1984: Déficit Des Années Antérieures - La famille des saltimbanques
There are so many ways I wish I could have come across La famille des saltimbanques, like discovering it tucked away in the dusty closet of a library, laying dormant in some neglected confiscation bin. “Too many kids trying to re-enact some whacko rituals with this one,” the librarian would reason. Or, better yet: students covertly trading tapes during class, and this silhouette, these D. D. A. A. shadows: La famille des saltimbanques is the mysterious tape that nobody can figure out. Maybe someone took it from the storage closet of the French classroom? Maybe someone wants to start a cult.
Not sure why La famille des saltimbanques reminds me of school. Perhaps it’s the cover art, with its drab backing color and shapes lifted from Pablo Picasso’s painting of the same name — who hasn’t marked up their schoolbooks at one point or another? Or maybe it’s because this tape sounds aged by time, and I have such little context for it. A cassette released overseas before I was even born? How the hell did I even hear this? Like Marcos Hassan wrote of Poem Rocket earlier this month, these recordings were given new life on the Internet, and I wouldn’t have heard them — or even of them — if someone hadn’t decided, “I think I’ll share this weird tape of French noises on the Internet today.” (Thanks!)
I hear creeping erosion throughout La famille des saltimbanques; on “Ne plus rien voir,” it’s as if buzzing frequencies physically seeped into the tape over decades of neglect. The track’s cyclical bassline reminds me of 90s post-rock, yet the synthesizer haze is all chewed apart and left gauzy, creating an airy and surprisingly pleasant effect. Elsewhere, “Loin dans le froid” is a more horror-wrought mixture: rhythmically blinking like a VCR timer display, dated tics of clinking electronics become enveloped within a crawling murk of guitar and horror film synth, occasionally clearing with the brief letting of strangled feedback.
Des saltimbanques, however: this tape is hardly acrobatic, but it is a performance of bad-trip psych unease, feedback squall and basement electronics. Furthermore, like the figures of Picasso’s painting, the music of La famille des saltimbanques is cohesive, yet also subtly distant and detached. Blacking out the details of Picasso’s circus figures, this French trio leaves only shapes with an unknown sense of direction — no longer is the family of entertainers made of distinct members; here they have become an oddly shaped mystery, expressionless and blank. Is it artistic co-option, or perhaps some deeper symbolic meaning? I’m just going to use it as an excuse to fictionalize and mythologize:
“What have I told you about this tape?”
“It’s dangerous! You kids and your curiosity—you’d better not try to initiate others into ‘Baltique’ again!”
1996: Chavez - Ride the Fader
When I first dug into Chavez’s catalog, I felt like I’d discovered some well-kept secret in Matador’s discography among the Pavement and GBV records I always associated with the label. Surprisingly, though, I quickly found on the interwebs that Chavez was the label’s best selling band ever at the time of their 2006 compilation Better Days Will Haunt You. I was a bit dumbfounded; not Pavement or GBV or even Yo La Tengo had trumped this band I had never heard of? But then I actually listened to Chavez and the reasons quickly became clear. Somehow the band found a sweet spot between the clear production and full sound of 90s radio alt-rock and the “indie” songwriting of their label mates. And unlike GBV or early Pavement, this stuff didn’t sound like it was recorded in some dudes basement on a fifty dollar budget that was spent on beer and a thrift store tape recorder.
Chavez’s most triumphant moment is their 1996 LP, Ride the Fader, which combines some of the best pieces of noodly math-rock and jagged post-punk bands into one glorious, listenable whole. Guitarist/singer Matt Sweeny performs a tricky and rather amazing balancing act between downtuned and super heavy guitars and his mostly calm and melodic singing. I expected screaming when I first heard these riffs, but what the band delivers is something so much more than the average sludgy and forgettable sound of most 90s alt. Instead, the guitars are equal parts crushingly heavy and surprisingly playful while the vocals contain most of the hooks that will stay stuck in your head.
It doesn’t hurt that Sweeny is backed by a fantastic band – just listen to some of those drum fills – that blow up everything he writes into epic anthems. After a few spins, I wasn’t so shocked that these guys sold better than all their label mates as they sounds good enough to hook almost anyone on first listen but still have the depth and wide sonic range to keep bringing you back for just one more riff. Somehow while Pavement was surging again in the late 2000s, Chavez has stayed in the background, overshadowed by most of Matador’s other 90s acts. Hopefully with their first new material in over decade on the way, a new group of listeners will discover one of Matador’s hidden gems.
