A Sepulchral, Saturnine Album and a Lower East Side Show from Dark Rock Guitarslinger Phil Gammage
Dark rock crooner Phil Gammage got his start as a teenager in the 1980s as the lead guitarist for legendary downtown NYC postpunk band Certain General. It’s probably safe to say that without them, there may have been no Jesus & Mary Chain or Brian Jonestown Massacre. While Certain General have been resurrected in various configurations over the years, Gammage has enjoyed a prolific career as a bandleader, sideman and small label honcho. His latest album Used Man for Sale is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s likely to air some of those songs out with his band on July 6 at around 9 at the Parkside, one of the few Lower East Side venues that hasn’t turned into a fulltime tourist trap.
The album opens with Arms of a Kind Woman, a blend of the purist Chicago blues that Gammage has been mining recently, but with a guarded Nick Cave optimism. Vocally, Gammage draws on both Cave and ’68 comeback-era Elvis, although Gammage could croon like this when Cave was still screaming about big Jesus trashcans. Interestingly, this record is more vocally than guitar-oriented — although the solo that ends it is a real monster.
Lowlit by Johnny Young’s oldschool slip-key honkytonk piano, Maybe Tomorrow is a gothic take on George Jones/Tammy Wynette C&W, Gammage’s brooding baritone in tandem with with Michele Butler’s uneasy harmonies over the slinky rhythm section of bassist Frank DiNunzio III and drummer Kevin Tooley (also of political rocker Mike Rimbaud’s band).
The band keeps the slinky, red-neon noir going through I Beg of You, part doomed fat Elvis, part haunted Otis Rush blues, with a knifes-edge guitar solo from the bandleader. The title track is a bitter oldschool soul ballad with a blue-flame guitar burn:
It’s my world, or what I tried to forget of it
All I am is a used man for sale
I had dreams, threw them all away
Hopes and schemes left for better days…
Ride With Railroad Bill is akin to 60s Johnny Cash fronting the Bad Seeds circa 1995. Feeling the Hurt has echoes of Roy Orbison in rare optimistic mode: “It took me too long to get this far, and I paid too high of a price,” Gammage observes.
Before I Leave has an ominously vamping latin noir Doors/Frank Flight Band ambience: listen closely for a cool allusion to a classic cut from LA Woman. Fueled by Gammage’s slide work, Tenderloin comes across as a less frantic, more purist take on what Jon Spencer was doing 20 years ago (and sorry to bust anybody’s bubble, but even San Francisco’s Tenderloin district has been been overrun by yuppies).
“The city awaits, it’s your playground,” Gammage intones with crushing sarcasm in Lost in Loserville, a bluesy anti-gentrifier broadside and the album’s funniest track. It winds up with the Doorsy blues Staring Out Our Window. Gammage has been on a lot of good albums over the years, and this might be the best of them all; it’s inspiring to see a guy who’s been around this long at a high point in a four-decade artistic career.