The question last night at South Street Seaport was how would the Black Angels respond to playing in broad daylight? Answer: as well as they always do, which means excellently. The way to experience a Black Angels show is to imagine the entire performance as a single song. The band made that easy, barely talking to the crowd, frequently segueing from one otherworldly, reverb-drenched, echoey vamp to the next. As they moved from one to another, they’d let a reverb pedal, or a repeater effect, or an organ chord ring out, blurring the line between transitions even further. Frontman Alex Maas recently went on record (in the weekly newspaper whose going-out-of-business party this show seemed to be) as being in favor of shorter, more easily digestible morsels in lieu of deliciously suspenseful, drony jams, but that didn’t stop them from delivering one long creepily swaying processional after another. Slowly, eerily, even inevitably, they brought down the sun.
Since they take their name from a Velvet Underground song, that band’s influence can definitely be felt, but they’re far from a ripoff. Adding ringing, post-Syd Barrett chords and chromatics and an ocean of overtones that built to riptide proportions and then gracefully slipped away, the majority of the set was the band’s signature blend of Banana Album psychedelic dreampop. There also was a lot of new material in the set, much of it a slower take on the warped, swampy glam/blues of 90s New York bands like the Chrome Cranks and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. What was most fascinating, and enjoyable was how subtly and artfully the band would play against a central, droning chord, trading microtones and the occasional macabre chromatic clang against the glimmering wash of sound. Maas’ reedy, Neil Young-ish voice left centerstage to the guitars, the band’s vocal harmonies adding yet another nonchalant layer of apprehension high in the sonic prism. Drummer Stephanie Bailey kept the procession going with a deceptively simple, subtly rolling groove, sometimes backing off even further and using brushes. Occasionally the sound engineer would give her snare a wicked “snap,” a potently effective move that pulled the dreamy ambience back from morass to reality.
Throughout the show, they employed a small museum’s worth of guitars: Fenders, a Rickenbacker, a twelve-string and also a couple of keyboards, band members shifting between them. Likewise, basslines became a community effort. About three-quarters of the way through the set, the band hit a dead spot. As some of the crowd thinned out, the ganja smoke thickened, and the band rewarded everyone who stayed with a two-song encore that mined the deepest pitchblende in their catalog. If their new album Phosphene Dream is anything like this, it must be amazing.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #577:
The 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
45 years later, the 1966 debut of this legendary, creepy Texas acid garage band – with an amplified jug that sounded a little like a tabla – is still the standard for pretty much every other psychedelic garage band. Setting Roky Erikson’s reverb-drenched, deadpan nasal snarl and nonstop barrage of surreal imagery against tinny, clanging riff-rock that frequently ventures into R&B and funk, it’s a trip, in every sense of the word. The iconic song here is You’re Gonna Miss Me, famously covered by Radio Birdman and a million others; the b-side, Tried to Hide, isn’t bad either. Roller Coaster introduces a macabre riff that would resurface in the Cramps; Through the Rhythm invents a new genre, apocalyptic soul music. There’s also Monkey Island, whose theme the J. Geils Band would echo ten years later, and the more ornate Kingdom of Heaven, You Don’t Know How Young You Are and Splash 1 (Now I’m Coming Home) along with the proto-punk Don’t Fall Down and Fire Engine. Here’s a random torrent.
People will be talking about this all year: one of the best doublebills of 2011, Sunday at Madison Square Park with Those Darlins and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. Both bands draw deeply on 60s sounds, yet they’re completely original and in the here and now. Both have a charisma and tightness that only comes with constant touring: they pretty much live on the road, as bands need to do these days in order to make a living.
Those Darlins opened. Frontwoman Jessi Darlin ran her Fender Jaguar through a vintage repeater box for a hypnotic Black Angels vibe on a couple of long, drawn-out psychedelic numbers. Nikki Darlin started out playing dark trebly tones on a Hofner bass and then switched to a Les Paul Jr. Kelley Darlin played sweet, vicious Telecaster leads until midway through the set, when she took over the bass, getting a fat, rich pulse on what looked like an old Vox Les Paul copy. The band’s taste in music is as purist as their instruments (not sure what drummer Linwood Regensburg was playing – his party rumble is as important to the band as their museum’s worth of guitars).
