Rebellious Jukebox VIII: Cassie Morgan vs Barbara Lee

IMG_20150605_193159Originally published May 2013

I sometimes wonder if people think I make some of these records up. I mean, I certainly hadn’t ever heard of Barbara Lee before stumbling across her 45 at the Value Village a few years ago. The most I got from internet searching was that “Barbara Lee” was the stage name of one Barbara Levvintre, but that’s as far as I got. The songs themselves aren’t online anywhere, which means none of you are likely to ever hear the sass-country ladies anthem ” A Single Lady In A Singels Bar.” Yeah, it’s misspelled right there on the label. Oops! The song is an unintentionally creepy snapshot of its time (1981), glibly revealing the fear & dread hiding behind the “good times” of the singles bar lifestyle in ways that Ms Lee may not have even realized. Less exciting is side two’s Jimmy Buffett-ish “I Think I’m Dying A Little Each Day,” which is a much more straightforward run through much less ambitious territory.

Cassie Morgan is nothing if not ambitious on her debut vinyl release. Having made a well-deserved name for herself around town by pairing the sparse, assured beauty of her songs with the quietly Rube Goldberg-ish backing instrumentation of The Lonely Pine (Beth Bombara), Ms Morgan goes full band on this one. A full drum kit, multiple electric guitars, & even some well-placed horns provide lush backing for “A Day Longer” & “Wake Up,” without overwhelming the warm intimacy of the vocals. These songs would be just as fully formed heard on an acoustic guitar in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, but these versions will sound better when they’re the last songs of the night on the jukebox at the singels bar.

Cassie Morgan-A Day Longer

Ms Lee remains sadly un-internetted…

Rebellious Jukebox VII: Rat Heart vs The Geargrinders

IMG_20150605_193246Originally published April, 2013

There’s a reason they don’t call it “garage rocket science.” The best garage rock is a tossed off pile of distorted guitars, yelped vocals, & maxed out drums. Sometimes you can even hear a bass! St Louis, like every city everywhere, has a garage rock tradition dating back to the mid-60’s (the Aardvarks!), with a new batch of bored kids re-inventing it for themselves every few years.
This year’s bored kid is Brice Baricevic, & his band Rat Heart’s debut 45 has just the right collision of B-Movie & braggadocio that it needs. The lyrics straddle tough guy/dumb guy, the vocals are full of personality (especially on side two’s “Second Encounters”), & the songs are instantly familiar without being cliche. No wheel re-inventing is being done on this record, but these wheels work just fine.
Fifteen years ago (good God, this record came out fifteen years ago!?), the bored (a little older than a) kid was Jeff Hess, & his Geargrinders dropped a garage classic with “I Can’t Pretend.” The heavy wah-wah guitar from post-Fruitcake/pre-Helium Tapes Tim Lohmann added a strong psychedelic edge, too, especially on closing number “Fuzz Grinder.” Somebody should ask Jeff if he still has a box of these somewhere. They’re great! I can’t wait to hear what next year’s bored kid comes up with!

Rat Heart-Second Encounters

Rebellious Jukebox VI: The Chill Dawgs vs Snake Ranch

IMG_20150605_193320Originally published March 2013

Frank Zappa once asked if humor belonged in music. I didn’t stick around for the answer (I can only take that guy in REALLY small doses), so this month we’re going to let Snake Ranch & The Chill Dawgs figure it out.

The Chill Dawgs can be considered the house band of Dudes Mag, the long-running, ridiculous, scatological, pop-culture & pop-punk obsessed ‘zine put out by South Side drunk/pizza enthusiast Nighthawk. Much like Dudes Mag itself, though, there’s a lot more thought put into this record than one would expect. Is it funny? Well sure, of course. These are funny dudes. The five songs all have either “chill” or “dawg” in the title & the subject matters exclusively deal with partying and/or chilling. Thankfully the Dawgs take these dumb songs just seriously enough. The world is full of pop-punk with dumb lyrics, but is less full of pop-punk with dumb lyrics that’s crossed with sax-fuelled frat party rock (in the Animal House way, of course) played by a bunch of dudes who aren’t worried about throwing whatever dumb idea at the wall they come up with, because they’re good enough to make most of them stick. Record closer “Space Dawg,” for example, leaves the punk behind for unironic (I think) Flock Of Seagulls-y new wave, splicing in found sound/studio chatter about…stuff. This record shouldn’t be as good as it is!

