The Jazz Butcher • The Wasted Years [4CD Box Set]

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The Jazz Butcher began life as a fellow named Pat Fish. As a young man, Fish found himself writing peculiar songs in the English countryside and eventually put together a loose collection of blokes to help him perform them. That evolved into a band, which was also dubbed THE JAZZ BUTCHER, and they soon managed to record some of their nascent musical scrapings and have them released by a fledgling indie label, Glass Records. A handful of albums and singles followed, and the long players have now been compiled into a 4CD “box set” they call The Wasted Years.

Spanning 1983 to 1986, The Jazz Butcher’s four initial albums (their entire Glass LP discography) make up four discs in a book configuration, with a short 20 page booklet that includes Pat Fish’s recounting of his band’s early history. Released by Fire Records, it’s a nice overview of a band that mixed humorous lyrics about oddball subjects to “new wave” music with compelling results. Bath of Bacon was their 1983 debut, a time when (according to Fish) “none of us really had a clue as to what we were at.” As he also notes about the band’s primal beginnings, some songs from the album have stood the test of time, such as “Partytime” and “Zombie Love.” Bath of Bacon was definitely a rookie recording, with its lo-fi sound and skeletal arrangements. That was to be improved upon tenfold with A Scandal in Bohemia, The Jazz Butcher’s second full length and quite the stunner.

Only a year later the group had gelled with Fish, guitarist Max Eider, bassist David J – who had been in Bauhaus and later Love And Rockets – and drummer Owen Jones. The Scandal lineup committed numerous JB classics, such as “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return),” which was a remake of a single track in a more stately arrangement with new lyrics, and “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present”, a rocker about a peculiar episode of a woman getting stuck in an elevator with a gift “made entirely of the skins of dead Jim Morrisons – that’s why it smelled so bad.” We never learn what the present actually was, though it was biodegradable so that elevator must’ve really stunk! From hard rocking rave-ups like that to the introspective (if slightly skewed) “My Desert” and “Real Men”’s anti-racist/fascist/sexist rant, Fish’s lyrics, the band’s arrangements and John A. Rivers’ production are compelling and warrant repeated listening even today, some thirty plus years later.

The followup to Scandal, Sex and Travel, is a bit less amazing but almost as good. This time we learn pretty much nothing about “President Reagan’s Birthday Present,” which features the chant “red Russians shot my rocket down” over and over, but we do get the sober and almost beautiful opener “Big Saturday” and another thought provoker, “Walk with the Devil.” Sex and Travel, with only eight songs, was sort of like a mini Scandal Part 2.

1986’s Distressed Gentlefolk gets short shrift in Fish’s notes, and it did with many of The Jazz Butcher’s fans at the time, too. The album lacked a lot of the humor and oddball situations that made the previous albums and singles so fun, and the band – though more seasoned – play it too seriously and sober. Humor and anarchy, hallmarks of the band, took a backseat on Gentlefolk. That being said, one of Fish’s most gorgeous songs, “Angels,” closes the album (and this box set) on a hauntingly beautiful note.

The Wasted Years gives us those four albums, and those four albums only. None of The Jazz Butcher’s great singles tracks are here. Not “The Human Jungle,” not “Death Dentist,” not even “Water” or “Grooving in the Bus Lane.” I know there’s more than a full CD worth of stray songs the band did circa 1983-1986 that warrant compilation, and they would have been very welcome as bonus tracks on each of these four discs or as a fifth disc to sort of wrap up the proceedings. Perhaps that compilation is in the offing. Whatever, The Jazz Butcher’s first era set up a great foundation for the next one, when they moved on to Creation Records and put out more brilliant LPs, such as Fishcotheque and (my favorite) Cult of the Basement.

Anyway, I’m not sure about the title of this set. Does Fish feel that ’83-’86 were wasted years? Wasted in the sense of not worth it? Or in the sense (I suspect) that the band spent much of its time wasted? Either way, if you don’t own these albums, or are missing the very hard to find debut, The Wasted Years is certainly worth the price and no waste of your time or money.

