Words by Katherine Priddy
Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdos are not a band for those of a fragile disposition.
With raucous vocals, loud (and sometimes manic) trombone and fiddle solos, alongside lyrics centred on alcohol, revolution and anarchy, they’re a self-proclaimed ‘overexcited invitation to party’ and a ‘declaration of war on the forces of mundanity and boredom’.
I’ve caught the Sexy Weirdos playing their Gypsy-Punk-Carnival-Ska music on numerous occasions throughout Birmingham’s Gypsy and Swing scene, and I’ve never yet seen them fail to stir the audience into a dancing frenzy with their fast-paced rhythms and growling, slightly sinister, vocals from Johnny himself.
However, when approached with their new album, Victory for the Monsters, for review, I was concerned it may not live up to their performances. I was worried that they might be one of those acts best seen live, with the intoxicating atmosphere created at their gigs not quite translating onto a recording.
Victory for the Monsters was recorded throughout 2012, in an abandoned gym in Worcester – a temporary set up dubbed Carnival Punk Studios.
On the Sexy Werido’s blog, Johnny writes that he felt the time was right to make ‘a fully-fledged album’, so they cobbled together blagged bits of equipment and expensive microphones that they’d ‘somehow’ found the money for, and set to work.
On reading about the creation of their debut, it becomes evident that despite their seemingly indifferent and anarchistic attitudes, the album was a labour of love, as the band spent winter, spring and early summer arguing about the finer details and playing around with the tracks between their hectic gigging schedule; even suffering from ‘paranoid panic attacks that it wasn’t good enough.’
One thing in particular stood out for me. Johnny also writes that when it came to the funding and pressing of the CDs, they disregarded the idea of crowdsourcing (as many upcoming bands rely on these days) in favour of the more ‘honest’ approach of paying for it themselves. I personally have a lot of respect for this, as in my experience a lot of bands these days rely on spamming those who have ‘Liked’ their Facebook pages with links for donations and ways to give them money.
It’s refreshing to see a band still doing it truly DIY; creating an album themselves in a makeshift studio, spending months honing it, and ultimately paying for it all themselves. I feel this deserves some real credit, and even if Gypsy Punk’s not your cup of tea, it’s worth showing support for bands that really do it for love and not money.
As for the album itself, it is (as is, I imagine, most music under the Carnival-Gypsy-Punk-Ska-Brass-Folk-Rock banner) an acquired taste simply due to the small niche of the genre.
Victory for the Monsters opens with a high-paced and explosive track called Something Wonderful; setting the tone with Johnny’s boisterous vocals, accompanied by some serious drumrolls and fiddling.
However, it’s the second track that really stands out for me. Night Before tells the story of a late night argument between a man and his wife, and his realisation that drinking more beer is not going to aid the situation.
It has a slightly more Ska-like rhythm than some of the other tracks, and a repetitive but catchy hook. Towards the middle there is a breakdown of rhythm, as the trombone takes over and punctuates the somewhat chaotic melody. Some of it could be seen as messy and disorganised, but I feel it rather adds to the home-made, rough and ready atmosphere of the music. After all, revolution is rarely neat and tidy.
The third track, Park Lane Strut, also strongly stood out, despite being purely instrumental. It’s one of their more ‘pretty’ tracks musically, with a taste of Gypsy rhythms and a strong brass section.
Again according to the Sexy Weirdo’s blog, Park Lane Strut was written by their fiddle player John-Joe while he was squatting in a mansion that gained attention from the tabloids. Johnny jokes that it was described ‘squalid’ by a man who lived in a ditch. However, its little back stories like this that often give albums their charm, and in this case also adds to the strange, Gypsy allure of the track. And with some of the rough, Punkiness of the other tracks stripped away, it also shows off the band’s talent and musicianship.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the roughness on other tracks. Johnny Kowalski’s voice adds an edge to the songs, with his husky, slightly angry delivery.
And as with most Punk style songs, his voice isn’t necessarily the most accurate at times, but is a passionate delivery that compliments the anarchistic music. However, Johnny’s voice does lend itself well to a quiet, acoustic track called Johnny Draw Back the Knife. It’s a pleasant way to mix up the tempo of the album, and contrasts well with the more energetic nature of the rest.
Klezmer Prayer (track 8) is another strong contender. It draws on Eastern European influences and creates a wonderful swaying tempo, with John-Joe’s fiddle echoing Johnny’s vocal melodies to create hypnotising rhythm, before breaking into a faster instrumental score.
I’ve heard this song live many times before (with a lot more shouting) and it’s good to hear it a little more… contained. And again, with this track it’s hard to ignore the musicianship of some band members.
But the wonderful thing about Klezmer Prayer is the anticipation. You know there’s going to be a tempo change, but you’re not quite sure where; so when the beat finally kicks in, its infection and hard to resist a foot tap.
This is also demonstrated in the final track on the album; a traditional song called Bubamaru, which again as an instrumental track gives the musicians and opportunity to show off their skill. It’s also great to hear some true traditional Gypsy music being played well and with the energy it deserves; a slow beginning, swaying and sultry, gradually building up to an explosive and fast paced ending. It rounds off the album with a big Gypsy bang.
Victory for the Monsters lives up to the Sexy Weirdo’s high energy live performances; although it could have been so easy to lose some of that dynamism on a recording, without the lights and stage presence. But the 11 track debut shows a pleasant variation in tempo and subject, making it an engaging album to listen to in full.
Perhaps Carnival Gypsy Punk may not be a genre for everyone, with its disorderly and sometimes scruffy nature, but I feel Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdo’s debut album has a roguish charm, in keeping with their overarching theme of Punky rebellion.
And for those who want to tap their feet, drink beer, dance and maybe cause a little havoc, Victory for the Monsters could well be the perfect soundtrack to a one man revolution.
For more on Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdos, including digital downloads of their debut album Victories for the Monsters, visit http://www.sexyweirdos.co.uk