Friday, February 28, 2014

Taxes-Overdue—On the Charts: I.R.S. Records 1979-1994

The nice thing about not experiencing things until many years after they initially occurred is that you can assess them based on their aggregate track record and see if they held up over time rather than get caught up in the initial hype and then peer back through rose-colored lenses, seeing only darkly. Such is the case with the CD compilation “On the Charts: I.R.S. Records 1979-1994. The once hallowed Ground Zero for many of the acts that played on the stage of what came to be known as Alternative, I.R.S. Records is now consigned to the dustbin of history. But the music lives on—at least some of it. Other parts have more in common with the AMC TV series “The Walking Dead.” Having nearly untainted non-memories of the music on this release, I relished the chance to take it for a spin.

There are the usual suspects on this disc such as Go-Go’s, R.E.M. and Oingo Boingo. However, some one-hit wonders and cult favorites also managed to elbow their way onto this platter including Wall of Voodoo, Timbuk 3 and The Alarm. Being a usual suspect, as one would suspect is not necessarily a good thing. For Go-Go’s and Belinda Carlisle (Go-Go’s lead singer as a solo act), being a usual suspect only breeds contempt with more familiarity. On the “Our Lips are Sealed” cut Go-Go’s seem stuck-stuck in the teen-angst ridden 80s crooning out their siren song to the junior high school students at the end of the stagflation era. The song was probably better before I knew all the lyrics. Carlisle’s venture on her own on “Mad About You” just seems sad now, which is an improvement over the pathetic categorization of when it was issued. What little street cred Carlisle built up during the short lifetime of Go-Go’s was completely squandered on this total sellout designed to cash in on the mid-80s boomlet of girl pop from the likes of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany.

More refreshing is how R.E.M. has endured on their breakout “The One I Love,” the guitar lines ringing out crisp and true as the day they were recorded. Even Michael Stipe’s limited vocals have aged well like wine. Oingo Boingo is a bit of an in-betweener. Not a smash hit machine like Go-Go’s or R.E.M. but neither were they unfamiliar with heavy radio rotation. Having had more success later on about the time of their appearance in the Rodney Dangerfield guilty pleasure comedy “Back to School” as the house band at the dorm party before leader Danny Elfman departed for full-time movie scoring in Hollywood, this disc goes back to their early period for “Only a Lad.” On this one, Elfman’s intelligent lyrics are very much in evidence against the thieving pyromaniac Johnny Boy, the en-titled “lad.”

Wall of Voodoo’s MTV favorite “Mexican Radio” still retains all the novelty of when it first graced the airwaves—can you ever forget the line “I wish I was in Tijuana | Eating barbequed iguana” once you've heard it? Meanwhile, duo Timbuk 3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” is still as clever as ever and nearly as hard to resist following along singing the chorus “Things are goin' great | And they're only gettin' better.” Which brings me to a song I’d nearly forgotten and am the better for remembering, The Alarm’s “Rain in the Summertime.” It came as a revelation, nearly a secular prayer, the drums and bass taking me away to the heavens as they open up. Not a bad performance from the group once burdened by the sobriquet “the poor man’s U2.”

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Millions for Defense: A Call to Irons (Iron Maiden Tribute)

The tribute album concept has been around for a few years. With torchsong albums dedicated to Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix and others on the shelf, you would think anyone worthy of being done homage was already covered. However, a group that many in the public had overlooked but not the 90s generation of heavy metal and heavy music ensembles is the one-and-only Iron Maiden. With revisionism all the rage, perhaps Maiden can find its way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day, seeing how now even RUSH has made it.

On this 11-track retrospective of Iron Maiden music, “A Call to Irons” (1998) contains a continuum of interpretations of the classic headbangers’ repertoire. The disc kicks off with Steel Prophet charging through “Ides of March/Purgatory.” What the take lacks in over-the-top treatment is more than made up for with raw energy. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the group did it in one take live in the studio.

