Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Three listens: Lothar and the Hand People, ME WANT BREAKFAST, Medications

It seems that Lothar and the Hand People have been relegated to the dustbin of history. If this is the case, it’s a shame. Perhaps this probable reality is due to the genuine (if at times) subversive pop streak that flows through Lothar’s music and separates them from the more sternly serious (some would say po-faced) and retroactively attractive avant–garde-ish proclivities of Silver Apples, another New York band of the era. That era would be the late ‘60s. This isn’t to infer that L&THP weren’t progressive. They utilized a Theremin and a Moog synthesizer for crying out loud. But it’s also quite obvious that the group had a collective boner for the song-smithing of The Beatles. This is at least part of the reason why they signed to Capitol, The Beatles US label at the time. Their debut album PRESENTING…LOTHAR AND THE HAND PEOPLE is a stone gas, a bit like the Lovin’ Spoonful filtered through those Beatles at their most psychedelic with a predilection for oddball technology thrown in. It bombed commercially, but that didn’t stop it from getting a well deserved CD reissue from Razor & Tie a few years back. I copped a copy of that disc because it included the band’s elusive early singles (I already owned the LP), and I’ve never regretted that purchase. Where tracks like “Machines” lean toward Lothar’s more adventurous side, other cuts such as “This Is It” and the swell cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” present a very unlikely faux country-ish influence. “This May Be Goodbye” has the sort of crisp pop-psyche that should’ve dented the singles chart, and “That’s Another Story” features some positive Sebastian-ist vibes. “You Won’t Be Lonely” is high quality garage rock that nods toward Love’s early stuff. “Ha (Ho)” is the most overtly Beatles-like tune on the disc, with an obvious debt to “I Am the Walrus” that’s shrewd enough to avoid feeling like a blatant rip. “Kids Are Little People” actually reminds me of an American-Midwestern version of the very early Pink Floyd that recorded for Smash Records and broke up after releasing four singles. It might be a tad too goofus for some, but I’m okay with it. Their brief celebration of the Woody Woodpecker theme might be a lot too goofus for some, but I’m okay with that, too. And while we’re on the subject of humor, a slight early-Zappa-like atmosphere does emanate from the LP tracks, though it’s less smirky and more nudge/wink. So the goofery also feels sorta knowing. Ya’ know? This aura doesn’t extend to the single tracks however, which all sound fine to differing degrees but also present a band that was still finding its sound. “Have Mercy (Mercy Mercy)” is a more than acceptable white-boy romp-through of the oft-covered Don Covay and the Goodtimers R&B smash, and both “Every Single Word” and “Comic Strip” take on an almost Anglo-bubblegum quality. And that’s fairly cool. But the album is way cool. PRESENTING doesn’t ultimately rise to the rank of lost masterpiece, but it is loaded with great moments that render it a solid keeper. Now, would some label please do a stand-alone reissue of their 2nd LP SPACE HYMN? Vinyl would be nice. I’ve heard seven of that record’s tracks courtesy of a lackluster comp that See For Miles squirted out back in ’86, and I’d love to drink in the whole thing, for these sly gents were/are an important addition to the non-crap wing of late-60’s East Coast rock.

The audio format that’s best suited for the unhyphenated shit and majesty that is punk rock is the 7” single (I may have mentioned this here already. This blog is starting to get a little bulk to it). The so often finite window of opportunity given to these groups intertwines with the unpredictable nature of inspiration, and when you throw in the inevitable frictions, personality conflicts and volatile passions of youth, it should become clear why a couple of sloppily recorded and speedily delivered songs will triumph over full length records by groups whose best days were behind them. Plus, brevity and simplicity are two crucial elements to punk in its pure form. Less is more. There is definitely a very heavy crate or two stuffed full of excellent punk long players, but the attention given to self-released and micro-label 45s and EPs via mp3-blogs over the last five years or so has really exposed just how extensive and intense and global the initial punk explosion really was. The KILLED BY DEATH volumes and the BLOODSTAINS series of LPs (plus the wave of similar comps they inspired) that commenced in the dawn of the ‘90s were really the beginnings of this retroactive reassessment of the punk movement, and this leads me to an adjunct observation regarding the best presentation(s) of this particular genre’s charms: consider, if you will, the compilation. There are different types of comps of course, and early punk is littered with records that serve as essential scene/region/label documentation (I plan on covering at least some of these grand statements in this space as the word count continues to grow). By the later portion of the ‘80s, this type of comp was in serious decline in large part due to creeping musical genericism, but also because of the uninspired and mercantile nature of most label samplers. Add in that these releases multiplied like a hutch full of nymphomaniacal rabbits, and you can see why compilations were scorned by so many. However, this derision didn’t extend to the tastefully/tastelessly assembled and historically crucial addendums that were the DEATH/STAINS bootlegs, the contents of which served as a true revelation for legions of socially awkward record hounds that were afflicted with suburbia and terminally thin wallets. But previous to that, around ’87 or so, materialized a crucial boot LP loaded with Dangerhouse Records’ material titled ME WANT BREAKFAST. Back when this beatific babe first hit the shelves it was not at all easy to cozy up to the output of what was probably the greatest US punk label of all time. That last part may sound like a bold statement, but I’ll counter that Dangerhouse in my estimation never released a record that was less than great. The early incarnations of the Dischord and Touch & Go labels are kinda hard to imagine without the guiding example of this Los Angeles imprint, and that influence extends to the high quality visual aesthetic that helped to set all three of these names apart from the pack.

see a similarity?

