HARD SWEET AND STICKY - The BellRays (Shock)
On an initial listen, you might bemoan the recurrent departure of guitarist Tony Fate as the end of the World's Greatest Punk Rock and Soul Band as you simultaneously nail the opener ("The Same Way") as irrefutable evidence that The BellRays have mellowed out just that little bit too much in pursuit of mainstream acceptance.
Nu-uh. Two strikes.
The delivery is more measured on this one, and fans of the slamming jams of "Grand Fury" or the cut-up bombast of "Let It Blast" will be left wanting, but there are enough scorched earth moments to satisfy most that the bipolar beauty of The BellRays is intact. They're just playing a smarter game.
Whatever way you cut it, Fate's bail-out is a blow but it's one the band's faced down before. Bassist Bob Vennum doubles up on guitar to fill the recording gap (and damn well, it must be said.) Lisa Kekaula's stellar voice remains The Star Attraction but drummer Craig Petty is becoming a well-known secret weapon. So the other elements remain intact.
Here's the rub when you dig into the album at its midpoint: "Blue Against The Sky" is more tasty than tough but "Psychotic Hate Man" revisits the rage and is the very next song. Cue "The Fire Next Time" which is all languid six-string and close-mic'd smoky vocal, it even manages to name-drop Billy Holiday. It's the pattern of "Hard Sweet and Sticky"... serve up something with a sugary coating around a tough interior and savour it while you can because the next tune hits like the doublke-opunch combo of a dentist's drill and bill.
The people closest to "Sticky" would doubtless disagree but it's not a big departure from "Have A Little Faith In Me", which for me found The BellRays finally coming to grips with the studio and refining what they do to something that could easily win radio plaudits or raise the roof like Sunday morning cajun food brunch in Hell's kitchen. That the songs on it and "Sticky" aren't blasting out of mainstream FM speakers all round the world this very moment just proves that radio programmers mostly all suck.
Hit picks: "One Big Party" is chunkier than a can of Mr Heinz' vege soup and is probably better for you. The squawling rumble of "Infection" and steel-capped intent of "Coming Down" sit nicely. The re-recorded "Pinball City" doesn't quite match the original for tearaway excitement but it's growing, believe me.
There's a riot going on and if you ain't aboard for the BellRays ride, you ain't nowhere. – The Barman
HAVE A LITTLE FAITH - The BellRays (Cheap Lullaby/Shock)
The BellRays' new album deftly captures the sound of an already-potent band reaching their full potential and making the best music of their career. Considering their previous output - three studio albums proper, a live DVD, a compilation and various singles - most of which is essential,this is no small feat. "Have a Little Faith", though, is their most consistent effort yet and it distills all of their strengths - amazing vocals, powerful ensemble playing and great songwriting - into 38 minutes of righteous rock'n'soul.
You might recall that lead vocalist extraordinaire Lisa Kekaula did time last year with the DKT/MC5 tour (it would have been nice to have had her up here at the Vancouver show instead of...Dando).The collaboration makes sense because I imagine this is what the 5 might sound like today if they were all still around to contribute to the creative process. You could hear the soul and free jazz influences in the BellRays' past work along with the scuzzy guitar rock but here they really stretch out and every idea, every hook, sounds fully realized.
Things get off to a fine start with "Tell the Lie" a slinky wah-based number which would have made Curtis Mayfield proud. You often hear critics claiming that this or that band would have been all over the radio back in the day but that really is true of several of the tunes on this album and "Tell the Lie" is Exhibit #1. The production, by bassist Robert Vennum, is big,clear and punchy without diminishing the band's power in any way. "Time is Gone", the second song,is psychedelic rock at its finest with a nod to the riff from the 5's "Future Now" (which these guys covered several albums back) thrown in. "Pay the Cobra" and "Snotgun"(!) amp up the fuzz and are prime examples of the BellRays' take on punk rock, which is uniquely their own.
The title song of sorts, "Have a Little Faith in Me" ,appeared on 2000's "Grand Fury" and though this version doesn't differ all that much, it does benefit from the sweeter production and dynamic backing vocals courtesy of Kekaula and Vula Malinga. Again,this would have been a hit on the soul charts in the early '70s for sure, as would "Third Time's the Charm", which could have come straight outta Muscle Shoals Studios with the Stax/Volt house band sitting in...sounds like a Dan Penn, er, penned tune (and that's a huge compliment in case you weren't sure).
