Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “American X: The Baby 81 Sessions” (2011)

BRMCAmericanXToday I ran into a friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’m a vinyl junkie, and he still has every single CD he every bought, so while we’re not into the same formats, we’re both music nerds with a bit of a collecting obsession. His wife asked me who I was into right now, and the immediate answer was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Which is funny, because while we finally got to see them live this year down in Salt Lake City, I don’t play their stuff as often as I should. So tonight I sought to rectify that massive oversight by busting into my copy of American X: The Baby 81 Sessions.

Baby 81 is definitely my favorite BRMC album, so a few years back when they offered it on limited edition vinyl as well as the first-time vinyl release of outtakes from those sessions I was probably the one of the first to send them my money and wait anxiously by my mailbox. I was certainly impressed with it when I first listened, and for the life of me I have no idea why I’ve let it sit and get dusty other than the fact that I just keep buying more and more and more and more vinyl. Which, come to think of it, is the best possible reason.

To my ears the material on American X is more sludgy than the songs that made the final cut for Baby 81. Slower, heavier, denser. Much more reminiscent of the songs that comprised the follow up album that came out four years later, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo. Musically the songs are rich and full, sinking into every nook and cranny of available time, like syrup poured over a waffle, settling into each little square. The thickness isn’t limited to the music, either – vocally it’s dark and follows the music, the sound of the voices flowing like instruments of their own.

The CD version has seven songs and a short film, while the vinyl releases add a sort of country remix of “Not What You Wanted” as an eighth track, the only song appearing on both American X and Baby 81. While I’m a big fan of Baby 81, the depth of American X is shocking – these were the songs that didn’t make the cut, and are still good enough to make an excellent (albeit different) album on their own; there was a lot of outstanding material that came out of these sessions. Of the seven non-Baby 81 tracks, “20 Hours” is probably the one I’d say was most likely to fit into the overall sound and fell of the album that was released, somewhat louder and sharper than the other songs, with a touch of garage psych to the vocals.

The vinyl comes in two versions – black, and the limited edition picture disc, one side of which has a white-and-black American flag, the other a black-and-white American flag. I have the picture disc version, and it also comes with a poster insert that includes the lyrics to all the songs. If you’re a fan of BRMC, American X is simply a must-have. These songs aren’t outtakes, they’re fully formed and realized compositions and mark an interesting stage in the evolution of the band’s sound.

Bless – “Melting” (1989)

For the first time in quite a while I don’t have any records sitting on the “stuff I bought and haven’t listened to yet” shelf. Well, that’s not entirely accurate – there are currently three records there. Two of them need to get cleaned before I’ll play them… but I’m too lazy to go through all the time and trouble without a few more records to clean at the same time. The other is a 12″ that I’ve had for a while and have been waiting to write about in a joint post with another person, and we just haven’t been able to connect to get it done. This lack of records staring at me and begging to be played is both a relief, since I don’t feel the weird OCD pressure of having things I “need to listen to,” but also a bit of a downer because it means I don’t have anything new and exciting lined up.

Fortunately I have hundreds (rapidly approaching a thousand) records on the shelves, and it took me all of a minute to put my grubby paws on something I haven’t listened to in a while and never wrote about, the Melting EP by the Icelandic band Bless. I have written about Bless before – they were fronted by none other than the esteemed Icelandic musical historian and all around good guy Dr. Gunni, a guy who I’ve bought a number of records from over the last few years. Gunni’s projects tend to be interesting in a garage-psych-weirdness kind of way, which is just what the doctor ordered for a Saturday morning.

We were watching a 2005 documentary about Icelandic music last night called Screaming Masterpiece, and while it was a hit-or-miss affair, there was an interesting moment when the filmmakers asked a musician (whose name I didn’t catch) what makes the Icelandic music scene so unique. His response was very simple – basically no one expects to sell many records because the country is so small, so people just make what they want. There’s no pressure to write hits or follow the mainstream. In my experience there’s a lot of truth to that simple sentiment. And Dr. Gunni is one of those musicians who just makes the music he wants to make.

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Melting‘s seven songs only run a little more than 16 minutes total. Stylistically it’s difficult to describe – it’s a bit indie, some psych, more than a little post-punkish, a cacophony of sound capped off with Gunni’s often high pitched signing voice. Who can I compare Bless too? I mentioned Half Japanese in a previous post about their LP Bless, and that still seems legit. Maybe some elements of Southern Death Cult, some Iggy Pop, and even a touch of Smashing Pumpkins? The good news is that it’s hard to compare Bless to other bands, meaning it’s got unique qualities. Gunni and the boys keep it extremely raw and edgy, giving the songs a nearly out-of-control quality that separates them from the pack.

