1980-1981: I Wanna Kill My Mom!!! CD
I’ve spent well over ten years living in Bloomington, Indiana over the course of my life, and honestly, at this point I feel I’ve gotten as much out that town as there is to get. Despite having the basis for what could be a decent creative environment for music, it’s hard for me to avoid an assessment of Bloomington’s music scene as basically one huge exercise in squandered potential. The few good bands that got going tended to die out quickly from lack of support; the long-lived bands were cursed with lack of vision or spineless commercial careerism or terminal media drought; and then, of course, there’s the fact that the town is and always has been choking on its collegiate hick love for cover bands. Okay, you don’t know whether I’m telling the truth or pushing my own agenda or what, maybe you have your own opinion and you disagree with me, whatever. Makes no difference to me. Just take this simple test: think of a town, say Chapel Hill, NC, or Austin, TX, or Athens, GA (which is very very similar to Bloomington in many ways). Being the kind of person you are, reading this sort of thing, you probably can think of at least three or four nationally-recognized bands from Chapel Hill, or Austin, or Athens. Now think Bloomington. What springs to mind? That’s right, John Cougar Mellencamp. If you’re well-read in terms of music ‘literature’, maybe the Gizmos. Oh, and David Lee Roth was born in Bloomington, but moved away almost immediately. That’s about it, and all those things happened well over twenty years ago.
Of course, there are always a few bright spots amidst the waste, the main two being Virginia’s Scraping (the various bands of Phil Traicoff, and a review for another day), and the bands formed by the partnership John Barge and Ian Brewer: The Panics and the Walking Ruins. I personally witnessed the Walking Ruins blow other bands out the doors of various clubs around Bloomington more times than I can remember—they were real punk rock, unleavened by hyphenated bastardization (i.e. ska-, folk-, whatever-punk): the last true unknown unspoiled punk band. Frankly they could have stood to be a little more spoiled in their time—I don’t know how many times I’d be reading about some supposedly great new punk band in Maximum Rocknroll and then when I’d check them out I’d think ‘Geez, the Walking Ruins could crush these guys without even trying.’
So from my perspective The Panics were essentially the proto-Walking Ruins, and The Panics’ newish CD 1980-1981: I Wanna Kill My Mom!!! is merely the first chapter in a long and tangled tale—but an essential chapter, and one that’s been almost wholly unavailable for far too long. The Panics’ sole Gulcher 45 (recorded August 1980) is augmented with a surprisingly clear-sounding live show recorded about a week after the single, plus a couple of post-Panics cuts and four songs from the one-shot night in 2000 that featured a reunited Panics playing with a reunited lineup of the Gizmos. Barge’s detailed and informative liner notes puts the story in perspective, and there’s even a Quicktime movie included on the disc for you computer-savvy punx. It’s a great snapshot of a time when the idea of punk was clearer, or maybe it just seemed that way. There weren’t ten million punk bands yet, there certainly weren’t ten million punk records yet, and no one thought it was a way to have a career in music. If you’re the kind of person who bought, say, the book collections Search & Destroy or Punk magazine, or the Germs CD anthology, or Clint Heylin’s book From The Velvets to the Voidoids, you really need to add this CD to your collection. Otherwise, frankly, you’re missing a relatively important chapter in punk rock history, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?
