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Tag: social distortion

An Incendiary, Politically Fearless Lockdown-Era Album by One of This Century’s Funniest, Most Quotable, Pissed-Off Songwriters

Matthew Grimm‘s song West Allis topped the Best Songs of the Year list here in 2013. On the surface, it’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental account of a Wisconsin man, David Carter, whose dead body went undiscovered for four years after he’d shot himself in his own home. But as is usually the case with Grimm, there are many other levels at work here, one of them debunking the myth of how close-knit Midwestern communities actually are.

Before Grimm went solo, he fronted a raucously twangy, ferociously populist New York Americana-punk-janglerock band, the Hangdogs. That band’s 2002 release Wallace ’48 was rated best album of the year by this blog’s e-zine predecessor. Grimm’s new album Dumpster-Fire Days – streaming at Spotify – is his hardest-rocking and arguably most witheringly lyrical album in a long and incendiary career.

He opens with Salt of the Earth, which could be Steve Earle fronting Social Distortion. It’s Grimm’s What’s the Matter with Kansas:

We’re the peasants who cheered as heretics burned,
Put synagogues to the torch
Lined up to die for rich men’s right to own people,
Enforced apartheid a hundred years more
We gathered in the square to watch Black men hang
Like a Friday night football game
We’ll greenlight genocide long as some charlatan
Tells us it’s in Jesus’ name

Not quite everything here is quite as, well, grim. Tommy Keene Is Playing Kiki’s House, the album’s title track more or less, is a bittersweet look back at college life during the Reagan era. Much as it seems Grimm could already see the fascism that was coming down the pike, there’s an indominable joie de vivre here too. Compare your freshman reading and playlist to this one:

1986, Songs From the Film, JP finds it in the cut-out bin
We spin it again and again like it turned some secret key in ou restless brains
Niebuhr, Gramsci, Scruffy the Cat, Hobsbawm, Wiesel, the Mats
Social D, Marcuse, Del Fuegos, Dewey, threads that wove what we became

Aspire is more acoustic, with one of those Texas shuffle grooves the Hangdogs loved so much. It’s Grimm at his most cynically amusing: “Venture unto roads less traveled, unless you’re in the South.” Likewise, Reply Guy (The Dick Next Door) could be the Hangdogs in one of their janglier moments, a ruthlessly detailed portrait of a rightwing nut with an especially twisted secret – which turns out to be less than a secret after all.

In Be Saffiyah Khan, Grimm sends a shout-out to the woman who stared down a crowd of anti-Muslim bigots – and won. He reminds that a Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi in Nazis Agree With You, a perennially relevant broadside which also contains the album’s best musical joke.

Monument, a slow, seething number with organ behind the guitars, doesn’t namecheck Trump, but it doesn’t have to:

He vows to build a wall and paint the country red
He rips children from their mothers while they’re sleepin in their beds
There’s malice in his heart and there’s blood on his hands
We don’t need a monument to that kind of man

Grimm picks up the pace with a rare love song, Friney’s Song, and follows that with the simmering, Celtic-tinged anthem So Long, Good Luck and Fuck You:

I might not make it out alive so it’s down to you rise up
And smash the garbage system that led millions to their graves
Tell the toffs who wrecked the earth to recognize your actual worth
And shut this fucker down until they do

Stephanie King supplies harmony vocals in March, a gospel-inspired, Woody Guthrie-esque singalong for anyone who wants “to make a world of no masters and no lords.” Grimm closes the album with The Whirlwind, as prophetically vindictive a song as he’s ever written:

Did you think we’d take your hand and just go gently into a new dark age
That we’d turn our backs obeisant while you dragged our neighbors away,
That all your Russians and your fascist cult can save you from your sins
Well, count your days, open wide, and prepare to reap the whirlwind

And while we’re at it, let’s resolve that after this whirlwind is over, the world we inherit afterward – and we will – is one where guys like Grimm can play songs like this on a real stage in front of real people.

