2008 has been a great year for reissues, though it seems as if with each passing year labels become more and more in-tune with exactly what we buyers are looking for. I don’t know, maybe I just pay more attention to this stuff as I grow old and develop a taste for the old stuff. But take Drag City, for example, who have decided to begin not only repackaging essential out of print pieces of their catalog on vinyl, but have also begun to reissue lost or obscure classics in beautiful packages, including worthy bonuses, digital coupons, the whole she-bang. Another label typically known for small-scale new releases now on the reissue track is Secretly Canadian, who've followed up two incredible Bobb Trimble records with their ongoing Dead C packages, more of which we will see in the near future, along with two Zero Boys reissues. Radio Heartbeat have continued their run of vintage power pop with Milk N' Cookies and the 20/20 7-inch, and look to have a full plate of goodies for next year. Psych labels like Shadoks, Void, World in Sound and Sundazed have unleashed essential platters, as have Sublime Frequencies, who look to frequent year-end reissues lists every year. Portland's Mississippi Records have become a major player in the reissue game, and a somewhat controversial one at that, but their discography is becoming something even the most amateur collector cannot ignore. Even my good pals at Columbus Discount have entered the fold, contributing two must-owns from Harrisburg, Ohio: Tommy Jay’s Tall Tales for Trauma and their Harrisburg Players Vol. 1 7-inch. And there is plenty more from Central Ohio to come in ’09.
The most revelatory musical experience in recent months has been the discovery of Cosmic Lightning, the package of the (almost complete) recorded output from Chicago street poet J.T. IV, brought to you from the aforementioned Drag City. The story of John Henry Timmis IV is just beginning to unravel for those besides a small handful of mostly Chicago-based punk enthusiasts, and it is one all of you should make yourselves familiar with, as his art was an all-encompassing package containing five-day long movies, music videos, battles with public transit, cries for attention and of course his glammed-up folk-cum-punk drug music.
The music alone is enough. Not unlike many punkers from the era, John nurtures healthy obsessions with Bowie, Roxy, Bolan, Lou and Iggy, even Dylan, but rather than attempt to re-write the book like other punks were around this time, John chose to re-imagine his heroes' stories in a conglomeration all his own. The man had some good ideas - "Destructo Rock" pins a Stooges riff beneath a jangly, Ziggy Stardust melody until two minutes in it becomes a phased-out, balls-to-the-wall psych scorcher that wouldn't sound out of place on an early Chrome record. The three-song acoustic suite sequenced at the end of the first half is as touching as "Destructo" is terrifying, unveiling a tortured soul simply wanting a chance at his fifteen-minutes (and maybe a bit more), staying up for days gobbling amphetamines and writing songs about diamonds falling from the sky.
J.T. IV was a truly unique songwriter and also a trailblazer with visual aides, as he self-produced a series of videos to accompany his songs which were compiled onto a video tape in the early 80's, included in full here. These video mostly feature John lip-synching his songs and ogling the camera, save for the couple of bits where he fakes a concert performance, full band intact, though it is hard to tell if any of the members had heard his songs before the day it was taped. This is not your average bonus DVD for the sake of it though, as it helps us dig into the paranoid, somewhat desperate persona. It has been rumored that his 85-hour long film Cure for Insomnia will be issued somewhere down the line, at least in abbreviated form, though I doubt Drag City will take the plunge with a 50 DVD box set.
Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Tommy Jay and his Harrisburg cronies were attending a similar yet more more earthy version of the same Punk Rock University that J.T. IV graduated from. The same basic influences are in full bloom on both Cosmic Lightning and Tommy Jay's Tall Tales of Trauma, especially both artists' affinity for Lou Reed. Tommy Jay and John Timmis IV were men out of their element in the 80's when these records were origianally compiled, speaking a language perhaps too simple for any sort of audience to form.
Tall Tales is also a greatest hits/life-encompassing work that cover a span of over a decade, featuring friends he's grown up with and songs he's grown connected to. This music out of the tiny village of Harrisburg, Ohio, along with the work of Jay collaborators like Mike Rep, Nudge Squidfish and others, has re-written the oral history of rural Central Ohio. Time is no longer an issue in this world, only the people who exist on this plane and the spirits that carry them through to death. There are ballads, moral tales, the ghost story of a Civil War fighter, and much, much more, played lovingly by a cast of the most real people you will ever come across. If I learned one lesson in 2008 it is that Tall Tales of Trauma is the unquestionable masterpiece of indigenous Ohio folk music. If you haven't yet heard this record I ask that you to visit Columbus Discount before reading any further.
To bookend their Tall Tales reissue from earlier in the year, Columbus Discount compiled four songs from the Harrisburg vaults, including an obscure Tommy Jay track, for the November edition of their singles club. The Harrisburg Players Volume 1 7-inch is another enigmatic batch of songs this time from a few you may not have heard of. This brief collection proves that others were sipping from the same weird well that Tommy and Rep had tapped, and word that this is only the first of many volumes makes me all fuzzy inside.
The Midwest reissue road trip ends in Cleveland, where a mysterious label has unearthed an essential piece of the Electric Eels puzzle, packaging a few impossible to find tracks onto the Dave E. & the Cool Marriage Counselors "Searching for Sears" 7-inch (Xmas Pets). The title track is some post-Eels skronk of the highest order, embodying all that is great about Cleveland - then, and it underscores now - in its oddly kitschy Beefheart and Mr. Ed-referencing way. It's an image only Dave E. could summon, a haggard and grumpy (still young) ex-punk stumbling through the aisles of his favorite department store, leaving a trail of melting black slush and beer breath behind. Listen to it during the commercial breaks of A Christmas Story, also set in Cleveland. The B-side features a a capella version of "Love Meant to Die", a Jazz Destroyers (Dave E.'s brief post-Eels project) song found on the Cleveland Confidential comp. Takes me back to Lakewood every time!
Milk N' Cookies, Milk N' Cookies 2LP (Radio Heartbeat) - best package of the year.
Cold Sun, Dark Shadows (World in Sound) - most expensive reissue of the year.
The Mirrors, A Green Dream 2LP (Hook or Crook) - remastered and expanded vinyl version of Greg Ashley's psych-punk opus.
Gary Higgins, Red Hash and Mayo Thompson, Corky's Debt to His Father (Drag City)
The Bachs, Out of the Bachs (Void)
Animals & Men, Never Bought, Never Sold (Mississippi)