The Pretty Things, Balboa Island
In my last column I time-shifted back 35 years to talk about a new CD of old music by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. This week I've got a CD of brand new music from a band that goes back even further.
At the opposite end of the pop music spectrum from Papa John's shimmery harmonies lie The Pretty Things. 43 years after its first recording, the band that made the Rolling Stones look like polite gentlemen is going strong (if sporadically), and their new album – the first in eight years – sounds far more vital than anything their fellow survivors, the Stones and the Who – bless 'em both – could ever record this late in their careers.
Probably no artist as astronomically successful as those bands could remain this real. The Stones and the Who stretched and polished their musical horizons over the decades. The Pretty Things were never about polish. They were about the beast that scratches your face and gives you an infection, then stomps on your foot for good measure. Yet there's a simple, aching beauty to some of the new songs.
Lead singer Phil May, guitarist Dick Taylor (the Stones' original bass player), and their bandmates enjoyed a period of great popularity in the mid-60s in Britain, though their success didn't cross over to the US. The songs they crafted then were good, but they're better writers now. Some of the credit for that goes to Frank Holland, a relatively late addition to the band. Meanwhile May's voice, always effective, has deepened and strengthened with age.
Perhaps the Pretty Things never had the pop songwriting genius of Pete Townshend or Jagger-Richard. They didn't channel their raw energy into the kind of tunes that could transcend their time, penetrate and become part of the collective soul. Instead the Things built attitude into art, years before the punk revolution made fuck-you rebelliousness mainstream. They were a little too nasty even for those relatively enlightened cultural gatekeepers who welcomed the Stones as a raunchy alternative to the clean-cut Beatles. Laboring in obscurity, they've stayed true to their vision.
The band has retained a cult following over the years. The new CD should please those fans and also create some new ones, provided it gets a chance to be heard. Its British Invasion-style, blues-influenced pop songs aren't prettied up for a pop audience. Parts of the CD are breathtakingly raw, like "All Light Up" and the rave-up towards the end of the epic "(Blues for) Robert Johnson." The elemental rock anthem "Buried Alive" sounds like a lost collaboration between Cream and T. Rex, the cover of Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" suits the band fine, and "Freedom Song" wallows in its Fats-Domino-in-Hell piano triplets like a pig in murky water. Set off against those are a handful of lighter pop nuggets like "Mimi" and "Pretty Beat."
The Pretty Things weren't for everybody back in 1964, and they're not for everybody now. But they're still exactly who they are. It's quite remarkable.
Larry Bagby, On the Radio (EP)
Larry Bagby's plaintive voice and melodic, heartland-country songs have a polished sound but a rootsy, almost archaic appeal. The hero of the intense title track is a musician playing small bars, dreaming of making it big and getting played on the radio (a primitive music distribution system popular in the 20th century). The acoustically funky "Done Giving Love" rocks unselfconsciously, like music used to do before everything became ironic, and "Player with a Heart" does right by its old-timey rockabilly feel.
"Counting My Lucky Stars" is an old-fashioned love song with imagistic lyrics and a lovely melody. The other two ballads are forgettably prosaic and could have been culled. But this an EP worth checking out if you're a fan of rootsy, Dixie-fried, acoustic-based country rock. If nothing else, it proves that Larry Bagby is a lot more than the bully from Buffy.
Listen to tracks from On the Radio here.
Jenn Franklin, Errors & Omissions (EP)
Jenn Franklin's assured debut is getting a fresh release this Fall. There's a savage honesty in her piano-driven songs and poetic lyrics ("Broken compass, we just never knew/When north became south became lost") that make them stand out despite the straightforward pop-rock forms in which she and producer Peter Overton work. The disc feels more like a a brief, pointed album than an EP. Its six songs stretch for 26 minutes, after all – longer than a typical LP when the Pretty Things were starting out!
Although Franklin is a piano player and a good one, her sound is more Evanescence than Vanessa Carlton, more Alannah Myles (especially in "Mercy") than Tori Amos – though "Impasse 900" does bring to mind the latter's hit "Cornflake Girl." Her voice is captured with a slightly distancing effect that reminds me of the way female vocals were recorded in the problematic 80s, but that's a minor quibble.
The opening song, "What Took You So Long," rocks the hardest but, overloaded with crunching guitar tracks, it feels the least honest. "Impasse 900," on the other hand, successfully snaked into my veins. My favorite is the intensely dramatic ballad "Fade," while "No Mercy" and the lovely "Cozumel" are fully juiced with blood and guts.