a musical instrument, I understand the attractiveness of "jamming". Playing music with another person or people can sometimes be a very rewarding & entertaining experience, especially when you encounter those happy mistakes or missteps that deviate from your normal playing and lead you someplace totally new. Though with my band, the legendary "Plastic Experience", we did our darndest to play cover versions as close to the original as possible; more often than not, we lacked the talent & musical knowledge to do so, and, in failing to play "correctly", what came out was something quirkier and often a lot more fun. So, yes, truth be told, I do like "jamming" (and hope YOU like "jamming", too!)

That said, as someone who has listened to "jamming" as a third party, there is seldom anything more boring in the galaxy than the song that never seems to end (even if it's only 5 minutes long). I understand that the "jammers" are discovering some of the same enthusiasm I described in the paragraph; for them, it's a rush of creativity and wonder. For me, it's time out of my life that is pretty much wasted. (I'm not saying the Plastics' "jamming" is any better; in fact, it would be best described as "can you put on something else, please?") Come on, give me a melody, a good chorus, solo, and end. All killer, no filler - say whatcha came to say, and get the hell out - that's my idea of a good tune.

Quicksilver Messenger Service came out of the San Fransisco scene that spit out the Dead, Big Brother, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, etc. An standard 4 piece band who were just alright at best (just like Jesus!) with a lineup that fluctuated regularly, the most notable player was guitarist John Cipollina, whose tone & whammy-bar use stood out among other SF players. He was a much more methodical player, not particarly flashy or speed oriented, but his solos had dramatic impact and made a point. But you can't build a band on a dramatic guitar - you gotta have songs. Quicksilver weren't much at the writing game, so what did you get? Jamming. Lots and lots of jamming. Ugh.

So "Happy Trails" is their second record and is mostly live. Side One is nothing but an extended version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love". TWENTY FIVE AND A HALF MINUTES, which is WAY too long. HOWEVER -'s not that bad. Really. First off, instead of Bo's hard fast beat, they slow the groove down, perfect for hippie dancing. I'M not dancing, but I dig this alot more than the more often played hard rock version that George Thorogood recorded 10 years later. Second guitarist Gary Duncan sings lead - not all that well, he's got a very limited range and does that annoying white-soul guy holler too often, but, as the vocal portion of the 25 minutes is maybe 3 minutes, you don't have to tolerate it too much. Cippolina plays some stinging punctuations before Duncan takes a solo over jazzy backing. His playing is fine but fairly non-descript, and goes on, as you may have guessed, a bit too long. Then the music dies down to a beat, and they start farting around, making pops & scratchy noises on their guitars while the audience starts clapping and yelling, either out of boredom or because the drugs have finally kicked in. Finally the drums lead back into a screaming Cipollina solo which, ironically, is far too SHORT. All the more unfortunate, because bassist David Friedberg is up next with a 3 & a half minute plod that destroys all the momentum they just built up. Luckily, they return to the song before everyone falls asleep (and before drummer Greg Elmore takes a solo), and the song finds its way to an ending (even the ending drags on and on. Come on, it's Bo Diddley - just go "duh duh duh...duhduh" and finish, already). So yeah, it could've been cut by half and still been too long, but I've sat through way worse Grateful Dead nonsense, and, unlike the Dead's epics, I can appreciate this without being high.

Side Two begins with 7 minutes of "Mona", ANOTHER Bo Diddley song! If they had just marketed themselves as a stoner version of a Bo cover band, I'd like them so much more, because judging on these two tries, they did it pretty well. Sure, the vocals are still boring, and the beat's a little too lazy on this one, but it's got a good feel to it otherwise, with Cipollina's guitar being reverbed from here to Hades (but, again, why is Duncan getting more solo time than Cipollina???) At some point, "Mona" ends and segues into "Maiden of the Cancer Moon", which segues into "Calvary", both songs by Duncan that are simply excuses for "jamming". As a Gary Duncan cover band, Quicksilver are awful, as both of these "tunes" go nowhere and stay there. A useless tuneless cover of the Dale Evans title track (only 47 seconds! They DO know restraint! or at least someone knows how to edit!) finishes out the side.

VERDICT: shave and a haircut - this sucks! Well, not totally. Don't go out of your way for it, though.
VIDEO: this catches Quicksilver right after original lead singer and super tool Dino Valente rejoined, which ended up taking the band in a much more commercial, but not necessarily better, direction. Lots of stoned hippies dancing, eh?

