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We Can Be Our Heroes

The Icarus Line
Penance Soirée (V2)

By the time Joe Cardamone gets around to urging “take off all your clothes” on “Party the Baby Off,” the closing track from the Icarus Line’s sophomore release, Penance Soirée, lord knows you’re probably already buck naked. It’s a compact anthem, glam as fuck, like Thin Lizzy on crack, and a fitting bookend to one of the most adventurous records released on a major label (V2 is under the much larger tent of BMG) in recent memory.

Right out of the gate, Penance makes a claim for best rock record of the year, just as much as the band members themselves believe that they are the best rock band in the world. This is attitude-heavy, rough-and-tumble, ear-splitting, slimy-and-sleazy rock & roll, and it works awfully well for the most part. Penance’s pacing is like that of a great live set—it starts off over-the-top, in your face and on your jeans (“Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers,” “Spit On It”), then pulls it back for a while before blowing it all out for the last stretch. Culminating in the pleading refrain, “Never give up on me, baby,” the nine-minute epic “Getting Bright at Night” is pure VU, right down to Cardamone’s pedestrian croak, before it darts off into Primal Scream territory for the last section. The band’s admitted Stooges jones—Fun House would likely top all five members’ lists of favorites—pops back up on “Big Sleep” and “White Devil.”

The Icarus Line are expert chameleons. They can pull off a glam-rock Melvins (“On the Lash”), Mission of Burma covering Black Sabbath (“Virgin Velcro”), or the Radiohead that Radiohead can’t seem to do themselves anymore (“Caviar”). At times, the hero worship is so prevalent, one might forget that one is listening to a new, original band. That’s the only serious bone of contention here. The grainy vocal effect that’s splattered all over Cardamone’s voice on half of the album? Nothing a hundred other bands haven’t used to similarly grating effect. The saggy couple of tracks that bog down the album’s home stretch (“Meatmaker” is abrasive and hardly musical)? That’s why we have the “skip” button. Now if these guys can learn to blaze their own trails without using their record collections as a map, they could be as important as the very bands they adore.

—John Brodeur

Party Party Party
34 Raw, Ruthless and Rugged Sixties Garage Rockers (Arf! Arf!)

Sigh Cry Die
29 Tales of Woe and Despair from the Sixties (Arf! Arf!)

In the wake of the British Invasion, thousands of bands sprang to life in basements and garages across America. These bands were the foot soldiers of the music industry, nearly all of them disappearing into obscurity, with but a lucky few rising through the ranks to prominence beyond their school district, township or tri-county area. Astonishingly large numbers of them managed to get a 45 or two released. On tiny labels and in small quantities, these rare remnants of their existence take on a new allure as collectors bid up the values. Happily, compilation albums have been offering an affordable way in for the more casual music traveler.

A pair of new CDs celebrate the two contrasting aspects of garage bands: fast songs and slow songs. Granted, the titles of each set allude to the elements of heartbreak and funtime, but it still boils down to those two speeds. Think of garage bands as a simple and durable machine, and you can see why they endure. Slightly more complex than a shovel, but more streamlined than a lawn sprinkler, these things just don’t break. Sure, all of the bands on these two sets broke up, but they were replaced by the next legion of budding (and usually only temporary) musicians. Garage bands, in whatever changing styles may occur, will last, because it’s the way for emerging players to spread their wings, and to do so behind the more protective front of a group identity.

The relative anonymity of these groups is underscored by the label’s decision to present the band names and song titles in a font size smaller than their boiler plate info and mailing address. The mystery remains intact as the scant info on those original 45s is maintained here. But remember, these are foot soldiers and it’s not about their individual names as much as the force of their combined efforts. Many of these bands said all they had to say with one single—Johnny & the Uncalled For would’ve been hard-pressed to top their version of “Shortnin’ Bread.” These songs are a reflection of what was pouring forth from radios in the mid-’60s. Besides assorted domestic outfits, shades of Animals, Kinks, Yardbirds, Rolling Stone and Beatles abound, with the latter being fully quoted in a couple numbers (“Nobody Else but You” by the What-Nots and “The Ralphie” by Four Rogues). Subtlety is not a component. In fact, the only subtle element associated with these 63 songs is the title Sigh Cry Die, which finds all three words rhyming, though each with its own route to achieving that “y” sound.

—David Greenberger

Morrissey
You Are the Quarry (Attack)

Morrissey is frequently at his best when all torqued up into some grand-mal hissy fit against a cosmic wrong. So when the righteous indignation of “Irish Blood, English Heart” hit alternative radio in advance of You Are the Quarry, it seemed he had finally (seven years after his mediocre prior album) returned to the form of his early solo work (if not the uncanny stratosphere of the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead). “Irish Blood, English Heart” is Morrissey at his bitch-slappy best. And most economical: screeching to a halt at 2:30, it builds toughly and dramatically into wound-up guitar roar and Union Jack evisceration, with Morrissey all indignant underbite and nasty gleam. It seems he’s often at his best when, all feasibility aside, he simply wants to kick some ass. (“Irish Blood, English heart, this I’m made of/There is no one on Earth I’m afraid of,” he purrs ominously in the opening lines.)

Nevertheless, the rest of the album is a mixed equation: often musically and lyrically potent but also occasionally opaque on both counts. Or downright lame, as in the hamfistedly bleeding-heart sentiments of “America Is Not the World” (Example: “In America, they brought you the hamburger/Well America, you know where you can shove your hamburger”). Lyrically, Morrissey has been many things—oblique, poetical, bizarrely pretty—but never contrived. At other points, the singer’s lounge- crooner-for-the-fringe-set pose is overused and ineffective (“I Have Forgiven Jesus,” “Come Back to Camden,” “Let Me Kiss You”).

But then the Mozzer hits you with “First of the Gang to Die,” the kind of infectious, upbeat tragedy that is his hallmark—but it’s an interesting evolution: Whereas his former character sketches involved Mancunians or Londoners in a fit of weirdly obsessive pique, now, symptomatic of his new zip code, he turns toward the gang-filled streets of his expatriate roost in L.A. (“Hector was the first of the gang with a gun in his hand”). The song also seems a nod toward Morrissey’s cult following among Mexican-American hepcats. This track, along with “Irish Blood” and “I Like You,” show Moz re-ascending his creative peak. And considering the diminishing returns of his ’90s albums, this is welcome comfort.

One of the distinct characteristics of the album is also the more accessibly personal lyrics (especially the career-scrutinizing “You Know I Couldn’t Last”). Nevertheless, Morrissey still remains a powerfully oblique question mark outside of genre, or even the influence of professed heroes (New York Dolls, Charlie Feathers). He has built his own world around weird, unquiet desperation, more-than-able collaborators (Johnny Marr with the Smiths and Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer in his solo years), a wicked, underestimated sense of humor and an utterly original set of vocal tics (vulnerably swooning falsetto, spat-out poetical nastiness and this kind of thing: “Away-ha-hey-ha-hey-ha-hey”). And perhaps, just in the nick of time, he’s becoming interesting again.

—Erik Hage


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