Sunday, October 30, 2011

Buzzcocks - Trade Test Transmissions (Castle Communications, 1993)

Luckily, I have seen these Mighty Men from Manchester twice on stages away from the Tidewater area.

The first fix was at a now-defunct dive called Twister's in Richmond, VA. Touring with the Lunachicks and Down By Law as part of a package deal for Go-Kart Records in 1999, the Buzzcocks were actively promoting their fairly recent (and Miami Dolphins-hued) Modern album. Dismissing the 'Chicks as "punk rock for girls in gas station shirts" and DBL as "sounds for skater shits," my fair-weather friend jOhn A. and I turned our heads and spent the duration of the support acts' set time chatting with a cool couple from Carolina (North division). Most
exchanges were of the "I wish the Buzzcocks would hurry up and play already!" variety. After the genie's grant, Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle -- two of UK punk's songwriting masterminds -- were joined on Twister's platform by Tony Barber (bass) and Phillip Barker (drums). Hearing '70s gems like "Ever Fallen In Love?" and "Autonomy" (their most metallic track?) in the flesh more than made up for the eternal wait outside and obvious questions from panhandlers. Cuts from Modern such as "Soul On A Rock" and "Speed Of Life" added just as much wind to the Twister's cyclone. Post-gig, jOhn, the Carolina duo and I complimented the 'Cocks on the execution of old and new favorites. In return, we were given access to the band's spacious tour bus. I mostly conversed with the driver and someone from the Buzzcocks' camp, but jOhn got a 30-minute audience with Shelley. My friend fired away with the burning questions, and Pete seemed genuinely taken with jOhn's humorous satire via his Skin Alley zine. The dude was beaming all throughout the two-hour ride back to Virginia Beach!

In 2003, the 'Cocks made a stop at the legendary Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, NC (the only show I've caught outside Virginia's borders, save for a boss blues band in B-More whose name escapes me). New tunes like "Jerk," "Friends" and "Sick City Sometimes" made the self-titled effort another winner, but the totality of the CC experience lacked the magic that'd been pulled from Twister's hat four years prior. Still, I held Shelley's Sprite bottle while he was signing something, drank three quick PBRs, ate tasty pizza from the kick-ass parlor next door and heard Donnie Iris' "Ah! Leah!" for the first time in nearly 20 years. Not bad for an "off" night, huh?

Here's the final bit from my review of the Buzzcocks' s/t disc that appeared on the long-gone Empty Wagon site: "It's amazing that Shelley and Diggle were once at a dilapidated shopping center on Newtown and Baker Road in Virginia Beach." That club in the blighted part of town was called Outer Limits and had played host to other top tourers like drivin n' cryin' and The Posies. Like a lugnut, I declined jOhn's invitation to witness Shelley and Diggle perform numbers from their well-received 1993 comeback wax (Trade Test Transmissions) at OL. Maybe I was too busy hanging out with the Touch Tone crew at Summer's Past or some other watering hole in hopes of being the rebound for a lonely lady, but missing the Buzzcocks in VB was akin to air-balling a free throw from three feet.

In contrast, owning Trade Test Transmissions is like jamming all of Vince Carter's dunks in that famed All-Star contest in a single attempt. Gripping a well-worn subject on the hardwood, "Palm Of Your Hand" manages to keep its dribble inbounds with cheeky cleverness ("Executive attention, yes, the kind that relieves/You've got the instruments of pleasure at the end of your sleeves"). Like a baller braggin' 'bout his PPG prowess, "Do It" scores twos and threes "like the river fills the sea," but the star calls a 20-second timeout with emotional pondering ("My only consolation/Is that someday you'll care/Perverse sophistication/You won't get far if you're going nowhere"). "Isolation" is blessed with a killer hook (shot) and Reggie Miller's touch when left alone at the perimeter ("There's an empty space where nothing grows/There is no life for the rose/Only a shadow in my heart"). Were it not for the lockout that's threatening to deep-six the entire 2011-12 NBA season, LeBron and Kobe could use the title cut's opening tip ("Turn the television on/You've been reading too long") in a promo piece and leave the teachings of sincerity and sarcasm to bonafide instructors. Perhaps only Bill Walton amongst hoopsters past and present would be able to pass the classic-rock reference of "Innocent" while trapped in the paint ("Even though you're not my mom/I've got to get my washing done"). "Last To Know" rewards with something greater than the Larry O'Brien trophy in June ("I came into your room while you were sleeping/And tip-toed to the bottom of your bed/I held my breath so I could hear you breathing/Love's such a sweet thing").

The first time Bob Mould saw the Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley shouted the chord changes of various songs to him. Talk about an assist that's greater than any of Magic Johnson's spectacular dishes!

