Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Velvet Elvis - s/t (Enigma, 1988)

Somewhere in an obscure corner at a Tidewater Virginia-area thrift store, a dusty copy of this modern rock shaving from BACK IN THE DAY (TM) is marked by a two-dollar price tag and an old Post-it Note from an ahead-of-the-curve WODU disc jockey. Pop-packed sounds from the Lexington, KY, combo would've paced five-on-four power plays during hallway hockey battles inside the dormitories of the Hampton Blvd.-based campus. On second thought, maybe the above scenario is merely a product of collegiate utopias seen on episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "21 Jump Street." Like other releases I've discussed on Da Sheetz, I used to spot Velvet Elvis' self-titled selection in bargain bins at Tracks, Mother's and Volume CD Exchange with regularity throughout the 1990s. Don't know why I consistently passed on the offering, for it would've been a minimal risk to snag a cheap cassette version for my ever-growing archives. At FYE's 40% off liquidation sale about a month ago, VE presented itself in front of the assorted "V" section. Though the adjusted cost rang up at $2.40 before sales tax, I experienced the usual hesitancy surrounding the disc. Fortunately, a longtime FYE employee (and a personal friend) was able to squash my indecisiveness once and for all. Melissa had owned a Velvet Elvis 7-inch single, thus she was comfortable with describing their M.O. and recommending the purchase. I had entered the former Planet Music that Sunday afternoon with the goal of obtaining Hoodoo Gurus' Purity Of Essence and The Smithereens' 2011 at a cut rate. Who knew that the third choice in the bag would become my favorite one of the trio?

Befitting the biggest Cadbury egg in producer Mitch Easter's basket, "Take It If You Want It" is filled with the familiar jangle-folk yolk of earlier treats. The sugary sweetness of its chocolate shell, however, fails to enrich a belated Valentine's Day gift ("I'd give you my heart, but you'd only laugh"). A make-up present of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers' Playback box set stomps all over the thoughtless candy container from Walgreens. Should you and yours become displaced at a packed-to-the-rafters TP gig, key lines in "I Got Everything" will prove helpful in the reunion ("If I should see you in a crowd/Don't be afraid to cry out loud"). Your girlfriend's "Ambition" is driven by the type-A personalities projecting from her Toyota's tape deck (The Plimsouls and The Replacements, in this case). By comparison, getting up to rewind side-A of Pleased To Meet Me is a lofty achievement for you ("I feel so big when I'm standing tall/One look at you, and I'm really small"). It's a "Privilege" to be reminded of the killer hook from The Rolling Stones' "She's So Cold," but painful reflections from pointed arguments jab between the sheets ("As you reach to turn the light above your bed/You take a look upon the things you said"). The CB transmission on "Over And Out" signs off with a big 10-4 on the relationship, though it suggests another mode of communication for further talks ("All that you'd hoped for means nothing to us now/Call when you know more").

These days, Elvis impersonators are all velvet ropes and posture. I don't know about you, but I prefer to kick back and relax with the album reviewed above. Oops! I just spilled a tall glass of iced tea.

-Gunther 8544

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff plus Early Singles (Sub Pop, 1990)

"Grunge" has to be one of the most misused terms in the history of rock journalism. Widely and erroneously applied to Pearl Jam's p.c. arena rock, Soundgarden's stoner sludge, and Alice In Chains' heart of darkness metal, "grunge" became cultural shorthand for any Seattle-based heavy rock music that was marketed to flannel clad Gen-Xers in the early '90s. It is not my intent to diminish the contributions of the aforementioned bands. I'm a fan of at least one of them. It's just that, in all honesty, they had little to do with grunge. If you want to hear what grunge was really about, listen to Mudhoney's early recordings.

If grunge can be loosely defined as a fusion of punk and metal characterized by heavily distorted guitars and popularized in the Pacific Northwest in the latter part of the '80s, its pioneers were probably the likes of Green River, The U-Men, and Skin Yard. But it was Mudhoney who took grunge to a new level of awesomeness, infusing the style with a heavy dose of the Stooges. Issued in 1990 by Sub Pop Records, Superfuzz Bigmuff plus Early Singles is the definitive compilation of Mudhoney at its fiercest and filthiest. It collects the band's first two singles as well as its 1988 debut EP. Historical significance aside, it contains some of the most raging and feral rock n' roll of its time. If you've never blasted "Touch Me, I'm Sick" at obnoxious volumes while making yourself hoarse screaming along with Mark Arm, you haven't lived!

Arm, who had been Green River's lead singer, was no doubt a founding father of grunge. And Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner was also in Green River for a while. But Mudhoney was a different band entirely - incorporating garage, blues, and lots of Raw Power worship into its flammable blend of heavy riffs and punk ferocity. And in drummer Dan Peters and bassist Matt Lukin, the band had one of the greatest rock n' roll rhythm sections ever. Jack Endino's minimalist production - a common factor in many "classic" grunge records - was an especially good fit for Mudhoney's rampageous attack. Debut single "Touch Me, I'm Sick" remains the band's defining song. And after 25 years, it's lost none of its bite (no pun intended - that drumming is sick!). Listening to these early tracks, one has to wonder why Arm is not recognized as an all-time great punk howler. His vocals are so primitive and in-your-face, and all that bad attitude and sheer depravity is a far cry from the mopey angst that people tend to associate with grunge. Whether you prefer sonic fireballs like "You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)" and "In 'N' Out Of Grace" or thundering dirges like "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More", there's something here for anyone who yearns to hear the "Seattle sound" at its very best. And covers of the Dicks ("Hate The Police") and Sonic Youth ("Halloween") demonstrate the diversity of influences that made grunge what it was.

It was unfortunate yet not surprising that Mudhoney was left out in the cold when grunge went mainstream in the fall of 1991. There wasn't anything even remotely commercial about the band's music. And given that grunge's marketability was largely tied to the myth of an entire generation needing to feel sorry for itself, Mudhoney's caustic humor and brazen fuck-you attitude weren't exactly selling points. But the band almost certainly preferred it that way. Perfectly content with their cult following, they just kept going strong and are still at it today. They just released their ninth LP - the outstanding and still snarling Vanishing Point. Unlike most bands that start off with legendary early works, Mudhoney has never embarrassed itself or "gone soft" on its later records. There's really no such thing as a "bad" Mudhoney album. But Superfuzz Bigmuff is where it all started - a perfect introduction not just to grunge rock but also to one of the most criminally unheralded bands of all-time.

-Josh Rutledge

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Figgs - Lo-Fi At Society High (Imago, 1994)

The Figgs have released 11 full-length albums over their 26 year history, and honestly you can't go wrong with any of them. But if I encountered hostile visitors from another planet and had to convince them of The Figgs' unequivocal greatness in order to save the world from obliteration, the album I'd play for them first is the band's 1994 major label debut.

Saratoga Springs, New York's Figgs were one of countless underground bands to get signed amidst the early '90s major label feeding frenzy on "alternative" acts. Inked to Imago Records (a faux indie BMG subsidiary whose roster featured the likes of the Rollins Band, Love Spit Love, and Basehead), The Figgs were hardly newcomers on the scene. They'd been together since 1987 and had already released two highly praised cassette albums on Brad Morrison's Absolute A Go Go Records. And while Lo-Fi At Society High didn't exactly tank, clearly The Figgs were atypical of what was passing for "alternative" music in the post-Nirvana world. Musically influenced by the likes of Elvis Costello, The Replacements, Kinks, and Buzzcocks, The Figgs had little interest in teen angst or self-loathing. Lo-Fi At Society High is exactly what you'd expect from a band renowned for its high energy live performaces: an upbeat pub rock/power pop record made to be played loud and thoroughly enjoyed. And while it may be a little on the formulaic side (What great power pop album isn't?), the band's brilliantly sardonic lyrics and incredible musical talent elevate the record from standard genre exercise to overlooked classic. Blessed with two superb songwriters (actually three if you count the unheralded Guy Lyons), The Figgs did not hurt for A-level material. Mike Gent and Pete Donnelly, the indie McCartney and Lennon, were both just coming into their own as artists. But while The Figgs may have gone on to make even better records, there's just something about their early stuff that hits the sweet spot for me. Anytime I'm jonesing for classic Figgs, I go for Lo-Fi's punchy melodies and exhilarating hooks.

Nearly two decades later, it's the songs that make Lo-Fi hold up so well. Donnelly's "Favorite Shirt" is still a manic jolt of pop perfection. And Gent's mid-tempo masterpiece "Wasted Pretty" remains the best song Graham Parker never wrote. "Step Back Let's Go Pop" is one of my all-time favorite album openers, while the hyper-caffeinated "Stood Up" embodies the kind of band The Figgs were at this point in time. And while it's the faster stuff that everyone remembers most, fine ballads like "Shut" hint at the varied repertoire this band would later cultivate. Many of the album's best tracks were re-recorded versions of songs from The Figgs' two tapes - which accounts somewhat for Lo-Fi's "all killer, no filler" feel. From start to finish, it's a flawless collection of rockin' pop songs. Whether you're cranking it in your car or just chilling on the porch with a cold beverage, this is one of those albums that never gets old.

After Imago Records folded in 1996, The Figgs landed at Capitol Records and issued the spectacular but overlooked Banda Macho. It would be their last major label release. Undeterred by the loss of their deal with Capitol and the eventual departure of second guitarist Lyons, the band probably made its finest recordings in the late '90s and early 2000s. And even in recent years, they've continued to turn out consistently excellent releases. The 25-song retrospective 1000 People Grinning, issued this year on Stomper Records, is a great summation of The Figgs' long and brilliant career. But if that's where you start, make sure Lo-Fi At Society High is your next stop. 

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, April 12, 2013

SUBSETS - Ape Facin' EP (Granado Records, 2013)

(BOMB-001): That's the official catalog number of the first release from Cincinnati-based Granado Records. Appropriately, a pull-the-pin weapon used in warfare and other hostile conflicts such as deciding where to eat chili serves as the company logo. The already-iconic visual will undoubtedly explode upon targeted stationery, bumper stickers, buttons and T- shirts. Territories mapped in the label's crosshairs include several STOP signs on Ludlow Avenue, a trash receptacle behind Darou Salam African grocery, Foxy Shazam's bloated tour vessel, Andy Slob's mailbox, the rear bumper of whatever the hell Kenny Roa is driving these days, an overlooked bin at Shake It Records, the bulletin board at a nearby Kroger, a "Crave Zone" spot at White Castle, a City Beat paper box and Timothy "Treebeard" Adams' apartment door. The apparent hostage situation will actually be a rescue attempt to save the chosen ones from their everyday gunpoints of eating soggy sandwiches on white bread, texting "OMG" and "LOL" to Facecrack "friends," placing orange wedges in faux-microbrew bottles and watching the latest bits of phony reality on an idiot box. Forget the Taylor Swift breaking-up bullshit, and start a relationship with an artist who cuts more to the quick.

Like a stray shark who's hungry for an inexperienced surfer's leg, SUBSETS draw blood on the menacing title track and tear at the limb until it is completely severed. Utilizing the Screamers- with-guitars behaviorist attack of The Spits, they dine on "electric eels," "mall losers" and "turkeys" amidst the backdrop of a purple-haze horizon. "Make You (Do It Again)" repeats the B- movie madness on terra firma "with a switchblade." Though the knife-related lyric is all I can decipher from the transmission, tension stabs reminiscent of an old Dangerhouse 45 or Shawn Swifty's favorite Kill The Hippies record require no assistance from a code talker. The Spits' Ramones-y side punches its time card on "I Don't Wanna Be Here," and the 1-2-3-4 beats on the mundane routine of a 9-to-5 existence. Hey, SUBSETS: Could you steal some good pens for me? The ink from this Rollerball has been flowing inconsistently throughout the review. 'Pprech! Lastly, "Suffocation" chokes like Iggy Stooge fronting the Wipers in a venue constructed out of a giant Ziploc bag. Some might ask, "Well, ain't that grunge?" They can go suck on John Varvatos' exhaust pipe with that crap.

(BOMB-002) will drop soon. Stock the shelter with Star-Kist. You've been warned.

-Gunther 8544

Friday, March 8, 2013

Monrovia - News EP (self-released, 2012)

Even though I didn't know what the hell to call 'em at the time (2011), I chose Monrovia's "Exit Stage Right" as the #2 song (just behind Uglyography's wonderfully quirky "My Brain") on my Best Music From Greater Norfolk list -- an awards ceremony without actual documentation. After a single screening of the YouTube video that'd been forwarded by a friend in the know, I bestowed a "Pop God" tag upon main man Jon Schilling. Many releases from Frank Black and The Figgs occupy a certain section of my Yoo- hoo container, and "Exit Stage Right" would dignify every single plastic disc from those F-ers. The cut's resolution is to "throw everybody straight into jail," which is where bands with by-the-numbers beats belong.

"Rational Trash," the treasure-laden second single, deposits a skateboard-riding, cheerful bear who uses the long neck of a dinosaur as an effective take-off ramp in the animated short. "Somebody told me that empty space is a money-making machine" appears at odds with the many vacant Rite-Aid buildings in Tidewater, but a dedicated area for Teddy Ruxpin to pull off McTwists would reap an increased quality-of-life currency.

Those who don't know history will unknowingly repeat it. The twitchy "Atlas Shrugged" covers both sides of the faded coin ("Creation wasn't born when your ancestors pushed you out the door/Keep crackin' open bottles so your wisdom ends up passed out on the floor").

"I've got 500 channels..." pitches the cable package on "Stand Up." You can keep your Kim Kardashian and Call Of Duty franchise (the Nickelback of video games?). I'll embrace Sarah Purcell and Activision cartridges. Take a hike, technology.

Oh, Monrovia took top honors in a category from 2012: Best Band Named For A City Named For A U.S. President. If there were a real trophy, I'd get former WAVY-TV 10 reporter Mary Kay Mallonee to present it.

-Gunther 8544

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Satin Gum - LP2 (self-released, 2012)

Confession: I first came across these Pittsburgh purveyors of crunch-pop via the advertising sidebar on Facebook. "If you like Husker Du, you'll love..." Kinda reminds you of an old perfume campaign, huh? Along with familiar scents of those Twin Cities titans, a strong aroma of The Replacements engulfs the air inside Howlers (Satin Gum's hometown dive) on the YouTube clip of "Hip Shake Heartbreak." The window-backed stage is similar to the street view of Norfolk's Taphouse Grill, so the guys should feel comfortable when a gig for them is arranged there. Had Satin Gum come of age during DGC's heyday in the early 1990s, the fries-on-sandwich lovers would've traded bites with the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Sloan, The Posies and Weezer in crowded clubs and major magazines. True, an earlier EP served a different combo meal altogether with a heavy-rock presentation a la KISS and The Hellacopters, but the stacked creations of melodic meatiness have proven to be the most popular orders.

Away from the Iron City limits, a camping trip seems like a good way to decompress from the usual smokestacks. The decision to "Call You" after several sips from an unknown intoxicant, however, smolders any chance of becoming one with nature ("Four shots and I'm gonna have a heart attack/Ghosts in my sleeping bag"). A Swatch was a fashionable method for measuring hours and minutes in the freaky '80s, but "Forever" has its own indicator ("The last ten years felt like a lifetime/Come on, let's get high"). For combating post-romp hunger and battling potential loneliness, "Did You Know I Know Kung-Fu?" is an empty-hearted martial art. "My bed and my pillow keep me company" furnishes "The Weekend" retreat of one who "...can't ever see myself loving like that again."

Next time you're on Facecrack, pay attention to the margins. You just might be sold on something that's worth the Honus Wagner hustle.

-Gunther 8544

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Manic Low - Songs For An Up Day (Moonlight Graham Records, 2012)

Currently, the only T.S.O.L. (Does anyone other than Poindexter punks refer to the band as True Sounds Of Liberty?) disc in my pile marked "Stars 'N Stripes Punk" is the horror-informed Dance With Me. It was marked down to $1.99 in Musicland's (Pembroke Mall location) cheapo bin during a 1995 search, thus it joined a similarly priced Bad Brains live CD in the store's plastic bag. Jack Grisham's rich intonations and the group's tough 'n taut instrumentation certainly made for a Damned-good listening experience, but two subsequent efforts carved their initials more deeply into my cranium. Beneath The Shadows flipped like Grisham and friends turning the pages of UK stalwarts Magazine, via its distinctive vocal pitches and skillful flourishes in electronic noise. Joe Wood, Grisham's brother-in-law, took over frontman duties on the Change Today? follow-up and proved to be a prized pupil in the Morrison/Astbury/Danzig after-school choir. Elsewhere, the oft-jangly guitar propulsion suggested a trade involving Grisham, Peter Buck and a drummer to be named later. I largely missed out on the post-T.S.O.L. pill The Joykiller in the 1990s, but I'm pleased to ingest Grisham's latest tablet fresh from the bottle.

Joined by Paul Roessler (piano/organ/backing vocals/digital instrumentation), Sean Graves (guitars/bass/backing vocals) and Rob Milucky (electric guitar), Captain Jack steers the newly christened The Manic Low amidst pop-crested waves of varying heights. "Daylight Comes," the most valuable treasure in Songs For An Up Day's chest, beams with the heated intensity of a gold-plated Pete Shelley solo gem buried in submerged sand. Waking up is vital to greet each day with a salute, but permanent, sound sleep isn't a bad way to honorably discharge. If Duran Duran possessed more punk cred, maybe "Some Girls Own Me" would be a shining star on one of their short films. Surely, Simon Le Bon and company would agree that the hired models are "better left undressed." Liberation takes the wheel on "I'm Free," as Grisham turns his throat expressing the most powerful of feelings ("When you got the love, it's never gonna bring you down"). This heart beats like an outtake from the Beneath The Shadows days, but the blood flows with the velocity of a Buzzcocks composition from the "comeback" era. There's a new Bowie record out, huh? In spite of the title, "Choked Out In A Candy Store" could've been one of its finer moments of understatement. Elegant piano touches provide a sharp contrast to the mouthful-of-Brach's-butterscotch imagery.

 Jack, I'll never refer to The Manic Low as T.M.L. You have my word on it.

-Gunther 8544