1983: Daniel Johnston - Yip/Jump Music
Jesse Thorn claims to be beyond irony. Using his popular show The Sound of Young America as a bully pulpit, the ever-buoyant podcast star advocates for a New Sincerity. Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? A New Sincerity. It comes off as simultaneously intelligent and humane, like a cross between a critical theory treatise and a note from Grandma. There’s a problem though: Thorn’s idea is bunk, and Daniel Johnston already provided a better approach back in 1983.
In his “A Manifesto for The New Sincerity” Thorn points to Evel Knievel as the icon of his movement. The Carter-era daredevil is presented as an irony obliterating figure whose outsized persona and accomplishments put him beyond any academic eggheading.
Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things… [He] boggles the mind.
Essentially, for Thorn, Knievel is beyond discussion; his mythic stature can only be approached in a state of awe. Which is fine for Thorn, because in his formulation, New Sincerity boils down to seeing things as awesome. Here, sincerity means complete uncritical appreciation. To put a point on it, he claims his movement’s credo is “Be More Awesome.” That is his path out of irony: thinking things are neat. It’s a personal philosophy about as much as “Restore America” is a political platform.
Thorn’s millennial take on New Sincerity is plain boring. Its definition of sincere is uncomplicated in a way that suggests complicated and sincere are mutually exclusive. It’s a lazy heuristic through which to engage the world. But here’s the thing: complexity and sincerity are not mutually exclusive. They often have a very direct relationship where the former supports the the latter. This is where Texas comes in.
The phrase New Sincerity was in use before Thorn applied it to his bro-friendly philosophy. It referred to a music scene localized to Austin, TX where the trappings of gen-X prickliness was being eschewed in favor of more direct expression. The embodiment of this sincerity wasn’t a motorcycle-mounted carnival entertainer, but the slightly strange singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Having built a following based on his highly idiosyncratic self-produced tapes, Johnston was already a prominent figure around town when he released his fifth album on Stress Records, Yip/Jump Music. It is not an easy listen. While the tracks have an endearing sing-song quality, the lo-fi production and Johnston’s quavering vocals create a certain bar for entry — a close analog would be the late-60s outside-pop trio The Shaggs. Listen to the opener “Chord Organ Blues” and you’ll get an idea for the aesthetic. The combination of the raw audio quality, rudimentary instrumentation, and straightforward lyrics creates a song that feels overwhelmingly genuine.
You have to keep in mind that this was before the success of twee acts and lo-fi labels like K Records codified these stylistic markers into marks of authenticity. If listening to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” sounds uncomfortably intimate now, it certainly did in 1983. This track — one of the album’s standouts — finds Johnston delivering a pep talk from a place of real vulnerability. When he sings “Do yourself a favor/ Become your own savior,” the crack in his voice hints that this bit of advice was probably hard-won from personal experience.
The emotional directness throughout Yip/Jump only becomes more affecting when paired with Johnston’s biography. Within a few years of the cassette’s release, Johnston’s eccentricity would give way to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, debilitating conditions that would frequently threaten his life and career. This isn’t to make Johnston out like some kind of savant. His creative triumphs aren’t the result of his emotional difficulty and psychic pain, it’s more nuanced: His triumph is the ability to articulate these interior states. Songs like “I Remember Painfully” work because Johnston doesn’t shy away from letting the world know how he feels, even when it’s awkwardly personal.
This is what makes Johnston’s New Sincerity more deserving of the title. Thorn’s concept is defined by unmitigated appreciation of something in the world; Johnston’s is about unfettered expression about something in himself, even when it’s complex and difficult. It’s self-conscious consumption versus sincere creation. Essentially, it’s easy to think a speeding motorcycle is awesome, but it’s even more awesome to write a song like “Speeding Motorcycle.”
2002-2007: ZS Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002-2007
There’s an old adage that says, “if something is worth doing (or saying) once, it’s worth doing (or saying) a number of times.” It was brought to bear for me in a 2009 interview with composer-reedman Anthony Braxton, whose reasoning for multiple-disc sets was characterized as, basically, trying to ensure that his point (musical system) came across clearly. While in crucial ways a far cry from Braxton’s improvisation/instant composition-centric work, the values of continual restatement and clarification are borne out in the New York-based chamber ensemble ZS. Formed in 2001 by tenor saxophonists Sam Hillmer and Alex Mincek, and currently consisting of Hillmer, drummer Greg Fox, and Patrick Higgins on guitar and electronics, the group has undergone numerous lineup shifts over the last decade-plus. But these shifts are in the course of exploring an extraordinarily intense brand of reactive, process-oriented chamber music.