3.5/5 (Fire Records FIRECD 460, 2017)

 

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Mark Fisher • The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls [Book]

xtc bumper bookBefore the internet, “fanzines” were just about the only way us hardcore fans (“fan” + “[maga]zine” = fanzine) could stay on top of the latest info on our favorite bands. Limelight was an XTC fanzine edited and written by Mark Fisher. The self-published ’zine ran for over a decade, spanning nine issues and the metamorphosis from typewriter/rub-on letter layouts to more professional, early word processor (computer) layouts.

The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology collects ten years worth of these indie publications into one big book of memories and new information about the author’s favorite band, XTC. Though I wasn’t a subscriber to Fisher’s UK-based ’zine, I did subscribe to its Canadian counterpart, The Little Express. (I actually wrote a review for that one at some point in the early ’90s.)

In its 256 pages, Bumper Book reprises all of Limelight’s content, and includes brand new interviews with XTC members Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers along with remembrances by famous Brits that most of us Yanks probably wouldn’t have heard of (unless you know who Phill Jupitus and Joanna Neary are). Vintage pages (at left, below) are presented as they were originally done by Fisher, while the new content (at right) is laid out in a way our modern eyes will recognize and welcome.There’s a lot of interesting – if a bit lightweight – content here, with its word jumbles (“Complicated Games,” taking its name from an XTC song title), fan letters and most of all the gossipy stories on the band’s studio activities. Fisher must have gotten at least some of his info from the band or its management, as both Limelight and The Little Express were always noted in the credits of XTC’s albums. The fact that they are once again willing participants in the publication’s pages shows that Mark Fisher must have had the band’s approval both then and now.

Until XTC’s deluxe reissue of Black Sea comes out late this month – or while you’re taking in the Colin Moulding/Terry Chambers project, TC&I, which is out now – this compendium of XTC’s early hijinks ought to be a lot of fun.

The Bumper Book is available for £17.99 plus £5 international shipping. (As of this writing, that’s about $30 USD.) Look for reviews on both aforementioned XTC related releases in the near future!

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The Jam • 1977 [CD Box Set]

the jam 1977 boxThe punk rock movement of the late ’70s was a firestorm of amped up rock ’n’ roll like nothing before it. While London, England was the music’s ground zero, over here it caught on simultaneously in far apart cities like NYC, Los Angeles, etc. For those of us who lived in the suburbs – I grew up in Garden Grove, California (“the OC,” for those keeping score at home) – the news was disseminated via occasional blurbs in the rock magazines (primarily Creem and Circus), and hype-loaded stories on the daily TV news. I’m not sure when I first figured out something of actual importance was happening. It probably dawned on me one day when I noticed all of these different bands, like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and THE JAM were being described in similar ways. And that it was actually music, not just a bunch of idiots causing riots in safety pins and mohawks. And this music, whatever it was, was not Boston, Journey or Styx!

In their first calendar year alone, a young threesome called The Jam released their first two albums and a few singles. 1977 collects those two LPs – In the City and This Is the Modern World – two discs of demos and live tracks and a DVD of TV appearances and promo videos in one handy little box set. The champion Jam fan will have most of what is on offer here, as a majority of it is available from disparate sources like previous album reissues, box sets and the like. But if you’re interested in collecting most of their, ahem, 1977 output in one place, this succinctly titled compendium is for you. In the City and the band’s next single (“All Around the World” b/w “Carnaby Street”) make up the first disc, so there’s the title single and other firestarters like “I’ve Changed My Address” and “Away from the Numbers.” An insanely massive debut, that. On another disc, This Is the Modern World (weaker but it’s all relative) appears by itself, without any non-LP B-sides. I don’t know why; there’s plenty of room for the live tracks that supported “The Modern World” 45 and they were recorded in ’77. Sure, they have appeared in other places since then, but so has a lot of what’s in this box set. In fact, five of the eleven demos on the second disc have been previously released. Perhaps The Jam’s main songwriter (and head honcho) Paul Weller vetoed their inclusion. Dumb. For The Jam did some killer covers back then (“Slow Down” was on their debut album; “In the Midnight Hour” was on elpee number two), so live takes of “Sweet Soul Music” and “Back in My Arms Again” completely suit the all-inclusive MO of this release.

