Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hollowbody - Tangled

(Bomp/Tangible, 1993)

So I’ve been in New Jersey for the last few days, a mini-trip that was “planned” about 15 minutes before I actually took it, and I’m still feeling sluggishly ill from the sun, booze, pizza, lack of sleep, and bare-mattress accommodations that made the trip semi-worth taking. Which means I should probably be in the perfect frame of mind right now for the echo-y, crawling guitar-psych of Hollowbody, but hmm, golly gee... I’m not into this record. At all. I guess I just can’t ignore that (a) Anton Newcombe had a hand in the release of the disc – it being part of the “Tangible Box” – and (b) his own work around the same time was generally similar and generally STRONGER. “Tangled,” the best song here, is a dead ringer for a lesser track off of Methodrone or Spacegirl and Other Favorites, while the livelier “Shelter Island” is an instrumental that could’ve been churned out by a ballsier Darkside. Whoopee. Yeah, look, again, the BJM was insanely prolific throughout the overlapping period during which it was recording far better versions of songs like these, but if you’re dying – DYING! – to hear some true D-list stuff in that kinda regressive post-Spacemen 3 style, absolutely go forth and over-spend for the Hollowbody 7”. I’m sure you’ll be thrilled for the rest of your days that you did.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock - The Man Who Invented Himself

(Armageddon, 1981)

Admission: I’ve never been able to get over the fact that the rest of Robyn Hitchcock’s material – both before and after 1980 – doesn’t sound exactly like Underwater Moonlight. For that one record, everything clicked lyrically and musically, his elsewhere labored (annoying?) eccentricity briefly and perfectly married to a dense, guitar-driven pop-rock catchiness that produced an LP with nary a clunker. The dissolution of that tight Soft Boys lineup and a further retreat into goofy themes and musical jokes make his subsequent work very frustrating to me, but there are a few winsome tunes scattered throughout his discography, and this debut solo single, “The Man Who Invented Himself,” is certainly one of them. Its bouncy piano and horns cast it as the well-groomed, gainfully-employed relative of “Gigolo Aunt,” a sweet li’l nugget that displays considerable popwriting talent and polish with the easy-breeziness of White Album McCartney. Thumbs up! Thumbs up all day long! The warped space-bubblegum of “Dancing on God’s Thumb” has some nice full-band interplay that marks it as similar to late-period Soft Boys – and most members of the group did in fact play on the Black Snake Diamond Role sessions, so the album is a relatively safe investment for Soft Boys fans nervous about dipping into the solo years – but the vaguely dancefloor-appropriate groove makes it clear that Hitchcock is stretching out in odd, and not totally satisfying, new ways.

The recent Yep Roc reissues inexplicably ignore the non-album B-side, so vinyl (along with some older CDs) is currently the only place to get “Dancing…”. Weirder still, the original, horn-laced mix of “The Man Who Invented Himself” has gone missing; both the Rhino and the Yep Roc CDs remove those jolly, skronky tootlers, and their absence gives the song a leaner, more intimate feel that doesn’t improve it. An unfortunate, mildly irritating situation that oughta be rectified.

Highlander II's - Nursing A Hangover

(Planet Pimp, 1994)

Those kooky jackasses at Planet Pimp laid a predictably puzzling egg with this Highlander II’s single: there’s a “Straight Side” (titled “Nursing a Hangover”) devoted to covers of traditional songs, and a “Queer Side” (“Cash in on Queer Core”) that addresses more modern themes. The music has a folksy, Appalachia-partytime feel to it, thanks to the omnipresent fiddle and arrangements that swing with a good-natured booziness, but the band does crank up a decent VU ’69 boogie on its kicking version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Side Track.” The whole thing exists midway between garage rock and barn rock, with plenty of dumb humor (the lone original: “Slacker Girl”) and shit production to boot, making it proudly unnecessary beyond its entertaining sleeve art – even if “Side Track” does deserve to be heard by trash aficionados everywhere. Of course, as with most Planet Pimp releases, half the joke and half the joy is the fact that these guys – who were probably pals with, or working for, or running the label – even put out a record at all.

