Saturday, January 31, 2015

INTERVIEW - Sonny Vincent: Still Spiteful After All These Years

Photo by Emmy Etie 

Sonny Vincent is the real thing.

A true music industry survivor who has been at this game since the late '70s, the former Testors frontman has spent decades delivering some of the finest Punk Rock 'n' Roll ever released. There ain't no such thing as a bad Sonny Vincent song, and the guy remains more active than most musicians one third his age. If you need proof of what Vincent brings to the table, check out this small sample from the ever-growing list of musicians who’ve worked with him over the years: Scott and Ron Asheton (The Stooges), Bobby Steele (The Misfits/The Undead), Ivan Julian (The Voidoids), Cheetah Chrome (The Dead Boys), Captain Sensible (Damned), Bob Stinson (The Replacements), Scott Morgan (Sonic's Rendezvous Band), Victor DeLorenzo (Violent Femmes), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison (The Velvet Underground) and Greg Norton (Husker Du).

Need I say more?

Late last year, Vincent issued Spiteful, easily one of the best albums of 2014. Spiteful finds Vincent fronting a fantasy lineup of Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, former Damned drummer Rat Scabies and Stooges saxophonist Steve Mackay. As previously discussed on this site, putting together a band like this is some serious, serious business – enough to make one reluctant to actually play the record out of fear of having his or her incredibly high hopes dashed. Thankfully, Spiteful will go down in history as one of the very few occasions where something like this absolutely works. The behind-the-scenes story of the making of Spiteful is available here

Currently living in Germany, Vincent recently connected with me for the following interview.

I know that Spiteful was a long time coming for you. What went through your mind the first time you finally held a copy of the finished record in your hands?

I was like, 'Finally!' I had worked on it so long, mostly guarding the sound. It’s really challenging currently to keep people from destroying the sound you are going for. At one point, it sounded like one of these giant festival bands, with a huge bass drum and loud voice. It’s a job these days keeping it real! (laughs) Anyway, after all the time involved, it was rewarding to have it and hear the finished record.

Now that the album is done and out there, what kind of feedback have you received from the other guys who performed on it?

They all love it and they dig the sound. It came a long way from the initial recording in Belgium to the final mastering in Los Angeles. They like it so much they all have a tattoo of my face on their arms now!! So proud! Okay...sorry...Serious now.

You certainly had a unique combination of players on this album. How would you describe working with each of them for this project? What do you think each one brought to the album that wouldn't have been there if someone else stood in their shoes?

Rat Scabies has a ‘swing’ in his playing, as well as wild rolls. I go for a certain ‘feel’ according to the moment. Rat can swing and also slam that snare! My core taste and direction does have some ‘swing,’ and I like an authoritative snare drum. I love it in fact, and Rat can do that all day long. I like it tough; when there is a slight Eddie Cochran thang goin' on, I’m real happy. Rat can deliver the hard power, the finesse and that badassed ‘swing’! I love him!

Steve Mackay, what can I say? Badassed from head to toe. Givin’ that Rat gave a lot of swing, it provides Steve the platform to live where he is a true God. Amazing...the feel, the riffs, the natural instinctive approach.

And Glen Matlock was locked in tight. At one point, we were considering making one of his parts busier, but Glen insisted, “Listen, folks. I’m the bass player. I know by the time you guys are all done doing your parts, it will be full of madness. I want to keep it so there is some space for that.' Glen considered the songs and what I was going for, and he opted to provide a solid, tasteful and powerful bass approach. Simple but effective. He called it, right in the pocket.

How do you think using vintage recording equipment most impacted the recording of this album?

Absolutely the way to go. Listen to the guitar hook on ‘Disinterested.' That’s a 1950s Vox guitar amp! All original, no modifications. You should hear my rough mixes! The whole recording was on vintage gear - the 24-track tape machine, the board, the mics, everything. I’m glad.

Listening to Spiteful now, what really stands out for you? What are the biggest moments on the album from your perspective?

I like hearing it and noticing the way it all fits together in a natural way. Sometime I’m lucky; in this case, there was not a whole lot of discussion. We played and did what we do. Hearing the flow is the high point for me. Also, I like the rawness.

What are the chances of seeing this material live?

We are talking about that!

You've worked with countless great musicians over the years. Who else would you love to play or record with if given the chance, and why?

James Williamson, because he is the ultimate badassed guitar player. Rough, brutal, in the pocket, biting rock 'n' roll, and then the next thing he hits you with is a soulful, transcendent beauty. There is no one like James. And those monolithic sharp down strokes! I’m not exaggerating...No one like James.

Over the years, James and I have talked. I remember when I was touring with Scott Asheton. It was around 1997, and we had an upcoming tour of Europe. I got the idea to ask James to join us on guitar. I said to Scott, 'Scott, it would be so cool; call James and hype him up! Yeah, tell him we are going to France, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain! Come on!' Well.. Scott called James, and James goes, 'I’m already visiting those places as a Sony rep!' It was actually funny. I was so excited... and then to find out my ‘pitch’ was not really so effective. I've kept in touch with him over the years. A few years ago, I was happy James told me he was playing some lap steel guitar stuff at home. Then he got back with the boys, and the rest is history.

You were part of that first wave of New York Punk in the mid-to-late '70s. Why do you think that era of music still resonates so much with people? Why does that period of time still matter?

I believe it's because there was a shared dissatisfaction with the way things were, and the music was real in the expression of that. A scene developed where along with rebellious and wild madness, there was enough space to create and express joy, fun, hate, love, boredom, etcetera. A lot of passion was exploding and creativity was encouraged. These days, although the same themes are sometimes expressed and explored, it seems and sounds like it’s all about money. I’m not talking of the young underground bands who are under the radar, but the main stuff put into the media these days.