2002: Isis - “Carry”
I think it’s too early to make lists compiling the albums that changed the way we heard music in the first decade of the 21st century. Still, there are some that have popped up here and there, and Isis’ Oceanic is missing in most of them.
It’s easy to reduce the album’s importance to its marriage of downtuned and slow metal with the clean guitars and suspended emotion characteristic of post rock, but, for my Chuck E. Cheese tokens, the band’s real genius lies in their song arrangements. Take “Carry” for example; it starts with a droning and calm sound of guitars and synths that is punctured with a bass and kick drum marking a very simple beat, a slow rise that they also cleverly use in the song “Weight, ”the gentlest of the songs found within Oceanic. Afterwards, a guitar melody appears to give the song some direction which ends in a huge distorted chord that has the band lurching in riff form. Aaron Turner growls in a desperate manner while the riffs become darker and lower in register (and Maria Christopher’s vocals makes it feel more solemn) and then, just when you think things are about to break, the sound steps back a little, uncorking a gentle but steady riff that has the impact of a neutron bomb. Then they scale it back up again, first with distortion, then with thickness until the song is done, a chapter completed, drafted, corrected and checked.
Most of the action described in the lyrics of this concept album happen in the span of a few seconds. This is where the narrative and its marriage with sound works best; the poetics of a man taking his own life by drowning makes the music suffocating in its heaviness yet epiphanous in its softer shades, like the light many describe at the end of a tunnel when exiting life. Capturing the meaning of a moment in time and its elegiac implications in song form is harder to achieve than writing a standard story with little subtleties; in other words, the bread and butter of rock concept albums.
Isis bathe the listener with music that is made to detonate in little deaths, keeping air away from the lungs to make expiration and self-negation things of beauty and true art.
2001: The White Stripes - “Party of Special Things to Do”
If you listen to Captain Beefheart’s mid-70s albums such as Unconditionally Guaranteed or Bluejeans & Moonbeams it can be pretty depressing just how limp they sound. “Party of Special Things to Do,” the opener on Bluejeans, is better than everything else on the album but still manages to just be OK. And while most put blame on the lack of any real Magic Band members, the sense of musical castration is made even worse by how phoned-in Beefheart sounds. His lyrics are still just as wonderfully bizarre and he does all of his hiccup-y vocal tricks and there’s a sort of cool spoken word intro and so on, but it just doesn’t feel right. Everything is where it should be, but the passion you’d normally be hearing seems completely drained.
This disappointment might have been why Jack White decided to cover “Party of Special Things to Do” as the A-side to their only single on Sub Pop and transform it into one of the most hard-hitting songs the White Stripes ever recorded. In their standard fashion the song is stripped down to its bluntest parts, something that White surely learned from Beefheart’s own arrangements on albums like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The weak riff to Beefheart’s version gets re-born with White’s monstrously heavy guitar and turned into a brilliant hook that carries the song while White shouts over Meg’s pounding drums. The White Stripes made possibly the best tribute to one of their big influences, not by covering Beefheart’s best or most famous material, but by taking one of his few, forgotten duds and turning it into stunner.
1977-84: Bearns & Dexter - The Golden Voyage
The critical recuperation of new age music is an old story by now, but six years on, we still find ourselves in the midst of it. What began as a somewhat ironic gesture, a postmodern reclamation of the disposable kitsch of a previous generation, has evolved into a serious preoccupation. A raft of cassette and digital labels have cropped up in the past few years following the template established by James Ferraro’s New Age Tapes label in 2006. Synthesizer-based ambient music, especially that which is filtered through the time-distorting haze of 4-track tape hiss, is more visible now than ever, with many of the most advanced practitioners making the jump to larger indie labels.
It took a while, but this renaissance has begun manifesting in reissues of important works from the original wave of new age. First was the Rotifer Cassettes facsimile edition of the groundbreaking Inter-Dimensional Music Through Iasos. Then came Jürgen Müller’s Science of the Sea, which made considerable waves (heh) in the blogosphere last year, finding its way onto many year-end lists. (That the Müller album is a most likely a hoax, the work of a contemporary artist masquerading as an unearthed rarity, is just more evidence that listeners have become highly responsive to the idea of arcane new age from the past.) This year, reissues of work by Suzanne Ciani and J.D. Emmanuel demonstrate that the trend is showing no sign of dissipation. Blogs such as Crystal Vibrations (run by Greg Davis) have become popular destinations for avid consumers of first wave new age.
As a longtime fan of synth-based music and a collector, this has been a mixed blessing. For years, vintage new age was well under the radar; cassettes and LPs could be snatched up for bargain bin prices, most record resellers only too happy to be rid of them. New age was a secret world for the advanced music nerd: while a first pressing of a desirable Tangerine Dream or Ashra record could be prohibitively expensive, you could snatch up an equally amazing Steven Halpern or Emerald Web LP for practically nothing. The fact that the term “new age” was most often employed by critics as an insult made it especially thrilling to be part of a cognoscenti that understood its allure. That is starting to change now, and just like the krautrock resurgence of the 1990s, it’s a double-edged sword: bargains and new discoveries are increasingly difficult to come by, but the steady stream of reissues and renewed critical interest is undoubtedly a cause for celebration.
That is why it is such a treat to discover a completely untapped phenomenon like Awakening Productions. Operating from 1977 to 1984, Awakening Productions was the California-based vanity label of Robert James Bearns and Ron Dexter, a pair of burly, mustachioed spiritual brethren who developed their own hermetic world of wide-eyed metaphysical expression across a series of obscure LPs collectively entitled The Golden Voyage, releasing five volumes over a seven year period. The project had its genesis in a self-published book of mystical poetry by Bearns entitled The Awakening Electromagnetic Spectrum (1974), in which he explored an intuitive symbolism based on the light spectrum for a series of drippy musings on life, love, and the eternal now. The book is most notable for its illustrations, also by Bearns, which incorporate butterflies and hummingbirds into complex hexagrams that echo the forms of sacred geometry. Bearns’ unique drawings also appear on the beautifully hand-drawn album sleeves and j-cards for the Golden Voyage series, which was what caught my eye in the first place.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the new age movement in all its forms is a glorious resistance to formal dogma. New age practitioners are encouraged to become their own gurus, collecting bits and pieces of metaphysical speculation and pseudo-scientific nonsense from a myriad of post-theosophical systems, tying it together with a feel-good brand of self-empowering humanism that does not insist on objective reality, preferring instead to focus on supernatural energies as visualizations for meditation. Bearns and Dexter exemplify this trait in the most charming possible way. Their delightful disregard for prescriptive spirituality carries over into their music, which evinces a unique indifference to pop structure, combining environmental field recordings with scattered percussion and amateurish neoclassical keyboard doodles, weaving it together conceptually with crankish ideas about “celestial harmonics” and “isotonic sound.”
It helps to remember that this comes well before the new age formula was established. Like Iasos before them, Bearns & Dexter were intuitively creating a musical accompaniment for their beatific world of Rainbow Light Ships and Electromagnetic Hexagrams. New age had not yet become a niche category with its own set of clichés, so the duo were drawing only from their own imagination. As time went on, the music became more compositionally sophisticated, arrangements more complex, but an irreducible naïveté remained. Part of this naïve atmosphere is undoubtedly due to the production style, which is primitive but always texturally interesting, yet another example of the way in which the “excess” of outsider music is often more appealing than the music itself.
By the time the final volume was released in 1984, the duo had developed their own unique brand of idiosyncratic, spaced-out pop schmaltz. The fifth volume, subtitled The Heralding, features a striking black and white sleeve and a suite of mawkishly sentimental love songs, topped off by the swan song “Being Here With You.” The album, with its relentless positivity and cockeyed futurism, has the feel of an unreleased EPCOT ride soundtrack (EPCOT being perhaps the only American equivalent to the vintage British pop-futurism that informs the hauntological audio of Ghost Box and fellow travelers). The album is an outsider classic by any measure.
