Monkey On A Chain Gang and Tantilla will be back in print following an unfair absence, and augmented with outtakes and live tracks, as well as their second-and-a-half mini-album All My Friends. Gary Stewart, who originally signed the band to Rhino Records and is still apparently obsessed with their music, had a chance to re-listen to the albums on his way to see an Arthur Lee & Love concert and proceeded to pursue his obsession to getting them back into print. Chris Morris from Billboard magazine, a longtime advocate of the band, contributed liner notes to both sets.
House of Freaks were comprised of Bryan Harvey (guitar and vocals) and Johnny Hott (drums) who migrated to Los Angeles from Richmond, Va., during a fertile time for the American alternative scene. They quickly built a buzz based initially on the curiosity factor of two people sounding like a full rock band. But the appeal ran deeper than that. The band brought with them songs rife with the mystery and mythology of the South, adding another compelling layer to their hooky music.
The albums were cited by the Trouser Press book and web site as “resonant albums of Southern lore and heritage, covering a rich and evocative American music landscape….Over memorably original music that smolders with repressed passion and explodes in gloriously liberated choruses, Harvey castigates the memory of Jim Crow racism (‘White Folks Blood’), summons up the Civil War (‘Big Houses’), questions religious faith (‘The Righteous Will Fall’) and ruminates over his roots (‘Family Tree.’)” CMJ added, “The Freaks possess the spirit rebels like Gang of Four and the Replacements but add to it the appeal of Crowded House and Squeeze.”
So while history may remember them as precursors to the great duos of the present decade—the White Stripes, the Raveonettes and Black Keys among others – their music is also defined by tracks like “Crack In The Sidewalk” (strewn with Southern gothic imagery), “Bottom of the Ocean” (chronicling the practice of throwing slaves off of boats) and “40 Years” (an celebration 40 years after Hiroshima that humanity survived) from Monkey On A Chain Gang and “Sun Goes Down” (thoughts on the death of Harvey’s father) and “White Folks’ Blood” (another brutal observation on slavery) from Tantilla that ring every bit as vital in 2004 as they did in the late ‘80s.
In addition to full reissues of the Monkey and Tantilla, Rhino Handmade turns 40-minute LPs into 80-minute CDs. Monkey features live tracks from the now-defunct Raji’s club (arguably the birthplace of L.A.’s post-punk indie scene), b-sides and outtakes. The Tantilla reissue also features a 1989 EP recorded subsequent to the two albums titled All My Friends, plus outtakes and demos from Tantilla. (The All My Friends EP featured friends Mark Linkous and Paul Watson, who would eventually form the band Sparklehorse.)
As reissue annotator Chris Morris writes,
“Watching them tear it up live, I often wondered whether my ears were playing
tricks on me. Where were those phantom instruments I heard in my head?
It was a triumph of canny arranging and balls-out playing, and no succeeding
two-piece unit has yet managed to approximate the
dynamism of the Freaks’ interplay.”
Gary Stewart adds, “I always thought they were the band that was too good to be true and not the kind that and a small label like Rhino would get a crack at. I knew that if I got a chance to work with them, I could die a happy a&r person. I’m hoping that today’s fans hear them as relevant and rocking. Ideally I’d like to see them recognized a la Nick Drake, Big Star and Captain Beefhart not so much for their ”historical importance” but for how well they sound alongside today’s best—Wilco, Beck, the White Stripes, Radiohead etc . They’re not just a cool ‘80s band but a cool 2000’s band.”
Each title will be available on CD in an
edition of 2,500 copies for a list price of $19.98 at www.rhinohandmade.com