Black Flag – My War

My War

Black FlagMy War SST 023 (1984)

So much ANGST!!!!!  Fans divide over the legacy of the mighty Black Flag.  Pioneers of the 1970s and 80s California underground, they went through personnel changes and stylistics shifts through the years.

On the one hand, you have those who say “Stop after The First Four Years.”  Those were the early hardcore years.  Black Flag played fast, loud and snotty.  They were often pretty funny too.  Vocalists Keith Morris and then Chavo Pederast took the mic in the early years.  The thing about those early days was that the Flag was very balanced.  Founding guitarist Greg Ginn was the reclusive introvert, the enigmatic wizard behind the band’s totally unique approach to punk rock.  Hey, maybe the music should matter more than the clothes!  Confrontational and contrarian, the band leavened those elements with the wild, lackadaisical efforts of the vocalists, singing blunt lyrics so often drenched with monochromatic irony.  Bassist Chuck Dukowski, the outgoing, confrontational clown of the band, was in some respects the polar opposite of Ginn.  All together, they came up with a few devastating recordings of the likes of “Nervous Breakdown” and “Jealous Again”.  Not everybody got the jokes, like “White Minority.”  But fuck those people, seriously.  You could see the Flag as an extension of punk.  They were just the new product of a different central California culture.

When Dez Cadena took over vocals for a while, something kind of changed.  Cadena was a pretty weak vocalist.  He belted out a kind of gutteral howl.  That was about all he could do though.  The band was still kind of funny (“Louie, Louie”), but they kind of took on a more serious overtone too.  They were growing, but they suffered from growing pains.

Then you have the Rollins years.  Henry Rollins came along, by chance almost, mid-tour while Black Flag played the East Coast, and filled the void on vocals after Cadena focused on playing guitar.  Rollins came to an established band as a fan, a kid no less.  Rollins brought a much deeper vocal palate to bear.  Yeah, sure, it was all angst, but it was a deeper and more nuanced range of angst than the previous vocalists could deliver.  There is no shortage of Henry-haters.  Was he pretentious?  Maybe.  He started off as just a ball of pure enthusiasm.  As he grew older, a macho streak developed and he inserted a lot of “poetry” into the music.  But for a time he was just performing the songs written and developed by the existing band, for the most part. My War was the second full-length album from the Henry-era band.  The first with Henry was Damaged, which was and remains the band’s greatest achievement.  It’s a bombshell.  Great songs are everywhere and it never lets up, mostly fast and furious but with the fiercely sludgy closer “Damaged I” like a brick wall at the end of the line.

After all sorts of legal hassles surrounding the release of Damaged, and two of the band members doing a little jail time for surreptitiously releasing Everything Went Black against a court order in the unruly aftermath.  But by 1984 the band was clear of its legal troubles enough to release new records again, and they did so with no less than four full-length albums that year.  My War was the first of the new crop.  It opens with the departed (er, booted) Dukowski’s title track, a seething cauldron of paranoia and rage, followed by the driving “Can’t Decide” coupled with another Dukowski number “I Love You” plus “Forever Time” and “The Swinging Man,” providing a relatively brisk pace for the first side of the LP.  Side two just grinds to almost a halt with the achingly slooooow “Nothing Left Inside.”  What, “Damaged I” no fluke?  Hell no.  This was the new sound of Black Flag.  The second side of the album continues to ooze forward and the same crushingly slow amble.  Henry hits his stride with curdling screams.  All through the record he thrashes about and rips apart every bit of the lyrics, which are usually pretty blunt.  Yet he manages to convey that there is something deeper to what seems so simple and crude.  He does a lot with very little.  He had a lot of charisma.  Greg Ginn plays like crazy.  He’s also on bass under the alias Dale Nixon.

The “early years” crowd often points to My War as the nadir of the band.  Many can’t stand it.  Others look at it as simply flawed.  But there are also a lot of real, dedicated Black Flag fans out there (this writer included) who come to this album more than the others.  It’s got the most extreme elements of of what Black Flag had to offer all in one place.  There aren’t the funny songs, but you can listen to those too, just elsewhere!

