Falling James (Moreland) is one of the rock underground’s most fascinating denizens — and not solely because he married Courtney Love and lived to tell the tale. He’s a gifted high-octane songwriter who often obscures his best songs under cloaks of obscenity and shoddy recording, an incisive political thinker with an equally strong bent for slapstick and — for the last few years, at least — a low-budget successor to pre- surgery Wayne County, given his propensity for performing spiffed up in fishnets, cocktail dresses and full makeup. James’ long strange trips have exhausted a slew of lapsed band members (not to mention a seemingly dwindling audience) but, after more than a decade, the Leaving Trains remain one of the most vital agents of chaos in indie rock.
That said, the Los Angeles band’s debut, Well Down Blue Highway (co-produced by Rain Parader David Roback and featuring a guest drummer from Gun Club and a keyboard player from Green on Red) is actually the picture of restraint: James’ quietly desperate delivery suits subtly seething songs like “Creeping Coastline of Lights” and “I Am in a World Crash With You” marvelously, and when the clock registers rage-time, guitarist Manfred Hofer responds with some totally wired riffing. Kill Tunes sacrifices some of that reserve in favor of an old-school pub-punk approach that will remind some of the Saints (whose “Private Affair” gets a lusty run-through here). On an album that continuously shifts gears, from shit-kicking 4/4 like “She’s Looking at You” and “Black” to lighter ballads (“Light Rain” and “Kinette”), the frontman displays his boozehound-next-door humor for the first time on “A Drunker Version of You,” and it provides a welcome respite from the vitriol sprayed elsewhere.
As you’d expect from an album entitled Fuck, James has pretty much mothballed his sensitive side. Backed by an all-new lineup — one that slows down only enough to draw a better bead on the targets it’s intent on running down — he howls through blast after blast of the kind of rancorous nihil-punk that made Los Angeles (in)famous in the ’70s. The songs come in one-minute blasts like “How Can I Explode?” — no frills, just start ’em up and let ‘er rip. Fuck‘s overall manic tone makes it half the album Kill Tunes is, but so long as you can get mounted on this wild bronco, it’s an exciting ride. Afterwards, the LP winds up with a nine-and-a-half-minute dirge called “What the President Meant to Say,” offering listeners plenty of time to recuperate.
Transportational D. Vices pours more kerosene on the same fire: it might as well be titled Fuck II. Again characterized by blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em blowouts and James’ so-spontaneous-they-must-be-one-take vocals, the Trains nevertheless integrate a bluesy skanker (“Dude the Cat”) and two driving, cool rockers (“Any Old Time” and “You’re Never Gonna Love Me Anymore”) that would do Kill Tunes justice. There’s also a striking rendition of the Urinals’ (later known as 100 Flowers) anti- pop obscurity, “Black Hole.” Now and again, the band turns down and James takes the opportunity to really bare his soul — an action that proves utterly forbidding on the self-loathing dirge “Everybody Loves a Clown.” (The front cover car-hood painting is by Howe Gelb of Giant Sand.)
Sleeping Underwater Survivors exploits James’ ability to unchain that sort of nightmare-state self- awareness even more fully. On the hypnotic “Relapse, Recover” and “Room at the Bottom,” he divests himself of some ugly demons indeed. New guitarist Bobby Belltower goes a long way toward establishing a heady atmosphere as well, with his stealthily oppressive sound washes. James really begins to unglue on Loser Illusion Pt. 0, a quickie EP that sees him rant through both bizarro-world conspiracy theories (“Rock ‘n’ Roll Murder” seems to blame “the man” for the death of every musician this side of Jim Croce) and societal death knells (“Bleach in the Fishtank”) with wounded-beast urgency.
Belltower‘s departure signaled a return to stylistic ground zero, where a transmuted lineup — which saw James split frontman duties with bassist Chris “Whitey” Sims, whose mediocre bass playing can’t make up for his abysmal singing — recorded The Lump in My Forehead. While mottled with some remarkably inscrutable songs (“Bob Hope,” for instance, traces all the world’s infirmities back to the comedian), the album essentially gives anarchy a bad name. Historical note: James turns in his most heartfelt performance on “Women Are Evil,” which reads like an open letter to ex-wife Love.
In comparison, The Big Jinx is practically a party album, concentrated as it is with loud/fast crunchers like “Sex War” (a duet with scene stalwart Annette Zilinskas) and “Ice Cream Truck.” James even manages to slip out of horror-show character long enough to deliver one of his patented confessionals, the lovely “A Woman’s Clouds.”
At some point in the 1989 recording session that produced the archival Drowned and Dragged, it’s likely that someone uttered the phrase “hey, you got ephedrine in my coffee!” Not that that’s a bad thing: “Die” and “Dream Until You’re Sore” are as exhilarating as they are exhausting.