Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Beltones- On Deaf Ears (TKO Records, 1999)

A common perception of The Beltones is that they were really good Stiff Little Fingers sound-a-likes. I never really bought that. While it can’t be denied that main ‘tone Bill McFadden was a huge SLF fan who sounded a whole hell of a lot like Jake Burns vocally, this Ft. Lauderdale (later Gainesville) band had WAY more going for it than that. In fact, out of the thousands of punk rock releases I heard in the 1990s, the first Beltones CD easily rates as one of the ten best in my book. Never did this band claim to be groundbreaking, and its lifetime output was limited to one proper album and four 7” singles. But within that small, stylistically familiar body of work lay enough heart, soul, guts, and timeless hooks to put almost any band to shame. McFadden had the gravelly Burns growl down pat, but he was his own artist all the way, imbuing the hard-edged punk style with the emotional depth and clever turn-of-phrase of a true poet. And boy, could he ever write a catchy punk tune!

The TKO Records issue On Deaf Ears pairs the great Beltones EP “Naming My Bullets” with re-recorded versions of the band’s earlier 7” tracks. By the late ‘90s, McFadden had really come into his own as a writer, and this collection eschews typical “street punk” fare in favor of far weightier topics. McFadden’s narrative voice speaks to the beer-swilling everyman in all of us but pushes deeper to the core of the soul - articulating not just rage but also sadness, despair, fear, frustration, life lessons learned, and the anguish of unspeakable loss. One of the four or five songs in the history of popular music that has truly made me cry, “Let the Bombs Fall” is about the death of McFadden’s mother. Just reading the lyrics is a powerful experience, but the impassioned vocal delivery makes this heart-wrenching tune all the more devastating. No song ever has more perfectly conveyed what it’s really like to lose the person most precious to you:

So don't you tell him that your goddamn life isn't fair/
Cuz you don't like your clothes, your car or your hair/
He's a mama's boy who ain't got a mom anymore/
So run and hide cuz he's gonna start an all-out war/
But then from nowhere, he feels a gentle hand on his shoulder/
And suddenly all the murder leaves his mind/
No one knew a fragile life/

Like the woman that his father used to call his wife/
And for what it's worth no one was as kind/
So let the bombs fall, cuz buddy I don't care/
Kill 'em fucking all, man/

Kill everybody each and everywhere

Intense, eh? Elsewhere McFadden sings about more atypical punk rock topics: friends’ drinking problems (“My Old Man”, “Casualty”), the toll that growing up can take on friendships (“Shoot the Shit”), the misery of domestic bliss (“Insipid Sedentary Girl”), and the boiled-over frustrations of everyday life (“Naming My Bullets”). Even on cover songs, he gets creative, revamping the Newtown Neurotics’ “Suzi is a Heartbreaker” for the Internet age. And anyone who’s ever hovered over an alcoholic beverage and plotted revenge against a wicked world will relate to “Fuck You Anyway”:

Tonight is the night that I come unglued/
No longer will the beautiful people walk the streets/

And smile while I sit and stew/
Been waiting all of my life just to give it to you/
Gonna pay back all you generous souls/
And when I'm done you motherfuckers will all be through/
Just kidding, please forgive me/
Didn't realize that the whiskey would hit me so quickly/
I'll just grab my death and be on my way/
Didn't mean to wreck your evening/
Don't you worry 'bout me cuz I'm only bleeding/
And before I go there's just one last thing I wanna say...

Musically, On Deaf Ears rips fast and hard, but with a ringing guitar sound that keeps the melody in tact even at a breakneck pace. With a distinctive, earthy touch, the Beltones struck a similarity in sound to contemporaries like the Swingin’ Utters, early punk groups like (pre-Nazi) Skrewdriver, and of course the mighty SLF. At a lean 10 tracks, the disc is truly all-killer, no-filler. One could maybe contend that the truly definitive versions of most of these songs were the original 7” takes, but who can argue with the convenience of having all those assorted tunes on one CD? As much Lemmy as Jake Burns, the McFadden vocal style didn’t just have the tone – it had feeling! Everything about this CD suggests a band going all-out, playing and singing every last note as if it meant everything. Minimalist production values, not always a good thing in music, really work here to conjure the feel of a live band bringing it like it’s the last show it’ll ever play. I know that hardly anyone plays CDs anymore in this age of downloading. But if you do, On Deaf Ears is one of those titles that you won’t want to take out of your player. Running just 19 minutes, it will always leave you wanting more. Isn’t that the single best thing you can say about a piece of music?

In 2001, the Beltones would finally get out a proper album, Cheap Trinkets, which is of course worth owning if you’re the sort of person who likes good music. As far as I know, the band has not recorded anything since, and officially disbanded in 2005. But wherever Bill McFadden is right now, I hope he hasn’t stopped writing songs and making music. He was and will always be a major talent.

-Josh Rutledge

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