1980: Bobb Trimble - Iron Curtain Innocence / Harvest of Dreams
It may not be any consolation to Bobb Trimble, but almost 30 years after micro-releasing two albums, Iron Curtain Innocence and Harvest of Dreams, interest in his brand of psychedelic, outsider soft-pop is at a high watermark. You can blame fervent crate-diggers and proactive fans of unearthed classics all you want, but most interesting albums get their eventual due, even if they were initially released -- and bought -- in paltry numbers.
There are any number of reasons why Iron Curtain Innocence and Harvest of Dreams didn't make a bigger splash at the beginning of the 1980s: Trimble's predilection for working with pre-teen backing musicians left a sour taste in the mouths of Worcester booking agents, not to mention the young members' parents, who twice pulled their kids from the band. Moreover, Trimble's music isn't traditionally accessible; his voice can grate on the ears. He shares the high-pitched, lonely territory of T. Rex's Marc Bolan, Rush's Geddy Lee, and Nick Gilder (the dude who sang "Hot Child in the City" back in the late ’70s). This "too weird" vocal factor may be unsettling for some, but really, enough popular voices have strayed left-of-center to invalidate most complaints. Maybe success for Trimble just wasn't in the stars.
Regardless, the past is the past. After a long period that saw big sums of cash changing hands for Trimble's original vinyl, Secretly Canadian has resurrected the man for a new generation of oddball music lovers. Iron Curtain Innocence starts our hazy trip with the perfect introductory one-two punch of "Glass Menagerie Fantasies" and "Night at the Asylum." The former is a woozy waltz that takes a page out of Gary "Dream Weaver" Wright's cosmic wuss-rock book, but with more ideas and less studio help. Things turn fun on "Night at the Asylum" as Trimble sings, clipped and playful, over a truly bizarre pop song that uses sound manipulation and sampled voices throughout. Elsewhere are healthy dashes of world-ending melancholy, mystically delivered confessions, a couple of late-album ballads, frenzied guitar lines, and manipulated recording techniques. All of this fails to pull Iron Curtain Innocence even near classic-album territory, but it's a record with plenty of curious moments nevertheless.
Harvest of Dreams fares better than its predecessor; after the strangeness of Iron Curtain Innocence, it's a straighter-shooting missive, though both albums are cut from the same kinky cloth. And despite the hike in creativity, Trimble's trademark fatalistic approach to songwriting remains. Highlighted is a mish-mash of styles: traveling county fair ("Premonitions – The Fantasy"), effects-laden triumphs ("Armour of the Shroud"), troubled rants ("Selling Me Short While Stringing Me Long), and backward ("Oh Baby") and awkward ("The World I Left Behind" is 2:11 of silence) pauses. "Armour of the Shroud" in particular is a superb, simple track, incorporating lots of echoed vocals and trebly guitar and keys before a coda that sounds recorded in a sewer. "Take Me Home Vienna" features The Kidds (Trimble's first pre-teen backing band) in a rather lovely ramble with sly guitar and a chorus sung by Bobb and the children to nice effect. It's a shame that Harvest of Dreams is the last proper album Trimble would make, because it sounds like he's nearing some semblance of cohesion while still maintaining that odd edge unique to him alone.
Interestingly enough, The Beatles are referenced by Trimble himself on the sleeve notes for both Iron Curtain Innocence and Harvest of Dreams. Aside from a quote by Harrison and a spiritual tribute to the memory of Lennon, he calls out the band directly with "Dear John, Paul, George and Ringo, If I'm a good boy and work real hard, may I please be the 5th Beatle someday? Your friend, Bobb." Musically, he mines some of the fab four's views on psychedelia -- particularly the Magical Mystery Tour era -- but his vision differs greatly from his idols. Dylan too can be heard as an inspiration (listen to the stolen strum and harmonica wheeze in "Premonitions Boy – The Reality"), but where Dylan is more concerned with displaying cleverness through obtuse wordplay and hidden meaning, Trimble seems hell-bent on exercising the demons swimming around his skull.
