1995: Archers of Loaf - Vee Vee
Has everyone had personal soundtracks for their life and times? Was there, for instance, a record that tracked through your mind the first time you’d been dumped (Disentegration), resolved to hunt down her new boyfriend (The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste) and confront him looking like a mutant reincarnation of Ponyboy (Legacy of Brutality)? Did songs accompany your thoughts when you were cut from the basketball team (“Out of Step”)? For you parents, what did you hum to your new-born child (“To Here Knows When”)? Does Thanksgiving evoke Arlo Guthrie for any other Americans out there?
In 1995, if you were between the ages of 18 and 28, Archers of Loaf’s Vee Vee may have worked its way into your cognitive rotation in the same manner. The band's sound, tighter than Pavement's and more angular than Superchunk's, was ideal for building anthems on loyalty and subversion. In “Harnessed in Slums,” Eric Bachman barks, “Snuff the leader with the leader with the bad-assed plan/ Take what you want from the palm of his hand,” and it’s hard not to conjure that stout manager at BurgerFreak who fired you for stealing french fries. And that’s not to trivialize the record’s impact. Instead, it may be lauded for its ability to remove intellectualization from concepts like revolution and leave us with the sentiments of daily human reality.
The music of Vee Vee, jittery yet powerful, shoves any message that manages to surface over the edge. The musical devices employed range from choruses accompanied by sweeping and insistent power chords to the Archers’ signature eighth-note guitar duels. Like their fellow Tar heel colleagues Superchunk, Archers of Loaf have a heritage that resides somewhere between hardcore and pop. Songs like “Harnessed in Slums,” “The Worst Has Yet to Come,” and “Nostalgia” possess hardcore’s sheer energetic roots while sprinkling in enough melody to make it accessible to a range of audiences. Other songs -- “Nevermind the Enemy,” “Greatest of All Time,” “Underdogs of Nipomo,” “Fabricoh” -- tip the balance in slight favor of pop with glorious results. Other tunes, like “Step Into the Light” and “Underachievers March and Fight Song,” don’t commit themselves enough either way and therefore falter. These moments, however, are far between enough that they don’t detract from the record’s overall stoicism.
All of this brings me to the most magical day of my life: I’d been short-changed at a pizzeria (“Nevermind the Enemy”), but I was hesitant to contest it because I didn’t want to deter the girl seated two tables over, who, amid my friends, my cherry coke, and my greased-out napkins, had been staring at me (“Step Into the Light”). I summoned my swagger and walked to her, when the cashier called to me, “Count your change, pretty-boy?” I swiveled to him. He had paws for arms, a neck as thick as my torso, and the ink was barely dry on his prison release (“Underdogs of Nipomo”). To retaliate, I couldn’t muster anything intelligent or even absurd to say to expose his empty bravado (“Let the Loser Melt”). I looked back to the table where my friends sat, to find that they’d vanished from the establishment, in search of safer company (“Floating Friends”). The girl, with eyes like Siouxsie Sioux and a pout like the Little Mermaid, could have been inside my soul, testing my courage at this pivotal moment (“Death in the Park”). But there was nothing I could do or say to retain my dignity or my 43 cents. I turned away from the cashier’s smirk and the girl was gone.
This was life for a sensitive, skinny boy, living in an industrial plot of anywhere (“Harnessed in Slums”). I’d had the misfortune of leaving the pizzeria just as first shift ended at the steel plant, “Edith,” “Cassandra,” “Meredith Lovefingers,” “cherry-boy,” they’d yell to me from the entrance gate (“The Worst Has Yet to Come”). Life was a silent tremor of what it used to be, when I’d ride my bike everywhere and boys and girls had interchangeable paths to innocent happiness (“Nostalgia”). It would be simple to slip into worthlessness with this life. I had to get out (“Underachievers March and Fight Song”). There was no other way, I’d die a victim of my surroundings if I didn’t. That’s when I heard the motorcycle race up behind me. I turned. It wasn’t a mugger or a taunter or a beggar. The rider lifted her helmet and shook her matted locks of black hair. It was the girl from the pizzeria. “You comin’ to New York with me?” she asked. (“Greatest of All Time”).
