The Monks
Black Monk Time
(Infinite Zero/American)

Everything that's great about the Monks is right there on "Monk Chant," the lead cut from the group's 1966 underground classic Black Monk Time, reissued on American's Infinite Zero imprint after 30 years of obscurity. Over galloping drums, fuzzed-out bass, horror-show organ, trebly guitar, and chopping electric banjo (yes, electric banjo), Gary Burger lets rip a surreal, frightening antiwar rant -- equal parts leftist manifesto and rock and roll statement of purpose -- with all the hate, bile, and anger a former G.I. stationed in Germany could conjure. It's pure stream-of-consciousness babble driven by frustration and confusion: "Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam? Mad Viet Cong! My brother died in Vietnam ... We don't like the atomic bomb ... Ah, you think like I think. You're a Monk, I'm a Monk, we're all Monks ... It's beat time, it's hot time, it's Monk time!"

And with that unforgettable introduction, the Monks kicked off one of the few longplayers from the garage-rock era of the mid-Sixties that actually live up to their legendary status. With their tonsured heads and black cloaks, the Monks were admittedly something of a novelty back in the beat-crazed days of the British Invasion, much like the costumed statesiders Paul Revere and the Raiders. Certainly both groups knew the value of a good gimmick, but the one album that captured the Monks' hostility and primal-rock drive is no mere joke.

Out of print for decades, and first available only when the band sold it at gigs, Black Monk Time isn't just the last true classic from the nascent days of mid-Sixties punk. It's an assaultive collection that uncannily anticipates the thundering wallop of heavy metal and the raw hate of punk rock. All the elements are here: the shouted lyrics that span a gamut of negative vibes from bad women ("I Hate You") to bad moods ("Shut Up"); the simple but throttling power-chord riffs; the yelped banshee wailing that in Robert Plant's hands would provide the blueprint for thud-rock vocal histrionics. To say that the Monks were ahead of their time doesn't come close to doing justice to just how forward-thinking they really were.

Following a Monks history written by the band's bassist Eddie Shaw (also titled Black Monk Time) and a surge of interest among revivalist Sixties-punk collectors and critics, Black Monk Time first resurfaced a few years back as a pricey Euro bootleg. The Infinite Zero package, though, is far superior, with fine liner notes by Mike Stax (from Ugly Things magazine), a slew of bizarre photos, and a mastering job that doesn't screw with the white-hot original mix. Seven bonus cuts -- forgotten singles and some previously unissued live tracks and demos -- have been appended to the album's twelve original songs; some are essential ("I Can't Get Over You"), others are definitely not ("He Went Down to the Sea"). All should be heard, though, whether you're looking for the missing link between garage rock and punk or you simply want proof that obscurities can sometimes be as good as the cultists claim.

-- John Floyd

Nanci Griffith
Blue Roses from the Moon

In many ways, this is the finest album that the soft-voiced, country-folk singer Nanci Griffith has ever produced. Recorded live in the studio, Blue Roses from the Moon captures her long-time band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, laying down some of its most beautiful and charged performances. Part of what works best here, in fact, is the players' collective ear for the perfect arrangement: the B-3 organ that rises patiently out of the generally acoustic "Waiting For Love" or the disappointed cellos that weep behind "Is This All There Is?" On still other cuts, its the disc's guest stars that make the difference: Darius Rucker's baritone harmony on "Gulf Coast Highway" helps to muscle up Griffith's weaker voice, and on a cover of Nick Lowe's "Battlefield" (one of five cuts where her regular group is jump-started by Buddy Holly's old band the Crickets), Griffith and the Orchestra reach a steady simmer that's as close to rocking out as she's ever come.

In one important way, though, this album is among Griffith's most disappointing. Her breathy, kewpie-doll singing has always been an acquired taste, but one hoped that the years would grant her music the character that comes with a few rough edges. To that end, the newfound punch of her band helps a lot, and on a song like "Not My Way Home," her voice actually cuts loose as well, just a bit, occasionally cracking with a passion that helps justify her too-precious lyrics. What mainly seems to be happening, though, is that she's started to adopt, at unexpected moments and for no clear reason, singing "voices" other than her own. Why she throws a Dylan impersonation into each bridge of "I'll Move Along" is unclear, and the exaggerated Rainmakers twang that turns up out of nowhere on "Morning Train" distracts from the song's considerable strengths. "Maybe Tomorrow," which Griffith co-wrote with the great Harlan Howard, is all but ruined by the silly, stylized way she sings it. Griffith's albums have always been mannered, but when the playing's as tough as that of the Blue Moon Orchestra this time around, her vocal weaknesses seem even more of a shame than usual.

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