Once upon a time there was Option magazine. It covered a broad – yet oddly narrowly defined – cross-section of music that was too weird for the mainstream, but maybe not all the way underground. Each issue would feature quarter-page ads for ReR and Cuneiform Records, and generally there was one or more ads for The Bevis Frond. It had features of varying quality (one article on Swans featured the memorable observation by Jarboe that working in the studio with Michael Gira was much like what working with Paganini was said to be like: “like standing in vats of boiling oil, lancing each other with razor blades”), but the real draw for the magazine were the 30-40 pages of concise reviews, typeset in 4 columns of agate type. It took a couple days to work through them all, but doing so always left me with a feeling like I had a pretty good idea what was going on. They covered cassette-only DiY industrial releases as much as they did more established stalwarts of new and experimental music (Fred Frith, Eugene Chadborne, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn – the Knitting Factory crowd).
Option crapped out 10 years ago. It had lost its purpose, crowded on one side by the alternative-izing of Spin and Rolling Stone in the wake of the grunge explosion-implosion, and on the other by the explosion of subgenres and new bands that characterized the 90s. It’s impossible to imagine a magazine with Option’s broad remit succeeding today. There’s way too much music to cover, and the print magazines that do survive (in Pitchfork’s shadow) tend to be more narrowly focused and relatively conservative. Even The Wire, the most self-consciously hip’n’edgy music magazine out there, is much more predictable than Option was in the early 90s.
Even so, I did inductively identify an Option sound after reading it for a couple years, a kind of post-college rock / intellectual psychedelia that lived somewhere in the interstices between Galaxie 500, Robyn Hitchcock, Half Japanese and the aforementioned twisted guitar genii Chadborne and Frith. It was like art-hippy weirdoes Henry Cow tamed for a larger audience, or REM with more unpredictability.
I provide you with all this prolog because Damien Youth fits the old Option template perfectly. Having never heard him before, listening to his The Man Who Invented God filled me with a rush of nostalgia for high school, when my friends and I would swap REM and Let’s Active and Big Star tapes. Youth was contemporary with those bands, even though he never had their success, and he was clearly mining the same vein of intellectual, introspective folky psychedelia. The Man Who Invented God has the insular quality I associate with late-80s home studio recordings, and Youth practically ought to be paying Michael Stipe royalties, but there’s a free-flowing ease to the songs that makes the rough edges and stylistic debts less important. There’s also some eyeliner and goth poetry going on, which you can interpret as charming or grating as you see fit.
This is yet another of the trove of old recordings I got from Mutant Sounds, and it’s worth the download time and Rapidshare hassle to check out if you like gothic psychedelia. Youth outlasted Option and is still going, almost 25 years after he started, and he’s got a bewildering array of other projects he’s participated in. I might have to check some of them out.
Intellectually I recognize that there are people out there who dislike Joanna Newsom. For more than a few people, her mannered, nasal vocals are the deal-breaker. Others find her tricky, polysyllabic lyrics pretentious, or just have a hard time taking seriously an elfin woman playing indie rock on the harp. She can be interpreted, in a word, as twee.
I don’t see her that way at all. I’m a passionate partisan of Newsom and her music. She can bring me to the brink of tears through the power of her songs alone; the only other musicians or composers with that power are Glen Branca and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom work in a much higher artistic register than most of Newsom’s folky peers. Where other people see her lyrics as insufferably arch, I see one of the last great lyric poets still writing in English (this:
And, Emily - I saw you last night by the river.
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water,
frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever
in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.
Anyhow - I sat by your side, by the water.
You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger,
though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December,
I promised you I‘d set them to verse so I’d always remember:
That the meteorite is a source of the light,
and the meteor’s just what we see.
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire
that propelled it to thee.
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light,
and the meteor’s how it’s perceived.
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void
that lies quiet in offering to thee.
is one of the most indelible, durable and delicate bits of poetry I’ve encountered since last wrestling with Ruth Stone – and much more cheerful to boot). And both her singing and harp playing are idiosyncratic are deeply accomplished.
She’s also caught a certain amount of backlash for being part of the loosely-affiliated “freak folk” scene that came out of San Francisco a few years ago. If you’d been around here then, you would have known that folks like Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Joanna Newsom and Brightblack Morning Light were thrown together by circumstance more than anything else; there was nothing schematic about how they all came to prominence at the same time. I can’t harsh on people for getting annoyed at the hypewagon rolling over their toes, but if that’s your most substantive problem with Joanna you should probably give her another listen.
