The Upshot: Late songstress gets a welcome reintroduction via deluxe vinyl reissues of her two studio albums plus a new collection of live and rare material.
BY FRED MILLS
As is often the case with artists who have passed on, legacy begets legend. And while 1970s songstress Judee Sill’s impact during her short life was minimal before her death, at 35, of a drug overdose—she was probably better known for being the first signing to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and for having Graham Nash produce her single ”.Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” than for any measurable commercial inroads—she would go on to inspire subsequent generations of singer-songwriters. A trifecta of new archival releases amply demonstrates why her reputation as an immaculate, gifted songstress has steadily grown over the years.
In 2004, 4 Men With Beards reissued on vinyl both her eponymous debut (1971) and Heart Food (1973), while 2003 and 2005 brought remastered CDs on Rhino Handmade and the Water Music label, respectively. Now comes archival specialist Intervention, which has recently worked wonders with audiophile reissues of Stealers Wheel, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Everclear, and Joe Jackson, with its own vinyl take on the two records. The results are revelatory. Intervention was granted access to the original analog masters so that Grammy-winning mastering engineer Kevin Gray, of Cohearent Audio, could work his all-analog magic. They then pressed each album on two 180-gram, 45rpm discs, and printed the original artwork on Stoughton “tip-on” gatefold sleeves.
The new Judee Sill is richly illustrative of both artist and artifact, if a bit of a period piece. It’s reminiscent in places of early Joni Mitchell, particularly in ”Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” a slice of mid-tempo piano pop subtly lined with chamber strings; the straightforward folk of “Crayon Angels,” with its oboe melody; and another of several evocations of Jesus, the strummy “My Man on Love.” Elsewhere are some more fleshed-out compositions, orchestrations courtesy Don Bagley and Bob Harris; it’s in lush numbers such as “The Archetypal Man” that Gray’s fresh mastering is showcased, revealing a surround-sound depth to the tune’s almost Bach-like arrangement that I don’t hear on the 2005 CD.
For several reasons, Heart Food is the better album. It clearly benefits from Sill’s presumably being more comfortable in the studio two years on, and boasts an impressive roster of 25 “name” musicians, among them keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Doug Dillard, pedal-steel legend Buddy Emmons, bassist Chris Etheridge, and drummer Jim Gordon. And the complexity of Sill’s compositions has taken a quantum leap. For this album she also wrote the orchestrations, allowing for both a diversity of scope and an internal cohesion that suggested that she was going for more than simply getting a collection of disparate songs down on tape. Heart Food glows from the outset, its highlights including the sweet, country-tinged (fiddle and steel), lyrically evocative “There’s a Rugged Road,” in which Sill indulges her familiar passion for Christian themes; the delightfully lush “The Kiss,” with an arrangement worthy of Brian Wilson; and the nine-minute piano epic ”The Donor,” which is suite-like in structure, breathtaking, like CSN&Y singing gospel.
Gray’s remastering, too, will take your breath away. One example: Listening to ”The Donor” is like sitting in a cathedral, bathing in the enveloping voices of a choir, each piano note’s attack and decay as palpable as if you were seated on the bench beside the pianist. Ultimately, Heart Food is a timeless and deeply nourishing musical feast.
Songs of Rapture and Redemption: Rarities & Live arrives courtesy Run Out Groove, whose specialty is deluxe vinyl reissues (check my review of the Dream Syndicate’ The CompleteLive at Raji’s 2LP set, which was released last year) and, in some cases, unique titles such as this one. Sides A and B are made up of live material recorded in Boston in ’71, and the seven tracks originally surfaced as bonus material on the 2003 Rhino Handmade Judee Sill; sides C and D are demos and outtakes originally included as bonus material from the two Sill CDs on Handmade. So while the material itself is not unreleased, this marks the first time it’s ever appeared on vinyl, and Run Out Groove has gone the extra mile by pressing the two LPs on swirly magenta vinyl (180-gram, natch) and housing them in a glossy-textured Stoughton sleeve—each set is individually numbered.
The live tracks are delightful, a beautifully recorded document of Sill in her to-brief prime, just the songwriter and her guitar plus, on the seven-minute “As Enchanted Sky Machines,” piano. The track “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” is one obvious standout, the Judee Sill number nearly aglow with passion. Among the demos, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” is a fascinating early glimpse as a song that would go on to be, arguably, the artist’s most famous song. Equally fascinating: reading the liner notes, which are a transcribed conversation between the album’s co-producer, Pat Thomas, and the late Sill’s best friend and collaborator, Tommy Peltier, in which Peltier offers memories of the singer and observations about each track.
All in all, a must-own for any fan of Judee Sill even if they already own the Handmade CDs.
DOWNLOAD: Judee Sill & Heart Food: ”Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” “The Archetypal Man,” “There’s a Rugged Road,” “The Donor”
Songs of Rapture and Redemption: “Lady-O” and “The Lamb Ran Away with the Cross” (both live), “The Desperado” (outtake), “The Pearl” (demo)
Rockin’ two-track advance teaser for Nashville band’s upcoming full-length.
BY FRED MILLS
Self-described as “a collaborative rock & roll effort,” Nashville-based Sour Ops here serves up a righteously rockin’ slab of 12” wax, “Phonograph” b/w “Mind Like Glue” courtesy Feralette Media. On the “Phonograph” A-side, the group is paying tribute to, you guessed it, the joys of recording for, pressing up on, and listening to, vinyl. Gee, how’d they figure out BLURT might be predisposed to liking this ditty?—which, sonically speaking, is a tight-but-loose chip-off-the-ol’-Stooges/MC5-block. (Listen close, and you might also here a couple of sneaky Stones licks in there as well.)
