Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews & Musings by Mary Leary

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BORN TO R O C K  ‘ N ’ R O L L

See More on The Bare Wires below (pic by Daniel Hilsinger)

There's more on The Bare Wires below (pic by Daniel Hilsinger)

Free – Free Forever (Eagle Rock) * Thee Oh Sees – Help (In The Red)  Golden Triangle – Double Jointer (Hardly Art) * Thee Oh Sees, So Cow, The Bare Wires & The Baths – Bar Pink Elephant, March 12, 2010

As readers may have noticed, I prioritize creativity and talent over genres, trends, artists’ ages, and other people’s assessments of hipness (even the April issue of the generally level-headed Vanity Fair includes a knee-jerk equation; i.e.: youthful musicians = cool; older = ov-er). Considering the latter example, there may be some irony that in achieving my goal of focusing on off-the-chart output I often spotlight work that’s at least one generation back. Then I’ll bring in the most interesting and/or effective contemporary artist from my to-review list.

Thanks to Brian Kelly, an Irish barn-burner who calls his output So Cow, this time I won’t be straining for ways to jump up and down about a current outfit that’s managed to squeeze a few drops of  life from usually well-worn genres – in fact, I’m so excited about some new music, it’s hard to sit still. Also exciting is the as-of March 23 domestic availability of footage from an oft-undervalued, influential hard rockin’ blues unit from the early ‘70s: Free.

While diehards may have already experienced some of Free Forever via import or VHS, it’s a beautiful package, with a poster-sized/styled insert and a colorful day glo sleeve. The two-disc set amasses all available live and promo film, along with recent interviews, a sweet video tribute to guitarist Paul Kossoff (who died a few years after Free’s dissolution, at 25), and a couple of odd videos from bassist Andy Fraser. Particularly riveting are two previously unavailable Isle of Wight performances (“Mr. Big” and “Be My Friend” – “All Right Now” is included in the film of that ’69 concert). First time I saw Message To Love: The Isle of Wight Festival, with a roster including The Who and Hendrix, Free’s was one of the segments for which I sat up straight.

I might capsulize Free by saying it emerged from Britain’s blues-purist school — and was born to rock. For instance, one of my favorites, “Songs of Yesterday” is driven by hairpin-turn, to-the-point performing from all four (and as an intuitively connective unit). This highly economical playing  erupts into passionate explosions, then contracts without losing any technical and expressive ability. By most of the the Free Forever performances, the band  had gotten tired of relentless, under-applauded tour stops, had endeavored to write a hit – “All Right Now” – which was, and was reveling in bigger audiences, more attention and money.

For me, Free + “live” = hypnotic.  Despite the strangely lifeless audience (Reason #1: They were Luded out? #2: They’d been told to keep still? #3: Free’s overt lasciviousness seemed embarassingly un-British?) at hand for the Granada TV segment, Free was on fire with “Ride My Pony,” “Mr. Big,” “All Right Now,” “I’ll Be Creepin,” and “Songs of Yesterday.” Andy Fraser’s walking/talking bass lines are creative jaw-droppers, as is Kossoff’s spectrum of guitar tones, pristine, single-note solos, and lyrical, rockin’ explosions (after the band opened for Blind Faith, Clapton asked him for a vibrato lesson). And I think it’s safe to say that no one could rock a pair of desert boots and skinnies like Free-era Paul Rodgers, whose singing is so powerfully nuanced he’s been called “The Voice” – no argument here!

Free Forever also affords audio-only space to Free’s other Isle of Wight songs, including “The Hunter,” “Fire and Water,” and “Crossroads.” The promo videos include a rather uncharacteristic, ingratiating soulful Pop composition that could have come from Todd Rundgren or Al Kooper, “My Brother Jake.”

A couple of weeks ago I got wind that some things amazing were blazing into my neighborhood. My last-minute request to see So Cow at Bar Pink was promptly answered by Brian Kelly’s “Will do,no bother!, which took me to one of the best shows I’ve experienced in years, by So Cow and three ‘Frisco-based bands sharpening their axes on the way to SXSW.

The somewhat nervous openers were the six long legs comprising The Bare Wires. Matthew Melton’s newish rhythmists helped him whip his catchy melodies into what I’ll join the Label-The-Band Game by calling a furiously Power Punk state (other labels have included “Smooth Punk” and “Soft Punk”). Wires brings streamlined oomph to the Garage/Power Punk blend, at best coming off like the neglected grand-offspring of an unlikely Who/Jam coupling. (A different drummer than the one in this video was at Bar Pink.)

After a very un-diva-ish pause, So Cow mounted the stage. If I wanted to Mr.- Spock this review it could devolve into a three-piece comparison. That would miss the apples-and-oranges divergences between Bare Wires’s Power Punk and So Cow’s melody-waltzes-with-dissonance explosions. This stuff eludes categories – and from this long-time music reviewer and deejay that’s saying a lot (almost everything I hear reminds me of something, or I can pinpoint influences).

The performance was like seeing a bunch of flares being sent up as much as hearing a series of tunes. Kelly digs into each like a teen with his first lay; full of joy that I suspect comes from having been So Cow sans band mates for several years. Now that he can bring the s-h-i-t to this Rock (especially with a crack rhythm team sporting brilliant drummer Aaron Thomas Skufca), the chaotic joy he sweats out is contagious. When I told him that some of his songs remind me of Teenage Fanclub (and the Replacements, which I didn’t say at the time) he was genuinely surprised and pleased. I might have added that it’s also a bit like Teenage Fanclub with Jad Fair, but that would be somehow redundant, although a Replacements/Fair mating wouldn’t.

