Ruby: 40 Years of Rattus Norvegicus

Standard

The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus

Released April 15th, 1977 on United Artists Records

The Stranglers came up rough-and-tumble in the English pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, and it shows.  The band formed in 1974 after drummer Brian “Jet Black” Duffy made a ton of money operating a fleet of ice cream trucks.  His business success convinced him to get back into drumming, something he had done semi-professionally through the 1950s and 1960s, and he scoured the region looking for potential bandmates.  What came together was originally called the Guildford Stranglers and played a regular gig at The Jackpot, an offie that Duffy also owned and operated.  After gaining a bit of a following they managed to merge in with the emergent punk rock scene in 1976-1977 to become one of the more memorable First Wave bands.

Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with the external identification of the band with the scene they found themselves in.  First, what is wrong.  The Stranglers, unlike their contemporaries, were not afraid to get crazy with the keyboards; the band’s sound is as much Dave Greenfield’s manic-Doors keyboard playing as it is Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bouncy, fiercely melodic bass playing.  The intro to “Princess Of The Streets” is a gorgeous, haunting arpeggio feature that you would never catch the Clash using, and it’s written in 6/8 time, which is about as un-punk as you can really get.  Their music was as much about the Doors and the Kinks as it was about ripping the pub apart and getting the lager lads going.

Then again there are aspects of their music that fit right in with where everyone else was at in 1977.  For one thing, Rattus Norvegicus is an incredibly violent record.  “Sometimes” is about a knock-down, drag-out physical fight between boyfriend and girlfriend.  “Goodbye Tolouse” is a raucous good tune about Nostradamus’ predicted destruction of the aforementioned French city.  “Ugly” is a clashing, destructive song that lives up to it’s name in spades.  It has great depictions of the “street scene” of the time:  “Hanging Around” and “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” are both descriptive songs about the life the band was leading during the recording of the album.  There’s also the English punk preoccupation with reggae:  “Peaches” is heavily influenced by contemporary reggae records although the use of Greenfield’s brittle-glass keyboard sound adds a keening, paranoid vibe to the bounce.

The Stranglers would go on to hit greater heights (peaking with 1982’s “Golden Brown”) but Rattus Norvegicus sets them up as a band – propulsive and yet oddly romantic, violent and a little jaded from the streets.  1977 featured some very impressive debuts – and this definitely ranks among them.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of The Clash

Standard

The Clash – The Clash

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

BestEverAlbums:  #174

RYM:  #224

1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this.  The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed.  The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year.  Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock:  The Clash.

That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons.  For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks.  The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band.  Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.

I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal.  We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up.  “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted.  “Punk rock is awesome!  The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!”  This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners.  The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there.  This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were.  Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar.  The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for.  From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well.  They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without.  They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling.  The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.

The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version?  The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame.  The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”.  The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks:  “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel.  The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.

The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.

 

 

 

China: 20 Years of Dig Me Out

Standard

Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Released April 8th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

Straight-up:  Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago.  They’re a barrier to entry, for sure.  You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.

Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time.  A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords.  Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic.  Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords.  Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of.  They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.

Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously.  Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll.  Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.

Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional.  That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.

China: 20 Years of The Future Of War

Standard

Atari Teenage Riot – The Future Of War

Released March 17th, 1997 on Digital Hardcore Recordings

It’s difficult to talk about Atari Teenage Riot without understanding one key concept:  that Atari Teenage Riot are punk as fuck.  The idea was emblazoned on the name of their own private record label:  digital hardcore.  This is anarchist computer crust, William Gibson futurist punk that smells of dank alleys and crack.  “Sick To Death” captures this divide particularly well:  it starts off with a traditional punk guitar riff straight out of 1980 and slowly bleeds a drum n bass rhythm track in until the booming, distorted 808 bass/kick combo takes over everything and the shouting begins.  The band themselves were what frog kiddies have nightmares about, the sort of antifa kids who ensured that if there was a Nazi present, they were going to get punched.  They began, in fact, as an old school way to troll Nazis in their native Germany; one of their first releases was a song called “Hunt Down The Nazis!” The Future Of War didn’t spare in the left-wing rhetoric, either, drawing influence from the impersonal nature of modern warfare as evidenced by the First Gulf War.  Songs like “Deutschland (Has Gotta Die)” and “Destroy 2000 Years Of Culture” helped the album get listed in Germany as not to be advertised or sold to minors.  It’s the fountainhead of the genre of digital hardcore (naturally) and a precursor to the sort of twisted noise terrorism that Death Grips has engaged in.

 

 

China: 20 Years of The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

Standard

The Dismemberment Plan – The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

Released March 17th, 1997 on DeSoto Records

The Dismemberment Plan are the perfect band to dance like no one’s watching to.  Hell, that’s pretty much how they played music.  With a couple of exceptions, the songs on The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified are either played with abandon – nearly random guitar squiggles, songs that explode out in every direction at once, and then suddenly veer off in another direction – or played as moody proto-indie songs that come out as confessions.  Occasionally, as on “The Ice Of Boston” (still the best New Year’s song out there), they’re both.  In an interview with Stylus singer Travis Morrison described it as “the most dedicated to hip-hop record we have.”  I feel like this is sort of what Christgau was saying when he said that The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified sounded “sort of the way Primus might if Primus enjoyed a normal sex life.”  It’s an album that writhes spastically in odd directions but is still completely relatable, as though you just discovered that your accountant was in a noise rock band.  While it was eclipsed by it’s followup, the sublime Emergency & I, it’s a recommended listen for anyone into noise rock, or post-hardcore, or inventive post-punk in general.

