Category Archives: Podcast

THE STORY BEHIND THE ALBUM: The Ruby Sea by Thin White Rope

Originally released in 1991 by esteemed indie label Frontier (and distributed via RCA), the Cali outfit’s fifth studio album may not have sold bucketloads, but it was still filled to the brim with powerful, tuneful rock subversion and resilient emotional fortitude. With a key reissue program now underway for the guitar band, now is an apt time to examine what made Thin White Rope so special—and, for many of us out here in the Amerindie-rock hinterlands, so beloved.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

In 1991 Thin White Rope set about to record their critically acclaimed album The Ruby Sea, which would subsequently be released on Frontier Records. Hailing from Davis, California, the band were able to hone their unique blend, of punk, country and rock into a deeply satisfying record that at times has a ferocious intensity, punctuated by a stark and lonely widescreen sentimentality. The album feels like the equivalent of driving all day, looking for accommodations in a tiny two-horse town and then hitting the local roadhouse for a cold beer. With a Miller in hand, you and the three other patrons witness a band play a show so devastating that you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon America’s best kept secret. I’ve spent the last quarter century evangelizing to friends about how they need to own a copy of The Ruby Sea. I’m gearing up for the next 25.

I’m from the Southwest—the starry sky, the sunsets, and the panoramas ‘round each bend permeate my dreams and have worked their way into my DNA. What Thin White Rope accomplished on this album was to create an aural roadmap of their world.

Guy Kyser’s vocals are part-crazed gold rush preacher, the other part a tortured balladeer. I’ll say this, though: No one conveys the American west quite like he does. Listening to the stormy swirls his voice creates, you can feel the sand stripping the enamel on your teeth, which makes for quite a harrowing journey. Meanwhile, Roger Kunkel’s deft guitar playing is both gritty and full of nuanced layers. The album had critical hosannas thrown at it from certain sectors of the British press as well as the likes of CMJ, not to mention the Amerindie fanzine underground. It proved to be an antidote of sorts to the laughable haircuts and poor song-smithery that plagued “alternative music” at the time.

All one has to do is listen to opener “The Ruby Sea,” where the muscular drums and angular, aggression laced guitar work is cut with Kyser’s haunted vocals, to get a sense that you’re heading to a place riddled with emotional potholes. Cherry-picking my way through the album, “Puppet Dog” has the feeling of making several wrong turns in some rural backwater unable to find your way to civilization; the beginning of the song, with its childlike dreaminess, quickly turns troubled, the key then changes, and Kyser sings “Puppet dog, whoever made you years ago, knew how bad I’d needa friend. Puppet dog, your felt red mouth and bells for eyes, scare the devils off again.” It’s an amazing track that threads the listener through the needle into another person’s world. “The Lady Vanishes” is an evocative number that, in the space of two brief minutes, transports us deeper into Kyser’s haunted world. “Hunter’s Moon” is the album’s centerpiece, a story of longing, pursuit and ultimately redemption, that by its end of it will either have you stomping your foot or waving your fist in the air. “Christmas Skies” is a wistful country ballad that tells the story of a ghost who’s recalling Christmas as a child. I recall being drawn into the song’s orbit late one night in my Fudan University dorm room, where it transported me a million miles away from my Chinese reality to somewhere familiar and friendly, and it’s these distilled yet brief moments, punctuated throughout the record, that make it such an immense pleasure to listen to.

Then there’s “The Fish Song,” which is hands down one of the most kickass songs ever laid down by the band. Its menacing vocals, stretched over a relentless pounding rhythm, is cinematic in scope and a one two punch to the cranium. Once you hear this song you feel like you can take on the world. “The Clown Song”, which closes the record, is another brief, yet very powerful, song. Kyser sings, “Seems I have been a clown more than a friend/ A clockwork response to tokens you spend/ And when you stop and when I run down/ I’m frozen and cannot escape from the clown.”

The album takes the listener on a tense, turmoil-filled journey, its emotional heft being one of the reasons why it has never left my side. I find myself still unable to completely comprehend the power of The Ruby Sea—which is why I’m hooked. While I mourn the fact that the band no longer exists, I believe that their musical catalog will only continue to add new legions of fans as people discover their immense talent.

I managed to hunt down lead singer/guitarist Guy Kyser and guitarist Roger Kunkel to give BLURT readers the skinny on the making of the album. Guy, in an email to me, said they answered my questions “Rashomon Style” (Kurosawa fans please take note).

Roger has also offered BLURT an exclusive link to hear the band’s demo from November 21, 1982 which until now has never been released; the four songs on the demo, originally preserved on cassette and recorded by the late Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family fame, are “Not Your Fault,” “Macy’s Window,” “Soundtrack,” and “Black Rose.”

In my quest for extra archival material, I got in touch with Frontier Records head honcho Lisa Fancher, who offered up her own perspective on the album as well as an exclusive track for Blurt readers from the forthcoming remastered release of The Ruby Sea.

So please check out the interviews that follow, and while you’re at it, chew on this bit of news: Frontier Records has announced that the band’s first five albums will be reissued on heavy-weight 180-gram colored vinyl. (Which should only worsen my editor’s very public vinyl porn addiction.) (Ya got that right, brutha. Just put in my orders, in fact. —Vinyl Ed.) The first two LPs, 1985’s Exploring the Axis and 1987’s Moonhead, are already out, with the rest to follow later this year. Click the link for details; note that ordering the vinyl—including special edition mail-order-only editions—also gets you an immediate digital download. Each title will also be available to order on CD or as a download.

