“Experiments In Destiny” Compilation (1980)

experimentsindestinyExperiments In Destiny is a label comp from Bomp! Records.  Released in 1980, the 2XLP includes 29 tracks each by a different band.  Some decent names are here – Stiv Bators, The Nuns, The Dead Boys, and even The Sonics.  Stylistically it’s a bit all over the board – punk, garage, pop, and a fairly plain rock cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” by Jimmy Lewis & The Checkers.  We’ve even got famous KROQ disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer fronting The Brunettes and contributing a song, “Little G.T.O.”, an homage to his own favorite car.

The sound quality is OK – Experiments In Destiny feels like listening to a car radio in 1980.  To modern ears used to the clearest fidelity this may not be ideal, but it’s exactly what these songs sounded like back then.

Chinas Comidas – “Complete Studio Recordings 77-81” (2018)

I’d love to be able to share the whole background of Seattle’s Chinas Comidas with you, but I’m not the person to tell that story.  Because I’d never even heard of them until a month or so ago when I ran across THIS incredible band history over at the blog page for Seattle’s Jive Time Records.  There’s more there than I could ever tell you, including interviews, so go check it out.  They have a lot of other great stuff on their blog as well.

The short story is female poet and performer leaves her home in NYC, heads out west, and eventually ends up in a couple of bands in Seattle – first Red Dress, then Chinas Comidas, the latter of which was also one of her nom de guerres.  There was one mind-blowing gem hidden away in that Jive Time bio, though, and that’s that one of the early drummers for Chinas Comidas was Eldon Hoke, better know as El Duce of The Mentors.  The thought of someone from The Mentors being in a sort of art punk band fronted by a female poet is enough to short circuit some of the synapses in my brain.

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The Jive Time article led me to Discogs, where I ordered this recent limited edition (of 400) compilation of the band’s material that includes ten studio and two live tracks (including a live cover of The Sonics‘ “The Witch”). Right from the start I’m captivated by Cynthia Genser’s vocals – she sounds like a rawer version of Chrissie Hynde, her low New-York-accented voice adding texture and punctuation to the words.  Punk in attitude, musically Chinas Comidas’ songs are pretty straight-ahead rock; it’s only Genser’s singing that truly pushes the envelope. (♠)  But don’t think that’s intended as a criticism, because it’s not; these recordings are rock solid and have plenty of emotion.  If you haven’t heard Chinas Cornidas before, you should definitely give them a listen.

(♠)  That being said, “For The Rich” is pure punk rock.

Dirty Sidewalks – “Bring Down The House Lights” (2018)

In the interest of full disclosure I feel like I should tell you from the outset that I know Dirty Sidewalks guitarist Evan Foster.  I don’t even remotely consider myself to be a journalist or anything, but I do try to have a certain amount of integrity in my blogging (♠) so let’s just get this out there.  Evan and I went to high school together and got along well enough, though I don’t ever remember us hanging out outside of school and I’m guessing that we saw each other no more than two times during the two-plus decades between graduating and last November (♣).  We re-connected via Facebook and eventually in person at Airwaves when Evan was in Reykjavik performing with The Sonics, where we shared (and spilled) beers and generally had a good time catching up.  So there you have it.

ANYWAY… prior to his recent work with The Sonics, Evan spent over a decade recording with the surf/garage outfit Boss Martians and now he’s paired up with brother Erik and bassist Evan O’Neil to put out a full-length under the name Dirty Sidewalks.  Bring Down The House Lights dropped last month and it’s been on near constant rotation on my iPod and turntable, because, well, it’s the most exciting new release of 2018 so far bar none.  Sure, we’re only a month-and-a-half into the year.  I get it.  And I’m sure I’ll drop more hyperbole on you over the next few months.  But I can promise you this puppy will be getting consideration for my year-end lists in December.  It’s that good.

I caught up with Erik a few weeks ago and got the chance to ask him a few questions about the new record.

