By Peter Lindblad
Feast on nostalgia for the 1980s and ‘90s in this edition of Modern Rock in Motion, as archeological digs of archival concert footage of The B52 from 1982’s US Festival and a reissue of L7’s grunge classic Smell The Magic unearth forgotten treasures. However, do pay close attention to new albums by Surfer Blood and Death Valley Girls – two of the year’s best releases so far – and the solid songwriting of Stephen Clair. They’re all worthy of your consideration.
The B52s – Live at US Festival (Shout! Factory) DVD
Their stay was brief, as The B52s were helicoptered into the inaugural 1982 US Festival and then flown out as soon as their raucous, high-energy performance was over. They never got to experience all the technological wonder of Steve Wozniak’s creation. Still, the alien, wigged-out new wave revelers left their mark, putting on an ebullient, red-hot dance party for the ages.
Professionally shot and edited to capture the band’s relentless, angular groove and edge, Live at US Festival presents the lovable original B52s lineup in all its oddly compelling glory, fueled by Ricky Wilson’s wiry, unpredictable guitar figures and sweaty concentration, Keith Strickland’s crisp, fast drumming and the wild antics of Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson. In that hot, dusty setting, live versions of “Private Idaho,” “Rock Lobster,” “Lava,” “Party Out of Bounds” and “52 Girls” sizzled, as the B52s gyrated and wiggled about, yelping like hyenas.
More interview footage with Schneider, Pierson and Cindy Wilson would be welcome. What little there is here is inserted awkwardly, although it does provide interesting context to the historical concert footage here. The remedy for such trivial concerns is seeing The B52s rumble through “Planet Claire” with tight precision and gleefully rip up “6060-842” and “Big Bird,” before closing with a celebratory and spirited “Strobe Light.”
Surfer Blood – Carefree Theatre (Kanine Records)
High tide for Surfer Blood was 2010, when their sun-kissed debut Astro Coast arrived riding a Banzai Pipeline of space-age, surf-pop bliss. It was an instant indie-rock classic, sounding shiny, fresh and tuneful, even with its bouts of ocean-sprayed melancholy. More than a spoonful of sugary, distorted guitar jangle made its medicine, useful for treating depression, go down easily.
The good times didn’t last, as original guitarist Thomas Fekete succumbed to cancer, bassist Kevin Williams moved on – replaced by Lindsey Mills – and an orphaned Surfer Blood couch-surfed with different record labels, as America started to burn. They experimented with their winning formula, resulting in longer, more complicated songs and an identity crisis. Surfer Blood, it seemed, was on the verge of losing the plot.
After all the highs and lows, band leader John Paul Pitts retreated to his native West Palm Beach, Florida, and rediscovered the joys of writing the less complicated, more concise pop songs of Carefree Theatre, the title an homage to a place that once introduced a younger Pitts to a world of artistic possibilities. Longing for a lost childhood could explain the playful sci-fi whirls of “In the Tempest’s Eye,” as wistful sighs “Summer Trope,” “Dewar” and “Dessert Island” long for simpler times. They ride shotgun with a driving, nervy “Karen,” the deliriously catchy “Unconditional” and the careening “Uneasy Rider,” as Carefree Theatre builds vivid stages of irresistible hooks, breezy harmonies and sparkling melodies for an audience ready for the comeback story of the year.
Death Valley Girls – Under the Spell of Joy (Suicide Squeeze Records)
As possibly foretold in some lost gospel of Christianity, the children shall lead Death Valley Girls, as a choir of dirty-faced urchins chanting “under the spell of joy, under the spell of love” ushers in the galvanizing title track to their latest supernatural garage-rock revelation.
In what feels like an ecstatic and exuberant spiritual awakening, their mesmerizing march erupts into a wild, psychedelic fury of slashing guitars, violent skronk, crazed keyboards and incessant drums blowing in from parts unknown. For all of its breathtaking might and crashing energy, it’s also incredibly uplifting and empowering, espousing everything that’s good and inspiring about communal, fire-and-brimstone punk rock experiences.
Volunteers should sign up in droves to follow the life-affirming Under the Spell of Joy, its jubilant cup of smoggy enlightenment and ghostly illumination overflowing in the aftermath of their last LP, the thrilling Darkness Rains, and its stormy seances. Opening with the rapturous “Hypnagogia,” Under The Spell of Joy is an album full of captivating siren songs, with the repetitive groove of “It All Washes Away,” an upbeat, hooky “Little Things” and the whirling, motoring “Dream Cleaver” all saved by the Velvet Underground’s more accessible rock and roll art. Tripping through the lysergic wonder of “The Universe,” Death Valley Girls return to earth with the ‘60s swing of “Bliss Out” and the primitive pounding and scratching of “10 Day Miracle Challenge.” Dirty organ clouds mushroom everywhere, with cool saxophone either lazily drifting through the air or erupting in frenzied chaos. This will give Iggy Pop goosebumps.
Stephen Clair – The Small Hours (self-released)
It’s worth losing sleep to stay up late with Stephen Clair and The Small Hours, where shadowy, rough rock ‘n roll noir goes looking for trouble in dingy jazz clubs and country dive bars. Pockets full of literate songwriting currency and silvery hooks enable Clair to pay for round after round, as bassist Daria Grace and drummer Aaron Latos accompany him on his lonely walks.
The slice-of-life vignettes they encounter are haunting, as the barfly meditations of “Fate” and the contorted, drawn out existential angst of “Nobody Knows” surface in slow, tense boils. With its light tangle of steely mandolin and deepening sense of isolation, the soft thumping of “Hurricane Coming” warns of a gathering inner storm. In the obsessive “Dorothy,” they glide through a graceful, velvety ballet of Spanish guitar elegance, before darkness gradually washes over a drifting “Marie” and its tale of doomed romance involving a physicist and boxer Jack Dempsey.
Lighthearted moments are found in “Fixing to Fly,” a delightfully sly bit of laidback, sophisticated western swing, and “Pig in a Poke,” an buoyant exercise in tropical, rhythmic strumming. If the latter seems like a fish out of water here, the blinding flash of rough, power-pop yearning “Is This Thing On” fits perfectly, as does the bittersweet roots rock charm of “Come Down.”
L7 – Smell The Magic: 30th Anniversary Reissue (Sub Pop Records)
Push came to “Shove” for feral grunge queens L7 on 1990’s Smell The Magic, as the sludgy alley cat of a single growled and hissed at disgusted and appalled rubberneckers. Of course, the underground and its resident outcasts loved its anti-social attitude and raw power, leading Sub Pop to demand more from its latest discovery.
What started out as a lean, mean EP meant to show that, unlike oil and water, trashy punk fury and hooky, grimy metal churn could mix, Smell The Magic grew up fast, smart and funny, becoming a full-fledged album with just a little padding. Highly combustible, with its dark, irreverent humor, sharp cultural critiques and edgy energy, it left their self-titled debut in the dust, as L7’s roar grew considerably louder and more intensely focused.
Turning 30 this year, Sub Pop is reissuing Smell The Magic on vinyl for the first time in remastered form, and the album sounds as fresh and exciting as the day it was born. The original nine songs burn hotter here, as the brawling “Shove” bumps into the electrifying and infectious “Fast and Frightening.” Heavier, brooding stuff like “(Right On) Through,” “Deathwish,” “Broomstick” and “American Society” gnash their teeth, while heady, full-throttle punk charges “Just Like Me” and “Till The Wheels Fall Off” grind gears of serrated riffs and speed away. If only there was some bonus material to gnaw on, this anniversary edition might be a perfect meal. Anything, really, would be appreciated. As such, this feels like a missed opportunity.