The Upshot: What is “alternative rock” anyway? Amid all the joy and pain, loud and silent, on this reunion record, you will hear masters of a genre they helped give birth to—yes, The Breeders are back.
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
I’ve been waiting for this record, waiting a long time. All Nerve, the latest from the 1990s alternative rock giants—and Kim Deal side project from The Pixies—gets my preemptive vote for Record of the Year. I’ll just get that out of the way.
Where have the guitars gone from the music supposedly alternative these days? What is alternative? If you don’t know for sure, put on All Nerve (mine being on orange vinyl) and listen to the quiet, the empty spaces between the songs, and the explosion of guitar, drums and bass that fill the grooves and you will hear it, all the joy and pain, loud and silent, you will hear masters of a genre they helped give birth to; The Breeders are back. God loves us.
“Nervous Mary” starts like a Lou Reed fever dream lullaby, climbing to the nervous breakdown. This is what The Breeders do best; sneak up on you with cotton soft feet, going for throat and winning every fucking time. “Wait in the Car” shows that, though years have passed, the 90s are always with them; Nirvana riffs, Patti Smith snarl and strut. Beauty and sadness are there in “All Nerve” slightly open, imperfectly glorious.
“Walking with a Killer,” a song that began life as a Kim Deal solo single, is fully formed here. Josephine Wiggs’ subtle heartbeat, always there, thumping away at the line, magically off kilter, Jim Macpherson drum work never flashy but always perfect for the song he’s playing; a truly underrated drummer that desires praise.
“Archangel’s Thunderbird” is where it all comes together, the track that proves The Breeders are one of the best bands to come out of the ‘90s. Rock steady drums, garage rock flashes from Kelley Deal’s guitar (she shines throughout All Nerve: sloppy, ramshackle, a mess, perfect.)
“Dawn, Making an Effort” plays like a slow burn sequel to Last Splash’s “Driving on 9,” atmospheric with an ear to the grand, the beautiful strangeness that sometimes lives and breathes in a Breeders song.
All Nerve isn’t perfect, but sweet Lord, it’s close.
Kim and crew have done it again; stripped to the bone, showing the world who they are: a band that remembers what it was like for a band to rock. Thank you for not putting away the amplifiers.
DOWNLOAD: “Archangel’s Thunderbird,” “Nervous Mary,” “Dawn, Making An Effort”
Calexico’s ties to the aura of the great Southwest have made them one of the more indelible and inventive outfits of the past 20 years. With their smouldering brand of ambient experimentation and meandering, melancholic melodies, the Tucson group has created a sound that resides at the juncture between psychedelia and arched drama, appropriately stirred in the shimmering sands of the sun-baked desert and its otherworldly environs.
The tellingly titled The Thread That Keeps Us finds the band, on its ninth official studio album (not counting a litany of live and tour-only releases), integrating verve with variety, tossing in South of the Border canciones (“Flores y Tamales”), an essential urgency (“End of the World with You”), preening pop (“The Town & Miss Lorraine”), percolating percussion (“Under the Wheels”) and epic brass-infused instrumentals that convey their weary resilience (“Unconditional Waltz”). In short, it’s a credit to the band’s sonic stockpile that they’re able to mine such endless cascades of tone and texture and not allow themselves to be confined to any particular template.
The two men who remain at the helm—founding members (and formerly of Giant Sand) singer/guitar/keyboardist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino—summon ample reserves of talent and technique, and it’s that sonic suggestion which finds them consistently broadening their palette with such riveting results. “When the world goes dark I’ll always be close by,” the haunting final song “Music Box” promises. Indeed, a defining blend of assurance and intrigue makes Calexico’s music come across as both so sumptuous and so surreal.
Consumer Note: Calexico offered the album to early adopters via a PledgeMusic campaign (autographed items, handwritten lyric sheets, and sundry memorabilia as premiums), and consumers who joined up could obtain a signed, deluxe vinyl version that boasted a bonus 7-song LP. As the band also included a digital download with the record, Calexico’s dedication to going the extra mile for fans should be lauded.