-Gunther 8544

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Ergs- Dorkrockcorkrod (Whoa Oh Records, 2003)

To the best of my recollection, the most “contemporary” album I’ve ever reviewed for Dirty Sheets was Guitar Romantic by the Exploding Hearts. And that came out nine years ago. What’s my beef with modern music? I don’t know. If it’s an unwritten rule that the records we write about here should be ones we truly and deeply love, then it kind of makes sense that I’ve mostly stuck with older records. It takes time to really get to know an album. A relationship between man and music must be properly cultivated. Notoriously prone to rash judgments about music, I have been known to pan albums that I later loved. And I have been known to praise albums that I never listened to again. But if I’m reviewing it here, it might as well be written in stone. So then: in the year 2011, it seems safe to finally write about my favorite band of the 2000s, The Ergs.

South Amboy, New Jersey’s Ergs, in their eight-year career, put out two albums, several EPs, and over ten thousand singles. And while I’ll maintain that The Ergs did not hit their absolute peak until they recorded their final LP Upstairs/Downstairs, there’s one album I always reach for when I’m craving “classic Ergs”: 2003’s Dorkrockcorkrod. As a style of music, “pop-punk” is not exactly most people’s favorite. But if every pop-punk band sounded like The Ergs, it would be a different story. While the typical pop-punk band of their day was like a second-rate Screeching Weasel or a third-rate Ramones, The Ergs were more akin to The Descendents with jazz inflections, hardcore tendencies, comedic undercurrents, an air of geek chic, and a whiff of Jersey. Neither wimpy nor formulaic nor lyrically clichéd, the music of The Ergs proved that pop-punk could rock. And Dorkrockcorkrod is in my mind one of the landmark recordings in the history of the genre.

Individually, the members of The Ergs are among my favorite musicians of recent memory. Joe Keller (now killing it with the Night Birds) is still one of my two favorite bass players in punk rock. Mike Yannich, in my mind, is one of the most gifted pop songwriters of his generation. He’s also one hell of a drummer. And Jeff Schroeck is a truly brilliant guitarist. Yet somehow, with all that incredible talent, The Ergs managed to be even more than the sum of their parts! They were a true group- a dynamic and cohesive power trio who combined their complementary superpowers to create a singular force of awesomeness. Dorkrockcorkrod achieves a sound that all pop-punk groups should aspire to: powerful and aggressive, with guitars and drums pushed so high in the mix that you could close your eyes and swear the band was right there in the room with you. Credit must go to producer Chris “Gobo” Pierce for knowing how a punk rock record was supposed to sound. Equal credit must go to the band for its formidable chops and undeniable chemistry. With nods not just to The Descendents but also The Minutemen, Replacements, Black Flag, Husker Du, Green Day, Elvis Costello, and The Zombies, this is an album far removed from the banality of cookie cutter pop-punk. Rife with obscure pop culture references, smart-guy witticisms, rollercoaster tempo shifts, and Ginsu-sharp hooks, it’s an album that delights even after a hundred spins. I should know!

While The Ergs were far from creatively undemocratic (Schroeck and Keller both contributed songs to Dorkrockcorkrod), Yannich was no doubt the band’s “star”. When you think of The Ergs, you probably think of Mikey Erg and his “brokenhearted love songs”. On Dorkrockcorkrod he keeps ‘em coming, even as he pokes fun at himself for doing so. “Pray for Rain”, perhaps the greatest Ergs song ever, opens with these lines:

I'm so in love with you/
So I thought I'd try something new/
And write a silly song about just what your smile can do/
But it's just not working out/
And now I'm having my doubts/
It seems that broken hearted love songs are what I'm all about

Funny stuff for sure, but in typical Mikey Erg fashion it absolutely tears your heart out. In the same manner, songs like “Saturday Night Crap-O-Rama”, “Everything Falls Apart (And More)”, and “Most Violent Rap Group” channel one young man’s excruciating heartache into music that’s emotionally charged yet incredibly fun listen to. “Pray for Rain”, for all the anguish it unleashes, is an utterly triumphant number, and one of the all-time great tracks to air-drum to while you’re operating a motor vehicle. You just can’t help pumping your fist and shouting along to that chorus: “And I!/Could write you the perfect song!” You don’t want to wish relationship woes on anyone, but if there’s a silver lining to Mikey Erg’s bad luck in love circa the early 2000s, it would be brilliant songs like this one. And the album is full of them! In the liner notes, my old friend Lew Houston perfectly sums up the thematic scope of Dorkrockcorkrod: “This is an album about girls, and showers, and new beginnings, and globes, and vampires. That leaves 12 songs about girls. A concept of sorts. Not a very complex one, but one nonetheless.”