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Sound Of Silver

Standard

LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver

Released March 12th, 2007 on DFA/Capitol Records

BestEverAlbums: #129

Who sounds like they’re having more fun than James Murphy?  In the middle of the Oughts, people thought dance-punk was something that honestly sounded like a good idea, probably because they heard a couple of old Gang Of Four records and thought they could inject some irony into the proceedings and call it a day (The Rapture).  Along with a number of groups who thought they could get along doing the same thing, James Murphy started putting out a string of singles on his co-owned DFA Records label that were along similar lines to the other stuff that was going on in 2005, with a key difference:  Murphy and LCD Soundsystem weren’t afraid to get funny as well as funky; it was this combination that made their early singles such successes, and their self-titled debut such a critical darling.

 

Sound Of Silver, their sophomore effort, turns that idea on it’s head.  To be sure, it’s still funny as hell:  the self-deprecating party kids of “North American Scum” make for great fun; the chorus of “Sound Of Silver” is good for a rueful grin.  What Sound Of Silver really is, though, is poignant, and it rides that particular aspect far better than LCD Soundsystem rode snarky humour.  “Someone Great” looks back on the lost, both broken relationships and dead people; “All My Friends” contains the immortal line “You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to get with your friends again.”  “Us Vs. Them” feels alienated from the crowd and all the sad drunk boys on their knees; “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is exactly what it says on the tin – a nostalgia for the old septic New York City and an admission that sometimes the modern theme park version of NYC can get a little much.

 

Wrapping all of this feels is a slick, eminently danceable disco-punk that keeps moving without stopping (until the end, of course; “New York” is the perfect comedown for a sweat-filled night out).  The effect is that Sound Of Silver sounds like a night out with your friends, the ones you haven’t seen in forever but for whom it feels as though no time at all has passed.  You want the night to last forever and for a while it feels like it will but eventually you get exhausted and the city seems like a vulture waiting to pick your bones clean and then the sun comes up and there’s one last fleeting bit of glory before you stumble through the dawn streets to find your bed so you can collapse and pass out.  It’s as much fun as it sounds.

Ruby: 40 Years of Damned Damned Damned

Standard

The Damned – Damned Damned Damned

Released February 18th, 1977 on Stiff Records

The Damned beat the Sex Pistols to punk rock by mere months.  Popular recognition goes to Johnny Rotten and Co. because of the visual aspect:  the Sex Pistols looked like something you would decry as “punk rock” in the tabloid newspapers while the legislature was issuing proclamations banning them.  The Damned just looked like smart-ass kids, theatre students who were really into Alice Cooper and the Rolling Stones.  They avoided Clash-like posturing and politics as well, preferring to sing about getting laid and being degenerate.  Regardless, their lead single “New Rose” established the scene, and the success of that single brought them into the studio to record their album.  Damned Damned Damned feels like a defining document, even though it never gets treated as such.  “Neat Neat Neat” and “I Fall” set the pace for every band that came after, though; the compact, gut-punch guitar work of Brian James makes the genre’s aggressiveness known right away, and his buzzsaw playing drew contemporary comparisons to Pete Townshend.  The drummer, Rat Scabies, is of note as well, with an early look into the tightly controlled pounding he would become known for.  This is especially true of the riveting intro to “New Rose”, which batters down all opposition in favour of pure rock.  “Fan Club” and “Feel The Pain” touch on the aforementioned Alice Cooper influence, and also presage the band’s eventual turn toward gothic rock.  “Born To Kill” is the opening salvo in what punk rock would sound like within five years.  The Sex Pistols may have won the fashion show, but The Damned defined the sound in a visceral way.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Marquee Moon

Standard

Television – Marquee Moon

Released February 8th, 1977 on Elektra Records

BestEverAlbums:  #47

RYM:  #28

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met in boarding school.  Later, they moved to New York City, chasing poetry.  Then, because it was NYC in the 1970s (or, rather, NYC at any time) they formed bands – first Neon Boys, and then in 1973, Television.

 

The story of Television is the story of a lot of seminal punk acts from the late 1970s on the Lower East Side, only they were there first.  Their manager convinced Hilly Kristal, owner of the legendary CBGB club, to give them a gig in 1974; within two years the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and a zillion other acts would make their name playing there, but Television built that stage (literally).  From 1975 onward they had a regular gig at CBGB’s, and in early 1977 they released the founding document of the era, Marquee Moon.  It would be released without Richard Hell, however; Verlaine had gotten sick of Richard’s continual need to be the center of attention on stage (and, for the mostly-sober Verlaine, probably Richard Hell’s prodigious heroin usage).  Hell would go on to inspire Malcolm McLaren (and thereby the entire “punk fashion” thing) as well as involvement with two other albums we’ll be celebrating this year.  Television would become the playground of Tom Verlaine and the band’s other guitarist, Richard Lloyd.