And hey, have you actually SEEN Highlander II: The Quickening? Movies don’t get much more ludicrous, and the band is to be commended for hopping onto that very special bandwagon and paying tribute as they did. A poorly-written and since-deleted tidbit from the film’s Wikipedia entry sums up the movie’s absurdity quite well, and I offer it here unedited: “It is ironic that when Ramírez is about to die and Connor asks him if he will ever see him again Ramírez says ‘Who knows Highlander? Who knows?’ Then winks at the audience clearly implying that he will indeed return but due to the very negative reception of the film he does not end up returning.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

Henry's Dress - 1620

(Slumberland, 1993)

If there’s one band whose catalog needs to get back into print STAT, it’s probably Henry’s Dress (second place: Moose). The pedigree here is pretty impeccable, as the band later splintered into Aislers Set, Coachwhips, and Sic Alps, and dudes produced, no kidding, some of the best-ever American fuzzgaze in their brief time together. This debut release is a crunchy, bass-driven, guitar-screaming meeting of “You Made Me Realize” and Swirlies, a holy combo made all the holier by the fact that Henry’s Dress – unlike many other bands working roughly similar turf – has a rhythm section that actually matters. Even on the budget-Slowdive B-side (“Stumble”), there’s a prominent low-end in the chorus that gives the song its neck-snap power… a tuffer Black Tambourine gobbling codeine woulda sounded something like this. Later records would feature lady-vox and veer further into fucked-pop territory, but this first single remains a pounding, exciting introduction to what has, regrettably, become an obscure, expensive discography; if you can actually locate the records, they’re must-haves and must-hears – fug the cost.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Heavenly Ten Stems - China Town

(Amarillo, 1994)

Since so many of the higher-profile groups affiliated with Amarillo released ugly music (usually with a confrontational comedy element propelling it), it’s easy to miss the fact that there were a lot of incredible musicians in the label’s orbit. The Heavenly Ten Stems, who put out just this single and a track on the Gan’t Boar Like an Eabla… sampler, was an ambitious group dedicated to performing Asian soundtrack music, an effort that might seem like a joke given that the members were weirdo-noise-artsters (Caroliner, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Zip Code Revue, etc.), but the end result is a fun, faithful – loving even – recreation of the source material. You’ve got trombone, violin, banjo, Cantonese (?) lyrics, and incredibly solid playing all around on these non-simple arrangements, which is especially impressive given that both songs are from a live performance. I like the Chinese hoedown feel of “China Town,” with its clip-cloppy percussion and sighing chorus, but I prefer the driving, surf-influenced “Jan Pehechan Ho,” which has the rockin’-est trombone I’ve ever heard, not to mention some dual vocals that are spat forth with nifty aggression. And, again: these songs are being played live. Amazing! Unfortunately, the Heavenly Ten Stems didn’t stick around too long, thanks to some phony-baloney controversy that was seemingly generated by a gaggle of San Franciscans – including Kathleen Hanna – with too much time on their hands. Intrigued? Good! Well, band-member Brandan Kearney tells that bizarre tale in his interview with Mark Prindle, and it’s quite an interesting read. SO GO READ IT.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Headless Heyday - Nothing Up There Always

(Tantrum, 1987)

Boy, I don’t really know what to say about this one. It made its way to me from the WERS dumpster, and neither the dustiest corners of the internet nor old issues of Forced Exposure offer up much info on these Boston-area knuckleheads. Odd, too, since “Nothing Up There Always” is a pretty prime shot of guitar-abuse nuttiness that certainly deserves at least that level of obscurity. And so, uninterested as I’ve been through the years in most of America’s 1980s amp-busters (aside from olden-days Touch & Go stuff), I have to resort here to the pathetic “Sonic Youth + pop” comparison, due both to my ignorance and to the mix of the sheer BIGNESS of the record’s sound and its relative tightness songwrite-wise. Sorry sorry sorry. But yeah, there are enough careening waves of guitar indigestion on all three songs to make any proto-shoegaze band moisten its bangs with tears of jealousy, though the overall FEEL is decidedly Rock, with aggression set on “medium” and ABANDON set on “kinda high.” I like it! As another webbernet goof notes, Headless Heyday recorded under multiple names and released an LP (which includes “Windscreen” from this 7” and was in fact written up in FE #16), and, by gum, I’d be willing to shell out a bill or perhaps six for such an album. Tomorrow? Yes. And you? Scour your local dollar bin and emerge proud should you find any music produced by these noisy gentlemen. Is worth it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

George Harrison - Cheer Down

(Warner Bros., 1989)

George Harrison recorded “Cheer Down” for the Lethal Weapon 2 (!!) soundtrack, and with contributions from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, this sounds, not surprisingly, an awful lot like the Traveling Wilburys. The music continues along the lines of the dense, guitar-heavy pop-rock of Cloud Nine, and the whole thing’s catchy enough to overcome a stunningly inane set of lyrics (did it really take both Harrison and Petty to come up with lines like “If your dog should be dead / I’m gonna love you instead,” and “If your shares should crash / You’ll get by even without getting a rash”?!). “That’s What it Takes,” another strong Cloud Nine track, is the American B-side, while in Europe it’s the relatively rare and appealing “Poor Little Girl.” Based on what he’d recorded over the last two years, solo and with the Wilburys, George was definitely on a winning streak at this point; it’s too bad that, after this, he went into semi-retirement and didn’t release any new solo material for over a decade. Dagnabit!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

