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Music Reviews

Peter Laughner

Peter Laughner

Smog Veil Records

When it comes to rock and roll cities, Cleveland, despite hosting the Hall of Fame, isn’t generally discussed in the same way as New York, Los Angeles or even Memphis. But when someone does mention it, the name Peter Laughner is sure to come up. An early, or founding member of such legendary acts as Pere Ubu and Rocket From The Tombs, Laughner, who died in 1977 at the age of 24, casts a mighty shadow on Cleveland’s underground rock scene. This new box set collects previously unheard songs, lost radio shows and out of print releases to make up a five cd collection, including thirteen songs Laughner recorded solo hours before his death from pancreatitis.

If you draw a blank placing Laughner, it’s because his work saw little release during his life, and he was rarely recorded in a studio. In fact, only a single by Pere Ubu was officially released while he was alive. So this collection ranges from solo radio shows that find him playing original songs and frequent Lou Reed and Bob Dylan numbers (in fact, a large portion of this box set is one of those two, from acoustic guitar flights to grinding rock with his bands such as Friction, Fins or a particularly brutal version of Reed’s “Heroin” with Cinderella Backstreet). His most known song – “Amphetamine” – is noted because Jeff Tweedy quoted it on “Misunderstood” on the 1996 Wilco release Being There (“take the guitar player for a ride”).

As noted, the five discs found here start with a pair of radio shows from 1972, with Laughner covering everything from Dylan to Jimmie Rodgers to “These Days” from Jackson Browne. The second disc focuses on his 1973-74 band Cinderella Backstreet, with a punkish burst of moments from Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed and a Laughner original, “I’m So Fucked Up”. Later discs include a duo performance of “Amphetamine” with Don Harvey, and the single greatest moment of the set, a jaw-dropping “Ain’t It Fun” with Rocket From The Tombs, which featured a pre-Pere Ubu David “Crocus Behemoth” Thomas and Cheetah Chrome, soon to be in the legendary Dead Boys.

The last disc, entitled Nocturnal Digressions, is Laughner solo on acoustic guitar, recorded at his home a short time before he died, which lends a certain ghoulish overtone to the songs. His versions of Tom Verlaine’s “See No Evil” and “Come On In” (Laughner played guitar for a brief time in Television), along with numbers from Jesse Winchester, Robert Johnson and Richard Hell show the broad range of Laughner’s influences, and makes you wish that he had lived longer, to truly achieve what this collection hints at. Peter Laughner propelled Cleveland’s punk underbelly, and died before most anyone knew who he was. But now, thanks to Smog Veil, that situation is hopefully in the past, because his work deserves wider acclaim. Not to mention it rocks.

smogveil.com

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Music Reviews

Gagarin

Gagarin

Corvid

GEO Records

The guy behind this project is Graham “Dids” Dowdall, who was associated with Cleveland’s’ Avant-garage band Pere Ubu. Harkening back to the French “Concrete Music” movement of the post war, pre-digital experience, this record mixes multiple sources of sounds. Some are clearly musicians playing instruments in some sort of a western chordal structure, others are the whispers of Avant-Garde synthesizer work, others are fond noises or melodic synthesis of sci-fi soundtracks. While rhythm is always present, its not always the driver of any given track; rather it exists more as an urban back drop, sort of like watching building fly by as two movies actors interact in a moving vehicle. Track names are of little help; they range from cryptic “Seekers after the truth”, “Winterfold”. Others are linguistic games “Reynard”, “Dorsomorphin” or just cryptic “Theta”, “Alienist”. This is a distinctively moody record, an enjoyable soundscape, and possibly a small slice of some grander project.

www.gagarin.org.uk;

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Music Reviews

Pere Ubu

Pere Ubu

29 Years in a Montana Missile Silo

Cherry Red

Pere Ubu have been confounding audiences and other denizens of the tower of song for far more than 20 years. Vocalist David Thomas has been the only constant in the group since they bubbled up from Cleveland’s underground music scene in the late ’70s. The punk rock revolution gave Pere Ubu a stage to be weird, and their aesthetic can be traced back through art rock, experimental sound sculpture all the way back to Dadaism. It’s amazing that any form of Pere Ubu is active after all these years. It’s even more amazing that they’re still producing vital, challenging music.

