Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Cavedogs - Joyrides For Shut-Ins (Enigma, 1990)

Often overlooked in a Boston scene that produced such notables as the Pixies, Lemonheads and Throwing Muses, The Cavedogs concocted a plot of playful revenge via the title track from the Tayter Country EP. Brian Stevens (bass/vocals) and Todd Spahr (guitar/vocals) took notice of a Tayters (a brand of regional potato chips) truck that drove by their 9-to-5 each morning. The pair regarded typical Boston show goers as "cold and cliquish," so they began calling the folded-armed masses "Tayters." Mark Rivers (drums/vocals) assisted in the putdowns of jaded scenesters. Spahr's lyrics were in attack mode ("The volume drones to a hundred black/We'll play 'The End' and then give it back/To the comfy light of tradition/'Cause when the shroud is removed from you/The cutting edge becomes petting zoo"), but the catchy '60s pop-meets-'90s modern rock approach gained enough white-flag wavers to make "Tayter Country" the band's first local hit. The irony wasn't lost on The Cavedogs, but they couldn't resist a parting shot (paraphrasing): "Besides, the only words they could understand were, '...with a machine gun'". Lightheartedness also came in the form of a comedy troupe who regularly performed before AND during the band's sets, as well as the trio's penchant for offbeat covers like "What's New, Pussycat?" and "I Melt With You" done 'Doggy-style.

Don't be fooled by the jesting, though. All three members possess a knack for sharp songwriting, a gift for harmonies and an emphasis on powerful arrangements. Todd Spahr's "Tayter Country" is wisely reprised on Joyrides For Shut-Ins, and its Who-cum-Smithereens stance leads off the album like a four-bagger over the Green Monster. Another at-bat, "La La La," finds Spahr pulling a fastball in the direction of himself and his teammates ("We're just three white rich kids bitching 'bout the world/We think we've got problems, but we ain't got problems"). Think Paul Westerberg playing pepper with Paul Weller at Target Field. Main Spahr-ing partner Brian Stevens (AKA "The Lennon Guy") throws his strongest jab on "Leave Me Alone" ("Pointed speech just flows right through my head/Leaving me with wounds from what you said/There is one thing I can plainly see/A hundred faces making fun of me"). If Julian Lennon had traded blows with Ken Stringfellow, perhaps they would've turned in a classic Hagler/Hearns-esque round like this one. Collaborative efforts between Spahr and Stevens yield a couple of ripe fruits. "Proud Land" is a Beatles/XTC juice mix flavored with equal amounts of sweetness and cynicism ("On any nameless street/The clothes are on the line/The dogwood's blooming/And the paper's right on time"). "Taking Up Space" fills the basket with insomnia brought upon by worriment ("Sally doesn't sleep a lot at night/Sometimes she wishes she could/But the preparation must begin with the light/To look is to be good"). An A-1 drum roll is found at the core of this tasty apple. Speaking of which, add Mark Rivers' name to the list of folks whose talents aren't strictly confined behind a snare and cymbals. Though Rivers propels The Cavedogs' backbeat with the ferocity of Keith Moon/Bun E. Carlos, he has bandleader ambitions a la Grant Hart/Dave Grohl. The betrayal in "Bed Of Nails" ("Could you stand to watch me crawl?/Would you move to help me?/Turn your back or break my fall/Save my name or sell me") and finality of "What In The World?" ("And so you're back to your guns, but now they're pointed at you/And your shot in the dark hit what you listened to/What was critically done was not so easily said/And with your feet in the mud, they moved on") prove that Rivers is worthy of holding the baton.

Even if you're not a recluse, take a joyride in a Tayters truck today.

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

American Heartbreak- Postcards from Hell (Coldfront Records, 2000)

I have often lamented that I was born ten years too late, and didn’t have the chance to be a teenager when they still played good music on the radio. It would have been so awesome to have gone to high school in the late ‘70s – when youth culture meant rock concerts in hockey arenas and vinyl records on the turntable and posters of KISS and Cheap Trick on your bedroom wall. It seems almost unfathomable now, but there was a time when having a hit single was a positive accomplishment, when appealing to a mass audience meant that you wrote great songs with melodies and hooks, when rock music was actually fun to listen to. Perhaps my high school years co-incided with the tail end of that era (Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses were rock royalty at the time). But by my college days, the party was over – as the angst, self-loathing, and heavy seriousness of grunge became the new model for youth rock. Things only got worse as the decade continued – the rise of “nu metal” meaning that FM rock was becoming not only even more of a major downer, but also intentionally devoid of melody. Catchy choruses were out. Harmonies were out. Screaming anguish and “edgy” sounds were in. It was around this time that American Heartbreak delivered one of the greatest pop-rock albums this world has ever known. Needless to say, it was not well-received by the public.