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Dirty Sidewalks isn’t exactly a new project – you put out a few singles under that name over the last few years.  Why was now the right time to go into the studio for a full-length album?

ERIK FOSTER:  Technically, we started Dirty Sidewalks in 2010. Being that we were recording Bring Down the House Lights on our own time, in our own home studio, we wanted to make sure we weren’t rushing to get the album done for the sake of getting it done. We tried to really spend time arranging the songs, dialing tones and developing the overall production. The album had gone through a couple different revisions and a few rounds of mixes, but it was the kind of situation where we knew that we would know when it was done. Once we knew it was done, we knew it was the right time to release it.

One of the surprising things about Dirty Sidewalks is that, based on the credits, all the “drumming” is programmed.  But what’s even more intriguing to me is the role that bassist Evan O’Neil plays in the band.  Not only is he a “rhythm section” without a human partner, but to my ears his bass is given a lot of room to contribute on Bring Down The House Lights.  It feels like the bass is given a prominent, expressive role in the Dirty Sidewalks.  Is there a band philosophy as to how you want the bass to contribute to the overall sound?

ERIK:  As far as the “drumming” on the album, it’s kind of a “sum of all the parts” scenario. Yes, a lot of the drums are sequenced, however, there are a lot of live drums and percussion happening as well. Then amidst all of that, there are also loops and samples happening too. It’s definitely a pastiche. The bass is definitely a key part of what we do. Originally, O’Neil and I started the band as a duo (us + drum machine). Bass is always important, but I feel like when you’re in a 2-piece situation it’s extra important, so we were always striving to make sure the bass was booming, yet chugged like a ghost train, and had really had it’s own voice. Once my brother officially started playing with us it gave us a unique opportunity to take what we’d developed and open it up, making room for O’Neil to get a little more wild with his bass parts.

This album opens crazy strong with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, which is unquestionably one of its best jams.  This might be an odd question… but what is it that makes rock ’n’ roll so self-reverential?  There are so many great rock songs about rock and rocking… what is it about rock music that drives you as musicians to celebrate it?  It’s not something we hear in other genres.

ERIK:  True. I’ve never heard anyone talk about “jazzing” or how hard they “Jazz”. For me, rock music, in it’s various forms, has always made sense to me. It’s always been there for me, and I’ve generally found it to be relatable. That said, I definitely feel like the act of rocking should be celebrated. It’s my way of giving back to a genre that given me so much.

Lyrically “Bring Down The House Lights” has a bit of an outsider feel, sort of James Dean-ish… the cool guy with his hands in his pockets and sort of hunched up shoulders who knows he doesn’t quite fit into what everyone else seems to be about.  It’s a feeling best expressed in what might be my favorite song on the album, “Heard You Want To Kill Me” with it’s “I heard / you wanna kill me / that’s OK / I don’t blame you / I heard / You wanna call me / I don’t care / If you do.  Is that part of the perspective of the album, or just maybe something I’m internalizing from it (which is not to even remotely imply that I’m “cool”!)?

ERIK:  The album definitely has an outsider perspective at times, with vague optimism sprinkled in for good measure. I’ve heard other people say this before, but its totally true (for me at least) – sometimes the lyrics will come straight from the subconscious mind, and you wont realize what they mean or it’s about until later. It’s a trip. That said, I’m a big fan of lyrics meaning different things to different people.

Things take a bit of a darker turn in the middle of the album with “Euphoria” and “Black Holes”.  The latter in particular is a bit experimental… I think all the lyrics are samples from Stephen Hawking?  

 ERIK:  Yes, the vocals in that are an excerpt from a Stephen Hawking piece. Legend.

What are you guys listening to and into right now?  Any new bands we should be checking out?

ERIK:  I’ve been listening to the new Jupe Jupe album Lonely Creatures, Joe Waine’s most recent album Pantomime, lots of Glen Campbell, Bo Diddley, and Jim Sullivan’s album that Light in the Attic re-issued.