DOWNLOAD: “End of the World with You,” “Unconditional Waltz,” “The Town & Miss Lorraine”
The Upshot: Cinematic guitar/percussion improv from a Blind Idiot God-ster’s fevered brain, as translated by the ever-diligent sonic maestro Bill Laswell.
BY FRED MILLS
Clearly not to be confused with the Azonic bicycle parts corporation, Azonic is fretmaster Andy Hawkins (guitarist for the monstrous Blind Idiot God) and percussionist Tim Wyskida (Khanate), who together make a monolithic improv noise that can be both malevolent of intent, and joyful in execution. Sharp eyed punters will recognize the Azonic name from the earlier Bill Laswell-produced album, Halo (Strata Records), a Hawkins side project in the mid ‘90s during Blind Idiot God’s extended hiatus.
The ’94 Hawkins offering was more free-form than the current Azonic incarnation; back then, the band delivered an effects-laden, heavy-drone affair spread across four 11-minute-ish tracks and featuring BIG’s Gabriel Katz pitching in on bass and effects. Circa 2017, Hawkins and Wyskida locate themselves firmly in cinematic territory — no less improvisational, but with a clearer sense of structure that carries the listener, suitelike, across a pair of 18 minute tracks. (That would be side 1 and side 2 for all you fellow vinyl fans who have been anticipating this slab of hot wax.) And as overseen —okay, via the “mix translation” — of longtime associate/studio auteur Laswell, Prospect of the Deep Volume One is, at some points, a grand, lumbering beast, and, at others, the sonic equivalent of being thrust across an interstellar wormhole, with all the psychic and physical disorientation that (admittedly ad hoc) description implies. The record, though, is certainly not uneasy listening. It suggests, to these ears at least, a cross between classic Krautrock extrapolations, but minus the signature motorik repetition (instead, expect thooming timpani flourishes), and vintage ambient explorations of inner space, with guitars subbing for synths and samplers.
And as suggested earlier, it’s filmic as hell. Cue up your favorite surreal or sci-fi movie (I suggest Kubrick’s 2001), turn its sound off, and turn the sound of this record up. You’ll see (hear) what I mean. (Have a taste at the Azonic Bandcamp page.)
DOWNLOAD: Pretty much the whole thing—it’s more like a film soundtrack than a rock album.
The Upshot: Essential alt-rock postcards from the past that fans of Jeremy Pinnell’s current work will cherish.
BY FRED MILLS
Late last year Rolling Stone proclaimed Kentucky singer-songwriter Jeremy Pinnell one of their “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” and with good cause; his sophomore album Ties of Blood and Affection had been notching Sturgill Simpson comparisons along the lines of “no frills honky-rock with plenty of pedal steel, Western swing and vocals as smooth as the highest dollar whiskey” (as RS put it). And I didn’t need any convincing, not after having been already knocked out by Pinnell, so much so that BLURT premiered one of his tracks from the album.
Yet a decade or so before going solo, Pinnell was heading up The Light Wires, a pop/Americana-tilting indie-rock quartet whose lone self-titled album, in retrospect, clearly gave notice that this young man was a major talent. Now his label, Sofaburn, has reissued The Light Wires alongside the essentially unreleased (it was originally a 2008 private issue of 50 copies) second album, The Invisible Hand, as a double-LP pressed up as—vinyl freaks, alert!—a one-black wax/one-red wax, gatefold sleeved gem. (See below.) Far from sounding like an artifact from the mid-aughts, this collection of Pinnell tunes is imbued with a certain timelessness that, another decade hence, fans will be eagerly out-nerding one another as they claim belated allegiance to this or that song. Backed by drummer Rick McCarty, guitarist Andy Hittle, and bassist/producer Mike Montgomery (also of Ampline and R. Ring), Pinnell sounds like a kid who grew up thumbing through an older sibling’s ‘60s and ‘70s albums and coming of musical age during the alt-rock and Americana explosions of the mid ‘90s, ultimately forging his own unique hybrid vision and forming a band.
