Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » August
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Beady Eye is, of course, four-fifths of the final Oasis lineup – never mind that the missing fifth happens to be principal songwriter Noel Gallagher! While it is true that after the first few Oasis albums Noel allowed (probably somewhat reluctantly) for token songwriting contributions from his lead vocalist brother Liam, as well as guitarist Gem Archer (formerly of Heavy Stereo) and bass player Andy Bell (ex-Ride), Oasis was clearly always Noel’s gig. That said, Liam really stepped up in the songwriting department on Oasis’ final album, 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul (Big Brother/Reprise), writing two of the best songs on that record: the lush, Lennon-esque ballad “I’m Outta Time” and the explosive “Ain’t Got Nothin’,” which bordered on balls out punk rock. Perhaps Liam’s emergence as a songwriter was the final nail in the Oasis coffin?

As an album, Different Gear, Still Speeding isn’t anywhere close to being in the same league as the legendary first two Oasis albums, 1994’s Definitely Maybe (Creation/Epic) and 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (Creation/Epic). Nevertheless, the best material here holds its own with the rest of that group’s back catalog. The opener “Four Letter Word” is a defiant diatribe (probably directed at Noel, as the brothers Gallagher are no longer on speaking terms), highlighted by a brief yet-enticing opening interlude that sounds straight outta’ “Live And Let Die.” The song is a high octane guitar attack, similar in feel to punkier Oasis numbers like “Bring It On Down,” “Fade Away,” and “(It’s Good) To Be Free), and it sports primetime Liam vocals, in which he virtually spits out the lyric “nothing lasts forever” in disgust.  “The Roller” is an amazing epic, part The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and part John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” with Liam’s vocals soaring over the band’s stunning orchestrated sound – definitely one of Liam Gallagher’s career highlights. “Three Ring Circus” is nearly as great, recalling Lennon’s angrier solo records. If The Beatles references laced throughout the songs weren’t enough, one of the better tracks on Different Gear is actually called “Beatles and Stones,” though it blatantly steals the riff from The Who’s “My Generation”! As on “Four Letter Word,” Liam is full of bravado here, proclaiming he’s “going to stand the test of time like Beatles and Stones.”

While Beady Eye falls short on a few tracks, especially the bordering on-painful “Hey Jude” pastiche “Wigwam” and the corny Little Richard/Chuck Berry-like 1950s-style rocker “Bring the Light,” Different Gear, Still Speeding is, for the most part, a winner and something that any Oasis or John Lennon fan will want in their collection.

As one half of Providence, Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt, Brian Chippendale has managed to create some of the most maniacal noise rock of the past decade. That duo’s frenzied racket has proved to be highly appealing to listeners who enjoy making sense out of sounds that to many others come across as complete nonsense. Chippendale also does this in another two-man team, Mindflayer, and manages to make time to create artwork, some of which can be seen on the covers for the music he creates. On top of all this, he releases solo recordings under the moniker Black Pus. From afar it may sound like a bunch of monotonous noise, everything sounding the same, but people who truly listen and understand  the beauty within the chaos can hear the myriad textures within the murkiness, which is what makes Primordial Pus stand out.

Primordial Pus is Chippendale’s fifth solo album, and if his Lightning Bolt and Mindflayer work is on one level of distorted insanity, his solo work sounds like uncontrolled aural massacres. The opening track, “Ha Ha Havoc,” sounds like he enters a dark room with contents unknown, with a muffled chant similar to that of a pecking chicken. Now, imagine you’re in a dark alley surrounded by garbage bins and sheet metal, and you’re armed with mallets. Then, imagine yourself pounding upon them rhythmically. Suddenly, someone throws fireworks down upon you, and your only source of light is the careening sparks. That’s Black Pus, and this is only song number one.

Chippendale’s Black Pus set-up involves himself, a drum set, and what sounds like a microphone borrowed from a thrift store reel-to-reel machine donated by an elementary school. He not so much sings as he does scream, chant, and grunt as he plays. Within that mix are various sounds that he controls with effects pedals, so while you’re hearing heavily distorted guitars, sirens, and high pitched whistles, it’s all within close proxitimity to his feet and he’s triggering everything in real time. Chippendale does this in a live setting incredibly well (search for him on YouTube to see and hear proof).  “Favorite Blanket, Favorite Curse” is just odd drones with piercing bass drums that drill through the psyche. “Police Song” is a mid-tempo track that could actually take on dance floors, if the world was a better place. Meanwhile, “Cave of Butterfly” might be some kind of energetic White Stripes/Mudhoney hybrid, if arranged slightly differently.

What has always been most fascinating about Black Pus (and Lightning Bolt and Mindflayer, for that matter) is how Chippendale is able to play at such fast speeds, and that he is able to do this song after song after song, 60 to 90 minutes at a time in a live performance. With Primordial Pus, his pace is almost laid back compared to previous efforts, as if this were a jazz album on ECM or Kudu. However, don’t assume that means that this is him trying to create smooth jazz noise. For one thing, the sound quality is far from excellent – everything sounds like it was recorded on cassette, then transferred to a hard drive with little to no filtering. That is, it sounds like a raw bootleg. But the low-fidelity holds a certain appeal, considering that this is an artist for whom the live performance is paramount. For some the live recording style might sound flawed, but Black Pus is not about audile perfection. Rather, Chippendale simply seeks to execute music and energy, and he does so in songs that are carefully constructed and arranged, even though they very much sound improvised or “of the moment.”  Anyone familiar with the work of singer/comedian Reggie Watts knows how he enjoys doing routines with nothing but a microphone and effect pedals. Black Pus does exactly this, but in a much more amplified way.

The most surprising track on Primordial Pus is album closer “I’ll Come When I Can.”  If you’re a fan of Italian or German progressive rock, you’re aware that a peformer will do some incredibly wild sounds for the majority of the album and then when they’ve reached their conclusion, the last track will sound like it’s been made for mainstream appeal.  This is not to say that Black Pus will be opening up for Adele, Drake, or Rihanna anytime soon, nor is the song as it is will be heard on the radio with Maroon 5. However, the song is a stark departure, consisting of Chippendale singing in a genuine manner, mixed in with digital loops of a vocal chorus and improvisational drums. The lyrics actually expose Chippendale’s vulnerability a bit, and it is a song that could potentially be interpreted and covered in a number of ways, from jazz and pop to soul and country.  It would be hilarious if someone picked up on this and made “I’ll Come When I Can” a song for today’s generation, but when they search for the original version and listen to the other songs on the album, they’ll go, “Wow, what in the hell was this guy on?”

Despite how chaotic Black Pus’ music sounds, what stands out is Chippendale’s organization and dedication towards the simple task of creating.  Dare I say it reveals sensibility to his music, all while being as spontaneous sounding as free jazz and experimental/avant-garde music?  I just did.  Fans who discover Black Pus through the recent Lightning Bolt collaboration with Flaming Lips may be either pleasantly surprised or completely shocked by the sounds on Primorial Pus, but that’s fine.  For longtime supporters of Chippendale, these are simply new threads to an eclectic fabric that keeps on growing.

