Monday, November 23, 2015

Rocket From the Tombs' "Black Record"

To someone like  your humble chronicler o' events, who believes that Ohio is the secret music capital of America, it's a source of wonder to know that in 2015, members of Cleveland proto-punk pioneers Electric Eels, Mirrors, and Rocket From the Tombs have a new record out (as X___X) and are about to hit the road in the new year. (Rubber Gloves in Denton on January 20!) The arrival of a new Rocket From the Tombs LP in my mailbox yesterday was even more welcome -- a veritable candygram from the gods.

It seems inconceivable, considering their subsequent influence, that the "classic" Rocket From the Tombs lineup (the one with David Thomas, Peter Laughner, Craig Bell, Gene "Cheetah Chrome" O'Connor, and a rotating cast of drummers) only existed for about nine months back in '74-'75. That fractious outfit (documented on Smog Veil's 2002 The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs compilation) cast a long shadow, fragmenting into the contrarian punk art of Pere Ubu and the bad-boy rockaroll of the Dead Boys.

By now, it's been a dozen years since RFTT reconvened with Richard Lloyd, an old familiar from his Television days, standing behind the guitar in the onstage space once occupied by the late, lamented Laughner, and Pere Ubu's Steve Mehlman on drums. That lineup toured, cut a fine studio document of their retrospective set (Rocket Redux) and an album of new material (Barfly) that was completed as the band was fragmenting. First Lloyd departed, then Chrome, to be replaced by a pair of younger Clevelanders: Gary Siperko (Mofos, Whiskey Daredevils) and Buddy Akita (This Moment In Black History).

As a former record store geek, I find it fitting and proper that, even after embracing digital technology with an information-dense web presence, David Thomas -- whose aesthetic sensibility was formed in the early '70s -- should retain a reverence for The Romance of the Artifact, and indeed, the new RFTT record is sumptuously packaged, with the first pressing on silver vinyl. Even the download card, usually a disposable artifact, comes with artwork that's going to look spiffy on the shelf in my living room next to the hand-colored Leni Sinclair postcard of the MC5.

Black Record is the fruition of a deferred dream of Thomas' to collaborate with This Moment In Black History, CLE punks whose 2009 album Public Square sounds more important with every spin. Guitarist Buddy Akita is a member of both TMIBH and RFTT, and TMIBH drummer Lamont "Bim" Thomas will drum with X___X when they tour with his solo project, Obnox, in 2016.

The album also marks the return of Crocus Behemoth, the pseudonym Thomas was employing as a rockcrit when he originally formed RFTT as a magazine employee's amusement. His lyrics and vocals here serve notice that he still doesn't like it here much. His voice, which sounded like a warlock casting spells when he intoned "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"'s account of a wartime suicide mission way back in '75, has aged in interesting ways, becoming a crabbed and craggy thing of distressed beauty.

"Waiting for the Snow" blasts off with a blizzard of anomie laced with acceptance, suggesting that adult angst is more convincing than adolescent angst because it's grounded more in experience than in observation: "I'm sitting here / I'm waiting for the snow / That's no metaphor / That's something you'll never know." The title track explodes with an energy that's reminiscent, to these feedback-scorched ears, of the Dicks' "Rich Daddy," and carries a lyric that manages to simultaneously invoke rock history, Thomas' history, and the mortal terror of 21st century life: "Fools rush in / Worlds collide / Culture's a weapon / That's suicide."

This is followed by a brief "oldies set," starting with a tip o' the lid to RFTT's Pac Northwest kindred spirits, the Sonics (speaking of superannuated gents who released an album this year that rocks with energy and abandon worthy of players a third of their age), continuing with a version of what's arguably RFTT's best-known song, "Sonic Reducer," on which Siperko and Akita demonstrate forcefully that they're more than worthy replacements for Lloyd and Chrome. The eBow episode that introduces the tune and the second solo, which descends into fascinating realms of pure noise, add a modern edge to the punk classic.

"I Keep A File On You" rocks every bit as fiercely as the "oldies," which is appropriate to the feverish paranoia of its lyrics, while "Nugefinger" takes the piss out of Dubya's neighbor via a riff that alludes to, but stops short of appropriating the one from his "Stranglehold." I am probably alone in imagining that the backing voices are chanting "SEGER!" after the repeated "Listen, daddy-o." And in hearing the shade of Don Van Vliet in Thomas' musette blasts.

Turning the record over -- tactile experience is important here -- and we're afloat on "Spooky"'s waves of crashing minor chords, over which Thomas croaks an ode to a girl with "some funny kinds of ways." "Coopy (Schrodinger's Refrigerator)," the first single from the album, boasts a killer riff and more slash-and-burn guitar in support of Thomas' most dynamic vocal here. "Hawk Full of Soul" is an exercise in dynamics, with Lamont Thomas singing and shaking a tambourine behind Thomas, like a 21st century CLE punk version of Sam and Dave.

"Read It and Weep," written and sung by Bell, dates back to the original RFTT's last show but was curiously omitted from previous archival releases. And "Parking Lot At the Rainbow's End" closes the show on a suitably ambivalent note ("I'm going to be the one changing the tires for you"). Here and throughout, the chorus of voices puts me in mind of the one on the first MC5 album.

It's heartening to hear the sound of men who took up instruments to achieve catharsis 40 years ago and are still carrying the fire in their bellies today. Great bands don't need to break up. Ever. They just don't have to play together all the time.

ADDENDUM: B'deah, I'm an idiot. Lyrics are here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Things we like

1) Musicologist-author-muso Allen Lowe always gives you More, and when you're time-and-attention challenged the way I am, it can take a minute to get through everything. His current release, In the Diaspora of the Diaspora, is a set of five CDs, all but one recorded this year, which you can purchase individually (a new thing in his discography), and I've been listening to them in my car, which is where I do my "deep" listening these days.

The absence in all but one case of Lowe's usual voluminous liner notes is indicative, perhaps, of a degree of explicatory exhaustion similar to that which befell FZ midway through his multi-volume You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore project. I Alone: The Everlasting Beauty of Monotony features the estimable pianist Matthew Shipp, half solo and half in group contexts, but is most notable to guitar freaks like your humble chronicler o' events for the presence of Michael Gregory Jackson on three tracks. There's more bop in his style than I remember from his '70s sides, and he does innaresting things with sustain and a whammy bar to boot. To these feedback-scorched ears, Shipp is heard to better advantage on Ballad for Albert, recorded a couple of months later, with a smaller ensemble.

Where A Cigarette is Smoked by Ten Men has Lowe playing vibrato-laden tenor as well as alto alongside clarinetist Zoe Christiansen, a player who combines modern ideas with a sound steeped in the history of her instrument. The spirit of Eric Dolphy is audibly present, both in the solos and in Lowe's writing. On We Will Gather When We Gather, featured guest Hamiet Bluiett fulminates with suppressed rage on baritone -- appropriate for a set that includes a dedication to the victims of the Charleston church shooting -- and coaxes fire from Lowe and tenorist Ras Moshe Burnett, but the big surprises are a trumpeter (Matt Lavelle) and guitarist (Ava Mendoza) who splatter and splinter their sounds in ways I respond to. Lowe's compositions here echo Mingus, with plenty of blues and blood in the mix.

The most forward-looking item in this series is also the oldest. Man With Guitar: Where's Robert Johnson? was recorded in 2013 and features Lowe alternating tracks on alto with ex-Miles sideman Gary Bartz in an ensemble that also includes both DJ Logic and Lowe mainstay Jake Millett on turntables and electronics, and Brian Simontacchi on trombone. Lowe always has a lot to say, and wants to share all of it. The net effect of this impulse is to reduce the likelihood that a lot of people will hear this music. A pity, as all of it is worth hearing. And We Will Gather When We Gather is essential.

2) Speaking of clarinet records, I've been quite enjoying one by the NYC-based saxophonist Sam Sadigursky, which he calls Follow the Stick. Not exactly an homage to Goodman-Hampton, Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five, Glenn Miller, and like that (although there is a cover of "String of Pearls" that updates that Miller Orchestra staple in the same way as Charlie Haden's Quartet West did for "Moonlight Serenade"), but more well-behaved than other latter-day practitioners of the "agony stick" like Dolphy/Braxton/Mitchell/John Carter/Don Byron. Best part is Sadigursky's graceful and elegant writing.

3) I go to very few shows these days, but January looks like it might be a big month for that, with Colorado prog giants Thinking Plague (see post below) coming to the Kessler on the 10th, X___X (CLE punk 'riginators including former Electric Eels/Mirrors/Rocket From the Tombs members, also reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and Obnox (modern day CLE punk beloved of Phil Overeem) at Rubber Gloves on the 20th, and my 'riginal guitar inspiration Nils Lofgren solo acoustic at the Kessler on the 30th. Yowzah! Meanwhile, next Friday (Oct. 20), Hush Puppy has the mighty FOGG (whom I've meant to see for a few months now) at formerly fonky Fred's along with the always exhilerating Fungi Girls, and headliners Quintron and Miss Pussycat. Maybe I'll even eat one of Damien Grober's stylin' hot dogs this time.