Revisiting a Cult Classic Album from John Sharples

Drummers usually have huge address books: the good ones play with lots of different people. That’s true of John Sharples, but his musicianship extends beyond drums to guitar, bass and keyboards. Many of the tracks on his obscure 2004 gem, I Can Explain Everything have him doing both basic and lead tracks on all those instruments plus vocals, but it’s not just a one-man band thing. It’s aged well, a tuneful, eclectic mix of powerpop, riff-rock, oldschool C&W and Americana. More importantly, it has historical significance for documenting the scene centered around Freddy’s Bar, the Atlantic Yards hotspot notoriously driven out in the illegal land grab that spawned the hideous, already decaying new basketball stadium there. Freddy’s lives on, relocated to Brooklyn’s South Slope; likewise, Sharples, a.k.a. Reggie Mental (his alter ego in obscure/legendary faux first-wave punk band the Spunk Lads) has a monthly Saturday night residency there with a rotating cast of great players. He’s there this Saturday night, June 28 at 8 with an intriguing lineup including ex-Aquanettas guitar goddess Debby Schwartz and Celtic punk bandleader Fran Powers.

On the album, Sharples sings with a tough, restless delivery throughout a mix of the kind of diverse material that you might expect from an in-demand drummer. He opens with a rare, absolutely gorgeous Matt Keating janglerock anthem, Mind’s Eye, playing twelve-string guitar over his own rhythm section. Keating himself spices Circus Guy leader Michael Culhane’s pub rock tune The Main Thing with swirling organ, Culhane adding a biting, bluesy guitar solo. Move It, by Ian Samwell, is new wave-tinged powerpop with a snarling Tom Rogers guitar solo. Sharples follows that with Graham Davies’ New Year’s Day, a morose, artsy early 70s-style rainy-day Britfolk tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Al Stewart record.

Hub Moore’s Thank You sounds like a cross between the Records and the DB’s, Sharples adding a wry George Harrison quote on slide guitar along with playing most of the other instruments. He gives Johnny Burnette’s Lonesome Tears in My Eyes a Tex-Mex sway and a little wry Orbison on the vocals, then later on tackles Michael Nesmith’s Papa Gene’s Blues as the Lovin’ Spoonful or Commander Cody might have done a vintage country tune.

The best songs come toward the end. The lone Spunk Lads tune here riffs on the Ramones, oi punk and hip-hop, with a chorus that goes “You do the work and I’ll take the credit, that’s just part of my charm.” By contrast, Paula Carino‘s Eminence Rouge (from her days with her band Regular Einstein, who auspiciously reunited for a gig and hopefully more this year) gets a poignant C&W treatment with Jon Graboff’s keening pedal steel and Michele Riganese’s fetching backup vocals. The catchy, anthemic Three More Wishes/Waiting for the Train blends twelve-string jangle with Graboff’s steel lingering in the backbround. Then Sharples follows the rockabilly tune A Big Hunk O’Love with a killer version of Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers’ haunting 1929 hillbilly anthem Baltimore Fire, sort of like Social Distortion with better vocals.

The album ends with a tricky, clever cover of George Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, Sharples on bass and guitars and the great Americana/jazz chanteuse Erica Smith on harmony vocals. There’s a sweet backstory here – Sharples and Smith married five years after the album came out. Where can you get a copy of this rarity? Well, at one of Sharples’ shows, for starters. And he still plays some of the best songs from it at gigs.

Savagely Funny, Politically Insightful Songs from Matthew Grimm, the Stephen Colbert of Heartland Rock

On one hand, Matthew Grimm is true to his name: his songs can be devastatingly bleak. On the other, his new album Songs in the Key of Your Face is his catchiest and maybe his funniest, something of an achievement considering how savagely amusing his others have been. One reason why this one might be somewhat more lighthearted than his black humor-drenched work with the late, lamented, occasionally resurrected Americana rockers the Hangdogs, or on his first solo album, is that the Bush regime is over, at least nominally speaking. There are too many LMFAO lines on this album to spoil here: as political humor goes, this guy is several steps ahead of the Colbert Report.