There was a certain integrity during the mid-to-late '70s. Usually, it was not motivated by mercenary goals. There was an almost suicidal thrust into the sun, so to speak, sort of, 'I'm never gonna make it in the world, so I might as well say it and play it real.' The names of the bands in those times show this suicidal direction: The Cramps, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, Richard Hell, Testors [after the glue company], Dead Boys, etcetera. People may think it was an attempt at the shock value, but that’s not really the whole picture. There was a real feeling that this music, in our scene, would never get out of the USA and we had no obligations to commercial compromises. There are some exceptions, stuff that was good from the scene, but somehow it was ‘produced’ and made ‘commercial.' I guess everyone has their path. And even in some of the most commercial stuff, the angst was still there between the lines. But I’m mainly speaking about the general attitude and why the music might represent something ‘real’ to people these days.

After all these years in the game, you're still producing solid work in the here and now. What inspires you most to keep going?

I never fit in anywhere else.

A limited edition European vinyl repress of Spiteful will be available next month from Still Unbeatable Records. Pre-order here. The US version (with a slightly altered track listing with a few alternate songs) is available here.


Monday, January 26, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW - The Juliana Hatfield Three: Whatever, My Love

Some artists are just perfect.

While plenty of musicians struggle to maintain the inspiration and drive that fueled their early work once the years start to pile up, Juliana Hatfield has created absolutely flawless albums for nearly 30 years now. From her late '80s/early '90s work with The Blake Babies (whose 1989 album, Earwig, remains one of the most beautiful things ever committed to disc) to a solo career that has survived 23 years in an ever-changing (and often-frustrating) industry, the New England-based songwriter has never once disappointed. Her latest release, Whatever, My Love, finds her reuniting with drummer Todd Philips (Moving Targets/Bullet LaVolta) and bassist Dean Fisher (Tanya Donnelly/Dylan in the Movies) as The Juliana Hatfield Three for the first time since 1993's Atlantic Records release, Become What You Are. That album represented Hatfield's commercial peak, as songs like “My Sister” and “Spin The Bottle” shone brightly during a thrilling moment in time when former indie acts could get big recording and video budgets and (specifically in Hatfield's case) a $400,000 publishing advance.

Now for the big question...How does this new Juliana Hatfield Three release compare to what the trio produced in that bygone era? Well, if you're one of those fans (like yours truly) who love Become What You Are, The Lemonheads' It's A Shame About Ray (which featured Hatfield on bass and backing vocals) and The Blake Babies' Sunburn as much in 2015 as you did decades ago, then this album will put a smile on your face and (depending on how personal you've made Hatfield's songs over the years) perhaps even a tear in your eye. From Hatfield's unmistakable voice to the perfect production, everything on Whatever, My Love sounds as great as you'd expect. Fisher and Philips deliver solid performances from start to finish, while the three songs (“Push Pin,” “Parking Lots” and “Dog On A Chain”) that were previously released in acoustic form on Hatfield's 2013 album Wild Animals are given an exciting new life in this band setting.

Since making her debut on The Blake Babies' Nicely, Nicely in 1987, Hatfield has proven herself to be one of those rare writers (like Paul Westerberg before her) who can sum up countless emotions in a few simple words, a talent made clear in the jangly “If I Could:”

If I could
I would make all your pain go away
If I could
Keep you here, I would kiss all the tears falling down your face
If I could
I would make everything alright
If I could
Bring you home to a place you belong, I would
But you're already gone

Hatfield's other gift is her ability to wrap up vulnerability, depression and crippling social anxiety into insanely catchy tunes that seem so happy on the surface. Don't be the least bit surprised if you catch yourself singing ”I Don't Know What To Do With My Hands” (a song originally recorded by Hatfield's Minor Alps project that she says is about "pathological shyness") around the house as soon as you hear it for the first time. And who else these days can turn a line like “Take the push pin out of my cranium” (“Push Pin”) into an inescapable Pop earworm? Or how about the opening words to the ultra-peppy “Ordinary Guy”?:

All my friends are crazy
And my boyfriend's mean
He shoots up in front of me
In the daytime he sleeps
Oh, I want an ordinary guy

Invisible” and “I'm Shy” further exemplify the album's happy sound/not-so-happy lyrics structure, while “Blame The Stylist” recalls how Hatfield's socially awkward, twentysomething self struggled to feel comfortable during her time as an Alt Rock cover girl in the '90s:

She said she had a PHD in style
So I let her do her thing to me
She said, 'Grin and bear it.'

I knew the dress was wrong, but I tried to get along
She made me look like a whore
Who am I being sexy for?

The internal pressures detailed throughout Whatever, My Love come to a head on the closing number, “Parking Lots.” Hatfield describes the song as “the story of someone who had a lot of problems fall on top of him – health problems, family problems, etc. - and how he dealt with it, keeping it all together when he had to and letting himself fall apart once in a while as a release.” The lyrics are simultaneously encouraging and devastating:

Don’t break down 'til you get to the parking lot
Keep it together until you’re in your car
Betrayed by the promise of a child
That took away half your smile
This is not where you thought you’d ever be
When you finally made the move to leave
So many questions still remain
So many metaphors for pain

In a world where many singers demonstrate their strengths by screaming to the heavens, Hatfield shines brightest when expressing the quiet courage that is often needed to simply get through the day. Whatever, My Love is catharsis with guitars, and it is not hyperbole to suggest that its songs have the power to better – and even save – lives.

