Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, January 30, 2012
6 for ’12:
One of several amazing records that hit me just slightly too late for them to be incorporated into the big 2011 run-down, Syracuse NY trio Shoppers initially came to my attention when somebody I follow on Tumblr rated their ‘Silver Year’ LP (Feeble Minds Records) as album-of-the-year. And not without reason - it’s a total monster.
I don’t want to become the kind of blog that falls back on overblown macho clichés when considering heavy music, but if you’ll allow me some leeway just this once, this really is the kind of racket that hands you your ass and asks you to sign for it. Terrifyingly viscous, technically accomplished, riot grrl-informed punk rock, recorded in simple ‘room sound’ style, but with the guitar amp cranked to the level of pure noise, the drummer hammering through like a rhinoceros stampede – bloody great serpentine riffs, big landslide rhythms, tons of feedbacking skree, like the ballsiest heavy rock bluster taken on some sort of unheimlich futurist joyride.
Somehow, both the write-ups of Shoppers I’ve encountered so far – aforementioned Tumblr post and (where else?) Still Single – have concentrated on the lyrics. God knows how loud they’re listening to pick all that up, cos all I’m getting through my earphones is the occasional phrase or two – sounds like fragments of phone conversations overheard on buses, half-hearted fridge-door lovenotes and late night arguments, yelled back in the faces of their proponents with a bitterness that seems to lay bare their craven insincerity. Heavy feelings to go with heavy music.
Weirdly, the general vibe and production reminds me of nothing so much as Napalm Death’s ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ – the sound of a band looking to make things as dense and unapproachable as possible for their listeners, shedding fair-weather fans in seconds. January, February, my listening always falls back on this kinda thing, and ‘Silver Year’ is hitting the spot hard.
You can put it a bit like this I guess: punk is an essentially static/retrogressive form – always worthwhile, usually powerful, but prone to accelerated levels of repetition and stagnation. 90% of the time, no problem. But, just like it’s good to break up a diet of fun/escapist movie-watching by throwing on something completely fucked and demanding every once in a while, punk is a genre that occasionally needs a spanner in the works, something to come at it from a different angle and wreak havoc in the cheap seats, (if you'll allow me a coupla mixed metaphors). Shoppers is that.
You can watch a whole set by them in the video above. Doesn’t quite capture the beserk guitar-tone and blood-curdling vocalisms found on the record, but you’ll get the idea.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 9
Fucking hell, FINALLY!
5. Bong – Beyond Ancient Space (Ritual Productions)
Yeah, I know – not much of a name is it? “Hey man, what shall we call our stoner doom band?” “How about… Bong!” Much like those indie bands who call themselves things like ‘Amplifier’ and ‘The Drums’, it doesn’t exactly fill one with hope regarding the imaginative breadth of the music within. I might have passed over this one, or else never noticed it at all, had some kind soul not recommended it to me one day. I’m very glad they did recommend it, and I would like to sincerely thanks them for the steer, because ‘Beyond Ancient Space’ is simply some of the best psychedelic music I’ve heard in years.
First track is a bit slow to get going, building up from silence with some ominous, Sunn 0)))-esque ritual incantation. Ho hum. Soon as the first roar of sub-bass hits and the drummer splutters into life though – whoa. All bets are off. Draw the curtains, lights off. Any fucker who dares phone or ring the doorbell in the next hour is gonna have to wait. This is gonna be epic.
Ostensibly still a doom metal album, ‘Beyond Ancient Space’ exists in similar proximity to its parent genre as Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey In Satchidananda’ does to jazz – using its skeleton merely as a basecamp from which to take off into uncharted realms of pure, blissful, bottomless psychedelia.
You know that bit in ‘Phantasm’, where Mike gets pulled through the Tall Man’s dimensional gateway and sees that column of mindless, hooded dwarves trudging across an endless expanse of red-lit desert by the light of a hazy, dying sun? You don’t? Well let’s pretend you do, and let’s imagine if, instead of a horrifying vision of a life of emotionally-stunted, death-ruled interplanetary drudgery, that had actually been really cool and he’d decided to go with it and join their ranks. That’s kind of what listening to the 25 minutes of ‘Onward To Perdonaris’ is like – a churning maelstrom of distortion, like some eternal death march across burning sands, whilst a forboding Eastern-tuned sitar/tamboura type riff shimmers overhead, heavily-phased open strings chiming like the bell of some phantasmagorical galleon.
Bypassing the assaultive/headache-inducing compression favoured by groups like Electric Wizard, Bong instead concentrate on summoning the more dynamic, analogue-ish widescreen dronescape beloved of Earth and Sleep – potentially muffled at low volumes, but completely overwhelming when cranked at a half-decent system, a form of diffuse obliteration that works particularly well when middle track ‘Across The Timestream’ hoves into view on the desert horizon.
By this stage, the undertow of bass feedback – hard to tell from whose cabinets it originated – has grown so monolithic that it proceeds to swallow the guitarist and bassist altogether, solidifying into a sound that’s less like a three piece rock band, more like a duet between the drummer and the endless roar of herculean thrusters powering some derelict, unmanned freighter through the depths of deep space.
I should say a few words about the drummer actually. Often, the demands of doom metal –especially in as extreme a form as this – can impose substantial limitations and challenges upon humble keepers of the beat, driving them either toward lumpen repetition or distracting experimentalism. Not this guy though – he’s swinging like John Bonham played back at quarter speed, and it’s beautiful. Listen to those cymbals crash!
Believe it or not, I’m pretty picky when it comes to my space-rock transcendence, but Bong win the gold medal. If this don’t send you, you probably didn’t want to go in the first place.
Looking on Youtube, I learn that, hilariously, these songs have ‘radio edits’. This isn’t one of them;
4. The Bats – Free All The Monsters (Flying Nun)
A band who have spent the best part of three decades whittling away at their particular brand of timeless indie-rock to without feeling any particular need to expand their horizons, different eras in The Bats’ back catalogue can best be differentiated by slight tweaking of the overall production aesthetic, from the FX-laden shoegaze of ‘Coachmaster’ to the more rustic, folksy timbres of ‘Daddy’s Highway’, with assorted stops at scenic viewpoints in-between.
‘Free All The Monsters’ then sees them returning to their spiritual home on the rejuvenated Flying Nun label with an album that initially veers somewhat toward the thin, reverb-drenched sound of ‘classic’ ‘80s British indie, sometimes even approaching a fabricated jangle akin to The Smiths or something. Thankfully, this problem can be easily rectified through the immoderate application of volume and EQ, which, as with many albums from the actual ‘80s, allows the true grandeur of the music to take flight.
Pushed to an appropriately ear-hurty level, the tangled sustain of Robert Scott and Kaye Woodward’s guitars assume their proper majesty, as their voices (teamed up more frequently, and more persuasively, than on previous records) wrap themselves elegantly around the slow, wise-owl phrasing of the strongest set of songs the band has written in recent memory or… hell, let’s just take the leap and say, ever.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I thought ‘The Guilty Office’ and ‘At The National Grid’ were plenty good, but almost every number here is a potential ‘greatest hits’ contender. Scott’s writing has retained a singularly high level of quality over the years, but he’s really upped the ante here, investing many of these songs with the kind of fiery, uncertain passion that usually tends to vanish from the work of settled/experienced rock bands as they glide through middle age. Correspondingly, the band seem to have been retooled to match their leader’s renewed vigour, letting rip with a kind of yearning, overdriven sprawl that pushes things a few steps further into the wilderness than was allowed within the contemplative, grown up homesteads of their last few records.
Even the more upbeat songs here – the lightweight jangle of ‘Simpletons’ and the disarmingly jaunty title cut - seem to be pushing back toward a comfort zone of grand, wistful despondence, an atmosphere in which a choice chord or cadence can transform lyrics that fall flat on paper - “And you know, I’ll take you with me / cos tomorrow’s a long, long time..” - into statements that move beyond the mere words into definitive, irreducible reflections on the nature of… something or other. And when the band really go with this mood and let rip on doleful epics like ‘Fingers of Dawn’ and ‘See Right Through Me’ (with it’s nod to Dylan’s implacable ‘I Shall Be Released’), the effect is stunning. You know those moments in songs like this, where they reach a big, Byronic climax at the end of a verse, and you’re like, ‘cue guitar solo!’, and the lead line crashes in just right and you’re like, yes? Well there’s a lot of that going on on the second half of this album.
Perhaps my favourite song is ‘On The Bank’, which blows things out to an almost Crazy Horse-like level of slow-burning grandeur, as Scott relates what appears to be the tale of a hazardous night-time sortie from some sort of seafaring vessel under hostile circumstances. Doubtless it’s all a big woolly emotional metaphor, but as is my want, I prefer to take these things literally. “treading water takes you down / and it’s good to have companions on the ground / though they may be more useful on the bank / to lend a hand.” Sound advice for any nautical disembarkation. Anyway, it’s a total epic, and I bloody love it.
Surely it can’t be just me who thinks that The Bats are better at making this kind of music than just about anyone else on earth? Can it really just be geographical distance and soft-spoken humbleness that’s denied them the chance to compete with the R.E.M.s and Teenage Fanclubs of this world? If you’re unfamiliar with their catalogue and am at all swayed by all my above nonsense, maybe 2012 might be a good year to investigation these propositions.
3. Peaking Lights – 936 (Not Not Fun / Domino)
Peaking Lights ‘Imaginary Falcons’ from 2010 was something real special – the primary achievement up to that point of the selected few (also see Blues Control and, uh… ) who were busy channelling the detritus of the past decade’s psyche/drone/noise hoo-hah into happy, harmonic, human realms. Now everybody with a pulse is doin’ that, and ‘936’ ably delivers on the next step of this music’s evolution so perfectly as to create its own self-sufficient universe, entirely ignorant of such pan-generic crit blather.
In an attempt to latch some space-filling blah onto this self-evidently wonderful music, writers have made much of Peaking Lights debt to dub, and indeed, whilst I’m not much of an expert on such things, stuff like Lee Perry’s sublime production work on ‘Heart of the Congos’ would seem to be as valid a reference point as any to work from here. Like Perry at his best, Idra Dunis and Aaron Coyes seem keen to apply experimental technique and DIY happenstance to the creation of music that is just, well…. irresistibly nice and comforting. As befits its rough production values and avant ancestry, each track here begins in slightly jarring fashion, pricking up our ears with a few seconds of rather harsh sounds and unheimlich rhythmic tics. Every time though, it takes only a few bars for us to fully internalise the song’s logic, for us to relax as we realise just how instinctively pleasing to human ears these sounds are. Peaking Lights is music to hang with. Music to be enveloped by. Music to render you happy and content in any situation. Homemade 21st century, post-everything lullabies.
Late last year, I wrote to a friend that ‘936’ is “..kind of electronic, kind of psychedelic, but with really good songs and beautiful melodies and cool bass lines too – like music cool parents would play to their babies to put them to sleep. I just play it all the time.”
And hopefully that’s about all you need to know really. It’s all I can think of to write, so it’d better be.
2. Milk Music – Beyond Living 12” (Perennial Death)
I shared some of my thoughts on Milk Music here, in August 2011.
I listened to mp3s of their 12” hundreds of times before that, and, now that I’ve finally got a physical copy, I’m gonna listen to it hundreds more.
Drawn on the subject of what my current favourite bands are, I recently found myself saying something of Milk Music along the lines of “they’re kind of a combination of everything that was great about rock music in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s”. I then almost immediately realised that this was a really fucking stupid and misleading thing to say, on any number of levels.
Because seriously, any of those acts that exists to pay professional homage to the Our Band Can Be Your Life ‘glory days’ of heritage indie-rock, playing to the same crowds who go to those abysmal ATP ‘play the album all the way through’ nights, can fuck right off. I mean, I know I’m usually pretty retrogressive in my music taste, but I’d like to think I’ve developed at least some sense of good taste along with it. Go! Leave me! Take me off your PR’s mailing list! You’re about as cool as someone playing aesthetically correct Grateful Dead-style hippie rock in 1982, and you know it. Get outta my face.
Milk Music are not like that. They are not cool because they sound like Dinosaur and The Wipers and Black Flag. They are cool because they are as good as them, at a time when pretty much nobody else is. End of.
“Political angst will never flow / in the dark where the real feelings grow” – like, what the hell does that even mean? I don’t know man, but he sounds like he means it! Remember when angry guys with loud guitars could pull that sorta thing and get away with it? DUCK, Milk Music coming through!
The sticker on the front of this 12” in Rough Trade said something like “as tipped by NME, Pitchfork etc…”, so I guess the moment has passed and they’ll be making concept albums about lightbulb factories by this time next year. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.
Rock music in 2011, thy name was Milk Music.
1. Comet Gain – Howl of the Lonely Crowd (Fortuna Pop)
Well it was foregone conclusion really, wasn’t it. Having spent months earlier this year banging away about Comet Gain in preparation for their latest magnum opus, I could scarcely have made anything else No # 1 could I?
With all those unwise words already up in digital print, I guess I probably don’t need to restate the fact that every LP Comet Gain have released since 2000’s ‘Tigertown Pictures’ has had a huge amount to me, each one becoming a veritable cornerstone of my musical being. Over five years in the making (so to speak – I mean, I’m sure many of those years weren’t exactly spent ‘in the making’), and on first impression ‘Howl..’ certainly doesn’t disappoint. If anything, it’s perhaps the most ballsy and immediate record the band has ever made – a loud, lengthy and unapologetic restatement of all the thematic and musical concerns that CG and their fans have held dear through the intervening years.
Opener ‘Clang of the Concrete Swans’ certainly leaves little room for uncertainty, a stream of consciousness, state-of-the-nation-address of a song that thunders along like a 21st century update of one of those epic mid ‘60s Dylan tracks. Only, y’know, better, and more relevant, and with cool sounding guitars, and a beat and stuff. Recklessly veering between the teeth-grinding frustrations of poverty-stricken urban drudgery and curdled cries of adolescent rebellion, it’s an astonishing-bordering-on-ridiculous statement of intent; “oh, be young, be someone / be someone rebel, vicious, dumb”.
This is by far the most professionally produced album CG have ever done (not that it matters), as is exemplified on the track 2 & 3 double-header of potential singles ‘Weekend Dreams’ and ‘An Arcade From The Rain’, wrecking ball pop songs that cement the record’s default palette of monster guitar tone, monster bass tone and domineering New Order style keys.
(Initially ‘Weekend Dreams’ had me a bit non-plussed, because I was used to listening to the earlier version released on a split single with Hello Cuca (reviewed here). Basically, for the album cut they’ve taken a bit that turned up as a coda in the final choruses of the first draft (the whole “I’ve got a cheap desire to be..” thing) and turned almost the entire song into it, losing a lot of good material in the process. Still though, that’s their prerogative, and once I got used to it I love the spirited performance of the new one too.)
And incidentally, if you’re not already a Comet Gain fan but still took an active interest in that bracketed paragraph, chances are you’re the kind of person who probably should be a Comet Gain fan, as David Feck’s bottomless obsession with pop cult ephemera proves as rich a source of material here as it ever has done, his ever-growing gallery of until-recently unsung loser-heroes swelled with new recruits, from proto-beatnik junkie-thief Herbert Huncke to former Fall keyboard player Una Baines, ‘This Sporting Life’ protagonist Frankie Machine, Dixon Steele from Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’ and the proprietors of Berlin industrial label SPK. Thee ecstatic library indeed.
In what I think might be its third recorded outing, ‘Herbert Huncke’ is finally nailed here, assuming the rattling VU pastiche New York subway sound type proportions it’s always been aiming for, muscular production, spirited ‘woo woos’ and a great noise guitar solo finally overcoming the incongruity of a mild-mannered English guy delivering lines like “you motherfucker / where is my bread”. The SPK track, ‘Working Circle Explosive’, is great too – a flaming clarion call of Baader Meinhof punker discontent, fuelled by sloganeering non-sequitur lyrics and some even more ferocious multi-layered fuzz.
At the heart of the record though, ‘The Ballad of Frankie Machine’ is simply an incredible track, encapsulating everything about this band that has meant so much to me. On this song, this one here, you can see… what exactly? Beyond all the back story and the shambolic live shows and cult following and all other nonsense, simply a band who can achieve something like this, who can play these tangled guitars and make them sound like a shadow falling back across the whole 20th century’s history of betrayals and heartbreaks, who can fuse the personal and the political into a sharp, bloody lump, who after many, many, many listens can still make my stomach twists in knots as Rachel sings “my best suit on, out with the boys tonight / don’t wake me up I might be dead..”.
The disparity between such intensity and the sloppy, melancholy acoustic numbers that have been a big part of CG’s repertoire at least since ‘City Fallen Leaves’ may irk some, but for those of us prepared to go the whole distance, there is beauty to be found even in these rambling, drunk-at-3am half-songs that scarcely any other band in history could get away with, as ‘After Midnight..’ and ‘Some Of Us Don’t Want To Be Saved’ are pulled back across the line by the sheer force of Feck’s need to communicate with us the totality of his whole whatever, the band’s epic, chiming swing driving the compositions forward as they take on the mantle of lovelorn grandeur of David’s beloved Go-Betweens; “It’s the small things that keep us alive / the coded souvenirs, left of the dial”. Stirs the blood, I tell ya. What’s that, wordcount? Another thousand words down the can? Worth every comma.
It’s hard to say how ‘Howl of the Lonely Crowd’ will fit into the pantheon quite yet. It’s taken a long time – years upon years of obsessive listening – for the previous LPs to reveal their true worth as they collide with life experience and coagulate into shiny, strange, twisted, inoperable lumps in my psyche. Maybe I’ll completely forget about this album by February. Maybe I’ll play it at least once a week until the day I die. Either way, for the moment it certainly sounds like a really fucking good album, and that’s a good start on the road to immortality.
Monday, January 09, 2012
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 8
Almost there, folks.
10. The Beets – Stay Home(Captured Tracks)
“One day I was just a yellow yolk / then I grew up bigger and I broke..”
I wouldn’t have put good odds on one of my most played songs of 2011 being an acoustic ballad written from the point of view of an unfertilised egg yolk, but here we all are, and The Beets ‘Hens & Roosters’ seems to have taken on a mantra-like quality for me over the past twelve months. Not that I particularly relate to its woolly childhood/adulthood metaphors or anything, but… it’s just a really nice song, y’know? Moving without being moving, catchy without being catchy, it’s a perfect example of what makes The Beets such a special and inexplicably refreshing proposition in the current musical landscape. Just a nice little song. Simple and humble, it just works, y’know?
What could it possibly be, that can draw us back month after month to the ostensibly unappealing sound of a couple of shrill, whiny guys strumming chords on acoustic guitars whilst another shrill, whiny guy bashes a snare drum, as they sing rudimentary 90 second songs about “laying on the ground, yeah yeah” and “watching television, watching television”? How, in the second decade of the 21st century, when anyone with half a clue is sick to fucking death of indie-lifer earnestness and contrived, self-conscious geekery, can this possibly be a good idea for a band?
Don’t ask me man, but it seems to work. There is a kind of Vonnegut-like universality about what The Beets do: an understanding of the centrality of communication, and of the power of the obvious, well-stated. It will take them far. You could hear it distantly in the lolling, toe-tapping comfort of their earlier “Spit In The Face of Those Who Don’t Want To Be Cool”, and, now that they’ve at least figured out how to put the microphones in the same room as the performers when recording music, the essential strength of their songwriting shines through.
How often these days do you hear a band made up of culturally-informed white people, in which notions of influence and intent are both unknowable and largely irrelevant? Listening to The Beets, I have no idea what kind of records these guys like listening to, or what kind of music they are trying to make. Their music sounds like it simply is - instinctual and obvious and pre-existent. Clutching at straws, to could maybe tie them in aesthetically to the original ‘80s/‘90s strains of American ‘lo-fi’, in sound at least. Far removed from the tormented, egomaniacal face-pulling of all that Sebadoh or early Mountain Goats stuff though, The Beets have a lapsidaisical ‘so it goes’ take on life that seems far healthier, far more appealing somehow. Far more fun too.
Because yes, just to beat up on their enigma further, The Beets are out to entertain, rather than to wallow. Try as you might, you will be unable to deny the beat group swing of ‘Cold Lips’, or the horny hollers of – uh, I swear this song gets away with not being creepy somehow – ‘Young Girls’. I hate to tell you this, but with their beat up acoustics and their nerdy whining, The Beets are making you dance. What the hell?
Going a long way with very little, The Beets already have another LP out at the time of writing. I’ve not heard it yet, but I bet it’s amazing. I guess by this stage we can add them to the likes of chocolate-covered liquorice, Woody Allen and The Rolling Stones on the list of ‘things that shouldn’t work, but really do’.
9. Let’s Wrestle – Nursing Home (Merge / Full Time Hobby)
I like Let’s Wrestle. I listen to them a lot. I feel a deep kinship with their sense of humour, and their continuation of a particular lineage of self-deprecating British shambolism that can’t help but still align them to some extent with Swell Maps, TVPs and Half Man Half Biscuit, even as their musical prowess and career decisions take them across the pond to engage in more direct and efficient emulation of yr actual Dinosaur/Huskers type indie royalty.
It’s nice in a way to be reminded that groups who seek to honestly reflect the grim and strange peculiarities of the way we live in this country – and the stranger and grimmer things we choose to laugh at - do not necessarily need to do so whilst sounding like a lesser line-up of The Fall playing hungover krautrock in a condemned bingo hall. It is oddly spiriting to hear Wesley Patrick Gonzalez singing about inconclusive arm wrestling bouts, computer games, walking his mum’s dogs and “two Greek men fighting in a pharmacy” over compositions which – bar new bassist Sam Pilay’s sing-song bass lines and the lack of stubbley ‘90s earnestness – could have fitted in nicely on a Jawbreaker or Nirvana album.
Given how much I enjoy listening to about 60% of it, I would have rated this album even higher, but after a great first half I'm afraid it hits a severe slump in the middle, as Gonzalez’ write-what-you-know songwriting leads him deep into a trough of listless solipsism, incorporating some rather anaemic slow songs and reaching its nadir on ‘I’m So Lazy’ and ‘I Forgot’, respectively concerning the fact that he is lazy, and the time his girlfriend told him off for forgetting to pick her up from the station and do the shopping. And rightly so, the useless git. Don’t write a song about it, just get it right next time, as Bratmobile or somebody might have said were they consulted. Honesty and self-awareness in song-writing is one thing, but I fear that simply stating your faults over some dreary verse chords fails to achieve much on any level.
