Monday, January 14, 2019

Tav Falco's Cabaret of Daggers

When it comes to the massive care package I received from ORG Music a couple of months ago, I saved the best for last. When I first listened to Tav Falco's Cabaret of Daggers, I had a lot of questions: Who is Tav Falco? What kind of music is this? Is this a reissue, or is this a current release? This album doesn't include the copious liner notes that most ORG Music releases have, but from the credits I deduced that Tav Falco is the guitarist and singer for an Italian retro-cabaret-rock ensemble. Cabaret of Daggers was recorded in Rome, but mastered in Memphis. From the cover photos, these five musicians aren't young kids trying to get their big break by performing American--they look like they've been around for a long time. (That's not meant to be a diss, by the way--I'll discuss this in a bit.)

So I wound up Wiki-ing Tav and his band, and it turns out he's an American-born musician who's been performing with a band named Panther Burns since 1979. He was born in Philly but moved to Arkansas and then Memphis, where he picked up his musical tastes. His Wiki page is pretty long and detailed, which indicates I should be ashamed for not knowing who he is. But that doesn't matter--we're here now, in 2019, and this album is fantastic.

Cabaret of Daggers is indeed a new release, one recorded with a group of Italian musicians that he previously used for 2015's Command Performance--guitarist Mario Monterosso, keyboardist Francesco D'Agnolo, bassist Giuseppi Sangirardi and drummer Riccardo Colasante. I'd have to go back into the Panther Burns catalog to see how different this album is from the work he did in 1979, but this is my interpretation of this gloriously off-key LP: it's weary, but by design. That's right, these guys sound like Lily Von Shtupp, and they're just as charming. Falco's vocals are drenched in reverb, which accentuates his oh-so-tired demeanor that sounds like this was the final performance of a tour that lasted thirty years. He's flat, out of key much of the time, and yet he has that same underlying musical genius you'd find in someone like Jonathan Richman.

The genius, of course, is that this is the type of music that sounds like one thing on the surface, but another thing once you take a step or two closer. It's funny, of course--the lyrics are wry and delivered with exhausted conviction. The entire package is somewhat calculated, but it takes someone with decades of experience as a professional musician to bring this sort of sustained attitude to the mix and make it totally believable--or perhaps maybe Falco really is this tired. Then you'll hear something from the band, a beautiful, inspired solo, or even something from Falco's splendid and bluesy old Hofner, that gives up the game. It doesn't matter, though--whether or not this is all an act is beside the point. The concept is sound, the delivery is impeccable and Cabaret of Daggers is both serious music and a whole lot of fun.

Wurm's Exhumed

"My name is Chuck Dukowski and I'm a bass player. In the late 1970's my friends and I started a band called Black Flag, but Black Flag would have never happened if I hadn't started Wurm."

Growing up in LA during the 1970s and 1980s, I knew all about Chuck Dukowski and Black Flag. In my college days I was obsessed with SST Records, the label that put out Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du and others. My hardcore friends loved Chuck, and they hated Henry Rollins--for them, Rollins caused Black Flag to jump the shark when he joined. Chuck was pure, a punk god, a part of the original big bang that forced punk out of its womb. I didn't know much about Wurm, unfortunately, although I believe those same old friends of mine were big fans. Needless to say, I wouldn't be able to identify Wurm's music in a lineup. That's why this ORG Music release, another title that debuted on Record Store Day 2018, is such a revelation.

Exhumed contains most of Wurm's legacy--the I'm Dead EP from 1982, a couple of compilation tracks from 1983 and the complete Feast album, their only LP, which was released in 1985. Most importantly, Exhumed contains previously unreleased practice tapes from 1977. Wurm, I should note, first formed back in 1973, when punk was still a twinkle in rock and roll's eye. While many still debate the origins of punk--Ramones, New York Dolls, MC5--Wurm has a pretty strong claim to the title of first hardcore punk band, and those practice tapes help to confirm this--on the West Coast, at least.

All of this material has been remastered. This is hardcore punk, however, recorded with a strict punk aesthetic in mind, and that means it doesn't sound like your UHQR pressing of Tea for the Tillerman. That aesthetic is anti-establishment, of course, that it was all done on the cheap in the heat of the moment. What ORG has done, however, is capture that original energy with a clean pressing. Everything on the original tapes is presented as is, the massive anger, the brilliant street-wise humor, the feeling that every performance is unique and deserving of preservation.

