Friday, July 04, 2014

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: New Fireworks from Norton

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
July 4, 2014

Since today’s the Fourth of July — or Independence Day, as the cool people call it — I thought it would be appropriate to salute Norton Records, a truly independent American record company and a firecracker of a label, which recently released three bitchen albums that will make you feel patriotic just listening to them. I know, I know. I’ll stop.

Norton is a great American story. It was founded in 1986 by Billy Miller and Miriam Linna, a Brooklyn couple that published a rock ’n’ roll magazine called Kicks. After Miller and Linna ran a story about rocking West Virginia wild man Hasil Adkins that received a huge response, they decided to start a label to reissue Adkins’ recordings (eventually recording some new material with him). The pair named their label after Ed Norton, Ralph Cramden’s pal on The Honeymooners, and it grew, reissuing tons and tons of obscure old R & B, garage rock, soul, rockabilly, proto-punk, and general craziness — not to mention the fresh sounds of singers and bands who fit in with the general Norton aesthetic.

And then, not quite two years ago, disaster struck. Hurricane Sandy smashed into Norton’s Brooklyn warehouse, destroying a major portion of the company’s inventory. Miller and Linna, who worked countless hours trying to salvage what they could, soon found they had a lot of support. Friends and label fans showed up to help dry off vinyl records and put them in fresh sleeves before they all went to mold. Around the country, people organized benefit rock ’n’ roll shows for Norton, while hip radio programs and podcasts played special shows to draw attention to the label’s plight. Norton survived, and it’s still the place “where the loud sound abounds.” These new albums attest to that.

* Ears Wide Shut by The A-Bones. This loose-knit group of rock fanatics might be considered Norton’s house band. Billy Miller is the lead singer and Miriam Linna plays drums and sings. (She was the first drummer for The Cramps, back in the ‘70s.) Longtime A-Bones bassist Marcus “The Carcass” Natale and guitarist Bruce Bennett are on this album, as are Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, on keyboards, guitar, and vocals, and sax man Stan Zenkoff.

The first thing a devoted Bones fan notices about Ears is that it’s raw and lo-fi, even by A-Bones standards. It has a real-live-at-the-amusement-park-picnic-pavilion feel. Which, to my ears, is not a bad thing.

There are some fine songs here. As usual, the majority are covers, but most are so obscure they might as well be original material. Only two were actually written by The A-Bones, “Lula Baby,” which sounds like a slower, sludgier “Tutti Frutti,” and Catahoula Stomp,” which could be passed off as a long-forgotten masterpiece by Paul Revere & The Raiders. It features some tasty — if a little psychotic — organ from Kaplan.

I’m not even sure where “Henrietta” came from, but it’s one of those songs that has bounced around at the edges of a lot of old rockers’ repertoires. Doug Sahm, John Fogerty, and The Trashmen have all recorded it.

“Luci Baines,” apparently a rocking ode from Arthur Lee, of the band Love, to one of LBJ’s daughters, was initially recorded by Lee’s pre-Love band, The American Four, back in the Great Society era. There’s a surfy instrumental, “Thunder,” first recorded by Bob Taylor & The Counts on Yucca Records, an old Alamogordo label.

And they saved their best for the last. The crunchy, frantic “Sorry” was first recorded by The Easybeats, an Australian band from the mid-’60s. I’ve always preferred the version done a couple of decades later by The Plimsouls (available only on a couple of their live albums), but The A-Bones give the latter group a run for their money here.

My only serious complaint about Ears Wide Shut is that there’s only one track here sung by Linna: the perfectly lecherous “Little School Boy,” originally done by Billy Garner as “Little School Girl.” But if you’re craving more Miriam songs, read on.

* Nobody’s Baby by Miriam. That’s right, just one name, like Cher or Madonna. Or Winger, for that matter. This is Miriam’s first solo album, and it’s a gem. If you’re expecting the same high-intensity, raucous ’n’ roll you find with The A-Bones, you won’t get it on Nobody’s Baby.

Instead, this album reminds me of two previous records, classy efforts both, in the Norton catalog: Dangerous Game, the 2007 “comeback” album by Mary Weiss, lead singer of The Shangri-Las, and All or Nothing by La La Brooks, who used to sing with The Crystals. Like those older albums, Nobody’s Baby is a contemporary take on the classic early- to mid-’60s girl-group sound  — an adult update on the teen yearning and, yes, angst of that golden period.

Linna draws from a wide variety of songwriters, including Jeff Barry (who, with partner Ellie Greenwich, wrote “Leader of the Pack,” “Chapel of Love,” hits for The Ronettes, and dozens more songs — many, you’ve probably never heard of), Tim Buckley, Bobby Darin, Gene Clark (formerly of The Byrds), Neil Young (an early, obscure tune called “There Goes My Babe”), and The Ramones (though Miriam’s version of “Questioningly” sounds more like The Chiffons than anyone who ever played CBGBs).

Besides the influence of Shangri-Las, The Crystals, The Ronettes, and The Angels, I also hear echoes of folk rock – at least Jackie DeShannon-style folk rock – here. That’s especially obvious in the opening song, “My Love Is Gone.” And there are traces of British Invasion siren Sandie Shaw on the noirish “So Lonely.”

Currently, my favorite on Nobody’s Baby is “Walking Down the Street.” It’s the closest thing to a real rocker on the album. I thought this might be an obscure Shangri-Las B-side, but it was originally done by a Pretty Things offshoot band called The Electric Banana.

* Blood From a Stone by Daddy Long Legs. Simply put, this Brooklyn-based trio (originally from St. Louis) is the most exciting blues/punk group, this side of Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band, on the scene today.

Led by a tall, gangly singer, who also goes by the name Daddy Long Legs, they are raw but melodic. This is the group’s second full-length album for Norton — its third, if you count The Vampire, on which they backed R & B crazy man T. Valentine (of “Lucille, Are You a Lesbian” infamy).

Highlights include the frantic “Motorcycle Madness,” the Bo Diddley-inspired “Castin’ My Spell,” a banjo-enhanced country stomp called “Chains-a-Rattlin’,” and “Flesh-Eating Cocaine Blues,” which is just as herky-jerky jittery-wild as the title suggests.

Hear songs from all three of these albums on my latest Big Enchilada podcast episode Canteen Dance .

Here's a couple of videos

The A-Bones performing Luci Baines

Here's some live Miriam

And here's Daddy Long Legs doing the title cut of Blood from a Stone

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