Highlights are too many to list here, that’s for sure. “Talk To You Tonight,” from the first album, is a Whiskeytown-esque strummer with guitars and organ humming along behind Pinnell as he works through the regret of heartbreak in his yearning, Ryan Adams-meets-Eddie Vedder voice. Twangy midtempo country-rocker “Belly of the Beast,” also off the debut, with its irresistible titular chorus, is the proverbial coulda-shoulda been a radio hit. The Invisible Hand, likewise, is crammed with moments that, in a perfect world, might have been the stuff of arenas and thousands of hands thrust skyward. From Springsteenian opening track “Go On By” and the jangly majesty of “The Sinking Ship” (with a guest trumpeter, of all things), to luminous ballad “You Can Light” which gradually turns anthemic and, in turn, drop-dead-cathartic, and (speaking of anthemic) the Gin Blossoms-like “The Hum of Black Machines,” with its haunting lyrics about the abject loneliness of being cast aside and no longer loved, these are mature, full-formed compositions that have stood the test of time.
They’re also a fascinating glimpse behind the Pinnell curtain, essential postcards from the past that fans of his current work will cherish.
DOWNLOAD: “The Hum of Black machines,” “Go On By,” “Talk To You Tonight”
The Upshot: Challenging improv, Prog-jazz, and experimental sounds from a criminally obscure Cleveland band—part of the Pere Ubu extended family, no less.
BY FRED MILLS
A few months back, the estimable Smog Veil label, archivist of all things Cleveland and vicinity, issued a terrific red vinyl/one-sided 12” EP, Terminal Drive, by Pere Ubu synth maven Allen Ravenstine and percussionist Albert Dennis, as part of the label’s “Platters Du Cuyahoga” series, which to date has included titles from the Schwartz Fox Blues Crusade (reviewed HERE), the Mr. Stress Blues Band, and the Robert Bensick Band. It’s been an impressive and revealing series to date, connecting a lot of musical dots that no doubt have proven elusive thus far to all but the most plugged-in Clevo die-hards (or longtime residents). Folks like yours truly typically know about Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs, and the other usual suspects, but the available knowledge and resources have always been relatively slim, which is why Smog Veil—particular kudos to stalwart liner notesman Nick Blakey and his research partners Frank Mauceri and Andrew Russ—has become THE go-to resource. Without the label’s ongoing diligence (obsession?), a crucial chapter in American pre-punk history might’ve gone permanently lost, or at very least, overlooked.
Which brings us to Hy Maya, whose complete 1972-73 output—shows caught on tape, a few rehearsals and demos, plus a “proper” Cleveland studio session—are collected as The Mysticism of Sound & Cosmic Language on CD and vinyl (gorgeous blue/marbled wax at that, as a double-LP gatefold set with insightful liner notes from Andrew Russ), which also includes a thick booklet boasting plenty of rare archival photos and gig posters alongside an extensive oral history from members Bensick, Ravenstine, and Cynthia Black, plus journalist Charlotte Pressler. The lineup was apparently in constant flux, Bensick being the sole constant, at pints not featuring Ravenstine—Black was an occasional member—while including, variously, bassist Albert Dennis, Pere Ubu drummer Scott Krauss, pianist Bob Friedhofer, and percussionist Richard Schneider. Yeah, this was the proverbial “art-rock” collective, and perhaps its essential instability was what prevented Bensick’s outfit from earning more than a few brief mentions from journalists over the years—and also prevented any music being officially released, until now. Kudos to the label and studio whiz Paul Hamann, who tackled the daunting task of tape transferring and mastering, along with Sam Habash, who was responsible for the actual tape restoration.
The Mysticism also makes for the proverbial “uneasy listening,” in part because it’s sourced from both live and studio material rather than being an actual “album” in the conception/execution sense. That’s not to say it isn’t a fascinating listen, however. From moments of raw improvisation to more textured drones and injections of industrial noise to backwards passages—the minimalist track “Left Brain Reflexions” features exotic percussion flourishes, searing electronics, and even a person whistling— Hy Maya clearly had been kissed by the creative muse.
That they probably confused as many as they entranced didn’t do ‘em any favors, but my bet is that the members had the ability to surprise one another each time they rehearsed or performed, and that’s something you can’t quantify, artistically. Oh, did I mention that this is the kind of album that has the ability to surprise every Clevo-attuned listener – and make ’em believers? Utterly, transcendentally, essential.