“Monkey Bizness” kicks off the 29 Years in a Montana Missile Silo with a punk rock rave up that’s about as aggressive as anything they’ve ever done. The current lineup of three guitars and two synth players layer odd sounds over an insistent beat. David Thomas sounds gruffer than usual sending out warnings about monkeys and clowns and sex and terror. “Toe to Toe” channels Cold War paranoia. “Twenty years of living hell at the bottom of a missile well. Twenty years of forgotten sun staring at the portal to a kingdom come,” declaims Thomas. It’s a chilling look into the soul of a man ready to start the end of the world. The Ubu are talking about the past, but they might as well be singing about today’s mounting nuclear tensions. It should be terrifying that there are people dumped in the bottom of a deep hole who are entrusted with ending the world.

“Plan from Frog 9” indulges Thomas’s inclination to obsess on the mundane. In this case, he spends three minutes contemplating a pencil. It’s got the pointy part and the pushy part. These sort of Pere Ubu songs leave listeners either delighted or bewildered. “Howl” is a similarly head scratching mutated blues. Sounds like you’re overhearing one side of a conversation (or maybe David is talking to someone who isn’t really there).

20 Years in A Montana Missile Silo is ultimately a solid effort from Pere Ubu. They summon the old art punk fury on numbers like “Red Eyed Blues” and “Toe to Toe”. There are more of the rambling meditations like “Cold Sweat” than there were back in the day. I’m glad to see Pere Ubu are still being cranky, contrarian, absurdist.

www.ubuprojex.com

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Music Reviews

Allen Ravenstine + Albert Dennis

Allen Ravenstine + Albert Dennis

Terminal Drive

Smog Veil Records

Oh sure, now days you can download a functioning synth and recording tools to your phone, but way back in the ’70s it took a little more determination to explore new sounds and record demos. So Cleveland resident Allen Ravenstine was breaking new ground when he recorded his 15-minute composition “Terminal Drive” using his EML 200 synthesizer, running it into a Teac 3340 reel to reel tape recorder. Generally, that would be that, but Ravenstine, along with other Cleveland musicians were part of a group called Hy Maya, that sounded a bit like a cross between Kraftwerk, Cluster and Tangerine Dream. Once this group broke up in the early 1970s, various members kept jamming, and finally in 1975 something clicked when they starting working with Peter Laughter and David Thomas. You know them as Pere Ubu. Ravenstine would at first resist joining the group full-time, but finally relented, playing synth on the classic “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and remaining in the group until the 1989 release of Cloudland.

This CD release of Terminal Drive is the first time anyone has heard the full, 15-minute piece (it was on Ubu box set Datapanik in The Year Zero in an abbreviated form). Ravenstine, along with bassist Albert Dennis created a weird, unsettling work that seems at moments like from a David Lynch film, full of ominous soundscapes and found noises. It sounds what you would imagine Cleveland would have sounded like in the mid-’70s, with dirty streets, pollution and a cratering downtown.

Ravenstine helped form the basis for Peru Ubu, who to this day travel the world dispensing their singular style of high weirdness, and although he’s no longer with the group, his sound – albeit evolved and fractured since 1975 – echoes in every note Pere Ubu plays. Not bad for a few days work.

www.smogveil.com

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Music Reviews

The Robert Bensick Band

The Robert Bensick Band

French Pictures in London

Smog Veil

You hear stories like this all the time. A promising artist is signed to a major label and sent off to demo an album. By the time the album is done, the record label has moved on to other interests and the recording is forgotten. That’s basically what happened to Robert Bensick’s album, French Pictures in London. The original idea was that A&M records were going to release the record back in 1975. That didn’t happen. Life moved on and Robert Bensick never became the pop star he might have. It happens all the time.

Why should we care about a forgotten 40 year old album by someone we’ve never heard of? Well, aside from the fact that it’s a pretty interesting record, it also offers a glimpse into the nascent Cleveland rock scene. Bob Bensick was one of the people making things happen in an industrial town, far from the places cool music was being made. He was a friend and rival of Peter Laughner, who helmed the Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs and the initial incarnation of Pere Ubu. While Laughner is seen as inspirational to the emerging Cleveland art punk scene, this recording shows another side to that influential developing music scene. Bensick describes the songs on French Pictures in London as inspired and about the people who lived at the Plaza. This is the apartment building owned by future Pere Ubu synthesis, Alan Ravenstine. When Bensick lived there, it was the home to a who’s how of Cleveland musos.

