Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ten Latest Flame Records Releases You Should Hear

On Thursday Milwaukee Record ran my feature article on Latest Flame Records closing up shop after nearly 13 years of kickass releases. It was really difficult to write that piece without injecting lots of personal asides and, admittedly, sour grapes and snarky butthurt feelings about Dan's decision to close up shop, which is why i'm hopping over here to do that, naturally. Make no mistake--i fully support Dan's decision to stop setting his personal income on fire in order to allow his favorite bands to have something to sell at shows. But the day i got the email from Mr. Hanke breaking the news, i felt like a family member had died.

To me, Latest Flame Records and the bands that recorded for it during its noisy second act were family. Having become aware of punk rock and independent record labels beginning with a mind-expanding summer between my senior year of high school and the onset of college in the early 90s, i was immediately drawn to the romantic notion of record label as symbol of quality and community. If i bought a Touch & Go Records release in the 1990s, i had a pretty good idea of what it sounded like before breaking the shrinkwrap--it was going to be loud, it was going to be abrasive, and it wasn't going to sound exactly like anything else available. And i was probably going to love it. Just as importantly, i had a pretty good notion that each of those bands were likely to play shows together, tour together, hang out together. Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys recorded Brainiac's Hissing Prigs in Static Couture. Blond Redhead opened for Shellac at the Congress Theatre. And so on. It quickly became a dream of mine to be a part of something like that. Dan shared that dream and made it happen with a stacked roster of aggressive and off-the-beaten-path-yet-completely-accessible-if-you-give-it-a-chance rock tunes from the likes of Police Teeth, Waxeater, Trophy Wives, Nervous Curtains, his Like Like The The The Death, and my own IfIHadAHiFi and Body Futures.

Music, like any art, is deeply personal and subjective, of course, and that the Latest Flame roster never exactly set the world on fire is by no means an indictment of its quality....of course. It's the same story that scores of labels that have come and gone have endured over the years. But when you're sinking the amount of money that it takes to release a record or a CD into something in which you believe, it's hard to not be frustrated when those efforts aren't validated by the outside world. We are only human beings, after all, and human beings are inherently social creatures seeking outside validation. But make no mistake: almost every time i get on stage with Body Futures or IfIHadAHiFi, and every time i throw on one of our records, i feel completely validated in that we've produced music that i would want to listen to and would be stoked about even if i wasn't in the band, and that's all anyone can realistically hope for. As my friend John Dykstra has often said to me, we should all be thankful for living in a time where we are able to make music and press records with our pals in the first place; should anyone else actually enjoy it, that's a bonus.

Still, being able to cover costs would have been a nice bonus.

In the spirit of celebrating the diverse Latest Flame catalog, here are ten Latest Flame releases that everyone should hear. Dan was kind enough to document it, so dammit, it should be heard. This stuff is all over the map, from new-wavy power-pop to wiry post-punk to brutal riffage, and it all deserves to be remembered. I hope you take some time to check them out if you don't know about them already. And thanks, Dan, for helping all of us live that dream of being part of a musical family with a sense of real community and belonging, just like those indie labels of lore. What a gift.

In more-or-less chronological order:

The Dials: Flex Time (2005)

Admittedly this isn't one of those "noisy, aggressive" bands i was just babbling about upblog, but what the Dials did right, they did damn right--crafting tasty nuggets of 60s girl-group and early 80s new wave-informed power-pop that sounds simplistic at first listen but has the substance to stick in your brain for days after. These three ladies and one dude were a downright electric live act in their peak, all snazzy cocktail dresses and buzzy lead lines and snotty harmonies. How this band didn't become the biggest thing in Chicago is honestly beyond me, because this is a group that was tailor-made for superstardom. Just goes to show you that in the world of rock 'n' roll, songwriting and showmanship only get you so far without a whole lot of right-place-right-time luck. Dear Milwaukee: if you like the Sugar Stems, you woulda loved The Dials.

The Slats: Boom Patrol (2006)

Minneapolis-via-Iowa skronk-punk trio The Slats have a knack for charging from Cars-style power-pop into stripped-down GBV-cum-Wire minimalist post-punk, only to turn on a dime into nerdy Beasties white-boy hip-hop, only to have it all flow together in one tightly-wound, economically gritty package. Boom Patrol was the second Slats release for LFR and it's a rollicking success, as evidenced by the fuzz-pop gem "Call My Telephone" and the leadoff ode to Tony Stark himself, "Ironman"--the best collaboration between Ric Ocasek and the Mothersbaugh brothers that never happened. None of this is derivative, though--it's all 100% Slats. And it sounds like they finally have a new full-length in the can and looking for a label to release it, so keep an eye out, Midwest!

Brief Candles: They Live We Sleep (2006)

Brief Candles, to this day, are Milwaukee's most staunch champions of shoegaze, hitting all the right notes--breathy male/female vocals, gorgeously layered guitar textures, and reverb, reverb, reverb. But lest you think they're nothing more than our local Ride/Slowdive knockoffs, please note that they're respected enough to have landed on more than one list of the best shoegaze albums ever released. They've continued to produce loads of strong material since They Live We Sleep, but "So Long" will probably always be one of my favorite songs ever produced by a Milwaukee band (that relocated here from Peoria, IL, if you wanna get technical).

