Priest Picks #19: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to week #19 of Priest Picks. Instead of blowing a gasket this week, I again opted to take refuge in my default vices: rock and roll, record stores, and scooters. And the harder I rock, the more I spend, and the faster I ride (my scooter maxes out at around 55 mph), the closer I am to the tipping point. How do you know when you’re getting to the edge? Or are you heading off a cliff on your scooter like Jimmy from Quadrophenia? I’ll try to work my answer out in this week’s top 10 list. Ride on.
1. PROTOMARTYR / Ultimate Success Today
I put off listening to Protomartyr’s new record for quite a while as a form of self-preservation. I didn’t know if I was quite ready for it, to be honest. Singer Joe Casey just has a way of bringing the collective darkness of any situation into a semi-hazy focus and then turning on the lights. What we see isn’t always pretty, but it is often strikingly and horrifyingly relatable. It helps that he’s got one of America’s best bands behind him to create a backdrop befitting his intense ramblings. The record doesn’t waste any time capturing the tenor of the times (despite being recorded prior to the current virus/racial equality issues) in “Day Without End”: “This is the dawning of the day without end / When fear steps into light.” The song’s foreboding nature sets an ominous tone for what’s to come and things only get worse from there on “Processed By the Boys,” which opens with some of the most harrowing lyrics of the year: “When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal?” Personally, I was hoping for a good old-fashioned and painless meteor strike—I’d prefer not to run for my life when my time arrives. The song then startlingly goes on to predict both the pandemic and social unrest before it ends, “A foreign disease washed upon the beach,” and “against belief, a riot in the streets.” It’s clearly a lot to take in even for Casey, who begs for his pain to be taken away in “Tranquilizer” and then, once he gets his wish for a drug-aided dream state, suffers through manic delusions and disturbing visions in order to get to a place of hard-won clarity, “Wake me up / Let me live out my hours in a world that’s on the level.” If this sounds a little much for you, hang tight. Not only will you hear a vital and original rock band in its element, but you’ll also leave with some positive energy from Casey, our frightened and frantic navigator, “I wish you well, I do / May you find peace in this world / And when it’s over / Dissolve without pain.” Not exactly a Hallmark moment, but what else could we expect at this point?
2. CORIKY / Coriky
In usual understated Dischord Records fashion, we now have another band featuring label head Ian MacKaye in a key role. It’s actually just the Evens (MacKaye and wife/drummer Amy Farina) with Joe Lally (of Fugazi) on bass. They could’ve called themselves the Odds now that they are a trio, which seems like a natural choice, but instead they’ve chosen a name that has no known meaning or origin. At Dischord, lack of promotion or explanation is a form of promotion and nobody does ‘less is more’ better than the legendary DC label. The less they hype it, the more interesting the project becomes. Or so it seems. And this is a very interesting project. Of course, any time you have MacKaye at the helm there’s going to be a little Fugazi built in to the sound and so it is here, albeit the more refined and patient Fugazi on the lines of the version we got on 2001’s underrated The Argument. Lally as always is a rock on bass, his heavy riffs tracking MacKaye’s pulsing electrical currents like a stalker. But what really makes Coriky sound like a justifiable new venture are Farina’s drums. They push the songs forward with precision strikes and there's not a one out of place or without purpose. Her vocals also provide a perfect counterpoint to MacKaye’s muscular, throaty vocals. Even better, they’ve brought some great songs with them for this venture. If you’re looking for sunshine, look elsewhere. “Clean Kill” appears to be a stereotypical day at the office until you realize drone strikes are being executed from inside its benign fabric-walled cubicles. Don't worry, everyone still gets a hard-earned coffee break. “Hard to Explain” seems to mirror our “Which side are you on?” political climate with its chorus, “Hard to explain, feels like everybody’s gone insane.” Like the Protomartyr album just discussed, which seemed to presage our current world, this album, too, was written pre-virus and pre-social unrest. (Or at least our current social unrest.) But “Have a Cup of Tea” argues that there’s a way out, “What has grown / Can be disowned / It’s not what you found / But what can be found in you.” We're better than this, in other words. Coriky’s new album never outright hammers you over the head with messages, but as with any project involving the impenetrable integrity of MacKaye, you can read between the lines and the ample spaces between instruments and find pretty much everything you’re looking for.
3. THROWING MUSES / Sun Racket
So much for 20/20 vision. Instead, we got the exact opposite this year—a bleak, hazy, blurred future with no rose-colored glasses in stock anywhere. This year has made me long for better days; days like I had back in the 90s, when I was buying records by the armful from thriving records stores and watching four-band bills at Metro in Chicago regularly. Days where adventurous rock bands still meant something and the order of the day was noise, glorious noise, made with real guitars and drums. It was the age of the alternative rock explosion and around every corner there was a band that could be your life (a concept first introduced by Michael Azzerad in his essential book about 80's and early-90's indie-rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life). Although not a part of that book, Throwing Muses could very well have been included. They existed in the book’s chosen sweet spot (1980-1991) and lasted into the alternative 90s and beyond before going mostly dormant in the early-2000s. But yet here we are in directionless, embattled 2020 with another Throwing Muses record, Sun Racket, and I’m happy to report Kristin Hersh and band have released a stellar rock album that sounds both fresh and nostalgic at the same time. It made me scramble back to my archives to revisit past records, which I’ve let sit for too long gathering dust, but the trip only reinforced how impressed I am with the current one. Still no appearance from co-founder Tanya Donnelly of course (her ship sailed nearly 30 years ago), but the good news is that Hersh has written some really great songs for this surprise return, revitalizing the band in the process. This does not sound like a band that’s now into their fifth decade. It does sound like a new band that wants to make cryptic pop songs and ignite them with crunchy guitars and pounding drums with total disregard for current trends. No wonder I like it. “Dark Blue” gives us a welcome primer on what that sounds like in practice and it’s wonderful to hear. “Bywater” pulls back the reins to show another side of the band, imagining a goldfish swimming in a toilet to be none other than the reincarnated Freddie Mercury. Sometimes it’s just best to go with it, especially when Kristin is in “full Hersh.” She’s never been one to follow convention, thankfully. Perhaps the record’s finest moment, “Bo Diddley Bridge,” pulls you into a netherworld created by Hersh’s poetic, abstract lyrics and when we get to the haunting chorus, “the bridge collapsing, the water waiting, who’s saving us?” it drifts into an ethereal plain that might repeat forever in some alternate reality. At least I hope it does. And the more the record unfolds, the more Kristin’s world makes sense to me. Without a doubt, I’d rather be in hers right now than the one 2020 has burdened us with. If things are going to be unclear for a while with no concrete resolution in sight, I’d rather suffer through it in a place where guitars and drums are back in style again.
4. RONNIE EARL AND THE BROADCASTERS / Rise Up
Ronnie Earl’s credentials as one of the best blues guitarists extant are beyond debate. But too often, chops can equate to a mystifying soullessness, too, as if the two concept were mutually exclusive. Show me a guitar god, and in many cases I’ll show you a boring album they've released. That’s not the case on Ronnie Earl’s new album, Rise Up, which, perhaps more than ever before in his long career, has a higher purpose in mind and the talent to execute on it. I haven’t been closely monitoring every blues record released this year, but I haven’t noticed many taking on the social unrest in our country right now. At least not yet. This album does just that, but with compassion and understanding, rather than an iron fist. It seems almost more powerful this way. And there’s no loss of that feeling during the instrumental tracks either, which is a tribute to Earl’s tone and restraint. It’s been said thousands of times, but the notes not played are as important than those played. Earl clearly understands that concept on a master's level. You can’t help but feel what he’s playing deep into your soul, which is what the truly great players are able to accomplish. The album opens with the civil rights anthem “I Shall Not Be Moved” and then moves into the instrumental “Blues for George Floyd,” which pairs the beyond soulful Hammond organ of Dave Limina (wow) with Earl’s mournful, purposeful guitar licks. It’s a fitting elegy for Floyd, despairing yet hopeful. Later Earl’s jaw-dropping band, including amazing singer Diane Blue, takes on Bob Dylan’s “Lord Protect My Child” to absolutely chilling effect. “Black Lives Matter” is another stunner, showing off the skills of a band that plays by intuition at this point after years together. Peppered throughout the 80-minute record (surely overlong—it would’ve been more effective if he saved a few tracks for the next record) are some moments combining both astonishing skill and deeply-rooted soul, perhaps none more head-shaking than “Blues for Lucky Peterson,” a song dedicated to the titular bluesman, a close friend of Earl’s. To me, this is what the blues is all about. Translating the pain felt by a heavy heart into profound music of deep emotional complexity. Sometimes, not a word needs to be spoken to get that passion across.
5. BUTCHER BROWN / “Cabbage”
If you’re looking for a beyond-cool groove record that mixes modern jazz with elements of funk and hip-hop then Richmond, VA’s Butcher Brown have what you seek. And let me just say this—if you’re not looking for this, you’d better have a pretty good explanation as to why not. “Cabbage” is the first single from the band's new album #KingButch (expect to regret that title in a few years) and from moment one, expect involuntary body movements as deep bass lines, blasting horns, and jittery funk take over for the first two-minutes. Then, it has the sense to simmer for a bit with some percolating electric piano only to meet up with the original groove on the back end. This is going to be a part of my permanent soundtrack for sure, but I haven’t decided how I’m going to deploy it just yet. Rest assured, I will not waste the opportunity when the time comes. And I will not be underdressed either.
6. THE CHICKS / “Gaslighter”
If any group deserves a retroactive pardon for an insensitive band name I’d vote for the Dixie Chicks, since rechristened the Chicks, who have shown more mental toughness over the years than just about any band in the universe. They told the truth, paid the price, and when challenged, reiterated the same truth, basically telling country radio to fuck themselves in the process. (And while you’re at it, country radio, please make it a dry, painful fucking, too—few deserve it more.) If this year’s “Gaslighter” single proves anything, it’s that the Chicks are still not ready to make nice just as they weren’t fourteen years ago when Taking the Long Way was unleashed. This year, same thing, different target. But this time it's personal. Natalie Maines takes on her money-grubbing, lying, cheating ex-husband for the entirety of the song’s 3:23 run time (much longer if you’re the aforementioned ex, I would assume) and the man in question should be thankful Natalie chose the relatively ancient "gaslighter" title instead of other, more descriptive options. Even so, it’s a glorious takedown with a giant, and I mean GIANT, chorus courtesy of ubiquitous pop production wizard Jack Antonoff (cloned surely). I generally get a little worried when he’s involved, but here it works brilliantly, like the finale of a fireworks display. If you're gonna bring a hammer down, make it a sledgehammer.
7. NOGA EREZ / “No News on TV”
Tel Aviv, Israel singer/songwriter Noga Erez uses music to work through her issues with the world. She's not alone. It’s not uncommon for musicians to use their art as a vehicle for releasing pent-up emotions, but now happens to be a time where there is a lot to fucking channel. Better strap a second satellite dish to your head so you can handle the increased traffic. So it’s no surprise she decided to move in the reverse direction and create a world totally in contrast to our current reality for this track. This is a world where there’s no news on TV, nothing to see on your phone, no financial inequity, no politics, no racism, and no violence. In this type of world, everybody is free--really free. Sound a bit delusional, right? Not necessarily. By creating this utopian ideal it only highlights how much work we have to do to get there, or as close to there as we can get. I think spending some time dreaming about what we could be rather than what we are makes perfect sense. It doesn’t hurt that it’s packaged as a bouncy little pop song either. Perhaps more people will tune in to this channel then.
8. OTHER MUSIC / Documentary
Even if you’ve never been record shopping in New York City, even if you’ve never been record shopping at all, this documentary is something you should watch. It tells the story of a small business and its important role in a community—even if that community is the largest and most densely populated community in the United States. When I first became aware of Other Music, one of New York’s most well-respected and revered record stores, I put a future visit on my record shopping “to do” list that I keep in the back of my mind (OK, I admit it—it’s in the front, right next to the fully retained lyrics to Styx’s Paradise Theater album). In my lifetime, I thankfully got to visit them three times. When I first arrived, I was shocked at how small the place was. If you’ve ever been to Amoeba Music in San Francisco (or Berkeley), you know what I mean—they have so much space and so many records, you could spend a week there and not get through them all. But Other Music was different. It's intent was to serve a smaller subsection of people who liked to live outside the box, which is why size didn't matter, but well-chosen, quality content did. That said, opening the store directly across the street from an existing Tower Records franchise at the time still seemed like a preposterous and doomed notion. But they assumed record people who shopped at Tower would also spend time at Other Music either before of after that visit. And soon, many dedicated patrons realized they preferred the smaller, more intimate and catered experience more. What they found, like I did, was a place with a lovingly curated selection of records and a staff with the know-how to act as a resource for potential customers. When I went there, I remember hearing the employees talking with customers about bands and records (which is not unusual in a record store although the conversations can get comically pretentious and nerdy at times), but in this store you could tell the discussions were exclusively directed at finding that particular customer, regardless of knowledge level, the next great record to match their personal music taste. And if they were open to it, suggestions on how they, too, could break out of their self-imposed boxes. That’s what every record store should strive for each day.
