Monday, December 15, 2014

This Is How It Feels

To feel as if every compliment you receive is insincere,
          as if you're being lied to
          as if they're all laughing at you

To feel, deep in your soul, that you're being
          set up
          torn down
          walked on
          worked over
     and that everyone - everyone - will eventually
          turn on you
          or leave you
          or deceive you

To feel that clutching in your gut

To feel like you're crying out from deep inside your own mind
         where you are trapped
To feel like you're crying out from deep inside your own mind
         where you are trapped
To feel like you are crying

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Now Hear This!

Been awhile since I've done one of these round-ups of music I'm currently listening to and you oughta be listening to.  Hopefully, it will serve as an introduction for some of you to a band or two you might never have heard otherwise.  In the four previous Now Hear This posts, which you should check out here, here, here and here if you haven't already (and are worth revisiting if you have!), I've culled a fairly eclectic mix of goodies.  This post follows in that spirit.

It's a big wide Internet out there, and it's full of tunes.  Some are good, some are bad; some you can acquire legitimately, some...well, not so much.  It's enough to make your head spin! Friend, I'm here to help.  I've done the hard part - I've separated the wheat from the chaff and come up with a list of 10 more excellent musical curios for your musical curio, iPod.  These aural treats are not presented in any particular order, and I am receiving no compensation of any kind from the artists, other than the sheer enjoyment of listening to their creations. Almost all of these are very recent, but some are not. Some aren’t even actually released yet. That's just the way it is – deal with it. Let's dig in!

Rancid - ...Honor Is All We Know

Might be my most highly anticipated release of the last half of 2014 – the first new Rancid album in six years is scheduled to hit shelves October 27.  Thanks to a three-song preview video (and allowing those songs to be had in advance through iTunes), we can rest assured that …Honor Is All We Know will see the mighty Rancid doing what they have always done so well.  Their particular brand of 1977 punk rock nicked directly from The Clash’s playbook and strained through filters of two-tone, rockabilly, and street life has always been right in my musical wheelhouse – I love this stuff, and cannot wait for the entire LP.  Meanwhile, this trio of tunes has been played regularly and loudly in anticipation…

James Williamson - Re-Licked

Also looking forward to this one, scheduled for official release on October 29.  James Williamson joined The Stooges in 1970 and continued writing and recording with Iggy even after the band dissolved.  Here he takes a handful of leftover Stooges material and presents all-new recordings paired up with a variety of vocalists from Gary Floyd of The Dicks to Jello Biafra to Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell.  This re-imagined “lost” fourth Stooges album takes a better swing at it than the old Kill City release, if the early leaked tracks are any measure.  “I’m Sick Of You” (with Mario Cuomo of The Orwells on vocals) is one of those tracks and has been on high rotation here in Ruttville for the past week or so.  Re-Licked can be pre-ordered over at

Sonic Scream - Up Your Sleeve

Sam Sergeant and Terry Knight make one heckuva racket for two people, but it’s a racket worth raving about (as I did back in May of 2013!).   The lads from Hertfordshire are back with a brand new batch of brain-thumping grungy goodness.  Up Your Sleeve continues in the same vein as its predecessor; tracks like “7” and “Ain’t Having That” roll in like thunder and shake the floorboards. It’s meant to be played loud, friends, so crank it…

The Electric Mess - “Better To Be Lucky Than Good” 

Another favorite of the blog, NYC’s The Electric Mess, released House On Fire this past April. With it came the simply fantastic clip for the single “Better To Be Lucky Than Good,” which demonstrates that even though MTV may have abandoned the music video, the format is still viable and, in the right hands, powerful.  This one is the running for song of the year if’n you ask me, and the whole album is well worth picking up.

Wheels On Fire - "I'm Turning Into You"

Every now and then something turns up on the ol’ iPod that’s been hanging around in my collection but somehow always just stayed under the radar.  Then, one day, it leaps through the earbuds, grabs me by the eardrums and shakes some freakin’ sense into me.  Like this track from Ohio’s Wheels On Fire.  How on Earth I haven’t been raving about this since its release on their 2009 album Get Famous I can’t say – I can only apologize and insist that you listen to it and revel in its farfisa-driven wonderfulness with me now.  Ready?  Go!

The Mystery Lights - The Mystery Lights

The Mystery Lights have apparently arrived here (or at least in NYC) from 1968.  They play a seething, eerie kind of psychedelic lo-fi freak-out music that all but demands to be played loud wherever swirling lights and neon colors and altered states of mind abound.   Their four-track debut is uniformly excellent, with the standout being the final track, “What Happens When You Turn The Devil Down,” which will snake its way into your skull and slither down your spine in a most pleasing fashion.  Hit up their Bandcamp site for more.

Radiohearts - Nothing At All

Fans of bands like The Buzzcocks, The Knack, Generation X, The dB’s and other like-minded late-70s powerpop/punk bands (the younger set might use The Exploding Hearts and The Cute Lepers as frames of reference), rejoice! There exists a band today who knows what you want to hear, and it is exactly what they play.  Well. Radiohearts’ new EP, Nothing At All, practically bubbles over with high energy melodic hooks dressed in skinny ties and wraparound shades.  The only drawback here is that there are only four songs.  More! Give us more!

