Blastitude Number Three

  ISSUE #4      JANUARY, 3001
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Blastitude columnist Charles Lieurance enjoys this here mag so much that he actually made a mix tape congratulatin’ me for the second ish. It’s called, app. enough, Blastitude Congrats Tape, and it even has "review copy" written on the spine, as if to say "hint, hint." Well, hint taken, Charles, I love reviewing mix tapes. You might remember in Blastitude #2 when I reviewed Metal Extravaganza, a mix tape made by Lincoln’s own Kevin Chasek. Well, hopefully someone’ll give me a mix tape every month so this sort of thing can be a regular feature.
         This isn’t the first mix tape Charles has given me….when I was playin’ in his band The Black Dahlias he gave me a tape on which he had written "A Black Dahlias Comprehension Tape." He had a distinct aesthetic in mind and he figured (correctly) that the best way to impart it to his band-mates would be to make each of them a bitchin’ mix tape. In doing so, he not only gave me a really good idea what kind of music he wanted to play, he seemed to define a veritable ‘new musical aesthetic’ of some sort, the type of thing that Smithsonian could do an anthology for, and if they decide to, they’d sure as hell better have Charles be their Harry Smith. Let’s see, how would I define this aesthetic…well, to simplify it as much as possible I’d say it’s equal parts American garage-rock/trash-rock/proto-punk and American folk/country /blues/rockabilly. I think The Cramps might be Charles’s single favorite band of all-time, as they combine all those things, douse it appropriately with reverb and whiskey-smoke, and wrap it all up in the kind of hot rod/drive-in/monster movie/junk collector/pin-up culture package that gives Charles (and many other daring aesthetes) The Crampsthe really, really wet kinds of dreams.
          But there’s more to the Lieurance aesthetic than the Cramps – he also really likes pretty music, especially if it’s pretty in that kind of slightly overwrought, slightly unadvisable psychedelic teenage-symphony-to-God kinda way. Anything with a good atmosphere – it doesn’t have to be strictly uptempo, shit-kickin’ or ravin’, it can also be calm or ‘nice’ or sensuous. (He’s a big fan of Calexico, and for that matter Madman Across The Water by Elton John.) He likes psychedelic music of all kinds, and has been threatening for years to write a 200-page essay called "rural psychedelia," or "rustic psychedelia," I can’t remember which. He may back off a bit from certain strains of totally song-formless psychedelic noise jamming, because he is at the end an adherent to the power of a song. I don’t think there are any sounds per se that he’s afraid of, no matter how extreme, he just prefers them couched in a song rather than sprawling out the fuck on their own. He can dig that shit for 5-10 minutes as some gone section of some side of some LP, but there had better a song right before it, and a song right after it, or the same song right before and right after it, like what happens on "The Diamond Sea" by Sonic Youth or "Heroin" by the Velvet Underground.
          That’s really what ties down the Lieurance aesthetic – songs. He very rarely puts an instrumental on a mix tape, and if he does it’s almost always of the short, punchy variety, 3-5 minutes long, with some sort of familiar verse/chorus pattern. He likes fuzz and trash and noise and mania, but there’s always a singer on top of it all, laying down a song, usually something uniquely American about fucked-up times, intense visions, hard love, derangment of senses, trials, tribulations, and celebrations….that sorta thing. Let’s see, maybe I can coin a ‘genre tag’ for the Lieurance aesthetic…how about "psych-Americana"? Maybe…. "fucked-up folk music"? Yeah, but "folk" is too limiting, ‘cause he’s also into all types of rock’n’roll and country, which I know, they’re all strains of folk music too because ‘it’s all by folks’, but you know, I’m talkin’ record-store genre-tag here, and if you see the word "folk" in a record store you think Peter, Paul & Mary, because all the good folk music is usually in the rock section anyway. How ‘bout, instead of ‘singer-songwriter,’ we call it 'shitflinger-songwriter’? Who knows, maybe that’s it. But nah, that’s not it either. How about ‘romantic trash’?
         Or how about we just check out the tape he gave me, and I just do what I do best, which is sit at the computer and ‘write about cuts.’ Cuts meaning tunes, sides, tracks, songs, pieces, releases, etc. of MUSIC. And maybe if I write about the cuts Charles gave me as I listen to ‘em, some sort of succinct description of his aesthetic will emerge. I’ve got my newly purchased cassette walkman with me right here (bought so I could review cassettes at the computer late at night because my computer sits nowhere near my cassette deck). Alright, get the headphones, push play, and listen….


And whaddaya know, I’m spoutin’ on and on about "Americana" and the tape starts off with a song by The Renderers, a band from New Zealand. Of course, this is a band heavily and admittedly influenced by classic hard death-ridden American country music, like that of Hank Williams Senior (dead at 29), and all the tales of life, lust, and woe that come from beyond the grave and appear on the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music. "Death country," you could call it, which wouldn’t be a bad tag for the Lieurance aesthetic either, though still not quite complete enough. This particular Renderers track is "Out of the Forest," and it’s a very swampy low-down groove bathed in some perfect broken-amp feedback, the kind of sounds that all those NZ noise bands take and turn into fucked symphonies all by themselves. (Renderers guitarist Brian Crook is in one of those NZ noise bands, Flies Inside The Sun.) Wait, I got it: "country garage death psych"! You know, I think that just might be it! Or how about "a distillation of gravedirt, whiskey and lamb’s blood"? That rather stunning phrase was used by the great Nick Tosches to describe the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, but I think it applies to the whole Lieurance aesthetic pretty well too. (Except maybe for the "teenage symphony to God" part. I don’t know if you get that from either gravedirt, whiskey, or lamb’s blood. Lambs maybe, but lamb’s blood?)
         Next on the tape is 68 Comeback, which is the band that Monsieur Jeffrey Evans formed after he left the legendary Gibson Bros. There’s some gravedirt here, that’s for sure, and probably some whiskey and blood too. Evans is paying homage to the jump blues night life howlers from back in the day, or maybe he’s a present-day night life howler himself.
        Next is a really great, truly bleak song by Johnny Cash & Will Oldham called "I See A Darkness." Cash’s voice just sounds amazing, singing "You know I have a love…a love for everyone I know….and you know I have a drive…to live I won’t let go…" in an intense, almost-teary voice. Will Oldham joins in on the chorus, and he sounds alright, but Cash is the man here. He goes on to sing "Well I hope that someday buddy…we have peace in our lives….and we can stop our whoring…" and it’s straight-faced and serious and intense. Actually, Oldham really helps the song by singing along on the chorus, ‘cause Cash is so stark and gripping here that it would just be too much for him to sing alone all the way through.
        Next comes a band Charles has really been raving about, the Rock*a*Teens. It is pretty cool, a song called "Black Metal Stars," kinda of a slow, loud, sing-to-the-heavens song with a big epic sweep and lots of ampage and reverb. The singer is unique and appealingly near-bombastic in his delivery. Still, something’s not quite dizzying about it…maybe the way the main hook, though excellent, is basically just The Rock*A*Teensrepeated over and over, except for the chorus, which doesn’t change things up much either. Next is "Clarissa, Just Do It Anyway" by the Rock*a*Teens, which, gosh, I’m not all that crazy about. Again, it’s good, they have an arresting sound – oh shoot, there they just pulled out a little bridge riff that killed in a revved-up spaghetti-western kinda way….yeah, they’re good, and the guitars are sounding better and better as the song goes along.

         "Lowlands" by the Gourds is striking because the singer has a really clear twangy voice. It’s just him and guitar accompaniment, probably just a solo song by the singer of the band, and it’s got a nice lonesome sunny feel, almost like a vintage 1975 Southern Rock ballad. These are the guys who did a really good version of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s "Gin & Juice" which is being advertised on the Napster as being by both Phish and Ween.
