2004 / Music

Review: Punk Legends Try To Reignite Dormant Careers

L.A., New York Vets Reform After Decades-Long Hibernation

Read The Reviews: Mission Of Burma | Thelonious Monster

With the notable exception of hip-hop, no pop music genre has proven as disposable as punk rock.

While punk purveyors ranging from the Clash to Nirvana have created awe-inspiring and influential legacies, the vast majority of punk careers are relatively brief. (Punk’s most quintessential band, the Sex Pistols, survived only one seminal album — ignoring their recent and loathsome reunions.)

There is still no punk equivalent of the Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead, no bands with the creative strength to endure through decades of fan fickleness and alternating musical trends.

Against the odds, a bunch of ’80s punks have now awakened from their decades-long slumber to reunite and record new albums. Both seem keen to restart their careers and spark some interest on their nearly-forgotten legacies.

But will these new albums prove these bands have some untapped creative strength remaining that will re-establish them? Or will it show that they’re following in the Pistols’ footsteps and trying to grab the quick lucre? Keep reading.

 Mission Of Burma “OnOffOn”

Of all the music legends detailed in rock writer Michael Azerrad’s book about the ’80s post-punk underground, “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” Boston’s Mission Of Burma stands apart as the group most likely to leave music fans scratching their heads.

Photo: Matador Records

Photo: Matador Records

While contemporaries like Black Flag, Sonic Youth, the Replacements and the Butthole Surfers — each, like Mission, received a chapter of attention in the book — saw either their fame rise with the ’90s alternative-rock boom, Mission of Burma’s minute recorded output (a handful of singles, an EP and one full-length album) remained the scenster’s little secret.

It was until after Azerrand’s book was released in 2002 that the group’s legacy reappraised and closet fans like Moby began citing the group as an important influence.

Inspired by the new attention, three of the group’s four original members (soundman Martin Swope is sitting this reunion out) decided to reform. It was a fitting twist of fate since the band was put out to pasture in the early ’80s because of fan neglect and the onset of guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus (Miller now performs with headphones).

The group’s new record, “OnOffOn,” is an unrelenting, white-hot guitar noisefest. But apart from the music’s slightly unhinged rhythms and endlessly caustic riffing, the album is also a more inviting work, similar to the group’s “Signals, Calls and Marches” EP.

Besides some wrinkles and gray hairs, the band seems to have faired well despite the passage of time. In contrast to the past, all three members contributed material to “OnOffOn,” and yet the album seems oddly unified.

From the album’s opener to its closer, “OnOffOn” is a pummeling listen. Always moving at a quick pace, the band alternates between using the guitar and bass together or against each other to create a frenzy that’s akin to an out-of-control freight train that’s dangerous close to jumping the tracks.

In each rave-up, the band inserts elements that provide a slight respite from the sensory assault (a spindly guitar solo in “Into The Fire” or the vocal harmonies of “What We Really Were”). A true highlight is “Fake Blood,” on which Miller’s playing is so furious he sounds like he’s literally shredding his guitar as he’s belting out the lyrics.

At eye of this thunderous storm is “Prepared,” a soft love song sung by bassist Clinton Conley that pairs strings with an ascending guitar melody and whistles of feedback.

This proves only a temporary reprieve before the band hurls listeners back into the mosh-pit, and this is the record’s primary weakness. But taken in context, it should understandable that the band members might be in the mood to rawk after laying low for so many years.

A record like “OnOffOn” signals that the band will continue to well into the future.

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 Thelonious Monster “California Clam Chowder”

Besides short-fuse careers, punk rock — particularly the California brand — can always be counted on for great band names and stage pseudonyms. (Bands like the Weirdoes, the Dead Kennedys, and the Circle Jerks are at the top of the list, and few acts can compete with the Germs’ stellar lineup: Darby Crash, Pat Smear, Donna Rhia and Lorna Doom.)

Despite an award-worthy moniker, L.A.’s Thelonious Monster — led for a decade by singer Bob Forrest and featuring at various times members from many of L.A.’s original punk outfits — was never able to generate on tape the kind of excitement they could on stage.

The band got its start in early ’80s traveling the same L.A. punk-rock club circuit that would spawn the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and Fishbone. Although their rivals would each evolve and eventually take their places on Lollapalooza’s main stage, Thelonious Monster never graduated from their odd-ball combination of highly literate lyrics and low-brow, spastic rock (some unkindly called it “drunk rock”). The group remained a West Coast club phenomenon.

The band’s low-profile also persisted despite a lengthy list of patrons: Tom Waits, the Peppers’ John Frusciante and Flea, Minnesota-rockers Soul Asylum, and fabled session keyboardist Al Kooper. (Kooper thought so highly of Forrest that he spent time in Tennessee recording an aborted solo album with him.)

The bulk of Forrest’s failed record became the Monster’s last release, 1992’s “Beautiful Mess.” A title was never more appropriate, and the band essentially folded shortly thereafter.

During the rest of the ’90s, Forrest became a substance abuse counselor and dabbled with his other band, The Bicycle Thief. His bandmates likewise pursued other non-musical outlets (longtime guitar player Dix Denny began carving ukuleles, according the band’s Web site).

Sporadic concert dates for Thelonious Monster began to appear in 2001, but the fruit of the group’s return to recording studio only appeared this year.

“California Clam Chowder,” released on independent label Lakeshore Records and boasting song titles like “The Elton John Song,” “The Joy Division Song,” and “The Bowie Low Song,” has the band masquerading as their musical influences. The tracks’ music springs from their namesake’s sonic template but each is lead by Forrest’s maniacal voice and acerbic lyrics.

Whether this strategy is a gag, sarcasm or something aimed at restarting the flow of the band’s creative juices, the band does pull off a surprising amount of diversity.

The band seems most engaged when revving up high-energy rock for songs like “The Ramones Song,” “The Joy Division Song” and “The Big Star Song,” tracks not all that stylistically different from their post-punk roots. While none of this material sounds particularly vicious or threatening, the torrential drumming and manic guitar licks on “The Iggy Stooge Song” captures the group at its most aggressive.

At the opposite end, “The Oasis Song” has them emulating the Brit-pop masters’ shimmering guitar and sing-song lyrics. Equally huggable is the poppy sweep of “The Curtis Mayfield Song,” which cushions Forrest’s sweetly sung old-man gripes about how good the good old days were before profiteering was so rife in society.

At its worst, the album’s parade of influences makes the group come across like cheap hacks. Their attempt at some country-funk for “The Rolling Stones ’77 Song” is spot on, but the track’s story is full of description minus a plot or discernible meaning. And despite the best intentions, “The Bob Dylan Song” is a clumsy, overly obvious, feel-good outsider anthem with cheap lyrics like “you’ve just got to hold on” and “you’re going to be just fine.”

Not surprisingly, as the old adage goes, the record suffers chiefly because it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. The record lacks a unique musical identity and never answers the question of who is this newly reborn Thelonious Monster.

Rather than announce a thrilling re-flowering of Thelonious Monster, “California Clam Chowder” seems a stop-gap before a proper return. Or perhaps, this album just reinforces past conclusions. It solidifies the idea that the band’s greatest achievements were always onstage and not on disc.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2004 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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