4) Also in rotation in the car: Fontanelle's Vitamin F, a startlingly accurate evocation of electric Miles Davis, played by Seattle dudes who record for doom metal label Southern Lord; Richie Duvall and Dog Truck, an indie '73 release by a bunch of slightly older-than-me cats from Long Island, playing jazz-rock from the moment before that of necessity meant fusion (imagine boarding the Chicago Transit Authority and getting off in Canterbury); and the Who's A Quick One, which I once thought was their worst album (I couldn't see It's Hard coming), but now find charming, documenting (particularly with the bonus-track addition of the Ready Steady Who EP and an Everly Brothers cover that could have been written for the 'orrible 'oo) a period when they might have become a surf cover band with Moon singing lead, and Entwistle's bass dominated their sound in a way it wouldn't once PT got his guitar tone together.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nels Cline and Julian Lage @ The Kessler, 10.29.2015

Nels Cline might be my favorite guitarist working today, so when the opportunity arises to see him in my favorite listening room, I'm right there. Besides the fact that the sound and sightlines at The Kessler are superior to every other Metromess venue with which I'm personally familiar, it's also smoke-free (which I now see as an advantage), without the parking hassles that usually come with attending a show in Big D.

Most of Nels' recordings I've heard have him in electric band contexts (although I'm a big fan of his multi-overdubbed solo outing, Coward), but this particular evening found him in the company of 26-year-old wunderkind Julian Lage. I was pleasantly surprised to see a sizable crowd on hand (200, by artistic director Jeff Liles' count), and technical director Paul Quigg gave us a quick rundown on soundcheck ("a modal exploration, some bebop, and a little Django"). Their incandescent duet album Room was recorded in 2013 and came out late last year, but we were fortunate to be catching them at the end of a swing through the Northeast and Texas, when ten nights of playing together had added heat as well as illumination to their dialogue.

Thus, they started their set as though continuing a conversation interrupted just moments before, shadowing each other telepathically, Nels playing with his head down, chopping away with that aggressive right hand, while Julian watched him intently throughout the performance, almost dancing on the guitar with a lighter, more fluid movement. The tones they got from their tee-tiny ZT amps were warm and full. Although Julian plays with a flatpick, his classical training is evident in his left-hand dexterity, while Nels' jazz background shows up in the kinds of chord inversions he likes to play. It was interesting to observe their contrasting approaches when they'd play unison and counterpoint, or trade off repeating parts and solos. Much of the material they played is composed, but both men approached the music with great freedom and spontaneity. Nels seemed to delight as much in backing the younger musician as he did in soloing, playing rolling arpeggios behind Julian's darting lines. It was musical communication at its best.

Luckily, Liles shot video:

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part Three)

Last time I watched the DVD. This morning I'm listening to the CD and thinking about What It All Means. To begin with, the disc doesn't include the "I'm the Slime"/"Big Swifty" sequence due to length (as is, it's 70 minutes). For the reasons I enumerated earlier (no overdubs, no "Village of the Sun," no "Son of Orange County"/"Trouble Every Day"), it's not a replacement for Roxy and Elsewhere, and I can't imagine listening to it when the DVD is also available. But it's a thing.

In this age of super-deluxeness, with labels scrambling to wring the very last shekel out of the dying CD format before all the boomers croak, we're confronted by phenomena like the perpetual reissuing of the entahr Velvet Underground catalog on a five year cycle, with each upgrade including newer and more cosmic live stuff that makes one wonder "Why were they sitting on this stuff for so long?"

With Gail's passing, the question for the present day Zappafan becomes, "What direction is the Family Trust going to take with FZ's legacy under Ahmet's stern employ?" To date, the irritant has been a steady stream of new releases presented without enough information to allow the discriminating listener to decide whether or not the New Thing is worth throwing down hard-earned coin for (the underlying assumption being that fans will buy anything with FZ's name on it, regardless of the content). And Gail fought long and hard to maintain the value of FZ's work in the marketplace; when Rykodisc wanted to discount the catalog, it was a deal-breaker.

With the "100th official album," Dance Me This, supposedly representing the last work FZ completed during his lifetime, one wonders if there's anything left in the barrel besides scrapings like the ones Experience Hendrix has been releasing for years. And how much of what's left do you really need to hear?

