New York Dolls, The Smithereens, Immaculate Machine and Much More

One light week and look what happens: The CD piles are teetering precariously, and if the cat comes in and rubs her cheeks on that stack one more time, the walls are definitely going to come tumbling down. Let's check out new albums from New York Dolls,

One light week and look what happens: The CD piles are teetering precariously, and if the cat comes in and rubs her cheeks on that stack one more time, the walls are definitely going to come tumbling down. Better start reducing the load as quickly as possible.

Folk wisdom and Roy Wood agree: Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. What then to make of the reunion of the New York Dolls and producer Todd Rundgren, whose first pairing on the Dolls’ debut in 1973 resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring and influential documents of pre-Punk Rock mayhem? Is ’Cause I Sez So an attempt to recreate the bottled magic of three and a half decades ago? Hardly, and clearly both the Dolls and Rundgren recognize the fact. Only David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain survive from the original Dolls, and there is the little matter of 36 years of accumulated history; you can’t unring a bell.

So you do exactly what Johansen, Sylvain, the new Dolls and Rundgren do on ’Cause I Sez So, which is to make a statement about where the band is now, not where it’s been, and there’s no better example of that than the band’s laconic Reggae/’60s Pop reworking of their snarling punk ode “Trash.” But just as “Personality Crisis” led off the Dolls’ debut with a fist-in-your-face declaration of what was about to come, the band fronts their fourth studio album with their anthemic title track, a three minute slice of street-tempered Punk (“Flew into JFK was lousy with oink/I hear they lock you up for smokin' a joint”). Still, there was nothing on the first album that began to approach to the straight Blues swagger of “This Is Ridiculous” or the spaghetti western shimmer of “Temptation to Exist,” but perhaps more telling is the Dolls’ softer side, represented in the balladic “Better Than You,” a tender/tough track that Paul Westerberg would be proud to call his own, and “Lonely So Long,” a romantic blend of the Dolls and the Velvets. This ain’t 1973, and the New York Dolls know it. That’s why they skillfully avoid trying to recreate the snotty glory of their youth and craft a new testament to their grizzled wisdom and tenacious ability to survive.

The Smithereens have been looking back lately at their influences nearly as much as they’ve been looking forward at their own musical output. The band’s last two albums have been tributes to their most potent influence, the Beatles — 2007’s Meet the Smithereens was a clever re-recording of the American version of the Fab Four’s domestic debut album and last year’s B-Sides the Beatles paid homage to the Fabs’ brilliance on the flip side of their stellar singles.

For their third consecutive tribute project, the Smithereens chose their second-most powerful musical influence: The Who. And not content to just drill down through the standard set list of hits, the quartet decided to take a shot at one of the Who’s most ambitious and misunderstood works by recording a truncated version of Tommy. In the press material for The Smithereens Play Tommy, frontman calls the album “punk Rock opera meets the godfathers of Pop,” and that’s a fair assessment. The Smithereens interpret the Tommy material close to the original; Dennis Diken drums with the frenetic fury of Keith Moon, bassist Severo Jornacion flies over the frets with John Entwistle’s stoic frenzy and Jim Babjak windmills out some classic Pete Townshend chords.

The reinterpretation comes mainly in the vocals, because few can match the thrilling power of Roger Daltrey in his prime, but frontman Pat Dinizio along with Diken and Babjak do a nice job of finding the emotional heart of the songs in their own inimitable ways. Dinizio and Babjak also inject just the right amount of their own patented guitar jangle into the proceedings, enough to serve as their signature on the classic material. Basically editing the concept piece down to a single disc, the Smithereens still manage to get across the story of the emotionally deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard, simultaneously bowing to the Who and working themselves into the mix. The Smithereens will be hitting the studio soon with new original material for an album that’s being planned for later this year, but for the time being, their take on Tommy will tide us over.

I have loved the Sensational Alex Harvey Band since the moment I heard “Weights Made of Lead” on a college radio show in 1974, a song so hair-raising that I could barely contain myself until the mall opened the next day so I could buy the 8-track (consult Wikipedia for the definition) of their third album, The Impossible Dream. SAHB carried on for a half dozen more years before folding, then Alex did a couple of cool solo projects and formed a new Alex Harvey Band right before suffering a fatal heart attack in February of 1982 (my wife had just thrown me out of the house, and I think I felt worse about Alex’s death).

Most of the subsequent posthumous SAHB releases have been live boots — the band’s actual archives were destroyed when bassist Chris Glen’s house burned down shortly after Alex’s death — but those are great artifacts because SAHB was one of the great live bands of the ’70s. So imagine my excitement last year when I read about a “lost” SAHB studio album that was on the brink of release. Delayed half a dozen times or more, Hot City has finally seen the light of day and it’s an interesting glimpse at SAHB and their artistic perspective, primarily because the majority of the album was subsequently re-recorded for The Impossible Dream. This very different spin on the material was produced by veteran knobsman Shel Talmy, whose vision of SAHB was to push Alex to the forefront of the mix, relegating the band to relative backing status.

