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The World’s Most Popular Surf Band Cover a New Wave Cult Hero

Los Straitjackets are hardly known as a cover band  Sure, every surf group does a version of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, just like the Ventures. But what’s made Los Straitjackets one of the best-loved (and by now, best-covered) surf bands ever is their originals. That’s why their new album What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets – streaming at Spotify   is such a radical departure for them. Still, in keeping with the band’s signature originality, they chose an odd source: the Nick Lowe catalog. Then they redo the songs like probably no one ever imagined.

Lowe is well-loved by an aging new wave era crowd (a New Yorker might cynically say that he’s a WFMU guy). But a lot of people, especially those who haven’t seen him live, might not realize what a good guitarist the self-described Jesus of Cool is. So his first-wave retro rock is a lot better suited to a fast 2/4 beat, and twang and clang and lots of reverb than might first seem apparent. The band are making a quick New York stop tomorrow night, June 25 at 9 PM at City Winery; cover is $30 for standing room. Be aware that there is a headlining act and that he is not worth seeing – unless you go for dorky guys who steal their fashion sense from early Elvis Costello, but forget to rip off Costello’s catchy tunes and edgy lyrics.

Another cool thing about the new album is that it isn’t all just the popular or the uptempo stuff: these guys really went through Lowe’s repertoire to find material that makes the most waves, whether whitecaps or gentle ripples across the pond. The A-side opens with Shake and Pop, bassist Pete Curry anchoring it with a little grit in his tone over Chris Sprague’s drums. Is that Eddie Angel or Danny Amis taking that nasty tremolo-picked solo? Everybody’s wearing masks, so it’s impossible to tell.

By contrast, they give All Men Are Liars a cheery, conversational early 60s Joe Meek bounce. Then they turn a relatively more recent tune, Lately I’ve Let Things Slide into resonant midtempo Ventures with a little Tex-Mex and Hank Williams thrown in. After that, a balmy take of You Inspire Me throws a fond nod back to Theme From a Summer Place

Rollers Show – Lowe’s snarky swipe at wildly popular 70s British teenybopper rock band the Bay City Rollers – gets an aptly swaying sock-hop beat and a deviously cruel quote or two from other songs. The first side closes with (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, which a million bands have covered, none of them remotely as well as Costello did. Los Straitjackets opt for reinventing it as a loping Lee Hazlewood desert-rock theme.

The B-side begins with I Read a Lot, slow and shadowy, drums drenched in reverb for extra noir, along with some wry siren effects. Half a Boy and Half a Man is the first number that isn’t really surf: it’s pretty close to the British pub rock that Lowe got his start in. Likewise, Checkout Time is a mashup of early Shadows skiffle and the Mexican side of the Ventures: the tongue-in-cheek medley of riffs from classic surf tracks at the end is LOL funny.

The Lowe tune that turns out to make the best surf song of all of these is I Live on a Battlefield, yet even with all the wry historical references – DAMN, these guys know their surf – they don’t add a chord change in the verse that would totally Venturize it.

Sprague’s Wipeout drums add a droll touch to the cover of Raging Eyes. The band saves the most obvious stuff for last, Cruel to Be Kind recast as a melancholy, swaying ballad and Heart of the City as a mashup of Buck Owens and the Modern Lovers (you know the song – the Sex Pistols covered it). If you always wanted to be in a surf band, get this album and learn it cover to cover. Someday somebody will pay you good money to play this stuff.

Halloween Comes Earlier Every Year in NYC

Halloween’s on its way, and it’s gonna be hell in the East Village when every amateur from Cape May to Cape Hatteras comes into town to drink and puke. But for a taste of a more, um, tasteful Halloween, there’s a killer retro rock triplebill coming to Brooklyn Bowl on Oct 26, with ageless second-wave garage rockers the Fleshtones, the reliably entertaining Southern Culture on the Skids and the world’s most popular surf band outside of the Ventures and Dick Dale, Los Straitjackets. The three bands are pushing a new Halloween collaboration, Mondo Zombie Boogaloo, which is due out on Oct 1 on double gatefold vinyl in addition to the usual digital stuff.

It’s everything you would hope for from these three bands. Los Straitjackets get the creepy side of surf – they don’t get all cartoonish and cliched and ruin it. The Fleshtones are a party band, and they bring the party, as do Southern Culture on the Skids, and both of them steer clear of the cheese a lot more than you might think. It’s worth keeping around on vinyl, both as an annual playlist that’s got something for pretty much everyone you might want to invite over at the end of October, or just for something fun and guitarishly tasty to pick you up after a bad day at work.

As you would guess, Los Straitjackets’ songs here are the best. It’s Monster Surfing Time is a surprisingly low-key, swaying, midtempo number where the guitars finally go into machete mode a little on the third verse – in a way it’s kind of Walk Don’t Run ’13. Theme From Young Frankenstein turns out to be an elegant, slowly swinging, thinly disguised version of Harlem Nocturne. Theme From Halloween takes the coldly techy theme, amps up the menace with real instruments, then the band goes four-on-the-floor and rocks the hell out of it. Ghoul on a Hill only hints at the Beatles through a mist of reverb-tank noise, while their LMAO version of the Ghostbusters theme spoofs the original with a virtuosic sneer.

SCOTS’ songs are strong too. Rick Miller has some nonchalantly brilliant reverb guitar on a lot of their tracks, especially the ghoulabilly Tingler Blues. “I’ll take the house nobody wants,” he drawls over swaying, spaghetti western rock on The Loneliest Ghost In Town: “The violent nature of my demise has made all buyers run and hide, and here I stand confined to the scene of the crime.”  La Marcha De Los Cabarones is a ferocious Link Wray homage in 7/4 time, while their version of Goo Goo Muck is more of a straight up garage rock song than the famous Cramps version and a far cry from the feral Hasil Adkins original. And the feedback-drenched Demon Death has devious fun toying with a teen roadkill theme.

The Fleshtones’ Haunted Hipster might be the best song on the album. “Every day is Halloween for you,” Peter Zaremba sneers while Keith Streng plays Stonesy slide guitar and a droll, absolutely spot-on Beatles quote over Ken Fox’s growly fuzz bass. They also deliver (Sock It To Me Baby) In The House Of Shock, with its goodnaturedly poppy mid-60s vibe; Ghoulman Confidential, a roller rink organ soul shuffle; and Dracula A GoGo, a Flamin’ Groovies-style pub rock number. There’s also Que Monstruos Son, a very tongue-in-cheek Spanglish version of the Monster Mash featuring all three bands.