2007: BARR - Summary
BARR is the moniker for the spoken word work of multi-disciplinary artist Brendan Fowler, who started his career playing high energy spoken-word punk shows back in 2001. Since then, he’s kept busy co-running Doggpony Records, co-editing Artist Network Program Quarterly (a free arts magazine), playing with two other bands (New England Roses, Car Clutch), and most recently displaying object-based art exhibitions at galleries around the U.S. BARR hasn’t put out an album since 2007’s Summary, a record overlooked when it came out on the now defunct experimental Kill Rock Stars sub-label 5 Rue Christine.
Fowler’s a strange character primarily because of his impassioned vocal delivery. This style was compared too loosely to hip hop artists in the handful of reviews after Summary was released. With Fowler’s continued participation in the DIY art gallery scene, the comparison doesn’t make much sense. A spoken-word provocateur like Karen Finley might be a better fit for discussing BARR’s work.
Lyrically, Summary strives to be viscerally emotional and perplexingly intellectual at the same time. He weaves meta-commentaries on capital-lettered Art/Form/Truth seamlessly together with sparse but intimate confessions (“I just want to hold someone”). Vague circular philosophical logic (or pseudo-philosophical if you like) about making art is contrasted with highly specific personal narratives on abuse, cheating, depression, love, etc. (“Complete Consumption of Us Both,” “Was I Are You,” “Untitled,” “Half of Two Times Two”).
I remember listening to the album fairly often in 2007. Most of the reviews attacked the record for being too “meta” and self-referential. I think that’s the point! In his missteps and rootless explorations into his own art, Fowler projects the vulnerability of overindulgent self-skepticism. Whether you like that kind of thing seems to me a matter of personal taste.
“The Song is The Single” acts dually as a criticism of pop songs and as a criticism of itself. But the finale “Context Ender” presents the most cohesive message in Summary’s sprawling art philosophy. This message: context matters. In an interview, Fowler claimed the track was his favorite because of its musicality. “It’s a song about Pitchfork. I kind of figured they’d trash the record because they actively don’t like me. They’re immature — this much we know. I’m not taking away from their cultural thing — but you can!” That seems like a pretty fitting message to close off a record that’s simultaneously inward and outward looking – carefully skeptical of its own value and freely dissecting the way art is produced and consumed. Whether or not you find it pretentious and overreaching or intelligent and intimate is still subject to the thesis. Context matters.
2007: Grass Widow Demo
I own a lot of handmade CD-Rs. Between playing, attending, and fostering shows in the various small towns I grew up in, I managed to amass a healthy collection of CD-Rs from various traveling bands that rivals my regular CD collection from the same time. Even if they’re god awful (a lot of them are), I can’t bear to get rid of the discs because I know someone spent their time drawing, cutting, stapling, sewing, and assembling each one. I’m a frequent mover, and these artifacts have become a sort of thing I often bear in a cardboard box, somewhere in a closet.
While searching the other day through these varying CDs (most notably detailed in various colors of Sharpie) I stumbled upon Grass Widow’s demo from their first tour from the summer of 2007. They did this tour almost two years before having a proper album released on Captured Tracks. I remember one specific detail from the show: turning to my friend as Grass Widow ended a song and saying within earshot of the members of the opening band (some ironic AC/DC kind of band that played every local show), “I wish there were more bands like this here! Bands here suck!” Things got awkward, but in a way I was really happy to express that discontentment forwardly.
Since then I have moved on to bigger cities, finding that I am just not meant for the small/mid size town. Bands no longer have CD-R’s at most shows I attend; if it’s not an actual record or pressed CD, the tape is the new CD-R (annotate to format debate here). It might be that people are trying to put a better foot forward in presenting a boutique-ready item. This is speculative, but you never know – the CD-R might come back around.
“Why keep all these CD-Rs?” one might ask. “Are you going to save them for 15-20 years and then sell them on eBay? Is this your plan for paying off your student loans?” Nope. Believe it or not, some of these so called “demos” don’t sound too bad. One of my favorite punk albums is in this collection. The Grass Widow demo is one of these that I enjoy, it’s more or less their first album but with a much more personal appeal and less compression. Maybe someday when the early-aught nostalgia wave hits I’ll sell some of my collection to someone who might enjoy them.
