November 2008 Archives

Hüsker Dü: Metal Circus

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Metal Circus was the first Hüsker Dü record I ever heard. It was also the first record I ever owned by a band that would become a central player in the soundtrack of my youth (and, so far, young adulthood). I don't remember where I found it, but I do remember listening to the cassette over and over until it began to show signs of wear. Yes. I owned the cassette. Tapes were where it was at when I began listening to music in earnest; CDs, with all their shininess and "don't get fingerprints on 'em" warnings, were still a bit too expensive for me when I was a teen. They were for rich kids. And since LPs were falling out of favor (pity!) by the early nineties, I really hadn't any other option . . . though, admittedly, I wish I could have played Hüsker Dü on my Fischer-Price turntable. That would have been kind of cool, no?


As I caught up with the swing towards digital music, I found that I played certain beloved tapes less and less. While I was able to find CD or iTunes versions of certain seminal albums like Never Mind the Bollocks, the first four Ramones disks, the Jam's first couple of records, and London Calling, I wasn't ever able to find Metal Circus. Not surprisingly, I hardly listened to it over the ten-year span following my switch to exclusively CD-based music.

Now I'm not sure whether or not the fact that I felt I couldn't play the album (or, rather, EP) contributed to the feeling, but Metal Circus assumed an unrealistically brilliant aura in my memory. Of course, as New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig spun in my diskman, I often thought back to the overplayed cassette versions of Zen Arcade and Metal Circus I had not listened to for so long. Over time, both tapes became legendary, part of Erik's Punk Rock Canon.

Fast-forward another few years, when the iPod nation has made the conversion of old music formats a profitable industry. Now, thanks to the wonders of technology, I have been able to digitize my cassette collection (finally, Generic Flipper on my iPod!). It probably says a lot about the power of memory, but the first cassette I digitized was Metal Circus. And I haven't been disappointed. Jesus, what a band!

It might sound weird, but I rather like listening to the MP3s I dubbed off the old cassette because it transferred some of the aural flaws to the digital file. It kind of adds a sense of authenticity to the experience. Or something equally quixotic and pompous-sounding.

At any rate, the Hüskers waste no time gunning their engines, opening Metal Circus with the blazing "Real World," a scathing critique of early 80s punk rock posturing. The frenzied melody of "Real World" continues on "Deadly Skies," as both tracks foreground Grant Hart's frenetic pounding and Bob Mould's soul-piercing, proto-Cobain growl (not to mention the melodic buzzsawing of Mould's guitar). The third track, the slower (by Hüsker Dü standards) "It's Not Funny Anymore," as is typical with Hart-sung songs, retains the melody of the preceding tracks while eliminating Mould's famous vitriol in favor of Hart's equally famous Hippie-punk mellowness. Hart's vocals, while undeniably less gruff than his more famous bandmate's, are not quite as smooth-sounding as those he showcases on later albums such as Flip Your Wig. The added rawness of Hart's voice on the track helps make the album feel a bit less Janus-faced than some of the band's later, more explicitly Mould-versus-Hart efforts. "First of the Last Calls," like "Real World" and "Deadly Skies" is remarkably fast-paced, with Mould's and Norton's relentless strumming layered atop Hart's mile-a-minute drumming, but the song's brilliant final thirty seconds (owing perhaps to Hart's perfectly timed ahh-ahh-ahh-ahhs) somehow manages to inject the aforementioned mellow quality for which Hart is known into the most splenetic of Mould's screeds in such a way as to make the entire album come together in a matter of seconds. While both "Lifeline" and "Out on a Limb" seem consistent with the band's sound during their early hardcore period, it is really "Diane" that, along with "First of the Last Calls" really suggests the wholly original direction the band was to take over the course of their career. Slower, but certainly not mellow, "Diane" is the song that made it possible for Nirvana to release "Polly" a decade later, chronicling the rape of a young woman from the perspective of her assailant.

Highlights:

Track 1. "Real World." Yeah, take that, Maximumrocknroll!

Track 4. "First of the Last Calls." You can hear the entire course of Husker Du's career on this one song. Fucking indispensable.

Track 6. "Diane." One of those extremely rare songs that single-handedly broadened the narrow confines of hardcore punk during the 1980s. Hüsker Dü churned out several dozen of these extremely rare genre-busting tracks, but this remains one of the best.

Sobriquet Grade: 93 (A).