Those demos on disc two are pretty fun to listen to but ultimately not all that different from what appeared on In the City. Still, you do get an early version of their eventual cover of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” and an early shot at Larry Williams’ aforementioned “Slow Down,” along with nine other tracks that were properly recorded for their debut long player. Disc Four, dubbed “Live 1977,” includes two sessions recorded for the John Peel show on the BBC (eight songs, all previously released on The Jam at the BBC) and a previously unreleased September 1977 concert recorded at The Nashville in London. Here’s where you can hear a pummeling version of “Sweet Soul Music,” the Arthur Conley R&B classic The Jam covered frequently (the one on the single was recorded that same month at The 100 Club). Even your canniest Jam fan would probably not discern there’s any difference. Still.

A pair of promo videos and nine tracks filmed for TV make up the DVD, and these are always fun from an historic standpoint. The Jam is shown to be very determined, focused and unflagging on multiple appearances on Top of the Pops, a show called So It Goes, and a single song slot on Marc Bolan’s program, Marc. Seeing Bolan introduce the band is a treat.

In all, 1977 is reasonably priced, what with five discs of aural and visual entertainment, a clipping ’n’ photo filled book and five prints of the cover and other shots. What The Jam accomplished in their short lifetime is something special, and this box set puts their nascent beginnings on compelling audio and video display. They were three guys, barely twenty years old, delivering their youthful views on life (politics, culture, etc.) to a willing-to-listen audience of their peers. With the support of their growing fanbase they went on to achieve much more than what their 1977 output hinted at, ushering in a musically exciting, modern world.

3.5/5 (Polydor/UMC 5771550, 2017)

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Spencer Brown & Bruce Thomas • Back to the Start [CD, DD]

Bassist BRUCE THOMAS is best known as the 4-stringer in The Attractions, the band that backed Elvis Costello on his earliest (and best) recordings. His unique bass playing has also graced records by Suzanne Vega, Peter Case, Duncan Dhu and John Wesley Harding. SPENCER BROWN is a bit harder to background. Apparently, he is “a songwriter friend” of Thomas’s, and the two decided to collaborate on Back to the Start once Thomas heard the demos of the songs that eventually were completed for the album.

Made up primarily of pleasant, pseudo psychedelic pop tunes, the album – available via Amazon as a digital download or made to order CD – Back to the Start’s arrangements include backwards guitar, descending/ascending chord progressions, harpsichord and other hallmarks of mid/late ’60s pop. Brown’s tunes remind me of those of The Rutles (that fictitious British band that might have been big had The Beatles allowed them to take over). Yet they’re not exactly parodies or send-ups because they don’t seem to completely ape the core facets of their foundational genre. Clearly, Brown is accomplished enough as a multi-instrumentalist (I’m pretty sure he plays everything here except bass) to be able to add his own stylistic flourishes and lift the tunes out of that likely morass; there is no denying, however, that the Sixties is his decade of choice when it comes to music. Lyrically, the songs are of the usual subject matter, though there are numerous turns-of-phrase that keep things from going too moon/June/spoon.

But back to the start of this review: Bruce Thomas plays the bass here, and as you’d expect, his fundamental style is well-suited for the project. His florid bass lines add a McCartneyesque vibe to the tunes, which almost sounds like lazy journalism except that it’s true. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking that this bass player is the same guy who propelled Elvis Costello’s late ’70s/early ’80s output with gutsy, over-the-top or under-the-radar bottom, depending on what the tune called for. I always suspected Thomas had more of a respect for Macca’s playing than he ever let on, and hearing Bruce in this context shows it to be true. And that’s not even considering the cover of “There’s a Place,” which closes out the album. It makes sense that Brown and Thomas would throw a Beatles tune into the mix, though it comes from a previous era than the one the rest of the album is concerned with, and thus ends the affair on a questionable note. (Or were they going, uh, back to the start?)

I’d say Back to the Start is worth a shot if either of these are true of you: a) You enjoy psychedelically-inspired music, and/or b) You’re a big fan of Bruce Thomas. I can answer affirmatively to both, and I’m glad to hear my second most favorite bass player back in the groove. Who knows? Maybe Spencer Brown and Bruce Thomas will get together for another go-round, go more grandiose and give us something really, truly fab.

