Thursday, June 30, 2011

Count Basie: The Best of Basie Vol. 1

Review # 27
Artist: Count Basie
Title: The Best of Basie Vol. 1 (1937-1938)
Format: LP
Label: MCA
Year: 1974 (?)
Songs: 12

Like my copy of The Glenn Miller Story record, this is a French record and I had a hard time tracking down the year it was actually released. The best I could come up with, from a website where a private collector was selling some of his records, was 1974. This is actually the fourth volume of a French classic jazz collection, of which I don't have any other volumes. But that's what you get for a dollar and it was a dollar well spent.

While the record was released in the 1970s, these songs themselves, are all from the 1930s, specifically '37 and '38. That makes these recordings not the earliest in Basie's career, but certainly early ones. They fall squarely within the Bassie's classic big-band swing period and include classics like Basie's own "One O'Clock Jump" and other well known tunes like "Honey Suckle Rose." The songs are mostly fast-paced instrumental dance numbers (with a couple exceptions like the slower "Blues in the Dark," and the more up-beat "Sent For You Yesterday," both or which are blues numbers performed with a vocalist). I just had my first dance class and most of the songs on this record sound like they'd be good for practicing my steps, although some of them sound too fast for me to keep up, given my skill level. Count Basie was the king (or, I suppose, the Count) of swing-style jazz, and he and his orchestra don't disappoint for a minute on this collection. It's fun and catchy and makes you want to move your feet. I wish more people still played music like this. It makes me feel happy.

With old recordings like these, there are often problems with the sound quality, but these all sound great. Yes, like many recordings from this period, the low end doesn't come through as fully as I might like, even on my big old wooden console record player with it's beautiful, resonant sound.  But there's no tape hiss or distortion distracting from these songs, and my copy of the record is in excellent condition, so it just sounds good from beginning to end.

Like I wrote in a previous review, jazz is not my area of expertise, and this record offers little to expand my knowledge other than the recordings themselves. The notes on the sleeve are extensive, but sadly I don't speak any French. So I'll leave this review here  by saying that this is a fine collection of songs performed by a man who was a true master of his style.

If you aren't familiar with it, here's Basie and his orchestra performing "One O'Clock Jump."

Total songs listened: 332

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Barrroom Piano: Fantastic, Honky Tonk Player Barroom Piano

Review # 26
Artist: Barroom Piano
Title: Fantastic, Honky Tonk Player Barroom Piano
Format: LP
Label: Audio Fidelity Records
Year: 1963
Songs: 14

Ok punk fans.  Get ready for a long dry spell, because this is the first of a whole bunch of other types of records. It'll be a couple of weeks now probably before we hit another straight-up punk rock record. For those of you into the more eclectic reviews, now is your time.

I listed the artist on the record as "Barroom Piano," because these are literally recordings of a player-piano.  There's no person performing on these songs, and the songs themselves are credited to a number of different people, so I have deemed the piano itself to be the artist on this record. Further, I personally file this under "BA," so whether or not this is the actual artist, that's where I keep it, so this is where I'll review it.  That's going to be a common theme over several of the next few records, actually.

These recordings were made in Paul Eakins' "Gay 90s Village," a recreation of an 1890s American town located in Sikeston Missouri, which the record sleeve describes as "the Disneyland of the Midwest." It began as Eakin's collection of player pianos, calliopes, and apparently "automatic banjos," which I've never heard of before. As best as I can determine from the internet, the village is gone, but the collection still exists in St. Louis.  I'm headed there soon, actually, so I may try to check this out.  There are some pictures here.

So that's all pretty interesting, to me at least.  A weird little slice of Americana.

The piano itself, according to the record sleeve, was made in 1915 for use in the red light districts of midwest steel towns. Apparently it was used in saloons and brothels before it found its way into Eakins collection. He spent over 600 hours restoring it to its original condition.  According to the sleeve, it was deep red in color, including the keys of the piano, to match the parlors where "ladies of the evening" would entertain their guests. The things this piano must have seen...

Anyway, the songs on this record are mostly well known tunes from days gone by. There's some Tin Pan Alley stuff and some other, even older songs.  A lot of these were tunes I recognized but never knew the names of. A few you might recognize by name include "My Blue Heaven," "My Wild Irish Rose," "Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  Something that's cool about these tracks and adds to the sort of field-recording feel of the record is that at the beginning of each song, you can hear a nickle being dropped into the slot to the start the piano. I guess the Bay Rum Boys may have been looking back with rose-colored glasses on the merits of player pianos as compared to juke boxes.

Something else that stands out in these recordings are the rapid trills this piano is capable of.  According to the sleeve, the trill mechanism in this piano was quite special in that each hammer in the piano could strike a string as many as ten times per second. I don't know how fast a person can play a piano, but I'm guessing it's not that fast. You can really hear it, especially on the high notes.

This is probably not a record I'd play all the time.  Indeed, it's something I got free from my dad and this is the first time I've played it all the way through, but it's sort of neat slice of history to have in the collection.

I couldn't find any clips from this record on the internet, unfortunately, although it looks like you can buy this record on Amazon and a variety of other places if you just have to hear it.

I did find this clip of Paul Eakins on a game show in 1960s, in which he demonstrates the workings of one of his larger automated musical instruments.

Here's Eakins at the Gay 90s Village.

They just don't make them like they used to.
Total songs listened: 320

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bad Brains: Bad Brains

Review # 25
Artist: Bad Brains
Title: Bad Brains
Format: LP
Label: Reach Out International Records
Year: 1982
Songs: 15

The Bad Brains self-titled LP begins with the song "Sailin' On," which is reminiscent of the Ramones. Sure, it's a little faster than some of the Ramones stuff, and it has a guitar solo, but right down to the "ooh ooh ooh" vocals, this sounds a lot like it could be a Ramones cover.

Don't be fooled.

The Bad Brains did not play cookie-cutter punk.  In fact, compared to their contemporaries in the hardcore scene, there were few bands as inventive and interesting as the Bad Brains. They defied genre and racial barriers to bring us some of the most interesting punk rock ever recorded.

If you aren't familiar with the Bad Brains, it's worth noting that everyone in the band was black, which for the early 1980s punk scene was virtually unheard of. Musically, they also stood apart from other bands in the scene. Before the rise of hardcore punk, these guys had played jazz fusion, and it shows. The band wasn't afraid to mix their influences, and they were highly proficient at playing their instruments.  Some of the songs on this record (i.e. "Fearless Vampire Killers" and the famous single "Pay to Cum") are among the fastest and also most precise of any hardcore from the era. They rush forward at breakneck speed, only to stop suddenly, throwing you against the proverbial dashboard, before racing off again at 100 miles an hour. At other times, the pace slows down a little, and you can hear some hard rock/metal influence in the guitar. Some of these songs show a jazz influence, hiding just under the surface, in the rhythms and bass lines. 

By far the most obvious non-punk sound on this record, however, is reggae.  The record features three straight up reggae songs.  Not reggae influenced punk, but full-on reggae. We get our first hint of it on the short instrumental "Jah Calling," about midway through side A, go back to hardcore for one more song, and then close side A with "Leaving Babylon," a reggae song that, on it's face, would feel more at home alongside some early Bob Marley material than a hardcore track.  Yet, somehow it flows.  "Leaving Babylon" manages to feel like the same band.  Sure, H.R.'s distinctive and sometimes screachy vocal is obviously the same. But this aside, it still has the same feel somehow. The transition to "I Luv Jah," the third reggae tune on the record, feels a little more awkward, but on the whole still fits.

The record, oddly enough, closes with a track called "Intro," which is just a few seconds long.

Overall, this is one of the most interesting punk records to come out the American scene in the early 1980s.

Sadly, I don't think I can end this review on a wholly positive note.  I would be remiss here not to mention the homophobia controversy that surrounds this band. In the 1980s, singer H.R. made some very unkind remarks about gay people, and was rumored to be an anti-Semite as well. This sort of prejudice is sort of ironic given what the band themselves must have encountered as one of the first entirely non-white punk bands. But, the guys from Bad Brains were committed Rastafarians, and that's a religion that, like most (all?) others, is understood by some of its followers as promoting hatred of certain outgroups. I recently read an interview with bassist Daryl Jennifer, who said that those days are over for Bad Brains. According to Jennifer, the band was overzealous in the early days of their following of the Rastafari movement, and has since spent more time contemplating and studying the religion. This, he said, has led them to the belief that hating people is wrong and actually not in accord with the tenets of the religion. According to Jennifer, the band no longer condones prejudice. But he stopped short of an apology, and as far as I know, the band has never made one. Whether or not it's true, H.R. still has a reputation for being a homophobe and kind of a jerk all around.  So, do with that what you will. It's sad to have to write about this, because the Bad Brains were/are a great band (I believe they still tour now and then), but it's not the sort of thing that I feel can be swept under the rug.

