Priest Picks #3: Our Weekly Top 10
Happy Memorial Day all! Every Monday, holidays included, this is where you'll find ten loosely curated items of intrigue, anointed by the Pickled Priest himself. Lots of new music, some rediscovered old music, an album here, a song there, and perhaps an unclassifiable curiosity randomly tossed in at our pleasure. (Note: not ranked)
1. THE BUTTERTONES / Jazzhound
As I’ve stated, this list is in random order. From now on, however, I’m going to make the first entry Pickled Priest’s ‘Album of the Week’. It’ll be reserved for the record that made the biggest impact on me in the past seven days. This week, that record is The Buttertones’ new album, Jazzhound.
First, let’s dismiss some preconceptions. The name of the band makes them seem like a Holiday Inn lounge band (my mom was the hostess at such a lounge, so I know what I’m talking about—sometimes she’d let me watch from the back*). They are not. Nor are they a retro-rock band specializing in watered-down versions of hits from the 1950s. Second, the title of the record is Jazzhound, which would lead you to believe they are a jazz band. They are not. They’ve got a pretty diverse set of influences, and jazz may be in the mix, but that’s not their forte. Yet.
The Buttertones are a rock band from L.A. Any kind of rock will do depending on the song. (We don’t care about labels, man!) To understand the Buttertones, you’ve got to start with their versatile vocalist Richard Araiza, whose deep baritone reminded me of Ian Curtis, Morrissey, Orville Peck, Lux Interior and others depending on the song. There are a lot of great bands out there that will never make it because they lack that singer with the X-factor, that intangible quality that keeps eyes center stage. Araiza is that singer. Clearly the band also has supreme chops so he’s well supported throughout. “Phantom Eyes” kicks off with a late-night detective novel feel, but it’s “Denial, You Win Again” that brings the first double-take. A jangly track that’s begging for a Morrissey-esque vocal and actually gets it. “Fade Away Gently” proves a David Lynch film soundtrack could be an option at some point. “Dirty Apartment” and “Rise and Shine” sound like the great early singles of some British art-pop band from the mid-80s, but without any of the production baggage (but does keep the saxophone). “Bebop” is the record’s centerpiece, a Cramps-esque freak-out that takes you to the underground club where all the cool people hang out. It takes the record to another creative level and really doesn’t sound like anything from this century, or any century for that matter. A couple drape-closing slow jams on side two add some nuance, but “Velour” brings back the band for one last chance to demonstrate their versatility (when live music comes back, check their tour itinerary). The final track ends with Araiza turning into the title character I assume. A perfect surprise ending for a great album, one that is impeccably recorded, stylistically cohesive, instrumentally thrilling, mysteriously moody, and always exciting. If you want a record that sounds like nothing else this year, but also something that isn’t a “difficult” rock critic album that you have to listen to fifty times to unearth its brilliance, here it is. From listen one, you’ll love it.
*My personal favorite was Ernie Terrell and the Heavyweights. Ernie Terrell, a former boxer and one-time Heavyweight Champion of the World (1965-67), was a giant man and a pretty amusing frontman, as I remember. He went on to lose his title to Muhammad Ali in 1967 and the fight is featured in the movie Ali featuring Will Smith. Terrell had been calling Ali “Cassius Clay” prior to the fight, which pissed Ali off royally. So much so the fight went on to be known as the “What’s my name?” fight with Ali set on humiliating Ernie through a punishing 15 round. But Terrell got the last laugh by playing a quarter-full lounge at a Holiday Inn on notoriously seedy Mannheim Road, just East of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. My mom, on the other hand, was a saint, taking any work she could get to help feed her young family of five.
