We The Wild - “Still Asunder” Single (2015)

One of the things I didn’t expect when I started Life in the Vinyl Lane was that I’d start getting emails about new releases from all kinds of labels and bands, sometimes even being offered early access to upcoming albums.  Which is pretty cool, but I’ll be honest - generally speaking unless I already know about the album and am interested in hearing it, I don’t often take the time time to listen.  My vinyl backlog is that huge most of the time.  But sometimes I get an email that’s not a form letter, but an actual note from an artist.  In those cases I almost always go check out their stuff.  Sometimes it’s not my cup of tea; rarely, it just isn’t very good.  In those cases I thank them, but don’t write about them, because I’m not here to trash someone’s music.  Every now and again, though, those emails turn me on to something I really enjoy, like MALLEVS, and that makes it all worth while.

So the other day I got an email from Miles of We The Wild, a post-hardcore group just down the road a ways in Portland, Oregon.  With the holidays I dragged my feet a bit, but yesterday I sat down to listen to their new single, “Still Asunder,” which you can check out for free online HERE.  I was stopped in my tracks because musically this reminds me so much of Iceland’s Agent Fresco - the seemingly strange timing, the obvious jazz influences infused into a heavy rock song, the musical layers that make you pick up something different with each listen.  Should I focus on the vocals?  Or the drumming?  Or what about that guitar work?  What sets We The Wild apart from their Icelandic brethren is the vocals, which are heavily weighted towards hardcore, but that at times break off into harmonies.  “Still Asunder” doesn’t fall into a nice, cliched musical package that you can just wrap a bow around and put a label on.  It’s something different.  Call it what you want - post-hardcore, math rock, whatever.  I don’t care.  What it is is something fresh that actually forces you to think and pay attention.  Some listeners find this style of music to be, for lack of a better word, “difficult,” but if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll start to hear the layers and realize that there is more than one way to solve a puzzle.

I decided to check out their other recent single as well, “Roxy, The Cops Are Here!,” and that just reinforced my impression that We The Wild are onto something interesting and thoughtful.  Both songs are part of an upcoming new album that will be available on iTunes and also through the band’s assorted online presences.  I suggest keeping tabs on them, because if the rest of their songs are like this pair, I think the album will be a winner.

The Revolutionaries - “Revolutionaries Sounds Vol. 2” (1979 / 2015)

The Revolutionaries were the “house band” for Jamaica’s Channel One Studios during the second half of the 1970s.  The infamous Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare handled the drum and bass duties respectively, and The Revolutionaries were the backing band on a number of great reggae and dub albums during that period.  For Record Store Day Black Friday 2015 we were treated to the first ever vinyl re-release of the band’s 1979 dub classic Revolutionaries Sounds Vol. 2, 10 groovy and not-too-effects-laden tracks, most of which are instrumentals.  The recording quality is excellent, as is the packaging, which includes a small poster of the cover.

I was curious about the use of Che Guevara on the cover, given how his image has become somewhat ironically commercialized over the decades (one of my favorite pieces of graffiti was a spray painted Che Guevara wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, which kind of sums it up nicely).  But considering that this album was originally released with the same cover image in 1979, and that the group used the same image on the first Revolutionaries Sounds in 1976, at least it’s relatively contemporary to Che’s lifetime.  When you consider the economic, class, and racial challenges that Jamaica faced following it’s independence from the UK, it’s likely that these men were fairly serious about their revolutionary leanings, so it makes sense given the time and place.  Reggae was considered somewhat subversive at the time, so I don’t think this was just empty posturing.

