Dirtbombs / The Cyril Lords at the Magic Stick (2005)

an affordably screamy garage-rock trip…

Originally published 12 September 2005

With Jack White otherwise engaged in Chicago, and a dark cloud of violence and tabloid attention hanging over his hometown, tonight sees the second division of Detroit garagers given their chance to hold court and lay claim to the title of best rock band in the Motor City. In front of a pretty good-looking, slightly liquored and completely on-the-make crowd, the three faces in the Detroit-via Ohio Cyril Lords offer an affordably screamy garage-rock trip, stoking the crowd (complete with regulation members of The Von Bondies and Soledad Brothers) with a disciplined 30 minute set. Then, after the stroke of midnight, The Sights run through their retro-rock thing. It’s loud, but a little too humourless for a party night like this.

It’s up to garage-soul heroes The Dirtbombs, then, to finally settle any doubts about whether or not this is the place to be on New Year’s Eve, with frontman and ex-Gories-leader Mick Collins – sporting his now-legendary wraparound shades – providing the cues. Playing with authority via their double-bassist and double-drummer line-up, the band cut fifteen-plus songs in just over an hour, mostly from their newest release ‘Dangerous Magical Noise’. Though there are a few on-stage flourishes, including a behind-the-back guitar rave-up by Collins and Meg White’s flatmate Ko Zydeco holding out her bass so we can better see her glam pink mod dress, most of the show’s thrills came from the stamping-plant power of The Dirtbombs’ delivery. Songs like ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About It’, and ironic tour favorite ‘I’m Through With White Girls’, are the true shake-up numbers, pushing the by-now intoxicated crowd into a frenzy. In true NYE karaoke style, they even chuck in a couple of covers, including Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Kung Fu’, deep Northern Soul standard ‘Chains Of Love’ and even the Eurythmics’ ’80s classic ‘Missionary Man’.

As the crowd begins to thin after three hours of New Year’s Eve booze and full-on volume, the stragglers upfront inspire the band to new levels. During the final song co-drummer Ben Blackwell executes a headstand on his bass drum and tackles guitarist Pat Pantano, leaving the stage trashed and the crowd happy. Though Ma Blackwell is concerned about her son’s bleeding, all The Dirtbombs care about is whether or not they delivered. They did, naturally.

Stooges Live (2003)

Originally published August 2003 for New Music Express.

The Stooges
Sonic Youth
Von Bondies

Clarkston, Michigan (aka NOT DETROIT)
Monday, August 25, 2003

Iggy demanded the house lights be eliminated from the stage. “Blackout! Blackout!” he howled as the riff from Fun House’s “TV Eye” pierced the humid night. As a song-closer, Iggy called out to the now united thousands in attendance at the grassy-amphitheater: “We are the FUCKIN’ STOOGES!”

Introductions aside, the “original” reunited Stooges—guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer / brother Scott Asheton, bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen / Firehose) filling for the departed Dave Alexander and saxophonist Steve Mackay, from the original Fun House sessions—seemed to be as passionate about their audience’s delusion as their fans could rightfully expect on a Monday night. And after the disciplined but dry, one-riffed barrage of the Von Bondies and the more mature than staggering O’Rourke version of the Youth, it was clear who really knew how to play minimalist sludge for an audience of (now aging, predominantly suburban) derelicts.

Though no chests were slit with glass (at least on stage) there were a number of vintage moments, including a stage-heist from the first ten rows during “Real Cool Time,” and an ironic pelting of the band with $7 plastic-cupped beers starting with, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Both the band’s obvious aging and the concert’s environment—the hinterlands of Clarkston sure ain’t the Michigan Palace in Detroit—kept the show away from true revelation. But on a muggy evening in August with dozens of people on stage dancing and sweating and a shirtless, atrophied Iggy threatening to “dance to the back of the lawn,” one could be excused for allowing the familiar fear to kick in one more time.

David Bowie, Hours (1999)

Attempted sellout

Complete artistic control, working with Brian Eno again, critical praise for the first time in almost 20 years, living to see his 50th birthday – you’d think David Bowie would have been happy with his last two outings, but he’s not. Bowie just wants to be a rock star again. Hours, his heavily hyped new record, is what he hopes will get him there, despite (or because) it sounds like a pandering, cloying, comedically barren Sting album – with wankier guitars.

After two albums of space-age-provocateur music – the Eno-involved Outside (1995) and the drum ’n’ bass-inspired Earthling (1996) – Hours is as straightforward and mainstream an album as Bowie could make. It’s complete with 10 tracks in about 45 minutes, a traditional guitar-bass-drums setup and Bowie’s voice right on top, with no doubling of voices, spoken word segues, abrasive drum loops and – importantly for the straight-in-our-time Bowie – no disturbing talk of devious sexuality.