Here's a couple of songs:

Leaving Babylon

Pay to Cum

Total songs listened: 306

Monday, June 27, 2011

The B-52's: Wild Planet

Review # 25
Artist: The B-52's
Title: Wild Planet
Format: LP
Label: Warner Brothers
Year: 1980
Songs: 9

I used to dislike the B-52's, but as I got older, I came to realize, the problem wasn't the B-52's, the problem was me being too earnest for my own good (and that song "Love Shack," which I still think is terrible). Make no mistake: The B-52's are ridiculous.  But that's a big part of the charm.

Will Planet is the second LP by the B-52's, and it's nine songs of silly new wave pop.  It makes me want to bob my head  from side to side in the same way that Devo does. The B-52's are not Devo, they aren't as talented or as innovative as Devo, but they hit that same spot in terms of kind of weird herky-jerky tunes with absurd and sometimes non-sequitur lyrics. They blend in some 1960s pop sounds for good measure in some of the vocals and organ-like keyboard lines that set them apart from other bands in the genre. And as far as silly lyrics go, they're hard to beat.  "Quiche Lorraine" focuses on the important subject of a green poodle named Quiche, whereas "Devil In My Car" deals with the increasingly common problem of having one's car commandeered by the Dark Lord Satan, who's aim it is to drive the car to Hell.  Apparently, he's rough on the upholstery as well.

Perhaps the best known track from this record is "Private Idaho." I can't really tell what this one is about, except for that it seems to deal with someone's extreme paranoia. Whatever the case, it's definitely one of the catchier songs on the record and I like it a lot. Another highlight is "Give Me Back My Man," which seems to contain some heartfelt emotion, telling the story of a woman trying desperately to revive a relationship, although it also ventures into silly territory as she offers him fish and candy as an incentive to return to her.

This record is fun.  I don't have deep feelings about it.  The B-52's are not a profoundly important band to me and never have been.  But when you just want something fun to play in the background, Wild Planet is a good choice. I got it for 99 cents, and at that price it's definitely a good buy.

Total songs listened: 291

Friday, June 24, 2011

Axiom: Apathy & Privilege

Review # 24
Artist: Axiom (w/spoken word by Mike Antipathy)
Title: Apathy & Privilege
Format: LP
Label: Tribal War Records
Year: 2000
Songs: 8

We've now reached the end of the LPs beginning with the letter "A." Axiom was a crust punk band from Portland, Oregon, the singer of which I met in 2001 (?) when we were both practicing with a local band called Poxy for a few weeks right before they dissolved. But I digress. This was Axiom's third (and I believe final) release, and it is unified by a single theme that runs through the various materials that make up this album: we have a responsibility to bring about the social changes we want to see, and if we don't at least try, we're complicit in war, poverty, and environmental destruction. We have resources available to us that most of the world don't have access to, and it's up to us to use them to affect change. It's a hard message to argue with if agree that there are important problems in the world, and it's delivered here compellingly and in multiple media forms.

This album includes a poster, a booklet that features the lyrics to all the songs and a bunch of other writing, 6 metallic crust songs by Axiom, and two articulate and passionate soap-box speeches by Mike Antipathy. The aforementioned theme runs through all of these.

The music here is mostly fast, heavy crust with alternating screamy and growly vocals. This is definitely on the more metal side of the crust genre, with a few of the songs even featuring noodley solos. A friend of of mine who's the guitarist in a local punk band said to me recently, "when you start to get good at playing punk, you end up end up playing metal," and this band really demonstrates what he was talking about.  This isn't a straight-up metal album by any means, but the influence is pervasive with a lot of double-kick on the bass drum, thick distortion, palm muting, and the aforementioned solos. This band is proficient in a way that is just not necessary for playing '77 style punk or street punk or what have you. I would imagine this would appeal to fans of death metal as much as it would fans of punk.

The booklet that's included with this album is better than most crust album booklets.  It features not only the lyrics and song explanations, but also ideas about how to get involved in activism, suggestions for further reading, and information on a specific environmental issue that the band must have been particularly passionate about, the Lowry radioactive waste landfill. It's clear here that the band actually wanted to give listeners tools for getting informed and involved, which takes this record to a level beyond the typical shouting about socio-political issues that characterizes so many punk records.

In both the writings in the booklet and the spoken word pieces, Mike and Axiom endorse a variety of tactics, from letter writing to protest to direct action. It's a refreshing and smart approach that invites people to participate in the way they feel they can best contribute. One of my favorite moments on this record is actually the first spoken word piece, which concludes side one. Mike Antipathy is persuasive, informed, and articulate. He'd be a great spokesperson for any political group, and he's apparently now an immigration lawyer, which I can imagine him being quite good at.

I guess I talked less about the music here than the other stuff, but I think that's in part because the other stuff is what sets this record apart.  But don't get me wrong, if you like thrashy crust, the music is good, too.

My favorite song on the record is "This Isn't Life."

Ok, so that wraps up "A!" I'm excited to get on to "B," in part because glancing at the records, it looks like there's a bit more variety there. Check back soon for the first "B" review!

Total songs listened: 282

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Commenting problem fixed (?)

Hi loyal readers,

I've heard from a couple of people that the comment feature wasn't working properly.  I spent some time on the help threads and I think I got it figured out.  So, if you've been trying to comment, try again! It should work now, hopefully, and if it doesn't, let me know.

Thanks for reading,


The Avengers: Avengers

Review # 23
Artist: The Avengers
Title: Avengers
Format: LP
Label: C.D. Presents
Year: 1983
Songs: 14

It may be due to the scarcity of recorded material by this band, but I feel that the Avengers are an underrated band in the history of punk rock. Sure, aficionados of the genre are into them and their first single usually makes any top 100 punk singles list that Mojo and various other music publications will release from time to time, but for whatever reason, you just don't often see punk kids wearing patches and shirts for this band, even on the same level as many other bands with equally (if not more) limited discographies from the same era. And I've never understood why that is, because this band was great.

"The Pink Album," as this release is sometimes referred to by the band's singer Penelope Houston, is a compilation of tracks from across the band's short life (1977-1979) that includes much of what the band recorded and I think most or all of what they actually released while still active. It starts with "We Are The One," the opening track to the band's first single and an exciting and inspiring declaration of the punk identity: "we are not Jesus Christ, we are not fascist pigs, we are not capitalist industrialists, we are not communists: we are the one." "Look everyone," Penelope seems to be saying, "we're not like what you've seen before and we're taking over, so deal with it." On "I Believe in Me" this confident declaration is reinforced: "I can do it myself and make up my own rules, I believe in me, I'll make my dreams real." If that's not the manifesto of punk (or at least the early punk scene), I don't know what is.

Lest you should think this band is posi-core though, they show they can be snotty, dark, and critical as well any punk band with songs like "Fuck You," "The Amerikan in Me," "Car Crash," and a powerful cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black." The songs are gutsy and hard driving without needing to scream and grind. Unlike most of the California punk bands from the early days, the Avengers did not play hardcore. But it also manages to be melodic without needing to be poppy or having a new wave sound. The Avengers played straight-up old school punk with compelling, melodic vocals and sing-along choruses that owe a lot to the Sex Pistols and the first Clash record without being derivative of those bands. These are songs to sing along and pogo to, and they'll be stuck in my head for days after listening to this. It's a punk classic, made that much more so by the fact that several tracks on it (from the band's second EP) were produced by Steve Jones, the guitarist of the Sex Pistols. Punk historians will also note that the Avengers opened for the Pistols at their fabled final show at the Winterland in 1978. From what I hear though, that was no fun, and people left feeling like they'd been cheated.

Apparently this was out of print for a long time and tied up in publishing rights issues. So maybe this is why this band hasn't gotten the attention due to them in recent times. Fortunately, they're back in print and actually back on tour as well! I saw the Avengers a couple of years back at the Funhouse in Seattle. Not all original members, unfortunately, but still really powerful and fun as a live band.