ZS Score (Northern-Spy) is a four-disc retrospective of the group’s sextet phase (2002-2007), leading up to and concluding shortly after Mincek’s departure. In addition to the saxophonists, ZS then consisted of guitarists Matthew Hough and Charlie Looker and drummers Ian Antonio, Brad Wentworth, and Alex Hoskins. The four discs collect the proper LPs ZS, Buck, and Arm as well as ZS Remixed, untitled (a single-sided ten-incher), Magnet, and Karate Bump, in addition to singles, outtakes and compilation tracks. This music was spread across a number of labels including Troubleman Unlimited, Planaria, and Ricecontrol before being unified in one place. Other than a piece by SEM Ensemble founder and director Petr Kotik (“For Zs”) and Earle Brown’s “Four Systems,” all of the compositions represented here are by members of the group.
Taking a couple of slices from the second disc, Hillmer’s “In My Dream I Shot a Monk” is a fine example of the group’s merger of a confrontational and punkish aesthetic, as shouted vocals and didactically-paced guitar, percussion, and saxophone owe a debt to no wave confrontation a la Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, albeit hotter and given to studied/pissed deliberation. “Four Systems” is given two incarnations, a three-minute edit (from the Tzadik CD Folio and Four Systems) and a more customary twelve-minute version. A graphically scored piece originally intended for pianist David Tudor, it has been interpreted by a number of chamber ensembles as an exploration of narrow dynamic range and clustered, oblique sonic movement. Tenor harmonics, muted percussion and flinty string jabs make for a wiry version, though it’s important to recognize that Brown’s piece doesn’t necessarily ask for improvisation, and ZS follow the composition’s bunched filaments with dirty and measured logic. The studio recordings are extremely well-recorded, and at no point does their aesthetic become obscured by faulty renderings.
The live material is particularly fine, all of which was on the Buck cassette (Folding/Gilgongo), and it presents the group’s primary working method intact, which was (and is) to flesh out the repertoire in front of an audience at house shows, bars, and punk clubs (not exactly the logical place for “chamber music,” but people like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca turned that concept on its head over thirty years ago). Depending on the place and piece, the live takes can be thin and spry or pummeling anthems, but they remain aggressively tight as the group moves through tone rows, intervallic relationships and stuttering inflections, offset by explosive choogle and hollering witnesses. The idea of brutal-prog/emphatic minimalism in the form of a touring tenor/guitar/drums double trio is sort of hard to imagine – especially as given to the PBR-swilling masses – but ZS clearly develop their work through a curiously tense rapport both internal and external. And as rigorous as this music is, when a vaguely Caribbean rhythm creeps into “Bump,” and despite a couple of (admittedly hilarious) drunken hecklers, there is something fascinatingly inviting about ZS’ process. There is a hell of a lot to take in on ZS Score, but it’s well worth the time and investment in this excellently-presented set.
1991: Primal Scream - Screamadelica
Screamadelica was one of those albums that I always put off listening to – I’d always heard good things, but I just never had the time. It’s always praised as a classic album of the 90s, and was early evidence that electronic and rock music could go together like peanut butter and chocolate. But, so much time has passed since its release that I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical.
Preemptive Thoughts: This’ll be a pretty fun listen, that album cover is fun. That cover, with the sun, is the kind of cover that says, “Hey put me on and it’ll be a good time. Sixty six minutes seems a little long though for this kind of thing. Man, isn’t this record supposed to have techno on it or something, this is going to sound really dated I bet, I mean 1991 was a long time ago. Still Andrew Weatherall produced it, and if he’s producing records as awesome as Tarot Sport these days, I’m sure he did good work on this. This’ll be okay.