“Nothing Ever Happens In My Head” is the most approachable, prototypically rock song on Melting, though it’s still got plenty of that Dr. Gunni style to it. “Akkerið Mitt / My Anchor” is a bit on the heavy side, a bit more structured and driving with the drums and bass while the guitar conducts an acid-psych attack on your brain. All in all it’s a super cool record, and though relatively hard to find will certainly be a welcome addition to your collection.

Vanilla Ice – “To the Extreme” (1990)

A few weeks back my buddy Brent dropped off his tape collection at my house, which was exciting because Brent rocks a lot of hip hop so I knew there’d be some gems in those shoe boxes of cassettes. Little did I knew this nugget that ushered in the 1990s was going to be in there. Waiting to be played. Oh yeah.

Quick to the point, to the point no fakin’,
I’m cookin’ MCs like a pound of bacon.
— “Ice Ice Baby”

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Nestled right in between the weeks when Alice In Chain’s Facelift and Queensrÿche’s Empire were released, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme dropped in late August and this son of a bitch spent 16 WEEKS at #1 in the U.S. Sixteen. One-six. “Ice Ice Baby,” was originally released as a goddamn B-side (to a remake of “Play That Funky Music,” which absolutely sucks, BTW) and became the first hip hop song to make it to #1 on the Billboard singles chart. The album has sold seven million copies.

And most people consider it a joke.

 

So how does that happen?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that “Ice Is Workin’ It” goes perfectly when played with the 1963 movie classic Cleopatra that is currently  muted on my TV, the part where Cleopatra makes her first entrance into Rome. Which is bizarre. But kind of cool.

And you know what? It’s not terrible.

Look, we all only know one Vanilla Ice song. But it’s been drilled into brains after countless hearings. So what about the rest of To the Extreme? Well… “Ice Is Workin’ It” is a pretty catchy tune, but after that…

I texted some friends of mine and told them we were listening to this. Here are some of the responses I got:

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Holy crap, Seattle gets a shout out on this tape!!!

So what’s the verdict? I mean, c’mon. Say what you will, but an insanely iconic single came off of To the Extreme. Yeah, it’s dated as hell. But seriously, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Not everything is Born to Run or Master of Puppets… both of which have sold less copies than To the Extreme. I wasn’t one of the seven million… but I benefitted from someone who was. Thanks Brent. Thanks a lot.

Pete Bernhard – “Straight Line” (2009)

Pete Bernhard is best known as a member of the folk-punk trio Devil Makes Three, where he is the lead vocalist and also plays both guitar and banjo. They happen to be one of my favorite bands, and one we’ve seen live probably five or six times over the years. Their shows are high intensity, both on the stage and in the crowd, and their songs are populated by outcasts and misfits whose stories the band tells in very non-judgemental and matter-of-fact ways. They’re a slice of modern Americana.

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Bernhard put out a solo album in 2009 called Straight Line, which I believe is only available on CD/digital (no vinyl). Interestingly, this same album was more or less released independently earlier the same year under the title 8th Ave and Main (also on CD format). I picked up a copy of the first version, with it’s simple fold-over cardboard sleeve, at a Devil Makes Three show in Seattle that year, and when I compared the track list to Straight Line I saw that the two were identical, with the notable exception of the title track “Straight Line,” which didn’t make the self-released version.

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On Straight Line Bernhard sticks with the themes he’s known for in Devil Makes Three – people trying to make it through life, the lovers and the losers, those living their lives the best they can. Musically I find the songs on the album more internally consistent that what I’m used to on the Devil Makes Three records, most of the tracks settling into a steady pace that showcases Bernhard’s voice and lyrics. I won’t lie – there are times that I miss the harmonizing that I’m used to hearing from his bandmates Cooper McBean and Lucia Turino, but these are songs of a slightly different type. A bit slower, a bit sadder perhaps. And the single voice creates a level of heightened intimacy that allows Bernhard to connect both with his stories and the listener.

Called up a friend the other day,
Just to see what kind of words he’d say,

He said “I just met a man down here whose girlfriend don’t like you.”

Said, “Well gimme a number and her address,
And I’ll sincerely do my best
To avoid her the next time I’m passin’ through.”
— “Orphan”

So as near as I can tell, the same versions of all nine songs on 8th Ave and Main appear on Straight Line, with the addition of the tenth track, “Straight Line.” What’s interesting is that particular song, which is also one of the two best on the album (along with “Sugar Cane”), is actually a re-done version of the song “straightline” that appeared on Bernhard’s 2006 solo release Things I Left Behind. I discovered this by accident – the two versions share the same lyrics and underlying rhythm, though the original version remains slow and minimal throughout while the 2009 version has a quicker pace, especially in the chorus which has a more desperate feel to it. I’m glad “Straight Line” got re-worked because I prefer the faster tempo version, but it’s still an interesting choice to take an older track, give it an overhaul, and make it the title track on a new album.

