We can hardly control our own bodies, let alone our lives as a whole, yet we strive for control through logic and free-thinking, constantly reflecting on the “what ifs” that will never be. When emotions get involved, we start dwelling on how frustrating, unfair, and uncontrollable life can be. Brainiac are the epitome of this kind of frustration. They had a tragically unrecognized career marked by obscurity and death in spite of enormous talent, yet they represent the very principle that could break the cycle I just described once and for all: life would be better if we were all robots.
Rooted on territory built by Devo, Suicide, and The Screamers, Brainiac didn’t sound like any of those bands; in fact, they had a characteristic sound while never repeating themselves throughout their short but impeccable career. From the pop leanings of early singles and their debut, Smack Bunny Baby, to the less traditional Bonsai Superstar and the more desperate songwriting heard on Hissing Prigs of Static Couture, each approach was handled with skill and dexterity. Their use of keyboards culminated on their last release, the Electro-Shock for President EP, where we also hear a timbre slightly more somber than the rest of their output.
Brainiac’s appeal wasn’t just the use of Moogs and other synths, the guitar interplay between the late Tim Taylor and Michelle Bodine on their early stuff was quite inventive, and the rhythm section marched in a way that was both mechanical but faulty enough to suggest grooves without being traditionally funky. They may have relied on common instrumentation and forms, but they did so in a way few others bands have achieved. Perhaps this is why they weren’t as big in their time nor has their legend grown in subsequent years; they were, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, “…Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” Also too good for this world.
1992: Unrest - Imperial f.f.r.r.
How cool is it that Mark Robinson started Teenbeat Records by issuing cassettes of his band, Unrest, while attending high school in Arlington, VA? That both Unrest and the Teenbeat label expanded and became more than just obscure creative outlets for an enthusiastic teenager in the mid-80s is quite a joyful occurrence — it’s as if the Zit Remedy band of Degrassi High actually grew up to be cool musicians, and all their school-related negligence was justified by releasing quirky pop records.
Unrest’s records in the 80s were very scattered, even schizophrenic — Malcolm X Park (1988), for example, would shift with volatile abandon between the excitable guitar pop the band would later be most recognized for (e.g., “Christina”), fractured post-punk, jokes, acoustic strummers, and even rockabilly. This restless (and frankly, messy) style was gradually streamlined into a deceptively lean, remarkably hooky approach. By 1993’s Perfect Teeth, Robinson and co. were basically pop machines, pumping out energetic guitar-pop anthems for the indie crowd one after another. It’s 1992’s Imperial f.f.r.r., generally recognized as Unrest’s first cohesive pop album, however, that turns twenty this year.
Imperial f.f.r.r.’s 1-2-3 run of “Suki,” “Imperial,” and “I Do Believe You Are Blushing” is a nigh-perfect encapsulation of what I find so appealing about ‘90s guitar-based indie pop. These three songs are each wholly distinctive, with Robinson’s joyously expressive vocals and trademark guitar strumming on “Suki,” the fragile-yet-beautiful (and surprisingly stark, especially given its track placement so early in the album) “Imperial,” and the merger of bouncy instrumentation and vocal echoes of “Blushing.” Still, Unrest hadn’t smoothed out completely. As an album, Imperial still sprawls and is tough to pin down, but still shows how the band’s creative impulses were refined. Instead of jokey hard rock or garage clatter, the songs of Imperial become looser, more prone to hiccupping repetitions and decidedly un-pop digressions. It’s also worth noting the new presence of Ex-Velocity Girl bassist Bridgett Cross, especially on “June,” where she takes lead vocal duties.
Imperial f.f.r.r. isn’t free of faults (“Champion Nines” is a throwaway early 90s sampler transition), and many of its relatively skeletal songs could presumably fall flat in the hands of other musicians. Regardless, the album stands as a distinctive and, despite its status as one of the more iconic records in the Teenbeat catalogue, overlooked documents of vaguely grunge-era indie pop. To be more specific than “you mean records from real early in the 90s, right?”— it’s deceptively rich pop that’s often as winkingly self-aware as moments of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless; i.e., it’s educated and dissatisfied yet retains a sense of humour (the album is abbreviated for Full Frequency Range Recording). However, just before one might think of sifting Unrest off to the postmodern slacker bin, know that the album also contains the acoustic ballad “Isabel,” a moment of spacious pop vulnerability. This band has range.
Let me suggest that Imperial f.f.r.r. captures the shift of a creative band leaving behind restless irony for pop-weirdo assuredness. While admittedly of-its-time musically, when compared now to another new generation of self-aware, pop-culture archivist musicians, the album recalls the image of a creative enthusiast able to temper their own knowledge, excitement, and self-awareness into a confident album-long statement.
1997: Ryoji Ikeda - +/-
Forget microhouse; Ryoji Ikeda’s late 90s masterpiece +/- takes electronic music and examines it on an atomic level. Ikeda uses an incredibly small palette of sounds, many of them nearly beyond the range of human hearing, but the overall effect is hypnotic and physically arresting. There are moments on this album that have made me flinch in surprise; Ikeda draws his listeners in with swiftly repeating beats and establishes a powerful rhythm that makes a shift like the one from “+.” to “+..” all the more shocking.
