Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blondie: Blondie

Review # 54
Artist: Blondie
Title: Blondie
Format: LP
Label: Chrysalis
Year: 1976
Songs: 11

Everybody has heard Blondie. Their hit songs like "One Way or Another" and "Heart of Glass," along with Debbie Harry's quasi-sex symbol status, cemented a place for the band in the history of rock music. But before Blondie was a hit, they were just a good little punk/new wave band with some catchy tunes. Their self-titled debut LP captures this lesser-known era of the band's music.

Originally released on Private Stock Records in 1976, this record contains the band's first single, "X Offender," along with several other irreverent catchy songs. In the early days of the punk and new wave scene, before the Sex Pistols LP had even debuted, definitions of what was considered punk were more flexible. For Blondie, it meant high energy, bouncy pop songs, often with a retro feel to them. "X Offender" and"Little Girl Lies" sound like a really good 1960s garage band, with organ, straight up rock 'n roll guitar riffs, and hand claps. "In the Flesh," one of the better known songs on the record, sounds like something out of the late 1950s or early 1960s. "In the Sun" is evocative of 1960s surfer bands like the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. At other times, the organ also contributes to an almost carnival feel to some songs, like "A Shark In Jet's Clothing." The record finishes with a sci-fi film homage, "The Attack of the Giant Ants," which features a maddeningly catchy "la la la" chorus that I should find annoying but love anyway.  All in all, this is a melodic, fun, and catchy record.

Blondie lost most of their punk credibility when they released  the disco hit "Heart of Glass." I think you'd be hard pressed to find many punk bands that cite them as a major influence anymore. Even so, the influence of this particular record is hard to deny. Several of the melodies on this record can be heard echoing on other records that came out in subsequent years. While I can't say for certain that they borrowed it from this record, the similarities between, for example, "Look Good in Blue" and the Jam's "The Butterfly Collector" are hard to miss. It's worth noting, too, that "Heart of Glass" was not the departure that some people made it out to be. Listen to "Man Overboard" and you can hear the disco influence showing up not so subtly on this first LP.

I'm not a huge Blondie fan, but this is definitely my favorite of their albums. Blondie's punk cred might be assailable, but the quality of this record isn't.

If you haven't hear "X Offender," you should check it out.

Total songs listened: 685

Monday, November 21, 2011

New Record! Alternative: Demos 1982

Review # 53
Artist: Alternative
Title: Demos 1982
Format: LP
Label: Antisociety
Year: 2011(?)
Songs: 15

This record is a new release of the long out-of-print 1982 demo of British anarcho-punk band The Alternative. Unlike many of the other more obscure bands from this era who's recordings have become nearly impossible to track down in a physical form, this band has also remained fairly elusive on the internet as well. You can find MP3s by Hit Parade, Honey Bane, and Hagar the Womb if you look hard enough, but try searching the internet for "Alternative punk band MP3s" or some other variation of that.  You'll look all day before you find anything by them.

So, if you're a collector of British anarcho-punk like I am, it's good that this is back in print. Like my previous review, this is a band that, if you've heard them at all, you've probably heard on the Overground Records anarcho-punk series, which included their song "Where Are Your Hiroshimas?" A version of that song is also found on this record. I'm not really sure why it was the one chosen for the Overground series as it's far from my favorite on the record, being a bit overly shrill and repetitious for my taste. Be that as it may, unless you are a really serious punk historian and archivist, you're probably fine with just having the Overground comp in this case.

I'm not saying this record is bad, to be clear. But the recording quality is pretty awful in places. Both tinny and warbley at times, I think you have to have an ear that's accustomed to lo-fi diy punk recordings to get much out of this.  There's something I actually like about recordings that sound like this--they come off as more organic and authentic in some way. Having started playing music in the age when the best most diy bands could hope for was a half decent cassette four track demo, there's something that feels right to me about cheap analogue basement recordings, but I know that for most people, especially those younger than me, this isn't the case. There's no reason for any recording to sound like this in the 21st century.

What about the music? Well, it's good anarcho-punk, if you like that sort of thing. But there's nothing here that's so indispensable for the casual punk fan that it would be worth it to force yourself to listen to recordings that don't sound good. Alternative sounds like slightly more melodic Crass. There's some good bass and guitar work, but nothing that goes outside the confines of the anarcho-punk style. "Antichrist" and "Moral Bondage" in particular have some nice guitar hooks, and "Who's Sussed" has some nice melodic bass parts, but if you've heard contemporaries of this band, there are no real surprises here. Likewise the messages of the songs, which are anti-war, anti-organized religion, anti-nationalism, anti-nuclear weapons, etc. Kind of predictable.

I'm afraid I've come off more negative about this record than I am.  I actually like it quite a bit. But, as I mentioned in my last review, I'll pick up nearly anything from this particular milieu of the punk scene. To me, it's the happy medium between the musical stylings of the first wave of British punk bands, which I tend tend to prefer to crust bands from a musical standpoint, and political content of crust, which is often more thoughtful than the first wave bands. But if I was going to recommend one record from this era, I can't say I'd consider this.  It's for collectors of anarcho punk. If you can find their EP (good luck), the recordings are a lot better, but still, Alternative still doesn't really stand out from their contemporaries that much.

Total songs listened: 674

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Record! The A-Heads: Discography 1982-2009

Review # 52
Artist: The A-Heads
Title: Discography 1982-2009
Format: LP
Label: Mass Media Records
Year: 2011
Songs: 11

So I made a trip to Singles Going Steady last week and ended up with two new records by bands that start with "A." So we'll be backtracking for the next couple of reviews. The other records were "S" and "Z" records respectively, so we'll get to them in turn.

