Rock

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

Nick Lowe “Jesus of Cool” (Radar, 1978)

nick loweAfter Nick Lowe broke up with his country-rock/pub band, Brinsley Schwarz, in 1975, he spent a couple of years mainly producing other artists’ work, most notably Elvis Costello’s debut album (he’d go on to produce Costello’s first five albums).

In 1978, Lowe returned to performing with his debut record, also the first album released on the new Radar label. Apparently the title was too much for American audiences, so on this side of the pond, the album was called Pure Pop for Now People. Although that title is pretty lame, it IS somewhat of an apt description for this album. Marking a sharp departure from his work with Brinsley Schwarz, this actually does sound like a missing Costello record.

This is what pop music should sound like. Songs like “Shake and Pop” should be played in every dance club in America. The sound is fresh and could be released today to equal acclaim. Very highly recommended. —Joe

James Brown “Live At The Apollo Vol. II” (King Records, 1968)

3775411By the time this double album hit shops, people were pretty well aware of James Brown the entertainer. But this live album reveals the emergence of James Brown the innovator; his tight work ethic wrung his Famous Flames into one smooth-running combustive engine capable not only of groove but also of vibe.

James Brown and his Famous Flames run through some pretty standard r&b and soul fare on side one with versions of “Think” and “That’s Life” which only hints at what’s to come with chicken scratching guitar lines and Brown’s lockstep vocal commands. Too many changes run the gamut in these numbers to really give the groove for which Brown would become known for with the Flames and later, his J.B.s backing band.

Side two is where the funk becomes prevalent and shows the future course Brown and Co. would be taking. A medley takes up most of this side comprising tracks “Let Yourself Go” “There Was a Time” and “I Feel All Right,” which is presented as one seamless, repetitive groove-maker feeding off of audience participation. Meanwhile, the Famous Flames act as one autonomous unit set to Brown’s strict preferences throughout these performances. Classic cut “Cold Sweat” comes in on command from their funky fuehrer and closes out side two.

The funk continues on side three, but not quite in the same lose-yourself-to-dance futurist vein as the previous side. Classic “I Got You (I Feel Good)” arrives in an incredibly abbreviated 30 second form and opens into the splendid and eventually entrancing “Prisoner of Love.” Side four closes with old familiar numbers leading up to the finale of “Please, Please, Please…”

James Brown really was one of the hardest working and most forward-looking men in show business, and also one of the hardest taskmasters, as evidenced by the near-peerless playing you’ll hear from this document. -Wade

UFO “UFO 2: Flying” (Beacon Records, 1971)

UFO_2-_FlyingTaking a break from all your Free Jazz and Krautrock to dig up some old cheap Hard Rock can often be rewarding. Especially when you pick up an album like UFO’s “Flying”, because the term Hard Rock can be a bit misleading when it comes to finding mind-bending material like this.

The ground these guys cover is just amazing, and that’s not a pun on just how spacey their brand of rock can be. What starts off as a straightforward assault on “Silver Bird” later gives to the nearly twenty minute “Star Storm”, which features some flexible rocking that will make you think Thirteenth Floor Elevators one moment, Ash Ra Temple the next and at one point even Land of 1000 Dances! UFO also used the studio as an instrument to create some serious panning, which makes this record ready for a nice stereo or a good pair of headphones.

If side one doesn’t make you consider that these Brits did just as well as their more hep Avant counterparts in Germany just yet, then keep going. Muted guitar plucks anticipate a proto-punk rhythm section that absolutely sears once they fall in on “Prince Kajuku” and then it’s time to flip to side two.

Strangely, side two starts with “The Coming of Prince Kajuku” which seems a bit backwards, but the rocking here is solid and it’s probably the most direct track on the album… To counterpoint that, you reach the crown jewel of this LP, “Flying”. The track is one long space-blues downer that goes hard and seems set on staying that way… until you hear the cowbell. Studio use with panning is once again prevalent, as well as delay and reverb, but it never handicaps the tune. Quite the opposite. The production throughout this whole record is great as a matter of fact, from the warm full bass tone and crisp cymbals to the often desired incendiary guitar sound that avoids cheese.

Early UFO albums could fall somewhere between Hawkwind and Iron Butterfly, but “Flying” in particular punches in a lot of styles that will definitely surprise. -Wade

Hella “Hold Your Horse Is” (5 Rue Christine, 2002)

a2970431076_10Modern Rock’s possible reality as natural progression post-Hip Hop/Drum and Bass? A product of over-saturated media youth?