I would describe Postcards from Hell as an album packed with potential hit singles – if it had been released in 1978. Formed by Billy Rowe (late of the outstanding glam metal band Jetboy) and Michael Butler (formerly of thrash legends Exodus), American Heartbreak began its quest to save music from awfulness back in 1996. Rowe and Butler, deciding it would be fun to play the “good catchy rock n’ roll” style they grew up on, set out to emulate old favorites both obscure (Starz, Angel) and iconic (Aerosmith, AC/DC). It may have not seemed like a novel concept. But in the era of Korn and Rage Against the Machine, the idea of American Heartbreak was truly heaven sent. Lance Boone was recruited to sing, and the band was off and running. An EP called What You Deserve arrived in early 1997, and a couple years later AH really hit its stride with the great “Please Kill Me” single on the punk label Pelado. Finally in 2000 came a proper album. To say Postcards from Hell did not disappoint would be like saying the 2010 Giants had a pretty good baseball season.

The album plays like a greatest hits compilation from some long-lost ‘70s rock group who might have filled an opening slot on a mythical KISS/Cheap Trick concert tour, but with a clean modern production redolent of, say, early Goo Goo Dolls or Foo Fighters. There are no ballads, no synthesizers, and no experimentations with musical style. From start to finish it’s just high-powered, super-melodic rock fueled by Ginsu-sharp hooks and a massive wall of guitars. Just when you think you’ve heard “the hit”, immediately comes another song just as good. You hear tracks like “Superstar”, “Too Beautiful”, “Brain Vacation”, and “Idiots On Parade” and have to gather that if these songs weren’t massive hit singles, then surely the world must have gone insane. You’d be right – just look at the units being shifted at the time by Creed and Limp Bizkit. Sometime, at some point during the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, good taste at the mass level simply died. This was the beauty of a record like Postcards from Hell. The most anti-commercial thing to do in the year 2000 was to make the greatest commercial rock album in the history of time. It wasn’t about money or fame. It was about craft. Rowe and his band mates carefully and meticulously constructed an album’s worth of completely perfect pop songs – each one containing a chorus catchier than the clap, melodies made for the radio, and glossy, glorious guitar hooks out the wazoo. Boone, singing for the first time in a “big” band, proved to be a natural rock singer - hitting all the notes while bringing bona fide rock star swagger.

It was tempting to hear Postcards from Hell and fantasize about a rock n’ roll revolution – that somehow this album and these songs would get out there and people would suddenly like good music again, that through the healing power of song American Heartbreak would bring joy to the despondent masses and obliterate all the raging nu metalists as swiftly and decisively as Nirvana had wiped away a generation of hair metal bands. It was tempting to imagine American Heartbreak in heavy rotation on MTV (Yes, they used to play music videos on that network), children dancing in the streets to “Dead at Seventeen”, the group playing “I Wish You Were (D.E.A.D.)” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and fans lining up blocks at a time for tickets to the AH/Tsar Super Hit Parade Worldwide Domination Tour. But here we are ten years later. Postcards from Hell is long out of print, and they still don’t play good music on rock radio. American Heartbreak’s debut album did not change the very face of the world. But it damn well should have. I tend to be less prone to hyperbole in my old age, but I’ll conservatively call Postcards from Hell a classic of its genre.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stiv Bators- Disconnected (Bomp! Records, 1980)

Of all the first wave punk stars, Stiv Bators may have been the most successful in transitioning to new styles of music. God bless Joe Strummer and his artistic integrity, but did the guy ever make a solo album that you’d actually want to listen to? Mick Jones owes the world an apology for Big Audio Dynamite II. Johnny Rotten went the dreaded “avant garde” route post Sex Pistols. And Joey Ramone managed such an enduring and listenable musical legacy precisely because he never stopped being Joey Ramone. But Stiv Bators, in a relatively short period of time, built upon the greatness of his punk output with a varied and uniformly excellent body of musical works. For a couple of singles he reinvented himself as a punk rock Eric Carmen, issuing two of the greatest power pop sides in the history of the genre. Later with the outstanding Lords of the New Church, he’d write the book on how to fuse the glam and goth rock genres. Even Bators’s weird conspiracy theory heavy concept super-group project The Wanderers came through with a fine, sadly overlooked LP. And for the best of all worlds, one only needs to turn to Stiv’s one-and-only proper solo album – a somewhat forgotten classic of its period.