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(Below: screen shots from a video of the band performing in 1992 at the Roskilde Fest)

THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH GUY KYSER AND ROGER KUNKEL

BLURT: Where and when was The Ruby Sea (TRS), recorded?

Roger Kunkel: Fidelity Studios, Studio City, CA which is near Universal Studios, east end of Ventura Blvd. We’d worked in that area before at a different studio for the Moonhead and Spanish Cave records.

Who produced and mixed the record?

RK: The producer was Bill Noland of Wall of Voodoo and Human Hands. The engineer’s name was Dave Lopez. This was in May of 1991.  Interesting side note: Originally, Butch Vig wanted to produce the record. It was before he was hired to produce Nirvana’s Nevermind. He wanted us to come to his studio in Madison, but we weren’t keen on spending a few weeks in Wisconsin, and we decided to do it in LA where we knew people and could have a good time while being there. By the time we were in LA, we’d heard that Butch was doing the Nirvana record in LA at the same time. Since they’d been signed to Geffen and had a big budget, they flew him out. It happened that we were friends with their manager, John Silva, so he introduced us and even suggested we make guest appearances on each other’s albums. That didn’t happen because neither group was excited about the idea. We did go out to a Butthole Surfers show and got quite drunk together. Remember, at this time they were just another indie band. Months later that changed quickly.

What were you guys listening to back then? Any of those bands influence your direction on this record?

Guy Kyser: I must’ve been listening to a lot of Wire. I don’t recall trying to sound like them but looking back I can really hear the influence. Roger introduced me to a lot of country music over time, so there’s that. And of course, we had that Velvet Underground trying to sneak in there.

RK: We always had a wide breadth of influences largely older stuff from the blues, country worlds. Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, Slim Harpo (One of Guy’s favorites). Also, the classic late 60’s rock stuff: Stooges, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Can, Sabbath. Newer bands: Pixies, the Fall, Wire.  This record I think was focused on Guy’s poetic visions of landscapes and loss. The Country influence is fully uncloaked, at least on a couple of tracks, but mostly I feel the record was just twr without conscious outside influences.

What do you recall about the recording sessions, was it a smooth process, or were there debates about the direction of some of the songs?

 GK: The songs were pretty much complete, but we hadn’t had a chance yet to listen to some of the details from the outside, so to speak… so sometimes during the recording we’d discover things that didn’t work. For example, there was one place in “Up To Midnight” where our guitars seemed to be in conflict, rhythmically, and we had to isolate the tracks and figure out who was throwing things off (it was me, hah!).

RK: Most songs were pretty well worked out beforehand. We had our preferred methods of recording by this time. We knew we wanted a more polished end result this time around. There were some debates about drums. Matt wanted huge sounding drums. I like drums to sound natural and more 60’s where they sit in the mix instead of summon the ​Valkyries with thunder, so I wasn’t happy with that.

What was the hardest song to nail for the record?

GK: For me it was “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. Those are simple country-style songs but very difficult to get an authentic feel out of them. I had trouble playing with just the right amount of swing.

RK: Honestly, it’s hard to remember, but I think Hunter’s Moon took some time. It was one that wasn’t fully baked arrangement wise. The build of it started to become apparent and we worked from there to create a steady build that, I think imparts the idea of inevitability.

(Below: producer Bill Nolan and engineer Dave Lopez’ session tracking notes)

Can you guys speak to how you went about recording the record, were things worked out in the studio or did you have skeletons of ideas ready?

GK: We always had limited studio time when recording, so we did most of the arranging beforehand. Depending on what instruments and effects the studio might have available, we would add things just for the hell of it. Like, there’s a piano here – let’s use it on the break in “The Fish Song”. Or the producer knows where to rent a guitarrón – might be a good sound for “Christmas Skies”.

RK: Guy reserved a few tunes to do in a way that would set them apart. Christmas Skies and Dinosaur.  I don’t think we’d worked on them much as a band before the recording. And The Clown Song he did solo.

Guy, did you have lyrics worked out in advance or was this something you altered as the song took shape in the studio? Where were you pulling from emotionally when you created some of these songs?

GK: The lyrics were all written beforehand, except “The Clown Song” which was composed during the recording session. I wrote several of the songs & lyrics during a short road trip I took to get away from work, the band, and everything. I got good and lonesome, wandered the hills by night, and somehow got poison oak on my privates. But came home with songs.

How many songs were recorded for the album and if any were left off what became of them?

GK: All the songs we recorded for the album went onto the album. We may have recorded a couple extras for a later EP, but there were also a couple of EP-only recording sessions around that time and I don’t remember which track came out of which session.

RK: We did a couple other tracks in this studio with Bill Noland, but I think it was a separate session. One was “Burn the Flames” for a Roky Erickson tribute album. And two tracks for a Byrds tribute album.

Was there a concept for the album before you all started to record it?

GK: Not really, except that “The Ruby Sea” and “The Fish Song” were both kind of water-related… we did joke around that this might help counteract our desert image.

There’s a wonderful western vibe that permeates the record, can you guys talk about how where you’re from has influenced the music on TRS?

GK: For me, a lot of it comes down to movies. Geography predisposed me to like Westerns, so I got infatuated with Morricone’s scores. [I] also was a big fan of Marty Robbins’ Outlaw Ballads. Onearlier albums, not so much on Ruby Sea, we went through phases of trying to create the ultimate Western Tune. This was fun, but we got a reputation as a ‘desert band’ which came to seem like a millstone sometimes.

