The Last Great Ride – Dark Carnival (Bang! Records)
More like The Lost Great Ride because it's been hard to find in any format, this vinyl re-issue of Dark Carnival’s 1997 studio swansong tells you all you need to know about this Detroit ensemble. Bang! Records have given it a re-master job and restored two tracks that were found on the CD version but omitted from an earlier LP edition.
Dark Carnival was built around vocalist Niagara and guitar god Ron Asheton with a floating cast of players, who were a Who’s Who of the denuded but defiant Michigan punk underground. A direct descendent of Destroy All Monsters, Dark Carnival thanklessly played in and around Detroit for years, even making it to Australia for a lengthy 1991 tour.
Of course, they never got their due accolades. There’s one universal truth that’s harsher than the menu at a homeless shelter in the Cass Corridor in winter and it’s this: Being a Best Kept Secret is great for your cool kid cred but doesn’t buy you more than a cup of shitty Starbucks coffee. Ron (R.I.P.) had to wait for the Stooges revival, and Niagara for her painting career to take off, to make it onto the broader cultural radar. As the Carnies make clear, life really is for sissies but it’s infinitely easier when you can pay the rent.
This record appeared at the start of grunge. Neither Ron or Niagara would have been seen dead in a flannelette shirt. There’s one reason the album never stood a chance. Teen angst is one thing but these are stories about pill-heads, hangovers and domestic violence perps being administered a piece of lead behind the ear. Most have aged well. Lyrically, “I Died a Thousand Times”, “Heaven Can Wait” and “Memories Are For Losers” are as punk as they come.
Sonically speaking, “The Last Great Ride” was recorded in the sort of studio that Destroy All Monsters could never afford, so it sounds a world removed from their brutally cool but homespun output. The players involved – rhythm guitarist Greasy Carlisi, drummer Larry Steele and bassist Pete Bankert – are top shelf.
“The Last Great Ride” eschews foot-to-the-floor tempos of all those Killed by Death bands for a more considered groove. Steele and Bankert are like carpet layers in a home renovation show, putting the surface in place so their bandmates can do the painting and decorating.
And they do it so well. If you’re here for Asheton’s bluesy wail and distinctive licks, you’re not going to be disappointed. From the frenzied wah-wah workout of “Cop’s Eyes” to the psychedelic spider web lines of the title track, he’s all over these songs like a cheap suit on a Woodward Avenue pimp.
Sure, Asheton falls back on tried and tested licks that are his trademark, but he also pushes things in a different direction on "The Last Great Ride" The instrumental "Selvira" is the sort of elevator music you'd hear in a lift that's had its cable cut. If only Ronnie had been given this much leeway on “The Weirdness”. He’s well supported by Carlisi who fills in the gaps, when needed, with his warm and bluesy tone.
And Niagara? She’s a unique force in front of a microphone and “The Last Great Ride” might be the most conventional singing she’s committed to tape. Less disembodied than removed from reality when she gets inside a song, she occupies the head of whoever she’s singing about. Which is reassuring when it’s herself.
Gimme danger? This is a band that for a time really did. Just 500 copies so you know what you must do.