Damned Good

Though British punks the Damned were never as cheeky as the Sex Pistols or as political as the Clash, they were signed before the Pistols and left behind a body of work as ambitious as Joe Strummer's pioneering combo. Sessions of the Damned presents selections from six live-in-the-studio sessions, recorded between 1976 and 1984 with legendary British DJ John Peel.

The disc devotes nine of its 22 tracks to the Damned's punkiest period, which featured founding guitarist Brian James playing alongside eccentric singer Dave Vanian. In both sound and performance these versions rival their cherished Stiff Records counterparts. The chord changes on "Neat Neat Neat," "New Rose" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Stab Your Back," for example, are cleanly enunciated and the rhythms are solid.

The album's second half finds the band trying on different stylistic shoes in an attempt to avoid punk stagnation. "Smash It Up" and "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" (RealAudio excerpt) represent the band's arena-rock efforts, though neither of these versions matches the power of its studio counterpart. The 10-minute plus "Curtain Call" is a majestic goth-pop-rock opera, complete with dynamically disparate passages pieced together to form a dramatic narrative. It's the finest representation of the Damned's experimental, indulgent Black Album phase. "Is It a Dream?" (RealAudio excerpt) is a wonderfully winsome precursor to the Smiths' waif-pop.

Sadly, Sessions ends with a few stabs at what sounds like prog-rock metal. Though spotty, like much of the Clash's Cut the Crap, they're not nearly as uninspired.