Monthly Archives: January 2017

MIKE WATT – “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 (2-LP)

Album: “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95

Artist: Mike Watt

Label: Columbia/Legacy

Release Date: November 11, 2016


The Upshot: From punk anthemism to prog excursions to covers of Daniel Johnston, BOC, and Madonna, it’s Watt’s world and you’re just living in it, via this live archival gem.


Mike Watt: you may have heard of  ‘im. Cast your gaze back in time, to the alterna-Nineties, at which point the erstwhile Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist was both an alterna-elder statesman and an influential contemporary. With the release of Watt’s 1995 solo debut, ball-hog or tugboat?, a collaborative project of no small matter (said peers performing on the album included Rollins, Flea, Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder… you may have heard of them), the musician was poised to take center stage as frontman du jour.

Only… he opted for left of center stage. Touring that year to promote the album, Watt called up from the alterna-reserves Vedder and Grohl, along with Pat Smear and William Goldsmith for his backing band, additionally tapping their respective projects Hovercraft and Foo Fighters for the tour’s opening acts, and set all phasers on “stun.”

“Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 revisits that tour—additionally rekindling this writer’s appropriately “stunned” memories from an Arizona stop—with as much primal vehemence and viscera-churning excellence as a live album can conjure. We’re not in double-live Frampton Comes Alive territory; more like Live at Leeds unreleased bootleg tapes. Whether your Watt leanings dip towards his inclination towards out-of-context covers like Daniel Johnson’s jaunty, rather groovy “Walking the Cow” and Blue Oyster Cult’s timeless boogie “The Red and the Black” (the latter given an appropriately M-men hardcore twist), or such punk anthemism as “Against the ‘70s” (that’s Vedder helping out on vocals) and twisted singalong “Piss-Bottle Man” (both Vedder and Grohl this time), there’s something for every Watt-acolyte stripe herein.

Perhaps “Forever… One Reporter’s Opinion,” which comes about ¾ of the way through Watt’s set (May 6, 1995, at Chicago’s Metro venue, to be exact), is the track you should earmark for playing the next time a Watt neophyte (or alien from the next galaxy, take your pick) comes to visit. An aggressive, discordant, almost jazzy-prog-punk rumble marked by frantic percussion and crazed Watt-Smear vocals, it neatly summarizes the Watt sonic aesthetic without coming across as muso or calculated: It’s simply Watt’s world, and you’re just living in at the moment.

Not a bad world to inhabit, come to think of it. Sign me up.

Incidentally, “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 should be heard, if you have any audio savvy, as a 2-LP vinyl excursion. There’s a thundering, analog immediacy hard to deny here. And if you opt to spring for the limited-edition orange wax version, well, good on ya, mate. That’s what we call entertainment.

DOWNLOAD: “Forever… One Reporter’s Opinion,” “Piss-Bottle Man,” “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” “Drove Up from Pedro”


SOGGY – Soggy

Album: Soggy

Artist: Soggy

Label: Outer Battery

Release Date: December 09, 2016


The Upshot: Heads up! Detroit-style amp abuse, including a Stooges cover, from French  hi-nrg rockers.


The French don’t get enough credit for knowing how to rock. That may change once fans of Detroit-style amp abuse get a load of Soggy. The rip-roaring quartet released its sole album in 1982 in a limited edition of 300 copies, but now sees it reissued to the wide world beyond Francophone dirtbags.

Clearly enamored of the hard rock of the American midwest but not afraid to add some Motörhead boogie, Soggy blasts out of the metaphorical garage with “47 Chromosomes,” vocalist Beb riding the wave of dirty guitars and crashing drums like a hopped-up surfer. Not bothering to hide his accent, Beb merrily mangles traditionally English pronunciation without a care in the world, turning “Slider,” “I Feel Top of the World” and the incomprehensible “Cellulitis is the Top of the Shapeless Body” into surrealist anthems as much as rock lighterwavers. The band lays it all out with its cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” wearing its aspirations as nakedly as its love of power chords and frizzy hair.

