Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Obsession, Lust and Betrayal - Modern Rock's Greatest 1998-2008 (10 CDs)

Compilation (various artist)

It may seem an outrageous idea to try and hold onto in today's ├╝ber-cynical, post-everything age, but Rock 'n' Roll really did just start out as music for teenagers to lose their shit over. All the conceit, pomp and arrogance that followed during the next four decades has only served to delude the original message that folks like Elvis, Chuck, Jerry and Richard set out to establish; namely that this music shit should be fun, man. If you can't jump up and down, bang your head, pump your fist or slam into a wall (or each other) then perhaps you're not cut out for this whole Rock scene, right?

It was a notion that served music fans well throughout Rock's first wave, and up through the Surf era, the early British Invasion and all the American Garage-type bands that emerged in its wake. The medium of choice was singles: potent blasts of sheer electric exhilaration and joy. Two minutes thirty a side. No time for lofty concepts and conceits, the message had to be short, brutal and to the point. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to Rock 'n Roll nirvana: the long playing LP. Originally viewed within the realm of pop music as a way of collecting together stray 45s and sundry filler for the Holiday market, by 1966 the LP was becoming the format of choice for heavy musicians: the run of Fifth Dimension, Love, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, Freak Out!, Aftermath, Revolver, Sunshine Superman and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme being the opening salvo.

By 1968 the LP had become the predominant form in which one enjoyed a band, and the poor 45 RPM single was considered a pop move, or worse, Bubblegum. Anyone who was Anyone in the Rock Hierarchy was cutting long-form conceptual "masterpieces" of their own design, intent on showing just how serious they could be. This trend of outrageous conceit reached a plateau of sorts with the Who's overblown "Rock Opera" Tommy, and within a year there would be Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes. (Oh Elvis, where art thou?)

But as Psych begat Prog begat College Rock begat Alternative begat Indie, fans of Real Rock Music began to rebel. Perhaps the gauntlet was initially thrown down by none other than George Lucas with the soundtrack to his American Graffiti; a superb double album comprised of hit singles from the early Rock 'n' Roll era that single-handedly kicked off a national Fifties nostalgia trend. However the real hero of this tale was Lenny Kaye, whose original Nuggets compilation beautifully resurrected the world of Rock 'n' Roll right before the LP took over.

Nuggets wasn't just about Garage bands-- indeed most of the bands included were fairly polished and signed to at least medium-sized labels, if not majors. It also wasn't squarely about hit singles, or even singles per se. Whether or not the song was originally popular, or whether it was indeed picked as a single by some A&R rep, really had little bearing on its inclusion. No, what Nuggets was was the original "Scene" comp: Get together all the top bands, represent them with their very best song and get the fuck out of the way. But most importantly, keep it short and to the point. One blast after another. Club the listener senseless with the raw power of the three minute pop song.

It's a formula that's worked brilliantly for numerous genres and sub-genres. The masters of course were Rhino Records, who apart from keeping the Nuggets legacy going strong also released definitive Scene comps with their 70s-80s Punk and New Wave DIY sets; reclaimed 70s Bubblegum with the Have a Nice Day series; and also brokered the ultimate 70s funk, 80s Hip-Hop and 90s Brit Rock collections (What It Is!, The Sugar Hill Records Story and The Brit Box respectively.)

But where are the Nuggets of today? In other words, where can today's discriminating listener-- searching perhaps for the primal pop blast of, say, a Chocolate Watch Band or an Amboy Dukes-- score a quick fix? With the state of Rock radio and MTV these days, as well as the growing presence of Hip-Hop and Electronica within the new millennium, sometimes it's hard to remember that there are still young bands out there with electric guitars and a strong desire to simply rock the house and get bodies moving. I speak not of today's latest crop of Pitchfork approved Indie-Hipster-Slacker crap; groups that take navel-gazing to an extreme that would positively embarrass their hippie forefathers. Nor do I refer to the safe, calculated sound of such Dad-Rock stalwarts as U2, REM or Coldplay; music so cold and lifeless that it should sooner be played inside a wax museum than in the home of any true Rock music fan. Alternately, many of the more extreme if interesting bands trading in the realms of Metal, Noise, Math, etc. simply aren't sweetly commercial enough to provide the necessary sugar rush. So what does that leave our listener with?

Quite a lot, actually. Emerging roughly around 1998, and led by such later-era Alternative bands as Green Day and Weezer, came a new genre loosely referred to as Modern Rock. The term is actually more or a catch-all than anything, combining as it does Power Pop (Fountains of Wayne, Phantom Planet); Punk (Pennywise, Alkaline Trio); Pop Punk (Blink-182, Yellowcard); Reggae Rock (311, Rx Bandits); Pop Metal (Linkin Park, Hoobastank); Post Punk (Franz Ferdinand, We Are Scientists); Singer Songwriter (Dashboard Confessional, Jack's Mannequin); Emo Pop (Hawthorne Heights, Taking Back Sunday) and just flat-out Rock 'n' Roll (White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age). In other words, the term comprises anything in the Rock milieu that's "hot", contemporary/ commercial and hi-energy. Or for another way of looking at it, if it sounds good pumped through car stereo speakers and gets young people excited and amped up, it's a Modern Rock Nugget.

