Friday, August 14, 2009

August 14: The Cramps, "Songs The Lord Taught Us"

Artist: The Cramps
Album: Songs The Lord Taught Us
Year: 1980
Label: Illegal

Every genre has its origin, the artists that pushed into the uncharted territory and created a sound never before heard. In a few cases, these same artists went on to create sub-genres within the original, further stretching the limits on what was musically capable. Taking rockabilly influences from artists like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, and then turning the music brilliantly dark, seminal psychobilly rockers, The Cramps, remain one of the most important bands in the history of music. Truth be told, most people credit the band for even creating the term "psychobilly," though the origins of where they got the term are somewhat debatable. Flawlessly combining a retro, 1950's tone with the attitude of punk rock and topping it off with a heavy dose of gloomy moods, there is simply no other band that sounds quite like The Cramps. Though countless bands have attempted to imitate their sound, the fact of the matter is, no band has even come close to The Cramps amazing combination of enchantingly evil mood and decadent, yet dirty vocals and music. While White Zombie made the sound far heavier, and The Horrors make it more psychadelic, the sound created by The Cramps is simply the perfect balance. Having already gained a small fanbase from their singles and shows at CBGB's, the band entered the studio in early 1980, and the result was their monumental full length debut record, Songs The Lord Taught Us.

The Cramps take a moment on Songs The Lord Taught Us to somewhat explain everything there is to know about the band. Making veiled references to many of their influences, as well as statements like "...half hillbilly and one half punk..." the song "Garbage Man" truly shows and displays everything that comprises the bands' magnificent sound. Strangely enough, Songs The Lord Taught Us, came about after the group spend much of 1979 in Europe opening for (and by all accounts, often overshadowing) The Police. The Cramps had already released a number of singes, as well as the compilation album, Gravest Hits; and these releases had already earned the band a small, dedicated following. Bringing in the same producer, former Box Tops frontman, Alex Chilton, the bands' sound stays consistent, and Chilton's rockabilly roots help the band perfect their sound. While many might see this combination as rather odd, considering Chilton's more conservative roots, the truth is, he keeps the group from becoming cliché, and one can hear a difference in the bands' sound on the records on which he is absent. Much like the balance between the bands' dark moods and almost surf-style music, the production is equally balanced between clear, clean sound, and a gritty, echo-filled sound, and it is one of the aspects that makes Songs The Lord Taught Us so fantastic. The four band members play brilliantly throughout the record, and the music is just as amazing and enjoyable today as it was nearly thirty years ago.

The Cramps went through a number of lineups before disbanding in February of 2009 (due to the passing of Lux Interior), and the musicians found on Songs The Lord Taught Us, is by far the finest and most accomplished incarnation of the band. Band founder and one of the two members who played for the bands' entire history, guitarist "Poison" Ivy Rorschach brings a sensational tone and style to the songs. As the rumor goes, Ivy (real name Kristy Wallace) met Lux Interior whilst hitchhiking, and the duo soon formed the band, and were also married until his death. Sharing guitar duties (as well as the same birthday), Bryan Gregory has an equally superb tone, and the paired guitars enables the songs to have a far more rich and full sound, and solidify the rockabilly/surf-rock aspect of the music. Songs The Lord Taught Us represents Gregory's final work with The Cramps, and he would be replaced by former Gun Club member, Kid Congo Powers. Though he was, in fact, the bands' second drummer, Nick Knox was with the band for nearly fifteen years, representing the bands' apex in worldwide popularity. Knox (real name Nicholas George Stephanoff) clearly understands where the balance lies between keeping his sound bouncing and light, yet it simultaneously has an unquestionable aggression. The music found on Songs The Lord Taught Us is truly like nothing else ever recorded, with the bands' inky music providing the perfect backdrop over which Lux Interior delivers his sensational vocals.

Akron, Ohio's own Lux Interior (real name Erick Lee Purkhiser), is easily one of the most unique and formidable lead singers in the history of music. Bringing the crooning attitude of 1950's singers, along with the angst and aggression of the finest punk singers, and then giving it a wonderfully sinister mood, there is simply no other vocalist to deliver a sound so brilliant. Interior even seems to channel the spirit of The Rivingtones and The Trashmen on "The Mad Daddy," and his would become a true tribute when The Cramps would eventually cover "Surfin' Bird." Lux further shows the diversity in his musical tastes and range when the band covers the classic Little Willie John love song, "Fever." Regardless of the style or sound he is perusing, Lux Interior sings perfectly on every song, and it is one of the key aspects that makes the music on Songs The Lord Taught Us so phenomenal. Aside from the covers, the lyrical themes found on the album are of a rather dark, even spooky nature; often with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek feel. The albums' opening track, "TV Set" is a brilliant set of lyrics, where Interior grinningly describes his love, whom he has decapitated and used to fix his television. When he sings, " won't get old 'cause you're well preserved in my Frigidaire..." the true genius of the band becomes instantly clear. The combination of fantastic lyrics and the unparalleled voice and delivery of Lux Interior is the final piece that makes Songs The Lord Taught Us an absolutely classic album.

Making dark or "evil" music without becoming cliché is easily one of the most difficult things to achieve within the world of music. An overwhelming majority of the time, bands that are trying to sound "goth" end up sounding as if they are trying too hard to be dark, and it ends up turning into a boring, recycled sound. Innovating a brand new style and executing it perfectly, seminal psychobilly rockers, The Cramps, are by far one of the most dynamic and original bands to ever enter a recording studio. With the high energy, stripped down dual guitarists and top notch drumming, The Cramps were in a league of their own throughout their entire career. Whether they are playing classic covers or their own amazing songs, there is not a weak moment anywhere on Songs The Lord Taught Us, and it remains one of the most overall perfect recordings in music history. Lux Interior is in his finest hour, and his vocals, from pitch to delivery style are nothing short of flawless, and his contributions to the record truly set it apart from anything else. While The Cramps remain one of the many bands who never received all the credit they deserved for their unquestionable contributions to the music world, their spectacular first full length album, 1980's Songs The Lord Taught Us still stands as their crowning achievement, and still sounds as fresh and exciting nearly thirty years after it's initial release.

Standout tracks: "TV Set," "Garbage Man," and "I'm Cramped."

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