1988: Beat Happening - Jamboree
For all the ink spilled about Beat Happening’s genius in the 16 years between the two releases of their first true LP Jamboree, there is, of course, the irony that the seminal Olympia trio didn’t even meet the standard requirement for forming a band: being musicians. It was from that bottom level though, where Bret Lunsford, Calvin Johnson, and Heather Lewis maintained their music and simultaneous reinterpretation of punk music.
Their piecemeal self-titled debut solidified the group’s main foundations with its driving drum beat, three broken guitar chords, and off-key whimsical vocal tradeoffs between Johnson’s Aleutian trench-deep baritone and Lewis’ playfully innocent alto about the harmless (rather than gratuitously obvious) points of sex, love, and awkwardness.
Those basic elements remained intact on Jamboree, but where its predecessor embraced the innocent, Jamboree took the opportunity to be more abrasive. It is perhaps the most musically punk album of the Beat Happening catalogue, embracing repetitious lyrical motifs, that same punk beat that somehow now grooved, and everyone’s favorite punk standby -- feedback.
Though what follows is something new altogether, the album states its punk roots from the start as “Bewitched” pounces in with a discordant, obnoxious chord more reminiscent of the Sex Pistols than the Pastels. From there the feedback grooves into Johnson’s simple interpretation of the most basic teenage inhibitions: “I’ve got a crush on you/I’ve got a crush on you/What am I to do…” and so on. “Jamboree,” “Ask Me,” and “Cat Walk” continue in this vein, with some of the best songs here lacking vocals. Beat Happening understood themselves enough to know that less truly did equal more in their case. The more they stripped the songs of audible noise, the closer they got to driving through emotion the songs were trying to convey, especially when Calvin Johnson sang (Whether you can tolerate his voice seems to be the difference between liking the band and despising them).
Despite the greatness of the first 2/3 of the album, the last three tracks are the true highlights, forming a trilogy that perhaps most completely defines the band’s existence. They aren’t as fast or direct as punk, but “Drive Car Girl” and “Midnight a Go-Go” assert status quo rejection better than anyone with a mohawk ever did: “Don’t you mind that daily grind/I walk down the sidestreets too/9 to 5 gotta live their lives/never knowin’what the night holds for you.” The haunting closer “This Many Boyfriends Club” is a unique artifact recorded at one of Beat Happening’s notoriously raucous live performances. Johnson’s building vocal angst, ripe with childhood images backed only by pure feedback, is as good an indication of the intensity and charisma with which he spouted every needling line live. And oh, are they needling!
With Beat Happening, the greatness can seem understated because anyone probably could do what they did, but when considering the egos most acts gain from notoriety in any form, the fact they remained so steadfastly themselves is a landmark for all who embrace true expression to appreciate. Jamboree is the perfect witness to this. The subtle, steadfast drum beat is the chant of a revolution.
2. In Between
3. Indian Summer
6. Ask Me
7. Crashing Through
8. Cat Walk
9. Drive Car Girl
10. Midnight a Go-Go
11. The This Many Boyfriends Club
2003: Earl Scruggs - The Three Pickers (with Ricky Skaggs and Doc Watson)
Ricky Skaggs once told the joke:
"How many Bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to change the light bulb and three to complain that light bulbs are electric."
In many ways, such a joke defines bluegrass music. It's a genre that mingles spectacular banjo rushes with voices and rhythms that seem as old as Appalachia. Though Bluegrass extracts elements of Irish and Scottish folk music, the finger picking styles and lyrical tales of America's mountains and rivers reflect a craft that's uniquely American.
On The Three Pickers, three of American music's greats appear together for one legendary performance in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs sound both stoic and gentle, playing a combination of original works and traditional American folk songs. While introducing the poignant "Who Will Sing for Me?", Ricky Skaggs, the youngest member of the trio (by several decades), recounts the boyhood years he spent listening to his stage-mates on the radio. This notion of mutual admiration and friendship is a recurrent theme throughout the recording; and while the "Divas" concerts of recent years showcased the vocal duels of pop stars, the Three Pickers seamlessly meld their melodies, with the picking talents of each man equally well dispersed and showcased with Skaggs' flexibly switching from mandolin to guitar and banjoon, Earl's trademark banjo, and Doc's flat-pick guitar.
In addition to performing as a trio, a number of distinguished guests are invited to the stage. Doc Watson and grandson Richard flat pick two traditional folk numbers, "Walk On Boy" and "Daybreak Blues." Later, Earl Scruggs is joined by his son Gary to perform the exhilarating banjo technique he invented as a member of Bill Monroe's band in the 1940s. The contrast between Doc and Earl's approaches to Bluegrass is clear, yet they serve to illustrate the profound and diverse contributions each has made to American music. In spectacular fashion, Kentucky Thunder emerges to the stage to accompany Ricky Skaggs in a roaring rendition of "Ridin' That Midnight Train." Alison Krauss also joins the pickers for three numbers, including the noir standard "The Banks of the Ohio."
Despite their distinguished accompanists, the Three Pickers are at their best when they alone occupy the stage. Their shared presence evokes an air of genuine American heritage. While their voices are flatter now than in the past, their fingers are still able to lead the way. The album's strongest effort, "Who Will Sing For Me?", is a confluence of an old man's lamenting wonders and merry picking rhythms. It's difficult not to shake the feeling that these men are challenging us to maintain the tradition they all but created.
Although it's clear that a healthy and supportive crowd is on hand, the trio evokes the feel of a small mountain promenade. Skaggs, who handles the majority of the on-stage banter, creates an intimate setting that lures both the crowd and remote listener to his side. Contrary to the wild banjo picking that awes even the most passive bluegrass listener, this collection contains mostly slower, soulful tunes. The Three Pickers should not be regarded as a capstone event for Bluegrass Music because these three men do nothing to demand a spotlight. This is a recording of three masters, or better yet, three friends who love to share the subtlety of their craft with an audience and each other.
2005: Boris - Akuma No Uta
I miss sitcoms about rock bands like The Partridge Family or The Monkees.
In fact, I miss them so much I had to resort to making up premises for
them myself. Take this example:
A rock band (Boris) made up of three Japanese exchange students (Wata,
Takeshi, and Atsuo) are scheduled to stay with a wholesome musical family
in America, but thanks to a wacky clerical mishap, our trio instead find
themselves living in a dilapidated tour bus with a host family made up of
members from Blue Cheer and Motörhead. Hilarity ensues!
Hmm... well, maybe it won't, but while this may potentially be the most
ill-conceived premise for comedy ever devised, it aptly captures the tone
of Boris' Akuma No Uta.
In an attempt to move forward from the turbulent, glacial churn of 2001's
Amplifier Worship, the members of Boris re-forged themselves by
injecting piss and nitroglycerin directly into their veins, developing a
volatile mixture of cacophonous drums, mesmerizing guitars, and lead singer
Atsuo's primal wail.
This combustible new compound is evident on "Ibitsu" and "Furi."
Each of these songs features thunderous, drumming hoofbeats and the
metallic braying of guitars galloping at a
mercilessly breakneck speed, almost like a pair
of overdriven horses of the apocalypse. "Ano Onno No Onryou" exchanges
some of that frenetic pace for a heavier, spacey proto-punk freakout as
guitarist Wata's shrapnel-sharp riffs soar and scatter wildly above the
viscous ooze of Takeshi's "No Fun"-esque basslines.
However, despite this new direction, Boris hasn't completely retired the
low and slow formula previously perfected on Absolutego and
Amplifier Worship. The songs "Introduction" and "Akuma No Uta," which
bookend the record, echo the punishing black-hole-heavy riffs and
lethargic crawl that had been the band's previous
The highlight of Akuma No Uta, however, falls into neither of the
above categories. "Naki Kyoku" begins with a hypnotically sedate guitar
phrase being strummed repeatedly against a gentle heartbeat of hi-hats,
until a barrage of emotive guitars begin crying toward the heavens, gently
caressing and cradling Atsuo's pleading screams as they abruptly and
intermittently punch in and out of a languid stretch of psychedelic blues,
before finally crashing in a hauntingly beautiful crescendo of
Boris' eschewal of expectations firmly announced to the world that they
were meant for greater things than being just
another SunnO))) or Earth, and Akuma No Uta demonstrates the trio
orbiting a section of rarefied space all their own.
4. Naki Kyoku
5. Ano Onno No Onryou
6. Akuma No Uta
1984: Ambitious Lovers - Envy
When trying to explain the musical importance of Arto Lindsay, people
often give a single reason: DNA. Fair enough, there's no arguing that his
first musical endeavor left quite a footprint on the surprisingly soft
soil of that musical era - but as with peers Lydia Lunch and James Chance,
the man is spoken of as though he dropped out of music and off the face of
the planet after the early '80s. Not only does he carry on a respectable
career as a solo musician today, but he was a key player in three other
major acts - the Golden Palominos, the Lounge Lizards, and most notably,
Lindsay, along with keyboardist Peter Scherer released Envy in
1984, arguably after the end of the 'classic' No Wave era. Several years
had passed since the final Mars show or TV Party broadcast; but if the
movement was supposed to be over, nobody told Ambitious Lovers. This album
shows far more of No Wave's confrontational overtones than any other
record of its age, albeit in a fashion that would sound more at home on a Luaka Bop compilation than No New York.