The women’s twangy three-part harmonies gave even the hardest-hitting garage rock songs a country charm. The lighthearted I Wanna Be Your Bro is a vastly cooler take on what Dar Williams tried to do with When I Was a Boy, followed by a Time Is Tight-flavored, soul-infused number sung by Kelley. Later on they brought it down with a gorgeously noirish, 6/8 ballad that Nikki thought might clear out the crowd (it didn’t). The rest of the set mixed catchy two-chord party-rock vamps with a swinging country song about eating an entire chicken, another long, trippy Black Angels-style anthem, a raw, careening cover of Shaking All Over and the best song of a long, entertaining set, a moody, minor-key janglerock tune possibly called What’re You Running From, sung by Nikki.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears had a hard act to follow, but they made it look easy: not bad for a band who had a second show to play later that night at Maxwell’s. Their albums play up their songs’ funky, purist 1960s grooves, and their potent three-part horn section, but live they give everything a raw punk fury. Lewis is a great guitarslinger in the Texas tradition of Albert Collins and Freddie King. Like Collins, he goes for a chilly, reverb-drenched tone; stylistically, the guy he resembles the most is Hendrix, but the early, noisy, unhinged Crosstown Traffic-era Hendrix. Throughout the set, his right hand was a blur, strumming up and down furiously as he fired off long, searing volleys of hammer-ons: although his chops are scary, he’s more about mood and power than he is about precision. The band is tight beyond belief. On one of the early songs, second guitarist Zach Ernst followed Lewis’ rapidfire solo by leading the band through a razor’s-edge verse of the eerie Otis Rush Chicago blues classic All Your Love.
The intensity just wouldn’t let up. One of the highest points of the afternoon was during the band’s one instrumental, where Lewis finally worked his way out of a long vamp with a relentless solo where the tenor sax player finally stepped all over it, followed in turn by the trumpet and baritone sax knocking each other out of the ring in turn. The crowd reacted energetically to Lewis’ nod to his punk influences as he blasted through a barely minute-and-a-half version of the Dead Boys’ classic What Love Is, and followed that with a funked-up cover of the Stooges’ I Got a Right. From there they wound their way through a casually jangly number that was basically an update on Smokestack Lightning, Lewis finally quoting the riff toward the end of the song. The best song of the afternoon was the fiery antiwar broadside You Been Lying, a tune that sounded like the Stooges’ I’m Sick of You without the machine-gun bassline, the bassist finally picked it up with a bunker-buster blast of sixteenth notes as it wound out. The band got two encores: “H-I-G-H,” Lewis grinned as he led the crowd through a singalong of the intro to Get High, a searing, sun-blasted punk funk song. By the time they got to Louie Louie, everybody was still there, hoping for even more. Lewis and band were scheduled to tape Letterman the following night, a rare triumph – it’s not often that network tv features bands anywhere near as good, or original, as these guys.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #602:
Knoxville Girls – In the Woodshed
Active from the late 90s through the early zeros, darkly swampy New York rockers Knoxville Girls inhabitated a stylized world of Jim Jarmusch noir Americana. With Dimestore Dance Band leader Jack Martin, former Cramp Kid Congo Powers and the Chrome Cranks’ Jerry Teel on guitars, Barry London on organ and original Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, they were the “the ultimate Lower East Side resume band” as one blog aptly billed them. As entertaining and occasionally menacing as their two studio albums are (In a Paper Suit, from 2004 is highly recommended), onstage they were an unstoppable beast. From 2000, this is their only live album, released only on vinyl and sold exclusively as tour merch. When Teel croons Warm and Tender Love, somehow it feels like just the opposite, a feeling that recurs on I Had a Dream and Charlie Feathers’ rockabilly standard Have You Ever. They take Ferlin Husky’s I Feel Better All Over to the next level, careen through the shuffling Armadillo Roadkill Blues, Kung Pow Chicken Scratch, the tongue-in-cheek One More Thing and the instrumental Sixty-Five Days Ago with an unhinged abandon that peaks in the sprawling, closing jam, Low Cut Apron/Sugar Fix. It doesn’t look like this has ever been digitized: try your local used vinyl joint. The band’s two studio albums are still available from In the Red.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #635:
Mr. Airplane Man – Moanin’
Boston duo Mr. Airplane Man started out in the late 90s as a two-woman Howlin Wolf cover band. By 2002, when they put out this one, they were one of the best garage rock bands on the planet. Guitarist Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus – who often played a Casio while drumming – beat the White Stripes to the guitar-and-drums thing by a couple of years, and were many leagues above them. Lo-fi but richly tuneful and often haunting as hell, the album opens with the punk blues Like That, the hypnotic title track and the gorgeous 60s garage-pop of Not Living At All. The shuffling Highway 61 blues Somebody’s Baby, the stomping riff-rock of Drive Me Out and the popular Jesus on the Mainline follow that. Then they do the dark, scurrying Uptight and a tensely suspenseful version of the Wolf’s Commit a Crime. The three classics here are noir rock masterpieces: the brooding Very Bad Feeling, the wickedly catchy Sun Sinking Low and the fiery, chromatic Podunk Holler, ending with the slow, meandering W*Nderin’. The whole album is streaming at deezer; here’s a random torrent via Oh Robot.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #648:
The Gun Club – The Las Vegas Story
The late Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s fondness for the blues, garage rock and doomed sensibility meshed best on this impressively eclectic 1984 album. It’s hard to imagine much of the 90s glam/punk resurgence, from Jon Spencer to the Chrome Cranks – or for that matter, Nick Cave – without this. Abetted by the Cramps’ Kid Congo Powers, they scurry through the ominous Walking with the Beast and get eerie and hypnotic with The Stranger In Our Town. The Blasters’ Dave Alvin contributes a searing solo on the wickedly catchy Eternally Is Here. Side 2 begins with a murky solo piano miniature followed by a plaintive, torchy version of Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now, followed by the stomping Bad America, Moonlight Motel (a throwback to the swampy garage punk of the band’s first two albums) and the big anthem Give Up the Sun. The only miss here is a Blondie ripoff so blatant it’s funny. True to the doom and gloom of his lyrics, Pierce drank and drugged himself to death in 1996 at 37. Here’s a random torrent courtesy of c60lownoise.