If you have even a casual interest in punk rock and you don't know the Avengers, check this record out. It's fantastic.

Here's a little taste: "We Are The One"

Total songs listened: 274

Aus Rotten: The System Works For Them

Review # 22
Artist: Aus Rotten
Title: The System Works For Them
Format: LP
Label: Tribal War Records
Year: 1996
Songs: 11

The System Works For Them is Aus Rotten's first LP, but for reasons of alphabetization, is second to review. I've never played these two records back to back before, but I'm actually sort of surprised by some of the differences that are apparent between this and ...And Now Back To Our Programming. We're not talking about "are these by the same band?" level differences, but there's definitely some development that's taken place between the two.

In the last review, I called Aus Rotten "masters of their genre," but this record is more... well, generic. It's not that it's bad. If you're into crust, this is still a solid record. In fact, it's got a little bit heavier sound that I think comes largely from more distortion on the bass which actually makes it sound a little more "crusty." And there's no shortage of passion in the delivery in these songs about capitalism, religion, war, etc. So if crust is your thing, you probably still enjoy this record.  On the whole though, the song writing here is much less developed than on the bands' second effort. The songs on The System Works for Them are simpler and much more repetitive. The influence of bands like Discharge and the Varukers comes to the fore in fast, metal-edged songs with only two or at most three parts, which are themselves more basic than the riffs on the band's second record. The vocal delivery is also rougher and has more of a barking feel to it that makes the lyrics a little harder to follow in places than on the band's second album (although still clearer than a lot of crust bands). It's not that this record displays incompetence, and I don't get bored with it necessarily, but I guess I understand better now why I listen to the other one more often.  This record really has a first-album feel to it: good energy, but not as developed as it could be. While the second album, as I suggested, has moments of what might be described as creative over-reach, I appreciate the band trying to do more than they did here.

Like the other Aus Rotten record I reviewed, my copy of this one is also missing the cover/poster. In fact, it's missing everything.  I don't even have a paper sleeve for this, it's just in one of those vinyl covers that people use to protect the outer jackets of records.  Bare bones. It's too bad, but I'm not invested enough in this particular album that I would buy another copy just for the packaging.

Total songs listened: 260

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Aus Rotten: ...And Now Back to Our Programming

Review # 21
Artist: Aus Rotten
Title: ...And Now Back To Our Programming
Format: LP
Label: Tribal War Records
Year: 1998
Songs: 7

Aus Rotten was  one of the classic and best known bands of 1990s crust, spanning most of the decade and garnering considerable attention and credibility among crusties and more than a few fans of street punk with a sound that drew heavily off of the anarcho-punk bands like Conflict, but injected it with a more hardcore and metal sounds. I never bought a full-length record by the band but ended up with two in my collection thanks, again, to receiving my friend Tim's records.

...And Now Back To Our Programming is the band's second effort. It starts off, rather ambitiously, with a single 15 minute song, the title track. A song of this length for a punk rock band is a bold and ambitious move.  There's just one problem: even though it's all one track, it's not really all one song. It's probably three different songs. They have thematically linked lyrics, but structurally, this just isn't one song.  There are pauses, followed by completely different parts.  There are choruses, but they don't repeat throughout the 15 minute track, just one specific part of it. So as a piece of music, the song "...And Now Back To Our Programming" just doesn't hold together.  I'm not saying it doesn't sound good.  I'd say there are probably three good songs there.  But trying to make them all into a single song in this case feels either like a failed attempt at something that exceeded the band's creative grasp, or just a little bit pretentious. This isn't some epic opus, it's several good punk songs. Oh well. Side A of the record also includes an old ad for Phillip-Morris which extols the healthful qualities of their cigarettes. It's pretty preposterous that such claims were at one time widely accepted.

Side B of the record is more straightforward.  It's comprised of six  medium to fast paced hardcore songs denouncing sexism, homophobia, war, and greed. The vocal delivery is such that an ear that's used to this kind of music can actually make out most of what the band has to say, which is often not the case with bands like this. The message actually gets across in the music if you want to listen for it. Musically, what this has to offer is good, solid, hardcore punk with alternating lead vocals. There's nothing all that intricate or progressive on this record, but Aus Rotten are masters of their genre, and they deliver their material with passion and energy like a good punk band should. A few of the songs feature backing vocals from Adrienne Droogas of the band Spitboy, which is a nice touch, especially on the song "Sexist Appeal," which is thematically quite similar to a lot of the Spitboy material.

What my copy of this album lacks is the cover/fold-out poster.  I'm pretty sure Tim had this up on his wall at one point, and when the vinyl got boxed up and handed off to me, this didn't make it back into the package. So unfortunately, I don't have any of the album art or lyrics. What did come in this record was a pamphlet on veganism and a copy of "Resistance: A Journal of Grassroots Direct Action" from 1999. I'm not sure how this got in there, if it was from Tim or some previous owner of the record. It's got stories on the Zapatistas, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the McLibel case, and other stuff you'd commonly find in an radical publication back in the late 1990s (and, to varying degrees, today). Most of it is kind of dated, but it the publication itself looks pretty well done and is a slice of what was going on around the time the record came out. I don't expect I'll spend a lot of time with it, but it's sort of a cool find from a historical standpoint.

Next, I'll be reviewing another Aus Rotten record from Tim's collection, and then moving into the last two artists in my collection of LPs that start with the letter A....

Listen to "Sexist Appeal"

Total Songs Listened: 249

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jan August: Piano Roll Favorites

Review # 20
Artist: Jan August (w/The Bay Rum Boys)
Title: Piano Roll Favorites
Format: 10" LP
Label: Mercury
Year: 1950
Songs: 8

I don't remember how this came into my collection, but I might have bought it at the Goodwill outlet store where records cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 cents. I think I played it once before today, but I'm not really sure.  This record is made up of songs that were popular as rolls for player pianos, performed by pianist (and, according to the internet, xylophonist) Jan August. Some tracks feature vocals by the Bay Rum Boys. There's also a snare drum and what sounds like maybe a stand up bass on these songs.

This record has seen better days. It pops and skips a little, but honestly, it kind of adds to the old-timey feel of this record. While this came out in 1950 (or at least, that's the only date I could find for it online), these songs are older than that, with some dating back to the 1930s, and the recording feels much more like something out of the 1940s than the 1950s. There's a ragtime feel to most of these songs, and the lyrics are incredibly dated and sometimes politically incorrect (see for example these lyrics to "Egyptian Ella"). And yet, on some level, this was a record that recognized the changing times. "The Good Old Pianola" reminisces about the days of player pianos, bemoaning the rise of the jukebox, which, in contrast to its vanquished predecessor, charges it's listeners for the pleasure of listening to music.

I can't really get too deep into this one. It just falls too far outside my frame of reference, and to my ear there isn't anything that deep happening here. I will say, however, that the piano performances are pretty impressive, and the Bay Rum Boys, although they sound silly and entirely too innocent to the contemporary ear, really nail that old-time harmony sound and compliment Jan and the band nicely. This feels like a perfect little slice of music from a bygone era--it's actually sort of surprising this isn't an album of 78s rather than a single 33rpm record. Apparently Jan and the Bay Rum Boys did release some of these tracks on 78s, so maybe the recordings are older than this particular collection, but I don't know. Information about this one on the internet is sparse. Regardless of the actual date these were recorded, however, you could imagine strolling along at a county fair in the 1930s or 40s, and hearing these performances in background as someone yells about how, for just a nickle, you can have three chances to knock down the bottles.  Or something like that.  I wouldn't seek this out or anything, but it's cute and fun if you like old-time music.

Total songs listened: 242

The Assistant: We'll Make the Roads by Walking

Review # 19
Artist: The Assistant
Title: We'll Make the Roads by Walking
Format: LP
Label: Scene Police
Year: 2003
Songs: 7

Like the 7 Seconds record I began this blog with, this is a record I inherited from my friend Tim that I had never actually played before starting this project. I actually got rid of some of his records shortly after I got them because I either already had them or knew I didn't want them. I kept this one, actually, after misreading the band name--I had mistaken this for a record by a local hardcore band called The Assailant, who I think were ok, but not good enough that I felt the need to actually listen to the record any time soon after getting it.