As for Roxy: The Movie, with all the bitches, gripes, and complaints I've got to inordinate length to communicate, the bottom line is this: If you ever gave a shit about FZ, you'll want to see this. It's his best band, caught on film at a very special moment in their trajectory. The gusto and humor with which they tackle the challenging arrangements is truly something to behold. And his solos are liquid fire. Put this together with Roxy and Elsewhere, A Token of His Extreme, One Size Fits All (and, if you're a maximalist, You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 2) and this band can be said to be well documented. So there.

Friday, October 30, 2015

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part Two)

Last time I enumerated all my reservations and doubts in the run-up to this release. Now it's here, and I couldn't wait to view it. Some initial impressions:

The movie starts with Frank describing to the Roxy audience the technical issue (sound synchronization) that will wind up delaying the film's release for 40 years, by way of introduction. How weird is that? Then the Mothers start with a leisurely blues that turns out to be "Cosmik Debris," in a version that's much more naturalistic (e.g., funkier) than the record. The band is relaxed (bassist Tom Fowler puffing on a cigar while he plays), Frank's vocal is less mannered, and he has some fun with his Mutron auto-wah.

"Penguin In Bondage" is the first tune that's familiar from Roxy and Elsewhere, only here it features instrumental solos that were cut from the record, as well as a stunning thematic section that leads into the "Dog Breath"/"Uncle Meat" medley that was also featured (replete with annoying edits) on A Token of His Extreme and (in full orchestral magnificence) on The Yellow Shark. Here and elsewhere, Ralph Humphrey shines as the linchpin of the percussion section. By the time A Token of His Extreme was taped, Ruth Underwood and Chester Thompson had mastered the material to the point where Humphrey's absence isn't missed, but at the Roxy, he was clearly the glue that held the section together. I would never have guessed that without seeing this movie.

An example of audience conduction (previously demonstrated by FZ on Australian TV and viewable on Youtube) leads into the "lounge version" of "Inca Roads" on which all the melodic contours are in place, but the introductory section still hasn't gained the rhythmic thrust of the One Size Fits All version (the basic track for which, in case you're joining us late, was from the TV show documented in A Token of His Extreme). At one point, Frank directs an errant cameraman to focus on Bruce Fowler, not himself, during Fowler's trombone solo. There are other instances later in the program where a camera misses the most crucial musical action.

First big disappointment: While you can hear Napoleon Murphy Brock singing the last words of "Village of the Sun" at the beginning of "Echidna's Arf," the song -- one of my favorites -- is missing from the film. Perhaps the sound sync problems were too severe, or somebody dropped a camera like D.A. Pennebaker did during Hendrix's "Can You See Me" at Monterey. Notwithstanding the Bruce Botnick credit for the remix, the film soundtrack is notably inferior to Roxy and Elsewhere (I haven't listened to the "soundtrack" CD that comes with the DVD yet), and the camera inexplicably focuses on Frank when the percussion section is playing through their hairiest parts.

At the end of the piece, the percussionists play through the form of "Cheepnis" (which is the next song the full band plays), evidently for some sinister future purpose (overdubbing?). It's interesting to hear "Cheepnis" sans overdubs (what ...and Elsewhere meant, evidently) and realize that backing vocals and the whole "Here comes that poodle dog, bigger than a blimp with a rhinestone collar..." section were added later. No segue into "Son of Orange County"/"Trouble Every Day" here, either, so you still need A Token of His Extreme if you want to see versions of those. Wha-wha. Second big disappointment.

"I'm the Slime" features FZ on real wah and segues into "Big Swifty," the solos-with-conduction from which became part of "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing" on Roxy and Elsewhere. "Bebop Tango" lets you see all the audience participation action that you could only imagine while listening to the album. Behind the credits, you get to see the band in the studio, working through an early version of "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow."

The extra DVD shit gives you a different version of "Pygmy Twylyte" than the one that appeared on the album. In thisun, GTO Pamela Miller, the future Mrs. Michael Des Barres, performs a "simulated Mothermania event" that mainly seems to make the musos who are the objects of her attentions uncomfortable (she stays away from George Duke entahrly). This segues into "The Idiot Bastard Son," which Nappy Brock still sang beautifully in Oak Cliff with the Grandmothers of Invention a couple of years ago. And "Dickie's Such An Asshole" is mo' blues, albeit with political subject matter. The Reagan years would inspire FZ's greatest social commentary, even if you don't include his testimony before the House of Representatives as part of the "Project/Object." From today's perspective, calling out Nixon for the bungled burglary and missing tapes sounds almost quaint...and innocent.