Stylistically, the group took cues from everyone - previous projects in
their New York scene and contemporary 1980's pop in particular - yet the
element that stands out most distinctly from other albums recorded in this
time and place is the incorporation of sounds from Lindsay's native
Brazil. Tracks such as "Pagode Americano" are downright funky, sounding
like they were taken straight out of a South American drum circle;
jarring, groovy, and sung entirely in Portuguese. The contrast is stark
when compared to the freak-out of the following track "Nothing's Monstered,"
which creates an effect similar to being woken up by sirens out of a
pleasant dream, only to find yourself shrunk to the size of a thumbnail
and in the middle of a burning beehive everyone else is scrambling to
escape from. "Let's Be Adult" is the closest thing Envy has to a
single, and at four and a half minutes it seems epic compared to what
Lindsay fans had grown accustomed to via DNA. The waddling beat is
complimented, rather interestingly, by a series of sampled shrieks and
yelps from Lindsay, and keyboards that a decade later would be found on
the soundtracks to many a Sega Genesis game.
For the most part, Envy doesn't sound like what most of us play in
our heads when someone mentions No Wave. The abrasive skronk sounds are
substituted for pop keyboard work, and, in some cases, the crash symbol
for a bongo. These differences shouldn't be viewed as detrimental to the
sound – in fact, they're an essential development. No Wave would have
turned from a fire-breathing Godzilla into a sterile, lifeless fossil if
it hadn't evolved and explored new aural terrain. It was never about a
certain sound after all, but change; making old things new and the new
1. Cross Your Legs
2. Trouble Maker
3. Pagode Americano
4. Nothing's Monstered
5. Crowning Roar
6. Too Many Mansions
7. Let's Be Adult
8. Venus Lost Her Shirt
9. My Competition
13. Locus Coruleus
2005: The Magik Markers - Feel The Crayon
Numerous burgeoning post-punks have thrown around the "No Wave" tag to describe their despondent experimentation, but often the implications seem to point to some of the more accessible acts that made waves around the mini-movement's waning days (for example, UT and many great, yet much more restrained post-Pop Group projects like Maximum Joy and Rip Rig & Panic; even the unclassifiable individualism of post-funk/disco geniuses like Liquid Liquid and ESG sometimes gets lumped in with the No Wave explosion). While No Wave is, to this day, open to interpretation, the promise of a band able to own up to the polarizing nihilism of the sub-genre's most unruly spawns (i.e., Lydia Lunch, Mars, DNA) feels like wishful thinking when any troop with a Sonic Youth-influence purports to deliver some non-existent sequel to No New York.
Well, The Magik Markers are it, folks. If any modern No Wave band has slithered, spewed, and thrashed its bile on the faces of a totally blindsided rock 'n' roll nation with such gorgeous gusto, it's this trio of noise-mongers. It's hard to know where to begin when describing what the Markers do. Maybe it's that Elisa Ambrogio forgoes the "no chords" rule a young Jad Fair set forth with and doesn't even bother playing notes, or that (former) member Leah Quimby's battalion of atonal bass thumps sound more like the apocalypse personified than anything resembling music, or that Pete Nolan's drumming recalls a potential murder victim scurrying away from their axe-wielding killers in an infinite loop. They're one of those bands that has to be heard or seen to be believed, and love them or hate them, they're guaranteed to get a reaction.
On that note, it took a few times seeing the band live before I could even conceive an opinion: were they the greatest living, breathing musicians in the universe, or was it all simply wretched nonsense laughing at all the fools who have just been had? Live, the band is potentially both at once, and across a CD-R/vinyl catalog to last a good box set or two, releases like Feel The Crayon proved the studio was the only thing that could reign in these three for a bit and establish some type of context for critical conclusions to be drawn.
While not as powerful as this year's factory-pressed CD or the sadly out-of-print vinyl opus I Trust My Guitar, Etc., Feel The Crayon is pretty factual proof (to noise-rock and No Wave fiends, anyway) that the Markers are not to be taken for granted. In a poorly-recorded environment, a terrifying claustrophobic tension is added to the Markers' dissonance. Ambrogio's tirades, recalling perhaps Mark E. Smith as a schizophrenic street preacher, feel all the more like she's purging herself of bona fide demons (nowhere better than on "Just A Child") while the Quimby/Nolan forcefield has the swagger of an oubliette's house band. And what's most successful about Crayon is that it aptly argues for the Markers as more than a trio of pranksters having a go at stuffy music folks, if the dynamics of a track like "Creaking Jesus" are anything to go by.
