1993: The Blue Humans - Clear to Higher Time
“The Blue Humans” was essentially a name for improvised performances surrounding guitarist Rudolph Grey. Grey seems to favor the trio format on many of the Blue Humans recordings, with the Thurston Moore-produced Clear to Higher Time being no exception. Here, joined by guitarist Alan Licht and drummer Tom Surgal, the Blue Humans present 35 minutes of improvised “hey, you got your free-jazz in my no-wave; you got your no-wave in my free-jazz” madness!
Clear to Higher Time’s production is Ramones-ified (Licht panned to the right channel, Grey to the left), which makes for a rich (if assaulting) headphone listening experience. Licht’s work in the right channel is especially noteworthy on this outing; just slightly more restrained than Grey’s fast-running guitar scrapes, Licht more or less strangles his guitar into feedback-drenched submission, wasting little time not assaulting the instrument in some fashion.
“Movement” briefly recalls the orchestral guitar dissonance of early Glenn Branca before morphing into what could be considered a no-wave act suspended within a moment. Stretching out a pair of tension-swarmed chords, Licht and Grey gradually trade between violent towers of Branca-esque guitar movements while Surgal keeps everything trapped in a disorienting, time-slowing molasses. Then, on “Finally,” the trio lets loose, inverting the tension of “Movement” by playing everything loud and unrestrained.
Thankfully, Licht and Grey seem far more interested in building chunks of textured sound than “soloing” – not to suggest, however, that they spend time meandering with feedback echoes or pedals. With considerable aggression, the first half of the record shows the trio immediately bursting at the seams, like the Psychic Paramount bereft of recognizable patterns or a theoretical version of the Dead C performing Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun. Clear to Higher Time’s 20-minute title track, however, builds itself more deliberately; i.e., not “slowly” but in a more measured sense, boiling over with several sections of feedback, no-wave squall, and free-jazz exploration. Licht once described Clear to Higher Time as “a great no-wave meets free-jazz record,” and perhaps that’s all that needs to be said – captured in studio austerity (no applause or live noise between improvisations here), these performances are staggering and are worth hearing if you’re a fan of at least two of the names mentioned in this article.
1985: The Gerogerigegege - Gerogerigegege
If there’s one word to describe The Gerogerigegege it would be “incomprehensible.” Their albums always challenge their audience while perhaps poking a little fun. Tokyo Anal Dynamite consisted of 75 songs in roughly 40 minutes all beginning with the song title and a shouted “ONE TWO THREE FOUR!” while 1988’s Showa book-ended the Japanese National Anthem around a lengthy recording of two people having sex. These are perhaps minor when compared to the ridiculous stage presence of Juntaro Yamanouchi and Tetsuya Endoh, which would often involve full nudity, masturbation, cross dressing, and eating shit on stage. So with all that in mind it’s a little shocking to hear one of their earliest recordings, their self-titled in fact, and find something far different.
Gerogerigegege sounds like a perfect document of how Japanoise found its way in the 80s and eventually refined itself a decade later. This album reminds me of looking at a solar eclipse through a pinhole, or hearing a brutally loud concert from outside the venue. The noise feels removed, giving the sense of hearing something so overwhelming that we’re only making out a faint approximation. It never reaches the harsh peaks of Merzbow or Masonna, and instead achieves a haziness that borders on hypnotic. Rhythms, riffs, and the occasional distant screaming blur in and out of focus throughout these six lengthy tracks to create a constantly shifting soundscape. What can often be overlooked after all the craziness was that Juntaro (missing and presumed dead for nearly a decade now) had a tremendous stylistic range and this eponymous album is a testament to that.
1974-1977: Jack Ruby
Art rarely occurs in a complete vacuum – the work always comes from somewhere – but that being said, it’s hard to tell what precise aesthetic landscape spawned Jack Ruby. No-wave historian Weasel Walter sourced the group’s only existing tracks and released them in late 2011 on ugExplode as the first authorized disc of Jack Ruby music anywhere. Founded by guitarist/bassist Chris Gray and vocalist Robin Hall in Albany, 1973, upon moving to New York City they quickly became a quartet with drummer/keyboardist Randy Cohen and violinist Boris Policeband. One assumes the principal songwriters were weaned on records from the Velvet Underground, MC5, and The Stooges, but considering the 1974 date on their first known appearance, something else must’ve been in the water they were drinking.
“Hit and Run” sounds like a collision between Lou Reed and Crime in its snarling, glam-infused first minute before caterwauling; tinny guitar, electric violin, and synthesizer blend into glitchy noise atop a motorik Can-like beat. The whole thing predates Swell Maps’ A Trip to Marineville (Rough Trade, 1979) by several years (not to mention being unheard music an ocean away), though that’s perhaps the closest aural analog. From a few months later, Columbia studio recordings yield a trio (minus Policeband) that, on “Bored Stiff,” sounds like a power pop group got a hold of some Faust LPs. The scrawls of cheap, distorted guitar, and keyboard gloop across anthemic, Sparks-y piano and barely-kept time on “Sleep Cure” cement this compelling collision a bit further.
Jack Ruby lost Robin Hall and Randy Cohen by the time several 1977 rehearsal tracks were taped. The group was then made up of Gray, a drummer named “Nick,” and Contortions bassist George Scott. This particular trio sounds markedly tighter than on the earlier recordings, imbuing “Hit and Run” and “Bored Stiff” with a raw, sludgy punk energy and taut thrash. The set closes with an absolutely destroyed, frantic, and sweaty version of the Frankie Valli hit “Beggars Parade.” It’s interesting that this Jack Ruby had perfected its sound toward something aesthetically reined in, and with the band apparently not much of a going concern following Hall and Cohen’s departure, they also sound straight-arrow tight. However, there’s a certain audacity and charm to the earlier, hurled-at-the-wall pastiche recordings that make the 1974 dates a bit more unique and intriguing. Predating the all-in environment of no-wave by about five years, Jack Ruby’s aggressive weirdness was isolated, ahead of its time, and brilliant.
1977-1980: Joy Division - Substance
I don’t feel like counting right now, so I’ll go ahead and guesstimate that since Joy Division’s dissolution in 1980 there have been around a dozen compilation albums scraped together and shoved at fans. For those keeping score, that’s six times more releases than the band put out themselves, trumping even The Smiths’ fondness for repackaging their goodies every five or so years. These anthologies aren’t all bad by any means, but what baffles me is why after the near perfect Substance compilation, released in 1988, anyone has even bothered to try again.
Sure, there are always one or two unreleased tracks or mixes that emerge on each new compilation but what have they really added to the understanding of Joy Division as a band? Not much. At this point, each new rearrangement or repackaging is relying more on listeners buying further into the Ian Curtis mythology than on their interest in hearing a new side of the band, which, unless they unearth the secret Unknown Pleasures reggae mixes, I think we can all agree simply doesn’t exist. Hardcore fans might disagree with me, but the only Joy Division releases you will ever need are their studio LPs, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and the equally essential Substance.
Substance collects the bands first EP, a handful of tracks they contributed to Factory Records samplers, and their singles and B-sides into an almost flawless whole. These songs are so damn good, it’s hard to know where to start. Easily the strongest track from the An Ideal for Living EP is the smoking “No Love Lost,” which finds Ian Curtis singing in a totally different style than his famous baritone moan and the band generally just not sounding much like Joy Division. It’s a peppier punk sound than you might expect, but give it a chance cause it’s a great break from some of the mopier moments on the LP.
Next up is the double whammy of “Digital” and “Transmission,” and holy hell do these tracks bore their way into your skull. I’ve paired them together because of their shared structure of simply, ultra-catchy bass lines from Peter Hook coupled with violent guitar stabs from Bernard Sumner that build into haunting climaxes. As with most things Joy Division, it’s a spartan sound but one that is so effective because of (not in spite of) the empty space in each track.
Finally, there are the closing tracks “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “Love” is great and fairly well known, but I’ve always felt it holds a disproportionately high place in Joy Division’s catalog. The real star of the show is “Atmosphere:” four minutes of chilly keyboards, hammering drums that nearly steal the spotlight at the end, and one of the most somber and soul crushing performances Ian Curtis ever delivered.
Unfortunately, Substance is a bit hard to find on CD, so hopefully when the next inevitable round of Joy Division reissues rolls around someone has the sense to put it out on LP stat!
2009: Frank Fairfield
I don’t quite know what date to put for this post. Sure, Frank Fairfield’s first album was released in 2009 on the Tompkins Square record label. But after watching the film about him and seeing him play in person, I really have trouble putting a date on what Frank Fairfield does. His songs come from another century; they come from the earth. They toy with the whole concept of time. He’s an extremely talented musician, whether playing fiddle or banjo or guitar. With an impossibly earnest passion for the dusty traditional folk songs of old 45s and 78s and wax cylinders, he appears to be a simple man with a warm personality. But he also appears to be much more than that.
Discovered busking at a farmer’s market in California by a local musician and eventually handpicked by Fleet Foxes to open for them on tour, he’s since played festivals and theaters and various bills with independent folks acts. Anyone familiar with Tompkins Square can see the logical connection between Fairfield’s old-spirited folk persona and the label’s old folk/spiritual compilations and reissues. The self-titled album was a collection of songs dug up from his own archive of 78s dating back to the early 20th century. 2011’s Out on the Open West offers some of Frank’s own songs, though he is hesitant to call himself a songwriter.
His old-timey fashion, appearance, and demeanor is easily apparent. There’s the hair and the high waisted pants. There’s the ratty piece of string used as a strap on his 1931 banjo he picked up for $40. The worn fiddle bow with loose hairs flying about as he cradles the instrument in an unorthodox way. There’s even the single condenser mic he uses to simultaneously capture his tortured vocals along with his instrument.
What intrigues me most about the songs on his albums is that it’s clear they are folk songs played by someone who has worn out the genre of folk. The songs are old pairs of sneakers. They are beat up cars lying around in the yard. They’re sentimental; aged. His body of work unveils a profound love for the fact that these stories have been passed down through generations through music. It’s why the songs feel lived in when he plays them. You know he believes in them. You can hear it in the subtleties of the tempo changes and the variations of the central melodies. The songs have been played over and over again to the point that they are part of his life and part of his story. It’s clear Fairfield has spent a good deal of his 26 years collecting them and living in them, and it’s impossible to question his sincerity when he claims they are “popular” songs. Who are we to tell him that “popular” songs are not timeless?
2002: Sonic Youth - “Sympathy for the Strawberry”
‘Pleasant surprise’ is an inadequate phrase to describe the moment that decisively marks the drift between movements in some of Sonic Youth’s more experimental songs. I choose to use it, however, as a figure of rhetorical understatement, or litotes as it is technically called. All of us who write about music struggle with the problem of devaluing it by over-referencing the superlative. The problem when writing about music that you love is how to approach it from any other angle but the superlative. You could take the historical significance approach, but we all know that’s not what stamps ‘important’ on something, no matter how hard we try to rewrite music’s significance in hindsight (history belongs to the conquerors etc.). You could give the musical equivalent of the literary ‘close-reading’, by examining all the ways that this music is music. But that would be dry without some effort to convey what listening to this sound is like – the impossible feat of “dancing about architecture” that music writing tends to be.
So we settle for a compromise, most of the time, because there is really no right way to describe something that’s partly cultural, partly linguistic, partly mathematical, and partly emotional. Sonic Youth always struck me as happy in this amphibious realm: land-dwelling rock ‘n’ rollers who had half-crawled into the watery world of experimentation (see, for one thing, the beat-poet referencing NYC Ghosts and Flowers). Over the course of several not-half-bad albums, they staged reasonably impressive musical breakouts the way The Beatles used to pull stunts for photographers, as if they knew that being quite good gave them license to pull funny faces sometimes. Most of the time you got the impression that Sonic Youth were just concentrating on their music fairly hard – something would blossom as a sudden dreamy digression that would strike them, and they would follow that up.
But Sonic Youth’s moderate success lay in the way they crystallized these Jams into songs. They could make you remember the near imperceptible moment when the big boat they were steering started to turn around; they could make a miniscule twist sound like the dramatic bridge in a short pop song, as when Kim Gordon sings “Let me introduce you/ Since you saw my shadow self/ Living underneath you/ She can’t resist a tickle out/ I’m a girl scout,” in “Sympathy for the Strawberry.” This was unlike the free-jazz they referenced in that, as chaotic and drawn out as Sonic Youth songs could be, the changes did not dissolve into the whole, but left you craving the hook, the moment when the harmonics became subtly atonal, and the postmodern jags of Kim Gordon became insinuating and even menacing. There were many moments like these in Sonic Youth’s oeuvre, but “Sympathy for the Strawberry” was one that struck me over and over – without knowing quite why – as being one of the Youth’s most remarkably understated moments of musical innovation.