Lexxi Vexx & the Modern Gentlemen - The Evolution Of The Modern Gentlemen 

Punk done Portland style.  Lexxi has been around for a bit in the underground scene; this is her latest combo, and possibly the best of the bunch.  A lot of ground is covered on The Evolution Of The Modern Gentlemen.  At times the sound develops a decidedly metallic glint; other times echoes of west coast punk groups like The Nuns, UXA, and even The Avengers ring out.  Lexxi doesn’t come by that booming voice by chance – her dad, Todd McPherson, in addition to being one of the Modern Gentlemen backing her, has been a member of The Kingsmen  (yes, those Kingsmen) since 1992. That’s about as killer a Portland rock ‘n’ roll pedigree as you can ask for.  This is one not to be missed – get over to Bandcamp and grab this’n.  If you need proof, listen up:

The Empty Hearts - The Empty Hearts

The Empty Hearts are Wally Palmar of The Romantics, Elliot Easton of The Cars, Andy Babiuk of The Chesterfield Kings and Clem Burke of Blondie.  And that, my friends, should tell you roughly what it sounds like, why I like it so much and why you need to get yerself a copy.  If it doesn’t, I’m afraid you’re going to have to retake That’s What I Was Going To Say 101 next semester.  The video for the single “I Don’t Want Your Love (If You Don’t Want Me)” will make a good study guide in the meantime.

The Cheap Cassettes - All Anxious All The Time 

“Big guitars and big hooks” is how The Cheap Cassettes describe themselves on their Bandcamp page, right after listing a sizeable selection of their musical influences ranging from Big Star to Redd Kross to The Replacements.  OK, sold! Their debut LP, All Anxious All The Time, is out now, and you can hear a couple of tracks from it on their page as well.  They even offer up a pair of bonus free downloads of otherwise unreleased covers of The Vibrators“Whips And Furs” and The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Happy When It Rains.”  What are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Social Distortion "Mommy's Little Monster" (1983)

Every record collector has his stories of great finds and amazing deals, and I'm no different.  Among my crate-digging stories is the day I scored an unopened second-pressing copy of Social Distortion's outstanding 1983 debut album, Mommy's Little Monster, from the swiftly thinning vinyl racks of a mall chain record shop that was making the conversion to CD and cassette only and therefore dumping their vinyl stock for cheap.  Total out-of-pocket cost including tax: $2.12.  That, my friends, is a bargain.

Mommy's Little Monster captures Social Distortion immediately after their 1982 US tour with Youth Brigade chronicled in the excellent documentary Another State Of Mind.  In the interim they had disbanded, but the film got enough interest going in the band again that they reformed and slashed out the album in a single day.  Instead of making everything sound like a rushed job, the extremely short process imbues the album with a consistent sense of immediacy, urgency and energy that reflected the band at that point in time very well.

This isn't the Social Distortion that would evolve in later years, after Mike Ness became a hardened, jaded, modern day version of Johnny Cash.  Here Ness and company are simply punk kids with an obvious appreciation for a well-placed hook and the yet-untarnished spark of enthusiasm that kicked an entire music scene into gear once upon a time.  In nine short but memorable bursts of West Coast punk, Social Distortion created a classic album.

From the dizzying opening riffs of "The Creeps (I Just Wanna Give You)" to the ever-shifting tempo of the album's closer, "Moral Threat," the three A's of the genre (alienation, angst and anger) are consistent themes. Solid playing and some surprising twists keep this from being just another by-the-numbers punk rock record, however: the song which lent its title to the previously mentioned documentary, "Another State Of Mind," briefly drops the dangerous punk swagger for a surprisingly uncertain bit of reflection over life on the road; echoes of the sort of American roots rock that would become a hallmark of Ness's later music are already reverberating under the surface on more than a few tracks here.

The centerpiece, naturally, is the title track.  "Mommy's Little Monster" paints two caricatures of go-nowhere punk kids, one male and one female, as society-rejecting, self-destructive wastes -- at least in the (socially distorted?) view of their parents -- and leaves their tales unresolved and without value judgment.  Are they really so bad for having chosen a path away from the conformist norm? ("His brothers and sisters have tasted sweet success/His parents condemn him, say his life's a mess"  and "Her eyes are a deeper blue/She likes her hair that color too...") Maybe, as another Cali band would suggest a few years later, all they wanted was a Pepsi.

Mommy's Little Monster has been reissued several times over the years on a number of different labels, so it's not difficult to find.  If you don't have this one, you should.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Tex & The Horseheads "Life's So Cool" (1985)

Tex & the Horseheads always struck me as if they just came stumbling out of a saloon in some post-apocalyptic future version of the mythical Old West, laughing and slapping each other on the back and falling down sloppy drunk and looking for their next drink, score or fight - whichever they happen to run across first.  They were cowpunks before cowpunk was a subgenre, both in musical style and in lifestyle.

They were led by a pint-sized whirling dervish by the name of Texacala Jones, a female version of Stiv Bators wearing Adam Ant's makeup who sported a sleepy "C'm'ere darrrrlin'" hick drawl worn raspy from an equal mix of whiskey, cigarettes and heartbreak with which she belted bootstompers like "Tumbleweed" and purred bluesy ballads like "Big House Part III."  They were ragged, amphetamine-fueled, and authentic.

The best of their three albums was 1985's Life's So Cool, which contains the two titles mentioned above among its collection of hard hitting redneck punky rock-n-roll. Tales of drunken escapades ("Bartender Sam"), promises of rehabilitation ("I'll Quit Tomorrow") and the inevitable backslide into bleakness ("Jailed Again") combine for a helluva gut punch - you have no doubt at all that they have lived every word of it.  Add to that a 40-second slice of Cream's "Cat's Squirrel" (Texacala's Southern Comfort-slurred "AWWWWrightawrightawrightawrightawright...all ri-i-ight!" is the perfect intro to the album's festivities) and one of the greatest break-up songs ever, "The Slip," and you've got a platter that is damn hard to beat.

Their earlier self-titled debut album is also good, but not nearly as self-assured; the import-only concert album that followed should have been a better document of the band in action but suffers from poor sound quality.  Life's So Cool is the one to look for.

Check out two of my faves from the album, "Lucky Hand" and "Big House Part III."  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Angry Samoans "Back From Samoa" (1982)

The Angry Samoans were abrasive, irreverent, sarcastic, crude and, as often follows, damn funny. On their second album, Back From Samoa, they were absolutely brilliant.