I still love listening to classic Black Flag, even with Henry, because it's so stripped down and brutal...yet somehow smart. Wurm is a slightly different experience because it was so raw and in search of firm footing. By listening to both the 1977 rehearsals and the 1985 swan song, however, you're able to view the creative peak of hardcore punk going backwards and forwards. Since this is a two-LP set, there's plenty to study from a historical standpoint. Most importantly, I'm amazed that some of this music is over 40 years old, but it doesn't sound that dated. (Imagine how music from the Great Depression would sound in the context of 1977.) Perhaps that's because there are still musicians making this sort of music in 2019, and not because they're paying tribute to it. They're carrying on that punk aesthetic and declaring it immortal. That's why Exhumed is still a vital listen for the people who were there.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Lisa Marr with The Tranzmitors

In this miscellaneous vinyl pile I've been attacking over the last couple of days, there are 12" 33rpm LPs, and 12" 33rpm EPs, and 12" 45rpm LPs, and 7" 45rpm singles and 7" 45rpm EPs. Not all of these are clearly marked, so I've been listening to a lot of music at the wrong speeds. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it takes a few moments--usually the epiphany occurs when the singer comes to the mic. If you're a vinyl lover, you know what I'm talking about.

This little 7" yellow-orange disc is from my friend Ean Hernandez at Top Drawer Records, and it has the distinction of being the only 7" record I've heard that is recorded at 33 rpm, at least as far as I can recall. Lisa Marr and the Tranzmitors contains a total of four songs, which qualifies as an EP, I guess. These four songs are brief and exuberant post-punk pop songs, however, probably two minutes long for each one, and yet...33 rpm. I'm laboring the point, I know, but I'm thrilled with the variety of vinyl I have in right now. These records are the very definition of variety--all colored brightly in one way or another, recorded at different speeds and formats. The sky's the limit.

Lisa Marr, formerly from Cub, is a singer/songwriter from the Pacific Northwest. The Tranzmitors are also from the PNW and were formerly known as both the New Town Animals and the Smugglers. The idea of this EP is for these five to cover the songs they sang in their old groups, with a new perspective. (The last song, "Salvation," is an original.) That may sound heady and ambitious, but what you really have here are post-pop, guitar driven songs that use early Bangles and Go-Gos as a leaping-off point for creating a pure, sweet brand of garage rock. Ean calls it cuddle-core.

The sweetness comes from Marr's voice--she's sort of a workingwoman's version of Belinda Carlisle, straightforward and unadorned yet extremely likeable. Her band--Jeff, Nick, Mike and Bryce--play it hard and fast, "as fast as you like it," Ean says on the liner notes. For some reason their energy summoned visions of Road to Ruin-era Ramones, still blistering yet clean. Best of all, the profits from this record will go to the Girls Rock Bandcamp Vancouver, which "builds self-esteem in female youth through music creation and performance."

You can buy this record for just $6 by visiting Lisa Marr's bandcamp page, and you can buy a digital download for the same price.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Tone Scientists' ""Nuts" b/w "Tiny Pyramids"

This little 7" single started off as somewhat of a mystery. I had no idea where it came from or how long I've had it. It was just there, in the pile, with all the other vinyl. I gave it a spin, both sides, taking up about four or five minutes of my time. It was good, really good. The first side featured a song called "Nuts," and it felt like it had been plucked out of the post-punk era. Quirky vocals, a stripped down rock aesthetic, kinda grungy, and there's a flute playing all through it.

The second side, featuring a song called "Tiny Pyramids," obviously featured the same group of musicians, but this time it was an instrumental that barely touched the edge of jazz--the flute's still there, but it's now joined by a saxophone. Further research revealed that this is the very same "Tiny Pyramids" from Sun Ra. Again, fun, and I gave both sides another play and thought about what to do with this intriguing little black disc.

