Reviews

Virgin Prunes

Over the Rainbow

The remarkable sonics of the Virgin Prunes were, admittedly, an acquired taste for most, but their mythic genesis and burgeoning art scars still held a generation of post punk miscreants in thrall across four LPs and a live album.  But scattered, too, amid four years of prolific recordings lay a veritable wealth of desiccated remains and outtakes, alternate versions, rarities and forgotten singles.  Enter, then, 1985’s Over the Rainbow compilation.

Gathering a hearty handful of such cast offs, this LP strove to present a side of the Prunes that had little to do with the pop rock face they were, by the mid-1980s, increasingly showing their public.  From the rare “Red Nettle”, previously only available on the Rough Trade/ NME cassette C81, to the delightfully titled “Jigsawmentallama” which was pressed as a flexi-disc and inserted into a 1981 issue of Vinyl magazine, the album was clearly compiled with the arch-collector in mind.  Unreleased material, too, abounded – the off kilter New Wave poem “King of Junk”, recorded during the If I Die, I Die sessions, the possibly inappropriately titled “Just a Love Song” and “The Happy Dead” were all hitherto unheard gems.

Of most interest to historians delving into the annals of art and process, however, is the captivating “Man Bird in the Wood”.  Recorded in Dublin in 1981, the song utilized looped tapes of the house’s pigeon population, as they beat themselves against the walls of unused upper rooms in an ultimately vain attempt at freedom in a process that was repeated nightly.  It’s songs like this that gave the Virgin Prunes both their audience and their enemies.

Although probably not for the casual listener or the faint of heart, Over the Rainbow is an absolutely crucial blueprint of the inner workings of this often overlooked band, an outstanding accompaniment to an oeuvre that is never easy, but always worth the effort. (AH http://www.allmusic.com)

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UZI

Sleep Asylum

Before powerhouse vocalist Thalia Zedek added her verve to New York’s no-wave band Live Skull, or fronted her own blues tinged Come during the 1990s, she was fulfilling, in part, the legacy Patti Smith left behind when she dropped from sight to raise her family at the end of the 1970s.

Fronting the little known, and even less remembered Boston band Uzi during the first half of the 1980s, Zedek spit her voice across a dark, underground rock that barely tempered the ferocity of her delivery. The group’s only album, Sleep Asylum, was racked in 1986 and displayed their skill at creating a wall of sound that didn’t depend on screamed vocals to front the din.  It was a godsend for Massachusetts no-wavers, who’d only previously been able to sample the band via the college circuit.

A delicious blend of gritty guitar, tape loops and heavy drum beats, the music was another slice of the pie served a la Sonic Youth and to a lesser extent, Big Black.  Packed with sophisticated melody that barely traps the menace, Sleep Asylum builds across the opening “Criminal Child” to the sweet fragility of “Gabrielle”, before launching into the balls out crash-bang nervous breakdown of “Ha-Ha-Ha”, which remains one of the band’s finest.  Nearly, but not quite outdoing that triumph, though, is the hypnotic “Collections”, which roils around guitar and drums and some otherworldly chant before Zedek’s vocals weigh in to pose the question “Would you let me inside your house, would you like to push me inside out? Someone should dare.”  With that delicious intent and her bludgeoned come-on cutting through the music, one can only wonder if anyone would have.  Probably not.

This album, an early Homestead release, remains devilishly hard to find, but is well worth the price.  Sleep Asylum is one of the American Underground’s long forgotten secrets, a bit of archeology that, in its own way, helped set the scene for the drone of music’s future. (AH http://www.allmusic.com)

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Sad Lovers and Giants

Epic Garden Music

Working hard to further their penchant for hashing together paisley underground psychedelia and classic post punk, Sad Lovers & Giants followed their first two acclaimed singles with the hefty EP Epic Garden Music in fall 1982. With a delicious blend of gloomy guitar and bass infused with punch and verve that recalls early Cure, and a sophisticated wordplay that was uniquely their own, the quintet split the songs between Seaside and Countryside in between earth and air, and inflected a little of each into the music.