Fronted by the snarling "Metal" Mike Saunders, the Angry Samoans were part of the first wave of L.A. hardcore bands in the late 1970s.  While they played as hard and loud and fast as any of their contemporaries, they stood apart from the crowd in attitude. Other bands may have taken the political route or tried to deliver some sort of message in their music, but not the Samoans. Instead, they reveled in B-movie schlock, class-clown antics, and a devastatingly sharp skewering of the very scene they were a part of. They refused to take themselves too seriously, but they had enough of an edge to make you think that they just might be dangerous.

On  top of all that, they were good. Damn good. Their songs were short and punchy (Back From Samoa's 14 songs fly by in just over 15 minutes!) but solid, and the musicianship matched.  Even at top speed, the riffs are crisp, the rhythm on point, and the energy just crackles through the speakers.

Taken at face value, especially in today's Politically Correct world, the album could be seen as jaw-droppingly offensive; in the context of its time and place on the musical spectrum, the calculated shock factor is so defiantly over-the-top as to go beyond cartoonish and into the realm of self-parody. Songs like "They Saved Hitler's Cock," "Homo-Sexual," and the staggeringly foul "Ballad Of Jerry Curlan" (in which the title character's perverted sins, including incest and bestiality, are listed in specific detail) are so far over the line that only the most purposefully obtuse could possibly take them seriously.  The band isn't actually encouraging you to  "put a fork in your hand/poke your eyes out" (from "Lights Out"), they're just having fun (and poking fun at) being a stoopid punk band. Remember, in those days mainstream America thought punk rock was going to take us all to Hell in a hand basket.  The Angry Samoans played right up to that fear and had a good laugh about it.

There are real gems to be found on the album as well:  "Gas Chamber" is in the running for best hardcore song ever written; the sci-fi drenched "Not Of This Earth" foreshadows the direction the Samoans would go musically as the years went on; their cover of the Chambers Brothers' hit "Time Has Come Today" is not to be missed.

Back From Samoa is a classic punk album through and through.  It has been reissued many times on many labels over the years, so tracking down a copy is not difficult at all.  Obviously, the easily offended should stay away; those who can look past the surface and are willing to wallow in the muck for a bit will have a blast.  To give you a taste, enjoy a clip of the Angry Samoans performing "Gas Chamber" and "Not Of This Earth" on New Wave Theater (with a brief interview that includes Saunders grabbing the microphone for an important message) and the actual video the band made for "Time Has Come Today."  Enjoy!

Friday, September 12, 2014

You've Been Comped!
10 of the Best Compilation Albums from the Punk/New Wave Era

The compilation album is a wonderful thing.  In the times long before you kids had your newfangles digital doohickeys that allowed you to set up playlists of your favorite songs we had, of course, the mix tape.  But before even the mix tape, the compilation album was the only way to go to have a mix of artists and songs all in one place.  Part musical sampler platter, part musical buying guide, the compilation was a great way to be introduced to new bands that you were pretty much assured you were going to at least tolerate, if not like enough to go out and find their record. (One friend of mine built the foundation of his record collection on his stated goal to buy "every record by every band on that fuckin' Burning Ambitions album!")

My collection, too, experienced growth as a result of more than one compilation album brought into the house, and I can say from my own experience as a DJ on WDCE in Richmond, VA, that the comp is certainly the disc jockey's friend - a portable record collection in itself if you will.

Today, we celebrate the compilation album with this round up of ten of the best.  You could begin with these ten and branch out from there to create a record collection that would be the envy of all your friends. So let's get to it! In no particular order:

1.  Burning Ambitions: A History of Punk (1984) – If you are looking for one compilation to point to as a basic primer on UK punk rock, this double-record import on the Cherry Red label is the one to pick, hands down.  Though they weren’t able to get the licensing to include the Pistols, The Clash or Siouxsie & the Banshees (a fact bemoaned in the album’s liner notes), they were able to include just about everyone else!   The Exploited, The Damned, Adam & the Ants, Generation X, The Stranglers, The Lurkers, Cockney Rejects, Sham 69 – they’re all here.  Even a couple Yankee acts (Dead Kennedys, The Heartbreakers) show up in the mix.  I remember whole weeks going by when this album did not leave my turntable.  Why would it? It’s a virtual punk rock jukebox!  Essential.

2.  Rodney on the ROQ (1980, 81, 82) – As young punk I remember being pissed off that I lived on the wrong coast to hear the legendary radio station KROQ out of L.A.  I read about the station and the fact that they played -- an actual radio station that actually played -- all these bands I was into.  Longtime DJ and scenester Rodney Bingenheimer led the charge with his Rodney on the ROQ show.  The closest I ever got to hearing the show live was in the form of the three comps put out on the Posh Boy label under Rodney’s name.  All three are excellent, with the first being the best of them:  when you begin with Brooke Shields leading into Agent Orange’s “Bloodstains,” you know you’re in for a helluva fun ride.  Volume One also features The Adolescents, Black Flag, The Simpletones and Cristina’s killer rendition of “Is That All There Is ?”  Volume Two keeps the pace going with Social Distortion, Shattered Faith, The Minutemen, The Little Girls and The Stepmothers; Volume Three counts Ill Repute, Kent State’s killer “Radio Moscow,” Channel Three and a very early cut from The Bangles (when they were still called The Bangs).  Each splits the difference between a definitely punkier side one and new-wavier side two, and each contains a special issue of Flipside magazine.  All three are well worth picking up.