Ancient Wisdom goes in a different direction laying down “Powerslave” as a more guttural growler—quite the departure from Bruce Dickinson’s operatic style on the original. Nonetheless, after several listens, this version came to grow on me. A couple of cuts that did not—even after extensive exposure—were Vital Remains on “The Trooper,” even though the guitar playing mimicked Steve Harris very effectively, and Opera IX on “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for similar reasons—doing the songs in the manner of Gwar—Vital Signs as the masculine and Opera IX as the feminine. Gwar was a groundbreaking act in its own way, but one Gwar is enough for the recording industry.

Solitude Aeturnus imprinted on my mind the lyrics of “Hallowed be Thy Name,” with the imagery of a prisoner on death row waiting for sundown to be strung up. The earnest desperateness of the singing impressed no end. While turning in a reasonable cover job, Opeth nevertheless disappointed on “Remember Tomorrow.” Hailed in some quarters as the next great progressive rock group—they once opened for Dream Theater and couldn’t live up to the hype on that occasion either—Opeth brought forth no virtuoso performance. Evoken also reminded me of Gwar on “Strange World,” but the spoken-word interludes lightened the aural burden to some extent.

The compilation closes out again nearer to the actual driving Maiden sound with Absu on the instrumental “Transylvania,” bringing us back to the time of the Dark Ages, shadowy castles and when counts with questionable drinking habits went all medieval on our a***s. As Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, portraying the namesakes in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” might have said when confronted with the literal iron maiden, “party on dude!”

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tripping over a Treasure: Guadalcanal Diary’s Flip-Flop

Like many audiophiles, I’m always on the lookout for a deal. Or make that value for the money. On the continuing time warp though my personal CD collection, I finally mustered up the motivation to listen to Guadalcanal Diary’s album “Flip-Flop” (1988). As best as I can figure, I must have picked up this disc around 1998, when I moved away from the Los Angeles Basin to the San Francisco Bay Area. For old time’s sake, I made a final visit to The Wherehouse before leaving. If you came from L.A. in the 90s, you’ll remember it was the record store as ubiquitous as Starbucks is now for coffee houses. But I digress.

I found this particular music collection in the used closeout section for—I kid you not—99 cents—the price tag was still on the jewel box when I dug it out. I’d always been aware of Guadalcanal Diary in a vague sort of way. Familiar with the name but not the music. They were probably in the L.A. Times Calendar section a lot or in rotation on Alternative Music station KROQ back then. So I thought, “What the heck, it’s only 99 cents.” But I dunno, I could never get passed the album artwork—somehow a guy’s foot and a pair of flip-flops as the lead image on a wooden pier background didn’t appeal to me. So there is sat, unlistened to for those 16 years in my CD rack.

When I finally put it into the CD player in my car, I was nearly amazed. I was immediately attracted to the track “The Likes of You,” with its observations of the 1 percent living large at the expense of us in the 99 percent. It appeals to my “us vs. them” mentality. With images of Cadillac limousines and high fashion magazines, Guadalcanal Diary burns the plutocracy in effigy right before your very ears. Lyrics such as “If I never saw you again | well then a thousand years would only be too soon” seared into my consciousness upon impact. The guitar playing is also notable for its inventiveness, with at times an almost bagpipe sonic quality being produced. Close to when I started playing this CD, a woman in a convertible BMW passed me on a side street and on the license plate was “HEIRESS.” I felt the irony was too great to not crank up the volume on this one and serenade her.

I was almost as equally enamored of the cut “Whiskey Talk.” With a catchy riff and a story of a woman slandering a man’s name all over the South—Guadalcanal Diary hails from Athens, Georgia, the same stomping grounds that produced REM and the B-52’s, among others—it’s hard to figure out why the rock ‘n’ roll public didn’t take this group serious, to paraphrase the song itself.

The only real quibble with this archival material was the mix (I probably have the unremastered original). The final tape understates the bottom end with the drums way down low. But this is easily remedied by upping the bass channel. So keep a lookout in the Bargain Bins at your local vinyl outlet—if you still have one. You never know what you can find for a few pennies. As they say in the original “RoboCop” movie, “I’d buy that for a dollar!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Back to the Future: The World’s Greatest Club Collection (Remixes from the 80s and 90s)

Having had the overwhelming urge to change the tune on my car stereo, I took the adventurous step of looking back into my CD collection. Building most of it from the mid 80s into the mid 90s, it must encompass a couple of hundred CDs—probably more. I am pretty aware of most of the CDs in my collection, even given the large number of discs in question.

