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Review of Crazy Mary's 'Knucklehead'
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
2003-07-14
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Punk Rock. Metal, always metal. Jazz. Electro-blonde kiddie pop gives way to a young woman who rediscovers playing her own guitar and - gasp! - helps in the writing of the songs she's actually going to sing. A movie that's a white bread, retro 60's sex comedy is the talk of the town (outside the X-2 Matrix).

And now the biggest buzz around the N.Y. "scene" is a 1920s-style burlesque called Ixion, and performs a Greek myth to ragtime music and gutbucket blues. It is in this context, this mire of slop we call culture and entertainment that we have view of Crazy Mary's latest, Knucklehead.

There's retro and there's retro. Biting a past musical style is all there seems to be left, though I'll never say never. Some just use this as an excuse for creative laziness and lack of imagination. Others are curious. Crazy Mary has had their own musical journey: from the raw psychedelia of Velvet Underground and Cramps influenced debut record, Passion Pit, and the following She Comes In Waves, through the twisted, MDA-drenched re-mix record Astronaut Dub, all the way to Burning Into The Spirit World, where they hit their stride with a focused, powerful, and original sound.

I dare say, musical maturity that doesn't rust and creak at the hinges is a welcome change. Call this their most recent and possibly last recording, their own "Exile on Main Street." It's just as exploratory (in it's own context), even more so; it also codifies and integrates their musical story this far. While the Stones explored the blues, Crazy Mary uses the past thirty years of rock in all its phases and permutations to draw from. It's a deep well and the Crazies, in defiance of the aesthetic of the bland product.

From the first notes of the first song, "Invisible," you know that they're coming' high and tight with their fastball. Special guest violinist Walter Steding starts with a flowery intro of a line warped by echo. The band kicks into a hard rock groove, circa 1973. And the lyrics are darker than most on the previous record, the visionary Burn Into The Spirit World. It's not just in the incessant, dissonant angst of the guitar chords or the burnt-grass fiddle, but the lyrics that convey a grim, existential view of "the thousand pin pricks" (read "The Revolution of Everyday Life" by Raoul Vanegiem) of the modern life:

"Off to work, I'm runnin' late/the scene's the same, just change the date/My job it sucks I waste the day/I'm trapped because I need the pay/ broken dreams they shadow light/the mirror smashed upon my stripe/pick up the pieces falling down/I cut my feet my hands are bound/I pictured things so differently/it's not how it's supposed to be."

But theirs is not the darkness of grunge band heroin chic or fashionable paralysis. By the end of the song they're screaming in anger at the post-911, post prosperity that is the new New York, after the touchy-feely moments passed and grim reality shoved us back into our isolated lives of quiet desperation.

"I am not invisible/I am not invisible/so stop lookin' through me like I'm not even there."

There's more, like the conga drum brake at the end of the song and the added tag at the end of the song, but I don't want to spoil it for you.

They still have visions, too, of how things should be, which is refreshing considering the de rigueur bleating of the screed of hopelessness that all so-called indie bands have indulged in for, like, what, twenty years now? Jeez!

"I Wake Up Dreaming" comes from the burning land of the spirit, like a shaman's vision. But of course, it's the shamanism of the average person in everyday life. From the easy rock beat to the rising, open guitar chords to the soaring vocals of singer Sophia Jackson and the late George Kerezman, this is the sound of yearning behind the innocent dreams of 60s rock.

"I see the moon stand in the summer sky at night/I go to the sound by sea the north star burning/I dream of a perfect world a clear blue sky and grass and tress/I dream of sunrise . . . reflecting off of a sparkling sea/I wake up dreaming/I wake up dreaming/I see the drums and bass they dance the night away/they look about the room for someone they can play/I dream of perfect world of laughing children playing games/a world of summer breezes where the countries have no names/I wake up dreaming . . ."

Of course, being New Yawkers, they are grounded in concrete-and-steel reality.

"Some day the dream will end and all this will be gone/I mourn the dream but time will end and life will carry on/my face is in the mirror and the mirror's in my face/and then my face just disappears without a trace."

But just like the visionary artists they are, they pursue, or at least, celebrate the dream.

"I dream of a perfect world of music playing everywhere a world where people live there lives and never have a care I wake up dreaming." The music, the subject, how the lyrical story unfolds are perfectly matched, providing a lesson on how rock and pop are properly done.

Another cut, "Angel in Disguise," also provides a lesson in song craft. It has that unmistakable Crazy Mary groove. Like bands in the hey day of rock used the blues and R&B to fuel their white-boy bands, Crazy Mary creates a feel and sound that underlie their clever adaptations of rock styles. Call it psychedelic grunge funk. It indie-rocks a little, with a lurching hunk of soulful fatback. And like the best rock songs, they take something low down, like the moment of horny, turned on chemistry and celebrate that transcendental aspect at the core of the moment.

"She moves like an angel in disguise/like a vision from heaven she dances in front of my eyes/she's swinging and swaying she's up and she's down/when she's standing before me my heart starts to pound."

They follow this up by sailing along on the psychedelic sleigh ride with "Land of the Jagged Mountains," an eastern/Mid eastern 60s style hippie rocker, with great violin and guitarist Charles Kibbel on electric sitar, and singer Sophie Jackson adding finger cymbals. These little touches of texture and atmosphere show the extra touches that elevate songs from okay to great, a sign of musical maturity and depth. "Still Water" is a rolling stone of a rockin' blues number. It's as straightforward as Keith Richards would have played it back in the day. Somebody's been listening to Albert King and Dwayne Allman's slide guitar work.

In what, given the depth of this band's music and the receding hairlines, is clearly influenced by vintage rock novelty silliness, i.e., Bonzo Dog Band, Mothers of Invention - they follow up the low down blues with "Designer Dog" an ode to women's best friend and a diss on trendy New York doggy culture. "Don't want no designer dog/I'll take a big ole mutt any day/to a big ole mutt us okay"; sung, of course, to a childlike calypso folk-rock tune. Silly but fun, an urban folk song of the absurd NYC dog culture.

The coaster rolls down and over in another direction, back into the Crazy Mary land of dark pop psychedelia, with "Duck and Cover" another song that, like great rock in the past, especially the 60s reacts to modern political times.

"Bombs are falling down/ falling on my brother/gotta run and hide/hit the deck and cover/running out of town/gotta find my lover/bombs are falling down/falling on my lover/Duck and cover,run for your life/me and my sweet lover are out last night/Another terror warning/gotta find some shelter . . ."

These words are sung in boy-girl harmony over an slow, crazy rock funk groove, with a big horn section blazing on the chorus, over a synched up guitar-bass-drums machine of a rhythm section.

In what at first seems like a throw off number, one that is a homage to the vintage weirdness of Zappa or the Fugs, there's "Nick Not Talking," a one minute indulgence, but only is the perfect ending to Knucklehead, a lurching, signature guitar and rhythm groove, the distinctness of this band. And, like the Fat Albert Show, you have fun and learn something, too. Did you know that the "Pledge of Allegiance" was written by a flag company? Recite it with a bad German accent. Chilling, no?

The future of the band is in question. The recent death of their wonderful bass player/organist, George Kerezman, has no doubt left a hole in their hearts. This reviewer wishes them the best and hope that Crazy Mary can continue to truly represent New York's rock underground. Tune into their website www.crazymary.comand get rockin'.


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