Over on the flip, “Mind Like Glue” picks up the baton and bolts with it via a crunchy, riff-powered progression that marks the band as latterday sons of Nuggets. Which comes as no huge surprise, considering the bandmembers list Panther Burns, Snakehips, the Upstairs Party, Botswanas, and Sixty-Nine Tribe on their collective C.V. Led by guitarist Price Harrison (who also heads up the Feralette label, which has previously brought us music from Snakehips, Marshall Chapman, Boo Ray, and Palmyra Delran), Sour Ops has a full length, Family Circuit, due out in late October, and this limited edition single makes for quite a fine teaser.
The Upshot: A gorgeous slice of Americana, rock, baroque pop, and bearing more hard-to-pin-down charms than pretty much any record released this year so far.
BY FRED MILLS
There’s something magical about the erstwhile Tenderhooks frontman’s solo effort, Scared Away the Song, something that’s hard to put one’s finger upon. Because while all the “right” pieces are in place—hooky chord progressions and leads alongside instantly memorable melodies, compelling rhythmic structures across all tempos, plenty of stylistic variety (from Americana to power pop to garagey rock to folkish ballads), emotionally resonant lyrics, and sterling production—there’s definitely a sum-greater-than-the-parts effect going on. And even after multiple spins I’m not sure if I can isolate exactly what’s so special about the LP.
You can apply all those foregoing descriptions and adjectives to pretty much any of the 10 songs here, from the jaunty, anthemic title track and the luminous, McCartneyesque “Lightning Rod,” to the country-rocking “Unglued” and the cello-powered pop of “Big Black Dog” (who is no doubt the one pictured on the sleeve—Winstrom calls his pooch a “big black pollywog” and “a mattress hog” that is, ultimately, “everybody to me,” and the love in those lines was so palpable the first time I heard them I immediately got up and went over to give my own mutt a huge hug). Pair the music with Winstrom’s expressive, sweetly androgynous vocals and you’ve got one charmer of a platter. (A gorgeous red vinyl platter, at that, fellow wax fans.) Winstrom recorded parts of the album in Nashville with Ray Kennedy and the rest in his original home base of Knoxville, where the Tenderhooks had been based. He lives in Brooklyn nowadays, but clearly, the homecoming energized him in the studio.
So perhaps it’s the album’s elusiveness that, ultimately, is the proverbial icing on the cake. A lot of the greatest records are like that, and it’s only in subsequent retrospect that their unique qualities become fully evident. What that translates to, then, is my suggestion that you take a leap of faith and just grab it. My gut feeling is that you won’t have any regrets.
DOWNLOAD: “Big Black Dog,” “Caroline, Ugh,” “Lightning Rod”
The Upshot: After several spins of this album, its anthemic qualities begin emerging, and once they do, you can’t get ‘em out of your head, earworm style.
BY FRED MILLS
The proverbial “sleeper” in every sense of the word: Graham Smith’s umpteenth release bolts out of the gate in uncompromising fashion, courtesy the brashly abrasive riff of “Practical Effects,” a slice of dissonant pop marked by his nasal vox and complementary/adversarial vocal harmonies. It sets the listener up for a potentially uneasy listening experience. And yeah, that voice is an acquired taste, the kind that almost turns sour by the time you flip the album from side A to side B—did I mention that Vana Mundiarrives on digital and sweet, delightful 180gm black vinyl?—for “The Mesomorph,” all a-focus with double-tracked and harmony-abetted vocals.
But c’mon Mr. Reviewer, you say, haven’t you given, ahem, heroes of yours who are also idiosyncratic singers, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Richard Hell, plenty of passes over the years? Correct; and as with those musical icons, Graham Smith has a hard-to-pin-down emotional and sonic quality that eventually charms one out of his or her critical tree and makes ‘em a believer. In another era, Kleenex Girl Wonder would’ve been a flagship act on New Zealand’s vaunted Flying Nun label, in all their shambling-yet-mesmerizing glory. Early Merge Records releases also come to mind, as Smith uncannily intuits how to be shouty and passionate at the same time—not a small task. After several spins of this album, its anthemic qualities begin emerging, and once they do, you can’t get ‘em out of your head, earworm style.
Oh, and just to obliterate my entire argument about those idiosyncratic vocals: There’s a track called “Impossible Shadow” that, with its tingly indie-pop arrangement and massed vocal harmonies, clearly marks Smith as a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys acolyte. It’s a lightbulb moment, and a sonic epiphany. This dude’s a rare talent.
DOWNLOAD: “Sounds Good,” “Impossible Shadow,” “Sunday Night Fever”
The Upshot: What would you say to a near-perfect amalgam of Elephant 6, Flying Nun, and classic Velvets/Feelies?
BY FRED MILLS
How the hell did I miss out on—overlook—this smokin’ Athens, Georgia, duo? Just consulting their artist page at the esteemed HHBTM label’s site yields a slew of releases, with at least two prior LP/CD releases from the label to their credit. (Their official website indicates that this new one makes a total of four albums and “a lost CD” to date. Oh, and they also used to be a 5-piece.) On the basis of this wonderfully noisy, delightfully indie-garage-poppy album—which, for all you fellow vinyl fans, can be scored (for the time being, at least), on sweet orange wax—one would have to say that there’s still something in that Athens water. Good to know the municipal powers that be haven’t removed the lysergic-o-nogens that the B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M. dumped in the reservoir all those years ago.
Add the Elephant 6 musical mafiosos to that list of usual suspects, because Roadrunners does have that telltale E6 lo-fi-goes-psychedelic ambiance to it. Whomping lead track “MKUltra” (now there’s a “telltale” kind of song title) careens hither and yonder via the band’s patented guitar/drums setup, a brash mashup of vintage c80 shambling pop and blazing Amerindie rock; while the thrumming “Time After Time After Time After Time”—no, it’s not a Cyndi Lauper trib—injects a distinctive Feelies/Velvets vibe to cement the Eureka California alliance with the E6 collective. And the drop-dead masterful “How Long Has This Been Going On?”—no, it’s not that played out classic rock hit—has, what with its brisk, part-jangly/part-grungy riffing, akimbo rhythms, and yearning vox, is quite possibly the best Flying Nun Records song never recorded by a Flying Nun Records combo.
This group stands a good chance of being my favorite discovery of 2018. If Check back with me in late December, but meanwhile, here’s your opportunity to make a similar discovery. If there’s any justice in the world, the talented young lady and young man here will eventually be winking slyly all the way to the bank.
DOWNLOAD: “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” “Mexican Coke,” “Time After Time After Time After Time”
Coming on the heels of last year’s self-titled debut, L.A.-by-way-of-South-Carolina outlaw country rocker Ben Bostick’s Hellfire (available on vinyl as well as digital formats) lives up to its title, delivering eleven tore up/tore down honky tonk anthems guaranteed to put the club’s beer sales through the roof for the night (and maybe even prompt some post-show, late-night lovin’ among club patrons that bears fruit 9 months later). Salty, sexy, and as swaggering as it comes, the album finds Bostick and his crack backing band storming through a mélange of music that suggests a hard-drinking summit between hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, and fellow newcomer Sturgill Simpson.
Such are the pleasures of such tracks as the Big Easy-infused “It Ain’t Cheap Being Poor,” the hard twangin’ title track (a call-and-response slice of Bakersfield rockabilly), a sinewy ditty titled “Work, Sleep, Repeat” which, believe it or not, Bostick wrote as a line-dance number (and armed with that knowledge, you can definitely picture it as such while it plays), and a lowdown nasty blues that is more-than-appropriately-called “Feeling Mean” (think Ray Wylie Hubbard doing Muddy Waters). All in all, Hellfire is one complete Saturday night, pressed up on 12 inches of heavy vinyl, just itchin’ for the needle to drop.
DOWNLOAD: “Feelin’ Mean,” “The Outsider,” “It Ain’t Cheap”
Gentleman Joe’s non-Clash career receives a worthwhile tribute as Joe Strummer 001.
By Uncle Blurt
It should go without saying that the subject header, above, has prompted an adrenalin rush for yer ol’ uncle here; the entire BLURT staff consider themselves massive Joe Strummer/Clash fans, and the assumption is that pretty much anyone who frequents this website and/or read our magazine is a fan as well. (For a lengthy, heartfelt tribute, read “Remembering Joe Strummer,” which our editor penned in 2013, recounting his 2001 summit with Joe in New York City.)
Word now arrives that the Ignition label is prepping a retrospective zeroing in on Strummer’s non-Clash work – Mescaleros, 101ers, Earthquake Weather, etc. – that will be available in 4 distinct formats: 2CD set, deluxe edition 2CD, 4LP set, and deluxe edition 4LP set (the latter includes both CDs, a bonus 7″, and some choice memorabilia – it’s pictured above, while the deluxe 2CD version is below). As of this writing, all four iterations are available for preorder via PledgeMusic. Rather than wax nostalgic, I’ll just copy the product description for you, just in case the photos aren’t enticement enough. The collection will be available starting September 28.
Joe Strummer 001,’ is the first compilation to span Joe Strummer’s career outside of his recordings with The Clash. ‘Joe Strummer 001’ includes fan favourites from his recordings with the 101ers and The Mescaleros, his solo albums, soundtrack work plus an album of unreleased songs.
Punk pioneer, singer, songwriter, recording artist, activist, musical and political inspiration for a generation and mighty diamond Joe Strummer was the most charismatic and passionate frontman to emerge from the punk explosion of the late seventies.
After Joe’s untimely death in December 2002 it was discovered that Joe had been an archivist of his own work, having barns full of writings and tapes stored in his back garden. The archiving of this material and compiling of ‘Joe Strummer 001’ was overseen by Joe’s widow Luce and Robert Gordon McHarg III. All tracks have been restored and mastered by Grammy Award winner Peter J. Moore at the E. Room in Toronto, Canada.
This release features new remasters and the previously unreleased material includes an early demo of ‘This Is England’ entitled ‘Czechoslovak Song/Where Is England,’ a solo demo of ‘Letsagetabitarockin’ recorded in Elgin Avenue in 1975, outtakes from ‘Sid & Nancy’ featuring Mick Jones and unreleased songs ‘Rose Of Erin,’ the biographical and mythical recording ‘The Cool Impossible’ and ‘London Is Burning’ one of the last songs Joe recorded.
Super Deluxe Boxset – Limited edition collector’s box with Wibalin wrap, containing both the deluxe CD book as well as the 4LP vinyl product. All audio restored and remastered by Grammy award winning Peter J Moore.
• 2CDs and 4LPs containing rare and unheard audio – restored and remastered by Peter J Moore.
• 64-page hardback book featuring rarely seen and previously unpublished memorabilia from Joe’s personal collection as well as historical press reviews and technical notes about the albums.
• Additional 7” single of previously unreleased demos of This Is England (Side A) and Before We Go Forward (Side B)
• Cassette of previously unheard and unreleased U.S North (Basement Demo) – with artwork replicated from the original cassette recording from Joes’s archive.
• Envelope containing a screen print, a high quality image of Joe, two original art prints, and a sticker sheet.
• Replica of Joe’s Californian driving license.
• Enamel Pin badge
The artwork was curated by Robert Gordon McHarg III who previously worked on the Clash ‘Sound System’ box set with Paul Simonon, the John Cooper Clarke compilation. ‘Anthologia’ and curated the Black Market Clash Exhibition.
Gordon says, “The idea behind the book is that it’s an A4 notebook done as if Joe had designed it himself, telling his story. Hopefully it is an insight into his workings and includes hand written lyrics with personal notes and scribbles.
1. Letsagetabitarockin’ (2005 Remastered Version) – The 101ers – 00:02:08
2. Keys To Your Heart (Version 2) [2005 Remastered Version] – The 101ers- 00:03:08
3. Love Kills – Joe Strummer – 00:03:59
4. Tennessee Rain – Joe Strummer – 00:02:55
5. Trash City – Joe Strummer & The Latino Rockabilly War – 00:04:11
6. 15th Brigade – Joe Strummer – 00:02:40
7. Ride Your Donkey – Joe Strummer – 00:02:21
8. Burning Lights – Joe Strummer – 00:02:43
9. Afro-Cuban Be-Bop – The Astro-Physicians – 00:02:53
10. Sandpaper Blues – Radar – 00:04:44
11. Generations – Electric Dog House – 00:05:30
12. It’s A Rockin’ World – Joe Strummer – 00:02:25
13. Yalla Yalla – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:06:57
14. X-Ray Style – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:04:34
15. Johnny Appleseed – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:04:02
16. Minstrel Boy – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:05:42
17. Redemption Song – Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer – 00:03:24
18. Over The Border – Jimmy Cliff & Joe Strummer – 00:03:51
19. Coma Girl – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:03:48
20. Silver & Gold / Before I Grow Too Old – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:02:39
1. Letsagetabitarockin’ (Strummer Demo) – Joe Strummer – 00:01:49
2. Czechoslovak Song / Where Is England – Strummer, Simonon & Howard – 00:03:49
3. Pouring Rain (1984) – Strummer, Simonon & Howard – 00:03:29
4. Blues On The River – Joe Strummer – 00:04:37
5. Crying On 23rd – The Soothsayers – 00:02:52
6. 2 Bullets – Pearl Harbour – 00:03:11
7. When Pigs Fly – Joe Strummer – 00:04:06
8. Pouring Rain (1993) – Joe Strummer – 00:04:06
9. Rose Of Erin – Joe Strummer – 00:04:12
10. The Cool Impossible – Joe Strummer – 00:04:32
11. London Is Burning – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:03:14
12. U.S. North – Joe Strummer & Mick Jones – 00:10:32
A1. Letsagetabitarockin’ (2005 Remastered Version) – The 101ers – 00:02:08
A2. Keys To Your Heart (Version 2) [2005 Remastered Version] – The 101ers – 00:03:08
A3. Love Kills – Joe Strummer – 00:03:59
A4. Tennessee Rain – Joe Strummer – 00:02:55
A5. Trash City – Joe Strummer & The Latino Rockabilly War – 00:04:11
A6. 15th Brigade – Joe Strummer – 00:02:40
B1. Ride Your Donkey – Joe Strummer – 00:02:21
B2. Burning Lights – Joe Strummer – 00:02:43
B3. Afro-Cuban Be-Bop – The Astro-Physicians – 00:02:53
B4. Sandpaper Blues – Radar – 00:04:44
B5. Generations – Electric Dog House – 00:05:30
C1. It’s A Rockin’ World – Joe Strummer – 00:02:25
C2. Yalla Yalla – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:06:57
C3. X-Ray Style – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:04:34
C4. Johnny Appleseed – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:04:02
D1. Minstrel Boy – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:05:42
D2. Redemption Song – Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer – 00:03:24
D3. Over The Border – Jimmy Cliff & Joe Strummer – 00:03:51
D4. Coma Girl – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:03:48
D5. Silver & Gold / Before I Grow Too Old – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:02:39
E1. Letsagetabitarockin’ (Strummer Demo) – Joe Strummer – 00:01:49
E2. Czechoslovak Song / Where Is England – Strummer, Simonon & Howard – 00:03:49
E3. Pouring Rain (1984) – Strummer, Simonon & Howard – 00:03:29
E4. Blues On The River – Joe Strummer – 00:04:37
E5. Crying On 23rd – The Soothsayers – 00:02:52
E6. 2 Bullets – Pearl Harbour – 00:03:11
F1. When Pigs Fly – Joe Strummer – 00:04:06
F2. Pouring Rain (1993) – Joe Strummer – 00:04:06
F3. Rose Of Erin – Joe Strummer – 00:04:12
F4. The Cool Impossible – Joe Strummer – 00:04:32
F5. London Is Burning – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – 00:03:14
VINYL 4 (12″ Single):
A1. U.S. North – Joe Strummer & Mick Jones – 00:10:32
VINYL 5 (7″ Single):
A1. This Is England – Strummer, Simonon & Howard – 00:03:04
B1. Before We Go Forward – Strummer, Simonon & Howard – 00:02:49
A1. U.S. North (Basement Demo) – Joe Strummer & Mick Jones – 00:06:29
The above photo displays the handsome new Swamp Dogg album, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, which drops Sept. 7 via Joyful Noise. (The photo also shows the limited edition SD flexidisc that is offered to folks in the Joyful Noise VIP program. And yes, before you ask, it will also be available on CD and digital download.) The funk/soul/swamp-rockin’ legend clearly has no intentions of burning out or fading away, to paraphrase Neil Young. According to the label:
Nearly fifty years after his debut release, Swamp Dogg stands on the precipice of another radical reinvention. His latest creation is titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune a nine song collection featuring production by Poliça’s Ryan Olson. Love, Loss, and AutoTune finds Swamp Dogg’s bluesy southern soul colliding head-on with 21st Century electronic music production techniques.
You can get more details at the above link. Meanwhile, check out the new video for album track “I’ll Pretend”:
With a reunion tour under their belt and a career-spanning vinyl box set in stores, the British outfit’s is feeling righteously recharged. Let’s cast back to one memorable evening in 1990 when the BLURT editor crossed paths with them and lived to write about it. (Photos of Thee Hypnotics in Charlotte by Kerry McCaskill.)
BY FRED MILLS
About three years ago, this magazine published an exclusive interview with Ray Hanson, erstwhile guitarist for Thee Hypnotics, who blazed a memorable 1985-99 hard rock trail across their native UK as well as the US and Europe, releasing three studio albums and a live one, plus several singles and Eps, before burning out and splitting up. The occasion of our Hanson interview, which was conducted by my fellow Thee Hypnotics devotee Jonathan Levitt, was to examine the making and aftermath of what most fans still consider to be their classic LP, 1991’s Soul Glitter & Sin. At the time Hanson had plenty of work on his hands with his band the Whores of Babylon, and of course vocalist Jim Jones was working on his own projects, including the Jim Jones Revue and, later, Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind. But when asked the inevitable reunion question, Hanson certainly didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “You never know!”
As it turns out, the reunion not only became a possibility, but also a reality. Earlier this year the band commenced doing live gigs, and an official press release trumpeted the news in wonderfully florid fashion:
“Taking their cues from the Detroit militancy of The MC5, the corrupting output of The Stooges and the gospel according to The Cramps, Thee Hypnotics’ devastating brand of rock’n’roll was propelled by near punishing decibel levels and a fervour bordering on the evangelical. Blazing a devastating trail of high-octane thrills and annihilation, Thee Hypnotics occupied a bizarre hinterland that sat somewhere between the British neo-psychedelic scene of the late 80s and the detonation of garage-influenced rock from the Pacific northwest of the early 90s. Little wonder that a band that shone so bright would burn out before the end of the century.
“And now they’re back…
“For the first time in 20 years, the classic line-up of co-founders Jim Jones (vocals) and Ray Hanson (guitar), with Phil Smith (drums) and Jeremy Cottingham (bass), is set to hit the road with all the power of a Viking raiding party. Still harbouring an intense belief in assaultive rock’n’roll as liberation, and delivering their sonic payload with a savage intensity, this influential and legendary group is back to testify one more time.”
Also announced was that the members were additionally overseeing a career-spanning vinyl box set featuring all three studio albums—1990’s Come Down Heavy, the aforementioned SG&S and 1993’s Chris Robinson-produced The Very Crystal Speed Machine—plus a bonus rarities album, In A Trance (Thee Early Daze 86-89). Immaculately designed, the 4LP box, Righteously Re-Charged, released by Beggars Arkive, ably provides snapshots of the group’s every stage, from humble indie beginnings as a Motor City-fixated outfit with a fetish for leather jackets, aviator shades, and tight pants, to widescreen rockers on a cinematic, noirish trip, to full-bore, druggy Seventies worshipers. Nary a dull moment, either, for while charting a steady (and impressive) musical evolution, the box also vividly displays songwriting chops and attitudinal swagger that, for its time, was well outside the British norm. No happy Mondays for these lads; every night’s a 2AM Saturday.
The 12-page booklet is the perfect listening companion, too, stuffed to the gills with rare photos, a new interview and a pair of impressionistic essays—and, I’m not so humble as to not mention, Mr. Levitt’s BLURT interview with Hanson (yours truly is also given thanks from the band, but all I did was edit and publish, it’s all Jonathan and Ray, so thanks to both of you, gents). Oh, and the LPs are all on different colors of vinyl: purple, red, white, and clear. Nice touch, that.
Below, watch the trailer for the documentary film about the band that drummer Phil Smith has assembled.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to resurrect an article from deep in my archives, a 1990 profile/interview of the band originally published in the late fall of that year in The Bob magazine and titled half men, half boys (all beasts) in a (somewhat) clever nod to a Thee Hypnotics songtitle. I was living in Charlotte, NC, in 1990 and that spring the band came through town with then-labelmates Tad; their LP debut actually was prior to Come Down Heavy, the part-live album Live’r Than God, which in the US was released by Sub Pop. I was already a fan, having been gifted a copy of their first single by a female friend (Cindy, if you’re out there, I still owe you a big thank-you) who’d traveled to England recently and knew the band’s manager, Steve Langdon. I had also been gifted a demo tape of the band and subsequently reviewed the single in The Bob, making sure Langdon got a copy, and when I had learned they would in fact be coming to Charlotte, I quickly set up an interview through the manager.
Indeed, upon meeting me at soundcheck the afternoon of the show, I was greeted like an old friend—I’m pretty sure I was one of the first American journalists to write about Thee Hypnotics—and the first question after the handshakes was, “Where can we get some liquor?” I promptly got in the van with Langdon and we headed off to the store to round up plenty of refreshments. During the ride London played me a tape of some rough studio mixes to get me revved up for the show.
Later that evening, following a hilarious dinner with the Tad guys and incendiary sets from both groups, I settled down in their dressing room to, ahem, help them go through a few bottles of Jack Daniels and ostensibly conduct an interview. Jones, though, decided instead to run off with a mysterious young lady, so Hanson and bassist Will Pepper opted to head out with me to a nearby all-night diner for some grub and convo.
As I was somewhat worse for the wear in the wake of the booze, the interview went about as well as might be expected, something I learned the next morning when I played back portions of the interview cassette. Clearly the two musicians had been more than generous with their time and tolerant of their de facto host; put another way, it was definitely not the most insightful (or lucid) interview I’d done. But I was determined to make lemons out of lemonade, not to mention live up to my promise of getting the band some U.S. ink, so I went ahead filed the following text and even admitted to my general lack of professionalism in the story. Read on—but consider yourself duly warned.
Thee Hypnotics—The Bob Interview (1990)
Or, how to salvage an interview in several E-Z steps.
Back in March, Sub Pop sent Thee Hypnotics around on tour with Tad, in support of their Live’r Than God! album. The English band had already signed to Beggars Banquet Records for their next album, so this initial American jaunt was merely to lay some groundwork for subsequent headlining tours.
The March 29 show in Charlotte left me, as the saying goes, completely blown away by the sheer hard rock power the band evinced and the total energy transfer that took place between band and audience. Seemingly not caring that there were only around 50 people at the show (despite having among their fanbase the likes of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, they were not in any way well-known yet in the States), Thee Hypnotics throttled the stage for nearly an hour, the rhythm section setting in motion a nonstop, malevolent, grunting rumble, while the guitarist peeled off screams of wah-wah, distortion, and feedback amid fat power-chord chunkage.
Three of the guys, I might add, were decked out in vintage rock star garb: boots, purple flares, crushed velvet jackets—a direct lineage to Your Satanic Majesty or Mr. Hendrix. The singer opted for a different but no less striking form of cool: a polka-dot shirt later discarded to reveal his John Lee Hooker teeshirt underneath.
And he howled like the delta bluesman himself, possessed of low-down tremblin’ shakes and knowing that his deal with the devil was soon to come to term. He stamped the mic stand in fury, dropped to his knees out of sheer desperation, rolled around near the edge, then leaped back up in time for the final chorus. Consummate professionals, they were; and if you hear someone making those Stooges comparisons, don’t necessary ignore or deplore, because the Detroit Rock City sound has been reborn but its reputation has in no way been sullied.
Now, before the gig, manager Steve Langdon requested directions to the local liquor store, so I hopped in the tour van and duly directed. While he was in the store I remained in the van listening to some mighty potent rough mixes of some forthcoming music. This was the beginning of my downfall, and it wouldn’t help that the gig itself would be so overwhelming; already primed beforehand with this secret sonic knowledge, indulgence mode kicked in and I would indeed indulge over the course of the evening. Cue up decibels, several cups of wine during the show, and numerous swigs from the band’s Jack Daniels bottle afterward.
Memo to fellow writers: ALWAYS DO YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFORE THE GIGS. Just before Lester Bangs could pull off drinking like a fish prior to the interview does not mean you can do likewise and conduct your interview following the show. You may, of course, wind up with a few good quotes. But it’s definitely a crapshoot—as we shall soon learn. But first, an introduction.
Thee Hypnotics formed around ’87 in High Wycombe, north of London. The initial lineup of Jim Jones (vocals), Ray “Sonic” Hanson (guitars), Chris Dennis (bass), and mark Thompson (drums) recorded a demo which led to going into the studio with producer Dave Goodman, of Sex Pistols infamy, for their first single, “Love in a Different Vein” b/w “Al Night Long” (Hipsville Records). By ’88 they’d toured the UK with Spacemen 3, Zodiac Mindwarp, the Damned, and others, and slowly began getting noticed for their singular brand of ooogah.
Signing with Situation Two Records, Thee Hypnotics picked up a new bassist, Will Pepper, then in ’89 released a 12-inch single (“Justice in Freedom,” “Preachin’ & Ramblin’,” “Choose My Own Way”) as well as the mini-album Live’r Than God! The US Sub Pop version, a compilation of studio tracks plus four-fifths of the British Live’r, came out several months later.
This year, 1990, saw the recording of new Thee Hypnotics material, and a new drummer, Phil Smith (ex-Bambi Slam), signed up as well. The tape I heard in the tour van had undergone severe remixing, and interestingly enough, some months later when I heard the resulting CD, I noticed that it was produced by the band and Dave Garland but omitted the sleeve info on the LP version regarding Seattle’s Jack Endino’s hand in the mixing. Regardless, word has it that Come Down Heavy is getting the proverbial “big push” from Beggars Banquet/RCA in the United States.
Now, let’s find out how badly yours truly can conduct an interview at 1:30 in the morning.
Along with a couple of friends, one of them my photographer, escort Pepper and Hanson to an all-night eatery. The singer has long since disappeared with a lady in black, while the drummer and manager have retired to the hotel to rest up for the early-AM drive that looms in just a few hours. We sit down in a booth and glance around at various cops, prostitutes, and winos. We feel completely at home (at least I do; Will and Ray haven’t rendered judgment just yet).
The conversation begins with a discussion of grilled cheese sandwiches, alcohol consumption, and fellow Brit Nikki Sudden, who had also appeared in Charlotte recently and who’d also shared a bottle or two with this writer. (Before you ask: Yes, I did the interview at soundcheck, not after the show.)
Will: He just wants to live his life like Nick Cave. Ray: And Johnny Thunders… Will: I know he worships Nick Cave. I’ve heard his records and I know what he’s getting at, but he’s not quite good enough yet.