And if, like some critics I’ve read, you think she takes herself way too seriously, what’s the problem? Her commitment to her music is near-total and she’s unapologetic about her intelligence (anyone who makes “…but always up the mountainside you’re clambering, groping blindly, hungry for anything: picking through your pocket linings – well, what is this? Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?” work has forgotten more about English than most of us will ever know), and the music she makes is the product of a confident, brilliant mind, and o see how it shines.
…but one thing is for sure: when I start wading through the thickets of accusations and counteraccusations, rumor-mongering, sectarian and factional grudge-slinging and post-Situationist po-faced “pranksterism” around the neo-folk / neo-pagan scene, I get the exact same headache I used to get when I was a teenager trying to figure out the American Communist left by reading RCP and SWP newspapers (if you don’t know those acronyms, good for you – all you need to know is that they were / are both claiming the True Marxist mantle for themselves, and they loathe each other).
Out on the fringes of politics and ideology there lies a sticky morass of extremism and paranoia that manifests itself in seemingly incomprehensible shifts in belief, where people will go from hard, statist left to hard, individualist right, without stopping at any point in between. It’s the same phenomenon that produces former-Trotskyite neocons like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, only with much less disastrous consequences (Douglas P may be a jerk, but he hasn’t (successfully) started any land wars in Asia lately). In the case of neo-folk, though, art is involved, and art necessarily involves ambiguity. The problem of figuring out who actually believes what and who is a lying sack of shit becomes completely intractable, so there’s this peculiar Schrödinger’s box, within which a group like Sol Invictus is either a bunch of neo-Nazi meat puppets or kindly, misunderstood friends to Jew and puppy alike, or Death In June are either in hock to Croatian war criminals or bemused visitors to the region who donated money to innocent victims of the Balkan war. If you care about not giving your time and money to people whose principles you abhor, sorting through these messes can be troubling and maddening in equal measure.
To get a flavor for the complete vacuum of truth this sort of churning strife engenders, first read this hatchet job on Sol Invictus by Stewart Home (his Wikipedia talk page is more germane than the Wikipedia entry itself), and then read this confused atttempt to grapple with it on the blog of some innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. To me, it seems inescapable that the neo-pagan crowd has an awful lot invested in keeping their politics as amorphous as possible (mostly to keep their audiences from devouring themselves in an orgy of mutual loathing – fans of neo-folk run across the political spectrum. Black shirts and jackboots for some, tiny pagan flags for others!); it’s more telling to me if (IF!) Albin Julius of Der Blutharsch is an admirer of Jörg Haider than if he’s gone out of his way to make friends with SOME Israelis (as my good buddy Joel forcefully pointed out to me recently, it’s possible to find Israelis who are fans of just about anything, which means that you can’t exactly treat Der Blutharsch having Israeli fans as being equivalent to them getting [K] stamped on their asses by the Rabbinate of Jerusalem).
More materially, Home wrote a foreword for a booklet of Sol Invictus lyrics in the 90s. If he thinks Tony Wakeford is a tubby sack of Nazi shit (he seems to be very fond of calling Tony Wakeford a fat man), what’s that all about? And then there’s the Green Anarchism controversy (search for “stewart home” down the page)… it’s all a big fucking mess, and I’m thankful I don’t have to care.
The thing to take away from this is the disorienting sensation that you have fallen completely through the rabbit hole into a world where nobody ever tells the truth if they can wrap it up in a few layers of obfuscatory ideological nonsense first. I’m no closer to determining whether or not Death In June, Sixth Comm, Sol Invictus and a bunch of the other World Serpent neo-folk bands are closet servants of Space Hitler. For now, the fact that nothing conclusive presents itself is probably good enough; I can’t plausibly be a fan of black metal and own records featuring participation by convicted hate criminals and object too strenuously to artists who at least attempt to keep their politics private. (To completely muddy the waters, the most entertaining English-language source on the violent origins of Scandinavian black metal is Lords of Chaos, written by Michael Moynihan, member of Blood Axis and himself despised as a fascist neo-pagan by much of the far left.)
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that my whole train of thought initially started from investigating Death In June’s use of the totenkopf as part of their visual identity – a symbol, paradoxically, that is much more loaded when it is adopted by an English musician than by a German of any stripe, even though its use is illegal in modern Germany. For good and for ill, the totenkopf is part of German cultural heritage, and is much more plausibly adopted as an ambiguous / problematic / “reclaimed” symbol by someone who inherits from that culture than a self-styled “history student” from outside the context – particularly when that same person, like Douglas P, carries around a four-foot-tall metallized version of the logo on a banner he carries with him when he plays live to this day.