RK: That was pretty much always part of the band’s DNA. It didn’t always show up, but Guy, our original bassist, Steve Tesluk, and myself were all classic country and blues fans.

Were all of the songs written specifically for the record or had some been around during other records and you decided to finally include them on this album?

GK: All the songs were written just for this album. Except, kind of, “Tina and Glen”… that song was an idea I’d been kicking around for about 10 years, but I could never make it work until I decided to throw out most of the lyrics and make it an instrumental.

What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was written that was on the record?

GK: See [previous question]. “Tina and Glen” was based on a time when my motorcycle broke down on Highway 99 in central California and I had to spend the night in a farm shed. The host family had two kids whose names were… wait for it…

Who came up with the running order for the album?

GK:I remember that as a collaborative effort. I did want to have “Fish” & “Clown” last, though.

How long did the recording of the album take?

GK: I think it was 4 or 5 days recording, maybe 3 days mixing.

RK: I believe it was two weeks, which was typical for us.

When the album was finally in the can, what was the feeling when you guys finally heard the finished work?

GK: Hard to describe. I had a deep feeling of accomplishment and was very happy with the album, but there was some sadness mixed in because it felt like an ending. I also had a dawning realization that neither this album nor any other we were likely to make was going to see enough success to make us a self-sustaining band. Maybe that is partly hindsight.

RK: A little mixed. It’s also hard to accept that a work is done and is what it’s going to be. When you’re working in a high-end studio and your listening off of two-inch tape through the world’s greatest monitors, things sound so impressive that you can lose a little perspective.

Did you hold a record release party to celebrate?

GK: I think we all went home and slept for a week.

RK: Nothing real formal that I remember. We just started a long tour, as usual.

Who created the cover art?

GK: Our friend Clay Babcock, an artist who lives in LA. He grew up in the same desert town I did, and I’ve known him since second grade or so.

The album was released on LP, cassette and CD on Frontier Records. What about in Europe? Was the album licensed to any labels and did they press up their own editions? Was there a special mix done for the Frontier LP edition?

RK: I don’t think any special mixes or masters were made. Frontier had a distribution deal with BMG at that time, so I think the European product was the same as the US. Earlier records were produced by Demon Records (UK) and distributed by Rough Trade in Europe.

How did the album sell in the US and in Europe?

RK: I don’t know the numbers. I know it wasn’t enough to get us into the black and making money.

Did you record any of the shows you did touring the record?

GK: I don’t remember recording any shows during the official Ruby Sea tour, but we did a final tour the following year and recorded & released the entire final show (The One That Got Away). I was really proud of that recording, a 2-hour-show, it sounded pretty tight.

RK: Of course, there’s the final concert which became The One that Got Away. That was a very good multitrack recording of our last ever show in Ghent, Belgium. It may actually be my favorite twr recording.

Set-list ise, did you play all of the songs at one point or another live or were there some that you never played at all in a live setting?

GK: I don’t think we ever performed “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. “Dinosaur” was too quiet and too dependent on sound processing. We might have done “The Lady Vanishes” and “Up to Midnight” once or twice, when we could get a guest vocalist.

RK: Some were never played (I think): Dinosaur, Christmas Skies (maybe).

What were the core songs from this album that were played in almost every set at the time?

GK: “The Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glen”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “The Fish Song”, “The Clown Song”. Sometimes “Puppet Dog”.

RK: “Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glenn”, “[The] Fish [Song]”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “Puppet Dog”.

I recall reading a glowing review in Melody Maker at the time and wondered given that this was at the height of the Manchester movement, how did audiences react to your music?

GK: I don’t think anyone was comparing us with the Smiths… I think we were considered rustic headbangers from an uncivilized part of the world, not particularly stylish or trendy. But most of our shows in north-central English cities were well-attended and enthusiastic.

RK: We had a steadily growing following in England, I really enjoyed touring there. We played the Reading Festival on our last trip.

On a blog written by Michael Compton he mentions that, “One of the three weekly music newspapers in England, Melody Maker, took a strong liking to us, but because of that, the other two, Sounds and New Musical Express, decided that we weren’t to be bothered with.” What was it like being in that situation for the band, and how did it affect Demon records ability to promote you guys?  Any anecdotes you wish to add regarding the petulant British press?

GK: I don’t know how it affected Demon, but it was kind of a roller coaster for us. The British scene had a lot of infighting, a lot of bands currying favor with this or that fanzine. And we’d get an interview with someone from one of the “other” papers, the interview would go great, and then the piece would be printed with a negative slant. One guy in particular, who was kind of a trendsetter, would mention us only so that he could go on to talk about bands he liked better. Usually American Music Club. For which I bear them no ill will.

RK: I guess on the first couple of trips there we were a kind of secret cool band that MM would write about. We had a few packed shows in small venues that were a lot of fun. NME did a spread with a picture at Stonehenge, so they didn’t ignore us. I don’t recall any bad reviews, but maybe I was oblivious to them.

Who did you guys tour with in Europe for TRS shows?

GK: I’m fuzzy on the timelines – may have been for earlier albums – but we did several shows with the Pixies (mostly Netherlands), the Walkabouts (Germany), and Babes in Toyland (Austria). On our last two tours we played festivals (Reading 1991, Roskilde 1992) with lineups including Iggy Pop, Nirvana, and lots of other acts.

