MC5 “Back in the USA” released 50 years ago today, January 15th, 1970. Back in the USA is MC5′s first studio album release, following their live record Kick Out the Jams from 1969. I love the cover: gritty, sweaty 70′s boozed-up dirtballs who looked like they just crawled out of their tour van after 3 weeks with no showers. It was a commercial flop at the time of its release, but in retrospect has been hailed as among the top 500 albums of all-time and helped to usher in punk a bit later in the 70′s.
Back in the USA has two classic rock-n-roll covers: Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and the title track, Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.” The rest of the album is MC5 stripped-down originals, including a lovely ballad (“Let Me Try”) and hard rocking tracks with insane guitar (“Looking at You”). Always a highly political band, MC5 included plenty of social commentary on late 60′s/early 70′s youth (“High School” “Teenage Lust”) and anti-Vietnam War songs that ‘condemn a system which eats its young, filling their heads with lies before sending them off to war’ (“The American Ruse”) (Allmusic’s Jason Ankeny).
Wolfmanhattan Project “Blue Gene Stew” 2019. In The Red Records. No wave garage-noise rock by the alt-super-group that includes Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Chrome Cranks, Jon Spencer’s Hit Makers) on drums, Mick Collins (Dories, Dirtbombs) on guitar and vocals, and Kid Congo Powers aka Brian Tristan (The Gun Club, Knoxville Girls) also on guitar and vocals. Lo-fi, swampy and often catchy as hell, Bob Bert smashes the shit out the rhythm section (his preferred drumsticks? Hammers!) and the guitars are garage-jangly mixed with hard power chords. Long-time Bert collaborator Lydia Lunch even makes a guest appearance on the track “Jar in the Staircase.” My top tracks include the garage-blues ass-shaker “Smells Like You” which Wolfmanhattan Project released as a single in 2015, and “Now Now Now” plus “Silver Sun” (both totally danceable, too). There’s some weird shit on the album as well, like the VERY no-wave track “Toynbee Tile Blues” which is long and filled with lots of crazy beat, spacey noise, distorted “vocals” (spoken word, mostly name-checking various cities, planets and Stanley Kubrick).
Last week I got a copy of Bob Bert’s kinda-autobiography I’m Just the Drummer, sent and signed to me by Bert himself. It’s a delightful read, a little bit about the man: his background, musical influences and collaborations, and art – one of his works is featured as Blue Gene Stew’scover – but mostly it’s short interviews and photographs of the multitude of other artists he’s worked with over the years. Some of those interviews are pulled from Bert’s zine BB Gun from the early 2000′s.
The Black Keys “Let’s Rock” 2019. Nonesuch Records, limited edition blue vinyl. Let’s Rock is The Black Keys’ 9th studio LP, which debuted at its peak chart positions of #4 in the US and #3 in the UK. They released it after a five-year hiatus and wrote it mostly in-studio; the title and cover art inspired by last words of a Tennessee convict executed by electric chair in 2018, as well as an “homage to the electric guitar” (Patrick Carney). And also because it’s a rock-n-roll record, blues-inspired for sure – waaayyyy less lo-fi than their early work – even though Dan Auerbach says, “We’re not rock’n’roll guys. We fucking hate rock’n’roll guys. We always have. The idea of pyrotechnics on stage and lasers is always so goofy.” We saw The Black Keys perform this past weekend at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee and they indeed did not have pyrotechnics or lasers, but did have some pretty great lighting and a giant electric chair replica from the LP’s cover behind them at one point. I was also pleasantly impressed with the Fiserv, a really new venue in Milwaukee (this was our first time seeing a concert there as we generally avoid big shows). In the past when I saw concerts at the now-demolished Bradley Center (which the Fiserv replaced), the sound was horrible. All concrete and echoes – just imagine seeing the last show I remember going to there: Neil Young with Social Distortion and Sonic Youth. The bands were great but the sound was fucking horrible.
Anyway, it was a great show, the duo’s sound beefed up by three backing musicians. They played several songs from Let’s Rock including a few of my favorites: the singles “Lo/Hi” (which went to the top of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock, Adult Alternative Songs, Rock Airplay, and Alternative Songs charts simultaneously, making it the first song ever to do so), “Eagle Birds” and my top-pick, “Go” which is a great summer anthem with a hilarious video (see below). I also really love “Shine a Little Light,” the album’s opener, and “Under the Gun.” I don’t love the whole LP though: “Walk Across the Water,” “Sit Around and Miss You” (though the video is damn funny, a parody of the commercial that aired incessantly in the 80′s for “Freedom Rock”) and “Breaking Down” are all a little too 60′s/70′s smooth California blues-rock for my taste. Though, weirdly, I really like “Tell Me Lies,” which has a similar sound as those last two (kinda Eagles-ish with a dash of Steve Miller Band) but it’s got such a great hook that I’m overlooking it. Honestly it’s taken me awhile to really warm to Let’s Rock: The Raconteurs Help Us Stranger was released about a week before Let’s Rock and there’s that (untrue??) rivalry between Jack White/The White Stripes and Dan Auerbach/The Black Keys that makes comparisons virtually impossible to avoid – and I really really love Help Us Stranger. So when I had the choice of which to listen to on repeat, The Raconteurs inevitably have won out – but I’m making more of an effort now.
The Raconteurs “Help Us Stranger” 2019. Third Man Records. Limited edition green/black/copper swirled vinyl, part of Third Man’s Vault Package, #40. Help Us Stranger is The Raconteurs third album and it debuted #1 on the US album chart in June when it was released, only to dive to #45 the following week. That dramatic drop is too bad and unwarranted because it’s a really really great album. I’ve found myself listening to it frequently since it came out, proving my thesis that Jack White is a genius but only truly palatable when he’s collaborating with other musicians that enhance and rein in that genius. He and Brendan Benson have written some really good and even addictive alt-pop tracks. My favorites come in a 1-2-3-4 punch at the start of the record. Track 1, “Bored and Dazed” starts off with a Grateful Dead-ish riff that quickly morphs into a big early 70′s scuzz-rock/Midwest protopunk ripper, punctuated with the line “Well I’m Detroit bored and razed.” “Help Me Stranger” is ridiculously catchy and I think maybe my favorite of favorites but there’s a lot of competition for that with the sadly beautiful “Only Child.” “Don’t Bother Me” is dense and loud, reminding me of some of White’s work on some of the later White Stripes stuff as well as his mostly decent solo material on Blunderbuss and Lazaretto with the prominent garage-style organ. On Side B The Raconteurs’ cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” is a great update to the original, punching up the Bo Diddley beat and adding in screaming guitar. I also like the head-banging “Sunday Driver” which I heard earlier in the year when Third Man included the 7″ as part of Vault Package #38; that song is a great partner to “Bored and Razed” for that hard-edged 70′s Detroit sound but adds in elements of 60′s psychedelia. The Vault Package also came with an early demo 7″ of “Help Me Stranger” and “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” but I haven’t listened to it yet. Also included is a Patrick Keeler-designed Raconteurs bandana and a turntable slipmat.
Death Valley Girls “Darkness Rains” 2018. Limited edition yellow with red splatter, Suicide Squeeze Records. We picked up what I believe is DVG’s third LP this past weekend at Romanus Records Fest in Indianapolis where they headlined the jam-packed (15 bands!) evening lineup. Hard driving, punkish garage rock with nods to the darkness of goth and touches of neo-psychedelia via organ and lead guitarist Larry Schemel (who on stage was kinda relegated to the background, allowing the Girls to shine up front, mostly with huge smiles on their faces during the entire set).
We were able to grab the set-list, excellently illustrated:
DVG played several tracks from Darkness Rains, many of them my favorite on the album. They led off with “Abre Camino,” an intensely dark and throbbing scorcher that is the first track on Side B. From Darkness Rains also is the high octane rocker “Street Justice,” the hypnotic “More Dead,” “Disaster (Is What We’re After)” which features Iggy Pop eating a hamburger while jamming out to the song’s beat in its video (spoiler: he clearly loves ketchup), and my top track, “Wear Black” upon which lead singer, guitarist and keyboardist Bonnie Bloomgarden pulls out some amazing psychedelic organ.
