Puerto Rico Flowers - 4 (2010)
During the past couple years or so, I've been noticing more and more abuse of the phrase "Best dude." This phenomenon largely occurs in the context of internet message boarding when a wacky story or picture of a celebrity surfaces. "Rip Torn gets drunk and walks into a bank with a gun thinking that it's his own house and falls asleep." "Best dude." Like that. I'm not saying that Mr. Torn's actions don't earn him the "best dude" label, but like with any internet meme, there is a point where that shit just starts to feel a little overused, no matter how frequently appropriate and useful it might be.
Still. When the subject of John Sharkey comes up, "BEST DUDE" is about as apt of a description as you can get. It's been over four years since I began happily letting Clockcleaner's Nevermind pummel me on a fairly regular basis. Back then, myself and co-founder of this blog Undercooked Sausage friended the group on MySpace and Sharkey himself messaged me asking about finding them a venue to play in Chicago "without too many speds." I think he meant "specs" as in "specifications," but man, was I a dumb 15 year old with zero showgoing experience. The Park West? That's where you go to see intimate performances by Feist and XRT sponsored three night Todd Rundgren stands. Fuck me. I might as well have suggested UIC Pavilion. But by March 2007, I would be enjoying their music in a live setting at last. At the time, I had never met anyone who knew what Permanent Records was. Or Times New Viking, for that matter, who were also on the bill in support of Present The Paisley Reich (the album they did with more than two good songs.) Daily Void played, too! Sharkey was just the best dude that night. Sausage and I were rocking out to "Damaged Goods" when it came on the soundsystem and Sharkey paused setup for a moment to get down to the funky sounds with us. I approached him at the merch table and asked what I could get for a dollar. He handed me a Times New Viking 7". I asked him to draw a zero next to the one on my one dollar bill and he said, "Sure!" and drew a swastika. And I still have it. Throughout the evening, he swore loudly and talked about penises and lesbians and made fun of the audience members, taking a copy of Almost Famous off the shelf and saying, "See this? This is what you are tonight!!!" and responding to one person's supposedly racist comment with, "You can't say that! You're asian!"
None of this shit seems funny at all when I'm typing it out, but trust me. The real point is that put side by side with all the oh so edgy "weird punk" fans in attendance at that show (OH, WOW, YOU'VE HEARD OF CHROME, CONGRATULATIONS!), Sharkey provided a sense of humor and perhaps more importantly a sense of humility that most of the stone faced punkers had no clue how to react to. For a guy whose overall personality provided such a refreshing contrast to the awkward distance keeping that most performers tend not to stray far from (although, who can blame them, really), my fellow concert attendees could not have been less receptive. Me, I was right up there with the band, losing my shit to "NSA" and "Missing Dick" while Karen grinded her ass on Dan and I for some reason (thanks, though!) This was the controversial band that got banned from every venue in Philly and released an album with a 1-2-3 punch of songs with the titles "In The Shit," "Blood Driver," and "Gentle Swastika"? Well, I was digging it pretty hard. When a band is that funny, confident, and able to not give a fuck so naturally, it makes people uncomfortable. Clockcleaner is no longer a band, but the legacy that they left behind is some real authentic only true punk band of the past ten years shit, not in the sense that they stuck by a certain sound or refused to sign with Interscope but because they truly managed to shake things up and piss all over the faces (and merch tables... zing!) of anyone who expected them to do otherwise.
That's already two extremely lengthy paragraphs about a band that did not record this 12" vinyl release. Whoops. The point that I'm trying to hammer home here is that John Sharkey... well, "best dude." He's the real deal. "A true original," if you will. A singular voice to be treasured by those searching for something worth getting excited about in today's cluttered and overwhelming independent music climate. In a recent Still Single column, Doug Mosurock commented that Clockcleaner had been moving in a gothier direction with their final unreleased material. And judging by Babylon Rules, slower tempos, crystal clear production with beautifully heavy bottom end, and clearer, more enunciated vocal stylings were seriously appealing to Sharkey & Co. For my tastes, however, hearing these refinements applied to Clockcleaner's sound struck me as being more compelling for what it could have been potentially leading towards rather than the results themselves. I liked it, but it just didn't provide the violent slap in the face that I had come to expect from the group's recordings and live performances.
But this is what great artists do. Some, anyway. They move forward and refine their visions, gliding freely along a dual current of the expected and the unexpected. For all I know, the Puerto Rico Flowers project might be a distant artifact of Sharkey's past at this point. What I do know is that these four songs reveal him to be capable of writing melody driven pop music that makes me want to play said songs over and over and over, which I was just doing earlier today.
As for where these sounds are coming from, I have read of Sharkey's affinity for the debut recordings of Modern English and Dead Can Dance (thanks again, Dusted!) Even on Babylon Rules, it wasn't so far-fetched to suggest that Bauhaus, Joy Division, and deathrock were looming large on somebody's mind. Post-punk or goth or darkwave or whatever the hell you want to label it with is pretty much the stuff that fuels the songs on 4, however. Not a whole lot else leaks in. Sharkey keeps things simple, utilizing no sounds other than distorted bass, live drums, cold synth lines, and his downright commanding croon of a no bullshit singing voice. The recording is so brief and the musical palette so consistently basic throughout that the laziness of resorting to a game of "guess the influence!" makes me feel even dumber than usual, but this is certainly a product of really, really loving that period of the 1980s where the heavyhitters reflecting the sonic and melodic tastes of the day included The Cure, Depeche Mode, Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order... maybe throw some Swans in there. Siouxsie Sioux. All that it's missing is a guitar track or two. Souped up with analog chorus, of course.
But I mostly enjoy how all of that shit manages to be filtered through a sonic/compositional lens that is very much in the homemade "bedroom pop" tradition and yet not at all bogged down in tuneless monotony of any sort (the boring kind, I mean.) Compared to the older sounds that Puerto Rico Flowers recalls, 4 could be described as primitive, but calling songs as beautifully assembled as these "lo-fi" would be giving the wrong idea. In a music world full of shitgazers and bands that consistently prove to be too prolific for their own good, it's nice to see an artist really focusing and consequently delivering from all angles. The existence of a John Sharkey solo project was a fine enough surprise. What it turned out to be... even better.
And there's a finished 7" lined up for release this April that has a cover of "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks"! Showing love for forgotten '80s Neil Young jams, aw, man... best dude.
Rating: The man takes only a few basic elements and crafts something that I feel perfectly fine calling an all around success. Favorite tracks are definitely "Let's Make Friends" and "This Is Murder," but the other two are damn good. "Torture" is probably at the bottom of the pile. Still better than that Cold Cave record that I deleted once, though.
Download Link: "Let's Make Friends"... just a damn good song.