Oscar Wilde once said, “All art is quite useless.” For once, the inimitable Oscar is wong. Since 1994 Portland, Oregon’s The Dandy Warhols have been making great music that is great to dance and do drugs to, which makes the Dandys every bit as functional as a good dildo. Why, I don’t even dance—damned wooden leg–and I still think The Dandy Warhols are the greatest thing to come our way since their evil twins, The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Over the course of eight studio albums—none of which, to be honest, I like from beginning to end—The Dandy Warhols have bequeathed us scads of cool, Britpop-influenced grooves like the beautiful “Good Morning,” “Smoke It” (best song about weed EVER), the positively hypnotic “Godless,” the catchy “Big Indian,” and “Holding Me Up,” which may just be the most ecstatically propulsive song to come our way since, well, The Dandy Warhol’s “The Creep Out.” And like I always say, “Hard on For Jesus” should be America’s National Anthem, if only because I’d love to hear that turd in a ten-gallon hat Toby Keith sing it.
In short, The Dandy Warhols are a great band with great songs, and I’m not saying that just because I’ve had a decade-plus crush on keyboardist Zia McCabe, which certainly has nothing to do with her going topless in the “Boys Better” video. And The Dandys have range: their songs run the gamut from pop (“Boys Better,” “Bohemian Like You”) to more experimental tunes (“A Loan Tonight,” “Pete International Airport”). They sing, “Everyday Should Be a Holiday.” Well, every day IS a holiday with The Dandy Warhols around. We should all stay home from work and listen to “Godless” and take “Horse Pills” and go into a trance. It sure beats watching Antique Roadshow, that’s for damn certain.
Ah, New Jersey. How I loathe it. For giving us the likes of Bon Jovi (that’s not a steel horse you’re riding, amigo, it’s the dildo of mediocrity); Patti Smith (poet-priestess my ass—try the bard of babble and blather); and Bruce Springsteen, who calls himself the Boss and as everybody knows all bosses are assholes, except mine of course. And let’s not forget my first ex-wife’s sphinx of a grandmother, who had the nauseating habit of sucking on her food then spitting the pulp into a napkin, and who never spoke a single word to me (and I’m talking years) until the fateful Thanksgiving dinner she turned to me and croaked, “Do you know how they kill chickens? They slit their throats!!”
In short, I harbored about as much love for The Garden State as I did for accidental penis amputation, that is until Glen Rock’s Titus Andronicus came along. “From Jersey I come,” sings vocalist/songwriter/lyricist Patrick Stickles in the wonderful “In a Big City,” and his defiant pride in hailing from Mall Hell is enough to make me give the “the swamps of Jersey” a second chance. As Stickles sings, “And if I come in on a donkey, let me go out on a gurney/I want to realize too late/I never should have left New Jersey.”
Formed in 2005, Titus Andronicus has released three albums full of big, bombastic indie anthems that are as urgent and rebellious as they are irresistible. Being from Jersey, Titus Andronicus has Bruce Springsteen, who has also been known to write the occasional big, bombastic anthem, in its collective DNA. And Titus Andronicus doesn’t only pay homage to His Bossiness’ operatic Born to Run-era sound; “Joset of Nazareth’s Blues” boasts a harmonica opening that has Nebraska stamped all over it, while “Titus Andronicus” also features an opening the Boss will probably filch and win a Grammy. Nor can Titus Andronicus resist paraphrasing Buhrooooce! in “A More Perfect Union”: “No, I never wanted to change the world/But I’m looking for a new New Jersey/Because tramps like us/Baby, we were born to die.” Or name-checking him in “The Battle of Hampton Roads”: “And I’m destroying everything that wouldn’t make me/More like Bruce Springsteen.” And they’ve been known to cover “Hungry Heart” at their live shows.
The Catskills are a magical place. They brought us Rip Van Winkle, after all. But the guy who wrote Rip Van Winkle got it wrong, and seeing as how the truth trumps all in my profession, which happens to be lying, I feel obligated to tell you the real story goes like this: that thunderous din Van Winkle heard coming from the Catskills on the eve of his 20-year sleep wasn’t the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s lost crew playing nine-pins. It was the sound of Bob Dylan and The Band in the basement of a rented house in West Saugerties they dubbed Big Pink, playing a loud and particularly raucous rendition of “Please Mrs. Henry.”
