Sunday, September 27, 2015

The B-52's - Debbie 12"

Found this one over the summer at a hole-in-the-wall vinyl record store in Mystic, Connecticut, situated in a side alley
midway between the town's river drawbridge and the original Mystic Pizza location, namesake of the famous Julia Roberts movie. I was in town for the afternoon, taking in a few of the scanty sights and browsing the tourist trap shops along Main Street, when I recalled the existence of this record store, Mystic Disc, from a previous visit many moons ago.

Mystic Disc is exactly what you would expect in a classic, longstanding record store - a ramshackle space about the size of
a living room in a building that has seen better days, with old-fashioned wooden album racks taking up every possible square foot of floor space conceivable to display the voluminous wares but still allow the minimum amount of free space required for customers to actually move around, and the walls jammed to the ceiling with album covers, concert posters, t-shirts, photos, and other music paraphernalia. The air in the shop is close and semi-humid, with a low, latent scent of dust, the nearby river, armpit sweat from the hippie-fied proprietor, and that 'old record' smell - a staple of old stores like this.

Now, while that description of Mystic Disc may sound a little condescending and depressing, that was not my intention in the least. I LOVE old records stores like this, and whenever I come across one, wild horses can't drag me away until I've had a thorough look through what these places have to offer. I'm always hopeful in my searches through these stores that somehow, someway, that rare overlooked gem that I'd been searching for for years will magically appear and justify the hour or so I spent churning through crusty old Olivia Newton-John and obscure early '70s prog-rock albums. Of course, that very rarely happens . . . but I'm an optimist, and therefore hope always springs eternal.

I wasn't exactly looking for B-52's music that day, but I came across this disc anyway during my peregrinations. "Debbie" was one of two new songs the band recorded for the release of
their 1998 single-disc compilation Time Capsule: Songs For A Future Generation (the other one being "Hallucinating Pluto"). Being a big Bee-Fives fan, I of course bought the comp when it came out all those years ago, but to be honest neither of the two new songs did all that much for me. In my opinion, the sound of both of those songs veered dangerously close to the overall sound of their 1992 album Good Stuff, a disc I've reviled for years (as I've mentioned before in detail). However, of the two, I guess that if I had to choose, I would have to favor "Debbie" over the other one. Here's the video:
[In addition, I consider Time Capsule to be a flawed compilation. Again, it's only a single disc, with fully half of it weighted towards the later-period B-52s songs off of Cosmic Thing and Good Stuff. In doing that, they leave off some some group classics, like "Give Me Back My Man", "Dance This Mess Around" and "Devil In My Car". I 
think that even the band themselves realized what a half-assed job Time Capsule did in summarizing their legacy; it was less than four years later that the vastly superior (in my mind) double-disc Nude On The Moon anthology was released. Anyway, I digress . . . let me continue:]
The factor that tipped me towards purchasing this EP that day was the price; Mystic Disc was practically giving it away. Here's the song lineup:
1. Debbie (Edge Factor Club Mix)
2. Debbie (Edge Factor Instrumental)
3. Debbie (Tea Dance Dub)
4. Debbie (Album Version)
There's nothing particularly essential here in these remixes for B-52's fans; this offering is basically for completists (like me) who want every note, burp and gurgle associated with one of their favorite groups.

So here you are: The B-52's Debbie 12", a promo copy of dance remixes released in the wake of the band's 1998 compilation album, burnt off of glorious vinyl. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Friday, September 4, 2015

The Last Hard Men - The Last Hard Men

I heard about this band in early 1997, as I was finishing up my final year of grad school in Virginia. The movie Scream (directed by the great and recently departed Wes Craven - God rest his soul) had come out just before Christmas 1996, and was doing boffo box office across the country. I personally didn't go to see it; slasher films of that ilk were not and still are not quite my bag. But the presence of the film (which went on to gross more than $170 million worldwide and spawned three sequels) was everywhere during the winter of 1996-97, including the airwaves. The movie soundtrack album, featuring alternative and post-punk tunes by the likes of Moby, Nick Cave and Julee Cruise, had been released the week after the film opened, and while the album itself didn't chart, a number of the songs featured on it received some fairly significant airplay.

In the movie (semi-spoiler alert), after a number of teenagers are murdered, school is suspended while the authorities hunt for the killer or killers. Students gleefully leave the now-closed high school while Alice Cooper's classic "School's Out" plays as background music. For a song so prominently featured in the film, you would expect that it would be on the official soundtrack album, right? Wrong . . . instead, the original was replaced by a cover version done by The Last Hard Men, a short-lived alt-rock "supergroup" of sorts, instigated by former and current Breeders guitarist Kelley Deal.

