Sunday, December 28, 2008
Blank Dogs, On Two Sides (Troubleman) and The Fields (Woodsist) - Some of the year's best ideas can be found between the grooves of On Two Sides, from the schizophrenic guitar work in "Blaring Speeches" to the wobbly synth and breathy chorus of "Epic Moves". The album's centerpiece, "The Crystal Ladies", could be stripped of everything but its vocal melody and still be perfect. The Fields strips another layer of gauze from the limbs, revealing not necessarily a more "Pop" sound, as some are insisting - go back to the first two weeks and you'll hear plenty of hooks - but a more consistently adventurous (and comfortable) relationship with the song.
Cheap Time, Cheap Time (In the Red) - Americans taking what the Belgians like Hubble Bubble and Raxola stole from the Brits (glam riffs, snotty lyrics, dramatic changes), somehow making it sound very much like a Memphis thing. There's nothing remotely original about Cheap Time and that's okay, because there's nothing remotely bad about all fourteen songs and the effortless swagger they are brought forth with. And no, it doesn't matter that the best song here was actually written by Jack Oblivian.
Cheveu, Cheveu - (S-S) - The late-Winter night Cheveu spent in Columbus was one of the most excessive of the year. Two feet of snow didn't stop the loyal from witnessing one of the best shows at Cafe Bourbon St. ever, as the Parisian garcons partied onstage and off like it was their last, when it was in fact their first, night on tour. Their debut LP sounds exactly like that night: drugged and deranged, with little care of what came before and what would come of the mess after.
Children's Hospital, Alone Together (Sacred Bones) - The best thing any A-Frame has done since A Frames 2. Children's Hospital are not as horrific as the name and sleeve's imagery would have you believe. Instead they opt for a more nuanced sedative, lulling the listener in with layered grooves and vocals caressed through the hospital intercom. The vibes are not good, but not altogether evil either. But then again sometimes the scariest shit happens from where you least expect it.
The Dutchess and the Duke, She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke (Hardly Art) - I tried my damnedest to hate this record. Something about this group just really bugged me. Maybe it was the Seattle thing, or it could have been a song I heard from their first single. Long story short, I took a shot at a used copy and immediately changed my story. The sentiments on this record are heartfelt and sincere without the trite cutesey-ness usually associated with modern acoustic folk. Killer vocals, incredible songs and great performances. Just a great, great record.
Eat Skull, Sick To Death (Siltbreeze) - I LIVE NEXT DOOR TO A POWER PLANT. One of the more memorable opening credos in recent memory, and it just gets better from there. Eat Skull took hardcore and removed the macho bullshit, replacing it with flourishes of 90's lo-fi and 80's DIY. If you held a gun to my head and made me pick a favorite record from '08, this would probably be my choice.
Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Primary Colours (Goner/Aarght) - It was very early this year when I scored a copy of their debut LP and played it regularly until the new one dropped. Goner saved Primary Colours from becoming an Australian obscurity and we must thank them for this, because ECSR are a band for the people. Taut punk grooves that sound tough as nails and riffs that revel in their simplicity, while singer Brendan Suppression, leather gloves in tow, recites thug haiku. Brilliant.
Fabulous Diamonds, Fabulous Diamonds (Siltbreeze) - The Fab Diamonds have come a long way from where they were a year ago - an unknown Aussie duo with a sole 7-inch and little else to their name - having toured the states to ecstatic results and releasing this incredible debut long-player. Nothing else sounded remotely like Fabulous Diamonds this year, or any year in recent memory, with its dubbed-out fusion of European femme-punk and esoteric dance. The world fell in love with Jarrod and Nissa in 2008.
Factums, The Sistrum (Sacred Bones) - From my post earlier in the year: ...fans of their synapse-frying debut on Siltbreeze last year will not be disappointed with this doozy. But don't expect to be handed all the barbed hooks they passed out last time. The Sistrum has more of a cohesive feel, as many of the songs are allowed room to breath, venturing into the four- and five-minute range. Opener "Mushrooms" is the Peter Gunn theme played in a German bunker, while "Origami" pounds out sub-motorik pulses beneath layers of guitar feedback and tuneless organ. The second half cools down into a series of sinister grooves, a few of which you could even dance to. The midget from Twin Peaks would approve.
The Hospitals, Hairdryer Peace (Self-released) - There's Shitgaze, and then there's this. For some people, Hairdryer Peace was the line in the sand, and Adam Stonehouse is the guy swimming out beyond the buoys. I'm not exactly sure if this would make more sense to civilizations future or past, but what I am sure of is that most people who hear this are left scratching their heads like a chimpanzee. I know at least one individual who's goal next year is to top the utter out-ness of this album. To this person I say good luck.
Los Llamarada, Take the Sky - (S-S) - Zoinks! The gang from Monterrey take their sound to another dimension, riding the ship to Sun Ra's palace with Malcolm Mooney and Nico navigating. Wait, that's not even close enough to the energy, the fuckin' energy this album exudes. Apparently it took a couple tries to nail down all the right stuff for this album, and it's no surprise when you hear how out of control most of it gets. Take the Sky is an album with hundreds of brilliant ideas unleashed like a herd of cattle, with only a few cowboys to lasso them in.
Nodzzz, Nodzzz (What's Your Rupture?) - Of all the great records to come out of California this year, Nodzzz might be the purest distillation of that state's, er, state of mind. Listening to songs like "In the City" and "Losing My Accent" you get the feeling they've discovered the nerd-party Rosetta Stone and have decided to share it with the masses. I can't wait to see these songs live.
Nothing People, Anonymous (S-S) - From my post earlier in the year: ...You could play "name that influence" along with most of Anonymous, but that's not the point. At their best, Nothing People play by a new set of rules. That they're so impeccably well versed in all things cool should not go down as a detriment. Instead, enjoy Anonymous knowing that this genre of outsider rock has a new leader.
Thee Oh Sees, The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In (Tomlab) and The Peanut Butter Oven EP (Awesome Vistas) - The evolution of John Dwyer's most prolific project has been a fun one to follow, as it has progressed from an acoustic-based experiment to his full-fledged garage powerhouse. Last year's Sucks Blood was the perfect balance of the soft and loud, but it was no preparation for the onslaught of thumping rhythm and echo-drenched freak-outs on The Master's Bedroom. And then he goes and puts the cyclical doom of a song like "Kingsmeat" on the collectible Peanut Butter Oven EP. AND there's another LP from this year that I haven't even heard, with an additional DVD accompanying it. What did you do this year.
Sic Alps, US EZ (Siltbreeze) - I really liked this one. Still do.
Times New Viking, Rip It Off (Matador) - What I like most about this record is that Jared, Adam and Beth stuck to their guns. When I first heard the final mix I wasn't exactly sold, and I'm sure even Matador was taken aback a bit by the noisy, jumpy mastering job. But as with everything of theirs, TNV believed in their material, knowing eventually everyone else would get it. And sure enough, the songs I liked least at first are now my favorites. TNV, molding our minds with their sweet little anthems.
TV Ghost, TV Ghost (die Stasi) - I feel like this one has been overshadowed by the band's underage/on the road antics and consistently excellent live show. And there are those looking ahead to the upcoming full-length on In the Red. But this LP, especially upon re-evaluation, finds the band tooling with their sound and experimenting with recording techniques. Matt Horseshit's presence can be felt throughout, especially on the album's closer, "Long Talk", and his dry studio sound allows each member to stand out. One-two punch of "The Amputee" and "Babel" beats the shit out of just about anything released this year.
Various, XXperiments (die Stasi) - Damn. A truly excellent compilation expertly sequenced by Lane at the die Stasi label. I will provide no references, because there has never been a community of women making avant garde music of this caliber, ever, at least in modern history. That may sound like hyperbole, but in my mind it is simply hopeful thinking that these ladies are just getting started, and that XXperiments will be looked back on as the foundation for a monolithic movement rising out of Midwestern bedrooms and beyond. I want more from every artist involved.
Vivian Girls, Vivian Girls (Mauled By Tigers) - Say what you will about where they are and how they got there (and what they will do next), but there's no denying the greatness of this, their debut record. Each song stands tall on its own, especially such instant-classics from the melancholic back side like "Where Do You Run To", "Damaged" and "I Believe in Nothing", but the album is strongest as a whole. Not once did I listen to one song from the album without listening to the rest. In the future, when I look back on Summer 2008, this the record that will take me back. It's the truth.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
As posted earlier in the month at http://agitreader.com/.
December, 2008: the end of a rough year for many and a time for many of us to get all reflective about what was good about the year, things we are thankful for, etc. Allow me a minute of your time to say that if you are reading this column, one of the items at the very top of your list should be the fact that tiny record labels such as Sacred Bones still exist, and that there are still people out there—like the folks who run this label—who are sticking their necks out so lousy folks like us can hear, see, and hold their beautifully-packaged and thoughtfully assembled discographies.
I am not joking. This is important stuff for a handful of us.
If it doesn't make sense to you to treat a tiny record label, still practically in its infancy, so seriously, it may be that you haven't purchased their offerings from 2008, wrapping up neatly with two monstrous LPs, the debut of Seattle's Children's Hospital and the anticipated full-length from infamous Country Teasers side project the Rebel. Both records, while quite different in sound and approach, could be exemplars of the Sacred Bones experience.
In one hand you have Children's Hospital, out of the A-Frames/Seattle experimental axis, a duo with male and female vocals beneath a cauldron of apocalyptic, industrial disease. Seattle can be a bleak place for seasons at a time, but the sound coming out of Alone, Together is much more sinister, as the band crawl from guitar-spiked dirges ("Unseen") to slimy, pulsating, keyboard driven mood pieces like "After the Aftermath." The two are obviously indebted to some of post-punk's permanent inmates, from Throbbing Gristle to This Heat to the less obvious SPK. But leftfield influences like the Sun City Girls and David Lynch-cohort Angelo Badalamenti can also be detected, refreshing for a record with such a thick, industrial oil on its surface. A seperate edition of this is album is a CD version featuring a full-color photo book with shots from a single pre-war children's hospital. Look for their ornate boxed set on the Vinyl-On-Demand label in 2028.
In the other hand is a full helping of Ben Wallers, lead man of the Rebel, Country Teasers, and a small but devoted legion of scumbags from both sides of the pond. Few musicians these days can truly call themselves rebels, and Wallers is one of them, offending without trying, touching all the wrong spots without asking, and usually hitting the nail right on the head. Recorded in a single day at WFMU studios, Northern Rocks Bear Weird Vegetable is a record many years in the making, as it sees Wallers picking some of his previously released staples along with plenty of new material, while recruiting a full band separate from his Teasers to enact his inconveniences.
With Northern Rocks, Wallers has officially stolen the drunkenly waved gun-as-torch from Mark E. Smith, in the process mocking the defenseless old man with lines like, "Is there anybody there?/ I am losing my hair." Because Mr. Wallers is out front here as the Rebel, rather than with Teasers, his words attract the most attention. In a way, this makes it a somewhat flawed release, as he tends to let his disgust for mankind get in the way of fun more than once. The band is great and keeps up and down with all Wallers has to say, but they never really get into it like his other group does. So there's a bit less to bite into, and more of you getting bit.Taken as a whole, though, the record is as good as much of his Teasers output, a very worthwhile 45 minutes into the mind of a modern social scientist. Wallers' barbed tongue lashes modest civilians ("Bums on a Rock" is revisited, thankfully) and celebrities (Scarlet Johansen, England) alike. This album's special edition is apparently the most extravagant limited release yet in the Sacred Bones pantheon, with hand-stitched black velvet sleeves to soften Ben's harsh realities. Put it on while you put a few back, naturally, just don't expect to dance to it unless you're alone, pissed and behind locked doors.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
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)