Monthly Archives: July 2015

All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock 1977-1981, by Mark Sten

Title: All Ages

Author: Mark Sten

Publisher: Reptilicus Press

Publication Date: May 04, 2015

http://www.reptilicususa.com/

All Ages book

The Upshot: An engaging flashback to the pre-Internet DIY era and, for residents and ex-pats of the Northwest, a crucial historical document. All hail Smegma!

BY FRED MILLS

Cast your mind back to the dark ages, when the likes of Billy Joel, Journey and Genesis ruled the airwaves, satin baseball jackets were considered “musts” for the erudite concert-goer, and “Quaalude” was not yet a dirty word that Cosby-haters flung as an epithet. In the mid/late seventies, every city in America was under the thumb of The Evil Empire, but a rebellion was brewing, one which would soon attain such cultural prominence (or, depending your outlook, notoriety) that it would be impossible to ignore: Punk Rock, and its slightly less-abrasive sibling, New Wave.

For those of us who had a stake in such things, that rebellion against cultural lameness wasn’t merely a dalliance or a hobby en route to adulthood; it was a calling. To some, like Portland’s Mark Sten (née Mark Stanley) it even represented an imprimatur, and he, along with a cadre of like-minded miscreants, set about doing something about it.

All Ages is Sten’s documentation of exactly what the 316-page book’s subtitle (The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock 1977-1981) announces, additionally serving as a sort of personal diary for Sten that he freely admits is how he remembers things going down. As such, it’s inevitable that any number of the NW scenesters who were present during that 1977-81 time period will have recollections at odds with Sten. (Show me a thriving music scene from back in the day and I’ll show you a potential story line suitable for turning into a modern-day Rashomon.) That Sten was one of the movers and shakers in Portland—not only a musician in a number of bands (notably the bassist for King Bee, featuring a pre-Dead Moon Fred Cole) but a key organizer of the Alternative Arts Association (AAA) collective that was instrumental in putting on scores of punk and new wave shows—will only make his book suspect in the eyes of some who no doubt will launch accusations of revisionist history and territorial pissing on his part.

I’ve read enough of these scene documents and have filed enough of my own over the years (though not in book-length form), however, to feel pretty confident about Sten’s reportage. Yes, he disagrees with a number of the book’s characters; yes, he’s not above a little score-settling here and there; and yes, he retroactively ascribes motivations to some of those characters even though he clearly did not interview them for the book, chief among them Greg Sage of the Wipers, easily one of the most important artists Portland’s ever produced. The latter situation is actually kind of saddening, because early on Sten had a very good relationship with Sage, working with him both on stage and in the studio, but at one point they had a falling-out stemming from a failure to reach an agreement over a pending project (Sten notes that Sage declines to return his phone calls; still, he has nothing but respect for Sage, and he obviously regrets the split).  Conversely, he apparently did interview Fred Seegmuller (aka Fred Noize) and Veronica Schleining (Ronnie Noize) even though he had a major split with the duo following a misunderstanding at a concert they were all involved with, which resulted in the Noizes opening up their own club that became a major competitor of the AAA for concert bookings. The final page of the book lists nearly 50 individuals Sten interviewed while researching it.

So while time clearly doesn’t heal all wounds in Portland, it at least allowed enough distance and perspective to get more than a few people interested in sharing their stories. And Sten, to his credit, doesn’t let himself off the hook when he comes to the conclusion that, yeah, I misread that/I acted like a dick regarding some of the scenarios he found himself in. Owning up to one’s faults and failings and refusing to play the “I was young and stupid” card counts for a lot, you know? Plus, there’s a larger and, dare I say it, loftier goal here, which is to get as many of those stories on the record and them attempt to weave them into the larger context. Remember, Portland wasn’t Portlandia in the late ‘70s, and for every enlightened kid working his/her butt off to give local musicians a shot at recognition and/or to bring in national acts and put the city on the touring map, there were probably ten others who did their level best to let indifference—and in a number of instances, outright hostility—rule the day. Alt-weekly the Willamette Week in particular gets singled out by Sten for not only arriving ridiculously late to the party but seemingly going out of its way to mock or dismiss some of the bands and events that Sten and his crowd championed. (That particularly rings true to moi, having lived in Charlotte, NC, prior to the arrival of any form of alternative media, during which time the local daily, The Charlotte Observer, faithfully covered all those, uh, Billy Joel, Journey and Genesis arena shows at the expense of some genuinely talented and unique-sounding regional bands. Go HERE to read about the time the Replacements came to town and the local musical powers only grudgingly admitted that it might be a concert of note.)