2.75/5 (no label; available to order via Amazon)

 

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Nick Lowe • Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, Party of One [CD, LP]

YepRoc has been working the NICK LOWE discography for some time now. Starting out with Labour of Lust, Pure Pop for Now People (Jesus of Cool) and the Rockpile-attributed Seconds of Pleasure, plus a best-of (Quiet Please) and a handful of new releases, the label finishes things off with the final six albums Lowe put out before he went independent in the mid ’90s.

Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman and Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (Columbia US, 1982-1984).

Granted, the half dozen releases here are among Lowe’s least successful, but that concept is only relative when you consider what Nick has knocked out in his career. His first couple of releases after his band Brinsley Schwarz called it a day – Pure Pop and Labour – have stood the test of time as power pop classics. But Lowe was never interested in being the torchbearer for that genre. So on his further releases he slowly but surely expanded his reach by tackling a wider range of pop flavors, including rockabilly, straight country, country-politan and more.

1982’s Nick the Knife cut closest to the Pure Pop/Labour one-two punch, with “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” “Burning” and the reggae-tinged remake of his tune “Heart,” flanked by most of Rockpile (who made the original “Heart”). A year later Lowe had put together the band that would support him on the next few records, releasing The Abominable Showman (excellent title!) and scoring artistically with “Raging Eyes” – in his typical time-tested vein – but moving along into greener pastures with “Time Wounds All Heels” and the sublime sounding/lengthily titled “(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There’s a Woman Made A) Man of a Fool.”

Without a hit or hint at the Top 40 since “Cruel to Be Kind,” Nick’s label was leaning on him to come up with something chart-worthy. He gave them 1984’s Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, a cleverly-titled (though too clever for its own good) album with a surefire single, “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” which went nowhere fast. Despite a likely successful cover of The Springfields’ “Breakaway” and Mickey Jupp’s kick-ass “You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One of Those),” a worthy successor to “Switchboard Susan” (from Labour of Lust), Cowboy Outfit mostly stayed confined to the closet. Too bad, too, because Lowe penned some great album cuts (“Awesome,” “The Gee and the Rick and the Three-Card Trick”) that really showcased some of his untrumpeted strengths.

1985’s The Rose of England seemed to have the panacea to Lowe’s lack of chart time despite its boring cover art. (The US version featured a high school artist drawing/collage that was actually worse than the all-type treatment used in the UK.)  The remake of Nick’s own “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’N’ Roll)” was produced by then-chart topping Huey Lewis and played by him and The News. A catchy tune that was already great before Lewis helmed its second coming, it still didn’t have that certain-something to bother the charts. Neither did the excellent reading of John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody,” the rockabilly killer “7 Nights to Rock” or even Nick’s “The Rose of England.” Still… nothing.

A few years later, after taking a breather presumably to have a rethink, 1998 saw the release of Pinker and Prouder Than Previous. A peculiarly-titled little troublemaker, it had some likely candidates for stardom, such as Lowe’s “Lovers Jamboree” and the fun take on Wynn Stewart’s “Big Big Love,” but nothing that actually made a stab at bringing Nick something other than a consolation prize.

The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous and Party of One (Columbia US 1986, 1988 and Reprise 1990).

His US label, Columbia, decided they’d had enough and Mr. Lowe moved on to Reprise for 1990’s Party of One, arguably his best album since Nick the Knife. But even with quintessential all-time Lowes like “(I’m Gonna Build A) Jumbo Ark” and “All Men Are Liars” (which contains the clever couplet “Do you remember Rick Astley?/He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly”), as well as the more mature but just as good “What’s Shakin’ 0n the Hill” and “I Don’t Know Why You Keep Me On,” this party was a bust.

What was it going to take to bring Nick the kudos that seemed to be his for the taking? Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard movie, whose 1992 soundtrack featured a cover of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” though the song’s author’s name was probably completely unknown to those who saw the movie and bought the soundtrack album. Perhaps it was the success – and royalty checks – from this project that helped Lowe to figure out what he wanted to do next.

