Songs of the Cows
San Francisco's Mermen take the concept of instrumental surf music so far from shore that something new comes bubbling to the surface. It's the audio equivalent of Dick Dale poached in psychedelics, a strum and twang that's both invigorating and mesmerizing as it swirls in ever-deeper waters.
The Mermen's big kahuna, Jim Thomas, plays with a choppy sense of amateurism that puts a blur on the band's familiar foundations. He comes off as sloppy, and the band's music is all the better for it. "Curve," the opening cut on the band's latest release, Songs of the Cows, rattles like a bare-bulb romp from an inland garage. The next song, "Slipping the Glimpse," has a teetering alternative feel, more in league with a young Sonic Youth than the Surf Punks, replete with progressive rhythms and jagged guitars over a wall of drone.
Those two songs, along with the easy-play pick 'n' pluck of the next cut, "Varykino Snow," are like rip tides for what comes next. Thomas and his fellow Mermen (bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Martyn Jones) turn stoic and introspective, starting with the beautiful "A Heart With Paper Walls," an austere, echo-drenched effort that sounds at times like outtakes from the last Television CD, with the drama of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western in the reverb of the soaring guitar lines.
Equally convincing is the CD's almost-epic final cut, "Brain Wash," which again finds the Mermen in a reflective mood, this time over the course of a four-part piece that ranges from bucolic, to hypnotic, to splayed and prickly, to the closing segment's icy spaciness. Through it all, Thomas lets his sonics do the singing in ways that speak volumes.
Songs of the Cows is soaked with the kind of inborn attraction that comes with something truly new. And there's more of the Mermen's kind of post-Prozac music out there. A resurgence of musing psychedelia is taking gentle hold of other up 'n' coming American acts. Bands like the manic Alabama Surf Heads, Man or Astroman? and the darker, country-colored Sparklehorse are making little sandcastles on the alternative shoreline. This new wave may not be the next big thing, but it's a refreshing break from most everything else on the beach right now.--Ted Simons
As a seminal wall-of-guitar pop band that emerged from the same 1976-77 English punk explosion that birthed the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Buzzcocks could respectably be retired by now, reliving their glory days over a pint of bitter instead of recreating them onstage and in the studio. Front man Pete Shelley is far from ruminating in a home for romantic misfits who double as slashing guitar players, however. Now, with the release of a new live album, he seems determined to exert as much influence on rock in the '90s as he did two decades ago--or maybe he just got tired of hearing Elastica rip him off.
No less an alterna-rock luminary than Kurt Cobain once gushed about how the Buzzcocks' buzz-saw guitars and frantic beats helped mold him as a songwriter, and on Nirvana's so-called "last tour" through Europe, the two bands even shared a bill at Cobain's insistence. The Buzzcocks' influence on Green Day and Offspring is even more obvious. Recent efforts by both those bands strongly recall the blistering guitar duels between Shelley and Howard Devoto--two guys who knew how to craft an impeccable three-minute pop song, i.e., one that kicked your guts out even as its brilliant harmonies kept you coming back for more.
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Cheeky lyrics typically complemented the heated debate between instruments on Buzzcocks songs. "Orgasm Addict," one of 16 fantastic A- and B-sides compiled on 1979's Singles Going Steady, takes a wry look at masturbation: "Well, you tried it just once, found it all right for kicks/But now you found out that it's a habit that sticks."
Although Devoto (who went on to form Magazine) and original drummer John Maher are long gone, Shelley and guitarist Steve Diggle have, since 1993's well-received Trade Test Transmissions, managed to pull off a legitimate comeback. The new songs don't quite rival the old, but they're plenty fast and loud, and loaded with enough fine hooks to prove the band is still at least as relevant as the new crop of bashers copping their licks. Both "Innocent" and "Who Will Help Me to Forget" broil with the same nervous energy and muscle that mark early Buzzcocks efforts, while "Last to Know" leaves open chords clanging all over the place. "Roll It Over," a cut from an upcoming April release, bristles with controlled fury. This band is not faking a thing.
Like many live albums, French suffers from certain technical flaws: The EQ is occasionally a bit muddy, and at times the full spectrum of sound feels too compressed. Still, the set list brims with enough vintage tunes to overshadow such technical complaints. Stack "Harmony in My Head," "Oh Shit!" and "I Don't Mind" on top of each other and you have enough rock 'n' roll nitro to knock over a Brinks truck.
Despite their legion of sycophantic protgs, Shelley and crew will have to work hard to stay on the scene. Like Orson Welles, who lived most of his life in the shadow of his masterpiece, the Buzzcocks will be judged not simply by how they handle themselves against their contemporaries, but also by how well they fare against their virtually flawless former selves.--Matt Golosinski