After the Dead Boys disbanded in 1979, Bators set out to forge a new path for himself as a recording artist. Seeking mainstream respectability and at least partially hoping to distance himself from his reputation as a vile punk howler, the Ohio native found inspiration from Cleveland greats The Choir and their later incarnation, The Raspberries. Bators wanted to emulate those bands’ power pop stylings and infuse them with the guts and hard edge of punk rock. It was a brilliant idea - and Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records took notice. Bators’s debut single, a cover of The Choir’s “It’s Cold Outside”, was released on Bomp! in May 1979. His second, “Not That Way Anymore”, followed in January 1980. Disconnected arrived later in the year and added plenty of new elements to the solo Stiv motif.

Working with a first-rate backing band (Frank Secich from Blue Ash on bass, George Cabaniss from Akron punk greats Hammer Damage on guitar, and David Quinton-Steinberg from Canadian pop/punk stalwarts The Mods on drums) and a soon-to-be-legendary producer (Thom Wilson, who’d later record such genre standards as TSOL’s Dance with Me, Social Distortion’s Mommy’s Little Monster, and the Adolescents’ blue album), Bators had everything going for him. It’s no surprise, then, that Disconnected is everything it should be: a step beyond punk rock that shows growth but retains the Essence of Stiv. The should-have-been-a-hit “Evil Boy” is a carryover from Bators’s power pop phase but plays on his bad boy punk image. “Make Up Your Mind” is in the same vein but without the irony- it’s Stiv’s true teen heartthrob moment. “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” , a highly dramatic Electric Prunes cover, is one of several tracks that draw from the ‘60s garage rock sounds Bators so loved as a teen. “A Million Miles Away” and “The Last Year” (originally the B-side to “It’s Cold Outside”) aren’t just great pop tunes with memorable choruses. They’re beautifully performed slices of melancholia that show off Bators’s thoughtful, tender side. There are moments when the old Stiv rears his lovely head (the cheerfully perverted “Ready Anytime”), but Disconnected is generally kind of dark and introspective – in a lot of ways foreshadowing the dense gloom of the Lords of the New Church. Although he was never going to be confused for a technically “good” singer, Bators had great heart and sang with real feeling. On Disconnected’s moodier, more downbeat songs, he conveys heartache and despair without affectation. Elsewhere he’s just good old Stiv- rough around the edges, and surely up to no good, yet such a charismatic stylist that you just have to love him.

I can honestly recommend all of Stiv Bators’s post Dead Boys recordings, and perhaps the most mandatory purchase is Bomp!’s wonderful L.A. Confidential compilation (if only for those brilliant early singles). But as a whole, Disconnected is the best thing the man did in the 1980s. It’s a pleasing updating on garage rock and the classic sounds of the ‘60s, done up in Stiv’s unique style. It’s punky enough to appeal to fans of the Dead Boys, but with a gloomy undercurrent for those who’d rather listen to the Lords of the New Church. It seems strange to say this about a guy who’s an absolute legend in the punk world, but I think sometimes people forget how freaking talented Stiv Bators was. Consider Disconnected Exhibit A.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dimestore Haloes- Thrill City Crime Control (V.M.L. Records, 1997)

I won’t argue that Thrill City Crime Control is the greatest Dimestore Haloes album, or even that it’s the best place to start if you’re a Haloes newbie. I certainly won’t contend that it was the best or second-best punk album of its year (for the record, The Donnas and The Infections). But if Dirty Sheets is about albums that mean something to us, that have had special places in our lives, I was bound to write about TCCC sooner or later.