Still have to listen to the CD, so to be continued here...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part One)

It's taken so long (40 years) for this artifact to make its way to public release that my attitude toward its creator has evolved from fanboy adulation to...ambivalence.

Back in '74, when the double album Roxy and Elsewhere arrived just in time for my freshman year of college, my previous experience of FZ had been as a source of yuks and gateway to "weird" music. My first Zappa album had been a shitty compilation of edits from the first three Mothers of Invention LPs, released as part of MGM's "Golden Archives Series" after label prez Mike Curb dumped all the "drug-oriented" artists -- not just the Mothers, but the Blues Project, Tim Hardin, and the Velvet Underground, too -- from the roster. My best middle school bud and I memorized the lyrics to "funny" songs like "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" and "Concentration Moon" the way we'd later memorize whole Firesign Theater albums. Then I bought Weasels Ripped My Flesh -- and hated it. But I kept going back and listening to the Sugarcane Harris blues and what I later learned were Zappa's conductions on Side One, "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue," "Oh No," and "The Orange Country Lumber Truck" on Side Two, and became so adept at ripping the tone arm off the record to avoid the feedback blast of the side-closing title track that I was prepared to do the same trick with "L.A. Blues" when I got the Stooges' Funhouse.

In the fullness of time, Frank's penchant for making fun of squares and hipis seems lazy and obvious, and his "satire" of the pop styles of the day doesn't hold up as well, 50 years down the road, as the stuff he was mocking. Still, there's stuff that signifies on all of the early MOI albums, including the race riot-inspahrd "Trouble Every Day" (still topical, goddammit), the song "Absolutely Free" (which I now hear unironically; Elvis Costello was right), and all of the doo-wop pastiche Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets (which my bad-acting buddies and I used to sing along with, having grown up surrounded by greasy vocal R&B). On the latter, Ray Collins' voice, simpering on the first two MOI albums, can be heard in its full magnificence, as it was meant to be. Better still are the kludged-together MOI albums Frank released after breaking up the band in '69: along with Weasels, there was Uncle Meat and, best of all, Burnt Weenie Sandwich (the first side of which remains one of my favorite FZ things of all ti-i-ime).

Where the trouble began: once I'd investigated the list of names in the Freak Out! liner notes (since superseded, I suppose, for a younger generation by the "Nurse With Wound list"), a lot of FZ's music became superfluous. Who needs "King Kong," f'rinstance, when you've heard Trane? Or Waka/Jawaka when you've heard Bitches Brew? Or the musique concrete on We're Only In It for the Money when you've heard Frank's idol Varese?

Also, seeing the Grandmothers of Invention play some of my favorite FZ stuff a couple of years ago made me aware of the Achilles heel of all the Zappa concerts I religiously attended for years (usually on Halloween Night in NYC): how much dreck you had to sit through to get to the good stuff -- every time. The best FZ show I saw was probably the one at the Palladium in '76, part of the run that was recorded for Zappa In New York, and even those nights were full of bullshit like "Punky's Whips," "Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me" (a joke Uncle Lou did better on Growing Up In Public as "So Alone"), and "Illinois Enema Bandit," in addition to the usual obligatory "Dinah-Moe Humm" and "Camarillo Brillo." The exception would be the '88 tour (which I missed), where the setlists were more uniformly stellar (as though FZ knew it was going to be his last one).

Watch the DVD of Baby Snakes and see the wall-to-wall dumbshits in his rabid Noo Yawk audience ("Zappa! He's a pissah!") -- and hey, I was one of 'em (although I missed the nights that were filmed during that particular run because of work or lack of money, I forget which). After Frank recovered from having his neck broken by an insane fan during a concert in London, 1971, he came back with two albums -- Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe -- that basically pandered to the lowest common denominator of teenage rock fans from my age cohort, and they did their job well.

An extramusical aside: My wife and I used to watch that movie while eating dinner on the floor with our cats, every Thanksgiving. That is, until we got to where we couldn't enjoy the bits with Roy Estrada and the sex doll backstage after reading about the ex-Mothers bassplayer getting arrested for molesting a young relative in our town after serving time in Cali on a similar offense. (He copped a plea and drew 25 years, without parole.) Too creepy. Now I can't even enjoy the "Crying Mexican Pope" routine on Weasels.

