Monday, June 21, 2010

From The Rockaliser News Desk: King Khan and BBQ Show Break Up

As an enterprise, Rockaliser focuses primarily on criticism, rather than journalism, but a mostly unreported story came to my attention this morning.

Friend of the blog and current Seoul resident Katie H. wrote me with the news that Canadian garage duo King Khan and the BBQ show have parted ways. Her story corroborates this post, from the concert promoter. In her words:

This week King Khan and BBQ Show were in Korea playing three shows, and apparently at one of the shows, in this shitty city called Daegu, King Khan and BBQ got in such a big fight that they broke up. So my friends and I heard that the show in Seoul was only going to be played by BBQ because they were on such bad terms that they couldn't share the same stage. We get to the venue and on one corner Mark Sultan is standing there awkwardly smoking cigarettes, and on the other corner of the same intersection King Khan is standing there with a friend of a friend. So we eavesdrop and find out that broke up because a) King Khan does not want to spend time with someone who "masturbates in front of porn every day" and b) King Khan spent many hours in Daegu talking to a female monk, which conversation led him to decide to abandon his life as a rock star and actually become some sort of monk at this all-female monastery in Korea. It appeared that he was serious. Then King Khan left, because BBQ wouldn't play if he were even present at the show, and THEN the entire show got cancelled because BBQ wouldn't play if the promoters continued to put King Khan up at their place, which they said that they were going to continue to do. So, no show show, but a pretty good show in a way

If KK and BBQ can't patch things up--they broke up in Australia a week earlier, but worked that out--it will end a partnership that begin in the mid-nineties. I saw a pretty wild King Khan and the BBQ show in 2008 and if his last couple years are any indication, instability is the norm for Kahn. While I personally prefer his work with the Shrines--it's more soulful and fleshed out, but with the same passion and venom--the world of garage rock would be a little emptier without their partnership.

Update (6/23): According to the Seattle, WA venue Neumos, King Khan and BBQ have canceled their show scheduled for September 28.

Update 2 (6/23): In a publicly available comment from Mark Sultan's Facebook profile, he writes "We need to not exist as a band. Done!"

Update 3 (6/23): The argument between Mark Sultan and the promoter in this post's comments section was not their first.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Great Guitar Solos #6: Blue Öyster Cult, "Flaming Telepaths" (Buck Dharma)

Available On: Secret Treaties (1974)
Solo Bits: 2:48-3:35

Christopher Walken's SNL "cowbell" sketch is now one of those ubiquitous pop cultural moments (so rare in SNL's history), and obviously so: it certainly pointed the trajectory toward Walken's later career as professional arbiter of stilted weirdness. One thing that sketch didn't do, sadly, is reignite any interest in the band featured in the sketch, Blue Öyster Cult. And that's kind of criminal, because BÖC's now-unfashionable brand of working-class hard rock is at least as deserving of a comeback as, I don't know, Joy Division. In the annals of classic rock, once you get past the obvious heavyweights (Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who), none had a greater run of albums than Blue Öyster Cult.

This would include their debut album (which includes "Cities On Flame With Rock N Roll"), Tyranny and Mutation, Secret Treaties and Agents of Fortune in particular. Even beyond that original bloc, you have well-known singles like "Godzilla" (one of the most inexplicable choices featured on National Review's list of "50 great conservative rock songs") and "Burnin' For You." Here was a band that churned out great rock tunes, workmanlike, for fifteen years at least--for perspective, note that Zeppelin could only pull eleven (due to a common affliction--drummer death--but still...). And those first four albums are back-to-back awesome. On average, a Blue Öyster Cult album will have at least six legitimately great songs, four songs that hover around the merely "good" range, and maybe a duff track every couple of albums. Just extraordinary stuff, consistently presented. And subsequently, mostly revered by classic rock cultists, generally a shady, taste-suspect bunch.

Of course, BÖC also managed to do what very few arena rock bands could--gain the respect of the late 70s punks (in this sense, their closest musical brethren was fellow umlaut band Motörhead). Minutemen guitarist D. Boon took his nom de guitar from lead singer Eric Bloom (or rather his songwriting handle E. Bloom), and the band covered "The Red and the Black" on 3-Way Tie For Last. Metallica covered "Astronomy" in addition to more traditional hardcore covers on Garage, Inc. The Clash brought on their producer, Sandy Pearlman, to produce the under-respected Give 'Em Enough Rope. They solicited lyrics from people like Richard Meltzer and Patti Smith, and covered the MC5. How did a band so steeped in hard blues/boogie rock and extended guitar solos come to be revered by American and English punks? I think the answer has something to do with the Stooges and the MC5, but an answer can also be found in "Flaming Telepaths," the standout track from their standout album Secret Treaties.