While bands like the Electric Eels, Mirrors and early Pere Ubu can easily be called proto-punk; the sounds on French Pictures in London are very different. Bensick incorporates jazz phrasing in a way that recalls Steely Dan from around the same period. There is also a lush, romantic quality that calls to mind Roxy Music. Bensick, however, sounds decidedly more unhinged that these influences, there are times when his vocals sound like he’s about to tip over into “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”. “Payphone Meter Lover” is a really strange unrequited love song that sounds like the singer is possibly a stalker.

For a 40-year-old recording that was essentially a demo, the sound is spectacular. “Night Life” is a jazz influenced tune that has a free form guitar solo from Tom Herman (Pere Ubu) running through out. I’m constantly being surprised by the way Bensick balances restrained, pop elements with odd synth and mellotron textures, weird guitar lines, and warped lyrical content. The title track “French Pictures” were vintage porn brought back from London by one of the Plaza residents. “Sweet Priscilla” is a love song, probably to one of the prostitutes who worked in the neighborhood. It’s restrained, refined, weirdness. The band that created French Pictures in London dissolved even before A&M dropped the project. Tom Herman and Scott Krause moved on to Pere Ubu. Without being able to release his album, Bensick made a few more attempts to get a band on the road before life got in the way. Now, a lifetime later, French Pictures in London is finally surfacing, shedding light on a corner of Cleveland music history that had been all but forgotten.

www.smogveil.com

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Music Reviews

Nots

Nots

Cosmetic

Goner

The Minutemen once named an album Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. That could easily be a capsule review of the sophomore effort from the Nots. There’s nothing superficial about Cosmetic. It’s a slab of raw estrogen throbbing out from the crossroads. Natalie Hoffmann’s chicken scratch guitar lacerates like a zombie rockabilly cat. Charlotte Watson pounds her kit with a Moe Tucker minimalist throb. Developing on the example of early Pere Ubu, Alexandra Eastburn’s weird synth textures weave the whole chaotic mess together.

The Nots play primal art punk from the Memphis heartland. In their river port town, these women turn libido and frustration that’s been simmering for too long in the summer sun into a sonic kick in the head. Play Cosmetic loud enough and it might just melt your mascara.

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Music Reviews

X__X

X__X

Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto

Smog Veil

“Skronk” n. Term attributed to Robert Christgau by Lester Bangs in 1981’s: ‘A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise’ referring to music of the late ’70s art-punk movement.

Pretty sure the dean of American music critics was listening to something like Cleveland’s X__X when he penned “skronk”. X__X was formed by John Morton (Electric Eels, Johnny and the Dicks) in 1978, rising up from the same “anti-scene” that gave us Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs, Peter Laughner and more. Bored with whatever the radio had to offer, they formed “art punk” bands that lauded the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and free jazz, and combined into a noisy stew of, well…skronk.

Fast forward to the present day, and Morton (guitar, vocals) and crew- Andrew Klimeyk, guitar, Craig Bell on bass and Matthew Harris haven’t backed off an itch. Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto is an aural assault that leaves you gasping. Reminiscent of the No New York movement or James White and the Blacks, the “songs” come fast and furious, such as “Transmography” or the cover of Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts.” This is no compromise music, short and sweet (CD is about 30 minutes, give or take) and frankly, you couldn’t stand much more. Anarchy is best served in small doses.

x–x.co.uk

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Music Reviews

Controlled Bleeding

Controlled Bleeding

Before the Quiet

MVD Audio

To be frank, it’s a headscratcher. I’m not quite sure why Controlled Bleeding mainman Paul Lemos recently chose to dig quite thiiiiiiiiiiiiiis deep into the Controlled Bleeding archives (especially with so many of their really primo recordings long out of print) to spotlight a time when Controlled Bleeding weren’t really even Controlled Bleeding. In point of fact, at the dawn of the 1980s, they were an exceedingly whip smart New York new wave act that took influence from disparate freaks and boundary pushers like Pere Ubu, Devo, early Eno, King Crimson, Henry Cow, and old garage/surf rock. Sounds like a strange brew, no?

The instrumental tracks start out razor tense, like new wave meets the Ventures or ? and the Mysterians for the first part of the album (“Fiddles and Eggs” being most characteristic), with songs generally turning more proggy and weird as the boys in the band progressed and got more impatient — fast-forward fusion that stays firmly rooted in the garage rock idiom due to their use of freakout rinky-tinky organ (which does start to sound a little gimmicky and forced about eight songs in).

And then these restless upstarts discovered Einsturzende Neubauten. And once you’ve seen the end of music as you know it, well, there’s no looking back really. But there is none of that on Before the Quiet! Argh!

There are a couple of numbers (“Veal,” “New Day Meat Dub/Protein Son,” “No Flies On Frank”) that hold seeds that would eventually germinate into the flowers of evil which Controlled Bleeding utterly reveled in at their peak. But the music on this album is just clever hybrids of the more outré rock music of the time. There was still oh-so-much to be learned and oh-so-much to be rejected. It’s like scratching your chin versus getting your head slammed into a porcelain toilet bowl full of blood, piss, and hair. Being a sightseer versus fully immersing yourself in the horror of civilized man at the end of the 20th Century. Early Controlled Bleeding were too rooted in their place, their urban New York environs, whereas later Controlled Bleeding were rootless and incandescent and timeless. Their rapid evolution must have been something beautiful to behold.

Before the Quiet is for CB completists or NY postpunk archivists only, as much as I hate to say it. The best thing to hope for from this aural scrapbook would be if it heralds an extensive reissue campaign, highlighting everything, and then, THEN you’ll see what I’m fucking talking about.

MVD: mvdb2b.com

Categories
Event Reviews

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

Atlanta, GA • 07.05.2008

Well they call me William The Pleaser / I sold opium, fireworks and lead/ Now I’m telling my troubles to strangers/ When the shadows get long I’ll be dead. (Waits, “Lucinda”)

It was with a minor sense of concern — nay, dread — that I awaited this show. Waits had only played Atlanta once in 30 years prior to this (and I missed that one because Ticketmaster is too busy counting surcharges to actually test their freakin’ website, but I digress…), and after the latest debacle — Bob Dylan mumbling through a distorted PA at some shed in the suburbs, color me wary.

I was a fool.

Scott Spychalski

Tom Waits brought his tent show in the Thunder Dome to Atlanta, the last stop of the American wing of the Glitter and Doom tour, and it is without a drop of hyperbole that I say this is one of greatest events I’ve ever witnessed. Tom Waits led his orchestra of dementia weaving and stomping into a presentation of one of the strongest bodies of work our nation has been fortunate enough to create. His peer group is small, for few have even attempted to live and work at the same level of pigheaded abandon as he — Don Van Vliet, of course, Raymond Scott, and perhaps David Thomas of Pere Ubu. It is a land of no compromise, limited public — I was going to say acceptance, but that is too strong — make it public awareness, but endless freedom, the freedom that comes from “nothing left to lose.”

From the opener, a dust raising “Lucinda,” and a thousand moments until the last note shook Atlanta’s incredible Fox Theater, Waits and his insanely talented — and talentedly insane — band never let up a moment. It was described to me as being less a musical concert than a theatrical event, and that is so true. I said dust raising above, and Waits quite literally was performing on some sort of circus ring dais covered, it seems, in some ashy powder that exploded into the air whenever the spirit moved Waits to crash his boot into the floor. It was compelling theater, masquerading as American hybrid rock and roll.

Well we stick our fingers in the ground/ Heave and turn the world around/ Smoke is blacking out the sun/ At night I pray and clean my gun/ The cracked bell rings/ As the ghost bird sings/ And the gods go begging here/ So just open fire/ As you hit the shore/ All is fair in love and war./ Hoist that rag. (Waits, “Hoist That Rag”)

This is social observation of a society that refuses to see. Waits stands alone, shouting in a field like a crazy man. Hazel Motes, in a bowler hat, creates music that you can’t even begin to imagine being written. Rather it was wrought by blood, spewed out in a rush of language, rich in image, compelled by the jangling tempo of the band, a strange amalgamation of all previous musical forms up to this very day. He’s a bluesman, a beat, Desi Arnaz, Elmer Gantry, and every oompah band you vaguely recall from old cartoons. His group is remarkable, but special note is earned by guitarist Omar Torrez, who plays his old Harmony Stratotone as if he was a Flamenco guitarist until about ten minutes before show time, when Tom handed him an electric guitar and growled “Make rude noises and try and keep up” — and keep up he does. “Hoist That Rag” features a solo from Torrez that is literally jaw dropping, a shimmering Gypsy rampage that shakes the room. And all the while, Waits is careening about on his little stand, arms akimbo, looking as if he is about to crawl out his neck and shake hands with himself.