1987: Live Skull - Dusted
It’s not surprising that history has been a bit negligent to Live Skull — after all, Sonic Youth released Sister the same year as Dusted, and any shred of competition between SY and their New York contemporaries (including Live Skull) would be obliterated with the follow-up release of Daydream Nation in 1988. Frankly, when a shadow that huge is cast, it’s easy to overlook where it falls. To compare the two bands on that basis is unfair, but they are worth linking, as Live Skull’s general sound often strikes me as a spikier progression of what Sonic Youth evoked on Bad Moon Rising: unease and dread in the shape of eerie, foreboding noise-rock. Dusted is just where Live Skull hit a cohesive peak.
One of the more unlikely things about Dusted is that the more a copy of it ages — i.e., the more its outer jacket becomes tattered, the more surface noise it collects — the creepier it becomes. The album’s cover photo of a decrepit, abandoned warehouse becomes more sinister when the LP sleeve is warped and creased with water damage, as my copy was when I bought it for a pocketful of change. Of course, it helps that tracks like the sickly and desperately haunted “Kream” and “5-D” manage to be both ghostly and viscerally physical, and while Martin Bisi’s production has yielded a bit flat with age, that cavernous 80s drum sound lends itself fittingly to the abandoned warehouse mystique.
Dusted was also the introduction of Live Skull’s new lead vocalist, Thalia Zedek. Zedek’s husky yowl — think of Kim Gordon after consuming a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes — is gripping. The rest of the band sings on a few songs (the Marnie Greenholz-led “W/ The Light” opens with a particularly engaging wall of guitars), but Zedek’s presence more often matches the band’s musical intensity, poised somewhere between audible confrontation and struggle. Take Dusted’s opening track, “Machete” — while it may not be an anthem on the level of “Schizophrenia,” it’s still a hell of a way to introduce Live Skull’s new line-up, all memorable guitar parts, driving rhythms, and Zedek’s straining rasp as she repeatedly seethes “burn.” So while Live Skull’s previous album Cloud One has some better songs, I find that Zedek’s commanding voice, alongside the apparitional harmonic guitar interplay of Mark C and Tom Paine, makes Dusted the slightly better record.
One reason why Live Skull have seemingly been relegated to footnote status among 80s noise-rock bands may be that, despite possessing qualities often associated with New York-based noise-rock in the years following no wave (e.g., chiming harmonics, alt-tuning sound textures, feedback), Live Skull didn’t concern themselves so much with innovation or experimentation, opting instead to reel in elements of this sort of post-no wave sound into a more tightly constructed rock. It’s a type of sound that was really picked up upon later in the Pacific Northwest: Unwound really mastered and set a new level for the dynamic and atmospheric ends of this sound by the end of the 90s; today, Broken Water seem to be carrying parts of that torch. I won’t link this all back to Live Skull, as their influence is suspect given relative historical obscurity, but the sound links are uncanny and worth hearing.
2004: Bardo Pond & Tom Carter - 4/23/03
Though age, other projects, and lineup changes have varied the landscape ever so slightly, for the past two decades Philadelphia’s Bardo Pond have been one of the preeminent names in American psychedelic music. Officially formed in 1992, as of 2001 Bardo Pond has consisted of guitarists Mike and John Gibbons, bassist Clint Takeda, drummer Jason Kokournis, and Isobel Sollenberger on flute, violin, and voice. Their work ranges from sparse, airy drone-rock to pounding, nearly anthemic spooge, and they’ve also collaborated with a number of like-minded heads including Roy Montgomery (Hash Jar Tempo) and Fursaxa. Recently they’ve waxed recordings for Important and Fire Records, and their live presence around the Northeast remains surely in place.
In April 2003, guitarist Tom Carter (Charlambides, Spiderwebs) was visiting Philly and set up a pair of sessions with Bardo Pond. The live and studio results were captured on 4/23/03, one of the earlier releases on American rural/psych imprint Three Lobed. In fact, the label actually took off with Bardo’s music by releasing Slab in 2000 (now long out of print), so it’s fitting that a dozen years later Three Lobed has reissued 4/23/03 as a double LP with an extra track from the date, as well as another hour’s worth of live material (on an included CD) from two days later. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out exactly where the band ends and Carter’s playing begins, and that’s certainly a fine result – one storied musician’s total integration into the environment.
As one who has only witnessed the group at their loudest and most cutting, this set is an entirely different proposition, with the three guitarists exploring sinewy interlocking textures across a bed of indeterminate hiss on the second movement, while the opener finds its legs extraordinarily quickly once Kokournis sets up a dry, fluid, and bobbing tempo. Electric violin threads through a rather elegantly layered tangle, and while the music rolls along at a fairly nodded-out pace, it’s easy to miss the level of interaction and intensity between the six musicians. Sollenberger’s reverb-drenched voice and flute wander in and out of a tense, skittering ensemble on the third piece, building organically to a series of toothy false crescendos. On the face of it, this 20-minute improvisation might not seem like something one couldn’t get elsewhere, done “right” there’s no doubt that Bardo Pond can bring it. While at first the live set might seem like more of the same – indeed, Bardo Pond often harp on related principles – patience brings realization, as even with middling fidelity and barroom noise on the central 43-minute jam, open eyes will discern a varied plain. If you’re looking for a place to test the waters, this extensive LP/CD set is a great place to start, and it consists of the band’s most engaging work.
