Following in the great New York tradition of the Speedies (down to a common high school), the Vacant Lot purified the sound of pop-punk to its catchy essence, consigned the Ramones comic book mentality to cartoon artwork and aspired to the panache of teen-dream stardom without ever truly outgrowing the city’s clubs. Tight, energetic and bursting with cool tunes played fast enough to spin heads, the Vacant Lot — an outgrowth of the unrecorded Rat Bastards, which transmuted into the Devil Dogs when singer/guitarist Pete Ciccone left-is a phenomenal live band that very nearly managed to get the same charge going on the first of their three studio albums.
Recorded two years before its release, the twelve-song, 27-minute …Because They Can is an accurate taste of the quartet’s rollicking exuberance. Singing calmly in an ordinary voice over Mitro’s hot-wired guitar interjections, Ciccone gives originals like “Hard Hard Time,” “I Won’t Say I’m Sorry” and “Good as Gone” the same pep as superspeed covers of the We Five’s “You Were on My Mind” and the Dictators’ “Loyola.” (That song’s author, Andy Shernoff, is one of the album’s producers.) A couple of obviously Ramones-styled numbers are distinctly sub-par, but the rest ring as true as ’78 classics.
Recorded as the Lot was falling apart, the shabby-sounding Wrong lacks the earlier disc’s sonic focus and drive. The album benefits from a growing ’60s sensibility but overindulges the band’s proto-Ramones fixation (“Dee Dee Said,” the copycat “Do It Tomorrow”) and buries the few worthwhile tracks (“Blue, My Mind,” “Remember Me,” “Believe In”) in the harsh clatter of Nitebob’s inept production.
The band’s leaders split between the recording and release of Wrong; Mitro got custody of the original rhythm section (drummer Paul Corio and bassist Brett Wilder) and formed Trick Babys, leaving Ciccone to draft a new lineup under the Vacant Lot sign. To Ciccone’s credit, the new quartet’s Shake Well is very nearly as good as …Because They Can — solidly written, cleanly produced and spunkily performed. Highlights of an altogether swell collection of breathlessly revved-up romantic sparklers that take no chances and make no gaffes: “Anticipation,” “Sweetest Sound” and “Feel Better.”
Nitebob improves only marginally on his Wrong knob-twiddling as producer of the Trick Babys’ debut, but the bluesy theatrics of big-voiced singer Lynne Von (Schlichting, formerly of Da Willys) are so domineering that it doesn’t really matter how the band is recorded. Kitschy lyrical inventions (“Otto’s Squid Pit,” “Red Leather Couch”), a searing instrumental entitled “Camel Chips” and a neatly diverse trio of covers (the bubblegum chestnut “Quick Joey Small,” Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and the Isley Brothers’ “Warpath”) bathe the rough and randy Player in the pungent aroma of vintage rock’n’roll, and Mitro’s guitar playing both outlines and fills in the songs. Ultimately, though, Von’s throaty Shangri-La from hell growling is the deciding factor in the Trick Babys’ lovability.
The pre-Babys Lynne Von unleashed her gut-busting bellow in the company of a similarly configured quartet with a different orientation. Following a 7-inch EP, A Case of Da Willys, in the late ’80s, the raucous scum-blues group made Satuhday Nite Palsy in the belated image of Big Brother and the Holding Company — if that group had grown up in Alphabet City and had copped different drugs on the way to the studio. While covering Captain Beefheart’s “Frying Pan,” Da Willys make up a ’50s-informed blues-rockin’ idiom all their own, giving the leather-lunged singer (who, it must be said, has excellent control) plenty of room to wail and roar on memorable originals like “Love Rollercoaster,” “Cryin in the River” and “Finger Poppin.”