Which is all to say that Soggy’s collective heart is in the right place – just try not to leap about the room playing air guitar and waving an imaginary mike stand during the circuits-frying “Cursed Boy” or the blazing “Waiting For the War.” The right to rock knows no geographic boundary.

DOWNLOAD: “Waiting For the War,” “I Feel Top of the World,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog”



Album: Unseen

Artist: Handsome Family

Label: Milk & Scissors Music

Release Date: September 16, 2016


The Upshot: Consider it the aural equivalent of painter Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” a work of art so elegant and assured it stands out on its own.


Sparse, mysterious and exceptionally alluring, the seductive sound created by The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks reinvent classic gothic music in ways that bows to timeless tradition. Yet, it also suggests a style that’s uniquely their own, imbued with unaffected honesty and quiet dignity in its designs. Unseen alludes to The Handsome Family’s darker realms, but the beauty it boasts is so unerringly mesmerizing, it begs repeated hearings simply to soak it all in. The duo’s harmonies on “The Sea Rose” ought to be ample enough reason enough to convince, but “The Red Door,” the track that follows, seals the deal, elegiac and timeless in ways that recall any number of traditional standards. Likewise, “Green Willow Valley,” the album’s sentimental send-off, confirms the group’s commitment to making music so precious and profound, it practically defies description. Granted, the band’s stoic approach is decidedly old school, one that would befit a convergence of Quakers prepping for summer solstice, but even in that solid, sturdy way, they demand absolute attention. Consider it the aural equivalent of painter Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” a work of art so elegant and assured it stands out on its own. Indeed, credit The Handsome Family with conceiving an essential modern masterpiece that’s irrefutably all their own.

DOWNLOAD: “Green Willow Valley,” “The Red Door,” “The Sea Rose”


Album: Winter

Artist: New Model Army

Label: earMUSIC

Release Date: August 26, 2016


The Upshot: The epitome of using focused musical imagination to properly exercise thoughtful narrative and controlled passion.


On the face of it, it seems difficult for a band so fueled by righteous anger to last 35 years without some serious fizzling out. But New Model Army has done it, as awesomely intense now as it was when the West Yorkshire act began.

That’s not to say, of course, that Justin Sullivan and his latest band of brothers fire on all cylinders every second in front of amps and mics – NMA abandoned straight electric folk decades ago, after all, and has never shied from musical experimentation. But Sullivan’s convictions – that wrongs must be righted, evil will not triumph, history teaches us that it shouldn’t be repeated and people of all stripes have the power to change the world – haven’t wavered an inch, and find as full expression on the band’s fourteenth album Winter as on any record in their rich catalog.

Whether on the bass-heavy grunge of “Beginning,” the brooding psych metal of “Drifts,” the unvarnished solo folk of “Die Trying,” the boiling rawk of “Burn the Castle” or the string-laden folk rock of the title track, NMA is the epitome of using focused musical imagination to properly exercise thoughtful narrative and controlled passion. Nearly 40 years on, New Model Army still burns as hotly as ever.

 DOWNLOAD: “Drifts,” “Beginning,” “Die Trying”


THE DOORS – London Fog May, 1966 (10” box)

Album: London Fog May, 1966 (10” box)

Artist: Doors

Label: Rhino/Bright Midnight Archives

Release Date: December 16, 2016


The Upshot: WWJS? (What Would Jim Say?) Yet another previously unreleased live set from the Lizard King archives, but given an eye-popping, collector-catnip treatment guaranteed to seduce even the most jaded Lizard King acolyte.


Well, I woke up this mornin’ and I got myself a beer… and sat down to compose this review. (In my head at least; in truth, it’s 3 in the afternoon, and I’m sipping a caramel frappuccino.) Allow me to introduce the latest in a long-running parade of posthumous Doors live releases, London Fog May, 1966. It summons from the mists of time a proverbial “recently discovered” live recording of the band, expertly cleaned up for the modern digital ear, in order to give acolytes a sense of what Jim Morrison, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore actually sounded like, onstage, around the time they were recording their debut album for Elektra Records but had yet to burst upon the national scene.