 

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If Bring Down The House Lights has one defining characteristic, it’s sonic density.  The Dirty Sidewalks Bandcamp page categorizes them as garage rock and shoegaze, and there are certainly elements of both in their music.  But there’s also a heavy dose of modern psych, especially in the way they use the space provided by those four or so minutes each song lasts.  One of my personal criticisms of psych is that after a half dozen or so songs my ears simply get tired and I need a break from it, but Dirty Sidewalks avoid that trap; instead they combine the best facets of psych and shoegaze without getting caught up in the pretentious excesses that those genres have a tendency to devolve into.  The instrumentation is rich and full while maintaining subtleness and the vocals are self-depricating without becoming morose.

I like a rock album that opens strong with a catchy rocker.  Sure, there are exceptions (♥), but I want to kick things off right and get into the mood to sneer and drink beer and rail against The Man.  So fortunately for me Bring Down The House Lights opens with a power-jam, and one that even specifically emphasizes the power of rock, “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”.  Rockers love to make songs about rocking (♦) and this is no exception, setting the table and letting us know that this record is going to rock our faces off.  Erik’s vocal delivery is all smooth cool ambivalence, the quintessential white-t-shirt-and-black-leather-jacket brand of rock that has pissed off the jocks and made the girls swoon for decades.  From there “Never Wanted to be Loved” takes in a more indie rock direction, maintaining that overall attitude of lyrical indifference with a dose of punk rock sneering.  By the time we get to “Always” Holly looked up from her phone to declare, “damn this is a good album”.  I know, right?  The guitar work is taking on a bit of an 80s feel but the vocals have a bit of that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club vibe.  And the tambourine… the goddamn tambourine!  It shouldn’t work.  Intellectually I want to hate it.  But I don’t.  I love it in spite of myself.

During my initial listens I was primarily smitten with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, but as I spent more time with Bring Down The House Lights during my dark and often rainy hour-long commute I found myself falling in love with “the other woman”, specifically with “Heard You Wanna Kill Me” – I used to hate you back / Now you hang around.  There’s a whiskey-soaked lethargy to the guitar that fits the vocals perfectly, before ending with the slightest guitar flourish, a hit of hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it will work out.  That’s followed by the ironically gloomy “Euphoria” and then the aforementioned Stephen-Hawking-inspired “Black Holes”, a trio of tunes that take the whole album to a more melancholy and introspective place, my favorite part of the record.

The second half of the album is more vocal expansive, both at its core and with the harmonies, particularly on “Where’s the Love” and “Never Be Alone”.  “Either Way” is the perfect little alt-indie number, a jangly 90s-style ditty that would have easily climbed into the College Radio Top 10 back when I was in college.

While the above may make you wonder if this is in fact three distinct mini-albums, in fact Dirty Sidewalks never stray too far from their core sound, so even when there’s a bit of a stylistic shift things there’s still an overall coherence to their core sound.  And that’s the beauty of Bring Down The House Lights – it’s an album in the truest sense of the word, the true sum of its parts.  It knows exactly what it wants to be and it executes on that plan perfectly.

Even after all this you may be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, sure Jeff, you’re just saying all this because you know Evan”.  And I get that you might be skeptical.  But don’t take my two-thousand-plus words for it, go listen for yourself HERE.  And if you like it as much as I know you will, pick yourself up a copy on the format of your choice.

(♠)  No, seriously.

(♣)  Those would potentially be our 10- and 20-year high school reunions, and then only maybe.

(♥)  Including two of my Desert-Island-Top-5 records, Arabian Horse and Paul’s Boutique.  So maybe I really don’t like this but just think I do.