No one, a hundred or even twenty years from now, is going to mistake 1996 for 1977. But to those of us who were too absorbed in cartoons and Star Wars figures to even know that popular music existed in ’77, to those of us who were, as the Haloes put it, born too late, the mid-‘90s rebirth of classic punk rock was pretty fucking cool. Unlike the mass media appointed phony “punk revival” of two years prior, the old school punk renaissance circa ’96 was totally legit and totally grass roots. I was hooked in 1995 after buying a Spent Idols 7” I saw reviewed in Maximum Rocknroll. I was immediately intrigued when I first read about a band called the Dimestore Haloes in a zine put out by the lead singer of the Spent Idols. When, a year later, a local band called The Prostitutes had their first 7” released on a label based the whole way out in Costa Mesa, California, I knew something cool was starting to happen. And what did you know: that label, Pelado Records, soon put out a split single featuring…the Dimestore Haloes! It was all coming together. While I still dig the garage punk and Ramones-core that were all the rage in the mid-‘90s, there was something special about the likes of the Haloes, Prostitutes, Spent Idols, Bladder Bladder Bladder, and U.S. Bombs – groups that were flat-out ignoring the past two decades of musical “progress” and just playing punk music as if the calendar had never turned past 1977. It was an exciting time to be into underground punk – especially as nu metal and boy bands were leading commercial music right over the cliff.

If ’95-’96 was the ground zero point for the ’77 punk revival, then ’97 was the year it really hit its stride. The Prostitutes, U.S. Bombs, and Humpers all put out terrific albums. Pelado seemed to release a new 7” every week. And the Haloes, who had shown great promise on their first two singles, delivered a debut LP that did not disappoint. With clear nods to The Clash, Johnny Thunders, and the Rolling Stones, the Boston foursome came out swinging on up-tempo numbers “Cheap Red Wine God” and “Twentysomething Bad”, quickly introducing the world to their unique brand of sloppy punk n’roll. Singer/guitarist Chaz Matthews came on with classically snarling punk vocals but a lyrical bent in the tradition of Beat literature. Rarely has a band charged out of the gates with a mission statement as memorable and enthralling as “Cheap Red Wine God”’s opening verse:

I got a pale wasted white Keith Richards complexion
You don’t get this pretty through clean living, son
I got a guitar and a girl who’ve seen better days
The only exercise I ever get is the shakes
But I bob like life in a silent movie
I grease my hair, slip into something that moves me
If death is the inevitable end of this film
Then I’ll look so flash while I’m rotting within

Makes you want to listen to the rest of the album, doesn’t it?! Even if one of those lines was ripped verbatim from one Paul Westerberg, it’s still some freaking ferocious poetry! And from “Twentysomething Bad”, how about this brilliantly-succinct analysis of American culture circa 1996:

TV never taught me anything
Except how to change the channel or the clothes I’m wearing
High school never taught me anything
Except now the in-crowd carries guns
America eats its young

Bullseye! If there was one thing about the early Haloes that always made an impression, it was that lyrical boldness. In an age in which Joe Strummer’s line about “turning rebellion into money” had been fully fulfilled in the form of a corporate “alternative” music scene and youth apathy had risen to a cultural ideal, songs like “Twentysomething Bad”, “Hate My Generation”, and “Adrenaline” couldn’t have been any more socially relevant. And although Thrill City Crime Control as a whole isn’t really a “political” record, clearly here was a band that had at least something to say. While many punk n’ roll bands of the time were far more likely to wax poetic on beer, pussy, and how much they “rawked”, the Haloes recalled a time when punk music brought ideas to the table.

If the punkiest songs on the album (“Sickness”, “Hate My Generation”, “Twentysomething Bad”, “Heartbreak Gin”) all suggest what LAMF might have sounded like if Johnny Thunders had traded in his heroin for pep pills and gone into the studio with a severe head cold, that’s not exactly a bad thing. Moreoever, TCCC is not without its pleasant surprises – a lovingly rendered cover of “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the soulful Stonesy ballad “Wingtip Blues”, and the deliberately-paced “Adrenaline” with its hints at the refined pop prowess of the Haloes’ later work. Listening to the best of the Haloes’ recordings, like 2005’s Ghosts of Saturday Night or the criminally underrated EP Long Ride to Nowhere, you hear the full realization of what the band was already shooting for on TCCC. Those irresistable lead guitar hooks, that punked-up take on ‘50s rock n’ roll, those anthemic choruses…It’s all there, just in a rawer form. Some of the band’s later incarnations may have been more “technically” proficient; but Matthews on guitar and vocals, Lorne Behrman on guitar, Marcus Arvan on bass, and the late Jimmy Reject on drums will always constitute the “classic” Haloes lineup in my mind. There was just something incredibly cool about getting this album and digging the band look (like a time machine collision between Ziggy Stardust and James Dean), the provocative lyrics, and the retro-sharp pink-and-black color scheme of the artwork. I’m not saying they were as good, but these guys were for me what The Clash and Sex Pistols had been for my older punk rock friends. From the instant I first played Thrill City to the moment they broke up, they were my band.

