Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System – “Tackhead Tape Time”

“I need to get to the bottom of this whole Gary Clail situation.”

This is the kind of thing you can say to someone when you’ve lived with them for 20+ years, and they just respond with “OK.”

I bought Tackhead Tape Time at Neptoon Records on our recent trip to Vancouver.  I’ve written about Gary Clail before, and Tackhead too.  Together?  They’re blowing my mind.  They’re.  Blowing.  My.  Mind.  This album came out in 1987, and it’s the best “new-to-me” album I’ve heard this year.  It’s that good.  For real.

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Tackhead Tape Time isn’t fancy.  It’s sampled beats with sampled vocal clips, with intermittent Gary Clail singing/rapping over the top.  The vocal samples are news casts, songs, movies, and Martin Luther King Jr speeches.  For some reason I love it.  The way it comes together.  The blending of music and audio clips.  By far the best song is “Reality” with its repetitive “In my life / In my dream…”

How do you describe an album like this?  The beats, the samples?  I don’t know.  But for some reason this style of music appeals to me, yet I don’t seem to actively pursue it.  It’s not industrial… it’s not hip hop… it’s not electronic… But sometimes it just seems to come my way, which is fortunate for me.

Holly says it goes good with cocktails and carmel corn.  And I think she’s right.  Clail supposedly has a new album coming out at the end of the month, and I for one will be buying it.

Blake Noble – “Underdog”

Friday night was one of those nights.  One of those nights you go to a show to see a band, and the opener absolutely, positively, blows you away.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s awesome.

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We went to the club Nectar in Seattle to see Hillstomp‘s CD release party, and the first performer on the bill was an Australian expat named Blake Noble.  We figured we were in for something interesting when we saw that he had a couple of didgeridoos with him… you don’t see that every day.  Turns out his primary one is fashioned out of PVC tubing (the black tube in the photo to the left), though he also has a monster one made of wood that he brought out towards the end of his set, a huge wooden log that created the deepest rumble imaginable.  Just seeing that on stage, along with his 12-string guitar, was enough to prompt me to buy his newest CD Underdog, and I hadn’t even heard him play yet.  About 10 seconds into the first song I knew I’d made the right decision.

Noble’s live performance was a thing to behold.  At times he was simultaneously playing the 12-string, the diidgeridoo, and using a foot pedal to do drum sounds.  Throw in one effects box that he used to sometimes loop some of his own live playing, and that’s everything that could generate music.  And yet he managed to create full, rich songs that sounded as if they came from a band of four or five musicians.  The guitar served in both it’s traditional role and as another form of percussion, and the range of beats Noble tapped out of its surface was unreal.  He put in some serious work over the course of his instrumental set and at times had the crowd alternately mesmerized and hollering in appreciation.  Could his sound possibly translate to CD?

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Well, it’s obviously tough to capture the pure impressiveness of watching him play.  The opening track “Tsunami” comes the closest with its prominent didgeridoo and unique percussion.  A pair of songs feature the singing of Cody Beebe, and while these are solid blue-rockers they don’t give the feel of one man doing it all, though his vocalizations on a third track, “Waitomo,” sound more like an instrument and fit really well within Noble’s overall vibe.  Noble works with an impressive group of musicians on Underdog, and while the result is a rock solid album it’s not quite the same as seeing him live.  He actually reminds me in many ways of another hyper-talented musician, Jason Mraz, and like Mraz I think the experience of actually watching Noble perform and interact with the audience is almost impossible to replicate on a studio album, if for no other reason than you can’t appreciate how amazing he is when he’s playing so many instruments at once and putting it all together perfectly.

The songs on Underdog that best capture the feel of Noble’s live performance are “Tsunami,” “Michelle,” and perhaps most notably “Around the World” with it’s great guitar punctuated by the didgeridoo.  The most unique song is undoubtedly “Rainbow,” which uses sampling from what sounds like some sort of old school science class film about rainbows and how light refracts, while the pace itself is almost driving like an acoustic version of heavy metal riffs.  It’s completely different than anything else on the CD and is certainly one of my favorites, even if it does seem to fall outside of Noble’s “sound.”

Underdog is a solid effort, and certainly one I recommend people check out.  That being said, if you ever get a chance to catch Blake Noble live, you’ve got to go, because watching him perform is every bit as impressive as the music itself.

Hillstomp – “Portland, Ore”

When I try to compile a list of the bands I’ve seen live the most times, Hillstomp is right towards the top of the list.  I know I’ve seen Agent Fresco and Sugar Ray seven times each… but I have a hard time pegging down exactly how many Hillstomp shows I’ve witnessed.  Last night’s CD release show at Nectar in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood marks at least the sixth time I’ve seen country-blues-rock-bluegrass duo, and friends it was by far the best.

