Groundhogs-Blues Obituary

March 29, 2012


Blues Obituary(1969 Liberty)

This is kind of a fitting title since it stands as one of the last hurrahs for the British strain of blues rock perfected on Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On, even though Cream, the Yardbirds, John Mayall and Led Zeppelin might have a few words in opposition to that claim. Hell, even the Groundhogs themselves would probably disagree  since most point to the subsequent duo of Thank Christ for the Bomb and Split as the best albums of their career. However, their is something special about how Blues Obituary borrows from all the right touchstones of their American idols while imbuing each song with the just the right amount of swagger, brooding and instrumental pyrotechnics. Yeah, so many of the contemporaries did the same, but they lacked the important ingredient of all–a mutant strain of funk that serves as a subtle, but powerful undertow on many songs that drags you right into the repetitive groove of each song. Sure, Split and Thank Christ for the Bomb take the groundwork of Blues Obituary and turn it up ten or eleven notches, but there is something special about how they stretch out and really pound each riff into dust or elongate it into infinity via riffs that rise and fall like humble crests that slowly mature into tidal waves.

Unsurprisingly, they were named after a John Lee Hooker tune since they both knew how to mine a sinister vibe even when they were cruising at leisurely pace. Guitarist and vocalist Tony McPhee is the obvious focal point throughout as he solidifies his claim as one of the most underrated rock guitarists of the 60s and early 70s. You know you live in a shitty world when Eric Clapton gets canonized while McPhee’s name wouldn’t garner a speck of recognition from 99% of classic rock aficionados. Outside of a number one hit in Lebabon of all places and a prestigious opening slot on a 1971 Rolling Stones tour, they never gained much traction outside of their native England where their next three albums hit the top 10 on the albums chart. I guess it is somewhat understandable since they only hit their stride in 1969 at the tail end of an era amenable to bluesy rock and roll acts more interested in showcasing the solo than the chorus, but they’d probably be more of a household name if they released Blues obituary a few years earlier. Oh well, life ain’t fair and god knows how many bands were birthed in the right place at the wrong time. I probably have written about a lot of them here. I guess I must be drawn to the gentle tragedies in life.

That’s enough whining about a hypothetical world where the Groundhogs reigned supreme. Let’s get to the stumbling fury of “Times” which might be one of my favorite songs to listen to while barreling down the highway. Let’s be honest. I’m lame, so barreling means a slight gradation over the speed limit in my world, but that’s not the point here. I’m a stone cold sucker for the slide guitar in a driving rock and roll song. Although the Jesus Lizard’s “Nub” ekes out a victory over “Times” in my imaginary sweepstakes, it doesn’t lessen the brilliance of how McPhee’s fingers race up and down his guitar as the rest of the band does it’s best job of imitating Bo Diddley after a bottle of codeine syrup as he relates a heartwarming tale of pondering suicide via a one way dive into the depths of the ocean. It’s a nihilistic, bleak tune that is simultaneously triumphant and beaten to a pulp.

“Mistreated” has a hard act to follow, but does it with impeccable style. Centered around a stuttering riff that could almost pass as a precursor to Black Sabbath if it was slathered with distortion and electrified, it lays the groundwork for an impassioned plea by a naive soul confused by the collapse of a romance. It doesn’t take a therapist to sort out that he is the source of his own ruin, but McPhee’s vocals are full of such pain and frustration that it melds perfectly with the agitated and and uneasy instrumentation that coalesce into a cry for help and forgiveness. Ultimately, those are probably the best adjectives to describe the overall vibe of Blues obituary–agitated and uneasy. On the surface, it’s just an adventurous blues rock album, but there is something malignant, restless and disastrous lying underneath if you listen closely.


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Wrist and Pistols

Wristopolis (Unreleased 2006)

Have you ever heard a song that speaks to you in such a way that it seems improper to ever stop listening to it? Most of the songs that fall into this category are very familar ones like Michael Hurley’s “Tea Song”, COB’s “Let it Be You”, Antony and the Johnsons’ “Hope There’s Someone” and the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” This is why it is so wonderful to hear a friend’s band record a song that speaks to me in such an intimate manner. There are certain songs in one’s life that feel more like companions instead of a collection of notes and chords and it goes beyond your ears and settles in a heart where thousands will never tread. There is a song on the Wrist and Pistols’ Wristopolis that will remain in constant rotation until the day I shuffle my scruffy coil.