Waits brought on his former bassist Larry Taylor for a few numbers, playing electric guitar, and his fiery soloing on the Sonny Boy Williamsesque “Til The Money Runs Out” was an early highlight, but to pull moments out of a show like this sends the wrong message, for it was all spellbinding, savage and sexy.

Pin your ear to the wisdom post/ Pin your eye to the line/ Never let the weeds get higher/ Than the garden/ Always keep a sapphire in your mind/
Always keep a diamond in your mind/ Got to get behind the mule/ In the morning and plow.
(Waits, “Get Behind The Mule”)

Someday Tom Waits will die and we’ll all spend the rest of our days pondering what fresh hell was this, but only a few of us. The rest of society — the citizens — well, they never get stuff like this. It’s too ugly, too raw, too real. But for the four thousand or so people lucky enough to be in that room on that night, they will all understand. Before the show began I pondered the crowd, who were markedly older than most shows I’ve been to — I mean, there were some seriously unhip people here, no offense — but two hours later, when a careening “Singapore” brought the evening to a close, I knew why they had to be here. Because if you had ever gotten the chance to shake hands with the devil and see Tom Waits, you’d do anything to ride that ferris wheel again.

Tom Waits: www.tomwaits.com

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Music Reviews

Soul Merchants

Soul Merchants

1985-1987

Smooch Records

There are many frustrating things about reissue culture and the hoarder/collector mentality (obscurity for the sake of it), but I have to say, I love how it often focuses a bright and long overdue light on corners of music that perhaps we weren’t ready for then, but now, sound so pristine, preserved, and new. (No comfort to the performer, but what is, really?) This time the spotlight has fallen on a long disused crypt in Denver (what?) Colorado, housing the remains of the Soul Merchants, an all-but-forgotten “psychedelic goth” band, who burned fiercely for about two years, apparently amassing a Guided By Voices-level impressive 100 songs in that all-too-brief tenure, before disappearing, shattered and exhausted in the face of what one would assume to be popular indifference toward a band this challenging and fervently out of step. The Soul Merchants ended it all with a show at the South By Southwest festival in Austin in 1987. This compilation collects the “best of” two years worth of constant four-track recording sessions – two discs – boasting a fabulous sound quality (jutting against competing studio efforts from other bands, no doubt) and a towering creative ambition.

Look, there’re a lot of stupid bullshit connotations surrounding the “g” word, but let me just say that the Soul Merchants are gothic in all the best senses of the word. The way the Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie, Fields of the Nephilim, Alien Sex Fiend, the Cure, and Joy Division were all gothic (yeah, yeah, argue away, but c’mon, deep down). This is sad, questing, passionate, epic, confused music. The inspiration of Joy Division (particularly in some vocal delivery, though two or three different vocalists give it the sense of this Pere Ubu/Tombs-esque collective), the Cure circa Head on the Door, and the Mission do loom large – but there is a sense of wide-open spaces and bluesy (but not the blues) depth that give Soul Merchants an extra push – if you listen hard you can hear snatches of the Doors, Black Sabbath, the Bunnymen, postpunk like Gang of Four, Green River, shit I can keep going. But there’s always that essential dramatic darkness.

“Johanna” melds the troubled funk of the Cure’s “Spiderman” with a restless angularity that’s more akin to a suicidal Gang of Four. “Blue Light” combines a delicate, Ian Curtis-aping vocal, with widescreen gothic noir, keening upward and trying to fill the world with thwarted love in the way bands like the Church used to. “Crown of Glory” sounds like an outtake from Closer but instead of cold, brittle dread, it is suffused with lush tortured longing, swooning on velvet couches. The brute “Armored Factions” sounds more like Devo or Alien Sex Fiend. The tangible ache that literally drips from every line of “Cold Dark Bed” – built upon lockstep pulsing percussion with bursts and counterpoints of guitar darting in and out, like a furtive paramour. “When I Smile” plumbs the same self-loathing pits, couched in pinned-pupil funk, like early PIL. “Mental Clay” is just a gorgeous, prickly ballad/reverie with doped-up angel vocals and floating melodies. And let’s just say that it takes guts to call a song “Ceremony” – but they pull it off with a smoky, hazy drift through darkened corridors and wide open spaces- “the golden years are gone/life is just a ceremony” – beautiful lyrics.

How was it that their moment passed so quickly and unfairly? Or does that just make this album all the more perfect?

Smooch Records: www.smoochrecords.com