I used to have a very strong belief that every American child should be handed a copy of Minor Threat’s Complete Discography upon reaching 15 or 16 years of age. 20 years later, I see no reason to change that belief. “Screaming at a Wall” still slices through bullshit with ease. The only punk tracks that come close to it in clarity and righteousness are Bad Brains’ “PMA” and Flux of Pink Indians’ “They Lie We Die”.
Oh, and the rest of Minor Threat’s catalog.
Maybe it's just a product of Chuck Warner's preoccupations, but I've noticed that where the songs on Hyped 2 Death's Messthetics series tend to have lyrics concerned with things like collective action, urban anomie, industrial decay, DiY culture, and getting wasted, the songs on the Homework series tend to be more preoccupied with, uh, girls, being bored and getting wasted. The difference is that Messthetics is British (and Irish, I think) and Homework is American. Are we really that shallow?
Also, the only real difference between Homework and Teenline is that the songs on the Teenline comps are way more likely to sound like Cheap Trick or the Stray Cats. I like Teenline a little better, except there's no songs by Christmas or Lester Bangs on Teenline.
Pale Saints' In Ribbons is an album I've always loved. It takes a clean, no-nonsense approach to capturing a classic set of early 90s UK pop songs, with all of the little bits of the Byrds, Jesus & Mary Chain and the rest that you would expect. It's of a piece with the records that came out by Lush, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive around the same time. The alternating male and female vocals (by Ian Masters and Meriel Barham, respectively) and the clean, simple harmonies are a nice complement to the guitars, which nicely balance bombast and restraint. Its only musical weakness is a tendency to play things a little safe, and maybe being a song or two too long (in the way that a lot of 90s albums were, before producers figured out that not every CD has to be full).
However, the album does have one fatal flaw:
Vaughan Oliver, the usually brilliant designer behind longtime 4AD associates 23 Envelope, had a brief-lived obsession with guts and eyeballs around 1991. This cover, and the cover to the Pixies' Trompe le Monde, are among the unfortunate fruits of that preoccupation (the Tromp le Monde cover also features a violently busy design and some more or less pointless cartoons, and is probably my least favorite 23 Envelope design). I get that it matches the title of the album, the type treatment is beautiful, and there's a certain formal beauty to the bleached entrails and the pale blue background, but Vaughan, that shit is nast. For reals. It's this ghastly shadow that's always hovered over my fondness for the music within.
Stuck in my head this morning: "Swingboat Yawning", the lead track from Rollerskate Skinny's second album, Horsedrawn Wishes. Horsedrawn Wishes is a strange extrusion of echoing beats, aimlessly wandering melodies, mooing guitars, overpressured psychedelia, and lyrics that make no goddamned sense at all, and "Swingboat Yawning" is of a piece with the rest of the album. The album's strangeness and consistency has weird consequences, because when I hear any song from this album in my head, it almost imperceptibly shades into any of a number of other songs (in particular "Swab the Temples" and "Speed to my Side" – two of the most brilliantly deranged pop songs I've heard) on the album.
Horsedrawn Wishes is like an ornate Brian Wilson album informed by My Bloody Valentine's noisy excesses (Jimi Shields, Kevin Shields' brother, was in Rollerskate Skinny), only made on a shoestring budget. Rollerskate Skinny get compared to Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips or Spiritualized when anybody mentions them at all – they haven't been a going concern for quite a while – but this album sounds mostly like itself. I love it but it always makes me feel a little creeped out and queasy after I listen to it, due to its swaying, seasick nature.
Whoever put together those Thom Yorke remix singles had a good ear. Maybe it was Thom, maybe it was longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, maybe it was some anonymous A&R person at XL. Whatever the case, each EP has its own sensibility and stands alone.