2. X / ALPHABETLAND
While we’re walking in L.A., here’s the latest from punk legends X. I would’ve loved to be on the scene in the early 80s when punk and Americana were co-existing on the same bill in some L.A. clubs. The Blasters, Los Lobos, the Germs, Descendents, X, et al. I once interviewed Steve Berlin of Los Lobos (for Magnet magazine) and he said L.A. in the 80s was like Paris in the 20s, “Anything was allowed and encouraged.” Why isn’t it like that all the time? I have always been attracted to bands that mix punk’s edginess with the authentic sounds of American roots (spawning the entire insurgent/alt-country genre I so love). The Blasters were a great example, but for me X stands the tallest. Their early records are undeniable classics from the golden age of the L.A. scene. Tandem vocalists John Doe and Exene Cervenka complemented each other seamlessly, with quick-picked guitarist Billy Zoom (who expertly brought the inherent danger of 50s rock and roll to the band), and drummer D.J. Bonebrake (one of the great drummer names) rounding out the original lineup. Over the years, personnel issues aside, they’ve managed to hold on to their primal energy with sets that made it appear time had stopped passing. Now in their 60s, except Zoom who has hit his 70s, they’re back with a unexpected album (it’s been 35 years since their last record with the original lineup) and to these ears it sounds like they haven’t lost much, if anything. This is a band destined to play together, with confidence to play it loose, and a desire to fix some past wrongs (“Delta 88 Nightmare,” an early demo, finally gets it due as does an improved version of the then Zoom-less See How We Are nugget “Cyrano de Berger’s Back” with an absolutely jumping Zoom sax added), and we even get a little state of the union address from Exene to wrap up the proceedings. Personally, I’m thrilled to have them back and will not play this record with a thought of their advanced ages in my mind. All I’ll be thinking about is how their love of rock and roll hasn’t diminished one bit over the years. (Fat Possum)
3. OSCAR BROWN JR. / Kicks! The Best of Oscar Brown Jr.
I’ve been spending a little time lately with Chicago’s very own OBJ, Oscar Brown Jr. Kicks! compiles the best of his glory years with Columbia Records in the early 60s when he was recording soulful jazz, big band tunes, jazzy standards, and some early R&B sides. Brown, an open Communist (for a while), a political activist (running for office twice), ground-breaking newsman, and black rights advocate, oddly also recorded his share of goofy songs over the years. “Mr. Kicks” might be described as “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Copacabana crowd. “The Snake” a fable about a woman who nurses an injured snake back to health only to die of the snake’s poisonous venom in the end clearly mines the “tiger can’t change his stripes” mentality, but what makes the song especially delightful is Oscar singing not only the role of the snake, but the woman, too! “Humdrum Blues” could be the sequestration theme song for 2020. And then there’s “But I Was Cool” about a man trying to keep his cool through a series of misfortunes, each time wailing like a baby in response only to muster up a “But I was cool” claim to save face. The song owes more than a little to wild man Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. There’s really no way to sum up the life and recording career of Oscar Brown Jr. in a short blurb like this, but one play of this great collection and I guarantee you’ll have a much greater appreciation for his many talents. (BGP)
4. GERRY CINNAMON / The Bonny
I can see why the unfortunately named Gerry Cinnamon* might not be everyone’s cup of tea (literally, that is, for he’s a Scottish folk troubadour who is unlikely to cross over into the states any time soon, but I could be wrong). A populist at heart, his rousing songs have gained the attention of the masses in the UK without much promotion or desire for attention (he’s playing to soccer stadiums full of fans and sold out a 50,000 capacity gig at Hampden Park in Glasgow). It’s nothing short of a phenomenon across the pond, but there’s been relatively little attention paid in the US so far. It’s a tough sell for Americans, in some respects. He has a heavy Scottish accent, uses local slang, and has a tendency to belt out all his songs like his boyhood hero Liam Gallagher. He’s so big, he’s graduated to backlash levels already. Some find his songs to be full of chuff with little substance (“This is the beginning of the rest of your life”). That may be, but there’s a time and a place for everything—I hear songs promoting a strong sense of togetherness (“The Bonny” in particular). Stirring even. It makes it easy to imagine the crowd at one of his shows; family’s uniting over the same singer, mates singing together arm-in-arm, all sharing one common thread. This is a distinctly and unapologetically working class record that seems to be the tie that binds in a community where many are going through hard times. He’s earned his status as a singer of the people based on uncompromising honesty and openness—to his credit, he takes no shit, suffers no fools (except himself and his goofy bowl-cut hair, perhaps). “I wouldn’t pay no mind to your opinion/Even if you had one.” But there’s more to Gerry’s words than easy sloganeering, “These are dark days” he sings, but “These are the best days you’re ever gonna have.” It’s a eye-opening realization many can identify with—things are not good, but they may not get any better either. Perhaps the best bet, then, is to trust we’ll look back and remember these days together fondly someday. It’s a unifying and galvanizing moment. Predictably, not all of his material carries the same heft (“Six String Gun”), and his belting style can be a little much in one dose (unless you're rocked on Guinness, I imagine), but there’s no denying the passion at its core. You can decide if this is for you, but Gerry won’t be upset if you dismiss him. The last line of the album sums it up, “Every man’s truth/Is another man’s waste of time.”
*Real name, Gerard Crosbie, which is a perfectly fine name and one he should’ve stuck with in retrospect (there’s still time). He changed his surname to Cinnamon when fronting his first band, The Cinnamons. So, it looks like we’re doomed to call this guy Gerry Cinnamon for all eternity or until his 15 minutes are over, whichever comes first.
5. JUNIORE / Un, Deux, Trois
This is exactly what I wanted when I ordered the new record by French rock band Juniore. Of course, I got the seductive blasé female lead vocal that makes me glisten with a sheen of nervous perspiration. I also got that hip underground 60s cabaret vibe that provides the illusion of temporary coolness. But this isn’t a genre exercise entirely. Juniore has, for simplicity’s sake, named their sound “yé-yé noir” in homage partly to the French girl pop from the 60s that we all love, but have added an air of back alley intrigue to it by recording it in HD. Everything is sharper, tones are deeper, production more dynamic. Like choosing a light French croissant at the patisserie and discovering it’s as heavy as a brick. They’ve made the guitar strings sound weighty, the bass ominous, the organ keys thick fingered. It’s no wonder they landed a song on Killing Eve this season (and if you’ve seen the show, that matches its exact vibe). As with any record not in our native language, the lyrics become just another part of the music (unless you spend some time translating, which I haven’t felt the need to do here). This is exquisite scene setting music at its core and I’m betting you need a change of scenery right now. Here’s your chance. (Outre)
6. LEWSBERG / In This House
I’m pleased I stumbled upon In This House, the new record by Lewsberg, who hail from Rotterdam, Netherlands. It’s an easy record to miss because in most ways they don’t appear to be trying too hard. They’ll muster up a catchy little rhythm now and then, add some meandering instrumentation here and there, and most of the time, add some seemingly tossed-off lyrics most casually spoken with an awkward Dutch accent or lightly sung as if forced to do so at gunpoint. “The Cold Light of Day” starts with a lazy groove Vulgar Boatmen, Velvet Underground, and Television fans might appreciate and fashions some disaffected lyrics about the paradoxical nature of daily life to go along with it (“Who you are and who you think you are/ What you take and what you take too far”). What really threw me off the scent of this band is a dark turn of mind that surfaces now and then. In “The Door,” we hear “I know I can make you smile/And since you haven’t in awhile/It might be kind, but I won’t” followed by some haunted house noises that eventually drift into the ether. What the fuck just happened? Can anyone explain it to me? Moments later, in the lo-fi Televsion-esque “Through the Garden” someone named Jenny blows her head off in the track’s first 40 seconds and there’s again no clear resolution. “Standard Procedures” ends the album with some hopeful mantras, “In this house we make mistakes/Moving sideways, looking ahead/In this house we never give up.” Finally, we’re getting somewhere concrete! And then the song drifts into free-form guitar for the next three-plus minutes and I’m left staring blankly at the wall craving closure. Was that the whole message? What do I take from this? I must say, I have a strange attraction to this album. I’ll probably return to it every once in a while to try to figure it out. (Cargo)
7. DO NOTHING / Zero Dollar Bill EP
This Nottingham, UK band has just dropped their debut EP, Zero Dollar Bill, and it’s loaded with promise. The first time I listened to it, I played it three times straight in order to pick out my favorite moments (total time spent = 52 minutes). Singer Chris Bailey (not the Chris Bailey of Saints fame) is a compelling whirligig, initially recalling Mark E. Smith of the Fall, sometimes Tim Darcy of Ought, and a host of other post-punk influences along the way. He spews shards of found lyrics, locking onto a quotable phrase now and then (“The results are in and it looks like everybody gets a big old slice of nothing” or “Say something, goddamnit, you’re on TV!”) and then moves on to some other thought plucked from the stratosphere. Bailey is expectedly backed by choppy drums and angular* guitars—the usual concoction of the experimental—but the math adds up to something special. Start with the single “LeBron James” and go from there. (Exact Truth)
