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19 March 2012

Dead Kennedys - 'In God We Trust, Inc.' (Alternative Tentacles/Faulty Products)

I forgot I had this DK's EP and then got pretty excited to listen to it when it came up next in this never-ending alphabetical death march. In God We Trust, Inc. is a major step away from the surf-bounce that underpins Fresh Fruit; it makes it's presence known rather quickly with 'Religious Vomit'. East Bay Ray's often inventive guitar leads are mostly absent on this record; instead we get the furious thrash-punk you know they were capable of (and is heard most certainly on Fresh Fruit songs like 'I Kill Children', but here it's more aggro, sharper). There's little correlation to the goofy, performative punk we heard before, except at the end of side two (with 'Bigger Problem Now' and the cover of 'Rawhide'). Side one blazes past; Biafra is spitting out words, often unintelligibly, and getting through a lot of lyrics in little time. The targets are the usual - religion, the medical industry, poor environmental regulations - and the subtlety nearly non-existent. But can you argue with lyrics like 'All religions make me wanna throw up / all religions make me sick' / All religions suck'? (I, more or less, concur). The production is piss-poor; everything is an indistinct cacophony of solid-state amps, and this platter spins at 33rpm for some reason when a faster mastering job might have helped. On side two, Biafra begins by commenting on how we're hearing take four of an "overproduced" Martin Hannett recording of 'Nazi Punks Fuck Off'. Of course, it's the best-sounding jam on the record, but it's not really produced by Hannett. 'We've Got a Bigger Problem Now' shines light onto why this is a tighter, angrier DKs; it's a redux of 'California √úber Alles', this time chronicling the more terrifying reality of the Reagan presidency. And that's where it all makes sense; Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was a product of the Carter administration; there really was a bigger problem by 1981, and it didn't turn out well for anyone. Except the super rich, of course. This version is practically a novelty track, beginning with a (actually lovely sounding) lounge/swing take, full of 7th chords and false swagger. Jello's doing his thing here, maybe the genesis of his spoken word/extemporaneous style he'd build his later career around; it actually reminds me of some of the Sun City Girls recordings featuring Uncle Jim. When it kicks in, we finally hear the scary clown-vibrato of his voice which is largely absent on this EP (or else it's just produced so badly we can't hear it). I remember when among the frustration of George W Bush stealing the 2000 presidential election, one of my friends pointed out that "Well, at least this will usher in a new golden era of punk and hardcore." This may or may not have happened (I largely checked out of that world, unfortunately), but it's interesting to think how this particular subculture might have developed had Reagan never taken office. I'm sure DKs would have kept writing songs like 'Let's Lynch the Landlord', but what about artists like Black Flag? The Minutemen? Camper Van Beethoven? I sure wish Reagan had lost, but let's at least see this as a (very very tiny) silver lining.

13 March 2012

Dead Kennedys - 'Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables' (Cherry Red)

