Garage-rock vets The Fleshtones are getting another good look

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

27 February 2008


Peter Zaremba sounds like he might be pinching himself as he speaks on the phone from his Brooklyn home about The Fleshtones’ new CD, “Take a Good Look!”

There’s a gleeful curiosity in the 53-year-old frontman’s voice when he is told of the sudden - and largely unforeseen - across-the-board outpouring of support for the disc, which, since its Jan. 22 release, has racked up raves from the likes of Paste, Q, Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly, Variety and NPR’s Fresh Air.

cover art

The Fleshtones

Take a Good Look

(Yep Roc)
US: 22 Jan 2008
UK: 26 Jan 2008

Review [29.Jan.2008]

But it’s also apparent that a part of Zaremba refuses to get too caught up in any such hullabaloo, having survived innumerable ups and downs with the long-lived - 32 years and counting - group (ably and exhaustively chronicled in Joe Bonomo’s 2007 bio “Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band”).

Having spent the last decade earning a living writing about food and travel for the New York Daily News and such magazines as Modern Bride and Destinations Weddings & Honeymoons, Zaremba knows all too well that kind words do not pay the bills.

“Over the years, we’ve had our supporters - I know them all by name and love them all,” says the always-entertaining Zaremba.

“A little Fleshtones-mania might be a good thing for everybody,” adds the singer, harmonica player and organist. “But if it doesn’t happen, we’re still going to be around.”

While obviously pleased with the reaction to “Take A Good Look!,” Zaremba remains wary. “I hope it is a big breakthrough, but I would hate to jinx it,” he says. He then applies to The Fleshtones what the late baseball manager Casey Stengel once observed about the Mets: “We’re coming along slow but fast.”

Zaremba’s circumspection aside, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about “Take A Good Look!,” a dynamic blend of vintage rock `n’ roll and R&B, bolstered by a party-waiting-to-happen vibe. Named after a favorite phrase of the late saxophonist Gordon Spaeth, who was a band member from 1982 to 1988, the disc stacks up with the Fleshtones’ best work, including 1982’s “Roman Gods,” 1983’s “Hexbreaker” and 1998’s “More Than Skin Deep” - all inexplicably out of print, by the way - and continuing an exciting rejuvenation that began with 2003’s “Do You Swing?”

“Take A Good Look!” clocks in at a trim 31:19, and if Zaremba had his way, it would be even leaner. “I was pressing to take out little snippets here and there and making other cuts,” he says. “But the guys really dug in their heels.”

Although brevity is one big reason for the disc’s high-octane impact, Zaremba reveals another that only someone on the inside would know - the band’s infatuation with Jamaican records from the 1960s. “The sound and rhythm of early reggae, when (producer) Chris Blackwell began translating it into a British thing, really had an effect,” says Zaremba. “He was responsible for making the rhythm immediate, and making you want to jump up when you heard it. ...

“We were not trying to make a reggae record by any means, but we knew if we could get the `jump up’ in there, have the rhythm come alive, like the early Maytals, then we knew we were on to something. ...

“I’m happy no one has said after hearing (`Take a Good Look’), `You were listening to Island Records,’ but we did do it (before recording) and it was a huge element. It made the songs work.”

Zaremba often writes and sings the bulk of The Fleshtones’ material, but guitarist-singer Keith Streng and bassist-singer Ken Fox made significant contributions in both categories on “Take A Good Look!”

“We never think we have enough songs,” says Zaremba, “so I was very enthusiastic to have them (writing and singing). I like the idea of having that variety. It works out to the listener’s advantage.”

Streng accounts for two of the disc’s strongest tracks - the Animals-like “Back to School” and the snarly “Never Grew Up,” which suggests that the ability to rock, not material wealth, is the true measure of success, a formulation Zaremba embraces. “Keith has a family and he is a responsible taxpayer, but he gets to do what he wants.”

Zaremba’s makes his mark with the swinging “First Date (Are You Coming On to Me)” and the Merseybeat-influenced “Love Yourself.”

He describes the former as “short, violent and kind of like that kind of encounter. ... It has a definite `60s sound, with a wacky-sounding (Farfisa) organ that somebody said sounds like the Dave Clark Five. Consciously, I didn’t think of that. But I’ve spent 30 years admiring the Dave Clark Five, so I was glad I finally I gave it up for them.”

On the latter, Zaremba says he was “trying to do the very early Beatles. The first Beatles stuff I heard, like `There’s a Place,’ there was such a mysterious and melancholy sound to those songs.”

In the best tradition of ? & the Mysterians (“96 Tears”) and the Hombres (“Let It Out”), Zaremba talk-sings over an organ hook and an insistent, hip-swaying rhythm provided by his crew on “Take a Good Look’s” title track.

Along the way he knocks living in a time where ugliness rules, overly judgemental people, greedy developers, “hipster overspill” and a “tattoo-covered, goatee-, sock-hat-wearin’ ” poser who is taking up the time of a beauty he would like to date.

“We needed a song to justify the (album) title,” says Zaremba. “It’s a rant; the bits and pieces were churning through my head over the past year. ... A lot of the song is really from the heart, but turning it into a pick-up line keeps it from pretentiousness.”

When The Fleshtones tour, Zaremba promises shows with “a lot of the new stuff, and old stuff, too.” Will he, Streng, Fox and drummer-singer Bill Milhizer jump from the stage and boogaloo with patrons, or dance on tables and boogie on the bar, leg-kicking in unison, as they have in the past?

“We’ll be doing our usual breaking down of the barriers between performers and audience and invading everyone’s space,” says Zaremba.

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