FLATTERY: A TRIBUTE TO RADIO BIRDMAN, VOLUME 3 – Various Artists (No-Mango Records)
How timely that this should arrive in my mailbox the same week I got tickets to see Radio Birdman in Dallas the end of June; sci-fi on a number of levels. The sender: my old ‘net bud Dave Champion, the Canadian king of Scandi rawk, formerly of Washington, D.C., now residing in Stockholm. A Canuck military brat, Champ came of age in the ‘meercun capital during the punk-rock heyday of the 9:30 Club, and wound up running security for the Aussie embassy there. He compiled this series in collaboration with Jake Starr, Library of Congress archivist and frontman for D.C. punkeroos Adam West. No one loves the Birdmen more than these two.
Hard to believe it’s been, um, seven years since Volumes 1 and 2 of this series were released. In that time, we’ve seen the full-on resurgence of Birdman as a touring and recording unit, and this latest installment serves as a true testimonial, as it were, to their enduring and global influence. The lineup for Volume 3 includes five bands each from Orstralia, Sweden, and Finland (!), and one each from Norway, France, Germany, and, um, Oklahoma.
Covering Birdman is a tricky proposition. In the fullness of time, it seems that Blue Oyster Cult was a far bigger influence on Dr. Tek’s writing than the Stooges or MC5 were. While the twin pillars of Dee-troit ramalama tended to keep things fairly simple, structurally speaking, the chords in a Birdman song tend to come fast ‘n’ furious like BOC’s – a kind of Rawk “Giant Steps” or something. While lotsa chord changes haven’t prevented jazzcats from individuating a lot when performing standards, it’s probably a combo platter of having to ‘member all of those chords and reverence for the ‘riginals that leads most of the performers here to take a fairly strict-constructionist approach to the Birdman canon. (In the liners, the M-16s even credit individual players for “Deniz Tek’s guitar parts” and “Chris Masuak’s guitar parts.”) What deviation there is generally comes in the form of tempo changes or technical inability to render an exact duplicate.
The Stooges-Five influence on Birdman came more in the energy and intensity department, and that’s what most of these bands borrow most from the Birdmen, too, sonically speaking: amped-up frenzy. The Tip Toppers get points for adding backing voxxx and some imaginative arranging touches to their speeded-up “Hanging On.” Realizing that Rob was chanting as much as he was singing on a lot of Birdman material, it’s always kinda distracting when singers like the guy guesting with the Sacred Sailors’ add notes that weren’t in the ‘riginals; while it ain’t exactly Tony Bennett singing “Search and Destroy,” Manne’s vocal resemblance to the Scorpions’ Klaus Meine doesn’t help. Holy Curse’s “Crying Sun” has been around for a few seasons, but it’s good to hear it in its proper context here. Initially, at least, the Sewergrooves employ drier guitar tones than most Birdman copyists on their “Smith and Wesson Blues,” only hotting it up for the second half of the break.
The back-to-back pairing of “Man With Golden Helmet” and “Love Kills” (two of the three slow songs here) was a good idea, allowing the listener a breather for some Doors/BOC-inspahrd mysterioso. The Finnish Flaming Sideburns’ Argentinian frontman Eduardo Martinez sings the lyrics to the former en espanol before giving up for the last line (what, he couldn’t find a translation for “He’s the top man in the language department”?). It’s nice to hear how far these cats have evolved from their initial near-total Sonics influence; there’s some real nice guitar interplay here. I’d like to know who the uncredited piano player is on the Lucky Punch’s effective version of “Love Kills;” whoever it is, they definitely get MVP for the track. The Mean Idols’ literal take on “I-94” makes me nostalgic (!) for the ska version on the "Dodge Main" album. The Specimens’ all-needles-in-the-red version of “Death By the Gun” is over-the-top enough to be some Jap band like High Rise (that’s meant as a compliment, by the way), and a striking contrast with the crisply chugging “Snake” by the Doits – a throwback to the power-pop ‘80s - that follows.