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Hillstomp ALWAYS puts on a great live show.  We’ve heard them in some larger clubs like the Crocodile and in tiny joints like High Dive.  But Nectar seemed like the perfect venue for them – really high ceilings, a floor that opens up to the outside, and a stage that puts them high enough that you can see them play.  Because you have to watch John and Henry lose themselves in the music.  It’s like they’re having a religious experience.  And it’s part of their power.  Last night they were at their peak – John rocked so hard on the bucket drums and washboard that he lost both his hat and glasses multiple times as the spirit of the blues overtook him, and Henry was a man possessed when he put his bandana over his face Wild West bandit style with his mirrored shades to rock out some slide guitar.  The crowd was way into it – this was the most active audience I’ve seen at one of their Seattle shows, with plenty of dancing and yes, at one point even a relatively good natured country dancin’ mosh pit.  Didn’t see that coming.

The sound system was able to give the band what they wanted to capture their low-fi, raw, dirty sound.  “I want the vocals to sound shitty.  But not bad,” John told the sound guy as they were sound-checking.  And if you’ve heard them before, you know exactly what he’s searching for – gravely and hollow, like you’re listening to the blues on one of those huge old 1930s style radios in the wood cabinets that are about three feet high.  When the kick-drum mic fell out of a position a few times during the show and the crew fixed it with duct tape John remarked, that if he’d know that was how they were going to take care of it he’d have done it himself, because he’s nearly surrounded by the silver stuff, holding his old mics and stands together.  There is no pretension here.  Let’s set this up so we can get to the good stuff and start playing music.  Yes, they have a specific sound they want to achieve; but at the end of the day it’s about being authentic.

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I find it hard to believe I haven’t written about Hillstomp before given how many times we’ve seen them and how much I love their live album After Two But Before Five.  But I haven’t, and that’s a situation that needs to be rectified.  Fortunately after taking a bit of a hiatus Henry Kammerer and John Johnson got back together, got into the studio, and gave us their fourth album, Portland, Ore.  Hillstomp’s live shows are a mix of slow and fast numbers, but much of Portland, Ore is geared toward the slower songs, tracks showing that Johnson has a surprisingly good voice, one generally kept echoey and tinny with their old school mics, but that captures a depth of emotion and connection to the music.  I believe we also get more banjo from Kammerer on this album, and he plays it with passion.  Put it all together and you get a much more down-home feel, one that could break out into a revival or a country dance at any moment, and a bit more upbeat than their last album, the aptly named Darker The Night.

Last night was the first time I’d heard Hillstomp’s newest material.  As a live band they’re at their best when they’re fully possessed by the spirit and going a hundred miles an hour like they’re running with the devil himself on their tails.  But their slow numbers really kick ass on CD, where it’s not all about power and noise and speed and sweat and PBR, when you can truly hear their fantastic musicianship.

After one play through the CD I had three early favorite tracks.  “The Cuckoo” has an eerie start, with Kammerer’s guitar setting a sombre tone and the echo turned all the way up on Johnson’s vocals, which are complimented perfectly by Kammerer’s harmonizing.  It’s a slow, deep song, with a steady drum beat and a touch of a military march style snares.  The spiritual “Don’t Come Down” hooks me right away with it’s opening lyrics, not because I’m particularly religious, but because of the power of the begging in Johnson’s voice as it opens:

Jesus… what’s your plan… for me?
Jesus… what’s your plan… for me?

My days are growing few,
And I still can’t see.

Kammerer’s banjo drives the song forward, with the percussion limited primarily to maracas and something that sounds a bit like a cow bell, and just a couple of sneaky, quick drum taps to get you through the first three minutes before more substantial drumming kicks in to finish it off.  The closing track “Meet Me at the Bottom” is one of the fast numbers on Portland, Ore with the quick pace and beats that caught my attention the first time I heard them play years ago.  It’s foot-stomping music and classic Hillstomp.

I’m glad John and Henry got back together to give us Portland, Ore, because Hillstomp is everything that’s great about seeing live shows in small venues.  And the fact that they can put their own spin on American roots music in a way that captures people’s attention confirms their talent.  Keep it up, brothers, and I’ll keep going to see you play.

Omar Souleyman – “Leh Jani”

I was very excited to find some Omar Souleyman albums at Vancouver’s Red Cat Records the other day during our visit to British Columbia.  We loved his live set at Iceland Airwaves last year and his album Wenu Wenu is a great electro-pop-dance record, one that gets some frequent plays on both the turntable and iPod.  So the decision to buy two of his records at Red Cat was an easy one.

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Though released in 2011, Leh Jani is actually a collection of some of Souleyman’s early work.  It was originally recorded in 1998 live to tape and distributed on cassette – apparently cassette culture was still huge in Syria (certainly until the current civil war broke out…) with a tremendous amount of dubbing, copying, and what we would call downright piracy.  But that didn’t seem to phase Souleyman much based on the interviews I’ve read – that’s just the way the scene worked in Syria, and he didn’t expect to get rich off of tape sales.  He made his fame as a live performer, one often hired to do weddings or other celebrations, and that’s how he made his living.

