Archive for leatherface

Review: For I Am

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2019 by Magadh

For I Am Late Bloomers (Bearded Punk Records)

[I dedicate the following lines to the two Belgian punk rocker guys who I met at a Christmas party in Berlin a few years ago. They must have been the only people there who didn’t speak German and, sort of in payment for chatting to them in English but also out of punk rock solidarity, they kept passing me bottles of Duvel until I was absolutely rat-arsed. I hope you lads are well…]

Punk rock, the internet, and a proctologist’s surgery all have one thing in common: one tends to find an above-average proportion of really unpleasant assholes there. Having spent a lot of time around the first two at least, I have (as one must) learned to ignore most of it. But there are moments, often in the late and solitary watches of the night, when the capacity of both the internet and the underground scene to distill the most repugnant qualities of human beings can bring one to an attitude of real loathing.

So it was the other night when, noodling around on Youtube, I found this:

I was pretty deep in my cups at that point, and I honestly can’t remember now why I decided to watch it. Taylor Swift is not really my thing and, as far as pop punk bands go the market is so saturated that it’s rare that one that catches my attention. But, lo, I was really pleasantly surprised. All too often, cover songs tend to be a kind of slavish homage, a lesser version of some greater original. More rarely, a band will take a cut from some other genre and, by translating it into their own, show the original in a new and different light. Leatherface were masters at this, for instance when they covered Abba’s “Eagle” or Elton John’s classic “Candle in the Wind.” But such brilliancies are few and far between, and altogether too rare.

For I Am’s driving cover of “Blank Space” is very much of the latter kind. While the original is very much in the mold of Taylor Swift’s (not unpleasant) more recent bouncy pop material, For I Am kicks out the jams, rendering it in aggressive, guitar-heavy double four time. Vocalist Hanne Terweduwe absolutely makes the whole production, both with her powerful singing chops and the sort of goofball demeanor that she effects. Swift’s original was an expression of her frustration at being painted in the (grossly sexist) press as some kind of man-eater. For that reason, it is important that is a woman delivering the lyrics.

Some gender-specific songs can have their valence reversed to useful effect (for instance Joan Jett’s cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”). By contrast, “Blank Space” is an attempt to highlight a kind of treatment specifically meted out to women. While there are (I have since discovered) quite a number of covers of this song floating around the net, the ones with dudes singing miss something important.

Anyway, my interest piqued, I headed over to Bandcamp for a little deeper dive. For I Am are from Antwerp. I must admit to my own embarrassment that I’ve probably only ever heard three or four Belgian punk bands. The only one that I can readily remember is Zyklome A, whose Made in Belgium was a classic of 1980s hardcore.

For I Am play pretty straightforward pop punk and just released their third offering, Late Bloomers. There is a refreshing self-awareness about this band. Their profile on features the line, “Does the world really need another pop-punk band? Probably not, but we started one anyway.” That’s fine. Rock the way you want to rock and if the field of pop punk bands is a bit crowded, quality tends to show through.

For I Am’s two prior releases are a 7 song EP from 2014 (15 Minutes Late) and a full CD from 2016 (All About Perspectives). The former was subsequently re-released with three added cuts under the title 15 Minutes Late (Again). These first two offerings have a lot going for them: catchy melodies, efficient arrangements, heavy guitars, a drummer who really knows what he’s doing, and Terweduwe who belts out the vocals with joy and conviction. Their songs cover both personal and political topics, the lyrics smooth and well-composed, especially for people working in their second language (if not their third).

It is one of the great failings of bands generally, and pop punk bands in particular, to find a formula and stick with it. One thinks here, for instance, of No Use For A Name, who settle on a workable approach with ¡Leche Con Carne! and then rerecorded it five more times. Say what you want about Bad Religion, the records that they released after No Control at least responded to the criticism that that record sounded almost exactly like its predecessor.

For those wondering what a new record from For I Am might comprise, I will say that they have resisted the temptation to rest on their laurels. They’ve retained the things that were appealing about their earlier releases while adding some nice touches and different textures. For I Am features a dual guitar attack and interplay is actually pretty subtle. The guitar sound is thick with overdrive. Late Bloomers features some more metallic-sounding techniques than and their prior discs. The songs tend to hit some pretty frenetic speeds, but the melodies are there still present and correct. Their bass player is surpassingly good, playing lots of chordal stuff that sounds at points like the guy from Face to Face (and I think that was about the best thing about that particular band).

Over it all, Hanne Terweduwe’s vocals are a powerful presence. At a couple of points in their web presence, they make the point that there aren’t that many female-fronted bands in Belgium. Probably true, because it’s true for punk rock in general. It’s always been kind of a sausage party, so it’s always nice to find women using the punk scene to amplify their power. The lyrics are smart and heartfelt in the way of modern pop punk, and there are some really clever elements as well. “P.I.G.O.T.R.Y.” makes a kind of cool, backhanded reference to Animal Farm, and this is only the best of a very good bunch.

I’ve been rocking Late Bloomers in my car for days now and it always makes me smile. I don’t always like pop punk, but For I Am makes the noise that my brain wants to hear. Maybe there are a lot of bands like this, but there is always room in the world for a band that rocks this hard.

Leatherface: A Love Story

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , on September 26, 2012 by Magadh

Part 1.

I’ve been fascinated with Leatherface ever since I was turned on to them in 1991 or so. I listened to my first copy of Mush until the CD delaminated. When I heard they’d broken up a couple of years later it sent me into a real funk. I collected their records fanatically, even the stuff that former members did outside the band like Pope and Fatty Jones and Doctor Bison and Jesse and Stokoe. Most of it was just ok, but it was hard for me to listen to it without feeling an intense sense of loss. Frank Stubbs and Dickie Hammond were both very good, but together they were much more than the sum of the parts.

In 1999, when I heard Leatherface had gotten back together and were touring the US. I was extremely excited. Ok, Dickie Hammond wasn’t in the lineup, and they were touring with Hot Water Music (for whom I do not really care), still it was like a dream come true. They played at the old Mississippi St. house in north Portland. The day of the gig I was really amped. As it got toward evening, I realized that I hadn’t told my wife that I was going to need our car, and it only dawned upon me that it might be a problem long after it was too late to undertake the epic bus ride from where I lived in southeast up to the peninsula. By the time my wife arrived at about 8:00, I was pretty sure my chance had gone, but she convinced me to give it a shot anyway. I drove like a psychopath up 99E, blowing about every other light. Of course, when I got there I found out that they wouldn’t be playing for another hour or more.

Their set that night was not all that great. The mic kept giving out and their second guitarist didn’t seem to have a very good grip on the songs. Worse yet, there was a really large, sweaty guy in the pit who insisted on both taking his shirt off and moshing all over the diminutive woman standing next to me, all the while shouting at the band like they were some bunch of frat boys covering “Tequila.” This was really beginning to bum me out. I was mulling over the probable consequences of punching him when the woman, sick of getting slathered in this guy’s bodily fluids, turned around between songs and said, “If you barge into me one more time I’m gonna knock your fucking teeth out.” She couldn’t have weighed more than 95 pounds, but I had no doubt that she was serious. And neither did the sweaty moshing guy, who settled right down.

I spent the show in a state of extreme nervous excitement. Leatherface was certainly my favorite band in those days, and I expected that actually getting to see them would be cathartic. But it wasn’t. I kept waiting for the mic to cut out again, or for the sound to die completely, or for some other bad thing to happen. I suppose it was because I assumed that this was going to be a complete one-off. By the time they finished, I was about ready to have a seizure. I went out on the sidewalk in front of the storefront where the bands played and smoked a cigarette, trying to calm down. I stood by, watching the band load their gear out of the door. Finally, I worked up the courage to go over to them. They were sitting in the side door of their van. I walked up to Frank Stubbs, grabbed his hand, and shook it, saying, “That was great. It was really fucking great.” Then, without so much as waiting for a response, I turned around and headed to my car. Even in that moment, the prospect that the image might be shattered was too much for me to bear.

The next year, I was living Chapel Hill, North Carolina when I heard that Leatherface was touring again (with Samiam). This time I wasn’t quite as psyched out about the whole thing. I lived within a short walk of the Cat’s Cradle, where they were playing and, more importantly, I’d already seen them before so I was a little more relaxed about it.