P -Tav Falco's Panther Burns - "Behind the Magnolia Curtain"

You know, I love sloppy, half-assed rockabilly played by what sounds like 12 year olds churning out a gurgling mess that can only be charitably called "music" using the most broad definition of the term as much as the next guy, but, really, this is too much.

Panther Burns is a vanity project fronted by rockabilly devotee Tav Falco, who gathers whatever Memphis buddies he can wake up to back him as he hoots, hollers, and whoops his way through some obscure covers and a few derivative originals. His most notable co-hort has been ex-Box Top/Big Star frontman Alex Chilton: these recordings give him a chance to play guitar (occasionally drums) without having to expend any effort into creativity, originality, or listenability.

You can sense that the other instrumentalists on this 1981 debut record (Falco, Gun Club's drummer Jim Duckworth, & bassist Ron Miller) shared Chilton's deprivation of quality, as this is one piss-poor record. Proudly stating "all tracks recorded one-take", this might have been a fun listen if there was some kind of inspiration to make up for the lack of everything else, but, sadly, that's AWOL too.

It's interesting to compare this crap to Chilton's own home grown Memphis stew "Like Flies on Sherbet" recorded only a year earlier. Chilton's record is just as sloppy (perhaps even more so), & has the same Sun-style production (& also sounds like the band is made up of drunken teenagers) but there's a sense of abandon & joy in the 150 proof recordings. On top of that, the songs are catchy & memorable; enough so that even if they are ruined by questionable execution, at least they're still good songs. Even after listening to "Behind the Magnolia Curtain" twice (the anguish I put myself through for this blog that nobody reads, I tell ya...), only two songs stand out: "She's the One that Got It" has a dynamic call & response chorus, with Tav actually showing some kind of character in his voice, and RL Burnside's instrumental "Snake Drive" (honestly, even though it's his project, the less Falco, the better.) The rest of the covers, though written by some heavy hitters (Johnny Burnette, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Leadbelly, Roy Orbison), just can't overcome the musical atrocities that are perpetuated against them.

VERDICT: crawl back into the swamp until you learn how to play, kids.
VIDEO: wow, this is a terrible version of a good song. And this is after SEVEN years of improvement??? Yipes.

Monday, December 7, 2009

O - Sinead O'Connor - "The Lion & the Cobra"

I had started this review a host of times trying to draw a correlation between the spoiled bonkers nature of Americans to one of my favorite moments of the 80's: Frank Sinatra threatening to "kick her ass" after Sinead O'Connor refused to let the Star Spangled Banner be played before one of her concerts. It's not a worthwhile comparison, and who cares about politics anymore, anyway?

My first encounter with Sinead was probably like most folks: the transfixing video for her cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U". It remains a visually arresting video, though the song was always kind of a plodder. I prefered the follow-up, "The Emperor's New Clothes", though neither struck me enough to buy any of her albums until I found her first 2 records at Half Price Books for 50 cents each. Pretty good bargain.

Her debut, "The Lion & the Cobra", is flat out excellent, with only a couple of missteps. There's a ton of variety in the songs, & Sinead has a powerful voice (though she suffers from the vocal affliction of randomly going to falsetto in the middle of a phrase - occasionally irritating, but not enough to sink the songs.) Side one starts with the eerie gothic "Jackie" before switching into the pure pop of "Mandinka", which is fantastically catchy (guitars on this song are by Marco Pirroni, Adam Ant's co-conspirator). Sinead then shifts gears into the funk of "Jerusalem", affecting a rap of sorts (as Marco is not on this one, it is sadly not an Ant Rap) then sinks into the pleading "Just Like U Said It Would Be". Unfortunately, the side ends with the Celtic nonsense of "Never Get Old" (with guest rambling from Enya). Side Two is almost as good, with the emotionally bare "Troy" contrasting with the danceable rhythms of "I Want Your (Hands On Me)" & the moody "Drink Before the War". "Just Call Me Joe", though, once again ends the side on a down note: just call me bored.

Verdict: Though she still doesn't do much for me, I appreciate the hell out of this record.
Video: awesome live version of "Troy" - why didn't you just leave the lights on?? that said, THIS really caused quite the ruckus back in the day. NBC still won't let it be played.

