Monday, January 14, 2008

Paleontology for Dullards: A Consumer's Guide

"Paleontology for Dullards" rates records I've found in used LP bins by assigning them a cash value. For further explanation, please see my original post here.

Pere Ubu Cloudland
I can say without hyperbole that the early recordings of Cleveland's Pere Ubu (that would be their first few singles and the Modern Dance and Dub Housing albums) are some of the greatest in rock history. There were some precedents for certain aspects on Ubu's sound: the feral wallop of the Stooges, the mind-expanding swirls of Syd's Pink Floyd, the rhythmic inventions of Can, the surrealism of Captain Beefheart, Eno's synth experiments with Roxy Music, the omnipresent influence of the Velvets. However, the whole was more than the sum of its parts, a singular vision of primal thump and dark, foreboding atmosphere that's probably the closest any rock band has come to the irreverent transcendence of Dada. The band half-jokingly called their challenging take on rock music "Avant Garage." In hindsight some have labeled them as post-punk but that's a bit of a misnomer as the band's earliest singles predate the punk explosion. Rather, the band served as a guiding light for those inspired by punk but not content to replicate Ramones-esque down stroke and bash. Ubu's near total disregard for the conventions of rock pointed the way for Mission of Burma, Wire, the New York no wave movement and almost the entirety of Rough Trade's early roster. Unfortunately, by their 3rd album singer David Thomas had reverted to his parents' religion of Jehovah's Witness and the band stopped staring into the void, sacrificing their majestic peculiarity for being just plain weird. Their next few releases were interesting but hardly necessary and the band eventually called it quits.

A few years later Pere Ubu reformed with most of the original members returning and the truly bizarre (for them anyway) notion of making pop music. It's hard to say why exactly but Ubu's muse has always defied easy exegesis. For Cloudland, the 2nd album by Ubu Mk. 2, the group enlisted Pet Shop Boys/New Order producer Stephen Hague to smooth out their rough edges. Hague gave Ubu's batch of pop tunes a bright and inviting sound and buried Allen Ravenstine's amelodic synthesizers, a signature part of the Ubu sound, deep in the mix as to be barely audible. Long time fans cried sell-out and it's easy to hear why. At first listen Pere Ubu's new sound would seem to be a far cry from the dark beauty of their early records. Songs like "Bus Called Happiness" and the single "Waiting For Mary" sound like a deliberate attempt to score some kind of modern rock hit, approaching something like a cross between Talking Heads and the Pixies. However, the band's idiosyncrasies could not be completely obscured and their unique flavor precludes any of these songs from being bland. Some, like "Cry," were truly wonderful, sounding like sunnier variations on previous themes. Cloudland is far from Pere Ubu's most memorable work but it certainly sounds great while it's playing. If a new band without Ubu's history and reputation had put out Cloudland they probably would have been hailed as bold fractured pop geniuses.

Whatever Pere Ubu's intentions fame and fortune were not forthcoming and the band eventually reverted to the noisier sounds of their early days. I'm not going to go as far as to say that it's a shame the band didn't stick with the Cloudland sound but the album is an intriguing artifact of an experiment in retaining individuality in the commercial marketplace. The group may have failed but the result is still a captivating listen.
Price paid: $5 Rating: 100%

Sic F*cks s/t
The Sic F*cks (asterisk theirs, not mine) were a semi-infamous New York party band during the post-punk era, featuring an vaudevillian stage show which sort of played something like an lower east side B52s or a Rocky Horror Picture Show for downtown new wavers. Years ago I came across some brief live footage of the band from "Paul Tschinkel's Inner-Tube," an old Manhattan cable access show. The image of frontman Russell Wolinsky with whipped cream all over his face (at least I hope it was whipped cream) stuck with me but I'd never heard the band again until I happened on this 5-song 12-inch EP, their only vinyl. The first side of the EP is one song, "(Take Me to) The Bridge," an embarrassing and borderline unlistenable stab at James Brown-style funk (though honestly it's no worse than "The Crunge.") Side 2 really cooks though. It features 4 songs which maximize the party vibe by bringing the girl group influence implicit in many of the original CBGBs bands to the forefront. These songs, only one of which stretches past the 2 minute mark, revel in a certain joyous tastelessness though they're not nearly as profane as one might infer from the band's name or song titles like "Chop Up Your Mother." They're just trashy fun, sort of like the aural equivalent of a Troma movie. I can easily believe the Sic F*cks were an absolute blast to see live. If this EP only hints at that... well, it's better than nothing, I suppose. Note: The aforementioned Russell Wolinsky looks exactly like a cross between Julian Casablancas and Eugene Mirman except possibly slimmer than either.
Price paid: $8 Rating: 50%