(♦)  AC/DC seemingly made an entire career out of this with songs like “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘N’ Roll)”, “Rocker”, “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin'”, “Let There Be Rock”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation”, “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, “Rock Your Heart Out”, and lyrics like “I’m gonna rock all over you”, which I think might be some kind of sexual innuendo, though it’s hard to tell be cause it almost seems like AC/DC’s entire career was based on the idea of substituting “rock” for any verb in the English language.

Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 1

It’s 7AM on Thursday morning in Reykjavik, and I can’t sleep.  For whatever reason this entire trip has been a blurry week of going to bed barely able to keep my eyes open, then snapping wide awake about four hours later.  I know this kind of thing happens to people this far north during the summer, when the daylight is endlessly long and you feel the urge to take advantage of the sun because you know that the dark season is coming.  But Reykjavik has been a nothing but gray, from the impenetrable blanket of clouds covering the city and the battleship gray of the ocean in the harbor.  I should be able to wrap a comforter around myself and sleep for days.  But my head is still buzzing from last night’s shows, so instead I’m in a dark room, looking out a window at a tree wrapped in white Christmas lights, and writing this, my first postcard to Airwaves ’16.

I started the day over at Lucky Records, where King Lucky and Gestur had a whole pile of tapes, CDs, and records awaiting my perusal.  Figuring out what I already had was the first step, and I’ve finally reached the point where I can’t conclusively do that without the help of Discogs, which thankfully I was able to access on the store computer.  I only had an hour in the morning for records, so my friends at Lucky put my growing “buy” pile in the back for me to return to later in the trip.

The reason I only had a hour at Lucky was because we were doing the Reykjavik Music Walk, a tour of the city led by music journalist and PhD student (and brother of Ghostigital’s Curver) Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen.  Arnar led us through a rambling tour of downtown, pointing out the Sugarcubes’ old rehearsal space, locations of long-forgetter venues, and Björk’s old apartment.  He’s knowledgeable and engaging, and despite having to dodge a few raindrops, our group of eight people plus a film crew shooting a documentary all had an enjoyable time.  These tours usually take place in the summer, so if you find yourself in town and want a taste of the country’s music scene, it’s a fun way to spend a hour.

From there we grabbed some burgers and our wristbands before popping over to Reykjavik Record Shop to visit our friend Reynir and, of course, buy some records.  I didn’t go too crazy, but did walk out of there with Wormlust’s The Feral Wisdom, Box’s Skuggahliðin, a 12″ by Sniglabandið that I didn’t have, plus a four song 12″ comp from Icelandic label Thule Records.  I’ll likely be back there again before the end of the trip once I see how full my record bag is.

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After that we headed to the movie theater Bíó Paradís to catch an electronic set in their lobby area by Lady Boy Records artist Andi (left).  I thoroughly enjoyed his self-titled cassette that came out back in May, and his live show was quite good.  It started a bit slow, but moved into some more danceable beats that actually had group of a half dozen or so people dancing by the bar before it was all said and done.  At times Andi subtly alters the BPM during the build-up, which can throw off your timing a bit but adds an interesting element to the music that keeps you on your toes.

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The drizzle became a bit more consistent, but that didn’t stop us from a quick stop-off at the new Icelandic PUNK Museum, which had it’s grand opening at 5PM.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to hang around long enough to get inside and check out the cramped quarters, which are in an old disused public bathroom underneath a city sidewalk, but were were there to hear none other than Johnny Rotten (of Sex Pistols fame – right) address the crowd and talk a bit about punk rock and the current state of music (revelation –> Johnny isn’t terribly impressed).  He was an entertaining speaker, though you could tell he wanted to interact a bit more with the crowd, which was actually being quite quiet and almost looking at him as a curiosity, a museum piece in and of himself, which is too bad because he was quite witty and making a strong effort to connect.  I’m going to try to make it back there today to see the inside of the museum.

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From there it was a mad dash to KEX Hostel to catch Singapore Sling (left).  While we didn’t think we had a shot at getting a good spot, a table opened up in the front right at the corner of the stage area and we immediately took it over.  The position offered a fantastic vantage point for taking photos of the band’s droning psych rock set.  The only other time we’d seen Singapore Sling they were hamstrung by some horrible acoustics at the venue, but they suffered no such problems this time around, kicking out 25 minutes of killer music that was carried live by KEXP radio.  Look for some videos of the set online in the upcoming weeks, and give a listen to their latest album Psych Fuck.

After a delicious pulled pork sandwich and a beer at our fortress of a table we were treated to the OG garage rockers hailing from Tacoma, Washington, The Sonics (below), who have been blowing people’s minds since 1960.  Not only were we stoked to see this seminal band play in Reykjavik, but it was doubly exciting because our friend and old high school classmate Evan Foster now plays guitar with The Sonics when they tour.  It was obvious right from the packed soundcheck (after which the band remarked, “we don’t usually soundcheck in front of this many people…”) that this was going to be a high intensity show, and by the time 8:30 rolled around KEX was absolutely packed.  Right in the front just off to our right were the members of Seattle’s own Thunderpussy, who were obviously just as pumped as we were for the show.

And The Sonics rocked our faces off.

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When you’ve been doing rock ‘n’ roll for 56 years, you learn a thing or two, and The Sonics brought all that knowledge and all those lessons to the stage at KEX where they completely and utterly destroyed the room.  There was a heavy Seattle contingent in the crowd, which just increased the intensity level, and they band fed off of it from start to finish playing a blistering set that could have been a “How To” guide for rockers who want to start their own bands.  Yeah, I get it, Nirvana defines the Seattle sound and all that.  But just listen to some of those garage punk elements of The Sonics and you’ll realize that all that late 1980s/early 1990s grunge owes at a minimum a head-nod and a bro-hug to trailblazers like The Sonics.  And they’re still bringing it long after all those other bands have disappeared.  Long live The Sonics!

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We hung around after the show and had a drink with Evan before departing for Iðnó, where we arrived fairly soaked but were fortunately able to find a few comfortable seats in the back where we could relax a bit.  First up was a jazz rock type outfit called Ambátt, but the band we were really there to see was the darkwave trio of Kælan Mikla (left).  They totally blew us away at Airwaves last year, and their self-titled 2016 release will most likely make at least one of my year-end “Top 5” lists.  They brought intensity (and incense) to their set in front of a packed and appreciative room, and it was interesting to hear how much they’ve developed since the last time we saw them.  The electronic beats had more variety, the bass playing more confidence and power, and the singing… the singing… when Laufey Soffía Þórsdóttir decides to go off it’s startling that so much power can come out of that person, a mix of anger and rage and fear that is more cold and clinical than raw emotion, perfectly attuned to their style.

We only saw five bands, but it was a full and rewarding day.  We actually had a conversation about just that with our friend and ex-pat Leana – that there were times at Airwaves when seeing as many bands as was humanly possible seemed to be a goal in and of itself, but that over the years we’ve been able to step back and take Airwaves as it comes, taking the time to re-connect with friends and enjoy the ride.  And that’s definitely what we’re doing this year – enjoying the ride.

Well, I’ve been at the computer for just over an hour.  It’s a little after 8AM, and still as dark as midnight outside our apartment window.  I may just need to crawl back into bed and see if I can sneak in a few more hours of shuteye before hitting the mean streets of Reykjavik again for another day of music.  But probably not.  And that’s why they invented coffee.

The Sonics – “Live at Easy Street” (2016)

thesonicsliveeasystreetversionThis is the Record Store Day release I was most excited about this year.  I always thought it would be cool to have a live show that I attended come out as an album, and this is the first time that it actually happened.  To be fair, Live at KEXP – Volume Eight does include a live performance of “Over” by Gusgus that I saw in person at Reykjavik’s KEX Hostel, but that was just one song on a compilation.  For Live at Easy Street, I was one of maybe 200 people who were lucky enough to get inside Easy Street Records for this performance by The Sonics on RSD 2015. (♠)  So check another item off of my musical bucket list.  Now if only Led Zeppelin would do a reunion concert…

The record itself is a limited release of 3,500. However, the gang over at Easy Street put their own spin on it, taking 500 copies and custom packaging those with all kinds of extra goodies.

