New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: figgs band

A Clinic in Purist Guitar Rock from Eric Ambel and Esquela

“Who needs pedals?” Eric “Roscoe” Ambel asked the party people in the house at a private event at Bowery Electric last week. His pedalboard was acting up, so he pulled the plug on it. Running straight through his amp, switching between a vintage black Les Paul and his signature Roscoe Deluxe Tele model by Stonetree Custom Guitars, Ambel put on a clinic in lead guitar, playing a mix of old favorites and material from his new gatefold vinyl album, Lakeside. Behind the guitar icon and head honcho of the late, great Lakeside Lounge were Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner taking on a Keith Richards role on second guitar. They kicked off hard with Song from the Walls, the angry, acidic riff-rock opening track on Ambel’s 1995 Loud and Lonesome album.

It’s amazing how few notes Ambel uses, considering what kind of chops the guy has. Everything counts for something: the lingering bends on the simmering, amped-up Jimmy Reed groove of Here Come My Love; the gritty, enveloping roar of the anti-trendoid broadside Hey Mr. DJ; the sunspotted, precise blues bite of Don’t Make Me Break You Down. Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson lent her powerful pipes to the vocal harmonies on Have Mercy, a soul-infused number that she wrote with Ambel. They sent a shout-out to the Ramones with Massive Confusion, then chilled out with Gillian Welch’s Miss Ohio. Ambel’s playing the album release show on April 29 at around 8:30 PM at Berlin (in the basement under 2A). He’s doing double duty that night: after his set, he’a adding “power assist guitar” with the ferociously funny Spanking Charlene.

The opening act, Esquela – whose album Canis Majoris Ambel recently produced – were excellent too. They work a country-oriented side of paisley underground twang and clang. The push-pull of the two guitarists, Brian Shafer’s snaky, sinuous leads against Matt Woodin’s punchy, uneasily propulsive drive had an intensity similar to great 80s bands like True West and Steve Wynn‘s Dream Syndicate. They also hit hard with their opener, Too Big to Fail (as in, “too rich for jail”), frontwoman Becca Frame’s big, wounded wail soaring over the twin-guitar attack and the four-on-the-floor drive from the band’s main songwriter, bassist John “Chico” Finn and drummer Todd Russell.

From there they hit a wry Del Shanon doo-wop rock groove with It Didn’t Take, went into stomping mid-70s Lou Reed territory and then rousing Celtic rock with Need Not Apply, a snarling look back at anti-Irish racisim across the ages. Their best song was a bittersweetly swaying dead ringer for mid-80s True West, but with better vocals and a careening, shoulder-dusting Shafer solo. Or it might have been an echoey psychedelic number that they suddenly took warpspeed at the end. They brought up harmony singer Allyson Wilson, whose soulful intensity was every bit the match for Frame’s – which made sense, considering that she usually can be found singing opera and classical repertoire at places like Carnegie Hall. Her most spine-tinging moment was when she tackled the Merry Clayton role on a slinky cover of Gimme Shelter.

The band closed with Freebird, a sardonically funny, Stonesy original that Finn wrote to satisfy all the yahoos who scream for it. Perennially popular indie powerpop road warriors the Figgs – who haven’t lost a step in twenty years – were next on the bill. Which was where the whiskey really started to kick in – this was a party, after all. Sorry, guys – for a look at what they sound like onstage, here’s a snarky piece from Colossal Musical Joke week, 2012.


A Lyrical Limited Edition Single from Wormburner

Wormburner play anthemic, tuneful, darkly lyrical rock narratives that often get compared to Springsteen. But to reduce them to Jersey highway rock, even the good stuff the Boss was doing thirty-five years ago, wouldn’t be fair, as evidenced by their new vinyl single – their first release since the fiery, sardonic album Placed by the Gideons three years ago.

The A-side, Today Might Be Our Day is on the Celtic side of anthemic 80s rock, U2 without the strident vocals and empty slogans. And it’s got a story, in this case a smalltime hood on the run from the law. Is that a swoopy synth solo or a guitar running through a wah? The band has both.

