Smokey’s story is as ridiculous as it is inspiring. It involves two music-loving L.A. transplants who showcased their same-sex pride throughout the ’70s with indie releases and a residency at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. There they were backed by a live band featuring future Quiet Riot/Ozzy Osbourne members, the then-14-year-old duo of Kelly Garni and Randy Rhodes. John “Smokey” Condon and E.J. Emmons’ lo-fi, honky-tonk disco/funky cabaret mélange was shunned by the industry, so the “gay Steely Dan” issued a series of singles on its own S&M imprint, which is presented here in its rainbow-flag-waving entirety.
The stylistic range is surprisingly broad and definitely campy, and while these particular songs about drag queens, leather daddies and water sports may be de rigueur on today’s Pride Parade floats, turn your mind back to 1973. Something like the “I wanna be your toilet/I need to feel your piss running down my throat” refrain of “Piss Slave” makes it easy to imagine the Village People being considered saints in comparison.
Freedy Johnston has a keen eye for the small details that illuminate the shadows that haunt life’s darker corners. His mellow tenor has a careworn quality that seems balanced between wistful grief and graceful resignation, although his fluid melodies and ironic lyrics always bring a touch of light to the darkness—this always keeps things from getting too grim.
His method shines on “The First To Leave The World, Is The First To See The World,” the reflections of a Russian cosmonaut who looks down on the planet from his space capsule to feel the blossoming of a deep connection to all life at the same time he’s becoming aware of the distance between himself and everything else in creation. The woman on “Summer Clothes” and the worker profiled on the title track join the cosmonaut in the precarious dance between connection and alienation that Johnston is so good at describing.
How do you mix the immediacy of jazz with the intricate, painstaking architecture of electronica? The short answer is that you don’t, because it doesn’t work. The longer answer—if you’re trumpeter Dave Douglas and you’ve done this before—is that you send tunes and tracks to your new collaborator, Shigeto, who you met at a one-off gig at Town Hall. You enlist people you’ve known for years, like Mark Guiliana (drums), Jonathan Maron (bass), Geoff Countryman (recording engineer) and Steve Wall (mixing engineer). You schedule a full day of recording, followed by four long months of post-production, and voila!
So, what do you get? An album that never completely makes up its mind, pulling in different directions at once. An album with some amazing moments of synchronicity, when Shigeto’s swirling soundscapes mesh with Douglas’ cool lyricism, Guiliana’s high-intensity pounding, Maron’s funky elegance and Wall’s special effects. An album where both worlds can co-exist, if only temporarily, and all that high-wire brilliance, all that risk, seems worth the effort.
No way is Flo Morrissey only 20 years old. Her voice is at least two decades older than that, the same way Dusty Springfield—another British singer who seemed to instinctively understand the nuances of American soul vocals—sounded like a practiced instrument dropped into the body of a performer who had no business carrying it around, chronologically speaking.
Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful wants you to hear it in terms of the late-’60s psychedelic-folk idiom (check the soft-focus cover shot and clean guitar production). But make no mistake: This is a soul singer’s album all the way, the hat trick of “Sleeplessly Dreaming,” “Betrayed” and the irresistibly titled “I Only Like His Hat Not Him” being all the proof you need. And it’s a happy throwback in other ways, too. Once upon a time, this was how the best singers were produced—minimal effects, maybe a little reverb, and fuck Auto-Tune right in its cheap plastic ear. Here’s an artist who should have a lot of good work ahead of her.
The double-vinyl version of this unreleased live set (curated by “Captain” Kirk Douglas of the Roots) is cute, but it’s the stretch and flow of a four-disc set that’s necessary in which to hear the breadth of guitarist/singer Sly Stone and his Family in full flower. The long-held notion of Stone and Co. as purveyors of funky pop (or poppy funk) touched by the harmonic roar of choral vocals and the lyricism of sociopolitical consciousness is all here. It’s loud and clear on color-blind, vividly and deeply grooving cuts such as “We Love All (Freedom),” “Won’t Be Long” and “Life” (big ups to plucking, popping bassist and baritone singer Larry Graham for bringing up the bottom).
A jazzy nod to Harlem historicity on “St. James Infirmary” is a swanky detour from Sly’s soulful warbling war and love cries. The real key to these live shows—before Sly’s Family Stone truly became chart-toppers—can be found in the band’s hard guitar chunkiness, a punk/funk kink in league with what Funkadelic was doing at the time, and Bad Brains would eventually make its own. Check into “Chicken,” “The Riffs” and “Don’t Burn Baby” for loud, incendiary living proof of Sly Stone’s metal mettle.
