Monday, March 28, 2011

The Pursuit Of Happiness - Love Junk (Chrysalis, 1988)

Soon, the supercomputer known as Watson will assist professionals in the fields of finance, healthcare and telecommunications. This past February, however, the question-and-answering machine developed by IBM (I Beat Mortals) was in no mood to be helpful. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter -- two of the greatest contestants in the history of game shows -- competed against Watson in a "Jeopardy!" exhibition match that benefited their respective charities. Though the humans' intellectual prowess on past programs had made the pair legends (not to mention millionaires!), their efforts against the computer were at the level of a clueless "Wheel Of Fortune" wheel spinner choosing an already-turned-by-Vanna White letter. With the ability to tap the buzzer in 10 milliseconds, Watson out-clicked Jennings and Rutter in 24 out of 30 Double Jeopardy questions to win the $1 million top prize. The machine's final total was a whopping $77,147, which almost doubled the combined tally of the flesh-and-blood duo. Paraphrasing a bit from "The Simpsons" ("I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords!"), Jennings accepted his second-place check ($300,000) with a chuckle. Watson wasn't completely omniscient, though. In the category of U.S. Cities, the Final Jeopardy answer read: "Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle." The computer's response of "What is Toronto?" drew gasps from the IBM researchers and others in the audience. "What is Chicago?" was, of course, the question on Alex Trebek's card. As a native of Canada, the "Jeopardy!" host would've been somewhat justified to call Watson a "dumbass" at that particular moment.

The Pursuit Of Happiness weren't an airport based in a large American city, but Toronto was the launching point of the group in 1985. Piloted by Moe Berg (guitar/vocals) -- who bore a strong resemblance to The Kid Who Had A Report Due On Space from the encyclopedia adverts -- TPOH also featured Dave Gilby (drums), Johnny Sinclair (bass) and sisters Tamara and Natasha Amabile (backing vocals) in the cabin. 1986 saw the release of the band's debut single, "I'm An Adult Now," as well as a grainy video of the song filmed on the streets of TPOH's hometown. Still an unsigned act in early 1988, the group put forth another independent 45, "Killed By Love," that failed to generate the attention of the previous wax. Before inking a deal with Chrysalis Records, the Amabile sisters parted ways with TPOH and were substituted by Kris Abbott and Leslie Stanwyck. Todd Rundgren was tapped for production of Love Junk -- the band's first LP. Would the pairing be a match made in Utopia?

TR's knob-tuning on the record more than meets Moe Berg's once-stated ambition of "crossing AC/DC with ABBA." The fellas strike their tools with the force of 21 Australian lightning bolts, while Abbott and "Not Costello" Stanwyck touch all harmonious bases of said Swedish supergroup's better half. If such a hybrid scares you, there's plenty of gold for fans of Andy Partridge, Dave Faulkner, Pat DiNizio and David Lowery to pan. Re-recorded for Love Junk and again released as a single, "I'm An Adult Now" would climb to #6 on the Billboard Alternative songs chart. No matter the take, Berg's cynical look at the expected behaviors of 18-and-overs makes it a classic in the annals of modern rock. (Oxymoron, anyone?) Sample snapshots: "I can't even look at young girls anymore/People will think I'm some kind of pervert/Adult sex is either boring or dirty/Young people can get away with murder" and "I'd sure look like a fool, dead in a ditch somewhere/With a mind full of chemicals, like some cheese-eating high school boy." "Killed By Love" was also redone for the album, and the heavier mix lifts the lines. You might want to call Cupid's Crane Service to excavate its final words from six feet under, though ("My passion was your weapon/It put a blindfold on my eyes/The last sound I heard was laughter as you buried me alive"). Yo, Moe: Is that the guitar riff from INXS' "The One Thing" in your band's "Hard To Laugh"? If so, nice appropriation, man! Double kudos for the lyric, "Everyone asks you why you're so serious/'Cause your woman's got a body that would make most women delirious." Give me a Robin Scherbatsky in a Canucks sweater who'll be faithful for a week. After that, she can cheat with Ted, Barney, Rick Moranis, Dave Stieb, the Farriss brothers and you to her black heart's content. One word of caution when "Looking For Girls" like Robin and otherwise: BEWARE! ("She might be a Catholic/She might be a nurse/She might give me a child or gonorrhea or something worse/She might be a painter or a Communist, with my luck/But that's the kind of girl you really want to fuck"). "Man's Best Friend" is not an ode to a four-legged companion, but it removes the fleas from a situation that's dogged many ("Well I guess it's no secret to any of us/How I feel about you/But to live it out vicariously through him/Is the best I can do"). The Stones-like groove of "Beautiful White" balances a sweet story that's told with somewhat of a smirk ("She's got a big grey overcoat/She just dumps on a chair/But she paid a lot for those trousers/She'll handle 'em with more care").

