Mess Me Up

By Steven Strange
Steve's Japanese coverage has been pre-empted this month. Instead, he offers this alternative column entitled:
"Moving Away From the Pulsebeat"

I tend to be pretty cynical when it comes to the vast majority of bands today. While I'm hardly an old codger caught up in the shadows of past glories, I can't shake the feeling that most of the bands everyone is going nuts over today won't be written about much twenty years down the line. It would take pages and pages to adequately explore all of the reasons for this, but I think it mostly comes down to a lack of the delicately mixed cocktail of originality, tunefulness, and passion that makes today's bands seem pale in comparison to, say, the plethora of amazing bands from the seventies. The Marked Men, however, are a glaring exception to this heuristic. Their self-titled LP on Rip Off last year was an instant classic that immediately put them in the ranks of the greatest bands to ever record for Rip Off (some pretty exclusive company), not to mention topping every other LP I heard last year. As great as the Reds were, the Marked Men upped the ante considerably, marrying the intensity and rhythmic sensibility of the Reds with pop songwriting of the highest caliber. It may sound trite to say, but the Marked Men's sound was reminiscent a more rapid and organic version of transition between the savage attack of Teengenerate and the powerful pop (but not power pop!) of Firestarter. What made this metamorphosis even more impressive was that the resulting sound didn't fit into any easy sub-genre classifications. Calling it "power pop" missed the point entirely, and you certainly couldn't describe it as "garage." "Punky pop" was probably the best you could hope for, but even that conjured up comparisons that weren't quite appropriate. While this may have been a nightmare for lazy record-reviewers looking for an easy shorthand to describe them (of which I was certainly one), it also meant that the Marked Men were in ample possession of one of the elements of the aforementioned formula that separates the good from the truly great: originality. Add to that irresistibly catchy tunes like "We Won't Talk About It" and "Backlash" and you get a record that should make any fan of poppy punk rock drool. That would be impressive enough for most bands, but the Marked Men managed to take things even further by playing their unique, immediately catchy tunes with so much energy and passion that you'd almost swear they were inside your stereo playing a live set. Their sound is all guitars whirring by in a blinding flash of light, vocals delivered with the intensity of a primal scream but channeled into tuneful, non-abrasive singing, and unrelenting drums that pound with the precision of clockwork but retain the passion of a living human being. Perhaps two of the best examples of this are found on the tracks "That Kid" and, my favorite, "Not Too Late," which is as jaw-dropping as anything from the seventies, but doesn't borrow it's sound from any obvious source. With their first album, the Marked Men found themselves undeniably at the top of the modern day punk rock heap; the only question was how they were going to follow up such a phenomenal debut?

With their new album, "On The Outside," the answer is stunningly simple: they just made another fantastic record packed to the brim with mind-numbingly infectious and inspired tunes that eschew the genre blueprints so typical amongst many of today's bands. In fact, on a few tracks they even stray slightly from the sonic blueprint of their previous album towards a slightly more melodious, yet downbeat approach. Before I go any further I'd just like to address some negative rumblings I've heard about these songs, including one guy going so far as to accuse them of sounding emo! To put it bluntly, such criticism is nothing more than a knee jerk reaction from people who confuse emotionally evocative songs with the unfortunately still popular ghetto of a genre known as emo. Part of the function of music is to stir people's emotions. Whether it's the Spaceshits putting a smile on someone's face, or the Modern Lovers making them feel morose, all truly vital music should make the listener feel something. With this in mind it shouldn't come as too shocking of a surprise to hear some of the new Marked Men material like "Gone Away," "Still Waiting," and "Right Here With You." Sure all three of these tunes are a bit more melancholy than anything they've done in the past, but that doesn't make them any less effective rock n roll songs. Actually, in some cases it makes them even better! "Right Here With You" is the closest thing to a mid-tempo, broken-hearted love song that the Marked Men have ever recorded, and the results are absolutely fantastic. Their sonic palate is expanded even further with the newfound ability to slow their breakneck pace and let their first-rate melodies shine through. Even better is "Still Waiting" with its passionate vocal delivery and insidiously memorable hooks (seriously, every time I play this song I get part of it stuck in my head for hours). These two tracks may both be superlative at evoking an emotional response in the listener, but they are about as far away from "emo" as Texas is from Timbuktu.

