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, HERE for Pt. 3, and HERE for Pt. 4 (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.) Pictured above: Boston’s Prefab Messiahs.
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
Here in the Rockin department of Blurt, Inc., we tend to celebrate the variations of rock style by style. But that does an injustice to those acts that don’t bother to make distinction – punk, pop, psych, glam, etc. are all grist for the musical mill. Professor and the Madman is an excellent example. Comprised of veterans of the American and British punk rock wars, the Southern California quartet doesn’t waste time trying to stick to a formula on its first CD (following two digital-only releases) Disintegrate Me (FullerTone). Singers/guitarists Alfie Agnew and Sean Elliott, both ex-D.I., write songs that emphasize melody and hooks over genre loyalties, and the killer rhythm section of Paul Gray (the Damned, Eddie & the Hot Rods, U.F.O.) and Rat Scabies (the Damned) support every direction like a tap-dancing clock.
The quartet careens from seething punk (“Machines,” “Nightmare”) and high-voltage power pop (“Wishes,” “Faces”) to medium-tempo rock (“Useless”) and wayward psych (“Space Walrus,” “Electroconvulsive Therapy”), with the occasional dip into Monkeesish country rock (“Demented Love Song”) and whatever the droning “The Mirror” is. The variety isn’t a sign of dilettantism, however – the band applies the same keen sense of craft and loving charge of energy to every tune, nurturing the same spine. Disintegrate Me is an unexpected gem, and one that doesn’t require knowledge of its creators’ prior work to love.
Though France’s Guts Guttercat has long kept the same faith with Rolling Stones feel (and decadence) as Nikki Sudden, Dave Kusworth and the like, he too has no desire to simply catalog the styles he likes. For Follow Your Instinct (Pop the Balloon/Beluga), the fourth LP from his long-running Paris outfit Guttercats, he weaves strands of all the music he likes – street rock, psychedelia, glam, jangle pop – into a sensuous, ambitious tapestry that’s head-and-shoulders over anything he’s done before. The vocal harmonies on “I Promise You,” the off-kilter arrangement of “Down in the Hole” and the rich, Springsteenesque (or is that Street Hassle-esque?) drama of the title track give the band new dimensions. That’s not to say the group has forgotten its roots – check the ballad “Don’t Cry On My Shoulder” or the rocker “(Beyond the Limits) Before I Die” for old school delights. But Follow Your Instinct shows Guttercats to be a band finding its own sound in the beloved bric-a-brac of its leader’s loves.
Will garage rock – and by that we mean bands whose musical sensibilities haven’t evolved beyond the aesthetics of the Nuggets comps, not the term for anything with guitars and drums that popped up in the new millennium – ever go out of style? As long as older, junkier musical equipment remains (relatively) cheaply had and hormones continue to rage, the answer is clearly no. Especially coming out of the mouths of Thee Wylde Oscars. On its third album Rosalita! (Off the Hip), the Australian quartet needs little more than three chords, a foamy organ and a batch of songs that could just as easily be found on a compilation of regional 60s one-single wonders as on a CD made in the mid-’aughties. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you need more of this stuff in your life, but if you do, you can’t go wrong with “I Dig the Night-Time,” “Funny As a Heart Attack” or “Deja Voodoo.” Or you can skip right to “Wylde-Ass Twist” for immediate Oscarian indoctrination.
The Prefab Messiahs knocked around during the original early 80s garage revivalist explosion, but never managed to get an album out. Listening to the band’s Psychsploitation…Today! (Lolipop/Burger), it’s hard to think why. The New England band’s acid-tinged rock/pop is as tough and tuneful as anything else from the era, with the right balance between nostalgic reverence and cheeky humor. Check out “Having a Rave Up” (you can also view the awesome video for the track right here at BLURT) and “Monster Riff” (a clever recasting of the “Slow Death” riff) to hear the band hit those marks, or “Warmsinkingfeeling” and “The Man Who Killed Reality” for more blunt kicks. The Laissez Fairs also boast links to the original garage psych revival in bandmember John Fallon, late of the Steppes. The band’s second record Empire of Mars (Rum Bar) emulates the mid-60s era when the Beatles and the Stones were just starting to evolve into psychedelia – not yet full on acid casualties (a spot at which the Stones never arrived, of course), but adding touches like sitars, tablas and generous echo to their melodic rock & roll. The band goes whole hog into the other side here and there (the title track being a good example), but keeps the switch on “mildly trippy” for appealing, rockist tunes like “Wanna Make You Mine,” “Again Again Again” and “Almost Got You Made.”
We’ve waxed rhapsodic about Dirty Truckers leader Tom Baker before. In celebration of the attention his no-frills r’n’r has gotten lately, the band assembles “Best of” (Rum Bar), a primer on how to turbocharge the legacy of folk, country and early rock. With the assistance of not only his stalwart bandmates, but also Dave Minehan of the Neighborhoods (and the latter-day ‘Mats) and former Zulus/Human Sexual Response/Frank Black/etc. axeman Rich Gilbert, Baker jettisons trends to just play a passel of catchy, forthright three-chorders with absolute conviction. There’s way too much power here for the Truckers to be thrown under the Americana bus, but just enough familiarity with American tradition to make songs like “Off the Hook” and “Crosscutting Concerns” more than just bar-band rave-ups. The band’s choice of covers slip us the key: the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” and Steve Earle’s “Hardcore Troubadour.” Boston-to-Austin singer/songwriter Buckley (J.D. to his buds) also amps up roots rock on his second solo album Las Cruces (Rum Bar). The former leader of the Gilded Splinters almost slavishly apes Neil Young at times, from the Crazy Horse stomp of “Bakersfield” to the 70s country rock of “Devil Slide,” but plays it all with exactly the right feel. Besides, when the distortion cranks on a singalong anthem like “Three Chiefs,” it’s churlish to complain. [Full disclosure: your humble correspondent was born in the titular New Mexico town.]
Spain loves its American rock, power pop and punk, so it’s no surprise that the country has plenty of homegrown imitators. K7s distill that love down to its essence with Take 1 (Rum Bar), twenty-seven minutes of poppy punk that veers between the energetically sweet (“Listen to My Heart,” “Your Lips Met Mine”) to the blazingly pissy (“It’s the CIA,” “I Want You to Know” – “there’s no tomorrow,” that is). There’s plenty of lyrical treacle here – seriously, folks, it’s 2018, and no one should be writing songs about listening to hearts, yours or mine. But effortlessly catchy hooks and enough turbopower to indicate an unhealthy mixture of sugar and amphetamines mostly keep the band out of trouble. How many other songs called “Never-ending Love” make you want to smash stuff?
Boston’s Watts follows up its kick-ass LP The Black Heart of Rock n Roll with All Done With Rock ‘n’ Roll (Rum Bar), a four-songer that seemingly contradicts its predecessor’s message. The Boston quartet does, in fact, ease back on the throttle a bit – “Hi Definition,” “Sunlight Alleys” and the world-weary title track emphasize hooks over the band’s usual overpowering rawk attack. It’s a surprising turn, but one that works out due to the groups’ rock-solid songwriting and affinity for melody. Besides, “Tear It Up” brings back the wildfire, just in case we think Watts has forgotten its roots.
The Bonnevilles broke out of their homebase in Ireland a couple of years ago with their fourth albumArrow Pierce My Heart. Album number five Dirty Photographs (Alive Naturalsound) continues the duo’s work splicing Chess Records with Nuggets, with more of an emphasis on the latter. Indeed, “By My Side,” “The Good Bastards” and the title track (a paean to singer/guitarist Andrew McGibbon Jr.’s wife’s, um, hindquarters) smile and wave as they kick over the furniture. Even at the pair’s bluesiest (“Don’t Curse the Darkness,” “Fear of the New Zealot”), they have little interest in despair.
It’s always nice to hear a combo that remembers where all this rock & roll stuff originally came from. The Heartbrokers call up the spirit of the late, great Chuck Berry (plus a bit of punk rock attitude) on “Dance Motherfucker,” the second track on its debut Vol. 10 (Off the Hip). Led by singer/songwriter Van Walker, the Australian collective also bashes through wistful folk rock (“Rank Outsider”), horn-enhanced roots rock (“Love Your Enemy”), Midwestern hard rock (“I Am the Devil”), Southern rock (“Eye in the Keyhole”), brash boogie (“Trouble in Paradise”) and even a cover of Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down,” all done with enthusiasm and skill. If it rocks, the Heartbrokers love it, and do it well.
Easy to forget, but the guitar isn’t the only instrument primed for rock & roll. San Antonio’s Harvey McLaughlin reminds us of this by tickling the ivories on his debut album Tabloid News (Saustex). As might be suspected from the title, he also tickles a few ribs along the way – you don’t click over to a song called “Bigfootsville” or “Must’ve Been Elvis” expecting a serious treatise on the human condition. Like Randy Newman, McLaughlin’s playing is rooted in New Orleans pre-rock R&B, which gives his tunes rolling melody lines that would sound comfortable next to Fats Domino on a specialty radio show. “Mysterioso Blues” and “November 1st” demonstrate an excellent feel for Southern styles without coming close to pastiche. McLaughlin never brings his songs to the brink of chaos – to do so would obscure the wit threaded through his lyrics – but he builds up nice heads of steam on “Tunguska,” “My Baby’s Too Good (For the 515)” and the wordless “All’s Well in Roswell.” It’s been a long time since a singer/songwriter like McLaughlin’s come down the pike, and he’s a welcome breath of fresh air.
Check out selected audio and video from the records discussed above:
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:
“If you want to be part of MY world, I’ll accept you with open arms”: We say farewell to the late Northwest punk/garage legend and lifelong champion of the DIY aesthetic. (Above photo by Michael Passman exclusively for BLURT.)
BY FRED MILLS
When the final chapter is writ, one of my greatest regrets will be having never seen Fred Cole perform live. Sure, I have all the records—from the Clackamas, Oregon, rocker’s ‘60s garage outfits The Weeds and Lollipop Shoppe, through his legendary two-decade run fronting Dead Moon, to Pierced Arrows, which ran from 2007 to 2016, at which point his increasingly poor health dictated that he finally call it quits.
In rock ‘n’ roll, of course, we never say “never,” always holding out hope for another encore, just one more song. With Cole’s passing this week at the age of 69, that hope is permanently dashed. (Go elsewhere on the BLURT site to read our Cole obituary; he’d recently experienced a serious scare involving bleeding in his liver, and According to Willamette Week, despite treatment had remained “still very ill.”) Cole’s passing was announced at the Facebook pages for Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows:
I’m so sorry to have to let you know that Fred lost his battle with cancer & passed away peacefully in his sleep last night, Nov 9, 2017. Thanks you one & all for all the years & memories we all shared together, for being friends first & business partners second, so proud to be a part of your lives.
Fred had that quality of being “immortal” and I believe his songs & recordings will make it so. We can always hear his voice & his passion there and remember it like it was only yesterday & will go on forever. I love you all, Toody
“The last train is leaving
Can’t you read the signals in my eyes
And I’m standing on the platform
Waiting for the ones I’ve left behind”
Losing our musical heroes has become increasingly, depressingly, commonplace, and each of us deal with it in different ways—pulling out the albums, of course, or attending a candlelight vigil at a relevant shrine, or even organizing a tribute concert where other musicians can also work through their grief. In one sense, then, I’m luckier than many fans, because as a music journalist since the late ‘70s I’ve sometimes had the privilege of interviewing the deceased, and as a result, those earlier one-on-ones take on a deeper and richer resonance for me—and additional salve for the grief, a way to pull close to the artist one last time.
What follows, then, is a pair of interviews I conducted with Fred Cole, along with his wife and longtime bass-playing musical foil in both Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows, Toody Cole. The first conversation with the couple, conducted by phone for Harp magazine, to Oregon in July of 2006, was on the occasion of the impending release of a two-CD anthology from Sub Pop, Echoes of the Past, that essayed the trio’s recorded career to date, most of which the Coles had released (in lathe-cut mono, no less) on their own Tombstone label. Concurrent with Echoes was the DVD release of a documentary on the band, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, so for the story I also talked to Jason Summers and Kate Fix of Magic Umbrella Films, both of whom proved invaluable resources.
One quote that sticks out in my memory from that ’06 interview was from Toody Cole, who spoke of her husband in terms both peer-admiring and industry-defiant: “Fred was going to be great at whatever he did. He’s also the kind of guy that you don’t tell him he can’t do something. If you do – he’s so there. He’s a great inspiration.”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Dead Moon was on its last legs. A few months after the release of the CD and the film, in December, Fred Cole posted an announcement on the Sub Pop website, writing, “After 20 yrs, Dead Moon is retiring. It has been a journey we will always treasure and feel that a worldwide family has emerged in its place. Dead Moon became much bigger than the band itself, it became a DYI underground hopeful for a lot of people. The candle is still burning!” So that was that. Although it soon became clear that Fred and Toody remained very much a personal and musical unit, because while drummer Andrew Loomis was now out of the picture (sadly, in 2016 he would pass away, from lung cancer), by May of the following year the Coles were back in business as Pierced Arrows, tapping Kelly Haliburton for kit duties. By 2008 there was a Tombstone-issued Pierced Arrows album, with more records to come.
Then in early 2010 I’m on the phone again, this time for Stomp and Stammer zine, with Fred and Toody, getting the state-of-Pierced-Arrows broken down for me. That feature, along with the prior one for Harp, appears below—both stories in, you guessed it, director’s cut/expanded form, as I was able to locate my original interview transcripts. What was once around 3500 words is now nearly 9000.
To any Fred Cole devotees out there—and particularly to Toody Cole, if she ever comes across this appreciation—this one’s for you.
And for me, too.
In 1990, a package with an Oregon return address arrived in the mail: Dead Moon’s third album on Tombstone, Defiance. Included was a hand-written note on brown stationery from Fred Cole, thanking me for the reviews I’d written of his band’s previous records. I still have the LP and, of course, the note. Years later, as our 2006 interview was winding down, Fred mentioned that he’d always remembered those early reviews because of our shared first name, and how nice it was to finally connect directly over the phone.
Then he thanked me profusely for being one of the writers who had stuck with the band over the years. I’ll never forget how he put it to me, simply but sincerely:
“Fred, thank you for digging the scene after all this time, and for being into Dead Moon, for this many years.”
R.I.P., Fred Cole. May the angels of Heaven all sing in mono.
DEAD MOON: The Whole Story (Originally from Harp magazine, Sept./Oct. 2006, here expanded with previously unpublished quotes.)
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but had he been around in ’87 he might’ve revised that oft-quoted statement. Because that’s when the first stirrings of Dead Moon were heard—and the second stirrings of Fred Cole. Slithering outta the Portland, Ore., garage/punk underground to chart a purposeful trajectory into the Amerindie scene’s consciousness, Dead Moon – singer/guitarist Cole, his wife Toody on bass and vocals, drummer Andrew Loomis – has been in the national and international spotlight ever since.
