The rocking Bethlehem, Pennsylvania garage that incubated the Original Sins hasn’t had a new coat of paint or even a serious spring cleaning in ages. Led by diminutive howler/guitarist J.T. (John Terlesky), the quartet — which didn’t change, lineup-wise, save for one drummer change, between its 1987 debut and 1996’s Bethlehem — has stayed true to its chosen era, re-creating the down and dirty organ-fueled excitement and atmosphere of ’60s punk bands like the Standells and Seeds. Synthesizing convincing originals from standard ingredients, the Sins have been remarkably consistent in their quality control, trying new vintages now and then but keeping stylistic ambition from overtaking them (like the Chesterfield Kings) while steering clear of the sense that they’ve done it all before (like the Lyres).
Big Soul is an instant classic, slyly simple contemporary grunge stripped of nostalgia and ready to pop. The Sins avoid the easy cover route to create its own vintage memories on “Not Gonna Be All Right” and “Can’t Feel a Thing,” with Dan McKinney’s cheesy organ adding the appropriate icing. Less aggressive tunes — like “Why Don’t You Smile, Joan?” — maintain the no-nonsense spirit, peeling away tough posturing to get at searing emotions that are never far from the surface. (The 1994 CD reissue adds a half-dozen tracks — including covers of “Sugar Sugar” and a brief bit of “Route 66” — not on the original vinyl.)
Kicking off with the selfconscious “Heard It All Before,” The Hardest Way (“All distortion purely intentional”) demonstrates the Sins’ marvelous ability to synthesize an original sound — less stylized than the Lyres’ — from now-standard ingredients. Rather than quote punk scripture in an attempt to turn back the calendar, the album seems like the logical result of an anachronistic environment. J.T.’s storming guitar roar and McKinney’s chunky organ-izing provide a tersely exciting bed for lyrics that — other than a few happy love songs — resound with alienation (“Don’t Fit In,” “Out of My Mind”), dejection (“Rather Be Sad,” “Can’t Get Over You”) and negativity (“I Can’t Say,” “End of the World”).
After the modest and concise garage freakouts of the first two albums, Self Destruct (dedicated to, among others, “everyone who knows anger can be fun”) delivers a surprising level of domineering intensity, beginning with the cover photo of J.T. with a grin on his face and a pistol held to his head. The new-sound Sins are a snarling psychedelic powerhouse, a thickly seething cauldron of hyperactive feedback and wah-wah, rabid vocals, galloping rhythms and lyrics about drugs and sex. Some of the longer songs (the teetering-on-the-brink “Black Hole” runs past eight minutes) spend too much time on instrumental workouts, but Self Destruct captures acid-rock’s disorienting chaos with a visceral impact few other bands can touch. The two CD/cassette bonuses are from a 1990 single.
Four of the eight songs on the Australian Party’s Over, issued a month after Self Destruct, are first-rate bonus tracks from The Hardest Way CD and cassette (which also contain an alternate version of the album’s title track); three more are developmentally significant outtakes from the same sessions. Most pointedly, “That’s All There Is” whips up a psychedelic guitar frenzy as J.T. shrieks blunt sex’n’drugs lyrics. A remix of the band’s 1986 Bar/None single, “Just 14,” winds up this particular party.
Doubtlessly aided by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck as producer on Move, the group left psychedelia behind for a poppier sound (think Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Knickerbockers) and a giddy, upbeat mood which J.T. acknowledges (by way of a possible explanation) in the album-opening “She’s on My Side.” In a masterful display of greatness, the two-dozen three-minute tracks (all J.T. originals!) vary the emotional and stylistic temperature more than ever: “Devil’s Music,” “It’s a Good Life” and “Like an Animal” (like roughly half of the songs) churn and burn with classic fervor, while “Getting the Feeling” hits a Rascally soul groove, “Move” sounds a lot like Steppenwolf, “I Never Dreamed” is a shockingly quiet ballad and the winsome “I Surrender” and “Not Today” are essentially folk-rock. Move does just that, and in a bunch of perfectly good directions. If the Sins can try out new old things without blowing their cool, more power to ’em.
Settling down in one place again, Out There is an unrestrained, feedback-flaring Fleshtones party groove and another trip down to the lyrical dumps. Reclaiming the no-messing-about purity of their garage-fueled essence, J.T. and the boys rip through a cover of Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” and such originals as the you’re-nowhere surf-rock diss of “Wipe Out,” the defiantly dispirited “One Good Reason” and “Killing Time” and the icon-worshiping “Sally Kirkland.” The fully charged music writhes like a snake charmer with a case of the hives, but you gotta worry about J.T.’s mood swings.
Covered with a snapshot of Ms. K and Joe Franklin, Sally Kirkland recycles that song and the wah-wah enthusiasm of “Get Into It” from Out There (including long/short versions of each) and adds bristling covers of the Saints’ “Erotic Neurotic,” Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” the Velvet Underground’s “Head Held High” and the Stooges’ “1969.” Hot shit.
The uncharacteristically crummy artwork on Acidbubblepunk is worse than the halfhearted music inside, but the whole thing is a disappointing drop in the Sins’ standards. The self-production is colorless and flat, the pop is noncommittal (see “Drivin’ Round”) and plain; the rock numbers are mostly boring songs given low-octane performances. The album ends with a nearly eight-minute hippie-seduction tale recited by J.T. over the barest slide guitar and bass accompaniment. As he observes elsewhere, “(It’s Really Not So) Groovy (Anymore).”
Happily, the great-leap-forward Bethlehem sets the Sins back to rights with impressively recharged creative energy.
Although he’s not identified as such anywhere on the packages, Terlesky is the shadowy Brother JT, feedback evangelist and thorn in the side of the establishment. On these solo releases, he unskeins jagged reels of Hendrix-styled feedback and some surprisingly pretty improv as well. The druggy atmosphere — particularly on the cascading Descent — is a far cry from the Original Sins’ frat-house revelry, but its air is every bit as charged. Fuzzface’s Bad Thoughts is another J.T. side project of sub-Stooges/MC5 raving.