1974: Creme Soda - “Keep It Heavy”
And so it was that in 1972, four affable dudes from Milwaukee started playing together as Creme Soda. They were inspired by “the sky, the clouds, the mountains, and the depth of beauty,” and also a love of West Coast psych-pop of the late 1960s. Two years later, they relocated to the sleepy town of Sturgeon Bay and recorded enough material for two 45s, which were released in quick succession on Trinity Records, a vanity enterprise devoted solely to releasing records by Creme Soda. Trinity had a cool eye-inside-a-triangle logo, and the next year, the label put out its third and final disc, a long player entitled Tricky Zingers. After that, Creme Soda disappeared off the face of this earth, never to be heard from again.
All of the tunes are good, especially “(I’m) Chewin’ Gum,” a wigged-out wad of bratty, rockabilly-copping proto-punk. But best of all is “Keep It Heavy,” with its spooky harmonies, colloquial mantra, and passively mindblowing lead break. Its got a time-warp quality to it, opening up some kind of eternal dudescape frequency that exists everywhere at once, and can be tuned in at will with the right mix of Old Milwaukee and Sturgeon Bay skunk. Creme Soda may be gone, but their imperative reaches through the ages, urging us to keep it heavy no matter the cost, and it’s nice to imagine that the world is a slightly heavier place for it.
2006: Warmer Milks - Radish on Light
Illness in music. Can music be sick? I don’t know of a better way to describe Warmer Milk’s debut LP Radish on Light than to say it caught something; something wrong, something awesomely wrong. The sickly feelings are present from the moment “In The Fields” stumbles on until the hum of the title track’s drone fades out. Instruments grasp in vain for moments of togetherness and they happen spontaneously but only for short periods of time before they collapse and permutate into another thing altogether. This is by all means a “jam” record, but not one to drop out to. The out of tune guitars coalescing, seemingly “off” in terms of tonality, play off one another like an evil Grateful Dead intent on giving their audience a terrible trip.
The “wrong” sound of Radish on Light is it’s most alluring quality. “The Shark” is downright nightmarish despite being the closest thing to a “normal” song on the album – it sounds like the musical equivalent of being chased by a madman. Micheal Turner’s deranged vocals aren’t going to dispel any discomfort you may feel while listening. Warmer Milks maintain their sickly sound throughout the album, with a very brief foray into 60s psychedelic rock meanderings in “Pentagram of Sores” before the droning monolithic title track finishes out the album.
1994: Brutal Truth - “Collapse”
Known for being one of the quintessential grindcore bands, it’s easy to think that all Brutal Truth’s best songs are driven by blast-beats. Listening to their discography with more than mere curiosity, you’ll find that they were also masters of the slow path.
“Collapse” opens what many consider their most celebrated albums, Need to Control, and it’s a five-minute doom song that lurches with one riff for most of its duration, taking the approach of Godflesh and making an evil, destructive, and heavy song just as intense as their faster and shorter songs.
The term grindcore, according to Mick Harris (the former drummer of Napalm Death) comes from listening to Swans and describing their sound as “grinding;” marrying it with the speed of envelope-pushing hardcore bands like D.R.I., Deep Wound, and Siege. Swans are an undeniable influence on “Collapse,” as well as on many other dirges that raise a depraved head in those noted albums from Napalm to Discordance Axis to Nasum to Robocop. It’s a slow and scrapping sound that contrasts and complements the fast and furious stuff to make it more poignant.
1988: Dinosaur Jr. - Bug
Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü. It’s safe to say that SST Records had the strongest lineup of the late 80s. These bands pushed the volume and intensity of guitar-rock to earsplitting heights, but none of them could quite pull of the face-melting, fuzz-drenched guitar freak-outs of SST label mates Dinosaur Jr.’s own J Mascis. After rising to the pinnacle of slacker apathy early in life, Mascis rounded up his high school buddies Lou Barlow and Murph to form Dinosaur Jr. in Amherst, Massachusetts. The original Dino Jr. lineup released three noisy and abrasive albums before clashing personalities split the trio. Bug, their last release before Barlow’s departure, stands toe-to-toe with 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me as early Dino Jr.’s high point, combing their most ferocious playing with surprisingly catchy melodies.
While You’re Living All Over Me opened with brutally painful guitar and screamed vocals, Bug’s opener, “Freak Scene,” starts with an instantly accessible riff and never veers into noisy territory. It’s obvious that Mascis chose to expand his repertoire between albums, and with this new direction he stumbled on a formula that made Dino Jr.’s music highly listenable without compromising their noise-punk roots.