This has turned into a banner year for The Kinks’ hardcore fans. Sanctuary Records – now a division of the Universal Music Group – has started to reissue classic Kinks albums as special, remastered, double-CD Deluxe Editions with a surplus of bonus material. The first Kinks reissues came out in mid-April and include the band’s UK debut, Kinks (Pye, 1964); the group’s English sophomore outing, Kinda Kinks (Pye, 1965); and The Kinks third UK long-player, The Kink Kontroversy (Pye, 1965). These three reissues mark The Kinks’ early legacy (1964-1965), from formation as an R&B/blues cover band following the path laid down by Manfred Mann, The Rolling Stones, and other likeminded English ensembles, to The Kinks’ American breakthrough, and on to the incipient original songwriting by co-founder Ray Davies, which would bear considerable fruit later in the 1960s.

The Kinks debut, originally released by Pye Records in 1964 (in the US, it was released by Reprise in an edited version as You Really Got Me), is justifiably famous for featuring the huge hit single “You Really Got Me,” which hit number one in England and leapt into the top ten in the US. That song, of course, has Dave Davies’ loud, distorted guitar riff that gives it a noticeably harsh sound which became enormously influential on the American garage rock scene and later helped shape the direction of hard rock and heavy metal. The debut’s 14 tracks are a blend of Ray Davies’ originals and de rigueur American rhythm and blues covers – some noteworthy and some atrocious – such as Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah,” Don Covay’s “Long Tall Shorty,” and Bo Diddley’s “Cadillac.” The most notable Davies’ track other than “You Really Got Me” is the simple, somewhat underdone “Stop Your Sobbing,” which avowed Kinks fan Chrissie Hynde escalated into a much better undertaking on The Pretenders’ eponymous 1980 inaugural album.  Davies’ other songs include the Stones sound-alike “So Mystifying,” the Beatles-esque insomnia narrative “Just Can’t Go to Sleep,” and the derivative, bluesy boy/girl cut “I Took My Baby Home.”

The hour-long, 28-track Deluxe Edition version’s first disc has the original stereo versions of the 1964 album: 14 tunes plus 14 other assorted artifacts, including demos, mono numbers (including an unreleased mono demo of Davies’ “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy”), and the four-song mono EP Kinksize Session. On the first disc, longtime Kinks aficionados will gravitate to a couple of 1963 mono demos by the pre-Kinks Boll-Weevils: Davies’ early stab at writing a beat group imitation “I Believed You” and a colorless rendition of The Coasters’ “I’m a Hog for You Baby.” Also of note is the stereo treatment of “You Really Got Me,” which boasts an unexpected reverb-tinged arrangement lacking the muscle of the better known mono version, though it nevertheless has historical merit. The second disc has the same 14 tracks presented in original mono plus an additional 14 cuts with alternate takes, BBC recordings and seven unreleased pieces.

The second disc – also an hour long – has several rare bonuses never officially heard before. There’s an alternative rave-up of Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” followed by an alternative rendering of “Got Love If You Want It,” a blues standard done by Slim Harpo that was also a live staple for The Yardbirds. Of more importance are BBC interviews and performances from late 1964, most of which have never materialized before, featuring run-throughs of a percussive-heavy “You Really Got Me,” a brisk, bass-driven “All Day and All of the Night,” and the Merseybeat-tinged “I’ve Got that Feeling.”

The second Kinks long-player, the 27-minute long Kinda Kinks (released by Pye in early 1965), was a rush job haphazardly put together in December 1964 between touring and promotional jaunts. It is considered by many to be a transitional endeavor. While Kinda Kinks is distinguished by Ray Davies’ originals – only two of the 12 tracks are covers (the obscure, bluesy “Naggin’ Woman” and a lackluster adaptation of the Martha and the Vandellas’ smash “Dancing in the Street”) – the record is widely considered the weakest of the early Kinks studio excursions.  On the Deluxe Edition, the first disc collects the dozen tracks from the original mono release. The highlight is a holdover from the previous summer’s studio labor, the strong “Tired of Waiting for You,” which Kinks producer Shel Talmy had wisely saved. The cut became one of The Kinks’ biggest hits (number one in the UK and number six in the US). However, the pressure on Ray Davies to come up with album material resulted in songs with undeveloped lyrics focused on mostly unhappy moments with women. “Look For Me Baby” concerns someone the singer is hiding from; the folk-tinted, acoustic “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout that Girl” is about a man being wronged by a girl. The liner notes point out that the melancholy arrangement was inspired by the emerging underground London folk scene, not Dylan. During another acoustic composition, the Johnny Cash-like “So Long,” the singer says goodbye to his current romance. On the imitative “Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight” Ray Davies can’t find his latest romance, and on the magnificent “Tired of Waiting for You” (later redone by Green Day, Dwight Yoakum, and Suzi Quatro) the narrator’s girlfriend is perennially late. She’s still late on the basic but driving “Come On Now.” During another Merseybeat replication, Davies pleads to his girl to “Don’t Ever Change” and, finally, the girl is distraught during the beat group dispatch “You Shouldn’t Be Sad.” Listened to closely, this music can result in a mood of condensed angst. The CD ends on a somewhat upbeat tone with the beautiful, Phil Spector-ish “Something Better Beginning.”

It is quite a different story for the far more interesting Kinda Kinks bonus disc, which collects mono singles showcasing The Kinks’ rapid development: the four-track, mono Kwyet Kinks EP; several Ray Davies demos; alternate takes; BBC sessions; and of special interest, four unreleased tracks. The most important song is “See My Friends,” a 1965 tune which is the first example of an Indian-influenced drone in British pop, created by Dave Davies using feedback. Ray Davies was stimulated in part during a stopover in India during an Asian tour, when he heard Indian fishermen chanting as they lay out their nets. While there is no sitar – The Beatles’ George Harrison was the first to play a sitar during “Norwegian Wood,” done later the same year – the song was clearly a portent of things to come, since other British rock bands also used Indian sounds or tones. Of the major cuts, “A Well Respected Man,” from the Kwyet Kinks EP, stands out as being a terrific radio hit as well as an early example of Ray Davies’ social commentary. The unreleased pieces include alternate takes for “See My Friends” and “Come on Now,” plus a pair of songs from BBC sessions, “You Shouldn’t Be Sad” and “Hide and Seek.”

The Kink Kontroversy (released by Pye in late 1965) basically said goodbye to The Kinks’ R&B aesthetic as well as the band’s early sound, and formally centered on Ray Davies’ songwriting skills, which were more philosophical and more deeply personal. Disc One of the Deluxe Edition has the album’s original 12 mono tracks and kicks off with The Kinks’ last ever cover tune, the blues standard “Milk Cow Blues” – a leftover from 1965 summer studio sessions – which was  penned by Kokomo Arnold, although Sleepy John Estes is credited on The Kink Kontroversy. It has energy but is the kind of rhythm and blues rave-up The Kinks had already abandoned by the end of 1965. In the same spirit of moving on to other styles, the Merseybeat-inclined “When I See That Girl of Mine” can also be seen as Ray Davies’ final farewell to the beat group style. The Kinks’ future was in other directions, such as the elegiac “Ring the Bells,” Ray Davies’ acoustic ode to marriage. Optimism also colors the big hit “Till the End of the Day,” a pre-release radio knockout; melancholy memory shades one of Ray Davies’ strongest mid-1960s compositions, the standout “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” which meant so much to young Kinks fan David Jones that Jones recorded it eight years later when he was better known as David Bowie. “I’m an Island,” a forgotten gem, has a calypso arrangement which presages Davies’ future paean to the tropics, “Apeman.”

The bonus disc for The Kink Kontroversy has 17 cuts: mono singles, alternate takes, more BBC session material, and three unreleased tracks. The second disc opens with Davies’ sharply witted “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” a revenge narrative against dictated style makers that was The Kinks’ first 1966 single. An alternate take that escalates the song’s English dance hall influence is also included. Davies’ sarcasm also flows through “Mr. Reporter,” a swipe at Fleet Street muckrakers. Ray Davies’ weariness with relentless, tiring touring is exemplified on the roughly recorded demo for “All Night Stand,” which hinted at the nervous breakdown Davies nearly suffered during this period. As far as the unreleased material, “Never Met a Girl like You Before” is the key track to hear. The opening has a flippant reference to the intro for “Tired of Waiting for You,” no doubt put in to express The Kinks’ dissatisfaction with being told by their label to come up with material similar to previous Kinks’ singles. The rest of “Never Met a Girl like You Before” has a brisk arrangement reminiscent of the kind of manufactured pop music which labels would foist on the public later in the 1960s. The other two unreleased tunes include an alternate take of the single “I’m Not like Everybody Else” and a live version of “A Well Respected Man” from a BBC radio broadcast.

The stereo and mono material for all three re-mastered reissues has outstanding sound quality – improved from the thin production found on the original LPs – due to Andrew Sandoval and Dan Hersch’s detailed remastering. These recordings were never meant to have a high fidelity, audiophile quality (they were done with very low budgets in a short amount of time using primitive audio equipment) but the remastering job not only preserves The Kinks’ musical integrity and spirit but provides a prominent sonic push without too much excessive punch. Each CD set comes with a generous booklet filled with photos, artwork, information, and data on each track, sleeve notes concerning the making of each album, important anecdotal remarks (for example, why drummer Mick Avory doesn’t perform on most of The Kink Kontroversy), and lots of quotes from the autobiographies by the Davies brothers, Ray Davies’ memoir X-Ray (Overlook Press, 1995) and Dave Davies’ life story, Kink (Hyperion Books, 1996).

Sanctuary has continued to roll out other double-CD Deluxe Edition reissues, recently delivering Face to Face (Pye, 1966), Something Else by The Kinks (Pye, 1967) and Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (Pye, 1969). A three-disc Deluxe Edition reissue of the landmark The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (Pye, 1968) came out back in 2009. A Deluxe Edition version of Muswell Hillbillies (RCA, 1971) was slated for June 2011 release but apparently is now on hold.

Justin Spring has limned the strange and singular life of a true maverick.  It is a story that is at once historically important and fascinating, yet sometimes tawdry and depressing.  Despite the laudatory reviews that Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade has received since its release last year, Spring’s biography of Samuel M. Steward lacks objectivity and comprehensive research and contains several errors at a minimum.  Presenting a fascinating subject, the biography is an important contribution to the fields of gay studies and sexuality studies.  It is, however, skewed and unsatisfying in some ways.  Unlike a more professional historian, Spring tells us at the outset that he has done his best to tell Steward’s story the way that Steward might have done, foreshadowing his reluctance to truly interrogate or critique his subject.  This attitude is problematic on its face, not least because Steward was known to insist on his importance in the lives of famous authors whom he met or befriended, such as Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, minimal though it was.  The way that Steward sold himself is taken up in turn by Spring as selling points bolstering Steward’s historical importance.  What Spring tends to de-emphasize almost disingenuously is that Steward already told much of his tale in a stack of published books including two memoirs.  Spring would rather perpetuate the dubious notion that Steward had been an almost total “secret.”  On the other hand, the author does clearly articulate the literary, cultural, and socio-political contexts surrounding Steward’s trajectory.  Secret Historian is moreover a strong source of information on pre-Stonewall 20th century gay fiction, for example, in which Steward took a keen interest.

Samuel M. Steward was born in 1909 and raised in a small Ohio town.  He received his PhD in English from Ohio State University and taught there before moving to Chicago to accept teaching positions at Loyola, then DePaul.  While living a sub-rosa sex-centered gay life at night, Steward was an English professor and literary fiction writer by day.  Through the connection of his former professor Clare Andrews at OSU, Steward became a correspondent and friend of modernist author and art collector Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas.  Sam also became a friend and lover of playwright Thornton Wilder, and after his death outed him, to the consternation of some Wilder scholars.  But when teaching became stale amidst years of energy-sapping alcoholism and ceaseless nocturnal cruising, Steward turned his back on academia and became Phil Sparrow, tattoo artist, setting up shop in Chicago.  It should be stressed that this was in the Cold War 1950s and tattoos were very far from the mainstream, considered déclassé, pretty much the sole domain of sailors, soldiers, and criminals. Steward’s main motivation to become a tattoo artist was to get his hands on the lithe bodies of young men and be paid for it, especially the hordes of navy men that passed through the city.

In the late 1940s Steward began corresponding with sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who had recently rocked Norman Rockwell America with his studies of the Sexual Behavior in the American Male (1948), which claimed much higher incidences of homosexual acts among the male population than commonly believed.  Kinsey, an entomologist and lover of statistics, naturally was intrigued by Steward’s lifestyle and the fact that he kept obsessive records of each of his sexual encounters in what he called his “Stud File.”  Steward became an informant and subject of Kinsey’s study and the two men became long-time friends. His dynamic with Kinsey is a good example of the way in which Steward connected himself to 20th century figures of major historical and cultural importance.

When tattooing began to grow stale and Steward’s aging body became less appealing to young gay men, he then changed from Phil Sparrow to Phil Andros, the writer and fictional hero of a series of pornographic pulp novels, many delving into S/M.  As the protagonist of the books, Phil Andros was different from past gay characters in pulp and literary fiction, in that he was confident and sex-affirmative rather than neurotically self-loathing or suicidal, and this is one reason for Steward’s significance.  Steward was addicted over long periods to alcohol, Benzedrine, and barbiturates, and he gradually became addicted to sado-masochism. Perversely, eventually he could only find sexual gratification when a paid confederate was abusing him.

In self-mythologizing mode, in the preface Spring makes much ado over his access to Steward’s “Stud File.”  While one can understand his excitement over this find, Spring refers to it too often and in too much detail.  Steward’s maniacal recording and collecting, including samples of his sex partners’ pubic hair, seems to have possessed Spring at times, to the detriment of the flow of the narrative and its sense of scope.  But such are the demands of our age as we hunger for the bizarre and dirty details over the broader and more subtle cultural meanings and resonances. Spring does his best to meet the public’s desire for sensation in the text and in some of the black-and-white photographs of orgies, et cetera, included herein. In Spring’s sometimes tiresome mining of the Stud File, poring over lurid detail such as exactly how many times he had masochistic sex with Mr. X, causes to book to be overlong; it might have benefitted from judicious trimming.