I know because I’ve been to the Catskills and I’ve heard that thunder, and above it I could distinctly make out Dylan singing, “Well I’ve already had two beers/I’m ready for the broom/Please Mrs. Henry/Won’t you take me to my room/I’m a good old boy/But I’ve been sniffing too many eggs/Talking too many people/Drinking too many kegs.”
Now along come The Felice Brothers from those very same magic mountains, and I’ll be damned if they’re nothing less than the second coming of the late, lamented The Band. The Felice Brothers may not boast three great singers like The Band, or a guitarist who Dylan once praised as “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound,” but both bands share the same uncanny ability to intermingle joy and sorrow in the same song, and both write tunes that tell stories, and great ones at that. But most importantly, both know how to hit you right in the soul, where it hurts: lead vocalist Ian Felice–whose blue-collar roots are evident in the white wife-beater he always seems to be wearing–is the only singer besides poor benighted Richard Manuel who has ever made me cry.
A while back I dated this English girl, and everything was going swimmingly until we traveled to Tennessee to meet her father, a prickly old India hand in jodphurs with an acid wit and gin on his breath. He hated me from the moment I told him I didn’t drink. This seemingly ludicrous statement–I might as well have told him I didn’t breathe–led him to very drily reply, “In India, all the teetotalers died.” An avid fox hunter, after that he looked at me as if I were some two-legged species of vulpes vulpes that had somehow managed to infiltrate his home.
But while he may have been a bigoted old blighter–turns out he despised Gandhi even more than he despised me–he sure had some great stories. My favorite involved a tiger hunt in the Raj, during which he was thrown from his horse only to find himself face to face with the tiger. How face to face? As he put it in that cultured English way of his, “I could clearly discern the beast’s fetid breath, so intimate was our connexion.”
I’ve fortunately never been close enough to a man-eating tiger with halitosis to suggest flossing, but like that old tiger hunter I know a bad odor when I smell one. And in this case the unpleasant odor is emanating from the post-Smiths career of Mr. Johnny Marr. Marr has been lionized–and rightly so–for his brilliant work with The Smiths, which NME has called the greatest band of all time. But let’s face it: the light that never goes out that was The Smiths blinked out light years ago. So let’s be ruthlessly cold blooded for a moment, shall we, and ask, What has Johnny Marr done for us lately?
Back in 1987 the band No Trend proudly handed over its new album More to its record company, Touch and Go. The execs at Touch and Go gave it one listen, returned it to the band holding it gingerly by the edges with their fingertips as if it were something unspeakable like a radioactive monkey head, and in effect told the band, “Won’t touch. Please go.”
Their reaction was understandable. Given No Trend’s previous record they must have expected strange, but this was madness; with songs including the bizarre funk-schlock pastiche “Last on Right, Second Row,” the inexplicable disco-funk romp “Spank Me (With Your Love Monkey, Baby),” and the utterly indescribable 17:53″ rock opera “No Hopus Opus,” More is the kind of album that causes dogs to howl. And I mean while it’s still in its sleeve.
And so appropriately ended, not with a bang but with one final confused scratch of the head, the career of No Trend, one of the most exasperating, brilliant, and willfully perverse bands ever to come out of the hardcore scene.
Ashton, Md.’s No Trend and its vocalist/resident genius Jeff Mentges (aka Jefferson Scott, aka Cliff “Babe” Ontego) engaged in one of the oddest, most nihilistic quests in the annals of modern music, or so it can be argued: namely, to systematically alienate, disaffect, and piss off its own fan base, one exasperated fan at a time. Plenty of musicians have taken stylistic left turns that left their fans befuddled and even angry, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who seemed to do so on purpose.