Now, to be perfectly honest, good chunks of All Ages will have only limited appeal to non-Portlanders; entire chapters are given over to describing the ups and downs of long-forgotten bands that never even pinged the national radar (although the aforementioned Wipers and Fred Cole most certainly did, along with a few others profiled here, like Poison Idea, Rancid Vat and Smegma—I recall reviewing an early Smegma recording for one of the music rags I was scribbling for in the early ‘80s). Too, long stretches of text describing the inner workings of the AAA’s meetings and planning sessions made my eyes glaze over at times; for an outsider like me, the narrative primarily picks up steam when Sten’s describing a situation that’s a bit more universal or even personally familiar, such as the frustrations of trying to get a compilation album recorded and released, or butting heads with a clueless, bottom-line club owner, or navigating the minefield of divas ‘n’ egos and agenda-driven personalities that underlies any local scene.

Still, I consider having to sift through some of the Portland-centric minutiae a small price to pay for the wealth of archival info presented here. In assembling it all for posterity, and that includes an astounding number of vintage handbills, posters and photographs as well, Sten had done an invaluable service. His memories of people, places and events from more than three decades ago are remarkably lucid and detail-centric, too, giving his narrative crucial oomph and color. That he can be a wryly funny sonofabitch, self-effacing one moment and deeply sarcastic (but not cruel) others doesn’t hurt, either. If the creators of Portlandia ever want to do a special flashback-to-1980 episode, they’ve got a go-to guy in Sten who can supply some of the specifics and the dialogue. (Are you listening Carrie and Fred?)

As suggested above, as the primary demographic for All Ages, NW residents and ex-pats aiming for a traipse down memory lane, take a near-history lesson or simply cheer for old friends and heroes will get the most out of the book. (For some individuals that impact may be more akin to a punch to the gut, but hey, that’s why God made internet forums and reader comments sections, right?) A solid and entertaining read, All Ages isn’t a nostalgia trip like some books of its ilk can be, but it definitely will induce a least some nostalgia for the pre-internet DIY era no matter what city or music scene you found yourself part of back then.

THE STONEAGE HEARTS – Hung Up (On You)

Album: Hung Up (On You)

Artist: Stoneage Hearts

Label: Off The Hip

Release Date: April 14, 2015

http://offthehip.com.au

stoneage hearts 7-19

The Upshot: Jangly guitars and memorable pop hooks from the Australian band will cure that power pop fatigue that’s been ailin’ ya.

 BY MICHAEL TOLAND

The Stoneage Hearts have always had a membership in flux. Drummer Mick Baty (who also owns Off the Hip) has an open door policy to Australia’s power pop and garage rock cognescenti, with the lineup boasting the legendary Dom Mariani at one point. There’s no one in the band with a name as recognizable as Mariani’s on Hung Up (On You), the band’s third album and first since 2004. But that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of talent.

Baty, guitarist Simon Kay, bassist Dave (Spud) Hine and singer/guitarist Tony Dyer are unabashed fans of the essential rock & roll components – three chords, pop hooks, girls – and handle them with easy care. You know what to expect here: guitar pop songs that rock (“First Kiss,” “Menai Hotel,” “Is She?”), jangle (“I Couldn’t Change,” “I Thought That Time”) and roll (“Motor Away,” “Sky High Heels”), recorded as simply as possible and performed with maximum enthusiasm. Australians still play this stuff like it’s brand new, so even those suffering from power pop fatigue may find themselves smiling and nodding along to Hung Up (On You).

