Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mike Watt and the Secondmen-The Secondman's Middle Stand

It's obviously safe to say that Mike Watt's reputation and name are sterling. As the years roll along, he becomes more and more a figurehead within Post-Punk Rock circles. Watt, the man who makes it o.k. to play second-string to guitar with the bass. Watt, the man in the van, still econo after all these years. Watt, paragon of d.i.y. culture. I'm not knocking him one bit ever. The man and his music will always warrant great attention from Disaster Amnesiac. Watt is a musician's musician, and as such it's safe to say that his sounds deserves hearing, listening, and appreciation. The Secondman's Middle Stand has been getting a lot of play on my CD player of late. Perhaps I can convince any else reading this blog to give it a fresh listen.
The Secondmen on this recording are made up of Watt on bass, Pete Mazich on organ, and Jerry Trebotic on the drums. The group is augmented at times with vocals by Petra Haden.
This all- San Pedro band exhibits all of the cleverness and movement that one can expect from SST musicians in general and Watt projects in particular.
The bass and it's position within band hierarchy obviously been an constant with Mike Watt. His playing has never assumed the strictly supportive role with which the bass spot in a band has often been saddled. That's not to say that Watt's playing suffers from some kind of bass inferiority complex. It seems to me that he loves the bass, loves it's tones and timbres. On The Secondman's Middle Stand, bass is often the featured lead voice. The way in which Mike amps his sound is great: big, fuzzed-out tones feature prominently. Thankfully, he avoids the dorky "more is more" chops-heavy approach that many bass players utilize for lead voice leverage. Instead, Watt makes tasteful choices of good notes, played lyrically and melodically. His simple solution to the problem of the bass' position pays off big dividends to the listener. It's thrilling to hear his fuzzy lead voice on tunes like Beltsandedman and Puked to High Heaven.
One criticism that some folks level at Watt is a disdain for his singing voice. As for me, seeing as that I love the recorded voice of singers like Dave Thomas or Don Van Vliet, I have no qualms about it. C'mon folks, it's Rock for God's sake. Mike's lyrics are always great, too, full of Pedro vernacular and common sense wisdom. It's really populist in a way that many phonies in the music biz aspire to but, for whatever reasons or limitations, can never attain.
Along side of Mr. Watt's bass leadership, Pete Mazich's organ playing carries the tunes on Middle Stand. It's really fun to listen his driving, driven playing. He gets all kinds of great sounds from it. At times it's reminiscent of great 1960's players such as Pigpen; at others it has a smoother, 1970's sound which harks back to groups like Steppenwolf and Bloodrock. There obviously ain't a lot of folks adding organ to the post Punk musical landscape, and as such it's really refreshing to hear Mazich's sound instead of the standard six string guitar. Electric organs produce such a wonderfully colorful sound, and paired with Watt's treble-soaked bass tones, the organ voice on this record just explodes in the ears. Let's hear it for Post Punk organ trios!
Drummer Jerry Trebotic gives a killer performance. He rarely relies on stock rhythms, instead playing imaginative patterns, a kind of Jazz/Rock fusion style that gives propulsion and weight to the tunes. The closest comparison player I can think of would be G. Calvin Weston with Blood Ulmer's groups, but Trebotic puts his own stamp on the style by adding a bit more space between the notes along with a bit more of a relaxed touch. He sounds as if he divides his parts along a kind of linear "cymbals vs. drums" approach, often punctuating tom tom heavy patterns with splashy cymbal accents. It's exemplary trio drumming, as yet another outstanding drummer emerges from the SST/South Bay continuum.
As a group, Mike Watt and the Secondmen sound tight and well rehearsed. The organ trio nature of the group provides for a lot of space, and they fill it nicely; each member by turns steps up and plays support, all the while sounding mindful of the other two. I can attest to their high powered ass kicking live show: even at the pretentious Fillmore they managed keep things human-scaled and full of immediate, real physical power.
Sound wise, the Secondman's Middle Sound is mixed with clarity and precision. The spectrum sounds pretty evenly divided between the three voices. No one is buried in the mix, and it's obvious that great care was taken as far as mic'ing and tonal capture were concerned. It's mixed and mastered smooth, allowing for both high level cranking and lower level appreciation. That's some fine engineering there, boys.
The Secondman's Middle Stand is a great record that has held up tremendously well since it's release. I guess Watt has been sidelined somewhat from the group as he fills in for Dave Alexander with the Stooges, but I look forward to the day when he gets The Secondmen out of Pedro and either on the road or into the recording studio. Anyone know whether or not he's gotten his SG bass back?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Farflung, Numinous Eye, Beaks Plinth-Hemlock Tavern, SF, 9/20/08

