Two decades ago, new albums from KISS, Mercury Rev and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
The Rolling Stones may have coined the term rock ’n’ roll circus, but over the years, nobody has personified it better than KISS. With their greasepaint makeup, crowd-pleasing songs and fire-breathing antics, the foursome has always owed more to Barnum & Bailey than Lennon & McCartney. But psycho? Crazy like a fox, maybe. Every move these guys have ever made has been motivated not by music, but by that other five-letter M-word — m-o-n-e-y, babe. That’s what prompted them to reunited after nearly 20 years. That’s what prompted them to put the makeup back on and tour, recreating their classic ’70s set list and stage show down to the platform shoes and blood-spitting. And that’s obviously what prompted them to release this calculated cash-grab of an album. Just as their reunion tour was a carbon copy of their classic gigs, Psycho-Circus comes off as a drafted-by-marketers attempt to Xerox a classic KISS album. You’ve got all the basic ingredients: Paul Stanley‘s hairy-chested arena anthems, Gene Simmons‘ devilishly growly rockers, a spacy Ace Frehley cut and (Lord help us) a Peter Criss orchestral ballad. Admittedly, about half of the tracks here are better than anything KISS has done in recent years. Ace’s Into the Void merges Shock Me and Rip It Out. Paul’s I Pledge Allegiance to The State Of Rock & Roll echoes their ’80s fare like Heaven’s On Fire. And Gene’s You Wanted The Best — featuring vocals by all four — is so road-ready you can almost hear the flashpots going off during the bridge. The rest of the disc, sadly, is a dud — the usual self-indulgent twaddle from Paul, the usual second-rate songs from Gene (but no crotch-rock horndog numbers, oddly enough) and the usual hamfisted thumping by Criss, who remains the whitest drummer in rock. Too bad. Psycho-Circus could have been another Destroyer, but it almost ends up being another Unmasked.
Have Buffalo’s artsy post-rockers Mercury Rev deserted from the avant-garde? That’s how it seems at the start of their fourth CD, which kicks off with rich orchestral ballads light-years away from their noisy post-rock past. But like a snowflake rolling downhill, the disc begins to gain momentum — a rhythm here, a guitar solo there — until it culminates in glorious alt-pop that recalls Flaming Lips. So even if the Rev may have gone a little AWOL here, they end up discharging themselves honourably nonetheless.
Before the Revolution
The ska is definitely not the limit for this Chicago septet, and the results are revolutionary — not to mention far out, right on, solid and just plain outta sight. On top of a roots-reggae base, this crack combo ladles heaping helpings of Stax/Volt soul, Motown melody, Booker T. organ, James Brown funk, hip-hop, jazz and anything else that comes to mind. The resulting finger-popping, toe-tapping grooves will rock your world and blow your mind. A near-masterpiece.
Some rock bands suit their names and some don’t. Seattle noise-makers Hovercraft couldn’t have nailed it better. Their paranoid, edgy space-rock instrumentals can be heavy and slow, yet somehow they manage to float smoothly just above the ground. And the same forces that keep them aloft let them move suddenly and gracefully in any direction. But quick as they are, you get the sense the slightest slip will send the whole thing thudding back to earth. Thankfully, that never happens.
Back in the ’60s, long before he was the basso profundo of boudoir balladry, Barry White was just another struggling musician trying to make it in L.A. This soulful 43-minute compilation collects the fruits of those labours — 16 tracks of Motowny pop-soul and wicked, Pickett-style R&B shouters, voiced by a variety of long-forgotten vocalists. More satisfying are some early attempts at the sweet, string-laden sound that would become White’s trademark. Oh baby …
Since Pulp Fiction, you can’t venture into a record store without being swamped by the waves of surf music — most of which is a wipe-out. Not so this swinging collection from L.A. surf masters Del-Fi. These 15 classics (including early tracks by Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, David Gates of Bread and Love‘s Arthur Lee) are all gems full of twangy guitar, honking sax, falsetto harmonies and bongo rock. Hang 10 and shoot a curl, baby.
Now that the ska resurgence is a global phenomenon, it’s the perfect time for New York’s Moon Ska Records to compile a musical travelogue to the wide world of rude boy riddim. Australia, Spain, France, Russia and even Japan are just some of the countries represented here — although you’d have to check the liner notes to tell the difference. Whether the style is old-school toasting, 2Tone skanking or herky-jerky ska-punk, these acts are certainly on the same musical map.