The closest big-name relative to Trimble's musical odyssey may be post-Syd Pink Floyd (or post-Syd Syd Barrett), but he shares equal affinities with fringe characters like Michael Yonkers and Jandek, if not in sound then in spirit. One minute I think Iron Curtain Innocence's "One Mile from Heaven" textbooks the sound of Luna ten years early, the next I think I'm insane for entertaining such a thought (though I'd be willing to bet that one-time Massachusetter Dean Wareham has some Trimble in his record collection). If the "straight" part of "Oh Baby" was cleaned up a bit, it could be slotted into a Jon Spencer album without too much difficulty (even if it is sung by a Kidd). But I should stop trying so hard; Trimble is too unique a cat to be realistically compared to anyone that came before him, and he doesn't particularly sound like anything that came after these two doomed-to-fail records.
Genius makes its own rules. Madness gets rules foisted upon it. After listening to Iron Curtain Innocence / Harvest of Dreams, it's hard to determine which camp Bobb Trimble resides, if either. Hearing his fantastic tales with inside knowledge of the crushing reality surrounding their release makes for an uneasy experience, but a compelling one all the same. Maybe I am too sensitive to these things. Maybe Trimble was simply a man who knew full well he wasn't made for the ’80s, but he put himself out there anyway. He has now become a precursor to thousands of cracked and tortured singer-songwriters, even if they've never realized it.
Iron Curtain Innocence:
1. Glass Menagerie Fantasies
2. Night at the Asylum
3. When the Raven Calls
4. Your Little Pawn
5. One Mile from Heaven (short version)
6. Killed by the Hands of an Unknown Rock Starr
7. Through My Eyes (Hopeless as Hell: D.O.A.)
8. One Mile from Heaven (long version)
9. Glass Menagerie Fantasies (demo version)
10. Night as the Asylum (demo version)
11. When the Raven Calls (demo version)
Harvest of Dreams:
1. Premonitions – The Fantasy
2. If Words Were All I Had
3. The World I Left Behind
4. Armour of the Shroud
5. Premonitions Boy – The Reality
6. Take Me Home Vienna
7. Selling Me Short While Stringing Me Long
8. Oh Baby
10. Another Lonely Angel
11. Waves of Confusion in Puzzled Times (demo version)
12. Galilean Boy (demo version)
13. Life Is Like a Circle
1969: Gandalf - Gandalf
There are two general truths I hold to be self-evident. The first: there is no good reason why anyone should start a cover band, unless they need to support themselves by playing weddings, jazz brunches, or Bar Mitzvahs. Something that is already really good doesn’t need to be redone. The second: New Jersey is the armpit of America, and other than a few notable exceptions (The Boss, Palmolive, Princeton University), nothing all that smashing has ever come out of it. Surely there are those of you who will disagree. But even before Bruce Springsteen recognized Jersey pride as a kind of counterintuitive selling point, four teenagers from suburban Tenefly somehow managed to topple both of these "truths" in one fell swoop.
Gandalf, also known as The Rahgoos, were one of those garage line-ups that first saw the light of day in a high school detention hall, when guitarist Peter Sando met bassist Bob Muller in 1958. Though it's hard to imagine there being much of a market for a high school cover band over in the big city next door, New York has always been one of those places where just about anyone can find a home. For The Rahgoos, that home was the Night Owl, a cramped storefront-turned-mythic-rock-café where the likes of John Sebastian and his Lovin’ Spoonful and The Blues Magoos packed in to watch acoustic sets by James Taylor and The Flying Machine. The ragtag Night Owl family, including owner Joe Marra, toothless doorman “Jack the Rat,” Pepe the openly gay cook, and Annie, the four-letter-word-slinging head waitress, realized early on that The Rahgoos were much more than what they appeared to be on paper. Before long, the band linked up with Spoonful producers Charlie Koppelman and Don Rubin to sign a record deal with Capitol.
Though The Rahgoos dissolved before their record was ever released, what they left behind is probably one of the most visionary cover albums in the history of pop. Not “visionary” in the sense of re-invention (Easy Star All-Stars’ “Dub Side of the Moon” and “Radiodread” coming to mind), but “visionary” in the sense of re-investment, as though these songs -- songs we’ve already heard a hundred times before -- had suddenly become re-possessed by the ghosts of their true authors. The band changed their name to Gandalf and the Wizards in 1967; this moniker, discovered by drummer Davey Bauer while flipping through Tolkien’s The Hobbit between sets, gives us some idea of the fresh alpine air they would breathe into pop vocal standards like "Nature Boy," "Golden Earrings," and "Scarlet Ribbons".