Mötley Crüe - “Too Fast For Love” (1981) and “Shout at the Devil” (1983)

We went over to Easy Street Records to check out the selection of Record Store Day Black Friday releases, and while there I of course had to flip through the New Arrivals bins, and man were they stocked with some outstanding material!  OG pressings by favorites like Nirvana and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and NIN… so much good stuff.  And then I saw it.  A gatefold copy of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil.  And I flashed back 1983 and having to hide this tape from my parents and listen to it on my Walkman because it was so dangerous at the time.  Studs and leather and makeup and fireballs and scantily clad women… Crüe’s videos are what adolescent fantasies were made of.  At least mine.

motleycrueband

There was also a copy of Crüe’s debut, 1981s Too Fast for Love.  My connection with that record is a bit different.  My uncle Jeff was in the music industry back in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  He’d always been very good to me - he was the youngest of his brothers and sisters by a good margin, I was his first nephew, and he even lived with us for a while when I was a little kid.  So when he learned I had reached that age and was starting to get interested in music, he mailed me a box of records.  I don’t know precisely why he sent me those specific records; you won’t find him listed in the credits, or anything like that, so perhaps he was somehow involved with them, or the bands, or the labels, or maybe he just thought they’d be the kind of thing I’d be into.  Unfortunately he passed away shortly thereafter, so I never had the chance to ask him or talk to him about his work (or get to know him as a man).  I don’t remember most of what was in that box of records, but a few titles stick out in my memory - Big Country’s The Crossing, Ozzy’s Bark at the Moon, and Mötley Crüe’s Too Fast for Love.  It seems strange now to have two such important connections to different Mötley Crüe records over such a short span, but there you have it.

It’s probably hard for someone who got into music after the 1980s to understand the power of those early glam/hair bands.  All the makeup and Aquanet and torn fishnet stockings seem very cliche and quaint when you look at them through modern eyes.  But just take a look at the cover of Too Fast for Love - a straight-up leather pants crotch shot, the spiked wristband, the fingerless gloves, the handcuffs as belt buckle, and the right hand giving you the horns.  Perhaps an homage to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers?  Or maybe a dis, I don’t know.  This was massively subversive at the time.  This was the kind of music that was going to make your son start being disrespectful to his elders and your daughter lose her virginity.  It was music that made you want to fight, and not just authority, but fight simply for the sake of fighting, because you were angry at the world.  And when Shout at the Devil came out two years later, the Crüe actually managed to kick it up a notch with heavy makeup, song titles that mentioned the devil (“Shout at the Devil” and “God Bless the Children of the Beast”) and included profanity (“Bastard”… yes kids, that was still a bad word then), and a damn pentagram on the cover.  This wasn’t just music that would turn you into a loser; it would cause you to perform satanic rituals and would send you straight to hell.

Keep in mind, this was the pre-internet era, and even cable TV was pretty new for most of America.  VCRs were just starting to become popular (though you still had a hard time finding a video rental store) and the Intellivision was the cutting edge of home video game entertainment.  You actually watched the evening news on TV every night and had the newspaper delivered to your house.  If you wanted to learn more about something, you looked in an encyclopedia that, if you were lucky, was only about 10 years old (my set was older).  Information just wasn’t available, so we were left to make assumptions based on what little we had.  In the case of Mötley Crüe what we had were the images they chose to present on their albums and in print, plus if you were lucky their music videos.  That was it.  So it was pretty easy to think that maybe these dudes were seriously evil, back when professional wrestling still insisted it was a sport and not entertainment.  In many ways it wasn’t so radically different from say the New York Dolls, but it’s not like most people would have even understood that at the time.

I don’t even know if I ever listened to my copy of Too Fast for Love.  I was still pretty young and at that stage where I only wanted to listen to songs I knew and liked, so there wasn’t much incentive to play the first Crüe record since I’d never heard of any of the songs and no one I knew had ever heard it, so how would I even know if it was cool, right?  My guess I spun it once, maybe twice, and that was probably it.  It wasn’t until literally a couple of decades later that I realized how insanely good “Live Wire” and “Piece of Your Action” are, a pair of early glam classics.  And it wasn’t until today that I sat down and gave the whole album a thorough listen, having up until now relied upon Red, White, & Crüe as my source for the pre-Shout material.  How did “Take Me to the Top” fail to make that compilation?  I don’t know.  I want to say that Too Fast for Love is a bit inconsistent, but that’s not entirely fair - this record is 34 years old (<- …what?  What???  How is that even possible?!  Beyoncé was two months old when this album came out… WTF), and I’ve had the benefit of hearing all of Mötley Crüe’s subsequent music (and witnessed the excesses that came to define glam).  I think what makes it seem inconsistent is that parts of it are so exceptional - you can’t blame the rest of the album for not being as amazing as “Live Wire.”  It’s not as heavily produced as hair metal quickly came to be, making it sound a lot more straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll today.