(I'm sure the whole set will eventually be released as one of those "remix collections" I always regard with a mild, queasy horror in stores; too much of my impressionable youth was spent listening to crappy industrial and techno remixes to ever fully trust the concept of a remix album. That's too bad, because in this case I think the 3 remix EPs add up to something more interesting than the album being remixed, even though trying to sequence them into a cohesive single-disc collection is going to be challenging.)
Anyway, the EP currently playing features a Four Tet remix of "Atoms for Peace" that contributes to the gradual erosion of my conviction that Four Tet is yet another crappy Kruder & Dorfmeister clone (previous hat tip to Four Tet: including Quickspace Supersport's "Superplus", the best song Stereolab never recorded, on Four Tet's DJ Kicks mix). It's loose-limbed and yearning, and has a considerably lighter tone than the original.
It's coupled with two separate remixes by Cristian Vogel, who can release a new Super_Collider album whenever he and Jamie Liddell feel like it, because Liddell has demonstrated to my satisfaction that his white-boy soul act is not nearly as fun without Vogel's eccentric, rubbery basslines backing him up, and the second Super_Collider album, while not nearly as fun as the first, is way better than no Super_Collider at all. The Vogel remixes here feature two entirely different takes on Yorke's "Black Swan", the former a pensive electronic haze, the latter being more beat-oriented and sketchy. I prefer the first, but the second has those rubbery basslines I love so much.
Q: How the fuck did I end up with five Akimbo records? How does "Dungeon Bastard" manage to live up to its monumentally ridiculous title? How can I take a hardcore band seriously if it's going to stick a 3-minute drum solo into the middle of the album? How can I not? How many loose, loud and loaded albums are these guys going to release before I get tired of them?
A: Dunno. By being super fucking catchy and loud. Because. I guess I can't. All of them.
When I heard Thom Yorke's solo work back to back with Radiohead's Hail to the Thief just now (thanks, iPod!), it really struck me how underrated Hail to the Thief is. Thom's voice is the main constant between the two ventures, and his singing has always been the most distinctive part of Radiohead's sound, but when I hear the full band come in behind him in "2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)", it becomes self-evident how integral everyone is. There is very little about this album that is anything less than deft and assured. Its problem, as far as I can tell, is that it's too self-effacing and seamless, and given the explicit political context in which it was released, people (including me) were expecting something more balls-out (or political – for all the posturing, this is as inward-looking an album as Radiohead's ever made). Or maybe we were just expecting more of a decisive break after the diptych Kid A and Amnesiac. Either way, there's a lot going on here, most of it interesting.
On a tangent: it always seems to take me a couple years to get into each Radiohead record. First I think it's massively overrated, then I get sort of annoyed with how many avant garde moves Radiohead are stealing from lesser-known, more experimental bands, then I notice all the little details tucked into the corners, then I start waking up with bits of songs stuck in my head, then I find myself just flat-out enjoying the album from start to finish. I have no idea why they're so popular. They're one of the least user-friendly popular bands I've ever heard.
On a whim, I picked up the recent remix releases for Thom Yorke's The Eraser, never having heard the original album. It was mostly on the strength of the remixers, or rather on the strength of Surgeon and Burial's names. I'd already heard the Surgeon remix in one of his semi-legendary DJ sets, which actually works better on its own than in the mix (Thom's singing is too narrative to work in a set of the kind of micro-precise, 1-bar techno / dubstep / electro Surgeon prefers), so mostly I was wondering how the Burial mix turned out. And hey presto, it turns out to be a Burial song. And a Thom Yorke song. The two songs aren't completely immiscible, but there's less meshing than simple mixing. Nevertheless, I love it, because I love how Yorke imparts a contradictory sense of urgency and resignation to the vocals, and I've yet to hear Burial to do his thing in a way that's not almost oppressively lovely. He could very easily run out of gas with this schtick, but he hasn't yet.