Whenever I play Gandalf for friends, I like to ask them what color they see. Even if they haven’t seen the album’s orange sleeve, they almost invariably cite a color ranging between red and burnished gold. Gandalf is one of those albums that has an almost synesthetic effect on its listeners, filling every room which it's played with a kind of heavy, perfumed fog. Peter Sando’s wind-kissed, reverb-dripping tenor is perhaps most responsible for this effect. As though his psychic identification with these old love ballads were too strong to be confined within the songs themselves, Sando swoops up from under each melody and wrestles it into the air, blasting the chorus of “Golden Earrings” on track one into a wingspan over an autumnal mountain range.
Perhaps you have already guessed it: Gandalf is one sexy record. Fuzz guitar, Hammond B3, electric sitar, vibraphone, and chunky, equally reverb-saturated bass ground Sando’s voice in a kind of clipped, baroque accompaniment, voluptuous in its restraint. Spaciousness is definitely the defining feeling of the album, but all of its elements seem to be hanging on a single, taught string. Which is what makes Gandalf’s music all the more debilitating when that string finally breaks, and a song that started off as a whispered fairy-tale (“Nature Boy,” sung by Nat and Natalie King Cole in their day) gives way to a drum fill and a guitar howl.
While it may come as a bit of a surprise, not all of the songs on Gandalf are covers. The lovely “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone" and “I Watch the Moon,” the opener and closer of the second side, were penned by Peter Sando himself. I mention this as a closing note, but it shouldn't be taken as a fact that somehow “redeems” the record in terms of authorship and originality. Even without these two songs, Gandalf is about as genuine as an album can get -- its sound so distinctive and unified that it's hard to tell (or care) who wrote what. Sando and his buddies from Tenefly High School did more than just recast a bunch of old yarns within the psychedelic era; they made them theirs.
1. Golden Earrings
2. Hang on to a Dream
3. Never Too Far
4. Scarlet Ribbons
5. You Upset the Grace of Living
6. Can You Travel in the Dark Alone
7. Nature Boy
8. Tiffany Rings
9. Me About You
10. I Watch the Moon
2008: Wino - A Bottle Of Pills With a Bullet Chaser
Temporary Residence Limited, the now reputable purveyors of ‘post’-everything, was founded in Louisville, Kentucky in 1996. The first signing to the nascent label was Wino, a local noise-rock band with only a 7-inch to their name at the time. TRL went on to release several more 7-inches and one long-player from them, but the group disbanded in 1999, having undergone several personnel changes. After Wino’s dissolution, they seemingly faded into obscurity.
Recently, TRL released A Bottle Of Pills With a Bullet Chaser, the complete recorded output of the little band who, according to the press release, “inspired dozens of later Louisville bands.” Unfortunately, the amount and quality of the music presented here is largely unimpressive. Sure, in recent years, inexpensive home recording has skyrocketed in popularity, but even at the close of the century, having only created two hours worth of music in five years together (split among 36 songs) doesn’t quite merit a “Deluxe 2-disc set” or a compendium of any kind.
Wino didn’t really forge a sound of their own so much as assimilate aspects of popular bands of the ’90s. In nearly every song, singer Aaron Hodge’s wails and yells are muffled and buried deep in the mix, not unlike David Yow’s vocals on early Jesus Lizard albums. Most of the tracks are decent if not uninspired noise-rock songs, with overdriven bass lines, pounding drums, and cacophonous guitars. There are a few cuts that don’t adhere to the aesthetic at all; “Eon,” for instance, sounds nothing like any of the other 35 songs here, showing the group’s desire to expand creatively and push themselves. But immediately following it is “Fast Freddie,” a generic grungy punk number. Instead of hearing the results of a band following uninhibited creative impulse, we’re left with a whole lot of pretty basic guitar, drum, and bass work.