No Joy was more or less a shoegaze revivalist when it got started, and so far, the band’s progression from that point has gone pretty much as scripted. Its 2011 debut, Ghost Blonde, swam in thick layers of reverb, and as the group became more comfortable with not hiding behind delay pedals, it made a much cleaner-sounding sophomore album in Wait To Pleasure. Both records were enough to justify keeping No Joy on your radar, but the band has blown the doors open on More Faithful.
Most dream-pop groups get a little less dreamy and more poppy over time. That’s been true of No Joy to a point, but the Canadian outfit has also gotten trickier. The genre’s sonic touchstones are still mostly intact here, but More Faithful is full of unexpected turns—like “Hollywood Teeth,” which shifts from bright and glimmering to panicked and urgent in an instant, but somehow the change isn’t jarring. There’s subtle sneakiness sprinkled throughout the record, like the rhythmically wonky “Moon In My Mouth,” as the members of No Joy have graduated from revivalists to deconstructionists.
Seventeen years after recording its classic The Shape Of Punk To Come, Refused is back and as vital as ever. Remember hearing “New Noise” for the first time? That fuck-yeah moment when Dennis Lyxzén shrieks, “Can I scream?” and the band drops in like a crate of dynamite? Freedom’s first single offers the same thrills, only without the burbling electronics of “New Noise” acting as a slow-burning fuse. Instead, “Elektra” detonates at its first massive riff, followed by Lyxzén most assuredly spraying bloody-throat tissue onto his microphone. Indeed, Freedom’s opening salvo is the best thing to come out of the hardcore genre since Snapcase called it a day 10 years ago.
Freedom also expands upon the experimentation started with Shape Of Punk, pushing the boundaries of traditional hardcore into newer (and sometimes weirder) territories. “Françafrique” is case in point, a shotgun marriage of hardcore and funk, brutal and hip-shaking in equal measure. Just don’t expect the dance remix to appear in your local club. If the children’s choir singing “murder, murder, murder” doesn’t clear the floor, Lyxzén screaming “kill, kill, kill!” certainly will. The genre-bending continues with “Old Friends/New War,” which traffics in industrial clatter, heavily morphed vocals and flamenco guitar, while “War On The Palaces” brings in the horns and ’70s guitar boogie. Admittedly, on paper, it would appear that the band has stylistic ADHD, yet Freedom ultimately finds cohesion in Refused’s continuing mission to punish your ears, move your feet and rage against the Man.
I have no doubt that John Dwyer and the occasionally rotating crew of musicians he calls Thee Oh Sees are nice people. I feel the need to point this out because Thee Oh Sees are a mean, mean band. It’s not that these guys are stingy; in fact, Dwyer is staggeringly prolific both within and without Thee Oh Sees. The menace comes from the monstrous brew of psychedelia that arrives reliably each year in the form of a new Oh Sees album.
The ninth full-length released under this particular epithet is just as much of a bruiser as its title suggests. In just more than 30 minutes, Dwyer leads his compatriots in an unrelenting barrage of sonic creativity and rhythmic overload. From hulking opener “Web” to disarmingly delicate late-album instrumental “Holy Smoke,” Mutilator continues Thee Oh Sees’ unprecedented, mind-melting hot streak.
According to William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom … you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” Ever-prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams has flirted with excess for more than two decades and still may not know when enough is enough.
For diehard fans who haven’t already been supersaturated, this limited-edition six-LP/iTunes/42-track Live At Carnegie Hall should satisfy. With little overlap between his back-to-back acoustic solo performances recorded last November, we’re provided a sterling overview of Adams’ impressive catalogue. As indulgent as it may seem, Adams’ naked exploration of his output provides plenty of highlights that should sway all but the most cynical unbelievers. The guy sure can sing and write, and his melodic genius nearly matches his drive. For those still hedging their bets, there’s a 10-track version, which should be considered a gateway drug to the full experience.
Continuing their film-buff aesthetic (band moniker plus the director their side project Herzog is named for—look it up if necessary) with a cover that features John Cassavetes and his best-known muse, Gena Rowlands, this Seattle (mostly) instrumental quartet is also continuing a hot sort-of-comeback streak with 7 (Or 8), the relatively raging follow-up to 2013’s Cosy Moments.
Always distinct from the Mogwai/Mono/Explosions In The Sky pack for real rock dynamics via riffs and sonic drive, and far preferable to psych/improv/jam-out Six Organs-type hipster/hippie fare because it stays on point and combines these two elements with true heaviness, Kinski has probably never rocked this hard, not even on previous 2005 touchstone Alpine Static. Some of the rocking, like pre-release focus track “Flight Risk” and “Operation Negligee,” features vocals to round out the deal—something Kinski leaned toward with its last record, and something that the band pulls off with a deft hand when such a thing for a group like this could mean face-planting failure.