Jason Summers, of Magic Umbrella Films, which did the 2004 documentary Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, first heard the band around ’91 and summarizes the band’s sonic appeal thusly: “That was back when Nirvana was starting to get big and Dead Moon just sounded nothing like what was becoming college alternative pop — kinda creepy, more rootsy, and somehow having a vein that went way back in history. No matter what style they play, it’s got their signature style. It could be a country song or a ballad or a screaming punk song, but it’s always got some kind of cobwebs on it.”
“We don’t care anymore!” cackles Cole, from his home in Clackamas, near Portland, when I ask him what motivates him year after year, but you sense his flippancy’s a self-deprecating ruse. For Cole, he of the leather-lunged, Arthur Lee-meets-Roky Erickson howl, serial killer riffs and outside-of-society lyrics, and a staunch DIY lifer, these past two decades must have been a hugely gratifying second act.
Addressing the rabid core of fans that snap up Dead Moon’s independently-released records and pack punk rock clubs whenever the band tours, Cole adds, “Come see us live again, soon. Come and see a fat old fuck play some real rock ‘n’ roll!”
He laughs again, this time proudly. Yeah, he cares. A lot.
Despite his contemporary project’s tenure and popularity, Fred Cole’s first time around in the music biz was in no way an inauspicious one. Born in Tacoma in 1948, as a teen Cole wound up in Las Vegas where he worked with several bands – among them, the otherwise all-black R&B band Deep Soul Cole and Top 40 covers outfit The Lords – before notching some regional success in 1965 as the lead singer for the more garage-leaning The Weeds. The following year saw the band relocate to Portland – to evade the Vietnam draft, they’d headed off for Canada, only to have their van break down en route – and they began gigging regularly up and down the West Coast, sharing bills with the likes of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Seeds, Chocolate Watchband, Buffalo Springfield, Love and the Doors.
The Weeds subsequently changed their name to the more teen-palatable Lollipop Shoppe and, signing with UNI Records, released an album (1968’s Just Colour) and scored a hit single (“You Must Be A Witch,” which would become an oft-covered staple of the garage/psych genre ripe for rediscovery during the Nuggets milieu). By ’69, though, the band had run its course.
Cole continued to make music in Portland, but meanwhile, he was also enjoying the domestic life. When the Weeds first landed in Portland in ’66, he’d caught the eye of Kathleen “Toody” Connor, a young, dark-haired beauty fresh out of Catholic high school, and intrigued by “this tall, skinny lead singer in the hottest band in town.” Love at first sight?
“Oh God, yeah,” gushes Toody. “Well, it was attraction at first sight. You gotta understand, I was a sweet Catholic girl, and he had a notorious reputation. So it was an oil and water thing. I totally expected him to be the biggest egocentric airhead from hell. But once we actually got together and talked, which we did a lot of, it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re nothing like I imagined you would be…’ Once you actually get to know somebody…”
“I just wanted to do the ‘please don’t’ with her!” interjects Fred, referring to a certain carnal Dead Moon lyric of his from the song “Poor Born.” “But no, she just knocked my socks off. And she was so arrogant and just thought, ‘Oh God…’ and wouldn’t let me touch her. So every night either before or after a gig she and I would go up to the park and talk and eat red liquorish – I was on a band budget, making about 80 cents a day to eat, and saving up our money to record, so I’d buy a big package of Red Vines, and that’s basically what happened for two months. Everybody would say, ‘Fred – pffftt, forget about it, there’s no way this is gonna work out.’ Her parents thought she was a lesbian because she didn’t hang out with guys. I remember when her dad finally met me, and I stuck my head in his car window and all he saw was all my hair, and his eyes got real wide, like on the Little Rascals.”
Fred and Toody married on June 14, 1967, a little fact they had to hide from Fred’s image- and career-conscious bandmates. Says Fred, “People would’ve freaked. In ’67, if you’re the lead singer in a band and you’re married, you can forget about it!”
The Cole-Connor union (which recently celebrated its 39th anniversary and to date has resulted in three children and seven grandkids) would yield more than just marital bliss. In 1976, on the heels of several underappreciated bands — notably hard rock quartet Zipper, which released an eponymous LP in ’74 on Cole’s fledgling Whizeagle label – Cole, inspired by the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the rest of the punk explosion, put together hi-octane trio the Rats. The band lasted until 1983 and issued three albums on Whizeagle, a Spinal Tap-esque drummer scenario ultimately deep-sixing the popular outfit’s aspirations. But with Toody tapped by Fred for bass chores in the Rats, one of indiedom’s most enduring musical partnerships was forged.
“I always had a thing about getting up on stage and always thought it would be drama or something like that, but it never worked out,” says Toody. “So Fred did me one of the biggest favors anybody can do: ‘Hey, get your ass up there, I know it’s gonna make you crazy, but…’ It took me a lot of years to get comfortable. But I just love it! So he picked the right time, and started me with something pretty basic. He hadn’t played that much guitar at that point himself. He just kinda wanted a bunch of amateurs to get up there, hammer away, and see what happens. Luckily for me he pressured me into it.”
What happened, of course, would be Dead Moon.
After the Rats’ demise Fred briefly indulged a Country & Western fetish with cowpunk trio Western Front, but his garage roots soon beckoned. One night in ’87, while on vacation and driving across the desert, Fred gazed up at a crimson-hued moon and suggested Red Moon as a good moniker for the back-to-basics combo they’d recently been brainstorming. Toody countered with Dead Moon, and the name stuck. Fred remembered a talented Portland drummer, Andrew Loomis, late of a Plimsouls-like new wave combo called the Boy Wonders, then working at local punk club Satyricon, and an audition was arranged.
“Now that was love at first sight,” recalls Toody. “Andrew had been coming to see us when we had the Rats and we didn’t even realize he was a big fan of ours. Instant chemistry. And we’d had so much trouble in the Rats trying to keep a drummer, so we thought, hey, we’ve got something that works, and Fred had been through breakups with the Weeds/Lollipop Shoppe, so when you’ve waited for 25 years to get it back again, you ain’t gonna let it go again the second time. It’s like falling in love, getting married, and then realizing that it’s a working relationship; sometimes things fuck up, but you don’t just say hey, hit the door jack.”
Now, even at their most vibrant, local music scenes can be pitiless towards new bands, even those fronted by a more or less known quantity such as Fred Cole. And Dead Moon definitely paid their dues early on, playing mostly cover tunes and taking gigs at any regional dive that would have them. Remembers Toody, “We played in this one place and came on after the local amateur comics finished doing their spiels – oh my God, it was unbelievable! But in a lot of ways it made us who we are. It was a very humbling experience, and to this day we appreciate it when people show up.”
But with the release, in 1988, of their first couple of 45s, “Don’t Burn the Fires” b/w “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Parchment [sic] Farm” b/w “Hey Joe,” and debut album In The Graveyard, both on the Coles’ second homegrown label, Tombstone, the Dead Moon snowball began rolling. Wildly enthusiastic national reviews ensued for this “music too tough to die” (as the Tombstone motto defiantly proclaimed) – primarily from the fanzine sector, where yours truly, writing for The Bob, drooled over Dead Moon’s “incendiary rumble” and “feral yowlps” of “primitive garage-rock fuggit-all.” Ahem.
Hype-laden wordsmithery aside, reviewers consistently hailed the group’s primitive yet incendiary sound and took due note of the band’s steadfast avoidance of effects such as reverb and echo, not to mention their preference for recording in monophonic. For his birthday one year, Toody bought Fred a vintage mono lathe, reportedly the same one the Kingsmen had used years earlier to cut “Louie, Louie”; to the notoriously frugal Fred, saving money by cutting his own record masters was a no-brainer. This turned out to be a telling aesthetic/practicality factoid not lost upon other reviewers, including Spin’s Byron Coley and the influential editor of Britain’s Bucketful of Brains, Jon Storey. Second and third albums Unknown Passage (1989) and Defiance (1990) followed in short order, each to similar underground press raves.
The aforementioned snowball turned into an avalanche upon Dead Moon’s inaugural overseas trek, which came at the instigation of Hans Kesteloo, owner of Germany’s Music Maniac label. Kesteloo, a die-hard garage freak a Fred Cole fan, had met Greg Sage of the Wipers while on tour in Europe; Sage, who knew the Coles from their Rats days and also frequented their Portland instrument store, Tombstone Music, agreed to put Kesteloo in touch with Dead Moon. Kesteloo subsequently licensed some Dead Moon tracks for a pair of Music Maniac compilations, and when the band landed in Europe in 1990, Fred, Toody and Andrew were treated like conquering heroes. (The Music Maniac alliance for Tombstone’s European market continues to this day.)
Fred, devoted to the one guitar/one amp school of touring, still marvels at the reception they got. “Our tour manager over there had toured with all the biggest bands – he had been doing the Lemonheads, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed. He showed up at the airport with this huge fucking van and 14 guitar stands in the back. ‘Dude, I only bring one guitar…’ The van was probably 3 times bigger than what we needed for the little bit of gear we carry!”
Toody notes, of the European market, “They accepted us like gangbusters over there! Same with a lot of different bands, like the Gories, that would go over and the Europeans just loved.” Dead Moon would return to Europe time after time in the years to follow; nowadays both Coles will eagerly single out certain cities where they have the equivalent of an extended family they look forward to seeing on each overseas trek. Meanwhile, having a loyal European fanbase allows them to return home with a profit, which partly explains why U.S. Dead Moon tours, while not necessarily rare, are neither as frequent nor as extensive.
“I always look forward to touring, especially Europe,” says Toody. “You know what hard work it’s going to be, what it’s going to take out of you, and it’s not like those early years when it’s so fresh and new that everything’s a surprise and you’re riding so high on emotion. We used to have this rep for playing three hour shows! But there’s another quality you gain from experience, so you try to give every audience the best you’re capable of every night because you realize that this many people are willing to pay the ticket price to see you.”
Such loyalty to their fans mirrors the loyalty that Fred, Toody and Loomis demonstrate towards one another; long ago it was decided that the Dead Moon brand would be retired if for any reason one of the three couldn’t continue. Fans observe this devotion each night when the band undertakes a pre-performance ritual. With just a candle jammed into a Jack Daniels bottle for illumination, the trio gathers at Loomis’ drum kit, leans in to one another, and firmly clasps hands.
“Fred’s very much into ritual and superstitious stuff, repeating things over and over again. He still laughs how as a kid he’d keep going back and touching the top of the door jamb 20 times just to make sure he had a good day that day,” explains Toody. “So we do The Handshake. It’s like, all is forgiven, whatever happened yesterday is in the rearview mirror and does not matter, let’s just go forward. The Handshake is a way to touch bases and let us all know that we love each other.”
Back home, in between tours, the Coles devote their energies to running their record label, operating a maze of other income-generating businesses (Tombstone Music, their instrument shop; Tombstone General Store, a convenience-type mart; and several nearby rental properties), and of course recording Dead Moon records. In mono, natch.
“Basically,” recalls Toody, “we started Tombstone for ourselves just like we did with Whizeagle Records. Then it became almost like a mentoring thing. Locals would ask us how they could get a 45 out, get gigs and all that, so we pressed up local bands, doing it on the cheap, and we got our street creds, so to speak. Then we had bands from all over wanted to have records out on Tombstone. But we haven’t done anything for quite awhile because we’ve been so busy. But we still have people asking all the time. Fred will have a continual lifelong affair with vinyl. He wants someone to listen not to the first song on a CD, but to listen to the whole first side of the record and want to turn it over to see what happens next.”
And the whole Fred Cole-Tombstone Records mono thing? This throwback touch was partly due to Fred’s steadily mounting hearing loss over the years, but it was also borne out of serendipity, explains Toody.
“That just happens to be the lathe he has, an old ’54 model lathe and that’s all it does. And hey, we all grew up with mono, and for him it’s like, ‘I’m deaf anyway, so all I’ve got to do is put two signals in one direction and, bam, they’re there.’ He hates effects, obviously, and there’s the old thing about stereo panning and all this other stuff. He figures, ‘I’m a vocalist, I write these songs, I’m not a guitar god.’ It all goes back to that old crunch of Bob Dylan: keep it simple, and let the songs speak for themselves. If the songs are good, it doesn’t really matter.
“So there’s no frills: you either love it or hate it. For a lot of people, mono is irritating as hell, and for the other half, hey, they love it, so it’s great. You hear all that reverb and compression on records from the ‘80s, and that’s his biggest beef. The reason we sing live and on records with completely dry vocals, no reverb, is so you don’t have to compensate for that. Just let your voice do what it’s supposed to do. He’s a pure naturalist, he really is. To him, effects are cheating. When it gets so homogenized, anybody can sound good. But how can you tell what they really sound like?”
In September Sub Pop, which along with other indie tastemakers such as Sympathy, Empty and Australia’s Dog Meat has occasionally played patron over the years to Dead Moon’s ever-growing back catalog, issues the two-CD Dead Moon career overview Echoes of the Past. Personally compiled by the Coles, it provides a compelling series of snapshots, stretching back to In the Graveyard and running up through 2001’s Trash & Burn – the most recent release is ’04 studio album Dead Ahead – and with a full Sub Pop roll-out slated for the set, it should also boost Dead Moon’s domestic profile considerably.
“The Dead Moon-Sub Pop northwest connection seemed important and valid,” agrees Toody. “And in a way it’s been a godsend that Sub Pop wanted to do this, because, you know, we think everything’s gonna last forever, but once Fred sent back and started messing with these old tapes – whew, you forget how old tapes start disintegrating after awhile. He was going crazy, having to keep re-cleaning the tape heads in order to go back and get what he wanted. He’s like the absent minded professor, so half the tapes he ever had were recordings in boxes, sometimes labeled with what songs and in what order, sometimes with nothing written on there. So a lot of it was disorganization on our part. And as I said, with the Sub Pop thing now, it’s great to know that in a way all of this is going to be saved if those tapes are at some point completely unusable. And thank god we have the technology to salvage them.
“We didn’t do any true remixing, but there was a lot of balancing and computer programming to try to even out tones, bring out the bass or drums on certain tracks. I mean, our tapes are – cough – sorrily lacking anyway! Between the different eras, and where we were recording and how we were recording it — and because Fred’s deaf as a post, treble frequencies are lost, so when we are recording he tends to mix the treble up really hot so what he hears sounds right to him. We got our copies a few weeks ago and I’m really impressed. Fred and one of his old bandmates worked on it here, and also Sub Pop went in and tweaked it out again, so they really did a nice job ‘given the quality of workmanship’! [laughs] So in a way the stuff sounds dated – as it should! We did this 15 or 20 years ago.”
“Lo-fi and DIY,” says Fred, firmly, a note of satisfaction in his voice.
Favorite Dead Moon records or songs?
“Oh God,” sighs Toody. Even getting the Sub Pop thing together was tough. Same thing going back and putting together a song list for this upcoming European tour. I love the fact that at different points we don’t listen to our own material that often that it impresses me like crazy all over again. But if I had to pick all over again: What we did on Unknown Passage, between “54-40” and “My Escape,” which happens to be one of my favorite songs. And Defiance, I’m especially proud of “Trash & Burn.” At different points it gets really difficult to pick a favorite.