The Swingin' Neckbreakers: Shake Break!

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Growing up in rural New Jersey, I didn't have very many ways to discover new music. The local mall's shoebox-sized Sam Goody was, for most of my youth, the only music store around and, while I was able to buy a few Ramones, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and Dead Kennedys cassettes there, the amount of punk rock available to me was pitifully small. Nor was the Internet much of a help because, in my mid-teens, it was still restricted to academics and military intelligence. So, it was a small miracle when I picked up a copy of Maximumrocknroll on one of my infrequent excursions to a slightly more populous area. That issue blew open my musical menu and I read that damn fundamentalist punk rag cover-to-cover. Still, lacking a checking account and, even more devastatingly, a turntable, I couldn't order many of the bands I'd read about.


What MRR did give me, though, was a sense of what was out there, of what was possible. Within a month or two, I started my own fanzine, Sobriquet Magazine, the photocopied-and-stapled publication that has evolved into what you see before your eyes today. Of the twenty-two copies I sold of that first issue, four were sold by the owner of Hackettstown's wonderful little independent record store, Sound Effects. When I went to check in on the zine, the owner, Jerry Balderson, informed me that he'd sold all four copies of the zine and went to get the four dollars he'd collected for me. Once I realized that this man had generously sold a zine for some kid he'd never met before without taking a penny for himself, I decided to buy something from his store as a teenage attempt at showing gratitude. Looking around hastily and not really expecting to locate anything that I would have really wanted, I happened to see a small stack of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life, an annual MRR publication that the zine had been touting as the DIY Bible. When I reached for my wallet, Jerry insisted that we "trade" my four zines for the BYOFL, essentially giving it to me for free.

When I got home and started paging through the listings in BYOFL, I was delighted to find a listing for Princeton's WPRB Radio's punk show, "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn!" and promptly nudged my radio's dial into position. Every Saturday night for the rest of the time I lived in New Jersey, I listened to Jen and Mike's program, discovering bands like Screeching Weasel, Tilt, Teengenerate, and New Jersey's own Swingin' Neckbreakers.

After I had taped every broadcast that I could, I made a compilation of my favorite songs, which I would bring with me on my next decade's travels through Norway, Minnesota, Quebec, and New York. By the time the cassette had worn out to the point where I didn't really want to risk playing the tape anymore, I'd systematically located most of songs on CD, but I could never find the Swingin' Neckbreakers. Luckily, Little Steven's fondness for the band meant that the Neckbreakers were featured regularly on his Sirius channel, the Underground Garage. Of course, he never played "I'm in Love With Me," the track I'd first heard more than ten years before. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to locate the song on Shake Break! which I promptly set out to get my hands on. Of course, it wasn't available on iTunes or any other MP3 site I checked out, so I had to order the disk and I had to pay handsomely for the privilege.

And you know what? I don't regret it a bit. Shake Break! is a wonderfully fun garage punk-meets-Creedence Clearwater Revival record. Between originals like the aforementioned "I'm In Love With Me" and "Help Wanted" and covers of tracks like "Ice Water" (Glen Barber) and "Brown Eyed Girl," the Swingin' Neckbreakers are every bit as entertaining as the wrestling move from which they take their name (see the Honky Tonk Man's "Shake, Rattle, and Roll").

Highlights:

Track 1. "Wait." This fast, poppy tune channels the spirit of the Kingsman Trio and infuses it with a burst of pop-punk energy.

Track 2. "Mighty Mack." Here we have "a silly white boy" singing about a"mighty black" singer named Mighty Mack who, despite the fact that he "could have been the King," was forgotten by the music establishment that ripped him off. With a steady, pounding backbeat, "Mighty Mack" is one of the album's most immediately accessible tunes.

Track 8. "I Wanna Be Your Driver." A frenetically-paced, bluesy chunk of pure rock and roll.

Track 9. "I'm In Love With Me." The reason I bought this album. A sardonically-told tale of narcissism ("And there's no one that's gonna come between me"; "you're in love with me, but you're too late. I'm already taken by me," etc.) sung over a straight-forward punk background. Fucking brilliant.

Track 12. "A Thousand Times a Day." Fast, loud, and catchy: the sort of love song that a tough guy can play for the apple of his eye without having to worry about compromising his cool.

Track 14. "The Girl Can't Help It." A speedy, thoroughly energetic cover of the Little Richard classic.

Sobriquet Grade: 84 (B).

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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