As we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #614:
Live Skull – Snuffer
The best New York band of the 80s wasn’t Sonic Youth. It was Live Skull. They shared a producer, Martin Bisi, whose ears for the most delicious sonics in a guitar’s high midrange did far more to refine both bands’ sound than he ever got credit for. As noisy as this band was, they also had an ear for hooks: noise-rock has never been more listenable. By the time they recorded this one, guitarists Tom Paine and Mark C., fretless bassist Marnie Greenholz and drummer Rich Hutchins had brought in future Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek, but on vocals rather than guitar. It’s a ferociously abrasive yet surprisingly catchy six-song suite of sorts, Zedek’s assaultive rants mostly buried beneath the volcanic swirl of the guitars and the pummeling rhythm section. By the time they get to Step, the first song of side two, they’ve hit a groove that winds up with furious majesty on the final cut, Straw. Like Sonic Youth, their lyrics are neither-here-nor-there; unlike that band, they had the good sense to bury them in the mix most of the time. Very influential in their time, it’s hard to imagine Yo La Tengo and many others without them. Here’s a random torrent via Rare Punk.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #784:
Come – Gently Down the Stream
One of the small handful of truly great indie rock bands from the 90s, Come’s two-guitar frontline of Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw were that era’s Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, combining for a ferocious, intuitive maelstrom of growling, roaring, reverb-drenched, evilly smoldering noise. This is their last album, from 1999, and it’s their best. The songs are longer, more ornate and complex, foreshadowing the art-rock direction Zedek would take in the years following the demise of the band. There’s no other group that sound remotely like them: while Zedek would borrow a little of the noiserock she’d been drenched in as frontwoman of legendary New York rockers Live Skull in the late 80s, ultimately she’s more of a Stonesy rock purist. Brokaw invents new elements with his trademark leads, expertly negotiating an underworldly labyrinth of passing tones. The album opens with the epic One Piece, continues in that vein with Recidivist before going more punk with the slightly shorter Stomp and then eventually the loudest track here, the screaming, riff-rocking Saints Around My Neck. The most magnificent track is the kiss-off anthem New Coat, another scorching dirge. After the band broke up, Brokaw would go on to even greater heights as the lead guitarist in the original incarnation of Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three as well as a noteworthy career as a solo act as well as with first-class indie songwriter Jennifer O’Connor. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #867:
The Chrome Cranks – Live in Exile
The Chrome Cranks were New York’s best band for most of the 1990s before imploding late in the decade. Combining the assaultive, combative riff-driven charisma of the Stooges with the paint-peeling, feedback-riddled, blues-warped guitar of frontman Peter Aaron and lead player William G. Weber and propelled by the potent rhythm section of former Honeymoon Killer Jerry Teel on bass and ex-Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, their studio albums blew away the rest of the Lower East Side glampunk crowd but never quite captured the raw unhinged menace of their live shows. But this does. Recorded at the end of 1996 in Holland at the end of a European tour, the band are at the peak of their power. Much as most of their songs are about facing down the end with a sneer, a smirk, a snort or something, this one really has the air of desperation: they knew this wouldn’t last, but they wanted to capture it for those who came after. They open the show with their gleefully ugly signature cover, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean and after that, the song titles pretty much say it all. Lost Time Blues; Wrong Number; Dead Man’s Suit; We’re Going Down. Their practically nine-minute version of Pusherman surpasses even the Live Skull version for out-of-focus, fatalistic fury; the last of the encores is the self-explanatory Burn Baby Burn. Reinvigorated and apparently free of the demons that plagued them the first time around, the Cranks reunited in 2008 with a mighty series of shows in New York and Europe, with the promise of a new album sometime in the future.
Tons and tons and tons of reviews and a brand-new NYC live music calendar for September coming in the next 24 hours. In the meantime, every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #883:
Polvo – Today’s Active Lifestyles
One of the most ugly/beautiful albums ever made. This 1993 full-length gets the nod over the rest of the Chapel Hill band’s output simply because there are more songs on it. Polvo literally never made a bad album: everything they did is worth owning. If you like noise, of course. The pitchfork/stereogum crowd (actually, it was CMJ back then) never got them, mischaracterizing them as math-rock when what they were really doing is taking peak-era Sonic Youth-style paint-peeling guitar noise to its logical extreme. For epic extremes, this one is bookended by the woozy, tone-bending Thermal Treasure and Gemini Cusp. There’s also the warped slide guitar of Lazy Comet; the swinging, chorus box-driven anarchy of Sure Shot; the Live Skull-ish fragment Tilebreaker; the fractured soul song Time Isn’t on My Side and the hypnotic, seven-minute Stinger, which nicks a memorable Sonic Youth riff. The band regrouped in 2009 and toured for a new cd, In Prism, which showed them mining a newly melodic but still deliciously assaultive sensibility. Long may they scream and thrash. Here’s a random torrent.
Martin Bisi’s indie cred is without question: his resume as a producer includes the Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and Black Fortress of Opium, to name just a few of the best. Yet his greatest achievements have been not behind the board but as a songwriter and bandleader. This download-only ep (it’s up at itunes and Contraphonic’s very easily negotiable site) impressively captures the freewheeling noir intensity, out-of-the-box imagination and counterintuitivity that come out so strongly at his live shows. The album features welcome contributions from a like-minded cast of characters, Bisi’s old 80s pal Bill Laswell as well as members of the Dresden Dolls, Balkan Beat Box, World Inferno and drummer Bob D’amico of the Fiery Furnaces.