Friday, November 20, 2009

N - The Nazz - "Nazz"

Why has it taken five months to write this review?

The main reason is that my computer has been either sidelined with viruses (viri?) and/or unable to connect to the internet in that time. During the interim, I've had to use my brother's computer to check up on email etc., though it doesn't give me the opportunity to write, re-write, and re-rewrite these reviews.

That said, there has been ample opportunity to simply turn on my computer and write up a quick blurble, much as I'm doing now. In fact, I've re-listened to this record 4 or 5 times with the notion of getting back on that horse, spitting out some nonsense, and moving on to "O".But there's something about this record that has completely shut me down every time. It's not that bad of a record, especially in comparison with some of the drivel that I've suffered through. But the level of "" is high enough to make me want to put off reviewing it time and time again. Admittedly, it does deserve better.

This was the first big-time introduction of Todd Rundgren to the world, and he doesn't disappoint. The motto of my middle school (Humble Middle School, Humble, TX) was "What you are to be, you are now becoming" (I remember this saying dumbed down by someone during my first week at the school during gym: "so if you're going to be a bum, you're becoming one now". Despite my 3 years of consistent straight A's at that institution, something in the back of my mind said "bum, eh? hmmmm...." And now I'm 39 reviewing an album 5 months late that no one will read. Hmmmm indeed...) This rings true here: not only does Todd solely write 4/5ths of the record, it SOUNDS like Todd. Even on his first release, where HE'S NOT EVEN THE LEAD SINGER, it totally sounds like pure Rundgren.

The Nazz came outa Philly with a very fresh American take on British rock, melding psychodelic guitar & manic drumming with lush harmonies and melodic songs. This, my friends, is the origin of power-pop, and there is no better presentation of that genre than this LP's opening track, "Open My Eyes". Holy moloney, this is a crusher. Everything you could possibly want out of a great rock and roll classic is here. Beginnning with staggered organ chords & adding a clompy drum line, the fuzz guitar jumps in with a killer riff, soon doubled by a second guitar playing an octave higher, while one note on the organ holds on until the cymbals crash into the verse. And that's just the opening! The singer ("Stewkey") simmers during verses, the one down side of the song: "Stewkey" had no business being the singer: bland, no range, completely unable to bring any emotion whatsoever to this or the following songs. But right now it doesn't matter because here comes the chorus which is glorious - a sunburst of harmonies accompanied by Todd's stinging lead and Thom Mooney's Moon-like drumming. After another verse/chorus, we're suddenly transported to a lounge somewhere: this bridge comes from nowhere, and is a Rundgren trademark. After the vocals peak, Todd's guitar takes over while the group wails for 2 beats, 4 beats, 6 beats, 8 beats, then suddenly we're back into the opening riff, with that lone organ note appearing again and holding on for an eternity as the music peaks and washes us back to the chorus.

Now THAT is a song. It rocks, it swings, it's catchy, it catches you off guard with its changes, it's fabulous. And sadly none of the nine songs that follows can touch it. The next song, "Back of Your Mind", features "Stewkey" and Todd trading off lines and, though "Stewkey" was no singer, at this point, Todd wasn't really either. He was more of a yeller here, which fits the songs, but if you took out "Stewkey"'s vocals on this LP and put in Todd's, it wouldn't have made any difference in the overall quality. Decent verses on this second track, but an absolutely KILLER chorus, and easily the second best thing about this record. After a relatively drab Rundren-y "See What You Can Be" comes their second single "Hello It's Me". Todd later re-recorded this for his landmark "Something/Anything" record, which deservedly became a hit. This is the original recording and it SUCKS. First off, the tempo is non-existent: it seems at least four times as long as its 4 minute length. There's tons of harmonies on it, but they're nothing but window dressing due to "Stewkey"'s tired, flat lead vocal. I love this song, but oh my LORD, this version is awful. And it kills the album dead.

Nothing else on the record is really that worth listening to, unless you're a Toddophile. If so, there is an admirable almost astonishing presentation on how fully formed his compositional skills were even this early on in his career. "If That's the Way You Feel" & "Lemming Song" may as well be solo tunes, as they clearly could come from no other composer. I'm not saying they're great or even that GOOD, but it's kinda fun to hear this budding songwriter already so individual. As for the drum solo on "She's Goin' Down", I can actually do without it.