By the time Baby Snakes was filmed ('77), the original Mothers, where bar band R&B cats (Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black) played alongside old experimental heads (Bunk Gardner, Don Preston) and classical refugees (Artie Tripp, Ian Underwood), were long gone, their places taken by chops-mongering gunslingers who went with Frank to get their tickets punched (as he noted in The Real Frank Zappa Book). While some of the new guys (Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew) had actual personalities, the overall character of the band had changed. From the Dadaist days at the Garrick Theater (which the guy I worked for in high school had actually witnessed), Frank's show had evolved into a slick, professional entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with that).

That was the year I got off the bus, after seeing Frank at the Felt Forum in Manhattan on Halloween, then driving 90 mph all the way to see him again in Hartford, where he played the Exact. Same. Show. Things got even worse in the '80s. For evidence, view the DVDs Does Humor Belong In Music? and The Torture Never Stops, if you must. The steely precision of the band's playing is only matched by their self-conscious "zaniness." [NB: A perusal of the Zappa Gig List for the year in question would seem to indicate that my chronological memory is faulty. But I still have the vivid impression of seeing two identical FZ shows in different venues, when the year before, Captain Beefheart had played notably different sets a couple of nights apart.]

What makes Roxy: The Movie the Holy Grail of Zappa fandom is that it captures FZ with what seems, from today's perspective, like his very best band, in an intimate setting, playing for an enthusiastic audience at a moment when his music was reaching a new plateau, before it became rote. The eight piece band is stacked with aces. To begin with, Frank was beginning to find his tone and voice as a guitar soloist. On his earlier stuff, even the highly regarded Hot Rats, his melodic imagination was hamstrung by his technique. Later, he got a lot more facile at note production, but his solos -- always over static rhythm -- took on a sameness that they didn't have in '73, when he was probably jazzed to be playing in front of an audience after two years on the mend, and had agile rhythm players who were more comfortable improvising than the ones in earlier lineups.

His singing voice having dropped an octave following his '71 injuries, Zappa -- who couldn't seem to keep the condescending smirk out of his voice after about '67 -- was wise enough to realize that he needed help fronting the band. Besides the leader, the Roxy lineup had two expressive and very different singers -- the exuberant saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, who Frank found playing in a Waikiki bar band, for soul grit, and keyboardist George Duke, a veteran jazzman (Don Ellis, Cannonball Adderley, Jean-Luc Ponty), for falsetto wit. Between them, Brock and Duke developed a humorous onstage rapport that felt a lot more natural than the intentionally comic banter between the leather-lunged ex-Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, that fronted the '71 Mothers. (For One Size Fits All, FZ upped the vocal ante by adding R&B "Gangster of Love" Johnny "Guitar" Watson to the mix, planting his band solidly in P-Funk territory.)

Besides Zappa and Duke, there were two other quality soloists -- percussionist Ruth Underwood and trombonist Bruce Fowler -- whose instruments also gave the '73 band a broader textural palette than the lineups that preceded it. Underpinning it all was the rhythm section of Bruce's brother Tom Fowler (ex-It's A Beautiful Day) on bass, and the twin trap sets of studio pro Ralph Humphrey and the jazzier Chester Thompson. All in all, a formidable unit.

While it's understood that Roxy: The Movie's release was delayed because of a flaw in sound synchronization, for which it took years to find a technological fix, FZ and his Family Trust have certainly wrung a lot of dollars over the years out of fans who were hungry to see video of this band. First there was The Dub Room Special, a 1982 melange of footage from the '74 TV session that produced the basic tracks used for "Inca Roads" and Florentine Pogen" on One Size Fits All, the Halloween '81 NYC show that was broadcast on MTV, and stray claymation from Bruce Bickford, the artist whose work was featured in Baby Snakes. A Token of His Extreme, released in 2013, gives you more from '74, nothing from '81 (now a separate release on its own, the aforementioned The Torture Never Stops), but retains the Bickford. So, f'rinstance, while Frank is soloing on "Inca Roads," you get to see his claymation likeness "soloing" instead. Annoying edits mar the otherwise wonderful "Dog Breath"/"Uncle Meat" medley. An improvement, but still a frustrating release.

To be continued here...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Alice Cooper's "Pretties for You" Reconsidered (Or Considered)

It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I missed it.