DOWNLOAD: “A Quantum Mechanic Mambo” (1972 studio recording, featuring flute, jazz bass, world percussion), “Hold the Holograph” (1972 home recording at Ravenstine’s house), “Ship of Fools” (1972 live recording, possibly the most “straightforward” track in terms of having a full band arrangement and spoken word vocals—like a poetry recitation—from Bensick), “Dance of Illusion” (1972 rehearsal, a 16-minute slice of piano/bass/drums Prog-jazz with Bensick vocals).
A kosmiche, psychedelic, improvisational slab of genius, spread across four beautiful clear vinyl sides, announces the arrival of a visionary new outfit from the Old Pueblo.
BY FRED MILLS
Trees Speak, hailing from Tucson, Arizona, is visual artist Daniel Martin Diaz’s musical persona, formerly of Blind Divine and Crystal Radio, and here joined by Michael Glidewell (Black Sun Ensemble), Gabriel Sullivan (XIXA, Giant Sand), Connor Gallaher (Myrrors, Cobra Family Picnic), Damian Diaz (Human Error), and Julius Schlosburg (Jeron White Acoustic Trio). They consider themselves more of a “sound laboratory” along the lines of early Can—crafting long, live-in-studio improvisations, then editing them in the studio, adding effects, and more—than a straight-up rock band.*
Although that’s not to even remotely suggest that these cats won’t rock the fuck out, because like the Krautrock greats of yore, Trees Speak can shift instantly from a luminous, ambient electronic shimmer to a pounding, pulsing, powering wall of sound. Trees Speak, released this past December on the Cinedelic label, home to numerous electronic and experimental Italian artists (including several film soundtrackers—Ennio Morricone’s Eat It is among the label’s catalog), and distributed in the U.S. by Forced Exposure, is the group’s debut, and to these ears, at least, it is utterly unlike anything that the Old Pueblo had produced to date.
Side A is highly instructive. The ominous “Soul Machine” kicks things off on a heady Neu!-esque motorik note before yielding to a percussion segue leading the listener directly into throbbing, electronics-splattered drone territory, “Black Butterfly” and “Atomic Heart.” This in turn gradually turns into a series of restful, melodic passages via harmonium and nylon string guitar—although “restful” may be a misnomer, or at least misleading, since there are also some abrupt glitchy effects as well as some strange background vocal samples. The side concludes with the track “Trees Speak,” which synthesizes all of the foregoing into another moment of motorik magnificence—the key here being the use of repetition for both texture and dynamics, whether within the context of a minimalist or a full-arrangement composition.
One could similarly describe the other three sides, but it wouldn’t really do the music here justice. If the core elements of Krautrock appeal to you, along with the notion that genuinely transcendent psychedelia always is rooted in the improvisational aesthetic, then you won’t be able to resist this remarkable debut. I found myself playing certain tracks over and over—the aforementioned “Atomic Heart,” side B’s lengthy, aptly-titled “Spirit Oscillator” (which sounds uncannily like Can’s classic “Mother Sky” in places), the sizzling/searing uneasy listening of “Unconscious Through Control.” A single synapse-snapping composition, “Shadow Circuit,” takes up the entirety of sides C and D, split into Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, recalling at times fellow Tucson bands The Myrrors and Black Sun Ensemble in all their mystic, lunar-worshiping, Lower Sonoran glory; during the song, heady bursts of kosmiche guitar dart hither and yonder as if they were desert creatures engaged in their nocturnal hunts, only to be frightened back into their burrows by predatory rapid-fire percussion and zooming electronics—and then the cycle begins all over.
There’s a palpable sense of time standing still while Trees Speak performs, like standing on the floor of a rock venue, the lights turned off with only red LED lights on amplifiers for illumination, and simply letting the music wash over you. I realize that these tunes are the product of post-performance editing and tinkering, but they were also originally created live over a five-day period (at Sacred Machine Studio and Dust & Stone Studio in Tucson), and to their credit, the musicians retained that live feel for the finished product.
For you vinyl fans out there, the photo below should be all the motivation you need to scoop this up while it’s available: 2LP, 180-gm. clear vinyl in a gatefold sleeve, plus a 12” double-sided print, five 5” postcards, and two stickers. An artistic beauty, courtesy Diaz. And only 250 copies were pressed, so don’t sit ‘cos if you do, you won’t be able to spin.
* I usually refrain from quoting a band’s press info at length, but in this case I think it’s wholly appropriate to let them state their musical manifesto directly. It’s spoken like true Tucsonans: “Our intention is to create music with an unrehearsed minimalist approach performing simple beats, riffs, and sequences that take one inward. We attempt create a sonic environment to set one’s mind free and to become aware of the nuances of tone, melody, and structure. We organize our recording equipment with the same approach, in a transparent manner. Our recorded performances are never rehearsed. Our belief is that a brilliant rehearsal is a lost opportunity to capture a magical moment. We are chasing the mystery of music and tone. We let the musical performance sculpt its own destiny and create imperfect perfection. Our tool of creation is the anxiety one feels when they are unrehearsed or prepared for a performance. We believe this approach brings us closer to the authentic self. The result is genuine music without an agenda that captures the unfiltered spirit.”
The Upshot: Incalculably rare, this mid 1960s album by a bunch of upper class northeastern schoolboys is better than you might think. Ace covers and surprisingly sturdy original tunes, now available on back-to-vinyl.
BY BILL KOPP
A bunch of prep school boys put together a rock band in 1965. Big deal, right? American teens (mostly but not exclusively males) did that all over the USA in the mid-sixties. The influences of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds was widespread, and American affluence (for some, at least) meant that instruments and amps were within the budget of many teenagers. And sometimes they made good – even great – music.
Crate diggers have made a fetish of discovering some of those rare recordings. Calling themselves Green Fuz, a band from near Fort Worth Texas cut a song of the same name, often described as a no-fi classic. Copies of that 45 go for top dollar these days. Even rarer is the sole LP from those Andover Academy teens. They called themselves the Rising Storm, and their album Calm Before… is one of the most sought-after obscure LPs of the rock era.
Acclaimed music journalist Richie Unterberger wrote about the Rising Storm and their record in his essential tome, Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And the record got a legitimate CD reissue in the 1990s. Now in 2018, Sundazed Records has reissued the album again, this time returning it to its native format of vinyl LP.
The most remarkable quality about the album is the band’s impeccable taste in material The songs they chose the record are a fascinating assortment of well-chosen covers and surprisingly strong original material. The record opens with a cover of the Remains’ “Don’t Look Back.” The vocals are a bit smoother than Barry Tashian’s original, but the harmonies are tight, and the instrumentation is pretty top-notch, especially for a bunch of teens. And they play the damn thing fast.
Even the title “To L.N. / Who Doesn’t Know” betrays a kind of coffee-house sophistication, and the moody, folk rock original is musically appealing. “I’m Coming Home” is a simple enough garage rocker, but the arrangement is ambitious by garage-rock standard. And keyboardist Charlie Rockwell is fleet-fingered on his combo organ.
Arthur Lee’s “A Message to Pretty” wasn’t especially well-known on the east coast in 1967, but these students discovered it. The Rising Storm’s reading of the Love classic is a bit subdued and fragile, but perhaps that’s the vibe they were going for. The harmonica solo is pretty solid in a folky way.
We’ll excuse the inclusion of “In the Midnight Hour,” because every band did it back then. To be fair, the Rising Storm does better than average on the Wilson Pickett chestnut.
By far the weirdest tune on Calm Before… is “Frozen Laughter.” Unterberger spends a good bit of time discussing the track in his book. It really has to be heard to be believed. If it sounds like anything else, it’s perhaps a bit reminiscent of early Velvet Underground. The haunting spoken-word clip that opens the track adds a deeply unsettling air, as does the faraway, funereal organ. (Listen to it at the provided link, below.)