3. IRS’s Greatest Hits Vols. II & III (1981) – A two-record set that begs the question, “Whatever happened to Volume I?”  (Bonus points to the first person commenting with the correct answer.)  IRS (The International Record Syndicate, silly) was one of the most awesome record labels of the early 1980s, and this compilation of artists on their roster at that time is flat-out mind-blowing array of talented artists with the chops and the attitude to not only ride that somewhat tenuous line between punk and new wave, but to stomp it fully into submission.  The Damned, The Cramps, The Fleshtones, Oingo Boingo, The Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Payola$, Squeeze, Skafish, Alternative TV, The Humans, Fashion, Klark Kent and more!  This one was a standard party album for many years around these parts…

4. This is Boston Not L.A. (1982) – A wicked good encapsulation of punk rawk done Boston style and, honestly, one of the best hardcore albums ever.  With bands like Jerry’s Kids, The F.U.’s, Gang Green and The Freeze, how can you possibly go wrong?  Loud, hard, fast and fun – we used to call this stuff “skate punk,” and while it certainly was a youthful scene this old punk still smiles when he hears it.  The Freeze’s stuff is the best here, in my opinion, including classics like “Idiots at Happy Hour” and an otherwise unavailable version of “Trouble if You Hide,” but there really aren’t any duds here either.  The CD adds the 7-inch Unsafe at Any Speed comp released not too long after the album. 

5. No New York (1978) – In the late 1970s, New York City was not a pretty place.  But there were a lot of scenes happening all at once.  You had the Studio 54 disco scene, you had the CBGB’s punk scene, and you had your mind-melting, ear-splitting No Wave scene combining the best parts of both with a little (OK, OK, a lot) atonal saxophone skronk added to the mix.  And you had Brian Eno there to document the latter in this nearly indescribable album.  The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (featuring a shrieking Lydia Lunch on vocals), DNA, and Mars each contributed four cuts of mutant funk-punk squawking and screaming and searing sound.  Some will find it painful to listen to, others (like me!) will revel in its anti-art defiance, but anyone who hears it will not forget it.

6. Not So Quiet On The Western Front (1982) – 2 records. 47 bands in 74 minutes. An insert booklet that doubled as the first issue of Maximum Rock’n’Roll.  About the finest damn hardcore compilation you’re ever going to hear, and proof that those who said all those bands sounded alike either weren’t paying attention or were fucking posers, man.  Just a recitation of the band names will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was into the scene at the time: 7 Seconds, Pariah, Code of Honor, Bad Posture, Flipper, Angst, No Alternative, MDC, and on and on.  It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s excellent.  And oh how we used to laugh (and still do) at the Naked Lady Wrestlers’ “Dan with the Mellow Hair.”  This one has been given a really nice CD reissue with every track intact.  

7. Marty Thau’s 2 X 5 (1980) – Marty Thau had been around the record business forever, and was an early proponent of New Wave, helping many artists get heard through his Red Star record label.  For this compilation he selected two songs from each of five New York City-based bands (hence the album title) and damn if he didn’t go 10-for-10 picking them!  Your big name band here is The Fleshtones, who check in with an early version of “Shadow Line” and a typical ‘Shtones romp, “F-F-Fascination.”  Bloodless Pharoahs go a bit over the top with their purposefully odd vocals, but they did count a young Brian Setzer among the cats in the band.  Neither The Student Teachers nor The Revelons ever made big splashes on the scene, but their contributions here are fantastic (especially Student Teachers’ “Looks,” centered around the great couplet, “I know I got my looks and  you got yours/I guess it just wasn’t what I was looking for…”  A couple of tracks from The Comateens, who would go on to become a second-tier band of some note, round out the collection nicely.  A must-own. 

8. Declaration of Independents (1980) – This early comp collecting assorted regionally well-known independent label acts looking to break big nationally is thoroughly undeserving of its relative obscurity nowadays. (Granted, being on the fairly small but perfectly named Ambition label meant the album wasn’t headed for a high-profile life from day one.)  The biggest name on the album then – and now – would be Pylon, whose debut single “Cool” is found here.  But the music is start-to-finish solid, ranging from the sparkly power pop of Luxury’s “Green Hearts” to the bar band toughness of Robin Lane & the Chartbusters’ “Rather Be Blind.”  There’s rockabilly from Tex Rubinowitz, surf instrumental goodness from D. Clinton Thompson, Kevin Dunn’s giddy synth take on Chuck Berry’s “Nadene,” and – only a few months removed from the Three Mile Island nuclear scare – Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band teaching us to do “The Meltdown.”  Don’t miss Washington DC’s Razz (featuring a young Tommy Keene, trivia buffs!), whose contribution “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)” is a song begging to be covered for today’s crowd.  

9. Let Them Eat Jellybeans (1982) – Jello Biafra curated this collection released smack dab in the midst of the classic hardcore era. The big names here read like a who’s who of that scene: Circle Jerks, Black Flag, D.O.A., Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys themselves all make appearances slashing along at top speed.  From Flipper’s “Ha Ha Ha” providing an uneasy funhouse-mirror opening to Voice Farm’s eerily unsettling closer “Sleep,” the album never lets up.  Even a brief side-step in pseudo-reggae (The Off’s wonderful “Everyone’s A Bigot”) is a bit jolting in its frankness, and the guaranteed-to-offend track from The Feederz (“Jesus Entering from the Rear”) simply has to be heard to be believed.  A stunning collection. 

10. URGH! A Music War (1981)  - Soundtrack to the movie of the same name, the double-LP set compiles live performances by a simply fantastic collection of new wave bands ranging from the famous (The Police, Devo and Joan Jett are all here) to the infamous (Skafish’ s “Sign of the Cross” nearly got the whole project banned in some places).   Interesting to note who was left off the album despite appearing in the film:  punk poet John Cooper Clarke, the utterly mysterious Invisible Sex (seriously, has anyone ever heard anything else from them apart from their URGH! performance?) , and the only true punk band in the picture, the Dead Kennedys, were all left off the vinyl.  Still, it sits now as a nearly perfect time capsule of what early 1980s radio would have sounded like in a perfect world.  Avoid the truncated CD reissue and seek out the original vinyl. 

So, there's my list - how about yours?  What are the compilations that got your record collection started?  Which ones do we just have to hear?  Tell us about them in the comments!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Last Cigarette - Celebrating Ten Years Smoke Free!

