Punk and New Wave

James “Blood” Ulmer “Free Lancing” (Columbia, 1981)

303362After releasing his solo work “Are You Glad To Be In America?” through Rough Trade instead of say, ECM, the direction of his work grew more technical but remained engaging after his jump to Columbia. And he didn’t lose what he had going on with the post-punk label: innovation and a feeling of warmth throughout despite his unique brand of guitar flaying.

If you see live clips of Chick Corea in 1986 with his “Elektric” band, or other fusion bands of that time headed by Miles, and your only major turn off is the electric keyboards sounding like the audio equivalent of stale cheese, then “Free Lancing” will work for you. Ulmer’s band is electric, but it operates how a crack jazz/funk/rock outfit should. The heavy bass pops and acts as the main rhythmic component, James sings over his precise scratching and scrambling, and the drums embellish when they don’t drive the most memorable track, “High Time,” to the conclusion of the first side.

Loved by Ornette, post-punk art schoolers, rock enthusiasts and fans of Hendrix’s cross-town traffic music in general… well let’s put it this way, the material you hear on “Free Lancing” was the same stuff they would flaunt in front of Captain Beefheart and PiL. You can consider it a treasure of the era that occupies it’s own space. -Wade

Lizzy Mercier Descloux “Press Color” (ZE, 1979)

LizzyMercierDesclouxPressColorFunny how the “Press Color” album changes with each new pressing… Whenever New York’s infinitely hip ZE label put out a fresh one it seemed to have a rearranged track list and changes in song lengths. With a new Light In The Attic reissue on the way, this tradition continues, and they even expand the LP into a double gatefold that includes Lizzy’s early material from the art-group Rosa Yemen, so keep an eye peeled.

So many reissues and it still warrants a listen again; Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a definite talent from the post-punk / No Wave axis and “Press Color,” with tracks in any arrangement, still impresses. Lizzy was a Lower East Side scenester with ties to Patti Smith and Richard Hell. The cutely impish French gal was also a self-taught guitarist with unique chops that worked in a noise or dance context. Catfish Collins or Arto Lindsay? Somewhere in between that spindly rhythm matrix…

Whatever side of whatever version you get of “Press Color,” the discofied Arthur Brown cover of “Fire” still remains it’s most exciting ride. The convergence of New York styles at the time of this recording places this track at ground zero in dance-punk fun. More confrontational numbers include the lurching “Torso Corso” and the dizzying “Wawa.” With No Wave and post-punk revivals come and gone, “Press Color” still stands as an excitingly fresh mess of styles. -Wade

Suicide “Second Album” (ZE, 1980)

R-117096-1359998051-9312.jpegNothing really could match their debut’s savage “Frankie Teardrop” in terms of extremes, or be as sumptuous as oh say, “Girl” or “Che” – But Suicide’s “Second Album” did manage to flesh out their sound in a way that perfectly balanced their trashy/classy aesthetic and glam synth noise…

Alan Vega and Martin Rev open up with sophistication on the beautiful “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” and immediately go back to grit and grime with “Mr. Ray,” a Velvets cover devolved and left to fester on dirty NYC streets. It’s a constantly changing song for them live, but the recording here is definitive low-life unease from the Apple. Side one also has more tunes for off-the-street, or more like having-wine-in-the-loft… “Sweetheart” is like saccharine sugar and “Fast Money Music” is morally bankrupt ladder-climbing.

Suicide knew how to arrange startling tracks like “Harlem” and “Dance” next to the more beautiful numbers… “Las Vegas Man” and “Shadazz…” That’s what makes them so interesting to this day, really. They didn’t push for extremity, rather, their debut was just limited in how lush they could be  on record (though they managed). By this point Suicide were versatile enough to pull back and show some beauty. – Wade

Nation of Ulysses “13-Point Program to Destroy America” (Dischord, 1991)

nationof.13point.hiSelf-aware and theatrically coming off as far-left wing nutcases, Nation of Ulysses was a short lived band that burned brightly for the Dischord label into the 90s. Ian Svenonius, as ringleader and intense frontman, comes across as just that on recordings set to match their legendary and ecstatic live performances.