"Flaming Telepaths" is a song that demonstrates nearly everything that Blue Öyster Cult did well, including lyrics alluding to comic book/science-fiction conventions, an unbeatably propulsive rhythm section, some great (and oh-so-manly) vocal harmonies, and high-octane guitar leads courtesy of Buck Dharma. Born Donald Roeser, Dharma was a guitarist skilled enough to pull out as many as two or three memorable solos a song, but he's never been known to bogart a track, completely--oftentimes choosing to switch things up between himself and keyboardist Allen Lanier. Found normally on a Gibson SG, Dharma was first and foremost a songwriter and contributor to the BÖC collective, which is why it's doubly striking that his leads are often so shattering as they are.

The solo in "Flaming Telepaths" certainly isn't the fastest thing Dharma has ever done, nor is it necessarily the longest or even the most intense. There's an amazing depth of feeling to this solo, though, that subtly connects the varying instrumental tensions that occupy "Flaming Telepaths." You'd think the title "Flaming Telepaths" would suggest an excess of rock star posturing and silliness, but this is as lean and intense of a six-minute rock song as there has ever been. Not a wrong note is ever played; it could be twice as long as it is, and still never be boring.

Dharma's manic frettings are preceded by two solos, one a tastily short synthesizer number and the other a more traditional piano solo. Both exist to increase the tension, while Dharma's job is to let all that go, but the interesting thing is that Dharma proceeds to then let all this air out, gaining speed and traction as he heads up the fret board, but then he continues playing even as the tension mounts again. Dharma is intuitive to start slowing down again, and just as we kick back into a verse he ends his showcase with a splay of repeated notes over the drum break--it made me wonder, the first time I listened, if he was even capable of going any further.

Dharma gets another, briefer solo at the very end, which I could talk about as well except I don't think it's as good--it doesn't add anything more to what we already know, and it ends rather abruptly in mid-stream, making way instead for the beginning piano tinklings of "Astronomy." Which is another great song, yes, and at some point I'll write about how wrong it was to make the transition between these two tracks so abrupt.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Lost Album of 2008

I haven't posted anything I've been satisfied with for a while, and, like a retired gunman, I'm sort of convinced that I just don't have it any more. Unfortunately, I don't have anyone to persuade me to do one last job, and the "job" I'm currently mulling over is a defense of the Neil Hamburger album Sings Country Winners, one of the most slept-on discs of the last decade.

It's clear that no one particularly likes Country Winners. While there are plenty of lukewarm reviews online, I've yet to find an unequivocally positive take on the album, and most music publications ignored it altogether. The two sites that apparently mentioned Winners in their best of 2008 lists both have dead links. The album didn't even merit a page on Metacritic. I recently mentioned the album to two friends who I attended a Hamburger stand-up show with, and they sounded uninterested. Even Nathan, in his post about humor in 00's music, and myself, in the comments section, neglected to mention the album.

Why the ignorance? Hamburger's album isn't for everyone. It's a faux-vanity album by a man pretending to be a comedian with terrible timing, awful taste, and a frightening appearance. If you don't enjoy Neil Hamburger's comedy, I can't imagine you'll enjoy this album. And if you don't have a high tolerance for country, you're shit out of luck, as each of the album's 10 songs are straight country.

Sings Country Winners has an ace up its sleeve, however, in the form of some impeccable musicianship. Most of the songs were penned by Gregg Turkington (Neil Hamburger's real-life alter ego), a veteran post-punk musician, label owner, and zine publisher, with writing partner and guitarist Dave Gleason, an actual country musician. The band don't play like they're on a comedy album, but like the old pros they by and large are. The best songs--"Three Piece Chicken Dinner," "Jug Town"--feature some mean guitar, deadly slide in the case of the former, a killer lead in the latter.

But Hamburger is the main attraction, and, as always, he wins by being such a loser. His cringe-inducing throat problems are gracefully absent, but that's the only concession. Neil's singing voice is a whiny, nasal screech, barely different from his speaking one, and it's technically atrocious. Yet it's never grating, and there's humor value in the intentionally poor performances on this supposed vanity album.

The lyrics are also fantastic, the rock bottom "why me?" moments of country being a natural fit for the morose Hamburger. Over the course of Winners, certain fixations emerge, notably divorce and suicide. One of the album's most inspired moments is a cover of the John Entwistle tune "Thinkin' It Over," which synthesizes these themes. There's no punchlines, but it's plenty funny, and fairly tuneful too. Opener "Three Piece Chicken Dinner" has more one liners, for instance
When his personal life is an estranged wife/and a sullen, ungrateful daughter
which in Hamburgers delivery is one of about five laugh out loud moments on the album. We also discover that, in getting up on stage "to share his gift of laughter," Hamburger has been getting paid in chicken. And the list of non-recyclable objects in "The Recycle Bin," which includes pieces of wood, a humble offering from a man re-entering the dating game, sugar free birthday cakes, and stillborn kittens, gets me every time. There are other moments as good.

Despite this, Sings Country Winners is hardly a classic. It's nowhere near the list of best 00's albums I never posted, and probably wouldn't have made my 2008 Top 10. But it's a good listen, one that doesn't wear thin, even with the presence of a few overlong songs.

I dare say it's become a forgotten album. And that's a shame, because as $1 American Funnymen go, there's none better than Hamburger. Turns out he's not a bad country singer either.