Well, I'm supposed to be a reviewer, so I'm supposed to dig in a little. The first thing I noticed was this pressed by ORG Music. That makes three ORG vinyl releases for the day, and the second one specifically released for Record Store Day last year. The second thing I noticed is that this little 45 was mixed and produced by none other than Mike Watt, the legendary bassist for the Minutemen. Remember how I said I loved John Doe earlier in the day, and what his music has meant to me? Same goes for Mike Watt. Minutemen were always buried deep into my heart all through my college years and ever since, as were many other SST bands from the early '80s. Mike Watt has had a long and storied career in the LA music scene, and he's never stopped being creative. Heck, I think we're even Facebook friends.

Turns out that Tone Scientists is one of those side projects where everyone is from another band--guitarist/vocalist Bucky Pope is from Tar Babies, drummer John Herndon is from Tortoise and Vince Meghrouni, who supplies the awesome flute and sax, is from Bazooka. And yeah, I know all three of those bands, so there. But here's the problem: I want more. I want an album from these gentleman because these two brief tracks are just so unbelievably cool. This is a virtual trip back to the early '80s when I was in college and my friends and I would travel to Hollywood and Santa Monica and the Valley to see all those amazing bands.

So get crackin', Mr. Mike Watt. Tone Scientists are THAT good, sir.

Presenting the Ad Libs

"There's a piece of real estate where all the hippies congregate..."

So begins "On the Corner," the first track on the Ad Libs' 1965 debut Presenting the Ad Libs. That opening sentence provides a considerable amount of context for this LP reissue from ORG Music, a beautiful purple pressing from the Pallas Group in Germany. The Ad Libs were a classic doo-wop group from Bayonne, New Jersey, and this album came out at a time when doo-wop was waning in popularity. The Ad Libs jumped right out and proved they were no ordinary doo-wop group--they were among the few groups with a female singing lead, and their lyrics were unusually relevant and sophisticated. In a time when Motown was taking over the R&B charts with such acts as The Supremes and the British Invasion was in full force, the Ad Libs made a minor but significant impact on pop music.

The Ad Libs only had one big hit--"The Boy From New York City," which appears here. You know the one..."Oo ah oo ah oo oo, Kitty, tell us 'bout the boy from New York City." Yet they performed together well into the '80s and experienced a comeback of sorts when the Manhattan Transfer had a hit with "The Boy From New York City" in 1981. Despite their partnership with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, they never really had any sales and were dropped from Red Bird Records after three non-performing albums. That, of course, is a shame, because there's a lot of talent here.

As I mentioned, the Ad Libs were notable because they flipped the normal doo-wop conventions when Mary Ann Thomas stepped to the front of the stage, leaving founders Danny and Austin and Hugh Harris, along with baritone Norman Donegan and bass vocalist David Allen Watt to supply the four-part harmonies. This strategy could have been implemented to stand out from the crowd, but I prefer to think of a less calculated reason--Thomas' appealing vocals. She's distinctive, soulful and yet innocent, a young woman who's still trying to figure out the complexities of love. Why didn't she become a big star on her own?

The sound quality on this album is clean and vibrant. There's a minimalism in the studio that keeps the recording small and distant, but that's okay since this was music that was meant to be played on small radios. Presenting the Ad Libs, therefore, is a document of a fun group that should have gone on to bigger things. It's not an audiophile release, but it is something authentic, something that can shake up a party and get everyone dancing. Afterwards everyone will ask, "who was that?" And you'll be able to tell them the story.

Kid Doe: Particle Kid and John Doe's Lucky Wheel

Yay, it's vinyl day!

Well, every day is vinyl day, but after completing a couple of major projects and getting the CD pile down to a manageable height, I've discovered that I have quite a few miscellaneous LPs and EPs to review. Most of these came from ORG Music and their pressing plant at the Pallas Group in Germany, and a couple more were actually sent by up and coming bands. Most of the ORG titles were pressed, by the way, for the last Record Store Day--they are now available through the ORG Music site. This first one, Particle Kid and John Doe's Lucky Wheel, turned out to be quite the treasure, one I left sitting at the bottom of the pile, unheard, because I didn't notice what it was at first. From the cover, it looked like somebody named Kid Doc came out with an album named Lucky Wheel. ORG has this officially listed as Kid Doe's Lucky Wheel.

