The moniker “alternative rock” has been around, more or less, since the mid-1980s, when bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements and the kind of rock they produced couldn’t be pigeonholed into “punk” or “New Wave” categories. Suddenly, bored college students and music critics came up with all sorts of new names for what was coming out, everything from “post-modern” to “alt-rock” to even, lazily enough, “post-rock” (and that’s not counting minutiae like “nü-metal” and “math rock”). It’s 2010, Michael Stipe has long since lost his shaggy mane and Paul Westerberg has disappeared into a life of domesticity save for the occasional soundtrack listing or weird Amazon-posted track. College rockers who never thought they’d get old find themselves hitting middle age, trying to be “cool dads,” and being the target audience for a slew of alternative-rock reissues.
Leading the pack is a pair of mid-‘90s Jon Spencer Blues Explosion records, 1996’s exemplary Now I Got Worry, and its import-only (until now) live companion, 1997’s Controversial Negro. Ex-Pussy Galore frontman Spencer took a very aggressive, lo-fi take on blues with a series of singles and records like Extra Width and the fantastic Orange on Matador, but it was easy to peg him as a dilettante— a New Yorker who pretended to have an affinity for the blues but mostly screamed and made a lot of noise. All that changed when Spencer, along with guitarist Judah Bauer and Russell Simins, backed real-life country bluesman R.L. Burnside on his album A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, part of the Fat Possum label’s exploration of real Deep South blues. Ass Pocket is the real thing — menacing grooves abound and Spencer’s clowning is kept to a minimum — and Burnside returned the favor by turning up on Now I Got Worry, along with R&B legend Rufus Thomas.
Now I Got Worry is an unholy amalgam of screeching rock and backwoods blues; it’s the best cross-genre experiment since Muddy Waters released Electric Mud back in 1968. Spencer hoots, shrieks and hollers like a man possessed and the music — loud, cranky, in-your-face — backs him up. Songs like “Wail,’ the single “2 Kindsa Love” and especially “Get Out Of Here” sound like a cross between a hootenanny and an exorcism. “Chicken Dog,” with Rufus Thomas on vocals, is maybe the best song the band has ever cut, with Thomas’ clucks and barks underscored by the freight-train heft of Bauer’s smoking guitar line. The reissue appends eleven bonus tracks, most of them single B-sides, along with four radio spots. The extra tracks are more fragments than actual songs (“Fish Sauce” sounds like a Beastie Boys outtake), but are still worthwhile. Controversial Negro is a good document of the live explosion, with Spencer coming off like a demented preacher most of the time, exhorting his audience to get down “Eating pussy! Making love! Sucking cock!” Recorded during two 1996 shows in Tucson, Controversial Negro preaches more to the faithful than to new converts, who are likely to be immune to the frenzy, but the fifteen extra (!) tracks over the long-out-of-print import make this one essential for Blues Explosion fans.
Underappreciated at the time, Big Audio Dynamite’s 1985 debut record confused Clash fans expecting “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” Part II, but Mick Jones’ trailblazing mix of rock, dance and hip-hop has stayed the test of time. Prefiguring the late-80’s era of sampling, B.A.D. mixed up snippets of movie clips (Italian Spaghetti Westerns, Nicolas Roeg’s PERFORMANCE) with dub-like bass grooves and propulsive dance rhythms. Jones’ right-hand man here is former DJ (and current documentary director/BBC radio personality) Don Letts; listening to B.A.D. feels like you’re hearing a mash-up of three or four types of music at once, as though Letts’ spun his vinyl collection and came up with something wholly original: New Wave by way of NYC hip-hop by way of reggae with just a dusting of Jones’ punk past to push it over the top. Songs like “E=MC2,” the chilling “Sudden Impact!” and the laconic “Medicine Show,” which contrasts metronome-style drum machines with twangy guitar and clever Sergio Leone samples, are still incredibly catchy. Columbia’s new “Legacy Edition,” overseen by Letts himself, sounds great — how about a budget-line reissue for the rest of B.A.D.’s catalog, guys? — but there’s only one bona fide new song (the peppy but dull “Electric Vandal”) and a bunch of extended remixes and dub versions that are sonically adventurous but ultimately grow repetitive and wearying. The price is right, however, and the album itself has never sounded better.