The song in question is cover of the folk standard “Willie o’ Winsbury”  Meg Baird of the Espers makes a guest appearance here and adds a grace that perfectly suits this ode to fairness and chivalry. The ballad details a situation where a king wants to hang his servant for getting his daughter pregnant. He rethinks this path when meeting the servant and realized he is a good match and allows them to run off and elope. The imagery of this song sticks with me because the daughter is ordered to strip naked before her father to discern her physical state while he slowly becomes dejected at the revelation it was no lord, duke or night, but a servant who has impregnated his child. He immediately calls for the man to be hanged, but reconsiders his decision once he lays eyes on this handsome gent clad with a blonde mane clad in red silk. His appearance and demeanor disarms him to the point that he realizes that he is man worthy of his daughter’s hand. It’s a fairy tale about the power of love. Her version in her debut album is wonderful, but this version captures the simple romanticism that the song deserves. It shouldn’t be produced, it should humble and rough.

My appreciation for this album may be colored by my friendship with many of the involved parties, but my musical judgment tells me that it’s pretty great no matter who was involved. Wrist and Pistols are an offshoot of the Lucky Dragons and count Brendan Greaves, Pablo Colapinto and William Pym as its members. Part if its charm is derived from living next doo from their practice space where I heard multiple red-hot messes progress to sketches and bloom into song. Plus, there was the occasion where I waltzed in unannounced to convince them that a song should be written from the perspective of a stern disciplinarian. However, that was just another in a traffic jam of bad ideas fueled by a few too many beers. The rest of Wristopolis is great as well. Friendly folks exploring their folksy loves. I won’t lie. That one song eclipses the rest, but it is a gross oversight to ignore the rest of this album.

“Wristopolis” is a digital nest for several separate wobbly records: “Blessings” (2003 CD), “Apologies” (2003 7″); “Choke at Will” (2005 unreleased); “E Pluribus Unicorn” (2005 7″); and Lakeside demos (2006 unreleased.) Interested parties check in here for more Wristoleros:

Billy Nicholls

Would You Believe (Immediate 1968)

Folks tend to flock towards the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle, Love’s Forever Changes and the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society due to history anointing them as the touchstones of late 60s psych-pop. However, this era was rife with albums that fell just short of the brilliance of these classics. This was such a fertile period for the genre and bands like the Hollies, Bee Gees, Sagittarius, Flaming Groovies recorded great works that are somewhat forgotten in the glow of these anointed favorites. One of my favorit also-rans from this period is Billy Nicholls’ Would You Believe as it borrows bits and pieces from the big three, but it buries its melancholy sentiments beneath uplifting harmonies, carefully orchestrated arrangement and the occassional bluster of a raucous riff.

Nicholls’ songs are great on their own, but much credit must be paid to the influence of Andrew Loog Oldham, producer of the Rolling Stones, manager of the Small Faces and head of the Immediate label. He is responsible for the lush backing of Would You Believe’s most memorable songs. In fact, his production works so well because the incessant positivity of these arrangements conflicts with some depressing sentiments. I’ve always been a sucker for sour notes dolled up in fancy clothing, so I tend to favor the tunes where Billy smiles to hide the tears.What is even more amazing is that much of the album was created while he was 16 years old and that the Small Faces provide backup on some of the tracks. Supposedly, Oldham viewed Nicholls’ as a potential cash cow that he could mold into a British Brian Wilson to serve as a bookend to Mick Jagger, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Anyone who can pen such a slice of sunshine like “Life is Short” is ok with me. The entire song revolves around a innocent obsession where the “ba-ba-ba’s” mask the desperation of a young man obsessed with a woman who won’t give him the day. He gets so caught up in the fact that life is transient and get so worked up about the pursuit that I almost want to chase behind that waggish scamp. His romanticism constantly gets the better of him and the result is a song like “It Brings me Down” which documents his angst in sublime fashion as piano, guitar, harpsichord and drums collide in a fruity manner that celebrates the orchestral excess of the time period. Plus, the instrumental coda at the end of this song is a perfect way to go out as it backwards tracks its way to Beatledom.