But Bowie’s plan is cursed by Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels (who gets writing and wanking credit on all 10 tracks) as well as Bowie’s refusal to rock ’n’ roll. His last two records, – tough-minded outings into electronica, sonic cityscapes and sexual introspection, – had a sense of rhythm and humor, mixing musical high-mindedness with Bowie’s love for the musical lowbrow to strong results. Hours, on the other hand, is all heavy rock guitar nonsense, more in line with the last Ozzy record than some sort of return to the good old days, whether you think they were Space Oddity or Lodger.

Tragically, Hours really does seem like an attempt by Bowie to reconnect lyrically on an emotional level, not just to pop music but to an audience beyond his always-ready fans. But all rock and no roll makes Bowie a dull boy, despite some interesting post-introspective lyrics (“Something about me stood apart/a whisper of hope that seemed to fail/maybe I’m born right out of my time/breaking my life in two”) and vocals that rarely show their age.

June of 44, Anahata (1999)

Anything can show up on a June of 44 album – typewriters, Moog synths, melodic-skronk guitars, avant-howling, Miles at Fillmore-esque trumpet, start-stop Studebaker drums, the familiar incantations of a shipʼs captain explaining deserted shores and hearts – which makes deciphering the bandʼs comings and goings since 1995 more than a little challenging. But recently the boys had gotten into a nonformulaic rut. Four Great Points (1998) found them at a rather disagreeable crossroads where the dub undertones populating albums such as 1997ʼs The Anatomy of Sharks had worn themselves out and Jeff Muellerʼs howling, though seemingly cathartic for him, was anything but for anyone within earshot.

Anahata, on the other hand, visits June of 44 on a calmer day at sea. There is virtually no screaming, with the band consciously making room for its newfound interest in the written word by publishing the lyrics to the songs inside the album. Now, along with the standard navigational song titles (“Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist” and “Equators to Bi-polar”), there are even more elliptical thoughts and phrases to juggle, from the simple themes of “Wear Two Eyes” (“On my back I wear two eyes/those that see a better life”) to the almost-alarming hippie charm of the 10-minute-plus closer, “Peel Away Valleity” (“I have an ambiguous dream of you serene/surrounded in a sunflower scene”).

In a wonderful change in (or return to) form, Anahata illuminates a quixotic image of June of 44 as a band interested in lyrical playfulness as much as musical thoughtfulness – a band that creates a sonic narrative where questions of “why American indie rock?” dissolve into the spaces between Doug Sharinʼs drum fills.

Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution (1999)

Itʼs been well over 20 years since punk started, so it would be great to report that the punk underground is doing what it should be doing long after its survival has been guaranteed – you know, putting together a stormy mix of music reminiscent of Ritchie Valens going down on Etta James while she spins Yellow Magic Orchestra with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. But the truth hurts: The white middle-class youth of this country are apparently hanging out with the white middle-class youth of this country. They have, in effect, created a genre of race music, ending this century like we began it, with white people like Josh Hooten, in the liner notes of Nowcore!, declaring that they have the inside track on “being a human on planet earth.”

Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution is a hard-core compilation featuring the “best” of this countryʼs most insular musical genre, from the one-time chart-registering drivel of Hum (“Stars”) to the ex-Dischord lackluster of Jawbox (“Savory”). What is hardcore, you might ask? According to this album, it requires above-average guitar skills (i.e. better than the Ramones) but below-average songwriting skills (i.e. a shitload worse than the Ramones). Of course, if this were its only problem, than the album would merely suck. Instead, for whatever god-awful reason, there are also no women in this collection, which makes Nowcore!ʼs claim to be at the top of the evolutionary arc that much more laughable.

Any exceptions? “Why Did Ever We Meet,” the Promise Ring track that starts things off, because the bandʼs musical honesty doesnʼt seem to hurt my ears as much as the protestations of bands like Seaweed; and Modest Mouseʼs “Convenient Parking,” mainly because the band sounds like a dilapidated version of Gang of Four – which is a compliment.

P.S. I Love You, Liberty or Death (1999)

For those Detroit youths who came of age during the Reagan years and found shoegazing and early alt-rockʼs oceanic guitar feedback as energizing as the sound of Ford-metal-machine music was for Iggy Pop, the lure of Liberty or Deathʼs opening salvo – “Where on Earth is Kevin Shields?”– should be enough for at least a few novelty listens.

Luckily, there seems to be more happening with P.S. I Love You than this simple My Bloody Valentine namecheck. Liberty or Death is a melange of songs culled from post-Majesty Crush side projects headed by vocalist David Stroughter, former frontman for that now-defunct early ʼ90s bliss-rock outfit. P.S. I Love You has been in existence in one form or another since 1996, but has only recently put together enough steam to release a full-length record and a consistent live lineup. So P.S. I Love Youʼs future depends largely on whether or not Stroughter and friends can capitalize on the better moments of this at times wonderful (but in the end wonderfully mediocre) long-player.