Not content to age disgracefully, Nick embraced a personal path without the pressure to write what the label thinks will be a hit (I mean, were they ever right in the past?). Lowe’s albums since 1990 have been much more relaxed affairs, with the kinds of songs (originals and covers) that better reflect his life and role as one of new wave’s elder statesmen. You still get the humor, just not the sophomoric kind. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, though, for those of us who came aboard because of his association with the punk/wave scene and thanks to songs like “Cruel to Be Kind” or “Crackin’ Up” have found the ensuing releases to lack the spunk of the early albums. And even though we may have the self awareness to realize that those who don’t mature are doomed to come off as perennial punchlines, we can’t help but listen to the early records and wish our hero’s future releases had continued in the same vein.

YepRoc should be commended for taking the torch and keeping it lit. Though the packages themselves are devoid of any frills (no lyrics, inserts or anything like that, at least in the CD configuration), they have added bonus track rarities such as demos and live versions from B-sides and elsewhere, when applicable. The CDs feature these items on the single disc; vinyl buyers get them on an included bonus 7″. Applause! And – if you bought all six albums during the pre-order period – you get a Nick Lowe lunchbox. Sure, there’s no thermos included, but you’re probably not taking this thing to school anyway. Unless you’re one of those who refused to grow up and still wish there was a “Switchboard Susan” on every Lowe LP.

3.5/5 (entire series) (YepRoc, 2017)

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The Replacements • For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 [CD, LP]

Many of us think back on the ’80s and feel it wasn’t a very good time for rock ’n’ roll. Well, we are clearly forgetting about THE REPLACEMENTS! Listen to For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 and you’ll recall that it wasn’t all bad – in fact, some of it was absolutely killer.

Captured professionally after their major label debut (1985’s Tim), this very live recording features the classic Replacements lineup (Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars) on an “on” night in Hoboken, NJ. If you know anything about this band and their near mythological live shows, depending on the night, they either were the best band on earth or they sucked big time. Representing the former – oh, thank heaven –this 2CD or 2LP release is quite possibly the Live at Leeds of our generation.

The set list this February night leaned heavily on tunes from Tim and their indie classic Let It Be, such as “Hold My Life,” “Bastards of Young,” and Westerberg’s awesome “I Will Dare,” sounding much more muscular in its live rendition (no Peter Buck on banjo!). There’s also an assortment of earlier hardcore fare such as “Fuck School,” “God Damn Job,” and one of my toppermost ’Mats tunes, Hootenany’s “Take Me Down to the Hospital.” I don’t wanna… die before my time… already used… eight of my lives…

For Sale also contains a number of cover tunes done the way only The Replacements could do ’em: unpracticed, spur-of-the-moment, warts ’n’ all. Witness “Fox on the Run,” the Sweet hit, which goes for about a minute (just past the first chorus) before it ends in a shambles. Elsewhere, “Nowhere Man” and T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” actually make it to completion, naturally in the rough ’n’ ramshackle manner these guys typically delivered.

All this is to say, if you need your rock music all polished and rehearsed, you probably don’t wanna shell out for this 30-years-overdue live release. But, if you’re a true disciple of The Replacements – and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you, man! – then you will find this album to be the quintessential, missing chapter of the book of the story of Minneapolis’s true rock ’n’ roll hall of famers. Hello Cleveland! indeed.

5/5 (Sire/Rhino R2 562078, 2017)

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Chris Bell • I Am the Cosmos [CD, LP]

Big Star’s ascendance to America’s best loved, most under appreciated rock band reaches its zenith with Omnivore’s authoritative reissue of the CHRIS BELL retrospective, I Am the Cosmos. Once again presented as an exhaustive 2CD compilation of the man’s life’s work, this version of Cosmos is a more focused affair than Rhino Handmade’s 2009 version or the original 1992 Rykodisc (single CD) release. I’ll admit: At first I thought it was going to be too much. After all, there are four versions of the title track included, and multiple versions of some of the other tunes. On paper it sounded like more than even this fan would want. I was wrong.