To quote Watson's creators: "Let's build a smarter planet." One listen to Love Junk is a good start. Even if you're a "cheese-eating high school boy."

-Gunther 8544

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stiletto Boys- Rockets and Bombs (High Society International, 1999)

Of all the late ‘90s bands fashioned in the style of first wave punk rock, the Stiletto Boys were one of the top two or three. Crossing the racing tempos and vocal stylings of The Dickies with the old school pop-punk ethos of The Boys and the face-smashing aggression of the Dead Boys and Radio Birdman, this Lancaster, Pennsylvania outfit was brought back from the dead after its 8-Track 7” was released to great acclaim by Zodiac Records in 1997. A new 7”, Attitude Adjuster, made its way into the world in 1998, and for the next couple of years the Stiletto Boys were a machine. They played out three or four times a month and recorded like crazy. In short order they cranked out two great LPs and then kind of fell off the face of the earth. A long overdue third album has actually been in the works for a few years now, and if it ever sees the light of day, it will surely be great. While we wait, we still have the back catalog to enjoy. Debut album Rockets and Bombs in particular belongs to that rare class of ‘90s punk records that could have come out 20 years prior and held their own against the best LPs of the day.

As the Stiletto Boys were continually gravitating towards a power pop focused modus operandi, second album Buzzbomb Sounds (aka A Company of Wolves) was without doubt more “evolved” than its predecessor. A lot of people like it better. If Rockets and Bombs was their own Boys self-titled, then Buzzbomb Sounds was their Alternative Chartbusters. But the punk purist in me prefers the visceral thrills of Rockets and Bombs, with its bright hooks and breakneck tempos. It’s classic Stiletto Boys all the way, propelled by Casey Wolfe’s ridiculously good drumming, brother Sean’s vocal synthesis of Stiv Bators and Leonard Graves Phillips, and Eric Benner’s rocket launcher guitar sound. The material is a nice mix of oldies-but-goodies (“8-Track” and “Don’t Stop” – which will never be surpassed as the greatest Stiletto Boys song of all-time!) and newer tunes like the hyper and impossibly catchy “Killing Me”. Whether you prefer scorching rock n’ roll adrenaline (“Triple Two Stroke”, “It’s About Time”) or beautiful pop melodies (“Don’t Cry for Me”), the album is all-killer, no-filler. It’s weird to say that I “forgot” how many great Stiletto Boys songs there were. But as I listen to this disc, I find myself really taken aback by the wealth of songwriting talent they had (and no doubt still have). Remember “Sirens”? Remember “Second To None”? That shit was mint! The real bonus here is that the CD issue tacks on the 8-Track and Attitude Adjuster EPs in their entirety plus another unreleased EP, for a total of a whopping 23 tracks. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, son! In effect the disc functions as a “best-of” for the ‘90s Stiletto Boys, whereas Buzzbomb Sounds better represents the band in its Year 2000 vintage. You can’t go wrong either way.

The Stiletto Boys’ quantitative lack of output may have been a blessing in disguise. Had they kept on putting out albums, it’s possible their fans may have grown bored of their consistent brilliance. It would have been like, “Another perfect Stiletto Boys album? Ho-hum.” But now it’s been a decade, and it’s high time for a comeback. Especially with the band now citing influences outside their previous realm (Mott the Hoople, Nick Lowe, The Who, The Vapors), the work-in-progress Liberator is intriguing to consider. In the meantime, as you continue to digitalize your highly treasured ‘90s punk rock music collection, make certain that Rockets and Bombs sits atop your need-to-download list!