“13-Point Program To Destroy America” is, at it’s core, made up of a belief system stemming from juvenile delinquent behavior and leftist radicalism, but the mashing of these views is comedic and not overly serious, except maybe in their instrumentation. Their roots are in D.C. Hardcore, but at the turn of the decade most groups in the area had become more harmonic… Nation did this, but listening to a heap of free jazz records might have also led them down more interesting avenues. Svenonius even picked up a trumpet on some tracks. Whether he plays like a jazz man is up for, uh, debate. I’d say not, but he’s a great noisemaker.

The album is really two minute blasts most of the way through (“Spectra Sonic Sound,” Ulythium”), with some slower numbers including the mocking “Diphtheria.” It’s a song against, of all things, eating sweets, which really shows straightedge ethics held up to ridiculously high standards. This was when kids in the scene were going so far as refraining from caffeine consumption… It was time for a laugh. -Wade

Jah Wobble “The Legend Lives On… Jah Wobble In Betrayal” (Virgin, 1980)

Jah Wobble - Betrayal -The first big solo effort of Jah Wobble would be the pronounced reason he got the boot from PiL under orders from long-time buddy John Lydon. There was probably word of build up to the acrimonious departure, but it would depend on who you asked. Apparently Lydon didn’t like the fact that Wobble’s album used pieces of scrap from Metal Box, and pulled the trap door.

Funny really, considering PiL was meant to be an umbrella for all sorts of weird, vague projects that tended to never, ever get made. Wobble went and did it though, and it’s even funnier because what little fragments do come from Metal Box / Second Edition were all just fragments to begin with at that point. Punks in the studio using whatever they could fashion together as avant-garde.

But the results of Wobble in the studio go far beyond dub-edits of older PiL material; some songs are actually full of dubbed up love like on “Beat The Drum,” and an eccentric and unexpected cover of “Blueberry Hill” make for great bits on Side 1. On the flip there is a featured female vocalist named Snow White who performs on the odd “Tales From Outer Space” and the great disco track “Today Is The First Day of the Rest of My Life.” Who knows where she went off to after cutting the record.

Wobble arranges just about everything and it’s obvious that like PiL he’s not about to sit in one place when the studio can take him anywhere. Unlike PiL, more World music influence is heard in earnest fashion compared to oh say, the Wobbless “Flowers of Romance” by Lydon and the remaining PiL founders a bit later. And by then they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. -Wade

The Smiths “Strangeways Here We Come” (Rough Trade, 1987)

0f14733c89d93d64beea7e7a6079347773c61194The last album by The Smiths may be the last one you’ll pick up. And while popular consensus would rank “The Queen Is Dead” and “Meat Is Murder” as their best full lengths, I’d vouch for this one. This decision didn’t come overnight, rather, it came after my formative years of Smiths-fandom in a moment of clarity, when Morrissey’s rants seemed to have less wallop but a bit more pronouncement.

Not that Steven Moz has become any less angsty on this release. If anything his wit is at it’s most refined here, just before his solo career dulled it, turning him into a caricature. His musical foil, Johnny Marr, shows off more chops than ever as well. “Strangeways…” puts the studio to use more than ever before, but don’t let that scare you into thinking this was a last-ditch effort assembled in post before the fall. Studio adventuring leads The Smiths to some of their most spacious and interesting recordings yet, like “Death of a Disco Dancer” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.”

Lyrically, Moz touches on themes that you’ve heard before, but there is more humor here that may touch long-haul fans of Morrisey’s work rather than those jumping into Smiths albums during adolescence. The key here is time, not for wisdom gained but for longing, even for those dour times. Life is funny like that. – Wade

Fugazi “Red Medicine” (Dischord, 1995)

090-webHearing “13 Songs” today and identifying it as a punk milestone isn’t too hard. But when it was released reception was a bit different, even to the ears of folks dedicated to Dischord. Joe Lally’s dubby basslines probably had something to do with it.