On a personal level, I began compiling Obsession, Lust and Betrayal back in 2004 as a series of quicky compilations to help me better absorb all the great music I heard coming out of the New Pop Rock Renaissance. It was never intended to be anything other than a series of mixes I kept in the car for my own enjoyment. However, by the time I initially finished off the tenth volume sometime in 2008, I had been inundated by so many requests from friends for copies of each and every disc that I started to understand the widespread appeal of such a collection. Remember that no credence was given to whether or not these songs were released as singles. The qualification was simply that they had to be the hottest, catchiest tracks going. If the song didn't merit 5 stars in my iTunes library, it didn't make the cut. Simple as that.

At any rate, after giving out about 50 copies of this set to various friends and acquaintances, I decided to go back and tighten it up by making sure each song was ripped at 160K or better, the track-to-track flow was smooth, the overall volume normalized and my original artwork added to all files. These cleaned-up versions are my early Christmas present to all you Children of the Sphere.

Apart from becoming reacquainted with the bands I previously mentioned, listeners of Obsession, Lust and Betrayal will be introduced to such overlooked genre luminaries as songwriting genius Kevin Ridel (represented here on cuts by AM Radio, Peel and Ridel High), Pop Punk masters Gob, and Manchester UK's hardest rocking band Nine Black Alps. I even granted a little additional space to my great local Oakland bands Desa, the Matches, Davenport Totem and my good friends the Violent High so that folks all around the world can get a taste of the fantastic scene we've developed here locally.

As a final aside, we do of course understand that the critics are down on a lot of these bands, and that Weezer, Blink, 311 and their ilk aren't likely to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame© anytime soon. Therefore it is our opinion here at the Sphere that these critics are simply overpaid hacks pushing agendas that have nothing to do with loving music. These pond scum are merely the progeny of the dip-shits that almost killed Rock 'n' Roll in the first place by telling your folks that the Electric Prunes were garbage and what you really should be digging is ELP's Love Beach. So like Flav says, don't believe the hype. Just download this box set, throw it on your iPod or car stereo and rejoice in feeling alive with the power of the perfect three minute Rock song.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

REVIEW: Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968

Where The Action Is!
Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968

Well, as of earlier this month I was finally able to set aside enough extra coin to pick up Rhino's new box set dedicated to the L.A. pop music scene from 1965-68. Don't get me wrong, I had been planning on purchasing it from the moment it was released back in September was it? But sometimes with packages like this, it's better to sit back and wait for all the advanced reviews to come in before taking the plunge. There's a lot of ways to screw up archival re-issues like this, but I'm happy to say that Rhino's latest entry to the Nuggets series is a very worthy addition.

As one whose love of the music from this city and era goes far beyond casual fan status, my expectations were set quite high. Having immersed myself in these sounds for the better part of the last decade, I was skeptical that there wasn't much Rhino could present to me that I hadn't already absorbed and digested. Again, I'm happy to state that I was wrong on all counts. The package itself was just over $50.00 at Amoeba, which is reasonable for a 4-CD set with booklet and free T-shirt. The booklet itself is quite well done: There is information provided for every band, including label, chart, musician, producer and engineer credits whenever possible, along with a paragraph or two describing each song in greater detail. The discs themselves are housed within slots in the back cover-- From an artistic perspective it's a cool idea, but practically speaking it's a disaster. Complaints on the internet abound regarding Action's CDs arriving with heavy surface scratches and sometimes even glued upon! Fortunately, all four of my discs were delivered scratch free and in good shape. I immediately withdrew them from the slots and placed them in more protective cases.

I immediately slid Disc one of Action into my car's CD player just as soon as I hit the Durant Ave. parking garage and was instantly greeted by the agreeably familiar groove of the Standells' "Riot on Sunset Strip"; a tune I had previously selected for my 10 CD L.A. Gemstones set, released last year over at the Record Room and on this site. I should take a moment to state that I have no idea whether or not the powers-that-be at Rhino had any familiarity with L.A. Gemstones before they decided to put this set together. But since the original goal of Gemstones was to encourage some forward-thinking label to put forth a licensed compilation that could put money in the pockets of the musicians who made all this wonderful music, while at the same time helping to spread these sounds to as many people as possible, I can only be grateful that Rhino was up to the challenge. And since only a mere 16 of the 100+ tracks on this set overlap with the 250+ found on L.A. Gemstones, the two sets "play nice" together for the most part. (NOTE: The idea of going back and switching out those 16 overlapped songs on L.A. Gemstones with 16 alternative cuts not found on Where the Action Is! is something I plan on doing shortly-- apologies to those of you who have already downloaded it; I'll try to make the update process as painless as possible!)

Back to the analysis at hand, the raucous Standells cut serves nicely as an "opening credits" type number (just as it did in the movie from which it originally hails), and the rest of Disc one provides a Byrds-eye view of the nascent Sunset Strip rock scene starring all the usual suspects: the Doors, Love, the Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly, the Byrds, Sunny & Cher, etc. Of the four CDs included on Where the Action Is!, the material here will be the most familiar to the casual fan. Still, archivists Andrew Sandoval and Alec Palao do a nice job of selecting lesser-known numbers by most of the big groups, and all are presented in their original mono mixes for added panache. No real masterpieces here (although the Association's spirited reading of "One Too Many Mornings" comes close) but plenty of great, catchy fun.

Disc two struck me as the most bizarre of the bunch, featuring as it does many artists that may be unfamiliar to all but the most stringent of collectors. I'll admit that groups like the Light, the Bush, Ken & the Fourth Dimension and the Others were so obscure as to be completely off my radar, and I thought I knew all there was to know about the L.A. scene! As such, this is the disc that will appeal the most to Garage fans, featuring as it does such genre heroes as Thee Midnighters, the Premiers, the Spats and Opus 1, whose all-time bizarro classic "Back Seat '38 Dodge" is the best thing here. Still, in terms of overall listenability and enjoyment, I'd rate this disc the weakest of the four.

CD three focuses more on artists who were at home in the recording studio, and has a nice mix of the familiar and the eclectic. It is here that we start to encounter some real underground masterpieces: the Full Treatment's "Just Can't Wait", Hearts & Flowers' "Tin Angel", the Oracle's "Don't Say No", Pleasure's "Poor Old Organ Grinder", the Ballroom's "Baby Please Don't Go"... These are amongst the very finest "pocket symphonies" ever recorded. The fact that none of these came close to being hit singles the first time around makes their inclusion here all the more vital. Likely they will now be heard by more listeners than they were in their own time!

The final disc starts off quite retentively in a folk-rockish vein with cuts by artists like Jackie DeShannon, Peter Fonda and the Rose Garden, but quickly evolves into a sort of psych-pop w├╝nderland of obscuro delights. This is Action's strongest run, and I get the feeling Sandoval and Palao are just deejay-ing purely on feel at this point. Highlights pile up one after the other: spacey pop from the Motorcycle Abeline, rootsy rock from Gene Clark, a dippy Ricky Nelson number titled "Marshmallow Skies" of all things, an absolute stunner from Del Shannon (who knew?), Randy Newman doing heavy psych?!?! alternate "Heroes and Villains", "Come to the Sunshine", "The Truth Is Not Real", Love, the Byrds and, oh yeah, Barry Fuckin' McGuire. In short, every element that made the era special, wrapped up in one 30 minute stretch of songs.

All this is not to say that Action is perfectly compiled per se. Amongst all the quality selections are a few head scratchers, none greater than "Acid Head" by the Velvet Illusions-- a great song to be sure, but one not even recorded in the State of California let alone Los Angeles, it has no business on this set. Amongst the more established bands there are some curious choices as well: The Buffalo Springfield are represented by two of their earliest cuts (one a demo) at the expense of their more ambitious later material; The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, a band who released two classic albums for Columbia in 1967, see only one of their pre-CBS demos included here; The Doors and the Beach Boys-- arguably the two biggest groups to evolve from the scene-- only merit one cut a piece, while the much respected but less commercially viable Love rate two inclusions. Worse yet, some of the best SoCal bands of the era are completely absent. How could Rhino include songs by third rate acts like the Guilloteens (not even an L.A. band) yet leave out the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Grass Roots or the Millennium? (Other important artists such as Frank Zappa, the 5th Dimension, Johnny Rivers and Bobby Jameson are excluded as well, but due to licensing issues which are clearly not the fault of the compilers.)

Still, my gripes are that of an obsessive completist and fan who takes this stuff way to seriously, and as such should be taken with more than just one grain of salt. The beauty of Where the Action Is! is that is contains much to love, both for the neophyte and the avid collector. As such, is receives our highest rating: 5 Tabs


Friday, November 20, 2009

Tim Forster and Jon Mills Discuss the WCPAEB

Here's an unmissable video for all you Sphere-heads, brought to our attention from none other than WCPAEB biographer Tim Forster (Welcome, Tim!) himself. The guys touch all all aspects of the West Coast Pop Art gang; from their serendipitous beginnings at the 1965 Yardbirds tour party to their latter era backing of Bob Markley on the
Markley: a Group LP. Throughout the interview Jon asks many probing questions you have no doubt been asking yourselves all this time, and of course Tim's responses are insightful and highly informative.

Although we're on record as disagreeing with Forster's assessment of the monumental Where's My Daddy? LP, which we still feel is an undisputed masterpiece of sixties L.A. madness and magik, this interview nevertheless receives our highest 5-Tab recommendation. Watch and learn!

(Also, you can read Tim's complete essay on the WCPAEB in Shindig Magazine's new Shindig Annual No.2, available at www.shindig-magazine.com)