Turns out this is by a completely different band, The Assistant. This record is seven songs of pretty excellent progressive hardcore, reminiscent at times of Refused and some of the better emocore bands of the 1990s. The bass is apparently all synth and there's also some other keyboard work on some of these songs, but it's subtle enough that you really only hear it at certain points--it's not keyboard driven, the keyboard mostly adds some extra texture or dramatic flare here and there. Urgent male and female vocals that scream out in desperation at some points but sing melodically at others contribute to the dynamism of this record. I don't think any song on the album maintains the same tempo all the way through, and several have time signature changes as well. Things will be plugging along on a standard 4/4 rock beat and then suddenly turn into a waltz.

Lyrically, these songs deal with everything from geopolitics to overcoming the pain of high school experiences to consumerism to the consequences of drug abuse.  The lyrics and are thoughtful and the included booklet contains extensive explanations of each song. Sometimes the explanations are longer than the lyrics, but they're often a good read. This band is serious about being honest and laying their thoughts and motivations out for their listeners, and the honesty here makes you understand the emotions and thoughts that they pour into these compelling hardcore songs.

The only moment on this record that was a little silly to me was the vocal delivery on the first song, "Be Nice To Me, I Had a Ruff Day."  The songs deals with trying to maintain a positive outlook on life in the face of a world that can make that very difficult.  I think this is a great message, but the tortured screaming of lines like "I will try to wake up with a smile on my face" strikes me as more than a little incongruous. By no means is this sort of thing unique to the assistant--many bands that have screamy vocals do songs about things they're not actually angry about, but this has always seemed a little weird to me. If you scream about everything, the scream can lose it's power.

All in all though, this is a really good, inventive, hardcore record that displays both musical prowess and passion, a combination one finds too seldom in punk rock music. This will be in my regular rotation from here on out.

Total songs listened: 234

Monday, June 20, 2011

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Great Reunion

Review # 18
Artist: Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington
Title: The Great Reunion
Format: LP
Label: Emus
Year: 1961
Songs: 7

I love Duke Ellington.  He was the first jazz artist I ever got an album by. I'll be reviewing a lot more of his stuff before this project is over, especially in the cd portion of the blog.  You put him together with Louis Armstrong and you've got a combination that's hard to beat. These two men were masters of their art form and collaborate wonderfully on this record. This is one of the best jazz records in my collection, and while I'm not an expert on jazz, I'm inclined to think it's one of the best ever recorded. I just love this album.

The line-up here is Armstrong and his regular band, plus Ellington on piano. The songs are all, according to the liner notes, arranged by Ellington, and many (all?) of them are classics from the Ellington catalogue, such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." But the record sounds like both of these artists. Neither eclipses the other, and the unique and enjoyable styles of both artists are clearly evident on every song.  Armstrong sings on all the tracks, and, even more than usual, he sounds like he's having a great time. The songs are full of energy.  Even the slower ones like "I've Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" and "Azalea" flow so naturally and feel like they just move along under their own power.

The swinging tunes on the record are wonderful romps. For example, the record starts with "It Don't Mean a Thing," which in my book is one of the most fun jazz tunes ever recorded. The pacing on this rendition is just right--fast, but not frantic, and we get a little bit of Armstrong's famous scatting, too.
My only complaint about this record is that it's only seven songs.  I'd love another five or six.  Apparently the "reunion" in the title is a reference to the fact that this is the second collaboration between Armstrong and Ellington. I've never heard it, but I'm going to have to get my hands on the first one, one of these days, because seven songs is just not enough when it's this good.

Here's "Azalea" if you want to check it out.

Total songs listened: 227

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Louis Armstrong and the All Stars: The Glenn Miller Story **UPDATED**

Review # 17
Artist: Louis Armstrong and the All Stars
Title: The Glenn Miller Story
Format: LP
Label: MCA
Year: 1954 (?)
Songs: 10

This the French release of the soundtrack to the 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story, which starred Jimmy Stewart in the title role and also featured Louis Armstrong playing... Louis Armstrong. I haven't seen the film, and in fact didn't even know it existed until I got this record (which was only a about a week ago), but I'm curious now and probably will try to rent it. I've listed the year for this album as 1954 because that's when the movie came out and I haven't been able to find a release date for the record.

Because this is the soundtrack to a film about Glenn Miller, the songs are, not surprisingly, mostly big band renditions of Glenn Miller classics like "In the Mood" and "Pennsylvania 6-500," the latter of which features a slightly jarring telephone sound effect before each chorus. I like Glenn Miller well enough, but he's not one of my all time favorites in the jazz world. Even though I like it, there's something just a little too tame and friendly in the Glenn Miller sound for me to get deeply invested. The songs on this record are mostly nice versions of songs in Miller's repertoire, but they aren't that different from the actual Glenn Miller recordings of these songs.  Very seldom do Louis Armstrong's famous trumpet stylings really come through, and on only two songs, "Basin Street Blues" and "Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya" does his unique vocal appear. To be honest, I'm not totally sure how many of these songs Armstrong actually even appears on, and I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't that many.

I don't mean to suggest that this a bad record.  Far from it.  It's both a good record and sort of a cool piece of jazz history. But if you pick this up hoping for something that sounds more like a Louis Armstrong record than a Glenn Miller record, you may find yourself a bit a disappointed or at least surprised.

Also, since this is the French release of this record, I can't read the liner notes and have no idea what they're saying. They might provide some insights on the what role (if any) Armstrong played in recording the songs he's less obvious on, but I'm not sure.

In short, this is a fun jazz record and has a lot of nice cuts on it, but most of it sounds more like a Glenn Miller record than a Louis Armstrong one.

Here's a fun clip from the movie that features  Louis Armstong playing "Basin Street Blues."

Total songs listened: 220

**Update: July 5, 2011**
Over Independence Day weekend, I watched a bunch of movies, including The Glenn Miller Story. While I don't know how accurate the film was to real life, I definitely have a little more respect for Glenn Miller as an artist. The film shows his struggles in the early years of his jazz career, as a man driven to finding a new sound in jazz. It also makes it clear how unusual his arrangements were in his time. The instrumentation he was using was unheard of in his time.  No one had ever tried five saxophones with a clarinet lead before, at least not successfully. The Miller sound is still not my favorite, but I have a new found appreciation for Miller's jazz innovation after seeing the film.  It's also just a good watch, if you like old movies. Recommended.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Louis Armstrong: Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits

Review # 16
Artist: Louis Armstrong
Title: Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits
Format: LP
Label: Columbia
Year: 1967
Songs: 11

This is the first of three records featuring Louis Armstrong that I'll be reviewing over the next few days.  Louis Armstrong is one of those artists who played for so long that's at first blush, it seems like it would be kind of hard to determine which were his "greatest hits." Be that as it may, this a great record that features a lot of songs that even a casual fan of Louis Armstrong would recognize (though lacks a recording of "What a Wonderful World," which came out the year after this collection was released).  These are mostly recordings that Armstrong made in the mid-1950s, but a few of them go back to the late 20s as well, and it's a mix of studio and live tracks from performances. The recording quality is pretty good on all of them (sometimes this is not so with older recordings, especially live recordings) and the studio tracks by and large have a rich, warm sound that's really conducive to Armstrong's unique voice.

This was the first Louis Armstrong record I ever bought, and the one I've played the most. It's hard to pick out highlights from this record, because you just can't really go wrong with Louis Armstrong. I've always particularly liked his version of "A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)," although it's funny how much the tone doesn't match the lyrics.  The song sounds so happy, but when you actually pay attention, there's some pretty horrible stuff going on in the narrative.  It's a swingin' good time song about  murder. It's always struck me as odd, especially after hearing what the original version sounded like, that this has become a jazz classic. From eerie and kind of sad to swingin' good time... tale of murder. It works though, no doubt about it.

Another moment I love from this record is at the beginning of "Back O'Town Blues," the second cut on the record, when Louis sings: "I once had a woman..." and someone else from  the band shouts out "So what? I had five of 'em!" That's always cracked me up. On side two, which is all live stuff, I'm particularly fond of Armstrong's version of "All of Me," a song I've always had a fondness for anyway.

The back of the sleeve is nice in that it gives a little background on each song, when it was recorded, which band was playing with Armstrong, and how it fit into his large repertoire and career.

I'm not an expert on Louis Armstrong, or on jazz in general for that matter. I like a fair amount of it, and I tend to mostly go in for the classics, so my opinion of this record isn't based on an encyclopedic or up-to-date knowledge of jazz music. As a non-expert though, I will say that I think this a good collection of Armstrong's work, especially as an introduction for someone who may not be too familiar with his catalogue.

