To start the new year right: classic English punk and a shot of what’s next; the definitive account of the greatest British white-R&B band of the Sixties that you still don’t know; and experimental vigor from Norway, vintage and immediate.
The Buzzcocks, Another Music in a Different Kitchen; Love Bites (Domino)
The latest CD-and-vinyl iterations of the Buzzcocks’ first two albums didn’t arrive in time for their 40th-anniversary deadline. By cruel coincidence, these newly remastered English-punk landmarks — originally issued in rapid-fire sequence in March and September of 1978 — now serve as twin memorials to singer-guitarist Pete Shelley, who died at 63 on December 6th in Estonia, his adopted home.
Otherwise, timing was everything in this Manchester band’s clipped, serrated fury and Shelley’s specialty as its driving composer after the sudden departure in 1977 of original singer and co-writer Howard Devoto: the explosive autopsy and stubborn restoration of broken hearts in two-minute blurs of telegrammatic confession and ABBA-grenade choruses. Even the lingering traces of the Devoto era on Another Music — “Fast Cars,” “You Tear Me Up,” “Love Battery” — became fresh momentum in Shelley’s bleating boy-ish incantation and the machine-gun Bo Diddley chop of Steve Diggle, promoted from bass to guitar. Shelley had also written his first classics in “No Reply,” “Autonomy” and “Fiction Romance,” his lyric seesaw between urgent need and resigned independence propelled forward by bassist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher.
Inevitably, Love Bites felt rushed, a marginally lesser shock. But Shelley’s emotional candor deepened in “Real World,” “Sixteen Again” and the immortal buzz-saw riddle, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” the Buzzcocks’ biggest U.K. hit. In these editions, Another Music and Love Bites lack bonus tracks and related non-LP singles. But there are 2008 reissues loaded with those extras. And there is something to be said for sticking to the albums as they first landed, now sounding like a crucial bridge between John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising.
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The Mysterines, “Hormone” (Pretty Face Recordings)
In a recent interview, speaking to the British magazine Shindig, Buzzcocks contemporary Paul Weller cited this young trio from Liverpool led by singer-guitarist Lia Medcalf as a reason to be cheerful for rock’s future. This 2018 digital single, the band’s only release so far, is slim but convincing evidence: three minutes of relentless, martial throb and glacial-fuzz guitar, topped by Medcalf’s hypno-argument singing until the chorus when she jumps into a searing but assured wail. It’s all done in 3:06. May there be much more in 2019.
The Action, Shadows and Reflections: The Complete Recordings 1964-1968 (Grapefruit)
Weller is also quoted in the liner notes accompanying this four-CD set, setting you straight about the best mid-Sixties British-R&B band you have probably never heard: “The Action were one of the few bands to not only capture the Tamla/soul sounds, but actually shape it in their own style and sound.” For Weller, the Action’s vocalist Reggie King was among “the best of the white soul singers” — even better in some respects, Weller claimed, than the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott. Big words, yes, but the Beatles’ producer George Martin was the original believer. He signed the Action to his own production company and released five singles in 1965 and ’66 that inexplicably went nowhere, mostly American-R&B numbers but covered with the radiant tension of Smokey Robinson cutting the Who at Motown. Incredibly, the Action’s finest moment for Martin, “Wasn’t It You,” only slipped out as a 1969 German B side, after most of the band had turned to heavy psychedelia as Mighty Baby. The 86 tracks — including radio sessions and extensive demos — may seem like overkill for a cult combo that never finished an album in its lifetime. But the best of the extras, especially the period outtakes probably destined for that phantom LP, affirm this belated justice.
Moskus, Mirakler (Hubro)
Svein Finnerud Trio, Plastic Sun (Odin)
On December 2nd, at the Henie Onstad Art Centre outside Oslo, I saw the young Norwegian trio Moskus — pianist Anja Lauvdal, bassist Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson and drummer Hans Hulbækmo — perform, in its entirety, an album nearly as old as their combined ages: Plastic Sun, originally recorded by pianist Svein Finnerud’s group in the same room at that museum in February 1970. Plastic Sun was a turning point in Norwegian jazz, a bracing, intuitive union of advanced composing (Ornette Coleman, Annette Peacock) and free improvisation caught live with ECM-like clarity (when that label was barely months old). In their treatment, Moskus rightly honored the spindly, pensive motifs in each piece, then took their own quietly exuberant license in the spaces in between. Mirakler has its own limber intimacy, with the band’s concise writing and jazz-trio dynamics extended with Hammond organ, electronic keyboards and eccentric percussion. Imagine the Bad Plus going electric in the manner of Brian Eno’s Another Green World — then get Mirakler.