DOWNLOAD: “Is She?,” “I Couldn’t Change,” “Sky High Heels”

 

TESS PARKS and ANTON NEWCOMBE – I Declare Nothing

Album: I Declare Nothing

Artist: Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe

Label: A Recordings/Forced Exposure

Release Date: June 30, 2015

 

http://www.forcedexposure.com/labels/A.RECORDINGS.UK.html

Tess Anton 6-29

The Upshot: Faux-psychedelia for hipsters that should be avoided at all costs.

  BY JONATHAN LEVITT

You’d be forgiven if you thought this might be the new Mazzy Star from the greyish purplish tint of the cover to the belladonna drenched vibe of the music. The real head scratcher is that this chick Tess can’t sing. Trying to evoke a late Zabriskie Point type vibe, the album never achieves liftoff. This is primarily because of her I’m too cool don’t need to rehearse let me smoke a pack before recording sound of her voice.

Alan McGee musical impresario of Creation Records fame had a hand in discovering Tess, and that is the only reason why I decided to ride this one out to the last track hoping/praying to see a little of what made the man reach out and want to work with her. Unfortunately this is where his proverbial cupboard runneth bare, because there is little if anything redeeming about this CD.

As I made my way to the final few tracks I was grateful that there were no sharp objects nearby so I could inflict bodily harm on myself. This doesn’t feel like poorly rendered music from a band that comes from some provincial backwater that at least might be forgiven. Instead this project feels as if something more insidious is at work here. I picture a bunch of hipsters in a label office thinking they can take a psych-music vibe mate it with a girl singer who has that long slightly unkempt look to her hair and a look on her face that says she wears sheer black turtlenecks, smokes too much and chews on her nail polish, and then give it that 60’s faded look and then try and pawn it off on unsuspecting punters who dig Mazzy Star or Spacemen 3. Let me declare something, my advice to you is to stay away at all costs!

DOWNLOAD: More like stream instead “Peace Defrost” to hear what I’m talking about.

LEFT LANE CRUISER – Dirty Spiff Blues

Album: Dirty Spliff Blues

Artist: Left Lane Cruiser

Label: Alive Naturalsound

Release Date: June 16, 2015

www.alive-records.com

L Lane Cruiser 6-16

The Upshot: Gritty blues-punk trio crafts heavy anthems for the nu-hemp generation.

BY TIM HINELY

Big things are happening in the world of Left Lane Cruiser, first off all since their last record weed has been legalized in Colorado (they move here yet?) and judging by the cover of this record, their 5th for the Alive Natural Sound records, that makes them very happy. Another thing is that the band has added a member. Yes, after plastering venues as a duo they are now a trio, adding Joe Brent on bass (on the inside over he’s shown holding his skateboard as opposed to his bass guitar so I like the guy already).

Yup, Freddy J IV (Joe Evans) and drummer Pete Dio are back to make your eardrums bleed and on opening cut “Tres Borrachoes” they very nearly do that as everything’s on 11. “Elephant Stomp” slows it down and adds some blooze groove to the proceedings while they added a healthy dose of fuzz on “Tangled Up in Bush.” The title track is an exercise in heaviness as is the rockin’, menacing “All Damn Day.”

If you’re looking for some gritty blues-punk then look no further as Dirty Spiff Blues delivers on all fronts. And yes, that IS cover artwork from legendary underground (and bootleg) cartoonist William Stout.