George Harrison - This Is Love

(Dark Horse, 1988)

With a hit record on his hands, George Harrison wisely continued to flog Cloud Nine, and the release of “This is Love” made the album his first – BELIEVE IT! – to generate three American singles. A mature slab o’ rockarolla that features some fine slide guitar, synth stabs in the chorus, and the quasi-artificial drum sound that dominates the LP, the song veers, altogether, a little too far into the slick and personality-free adult-contempo zone for my tastes. I would’ve much preferred the eternally ass-kicking chug-rocker “Fish on the Sand” as a single, though I reluctantly concede that the track’s central image of a fish flopping around, gasping for air on a beach, might not have been the most commercially viable of choices. Oh well; if that prick Mo Ostin had thought to call up my eight-year-old self for advice, mebbe things could’ve been different. Worse: After George spoiled us with two consecutive non-album B-sides, Cloud Nine’s lone stinker, the Chinese-influenced ballad “Breath Away From Heaven,” louses up this particular B. But! The reason WHY it is there is MIGHTY FUCKING EXCITING: Harrison had originally planned on sticking an off-the-cuff, pals-goofing-around collaborative effort, “Handle With Care,” on the flip, but the label, when presented with the track, wisely refused to relegate that song to B-side hell. Thus were 7” consumers punished with “Breath Away From Heaven,” and thus were the Traveling Wilburys officially born. Fair enough, I reckon!

And now you know… THE REMAINDER OF THE TALE.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

George Harrison - When We Was Fab

(Dark Horse, 1988)

The second single from Cloud Nine is a charming, wink-filled pastiche of the Beatles’ psychedelic years, stuffed with cellos and swooping backing vocals. Jeff Lynne really goes to town on this one, and, based on much of his work with the Electric Light Orchestra, it’s the song he was born to (over-) produce; he handles his duties well by providing the unsettling ambiance of the creepier Magical Mystery Tour tracks. Given the many stories of George’s outward hostility towards his Beatle days, it’s interesting to hear him write and sing about the period with such casual affection, tossing off one-liners and non-sequiturs among the heavier lyrical content. Also interesting is the fact that this song was recorded around the same time Paul McCartney was trying to plunder his own past for studio projects, with “Return to Pepperland” and the subsequent Beatle-isms of Flowers in the Dirt. Coincidence, or evidence of a mutual panic as both recognized creeping old-fogey status in the face of plummeting sales? Dunno, but if anything’s going to force an ex-Beatle to come to terms with his musical past, it might well be the looming specter of commercial oblivion.

Some additional notes: The B-side, “Zig Zag,” is a smoky, trumpet-laced nightclub jazzer whose lyrics don’t go beyond the title. It has since been added as a bonus track on the remastered Cloud Nine. Slightly more intriguing is the “Reverse End” version of “When We Was Fab” – found on the 12” and CD single – which tacks on a backwards, psychedelic coda that extends the song by another minute. For the true believer (me, unfortunately), there’s also a
boxed edition of the 7” that includes a Pepper-esque cutout and a poster. Sigh.

George Harrison - Got My Mind Set On You

(Dark Horse, 1987)

After releasing two of the dullest, laziest LPs ever pooped out by an ex-Beatle (non-Ringo division), prospects seemed dim for a George Harrison comeback – particularly after the Gone Troppo debacle. And yet back he did indeed come, back ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP, with a tight, Jeff Lynne-assisted music-farm of smash-hit song-crops! “Got My Mind Set On You” was and is the biggie, as George rocks up and streamlines the arrangement of James Ray’s rather tedious original, a punchy beat and candy-sweet Lynne production (with those outer-space ELO backing vocals playing a prominent role) bringing out the song’s natural popchart potential. A hit, and deservedly so, despite (or because of) its mindless simplicity. In an album context, however, it does feel tacked-on as Cloud Nine’s final track, its relentless cheeriness not quite the best fit even on what is a generally upbeat Harrison disc. “Lay His Head,” one of the songs jettisoned from the original version of Somewhere in England seven years earlier, shows up on the B in remixed form. Actually better than most of the dreck on that LP, it’s a soft-pop trifle that suffices as a B-side; odd that this wasn’t included as a bonus track on any of the 2004 Harrison reissues.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

George Harrison - All Those Years Ago

(Dark Horse, 1981)

