2004: Converge - “Last Light”
Boston’s finest group of earth-scorchers named their 2006 album No Heroes because they felt that there were more cowards than noble, admirable people nowadays; they especially felt that hardcore music had turned into the land of sheep who wouldn’t dare raise their voices and express a different opinion than the majority.
During the 90s, when Converge first emerged, hardcore bands took hard stances concerning their ideas, be it straight edge, veganism, animal rights, religion, liberty, and so forth. They would dedicate their entire oeuvre to these subjects because they believed fervently in them. They would play benefits for the causes of their choice and talk about them incessantly in interviews and between songs to the point of being accused of “preaching.”
Converge are not really known to have a particular cause they defend in their lyrics. The band members are straight edge but they hardly mention it; in fact, you can’t really tell what their lives and beliefs are from a cursory listen. Reading their lyrics about sorrow, regret, and broken feelings brings to mind themes that are more common in emotionally based bands, yet a song like “Last Light” shows that, while their politics are personal, they certainly take a stand that tries to reach the listener and get him or her involved in what they are saying: to be honest and sensible with yourself and have that honesty rule your world to make it better; to accept love as an anchor; to live life the best you can and to confront negativity, never to wallow in it.
This is why they are a hardcore band and the reason the crowds sing along with Jacob Bannon, pointing their fingers, blood curdling over their vocal chords. It’s the most basic of causes that they defend, the cause of one self.
1991: Pixies - “Trompe Le Monde”
Somehow I’ve been a latecomer to my required duty as a college educated white guy to love the Pixies. But in the last year I sucked it up, bought all their records, and decided there was definitely something to this humble four-piece band that just happened to invent 90s music with their first two albums. And yes, these two albums are definitely my favorites. Surfer Rosa is the epitome of rocking out with reckless abandon and the first side of Doolittle is packed with anthemic tracks that weasel their way into your brain for the rest of your life… dun dun dun. Though the band’s next two albums aren’t as fondly remembered, I’m here to tell you (because I’m sure you’ve been waiting for my opinion for the last 20 years) that they still kick serious amounts of ass, probably more ass than most bands besides the Pixies could handle.
There are some really amazing songs on these records, my favorite of which is the title track from 1991’s Trompe le Monde. “Trompe le Monde” is the sound of a band rallying, coming together one last time to finish off their legacy with real purpose and strength. It might also be the most jam-packed two minutes of music outside of a Wire song. There are tempo pushes, epic choruses, and even some guitar tapping thrown in for good measure all without ever blurring together or ever obscuring Black Francis’ brilliant vocal melody. I’ve read plenty of criticism claiming the album was was written essentially as a Black Francis solo LP, and that sounds pretty accurate, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest because on Trompe le Monde the Pixies are all fully invested again, and there isn’t a whole lot than can stand in their way when these four put their mind to it.
May 27th, 2001: The Mountain Goats - “Eugene Sue”
In March of 2011, John Darnielle auctioned a tape on ebay dated “5/27/01” and labeled “FRENETIQUES Demos.” One song, “Eugene Sue,” was recorded on the tape. (John Darnielle writes that “it is the only Mountain Goats song known to feature a whistling outro.”) The auction was held for the benefit of Doctors Without Borders in the wake of the earthquake in Japan; it sold for $3,500.00. One performance, one recording, one tape, one song, one sale.
For nearly a year, the song existed, privately, somewhere in Seattle. Early on, I remember hearing something about a listening party; I was spending a lot of time on the internet then. I resigned myself to the belief that I would never hear “Eugene Sue,” which was difficult for me as I was certain that I had heard and would hear every single Mountain Goats song ever recorded, ever: especially the rare ones. (No, no. Of course I haven’t, and I won’t, but I’ve pushed those elusive, never-to-be-heard song-names out of my memory.) Maybe it is just a coincidence that this song would appear on the frénétiques demo(s), which translates to frantic, which translates all of us who have latched on, as we have, to The Mountain Goats (we know who we are). Part therapist, part provider: John Darnielle tells us, through all the shit, that we’re special in our smallness, that we can survive this; and he gives us unique, hand-numbered (or colored) objects to hold us along the way. We’re only enabled, by no fault of John’s, when our need to love something is transformed into our need to possess it.
In June of 2011, I attended a Mountain Goats show in Portland with a friend. While he was away, buying beer, I was listening in on the conversation happening one seat ahead of me. It was the woman, the winner of the tape, and she was talking about the song, that song I thought I would never hear, to those sitting beside her. They asked her if they could hear it. (Of course she had it recorded to her cell phone.) She lead them away to a quieter place. I wanted to ask her for a fix, for a quick listen, but that desire crashed into a different, newer sort of thought: what if some things are better left unheard? The internet had already given me all the Mountain Goats data I could ever need, and certainly more than John Darnielle would want me to have. So I sat there, quietly, and ignored the impulse to ask, or to follow, or to regret. They returned, talking about it, and I sipped my own beer a little faster.
“When you call down curses on the God that made you, you play hide and seek with trouble. Yes, but trouble’s gonna find you, too.”
On December 21st, 2011, a video of a tape recorder playing “Eugene Sue” was uploaded to YouTube. I immediately ripped it to an MP3.
