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The Morlocks Play Chess
Format: CD / MP3
Release Date: August 24, 2010
By Doug Simpson April 8, 2011

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

On their newest long-player, The Morlocks Play Chess, Los Angeles-based garage-punk rockers The Morlocks are not following in the steps of Bobby Fischer. Rather, The Morlocks plunder the back catalog of Chicago blues and early rock’n’roll label Chess Records.

The Morlocks have been around – off and on – for a quarter century and are regarded as one of California’s finest purveyors of down and dirty garage rock. Some may recognize that The Morlocks nicked their name from the subterranean cannibals who populated H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine. In a perverse rock’n’roll irony, The Morlocks’ own story would make a gripping book and/or movie: plot points include drug addiction, band members’ dissatisfaction, prison incarceration, an inaccurate announcement of the lead singer’s death, and the group’s subsequent reboot.

There’s a small but no less compelling chapter about how The Morlocks Play Chess got created. In 1999, Spin magazine incorrectly stated Morlocks singer Leighton Koizumi had overdosed and died. At the time, Koizumi was alive and well but near the end of a 10-year prison term for a botched drug robbery that involved kidnapping. Soon after leaving jail, Koizumi got sober and started to hit stages around Los Angeles with various bands, and a few years later reformed The Morlocks to tour and record: the upshot was the comeback album, Easy Listening for the Underachiever (2008), only released in Europe on the Italian label Go Down. However, copies did filter Stateside. Somebody in song licensing acquired a copy and the group soon found pieces of its catchier material used in television dramas and restaurant chain advertisements. One of the people who placed The Morlocks’ music in these mass media outlets went to work for Chess’ back catalog and initiated the idea that The Morlocks should do a Chess covers project, with this release on the Popantipop imprint the outcome.

While The Morlocks’ bluesy attitude appears well suited to such an endeavor, Koizumi relates that translating classic tunes like Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and “Who Do You Love,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” was not an easy decision. The Morlocks researched many Chess-recorded songs, whittled the list down, and then rearranged the final choices in different ways – sometimes completely around until the group had something they could call their own. The 12-track, 31-minute result is music that avoids clichés by maintaining familiarity. The Morlocks do not stray extensively from the original songs’ foundation, but they do provide a stamp of individuality by marking each track with The Morlocks’ raw, fuzzy, and furious brand identity.

The Morlocks’ kick off madly with a stomping rave-up of “I’m a Man,” combining The Yardbirds’ psychedelic stance with Koizumi’s coarsened vocals that evoke Iggy Pop (one of Koizumi’s influences), as well as The New York Dolls’ David Johansen. When the guitars, drums, and bass escalate at the conclusion, it’s a sweaty blast of 1960s-laced exuberance. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” is another tune any Yardbirds’ listener should recognize, but rather than one more rave-up, The Morlocks turn it into a boiling blues shuffle that drips with dread and dismay: Koizumi does not replicate Wolf’s famous howl but does echo Wolf’s ominous intuition about what’s wrong with his woman.

One of the most renowned blues cuts here is John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” which British Invasion fans probably will point out was done by The Animals. The Morlocks execute it as a whomping and reverberating rave-up that is indebted neither to Hooker nor to The Animals, although smidgens of both can be heard in the low-down version, which is highlighted by Koizumi’s razorblade voice and a mud-splattered harmonica that rides atop the guttering guitar.

The Morlocks are not above showing how American blues had a huge impression on the British music scene and how blues songs were often built on other material. They introduce a gnashed interpretation of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Help Me” with the opening riff from The Who’s “My Generation,” which is a sly nod to the fact The Who covered Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” on their rock opera Tommy. Although The Morlocks’ performance is light years away from most other versions – it’s nothing like Van Morrison’s rendering, for example – the group does not disguise the fundamental main riff, which borrows heavily Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions.”

While there is no filler, The Morlocks seem more inspired on the blues configurations than the rock’n’roll oldies. Three Chuck Berry covers – “Promised Land,” “You Never Can Tell,” and closer “Back in the U.S.A.” – have a nostalgic tinge that lacks the impact and momentum of the blues-rooted pieces.

Visit: The Morlocks | popantipop
Purchase: Insound | eMusic