The heyday of old style punk revivalism would last a couple more years at least (Remember the Dead End Cruisers? Libertine? The Chemo Kids?). There may have been even better albums yet to come, and there were always new bands to love. But Thrill City Crime Control was always the one album that best epitomized the music scene that made my late 20s tolerable.

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

AC/DC - Let There Be Rock (Atlantic, 1977)

Any album that begins with a song about oral sex and ends with a tune about banging a plus-sized woman is bound to be great. The only question is the degree of greatness. And if AC/DC is the second-greatest rock n’ roll band of all-time and Let There Be Rock is their best album, we’re talking a very high degree.

Let There Be Rock may not be the most popular or obvious choice for greatest AC/DC album, but it’s been my #1 for years. Yeah, sure: Back in Black is an incredible record. But with all due respect to Brian Johnson (a hall of fame singer in his own right), Bon Scott era AC/DC is where it’s at! All six Bon-era studio albums are gold standard classics in my book, so picking just one out of the lot becomes a matter of personal preference. I go with Let There Be Rock - probably the band’s bluesiest LP, yet also one of its heaviest. AC/DC, in its heyday, was like Chuck Berry on amphetamines; and that vibe is more pronounced on Let There Be Rock than it is on any of the band’s other albums. And for those of you who are guitarists – try and tell me this album doesn’t have some of the greatest rock n’ roll guitar playing you’ve heard in your life! Praise God! Praise Angus!

In contrast to commercially streamlined, Mutt Lange-produced albums like Highway to Hell and Back in Black, the earlier Vanda & Young produced AC/DC albums are rawer, looser affairs retaining a “bar band” feel. Let There Be Rock typifies that feel. It’s a rock n’ roll record, and it sounds like it. It’s all energy and power and sexed-up swagger, well-produced but not over-polished. It plays to the band’s strengths: Scott’s amazing raspy vocals, Angus Young’s wildfire guitar leads, and a rock-solid rhythm section that never got enough credit. While the likes of Cream and Led Zeppelin imitated the blues, AC/DC truly had the blues in their hearts and their souls. If you want to hear the true spirit of rhythm and blues seamlessly integrated into hard rock music, head straight to Let There Be Rock. I don’t know if it was something in the water, or in the air, or in its unique cultural heritage, but 1970s Australia produced some of the hottest and most authentic rock n’ roll the world’s ever known. And at the head of the class was AC/DC. Let There Be Rock, the band’s last album with an all-Aussie lineup, doesn’t re-invent rock n’ roll. But it damn well perfects it.

Working mostly a raunchy mid-tempo groove, Let There Be Rock kicks off with a monster guitar riff on “Go Down” and never looks back. The late, great Scott never sounded better – his delivery depraved and libidinous, yet soulful to the core and utterly lovable. The songs are simply constructed, yet perfect in every way. The Young brothers are on fire – Malcolm banging out riffs that shake your bones; Angus soloing with such fury that it seems your stereo speakers may shred. But Scott’s clearly the star of the show, wailing away with a blend of confidence and dynamism that only Iggy and Jagger have ever been able to match. He lends muscle to underrated rockers like “Dog Eat Dog” and “Bad Boy Boogie” but still comes across with convincing tenderness on the bluesy love song “Overdose”. And he totally kills it on the album’s two classic songs – the epic title track and the barnburner finale “Whole Lotta Rosie”. And although five of the album’s eight tracks clock in at longer than five minutes, the songs don’t seem long. “Let There Be Rock” and “Whole Lotta Rosie” are musical equivalents to The Godfather – so delightful and action-packed that you’re left wanting more in spite of their length.

The ultimate value of any rock n’ roll record cannot be quantified or even adequately conveyed by the written word. There’s no real way to analyze the greatness of Let There Be Rock. All I know is that whenever I put it on, my day becomes more awesome. I find myself immediately launching into air guitar outbursts of the craziest order. I sing along at the top of my lungs. Routine activities like walking to a shelf to put away books become opportunities to dance and jump around. What’s that? Unemployment is only getting worse, America is trillions of dollars in debt, a terror attack is imminent, Iran’s got the bomb, and if the world doesn’t end in 2012, there will at least be another Great Depression? So what! The music’s loud, and I love it!

-Josh Rutledge