         I really like what happened with the next song…I was listening to the tape while driving and, without checking the J-card to see who was next, I really started getting into the groove, a hollow, stumbling near-retarded riff over tribal garage-rock drums, with freaky gutbucket vocalists shouting at each other in great call-and-response bits. Who the hell is this? I asked myself, checking the J-card….why The Black Dahlias! The song is called "Harpoon the Backslider," which explains the lyrics about Nantucket, scrimshaws, and, um, harpoons. I’d say Charles and band are really getting somewhere, if his own music blends in so well with the other stuff on his gravedirt/whiskey/lamb’s-blood mix tapes that I assume it's some great band from somewhere else.

         "It’s About Twilight Now" by My Morning Jacket has a queasy garage-rockabilly vibe to it with strange haunted (or maybe just shy) vocals. Who the hell is My Morning Jacket?
         Rufus Thomas ain’t bad, but after hearing that Andre Williams CD (Tasty, I think it's called...) it sounds a little quaint, really. And it’s not just quaint ‘cause he’s old, ‘cause Andre Williams is probably the same age, and he’s crankin’ out the least Rufus Thomas, the crown prince of dancequaint music I think I’ve EVER heard. Something about the production, but again, if it came on the "good times great oldies" station I kind of reluctantly enjoy sometimes it would sound incredible. Still, I woulda preferred a recording of Rufus singing the song "Break Down Children" live at the Wattstax festival, as depicted in the concert movie Wattstax, which Charles showed me a few months ago.
"Foggy Minded Breakdown" by The Blacks would also sound good on the radio…but hell, everything Charles puts on his tapes would sound good on the radio. Some of it might be ‘unique’ or ‘underground’ enough that you might only hear it on a college radio station, and even there it would sound pretty damn fresh. I mean, have you ever heard of The Blacks? I haven’t either, until hearing this song. It’s a good but not great but pretty good song, kinda spooky, or minor-key-ish. Sounds like part of the ‘hillbilly vaudeville’ subgenre -- you know the scene, it’s like an alt-country sub-scene where rockers, often music majors gone to seed or trying to go to seed, dress up in period costumes and play note-perfect banjo parts and that sort of thing. The Squirrel Nut Zippers would be the most famous example. The Blacks aren’t near that sugary sweet, which is a definite improvement.
         "Carnival of Souls" by the Renderers is a bit surprising considering the slow narcotized death-swamp groove of their last appearance. This one’s almost upbeat, and almost more Kinks-y or early Who-y than the expected death country-y. Great near-retarded in-and-out fuzz soloing, and a great sorta pouting glammish vocal, which I can’t tell if it’s by a guy or girl, which is always a wonderful feeling. (I know both a guy and a gal share lead vox in the Renderers but I don’t know the band well enough to recognize which one is singing here.)
         "I See You" by the Pretty Things is pretty striking. Kind of a slightly demented, eerie song about "the forest of my mind…" It almost sounds like early Alice Cooper, but it’s very British…I’ve heard of these guys for years but other than a brief late-night listening session at Charles’s this is all I’ve heard by ‘em. I’d like to hear more…
        After this comes a great Lieurance touch as he sticks on an actual 30-second radio ad for a Rufus Thomas concert "at the Marigold Ballroom" (the name of the city isn’t mentioned, not in the ad, or by Charles, ‘cause he didn’t list this track on the J-card and I haven’t asked him about it yet) on June 24th of some long-past year. After that it’s only a few seconds of tape until the end – another mix-tape art is to ‘fill the side’ so that very minimal rewinding needs to be done when flipping.
       Side Two kicks off with June Panic, who I’ve heard of ‘cause I remember when Bright Eyes went on tour with him back in 1997 or thereabouts. I’ve also heard that June Paniche’s from North Dakota, which has gotta be about the most unknown state in the country. He’s also pretty androgynous, and not only in name, with a very unique singing voice.