Roy Loney and the Phantom Movers Out After Dark
Mr Loney was the vocalist and songwriter for the fantastic Flamin Groovies during their pre-"Shake Some Action" days. While the Groovies altered their sound to Byrdsian chiming guitars after his departure, it's not surprising that Loney retained the Sun Records-influenced sound of their early releases. As I'm a bigger fan of their earlier releases, this LP, his solo debut, was a pleasure to my ears. No, it's not quite Flamingo or Teenage Head but it's certainly in the same sonic vein as those two classic albums and only a notch or two below in terms of overall quality. In his time Loney was considered hopelessly stuck in the past but 30 years after the fact his work has aged remarkably well. His musical influences may have ended at the time Elvis joined the army but Loney never settles for mere Stray Cats-like imitation in crafting his own brand of down and dirty rock n roll fun. And fun it is, with much of the album stomping like Little Richard and shuffling like Johnny Cash. Point of interest: I'm pretty certain the Reigning Sound swiped the riff for "I Don't Believe" from Loney's "Scum City." I aint hatin', I'm just sayin".
Price paid: $6 Rating: 83%

Gram Parsons Grievous Angel
The hipster deification of Gram Parsons: I don't get it. Parsons' brand of California cocaine country rock is not exactly what the hipster masses usually reverie. Nobody's outside of middle aged members of Rolling Stone's editorial staff is going on about the genius of Poco or the Eagles. Yet they love Parsons. I've even had one dolt tell me that he thought Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the best Byrds album which is a statement of such extreme cluelessness that it made me distrust all future opinions emanating from his mouth.

I think comes to three factors. The first is that his records didn't sell particularly well which is a dubious reason for credibility but it's not surprising to find wanna-be obscurists overpraising could'ves instead of dids.

Secondly, Parsons died young and beautiful. Let's take a look at Gene Clark, who I'll use as an example because like Parsons he's both a former Byrd and blender of rock and country who also released a bunch of poorly selling solo albums. Clark had it all over Parsons in the tunes department. Just listen to some of demos included as bonus tracks of the reissue of his solo debut, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, and tell me even Clark's throwaways don't hold their own against Parsons' most lauded songs. Plus, Clark is an undeniably superior vocalist, one of the best in rock history. However, Gene Clark died drunk, haggard and middle aged while Parsons left a beautiful corpse. Yes, the juvenile dead rock star cliche that forces some members of society take the poetry of James Morrison seriously also applies to underground types.

Finally, like many members of the hipster cognoscenti, Parsons was a trust fund kid pursuing a bohemian fantasy. He may have aped the authentic but in reality Parsons had about as much in common with Buck Owens as Julian Casablancas does with Johnny Thunders. His untimely death begs the question: what was Parsons more interested in, making music or getting wasted with the Rolling Stones?

And how is the music he made anyway? Well, it's fine. I give Parsons full credit for certainly being better than the Eagles, Poco, et al. Songs like "Return of the Grievous Angel" and "Las Vegas" are as affecting as they are affected. The covers are a bit more problematic. Can anyone hear any version of "Love Hurts" in 2008 and not cringe? Look, I realize that authenticity is not necessarily an essential ingredient in creating terrific music. Creedence Clearwater Revival weren't really from the backwoods of Louisiana, were they? Whatever Parsons' roots it's his skills as a songwriter, interpreter and performer that are his legacy. And while he certainly displayed talent the results don't live up to the hosannas posthumously showered upon him.

Cosmic? Come on, guys.
Price paid: $7 Rating: 57%


Tim Duffy said...

Your digs at Gram Parsons have some truth. However, you can't speak so authoritatively about his position in music in general while ignoring his finest work which was the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Of course my statements of extreme cluelessness are distrusted so I don't really know why I even read this thing.

PB said...

Gilded Palace of Sin is a better record than Grievous Angel. However

a) That wasn't the record I happened to find in a used bin recently and thus was not the one I reviewed

b) I give Chris Hillman at least partial credit for the accomplishments of the Burritos and

c) I feel as though my statements are applicable to Parsons' entire oeuvre.

And you read this thing so you can argue with me. It'st he same reason I read your blog.

jeremy said...

Re Reigning Sound/Roy Loney: "I Don't Believe" was actually a cover of a tune by the Guiloteens, who were a 60s Memphis-area band. As the former RS bass player, I think I can say with just about 100% certainty that Cartwright had/has never heard the Loney track.

Re Roy Loney: I met him over three years ago and I know it's a cliche but he IS absolutely the nicest guy.

Re Parsons: Agreed with the comment above about Gilded Palace - clearly it is the best album GP was ever associated with. I'm with you on the Gene vs. Gram thing, tho.


Jeremy Scott
Memphis TN

PB said...

Well, thanks for clearing that up, Jeremy. i didn't realize the tune was a cover. I meant no disrespect either way. The riffs just sound pretty similar to my ears. Maybe Loney lifted it from the Guiloteens. Or, more likely, it's just a coincidence.