RK: We seldom did shows in support of another band, at least not a string of shows. We had a great show with the Pixies in Rotterdam. We play the Reading and the Roskilde festivals, with so many great bands: Nirvana, Blur, Sonic Youth, American Music Club, even Townes Van Zandt.

 Tell me how “Hunter’s Moon” came about. I can only imagine that this song must’ve detonated the room when it was played live. Was this song a fixture of your sets back then?

GK: Yes, this was one of our standards. This song is a very literal transcript from my road trip. I like how simple it is, and there’s something sort of backwards about the chord sequence.

The “Fish Song” hits hard with a biblical one-two punch to the gut. What was the genesis (no pun intended) of this song?

GK: TFS is based on a short, near-miss relationship. I turned it into a kind of Moby Dick story, minus the wooden leg.

Since Thin White Rope, what have the two of you been doing musically?

GK: After TWR I was in a band called Mummydogs with my wife and other Davis musicians. We made one album but didn’t tour.  One track was used in the Las Vegas campaign for “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Then I played banjo in bluegrass bands with Roger and others, doing the farmers market circuit.

RK: In the 90s I had an eclectic instrumental band called the Acme Rocket Quartet. We made 3 CDs but didn’t tour. (Own those records as wel! -Archival Ed.) I sometimes still hear it as transition music on NPR. I got into bluegrass and old time playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar. Guy and I had a gigging bluegrass band going for a while called Doc Holler. I studied computer science in college. Currently, I play telecaster in a honkytonk, classic country band called Mike Blanchard and the Californios. I’m also occasionally in a band called Toadmortons. We are currently working on a new album. I have a casual acoustic duo called the Smoke Shovelers. I’m interested in solo guitar lately and I’m hoping to record that and make my first solo album this year.

What do you guys do for day jobs?

GK: During the day I am a specialist with UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, doing research on management of invasive plants in rangeland and natural areas.

RK: I’ve worked for UC Davis for 18 years now.

Now that Frontier Records is slated to release your back catalog, how does it feel looking back on the albums you guys created? (Details on the reissues: https://frontierrecords-thinwhiterope.bandcamp.com)

GK:  I haven’t thought too much about the back catalog, but I’m glad to see Moonhead rereleased because for some reason I didn’t have a copy. The oldest songs sound pretty adolescent to me – I’m glad they’re out there but it’s like they were written by a different person.

RK : My favorite TWR recordings have been Moonhead, Sackful, and the covers we did. However, they all have their endearing qualities. I went a long time not listening to any. I’m hearing that the remasters are really good, so I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with them.

What place does The Ruby Sea hold for you guys when considering your whole discography?

GK: The best songs on Ruby Sea are my favorites from the whole band’s career, but there are some weak spots too.

Any possibility that you guys would ever pull the band back together for some one-off shows or even a new record?

GK:  I would feel pretty uncomfortable trying to revisit stuff I was doing in my twenties…

RK: A TWR reunion has been discussed before but seems unlikely.

Below: Roger Kunkel unearthed photos from a very early studio demo session featuring the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) producing. Pictured are Scott Miller, Kevin Staydohar on bass, Guy Kyser with lambchops, Roger Kunkel “standing around” and Jozef Becker on drums. The third photo is of Kunkel’s cassette of the Nov. 21, 1982, four-song session.

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THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH LISA FANCHER OF FRONTIER RECORDS

BLURT: Please describe your role at Frontier Records for our readers?

Lisa Fancher: I founded Frontier Records in 1980 and I still own the label and run it with the indispensable Julie Masi.

How did The Ruby Sea sell?

LF: Not terribly well, none of their records sold particularly well compared to the Frontier punk titles, but TWR is my legacy band and I’m desperately interested in the entire world discovering their greatness.

How many pressings have there been of the vinyl?

LF: The LP was pressed once when I was with BMG, I never made more.

Were there differences between the Frontier edition and European pressings?

LF: There were no differences between US and UK editions, no.

What’s your opinion of the record in relation to their entire catalog?

LF: I can find no fault in anything that TWR ever did, so I can’t really be objective where it stands. It was the further evolution of Guy’s songwriting, trying to branch out more musically, and also signaling the end of his desire to be in band, and to live a life in one place with Johanna. That’s what I get from it… I’m just sad because it’s TWR last studio album!

Did Frontier finance the recording?

LF: Yes. The only record paid not paid for by me was Sack Full of Silver, I did a licensing deal with RCA Records.

What was your reaction the first time you heard the finished recording?

LF: I was there most of the time while they recorded [The] Ruby Sea and much of the time when Noland mixed it. I was giddy with awe, still am.

What’s your favorite and least favorite track on the record?

LF: I have no least favorite track, but “The Fish Song” is probably my favorite.

When the album came out what was the general reaction you were getting?

LF: It’s hard to remember if there was a negative reaction, I don’t think so. TWR had their fervent journalist fans but had a hard time taking it to the next level of “success”, whatever that is. Decades later the critics all jerk off to the Black Angels and Floorian etc., [who] owe so much to TWR sonically. I think the response would have been more shrill in terms of SUPPORT THIS BAND, DAMN YOU if writers knew that it was their last album, TWR’s greatness was very much taken fo granted.

Was there a difference between how the British press reacted to the album versus the US music press?