DOWNLOAD: “Tres Borrachos,” “Elephant Stomp,” “Tangled Up in Bush,” “All Damn Day”

 

 

GOBLIN REBIRTH – Goblin Rebirth

Album: Goblin Rebirth

Artist: Goblin Rebirth

Label: Relapse

Release Date: June 30, 2015

http://www.relapse.com/

Goblin 6-29

 

The Upshot: Italian proggers build upon their Goblin predecessor’s legend (e.g., “Suspiria”) via analog synth licks, jazzy rhythms and enigmatic atmosphere.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

The twists and turns taken by the members of Italian prog rock outfit Goblin over its decades-long career would confuse Pete Frame – hit up Wikipedia for the story and keep a pen and paper handy. Goblin Rebirth is an outgrowth of the original band led by bassist/keyboardist Fabio Pignatelli and drummer Agostino Marangolo, both of whom also serve in the current incarnation of said original, as well as being the rhythm section during Goblin’s “classic” years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Got all that? That time period was when the band composed soundtracks for the films of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, including the haunting Suspiria, still its most famous work. The work of Goblin Rebirth follows a similarly wordless course – loaded with analog synth licks, jazzy rhythms and enigmatic atmosphere, “Book of Skulls,” “Evil in the Machine” (which includes some vocoded mutterings) and the appropriately-titled “Dark Bolero” illuminate sweeping melodies that call to mind fantastic places, odd creatures and strange situations. Though aggressively imagistic, the riffs and melodies found here aren’t really soundtrack music – Goblin Rebirth is simply too active to serve as background for onscreen action.

DOWNLOAD: “Book of Skulls,” “Evil in the Machine,” “Dark Bolero”

 

WHITE REAPER – White Reaper Does It Again

Album: White Reaper Does It Again

Artist: White Reaper

Label: Polyvinyl

Release Date: July 14, 2015

https://www.polyvinylrecords.com

White Reaper
The Upshot: Louisville garage rockers wed grimy songs to scuzzy lo-fi production for a set full of grubby sweet pleasures.

BY JASON GROSS

Some forty years ago, two great minimalist bands, the Ramones and AC/DC,
taught us that a great album (or even albums) can have the same or very
similar songs. Sad to say, many punk and rock bands heard them and thought
“me too!” when they just recycled the same crappy song again and again.

Not so with Louisville, Kentucky natives White Reaper.  The scuzzy lo-fi
production fits hand in hand with the grimy songs and guitarist Tony
Esposito’s mewling voice but the garage sound is also complemented by Ryan
Hater’s keyboards which moves the sound into new wave territory too. Most
of all, if you like the catchy, powerful opener “Make Me Wanna Die,”
you’ll wanna hear it in several other forms elsewhere on the album (i.e.
on the speedier “Wolf Trap Hotel”) and hear how they trick up a great
formula again and again, even supplying new tunes elsewhere. The one
occasional annoyance is Hater’s synth sometimes sounds the same from song
to song (recalling the spacey sci-fi of Greg Hawkes from the Cars).
Luckily, most of the songs have good, catchy melodies to go along with
them and Esposito’s enthusiasm and anxiousness helps put the songs over
the top too.  He/they have girl problems but not in a hateful way- they’re
cutely confused like many of their power pop heroes from the ’70s (think
the Raspberries more than Big Star). Try “Pills” and “Alone Tonight” which
sound like an indie rock take on Eric Carmen or “On Your Mind” and
“Sheila” which Jay Reatard might have covered if he had survived his
excesses or “Last 4th of July” which could be a wonderful Ramones tribute
or the jolly, swinging “Candy.” Only the unlucky “Friday the 13th” drags
things a little with its plodding tune.

With 12 songs in about a half hour, the record kind of blazes by you but
gives you plenty of room for multiple listens- it’s not a ‘deep,’ layered
record to warrant that but one that gives you a rush of grime and song
each time you do race through it.  And why deny yourself a grubby, sweet
pleasure like that?

DOWNLOAD: “On Your Mind,” “Alone Tonight,” “Make Me Wanna Die”-

LOS CREMA PARAISO – De Pelicula!

Album: De Pelicula!

