All Mighty Senators - Checkered Past, New Tomorrow: Essential AMS (1988 - 2005) CD

This retrospective starts with a new song. That’s AMS for you I suppose.
Being a fan of the quirky Baltimore group, I think the first two tracks hold a couple of revelations. One is in the new song "Checkered Past." Here AMS founder Landis McCord admits with a hint of relief that the band has "slipped through the cracks" over the years. The second is more of a revelation for the uninitiated, one of AMS' most endearing lyrics, found here in the remix of "Superfriends": "The horns, the rhythm of the drums and the strings they culminate/Into the effervescent groove we orchestrate." This line still sums up their sound better than any jungle of adverbs or map of influences. Horn players and bassists have come and gone, but the steadfast trio of McCord (drums/vocals), Warren Boes (guitar), and Dave Finnell (trumpet) has always been the core of the band. Bassist Jack Denning also qualifies as a longtime Senator, now in his 8th year with the band. They can all be found here however, as the 15 tracks on this CD include more than a dozen guests or onetime band members.

Checkered Past, New Tomorrow will definitely stir some emotions among AMS devotees. While many of the fans that were around for the band's heyday in the mid-to-late 1990's have probably forgotten about the jam-packed shows the old 8X10 club or the always-zany experience that was AMS live, this disc might just take them back to the chilly Baltimore nights and sweltering east-coast summers that they once braved to take part in the Senators' energetic free-for-alls. Perhaps beyond that it might bring back memories of the unique Baltimore/D.C. music scene that flourished in the late 1980's and 1990's, the DIY surge of punk and hard rock bands like Fugazi and the area's intrinsic Go-Go, funk, and soul music beneath the ever-changing pop charts. Those elements are exactly what create a band like AMS. The abandon of rock coupled with the instrumental grooves of R&B and soul.

Folks who took AMS seriously probably have most of the tracks contained here but Checkered Past avails to include everyone, from the folks who own every album to those who were exposed at festivals or simply showed up to party. There's live stuff, unreleased studio work, selections from out-of-print discs, and even a nugget from the band's earliest days. While there's plenty of hard-to-find stuff here, one disc can't quite convey a decade's worth of material, particularly when there's just so much AMS music that is no longer available. I'm sure most people will find this disc to be plenty of AMS and it is quite a healthy dose of some essential material, but as a big fan I would have liked to have seen a two disc set with more songs from their albums, particularly 1996's Flow.

"Superfriends" and "Kingpin" appear in remix form, as they appeared on the Superfriends remix EP from 1998. While these tracks are unique, it's a bit of a shame for an AMS "retrospective" to not include the original versions. Thankfully, "Old School," "Race Car," and the triumphant "Feeder" appear here straight from the source, Flow. Perhaps less welcome are the somewhat recent live renditions of "Rock And Soul" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go," which is woefully out of place here. Two of AMS' most jubilant live tunes, "Power Generator" and "No Clothes On," are included and culled from the band's most representative album, 1999's Raw Power Live.

The true rarities on Checkered Past are tracks from the band's first two albums ("Black Tie" and "One Way Street"), a previously unreleased studio version of "Metaphor," and the 1989 near-demo "TNRS (The New Reggae Song)." While Checkered Past, New Tomorrow is a nice collection of hard-to-find music from a highly underappreciated band, it seems to me some more digging could have been done. What about "Pedestal Head," one of AMS' most defining tunes? How about the rare "No Toy World"? Both exist on the Superfriends EP but for some reason were left out, along with studio gems like "Porno Star," "Harvest Moon," and "Freak Boy," among others.

AMS still plays a few shows here and there, but they have definitely slowed production since the turn of the millennium. Maybe the band wasn't quite ready for the implied finality of an all-inclusive collection, but one wonders if they may have missed their chance at neatly packaging the best moments of their career. Still, Checkered Past works as a fond look back at one of the world's quirkiest bands, even if the look feels more like a quick glance to some.

--Bryan Rodgers