Let’s turn this review of Brooklyn band Vietnam into a cooking show, shall we? Back in 1979 my buddy Steds and I were drunk, bored, and hungry, so we resolved to make like Julia Child and cook a stew. We added all the stock ingredients but the results were decidedly lackluster, so we improvised. A good cook works with what’s at hand, and what we had at hand was lots of beer, a tab of acid, a bottle of whiskey, a couple of placidyl, and a half ounce of skunk weed, which we tossed in willy-nilly.
Unfortunately the stew still lacked panache, so we scoured the house for additional ingredients. And in went a couple of dozen imitation quaaludes, some triple sec, a bottle of Benadryl, a handful of magic mushrooms, a thorazine (the nutmeg of antipsychotics) left over from a Devo show, and a half-bottle of ancient codeine cough syrup we found tucked away in the furthest reaches of the bathroom medicine cabinet. And voila! What we had on our hands, cheeks, and foreheads–it became apparent after just a few spoonfuls how miniscule a space the mouth occupies on the human face–was a concoction potent enough to turn the Iron Chef to Jello.
Which brings us to Brooklyn’s Vietnam, which mixes rock, blues, soul, and ambient noise with the same reckless abandon that Steds and I mixed stew ingredients. Vietnam’s sound leans heavily towards the blues, but nobody is ever going to mistake these guys for Stevie Ray Vaughan; Vietnam’s blues are messy, often meandering, and very dissonant, and would cause even Captain Beefheart to roll over in his grave. The band put out a pair of promising releases in the mid-2000s only to quietly vanish in 2007, when chief songwriter and vocalist Michael Gerner up and moved to LA to explore his interest in ambient analog synthesizer music, which is quite scintillating stuff if you happen to be a refrigerator.
At long last: your chance to see Vietnam! No, not the Vietnam of Apocalypse Now, but Brooklyn’s Vietnam, which will be bringing its off-kilter brand of “apocalyptic street blues” to the Hanoi Hilton–er, make that the Rock & Roll Hotel–on Friday, April 19.
Vietnam has been MIA for six years, during which time chief songwriter and vocalist Michael Gerner turned his attention from rock to ambient analog synth music, presumably because he longed for more musical boredom in his life. But now Vietnam is back with a characteristically offbeat new album, an A.merican D.ream and a brand new single “Kitchen Kongas,” which is so great it can’t resist giving itself a round of applause at the end.
Applause notwithstanding, Vietnam isn’t an easy band to love, at least on first listen. Over the course of two LPs and one EP Vietnam has played an idiosyncratic and defiantly unpolished combination of rock, blues, soul, and ambient music, over which Gerner tosses off gems of Dylanesque poetry. In this respect Vietnam is a throwback to that Magical Mystery Blip known as the Age of Aquarius, when hirsute hippies such as the Kozmic Blues Band mixed genres as casually as they mixed drugs.
To err is human; to err constantly is to be a rock critic. Take me: over the course of my long career writing for such esteemed publications as Man Mustache Monthly, Dodge Pacer Owner Magazine, and Lawnmower Injury Digest I’ve expressed more boneheaded opinions than a ship full of halfwits.
There was, for instance, the review I wrote that began, “I have seen the future of rock’n'roll, and its name is Kajagoogoo.” Then there was my take on The Boss (“No way a guy named Bruce ever makes it in the rock business.”) Finally, there was the time I called John Oates “the brains, and the mustache, behind Hall and Oates.” In short, I’ve gotten it wrong more often than your average Fox News commentator.
Which brings us to Philadelphia noise rockers Pissed Jeans, who played the Black Cat on April 12. All I had to do was hear their name–let me amend that: smell their name–and I immediately wrote Pissed Jeans off as yet another band of scuzzball raunch’n'rollers taking the low, lewd road to notoriety with song titles like “Wrong Nipple” and “I’ve Got a Turd With Your Face on It.” But this time out I decided to try something I’m surprised no rock critic has ever tried before–namely, listening to the band before pronouncing judgment upon it. As it turns out, it makes a big difference. In the case of Pissed Jeans, their name may reek of contrived controversy, to say nothing of urine, but Pissed Jeans aren’t out to Épatez la bourgeoisie. Instead, they’re something far more interesting; namely, noise rock’s poet laureates of the mundane.