While that might have been the most commercially viable way to view SAHB, I think Alex recognized that he was the natural focal point of the live show and so he typically had himself mixed into the middle of the band as an equal musical element. When they listened back to the Talmy sessions, they all agreed it was much too straightforward and scrapped the sessions, revisiting the material later with producer David Batchelor (who had once fronted Tear Gas, the Glasgow band that became SAHB with the addition of Alex), who was clearly sympathetic to the band’s artistic aims.

The result was the far superior versions of these songs found on The Impossible Dream, which clearly set up the path that SAHB was to follow in its wake. Still, there are some interesting moments on Hot City; “Long Hair Music” benefits from Alex’s prominence in the mix and “Ace in the Hole” didn’t make the cut for The Impossible Dream, making it a rare if somewhat unremarkable unreleased SAHB track. But elsewhere, “Vambo” and “Man in the Jar” are pale sketches of “The Hot City Symphony” that was to come and “Weights Made of Lead” is even worse, with Zal Cleminson’s manic guitar leads mixed into oblivion. While Hot City is a fascinating look at the arc of the Impossible Dream material (and fun for the rarely seen photos in the booklet), it really is an item for completists and rabid fans only.

1994 was an amazing year for Beck Hansen. He had signed a major label contract with Geffen for a relative pittance, the trade-off being an unheard of level of creative control. At nearly the same time that Mellow Gold shot Beck’s profile into the stratosphere on the almost unreasonable success of “Loser,” Beck was demoing noise experiments on Stereopathic Soulmanure for Flipside Records and channeling his inner Delta Blues muse and making like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton on his stripped down Punk Blues workout for K Records, One Foot in the Grave. Of course, it was Blues done Beck’s way and even then that meant a slightly skewed take on things (“Definitely this is the wrong place to be/There’s blood on the futon, there’s a kid drinking fire, going down to the sea...”), but it was an amazingly fresh and edgy spin on the genre, particularly on the above referenced “Cyanide Breath Mint,” the poignant “Asshole” and the Gospel-tinged “I’ve Seen the Land Beyond.”

After a 15-year run that resulted in sales of well over 150,000, Beck got One Foot in the Grave back from K and has reissued it himself (on his own Iliad label) with 16 bonus tracks, 13 never-before released. Grave’s archive cuts are every bit as bleak and bony and blackly humorous (check out the sly lyrical reference in “Mattress;” “Take me out to dinner/I’m a loser, I’m a winner/I’m a sucker, I’m a sinner/Won’t you take me out to dinner”) as their predecessors, perhaps hewing a little closer to the sensibility that he’s exhibited in his subsequent career (the Violent Femmes demo direction of “Teenage Wastebasket” and “Piss on the Door”); he even finally gives the album a title track. Oddly enough, One Foot in the Grave may be a harder sell to Beck’s newer fans who didn’t experience the full range of his creative ambitions at the beginning of his career and only know him from his more recent sonic innovations. The joke would be on anyone who doesn’t give Beck’s original Delta persona a chance because One Foot in the Grave is another fascinating facet of one of this generation’s most compelling sonic chameleons.

Four years ago New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman uncovered Kathryn Calder, a niece he didn’t know he had, and ironically she turned out to be involved in the family business as keyboardist and vocalist for Immaculate Machine. The British Columbia trio’s profile was raised exponentially because of the Newman connection, their sophomore album Ones and Zeros garnered a huge response and Newman invited Calder to become an auxiliary member of the New Porns (basically to sing Neko Case’s parts when she was too busy with her solo gig to tour with the band).

Much has transpired since Immaculate Machine’s third full length, 2007’s Immaculate Machine’s Fables. Founding drummer Luke Kozlowski has left the band and Calder’s increased presence with the New Pornographers has necessitated a reduction in her responsibilities within IM. As a result of Calder pulling back, frontman Brooke Gallupe has stepped up, reshaping IM to suit his own vision, giving the band’s third album, High on Jackson Hill, a slightly different tone than its predecessors. Although still sporting a quirky, wavy Pop/Rock vibe, the upfront he sings/she sings interplay of the earlier albums is largely absent; Calder sings primarily backing vocals, taking the lead on “You Destroyer” and dueting on “And It Was.” Gallupe rocks out a chunky T. Rex groove on “He’s a Biter,” pulses with Edwyn Collins’ swing on Primary Colours,” shouts with Ray Davies’ abandon on “Neighbours Don’t Mind” and shimmers with Stephin Merritt sincerity on “I Know It’s Not as Easy.” The lyrical themes on High on Jackson Hill are slightly more downcast and cynical than previous efforts, which may be a result of removing Calder’s ameliorating influence. While High on Jackson Hill might be a bit less engaging than previous efforts, this may be Immaculate Machine’s transition album as Gallupe finds his way in a new group paradigm. And for the record, it’s a fine transition at that.