The songs on Dorkrockcorkrod that are not about girls are no less essential to the flow and feel of this pop-punk classic. Joe Keller’s “Extra Medium” is like a “Turn on the News” for the Internet generation (“Please don’t turn on the TV/Or open the paper/’Cause the chances of tragedy/Are now part of the weather”). Jeff Schroeck takes the mic for his contributions “Fish Bulb” and “I Feel Better Tonight”, switching things up with his blunt vocal delivery and provocatively vague lyrics. And leave it to the Ergs to go ultra-obscure in cover song selection, having a go at “Vampire Party” by the Paul Roessler/Mike Watt collaboration Crimony. As a whole, it’s hard to find fault with Dorkrockcorkrod – every detour into hardcore thrash or experimental jazz doubling back to snappy power pop (“Rod Argent”) or hard-charging melodic punk (“180 Degree Emotional Ollie”). The general vibe is fast and fun, but it’s the variety that carries the day. It’s as if your favorite early ‘80s “post-hardcore” group stepped out of the pages of Our Band Could Be Your Life, hopped a time machine to 2002, and decided to show the pop-punk scene what it had been missing. The Ergs would go on to make much more great music, and individually they’ve carried on in terrific bands like Black Wine and the aforementioned Night Birds. But Dorkrockcorkrod was something special, and will likely forever remain my favorite thing that any of these three men have ever played on. Has it really been eight years? Damn!

-Josh Rutledge

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jeff Dahl- Ultra Under (Triple X, 1991)

Thirty-nine cents! It's tough finding a goddamn Snickers bar for less than that amount of lint-covered coins, but spotting arguably Dahl's best album on tape in Camelot Music's cheapo bins inside Virginia Beach's Lynnhaven Mall circa 1995 surely satisfied (albeit temporarily) my ears' hunger for fresh sounds. Judging by the thick nest of frizz on the cover (Mark Bolan with a perm from Hell's hairdresser?), the sleeveless Stooges tee, a dedication to Stiv Bators and song titles like "Junkies Deserve To Die" and "Mick & Keith Killed Brian," I was readily eager for Ultra Under to acquaint itself with the deck of my Magnavox boombox. After the fourth or fifth complete rotation of Dahl's promising platter, I made the following mental declaration: "Man, this dude's like Iggy Pop and Johnny Thunders rolled into one human being!" Indeed, Dahl's shoveling The Stooges' "Dirt" was so spot-on, my New Jersey-based friend (who'd acquire Ultra Under on CD within a week after wearing out the dubbed copy) thought it was Mr. Iguana himself. Said bud also gave high marks to the take of The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," for it served as a template for Dahl's oft-girly vocalisms. Remember The Sweet's version of "Reflections"? Same shit, different era. It was the opening whine ("Touchy, Touchy Baby") that initially impressed us the most, however. Personally, I dig lots of '80s hair bands (as recipients of my grit comps would confirm), but this wild child sipped its glam formula with punk rather than metal. Because Dahl spat out lines in the same way a toddler extracts Cheerios ("So many questions got you on the spot/You don't bother to answer/Just give it up/Plain as day, but she can't see/Just shrug your shoulders/Ah, c'est la vie"), we sang along to Ultra Under in my amigo's rental car during his return to Tidewater.

Mr. New Jersey is no longer a friend of mine (100% his fault, but whatever...), but Jeff Dahl can still be counted upon whenever a rock 'n' roll jolt is necessary to power bleak days and nights. Recounting the true story of a horrible night amidst the '70s punk scene in Los Angeles, "Elks Lodge Riot" puts you in the middle of the chaos ("Flying vultures overhead/Tracking my every move/Sirens running thru the streets/Sets such a dangerous mood"). An absolutely stinging guitar riff from Chemical People's Jaime Pina (shades of Cheetah Chrome) heightens the tension. Dunno what kind of household Dahl grew up in, but "God Don't Care" is an answer-back redolent of many an artist a la Jim Carroll and Patti Smith ("Take it any way you want/It ain't blasphemy/If you sell your soul, baby, you ain't free/Put all you've got in the collection plate/Yeah, you can buy salvation if it ain't too late"). "Somebody" and "Pretty Blonde Hair" (another Pina lead!) are apt tributes to Stiv, as both throw flames with the white-hot intensity of the cookers on We Have Come For Your Children (the BETTER of the two Dead Boys albums!). Sparse piano and voice could be the stuff of your mom's favorite Jeff Dahl composition ("Just Amazin'"), though the tale of succumbing to addiction keeps it out of the recital realm. Elton's preferred instrument is also utilized on "Chemical Eyeballs," which blinks with a mid-tempo groove reminiscent of primo Bowie and Mott The Hoople.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts. All 39 pennies' worth.

-Gunther 8544