Hitch: Clair.Obscur (2009)

Talk about 15 years too late--my god, did THIS band deserve to get more of a shake in the states. Hitch was doing their thing for around a decade in their homeland of Belgium before they hooked up with Latest Flame, and Clair.Obscur was just the latest in a line of surely outstanding releases. Mixed by the pAper chAse's John Congleton, this record boasts a pummeling rhythm section that would have sent Jawbox scurrying back to the practice studio, overlayed by thick, discordant, meaty noise-rock guitar riffage. This record is absolutely HUGE sounding--if ever a Latest Flame band would have thrived during Touch & Go's 1990s Jesus Lizard-y noise-rock period, it would have been these guys. That this release was all but ignored by anyone Dan sent it to is positively criminal.

Fuckface: S/T (2010)

Calling this a 2010 release is only accurate in that it finally saw the light of day at that point. The album was actually recorded in 1995 during the height of Fuckface's Milwaukee power run of destruction. A bleak, nihilistic early '90s Brew City powerhouse peppered with former members of Die Kreuzen, FF boasted four drummers (no snare drums or cymbals allowed), scrap metal grinding and percussion provided by Karl J. Paloucek, and nasty guitar work from Dave Raeck and DK alum Dan Kubinski (of late laying the riffage in Milwaukee act Go Go Slow along with former FF drummer Paul New). This CD release was a labor of love for Dan Hanke, who realized that this release was an critical artifact of 1990s MKE music that deserved its day in the sun. Fuckface celebrated this release with a series of three shows in Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay that IfIHadAHiFi were humbled and honored to be a part of.

Police Teeth: Awesomer Than the Devil (2011)

I so wanted this to be the record that put Latest Flame on the map--and frankly, it should have been. Friendships aside, Police Teeth stands to this day as one of my favorite bands of all time--snarky, pissed-off and smirking all while putting out the catchiest Wipers/Superchunk hybrid indie-punk this side of Hot Snakes. Their 2009 sophomore fuck-the-music-biz kiss-off Real Size Monster Series will always be a sentimental favorite, but Awesomer is, objectively speaking, the band at the height of their powers, jumping from the hardcore screamo opener "Send More Cops" into warm-weather party jam "Summertime Bruise" without so much as a beer break (usually because someone was feeding it to them out of a Pabst tallboy mid-song). All four of the men who comprised this band (though the band pared down to a three-piece for 2012's Police Teeth, which my wife would cite as her favorite) are IfIHadAHiFi's brothers until the zombie apocalypse, and current projects Burn Permits and SEMINARS are equally deserving of your attention.

Nervous Curtains: Fake Infinity (2012)

Sean Kirkpatrick approached Latest Flame with the debut Nervous Curtains LP, Out of Sync With Time, during the waning days of the pAper chAse's glorious run (Kirkpatrick was that band's piano/sampler player). I remember Dan sending me a few songs and asking "should i run with this?" to which i responded, "oh HELL yes, this is great." Fake Infinity is a further refined edition of the band's synthed-out darkwave, full of minor-key piano stabs filled out by warm/cold layers of analog synth goodness. This record is filled with home runs, from the leadoff single "Wired to Make Waves" to the driving "Come Around Viral" to personal fave "Cats in the Dark" (because cats). Nervous Curtains have another album ready to go, so i hear. Someone better hop on that.

Like Like The The The Death: Cave Jenny (2013)

Call me biased, but LLTTTD are easily the best band going in Milwaukee right now. To crib from the one-sheet i wrote for them when this album came out: "Like Like The The The Death are noisy like Jehu, catchy like Superchunk, and have a ridiculous nonsense name like Archers of Loaf, and they just recorded a record called Cave Jenny that wraps ‘em up in a tight little ball of antimatter and blasts them through reality into the present and beyond. Twin guit-slingers Anthony Weber and Michael Marchant handle their instruments like beekeeper field recordings, while Weber and bassist Kyle Scheuer try to out-shout each other on 'Here Comes Irregular,' the opening salvo in Cave Jenny’s half-hour game of noise-rock tag. It’s your classic 'one dude screams and one dude kinda sings sorta' formula that scoops some sugar in with the medicine, adding enough pop candy to the mix to make the whole concoction as addictive as a bag of Sour Patch Kids." I love love this this this band.

Waxeater: Baltimore Record (2013)

If the concept of an album filled with beefy rhythms and gnarly riffs devoted to songs about the TV show The Wire doesn't trip your trigger, i'm not sure you're reading the right blog. Baltimore Record is a concise blast of angry meat-and-potatoes face-punching heaviness with a hilarious undercurrent of nerdy, tv-informed lyrical screams about protestant whiskey and other things only suitable for a mature, HBO-ready audience. Of all Latest Flame's roster, Waxeater were the ones flying the flag the most from coast to coast, the hardest-touring batch of noise-punks on the roster. For winning LFR employee of the month as many months in a row as they did, though, you'd think they could afford shirts with sleeves (then again, driving around the country in a van doesn't really pay the bills, does it?).

We Are Hex: W.D.M.R.S./Tongues 7"

While i may consider LLTTTD Milwaukee's best band, We Are Hex are, in my mind, one of the best bands anywhere, period. The things these kids are doing in the realm of dark, noise-informed post-punk are completely off the map and so far ahead of the curve, they're cycling back around to lap us with futuristic throwbacks to all your favorite goth-y early-80s heroes. The a-side of this single is short for Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, the 1969 debut album by goth-metal maestros Coven, whose lead singer Jinx Dawson lends vocals to the Hex track. The b-side, "Tongues," is a sub-two-minute explosion of evil that begs resetting the needle immediately back on its opening drum blasts. This band deserves to rule the world. Period.

Each of these releases is still for sale at the Latest Flame website. You know what to do. (And check out the rest of the releases while you're there. This should only get you started, and besides, i know a couple other Milwaukee bands that could stand to move some units.)

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