Lookin’ back now I always preferred, child,
My enemies to my friends,
It always just seemed logical to have something constant,
On which you could depend.
— “Straight Line”

“Sugar Cane” is the strongest song on Straight Line, with it’s minimal guitar playing and the sticky molasses sweetness of Bernhard’s voice. It’s a love song, one of love lost but not forgotten, one that carries the feeling of continued longing and hope that one day it will be rekindled. It’s the perfect song for Bernhard.

Do you ever get lonesome,
With what’s-his-name?
I’ll be back
This way again.

We were burnin’ hotter than the fallen angels that night,
And it was all over by the mornin’ light,
It was bitter like the blues
But it was sweeter than the sugar cane.
— “Sugar Cane”

Bernhard is a tremendous talented lyricist and vocalist. Straight Line is available on iTunes, and I highly recommend it for anyone into singer-songwriter stuff, country, or folk, so go give the clips a listen and see what you think.

Alexandra Atnif – “.A:A. Mix.1” and “Session.1” (2015)

Back in July I wrote about a split cassette we picked up down in Los Angeles that featured Constable Flavour and Alexandra Atnif. We were particularly taken by Atnif’s side, with it’s brutal industrial style of electronic and its repetitive, pounding beats. I checked out a bunch of stuff on her Soundcloud page and was even more excited by what I heard there, and after making a few inquiries got my hands on a couple of more cassettes of her work. Her attention to detail and commitment to vision can even be found in the packaging of these two self-released tapes (more on that later), as well as the photos on her Instagram – cold, stark, linear architectural images in black and white, the kinds of things that would have been considered futuristic or post-modern in the 1960s behind the Iron Curtain. Maybe some of the types of buildings she saw while growing up in Romania? I’m not entirely sure. But the images and music are linked together in powerful, if at times mildly unsettling, ways, using multiple senses to create an emotional impact.

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.A:A. Mix.1 is a 90 minute mix of tracks that was originally put out as a super limited number of hand made demos, but Atnif is now making a handful of these available for sale HERE for $10. The entire product is hand-made by her – from the individually painted copper colored cases and cassettes to the hand cut and stamped J card insert. .A:A. Mix.1 is a work of art all the way around – musically, tactilely, visually.

There’s no track list included, but there are 14 songs in total and you’re getting awfully close to a full 90 minutes of music. The beats are throbbing and relentless, each soundscape comprised of a limited number of repeated elements, driving and thumping. While Atnif takes a similar approach to much of the material on .A:A. Mix.1, it doesn’t devolve into repetition – there are enough differing elements to make each song a unique creation that doesn’t sound like the previous one. She does use some distortion, even on the beats, but overall the music is rich, dense, and clean, and despite it’s industrialness you can still groove out to it.

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Session.1 just came out a week or two ago, and I was excited to learn that it’s one of the official titles for the upcoming Cassette Store Day on October 17 – so I strongly encourage you to find a local store that’s carrying it HERE and pick up a copy, which will give you the chance to support both the indie musician and the indie music store. If you don’t have a participating store close by, you can order a copy directly from Alexandra HERE for just six bucks.

To my ears Session.1 takes on an even more brutal sound than Atnif’s previous work. The two 20+ minute tracks display more rawness, in a very intentional way, through the use of distortion, with many of the beats sounding as iff they were being played too loudly trough a stereo and coming out of the speakers with that sort of warbaled static distortion all of us heard at one time or another as teens when we played our music way too loud for our systems to handle. There’s a section about half way through the B side (“Session.1 (Filthy Violence Mix)”) that is absolutely some of the most pounding bass I’ve ever heard, with the effects making it feel like it’s literally crackling with raw electricity, buzzing and shooting sparks and threatening to set my brain on fire. It’s definitely the more challenging of the two tapes, and while I prefer .A:A. Mix.1, Holly said that Session.1 was hands down her favorite.

 

I can’t tell you how glad I am that we bought that first Alexandra Atnif tape, because it opened our ears to a whole different style of sort of tribal-industrial. She’s an amazing talent, one who I think has broader appeal than just the electronica and industrial fans – if you like some of the more aggressive stuff by NIN or Skinny Puppy or even certain types of more extreme metal, I think you owe it to yourself to check out her music – not because it sounds a lot like that stuff, but because its brutalism may appeal to you. She’s got quite a few compositions out there on Bandcamp and Soundcloud that you can hear for free, including this insanely good 90 minute mix for The Brvtalist. And if you like what you hear, show her some love and order a tape or a digital download to support the music.