Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Week in Listening 12/1 - 12/7

12/1/08- Various Artists- A Million Dollars Worth of Doo-Wop Volume One
Al Grey- Snap Your Fingers LP 1962
Various Artists- Free Jazz in der DDR- Musik in der DDR 1950-2000 CD
Anthony Braxton- Five Pieces LP 1975

12/2/08- Vic Chesnutt Elf Power and the Anonymous Strums- Dark Developments CD 2008
Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago CD 2007
Animal Collective- Sung Tongs CD 2004
Conner Oberst- self titled CD 2008
Bob Dylan- A Tree with Roots Volume 1 CD

12/3/08- The Feelies- Crazy Rhythms LP 1980
Mercury Rev- Deserter’s Songs CD 1998
Wire- Chairs Missing LP 1978
Wire- 41°N 93°W b/w Go Ahead 7” 1979
Wire- Swimmer b/w Midnight Bahnhof Café 7” 1981
The Jam- In the City b/w Takin’ My love 7” 1977
Yo La Tengo- President Yo La Tengo-New Wave Hot Dogs CD
Slovenly- Thinking of Empire LP 1986
Dr. Janet- Ten Years Gone b/w Starry Eyes 7” 1990
Radar Bros- The Fallen Leaf Pages CD 2005

12/4/08- Mississippi John Hurt- Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings CD
High Places- 03_07 – 09_07 CD 2007
Wye Oak- If Children CD 2008
Yo La Tengo- Mr. Tough b/w I’m Your Puppet 7” 2006
Harry Nilsson- Nilsson Sings Newman LP 1970
Jake Holmes- The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes LP 1967
Iron and Wine- The Creek Drank the Cradle CD 2002
Igor Wakhevitch- Logos (Rituel Sonore) LP 1970
Human Hands- Hereafter LP 1988
Randy Newman- The Randy Newman Songbook Volume 1 CD 2003

12/5/08- Crystal Stilts- self titled EMusic EP 2008
Peter Bjorn and John- Writer’s Block CD 2006
No Age- Weirdo Rippers 2007 CD
The Decemberists- The Tain CDEP 2004
Sonic Youth- Rather Ripped CD 2006
Jim O’Rourke- Long Night 2CD 2008

12/6/08- Redd Kross- Teen Babes from Monsanto 12” EP 1984
Scars- Adult-ery b/w Horrorshow 7” 1979
Various Artists- Bloodstains Across California bootleg LP
Savage Republic- Tragic Figure b/w The Empty Quarter/The Ivory Coast 7” 1984
The Better Beatles- I’m Down b/w Penny Lane 7” 1982
Rema Rema- self titled 12” EP 1980
Afflicted Man- Afflicted Man’s Musical Bag LP 1979
Tales of Terror- self titled LP 1984
Bikini Kill- The CD Version of the First Two Records CD 1994
Raincoats- self titled LP 1979
Will Oldham- Seafarer’s Music CDEP 2004
Guided By Voices- Devil Between My Toes LP 1987
Petra Haden- The Who Sell Out CD 2005
Kev Hopper- Whispering Foils CD 2000
Silver Jews- The Natural Bridge LP 1996
Silver Jews- American Water LP 1998
Smog- Dongs of Sevotion CD 2000
The Gordons- self titled LP 1981
The Verlaines- Doomsday b/w New Kinda Hero 7” 1985
Various Artists- Killing Capitalism with Kindness- An Xpressway Records Compilation CD 1992
Anthony Braxton- For Alto LP 1968
Derek Bailey- Ballads CD 2002

12/7/08- Blind Willie McTell- 1927-1935 CD
Muddy Waters- Muddy Waters at Newport 1960 LP
Various Artists- The Secret Museum of Mankind Volume 1 Ethnic Music Classics 1925-1948 CD
Michael Hurley- National Weedgrowers Association b/w Slippery Rag 7" 1993
Dos- The Bob Lawton EP 7” 1991
Dadamah- Scratch Sun b/w Radio Brain 7” 1991
Mantis- Drülerrb/w Travellin’ Fist 7” 1993
Strapping Fieldhands- Albacore Heart b/w Neptune’s World 7” 1995
Table- Gag Box b/w Unwind 7” 1993
Labradford- Everlast b/w Preserve the Sound Outside 7” 1991
Matthew Shipp/Harry Bertoia/Loren MazzaCane Connors- split 7” 1996
Tortoise- Mosquito b/w Onions Wrapped in Rubber/Gooseneck 7” 1993
Atavin- Modern Gang Reader b/w Larkin 7” 1996
M/Monade- Vol de Nuit b/w Witchazel/Ode to a Keyring 7” 1996
Sun City Girls- Eye Mohini/Gum Arabic/Lemur’s Urine b/w Kal El Lazi Kad Ham 7” 1993
Truman’s Water- Hey Fish/Mr. E b/w Empty Queen II 7” 1993
Sugartime- Awestruck b/w Gemini Enemy 7” 1992
Gastr del Sol/Tony Conrad- The Japanese Room at La Pagode b/w May split 7” (with bonus 7” featuring excerpt from Conrad’s Ten Years Alive On the Infinite Plan performed by Conrad, David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke)
David Grubbs- Rickets & Scurvy CD 2002
Weird War- Illuminated By the Light CD 2005
Lungfish- Pass and Stow CD 1994
Unrest- Malcolm X Park LP 1988
New Order- Low Life LP 1985
The Psychedelic Furs- self titled LP 1980

MONDAY 12/1- There are twenty installments in the A Million Dollar$ Worth of Doo Wop Series, thirty tracks a volume, and just listening to one of them is a hard lesson in form as content. None of these songs were hits (hence the title of the series), but that doesn’t mean a whole bunch of them won’t sound familiar. The doo-wop formula (if you will) was fairly strict, and since it was essentially a bunch of guys (sometimes girls) mixing/melding vocal chords into the soundtrack for make-out/dry-hump (amongst other activities, sure), originality wasn’t really the point. This is a huge part of doo-wop’s appeal.
I’d never heard of Al Grey before downloading this out-of print LP on a Chess Record’s subsidiary label. The fact that he recorded for Argo (and not Blue Note, for instance) is probably a big part of why I didn’t know him; another reason is his instrument, the trombone. Hey, I love the ‘bone. But it wasn’t a very popular axe in ‘60’s mainstream jazz circles. That didn’t stop Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, or Bobby Hutcherson from playing on the record. It’s a good one.
The German free jazz comp is a great one, with a mix of familiar and new names and a hunk of music that, while not as ragingly out as might be expected (considering that Germany is the homeland of Peter Brotzmann), is still quite engaging and complex.
Braxton’s LP from ’75 is part of Mosaic Records limited edition doozy of a box set collecting all the Arista recordings of an amazing mind. A box set I can’t afford. Oh, well. Braxton combines abstraction and direct forward motion like it’s nobody’s business. He’s an incredible collaborator, his compositions are wickedly complex, and he’s a freakin’ genius.

TUESDAY 12/2- The new Vic collab isn’t as great as his last one with the Constellation crew, but that’s okay. For one thing, it’s a little more psych and notably less dark (though it’s still plenty acerbic). It’s a grower, I think. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later.
The Bon Iver release is a fine slice of slightly bent folkishness. It’s maybe somewhere between a scaled down Sufjan Stevens and a more muscular early Iron and Wine, but those are only parameters. This largely has its own glow. New EP coming soon or maybe it’s out already.
If Animal Collective doesn’t somehow fuck the pooch, they’re going down as one of the best half dozen indie bands of this decade. Yeah, you probably didn’t hear it here first.
The new Oberst is a really good listen. Okay, it’s a great listen. It nicely shuffles between more boisterous material and his expected down-in-the-mouth gush. Wish he’d get that collab with M. Ward and Jim James out like yesterday.
Dylan’s Basement Tapes are as deep as a Bergman flick, but way more funky. Not Bootsy Collins funky. Like Warren Oates in an ascot and yellow sweater, driving a GTO funky. Sue me, I’m not Greil Marcus. Yet.

WEDNESDAY 12/3- Crazy Rhythms is a monster of post-Velvets riff construction sans any pose whatsoever. For a long while, the Feelies were the coolest nerds in Hoboken. A stone classic.
Mercury Rev happen to be a really great band that I’ve sort of lost track of these last few years. Deserter’s Songs is likely in my top five albums of the ‘90s, a record that is eclectic yet accessible, melodic yet meandering, while Van Dyke Parks (hopefully) smiles and nods in approval.
Wire’s classic second LP, followed by a single from the equally amazing third record (154), and another one from shortly before they went on hiatus. It’s quite astounding how well the early Wire material still holds up. It’s all amazing stuff.
The Jam’s In the City is my favorite song from them. I think it’s perfect in its righteous pissed-off brevity. Sure they inspired tons of adults to play dress-up, but that’s better than working in an office somewhere.
Matador’s doubling up some early Yo La Tengo records on disc is a pretty swank move. I’m most familiar with New Wave Hot Dogs (I wore out a cassette of it). It’s another fine example of Jersey VU adulation.
Slovenly were (are) one of the great lost SST bands. Thinking of Empire isn’t their earliest stuff, but it is the first thing I heard. The whole thing absorbs such great influences as Pere Ubu, MX-80 Sound, and even Television and makes it sound like no other band before or since. Quite an achievement, I’d say. Too bad almost nobody cared. Dr. Janet was a super group of sorts. I say of sorts because they only released one single, and didn’t get much attention. Grant Lee Conner of the pre-shit Screaming Trees, Matt Sweeney of too many goddamned bands, Lyle Hysen of Das Damen, and Yo La’s Ira Kaplan on bass! How’s that for ye olde bait and switch? They throw down a cover of The Record’s power-pop chestnut Starry Eyes, and if that song were a woman, I’d kiss her. Many times.
Radar Bros are one of indie-dom’s best kept secrets, which is weird because they release on one of the biggest indie labels around, Merge. The Fallen Leaf Pages is a great entry point to what they do, which is down-tempo, almost psychedelic trio dynamics that really rely on expert playing and production smarts. It’s like all the great parts of post-Meddle Pink Floyd, except instead of fucking them up like Floyd almost always did in that era, these guys manage to stretch and bend and craft it into something sustained and stellar. Top notch, I tell you.

THURSDAY 12/4- I’m tempted to say that Mississippi John Hurt goes down like great whiskey. Thing is, I don’t drink the stuff. I simply can’t abide it, honestly. I’m more of a beer and wine man. If the spirits come a calling, I prefer the clear stuff, or I might go south of the border. So instead I’ll declare that Mississippi John Hurt is BETTER than whiskey. Hell, he’s better than doughnuts. Or Coney Island hot dogs, for that matter. He was nimble and deceptive, often delivering dark messages with smooth warmth, and his sound is as addictive as pure heroin.
High Places are in a somewhat post-Animal Collective bag, but they bring some gal-presence into it, which ends up making the whole affair sorta K Records like. At times. I really dig them, and recommend their stuff to people on the search for cool current sounds.
The Yo La single is an album cut from the I’m Not Afraid… album with a super ‘60s soul cover on the flip. Tasty.
I can’t say I’m a big Harry Nilsson fan, but he does a very good job singing Randy Newman. Not as good as Newman himself, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The version of Vine Street that opens up Nilsson Sings Newman is quite choice, and the rest is as slick as something or other.
Jake Holmes wrote Dazed and Confused. It’s on The Above Ground…LP but it is quite different from Zeppelin’s behemoth, and frankly his record fights with a datedness that it really doesn’t conquer until its last three tracks. I mean, the only band I can think of that could not make me wince at a song titled Genuine Imitation Life is the Lovin’ Spoonful. It’s is a good record, though. At this point I can’t take the plunge and call it great.
The debut by Iron and Wine is a great record, however. Fragile folk of this stripe is perfect wintertime music, so Sam Beam is likely to get some considerable play in the upcoming months.
The best way to briefly describe Igor Wakhevitch is as psych-classical. He rubbed elbows with rock musicians, and parts of his debut sound like the more out moments that occurred on many psych and prog records from the same era. Logos (Rituel Sonore) is a wild listen, what people used to call head music. It wasn’t your grandparent’s classical music, that’s for sure. Fine stuff.
The Human Hands’ posthumous LP is one of my favorites. They recorded in the early ‘80s, and were a great example of punk energy filtered through a focus on more mature songwriting that harkened back to early Roxy Music and also integrated arty touches that rubbed elbows with the Los Angeles Free Music Society and The Residents. They had many flashes of brilliance and should be better known.
Randy Newman is a guy that some people think should be lesser known, what with all those movie soundtracks, but his early stuff is some of the finest satirical songwriting this country (this globe) has ever seen. He’s complex and surprising while also being incredibly catchy. The above CD is him solo in the ‘90s, which is far later than I’d ever ventured into his work before, and boy I’m glad I took the chance. The recording of I Think It’s Going to Rain Today that’s included here is just devastating. The whole thing is a treat, and it’s almost enough to make me forgive that Toy Story song. He has a new album. I haven’t heard it. Stephen King loves it. I guess that’s something.

FRIDAY 12/5- Crystal Stilts and Peter Bjorn and John work in roughly the same territory, but the former are proudly low-fi, and the later use contemporary studio sheen to flesh out a more varied sound. PB & J can excel at downtrodden style guitar-pop riffing with lyrics to match that’s descended from the fertile British ‘80s, and they can also pull off some quirky dance-pop moves that actually work. The Stilts on the other hand are more single-minded. They seem more concerned with doing one thing as well as possible. If somebody had played their EP for me and said it was a lost album from some forgotten Manchester band from ’81 that played one gig opening for The Fall, I’d have bought the lie and tried to buy the record.
The Tain is The Decemberists’ most oddball release thus far. I use that qualifier because they have a self-described rock-opera coming out. On this brief one they steer into a heavy rock playground, at times almost Zep-like, and combined with all their other resources (excellent musicianship, sweet vocalizing, lofty concepts, and a collective tendency to self-edit just when you think they’re not) it’s a very nice eighteen minutes or so.
Rather Ripped is Sonic Youth in fantastic form. Kim has never sounded better, at times almost Nico-ish, and the band can pull off moments of substantial group interplay that’s just achingly beautiful. What a band.
Jim O’Rourke left Sonic Youth a while back to focus on other things, and a bunch of his experimental pre-SY, pre-Drag City solo stuff is getting unleashed for public consumption. Long Night is a double CD drone piece, a little over two and a half hours of the kind of sustained minimalist sonic head-fucking that people either take a bath in or avoid like the clap. I happen to think it’s fascinating and very approachable stuff if the expectations are not set to receive sound that moves from point A to point B with a lot of inescapable variant activity happening along the way (i. e. drummers drumming, singers singing, pluckers plucking). People will remark that nothing happens in this music, but a whole fuck of a lot DOES happen, it’s just not as immediately tangible. The activity CAN be graspable if the focus is instead on the variety of little sounds that are going on simultaneously, often repeating or sustaining and making up the total palate, and when that happens, IF you are drawn in, then it can often be startling when a step back is taken and it’s discovered that a perceptible change, a major shift, has occurred. Movement. Drones, baby. Over two and a half hours. Sweet.

SATURDAY 12/6- When it’s frigid, it’s a good idea to stay indoors.
The 1984 record by Redd Kross has never been reissued. As bad as these guys ended up, once upon a time they were a big punk rock deal. Teen Babes is six covers and one original song, and it’s not as on the money as Born Innocent, but it’s still worthy.
Scars were an obscure Brit group that released on Fast Product, the label that was home to Gang of Four and the early Human League. Adult-ery is a prime example of aggressive, arty punk. The singer is stressed, the guitars throb and wind and motor along, and the drums provide a consistent spark.
Bloodstains across California is one installment in a legendary bootleg series that helped to spread the word about the wealth of amazing underground punk singles released before the movement basically dissolved in the first half of the ‘80s. I’d heard some of this already via (viva!) the internet, but most was new to me. Known entities like Agent Orange (who basically named the series), The Plugz and The Gears rub elbows with new names (maybe you’ve heard of Silver Chalice or Destry Hampton?), and my favorites are probably The Child Molesters’ I’m Gonna Punch You (In the Face) and the Injections’ maddeningly low-fi Prison Walls. If you are at all interested in punk rock, this stuff is essential.
Savage Republic brings some vital art-clang, and they’re a band that I’ve frankly neglected over the years. Every time I hear them, I feel like a dummy for not spending more time acquainting myself with their sound. This 7” was quite early in their existence, and I’d imagine that anybody who gets excited over the heaviness of the first few Swans records (that’s me) should like this stuff as well (I do).
The Better Beatles are another internet discovery. They have a full retrospective release out that I really need to catch up with, but this single is something special. Two reinterpretations of Beatles tunes that I’m tempted to describe as genius, particularly the b-side. THIS is one of the first things I’d play for someone who wanted proof of the fertility of the u-ground imagination in the dark early days of Reagan. It was basically a forgotten single until one guy found a copy for sale cheap and went on a mad quest to unearth the story. How many more artifacts of this quality are out there, aging in boxes in attics and in the back of dying record shops?
Rema Rema put out this EP on 4AD. They’re championed by folks who have a strong affinity for England’s post-punk era, particularly those who are seriously stroked by the more abrasive/less mersh sub-scenes that popped up like toadstools on a cow-flop. This record is a nice one, I just wish there was more of it.
Afflicted Man was far more prolific than Rema Rema. The mastermind behind this shambling, stretched-out, oddball post-punk almost bordering on psych project was Steve Hall and this was the first of three LPs that were offered up in the bleak Anglo-80s. The others are supposedly even stranger. I can hardly wait.
Tales of Terror were a slightly off-kilter skate punk band from Sacramento. Partly because the record has yet to (and likely won’t) be reissued, it’s become somewhat legendary to those with a nose for this sort of thing. It’s a pretty happening affair, especially if you love the odd nooks and crannies of the punk-era’s tail end, but it’s maybe not as amazing as some have hyped it as. Green River aficionados will definitely find it of interest.
For me, Bikini Kill stands as one of the real highlights of the ‘90s. The band’s earliest stuff is infused with such manic energy and righteous desperation that they still manage to make the hair stand up on my arms while listening. This band’s very existence has so profoundly affected the shape of the current indie music scene that a case could be made that they were the most important (if not the best) band of their decade. If I had a dollar for every person who overcame the manacles of inadequacy due to this band’s clarion call, I’d buy myself an island.
The Raincoats were a precedent of sorts for Bikini Kill and the whole Riot Grrl experience. But where a lot of that movement was about tapping into the galvanizing fury of the punk form as a means to stomp on ingrained societal sexism, The Raincoats were more exploratory in nature (to the same means, natch). Their debut album stands as one of the greatest of all post-punk recordings, mostly because it didn’t neglect either side of the hyphen. Cathartic stuff, to this day.
Will Oldham is a prolific man. So much music has been released with his name on top of it that I can’t help letting certain things fall by the way. But that’s alright. For those neglected odds and ends are perfect on cold weekend evenings. This EP scoots by and leaves a rather elusive impression, which I think is the point. I like it.
First LP Bob Pollard, the beginning of the GBV juggernaut, and between then and now he’s drank more than you, me, and six alcoholics combined. The rudiments of what they were in their heyday are certainly here, but it’s nice to get a taste of Pollard still grappling with where he wanted to go. I’m not the first to say it, but there is even some REM influence at this early point. Just check out Discussing Wallace Chambers.
Petra Haden’s track by track cover of the Who’s classic album is made up of nothing but vocal sounds. It’s flat-out fucking lovely. Petra’s quietly involved herself in so many high quality projects that it’s going to take decades to fully assess the total scheme of her thing. Maybe if she didn’t hop around so much, she’d be better known. But then she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
Kev Hopper was in a kooky British band called Stump. In the ‘80s they had a few hours of hoopla surround them regarding their potential as a college-rock conduit to things Beefheartian. It was somewhat of a stretch, and the band was really up to something else, anyway. I’ve only listened to this a few times, but it’s intriguing. It lacks the humor/quirk that was one aspect of Stump, but it shares the aversion for rockist trappings. Stump was a lot of fun, great fun at times, but this record seems inclined to something deeper. I’ll be back.
Silver Jews, of the vintage represented by the two albums above, were one of the few bands of that (or any) period to do three things equally well. That is: songwriting, musical delivery, and lyrics. The last is the hardest, and it’s the easiest to forgive when the words aren’t up to snuff. But Berman is a smithing linguist of the highest caliber, and the sound of his voice gives his thoughts an added power. Two classic albums that are going to age extremely well, since they steer so clear of the standard reference points of the era in which they were spawned.
The Gordons are proof positive that there were precursors to the kind of progressions that early Sonic Youth were doling out. They share the heaviness, the thickness, and the dynamic sensibility, but they also sound like their own thing, which was markedly different from anything going on in their home country of New Zealand at the time. They eventually morphed into Bailter Space, an early Matador band that didn’t get enough love. Oh well.
New Zealand’s The Verlaines were rather well liked in their day, but I kind of think they should have been a much bigger deal. Doomsday is just staggering in its scope and in its defiant pop sensibility. Slop, noise, and amateurishness were rampant when this single was released, but The Verlaines flaunt a seamlessly crafted tune that is irresistible in is largeness. They had a batch of classic songs, but this one might be the best.
On the other hand, there is the Xpressway label. Any history of the indie low-fi era that doesn’t devote scads of time to this New Zealand concern’s massive imprint on that movement is an incomplete and rather fucked history. This comp is a big piece of what they did so well. Sandra Bell, David Mitchell, David Kilgour, Alastair Galbraith, and the sublime This Kind of Punishment are all well represented (amongst others), and I’ve yet to hear a peep from this label that was anything less than great. As interesting as American style low-fi was, almost all of its most celebrated practitioners ended up elsewhere. The Xpressway scene, possibly because so few people championed it (other than often insufferable fanzine dudes), or maybe because the root of what they were getting at was less definable and exploitable, never crossed over. They just kept on keeping on. Many are still around today (though Xpressway is long defunct), toiling in the underground.
Braxton’s For Alto was his second record, and it’s just him and his instrument. All of the pieces are dedications to musicians and artists, and the sound pushes into all sorts of directions. Dedicated to John Cage features some of the most furiously blown saxophone that I’ve ever heard. Its joyousness is simply mind blowing. The man’s music has traveled through so much development since the late ‘60s in Chicago that hearing him at this early stage is really striking. It’s also essential to the full picture of his artistry. Unlike musicians who served in more anonymous capacities in the bands of others, gathering chops and ideas along the way but not really revealing much of themselves, Braxton jumped with full force into the maelstrom. He was mulling over the greats, breathing in the fumes from his Chicago cohorts (AACM, Art Ensemble, Muhal Richard Abrams, etc), and working on the basis of ideas that continue to grow into the present day. For Alto is uncompromising record. Anyone interested in free jazz needs to hear it.
The late Derek Bailey is one of the few guitarists that can be described as having his own musical language without risking exaggeration. His free-improv style fully embraced abstraction, and he played in so many different contexts (solo, duo, small group, large group, collabs with dancers, turntablists, electronic artists etc) that it could be hard for more casual listeners to get a handle on his eclecticism. Ballads is Bailey examining traditional songs and traversing through recognizable structure, so while it’s certainly going to be more accessible to those who know little about avant-garde music, it still stands in the scheme of his overall work as an anomaly. But what a fascinating anomaly it is. Bailey’s general style was always so out there that know-nothings would be inspired to carp that he didn’t know how to play. This record will live for all time as a rigorous shutdown to the philistines. But it’s no compromise. It stands as a beautiful work and another surprise from a guy who was full of them.

SUNDAY 12/7- Blind Willie McTell was both an entertainer and an artist of considerable depth. The recordings on the above Yazoo CD really spotlight how versatile, rambunctious, and humorous he could be. Pre-war blues is an extremely varied genre, ranging from uptown and slick to down home and ragged, in addition to the more outlandish documents from guys like Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson. McTell’s music lacks the desperate, anguished aura that sits on the outer limits of early blues; instead it’s direct and approachable but still drenched in a rural sensibility, lacking the urbanite’s polish. Where some blues greats are best listened to a few songs at a time, McTell can successfully stretch over the length of a full CD and leave me wanting more. What a wizard.
This Muddy Waters’ show from Newport is a strong (though brief) one, showcasing the dense but streamlined sound of the post-Little Walter bands. He was going through a transition, declining as a charting singles artist and emerging on the folk scene, later to be a cause célèbre for scads of rock bands. As the show progresses the fire kicks up, and by the end they’re really cooking. Not the first Muddy record that a person should hear (the single disc Chess Best Of is where newbies should start), but it’s still a very worthwhile addition to his sizeable shelf.
One of the best aspects of listening to music made in the early years of sound recording is that so much of it was untainted by outside commercial interference. There was pop music, certainly. But the sellers had yet to really meddle into the affairs of the musician, since they were basically clueless as to what would sell and what would stiff. Therefore, all kinds of things were recorded. The Secret Museum series documents this unbridled lack of market savvy from the perspective of Ethnic music, which was still thriving in the first half of the century. This baby is loaded with beautiful sounds. And weird! Fiorassio by Effisio Melis (from Sardinia) creates a winding progression with the launeddas, an ancient triple pipe, that is sonically comparable to the sort of wiggy, wiggly sounds found in the experimental wing of last century’s six, seventh and eighth decades. The whole disc is a tour of a world that no longer exists. We can thank entrepreneurial cluelessness for at least allowing us to listen to part of it.
A whole bunch of vinyl 7 inch records were released in the ‘90s. I didn’t buy all of them. So thank the internet and the generosity of my fellow human beings for allowing me to hear some of those I missed. Starting with Michael Hurley and ending with the Gastr del Sol/Tony Conrad split was a nice way to bookend a tour through a batch of small platters that basically hang around in the fertile ‘90s underground. Much of this scene rubbed elbows with the larger indie/alternative crowd that flourished and struggled in the wake of Nirvana’s explosion. The u-ground of this period was spectacularly varied. In addition to post-rock (Tortoise, David Pajo’s M, Lebradford, Monade, Table, Atavin), which was one of the most prominent sounds of the era, there was low-fi (Dadamah, Strapping Fieldhands), free-jazz (Matthew Shipp), full on experimentalism (Conrad, Bertoia, Gastr del Sol), clattering noise spill (Truman’s Water), shades of more or less direct indie rocking (Sugartime, Mantis), and a batch of older hands entering the fray (Dos, Hurley, MazzaCane Connors, Sun City Girls). This open ended nature of this scene, taking in so many different types of sounds as well as having a deep interest in older music, makes it hard to define and encapsulate into a movement. Unlike the indie scene of the ‘80s, it’s doubtful that a book will ever be published about its importance. Too bad.
Weird War is a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve yet to encounter a project from Ian Svenonius that didn’t make me smile in reaction to the sheer conceptual grandiosity. The kicker is that everything he’s been involved in is cloaked in a tug of war between strident jabs of flamboyant originality and a deeply tweaked prolonged hommage. It’s often impossible to decipher what is sincere and what is tongue in cheek, and this deliberate muddying of the waters drives some people up the wall. Not me, though. Out of all the bands he’s fronted, this one is the most versatile, with an equality of ability spread across the membership. The real gist of the group is a celebratory nonconformity, funky as hell and letting it all hang out.
Lungfish are one of the best live rock bands I’ve ever stood in front of. They could bear down into transcendent repetition until it seemed like it was impossible for the music to get any more intense, and then it would. And then again. Live units of this quality almost always suffer in the translation to record. These guys are certainly not as explosive on disc, but they do a bang-up job trying. The records succeed in part because they differ so little from what they do on stage, lacking any kind of production embellishment that won’t translate while playing live. I have a bunch of art-books upstairs, and one thing I’ve noticed is that as great as a painting can look in reproduction, it’s nothing compared to what the real piece communicates while I stand and absorb it. This is no great revelation, I know. The painting on the page is a representation of the artwork to the closest detail: other than the obvious concessions, nothing about the subject is changed or enhanced to deepen the aesthetic response of sitting at home and staring into a book of photographs and this is how it should be. It is how Lungfish chose (chooses? Are they still an active band?) to document their music, the full essence of which can’t be encoded into plastic (this isn’t always true of ALL music, though. A lot of hip-hop, certain types of electronic music, some dub, and possibly even modern classical seem to be best experienced through recordings instead of in the flesh, though this is certainly a case-by-case thing). Instead of trying to embellish what they do, they just get it down on tape and let the chips fall where they may.
Unrest is one of the few examples of a band that has two easily defined eras that I dig equally. In most cases I find myself drawn to certain specific periods in the histories of groups that had significant personnel changes or shifts in sound: Velvets, Sonic Youth, Grateful Dead, Black Flag, and don’t get me started on the jazz end of things with Miles, Mingus, and Coltrane. Unrest’s lifespan is usually divided into two parts. The first, where Mark Robinson and Phil Krauth worked with a slew of other musicians to perfect a slippery sound that roved all over the place while keeping a loose grasp on group focus, was a perfect fit in the indie landscape of the second half of the ‘80s. The second, often described as the Bridget Cross-era, saw the music tightening its influences, refining its sound and thriving on the input of all three members, in the process crafting some of the best guitar pop (with art touches) I’ve ever heard. Malcolm X Park is from the first era, and it’s a mess of wildly divergent inspirations: DC hardcore, Kiss covers, Kenneth Anger, Brit post-punk and indie-pop, Henry Cow style art rock, goofus Elvis covers with fake sitar solos and more. While I do truly love the entirety of Unrest equally (their last record Perfect Teeth might just be my favorite, and I almost never say that about bands), I do wish more people were hep to this album. It’s been out of print for years, and when it finally does get reissued it deserves a whole new following, because it’s a raggedy masterpiece.
Good old New Order. Here’s the thing, people: When I was just a young lad Love Vigilantes was often derided by purple-haired ponces as being beneath consideration perhaps due to its unadulterated classic guitar pop sensibility combined with a modern delivery and its lack of the characteristic qualities that made the band such a big thing. This was to be expected, I guess. But the song wasn’t even released as a single. It was an efficient little detour that should have been embraced at the time, but was instead used as fodder for eye-rolling at neophytes who couldn’t help but by gassed by its grooves. HOGWASH, I tell you. Eye-rolling is a necessary activity, but should not be engaged in indiscriminately. Love Vigilantes, at this late date, sounds like one of the more shrewd stabs of its period. The rest of the record is a treat also, and this has not a damn thing to do with a stroll down nostalgia lane.
By the time I was really clued in, The Psychedelic Furs’ best days were over. They were running on the fumes of being appropriated as a major element in John Hughes’ most successful film, but the consensus was the band’s moment had passed. I never really had much opinion on them at this point, but flash forward about five years and some phantom figure at a party opines through the smoke that the Furs’ first album was a classic. I didn’t know if he was putting me on or what, so I just gave him one of those nods that can mean anything or nothing. Somebody started jawing about something else, and the topic never resurfaced. Except in my head later, after the smoke cleared. Was he serious or not? I asked numerous cats if they had the record, but nobody did or they wouldn’t ‘fess up. I was stuck. I couldn’t just run to my computer and download the thing for free, this was 1992. I tried to forget about it. Then a used copy turned up at my local record shack. For two dollars. Naturally I snatched it up. With a price that cheap it didn’t matter if he was jiving me. If it sucked, I could just file it, and if anybody decided to pull some classic shenanigans in my house, I could just pluck it from the stacks and say You mean this record? Well, turns out it didn’t suck. I don’t think it rates as classic, but I could see what he was driving at. Maybe if I’d heard it when he did, I’d feel the same way. I do pull it off the shelf occasionally, and I’m sure I will again. Shit you hear at parties, man.

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