I won’t go into the whole Big Star story here, except to say that Chris Bell left the band after their debut, the critically acclaimed, consumer-ignored #1 Record (1972). After that, only one 45 of his own material (“I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister,” both included) was released in Bell’s lifetime. Yet this ample release shows that – despite the numerous versions of songs – he had a lot more in him. His harder rocking side is represented by “I Got Kinda Lost” and “Make a Scene,” his softer side by “You and Your Sister,” and the spiritual by “Look Up.” Then there are the yearning, burning tracks like “Cosmos” and “Better Save Yourself,” the winning pair that opens all versions of this compilation. Hard edged guitars anchor some tunes while strummed acoustics steal the scene in others; you even get funky Moog synthesizer (I believe) in the rollicking “Fight at the Table.” Bell’s talents were many and they’re all on display here. It’s hard for the Paul McCartney fan in me to not draw a parallel between Macca and Bell’s early ’70s smorgasbord of styles – and that, as you may know, is a high compliment in these quarters.

Omnivore Recordings has been on a Big Star bender for some time now, what with numerous band releases (including Complete Third, the comprehensive look at the band’s final album), Alex Chilton refreshers (I particularly like, but never reviewed, Free Again: The “1970” Sessions) and Chris Bell’s Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star. It’s clear from the liner notes in these various releases that label head Cheryl Pawelski and her crew will not rest until they have covered every angle of the Big Star story, and for that I’m grateful. Many lesser bands’ stories have been examined with an even larger microscope, so there’s definitely room in the world for just about anything Big Star related. Certainly some will think it’s all too much, and that’s okay. The rest of us can happily discover more of what Chris Bell, Alex Chilton and Big Star wrought during their musical careers by letting Omnivore lead the way.

I Am the Cosmos is released 9/15/17 as a 2CD set, as well as a single LP on clear vinyl (initially, and with download code for the rest of the material), and digital download.

4/5 (Omnivore OV-231)

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Alex Chilton • A Man Called Destruction [CD, LP]

Last month Omnivore reissued ALEX CHILTON’s 1995 album, A Man Called Destruction. Aptly titled, Chilton himself described it as “a soulful effort by a fairly primitive mind.” The album is a musical stew of rock ’n’ roll, New Orleans R&B/jazz and more – recorded the way this kind of stuff used to be recorded: live in the studio, one or two takes, minimal overdubs.

Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Destruction’s twelve songs (and this reissue’s bonus tracks) have a wonderful feel because they’re not perfect. Those who only know Chilton via the Big Star records will be thrown for a loop by Destruction. The arrangements aren’t power pop at all – sorry, Radio City fans – this is what Alex sounded like when he led the band all by himself. The songs, too, are primarily Alex’s, though there’s a handful of cool covers, including Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go” and Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired.” The latter track is one Chilton had been doing in his solo shows (when not “reuniting” Big Star with half of Seattle band The Posies). Buoyed by his own soulfully raw guitar sound, the arrangements include a rough but ready horn section and some real primal organ (check out his “Don’t Stop” to hear what I mean).

Omnivore’s reissue adds seven bonus tracks to A Man Called Destruction, including some alternate takes, a couple of originals that didn’t make the final album, and a cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do,” kind of a fitting sentiment about how some of us feel about Alex Chilton. Apparently, those who knew Alex Chilton say the two spheres of sound (power pop and primitive rock) were equally at home in the man’s psyche, a reflection of his own personality. Sometimes affable and agreeable, sometimes contrary and difficult, like it or not that was Chilton. We don’t know why we love him (at least we can’t exactly pinpoint it), but we do.

Available now on download, CD and 2LP vinyl (clear blue for the initial pressing) including all of the bonus tracks.

3/5 (Omnivore OV-227)

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Sheriff Jack • The Complete Works [Vinyl] or: “How I Learned to Stop Wondering and Love the Internet”

Note: I started this article with a great idea and the best intentions. While wrapping it up I discovered some info that, had I known it at the outset, would have greatly changed this story. More about that at the end…

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think SHERIFF JACK came to me in some fever-crazed dream. Nobody seems to know who or what he/she/it is, there’s basically nothing about him/her/it on the internet (no web page, entries on music blogs and sites, etc.), so he/she/it might just be a figment of my frazzled imagination. But: I have all four record releases (I know of) that were issued under the name, and I know I’m not making it/her/him up. So, you’ll just have to believe me and read on – or move along to something easier to digest.