Let's not accentuate the negative though – after all, such bellyaching clearly comes from the same well as the self-deprecating observational funsterism of Let’s Wrestle’s better songs, and they do succeed in pulling things together nicely for the final stretch of ‘Nursing Home’, with a couple more delightfully ribald punkers and – a first for the band – a really successful quiet song. Written more in character than from first hand experience (presumably), ‘I Am Useful’s tale of an abandoned husband taking stock of his earthly achievements chronicles the inadequacies of modern, middle-class manhood in far more convincing fashion, like one of those real keepers Darren Hayman knocks out every couple of years. A very good song.
Perhaps more imagination and less reportage points the way forward for Let’s Wrestle’s continued maturation, but it pains me to think of such things. As long as they’re still spending at least some of their time bawling out tales of unlikely drunken escapades and supermarket encounters over messy pop punk tunes, I’ll be a willing audience.
Oh, and hey: that Steve Albini guy really knows how to record a great-sounding rock album, doesn’t he? Who knows, if he keeps it up he might be able to make a career out of it.
8. The Feelies – Here Before (Bar/None)
Seems like this record was pretty much slept on this year. Or at least, I didn’t hear much about it. Not sure why this was the case – I mean, everyone love The Feelies, right? I guess they must have just been hit with some of diminished interest/expectation fatigue that tends to greet new material from reformed heritage indie-rock bands. A shame, because I think for my money this is probably the best record they’ve ever made.
Admittedly, twenty years is a pretty big gap by anyone’s standards, but this is after all a band who took five years off between their first and second records, and almost as long again before making their third. This one, by my count, is their fifth, and the band’s unhurried method of operation is perhaps worth bearing in mind, given that ‘Here Before’ sounds less like a desperate grab at past glories and more like a natural progression and refinement of the band’s sound. The work of group of like-minded individuals who have always seemed to operate on the principal of coming together once in a blue moon when the time is right to make some music, and doing so; the kind of album one can presumably step up to make after two decades of selective song-writing and careful contemplation of the subtle mysteries of the indie-rock form.
Like The Bats, The Feelies have become enlightened masters of that form – secret chiefs of the fast-strummed guitar, the elegant chord progression, the casually melodic bass-line. Through the band’s early years in existence, founders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million seemed like rather nervous, retiring presences on their own records, putting The Feelies in the odd position of being a band led by two singer/guitarists but completely dominated by the rhythm section, a circumstance that helped define the unique sound of their ‘Crazy Rhythms’ material. Subsequent albums have investigated other means of fusing meaningful songcraft and guitar blather to the band’s more confident rhythmic muscle, and on ‘Here Before’, they’ve finally hit a perfect balance, leading to some of the most exquisitely exemplary post-VU guitar-pop ever realised.
As is ever the case with these things, there’s nothing particularly special to point out here, no big ‘HEY LOOK’ moments. Like a room full of modest masterpieces by some lesser known impressionist painter, it’s the beauty of the craftsmanship that stands out; everything in its proper place, with minor variations on established themes taking on major significance. On songs like ‘Change Your Mind’, Mercer sounds (and writes) like the kind of warm, fleetingly profound Lou Reed that we’ve always wished Lou Reed would bother to be more often, vague yet perfectly turned couplets intoned with laidback reassurance: “you believe what you believe / that’s alright, it’s fine by me”. Guitars – primarily clean-toned – clang and chime just the way you’d want them to as the chord-borne melodies ebb and flow, delicious fuzz busting out for some soaring killer solos, exactly at the point at which you need one. Factor in one of the most concise and muscular rhythm sections in the indie-realm keeping things sprightly even on the slower songs, and there are few ways in which these kinda songs could possibly get any better. Affecting, ego-free, finely wrought music of a classic vintage is to be found right here – the kind of thing that makes you feel like berating younger musicians for not immediately taking time out from what they’re doing to listen, reflect, and take heed of the myriad lessons to be learned herein.
7. The Dirtbombs – Party Store (In The Red)
From May 2011:
“The idea of recreating techno on rock band instruments is always a notion I’ve kinda liked. I mean if the point of your band is energy and repetition, you might as well go the whole hog, right? Groups who have tried this sort of thing before, such as Oneida, have often done just that, steering straight toward an extreme noise-trance whiteout, so it’s cool to hear The Dirtbombs pulling back from that precipice and remembering to aim for the dancefloor instead, to mix a few metaphors. The album’s title is self-explanatory – far from a crazy experiment or punker in-joke, this is an honest attempt to fuse the rhythmic drive and atmospheric cool of early American electronic dance music with the sound and fury of rock n’ roll, and by and large, a successful one, I’d venture to suggest.
More than just banging through the skeletons of Derrick May and Juan Atkins compositions in garage-punk style, Collins and co have worked hard to meet their source material halfway here, incorporating percussion loops, hissing distorted synths, extreme echos and a relentless motorik pulse into their arsenal, and splitting the difference between punk rock brevity and club-friendly 12” track lengths by sticking largely to a 4-6 minute middleground.
Let’s just say that ‘Cosmic Cars’ and ‘Alleys of Your Mind’ are your new favourite late night driving tunes, ‘Tear The Club Up’ will make perfect entrance music for your forthcoming wrestling career, and ‘Strings of Life’ and ‘Jaguar’ both sound like beautiful sunrise-insomnia trance-outs that could have been pulled straight off some newly unearthed Arthur Russell/Sleeping Bag session.