LF: The US press was not terribly enthusiastic overall though the band did have strong support in the fanzine and Alternative Press-size magazine world. SPIN was an early backer, but then when it got super corporate, they turned their backs. I could have spent a billion advertising dollars but writers either got the band or they didn’t. In the UK, there’s not this pressure for pay to play, so there was always unabashed raves in Melody Maker and Sounds and large, crazed audiences. When Guy appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, I thought I would die from pride! NME didn’t have much time for TWR because the other two papers loved them, but that’s okay. They never did a Peel session either, it’s time I got over these things.

I know that a remastered edition is slated to come out; who’s doing the remastering? Will there be any expanded liner notes and or art used on the remastered release?

LF: Exploring the Axis and Moonhead were re-released on 3/9/18 and the other three studio records will come out in the coming months. If these reissues do okay, then I’ll consider a definitive odd and ends record and remastering the double live LP.

Paul duGré does all my remastering, he’s an absolute shaman with guitar-based rock. When you hear the re-releases, you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s possible to hear things on these versions that were inaudible on the previous versions. No, they are not expanded versions in terms of art or notes because I tried to keep them at the original price, so people would buy them without hesitation. Changing packaging and added booklets, etc., make the price go up by many dollars. We did put Guy’s lyrics in the LPs, they were previously only available as a booklet to fan club members.

Is the band involved with the remastering?

LF: They were not.

(Below, original 1991 Frontier press release for the album.)

Any anecdotes good or bad related to this record that you care to share?

LF: I will save those memories for when I write my book. All of [them] drank excessively after the sessions but they were total pros in [the] studio, no matter how hungover. I tried to get Kurt Cobain to play guitar on a song or sing on “The Fish Song” as the band was making Nevermind in the valley, but it was vetoed by his people even though he was a big fan. I think perhaps a few more people would have bought [The]Ruby Sea if it was sanctioned by Kurt!

Any future TWR projects slated for release on Frontier?

LF: I’ll have to wait and see how the reissues go as I need funds to do more, but I certainly hope so– now or anywhere in the future. Guy knows that I’d have a stroke if he ever wrote a new TWR song and/or if he formed a new band of any kind. (He briefly had a bluegrass band with Roger and I drove up to SF alone the instant that I heard they were playing!) My most fervent dream in life is that Guy will return to music, but mostly I want him to be happy in life whether it includes writing or playing music. It’s just that I’d like for Guy and Roger to finally get their due, something Guy could care less about, I’m sure!

(Below: Photos of the tape reel box details for The Ruby Sea, courtesy Frontier)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROCKIN’ IS MA BUSINESS: Blurt’s Rock & Roll Roundup Pt.4

And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock, and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. Go HERE to read Dr. Denim’s first installment of the series, HERE for Pt. 2, and HERE for Pt. 3. Pictured above: Sweet Apple. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)

BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND

Everything singer/guitarist John Petkovic touches seems to turn to rock, from Death of Samantha to Cobra Verde to his current project Sweet Apple. The latter quartet seems like the culmination of his vision to date, putting postpunk, glitter rock, power pop and old-fashioned hard rock through Petkovic’s own special filter and coming out gold. Sing the Night in Sorrow (Tee Pee), the third LP from Sweet Apple, practically shivers with barely-repressed energy, focusing all of Petkovic’s loves into a potent rush to the rock & roll finish line. The tough “World I’m Gonna Leave You,” epic “Candles in the Sun” and sky-kissing “She Wants to Run” enliven the rock radio of our dreams, while “A Girl and a Gun” – a duet with Rachel Haden – and the album closing “Everybody’s Leaving” reclaim the slow song from power ballad territory beautifully.  If Sweet Apple sounds a little more like Cobra Verde than on previous platters, that’s no surprise, given that CV co-axeman Tim Parnin and former DoS/CV slinger Doug Gillard share six-string duties. Not that it matters, as Sing the Night in Sorrow keeps the rock & roll faith as well as any other record Pektovic’s captained – which is to say as well as any contemporary rock record extant.

Boston seems like it should be a town too intellectual and gentile to kick out any jams, but plenty of balls-out rawk has come from that town. The latest addition to the ranks is Justine & the Unclean, a rip-snorting quartet of glam/punk/power pop/garage rockers that never met a six-string hook they didn’t like. Get Unclean (Rum Bar), the band’s debut, keeps the melodies strong and the attitude sneering on cracking tunes like “Love Got Me Into This Mess,” “Worry Stone” and the self-explanatory “I’m in Love With You, Jackass.” Fans of Nikki & the Corvettes and the NY Loose should just line right up.

Further to the west, Stars in the Night (Rum Bar), the second LP from Milwaukee trio Indonesian Junk, plays up the streetwise side of its protopunk/power pop cocktail. “Turn to Stone,” “Nosferatu” and “I Would Never Treat You Like That” streamline the band’s sound down to its essence, with bash-it-out rhythms pushing unvarnished rock licks and Daniel James’ inelegantly wasted sneer. Meanwhile, L.A. gutter rockers Dr. Boogie drop a deuce with new single “She’s So Tuff”/”Peanut Butter Blues” (Spaghttey Town). The A-side’s streetwise glitter rock contrasts nicely with the B’s Stonesy roar, the connecting thread being Chris P.’s angry rasp and the band’s dedication to riff and groove. The East Coast re-represents with New Yorkers Dirty Fences’ third slab Goodbye Love (Greenway), a dizzily catchy collection of rockers, rollers and rompers that crossbreed Midwestern power pop with Lower East Side street rock. If the feverish opener  “All You Need is a Number” doesn’t do it for ya, the Christine Halladay duet “One More Step” or the delirious pop tune “Blue Screen” just might.