  • A special fold over cover sheet that is hand numbered
  • A liner notes booklet written by Easy Street owner Matt Vaughn that goes into depth as to how the show came to be (and came together in only a week!)
  • A ticket from the show (these appear to be identical to the actual tickets issued that night, with the exception of the tab on the right which was cut off when we entered the venue; the ticket included here is complete)
  • A copy of the set list that shows who the special guests were on each song
  • A download card for two extra songs that don’t appear on the record – “Sugaree” and “Be a Woman”

My copy also has a smaller black and white version of the limited edition poster that was given to those who attended the show.  It’s much smaller than the original and a different color scheme – the originals were brown and tan, much larger (full poster sized), and all individually numbered.  I’m told that only copies numbered 1 through 100 had these posters inserted, but I haven’t been able to validate that – but my copy is below 100 and has the poster, for what it’s worth.

Because KEXP participated in the event, the show was treated to a high quality recording which is why we have this record today.  And let me tell you, it sounds outstanding.  They squeezed 14 tracks on here, which means you miss a lot of the banter and the introductions of special guest performers, but that’s where the set list helps.

And those special guests… man, it was a veritable who’s who in Seattle rock.  Van Conner (Screaming Trees), Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America), Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening), Matt Lukin (Mudhoney/Melvins), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Ben Shepherd (Soundgarden)… it was a crazy night and seemed like every song had another surprise waiting to come out onto the stage.  It’s amazing that so many people were able to be pulled together in less than a week to participate, and it shows the kind of influence The Sonics have had on Seattle rockers for decades.

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The Sonics sound tight as hell throughout the album.  Unfortunately, per the liner notes, there were a few songs the band didn’t feel were up to snuff, so “Strychnine” and “Shot Down” didn’t make the cut… so we don’t get a chance to hear Calvin Johnson and Mike McCready with The Sonics, which is a bummer.  That being said, the tracks that were selected are near studio quality and clean, with a perfect mix throughout the sonic range.  Bottom line – you won’t find a better sounding live album anywhere.

It’s tough to pick favorites on Live at Easy Street because the band sounds so damn good.  Matt Vaughan’s introduction of the band at the start of the set and album opener “Cinderella” conveys the overall excitement and energy in the room that night, and the band tears it up (especially the harmonica).  “Louie Louie” is of course a favorite here in Seattle.  Don’t believe me?  Well, consider this – in 1985 there was a legitimate attempt to make it the official state song for Washington.  In fact, the WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) actually lists “Louie Louie” on it’s website as the state’s  “Rock Song (Unofficial).”  When my highs school team traveled to a national tournament in 1989 we provided it to the organizers as the state song and we’re introduced to it (maybe the closest I’ve ever come to actually having my own wrestling-style intro music). We take our “Louie Louie” seriously out here.  But don’t take my word for it.  You can see a big chunk of the show below (alas, excluding “Louie Louie”…) thanks to our friends at KEXP.

The Sonics are pure old school garage psych rock, and 50 years after their first album was released they can still play the hell out of some rock ‘n’ roll.  So if you’re into the old school sound, this one is a must have.

(♠) Per the liner notes, there were 168 paid admissions (at $100 apiece, with the money going towards the new KEXP radio studio and performance space, a worthy cause) and another 40 guests inside.  But part way through Easy Street opened it’s big garage doors out to the street so those on the sidewalk were able to experience it too.

UPDATE MAY 3, 2016:  I got an email from Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan confirming that the poster insert was limited to the first 100 numbered copies.  Also, the shop still has some of their special limited edition versions for sale, so if you want one, hit ’em up at easystreetonline.com.