The whole psychology/appeal of punk rock involves reaction, rebellion and an unyielding rejection of all the social structures that came before. Whether it's violence or fashion, the whole point is to topple the current order and start from scratch. Rock and roll in the '50s was the first music intended to outrage, and Marlon Brando in the Wild One (Stanley Kramer, 1950) was its first representative. When asked what he was rebelling against, Brando's leather and Levis wearing biker punk snarled, "Whaddaya got!?!?!??!!" That punk rock went beyond the allure of Negro music, the blues, with its pungent sexuality and unspeakable desires (and, by extension, every other shocking avenue that could come out of it, like heavy metal and its offshoots, like death metal, glam metal or the most libidinous music of all, disco), and has remained as the art form for unadulterated rage prepared me to get my Black ass bruised at a recent four-band pile-up at Reggie's. I expected the worst: lots of crowd surfing, slam dancing, middle fingers thrust skyward, screaming and "fuck you" shouted to the heavens. Instead I got The Old Comiskeys and Kepi.
The Old Comiskeys, as the band's title implies, are White Sox lovin', blue-collar, South Side boys who seem to have infused the concept of a punk band not with rage but with good old South Side Chicago cheer. Threatening? Hardly, although their music came in a rush in 4/8 time and their songs tended to sound alike. Led by Jeff Kucej, their highlight was a revved up take on Petulia Clark's 1965 smash "Downtown," and since nobody in this band was over the age of 30 the implication is that there's something going on with these guys.
None of that prepared me for Kepi Ghoulie, formally of the Groovy Ghoulies, a punk vet from Sacramento who was all frantic cheer, brazen humor and positive sunny vibes (!!!). At 5'9" and at about 140 lbs., Ghoulie was all sharp jumps, clowning, jokes and punchy humor even stopping the show in it's tracks so that the entire band could pose for a Christmas portrait right in the middle of there set. But if their show wasto put it lightlyaction-packed, their new albums, American Gothic and Hangin' Out (both on Asian Man Records) came crammed with hooks, giggles, punch and, well, sunny vibes. The guy's gotta be out to give punk rock a bad name or he's reinventing it in the most subversive fashion ever.
Even with a rep for adoring horror movies and cheesy fun and a discography with titles like "Christmas On Mars," "Graveyard Girlfriend" and "Flying Saucer," Ghoulie's companion CDs are full of surprises. American Gothic, credited to Kepi and Friends is the bigger departure, with the opener, "Full Service" sounding like a young, uncurdled Bob Dylan at his most open and relaxed. Ghoulie's take on Donovan's "To Sing for You" is a polished, melodious gem of wistful popso heartfelt, elegant and relaxed that it's hard to believe that it came out of the same mouth that recorded Appetite for Adrenochrome (Lookout Records) years ago. "This Friend of Mine," a duet with Kim Shattuck, is both coy and intelligent and though its conceit is as corny as all get out (think of "This Guy's in Love with You","You Should Hear How She Talks About You" or even "Chuck E.'s in Love" and you get the picture) it still works despite itself. "Sleepy Hollow" turns up on both discs and works as a straight-up pop single (on American Gothic) and frenzied rave up (on Hangin' Out).
But Hangin' out, credited to Kepi the band is, where the real yucks are. "Sleepy Hollow" is an invitation for a date from a guy whose last lover was decapitated by the Headless Horseman but he doesn't seem too broken up about it. "Don't lose your head, it'll be alright...," is about as dramatic as he gets. "Love On Demand" likens romance to all access cable and has a hook that's as irresistible and bouncy as the theme song to Romper Room.
Understandably Hangin' Out is what infused Kepi's set at Reggie's which was a given considering that Canadian ravers Riptide and elder statesmen The Queers were the headliners (more about that show later on). Still the set came with homemade classics ("Draino My Braino," "Beast With 5000 Hands") and Kepi's uncharacteristic admonition (for punk anyway) for the audience to shake there asses. Of course, they listened...
On a far more restrained note is Madsen Minax and the Homoticons' new Shipwrecks and Dreamboats ( www.musicstack.com ), a double-CD set that gives the words "subdued" and "nuance" entirely new meanings. This trioMinax (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards), Elias Krell (vocals, bass, accordion) and Jesse Alexander (drums)is made up of overachievers (Minax performs as part of Slash/Model, Krell used to sing opera, and Alexander also plays in Cobalt and the Hired Guns) and their perfectionism is the first thing you notice about the recording. The first disc, Shipwrecks, can easily throw anyone off. The opener, "Kill Your Home," is delicate, bare and intricate, and Krell's vocals have a woozy, intoxicated feel reminiscent of mid-period Billie Holliday. It's affecting and engaging...up to a point. By the fourth track, "I Smell High School," I began to wonder if my cd player was fibbing. "Kill" and "High School," and in fact everything on the first disc are so low key with transparent melodies, bare production, and a seemingly over relaxed vibe that they meld into one another. Approached with the wrong attitude, listening to this CD becomes work not because any of it is hard on the ears but because it insists that the listener focus his full attention. This isn't the kind of music that you play in the background; it's music that you hand your attention over to.
For me, the Dreamboats disc is where they get there hooks in you. "Spare Me" has that same melancholic swooning aura but there's a forlorn aroma to it that's reminiscent of Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door." The Dreamboats disc also has far more going on melodically, and it's easy to get pulled into its sweeping mood if not it's lyrics. What I do come away with from this recording is a sense of defeat and loss, of dreams abandoned, and of a certain melancholic resignation. And, of all places, Shipwrecks and Dreamboats ends with a cover of perhaps the most pervasive anthem of ennui in the last century, a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." But for all of this releases delicacies and subtleties it stayed with me in an unconscious way; it has the chemistry of a jazz combo without the tension and release, the intimacy of early delta blues without the dramatic textures and the delicacies of a chamber quartet without the bloodless precision.
Hearing Shipwrecks and Dreamboats in its entirety after M.M. and the Homoticons' blow out as part of the Tranny Hootenanny at the Hideout was a grand contrast in extremes. Augmented by bassist Colin Palombi, the music took on an altogether different dimension and weight. In the flesh, live and electric, Homoticons were hardly delicate or subdued but far more flavorful sonically. Granted, given the vibe of the showa full-out cross-dressing benefit for Owen DMC of the Transformative Justice League that also included a set by Cobalt and the Hired Guns, and boyesque performances by LaWhore Vagistan(Kareem Khubchandani) and Andrew Brownit was highly unlikely the Homoticons were going to just lie there. With Madsen and Krell trading off on vocals and accordion, the show was a lot livelier and engaging then the CD would have you believe. But rather than reaching out and grabbing you by the ears the live Homoticons were engaging for another reason: The sound and look of them made you want to pay attention to every detail and get into them. The proper way to appreciate them, I suspect, is to listen to the CD first and then see their show, which ultimately dosen't diminish either.
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Head's up: Tickets for Kaki King's March 25 show at SPACE went on sale last week.