Mustang’s “Anglo Girl Desire” almost trumps the ‘riginal for aggression and sheer presence, docked a notch for the ‘80s hair-metal solo (a problematic decade, thatun). The Trassels’ “Burned My Eye” has the same vocal problem as the Sacred Sailors track; the harmonica solo’s an original touch. Conversely, the Devilrock Four’s singer gets the vocal dynamism award for their version of “Murder City Nights;” when he screams “Yeaaahhhh” before the break, you believe him. The cats in American Ruse are actual ‘meercuns (I believe there was once a Brit band by that name, too); maybe I’ll get to “Do the Pop” with ‘em at the Birdman show in Dallas. The guitar on the second part of the break on their otherwise-snat version sounds more ‘n a little out of tune to these feedback-scorched ears.
Mysterioso-hood reappears in the form of the Mutants’ take on Pip Hoyle’s “Alien Skies.” Jack Europa blows sax like Steve Mackay on The "Weirdness". This might be my fave track here. It’d be impossible to top the ‘riginal “Aloha Steve and Danno,” so the Deadbeats don’t even try; sounds like they even sampled the intro. The epidemic of uncredited klavier players continues with the Lords of Gravity’s “More Fun.” Chronic overachievers the “Demons” bogart more time on the comp than anybody else, as is their wont, with a “Living Eyes Medley” that kloodges together substantial chunks of “455 SD,” “Do the Moving Change,” “Smith and Wesson Blues,” and “I-94,” with Nicke Hellacopter guesting on guitars and a drummer who’s clearly so excited to be involved in this project that he can’t resist rushing the beat all the way through.
It’s always good to hear these songs; this latest "Flattery" volume only affirms their status as classics. Now, will Champion and Starr go for a fourth volume, dedicated to covers of "Zeno Beach" toons? Film, as they say, at 11. (Grab a copy - quick - from Get Hip.)
- Ken Shimamoto
I'm not quite over tribute albums. God only knows there's been enough of them. If the Radios didn't have enough good tunes, "Flattery" compilers Jake Starr and Dave Champion could have been justified in pulling the pin at two volumes into their series of homages to Birdman. It turned out that most of the bands came to them, and the third disc came together with little discernible decline in quality. Like most tribs, "Flattery Volume 3" always walks that fine line between idolation and deconstruction, but the quality of the tunes - and the bands - ultimately wins out.
If I had to cast a vote, the Mutants' spacey and languid take on the already ethereal instro "Alien Skies" would win it. There's a sax snaking in and out that simply elevates these Finns' version a notch over 'most everything else.
My jury's still out on The Flaming Sideburns' re-arrangement of "Man With Golden Helmet" (sung, mostly in Spanish and re-titled "El Hombre de Casco Dorado") but I expect the verdict to be positive. The song's stripped of its Doorsian doom and injected with a cocktail sensibility. It ends up being dragged a long way from home but that's often a good thing.
Honorable mention also to The Trassels, who turn "Burn My Eye" upside down, shake and add harmonica and tremelo. They mightn't have won Eurovision on their home turf but Finland kicks major arse on this compilation.
The low point - surprisingly because I really like the band - is the Specimens' lo-fi "Death By The Gun". It pulls up short, partly because it doesn't sound like The Specimens. Fellow Aussies The M-16's stick too faithfully to the original "Monday Morning Gunk". The late, great Lords of Gravity sounded like they were treading the same path with "More Fun" on an initial listen but there's a sparseness, not immediately apparent, that carries the day. Fellow Aussies The Devilrock Four contribute a workmanlike "Murder City Nights."
Germany's The Lucky Punch apply an uncharacteristic lighter touch to "Love Kills" with a rolling piano and spidery guitars that works fine. Finland's Mean Idols might have grown up on a diet of Social Distortion and Ramones but their "I-94" is iron-plated, muscly pop rock, a little stilted but still good.
Swedes The Sacred Sailors put "Non Stop Girls" through the blender and come up with skittish garage rock, devoid of the orignal's tension but still plenty listenable. I-94 Bar regulars will know France's Holy Curse can't do much wrong in these parts and their "Crying Sun" passes muster, as does the Sewergrooves' "Smith & Wesson Blues."
A worthy collection and one I'll be spinning in tandem with its predecessors in weeks and month to come. Here's a novel idea: How about tributes to both the New Christs and Dr Tek's considerable body of solo band work? - The Barman
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