“Trust me, Fred’s biggest fear, growing up in the ‘60s, there was X amount of bands that had one or two songs and you went out and spent your hard earned money to buy this album and you love this one song so you’re hoping the whole album is awesome – but usually it’s that one song and a lot of filler. So that’s been one of his biggest fears as an avid music fan. Just remembering that. And it was a bonus bonanza when the whole album was great.”
I ask the Coles if they encountered any surprises while sifting through their tape archives, or did they find themselves cringing at any of the old stuff…
“A lot of stuff we hadn’t heard in a long time,” admits Toody, “so honestly, the hardest part was having to pick out what would fit on two discs, and we left out a lot of stuff we wished could go on there. We left off [the first 45] because they were cover songs. And our cover songs, we’ve always kind of done them from memory – ‘Oh yeah, I think it goes like this…’ – and we always get it wrong, which is great, so it’s never a true cover song. It becomes a Dead Moon song. As an added bonus, Fred got the title wrong – it was “Parchman Farm,” not “parchment”! But hey, that’s our style! Our version of “Play With Fire,” which I sang, we left a whole verse out – ‘Whatever, it’s our song!’ [laughs] AC/DC’s “Long Way To The Top,” we got that whole rhythm wrong too, so it’s our song and the way we do it.
“And yes, sometimes I do [cringe] personally, to this day. But hey, that’s one of the unique things about us, and that’s why we say we’re ‘entertainers.’ We’re not ‘musicians’; we learned how to be adequate on our instruments with a certain flair and style, and the chemistry just happens to be magical. Name just about anybody and they can play rings around us. But that’s kinda cool. Part of having that constant struggle where it’s not one of these unbelievable natural born talents – you have to work at it, and that kind comes through. And I think people love the fact that it doesn’t look too easy when we do it.”
“We’re not an all-star band,” interjects Fred.
Agreeing, Toddy adds, “And that’s why we’re amazed that we have so many musicians that are fans. At any point at least 30-50% of people out in front of us at shows are musicians. And we are what you see – this is the real deal meal.”
Fred: “And you better not expect a guitar solo that lasts more than two or three bars, either!”
Both musicians are quick to point out that the gig’s the thing and always has been. Toody, elaborating, recalls wrapping up a particularly memorable, extended 2004 tour.
“And when we got back, I had tendonitis in my left wrist. So we took 9 or 10 months off and didn’t play at all. I was in a brace and basically let it heal. So we played a local gig here, rehearsed once, a fly by the seat of your pants thing. And we got up onstage and we basically fell in love with it all over again. Because at certain points, when you’ve done this many shows, when you know you need to stop is when you get to the point of, ‘Oh my God, this is becoming a job and I’d rather be doing anything else tonight…’
“So this show in Portland, we worried if anybody would remember us and show up, but the house packed out, and my mom, who’s 84, came to the show with my three brothers, and we honestly just had one of those magic nights.
“There’s been other shows like that. Shows at Vera, in Groningen, our second hometown, for example – shows where you feel not just the electricity in the audience but when that electricity and chemistry happens to be working between all three of you. It’s like basketball players being in this zone where they make 15 three pointers in the same game. And you know you can’t do that every night. But when you do, oh my God, there’s not a better high than that. And certain cities just work their magic with us too.”
One of the more intriguing recent twists in the Dead Moon saga is Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, the feature-length documentary from Magic Umbrella Films, aka North Carolina’s Jason Summers and Kate Fix. The pair initially got the idea to make a film about Dead Moon while working in the film and television industry in New York in the late ‘90s. Fix, who’d attended college in Portland, was already a big fan of Dead Moon and a friend of drummer Loomis; Summers was exposed to the band’s records as a deejay at UNC-Chapel Hill’s WXYC-FM but had never seen Dead Moon live until one night in ’98 when he and Fix spotted a flyer announcing the first-ever NYC Dead Moon gig. After the show, which Summers says “completely blew me away – even Jon Spencer was there in the front row, going nuts,” they invited the band back to their apartment and subsequently kept in touch.
“We’d get these long letters from them on Tombstone letterhead stationery,” recalls Summers, “which seemed to speak volumes about them even before we started broaching the subject [of the film]. We figured if they were that way with us then they must be really genuine.
Fix agrees, saying, “They have such sharp, sharp memories for everything, especially for the number of people they’ve encountered over the years. People are so excited to talk to them and you’re just amazed they can remember meeting someone once for just five minutes.”
Fascinated by both the band’s music and by the musicians as people, Summers and Fix eventually broached the idea of a documentary to Fred; already impressed by some of the Super-8 live video the pair shot of Dead Moon in New York, he agreed, much to their surprise – and delight.
Explains Summers, “We’d become more and more intrigued. Their music had gotten us. But it was the other parts of their lives that really got us. They were so quirky, so eccentric, so many projects going on all the time that it seemed like to them the music was kind of like a derelict hobby. I tend to think that musicians who don’t think of themselves as superstars, there’s something more there to that, about having a lifestyle where you can take all the things you love and build a working life.” Summers mentions the 1969 Robert Elfstrom documentary on Johnny Cash, The Man, His World, His Music, as a “brilliant piece of cinema verite” that influenced him as he and Fix were editing their film.
Indeed, Unknown Passage, while loaded with riveting concert footage, is equally weighted with intimate interviews (including Loomis and the Coles’ three children) and segments showing the Coles going about their daily activities at home and at their businesses, essentially painting a portrait of a couple at peace with the lifestyle they’ve carved out for themselves. A wealth of archival material outlines Fred Cole’s lengthy musical resume – there’s a priceless live clip of the Rats appearing on a Portland cable access TV program in the late ‘70s – while glowing Cole testimonials from the likes of Music Maniac’s Kesteloo, the Kingsmen’s Mike Mitchell and Mudhoney’s Steve Turner add additional context.
One intimate scene has Fred Cole displaying the Dead Moon album masters and casually tossing them around, not heeding the potential for damaging them. Summers says that’s his favorite part of the movie. “It reminds me of William Blake or something etching his little copper plates. Fred looks like Ben Franklin in his dirty robe with his bi-focals on, going through tape after tape after tape, getting these ancient machines working.”
Summers recalls their initial filming sessions of the band as being a literal trial by concert-trail fire. Fred, shortly after giving his blessing to the project, called the filmmakers up and asked them if they wanted to join them, 11th-hour style, on a European tour. The next thing they knew, Summers and Fix were getting off a plane in Amsterdam. “We’re in the parking lot going to get into the rental van,” says Summers, laughing at the memory, “and Fred got us in headlocks and made everybody get into a huddle. He says, ‘All right, if anybody fucks with you, you’re not with us – you’re in Dead Moon now. Do you understand? You’re IN the band!’ Then we broke the huddle and went into our first play – in the van, and go!”
“We tried to stay quiet and out of the way while rolling,” observes Fix. “In fact, our presences made it more fun for them. We felt like we were the honored guests, being shown around Europe, being introduced to all their many friends they’ve made while touring over there.”
Adds Toody Cole, “It worked out great – we loved the film. And we became really good friends with Jason and Kate, too.”
The self-financed film took approximately four years, from inception to final editing, to complete; in 2004 it was screened extensively at film festivals (a pair of memorable screenings in Australia and New Zealand featured live performances from Dead Moon!) and reviews were unanimous in their praise. Fix suggests that ultimately their budget restrictions worked in their favor. “It was just the two of us, no audio person, a real basic run-and-gun setup. But if we’d had a huge crew I think we would have sacrificed a great deal just in terms of the whole feeling and spirit of the project – and the intimacy we were able to achieve with the three of them.”
Hopefully timed to come out close to the Sub Pop anthology is a DVD of the film, most likely as a joint Magic Umbrella/Tombstone release (see: www.MagicUmbrella.com or www.DeadMoonUSA.com). Unknown Passage is not the first documentary treatment of Dead Moon; in 1995 Dutch fan Wilko Bello made the 50-minute You’ll Love Them All the Same, included on a CD-ROM with ’97 album Hard Wired in Ljubljana. But with a wealth of DVD extras, from songs to archival goodies to interview outtakes and ephemera (one priceless segment captures a snooty tour manager for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club kicking Dead Moon off the stage and a subsequent screaming match between him and Loomis), it will undoubtedly stand as definitive.
Prominent in the film whenever the Magic Umbrella lenses zero in on Fred Cole is a Dead Moon tattoo, the trademark band logo depicting a deathly, grinning skull protruding from a crescent moon. Not just any tattoo – it’s on his right cheek, a highly visible symbol of the man’s devotion to his band and to his craft.
This will probably preclude the man’s ever taking a job as a Wal-Mart greeter when his senior citizenship beckons, but predictably, both Fred and Toody have no intention of entering their twilight years quietly (although Fred, in a not-unwise concession to the drumbeat of age, recently got fitted for a new, high-tech pair of hearing aids).
The tattoo’s also physical testimony to Fred Cole’s bloody-mindedness as an individual. Ironically, despite the band’s seemingly tireless work ethic and massive musical output (at last count, roughly 13 studio and live albums and 14 singles and EPs), Dead Moon has been its own worst enemy in terms of any huge commercial break-throughs it might have achieved. Fred Cole still stubbornly insists on recording in mono, of course, with the digitizing of a Dead Moon vinyl releases barely an afterthought; and after all these years, Dead Moon remains a self-produced project. (With luck, the Sub Pop release should go a fair ways towards raising the band’s profile.)
Plus, he’s notorious for shrugging off – or outright running from – any overtures the mainstream might cast in his direction. Toody notes that Fred “kinda gets into this deer-in-headlights mode when shit gets intense.”
Pausing for a moment, she then relates an incident in the early ‘90s when the band, on tour in Europe, found themselves courted by Britain’s influential weekly Melody Maker. At the time, anything from the American northwest was blowing up and the paper wanted to send over a reporter and a photographer for a cover story – but at Dead Moon’s label’s expense.
“So Hans [owner of Music Maniac] runs it by me and says it would be a great career move: ‘All we have to do is fly this Everett True and his photographer over here to Europe, put them up in a hotel, and they’ll come and interview you and it’s just going to make you guys.’ Fred was like, ‘Oh, this just so smacks of payola. Ah, no. No, we’re not going to do it that way. If they think we’re such hot shit, fine. They can come over here [on their own] and I’ll talk to them.’
“You know, Fred has been so disillusioned by the music business in general and how it works, he just thinks, ‘If I’m worth the story, I’m worth the story.’ This is important to him: ‘I just want to know I did it on my own.’”
Hearing his wife say that, Fred thinks about it for a moment, then softly agrees.
“That’s right. I mean, hey, we grew up in the ‘60s and found out how the world works then. So, okay, I refuse to be part of it. I’m not gonna go there.
“But if you want to be part of my world — cool. I’ll accept you with open arms.”
PIERCED ARROWS: “Not Just Righteous, But Right” (From Stomp and Stammer zine, March 2010)
The letter is still here, tucked inside the jacket of a Dead Moon LP, on brown Tombstone Music stationary and bearing a July 1990 postmark. It’s a handwritten note from Dead Moon guitarist Fred Cole that begins, “Dear Fred, thanks for the reviews. You’re one of the core of people who started the ball rolling…”
Only hubris would allow me to think that I really had anything to do with Dead Moon’s rise from unruly Oregon punk/garage trio to international prominence as one of the fiercest, most uncompromising underground bands of the last two decades; by the time Cole formed the band in ’87, he already had enough experience under his belt to know exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. Just the same, helping get the word out about the band was something I and a number of my fanzine-scribbling peers approached with a missionary-like zeal, and it was gratifying to know that Cole appreciated the effort
In fact, although I never met him or his wife and bandmate Toody face to face (Dead Moon tours rarely seemed to be routed through wherever I happened to be living), we corresponded quite a bit, so when we convened via telephone in the summer of 2006 for Harp magazine dissection of their career to date, the occasion being the impending release of Sub Pop’s two-CD Dead Moon anthology Echoes of the Past, the interview took more the form of a conversation among old friends than a journalist grilling two musicians.
And then the band promptly broke up.
Cut to 2010: “You know, it wasn’t your fault…” Toody Cole lets her words trail off, then chuckles loudly into the phone.
I’d half-jokingly suggested that perhaps I’d placed a curse on the band by publishing the 2006 article; the laughter dies down, and she explains that after doing Dead Moon for two decades, “We kind of got trapped in a box, especially for Fred and his songwriting, and everybody wanted to hear the same 20-30 songs over and over again. But he’s one of these people who’s like, ‘It’s whatever I’m doing now, and not what I did then or when.’”
What the Coles are doing now is the Pierced Arrows, which they put together in surprisingly short order following the demise of Dead Moon. According to Toody (who, due to Fred’s deafness, handles the bulk of interview duties, fielding the questions and turning to Fred for clarification as needed), her husband had actually been thinking about closing the book on Dead Moon for some time; the band played its final gig in Groningen on Nov. 26, 2006. “And I pretty much had to talk him into coming back after that break anyway,” she continues, “because he was done at that point. Originally we were going to wait six months to a year, but it turned out to be about three or four [months] instead — just long enough to realize how much we missed it!”
Outwardly at least, the Pierced Arrows bear such a close resemblance to Dead Moon that some fans may have wondered why even bother with the name change and potentially squander the group’s momentum. Like Dead Moon, the Arrows are a three-piece, with Kelly Haliburton (ex-Murder Disco X) taking DM drummer Andrew Loomis’ place behind the kit; Fred Cole still spews his manifesto-like punk anthems in an unhinged, Arthur Lee-like howl while unleashing furious bursts of serrated riffs; Toody Cole still wields her precision basslines and shares occasional vocal duties with Fred; and just as Dead Moon did, before each gig the trio convenes onstage in a tight semi-circle whose physical closeness signifies both a musical and personal camaraderie.
Yet as Toody told me in 2006, in an unintentional foreshadowing what was to come, “We decided a long time ago that if any one of us three is not replaceable, then that will be the end of Dead Moon. Maybe something else will come up down the line, but it will be a different name.”
Hence, with drummer Andrew Loomis leaving the Dead Moon fold, the Pierced Arrows. The Coles knew Halliburton from his turning up at Dead Moon shows (his father had also played in a band with Fred in the ‘70s), so when they got the itch to resume playing, Fred invited him over for some informal rehearsals. Things clicked, and the Arrows played their first gig in May of 2007 with Poison Idea in Portland on the anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. “We’d only been rehearsing for about 4-6 weeks,” says Toody, “and we only had about a half hour’s worth of material. But it was just phenomenal, really over the top. We’d figured we’d have to start up the ladder again like we had done in Dead Moon, but that gig went so well things just took off from there.”
Indeed they did. Since that first show the band has toured regularly and scored great press coverage. Yours truly, reviewing debut LP (on Cole’s long-running Tombstone label), enthused thusly:
The Coles are as garage-shock defiant and hell-bent for leather as ever. Yeah, they sound a lot like Dead Moon — Fred Cole’s unhinged, Arthur Lee-like vocals and keep-it-simple chord structures ensure that — with the main break from the past being a shift away from Dead Moon’s signature lo-fi/mono aesthetic by recording in a real studio with a producer. Improved sonics aside, Straight To the Heart is aimed directly at faithful D.M. fans, notably the grinding, malevolent anti-war screed “Guns Of Thunder,” punk thrasher “Walking Wounded” (featuring a nice Fred-Toody vocal duet), a thunderous romp through Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” and a bluesy slab of alienation (one of Fred’s favorite song topics) rock called “C-U.” Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Cole.