More than 20 years later, Bug still has one of the strongest back halves of any indie rock record. With “Pond Song,” Mascis finally makes good on what he hinted at earlier in the record with a perfect combination of jangly guitar and tight melodies. It sounds like Doug Martsch was listening, because “Pond Song” has many elements that latter became Built To Spill staples. “Budge” speeds things up, sounding closer to straight punk than Dino Jr. usually comes, and has some great harmony singing from Lou and J. The album closer, “Don’t,” is a totally different monster than any other song on Bug or in the band’s lager catalog. The song is pure madness, with Mascis coaxing waves of feedback from his guitar and Barlow bellowing with such rage that he coughed blood after the recording session. If that’s not hardcore, I’m not sure what is.
After Bug, Barlow left to explore the world of lo-fi with the near equally awesome Sebadoh, and Murph and J stuck out a few more albums before J made Dino Jr. a solo project. With each subsequent release, the quality dropped off until 1997 when even J decided to call Dinosaur Jr. quits. With their reunion in 2005, the subsequent release of two solid new albums, and the recent reissue of their first three albums, Dinosaur Jr. is deservedly relevant again.
1995: Neil Young - Dead Man
Let’s state the obvious; very few film soundtracks come close to the originality present in Neil Young’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man. Furthermore, there tends to be a stigma attached when a popular artist attempts scoring music for a film (The Batman album by Prince, anyone?) so it is even more of an accomplishment that Young’s work is so phenomenal here. This came after a great period where Young had been touring with Sonic Youth in 1991 and it feels like that younger group may have rubbed off on him.
These stark improvised guitar pieces, recorded by Young while he watched the film alone, were and still are tremendously unique. The pieces evoke Morricone and their influence can be heard today especially in the recent work of Earth (who had their music featured in a later Jarmusch film). The quality of the music aside, this worked so effectively with the film. The starkness of the music matches the grainy black and white film perfectly, and the improvised nature plays off Jarmusch’s own patient, subtle style. Often with his films you’re never quite sure where things will go, as if he were improvising on the spot, and Young plays right into that. This electric guitar score for a modern cowboy movie should be remembered as far more than just a soundtrack; it is one of Neil Young’s most fascinating albums.
1999: Loren MazzaCane Connors - Airs
The death of Percy Shelley occurred in July of 1822, less than a month prior to his 30th birthday. While sailing towards Lerici, Italy, Shelley and two other Englishmen drowned when Don Juan, Shelley’s schooner, sank during an intense storm. Shelley’s death was a subject of controversy, with likelihood theories as far ranging as suicide, navigational incompetence, and even a botched pirate robbery having been recorded — but the point here is that Shelley’s death was a tragic (if arguably fitting) end to a life filled with affliction.
Airs consists of 19 untitled pieces of free improvisation for solo guitar, plus a closing track entitled “The Death of Shelly” [sic] (as in Percy Shelley), a fitting closer to the air of gentle melancholy expressed by Loren Connor’s sparse (yet highly evocative) guitar playing. In short: the Romantics expressed deep feelings with their words; Connors does the same with only his guitar.
Despite the reference to Shelley, Airs does not remind me of his verse, which I generally find to be cloyingly dramatic, even by Romantic-era standards (e.g., “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”). Rather, Airs is coated with foreboding malaise, not unlike the more intense variety described in a letter written by Mary Shelley a month after her husband’s death, wherein she explained his claims to have met his own doppelganger — i.e., an omen of death. Upon witnessing his own doppelganger, Shelley remarked to his wife of having nightmares of their house collapsing in a flood — an eerily coincidental prediction of his death in the Bay of Spezia. This resulting sense of overhead despair reigns over Airs and, much like the Romantics, Connors often finds much to express within these feelings, evoking a gently restrained aura of somber reflection.
However, Airs doesn’t aim for the lachrymose evocations suggested by much Romantic poetry. Instead, Connors’ understated guitar sketches evoke the atmosphere surrounding such feelings — most notably to my ears, the ineffable sense of cyclic moroseness — that is, the inescapable feeling of lonesome repetition, where no matter one’s thoughts or actions, everything can only be perceived in shades of gray. Perhaps most impressively, despite its lack of thematic variance, the overall effect of Airs isn’t despondent so much as gorgeously poignant. It is a desolate and haunting recording to be sure, but not without moments of lucid beauty. There’s no solo-guitar technical wizardry or shredding histrionics to be discerned here — only the sound of a most poetic solo guitar, more lyrical than words could hope to capture.