The first time I’d ever heard “In the Beginning,” the opening to Shout at the Devil, I was sitting on one of the chairs at the hair salon where my mom worked, listening to it on my Walkman headphones.

I nearly crapped my pants.

Again, this was a different time, and I was still pretty young.  And up to that point Mötley Crüe was the hardest thing I’d ever heard.  It was dangerous.  It could damn your soul for all eternity.  I bought the tape on the strength of the “Looks That Kill” video that was all anyone could talk about at school (I was not only lucky enough to have cable, unlike a lot of my classmates, but I even had access to MTV in my bedroom; that and my Intellivision helped my popularity a little).  I listened to “Shout at the Devil” and “Looks That Kill” more times than I can count, though I doubt I played the rest of it more than a half dozen times if I had to guess.  Which is too bad because there are some good songs on Shout at the Devil, which I think is consistently of better quality than Too Fast for Love.  “God Bless the Children of the Beast” is a mega-clunker, but “Bastard” and “Red Hot” are solid, and the cover of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” is a Crüe classic.  A lot of critics trashed Shout at the Devil back in the day, but bottom line is it’s a classic of the genre.

I’m glad Easy Street had these records today - so thanks to whoever loved these for a while and then sold them.  They’ve got a good new home, and they’re going to be here for a while.

John Grant - “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” (2015)

John Grant’s recently released Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was one of those albums for me.  You know the ones.  The next new album put out by that artist you fell in love with after first hearing their previous record.  What will it sound like?  How will it affect me?  If it disappoints me, will that somehow make me like Pale Green Ghosts less?

These are, of course, ridiculous thoughts, but they are real if you’re a music obsessive like me.  But Grant provides a bit of applicable wisdom in the title track, “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure,” which is a laundry list of things you can feel bad, or more precisely sorry for yourself, about.  And, as always with Grant’s lyrics, he’s pretty damn blunt about it.

And there are children who have cancer,
So all bets are off,
‘Cause I can’t compete with that.

It’s Grant’s use of language that defines his art to me.  It’s not just his personal delivery style, which is very conversational, but in the way the he obvious loves playing with words.  He has admitted in many an interview that he is very interested in language, and if I recall is fluent in German and Russian, plus has working knowledge of a handful of others (and is working on his Icelandic).  But it goes beyond that.  It’s the obvious joy he takes in using specific words, not because they make him sound smart, but just because of how they sound, how they roll off the tongue.  Decoupage… luxuriating… obsequious… ocelot… words that don’t need to appear in the songs (though an ocelot does have an important and recurring role in the TV show Archer…), but are just perfect in the way he delivers them.  He gives us a few words and phrases in languages other than English too, and name-drops all over the place, from the literary like Dostoevsky and Frances Bacon to actresses like Madeline Kahn and Angie Dickinson to the downright unusual like my personal favorite, self-destructive punk rock icon GG Allin.  It’s quite the list.  I feel like I need a Cliff’s Notes guide and a thesaurus just to follow along.  Stockholm is a place that I adore / But the syndrome by that name / Is one that I abhor.  Seriously, who else can write like this and put it into a song and make it work??  Grant is the only person I can think of who can pull off tricks like that.

I was curious about how Grey Tickles, Black Pressure would compare to Pale Green Ghosts musically when I leaned that Biggi Veira (of Gusgus fame) wasn’t involved in the new album.  Biggi’s sonic fingerprints are all over the earlier record, and I thought that perhaps his absence from the new one represented a shift in direction.  However, that’s not the case, at least not entirely.  There was an incredible richness to much of Pale Green Ghosts, perhaps nowhere more so than on the title track, and while there’s a level of musical density to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, it feels a bit simpler, which puts more of the focus on the vocals.  The differences are subtle - the overall composition still has an electronic base to it, though with a wide range of instruments playing their roles.  This doesn’t feel as much like an “electronic” album.