The rest of the album holds few surprises for those who loved their debut. Like that album, "On the Outside" is chock full of the electric combination of unrelentingly machine-tight rhythms, slightly choppy-yet hook-filled guitar, spot on melodies, and the crackling energy of a downed power line. The title track kicks things off with as great an example of this as anything they've recorded to date. Just try listing to this and not getting the chorus irrevocably burned into your brain! There's no respite from the assault after the knockout blow provided by the opener either. Before you have time to catch your breath the monstrously catchy "Don't Lose It" comes barreling out with its livewire guitar line and catchy point-counterpoint vocals. Mentioning all of the subsequent great moments on this album would require a detailed track-by-track rundown, so for brevity's sake I'll just mention a few highlights. "Gone Away" is another more somber track lyrically, but it's also one of the best Marked Men songs ever. What really sets this tune apart, aside from the fact that it's as catchy as all get out, is Jeff's super passionate vocal delivery. When he delivers a line like "just when I caught a glimpse of something new/it snatched my heart and left without a clue" with all of the conviction in the world he conveys a feeling of heartbreak as effectively as a soul singer, just with a slightly different musical idiom (i.e. punk rock as opposed to R&B). Of course, there's no shortage of up-beat tunes on here either, with Mark's "Broken Record," and particularly "No Time" standing out as two sterling examples. There is even one Reds-like barnburner, the incendiary "Set You Right." One of my favorites though is the oddly-titled closing number, "Master Wicked." With its infectiously optimistic riff, awesome vocals that alternate between soft and screamed, airtight drumming, and great sense of dynamics, it's the perfect way to close out a record as energetic, yet nuanced, as this.

"On the Outside" shows the Marked Men to be a band not content to tread water, but still not departing too radically from their established sonic idiom. Their sound is timeless precisely because it doesn't rely on aping the style of bands from the past. It's this uniqueness combined with an undeniably passionate and inspired execution that will ensure that the Marked Men won't be lost to history like so many of their contemporaries. I can't wait to see what they do next.

Steve's Record Roundup: Five Records You Should Own
This should be fairly self-explanatory. Every once and awhile (if this turns out OK that is) I'm going to use this space to shine a much needed spotlight on some records that I feel your life isn't complete without. No need to thank me, just make sure you have these if you don't already.

1) Hank Ballard and the Midnighters "20 Hits" LP (Gusto Records)
The Hits: I bought this record for two reasons: one) I've been getting way into soul lately and am trying to build up my meager collection, and more importantly two) I've been a fan of Hank's incoherent ramblings as immortalized on James Brown's "Get On the Goodfoot" track "Recitation By Hank Ballard" since I first heard it ten years ago. Basically it's Hank drunkenly gabbing away over a funky-ass instrumental track about all sorts of shit, starting off with the contents of the "Goodfoot" album (including a description of each track plus a list of the personnel!!!) but soon degenerating into an incomprehensible tale about how JB was the only one "who could formulate a groove to put [his] star back in orbit" when he was "wandering around in the graveyard of losers." After about five minutes of alternating between self-deprecation and giving Soul Brother #1 a verbal hummer, he sort of whimpers "incredible, man…incredible" and starts pathetically humming along to the backing track. It's sad, really. That's why it was such a shocker to hear how fucking badass he was 10-20 years prior to hooking up with JB. These tracks just ooze with sex. Hanks voice makes MY panties melt it's so damn sultry. Utterly fantastic R&B/rock n roll that any self-respecting fan of the Sexareenos owes it to themselves to own. He wrote the song that their keyboard player took her name from after all!
The Shits: "Work With Me Annie" wasn't the only thing Hank wrote; he also wrote Chubby Checker's #1 hit "The Twist." Ballard's version is a thousand times better. It's criminal that he didn't score the both the hit and the subsequent financial windfall. Maybe then he wouldn't have ended up wandering the graveyard of losers during the mid to late sixties.
How Much I Paid For This: Five bucks, but it's worth about double that. Every tune is a winner. Norton needs put out a Hank Ballard discography like yesterday if they haven't already.