As just about every review of this album has noted, the beatless 22-minute fuckaround of ‘Bugs in the Bass Bin’ does stand as something of a stumbling block to overall enjoyment, but if you’ve got the patience to let it play through once or twice then even that starts to make a twisted kinda sense. Exactly WHAT kind of sense, who the hell knows, but I was certainly liking it a lot better by the end than I was at the start.
But basically, if the idea behind this album is one that appeals to you, rest assured The Dirtbombs do it about as well as it can be done, and you can go to the record shop with my blessing for the triple-LP set, just as I will hopefully do when I have a lot of money and have already bought enough Detroit techno records to assuage my aforementioned ignorance. Just like 'Ultraglide in Black' and 'Life, Love & Leaving' served to point me in the direction of a ton of soul compilations ten years ago, funnily enough... hmm, go figure."
6. Charalambides – Exile (Kranky)
Until I saw this up for pre-order at a couple of my favourite record shops, I had no idea there was a new Charalambides album out.
In the five years since their last official album for Kranky, I’ve touched base a few times with Christina Carter’s prolific stream of solo releases, which have veered from the sublime (‘Texas Working Blues’) to the practically unlistenable (‘Masque Femine’), but have largely lost sight of the no doubt many and varied projects Tom Carter has occupied himself with in recent years. Since the band cancelled a bunch of tour dates and more or less faded from view in ’07 (I think?), I’ve had no idea whether or not the two were even still making music together, and, pushed out by new sounds, new concerns, Charalambides’ music had largely faded from my mind.
So to be sitting here looking at these mammoth slabs of vinyl – eight songs, seventy five minutes - is something of a cause for celebration here in my little world. Or at least, I think it is. It occurs to me that I’m a very different person now to the one who has heavily into Charalambides midway through the last decade. Might the more humourless, stentorian folk-recital aspect of their work now just kinda really bug me? Will I really be able to get myself in the appropriate mood for this kind of angst-wracked, spectral blues very often? Might it all be a bit, y’know, demanding for my slovenly, pop/punk loving verge-of-30 self?
Midway through play # 1 of side # 1, as blinding waves of crystalline lead guitar thread their way into ‘Desecrated’s cloudbank of multi-layered string sustain, I get my answer. I’m staring at the speakers, anything else I was planning on doing this evening wiped from my mind entirely. The spell is cast again; I’m in their thrall. This music is f-ing incredible.
It is demanding at times, no doubt about that. ‘Wanted To Talk’ on side four could probably ruin a party five doors down the street – eleven and a half minutes of Christina delivering plain song lyrical lines delineating what seems to be a breakdown of marital communication over a continuously repeating pattern of six guitar notes. Even at their most ‘difficult’ though, Charalambides songs have a kind of mighty, invisible heartbeat behind them, a steady rhythm that continues even when almost no sound at all is in evidence, drawing the listener into the wordless, subconscious intimacy of their self-contained world. And even the pitch darkness you sometimes find there doesn’t seem like too bad a place to be. It’s always calm there, even in the midst of misery and collapse. Real ‘eye of the storm’ stuff.
Then when they do finally tear down the blinds and let the sunshine in – the triumphant guitar pyrotechnics of ‘Into The Earth’, the vast, desertscape string drone of ‘Before You Go’, the tangled bliss of ‘Words Inside’ - the effect is almost indescribable.
In fact, ‘Exile’ for the most part strikes me the most immediate and powerful music Charalambides have ever made – a monumental testament to everything they’ve ever set out to achieve. Perhaps their masterpiece, if there’s anyone out there still listening.
Or that’s what I think at the moment, anyway. I only got this record last month, and I’ve not really had the time to process it properly, to immerse myself in it as much as I would like to.
Y’know what I should do more often? Lie on the floor and listen to music. I mean just lie there, no cushions or anything, not doing anything else, and just listen. I used to do that quite a lot, now I barely ever do. This would be an extremely good album for that kind of immersion I think.
After all these years, the heaven-scraping splendour that this duo can pull out of two guitars and one voice is still a staggering and terrifying thing. It would be an unfathomable cliché to say that it makes my hair stand on end, except that it really does.
This is an album that deserves to have many more words written about it, only listening to it makes words seem so stupid.
Wednesday, January 04, 2012
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 7
So, that idea that I should start early so that I’d have time to wrap this up before the New Year…? That went well, right…?
15. Night Birds – The Other Side of Darkness (Grave Mistake)
One of those descriptors, rather like ‘erotic thriller’ or ‘acid jazz’, that inevitably fails to deliver on either of its promised components, dropping ‘surf punk’ in the opening sentence of a review is a good way to wave bye-bye to whatever tenuous engagement w/ a readership one has left. Nonetheless though, it proves unavoidable here, as New Jersey’s Night Birds are, unmistakably, a punk (PUNK) band, incorporating the conventions of the surf (SURF, or perhaps ‘INSTRO’) genre into their music, and doing so with a fearsome competence that sees the results lurking comfortably in the shadow of prime-era Dead Kennedys and (especially) Agent Orange.
At least some of the personnel here – sadly I know not how many or which ones – cross over with the phenomenal Psyched To Die (whose ‘Sterile Walls’ 7” I still like to find time to play at least once a week), and indeed, much here – the shrill, bug-eyed rage of the vocal delivery, the twitchy velocity and incongruously ‘hot licks’ of the music – has evidently come along with them. Whilst lyrical themes remain pleasantly bleak though (demonstrative song titles: ‘Failed Species’ , ‘Can’t Get Clean’), the surf element can’t help but foster a certain irascible goofiness within PTD’s straight-faced nihilism – a goofiness which some listeners may find trying, as cuts like ‘Day After Trinity’ veer about as close to Man..or Astroman? territory as you’re likely to get this side of a Man..or Astroman? tribute album, an effect bolstered by the inclusion of some choice sci-fi movie dialogue. Personally though, I’ve been listening to Man.. or Astroman? a lot this year, and sampling tons of bullshit from movies, so I think all this is just swell. (In particular, the guy toasting the end of the world with a can of beer on ‘Oblivious’ is just plain beautiful.)
