Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Legs - Aaaa New Memphis Legs (Goner Records)

There are bands that never rise too far out of the muck of the American underground, yet they play a critical role in keeping a certain kind of rock ‘n’ roll anima alive. The Oblivians from Memphis were such a band.  Throughout the Nineties, their spontaneous, greasy mix of American garage-rock archetypes and rhythm and soul influences was most entertaining. And it was as pure a product of Memphis as anything from the heyday of Sun, Stax or Hi Records. Or Big Star, for that matter. Over the course of several albums, scattered singles, anthology tracks, and innumerable low budget tours they kept the flame for brash, bratty, soulful rock alive.

Jack (Yarber) Oblivian has gone on to a remarkably consistent, soulful solo career, fashioning a kind of bordello-barfly rock, fashioned from classic soul moves and strip club boom-boom. Greg (Cartwright) Oblivian formed the formidable Reigning Sound, combining ‘too much guitar’ thrash with Duke-Peacock heartache, bringing it all back home just-a-one-more time. Cartwright and crew also made a wonderful record, Dangerous Game, with former Shangri-La Mary Weiss.

It’s Eric (Friedl) Oblivian who’s made the least noise outside of the Oblivians. Of course he’s been busy with founding and operating the Goner label, a rocking imprint responsible for furthering the cause of artists from King Khan and BBQ Show to The Eddy Current Suppression Ring.

Around about the year 2000, Friedl hung out with a Texas guitarist named James Arthur. They did guy shit around Memphis, hung out, you know. No bass player. Eventually, they worked in the rough and ready drumming from the Neckbones’ Mr. Forrest Hewes.

Then … they spent months woodshedding, crafting a densely poetic, richly eclectic concept album about self-discovery. 


NOPE, they bashed out a noisy blast of half-baked originals, handy Aussie garage covers from some Ugly Things compilation and a mauling of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Doin’ it Too Hard.”  And this short scrap of a set is called Aaaa New Memphis Legs.

 Whether creating a new mock dance craze with “(Let’s) Do the Legs,” a frat party stormer with guitar distortion as dense as freakin’ Blue Cheer, or going all down-tuned and metal dirty (“Been Kinda Lost”), or rewriting “Have Love Will Travel” (and blow-out combing their New York Dolls love) on “You Won’t Get Me,” Aaaa New Memphis Legs is an almost legless collection of Duchampian readymades, a spontaneous party of rock fuzz.

Truth is, by most orthodox standards this is a bloody, freakin' racket, It’s also pretty great, Moments of near brilliance include “Bill Dakota Knows,” a Paul Revere and the Raiders on rotgut gem that’s all deliciously excessive toggle switch use; the chorus is “you’ve been found to be bisexual, swinging, groovy, busted” – how do they know my old girlfriends?

“Wild About You” honors the night the Dolls spent in a Memphis hoosegow. It's whiskey soaked, a bit reminiscent of the Saints, and (oh yeah) the ghosts of every maniac beat monkey who ever tried to entertain shitheads at a frat party. ‘Wild man on a rampage, swingin’ through the jungle; honey, where are you?” It’s Raw Power with a side of grits, and it’s got a coda cool enough for an American International Pictures flick. Stepping down in thirds, clichéd, just right.  

Aaaa's twenty-seven minute romp goes out with The Legs' savaging of "Doin' It Too Hard." They do it pretty damn hard, that's for sure. In the Sir Douglas Quintet's hands the song sounded like some bizarre cross between Creedence and the Velvets. By the time the Legs are through with it it's been taken into the alley and beaten with a Kinks stick.

It’s all over too fast. That’s what she said, anyway.

But it sure is fun while it lasts. It’s a rock party for friends to be played at maximum volume. It’s stupid good. It’s not recommended for anyone who’s not ready, steady go for high distortion kicks. For sure not recommended to fans of Seals and Crofts or Bon Iver. And really, what’s the difference, ‘ceptin for a few decades.

Aaaa New Memphis Legs* is the sound of living for rock ‘n’ roll. You got a better idea?

* Available on digital download and Goner vinyl.

Reverberating: 8.2 

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Rolling Stones - Doom and Gloom ... Old Devils Not Yet Dead

Modern media. So fast, so shallow. I feel dirty just participating in it. Okay, not really. But for a music business veteran like myself, the hyper-accelerated rate at which new information about music, and the music itself is processed is brain rattling.

How must the Rolling Stones feel? They were young men in their Twenties emerging from the London blues scene to become teen idols in 1962-64. They cut their teeth on the blues and rhythm ‘n’ blues masters whose records moseyed their way across the Atlantic, shaking thing up over weeks, months and years, not nanoseconds. But things probably felt like they were moving fast for them. And they were, for the time. The machinery of promotion and distribution was in a horse and buggy world compared to today’s drop, drag and download environment.