Which illustrates, finally, a point that is obvious to me now but wasn’t when I got into the spooky stuff as a curious and alienated teenager, which is that one of the risks of being a fan of dark, marginal and extreme art is that it is easy to fall prey to mental contamination. For every romantic who finds passion in extremity, there is someone much colder seeking to speak to the darkness in others and manipulate it for their own ends. Some dark art is beautiful and much of it is compelling, but it requires confrontation and self-analysis if you’re to avoid succumbing to the bullshit that comes along with it. Just appreciating it for what it is and not paying attention to the context isn’t enough, if you want to keep your hands clean.
Stuck in my head this morning: “Carpe Diem” by The Fugs, from their Second Album. By the standards of The Fugs, this song is eminently gentle, being a delicate meditation upon the certainty of death and the need to do something with yourself now rather than later.
I stress its gentleness because The Fugs are one of the filthiest, most scabrous, and straight-up entertaining bands of the 1960s. Their unhinged hooliganism, coming from a bunch of Jewish East Village Beatnik libertines, is as fresh – and startling – today as it was when their records were first released, over 40 years ago. Songs about mutants with 9-headed penises porking watermelons and farmers having hard times raising them hemp plants and poppy flowers are the rule of the day on Second Album, and there’s a sharp, wild-eyed sensibility to The Fugs that got badly diluted by the time the hippie explosion made it to San Francisco. Everybody name-checks the Fugs, and it’s pretty obvious why. Highly recommended, especially to fans of the Velvet Underground or Tom Lehrer (I bet you don’t see those two put together very often, do you?).
When trying to whistle up some information on the long-departed Factrix, I came across the phrase “archaic fart feasts of yesteryear” on Julian Cope’s Head Heritage. It delighted me. Julian Cope has such a way with words! I hope it delights some of you!
(Factrix’s Scheintot really is an accomplished piece of downer art-damaged weirdness, although I’d say it’s a post punk album much more than any kind of “industrial.” You can download a copy of it – it is, of course, beyond out of print – off The Thing on the Doorstep. Also, the cover features boobies!)
I’m no stranger to loose-limbed freak folk, where songs are more nuclei around which sounds coalesce than any sort of tightly knotted skeins of rhythm, melody and lyric, and perhaps it’s a consequence of spending much of the last week plundering the grand riches of the internet’s many fine MP3 blogs, but Islaja’s Meritie totally disorients me in a way I find very hard to understand or describe. Merja Kokkonen sings her Finnish lyrics in a sweetly meandering voice, engaging with the rest of the music (guitars, piano, various other noisemaking bits) in the way that a bird rides the gusts on a windy day. There’s nothing overtly challenging going on save for the songs’ very free structure, but that lack of structure means these are not songs so much as neatly arranged piles of musical ideas, and Kokkonen’s near-total refusal to engage with typical notions of songcraft lend her songs a hallucinatory, subversive power that makes me giddy and confused in equal measure. I’m not sure it’s beautiful, but it’s certainly sublime.
I think most serious music fans and collectors have private creation myths: little stories they can tell about how they came to be the way they are. Either it’s a friend or a sibling who passed them some ear-opening tapes, or a family that was filled with musicians, or a glancing exposure to something that sunk its hooks deeply into their brains and took them over for life. Or, in many cases, a combination of all of the above, which is how it was for me. Here’s a little piece of my own story.
When I was a junior in high school, I spent one night babysitting some friends who were tripping (this was before we all figured out that mixing the high and the non-high is generally frustrating for everyone involved). They spent that trip mostly playing an already ancient version of Space War on one dude’s PC. I was mostly relieved to be left alone for a while, having spent most of the day feeling like a tool for not wanting to get high myself, and spent the time flipping through channels on cable, something I didn’t have at home.
This was shortly after the introduction of VH-1 but before the introduction of 120 Minutes, and Viacom had unceremoniously dumped a bunch of semi-alternative music videos on an unnamed show late on VH-1, which I happened to catch. The three videos I saw were by Helios Creed, Front 242 and Danielle Dax, and it’s safe to say they changed my life. The Helios Creed video was sleazy and struck me at the time as a not-so-veiled paean to heroin, the Front 242 video was for “Headhunter” and made me desperately nostalgic for Brussels (which I’d visited for all of three hours 8 months previously), and the Danielle Dax video was for “Cat-House”, and was by far the most surreal of the bunch – which was saying something.
