Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Gun Club

While Jeffrey Lee Pierce may not have been the most friendly or likable person on the LA scene, I have to admit that his concept of merging punk and blues was pretty genius. Two genres based on passion more than virtuosity, both with anti-establishment leanings, truly worked when joined and many bands have since built upon this idea. The first album, Fire of Love, is a classic of this sound, with punk energy fused with blues covers, slide guitar and wailing voices.

Bursting out right from the start with classic blues concepts stated bluntly and without subtlety, “Sex Beat” is a 4 chord punker filled with energy and cool, leering lyrics. Summoning the ghost of Robert Johnson for a wild re-working of his “Preaching the Blues”, this puts dynamics to good use as they leave plenty of open space in the verses with Ward’s sparse slide guitar lines and then builds into a whoopin’ frenzy for the choruses.

The band quiets down considerably for the slow, dark “Promise Me” with added emotional flavoring from Tito Larriva’s violin. Tito also produced about half of the numbers on this release with the Flesheaters’ Chris D. taking the production role for the others.

Back to the high energy for “She’s Like Heroin to Me” – a great title for a great song about sexual and emotional addiction. As with most of the songs, this relies on a simple chord progression but even with his off-key vocals, Jeffrey’s words and melodies really makes this work.

Co-written by later Cramps member Kid Congo Powers, “For the Love of Ivy” is a haunting tune filled with voodoo and blues concepts dedicated to the lovely mistress of the reverbed guitar, Poison Ivy Rorschach (with more than a nod to Lux in the line “all dressed up like an Elvis from hell”). Again, this has plenty of quiet sections alternating with loud chords, culminating is a wild rave-up of slide madness, yelps and screams.

Probably my favorite tune is “Fire Spirit”, a three chorder with nods to “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, with tougher backing and more “spirited” vocals. This is far more frantic than any of the other songs and Pierce sounds at times as if he were on fire! Just proves that r’n’r is meant to be simple and emotional!

While the song does not sound spooky at all, “Ghost on the Highway” tells a tale a lust and murder backed by a frantic beat and a cool chord progression which I dug enough to steal for a song of mine at one time! Another hypnotically repetitive number is “Jack on Fire”, based on a single chord with references to Mardi Gras, death and sex (common themes for Jeffrey, voodoo and the blues).

For me, “Black Train” is fairly forgettable compared to the others here – just not a stand-out for either the music or words. Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water” is another slow tune and actually drags a little. There are some cool sections, such as the noisy slide instrumental break, but this continues the low point of the record. Truthfully, the closer, “Goodbye Johnny”, is so similar to these previous two songs that it all blends together – and not in the best manner.

As a whole, this is a terrific release, with more quality tunes that most bands accomplish in a lifetime, but it certainly has its weaknesses, as well. Overall, a good concept and a fine record.

I personally think that Jeffrey came into his own on Miami. His singing is vastly improved – whether by practice or by finding the right song keys, I’m not sure – and the band really works together on some great tunes. The sound is much more polished and professional, as well, with production by Chris Stein and some backing vocals by Debbie Harry (presumably because Pierce was the LA head of the Blondie fan club).

Opening with “Carry Home”, the change is immediately apparent. The songwriting is more advanced, though the old elements, such as Ward Dotson’s slide guitar, are still evident. Jeffrey’s voice is a little thin, but he really emotes here and creates an original sound and feel. A little more bluesy in feel is the riff-oriented “Like Calling Up Thunder”, that also has some early American influences in the melody and some lyrics.

Another well written and more progressive tune is “Brothers and Sisters” that includes some nice words and builds to a powerful chorus. Although previously done by Lydia Lunch, the band performs a strong take on CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” and it really fits in this setting. Jeffrey even plays lead guitar on this track and proves to be a reasonably accomplished player (and he does even more guitar work in future records).