I got to the club just as the opening band was finishing up, got a drink, and positioned myself about three feet back from the center of the stage. Leatherface came on after a short changeover and played a couple of songs off of Horsebox, their most recent record at that point. This was ok. They were playing well, even though that stuff wasn’t my favorite material. Then they stopped. Frank Stubbs looked down at me and said, “This next one goes out to the guy in the Arsenal jersey. That is what that is, right?”

I think I managed a stunned, “Yeah.”

“We beat you guys,” he said, meaning Sunderland, their hometown football club. “We got beat by Ipswich, but we beat you lot.” I was right on the verge of having a stroke. Then they broke into “Not Superstitious,” my favorite of their songs. This was, quite possibly, the best thing that’s ever happened to me at a show. They went on to do a whole bunch of other songs from Mush, and generally played an absolutely raging set.

When they were done, I resolved that I was going to actually talk to Frank Stubbs. The backstage at the Cat’s Cradle was a tiny area off to the right of the stage, shielded from the rest of the room by a curtain. Veteran ligger that I was, I decided to just walk in there and see what was going on. Stubbs was sitting on a stack of gear, talking to a girl who I gathered from the conversation was doing a zine. I waited until she was done and then introduced myself. To my intense relief, he turned out to be very pleasant. He offered me a beer from the open case next to him, and we talked about football and music. I got the chance to ask him a lot of questions that had been buzzing around in my head for years, like about what the writing process of their songs was like, and why Dickie Hammond wasn’t in the band anymore. He told me that their relationship had kind of soured when Leatherface got well known because Hammond felt like Stubbs got too much attention. He also claimed that he wrote most of the songs and minimized Hammond’s contribution to the writing. I took this all with a grain of salt, since people will say a lot of things when they are angry at each other. He did say that both he and Hammond really respected one another, and I’m sure he meant it (especially since Hammond subsequently rejoined the band).

We sat around for half an hour or so, drinking beer and chatting. Then he said he had to get something from their van. I followed him out into the parking lot, shook his hand again, and told him I had to split. He asked why I wasn’t sticking around for Samiam. I told him they were from the US and I would have plenty of opportunities to see them. In fact, I was so stoked from the conversation that I wanted to get out of the area quickly before something happened to tamp down my euphoria.

Part 2.
I’m not going to talk about every single thing that they have released, just the ones that have had particular significance to me.

Cherry Knowle (1989) Meantime Records
Fill Your Boots (1990) Roughneck Records
I bought these two records on the same day in 1993. At the time I thought that Fill Your Boots came earlier, and you could almost believe it given the way that the two records sound. Although the song structures are pretty comparable on both, the guitar mix on Fill Your Boots is muddier, which gives songs like “New York State” and “Peasant in Paradise” a sort of whooshy, distant sound. The crisper guitars on Cherry Knowle make it seem a bit more advanced, and you could argue that the lyrics are a bit more direct, in the way that they would be on Mush. Of the two, Fill Your Boots the one that I like better overall, but I think Cherry Knowle has better individual songs. “Discipline” will always be one of my favorite songs, particularly because it is an early illustration of Frank Stubbs’s capacity to understand human character. “Cabbage Case” takes on the theme of drug abuse, one to which the band would return repeatedly, particularly in the powerfully moving “Little White God” released five years later. “Smile (You’re In a Free and Pleasant Land)” has a powerful melody and allows Stubbs to flash his culture, which from the lyrics of their songs is clearly extensive. Still, it is Fill Your Boots to which I listen more often. It has a darker, more depressive quality than Cherry Knowle, one that I find particularly appealing. Fill Your Boots also shows flashes of another of Leatherface’s great skills: the cover song. They reprise the cover of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” that featured on Cherry Knowle (which is not one of my absolute favorites) and add a version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” (which is).

Mush (1991) Roughneck
I got the version that came out on Seed in North America, but that’s a minor point. In my opinion, this is about as close to a flawless punk record as I have ever heard. The songs are powerful and well-arranged and there isn’t one filler cut in the bunch. The thing that really struck me the first time (and the first hundred times) that I listened to Mush was the excellence of Frank Stubbs’s lyrics. He writes songs for adults, songs that deal with things in ways that are complex and nuanced. From the desire to be more than one is (“I Want the Moon”), to the complexities of belief (“Not Superstitious”), and the stories that we tell ourselves to live (“Baked Potato”), Stubbs creates lyrics that either turn clichés on their heads, or dispense with them completely. The song that really stands out for me is “The Scheme of Things”. There, Stubbs returns to the theme, first approached in “Discipline” of people’s search for something to give their lives meaning. Stubbs focuses on people involved in religious movements, but rather than just calling them stupid or implying that they are simply deluded, he tries to address the underlying loneliness that motivates believers. As the lyric finishes, Stubbs moves from compassion to anger at the people who take advantage of the vulnerable, “Show me a savior, after all, that’s what you’re selling.” For me, this is a cut above the standard fare.

Dreaming b/w Eagle 7” (1992)
I can still remember buying this in record store near South Street in Philadelphia. “Dreaming” is an ok cut, but “Eagle” is arguably the best cover tune they ever did, all the more so because it’s originally by ABBA.

Minx (1993) Roughneck

This was the first Leatherface album that I got after Mush. I bought it when it came out in 1993 and I was a bit disappointed. The songs are a bit longer than on Mush, sometimes surpassing the quality of the licks on which they are based. Also, if you listen to Mush and Minx back to back you will notice that Frank Stubbs’s voice becomes rather huskier between the two records. His singing was (and is) always gritty, but it sounds to me like he is singing in a bit higher register on the earlier records and this gives them a directness that Minx sort of lacks. That said, Minx really grew on me, especially when I read in a fanzine that Leatherface had broken up. I figured that this was the last thing that I would ever hear by them, so I decided that I would do my best to understand what they were trying to do. There are some really beautiful tunes on Minx, particularly “Books,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Pale Moonlight” which I think rank as classics in the Leatherface catalog. I think my favorite song is probably “Fat, Earthy, Flirt,” both because its melody is a great example of Stubbs and Hammond combining chords with ringing individual strings, and because I really have no idea how the title relates to the rest of the song.

The Last (1994) Domino Records
Buying The Last was, for me, a little like receiving a letter from a dead friend. The band was gone, forever for all I knew. It has the feeling of a last will and testament, but it also seemed like a fragment. It contains some of the band’s finest work. “Little White God” is a compelling melody paired with a very moving lyric about drug addiction, one which I found particularly compelling as I heard it around the time that a friend of mine died from a heroin overdose. “Daylight Comes” flashes a harder rocking side that wouldn’t have been out of place on Mush, while the Snuff cover “Winsome, Losesome” is more rollicking and upbeat than a lot of their other material. Then there are cuts like “Shipyards” and “Ba Ba Ba Ba Boo” which really seem like filler to me.

After hearing The Last, I really felt at sea. And then there followed a weird period when the main creative forces in the band released projects with other bands. Frank Stubbs did two bands that I knew of: Jesse and Pope. I never heard the Jesse 7”s, but I bought Pope’s Johnpaulgeorgeringo when it came out. I wanted very much to like it. It featured the familiar powerful melodies and thoughtful lyrics, but it seemed somehow empty. Perhaps it was an effect of there only being one guitar, but it made me think that the songwriting team of Stubbs and Hammond were more than the sum of their parts. Hammond had formed Doctor Bison with former members of the Welsh band The Abs. Their two records, The Bloated Vegas Years and Dewhursts – The Musical, we decent, but they had a different flavor from Leatherface. Baz Oldfield is a talented songwriter and lyricist, but he operates in a much different creative space than Frank Stubbs. The melodic overlays that Dickie Hammond added to their songs sounded like the dying echoes of what had gone before. Hammond went on to form Fatty Jones (later just The Jones), and although I don’t know for sure I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that Newport is a long way from Sunderland, which must have made getting Doctor Bison together kind of a hassle. The Fatty Jones EP is actually not bad. In particular, “Ashebrook” is an enjoyable cut, but it was once again the sort of thing that made one wish that Leatherface would get back together. Gravity Blues, the album that they released once they became simply The Jones is not bad, but it is really uneven and, once again, illustrates the degree to which Hammond and Stubbs writing together were better than they were apart.