I have mixed feelings about “All Those Years Ago.” On the one hand, it stinks. But on the other, it’s kind of a nice counterpoint to the other Lennon tributes out there, which were typically maudlin (Paul McCartney), overblown (Elton John), or pointless (Roxy Music). Harrison at least had the decency to make his track bouncy and fondly sentimental – a welcome relief! – even if it, like the rest of the Somewhere in England album (including the torpid B-side to the single, “Writing’s On the Wall”), does feature far too many ugly keyboard sounds. I’ll give George an unenthusiastic tip of the cap for this one. Oh, and don’t get excited about the “Beatles reunited!” hype that surrounds the song; Ringo drums on it, yes, but Paul’s contribution is just a non-distinctive backing vocal that adds little and is hardly identifiable as McCartney.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

George Harrison - Blow Away

(Dark Horse, 1979)

In Europe, cheapskates who sprung for the “Blow Away” single instead of the entire George Harrison album got stuck with LP track “Soft Touch” as the B-side (as opposed to “Soft-Hearted Hana in the U.S.), and the song is nuttin more than a painfully-lazy, polyester-clad, resort-party bore. George has all the edge of a volleyball on this one, and the only thing worth praising it for is that it doesn’t manage to reach the hellish depths of his later island-inspired work on Gone Troppo. So hoorah for half-assed, maxo-relaxo mediocrity… shit manages to look pretty sweet relative to the musical horrors Harrison would soon be dropping on the marketplace.

Hey! While you’re here: Geeky and humble thanks to Adrian at Delusions of Adequacy for offering some kind words about this site. Scholar-and-a-gentleman style, he’s not only a top-notch fellow, he also happens to have good taste AND bang out reams of interesting music-crit. So go read him today! Especially that bit where he praises my Sisyphean (wasted!) efforts – read that part over and over and over and over again. And then once more.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

George Harrison - Blow Away

(Dark Horse, 1979)

While a big improvement on the terrible Thirty-Three and 1/3, George Harrison’s self-titled LP is overly polished, gentle, and, well, adult. Everything is mid-tempo mush, and there’s a sleek, soft-rock sheen that doesn’t do Harrison any favors, especially as it deemphasizes his electric guitar for much of the album. The good news? He’s ditched the saxes this time around, and he’s actually managed to crank out a few decent songs in between his rich-guy trips to Hawaii and the Formula One racetrack. A-side “Blow Away” is among the best of the bunch (running neck and neck with “Faster”), with a boppy little melody and an almost idiotically cheerful chorus that sees George as carefree and positive as on any other single in his discography. Even Paul McCartney, the master of brain-pleasing songfluff, would have been proud to release such a perfectly-formed, lightweight treat (“Blow Away” would in fact fit quite well on Wings at the Speed of Sound, although it would easily tower above the rest of the material on there). And wait! Is that a xylophone I hear plinking deep within the mix? I THINK IT IS!! A xylophone on a George Harrison track?! How whimsical and unlikely; you’ve really loosened up in your permed middle-age, George! A minor single and a minor hit, but a very pleasing one nonetheless.

“Soft-Hearted Hana,” which is also taken from the LP, is a shuffling, pub-ready rooty-toot loosely based on earlier B-side “Deep Blue,” but rather than the grim subject matter of old, George has gone with zany mushroom-inspired lyrics for this effort. As throwaways go, it’s acceptable, though the B-side of this 7” was probably a more appropriate home for it than on the album proper.

Monday, May 4, 2009

George Harrison - This Song

(Dark Horse, 1976)

Well, the weather’s gloomy and so am I. Spent yesterday inside listening to a few hours of the “Best Show” archives, and then sat in my office until about 11pm tonight half-heartedly following baseball action before trudging out into the rain. Depressing. Consider these my Torpor Memos (haw haw). Anyway, what I’m doing a terrible job of hinting at is the fact that this is NOT a time during which I’m likely to feel charitable towards the Thirty-Three and 1/3 album, which is a collection of peppy, bland soft-rock dressed up in grotesque synths and saxes. “This Song,” the record’s minor hit and Harrison’s commentary on the “My Sweet Lord” plagiarism lawsuit, isn’t nearly as clever as it (or its video) seems to think it is, with Eric Idle’s embarrassing vocal cameo (delivered in Python-esque lady-squawk) simply underscoring that this is a novelty single with a puzzlingly high opinion of its own wit. And, while catchy enough – especially when compared to its dire, sleep-inducing, mid-tempo, smooth-n-sensitive-’70s-man B-side “Learning How to Love You” – “This Song” marks a nadir in George’s frustrating love of prominent saxophone tootery, subjecting the listener to gales of gaudy blowin’ atop the boogie piano. Ugh. Heck, even the sleeve is hideous. Skip the single, skip the album. Not the best start for Harrison on his new label.