While Whatever, My Love certainly sounds fresh by 2015 standards, the album still succeeds in bringing longtime listeners back to the time when “Alternative” truly meant something. Heck, the album was even recorded in Hoboken, NJ, one-time indie music playground and home of the legendary Maxwell's (where I had the pleasure of catching Hatfield perform with Some Girls – her project with bassist Heidi Gluck and Blake Babies drummer Freda Love – in the early 2000s.) Of course, Maxwell's is no longer with us, and the highways of the once-thriving Alternative Nation are now littered with the bones and one-cent Amazon CDs of formerly buzz-worthy bands. (Before anyone solely blames downloading for the death of this genre in America, read the chapter entitled “The Telecommunications Act of 1996” in Hatfield's 2008 memoir, When I Grow Up, for serious some food for thought.) But despite the many challenges that come from being an independent artist (it's been 20 years since she had a note released on a major label), Hatfield is still here, offering us another stellar album to enjoy. There isn't a single moment on Whatever, My Love that isn't completely magical. Hear it once and you'll never forget it.

Whatever, My Love is out February 17 on American Laundromat Records.

The Juliana Hatfield Three play The Sinclair in Boston on February 27.

Photo Credit: Johnny Anguish/Daykamp Music


Saturday, January 24, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW - Gang of Four: What Happens Next

Say hello to Gang of One.

The ongoing saga that is Gang of Four is one of music history's most peculiar narratives. After creating two of the greatest albums ever released (1979's Entertainment! and 1981's Solid Gold), the band's beloved original lineup – singer Jon King, guitarist Andy Gill, bassist extraordinaire Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham – began splitting at the seams. Allen was the first to go, while Burnham departed after 1982's Songs of the Free. King and Gill soldiered on with 1983's unjustly underrated Hard before completely running out of steam by the mid '80s. An unexpected '90s reunion between the duo yielded 1991's Mall and 1995's utterly perfect Shrinkwrapped before another separation took place. A decade later, the four original members reconvened for a number of well-received dates including an appearance at Coachella. The reunion was not without its problems, as the band shamefully replaced Burnham with a session player for Return The Gift, a so-so 2005 collection of re-recorded favorites. Both Burham and Allen were out of the picture entirely by the time Content reached listeners in 2011. King was soon gone as well, leaving Gill - a master producer with albums by Killing Joke, The Jesus Lizard and Michael Hutchence (among many others) to his credit - to either carry on or let the holes finally sink the ship. He chose to keep Gang of Four alive, and now we have the results of that decision in the form of the appropriately titled What Happens Next.

With Gill now in complete control of the proceedings, What Happen Next is clearly his vision of what a Gang of Four album should be. Of course, this means that he's the man solely responsible for the album's success or failure. The words “Gang of Four” have special meaning for a lot of people (this writer included), so anything the guy releases under that moniker damn well better deliver the goods. Thankfully, there are enough fantastic moments on What Happens Next to earn its place alongside the great works in the Gang of Four canon.

First off, let's calm the biggest concern surrounding this album. New singer John “Gaoler” Sterry does an exceptional job in King's shoes, delivering a vocal performance so close to the band's original mouthpiece that you likely wouldn't spot the difference if you heard these tracks without knowing of the personnel shakeup. (Gaoler's work on “Isle Of Dogs” and “First World Citizen” - two songs as instantly great as anything Gang of Four released during their first era – is especially impressive). There's no need to worry; the new guy passes the test with flying colors and has earned his place as the singer of Gang of Four.

Considering that he absolutely has the right singer in place, it's surprising that Gill brought in a slew of guest vocalists for What Happens Next. Although this is a very unexpected move for a Gang of Four album, the gamble pays off. After recently slaying listeners with her unforgettable appearance on James Williamson's Re-Licked, Alison Mosshart (The Kills/The Dead Weather) shows up to add her charm to “Broken Talk” and “England's In My Bones.” The Big Pink's Robbie Furze gets a turn at the mic on the drum-heavy “Graven Images,” while Mall-era Gang of Four bassist/longtime David Bowie band member Gail Ann Dorsey adds her voice to “First World Citizen.” All of these contributors bring something fresh and exciting to the table, expanding Gang of Four's musical vocabulary in the process. What Happens Next is more adventurous than this always-adventurous band has ever been on record before, and the results are often astounding.

The album's bona fide masterpiece, “The Dying Rays,” evokes the quiet desperation of Shrinkwrapped's “Unburden” as German music megastar Herbert Grönemeyer delivers a raspy, Seal-esque interpretation of Gill's moving words:

What I wanted
Disappears in the haze
A speck of dust
Held forever in the dying rays

Breath on the mirror, nothing in sight
The horizon's bare but in the night
I missed the pilots' light

Control and power
Empires were built in our minds
But it will all go up in a blaze
Only dust
In the dying rays

Gill's tack-sharp lyrical prowess is on full display throughout What Happens Next, such as in this sample from “Broken Talk:”

Where does he come from?
He's got an itch that won't be scratched
Sometimes he guesses he might be wrong
Sometimes guesses that he don't belong

He trusts in fate
He trusts in fate, he trusts in fate
But he checks sell-by-dates
Redeemer of coupons in a lonely mall

How unequivocally Gang of Four is that?

Naturally, Gill's trademark guitar playing on What Happens Next is as enjoyably jagged as ever. Like J Mascis, Killing Joke's Geordie Walker or late Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine, Gill only needs to hit one note to let the world know that it's him. It's always a treat to press “play” and hear the man through the speakers.

Although What Happens Next is full of bright spots, there are elements that don't work. A strangely subdued vibe penetrates the majority of the disc, leaving many of the songs to build up to a climax that never really comes. Even if this slow-burn effect was an intentional attempt to accentuate the general unease showcased in many of the album's lyrics, it leaves at least this longtime Gang of Four fan yearning for something that approximates the rush generated by the first 30 seconds of Entertainment!'s “At Home He's A Tourist” or the power of “It Is Not Enough” from Songs Of The Free. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that recent live videos reveal the current incarnation of Gang of Four to be a powerhouse on stage. Sadly, the bass/drum interplay on What Happens Next is simply serviceable, often failing to ignite that menacing Allen/Burnham spark that fueled early numbers like “If I Could Keep It For Myself” off Solid Gold. Gill has the players necessary to convincingly pull off Gang of Four in 2015; it's a pity that What Happens Next doesn't fully utilize their strengths. And while the aforementioned special guests add considerable magic to the package, their presence nonetheless makes What Happens Next feel more like the product of a brilliant producer than an album by a genuinely cohesive unit kicking ass. As wonderful as this album is, it doesn't feel like a band.