And it’s neither time capsule nor curio, but rather a valid projection into the collector-archival ether that should hold up for future generations. Vintage, if hard-edged, blues apparently dominated early Doors sets: Here, a lengthy workout on Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and a remarkably serpentine, sensual Muddy Waters’ “Rock Me” showcase not only Morrison’s intuitive embrace of the blues’ primal imperative, but his bandmates’ agility as translators of same. Also in the mix are covers of Big Joe Williams, Wilson Pickett, and Little Richard. Seminal Doors originals also make surprise appearances: a somewhat hesitant “Strange Days” (which would go on to be overhauled and polished in the studio to provide the second album’s title track), and a rowdy-bawdy-bluesy “You Make Me Real,” which subsequently went into hibernation until 1970’s Morrison Hotel.

Time capsule: well, actually… yeah. Rhino has pulled out all stops for this box, which houses both a CD and a 10” vinyl disc of the nine tracks, plus an assortment of memorabilia that includes reproductions of the evening’s setlist from the London Fog, a postcard and drink coaster from that Sunset Strip dive, and photos of the evening Nettie Pena, a UCLA Film School student who Morrison, also a student, enlisted that evening to document his band’s performance on a small reel to reel deck. In those photos, the musicians seem impossibly young, as yet unjaded by stardom, yet clearly determined as artists. Talk about a snapshot. (Pena, who also wrote a review of the gig, discloses that she cannot locate an additional reel of tape from the show that contained the band doing a 15-minute “The End,” but promises that if it ever surfaces, she’ll immediately pass it along to the Doors camp.) Worth additional note: a passionate remembrance in the CD booklet penned by Ronnie Harran, who at the time of the show was booking the nearby Whisky A Go Go and, acting on a tip, came to check out the Doors during their residency at the Fog, ultimately returning to the Whisky, eager to book them at her venue. Everything is housed in a 10-inch, thick cardboard box—pure collector catnip. Just the effort alone that’s been put into this project demands an above-average rating for archival releases; the mesmerizing music guarantees it a perfect score.

Commentary, artifacts, and nostalgia aside, London Fog May, 1966 ultimately brings the Doors—pardon the inside joke—reverse full circle. Prior to Morrison’s death in 1971, the group had reinvested itself in the blues that had originally spawned the combo back in the early ‘60s (as Rick and the Ravens), tackling both vintage material and primal original compositions on Morrison Hotel and on swansong L.A. Woman. And while it’s impossible to say if the Doors vaults have finally been combed clean (as this obsessive Doors collector’s CD library can testify, the band and its archivists have been diligent over the course of the past decade and a half; hats off to Rhino, Rhino Handmade, Bright Moonlight, Elektra and everyone involved), there’s something fitting about celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the band’s debut LP by listening to an early Doors set comprising the blues, soul, and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll that inspired the musicians in the first place.

DOWNLOAD: “Strange Days,” “Rock Me”


Album: Jackie OST

Artist: Mica Levi

Label: Milan

Release Date: December 02, 2016


The Upshot: The music, like the subject, is poised and lovely on its surface, but roiling with feeling underneath. (Below, watch the official trailer for the film.)


Mica Levi’s first soundtrack since #Under the Skin# is far lusher and more conventionally instrumented than her previous outing, using swoops of strings and fluttering flute to evoke powerful, yet suppressed emotion.  Where Under the Skin vibrated with otherworldly strangeness, Jackie invokes an aura of heightened reality, of mannered gestures weighted with more than their share of emotion and meaning.

The music was written for Pablo Larrain’s cinematic biography of Jackie Kennedy, which focuses on the days immediately surrounding her husband’s assassination in Dallas.  It has, not surprisingly, an elegiac quality, a mournful, melancholy cast to its elliptical phrasing.  Like the first iconic first lady, the music is polished and well reined in. It sounds far more like old-fashioned movie music than the #Under the Skin# soundtrack ever did.  It is elusive, classically grounded and unhysterical.  Yet at the edges, there are flares of uncontrolled feeling.  The way the string tones slide off note and key suggests a tipping vertigo, an unreality that creeps in even as the first lady struggles for composure.

The cuts have short, evocative names, that tie them to the film itself.  “Children” moves with a grave moodiness, a flute song playing high over swaying foundations of massed strings, a drum roll ratcheting up tension then subsiding.  Brief “Car” is all glissando’d tension, a shiver of music before tragedy strikes.  “Lee Harvey Oswald” disoriented with lavish throbs of cello, swooning swipes of violin; though lovely enough in strict aesthetic terms, it feels like falling helplessly.  “Burial” is more tremulous apprehension, the sound of a psyche dancing on thin ice.

It’s interesting to see Mica Levi, whom I once caught at SXSW playing a tiny guitar and child’s toy telephone in Micachu and the Shapes guise, taking her place as one of Hollywood’s most interesting film composers.  She’s been trained as a classical musician, and indeed, composed for the London Philharmonic while still at school.  She seems to bring that rigor — plus a free-spirited unconventionality more in line with art punk — to the sound tracking process.  Her Jackie music, like the subject, is poised and lovely on its surface, but roiling with feeling underneath.

DOWNLOAD: “Children” “Lee Harvey Oswald”

NADA SURF – Peaceful Ghosts

Album: Peaceful Ghosts

Artist: Nada Surf

Label: Barsuk

Release Date: October 28, 2016


The Upshot: Live album from beloved New York band that almost—almost—makes up for the many past crimes against live albums.


Yes, live albums with orchestras is nothing new; Metallica almost killed that entire live album subgenre in 1999 thanks to their collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. But Nada Surf proves that the marriage can work beautifully at times.

Recorded earlier this year with Germany’s Babelsberg Film Orchestra, Peaceful Ghosts features 13 tracks, most culled from the New York band’s latest record, You Know Who You Are, released in 2016, as well. They throw in a few cuts from earlier albums, though sadly not their biggest hit and the song they have since disowned, the goofy ‘Popular” (can you imagine that baby propped up with French horns and a timpani drum?). The arrangements here are lush and give an even powerful highlight to some songs that are already pretty strong to begin with. The collaboration is most successful on a track like “Beautiful Beat,” (from 2008’s Lucky), the bombastic percussion and horns that build and swell are tailor made for that song. Already a stellar piece, the added instruments take it to a higher place. The same effect is apparent on “Blizzard of ’77,” off of Let Go.

There is plenty of banter between songs to serve as a reminder that this was a live affair. The music is taken from two performances, one in Vienna and one in Potsdam. With one beautiful album, Nada Surf has almost made up for Metallica’s dreadful record. Almost.

DOWNLOAD: “Beautiful Beat,” “Rushing” and “Out in the Dark”


TOY – A Clear Shot

Album: A Clear Shot

Artist: Toy

Label: Heavenly/PIAS

Release Date: October 28, 2016 /


The Upshot: The mild but tasty acidic sheen on what are at heart straight-up pop and rock tunes brings to mind the ‘80s Paisley Underground


Tight and tuneful, Toy trips through the earth on a wagon of hooks, rather than spacing out for acid’s sake. Clear Shot, the Brighton, UK band’s third LP, brims with catchy melodies and straightforward performances – only the richly layered production really betrays any overt psychedelic influence. Which is fine – with songs this sharp there’s no need for acid rock obscurity. “We Will Disperse,” “A Clear Shot” and “I’m Still Believing” are simply first-rate pop tunes, beautifully crafted, perfectly performed and as liable to hold up played on ukulele and kazoo as on analog synths and electric guitars filtered through phasers. Only “Jungle Games” and “Spirits Don’t Lie” feel like trips to the outer reaches, and then only brief ones. The mild but tasty acidic sheen on what are at heart straight-up pop and rock tunes brings to mind the ‘80s Paisley Underground phenomenon – a movement in which Toy would fit right in.

DOWNLOAD: “We Will Disperse,” “A Clear Shot,” “Spirits Don’t Lie”


LEONARD COHEN – You Want It Darker

Album: You Want It Darker

Artist: Leonard Cohen

Label: Columbia

Release Date: October 21, 2016


The Upshot: While the material casts the kind of intimate spell that typically finds his listeners transfixed, it’s also haunting and harrowing as well.