Total songs listened: 210

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Armistice: Fluff and Stuff

Review # 15
Artist: Armistice
Title: Fluff and Stuff: The eps & early years
Format: LP
Label: Despotic Records
Year: 2005
Songs: 16

This is a record made up of early recordings and EPs by the crust band Armistice. The thing that makes Armistice unique is not their music.  It's not their lyrics.  It's their obsession with Winnie the Pooh. Yes, that's right, it's a crust punk band that obsessed with Winnie The Pooh.  So much so that Armistice have declared themselves to the first p-beat band. For those not in know, d-beat is a particular drum beat (and variety of crust that uses it a lot) that goes "do dotoo, do dotoo, do dotoo, do dotoo" (if that makes anys sense).  Armistice, as a Pooh influenced d-beat band has declared that they are a p-beat band.

So what does that mean exactly? Well, in terms of their lyrics or music, not much. It sounds like d-beat crust. Lyrically, the Pooh influence is subtle or non-existant--it's songs about war, environmental destruction, television, and capitalism.  Where the Pooh influence comes out is in the visuals.  I read an interview with this band a long time ago, and they said they were attracted to the Pooh motiff because, while most crust bands feature images of doom and gloom, they wanted to show images of the better, kinder world they wanted to bring about. A world which, apparently, is best embodied by Winnie the Pooh.

The result is images like this one:

Crusty Pooh and Piglet holding hands in front of a peace symbol.  Weird, right?

But let me be clear: I'm not being critical of this.  Far from it. I thought I was the only crust fan in the world who was also into Winnie the Pooh, but it turns out, I'm not alone. Winnie the Pooh and crust punk, it turns out, are totally compatible. I love it. I'm not being sarcastic at all.

So, you may be asking, how's the music? Well, it's fine.  It's sort of generic d-beat crust with both male and female vocals.  It's kind of predictable, to be honest, both lyrically and musically.  But, it's solid enough, if you like this kind of music. Nothing wrong with any of it, especially if you are into bands like Doom, Discharge, and One Way System (who they do a pretty good cover of on this record). I would definitley go see them live, given the opportunity to do so.  I would say I don't really need any more their records, except that I want these records for the visuals. So yeah, not mind blowing, but decent crusty crust if you like that sort of thing.

Ok, no more punk reviews for a few days. As we move toward the end of "A" we're going into some different sonic territory for a bit.

Wanna hear Armistice? Check out "Endless Struggle."

Total songs listened: 199

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A//Political: The Greatest Working Crass Rip-Off

Revew # 14
Artist: A//Political
Title: The Greatest Working Crass Rip-Off
Format: LP
Label: Threat to Existence
Year: 2010
Songs: 19

This LP features the entire discography of the mid to late 1990s peace punk band A//Political, as well as some previously unreleased material, and a hefty booklet (60 pages!) featuring the band's lyrics, photos, an interview, short essays on pacifism and anarcho-syndicalism, and a complete history of the band and the anarchist collective they were part of, the Crasshole Collective. Lots of reading material! I'm not actually a big enough fan of this band to need to read all of this stuff in a single sitting.  I like them well enough, but I didn't find them at the right time in my life to feel really passionate about their music I think. Still, I've picked through bits of the booklet and some of it is pretty interesting.  Really though, it's the kind of thing I wish would have fallen into my hands when I was still trying to figure out my own politics and what punk is actually about. It would have been informative and inspiring.

Musically, this record really hearkens back to the likes of Crass, Conflict, and the previously reviewed Anthrax.  It's not crust, it's anarcho-punk in the early 80s British tradition that largely faded away with the birth of the crust sound. The drumming has a lot of roll in it, ala Crass, the guitars are a little on the trebley side, vocals alternate between semi-melodic, shouty, and ranty, but never enter the Cookie Monster territory favored by so many crusty bands. As a big fan of the early British anarcho stuff, it's cool to hear a slightly more contemporary band playing in this style.  "Stop Thinking and Pogo" and other songs like it show a clear influence from Crass's Stations of the Crass and Conflict's It's Time to See Who's Who, yet the band still manages to have it's own voice. They seem to use Crass and Conflict as starting points, but also incorporate some street punk sounds in some songs, some American hardcore, and a hint of crust as well.

Lyrically, these songs are political and scene-critical, encouraging punks to step outside their limited scene ("Punk is a Ghetto") to try to affect larger change in the world. It's smart and political, and I find many of the critiques I've made of the punk scene represented in the lyrics of this band.

One thing that's a little odd about this record is that it seems to play a little fast. I've played it on two different record players now and it just seems like the songs are just a tiny bit sped up.  Maybe they had to do this to make all the songs fit on the record, or maybe I'm just not familiar enough with the band's catalogue and this is just what it sounds like. Maybe it's just in my head. It's not severe that it detracts from my enjoyment of the record, but the vocals just seem a little higher and more rapid than would be natural. I'd welcome the input of anyone who's more familiar with the original releases than I am, because while I've heard this band in passing many times over the years, this record is the first release I've ever owned by them other than one song on a compilation, so I don't have much basis for comparison.

A//Political was a band that was passionate about their politics and did real work to try to advance them, in the tradition of the groups their music emulates. If every punk band were as thoughtful and hardworking as they were, the scene would be much better place.  Musically, I'd recommend this to fans of nearly any kind of punk, but not necessarily anyone who wasn't already a punk fan of some kind.
Total songs listened: 183

Listen to "It's Not About Politics, It's About Life."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Antischism: Still Life

Review # 13
Artist: Antischism
Title: Still Life
Format: LP
Label: Prank Records
Year: 1991
Songs: 13

Hello, readers.  Sorry about the absence of posts in the last couple of days. I've just returned from a fantastic weekend in Portland, where I picked up a half dozen new jazz records. A couple of these will find their way into this blog in the next few days, but in the meantime, I'm going to review a couple more punk records.  For those of you less inclined toward this type of music, please bear with me. I'll be into some different stuff in just a couple more reviews.

With that said, let's talk about Antischism's Still Life. Had I not gotten out of place in terms of alphabetization and not reviewed some Sinatra on Friday, this record would have come immediately after Anti-Product's The Deafening Silence of Grinding Gears (review # 10), and the pairing of the two would have been appropriate.  There are number of similarities between these records (aside from similar band names). Both records are by crust bands from the 1990s, featuring alternating male and female vocals and similar topical content -- environmental destruction, racism, war, the plight of native peoples, the need for radical change. Both show a clear Nausea influence in both vocal delivery and musical stylings.

These are, however, in other ways, very distinctive records.  Still Life is sonically a heavier record that relies more on distortiona and standard crust and d-beat rhythms than does The Deafening Silence. That doesn't mean it sounds the same all the way through--tempo changes and precise starts and stops during the songs keep them from all running together. The songs here are not what I would call ground-breaking, though they might have sounded fresher in 1991 than they do today. In any case, though, the songs on this record  are generally well-written and competently performed late 80s/early 90s style crust. Not genre-transcending, but more than adequate if you like this kind of music.  Lyrically, Antischism tends more towards the abstract than Anti-product, though personal narratives also surface here and there, and the band avoids the excessive sloganeering of some political bands.

An aspect of this record that I find distinctive is the heavy use of non-musical samples.  There are numerous tracks on this record that feature samples of dialogue from films or news broadcasts that either stand alone or are paired with eerie backwards recordings of what I presume to be the band's own material. I can't identify all of them, but there are at least two samples from Michael Moore's Roger and Me, some that appear to be from television news segments, and another ("Ladies and Gentlemen") from a film I can't identify that features someone who sounds a lot like Jeff Goldblum (but might or might not be him) arguing with two women and in doing so making a number of extremely sexist remarks.  The anti-sexism message of this sample is clear. The sample I find a little more thought provoking is "Pets or Meat," which features a conversation between Michael Moore and a woman who butchers and sells rabbits for a living. Whenever I listen to this record, I find myself wondering whether Antischism is intending here to  to reposition this segment as a purely animal-rights message. The descriptions of the rabbits' living conditions and ultimate fate are disturbing, and are presented here out of the context of economic desperation depicted in Moore's film. In Roger and Me, the unfortunate fate of these rabbits is used to show what some people are driven to in face of an economic system which has left them behind. In the film, one sympathizes with both the rabbits and the woman who sells them.  Here, in the absence of context, the segment seems to take on a different message: "look how people mistreat animals."  I'm not saying the band is right or wrong to reposition in the sample in this way. In fact, I find the appropriation  and re-purposing of this sample to be an interesting move, made more interesting still by the potentially different meanings that one might bring to this track based on whether or not they've seen the film. I bring it up here not so much as a criticism as something I find intriguing.

As a side note, I bought this record used several years back, and there's a flyer in the sleeve for two punk shows at a place called the Mr. Roboto Project in Wilkinsburg, PA. I've never heard of any of the bands, but I looked at the website on the flyer, and the venue has apparently been active since 1998 and continues to be an all-ages music venue today. It makes me wonder how far and how long this record travelled before ending up in my possession.

In a nutshell: very competent crust with interesting samples. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Total songs listened: 164

Here's the opening track, "Failsafe."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Frank Friday! Frank Sinatra and Count Basie: It Might As Well Be Swing

Review # 12
Artist: Frank Sinatra & Count Basie
Title: It Might As Well Be Swing
Format: LP
Label: Reprise
Year: 1964
Songs: 10

This is one of my favorite Frank Sinatra records ever. In fact, as far as the swinging Sinatra material goes, this the absolute best, as far as I'm concerned. Sinatra is teamed up here with one of the true masters of jazz, Count Basie, and his orchestra. The songs are arranged and conducted by another famous name in American music, Quincy Jones. You just can't go wrong with this combination, and this record is practically flawless. Starting with "Fly Me to the Moon," the first song on side A, this record always has me snapping my fingers and singing along. It puts a spring in my step. It makes me want to get dressed up for a night on the town and drink martinis. It just feels cool and classy to listen to this record.

My favorites on this collection are "Fly Me To the Moon," "The Best Is Yet To Come," and Sinatra and Basie's rendition of "Hello, Dolly!" which features lyrics that have been altered to include a loving tribute to Louis Armstrong. There's also the touching "I Wish You Love," a song in which a lover that never was wishes the best for the object of his unrequited love. One of the great things about Sinatra is that, no matter what he's singing, you feel like he means it. Thus, even though this is a mostly upbeat song, it's a little poignant as well, as the protagonist of the lyrics gracefully lets go of the one that got away.

Throughout the record, the band swings in a way that makes you wonder how it is that big bands ever went out of style, and you can feel the energy between them and Sinatra, who, according to the liner notes, shunned the isolation booth usually used by singers so that he could see the band and they could see him. It pays off. The performances are lively and just feel incredibly natural and effortless. The only song on this record I don't dig as much is the closing tune, "Wives and Lovers," which, even for 1964, is just painfully sexist. If you aren't familiar, the song basically tells all the wives listening that they need to make themselves pretty, otherwise their husbands will cheat on them with girls at the office because, well, you know how men are. I don't fool myself to think that Sinatra was a man of enlightened feminist views, but this one just goes too far and frankly (no pun intended) makes me feel a little uncomfortable.

A cool feature of this record is that on the back of the sleeve, there's an interview with Quincy Jones (or "Q" as Sinatra apparently nicknamed him) which offers some interesting insight into the recording process and what it was like to work with Sinatra and Basie.  I particularly liked this quote:

"[Sinatra is] not constricted by the melody as it was written. He bends it so that invariably it fits flawlessly into what's going on in the background. So far as I can put the essence of Frank into words, I'd say that he just makes everything work. He makes everything fit, and that's exactly what happened on these sessions."

I can't disagree.

Fly to the moon with Frank and the Count here.
Total songs listened: 151

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anthrax: One Last Drop

Review # 11
Artist: Anthrax
Title: One Last Drop
Format: LP
Label: Happy
Year: 2007
Songs: 19

Ok, so I got out of order here. I just picked this record up last week and put it in the wrong spot alphabetically when I put it away.  Like the last review, I have to start by saying this is not the New York-based metal band called Anthrax, it's the UK based anarcho-punk band from the early 80s. This record is a compilation of the bands 1980s singles, originally released on the Crass, Motorhate, and Small Wonder labels, as well as demo and compilation tracks and a few live recordings. I believe this more or less captures the complete discography of this band, as I don't think they ever released a full-length.

This is the first time I've played this record, and I definitely enjoyed it, but can't say I was blown away by it. Anthrax is a band that was very much a product of the early 80s anarcho-punk scene, and by no means were they the most innovative of their cohort. The songs on this record do not at any point stray far from the musical (or topical) trail that was blazed by Crass and Conflict. A few of these songs, like "Violence is Violence" would feel right at home on the first Conflict full-length, which I'll be reviewing later in the CD portion of the blog. Still, if you like that sound (and I do) then this a cool record. Simple but powerful riffs with semi-melodic vocals and the occasional shout-out chorus make songs like "Capitalism is Cannibalism" and "They've Got It All Wrong" good music to sing along to while you cut your hair, which is what I was doing while I listened to this.

One thing that is not that great about this record is that, because Anthrax wasn't terribly prolific in their recordings, you get several version of some of these songs. They're recorded at different times and using different equipment, but they're otherwise pretty much exactly the same, and it gets a bit repetitive once you've heard "Exploitation" for the third time.

On the plus side, this record comes with a patch and two stickers, which is nice, though not as exciting as it would have been to me a few years back.

For punk history nerds, it's worth noting that the bass player from Anthrax went on to play bass with crust pioneers Antisect. If, like me, you are a semi-obsessive collector of rare UK punk, this is worth seeking out, but for someone who's more casually interested in this scene, any of the many excellent anarcho-punk compilations that feature this band are probably sufficient. If UK punk doesn't really float your boat at all, you're not missing anything here.

"I can't make sense of it, it doesn't make sense!"

Total songs listened: 141

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Antiproduct: The Deafening Silence of Grinding Gears

Review # 10
Artist: Anti-Product
Title: The Deafening Silence of Grinding Gears
Format: LP
Label: Tribal War Records
Year: 1999
Songs: 8

To begin with, I want to make it clear that this is a record by the American crust band Anti-Product, not the English glam punk band AntiProduct, who do something entirely different and which I don't particularly care for. The next several reviews will deal with hardcore punk type bands, as a lot of such bands have names that start with "A" (go figure).

The Deafening Silence of Grinding Gears is a good, solid crust punk record.  Not the most inventive ever, but not overly repetitious and always smart and heartfelt.  Alternating male and female lead vocals that sometimes sing and sometimes shout create a dynamic sound that holds your interest. A crunchy (but not distored beyond recognition) guitar plays metal-influenced punk riffs, while the drums manage to avoid excessive reliance on same two beats that characterize much of genre, and bass does more than just follow the guitar. Good, competent crust. I would compare this to Nausea, but little less metal influenced.

The record comes packaged with a hefty lyrics book that, in 1990s-crust style, includes not only the lyrics to all the songs, but also an opening statement and a paragraph about each song explaining its topic and signicance. These songs draw straight, clear lines between imperialism, racism, industrialism, sexism, environmental degradation, and our lives and choices. There is a smart reclamation of term "feminism" in "Modern Day F* Word," and a comparison drawn between colonialism and and an unquestioning belief in scientific progress in "It Festers in Their Hearts." These are topics that often lend themselve to finger-pointing (not that there isn't a time and place for that...) but Anti-Product goes a step beyond the standard "those guys are bad, let's resist them" and examines also the struggles of people (i.e. themselves) trying to overcome internalized assumptions and prejudices, which does much to humanize this band and make the record feel more personal than one made up entirely of songs that exclusively criticize other people or simply "the system."

In short: a good crust record, if that's your thing, thoughtful lyrics, but probably not that appealing to most folks who don't care for the genre.

Listen to "It Festers In Their Hearts."

Total songs listened: 122

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Amebix: No Sanctuary

Review # 9
Artist: Amebix
Title: No Sanctuary-The Spiderleg Recordings
Format: LP & 7"
Label: Alternative Tentacles
Year: 1984/2008

Amebix is, arguably, the first crust punk band. They blended metal and punk, sang in growly voices, lived in squats, and used dark and at times downright horrifying imagery in both their lyrics and album art in order point out the flaws in the modern political, economic, and social systems. They, alongside their contemporaries Antisect, borrowed the ethic and aesthetic developed by Crass and the first wave of British anarcho-punk bands and it took it a darker place. Thus, crust punk was born.