Quibbles aside, What Happens Next is a masterstroke of musical exploration from a man unafraid to take left turns nearly 40 years into his career. I can't wait to hear where Gill and his crew take these songs in a live setting.

What Happens Next is out February 24 on Metropolis Records

Gang of Four plays the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on March 6. 


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Troy Gregory's Perfect Monster

Photo Courtesy of

January 21, 2014
For Immediate Release

Former Prong/Flotsam and Jetsam Bassist Issues New Digital Single

Detroit-based multi-instrumentalist Troy Gregory – best known to Metal audiences for his stints as bassist for Prong and Flotsam and Jetsam – has issued “The Perfect Monster,” a new digital single with his long-running project, The Witches. The track is now available for download at Bandcamp, while a promotional video for the track can be viewed below.

In addition to Gregory, the Witches lineup on “The Perfect Monster” includes Eugene Machine Strobe on drums, Craig Adams on guitar, Stefan Carr on bass and Mary Alice on keyboards. Produced by Gregory, the song was recorded at MCC Rock Academy in Warren, MI with engineer Gordon Carver (Ted Nugent/George Clinton).

A professional musician since the mid '80s, Gregory's extensive resume includes session work with Swans on their 1992 album, Love Of Life, and serving as the touring bassist for Killing Joke in 1996. In 1986, he was a contender for the bass spot in Metallica following the passing of Cliff Burton. Gregory's career has also included membership in The Dirtbombs and L.A.'s Wasted Youth, among many other groups. Most recently, he played with the cult Australian/German/American band Crime & The City Solution, appearing on their 2013 album, American Twilight. He has fronted various incarnations of The Witches since the band's formation on Halloween 1996. More information on The Witches is available here


Sunday, January 18, 2015

LIVE REVIEW - Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven, The Middle East (Cambridge, MA) 1/16/15

Johnny Hickman (left) and David Lowery of Cracker. Photo by Bradford Jones/Courtesy of Pavement PR

Did you love Alternative music in the '90s? Thank bands like Camper Van Beethoven.

Camper Van Beethoven's rise in the late '80s underground music scene was one of many highlights during an amazing time when a crop of releases (The Cure's Disintegration, The Church's Starfish, Soul Asylum's Hang Time, R.E.M.'s Green, etc.) proved that it was possible to produce left-of-the-dial music on major label funds. Of course, these and other groups/album eventually led the way for the Alternative Music boom in the early-to-mid '90s (when everything released for a good five years was somehow lumped into that category), but history sometimes overlooks these important milestones on the road to Nirvana. Camper Van Beethoven's greatest contribution to the pre-Nevermind world was 1989's brilliant Key Lime Pie. Their second album for Virgin Records and fifth full-length overall, Key Lime Pie struck an unforgettable balance between the truly odd (“Opening Theme,” “June,” The Humid Press Of Day) and the oddly accessible (“Sweethearts,” the violin-driven remake of Status Quo's “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”). The release of Key Lime Pie led to scores of new fans, while the album still holds up more than 25 years after its release. (A fantastic reissue complete with bonus material was released last year on Omnivore Recordings and will be the subject of a feature on this site in the not-too-distant future.)

Naturally, the band celebrated this success by promptly splitting up, with members of the Key Lime Pie lineup pursuing a variety of other projects. (Bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher and drummer Chris Pedersen made their previous side project Monks of Doom a full-time endeavor, while violinist Morgan Fichter toured with Jane's Addiction.) Frontman David Lowery soon found a new home in Cracker, his band with guitarist Johnny Hickman. Considerably more conventional than Lowery's previous outfit, Cracker scored a bona fide hit single with the song “Low” from 1993's Kerosene Hat. Since then, Lowery's/Crackers's career has been marked by ups and downs (one Cracker highlight being the brief involvement of former Plugz drummer Charlie Quintana), solo projects, a concurrent (and ongoing) Camper Van Beethoven reunion and some controversial words on the current state of the music industry. And on a bitterly cold January night, Lowery's decades-long journey in music took him to the Middle East in the form of a Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker double bill.

As the long line of people who froze their brains out waiting for the club to open its doors to the sold-out show knew, both of these bands are still relevant and worth your time in 2015. The past two years have been an especially active time for both groups, with Camper Van Beethoven delivering two albums (2013's La Costa Perdida and 2014's El Camino Real) and Cracker unveiling a double album (the amazing, recently released Berkeley To Bakersfield). A review of the groups' sizable merch table revealed that individual band members have also stayed ludicrously prolific in recent times with a variety of solo releases. It is inspiring to see these veteran musicians still producing such a high volume of work in the here and now. did this current work do alongside the classics? Amazingly well. While it came as little surprise that Camper Van Beethoven's beloved older material (such as 1985's immortal “Take The Skinheads Bowling” and the Key Lie Pie triple shot of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men,” “All Her Favorite Fruit” and “Sweethearts”) earned the loudest cheers of their set, contemporary songs like “Too High For The Love-In” (from La Costa Perdida) and “Darken Your Door” (from El Camino Real) were also taken in by the crowd with great enthusiasm. The same went for Cracker's new stuff, highlighted by the Hickman-fronted “California Country Boy” and Lowery's “King Of Bakersfield.” These Country-infused numbers sat comfortably next to older Rock-oriented Cracker tunes like “Low” and 1992's “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).”