However, along the way several platters squeezed into the glass cabinet, their origins shrouded in the mists of time. One such laser-encoded circular piece of polycarbonate is “The World’s Greatest Collection! Remixed Smash Hits” part of what I take was a series of releases in the “80’s into the 90’s” line from Cleopatra Records (1998).

Not being a dyed-in-the-wool dance music aficionado, I was somewhat skeptical of spinning this high-tech wax and dulling my rock sensibilities. But I was reassured by the presence of several acceptable artists on the liner notes such as Dead or Alive, Gary Numan and Information Society.

The remix of DoA’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record…) does make camp of the New Wave attitude, but the edgy proto-transgender lead singing style of Pete Burns shines through and still makes you want to get down and groove with a pict. I can even now picture in my mind’s eye that spinning disco ball in the palm of Burns’ hand from the video of the same name.

And as when it first graced the airwaves as arguably the then most prominent synthesizer-laced hit, the thumping, extended, sped-up revision to Gary Numan’s “Cars” retains all the potency of the original. Numan’s otherworldly vocals captivate as always. With Numan having recently been back on the concert circuit, interest could very well be revived in his back catalog headed up by this single.

Long one of my guilty pleasures, Information Society’s “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)” pulls the drum machine and vocals out of the original recording, leaving perhaps the most famous sound sample from the television series “Star Trek” to be enjoyed loud and clear: Commander Spock, voiced by actor Leonard Nimoy, saying dispassionately as possible “pure energy.”

Other interesting cuts include “Andreline,” “Deranged” and “Caterpillar.” The sonic qualities of all the songs have been expertly deconstructed and cleaned up so the message of the music will move you as much as the beats bring the rhythm to your body.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Club Ninja: Blue Oyster Cult’s unappreciated mid-80s gem

Derek Handova says Blue Oyster Cult Club Ninja album unappreciated 80s gem
Having been familiar with Blue Oyster Cult since the 80s, I have long wondered why they were so under appreciated. Surely, they had their day in the sun with 70s classics such as “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Godzilla” as well as 80s’ favorites “Shooting Shark” and “Burnin’ for You.” But in a scene reminiscent of something out of “This is Spinal Tap” there was a band shakeup sometime around their album “Fire of Unknown Origin” and only lead guitarist Buck Dharma and lead singer/guitarist Eric Bloom remained into the mid 80s.

This could be why a wonderful album of theirs, “Club Ninja,” was overlooked at the time of issue in 1986 and remains underappreciated to this day in 2014. Having seen Blue Oyster Cult several times in recent years, most recently at Slim’s in San Francisco on February 1, 2014, the band continues to dip back into this album, playing on this occasion “Dancin’ in the Ruins,” a nice little number with some easy sing-along choruses for the crowd at this cozy concert venue. Other times at Slim’s, BOC has played “Perfect Water” with interesting wordplay such as “Do you know Jacques Cousteau when they said on the radio | That he hears bells in random order, deep beneath the perfect water?”

But perhaps the most overlooked song on this disc is the rocking tune “Beat ‘Em Up.” With an ethereal guitar opening that begins in the right channel and quickly shifts to the left channel, the listener has the sensation that she has been buzzed by some spacecraft from outer space. With lines like “We’ll stop sockin’ when you start rockin’ | You don’t give up you just give in.” BOC recalls the menace of 70s cult classics “Seven Screaming Diz Busters” and “Dominance and Submission.”

Perhaps considered too long in the tooth by Reaganite kids weaned on the likes of Gun ‘n’ Roses and Metallica and its own audience probably having moved onto to something more easy listening in Bruce Springsteen or U2, Blue Oyster Cult gave it the old college try in any event. But the band was never one to get caught up in fashion trends or the weight of popular culture given its commentary in lyrics saying, “That was 20 years ago and this ain't the Summer of Love.” Have no fear of these reapers—merry they are and not at all grim—as they continue to make their living in the 500-seat concert halls, county fairs and Indian casinos across this fair land. And all the while selling T-shirts emblazoned with their undying declaration of “On tour forever”!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener