Not a law firm but an all-star underground rock trio with one album called Cubist Blues. But that album came out much too late. Even the original release back in 1996. If it were 1985, in dusty, dingy apartment 19 on the top floor of 597 East 187th Street, in the beautiful Bronx, the faint aroma of stale Italian pasta sauce always in the air, a pile of pots in the too-small kitchen sink creating that odor…and if Cubist Blues had burst through the door, carried under the dusty, dingy-jacketed arm of my apartment-mate/band-mate John C, it would have been glued to the turntable for weeks. Months. And that cover. Rough-hewn, angry artwork with a minimum of color – very similar to John C’s own, strewn about the walls and appearing on virtually all our band’s flyers whenever we played one of our sporadic, minimally-attended gigs. Remember the Alter Boys? I didn’t think so. As it is, I moved out of that abode in 1987, the album was recorded seven years later, released a couple of years after that, went nowhere, was re-released in late 2015, and finally reached my ears this past summer, 2016.
What’s this Cubist Blues, you ask. It’s a recording of 12 ‘songs’ by Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn. Back at the Bronx apartment, Messrs. Vega and Chilton figure pretty high up there in the album collection, so there’s reason number one why the record woulda been a hit. Mr. Vaughn not so much, he being more of an early-nineties guy. But still, one listen to the ominous, primordial start of album opener “Fat City,” especially the city street noises captured by pointing a microphone out the studio window, and there’s reason number two: that urban thing, that gritty darkness that inspired all us Alter Boys to churn out song after song of 1980s-NYC-post-punk-pop-primordialism.
Alan Vega’s vocals certainly rule here, recalling the echo-laden exclamations of his late-seventies band Suicide. Alex Chilton’s contribution owes more to his offbeat solo stuff, especially the 1979 whirlwind Like Flies on Sherbert, than to the polished power pop of his seventies band Big Star. Ben Vaughn, as far as I can tell, throws in some keyboards as well as more guitar, and the end result is a hypnotic, scary, always appealing schizomusical brew.
No, they did not look like this in 1996…
The aforementioned “Fat City” chugs along those dark, dank, rat-infested NY subway tracks while Vega lets loose a haunting harangue about the “hell train” – evoking (for me) the days of yore when various Alter Boys and pals would chug along and let loose similarly haunting harangues. Check out “Freedom” with its vomiting-synth sounds giving way to Chilton’s lonesome picking, over a slower but no less ominous ticking-timebomb-tambourine beat. “Candyman” starts out like some soulful, long-lost Box Tops track (hi, Alex) but wastes no time taking a sharp turn down Suicide Avenue. The manic drums on “Promised Land” make for another A-Boys jam flashback, and then…best cut on the album…the slinky piano strut “Lover of Love.” Slow blues take charge on “Sister,” funky beats rule (along with lots of deranged guitar and keys) on “Too Late,” and the late, great Cramps are channeled as “The Werewolf” comes down the street.
Now that Alan and Alex have both passed on, Cubist Blues takes on even more of a spectral character. But if only it had existed back in ’85. What a soundtrack over those endless homemade dinners of spegs ’n’ sauce washed down with a Red White & Blue beer ($1.99 a six pack at the bodega). Ok, cue Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth: “Pabst Blue Ribbon? Fuck that shit! Red White & Blue!!”