The legendary status of the Raspberries in the power pop community obscures the fact that the Cleveland band was quite popular during their early 70s heyday, regularly lobbing hit singles into the charts. Regardless of standing in the nebulous cloud of the music industry, the original quartet reunited in the first decade of the new millennium to show the young whippersnappers how it was done during the years when the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who were their only role models. Pop Art Live (Omnivore) captures a fiery gig from 2004 in front of a hometown crowd, all four original members included. Eric Carmen’s voice no longer hits the gloriously throat-shredding heights of the band’s glory days, but that’s no crime – age comes to us all, after all – and it otherwise retains its melodic power. The band backs him as if they couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle, making it clear that this reunion was done as much out of love as any financial incentive. Running enthusiastically through the catalog, the ‘berries reminds us just how many gems they’ve polished – not just the hits (“I Wanna Be With You,” “Overnight Sensation,” “Tonight,” a titanic, show-closing “Go All the Way”), but lesser-known, equally fine cuts like “Makin’ It Easy,” “I Can Remember” and “Nobody Knows.” Add in a couple of songs by Raspberries precursors the Choir and some filler from the Beatles catalog and it’s a power pop party. Plus it’s a double live album like the days of old.

Seattle’s Knast falls on the more psychedelic end of power pop on its debut Reckless Soul (Casual Audio Group Ltd). That mainly means some extra echo and tremolo here and there and some obvious affection for the 80s British psych pop scene, but the focus remains squarely on the songs and hooks. Which works out well for the Knast – whether the band is kicking up dust with “Side Effects” and “Sold Out,” getting sardonic with “Fight or Flight” and “Situation Vacant,” or just being a sparkling pop band on “Here and There” and “Time Out of Mind,” it knows just how to handle a catchy melody with taste and verve. The fellow Pacific Northwesterners of Date Night With Brian add a 90s alt.rock flare to the efficiently composed and performed tunes on its self-titled EP (Top Drawer). Five songs in eleven minutes, not a one less than immediately catchy and appealing.

The garage rocking Juliette Seizure and the Tremor Dolls (who win this month’s “Best Band Name” contest) find that revered sweet spot between Nuggets-powered punk and girl gang pop on Seizure Salad (Off the Hip), the Australian sextet’s second record. The blurry production doesn’t suit the band’s harmonies, but these songs are powered by attitude more than expertise, making the grungy “Stink,” the hooky “Imagination” and the rocking “Take What You Want” more representative than attempts to be like an edgier Shangri-La’s. Nice tip of the hat to Dead Moon with “Be My Fred Cole,” by the way. Detroit-to-L.A.’s intrepid Singles have kept on keepin’ on since the early ‘aughts, refusing to die no matter how many years go between albums. Sweet Tooth (Grimy Goods), the trio’s fourth LP, keeps the faith of prior platters, with stripped down power pop hearkening back to the late 70s glory years of the Plimsouls and their brethren/sistren. Stuffed with hooks and youthful verve, “Voodoo,” “If You Want Me, You Can Have Me” and “Masterpiece” effortlessly bring smiles with every turn of the melodies.

Chattanooga’s Mark “Porkchop” Holder clearly has no time to waste, as he’s already followed up his debut album from earlier in 2017 with Death and the Blues (Alive), picking up right where he left off. Though the former member of Black Diamond Heavies is no amateur, Holder is sort of the anti-cracker blues cracker bluesman – he skips displays of six-string virtuosity typical of Clapton/Vaughan acolytes and just goes for the gut. Whether he’s admonishing haters with the heavy “What’s Wrong With Your Mind,” gets a little frightening with the anthemic “Be Righteous” or just rocks like a motherfucker on “Coffin Lid,” Holder and his backup duo burrow right down to the bone. Speaking of blues grunge, Indiana’s Left Lane Cruiser hit a new high (yes, we see what we did there) with 2015’s Dirty Spliff Blues, and while latest album Claw Machine Wizard (Alive) takes a bit of a step back as the band goes back to being a duo, its raunchy punked-up blues roils unabated. “Lately” boogies, “Burn Em Brew” boils and the title track bashes, powered, as always by guitarist/vocalist Freddy J IV’s filthy slide and backwoods bark.

 

Five Horse Johnson plows much the same furrow as Cruiser, but if the latter uses a rake and a hoe, the musclebound Toledo quintet prefers a backhoe and occasional dynamite to make the earth move. Jake Leg Boogie (Small Stone), the band’s eighth album, pulls from the heavy rawness of the early years while keeping the songwriting progression of recent albums, making “Ropes and Chains,” “Cryin’ Shame” and “Daddy Was a Gun” masterclasses in powerhouse blues rock. Best of all, “Hard Times” gets political without being preachy – it’s too busy rocking your soul for that. Berlin’s Travelin Jack (pictured above) weave a carpet out of threads sewn from bluesy grit, hard rock stomp and glam, then dirties that rug up with platform boots on its second album Commencing Countdown (Steamhammer/SPV). Guitarist Floy the Fly drives the tracks with riffs that mix in-your-face theaterics and a soulful feel, but it’s vocalist Alia Spaceface who takes center stage with her leathery howl. Hit up the menacing “Fire,” the anthemic “Time” and the blazing “Keep On Running” and get your 70s rockstar air guitarspew on.