According to Deal, the genesis of this band came from an article regarding hair metal bands she read in an issue of Spin magazine in early 1996. The article's low regard for and generally condescending, dismissive tone for this genre of music apparently pissed Kelley off:
". . . here they were making fun of these bands, but what were the interviewers wearing? Grunge flannel? Baggy pants? I was bothered that Spin made fun of style because everything is style, and it was done in a really mean way . . . It just didn't seem fair."
In response and reaction to Spin's article, Deal made an effort to seek out vocalist Sebastian Bach, who had just parted ways with his longtime band Skid Row; she considered him one of the best hair metal band singers out there. The two finally connected in New York City in the summer of 1996, backstage at a Kelley Deal 6000 gig, and made plans to record together later that fall.

The original idea was for Deal to recruit one additional alt-rock member for their one-off recording, and for Bach to get one of his metal friends to join in. For a while, there was talk that Motley Crue's Tommy Lee would be that member, but those plans fell through, and in the end Deal gathered the remaining group members from the alternative spectrum, namely Frogs guitarist Jimmy Flemion and former Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin (Chamberlin had been fired from the Pumpkins the year before, due to his involvement with the heroin-related death of keyboardist Jonathan Melvion in New York while the band was on tour; ironically, The Smashing Pumpkins finished the tour with new hires, Matt Walker on drums - and Jimmy Flemion's older brother Dennis on keyboards . . . so I'm sure the two Jimmys had much to talk about during their time together . . . )

Word of the formation, which had yet to be named, got out to certain quarters, and the producers of Scream quickly requested a song contribution from the group for the soundtrack. The four got together in a Minnesota studio in the fall of 1996, just to record their version of "School's Out". But the song and the session went so well that Deal extended the studio time, and in four days the group (now dubbed The Last Hard Men) hammered out an additional dozen or so songs.

And that was that; the members of The Last Hard Men immediately went their separate ways. Sebastian Bach started a solo world tour a month of so after the Minnesota sessions and took Jimmy Flemion along; a couple of Last Hard Men cuts were added to his set list. Deal went back on tour as well with her band, but the momentum behind The Kelley Deal 6000 was petering out, and it was only months later that the group went on permanent hiatus. Chamberlain reconciled with Smashing Pumpkins founder and front man Billy Corgan and was reinstated in the band in the fall of 1998. He continued his association with Corgan (in both the Pumpkins and Zwan) for the next decade.

As for the recordings, Kelley Deal began shopping the tapes around to various labels, but found little interest. Atlantic Records made mouth noises about a possible release at the end of 1997, but in the end they declined their option. Finally in 1998, Deal scraped together enough funds to press about a thousand copies of the album, and quietly released it under her own Nice Records label. Due to its limited availability, it was an extremely hard-to-find disc. But in 2001, a small independent producer out of Long Island negotiated to give the album a more widespread release under its own label.

I purchased this disc during a visit I made to DC in 2002, at Olsson's Books & Records' Georgetown store, shortly before that location permanently closed its doors (the remaining branches of this beloved and venerable independent bookstore chain shut down in 2008, a tremendous loss to Washington's cultural and retail presence). When I went into Olsson's at that time, I wasn't actually looking for this album; back then, you could count on the bookstore having unusual/hard-to-find music buried in its stacks, and I whenever I visited the store, I always took the time to thoroughly browse through their CD racks. As I mentioned above, I'd heard of this project years earlier, so when I came across the disc, I just had to pick it up.

To me, this is sort of a weird record. Musically, it's all over the map - some songs, like "Sleep", are straight out of the hair metal playbook; others sound like cuts left off of Kelley Deal 6000 albums ("The Last Hard Men"). There's acoustic pop ("When The Longing Goes Away"), punk ("Spider Love"), and alternative tunes ("Candy Comes") interspersed between band member interviews - there's even a cover of "I Enjoy Being A Girl" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1958 musical Flower Drum Song! I can't say that this disc holds together as a coherent album. But there are pieces and parts of it that are interesting and superb, which is I guess the best that you can hope for from a one-off band. I can't say that I highly recommend it . . . but I recommend you give it a listen nonetheless.

So here you are to hear for yourself - The Last Hard Men, the only release by the group of the same name, put out by Spitfire Records fourteen years ago today, on September 4th, 2001. Run it past your ears and, as always, let me know what you think.

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