Whereas 2013s Wenu Wenu is a well-produced, full sounding pop album, Leh Jani is much more raw and the sound less rich.  I suspect it is more similar to Souleyman’s live sound during the era, and as such it’s an important piece in understanding his development as an artist.

Leh Jani is a double album, but one with only three songs.  “Introduction/Mawal” and “Salamat Galbi Bidek” each take up a full side on the first record and run about 15 minutes each, while the entire second record is comprised of the 30 minute title track.  These longer format songs suit Souleyman, who’s songs have a hypnotizing, meandering rhythm.  He puts you in a trance by starting off slow, then methodically and almost imperceptibly begins to quicken the pace… you don’t realize it because you’re already in a trance, but then five or ten minutes later you sort of snap out of it and find yourself in a straight up Syrian party song.  Souleyman’s music, while completely different in approach and genre, reminds me a lot of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” a song guaranteed to hypnotize me and make me lose five minutes of my life without knowing what happened.

While Leh Jani does not appear to have been released on CD, it is available on iTunes, so you can check it out there… or on YouTube, where I think you can hear the whole thing for free.  Broaden your horizons.  Listen to some Omar Souleyman.

Rattus – “The Poko Recordings 1981-1984”

Whenever we travel overseas I make a point of doing some music research, not only to locate the best in local record stores, but also to come up with a list of bands from the area to be on the lookout for.  Most of the time I focus on punk and metal acts, particularly from the late 1970s to about the mid 1980s.  This at least gives me a starting point, and on more than one occasion my stack of purchases has raised an eyebrow at a shop and resulted in some great recommendations.

When we went to Finland and Sweden a few years back, I was really excited – the Finns and Swedes know punk (and metal), and both Helsinki and Stockholm have reps as having big vinyl scenes.  I’d done my research.  I was ready to go.  And I basically struck out completely in Finland, both in Helsinki and Porvoo.  Now, if I wanted jazz records I could have brought them home by the pallet.  And plenty of new releases.  But vintage local stuff?  Nope.  The only thing I found was a copy of Lama‘s first release, and at 100 Euros it was out of my price range… especially since I’d just bought it on CD (used) earlier in the day.

One of the bands on my ill fated Finnish list was Rattus.  I didn’t even come home with a CD.  So imagine my surprise when I found the two record vinyl compilation of the band’s earlier work The Poko Recordings 1981-1984 while visiting Vancouver the other day.  The price was right and the used wax was clean, so into my pile it went.

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The Poko Recordings 1981-1984 is actually a re-release of four of the band’s releases on the Poko label:  1981s five-song EP Rattus on Rautaa, the 1982 7″ Rajoitettu Ydinsota, along with the full length albums WC Räjähtää (1983) and Uskonto On Vaara (1984).  All of these have been re-released previously, but this is the first time they’ve all come together in one package.  To give you a sense of how rare the original pressings are, all four are currently available for sale on Discogs… and could be yours for a combined total of about $1,000.  Plus shipping.  Makes the $25 I paid for this seem like a bargain.  But then again, so does the music, because Rattus is awesome!

From a genre standpoint Rattus fall into the hardcore/anarcho realms.  The songs from Rattus on Rautaa hadn’t quite made it to hardcore yet, being more or less straight ahead European punk rock, though you could see they were moving past the sounds of the Sex Pistols and The Clash into much faster territory.  And by time Rajoitettu Ydinsota came out they had arrived.  What a difference a year makes, with the band playing both faster and harder, straddling the line between hardcore and metal – these are my favorite tracks on the compilation.  WC Räjähtää is all speed, all the time.  The mix is still pretty good, with the vocal track up front where you can hear the singing (which, of course, is in Finnish…).  And by 1984… god… they’re faster still, this time with raspy, growly vocals that make this sound more like speed metal/thrash than punk.  It’s a nuclear meltdown and you can almost feel the music approaching critical mass.  The evolution of Rattus over these four albums is incredible, as they just continue to get faster and faster.

Normally I don’t have much to say about packaging. but this release deserves to have a few words said about it.  When you open up the gatefold, the inside is completely taken up by big, full color photos of the front and back jackets of all four of the original records, plus info on the release dates, pressing sizes and vintage international printings.  If the information is correct, all of these were originally released in pressings of only 500 by Poko, with the international versions generally limited to 1,000 copies.  Each side of the vinyl on this two record set also features the cover of the original album on that side, which is cool. They did a great job putting this together, giving us value beyond just the music.

If you’re down with early 80s European hardcore, The Poko Recordings 1981-1984 is well worth your hard earned cash.