The opening cut Drink Your Wine is basically punk Motown in the same vein as the Clash’s Hitsville UK with layers of the guy/girl vocals that have come to typify Bisi’s recent work along with a characteristically sardonic lyrical sensibility: “Drink your wine and don’t be silly,” Bisi admonishes: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Building from a dusky noir intro, disembodied vocals rising over bass chords, Rise Up Cowboy explodes into a pounding art-rock anthem laden with dynamic shifts, layers of evil psychedelic guitar glimmering in the background, Bisi doing an impressive job as Peter Murphy-style frontman. The Damned only wish they could have sounded this apprehensive and ominous.
Mile High – Formaldehyde blends early 90s style Lower East Side noir blues with careening Firewater/Botanica style gypsy punk, propelled by the Dresden Doll’s Brian Viglione on drums. Its companion track Mile High – Apple of My Eye, with Laswell on bass, is a study in contrast, sultry and pulsing, something akin to New Order as done by early Ministry. It’s a vividly sisterly approximation of the previous cut’s menace, which is particularly appropriate in that it was inspired by Bisi’s daughter. With its clever layers of vocals, the final cut, the title track recalls the off-the-rails psychedelic eeriness of Bisi’s previous album Sirens of the Apocalyse (very favorably reviewed here). Essential listening for fans of dark imaginative rock: Bisi has several midwest and New England live dates coming up. You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year – not bad for a little five-song ep.
Concert Review: Kerry Kennedy, Alina Simone, Martin Bisi and King’s Crescent at Spikehill, Brooklyn NY 6/14/09
Word on the street is that other than this show and the Smog AKA Bill Callahan/Sir Richard Bishop bill at the former Northsix, the just-completed Northside Festival was a wash. No surprise – only cops like badges. Sunday night at Spikehill was the best of the bunch, not much of a surprise since it was put together by Martin Bisi. Kerry Kennedy was given the choice of opening or headlining, and considering that this was a work night, she chose wisely. In her first-ever solo performance, the noir chanteuse with her 1961 Fender Jazzmaster treated the assembling multitudes to a richly auspicious, all-too-brief set of songs from her forthcoming album with her band. Over melodies steeped in Americana, whether the gothic side of Nashville or further west, she delivered her ominous double and triple entendres in a voice considerably older than she is. It’s an extraordinarily haunting vehicle for her songs, worn with disappointment and regret, understated yet inextinguishably passionate. When she did Wishing Well – which is on her myspace – and went up the scale with “How long into the night will you wait for me?” the effect was viscerally chilling. She ended with a casually menacing ballad, Dive. “Now go and be faithful to your new tragic whore/I’ll see that your grave is kept clean in my yard,” she sang, just this short of a hiss. Kennedy is someone worth discovering now: she could be for New York what Neko Case was for Tacoma.
Alina Simone had a hard act to follow and to her credit, she held up her end. Her shtick is covering songs by Russian cult artist Yanka Dyagileva, the gloomy, defiant Russian underground songwriter who drowned at age 24 under mysterious circumstances and whose collected works were only just released in Russia last year. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by Bisi’s bassist on lead guitar, she sang several of these in the original Russian, including the anthemic dirges From Great Knowledge and Half My Kingdom along with some slightly less ominous originals with a strong Cat Power influence. Toward the end of the set, she switched to tar (a thin-bodied lute popular in Turkey and the Caucasus) and let loose with an impressive, full-bodied wail.
With a five-piece band behind him- including Ajda from the haunting Black Fortress of Opium on harmonies and a keyboardist in hazmat suit, mask and baseball hat - Martin Bisi’s first song went on for about fifteen minutes. For those unfamiliar with Bisi’s songs, they were the last thing anyone would ever expect from the terse, purist craftsman producer and indie legend who sculpted Sonic Youth and Live Skull out of no wave anomie into tight guitar bands. What he did last night was something akin to what early Pink Floyd was like in concert, but better. Laying down one eerily spiraling guitar loop after another from his black Gibson SG, keyboards swirling behind him, Bisi launched into a completely psychedelic groove which then morphed into a country anthem, a cacaphonic forest of pitch-bending, a darkly carnivalesque section and then an intensely melodic art-rock anthem set ablaze with some fiercely Gilmouresque slide work by the lead guitarist. In sharp contrast, Bisi’s second number, a snide tale “about being stuck in the city and drinking the wine of…dejection,” flashed by seemingly almost before it was done.
A sea chantey-inflected art-rock number illustrating the Persephone myth and a gorgeous, classically tinged dirge brought back the lush feel of the set’s opening number. They closed with a long, Lou Reed-ish anthem that began with a hypnotic series of guitar loops. Bisi goes off on tour tomorrow, with a cast of characters that vary from city to city (considering the depth of his rolodex after all these years, the crew should be choice). And he’s got a new album out – watch this space.
Anything afterward was bound to be anticlimactic – but it wasn’t, as King’s Crescent – including two members of Fiery Furnaces on drums and organ – flipped the script and played a joyous, virtuosic, completely in-the-pocket set of vintage Meters covers. The act after them, Susu, flipped the script again with some intriguing, minimalistic, reverb-infused shoegaze tunes, but by then it was midnight and time to concede to the week ahead.