"Yea I know its killing me
Yea I know its killing me
Yea I know I know I know I know I know I know I need a
Last cigarette, last cigarette, last cigarette, one before I go to bed..."

 - Dramarama, "Last Cigarette"

Last Cigarette by Dramarama on Grooveshark

At my worst, in my junior year of college, I was on a two pack a day habit.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  20 cigarettes in a pack means 40 cigarettes a day.  To maintain that level of smoking, I had to pretty much constantly have a cigarette going. And I pretty much did.

My smokes were always within arm's reach of the bed when I went to sleep at night – you know, for those wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night cravings – so the morning routine involved having my first smoke of the day lit and half gone before I even got out of bed.   If it was a weekday, there were the before and after class clutches of smokers to join in with.  I smoked while I walked between classes.  I smoked before and after meals in the dining hall.  I smoked while playing pool in the commons building.  I smoked while I studied back in the dorm room.  If it was a weekend, well, there were parties all over campus, and you couldn't have a drink without a smoke.  Hell, I even mastered the art of smoking in the shower.

Back then, though, most people I knew smoked.  I knew more people who smoked than people who didn't.  It was something we just did.  It was relaxing, stress-reducing.  It was a social activity.  It looked cool and chicks dug it, or so we told ourselves.  Hey, what better way to break the ice with a cute co-ed than to ask if she had an extra smoke – or better yet, to come to her rescue with an extra of your own if she was smokeless and nic-fitting. 

We coughed up black stuff, we hacked and wheezed, we smelled like chimneys, our clothes were permeated with the stench of stale tobacco, our fingers were yellowed with nicotine stains.  And yet we smoked, smoked, smoked and smoked some more.

I had smoked on and off pretty regularly since I’d guess about age 13 (confession: as a third or fourth grader I had experimented a little bit thanks to neighborhood friends’ older brothers and sisters letting smoke some of their cigarettes – usually as part of the pact made with the younger siblings in exchange for their silence around their parents), but it was in college where I became a true smoker.  Never mind my terrible sinuses or semi-annual bouts of bronchitis – smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

One year, a particularly bad bout of bronchitis brought my smoking to a temporary halt.  I physically could not breath in regular air without launching into an extended coughing fit, much less inhale a lungful of tobacco smoke.  After about a week, I was at my wit's end, decided I was feeling well enough, and broke down and had a smoke.  And another.  And then another.  As coincidence would have it, the bronchitis had run its course, and within a day or two I was feeling much more like myself again.  When I recounted for anyone who would listen that finally smoking was surely what had cured me, my roommate simply shook his head and said, “Bryan, you have no friend in the Surgeon General.”

After college I wound up spending a few years in the restaurant industry – again finding myself among a group of people who smoked.  Heavily.  By now I was down to a more manageable half a pack a day, but still I smoked.  My girlfriend at the time and I lived in a tiny two-room apartment, and we both smoked - she probably more than I, although with a drink or two in me I could still run through a pack or more in an evening if the mood was right.  We’d tell each other that we really should quit; we’d make pacts to quit together, but we never did quit.

Now, fast forward a few years.  That girlfriend and I had split up; I was out of the restaurant biz and doing very well in my marketing career.  Well enough, in fact, that I was ready to move out of that cramped apartment and buy my first house.  As my friends and I were moving things out of the apartment,  I saw a sight I will never forget.  We pulled the sofa away from the wall, and there was a nearly perfect outline of the sofa on that wall – clean wall where the sofa had been, soot- and smoke-stained wall where it had not.  I vowed at that moment that I would not treat my new house that way.  I made a rule for myself that I would not smoke in the new house. I would go outside to smoke.

Over the course of the first two or three years in the house, that's exactly what I did.  There has never been a cigarette smoked inside this house since I've owned it.  I either went out on the front porch or the back patio if I wanted to smoke.  Slowly, over time, without realizing it, I was finding less and less desire to stop whatever I was doing to go smoke a cigarette.  Soon I was pretty much only smoking at work on lunch break. 

The Day came at the end of week's vacation from work.  As usual for me, it was a stay-at-home vacation.  One night I went out on the patio and lit up a cigarette.  After just a drag or two, it occurred to me that this was the first cigarette I had lit up in a week.  Not intentionally, not consciously, it just hadn't occurred to me to smoke; I hadn't needed to smoke. “I don't need this!” I said to myself and crushed out the nearly unsmoked cigarette.

That was September 4, 2004.  Ten years ago.  I have not smoked another cigarette since that day.

I vowed that I would never be one of those militant ex-smokers. I’m of the live and let live school: you want to smoke?  Go ahead, enjoy.  Believe me, I know how good that smoke can be.  You're trying to quit?  Believe me, I know how hard the habit is to break.  But I am living proof that it can be broken – for good.
Ten years smoke free.  That’s worth celebration.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New On The Turntable: Songs For Snakes "Year Of The Snake"

After a stellar debut LP, Charcoal Heather (recommended in one of my earlier round-ups of bands you really ought to hear), San Francisco’s Songs For Snakes are back again with their sophomore effort, Year Of The Snake.  Released both digitally and, for those of us who prefer our music on vinyl as God intended, a truly nifty blue and white splatter disc whose colors perfectly mirror those of the cover art, making the kind of beautifully cohesive package presentation that can never be achieved with even the highest quality digital download.

That cohesion isn't limited merely to the record’s aesthetics; Songs For Snakes plays as tightly as any band. They are a single unit building shimmering walls of thickly layered sound, in turns grinding and buzzing like Hüsker Dü circa New Day Rising or jangling and humming as R.E.M. might have had they come from anywhere other than the South. 