The B-side, Parliaments on Sundays, is a wry janglerock anthem like the Figgs at their most tuneful, told from the point of view of a guy who likes his liquor but only smokes or does the other stuff if it “helps to dull the edge, and anything to keep you off the ledge.” The vinyl seven-inch is officially out July 9 in a limited edition and the sound is rich, sweet analog.

Pete Galub’s Candy Tears: A Feast of Guitar Sonics

Pete Galub has been highly sought after in the New York underground rock scene for years: he’s played lead guitar and bass with acts as diverse as art-rockers the Universal Thump (with whom he’s on Australian tour at this moment), country cult idol Amy Allison and alt-Americana pioneers the Silos. Galub is also the rare sideman whose songwriting is as strong as his musicianship. His new album Candy Tears – streaming at his Bandcamp page – is his quantum leap, a lusciously textured, bitingly melodic mix of art-rock and powerpop. His vocals have never been stronger, his lyrics are clever and sardonic and his guitar playing is a rare blend of ferocity and economy of notes. Galub smartly chose to record this with New York’s master of the upper midrange, Martin Bisi, who captured every ringing overtone, gritty roar and lingering sustained chord on this album just as he did with Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation all those years ago.

Galub is a purist: the tunes and the hooks come first, then he fills out the picture. Bassist Tom Gavin holds down the low end with such perfect competence that you don’t notice he’s there; Chris Moore (who also adds acoustic guitar and organ) is one of the more musical drummers around, adding uneasy, rustling colors that enhance the often epic majesty of many of the songs. Some of the powerpop stuff reminds of the Figgs; Big Star is also an obvious influence, and there are echoes of Australian art-rock legends the Church here and there.

The opening track, Reacquaintance has a raw, guitar-fueled anger that reminds of Eric Ambel’s early 90s songs: “I drank an ocean until I saw bottom, remember the good times until I’ve forgotten,” Galub rages as his big, sustained late Beatles chords ring out.  Crying Time is the monster hit here, working quickly from an ominous Wire-esque chord change to a bitter, wickedly catchy 60s flavored psychedelic pop theme.

The steady janglerock tune All I Am could be the Figgs in their early days when they had two guitars and jammed out their endings. An art-rock masterpiece, 300 Days in July slowly builds a hallucinatory, regret-drenched summer ambience. “So many drugs in the water supply…walking on water, those were the days when we just let it all slide,” Galub laments as the guitar ripples in tandem with his Universal Thump bandmate Adam D Gold’s vibraphone.

Feels All Over is sort of the Who meets the Church circa 1982, growing tensely from just guitar and vocals to an insistent, tense, ringing pulse. A boisterous, theatrical blast of 60s-influenced psychedelia, My Regeneration echoes Love Camp 7, but louder: “It’s alive!” is the echoey mantra half-buried in the reveb-toned sonic mayhem.

Galub teases with the chorus on Waiting, hinting at a release from the tension, finally reaching a searing, swirling dreampop hailstorm that’s part My Bloody Valentine, part vintage Sonic Youth.  I Plead the Fifth Dimension  opens with a glacial, opiated deep-space Velvets vibe and builds with layers and layers of guitars into a ferociously sarcastic commentary on idie-era detachment.  The album closes with Boat, guitar and vocals establishing a bitter atmosphere that grows dreamy before a wailing bluesy lead disrupts the reverie and eventually slashes and burns its way through everything in its path. It’s awfully early in the year, but we have a contender for best rock album of the year here.

CMJ 2012: Make Music NY for Kids with Badges

When the Figgs played their first show in 1987, CMJ was a marketing idea whose time had come. By then, just about every college was sending at least a couple of representatives of the campus radio station to the annual festival. In reality, since it was a pretty much all-expenses-paid New York vacation, most of the kids who went to CMJ didn’t go to more than a show or two. In those days, New York had plenty of cheap bars where underage drinking was openly encouraged, and if you knew where to look, there were drugs as good as anything available on campus for half the price. Other than the overabundance of cheap drugs making up somewhat for the disappearance of dives catering to an under-21 crowd, it’s hard to imagine that things have changed much for CMJ attendees since then..