-Aaron J. Poehler
Scene 14 CD (Playing Field Recordings)
Park has a definite thing about the past. Not only do the lyrics of most of the songs on Scene 14 resonate with images and memories of times long gone by ("And I can still remember nights filled with forty-fives…Summer was the best thing that happened to me/Class of Coleco vision of a stereo") but they dubbed more vinyl noise onto this CD than I think I've ever heard on a digital disc, including Bob Mould's self-titled album. They must really have wanted this to be a 12" piece of black plastic, but surveys and studies show the vast majority of people don't have the hardware, so it wasn't to be. However, it may actually be more fitting that the album appear on CD because as much as they wistfully look back, the songs dwell firmly in the present--they may wish you could live in the past, but they are all-too-aware that you can't ("You can only rethink memories so much", also from "Class of Coleco"). The music is that college-brand of time-signature-shifting riff-based punk-inflected rock, but a sense of melody guides the noise and constrains it in the service of the songs; similarly, the wailing, passionate vocals may wander off pitch but succeed at carrying the emotion across even if the tune gets a bit bent. Scene 14 doesn't reinvent college-rock or anything, but it's a good sight better than one might expect. –Aaron J. Poehler
Up For A Bit With The Pastels--Velvel/Fire Records
Though Stephen McRobbie's Pastels have been around since the early 80's, you'd never know it from their discography: after being in existence over seventeen years, they've only issued three albums. They've put out truckloads of singles and EPs, though, and are still kicking around today purveying their unique brand of naïve pop. Up For A Bit With The Pastels is a reissue of the first Pastels album, originally issued in February 1987 (after five years' worth of singles); its ten tracks find the band taking the childlike whimsical enthusiasm of Jonathan Richman and swathing it in layers of instrumentation, primarily acoustic & electric guitars and keyboards but also a bit of horn and some toy piano for that ever-so-twee childhood touch. The music sounds like nothing so much as the Vaselines (originators of the tunes "Son Of A Gun", "Molly's Lips", and "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam", popularized by Nirvana) but that's not too surprising considering Stephen produced the first two Vaselines EPs and released them on his 53rd & 3rd label; other musical touchstones might include Pulp and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Ultimately Up For A Bit successfully straddles the line between amateurish indulgence and professional polish, resulting in an eminently listenable chunk of wistful pop music.
Who--or what--is Pfilbryte? Well, the printed material included with Imperfection, the debut Pfilbryte album, plays it cagey on the identity issue (the photo just shows an upturned San Francisco baseball cap, which makes me wonder if they're trying to conceal the fact that he's white) but the crucial info seems to be that 'Pfilbryte' is one twentysomething male, the grandson of Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz, who makes music (as well as videos to accompany the music) with his computer, and whose principal credit is that he worked on the Dr. Octagon album Octagynecologyst. Pfilbryte cites his influences as being Pink Floyd, Queen, and Prince, which is perhaps helpful in illuminating the direction he's heading with this studio auteur stuff but not at all helpful in describing his music. Imperfection is actually a fairly successful synthesis of the alternative rap style typified by Digable Planets, Spearhead, and Arrested Development and the pop electronica angle Trent Reznor's found so lucrative. Pfil builds up languid grooves on drum samples, lays down fairly simple (lyrically and melodically) vocal lines, and keeps the mix fresh and listenable by alternating layers of keyboard and guitar sounds, with a horn or flute here and there. There's nothing really new here but Pfilbryte has staked out a niche and filled it capably. Probably the most outstanding aspect of Imperfection is the sound: crisp, clear, and well-engineered, Pfil will likely be popping up in the production credits of a few more CDs sometime soon even if his own records don't take off the way he might like.
Contra La Puerta--Invisible (PO Box 16008, Chicago, IL 60616)
Phylr is the vehicle for one J. F. Coleman, formerly of New York scum rock/sampling hybrid act Cop Shoot Cop, to produce what they call 'cinematic electronica' on the little sticker on the front of the CD. I guess the idea here is that these tracks are more appropiate for theoretical use as soundtracks rather than the dancefloor variety of electronic music. It's certainly a lot more suitable for at-home listening than a great portion of electronica: there's plenty of atmosphere here, swelling keyboards and sampled drumbeats with multiple layers of overdubs along with guest perforformances including some violin and guitar. Coleman keeps the mix fresh, never letting his elements linger long enough to get tedious and introducing surprising and unexpected twists where others might just let the sequencer run unattended, as well as enough variety from track to track to keep from dozing off. He even breaks electronic tradition by having the CD run only 49 minutes instead of packing it to capacity, indicating that he knows where to edit himself, limiting the contents of Contra La Puerta (which I'm told translates as "against the door") to the music that has earned its release. Altogether a relatively consistent surprise, and more than appropriate for use as actual soundtracks for film or television as well as just playing around the house.