Normally on Life in the Vinyl Lane I give my initial impressions of an album, often after just the first or second listen.  I know that’s not how a reviewer is supposed to do things, and that may no always be fair to the artists, but initial impressions are still important ones.  Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is an exception to my usual modus operandi - I probably listened to it all the way through around 10 times before I finally sat down to write about it.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure.  I know that upon my first listening it didn’t sound like a John Grant album to me, though that impression faded immediately the second time through.  Grant throws so much at you lyrically that it can be a bit overwhelming, and I think he simply overloaded my brain circuits during that first listen as I tried to make sense of what he just said while continuing to follow along with what he was now saying.

I enjoy Grey Tickles, Black Pressure quite a bit, and I find it growing on me with each listen.  I doubt it will ever eclipse Pale Green Ghosts for me, but that was part of the enormously powerful first impression I had of Grant after seeing him perform live at Iceland Airwaves in 2013, and it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of experience with an artist as you become more familiar with their work.  Grey Tickles, Black Pressure strikes me as more mature and less raw emotion than Grant’s prior record, which is neither a positive nor a negative but simply an observation about this development as an artist and a man.  I respect his lyrical honesty, even when it makes me cringe.

Rick James - “Street Songs” (1981)

“I’m Rick James, bitch,” may have been the biggest catch-phrase of 2004 when Dave Chappelle made it famous as part of his Rick James character on The Chappelle Show.  Followed very closely by James’ own actual quote that was part of one of those sketches, “Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.”

Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and James had a reputation for ingesting it in copious quantities throughout much of his life, including smoking it as crack.  He epitomized the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, becoming well-known for his excesses, spending not one but two stints in prison (draft evasion and assault), and being on both the winning and losing side of high dollar civil suits.  When he died in 2004 at the age of 56, the autopsy found both meth and cocaine in his system, along with a number of other drugs, though none deemed to be in quantities that would have been directly responsible for his death.

1981s Street Songs may very well represent Rick James at his pinnacle as a performer.  Three tracks were later sampled by hip hop artists, including his best-known hit “Super Freak” that MC Hammer rode to the top of the charts with his “Can’t Touch This” (James won his suit against Hammer and got songwriting credit).  The album was his biggest mainstream hit, reaching #3 on the US charts with “Super Freak” stalling out just shy of the Top 10 at #16.  However, his style of funk rock had a much stronger appeal in the R&B world, where Street Songs was just one of seven Rick James album to make it into the Top 10.  In fact “Super Freak” was far from being his highest charting single on the R&B charts, it’s #3 peak falling below his four #1 singles.

Street Songs is all about the sexy.  Sexy sexy sexy.  “Super Freak” isn’t even the only song on the album to have the word “kinky” in the lyrics, and it includes songs with titles like “Give It to Me Baby,” “Make Love to Me,” and “Fire and Desire” just in case you thought it was too subtle.  It’s poppy, highly danceable funk, with those great bass lines offset by James’ high pitched delivery.  Not every song is a winner - the slower tracks like “Make Love to Me” and “Fire and Desire” don’t do a lot for me, though they aren’t bad either.  The magic happens, though, when the tempo is brisk.  Lest you think it’s all about sex though, James does give you a dose of smart street social commentary in “Mr. Policeman” in which he recounts how he saw his friend shot down by the police, providing a moment of seriousness on what is otherwise a very fun album.

If you don’t know the opening bass riff to “Super Freak,” then you probably need to stop reading right now and go listen to it online - it’s one of the most iconic song openings of all time.  If the beat and groove of this song don’t make you want to move your body, you might be dead.  She’s super freaky… yow!  It’s ironic how what was a pretty dirty song at the time has turned into something so mainstream that you don’t even give it a second thought.  She’s a very kinky girl / The kind you won’t take home to mother…  Hell, you’re as likely hear this in the grocery store today as you would be to hear it on the radio.

Street Songs is a true classic, start to finish.