03 May 2009
A Deadly Combination
Nouveau Cliché 2008
Seriously, that's how I got this album. The finale to a very enjoyable cabbie/customer conversation, the driver offered me his CD (he was Ted Narcotic nee Higgins his very own self), and in exchange I said I'd give it a serious review. I certainly don't review every CD someone gives me but I was in the mood for something different to the stuff I already had, and this fits that bill nicely.
A little inter-tubes research reveals that Mr. Narcotic has led a colourful and creative existence in Seattle, at one time hosting a public-access TV show as well as putting out the occasional bit of music under various codenames. This one fills all but two seconds of it's 80-minute capacity. (The picture I'm using to your left is from a previous vinyl release, not the actual album cover -- since it doesn't have one).
The overall feel of the record is, in a word, "drunk." This is not intended as an insult, merely as a warning that the arrangements are loose and sloppy, lyrics are improvised and variable in quality, production haphazard and the songs rarely stick to established structures or regular rhythms. Which is perfectly okay if you're in mood for a little Zappa-liberated minimal indie-rock/punk with an amateurish charm.
A Deadly Combination starts off with "I Thought I'd Miss You (Parts 1 and 2)," and that was probably a bad strategic move. The combined opus is long (nearly nine minutes), production is sloppy and uneven, burying the vocals for the first couple of minutes, seems to wander a bit (into Shaggs territory in places), and seems more like a jam than an actual song (complete with not-lyrics, rather a ad-libbed screed about a former lover). A later track would have been a better opener to ease the listener in before pelting them with the long, rambling jams.
Eventually, the "song" settles down a bit and begins to take shape. If you stick with it, after about three minutes the guitar work transforms, the words form into lyrics, and most importantly the point comes into focus. The singer portrays a petulant and hurting "dumpee" defiantly claiming he doesn't miss the "dumper," protesting too much as it were. The vocal becomes increasing childlike (and prominent) and, once it reaches its apex, begins to devolve again. Kind of like a dream, half-baked and hazy but with definite impressions.
"I Wannabe a Cop" takes a dim view of the police, but I find myself very impressed with how well the music goes with the violent imagery. This is hardly the first band who's put guitar-drums-vocal up front in the mix, but all three are well-done and work together pretty nicely here. This track reminds me of Henry Rollins meeting The Fall, with the sparse arrangement bringing focus on the story, which again only gets fully revealed towards the end -- the character here is again a disgruntled "ex" wishing he was an authority figure so as to enable his revenge.
Lest you feel that the record is going to stick with the dark side of love, "Like Nothing at All" is sure to bring a smile to your face. Who couldn't love an advice lyric like this "Wear something sexy ... like nothing at all"? The production again recalls the Shaggs, but I can still hear the Lou Reed influence. The (funny) premise starts to wear thin after two-and-a-half-minutes, but it's a nice change of pace with a hilarious lyrical bonus in the final minute.
The energy that threatened to leave us towards the end of the previous song returns (along with some better structure) in "Dancing with the Dinosaurs." We can finally hear some bass (by Pete Becktell, who's buried in the mix too much of the time) climbing up to be heard, which in this case really highlights the Corman-esque 60s psych guitar work (very impressively done by Kelly Kristjansen). This one is distinctly Iggy in flavour and style, and tackles a surprisingly "heavy" topic in an upbeat (perhaps a bit silly) fashion. A nice change of pace.
"Why Am I So Slow" features a laid-back sound and some enjoyable call-and-response and vocal overdubbing. By this point, however, the obvious main criticism is that the lyrics should really be worked on, written down and edited for clarity and structure. This gets particularly bad on "Because I Like to Do Nice Things for You," which can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a funny rant or a free-verse song. The stuttering of the singer and amused reaction of the rest of the band (?!) are nice, but had the best of these ideas been written out the song would have been AWESOME.
A frustrating element on this record is that many songs start off very strong: inventive melody, great playing, and a clear lyrical idea like the way "Wakeup Sleeping Beauty" begins, but time and again, the middle bits fall apart in improvisation -- a half a song at best. The chorus here is performed as well as any other band, and you think you're in for a great bit of faux-Iggy or maybe Richard Hell or John Doe, but it's not to be. Admittedly, the premise of the song (the singer's girlfriend snores like a fiend!) is pretty funny, but after such a disciplined opening, it's disappointing that the follow-up is so aimless. There's a faint hint of background singing towards the end, an element that should have been used more often.
"My Favourite Station" seems to be about Heath Ledger, though this is not made explicit. Ted seems to have a knack for some good (if basic) spontaneous rhymes, but again tying these to a traditional structure would strengthen the point. He relies far too much on his talented drummer (Matt Moody) and guitarist (Kristjansen) to carry the song.
The closest we get to a real song is "When You Step in It," which has a great Lou Reed vibe to it. Most of the other songs go on longer than they should and would benefit from being cut back, but "When You Step in It" is exactly the opposite, you wish it had been extended and explored more:
“When You Step in It” by Ted Narcotic from A Deadly Combination
Starting with "I'll Never Give You a Million Dollars," we abandon any semblance of trying to do a "real song," and get into a set of tracks so raw and unpolished that even calling them "jam sessions" is too kind. This might be fire from which a real song is forged, but like sausage and legislation, the audience should never hear the process in action. Even compared to the loose-and-free-range nature of the previous tracks, these aren't ready for (sub) prime time. There's a germ of a good idea in each track, but it never gets any further than that.
The band threatens to get their shit back together with "Ringtone on Your Cellphone," but it's again too sloppy to work out, despite being an excellent premise for a song (boyfriend notices girlfriend has an "unknown friend" on her cell phone). The basic ingredients for this to be a really good song are all painfully obvious here, but like Cheney and reality they simply refuse to come together. I do like the Zappa-esque closing, however.
If you remember a Night Flight show called "New Wave Theatre," you can imagine this band showing up on it. Their talent belies the hit-and-miss execution, the CD sounding for all the world like it was recorded in a single night as the whiskey flowed. Perhaps this album should come with a free bag of weed as a "listening enhancer."
The 34-second-long "You're Mad" closes the album, a little short piece of inventiveness that might have been a heck of a "spiral scratch" finale from a band who clearly can play well, clearly can sing well, and has good ideas for songs, but desperately needs a producer or manager who can help them shape the clay. Or maybe I missed the point.
Even with my criticisms, I'm glad I met Mr. Narcotic and got to hear the band. Bits of this are just delightful in a b-movie way, and I'm just the kind of guy who appreciates things like that. Second-best thing I ever got in a cab, that's for sure.
If you think you'd like to step into Mr. Narcotic's world too, he can be reached at email@example.com.