Monday, June 30, 2008
Neo-Psychedelia's Short List
Fourth in a series, apparently, this week...Off to Neo-Psych’s highlights, but if my “brief” comments continue as prolifically as those on their forebears, this’ll be a monograph. Mercury Rev with “Yer Self Is Steam” began their upstate N.Y. career with weird, college-grad indie rock meets twisted studio loopy and convoluted, but catchy, dives into whirlpools. Avoid anything past its follow-up “Boces,” which AMG ranks at #2 but I never would. Don’t confuse them with later albums, as politely dismal as those done by producer Dave Fridmann for the once-promising Low or Flaming Lips. Let weirdos near him and he dopes them into the type of pledge-drive giveaway music makers NPR listeners can rotate in their hybrid-SUV changers. Or, I guess iPod-GPS-cellphone gizmos.
College radio used to be more daring, indeed. Here’s some successes which you might have heard on a local station of taste, twenty years ago. Rain Parade’s two best, “Emergency Third Rail Power Trip” and the misleadingly titled “Explosions in the Glass Palace” take their sweet time roaming about the softer but no less lysergic primrose path, into darker hints of unease. Guitarist David Roback, before Mazzy Star, did the slow dirge drone with soporific cute singer deal with Kendra Smith in Opal. “Early Recordings” and “Happy Nightmare Baby” should please any fans of replacement Hope Sandoval’s narcotic seductions. Great late-night listening, a bit more raw than Mazzy Star, more unnerving. Smith wound up with a solo LP, “Five Ways of Disappearing,” worth rescuing from the bargain bin for what a girl who fled-- another neo-hippie goin' back twenty years after the Byrds, this time to a Humboldt Co. goat farm-- can prove in a some solar-powered studio near her dwelling in a forest cave, communing with druidesses. Then, she wandered off the grid. Mary Timony of D.C. Dischord-era punk evolved with first Helium and then solo CDs into a similar performer of a unicorn-in-laps of non-virgins feminist New Age post-rock.
The Elephant 6 collective from the South has birthed many bands, albeit far less concerned on record with sex, spirituality, or seances. Originally, I guess that Robert Schneider was among their masterminds. His band “Apples in Stereo” before they started a downhill slide for many albums gave colorful and compact, yet sturdy and vibrant, pop on “Fun Trick Noisemaker” and, for me, even better on the less heralded odds and ends of “Science Faire” superbly studied second-generation sonic successes. They capture the thrill of making music in a garage, and the need to mix melody with fuzz. They could use more female vocals, in fact; they remain closest to some Platonic ideal of “psychedelic pop,” which strays into wimpiness without enough grounding pedals or tweaked amps.
Neutral Milk Hotel, mostly Jeff Mangum with help from Schneider and pals, made what many regard a supremely realized concept album at least in part based on the story of Anne Frank. Not sure how much you can trace this conceit, however; I only found out about this tie-in—- see the poignant “Holland, 1945”—- a decade after listening-- preferably on headphones-- to this overwhelmingly stuffed CD. The sound’s loaded with a mixture of singer-songwriter coming-of-age angst, Brian Wilson-levels of obsessed arrangements, warbles, shouts, whispers, and a driven mad genius that sui generis. It’s crammed with wizardry, and from the cover art to the graphics to the lyrics bespeaks a very complicated vision in its totality. A (small) book in the 33 & 1/3 series appeared on the gnomic, brash, steampunk, everything in the kitchen sink arrangements, and one-man-band defiantly hermetic “In the Aeroplane Under the Sea,” suitably.
Olivia Tremor Control, the best named of these three Elephant 6 groups, explains their music’s intent and mood in the title of their first and best CD: “Music from the Unrealized Film Script—- Dusk at Cubist Castle.” They combine the esoteric artsier one-off whatevers with more linear if still bent semi-commercial songs. It fits together cinematically, evoking sensations more than logic, and should appeal to you dreamier, poppier adepts.
Other recent Americans who deserve attention: the past ten years have featured the heirs of Spacemen 3's honed, droning concentration. Seattle's Kinski's issued assertive albums that nudge closer to hard rock with a repetitive, but adeptly nuanced, post-punk skip. L.A.'s Farflung scoops up the S.F. assault of late 70s noise terrorists Chrome and dusts this with the stoner rock originating with Kyuss from the California desert and the celestial probes of Hawkwind's missions. Wooden Shijps, from San Francisco, to me gathers the spray of Spacemen 3 and cools it distilled into a dreamier wake akin to Loop's 1980s phased, flanged mantras from exurban England. This reminds me I must mention Flying Saucer Attack from Bristol, with what they called "rural psychedelia." Difficult to choose one CD from this 1990s outfit, but they're closest to the intersection of folk, electronica, and processed effects that nourish an organically computerized marriage of impressionistic mood pieces that capture changing weather on a wet island. It's as if cybernetics spawned a happier musical offspring, spinning yet still skittering away from wires and algorithms into a formerly pristine meadow. This approaches revelation at its most inspired moments.
Earlier, long before gospel and shrooms joined to spawn Rugby's Spacemen 3, L.A. pop-punks in Salvation Army turned to their personal sonic messiah—- after threat of lawsuit—- The Three O’Clock with acid-laced garage rock. They got twee and wound up working with “Raspberry Beret” Prince, but “She Turns to Flowers” captures their early promise—- a couple minutes' rush of backwards tapes, distorted riffs, and whiny whimsy. It's on a hit and miss compilation of their gawky birth, appropriately titled “Befour Three O’Clock.” The California revival around ’82 of psychedelia among veteran punks never panned out as I’d hoped, but The Bangles’ first few records, along with Rain Parade and Opal above, managed to set the scene as well as Arthur Lee once did, “between Clark and Hilldale” along a Sunset Blvd brought back by new wave before it succumbed to hair-metal.
Their Northern Cal counterparts, Scott Miller and whomever he played with, including Salvation-Three’s leader, the too-winsome Michael Quercio, risked a coy cuteness himself as he brainily composed clever, exceedingly intricate tangles of words and music into pop twists that began aping Alex Chilton and then, with producer Mitch Easter (before the studio wunderkind of power-pop, Helium and countless indie bands, and Southern quirky non-commercial jangle lured away Mrs. Miller), managed to reverberate for me into more controlled transmissions of talent. It's what a part-time musician on his spare time from his computer programming (it shows, sometimes overbearingly self-referentially trying too hard to please its maker, as it must have with Joyce) could create if he aspired to sing the ideas of Finnegans Wake via his typically awkward math genius and musical magpie bildungsroman into the radio-friendly brevity of Big Star. An acquired taste lyrically and vocally, as Miller’s own credits once billed himself with “the usual obnoxious whine.”
Too tactile to be escapist music, it could bite beneath the superficial sweetness. Miller's liking for twinkly keyboards and synth-drums appears half-genuine, half-satirical. He buried classic guitar runs beneath mountains of track overlays. His music can wander within extraordinarily layered textures. Never trapped by neo-psych for long, particular compositions survive meticulous assembly; they shine with elegance and emotion. Taken from four studio albums made as Game Theory and its successor, and five studio discs from a harder-edged, bitterer (post-divorce), and tougher ensemble named magnificently in a typical double-entrendre The Loud Family created for me (next to the far more acclaimed, if deservedly so, Yo La Tengo) consistently smart, memorable, and intricate sour pop music 1984-2004, or so.
An Australian band had another brush with a knack for tunefulness that could tip into smarminess, with annoyingly overplayed college radio hit two decades ago. But The Church polished two earlier LPs—- well before the one with “Under the Milky Way”-- to a smoother finish: despite ponderous verses declaimed that ironically match their pop-prog-paisley penchant, “The Blurred Crusade” has smoldering, languid guitar epics that crest and build woozily; “Heyday” witnesses them in on their own pose, as they don paisley shirts on the cover of a more concise set of songs, their punchiest would-be hits and most accessible homages.
I’ve mentioned England's standard-bearers The Soft Boys in earlier entries. Later English groups in the early 90s inherited rave's dosage, post-punk's compression, and psychedelia's imagination. They concocted their own blend, louder, punchier, and produced. Liverpool's Boo Radleys stirred impressively overdriven engineering into sturdy pop underneath that on mid-90s albums "Everything's Alright Forever" and "Giant Steps" with Sice's winsome vocals vs. Martin Carr's nimble guitar combined the studio craft of XTC with the layered warmth of shoegazing-- and that's a whole sub-genre that builds well upon these languidly uneasy inspirations. Here, I find "Loveless" from My Bloody Valentine, "Rev" from Ultra Vivid Scene, "Going Blank Again" from Ride, "Chrome" and the b-sides "Like Cats and Dogs" among fine albums from The Catherine Wheel, and nearly all of Swervedriver rewarding me most after the test of fifteen years. All these bands mix erotic yearning, emotional frustration, and electrifying textures into a scrappy, edgier strain of neo-psych.
Wales with Ectoplasm opens up the melodic prettiness of Echo & the Bunnymen circa "Ocean Rain" with a Krautrock homage to a lengthier locked and loaded potency, extended over pilgrimages into hallucinogenic garden paths and forest meadows. They feature a female singer who's gentle yet not cloying. They avoid fragility, and know how to stop mincing and start marching.
Their fellow adventurous Welshmen I've made asides to in yesterday's blog entry; they also made their earliest releases on Ankst, the same label as Ectoplasm. Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in my post-punk entry yesterday. Those two Welsh bands matured from schoolboy punk or frenzy into skilled interpreters of their own Sain Welsh-language heritage, best chased down on the hit-and-miss outtakes and B-sides of SFA’s “Outspaced” and GZM’s “Bwyd Time,” which with “Patio” and “Tatay” were not remastered as had been planned a few years back, so I must be content with the “Introducing” compilation for the foreigners—- yet, as with the Furries, their best moments, as with so many psych bands, lay in the casual asides and one-offs.
Photo from collage at Last.FM Psychedelic station.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
My Psychedelic Shortlist
Drifting into territory mapped by Jim DeRogatis a decade ago in his book "Kaleidoscope Eyes," I wander along what bookended the punk and post-punk eras I wrote about yesterday here. You cannot separate easily the late 60s efflorescence of the acid-pot-good vibes times from the revival in the 80s and 90s that found restive punks, post-punkers, and whomever passed for malcontent alternative rockers to return and better yet revamp the sounds of the Sixties. For instance: is R.E.M. neo-psych compared to L.A. punk grads Salvation Army/ Three O'Clock? Peter Buck and Michael Quercio both knew their records. Their bands emerged from the same early-80s discovery of "Nuggets" and "Pebbles" and other stony rock collections. So, where's the difference? Many musicians listened to, say, The Byrds or Strawberry Alarm Clock or Question ? and the Mysterians. "Life's Rich Pageant" covered a song by The Cyrkle, but more as a side-ending casual closer than a serious LP track.
Still, on "Document," R.E.M. gave a nicely telegraphed version of "Strange" off Wire's début, "Pink Flag." And, as DeRogatis (who as the Chicago Sun-Times rock critic testified last month as to how he came into the copy of the sex tape exhibited in R. Kelly's trial) notes in his study, Wire as first-wave punks and leading post-punks connects somehow into psychedelic music. Robert Hilburn reviewed that LP when it came out in '77. I read about it and others long forgotten (City Boy, Deaf School) in the L.A. Times and found myself intrigued by his prediction that by '84 Wire might fill stadiums as the next generation's Pink Floyd! Hilburn and DeRogatis locate what many critics do not: the vague overlaps between electronic processing, guitar excursions, dreamy lyrics, and an underlying building up and/or letting go of tension. I guess this creates the mood I'm after. It's more akin to drony, lavish, sauntering, or sinister trails pursued off the mainstream paths into the vapors and shadows.
Now, we're getting somewhere. Anybody reading this knows ad infinitum what "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "Good Vibrations" sounds like. I'm tired of The Beatles, preferring perversely to read about them rather than hear them-- their songs are in my mental jukebox by osmosis, anyway, and one delight of my iPod lists lay in my ability to delete "Yesterday" or "Piggies" or "Michelle" or "Octopus' Garden" forever. Brian Wilson's teenaged sympathies to God remind me more of Dewey Cox with the aboriginal drummers than coherent works of art, although his ambition did drive others to heights they might not have attained otherwise, competition trumping community for hippies along with the rest of us cruel egotists.
So, the challenge for me, as a listener who was a child not in Neil Young's sense but a chronological boy in that tumultuous, blissed-out half a decade, remains to enjoy a music that--unlike punk or post-punk or college radio that followed-- did not overlap with my own maturity. I suppose I gravitate towards it out of some Platonic-Wordsworthian quest to recover the background music heard on Top 40 AM radio, on 93 KHJ, or later the sounds of KOLA that my first FM radio, around my age of ten, was able to pick up from San Bernardino. The L.A. FM stations were not as easy to pick up, and college radio at least for any underground or hip music as far as I know did not exist yet at the local Claremont campus, or if it did I remained understandably ignorant, town being separated from gown a mile south of me.
One of the first songs I liked around the time of Beatlemania was "Downtown" by Petula Clark, and then "Westminster Cathedral" by the Buckinghams. I think I may have only heard the Fab Four when I watched an ice-skating routine on TV and "Help" played as accompaniment to what must have been a strange frosty pirouette. The Monkees were more on my radar when they appeared in "beautiful downtown Burbank," where I lived from 1964-69, and of course "Laugh-In" started. I cringe to think of sitting wide-eyed as Artie Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin or Goldie Hawn, not to mention Tiny Tim, cavorted and chuckled in routines that made Benny Hill staid. I also wonder what in the world an Irish Catholic bookworm like me got out of the later "Love American Style" with its debauchery packaged, like Bob Eubanks' sneeringly smutty euphemism "making whoopie" on "The Newlywed Game." No wonder it took me so long to lose my virginity.
Moving on wisely, what albums today conjure up enough depth for me to bother going back to that time, and to those closer in age to myself who re-created those tunes?
I consulted the top ten albums recommended for the Neo-Psychedelia genre at the excellent resource All Music Guide. I agreed with eight of their picks, so my own preferences mesh with AMG’s groove. Besides a basic Psychedelic category, they break it down into subgenres: Acid Rock, Acid Folk, Garage Rock, Psychedelic Pop, and my favorite, British Psych. That area’s best has been compiled in a second Nuggets Brit (with a few internationals) collection, which I bought with money back from the only time I got enough cash to splurge, for my fortieth birthday—a sign of my wish to return to the days if not Pet Clark then pet sounds from later that coddled, staggered, bold fling into flowers, paisley, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, Carnaby St, and Edwardian whimsy (in microgrammed doses as far as I’m concerned).
Here’s a list, with briefer comments than for punk and post-punk, as more of these records may be familiar. I find after goading my memory through AMG that far more of my picks come from later than the “original” time period, but I’m sure if I’d have been more tuned in and more able to spend pocket money at the age of eighteen rather than eight, I’d have been able to offer “Obscura”—- the other sub-genre—- from that era to rival the obsessives who used to read “Goldmine” and haunted flea markets at Portobello Market long before E-Bay and BitTorrent and all those damned Deadhead-jam band trading sites.
For England, an early group that I liked, purveyors of what’s been dubbed “freakbeat,” the art-schoolers The Creation made a few brilliant singles, such as “Painter Man” (featured in the film “Rushmore”) and “How Does It Feel To Feel?” (later covered by shoegazers Ride). Inconsistent, yet with promising flashes of exuberant feedback and overdriven energy. They crammed lots of ideas into the limited blues-rock repertoire, and better known groups certainly “borrowed” from this band of exuberant rave-ups.
The better known Yardbirds LP, called at that time a generic title, later re-issued as “Roger the Engineer,” does not hold up as well as I remembered when I bought it on a pricy import ten years ago. It’s since been out, of course, on Warner Archives here. But, there’s an infectious experimentation that makes this band, especially post-Clapton, fun as well as enduring. This album, as with all the band’s efforts, does not hang together as a coherent set, but it shows their vocal range and harmonic cleverness to its best effect, as it’s the only record that the band kept control of for the masters—- one of those endless legal matters, baby.
Which brings us to The Who. DeRogatis correctly for them as later for R.E.M. separates them from psychedelia except in snippets, but certainly songs like “A Quick One,” “Pictures of Lily,” “I Can See for Miles and Miles,” (see poster below by the classic duo Hapshash & the Coloured Coat) “Amazing Journey/ Sparks,” and lesser-known curios like “Our Love Was, Is,” “Armenia City in the Sky,” “Silas Stingy” and “Rael” show that the Shepherd’s Bush lads could surpass their peers at this genre. (Inspired by Mike Watt, about whom I concluded my recent post on punk, Petra Haden later did this LP a capella, and contemplates the Kinks' "Village Green" next. Brave experiment, which on the dronier textures manages more than on the rocking tunes to express hints of The Who's undercurrent of menace and melancholy.)
Wisely, they steered clear of total identification, as did The Move. I admire this band’s “Shazam” (despite a duff cut or two too much of 1970) greatly. It’s less beholden to the classical melange that would become E.L.O., not as ‘50s-sounding as Roy Wood’s solo forays, and it does show that the band was best when they compressed their time’s hits into their own amazingly deft covers, interpretations, rip-offs, and homages. They were skilled interpreters, able to channel effortlessly any other group’s tone, it seemed, and while this may relegate them eternally to a second-tier vs. The Who (whom they imitated perfectly when they felt the urge), I find their tunes as pleasant and as satisfying as those on my favorite LP from the 60s, “The Who Sell Out.” Like The Who, The Move also possessed a sense of humor. Also check out “The Best of the Move” (A&M reissue of their début aka “Flowers in the Rain” and lots of great singles and album tracks from their brief prime.)
For all my affection for Brit Psych, I admit that few bands made consistently fab LPs. See “Nuggets II” for grim confirmation. One of the iconic songs of the time, “Paper Sun” from Traffic, reveals their own quick one that summed up the fragile raga and delicate emotions of the time well before they wandered out of Berkshire cottage retreat back into hipper urbanity. Pink Floyd’s a natural too, but Syd’ less than vicious ditties about gnomes and bikes enrage me; I prefer the longer space-rock songs off of “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “A Saucerful of Secrets.” I even like the live disc “Ummagumma” that betters some of Norman Clark’s superb ’67 engineering on the original versions. (I bought “Ummagumma” used so I did not have to purchase the dreaded second platter full of their solo efforts, one song per band member over one record, so you can imagine.) I jumped off the boat with “Meddle,” but again, half of that serves elegantly as the last hurrah for space-rock.
You’d never call The Pretty Things space-rockers, and their time in the ring as bantamweights for the flower people was as short-lived as their many other incarnations as they followed their rivals the Stones through the decade’s sonic and sartorial re-inventions. Norman Smith, who twiddled the knobs for this too (and worked similarly on “Sgt. Pepper” that busy year—that needs no mention more here nor do the Beatles), produced “S.F. Sorrow.” Derivative as hell, nearly a parody of itself so accurately does it mime that moment. As with The Move, it succeeds as a fine acting turn from a group that kept moving on, a bit off-kilter from the charts or trends that it could dub so effortlessly.
As silly as “Tommy,” which rock geeks know pre-dated it as the first concept album by nearly two years. But, if you’re sick of pinball and acid queens and Cousin Kevin, why not give Baron Samedi, more orphans, and a zeppelin disaster a try? I must mention here how Keith Moon’s prediction of Jimmy Page’s new band’s fate post-Yardbirds would go down like a “lead” dirigible—there, we’ve tied three groups who’s all shape this genre together.
Led Zeppelin on “III” has a few songs that I enjoy once in a blue moon as examples of a perverse freak-folk blues-rock that in turn sounds like their Sain native speakers circling the Welsh hideaway at Bron-y-Aur who on the two compilations of “Welsh Rare Beat” give a sample of Cymric responses to Brit rock and pop, and have correctly been seen by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals (more about him later) as harbingers of today’s freak-folk, practically third-generation hippies for better and mostly worse from what I’ve heard. (I’ve reviewed both of these eclectic anthologies from Finders Keepers on Amazon.) For the Irish, such worthwhile blips would have to wait until ‘72’s prog-folk fusions pioneered by Horslips on “Happy To Meet, Sorry to Part.” By then, it’s not quite psych, but it blossomed from the Dublin counterculture.
I’ve dutifully tracked down similarly shaggy Amon Duul II and Ash Ra Tempel, and while these have their moments, AD’s too anarchic, too loose, or too inattentive to lock into the drones that appeal to me from Hawkwind’s ’72-’74 period (best heard, gonzo poetry despite itself, on the live “Space Ritual” or Acid Mother Temple’s countless albums from the mid-90’s on, a Japanese collective whose own inspirations threaten to better their heroes from supposedly the golden age of psych. I can afford too few of the dozens of AMT CDs to suggest which might be their best, but AMG rates many of them highly, and they appear to be getting only better. Not sure how long they can sustain this level, or if the drugs will last, but they represent the culmination of those who’ve taken suggestions from the early-70s Teutonic-Hawkwind-Can-Faust alliance and bested them, along incestuous alliances that take them across the world, with such appealing heirs and cohorts as Ghost, Kinski, and Boris.
Over in America, there’s the same situation, great hits, lots of so-so LPs, albeit more space cowboys than cosmic rockers. A very early entry here from Austin, 13th Floor Elevators, stands as would Gram Parsons for a cautionary tale in what drugs’ll do to ya if you ain’t Keef or Mick, but “Easter Everywhere” probably’s the only album with an electric jug (what you used if you could not afford the Beach Boys’ theremin?) that will make you wistful. It captures a pivotal moment, when acid replaced pot, and when the possibilities of what chemical psychedelics could offer to give one glimpses of nirvana. Uneven, thin, and unsteady, understandably. Recorded for spare change, you can feel dessication crackle as fervent trips unfold, tempting madness. Too soon, hell opened, guns discharged and asylums opened.
Another desert skulker, Captain Beefheart, with his Magic Band also provided moments of clarity amidst many of the sound of confusion on "Trout Mask Replica." I suppose pills or smoke might help the audience here. Truly a cult album, it has far too many sax and horns moments for me, but it does anticipate the grooves of “Clear Spot” that for me proved his finest moments in another ambling career.
Back in the city from which Don Van Vliet fled, Love managed “Forever Changes” as its best LP, after a few more savage or at least sneering singles, as the best Angeleno artifact. Equal parts idealism and corrosion, which you’d feel too if the Doors had bested you in the Sunset Strip talent show. It flows better than most records of that year, but’s still all over the dappled terrain. I find partial failures more accessible, anyway. Potential, yes, but as with the previous two artists, too scattered to stick. Rather ironically named group, and I’m sure Roky Erickson and the Captain might bond with Arthur Lee and crew over another passing glimpse by misfits of a lovely summer’s autumn.
On that same Strip, earlier the Byrds had already found weird scenes inside their gold (record) mine. By New Year’s Day, 1968, they’d followed Beefheart back to the country, if a less arid place than the Mojave or the Texas plains. The album they cobbled together contributes thoughtful lyrics about war, peace, and futility amidst the constant infighting and “musical differences.” “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” may be another imperfect LP from a collapsing group of Beatleized Dylans turning from pop-folk to raga-rock to C&W, but any ensemble who could replace departed David Crosby’s face with a horse’s rear for their album cover merits a place in my pantheon. Beautiful moments of clarity amidst storm clouds. “Wasn’t Born to Follow” remains dazzling as a three- minute summation of 67’s aftermath, and those who refused even to follow the "starmaking machinery behind the popular song," as Joni Mitchell sang about David Geffen. It’s one album before Gram arrived.
I wish I’d found a San Franciscan souvenir worthy of inclusion, but if I cannot honestly find a perfect specimen among my hometown’s array, what of our municipal rival? All Music Guide ranks “Anthem of the Sun” from the Grateful Dead as the #1 exemplar of this genre. Yes, I tried. But sampling it in a used record store last year, I still could not be swayed for $8.99 to its remastered edition. Moby Grape’s “Omaha” remains one of my favorite tunes ever, but again, that once-hyped cult-favorite later hyped’s as disparate a collection of musicians at variance with one another as the Byrds, Love, or Traffic. Although Jefferson Airplane's “After Bathing at Baxter’s” has been recommended to me—- by one who was there when—- as an accurate depiction of how acid could enhance a band in the studio, again I have not been swayed to S.F's charms. As with the Dead, that city's vibe remains an enigma to me. The urchin's earnest, trust-funded, paeans leave me indifferent. All these assurances of affection long before the son of Paul Kantner proved to be a total gay-bashing, French-raised, tantrum-spouting, spoiled &%^hole when he rented an apartment from us. But he did have a cool Pez collection.
That’s about it for those who were there at the crown of creation. I find it insightful that XTC’s alter ego, Dukes of Stratosphear, ranks #1 on the Neo-Psych AMG list. “Chips from the Chocolate Fireball,” I have heard, resulted from a track-by-track correspondence where you can look at one song and say, hmm, Electric Prunes, hmm, Donovan. But I like not to know what the band knew here, clumsily preferring my own guesses. The wisely chosen John Leckie produced to superb effect. It’s suitably lavish, half-baked, throwaway genius, over-the-top, and as erratic as its inspirations, and for this homage that cannot be distinguished from a “real” compilation succeeds all the more, as if Nuggets 3.
This 1987 e.p. and LP combo issued as “Chips” began, as we Paisley Underground nerds remember, as a tongue-in-cheek side project, but by English market-town musos just old enough to have had their formative years molded by the real Age of Aquarius, as I had by punk ten years after. So, one of Britain’s finest exponents of whatever New Wave became turned its best interpreters of their own beloved past. Like their peers The Jam, they took the Kinks’ and The Who’s examinations of their kingdom’s literate and imaginative traditions and filtered them through sparkling pop with an intricate foundation rooted in traditions that they celebrated as often as challenged. By the way, “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society” ranks in my Top Five 60s LPs, but cannot easily be claimed as psychedelic. “Wicked Annabella” or “Phenomenal Cat” sound more like the Dukes! Both great songs, but you feel that Davies and pals, like "Magic Bus"-vintage The Who and their own erstwhile ventriloquists The Move, could try on and then doff any costume they wanted, three minutes later, and keep rummaging in their melodic wardrobes with aplomb. Come to think of it, see "Satanic Majesties" and, well, "Sgt. Pepper" snaps.
The imitators of Ray Davies clutter many effete or elfin singer-songwriters’ efforts that for lack of a better niche get shelved with neo-psych, but the Kinks stayed aloof by the later 60s from any trends. Their refined peak, moving and world-wearily wise, with their literate LP streak from ’66-’71, arcs with that of their period’s most brilliant music, but they became more English than their peers in a sort of defiance to their decade and its cant. Tomorrow, it's off to explore imitators and successors and even those who may, with added insight, have benefited from musical and cultural hindsight. In the 1980s, they resurrected this genre for postpunk's era.
Hapshash & the Coloured Coat (Michael English & Nigel Weymouth): Lisergia Visual site: The Who, "I Can See for Miles"
Saturday, June 28, 2008
My Post-Punk Shortlist
Heading on from circa '78 into the next five or six years, again from memory as with my previous punk list, what would I trumpet as worth blowing my horn about? This era shows how bands, some of them veterans of punk, others only fans, began to clatter against what turned too soon gobbing, leather, and sneers. They incorporated more electronics, expanded production, and dared to defy unconventional convention of the movement which, according to some within months of its formation around '75-'76, already ossified. The period under study spans the shift of punk into more diverse spin-offs, and ends around the time that "college radio" or "alternative music" started to solidify in America, this leading to further fragmentation here and abroad, and abetted I reckon by MTV and the start of commercial interests taking over what had stumbled on as "indie radio" and "indie labels" in the punk era. We'll begin again in the North of England, wander around Britain, and see if America this round can provide more than one LP that I'd toss gently into the waterproofed Tupperware that floats onto the desert island-- packaged by FedEx c/o Tom Hanks. Unless I uploaded them onto my solar-powered iPod pre-shipwreck.
Anyhow, we find ourselves again at Manchester. "Perverted by Language" from The Fall has a couple of clunkers (what album does not from them?) but the intensity of endless drones such as "Tempo House" or the time-travel narrative of "Wings" or the spartan declamations of "Neighborhood of Infinity" vie with lyrical snippets of a Mark E Smith coming into his own. "A jew on a motorbike" yelped over and over: I leave it to you to decode vs. my own hunch(es). It's the sound of an atonal band beginning to become accessible, to a degree, with Brix Smith joining her husband, but the more pop-oriented, to a degree, sounds of the mid-80s Fall still refused to jell. This LP kept the band prickly, elusive, and gnomic.
That city also gave us The Gang of Four, whose albums I used to be able to hear, but now sound to me as if sealed in a vacuum as tight as Lenin's tomb. They lack The Fall's subtle iconoclasm or the Mekons' knowing braininess, and seem as if created for the Media Studies New School seminar in Rock Criticism & Advanced Theory, guest lecturers Marcus & Frith. The Mekons, true to their own anarchic tendencies, failed to come up with a solid winner in the album stakes until mid-decade and the start of their C&W infatuation.
This leaves four Mancunians who started the whole genre, unwittingly, Joy Division. I need not tell you probably anything you don't already know about "Unknown Pleasures." Problem is, if he'd lived they'd have matured exactly as The Cure or New Order for that matter into respectable while no longer innovative leaders of serious men and somber women. (Allusion buried in previous sentence.) I don't worship every utterance of Ian Curtis, and much of "Closer" bores me, but captured live the band, from what I hear on the concerts preserved on "Heart & Soul" and "Les Baines Douches" while lacking Martin Hannett's fabled icy gloss, makes up for it with stolid drive and heroic guts.
Also credited as early post-punks, Magazine's leader came out of the band Buzzcocks and the city. They made three good post-punk LPs. They integrated slower, atmospheric textures as did Joy Division. They also emphasized dramatic lyrics, spatial dynamics, and a more fluid, much more meditative style of delivery into a punk-descended return to compression, volume, and density. Their début, "Real Life" and number three, "The Correct Use of Soap," both have five or so brilliant songs. I'd place about eight of their songs on the top fifty of this genre. They remain an overlooked band that indirectly "inspired" more famous peers.
Howard Devoto's deliberately preening, self-aggrandizing pacing can be glacial, and I prefer the quicker demands on the music and the vocals to the tectonically slow majesty of much of album #2, "Secondhand Daylight." Yet, Devoto's using the LP as others would a stage. He's not entertaining you. You're listening to his own journey into the center of the night. Céline would approve.
John Leckie, who for me produced some of the era's best albums, rivals Martin Hannett in his command of layer, texture, and depth. Barry Adamson's bass levels and John McGeoch's guitar slash cut into the music as deeply as Devoto's burning resolve to play music as Raskolnikov thought. You might not think Dostoevsky could be set to what you might hear on a daring British radio station around 1980, but one legacy of this time: you could, if lucky.
Over the Pennines, in Liverpool it's Julian Cope trying to make his solo career stick as the drugs take over. The Teardrop Explodes turned "Kilmanjaro" into a post-punk excursion with horns and keyboards and flourish, before these filigrees became de rigeur. "Wilder" has great song titles, but the chemicals already were cooking. There's lots of half-coherent ideas here within the hubris. Therefore, Cope too made interesting misses more than hits, although a compilation such as "Floored Genius" might entice your fancy.
His strategically positioned mate, Ian McCulloch, hit the money shots while Cope's dates with Lady Luck ended in premature anticipation. Echo & the Bunnymen's "Crocodiles" already castigates the sordid Scouse scene. I recommend, perversely, transplanted (we native Californians always notice these blow-ins) San Franciscan Kelley Stoltz' "Crockodials" as a one-man take on this album that plays it song-by-song and arguably matches the original! So, a tribute of cover versions of a post-punk classic will do. For Echo straight, I've read in Simon Reynolds' history of the period, "Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84" (reviewed by me on Amazon), that Brian Eno and Moby among others worth their salt count the second LP "Heaven Up Here" as among their very short list. I'd suggest #3, "Porcupine," whose cover photo was taken in Iceland (where Killing Joke and The Fall also recorded around 1982!) and the album fits this frozen inscape.
Any record recommending John Webster's plays demands applause! Selections such as "The White Devil" continue the rather po-faced, English-major eagerness of Mac's lyrical style. Mac informs us about Webster as if we'd never heard of him. This is likely, I admit, for most post-punkers, and perhaps only coincidentally I heard this song around the time I had to study Webster in my grad school seminar for Elizabethan & Jacobean Drama. As Siouxsie noted in the Vice interview I quoted yesterday, we do find our reading through our music during this period, all of us exiled in our own monadic introspection, searching for the few others like us, pre-Net, pre-MTV, pre-CMJ, pre-Pitchfork and My Space.
McCulloch howls like some grandson of Lear on a blasted heath. But one who never lets on that he's read Shakespeare, I suppose. I find him compelling in his lyrics for their unintentional claims to originality. He's repeating what every author worth his or her talent ever has, but as Pope mused better than I about the gift of wit, rarely with such memorable phrasing as his predecessors. He rages against God, hates organized religion, anguishes over mortality. It's as if you listen to a tragic hero who writes his own dramatic monologues, unaware of Sophocles or Shaw. There's a purity to his notebook jottings made into cathedrals of sung shadow. He's not in on his own joke, that the weary sentiments he mouths have been cried out for thousands of years by millions of poets, but the hawkish swoops of the melodramatic music matches his sulky snits magnificently. Ian Broudie's production deepens the chasms that open; Pete de Freitas insistent drums, Les Pattinson's steady bass, and Will Sergeant's clanging guitars build into pyramids of jagged immensity, piercing clouds as they do dreams with visions of implacable precision.
As we're talking education, over in Cambridge, it's Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberly Rew (both guys, this being Britain), and the lads in The Soft Boys blending louder guitars and driving backbeats into the freakout lyrical and musical compositions of ten years after, I mean before. They seem as stoned as their predecessors, but somehow in on the joke. A bit too obsessed with bugs, decay, and silly tales for me, but parts of "A Can of Bees" (get it?) and some of the odds and ends on "Invisible Hits" make it worthwhile. Critics fall all over "Underwater Moonlight," but this runs a distant third for me and always has, contrary to those rock geeks. Hitchcock's first solo, which uses in solo conventions much of his band and songs he worked up with them, "Black Snake Diamond Role," also has a few fantastic tunes amidst the usual prattle about insects and metamorphoses and corpses. He's a prat and full of himself, like Michael Stipe or Bono or Sting, but like his more renowned peers, his heart's in more or less the right place, I grudgingly concur. He did make the mistake of dedicating later CDs to his then-paramour as "the most wonderful woman in the whole world," the liner-note equivalent of a tattoo "Winona forever" by Johnny Depp, sans the clever editing.
Into the capital, we see a band once touted along with Echo as the rivals if not betters of U2, The Psychedelic Furs. Less true than the Soft Boys to that adjective, but not without their moments. They're reputed to be in their earliest formation more akin to a harsher, less fluid attack that supposedly exists on record only ghosted in "The Peel Sessions." I tracked this down on import, and I do prefer the rawer versions of some early songs to the (John Leckie produced) first, self-titled LP or the second, "Talk Talk Talk," under the direction of Steve Lillywhite (who'd practically be identified with the genre along with Leckie during the 80s). They also mixed literate observations-- I heard Richard Butler inserted overheard phrases into his lyrics-- with a drier, more detached delivery of sax on top of what started closer to grating, post-punk, processed blocks of sound. Before they became hopelessly tangled with "Pretty in Pink" and a slicker MTV mid-80s look, they had promise.
Wire, that city's survivors of a punk scene they soon deserted in art-school mode for increasingly convoluted, terse, understated as opposed to hammering installation-friendly installments, kept the standard for what post-punk could become. That is, whatever its practitioners damn well pleased, in true punk cred. It's a dive into the id, but without Echo's far more accessible melodies. Here, shards float and threaten to cut. More howls, fewer croons. You might hear this music in your bad dreams, and awake wanting to play such nagging dissonance, freeze-dried into three-minute portions served on a bed of minor chords, again. If so, this is your band.
I found "154" often off-putting at first, then warmed to its chilly entreaties. It's no easy listen, and there's a seven-minute ditty called "Mercy" that'll have you begging for this quality long before its termination. Other songs make it worth the plunge. Mike Thorne's production polishes these surfaces, as he had on "Chairs Missing." If you like one, you'll like the other. But, keep the skip button handy. These are not perfect LPs. They never made a consistently stunning album, but like The Fall or Mekons, in their own more human, fumbling manner, they have fragmented and re-formed and deformed their music for three decades now. Such bands keep my respect for their loyalty to their own stubborn muse.
Fellow first-wave punk creators, Siouxsie & the Banshees, on their fourth LP, "Juju," gave a name to goth rock and a sound to match its brooding, neo-psych, and forbiddingly sketched panoramas of gloom. I liked the psuedo-Arabian and Middle Eastern influences that here and on the follow-up, the lighter "A Kiss in the Dreamhouse," started to enliven the music thanks to John McGeoch's stint with the band as they branched out into a more florid, less brittle, sound. Five songs on "Juju" rank easily among the best of the era. Dramatic, tense, and erotic: "Spellbound," "Into the Light," "Sin in My Heart," and the inevitably titled "Halloween."
The Cure's Robert Smith had filled in as a Banshee guitarist around this period while with The Cure. I admire "The Forest" as the exemplary song of this genre, but its album, "Seventeen Seconds," I played recently and outside of "Play for Today" and "Primary," could not wait for it to end. "Pornography" is another LP that stands as an epitaph of this dark interval in music, but again, it's not an easy listen even for a neurotic pessimist such as yours truly, nor has it ever been. The Cure made an enormous impact on this period's look, mood, and sound, but they work far better as a singles than as an album band.
Same with Killing Joke, a harder, proto-metal bunch that may represent what might have happened if the original Banshees had kept their line-up. The band never made a great LP, but early songs like "The Wait" (covered by Metallica) show what they could rise to given patience. It pounds and yells and demands your full attention. Too many of their songs rampage on thuddlingly, but those on "Fire Dances," which lightened the intensity a bit, managed to better reflect their range.
Outside London, it's over to Cardiff. At last, if ephemerally, the Young Marble Giants staggered into a studio and became the first, and only internationally-known, group to make an impact. They symbolize the DIY artsy ambitions of Rough Trade. "Colossal Youth" maintains a consistency rarely matched by albums of this bedsitter mad genius age. This may be due to the band's extreme limitations of skill, but they work. Lilting voice as if from a slightly imbalanced gal, while a guitar wanders about in semi-schooled jazz style, atop a squiggly bass or overly heavy organ chords. Yet, often light and appealing while harboring menace and despair within a sunny mien. No, I don't understand how this all came together for one album either.
Did Scotland contribute much? Josef K and their coffeehouse pals on the Postcard label were once touted, but to me they remain dull. Skids had great songs thanks to John Leckie's skill in selling them, but they never managed a steadily listenable album, veering wildly between what would become Stuart Adamson's piping guitar signatures in Big Country and Richard Jobson's pre-Morrissey flouncing cod-poetry pressed as if leaves between diary pages into vinyl. They probably collapsed due to "internal differences" before their talents could have coalesced as the band deserved.
Over in Dublin, the well-monikered Virgin Prunes left an equally sensible title, "If I Die, I Die." The pale, tribally-smeared Manichean underbelly of boyish, well-scrubbed U2, these Lypton Village subversive drama queens sounded like The Lost Boys meets performance art. It's primitive, and humbling to think it came from a depressed bunch of schoolkids in what was then a depressed Irish city. There's glimmers of warped beauty as convincing as those later glimpsed by Bjork, Beck, or Radiohead. It's as if world music tripped over a passel of Bowie acolytes.
The album does not cohere, nor could it given the ensemble's fractured line-ups and divergent visions, or nightmares. It refracts what may have been happening in London or L.A., Paris or Manhattan, but as if only imagined from a Northside fanzine's enigmatic aside. It's as if the avant-garde was overheard, one dank garage over from the gallery event. Still, as a sample of what could have been contenders if Artaud ruled the limelight rather than Neil Simon, or if audiences really understood Beckett's tramps, it's worth a search.
I'm unconvinced that U2's post-punk as opposed to Echo or the Furs, but I cannot explain why. I'd hazard that "Boy" could rank with its peers easily on such rarely heard songs as "Electric Co" or "An Cat Dubh" or the second LP's "Tomorrow", but then, I rarely hear the band. I never bothered to play "War" twice, and never upgraded the first three LPs to CD. They took the style and constructed the structures that made post-punk and they have kept pace and set the pace ever since like no other band has worldwide, but for me it's not until "The Unforgettable Fire," for all its forgettable tunes, that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois found the miasma that matched their shrouded gauzy swirl beneath the banners, the anthems, the stadiums, and the relentless promotion. Sometimes, I wonder that if U2 had been but the level of the Prunes in success, if Ireland today'd still be the level of Latvia.
To me the American post-punk scene's more disparate. The Gun Club with their début "Fire of Love" has a totally half-competent production, one side Chris D, one Tito Larriva I recall. "Miami" the follow-up had its sound mangled by Blondie's Chris Stein. A sample of catholic Pierce's tastes; he'd been president of the fan club for early Blondie ("is a band") as well as a champion of reggae-- this drove him out of the punk scene in L.A. in search of more open-minded bandmates. "Las Vegas Story" probably reflects the toll of substances, but it too possesses a few sweeping triumphs, sort of like Phil Spector on mescaline and tequila, amidst the spoken-word intervals and the Pharaoh Sanders cover I always skip. It's more panoramic, reflecting how with so many post-punks, their ambitions drew them further away from punk orthodoxy, proving the oxymoron of a movement encouraging its audiences to turn musicians, to break down stereotypes, and to turn from being fan club members of Blondie to a band who'd work with their peers to further shake up the 80s doldrums.
But, Gun Club had to begin pushing against the limits of its own competence, or lack. This might have sounded good as a manifesto, but how many fledglings from the nests of the late 70s could fly? And how many flights do we find ourselves wanting to follow today? One of the handful of LPs from then that endure, on Slash, stands as its own gnarled piece of folk-art within a museum of O.C. sneers and Sunset Strip postures. "Fire of Love," from its artlessly garish cover art of a voodoo ritual off early film stills (this was censored when the LP was released on Blondie's vanity label, "Animal") and Judith Bell's back-cover drawings of each song title as a tiny label on a bottle of booze matches the tipsy, horny, heroin-infected, and gin-addled hipshake sway of punks playing the blues with an I-dare-you authenticity the Edge, despite Bono's "Rattle & Hum" plaint, could not master. Primitive is an hackneyed word or praise or blame, but Jack White would have no career if it were not for this crew of Hollywood scenesters who finally got to lay these hungover tracks down.
I don't ever listen to blues, but "Fire" rings true. It's that paradox of Elvis or Dylan, or Jagger or Janis, or Jack White or Matisyahu aping another race's style, yet convincing you that it's no minstrel show. When Jeffrey Lee Pierce od'd (only a matter of time), I felt like many of my-- perhaps slightly older-- peers did when John Lennon or Jerry Garcia died. His lyrics may have been more artless, but they hang more sincere. He's struggling to exorcise his demons, and you hear this ungainly, bottle-blonde, insecure overgrown kid channel his longing and his loneliness and his lust.
Listening to him yowl and moan, it's entertaining in the way that watching a magician perform is. You know deep down it's a stunt, but you toss away disbelief to let your spirit open to the experience. So, you find yourself caught up in the illusion willingly. When Pierce screamed and sighed, Kid Congo Powers and Ward Dotson strummed, you smelt the Delta, the swamp, and the bayou in SoCal somehow.
However, the Gun Club fled L.A. before I turned 21. They gained no respect here even as they sold out halls in Japan or Belgium. Some musicians despite the plaudits of the press or the importunings of the fans, labored without rewards earned by the Bonos and Stipes of this half-decade. Let alone the chart success of sex-punk stalwarts such as Billy Idol or Adam Ant! Don't forget Boy George and Annabelle Lu-Hwin. Forget Howard Jones and Gene Loves Jezebel, please.
Like my wife's faves The Replacements or Husker Du from Minneapolis, or L.A. band "X," certain bands endured through punk and post-punk but you felt they were never a part of the amorphous movement. Similarly, Minutemen also created a sound drawing from Americana and roots music as filtered by punks. The Minutemen added tinges of another music I never play, jazz. There's no one album by these San Pedro "corndogs" I still play regularly, but the two-disc SST release, in 1984, "Double Nickels on the Dime," in its sprawl of minute-long haiku tunes all over the musical map (one Tex-Mex tune, "Corona," featured on "Jackass"), does capture the potential of what my hometown's artists could produce. Meat Puppets also grew from hardcore Phoenicians, Arizona branch, into quondam-Deadheads on "II" and "Up on the Sun" before, as in homage to Jerry's kids, they too succumbed to harder drugs.
The other double-vinyl epic on SST in '84, which I bought the same day as "Double Nickels" and was lucky I had as both LPs on that small label quickly became hard-to-find when SST failed to anticipate critical acclaim and fans word-of-mouth demand, Husker Du with "Zen Arcade," also challenged another musical genre, but one they themselves helped invent but a few years before, hardcore. "Zen" returned to the hoariest of clichés, the double concept album. It ranged from piano instrumentals to searing punk, a fake Hare Krishna chant, and a fifteen-minute, side-four devouring time filler in the spirit of, say, Jethro Tull's side three of their concert that featured "Dharma for One" with drum solo. Bettering such relics from the Age of Aquarius, "Zen" convinced that it made, well, at least as much sense as "Tommy." Unlike The Who's opus, I prefer much more of "Zen's" sung tracks. On "Tommy," I have none of the vocal cuts saved on my iPod, only the instrumentals!
The Huskers also can be credited for, as with Magazine and Buzzcocks and REM and Smiths, loosening up the sexual hang-ups of an often testosterone-overdosed clientele. Lyrics appealed to those left out not only of mainstream rock, but punk's macho and sexist rigidity. As a thin bespectacled lad with a tiny girlfriend barely five feet tall, I can attest to the brutality of the club and concert scene back then in L.A. My distaste today for the typical show may not be blamed only on my sensitive hearing, but my dislike of jostling, smoke, spilled beer, endless profanity shouted my way, moshing, and general idiocy. Call me a prude, but I watched Bob Mould stalk off a UCLA stage and end the Huskers gig when a beer bottle was lobbed his way.
Drugs can indeed be blamed throughout this discography for a lot of brevity. Not the one-minute songs, or short attention spans of audiences, but the leaps from innovation one LP to dreck the next five. Or however many before the label threw you off or you threw yourself off a cliff. One band that-- as with U2 in my estimation-- epitomizes a shift without being a part of it is R.E.M.. They jumped a notch in my regard when I read the other day their three mooted original band names: Cans of Piss, Negro Wives, and my favorite, Twisted Kites. Their "Chronic Town" e.p. was acclaimed by Bob Christgau in a Village Voice I found at the time as "the spiritual side of punk." This stuck with me. If you asked me for the one record that had the impact that for aging boomers "Blonde on Blonde" or "Sgt. Pepper's" might have had, it'd be "Murmur." Still, I am unsure how it aligns with whatever post-punk became.
This fits, however. Just as punk twisted like a flock of kites (if not seagulls) into tangled clumps, so did post-punk into "college" or "indie" or "alternative" rock by the middle of the 80s. And, as with U2, REM led the way towards this redefinition of whatever those of us who liked punk kept listening to half a dozen years later. We were the artsy, the sensitive, the sexually suffering. We might have been wallflowers next to the mosh pit. Some of us wore glasses and made passes at others who did. We could not fit into the leather jacket, we eschewed the dog collar or skinny tie or checkered slacks. Our badges may have changed, and my hair refused to be tamed, but my ears remained open to what the college d.j.'s (of which I was briefly one) and rock critics (ditto for alma mater's paper) directed our waiting way.
Photo: Scanned from someone's collage, early 80s. Note Big Country, U2, Undertones' "Sin of Pride" LP, a flawed psych-soul effort by Derry's finest that has again, four or five great songs amidst other utterly dead on arrival failures. A brave attempt. This is subtitled with a line from Buzzcocks' prescient '78 "Love Bites," already souring at the failure of punk nerve: "Nostalgia for an age yet to come." To think the four (other than those to be Joy Division or those in the ever-mutating Fall) Mancunians never yet saw "I Love the New Millennium" on MTV, and it's not even over yet. Golden Age of a Mis-Spent Youth
My Shortlist of Punk Albums
Musing about punk's impacts in yesterday's post, which I found myself endlessly expanding today, I figured I'd put an end to what could turn into a 10,000 word bloated exegesis. Instead, to staunch the logorrhea, here's a list off the top of my head. I'm far from my shelves, and due to Leo's misguided attempt to upload the best of Black Sabbath (whom I never have listened to except for the same two songs everyone's heard) from his iPod onto mine, my iPod, painstakingly primped for the vacation I'm now on, failed to keep any but three hundred songs I'd separately saved for sampling and then ruthlessly deleting most (as is my wont) after hearing the previously unheard music. So, relying on fading memory, here's some that float into mind, in who knows what order. More Brits than Yanks, I can't stand the cartoonish xerox tunes of the caricatured Ramones, and forget 95% of The Clash, who've dated badly.
"The Scream" by Siouxsie & the Banshees remains a monument. I liked the proto-metal of John McKay's strident guitar swoops and Kenny Morris' insistent doomy drums. I like this original version of the band best, although I admire John McGeoch's later guitar equally. The band, in my opinion, never recovered totally from the loss suddenly on tour for the turgid follow-up LP these two members. They were forced to evolve into a different band, and while this ensured that they outlasted punk, this also prevented them from realizing what continued exploration of this metal-punk sound might have revealed for its heightened sustain of tension without release.
As any fan of punk knows or knew, the band did not have their first LP released until practically two years after the likes of The Damned, The Clash, Gen X, or the singles that the Sex Pistols had begun issuing. As Siouxsie remarked in that Vice interview I cited in yesterday's blog entry, the wait proved worthwhile. Punk had already begun to diversify and splinter. So, the heavier, less accessible, more doom-laden style that permeates this monochromatic record bodes well for the willingness of the band and its fans to depart from the limitations of the genre. Also, you can imagine that Warsaw, in the process of becoming Joy Division, must have listened carefully to this production, as must have Martin Hannett, in preparation for post-punk's first masterpiece a year later. I imagine Robert Smith and The Cure also were taking careful notes, and John Lydon and his new PiL mates.
"Moving Targets" by Penetration is a lesser-known album, and probably overshadowed then by Siouxsie and her band's similar fusion of harder rock stylings with punkier attitude, not to mention another singer with frightwig black hair, pale skin, sexily defiant allure, and a piercing voice. From the extreme North of England, they must have labored to get noticed and signed, but they made an impact with fine singles, and even covered fellow Northerners the Buzzcocks, along with Patti Smith, on this début. It's indicative of the band's refusal to conform totally to the new orthodoxy that they looked a bit longer-haired, a sign then that they might be more allied to the mainstream than to the safety-pinned conformists. It's a solid set, not as bold as "The Scream," less flashy. It pinpoints where up-tempo rock bled into what became punk, where music devoid of prog or R&B led to a purified, simple set of tunes. More guitar noodling than McKay and the tunes drift away more given the lack of complex arrangements, but that's part of what you'd get on a punk LP anyway. For its effort, it's compact, energetic, and forthright. Also, more modest. Not as memorable track-by-track as "The Scream," but for me it survives as a half-crafted, half-awkward souvenir of the transition made in countless bedrooms by numberless teens who tried to convert their minds and fingers and mutterings from Top 40 to the rumblings that began a few hundred miles to the south in their island.
Halfway down the island, but halfway from London, Manchester's Buzzcocks put out the first indie label DIY four-song 45, "Spiral Scratch." This, if you can find it appended to demos and early studio songs re-issued more recently on CD as "Time's Up" is essential. Howard Devoto's still with the band then. His quavering warble whining about boredom marks, for me, as distinctive a proclamation as John Lydon's more media-savvy calculations. They cover Captain Beefheart, tellingly.
The band's jittery, annoyed, and happy as can be to be on record, when you feel that they felt that this was their first and only chance. Blaring winding strums, wailing shouts, raw drums, half-heard bass made for pocket money on a week's of stolen lunch times. The delight of hearing one's self go on and on and on, and playing it endlessly, turns infectious. 999 out of 1000 supposedly open-minded rock listeners would toss this into a bin after a few seconds, but if you think his pal's Pete Shelley's voice too commercial (which it's not as any of you know, only for hyperbole here by comparison) you'll warm to Devoto as this frigid wannabee ambiguously gay Berliner lecture you about his neurosis for two minutes, backed by equally uptight, marvelously martinet music. This amateur spunk defies the likes of punks further south signed often ignominiously to uncaring majors. It's not as polished (sic) as their first proper LP, which ranks on my all-time Top 20 (you can see the list on the right side of my blog), "Another Music From a Different Kitchen," but both share the art-school meets spare room-studio aesthetic magnificently.
Since we're in Manchester, we need to mention The Fall, who already by '77 had issued their first LP, "Live from the Witch Trials." This sounds to me today rather straightforward. They never were really a punk band, and that's their appeal. They took the opportunity to enter the fray but their musicianship and lyrical ambitions would never be satisfied so tersely.
Compared to the late 70s LPs "Dragnet" and "Grotesque" the ghosts of Germany aren't as prominent at first. I prefer their longer, more Krautrock-meets-"Country 'n' Northern" excursions such as "Container Drivers," which start after the band loses the restrictions of punk. I cannot recommend a punk-era CD that stands out from the others, as for me the band works better heard for the beginner with their vast discography of songs compiled rather than as blocks of half-a-dozen tracks, but "Early Fall 77-79" serves as a sort of best-of for this ramshackle period of an always shambling career. The best of The Fall comes in the next decade, with the more post-punk "Perverted by Language" for me their first classic in a long march that continues, with many hits and more misses, today, with an album a year, past twenty-five studio recordings by now.
Nearby in Leeds, the Mekons, with more classroom (art school) education than The Fall's leader Mark E Smith but with equal erudition. These knowing lefties managed to ridicule punk's manufactured images from the start. The Clash-- led by a public school boy turned prole (shades of Mick Jagger's regression)-- boasted about "White Riot," but the college boys and girls assembling into a coalition even more loosely configured than the ever-mutating Fall, decided to admit "Never Been in a Riot." It's as if Sparticists listened to Rosa Luxemburg and decided instead of manning the barricades to buy instruments at a toy store and start the four-track tape player rolling that evening after too many pints in a pub.
Their early album cover for "The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strenen" typifies their intellectual agenda. The title's garbling "The Merchant of Venice" and the photo shows that monkey trying, infinitely attempting, to type the Bard on his QWERTY keyboard. Chimp's almost there. Damn typo.
It's not as bad an LP, as far more numerous "streetwise" imposters of that period. Considering the band's about as talented as random chimps at this point. That's the spirit! Truest to the punk aesthetic, as The Fall and Buzzcocks, in that Northern dissenter tradition. As with early Fall, these are not consistently amazing albums. They're artifacts, jumble stores, commonplace books, bric-a-brac in a Joseph Cornell piece. Rummage and take what you like. They won't mind. Communal sharing and all. 1967's freaky ideals meet 1977's welfare state. Squatters take up camp where the free clinic failed.
I recall that this and the ragtag odds-and-sods "The Mekons Story" anticipate for me a welcome evolution, speaking of primates, into the English folk-protest strains of music and ideas three hundred years before. Fiddles mesh with bashing. The first punk survivors, I estimate, to dare to be different by looking back. The ideas are as fragmentary and misleadingly presented as happenstance as some cut-up John Heartfield satirical Weimar collage that would have inspired Siouxsie. Lurking within, as the graphics hint, there's a cleverness and control to the intentionally haphazard order that does Darwin's adepts proud.
Over in Liverpool, a quick nod to Julian Cope, his one-time brief mate and long-time half-serious (read "Head On" & "Repossessed" as stunningly detailed, defying any claim that a druggie lost his total recall, memoirs of the period) rivalry with sullen Ian McCulloch, and their increasingly eclectic bands The Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen. As these names show, these bands came too late for punk, but they each earn a nod for transforming, as did The Cure, PiL, Siouxsie, The Fall, and Mekons the energy of that latter decade into the more daring experimentation of the '79-'84 period. Read Simon Reynolds' "Rip It Up" and to a lesser extent Clinton Heylin's misleadingly titled "Babylon's Burning" (both reviewed on Amazon; I also reviewed Heylin on this blog) for lots more words on this '78-'79 sonic shift.
Then, I suppose given the paucity of regional sounds that survive, it's hard to think of others worth the cut. London gave us first LPs by The Jam, "In the City," and Wire's "Pink Flag." I like these still today, but I rarely listen to either compared to later albums by either. Both bands matured into more interesting directions later; neither outfit fit into the molds already forming. Vibrators, Stranglers, and Gen X I admit all had a few good tunes before they sold out or wore out, but any collection from this eruption of sounds testifies how few truly impressive songs emerge from thirty years on, no different than any other efflorescence of cultural promotion.
For me, any remaining interest lingers still in gestation outside of the capital, say in Cambridge as in Liverpool, where The Soft Boys grafted punk into psychedelia. Wales unfortunately as before with rock trends lagged well behind (see Sarah Hill's "'Blerwytirhwng?' The Place of Welsh Pop Music" for how and why-- it's reviewed by me here and on Amazon). Scotland's Skids had to wait to improve. Dublin's Radiators (from Space) would create a fine second album in "Ghostown" that reminded many of Joyce meets Wilde, but-- produced by Bowie helmsman Tony Visconti-- it's far distant from punk in its literate compassion. I'd glance north of that same island to nod to the Undertones' first ramalama burst from Derry on their self-titled début, or Belfast's "Inflammable Material" from Stiff Little Fingers, but in retrospect these play like echoes of the Ramones and the Clash respectively, witty or earnest in turn as they remain. They are fine LPs, but not as original as the Brits who slightly beat them onto record.
The only group who issued a NYC LP I'd salvage today as essential predated all the CBGB crowd, spanning the dregs of the post-Velvet era in NYC and the influx of, well, more art schoolers into the Big Apple in the mid-70s. Suicide, on what's called today "The First Album," prepared the way for electro-clash and performance art and in-your-face assaults on the one album that sounds truly confrontational to me today. It makes any protest by pampered trust-funders or part-time scenesters ring, as Buzzcocks later protested, feel "hollow inside."
Working as did Suicide practically out of their mid-70s loop in their own hermetic obsession, Cleveland's Pere Ubu's far ahead of any post-punk veteran in their powerful incorporation of theater and pose into "The Modern Dance" and "Dub Housing." These aren't punk LPs, somehow pre- and post-dating the punk era that they lived in but not with. However, as every critic yammers on, they'd be unimaginable without punk. As The Gun Club did in my hometown for blues or Minutemen for jazz, and Hüsker Dü would in the Twin Cities for what would become hardcore or Replacements for confessional angst, so Suicide and Pere Ubu for punk shook up other non-conformist conformist orthodoxies. Even those already hardened practically months after their invention, so fast did punk's subculture spin off rivalries and factions as numerous and bitter as Protestants or anarchists or commune members.
I wrote the above from memory. Writing this, I recognize I align more with the following five years as regards to my musical preferences, which built upon the foundations laid by punk. That may be my next entry here. I guess I found punk in its L.A. varietal far too uniform as it (d)evolved into debates over hairstyles, fashions, violence over what was allowed and not allowed that aped bickerings done to death by hippies and beats ten and twenty years previous.
However, for more about this pivotal era, with more familiar names, A.S. Van Dorsten beats Heylin and Reynolds to the punch, and with lots less effort, with this 1990 essay, "The History of Punk." He critiques Marcus, Frith, and their theoretically beholden tenured ilk cogently. "The History of Punk." Photo: sticker labelled: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" sticker from stalwart Minutemen lifer's website. He should know. I suppose that's dboon as the icon? Amen, bro/brah. Mike Watt's Hoot Page
Friday, June 27, 2008
My wife, Siouxsie, Shane & Vice Magazine.
It's not only thirty-three or so years since the first flush for punk's pioneers but since I heard that music's first waverings via a few import 45's my high-school pal (born in Co Durham) had finagled along with an in-depth NME cover story on the emerging malcontents of '76. Leo gave me a copy of an apparently American Apparel-sponsored magazine that he picked up at a street fair in now trendy Los Feliz, "Vice." Issue 15:5 "The History Issue" breaks the in-house rule of no-celebs on the cover with our former student from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins' old public school, the distinguished edifice built, suitably, on the ruins of the Carthusian foundation that somehow fit into the middle of London town, and where Thomas More had tried his vocation in that most ascetic of Catholic monastic regimens, then as now. I admire the sons and daughters of Chartreuse, as one of the few orders who refused any compromise with the political powers in their quest for simplicity, discipline, and commitment. It's a life nearly unimaginable, but that's the point.
Drawn in that mix, mirroring the first sights of punks, by fascination and vertigo, I opened the issue today to stave off a mid-afternoon, early vacation nap. Shane's iconic image prefaced Vice's array of the expected hipster assault of ads for fashion that revealed nearly nothing about the product, ads of bands I'd not heard of, reviews for the same with one I had leading this month's picks, The Black Angels. The laudatory acclaim may be more to said record enabling some afternoon delight with his main squeeze than the contents, but that's the verve of This Nation's Saving Grace (Shtick). No space given to The Fall despite my reference in last sentence.
No sex column, to my surprise, but wittily snarky captions to shots of scenesters in various stages of candid debauchery and sartorial offense. John Cheever gets a long excerpt from a bio and a photo shoot of louche sixty-somethings amidst leafy tracts for men's suits in suburbia. Bridget Cross (whom rock geek me recognized immediately as ex-Velocity Girl and Unrest) is now on the long comedown in Alaska; Sammy Davis, Jr. flirted with the Devil; Norwegian black metal, as a segue from Sammy; and the erotic element may be vitiated but not extinguished thanks to earnest Chuck Palahniuk's "Snuff" (soon to be a major motion picture I am sure) hyped here in a prosy teaser with decidedly non-stimulating drawings. Messalina-like Annabel Chong gets a shout-out, I might add, on pg. 85. Real name Grace Quek. I guess that's why even grad students and situational artists get porn names these days. MacArthur grants follow in time. Yeah, I'm jealous.
Along with such pop-cult chaff, unexpectedly appealing interviews, brief as they are since Vice gives as much space to pics as to print, with such as Howard Zinn, Lewis Lapham, David Wallechinsky (I bought both editions of his co-edited, trivially stuffed "The People's Almanac" around the time of punk's explosion), and Thomas Cahill, he of "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Along with Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews; more tribes pending future installments-- or half-repulsed with the same mixture of morbid fascination that drew people to gawk at the early safety-pinned, spiked, and sometimes swastika'd (heil Siouxsie before she issued the single "Israel") dressed to "epater le bourgeoisie." I find myself in the same position as another urban-raised lad of Irish Catholic descent, one John Lydon-- Ó Liodain being a good West Conamara name rooted around Roundstone/ An Clochan Mór. That is, not fitting in to one's exiled place of birth, but never being able to go back home and fit in. Johnny even tried to pick up a bit of Gaeilge on his visits to the folks back in Connacht, only to be ridiculed.
What sparks this regression? Siouxsie, born the same year more or less as Shane, Johnny (New Year's Eve '56), and my wife, tells in a typically thoughtful remark to Steve LaFreniere about her late guitarist, whom I greatly admire, ex-Magazine's John McGeoch. He characterized the band not as cartoon Goths, but "as more the tension of blood splashed on a daisy in the sunshine." (131) What a metaphor. Siouxsie speaks well of him, a musician whom I never thought got the acclaim he deserved in either band's contributions to post-punk's most intelligent evocations of walls of sound that created seduction, menace, disdain, and beauty all mingled into some fevered, bound, and post-coital melange.
In a 30th anniversary large-format "Punk" volume (like Vice, more to look at than to read) that our friends, whom we will see again in a couple of days, Bob and Chris gave Leo on a birthday two ago, Siouxsie's bassist Steve Severin (that name itself an homage to Masoch's "Venus in Furs" protagonist) summed up punk as "the sound of being sixteen." I turned 16 in 1977, the summer that the movement finally began to reach even six thousand miles away. If Shane and Johnny had been mired in their parental West Tipperary hamlet or West Conamara farm, they'd probably not have heard the music except with a snippet in a British tabloid or a censored clip on RTÉ's news. It took me and my classmate from Durham about as long to hear anything, either.
Siouxsie talks of a common experience for those of us scattered pre-Amazon, pre-Virgin Megastore, pre-MySpace. "It was through being fans of music that we got hints of literary things." (132) You had to go seek out the books alluded to in lyrics or NME conversations with the latest rock cognoscenti. Siouxsie explains that was how you met up with like-minded outliers. "Of course back then you thought you were totally isolated and the only freak in the whole world." By connecting with those who became even today her friends, by concerts or by books, this cemented her own determination to succeed, despite no voice lessons, only raw talent and drive.
She laments today's youth, who having grown up with computers as that upon which I type this and you read this, may have lost links to the actual world of experience. I think of another misfit, Pauline Murray in the far north of England, Co Durham in fact, who insisted in her band Penetration's rousing song, "Don't Dictate." Today, as I suppose soon happened with Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood's Sex shop on Kings Road in Chelsea, it's all a commodity. But, this happened in 1977 as much as in 2007, albeit not in every mall as Hot Topic or American Apparel now dictates.
The key, she reminds us, is to connect if one wishes to create; the age of 14-15-16, as her bandmate noted, turns crucial for innovation, "when you're starting to form opinions and notions of where you wanted to go." For these innovators who blended looks and sounds and attitudes into what passed for the generation of my wife and myself as our version of youthful enthusiasms, the counterculture had taken a novel turn. Layne tells me that, in Fulham that year studying film, she went to see Tir na nÓg but not the Pistols in Soho. She still lived in London as punk burst practically oblivious; I only gained distant hints of tremors from reading the L.A. Times or hearing a song or two on what was then a fledgling start-up station ten miles away from me in Pasadena, KROQ. Who, I recall that year, played Steeleye Span's commercially catchy "All Around My Hat" and Fairport's earnestly tedious "Bonny Bunch of Roses," the only time I ever heard either group on the Angeleno airwaves. So, perhaps the perceived gap soon to open up between hirsute electric folkies and tartan-clad pogo-ers one can credit to marketing rather than style. Soon, Shane did what Horslips could not, and bridged said chasm, which as any fan of either Irish band can tell you, was a failure of imagination and clumsy P.R. anyway.
MacGowan, like Philip Chevron, Gavin Friday and others unjustly forgotten (read Neil McCormick's memoir "I Was Bono's Doppelganger," reviewed by me on Amazon US) who were floating around the Dublin-London club scenes, knew that both factions allied to a tradition that renewed itself by looking back and forth, to the past and to the present, and punks soon grew restless anyway with "one chord wonders" and began rummaging into the archives, whether rockabilly or sean-nos, in search of other subversive sounds. Pogues shotgun married their influences; Siouxsie and friends created art-punk-cabaret that mixed German expressionism into their awesomely metallic sheen, their gloriously crimson palettes. Lydon and pals dived into dub and Teutonic drone; members of Horslips went on to help jumpstart U2, homegrown Irish rock's infrastructures, and the foundations for I suppose punk-folk groups like Dropkick Murphies or Flogging Molly today. Play "The Scream" or "Metal Box" or "The Mekons Story" or "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" today and you hear, as with Horslips' '72 début, "Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part," the voices of young musicians eager to take on earlier styles and make them new again.
These records never fade, never sound dated. Can't say that for many from the supposedly fresh later 70s. Like The Mekons or The Fall, the longest-lived bands from that class of '77, they invigorated their music with intelligence. They buried clues into their music, their liner notes, their interviews for us to follow in libraries and bookstores, a "secret history" unearthed in every generation by the restless and the iconoclasts. They knew that much in the British histories and Celtic chronicles fit into later rebellions into style, sound, and shapes.
Greil Marcus overshot his critical acumen when, being the Ph.D. in PoliSci from of course Berkeley, he wrote "Lipstick Traces" as if a twenty-year-old J. Rotten consciously drew in his lyrics from the (original) Diggers, (non-crustie) Levellers, and Christopher Hill's "The World Turned Upside Down." But, there's a more generally defensible reaction. As every cultural trend hits the highway to platinum chartbusters, a few hop off the glitzy bandwagon. They veer onto byways worth pursuing, record sales or packed stadiums be damned. They may get lost, or they may survive to send us back messages coded on small labels and import releases. So, cult favorites preached to a few of us stranded introverts and dispersed devotees. Simon Frith expounds in "Art into Pop" about all this with a truckload of theory for the British rock scene; Britta Sweers in "Electric Muse" did this for 60s-70s folk insular parallels. My interests, of course, fall in between both camps. Marxian Mekons, the autodidact Mark E Smith, and clever Éamon Carr of Horslips, like owlish Ashley Hutchings of Fairport and Steeleye, did their research diligently, and constructed links for their music that threaded intricately into their lyrics and chords and riffs. None of them turned down a fiddle for an arrangment, either.
I realize in retrospect that such ideas as I was exposed to in haphazard reading and listening opened up glimpses of attitudes, arguments, and philosophies that undermined my Catholicism. (In one example of inexplicable tangents, my classmate went on to be ordained, and died suddenly last year. He was a good priest, in a Church that needs such men.) I wonder, flipping to Shane's ramblings on Irish history in these same pages, if I can find any confirmation of similar transformations out of faith into doubt (what Salman Rushdie in "The Satanic Verses" which I finally started posits as the true juxtaposition for the human condition, as solid disbelief is merely another form of devotion) from our drop-out Carthusian. Outside of a nice phrase that DeValera "did what Stalin did, but without killing all the people, know what I mean, yeah?" (128) and a dubious summation that RFK "also got shot because he was an Irish Catholic immigrant," (129) there's little new to a professional Hibernian the likes of meself. But, he was playing (presumably one of those RTÉ video compilations) trad folk music from broadcasts during the 50s and 60s while he talked, white wine with vodka in a mug labelled "Morphine" and chain-smoking hash, from the comfort of his home in comfortable Donnybrook. This may account for the brevity of what could be salvaged from such a conversation.
Briefly back to our hostess. Siouxsie Sioux looks, I add admiringly, true to her well-maintained public image, stunning as always in a catsuit, bettering for her brains and her poise any lightweight woman half her age. (Second sexiest woman born that Year of the Rooster, runner-up to my devoted spouse. I think she and the former Susan Dallion would get along like a house or two on fire. From what I've heard about Shane, if I could understand what he mumbles, I'd like to have a long chat (with subtitles?) about whatever with him. He made a slight mistake in that Vice interview; the IRA ceasefire after their failed Operation Harvest Northern campaign happened in 1962, not '64, for the very few who counted themselves in its depleted ranks back then.) Siouxsie adds that as an artist, she may have some influence still in getting listeners younger than she is to "leave the virtual world." Not to mention her own make-up skills; these are duly noted in the acknowledgments. Siouxsie: "You can only inspire someone to do something they wouldn't have before. With me it was getting into music, and specifically the type of music it was had a big effect."
Credit another Co Durham tie-in: miner's son Bryan Ferry's concert tour promoting Roxy Music's "Siren" was when, in 1975, Siouxsie met her future bandmates. Just like me, it took some distantly felt, faintly art-school pairing of music with image, style with idea, to sell the avant-garde to council tenancy sons and daughters, suburban trendsetters in Bromley, and two Southern California boys tired of hearing endless rotations on rock radio in supposedly the global capital of cool. To think we in El Lay had half a dozen stations playing Kansas, Boston, Chicago, and that group-- made up ironically of Yank army brats in Britain-- that stole the best imperial name of all in the name of counterculture sold back to us masses, America.
I never Vaselined my hair, and I never had a suit to slash. My interest in punk remained less obvious on the surface. Looking at me, it was not my exterior that changed, and we had a rule against long hair (touching the ears) at our school anyway. Still, I welcomed a movement that beneath its posturing and commercialism encouraged individualism and intellectualism. This often becomes overlooked with the manufactured outrage and the calculated commodification that overtook punk as it had the beats and flower children, but as Shane and Siouxsie attest, it allowed them to force an entry into such moribund terrain as Irish trad and Weimar schlock to marry the rebellion of youth with the freshness of subversive times too long stereotyped. My generation may not have succeeded in overturning the hype machine that wound up with their own marketing innovations such as grunge, the just-raped look of Flashdance, Vans, Emily's Strange, Bust and Bitch on the news stands, Riot Grrls, and Nu-Wave KROQ marketed as a format as predictable as Jim Ladd or Westwood One's once-hippie FM.
But, then I think about my students today from the barrio. They stroll into class, wearing shirts from the latest tour of The Cure, tying Morrissey lyrics to the poetry we study, or prancing about with facial hair and mascara. Last spring, a woman older than me was a transgendered post-op, son of an angry Navy vet. With both sexes multiply pierced, men and women from all over the world into rap, hardcore, or techno, I wonder what Oscar Wilde, not to mention later Irish-British layabouts who got off their taut asses to shake music up for my teens, barely out of teens themselves, would make of them all. I think he'd be amused, taken a bit aback, and flattered.
Photos: No, that's not the missus. It's the striking cover of Siouxsie's new album "Mantaray." Sydney O'Meara's snap of Shane, circa 1977 reading his own fanzine "Bondage," as the cover of Joe Cleary's "Outrageous Fortune". It's the only way I could download this shot.
Robert Ferrigno's "Sins of the Assassin": Book Review
I finished the prequel, "Prayers for the Assassin," (also reviewed by me last week here and on Amazon) and immediately started this second installment of what will be three thrillers set around 2040, when North America's split between incursions from Canada, an Aztlan Empire, and between the Islamic Republic over most of what was the Union and the Bible Belt over the South.
Ferrigno's more relaxed this time around in telling the adventures of Rakkim Epps' second mission, into the Belt in search of a secret weapon as as undercover "shadow warrior." Less time's devoted, however, to stalwarts from the first book, such as police chief Colarusso, Rakkim's wife Sarah and her political ties and her research into the causes for the Republic's spying and diplomacy, or the Black Robe minions who terrorize the fundamentalist Muslims. Instead, the mission itself takes up more of the story. You meet his new sidekick, Leo, a likably annoying mental mastermind. You also find Rakkim squaring off against the Colonel, his new nemesis Gravenholtz, the conniving femme fatale Baby, and an ex-English prof, Crews, with his ragtag band of fanatics. Shekels of Tyre, Etch-a-Sketches, snake handling, and the aura of Darwin (a welcome if haunting spirit from the first novel) float over this tale.
I admired the encounter at the Church of the Mists; this provided a nearly mystical pilgrimage that worked well as a counter to the bloody encounters and cruel regimes that lord over a cowed population ground down by corrupt Texas Rangers, press-gangs, foreign exploiters, and environmentally disastrous corporate entities despoiling what's left of the South's natural resources in an era of the Big Warm and when most of what was the U.S. is backsliding into a Third World economy and class system. I also think that we have not seen the last of the splendidly named Getty Andalou in regards to the political shenanigans that lurk behind the scenes in the Beltway.
You should read "Prayers" first. There's references to angelic flutters, arcane methods of eliminating your enemy, or strawberry shakes, for example, that will not mean as much otherwise. The book reads more rapidly if you already have a grasp of the ideological tensions and the social collapses that have occurred previously in "Prayers." Religious certainties again receive brisk skepticism, but there's also a respect for decency that permeates the decisions made by key characters when under attack, morally as well as physically.
Finally, this shows Ferrigno's growing ease with his bitterly infected milieu here. This book reveals maturity, as main characters are tested as to their loyalties. There's an added depth about the sadness and necessity of death, and the price exacted on assassins and hired killers, as well as the fragility of lives lived more morally in this harsh and sinister dystopia. You may not expect a consideration of dignity at the root of this fast-paced thriller, but this enriches this intelligently told narrative. The author writes with a steady focus here. I miss some of the epigrammatic asides of "Prayers," but "Sins" moves with more economy and a narrower scope. Also, the style moves steadily. It's sustained, less edgy if not less cynical in parts. Rakkim appears to be coming to a realization of his limits, and he seems more serious and less flippant three years after his earlier mission.
I liked this novel as much as the first one, but I found the plot of "Sins" easier to follow, with fewer characters, far fewer subplots, and no tangents from the main story. The climactic scenes did occur rather suddenly, but I suppose this fits the genre. Perhaps more will be explained as to the machinations of the Old One vs. the Black Robes vs. the Fedayeen command, not to mention some of the Bible Belt contacts in deep cover, in the last book, so my criticism is on hold here!
Ferrigno again makes you cringe and makes you ponder the consequences of strategies already glimpsed, on pp. 68-69, presciently in our current culture's regard for Islamist sympathies. The Old One's long-term plans may already be coming to fruition. Read those pages and you may reconsider very current events!
Freed from the fascinating but admittedly complex setting-up of his near-future realpolitik and its religious tyrannies and social complications that underlay the exposition of the intricate storyline in "Prayers," there's much more room now for action. It's satisfyingly tense, and more militaristic in parts, as you get the sense that Ferrigno's itching to explore the fog of war and larger-scale maneuvers. His battle set between warring factions in a Southern forest makes for exciting reading, and the scene feels real, rooted in his understanding of how men behave under fire and how easily careful strategy gives way to bravado, fear, and greed.