Mercurial singer/organist Jeff “Monoman” Conolly — once of late-’70s retro-punksters DMZ — has led Boston’s Lyres through more than two decades of malice, moodswings and abrupt personnel shakeups without ever wavering in his devotion to the band’s single-minded musical mission. Leaving such effete concepts as introspection and artistic progress to rock critics, the Lyres remain the flagship band of the garage-rock pack, churning out tough, gritty R&B-based workouts that are authentic enough in vintage sound and spirit that Conolly has eclipsed most of the one-hit (or no-hit) wonders he originally set out to emulate.
The Lyres’ four-song debut (a 12-inch EP also known as Buried Alive, after its lead track) showcases a tough, spirited brand of rock’n’roll that sets the standard to which all other contemporary nostalgic grungophiles must be compared.
On Fyre is simply the genre’s apotheosis, an articulate explosion of colorful organ playing, surging guitars and precisely inexact singing. Drawing on just the right selection of songwriters (Ray and Dave Davies each get tapped once; another esoteric cover revives a song originally recorded by ex-Beatle drummer Pete Best) and adding his own brilliant creations (especially the urgent “Help You Ann,” powered by phenomenal tremolo guitar), Conolly leads the Lyres on a nostalgic trip that is utterly relevant to the here and now. The CD, issued several years later, adds eight bonus tunes. The Lyres’ French label, which had already issued the band’s debut EP and album, put out a four-song 12-inch in 1985 and then repackaged all three items in a limited-edition hot-pink box the following year.
A few moments into the excellent Lyres Lyres, Conolly quotes the riff from the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today” in “Not Looking Back.” There aren’t any further citations of that caliber, but the entire record rocks with a mixture of Animalized R&B, touching and melodic barrelhouse pop and raving old-style punk. Danny McCormack’s guitar work is spectacular; Conolly’s voice has never sounded better. Among the covers this time are a pair by veteran Dutch rocker Wally Tax, an idol of Conolly’s; other selections may be even less familiar to loyal Casey Kasem fans.
Live at Cantones! is a compilation of live cuts (dating from 1979–’81) that suffers from inconsistent, often inadequate, sound quality but has such cool tunes as “Let’s Talk About Girls” (the Chocolate Watch Band raver also covered by the Undertones), “She Pays the Rent” and — of course — “Louie Louie.” Let’s Have a Party!! is much better, a single live-in-the-studio radio broadcast from March 1983. Conolly is in fine form, singing and organ-izing the Lyres through an informal history of ’50s and ’60s garage rock, from Elvis Presley/Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have a Party” to the Human Beinz’s “Nobody but Me.” Although still far from exemplary audio fidelity (and slightly out of tune in spots), this is a fine showing by the very best.
Never the most prolific group, the Lyres let two years elapse before releasing a third studio album. Just prior to A Promise Is a Promise, recorded by the Lyres’ thirteenth incarnation (according to Pete Frame’s detailed family tree on the gatefold), a three-song 12-inch surfaced, containing “Here’s a Heart,” a neat merseybeat oldie featuring Stiv Bators, and “Touch,” recorded in Holland with Tax. Both of those appear on the flatly recorded LP, which marks a real departure for the group. “Every Man for Himself” flirts with funk; “Feel Good” is a soulful rocker with a vocal that resembles Percy Faith; “Worried About Nothing” has the rueful tone of acoustic Neil Young. Dispensing with most of the dated stylization for about as modern a sound as a group with prominent Vox organ can get, the energy-spewing album drags in spots but blasts off in others. The CD and cassette add seven uneven live tracks. Clearly captured in a Dutch radio studio, the Lyres sound a lot like the Small Faces on “She Pays the Rent” and the LP’s “She’s Got Eyes That Tell Lies”; five additional tracks (including “Help You Ann”), however, come from some other concert source and are pretty crappy. (Collectors note: the Canadian vinyl edition has the extra material on a bonus disc and uses the US back cover on the front.)
The Lyres’ ’90s output is a confusing tangle of recycled tracks, rerecorded songs and 7-inch singles on various indie labels. The six-song Nobody but Lyres is a typically mixed bag that’s made obsolete by Happy Now… and Some Lyres, each of which recycles three of the EP’s six cuts. Happy Now… finds the foursome rocking as fiercely and infectiously as ever; though it contains only two original compositions, the covers — other than “Nobody but Me,” Bo Diddley’s “I Can Tell” and a pair of ancient Rolling Stones numbers (“Stoned” and “Now I’ve Got a Witness”) — are obscure enough to render such distinctions meaningless. With clever cover art that spoofs the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Some Lyres is a consistently groovy anthology of Ace of Hearts-era album tracks and rarities that includes both sides of the band’s 1979 debut single. Those Lyres collects eleven singles sides — most of them quite good — and adds a spirited ’93 live set recorded in Oslo.