Due to the romantic content of the lyrics, their San Francisco origins, and the 70s gay porn mustaches, there has been speculation that Bearns and Dexter were a couple. Their sudden cessation of activity in 1984 has led to further conjecture that they were early victims of the AIDS epidemic. Though there is no reliable information to support these rumors, it is interesting how the vacuum of information leads to this kind of blind speculation. While interesting, I find it preferable to allow the mystery to remain, focusing one’s attention on the content rather than the margins.
A distribution deal with classical label Moss Music Group meant that the Golden Voyage LPs ended up in shops across the country, and they are still quite easy to find in cutout bins and flea markets. I found an autographed copy of the book online for only 75 cents, and it has since become a prized possession. In the final analysis, Bearns & Dexter is one of those record collecting phenomena that is difficult to defend purely on merit, even though the duo produced admirable work with relatively limited means. Like a lot of crate-digging finds, it’s at least partially about the sensation of having discovered it for oneself — rather than through a blog or a reissue — and that sensation is impossible to duplicate, and increasingly rare.
1980: Slapp Happy - Acnalbasac Noom
Acnalbasac Noom (Casablanca Moon backwards) is one of many lost European albums recorded during the 70s and then rejected by a record label for its lack of commercial appeal. In the early 70s with Faust, Polydor Germany was somehow a safe space for avant-garde musicians who were part of the burgeoning German creative community. Anthony Moore, co-creator of the group Slapp Happy, had moved from London to Germany precisely with the hopes of joining this community. While Polydor Germany put out his first two minimalistic avant-garde albums, they rejected a third album he’d recorded because it wasn’t commercial enough. So instead he suggested a commercially friendly pop-oriented project with one of his friends/bandmates from London, Peter Blegvad, who had been visiting Moore in Germany at the time.
Moore’s German girlfriend at the time, singer Dagmar Krause, wasn’t originally supposed to sing on the album. But when Blegvad started doing the vocals, producer Uwe Nettelbeck (the founder of Faust) asked Krause to take over the vocals for the project. With Krause’s cabaret pop voice at the forefront, Blegvad and Moore, two young musicians who strayed toward complex experimental compositions, tried to approach the Acnalbasac Noom album as a primitive type of pop music or “naive rock.” Polydor Germany still refused to release it. Even though it was a collection of catchy art-rocker takes on pop music, the label still didn’t think it would sell. So the band moved back to London to put it out with the then-upstart Virgin Records who’d also corralled Faust from Polydor Germany. Virgin agreed to put it out only if they rerecorded the album with new musicians and more commercial production. So the rerecorded version of Casablanca Moon was released while the original sessions weren’t released until 1980 by Recommended Records.
The album itself presents a diverse collection of musical styles – cabaret, tango, chanson, fuzzy psych, lounge, cabaret. The odd lyrics stem from the band’s interests in semiotics, surrealism, and Weillian expressionism. For an example, the title track is a tango tune about a spy being murdered.
“Half Way There” is my favorite track, fitting more into the loungier side of Slapp Happy’s catalog. Elsewhere “Me and Parvati” channels Harry Nilsson, fully embracing 70s pop while the Virgin version of the song ended up much darker. “Michelangelo” has a whimsical melody and a powerhouse organ solo. Standout “The Drum” has the best of Blegvad’s fuzzy psych-rock guitar work. Yet it still retains the feel of a classic rock song filtered through the lens of experimental musicians. Of course, the Virgin version of the song butchered the feel of the original session. “Charlie and Charlie” has to be one of the weirder pop songs about a man with a multiple personality disorder. “Slow Moon’s Rose” is another example of the band’s careful adoration of pop music and their dissection of it. Wilting vocals haunt a descending riff for the whole song but there’s always some sense of dissonance working through the guitar parts and the tambourine accompaniment. Around the one-minute mark, the descending melody always reminds me of the Twin Peaks theme song’s much moodier descent.
I love Acnalbasac Noom, the original recordings, because it’s a much better and more interesting record than the rerecorded version of the album that came out on Virgin years later. Slapp Happy embraced pop much better as a trio with minimal direction or interference from a record label. When they rerecorded it, the primitive rock aspect that Blegvad, Moore, and Krause intended was lost and replaced by a slower, moodier, dreamier cabaret-pop sound. Looking around the internet to find more information about the original sessions, it’s been kind of amazing that in the end the people, not the record labels, have championed the original sessions as superior.