Boasting virtually identical personnel, both bands delivered solid representations of their combined body of work. Sure, neither of these bands are anywhere close to what you'd call “hip” in 2015. Sure, some of the guys on stage had gray hair and their fans look more like college professors these days than the college kids they once were in the bands' heyday. But as every single person in the shoulder-to-shoulder room understood, David Lowery and his assorted cohorts still have a place in this world because music this genuinely good never comes with an expiration date.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW - Gene Simmons: Me, Inc.

Gene Simmons is an asshole.

This is the guy who spent decades boasting of his sexual conquests with groupies while he was supposedly in a committed relationship with model/actress Shannon Tweed. The guy who once told perennially stuffy NPR host Terry Gross, “If you want to welcome me with open arms, I'm afraid you're also going to have to welcome me with open legs.” The guy who once proclaimed to Oprah Winfrey that his tongue was “long enough to make [her his] very closest friend.” The guy who sees a piece of his burger (from his own restaurant, naturally) fall to the floor at an airport, picks it up and eats it in front of the paparazzi. As he'd likely be the first to tell you, Mr. Simmons is far from the most socially acceptable fellow in the room. But this KISS bassist/vocalist is also an immensely successful member of one of the world's most difficult professions, an impressive entrepreneur and an undeniably strong example of what it means to live the American Dream. Simmons' life philosophy is on display throughout Me, Inc., which (as the book's full title suggests) is designed to help the reader “build an army of one, unleash your inner Rock God [and] win in life and business.”

While Simmons' larger-than life public persona and blood-spewing antics continue to enthrall music fans 40 years after his band's debut album, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Simmons' life story is how hard he had to fight to make it. Raised in Israel in the early '50s by a concentration camp-surviving single mother, Simmons (then known as Chaim Witz) spent most of his childhood in extreme poverty. As he writes in Me, Inc.'s first chapter:

We didn't have a bathroom. We had an outhouse, which was literally a hole in the ground. We didn't have toilet paper. We used rags, which were then washed and reused...I had never heard of toothbrushes. Or toothpaste. Or tissues.

Of course, Simmons' life would be drastically different two decades later, once KISS started on their way to becoming one of the most prominent musical acts of the 1970s. Along the way, he developed the roadmap for financial freedom that he shares throughout Me, Inc. Vacations? Wastes of time. Marriage? Don't even think about it until you've made your fortune. Children? Your economic strength weakens with each one you have. Each of the tome's 25 chapters is short and easy to digest – although what is said on the pages might give liberal-minded readers a serious case of agita.

Not surprisingly, Me, Inc. is full of the same to-the-point, ice-cold attitude that Simmons projects in other forms of media. (As former Plasmatics guitarist Richie Stotts once told me, “Whether you like the guy or not, Simmons doesn't bullshit around.”) Simmons makes it clear to the reader that Me, Inc.isn't about being politically correct, it's about showing you how to make money.” Nowhere in the book's 224 pages is this more evident than when The Demon chides those who maintain their foreign accents or ethnic attire while living and working in America:

Let's be real. If I can't understand what you're saying to me, or if your accent is too strong, the impression I'll get won't be about the content of the conversation. It will be about your accent...I contend that the masses listen with their eyes, rather than actually listening to what is being said. Which is why there has never been a Hasidic newscaster on American television. And there likely never will be.

Elsewhere, our humble (yeah, right) narrator cautions business-minded women against parenthood (“...[I]f you decide to be a homemaker or a stay-at-home mom, you may as well leave your entrepreneurial aspirations at the door of the home that you didn’t get to buy.”) and gives a thumbs-up to Ayn Rand (“...[W]hether or not you agree with her philosophies, I think it's safe to say that the less you depend on government and the most self-sufficient you are, the better off you'll be.”)

Although these and many Simmonsisms are entertaining (or infuriating, depending on how much your heart bleeds), Me, Inc. makes its greatest impression when the writer shows his vulnerable side. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to his various professional failures, including his lukewarm stints as a record label owner and talent scout. (Remember the Canadian band Gypsy Rose on Simmons Records? Didn't think so.) On the personal side, he reveals (with uncharacteristic humility) how his infamous philandering, anti-marriage ways nearly cost him his relationship with Tweed and his two children:

Ever since I was a small child, perhaps because my father had left us, I convinced myself I would never get married...For many years, I had been selfish, arrogant and delusional about all sorts of things. That same delusional faith in myself that helped me get things done in the business world became a double-edged sword, and put a strain on my relationship with my family. I deluded myself into thinking I could do whatever I wanted outside of my home and family, and that it would never get back to the family or hurt them. I was an idiot...The real truth of why I never got married is that I was afraid. I was afraid of commitment. I was afraid of the financial repercussions...That armor prevented me from being kind, loving and open to being loved. I didn't want to be hurt the way I had been hurt, the way my mother had been hurt.

Additionally, Simmons stresses the importance of philanthropy and using wealth and power to help others.

This book is about how to be successful,” he writes. “I will tell you that I was not truly successful until I decided to also be charitable.

(It's not an act: When I interviewed Simmons in 2013 regarding his efforts to raise money for a children's hospital in Saskatoon, his desire to help young ones in need was palpable. Besides, anyone who could write a song as lovely as “See You Tonite” must have a genuinely good soul.)

Of course, diehard soldiers in the KISS Army will easily identify a good chunk of Me, Inc. as slightly re-worked highlights from Simmons' previous books Kiss And Make-Up (2001) and Sex Money Kiss (2003). On top of that, the first thing you see when you open the cover of Me, Inc. is a photo of Simmons standing in front of a display of platinum records – the exact same image that graced the back cover of Sex Money Kiss. It is obvious that Me, Inc. is a product created to appeal to folks who got to know the man more through Gene Simmons Family Jewels (which premiered three years after Sex Money Kiss) than through his ongoing work with The Hottest Band in the World. Still, there's enough classic Simmons insight – as well as updates on his more recent endeavors (including his marriage to Tweed and his work with the excellent Kobra And The Lotus) – to keep even those who memorized his other books interested and inspired.

