Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Demon's Claws/Eric Clapton/No Age reviews

Demon’s Claws – The Defrosting of * (In the Red Records)

“The Demon’s Claws scratch out weirdo folk tales
with garage-punk punch”

Demon’s Claws – The Defrosting of *

Montreal’s Demon’s Claws combine a perverse sense of country-folk absurdity with a spiky approach to classic two-guitar rock fireworks. A casual listen to The Defrosting of, their second record on the In the Red label, lends the impression that the Claws are another drunky-punk outfit cut from the same cloth as the Black Lips. And yeah, they have plenty in common. At closer inspection, there’s something distinctive going on here. The interlocked guitars of chief songwriter and singer Jeff Clarke and Pat Bourbonnais are either the product of terrific empathy or deceptive craft, probably both. Their work on the beer-stained “Mona’s Lunch” recalls the Michael Bruce-Glenn Buxton fireworks with Alice Cooper. “Last Time at the Pool” sounds like a party the Dead Boys threw for the Replacements. “Laser Beams” combines fierce Rocket from the Tombs style licks with a pretty repeated figure straight out of Johnny Marr.

A little more work on lyrics wouldn’t hurt some of these songs, several like “At the Disco” are rooted in the Ramones “second verse same as the first” school of notebook economy. On the other hand, songs like “All Three Eyes” and the 13th Floor Elevators influenced “Trip to the Clinic” are creepily evocative.

On some songs Clarke sings in an updated, marble-mouthed Mick Jagger fashion and the mix doesn’t always give him front and center. It works because many of these songs benefit from a certain murk of atmosphere. The mix is a little clearer on songs like “Fed From Her Hand” and “Catch Her by the Tail,” little morality plays and cautionary tales told at the intersection of modern junk culture and warped old Americana.

From the chilling charms of “All Three Eyes” to the surreal, fevered “Fucked on Ketamine” to the shit-kickerfied “Weird Ways” the Demon’s Claws are powered by the Tennessee Three meets Voidoids drumming of Brian Hildebrand. Sometimes he plays too much, sometimes he almost loses the groove, but without him the DC would be a different band, and probably not as interesting.

The wracked Woody Guthrie travelogue of ‘You’ll Always be my Friend” ends The Defrosting of on a sweetly cracked note, Clarke serenading friendship like some dork version of Stiv Bators. The Demon’s Claws are the sound of tall-boy Bohemian detritus, of boys picking their way through the slag heap of working class mythology and its confinements - and having more than few laughs along the way.

* The original title was The Defrosting of Walt Disney, as you can imagine there were issues.

Reverberating: 8.2

Eric Clapton – Clapton (Reprise Records)

“Spent icon delivers another tepid set”

Eric Clapton is a three-time initiate into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with the Yardbirds and Cream, and as a solo artist). Is it too much to ask that he actually rock (and roll) once in a while? If Clapton is any indication the answer is yes. Sadly, that’s been the case for the majority of Clapton’s solo career. Oh, he has moments. When he appeared at the concert to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist in 1992 he delivered a smoldering version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” that blew the roof off the dump. That was a rare exception.

Always a product of his environment, Clapton’s playing has risen to the level of his inspirations and their provocation. The Derek and the Domino’s classic Layla (and other assorted love songs) was informed by his love for the Band, the songwriting influence of his friend George Harrison (can you imagine him writing a song with a tune like “Bell Bottom Blues” since) and the sparring of guitarist Duane Allman. Surrounded for decades by talented yes-men (and women), he hasn’t had any real fire for years.

Clapton starts promisingly enough with his take on Melvin Jackson’s “Travelin’ Alone.” Walt Richmond’s spectral Hammond organ playing complements Clapton’s guitar work, producing a sound reminiscent of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind record. The rest of the record, though, lays (sic) there, and stays there.

Clapton lacks the personality to negotiate Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair.” The background vocals on “Judgment Day” are too perky and undercut the sentiment of Snooky Pryor’s original. Several tracks feature a who’s who of New Orleans musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty, Dr. Michael White and Allen Toussaint. But try as they might even their presence can’t cover for Clapton’s lackluster phrasing on “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” or his bloated Nawlins version of “That’ s No Way to Get Along;” on the latter he employs the service of nineteen singers and players to emasculate Robert Wilkins’s simple guitar and vocal original.

I’m no stickler for consistency between the artist’s persona and real life, but when multi-millionaire Clapton sings about going “to the factory this morning” on his version of Lane Hardin’s “Hard Time Blues” you have a hard time, given his history as an artist, buying into his Bruce Springsteen makeover.

Clapton’s tepid set ends with a truly insipid rendition of the old chestnut “Autumn Leaves.” It’s an oft-essayed song, and rarely this poorly. It’s a perfect conclusion to a real dud of an album.

Reverberating: 5.5

No Age – Everything In Between (Sub Pop Records)

“Noise is the new silence to No Age’s generation of indie-punk”

No Age is a pure product of indie-rock culture, and part of a generation raised on noise. Sonic Youth may as well be the Beatles to a generation brought up to fear silence. But on their third and best record yet, Everything In Between, No Age have discovered dynamics. It’s not the loud-soft dichotomization of the Nirvana era, but a dynamic based on the epic swell of obligatory sonic overload, rising and falling with each song’s emotional nuances. Not space exactly, but an approximation.

It is a mammoth sound that guitarist Randy Randall and drummer Dean Spunt make. But it’s not without it’s light and shade, its drama and intimacy. “Life Prowler” is Joy Division meets Sonic Youth (w/touches of Suicide), Spunt repeating, “I don’t have time.” Randall’s Frippertronic guitar tempest and Spunt’s cheerleader stomp drumming propel “Glitter,” Spunt claiming “I don’t fear God, I don’t fear anything,” then pleading “I want you back underneath my skin,” as if the lack of love could stir fear that God can’t. “Fever Dreaming” is close to straight up Stooges/Ramones punk roar. “Depletion” is punk rebellion turned into style, the band blasting away like a distortion saturated version of the Vibrators.

No Age intersperses instrumental segues like “Katerpillar” and “Positive Amputation” into Everything In Between’s program like palate cleansers, lbreakdowns with roots in the sonics of Bowie-Eno material like “Warszawa.”

Part of No Age’s balancing act is to alternate the under mixed vocals, like the Dave Vanian meets Thurston Moore vocal persona of “Valley Hump Crash,” with more out front pop mixes like “Sorts,” the latter which starts out a trashed out La’s and evolves into a snotty pop snarl that reminds of bands like the Original Sins. “Shed and Transcend” has elements of both approaches, sounding like pop-punk under an avalanche of Randall’s guitar noise. “Chem Trails,” on the other hand, is a flat out catchy tune – all “Band on the Run” trills and “Pretty in Pink” chord changes.

No Age’s basic vision is of the alienated individual struggling in a stifling culture, it’s there in Spunt’s direct lyrics, and sometimes represented by the transcendent, overwhelming noises that Randall coaxes from his guitars. The photography of Zen Sekizawa, which pays homage to Robert Mapplethorpe’s evocation of aesthetic rebellion for Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia, and the constructivist/Factory Records graphic sensibilities of Brian Roettinger’s packaging are fine translations of No Age’s sensibility into visual language.

With Everything In Between No Age have become better songwriters and more versatile, dynamic arrangers. With just a touch of roll off on the distortion they aren’t too damned far from the Eighties angst-pop of Echo and the Bunnymen or the Psychedelic Furs. It will be fun to see where their development takes them.

Reverberating: 8.2

These reviews first appeared in the KC Free Press:

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