Current Thoughts: Woah…
Screamadelica really does deserve every bit of praise thrown at it. The record plays with the strengths of electronic music and rock with frenetic glee. These days most rock bands you hear are incorporating at least some influence from club music, but it really needs to be stressed how original this album must have sounded when it came out. And this isn’t a rock band taking some slight or vague influence from dance music. Primal Scream took an approach far less elegant or subtle, yet what they do somehow feels braver by taking Stones and Who-worshipping rock songs and slapping them right next to booming house music. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. Really, how does this fucking work?
But it does work! Opening with “Movin’ on Up,” your first impression might be that they are seriously ripping off late 60s Stones (Gillespie’s vocal inflection, those bongo drums, a fucking gospel chorus) but that’s the point. This album, created heavily from sampled material and electronic sequencing, begins with an original song that celebrates unoriginality. It becomes an ode to mining influences and re-appropriating old sounds into something new – a longtime principal of electronic music, but represented by a sweeping, celebratory rock song. The concept alone is genius, but what makes it great (like with the Rolling Stones) is how all that commentary can be flowing, hidden, just beneath a killer pop song.
The whole record is just a great big multi-colored funhouse. The high-energy techno and house tracks like “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” or “Slip inside This House” are perfectly balanced by the drugged out dub tracks like the equally stunning “Higher Than the Sun. “Come Together” is one of my personal favorites where all of these ideas come together and just melt together for ten acid soaked minutes. The album comes to a fantastic close with “I’m Comin’ Down,” the aforementioned “Higher Than the Sun,” and the final “Shine like the Stars,” a delicate little song that reminds me of something off Atlas Sound’s Logos.
Many people might listen to Screamadelica today and think it sounds dated. It does sound very much “of its time,” but it’s also proof that that shouldn’t be a bad thing. This album captures the sound of so many different things that were going on at the tail end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s and does so with incredible creativity. Give this a try if you haven’t heard it, or listen again if it’s been a while, because while it might have been known as a fantastic psychedelic record to get stoned to, Screamadelica has become a window that for 66 joyous minutes will transport you 20 years into the past and even further.
1991: Monster Magnet - Tab
Monster Magnet are a joke, at least to most people who remember them nowadays. Thanks to their attempt at becoming a commercially successful band, they released a song that is perceived as a novelty hit. “Space Lord,” in the parlance of its time, is pretty wack.
Talk to any fan of stoner rock and they will tell you a different story. Monster Magnet is one of the big ones, up there with Kyuss and Fu Manchu. Their first three full-lengths (Spine of God, Superjudge, and Dopes To Infinity) are among the best rawk metal albums of the early 90s, a collection of riff heavy songs with blazing solos, singalong choruses and a psychedelic bend. Having said that, their crowning moment might have been intended as a one-off.
Tab is billed as an EP but it’s almost 49 minutes long, spanning only three songs. The title track is a slow, repetitive 32-minute tune. It’s clear that their closest reference to the spacey, effect and drug-heavy sound was Hawkwind, yet it’s laid back character, hushed vocals, and minimalist percussion suggest Dave Wyndorf, John McBain, and the others spent their share of bong sessions and acid trips playing Spacemen 3 and Loop records. It’s an interesting sound for a band rooted in hard rock.
The results are mind blowingly good. While their regular albums are fantastic – inspired affairs of no-frills, headbanging, and triumphant-shouting rock – Tab feels like something original and transcendental, like they really hit on something special. This is perhaps their most inspired sound. In it, you can hear something similar to Sleep when they decided to shed the rules of genre to write Dopesmoker.
You don’t have to be high to enjoy Tab. Furthermore, I think that misses the point. Monster Magnet did something pretty brilliant – they made head music that can evoke the other-mindedness, numbness, and insight of a heavy drug with just sound. Not bad for some one hit wonders.
1987: U-Men - “Dig It a Hole”
When punk and metal were separate entities, like jealous cousins ready to fight at any given opportunity, a fucked up rockabilly band brought them together. Well, at least in Seattle.
Ah yes, of course; they were “proto grunge.” They were probably THE “proto grunge” band. They had songs on Sub Pop 100 and Deep Six compilations. They played all over the northwest before there was anywhere to play. They were there first and they influenced everybody that came afterwards. But that’s not what’s important about the U-Men.