And it’s not like this band had a whole lot to say. Lyrically (from what I can discern), Hodge’s screams are about as profound as the brooding couplets scrawled into an angst-ridden high school student’s notebook cover. The absolute nadir of this collection can be heard on “Edward,” a track with (unintentionally) laughable vocals (at one point drenched in a chorus effect, the ’90s guitar staple), and lines as heinous as “Motherfucker, you’re so cool!/ Cause you drivin’ that BMW!/ Motherfucker!/ Motherfucker.”
It’s interesting to see just how far Temporary Residence Limited has come. There are many examples on A Bottle of Pills… that display the soft/loud dynamics and spidery guitar lines that the label would become known for. At best, the album serves as a curious document to contribute to the TRL archives and maybe even a collection that would have sufficed as a free (or maybe ‘pay-what-you-want’) download. Though this collection has a fair number of "good" tracks, there are far better noise rock bands from the ’90s more worthy of your two hours.
1. Dutch Oven
2. Red Wings
3. Yam Hand
7. One-Eyed Willie
8. Glass Blower
9. A Minute Fifty-One
10. Burn Down The Brick Factory
12. Attack Utopia
14. Fast Freddie
15. Make-Out Party
1. Mountain River
3. Winner Takes Nothing
5. Johnny Deeper
7. What The Paper Said
9. Truth Cigar
10. Spiked Heels And Leather
11. Blue Tree
12. Best Freind
13. Red Eye
15. Finish Line
18. In The Light
19. Best Friend
20. Dead Bird Fight
21. My House
1979: Yellow Magic Orchestra - Solid State Survivor
Like the majority of bands that first played with electronics, it's hard to discuss Yellow Magic Orchestra without referencing Kraftwerk. However, to combat the homogenization and simplification of modern music's trajectory, one must try. The Japanese group, hugely successful and still influential in their native country, had only minor hits in the Western world during their late 1970s, early 1980s heyday. They're probably more remembered nowadays as one of the first projects of Academy Award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (the 'Danny Elfman / Oingo Boingo complex'). Nevertheless, their music is worth reappraisal.
YMO's second album, Solid State Survivor, was released in 1979. Although they would release more ambitious (1981's Technodelic) and well-crafted (1983's Naughty Boys) works, it's here that their unique, left-field musical manifesto is best expressed. Indeed, despite the presence and implementation of mile-high stacks of synthesizers and other electronic gadgets, YMO's sound is rooted in composition and performance. Whereas their German counterparts were masters of minimalism, YMO layer and weave. The ‘robotik’ sound of other synth pioneers is tweaked with the inclusion of Sakamoto's classically-trained keyboard runs, Haruomi Hosono's bass stabs, and Yukihiro Takahashi's drum embellishments, as well as traditional Oriental instrumentation.
These contradictions are present on the album's most famous tracks: "Rydeen" is a giddy thrill of synth-pop bliss, with strong melodic lines performed like high-register wind instruments. This hyper consonance and carefree momentum is an unmistakable influence on early Japanese video game music. Equally, "Technopolis," for all its Technology TV Show Theme stylings, is importantly punctuated by a funky bass that rumbles and pops. "Behind the Mask," a psychologically paranoid ‘love song’ straight out of a Philip K. Dick short story ("Is it me/ Is it you/ Behind this mask?"), is almost sabotaged by Sakamoto's use of vocoder, which completely obscures his vocals. The song works -- though, the lack of a strong conventional vocal hook has given birth to horribly overwrought re-imaginings and covers of the song, the most successful of which was recorded by Eric Clapton during his mid-’80s Phil Collins period.
This sense that YMO are, at times, self-sabotaging their easiest bids for pop success is no more evident than on the cover of The Beatles' classic "Day Tripper." What is first a proto-hard rock song -- a prime candidate for the basic moog-and-arpeggiator makeover -- is transformed into an off-kilter mutant. It's almost post-punk in its convulsive rhythms and far ahead of its time in the use of intentional glitching. It could be one of the more prescient tracks on the album. Furthermore, the title track, placed right at the end of side two, is a straightforward New Wave song, containing the album's only full-bodied vocal performance from Yukihiro Takahashi. It comes off as a kinetic tribute to Roxy Music or David Bowie. Here, however, YMO show a mischievousness: the majority of the vocals are drowned out by scratchy, distorted samples in favor of, once again, an instrumental chorus hook.
Solid State Survivor presents all sides of its creator's complexity. YMO are at times synthetic, at times vital; they are frustrating, joyous; willingly accessible, yet defiantly stubborn. In the future, they would craft more one-dimensional, satisfying albums. Technodelic would take the experimental innovation to new depths, just as much as Naughty Boys would feature fully-fledged pop songs, with proper vocal performances from Takahashi to boot. Sakamoto would find better means of expression -- both in his solo compositions and in collaboration with other artists, such as David Sylvian, Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz (in a graceful, atmospheric mode represented here by "Castalia"). On this album, however, YMO display a smörgåsbord-like approach. They move away from Kraftwerk's clinical, futurist kitsch. Instead, they use the synthesizer as a composition aid. The result may not be as iconic as their Germanic contemporaries, but YMO's art shows a great deal more sophistication.
1996: The Kropotkins - The Kropotkins
Until Captain Beefheart’s brilliant Safe as Milk (1967), no one had paid such a respectful and original homage to the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, whose names narrowly escaped the contempt and neglect engendered by Jim Crow laws. The Kropotkins may have spent more time on the New York avant-garde scene than in Memphis’ smoky bars, but they all maintain a personal, often passionate tie to the blues and other musical traditions the region directly or indirectly engendered -- jazz and hip-hop, soul and funk; they may not all have been raised in the rural South, the historical birthplace of the genre, but they all are, in a way, children of the blues.
Such is the case for the The Kropotniks' instigator, Dave Soldier, an avant-garde composer and violinist -- also a psychology and neurology professor at Columbia University -- whose string quartet used to perform microtonal arrangements of Muddy Waters’ songs. Similarly rooted is Lorette Velvette (The Hellcats, Alluring Strange, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns) a Memphis singer with an entrancing voice, brought up in the school of blues and rockabilly. And don't forget Samm Bennett (Tom Cora, Elliott Sharp, John Zorn), a subtle drummer fond of free-jazz, who has spent a good deal of time traveling around West-Africa, studying the traditional rhythmic patterns brought by Africans to the New World.
Born from a New York meeting of musicians from various backgrounds, The Kropotkins is a collective with a rotating lineup, a project that materializes from time to time rather than being a "group" in the classic sense. Started in 1992, they have only released two albums since, one in 1996, the other, Five Points Crawl, in 2001. Two records whose grooves offer nuggets of the pleasant smell of the old South, the slowness of farm work, the frenzy of East St. Louis bars, and, above all, the dusty roads and sparkling railroad tracks, the throbbing trucks and rumbling freight trains, the inhospitable road stops and dubious motels; in a word, the immensity of the landscapes, which the band’s most compelling songs drive up and down at turbo speed.
“Cold Wet Steel,” “Shake ‘em on Down” and “Everdream,” opening songs on The Kropotkins’ self-titled album, explode the musical quarries that the band exploits. The first tune is a classic one, an accurate and jubilatory interpretation of the Delta blues' best moments. A simple and efficient bass line, tirelessly repeated, with a rhythmically bouncing banjo and a violin providing the typical instrumental response to the hot and cheeky Lorette Velvette, who casts a spell on her audience from the very first line. Nothing is lacking, save Otha Turner’s fife, which appears on the following song.
“Shake ‘em on Down” marks the next phase of The Kropotkins’ interpretive work; the homage to Mississippi Fred McDowell is obvious, but irreverent. The urgency of the vocals and the guitar slide responses evoke an image of a train flying at top speed, constantly on the verge of derailing. A discomfort accentuated by Jonathan Kane (February, Swans, Rhys Chatham) whose drum shuffle, far from being monotonous, follows the guitar in jolts, introducing a radically different dynamic that truly gives new flavor to the McDowell classic.