Spring’s pronounced lack of detachment or objectivity is plainly revealed when he repeats as fact Steward’s detailed story claiming that he sexually serviced Rudolph Valentino.  Steward kept a swatch of what he claimed to be Rudy’s pubes in a “reliquary” on his mantel, a photo of which is included herein, and Sam repeated his story so many times that perhaps he started to believe it himself.  But the biographer’s job entails sorting out facts from self-mythologizing fables, and Spring never even suggests the possibility that the story may have been anything but the truth, so taken in is he by his subject.  A more analytical biographer might have seen red flags in the fact that Steward never once repeated this story in print or to interviewers—despite spilling the ink on every other run-in, sexual and otherwise, he had with celebrity.  For example, Steward repeatedly published his literary celebrity stories, sometimes first in a publication such as The Advocate and later in a book.  In Chapters from an Autobiography he tells of going down on an aged Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas solely because of the older man’s past erotic physical connection to Oscar Wilde—Steward didn’t even like Douglas as a person and was repelled by his body.  Responsible for the outing of Thornton Wilder, Sam inspired the image of umbrellas at the opening of an act in Wilder’s enduring Our Town (also not new to Spring’s book).  Perhaps Spring ought to have attempted to corroborate the Valentino story with scholars or biographers of Valentino, because they have subsequently shown that Steward’s story, though replete with detail, is utter fabrication.  Spring was either gullible, overly enraptured with his subject, or he repeated this sensational story in bad faith with the idea of publicity in mind.  I seriously doubt that the latter is the case, but if it was, it worked: the New York Times referred to Rudy story in not one but two different articles.  The Huffington Post has since refuted Steward’s fallacious fellatio tale.  Had the story not been apocryphal, this is one example of what I would have otherwise cited as exciting new information from the archive, previously unknown from the published material.

Secret Historian, though fascinating and important, is marred by self-aggrandizement by its author, which would not be realized by the general public previously unfamiliar with Steward.  In the preface Spring frequently iterates the phrase “I discovered” in reference to his research on Steward, which has a possibly misleading cumulative effect, when he is usually discussing material or information that Steward published.  Spring over-stresses the “secret” nature of Samuel Steward’s activities, and critics have unquestioningly followed in perpetuating the idea that precious few people were even cognizant of Steward.  For example, esteemed gay historian Martin Duberman claims in a jacket blurb that Steward was “all but unknown except by a handful of historians.”  This is a gross exaggeration.  Actually, beyond gay historians, serious scholars of Dr. Kinsey, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Thornton Wilder, and James Purdy, along with scholars of 20th century U.S. gay literature and culture generally, would likely know of Steward.  After all, in 1977 he published a memoir through a major house, Houghton Mifflin, Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, reviewed in the New York Times and issued in mass market paperback.  A second memoir followed, Chapters from an Autobiography, issued in 1981 by a publisher of gay authors, Grey Fox.  Steward was interviewed for Winston Leyland’s seminal Gay Sunshine periodical and this conversation was anthologized in a Gay Sunshine Interviews book; Steward also wrote the introduction for a 1980s re-issue of James Barr’s early gay novel Quatrefoil (1950). During the Phil Andros period, anyone who asked the publisher would be told that Phil Andros was actually Samuel M. Steward.

Spring tends to downplay these memoirs and other published sources as source material for his book, stressing instead the archival papers and files to which he gained access to that had been stored in an attic.  That makes for a much better copy—that all was shrouded in secrecy, hidden in gothic style in an attic, and it took Justin Spring to shine the light—and the media has eaten it up, especially the once-homophobic but now gay-affirmative New York Times.  This legend built up around the book is not wholly accurate, though it is indeed a great back story for promotional purposes. Granted, the unearthed archive was indeed an important find, because most men of his generation would likely have destroyed any evidence of their homosexuality. Yet Steward had already shared the details to Kinsey, so it isn’t as though no one had ever been aware of the details of Steward’s sex life.  Also, Steward’s life was so singular that he cannot be truly said to be representative of early to midcentury gay male life.  On the contrary, Steward led a mostly solitary and introverted life, never experiencing any kind of long-term relationship with another man.  He seems to have been obsessed with the orgasm, detached from intimacy or love.  The solitary sadness of his life, especially in his later years, along with his more sinister connections to the Hell’s Angels and their vicious trade in amphetamines and other hard drugs, as their “official” tattoo artist for a period, is glossed over by Spring, who tends to celebrate his subject to the end.

Along with Spring’s questionable acceptance of Steward’s Valentino fabrication, another example of the deficiencies of his research and fact-checking is his shameful treatment of the American author James Purdy, who died in 2009.  Knowing Purdy to be an important friend, correspondent, and supporter of Steward’s over the decades, Spring wrote Purdy two letters but Purdy was in his nineties and without the energy and resources to quickly return correspondence.  Instead of approaching friends or scholars of Purdy who might be able to elaborate, Spring instead seems to have been offended by Purdy’s lack of response, or if not, for whatever reason, Spring gives Purdy short shrift in Steward’s narrative.  Irresponsibly, Spring even repeats a false insinuation from Steward’s journals about Purdy, who of course couldn’t defend himself, and as we have seen with the Valentino story, the journals are not entirely a reputable source despite Spring’s assumptions.

The lives of Steward and Purdy bear many intriguing similarities, which created a bond between them, one unexplored by Spring.  Just to name a couple of examples: both are queer men from small Ohio towns and during their teenage years each was raised in a fatherless home that had been converted to a rooming house by the mother due to economic necessity, and each escaped Ohio for Chicago. Spring, however, is apparently never aware of the close parallels between these two remarkable men. Purdy and Steward became friends, and briefly lovers, in Chicago in the late 1930s and shared a circle of friends, among them the surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie and the author Wendell Wilcox, who was another friend and correspondent with Stein and Toklas.  Spring makes several errors in his discussion of Purdy, starting with the first mention of James: despite Spring’s claim, Purdy was not in his “late teens” when he and Sam were intimate but was rather in his mid-twenties.

As we have seen, Steward is notable for his pattern of friendships with more accomplished literary artists and James Purdy was no exception. Unlike Steward, whose published literary fiction was limited to a couple of novels and a collection of short stories, Purdy published no fewer than 25 works of fiction or drama. In Steward’s case, his unpublished works of fiction were rejected not only by publishers but by esteemed literary friends such as Stein, Wilcox, and Wilder.  James Purdy published his comic novel Malcolm in 1959, praised by Dorothy Parker and other authors.  Malcolm features fictional characters based on the real people Purdy knew in their Chicago circle including Abercrombie, Wilcox, and Steward, who appears as Professor Robinolte the tattoo artist (the “Robin” part alludes to Steward’s tattooing pseudonym “Swallow”).  Although Steward did not appreciate Purdy’s earlier work, he found its envelope-pushing frankness to be inspirational, and Purdy’s fiction would go on to be praised by a host of literary luminaries including poet Dame Edith Sitwell, Carl Van Vechten, William Carlos Williams, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams.  If Steward was not a big fan of Purdy’s early work, he nevertheless found it inspiring because Purdy was exploring taboo or repressed subjects that Steward wanted to plumb in his own work.

When Sam found himself a character in Purdy’s Malcolm, a short novel once widely taught to undergraduates, Steward changed his tune, calling Malcolm “rather hilarious” and praises “a fine chapter laid in the Tattoo Palace of Professor Robinolte—a true portrait of [my] place in the arcade.”  In Purdy’s novel, The Tattoo Palace “was both severe and cosy—severe because it bore every witness to the painful operations enacted within—the electrical tattooing needles, the bloody rags, the bottles of disinfectant and smelling salts, and the bloodstains on the floor; cosy because Professor Robinolte . . . cared for all his customers like members of his family, sending them annual birthday and Christmas greetings, and often advising them on their domestic and professional careers, while somewhere behind him soft music poured forth.”  It is unclear whether Spring has read Malcolm or any book by Purdy for that matter—there is no evidence of it here.  The biographer would have done well to quote from Malcolm and to reference the powerful and astounding Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967)—like Steward’s unpublished novel manuscript, it is set in Chicago of the 1930s and the title character is based upon writer and Stein correspondent Wendell Wilcox, a mutual friend of Steward’s who is mentioned many times in Spring’s biography.

Just as is the case with the Valentino story, Spring uncritically repeats another false insinuation from Steward’s notebooks.  In 1956 Purdy came to visit Steward in his tattoo shop and expressed his support for what Steward was doing, a remarkable stance given how bizarre Steward’s decision to leave a professor position to become a tattoo artist seemed to about everyone in the 1950s.  Purdy, who had been a college professor for over nine years at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, had just recently quit his Assistant Professor of English job himself because his partner, Dr. Jorma Sjoblom, a Finnish-American Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Lawrence, also hailing from northern Ohio, landed a scientific research job in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Sjoblom, whom I have personally interviewed, invited James to live with him and devote himself to his fiction writing full-time at last.  James had been hunting such an opportunity for many years.  Contrary to the facts, however, Spring writes in a footnote that “Steward was of the opinion that Purdy had been caught while having sex with a student. No account of Purdy’s departure from the school where he taught exists.”  Steward had written in his journal that like himself, Purdy had “given up teaching as a shitty, futile business” but continues parenthetically, “(I guess he was caught in fragrant delicious),” punning on the Latin phrase in flagrante delicto.  But this is pure speculation on Steward’s part, further qualified by “I guess,” and it is highly irresponsible and dishonorable for Spring to repeat this slander derived solely from a teasing, parenthetical “guess” from a diary without any corroboration whatsoever.  In fact, an article on Purdy was published in the Appleton, Wisconsin, newspaper in 1962 whose author clearly had access to Purdy’s employment records at Lawrence College.  If there had been a scandal this article would have never appeared.  Moreover, such a scandal is not mentioned in the memoirs of Douglas Knight, the President of Lawrence College (later University) at the time of Purdy’s departure, who does mention other faculty difficulties including one involving closeted homosexuality.

Even though they were friends, it is clear that Steward had rivalry issues with Purdy, because he seems to have wanted to tease the author.  Perhaps it is because Purdy was younger and for a while (in the 1930s and most of the 1940s) remained unpublished but rose to achieve the kind of literary success that Steward only dreamed of, despite his endorsement by Stein, who through her influence got Wendell Wilcox’s Steinian novel Everything is Quite All Right (1945) published.  Intriguingly, in Steward’s Chapters from an Autobiography, three page numbers are listed in the index entry for “Purdy, James” but he is never actually mentioned once in the book (Spring confuses Dear Sammy with Chapters, muddying the waters).  This is ironic because Purdy had urged Steward to write these memoirs, as Spring acknowledges. Spring is again irresponsible when he reprints negative comments from Alice B. Toklas about Purdy’s early work taken out of context from Dear Sammy.  Toklas was offended that Purdy had the chutzpah to mail her his book unsolicited and ask her for an endorsement of his work.  The point is, Spring again mistreats Purdy, because after repeating Toklas’s dismissal, Spring leaves out Steward’s own footnote from Dear Sammy that contextualizes and diminishes these remarks.  To clarify what Spring misrepresents, Steward had written: “Alice later changed her mind about [Purdy’s] work and came to admire him a great deal.  Her first opinion, however, resulted from an irritation that he had sent her his book without her requesting it—a mistake in the judgment on the part of Carl Van Vechten, who had asked Purdy to send it, assuring him that Alice would react favorably.  Had Van Vechten himself sent the book, her reaction . . . would have been much different.”   For Spring to totally ignore this mollifying explanatory note shows either vindictiveness toward Purdy or outright sloppiness in his scholarship.  Since Spring tells us that Purdy had been angry that Steward had placed Toklas’s comments in Dear Sammy in the first place, even with the added footnote, it is doubly disturbing that Spring omits Steward’s footnote about how she grew to appreciate Purdy’s fiction.

Spring includes a few other similar errors regarding Purdy, of which space disallows discussion.  The Valentino scholars have refuted Steward’s story; I happen to be a Purdy scholar so I have caught errors and misrepresentations about him—but there remains the question of how many other errors are included within this book with regard to other individuals discussed.

Without a doubt, like its subject, Secret Historian remains remarkable and singular despite its faults.   It is not, however, quite as strong as has been stated by follow-the-leader critics.  It could have been better had Spring been less overtly aligned with its subject, and had the book been left in the oven to bake a bit longer.    Yet even with its faults, Secret Historian remains a fascinating read for those interested in 20th century American gay history.

Yesspeak is a portrait of the long-standing English progressive rock band Yes, who turned the ear of the rock world with their kaleidoscopic signature track “Roundabout” in 1971.  The film focuses on the band as it stood in 2003, during their 35th anniversary tour. Spanning two full-length DVDs, the foundation of Yesspeak is a series of interviews with band members.  Although the band does most of the talking, Yesspeak is narrated by Roger Daltry, lead singer of The Who, a band who, along with The Beatles, influenced early Yes and is cited as such by band members. Clearly intended for fans, Yesspeak is a straightforward and unpretentious look at a group of classic rock veterans on the road and amidst their domestic life. While Yesspeak is not a concert film, clips and longer excerpts of live material from the 2003 tour are interspersed or appended to the interview sections.  Also, a full-length audio concert is a nice added bonus feature on the second disc.

As their 1983 track “Changes” suggests, Yes has transformed over the years since its initial formation in London in 1968, with individuals coming and going and often cycling back.  Regardless of changes, the band is known for their virtuosity, expansiveness, and ability to play together as a unit.  Remarkably, at their best the band achieves a holistic balance in which no one is the leader or focus of attention. At the time of filming (2003), together vocalist Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire had been a constant throughout the band’s history (with the exception of Anderson being replaced on one album).  This 35th anniversary lineup is stressed repeatedly as the “classic” iteration of Yes and, correspondingly, they focused on their 1970s progressive material as opposed to that of their more pop-rock 1980s-1990s period that was played by a significantly different lineup.  Yesspeak focuses on the band members discussing their music, touring, changes in the lineup, and other matters mostly directly connected with the band.  They don’t, for example, get into politics or current events.

Each band member receives a “spotlight” treatment in the film, usually interviewed in his home in America’s West Coast. This focus on the individual is appropriate since in the live context Yes is known for giving each member of the band solo time onstage with the larger goal of showing how the components of the band fit together to create their trademark sound. Diminutive and upbeat Jon Anderson comes off as relaxed and spiritually inclined.  Like Jon’s singing voice, his speaking voice is high-pitched and he displays an open and positive demeanor.  Anderson is the New Age optimist, an Aquarian pixie.

Bassist Chris Squire is the Rock Star of the band, a showman who cavorts indefatigably about the stage.  In his solo spot live, Squire’s ability to create energy and fullness of sound alone or with drummer Alan White is most impressive.  Squire’s bass parts are notable for their inventive and melodic qualities but he can also play with great force.  Along with Paul McCartney and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, Squire can be credited with opening up possibilities for the bass guitar in rock music.  The only member of Yes to have played on every album, Squire comes off as a nice enough bloke, an old rocker who has probably had a few drinks and puffs in his day.

Long-haired keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman has been in and out of the band several times over the history.  In Yesspeak he is a goofy, good-natured, old English rock star who nevertheless seems fairly grounded for someone with a reputation for making pretentious (if commercially-successful) solo concept albums in the 1970s, magnets for punk’s scorn. Wakeman has kind of a self-conscious Spinal Tap thing going, with his wizard-like appearance and over-the-top banks of keyboards.  Although he can be a clown, Wakeman also shows a serious, introspective side, mentioning his run-ins with illness and expressing feelings of “living on borrowed time” and gratefulness for his opportunity to play with Yes.

Drummer Alan White is a rock. He has kept the complex strands of the band’s music together with his firm foundation ever since their 1972 tour.  The inventive drummer Bill Bruford, who had played on Yes’s acclaimed and forward-thinking early 1970s platters Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972), and their three predecessor LPs, unceremoniously left the band to join Robert Fripp’s King Crimson after Close to the Edge was recorded.  Alan White had built his credibility by playing with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the Plastic Ono Band and in Joe Cocker’s group.  In the film he is seen enjoying the fruits of rock’n’roll stardom, perched on his boat or enjoying his Seattle view.

Looking slightly Tolkien-esque, Steve Howe is an excellent guitarist with an appealing and broad-ranging style, drawing from everything from flamenco to blues to classical.  Before Yes, Howe played with the London psychedelic band Tomorrow (“My White Bicycle”), peers of Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine, and plays in 1980s hit-makers Asia (“Heat of the Moment”).  Howe comes off as a passionate lover of guitars and sincerely dedicated to his craft.  Somewhat comically, Howe cherishes his favorite axe, a 1960s Gibson hollow-body, as though it were his baby, caressing it and buying it seats on airplanes.  Howe comes off as the most earnest member of the band, concerned about the nuances of their live sound. Yesspeak shows that Howe’s arrival in the band in 1970 fulfilled the band’s sound and identity.

Yes 2011 update: Although Anderson, Howe, and Squire would seem to be a necessary triad within the band, recently a new lead singer, Benoit David, has replaced Anderson on their current album and tour. This had happened only once before, in 1980 for the Drama album, on which producer Trevor Horn (The Buggles, Art of Noise) sang and Yes’s current (2011) keyboardist, Geoff Downes (The Buggles, Asia), played.  The new lineup is currently touring to support their new album Fly from Here (2011), the band’s first album in a decade.

On the whole, Yesspeak will provide entertainment for long-time fans of the band.  The documentary would probably be best enjoyed split up over two or three viewings, since the style and material is fairly homogeneous throughout the two discs.

The wheel keeps turning and Yes press on.

When I heard an MP3 of Gold-Bears’ infectious “Record Store” for the first time, I assumed that the group had to be from Ireland or the north of England. With their menacing buzzsaw guitars and a vocalist who sounded like a cross between The Undertones’ Feargal Sharkey, Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, and David Gedge of The Wedding Present, these guys just couldn’t have hailed from anywhere else. But what do you know? Gold-Bears are Anglophiles from Atlanta, Georgia, who, according to their All Music Guide bio, bonded over a mutual love for The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, and The Wedding Present.

While I can hear some of those influences on Gold-Bears’ stellar Slumberland Records debut album, Are You Falling In Love? (vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Underwood’s lyrics have a bitter yet humorous quality to them, quite reminiscent to those of Morrissey or the aforementioned Gedge), sonically the band sounds more like a cross between high octane late 1970s UK punk-pop and some elements from the classic C86 sound, namely jangly guitar and plenty of feedback. A more jaded and mischievous Pains of Being Pure At Heart, if you’re looking for a contemporary measuring stick.

Are You Falling In Love? opens with “Record Store,” which provides a joyous rush reminiscent to The Undertones’ classic “Teenage Kicks,” including classic bordering on over dramatic Morrissey-like word play to boot: “You saved my life from the backdoor of a crowded record store.” The even faster paced “All Those Years” and “So Natural” follow, and by then the listener should be in a sugar rush state, jumping around the room. The introspective title track provides some breathing room and, in addition to being a fantastic song, it’s another Underwood lyrical gem, opening with the following gem: “‘Fuck my life’ you sent in a text last night”!

From this point on, Are You Falling Love? does an excellent job of combining faster paced punky numbers with more reserved material. “Totally Called It” holds its own with “Record Store” for the album’s best single (so to speak), heightened with a Smiths meets shoegaze guitar frenzy near the end. Meanwhile, poignant numbers like “Xmas Song,” “Besides You,” and “Yeah, Tonight” provide ample evidence that Underwood may have a future as a novelist if he ever tires of music.  Underwood cannot be praised enough for his sharp, observant songwriting, which combines elements of nostalgia, regret, and hope without ever being even remotely clichéd. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so impressed with an album’s lyric sheet.

The house that Superchunk built will always have a place in my heart, but even in the face of the cold hard facts that are the improbable millions of records sold by that pronouncedly silly lot, I’ve been less than thrilled with the lion’s share of the recent Merge Records roster. It’s a position that leaves me on less than solid ground argumentatively, as that personal ambivalence is more than undermined by Grammy awards and the absurd amount of units shifted in recent years by the likes of personal aural nightmares like The Arcade Fire and Conor Oberst. From a more objective perspective, those sales have no doubt leant a degree of security to the Merge proprietors and it’s nice to see the good guys win a couple in this day and age. I can also take small consolation in the fact that those Arcade Fire dollars pay for a lot of Superchunk and Archers Of Loaf reissue initiatives, while simultaneously keeping the likes of American Music Club and Teenage Fanclub on the U.S. radar. Luckily enough, it’s also scoring us some Let’s Wrestle records.

While Merge is a staunchly independent American label with no shortage of local pride, the Triangle titans have always sported big international ears, releasing its fair share of Kiwi-pop and UK rock when the fancy struck them. London trio Let’s Wrestle got a fair amount of notice on both sides of the Pond for the Buzzcock (and King Crimson)-indebted guitar stylings of their debut full-length In The Court Of The Wrestling Let’s (2010). Touring with Superchunk last year sealed a label deal with Merge and resulted in the re-release of Court stateside. That second wind delayed recording a follow up longer than many a fan on either side of the water would have preferred, but now, after many months of touring and a short dalliance in Chicago with one Mr. Steve Albini, the follow-up is now available courtesy of your friends at Merge.

The new record is called Nursing Home, and from the moment one drops a laser on the proceedings, it is obvious that Let’s Wrestle is a British band. Post-Oasis, Brit rock is once again a matter of national pride. As such, we get records that strive to capture the post-grunge British experience the way The Jam and The Kinks, circa Muswell Hillbillies (RCA, 1971), had done previously. Blur tried to capture that mood in their Modern Life Is Rubbish (SBK/EMI, 1993) era, as have Pulp and The Streets in recent years with varying degrees of success. The Let’s Wrestle motivation is ambiguous as to being inherent or intentional, but with Nursing Home Let’s Wrestle have captured the mood of young Britain in the second decade of the 21st century.

Cultural antecedents aside, those of a non-anthropological nature can rest assured that all musical parties involved in Nursing Home bring the rock in a pronounced fashion. No doubt much to the chagrin of the Wrestlers, The Wedding Present comparisons that have followed the trio since their inception will continue apace. While Wesley Patrick Gonzalez lacks the adenoidal vocal stylings of David Gedge, the wiry Brassneck-ed guitars underpinning tracks like “Bad Mammaries” draw a line of ascension that is hard to ignore.

There are certainly much worse things, and let’s be clear: Let’s Wrestle are far from a Wedding Present rip-off. The trio gaffer tapes The Jam to the Fall-ier side of Pavement to make quite the sweet-sounding racket. Gonzalez is enviably sure-handed in his dual roles as guitarist and singer, but bassist Mike Hankin (since replaced by Sam Pillay) deserves the Nursing Home MVP award for his ability to relentlessly hold it down note for note on ragers like “Dear John” and the ride-out of “I’m So Lazy” and still show a degree of finesse with the McCartney-esque parts of the Kinks-y “For My Mother.” The contemplative aside is a pastoral track that is perhaps the most British of the tracks here, evoking Gonzalez’s stepfather’s Pete Astor’s work with The Loft. Life for the suburban English youth unlucky enough not to play in a rock band may not be especially rosy, but much like the protag in “I Am Useful,” with Nursing Home, Let’s Wrestle are out to put an English face on things.

Among the laundry list of things Steve Earle is infamous for, one of the more benign (and accurate) notorieties he has to his name is having claimed that his mentor Townes Van Zandt was the best songwriter in America and that he would repeat the same on Bob Dylan’s coffee table with his cowboy boots on. While I am no Steve Earle, for better or worse, my personal Gripfasts will stand on most any table in my fair NYC and aver that Chris Mills is the best songwriter we have in Gotham currently. So there.

Yes, Mills is a Chicago guy, but he’s been in Brooklyn for a minute now, at least since signing to Jersey City indie Ernest Jenning Record Co. for 2005’s stellar The Wall to Wall Sessions. The exceptional Living In the Aftermath followed in 2008 to much acclaim, as did successful tours with Lucero and Ben Folds. All of these eventualities kept proper shoe care fresh in my mind, but as a fan, it does nothing to change the fact that it has been three long years since the release of Aftermath. While the odd local show has transpired and rumors of a new recording are about, the newest release from Mr. Chris Mills is Heavy Years: 2000-2010. As one might surmise from the dates referenced, Heavy Years cherry-picks from the previous Ernest Jenning releases, pairing it with a handful of earlier solo material and sweetening the pot with two new tracks recorded with Dalek boardsman DJ Oktopus (government: Alap Momin) just to keep things interesting.

Things open with a new track mixed by DJ Oktopus called “All Our Days And Nights.” I had not foreseen goodness with the Dalek connection, having invoked the time-honored Chalk and Cheese™ clause (known Stateside by the generic invocation of Judgement Night), but the bastard union of that which is the brooding dark hip-hop of Dalek and the brooding dark hip pop of Mills on Heavy Years is a pretty unobtrusive union. There are some interesting keyboard and panning things going on, but the genetic split leans heavily in favor of Mills’ side of the family, and ultimately it’s another great Mills song.

“Atom Smashers” follows, kicking off the retrospective portion of Heavy Years nicely, though it perhaps conveys a false sense of optimism for the aforementioned “heaviness” to follow. Of the 14 tracks, three each are cherry picked from Living In the Aftermath and The Wall to Wall Sessions. These six tracks are a suitable teaser, neatly encapsulating the singer-songwriter’s Ernest Jenning years. More significantly, it speaks volumes to his versatility. Mills has manifested his music in various ways over the past decade but remains compelling regardless of whether the format is solo acoustic, string-bolstered chamber pop, or a conventional rock band. The relationship seems to have been fruitful for both Mills and Ernest Jenning, or at least as fruitful as the industry can afford in this day and age.

Mills is too familiar with the perils of label ownership, having helmed his own Powerless Pop label to release his early recordings. For newer fans, having access to choice tracks from those years makes Heavy Years an alluring proposition, but those items are still in print. Having access to early Mills stuff from his time on Chicago indie Sugar Free is an even more alluring proposition. The split is three to two for tracks from Kiss It Goodbye (Sugar Free, 2000) and The Silver Line (Powerless Pop, 2002), including “Watch Chain” and “Sleeptalking,” and closing with the no less exceptional a decade on “Signal/Noise.” It is interesting that his pre-millennium Sugar Free material (two EPs and a full-length) is excluded outright. While Mills had yet to find his voice (literally and figuratively), those songs are far from terrible, nor totally unrepresentative of his earlier Sugar Free material.

That said, whether the tracks date from 2011 or a decade previous, those compiled on Heavy Years: 2000-2010 are among some of the best songs you’ll hear. Ever. Interested table standing offers can be forwarded through the management.

Great American Gingerbread is a compilation of Rasputina’s “rarities and neglected items.” Listeners familiar with the music of Melora Creager will recognize aspects of the album’s 14 songs upon first listen. Present in the varied tracks are the signature sounds of Creager’s band: driving cellos, sometimes clean and sometimes distorted; raucous drum programming; spoken word vocals; sugary sweet, almost classical-sounding melodies and raging rock’n’roll outbursts. Creager has been making music as Rasputina since the early 1990s. In that time, she and her various bandmates have produced six studio albums, three live albums, and a number of other interesting releases. For instance, there was their first EP with a Marilyn Manson remix back in 1997, a covers EP in 2003 and, more recently, several small-scale, hand-crafted releases sold exclusively by Melora herself.

Like those previous EPs, this compilation’s more a curio than straightforward studio album. The songs on Great American Gingerbread are largely unused demos, described by Creager as “initial compositions and impulses.” Some of the demos are more wholly formed than others. “Children’s Reform Centre” is a 5-minute-long instrumental piece which, musically, sounds more fully finished than some of the other tracks. “Skylark,” conversely, is barely over a minute long and feels more like an “impulse” than “composition.”

“Producers used to advise against ‘chasing the demo,’” Melora writes in the album’s liner notes for “Children’s Reform Centre.” “It’s moot today, but I always thought ‘Why not? Why not chase the demo?’” The tracks collected on Great American Gingerbread are culled from throughout Creager’s career, but aren’t ordered chronologically. Accompanying most all the songs are short notes from Melora in the CD’s sleeve, scant sentences which shed some light on the artist, her process, and her history as Rasputina. “This is pretty embryonic,” she writes of “Skylark,” which, like “Children’s Reform Centre,” is a demo from 2004. “It shows something about my song-writing process, the singing of non-words to get started.”

Other tracks are also collected here, not just demos. There are instrumental pieces which were recorded as scores to film and animation, as well as songs Creager contributed to other compilations. The song “Coraline” first saw life on a tribute album to the works of fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. Similarly, “Skeleton Bang” was a children’s song for a charity record, Colours Are Brighter, released by Rough Trade in 2006. Their inclusion here, however, gives them a new life of sorts. Sure, diehards have likely already chased down physical copies of those releases or simply downloaded just the Rasputina tracks, but for the rest of us, they’re collected here with a dozen other oddities Melora’s put to tape.

Though it bears the Rasputina name, Great American Gingerbread feels closer to the EP Perplexions (Filthy Bonnet), which Creager released in 2006 under her own name — not the band’s. As her liner notes explain, much of what’s here was done solo or in the studio with producers. Even on Perplexions, though, all of the songs were fully finished to be taken or left depending on how one felt about them. Here though, we get only moments of what we love about Melora’s music — fragments of songs in some cases. Still, as a stopgap between the band’s last full-length, Sister Kinderhook (Filthy Bonnet, 2010), and whatever’s next to come down the pike, it’s a welcome release and a “must have” for band completists.