The Green Pajamas is, for me, one of those bands where journalistic objectivity goes out the window from the outset. The Seattle Psych Pop band, led by multi-instrumentalist Jeff Kelly, has nailed so many consecutive hallucinosonic Pop albums (they’ve released more than 20 titles since forming 25 years ago) that their name on an album cover is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (Mushroom Division). The only mystery in a new Green Pajamas album is how much I’m going to love it. The short answer to that question regarding the PJs latest, Poison in the Russian Room, is...a lot.

Divided into two sides like a classic vinyl release, Poison in the Russian Room quivers with a crunchy ’70s Pretty Things vibe for the first half of the album and a Pentangle-like Psych Folk prayer meeting for the second half. Russian Room’s first “side” features some of the heaviest guitar work that the PJs have ever presented, particularly on the AC/DC-produced-by-Mitch-Easter opener “The Lonesome End of the Lake” and the Urge-Overkill-channels-Blah throb of “This Angel’s on Fire.” By contrast, the PJs dial it back on the second “side,” subtitled “In Search of the Elusive Fairy Queen and Some Pleasure Unknown, reducing the volume but none of the powerful impact of the songs themselves, most written by Kelly but a scattered few by utility songwriter Eric Lichter, who provides one of the album’s highlights in the stellar “Suicide Subways.” From beginning to end, Poison in the Russian Room swirls and dips and soars with anthemic determination, psychedelic fervor and melancholic bliss, and when the Green Pajamas peg the needle in those three areas, the result is nothing less than phenomenal.

This week’s vinyl burn takes me back to my college days in the late ’70s. Typically, as I was scrounging for an album that a buddy was looking for, I came across my copy of English Garden, the first and only album from Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club. Woolley came to prominence as the co-writer of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which was vaulted into mythic Pop status by the Buggles (the song’s video was the first one played by MTV when it launched in 1981); Woolley’s version on 1978’s English Garden pre-dated the Buggles by mere months, but the Buggles’ version of the song was a UK No. 1 in 1979. For me, the Camera Club (featuring a young keyboardist named Tom Dolby) came first.

We were in class working on design sketches one afternoon when my friend Peter asked if I’d heard of Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club. I confessed I hadn’t and he said that one of the Grand Rapids stations was playing a song called “You Got Class,” which he described as “amazing.” Peter hadn’t really been into music so much when I’d met him in our design program the previous year, being more consumed by cartoonists and art. When I visited the house he shared with two other students, I noted that the four cassettes he owned were Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter and REO Speedwagon. One of his roommates had a pretty decent record collection so I steered Peter toward some titles he might want to spend some time with and a semi-local radio show he might want to check out. Within weeks, he was absorbing music like a thirsty sponge and he never stopped. In fact, he eventually moved to Washington D.C., learned guitar and has been in a succession of popular local bands over the past two decades (including the High Back Chairs with former Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson).

I started keeping my ears open for the Camera Club and finally heard “You Got Class” a week or so after Peter had mentioned it. In just over two minutes, Woolley managed to pack in all of New Wave’s highest points; snaky, spiky guitars, jangling (and sometimes unhinged) keyboards, danceably thunderous bass, frenetic drumming and Woolley’s wonderfully cool and clipped English accent as he detailed his attempts to elevate his manners to the level of the object of his desire. The manic chorus provided the song’s irresistible hook (“It’s not what you do, uh uh oh/It’s the way you do it, baby/It’s not what you say, uh uh oh/It’s the way you say it, girl/Well, well, well, you got class, babe”) and the band followed-suit with an equally inspired soundtrack. I bought the album the moment it came into the record store across from campus.

English Garden was a marvel, almost like the glammy elements of Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople reconfigured for a hypercaffeinated New Wave band, from the Prog Wave march of the title cut to the Mott and majesty of “Dancing with the Sporting Boys” to the Dave Clark Five-as-Punk-band swing of “Flying Man” to the cinematically evocative instrumental “W.W.9” to the sweeping Roxy/Eno Pop of “Get Away William.” English Garden also featured “Clean Clean,” another song that would wind up as a huge hit for the Buggles; Woolley had done quite a lot of co-writing with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes and in fact even helped them design the Buggles concept. Woolley’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” was less synthetically symphonic and poppy and more band directed, but its failure to click when the Buggles’ single was a smash led to tensions between Woolley and Columbia Records, who refused the Camera Club’s sophomore album. Woolley dissolved the band in 1981 and remained largely behind the scenes after that, writing for and collaborating with Grace Jones (including last year’s Hurricane, her first album in nearly 20 years), composing and performing music for films (he played the Theremin throughout Moulin Rouge!) and working in advertising. In the mid-’90s, he formed the Theremin-centered Radio Science Orchestra and two years ago he reunited with former Camera Clubber Thomas Dolby for a 50th anniversary celebration of the launch of Sputnik.

For the past 30 years, this has been one of my favorite albums, partly because it reminds me of my college experiences but mostly because it reminded me of my favorite music to that point, and still does. Although English Garden is available on CD as an import through Amazon, a number of substitutions (a dance version of “Goodbye to Yesterday”) and deletions (the vocoder intro to “Radio Star”) makes the vinyl version perceptibly better.

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