But what one realizes somewhere down the line while listening to Crayon is that the Markers are so special because they honestly seem to not give a shit. If they don't have much "talent" by the length virtuosos measure, then so fucking what? Didn't punk rock set out to obliterate all these notions of "talent" corresponding to great music? Such visceral noise, regardless of musical abilities, has its own special power. And dicking around is certainly not something to accuse the Markers of; their caterwauling has the urgency of their life depending on every shard of feedback reverberating as powerfully as allowable. And honestly, if No Wave was a reaction against punk becoming too conservative, what better time for a band like the Markers than during the commodification of every possible underground musical movement? Rock 'n' roll is becoming more and more lifeless with every passing month, which is why we need bands like the Magik Markers more than ever.
1. White Bikini
2. My Sweet
3. Hero For Our Times Pt. 1
4. Hero For Our Times Pt. 2
5. Creaking Jesus
6. Just A Child
7. Fuck You
1998: Edgard Varèse - Edgard Varèse: The Complete Works
Edgard Varèse once said, "I refuse to submit to sounds that have already been heard." Asserted early in his musical career, this bold statement anticipates the narrative of Varèse's musical life, eleven words that would come to haunt and drive his musical ambitions. The musical world, however, was not ready for such iconoclastic ambition. In 1923, Varèse wrote "Hyperprism," a daring composition making use of new musical instruments with an emphasis on percussion -- it caused a riot. Years later, Varèse wrote "Ionisation," another percussion-heavy composition declaring to the world the siren is just as viable a musical instrument as the piano.
Varèse eventually began yearning for more and announced this desire in written-form with his manifesto, "The Liberation of Sound." In the manifesto, Varèse dreamt of "liberation from the arbitrary paralyzing tempered system." Demanding an unlimited palette of sounds, infinite numbers of scales, high and low registers virtually impossible to attain, he believed composers were still "obsessed" by traditions only serving to limit the composer. In short, Varèse wanted something technology at the time could not provide him.
Throughout the rest of his life, Varèse would pursue sounds he felt were indicative of liberation. It was not until the age of 71 (after a period of stagnation in composing and failed attempts at setting up an electronic music research lab with Bell Telephone) that Varèse really began to get the ball rolling, mainly due to technological advancements occurring in France and Germany around WWII, specifically, the magnetic tape. After composing a collage of taped sounds called "Déserts" (which, like past work, produced an angry reaction at its premiere), Varèse finally had technology that could generate the sounds he sought and allowed him to write his masterpiece: "Poème électronique."
Unlike earlier compositions mentioned, "Poème électronique" is entirely electronic. Starting with a sonic explosion, the track continues arrhythmically and atonally, using various sound textures and sound sources. Varèse masterfully blends electronically-generated sounds and pre-recorded noise from real life (singing, trains, snare drum, etc), superimposing disparate elements that confound rather than comfort, creating a dizzying, ambiguous array of noises exploring stark dynamic shifts and defying expectations. The listener is unable to predict any element of the music and fails to reach an emotional connection with its emphasis on atonality and unpredictability.
The music alone isn't enough to fully appreciate its significance in the history of music. Written for a 1958 exhibition at the Brussels World Fair, "Poème électronique" not only eschews tonality, harmony, and melody (a battle fought by early modernists, such as Schoenberg and Webern), but also deconstructs rhythm and sonority, elements that the second phase of modernists fought against. The result is a complete annihilation of the traditional forms he attacked early on with his precocious manifesto. Like the Abstract Expressionists in visual art, Varèse abstracted music in a manner resulting in a whole new level of communication, mounting a battle against all previous musical forms and musical archetypes with the nearly limitless possibilities of electronically-generated music.
Sadly, Varèse's "Poème électronique" turned out to be his swan song. Although he intended to "make up for lost time" with the recent technological advancements, Varèse died on November 6th, 1965. Luckily Varèse's work was given much needed reappraisal in 1998, when London released Edgard Varèse: The Complete Works. Performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Asko Ensemble, and director Riccardo Chailly, and assembled with the assistance of Chou Wen-Chung (who worked with Varèse), Varèse's complete discography fits wonderfully on two quality discs. Anyone interested in modern electronic music would be hard pressed not to seek out this release. Edgard Varèse is the undisputed father of electronic music, and it's about time everyone found out why.