Closer in sound and feel to the first album is “Devil in the Woods” – sorta like “For the Love of Ivy” in a way. The verse is hypnotically repetitious but the chorus has some interesting changes. I dig the chuggin’ rhythm and the insistent slide guitar. Pierce tells the tale of murder and neighbor’s reactions in “Texas Serrenade”, propelled by big power chords and augmented by Ward’s guitar lines. Again, a creatively written tune and extremely memorable with a sound fitting the subject matter.

A slow, voodoo-influenced piece is “Watermelon Man”, with plenty of full, moody, wailing backing vocals, jungle rhythms, sound effects and ethereal slide guitar. Haunting and open, but quite effective. Much more upbeat and again reminiscent of Fire of Love, “Bad Indian” is a simpler, punkier tune. They take the traditional “John Hardy” and punk it up, as well, and Pierce gets another chance to show off on lead guitar.

Since I first heard the MC5 cover the song “Fire of Love” in the 70’s, this Jody Reynolds’ tune has been one of my all-time faves! I was skeptical that anyone else could do it the r’n’r justice that the 5 did, but the Gun Club do a great version! Powerful, riffin' and even Pierce’s vocals are dead-on! From here they move onto “Sleeping in Blood City”, an upbeat number again in the style of FoL tunes, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an older song.

The album closer is one that I think is one of their best, “Mother Earth”. This is a mid-paced country-esque, 3 chord tune that is highlighted by cool riffs and a good melody. They have a guest steel guitar player, Mark Torneo, on this one, giving the song an un-earthly feel. Pierce sings in a low voice, which really works here, without the strain and whine that he would get when trying for higher notes. This all works together for a final atmospheric piece.

The Las Vegas Story continued the evolution of the band with a vastly different lineup. Ward and bassist Rob Ritter had left the band to be replaced by original member Kid Congo Powers (returning from his stint in the Cramps) and Patricia Morrison who had previously played with the Bags and Legal Weapon and before she joined Sisters of Mercy. Drummer Terry Graham remained and kept the Gun Club’s “sex beat” intact. Jeffrey plays guitar on most of the record, as well.

Beginning with a soundscape and Jeffrey’s spoken intro, the band comes in on “Walkin’ With the Beast” with an open sounding, almost off-kilter rhythm but with walls of guitar from Powers. The sound is somewhat different and Congo gets to let loose with some of his feedback wailing while Jeffrey continued to improve as a vocalist. Definitely a new step in the band’s sound as they moved even farther from their punk roots.

The oddly titled “Eternally Is Here” has a feel similar to X’s later works – such as “See How We Are” and even has Blasters/Knitters guitars Dave Alvin sitting in. Pierce is shrieking a bit more off key here – kinda like in the early days. Alvin also plays on the dark and foreboding “The Stranger in Our Town” that winds through a few musical changes while sounding menacing throughout. The ranting ending is wonderfully maddening!

“My Dreams” is a tight, minimalistic 2 chord piece that almost sounds like Wire at the beginning, but moves into a more complex landscape while it keeps its insistent beat. I definitely see similarities with X’s mid-80’s characteristics, but this keeps a unique Gun Club stamp on it, as well.

Pharoah Sanders’ “The Master Plan” is a loose, guitar jazz-jam that moves directly into George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”. Jeffrey always wanted to be an androgynous chanteuse but didn’t really have the looks, the figure or the voice for it, though he does his best here on this slow ballad. This is a stark departure from anything else the band had done to this point, though is has plenty of spooky noise to keep it from being too jarring.

I would have thought they would have offset that with a rocker, but “Bad America” is still slow-to-mid-tempo with a very basic slide backing. More upbeat (but certainly not frantic) is “Moonlight Motel”, with a rockin’ 4/4 beat and interesting melody. “Give Up the Sun” fluctuates from a slow, bluesy tune to an energetic rocker for the choruses and builds into a nice, powerful rant for Jeffrey and the band.

While this still had some great moments, I think that Pierce was floundering a little here and not sure what direction to take as the group changed and evolved. It is certainly healthy to not remain stagnant and this is still above average, but lacking in a clear vision.