Australian James McCann did time in the original lineup of the Drones and its predecessor Gutterville Splendor Six, so you know the dude’s got chops, attitude and credibility to spare. But even if he didn’t, Gotta Lotta Move – Boom! (Off the Hip), his sixth album and second with his backing combo The New Vindictives, would rule. Like his former bands, McCann has a grounding in the blues, but no reverence for its traditions – he’s more interested in feel than form. For the latter the singer/guitarist goes back to his punk rock youth, bashing out blazing bruisers like  “Lies Start Here,” “Tar On the Lip” and the blast-tastic title track like a man with nothing to lose and a lot to prove. “Sheena Says” boasts the kind of pop hook you’d expect from a song with a girl’s name followed by “Says,” while “Nick’s Song” drags countrified balladry through the bloodsoaked dust of the scene of a shootout. McCann pays tribute to a couple of vets along the way, co-penning, singing and guitaring “I Can Control Your Mind” with Wet Taxis/Sacred Cowboys/solo slinger Penny Ikinger and covering erstwhile Beasts of Bourbon/Johnnys guitarist/songwriter Spencer P. Jones’ “What is Life in Jail.” The real punk blues indeed. (Toland, you had me at “Australian.” I’m in love, L-U.V. — Oz Ed.)

The roots rocking Flat Duo Jets have often been cited as a big influence on Jack White and his perception of what a rock & roll duo could be. People forget, however, that the North Carolina combo was a trio when it made its full-length vinyl debut. The band’s self-titled first album came out in 1990 on former R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt’s short-lived label Dog Gone, and was M.I.A. for years. The double disk Wild Wild Love (Daniel 13) rescues that LP from oblivion, adding the Jets’ 1985 cassette-only EP In Stereo and a plethora of outtakes from the original Flat Duo Jets sessions. The addition of bass grounds singer/guitarist Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow a bit, reigning in their wild-eyed Reagan-era rockabilly just enough to make it surge with power, like a tightly-coiled spring. Covers of the usual early rock suspects (Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson) sidle up to a handful of originals, but the real surprises come in the outtakes. Besides the rockabilly and R&B, Romweber knocks out the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne,” the ridiculous but challenging “Bumble Bee Boogie” and Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s gypsy jazz classic “Minor Swing.” It’s a reminder that Romweber is not, and has never been, a primitive, but a musician of unheralded skill.

 

Tom Heyman’s rock & roll creds are impeccable due to his membership in the long-gone, much-missed Go To Blazes. He’s kept more to a rootsy singer/songwriter vibe since then, but Show Business, Baby (Bohemian Neglect), his fourth album, pulls some of his mojo back in. Like a stripped-down Tom Petty, Heyman lets “Show Business,” “All Ears” and “Baby Let Me In” get loose ‘n’ lively like John Fogerty jamming with the 70s Stones. Boston’s Dirty Truckers get more medieval on roots rock’s ass with latest EP Tiger Stripes (Rum Bar). “Human Contact” and “Feedback” sound like they come from a lost mid-period Replacements album. Leader Tom Baker proved his rock & roll bonafides with this year’s Lookout Tower via his other band the Snakes, and Tiger Stripes upholds the same virtues: melody + energy = coooool.

Any punk knows the SoCal milieu in the early 80s was a thriving thrash & roll metropolis equal to the 70s scenes in New York, Detroit and the U.K. Symbol Six didn’t attain the same repute as peers like the Adolescents, Agent Orange and Black Flag, but when the band resurrected itself a few years ago, it was with the same brute strength and righteous rage as it had thirty years prior. Side Four (Jailhouse), the third album by the group since its revival, is simply a powerhouse, from Phil George’s battering drums to Tony Fate’s wall of guitar crunge to Eric Leach’s Alice Cooperesque howl. It helps that the band has a strong batch of songs to which to apply its mojo – “Cold Blood,” “Really Doesn’t Matter” and the cheeky “Megalomaniac” scan as catchy as crunching. Fate’s acoustic instrumental title tune and tape collage “Mellotron” allow quick chances to breath, but otherwise Side Four breathes fire from beginning to end. Eric Leach (pictured above) also has a solo album out; surprisingly, Mercy Me (self-released) eschews blazing punk & roll for tasteful roots rock. Comparable to the 80s roots rock scare, the songs on Mercy Me benefit from Leach’s evident sincerity, no-bullshit attitude and his remarkable voice, which adapts to this music better than you might think.

If Tales From the Megaplex (Saustex) is any indication, Count Vaseline (Stefan Murphy to his mom) sees no difference between 60s garage rock, 70s New Yawk proto punk and rockabilly. The former Dubliner/current Atlantean simply bangs out his rock ditties, most of less than two minutes long, without a jot of regard for genre, sensibility or public opinion. Plenty of wit and personality, though, from the dry shade of “Hail Hail John Cale” (“Lou Reed died wishing he could be John Cale”), the wishful thinking of “Texas Band” and the cheeky mystery of “What’s Your Name, Where Are You From, What Are You On?” (“I’m on ecstasy and I really want to tell you some jokes”). At eight songs in less than fifteen minutes, it’s a very efficient use of one’s rock & roll time. Pittsburgh’s Carsickness took the eclectic, late 70s punk model of the Clash and pushed into artier directions. 1979-1982 (Get Hip) shows off the quintet’s singleminded focus, mixing fractured rhythms, free jazz histrionics and pure punk power together for a knee-twisting blast of spasmodic fury. The raging “Plastic Beauty” and the seething “Bleeding” demonstrate that “rock” need not compromise for “art.”