Stuff that really stuck out in the racks: if it looks great, it stands to reason it’ll sound great. And it ultimately comes down to the music. BREAKFAST is loaded with some of the finest Cali-punk ever recorded, including three of the greatest punk songs ever waxed anyplace anytime in The Dils’ “Class War”, X’s “We’re Desperate” and The Weirdos “We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb”, with an additional batch that aren’t very far behind. It opens with The Bags’ dismissal of England “We Don’t Need the English” and closes with The Random’s inspired piss-take “Let’s Get Rid Of New York”. It features a couple of classic drug tunes via The Eyes’ “T.A.Q.N.” (that’s short for “take a Quaalude now”) and Rhino 39’s “Prolixin Stomp”. It’s got The Alleycats’ enduring paean to disillusionment “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore”, and it also holds The Deadbeats’ stunner “Kill the Hippies”. On the surface “…Hippies” might seem like an example of the kind of nihilism and intolerance that people saddle onto the punk ethos. Listening to the track however shows that it’s a killer combination of snide humor, retaliation against a staid lifestyle/ideology that had outgrown its shelf-life to become a rather oppressive presence, and savvy punk auto-critique (“Kill them because you need a scapegoat”). And this was 1978 L.A., folks. Every track here qualifies as a top-tier classic. So you ask, why is this illicit bootleg still relevant in the (some would say equally illicit) file-sharing era and after Frontier Records’ two outstanding (and legit [and very necessary]) volumes of Dangerhouse stuff? Well, for many its relevance will be lost to the contemporary ease of access, i.e. the instant digital record collection. But for some, the loving landscape of the song selection will unwind like an indispensible comp tape personally crafted by a raggedy, inspirational mentor. The problematic nature of bootlegs and the kinda shitty sound quality aside, I’ve always felt ME WANT BREAKFAST was elevated above standard (even often exceptional) compilations by the power generated by its tracklist, which reeks like a handmade (and delivered) document that you’d keep in shoebox (or by the stereo) for a lifetime. If you revel in the act of holding something transcendent and everlasting in yr moist mitts, try this LP on for size. Plus, it has a gorgeous Gary Panter cover. Yeah, they probably stole that too. What a bunch of crooks.

Washington DC’s Medications have called Dischord Records their home since they got together around seven years ago. Devin Ocampo and Chad Molter were previously in the majestic and mathy Faraquet, who released a late-period Dischordian classic with THE VIEW FROM THIS TOWER. That record helped to provide a fantastic soundtrack to a rent-a-car road trip back in ’94, so I was curious about Medications from the beginning. On their initial release they really brought the heavy, but mingled it with a more straight-ahead melodic focus that found them shifting away from the angular goings-on of Faraquet. Devin had also played in Smart Went Crazy, one of the more slept on Dischord bands, so the integration of a more trad sensibility wasn’t all that unexpected. They utilized it well, was the main thing. And as time has progressed, Ocampo and Molter have really gravitated toward a new type of pop-ish intricacy, where standard post-post-post-post-hardcore heaviness is primarily used as an accent for a bunch of widely varied and well-conceived songs. COMPLETELY REMOVED is their new one and I find it their best release yet. Medications’ sound now exists as a well-calibrated mix of the complex and the catchy. A more suitable term might be progressively memorable, though they are heading deeper into fine hooky singability as time passes. They really excel at building tight, jazzily rhythmic bedrock for the songs and then heading into a bunch of different directions. The palate of sonic texture is widening as well, with percussion, piano, organ, horns and vibes adding to the state of affairs. There are brief snatches that recall Spoon and Tortoise a bit (and that’s cool), but mostly these deepening elements do a good job of weaving into and evolving the band’s music. Devin’s vocals (and some of the songwriting) are reminding me more and more of Ted Leo if he dug King Crimson as much as Stiff Little Fingers, and that’s an unexpected pleasantry. “Long Day” seems to hint a bit at the very attractive Africa-fusion of Extra Golden, though that might be all in my own head. “Rising To Sleep” has a some hard-rock dynamics that could’ve been absorbed from their buddy Mary Timony (Ocampo and Molter have played with her live and on record). “Kilometers and Smiles” features some of the best distorto-funk crime-flick soundtrack junk to spackle my ear holes in a while. This whole disc displays a band in full command of their creative powers, with new member Mark Cisneros bringing much to the proceedings. Let’s hope he sticks around. Now they just need to record their cover of Minutemen’s “Shit From an Old Notebook”. It’d work great as a B-side to a 45. I think D. would’ve dug it.

Medications circa 2008 - photo by Nate Rhodes

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