Musically speaking, Grimm writes short, catchy , propulsive rock tunes with ringing guitar, tight bass and drums and a little piano and organ in places. He’s got a purist pop sensibility but loves country; sometimes Social Distortion comes to mind. Grimm gets in, makes his point, gets out, leaves you humming along and probably laughing. And his Iowa twang has returned since he more or less left New York

The album’s opening track, Woody Guthrie’s 33rd Resolution recycles that Cure hook that every lame Bushwick band has stolen and actually does something with it. Guthrie was a compulsive list-maker, and #33 turns out to be “wake up and fight!” Union Maid updates the old folk song I’m Sticking with the Union for the age of globalization i.e. the new slavery. In case you haven’t noticed, your boss is “making the case for you to know your place like back in the 19th century.” Then the fun starts. Little Black Dog is a wickedly catchy take on a canine deus ex machina “who saved us all from aliens, mortality and old men white men.” Grimm looks back on the days “When we used to get old and died, until that fateful pet therapy day, now we’re all 29 and we all get laid.”

My Lesbian Girlfriend is another funny one: she hates tv, he thinks “cable is a basic human right…she digs Tegan & Sarah where I’d rather shove chopsticks through my ears,” but at the end of the day they bond over a love of freedom and contempt for fascists. Likewise, the towering anthem Real Americans reminds how much we have in common despite all attempts by the corporate elites to keep us divided and conquered:

Sometimes it’s a storm, sometimes someone dies
And phone calls breed phone calls and potluck and pies
And if you need it someone’s got room
They don’t ask for your papers or voter ID
It’s from each others’ haves to each others’ needs
In small towns and cities, all colors and creeds
And mostly it’s just what people do

The album’s centerpiece, Enemy, has a similarly Woody Guthrie-esque insight and defiance, once again calling bullshit on the divide-and-conquer game. In the race to the bottom, if your enemies are the people who plow the roads and drive fire trucks and teach school and heal the sick, isn’t pretty much everyone the enemy? Grimm doesn’t preach – he leaves it to the listener to do the math and figure out the corollary of that equation.

Kickass Wake offers a keg party salute to a guy who “took a karmic bullet for your ass,” a life that “ended way too soon but that’s way more than you walking corpses do.” Back Booth offers a sardonic look back at a missed chance at hooking up with a girl. The funniest song here is Go the Fuck Home Mindy. It’s not one of the political ones but it’s about someone we all know. This girl is wall-hugging drunk, making no sense and annoying everyone within earshot. “I know it’s the pot calling the kettle drunk, but if the cops came, you’d get tased,” Grimm tells her knowingly.

He rewrites Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom (or, the Gates of Rhymney, if you prefer) as Ideology, a bitter chronicle of what happens “when one voice rules a nation ’cause they were born at the top of the pile.” He ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note with the highway anthem Out of the Darkness, which sounds a lot like fellow heartland rockers the BoDeans. There are also a couple of hard-charging covers here: the Townes Van Zandt classic Pancho & Lefty, and a doublespeed version of Dire Straits’ early 80s recession epic Telegraph Road, turning it into a desperate, Springsteen-esque escape anthem.

But the best song here, maybe the best song of the year, is West Allis. It’s the album’s most towering, epic number, a clear-eyed, sobering account of a suicide in this Wisconsin town that wasn’t discovered until after “four years of unshoveled sidewalks, four walls enclosing perfect desolation.” The guy gets laid off, “the days swept by like grey winter birds, and he forwarded his mail and paid the bills, and took out the gun, and he went to a place where nothing hurts.” The story is all the more shattering for being so matter-of-fact:

Maybe you’re your brother’s keeper not by code or creed or canon
But a simple hope that someone will be yours

Grimm’s implication is that, or lack thereof, had to be a factor in the guy’s decision to turn the gun on himself. The irony that such a haunting portrait of alienation would be the best track on this otherwise very funny album speaks as much to the strength of Grimm’s songwriting as to the state of the nation in 2013. Since his days fronting the Hangdogs, Grimm has been a fixture on the year-end best-of lists at this blog and its predecessors on the web and elsewhere; look for this one here in December if we make it that far. Grimm and the Hangdogs are playing one of their infrequent reunion shows this Friday Sept 13 at Rodeo Bar.