The Stooges “The Stooges” released 50 years ago today, August 5th, 1969. The Stooges’ debut album is, in retrospect, one of the best and most important records released during its era. At the time of its release it was criticized as dumb (well, yes, it is: the lyrics to “No Fun” and “Real Cool Time” should wipe away any doubt about that), musically simple (“stripped-down” is the polite term I think), brutally loud (nothing wrong with that) but it helped usher in punk a few years later as a widespread musical and cultural movement. The Stooges sold moderately well, hitting #106 on the US charts, with two released singles: “1969” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” I don’t think either charted but the former has been recognized as one of the greatest guitar songs ever and the latter is one of my personal all-time favorite tracks and many mainstream music publications agree, listing it as one of the best rock songs ever made – iy id certainly the best non-holiday song to feature sleigh bells (played by John Cale, who also plays viola on the epic dirge “We Will Fall” and mixed the first iteration of the album but Elektra rejected his mix and Iggy Pop and Elektra exec Jac Holzman mixed the final release).
The Raconteurs “Now That You’re Gone” and “Sunday Driver” 2018. Today, July 9th, is Raconteurs/White Stripes/Dead Weather/solo artist Jack White’s birthday (b. John Gillis, 1975). This double A-side single on copper foil vinyl was part of last year’s Third Man Vault package #38, a reissue of The Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely for its 10th anniversary. Both tracks appear on their newest album, Help Us Stranger, which came out last month (and I received as a Third Man Vault package but haven’t gotten around to giving it a serious listen yet. Both songs are pretty good (much better than White’s last solo release, Boarding House Reach from 2018) but I prefer the harder rocking “Sunday Driver” to the more mellow, bluesy “Now That You’re Gone.” The guitar work on both is pretty excellent (I assume that’s White playing) and the tracks are pretty straight-forward and melodic, with “Sunday Driver” adding in an element of head-banging and ass-shaking. In my opinion, when Jack White collaborates (whether it’s with Brenden Benson, Meg White or Allison Mosshart) he’s in his best form and some of his wackier whims are tempered.
Kinks “Kinks Greatest Hits” 1971. Today, June 21st, is Kinks’ founder, frontman, primary songwriter and rhythm guitarist (Sir) Ray Davies’ 75th birthday (b. 1944). The “godfather of Britpop” was knighted in 2017 and has received countless awards and accolades over the years for his songwriting and contribution to the rock canon: garage, rock, pop, psychedelia and even punk. This Canadian issued comp (on Marble Arch Records) has the best of the best of the early Kinks catalog. Side One starts off with the excellent 60′s pop classic “A Well Respected Man” (on the EP Kweyt Kinks in the UK, on the LP Kinkdom in the US) followed by the garage classic “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” (1965 The Kink Kontroversy), “Till The End of the Day” (also on The Kink Kontroversy, #8 UK, #50 US single charts), “Set Me Free” (1964 single, #9 UK, #23 US) and one of my favorites, the low-key garage-crunchy “Tired of Waiting For You” (1965 Kinda Kinks, #1 UK, #6 US single charts). Side B begins with one of the best-known and timeless Kinks hits “All Day and All of the Night” (1964, #2 UK, #7 US, appears on the US released Kinks-Size LP) that pretty much set the bar for garage rock. Then comes “I Gotta Move” (1965) the controversial, enduring and endearing “Lola” (1970, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneyground, #2 UK, #9 US single charts), the sole Dave Davies-penned track on this comp: folky-twanged “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along” (1965 EP Kweyt Kinks) and ends with another Kinks biggie “You Really Got Me” (1964, #1 UK, #7 US) which inspired generations of hard power chord rockers. That track is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and listed on multiple best-of lists for best guitar tracks and best songs of all-time.