Hella fall short of being a traditional rock group by only having two members, but tradition isn’t a relevant factor when the stuff these guys push feels so immediate. Debut album “Hold Your Horse Is” would be as good a place as any to start with their brand of hyper-fast prog rush. An electronic doodle kicks off the album that brings to mind 90’s gaming console sound chips, before the live element crashes through with “Biblical Violence” and from that point never lets up.

To produce the sort of manic nowness of your active day, Hella’s self taught drummer Zach Hill actually uses (in a relative sense) slow punctuated beats… but fills the space between by hitting the skins and cymbals as fast as superhumanly possible, creating a striking sound that’s not start/stop but rather start/gogogogogogo/start et al. While Hill flogs his kit, guitarist Spencer Seim plays spastic melodies, creates strange drones and chips away at you with repetition. And whenever necessary, they make neck-breaking changes. It happens a lot.

As crazed as all this may sound, the overall tone here is not violent or oppressive but rather triumphant, it can be used sonic pick-me-up; like chugging a pot of coffee to get through a heavily scheduled day. Does that help you? “Hold Your Horse Is” is about as focused and concise as their albums get and a solid debut… After this, the duo felt free enough to experiment in more electronic territory and at one point expanded their roster.

This album is near-live instrumental music synced to modern times, man made jams informed by all sorts of media blitzkriegs, and a document that is as good a tool to your life as amphetamine might be, if that’s your drug of choice. -Wade

Savoy Brown “Looking In” (Parrot Records, 1971)

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A British Blues group who were quite good at grooving, “Looking In” would be the last album Savoy Brown would create before half the members jumped ship to join Foghat. That would be their bass player and drummer, essential crew here. So, this album arguably represents Savoy at their best before a major lineup change.

Delivering solid slabs of amplified blues and ascending percussion, Savoy Brown create a pretty uplifting world here. Tracks “Poor Girl” and “Take it Easy” are grooving and easy going affairs that let you remember rock as a more optimistic music before it’s many permutations down the long road of the 70’s.

This idea is reinforced by driving numbers like “Sunday Night” and “Sitting An’ Thinking” which go down smooth, while penultimate rocker “Leavin’ Again” delivers the blues the best way Brits of the time could, and it’s great, full of changes with a nice bass tone throughout. Warm. Strangely, album opener “Gypsy” and closer “Romanoff” are nearly identical, one minute instrumentals that seem to take this hard piece of blues-rock full circle.

This is a nice piece of work, an album full of joyous grooves covered by a light sense of melancholy through some great electric guitar work. Definitely ready for some reassessment. -Wade

 

The Germs “G.I.” (1979)

album_GERMS-GIBring up L.A. Punk to folks without a map or a schematic showing what scene-did-what, and they are likely to tune out. Plenty of great groups came from L.A. but there is a certain point when and where an element of sameness set in after the initial waves of Hardcore, when the rot took hold cross-country and suddenly the genre niche could really bum people out with predictability.

So to clue you in, The Germs were around during the Punk heyday and grew around a suddenly fertile Hollywood scene. While the Hardcore-era film “The Decline of Western Civilization” shows them being monstrous alongside footage of Huntington and Hermosa Beach surf-jock (-jerk) bands, and their equally monstrous fans, the Hollywood area had a particularly dirty n’ glammy, ambiguously sexual thing going on that was just about as exciting as how different a lot of these Hollywood groups sounded (Bags, Screamers, Vox Pop).

Germs recordings past their Slash single and some bootlegs were scarce, and once “G.I.” hit it showed that during their relatively short life, The Germs had grown into an impressive instrumental unit. Once you get past (accept, appreciate) Darby Crash’s inability to annunciate vocals, you can hear that Pat Smear really had guitar chops and that Lorna Doom was a great bass player. Witness “Land of Treason” or “Strange Notes” to see how versatile these kids can be at such breakneck speeds set by drummer Don Bolles, who still leaves room to breathe in his playing despite such velocity / ferocity.