After further experiments with dub production on sharp rhythms (courtesy of ex-Rites of Spring members), Fugazi took an artier route on “Red Medicine” that rocks most of the time and power-plays the studio for stints and segues. Early straightforward blaster “Bed For The Scraping” is a fun bass-propelled track that’s hard, aggressive and danceable. It’s probably the most uplifting rock track they got. Then on the production side of things, instrumentals arranged behind a board like “Combination Lock” or “Version” further push musical ideas. The trick pulled here is that these songs sound fine right alongside their rock numbers.

What makes this piece worthy of placing next to “13 Songs” or “Repeater?” It’s another fully realized album, for one, and while more musical ideas are explored Fugazi never spread themselves to thin. And while the members of this esteemed group share morals and standards set staggering high, lyrically you’ll catch a break. The album is chock full of personal political points, but delivery here is generally less declaratory, more obtuse except where it sounds great (Lockheed! Lockheed!).

On “Red Medicine,” Fugazi are miles away from where they started, with bars set even higher on playing, producing, boundary pushing… -Wade

Ric Ocasek “Beatitude” (Geffen, 1982)

ea9234a756d1d56c2875efae1a5Very much a studio creation and a work evoking distillation and sanitation, “Beatitude” might as well be Ric with Kraftwerk as his backing band, if they’re willing to add stadium-worthy guitar, lovers bass and shmoozy sax all over. Since The Cars made a bit of a weak Rock effort (with a capital R), going New Wave was probably Ric’s most viable option, and it has to be said, he didn’t hold back during his solo year.

A drum machine (affectionately named “Miss Linn” in the liner notes) beats metronomically, and a series of vocoder chirps kick off Ric Ocasek’s first solo effort. Seems like a great foil for his brand of punchy New Wave… “Jimmy Jimmy” and “Prove” are pure electro-pop nuggets of the freshest variety. And “Connect Up To Me” looks like it would fit next to Gary Numan’s “Cars” or anything by Wang Chung on FM band. Well, maybe a radio edit, it’s all sequencers and drums with Ric riffing over chimes and crisp keys, going for about seven minutes plus… It’s not even a dance track, necessarily.

This is New Wave in it’s truest capital form, far from the streets, floating somewhere in space. Interestingly enough, it’s when New Wave as a genre gets further from it’s source material (punk template, let’s blur no lines), when it’s clean, detached and empty, that it really becomes it’s own thing. Play this with Gary Numan’s “Dance” or Japan’s “Gentleman Take Polaroids” for maximum posh. And watch out for rockets! – Wade

The Fall “Grotesque” (Rough Trade, 1980)

Grotesque_coverHot on the heels of the immortal “Totally Wired” single, The Fall dropped “Grotesque” and really outdid themselves. Right out of the gate you get the rocking “Pay Your Rates” and a 180 turn into the chipper sounding “English Scheme,” a seemingly jolly number with an absolutely dirty electric keyboard bouncing throughout.

Mark E. Smith really becomes Mark E. Smith here as well: “New Face In Hell” and “C ‘n’ C-S Mithering” spews broken working man poetry over obscene instrumentals embellished by kazoos and backing tapes of who-knows-what. Side one ends with a more straightforward rocker, “The Container Drivers.” It may seem odd, but then Mark has cited Bo Diddley and Link Wray as some of his favorites, right alongside Damo Suzuki. He’s not afraid to not be weird and rock proper.

Side two kicks off with a militant rumble in “Impression of J. Temperance” and works it’s way in a similar fashion (apart from the incomprehensible mess of “WMC-Blob 59”) toward the closer of “The N.W.R.A.” or “The North Will Rise Again.” Being from Manchester and proud of it, Mark E. had to end with a near ten-minute opus to declare it. Rough and tough, Manchester and Mark E. may be synonymous in most ways. You can say that for The Fall too. -Wade

LCD Soundsystem “LCD Soundsystem” (DFA, 2005)

R-472821-1118681571.jpgTen years old! And hardly a blemish on this self-titled LP by everyone’s favorite party group of NYC hipsters. James Murphy (alleged Mark E. Smith impersonator, former Six Finger Satellite sound guy) did most of the work on these tracks, with a little help from his friends and future live players.

