Aretha Franklin fronting the MC5. Ma Rainey singing with the Stooges. Do a web search for BellRays CD reviews, and you’ll get dozens of comparisons like these. The thing is, it’s completely stupefying that there aren’t more bands like these hard rockin’ Southern Californians. Combining some extremely hard-edged guitar rock by an incredibly loud band with the impassioned, soulful vocals of one Lisa Kekaula, the BellRays, who have been around for over a decade now, stumbled across a combination that, when you hear it, sounds so incredibly obvious, so perfect, you are amazed that it’s not something you hear more of. Kekaula has a voice that most female R&B singers would kill for, but instead of going the predictable route, she took that voice of hers and surrounded it with some of the coolest, most aggressive punk rock this side of Fugazi. The band’s 2001 album, Grand Fury, was their finest moment to date, an intense blast of rock ‘n’ soul, and a year ago, they re-released their first album, In the Light of the Sun for the first time on CD. Unfortunately for fans of the BellRays, they don’t have an official follow-up yet (the world needs a new BellRays album!), but for the time being, the band has put together a very nice CD to tide the fans over.
The aptly-titled Raw Collection is the BellRay’s own odds-and-sods record, a collection of rarities, including compilation tracks, unreleased songs, and rare vinyl releases available for the first time on CD. It’s about as hit-and-miss as albums like these tend to be, but its best moments are terrific, reminding you again of just how good The BellRays can be. The ‘60s garage rock feel of “You’re Sorry Now” and the surprising burst of Ramones-ish pop on “Half a Mind” show that the band isn’t just all about the noise, as Kekaula howls like Tina Turner, and guitarist Eric Fate delivers some distorted, Neil Young-style solo licks. The breezy “Mind’s Eye” puts the focus on Kekaula’s singing, as she infuses a gospel feel into her performance, while the ominous instrumental “Swastika” centers solely on the three other members of the band, as Fate, bassist Bob Vennum, and drummer Ray Chin deliver some searing, angular punk. Both “Pinball City” and “Mother Pinball”, released as a 7” single by pinball magazine Multiball, provide heaping doses of campy fun.
“Suicide Baby” rocks more convincingly than newer acts like the D4 and the Datsuns have done recently (complete with cowbell . . . we all need more cowbell), and “Chemical” combines some ferocious verses with a relaxed, laid-back chorus. Two songs, originally released in 1998 on a split CD with Street Walkin’ Cheetahs, provide some incredible, adrenaline-pumping rock. “Tie Me Down” scorches during its less-than-two minute duration, and the fabulous “Say What You Mean” takes things to a higher level. Over Fate’s droning guitar feedback, Kekaula sends chills down your spine when she howls, “Getting’ mighty tired of thinkin’ it oh-vah!”, which launches the band into a roaring Stooges-style song that sounds like Koko Taylor singing “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. It’s a stunner of a tune that deserves to be on one of their official full-length releases. Better yet is their 1996 cover of Australian punks Saints’ classic “Nights in Venice”; for six spectacular minutes, the BellRays make this song their own, with both Kekaula and Fate shifting into overdrive. There’s enough thunder here to knock every little garage act out of their thrift store pants. It might be a cover, but it’s one of the best songs yours truly has ever heard the band do.
The fact that the BellRays aren’t receiving the mainstream attention they so deserve is criminal. They’re louder than any rhythm and blues act could ever imagine, and they play with more heart than most young rock bands out there. Raw Collection isn’t the essential BellRays album, but it does serve as a reminder that they remain one of the best in the business, and after listening to it, it’ll only make you wish that new album would come out sooner.