Monday, February 9, 2009

The Week in Listening 1/19 - 1/25

1/19/09- Bon Iver- Blood Bank CDEP 2009
Versus- Hurrah CD 2000
Sebadoh- Bubble and Scrape CD 1993

1/20/09- Minutemen- Double Nickels on the Dime CD 1985
The King Khan and BBQ Show- self titled CD 2007
Souled American- Fe CD 1988
Souled American- Flubber 1989
Slovenly- Thinking of Empire LP 1986

1/21/09- Shoes This High- The Nose One/A Mess b/w Foot’s Dream/Not Weighting 7” EP 1981
This Kind of Punishment- self titled LP 1983
Big Black- Lungs EP 1982
Scritti Politti- Early CD 2005

1/22/09- The Feelies- Paint it Black 12” EP 1980
The Feelies- Only Life LP 1988

1/23/09- The Go-Betweens- Lee Remick b/w Karen 7” 1978
Crystal Stilts- Alight of Night CD 2008
Television Personalities- 14th Floor b/w Oxford Street W1 7” 1978
Television Personalities- Part Time Punks b/w Where’s Bill Grundy Now? 7” 1978
Jeff Simmons- Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up LP 1969
Bunky & Jake- L. A. M. F. LP 1969
The Druids of Stonehenge- Creation LP 1968

1/24/09- Yo La Tengo- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out CD 2000

1/25/09- Magma- Kobaia 2LP 1970

Fontaine Toups of Versus playing live at The Black Cat, Washington DC

MONDAY 1/19- In the vast sea of indie bands that washed over the ‘90s, Versus was special. They were indisputably a guitar band, though they were far too melodic to be described as noisy, even if they would bear down and explode with a blast of distorted dynamics on occasion. The band tended toward a tuneful prettiness (though never preciousness) that endeared them to the legions of fans of the K/Teen Beat/Simple Machines/Slumberland/etc corner of the era’s scene, while possessing qualities that helped them to stick out: foremost was how they deftly avoided being consumed by their influences, two big ones being Sonic Youth and Mission of Burma. In the case of SY, Versus soaked up elements of that band’s unique melodic sensibility and then married it to brevity and occasional subtle loud soft tactics that were unlike just about anything that was really happening with their peers at the time. Burma always seemed more like an inspiration than a specific influence (giving the band their name), but there are moments where the connection is overt. The other factor that assisted Versus in standing apart relates to image, attitude and lyrical content. I’ve gathered the feeling that the band (or at least Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups, the two members who are the main engine of the songwriting and vocals) were never really comfortable or pleased with a fair amount of indie rock’s (or pop’s, more appropriately) tendencies during this period. Toups always seemed somewhat reluctant to be a spokesperson for the generation of empowered women that Riot Grrl lit a spark under (though because of this she sort of was anyway), and Richard often appeared to be battling to suppress a mild distaste with the trendy/herdy behavior which was sometimes prevalent in the indie scene at this time. He struck me as a snide misanthropist at points, and a bit of a lyrical provocateur. He would tackle sexual topics either as a wet-lipped lothario or as a bruised and pissed victim: either way, he was engaging in adult subject matter in the midst of many who were indulging and encouraging an embrace of things childlike (lunchboxes as purses, anyone?). By the time Hurrah appeared Versus had refined their sound to the point of near scientific bliss, upping the ante in the songwriting department and reveling in transcendent shifts in volume and intensity, while also providing a platform for some of Fontaine’s best vocals and words (playing, too). When many speak fondly of this band, they are specifically referring to the Teen Beat era, and while that was a lovely period, the Merge releases are just as stellar (so are the Caroline recs, for that matter). Maybe I’m a pushover, but I haven’t heard a bum note from these cats. Here’s hoping they turn up at this year’s Merge Records anniversary extravaganza. They opened for Burma last year, so it’s not an unreasonable expectation.
Sebadoh, like just about all the other major players in the American low-fi phenomenon, eventually grew their sound to the point where their fi was as high as anybody’s. The record where they took the big jump was III, which certainly feels like a normal release that could be purchased in a store with carpeting and those horrid plastic CD racks even if it sounds at times wonderfully fucked. But III did have a quality of offhandedness in its assemblage, as if the contents were almost randomly ordered except for its opening and closing tracks. Bubble and Scrape, however is as study in shrewd audio construction. It feels considered in a way that nothing that preceded it did, and it’s anchored by the essential placement of three songs. “Soul and Fire” couldn’t be anything other than an album opener, all numb and melancholy acceptance, while the music moves in a lethargic gait to almost approach something like rocking. I’ve met more than a few people who treat this song like a heart shaped amulet that rests snuggly between their cleavage, and it is indeed a major statement. But so is “Homemade”, which strategically starts the home stretch for this disc with some loose and slightly stunted hard-rock bombast, the drums reaching for a cathartic busyness (in the best sense), the guitars burning with a twisted directness, and when Lou rages his angst in that booming wounded “ex-hardcore and proud” voice that pours out of him like the spirit of a six-band all-ages matinee, it all comes together with stoned precision. And that voice gets an extended chord-shredding workout on the album’s closer, “Flood”, a song that’ll blow the collective doors and windows off of any trailer park you care to inhabit. This shouldn’t infer that the other tracks are something other than delicious and moving. No, this baby is chock full o’ goodness, with “Happily Divided” standing as an anthem of sorts. It’s just that the three above songs hit with such perfect gusto that they demand mention above the rest. Bubble and Scrape is simply a classic record, wisely rendered and proudly abnormal.

TUESDAY 1/20- Minutemen are one of the top tier bands of all time. And Double Nickels is possibly the greatest rock trio double LP ever recorded. The intuitive understanding that the three members share with each other, the stunning songwriting, the comfort and intensity that all three of these classic dudes apply to their instruments, the intense emotional statement that is the record’s cumulative effect, and the legacy that’s ensued mark this document as an unqualified masterpiece. It does have peers, but the only 2LP by a trio that nears its scope and beauty that immediately springs to mind is The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland. It might seem like I’m nitpicking a bit with this trio business, but to me the essence of a three piece lineup presents a special, no-nonsense style of rock music that thrusts all the participants to a high level of interaction and also puts the music under a sharp spotlight due to the lack of room for the players to hide. And that’s the thing, in trios the members are almost always players, since rock music basically necessitates at least three instruments to cook up the fire and tension that’s inherent to the form. This means that the often frustrating presence of a non-instrument wielding vocalist is absent from the proceedings. To me, this is a good thing. I ultimately prefer the Experience and Cream to Led Zep because the first two lack the sometimes senseless (or tasteless) histrionics of Bob Plant (quit throwing stones at me). Trio rock and roll at its best possesses the directness that reaches back to the form’s earliest days, where grit and spit and shit turned into giddy, inspired mayhem. And Double Nickels is like a genius split between the classic ideas laid down in Sun studios and the more knowing (though not yet self-conscious) expansiveness that marked the genre as the “and roll” fell off it’s name. This is a huge deal, because this record (this BAND) always existed as a reminder of what three non-pretentious and severely determined proles could achieve. Even when these guys were at their most jazzy, there was (is) never a distancing factor, or put another way, it never felt for an instant like the music or personalities were above the ears and hearts of the listeners, existing in a tower where they were to be looked up to and idolized. Minutemen were ground level stuff, always interacting and respecting their scene’s participants as peers, and if the girl or guy who was talking with Boon or helping Watt or Hurley load out gear couldn’t play like them, it was clear as crystal that this was due to the reality that Minutemen LIVED as musicians, that music was inseparable from their daily lives, and when this is the case extensive practice and playing becomes not a method toward the goal of virtuosity, but is instead a constant ritual of understanding and life-affirmation (I think this is the sense in which they are most similar to the jazz musicians that influenced them). Treating Minutemen like a life-lesson might get on the nerves of some, but fuck it. Their music has CONSTANTLY lit a fire under my sometimes shiftless ass, and celebrating them as a beacon of inspiration that comes unattached with any bogus Hallmark bullshit seems perfectly natural.

King Khan and BBQ Show play a loud and loose celebration of various forms of basic rock and roll as junk as gold as the soundtrack to body flailing, sweating, making out, drinking, wrestling, fucking, and numerous other activities impulsive and gratifying. They can soak up with stumping simplicity elements of garage, punk, rockabilly and doo-wop, toss in a bunch of non-ironic hyphens, and then spew out a stream of party oomph that can please wizened fans of Hazil Adkins as well as youngsters hep to German experimental techno. The dent that this duo has made in the indie scene (along with stuff like Dirtbombs and Jay Raetard) seems to relate to their inclusive attitude (where everybody is welcome to let it all hang out) while concurrently remaining true to the root-forms that inspire their sound. Khan looks like a Bollywood Little Richard, wears dresses and silver wigs, and is extrovert personified, so being cliquishly aloof doesn’t really figure in the equation. Mark Sultan a.k.a. BBQ is the calmer of the two, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less encouraging of irresponsible behavior. He’s the rhythmic bedrock that simultaneously gives this stuff its shape and helps to launch it into the atmosphere. It’s the vocalizing of the pair that brings it all home. Many bands in this field seem to work best in the single format where they don’t have a chance to let generic tendencies get the better of them. These guys however can hold it together (and then some) over the course of a substantial full length, displaying admirable songwriting ability. I’m predicting that this one will go down as a reliable party standby.

WEDNESDAY 1/21- Big Black is rightly regarded as one of the heaviest and most confrontational bands of the original “indie” impulse, but it wasn’t always that way. Lungs is Steve Albini all by his lonesome, multi-tracking a short slab of chilly post-punkishness which gives pointers to the stone-faced attitude that later helped define Big Black as the leaders in love them or loathe them noise rock. Musically, it’s a much more palatable affair. It’s been said that Albini disdains this recording, and it’s not hard to see why, since part of Big Black’s success was always rooted in kicking up a storm of parent killing ruckus that matched the (sometimes regrettable) lyrical content. This made the provocative nature of the whole very hard to shrug off, and has directly led to their lasting relevance; listening to Big Black at age 37 is still worthwhile, though naturally a different experience than at age 17. Twenty years ago it felt truly subversive to blast this music. The subject matter was like reading a true crime tabloid while on some horrendously bad acid. Almost nobody else was venturing into this kind of muddy unease, and the fact that guitars didn’t sound quite this corrosive and drum rhythms didn’t pound with an inhuman aggression quite like this in anybody else’s hands simply intensified the experience. The secret weapon was always Dave Riley, who either laid down some of the most superbly heavy basic pulsing I’ve ever heard or would approach a menacing funkiness that ultimately influenced a score of lesser bands, many of them industrial and dance-like. No matter. The sound of Lungs lacks so much of what Big Black became, instead sounding like what it was, a bedroom recording project that holds a bunch of historical value and a fair amount of sonic interest, but only musical hints of what was to come. If you love Big Black and haven’t heard it, you need to. It is a good one. Just don’t expect Atomizer or even Headache. Like I said, it’s only a good one.