Late 80’s/early 90’s East Side weirdos Snake Ranch also managed the tricky task of taking their music seriously while being complete clowns. Their 3 song 45 is bookended by the Public  Enemy-quoting “Stop The Violence”  and the tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale of “Mexian Crabdance,” the subject of which I believe Nighthawk may have also tackled in Dudes Mag. The standout track, however, is “Not The Hands.” History has not been kind to the punk/funk hybrid, but there was a time when there were some pretty great bands mining that territory & “…Hands” is a great example, blending funked out bass with Discord Records-style guitar to create a true gem. Check out the youtubes to see some classic footage of Snake Ranch at their dress-wearing goofy best. Does humor belong in music? Who cares? Since when has punk rock been about what belongs where?

Chill Dawgs-“Space Dawg”

Snake Ranch-“Not The Hands” live on cable access

Rebellious Jukebox V: Rum Drum Ramblers vs Tommy Bankhead & The Blues Eldoradoes

IMG_20150605_193358Originally published February 2013

(the published version erroneously omitted the first sentence, which Evan apparently thought was a note to him, instead of an integral part of the piece. Ha!)

Welcome to a very special edition of the Rebellious Jukebox, the Battle Of The Blues (in which I’ll probably reveal myself to be a bit of a poser)…

The blues is a tricky beast. It’s almost impossible to be an “innovative” blues artist, because there are certain inherent musical motifs that are required for the genre. If you innovate too much, then you’re not playing the blues anymore, you’re playing some blues-based hybrid slash blah blah blah. The basic structures of the best blues songs & the worst are pretty close, so it comes down to the magic mysteries of heart & feel & honesty & experience that serve to separate a blues master from some jag-off playing pentatonic scales as fast as he can. The late Tommy Bankhead had all the ingredients of the classic bluesman. He was a tireless entertainer who learned from the best, backed up the greats, & passed his wisdom on to following generations here in St Louis. This town would have been much poorer without him & Bennie Smith & Henry Townshend, which makes it kind of a bummer that this 1983 single is…kinda boring. It has all the wrong decisions that showed up in “post-Blues Brothers” blues, when older musicians tried to “fit in” with the new young Blues fans instead of just doing what they did best. His voice is amazing & the guitar work is perfect, but why the finger-poppin’ bass? Why the cheesy cheesy saxophone? I like some of the current “party blues” stuff, but these kinds of touches are distracting on these kinds of songs. Look to the stellar Please Mr Foreman LP, recorded two years later but with much more sympathetic ears, to hear what the man sounded like when he was really cookin’.
The Rum Drum Ramblers will be the first to tell you that they have no interest in innovating anything. They’re reaching back to before the guys who taught Mr Bankhead to play had even gone electric. They’re not trying to re-invent the blues, they’re trying to get inside of it & get it inside of them & see what happens. It’s a throwback, yeah, because that’s what the best traditional blues is. These young dudes are making themselves part of that tradition, one joyous live show & great record at a time.

Rebellious Jukebox IV: Bug Chaser vs Man Igno

IMG_20150605_193441Originally published December 2012

With less groove than the Jesus Lizard & less scientific precision than the Dazzling Killmen, mid 90’s St Louis pig-fuckers Man Igno were a formidable force of angry artsy ugliness. Their 1994 3-song 45 is a mess of jarring changes & indecipherable howling. You have to practice hard to sound this discordant. I once saw them play a show out in St Charles or somewhere & they allowed almost John Cage-ian amounts of silence between notes, further proving that there was a lot of forethought behind this madness.

If you boiled post-everything octet Bug Chaser down to just a couple of their infinite influences, you might find yourself in similar territory to Man Igno, although you could follow a different path & end up with that weird Kraut-Rock Disco crossover thing that was epitomized by Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Or you could end up in Go-Go land or Afro-Beat or 1990 Seattle or 2001 Rhode Island. You can dance to Bug Chaser’s 2-song 45, “Billy Saw A Pear/She’s Ninety” or you can headbang to it or you can calmly analyze it & parse its hidden meanings, & these would all be acceptable options. Bug Chaser isn’t a synthesis of all that’s come before it, it’s all that’s come before it & all that’s yet to come played ALL AT ONCE.
Bug Chaser “Billy Saw A Pear”