The first time I bought Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was in 8th or 9th grade, at a local chain store called Camelot Music. The format of choice, of course, was the cassette, and I rocked the shit out of this tape in my high school years. The political-themed satire was not lost on my young mind, nor were the fast tempos and rocking guitars. I loved Dead Kennedys, even delving into Jello Biafra's spoken word records (which I actually used to own on vinyl! Hooray for podcasts in expensive formats). Listening now, I still think the band never made a record better than this, but they're also playing in a really weird style that I didn't pick up on when I was young. Dead Kennedys really don't sound like anyone else, ever, even in punk. It's too melodic for hardcore, and too theatrical overall. They have a strange surf-music edge that cuts through everything else, and then Biafra who sing-shouts like a rabid animal being electrocuted (which inadvertently made him one of the unique vocal stylists in all of rock music, though he'll never be recognised as such). Biafra actually wrote the words and music to the majority of these songs and he has tendencies towards Phil Spector-style 60s pop. If you don't believe it, listen to 'Let's Lynch the Landlord', which is pretty much a bouncy Ronettes song with novelty lyrics. But DKs are too sophisticated to be novelty music, even novelty punk, and there are moments of genuine anger at the forthcoming Reagan 80s throughout the lyrics. All are readable, of course, on the brilliant Winston Smith collage if your copy is lucky enough to have one included. Mine wasn't, but then a few years ago at a flea market in Scotland I found a copy of this record with the actual LP missing, but collage intact. And as political theatre, Biafra is hilarious, since the punk song is the perfect format to taunt without needed footnotes or citations. Some of Fresh Fruit's finest moments are the less pointed ones, such as 'Stealing People's Mail' or the brilliant 'Your Emotions' (written by guitarist East Bay Ray). But the high point of the whole record comes from former guitarist 6025's contribution, 'Forward to Death', which is a perfectly articulated burst of pure nihilism. It feels out of place on Fresh Fruit, probably suiting a different band, which is probably why 6025 was out of the picture by the time they recorded this. But thank Franken-Christ that they still recorded it. His other contribution, 'Ill in the Head', contains a bit of edgy guitar interplay that is another reminder how precisely good DKs are as a rock band. The two most famous songs from this album are 'Holiday in Cambodia' and 'California Uber Alles', both of which I've listened to so many times I can't even hear them anymore. That 'California' was articulate enough to critique Jerry Brown for neoliberal populism is remarkable, I suppose. But the twisted cover version of 'Viva Las Vegas' which closes the album is maybe the truest expression of Biafra's America - a messy ball of chaos and vapidity which, despite his anger, he secretly loves.

12 March 2012

The Dead C - 'The Operation of the Sonne' (Siltbreeze)

An old friend of mine (who I have mentioned before, such is his influence on my own musical development - and he reads this blog. Hi!) once told me about a crazy drunken stoned fling he had. The woman in question actually had a Dead C tattoo, a story that I found incredible on many levels, but especially because it was not a tattoo of the Dead C logo, but of the band itself. On her chest, if I remember his tale correctly, she had the comic-book drawing of messrs. Morley, Russell and Yeats rocking out - the same drawing which adorns the label of side 2 on The Operation of the Sonne. If you're still out there, mystery woman, come to me. In the meantime, there's a tear in my eye for this, the last vinyl foray for this band that we'll cover. Operation is a departure, though that's an easy assessment to make for a record built around only three songs, and only one of them resembling a "regular" Dead C song (a la 'Power', 'World', etc). What really makes this a departure is the experimental nature of the jams. There's electronic elements present, spazzing everywhere on side 1 and dominating 'Mordant Heaven' (which may bear some resemblance to Trapdoor's 'Heaven'). Like a car alarm soaked in despair, 'Mordant Heaven' is about the battle between the guitar riff and the repetitive synth loop, or ring modulator, or whatever it is. But 'Mordant' is actually the most conventional Dead C track here. The opener, 'The Marriage of Reason and Squalor', is an epic, smashing beast where Bruce Russell recites some hermetic text, the biggest nod to his occultist tendencies we've yet encountered. It's deep, not necessarily in lyrical content but in thick slabs of low-mid greasepaint. It might be the most memorable track here, but it ain't the best - that award goes to 'Air', which is the entirety of side two. 'Air' is aptly named, and almost non-existent at points. The first 75% of this (as well as much of the record, to be honest) is Yeatsless, unless he is playing guitar or radio static or something. Throughout, guitars try to start a riff, actually proceeding from the more angular, disjointed side heard on the last track of Clyma. But do they get anywhere? It's hard to say - every bit of direction seems to change. At times they sound combative, at other times, unaware. There's a slow procession towards silence, and the middle section of 'Air' is a long, slow breath. This could have got them signed to Kranky, in 1994, if they cared. Then, the volume level jumps, like a recording error more than anything, and we get the group jam you've all been waiting for - except we really don't, because it resists every urge to thrash about and make a ruckus. It's not so much a kinder, gentler Dead C as it is a Dead C more interested in free currents. But there's something still so anti- about it all for me; you fill in your own blanks. Things change after this - The White House, Repent and Tusk close out their Siltbreeze years and also are CD-only I believe - and though those records have many, many, merits, it's really the beginning of Phase II.