My War can be summed up in a sentence, by RateYourMusic reviewer bnoring, “Side one slaps you, while side two drowns you.”

The fragile mix in place for My War didn’t last all that long.  It was only a few years later that the slightly older Rollins kind of withdrew from his involvement within the band’s interpersonal matrix and Ginn got distracted running the then rapidly expanding SST Records label.  It did hold together here, though, well enough.

Black Flag might be said to represent the best of what punk ever had to offer.  They were inclusive yet confrontational, they drew in influences that seemed the antithesis of what “simple” punk rock was allegedly about (hippie rock like The Grateful Dead and modern jazz).  Through sheer determination they built up a following on their own, from nothing at all.  My War was a kind of transformation that kept the brilliance of their music alive by rethinking its makeup.  Sure, there were inklings early on that Black Flag took inspiration from the likes of Black Sabbath, but the context for how that was expressed radically changed in 1984.  If Black Flag once prided themselves on playing more intricate music than typical three-chord punk, then playing at a pace so achingly slow you cannot ignore it is a new angle.  In a way, it put the concept behind the music in the forefront.  Years later, the band was more insular, not so much rethinking its purpose but trying to refine it in a reductionist sense.  They still rocked but it kind of wound down.  Glory in the wonderful, liberating and fleeting possibilities that My War presented every time you listen.  Maybe Black Flag didn’t carry the torch themselves later on.  Others did.  But what shouldn’t be forgotten is that others wouldn’t have carried it so far or with such purpose without Black Flag being there already.  Part of that was because Black Flag refused to give their fans what they expected.  That kind of willful alienation is often at the heart of something special.  This is sinister motivational music.

Black Flag – The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More!

The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More!

Black FlagThe Complete 1982 Demos Plus More! Manson 003 (1996)

When fans talk about Black Flag and long for the early years, I kind of tune out.  Don’t get me wrong, the early years produced some great music (“Nervous Breakdown,” “Jealous Again,” etc.).  But for me, Damaged and the slew of 1984 albums represented the band at its peak.  Damaged, My War and Live ’84 are my favorites, and among the best rock the 1980s had to offer, in my opinion.  The bootleg The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More! presents recordings from the time when everything went black, and legal issues prevented them from releasing any recordings (Greg Ginn tried, in fact, but ended up in jail briefly for doing so).  These are lo-fi demos, no doubt.  But there are things to like.  For instance, it helps that there are no stupid, uh, “sound effects” on “Slip It In”, but it would still sound better as an instrumental.  The tempos aren’t nearly as lethargic and sludgy as on My War, which makes this somewhat more forgettable and generic sounding.  Henry Rollins‘ singing is much less effective here than on the studio recordings that saw formal release.  So, to sum up my feelings about this, I would have to say that if you took my favorite Black Flag albums and took away many of my favorite aspects, you would end up with something like this.  To me, that’s a dumb proposition, but I’m still glad to hear more Flag so I won’t complain too loudly.

Black Flag – The Process of Weeding Out

The Process of Weeding Out

Black FlagThe Process of Weeding Out SST 037 (1985)

An EP that revolves around guitarist Greg Ginn melding hardcore punk with free jazz.  It’s an interesting concept for an album (or EP at least), though the actual results do get a bit tedious, as exemplified by the title track.  Ginn really doesn’t have the chops of a Blood Ulmer or Sonny Sharrock, and the rest of the band is by no means up to the task.  There are some good moments, particularly on “Your Last Affront” and “Southern Rise”, but they aren’t really sustained.  So, this is kind of an oddity of potential interest, but probably isn’t something that will earn lots of repeated listens even for dedicated Black Flag fans.

