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Let us now praise famous do-rag-wearing guitarist/songwriter/deejay/record execs. Now, unless Clive Davis has a couple side gigs or fashion proclivities I’m unaware of, I can think of only one person who fits the bill—Steven Van Zandt. Call him Miami Steve, Little Steven, Silvio Dante, or Steven Lento, his main nom de rock should be “Almighty Savior of Garage Rock”—that soul-stirring mongrel amalgam of rock, soul, surf, folk, blues, punk, and the kitchen sink. Progenitors and practitioners of the three-chord stomp owe the recent interest in their work to Van Zandt’s radio program Little Steven’s Underground Garage and its various offshoots, including festival concerts, the show’s Web site, its satellite radio channel, and the wonderful Wicked Cool Records, the label through which Van Zandt has released a stack of loud and proud albums by the likes of the Chesterfield Kings, the Cocktail Slippers, and the Grip Weeds.
Wicked Cool is also responsible for a series of bitchin’ compilations named after Underground Garage’s weekly “Coolest Song in the World” feature. The eighth volume of the series has just seen wide release (after a four-month exclusive period with f.y.e., which sponsors the show), and it is a keeper. With its focus on new and young bands, the album shows garage as a living, thriving endeavor.
Palmyra Delran of the girl group the Friggs kicks off the comp with “Baby Should Have Known Better,” locking into a punky groove and spiking her cautionary tale with the kind of repetitive chorus that lodges itself in the listener’s head for years. It’s a fitting start to the record—the song was selected by Underground Garage listeners as the “Coolest Song of 2008” and, well, it rocks.
“Terminal Boredom” finds the awesomely named Cute Lepers rocking a tune that could have been a Clash outtake. The Lepers are currently signed to Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records—a fitting connection, as Jett’s influence can be felt on a number of tracks led by female singers, like the Downbeat 5’s “Dum Dum Ditty,” which channels the Crystals through a Bad Reputation filter. That track would have made a an equally great Phil Spector single or deep cut on the Ramones’ first record, as would a number of old and recent Joan Jett tracks.
Among the other jewels contained within the album, the Phoenix-based Love Me Nots conjure early Patti Smith with “Give ‘Em What They Want,” as singer Nicole Laurenne slams up against a wall of organ-spiked fuzzy guitar goodness. The Resistoleros’ “Rock N Roll Napalm” is a better Stooges record than the Stooges were able to make in their resurrected form. Those two alternate as my favorite tracks on Volume 8 with “Turn It Up” by Man Raze, a power trio containing the oddball pairing of Def Leppard’s Phil Collen on guitar and vocals and the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook on drums. It shouldn’t work; it has no right to work; but it really, really does work.
Speaking of oddball, although I am a David Bowie fan, I disapprove of closing a garage rock compilation with Bowie’s “Days,” a decidedly un-garagy cut from his last studio album, 2003’s Reality. In Volume 8’s liner notes, Van Zandt argues Bowie’s legacy legitimizes his inclusion here—he was a member of early 60s British Beat groups like the King Bees, the Manish Boys, and the Lower Third—but the electronic textures of “Days” are miles away from the punkish energy and power chord swagger of the preceding 15 tracks. “Days” is a really good song (and Reality a really good, really under-appreciated album), but a cut from one of those early bands (a compilation called Early On—1964-1966 is easily available) would have provided a more fitting end.
‘Tis a minor quibble. In continuing to release volumes in this series, Van Zandt is doing all fans of garage rock and its three-chords-and-the-truth ethic a great service—namely, by building a kind of Nuggets compilation for a new era and thereby flying the genre’s freak flag as high as it can go. Long may it wave.
BONUS: Here are some additional favorites from earlier volumes of the Coolest Songs in the World series: