Southern Culture on the Skids’ Mojo Box and Laika & The Cosmonauts’ Local Warming

cover artSurf music. Whether that phrase makes you think of the smooth, polished, multi-guitar sound of The Ventures, the slashing rumble of Link Wray, the power-picking of Dick Dale or the danceable pop of ’60s beach blanket movies, you still probably have some idea of what to expect. These two January 2004 Yep Roc releases, one from a long-standing U.S. band, the other from Finland, of all places, showcase some of the different directions surf music has taken.

Southern Culture on the Skids has returned to form, in a way, on Mojo Box, the combo’s debut on Yep Roc and the sixth studio disc put out by this lineup since 1992. Every one of the 13 tracks is driving, danceable, hard-rockin’ surfabilly.

Southern Culture on the Skids, SCOTS to their fans, has always put on some of the sweatiest, hottest, most wigged-out live performances of anyone in the business. One time an acquaintance of mine, a record-store clerk just returned from his first SCOTS gig, said something along the lines of, “I always thought of SCOTS as a ‘song band,’ but live, they really rock; and that guy totally shreds the guitar.”

They got their reputation as a novelty-song band from their one and only radio hit, “Camel Walk” from 1995’s Dirt Track Date. And while it’s true that frontman Rick Miller’s songs often deal with the geekier side of Southern life, in concert SCOTS always plays those songs harder and faster than on record.

On Mojo Box they’re just about all hard and fast. It’s the next best thing to a SCOTS gig, and captures their live feel better than the live tracks on their Peckin’ Party EP, and even better than 2002’s tour-and-web-only release Live at El Sol. At 13 tracks and about 40 minutes, these songs go by fast and, at times, furiously, propelled by Dave Hartman’s drumming and Mary Huff’s gut-rumbling bass, here for the first time on disc pushed to the front and given the prominence it deserves. Not to mention Miller’s balls-to-the-wall guitar attack, which combines elements of Link Wray, John Fogarty, Carl Perkins and James Burton in a fusion of country, punk, surf and rockabilly like no one else.

Now, as you might guess from the title, Miller hasn’t stopped writing songs about some of the more amusing and tacky elements of Southern culture. After the strong kickoff of the catchy, finger-snapping “Smiley Yeah Yeah Yeah” and the gut-bucket-blues title track, there’s “Doublewide,” a surf-rocking duet about a couple’s plans to move up to classier lodgings, with lots of typical SCOTS word play: “The dog’s got a tree and the cat’s got a bone, and we’re makin’ love in somethin’ we own.”

And there’s ” ’69 El Camino,” about a girl, a car, and the hitchhiker she picks up who’s more taken with the car than the girl — although maybe he’s not talking about the car when he repeats “69” over and over. And one of my favorites, “Swamp Fox,” about a halter-top-wearing Daisy Duke type, strolling through town on a hot day, just looking for a home to wreck.

Mary only takes lead vocals on one track, one of two covers on the disc, “Fire of Love,” a sultry, soulful, slow-dance number of the type she excels in. But she sings more true duets with Miller on this one, including the straight love song “I Want a Love,” the ’60s cheesy lounge party song “Soulful Garage,” “Where is the Moon?” the most overtly country-influence track, with Everly harmonies and jangly guitars, and the final track “All Over But the Shoutin’,” which could be a great lost Skynyrd song. Oh, and the other cover, “Biff Bang Pow,” an R&B-style tribute to ’60s comics heros.

So OK, Mojo Box has its songs about trailers and muscle cars and people doing all kinds of silly things in the name of luv, but there’s no mistaking them for novelty songs this time out. It’s all just flat-out, good-time rock ‘n’ roll, guaranteed to move your feet and the rest of your body, too.

(Yep Roc, 2004)

cover artLocal Warming is the sixth full-length release since 1988 by Laika & The Cosmonauts, who’re billed as Finland’s No. 1 surf band. These 12 instrumental tracks are laid down by the same four musicians who’ve been in the group since its inception, and their experience shows.

Just because it’s all instrumental, don’t suppose that this music is one-dimensional. The Cosmonauts have toured and recorded with acts as diverse as Ministry and Värttinä, and they have a slew of soundtrack credits in their resume. Still, they do it all with those staples of instrumental surf music everywhere, reverb-laden guitar and trembly organ, played with aplomb by Nikko Lankinen and Matti Pitsinki, respectively. The foundation is ably laid by bassist Tom Nyman and drummer Janne Haavisto, and all four share co-writing and production credits.

So now you know the background, what about the music? It’s hot. It’s cool. It swings. It rocks. From the opening track, “N.Y. ’79,” a slab of ’60s-style surf over a modern dance beat, to the hard-rocking closer, “Mr. Melee,” which rumbles like early Deep Purple, Local Warming never lets up. In between those two rockers are the spy-movie hipness of “The Key Role”; the world-beat meets lounge jazz of “Haroosh”; the shimmery psychedelia of “Crosstown Canyon”; the Mono Puff-type jazz rock of “Nocturne of the Neon Night”; and the Rhythm Heritage-style cheese of “Disco-Plank.” “Liposuction” sounds like Dr. John surfing the New Orleans funky nightscape, “Soulmate” marries a laidback soul groove with plenty of twang and a rich, Hammond organ tremolo, while Meneito Paraiso finds the Cosmonauts looking for the perfect wave on the beaches of Rio, to a rhumba beat.

Sound like fun? It definitely is. Local Warming is a winner for anyone who enjoys hip instrumental music.

(Yep Roc 2004)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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