Ramones – Leave Home

Leave Home

RamonesLeave Home Sire SA 7528 (1977) / Rhino R2 74307 (2001)

Leave home is a weak spot in the Ramones 1970s discography.  It has “Swallow My Pride”, but lots of the songwriting is fairly weak.  The band was also still saddled with production values that didn’t quite fit.  They were being treated as a neo girl group, and no more.  The thoroughly modern pace of the music that I think could never have been appreciated in decades previous was not always being given credit.

The 2001 Rhino reissue features essentially an entire album worth of bonus tracks in the form of a 1976 concert recorded in Hollywood.  It’s the bonus tracks that eclipse the album proper.  They prove all the legends true.  Johnny really was something of a guitarist, and back in ’76 his style was fresh.  The producers on the early studio stuff just didn’t get how he played guitar, and up until the group’s masterpiece Rocket to Russia they tended to hem him in to rigid rhythms and a tone without much bite.  Live, the guitar and bass could cut loose.  Johnny could just rag on his guitar with abandon.  Guitar distortion takes control of the music.  And Johnny does it all without a single goddamn guitar solo.  However, if I had to put my finger on it I would say it’s that guitar sound that gives this live recording a subtext that the studio material was often denied.  The pulse is relentless too.  The backbeat just never gives up.  It’s one song after another, with a frenetic energy that carries everything along.  Take even the slower-tempo “Havana Affair” where they drag one riff over another to keep the song trudging along.  The band is in sync with the audience, and that translates perfectly to the recording.  Joey‘s voice cuts out on the mic occasionally, but who cares.  The songs are mostly from the first album, which is a plus, and even weaker material like “53rd & 3rd” sounds fine.  “California Sun”, the cover song that is one of only three songs from these live bonus tracks that would end up on Leave Home, is vastly superior live.  The music can breathe, with the rhythm shifting to keep the pace just right.  The music is totally in the moment.  Yet there is nothing complicated about it.  They took all the most basic elements of pop music and attacked them ferociously in a way that would never make sense put down on paper.  The Ramones are The Ramones because they made this kind of music in its rawest, purest form.  It’s loud and fast and catchy.  It’ll knock you over.  It doesn’t give you a second to second-guess any of it.  Yeah, it’s rock and roll!

Ramones – Rocket to Russia

Rocket to Russia

RamonesRocket to Russia Sire SR 6042 (1977)

Rocket to Russia was the Ramones album the group was most proud of. Maybe it was the band hitting a special groove in the studio. Maybe it was key that it was the album that hit in ’77, when the whole “punk” thing exploded. Maybe the band was pissed off at each other to just the right degree. Or maybe it’s something unspeakable. Rocket to Russia is a sleek blast of New York City. It doesn’t define the entire city (let’s be real here) but it beats as one with the city’s heartbeat. It’s one unforgettable statement that embodies why The Ramones “didn’t care” and “don’t want to” as so many of their songs proclaimed.

The Ramones were art rockers at bottom. That wasn’t a limitation in the slightest. Their willingness to admit the vileness of their lives — even when drenched in irony — was of such an honest character that made them unassailably great. They weren’t particularly vengeful but were malcontents in the sense of being unsatisfied. They did not wish ill of anyone. They instead sought to preserve individualism and healthy alternatives (that is, if sniffing glue can be considered healthy). It is entirely unsurprising that “Teenage Lobotomy” follows “We’re A Happy Family.” The Ramones declare they were casualties long ago. Yet they remain unafraid to sing about it.

The album holds the definitive version of “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” Ramones songs never had many words; a necessity almost for songs under two minutes. They still say it all. If the necessity for the punk attitude ever could be described in less than thirty words it would have to be: “But she just couldn’t stay/ She had to break away/ Well New York City really has it all/ Oh yeah, oh yeah/ Sheena is a punk rocker…now.”

“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is a great Joey Ramone song, and a surprisingly slow song for the group. It isn’t their typical wall of noise. Joey gets to showcase his thick NYC accent to the point of perversity. His lyrics are as sharp as they ever were as well. “Teenage Lobotomy” attacks intellectual inbreeding and adolescent brainwashing with the dashing posture of these efficient rebels. All the songs are great. If there is a reason that Rocket To Russia is the Ramones’ most likable album is that it captures the multifaceted talents of the band so often overlooked. It matches varied material with consistent quality.

One problem with the debut albums of both the Ramones and Blondie was the tendency to cram them into “new” girl group records and not to accept them on their own terms. Once the Ramones had some momentum, their third album Rocket to Russia was finally able to sound like an album from a punk band.  Maybe a punk band influenced by old 60s girl groups, but a band that came from a distinctly different set of circumstances.

The Ramones stripped rock ‘n’ roll to its bones: everything you needed and nothing you didn’t. The most surprising aspect of the group was how they prove rock ‘n’ roll is the sound of rebellion. The New York Dolls had the bubblegum girl group style blended with loud, dirty guitars but the Ramones were minimalists (there is an overlap between fans of composers like Phillip Glass and The Ramones). The Ramones abandoned all the excess and what was left scared a lot of people. Those in the know recognized the glory of three chords and an attitude. Even though by ’77 “rock and roll” was something you could hear on the radio even during the day, it remained something misunderstood. Having a clear vision of what rock ‘n’ roll means was what made The Ramones great. A band that was nothing but rock ‘n’ roll is rare. No one dared to do it with as much calculated indifference.

Neither during nor after The Ramones existence did they achieve that much more than cult celebrity. Whether you begin assuming The Ramones are a great band and deduce their honesty as artists or the reverse, the conclusion is the same. It’s only the simpleminded who seem unappreciative of The Ramones — the greatest irony for a band that projects a demeanor of simpleminded dropouts.

Methodman & Redman – Blackout!


Methodman & RedmanBlackout! Def Jam 314 546 609-2 (1999)

I’ve said it before, but when you do something obvious you can’t make any mistakes.  Fortunately, that’s the case on Method Man & Redman’s collaboration Blackout!  The two MCs work together well, bolstering each other.  They certainly seem like minded.  They have a lot of funny raps, kind of in the style of Cheech & Chong stoner bits, and while skits and shticks like that usually are the bane of hip-hop albums, these guys are actually funny enough to pull it off.  This breaks no new territory, at a time when lots of other hip-hop was going to totally new places, but who cares?  This duo has things to say that they can express in the old styles effectively.  They have an enthusiasm that carries this far.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Warner Bros.

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Main Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton

It took only a few minutes for this film to turn me off so completely that I stopped watching.  It gave the impression of someone who read F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby and hated every single page, and so decided to make a movie that took a completely contrary view of the “Jazz Age.”  Fitzgerald was an astute critic of the upper classes.  This movie adores the upper classes, and crams as many CGI effects (WTF!!!!) into every scene as possible.  Hip hop songs, cartoonish sets and exaggerated caricatures abound.  I keep thinking that somebody wanted to make this like the movie Moulin Rouge!  Sure enough, this is directed by Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge!  Luhrman’s craft has hardened into formula by this point.  The big scenes all have a telescoping zoom shot done in CGI, focusing on a microcosm of a larger, bustling world.  This makes it seem like there is a focus on just on corner of the world, but really the tone is that this is a representative view of the world, that one could look anywhere and find the same basic “human nature” at work.  The past is portrayed as a version of the present with different fashions — implying that the present is pre-destined.  Luhrmann is an arch conservative, so it makes sense that he would balk at a sympathetic reading of Fitzgerald’s story.  This film is an abomination and should be viewed by no one.

