Friday, September 8, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: Lowest of the Low - Do The Right Now

As a writer, Ron Hawkins has always matched the universal with the specific, marrying concepts like love and loss to tangible places, events and people.  It’s one of his greatest strengths and the reason why albums like “Shakespeare, My Butt” are still rabidly venerated more than a quarter century after their release.  That landmark record, written when Hawkins was 26 years old and coming into his artistic own as a boho Marxist in the funkier parts of Toronto, now finds its mirror image in the fantastic “Do The Right Now”.  An answer record of sorts (released the year Hawkins turned 52 – a neat 26 years after “Shakespeare”), the new album finds Hawkins and his compatriots (original drummer David Alexander and longtime sideman Lawrence Nichols are joined here by two of Hawkins’ Do Good Assassins bandmates) adding several new classics to their canon. 

The songs may deal with getting older, but still crackle with the energy of youth. “Powerlines”, the album’s opener and first single, reflects on the changes that time has had on both his city and his own creative mythology by revisiting Caroline, a character who first appeared in “The Taming of Carolyn” 26 long years ago. A stand-in for Hawkins and the band itself, Caroline is dealing with the expectations that come with being older on the outside but still repeating those same stupid, youthful behaviors that made you feel alive as a twenty-something.  Hawkins ends the song with the implication that the only way out is to jump – into the abyss of adulthood or off the top of a building is left up to the listener, and it’s kind of harrowing and perfect.  

Several of the other songs chime and churn like classic Low – the propulsive “Gerona Train” (itself a rewrite of a song from Hawkins’ pre-LOTL band, Popular Front); the echoey, finger-picked “Sister Jude” featuring Nichols’ melodic harmonica lines; the rapid-fire wordplay and alliteration of “Immortal” – but it’s the departures that find the band really branching out. The dark, downcast “Minuteman” and the burbling tale of regret, “California Gothic”, show that not only has Hawkins’ writing grown but so has the sound of the band, reaching into spaces both darker and more brutal with a subtlety that the Low of old simply couldn’t muster.  And perhaps that’s the point – we fetishize youth as a time when an artist’s truth is revealed and channeled into their work.  Everything after is, like Caroline, simply chasing that high.  Kudos, then, to Ron Hakwins for breaking free of that fallacy and releasing a work equal in heart, vitality and wit to the golden albatross of “Shakespeare”. As he so deftly puts it on the album’s title track, “tomorrow’s a lie and yesterday’s gone / You’ve got to do the right now”.  Indeed. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: Peter Hook and the Light – Unknown Pleasures Live, Closer Live, Movement Live, Power, Corruption, and Lies Live

Ian Curtis has been gone for 37 years.  More legend than actual flesh and blood human at this point, Curtis’ harrowing baritone and gloomy songwriting has influenced countless bands to pick up instruments and pour their existential torment into song. Hell, Interpol were practically a Joy Division cover band when they first came slunking out of the NYC underground at the turn of the century!  While Curtis – in all of his tragic beauty, so committed to his message that he ended his own life on the eve of what was surely to be their breakthrough album – can be seen as the “face” of Joy Division, it was clearly bassist Peter Hook who was the band’s thumping, pugilistic heart.  Hooky’s basslines not only formed the backbone of the band’s sound, but also tied the band to the punk underground from which it was spawned.  It’s fitting, then, that his new band The Light, have become standard bearers and protectors of sorts for the Joy Division catalogue. 

Over the course of a couple years, Peter Hook and the Light have traveled Europe and the U.S. performing the two Joy Division albums and the first two New Order records in full.  This might seem at best an exercise in nostalgia and at worst a crass flogging of the corpse for filthy lucre.  You would be right to seem skeptical.  Here’s the thing, though – these four releases feel wholly vital!  In the place of Curtis’ vampiric croon, Hook’s hoarse bellow breathes new life into the songs that he’s probably played thousands of times. Part tribute, part exorcism, songs like “Day of the Lords”, “Candidate” and “Dead Souls” shake off the funereal air of their studio renditions and become something bigger, fleshier, livelier.   It’s a thrill to hear some of the material from “Closer” performed live for the first time, and the backing band (basically Hook’s late-90s combo Monaco and his son Jack on second bass) more than capably turns what were skeletal, tense sketches into blasts of fury and sound.  These live versions also reveal something that is often overlooked in the canonization of Joy Division as godfathers of mope – their songs have hips!  I’m not sure that anyone would ever categorize “New Dawn Fades’ as a dance song, but you can really sway and move to it in a way that is both surprising and entirely natural.  And this might be the greatest feat of these albums – removing the weight of history and importance and turning them into breathing, living rock songs.   This balance of reverence and feral attack is Hook’s greatest gift.  Though Ian Curtis may be but a memory, I’d like to think that he would approve of Hooky’s curation and reinvigoration of his short life’s work.  