1981: This Heat - Deceit
Deceit. There’s nothing like it. Released right in the blurred grey-area of one decade turning over into the next, much like Spiderland or Kid A, it took elements of the previous generation and transmuted them into something completely original. This Heat’s second and final album has a sort of “nothing is sacred” approach to their recording; noise rock, prog, African polyrhythm, The Declaration of Independence, tape collage, lullabies, nuclear holocaust, and so on. Even their previous material is not safe when opening apocalyptic lullaby “Sleep” is mutilated and resurrected as “Shrink Wrap” halfway through the album (a practice recreated on Amnesiac with “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” as the Frankenstein’s monster made from “True Love Waits.”)
It would take many times the space I’m allotted to attempt to describe the inventiveness and originality behind all of Deceit, so I’ll try my best to concentrate on one of the peak moments (and my personal favorite) “Makeshift Swahili.” This song comes after the middle section’s focus on pop (“S. P.Q. R.”) with rare glimpses of hope (“Cenotaph”), and considering everything opens with a lullaby that is reestablished on “Shrink Wrap” the whole first half of the album acts as a strange dream that is abruptly dissipated. That surreal imagery and lack of a logical structure creates a vivid dream; however when you come to “Radio Prague,” the sound collage intro to “Swahili,” the performance breaks into deadly serious reality.
The seamless transition occurs as a dreadful harbinger of a guitar riff builds to a heavy peak until the listener is pulled into the midst of the horror the album had been building towards. Accompanied by a jerky drum beat, Charles Hayward’s vocals sound like a rapid barking dog. They make Genesis P. Orridge, a major influence here, sound timid in comparison. In fact, they’re so raw that it can be easy to miss how clever this band was lyrically. “She says ‘you’re only as good/ as the words you understand’/ and you, you don’t understand a word,” yells Hayward before the devastating roar of “Tower of Babel/ Swahili/ it’s all Greek to me.” For an album that captures the anxiety of nuclear war this song focuses on why that anxiety is present. Lack of communication and misunderstanding of culture and language between countries is dangerous when mutual assured destruction is universally understood.
Powerlessness is one of the key themes of Deceit, and while other tracks evoke sadness, “Makeshift Swahili” is all rage. Hayward expresses such a fierce urge to connect throughout that makes the final screamed nonsense of “Rhubarb! Rhubarb! Rhubarb!” as pathetic as it is frightening. This Heat’s radiation-soaked masterpiece is devastating and “Makeshift Swahili” acts like the heart of the blast.
2008: Red Leaf Black Bird: “Flatland” and Infinity for Posterity
“Flatland” was a simple piece of lo-fi Americana by a defunct band called Red Leaf Black Bird, but for me, there was a strange abstract quality to its catch-all melancholy. It made me think about a concept that boggled my mathematically un-formed mind: the concept that one infinity can be greater than another. If my fellow simpletons want to be amazed, scandalized, and thrilled, I recommend reading the NY Times piece that inspired these misguided musings.
In“Flatland,” a girl, Kelly Nyland, sings about a landscape she’s left behind. In her sweetly grating drawl, we’re told of “four fucking seasons” that cannot compare to the majesty of the “sweet heat” she’s left behind. Or at least that’s how it seems. The song is not specific enough to be sentimental about that one place, and irrelevant to alternative experience. The line, “yeah, I’ve been thinking, thinking ‘bout drinking” and “when I go back home, remember being so stoned, a memory for every corner I passed” describes the way memory works for most people: it’s played like a record whenever certain triggers, like the needle, move across the deeply scored grooves of association. It accesses great depths, even as it moves between surface locations that seem arbitrarily related.
The concept of that much loved but bleak flatland illustrates the arbitrary nature of memory. Though places in memory may be flat and bleak, they’re treasured because the view from the present gives them perspective and depth. Which brings us back to those two infinities. To me, it seemed as if the bigger infinities that the article defines as the set of real numbers were those of fathomless depth and the smaller ones were integers representing the only reference points that we have along the surface of these depths. Metaphorically speaking, it’s as if we have an infinite index for the set of infinities… a phonebook for missed connections. I’m sure this math analogy is faulty, but its value to me was to make me think of memory as a paradox of flatness and depth. Memory is something we re-encounter in deep gulps, as we take a restless circuit of old, familiar places. Re-familiarization – not just de-familiarization – can be strange and haunting, as “Flatland” describes.
It seems that Red Leaf Black Bird never released their album except as a brief digital download, which I couldn’t afford then. I later bought a Trevor Montgomery album instead. Montgomery, with Angel Deradoorian of the Dirty Projectors and Kelly Nyland, was one of a collective of musicians who was making this music as a side project. Even though the tunes were new, they had the lost-penny feel of everyday objects being worked into a temporary shape by restless hands.
A blogger at the time made the spot-on association with the most structurally basic, most relentlessly simple blues – songs like “House of the Rising Sun,” songs of an element – like fire or a storm, constructed out of simple arpeggios. If you listen to some of Trevor Montgomery’s subsequent efforts you’ll hear more of that sound – but Red Leaf Black Bird, and Flatland in particular, is where the lyrics and music come together as if they were two vital co-ordinates pinpointing a dreary place, but a place where infinite depths are strangely accessible. Home, perhaps – or one of them.
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.