Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Warm and Fuzzy - A Fuzztones Record Review

Warm and Fuzzy

Cover versions, remakes of songs already recorded... what a minefield! So many are a huge waste of our time and that of the musicians who rehearsed and recorded them, as well as a waste of money which could far better have been spent educating our youth in what actually qualifies as worthwhile music.
To my taste, there are three major categories to creating a cover version of which one will not be ashamed: (a) find a “diamond in the rough,” say, a non-hit album track, a nice B-side or bonus track, a long-forgotten moldy-oldie buried somewhere in Billboard’s top 200 singles, and make it your own; (b) dig up a well-known standard, and put it through your personal meat grinder (“I Hear You Knockin’,” by Dave Edmunds comes readily to mind.); (c) exhume a dead dog of a soulless hit song and breathe some true life into it, or redo it as a straight-up novelty piece.
Why do so many bands and solo artists – who we’d hope would know better - insist on serving up paint-by-numbers versions of songs that didn’t need improvement in the first place? It’s almost the same as when you’ve waited all day to hear just one great song on the radio, and some moron starts singing along to it. Then there are the versions which are pandering tributes to the original artist. Every time I hear “Higher Ground,” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with its cloying line, “This one’s for you, Stevie,” I picture Stevie Wonder sitting in his breakfast nook, hearing that flat-footed, white-bread abomination on the local alt-rock station, as a warm tear of heartfelt, ingenuous gratitude rolls down his cheek and splashes into his Cheerios. As if.
Now, multiply that image by 22, and you have come upon the dreaded tribute album. As an eternal music critic, both paid and unpaid, I often wonder why I have to wade through so much tripe just to find one or two numbers that have any element of creativity or soul, if that many. Hell, that’s the level of achievement reached by most individual acts doing an album of original material. I do, however, understand the logic and temptation of making a tribute album. There’s that warm and fuzzy feeling of camaraderie that, “Oh, we all cut our teeth on the same influences,” and, “For all our creative differences and petty rivalries, we can still all agree on some things.” There’s the communal aspect that all the bands are only getting paid in product (The going rate is usually twenty-five to fifty copies of the LP per band.). Then there are the golden memories of how we demurred on doing “Sheenah Is A Punk Rocker,” because those jerks from Philly said they wanted to do it, or how we did that whimsical take on the Stones’ “Under Cover of the Night,” that nobody would ever dare cover, or, “Oh, how we all came together on the ‘Come Together’ Beatles tribute’, and blah-diddy-blah...
Well, how about this twist? What if, as a theoretical example, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and other such hallowed luminaries got together and made a tribute album featuring songs written by Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians - a collection recorded by so many of the legends that were emulated by this marginally successful band?
That is very much the template for the recent release, “In Fuzz We Trust,” a tribute to the original material of the Fuzztones, a latter-day 1960s-garage/psychedelic band, as presented by the likes of The Shadows of Knight, ? & the Mysterians, Dave Allan & The Arrows, The Pretty Things, The Monks, Sky Saxon (The Seeds), Arthur Lee (Love), Sean Bonniwell (The Music Machine), and the food groups, Vanilla Fudge, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and The Electric Prunes,  and others held in high esteem by the torch bearers of the ‘60s-garage/psychedelic oeuvre.
Now please don’t let me give you the idea that all these musicians were sitting around backstage after some ‘60s SuperFest and decided to honor the Fuzztones. This was the blood-sweat-and-tears, decade-long effort of Rudi Protrudi, the Fuzztones’ helmsman and only consistent member since their nascence, over thirty years ago. He told me that he thought of it when Question Mark, of ? & the Mysterians told him that he was considering covering the Fuzztones’, “Action Speaks Louder than Words.” Rudi surely hoped they would and was willing to keep pushing them in that direction (It does appear on the LP.). From there, thousands of phone calls, meetings, flights, faxes, favors, recording sessions, wheedlings, pleadings, thank-yous, and I-told-you-so’s later, “In Fuzz We Trust” was born.
So, what child is this? If you are even marginally familiar with the 1960s garage rock niche, then you know of the “Nuggets,” “Pebbles,” and “Back from the Grave” compilations. If you are not, they are well-researched archives of an obscure subculture of unbridled American and (sometimes) British rock ‘n’ roll which, with the exception of the two “Nuggets” LPs, never made it to mainstream radio. There are countless other bootleg compilations of varying quality, in case you find yourself becoming addicted. “In Fuzz We Trust” reads like a latter-day “Nuggets.” The performances are professional, the sound crisp and full, not tinny like so many original 1960s recordings, while keeping well clear of over-production.
I have attended several shows over several years featuring Rhythm & Blues and soul heroes from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I have often wished that I’d have just had a cup of coffee with them in their dressing room instead of sticking around for what turned out to be disheartening experiences presented by these septua- or octogenarians, often accompanied by rather inept backing bands. This is not the case with the aged collaborators on “In Fuzz We Trust.” A vocalist here or there may have lost an octave, but the un-homogenized energy that typified these bands in their heydays is surprisingly well preserved in their performances here. Most of these guys are pushing 70-years old now, and, indeed, some of them, Sky Saxon, Arthur Lee, Sean Bonniwell, and several others have passed on since these recordings, surely among their final output, if not their last. The eldest performer is the ninety-something, John Zacherle, the iconic face and voice of local New York City TV’s “Chiller Theater” and the ‘60s novelty single, “Dinner with Drac” – still among the undead, as of this writing.
Standout songs on this album are delivered by many. The Monks’ “Hurt on Hold” retains the bold, quirky syncopation that they developed as Army servicemen performing in mid-sixties Germany, brazenly, weirdly divorced from popular American musical trends of that or any era. “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” done up by the Shadows of Knight, sounds like they’re still pissed off at the girls who turned them down in front of their friends in the high school cafeteria. I like the production here better than their original stuff. As a non-fan of psychedelic music, a guilty pleasure of mine is “Black Box,” laid out by Vanilla Fudge, a swirly, seven-minute, heavy metal workout that would capsize any pot smoke-filled VW bus.
Really, the fact that most of these guys have remained active and under-regarded in the music business for the last fifty years gives their performances some gnarled teeth that many, more successful artists have either lost or had whitened over the decades. There are no clunkers on this album; although, the musical spectrum is wide and varied, and my favorites be different than yours. As far as that goes, Rudi Protrudi did a masterful job of matching up the diverse originals with the styles and strong suits of the groups who cover them.
There is one caveat here, which I’d offer to Mr. Protrudi and to those unfamiliar with the Fuzztones’ output over the decades. A common element of the cover version is that many listeners will prefer the version that they heard first. A collection like this, with so many heavyweights, such diversity, and so many terrific performances may diminish the newcomer’s opinion of the Fuzztones’ original versions, when they are all done by the same band. You may end up asking yourself, who’s doing a tribute to whom here?

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