“Everdream” is the ultimate step in the transformation that The Kropotkins impose on the old-fashioned arrangement of their idols; hip-hop beats, industrial sounds, and electronic loops compete with the hegemony of the classical banjo, violin, and fife, musically illustrating the nightmarish visions recounted by Lorette Velvette (“Momma gonna milk you/ or kill you dead”). We have come full circle; the traditional sounds now cheerfully collide with the recent ones, proving that the road from Memphis to New York was long, but without too many potholes.
The record drifts from respectful covers to audacious interpretations, from songs that purr like a big engine (“Coal Black Wind”) to bravura pieces that offer the musicians, Mark Feldman (John Zorn, Arcado String Trio, Pharoah Sanders) in particular, a chance to express their virtuosity. But the music is always pretext. Pretext for Lorette Velvette and Samm Bennett, whose vocals, sung with tender or ironic tones, outline scenes from outdated places and times, sketching the timeless failings of their fellow man, taking part in the constitution and perpetuation of a specific idea in the American myth.
1997: Pavement - Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition
I’ve always felt that Brighten the Corners, Pavement’s penultimate album, was a record with an identity crisis, though of a different sort than the preceding, incredibly eclectic Wowee Zowee. On one hand, BtC was another step towards rock “maturity” -- more nuanced production, a greater degree of multi-tracking, less of the gawky warts-n-all approach that made Pavement easy to root for. On the other, with the benefit of hindsight comparisons to the later Terror Twilight, Brighten the Corners is downright rollicking.
Perhaps not coincidentally, BtC’s songs are even sequenced like an adolescent growing up. The record’s funnest tracks are its first few, the much-beloved “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” -- “Stereo” in particular is so canonized that one can find several YouTube videos of hipster parents’ toddlers singing it. “Date with IKEA” remains a great power-pop song, and the sardonic “Type Slowly” is a worthy ancestor of Terror Twilight’s “Spit on a Stranger” -- a twinkling, smirky gem of a tune that actually merits its five minutes. “Embassy Row” tacks a lackluster preamble onto a bona fide barnburner.
And depending on who you ask, “Embassy Row” is either the last worthwhile track on a Pavement record or simply the band’s last true rocker. Either way, it’s hard to argue that Brighten the Corners' second half is as strong as its first, which is as good as anything the band ever recorded. “Passat Dream” and “We are Underused” probably qualify as filler for Pavement, but for nearly any other band they’d be lead-single material. “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Fin” are pleasant enough, but together mostly represent an eight-and-a-half minute attempt to end the album.
If you’re reading this, though, you’ve likely already listened to Brighten the Corners and formed your own opinion. So what does Matador’s reissue -- dubbed the Nicene Creedence Edition” -- add? We’ve got the original album’s 12 songs, remastered (I can’t tell the difference, maybe you can). Then there’s another 31 tracks of B-sides, unreleased session material, and live songs to wade through, split over two discs. I’ll touch on some highlights:
- A jam session called “And Then (the Hexx)” that was apparently planned to be BtC’s first track. They made the right decision. (It appears in a different incarnation on Terror Twilight.)
- Three quality rockers from the “Stereo” single: “Westie Can Drum,” “Winner of the,” and “Birds in the Majic Industry.”
- A pair of lighthearted (if inessential) numbers from the “Spit on a Stranger” single: “Harness Your Hopes” and “Roll with the Wind” (the unreleased version of “Roll” is even better).
- An unfortunate honky-tonk two-step reinvention of “Type Slowly” (“Slowly Typed”).
- A cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” which old-timers might remember from the classic What’s Up Matador compilation
- KCRW, BBC, and Peel sessions whose collective highlights are the Peel session’s playful cuts of “Date with IKEA” and Wowee Zowee’s “Grave Architecture.”
- Two silly themes recorded for an appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast
And that’s about it. Pavement were primarily a pop band, and great pop bands are also good self-editors. Thus it stands to reason that a reissue that tacks on stuff that didn’t make the first cut (from a band that had just knocked out the sprawling Wowee Zowee) might not be consistent. With a couple of exceptions, the Nicene Creedence Edition is the least essential of Matador’s Pavement compilations. But even with this caveat, the package performs the service of reminding us how good Brighten the Corners still is -- it bats well above .500, and if it wins the original album any new listeners, Nicene more than validates its existence.