By Peter Lindblad
Old faces turn up in strange and different places in this edition of Modern Rock in Motion. It appears that The Black Heart Procession’s Tobias Nathaniel has opened a separate branch in Serbia with The Red Step, while the Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer visited The Hideout in Chicago to amplify songs of his grandparents’ generation with a whole new band and never-before-released records from a beloved side project of Morphine’s Mark Sandman finally see the light of day. Sunburned Hand of the Man pushes the boundaries of New Weird America in a heady, thrill-seeking masterpiece, and the Junk Ranchers’ sparkling debut LP arrives about 34 years late. Let’s dig in.
The Red Step – S/T (Pravda Records)
Worth exploring, if just for the international intrigue alone, The Red Step’s stylish, yet gritty, self-titled debut album emerges from the shadows as a mysterious dark sedan driving doomy post-punk and motoring garage-rock into the night. Tobias Nathaniel, from The Black Heart Procession, is in the car, sliding behind the wheel to pick up members of Serbian noisemakers Kazna Za Usi, as well as cellist Sarah Jean Seatherton. The newly formed syndicate has urgent business to attend to.
From Belgrade with love, The Red Step carries packages of lyrics born of desperate and cynical ennui to unknown destinations, with Balkan sounds permeating throughout. Gripping from start to finish, the record rumbles to life with the simmering dirge “For the Dead,” before turning edgy and tense in the racing “A Nice Way to End.” It feverishly pumps out smoggy, swirling organ, Nathaniel’s gravel-gargling vocals, frenzied bass boils and fiery guitar riffs, as they furiously burn through “Reset,” as well as a galvanizing “We Live on High” and a rousing “Black Summer,” with its otherworldly intro. Eerie and ominous, “The Harvest” slows to an disquieting, sinister crawl, and “Before the Storm” is awash in cold noir, while the achingly beautiful “Through the Seasons” makes last call. So, drink up.
Sunburned Hand of the Man – Pick a Day to Die (Three Lobed)
Prolific free-folk eccentrics Sunburned Hand of the Man went off the grid after 2010’s heady acid trip A, occasionally sending out alien transmissions via the odd cassette or CD-R as proof of life. Then, in 2019, came a homecoming of sorts with the mind-blowing, fully realized Headless, the precursor to the howling mysticism and woodsy psychedelia of Pick a Day to Die, a beautiful, unsettling, relentlessly disorienting aural nightmare that could start a cult.
Channeling Hawkwind, Captain Beefheart and Roky Erickson, they dive headlong into the title track’s mesmerizing motorik propulsion and whirling, gurgling madness, with singer Shannon Ketch imploring everyone to “taste the campfire” and talking strangely of eight-piece chicken dinners. “Let’s feel the midnight,” he urges, as Ketch opens a Pandora’s Box of weird sounds and a swarm of voices escapes from his head. Similar blurry non sequiturs fall from Ketch’s lips in the hypnotic “Solved,” a sweat lodge of purposeful acoustic picking – see the sonic hall of mirrors “Dropped a Rock” for more mellifluous guitar work from the talented Jeremy Pisani – and hallucinatory electronica, whereas the liquid, cosmic disco of “Flex” is seductive and the stomping funk mysticism of “Black Lights” gets mean and darkly immersive. Even scarier, “Prixe Fixe” throws a tantrum of screamed, stabbing, hardcore violence at first, as J. Mascis rips off a manic guitar solo, but the noise dissipates. It transitions to a serene, floating soundscape, and calm is restored. In the aftermath of Pick a Day to Die, therapy might be necessary.
Josh Caterer – The Hideout Sessions (Pravda Records)
Intent on punching up the Great American Songbook with blasts of loud, slightly ragged power-pop, the Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer gave a one-off virtual concert at The Hideout in Chicago – its doors shut due to the pandemic – on Oct. 28, 2020, that made the place shake all over. Recorded live to tape, the set was originally live-streamed for viewing purposes, as Caterer teamed with NRBQ’s John Perrin and Hushdrops’ John San Juan to rip through a fistful of old standards and rehab some old Popes songs, transforming “Megan” and a teary-eyed “Someday I’ll Smile Again” into tortured, somewhat frayed ballads and slowing “Need You Around” to bring out its yearning romanticism.