There’s no sophomore jinx here. Year Of The Snake picks up right where Charcoal Heather left off and continues on, expanding outward from that core rather than trying to reach too far above it (the mistake many bands make in delivering a second LP).  Sure there are new ideas being tested here, little arty touches that indicate there is more to this band than the rest of what we've heard so far (“4 Way Right Of Way Giveaway” and “Minutes Into Years”), but there is – as they say – something to be said for consistency.  They know where their sweet spot is and return to that home base constantly throughout the album.  Those hints of other tricks up their sleeve only whet the appetite for future works.

They've obviously studied their cultural touchstones.  The aforementioned Hüsker Dü comparison is the most obvious, but damn if that opening guitar riff on the lead off track “Painted Lawns” isn't nicked from The Pixies' playbook (as is their tendency to build songs on the soft-loud-soft blueprint).  There’s a lot here that hearkens back to the '90s, but that's not to say it sounds dated or derivative.  Rather, it's a present-day wall of sound made by musicians who are old enough to know what was good back then and smart enough to make it work again in a modern setting.

This one is well worth picking up and spending some time with.  Here are my personal faves:  the previously noted “Painted Lawns,” “A Caffeine Sugar Mean” and the stunning “She Is Not Impressed.”  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Nash The Slash Has Passed Away

Saddened to learn that Jeff Plewman, better known to the music world as Nash The Slash, passed away at the age of 66.  Truly one of the most original musicians - and one of the more bizarre characters - in the entire underground scene.

In his honor, I am reposting the New Wave For The New Week entry I wrote about Nash The Slash back in December of 2011.

R.I.P. Nash.

(originally posted 12/5/11:)

Canadian-born Jeff Plewman has been making fascinating music since 1975, although you have likely never heard of him.  An incredibly talented individual, Jeff seems capable of playing any instrument you hand him. He is best known, however, for his work with electric violin and mandolin, often processed further through assorted synthesizers and, as he refers to them, "devices."  He has toured with Gary Numan and Iggy Pop, among others, and he is still going strong in 2011, having just released a fine retrospective compilation of his career's work. But if you go to your favorite record store (or, as I guess we must say in 21st century, "music source") and ask for Jeff Plewman's latest release, you'll get little more than funny looks. Jeff doesn't record or perform under his given name.  Jeff records and performs with his head and face wrapped mummy-like in bandages, wearing tuxedo and top hat, and goes only by the name Nash The Slash.

It wasn't always thus.  Nash started out as a normal, unbandaged musician as part of a Canadian mid-70's progressive band called FM (think long hair and long, long songs).  After FM released their first album, Nash struck out on his own, beginning with 1978's Bedside Companion. At the time this four-song instrumental EP was released, as the cover art reveals, the top hat and jacket were already in place, but the bandages didn't appear until the following year.  During a 1979 tour, with the crisis at Three Mile Island having just occured, Nash wanted to make a statement about the dangers of a nuclear meltdown. He appeared onstage one night wrapped in bandages dipped in phosphorescent paint as a warning that "this may happen to you!" The bandages quickly became a trademark, and he has not appeared in public unwrapped ever since.

1979 also saw Nash's first full-length LP, Dreams And Nightmares. Following the debut EP stylistically but beginning to add vocals to the mix, Nash slashed out a sound not far removed from German electronic noodlers like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream. In 1997 both the EP and this first LP were combined onto one CD as Blind Windows.  Setting his sights on the pop music world next, Nash released a cover of Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" in 1980 to positive acclaim.  The follow-up album, Children Of The Night, included that single as well as a few other covers ("19th Nervous Breakdown," "Smoke On The Water") as well as the usual experimental instrumental pieces.  Covering well-known songs made Nash more accessible, but also threatened to paint him into a corner as a gimmick act - and the hidden-identity/bizarre cover songs gimmick was already taken by The Residents (with whom Nash was briefly associated).

Nash answered his critics with his most wonderful album, 1982's And You Thought You Were Normal, which split the difference with one side of fairly standard New Wave pop and one side of instrumental noodling, and no cover versions to be found in either basket.  Nash scored a club hit with the album's single, "Dance After Curfew;" other notable cuts include "Pretty Folks," "Vincent's Crows," and the utterly majestic "Citizen" ("I've got nothing to hide/I just can't decide/Am I just a citizen?").  Then, in the ultimate thumb-your-nose-at-your-detractors move, he followed that two years later with an album full of nothing but cover songs! American Bandages found Nash slashing up the theme from American Bandstand, "Born To Be Wild," "Psychotic Reaction," and "Hey Joe" among others, while also taking another stab at "Dead Man's Curve."  The song from which the titular pun was taken, Grand Funk Railroad's "(We're An) American Band," gets a slight rewrite given that Nash always performs completely solo; hence he sings, "I'm an American Band."  Brilliant.

Having made his point, Nash pulled a most unexpected move and returned to his old bandmates, rejoining FM, although he retained the now-standard Nash The Slash uniform.  While spending the next few years playing with FM, Nash also dabbled in film scores and other production work.  But it wasn't until 1991 that we got the next solo Nash The Slash album, his soundtrack to Highway 61. 1999's Thrash demonstrated handily that Nash had not missed a step in his instrumental work; 2008's In-A-Gadda-Da-Nash equally proved he still knew his way around a goofy cover version or two.  In between those two albums, Nash issued a stunning score he created for the silent horror classic Nosferatu. Is there anything this guy can't do?

Despite all his work and critical acclaim - both from the music press and his fellow musicians - Nash The Slash remains relatively obscure. This year's The Reckless Use Of Electricity, a handy compendium of Nash's finer moments, is a welcome introduction for those new to this fascinating musician's oddly mesmerizing world of sound.  Get it.

For this week's NW4NW, here is some early-80s vintage Nash The Slash. First, the clip for his breakthrough cover of "Dead Man's Curve," then his club hit, "Dance After Curfew."  Enjoy!