*I had no choice but to use the word “angular” in this instance. According to Michael Azerrad’s hilarious book Rock Critic Law: 100 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Music, “Whenever citing post-punk, you MUST describe it with at least one of the following: ‘spiky,’ ‘angular,’ or ‘arty.’” That said, I did fail in my Juniore segment above to call the lead singer a “chanteuse” as required by the same book (“Remember: any French female singer is a ‘chanteuse.”) I’m not sure what the penalty would be for such an offense. While on the subject of the book, there are some entries with which I take issue. One being, “You are prohibited from saying anything bad about the following: Michael Jackson, the Beatles, the Ramones, Wu-Tang Clan, Björk, Radiohead, Taylor Swift, Talking Heads, Fugazi, and Abba.” With a copyright from 2018, there’s no excuse for including Jackson as absolving a pedophile is unforgivable. Even worse, implying that Radiohead’s post Kid A output should go uncriticized calls into question Azzerad’s overall credibility. Perhaps he was joking.
8. THE MAGNETIC FIELDS / Quickies
Not the best timing, this one. The last thing we need right now is quickie. What we really need is a long, slow fuck. The full Barry White, if you know what I’m saying. Instead, we get 28 songs that zip by in an efficient 47 minutes with no song longer than 2:35 and as short as 0:17 (the feel good gem “Let’s Make a Death Pact”). This gift, no sarcasm intended, is the latest conceptual work from Stephin Merritt, the mastermind of previous concept albums, i (14 songs starting with the letter “i”), 50 Song Memoir (one song representing each year of his life to date), and his career masterpiece 69 Love Songs (self-explanatory). Merritt has always had a dry, demented sense of humor and Quickies is his outlet for a bunch of little fucked-up ideas that tickle the funny bone and move on before they become tiresome. It’s the way relationships were meant to be in the first place! Truthfully, I can’t tell you how long “The Biggest Tits in History,” about a woman who raises small birds to intercept drones for the government, is going to make me smile, but it hasn’t worn out its welcome yet (although if you want to look up a picture of a tit (bird) on the internet, use caution). I’m always up for a little double entendre, but thankfully the record also offers several stabs of morbid fun. On “The Day the Politicians Died” the world rejoices, on “Kill a Man a Week” a plot to eradicate men has the titular prescription, and fantasies of early demise populate “My Stupid Boyfriend.” It’s fun to indulge this side of your personality—much like delighting in an Edward Gorey limerick. There’s plenty of lighthearted fair, too. (Did I mention one song alludes to a penis being cooked and eaten?) Perhaps my favorite is “When the Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit,” which features this couplet: “When the kid upstairs discovered ska/— the genre to which one jumps—/She pogoed up and down the floor/The ceiling fell in clumps.” Funny, yes. As it turns out, these little moments of levity, economically packaged for a beleaguered world, are just what we need right now. (Nonesuch)
9. SPARKS / A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