Love him or hate him, Simmons has created an intriguing niche for himself in this world. Me, Inc. explores how he got there – and perhaps how you can get there, too.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Best of 2014

Just like last year, coming up with a “best of” list for 2014 was an excruciating task. After weeks of agonizing consideration, I finally whittled my list down to 30 albums (with special attention given here to the first 10). After that, I added a slew of special categories for other releases that I thought were worthy of inclusion. Although I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself on January 1 for missing an artist or two, I'm pretty satisfied with the list below. Here goes...

1. ALBUM OF THE YEAR- James Williamson: Re-Licked

Legendary Stooges guitarist James Williamson developed Re-Licked as way to finally record a number of post-Raw Power tracks that he wrote with Iggy Pop in 1973-74. Although these numbers have existed for years on a number of bootleg releases of varying audio quality, Re-Licked represents the first time these songs were given a chance to grow in a legitimate studio setting. Guests include Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys/Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine), Lisa Kekaula (The BellRays), Gary Floyd (The Dicks), JG Thirlwell (Foetus), Carolyn Wonderland, Bobby Gillespie and Simone Marie Butler (Primal Scream), Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees/ Queens of the Stone Age), Joe Cardamone (The Icarus Line), Petra Haden, Ariel Pink, Ron Young (Little Caesar), Mike Watt (Stooges/Minutemen), Alison Mosshart (The Kills), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), Steve Mackay (Stooges), Toby Dammit (Stooges/Iggy Pop/Swans), Mario Cuomo (The Orwells), Nicke Andersson (The Hellacopters/Entombed), The Richmond Sluts and Michael Urbano (Cracker/Smash Mouth). How could this album not be amazing? (Read my full review here.)

2. Dum Dum Girls: Too True

Charting singer/multi-instrumentalist Dee Dee Penny’s evolution over the past near-decade has been an intriguing study of how an Indie queen can be a Pop star at heart. Formerly the drummer/singer in San Diego band Grand Ole Party (and previously known as Kristin Gundred), Dee Dee launched The Dum Dum Girls as a bedroom recording project in 2008. The first Dum Dum Girls album, 2010’s I Will Be, was a delightfully echoed-out, lo-fi affair that sounded like first Pretenders album recorded on a boombox. The production was smoothed over on 2011’s stellar Only In Dreams, which showcased Dee Dee’s ability to create an unstoppable earworm. (Take a listen to “Bedroom Eyes” and enjoy the song being stuck in your head for the next week.) As hinted on 2012’s dramatically evolved End of Daze EP, Dee Dee has finally gone larger than life with The Dum Dum Girls, fully embracing a big song/big production approach on Too True in an impossible-to-deny shot at the Big Leagues. Remember the last time an act on Sub Pop decided to go to the top? While Too True surely isn’t destined to have the same cultural impact as that other band, it’s still a wondrous sonic experience and one of the best albums Sub Pop - or any label, for that matter - has ever released. (Read my full review here.)

    3. Pink Floyd: The Endless River

While The Endless River is not the greatest Pink Floyd album ever released, it is certainly the most cohesive and adventurous collection of music they've produced since The Wall. Far from a mere collection of Division Bell castaways, the album offers an array of moments that meet or even far exceed the quality of that release. Inspired by an absent friend, The Endless River takes us on one final trip through the creative minds of a unique combination of players and songwriters that left an indelible mark on the world of music. If this is indeed the end, this album is an extraordinary way for Pink Floyd's light to go out. (Read my full review here.)

4. Gong: I See You

Still going strong at 76, Gong leader/Psychedelic Rock legend Daevid Allen recently gifted the world with I See You, a fascinating collection characterized by esoteric lyricism and some absolutely draw-dropping musicianship. (Just listen to son Orlando Allen's hi-hat work on the title track!) Despite facing serious health issues in recent times, Daevid remains a deeply creative force still producing music as powerful as he did more than four decades ago.  

5. Arch Enemy: War Eternal

Demonstrating Arch Enemy's typical ability to balance aggression and melody, the extremely well-produced War Eternal showcases an absolutely bulletproof band. Beyond the impressive presence of new vocalist Alissa White-Gluz, War Eternal boasts plenty of stellar guitar playing (especially at the 2:19 mark in “On And On,” during the first half-minute of “No More Regrets” and basically in all 323 seconds of “Time Is Black”). Three cheers to founding member Michael Amott and new six-stringer Nick Cordle for delivering performances that offer plenty of dramatics without once hinting at pretentiousness. Best of all, the songs on War Eternal (especially the hook-heavy “As The Pages Burn” and the epic “You Will Know My Name”) instantly get in your head and stay there for days. Nearly 20 years after their formation, Arch Enemy have once again raised the bar for groups creating melodic, song-oriented Metal that still retains plenty of power. There's not a single note on War Eternal that doesn't shine. The best Metal album of 2014. (Read my full review here.)

6. The Pretty Reckless: Going To Hell

The cover of Going To Hell - Gossip Girl actress Taylor Momsen's second album with her band The Pretty Reckless - shows her wearing nothing but black paint. (She shows off even more skin on the vinyl edition). Although some of the more conservative and/or cynical members of the public might be unimpressed by such blatant “sex sells” exploitation, the fact remains that anyone unwilling to look beyond a bare ass on the cover and simply listen to the actual music will miss out on experiencing one of the finest albums released this year. (Read my full review here.)

7. Brownout: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

This Austin-based Latin Funk ensemble take on seven of the most beloved songs from the original Black Sabbath with amazing results. Although every second of the mostly instrumental Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath is magnificent, “The Wizard” and “Planet Caravan” are especially sublime. (Have a listen here.)