Another original, “She Loved Me” shows that the Rising Storm could fuzz-rock as well as any. The vocals on the chorus of “Mr. Wind” are wince-inducing; it’s the weakest track here, but it’s still not a total disaster. “Big Boss Man” opens as a slow blues but shifts gears into what sounds like an upper-class white boy’s rethink of Northern soul…an uncharacteristically good one.
“Bright Lit Blue Skies” is a strong original number with some sunny harmonies applied to a melancholy melody and lyric. And like all of the tunes here, it’s performed with great attention to detail, and admirable musical skill. The last original on the record, “The Rain Falls Down” is a shimmering, moody and contemplative number with reasonably mature lyrics. The record closes with another well-worn tune, “Baby Please Don’t Go.” The band plays it at breakneck speed, as if they were just told that there was two minutes and 48 seconds left on the tape. They make the most of it, and seem to be having a great deal of fun in the process.
The 2018 Sundazed reissue features the recording in glorious mono, housed in a lovely gatefold sleeve (with rare photos inside). And the translucent yellow vinyl is a nice added touch.
The Upshot: A labor of love, and a must-own for any serious fan of the early (circa 1920s) jazz era, notably Seattle’s Frank D. Waldron.
BY FRED MILLS
Hot vinyl alert: If you’ve got a hankerin’ for some authentic, vintage, circa-Twenties jazz, lovingly presented on a delightfully-spinning 33rpm (in lieu of 78rpm—gotta nod to contemporary turntable realities) wax platter, then look no further than Syncopated Classic. Greg Ruby, a Seattle-based composer, guitar/banjo savant, and musicologist, has assembled an ensemble of like-minded obsessives, er, enthusiasts, to recreate hometown early jazz legend Frank D. Waldron’s crowning achievements, namely 1918’s “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues” (look up that WWI reference, millennials…) and the complete Syncopated Classic from 1924. Familiar with those? Yeah, me neither—so consider this elaborately presented package a gift from the music gods, an instructional designed to give you, and the rest of us, a rare insight into one of jazz’s proverbial “forgotten musical giants” (as Ruby notes), and also in hopes of helping “ensure that Waldron’s music and legacy remain an integral part of Seattle’s rich musical history.”
San Francisco-born Waldron was clearly enamored of New Orleans jazz, and here Ruby and his six fellow enthusiasts ably and enthusiastically recreate the composer’s vision (love that trombone, Mr. Charlie Haloran!). One would need to be a specialist/archivist to properly annotate this 11-song LP, but suffice to say, put it on in the middle of a house party, and watch the smiles broaden, the drinks flow more liberally, and the inhibitions dissipate. Included is a folder crammed with the actual sheet music to Waldron’s compositions along with a 64-page book (pictured, above) boasting more sheet music and a detailed Waldron biography along with rare photos. To call this a labor of love would be an understatement.
DOWNLOAD: The entire thing—the flow, both musically and conceptually, is seamless.
The Upshot: A ton of poppy fun via memorable melodies and delightful vocal harmonies.
BY FRED MILLS
Sunshine pop from the Sunshine State have never sounded more luminous: Hailing from South Florida, Diva In A Yellow Tank (a delightfully inscrutable monicker that may or not be the result of the members playing one of those “pick a noun… next an adjective… and then another noun…” naming games) conjures fresh images of classic New Wave acts like Elvis Costello and Squeeze as well as such Paisley Underground icons as the Three O’Clock and early Green On Red. Vocalist/keyboardist DL Mandell, guitarist Dean Anthon, bassist Marissa Mandell, and drummer Bryan David Johnson have an instinctive grasp on how to fuse earworm melodies, sweet harmonies, and kickin’ beats—and, yes, before you ask, they even have a song titled “Sunny Day,” which chugs along merrily via surging organ (Farfisa, perhaps?), la-la-la vocals, thrumming bass, and four-to-the-floor drums.