But then if you do bother to bring up lyrics, Darby does bring food for thought on just about every track once you decipher what he’s mush-mouthing about. And hey, how many dime-a-dozen Hardcore bands could come up with “Manimal” or the nearly ten minute “Shut Down (Annihilation Man)?” -Wade

The Grateful Dead “Anthem of the Sun” (1968, Warner Brothers)

Grateful_Dead_-_Anthem_of_the_Sun My uncle was a Deadhead and his home was filled with iconic Dead-stickers set up like markers or beacons around the house. The Dead was on his garage stereo while he worked on his truck, played right alongside Hank Williams Sr. I visited often growing up and so their sound just became part of my make-up.

“Anthem of the Sun” really grabbed me in a way that the Dead never had reached me before, once I gave the album even slight attention. Apparently this record combines live and studio material but I could hardly tell during my first listen. Changes happen often but are usually slight and subtle, until they aren’t, anyway… “That’s it for the Other One” is a perfect example of this, a piece that morphs often but in a way that seems so natural that you can tell all players involved had reached a well composed and relaxed state with each other. “New Potato Caboose” is more of a happy, plodding affair, and if you haven’t noticed yet, two drummers have been banging away since about midway through their first track. That pre-dates Gary Glitter and Swans right?

The real jaw-dropping material comes on the flip side though, with tracks “Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks).” Kazoos and organ sounds open up among churning rhythms going down-river. Drummers studying this record better know that they are hearing two men behind the sticks once the tribal sounds come in. Garcia guitar finally breaks through it all and defines itself until Bob Weir and Phil Lesh come in to fill “Alligator” out. And as far as “Caution” goes, it’s feedback and odd drumming unconcerned with the past or future, going nowhere, yet transcending…

Uh, maintain! -Wade

Grand Funk “Live Album” (1970, Capitol Records)

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The Grand Funk Railroad song that really caught my attention was their cover of The Animals’ “Inside Looking Out.” The interplay between this power-trio that I caught in a live video showed that this was a hard rock band with their shit together; while the group takes you on a journey, there are no pastoral meanderings. The drums brought on by ex-Question Mark and the Mysterians member Don Brewer keep time in a heavy manner and make themselves heard alongside a fat and heavy bass sound distinct only to Mel Schacher, while Mark Farner’s guitar scratches out a practical noise that at that point was already becoming a form distanced from the blues of which it had derived.

That video has since got plenty of repeat viewings. It also led me to their “Live Album” before checking out their debut or any other output, and I’m glad thats how I went about it. Grand Funk’s first three albums, which are fine, have the majority of the cuts you’ll hear on “Live,” but those albums have a democratic mixing that I find never really captured what made them stadium-toppling performers.

The “Live” album on the other hand doesn’t hold back. Here, the drums punch, the bass is REALLY high up there, and Mark’s guitar has more of that practical noise I was talking about, and it’s put to great use. The track “Paranoid” has one of the best bass-lines to ever reach these ears in a rock context, and the guitar here just rips all over it in a way their studio re-creation just couldn’t allow. It’s a rocker! On the flip side (still disc one of this double LP), the Animals’ cover makes its appearance, and it’s long, thirteen minutes or so, but it never lets up or comes across as self indulgent. I actually prefer the nine minute or so live video that turned me on to them in the first place, it’s a bit more compact just because it lacks the repetition of this version, but since you can hear the ecstatic cheers from the audience during this exercise, it comes across as, well, grand.

On side three, after the ballad of “Mean Mistreater,” the drums get a real showcase, heading off the great track “Mark Say’s Alright” and getting a very long solo session workout on “T.N.U.C.” Things are looking pretty self indulgent on this side, but once again it’s the audience reaction that saves them during these extended live renditions (not jams).

Side four is taken up completely by the triumphant “Into The Sun.” Can you make it this far? In our YouTube/Blogger/Spotify addled universe you probably can’t realistically sit through a live double LP in one sitting and give it the proper attention you believe it might deserve, but the audience here seems like they didn’t mind standing in whatever stadium this was recorded in (it’s under dispute as to where exactly this recording came from, despite what it says on the back cover) for more than an hour of pretty solid rockin’. So they did all the work for you!

The best part about coming across a Grand Funk “Live” album is that while they were one of the largest bands of the Seventies, hardly anyone needs to go spelunking for this hard rock stuff anymore on vinyl, so you can find it pretty cheap! Also, in the space between songs, Mark Farner says some pretty funny stuff. So save that cash, brothers and sisters, avoid the latest obscure world music reissue and pick this puppy up! -Wade