8. Mike Hudson & The Pagans: Hollywood High

When you get right down to it, legendary writer/Pagans frontman Mike Hudson didn't need to do a goddamn thing after releasing the “Street Where Nobody Lives / What's This Shit Called Love?” single with The Pagans in 1978. As perfect as anything off Raw Power, this two-sided gem easily secured Hudson's place in history, making everything (records, books, articles, etc.) he has blessed us with in the ensuing decades icing on the cake. Not only is Hudson still creating, but Hollywood High proves that hasn't lost the spark that made his early work so incendiary. Backed by a supergroup including members of Detroit/Los Angeles veterans The Dogs (whose Loren Molinare produced the album), Keith Christopher of The Georgia Satellites and even former Dio/Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain, Hudson and his raspy, world-worn voice deliver an eight-song, 33-minute blast of energy that reminds listeners of what the real deal sounds like. This ain't Mall Punk, kids - this is real, filthy-barroom-at-1am-with-a-full-ashtray kinda shit. If The Dead Boys had kept their act together long enough to do a third album, it would have sounded like Hollywood High. (Read my full review here.)

9. Sonny Vincent & Spite: Spiteful

First off, let's have a look at the cast of characters on this thing. Of course, there's Sonny Vincent, New York Punk veteran and legendary Testors frontman, on vocals and guitar. On bass, we have Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols. The drumming is handled by none other than the great Rat Scabies of The Damned. And then things go way over the top...On saxophone, Steve Mackay from the mighty Stooges. Let that sink in...We have a singer/guitarist who's been at this game for a good 35 years, the guy who wrote “Pretty Vacant” on bass, the original drummer from one of history's greatest bands and a guy who played on Fun House. This is some serious, serious business – enough to make one reluctant to actually play the record out of fear of having his or her incredibly high hopes dashed. Thankfully, Spiteful will go down in history as one of the very few occasions when something like this absolutely worked. (Read my full review here.)

10. Jade Starling: Captive 

Jade Starling, the voice of one of the world's most revered Dance tracks (Pretty Poison's “Catch Me [I'm Falling]”) returned in 2014 with Captive (Subpoena/Universal), her amazing EDM-driven solo debut. Created with longtime musical partner/Pretty Poison bandmate Whey Cooler, Captive found Starling working with some of the world's greatest DJs and remixers, including Lee Dagger of the hugely successful English remix team Bimbo Jones (Lady Gaga/Rihanna/Kylie Minogue), Laszlo (Selena Gomez/Kelly Clarkson/Justin Bieber/Nicki Minaj) and Franck Dona (Universal France). A true labor of love and easily the best Dance album of 2014, Captive took close to two years to complete. (Read my interview with Jade here.)

Here are 20 more albums that made 2014 a great year for music:

Taylor Swift: 1989
Haunted Hearts: Initiation
Cœur de pirate: Trauma
Ian Anderson: Homo Erraticus
Obituary: Inked In Blood
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Shellac: Dude Incredible
Tuxedomoon: Pink Narcissus
Renaissance: Symphony Of Light (Read my feature here.)
John Batiste/Chad Smith/Bill Laswell: The Process (Read my review here.)
Bernie Worrell: Phantom Sound Clash Cut-Up Method: Two (Read my review here.)
Ani Cordero: Recordar
Hollis Brown: Gets Loaded
Anna Phoebe: Between The Shadow And The Soul
Paul Roessler: Volume One
Sanctuary: The Year The Sun Died
Mike LePond's Silent Assassins: S/T (Read my review here.)
Negativland: It's All In Your Head
Various Artists: Axels & Sockets: The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project
Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey: Going Back Home

Song of the Year – Hawkwind featuring Brian Blessed: “Sonic Attack”

Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen fronting Hawkwind? How amazing is that?! (Read my feature on the song here.)

Best EP- Shmu: Chroma Key

There is a big difference between acting weird and being weird. It’s simple to spot by asking yourself this question: “Is the strange person in front of me working hard to appear fucked up, or is this person projecting ‘odd’ by merely existing?” Compare Dot Wiggin to Marilyn Manson, and you should hopefully see my point. A lot of trust fund smart-asses hit the musical conveyer belt on my desk these days, with each cheeky bastard trying harder than the last to shock or befuddle. (They usually bore or mildly annoy.) While I’ve never met the man who calls himself “Shmu,” his genuinely weird music leads me to believe that this cat’s creating stuff as inventive as the Chroma Key EP because that’s what’s in his head naturally and not because he wants to appear “out there.” (Read my full review here.)

Best Split Release – Electric Frankenstein/The Cheats: Rockamania #1

Bolstered by the return of original bassist Dan Canzonieri, Electric Frankenstein storm out of the gate on Rockamania #1 with their strongest tunes in a decade. (Check out “I Feel So Lonely” if you don't believe me.) The Cheats from Pittsburgh keep the party going with their melodic Antiseen-meets-Hellacopters charm.  

Best Box Set – Black Sabbath: The Complete Albums 1970-1978

Featuring the same remastering as the out-of-print Black Box from 2004, this budget collection gathers all eight of the original lineup's albums. Nearly 40 years after Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward last recorded together, this music remains the absolute high point of Heavy Metal.  

Best Live Album – Pere Ubu: Visions Of The Moon

There is no other band quite like Pere Ubu. The kind of musical group that forces scribes to beg the heavens for the right adjectives (I'll go with “brilliant”), Pere Ubu has been offering exciting and perplexing sounds for the past 40 years. Recorded in Dublin in November 2013, the digital-only Visions Of The Moon finds the band at their experimental best. Closer to the out-there spirit of albums like 1978's Dub Housing and 1982's Song Of The Bailing Man than the more conventional vibe of, say, 1991's Worlds In Collision, Visions... is an exhilarating (if at times uneasy) journey.  