The album is heavy with great ideas: The impudent opening riff to “Where on Earth… ?,” the Shakermaker-esque vocal churn of “No Sharks Allowed,” and the Storm In Heaven arrangements of “Unless I See You Again” and “New York,” both of which lend the project a sense of beauty. But the songs seem to delve into high school diary material more than once: my first time in New York (“New York”), my first hydroponic experience (“Windmill Friends”), my first love (“P.S. I Love You”).

These songs sound more like good demos than the grand statements for which P.S. I Love You strives. All of which makes Stroughterʼs sense of urgency sound strained over the spare arrangements, like an ungainly teenager stuck in shoes three sizes too small. Like Majesty Crush, which released a single on British indie label Ché, P.S. I Love You has kept its connection to the British indie scene by releasing its first 45 (“Where On Earth is Kevin Shields?”/”No Sharks Allowed”) on Londonʼs space-edged Rocket Girl label. But the band will need more than indie-cred if it is to live up to the promise offered by Stroughterʼs grand mannerisms or the will of the band to remake the world – or just Detroit – in its own out-of-focus image.

Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up (1999)

For almost ten years Superchunk (Jon Wurster, drums; Mac McCaughan, guitar, vocals; Jim Wilbur, guitar; Laura Balance, bass) have written, recorded, toured and distributed their own records—a trillion of them plus singles and EPs—while also signing bands, selling T-shirts, doing press, and answering Mergeʼs telephone. In an ironic twist, Superchunk has become what people in the ʼ70s and ʼ80s referred to the ʼ60s superstar-hippies as: survivors. Yet this pseudo-tribute, tantamount to having a statue made in your honor while you are still alive (a nice thought, but really, Iʼm not dead yet), just doesnʼt do justice to the continued power of Superchunkʼs music or its continued impact on underground rock ʼnʼ roll.

Its new album, Come Pick Me Up — produced by Jim OʼRourke, the Quincy Jones of Americaʼs pop-avant-garde — is an open love letter to Superchunkʼs DIY followers, a love that is at times critical and menacing but never distant or removed. Instead, in songs such as “1000 Pounds” and “Tiny Bombs” Superchunk has provided a stirring document, full of praise and self-doubt, distant longing and public confession, about what it means to be punk rock long after the thrill of living is gone.

The killer we-told-you-so-but-itʼs-OK track here is “June Showers,” whose nursery school guitar riff mimics the nursery rhyme offerings of major labels who do it all, as Mac intones, “because they care for you.” But it is the sweetness of Macʼs chorus, confidently pleading, “Iʼm hoping for the coolest showers in June/a transfusion that might keep you from giving up/donʼt give up,” that gives the song and the album its soul. For what is punk rock but soul music turned upside down, irony and laughter filling in for “baby” and “Lord have mercy,” while the true desire—for a new world, a new day—seeps in through the static in the amps.

Guided By Voices, Do the Collapse (1999)

Previously driven cars

I am not a fan of Guided by Voices because of their now mythical, rough-cut, non-sensical, lo-fi rock heroics: i.e. recording their music — partly by necessity, partly for its angsty realism — so it sounds like the underneath of an angry buzzsaw-table drowned among the weeds of a twisted British folk lyric. Instead I’m a fan of the deeply morbid three-and-a-half-minute-long pop anthems that have surfaced on GBV’s records since the band’s 1994 release, Bee Thousand (on longtime home Matador). Basically, I’ll take well-crafted pop brilliance over sonic devolution-revolution anytime.

That said, Do the Collapse features some of the best tunes Bob Pollard – the drunken, Princelike figure who commands 95 percent of GBV’s songwriting credits – has churned out, though the cynic in me notices that this breakthrough comes on an album produced by the Cars’ Rick Ocasek and released on the un-Matador-like label TVT. But when a sell-out sounds this good, only the most spoiled indie-rocker could whine. More to the point, when it means that GBV finally jettisons the lion’s share of its rock-retro fetishes – from wanna-be Beatles b-sides to REM necrophilia – then there’s hope that musical transcendence will win the day.

And it does. The singles are plentiful and the lyrics on such songs as “Hold On Hope” (“Well that’s the chance we take/ to be always working/ reaching out for/ the hand that we can’t see/ everybody’s got a hold on hope/ its the last thing that’s holding me”) are simply beautiful. This may be GBV’s version of a throwaway album – all more or less straightforward and sonically pleasing – but so what. The Cars never sounded this good.