I wore a Kwik Way t-shirt. Scott wore his prized Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. Jason called in sick. Again we braved the strange ways of Polk street in our quest for live Rock kicks.
Up first was Beaks Plinth. This is a one man electronic music project. He used sound from LP's, fed into a laptop and then heavily processed. The resulting sound was not quite the harsh attack of your Hair Police or Wolf Eyes. The sound was a bit more widely spaced, a bit more melodic. A lot of it seemed sourced from recordings of Asian music. Although not dramatic to watch, Beaks Plinth's music was fun to listen to with eyes closed, after a long Saturday afternoon of domestic chores. I give added props for his use of old suitcases to cover the turntable and laptop. Very Eno-esque and stylish.
Following quickly in Beak's wake was Numinous Eye. This is a duo which features Mason Jones on guitar and Mark Shoun on drums. Their set was made up of two long, seemingly improvised jams. Mason is a guitar KILLER, and I enjoyed the hell out of listening to his wide open and heavy Fender Strat playing. It's a really psychedelic sound, filtered through his incredible knowledge of and interface with the best Japanese Psych players. He's getting to be as stunning as Sharrock with his assault. Shoun is a powerhouse of a drummer. His tom tom heavy playing and lightning speed left hand snare technique took advantage of the spaces opened up within a duo setting. He filled them up with a hyper-technical approach, at times playing lead drums to Jones's steady time playing. Another band that may be better appreciated with the eyes closed. Mason sure kept his shut throughout the proceedings.
Lastly, and after a break of ten fucking years Farflung took San Francisco by storm. I've loved this band for a long time. Their Space Rock, so simple and rhythmically driving, has always appealed to me. Yes, they're a lot like Hawkwind, but much as in St. Vitus's case vis a vis Sabbath, I feel that they do it so incredibly well that they get a pass. Farflung did not dissappoint. Pushed along by a powerful new drummer and tight bassist, they blasted out their stoney jams, all three guitars weaving simple riffs, the Moog synth coloring on top. Two thirds of the way through their set, the room started to feel like one big echo chamber, bass tones bouncing off of the walls in a physically bracing way. Tasty! The dudes ended the night by giving every single person who wanted one a cool new T-shirt. I wore mine yesterday. With pride.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Toiling Midgets-Son

It's been my contention for many years that if you want to understand Toiling Midget's music, just stand at the corner of 3rd St. and Harrison St. in San Francisco, face west, and watch the fog roll over Diamond Heights. The off-whites, creams, and pastels of the houses on that large hill reflect back on the gray tones of the fog, making for a shimmery light that seems to move both slowly and with quickness. It's a very odd thing to see. Much like that view, Toiling Midget's music is often a roiling, muted soup, some sounds moving fast, others more slowly, all aspects swirling together hypnotically.
Released by Matador in far off 1992, Son is likely that last Toiling Midgets studio release. What to make of this apparent swan song?
For starters, Son does not feature the bizarre singing and lyrics of Ricky Williams. Mark Eitzel does a pretty good job filling in for him. Mark's tenor crooning is similar to Ricky's, slightly more traditionally musical than the latter's crazed whooping. Ricky's vocals always sound other worldly to me, truly alien and bizarre. In contrast, Eitzel's vocals come across as more world weary, sounding not as if they come not from the incomprehensible mental spaces inhabited by Williams, but from a more profane perspective. Still, his voice fits with the music, and doesn't detract from the overall sound. As with the vocal timbres, the lyrics differ from the perspectives of their origins. Eitzel's lyrics are much more objective than Ricky's subjective inner landscape portraits, describing characters and relationships from a distance that feels bitter and cold. There is a darkness to his concerns that sits right with the moody sound the Midgets conjure up.
Paul Hood and Craig Gray are just about the best guitar tandem ever. So often, bands with two guitar players just sound crowded, as both will play identical riffs. Hood and Gray never fall into that trap. Instead, the listener is treated to the sound of Hood's brilliant cyclic melodic riffing; it's always tuneful, yet somehow heavy, and neither aspect ever seems forced or cliched. His playing on Son sounds particularly inspired, the tones well recorded and up front in the mix. Atop Hood's foundation, Gray colors the music with cool feedback, noise, and the occasional unison riff. His sounds are trippy and strange, giving abstraction to the tunes. There are songs on Son in which Gray's playing, if isolated from the mix, could easily go with anything played by Throbbing Gristle or Wolf Eyes. These two are never mentioned in written "Guitar Greats" articles, and that's a damn shame. They executed an amazing concept for a lot of years, one that was truly original, and get no credit for it. On Son their guitars spar, collide, and intertwine, all the time very musically. Renaldo and Moore are the closest comparison I've got, but Gray and Hood do it better, in my opinion.
All great guitar sounds need a complimentary rhythm section, and on Son, Hood and Grays' playing gets that is spades from drummer Tim Mooney and bassist Karl J. Goldring. Here we find honest to God rhythm, in the way bassist and drummer push and pull the tunes, a tight unit, flowing together to form climactic highs and tense lows. They never sound anything less than completely engaged in the songs, and never fall into rote rhythms. Son's songs come across as organic entities, and much of this is due to the way that Mooney and Goldring play off of each other. Mooney's simple kit playing, especially his ride cymbal sound, is exemplary. It's a style without peer, and deserves more appreciation than it gets. Goldring does a great job of holding down the tunes, grounding the guitar voices with it's deep Fender Jazz tones.
Extra shading for some of the songs on Son is provided by strummed acoustic (12 string?) guitar, symphonic strings, and what in one song sounds like operatic tenor singing. These elements, along with the classic Toiling Midgets ethereal guitar voice, make for a great, under appreciated gem of a recording. Son's beauty lies within it's song's clashing and rolling instrumental interplay. Peer deep into it's foggy interior, and find yourself transfixed.