Twisted, Sick Stuff from Larry and His Flask

Larry and His Flask bridge the gap between grasscore and gypsy punk with a bunch of funny songs. Punk rock at its best isn’t just assaultive, it’s fun, and that’s exactly what these guys bring to the party. They’re twisted and sick – and they’re excellent musicians. Their popularity is yet another reminder of how much of an audience there is for party music that isn’t stupid, that hasn’t been focused-grouped to death. Their new album Hobo’s Lament might be their best yet: they sound like they’re an awful lot of fun live. They’re at Webster Hall on Sept 29 and 30 at around 7.

The first track, Closed Doors is electric spaghetti western grasscore. Social Distortion might have gone in this direction if Mike Ness had more goth in him; the sarcastic little joke midway through will get a chuckle out of everybody. Big Ride is a politically incorrect anthem about the big party to end all big parties, complete with wryly ornate bvox and a trumpet-fueled gypsy punk outro. My Name Is Cancer is just as sick: over a lickety-split punkgrass groove (with an excellent, creepy mandolin break), the Big C wants everybody to know that he’s coming for your children!

The title track is a punked out swing tune told from the morose point of view of a bum who crashes a party. Likewise, the album’s last two tracks, a brisk, gypsyish shuffle and a distorto guitar jazz crooner ballad, have the suspicious feel of parodies. Larry and His Flask take nothing seriously but the music. Albums like this only make you wonder how many other Larries there might be out there, chugging on their flasks, playing punk rock in their friends’ parents’ garages, pondering their next move.

Old Punk Rockers Never Die

Over the course of their colorful 35-year career, Canadian punk icon Joe Keithley and his band DOA have never lost sight of their populist politics or their sense of humor. Among other achievements, DOA had the distinction of being the band on Jello Biafra’s corrosively seminal 1991 ep Full Metal Jackoff, the Bush I era dissection of rightwing divide-and-conquer politics which remains as spot-on accurate today as it was then. And they’ve got a brand-new album, We Come In Peace, out on Keithley’s DIY label Sudden Death Records which shows that they may be bloodied but hardly unbowed after all these years. The songs are catchy, tight and surprisingly eclectic, Keithley still sings with a gob in his throat and has nothing but contempt for the ruling classes and their collaborators.

The opening track, He’s Got a Gun kicks off with a nasty pickslide, imagining what happens when a Tea Partier goes postal. It’s classic tuneful oldschool punk, guitar wailing all the way through the chorus as the bass goes up and hits the highs, hard, with a cruelly funny ending. Boneyard, featuring Hugh Dillon is a ghoulish, lickety-split galloping Motorhead-style riff-rocker, while Dirty Bastards, with its bagpipes (?!?) is a solidarity march, sort of a more authentic version of what Big Country was going for back in the day. Built around a vintage Euro-siren hook, Do You Wanna taunts would-be right-wingers. Bloodied but Unbowed (the title track to their well-loved 1983 lp) is just as catchy and perceptive as it was then: “I see cameras always being used, I see brand-new laws as they tighten the noose, I see freedom disappearing, I see Patriots [meaning US long-range missiles] rising…”

Bring Out Your Dead has a tongue-in-cheek, metaphorically loaded zombie theme and an unexpected slide guitar solo. They speed up the Beatles’ Revolution (and give the lyrics a bit of a needed update), cover Toxic Reasons’ War Hero as Subhumans-style punk reggae and return to reggae a little later with the considerably mellower Walk Through This World, referencing the Clash version of Bankrobber. We Occupy, a timely ska-punk anthem, is a duet between Keithley and Jello Biafra; with its call-and-response vocals, Who the Hell has a Sham 69-ish vibe, while Lost Souls echoes Social Distortion with its semi-acoustic intro, Rhodes piano and anthemic grandeur, and Man With No Name ventures into ghoulabilly territory. The album ends with a new acoustic version of General Strike, a well-loved track from their 1985 album Let’s Wreck The Party. Not a single bad song here: they mean it, man. Songs of freedom to sing (and drink) along to as the revolution makes its way across the ocean from Syria and Greece.