Three members of the original Alice Cooper band were appearing at Good Records in Dallas, ostensibly to sign copies of bassplayer Dennis Dunaway's book, and play a set. It wasn't unprecedented; my buddy Geoff from Philly, who still makes pilgrimages to see bands, had once seen drummer Neal "The Rockin' Realtor" Smith perform in the conference room of some hotel with the Bouchard brothers from Blue Oyster Cult. But Alice was scheduled to play Dallas the following night; wouldn't it be funny if...? In the event, my man-date bailed, and I wound up having something more important to do, anyway. But my 14-year-old self was still steamed when I saw on social media that Alice had indeed showed, and they'd played a full set, with a ringer replacing deceased lead guitarist Glen Buxton. So now I have a new "concert I most regret having missed," right up there with the Remain In Light Talking Heads at the Palladium in '80, and Uncle Lou at the Bronco Bowl in '96.

But if I'm honest, I was only an Alice Cooper fan for about a year, approximately from Love It To Death to Killer, after seeing them do their feather pillow autodestruction act in Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Alice getting a pie in the face (as mythologized by St. Lester in his famous Stooges screed) in the TV broadcast of the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival.

Killer -- which I bought with my '71 Christmas money along with the 'orrible 'oo's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy and, most crucially, the Stooges' Funhouse -- was where I got off the bus. Even at the time, the relatively complex arrangements of "Halo of Flies" and "You Drive Me Nervous" -- on which the band admirably extended their reach (Bob Ezrin moving from the basic rock of Love It To Death and Mitch Ryder's Detroit album toward, ultimately, The Wall) -- sounded almost quaint next to the Stooges' primal thump-and-roar, and the shock-horror shtick at the end of Side Two seemed a lot less dangerous than what Bro. Ig 'n' the Ashetons had on offer. I tried listening to it again a couple of years ago, when I stumbled on a copy at HPB, and found it to be one of those records from my misguided yoof -- Mott the Hoople's Mott is another -- that just don't resonate the way they once did with the passage of time.

Still, I was fascinated to learn recently that NYC noisician Nick Didkovsky -- one of the minds behind The $100 Guitar Project -- is hosting a week of shows at John Zorn's East Village spot The Stone, culminating in a performance of AC's debut album Pretties for You in its entahrty on Sunday, November 8.

Pretties for You is an album I never paid much attention to until Big Mike Richardson (bless him) laid a copy on me earlier this year.

One wonders what Zappa thought of these guys when he signed them to his Warners boutique label. (Probably something in between "freak show" and "$$$.") If nothing else, FZ afforded them the freedom to be themselves; who else would have given a previously obscure band license to produce their own debut LP? On Pretties for You, Furnier & Co. introduce themselves as veterans of Brit Invasion copyism (two Back From the Grave-worthy singles as the Spiders, back home in Phoenix), audibly enamored of the Pretty Things during their psychedelic phase, 3/4 time, Moby Grape-esque vocal harmonies, and sub-Keith Relf harmonica solos. Perhaps the Didkovsky revival will lead to a re-appraisal of Pretties for You as a lost masterpiece of Meercun psych, at least among NYC folk, in the same way as Uncle Lou's Julian Schnabel-documented revival of Berlin (speaking of Bob Ezrin) caused folks like your humble chronicler o' events to reassess its value.

I would be remiss here if I failed to render proper tribute to Glen Buxton, who in hindsight seems like the archetypal post-psych, pre-Heavy Meercun hard rock guitarist. Listening to his recorded work allows one of A Certain Age to experience once again the thrill of discovery and freedom that came from bending a heavy gauge (Black Diamond?) guitar string a half-step with fuzztone for the first time. In relatively short order, Buxton graduated to command of the shuddering double-stop bend, a trademark of Robin Trower in his Shine On Brightly Procol Harum daze (and more recently employed to good effect by Samuel C. Murphy of Down-Fi/Deezen/Gizmos et al.). It's a pity he became unreliable enough in the studio to warrant his replacement, on record and ultimately on stage, by Ezrin's guitar-slingers-of-choice, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. The trebly sting of Buxton and Michael Bruce's twin SGs was an essential component of the best AC stuff. They'd first need to move from L.A. to Detroit (home of Hunter and Wagner, as well as the Stooges) before they were able to get to their tones together. But I digress...

"Titanic Overture" opens the proceedings with what sounds to these feedback-scorched ears like a sinister reimagining of Little Anthony and the Imperials' '64 hit "Going Out of My Head," played by Bruce on mellotron and leading into "10 Minutes Before the Worm," which could almost be a whimsical Piper At the Gates of Dawn outtake, out-of-tune backing vocals and all. (Buxton in particular was a huge fan of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which explains later AC Floydisms like "Black Juju.") "Swing Low, Sweet Cheerio" is the first developed composition, a jazz waltz like the Yardbirds' "Turn Into Earth," with lots of instrumental stretching out in the manner of the day ('69).

