Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Plimsouls - Beach Town Confidential (Alive Records)

 Peter Case of the Plimsouls never cared much for the power-pop label. And while the Plimsouls were contemporaries with bands lumped into the punk category the band never self-identified as punk. Of course among their late Seventies/early Eighties peers in the Los Angeles scene there were bands as diverse as X, the Zeros, the Dils, the Germs, and the Alley Cats – all of whom were categorized as punk, only begging the question: what is punk anyway? And its corollary: who cares?

After a decade that spewed forth everything from prog-rock to Malibu singer-songwriters to disco, all the above were rock ‘n’ roll bands. Their shared commitment was to high-energy performance and direct, concise songs. And if energy and succinct songs were the criteria, few bands did it better than the Plimsouls. Their sub-genre inspirations ranged from Merseybeat to rhythm ‘n’ blues to freak-beat. I suppose they got the power-pop label laid on them because they had raw drive (power) and they didn’t sound like unskilled, unschooled half-asses (pop). So, there you go.

They had all the classic elements necessary for rock stardom (songs, looks, etc.), except the Seventies shifted that celestial alignment (see prog-rock, Malibu, disco …) forever. The dream of a universal rock language, the one that cemented the popularity and the legacies of everyone from the Beatle and Stones to the Kinks and the Who had already collapsed into a tower of FM-babble by the time that Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies and the New York Dolls had all (relatively speaking) flopped.

But the Plimsouls ignored the memo. In their short, sweet life they recorded a stripped down ep (Zero Hour), and two full-length albums – 1981’s self-titled record and Everywhere at Once from 1983. All of them are good, and they have moments of greatness. But generally, fans were of the opinion that they didn’t quite capture everything that made the Plimsouls a great live act. As if to prove this point, since their disbanding in 1983/4 we’ve seen the release of three live Plimsouls recordings, equaling (exceeding, given that their first record was an ep) their studio output (omitting 1998's reunion release Kool Trash, which is pretty darn good). Two shows featuring recordings from 1981, One Night Alive in America and Live, Beg, Borrow and Steal did a fine job of establishing the Plimsoul’s live authority. Beach Town Confidential, a 1983 show recorded at the Golden Bear Club in Huntington, California, newly released on Alive Records, is even better.

These live tracks are from the 13th of August in 1983. The April release of the film Valley Girl had included the Plimsoul’s “A Million Miles Away” from Everywhere at Once, and the band was probably as popular as they had ever been as a consequence. Yet this performance was close to the end of the band’s road. You’d never know it from these performances; they crackle with a defiant energy that asserts not only the band’s claim to a stardom they were denied, but also a claim to the power of rock itself as a cultural force.

Whether or not this music is “power-pop” is beside the point, but if a case could be made for that as an ideal, the renditions here of songs like “Zero Hour,” “Magic Touch,” “Now,” “How Long Will it Take?” and of course “A Million Miles Away” make that case better than anything by more popular contemporaries like the Knack or the Romantics. This isn’t smarmy or condescending like the former, or skinny-tie packaged like the latter. This is rockin’ music with great pop song values that transcends the finite specifics of era or genre.

Peter Case sings with the foursquare authority of an American John Lennon. The rhythm section, drummer Louie Ramirez and bass player David Pahoa, is solid enough to drive AC/DC, but too supple and swinging to be limited to that. Lead guitarist Eddie Munoz moves from folk-rock jangle to Dave Davies-like assertion to sharp blues licks seamlessly and always in touch with the intent of the songs.

I get a special kick out of their selection of covers for this set. “Jump, Jive and Harmonize” is the only carryover from either of their previous live releases, homage to Thee Midnighters and the band’s Chicano roots. The band’s sensibility is exemplified by two songs with very different expressions of 1967 - Moby Grape’s “Fall on You” and Creation’s “Making Time.” The first is high-octane Cali-rock, bordering on country, while the latter is pounding British rock with a hint of psychedelia. The Plimsouls play them both like they own them. The Fleshtones’ Keith Streng, contemporary and East Coast fellow traveler, joins the band for a spirited romp through the Flamin’ Groovies “Jumpin’ in the Night,” while their pals the Williams Brothers lend their voices to the Everly’s “Price of Love.” The final cover, and the set closer is Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book,” a tune that innumerable rock bands have had their way with.

Arguably, Beach Town Confidential is as compelling a representation of the Plimsouls power (pop or otherwise) as anything released under their name, and it’s indispensible to anyone who considers themselves a fan.

Reverberating: 8.7

1 comment:

Happy In Bag said...

Beautiful review. You should considering giving Case a copy at the RecordBar in March.