1980: Black Randy and the Metrosquad - Pass the Dust, I Think I’m Bowie
Everything about this legendary album screams bad taste. The title, Randy’s drugged out mug on the cover, a fan-boy love song to Idi Amin, not to mention the pair of covers that close the album: “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “(Theme from) Shaft,” which are belted out by Black Randy, who is in fact white – of course he is. Randy and the Metrosquad were obviously out to offend and be funny. Surprisingly though, they weaved their snide antagonistic themes around killer performances. That style became a legacy that other talented assholes – from Ween to Matt Stone and Trey Parker; even Odd Future – have carried on like the unholy Torch of Dickishness.
The music on Pass the Dust takes the general tropes of what punk sounded like at the time and warps them. The album is stuffed with organ solos, jazzy piano, and a groovy-as-hell drum and bass team of Joe Ramirez, Jack Nanini, and Keith Barrett. The fractured sound of the Metrosquad evokes the proto-punk insanity of The Magic Band, but never falls into just sounding like a throwback to Beefheart.
Black Randy’s voice will forever be why this album is remembered. At the end of the day you can take all those funky grooves (even the one at the very beginning of “Laundromat” that sounds a bit like “North American Scum”) and still nothing could ever upstage Randy when he promises “not to cum in your mouth.” Meanwhile, Idi Amin’s lyrics sound like they could have been used for the Shangri-Las in some nightmarish alternate reality when the man croons, “He’s my panda from Uganda, he’s my teddy bear/ They say bad things about him but I don’t care.” Later, Randy fantasizes of Amin visiting New York to go to CBGBs with him, all in his slurred voice that acts as a nice stepping-stone from Captain Beefheart to David Yow.
Pass the Dust being their only album, I originally couldn’t help wondering why it didn’t fall through the cracks. It still remains obscure, but is fondly remembered by those who’ve taken the time to seek it out (See: Yo la Tengo’s stunning “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”). After investing some time in the album, its cult obsessions becomes understandable, even when removed from the romanticism of obscurity and Randy’s death in 1988. Pass the Dust is heavily intoxicating, and despite all the nastiness abound, a pretty damn good time.
1972: Don Bradshaw-Leather - Distance Between Us
Don Bradshaw-Leather was born 1948 in Essex, the son of middle-class Jewish parents. According to Bradshaw-Leather’s sister, “[Don] grew with and into music more by genetic destiny than environmental consequence.” During the long, dark hangover of the Summer of Love, the classically-trained prodigy approached CBS Records with demo recordings. Though it seems incredible in hindsight, a forward-thinking A&R executive must have seen a potential revenue stream in Bradshaw-Leather’s avant-classical noise. The artist was given a generous advance to record an album. DBL’s sister fills in the blanks: “[Don] used the funds to create a large studio in Sussex with many instruments including an actual church organ. Here, on his own, without the use of any electronic sequencing, he recorded Distance Between Us using simply multitrack tape, layering each part of the composition.”
Upon hearing the product of their financial investment — four side-long tracks of blurry organ drones, frantic piano tinkling, and ritualistic percussion — CBS understandably got cold feet. The album was self-released on Bradshaw-Leather’s own Distance imprint, a vanity label established for the sole purpose of releasing the album. Pressed in a tiny edition, mint condition copies of the album can fetch up to $500 at auction today. The double gatefold sleeve is full of mysteries, from the misspelling of “Bradshaw” (“Bradsham”), to the coal-blackened visage of the bohemian madman on the cover (DBL himself?), to the rear photo collage depicting the same madman accosting a nude woman. The music isn’t any less mysterious; shapeless symphonies of smeared-out Mellotron, tribal drums, and wordless vocals. After swimming in the album for a little while, the absence of structure begins to seem utterly logical, and the album washes over like a peyote-induced Gothic fever dream. Don Bradshaw-Leather passed away in the 90s, making a reissue of this classic oddity seem increasingly less likely, though David Tibet of Current 93 has intermittently announced plans for a reissue on his own Coptic Cat label over the years. It’s an inspired match. Here’s hoping it comes to pass.