Joey Skidmore is one of those rock & roll true believers who’s been knockin’ around the leather jackets/blue jeans underground for years. So many, in fact, that the Missouri rocker compiled a two-disk anthology covering his 37 (!) years of service. Mostly produced by the venerable Lou Whitney, may he rest in peace, Rollin’ With the Punches: The Best of Joey Skidmore (self-released) ranges from exuberant roots rock to raging power rock, all of it united by Skidmore’s rich baritone, love of guitars and enthusiastic songwriting. Divided into a “best of” disk and a “worst of” (i.e. rarities, EP tracks and unreleased stuff from the vaults), Rollin’ With the Punches never flags in its pursuit of a rockin’ good time. Skidmore may be an unknown quantity to many people, but with Nikki Sudden, Eric Ambel and members of Jason & the Scorchers, the Skeletons, the Morells and even Black Oak Arkansas making appearances and a covers pallet that runs the gamut from Chuck Berry to Blue Oyster Cult, you know he’s got the goods.

And speaking of faith-keepers, one of Finland’s greatest musical exports has also decided the time is right for a career-wide retrospective, as Michael Monroe, ex-Hanoi Rocks, rounds up nearly thirty tracks from his life outside of Hanoi for the simply titled The Best (Spinefarm). He divides the disks into the times between stints with Hanoi, with the first disk covering the mid-80s to the early ‘aughts, and the second disk hitting his recent years since Hanoi’s second shutdown in 2009. Though the first disk shows the influence of the time period in which a lot of it was recorded, Monroe’s rock & roll vision – a wickedly hooky blend of glam rock, punk and heartland rock refined in New York, L.A. and London, as well as his home country – stays consistent throughout. Disk two cuts like “Goin’ Down With the Ship,” “The Ballad of the Lower East Side” and “Trick of the Wrist” sound superior to these ears – there’s nothing like the buzz of a late career renaissance, when an artist has both reignited enthusiasm and savvy experience on his side. But that’s not to deny the powerhouses on disk one, including “Where’s the Fire John,” “Life Gets You Dirty” and the immortal classic “Dead, Jail or Rock N Roll.” Hell, the inclusion of four songs from Monroe’s sadly short-lived early 90s act Demolition 23, whose lone album is a bear to find, nearly make this a must-have on their own. Essential.

***

Check out selected audio and video from the records discussed above:

Carsickness – Bandcamp:

https://gethiprecordings.bandcamp.com/album/1979-1982

Th Dirty Fences – “One More Step”:

https://soundcloud.com/greenwayrecords/one-more-step-ft-christina

The Dirty Truckers – Bandcamp:

https://rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com/album/tiger-stripes

Five Horse Johnson – Bandcamp:

https://smallstone.bandcamp.com/album/jake-leg-boogie

Tom Heyman – Bandcamp:

htts://tomheyman.bandcamp.com/album/show-business-baby

Mark “Porkchop” Holder – “Captain Captain”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_In-g8HejE

Indonesian Junk – Bandcamp:

https://rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com/album/stars-in-the-night

The Knast – “Situation Vacant”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiFNifMynMs

Eric Leach – “Zoom”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPrBErt7xTk

Left Lane Cruiser – “Claw Machine Wizard”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NZzn1nxVIE

James McCann & the New Vindictives – Bandcamp:

https://jamesmccann.bandcamp.com/

Michael Monroe – “Dead, Jail or Rock ‘n’ Roll”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xdt3vqHyT0

Raspberries trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNiEDetN9ik

Joey Skidmore – “Carnival Kids”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D6ae3VV8V0

Sweet Apple – “World I’m Gonna Leave You”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCUMnJuVnqo

Symbol Six – “Pay Up Sucka”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdd2SLNFT6o

Travelin Jack – “Keep On Running”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5h4xrD0zbdQ

 

 

 

New David Childers Profile via Southern Songs & Stories Podcast

By Fred Mills

Since the BLURT braintrust hails from North Carolina we are partial to Tar Heel musicians – among them, the mighty David Childers (aka “the rock ‘n’ roll lawyer”). The gifted singer/songwriter, author, and visual artist is the subject of a new podcast episode from our friends at Southern Songs and Stories, who have been responsible for a number of superb audio and video profiles of our fellow Carolinians (recently on video: the Jon Stickley Trio).

Below is the link to the new podcast about Childers and his new Don Dixon-produced album, Run Skeleton Run. It’s described by SS&S thusly:

“In this episode, we explore the world of North Carolina singer songwriter, painter and former lawyer David Childers, showcasing his music and some of his influences, along with interviews of David, son Robert, label head Dolph Ramseur, producer Don Dixon, Avett Brother bassist Bob Crawford, and writer, musician and WNCW radio host Carol Rifkin.”

Link to: You Don’t Have To Say So Much: The David Childers Story

SS&S’s Joe Kendrick adds that coming up for them is a podcast that details “the history of Green Acres Music Hall, the little musical Shangri-La that could, which brought luminaries like David Grisman, John Hartford, Newgrass Revival, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Rodney Crowell and many more to a quiet corner of Rutherford County NC, from around 1979 to 1999.” We’ll be looking forward to that, Joe!