Speaking of music with which I have an obsessive relationship, I find myself wondering what, exactly, happened to Wire between Pink Flag and 154. Wire's debut album is all tense, dry minimalism, bitten-off cynicism and single-serving songwriting. Their third album, released only two years later (and shortly before the initial attempt at the band imploded -- what came back is still one of my favorite bands, but a very different entity), is a cold maze of serpentine paths dead-ending into miasmic bogs. Very pretty miasmic bogs full of exotic plants and mallards, but there's definitely more chill than pop here. It's a masterful product of the studio.
Wire's one of those chameleonic bands that has been through so many phases that people have completely lost sight of how remarkable their constant reinvention has been. Pink Flag is recognizably a post-punk product, but next to 154, Magazine at their coldest sounds like a bunch of fuzzy bunnies, and at least Public Image's seminally dour Second Edition sounds human. I love 154 without reservation (there are very few albums I have listened to more over the course of my life), but it is a very forbidding monument. How did they develop into something so forbidding, austere and coherent so quickly?
I have most of the Severed Heads catalog loaded onto my iPod, and every so often I find myself wondering if, just maybe, I've listened to this stuff enough for one lifetime. But then a song like "Goodbye" (from Cuisine) comes on, and its combination of repetitive weirdness, electronic precision and unapologetic poppiness reminds me why I have all their stuff in the first place. That song's just so effortlessly beautiful, and there's more than a few handsful of songs just like it scattered throughout their output. Tom Ellard is a mostly unsung pop genius.
Stuck in head this morning, not for the first time: Fairport Convention's version of "The Deserter", a song so solid, so muscularly present that it permanently changed how I look at "folk-rock". 1969 was an absolutely horrific year for Fairport Convention as a band of musicians, because of a tour van crash that took the life of Richard Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklin and drummer Martin Lamble and put Thompson himself and Simon Hutchings in the hospital. Despite that tragic setback, the band still managed to release 3 of the strongest albums of their career, which would have been a remarkable achievement for any band, at any time: the dense, glancingly prog What We Did On Our Holidays, the effortlessly sophisticated and jazzy Unhalfbricking, and the revolutionary Lief & Liege, their response to The Band's Songs from Big Pink and the album that put electrified English folk on the map.
Listening to Unpersons reminds me of how much I miss the Jesus Lizard. Listening to Daughters often makes me feel the same way.
Stuck in head this morning: the Sugarcubes' "Motorcrash". While it's not too tough to figure out where the Sugarcubes came from and how they got to where they were at the time Life's Too Good was released, it's still an astonishing release from what was really a very young band. Too bad none of them went on to do anything of any significance.
The newest Darkthrone, F.O.A.D. (no prize for guessing the acronym), sounds more like Darkthrone than ever before. It seems like they've finally found a way to combine their original, raw black metal sound with the devil-may-care (ha! ha!) punky thrash / thrashy punk of The Cult Is Alive or Sardonic Wrath. They're as tongue-in-cheek as ever, from the thudding midtempo musicology lecture that is "Canadian Metal" to the drily sarcastic potshots Fenris (the chief songwriter) takes at Nocturno Culto (the only other band member) in the liner notes. They absolutely have a formula, and they have it down cold, and they don't care if you don't like it. They're more likely to get on a plane and fly to your home town so they can piss on your lawn than they are to apologize for making music you don't like, or think isn't blackened enough, or whatever pointless, stupid complaints you feel like making. Ulver once tried to pull off this kind of truer than trve kvlt attitude and it came across as amusingly pseudo-intellectual bullshit (even though Nattens Madrigal is still a total kick in the pants); with Darkthrone there's only a faint whiff of meta hanging around, and by F.O.A.D. it's almost completely gone.