For their second album, the just-issued Descending Shadows, Pierced Arrows inked a deal with über-tastemaker Vice Records. Wisely, the Coles and Haliburton don’t fuck with their established formula too much, either; in a mere 11 tracks, the band plows forth with such feral viscosity and velocity that you’re left clutching your chest when the record’s done.
In classic Fred Cole form, the album opens with a manifesto-like anthem, “This Is the Day,” a churning slab of sinewy guitars and rhythm section thud that finds the singer bemoaning all the ugliness he’s seen — and spawned — in the past and trying to find the inner strength to rise above from this point onward: “If only I could change the way I’ve become through all these years/ I wouldn’t be watching you holding back your tears.” The creepy, noirish “Buried Alive” comes next, Fred chronicling a modern-life-is-suffocating-me viewpoint via a science-gone-terribly-wrong metaphor. That’s followed a few tracks later by the even more horrific “Paranoia” that utilizes metronomic bass, abrasive, serrated swipes of guitar, and appropriately unhinged lyric images of “creaking floors,” “evil in the night” and “the sound of blades just before they carve.” And “On the Move” finds the Coles, against a thick backdrop of dark riffage, swapping vocal lines about an impending apocalypse (literal, mental or perhaps both) that’s propelling the two protagonists to flee ahead of the coming storm.
Fred Cole has been compared in the past to Love’s Arthur Lee, and sometimes to Roky Erickson as well, but on this album he sounds uncannily like a cross between late vocal greats Bon Scott and Alex Harvey, moaning and gurgling and blustering and spitting into the mic as if through clenched teeth while reeling from a significant flesh wound. Animalistic, by any measure.
Too, like a radically minimalist AC/DC, the band locks into some of the most primal grooves imaginable, Toody and Halliburton adopting a no-frills approach that’s propulsive yet steady, and this economy of motion additionally frees Fred to unleash a heady mixture of steel-lined riffs alongside psychedelic sound effects. There’s even an unexpected foray into British punk territory, “Zip My Lip,” that has Toody adopting a Johnny Rotten-like sneer as Fred deploys proto-metal buzzsaw licks to great effect.
The net result is a set of tunes simultaneously spilling forth on a chaotic veneer of sonics while remaining powerfully and purposefully focused.
In its time, Dead Moon became a Northwest institution, based out of Clackamas, Oregon, and amassing a core rabid fanbase that extended to pockets all across the U.S. and, in particular, Europe. From 1987-2006 the band issued 15 albums (plus the Sub Pop compilation), many of them on their own Tombstone label — official motto for their lo-fi aesthetic: “music too tough to die” — and pressed in glorious mono courtesy Fred’s vintage mono lathe.
Fred’s musical roots, likewise, extended to an earlier era: as a member of Las Vegas teenbeat combo the Weeds and later the Portland-based Lollipop Shoppe, he’d enjoyed some chart success in the ‘60s, notably with the latter’s hit single “You Must Be a Witch.” By 1976 he was fronting a hi-octane punk combo called The Rats, the first in what would a succession of bands featuring Toody (whom he married in ’67) on bass. Dead Moon was the charm, however, and while the band never sold records by the truckload it still built up a huge stockpile of indie cred during its tenure, with fellow NW bands like the Wipers, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam singing the group’s praises. Pearl Jam has frequently covered Dead Moon songs in concert, while singer Eddie Vedder recently composed an endorsement of the Coles for Spinner.com that reads, in part, “In a day and age when authenticity is harder to come by than an honest Republican, legends Fred and Toody Cole deliver on every record and at every show… [They] epitomize the true potential and pure meaning of straight-no-chaser rock ‘n’ roll. Not just righteous, but right.”
Toody and Fred had offered a telling anecdote when I interviewed them in 2006 that illustrates the authenticity and purity Vedder’s suggesting. They were touring Europe at a point in the early ‘90s which coincided with the overseas press going ga-ga for anything remotely Sub Pop-related or Northwest-based. Melody Maker wanted to come over and do a cover story on the band — but on the record label’s dime. Fred, smelling payola, flatly refused, saying, “If they think we’re such hot shit, fine. They can come over here [on their own] and I’ll talk to them.” As Toody explained, “Fred wanted to know that he did it on his own.”
Remembering that part of our earlier conversation now, I can’t help but wondering how on earth Pierced Arrows wound up on Vice, hipster haven to such acts as Chromeo, the Raveonettes, King Khan & the Shrines and, most notoriously, the Black Lips. For 2008’s Straight to the Heart, the Coles self-released, but for the followup, the decision was made to shop for a label. The timing was apt, as around the same time the Arrows toured with the Black Lips.
“That’s how we ended up dealing with Vice,” explains Toody. “We were thinking about asking around, and Sub Pop’s docket was completely full, so we said, well, let’s give Vice a shot and see what happens. We sat down with them to talk about licensing Descending Shadows and they had ideas about promotion, etcetera, so we told them we’d be willing to do that within reason. It’s something we need to do on our part to support all the work they’ve put in, and so far it’s been a really great experience.” She adds that they’re scheduled to do a split single with the Black Lips and that Vice will be flying the band out in April to record it in a New York studio.
Working with a high profile record label isn’t the only thing the Coles are doing differently this time around. Whereas most Dead Moon records were self-recorded and -produced, for both Pierced Arrows albums they’ve opted to record in professional Portland facilities (Straight to the Heart was even done digitally). The yield thus far has been a far more expansive sound and boasting greater clarity than the signature Dead Moon lo-fi aesthetic — although true to habit, Fred Cole still cuts the vinyl masters with his mono lathe.
Of the decision to work with outside producers, Toody says, “I think we’ve gotten more comfortable in the studio, and also at this point Fred’s [hearing] has gotten so bad that he realized that he can’t record and self-mix anymore; he can’t hear the frequencies anymore. Still, we’re working with first, second or third takes, so it’s also a bit of the same-old, same-old. It was a lot easier this time around and less intimidating than it used to be. And very relaxing from the fact that Fred wasn’t rattled trying to figure out, ‘Okay, which room should we use…’ and trying to roll tape and keep headphones on and play at the same time, stopping the take – it just got too ridiculous.”
Truth be told, the Pierced Arrows, though perhaps demonstrating more complexity in their arrangements than Dead Moon did (Toody also has a greater singing role in the new band), still ooze a primal ferocity that’s instantly identifiable. One detects echoes of everyone from AC/DC to the Sex Pistols to classic NW garageshock, but there’s no question you’re getting Fred Cole & Co. within the first few seconds of hearing a Pierced Arrows song. The net result is a powerfully delivered and purposefully focused sonic collision that’s as thrilling as ever.
“One of the nice things about having this new band is that you’re not so tied down to the regimen of what you’re ‘expected’ to do,” says Toody. “With Dead Moon, everything was always like, ‘It’s just this way. Don’t deviate. Nothing different.’ You know? With the Pierced Arrows, though, Fred is happy as a clam because it’s the natural direction he was leaning in anyway, but for whatever reason Dead Moon couldn’t pull it off.
“We have a whole new energy — a whole new jazz.”
I can dig it, Toody. Just don’t break up before I get to see you play this time. Cool?
As far as I know Boston’s Moving Targets, led by main songwriter Kenny Chambers, had only cut a handful of songs before recording their massive debut, Burning in Water (Taang Records, 1986). Though they’d been bouncing around in one form or another since the early ‘80s—they emerged from the ashes of a band called Smash Pattern—the only recorded output they had was a few songs on the Conflict Records compilation Bands That Could Be God. I have to say, I was completely blown away the first time I heard Burning in Water. At the time, I was moving away from hardcore and listening to more mid-tempo, melodic stuff, and this record just hit that sweet spot. The band got a lot of comparisons to Husker Du, which I do hear as an influence, but I like Burning in Water more than any Husker Du record, which is saying something as I love Husker Du.
It was tough to only pick out one song, but I decided to ask Kenny Chambers about the soaring and powerful “Faith.” Kenny was more than happy to hit me back and tell me about the origins of the song and the recording of it. The band: Chambers on guitar and vocals, Pat Leonard on bass, Pat Brady on drums.
What was the initial inspiration for the song? “Faith” was born during my time in the band Smash Pattern (Chuck Freeman on drums) in 1984. I’m sure there was some Mission of Burma influence coupled with a case of Old Milwaukee that we consumed at every practice. When the ‘targets came together again 1985 we started playing it.
Did it take long to finish writing it? The song took a short while to put together. I wrote it whole then added a couple more parts on the following couple of weeks.
Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (i.e.: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?) I think any fan of the band likes that tune.
Was it a staple of your live sets even years later?
The Moving Targets had “Faith” on most set lists from 1985 to 2007. I don’t think that we ever got tired of playing it.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
I wouldn’t change anything about it. The band played it well and Lou Giordano did a fine job of recording it and coaxing a good performance out of us.
Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.? Recording the Burning in Water album was kind of a blur. We were so excited and it went so quickly (all of the basic tracks in a day and a half) that I personally don’t remember recording most of the songs. I know it sounded great in the studio with Lou and Carl Plaster and we were happy with everything. The only problem with recording was trying to adapt to a cleaner amp sound. Lou pushed the cleaner sound and I was used to total distortion. In hindsight, Lou was right on the money. The record sounds sharp.
How do you feel about it now? I still think it holds up today.
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, and HERE for Pt. 2. Above: No, that’s not the Runaways ya dummy – it’s Heavy Tiger, gettin’ ready for some heavy pettin’. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
Wyldlife smartly has a boot in two camps. Based in NYC, the band has a firm grounding in the glammy proto punk and roughhewn power pop that emanated from its city back in the ‘70s. When it came time to record its second full-length, however, the group decamped to Atlanta, home of rising pop & roll saviors Biters and their brethren, and the joie de vivre of recording in a sympathetic environment certainly makes its impression. Out On Your Block (Wicked Cool) doesn’t so much veer from one stylistic variation to another so much as cram them together, powering the singalong choruses of “Keepsake” and “Bandita” with the reckless energy of a Mercer Arts Center freakout. The band zooms through the tracks like its members mistook amphetamines for sugar pills in their morning coffee, but never sound out of control – tight but loose in the grand rock & roll tradition. Sounding for all the world like a mind meld of the New York Dolls and the Plimsouls, Out On Your Block reeks with the pure joy of taking smartly crafted tunes and making a big-ass racket.
Seattle’s Cheap Cassettes apply similar makeup to their boyish faces on their debut LP All Anxious, All the Time (Rum Bar). As leader of the long-gone Dimestore Haloes, frontguy Charles Matthews has a long history of banging out tuneful constructions with bullshit-free flair, and he continues his good work on pleasure-button mashing popsters “Get Low,” “Big Dumb Town” and “My Little Twin.” Maine-to-Spain transplant Kurt Baker adds a bit of Detroit power and L.A. flash to a similar recipe on Shot Through the Heart(Rum Bar), the first full-length from Bullet Proof Lovers. That doesn’t mean power pop hero Baker (joined here by various Spanish r’n’r luminaries) has suddenly gone hard ‘n’ heavy, but it does give “On Overdrive” and “Heart of Stone” a fist-pumping, lighter-waving rush and “All I Want” and “Take It or Leave It” a punky, street rock attack. Unusually for bands like this, the second half of the record is actually stronger than the first.
With a sly grin and blazing attack, power trio Heavy Tiger blasts out of Stockholm with Glitter (Wild Kingdom). The colorful hooks of ‘70s glam rock entwine with the no-nonsense charge of mid-’70s hard rock, before being violated by late ‘70s punk. Riding Maja Linn’s gritty vocals (not unlike Muffs’ leader Kim Shattuck’s) as much as the big-ass guitars, “I Go For the Cheap Ones” and “Feline Feeling” deliver an irresistible opening one-two punch. But the band keeps the hits a-comin’, whether it’s more burning rockers like “Keeper of the Flame,” rousing glam rock like “Devil May Care” (written for the band by the Ark’s Ola Soma) or loud power pop a la “Starshaped Badge and Gun Shy.” The glitter in the album’s title dusts denim vests and ripped jeans.
Back in the bad old days of the late ‘80s, glammed-up quartet Enuff Z’nuff got shoved into the hair metal ghetto, which might’ve been fine had the band gotten the same hits and success as its West Coast peers. (Indeed, it’s an association the band has never shunned.) Unlike its mousse-abused pals, though, the Chicago band fell more heavily on the Cheap Trick and Sweet side of the pop metal street than on the Aerosmith/Starz side. Clowns Lounge (Frontiers) has a few squealing guitar solos, but otherwise leans on vocal harmonies, glittery melodies and big power pop hooks. “Rockabye Dreamland” resembles Jellyfish more than Def Leppard, while “Back in Time” and “Radio” sound more like homeboys Urge Overkill than Aerosmith. It hearkens back to the band’s first couple of albums, which is no surprise, given that it consists of songs reworked from the days before EZ’s 1989 debut LP. That means most of the songs feature original vocalist Donnie Vie, which will set OG fans’ rods a-twirl. Then there’s “The Devil of Shakespeare,” which features, as guests, late Warrant singer Jani Lane, Styx guitarist James Young and – as a ringer? – 20/20 co-leader Ron Flynt. Go figure.
Covers collections usually denote a lack of new material on an artist’s part, regardless of the official line. That said, the Connection has been awfully prolific the past few years and can be forgiven if the urge to hit the studio overtook the effort to write new songs. On Just For Fun! (Rum Bar), the Boston boppers bash through a batch of obvious influences (the Dictators’ “Stay With Me,” Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “I Can Read Between the Lines,” Dave Edmunds’ “Other Guys Girls”) and left-fielders (George Thorogood’s “Get a Haircut,” the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver,” “Streets of Baltimore,” the Harlan Howard song recorded by Bobby Bare and Gram Parsons). The band’s reverence for pre-21st century pop reaches its effervescent apex on a faithfully executed take on Syl Sylvain’s timeless “Teenage News,” its ‘billy and bubblegum delirium right in the Connection’s wheelhouse. A stone hoot, Just For Fun! lives up to its title.
The Jigsaw Seen draw from many of the same ‘60s and ‘70s touchstones as the Connection, though they’re filtered through such a personal vision that the L.A. act has always sounded unmoored from time itself. That applies even to For the Discriminating Completist (Burger), a collection of singles, EP tracks and alternate mixes of tunes from across the band’s nearly 30-year career. Echoes of the Who, the Creation, the Kinks and the Move resound, but on “Jim is the Devil,” “My Name is Tom” and “Celebrity Interview,” the Seen always sounds most like itself. That applies even to covers of the Bee Gees, Love, Henry Mancini and the Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett standard “The Best is Yet to Come.”
