Thursday, December 22, 2011

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: Gorilla My Dreams

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Dec. 23, 2011

I love Kinky Friedman, but something he said at his Santa Fe Sol Stage & Grill concert a couple of weeks ago irritated me. (Hey, if the Kinkster doesn’t irritate everyone in the audience at least a little, he’s not doing his job.)

Kid Congo & Pink Monkey Birds at Knitting Factory
Brooklyn, NY, 2010
He basically said that the only musical acts worth seeing these days are “geezers” like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Iggy Pop, and Levon Helm (and, I suppose, by extension, Kinky Friedman.) He said something similar in his recent interview with my distinguished colleague Rob DeWalt.

I’m willing to cut Kinky some slack. After all, he’s 67 years old, and I’m just a kid of 58. But, jeez, when he talks like that, he sounds like the crotchety old goats of my youth. He should be tied up and forced to listen to nothing but Allan Sherman’s “Pop Hates the Beatles” for 72 straight hours.

The truth is, our modern world is full of great musical artists. I try to spotlight them nearly every week in this column. It’s fair to say that few, if any, of them will get the mainstream recognition of Dylan and the others. But to those with ears to hear, the underground is spilling over with crazy talent making timeless sounds.

This little rant got going in my head the other day when I was driving to work listening to Gorilla Rose, the latest album by Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds. Brian Tristan, aka Kid Congo Powers, plays some of the most interesting sounds being produced today. It’s a wild mix of mutated ’60s Chicano rock, surf, garage, and spooky, noirish R & B.

This album (which is named for an L.A. performance-art character Powers met as a lonesome teenage punk) is a worthy follow-up to his previous work, Dracula Boots, which took similar paths into bizarre dimensions. It’s full of cool-groove instrumentals and weird tales that Powers recites.

I don’t think I’ve ever read any article or review of Kid Congo that didn’t mention his impressive résumé. And I won’t break precedent here. He was the original lead guitarist in the pioneering punk-blues band The Gun Club. And he also served time in The Cramps and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. This, friends and neighbors, is what you call credentials. When I saw him and the PMBs play in New York last year, they did some great Cramps covers (”Goo Goo Muck” and “I’m Cramped”) and an even better cover of Gun Club’s “Sex Beat.”

Gorilla Rose starts off with a jamming little instrumental called “Bo Bo Boogaloo.” It sounds as if it came out of some archetypal mod à go-go teen dance club in a 1960s spy thriller. There’s a snaky, sinister organ that reminds me of early ’70s Nigerian music and some serious distorted guitar. The next song, “Goldin Browne,” is driven by a throbbing funky bass lead, while Powers recites “Dark colors, black leather/Stray pets, bad habits/Medicine cabinets, Chairman Mao/Aladdin Sane, Goldin Browne.” And then he repeats it.

The words to the slow, slinky “Catsuit Fruit” are even more mysterious — basically, he lists a bunch of fruits. “Cherries, bananas, lemon, grape, peach, lime ...”

Then there’s “Our Other World,” in which Powers tells a story about being a kid working in a Hollywood record store. He recalls seeing Rick James losing his temper and breaking copies of Parliament’s Gloryhallastoopid as a drag-queen shoplifter ODs in the jazz section.

In “Bunker Mentality,” Powers and The Monkey Birds do a pretty good impersonation of The Fall. Powers even sounds like Mark E. Smith. And, truth be told, I can’t understand a word he’s saying; though I don’t care, because I like the music — jungle drums and repeated cranked-up guitar riffs.

Meanwhile, “Hills of Pills,” with its falsetto vocals backing Powers’ spoken word, reminds me of The Black Lips. The music is dominated by a basic blues-riff slide guitar (hinting at Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange”). And this tune should win the prize for Best Use of Kazoo in a Non-Jug-Band Setting.

“Lullaby in Paradise” starts out like some lost Lou Reed song, perhaps the ugly cousin of “Perfect Day.” It’s a slow tune lead by a wistful, almost jazzy electric guitar (with some weird grating distortion in the background). Then the tempo picks up as the guitar attacks a basic soul riff before slowing down again.

Kid Congo is full of surprises. He’ll take a simple neo-punk song like “At the Ruin of Others” and go into different dimensions with a crazy discordant guitar solo that would make Sonic Youth blush. And a little later, just for a few moments, there’s a pseudo East-Indian or Arabic guitar part that sounds like the early days of psychedelia. But then it fades, never to return — leaving a listener to wonder, “Did I imagine that?”

That’s basically how I feel about much of this crazy good album.

Also recommended:
*  El Camino by The Black Keys. Now here’s a decent 21st-century band that might actually have a decent chance of achieving a level of popularity and (gulp!) fame.

Granted, I liked them better in their early days — not that long ago — when they were just a couple of nerdy blues geeks from Ohio who would give up everything just to touch the hem of the garment of T-Model Ford.

These days singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney sound like they’re searching for the ghost of Mark Bolin. This album, produced by Danger Mouse, has a glam-rock sheen. When I saw them live nearly a decade ago, they reminded me of the old proto-metal monsters Blue Cheer. Listening to the new album, I wonder how that could have been so.

The Keys are a lot slicker now than their days of bashing out their high-volume blues as a two-man band, but don’t get me wrong. They’re still rocking. “Lonely Boy,” with its fuzzy, rubbery guitar hook, is nothing short of a gas. And “Gold on the Ceiling” has a healthy blues crunch, even though the main riff is played by some sort of keyboard instead of a guitar, while the minor-key “Mind Eraser” is downright soulful.

So don’t begrudge them their success or their efforts to evolve. I just hope that, as they progress, The Black Keys don’t forget why we liked them in the first place.

Blog Bonus: Here's a song from the Kid Congo Powers show I saw in New York last year. (I didn't shoot this, but I'm pretty sure I was standing right next to the person who did.)

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