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dramarama- Cinema Verite (New Rose/Question Mark, 1985)

For such a small state, New Jersey has managed to produce a disproportionately large number of great recording artists. All but a few states in the union would be envious to claim the Feelies, Smithereens, Shirelles, Misfits, Four Seasons, Adrenalin O.D., Gaslight Anthem, Ricky Nelson, Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen as their own. So if Dramarama easily rates as one of Jersey’s ten greatest bands ever, that’s no small feat. Originally based out of the town of Wayne (home to, among others, boxing trainer great Lou Duva, infamous “reality TV” star Danielle Staub, and a fellow named George Washington), Dramarama eventually relocated to L.A. and took the world by storm. Okay, so they didn’t quite take the world by storm. But they should have, and at the very least they scored the all-time most requested song on legendary L.A alternative rock station KROQ, the blistering anthem “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”. And while it was hardly a chart dominator, the band’s debut album was probably as good as any rock album released in 1985. In a truly epic year for below-ground guitar rock albums (Husker Du’s New Day Rising and Flip Your Whig, the Replacements’ Tim, REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction, The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder, the Meat Puppets' Up on the Sun, to name a few), Cinema Verite rated up there with all of the above.

Rooted in the Bowie/Lou Reed/Ian Hunter strain of glam rock, informed by early ‘80s new wave, and infused with the simple hooks of classic punk and power pop, Dramarama’s sound was unlike any other band’s. John Easdale was one of the finest songwriters of his day or any other, and he was backed by a hard-rocking quintet that would have made Mott the Hoople or the ‘70s Stones proud. Part Brit-pop revivalists, part Jersey bar blasters, and part Hollywood club scene rock stars, Dramarama had the radio-ready hits and buzzworthy live act that ought to have propelled them to international fame. No matter that they didn’t – the songs hold up regardless. The Rhino best-of comp 18 Big Ones is pure gold all the way through and belongs in the collection of anyone who’s got taste. But the albums are great as well, and none are greater than Cinema Verite.

“Anything Anything (“I’ll Give You)” qualifies as a “classic” by even the most stringent application of the term. In its account of impetuous young love’s de-evolution into an acrimonious and ill-fated marriage, perhaps it qualifies as the most realistic love song ever written. Beyond that, it’s a killer rock n’ roll tune, propelled by Easdale’s impassioned vocal delivery and the fine guitar work of Peter Wood and Mr. E Boy, who go off like a new wave Thunders and Sylvain. Completely different, but equally great, is the melancholy pop tune “Scenario”, which somehow sounds uniquely Dramarama-ish even though it blatantly rips off the Psychedelic Furs. Hands down, it’s my fave Dramarama song (“Sister’s in the everglades/Mother swallows razor blades/Father makes the flags for all the Labor Day parades” - Where did he come up with this stuff?). It seems unforgivable that “Questions?” was left off the Rhino comp. It’s classic Easdale – the song’s narrator confronting an ex-girlfriend’s new man (“Does she make you buy her jewelry?/Does she speak to you in tongues?/Does she tell you about her brother/Who's got liquid in his lungs?”), his anguish conveyed not just through words but also a despairing vocal tone. The cliché about broken hearts is that they sometimes give us classic songs, and no doubt this classic song was inspired by real-life heartbreak. And if I call the guitar work “Clapton-esque”, do I mean it as a compliment? Yes! Elsewhere the band takes on jangle pop (“Transformation”), ballads (the marvelous “Emerald City”), glam rock standards (the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and the Bowie obscurity “Candidate”), and straight-up punk rock (“All I Want”), coming up aces all the while. Whether you think of Easdale as a poor man’s Paul Westerberg, a modern-day Ian Hunter, or a masculine David Bowie, no doubt it’s his growling voice and brilliant lyrics that really bring Cinema Verite to life. The men backing him are fantastic as well, and bassist Chris Carter’s no-frills production effectively marries Dramarama’s bar band roots to its pop art sensibilities.

Dramarama would record four more studio albums before calling it quits in 1994 (only to be famously reunited on a VH1 TV show a decade later). It is this writer’s humble opinion that all five pre-breakup LPs are must-owns. The Rhino comp, as good as it is, will not suffice even for the most casual fan. When you’re talking about a songwriting talent as prodigious and inimitable as John Easdale, an 18-song sampling only scratches the surface. You gotta go catalog with Dramarama. Stuck in Wonderamaland, if only for its outstanding cover of Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” (a rendition so poignant it made my cry the first five times I heard it), earns serious consideration as the very first Dramarama album you should buy. But Cinema Verite edges it out. If you're a fan of good music, you really need to own it.

-Josh Rutledge