No Breath In The Bellows EP--Self-Help/Atavistic/Truckstop (PO Box 578266, Chicago, IL 60657-8266)
This seven-song, half-hour, 'tween album EP from Chicago's Pinetop Seven presents a preview of their upcoming sophomore album along with four non-LP tracks for the hardcore fans. Despite the name, the group is essentially the duo of vocalist/organist Darren Richard and multi-instrumentalist Charles Kim, who wrote all the music, augmented by a few accomplices on accordion, upright bass, and a little percussion. Pinetop Seven's music is a unique blend of disparate elements ranging from the work of Bertholt Brecht & Kurt Weill, traditional country and blues music, and Astor Piazzolla; the result is infused with a pervasive cabaret tone and an aura of gentility anchored by Richard's expressive voice. You'll find nary a guitar here unless you count the pedal steel, and though there's a touch or two of angst and an occasional overeducated sense in the lyrics they come off remarkably unaffected. I could stand for them to cohere and communicate a bit more directly rather than cloaking everything in the yearning-for-the-past affectations--they hint at meaning without ever really approaching it--but the music sounds attractive, pleasant and warm, if eventually somewhat insubstantial: something like the Cowboy Junkies, but leaning on a more European tradition than a rural one. If nothing else, this EP augurs well for the second full-length album.
Detailed Instructions For the Self-Involved--BYO Records (PO Box 67A64, Los Angeles, CA 90067)
I always kind of figured that just on the basis of sheer numbers, a good number of the people involved in punk bands of today were the heavy metal kids of yesteryear--or specifically, the mid-eighties. Denver's Pinhead Circus confirms my suspicions with their debut Detailed Instructions For the Self-Involved--"Carefree Metal Days" looks back lingeringly at a childhood wasted skating, drinking, and listening to cheesy metal, and the CD includes an unlisted bonus cover of the Night Ranger FM classic "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" so note-perfect they must have learned it out of one of those guitar magazines. These days the power trio of Scooter, Otis, and Trevor are doing the punk rock thing and doing it well--lots of breakneck beats, jackhammer rhythms, ratty-sounding guitar, and melodic bass lines. The songs are often somewhat melancholic recollections of better days, but the introspective nature is belied by the energetic playing of the band, which surges past any lingering emotionalism. Solid American punk rock that's probably best suited for children of the eighties but worth a listen or two for anyone grown tired of Green Day and their ilk.
Seeing Stars CD (Mojo Records)
Plastiscene is to the Beatles and Pavement as Bon Jovi is/was to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. This isn't one of those pointless SAT analogy questions: Plastiscene actually sounds like what would happen if Jon Bon Jovi formed a commercial psychedelic pop/rock band instead of a commercial lite-metal group. The name's appropriate--the band's very plastic-sounding, but then, they're from LA. It's very predictable and not very interesting, but it's not terrible in spite of itself; in fact, it may just be crass enough to succeed with the right marketing machine and image groomers behind it. I mean, hell, they're not trying to sell this kind of music to people with taste, and it's certainly, uh, 'accessible'. I can easily see a bunch of early-teenaged kids lining up to hear this stuff in an arena. It has enough faux-Brit affectations (they obviously like Radiohead a lot) that it could take over both the markets Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis were selling to. The band'd have to tour opening for every two-bit major-label tour for the next three years straight to push it over, but it could happen. It might happen faster if there was a catchy, well-written hit single here, but I don't hear it. Maybe they should cover "Living On a Prayer" or "Wanted Dead or Alive" psychedelic pop-style. –Aaron J. Poehler
Infinite Retry on Parallel Time-out--PCP Entertainment, Inc. (PO Box 1689, New York, NY 10009-8908)