They owed a lot to the Birthday Party, yet added elements of metallic dissonance that expanded on their vocabulary, predating some of the things added by greats like the Jesus Lizard and Oxbow. It’s no wonder Tom Hazelmyer joined the band briefly and, later, had them contribute tracks to Dope-Guns-’N-Fucking In The Streets on his seminal Amphetamine Reptile label.
The band had a knack for noisy rock that sometimes scratched on manic euphoria, a sense of shouting in excitement to express (or act out) feelings of paranoia, discomfort, and all out madness; a feeling familiar to fans of Flipper and the Butthole Surfers. The U-Men, as heard on one of their crowning moments, “Dig It a Hole,” are a party; a dark and heavy party that, come dawn, might end up in crying fits over finding the body of a friend of yours, dead from an OD.
Listening to them, you can witness their influence on future AmRep bands. You can also see that they were a link between the national network of skronk just starting to happen at the time and local talent like Green River. But above all, they were a band playing lively music for perverted people. God bless their hearts.
1976: Exxon Singers - “America’s Way”
This August LA indie rock outfit Silversun Pickups delivered the Romney campaign a cease and desist order re: their song “Panic Switch.” Much to the chagrin of the Pickups, Mitt and Co. were fond of using the song’s chugging guitars and message of generalized anxiety to pump up crowds at GOP rallies. This little legal dust up makes the band the latest in a long string of musicians tsk-tsking Republican campaigns for co-opting their work. The Romney campaign ran into a similar problem earlier this election cycle over the use of K’naan’s song “Wavin’ Flag” and in 2008 Heart very publicly tore into Sarah Palin for her use of “Barracuda” to chum the waters at her campaign events.
Clearly, the GOP has some trouble nailing down the perfect soundtrack for their political ambitions — after all, even the most gun-ho rightie can’t solely listen to Ted Nugent on repeat. Luckily, in this case the right can turn to the same people they always turn to when they need a hand: giant multinational corporations. I am, of course, speaking of the Exxon Singers.
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of these pioneers in the world of industrial shmaltz-pop. The Exxon Singers never reached the Billboard charts and even the most thorough googling only turns of a brief mention on WFMU’s wonderful Beware of the Blog. However, the group’s album The Spirit of Achievement was surely a hit around Exxon headquarters circa 1976. And with songs like “America’s Way,” how could it not be?
Produced to entertain, inform, and mildly indoctrinate employees at the 1976 Exxon Convention, The Spirit of Achievement is something of a pro-corporate conservative manifesto set to music. As you can guess, it’s not a project steeped in subtlety. Tracks like “America’s Way” gives a full-throated endorsement of liaise-faire economics with lines like “America’s way, the free enterprise way / that’s what got us here today.” Backed by a triumphant slice of sunshine pop, the Singers deliver these hummable slogans with a straight-froward sincerity. It’s the same constructed wholesomeness you find in that group of crazy kids who, just five years earlier, stood atop a hill and declared their intention to buy the world a Coke.
The rest of the album follows much the same formula, matching up Exxon’s political agenda to show tune-quality cuts that sound hokey and dated even by mid-70s standards. The message ricochets between unobjectionable and vague soundbites (the freedom to use, the choice to choose/ that’s what got us where we are today), to unvarnished policy arguments. On the bubbly hit “Efficiency” the Singers really spell it out:
Reasonable government guidelines, well that’s okay
We don’t mind if the government has its say
But too much control, well that just gets in the way
It may be a little moderate for today’s Tea Party crowd, but in this case, job-creators can’t be choosers.
Writing for Cabinet magazine, record collector Jonathan Ward tracks the history and evolution of these corporate music catalogs. His detailed chronology of the genre draws parallels between the genre’s progression and the changing roll of industry in public policy. What begins in the 1940s as a whimsical means to “bolster worker’s confidence in their company’s future,” eventually transforms by the late 70s into vessels of “hubristic corporate fantasies.”
Maybe for the next Republican canditate’s rally, whichever bowtied intern they have picking the music should skip over his mainstream record collection and reach right for Coca-Cola’s 1979 opus to deregulation “That Big Bottling Plant Up in the Sky,” which proudly declares:
In that big bottling plant up in the sky
There’s no FTC and there’s no EPA
No FDA, to spoil your day!