“Cat-House” is a weird song, mostly because of the way it plays Dax’s girl-group-gone-feral singing against what seems like more or less straightforward industrialized rock and roll. It sort of sounds like the Sisters of Mercy got a less wildly demonstrative Diamanda Galás to sing for them, and it’s a song that starts out seeming pedestrian, only to get weirder and weirder the more you hear both it and the rest of Dax’s painfully eclectic catalog. The video is basically Dax miming the song run through a battery of cheap video effects (which are done absolutely no favors by YouTube), but it has a hyperdelic intensity that hit me just right, maybe due to spending the day around people who were capable of watching a stalk of grass for 15 minutes without moving.
Dax has been around long enough that most people have forgotten her altogether, but I’ve been listening to her US best-of anthology, Dark Adapted Eye, a couple times a year ever since I picked it up (on cassette!) in 1989. She got her start in the incredibly weird Lemon Kittens, and her music has stayed hard to pigeonhole ever since, borrowing elements of Orientalism, perverse morbidity, cryptic metaphysical references, and a generally goth patina without ever having a fixed sound. She gave up on the music business back in 1995 in a fairly flamboyant fashion, issuing another best-of and obscurities collection with the pithily summarizing title of Comatose Non Reaction: The Thwarted Pop Career. At least she kept her sense of humor.
After recently discovering the bonanza of music to be found on the MP3 Blogs of Blogspotistan, I found Devastate to Liberate. It’s not an album you’re likely to have heard of unless you’re a fan of some of the bands on it (or an old-school member of PETA), but in its way it’s a Rosetta Stone of mid-80s weirdo music, with songs by Nurse With Wound, Legendary Pink Dots, Crass, Coil and a variety of other (talented yet obscure) industrial and anarcho-punk acts. It’s also, I think, the first militant animal-rights benefit album, being released to raise funds for the Animal Liberation Front.
Perhaps my favorite track on the album is one by a band I’d never heard before: the Shock Headed Peters. “Blue Rosebuds” is an unhinged five minutes of feedbacked scree and post-Sabbath guitar histrionics that neatly bridges the gap between heavy metal and the noise attack of Skullflower. It’s not metal, it’s not industrial, and it’s not rock and roll, but it’s definitely crazed and loud and I love it.
Shock Headed Peters were a project of Karl Blake, who was the other member of Lemon Kittens with Danielle Dax, and hearing this track prompted me to finally find the Lemon Kittens’ albums. The least obscure album Lemon Kittens put out was released on Steven Stapleton’s United Dairies, and whether or not you have the faintest inkling what United Dairies is, that should give you some idea how obscure the Lemon Kittens were. Their entire catalog is seemingly irretrievably out of print, and it’s hard to identify why, because their music is not unapproachable; it’s strange and amateurish (Dax didn’t know anything about music when she joined the band), but in the best spirit of post punk experimentalism, ideas are king, and a lot of the songs click after two or three listens. For now, you’ll just have to find one of the internet rips and download those, unless Blake or Dax decides to chance their luck with a label or distributor again (they both have fairly dyspeptic Myspace blogs).
Dax’s kiss-off to the music industry contained a couple songs she did in collaboration with Blake, one of which is an absolutely fabulous reinterpretation of a Shock Headed Peters song, “Hate on Sight”, which is turned from an acidic post-punk tune into something not unlike Curve playing doom metal. It’s enough to make tracking down a copy of Comatose Non Reaction all on its own, because it’s a great song.
All of this has filled me with a burning urge to hear more Shock Headed Peters, but their stuff is also incredibly hard to find (I found this, but I’d like legit copies of this stuff without having to pay extortionate eBay prices). It’s too bad, because Karl Blake plays guitar like a gifted demon (much like Helios Creed, to bring this story back to its beginning). No matter how much music I find, I always seem to find myself wanting more. It’s a pleasant problem to have, especially because I still like the old stuff – I’ve been listening to Danielle Dax’s music a bunch over the last few days and, if anything, I find her outsider take on goth music more charming now than I did when I first heard it 20 years ago.
Stuck in my head this morning: Dan Deacon’s “Trippy Green Skull” and “Snake Mistakes”, both from his much-lauded Spiderman of the Rings. Both songs are incredibly poppy, bright and electronic, with childish Dada lyrics, and both have unexpected catchy bits near the end that get lodged in your head and just will not come out. I’m about six months late to be bringing up Mr. Deacon and Spiderman, but the album is just as fresh, charming and mildly brain-damaged now as it was when it was first released. Jess Harvell (whom I was abusing here just last week) wrote a great, perceptive review of Spiderman of the Rings over on Pitchfork that I endorse wholeheartedly.
