4/12/2007

A few quick jams.

I'm on Benadryl today, and don't feel up to writing a decent-length essay, but I did want to talk about a few things that I've been really stoked about over the last few days. So here are a few quick capsule reviews, with one MP3 each. Enjoy.

The Chocolate Watchband

I originally heard these guys on the "Nuggets" box set, where they have three songs. I enjoyed all three, particularly "Are You Gonna Be There (At The Love-In)", which mixes a truly great set of garage rock riffs with perhaps the best "hippie redemption as revenge on mainstream society's arbitrary restrictions" lyrics I've ever heard. However, when I downloaded their first album, I found two of the songs that had already appeared on the "Nuggets" box, a bunch of Rolling Stones and Motown covers, and some cheesy instrumental filler. Figuring (as is often the case, unfortunately) that the singles collected on the "Nuggets" box were the only really great songs the Watchband ever turned out, I ignored the rest of their output for years. Recently, though, I ran across a download link for a one-disc "Best Of the Chocolate Watchband" compilation, and discovered that this band had actually produced a lot of great music that I'd never heard before. Apparently, their management was the sort of sleazy, cigar-chomping stuff of legend, which totally misunderstood the genius of this band of rowdy teenagers that they'd happened upon, and therefore buried that band's greatness, for the most part. Between replacement of David Aguilar's vocal tracks by session singer Don Bennett, overdubbed instruments to dull the garage-punk attack of the band's basic tracks, and album-padding instrumental filler added to albums consisting of less than half a dozen legitimate Chocolate Watchband tracks, the two full-length albums released by the original Chocolate Watchband are horrible at representing the true talent and legacy of the band.

Fortunately, this "Best Of" compilation avoids all of that crap. For the most part. Until 2005, long after this compilation was assembled, the only available version of their famous first single, "Let's Talk About Girls", was one with Don Bennett singing on it. Bennett's vocals aren't bad, sounding somewhat like Arthur Lee of Love in his most R&B moments. However, true Watchband singer David Aguilar has a much better tone, resembling Mick Jagger at his snottiest and most glottal, perhaps how Jagger would have sounded had he been a true street punk and not an art school graduate. Similarly, the sides cut by the original Watchband resemble the Platonic form of The Rolling Stones as they are often remembered. Those who, like me, have tracked down all of the mid-60s albums by The Stones only to find themselves disappointed at just how mannered even the most raunchy Stones tracks sound will feel a visceral thrill at their first listen to The Chocolate Watchband, just as I did. The Watchband enjoy breaking out sitars and sitar-like guitar effects just as much as Jeff Beck and Brian Jones did during that time period, and their use of said sounds is far more delightfully sleazy. Their tempos never get all that wild and wooly, but by laying back and riding the Bo Diddley backbeat, they create a nice air of foreboding menace that, for all the mythology, doesn't show up nearly as often in most garage rock bands as it should. The "Best Of" compilation puts together almost all of their four original singles (leaving off only the B-side to "Let's Talk About Girls", "Loose Lips Sync Ship"), the two tracks they recorded for the soundtrack to "Riot On The Sunset Strip" (the second of which, "Sitting There Standing", reaches whole new levels of raunchy garage recorder-grot), two tracks from their second LP, "Inner Mystique", and an unreleased version of "Milk Cow Blues." Unfortunately, it also collects 5 ersatz tracks, two of which interrupt the CD's flow by taking tracks 5 and 6, the other three of which are safely buried at the end of the album. Received internet wisdom is that this stuff is still pretty decent, though less garagey and more folky and psychedelic. I'm here to tell you, though, that these songs aren't very good at all. Track 6, "In The Past", is a cover of equally obscure garage rockers We The People, and I do intend to track down the original, which I have no doubt is superior. Three of the other four songs are instrumental, and none of them are very good. But the 13 true Chocolate Watchband tracks here are phenomenal. I'm now on the hunt for the double disc "Melts In Your Brain, Not On Your Wrist" compilation, which apparently devotes its entire first disc to the tracks recorded by the real Chocolate Watchband (2o in all, meaning I'm still missing 7), and its second disc to all of the ersatz tracks (some of which, like the Don Bennett vocal numbers, are probably decent in their own right).

