Although CBGBs, the late, great Bowery bastion and launch pad that showcased some of the finest New York City and American punk bands, closed its doors for the very last time in 2006, its spirit lives on. And not exactly in the way you would think. Before CBGBs became the revered institution among the rather irreverent punk scene, it was a concert venue home to “Country, Blue Grass, and Blues” acts.
A year after CBGB’s closing, a traditional bluegrass band by the name of Uncle Monk is releasing their debut album. The kicker is, the singer/guitarist for this outfit is none other than Tommy Ramone. Yes, the Tommy Ramone of the Ramones. In doing so, Ramone resurrects the ghosts of CBGB & OMFUG and brings that attitude full-circle.
Strangely enough, until you’re slapped with the idea of a former member of the original Godfathers of Punk playing bluegrass, it doesn’t really register just how similar in musical theory the styles are. Both punk and bluegrass usually build their melodies around a singular riff and a spartan set of chords that chug it out in the background. Lyrically, even most of their themes are similar, espousing the philosophy of “Damn the Man!”—whether he be a corporate suit or railroad bull—normally taking center stage as a song’s central conflict.
Bearing those similarities in mind, Uncle Monk bridges the gap between traditional, old-time bluegrass and old-school punk in the most logical way possible for modern audiences to pick up on and enjoy.
Tommy Ramone (née Thomas Erdelyi) got his start leasing his building to the fledgling Ramones for practice space, eventually becoming the group’s manager. He would occasionally fill in on drums and instruct potential drummers in the ever-revolving line-up on how to properly play the Ramones’ songs. Realizing how well he knew their material, Erdelyi was rechristened Tommy Ramone and made a member of the band.
He left the Ramones in 1978 after playing on four albums and writing the classic “Blitzkrieg Bop”, however, he still continued to produce several of their albums and resumed his managerial capacity with the band. Additionally, Ramone produced albums for a number of other artists, most notably Talking Heads and the Replacements, and now applies his expertise at the controls to Uncle Monk, as well.
Claudia Tienan, Ramone’s lesser-known partner in crime and co-front person, is no slouch herself. Formerly of alternative band the Simplistics, Tienan contributes guitar and bass. Additionally, she sings on roughly half of the album’s tracks and serves as a more melancholy counterbalance to the upbeat Ramone.
Uncle Monk kicks things off with “Round the Bend” and sets the precedent with a pleasant, happy sound rounded out by rambling guitar and mandolin picking. Shockingly, there are no drums whatsoever on the disc. Instead, both Ramone and Tienan create their own jangling beat with traditional bluegrass instrumentation.
Similarly, “Happy Tune” conjures up the earnest, hopeful spirit of Joey Ramone with Tommy on vocals translating the happy-go-lucky vibe of his former band for a bluegrass audience. If you listen really hard, you can almost hear the late, great Jeffry Hyman joining in with Tommy on the good-natured, old-timey vocals of this piece.
While Ramone’s vocals are more suited to the up-tempo tracks, Claudia Tienan capably handles the gloomier material. Tienan’s smoky vocals on “Emotional Needs” are reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, sounding both deep and feminine and avoiding the usual harsh rasp that often accompanies a darker-toned female voice. While Tienan’s vocals are somewhat monotone, her voice nevertheless conveys the proper ambience on any given song. Ramone does get his crack at longing on “Mean to Me”. The song’s low-octane arpeggios and chords bring to mind Jim Croce, with Ramone’s vocals and sad lyrics ruminating on the near-impossible nature of friendship after a failed relationship.
While things are kept rather traditional in the bluegrass vein, lyrically, Uncle Monk’s repertoire covers a gamut of topics and throws in several elements of different musical genres to keep things from becoming repetitive. The instrumental “Airday” (a nod to Uncle Monk’s record label) allows the steel dobro, banjo, and fiddle to take center stage in a hoe-down style jam. While “Home Sweet Reality” stays close to the bluegrass base, the track seems more country than the bulk of the album’s material, with its twanging guitar notes plucking out the melody and capping things off with a gentle slide guitar solo. The duo grows more adventurous with musical arrangements on “Heaven”, infused with a calypso and Spanish flamenco influence. The uplifting track explores the topic of Heaven and what it means to different people, whether it be a religious concept or something that is found in the arms of a loved one.
Nevertheless, Ramone and Tienan’s punk and alternative backgrounds creep their way onto Uncle Monk while still staying within the country fence. A standout track on the album, “Mr. Endicott” is pure punk ethos wrapped with a bluegrass bow. Uncle Monk acknowledges that while many of us are long past the stage of wanting to sniff some glue, there’s still that urge to rebel and stick it to the man, whether it be through taking personal calls throughout the work day or pilfering extra rolls of toilet paper from the company bathroom. With lyrics like, “He yells at me on my coffee break / Look out, Mr. Endicott / I’m gonna get you… Don’t have much work to do, Mr. Endicott / Gotta fake the whole day through, Mr. Endicott”, the duo finds common ground with the common man and woman in their ode to a tyrannical boss.
Similarly, Uncle Monk tackles feelings of discontent not just towards one person, but to an entire subculture of shallow on “Urban Renewal”. While in theory major cities are ideally populated by open-minded, free-thinking people, urban metropolises are becoming a bastion for shallow yuppies and mindless trend-followers. In stating “Feelin’ a little bit bitter / A stranger in my town / I refuse to kiss the butt / Of any friggin’ clown”, the track expresses frustration with the current trend towards the superficial on a mass scale.
While Uncle Monk sticks to a steady diet of traditional bluegrass, the duo kicks the genre square in the dungarees and throws in enough of a punk flair to appease those fans of both Ramone and Tienan’s former outfits. The result is a strong, beautifully delivered debut album that makes bluegrass palatable to an entirely new audience while still giving veteran fans of both musical varieties some common ground to stand on.
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