Starlite Desperation is also a band I’d read some intriguing zine articles about, and once again Charles comes through – despite us never having a conversation about the Starlite Desperation, he sensed that I might be interested in ‘em and put ‘em on a tape so I could hear ‘em. I’m about to be fed up with the scene I sense this to be part of…think garage rock, some sort of San Diego and/or Detroit connection, pageboy haircuts dyed jet-black, either vintage suits or some sort of jeans-and-leather fashion, and a restrained, cool level of irony. Listening to the Starlite Desperation, I immediately like ‘em better than that connotation. This is good garage rock’n’roll, mainly because it’s pretty sleazy and pumping without having any of that way-tired Jon Spencer "I’m a CRA-zee R&B SHOU-ter!!!" shtick goin’ on.
"Someone Who Cares" by the Only Ones is a striking tune – kind of a wide-eyed sad Jonathan Richman voice, although at a higher almost-June Panic pitch, but I know it’s not June ‘cause this sounds truly British and of an earlier vintage, perhaps….1981? Hell, it could even be 1975, ‘cause it’s the sort of restrained majestic Bowie-influenced power pop that hearkens back to the time before the Sex Pistols came on the scene. If it indeed came out in the early Eighties it serves as a huge missing link between British glam rock and British techno pop, between Bowie and Depeche Mode.Andre Williams loosens his tie
Next is "I Wanna Go Back to Mexico," one of the aforementioned Andre Williams’s more restrained efforts, beginning with a rather cute rock vamp that you could probably play for your Grandma, even with its mariachi stripper music undertone. Of course, you might wanna turn the volume down a little before Andre starts singing "I wanna go back across the border….I wanna go back to see my whore…I wanna go back to get some marijuana…I wanna go back because I wanna…." Of course, it only takes a couple minutes before all pretense is dropped as the guitars start freaking out in an almost Dick Dale way, and Williams starts grunting and howling the lyrics like the madman that he clearly enjoys acting like when he's singing. Man, I’ve got to get this album….Andre Williams meeting up with Mick Collins and all those other Detroit guys is one of the rare ‘great rock’n’roll events’ of the 90s.
The next song has that old June Panic sound, lemme look…yep, it’s "Only Give Light to the Morning" by June Panic. Really cool instrumentation here…minimal kettle-ish rock drumming, what sounds like a subtle pumping organ but might just be a fuzz bass, an insistently circular rock guitar riff, pianos tumbling in and out of the mix like a dub reggae effect, and Mr. Panic singing away, and as fine as the music track is, I think the singing is what really makes this song. This guy has a bizarre and great voice.
Up next is more from the Black Dahlias (if you're a musician making a mix tape it's always pretty cool to intersperse your own music, maybe one or at the most two tracks per side). Two songs from a live performance on KZUM radio. "Daddy’s Circus Clothes" is a song I’ve heard before, and it sounds great here. It’s one of the Dahlias more endearingly lazy tunes, with an old-timey chorus of "Oh my she’s wearing daddy’s circus clothes," a great hook repeated many times but not too many. There is an out-of-nowhere quasi-flamenco bridge/interlude thing that seemed kinda interruptive and incongruous, but it’s probably supposed to be and I did like it better the second time, especially its goofy melodramatic hits and violin flourishes. And, when they come to the end of the song, I like the way the DJ applauds by saying "Yahoo! Black Dahlias, y’all!" I hope they put this stuff out sometime, and I mean these versions, as well as the studio versions they'll probably record soon. Next song is good too, "Wastin’ My Time (Lovin’ You)," which sounds like a real old-time song, has a harmonica break that'll stick in your head, and a weepy chorus that will do the same.
"Call Me A Liar" by Will Oldham. Wow…I’ve heard from various people who've seen him live lately that Will has been chasing some sort of classic rock dream for awhile now. You can see it in the beards, the cowboy hat. You might be able to hear it in the records, but I couldn’t tell ya, cuz I haven’t heard anything since the first one. That was a great album, but this song is great too…what record it’s from I don’t know, but it sounds like Oldham is playing and singing literally from inside that classic rock dream, rather than just dressing for it, at least for these four to six minutes. It’s the kind of song that should be six minutes, a wind-blown, kinda sly, mostly tight but just-loose-enough cowboy-rock ramble.