The Best of Tunnel Vision is basically Wiley spitting a whole lot of confrontational, charmless battle rhymes. Given that even Wiley thinks that MCing isn't his strong suit, I have to wonder who thought putting out a 46-track double CD compilation of London E3 road chat, freestyles and remixes was a good idea. I've made it through the whole thing twice and it's been a long haul each time. Mixtapes (grime, hip-hop, techno, what-have-you) work best if they are grounded in an immediate context (a radio show, a lazy afternoon at the studio with a bunch of MCs, some kind of conceptual hook). JME can crank out new mixtapes for Boy Better Know forever, as far as I'm concerned, and they'll all be engaging and fresh – even when he cranks out 45 minutes of halfassed funky house, at least it's all his and it isn't hard on the ears. But the condensed, dismembered, "best-of" approach on display here isn't working. Mostly it makes me want to listen to the backing tracks (including Various Production's excellent "Hater" and a whole buttload of Wiley's own, classic productions) on their own.
I find it remarkable that few (if any) reviews have highlighted the fact that PJ Harvey's newest album is basically a concept piece about abortion and desolation. Does nobody listen to the words anymore?
It's a beautiful and strange record, seeming like nothing so much as an album-length exploration of a single obscure piece of Harvey's very broad range. And its subject matter is both strong and not very veiled. It's a brave piece of work, and evidence that Harvey still hasn't stopped growing, as much as disappointments like Uh Huh Her might have indicated otherwise.
Minimal house is a genre that's made some artists a comfortable living via the simple philosophy of "give them an inch and they'll take a mile". There's a deeply odd disjuncture between the playful sense of humor on display in, say, Akufen and Ricardo Villalobos's work and the studied High Modernism of the music itself. Nowhere is this bizarre gap more obvious than in the Villalobos & Gillings track "Andruic & Japan" on Villalobos's recent Fabric mix. 12 minutes of unvarying house rhythm overlaid with taiko drumming and random vocalese and occasionally manic mutterings about chicken and sashimi. It's self-consciously experimental in a pop Stockhausen way (it seems evident to me, at least, that it wasn't created in a total bong haze, that there is some kind of intent behind it), but I'm not sure the underlying plan was meant to be deciphered. It all adds up to something, but what it is seems opaque, as if the creators were daring listeners to find meaning where there might be none.
Does anyone actually dance to this? And why? Its appeal seems almost exclusively intellectual, and even then on a fairly abstract plane.
Following on from my earlier post, Citizen 23's "Janie's Got A Black Eye" is another brilliantly catchy snippet of rock and roll, packing social observation, a great (if muddy) post punk guitar solo, and a very catchy hook into a minute and a half. I can't believe it took me so long to pick up the Hyped 2 Death catalog. It's as essential in its way as the Anthology of American Folk Music, and just about as ground-level and vernacular.
Lester Bangs is one of those stars in the rock firmament who should need no introduction; he was a writer too good for his chosen discipline, and single-handedly wrecked an entire generation of music writers who should have stuck to writing boring, just-the-facts-ma'am criticism, instead of reaching for the flashy pyrotechnics and impassioned polemicism that characterized Bangs' best work and that they didn't have a chance in hell of pulling off. A much less well-known fact is that Bangs' passion for rock occasionally boiled over into pulling together musicians and rocking out himself.
Curiously, the only one of Bangs's music projects that most people know about is his live appearance with the J Geils Band, "playing" his typewriter in an all too literal translation of his critical persona into musical terms. But he also made a few records, and on the evidence presented on Hyped 2 Death's Homework #9, he had real talent, if only in choosing bandmates. "Kill Him Again" (by Lester Bangs & Birdland) is a work of offhanded, economical genius, starting with tentatively picked arpeggios before bursting into classic American chiming guitars (contributed by a brother of one of the Ramones), propulsive rhythm, poetically elliptic lyrics, and even a couple concise solos. Its sound is tough to classify, although the music wouldn't have sounded entirely out of place on the Feelies' or Modern Lovers' first albums. It's also insanely catchy, and begs to be replayed over and over.
It alone makes Homework #9 worth picking up, but Chuck Warner has a deeply intuitive sense of what separates an underrated gem from an opaque near-miss, and there's guaranteed to be at least a couple tracks on each of his compilations that will make you wonder where the hell you were the first time these now long-forgotten records were first released.