Nonetheless, in American bohemian enclaves and in London, Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester a fire was starting. A new single made its way into shops. Kids talked it up, word of mouth stimulated sales. If a band was lucky enough to crack into radio airplay it happened market by market, especially in the U.S.; of course news could travel fast once the phones lit up and some station had a hit with a song. But it was still a snail’s pace compared to now, when you post a song on YouTube on Friday morning and it has 1,771,135 on Sunday morning, as the Stones’ new song “Gloom and Doom” did. And nobody experiencing this music spent a dime! Yes, that is the head of my sound spinning. Of course “Gloom and Doom” is still a few clicks away from “Gangnam Style’s” 460,258,483 views (yes, it’s gone up since this draft was written). Eat your heart out, John Dowland.

 “Doom and Gloom” is the first of two songs the old devils have tracked to call attention to their umpteenth ‘hits’ collection Grrr. They can’t be arsed to actually record an honest to God album, I guess. After all, it’s only been six years, or whatever, since A Bigger Bang. Okay, snide tone retired.

When I hear a new song from icons like the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan I try to hold two ideas in the mind at the same time. First, it’s impossible to place anything new outside the context of the artist’s recorded history. Second, you have to try. And accordingly I try to imagine what I would think of this music if it were made by some strange, new band (who of course sound a lot like the Rolling Stones, reinforcing the first proposition). Ah, hell. I think that were there a Rolling Stones informed vision of rock ‘n’ roll music without there having been a Rolling Stones, I would say ‘these guys rock.’ But it is sort of like Hazel Motes’ “church of truth without Christ.”

Even not talking about them, you’re talking about them. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

King Tuff - s/t (Sub Pop Records)

King Tuff’s self-titled sophomore release on Sub Pop is not what it appears to be. It appears to be some crude spoof on the stoner rock Kyle Thomas purveyed (w/ Jay Mascis on drums, no less) with the band Witch. On the cover a devil-bat wields what looks to be a Gibson SG in one claw and a five-pointed star wand in the other. Ooh – Wee – Ooh.

King Tuff’s debut record Was Dead, a mid-fi feast of sharp pop songs buried under de rigueur distortion, established an audience for Thomas’s trashed out recycling of classic rock moves. Was Dead got frequent, not unreasonable comparisons to similar works by garage like Ty Segall and Jay Reatard.

Of course with Melted and Watch Me Fall, Seagall and Reatard (respectively) made moves toward greater production clarity and songs bordering on pop-rock convention. With King Tuff, Thomas (with Magic Jake on bass and Kenny on drums) staggers past such peers, making a small rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece. This, of course, is bound to alienate some of the distortion is God crowd. Theirs’ are crocodile tears, really; this record sacrifices nothing whatsoever in energy or attitude. 

The Ramones weren’t trying to make shitty sounding records. The Clash weren’t trying to make shitty sounding records. I’m not sure when the sub-garage ethic became the currency for bratty bands, but it’s a fashion that’s run its course. 

Speaking of the Ramones, Thomas has Dee Dee Ramone’s deadpan ability to say what’s on his mind. The loser anthems on King Tuff make consistent reference to outsider status. On “Alone and Stoned” Thomas bluntly asserts that “all his friends” are just that. “Everywhere I Go I am a Stranger” laments “Stranger.” “Loser’s Wall” – okay, not a lot of explication required. For “Evergreen,” which bears more than a bit of resemblance to Deerhunter, Thomas presumes peace will find him “only when I die,” and sings with resignation that “I’m not really here.” A Bo Diddley throb is the foundation for “Unusual World’s” assertion of isolation and independence, the band sounding a little like the Sleepy Jackson. Get the picture? Yes, you see.

What prevents King Tuff from becoming a cartoon version of post-teen angst is the variety and deceptive depth of its music. At Detroit's Malcolm X Academy (nifty studio name), producer Bobby Harlow and Thomas crafted a rough, but sparkling diamond. The band is a classic rock magpie, and arrangement details abound; “Alone and Stoned” concludes with an acapella repeat of the song’s first line, capping off a satisfying T. Rex/Beach Boys hybrid. “Loser’s Wall” opens with chords borrowed from the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day,” goes all “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” over the breaks, and Thomas’s vocal delivery is pure, laconic Thurston Moore. “Bad Thing” features close harmony vocals on the verse, transitioning to Daltrey screams on the chorus. “Loser’s” and “Bad” both have ingenious, beautifully developed guitar solos. Thomas is no slouch on the instrument he mythologizes (“when I play my Stratocaster”) on the latter song.