A waitress comes up and eyes our group suspiciously. Your journalist is obviously the worst for the wear after scamming so much of the band’s bottles. Only after the coffee arrives does any semblance of non-mushmouthed interview technique emerge from me, and the musicians may actually still be wondering when the interview is going to begin and the blather is going to end.
Me (pointing at Live’r Than God!): So what’s all this psychedelic shit, is it English or American, this record sleeve?
Will: That’s Sub Pop that did it. The English one’s okay. That’s out of date anyway.
Me: Here’s an early tape of the band, what about these songs? You’ve got one called “Resurrection Joe” but The Cult have that already…
Will (scrutinizing the track listing): “Astral Rising,” we haven’t played that for years! What the fuck is “The Blues”? “Snake Charmer Girl”… “Soul Trader”… “Resurrection Joe”… Ours is so much better than The Cult’s. Theirs is sort of like a hip-hop thing. These songs weren’t produced or engineered, they were just taped straight for demos.
Ray: “The Blues,” I don’t know what that is either, must be from a lie gig. How the fuck did this get to you?
Me (brandishing the 45 and the tape): This record actually made me come in my pants. If nothing else, anybody that puts [a photo of] the Black Panthers on the back of the record sleeve, since I was actually around in those days, is definitely a band kicking butt and it makes major points with me.
Will: Huey Newton got shot awhile back, didn’t he?
Me: See, back then, I was getting my first dose of cultural consciousness [outside my white Southern boy upbringing], and I was reading Newton’s book too. What was going on? Later, though, something went wrong, and including the music—it took a wrong turn. So are you guys trying to correct that? Because as far as tonight was concerned, I saw “it” happening all over again in the music.
Will: The music or the politics? The music, definitely, yeah. The political thing, well, it’s a different scene these days, isn’t it?
Ray: Very realistically, all we can offer from that time is the music. We can’t offer anything else. It would be contrived. You can’t be political. A lot of bands would like to think they are political, but they haven’t got any control, they haven’t got any power, they’ve got nothing, and it’s pointless. Unless their music is good and powerful. Because there’s too many of those bands. You can only take rock music so far. It can’t change the world and all that shit. It can maybe provoke a few people.
Will: Have a go at it, though. I guess they can raise a bit of cash here and there, like for Live Aid. In England, when Live Aid was done, I always wondered why Bob Geldof was walking around in a bad mood all the time. Apparently they did the show—I don’t know how much money they made, but as an example, say ten million—and the government says, “You’ve made ten million there. We’ve given some already.” So they taxed them on that ten million, kept seven million for the government. A lot of that money never reached where it was meant to reach. It’s a crooked world.
I guess in the ‘60s it seemed really crooked, racism and all that. But it’s still crooked these days, isn’t it, with different… Maybe that’s not a main issue. There’s other things that have taken over the issues, but there are still very crooked things. I don’t know if the money [from benefits] reaches the places. We did one Miners gig once, and we did a Communist festival thing in Italy.
Ray: For the Italian thing, it didn’t raise any consciousness. It was a gig in the name of the Communist Party. But nobody noticed that. They would have come to see us whether we were aligned with that cause or not. Those people that believe music can change the world—it can move people, but it can’t change people’s ways of thinking. People have tried it and failed.
Will: People are separated from each other. They can’t come together and fight against it. They think, “The neighbor’s not doing it, so I’m not gonna bother.” And the neighbor next door’s thinking, “He’s not gonna do it so I’m not gonna bother.”
Ray: It’s exactly what’s going on in England at this very moment. They’ve introduced a Poll Tax. It’s a very different form of taxation for British people. They’ve been going for 50 years with this normal tax, and suddenly this has been introduced. What it basically does is make the rich better off and the poor poorer.
Will: People are in an uproar about it! They are demonstrating in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But they’ll never get anything done, because when they get home from the demonstration they’ll wonder what the neighbors are doing. And the neighbors are so uptight, just like them, and they’re gonna pay this Poll Tax whether it affects them or not. Ran and I, all of us in the band, we were on the dole when we were in Wickham. We were getting like 800 pounds a year from the dole people. And now most of that has to be paid in Poll Tax. It’s a flat rate thing. England used to be quite socialist, you know, you’d pay to your means. This is different, like 400 pounds a year.
Ray: The rich pay their 400 pounds, and their wage is so much higher that the percentage of the tax on that would have been quite a lot compared to the flat rate that they’ve been paying now. So they’re thinking, “Ah! We’re only paying 400 a year, that’s better than 1,000 a year or more.” And the poor, they have to pay 400 as well, the same rate, and they have to take it out of their dole checks, their welfare. A flat rate at the end of the year.
Me (apparently not completely grasping the issue): So how hard is it going to hit you? You’re going from being on an independent [label] to being on a major, Beggars Banquet/RCA.
Will: We’re still broke. RCA, it’s not like we’re signing a piece of paper that says, “Bring us some money.”
Me: Let me ask you at least one proper journalistic question for the evening. The whole Loop/Walkingseeds/Spacemen 3/Crazyhead etc.—current British stuff—and you guys came out at about the same time. Are there connections? Or is it just the English press hype lumping bands together into this post-psychedelic bandwagon?
Ray: I think it all happened at the same time. It is press hype. Everyone’s from different parts of the country anyway.
Will: Let’s just say that the only time I heard of the Walkingseeds was once, when they supported us; and twice, when they were mentioned in one of our reviews.
Me: In a review I read that you once did “Rollercoaster” like Spacemen 3. What did you think of that band, the drug thing? Sonic Boom is legendary for his heroin and methadone exploits.