The film is extremely well made, full of moments that will make you laugh or shake your head in amazement. Among my favorites is a satirical video employees made where they shoot a customer in the back of the head after he starts in about the Garden State soundtrack--simply priceless (even the most tolerant clerks have a limit to what they can stand). And the story of a customer coming in during the mass panic during the 9/11 attacks to inquire if the new Dylan album was in stock is both darkly funny and profoundly sad simultaneously. But in the end, this is the story about music lovers trying to make their passion a full-time job. And it worked for a long while, until “progress” put them out of business. Watching this excellent documentary (released August 25th on Prime Video and other streaming services) was a cathartic experience for me, a lover of records, record stores, and the people who inhabit them. Although this was not my “home” record store, by the end of the movie I felt like it was. Every record fanatic will feel the same way. Anytime a community loses a beloved part of their past, it’s heartbreaking. When they lose an integral part of who they are as people, it’s devastating. Many record stores have fallen victim to modern convenience, but the saddest part is how many don’t even realize that something vital is missing—the community aspect of music. Late in the movie, as the store nears its inevitable end, I found myself close to tears, just like many of Other Music’s loyal customers. For record enthusiasts, this film is sadder than The Notebook and doesn't have a happy ending either.
For the record: On the wall of Other Music, there was a running list of the all-time best selling records at the store. Here are the Top 25.
1. Belle and Sebastian - If You’re Feeling Sinister 2. Air - Moon Safari 3. Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children 4. Kruder and Dorfmeister - K&D Sessions 5. Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out 6. Os Mutantes - Os Mutantes 7. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea 8. Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun 9. Arcade Fire - Funeral 10. Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs 11. Belle and Sebastian - Boy with the Arab Strap 12. Cat Power - Moon Pix 13. The Strokes - Is This It 14. Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One 15. Talvin Singh Presents Anokha: Sounds of the Asian Underground 16. Joanna Newsom - Milk-Eyed Mender 17. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights 18. Cat Power - Covers Record 19. Cornelius - Fantasma 20. Serge Gainsbourg - Comic Strip 21. Belle and Sebastian - Tigermilk 22. Godspeed You Black Emperor - Lift Your Skinny Fists 23. Amon Tobin - Permutation 24. DJ Shadow - Endtroducing 25. Animal Collective - Sung Tongs
9. PETE WAY (1951-2020)
Legendary and notorious UFO bassist Pete Way passed away in mid-August at the age of 69 with limited fanfare, so I’ve decided trumpet his life a bit before I end this week’s column. By all accounts, particularly his own, Way was one of the wildest rock stars of all time. He sub-titled his autobiography Confessions of Rock’s Most Dangerous Man and from the folklore surrounding him, arguments to the contrary seem futile. Some have said his lifestyle made Keith Richards’ appear routine and Ozzy Osbourne’s mild-mannered. A
pull-quote from his book’s dust jacket includes an eye-opening quote from Ozzy himself: “They call me a madman, but compared to Pete Way, I’m out of my league.” But somewhere between decadent episodes he also found the time to amass a pretty sturdy rock ‘n’ roll resume. He co-wrote most of UFO’s greatest songs, including “Lights Out,” “Mother Mary,” “Natural Thing,” “Only You Can Rock Me,” and “Too Hot to Handle,” among others, and was present for all of the band’s epic albums during the height of their popularity during the 1970s, culminating with Strangers in the Night, which ranks high on my Top 10 Live Albums of All-Time list. He also played with Ozzy on his Diary of a Madman tour (good lord) and hooked up with estranged UFO guitarist Michael Schenker along the way as well for a short gig. We’ll edit out his stint fronting the unfortunately named, and long forgotten, Waysted, which flamed out like the Hinderburg after a few futile attempts to go airborne. I once had the displeasure of catching a Pete Way solo gig at a local roadhouse and the novelty of being in the same small club as Way evaporated instantly when a hoarse and drunk Way regaled the elaborately mulleted crowd (one guy had what looked like a 2-pound brick of Ramen noodles attached to the back of his head—to this day it haunts me in my dreams) with one horrendously attempted UFO track after the next and a bunch of Waysted material that was at best unidentifiable. But, to his credit, he did seem like he was having a blast somehow. My guess is that he left thinking he was amazing. The incident didn’t dampen his past accomplishments for me one bit, however. I'm sure he probably expected to burn out long ago (instead of dying of complications after an “accident”), so every new day was a reason to celebrate among his friends and fans. One thing is for sure—few lived, for better or worse, with as much robustness as Pete Way. Lights out!