Chocolate Watchband - Sitting There Standing

Grinderman

I've long been a Nick Cave fan, and while I do like his post-1993 work, in which he stepped away from heaviness and turned toward more of a dark, Satanic cabaret approach, I didn't at first. It was disappointing to me that he felt the need to leave noise and anger and dissonance in general behind. Although I grew to love the sort of richly dark balladeering he's been doing for the last decade or so precisely for its thick, eloquent feeling of decadence, I still find myself regularly returning to his old Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds albums for a good shot of the noisy freakouts that I still most closely associate with the name Nick Cave.

Now, with Grinderman, that old, noisy Nick Cave is back, at least temporarily. Here, he joins with Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis (who also worked with him on the soundtrack to Cave's dark Australian Western film, "The Proposition"--perhaps that was what sparked this collaboration in the first place), Bad Seeds bassist Martyn Casey, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks/early Sonic Youth drummer Jim Sclavunos. Cave is the only member credited with electric guitar on the band's Myspace page, and although I'm not really sure when I'm hearing Warren Ellis's amplified violin and bouzouki work (truthfully, I'm not sure what a bouzouki is), and when I'm hearing Cave's own assaults on the 6-string beast, the fact is that I'm hearing some truly glorious noise on this CD. The music reminds me of The Birthday Party at points, so much so that, when I first heard the single in a record store, I asked the clerks if it was a Birthday Party record I didn't own. It's not just that, though--there are also moments that remind me most of Pussy Galore and other 80s underground bands who seemed to be dedicated to reducing rock n' roll to its simplest and most primitive elements. Driving, repetitive, minimal basslines backed by simple, pounding drum patterns are often the only steady instrumentation carrying these songs forward, but for all that, the songs move powerfully and generate angry, ominous grooves. In contrast to The Birthday Party, this album is very clearly produced, with plenty of space for all of the instruments contrasting The Birthday Party's usual claustrophobic feel. The fact that both Cave and Ellis tend to lay back on their own instruments, filling in lead sections for the most part rather than ever playing as rhythm players for the band, adds to this impression of space, and makes Cave's voice stand out even more clearly than it already would just by virtue of its natural power. A lot of times, in fact, this album is more quietly foreboding than in your face causing panic and terror. It has its moments of the latter, though, as on the devastating noise solos of "No Pussy Blues", which alternates brilliantly cutting lyrics like "I petted her revolting little chihuahua but still, she didn't want to" with blasts of sexual frustration distilled into howling guitar and violin feedback that's enough to make you jump when it first kicks in. Who says old men lose all of their anger to complacency? Nick Cave is here to tell you they're lying.

Grinderman - No Pussy Blues

Shiver

I've spent the last few years throwing myself heavily into the investigation of the garage rock and psychedelic underground of the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s, and sometimes I get frustrated, thinking that at least some of the more obscure nuggets that I've been digging up are obscure for a reason, i.e. that they're just not as great as the information I'd been given about them led me to believe. I had been going through a period like that recently, in fact. However, the same source that provided me with the download of "The Best Of The Chocolate Watchband" also hooked me up with a lot of really rare late 60s and early 70s psychedelic rock albums, almost none of which had I ever even heard of. This has been a welcome development, as it's gone a great distance towards restoring my faith in the idea that there are a lot of amazing psych and garage albums floating around out there that I still haven't discovered yet. I haven't had a chance to absorb even half of the albums I downloaded yet, but the early favorite out of the pack is an album by an obscure band from San Fransisco called Shiver, who recorded their lone album in 1972.

There are occasional vocals on this album, but what really stands out is the instrumental attack. Shiver are a power trio, and they recorded their album live to two-track, with no overdubs, so this keeps things raw and primitive. This fits well with their songwriting style, which is rollicking and frenetic, mixing the acid-psych influences that are obvious in the many lengthy guitar solos that take up most of this album with a propulsive drive that feels more like biker rock. In some ways, they resemble Hawkwind, but instead of filling their band with over half a dozen people and adding woodwinds, poetry, and weird analog-synth trickery, they keep things bare-bones and just slam the pedal to the metal. The soloing is wild and wooly, eschewing any real flashy pyrotechnics in favor of creating a mood through long, soaring notes and runs. Perhaps this reliance has more to do with lack of prodigious talent than a specific design, but it doesn't matter, because the results are outstanding. The 9 songs here take up most of an hour, with "Alpha Man" running the longest, at nearly 15 minutes. This kind of wild psychedelic jamming seems like it was probably a big influence on bands like Dungen, which is cool, and my brain is too scrambled by Benadryl right now to come up with a satisfactory concluding sentence.

Shiver - Tough As Nails

Enjoy.

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