Artist: Los Crema Paraiso

Label: Cutupra Productions

Release Date: June 16, 2015

www.cutupra.com

Los Crema

 

The Upshot: Metal, jazz and New Wave all collide in a mostly-satisfying collection from the NYC-based Rock En Espanol outfit.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Smoking opener “Un Disip En Nueva York” sets the stage for this almost killer new record from Los Crema Paraiso. The frenetic guitara pacings that roll from metallic laced fret workouts to a jazzy Pat Metheny-esque cooler than thou jazz vibe establishes a high bar for the rest of the album to love up to. “El Currucha” just shows how tight this band is and that one need not be singing rap to show off some major tongue twisting skills. Singer Andrea Echeverri punctuates every verse with a coolness that’s really alluring. “Varon Domado” featuring Rocco Tarpeyo wouldn’t be out of place in a lost episode of Breaking Bad. It has a frenetic meth head pacing to it that makes me ask the question is there anything that this band can’t play?

The band tackles two massively influential songs on this album. The first is a reworking of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” it’s a far more upbeat affair that isn’t too dissimilar from Nouvelle Vague and their cocktail versions of new wave classics. The unique arrangement of this song and its syncopated rhythm makes this more than a cover. Here the band have made this song very much their own. A unique take on the British band’s hit that shows how much talent the band are working with here.

Next up is Tears for Fears “Everyone Wants to Rule the World” this is more of a straight ahead reading of the ‘80s classic. I’m not a huge fan of this version except for some timing changes the song feels to be a bit of a wrong choice for the band given the high-octane first half of the album.

The album seems to peter out after a stellar opening 6 songs. The rest feels like a mix of space age bachelor pad music mixed with a hint of jazzmenco-flavored stylings.

The only redeeming song on the latter half of the album is “Cucaracha en baile de gallinas” (literally, “Cockroaches dancing in the chicken coop”). It has an African guitar vibe that sounds a lot like something the great Thomas Mapfumo would’ve played.

It’s clear that the band has some major chops, but the fact remains that this album could’ve been better served had the final 5 songs been replaced by something more interesting and challenging. That said I admire the first half of the album and the sheer balls it took to cover something as left field for a band like this as Depeche Mode. I only wish they’d have kept the energy cooking throughout.

 

 

SICK SAD WORLD – Fear & Lies

Album: Fear & Lies

Artist: Sick Sad World

Label: Help Yourself

Release Date: May 26, 2015

www.helpyourselfrecords.com

 Sick Sad 5-12

 

The Upshot: Infectious, joyful indie pop that belies the group’s downer of a name.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Leave to an Olympia/Seattle kid to see past the rain and gloom and put out an impossibly sunny indie pop album that sticks with you for days. Lyrically smart and witty, musically a cross between an amped up Beach Boys with nods to Power Pop bands like Material Issue and Jellyfish, Sick Sad World is clearly a misnomer.

The brainchild of skater Jake Jones, Fear & Lies is oddly at both times comfortably familiar and impressively original. From the “Hawaii Five O”-like surf guitar intro to “Alone All the Time” – an infectious sing-along about losing all of your friends (there’s the ol’ Seattle gloom we know and love) – to the perfectly scattered whoa-oh’s in a song like “Disguise,” Jones has crafted a memorable record from start to finish.

Here’s hoping Fear & Lies is just the beginning of a long career.

 DOWNLOAD: “Alone All the Time,” “Disguise” and “Skateboarding Girl”

THE HELIO SEQUENCE – Helio Sequence

Album: Helio Sequence

Artist: Helio Sequence

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: May 19, 2015

https://www.subpop.com

Helio 5-19

 

The Upshot: Skipping across the decades, influence-wise, the Sub Pop darlings still manage to keep its pop smarts fresh.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

“I’m looking for a new direction” sings Brandon Summers on opener “Battle Lines”, which is an atmospheric track that has its pop sensibilities informed by the ‘80s with a 2015 spin. The album cover is the biggest hint that something has changed for the band with this latest release. With the rising sun imagery, and layered pastel clouds, it’s obvious this is a new day breaking for the band.