The more you find out about French rockers La Femme, the more you like them. Their bandcamp page – where their strangely stylish, noir surf/garage rock ep Podium #1 is selling for four bucks – is tagged “80 french lo-fi surf tropical wave Paris.” The cd cover – a nude woman on her back, flashing the camera – is blacked out “because it got censured.” And they sound like an updated teens edition of Plastic Bertrand through a pitchblende prism. In places, it’s hard to tell whether one particular twangy riff or reverberating chord is a guitar running through a reverb tank, or some impossibly weird patch on some long out-of-production analog synthesizer from the 70s. And everything here is ridiculously psychedelic: although the band has been described as lo-fi, the opposite is true: they make a good segue with similarly swirling, trippily cinematic projects like Thunderball or Comic Wow.
The first song motors along with an eerie minor key blues progression done garage rock style: a woman sings. The second cut is basically a hypnotic, ominous two-chord vamp titled Telegraphe, kicking off with just synth and drum machine and turning creepy real fast, all the way to a suspenseful snakecharmer flute interlude. La Femme Ressort plays minimal noir bass against a darkly repeating guitar figure and builds sarcastically to a tradeoff between swoopy upper-register synth and what sounds like an electric harpsichord. If this reminds you of Manfred Hubler’s immortal Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack, you’re on the right track. The ep winds up with Francoise, somewhat evocative of the more menacing, goth-tinged stuff that Blonde Redhead did back in the 90s: off-center, wobbly pitch-bending intro, muffled bass carrying the melody, a Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds-ish bridge that turns cruelly silly and sarcastic. Lyrics mostly in French: a deliciously ominous way to get the new year started.
Thursday night was Hipster Demolition Night at Public Assembly. Last time we caught one of these, it was at Glasslands in the dead of summer, 120 degrees inside the club on a night where four excellent bands met the challenge head on but we didn’t. We left in the middle of a literally scorching set by Muck and the Mires, which pretty much speaks for itself. Since then, Hipster Demolition Night has moved to Public Assembly, whose larger back room is an improvement on every conceivable level. The Demands opened this show. They’re what the White Stripes ought to wish they were. The three-piece band’s frontwoman plays simple, catchy bass riffs that lock tight with the garage-rock drumbeat. Much of the time their guitarist would punch out chords on the beat but there were also a lot of places where he’d go out on a limb and explore, adding an unexpectedly psychedelic element. The operative question was whether he was going to go out too far and fall off – nope. Even with those diversions, they kept it tight, and with the vocals’ sarcastic, playfully confrontational edge, it was a fun set.
Jay Banerjee & the Heartthrobs were next. Between songs, Banerjee chugged from a Cloraseptic bottle and complained about his health. But whatever was in there – hey, cold medicine works fine for L’il Wayne – gave him a noticeable boost. Meanwhile, Vinnie, the drummer was bleeding all over his kit. If that isn’t rock and roll, then Williamsburg is cool. And just when we had them pegged as a band who write songs for guys, they get a woman to play 12-string lead guitar. She’s brilliant. She ended one of the songs with a casually stinging charge down the scale that evoked nothing less than 12-string titan Marty Willson-Piper of the Church. They opened with a blistering version of the deliciously catchy Long Way Home, an amusingly brutal account of a gentrifier girl being brought down to reality: OMG, she might actually have to get a job to pay the rent on her newly renovated $5000-a-month Bushwick loft! With a snort or two, Banerjee and the band did her justice. Maybe desperate to get the show over with, they ripped through the rest of the set: a Byrdsy janglerock song with cynical la-la’s, a guy assuring his girlfriend that he’ll stick around “because I’m too lazy to look for someone else,” a couple with an ecstatic early Beatles feel, another fueled by a catchy, melodic bassline that sounded like the Jam without the distortion and finally an equally ecstatic cover of I Can’t Stand up for Falling Down, reinventing it as a powerpop smash in the same way that Elvis Costello reinvented What’s So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding. If Banerjee was really feeling as miserable as he insisted he was, no one would have known if he hadn’t mentioned it.
Garage rockers Whooping Crane were scheduled to headline afterward, but there were places to go (the train) and things to do (kill self-absorbed, nerdy boys in skinny jeans standing in the middle of the sidewalk and texting – just kidding). Hipster Demolition Night returns to Public Assembly next month, watch this space.
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.