From So Cow’s recent SXSW junket, here’s a favorite from the first, Pastel Music release:

There’s a longer pause to set up The Baths’ four pieces. The bar’s crowded up, partly with dive-hoppers trying to catch both Thee Oh Sees and No Bunny, which is a mile or so away at The Tower. Not having heard much of the band before or since, I can only hazard a guess that this wasn’t one of The Baths’ stronger nights – there were early problems with pitch and/or tuning, and it didn’t feel like things were gelling. But about three songs in, the band clarified its connection with frequent bill sharers Thee Oh Sees by grooving into a sinuous, incantatory medium tempo at times recalling T.Rex and brought to a froth by Jeremy Cox’s buzzing guitar wheezings (Electric Prunes; Status Quo circa “Technicolor Dreams”).

Let’s just say that really fierce rock ‘n’ roll is a substance. In that case, we’d already gotten a good helping from Bare Wires and So Cow, with the Baths providing a nice palate refresher. All of which only slightly prepared me for the mania with which Thee Oh Sees attacked, ravished and fed, then created a line of living love dummies from some of Rock’s most essential elements: The bass/drum rumble of the Yardbirds (“Go Meet the Seed”), the ecstatic energy of the Who, The Small Faces, and a slew of messier Garage rockers (“Meat Step Lively”), and the portentous dynamics of Wire ( the anthemic “Enemy Destructs,” possibly the best Rock song of 2009; and “Peanut Butter Oven”). (All of these are on the last album, Help). To this embarrassment of riches they add intermittent, Mersey-era guitar jangle (“A Flag in the Court,” which includes the unusual refrain, “Oh, trainer – lay your lash down on me”.) These and others that kept the crowd screaming and moshing were thrown down with the on-the-edge, near-chaos of Pere Ubu circa “Non-alignment Pact” and the Bryan Gregory-era Cramps.

I’m… not… exaggerating. Someone who doesn’t get all fired-up about this sort of thing might just say, “This was the most rocking show I’ve seen since I last caught Throw Rag, and, before that, Link Wray’s late-‘90s Casbah appearance.”

If you’ve been underwhelmed by previous projects from John Dwyer (the manic wizard who sings, squeaks, flips knobs and slams guitar chords), know that these were building focus and momentum for one of the best contemporary Rock bands in the world. Petey Dammit’s guitar vacillates between driving the melody, being a metronome and a baritone rumble: The guy’s a phenomenon. Also essential is co-vox/tambourine-smacker Brigid Dawson, who anchors the whole along with Mike Shoun’s dead-on drumming. The next album’s Warm Slime – does it get any better?

While the Brooklyn-based Golden Triangle is in the unenviable position of following Thee Oh Sees, they’re probably one of the few bands that could stand the pressure. Pics and footage from Triangle shows come across as, in no particular order: The beginning of an orgy, a Wiccan gathering, an out-of-control, audience-participation performance art installation, and, well… a Punk Rock show. Does Double Jointer come anywhere near all that wild energy? Uh… yeah. In fact, it has me at opener “Cinco de Mayo,” a paint-splatter of seminal Garage mayhem. I’m still with it through “Blood and Arrow,” with its repetitive Grade-B horror refrain, and “Neon Noose,” which are both driven by the slight dissonance of John Doe/Exene-style harmonies, with the Slits occasionally in phantom evidence. Unlike hordes of ‘60s and/or vintage Punk-riffing groups around, GT just IS the energy. “I Want to Know” feels like Question Mark & the Mysterians, the Cramps and Yardbirds were tossed into a blender. The distant, slightly tinny mix aids the sensation of writhing in a cavernous basement after downing more than a few brews, especially to closer “Arson Wells,” a workout that functions on DJ as “Tobacco Road” did for the Blues Magoos.

Honestly, the resurfacing of great Rock ‘n’ Roll (the last thing any of this tends to be labeled by my fellow fans and pundits) is wonderful. While it can be a stretch to feel sorry for kids (Geez, don’t they already have the world on a string?), I can, especially when it comes to those who were born to rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t even want to imagine how it would feel to come of age in a world where sex = a lot of forethought and/or AIDS, there are tons of other degenerative diseases, and the environment and economy are in their challenged states. It’s also depressing that a bunch of New Wave groundbreakers have already, often prematurely, passed, and can no longer be experienced. Post- and post-post-punks have gotten older, fatter and/or are just busy doing the right thing by their children.

When I consider how rockers under 25 or 30 have often found it hard to escape into contemporary backbeats, I’m surprised more haven’t committed suicide. Now it turns out the smart ones have been forming bands –  okay, I’m biased. And actually it’s not as sudden as it sounds, it’s just that I was away from  a lot of new music, in the Wa. State  boonies for nearly four years, last decade; I’ve never seen the Backstreet Girls, and this movement, so to speak, has been forming for a while. Now we’re seeing some serious fruition.

Let’s raise a few mosh-pit hosannas for the mysterious regeneration that can manifest, often when least expected. And clap our hands if we believe in fairies. With Thee Oh Sees about to invade Europe, we can only imagine what will grow in their wake.

Before I leave us with Free‘s “My Brother Jake” (surely there are others who can never hear enough great sounds), here are some breadcrumbs:

Free – Just about everything
The Bare Wires:  Artificial Clouds (Tic Tac Totally);
So Cow:  Meaningless Friendly (Tic Tac Totally);
The Baths –
Thee Oh Sees:
Golden Triangle:


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