August 28, 2009
Longtime — and I mean real longtime — Rolling Stones fans will immediately recognize the cover of the A-Bones’ new album. It’s a spoof of the cover of the Stones’ 1965 LP The Rolling Stones, Now!
This wasn’t considered one of the Stones’ major albums. There was only one hit to speak of and a minor one at that — “Heart of Stone.” Now! mostly consists of old R & B, blues, and first-generation rock tunes — Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” Bo Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You, Baby)” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” and Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” It was before the Stones started writing anthems or socially significant statements, before they were considered “artists,” before they assumed the mantle of the World’s Greatest Rock Band — when they simply played great rock ’n’ roll.
The A-Bones aren’t one of those neo-Stones bands, like the Chesterfield Kings, and they don’t sound much like Mick and the lads. But on their new record, The A-Bones, Not Now!, they capture some of the spirit of that early album and share the Stones’ love for greasy old blues and R & B. In fact, you could argue that the Bones go for greasier, nastier, and definitely more obscure source material than the Stones did.
A little bit about this band: the A-Bones are a project of singer Billy Miller and drummer/singer Miriam Linna, a couple whose other major project is Norton Records, a label specializing in the raw, the primitive. and the all-around bitchen — whether it’s old Flamin’ Groovies obscurities, vast Charlie Feathers or Hasil Adkins collections, tributes to Sam the Sham, or albums of little-known R & B shouters. Though the A-Bones have appeared backing other artists on various Norton records, Not Now! is their first album in more than a dozen years. Fortunately, they’ve kept their basic sound.
Aided by Lars Espensen on tenor sax, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan on guitar and piano, Bruce Bennett on guitar, and a bassist known as Marcus the Carcass, the A-Bones sound like those anonymous bands playing at sinister nightclubs or hopped-up youth dance parties in black-and-white teen exploitation movies. A little dangerous, a little sleazy, but ultimately inviting because they’re so much fun.
The album starts out with a tune called “Geraldine,” which begins with loud ominous voodoo drums and screaming ape calls. Espensen blows some seductive sax riffs and the song settles into a Diddleyesque groove as Miller begins singing.
Not Now! never lets up. There are some frantic instrumentals like “Restless” and “Catnip” and funny Coasters-like romps such as “He Sure Could Hypnotize” and “Jupiter Bulldog.” Linna, who wails like a hillbilly cheerleader in heat, shines on rockers like “The Lover’s Curse” and “Bad Times.”
One of the standouts on this album is a tune that sounds a little bit like folk rock — or at least as close to folk rock as the A-Bones are ever going to get. “Shallow Grave,” written by Andy Shernoff of the Dictators, is about serial killer Charles “Smitty” Schmid, dubbed “the Pied Piper of Tucson” and known for his ability to attract teenage girls. Miller sounds surprisingly tender here, especially for a song that has a line like “one foot stickin’ from a shallow grave in Tucson.”
I know it can’t be easy running a record company, but I hope Miller and Linna don’t take another 15 years to produce the next A-Bones album.
* Blue Black Hair by The Del Moroccos. This Chicago group can certainly help keep the party going. The Del Moroccos are a little more polished than the A-Bones, and frontwoman Gabrielle Sutton doesn’t sing with quite the same menace as Miriam or Billy. But they’ve got the right idea — rockabilly guitar, honking sax, etc. They sound hungry and horny and they’re lots of fun.
I suspect this group is a hundred times better in person. But that’s not knocking the album. There’s plenty here to love. The band saves the best for the first, a spicy little rocker called “Baby Doll.” It’s the type of tune that the Detroit Cobras do so well. Sutton, come to think of it, has a voice similar to that of the Cobras’ Rachel Nagy.
Most of the songs are obscurities or originals. There are also covers of some recognizable classics like Ronnie Dawson’s “Action Packed” and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Though that last one has been done by lots of takers, this version has something of an Angelo Badalamenti vibe. In fact, the slow, reverb-heavy guitar that starts off the song will make the ears of Twin Peaks fans perk up. But even cooler is “El Tren de La Costa,” which has the same melody as “Train Kept a Rollin’ ” but is sung in Spanish.