As is necessary when monkeying around with surf stuff, the musicianship and recording on this record is frighteningly ‘professional’ for a punk band. Thankfully though, Night Birds (veterans of probably about a thousand other groups between them, I’m sure) are experienced enough to use such – ahem - ‘ability’ to enhance rather than diminish their overall attack, and those uneasy with the goof factor can still enjoy exemplary h/c rippers like ‘Sex Tape’ and ‘Neon Gray’ without having to crack a grin that’s anything less than evil.
Great punk music, great surf music, ‘Other Side of Darkness’ is simply a kick-ass record in every respect, the kind of welcome shock to the senses that has me flailing around for ill-judged metaphors involving whirlwinds and red hot pokers and stuff, so I should probably shut up now before I embarrass myself further.
14. Circuit Des Yeux – Portrait (De Stijl)
Third time out the gate for Haley Fohr under the Circuit Des Yeux name, and in a move that very few would be ballsy enough to attempt, she opens proceedings with a crackly recording of some old time bluesman (I think it might be Son House, but could be completely wrong), discussing ‘the meaning of the blues’ and so forth. A potentially preposterous statement of intent for a young indie-ish type artist, but with the weight she hits us with on ‘Portrait’, it makes good sense.
If her previous records were essentially anonymous – opaque documents of some kind of non-specific pain and unease – then ‘Portrait’ represents an astonishing opening up on Fohr’s part – a big reveal of the voice, emotions and back story behind the music that’s almost unprecedented amongst artists of an avant/noise-type persuasion.
Taking one’s music in a more personal, song-based direction is not necessarily something to be celebrated of course, and neither is striking out at new styles on each record just for the heck of it. But to move straight from abstract basement creep-outs to fully-formed Cat Power / Neil Young guitar balladry in the space of one album is, I think, a fairly astounding progression for anyone, all the more so given that Fohr not only maintains the dread atmospherics of her earlier recordings here, but actually intensifies them, her new-found yen for song-writing simply adding form and narrative to what was previously a big, dark unknown.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the centre-piece track ‘3311’ at first – I mean, christ… it’s not like it’s confessional or sensationalist or anything, but it’s.. pretty straight-up, y’know? The kind of song whose intent you can’t question, whose details you don’t need spelt out.
Troubled times are equally evident on ‘101 Ways to Kill a Man’, where plain-spoken reportage of drug abuse, poverty and parental abandonment can’t help but cast a new light on the cathartic terrors and suburban dread of Fohr’s previous records. Some of the lyrical phrases and musical decisions in these songs might seem a bit rough, a bit overwrought, but as stated above, there is an honesty of feeling to them that bypasses criticism – the bluesman’s opening remarks taken to heart and acted upon.
There are also some holdovers from the old stuff of course – cuts like ‘Crying Chair’ and ‘Falling Out’ ooze a familiarly murky, experimental menace. But, sonically speaking at least, nothing as perverse and terrifying as the strange vistas of ‘Sirenium’ is in evidence here, and it’s clear where Fohr’s new focus lies. Suffocating depression odes like ‘Weighted Down’ and the heavily goth-damaged ‘Twenty and Dry’ could be taken straight from some long lost Nico recording, and ‘Portrait’ closes with a live deconstruction of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’, causing me yet again to wonder what it is that draws female singers to this most macho of love songs (seriously, I have, like, four covers of it in my music collection, all sung by women). For all of ‘Portrait’s unexpected embrace of the tools of classic rock though, the intent this time round is characteristically unsettling, the ritual demolition of The Boss’s mojo in a hail of formless distortion marking a fitting conclusion to a very dark and brave record.
13. Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Seeping Through the Veil of the Unconscious / Luminaries & Synastry (Digitalis)
I’ve really been dreading trying to find something pertinent to say about Rachel Evans’ (not the one from Comet Gain, obvs) recordings under the Motion Sickness of Time Travel name. Prolific to a fault, there have been at least a few splits, tapes etc this year in addition to these two mammoth LPs (‘Seeping Through..’ is from late 2010 I think, but I got it in 2011 so I’ll count it). Hours and hours of deep haunty-glazey synth-bliss that I have listened to for many, many more hours and hours. Always late at night, after watching some movies or getting back from a gig or just pissing about on a quiet week night, Motion Sickness of Time Travel is almost always on, everyday cares forgotten. The world fades out into sepia. Sleepytime!
On the surface, I suppose there’s nothing much I can quite grab on to (other than a cool name) to help distinguish Motion Sickness.. (straw poll: should I call them MSoTT? No, thought not) from any number of solo analogue-ambient cosmic drifters clogging up my iTunes (I’m always happy to have them). But we tired kosmonauts care not for the surface, right? And there’s something about Evans’ approach to this form really strikes a chord with me, rendering her an immediate big-hitter in the ever-expanding legion of twenty-first century avant-psyche ladies, slotting in nicely somewhere between Grouper and the LA Vampires/Maria Minerva Not Not Fun axis.
And beyond that… well there’s little I can say to really justify the extent to which I like this music, beyond the fact that I think it uses its palette of analogue-generated drones, spectral synth-lines and heavily-effected worldless vocalisations very well indeed, and that it allows me easy access to a wide range of thoughts, feelings and internal spaces that I very much like spending time in.
