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Monday, October 5, 2015

Brinsley Schwarz: Hen's Teeth

BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: HEN'S TEETH (1967-1975; 1998)

1) Shy Boy; 2) Lady On A Bicycle; 3) Rumours; 4) And She Cried; 5) Tell Me A Story; 6) Understand A Woman; 7) Tomorrow, Today; 8) Turn Out The Light; 9) In My Life; 10) I Can See Her Face; 11) Hypocrite; 12) The Version; 13) I've Cried My Last Tear; 14) (It's Gonna Be A) Bring Down; 15) Everybody; 16) I Like You, I Don't Love You; 17) Day Tripper; 18) Slow Down; 19) I Should Have Known Better; 20) Tell Me Why; 21) There's A Cloud In My Heart; 22) I Got The Real Thing.

Somebody's love for Brinsley Schwarz must have been bubbling indeed, if it prompted its victim to assemble such a painstakingly meticulous compilation of just about every studio-based rarity that the band put out during its lifetime and much, much beyond that. Because formally, only a few of these tracks are credited to «Brinsley Schwarz». The first ten tracks represent the small legacy of Kippington Lodge, with Nick Lowe joining in only about midway through and only having enough time to contribute one single song. Tracks 17-20 are Beatles covers that were re­corded by the Brinsleys all right, some time in late 1974, but were anonymously credited to «The Knees» and «Limelight», two different bands with two different styles (!). Tracks 11-12 are yet another stab at anonymity as «The Hitters», from 1973.

Finally, the last two tracks have them as simply «The Brinsleys» — an odd attempt at name shortening right before the break-up: did they think it was the name Schwarz that prevented them from fame and fortune? (Come to think of it, does anybody know of any famous and fortunate Schwarzes from the UK? Maybe there was something to the idea). And thus, only tracks 13-16 are properly billed to «Brinsley Schwarz», with two singles from 1974-75, neither of which is credited to Lowe or Gomm, either (the B-sides are, but one of the B-sides, ʽI Like You I Don't Love Youʼ, was already available on New Favourites anyway).

It isn't much of a pain to sort through this mess, given that all the information is laid out in the track listings and liner notes. It isn't that much of a great pleasure, though, to sit through the music, either: only by some anomalous miracle could an album of Brinsley Schwarz and «para-Brinsley Schwarz» rarities turn out to be as good as, let alone better than their regular output. It ain't much worse, either, but I doubt that, apart from a tiny handful of these tracks, anything here could truly satisfy even the most forgiving fan of the band — heck, even the liner notes, written in an age when raving and ranting liner notes are written about anything, admit that, well, you know, it ain't no great shakes, but, you know, historical importance, charming period pieces, the regular drill. And yeah, they're kinda right about it.

The Kippington Lodge stuff shows what we'd probably expect to see — yet another bunch of nice, clean, well-meaning kids striving to be the Beatles, but falling somewhere in between the Hollies and just about every other band you heard on Nuggets II. Most of the songs are from outside songwriters: for instance, the first song, ʽShy Boyʼ, was donated to them by Tomorrow (the Steve Howe-nurturing band of ʽMy White Bicycleʼ fame), although this excited the band so much that they tried to write the B-side themselves — and, of course, it was named ʽLady On A Bicycleʼ, because, you know, bicycles are so British and so psychedelic ever since Albert Hofmann rode one. To be fair, neither of them sounds like the Beatles: ʽShy Boyʼ is a music hall number much closer to the Kinks, and ʽLadyʼ is more of a swingin' jazz-pop ditty with a sappy chorus that's more Mamas & Papas than Lennon/McCartney.

In fact, when they do tackle Lennon/McCartney directly, it sounds awful: ʽIn My Lifeʼ, released in May 1969, coincided with the era of "let us reimagine early Beatles songs as grandiose art-pop epics!" (remember ʽEvery Little Thingʼ by Yes?) and has wailing distorted guitars, organs, ins­trumental breaks and vocals overdriven into frenzy mode by the end. The B-side to that single was Lowe's first solo original: ʽI Can See Her Faceʼ, a mournful guitar-organ slab of soul-pop that will bring to mind early Deep Purple, but with every aspect of early Deep Purple brought down to amateur level. Endearing, perhaps, but as forgettable as every other song by this early incarnation of the band — real gallant name, though, that Kippington Lodge.

Of the other stuff, «anonymous» or no, only two tracks caught my attention: ʽEverybodyʼ was curious because it probably has the heaviest sound the band was ever allowed in the studio, with such a gruff riff that, for a brief second, it opens them a little bit of that door into the Sweet / T. Rex league (not that this is necessarily a plus — just noting that they so very rarely sounded «glam», every such attempt jumps to attention). And of those Beatles covers from 1974-75, al­though ʽDay Tripperʼ and ʽSlow Downʼ, which «The Knees» play in rock mode, are pitiful, the other two tracks, which «Limelight» play in «artsy» mode, are much less so — especially ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ, where I really appreciate how they take the song into another di­mension by replacing the harmonica with the organ and the guitar solo with strings,  so it's a «Hard Day's Night meets Procol Harum and The Moody Blues» kind of event that deserves to be heard, maybe even in a higher status than just «historical curio».

Another historical curio is that the Leroy Sibbles ska song, ʽHypocriteʼ, turns out to have been first recorded as a vocal version — with very pretty vocal harmonies at that — and ʽThe Versionʼ was its instrumental track, for some reason released as the B-side; and then, for an even stranger reason, it was the instrumental rather than the vocal version to make it as the coda for Please Don't Ever Change. Accident? Humility? Copyright issues? Anyway, just another example in a series of tiny odd blunders that probably contributed to their career never taking off.

Anyway, it all sounds okay, and in each such retrospective there is at least an instructive value — with the Kippington Lodge tracks, for instance, you can quickly and succinctly track down much of the general evolution of the UK musical scene from 1967 to 1969, starting out as wispy, sensi­tive, music-hall influenced psycho-pop and then gradually getting bleak, thick, and heavy, with layers of vanilla fudge strewn over grand funk railroads — that is, before the roots-rock craze sets in and we become all downhome and earthy and stuff. Not that the Brinsleys always followed this simplistic model, but ultimately, this was a band that could not overcome somebody else's limi­tations and fully come into its own — in the logical end, this is why Hen's Teeth is indeed an appropriate title for this collection.

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