Other highlights? “Burnt Toast” is an obvious standout, rife with twisty chord changes and back-and-forth tempo shifts that bring to mind vintage XTC; “Trouble In My Mind,” swaggering and sassy, triggering the aforementioned Costello notion; the quirky, garagey psych-pop of “Lost and Found”; and “Always There,” with its sing-songy vocal motif. It would probably do a disservice to definitely peg the band as “retro,” because the quartet doesn’t seem particularly interested in songwriting via template. Rather, given how Mandell’s organ is the dominant instrument here, and the way the harmonies also behave texturally in the songs’ arrangements, it’s impossible not to think of earlier artists who rely on a similar approach. And one thing is guaranteed: These folks are surely a ton of fun in concert, capable of turning a crowded club into a smiling, bouncing-up-and-down mass.
DOWNLOAD: “Burnt Toast,” “Sunny Day,” “Lost and Found”
The Upshot: Legend has long held that Boston’s Remains were an incendiary live group. A good as their few studio records are, they don’t provide a lot of evidence to support that assertion. But as newly-discovered recording from the tail end of the 1960s makes the point in emphatic fashion. (Check the link at the bottom for an exclusive interview with the band.)
BY BILL KOPP
The Remains were one of the coolest and most promising r&b-flavored American rock bands of the 1960s. The Boston-based group scored the supreme honor of opening for the Beatles on their final U.S. Tour. And the Remains would be immortalized by inclusion on Lenny Kaye’s incalculably influential garage rock compilation, Nuggets.
What the Remains never quite did manage was to release a proper album. They were “big in Boston,” as the saying goes, but they never broke out nationally, and despite the presence of an excellent songwriter in guitarist Barry Tashian, most of what they would leave behind recording-wise were cover version (albeit very good ones).
Fast forward to present day. Tashian recently made a stunning discover in his personal archives: an excellent quality live concert recording of the Remains. No, it’s not from their opening slot for the Beatles. And in fact it’s not even a recording from the band’s original run. This tape is a document of a reunion gig at the fabled Boston Tea Party on March 16, 1969. And though original drummer Chip Damiani had left right before the ’66 Beatles tour (to be replaced by N.D. [Norman] Smart, later of Mountain and Hello People), he was back behind the drum throne for the reunion.
Perhaps disappointingly, the recording kicks off with a song rock fans have long since tired of” the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy.” But in fairness to the Remains, they tear into it with relish, emphasizing the rhythm and blues potential buried within the song. Their reading of “Route 66” is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ version (the Stones were a key influence on the band’s sound).
The band’s cover of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” is quite punky, and keyboardist Bill Briggs’ electric piano is wonderfully nasty, playing the role of rhythm guitar. Tashian simply rips it up on a relatively lengthy lead guitar solo. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is pretty good as well, though despite the Remains’ spirited playing and singing, it’s not remarkably different form every other cover of the song you’ve heard.
But things get wild. The very best (by far) songs the Remains ever did were “Don’t Look Back” (written by a young Billy Vera) and “Why Do I Cry.” The latter is here in all its r&b fury, sounding not unlike the Stooges with an electric piano. In fact the Detroit band featuring one Iggy Pop is as good a musical guide for the aesthetic on display for this entire set: exceedingly raw, full of energy and rocking as hell.
In many ways, “Why Do I Cry” is the high point of Live 1969. The rest of the set is mostly familiar material, though it’s played with unmatched fervor. The Remains pile-drive their way through a supersonic (and delightfully ragged) reading of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and head straight into a blues number, Muddy Waters’ “She’s Nineteen Years Old. With the pace slowed waaaay down for the blues, the energy flags a bit, but the Remains play the tune in sinister fashion, extending it to nearly six minutes.
“Tell ya what: we’ll just do something else altogether,” Tashian tells the crowd. That something else is Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (with pretty fine Spanish vocals), sliding right into a malevolent and delightfully bum-note filled Rolling Stones cover, “Empty Heart.” The band wraps up with a track off their ill-fated album (released after they broke up, “Diddy Wah Diddy.” In the Boston group’s hands the tune sounds not a bit like Captain Beefheart’s version; instead, it – once again – calls to mind the Stooges. And what’s not to love about that?
Nobody knew this tape existed until recently. It existence proves something that was always said about the Remains, both by fans and Tashian himself: the band’s studio recording barely hinted at the Remains’ intensity. So here it is, in all its ragged glory. Fittingly enough, the album is available from the folks at Sundazed Records, on good old fashioned vinyl.