Those are some of the highlights but the rest of the album sounds just about as good(I didn't even mention the raging "Detroit Breakdown" for example). This is destined to be on Top Ten lists for the year if there's any justice and it gets enough of a push.The BellRays will be hitting Ausatralian shores supporting Radio Birdman on certain dates, and that's sounding to me like one of the most exciting double bills in recent memory. As I'm in Canada, I'm exceedingly fucking jealous. - Andrew Molloy
THE RED, WHITE & BLACK - The BellRays (In-fidelity Records/Vital Gesture)
A personal reminiscence: I finally clapped eyes on the BellRays in the flesh in early 2003, on my first night in Chicago, less than four hours after stepping off a plane after a 26-hour flight from Australia, and they tore a hole in me. Maybe it was the expectations, the alcohol, the jet-lag or (most probably) a combination of all three, but for 70 minutes, and with scarcely a familiar song in their apparently re-worked set, they were, for me, The Best Band in the World.
Then again, maybe it was none of the above factors and, at that time and place, they just were. Moments like that are fleeting and never to be re-captured. I was just glad to be there.
A couple of years on and the fifth album by The BellRays is here. When I say "here" I mean Australia; it's been on the shelves overseas for a little while and In-Fidelity is the only company to have taken a punt in this country. It's only The BellRays' third full studio effort in 15 years of existence, if you discount the jazzy 1992 debut, "In the Light of the Day", which was by an almost totally different band - sounds like it - and "Raw Collection", a very cool 2003 compile of singles and rare cuts.
While the first "real" album by this configuration of The BellRays, "Let It Blast!" (1998), was (literally) a garage recording that dripped underdone greatness, the last one, 2000's "Grand Fury", favoured jams over songs. "The Red, White & Black", on the other hand, manages to build on both and marry spontaneity with focus - with stunning results.
Everything that's great about this band is here. From Lisa Kekaula's amazing vocals to Tony Fate's staggeringly supple guitar-work, and the turn-on-a-pin rhythm section of Bob Vennum (bass) and relative newcomer Eric Allgood (drums). (Now, there's two suitable names - Venom and All Good! - and shit, they play like it).
Plus (most importantly) they have songs. Tunes that extend themselves and grow in intensity with each listen. Try not to be swept along with the relentless groove of "Sister Disaster" or the heady majesty of the one that follows, "You're Sorry Now" (a re-recorded early single that's grown with the band).
More measured rock than frenetic punk, "Voodoo Train" and "Black is the Colour" hit with the impact of an aural SWAT team. Kekaula manages to wring out a vocal that rivals would rob a bank for on "Used to Be", a track worthy of mainstream radio play (albeit it without shades of Basement Jaxx, her "other" band.)
While some may be tempted to initially regard a song like "Revolution Get Down" as a cliche (that "Aretha-meets-the-MC5" tag is hard to toss when you appear to embrace it), it's not a simple Ramalama work-out and first impressions are not always accurate. To be sure, this is music firmly rooted in the finest Detroit (soul and hi-energy) traditions. That The BellRays have attracted the patronage of Brother Wayne and Lisa filled Evan Dando's shoes on two European tours for DKT-MC5 - in all-too-brief but inspired fashion, on the strength of the muddy tape I've heard - hasn't taken any momentum out of that back-story.
I can understand why this (Californian) band resists the comparisons. There are worse tags to wear, but everyone wants to forge their own path. Rest assured, The BellRays do.
There are 21 cuts, seven of them brief interludes that segue from one full track to an other in the style of "Let It Blast!", and add to the listening experience. Somehow, "The Red, Black & White" manages to be a sprawling album with nary an ounce of fat on it. That's some feat.
Bonus: There's a five-track EP called "Australiapithicus" with the Down Under edition - and it's a pearler. Four knock 'em down rockers and a near seven-minute outer space jam ("Trouble"). Worth the investment if you're overseas.
OK, it's out. If we're good we may even see a live tour in Australia. So no excuses for buying it. See if this rave is off beam. – The Barman
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