Reportedly, sessions for the debut full-length Poem Rocket album Infinite Retry on Parallel Time-out did not progress smoothly; critically acclaimed for their singles-&-ephemera collection Felix Culpa, the NYC-based band lost a guitarist after recording half the album and were thus suddenly reduced from a four-piece to a trio (Chrome Cranks guitarist William G. Weber guests on one song, presumably depping for the missing guitarist). After deciding to complete the album at home on a four-track, the equipment started breaking down. Finally, after a year and a half of attempts, the album has been completed, mixed, and released as Infinite Retry on Parallel Time-out, a title whose significance makes sense when considered in the context of the frustrating ordeals that beset the band. It would be nice to be able to say that the record doesn't bear too many scars from its breech birth, but the unfortunate truth is that while some of the record is striking other parts sound unfocused and confused. The result seems like a more-or-less straight blend of early Sonic Youth and the Fall (not too wide a spectrum considering how much early Sonic Youth derived from the Fall), with a few touches reminiscent of Guided By Voices, Wire, and Pavement, which makes it a decent debut album in the long-standing NYC art-rock tradition rather than the cohesive assertion of Poem Rocket's viability that one might hope for. Nevertheless it's among the stronger indie-rock albums to surface recently and one of the few acts in that genre that doesn't seem to be aiming for major-label pop standards and settling for the murk; rather, Poem Rocket utilizes the tools at hand to weave their music, with the outcome being that the studio-recorded band tracks and the home-tape material sit relatively well next to one another. Still, it's hard to overlook the greater power and impressive noise at the disposal of the four-piece lineup in comparison to the somewhat artier, rinky-dink sound of the home-tape trio. File under 'signs of life in NY indie rock'.
Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad
L.A. Amistad--Tonga Productions/FTC (8306 Wilshire Blvd. #544, Beverly Hills, CA 90211)
This elaborately packaged CD features extensive liner notes detailing the twisting path that eventually led to the release of L.A. Amistad, the debut album from salsa bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Johnny Polanco. Born in the Bronx in the early sixties to parents of Puerto Rican descent, Polanco began his musical career young, playing with such New York based salsa groups as Saoco and Guararé, then relocating to L.A. after joining the Marines, a move which also temporarily derailed his musical activities. After his discharge, Polanco set about assembling this outfit, Conjunto Amistad, which honed its abilities via a regular Monday night gig at L.A.'s El Floridita club. Apparently the band is now one of the most popular salsa acts on the West Coast now and played a gig at Patrick Swayze's 20th wedding anniversary, resulting in a plug from Mr. Swayze on the Tonight Show, but lest one get the idea Polanco's raking it in the liner notes also feature Johnny's heartfelt thanks to his supporters including his boss at the Union 76 gas station where he works as a mechanic. L.A. Amistad is an accomplished, eminently professional 13 tracks of salsa which sounds as traditional as one might expect, including all-Spanish vocals, and varied instrumentation including piano, bass, congas, and brass along with Polanco's performances on Tres guitar, Cuatro guitar, trombone, guiro, violin, and acoustic six-string guitar. Anyone looking for a tasty batch of salsa crisply performed and recorded with the tempo and the mood both kept up should check L.A. Amistad out--not to mention anyone looking for some great music for dancing.
Poolside - Indyglow (Bong Load, PO Box 39557, LA, CA 90039)
Most musical revivalists tend to imitate the superficial characteristics of their source music, while stubbornly maintaining the contemporaneity of their music by positioning it within the vaguely leftist indie underground (gee, can you tell I've been reading the Unabomber Manifesto?). Poolside postulates a resuscitated form of 'new wave' that suggests nothing so much as a crossbreeding of the Cars and Blondie (whose "Union City Blue" gets covered here) with Weezer and other faux-geek new-wavers; the album title clues you in to the fact that they're attempting to be 'indy' rather than blatantly commercial. Unfortunately, it's songs that make new-wave music attractive, not the arrangements, and the originators of the form were trying to be as contemporary in their day as possible by incorporating 'new' sounds into their radio-aimed singles. Despite the pop aims of all of the bands they imitate, Poolside's own songs tend to be so flimsy that they all but disappear under the weight of the concocted sound they impose on everything: snapping pop rhythm section, analog keyboard drones, awkward guitar lines, high-pitched barely-harmonizing male and female vocals that come out squeaky. At the end, I can't recall a single memorable song--I'm just left with a vague impression of the group's sound, which isn't even really 'their' sound, it's an interpolation of the work of other people.