THE 10 SPOT
SCOOTERS IN ROCK & ROLL, PART 3
You can’t talk about “Scooters in Rock and Roll” for long without bringing the Who’s homage to Mod culture, Quadrophenia, into the discussion. “Mod” (short for “modernists”) culture actually predated the existence of the Who by several years, first appearing in direct contrast to the “rockers” who were a tougher breed of motorcycle-riding English boys decked out in denim and leather and soundtracked by the early, “dangerous” rock & roll rebels of the late-50s like Eddie Cochran, Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent, Elvis, and many others. Mods, on the other hand, were well-dressed scooter riders who liked hip jazz music initially before adopting beat-driven soul, ska, and British Invasion-styled bands of the later 60s. In other words, they were into the “next big thing” and were more forward thinking regarding fashion and music. We'd call them hipsters today. Did I fail to mention pills? Oh, yeah, and lots and lots of pills, too. No wonder mods and rockers were known to clash on the streets of London during the first half of the 60s.* The Who soon became a favorite of this group as a result of their beat-intensive early singles (“My Generation,” “Substitute,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “Happy Jack,” etc). A love affair was born. The Who’s Quadrophenia, released after the prime years of the Mod era had passed, wasn’t so much a love letter to mod culture as it was a takedown of its preposterous, superficial foundation. But the kids had to do something rebellious, right? It all seemed like a good idea at the time and even now seems kind of appealing if you ask me. Nothing has really changed when you think about it.
What made the era particularly cool, beyond the incredible music, were the scooters—the chosen conveyance of Mods everywhere (a slap in the face to motorcycle riders surely). Scooters were in their glory days back then, at the height of their popularity and, contrary to today (depending on those you ask), they were actually considered to be pretty damn cool. So much so, the kids really decked them out to be showpieces. How else to stand out from the crowd? The most common way to do so was to attach numerous additional side mirrors and/or headlamps to almost absurd levels in some cases (see photos). They could become quite a spectacle. In the Quadrophenia movie, there are some truly amazing scooters on display—including one ridden by
a then-unknown Sting (photo at left) in his role as Mod icon “Ace Face” (pre-Ace Frehley). Many of the scooters in the movie are classic Vespas, either actual, or modeled after, the classic GS 160 model favored by “real” Mods back in the day. (Although the main character Jimmy actually rode a Lambretta LI150 Series 3 until he flew off a cliff a la Thelma and Louise). From a design standpoint, the scooter has never looked better in my opinion than they did in the late-60s. There is just something vintage and cool about that era of scooter. These days, in the vast majority of cases, modern functionality and pricing-related compromises have sapped the scooter of its iconic design pedigree, which is a crying shame. If you want to revel in scooters as they were meant to be, and with an amazing soundtrack to boot, look no further than Quadrophenia.
*Famously, when the Beatles were asked if they were mods or rockers, Ringo smartly side-stepped the problematic issue by responding, “Um no. I’m a mocker.” Humor has always been a red herring, in this case deftly wielded to avoid official implied support for either group. (In truth, they were both, of course.)
Shout out to the Notorious RBG this week. You were a rock star in your own way and you, and your opinions, will be missed. We’ll have more music picks next week to help you keep your mind off the world. Until then, take care of yourself, your scooter (if applicable) and your records. Not in that order.