Okay, next song…who’s that ranting "You bore me! I know I bore you…" Oh, why it’s our old friend Monsieur Jeffrey Evans! The song is "Polaroid Portrait" by 68 Comeback. Pretty demented stuff! The guitar is just plain wheezing out what was once a one-chord blues through some evil pedal, and Msr. Evans’s vocals are so gone they put the psycho right in the billy.
"Dark Continent" is another Renderers song. You know, these Renderers songs sound great but they don’t really stick to you. They aren’t masters of hook-writing. The melodies and lyrics are good and totally there, but they sound almost interchangeable from song to song. What really matters are atmospheres, which the band excels at, especially with what sounds like one full-time drone/texture/noise guitarist lurking somewhere in the corner. (Who is that, Danny Butt??) This ‘stun’ guitarist does a great job on this song, which really starts to live up to its title somewhere into the instrumental meltdown that follows the singing part. See, you can’t really call the singing part a "verse" or a "chorus," and the instrumental stuff is really what makes the music. Still, the Renderers need to sing something, they really do have a need for a song each time, or else they’d just be Flies Inside The Sun or Rain again. And even if none of the melodies or lyrics from the song part especially stick, they sing it well enough to make the long instrumental interludes sound even more heavenly—the sly trance riffs they build to after the long meltdown are really something.
There’s a background vocal on "Across the Piedmont" by the Rock*a*Teens that you can hear, faintly, mixed very strangely, before the lead vocal even comes in. You can barely hear it again as the song goes on, but there it is, lurking around the corners of the singer’s words, keeping the song floating in a mysterious zone. This float is aided by the sweet, symphonic reverb hangs over the recording, making it sound like the Phil Spector wall of sound without having near as many overdubs. Some mellotron or mellotron-like sounds are also hovering in the theoretical cathedral of the song. It sounds like it’s from the 70s, it really does to me, like some lost 1977 or 1979 attempt at British pub soul or something. But it’s not, it’s rock from the late Now were' talkin! (Ann Margret. Not pictured: Lee Hazlewood.)1990s or maybe even 2000. I like this better than the two Rock*a*Teens songs on the other side of the tape.
"You Turn My Head Around" by Lee Hazlewood and Ann Margret. Oh gosh, if you’ve heard anything by Hazlewood you know this is gonna be wacky, and it is, a demented girl-group-sassy pop-rock song with surprisingly loud guitars wailing on the mind-melting bubble-gum chorus. The quiet parts in between choruses are, on the other hand, very quiet, and there’s even a great pre-verse bit where the accompanying acoustic guitar threatens to get loud like the chorus…but then pulls back suddenly to keep things quiet for another verse.
       Well, according to the 'liner notes' that should be the last song...
oh sheez….okay, here’s where mix tapes can really be something. There’s an unlisted closing song on this side too, and it’s "Hard Water" by the Black Dahlias. I think this is one of the finest country ballads I’ve heard since "Tennessee Whiskey" by George Jones, for real, and earlier in the mix tape I was even thinkin’, "these Dahlias songs are nice, but I’d really like to hear a recording of that ‘Hard Water’…", and see, Charles knew to tack it on the end of the mix tape The Black Dahlias‘cause he knew I liked it--hell, he's probably heard me shout out the title at Dahlias shows, 'cause I have. And it’s a great version; sounds like they’re playing live in a big empty bar. Great lyrics in this song: "I’m kissin’ each bead of your spine…like a rosary….
but this new sharp look in your eye…
is like a vacancy sign…and those tears you’re cryin’ tonight…are Hard Water…." Just when I’m about to shed a tear myself, the tape cuts off. Well, I’m gonna have to get a dub of the whole thing from ya Charles, but thanks for the near-epiphany anyway….

         So, in closing, should we go with "gravedirt, whiskey, and lamb's blood"? I think that gets my vote. Thank you to Nick Tosches.





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