Spotted with hits, tracks of mashed up genres come together in a mix of dance, punk and psychedelia drenched in electronic residue. After the release of the totally-meta “Losing My Edge” single, Murphy still had opportunities to sport irony and pretension. “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” kicks side one off and from there takes you to the bonafide pop of “Tribulations” and the Suicide-esque pummel of “Movement,” which probably has the most lyrical heft of the record’s time:

“It’s like a movement/without the bother of the meaning
it’s like a discipline without the discipline of all the discipline”

Bands have to try so much harder these days, not to succeed, but to avoid pastiche. Or in LCD’s case, work to rise above it and approach music making in earnest. What can all this familiar music mean? Or, what can it be perceived to mean? Real or imagined, these are the pitfalls that LCD manages to dance around. And you get to dance around too, especially on “Thrills,” “Disco Infiltrator,” etc;

Hardly being lumped in with other dance-rock diminished returns of the day (and there were a lot of them, oh boy), LCD’s first release manages to harken back and still sound fresh. And moments like “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up” shows that Murphy is just as good a songwriter as he is a studio head. He loves his music, and if you like his long list of refs and citations, chances are you probably will too. -Wade

Dalis Car “The Waking Hour” (Beggars Banquet, 1984)

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Now this is an interesting piece of New Wave… an album where the members hardly ever met up and sent material to one another, patching vocals and rhythms together, wherever. And what members; Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy broods and self-taught bassist Mick Karn of Japan plays just about everything.

Dalis Car, named after a short Beefheart instrumental, only produced this one full length album, “The Waking Hour,” and it’s a humorless chunk of vinyl that I’d say is akin to PiL’s “Flowers of Romance” but a bit more listenable. No John Lydon caterwauling for one, but also these meditative sub-groove tunes put you in their strange headspace a bit more effectively.

Mick Karn’s bass lines really are the star of the show here. No other bass has his sound, though he lent his abilities to Japan, assisted Murphy here and did session work with Gary Numan. The best example of his style really comes through on the track “Artemis,” an instrumental with simple drum patterns, percussion and horns all sliding by Karn’s fluid, fretless work. Peter Murphy is more or less himself, but he is a bit more tame on this release, which is all the more fitting for such coldly produced material, and I mean that in a good way.

The meeting of minds for Dalis Car was promising, but unfortunately, by the time Karn and Murphy had reunited to make new material, Karn entered a battle with cancer and quickly succumbed. “The Waking Hour” is not only of interest to fans of Japan and Bauhaus, but a great slice of New Wave that could have potentially led down some interesting avenues. -Wade

 

The Minutemen “What Makes A Man Start Fires?” (SST, 1982)

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Being a pop culture staple now, many album lists cite “Double Nickles on a Dime” as The Minutemen’s number one release with a bullet. And being that it’s a double album chock full of material, it may seem like the only pieces of vinyl by them you would have to pick up to get a feel for who these guys are.

A few better and much more timely reviews are available from rock-write gods Richard Meltzer and Byron Coley on the topic of this full length, “What Makes A Man Start Fires?” – but I’ll tackle it anyway. After “Paranoid Time” and “The Punch Line,” this LP draws the line between the Pedro boys and a lot of the punk-funk material being released across New York and a whole lot of Europe. The songs are longer, change grooves more and more frequently and have a quality many of those groups lacked; combustion.

Yes, The Minutemen were a rock band and not just a West Coast post-punk outfit per se, or at least not in total. Songs, songs not tracks, like “Fake Contest” and “The Anchor” for a start, have undeniable grooves, and they could be extended dance numbers, but their short, punchy lengths and D Boon’s trebly guitar and spouting keeps them right in their very own proper rock context.

Meltzer: “…they told riffs, both unviable and viable, where to get off; used em’ only as suited their fancy, by which I don’t mean they were fancy ass fashioners, I mean they stripmined their musical souls…” and Coley on upping funky post-punkers: “…brings the band one conceptual step closer to the mainstream and demonstrates a firm grasp of (and delight in) the genre that previous demi-funk sorties inferred.”

For borrowed start/stop grooving of R&B and homemade rock, this is their most fleshed-out effort… and it was probably their transition point! How many groups pull that off? -Wade