Embracing the raw spontaneity of the occasion, the trio spends the rest of The Hideout Sessions committing delightful heresies, making a jabbing punk anthem of “Goodnight My Someone” and turning “Rags to Riches” into a fast, bounding, energetic romp. And while a celebratory “Writing a Letter” sizzles with sunny, mariachi band joy, “My Funny Valentine” is pounded into smoldering, spiteful submission, and a stinging “I Only Have Eyes for You” builds to a crashing crescendo. If the energy of The Hideout Sessions sometimes lags, it still gets by on its scruffy charm and sincere appreciation for timeless melodies.
The covert activities of Mark Sandman’s “secret band” are finally coming to light. Two previously unheard albums from Hypnosonics – a funkier, jazzier alternative to the noirish “low rock” of Sandman’s legendary Morphine – will soon be leaked to the public, like declassified documents. Averse to rehearsing, the eclectic collective was formed in 1986 and prone to unexpected mischief, usually playing tiny clubs around Cambridge, Mass., and going off the rails when the spirit moved them.
Thoroughly entertaining, Drums Were Beating: Fort Apache 1996 captures Hypnosonics’ sense of ad-libbed adventure and anarchy onstage, as they delighted in loosely jamming to their hearts’ content during a taped, live-in-studio broadcast on rock radio station WFNX the same year Morphine recorded Like Swimming. Before lightheartedly moseying along like drunken cowboys in the countrified “Born Again,” which eventually erupts in a riot of Bourbon Street brass, Hypnosonics electric slide easily through languid renditions of “French Fries with Pepper,” “Bo’s Veranda (Travolta’s Walk)” and “Women R Dogs” with suave horns and sly grooves, both of which also curl deliciously around a herky-jerky “Livin’ with You.” On the other hand, “Like a Damn Fool” cooks with bubbling propulsion.
All the while, Sandman doles out droll stage banter and sonorous vocals, but also displays inventive guitar chops, as Hypnosonics benefits here from the crisp drumming of Morphine’s Jerome Deupree and magic saxophone carpets of Dana Colley. Of the two, only Deupree was onboard in ’86, when they recorded five songs at Q Division Studio in Boston – the basis for the mesmerizing and arty Someone Stole My Shoes: Beyond the Q Division Sessions. Highlights include an effervescent, undeniably catchy “Insomniac,” the liquid, tribal snake charmer “Early Man,” and a dub-heavy, reverb-smeared “Rub It In,” so captivating with its soft, echoey trumpet. Then again, it is hard to beat the silvery shimmer and slap bass madness of the well-paced “Where’s the Girl?” Alternative versions of “Rub It In” and “Early Man,” transferred in from the Drums Were Beating session, are more organically funky and sensual – the spiraling horns of the latter so marvelously intertwined. The underground ‘zine-style packaging and illuminating, incisive liner notes only make these incredible archival finds more essential.
Junk Ranchers – ‘86 (Self-released)
1986 was the year the Junk Ranchers broke … apart. They spent the month of May in Newton, Mass., recording their debut album of dreamy jangle-pop at White Dog studio, only to split sometime afterward, leaving these intoxicating songs in limbo for 30-some odd years. The obsessive devotion of Kirk Swan, formerly of college-rock favorites Dumptruck, has finally given them their day in the sun.
Remixed by Swan, ’86 has finally been released, and it is a revelation, releasing floods of dark, starry melodicism and rushing exhilaration in “Something Happened,” “Disappear,” “After All” and “Shadows.” Cut from the same black cloth, “A Tangled Web” is fraught with tension, while the haunting and hypnotic “Inheritance” is the kind of seductive, drifting siren song The Church perfected, although the Junk Ranchers relied more on sturdy song structures and strong hooks than moody atmospherics, as “Without a Doubt” rings out clearly and ends in a wild crescendo.
Radio personality Jon Bernhardt has been flying the flag for the Junk Ranchers forever, playing tapes the band sent out all those years ago on his show for WMBR, 88.1. Betraying an obvious R.E.M. influence, albeit with an East Coast rumble and a substantive clarity inherited from The Smithereens, they were initially mixed by Lou Giordano, with the famed producer slipping in overdubs that summer. Respect for the quartet of Tony Pinto, Nick Cudahy, Jimmy Ryan and Ron Ward is long past due.