At that point in history, bands were ostensibly auditioning for airplay. Then the urban myth that record labels were signing bands out of CMJ persisted for a few years. By the late 90s, crowds were often still good enough to make a CMJ show worth the hassle since it could be an opportunity to play to some fresh faces. But as the festival ran out of venues, spilling over into rice-and-beans joints and coffeeshops and anywhere a primitive PA could be set up, overkill set in. With the web and Youtube eliminating the need for any kind of live audition, a CMJ gig inevitably became no more of a big deal than any other random show – which it probably never had been, anyway.

But as much as the crowds, and the number of bands gets smaller and smaller every year, CMJ still comes around. And somebody had asked the Figgs to play a CMJ gig Saturday night at Rock Shop. It’s hard to imagine any other show on the slate this year being as wickedly fun as this one was, despite its brevity. “25 years, 25 minutes,” drummer Pete Hayes said sardonically, seconds after the set had ended without an encore – gotta run ’em up and run ’em off, after all, this is CMJ. But the sold-out crowd went wild, at least as wild as guys who probably saw the band at CMJ 1992 can get for an hour after leaving the wives and kids at home.

But the band is absolutely undiminished: after 25 years, their passion and energy puts most acts half their age to shame. It’s no wonder that they’re Graham Parker’s first choice as a backing band. This show had special significance for being a reunion of sorts with original lead guitarist Guy Lyons, who stepped back in as if he’d never left. Leaving barely a pause between songs, they blasted through one catchy tune after another. As powerpop bands go, do these guys have as solid a back catalog as the Raspberries or Big Star? No question. Is Hayes the most solid four-on-the-floor rock drummer anywhere in the world at this point? No question. Bassist Pete Donnelly added a darkly growling edge with burning chords, tree-snapping climbs to the top of the fretboard…or he’d deliver a laid-back soul groove, as on a wryly amusing version of Do Me Like You Said You Would, the first single from the band’s latest album The Day Gravity Stopped. And guitarist/singer Mike Gent got to indulge his Stones fixation as well as blast through both Kinks and Beatles-inspired riffage throughout the set, which was catchier than anything Chisel or any other of the Figgs early 90s contemporaries ever could have mustered.

Hayes drove the barely minute-long opening number with a grinning hardcore stomp; then they lauched into the considerably more tongue-in-cheek Favorite Shirt, a big crowd-pleaser from their 1994 Lo-Fi at Society High album. Lyons sang the biting, sardonic Bad Luck Sammie and the even more snarling Rejects. Did Wilco rip off the Figgs for Shot in the Arm? Hearing this show, you could make a strong case for it. As the show wound up, they messed with an insistent reggae pulse, then referenced the Ramones with Wait on Your Shoulders and finished with the Kinks/Who stomp of Something’s Wrong. The only thing wrong with this picture was that a band this good deserved a biggger venue – and if this had been Manhattan rather than the Gowanus, they would have packed it.

A couple of other acts who made CMJ appearances this year deserve a mention. Fiery, charismatic, literate rockers Hannah vs. the Many played an all-too-brief set here on Friday night: it was good to get to hear frontwoman/guitarist Hannah Fairchild’s blistering wail over the roar of the guitars and the macabre cascades of the keyboards (the band still seems to be without a bass player). It’s hard to think of any other band who has smarter, more incisive lyrics than they do.

And for what it’s worth, the single most impressive song of the entire festival – at least from this perspective,  it’s still impossible to catch each and every act – came from an unexpected source, jangly 80s-influenced Bushwick guitar pop band the Denzels. The version of the ominously swaying minor-key garage-rock anthem Waterfront up at their Bandcamp site doesn’t do justice to the majestic power they gave it onstage at the Knitting Factory on Saturday. Hearing a song that intense and smartly orchestrated makes you wonder, is there more where that came from? Throughout the rest of their show, some of which was more Britpop-inflected, some of which sounded like the Alabama Shakes without the girl singer, there wasn’t – but it was a short set. Which perfectly capsulizes CMJ’s appeal as well as the severity of its limitations.