Deacon’s faux naïf act works, paradoxically, because he’s got a master’s degree in composition and takes a deeply serious approach to his very silly songs. The dude can put together a 3-minute pop song like nobody’s business, but his command over his (sometimes self-made and often very primitive) gear is impressive, and – especially on longer, more elaborate songs like “Wham City” and “Jimmy Jay Roche” – there are obvious influences from the classic minimalists – Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass – as well as an odd kinship with new wave schmooptronica acts like M83 and Ulrich Schnauss, even as his lyrics ramble a lot closer to Devendra Banhart’s childlike psychedelia or a particularly gentle version of Ween. I find the combination of minimalist restraint and sugar-addled weirdo pop super charming.
UPDATE: I have got to see this guy live.
So one of the areas where my preferences intersect with Planet Pitchfork is that I have a serious weakness for the whole freak-folk scene (which is only intensified by my recent discovery of the world of Joe Boyd-produced folk/rock). While I liked Joanna Newsom live back 2004 (when I saw her opening for other freak-folk heavyweights Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light), I resisted picking up Ys because the reviews made it sound like overindulgent prog wankery (as a side note, I have no idea why I decided that was a bad thing, as I have acres and acres of overindulgent prog wankery in my collection – maybe it was that it was popular, much-hyped prog wankery).
As it turns out, Ys is a meticulously crafted work of genius, and is only overindulgent if you are a frowny-faced fun hater. Its five tracks are overflowing with song, and are almost embarrassingly rich in beautiful melodies and flawless couplets. I’ve listened to it countless times and “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” still – still – make me tear up every time I hear them. This is not an easy thing to do, people. I was genuinely delighted it when Ys came up on my iPod just now.
Newsom’s masterful poetry (seriously, I think I know good poetry, and for all of Newsom’s four-dollar words, this is as elegant and concrete as poetry gets in 21st century English), distinctively girlish voice (WARNING: her breathy, raw delivery is a deal-breaker for some) and harp playing combines with Van Dyke Parks’ ornate, varied orchestration to create something that has all the subtlety and restraint of a sledgehammer to the forehead. In a good way. Next to this, Joni Mitchell’s experiment in orchestrated folk-pop, Travelogue, is a miserable failure, and the songs on Travelogue are some of the best songs chosen from a 40-plus year career of one of America’s greatest songwriters. I cannot praise this record highly enough.
Talking about my visit to Aquarius reminded me that I’ve already had one shopping trip so far this year. There’s only one store in San Francisco / North America that can really compete for my affections with Aquarius, and that would be Amoeba. I don’t really see them as competing; Aquarius is run by my friends and is a boutique with a high density of specialty items and Amoeba has a huge variety and much better coverage of electronic dance music (such as it is these days). Neither of them has any trouble separating me from large piles of my money.
Anyway, here’s what I picked up at Amoeba last week:
- Akimbo: Harshing Your Mellow (Alternative Tentacles)
- Akimbo: Navigating the Bronze (Alternative Tentacles)
- Cabaret Voltaire: Eight Crepuscule Tracks (Giant)
- Cabaret Voltaire: The Living Legends (Restless / Mute)
- Darkthrone: FOAD (Peaceville)
- Nick Drake: Bryter Later (Island)
- Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left (Island)
- Nick Drake: Time of No Return (Hannibal)
- Echospace: The Coldest Season (Modern Love / Baked Goods)
- Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief (Island)
- Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking (Island)
- Fotheringay: Fotheringay (Fledg’ling)
- Gravenhurst: The Western Lands (Warp)
- PJ Harvey: White Chalk (Island)
- Daniel “belteShazzar” Higgs: Metempsychotic Melodies (Holy Mountain)
- LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (DFA)
- Gram Parsons with The Flying Burrito Brothers: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 (Amoeba)
- Pylon: Gyrate PLUS (DFA)
- Seefeel: CH-Vox (RePHLeX)
- Six Organs of Admittance: Shelter from the Ash (Drag City)
- Wiley: Eskiboy – The Best of Tunnel Vision (selected by Logan Sama) (Eskibeat)
- Wire: Read & Burn 03 (Pink Flag)
- v/a: Fabric 36 (mixed by Ricardo Villalobos) (Fabric)
I’d say it’d been a while since I’d been shopping, but this happens pretty much every time I go to Amoeba.