Dr. John – Locked Down (2012)

Nonesuch Records ■ 530395-1

Released April 3, 2012

Produced by Dan Auerbach
Engineered by Collin Dupuis
Mixed by Dan Auerbach and Collin Dupuis
Mastered by Brian Lucey (Magic Garden Mastering)


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Locked Down
  2. Revolution
  3. Big Shot
  4. Ice Age
  5. Getaway
  1. Kingdom of Izzness
  2. You Lie
  3. Eleggua
  4. My Children, My Angels
  5. God’s Sure Good

I always end up with mixed feelings about projects like this. Are people going to only buy it because of Auerbach, not knowing the good Doctor? Is the Night Tripper going to be lost behind the black fuzz of Auerbach, despite playing his very own keys? Does any of that matter at all?

I don’t have an answer to any of those, especially the last question. I, myself, bought the album because of both of them. I’ve been into the works of Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack for years now–somewhere around college I piled him in with Leon Russell and Todd Rundgren–the solo artists from (approximately) the 70s who had hits, but ended up enjoying more “visibility” (audibility and not visibility, I should say…) in the works of others–Rundgren as a producer, Russell as songwriter and session man, and Dr. John as a muppet¹. More to the point, their sounds were unusual–but not so unusual as to be in the range of post-punk’s occasional peculiarities or any similarly “extreme” experimentation. Nice home-brews of sound, reflecting personal musical pasts, cultural and regional ones, or some mix of both.

The album’s a throwback at the first glance–the cover looks like it could be from some time four decades ago, but without the slight unease of a pastiche, earnest homage, or similar “tell” that many such covers often bear. It easily slides itself into a space of both modern and aged, the right way to do such things and maintain comfort in image. The inner lyric sheet even has liner notes written by a writer, that suggest the album is a marriage of the “gris-gris” sound of Dr. John  as “Dr. John” on albums like the aptly named Gris-Gris (more of a cult hit) and of him as “Mac Rebennack” (his real name) on more familiar and accessible albums like Dr. John’s Gumbo and hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time”. As a fan of both, the idea appealed to me–and I’ve grown to love the Black Keys in recent years, so Auerbach’s presence was similarly welcome.

I was finally pushed into the purchase–made on Record Store Day two years back, while catching The Two Dollar Pistols at an in-store show–because it included a CD copy of the album–which I still like to have. The best kind, too–it’s just a cardstock sleeve, sure, but it actually has printed art, like a little record in the record sleeve. All three of the above artists are still recording today though, and would do throwback cover art as a point in the continued line of their work, not as some indicator of resumption of career after extended hiatus. However, despite their being my litmus test for record stores for some years (CD Alley in Chapel Hill, NC passed with flying colours when I first moved out there, though they had minimal Russell). It said to me, “Record store that knows their stuff, and isn’t trying to prove something.” The fact of their major hits (“Tightrope”, “Such a Night”, etc) meant they didn’t quite have the ultra-hip factor for modern stores, so it meant interesting depth alongside those expected items–and that they’d have the expected items, not be trying to prove something with an absence of Zeppelin, or what have you.

My Dr. John collection is probably the weakest of the three, covering no classic albums on vinyl (where the other two cover whole timeframes), and stopping on CD at 1973, barring two compilations I ended up with. It’s a bit strange, considering I group him so readily with especially Russell, whose work I’ve devoured to absurd extents, as much as I generally do anymore.

So it seemed, all-in-all, like a logical addition to my stacks of records.

The title track sets the mood pretty clearly: we’ve got strange, swampy sorts of sound effects that call to mind the stranger and more experimental (Gris-Gris again) elements of his career, before Nick Movshon’s bass lays down a fat groove alongside the rolling lollop of Max Weissenfeldt’s snare-heavy drumbeat. Thick with the swampy sound Dr. John brings from New Orleans, the crowds of backing vocals (defined largely by the voices of the McCrary Sisters, but including basically everyone else, too) and the thunderous groove of the rhythm section underpin a still finely-formed voice in our hero, whose smoky, soulful, voice continues to carry inflections that sing out his Louisiana origins. Auerbach’s guitar is heroic and upfront but entirely appropriate–as with another project he was involved as a “backing” player, he seems to recognize his place in the record as certainly producer and guitarist, but producer and guitarist for a singer and keyboardist. It’s a scorcher of an opener–not necessarily because it burns, but because it makes it clear immediately that this is a Dr. John record, not a flimsy graft of his voice onto someone else’s.

“Revolution” has an actual video (similarly authentic in its anachronistic style²), and it’s a deep brass/woodwind-based track, playing on the exchange of baritone saxes and Auerbach’s sharpened ghost of a guitar lick. It’s a showcase for Dr. John’s unique vocal stylings though–“Such a Night” is unmistakably his voice, and the ragged rhythm of it is his own, but as a song, it could be reasonably sung by others. “Revolution” bows before his style of singing, half-spoken, lyrical and musical but constrained and dry with smoke. That sax sound is fantastic, and it really drives the song, giving it a thick bottom end, which highlights the pause for Mac to whisper with a hint of threat or irony, “Let’s all just pray on it right now,” a call that receives Auerbach’s lick as response, which is really just an introduction for the magnificently thin, clear, organic keyboard solo from Rebennack that just wiggles itself right into the right place as his music does: warm and dirty.

An amusing (my dad chuckled a bit when I played this album for him) sample opens “Big Shot” (neither Billy Joel’s nor Robert Palmer’s–I’m sure you suspected the latter, and indeed knew it existed!)–in a weird way, it reminds me of Leon Russell’s “I Put a Spell on You”. I remember reading a review that called that track ballsy, for daring to name itself indiscernibly from the classic Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track (of the same name, if you didn’t catch that!). No, Billy Joel’s song is not thought of in the same light generally, nor even by me specifically, but the title sure felt like it was already covered, if not by him then somewhere. Yet there it is, and it’s couched lyrically in a too-cool chorus: “Ain’t never was, never gonna be, another big shot like me. I’m the big shot, layin’ in the cut for you to see.” If the video for “Revolution” showed how much raw cool Dr. John just exudes in presence, “Big Shot” puts it into song form. It’s lazy and swinging, but you never doubt his control of it, all the way up until it goes out the way it came in: that fun little sample.