Will: That review was a mistake. Edwin Pouncey’s review, yeah. That was our first national press review. At Riverside. When Jim should’ve got his cock out. Our first review, with Spacemen 3, and it was a total slag-off. Edwin loves us now. We sent him a copy of “Justice In Freedom” and he liked it, decided he was gonna patronize us. And he did! Apparently he’s quite cool; he does the artwork for Sonic Youth, album covers and everything [as Savage Pencil].
Pete—you know, Sonic Boom—he’s the typical classical only-child sort of public-education kid. You can’t do anything legendary with someone who’s not a legend! He couldn’t be a legend in a million years! He’s just so lifeless, so fucking flat.
Me (laughing): Hey, I paid 20 bucks for his Spectrum album when it came out, just so I could look at the little pinwheel. And I paid 18 bucks for the CD version of Live’r Than God! just to get that one extra live track not on the American LP. (lapsing into a digression) Most of the stuff I get sent for free goes straight to the Record Exchange so I can buy the stuff I really want—you get all these folks calling you up to write about a bunch of bands when, really, you just want to be left alone to listen to and write about the bands you’re willing to pay money for, like Thee Hypnotics.
So, do you guys listen to much recent music?
Will: Tad! Sonic Youth, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Birthday Party.
Me: Flaming Lips?
Will: Oh yeah! They did a cover tune on that Neil Young [tribute album], The Bridge. That was cool.
Me: First time the Lips played here in Charlotte, at the very last minute, the very final chord played, the power went off in the club. It was like the hand of God reached down and cut them off.
Will: It wasn’t the hand of God, it was just bad fucking electricians. Bad connectors. I mean, really…
Me: Hey, I’m from the Bible Belt. I believe in this stuff!
(At this point the conversation turns to the quality of the meal just finished and the out-of-order cigarette machine that is causing much consternation among the musicians. The writer, sensing that the time is right to get his records autographed while the musicians’ senses are “heightened,” produces his Thee Hypnotics collection.)
Me: I just happen to have one of those rock star silver ink pens you see at record signing parties and in-stores…
Ray: I just happen to be able to write in English. Where can we get some cigarettes?
Me: Probably back at the hotel.
Will: So we should go on and do the interview, then?
Me: That was it.
And at this point Ray and Will sort of rolled their eyes, then went outside to pose for photos next to a police cruiser, and we bade them farewell, Upon waking the next morning, the writer played back portions of the “interview” and decided that it would be prudent, in the future, to avoid consuming quite so much of a band’s liquor-of-choice—at least prior to conducting an interview. You never know if you’ll get another chance at it, especially if (a) the band breaks up; (b) someone in the band dies; (c) you die; or (d) most likely option, that the band figures you’re a complete drunken idiot and steers clear of you in the future.
But rest assured that this publication remains a supporter of Thee Hypnotics, regardless of any of its writers’ personal shortcomings.
Below: A pair of Thee Hypnotics, plus the writer and unnamed friend. Yes, I know what he’s laughing about.
The Upshot: A bonafide Southwestern ambassador deftly integrating folk, rock, pedal-steel-powered country, reggae, psychedelia, and Mexican pop while also showcasing a newfound anthemic side.
BY FRED MILLS
By way of full disclosure, I’m hardly objective where it comes to Calexico, having known founding members Joey Burns (guitar, vocals) and John Convertino (drums) for years and additionally authoring the liners to their 2011 vinyl box set, Road Atlas. That caveat aside, I’ve long marveled at the group’s musical evolution, from a folkish desert rock duo with occasional Latin influences to a bonafide Southwestern ambassador deftly integrating folk, rock, pedal-steel-powered country, reggae, psychedelia, and Mexican pop. The single-LP or double-LP set (take your pick; it’s also available on CD) The Thread That Keeps Us maintains this sense of place, particularly on gorgeous, windswept numbers like the Morricone-esque cinematic psych of “Voices in the Field” and the Spanish-language Mariachi rock of “Flores y Tamales.”
The group also has perfected the art of the anthem—fittingly enough, as this is an overtly political album in places, its lyrics detailing and decrying the “age of extremes” we’re living in—with songs like the soaring, U2-like “End of the World With You” and heavy-twang stomper “Dead in the Water” leading the way.
Throw in a bonus LP with the deluxe edition, its seven tracks showing off a more understated, trancey side to the band, and Calexico emerges as one of the most diverse, free-ranging outfits operating.
Incidentally, fans who contributed the band’s pre-release PledgeMusic campaign were able to select an autographed LP or CD among various premiums, making for an instant collectible. (Calexico has long been prone to offering limited editions and collectebles, going all the way back to their annual calendars and tour-only CDs; the aforementioned box set collected those tour-only discs as a massive 12LP artifact.)
Sonically speaking, a forum thread at Discogs.com drew some lively debate over the quality of the mastering and mixing. For my part, I don’t detect any “pointlessly muffled” passages, but I did indeed have to turn the volume up on side A, which clocked in at 25 minutes. Calexico is also a large group, with 7-9 people performing at any given moment, so a bit more volume helps spread that density across the soundstage and allows their dynamic nuances to emerge. Other commenters speculated on it being a poor pressing, the 180-gm. European pressing reviewed here presumably being superior to the U.S. edition (single LP, 15 songs) on the Anti- label. Inconclusive, but still worth noting.
DOWNLOAD: “Voices in the Field,” “Flores y Tamales,” “Dead In the Water”
A version of this review originally appeared in Stereophile magazine. Also note that BLURT’s Lee Zimmerman has also reviewed the CD version of the album for us.
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