Leica M8, 35mm Summilux
Archive for October, 2011
Few bands go out on such a high as The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose final record, Munki, both followed the Vaudeville adage of “always leave ’em wanting something more,” and seemed a perfect evocation of all the chaos and glory the Reids packed into their years as a band of brothers. That the album began with Jim Reid singing “I Love Rock’n’Roll” and ended with William Reid singing “I Hate Rock’n’Roll” was such a perfect distillation of the dichotomy at work, of course they had to leave it there.
Thirteen years later, Edsel Records is releasing (alas, for now, only on the other side of the pond) a full set of the Mary Chain’s work, replete with B-sides, live sets, and an excellent archival series of booklets commemorating this amazing band. The liner notes for Munki have interviews with both brothers, Jim now sober, William living in LA, talking seriously about the ragged way the band went out. But oh, what an album to have left us with.
As the interviews make clear, Munki was recorded by two bands, Jim’s and William’s. They were rarely in the studio together by this time. But Munki was a distillation of what made JAMC so magical — from the sweet melodies to the discordant squall of William’s guitar, the Mary Chain was always a competition of visions literally connected by the same DNA. Throwing the Cramps, Velvet Underground, and Brian Wilson into a blender that shorted out spectacularly and noisily created a sound, not just for the ’90s, but for the ages. We have long thought that “Virtually Unreal” was the greatest single song the Mary Chain produced, and of course it comes close to containing all of the parts that made them great: Jim’s great rock’n’roll voice, William’s great rock’n’roll guitar, a propulsive beat, the raggedy edges of a sound schizophrenics likely hear when things are going either terribly right or terribly wrong.
Several of the extras thrown in on Disc Two of the reissue were already released in the massive Power of Negative Thinking, the seemingly encyclopedic post-breakup compendium. But some were not: incredible live takes from the band’s final, combustible tours, BBC sessions that’ll blow your mind, and the album finishes with a live version of “Virtually Unreal.”
What the extras also show is just what a death trip folks involved here were on. We’re not referring to the Jesus and Mary Chain, but to their label, Warner Bros. This all happened in 1998, before Napster genuinely threatened to disintermediate the labels, with the labels offering, through greed and stupidity, near justification for it. Warner Bros.’ treatment of Munki a preview of what would happen three years hence, when what once had been the music industry’s most creative and artist-focused label revealed just how desperate they were to destroy themselves — we’re talking of their rejection of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a classic album of the age, because it wasn’t commercial enough. Warner Bros, you see, rejected Munki. It just didn’t have potential, they said. They were happy to let it walk out the door and be released by Creation, as boneheaded a move as, say, the New York Jets letting Danny Woodhead go to the Patriots. Listening now to two of the (included) highlights from The Power of Negative Thinking, “Bleed Me” and “Rocket” — recorded as part of the Munki sessions — and thinking about Munki’s greatness, you have to wonder just what the record execs of this era were smoking. I mean, we know what William Reid was smoking, and we know how much Jim Reid was drinking and snorting. But as evidenced by Munki, theirs was clear-eyed brilliance compared to the morons who didn’t think this was a record worth releasing.
And so let us stipulate that the Duke Spirit is one of Tulip Frenzy’s favorite bands, and has been so since we first heard the title track from their debut, Cuts Across The Land , which came out six years ago. In 2008 they released on these shores a follow-up album, Neptune, which was less magical, but nonetheless quite powerful. We’ve been waiting ever since for that make’r’break third album, and when we found out that Bruiser, released last month in Albion, wasn’t being released in the States ’til sometime in November, well, we felt we had no recourse but to pass the hat around the office. Once we had enough coin, we sent off to London for what used to be the sweetest words in the rock hound’s lexicon: a British import.
Bruiser has arrived, and it packs a wallop. The Duke Spirit is not a particularly fancy band — they are a rock band (no real need for a modifier, though we’ll throw in the letters “alt” lest anyone confuse ’em for, like, Def Leppard), with two guitars, bass and drums, and in Liela Moss, they have my favorite female singer in the world. Save for, well, Neko Case. And Sally Timms. They don’t layer acoustic guitars and glockenspiels into the mix. Instead, they drive over you with a dark blue Range Rover. Their music is powerful, and stylish, and very direct. Six years since their first album, it is possible that the Duke Spirit have reached musical middle age, since Bruiser is perhaps a bit thick around the middle. Yes, this is a darkly melodic album whose songs often begin with the bass and drums accelerating into about third gear before we hear Liela’s gorgeous voice or the two guitarists crash the party. There’s a reason they didn’t name this album Floats Like A Hummingbird or else Stings Like A Bee. A heavyweight British bruiser Bruiser turns out to be.
‘Cept, of course, for Liela’s voice. There is that. If Liela’s voice were a character in literature, it would be Katje in Gravity’s Rainbow: flirtatious, incredibly sexy, continental, chamelon-like, dangerous, and tough. If Liela’s voice had a face, though, it would be the young Jacqueline Bisset: beautiful, intriguing, though not particularly mysterious. There is sometimes, we have to admit, an astringency to Liela’s tones, and she has a way of treating a man who’s pissed her off with the dismissive dispatch of a British nanny. But what’s also great about the way she sings is the almost perverse phrasing, the defiant tonal shifts: just when you think she’s going to take a note higher, she takes it lower. Did not see that coming! She’s that athlete whose canniness is built upon incredibly natural moves.
Is the whole band Liela? Far from it. We love the way either guitarist will only play five notes where ten could fit, love the Oasis-like rumble of the rhythm section, the Garbage-like presence (with no discernible electronics, other than mikes and amps.) What we love most of all are the songs. On Neptune, we could easily imagine “The Step And The Walk” used in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, or maybe one for a new Jaguar. (This is a compliment.) Since it’s taken so long for Bruiser to come out, we’ve had the lovely “Don’t Wait” to listen to for many months, and “Everything Is Under Your Spell” came out earlier this year. Either song can get under your skin and settle in for a long stay.
With The Duke Spirit, what you see is what you get: a band informed by punk and the blues, but determined to hew to the middle of the alternarock genre, with killer songs that are plenty catchy, and a singer whose voice you want to just pet. Bruiser takes on all comers, even if it moves a little slower than did The Duke Spirit’s earlier work. It’s taking waaaaay too long to get to America. When it gets here, pounce.
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