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 album Arrow 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:
The Bonnevilles – “Dirty Photographs”:
Buckley – Las Cruces Bandcamp:
The Dirty Truckers – “Best of” Bandcamp:
Guttercats – Follow Your Instinct Bandcamp:
K7s – Take 1 Bandcamp:
The Laissez Fairs – Empire of Mars Bandcamp:
Harvey McLaughlin – Tabloid News Soundcloud:
The Prefab Messiahs – Psychsploitation…Today! Bandcamp:
Professor and the Madman – Soundcloud:
Watts – All Done With Rock ‘n’ Roll Bandcamp:
Thee Wylde Oscars – Rosalita! Bandcamp: