Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Gun Club's "In My Room": Music Review

The Gun Club - In My Room (2017, CD) | DiscogsFiery debuts by talented misfits may not herald a future discography by multitalented musicians, but muffled efforts that fade into a subdued and less satisfying later releases. These often feature the sole surviving singer-songwriter-frontman with a hired and fired interchangeable back-up crew. What leapt out of the studio as fresh and fanatical a decade or two on shuffles about, with glimpses of the early promise flickering or blurred. The marquee name is not taken down, but the attraction dwindles to third-tier status for a few committed fans. Critics and spotlights shift away to brighter newcomers.

Fire of Love (1981) introduced the howling vocals and keening punk-blues of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Terry Graham's bashed drums and Rob Ritter's nimble bass backed Pierce with Ward Dotson on manic slide and electrified guitars. Probably the first successful blend of roots and punk, it jolted what remained of L.A.'s underground. Lyrically, Pierce compressed poetry and passion into deft, concise lyrics. His phrasing and poignancy gained rather than lost eloquence in his rough, blunt or heartfelt warbles and jittery cadences. "Why are these songs not taught in schools?" So asked Jack White in 2008, citing "Sex Beat," "She's Like Heroin to Me" and "For the Love of Ivy."

What followed fumbled. Pierce had been a Blondie fan club devotee, but the pairing of Chris Stein on production and Deborah Harry on backing vocals failed to rouse 1982's Miami from its sophomore slump. Stein chose a dry approach to recording that kept all the instruments at the same level; this muddied the music and weakened Pierce's songs, traditional or original. The return of their first guitarist, Kid Congo Powers after his stint with The Cramps, bode well, even though the loss of Ritter, then Dotson and Graham, attested to the increasingly contentious nature of Pierce's control.

Overlooked, The Las Vegas Story (1984) incorporated more sophisticated compositions, increasingly integrating jazz as well as blues influences. Leaving America for Europe, The Gun Club dispersed into an unstable procession of well-chosen but briefly tenured musicians supporting Pierce. He broke up the band in 1985 but reformed it a year later. Mother Juno (smoothly produced by Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie), Pastoral Hide and Seek and Divinity were cobbled together over the next few years.

This backstory introduces the unreleased recordings of whatever this last roster of performers under the Gun Club banner set down. In My Room gathers 14 tracks from 1991 to 1993. By then, Pierce was increasingly hospitalized. The results may satisfy devotees, but this is an odds-and-sods jumble.

"Be My Kid" begins with acoustic folk-blues picking. Pierce sounds wobbly at first, but steadies with the yearning harmony of his straightforward repetition: {If you be my kid, I'll be your teddy bear.} "L.A. Is Always Real" aligns with later stages of the pick-up band, with a mid-tempo beat, and an element which from Las Vegas Story on began to shunt aside their cowpunk style, a subdued jazz-tinged riff. "Land Of 1000 Dances" gives Wilson Pickett's danceable tune a suitably quick, efficient delivery. The next three songs mingle the groovier, spoken-word and nightclub ambiance which typify Pierce's final approach leading his band--or as here, keeping their name but flying solo.

The inspiration has reached cruising altitude too. "Zonar Roze" blends the opening melody from "Heat Wave" with another series of simple chords. "B-Side Jammin" lives up to its title exactly as what one expects: a slick workout, another basic structure. "I Can't Explain" presents The Who's hit rendered with neither flair nor distinction. Pierce resurrects some of his last songs which appeared on the later series of albums, in alternate or instrumental versions. Surprisingly, Pierce comes alive.

While "Sorrow Knows" (Alternate Version) extends it into guitar noodling for seven minutes too long, "Keys To The Kingdom" (Instrumental) allows listeners to appreciate its rhythm section's support for a funky, naggingly winning hook. "Not Supposed To Be That Way" offers a twangy homage to Pierce's "high and lonesome" mood of this Texas native's 1985 LP Wildweed with a return to slide guitar (far too rare in The Gun Club's maturity). "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" captures a stripped-down Pierce, with dignified pacing as a mournful balladeer. One wonders if this Mel Tillis plaint about a paralyzed veteran of a disastrous Asian war pleading with his unfaithful lover not to step out on him has been chosen for parallels to his own condition. Pierce had broken up with his Japanese bassist; he had been long laid low under recent medical care in Vietnam.

An elegy of sadness and pain, "Mother Of Earth" (reprised from Miami) ends this concluding four song sequence well, its alternate take emphasizing for the last time the earthier feel of Pierce's post-reunion work. While In My Room never equals the band's best moments, the fragmented style of Pierce's struggles to keep himself together and his songs coherent testifies to his determination. His  addiction would soon leave him in a coma, before an early death in 1996. If this compilation entices hearers to return to the band's back catalogue, then In My Room will have done its posthumous duty.

3/16 Bang Records 3:5

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