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Devo "Freedom Of Choice" (1980)

Cover of "Freedom of Choice Deluxe Remast...
Cover via Amazon
"The beginning was the end..."  - Devo, "Gates Of Steel"

Guitarist and founding member of Devo, Bob Casale (a/k/a Bob #2), passed away on Tuesday at the far too young age of 61. In his memory, there's been a lot of the Spudboys' music being played around Ruttville this week.  If you can manage to sidestep 1984's misbegotten Shout and the contemporarily released non-LP single "Theme From Doctor Detroit," it's pretty tough to go wrong anywhere in the Devo catalog (and even Shout has its moments: the title track, "Here To Go" and the wacky re-imagining of Jimi Hendrix's "Are U Experienced?")  Of course, Devotees will tend to lean heavily on the first two albums, and it's tough to argue with the simply classic opening salvo of Devolutionism, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo or its lesser-known but every bit as wonderful follow-up Duty Now For The Future.  But for me, their third album, 1980's Freedom Of Choice, remains the go-to record when I need a good shot of Devo's unique lunacy.

Part of my affinity for this album lies in the fact that in a collection that now boasts close to 3500 titles, Freedom Of Choice was one of my earliest additions.  The record has been getting airplay in my home for over thirty years!  Beyond that, the album is just flat out excellent from start to finish.  Not a clinker to be found here.  And while it was not an obvious grab at commercial acceptance or mainstream radio airplay, it is Devo at their most "pop," their most accessible, and it does contain their most well-known song, "Whip It."

Jerky, robotic rhythms are still the rule on Freedom, but the sound is less antiseptic than on the first two albums.  The yellow radiation suits were abandoned in favor of the famous flowerpot hats, a more humanized visual to match the more accessible sound.  While traditional guitars are certainly background players here, Devo had not yet gone fully synthesized. (That would happen with the next album, New Traditionalists.) The result is a fuller, tougher sound than is heard on any other album bearing the Devo name.

"Whip It"  is only the centerpiece of the album because history painted it that way.  It's buried in the middle of side one, just another track on album full of hook-laden, energetic, synth-heavy tunes.  If "Whip It" scored so big, it remains a puzzle why similarly styled tracks like "Girl U Want," "Freedom Of Choice" or "Gates Of Steel" weren't every bit as big.  For those looking for the expected Devo goofiness, "Ton O' Luv" and "That's Pep!" fit the bill nicely; the surprisingly touching "Snowball" shows that the previously emotionless Spuds know heartbreak as well as any of us.  Even apparent throwaways "Cold War" and "Don't You Know" are good enough to be lead tracks on virtually any other New Wave bands' albums.  And the final one-two punch of "Mr. B's Ballroom" (with its hiccuppy "whoa-whoa-oh-oh" chorus) and "Planet Earth" (not the same song as the identically titled Duran Duran single) is simply excellent.

Unlike many other New Wave albums of its time, Freedom Of Choice really doesn't sound terribly dated today.  Well worth adding to your own collection if you don't already own it.

R.I.P., Bob #2.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Fleshtones "Hexbreaker!" (1983)

Yesterday, the mighty Fleshtones released their newest album, Wheel Of Talent, on Yep-Roc records. This is the 22nd album for the boys from Queens, and the first track from it to reach the light of day is a bit of a nostalgia/tribute in honor of another pretty damn good NY band:

Haven't picked up the new LP myself yet (soon...soon), but I have been giving some airtime to my favorite from their vast catalog, 1983's magnificent Hexbreaker! 

The Fleshtones' brand of garage rock has always been about the party.  They're having fun singing and playing and they want to make sure you're having fun, too.  You can't not smile while listening to the Fleshtones, and you better not try and sit still in the corner - this is get up and dance around like no one is watching music, and it never shang-a-langed so brightly as on this, their second full length album for I.R.S. Records (a debut album was recorded circa 1979 for Marty Thau's New York-based Red Star Records, but only the "Amercian Beat" single saw release before that label collapsed. I.R.S. snapped the band up; those original Red Star masters were later released as Blast Off!)

With echoes of sixties nuggets like The Blues Magoos, The Standells and The Animals (Peter Zaremba's voice at times does sound a bit like Eric Burdon's) yet still reflecting the sounds of contemporaries such as New York Dolls, Suicide and, yes, The Ramones, The Fleshtones carved out their own sound, dubbed "Super-Rock!" That sound is immeditaely defined by the jarring guitar crash leading up to Zaremba's shout of "CHA!" that kicks off the opening track, "Deep In My Heart." Launching into a reedy farfisa-driven rocker that shakes you awake and culminating in actual crashes of thunder, the opener seems tough to beat.  But there are plenty of party tricks up these guys' sleeves.

Care for some bubblegum? "What's So New (About You)?" is stick-to-your-teeth sugary.  A fuzz guitar, a clap-along melody and that ever-present farfisa will leave you wanting more of this gooey sugary confection, but instead you're being whisked downtown on an ambulance ride: "Screamin' Skull" is a mildly harrowing account of a drug trip gone bad, but damn if you can't sing along with it.  After a wailing-sax instrumental break ("Legend (Of A Wheelman)"), you're hit with the punk rave-up "New Scene" and then the absolutely excellent title track. In another, more perfect world, "Hexbreaker" could have been "Louie, Louie."  A basic, repetitive guitar line, a bit of a soulful strut, and a recording that sounds like it's taking place at an actual party - it's wonderful stuff, and by the end of side one, you'll wonder if they can top what they've done so far.

The answer is immediate, as side two opens with the incredible "Right Side Of A Good Thing," perhaps the most Fleshtones-sounding song The Fleshtones ever did (and that is saying something, my friends!)  With its hysterical falsetto chorus and bubbling bass, it's a nearly perfect distillation of everything The 'Shtones stand for: fun, positivity, and damn good music.  "Brainstorm"  and "New Scene" keeps the party going, while "This House Is Empty" slows things down about a half step between them.  The album ends with the only non-original, John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell," which is given the full Super-Rock! treatment and as a result is the perfect way to close out the album.

