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Easter Monkeys - Splendor of Sorrow

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Artist: Easter Monkeys

Album: Splendor of Sorrow

Label: Smog Veil

Review date: Feb. 25, 2010

Easter Monkeys, part of Cleveland’s thriving early 1980s post-punk scene, were short-lived and poorly documented. The band formed in 1981 around the core of Jim Jones, ex- of Electric Eels (and later a member of reformed Pere Ubu) and singer/saxophonist Chris Yarmock. A ferocious rhythm section drove the band, with bassist Chris Ditteaux’s clanking and grinding through a miasma of no-wave disgruntlement and drummer Linda Hudson bashing out hard, repetitive rhythms, head down, arms flailing. To that, guitarist Jones sometimes added a shimmering, mesmeric kind of precision, a wavery tone built of whammy bar, distortion and chords clutched way up on the neck that sounds almost like R.E.M. or True West. (Try “Heaven 357” to hear it best.) And Yarmock contributed the necessary element of madness, raving about Catholicism, drugs, newspaper and horror movies in a claustrophobe’s monotone, pulling at his hair and letting loose with de-tuned saxophone blares. They were also a band not afraid to go long. Their masterful “Nailed to the Cross” runs over eight minutes, taut as a bowstring the whole time.

The band was mostly known for its live show, and so, in the pre-internet era, hardly at all outside Cleveland. By the time Easter Monkeys broke up in 1984, it had released only one song, a squalling, lumbering, mouth-foaming live take on “Cheap Heroin” which appeared on the 1982 compilation Cleveland Confidential. Splendor of Sorrow, the band’s only full-length, came out posthumously in 1990, more than half a decade after the Easter Monkey’s last appearance together. It was never easy to find, even right after its release, and things only got more difficult as time went on.

Still, interest built. A casual Google search turns up a four-page message thread about Sorrow on Terminal Boredom, and scattered offers to sell copies of the album for inflated sums. Cobra Verde gave the nod to “Underpants” on its all-covers Copycat Killers. And finally Smog Veil, curators of Cleveland’s late 1970s/early 1980s oeuvre (they resuscitated Rocket from the Tombs a few years ago), brought this lost album into the light, releasing it on CD for the first time ever. They’ve added an essay by Gary Lupico from CLE Magazine circa 1996, assorted contemporary photos, six live bonus tracks and a DVD of a performance at the Agora in the summer of 1982.

The eight core album tracks (plus a “live in studio” version of “Watcha Wan’ from 1982) burn at varying degrees of intensity. “Take Another Pill” is fiercely, brutally anthemic — next to “Nailed to the Cross” the best cut on the album. “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” and “Underpants” are shorter, lighter, but rippling with aggression and bravado. Alongside these highlights are lesser efforts; “Camera Fo”’s vamp is intercut with kitschy horror movie dialogue, and “My Baby Digs Graves” takes a Cramps-esque wink at punk blues.

The real payoff, though, comes in the bonus material and DVD set, where you get to hear (and see) Easter Monkeys as they were intended to be experienced: live. The bonus tracks include a radiant (though indifferently recorded) version of “Splendor of Sorrow,” an excruciatingly intense take on “Cheap Heroin” (the one from Cleveland Confidential) and a wonderful live performance of “Newspaper Mouth.”

The DVD has its issues — the sound is dominated, almost obliterated by bass, and the camera remains relentlessly focused on Yarmock — but offers a glimpse of this band in its volatile prime. For “Newspaper Mouth,” Yarmock clutches a tabloid, pointing with increasing irritation at the various things that offend him in it, while Jones flicks out irregular riffs without moving a single facial muscle. Hudson can be seen only once or twice, an arm flung out briefly, a head at blur speed down among the toms and cymbals, and skeletal Ditteaux stalks and pick-claws his bass. The fact that you can’t see the whole band at once or hear it properly is secondary, because it’s as close you’re going to get in this late day to the Easter Monkeys experience, which, by all evidence, was obliterating.

By Jennifer Kelly

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