Absolutely cohesive and completely on track, the songs on this set are slick and smooth.  From the opening “Echoplay”, and the foggy “Clocktower Lodge”, which walk a quiet edge, to the pure pop of “Alice (Isn’t Playing)” and the ominous closer “Far From the Sea”, which sounds as if vocalist Garce sang his part through a window outside the studio, each moment is a masterpiece.  And, though most of the songs maintain similar tempo and intensity, “Clint” snaps heads around, while “Lope” features a sublimely off-kilter sax solo from David Wood.  It’s an addition that brings the closing dregs of a traveling circus to mind ñ or, perhaps in a nod to the side’s vibe, a closing seaside town that has turned a woolen shoulder to November wind and rain.

Sorely overlooked outside of England, Sad Lovers & Giants may have been lost in the wake of the post punk generation’s heroes, but they haven’t been forgotten. They remain a small pearl ñ a gem of the ocean that birthed them. (AH http://www.allmusic.com)

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The Last Poets

The Last Poets

Brutally honest and beautifully truthful, The Last Poets’ eponymous 1970 debut would become one of proto funk’s most seminal sets.  The album itself soared to the top of the R&B charts and reached respectably into the pop charts as well – an astonishing feat for such a politically charged LP.  The album’s rise was made especially bittersweet as vocalist Abiodun Oyewole was sent to prison for robbery.

Pulling out the primal vocal essences that would later lie just in the background of any great funk song, and bringing them straight to the front, The Last Poets layered street poetry and manifesto over sparse instrumentation and tribal beats.  But, in so doing, they created a unique landscape that reflected a pure passion for sound, for words, for the revolution of education.  It was a formula to which rap would later owe an enormous debt.

From beginning to end, it would be easy to label this album simply spoken word.  But it is testament to the brilliance of The Last Poets that it also becomes so much more.  This is perhaps best heard in the outstanding opener “Run, Nigger”. As Oyewole laid his poetry across spare percussion, the stage was set for a vocal subtext which allowed poetry to become song as voices became instruments.

This opener set the tone for the rest of the album as The Last Poets utilized the same construction with subtle variations across other gems “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”, “New York, New York” and “When The Revolution Comes”.   At no time does The Last Poets falter or fail to please.  And perhaps more importantly, it will always be as vital, alive and fresh as it was the day it was recorded. (AH http://www.allmusic.com)

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Steve Miller

Children of the Future

A psychedelic blues rock out, 1968’s Children Of The Future marked Steve Miller’s earliest attempt at the ascent that brought him supersonic superstardom.  Recorded at the Olympic studios in London, with storied producer Glyn Johns at the helm, the set played out as pure West Coast rock, inflected with decade-of-love psychedelia, but intriguingly cloaked in the misty pathos of the UK blues ethic.

Though band mate Boz Scaggs contributed a few songs, the bulk of the material was written by Miller, while working as a janitor at a music studio in Texas earlier in the year.  The best of his efforts resonate in a side one free-for-all that launches in with the keys and swirls of the title track, and segues smoothly through “Pushed Me Through It” and “In My First Mind”, bound for the epic, hazy, lazy, organ-inflected “The Beauty Of Time Is That It’s Snowing”, which ebbs and flows in ways that are continually surprising.

The second half of the LP is cast in a different light, a clutch of songs that groove together, but don’t have the same sleepy flow.  Though it has since attained classic status – Miller himself was still performing it eight years later – Scaggs’ “Baby’s Callin’ Me Home” is a sparse, lightly instrumentalized piece of good old 60s San Francisco pop.  His “Steppin’ Stone”, on the other hand, is a raucous, heavy handed blues freak out with a low riding bass and guitar breaks that angle out in all directions.  And whether the title capitalized at all on the Monkees similarly titled song, released a year earlier, is anybody’s guess.

Children Of the Future was a brilliant debut.  And while it is certainly a product of its era, it’s still a vibrant reminder of just how the blues co-opted the mainstream to magnificent success. (AH http://www.allmusic.com)


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