Neither has The Cure’s Disintegration, the latest (and perhaps last) of the Rhino reissues documenting the Goth Godfathers’ output. The best and, by far, most successful album of The Cure’s now-thirty-plus-year career, Disintegration is a milestone— scary, hopeful and passionate. It’s the record that you’ll find in every disaffected teen’s collection and for good reason— it’s the most accessible sound of despair ever (there’s a reason that the same kids are frightened to death of the band’s genuinely bleak document, 1982’s Pornography). The newly remastered three-disc set is positively thunderous in its dynamic impact now, with the epic sweep of such songs as “Plainsong” and the apocalyptic “Prayers For Rain” sounding more cinematic than ever. It’s easy to occasionally trivialize The Cure based on Robert Smith’s pasty-faced caricature and the legions of black-clad Goth kids that became their followers, but there’s a real power to the often-stirring music and, cutting aside the reverb-filled pomp of this piece, solid melodies and chord progressions. The reissue sounds fantastic, but the $39.99 price point — without, unlike the rest of the Cure catalog, any single-disc remaster — is bleak indeed. The inclusion of the complete Entreat live album from 1991 (the earlier version was about half as long) is of definite interest, but the second disc composed solely of demos and rough mixes is for diehards only. Great if you’ve got the money, but caveat emptor.
Better are the reissues of the entire Galaxie 500 catalog, with each of the band’s three records appended with, respectively, a rarities collection, a set of BBC John Peel Sessions and the live album Copenhagen. Minimalist to the extreme, Galaxie 500 was one of the progenitors of the downtempo “slowcore” movement that would later include bands like Mazzy Star and Low. Fronted by singer/guitarist Dean Wareham and a rhythm section consisting of husband-and-wife Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, the band was a college-rock mainstay in the late 1980s, but only really came into their own by reputation over the years— like Wareham’s idols, The Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500 was known about more than actually listened to. 1988’s debut, Today, owes a lot to the Velvets— primitive guitar chords, droning melodies, crazy crescendos at the end of tracks like “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste,” where Krukowski seems like he’s channeling the essence of Velvets drummer Mo Tucker. There’s a narcotic beauty to Today and its follow-up, 1989’s On Fire, which has a fuller sound. Producer Kramer ladles on the reverb and every song makes your head feel like it’s been packed in cotton balls. Galaxie 500’s swan-song, 1990’s This Is Our Music, is the most technically proficient, but by this time, Wareham was already on the outs with Krukowski and Yang — he split after a brief tour to return two years later with Luna — and the songs, save for the sparkling “Fourth Of July,” a cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen The Snow Is Falling” and an all-too-appropriate “Sorry,” reflect this disunity.
The master recordings were put up at auction following the bankruptcy of the band’s label, Rough Trade, and were bought by Krukowski. Already reissued in the mid-‘90s by Rykodisc in a box set, these new CDs — on Krukowski and Yang’s 20/20/20 label — sound gorgeous and are packed with bonus tracks, live albums and the odd-and-sods comp Uncollected; we get covers ranging from their stunning take on New Order’s “Ceremony” to The Rutles’ “Cheese And Onions” and the inevitable take on the Velvets’ “Here She Comes Again.”
In short— go straight for the Jon Spencer and Galaxie 500, but grab the Big Audio Dynamite and The Cure reissues only if you’ve got the money to spare thanks to the spotty extras and, particularly for The Cure, over-inflated pricing. And try not to think about how you sneered at the geezer buying Exile On Main Street for the fifth or sixth time just a couple of months ago.