Let’s go back thirty plus years to 1986, for it is then that Jack shows up for the first time on record at the Seattle college radio station (KCMU, now KEXP) where I once DJed. Supposedly Sheriff Jack’s first release, a 12″ EP called Let’s Be Nonchalant duly enters the station’s current releases bin. Four songs are on it, including such bizarre titles as “Buy Everybody a Cake” and “Buttered Slice of Democracy,” so naturally yours truly (a sucker for oddball song titles) needed to know more. And it was – and is – difficult to describe. It sounds slightly power pop or new wave, in the guitar-driven sense, but with just enough of that mid ’80s snare-in-your-face on it to be slightly distracting. That, and the guy sort of sing-yelling the lyrics. The record was produced by Pat Collier, who was known at the time for his work with Robyn Hitchcock and The Soft Boys, and as a member of the band The Vibrators (“Baby, Baby”). And the release came out on Midnight Music, which had also released Hitchcock and Soft Boys records. Kinda mysterious in those pre-internet days, and try as I could, I couldn’t figure out who this Sheriff Jack was. But, being in my early 20s and easily distracted, I bought the record but shelved it and the info search and moved on.

A few months later, out comes a full-length album, Laugh Yourself Awake. Where the first release had the tiniest amount of credits on it, this record had all kinds of credits but some of them seemed made up. Ever heard of a guy named Ted Aerialcruise who plays trumpet? Well, he’s on these two records (and the next one). The album itself carried on with the hard-power-pop yet very British tunes, this time with titles like “Bird-Oh!” (super slicing guitars) and “Cock Anne at Marjorie’s Door,” and even a cover of Big Star’s classic, “Back of a Car.” BUT… this time we get a slight biographical bit about Jack: “This stuff written, arranged, played and sung entirely by a bipedal humanoid known as Sheriff Jack… recorded in Alaska.” Well, I knew that “Alaska” was actually a recording studio in England, frequented by – you guessed it – Hitchcock, The Soft Boys and producer Collier (credited this time with “knobtwiddling deluxe; high-gloss finish”). There was a management contact phone number on the cover, but calling across the Atlantic just to find out who these people were was neither doable nor affordable then. Again, I enjoyed the eccentric English (I assumed) college rock (as we loosely classified anything without a solid genre description attached to it). The weirdo subject matter continued, the slightly yelled/sung vocals did, too, and the altogether unique guitar sound of Sheriff Jack continued to delight me and (hopefully) whoever heard it via the radio station.

Another few months later, the same performer/ producer/label team turned out a 4-song EP entitled Everybody Twist, which featured the title song (from Laugh Yourself Awake) and three more oddities (“Bold 3,” “Values for Your Culture” and “Something Cold”). Some sort of life form named Uncle Beastie sang “Something Cold,” a dirgey tune with a lower register lead vocal that comes off as fairly ominous; aside from this one, the EP is really an extension of Laugh Yourself Awake. I added this record to my Sheriff Jack collection thinking that maybe, if he/she/it/they put out further records, eventually some solid facts would emerge. Or I’d move on to some other obsession.

Then, in October 1987 another Sheriff Jack album appeared, the cleverly titled What Lovely Melodies! I know the date because the copy I bought locally HAD A PRESS RELEASE BIO IN IT. Thanks to whoever was sent a promo copy and sold it right away with the bio still inside! That press release details previous and current Sheriff Jack records as well as their release dates and catalog numbers. And! FICTITIOUS BIO INFORMATION. Shit! I’m sure ol’ Jack wasn’t really “the prodigy son of an Alabama hobo” or that he was the “ex-leader of Iceland’s leading protopunk garage loonies The Icebreakers.” I get that they wanted to keep Jack’s identity a secret, but how long could they keep up such a ruse?