If ever Auerbach takes his presence up a notch, it’s on “Ice Age”. The hypnotic curl of his riff for the song is attractive beyond reason, joined as it is with the companionship of Brian Olive’s guitar at a beautifully matched kind of harmony–but he lets it all go for the chorus, where Weissenfeldt’s Meters-like drumming³ takes instrumental precedent. I guess no one can groove like a New Orleans drummer–the casual, natural bounces between snare, rim, kick, like a laidback samba–it is just wonderful to hear. Dr. John’s voice commands as if from one of his more elaborate, feathery costumes (see that cover!), the slightly weird, seemingly crazy, but truly wise seer passing out his opinions and thoughts, cool as a cucumber. His voice slithers and slides, gnarled at its lower end with just a few more tricklings of that smoky burn that gives his voice its clearest character.

Oh, some know what a sucker I am for great keyboard riffs–they don’t have to be fancy or complicated, they just have to hit a sweet spot. And “Getaway” does it–a very short, sharp, staccato riff that comes out with still-rounded edges when played through electronic keys like that–Movshon’s bass coiled tight around itself, and Weissenfeldt’s drumming continuing that tasty feel of what ought to be (if it isn’t) the most famous rhythm section out of New Orleans (yeah, the Meters again). Dr. John slips over the top of a rhythm section knotted and tight to match his rapidly tapped keyboard riff. Auerbach takes off on another solo, and keeps it soulful like his best known stuff, but more knowingly sloppy and naturalistic, improvisationally wild.

“Kingdom of Izzness” is keyboard bouncing sharply off funky drumming, the track lurching back and forth with a purpose, a vehicle that seems ramshackle but deceptively efficacious. The McCrary Sisters get some of their most front-faced vocals, “Oooh”ing behind Dr. John, whose voice seems to be designed to climb up the music as a ladder, pausing periodically to survey surroundings and affirm the stability of that ladder.

Auerbach’s guitar makes it sound like “You Lie” might be his track, but after it establishes itself into a consistent pattern, Weissenfeldt and those saxes of Brian Olive and Leon Michels fatten it up, and the blues-y feel that betrays Auerbach’s leanings is lost to the funk of New Orleans. They actually reclaim the tonal progression of that guitar riff and, without actually re-building it, reshape it into something that they define so completely, the guitar is lost to them. It’s another track just dripping with cool, the saxes almost defiant in the way they embrace this–as that instrument has suffered mightily in public eyes after its usage in some contexts.

Weissenfelt almost goes Funkadelic for “Eleggua”, which sounds like it could’ve been one of the companion tracks on Maggot Brain (the ones beside the title track, I mean). It’s dirty and funky, the organ-style keys calling to mind the heavier elements of that Funkadelic sound, but giving way to a kind of spreading warmth when they hold a high note, like a sudden breeze lifts us from the gutter up to float above the clouds for just a moment, Dr. John’s voice beautifully enunciating “Tricknology…” with that same friendly ease. Truly a treasure on this record the way it shifts like that.

“My Children, My Angels” is all keys at first, cool and low like they came from a recording fifty years ago instead, but inflating to a spacious chorus that seems to bloom and flow like a deep blue billowing cloud, hinting not at fire or other threat, but just a large drop of ink pushed up through previously clear water. That chorus is pure groove in the most relaxing of senses. Truly, I stopped typing to just feel it again, the way he rises up to the top of “Tell me ’bout your desires right now” and then turns just a bit darker, more sad than threatening, for him to rumble, “Don’t trip on loose wires, I’ll show you how”.  If it didn’t just sound inherently ridiculous as an adjective, I think “transcendant” might apply for that moment.

Like a joyous gospel song (appropriately, I suppose!) “God’s Sure Good” is all sustained organ-style keys and hammered out keyboard answers to a questioning guitar lick–and man, is it good. Auerbach’s guitar is the call out for an Amen, the McCrary Sisters are the choir, and Dr. John is our lyrical, musical preacher. You can almost see him reciting his reasons for thankfulness in that half-spoken way, surrounded by everyone else–not there as musician, but as humble and gracious man appreciating the survival of a lot of personal troubles. It’s a burst of joy and a great ending for the album in that respect–ending on a whisper and a fade.

The great thing about the funk-jazz-swamp amalgam of Dr. John’s music has always been the palpable feel of it, the ease with which it insinuates its way into your ears and is simultaneously weird and exotic, comfortable and familiar, and dance-inducingly catchy and groovy. This is definitely the kind of album that is reasonably called “return to form” both now (I’m going to violate my usual policy and not research that–but I can’t believe someone hasn’t said it) and in the future–or at least it ought to be. It’s that merger of established style and lineage with fresh and new sounds and feelings that keeps it from feeling like it’s nothing but a reheating of ideas from forty years ago. Much like that cover, it feels like an artifact, but a lost gem, not just a lost album. And yet, it also feels new and modern, despite the fact that we have two musicians steeped in tradition fronting the affair, one of whom is himself a legend.

If you’ve any love for the deceptively tight swing of New Orleans funk, Dr. John’s past work, solid grooving, or semi-anachronistic musical choices, check the album out–it’s a nice, trim set of songs, devoid of fat, meandering or mis-steps.

¹This isn’t actually true. Dr. Teeth is known to be based on Dr. John, but the general lack of familiarity with Dr. John most people seem to have means that whatever visibility that could have given him trickled away. At least, any time I tell people that fact, they stare at me blanky, with a look of “Who?”