The Stoneage Hearts take many of those same influences and beat them with a Nuggets stick, as found on Turn On With (Off the Hip), a reissue of the band’s 2002 debut. The Australian trio’s sugar ‘n’ spice mix of grinning power pop and rough-hewn R&B-flavored garage rock cuts any hint of crap in order to get down to the business of hooks, harmonies and tunes as good as “So Glad (That You’re Gone)” and “Stranded On a Dateless Night.”
Australia’s Little Murders have prowled the Melbourne underground for nearly 30 years in various incarnations. The product of the longest-lived version, Hi-Fab! (Off the Hip) distills the quintet’s virtues – simple melodies, ragged harmonies, a nice mix of jangle and crunch – in 33 minutes of power pop rush. Still led by plainspoken singer/songwriter Rob Griffiths, the Murders sound comfortable and confident on the sprightly “She’s the Real Thing,” sweet “Merry Go Round” and driving “Out of Time.”
Perth’s Manikins predated Little Murders, evolving out of the Cheap Nasties, one of Australia’s first punk outfits. (The Nasties also gave us international treasure Kim Salmon of the Scientists, Beasts of Bourbon and Surrealists fame.) From Broadway to Blazes (Manufactured Recordings) collects the band’s entire oeuvre, from demos to singles to self-released cassettes, on two slabs of vinyl, and it’s ninety minutes of power pop perfection. The quartet deftly beats the hell out of melodic sweetness like Bruce Lee fighting a cheerleader, making the winsome “Love at Second Sight” (in two versions), the raw “Street Treat,” the brittle “Losing Touch” and the blazing “Girl Friday” sharp lessons in how to do it right. Melbourne’s Baudelaires keep the Australian garage rock wave flowing with Musk Hill (Off the Hip), a psychedelicized take on three chords and a bunch of youthful angst. Alternating thumping rockers like “Scrapbooker” and “Foxglove” with trippier concoctions like “Whet Denim” and “Snapper Steve” (not to mention a quick dip into the surf music pool with “Life’s Too Short For Longboards”), the young quartet puts the roll back in psych rock.
Manufactured has also taken it upon itself to rescue a couple more early power pop outfits from obscurity. Smart Remarks may have been the house band at the infamous City Gardens in the early ‘80s, but that was as far as the trio’s notoriety ever got. Too bad – the single and EP sides collected on Foreign Fields: 1982-1984 (Manufactured Recordings) are a delight for fans of the form. The band’s new wavey guitar pop reaches catchy potency on the sparkling “Falling Apart (As It Seems)” and “Mary’s Got Her Eye On Me.” New Jersey’s Modulators hail from the same time period, but let ‘60s/’70s roots like the Hollies and the Raspberries show through any new wave colorization on Tomorrow’s Coming (Manufactured Recordings). That 1984 platter was the trio’s sole LP, but here it’s augmented with a ton of demos, singles and unreleased tracks to grow into a 28-track monster of jangly pop glory.
The Muffs’ first two albums are masterclasses on melodipunk, and, while not the runaway successes so many of their peers’ records were, still put the L.A. trio on the map. So what happened with Happy Birthday to Me (Omnivore), the band’s third album? Creatively, nothing – the record is, cut for cut, the Muffs’ strongest, a consistently catchy, beautifully recorded and enthusiastically performed set that should have been the apex of the band’s upward arc. Alas, its then-record company Reprise decided to put their resources elsewhere, and the Muffs were dropped right as the album came out. (Despite this, it has never fallen out of print.) Fortunately, it’s back, all the better to enjoy the spice cake rush of “That Awful Man,” “Outer Space” and “Honeymoon,” the winsome midtempo power pop of “The Best Time Around,” “Keep Holding Me” and “Upside Down,” the 6/8 mania of “All Blue Baby,” the raging snot rock of “Nothing” and the snide country rock (?!) of “Pennywhore.” Plus a rare cover of the Amps’ “Pacer,” a batch of demos and the bandmembers’ informative and entertaining liner notes, including leader Kim Shattuck’s song-by-song commentary.
British guitarist John Hoyles has, to generally excellent results, toiled in the fields of Swedish rock, slinging strings for prog/doom outfit Witchcraft, boogieing spinoff Troubled Horse and glam/power rockers Spiders. For his solo LP Night Flight (Crusher), however, takes more inspiration from punk and pub rock, with no-nonsense songs and maximum production clarity. Outside of the acid folk of “In the Garden” and overtly psychedelic title track, tunes like “Talking About You,” “Before I Leave” and “Minefield” rock righteously and unselfconsciously. Bonus: a cover of former Pink Fairies guitarist Larry Wallis’ “Police Car” that makes Hoyles’ self-professed love of Stiff Records pretty blatant.
Mark “Porkchop” Holder did time in both blues punk act Black Diamond Heavies (of which he was a founding member) and in the arms of addiction. Free of both, the singer/slide guitarist returns to his hometown of Chattanooga, TN, for Let It Slide (Alive Naturalsound), a set of rocking blues that could only come from someone who’s lived a life on the underside. As such Holder wastes no time with virtuosity or fancy production – he and his rhythm section just crank it up and get down to business with a clearly articulated focus a lot of cracker blues slingers could use. Holder’s lack of illusions about where he’s been and how he got there power the snarling choogle of “Disappearing” and menacing country rock of “Stranger” as much as his raw bottleneck work, and his plainspoken vocals sell every syllable. Rough-and-tumble rambles through “Stagger Lee” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” also prove Holder knows how irreverently to treat a couple of pieces of well-traveled (read: overused) classics without losing touch with their essential spirit. “I’ve got no one but myself to blame!” he shouts during the titanic “My Black Name,” the song most likely to be his “Jumping Jack Flash.” That lack of sentimentality gives Let It Slide the conviction to put it in a different category than the usual flash blues slop.
Australia’s Evil Twin also uses the blues as a jumping off point on its debut Broken Blues (Off the Hip). No revivalists, this pair – nor do they pay homage, unintentional or not, to the White Stripes or the Black Keys. Instead guitarist Jared Mattern and drummer Chris Beechey blast off from the music’s 12-bar origins into loud, grungy rock that’s beholden more to bands Dan Auerbach and Jack White don’t listen to – nothing sounds like Zeppelin, in other words. Led more by Mattern’s measured singing than overwhelming instrumental bombast, dirty slide pound like “Look Into My Mind” and the title track, snarling boogie like “Motor City” and soulful power balladry (!) like “Slow Dance” sound fresh and exciting, the way new classic rock should.
Evil Twin’s country band Power might also argue that the blues is at the heart of its sound, but it’s difficult to tell under the punky crust and general mania on its debut Electric Glitter Boogie (In the Red, though originally released in Australia in 2015; the In The Red LP comes pressed on either red or black vinyl). A deliberate nod to Australia’s legendary hard rock acts Coloured Balls and the Aztecs (names not very familiar to Statesiders, though they might know Aztec leader Billy Thorpe’s later AOR hit “Children of the Sun”), the trio goes over the top with raging riffs, gonzo vocals and an air of barely-contained madness. These boys want to rawk, and when they fire up the wild-eyed boogiepunk of “Slimy’s Chains,” the title track or the band’s eponymous anthem, get with it or get the hell out of the way.
Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, Heath Green and the Makeshifters holler back to an earlier era, one when British bands like Humble Pie took soul music into harder rock realms than it was logically prepared for. Luckily, the quartet proves itself far less leadfooted than its predecessors on its self-titled debut LP (Alive Naturalsound). Without throwing any accusations of “authenticity” around, it really seems like coming from the American South gives Green a more natural feel for R&B, gospel and the blues, allowing him to fold his pan-seared shout into the Makeshifters’ hard-rocking crash without having to scream to be heard. The fierce pound of “Living On the Good Side,” chunky shuffle of “Secret Sisters” and sanctified soul of “Ain’t Got God” get the balance between tank and testify just right.
Tom Baker and the Snakes have been one of Boston’s best-kept secrets for a few years now, but with Lookout Tower (Rum Bar), the quintet makes a national splash. Marrying the plainspoken songcraft of heartland rock, the high voltage power of the Motor City and the ramshackle grace of a party-all-night bar band, the Snakes bash out catchy tunes like “High n’ Tight,” “Make It Hurt” and “Needle in the Red” like the Replacements if they’d listened to more classic rock than punk. Three guitars keep the riffs, hooks and jangles churning, and Baker’s ragged-but-oh-so-right voice delivers the exact dose of vulnerable swagger. If you like your rock & roll to worry less about subgenres and more about just getting to the good stuff, Tom Baker is yer man, man.
The combination of Detroit rock royalty Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman, the Visitors, his various solo bands) and James Williamson (the Stooges, of course) is so fraught with potential it would be almost impossible for it to live up to expectations. On its debut EP Acoustic K.O. (Leopard Lady), the pair neatly sidesteps the ambitions thrust upon them by delivering an acoustic EP of tunes associated with Williamson’s time with Iggy Pop. Tek’s gruff plainspokenness gives “I Need Somebody” and “Penetration” a note of gravitas, and the duo’s take on “No Sense of Crime” pulls out an obscurity that’s right in their wheelhouse. Oddly, though, the highlight is the Tek-less instrumental “Night Theme,” a mothballed tune that scans like the soundtrack to a crime-and-punishment TV show.
Check out selected audio and video from the records discussed above:
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. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
As leader of the now-legendary Lazy Cowgirls, Pat Todd created a canon of blazing roots/punk rock & roll that should serve as a textbook for anyone who reveres both Johnny Cash and the Ramones. When the Indiana-born longtime Los Angeleno shifted focus (barely) toward the Americana side of his personality with the Rankoutsiders, he stuck to the same standards – four chords, blasting guitars, a kickin’ rhythm section and more soul than a Baptist church on Sunday. Blood and Treasure (Hound Gawd!), the band’s fourth LP, is another stellar example of Todd’s vision. Jolted by the six-string team of Kevin Keller and longtime foil Nick Alexander, the ‘outsiders rip through blues and ballads, C&W and R&R, with an expertise that should be the envy of bands half their age. Todd’s songs eschew clever wordplay and ironic distance to simply channel the man’s heart from his sleeve to yours, whether he’s fighting bad love (“Tell Me Now,” “I Hear You Knockin’”) or working class despair (“This Counterfeit World,” “Just Another Broken Day”). He won’t give in, though, stating his case most effectively in never-surrender anthems “Stand Up and Sass Back” and “Don’t Be Sellin’ Emptiness.” Blood and Treasure shows Todd and the Rankoutsiders once again reinventing ragged but right by being simply unable to do wrong.
Fronting a freewheeling blend of Detroit hard rock, Nuggets garage punk, dirty Cramps-a-billy and grungy surf, all given an acid sheen, Spain’s Capsula have been blasting away for nearly 20 years to a devoted audience far smaller than it should be. But the Argentina-bred power trio have never let that – or anything, really – get them down, and that same joie de vivre infests Santa Rosa (Vicious Circle), the band’s eleventh album. (Twelfth, if you count its stint backing up Ivan Julian on Naked Flame.) Tempering its live energy a tad (note: if this band comes to a club anywhere near you, do not hesitate), Capsula polishes its songwriting to an even more potent shine, balancing full throttle burners like “Tierra Girando” and “Candle Candle” with midtempo psych poppers “Moving Mutants” and “They Are New Models.” The trio even successfully ventures into ballad territory on “Past Lives.” Proof that great bands can keep getting better. Birth of Joy comes from the same spiritual place as Capsula, but, with the bass replaced by keyboards, trucks in a more expansive sound. Get Well (Long Branch/SPV), the Dutch trio’s sixth album, picks up where its last studio LP Prisoner left off, pushing the psychedelic and jamming tendencies to the fore while not losing the band’s intense rock & roll drive. That proves BoJ equally adept at both short/sharp/shocked bangers like “You Got Me Howling” and “Blisters” and drawn-out epics “Numb” and the title track. Perhaps not the revelation Prisoner was, but a progression, for sure.
With a name like Dr. Boogie, you’d expect a band beholden to John Lee Hooker, or at least ZZ Top and Canned Heat. In this case, though, you’d be wrong – the L.A. quartet owes its soul to the New York Dolls and the heyday of glam and protopunk on Gotta Get Back to New York City (Dead Beat). “Down This Road,” “Queen of the Streets” and the title track rock hard with that ever-so-tricky mix of Chuck Berry and aggression, while “Really Good Feeling” verges on power pop. The biggest surprise is “Together,” which adds a disco beat and “doot-doot” vocals for a dandy variation on the formula. Boasting a clever, “why didn’t anyone think of this before?” name, Indonesian Junk romps straight outta Milwaukee with an impressive self-titled debut album (Rum Bar). Throwing glam rock, protopunk, power pop and R&B-flavored garage rock into a centrifuge, the trio shakes it all down until it comes out as uncomplicated rock & roll. “Black Hole,” “Little Malibu” and “Indonesia” show off a band that rummages through the past, takes what it wants and leaves the rest to rot. Surprise bonus: a cover of Jayne County’s “Fuck Off.”
Though best known for leading U.K. punk & roll band the Almighty and his current frontman position with Black Star Riders (the group that grew out the latter-day revival of Thin Lizzy), Ricky Warwick started banging guitar in imitation of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. Despite his schedule with the Riders, the Irish native found time to knock out a double album that serves both sides of his personality. When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (and Guy Mitchell Sang the Blues)/Hearts on Trees (Nuclear Blast) ranges from the hard-edged heartland rock of the first half (“Son of the Wind,” “Johnny Ringo’s Last Ride,” “The Road to Damascus Street”) to the mostly acoustic folk rock (“Said Samson to Goliath,” “Disasters,” a cover of Porter Wagoner’s immortal “Psycho”) of the second. Not out of line for a dude whose first professional job was playing second guitar on a New Model Army tour. German singer/songwriter Conny Ochs takes a similar tack on his third solo album Future Fables (Exile On Mainstream), though he prefers to mix his folk and rock rather than segregate them. Fielding melancholy introspection and cautiously optimistic progression, the record sounds like Ochs decided to blend his twin lives as acoustic troubadour and badass rocker, giving “Golden Future,” “Piece of Heaven” and “No Easy Way” a grit most singer/songwriter records rarely achieve.
If Kiss had succumbed to its 70s glam rock tendencies instead of its 80s hair metal fantasies, maybe it would be half as cool as Watts. The Beantown quartet kicks the requisite amount of gluteus maximus on third LP The Black Heart of Rock ‘N Roll (Rum Bar), happily rebooting riffs from the Stones, ZZ Top and the Sweet as it’s the first time anything like it has ever been heard. “She’s Electric’ and “Strut Like a Champ” brandish serious swagger, “Stage Fright” boogies like Marc Bolan if he’s been born in Texas and “Bye & Bye” reveals the bruised heart under the bravado. If the U.S.A. has ever produced a rock & roll band inhabiting the same dimension as the late, great Dogs D’amour, Watts is probably it.
Led by singer/songwriter Victor Penalosa – younger brother to Hector of the Zeros and Flying Color, cousin to the Escovedo clan, current drummer for the Flamin Groovies – the Phantoms bop all over the map on their self-titled debut (Rum Bar), from power pop (“Baby Loves Her Rock N’ Roll”) and country rock (“One For the Road”) to snotty punk (“Chump Change”) and no-nonsense rock & roll (“Tears Me Up Inside,” “Ditch Digger”). Add the driving heartland rock of “Two Lane Black Top” and Chuck Berry boogie of “The Ballad of Overend Watts” and it’s a party. The band has a solid grasp on anything that requires a backbeat and loud guitars, while Penalosa’s memorable melodies and appealingly plain singing tie it all together. You can probably be forgiven for casting aspersions toward the Two Tens – after all it’s a co-ed duo with a male guitarist and a female drummer, and debut album Volume (Ugly Sugar) was mixed by Detroit super producer Jim Diamond. But the L.A. act is no White Stripes wannabe – the band is far more enamored of 60s garage rock than Zeppelin blues. All the better to rock sweet pop tunes “Sweet as Pie” and “Watching Me” and pounding thrashers “Life” and “Rush Out” into the dirt.
Despite coming from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (or maybe because of it), the Connection has established itself as one of the best 60s-inspired power pop bands going via Little Steven-endorsed rekkids like Let It Rock and the stupendous Labor of Love. So it’s a good time to reissue the quartet’s debut New England’s Newest Hit Makers (Rum Bar). Fresh-faced and sparkling, the record gets down to business quickly and efficiently via “Stop Talking,” “My Baby Likes to Rock N Roll,” “I Think She Digs Me” and other nuggets analogous to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night era. Delightful. Seattle’s Navins apply similar energy to power poppy tunes that boast melodies by the jangleful on debut LP Not Yourself Today (Green Monkey). Named after Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, the band (which includes ex-TAD man Gary Thortensen) certainly exhibits a sense of humor, but is no joke, showing serious craft and heart on the winsome “Oceans,” the jamming “Wallet Full of Signs” and the crunchy “Never Wanted Nothing.”
Singer/guitarist Eric Knoxx slung strings for rockin’ surf/lounge band the Vice Barons for several years, but finally uncorks his larynx on Saturday Night Shakes (Rum Bar), the debut album from his new outfit the Backseat Angels. With a nod toward the upbeat melodies of old school punk/pop like the Boys and a wink toward the swagger of bubblegum glamsters like the Sweet, Knoxx and co. bang out hard candy delights “Teenage Rock’n’ Roller,” “To Be a Better Man” and “My Baby Wants to Brainwash My Mind.”
Hailing from Seattle, the town that kicked off the whole garage rock thing back in the 60s with the Sonics, the Wailers and – RIP Jack Ely – the Kingsmen, Liquid Generation takes direct inspiration from its forebears on Quarter to Zen (Green Monkey). Recorded in 1983 and unreleased until now, scrappy snarls like “Hang Up” (a gem from the Wailers’ catalog), “Nothing” (via the Ugly Ducklings) and “¼ to Zen” would’ve landed the band on the Get Hip label and on tour with the Chesterfield Kings had it come out when it should’ve. NYC’s Mystery Lights get even more faithful to the old school on their self-titled debut (Wick) – close your eyes and you’d think this was recorded in 1965. As such, it sounds like a bunch of kids with loud guitars, a handful of chords and a few drugs fueling their rock & roll fantasies. It would almost be too retro for its own good if not for the quality of the songs – the blistering “Melt,” the wide-ranging “Before My Own” and the surprisingly psychedelic “Flowers in My Hair, Demons in My Head” scratch the Nuggets itch as well as anything from the original era.
The blues is, of course, one of the bigger planks in rock & roll’s platform, and bands will never stop using it as the crux of their raison d’etre. So it is with Jane Lee Hooker. The NYC five-piece takes on everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and Otis Redding on its debut album No B! (Ruf). But since these ladies have backgrounds in punk and hard rock – specifically Nashville Pussy, Bad Wizard, Helldorado and the legendary Wives – they simply can’t help rocking the hell out of the likes of Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” Albert King’s “The Hunter” and Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.” The band’s rip through Johnny Winters’ “Mean Town Blues” hews far closer to the members’ previous day jobs than anything that came out of Memphis. Whiskey-and-cigs singer Dana “Danger” Athens’ original “In the Valley” fits right in alongside genre classics and deep cuts. Northern Ireland duo the Bonnevilles stick to an original program on Arrow Pierce My Heart (Alive Naturalsound), but also punk up the blues like Chess Records filtered through the Standells. “I’ve Come Too Far For Love to Die,” “The Electric Company” (not a U2 cover) and “The Man With the X Shaped Scar On His Cheek” rock raw and dirty, not a million miles away from what the Black Keys were doing in their early days.
For the last decade, Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Left Lane Cruiser has practically defined the idea of punk blues. Beck in Black (Alive Naturalsound), compiled by original drummer Brenn Beck from the albums on which he appears, collects tracks from the then-duo’s earliest days up until right before the band became a trio on last year’s barnburner Dirty Spliff Blues. The Cruiser’s rawboned bottleneck ‘spunk stomps and stammers on “Zombie Blocked,” “Circus” and the mighty “Sausage Paw,” one of six previously unreleased tracks. Shawn James is more of a blues traditionalist than Hooker, Cruiser or the Bonnevilles, but only in the sense of staying acoustic on his latest LP On the Shoulders of Giants (self-released). Wielding a pair of resonator guitars and recording at Sun Studios, the big-voiced Arkansan lays down deep blues like “Back Down” and “When It Rains, It Pours” that would crush boulders if played through a Marshall stack.
The blues is more of a feel than a form for international (counting members from the States, France and Sweden) quartet Blues Pills. Second full-length Lady in Gold (Nuclear Blast) finds the band folding in flavors of psychedelic soul into its groovy rawk stew, which suits brassy singer Elin Larsson on tunes like “Rejection,” “You Gotta Try” and “Won’t Go Back” (all hidden in the final third, oddly enough). Ultimately, though, the band is still about fairly frill-less rock & roll – check “Bad Talkers,” “Little Boy Preacher” and the especially catchy title track. Bonus: a menacing, rocking take on Tony Joe White’s “Elements and Things.” Hailing from Sudbury, Ontario, Sulfur City plays groovy blues rock with a political edge on Talking Loud (Alive Naturalsound). With an electric washboard, a powerful howl, a 60s sense of social outrage and a thing for the Devil (who appears in “Johnny” and “Sold”), leader Lori Paradis cuts a striking figure. Aided and abetted by guitarist/co-writer Jesse Lagace, she sometimes lets her band lapse into a Grateful Dead choogle that sucks the energy out of the performances. But when she and the band grit their teeth, via the swampy “One Day in June,” stomping “Tie My Hand to the Floor” and fiery “You Don’t Know Me,” they show a lot of promise.
Remember when alt.country meant more than folk singers with tasteful bands backing them up? The Right Here does. Sounding on debut LP Stick to the Plan (Rum Bar) like the Old 97’s if they’d just come off a particularly debauched tour with Motörhead, the Minneapolis (of course) quartet takes two-stepping melodies and C&W progressions and thrashes the hell out of them while keeping the songcraft intact. From blazing cowpunkers “Til the Wheels Come Off” (which sounds like a classic set-closer) and “Judge Me When I’m Sober” to the tear-in-your-spilled-beer ballads “Drunk and Rolling Around” and “Fall Asleep, Hate Yourself, or Leave,” the Right Here rips and tears at your heartstrings as often as your ears (and your air guitar). Austin’s New Mystery Girl also fields a rootsy vibe on Crawl Through Your Hair! (Gutsy Dame), but calling them just another band of that ilk is a mistake. Singer/songwriter Chrissie Flatt and guitarist Eric Hisaw have deep roots in country and Americana music, but also a smart pop sense and a raw attack, while rhythm section Bobby Daniel and Hector Muñoz did many years with Alejandro Escovedo. Add quality songs like “Stepping On My Toes” and “I’m Not Ready to Let Go” and a rollicking rip through the New York Dolls’ “Subway Train” and you’ve got something more developed than just roots rock.
The Kingbees were contemporaries of the Stray Cats, but never hit the same heights. That’s partly because the trio simply wasn’t as stylized as Brian Setzer’s crew, and partly because the group’s neorockabilly wasn’t as flashy about its retro stylings. That’s especially evident on second LP The Big Rock (Omnivore), originally released in 1981. Singer/guitarist Jamie James and co. worry less about 50s trappings than in simply continuing the tradition, making streamlined confections of the title track, “She Can’t ‘Make-up’ Her Mind” and covers of Charlie Rich, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins.
On the way to recording their second LP, the Muffs lost rhythm guitarist Melanie Vammen and traded drummer Criss Crass for ex-Redd Kross basher Roy McDonald. The changes did the band good, however, as evidenced by Blonder and Blonder (Omnivore). Originally released in 1995, the record reflected no radical departures from the self-titled debut. Instead the band refined its melodic punk & roll, with sharper hooks, wittier lyrics and a more aggressive attack. (Credit McDonald, whose spirit animal is clearly Keith Moon, at least in part for the latter.) “Ethyl My Love,” “Oh Nina” and “Laying On a Bed of Roses” rock recklessly without ever losing their grip on the hooks, while “Sad Tomorrow” and the waltz-time “Funny Face” demonstrate growing lyrical sophistication. The Doug Sahmish “Red Eyed Troll” and mostly acoustic “Just a Game” show a group growing beyond its self-imposed boundaries. Blonder and Blonder represents the Muff growing from strength to strength. As with last year’s reissue of The Muffs, this edition adds a gaggle of bonus tracks (including the album-worthy “Become Undone” and “Born Today”), informative liner notes from bassist Ronnie Barnett and Shattucks’ song-by-song commentary.
Careening out of control like a bus driven by a tweaker, Sleeping Beauties reclaim punk rock bash ‘n’ crash for a younger generation with their self-titled debut (In the Red). Slavering meat-eaters “Meth,” “Hands” and “Bobby & Suzie” filter garage rock through the prism of ADHD-addled high school dropouts; “Slumber Party” adds a shit-kicking (if barely recognizable) C&W beat. “Merchants of Glue” and “Addicted to Drugs” pass for ballads, with pretty melodies rolled in the dirt and left to dry in the sun – “South Eugene” even goes full on acoustic. The Pacific Northwestern quintet lays claim to real songwriting chops, which means even the most crazed numbers hold up beyond the initial energy rush. Like the long-gone Squirrel Bait drowning in the Johnny Thunders side of its personality, Sleeping Beauties buries a sensitive soul under a nightmare of squalling guitars, blaring vocals and chemically-assisted insanity, and may very well be what rock & roll is all about.
Michael Toland also writes about metal for BLURT. Go HERE to read the latest installment of his blog, “Throwing Horns,” in which he covers himself in goat’s blood and genuflects before the likes of Cobalt, Melvins, Death Angel, Candlemass, Dust Moth, Lord Mantis, and more.
The Backseat Angels – Saturday Night Shakes bandcamp:
As cult as cult can be, Colorado’s Cobalt records infrequently and tours even less, so the metal community can be forgiven for forgetting the duo still exists. But records like Eater of Birds and Gin are prized by fans like slivers of the true cross (and are about as rare at this point), so any new release comes with the kind of reverential anticipation usually reserved for a Tom Waits album. Slow Forever (Profound Lore), the band’s fourth LP, comes with its own black cloud – singer and founding member Phil McSorley was fired after using racist slurs in an interview, then replaced with Charlie Fell, whose own lyrics with his previous band Lord Mantis have been accused of racial insensitivity. (If you want to know the full tit-for-tat story, Google is your friend.) Regardless of one’s feelings for its creators’ past actions, the album is an exceptional piece of work. Multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder paints an ugly picture, but not one without appeal. Thanks to a tight grasp on arrangements and just enough melody to focus the violence, he spreads the band’s doom-ridden progressive black metal over two disks with no listener fatigue. Fell brings his bloodthirsty A-game to the mic, slashing his larynx with ferocity and slotting into songs intended for McSorley as if the latter had never been present. Psychedelic, dynamic and brutal, “Hunt the Buffalo,” “Slow Forever” and the massive “King Rust” and “Final Will” smash and burn with the best extreme metal of the past decade. Expect Slow Forever to top a lot of 2016 best-of lists.
Speaking of Lord Mantis, the band’s latest EP Nice Teeth Whore (New Density) is also the debut of its latest iteration, with Indian’s Dylan O’Toole and Will Lindsay joining Mantis’ Andrew Markuszewski and Bill Baumgardner. (The drama surrounding this particular mind-meld, which also tangentially involves Abigail Williams and the disgraced Nachtmystium, is worthy of a soap opera, but we’ll skip it – Google that shit if you gotta know.) Given that both outfits indulged in some of the most angry, hateful and nihilistic death metal ever made by anyone anywhere, it’s not a shock that the four songs here are the same, but moreso. The grinding closer “Final Division” isn’t just the key track on the EP, but practically a primer on this poisonous strain of Chi-town extreme metal.
Undoubtedly one of the best metal acts going, Tombs follows up 2014’s masterful Savage Gold with the all-too-brief EP All Empires Fall (Relapse). The Brooklyn quintet ostensibly plays black metal, but happily incorporates wild-eyed acid doom, spooky gothic drama and Neurosis-like poundcrunch into its violent aesthetic, always layering in just enough melody to keep from being mere cacophony. Synthesist Fade Kainer adds a new touch to the band’s usual deathcrush, but it’s still visionary Mike Hill’s show via the brilliant, eccentric “Last Days of Sunlight” and “V.” Former Emperor leader Ihsahn has long used black metal merely as a jumping off point – his last album found him hitting a new peak in that regard, and his latest Arktis (Candlelight/Spinefarm) keeps that momentum going. Few artists incorporate prog and psych into extreme metal as well as this Norwegian genius – he effortlessly makes “Pressure,” “My Heart is in the North” and “Mass Darkness” sweeping, jagged, melodic, dissonant and beautiful all at once. Though it has no toes in the extreme metal pool, Canadian duo Sierra also ranges all over the map on its new EP 72 (self-released). The difference is that singer/guitarist Jason Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Carvalho (plus drummer Sam Hill) hop from 70s metal to prog to psych to folk and back within a single beautifully written, arranged and performed 22-minute song.
The Cavern, the last album from Inter Arma, was also a single( 45-minute) song.The Richmond quintet doesn’t revisit that idea on its new record Paradise Gallows (Relapse), but it throws all its others into this 70-minute epic. IA carefully and considerately combines black metal dissonance, death metal brutality, doom metal dynamics and psychedelic sonic fuckery into lumbering constructions of artful agony and dark power. The band knows when to leaven the mood, via the ethereal arpeggios of “Nomini,” the gothic drama of “Primordial Wound,”the acoustic shimmer of “When the Earth Meets the Sky,” the prog rock majesty of “Potomac.” But that just makes the noise noisier and the loathing more potent – the eclectic journeys of the title track, “Transfiguration” and “The Summer Drones” blaze loudly with horror at humanity’s inhumanity to, well, everything. That the band hits the low points and does it in an artful way puts Inter Arma on its way to rewrite the rules of extreme metal someday. Seattle’s Dust Moth gets just as eclectic, if not as heavy on its first full-length album Scale (The Mylene Sheath). The band’s tricky blend of shimmering gauze pop, melancholy post-prog and psychedelic doom reaches full, expressive flower on the darkly flowing “Up Into Blackness,” the powerful “Corrections” and the enigmatically unwinding “Lift.”
The Melvins don’t fit comfortably in any bag (King Buzzo’s distinctive hairstyle would stick out, for one thing) under normal circumstances, and on Basses Loaded (Ipecac) it ain’t normal circumstances. With six different bass players (including Krist Novoselic, JD Pinkus of Honky and the Butthole Surfers and Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald, who’s filling the slot on tour) aiding and abetting the bottom-challenged trio, the band traverses all over its personal heavy rock territory, from spacey doom (“Captain Come Down”) and roiling acid metal (“Phyllis Dillard”) to thick grunge (“War Pussy”) and near-pop (“Choco Plumbing”). New Zealand’s Beastwars spins its own metallic web on third LP The Death of All Things (Destroy), plunging neck-deep into a thick ooze blended from doom, sludge, psych, thrash and biker metal. Guitars and rhythms mind-meld in pursuit of massive riffs; Matt Hyde’s carnivorous vocals rain visions of worldwide apocalypse down from the thunderclouds. “Witches,” “The Devil Took Her” and the mighty “Call of the Mountain” reveal meticulous craft under the nearly overwhelming power.
The future of doom titan Candlemass has looked uncertain for a few years, with singer Robert Lowe’s dismissal and rumors the band had no plans to record again. Clearly, though, any lingering issues have been sorted, as evidenced by EP Death Thy Lover (Napalm), the Swedish quintet’s first record in four years and first with veteran metal singer Mats Levén. Just in time for its 30th anniversary, the band proves it hasn’t lost a jot of its touch on lumbering blasters “Sleeping Giant” and the title track. Japan’s Church of Misery also could’ve thrown in the towel after losing every member but mastermind Tatsu Mikami following 2013’s Thy Kingdom Scum. The surprising choice to replace his countrymen with Americans (metal vets all) seems to have given the serial killer-obsessed outfit new, uh, life – And Then There Were None… (Rise Above) expertly balances melody and groove with brutality and heaviness for one of the long-running quartet’s most accessible LPs.
Miss Lava pushes its doomcrunch far out into the space/time continuum on Sonic Debris (Small Stone). The Lisbon trio swirls cosmic trippiness into ribcage-crushing doom, going from cruising speed (“Another Beast is Born”) to warp speed (“The Silent Ghost of Doom”) in a heartbeat, pausing to orbit both groovy (“Symptomatic”) and acoustically (“In a Sonic We Shall Burn”) along the way. Brontosaurus licks meet heavenly melodies, and it’s all shaken down until it burns. Dallas’ Wo Fat continues its blues-inflected, acid-soaked odyssey through the doom metal cosmos with Midnight Cometh (Ripple). The threesome’s seventh LP gets groovy (“Le Dilemme De Detenu”), rockin’ (the appropriately-titled “Riffborn”) and, most of all, smoky (“Nightcomer,” “Of Smoke and Fog”) if you know what we mean. Fresno trio Beastmaker brings together two countries’ worth of doom on its debut album Lusus Naturæ (Rise Above), drawing as much from Stateside pioneer Pentagram as from originator Black Sabbath. “Mask of Satan,” “Eyes Are Watching” and the title track do 70s heavy as well as anybody.
Speaking of that oft-maligned decade, airbrush that Ford Econoline and strap your mane down with a headband, because La Chinga hits town with second record Freewheelin’ (Small Stone). The Vancouver trio giddily grooves up its Me Decade riff rock – while nothing here goes full-on disco (it’s not that 70s), it’s not hard to imagine booties getting shaken during “War Cry” and “Gone Gypsy.” Guitarist Ben Yardley sparks fire with tough but melodic riffs and economic solos, while bassist Carl Spackler keeps the party rolling with beer-and-reefer vocal performances. Song titles “Mother of All Snakeheads” and “White Witchy Black Magic” (that’s the chorus!) nod to a certain self-aware sense of humor, but you’ll be too busy rawking out to acknowledge it.
Death Angel rose during the original wave of Bay Area thrash in the early 80s, but tends to be overlooked, possibly because the quintet didn’t release an album until 1987. If The Evil Divide (Nuclear Blast) is any indication, it’s also because the band doesn’t much care for the word “compromise.” Death Angel’s eighth album rarely bothers with anthemic hooks, catchy choruses or any of the commercial concessions peers like Metallica and Megadeth eventually traded in. With the exception of the incongruous lighter waver “Lost,” stalwarts Mark Osgueda (vox) and Rob Cavestany (guit) and their current cohorts thrash their fornicating brains out, spraying more squealing solos, savage singing and chuggachug guitar over the landscape than their pals have in twenty years. “The Electric Cell,” “Cause For Alarm” and “Hell to Pay” deftly mix precision strikes and blunt force trauma for old-school thrash that doesn’t sound nostalgic.
Though it doesn’t have the history that Death Angel does, the Australia-borne/Europe-based Destroyer 666 is no spring chicken, having released its first album in 1997. Wildfire (Season of Mist), the fearsome foursome’s fifth LP and first in seven years, blends fist-pumping melody, charred vokills and whipcrack thrash into a most impressive wall of glaargh on “Live and Burn” and “Hymn to Dionysus.” Philadelphia’s Vektor is even younger, but no less accomplished. Indeed, Terminal Redux (Earache), the quartet’s third record, shows off an impressive level of sheer musicianship without compromising tonnage. Leader Daniel DiSanto’s black metal screech conveys a science fiction story of some sort, but his and Erik Nelson’s python coils-tight six-string work remains the primary attraction.
A key influence on the early thrash bands, particularly Metallica, England’s Diamond Head has let long periods of inactivity shape its legend, so when it makes yet another comeback, it’s an event. Only the band’s seventh album since its 1979 recorded debut (the “Shoot Out the Lights” single), the quintet’s self-titled LP (Dissonance Productions) keeps the faith with its primary virtues: strong riffs, clear vocals (by Danish-born newcomer Rasmus Bom Anderson) and melodies for miles. Leader Brian Tatler still has the fleetest of fingers and a bottomless bag of licks, but it’s his dedication to hummable tunes that has made the band stand out all these years – of their peers, only Iron Maiden boasts the same devotion. “See You Rise,” “Diamonds” and “Shout at the Devil” boast catchy hooks as well as epic power,while the chugging “Our Time is Now” and “Wizard Sleeve” crank the headbanging energy while still keeping tunesmithery alive. Some might consider Diamond Head old-fashioned, but we prefer the word timeless.
Grand Magus waves a familiar flag on Sword Songs (Nuclear Blast), the Swedish trio’s eighth album. “We are warriors,” roars singer/guitarist JB on “Varangian,” “defenders of steel!” The band continues the quest exemplified by its last LP Triumph and Power, raising its blades high and conquering all who cross its path. The macho battlelust would be ridiculous if not for Magus’ burly riffology and relentless energy – “Last One to Fall” and “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel” would rampage even if the lyrics were about kittens and angels. “Every Day There’s a Battle to Fight” even works up a nice lighter-waving head of steam.
NYC legend Prong keeps blasting away from its own unique corner of the metal universe with X: No Absolutes (Steamhammer/SPV). For the most part it follows the usual Prong pattern of headbanging up 80s New Yawk hardcore – “Ultimate Authority,” “Worth Pursuing” and “Belief System” hit as hard and deadly as ever. But attempts to make the trio’s bashcore singalong friendly on songs like “No Absolutes” lead it to resemble Helmet, while “Do Nothing” and “With Dignity” sound like attempts to slot in late 90s radio alongside Breaking Benjamin and Shinedown. Artistic development should always be encouraged, but maybe Prong should just sound like Prong. Further down the East Coast, Miami’s Wrong has more than a little Prong (and Helmet) in ‘em, thanks to hardcore-influenced breakdowns and steely chunkachunk. But on its self-titled debut (Relapse), the quartet – made up of former members of Kylesa, Torche and Capsule – also wallows in drillbit noise metal in the Unsane tradition. The combo of teeth-gritting riffcrack and grinding screeblast reaches maximum potency on the pounding “Boil” and “Stasis” and the blazing “Entourage” and “Turn In.”
None more black: Savannah powerhouse Black Tusk had a major obstacle to overcome on the way to releasing Pillars of Ash (Relapse) – the death of bassist/vocalist/co-founder Jonathan Athon. Fortunately for band and fans its fifth album was finished before Athon’s untimely motorcycle accident, and it’s a ripper. The trio’s distinctive blend of steely thrash and shoutalong punk – sort of a Southern re-imagining of what Prong does – sets fire to the landscape via blazers “ Beyond the Divide,” “Still Not Well” and “God’s On Vacation.” Out on the other coast, Black Cobra kicks up a sludge-covered ruckus on Imperium Simulacra (Season of Mist) that wouldn’t sound out of place in Tusk’s hometown. The San Fran duo of guitarist/vocalist Jason Landeman and drummer Rafael Martinez digs deep into rifftastic rumblers “Challenger Deep” and “Dark Shine.” Rolling out of Vancouver,
Black Wizard goes straight for the doom jugular with New Waste (Listenable), leaving no power chord unstroked nor bong unsmoked on “Eliminator,” “Harsh Time” and “The Priest.” Though it didn’t get the chromatic memo, Red Wizard might be Black Wizard’s California cousins, and not just for being similarly inclined toward sorcery. The San Diego quintet’s debut Cosmosis (Ripple) sinks even deeper into the sticky grass of Sabbath worship – check the mighty “Temple of Tennitus” and the monstrous title tune.
Tucson, Arizona may be best known for eccentric root rock & roll, but a darker power lurks underneath the surface. Or so it seems with North, who slowly and painfully unleash Light the Way (Prosthetic). The trio’s follow-up to its “Through Raven’s Eyes” single imagines the epic progressive doom of Neurosis as post rock, roaring hoarsely over waves of riff that are almost symphonic in their grandeur. Tunes like “Weight of All Thoughts,” “Primal Bloom” and the powerhouse “From This Soil” come off kind of like Isis as interpreted by Explosions in the Sky, all furrowed-brow power and ugly beauty. Speaking of Isis, former leader of that band Aaron Turner returns swiftly with What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey) from his new outfit Sumac. The sequel to last year’s debutThe Deal, the hour-long monsterpiece pushes Turner, bassist Brian Cook (also of Russian Circles) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) into uglier, meaner territory – the leader in particular sounds nearly livid with rage and loathing. But the trio does it without losing the experimental edge and melodic undercurrent that Turner carries with him to all his projects. “Rigid Man” and the 18-minute, nearly overwhelming “Blackout” prove that art, atmosphere and blackened doom can mix.
Funny how some bands find favor mainly with metal audiences, despite a relationship with the genre that’s tangential at best. Thus it is with Great Britain’s Purson. The quintet released its head-turning debut on Cathedral/With the Dead singer Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label, which seems to have cemented its standing with headbanger audiences. Desire’s Magic Theatre (Spinefarm), the long-awaited follow-up, deftly swirls the same distinctive blend of psych rock, prog, electric folk and boogie as its prior platter, but with an even keener edge. Leader Rosalie Cunningham has clearly been honing her songcraft, and it shows on eccentric delights “Dead Dodo Down,” The Window Cleaner” and the striking single “Electric Landlady.” Toronto’s Blood Ceremony connects a bit more firmly to the metal tradition via harder rocking performances and an obsessive interest in the occult. But fourth LP Lord of Misrule (Rise Above) still portrays a band not easily categorized, with progressive rock elements (including frequent use of singer/keyboardist Alia O’Brien’s flute) and a 70s classic rock vibe that puts the heaviness on the lyrics. Regardless, “Flower Phantoms,” “Half Moon Street” and “The Devil’s Widow” rule.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where he acts “somewhat suspiciously at times,” according to his Lone Star State accomplices, which include media heavy hitters The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV. Coincidentally or not, the BLURT editor once lived in Tucson, which is a kind of sister city to Austin, where similarly strange happenings have taken place over the years. Note that a Tucson metal band is profiled in Toland’s latest column. Perhaps the work of the Illuminati? You be the judge…. Toland can be reached at email@example.com.
Making music babies one gig at a time, the L.A./Phoenix quartet, on their self-titled debut, combines hi-nrg rawk, distorted guitars and synth/keytar melodies. Co-vocalists Christa Collins and Nicole Laurenne explain.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
With two vocalists, a keytar and a shared love of classic Iggy Pop, MotoBunny have just turned in a truly original take on pop punk.
The group formed in 2013 by merging members of The Love Me Nots and The Wooly Bandits and just came out with their debut, Motobunny, on the Rusty Knuckles label. Combined, the group — co-frontwomen Christa Collins (synth) and Nicole Laurenne (keytar), plus Michael Johnny Walker (guitar) and Rik Collins (bass) — have shared stages with everyone from X and Nirvana to The Damned and Pearl Jam.
Christa and Laurenne spoke recently about how the band first came together, their shared love of Iggy and being a contestant on The X Factor. (Go HERE to read our review of the new album.)
BLURT: Let’s start out with an easy one first—how did the band first come together?
CHRISTA COLLINS: I think it was inevitable that Motobunny would happen! Nicole and Michael are in a band called The Love Me Nots and Rik and I are in a band called The Woolly Bandits. Both are garage rock in their own right. So after several years of sharing bills and dressing rooms, I don’t remember who said it first, but the general consensus was “we should do some music together”. Not too much longer after that The Woolly Bandits were asked to play the Ink & Iron Festival with Iggy Pop as the headliner, “YES Please!” Being that it was outdoors and a large stage we really wanted to fill out our sound, so we asked Nicole to play Farfisa and Michael to do a guest guitar spot. We pretty much wanted to be on stage together all the time after that! Rick and I trekked out to Phoenix one weekend and we pretty much had the entire album sketched out over the course of two weekends. Thus MotoBunny was born, and off to Detroit we went to record with Jim Diamond. There has been an ease about this band from the beginning where things seem to naturally fall into place. That’s a great feeling, like perhaps you’re on to something!
There aren’t a ton of bands out there nowadays with co-lead singers. Was there a discussion at first about who would handle the singing in the band?
COLLINS: I think Nicole was the one who brought it up? To be honest at first I wasn’t sure if it would work given that we had both been our own lead for so long, but I am a sucker for harmonies, and I had been plotting a girl side project for a while, so this was a perfect outlet for me. Nicole is the easiest person to get along with so that makes collaborating fruitful!
Christa, what’s the toughest perception you have had to overcome as a musician over the years, having started out with Disney?
COLLINS: I think I’ve had to overcome more perceptions as a petite female than I’ve had to as an ex- Disney artist. Not a lot of people know about my past or that I was a professional dancer. It feels like a separate lifetime ago in many ways. I was forced into retirement at 16 and there was such a large gap between then and when I had started singing again. I had completely different experiences, and in truth done some hard living. If anything it made me a better more well-rounded performer. I will forever be grateful to Rik Collins for finding me, putting me back on a stage, and giving me my voice back!
You also were on the first season on The X Factor. Musicians have said good things and bad things about shows like this and American Idol. Given your experience, do you ultimately think it’s a good thing for musicians getting started?
COLLINS: I don’t think it’s for me to answer that question for someone else. I suppose in part it just depends on what type and what level of artist you want to be? I will say that this business is brutal and heartless at times, so if you don’t have a burning desire to perform, and I mean you want it like air ‘cause life makes no sense when you try and do anything else, than I might not recommend it. For me there was very personal reasons why I did… Before my Aunt Judy passed from cancer she made me promise I would try out for American Idol. So I went and I was 10 days too old.
Years later, Rik’s dad comes bursting through the door touting “Simon Cowell’s got a new singing show and you have to try out”. Two thoughts crossed my mind as I looked into it: 1. I can honor my Aunt’s dying wish; 2. I got nothing to lose! So I auditioned, and did very well. I met some very talented people and made a couple friendships for life. I really got to test what I was made of as Boot Camp was brutal! Sleep deprivation, starvation, temptations, isolation, stress, emotional rollercoasters. I realized at that moment that my time in The Seeds and The Woolly Bandits was training. People around me were dropping like flies and some would ask me how I was staying so calm and focused. “It’s not that different from being on a DIY tour” – Oh the stories we can tell! I really got to see my resourcefulness, I gained new perspective on my performance. It was a cathartic experience for me and I’m personally glad I did it.
All that said the best thing about the arts is that it’s meant to be catharsis, to edify ones soul and spirit and evoke a change. You don’t have to be on TV, Broadway, or hanging in a museum to do that! You can find it in a garage playing instruments with your friends, or in a local theatre production, or coffee shop, on the street, whatever floats your boat? The best advice I can give someone is be open, be fearless, be experimental, be yourself.
Nicole, you started out as a classical musician, what started you on the path to being a punk-influenced pop /rock band?
NICOLE LAURENNE: At first, a love for the red grand piano that Jonathan Cain played in Journey – yes I admit it openly – but later I learned that keeping your classical chops up requires way more time and sweat and tears than rock chops. So there was a laziness element to it also I guess at first. When I met Michael, he introduced me to garage rock like The Animals and The Seeds, and that vintage Farfisa organ sound suddenly jolted me awake, in a musical sense. All laziness stopped at that point. I never looked back. I’ve gone from spinet to grand piano to farfisa organ to… keytar! Can’t wait to see what I get to play next.
All four of you have, combined, a ton of experience with so many different types of bands. Were there any shared influences that helped define MotoBunny’s sound?
COLLINS: there’s no question that Iggy Pop was what brought us together as a band. For me personally I’ll never forget the first time I saw a VHS tape of him walking across a crowd smearing peanut butter across his chest – Glorious! I wouldn’t say there was a specific band that influenced the album. We all have our personal favorite influences and we all have a “Fear No Music” diversity policy. You never know where you may find inspiration? Motown, Bowie, B-52’s, Led Zeppelin, Die Antwoord, Spice Girls (Michael Walker’s personal favorite) it’s all in there somewhere?
The album just came out. What’s next for the band?
COLLINS: Tour! Recording! More Touring!
Anything else you want to cover?
COLLINS: If I can speak for the band… We are so grateful to be able to share a stage with great friends, making music babies, and embarking on this great musical adventure. The crowd response and camaraderie has been palpable! Big thanks to #TeamMoto and Starry Management for seeing our vision and running hard! Who knows how long it will last or where this might take us- but we are sure having fun!
Live photo of MotoBunny by Scott Evanesky, via the band’s Facebook page.
John B. Moore is a longtime contributor to and blogger for BLURT, but please don’t hold that against him. Contact Moore HERE with your comments, gripes, compliments and promotional swag. Our resident expert in all things punk, his first Vans Warped tour came at the age of 4 years where he became the youngest-ever attendee to stage dive. Please kids, don’t try this at home – he is not a good role model!
Listening to Tarheel singer/songwriter/rocker/twanger Michael Rank’s stunningly great new album Horsehair a lot lately—hell, it’s been a goddam fixture on the office and car stereo for weeks now. It finds the former Snatches of Pink frontman collaborating with Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, and it’s a match made in Gram ‘n’ Emmylou heaven. As we noted in the BLURT review of the record, he marries back porch soul to countryish roots rock, and “matters of the heart rarely stray far from Rank’s worldview, as he colors the rest of these outlaw folk tunes with nods to ex-wives, current flames and, of course, son Bowie Ryder, his most consistent muse.”
I practically had to arm-wrestle contributing editor (and Blurt blogger) Michael Toland for who was going to do the review honors as Toland is as much a fan of the dude as I am. (Go HERE to read his review of 2013’s Mermaids, and HERE for my review of 2012’s Kin.) Ultimately I said “uncle” and gave Toland the review, since I’ve written about Rank so frequently over the years that I risk being viewed as not particularly objective when it comes to his records. Well, fuck objectivity, y’know? The whole notion of “being objective” when it comes to discussing art, and particularly rock ‘n’ roll, is a journalistic smokescreen; you can’t write about an emotional experience from a distance, and when critics attempt to do so, their lack of engagement with their subjects shows. I’ll take passion over objectivity any day, because the whole reason I got into rock writing in the first place was because I realized that just listening to music wasn’t enough for me—I had to share my enthusiasm, share the wealth so to speak. In that regard, “Rock Journalist” became the proverbial accidental career.
Horsehair is Rank’s fifth solo album in three years, last year’s Deadstock and 2013’s In The Weeds joining it and the other two mentioned above. That’s a pretty impressive output by any measure, and it’s not an overstatement to say that Rank’s been on an extended creative roll during this time; release-wise, he basically went silent in 2007 following the release of the final album by his previous band Snatches of Pink. In absorbing Horsehair of late and thinking about what Toland wrote, I found myself thinking back to when I first encountered Rank and his music—the aforementioned Snatches of Pink.
It was 1985, and a cassette tape arrived in the mail with little fanfare. Titled The Stupid Tape and boasting a somewhat primitive-looking dark blue j-card, it featured six songs performed by what was at the time a 4-piece Snatches—Rank on guitars, Andy McMillan on vocals, Sara Romweber on drums and Jack Wenberg on bass. Raw and ragged but definitely right, the six-song tape had a primitive, careening-yet-hard-twanging cowpunk/garage quality to it on such eventual Snatches classics as “Salty Dog” and “Ones With the Black” that seemed thoroughly at odds with the prevailing jangly college rock of the day.
1987’s Demonstration/Demolition, also a tape, continued in the aesthetic, and by the time of the first “proper” Snatches release, 1988’s Send In the Clowns LP (released on the Athens-based Dog Gone, a short-lived indie label founded by then-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt) the group was also developing into a solid live act with a decent fanbase.
I forget exactly when I saw the group play for the first time, but it was probably around this time in Charlotte, at which point I was the resident Music Editor for alternatively newsweekly Creative Loafing and it had become my “mission,” as it were, to cover artists that the other local media either overlooked or deliberately ignored. Snatches of Pink certainly fit that bill, lurching into town from Chapel Hill on gas fumes and truckstop tacos and aiming to shake some action while shaking up the populace. “Where is the nearest liquor store?” most likely was the first thing they would ask when they arrived at the club.
Booze clearly fueled this band, which had slimmed down to a trio, McMillan having assumed the bass position (and sharing vocals with Rank) for 1989’s Dead Men. This LP, along with next year’s 4-song mini album Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, which was cut live at CBGB as a promotional radio release, is what solidified their image as a hard-drinkin’, unrepentantly badass group who clearly did not give a shit what folks—and, significantly, club owners and bookers—thought about the band as long as they came out to the show. That was another quality about Snatches which more than simply endeared me to ‘em: hailing from a long line of rock ‘n’ roll rebels that included such miscreants as the Rolling Stones, Iggy & the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Johnny Thunders and the Replacements, the Rank-McMillan-Romweber musical mafia were long, and I do mean loooonnnng, on attitude. They lived the part and looked it, too, each member’s shaggy, unkempt hair shrouding his or her face to the point that you figured it was only a matter of time before someone tumbled off the edge of the stage (no doubt this happened on a number of times, but I can’t say if it was due to not being able to see or simply too fucked up to walk). Rank in particular had a British rock star thing going for him, part Keef, part Nikki Sudden, part Hanoi Rocks, what with his penchant for tight pants, flowing shirts and colorful scarves. I mean, he probably wore eyeliner as well, but since I couldn’t see his eyes from under all that hair…
Snatches of Pink were the kind of group that drew a line in the sand between them and the “nicer” artists that the Triangle generally sent down to Charlotte, and a lot of us opted to join ‘em on their side of the line. My good friend Michael Plumides operated the city’s 4808 Club and was an early supporter like me, his own thumb-your-nose-at-the-powers-that-be sensibilities fully in synch with Snatches’. On more than one evening, standing in the audience watching the trio in full spin cycle and at maximum decibel, he and I would marvel at their undeniable outlaw charisma while assuring ourselves that, yes, this is the best fucking group in North Carolina right now. The band was a helluva lot of fun to hang out with, too, whether passing the bottle around or yammering on about the latest records we’d bought or bands we’d seen. During this period I struck up a friendship with Rank that I am proud to say endures to this day; he knew I was a fan, first and foremost, but I think he also knew that I “got” where they were coming from and weren’t simply fostering an image for no other reason than they could do it. He was a guy that understood rock ‘n’ roll tradition and wanted to find where he fit in to it.
There were naysayers and detractors too, one of them also owning a local rock club. I remember having a long conversation with Jeff Lowery (R.I.P.) of the 13-13 Club in which he groused about how unprofessional and arrogant Snatches was. Lowery was an astute booker and brought hundreds of terrific acts to town, but since he was coming from a businessman’s point of view, it probably wasn’t surprising for him to have a problem with a group that knocked over mic stands and monitors, left broken bottles on the stage and ignored the soundman’s pleas to turn down the volume and distortion. I have no doubt that Snatches left a trail of disgruntled club bookers in their wake during their initial run.
Not that their reputation among fans didn’t precede them. They scored a semi-major label record deal for 1992’s Bent With Pray; Dog Gone was, by design, a regional indie, so the distribution and marketing oomph of NYC’s Caroline Records was a no-brainer. In addition to benefiting from a decent recording budget the record found the band experimenting with a softer, psychedelic, more overtly melodic side; just opening track “Mother Crane” alone, with its strummy acoustic guitars, dreamy backing vocals and modal vibe, suggested some heretofore only intermittently displayed folk and roots influences. They didn’t go soft, however, merely expanded the range and depth of their songwriting and arrangements—which, I reckon, is the product of any band’s natural evolution and maturation—while still being able to rock out on a moment’s notice.
The album also served to introduce the stylistic shift displayed on Rank’s subsequent solo debut, 1993’s Coral, also on Caroline, which was dreamy and gorgeous and bursting at the seams with plangent guitars and no shortage of 12-string flourishes. In retrospect, these two albums can be viewed as a foreshadowing of Rank’s current incarnation as a folk/country-tilting troubadour, not necessarily examples of proto-Americana (the records have more of a baroque British feel) but certainly a glimpse of where his songwriting was headed. They also suggested great things loomed for Snatches, given the proper marketing and a healthy touring regimen to get their music showcased outside their immediate region.
And then—silence. In the summer of ’92 I left for Arizona, and as a result, lost touch with a lot of NC friends in the pre-Internet era. Meanwhile, no more music would emerge from the Snatches camp until 1996, and when it did it was, confusingly, under the name of Clarissa rather than Snatches of Pink. Perhaps someone at their new label, Mammoth, had convinced them that the original name was a tad too suggestive for the brave, bold, politically correct new world of commercial alt-rock; or maybe the band just viewed the three-year hiatus as an opportunity to start with a clean slate, but either way, it was a misfire, strategically, as the group’s Silver album failed both to capture a new audience and to hold on to the old Snatches fanbase. Of the former I am certain, because I was working in a Tucson record store and observed firsthand how Mammoth totally dropped the ball in terms of exploiting its distribution arrangement with Atlantic to effectively market Clarissa; of the latter, well, this particular fan thought it was a wonderful record, but my gut feeling is that a lot of people just thought Snatches had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Which it pretty much did after that, at least until 2003 when Rank resurfaced with not one but two albums, one as a heavy-rocking reconstituted Snatches Of Pink, Hyena (featuring Romweber on drums, Marc E. Smith on second guitar and a procession of bassists) and the other as a new group, Marat (whose Marat album was a co-writing project of Rank and John Ensslin, late of NC’s Teasing The Korean). The new-look Snatches would also go on to release Stag in 2005 and Love Is Dead in 2007, with Marat issuing Again in 2005, and all five of these Rank-helmed projects from the ‘00s are worthy entries to the man’s discography but none of them really got the exposure they deserved.
At any rate, this story is less an abbreviated history of Michael Rank and more a belated appreciation for one of my favorite North Carolina bands, the classic Snatches lineup of Rank, McMillan and Romweber. I dearly love those core records and I cherish every memory of seeing them perform live.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of info out on the web about Snatches; there aren’t even all that many good early photos of the band online. And the Trouser Press entry is relatively succinct, and incomplete, while the Wikipedia listing is criminally bare-bones and way out of date, with a bunch of dead links listed. There is an official Snatches of Pink website, although it appears to have gone dormant in 2009, and it doesn’t really deal with the early lineup(s) and albums, just the latter-day incarnation. It’s worth noting, though, that during that phase an indie documentary about the band, Now It’s A Rock N Roll Show, was released in 2007 by Trickle Down Productions and directed by Daniel Adams so you can get details about it at the site. (Below: two trailers for the film, which includes plenty of early-days content)
Meanwhile, Bent With Pray, Rank’s Coral and Clarissa’s Silver (which in my mind is a Snatches album) are all readily available, and fairly inexpensively, at eBay and sundry online sources while the three Dog Gone titles surface from time to time (the somewhat rare CD version of Dead Men is even showing currently at Discogs, ranging from $9 to $35). The more recent Snatches CDs can be found easily too, and Love Is Dead is also available at Rank’s Bandcamp merch page along with all his recent solo titles.
Almost as good, and maybe even better considering the ease of access: Rank has posted Send In the Clowns, Dead Men, Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, Bent With Pray, Hyena and Stag all at that Bandcamp page as free downloads (even though I own physical copies of everything, I have been downloading each title while writing this because, well… just because). Speaking of free downloads, back at the Snatches website is a link just called “bootleg” and whattaya know, it is 13-song, lo-to-medium-fi live show from the group’s trio days, Charlotte’s Fucking Web, pictured below, featuring such Pink gems as “Ones With the Black,” “Goin’ Down” and “Salty Dog” plus a ridiculously thrashy cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home.” I’ve got a pretty good idea about that concert tape’s provenance, but I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination, fellow Snatches buffs.
Bottom line: don’t just take my word for how great the band was—find out for yourself by listening to ‘em. The stuff’s out there. Then go get that new Rank album Horsehair. Dr. Toland and I command you.
It’s been a great run, Michael. Salute! Keep ‘em coming, brother.
Photo of Michael Rank by Andy Tennille
Tribute: Danny Kirwan (R.I.P.) with Fleetwood Mac - "Oh Well" Seattle live '72
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea