Rock

Black Flag “Damaged” (SST, 1981)

Black_Flag_-_Damaged_coverHow many members burned through Black Flag’s stay on earth? The answer is seventeen in their initial run, which lasted about a decade. Primary songwriter and guitar hero Greg Ginn was the sole lynchpin holding it all together, and as tough a band leader as he was, he wouldn’t outright fire people if they couldn’t meet his vision. Instead they would fall off from exhaustion.

By the time Henry Rollins got on board, they had the hardened vocalist they needed. “Damaged” had been attempted in small stages before, and finally came together in ’81 to change the face of rock and punk forever. The production is a bit muddy but the songs blast through efficiently… And what “punk” songs these are with their tight interplay, tempo changes made on a dime and heavy, Sabbath-heritable interludes with expressive and new noise-to-blues guitar flaying.

Side one has the most recognizable favorites; the opening anthem of “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” “TV Party…” most of the tracks are narrated by damaged characters through Rollins, whether they are abusive macho types, alcoholics, or those pained by them, cops, or existence itself. Though Rollins is channeling these stories written mostly by Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski, he does let loose on side two’s grinding closer “Damaged I,” which he was known to improvise in performance.

But the whole disc is a document that spells the beginning of the end for Rock-as-Field Recording. It’s real, raw as in legitimately raw, and they didn’t take years in a studio assembling it together. Neither would their contemporaries. They kept slugging it out for another half-decade, got heavier, and you about know where Rock picks up from there, Seattleites. -Wade

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

Spirit “Clear” (Ode, 1969)

220px-Spirit_-_Clear-2The original Spirit lineup was the sleeper band of its era, maybe the top LA band from the ’68-’72 span. Their first and fourth albums are acclaimed classics by just about everybody, but this disc is IMHO as good as them. While the roots of jazz rock taken further by Steely Dan’s “Bodhisatva” could be heard on their third album’s “All the Same” this disc has three jazz explorations, with “Ice” and “Caught” being superb instrumental, improvisational tracks.

The Hendrix vibe of the earlier discs is just as evident in “Dark Eyed Woman”, and “So Little Time to Fly” and “Ground Hog” show early signs of the evolving sound that stuck to many on “Dr Sardonicus.” The only stiff on this disc is “Give a Life, Take a Life,” but the bonus tracks on this release more than make up for it: both sides of the “1984” single and several jazzy instrumentals, including a great track called “Eventide” that recalls “Caught.”

Top it all off with maybe the best non-single track on any Spirit disc, “New Dope in Town,” and this is the record that doesn’t get respect it should as a classic disc from a classic band. -Frank

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

Bad Company “Straight Shooter” (Island, 1974)

Straight_shooterBad Company! Their second album from 1975 must have been one of last few kicks of hard rock worth hearing before Punk prompted a reboot on the unending rock culture most record companies contributed to. Bad Company were one of those groups that signed to play stadiums, but luckily they could deliver arena rock goodness with a gifted rhythm section and the emerging “supergroup” status.

Make that a rhythm section with members of Free and King Crimson, plus the management backing and brawn of Led Zep. So there really was no way they could miss during the age of mid-70’s rock. And once “Straight Shooter” arrived, they had their hits fleshed out too; especially on rock radio staples “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Side two also has that coveted “incendiary” guitar work on “Deal With The Preacher.”

“Straight Shooter” is actually pretty light on guitar solo’s and instead weaves six strings through the rhythms on most of the tunes. The mix is clean (not sanitized) and democratic, with guitar heroics set to swing, making this an album to slide next to your ZZ Top collection. But you can probably find this one easier than “Tres Hombres” in a discount bin… Good deal! -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

The Sonics “This Is… The Savage Young Sonics” (Norton, 2001)

This+Is+The+Savage+Young+Sonics+This+is+The+Savage+Young+SonicOh boy! I’m sure most of us are familiar with Tacoma’s pride and joy, The Sonics, but this release is a real special collection of demos. It’s like opening up a shoebox of baby-pics, or popping in a VHS of your kid walking for the first time, then running bases, or putting on a play. Really cute stuff.

That comparison isn’t too far off from the truth either, since it was some of the members Proud-Father recordings that are enclosed. For starters, we have the barely together but pleasant early studio (or living room? Sock-hop?) work of “A-Rab,” and plenty of standards like “Rumble,” “Mashed Potato Time,” “Louie Louie” etc; etc;

Live recordings, radio ads and homemade demos all collected here make for pleasant listening, all of a growing garage band before they had their attack-stances down. And it’s a great time to pick it up, since the Sonics just released their first album after nearly, oh, fifty years. Look at how good they turned out. -Wade

Neil Young “American Stars ‘N Bars” (Reprise, 1977)

American-Stars-n-Bars-thumb-500x500The cover art here was the first thing that caught me. Neil has fallen, his face smooshed down on some glass floor. But from your vantage point you can see all the action above his head; an obscured girl with a bottle, bright stars and crescent moon. Pretty disorienting, and it doesn’t give clues to the content inside…

On this album, Neil stirred up songs that were really intended for other projects and put them on a single platter, making this a looser album made in a pinch. When it was first released that was probably the main gripe of critics, lack of consistency. So, steel guitar and country twang take up a bit of the first side (The Old Country Waltz, Hold Back Your Tears), with spots of heartland rock breaking through (Saddle Up The Palomino, Bite The Bullet). Side two has more of the same; zig zags of country and rock songs, especially the guitar showcase of “Like A Hurricane,” probably his most impressive longplayer after “Cortez The Killer.” Maybe even better. Another great standout on this side is the affecting “Will To Love,” which could put a tear in your beer.

A great smattering of Neil Young material, “American Stars N’ Bars” touches on many a feeling from previous albums like “Zuma” and “On The Beach,” really well at that. I guess he had too many good ideas falling out of his head and this is where they ended up. – Wade

Guided By Voices “Fast Japanese Spin Cycle” (Engine, 1994)

Fast_Japanese_Spin_Cycle_EPReleased the same year as “Bee Thousand” and about a thousand other EPs, “Fast Japanese Spin Cycle” represents a time when Guided By Voices were often on point with their prolific output and produced more hits than misses.

Clocking in at just more than ten minutes, this EP contains some of Robert Pollard’s best pop fragments. Opener “3rd World Bird Watching” begins with only piano and vocal accompaniment of the most perplexing variety. Strangely or maybe logically, the near esoteric quality of Pollards lyrics work fine the more condensed and punchy he keeps his numbers. This continues whether the songs have pop hooks such as with “My Impression Now,” or simply attack in bits like “Snowman.” Repeated listens are easier with shorter track times, so these ditties seem to create pathways in your brain that worm Pollard’s bizarre statements into your mind.

The B-side is even more interesting, with radically altered versions of previously released material. “Marchers in Orange” is less hazy, more rocking, while “Dusted” sounds much more improved in about every way. “Kisses to the Crying Cooks,” part of the medley that opens GBV album “Propeller,” is also acoustic and more poignant.

If there was any time to mine GBV material, most releases from 1994 are still a sure bet. “Fast Japanese Spin Cycle” is the cream of their pop-rock collage crop. – Wade

 

 

Sparks “Propaganda” (Island, 1974)

sparks-propaganda-frontSparks can sort of be seen in a similar light to Queen, although they ape their accents to sound quasi-Brit and ditch solos for lyrical cynicism. Maybe that’s why they have a bit of an underdog quality.

On “Propaganda,” Sparks are instrumentally tough and create simple ditties built around pop piano. The fat is cut with minimal solo’s allowed, so propulsive and repetitive tracks rule, from the mile-a-minute “At Home At Work At Play,” to the tempo-shifting “B.C.” They also make great use of the studio on “Achoo” and “Who Don’t Like Kids,” silly tunes which are grandly displayed. Why weren’t these guys signed to Discreet?

Well, despite lyrics appearing distrustful on some tracks, they were actually earnest sounding on “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” and delivered bonafide pop on “Something For The Girl With Everything.” It’s hard to really put a finger on where Sparks might be placed on your shelf, but I bet it’s somewhere near 10CC and Zappa. Especially this album, since they were still operating in top form as a band in 1974 and had not yet transformed into a New Waver two-piece… Enjoyable! -Wade

Mi Ami “Steal Your Face” (Thrill Jockey, 2010)

mi_ami_0420Two DC boys spawned out of some post-hardcore Dischord zone ended up in San Francisco with their strings and a Michigan-bred drummer in tow. Well into the 21st century, this power trio tapped into dissonant music stylings of all sorts and let it rip with rocked-out fury.

Mi Ami seemed set upon bringing the punk/noise axis a bit closer to dance, free jazz and world music, and if that sounds like it’s a repeat of The Pop Group or DNA or some other post-punk unit, then the description doesn’t quite work. See, what we have here on “Steal Your Face” is not as anti-rockist as those new wave forerunners. Daniel Martin-McCormick’s guitar playing can be a banshee in a snowstorm, or a series of direct hits with a serrated edge. Bassist Jacob Long maneuvers as a strained tightrope while Damon Palermo places his beats in a busy and danceable fashion.

And many of these tracks are danceable; “Latin Lover” is the closest thing to dance floor fodder you’ll find on the disc. Rending guitar shreds at all the right moments to lose your head to while the attacking rhythm onslaught keeps things grounded. But all the while, McCormick’s unique style of singing may be a turn off to some listeners; his vocals send up hardcore flags… Not that you’ve heard a hardcore-kid rip a Whitney Houston lyric before. And he makes his vocal delivery count just as much as his exciting guitar flaying.

Then a churner like “Dreamers” will have you seeing another interesting side to this group, one that has many interesting tangents to explore. Many of the numbers here can be expansive, sparse or confusingly full on first listen, and once collected together under an album dubbed “Steal Your Face,” well… Maybe they are more indebted to fleshing out sound in a manner more similar to the Dead rather than PiL?

Later albums of Mi Ami went sans-bass player and opted for a two man dance operation that’s a very different animal, but their energy and work ethic has spawned many prolific dance projects still ongoing. “Steal Your Face” is their last great statement as a modern power trio. – Wade

The Replacements “Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash” (Twin/Tone, 1981)

The_Replacements_-_Sorry_Ma,_Forgot_to_Take_Out_the_Trash_coverSort of akin to The Minutemen by the way that they shove Americana and classic rock staples into one or two minute bursts early on, The Replacements show hints of what would follow this hardcore-scoped LP. Except instead of using Creedence or Blue Öyster Cult for snatches they channel Johnny Thunders in a way, plus Big Star… but you know that already! What you may not know is that “Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash” holds up well on its own and if they had chosen to stick to this rough-edged (but NOT straight-edge) sorta hardcore aesthetic, they still would have done just fine.

Most of the album sounds like a mess of days gone by full of tedium; boredom leading to speeding, cigarettes and a need for kicks. Case in point: tracks “Takin’ a Ride” and “More Cigarettes” describe those moments of ennui and relief while “I Bought a Headache” shows that the answer isn’t the same each time, not when it comes to instant gratification… You can’t be pleased all the time, folks.

So is this The Replacements wearing hardcore clothes? Nah, it’s more like the core components of what you would hear from them later, stripped down to its bare essentials. Like their crosstown rivals Hüsker Dü, they had to crawl before they could walk and rub shoulders with the hardened punks of the day. This disc is a speedy and satisfying ride that usually gets skipped on the way to “Let It Be” or “Tim.” So turn around and grab this one. You’ll recognize these guys when you put it on and read the liner notes. -Wade