"Today Mueller" offers a brief glimpse of the showbizzy AC to come, before giving way to "Living," a galloping freak-out in the style of the one in the Pretty Things' "Mr. Evasion," replete with swooning harmony vocals worthy of the Brit band's Povey-Waller-Twink lineup. This is followed by the side-closing "Fields of Regret," which sonically predicts the evolution of psych into something darker and harder edged, and includes a mid-song recitative (over string-scraping noises) that could be seen as a precursor to the "Bodies need rest" business in the middle of "Black Juju."

Second side kicks off with "No Longer Umpire," another waltz with "spooky" vocals, followed by the live-recorded "Levity Ball," which fakes you out in the beginning by sounding like they're going to play "My Little Red Book," then alternates a pulsing, descending line with gently ruminative sections, highlighted by vocal harmonies, to create a fair simulacrum of the shifting mindscapes of psychedelic experience. "B.B. On Mars" is a quick rocker that boasts feedback-oozing, Floydian guitar, while "Reflected" is the messier psych blueprint for what was later Quadrophenia-ized into "Elected" on Billion Dollar Babies, leading into the acoustic pastoralism (in 3/4, again) of "Apple Bush."

"Earwigs to Eternity" name-checks an earlier incarnation of the band (for the Earwigs is what they were called when they were miming to Beatle records at high school assemblies, before buying instruments and learning how to play them) in the same way as Easy Action's "Return of the Spiders," and is the probable basis for the Beatles comparison St. Lester made in his pan of Pretties for You in Rolling Stone. He'd change his tune about AC after he and they moved to Detroit, same as he would about the MC5, whose debut LP he also panned in the same publication. (My own favorite AC tune is Love It to Death's "Second Coming," which agreeably combines White Album Lennonisms with Procol Harum-like pseudo-classical chord changes, before being overshadowed in everybody's estimation but mine by the song it leads into, "The Ballad of Dwight Fry.")

"Changing Arranging" serves as a summation of all the band's favorite devices -- waltz time, harmonies, fuzzy guitar -- which makes it a fitting conclusion to the record.

Didkovsky's Pretties for You band looks to be a labor of love, including a vocalist (Paul Bertolino) that regularly performs with an AC tribute band, and the father-and-son engine room of Glenn (drums) and Max (bass) Johnson. I don't make pilgrimages to hear bands anymore, but if I was in the Apple the second Sunday in November, best believe I'd be there.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Men of Extinction's "We Made It Ourselves"

You never know what Jim Colegrove's going to get up to next. Last time out, the once and future Juke Jumpers/Lost Country honcho was revisiting his roots with an instrumental rockaroll album. On this latest outing (which, like its predecessor, is Amazon-available), he's teamed with fellow singer-songwriter-guitarist Roscoe West, familiar of Kinky Friedman and T-Bone Burnett, who, in a previous life (as Bob Barnes), played bass in the Elite, Paschal High School's answer to the Beatles, and later, in the Yellow Payges, an L.A.-based Yardbirds-Who derivation that we even heard of as far away as Lawn Guyland. Together, the two men have come up with nothing less than a 21st century Meercun version of the Kinks' masterpiece, The Village Green Preservation Society -- albeit from the perspective of a couple of geezers who actually possess the world-weariness that 20something Ray Davies only affected.

Lyrically, Colegrove and West survey the absurdities of life here in the Future with a mixture of bemusement and droll wit. "Evolution's Not Fast Enough For Me" contemplates imminent ecological disaster in a manner reminiscent of Billy Sherrill-era George Jones, replete with weeping steel guitar and fiddle. "I Used To Think It Mattered," an Eddie Cochran-esque rocker, catalogs the mundane litany of petty concerns from our info-overloaded age. "Jane's Name Is Jane" examines gender reassignment, while "Lap Band Dance" ("...played by the Lap Dance Band") has some fun with physical fitness fads. "Sorry, I Thought You Were Someone I Knew" presents a classic dilemma in bouncy Western swing style, and "Trapped In Amber" is another country weeper, on the subject of stasis. "Bible On Her Lap" is a tongue-in-cheek character study worthy of Chuck Berry.

An auspicious pairing, and another welcome communique from the man whose band I saw more than any other my first couple of years in Fort Worth. If you love American song and periodically consider closing your Facebook account because you find the uncivility of the discourse upsetting, We Made It Ourselves could be right up your alley.