2) Rudi "Big Time: The Best Of Rudi" CD (Anagram)
The Hits: This was one of the many records that Fifi and Fink turned me onto when I was in Japan. Why Rudi aren't remembered along the likes of their more-well known contemporaries like the Vibrators and Undertones is beyond me. They were an absolutely GREAT band that wrote songs every bit as memorable as more famous bands of the era. Hits are too numerous to mention, but some of the best are "I Spy," "Excitement," their INCINDIARY cover of "Yummy Yummy Yummy" which is bolstered by a shredding guitar lead (!), and "The Pressure's On" which is so stunningly great it should have been a huge mainstream hit.
The Shits: "The Prince of Pleasure" is about as dreadful as the title would suggest. Still, the good outweighs the bad by a ratio of 22:1 (there are 23 tracks on here).
How Much I Paid For This: $14 maybe? I dunno…I got it off of CDNow since I couldn't find a cool record store that had it.

3) The Monks "Bad Habits" LP (Harvest)
The Hits: You might've heard their bandwagon jumping tune "Johnny Be Rotten" on a comp somewhere, but that quasi-novelty tune isn't quite indicative of their overall sound. For the most part they played great punk-influenced poppy rock n roll. The best cuts are "Love In Stereo" and "I Ain't Getting Any," a song I've been able to relate to on more than one occasion. Totally prefab and ingenuous, but also totally hook filled and memorable. If there had been a punk rock version of the Monkees, it's very likely they wouldn't have sounded too dissimilar to this.
The Shits: First off all the cover is beyond super fucking cheesy: a smoking nun, showing off her stocking clad legs in front of a white brick wall. See the album is called "Bad Habits"...get it? Also, the songs that try to be "punk" are pretty pathetic, with "Drugs In My Pocket" standing out as the worst. The unbelievably shittily titled, "Dear Jerry, Don't Try To Kill Me With Your Love, Norman" isn't exactly a winner either.
How Much I Paid For This: I think right around five bucks if I remember correctly.

4) The Plimsouls "Everywhere At Once" LP (Geffen)
The Hits: Everyone who knows power pop knows the Plimsouls, but this second LP seems to get mentioned way less than their first (which is also killer). If you take off the limp "Inch By Inch" the entire second half is some of the most superb power pop you'll ever hear. "How Long Will It Take" and the title track are both worth the price of admission alone, with the later being one of my all time fave power pop tunes. Think of this like buying two flawless singles rather than one inconsistent album, which for around four dollars is a steal!
The Shits: Again, the album art is atrocious. Also, the first side is pretty spotty, with the gamut being run from pretty good to outright awful without anything falling into the "great" category.
How Much I Paid For This: Four Bucks

5) The Mighty Ions "Face Rakin' Rock" CD (Dio Records)
The Hits: Wrestling and Rock n Roll are two of my favorite nerdy hobbies (and pretty much the only kind of websites I visit), so I'm able to detect the aroma of the Mighty Ions' culinary efforts, if you know what I mean (if you know who I stole that line from, you are officially a dork). Still, even non-wrasslin' fans must bow down to the rock prowess of tunes as great as "Say Somethin' Stupid" and "Don't Talk to Me" (which they wrote for GG Allin).
The Shits: Like so many retrospective CDs this consists of three parts: the material they recorded in the early 80's, live tracks from the same era, and some 00's recordings of previously unrecorded tunes. I'll give you one guess as to which ones are good and which aren't. The new recordings aren't embarrassingly bad or anything, I just never listen to them since they aren't up to par with the rest. Kind of like watching modern day Ric Flair in comparison to the Flair/Steamboat classics from back in the day…both are good, but when viewed back to back, there's no comparison. I am, however, way into the song "One of Those Girls" due to the universal existential quandary it's lyrics deal with, ergo girls who look hot from behind but have faces so ugly that not even a drunken Eric Lastname would hit on them.
How Much I Paid For This: I was in Japan at the time, so let's just say waaaay more than you should.

NEXT TIME: Another column full of Japanese coverage…I PROMISE!!!

Steven Strange
1115 Paul Parkway #102
Minneapolis, MN 55434