Prepare yourself for something pretty remarkable. A record from a band (led by brothers Ron and Russel Mael) that released their debut way back in 1971, and now 23 records and almost 50 years later, have graced us with this wonderful curiosity that is more vibrant than almost any record I’ve heard this year—and its creators are 74 and 71 years-old respectively! My favorite song (today) is about a guy who loves his lawnmower (“Your lawn will be a showstopper/Your lawn will be a jaw-dropper”). What the song tells us is that anything is fair game for Sparks and you’ll never know what comes next. And that’s not a throwaway phrase, either. I’ve never meant it more. I certainly didn’t expect the record to end with an environmental anthem complete with angelic boys choir singing “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World.” (I checked: no co-write for Greta Thunburg). Make a little room for Sparks in your life. Call it what you want—absurd cabaret or maybe off-Broadway pop—but it’s undoubtedly unlike anything else, which is reason alone to allow it into your life. If this record proves anything it’s that no matter how old you get, you can’t bleach out the weird. (BMG)
10. TRIUMPH / “American Girls”
RECKLESS KELLY / “American Girls”
Believe it or not, there are surprisingly few songs about American girls. There are songs about California girls, Southern girls, and New York girls, but very few celebrating American girls in toto (Tom Petty’s “American Girl” doesn’t count because he’s technically writing in the singular and not about our girls collectively). Before today I knew of only one*, Triumph’s “American Girls,” from their 1979 LP Just a Game (which also featured two of their all-time greatest songs “Lay it On the Line” and “Hold On”). Triumph’s “American Girls” is a ham-fisted tribute at best from the Toronto based band and I would bet Canadian girls weren’t thrilled when singer Gil Moore proclaimed “I’ve been all around the world and back/And here’s what I’ve got to say/The ladies I love are living in the U.S.A.” Don’t shit where you eat, you stupid Canucks (Maple Leafs wouldn’t have worked there). If that line wasn’t as bad as soggy poutine, exacerbating the cheese to gravy ratio is the faux mid-song P.A. announcement, “Gentlemen please rise and salute American girls,” complete with a few bars of "The Star Spangled Banner" for good measure. I loved this song when I was 15 years old (“American Girls” that is, not “The Star Spangled Banner,” a song I’ve always thought was overworked and amelodic, especially if you want to dig into the subsequent stanzas which couldn’t even be bailed out by a reanimated Whitney Houston). If it weren’t for some wicked Rik Emmett shredding, we’d have zero reason to play the song ever again and needless to say our girls deserved something better than this.
Which brings us to Reckless Kelly, who have ended the drought by giving us another “American Girls” to consider albeit 40 years later. I admit, no shits given about Reckless Kelly since they debuted over 20 years ago and I couldn’t name one of their songs other than the two I downloaded last week. I may have missed the boat on these guys the first ten times they docked as I was pleasantly surprised by “North American Jackpot” the first single from their new double-LP (a questionable decision) American Jackpot/ American Girls. Pleasing to the ear, not over the top, good vocal, tasteful instrumentation, ambitious subject matter…very nice. It didn’t take long before I locked onto “American Girls” well down the track list, so I skipped ahead half hoping for a Triumph cover, half hoping for the definitive song about American girls. I got neither. Mostly just another “been around the world and back” type song with a predictable payoff, “There’s nothin’ like them American girls/Man ain’t they somethin’”. Is that really the best chorus we can come up with? I guess the song is pleasant enough and might sound pretty good on a hot summer night or at bonfire somewhere, but I’m still waiting for that one song that fully contemplates the true depth and majesty of our American ladies.
(Triumph: RCA; Reckless Kelly: No Big Deal)
*Counting Crows has a song named “American Girls,” but I couldn’t justify listening beyond the 2-minute mark, plus it isn’t an outright tribute to American girls anyway, so no harm done.
That's the list for this week. Blessings to all and if that doesn't work, do I have to say it? Get yourself a couple new records.