Friday, May 19, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner - Make It Be

Collaborative albums between artists can be dicey propositions. Does it sound too much like one of the folks involved or do you split the difference between the two different styles/personas?  Can the sum possibly be greater than the parts?   Trust me, for every “My Life In the Bush of Ghosts” or “Madvillian” there are a dozen “Watch The Thrones”.  It takes not only an estimable set of skills to make the balancing act work, but also the ability to set aside ego to come up with something that works best for the songs.  Against a lot of odds, “Make It Be” (a nifty bastardization of the Fabs’ “Let It Be”), the collection of tunes birthed by the coupling of madly prolific lo-fi hero R. Stevie Moore and power-pop prodigal son Jason Faulkner gets it almost exactly right! 

Eschewing the scrappy homemade quality and murk of many of Moore’s releases, this is Faulkner’s sonic show.  Fuzzed-out opener, the deliciously misanthropic “I H8 Ppl” sets the stage, with Moore spitting lyrics atop Faulkner’s bed of guitars and synths and it sets the stage for an album chock full of deliciously weird and inventive tunes. While “Make It Be” can at times come off as lacking cohesion, the kitchen-sink experimentation more often than not produces a roller-coaster of sounds and styles, exemplified in miniature by the way the lo-fi prog instrumental “Gower (Theme From a Scene) bleeds into Moore’s spoken word diatribe “Prohibited Permissions” and finally segues directly into the buzzy garage stomp of “Stamps” (a Pixies-esque salvo about needing a roll of the titular object, natch).  At 18 tracks, it can be a bit dicey at times (the noodly, half-assed guitar interludes don’t exactly ooze necessity), but wonderful gems like the silly and delightful ersatz ‘50s juke-jumper “Don’t You Just Know” more than make up for any chaff amongst the wheat.  If nothing else, it makes me remember how much I miss and love Jason Falkner.  His “solo” contributions like “Another Day Slips Away” or the psych gem “Horror Show” would have fit perfectly on his well-loved 90’s solo albums for Elektra.  Also, his guiding hand has helped Moore to make the most of his gifts and provided structure to a songwriter whose own prolificacy sometimes works against him. “Make It Be” is not only a nice addition to both artists’ catalogs, but will also hopefully bring some deserved exposure. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Feelies - In Between

The arrival of a new album by Haledon, NJ’s favorite sons (and daughter) is always a cause for celebration – particularly when it can be punctuated by anywhere from three to twenty years in between!  What a treat, then, that “In Between”, the Feelies’ 6th album (and first since 2011’s comeback, “Here Before”) is such a lovely document of what the band does well. The newer, softer Feelies that have evolved out of their 20-year absence make increased use of acoustic instrumentation here – oftentimes, it’s the percussion of Dave Weckerman that is loudest in the mix, and the songs have a late-Velvets ease to them that bely the tension rippling right beneath the surface.  Autumnal in the best sense of the word, the album opens with the crackle of a campfire and the chirping of fauna and the title track sets the pace for most of the album – Glenn Mercer’s and Bill Million’s guitar strums nestling against one another, while Stan Demeski’s brushed drums and Brenda Sauter’s supple bass sagely keep time.  The band is in no hurry and the album is all the better for it.

Those only familiar with the band via its classic debut will certainly be surprised by how languid the band is here – most songs shuffle breezily by and the first appearance of Mercer’s biting lead guitar doesn’t rear its head until the fourth track, album highlight “Flag Days”.   All of this, however, is simply preamble to the 9-minute monolith that is the reprise of “In Between” that closes out the album.  A fully electric take on the title track, the song continues to build steam until hitting the three-minute mark, and then it goes off the damn rails.  Million’s churning rhythm guitar locks in with the rhythm section and Mercer’s skittering leads careen around it all; the sound they make is simultaneously hypnotizing and paranoia-inducing but never less than thrilling.  When both guitars nimbly (and loudly) solo over the last minutes of the jam, it reminds you of why this band is so fervently adored almost 40 years after their debut.  The culminating pick slide and feedback is all the reminder you need that age is nothing but a number and that the world is a better place with the Feelies rocking in it.  

...And We're Back!

Have you missed us?  Sure, you have!  After many false starts (read: laziness and ennui), the rockist reviews and fawning interviews you know and love are returning.  We promise to be less like that ne'er-do-well uncle who sometimes forgets your birthday and gives you wildly age-inappropriate presents (really, Uncle Barry, "naughty" playing cards?  AGAIN?) and more like an attentive lover, showering you with gifts that are both thoughtful and plentiful.  So, dig into the archives and prepare yourself for the awesome power of a fully operational mothership! (T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M for you fans of middling 90s George Clinton know who you are!) Color Is Its Own Reward is back, baby, and it's about to get loud...