Nicholls became disilluisioned with the album’s lack of success, broke with Oldham and recorded a couple solo albums that I’d love to hear. It is a shame because the optimistic moments hint at a bright future that was never fulfilled.


70s:From Acoustic to Wall of Sound (Ace 2004)

Listening to this compilation of Dion’s work between 1969-76, it is impressive to see how far his muse had traveled from 50s hits like “A Teenager in Love”, “Runaround Sue” and “I Wonder Why” once the age of Aquarius struck. Yesterday’s heroes were now regarded as squares, but Dion had larger demons to battle than the British Invasion. His career and very life was threatened by a heroin addiction, but Dion eventually conquered his habit and reinvented himself as an earnest folk-rocker with a social conscience on his comeback hit “Abraham, Martin and John.” Listen closely to the lyrics and you’ll hear a fatalistic submission to the fact that the boundless optimism of the 60s was destined to succumb to darker forces. There are assassins in our midst who are ready to claim our prophets and visionaries and leave us with only the drug addled and fried.

I digress since that song isn’t even on this compilation, but it does represent his last bout with a big hit before a series of inconsistent albums that found him settling into the 70s singer-songwriter movement. These albums didn’t sell very well, but his four albums for Warner Brothers had their moments and his collaboration with Phil Spector is alternately brilliant and totally pretentious and overblown. Supposedly, Dion despised it, but Spector had it released on his own label. None of these albums really stand out enough to deserve much of a reappraisal, but this collection of his best material between 1969-1976 filters out the slop and really showcases another side of Dion that seemed impossible during his days with the Belmonts.

This compilation is filled with that 70s mellow, country rock vibe that seems to speak to me too much. Take a look at this blog and about a quarter of it falls under this category. However, there are some nods to T.Rex on his ode to the power of music on “Doctor Rock and Roll” and “I Do Believe My Race is Run” wouldn’t sound out of place on Exile on Main Street. It’s kind of a schizophrenic collection that seems to alternate between utter downers and exuberant celebrations, but the downers kind of win out here. Soul is such a nebulous term to ascribe to music. It cannot really be quantifed, but you know it when you hear it. I hear it in many of these songs and the troubled tales weaved therein.

Royal Trux-Thank You

August 13, 2008

Royal Trux

Thank You (Virgin 1995)

There was a time in the late 90s and early on in this decade where this may have been one of the best live acts in a sorry period in rock and roll. No one really gives them the time of day anymore and their major label albums can be had for a few bucks. Ignore the ignoramuses because this band had an amazing streak of albums that abandoned the heroin-addled experimental genius of Twin Infinitives and embraced the boogie rock and Rolling Stones worship that always lay beneath the surface. Everything from 1993s Cats and Dogs to 2000s Pound for Pound stood out like a sore thumb amidst what was popular during this time, but you won’t find a more fried take on Jagger and Richards.

During the oddball rush to sign indie acts in the 90s, Royal Trux somehow wrangled a major label deal with Virgin records and got David Briggs, producer of most of Neil Young’s catalogue as well as Spirit’s best work, to take the reins of this album. His influence is readily apparent as this is their most cohesive album as he transforms the band into something resembling Southern rock and the Stones. However, there is no dolling up Jennifer Herrema’s throaty growl, but Hagerty seems like he is in heaven as he can channel his 70s heroes in the hands of a great producer.

Personally, I like Royal Trux much better during their return to Drag City with Accelerator and Veterans of Disorder. These albums reconciled the chaos of their early albums with the big riffs of their Virgin years, but I always had a soft spot for the one moment where Royal Trux was dusted off and presented to the masses as a grandiose rock band. It is even more fitting that Sweet Sixteen, the next album owed to Virgin, featured a toilet full of shit on its cover and some dense, almost Beefheartian shit that I am still digesting. God love this band and their weird and wonderful career.