“Red Shifting” is another song that appealed to me upon first listen, with its danceable beat with an almost semi new wave vibe.

“Inconsequential Ties” feels like an early ‘70s Steve Miller tune. I keep expecting Summer’s to sing, “keep a rocking me baby!” I must admit it’s a really cool retro tune that’s quite catchy, and who knows it may end up in Vincent Gallo’s, Brown Bunny 2.

Jesting aside, the band’s ability to incorporate retro elements and keep it feeling fresh at the same time deserves some praise.

“Phantom Shore” is my favorite song on the record and worth the price of admission alone. It starts off with some pulsating synths, and then the drums and cymbals kick in. Once those are squarely in place, the guitar comes oscillating in, which reminds me of a Reg Smithies (Chameleons) guitar lick. The Chameleons never seemed to get the recognition they so rightfully deserved when they were making brilliant records back in the 80’s. Here The Helio Sequence have coopted the guitar and bass and synth sound of “Second Skin”. The band has managed to render these elements with great aplomb forging it with their own distinctive sound and hazy production, elevating the song into a very memorable pastiche of sound. With the duo’s songwriting skills never in doubt “Phantom Shore” is a brilliant sign of even greater things to come from this band.

In the little promo flyer that accompanied the album, the promotions people mention that this time around the band took their songs to their friends and fans to help compile the album. It seems things have worked out quite well in this instance. While I may disagree with the running order the songs, they do show a band reinvigorated by the creative process. The band says, “We were working so quickly that there was a running optimism.” It’s something that permeates almost all of the tracks on this album.

Filled with some genuinely memorable moments The Helio Sequence show that if a band is open to experimentation and letting the light of the new day shine in, fascinating things can truly happen.

 

 

 

 

 

JULIA HÜLSMANN QUARTET W/ THEO BLECKMANN – A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America

Album: A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America

Artist: Julia Hülsmann Quartet W/ Theo Bleckmann

Label: ECM

Release Date: April 07, 2015

http://ecmrecords.com

Julia Hulsman 4-21

 

The Upshot: Mack the Knife, and Weill in general, gets sharpened anew at the hands of a German pianist and a New York vocalist.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

The music of theatrical composer Kurt Weill has long enraptured forward-thinking musicians, from jazz to rock. On A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America, German pianist Julia Hülsmann is the latest acolyte, taking on the master’s work with not only her working Quartet, but also the German-born/NYC-based singer Theo Bleckmann. Hülsmann gets the elephant to leave the room immediately by beginning with “Mack the Knife,” Weill’s most famous composition due to Bobby Darin’s hit and the popularity of its theatrical origin The Threepenny Opera. But this version has little in common with either tradition or Darin – instead, Hülsmann and Bleckmann cast the song as an atmospheric ballad, with lightly brushed drums, mournful trumpet courtesy of Tom Arthurs, Bleckmann’s haunted tenor and the leader’s sedate melodicism.

Indeed, that approach serves the group well on the rest of the program. The singer, in particular, shines – his contemplative, even lonely tone keeps the bombast so many singers bring to Weill’s work at a far distance. Recasting numbers as popular as “September Song,” “Speak Low” and “Alabama Song” or as lesser-known as “Your Technique,” “This is New” and the evocatively expansive “Great Big Sky” in Hülsmann’s Eurojazz image works beautifully. The band also culls the oeuvre of poet Walt Whitman, with whom Weill felt an affinity, for a meandering, enigmatic “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” a vibrant, rhythmic “Beat! Beat! Drums” and the especially gorgeous title track. With graceful intent and a fine touch, Hülsmann, Bleckmann and company revive Weill’s work while avoiding clichés and putting their own spin on a classic songbook.

DOWNLOAD: “A Clear Midnight,” “Mack the Knife,” “Speak Low”