1994: Bedhead - “Bedside Table”
About a year before I started University, I had a sort of musical obsession — I wanted to hear as many bands on the Touch & Go/Quarterstick roster as I could. Lucky for me, this wasn’t too difficult; one of the record stores I went to each week had a distribution deal with Touch & Go, which kept the store packed with cheap, interesting records to choose from. This was probably how I found a pair of Bedhead LPs in the store, several years after even the reissues had gone out of print. One day I bought both records with no expectations beyond some vague notion of this thing called “slowcore.” Listening to What Fun Life Was later that evening, I was floored. This unassuming and totally plain-looking record contained some of the most beautiful guitar music I’d ever heard.
However, the sequential pairing of “Bedside Table” and “The Unpredictable Landlord” made me suspicious of the whole “slowcore” thing. I remember thinking that, between “slowcore” and the band’s name, Bedhead might sound dreary, but these two tracks proved the opposite — the latter is a relatively upbeat, possibly even lively (albeit in a restrained sort of manner) track, and the former is a mixtape staple. Common to both is the guitar interplay of the brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane: whether hypnotically intertwined or melodically distinct, their shared guitar progressions always move forward instinctively. On “Bedside Table,” the song gradually progresses from a comfortable meander into a raucous outburst that crests with a cathartic moment of sustained feedback between both guitars; the progression is straightforward (quiet to loud), but the variation around it is refined and vaguely triumphant — in short, it’s easy to feel good about.
Bedhead could hardly be considered extroverted, but songs like “Bedside Table” displayed a refined and sharply focused style that was ever so slightly livelier than their name would suggest. Furthermore, the band’s understated nature makes much of their discography difficult to absorb quickly, which is why I find them worth listening to every year. But “Bedside Table” — that song instantly became a favorite, and it did so in such an unassuming manner. It’s easy to sometimes miss this kind of comforting subtlety.
1983: Angst - Angst 12”
For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about Angst — the oft forgotten SST post-punk band from Boulder, Colorado. 1986’s Mending Wall is my favorite album from them. It contains “(Some Things) I Can’t Get Used To” which was covered by Frank Black, who cited Angst as a major influence. It’s got some other great songs — “I’d Rather Sleep,” “127 Years,” “One by One.”
That seems to be the cliched music-crit culmination where a band becomes comfortable in their own skin for the first time. They find their sound. But isn’t it okay to really enjoy the records before a band finds its comfort zone? Hence, the debut 12 inch.
Angst’s core (brothers Joseph Pope and Jon E. Risk) had no punk scene in 1979 Colorado so they moved to England. With no success there, they moved to California, formed Angst, and started to get noticed. Urinals/100 Flowers bassist John Talley Jones offered to record them and put out their record on his DIY Happy Squid label. The debut would be re-released 3 years later in 1986 by SST.
“Neil Armstrong” is the bonafide classic from the debut. “Nancy,” about Nancy Reagan and oral copulation, is close behind. “Die Fighting,” “Pig,” and “We Only Rot” tackled typical punk tropes — anti-war, cops, death.
The record was released alongside Black Flag and the rest of the earliest traditional-hardcore SST catalog. While Angst’s lyrics and song lengths might have been similar, the sonic approach of the band really couldn’t be further away from the type of music found on those more-traditional early SST hardcore records. Instead, garage and psych influences are fairly transparent. These influences would be further drawn out in their later work, like Mending Wall, but I think it’s worth appreciating how they sounded before they fully realized what they wanted to be. The results are an improbably near-perfect drugged out country hardcore record with catchy hooks, hazy choruses, and clean chunky guitar tones.
1974: Creme Soda - “Keep It Heavy”
And so it was that in 1972, four affable dudes from Milwaukee started playing together as Creme Soda. They were inspired by “the sky, the clouds, the mountains, and the depth of beauty,” and also a love of West Coast psych-pop of the late 1960s. Two years later, they relocated to the sleepy town of Sturgeon Bay and recorded enough material for two 45s, which were released in quick succession on Trinity Records, a vanity enterprise devoted solely to releasing records by Creme Soda. Trinity had a cool eye-inside-a-triangle logo, and the next year, the label put out its third and final disc, a long player entitled Tricky Zingers. After that, Creme Soda disappeared off the face of this earth, never to be heard from again.
All of the tunes are good, especially “(I’m) Chewin’ Gum,” a wigged-out wad of bratty, rockabilly-copping proto-punk. But best of all is “Keep It Heavy,” with its spooky harmonies, colloquial mantra, and passively mindblowing lead break. Its got a time-warp quality to it, opening up some kind of eternal dudescape frequency that exists everywhere at once, and can be tuned in at will with the right mix of Old Milwaukee and Sturgeon Bay skunk. Creme Soda may be gone, but their imperative reaches through the ages, urging us to keep it heavy no matter the cost, and it’s nice to imagine that the world is a slightly heavier place for it.