Though usually listed as 10 tracks, +/- can really be considered three very different pieces. Tracks 1-3 comprise the 10-minute “Headphonics,” an especially groovy opening act to the more reserved title songs that span tracks 4-10. What it lacks in the catchiness and bass beats found on “Headphonics” the “+” section makes up for in sheer motorik intensity, while “-“ acts as the opposite – after the clipping beats of “+,” “-,” the longest section on the album, it provides the perfect come-down from the preceding intensity. The album moves into light speed here as the beats repeat so fast they destroy all sense of rhythm. It becomes one atmospheric unified sound, with a single metronomic beat present like a weakening pulse. The slow burning track builds up to a sort of climax in its final, longest section, until the seams begin to show and the piece breaks down.
In the coda, “+/-,” all that Ikeda leaves us with is a single sine wave, barely recognizable to the human ear. With the wave playing out for that last 60 seconds, it allows the album to end, yet the sounds still literally have a presence in the room. It gives the feeling of hearing something just out of your reach. Ikeda has said that most people really only notice the tone when it is gone. A note that only makes itself known through its absence is a beautiful idea, and Ikeda weaves these rare concepts and sounds into a unique and brilliant album.
1994: Pavement - Stuff Up The Cracks
It must be some sort of divine stroke of comedy that made Malkums’ reflection on the cover of Pavement’s bootleg compilation Stuff up the Cracks looks exactly like Steve Perry (or maybe I’m just seeing things). There’s a hilarious contrast between the hyper-produced, nauseatingly glossy soft rock that an image of Perry conjures up and the truth of the snarlingly ugly music hidden within. This is Pavement unhinged, captured in a way even their celebrated lo-fi masterpiece Slanted and Enchanted couldn’t quite pull off. With a combination of searing Peel session recordings, a few lost odds and ends, and some wild (and possibly recorded on an answering machine) live tracks, Stuff up the Cracks is THE document for experiencing early Pavement.
I guess the best place to start is the absolutely monstrous version of “Here” from the band’s first Peel session in June of 92. “Here,” in its original form, is one of the mellower songs in Pavement’s catalog, with a laid back chorus and nary a distorted guitar in sight. Live, Malkmus and company seemed to have forgotten to turn off their fuzz boxes, warping what was a classic indie singalong into mangled sheets of distortion. But it’s actually a bit of a revelation to hear the song like this, feeling the bite of the lyrics which were lost a bit in the original.
Then there’s my personal favorite from the same Peel session, “Circa 1762.” The song is a classic bit of Malkmus (a college history major) genius, incorporating historical word play along the lines of “Conduit for Sale!” into a raucous guitar freak-out. The song also has a nice back and forth between Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (I assume) that proves he can do more than scream wordlessly.
Finally, there’s the epic “List of Dorms” from the band’s second visit with John Peel in December of that same year. “List” is two simple parts: Malkmus bellowing “going home!” over a massive buildup and Malkmus shredding his vocal chords over a massive groove. It’s simple almost to the point of stupidity, but for me that’s the whole point of Pavement. It didn’t matter what the song was; Malkmus and gang never gave less than 100%, leaving us with recordings that still define the word “raw” two decades later.
1973: Paul Simon - “Kodachrome”
On his song “Kodachrome,” Paul Simon sings a very peculiar line that jumps out from the rest of his lyrics: “everything looks worse in black and white.”
What strikes me about those lyrics is that rock music, like many aspects of American culture, seems to be concerned with nostalgia, treasuring vivid personal memories and perhaps some that didn’t even happen in the first place. “Kodachrome” renounces these sentiments, preferring to look to the future and appreciate the present, at least when comparing it to the past. Paul also one-ups the sentiment by specifying that the photos in question are in “black and white,” assuring us he’s talking about his childhood and (more importantly) teenage years – or the golden years, according to parents and movies.
Of course, when lyrics refer to photographs, they usual talk about yearning for better days gone by, but Simon prefers to capture today – the bright colors, the “greens of summer.” He does a great job writing a song about “right now” instead of the good ol’ times. To me, it seems like something harder to write about since not many dare to do it.
When Simon played “Kodachrome” live during his big post-Graceland resurgence, he changed the line to “everything looks better in black and white,” proving that very few people are strong enough to avoid being punched by the feeling of nostalgia. After all, to yearn is human.
1985-1990: Model 500 - Classics
It is a valid argument that most popular electronic music – in clubs and on the radio – can be traced back to techno, the creation of which can be credited to three high school friends. With an equal appreciation for the club music of the time and artists like Kraftwerk, these kids became immortalized as powerful innovators: The Belleville Three. This is a famous story, and one that you might already know.
What many do not know is where to find an entry point when checking out Detroit techno. Enter Model 500, a moniker for Juan Atkins, that features some of the earliest techno releases going back to ’85. His compilation Classics is exactly what the title implies. A compilation is perhaps the best way to appreciate techno as it’s not typically a genre with strength in the album form*. Furthermore, the great tradition of remixing and reinterpreting is present on this compilation from the start, and the record is improved from having these alternate and at times superior mixes.
Electronic music is often stigmatized as having a shelf-life like milk. Some trends from just a few years ago are already dated, yet Classics still sounds fresh. Sure, it doesn’t sound like it came out last week, but I would argue that many listeners would be shocked to hear that some of these songs are over a quarter century old. The pounding build up of “Off to Battle” and the robotic grind of “Night Drive” – where Atkins wears his Kraftwerk influence proudly on his sleeve – are still just as engaging and rhythmically infectious as they have always been. This is one of the special electronic albums like Trans Europe Express, Music Has the Right to Children, and Untrue, that sounds timeless.
[*An exception could be made for Carl Craig who worked wonderfully in long form and is a sort the virtuoso Robert Johnson to Atkins’ originating Charlie Patton.]