Nope, this is a 45 rpm EP, with Side A featuring Kid Particle covering two songs from John Doe and folk hero Michael Hurley, and Side B featuring John Doe covering songs from Kid Particle and the Carter Family. Despite the beautiful art on the cover and the gorgeous "smoky" color of the vinyl, this 12" EP reminded me of one of those limited run albums put out by a local band in an effort to get exposure, but it's not. First of all, this slab of vinyl was mastered at 45rpm by Dave Gardner at Infrasonic Mastering, so the pressing is clean and the sound quality top-notch. Second of all, I like Particle Kid, but I love John Doe. As a longtime fan of X, a fan who has seen them perform live four different times over the course of 25 years, I feel like John's two songs here are a brief but welcome visit from a very old friend.

The Particle Kid side is fun--in a dark, dreamy way. "Lucky Penny" is one of those grimy, slightly drugged-out alt-country numbers that I enjoy so well, a throwback to the Velvet Underground as well as No Depression movement. PK, also known in the ordinary world as Micah Nelson, is a young man with an old soul--which is why he's such a perfect match with John Doe, who will turn 66 next month (!). "Captain Kid" reinforces that idea of the distant past with a old-fashioned folk tune from Hurley that is recorded simply, in mono, for maximum effect.

John Doe's turn on the second side makes me feel a little sad inside, and not because it's bad. It sounds great, in fact, and so familiar that I had a lump in my throat the second I heard John's distinctive croon. For a just a few minutes I thought about John, Exene, DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom, plus the Knitters, and just how big of a part of my life they've all been. "Wheels" is a very typical John Doe song from his solo career, mostly old-time country with just a shot of that driven-hard-and-put-up-wet momentum from his punk days. "Hello Stranger" is a duet with Amy Nelson, who sounds a lot like Iris DeMent here. Amy is none other than the daughter of Willie Nelson, and she current performs in a ukelele duo with Cathy Guthrie, daughter of Arlo. I like her voice, and I may have to check them out.

Four songs, unfortunately, is not enough from these two. I want to go back and scoop up all the John Doe solo albums I've missed over the years. This is a very special release, one that possesses almost too much emotional resonance for me. Quite honestly I'm surprised how much I was moved by Lucky Wheel.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The 14 Jazz Orchestra's The Future Ain't What It Used to Be

What's the name of Donald Kaufman's screenplay in the film Adaptation? Is it The 3? That's all I keep thinking about when I look at the cover of this CD. The 14. Sounds ominous, right? The 14 are here to tell you that the future ain't what it used to be.

The 14, of course, is a jazz orchestra--that's right, this is big band jazz and not another askew vision from Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze. The 14 are all alumni from the University of Miami, led by arranger Dan Bonsanti. Their previous album was titled Nothing Hard Is Ever Easy, so there's a playfulness at hand. But what else separates this big band ensemble from all the others? In a word, I'd have to say tightness.

That's the first thing I noticed about this album--there's a perfection afoot, an almost preternatural gleam to the way these musicians perform. Big band jazz is always about precision, of having every single person on stage doing what they're supposed to do. Mistakes and tangents get amplified by the others if you aren't careful, and even the improvisations are carefully measured before they are poured into the mix. I've heard sloppy big band jazz in the last year, and sometimes it's downright enjoyable in terms of sheer personality, but serious fans will frown at you if you get all Keith Moon on them. That's why there's a certain modicum of respect toward ensembles that get this much absolutely right.

That's okay, of course. Sloppy is good with a trio or a quartet and often sounds like cacophony beyond that. Bonsanti and his skilled group of performers have that aura about them, the drive to be the best in their field, which may be cultivated from the competitive world of big band programs at American universities, something I've discussed often. Bonsanti himself has come from a very interesting background, arranging and playing sax for such leaders as Doc Severinsen (who's still around) and Stan Kenton. He's most famous for his work with Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth Orchestra. That's a lot of flavor right there.

It sounds like I'm complaining about something being too good, and I'm not. This is a tight band, but not one unwilling to take a chance or two. Just listen to The 14 take on that classic "16 Tons," a wild excursion that takes risk after risk and comes off as one hell of a party tune--one that is played, again, with utter precision. There's a vague feeling, in fact, that the band loosens up somewhat as the album goes on--they're just warming up, perhaps? You hear a little more variety in the instrumentation here and there, a few more genre swaps. The Future Ain't What It Used to Be is ultimately about one thing though, and that's beating the competition, but not at the cost of composition.