2006: Warmer Milks - Radish on Light
Illness in music. Can music be sick? I don’t know of a better way to describe Warmer Milk’s debut LP Radish on Light than to say it caught something; something wrong, something awesomely wrong. The sickly feelings are present from the moment “In The Fields” stumbles on until the hum of the title track’s drone fades out. Instruments grasp in vain for moments of togetherness and they happen spontaneously but only for short periods of time before they collapse and permutate into another thing altogether. This is by all means a “jam” record, but not one to drop out to. The out of tune guitars coalescing, seemingly “off” in terms of tonality, play off one another like an evil Grateful Dead intent on giving their audience a terrible trip.
The “wrong” sound of Radish on Light is it’s most alluring quality. “The Shark” is downright nightmarish despite being the closest thing to a “normal” song on the album – it sounds like the musical equivalent of being chased by a madman. Micheal Turner’s deranged vocals aren’t going to dispel any discomfort you may feel while listening. Warmer Milks maintain their sickly sound throughout the album, with a very brief foray into 60s psychedelic rock meanderings in “Pentagram of Sores” before the droning monolithic title track finishes out the album.
1994: Brutal Truth - “Collapse”
Known for being one of the quintessential grindcore bands, it’s easy to think that all Brutal Truth’s best songs are driven by blast-beats. Listening to their discography with more than mere curiosity, you’ll find that they were also masters of the slow path.
“Collapse” opens what many consider their most celebrated albums, Need to Control, and it’s a five-minute doom song that lurches with one riff for most of its duration, taking the approach of Godflesh and making an evil, destructive, and heavy song just as intense as their faster and shorter songs.
The term grindcore, according to Mick Harris (the former drummer of Napalm Death) comes from listening to Swans and describing their sound as “grinding;” marrying it with the speed of envelope-pushing hardcore bands like D.R.I., Deep Wound, and Siege. Swans are an undeniable influence on “Collapse,” as well as on many other dirges that raise a depraved head in those noted albums from Napalm to Discordance Axis to Nasum to Robocop. It’s a slow and scrapping sound that contrasts and complements the fast and furious stuff to make it more poignant.
1988: Dinosaur Jr. - Bug
Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü. It’s safe to say that SST Records had the strongest lineup of the late 80s. These bands pushed the volume and intensity of guitar-rock to earsplitting heights, but none of them could quite pull of the face-melting, fuzz-drenched guitar freak-outs of SST label mates Dinosaur Jr.’s own J Mascis. After rising to the pinnacle of slacker apathy early in life, Mascis rounded up his high school buddies Lou Barlow and Murph to form Dinosaur Jr. in Amherst, Massachusetts. The original Dino Jr. lineup released three noisy and abrasive albums before clashing personalities split the trio. Bug, their last release before Barlow’s departure, stands toe-to-toe with 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me as early Dino Jr.’s high point, combing their most ferocious playing with surprisingly catchy melodies.
While You’re Living All Over Me opened with brutally painful guitar and screamed vocals, Bug’s opener, “Freak Scene,” starts with an instantly accessible riff and never veers into noisy territory. It’s obvious that Mascis chose to expand his repertoire between albums, and with this new direction he stumbled on a formula that made Dino Jr.’s music highly listenable without compromising their noise-punk roots.
More than 20 years later, Bug still has one of the strongest back halves of any indie rock record. With “Pond Song,” Mascis finally makes good on what he hinted at earlier in the record with a perfect combination of jangly guitar and tight melodies. It sounds like Doug Martsch was listening, because “Pond Song” has many elements that latter became Built To Spill staples. “Budge” speeds things up, sounding closer to straight punk than Dino Jr. usually comes, and has some great harmony singing from Lou and J. The album closer, “Don’t,” is a totally different monster than any other song on Bug or in the band’s lager catalog. The song is pure madness, with Mascis coaxing waves of feedback from his guitar and Barlow bellowing with such rage that he coughed blood after the recording session. If that’s not hardcore, I’m not sure what is.
After Bug, Barlow left to explore the world of lo-fi with the near equally awesome Sebadoh, and Murph and J stuck out a few more albums before J made Dino Jr. a solo project. With each subsequent release, the quality dropped off until 1997 when even J decided to call Dinosaur Jr. quits. With their reunion in 2005, the subsequent release of two solid new albums, and the recent reissue of their first three albums, Dinosaur Jr. is deservedly relevant again.