I suppose that of the two records, ‘Seeping..’ is by far the most nocturnal and potentially sinister, actually even touching on the lofty domain of Leyland Kirby/The Caretaker at some points as Evans builds a thick blanket of decaying textures, the kosmische dream slowly collapsing back into a murky past – tones wavering as the batteries run low, drifts of static as phantom blackbirds peck at the cables, cooing space-voices lurking forever on the edge of hearing, a mulch of dead leaves across the studio floor… or something like that. ‘Luminaries’ by contrast sheds a more optimistic light on the signifiers of nostalgia, the blanked out couple embracing against blinding Pacific glare on the cover providing a perfect illustration of the wistful, memory-tripping games within – faded seaside photos, kaleidoscopic patterns of light on the water, sunstroke visions… same fingers on the same machines, but I think now there’s sand on the floor of the studio. Sometimes the motion sickness is worth it, I’m thinking.
12. The Spits – The Spits V (In The Red)
Hey, a new album by the Spits! Fuck yeah, I love The Spits! They’re the greatest! This is a new album by them, and it kinda sounds like they always sound, more or less.
Well, I mean, it’s not got as many instantly catchy hits on it as IV (the one w/ the kids school photos on the front), but it still rules. It’s got a heavier guitar sound and louder drums, and more of that kinda malfunctioning retro-futurist punk-sci-fi kinda thing they like so much going on, like the sound of some perpetually drunken KBD punk band rampaging around the wastelands in some second hand Damnation Alley wagon held together with duct tape. Pretty damn cool, huh..?!? Yeah!
People say The Spits records pale in comparison to seeing them live. I dunno, I’ve never had the pleasure, but in the meantime I like their records just fine.
Song-wise, we got ‘All I want’, which is a rule-ass pop song, and ‘My Mess’ and ‘Fed Up’ which are about making a mess and being fed up. They’re great! Quite a few of the songs – ‘Tomorrow’s Children’, ‘Electric Brain’, ‘Fallout Beach’, ‘Acid Rain’ are all creeped out sci fi / post-apocalyptic doom kinda things. Alright! ‘Last Man On Earth’ might be inspired by the Vincent Price movie, or it might not, but it definitely steals the melody from some classic rock song I can’t quite put my finger on. Awesome!
And, uh, yeah, that’s it. This rules!
Whatcha looking at? Expecting me to write more or something? Show’s over! Go listen to The Spits.
11. Peter Stampfel & Jeffrey Lewis – Come On In (self-released)
When I went to see Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis play a concert in Brixton just under a year ago, I suppose I was expecting a fairly laidback affair – a folky, acoustic instruments only sorta show, Jeff maybe breaking out some of his mellower numbers in between paying homage to the septuagenarian Holy Modal rounders founder, a few hippy laff-fests, a gentle stroll through the Alan Lomax songbook and off we go. Y’know the sorta thing.
Boy, how wrong can you get! Turns out it was actually one of the most raucous shows I attended all year, both performers having the time of their lives, bashing out riotous, rough-as-a-bear’s-arse folk-punk as Stampfel pulled hit after hit out of his murky solo back catalogue – a seemingly endless barrage of hilarious, weirdo rock n’ roll songs undreamt of in the halls of man. ‘Black Leather Swamp Nazi’! ‘Duke of the Beatniks’! ‘Stick Your Ass in The Air’! That great song they did about going to bars and causing trouble! This is some mad, bad, wonderful shit going on right here; my kinda music, my kinda people.
The dynamic between these two guys was really beautiful, each seemingly realising that they’re a different generation’s version of the same person, goofing around on stage swapping endless anecdotes of comic-book shopping orgies, Victorian drug-taking practices and forgotten New York boho antics, infusing each other’s songs with new sparks of inspired oddness.
Somewhat more mannered in presentation, this self-released tour CD perhaps doesn’t quite reflect the leery enthusiasm of that live show, but it’s nonetheless a fine collection of the fruits of this particular meeting of minds. The first half showcases a handful of great new Lewis numbers, the wonderfully self-explanatory ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘I Spent The Night In The Wax Museum’, whilst Stampfel toasts his collection of vintage bottlecaps on ‘Bottlecaps Are Cool’ (“..if you don’t believe me you’re a fool”), and summons the aforementioned spirit of raucous abandon perfectly on his frenzied drunk-driving anthem ‘Busted’. Things mellow considerably on the second half, Stampfel’s age and experience showing through as his voice cracks on a beautifully spare rendition of ‘God, What Am I Doing Here’, a strange, simple and deeply moving song written by his long-lost wife and writing partner Antonia. The incredible early work of Stampfel’s old comrade Michael Hurley also gets a look in on a renamed version of his signature ‘No I Won’t Come Down’ and the unvanquished hippy ghosts take on full substance on the gentle stoner testimonials of ‘Little Sister in the Sky’ and the psyche-folk epic ‘On We Went’.
If Lewis and Stampfel’s respective careers prove anything though, it’s that hippy and punk when properly expressed are one and the same notion, and through listening to their collaboration and hearing their rambling dialogues, I’ve come to realise just what a goshdarned inspiration Stampfel in particular is – living proof of how far following your weird dreams and obsessions can get you, still overflowing with enthusiasm for comic books and cultural detritus, still presumably penniless, still making new friends and cranking witty, weird-ass punk songs, still a thousand miles off anyone’s radar, yelling off-key like a foghorn and whacking his violin like he just picked it up for the first time yesterday, still laughing in the face of any notion of respectability. What a hero. Here’s hoping he keeps at it for a good while longer.
This song isn’t even on the CD, but it’ll kinda set the tone nicely I think:
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