Unmasked!

The genius of Los Straitjackets is genius

I've always harbored a distrust of novelty bands, bands that employ a cheesy gimmick of some kind to get themselves over the top. Stupid costumes, ridiculous "themes," bands who proffer "controversial sexuality" (gasp!)—it always seems like a cheap ploy to jockey for attention so shamelessly, but who knows? Maybe I'm just a cranky, joyless fuck, a boring old hippie. Don't get me wrong: I loved Alice Cooper when I was a kid (until he released Billion Dollar Babies). As a young'un, I kinda dug the Cramps for failing to take themselves seriously and being wholly unnerving at the same time. Southern Culture On the Skids remains one of my favorite groups even with their studied cracker-ism, which sometimes makes me chuckle merrily despite myself. Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a god, pure and simple; he sang about cannibalism and constipation at a time when someone as fundamentally innocuous as Elvis was still considered outrageous.

These are exceptions, though, artists whose undeniable talent and/or idiosyncratic vision ran against the grain of banality, transforming them into revolutionary icons. But many more of my all-time favorite rockers, musicians who made life worth living in unspeakably insipid times, were such as Creedence, the Allman Brothers, Southside Johnny, Randy Newman, Dave Alvin, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Otis Redding, pre-Blake/Froom Los Lobos, early Lyle Lovett and Tom Waits—no-frills talents all, often homely, unassuming and absolutely inspirational in creating music so influential, intelligent and timeless that it shall endure long after the comic-book shenanigans of their contemporaries are looked back upon as curious footnotes (you think Devo will loom as large in the history books as the Clash?).

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Here is an exception that proves my rule: LOS STRAITJACKETS, who play the House of Blues on Sunday night. These guys are mean-assed guitar players to be sure, a branch on a family tree that includes Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and the Ventures. They capture and re-create tonal bitchenness unheard of since the days when Rat Fink, Robert Mitchum, slot-car tracks and Russ Meyer were all the rage—a brief but choice blip on the rock & roll time line, before the radio waves got too blow-dried and sugary with bad Beatles imitators.

So what's with their wrestling masks? I dunno. Maybe it makes 'em happy. Maybe it draws attention from fans. Probably both. That's the American way, I guess. But I don't happen to think it adds a dollop of doody to their oeuvre. The group's latest, Sing Along With Los Straitjackets, is . . . yet another gimmick. They've gathered an all-star cast of vocalists, thereby undermining their essential method, which heretofore had been instrumental surf/garage rock bent with a more modern, fuck-you-Jack punk attitude. It's a hit-and-miss affair. The song selection is at times predictable—pre-British Invasion AM radio hits, some performed close to straight off the original vinyl, others pumped up with re-imagined dementia. When it works, it works just swell (Paul Revere & the Raiders' Mark Lindsay ripping into Roy Head's blue-eyed soul anthem "Treat Her Right," Big Sandy tackling Ernie K-Doe's "Mother In Law" in Spanish). When it falls, it breaks its nose and bleeds profusely (non-singer Exene Cervenka pitchlessly destroying Porter Wagoner's "I'll Go Down Swinging," bullfrog-voiced Dave Alvin ill-advisedly covering the Riviera's adenoidal "California Sun").

Is this a noble experiment or another obvious endeavor to be merely cute? I dunno. Probably both. But I like 'em better without the glittery names undermining what they do best—which is making guitars sound more dangerous then a ghurka knife swinging at your jugular. I'll go see 'em anyway because I doubt they'll have all those distracting singers in tow—and because I like being scared shitless by guitars.

Do I write about KID RAMOS too much? Probably. But here we have a local guy (Anaheim, to be exact) who puts out an a new album seemingly every few months, each one so damn fine it gives me quivering chills all about the epidermis. Nope, can't ignore him. Ramos' latest, Greasy Kid's Stuff, is a departure from his past two West Coast jump blues efforts in two ways: first, he doesn't share the recording with a host of other hotshot guitar players this time around, shining the spotlight instead directly on his own prodigious talent (Los Straitjackets, take note). Second, this is a dirty-assed, low-down record, raw as a road rash drunkenly incurred at midnight on a Memphis highway. There's still a duly impressive host of guest stars onboard—including James Harman, Johnny Dyer and Charlie Musselwhite—but all are vocalist/harpists, adding mightily to the spirit of being haunted by the huge, onion-and-pomade-stinking spirit of Howlin' Wolf. Great stuff, Kid. And, as always, really, really neat hair, too.

Los Straitjackets play at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $15. 21+.
 
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