The bio writer did do a pretty good job of describing SJ’s sound: “[It includes] all manner of aural perversion from sick and silly little songs to gruesome guitar meltdowns… It’s all here, fine pop music with a left-field twist to spice it up.” Okay, we can work with that. “Can’t Resist a Melody,” the ostensible title track, takes another crack at it: “What lovely melodies! / And they’re driving me CRAZY / Though I know what I’m doing is sinful / But I do it anyway ’cause I’m really odd…” The sound on this record expanded to include some slightly R&B and even vaudeville tunes among the quintessential Jack palette. Did I mention some of the other titles? “Pink Ducks”? “Dada Art Attack” (“it’s like riding a horse in a cul-de-sac”)? “The Buddha with the Runny Nose”? Okay, there you go.

As far as I know, that was Sheriff Jack’s last gasp. Well, it’s now September 2017 and I have no further information about him. But somewhere in the back of my head, as I was finishing this little exercise in demon-exorcising and seeming futility, I hear, Marsh, did you try EVERYTHING? Wait a minute… we have Discogs now! Type in Sheriff Jack and you get an entry listing an alias of Lewis Taylor. Turns out this guy was once part of the Edgar Broughton Band (late ’60s/early ’70s UK semi-prog rock) and, after his tour of duty as Sheriff Jack, put out records under his own name. Well, I’ll be. Read further and you’ll see that Taylor later changed his name to Andrew Taylor (ahem, do you remember a character from ’60s US television, who was a sheriff, named Andy Taylor??) and has played bass under that name with Gnarls Barkley.

I’m sorta speechless.

At this point, all I can say is: I’m going to attempt to reach Mr. Andrew “Sheriff Jack” Taylor and see about getting an interview with him. This time, as my trusty sidekick, I will have the internet to help me track him down.

4/5 (Let’s Be Nonchalant, Midnight Music DONG 20, 1986), 4.5/5 (Laugh Yourself Awake, Midnight Music CHIME 00.21 S, 1986), 4/5 (Everybody Twist, Midnight Music DONG 29, 1987), 3.5/5 (What Lovely Melodies!, Midnight Music CHIME 00.34 S, 1987)

You can hear Laugh Yourself Awake on Spotify. However, I don’t have an account so I can’t check to see if it’s still up.

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The Clash • Cut the Crap [LP, CD]

Today being Joe Strummer’s birthday, I thought I’d republish this review I did in 2010.

Saw a very nice copy of THE CLASH’s 1985 swansong, Cut the Crap, at one of my favorite record shops the other day. I didn’t have a copy of this record—the only one I was missing by the only band that matters—so I picked it up. Now, you may remember the reviews of this final album under that storied band name from when it came out, and they were uniformly bad. Not B.A.D., as in the band Mick Jones started with Don Letts after he was kicked out of his own band (and who were a better group than the one on this record), but C.R.A.P.

Joe Strummer, bless his populist little heart, decided to carry on under the name he helped promote to #1 Punk Band in the Land, recruited some young punks (no new boots or contracts), and cut an album of new generation singalongs. A few of these songs aren’t that bad, including the two singles “This Is England” and the severely misguidedly-titled “We Are the Clash,” neither of which charted very high. Part of the problem here is that Strummer co-wrote the tunes not with his old mates in the band (or even the new ones), but former Clash manager Bernie Rhodes. Some songs retain a bit of the old grit-and-go the band once had, but let’s face it, this one was not helped by BR’s input. Basically, it’s the arrangements and the constant “everybody sing with me!” choruses that wear on you.

Clearly, Strummer must’ve felt he had something to prove when he undertook this record. Despite the fact that The Clash had Top 10 hits everywhere, had successfully toured the globe in support of their 1982 Combat Rock album, and had garnered more great reviews than any punk band ever, he’s definitely giving it his all here. “This Is England” ain’t half-bad, “Movers and Shakers” and “North and South” are alright, too, but overall, you can’t really listen to this one much. And that may be why, when in the early ’90s a box set of the band’s work was released, mysteriously this record’s name was missing from the band discography and not one cut from it appears on any of the three discs. I like to think that maybe even those few years later Strummer realized that he’d sullied his band’s name and decided to try and forget the past. In the late ’90s all of the band’s albums were remastered and reissued—all except this one. I guess they really did cut the crap.
2/5 (Epic FE 40017, 1985)
[review originally published 1/27/2010 on Skratchdisc]

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