"But wait", you might say, "isn't all this just a bunch of pseudo-academic jabber? Isn't poppy new-wave music just supposed to be fun?" Yes, and that's really where the problem lies: there aren't any good tunes here, nothing hummable that sticks in your head. What I'm trying to say, in a tedious, nearly unreadable, pretentious way is that this album is no fun. It affects a surface sound that says it should be fun, but it just isn't, and they don't substitute anything of any substance to take its place. Indyglow is hollow at the center, and makes no statement other than to position Poolside as one of many nouveau-new-wave acts. –Aaron J. Poehler
Beat Em Up
There are some people who, when the subject of Iggy Pop is brought up, complain incessantly about how his old stuff was better, nothing since the Stooges is all that good, and blah, blah, blah (note ‘clever’ rock journalist pun—that’s why they pay me the big bucks, kiddies) until you realize they haven’t actually listened to Iggy’s stuff for ten years and their copies of the Stooges’ records have a layer of dust an inch thick, while they spin some new pop-hip-hop dance-electronic bullshit. Y’know what? Fuck all those people. They can just die, choke on that trendy bullshit. Iggy’s new album does it for me, and it’s one of his most flat-out hard rock & roll albums since…okay, yes, since the Stooges broke up, fine, and it definitely has a lot more of that Funhouse live-in-the-studio feel than say, Brick By Brick. Ever since seeing him play with Iggy on a live video, I’ve though Whitey Kirst could be Iggy’s Zakk Wylde (not his Randy Rhoads, that’d be James Williamson)—he’s a solid rock guitar player, and the track featuring him on Naughty Little Doggie was far and away the most rockin’. Here Whitey plays on the whole album and the result is some of the best straight-ahead guitar-rock I’ve heard since the last Rollins Band album. This ain’t rocket science, it’s rock & roll, and thank fucking god someone’s around to show ‘em how it’s done. Otherwise they’ve got little alternative than to start thinking this techno-programmed shit is actually real music and then that’s the ballgame.
-Aaron J. Poehler
The Pork Guys - 7" (Epithet Records/The Self-Starter Foundation)
As the record label says, "Connecticut hardcore in the tradition of, well...Connecticut hardcore." The Pork Guys come complete with X-ed hands and 'Punk Pork Guys' written across three hands' worth of knuckles, but tend more towards the comedic angle than the dour sermonizing you tend to find among most of the genre. Their four-song EP was recorded live in the studio (although the vocal on "Fuck Xmas! Fuck You!" sounds like it might have been overdubbed), complete with between-song chatter--that "Four Lights", the first song, appears to be about a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" scenario says more about it and the band than I ever could. The off-the-cuff feel lent by the unedited dialogue adds to the atmosphere as well, as we hear the hapless engineer trying to contain the chaotic sprawl erupting in front of his machines. An intriguing note is that the credit for drums reads 'MOBY'. Could it be the MTV-approved Christian vegan icon? I don't know (or care) enough about him to know for sure, but he did start off in the Connecticut hardcore scene before he began making the more mainstream-friendly music he's known for. I'll leave those whose curiosity is piqued to puzzle out the mystery for themselves, should there be anyone who cares enough about Moby to track down a 7" just because he might have played drums on it. Hey, there were people stupid enough to pay $50-$100 for Beastie Boys 7-inches at one point--you never know. -Aaron J. Poehler
Brother Aldo--Velvel/Fire Records
Guitarist/singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet originally appeared back in 1984 with a group called Wild Game, who released one seven-song record and folded. Following Wild Game's dissolution, Prophet joined San Francisco neo-country-rock outfit Green On Red, eventually spending a decade as the group's guitarist. Since Green On Red's demise in 1994 Chuck's been going it alone as a solo artist, with more success in Europe than here at home, releasing a total of three albums over there. Brother Aldo was the first of these, originally issued in 1990 when Green On Red was still a going concern and just reissued by Velvel for its stateside debut seven years after the fact. Prophet's format for this album is a set of duets with singer Stephanie Finch in a straight-ahead country-rock vein (in obvious homage and deference to the model set by Gram Parsons' work with Emmylou Harris) backed by layers of Chuck's guitar and the traditional accompaniment, including a pair of piano contributions from pro Spooner Oldham (whose career span includes both the Box Tops' "The Letter" and Neil Young's Harvest Moon) on tracks that begin and end the album. It's a self-assured ten-track set of rootsy Prophet compositions and co-compositions plus a couple of covers (one of which fits right in, the other of which sticks out like a gimmicky novelty song), a consistent package that ought to please diehard Gram Parsons devotees looking for some music from one of their own.
'It'/Masters Of The Universe/'Freaks' reissues--Velvel/Fire Records
Sheffield, England's Pulp broke through onto the UK music scene in 1996 (according to the English magazines, anyway) with their Different Class album on Island Records. While most Brit music phenomenons are created, packaged, marketed, and burnt out within a couple of years, Pulp's mainman Jarvis Cocker had been slogging towards that goal for over a decade and a half aided by various configurations of his band. Now Velvel Records is making the earliest part of Pulp's history available to American fans without the cash or inclination to hunt up those difficult-to-find import releases.
1983's 'It' documents the earliest incarnation of Pulp and contains "My Lighthouse", the first Pulp single, plus seven other mild items of cabaret pop. Cocker's persona here is almost entirely derived from two charismatic Manchester band frontmen: Morrissey (then, of course, of the Smiths) and Howard Devoto (whose post-Buzzcocks band Magazine was issuing their best work during the time Cocker was forming Pulp). The music on 'It' is midtempo placid melodic pop, pleasant enough if somewhat rickety. Halfhearted contributions from the musicians involved might go aways to explaining the weaknesses of the debut record: all the members of Pulp that appear on 'It' other than Cocker had split by the time Pulp reappeared in 1985 with the "Little Girl (with Blue Eyes)" single, which is compiled along with two other tween-LP singles on the Masters Of The Universe:Pulp On Fire 85-86 collection (a total of 13 tracks).
Masters presents a more stable Pulp Mk. II; the same lineup appears on all three singles and two of the musicians lasted all the way through to the 90's Pulp lineup. The music and material on Masters Of The Universe are overall much more assured than on 'It', and Jarvis has added two more Manchester-frontman influences this time around (Joy Division's Ian Curtis and the Fall's Mark E. Smith--"Tunnel" is such a blatant Fall cop Mark Smith ought to receive royalties), but since the bulk of Masters' songs are B-sides it's not surprising that there's very little consistency and a wide fluctuation in quality.
Which leaves 'Freaks' the second Pulp album, originally issued in 1986, as the best of the early Pulp artifacts; in many ways, 'Freaks' is really the first Pulp album proper, being more substantial than the brief, lightweight 'It' and more coherent than the scattershot material collected on Masters. While the music is still fairly derivative, it draws on a wider range of influences and tends to camouflage its sources a bit better (the exception being album-opener 'Fairground' which is practically a carbon copy cover of Nick Cave's 'The Carny') and Jarvis is actually showing signs of developing his personality beyond imitation of his idols. If nothing else, 'Freaks' succeeds on its own terms, presenting a coherent statement: the first solid blocks in the foundation Pulp's current standing was built upon.