Rocket from the Tombs

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Barfly Review

by Mark Deming

It's rather unusual that a band would form in 1974 and not get around to recording a proper debut album until 2010, but nothing about Rocket from the Tombs was ever ordinary. A pack of smart, angry misfits who gathered in Cleveland, Ohio to make tough, noisy, but arty rock & roll, Rocket from the Tombs was largely the brainchild of songwriter and guitarist Peter Laughner and vocalist David Thomas, and when the group split up after a little less than a year, two members (Cheetah Chrome and John Madansky, aka Johnny Blitz) would go on to form the Dead Boys, while Laughner and Thomas would launch the first lineup of Pere Ubu. Rocket from the Tombs became a legend among scholars of punk history (especially after Laughner died in 1977), though hardly anyone knew what they actually sounded like until an archival collection of live recordings and rehearsal tapes, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from The Tombs, was released in 2002. Thomas assembled a reunited version of RFTT for a single show in 2003, with Richard Lloyd of Television subbing for Laughner. The parties involved were pleased enough to stage a tour, and the new edition of RFTT ducked into a studio and recut the old songs for a disc called Rocket Redux. In 2010, RFTT reconvened in Cleveland for recording sessions, and Barfly is, remarkably, the group's first-ever album of new material. Most any band would have a hard time figuring out how to balance that much history, and this lineup of Rocket from the Tombs doesn't trouble itself with that; Barfly doesn't sound much like the huge, rumbling beast on the 1974 tapes, but doesn't resemble the cleaner but hotwired sound on Rocket Redux, either. Instead, an open, casual tone dominates, and while Richard Lloyd and Cheetah Chrome are a potent guitar team, this album doesn't leave room for rave-ups, and bassist Craig Bell and drummer Steve Mehlman sound muscular without landing their punches too hard. Rocket Redux proved this quintet could rock fiendishly hard, but despite a few fiery numbers like "I Sell Soul," "Anna," and "Sister Love Train" (they must have loved the latter, since they play it twice in a row), Barfly is not the work of guys determined to rock or to threaten. Ultimately, Rocket from the Tombs in 2011 sound more like Pere Ubu than their 1974 incarnation, but with some crucial differences -- Thomas' vocals show his age, but his lyrics are direct and forceful here in a way that haven't been on a Pere Ubu set in years, and the musicians juggle Ubu's artier impulses with an unpretentious drive. It would have been foolish to expect that Barfly would sound like Rocket from the Tombs circa 1974, but it doesn't sound like RFTT circa 2003, either; it's a curious creature with habits of its own, though the results suggest they shouldn't end this grand experiment just yet.

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