Musically though, there's a lot more going on here than just a fusion of punk and metal. What makes Amebix unique among crust bands, and in my view, better than Antisect, was their willingness and ability to experiment with sounds that fell outside of punk or metal. In my opinion, this is nowhere more evident than on their first EPs, No Sanctuary and Who's the Enemy, which have been combined by Alternative Tentacles as a single release. While the influences of punk rock and metal bands like Motorhead and Black Sabbath are evident here, this record is equally influenced by post-punk and early goth. Take away the growly-vocals, and a song like "Belief" could almost be a Gang of Four song, while "No Gods No Masters" could almost be a lost Killing Joke track as is. The first half of "Sunshine Ward" sounds more like Joy Division than a metal band, while the second half delves again into Killing Joke's sonic territory. The subtle and judicious use of keyboards and Gregorian chant-like backing vocals add a spooky, gothic quality to a couple of the tracks as well. Every song on this record is unrelentingly dark, but unlike a lot of the bands they inspired, the songs on this record definitely don't all sound the same.

Lyrically, a common theme on this album is each individuals complicity in their own repression, and ultimately in the damage to the world being wreaked by wars, industry, and unfair economic arrangements. As is often the case with Amebix records, the hyperbole can get a little silly at times, but at other times, the lyrics here are genuinely disturbing and thought-provoking. In terms of both sound and lyrics, if I had to sum this record up in one word, that word would be "bleak."

No Sanctuary is not the best recognized of Amebix releases. This is in part because the rights for all the material they recorded in the early days, for fellow anarcho-punks Flux of Pink Indians' Spiderleg Records, were tied up for quite a while. As a result, these songs were mostly out of print and hard to find for many years. Re-issued a couple of years ago on Alternative Tentacles, there are a few surprises here for people who might have previously only been acquainted with the later works of Amebix. Because the thin and trebly guitar sound of Crass and other bands that recorded on their label was so popular in the anarcho punk scene at the time, the recording engineers at Spiderleg gave the Amebix guitar sound a similar treatment. This is a far cry from the thick, heavy guitars that appear on the follow-up album, Arise! and the rest of the band's work. As a fan of the crunchier sound on their later albums, this was initially a bit off-putting to me (as it was to the band themselves when they first heard the recordings).

As I grew to know this album better, however, I've come to appreciate the production.  It allows the post-punk influence to come through in a way that's easier to decipher than on later releases. Innovative basslines, disonant guitar work, and more inventive drumming that would feel more at home on a Joy Division record than a Motorhead record are all more evident here than on later releases. I'm not sure, but I think this may not be because they weren't doing these things later, it's just that they got swallowed up by the devastating wall of guitar distortion that appears on a lot of the songs on the likes of Arise! and Monolith. If I had produced Amebix, I probably would have pushed for a guitar sound that falls somewhere between what we get here and what they gave us on the later material.

In a nutshell, this record is crucial to the evolution of crust as a musical genre, but transcends what most of the bands in that genre have achieved sonically. If you are a fan of punk, post-punk, or metal, this is a record that should be in your collection. And, as a bonus, it comes with 7" copy of the first Amebix single, "Winter/Beginning of the End."

Intrigued? Check out "Sunshine Ward."

Total songs listened: 114

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Urban Chipmunk

Review # 8
Artist: Alvin and the Chipmunks
Title: Urban Chipmunk
Format: LP
Label: RCA
Year: 1981
Songs: 10

Urban Chipmunk sees us crossing the 100 song line for this blog, and also, thankfully, concludes our chipmunk reviews (until Christmas...). 1981's Urban Chipmunk was our rodent friends' first foray into country music, coming, oddly enough, between Chipmunk Punk and Chipmunk Rock. It shares several features with Chipmunk Rock: illustrations for each song, grumpy appearances by Dave Seville, and the weird little skits. This one opens with the Chipmunks performing John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." At the end of the song, Dave yells at the chipmunks to go to bed, because it's two o'clock in the morning. Now, it's reasonable to ask what Alvin & Co. are doing playing country music at 2am, but Dave's frustration is perhaps even more understandable on examination of the illustration for this song. We see the chipmunks in their living room.  Alvin stands on the couch wearing his black cowboy hat, singing and playing a fiddle, while Simon and Theodore, also in country apparel, dance on the floor.  There are pieces of hay or straw strewn about, and there are several chickens, some pigs, and and a cow in the room. Dave looks on in dismay.

Now, if memory serves, the chipmunks were based out of New York City, so how they got these animals into the apartment at all is a mystery.  But if this is the scene Dave walked in on at 2am, one can hardly blame him for his frustration, which grows over the course of the record as Alvin and friends more and more flagrantly disregard the correct lyrics of the country hits this record is made up of, replacing them with their own lyrics about chipmunks (i.e. "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys Chipmunks."

Other highlights include a royally botched performance of "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song" with the song's author Larry Butler trying to coach the chipmunks through the lyrics of the chorus, and Alvin's odd and inter-species marriage proposal to country singer Brenda Lee in "Made for Each Other." Here we see Alvin trying to convince Brenda of his country cred by suggesting he'll show up to court her wearing collard greens, but to no avail. "You're a chipmunk, I'm a lady. We don't have much in common," Lee sings as she rebuffs Alvin's proposal. "I'm a country girl. I think I'm better suited to a big strong country man." Yikes.

I've had enough of reviewing chipmunks records, and we're about to switch gears in dramatic fashion.

Total songs listened: 101

Monday, June 6, 2011

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipmunk Rock

Review # 7
Artist: Alvin and the Chipmunks
Title: Chipmunk Rock
Format: LP
Label: RCA
Year: 1982
Songs: 10

I didn't actually expect there to be much difference between this and Chipmunk Punk in terms of my overall enjoyment, but I must say, Chipmunk Rock is a better record. The production on the music is actually noticeably better, and Alvin and the boys' vocals are a little less shrill. Versions of Devo's "Whip it" and Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" were actually kind of rockin,' likewise with their cover of "Jessie's Girl." Mostly, this record is early 80s hits, as performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks, and it's sort of fun.

What stands out on this record , however, is less the music than the other stuff. This gate fold LP opens up to reveal a picture illustrating each song, and some of these are really quite bizarre. The picture that goes along with "Betty Davis Eyes" features the chipmunks hanging out with seven Betty Davises (Betty Davi?) and looking uncomfortable.  "Heartbreaker" features a picture of Alvin talking on the phone, next to several labeled volumes of black books, his walls covered with pictures of women admirers (human, not chipmunk). It's just weird. There are also some amusing skits on the record.  It begins with the chipmunks singing some barbershop music, as they were apt to do back in the 1960s.  Dave tells them he's going out for a bit, and to keep practicing. He tells them they are not to play any rock 'n roll while he's gone. The record concludes with his return, and the chipmunks abruptly switch back to the same barbershop song so as not to be caught in the act of playing rock music. Even more entertaining is the skit that precedes their cover of "Leader of the Pack," which sees our chipmunk friends conflicted about whether or not to perform a "girl's song." Simon and Theodore attempt to make Alvin wear a wig to sing this song, asking him, "haven't you ever heard of a chippette?" Alvin is initially resistant, but eventually ends up participating in the chipmunks' drag number. Oddly though, the "leader of the pack" is renamed Alvin in the song ("is that Alvin's ring you're wearing?"), which means that what we have going on here is Alvin in drag singing a love song about himself in which he describes his own death in a tragic motorcycle accident. Try not to think too hard about it. It's just confusing.

Devo fans: check out The Chipmunks version of "Whip It"

Total songs listened so far: 91

Friday, June 3, 2011

Frank Friday! Frank Sinatra: Close Up

Review # 6
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Title: Close Up
Format: LP (X2)
Label: Capitol
Year: 1970
Songs: 20

Welcome to the first "Frank Friday" post, in which I take an opporunity to review some Frank Sinatra and in doing so avoid having to review too many of his records all at once when I get to "S." Close Up is a double LP set that is more or less an extended collection of the greatest hits from the Capitol Records years of Sinatra's career. There's a lot of well known Sinatra recordings here: "From Here to Eternity," "(Love is) The Tender Trap," "Love and Marriage," and many others.  I picked this record up at a library book sale for a buck. Unfortunately, I only inspected one of the records very closely.  Thus, disc one is a bit warped. It only affects the first couple of songs on each side of the disc, but it's a little nauseating to listen to those songs. It doesn't distort the tracks beyond recognition, or even comically, it just makes it sound like Frank and the band are a little drunk.