Tonight, I'm listening to the A-Heads discography. I pick up more or less anything I come across by the UK anarcho punk bands of the early 1980s, and so, in spite of only really knowing one song by this band, I bought this. If you've heard the A-Heads at all, you've probably heard the song "Forgotten Hero," which has appeared on a number of anarcho punk compilations, including the excellent 4 cd series from Overground Records. It's a haunting anti-war song that, like many A-Heads songs, uses a narrative form to make a point about a socio-politcal issue. This is a form that works well for them. The band doesn't seem to have as coherent or overt a political analysis as some of the bands from the anarcho scene. Their songs are anti-war and anti-prejudice, and there are critiques of the mental health system and meditations on drug addiction. But, for a band called the A-Heads, there's surprisingly little on this record that resembles a full on anarchist critique, and nary a slogan to be found. I'm not sure if the band was just less political, or if they just preferred a lyrical form that doesn't hit the listener over the head with their politics, but in terms of lyrical content, this stands apart from many of their contemporaries.

Musically, this is mid-tempo 1980s punk with melodic female vocals. Some of it would have fit in just fine with the (mostly hostile) British street punk scene just as well as the anarcho scene--it's catchy, melodic, and sometimes snotty, with moments of crunchy guitars but nothing that crosses into crust territory. That makes this record a lot of fun, actually. Although "Forgotten Hero" is pretty dark, most of the rest of the record you can bounce around to. Even songs with dark themes like "Dying Man" and "Isolated" are pretty fun, musically (if you like '80s punk, at least). Probably my favorite song, musically, is "No Rule," which starts quieter and then shifts gears to become more aggressive and punky. I like that sort of thing.

An interesting note about the A-Heads-- it appears they are still active. The lyric sheet lists a current lineup and, while the individual tracks aren't dated, the title of the record suggests that at least something on this record was recorded in 2009. The record label logo on the back of the record says "stay punk, stay awake, never give up." It would appear the A-Heads take that slogan to heart. Right on, folks.

Here's "Hell Cell" if you want to check out the A-Heads.

Total songs listened: 659

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear: Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah/Our Troubled Youth

Review # 51
Artist: Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear
Title: Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah/Our Troubled Youth
Format: LP
Label: Kill Rock Stars/Catcall
Year: 1992
Songs: 15

This record is a split LP featuring, on one side, Bikini Kill's second official release Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and on the other, Huggy Bear's Our Troubled Youth. It was one of the first records I bought from an independent label, back in the days when getting my hands on stuff like this either meant a ferry ride to Seattle or, more commonly, sending a check in the mail to a record label's mail order service with a list of alternative choices in case what I wanted wasn't in stock at the time. In the 1990s, in the days before music was widely available on the internet, being punk rock in a small town was a lot more challenging. I'd send out my checks and then wait eagerly for the mail carrier to bring me a little slice of counterculture, out in the wasteland that was Poulsbo, Washington. This was part of one of those mail order purchases, recommended to me by one of the two people I knew who liked music that didn't get played on the radio, and it was very prized when it first came into my possession as one of only two or three punk LPs I owned.

But enough about me. Let's talk about the record itself, starting with the Bikini Kill side. Recorded on a 4 track, this record shows that it is possible for the band to be more raw and furious than they were on their first record. Musically speaking, this is just stripped-down punk recorded using basic technology in what sounds like a garage. The songs are heavier and more aggressive than the first record, and also a little better crafted. It captures the ethos and energy of the best hardcore bands.  It's compelling. Lyrically, the record is an even more uncompromising declaration of independence than the debut.  Every song screams out in self-confident defiance "We Don't Need You." By the time this record came out, people were becoming very polarized by Bikini Kill. Attracted or repelled by their uncompromising feminist stance, lyrics, and live presentation, most in the punk community were either with them or against them.  In "White Boy," Kathleen responds to the controversy: "I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you. Your whole fucking culture alienates me.... I'm so sorry that I think." Even as a white boy myself, being young and alienated in a small town that seemed at times to be closing in on me and in a school that largely seemed to encourage mediocrity, Bikini Kill's strident stance resonated. It should also be mentioned here that this record includes a less polished version of the band's well known single "Rebel Girl," which I think is superior to the 7" version.

In comparison, the Huggy Bear side of the record was a little harder for me to get my head around. The music is more varied, ranging from hardcore to garage rock to spooky bits that sound like a little like a horror movie soundtrack with someone ranting over them ("Jupiter Re-Entry" and "Nu Song") to the catchy pop of "Aqua Girl Star." It's pretty interesting listening, and "Aqua Girl Star" always gets stuck in my head every time I play this side of the record. To my budding punk tastes, though, some of this was a little hard to figure out, although it grew on me with successive plays. The politics were also harder to relate to. Many of the lyrics, and the poetic manifesto included inside the record sleeve, are pretty forceful about sexual identity issues, labeling the music "Queercore for the Queercorps." I wasn't someone who had an issue with people being gay, but as a straight 17 year old, I wasn't sure how to relate to music that dealt with these issues. They were topics that were simply not talked about by anyone I knew, and this record deal with them in an open and forceful way. I wasn't threatened by Huggy Bear per se, but just sort of confused by it, and vaguely uncomfortable with it for reasons I didn't quite understand. Today, there's nothing here I haven't heard in some form lots of time before, but at the time it was showing me something I hadn't seen before. It was educational and my perspective was broadened by it.

Taken together, the two sides of this record compliment each other nicely. Some of the music sounds a little dated at the end of the year 2011, but some of it could be released today and sound fresh. As far as the lyrical content, the messages here are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago when they were first committed to vinyl. For the sake of alienated kids everywhere, I hope this record stays in circulation for a long time.

Here's the opening track of the Bikini Kill side, "White Boy" and my favorite track from the Huggy Bear side, "Aqua Girl Star."

Total songs listend: 648