Few albums are as strong start to finish as this one, and while The Fleshtones can sometimes be guilty of retreading the same sounds, there's a reason why you stick with what works.  On Hexbreaker!, everything works.  Toss it on the turntable and you've got yourself an instant party - what more could you ask for?

(Hexbreaker! was issued on CD as a 2-for-1 with Speed Connection - Live In Paris '85 in 2010.)

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sometimes You Can't Go Back

For three years, from my first grade through third grade years, my family lived in Shillington, PA, a suburb of Reading.  Governor Mifflin Apartments, the development where we lived during that stretch, looked every bit of the year we moved in, 1973: long brick buildings in the style of colonial mansions (set along cleverly named thruways with names like Colonial Drive and Mansion Drive...ahem), at each end of which were three floors of four apartments each. First-floor communal laundry rooms and halls of storage lockers tied the two ends together.

The central playground where we kids spent most of our time would terrify the safety-conscious parent of today, but in the 70s it was perfectly fine to have metal monkey bars, a metal swing set, a metal sliding board and a metal merry-go-round all baking in the summer sun on a canvas of macadam and surrounded by chicken wire fence.  We seared our skin, scraped knees and elbows regularly, lost teeth, got mildly impaled by bare ends of chicken wire, cracked skulls and more, but we all came out of it OK.  Builds character, right? There was even half a basketball court and a volleyball court in the back of the playground. Ever play volleyball on macadam surrounded by chicken wire fence?

Behind the playground was a small wooded area, with a path that led down to a little creek. It was a great place for us kids to build forts, climb trees, learn how to curse and how to smoke cigarettes and how to throw a punch. We were Tarzan swinging through the jungle; we'd make little ramps and jump our bikes over the creek in our best Evel Knievel impersonation; we'd make small fires and watch dead leaves burn.  If we were really lucky, some of the bigger kids would join us and tell us stories about how the world worked, but more often than not they'd just be there to chase us away so could use the woods for whatever the bigger kids did there (coming of age lessons I wouldn't be old enough to learn until after my family moved back to Lancaster).

There was, as there always is in each chapter of your life, a cast of characters, but 40 years on the names and faces grow hazy. Friends like Mike Magaro, who is one of the few whose last name I can remember because when we referred to him it was always as if his full name were one word: Mikemagaro.  There was an Indian girl, Shefali; a kid about year older also named Brian (I spell mine with a "y," but that wasn't the differentiator at that age - he was "Big Brian" and I was "Little Bryan"); Harry, who was always unfindable when we played hide-and-go-seek in the storage lockers; Adriene, the girl I walked home from school with each day and was my first grade "crush."  There was my first bully, Barry Winkler, who would chase us smaller kids around with rocks or his BB gun and relentlessly picked on me, sending me home in tears more times than I can count.  There was my first best friend, Steve Yoder.

Steve Yoder and I became friends in the second grade, and it was in my runnings around with Steve that I did many of the things already listed.  I taught myself how to ride a bike thanks to Steve letting me ride his before I actually had one of my own.  We'd spend hours playing air hockey at Steve's apartment, throw a football or baseball around on a weekend afternoon (or gather other kids and try to get a game of kickball going).  We had dinners with each other's families. Typical best-friend stuff.

After third grade, my family made the move back to Lancaster.  Soon, a new cast of characters replaced that Shillington crew, and as I got older memories of Shillington faded deeper into the background - never completely forgotten, but rarely thought of.  Not quite a year ago, I was digging through a box of some old school papers and other scribblings from my youth.  I had always written stories, back as far as kindergarten, and I was fortunate to have some teachers along the way - specifically, in Shillington, my first grade teacher, Miss Londeen, and third grade teacher, Mrs. Voigt, - who actively encouraged my writing and creativity.  Hidden in this box were stories I wrote back then, often using myself and my friends as the characters.

It made me a bit nostalgic, and I decided I was going to try to see if I could find any of the folks I would have known back in Shillington online.  I fired up Facebook, and the first name I thought to look for was my old friend Steve Yoder.  Well, in this area of the country, Yoders are as common as Smiths, and Steves are all over the place.  At least a hundred Steve Yoders popped up.  OK, let's see...what if I did a search for what would have been my graduating class had I stayed in Shillington? Sure enough, there is a group page for Governor Mifflin School District Class of 1985!  I figured this must be paydirt! Would I recognize any names?  If I joined the group, would anyone remember me from my three-year stint at the beginning of that class's journey through school?

I began to scroll through the page, and stopped about five posts in.  It was a link to Steve Yoder's obituary. Steve had been killed in an automobile accident in May of 2011.

I had not spoken with or even seen Steve Yoder in nearly 40 years; I had barely thought of Steve in that time either, save for brief bouts of nostalgia.  Yet, it was like being punched in the gut.  The first best friend I ever had in life had reached the end of his, more than a year before I had stumbled across this link to his obituary. There would be no "hey, remember me?"  No getting together for a beer after 40 years.  No finding an old friend.

That pretty much put the immediate brakes on my nostalgic search.  I didn't want to to know who else might be gone.  I tried to join the group's page, but it seems that group has been inactive for some time - no one appears to be moderating the page and my request to join is still languishing there.  Somehow appropriate.

That night, I sat quietly in my living room, with no TV or music, and raised a toast to my friend.  I don't know where we go when we're done here - the traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell seem far too cut and dried to me, yet I'd like to believe there is something more, some better place. Wherever that is, I hope that when my time to go there comes, I will finally get the chance to meet up once again with my old friend for some air hockey or to toss a baseball around.  Until then, I wish him peace. And, I have had reinforced in me that it is worth it to take the time to tell those you consider friends - good friends, best friends - how much you value their friendship. You never know when someone you'd least expect to be gone, will be.

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