Bobby Darin – You’re the Reason I’m Living

You're the Reason I'm Living

Bobby DarinYou’re the Reason I’m Living Capitol ST-1866 (1963)

You’re the Reason I’m Living has Bobby Darin crooning over pop country treatments, something experiencing a cross-over surge since the prior year thanks to Ray Charles — people from the traditional pop world like Dean Martin, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé, and Darin were trying to capitalize on the fad.  Darin had already released one country single (“Things”).  Much of the time, a mid- to late-career country recording is a condescending effort to reach out to the rural slums when fickle tastes of urban elites start to pass by a once mighty star, or some equally lame reason (just a few later examples: Nashville Skyline, We Had It All, Almost Blue, Hanky Panky, Honeycomb, …).  Of course, Darin sings nicely.  He always did.  But the music behind him, especially on side two, is no more than an extremely lazy amalgamation of cliches and stereotypes.  The horn charts are all homophonic blasts of energy, without any sort of modulation, or for that matter any real purpose specific to these songs.  The strings seem to offer only one texture, pointlessly tacked on to a number of songs in a way that smacks of pure happenstance.  The vocal chorus backing (“You’re the Reason I’m Living,” “Release Me,” “Here I Am,” “Please Help Me, I’m Falling”) is also that over-used male/female mashup of Gregorian chants and barbershop quartets that soiled recordings a-plenty for many years after WWII.  On the plus side, the Hank Williams song “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” is not the bleak loner tune it usually is, but an original Icarus-like reading that portrays a dumbfounded big shot tumbling from great heights.  “It Keeps Right A-Hurtin'” has a nice soulful country walk that lets Darin sing with as much longing as possible.  There is some decent pedal steel guitar (“Now You’re Gone”), and honky tonk piano (“Be Honest With Me”) too.  Elsewhere he’s stuck awkwardly between the terrain of a country-tinged, clean-cut heartthrob like Ricky Nelson and a Vegas-style approximation of “Country & Western” music that a showtune star like Debbie Reynolds might have tried.  What really drags, though, is the way Darin starts to sing every song the same way.  After almost every line, he finishes the last word with the same brooding, sly melisma, stretching and bending the last syllable of each line for heavy-handed emphasis.  This is felt most strongly on “Who Can I Count on.”  The effect seems like a profoundly calculated and circumscribed attempt to add hints of polite, socially acceptable swagger and palpable, seductive charisma.  Unfortunately, though, it comes across at best as an overused affectation and at worst as a crippling limitation on his stylistic range. All that aside, the biggest problem with this album is that it never presents a convincing case for adding glitzy pop orchestration to country songs.  It would seem that the producers thought that was what Darin fans expected, even when he was doing a country album, so they are added in without any further deliberation.  That rationale, inasmuch as it was consciously or unconsciously used, is specious.  Darin, himself, is sort of exactly what he sets out to be: someone who doesn’t respect rigid genre boundaries.  That ends up being kind of cool and kind of creepy, actually.  His near obsession with awkward, unexpected twists and stylistic combinations is creepy!  Anyway, Darin was an interesting character, though much of what he did was sort of a journeyman version of Scott Walker‘s career.

Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Too Bright

Perfume GeniusToo Bright Matador OLE 1028-2 (2014)

Eclectic pop that moves freely from art rock in the style of Mark Hollis (“Fool”) to heavier stuff (“Queen”), plus plenty of somber yet driven ballads almost like Rufus Wainwright.  Mike Hadreas, the man behind the Perfume Genius moniker, has an adept faculty for switching styles song-to-song while sounding convincing with each of them — something of a trend of late among many different artists, like Kishi Bashi on Lighght.  Well done.

Chad VanGaalen – Shrink Dust

Shrink Dust

Chad VanGaalenShrink Dust Flemish Eye 027 (2014)

Here’s a guy that seems to have a lot of potential.  Shrink Dust has a lot of great songs that employ a lot of different textures to great effect — folk, psychedelic garage rock, alt country.  However, VanGaalen usually sings in a highly affected, “twee” warble that detracts from many of the performances.  It is really an egotistical thing.  The lyrics also come up a bit short much of the time.  Anyway, in spite of the flaws, the album is enjoyable.  From what I read elsewhere people have been saying this guy is “promising” for many years, and it may be that he’s just not ready to step outside himself, ditch the stupid style of singing or bring in a different one and start a band, and maybe work with a lyricist, and move on to the next level.  He seems to hoard the spotlight too much for that, like so many outsider type artists.  Still, there are some nice things here, and he remains a promising talent.