2008: Big Dipper - Supercluster
Comparisons are funny, aren't they? Some bands can't escape them, no matter how hard they try. They can even break up for several years, reunite, then release a retrospective compilation and still come back to the same tired metaphors. It seems that finding commentary on Big Dipper without some reference to R.E.M. is like trying to avoid porn while surfing the internet (face it buddy, it ain't gonna happen). So let's get it over with here, then: Big Dipper sound similar to R.E.M. in a sort of vague, ambivalent way (they share chiming, clean electric guitar sounds and some tempos, but that's about it).
Now, let's move on to the important stuff: this anthology. Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology is a delicately assembled 49-track collection of the group's best pop gems in a tidy 3CD set by Merge Records. Giving up the music industry ghost back in ’92 after releasing a commercially unsuccessful effort in Slam on the Epic label, the Boston quartet's experience has obviously retained a bit of its original bitter taste, as only "Life Inside The Cemetery" appears on the Supercluster compilation (a tiny 2% of the anthology doesn't show a great deal of faith in their past product).
There are more than enough good reasons on Supercluster to justify its existence, however. Completists can bask in the knowledge that all of Big Dipper's late-’80s records for now-defunct label Homestead are included (Boo-Boo (1987), Heavens (1988), and Craps (1989)) in a shiny, remastered form. Meanwhile, obscurists can celebrate the debut of 15 previously unreleased tracks, an unreleased album titled A Very Loud Array, recorded after Slam silently flopped.
Big Dipper's charm was in their jangly pop-rock sensibilities laid over steady drum rolls; cuts like "Man O'War," "Meet The Witch," and "She's Fetching" are infectiously catchy riff-based college rock that surely inspired countless great Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. songs. There are plenty of hooky standouts amongst the crew of newly unveiled cuts, too: "Wake Up The King," "Lifetime Achievement Award," and the tinny but wonderfully harmony-drenched swan song "Beginning of the End."
Supercluster's bottom line is that even the worst Peter Buck reference couldn't hold this set down. If you can excuse the slightly dodgy album design, Supercluster has all the makings of any well-executed anthology -- complete sets of great songs, insightful liner notes, and a large number of high-quality unreleased tracks. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to avoid porn on the internet. Wish me luck.
1992: Diamond & The Psychotic Neurotics - Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop
Looking back, 1992 was a banner year for New York hip-hop. Actually, scratch that. 1992 was a banner year for hip-hop, period. Aside from stone-cold East Coast classics from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Gang Starr and Show & A.G., the West Coast was blowing up with Dre’s The Chronic, Cube’s The Predator and to a lesser extent, The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Maybe it’s just nostalgia kicking in --as it often does for music fans-- but these seemed like simpler times, when all that really mattered were fresh beats and dope rhymes. Sure, The Chronic and The Predator aren’t exactly the lightest fare, but when compared to the bleakness developed in the following years due to thug posturing and bi-coastal feuds, these albums sound positively giddy.
Amid this G-Funk era, unobtrusive New York producer/rapper Diamond D dropped what many consider to be the holy grail of underground hip-hop. Madlib sampled Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop extensively on Quasimoto’s The Unseen (another underground classic), so if you took as long to come around as I did, you’ll recognize pieces of at least four tracks here. This is not to say that the album is particularly rare, but for some reason it continues to remain unrecognized by all but the hip-hop faithful as the masterpiece it is.
There’s really no explanation for why Stunts wasn’t a hit. Regardless, nothing can take away from its unbelievably cohesive production and Diamond’s rhyme-for-the-sake-of-rhyme spitting; which he explains as concisely as possible in “Check One, Two," claiming, “My style is dope even though it’s simplistic.” The vocals here are not deep, even by Diamond’s own admission. But that doesn’t mean they’re wack. Far from it, in fact—they’re all the better for it, giving the proceedings a relaxed feel on par with the best of Tribe’s output. Perhaps the album's only example of a song with an overarching theme is “Sally Got A One Track Mind,” the tale of a young groupie who’s only out for the dough. The song was an obvious single, displaying one of hip-hop’s all-time illest bass lines; a snaky, hypnotic sample so fluid and engaging it hardly needs the accompanying drum loop. In a lot of ways, Stunts is like Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2—a record filled with spectacular beats that perfectly weave together, utilizing vocals simply as another instrument to work with.
Ironically, there’s more vocal talent on the album than just about any other release of ‘92, in spite of its reduced role next to Diamond’s sparse, funky and jazz-inflected productions. Guests include his legendary D.I.T.C cohorts—a pre-bling Fat Joe (yeah, he was dope once), the unheralded Big L, and Showbiz, as well as Lord Jamar and Sadat X from Brand Nubian—all of whom would arguably gain more notoriety than Diamond in the future.
So the question remains: why the fuck did Stunts never get it’s due? While it’s possible that Diamond never truly desired fame over street cred (which he definitely doesn’t have to worry about), it could be suggested that the man said it best himself on somebody else’s track. Rapping the last verse on “Show Business” from A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Diamond prophetically notes, “It’s not that easy/You gotta get a label/That’s willing and able/To market and promote/And you better hope/That the product is dope.” Judging from Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop, it couldn’t be more difficult to make a hit, even when the product is beyond dope.
1977: Brian Eno - Before and After Science
From his work ‘treating’ the sounds of his band mates in Roxy Music onwards, Brian Eno has made a career of challenging the notion that musician is synonymous with instrumentalist, and nowhere in his discography is this challenge more explicitly stated than in his 1977 LP Before and After Science. Not an instrumental virtuoso by any means, Eno is more regarded for his compositional techniques and mixing skills. Fittingly, the science in question is undoubtedly the science of audio recording - a field in which Eno possesses a Copernican level of mastery. The titular concept is manifest throughout the album. Its first half boasts complex arrangements and sonic textures that could only have been achieved after the advent of overdubbing, synthesizers, and the like, while the second half features simpler, relatively direct music that could have been created before the recording process became so technical. In 1977, this was something of a trend for Eno, as later that year, he and David Bowie would take a similar approach to track sequencing on Bowie's Low.
Although Science may sound more intellectually stimulating than fun, Eno manages to blend the conceptual rigor of his compositional techniques with an equally strong sense of playfulness. You'll be amused by lyrics like “the logistics and heuristics of the mystics” before marveling at Eno's ability to construct a narrative out of such strained rhymes. Likewise, “King's Lead Hat” is by far the catchiest track on the LP, even before realizing Eno is tipping his hat to the Talking Heads through the song's anagrammed title and martial rhythm. The album eventually winds down to a gentler pace, though the listener's interest never does. Instead, as things get quieter there is a better chance to appreciate the subtleties of Eno's songwriting. “By This River” boasts an achingly pretty melody, while “Spider and I” closes the album with a lyrical sensibility that recalls Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd.
Songwriting truly is the greatest strength of Before and After Science. When it comes to intellectualism, Eno can theorize about music and the artistic process as well as anyone, but he ensures that the cognitive aspect of his craft doesn't interfere with the music's ability to entertain. Sadly, Eno essentially abandoned lyricism and the concision of pop music for a while after Science, focusing instead on ambient music and production work for other artists. Although his other artistic pursuits have taken him on divergent paths, this album is not only one of the best albums in Eno's catalog, but of the 1970s as a whole.
1989: The Frogs - It’s Only Right and Natural
What does it mean to record a “gay” album? When I first learned of The Frogs’ 1989 underground pseudo-classic, It’s Only Right and Natural, I consistently read about it being one of the few records that could be properly called “gay.” After giving the LP a listen, I no longer questioned why so many have described this music as gay or novel or lewd or shocking or homophobic or terrible. But I disagree with the applicability of most of these to a record that circumvents so many topical and lyrical conventions. If I had to force It’s Only Right and Natural into the prison of a single adjective, I’d call it refreshing. This is a record that compels attention and polarizes both actual and potential listeners so violently that I’m reminded of why I love art and why the explosion of punk in the late ’70s was so very important for recapturing the “fuck you” swagger in music, highlighted previously by Elvis’s mythical pelvis and Velvet songs about drugs, whores, and more drugs.
The moment the Flemion brothers start in with the opening words of “I’ve Got Drugs (Out of the Mist),” you’re apprised of the over-the-top nature of the recording. Though this first track is one of the few without a vulgar homosexual narrative, it’s perhaps equally absurd in its treatment of drug culture. But it’s these gay narratives that garner all the attention and provide a unifying theme running from beginning to end. With songs like “Homos,” “Dykes We Are,” and “These Are the Finest Queen Boys (I’ve Ever Seen),” The Frogs aren’t pulling any punches, and they hammer away at exaggerated expositions on gay culture with a tongue-and-cheek humor that accomplishes that rare feat of being at once ridiculous and poignant.
It’s Only Right and Natural also strikes at religion with “Gather ‘Round for Savior #2” and, not content with a song so mild as to just address the topic of drug use, the opener includes the line, “Fucking priest with a yeast infection.” Indeed. Then there’s “Baby Greaser George,” a cut tracing a gruesome sexual encounter that can be deduced from the title. It’s altogether awful and offensive and striking and taboo. And this seems to be the point here: regardless of what subjects the brothers Flemion deem worthy of their lo-fi folk aesthetic, none are handled conservatively, and all are sewn from the same cloth handled by 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, and others who have composed their material with an eye to the censors. It’s probably not by coincidence that all these bands were at their best and most appalling at around the same time, in an era where explicit content in popular music resonated with ferocity in the media and amongst political elites. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t good. On the contrary, some of the early Geto Boys LPs border on classic status, and It’s Only Right and Natural is a brilliant middle finger wrapped in skeletal acoustics that nearly make you wish the band would have recorded a companion piece with a more traditional lyrical approach. It’s all just so raw and visceral and evocative and fun.
But you can’t really wish for anything other than what this record is, or else you’d be bargaining for something so very different as to void all meaningful comparison. The lyrics are such an immense part of this record and are so childishly clever and able to generate a what-the-fuck reaction that quickly merges with an appreciation for what The Frogs are doing here. And what they’re doing is whatever they feel like doing, and that’s something that should be cherished in a society that still insists on separating profanity from television. The tunes are pretty damn good, too.
1990: The Flatlanders - More a Legend Than a Band
Quick, who is the most important influence on the genre known as 'alt-country'? Gram Parsons, you say? That would be the stock answer for many, including a majority around the Tiny Mix Tapes office. Call me sacrilegious, but ol' Gram's music doesn't really do much for me. Sure, he has one of those great rock and roll biographies, hippie-cowboy-OD'd-in-the-desert and all -- but yeah, not really feeling it. So whenever somebody starts waxing poetic about Gram, I just calmly say, "I like The Flatlanders better."
Coming straight outta Lubbock with hardly a whimper in 1972, The Flatlanders put out an album (on 8-track, no less) that could pretty much only be found at truck stops in the deep South, where nobody noticed them. The members went their separate ways by the end of the year, and three of them went on to become some of the most revered singer-songwriters this side of Townes Van Zandt in the Texas underground: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock.
The songs on this compilation resemble what it must be like to stew your creative juices in the windswept isolation of the West Texas panhandle. There is the high, lonesome sound of classic country with the faint impression of a fiddle swing band on a celebratory Friday night, dancing with your sweetheart at an edge-of-town roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. But there's also the sweet smell of reefer hanging in the air. It's a mixture of conservative cowboy hats in Chevy trucks and pie-eyed freaks in a DayGlo microbus. And the best part: some dude plays a saw!
The music coming out of Nashville in the early '70s was glossy and slick. The outlaw movement led by Willie, Waylon, and the rest had yet to give a swift kick to the nethers of the behemoths dictating the era's country music scene. I have to imagine that these offbeat songs induced looks of disgust on the faces of pop-country listeners back then -- the few that heard them, anyway. Too old-timey, too weird. There is even a Hindu devotional song, for crying out loud, and that just isn't something a good, God-fearing, patriotic American listens to. That is the territory of those addle-minded heathens out in San Francisco who burn flags with Hanoi Jane. And did I mention that some dude plays a saw?
The Flatlanders were coming up with lyrics inspired by Townes Van Zandt that just weren't heard in country music back then. They had more in common lyrically with the singer-songwriters from the FM dial, yet their sound was very much rooted in traditional country. Rock bands such as The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead had incorporated country influences in their music for the urban hipsters already, but that was music coming from city slickers. The Flatlanders were reared in the land of country, giving them more authenticity in my opinion than some urbanite wannabe with a pedal steel, and thus are one of the pioneers of a genuine alternative in country music. And some dude plays a saw!
1980: The Soft Boys - Underwater Moonlight
College rock begins here, with Robyn Hitchcock and The Soft Boys. These guys were a riot. Didn’t have an original idea in their heads. Lyrics were gross. Couldn’t hack it with the punks ’cause they couldn’t leggo the Byrds riffs, but they sure did a mean “Mystery Train.” Gave Cambridge a jostle in the late ’70s, then gave up. Donated a guitarist to Katrina and the Waves.
Underwater Moonlight is the better of the only two ‘real’ records The Soft Boys ever made, a sprawling amalgam of punk, pop, psychedelia, and Hitchcock’s own sicko vision. The Boys sang, often in fiery yet immaculate three-part harmonies, of love and war and sex and death and things that go bump in the night, always with a keen sense of ironic detachment (or so you hoped). Close scrutiny of the lyrics results in scrunched-up noses; this is the same expression I have seen on the faces of unwillings exposed to Ween or The Flaming Lips.
If Moonlight now sounds somewhat dated, the songs are not to blame. The album was recorded all wrong -- the production is a bit suffocating, reminiscent of what John Cale did to The Stooges. Fortunately, the 2001 Matador reissue added an entire disc of dusty studio tapes (more than a little crud, but the best moments -- “She Wears My Hair,” “Goodbye Maurice or Steve,” and the awesome take on Roxy’s “Over You” -- are looser and fuller than anything that made the record).
I’ll admit it -- I’m a sucker for melody, certainly something indie rock has delivered more consistently than has That Other Stuff. You can draw a line from The Soft Boys to R.E.M. to Pavement to Modest Mouse to Tapes ’n’ Tapes -- all catchier than anything the kids are dancing to today. But in the words of Louis Armstrong, “There are some people, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.” That, to me, is what indie rock is really all about. We know we’re right. Certainly, The Soft Boys knew. “They say I’m weird,” sang Hitchcock, “but cleanliness of the soul is more important, don’t you think?”