Packaged with the album is a DVD of the band recorded live at the Knitting Factory in New York City (recorded in 2002, in the band’s typical throwback style it is billed as having been recorded in “1902”). On the DVD fans get a more varied setlist, with several of the 11 tracks being fan favorites such as “Transylvanian Concubine,” “Signs of the Zodiac,” and “Rats.” There is also an interview with Creager included on the disc. As far as artists go, Creager’s not stingy. Nor does she spend a lot of time between releases, unless circumstances dictate it. Lineup changes have likely throughout the years put off tours and delayed records, but there’s a definite sense that Melora’s dedicated to the band and the continual release of her music — as is evident by the many EPs, live albums, and other Rasputina miscellanea such as this record.

This review covers the restored and expanded editions of Paul McCartney’s first solo album, McCartney, and its follow-up, McCartney II, originally released in 1970 and 1980, respectively. Concord Music Group with the aegis of MPL Communications and the Starbucks Hear Music imprint recently issued each album separately in double compact disc and 180-gram vinyl LP formats under the umbrella of the “Paul McCartney Archive Collection,” featuring a second album of bonus tracks for each title. McCartney is also available as a 2CD+DVD box set with an accompanying photo/information book; McCartney II also can be purchased as a 3CD+DVD box set with a similar ancillary book. All versions come with information on downloading assorted high-quality digital formats of the material. This review refers to the standard 2CD expanded/restored editions.

The self-titled McCartney (Apple/Capitol, 1970) was Paul McCartney’s first solo stab after The Beatles broke up. The ramshackle, one-man-band approach (Paul’s then-wife, Linda McCartney, only added harmony vocals) was the antithesis of The Beatles’ releases. Here was McCartney throwing off the shackles of expectations and emerging with a home recording of half-realized songs, filler, one cut written for The Beatles but never used, and a small handful of pop tunes centered around family, home, and escape from Beatlemania. As a declaration of independence, it was a murmur rather than a shout.

The newly remastered and expanded configuration of McCartney puts the original 34-minute release on one disc just as it appeared on vinyl, with associated photos and lyrics; the bonus CD includes 25 minutes of outtakes, live tracks, and one demo. The improved audio sparkle on both compact discs is comparable to high-quality vinyl, while the nuances are louder and more noticeable. Essentially, McCartney can now be deemed as a precursor to lo-fi indie-pop due to light melodics, a softer shell and lack of sheen, relatively straightforward songcraft, and being recorded on home audio equipment. Macca opens with the slight, short “The Lovely Linda,” a 45-second tribute to his partner and muse. It epitomizes the idea of filler and is a portent of the nagging mediocrity which crippled subsequent McCartney/Wings projects. From there, the set list flows between cozy pop confections and instrumentals. The folk-pop piece “That Would Be Something” has charm but peters out at the end. The delightful “Every Night” evokes some of McCartney’s Beatles-period acoustic odes, though the amiable arrangement masks McCartney’s post-Beatles depression when he would either not sleep or could not lift his head off his pillow, a fact found in the lyrics, “Every night I just want to go out / Get out of my head / Every day I don’t want to get up / Get out of my bed.” McCartney gets closest to successful pop dexterity on three tracks. His somewhat sentimental ballad “Junk” and the peaceful sing-along “Man We Was Lonely” – both written during happier times – offer harbingers to what McCartney created on his later outings with Wings. That future stance can also be heard on the only bona-fide rocker, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which became a Wings’ live staple.

By its very nature, the McCartney bonus disc is for completists, the hardcore fans who must have everything touched by McCartney. Semi-casual fans may find the seven remastered tracks – a mix of outtakes, demo stuff, and live material – interesting but not essential. The oddest tune is an outtake of “Suicide,” penned by McCartney when he was 14. It was taped for the McCartney album but shelved. McCartney later tried, perhaps ironically, to get Frank Sinatra to record the song. The other outtake is a roughened, mostly instrumental “Don’t Cry Baby,” another one McCartney shelved. The third studio effort is a vocals/piano mono demo of his feminist-era, semi-comical “Women Kind,” which ends with McCartney’s fart noises. The live tracks are much better. There are two superb versions of “Maybe I’m Amazed” by McCartney and Wings: one taped for the documentary One Hand Clapping (located on the 3-CD/DVD edition of Band on the Run which came out in late 2010) and a second, guitar-dominated take from the yet-unreleased 1979 concert chronicle Live at Glasgow. The other two tracks – “Every Night” and “Hot As Sun” – are also from the same Glasgow appearance. Hopefully McCartney will officially release this famously bootlegged show, since he personally chose to put these remastered supplements onto the expanded edition of McCartney.

The 38-minute McCartney II (Columbia, 1980) was Paul McCartney’s initial post-Wings undertaking, a one-man-band, warts and all assemblage of pop music, electronic noodling, and failed experimentation. When it was released, McCartney II was considered an awkward diversion. Now it sounds dated as well as frazzled. Of the 11 tracks, only four display McCartney’s melodic and musical skills. The opener, “Coming Up,” remains the most memorable of the lot. The winsome hit (which rose to number one in the US and reached number two in the UK) was regarded as a fine return to form, featuring a head-nodding chorus, supple use of horns, an understated beat, and a lively arrangement. The comedic video (which is on the 3-CD/DVD box set) is still enjoyable as well. The cornerstone cut, though, is beautiful acoustic ballad “Waterfalls,” which has a flawless melody underscored only by Fender Rhodes and a hint of synthesizer, proving less is more. The drowsy, minimalist “Summer’s Day Song” and the unhurried “One of These Days” are moderate pleasures which are neither indispensible nor complete throwaways.

Far less effective are electronically-influenced compositions such as Kraftwerk-stimulated “Temporary Secretary,” the stiff, Depeche Mode-esque instrumental “Front Parlour,” and the atrociously titled, mildly Eastern-tinged “Frozen Jap.” Historically these eccentric oddballs can be seen as a link between McCartney’s mid-1960s tape-loop digressions and his 1990s electronica collaborations with Youth (Killing Joke, The Orb), which began with Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest (Capitol/EMI, 1993) and Rushes (Hydra/EMI, 1998).

The 48-minute McCartney II bonus disc has eight selections. The cream of the crop is a live adaptation of “Coming Up,” another Glasgow item which was the B-side of the “Coming Up” single. But with much fuller sound, the live rendition was often aired by radio stations instead. Also included is the A-side radio edit for perennial holiday favorite “Wonderful Christmastime.” There are two usages of the previously unavailable “Blue Sway.” The first – and preeminent – has orchestral backing by Richard Niles. It is later reprised as an instrumental in the hitherto unreleased and uninspired medley “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway.” The rest is largely unlistenable electronic or cut-up audio ephemera, such as synth-driven instrumental “Bogey Wobble,” an irritating, edited rendering called “Check My Machine,” which likely was created as a way for McCartney to get familiar with a new tape deck, and a ten-minute, full-length version of “Secret Friend,” another Kraftwerk-like production. The last two were earlier found as bonus tracks on “The Paul McCartney Collection” 1993 reissue of McCartney II.

McCartney aficionados have plenty to look forward to, since more is coming from the “Paul McCartney Archive Collection.” Future releases include Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, Wings Over America and Ram.