11 March 2012

The Dead C - 'Clyma Est Mort/Tentative Power' (Ba Da Bing!)

Here we go again, but I don't think there's anything I need to say about Clyma Est Mort again, since I posted a review only moments ago -- but I did listen to it again, and I must say the Ba Da Bing reissue does sound better: brighter, louder, and more dynamic. Whether this is due to some remastering job, the thicker vinyl, or just my own psychosomatic imagination, I don't know. But we'll talk here about Tentative Power, a 12" EP included here as the other half of the gatefold. At first glance this might appear to be some of the Trapdoor Fucking Exit tracks in a different sequence, but listening actually reveals them to be different recordings. 'Hell Is Now Love' and 'Bone' come from a 1991 Siltbreeze 7" and both versions are reedy and clangy compared to their TFE counterparts. The first featured an even more nervous run through 'Love' than what's on the CD, with Morley's vocals unusually high, causing me to double check that this was actually supposed to be at 45rpm (it is). 'Power' and 'Mighty' are always welcome - how many versions can there be? - and these come from a Forced Exposure 7" also from '91. 'Power' in particular takes it's time to get revved up, and the reverberations sound brilliant on this. The two obscurities are at the end - 'Radiation', an meandering jam with an organ, and another version of 'Power' from 2006 (!), subtitled 'Fallujah version'.  This is probably the least remarkable, apart from the presence again of an organ of keyboard in the distance -- but 'Power' always retains a certain, well, power. 

8 March 2012

The Dead C - 'Clyma Est Mort' (Siltbreeze)

I suppose this is the live album that Tom Lax praises in the liner notes to the CD issue of Eusa Kills, which is a shameless bit of self-promotion since he was responsible for releasing it. I forgive him, cause he's right - this is an essential document of what a brilliant band sounded like at the peak of their powers. That it's actually a "fake" live album is irrelevant -Lax has detailed the construction and release of this record in a Volcanic Tongue column, which I can refer you to. But of course it's live - just not in front of an audience! The album starts off with a sludgy, dim wall of detuned guitar, and when Morley's voice breaks in, it's like dawn breaking through the clouds. How appropriate that the track is called 'Sunshine'! The improvisatory nature of Clyma Est Mort is evident and also familiar by this point. There's lyrics, though they seem fairly improvised on jams like 'Dirt for Harry' and 'Electric' : "Shave your legs, shave your arms!" It's a good mix of hits and less familiar tunes; side two gets into the more aggro/hardcore side seen on the Dead C vs. Sebadoh single ('Highway' and 'Ein Kampf, Ein Seig'), and this take on 'Sky' is probably their best recorded one (not counting the YouTube version already alluded to). This 'Sky' has a fat undertow that drags throughout, sputtering into a weirdly unidentified radio broadcast. And, how about 'Electric'? The guitar is a sinister buzz-saw and it slowly gurgles and erupts, like it never wants to end. On the flip is a slow, heavy take on 'Power' that might also be the definitive version. It sounds like 100 layers of screeching guitars, assembled in a raging maelstrom that takes the best Lee/Thurston jams and casts them into another dimension. Yeats propels it along, climaxing when needed, conveying the lyrics 'take your fucking shit out of here' with the utmost urgency yet languid thumping. The jam out on the end is utter fucking magic. After a nice take on 'World' (Lax's favourite tun of their) the album closes with 'Das Fluten, Das Fluten (Oh Mama I can't go)', a real Dead C oddity as it's a Beefheart styled jam. In a band with so many versions of their classic songs, and so much overlap, it might seem like overkill, particularly if you listen to a bunch of these in a row like I have. But like most of the multi-record gauntlets in this project, I've found a renewed passion for these records when listened to in a linear way, and right now I feel like I could keep going even if they had 100 more versions of 'Power' to sort through.