 

As a “founding document” for punk rock, Marquee Moon can seem a little strange.  It eschews a few things that people take for granted as being part of the basic construction set for punk.  There are none of the “wall of sound” power chords that the Ramones and Sex Pistols were built on; there aren’t even the ragged open chords that The Clash made their own.  Blondie perverted disco, Talking Heads appropriated funk and African rhythms, but Television built themselves on entwined guitar melodies, twisted leads, and a bizarre sense of trained music theory.  A lot of Marquee Moon could be described as “prog-garage” – nicotine stained, recorded lo-fi, but very obviously put together by people who knew their instruments well and knew how to wring disturbed passion out of them to a great extent.  Contrast that with Sid Vicious, who didn’t have the first idea how to play even a bass guitar.  Secondly, the lyrics were obscured, comprised of snippets of poetry, impressionist prose, and a balance between urban and rural sensibilities that mixed insider Manhattan references with boats, oceans, and caves.  Contrast that to the straightforward “I’m so bored of the USA” of the Clash, or even the “SCREAMING BLOODY FUCKING MESS” of the Sex Pistols, and you start to wonder what Verlaine and Television have in common with the rest of their scene.  The truth is that they share a time and a place, and that’s about it.  Marquee Moon, in terms of pure musicianship, a cut above the rest.

 

One consequence of this has been that Marquee Moon has been been relegated to an also-ran status, a remembrance that is more obscure than luminaries like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones.  The album sold poorly at the time (only 80,000 copies) and the band only recorded one follow-up before disbanding.  While critics have always held it in high esteem, it wasn’t until The Strokes reintroduced the world to NYC punk in 2001 that people seemed to really start discussing the band in a wider sense.  The internet may have helped with this as well; certainly very few pre-internet publications would have ranked it to a level that the users of Rate Your Music have (#28 on the all-time list).  Either way, The Strokes’ love of Television’s guitar leads gave Marquee Moon new life, and deservedly so.  It’s influence was felt more subtly before then anyway:  The Edge considers them an influence, as does Joey Santiago (The Pixies), John Fruisciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Stephen Morris (Joy Division), and Will Sergeant (Echo & The Bunnymen).  Chances are you’ve heard something that originally derived from a line on Marquee Moon, you’ve just never realized it before – unless you’re a Strokes fan, and then it’s been beaten into your head from day one.

Ruby: 40 Years of Leave Home

Standard

Ramones – Leave Home

Released January 10th, 1977 on Sire Records

Leave Home, the Ramones’ second album, was so named because it marked the band leaving their squalid NYC origins to go say hello to weirdos around the world.  To aid in this transition, the band took the hard-ahead pummel of their 1976 self-titled debut and welded it to beachy, sun-soaked melodies, as though the Beach Boys had suddenly started taking amphetamines.  “I Remember You” and “Oh Oh I Love Her So” are pure bubblegum pop played at a million miles per hour; the guns-blazing cover of “California Sun” cements this completely.  “Carbona Not Glue” took the concept of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” (the band’s first composition) and asserted that Carbona (a cleaning fluid) made for a better high than glue; the company behind Carbona was not amused.  The Ramones didn’t care, though; they were aiming squarely for the weirdos, the misfits, the awkward kids who didn’t meld well with the mainstream.  These were the people the band was connecting to on “Pinhead”, with it’s cry of “gabba gabba we accept you one of us, one of us,” (taken from a 1930s movie about carnies).  These people – the art-damaged kids in NYC and the glue-huffers around the world – were the early adopters of the punk music, and while they took to 1977’s other Ramones album, Rocket To Russia, much more, Leave Home is a solid document of the direction of the band as the punk era dawned.

 

It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Ramones on punk rock.  For a huge number of bands that took up the torch in the 1980s and 1990s, they were the ultimate punk band – the complete package, three chords and an attitude.  Everything that got big in the mid-Nineties – Green Day et al. – owes an allegiance in one form or another to the sound that the band pioneered between 1976 and 1981.  Leave Home is leather jackets, unwashed hair, cheap beer, and getting high inexpensively – it’s greaser music for kids who had to run when the football team came calling.

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Standard

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Released May 13th, 2016

During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear.  Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.

Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised:  a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion.  Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid RapColoring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people.  “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole.  It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets.  The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place.  Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails:  he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it.  He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.

Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent.  He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas.  Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape.  It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”:  “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”.  Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive.  Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book.  They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.

Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al.  He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else.  In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.

AND THE REST…

A$AP Ferg

Always Strive And Prosper

04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music

The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.

Wire

Nocturnal Koreans

04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records

Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP.  As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.

Greys

Outer Heaven

04/22/2016 on Carpark Records

Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part.  In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs.  While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact.  Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.

Plants And Animals

Waltzed In From The Rumbling

04/29/2016 on Secret City Records

A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue.  Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.

The Jayhawks

Paging Mr. Proust

The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career.  Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.

White Lung

Paradise

The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album.  It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old.  At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.