On the other hand, there’s Scritti Politti. One of countless examples where a band’s initial recordings stand head and shoulders above what they did later (from my perspective, anyway), they are also notable for the seismic shift in their sound. So large is the gulf between where they started and the place they ended up (or are now. It’s been an on again off again proposition) that they basically have two different sets of fans. And this isn’t a case of a later chart topping band starting out as an inspired and appealingly inept punk act. Scritti Politti are a cornerstone in the annals of intellectual post-punk, as well as being one of the trailblazing bands on the early Rough Trade roster. Any short list of my personal Brit post-punk’s high points will always include “Is and Ought the Western World”, which remains a masterpiece of creeping catchy complexity. The music released under the Scritti Politti name (it slowly ceased to operate as a band, becoming essentially a vehicle for principle member Green Gartside) slowly changed until it ceased to resonate with me at all. The knee jerk reaction would be to decry them as morphing into a haircut band, but that misses a big point. As Gartside’s tastes changed and became more refined, he adapted them to whatever his lyrical (often philosophical) interests were, letting the chips fall where they may, often on the pop charts. His musical vehicles include soul, reggae and hip hop. It’s a very post-modern affair, where ideas like refinement and progression of a defined personal sound are looked upon as being rather antiquated. It’s also a highly British sensibility that harkens back to Bowie. It’s not an approach that bugs me in the slightest, but in this specific case all but the earliest results (collected on the disc listed above) leave me wanting. I do dig “The Sweetest Girl” (Early’s final track), though. Just not a much as “Skank Bloc Bologna”.

THURSDAY 1/22- The Feelies are essentially a classicist proposition, so it’s sometimes difficult to convince others of why they happen to be such a big deal. A case can certainly be made for their examination of the Velvet’s template that, like Jon Richman before them and Galaxie 500 after, lacked even a pinch of poseurism. Not that I’m a raging poseur-phobe. Acting like a low rent New York ahht junkie is certainly less offensive than being a Republican. But I digress. My point is that The Feelies’ VU moves are so devoid of affectation that many don’t even really notice them as being from that source. I wanted just a small taste of the debut album before moving on to Only Life, and the above 12” was the perfect place to get it. The Stones’ cover is solid slab of cap-tipping from a group that was so unconcerned with sand drawn lines that they covered The Beatles as well. The flip side hits many of Crazy Rhythms’ sweet spots, my personal favorite being “Raised Eyebrows”, which is as sweet a mixture of ache and elation to have ever graced my ears, the aural equivalent of the conflicting emotions you’d possibly get while driving away from a well-loved place you’ll never see again en route to somewhere rife with new possibilities. It’s gnawing guitar-pop flawlessness. Only Life is probably considered by many to be the band’s apex, due to the profile it helped them achieve. That’s fine, because the album’s fine. The “single” from the record, “Away”, is a succinctly appropriate example of their essence, which was spirited, often hyperactive and always catchy riff worship that could send a crowd into spastic pogo frenzies. By the time the closing cover of “What Goes On” hits the needle, the case for The Feelies has been soundly made, the finale serving as a celebratory summation of these guys’ unfettered righteousness. It’s as natural and invigorating as a homemade milkshake and just as tasty.

Can't believe I missed this show.....

FRIDAY 1/23- The Go-Betweens are lauded as one of the greatest of Aussie bands, but I’ll confess that until now I’ve had a hit and run relationship with them. What I’ve heard has always felt nice, but a convoluted pile-up of circumstances has prevented me from giving them their due. Well, it’s 2009. The neglect must cease. So, getting in on the ground floor seems wise. The “Lee Remick” single is a mildly cheeky bit of pop-culture tomfoolery that grows with familiarity. It has the surface complexion of no-big-dealness, but underneath there is a deft intelligence to the smart-alecky celebration of the cinema actress that played so well in Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. If they’d never released another record, you can bet this baby would already be snugly programmed on some revered anthology of essential one-offs from the wide open post-punk (chronologically, not stylistically) period, where it would inspire countless celebrators of the obscure to champion it and stick it on their own personally compiled (and therefore superior) mixes of the songs the populace was too stupid to succumb to. But hey, The Go-Betweens were no one-off. And while I’m far from an expert on their legacy, I know enough to state bluntly that this single is in no way representative of why the band is so well loved. It is the sort of laudably minor youthful grasping that’s immortalized the garage as a locale for activities far more worthwhile than car storage (park that jalopy in the yard). That it’s also a building block for the cut of the jib of a legendary band is just bonus. And hey, the flip is hip as well. An ode to a gal-ish axiom, it saunters up like a well-read smoothy version of early Jon Richman. Dare I say that in a year I’ll be calling this 7” a classic?
If you liked the Crystal Stilts EMusic EP, it’s doubtful that the full length (on Slumberland. Nice comeback!) will leave you disappointed. The recording seems a bit larger without being more polished, and the opening track “The Dazzled” hits just the right balance of mope and clang. The Stilts main focus is geared toward perfecting a memorably specific sound (instead of versatility) and they achieve this rather well from the evidence here, summoning up waves of melodically claustrophobic echo with spicy touches (notably basic drumming, well shaken tambourines, keyboards that alternately swirl or buzz). Noise-pop is a wonderfully appropriate contradiction, and it applies here: the computer speakers are around 12 inches away from me, and the music is surrounding my headspace like custard. The parameters of pop form give it an appealing familiarity, and I’m starting to think this band has the potential for real staying power and longevity. I’d drive an hour to see them play live, particularly if the club was the size of a shoebox and smelled like clove cigarettes.
Television Personalities are well-loved by me, and the first couple singles show how quickly main TVPer Dan Tracey navigated into his particular corner of the UK’s eccentric brigade of post-punkers. While TVP are rightfully associated with the Rough Trade scene (the classic debut album being released on that label), it’s worth noting that the first two singles were released on two different imprints (assumedly distributed by Rough Trade, though), and that both hit the racks in 1978. Thirty years after these 7”s were recorded there exists tidy categories to put bands like TVP into, but at the time it all really fell under the banner of punk, which is sometimes a more appealing way of looking at the whole affair instead of breaking it down into a couple hundred sub categories, or calling anything that isn’t unabashedly 4/4 to the floor throttling ramalama “post-punk”. One of the qualities that was so gripping about the Wanna Buy a Bridge? comp (released by Rough Trade and including “Part Time Punks”) was the wide differences in sound between the bands. TVP were the progenitors of a style that eventually came to be known by some as twee-pop, but it’s interesting how unique Tracey’s work still sounds after hundreds of groups rode the wave of his impulse. A big reason why is due to the almost absurd Brit-centric nature of the whole thing. The music crash lands smack dab between shambolic and ornate, shuffling along amateurishly with a coy catchiness that’s often subverted smartly by disjointed and stilted vocalizing. “Part Time Punks” is a peerless classic that any fan of Calvin’s K empire needs to hear. The weird lope of its gait has only grown over time, and TVP are as worthy now as when I first dropped needle on Wanna 15 years ago. Good on ‘em.

The Television Personalities

The ‘60s coughed out so many goddamned albums that I’ll probably go to my grave without hearing all the good ones. You too. Deal with it.

Jeff Simmons is primarily known as a Zappa associate who managed to secrete a couple of solo slabs, Lucille being particularly Frank-influenced. Zappa produced the record and appears under the pseudonym La Marr Bruister. It’s certainly a period piece for fresh ears at this late date, though it shares the outré cajones that helped to define the Straight/Bizarre label as a playground for adventuresome listeners of its era. Ol’ Frank burns well on guitar, the songs are nicely off-center, with a curdled bombast marking considerable portions. The title track and the acerbic “I’m in the Music Business” are the stand outs for me, and I look forward to getting closer to this one.
It’s a mystery why Bunky & Jake aren’t better known. Hell, a year ago I knew NOTHING about ‘em. The duo of Alan “Jake” Jacobs and Ann Rochelle “Bunky” Skinner are shorthanded as a New York folk duo, and L.A.M.F. hits all kinds of pleasant spots. Moments recall Lovin’ Spoonful, NRBQ, Delaney and Bonnie, The Mamas and the Papas and even a short blast of polished Ike & Tina lunacy on “County Line”. It all goes down like mellow hooch with the assistance of steady studio hands like Buzz Linhart, Ray Berretto and Felix Pappalardi. There is certainly a smooth post-hootenanny/coffeehouse/city-slicker jug bandish feel to the proceedings, so if that bugs you, you know what to do. Me? I think I’ll play it at my next cookout.

The Druids of Stonehenge have a name that’s simultaneously horrible and terrific: terrific because it’s horrible and horrible because it’s horrible. The failure to avoid an embarrassing moniker often points to potential lapses in musical taste as well. Creation largely avoids this however. The biggest reference marker for this surprising LP would be The Animals (maybe a bit underutilized as an influence in this era), the vocalist being quite reminiscent of Eric Burdon. Much of this is rudely rendered non-bloated blues rock with occasional drug references and mild psyche touches, with only one real misstep: the self-righteous 10th grade misogyny of the lyrics to “Painted Woman”. Music’s fine though. The opener “Six Feet Down” is a red herring, giving the impression that the record’s headed into pseudo studio psyche head games ala Electric Prunes (I also had a brief Vanilla Fudge moment), but ah, ‘twas not to be. Creation is laced with covers (Jay Hawkins, Love, Dylan) and a few of the originals sound like covers, so hopefully this indicates what’s happening here. Not in the least bit earth shattering, but definitely worth the effort.

SATURDAY 1/24- And Then Nothing is probably my favorite non-jazz record of 2000. With its release Yo La Tengo leapt from the category of great band in terms of longevity, consistency, taste and talent to the rare legion of groups that had the wherewithal to assemble a truly defining and near exhausting document that in this case will be looked back upon as one of its decade’s most beautiful releases (Some will feel that I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One already did this, and yeah that’s a brilliant album, it’s just not as amazing as this one). The general thrust of the CD is that of casual, warm grooving and quiet, almost achy love-burners, with the welcome disruptive distorto-rocking of “Cherry Chapstick” exploding from the speakers at just the right moment to remind everyone that Ira Kaplan will never lose touch with his ability to abuse a guitar. This disc is just an embarrassment of riches, with my favorite track likely being the vamped-out cover of George McCrae’s “You Can Have it All”: the odd but infectious backing vox of Ira and James, the loping, cagily funky drumming, and Georgia’s perfect singing have sent shivers through me more than once. But the maddening prettiness of “Tears Are in Your Eyes”, the fragile testifying of “Our Way to Fall” or the ginchy keyboard junk of “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” aren’t far behind. It’s certainly true that greatness is often initially appreciated more than it’s fully emotionally felt, with time and appreciation turning admiration into love (or not). This is a record I FUCKING ADORE without a milliseconds hesitation. I couldn’t imagine being without it.

SUNDAY 1/25- No genre other than possibly fusion jazz gets the dander of dandies up more than progressive rock. It’s true that post-Syd pre-yawn Floyd, Soft Machine, Crimson, The Nice, Henry Cow and a few other bands have slowly escaped the derision that gets heaped upon the genre to this day. It’s not as bad as it used to be, though. As the back to basics mantra of punk rock continues to recede, the prejudice against things proggy has allowed for reevaluation. Often this came through the back door of Krautrock. This is a nice development to me. It’s doubtful that I’ll ever be an apologist for ELP, but when a band as strange and complex as Magma populates the ranks of the genre, I want to become an advocate. This 2LP debut shows a legitimate influence from both jazz and classical and adapts it to a weirdly rocking extended sci-fi opera about people moving from a dying Earth to another planet. An artificial language is created to tell the story, though my download didn’t come with a key to sort out what’s happening. So I’m missing a big portion of what this is about, but what I did get was pretty damn worthy. Defiant nerve was a major trait of the prog groups, and that occasionally curdled into arrogance. Which is fine, but when the music sucked, it could make me (maybe you too) want to spit derision for hours. Take that Emerson. Magma lack arrogance or suckiness. I don’t know how the later records stand up and I’m not really confident expanding on this one very deeply as yet, but it’s definitely strong enough to make me want to investigate further. Much further.

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