At the time of his passing, Leonard Cohen was rivaled only by Willie Nelson as far as his artistic longevity and sheer profundity in his expression. Where most performers would have long since retired and confined their activities to wandering about the golf course and taking weekly lunches with old pals, Cohen continued to tour, playing live before appreciative audiences and sharing the full breadth of his remarkable repertoire. Live recordings culled from those tours dominated his later output, but You Want It Darker serves as his most apt requiem of all, a sad but ironic farewell from a man fully prepared to meet his maker.

The rhetorical question posed by the title finds fruition in each of the nine tracks that the album embraces. Dark, ominous but strikingly beautiful by degree, these songs find Cohen bidding a fond farewell minus any trace of regret. The touching and tender “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” rings with the same quiet solace Dylan sang of in “Make You Feel My Love,” a quiet hymn of abject appreciation that distills his desire down to its most basic form. Other offerings are no less poignant and profound, and the supple strings, angelic choirs and restrained arrangements give Cohen’s dark, demonstrative vocals — more spoken than sung really — the gravitas they deserve. “One of us was a ghost and that was me,” he intones over the gentle glide of “Treaty,” offering intentionally or otherwise, words that foretell his impending passing.

Indeed, Cohen’s fragile, mournful croon has him sounding like a man at the end of his days, and while the material casts the kind of intimate spell that typically finds his listeners transfixed, it’s also haunting and harrowing as well. There’s rarely been an addition to Cohen’s canon that couldn’t be deemed essential, but in truth, none could be called more revelatory or revealing than this.

DOWNLOAD: “Treaty,” “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”

GRANDPA DEATH EXPERIENCE – The Unforgiving Shoe of the Future

Album: The Unforgiving Shoe of the Future

Artist: Grandpa Death Experience

Label: Saustex

Release Date: October 21, 2016


The Upshot: A sinewy, steely set of hard rock and metal-tinged punk that doubles as a chronicle of erstwhile indie producer Ron Goudie’s travails and redemption.


Truth-in-titling: If we are to believe this band’s founder’s backstory, the very term The Unforgiving Shoe of the Future pretty much sums up what Ron Goudie experienced starting back in the late ‘90s. Goudie, you see, was a significant player on the independent music scene during the decade-plus prior, having started the acclaimed Enigma label and working with everyone from Stryper, Poison, and TSOL to the Flaming Lips, Mojo Nixon, and GWAR. Then, for reasons I’m a bit fuzzy on, Goudie disappeared, eventually surfacing in Amsterdam “broke and broken,” according to the bio accompanying his band Grandpa Death Experience’s debut album.

But hey, that’s what’s rock ‘n’ roll is for—to help dig us out of our holes. And Goudie, who’s no spring chicken by any stretch, having made music himself since the ‘70s (his early band was hardcore outfit Modern Warfare), sounds utterly energized here. Abetted by drummer Carlos Manso, along with bassist Yrjana Rankka and additional guitarist Roemer Verhaggen, he serves up a sinewy, steely set of hard rock and metal-tinged punk that doubles as a chronicle of his travails and redemption.

Standout tracks include the twin guitar riffage’d “Double Kross” (“broken down/ with a double cross”), thudding/galloping/dissonant anthem “Smoke 2 Much,” the Judas Priest-like “Burnin’ My Brain” and a punk raveup, “2nd Chance,” that’s guaranteed to have the fists pumpin’ and the throats yelpin’ (me, I’m thinking some “oi-oi-oi!” wouldn’t be out of line). The band also throws in a few changeups, like boozy ballad “Broken Heart” and a kind of last-call number suitable for bums, losers, and cosmic cowboys alike, the five-minute “Fat Chance.”

Welcome back, Ron—in one sense, your misery is our gain, because records like this have a sonic rawness and an emotional authenticity all too rare in today’s music.

DOWNLOAD: “Smoke 2 Much,” “Double Kross,” “2nd Chance”