Best Single – Front 242: “Take One” / “Im Rhythmus Bleiben”

The return of Wax Trax! Records was the best music news of 2014. In addition to a 12-inch EP by Cocksure (featuring Chris Connelly), the label marked its second coming with this very limited edition single by Wax Trax! legends Front 242. Side A features a 1984 live recording of “Take One” from the group's first US appearance at Medusa's in Chicago, while Side B presents a live recording of “Im Rhythmus Bleiben” from the Wax Trax! Restrospectacle event in 2011. A glorious reminder of just how magical Wax Trax! was – and is

Best Compilation – Soulside: Trigger + Bass•103

Twenty-five years after playing their last gig, the final lineup of legendary D.C. Post-Hardcore band Soulside – singer Bobby Sullivan, guitarist Scott McCloud, bassist Johnny Temple and drummer Alexis Fleisig – reconvened this month for a series of east coast reunion shows. Fans were able to prep for the gigs by checking out a 12-inch release on Dischord Records that combined Soulside's 1988 Trigger EP with the three-song 1989 single, Bass/103. Released in August on yellow vinyl, the LP served as a stellar primer for listeners who are just now discovering the band thanks to the considerable buzz surrounding the December events. This stuff still sounds great after all these years. (Read my feature on the band here.)

Best CD Reissue – Slint: Spiderland

Although Nirvana's Nevermind is often cited as the most important Rock album of 1991, there were plenty of “Alternative” titles put out in the months leading up to that record's release that – at least in my never-humble opinion – far exceeded it. (Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind and Material Issue's International Pop Overthrow instantly come to mind.) With Louisville, Kentucky's Slint already disbanded by the time Spiderland was quietly released by Touch and Go in early 1991, this extraordinary album never really stood a chance the first time around. It would take more than two decades – and a steady cult following that grew with each passing year – before Spiderland saw the reissue treatment (and international attention) it deserved. Offering a compact alternative to the massive, sold-out-before-you-even-knew-about-it box set version, the two-disc edition of the Spiderland reissue features the album, a DVD of Lance Bangs' documentary film Breadcrumb Trail and a download card for 14 bonus tracks. One of the greatest listening experiences you'll ever have.  

Best Vinyl Reissue – Rollins Band: Life Time

Although the Rollins Band would gain mainstream recognition years later with albums like 1992's The End Of Silence and 1994's Weight (and leader Henry Rollins would later find considerable success as a TV show host, actor and 30-plus-year spoken word performer), 1987's Life Time remains perhaps the band's strongest and most incendiary studio release. Released November 18 on Rollins' 2.13.61 label in association with Dischord Records, this revamped vinyl edition of Life Time was remastered for vinyl by TJ Lipple and includes updated artwork by Jason Farrell. (Read my interview with Rollins here.)

Best Digital Reissue – Toiling Midgets: Sea Of Unrest

An album everyone should hear at least once, Sea of Unrest was the 1982 debut full-length by the brilliant post-Negative Trend band Toiling Midgets. Featuring former Sleepers members Ricky Williams (vocals) and Tim Mooney (drums), the record finally saw a digital release earlier this year. Those unfamiliar with Toiling Midgets are encouraged to give “Destiny,” “Microage” and “All The Girls Cry” a listen. Remarkable. 

Best Unearthed Recording – Fugazi: First Demo

In addition to consistently adding new releases by current bands to their always-intriguing discography, D.C.’s Dischord Records has devoted considerable time in recent years to reaching as far into the dusty crevices of their recorded archives as possible to uncover previously unheard (or at least widely uncirculated) early demos from some of their most popular artists. This ongoing project includes the 2003 release of Minor Threat’s 1981 demo as a 7-inch EP, the 2012 CD/10-inch release of the extraordinary 1984 demo by Rites of Spring and - earlier this year - the 7-inch, eight-song 1980 demo recording by State Of Alert (S.O.A.). The label wrapped up 2014 with the release of the self-explanatory First Demo by Fugazi, a collection bursting with unbridled energy and some of the finest bass/drums interplay ever committed to vinyl. Bonus: Features the previously unheard “Turn Off Your Guns.” An essential purchase, even if you already own and know the proper studio versions of these tunes by heart.  

Best Video – OFF!: “Hypnotized” 

The best video of Jack Grisham peeing on David Yow you'll see this year.

Best Music Documentary – Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now & City Gardens  

Seeing a show at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ was like visiting the Thunderdome. The violent, sweaty crowds inside matched the danger and decay that greeted showgoers outside. Thankfully, it was worth it to see some of the most incredible music to come from the underground in the early '80s through the mid '90s. Have a favorite band from left of the dial? Yeah, they played City Gardens. Riot on the Dance Floor chronicles the man responsible for it all: Randy “Now” Ellis, a super-enthusiastic, larger-than-life music fan who spent his days as a mailman while doing his part to keep the American Alternative music scene alive at night. Randy paid his dues; Riot pays him the respect he deserves.

Best Music-Related Book – Book by The Jesus Lizard

Published by the Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, BOOK charts the Chicago band’s intense history: From their beginnings as a drum machine-fueled recording project to their rise in the American underground scene to the band’s highly controversial (yet financially beneficial) jump from indie label Touch and Go to Capitol to their eventual breakup in 1999 (and reunion 10 years later), it’s all there. With a slew of photos illustrating the tale, the band – as well as multitude of friends, supporters and fellow musicians – offer insight into the band’s caustic life and legacy. Even if you’re unfamiliar or disinterested with the band’s music, BOOK makes for an intriguing exploration of the alternative music scene of the ’90s – a short burst in time when a band as gloriously odd as The Jesus Lizard could do whatever they wanted to do and get a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (Read my feature on the book here.)

So there you have it. I wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2015!