²The setup is actually similar to Robert Palmer’s for his cover of the Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning”, a statement that will mystify and doubtless anger at least a few people in the world, if they ever read it. But it’s true–time-flipping meld of sound-check and actual show. Doubtless not unique, but familiar to me from that instance.

³Even the New Orleans connection aside, a sound very at home with Dr. John’s own–the Meters themselves backed him on In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo in the mid 70s.

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Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Written by guest editor, John Edge.

Sire Records ■ SRK 6093


Released in February, 1981


Produced by Brian Eno and David Byrne
Engineered by Neal Teeman, Eddie Kervin, Dave Jerden, Stacy Baird, and John Potoker
Mastered by Greg Calbi
Side One: Side Two:

  1. American is Waiting
  2. Mea Culpa
  3. Regiment
  4. Help Me Somebody
  5. The Jezebel Spirit

  1. Qu’ran
  2. Moonlight in Glory
  3. The Carrier
  4. A Secret Life
  5. Come With Us
  6. Mountain of Needles
Voices:

Side One:

    1. Unidentified indignant radio host, San Francisco, April 1980.
    2. Inflamed caller and smooth politician replying, both unidentified. Radio call-in show, New York City, July 1979.
    3. Dunya Yusin, Lebanese mountain singer. (From ‘The Human Voice in the World of Islam’, Tangent Records TGS 131).
    4. Reverend Paul Morton, broadcast sermon, New Orleans, June 1980.
    5. Unidentified exorcist, New York City, September, 1980.
Side Two:
    1. Algerian Muslims chanting the Qu’ran. (Same source as 3).
    2. The Moving Star Hall Singers, Sea Islands, Georgia (from ‘The Moving Star Hall Singers’ Folkways FS 3841).
    3. Dunya Yusin (See 3).
    4. Samira Tewfik, Egyptian popular singer (from ‘Les Plus Grandes Artistes du Monde Arabe’ EMI Records.)
    5. Unidentified radio evangelist, San Francisco, April 1980.

Hey, everybody!  I made it back.  Didn’t drink too much scotch (mixed it up with a little gin, a Fitzgerald cocktail, to be exact).

Anyway, you may have noticed a bit more information up there than is the usual.  That’s because this album is a bit different from most (rock, at least) records.  All of the vocal sounds (I dare not say vocals) are sampled from various sources.  At the time of its release, this was a radical move and, in retrospect, was a pioneering one.  This makes for an interesting contrast to my Flipper review, where the lyrics were on the spot.  My Life has no real lyrics to speak of.  In fact, nearly half of the songs (Regiment, Qu’ran, The Carrier, and A Secret Life) are in Arabic1.  Some that are in English (Mea Culpa in particular) are so heavily edited and modified, that they may as well be in a foreign language.  But, this is a record where the voices are part of the music, rather than cutting through it or floating above it.  The spoken parts add to the mix of instruments (and quite a mix it was, Help Me Somebody featured 14 different instruments allotted their own tracks in the mix) and sustain or even lead the rhythm of the tracks.


A little background on this particular grouping/project might be in order (for those of you philistines who don’t know this stuff).  Talking Heads (of which David Byrne was the singer/guitarist/songwriter) had by 1980 developed a strong working relationship with Ambient musician and producer (ambient or active, I’m unaware) Brian Eno.  Under Eno’s watchful gaze Talking Heads would craft some of their strongest (by many estimates, mine included) albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light.  In collaborating on this album at this particular time in either of their careers, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts successfully melds the African beats and unusual instrumental selection of Talking Heads with Brian Eno’s trancy and textural, rather than strictly melodic, work.  The songs are not necessarily divided into strict sections of verse, chorus, middle eight and so forth.  The structures are droning and repetitive, eliciting a sense of tribal chanting and drumming, more than Western pop music.

Perhaps the most representative of this chanting quality (to my ears, and I’m the reviewer, so I get to make those calls) is the track Qu’ran2.  The track samples Muslims chanting the (you guessed it) Qu’ran set to a rollicking rhythmic backing with synths carrying a buzzing melody almost in the background.  The droning rhythms and jagged synth backing combined with the almost mechanical vocal sounds leave the listener alternately feeling lulled and having the urge to move to the persistent beats.  As Eno stated was the nature of Ambient music, the listener can tune in and groove, or leave the music as a pleasant background noise, completely ignoring it.  I imagine listeners around a fire, coming and going as they please, tending to their business, while Byrne and Eno beat out these strange sounds from electronic djembes, talking drums, and keberoes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few ‘normal’ (whatever that means) songs on the album.  The most notable being Help Me Somebody, which David Byrne actually plays live.  Interestingly, I saw him in 2009, where he made mention of the fact that literally singing the words was somewhat strange, due to the fact that they were originally sampled.  Unlike many of the other tracks, the words in this one are in English and readily understood, functioning almost like lyrics.  In addition to that, the song follows slightly more closely to a traditional pop song format, featuring lyrical and instrumental sections that could conceivably be thought of as verses, choruses, and even a middle eight (or bridge, for you uncultured folks out there).

Even still, the song presents a strange format and even stranger (and extensive) instrumentation.  A few years back, digital copies of the master tapes were released on the Web, providing an interesting view into the creative process.  One of the first things that lept out at me was the fact that all of the instrumentation was recorded more or less as a sound loop.  Therefore, all of the structure of the song was decided on in the editing process.  Instruments could be raised or lowered (or cut, for that matter) in the mix to control where a guitar began playing, the bass dropped out, or a drum beat cut through the mix.  This sort of recording method is novel to rock music (at least, I think we would still call this ‘rock’) and is more in line with electronic music or musique concrète, where form, structure, and melody are all manipulated in the editing room, rather than during a live performance, as is typical with most music (of any form, really.)

Unlike my last review, I won’t go in depth on all of the tracks of the album.  In many ways it doesn’t readily lend itself to that in the same way that other, song focused albums do.  Instead, the best way to take this album in is as a whole, rather than eleven parts.  The ambient melodies, droning rhythms, chanted and manipulated vocal sounds, and insistent, tribal beats all mesh together to create something that is much more than the sum of its parts.  In hindsight, writing about the album is also an exercise in futility.  The music itself is frequently without (discernible) words itself, so how could words convey the feeling in the music?  Rather than reading and writing about the music, it should be set in the background, played around a bonfire, embers and ashes wafting through the air, as a storyteller regales the audience (maybe they are intently listening to the music, maybe to the storyteller; perhaps they are staring into the fire in a world of their own), and the gathered group comes, goes, and shifts about as the rhythms play in droning loop, lulling everyone into a sense of calm or urging them to dance.

So, what are you waiting for?  Go listen to the damned album, already!

1. Perhaps someone who is a native Arabic speaker may find these tracks to have lyrics of sorts.  Though, the comments I’ve seen indicate that various Arabic speaking friends who’ve been asked about the album refer to it as “Devil music”.  So maybe they just sound like Judas Priest to them.
2. For better or worse, Qu’ran was deleted from later pressings of the album and substituted with the track Very Very Hungry by request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain because of the previous selection’s use of Qu’ranic chanting samples.  Don’t get too worked up though, Eno and Byrne complied willingly.  In their own words, they were trying to make good music, not piss people off.   

Day Whatever – Flipper, Album Generic Flipper

Written by guest editor, John Edge.
Subterranean Records ■ SUB 25

Released in April, 1982


Produced by Gary Krimon

Side One: Side Two:

  1. “Ever” (Loose) – 2:56
  2. “Life Is Cheap” (Loose) – 3:55
  3. “Shed No Tears” (Shatter) – 4:26
  4. “(I Saw You) Shine” (Shatter) – 8:31

  1. “The Way of the World” (Shatter) – 4:23
  2.  “Life” (Shatter) – 4:44
  3. “Nothing” (Loose) – 2:18
  4. “Living for the Depression” (Ant/Loose) – 1:23
  5. “Sex Bomb” (Shatter) – 7:48



Or perhaps the album title is Album and the band name is Generic Flipper.  Who cares?

Anyway, RC roped me into writing these dopey record reviews which I really don’t have time for.  I’ve got a full time job, a kid, and all kinds of other shit begging for my time.  But whatever, I’ve had a particularly hard day at work and have about five brain cells to work on, so now’s the perfect time to write a review. 

This is one of those great punk albums I really cut my teeth on as a teenager.  The sludginess, the depressing/uplifting lyrics, the general us vs them attitude all made me think I wasn’t the only one who thought and felt that way.  Seem cliche?  Give me a break, we were all teenagers once and I was a damn good one.  Anyway, this album still stands lyrically as the closest to my personal worldview as any other I’ve ever heard in the intervening years.  

A little background on Flipper (the band, not the insufferable show): In the early eighties, punk rock bands and especially the offshoot hardcore groups were ratcheting up tempos and honing their sound to razor sharp clarity and tonality, Flipper hazily veered off in the complete opposite direction.  Their sound is mired in a drug fueled stupor. Flipper’s songs take the breakneck hardcore of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat and slow it to a slug’s pace.  Maybe they loved Sabbath?  Maybe they were just not good enough to play fast?  Or maybe they were just the perfect foil to Minor Threat: slow, sludgy, long songs, gleefully drunk and fucked up on all sorts of chemical entertainments.  They have two bassists.  That’s all you really need to know.  

Album represents the first LP offering scattered among various single releases, a sophmore studio album and two live albums before the untimely death of co-songwriter, co-bassist, and cocopuffs-singer Will Shatter of a drug overdose in 1987.  Unlike my usual M.O., one of my favorite things about this album is the lyrics.  Not that they are particularly nice or poetic, but their general tone veers from the pessimistic and depressive (Ever, Shed No Tears) to the (almost) bright and life affirming (Life) and the outright defiant (Living for the Depression) but also with a great dry sense of humor (do I really need another example in parentheses?)  The lyrics represent a wonderfully nuanced view of the world that was realistic and grey while still acknowledging that, as we’re all alive and in this world, we may as well make the most of it, right?  

The album starts with screeching feedback that quickly plunges into a rumbling, jaunty drum and bass led groove.  Perhaps ‘groove’ sounds too funky.  Think of it as a punk groove, down and dirty, rhythmic and repetitive, sloppy and uncoordinated.  Yet it all hangs together.  “Ever” asks the listener if they’ve “ever lived a life that’s real/full of zest and no appeal”.  Bruce Loose/Lose or Will Shatter or whoever paint life as a depressing set of contradictions (“ever wished the human race didn’t exist/then realize, you’re one too) and then nullify everything in the end (“have you ever? I have. So what?”)  It’s exactly this combination of barely controlled musical calamity and raw, yet flippant, lyrics that make Album (and Flipper) so appealing.  

Life is Cheap brings the lyrical tone down even further (“life is pretty cheap/it’s sold a decade at a time) while paradoxically cleaning up the sound somewhat (very somewhat).  Then, Shed No Tears kicks in with a similar feedback blast to Ever, leading one to believe more of the same is coming about.  However, the lyrics of Shed no Tears highlight one of the more interesting (and somewhat unusual for punk) positive facets of Flipper’s outlook.  Sure, singing things like, “shed no tears for the martyr dying/only in pain, suffering, and death/can the martyr become what he’s chosen to be” doesn’t necessarily come off as being too happy (well, maybe it depends on your personality), but in some ways it makes perfect sense.  Not every sad thing is necessarily so terrible when you think about it.  A martyr fulfills their role by suffering, despots being murdered frees their subjects (ok, it’s cops and prisoners in the song, gimme a break), a suicide frees a depressive from a cruel world.  Sometimes awful things fulfill a great purpose in life.  Or some shit like that.

(I Saw You) Shine (with random parentheses) somehow manages to slow things down a bit more before dying out at the end of side 1.  The record reaches funeral dirge like levels of speed.  Yet, despite the (lack of) tempo, the track still manages to find a groove and lock it in.  Perhaps this is one of the great triumphs of Flipper: the music sounds so sloppy you wonder if they even rehearsed beforehand.  Yet, the grooves stay so grounded it’s impossible that Will Shatter flopped out a beer-soaked bed and grabbed a bass before the engineer hit record.  

Ted Falconi… maybe.  

Which brings me to another great thing about Flipper.  Much like Gang of Four (who I imagine to be a powerful influence) but completely unlike other punk groups, Flipper are not led by guitar in the least.  Twin bassists Bruce Loose and WIll Shatter (see, I got around to actually describing who these people are) led the way, with drummer Steve DePace holding down a groove so tightly you’d think Jaki Liebezeit of Can had forsaken Germany for the Bay area.  Meanwhile, Ted Falconi sprayed feedback laden guitar riffs with wild abandon, adding a feral and uncontrolled sort of texture to the songs.  So, again, Ted may have just joined the proceedings straight from a previous night’s hangover.  

Onward to side 2, The Way of the World strips Will Shatter’s sense of humor bare for all the world to see… or something like that.  The song works up a bleak sense of how the world works (thus, the ‘way of the world’).  Such lines such as “there are eyes that cannot see and fingers that cannot touch” are inevitably demolished by the line, “there are hearts no longer beating and there’s entrails spilled on the floor/that’s the way of the world”.  The final verse paints a picture with such absurd colors that one can’t help but view the words beforehand as being just as absurd.  The deadpan singalong chorus probably doesn’t help matters much.  

Life is probably the most standout song on the record from a thematic perspective.  Here, Shatter lets loose an absolutely positive song exhorting listeners that “life is the only thing worth living for.”  Of course, he couldn’t keep his tongue out of his cheek the entire song.  Claiming that he has sung of death, chaos, mayhem, and depression (my words not his) but he’s “not going to sing that song anymore” (his words, not mine).  I’ll give him four minutes and forty-four seconds before he starts singing about that crap again.  

Nothing and Living for the Depression bring the pace up quite a bit with the latter almost becoming a hardcore punk song.  Too bad Flipper still manages to screw it up and make it sludgy and bassy.  Oh well, why defy expectations now?  We’re almost through!  By the way, I have no idea who the Ant guy who co-wrote the song is.  It’s probably Adam Ant.  In fact, it is Adam Ant.  I’m sure of it.  

Finally, we have Sex Bomb.  The Sex Bomb.  The “we’ll play Sex Bomb if you throw one more beer onstage” Sex Bomb.  Take a rolling, churning bassline.  Add a metronomic drum beat.  A pinch of synthesizer (or something) for flavor.  Add a dash of saxophone.  Shake well and yell “sex bomb baby, yeah (or waaaah)” over and over.  Repeat until the whole thing clatters to a stop.  

Ok, are you happy now?  Here’s a song by song overview for those who are still reading this crap.  

Ever is good.
Life is Cheap is depressing.
Shed no Tears is also depressing, but somewhat reassuring.
(I Saw You Shine) is long.
The Way of the World is hilarious.
Life is reaffirming.
Nothing is nothing much, but I want out.
Living for the Depression is almost hardcore.
Sex Bomb, baby, yeah! (Repeat x26)

Oh yeah, it was released by Subterranean Records or some shit like that.
[Editor’s Note: Sorry, John, I added the info above, I’ve got to have some consistency here!]


Now, in the immortal words of Will Shatter: “Is that enough?  Can we go home now?”




Postscript: all jokes aside, I really am quite honored that R.C. selected me to contribute to VoV in his absence.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my awful, contrived writing in the meanwhile.  Anyway, there should be more to come if I don’t drink too much scotch.  

Various Artists – Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volumes 8-11 (1997)

  Amphetamine Reptile Records ■ 9 25194-1


Released April 22, 1997

Technical Credits Unknown, Likely Varied



Side One (Vol. 8 & 9): Side Two (Vol 10 & 11):
  1. Superchunk – “Basement Life”
  2. Guzzard – “Bites”
  3. Jawbox – “Low Strung”
  4. godheadSilo – “Lotion Pocket”
  5. Bordeoms – “Pukuri”
  6. Supernova – “Sugar Coated Stucco”
  7. Chokebore – “Brittle & Depressing”
  8. Love 666 – “You Sold Me Out #2”
  1. Bailter Space – “Glimmer Dot”
  2. Steelpolebathtub – “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo”
  3. Chrome Cranks – “Dead Man’s Suit”
  4. Brainiac – “Cookie Doesn’t Sing”
  5. Today Is the Day – “Execution Style”
  6. Rocket from the Crypt – “Tiger Mask”
  7. Calvin Krime – “Fight Song”
  8. Gaunt – “Kiss Destroyer”
  9. Servotron – “Matrix of Perfection”

I’m often wary, wandering into any record store for the first time. There’s no real guarantee of what anyone has or will carry, and in a used store it becomes even more complicated, as they can only carry what records they’ve acquired to sell. And that, then, depends on the locals. The first time I walked into Dead Wax Records, I wasn’t sure what to think. Between the place I now live and the places I work, there’s not a lot of music to be found. Even the oft-ignored (for financially justifiable reasons) FYE and similar “TWEC” (TransWorld Entertainment Company, who owns FYE, Coconuts, etc) stores make no appearances. There’s a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, a Target–certainly nowhere you’d find vinyl (beyond the semi-kitschy ‘7″ with a t-shirt’ thing Target is doing–but I owned most of the ones that looked interesting to me, or saw no reason to get the 7″), and nowhere you’d find a good chunk of my music collection, vinyl or otherwise.

I found a small used record and used/new CD store about fifteen miles away and had a very strange experience there, locating both upstate New York’s Immolation’s third album and some Split Enz albums I was looking for on CD. I found some Throbbing Gristle material, too, which is only appropriate for this particular entry–well, parts of it. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the place, though I’ve intended to go back a few times (never managing). When I started my current job just a bit further out, though, someone there mentioned a local record store, which piqued my interest immediately. I swung by after work that day, only to find it was closed on Mondays, deciding to come back the next. That next day, I wandered in and found it comfortably cozy and close, as you’d expect from a fledgling (only a few months old!) record store. However, its walls were papered with posters and fliers for bands I knew well–but knew well from my forays into music in the last few odd years more than anything else. Snapcase. Gluecifer. The Murder City Devils. The Supersuckers. Turbonegro. Mudhoney. All the sorts of things I’d tried (sometimes successfully) to push on a very picky person I know.

When I started flipping through the records there, I found I was in a store I could definitely see myself returning to. I brought a stack of 7 12″s up to the counter and was told I had really good taste. I was buying Prince, Black Flag, Alice Donut, The Church, Leon Russell, and The Fall albums–and this one. I later went back for a single volume that was hanging out there, Vol. 6 in the “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” series, too. But that set–including my favourite Church album, Heyday–basically informed me this was a worthwhile stop. And, along the same lines, it was confirming that this set included Jawbox’s “Low Strung” that sealed that purchase and left me shrugging and stacking everything else in (Heyday was a no-brainer, mind you, and was the “gateway” to accepting that I would purchase more that day).

I knew the series, vaguely, because tracks from it will often appear on compilations now, such as the Sub Pop reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, or, most pertinently, Jawbox’s My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. My habit of relentlessly parsing out the bonus tracks on CD releases was fruitful, as it often is: it informed me both of the series’ existence, and its particular approach to art, meaning I recognized them as soon as I saw them–and it was that that sealed the store as worth digging in for me. Many bands have appeared there, the ones familiar to me including the above, Rocket from the Crypt, the Melvins, Helmet, Lubricated Goat, Tar (who did a split with Jawbox, which I own), Superchunk, and the Jesus Lizard. The last is a stretch insofar as familiarity, but those were the names I knew–in most cases, bands I owned full-fledged releases from (Lubricated Goat quite by–hilarious–accident).

If any of those names mean anything to you, then this is probably an interesting-sounding compilation. If they don’t, this is probably a scary-sounding compilation. And that’s probably fair–while Superchunk and Jawbox are by no means known for anything ultra-noisy, abrasive, raucous or otherwise “difficult” and largely any bands “known” for that aren’t known in the first place, unless you’re asking people who like that kind of thing (or they know the more popular and largely more accessible works of those groups–like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”, for instance). But this isn’t a noise compilation–at least, not completely. It’s a mix of alternative, noisy, post-, and various other kinds of independent music, though it largely eschews the “indie” variety, if you’ll allow that rather expansively-narrowed definition.¹

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eight
(Superchunk, Guzzard, Jawbox, godheadSilo)Originally released in April, 1994
 

Naturally, Volume 8 was of supreme interest to me. Most of the Dope-Guns series is 4 tracks on a 7″, two per side, but there are variances throughout. Volume 8 was not an exception to this layout, though–even as it does have seemingly the strangest appearance that could be managed, starting from my own experiences.

Despite living in Durham and working in Chapel Hill for the majority of my adult life (no longer, in case the “there are no record stores here” wasn’t a tip-off), I never really listened to Superchunk. I kind of filed them with Guided by Voices and Pavement and a bunch of other bands I heard spoken of in awed tones with respect to indie rock in the 1990s. I tried a few out about ten years ago and nothing caught my ears, but the newfound love for Pavement in the past some-odd years and growing love for GBV has led me to soften my disinterests and try things. I picked up a few Superchunk singles in my last wanderings through used CDs, and liked what I heard. “Basement Life” is a bit more buzz-y than the singles (“Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”) I’ve picked up, which didn’t bother me and seemed quite fitting for a release on a label that has “NOISE” built into their logo. It’s a stomping roll through a rumble-bass-focused track of fuzzy, catchy fun. What strains it has of indie rock–the only instance on this compilation of compilations–is the full-on Pavement kind (I’m betting also the Superchunk kind) that still carries the genetic trace of punk in its semi-sneering vocals and snarky tone–less “Revolution”, more “whatever”.

Guzzard apparently didn’t last much past this compilation’s original release (indeed, not long enough to see the release of the three volumes combined), but sounds more like you might expect from a label associating itself with noise, though it’s still pretty accessible. “Bites” grinds and buzzes a little more, and has a forward-leaning aggressive tone to it than “Basement Life” by far. Nice, strong, clear drumming that wasn’t always present or as well-produced in hardcore acts appears and backs a strained yell of a voice, as well as very clear hardcore origins for the group. It’s a nice, tight, buzzsaw follow up to Superchunk.

Jawbox’s contribution is a nice bridge between the work on their first two full-lengths (Grippe and Novelty) and the works for which they’d become best known and loved (For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox). Original drummer Adam Wade had left to join Shudder to Think (labelmates of Jawbox on Dischord–interestingly, both being the Dischord bands to hit major labels in ’94) and now the great Zach Barocas had joined and added a ton of spice to the group with his unique drumming style. He’s not quite in the front seat he’d be in the albums that would follow this recording, but his “voice” is clearly present. J. Robbins’ voice is “punkier” than it would be on most of those next two albums (with the possible exception of Sweetheart opener “FF=66”). It’s a smart contribution to the release, as it, too, is like the noisier edge of their range.

godheadSilo were a peculiar group, being one of few to work with the “bass and drums” set-up, lacking a guitar, keys, or other ‘focal” instrument. The track sounds like a strange amalgamation of the low-end droning of bands like SunnO))) and some of the (knowingly) sloppier garage rock of the last two decades. It’s the first clear sign of “noise” on the album, though it’s a clearly defined song, built on a(n admittedly repetitive) bass riff and simple drumming, with vocals shredded by distortion themselves. It’s a catchy number despite that–maybe the years of metal and rapidly increasing years of noise rock have inured me to those things and let me hear the underlying guts of a song, I’m not sure. Still, it works well, and feels like a nice comfortable medium stance between “noise” and the kinds of genres that didn’t quite cross that line, but sat snugly against it.

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Nine
(The Boredoms, Supernova, Chokebore, Love 666, Bailter Space)Originally released (later) in 1994


Spacial concerns obviously pushed the fifth track on this one onto the second side, but I can’t complain too much, as it’s still 4 of these put together, and each was a wild mix of artists, anyway.

I can’t say I’ve heard of a single one of these bands–maybe Chokebore, but that could just be the fact that my research around this has taught me that they, like many of the others, were Amphetamine Reptile “natives”, and would release their singles and albums through AmRep, too. Indeed, they did a split release with Guzzard and Today Is the Day the same year as these first two Dope-Guns. Still, otherwise? Completely new.

The Boredoms’ appearance with “Pukuri” immediately gave me a better impression of what AmRep was interested in including. Kazoo-like sounds and a tromping beat bring to mind the kinds of weird melodies and instrumentation that would sometimes meander through early Zappa/Mothers records (particularly “Mothers” ones), especially the brief “interludes” that appear between songs. It devolves into screaming, dissonant and semi-random guitar distortion and even more distorted recordings of drums–but seems to inevitably circle back to the same marching melody that it started with in spite of that. The drumming gets “tribalistic” at some point, and sort of takes on a kind of focus, though the track wanders through a variety of “movements” and sounds, wah-wahed guitar, strange wails–this is not the kind of track most people throw on for a good time, but it’s appreciably intentional, despite its chaos. I’m gaining a bit of a taste for this kind of controlled insanity, I have to say, though it still comes out a bit weird sandwiched in with “normal” songs, even if from punk-related bands.

“Sugar Coated Stucco”‘s intro makes it sound, at first, like it’s going to be even weirder than “Pukuri”, but breaks off into extra-nasal pop punk of the kind I’ve grown to like a lot (think Screeching Weasel, not Blink 182, if that helps at all–though I realize it probably won’t for most I know to read this). The vocals are so nasal, though, that they almost disappear into themselves. It’s catchy like all that stuff should be, though, simple and built on guitars and drums that are perfunctory–they’re there to build the beat and melody and nothing more, really, and that’s what they should do here. Interestingly, they were responsible for “Chewbacca”, the song in Clerks (which isn’t nasal at all–go figure). Hayden Thais ended up joining Man or Astro-man? though–and later Servotron, who appear on volume 11 here.

While their name implies something aggressive, speedy, and thought-to-be headache inducing, or perhaps the inappropriately aggressive name for a pop punk band (that sound just doesn’t seem to work as intimidating, despite the occasional name implying it ought), they’re more in the Mudhoney vein than anything else–sludgy, just-above-plodding and fuzzy as hell, with a vocal totally uninterested in sounding “pretty”, but staying firmly where it is placed, it might even bring to mind that of Alice Donut’s Tom Antona, too.² “Brittle and Depressing” doesn’t sound much like either musically, though–it’s strong, and has a nicely cranked out, unobtrusive lead guitar.

Love 666 contribute “You Sold Me Out #2”–it’s a great little track, that seems to somehow wind its way between hints of shoegaze conventions and sludge-rock ones. I’m not sure what, exactly, that adds it up to–but it’s interesting. Drums thump and guitars buzz loosely, while the vocals are clean, clear, near-spoken and very upfront. There’s a clear chorus, where the voices reach a kind of weird, amateur harmony that is endearing and lovely in its strange little way. The way the thumpy fuzz of guitar hammers down after it is really great, though–confusing what the track actually is without ever losing sight of itself in the process.

When Bailter Space’s “Glimmer Dot” drops, it’s totally unexpected. Unabashed shoegaze (!), it warbles along in the shoegaze vein of My Bloody Valentine, washes of guitar and production that seems to blur everything into a single stream of sound, despite the still recognizable variation in instruments. Vocals are in the half-lidded, drugged-out style that marks most shoegaze, and the whole track is great, but wildly unexpected. It’s entirely possible this track would be worth the whole compilation to someone who couldn’t stand the rest, if they liked shoegaze enough. 

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Ten
(Steel Pole Bath Tub, Chrome Cranks, Brainiac, Today Is the Day)Originally released (later) in 1994

I guess these records were coming fast and thick in ’94, which makes sense as the whole series of 11 came out between ’91 and ’94, but, dang, that’s three, and I know 11 came out years later…I figured they were spaced out more than that.

The name Steel Pole Bath Tub rings only the faintest of bells–nothing helpful, but something that insists I’ve heard the name before in the context of a band. I’m not sure how, why, or what context it came in, but I don’t think I would’ve gone with their actual sound if I was asked point blank before I’d heard this what they sound like. “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo” at least is a track I’d be inclined to call instrumental even if it isn’t–a nice fat bassline opens the track and carries it a long under semi-unnerving guitars and over a steady drumbeat. Vocals are seeming babbles, distorted and distant, acting as a layer of sound more than a perfectly clear expression of thoughts as words. It sounds a bit like a story, but it’s hard to peel out of the music, seemingly on purpose.

The Chrome Cranks ride a rather rockabilly beat in “Dead Man’s Suit”, with the scattered slide of many of the more twisted modern interpretations of that genre. The vocals are like the more frantic and unhinged Nick Cave vocals–but with layered echo and even more punk influence. It’s like a rockabilly band through a carnival mirror and the spinning room of chemical influence. For all that it does seem ramshackle, the guitar finally takes off on a solo that is sharp and pointed in its quick run, deflating the song for a moment, before it takes off again. A fun track, and rather in contrast to what has come before on both of the previous records.

Brainiac has the frenetic drumming of a punk band, but the proximity-distorted (is he eating the microphone, perhaps?) vocals and the elliptical swing of the guitars makes the placement of “Cookie Doesn’t Sing” next to “Dead Man’s Suit” terribly appropriate. It’s a wonderfully weird track, in more the Birthday Party (I don’t know why Nick Cave’s on the brain right now) than the Butthole Surfers sense. It’s not an effect I haven’t heard before, but it’s exactly the right one in context, like a spitting flurry, slurred into a deceptively steady swing.

 It’s no surprise that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher floated through Today Is the Day at some point, even if “Execution Style” isn’t an example of their time there. I’m reminded most immediately of the peculiar choices of time signature and stylistic variation in bands like Coalesce and Botch–the most aggressive, abrasive, and heavy ends of hardcore, but filtered through tight musicanship. The guitar here is beautiful in its knowingly unsteady vibrations–I cannot think of what it reminds me of (despite hearing it for the third time now) but it’s a sound I know, not derivative enough to feel obvious, though. It’s an odd track here, but aren’t they all?

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eleven
(Rocket from the Crypt, Calvin Krime, Gaunt, Servotron)Originally released in 1997
 Man, where did time go?

Now this band, while I’m still only just getting a good feel for them, is the other that I felt assured in purchasing this record for–Rocket from the Crypt. I picked up Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime on recommendation a few years back, and quite liked it. DLJ’s John Reis would of course become “Speedo” of Rocket from the Crypt (as well as plain ol’ John Reis in Hot Snakes) and there we have the connection for me. “Tiger Mask” is a fantastic example of RFTC for sure, the semi-dramatic rumbling rock and roll that defines much of their work, under Reis’s affectedly rocking vocals, which turns more melodic and shaky for that great and catchy chorus. It’s probably the most fun song on this whole record–and I mean 8-11, not just 11.

Calvin Krime is apparently the band Har Mar Superstar was in before being Har Mar, and it’s actually a kind of cool song they contributed–“Fight Song”. It’s a series of layered “conflicting” tracks: multiple vocalists and a stop-start drumbeat, guitars gluing the two together. It’s actually very tight and solidly played and interesting. Unexpected and interesting, but fitting with the RFTC track, stylistically, in many ways.

Perhaps AmRep had abandoned a lot of their noisier strains by 1997–I don’t know. Gaunt continues the heavily rock/punk feeling of both RFTC and Calvin Krime, with the rapid patter of pop-punk drumming but a rather windmill-chord style rocking guitar. Vocals cross somewhere between the sneer of pop-punk and the sandpaper edging of a vocalist like RFTC’s Reis. The guitar is great, its lead loose and bendy, never showy, just pointy enough to make itself known. There’s a brief interlude for some cool tom drumming, and then a perfect ending.

Servotron may be the most interesting find, band-wise–even if not necessarily sound-wise–for me. One of those groups (actually like Supernova above) that decided to go whole-hog, naming themselves all with robot names and dressing up in costumes to emphasize their chosen subject matter and mythology, they sound like they listened to a lot of the B-52s, down to the choked-down male-female alternating vocals, but with hints of rather more Devo-style weirdness slathered over the whole thing. There’s a deliberate monotone to their vocals that is even given the “robo-voice” treatment here and there. Of course, the whole song is about robotic genocide of humans (so long as robots remain as limited as they do, we can find this weird and amusing instead of terrifying–but really weird for such devoted lyrics writing, I’d say anyway). The song actually ends up breaking down into something smoother and less stilted toward the end, with a rather warm and soft synth coating it, their vocals finally reaching the title: “Initiate! The matrix of perfection!” repeated until the song ends in a cleverly placed sudden stop.

When you find someone talking about the Dope-Guns series, they usually speak rather highly of it–and now I can see why. I’m going to have to resist the temptation to explore a number of these bands in greater depth now, but I doubt that resistance will last long. It’s a great mix of styles, never seeming like it wants anything more than to showcase interesting sounds from interesting bands–not force you to buy other records (indeed, these tracks are exclusive to the series, in most if not all cases, barring modern compilations and reissues), nor to give you that record to make you seem “cool” by annoying the hell out of anyone else with weird noises. The weird noises, instead, seem like just another iteration of interesting sounds.

Give this thing a spin, actually. You’ll probably find something you like in here somewhere!

  • Next Up: Guest Writers!

¹There are at least three largely useless genres I know of–not useless for content, but useless as labels, they’ve been stretched and abused so significantly that little if any clear thread is left to connect them. “Indie”/”indie rock” is one of those. It means way too many things, yet there’s a vague, nebulous idea there, of some kind. And it’s not on this record. Mostly. 

²I’ve been accused of writing things that require too much music knowledge to make sense to the unfamiliar on my last blog, but it’s hard to think of appropriate voices. Mudhoney was relatively popular during the early grunge surge, though never as popular as they were hoped/expected to be. Alice Donut have never left the underground, not really, so I’m sorry for that one. But it’s what I hear! And if you know those bands, cool–I’m talking to the lots-of-people-I-know don’t, and operating on statistical probabilities. Besides, it’s a footnote.