Horsebox (2000) BYO Records
I’m passing over the split album that they released in 1999 with Hot Water Music, mostly because it’s greatest importance was that it let people outside the UK know that Leatherface was back together again. Still, it contained the sorrowfully beautiful “Andy,” a tribute to their bassist Andy Crighton who had committed suicide in 1998, and it showed that the band had lost none of its fierceness. I have trouble listening to Horsebox these days, the reason being that I bought it about a week before I moved to North Carolina to do a degree program that necessitated a) living apart from my wife for 22 months, and b) leaving all but about ten or twenty of my records on the west coast. I listened to Horsebox obsessively in those days, and it became suffused with my loneliness. Now, hearing songs like “Sour Grapes” and “Choice” has the power to put me into a funk that can last for days.

Dog Disco (2004) BYO Records
I think that the day that I bought Dog Disco at Singles Going Steady in Seattle was one of the worst of my life. This is one of the few things that Frank Stubbs ever did that I really don’t like at all. In fact, it is the only one of Leatherface’s full LPs of which I do not actually own a copy. It was as if Stubbs had distilled all of the mistakes in his songwriting into one large mistake. I mean, it’s not quite Bad Religion Into the Unknown, but it is not up to the band’s normal standard. Hearing this record was like a punch in the gut. It was like the breakup all over again, but worse since there seemed to be every prospect that they would continue to release bad records. It took me months to get over it. [Looking back since I wrote this I now realize that I rather like this record, especially “Diddly Squat” which is an absolutely beautiful Frank Stubbs guitar line. Live and learn…]

The Stormy Petrel (2010) No Idea
Given the intense disappointment that I’d experienced after buying Dog Disco, I was really hesitant to shell out the cash for another round. But then a friend of mine told me that Dickie Hammond was playing with the band again, and that piqued my interest. I bought the actual disc at a store in Cambridge and walked home in a state of expectation strongly tinged with fear. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Stormy Petrel is a titanic return to form. Where the songs on Dog Disco seem to lack direction, those on The Stormy Petrel are punchy and compelling. As noted above, Frank Stubbs once discounted to me the degree to which collaboration with Dickie Hammond had on his songwriting. I have to say that, on the basis of the available evidence, it is clear to me that Leatherface produce much better music when Stubbs and Hammond are in close proximity. From the opening cut, The Stormy Petrel brings forth music that is at least as good as than on Horsebox, and if it is the case that they don’t reach the heights achieved on Mush, it is also worth noting that the vast majority of bands have never written anything nearly that good. While Frank Stubbs’s lyrics have been consistently excellent, on The Stormy Petrel they are once again paired with breathtaking Leatherface hooks from the old school. “God is Dead” is a good, rocking opener, while “Never Say Goodbye” is an outstanding illustration of Stubbs’s persistent ability to plumb the human condition. Perhaps the album should have ended with “Isn’t Life Just Sweet,” especially since this is a cut that they often use to open their set, but tacking the lower key “Hope” onto the end of the record creates one of those attractive nuances that make Leatherface records so appealing. “Isn’t Life Just Sweet” does have one of the most compelling instances of Stubbs/Hammond “separate but together” guitar lines anywhere in their catalog. You can listen to the intros separately. Stubbs comes over the left side, and Hammond on the right. If you take off one headphone you can listen to them each in turn, and then they come together stunningly when the main verse of the song kicks in. Brilliant.

Of course even this gargantuan post really only scratches the surface. There are lots of other things that could be talked about in this connection, such as Dickie Hammond’s pre-Leatherface band HDQ (whose awesomeness is too often forgotten), or the live records that Leatherface has released, or Frank Stubbs work producing other bands, or even the short lived band Stokoe that Dickie Hammond played in while in exile. The fact of the matter is that, for me, Leatherface is a practically inexhaustible vein of compelling music. I thought that writing this piece might be a way of working through this, but in the end I find that I am more fascinated with them than ever.