VERDICT: I can listen to the first 6 minutes of this record for all eternity, but don't make me listen to the rest again. And I forgot to mention the bass player's name: Carson Van Osten. If names are any indication, he shoulda been in Krokus.
VIDEO: sweet power pop, wash over me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

M - Yngwie J. Malmsteen - "Rising Force"

“I used to could listen for hours to records just for the guitar playing, but then I was dumb, because without an actual song or framework, its just somebody going doodly-doodly-doodly without rhyme or reason, and it bores me intensely (though I still own one Yngwie Malmsteen record, you’ll NEVER catch me actually listening to it).” – from my review of the Yardbirds’ “Roger the Engineer” record.

Whoops. Color me a fool.

So you know how I feel about flashy guitar players – no more needs to be said, though I’m sure I’ll end up saying it anyway.
Yngwie Malmsteen was THE hot new guitarist on the block in 1984-85. His calling card was speed: no one, and I mean NO ONE played faster than Yngwie. At a time when this kind of talent really seemed to matter, he not only sounded the part, but he looked it too: 21 years old, long hair, classic 80’s metal dude. Music magazines had this Swede plastered all over the place before his first solo record even came out (he first drew notice in the boring “Alcatrazz”). In interviews, he would position himself as the rightful heir of the musical throne of Bach, Paginnini, & Hendrix (though it’s obvious that he patterned himself after more recent players like Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth of the Scorpions.) At school, we’d look at pictures and wonder if his name was pronounced “yuh-NIG-wee” or “ING-wee” or “ING-vay” (the latter is correct). Finally the record came out. Yup, he sure was fast. Real fast. Faster than Van Halen, even. Problem was he couldn’t write. At all. No melodies, no lyrics, no nothing. But he played fast, alright. John became the Yngwie collector of the family: I think he bought the first 4 Yngwie records before losing interest. I never developed that interest myself, though I did have his picture on my wall for many years. He looked cooler than he sounded.

And how does it stack up today, you are asking yourself? Not well, matey. For one, it has the ABYSMAL sound of 80’s metal, especially the drums of ex-Jethro Tull member Barriemore Barlow (who happens to share my birthday – Virgos rule!) For another, as I mentioned, there’s not one memorable riff or melody on the whole record. You may as well listen to it with the sound off, because you’ll retain nothing. Lastly, his guitar playing…it IS superfast. Too fast. He plays 10 notes when 4 would suffice. There are endless descending and ascending runs – so many that you eventually tune them out, noticing only when he SLOWS DOWN (which isn’t too often). Seeing as he always claimed he was more than just another metal guitarist, (he is Yngwie “J.” Malmsteen, after all), he turns a Bach work into heavy metal drivel (this album came out around the same time Spinal Tap exposed so much of the rock & metal world for the sham it was, so it was passe upon release), has a harpsichord player on another song, and shows that he can play acoustic guitar and bass just as fast – yet for no real reason. A keyboard player appears on many of the cuts, sometimes dueling with Yngwie (sorry, Yngwie J.) on solos – hey buddy, I don’t care how fast YOU play, I didn’t buy this to hear fast keyboards, DUDE.) Plus there are two actual songs featuring vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, who must’ve been an old friend, because he has no business singing metal: on the first (“Now Your Ships Are Burned”), he sounds like a smoother James Hetfield of Metallica; on the second (“As Above, So Below”), he is the faceless metal singer that you imagine when you think of “generic”.

I despise Gene Simmons as a human being, but he made a really good point in the “Kiss Extreme Close-Up” video (he was burying Mark St. John, their third guitar player who became disabled & had to leave the band after recording one album with them): he stated that he would rather hear a simple hard chord whose sound almost breaks your ribs than to hear a million notes that just sounds like an angry bee – so annoying that you want to shoot that thing (and if Gene Simmons gets in the way of the bullet, all the better).

VERDICT: listening to this record is like driving through the Midwest (say, Kansas) at full speed. When you look out the windows, everything is rushing by so fast that you can’t focus on anything (not that there’s anything of interest to focus on). You just want to get through it as quickly as possible and move on to something else.
VIDEO: here’s Yngwie J doing his thing in Japan. They seem to like him, though people probably didn’t care too much for him on a flight to Toyko in 2002. Apparently, another passenger spilled water on him after he wouldn’t shut up, and, drunken and beligerant, he went off: (not safe for work). I like this clip much more than any of his music.

shred THIS!