Most of the songs on these records are the swinging Sinatra stuff. The fun stuff that most people think of when they think of Sinatra, along with some of the well known romantic ones like "Everybody Loves Somebody." These songs are considered by a lot of Sinatra fans to be his best material. Definitely classics, but I tend to prefer the moodier and more introspective songs Sinatra recorded in the 1960s on the Reprise label. That, however, is a different story we'll get into another time. There are some fine tunes on this collection, make no mistake. "Young at Heart," for example, is one of my favorite of the many songs Frank sang during his extensive career. There are also a couple I don't like as well. I've only just recently gotten to where I can listen to "Love and Marriage." For the longest time, I couldn't disassociate it from the show Married with Children, and for that reason it's still not one of my favorites.

A couple of interesting features of this collection: The last three songs all have the word "dream" in the title, and the song that precedes them, "I Believe," also mentions dreams several times in its lyrics. I guess whoever put this collection together wanted to create a theme here. Also, while this isn't that unusual, this record is in "duophonic" sound, which, if I understand correctly, was essentially an attempt make monophonic recordings sound like stereo.  Hard core audiophiles disapprove of this process, and I believe it's not used anymore. I only recently heard about this, so that's interesting to me.

Overall, this is a nice collection of songs, even though many of them appear on other Frank Sinatra recordings in my collection. It also has a cool gatefold cover (which unfortunately has seen much better days) with a bunch of pictures of Frank in the studio inside. Worth a buck, definitely.

Songs listened so far: 81

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipmunk Punk

Review # 5
Artist: Alvin and the Chipmunks*
Title: Chipmunk Punk
Format: LP
Label: Excelsior
Year: 1980
Songs: 9

I can't remember which punk documentary it was in, or who was talking, but at least one prominent musician from the early days of the scene said, and I'm paraphrasing, "When this came out, I knew punk was over." I've never subscribed to the notion that punk died with the Sex Pistols or whatever, but the release of this record was certainly a sign that, to paraphrase Crass, the system had stolen the proverbial sting from the tail of the first wave of punk. Chipmunk Punk signified that the trappings of punk had become very comodifiable and non-threatening to a large segment of the population. The cover, as you can see, depicts those lovable rodents in a dirty alley, with graffiti they are presumably responsible for. Alvin sports spiky hair and a safety pin, while Theodore rocks a skinny, mod-style tie. Punk had become something you could safely market as a cartoon or novelty record.

Or so it seemed.  While the image here is certainly evocative of punk rock cliches, the music really isn't. This record includes covers of Linda Rondstadt, Billy Joel, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Knack, Queen, and, as close to actual punk as the Chipmunks can muster, The Cars and Blondie. Actual punk music, it would appear, was still too controversial for the chipmunks. By 1980, you'd think they could have at least managed Devo and the Ramones, maybe even the Clash, but really, Linda Rondstadt? I know that for a minute, the big record labels were trying to market everything they could as punk, but give me a break.

Oh well. Ultimately, this a piece of pop-culture cheese that's fun to bust out every once in a while, but the cover is better than the music. I actually had this framed on my wall for a bit, making it ever-present but never-heard. It's that good of a listen.

Want to hear a sample? Here's "My Sharona."

Total songs listened: 61

*Some Chipmunks records credit simply "The Chipmunks" as the artist, while others credit "Alvin and the Chipmunks." In order to keep all my Chipmunks records together (oh yes, there are more), I file them all under "A." But the discerning Chipmunks fan may note  that this particular record actually belongs under "C."

Alternative TV: The Image Has Cracked

Review# 4
Artist: Alternative TV
Title: The Image Has Cracked
Format: LP
Label: Get Back
Year: 1978
Songs: 12

Alternative TV's The Image Has Cracked" rounds out our de facto trilogy of Get Back releases by artists starting with the letter "A," and it also follows nicely on the heels of the Advert's review, as this was another band born out of the first wave of British punk that sought to expand the boundaries of what punk could be. This record includes their first full-length, as well as their first two singles tacked on at the end.

Fronted by Sniffin' Glue" fanzine editor Mark P., Alternative TV begins this record, which followed a more traditional (if also scene-critical) punk single, with a bold statement. After a brief synthesizer-heavy opening, the record goes straight to a live track entitled "Alternatives." This was taken from a live show in which band, riffing quietly in the background, offered members of the audience the opportunity to come up on stage and talk about something important to them.  For a couple of minutes, no one has anything to say.  The band riffs on as Mark P. scolds the audience for its apathy.  Eventually someone comes up and tries to recruit a singer for their new band, and then a fight breaks out.  "I love you people," Mark tells the crowd, "but I hate it when you act like this because that's when they can grind you down." The track concludes with a rant about how punk music on television doesn't represent a victory, but rather a co-opting of the movement that allows it to be sold back to its members. Musically, there's not much going on on this track. As a song, it's kind of rubbish. But as an opening to a record by a band that was thought by some to be the next big thing, it's a powerful statement.

The rest of the record is eclectic and interesting, ranging from tongue-in-cheek pop ("Why Don't You Do Me Right"), traditional punk ("Good Times"), a chaotic, piano-driven statement on Paris ("Viva La Rock'n'Roll), the heavy drone of "Nasty Little Lonely" and the the catchy yet angular "hit" of the album, "Action Time Vision." The record doesn't do the same thing twice at any point, and very little of it sounds like the early punk singles. Many of the tracks have more in common with the minimalism of, say, Can than they do with the Clash.

Honestly, I don't listen to this record that often, because only about half of the tracks actually do anything for me from a musical standpoint. Such are the pitfalls, at least sometimes, of so much eclecticism and experimentation. But I appreciate this record's boundary pushing and efforts at making punk more than just what was, by that time, starting to appear on Top of the Pops.  While I love the more straight-forward punk of the early British punk scene (including Alternative TV's early "How Much Longer/You Bastard" single), history largely proved Mark P. right when says, near the close of "Alternatives:" "What you're getting is diluted shit. No way have you won brother.... No way have you won sister."

The next record I'll review demonstrates this in a particularly amusing way....
Total songs listened: 52

Here's "Viva La Rock'n'Roll" on youtube.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Adverts: Singles Compilation

Review #3
Artist: The Adverts
Title: Singles Compilation
Format: LP
Label: Get Back
Year: 1998
Songs: 14

This collection of singles, along with the essay on back of the sleeve by guitarist T. V. Smith, puts on display the band's trajectory  across the years of 1976-1979, from a straightforward first-wave British punk band to something darker and more nuanced. The record begins with the band's first single, "One Chord Wonders/Quick Step," which is energetic and upbeat, and lyrically is a manifesto: the punk ethic of "just go out and do it and to hell with what anyone thinks" made explicit. Both of these are classics of the genre, as are "Gary Gillmore's Eyes" and "Bored Teenagers," the second single.  But the aforementioned "to hell with what anyone else thinks" ethic is more evidently musically in the later tunes of the record, which step away from typical punk subject matter and sounds. "Safety in Numbers" critiques the growing conformity in the punk scene, while "We Who Wait" breaks away from it startlingly, as T. V. Smith sings forlornly about "dancing in the penny arcade." The significance of this line is unclear to me, but it has a sort of haunting imagery to it that is in stark contrast to the early material's "up yours, we're punks" attitude. By the end of side A, the Adverts ask us "I wonder, is a new day dawning?" in a song marked by a desperate plea for a different kind of world. Change is evident.

By side B of the record, we're entering entirely different sonic territory. "Television's Over" tackles a topic that's not unfamiliar to punk fans, but the downbeat choruses with whispered vocals take us to an entirely darker place than your standard "TV sucks" song. "My Place" would not be out of place on a much more contemporary indie rock record. The final single, as T.V. Smith puts it in his essay, "had one foot hanging over the edge of what most people would call 'punk'" at all. "Cast of Thousands" is driven more by piano and soaring choral vocals than by guitar or drums, and the b-side, "I Will Walk You Home" is a slow and eerily haunting dirge, with the whispering vocals of "Television's Over," the piano of "Cast of Thousands" now playing dark jazz, the lead vocal echoing the desperation of "New Day Dawning," and a monotone backing vocal repeating the song title again and again as the song, the record, and the band draw to a close.

Punk rock kicked open a lot of doors. The Adverts were a band who wanted to see what was behind some of them.

Total songs listened so far: 40