1982: Laurie Anderson - Big Science
From perhaps 1977-1984, music had a preoccupation with the progress of society and technology and George Orwell was to blame. 1984 created an unconscious cultural deadline for the self-examination of Western society. Rock music sang about the spawning of mega-governments, punks assaulted fascism, pop stars noted a scaled cooling of compassion, jazz captured the spirit of robots. Suddenly, the word “modern” became an esteemed concept. It instructed us to accept the reality of imminent nuclear war, to be gaudy, to indulge, to ditch your 8-track player and buy a Betamax, to compete for every decibel of laughter, scrap of land, and shade of color.
On Big Science instead of fostering these notions, Laurie Anderson observes them. Culled from fragments of her performance art opus, United States, Live, the songs from Big Science are compassionate and alarming. They describe the death musings of a commercial airline pilot over an intercom (“From the Sky”), the hubris of urban expansion (“Big Science”), the ignorance of the free-born (“Born, Never Asked”). The minimal music is loyal to her themes, melding organic brass and woodwinds with electronic beats, vibes, and melodic interludes. Most of the songs find Anderson, speaking over the music with her compelling pace and diction. “Cause I can see the future and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here,” she utters in the simple, Cartesian, “Let X=X.” In this essence lies the source of Big Science’s magnificence. Here silence is used as artfully as words. There are empty slabs of pause, appealing to mechanistic processing and as well as warm-hearted salutations. The renowned “Oh Superman”, the album’s centerpiece, is complete immersion in this notion. Anderson reads her apocalyptic verse while a robot voice echoes. This interplay is chilling: like a mental duel between compassion and complete detachment. The “song” finds Anderson talking on the phone to what seems at first to be her mother then she gives pause, “OK who is this really?” And the haunting reply comes, slow over a subtle, sweet keyboard dirge, “I am the hand, the hand that takes.”
The world Anderson describes, however, is far from minimal or bleak, for she also gives us texture. “Example #22” erupts with rhythm and jovial horns. German samples abound with Anderson bleating,“Honey you’re my one and only, So pay me what you owe me.” A bass and kick drum join the fray and suddenly the modern world is dancing. “It Tanga” jests at the connection gaps between men and women, women speaking open-ended and men repeating ageless Dylan, “Isn’t it just like a woman.” And that’s how the sparse chaos that’s presented by Big Science ends. You’ve been lured into a dream without realizing. Anderson has assaulted you with enough thought and silence and sound that you return society more enlightened but less certain of anything than when you left.
As “O Superman” climaxes, Anderson reaches a resolution to this societal fray and I can’t help but think that Orwell would approve. It unfolds gradually in the telling, “Cause when love is gone, there's always justice. And when justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom” It’s a poignant conclusion for certain, but when living in a world of compromise and miscommunication, it may be the best of all things.
1982: Pauline Oliveros - The Wanderer / Accordion and Voice
“Sustain a tone or sound until any desire to change it disappears. When there is no longer any desire to change the tone or sound, then change it.” - from the score for “Horse Sings From Cloud”
Pauline Oliveros has been a figure of the classical and electronic avant-garde for decades. She champions "[deep listening->http://www.deeplistening.org/site]." Her careers as writer, composer and performer have been dedicated to the exploration of music as a psychosomatic means of expanding consciousness. She has embodied that belief through contributions to numerous experimental groups and universities dating back to the San Francisco Tape Center in the ‘60s (where she played in the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C for Instruments. Important has paid her a welcome tribute by reissuing two discs of her accordion-based material dating from the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Despite the liberal, un-ironic use of accordion by bands from The Arcade Fire to The Twilight Sad, in my mind the instrument still had the character of a dowdy polka prop before I heard these records. No more. Oliveros reveals the instrument’s capacity for scale and dignity in this handful of expansive original compositions, which range from the staunchly minimalist “Rattlesnake Mountain” to the modernist romp of “The Wanderer: Part II”.
Her music is a fine example of eschewing artifice as a means of arriving at richer art: the persistent, undulating mass of sound that she elicits from her accordion brings to mind the image of a raw sine wave – the simplest visual avatar of sound. But careful attention to the throbbing permutations of this mass reveals a robust, versatile, and shifting music that is at once inscrutable and engrossing. She capitalizes on ambient music’s binary ability: it can serve as a sort of matte aural wallpaper or an unadorned gateway to new ways of imagining. According to Oliveros’ commentary in the liner notes, “Horse Sings From Cloud” is intended to function as a meditative agent wherein the respirations of player and instrument respond to and align with each other. From someone else, this could seem like so much neo-Buddhist posturing, but the quality of Oliveros’ work and the intensity of her engagement with these ideas preclude such facile suspicions. It’s rare to find such an enriching fusion of concept, sound, and politics in the same musical moment. Don’t miss it.
1970: Rita Lee - Build Up
It wasn’t easy for the sunlit fuzz-funk music of Tropicalismo to make it all the way to 1970. The late ‘60s sent the movement’s major players through everything from musical game show appearances to military dictatorship-imposed imprisonment and exile (key players like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, for example), all with minimal public support. When the ‘70s finally hit, rock was still finding its footing, even though it was becoming more generally accepted by Brazil as a whole. While this summary skips over volumes of details, it gives an idea of where the country was positioned musically in 1970: finally ready to accept rock with moderately open arms and prove to the rest of the world that they could rock with the best of them.
Rita Lee, of course, already had. She’d bested most of her Anglo counterparts on two late-‘60s albums with Os Mutantes, lacing her bandmates’ heavy sub-equatorial psych with the perfect compliment of larking alto, as well as a dark opus, A Divina Comedia, with the group that same year. Having already proved herself in that arena (she’s now known as “The Grandmother of Rock” in her native Brazil) was perhaps the reason Lee decided to try something different on Build Up.
Though fellow Mutants Arnoldo Baptista and Sergio Dias both contribute to the album, those looking to hear Lee’s voice in the midst of their drug-induced guitar fuzz-outs have come to the wrong place. The first notes of this record come in the form of string arrangements on opener “Sucesso, Aqui Vou Eu,” which, at first glance, more closely resembles a Petula Clark Broadway number than anything in the Tropicalia canon. Hearing it for the first time, it’s hard to believe you’re listening to the same woman who sang vocals on a song which translates to “Hail, Lucifer” that same year -- and even harder to believe that you’re actually kind of digging it. It may be ‘40s nightclub at a glance, but Lee was never one to walk someone else’s trail, especially at this point in her career. A closer listen reveals stylistic sparks taken from all corners of the globe and plenty of twists lying just below the surface. This song foreshadows stylistically what’s to come on many tracks throughout the rest of the album. Most aren’t really the psych-rock jams Lee was doing concurrently with Os Mutantes, but rather conventional numbers taken and tweaked in ways as to make them totally unique.
From there, Lee dives into “Calma,” shifting the mood from ocean breeze to high-speed chase at will, again keeping it all in a jazz-lounge framework. Side one continues turning the string and horn vibe on its head, while side two contains most of the ‘rockers.’ Given the context, the ‘conventional’ tracks actually end up being the least straightforward on the album. Many notable rock figures have gone the way of ‘conventional’ music in efforts to prove that they’re capable of more than one style, but this album is one of the best examples of being able to do that without sacrificing what made the earlier music notable to begin with. All the intriguing aspects of Lee’s music are present here, just in different forms. Lee continues to keep it interesting on side two with “Hulla-Hulla,” which is Hawaiian from the name down. Yes, Hawaiian. Call it cheesy, but it holds up to the rest of the album instrumentally with its strong humming-it-for-days-after-you-hear-it factor. Beatles cover, “And I Love Him,” gives Lee an excuse to channel her inner Janis, something she’s been known to do on Mutantes tracks (see: “Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona”). It’s tolerable, but given that Lee has always been the better of the two both vocally and stylistically, it’s regrettable to see her feeling the need to go the drunken-blues route. Cloak-and-dagger number “Prisioneira Do Amor” leads into the album’s closer, a straight-ahead rock number chock full of electric guitar, walking bass, and wah pedal.
The album is full of great rhythms and instrumental work, but when a vocalist from a previous musical outfit does a solo album, the vocal quality is sure to be dissected. Under any microscope, Lee’s voice holds up to the challenge. If the album does have a few flaws, vocals aren’t one of them. Her voice keeps even the less interesting tracks afloat, gliding through all the right notes while always managing to stay somewhere between a moan and a whisper. It’s sexy, it’s ear-candy, it’s Rita Lee in her prime.
It will be difficult for most of us who first learned about Brazillian music through Os Mutantes to resist comparing the two incarnations of her music instead of just listening to it. Indeed, it may come as a disappointment to many fans that Lee appears to have traded whatever hallucinogens she was taking with Os Mutantes for a pleasant glass of wine this time around. But this shouldn’t be cause for dismay -- these are two separate sounds entirely. It wasn’t a Mutantes album for a reason, after all. Build Up was never trying to send us to another universe, only to make us enjoy this one a little bit more.
2000: M. Ward - Duet for Guitars #2
I’ve had a sort of nebulous understanding of what M. Ward sounds like and his place in the overall musical panorama for a few years now without ever actually listening to his work. Luckily, instead of being thrust into some fully formed, grand statement of a new album, Duet for Guitars #2 is Merge’s reissue of Mr. Ward’s apparently difficult to track down 2000 debut. And a debut it surely is. Duet is decidedly lo-fi; most of the tracks sound as if they were recorded in an open room with a few mics and an almost total absence of overdubs. There are doors opening and floors creaking all over the place. Very bare bones.
The instrumentation is just what you’d expect: acoustic guitars with a part-time electric buddy and clattery percussion. Things get mixed up with mandolin, dulcimer, and various keys, but on the whole, it makes little difference to the album’s back-porch feel. As much as the set-up tells me I’m going to like it, Ward’s debut ends up just being there. The album is peppered with instrumentals, which is nothing too grand as Ward rarely produces melodies of interest with his guitar. “Not a Gang” is a welcome exception with its almost Eastern guitar parts, but it unfortunately got relegated to bonus-track status. “He Asked Me To Be a Snake & Live Underground” is a Neil Young-aping, snippet of a song but remains a highlight.
My biggest problem with the record is a purely objective one: Ward’s voice grates. It manages to be nasal and raspy and wavering, which proves to be too distracting. Regardless of the timbre of his pipes, Ward does little melodically to encourage. The album never really presents any memorable ideas, and M. Ward sounds exactly as expected. Never a good thing when someone’s never listened to you before.
1964: Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band - Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
In writing about music, we often discuss the powers of influence and novelty. In favor of these, a concept that's been overlooked is the role of heritage in the creation of music. This concept describes something so entrenched in a particular culture that its expression is preserved and treasured. Yes, it's also a banal concept historians like to use, and that's too hefty for any music review of reasonable length. Still, heritage is something all forms of music possess, even if it's not acknowledged or, furthermore, felt. On the self titled, live recording, Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the spirit of heritage is cradled, heralded, honored, and impossible not to sense. The recording takes jazz, America's most idiosyncratic art form and fosters it in New Orleans, America's most idiosyncratic city (sorry citizens of Red Haw, it's true). The result is music of both movement and reflection: there are celebratory pieces for the dancehall as well as mournful spirituals.
New Orleans Jazz, rising in the early 1900s from the blues and ragtime sounds that pervaded the American South, is the first incarnation of the Jazz genre. Its most fundamental elements included bass, banjo, woodwinds, and brass. Whether spectacular or solemn, the music sought to celebrate the human experience. Sweet Emma pays complete homage to this notion. Recorded live at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, the record reels in slow with the introduction of each player and instrument. The band then launches into "Clarinet Marmalade," a roaring piece that epitomizes the New Orleans Jazz experience: bursts of clarinet, trombones and trumpets that double, then run contrary to each other, with drums, banjo, bass, and piano pacing the action. Amid all of this, there's little showmanship: each player is a master of a single instrument, and each is given ample and equal space. "Ice Cream" and the ubiquitous and important "When the Saints Go Marching In" continue the tradition in this vain. The slender and aged Sweet Emma herself takes vocal responsibilities on the monument to unrequited love, "I'm Alone because I Love You," and the funeral standard, "Closer Walk With Thee." Drawing the listener in further is the charismatic MC work of trumpeter Percy Humphrey.
Regardless of the precise context of each of the selections on Sweet Emma, the overall tone is one of resounding celebration. In this sense, it finds kinship with Irish folk music. Both forms insist to us that a life lived, whether tragic, common, or heroic, should be documented and honored with a sense of joy. Three years after the recording of this record, Sweet Emma suffered a stroke leaving the left side of her body paralyzed; 40 years later, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans leaving a swell of catastrophe and loss. In spite of these, Sweet Emma, like the city she loved, remained true to her heritage. Unmoved, she crept back up to the stage, sat at her piano, and played on.