I can’t stand song lyric websites. They have too many pop-up ads and their message boards feature comments like “I really dig this tune. It drives me to a serene and moody state.” But occasionally I’ll give in and log on to see if someone has been able to decipher a particularly obscure line of My Bloody Valentine or Young Marble Giants. And I’m always sorry afterwards. Cobain was right. Words suck.
Most recently, I looked up the lyrics on This Is Our Music, the final album by Galaxie 500. It’s not that I can’t understand what Dean Wareham is singing; I just can’t seem to make myself pay attention. My brain says, “Eh. We’ll catch ‘em the next time.” My brain doesn’t care.
Neither did Galaxie 500. “It’s not like Dean said ‘I wanna be a singer,’ and had all these Morrissey lyrics,” said bassist Naomi Yang. The few phrases that do bubble up and stick are rapturously silly; lines like, “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ But your dog refused to look at it” and “It’s all too much/ Cause you have another eyelid.” Keep in mind, everyone in this band attended Harvard University.
But, honestly, I kid because I love. At the top of this review, you'll see I’ve cited slowcore bands Low and Codeine as similar artists, and while both groups share Galaxie’s minimalist, measured technique, neither came close to matching either their weird humor or bright, albeit smeared, pop hooks. These are perfect pop songs -- funny songs, sad songs, love songs. Our Music’s two centerpieces, “Summertime” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” (they were a great weather band), achieve a majestic, burning magic that transcends any subgenre.
In 1997, all three Galaxie 500 records were reissued by Rykodisc, and today, considering the band received so little attention (even in their hometown) during their six-year lifetime, they’re pretty easy to find. In fact, due credit is still rarely given when it comes to their exceptional influence on modern indie pop; My Morning Jacket, The Shins, Slumber Party, and Band of Horses (to name a few) all owe something to Galaxie 500, the best Boston band of all time.
1969: The Beatles - Abbey Road
By 1969, the once promising, fresh-faced Fab Four had, in essence, transformed into the weary, resentful Truculent Two. Guitarist George Harrison, drummer Ringo Star, and millions of melancholy fans watched on as the most successful songwriting duo in music history -- guitarist John Lennon and bassist Paul McCartney -- became bitter adversaries. Lennon and McCartney's lives were diverging along with their music. The once subtle differences in their influences -- compositional and stylistic predilections which led to the conception of peerlessly popular, exhilarating music -- had become an irreconcilable divide. Lennon’s influences were quickly shifting from the world of popular song to more broad, avant-garde art, similar to the works created by his girlfriend Yoko Ono. Contrastingly, McCartney, still heavily influenced by the ’50s rock of his childhood, remained fascinated with creating timeless pop anthems (though his broader artistic ambitions had become exceptionally inventive, such as his suggestion for the group to personify the fictitious Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band). Never was this artistic split more obvious musically than on the dialectic Abbey Road -- the final album recorded by The Beatles.
The initial eight tracks that comprise the album's first half are a traditional arrangement of full-length songs, as Lennon preferred. Fittingly, his memorable “Come Together” opens the album. Beginning with a superb McCartney bassline, an iconoclastic Lennon farcically strings together illicit drug and sexual imagery, while his eerie calls to be “shot” are accentuated by a clever Ringo hi-hat. Although the opener is a strikingly traditional composition in Lennon’s later-Beatles catalogue, his other full-length contributions are more telling of how he had matured and where he was heading creatively. The menacing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” progressively combines an incessant blues riff, a hissing Moog synthesizer, and a sparse vocal track bound by a wall of guitars into a magnificently portentous testament of his love for Yoko, while the poignant “Because,” stripped of all rock ‘n’ roll archetypes, eloquently employs sophisticated harmonies to enliven and beautify some of Lennon’s most innocent lyrics: “Because the sky is blue it makes me cry/ Because the sky is blue – Ah – love is old, love is new/ Love is all, love is you.” The opening section is also memorable for Harrison’s contributions (“Something,” “Here Comes The Sun”), which portend his brilliant post-Beatles solo album, All Things Must Pass.
The final portion of the album encompasses the famous medley, spearheaded and dominated in content by McCartney. His eclectic “You Never Give Me Your Money,” a light-hearted, ultimately hopeful rumination on the band’s label troubles (“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven/ All good children go to heaven”), opens this section, but it is on McCartney’s climactic four-track finale where he truly shines. Whether it be his captivating melodies (“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Carry That Weight”), his knack for pithy, teary balladry (“Golden Slumbers”), or, as Lennon described to Playboy, his ability to be “philosophical” with a poignant Shakespearean couplet (“And, in the end/ The love you take/ Is equal to the love you make”), all of McCartney’s musical trademarks are at work. Combined with Lennon’s playful vocals on “Polythene Pam,” the group’s lush harmonies on “Sun King,” Harrison’s diverse guitar play -- including a memorable use of arpeggio (“Carry That Weight”) -- and Ringo’s notable drum solo on “The End,” the medley proves to be one of the most inspired and enjoyable pieces of music in The Beatles' extraordinary catalogue.
For a band that exceedingly composed their music around motifs of love, the breakup of The Beatles was dissonantly vitriolic. However, by putting their differences aside and recording Abbey Road with a passion for music they had nearly extinguished with petty disputes and grudges, The Beatles gave music fans another blissful musical experience that is still producing joy decades after its creation.
In the whole tiresome CDs vs vinyl debate, there is one big advantage CDs have that hasn't been brought up: keeping all of the music on one side of a disc discourages the creation of ridiculous ‘split concept’ albums. Case in point, this 1980 release from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp is a split LP comprised of God Save the Queen on one side and Under Heavy Manners on the other, an unnatural pairing that never coheres into a satisfying listening experience.
God Save the Queen features Fripp playing his guitar through his standard Frippertronics setup. For those unfamiliar with Frippertronics, it consists of two tape recorders linked together to create delay effects, as the tape from one recorder is passed to the next. Utilizing this system, God Save The Queen is a meandering, spacey work, wherein various tones slide through the music and overlap each other. It's not bad.
Under Heavy Manners, on the other hand, is all about rhythm. Utilizing what Fripp calls Discotronics (I'm not kidding), a minimalist guitar part is repeated ad infinitum and overdubbed with funky bass and unfaltering drumming. To top it off, David Byrne (credited as Absalm el Habib) recites a list of words featuring the -ism suffix and some other seemingly nonsensical phrases. This is also not bad.
So what's the problem? Well, while each side is enjoyable, they are so dissimilar that one individual is unlikely to enjoy them both. Moreover, even if a person liked the two sides, they probably wouldn't be in the mood to listen to them back-to-back, because they cancel each other out: the amorphous tones of God Save the Queen spoil the excitement of Under Heavy Manners, and Under Heavy Manners is probably too intense for those in the mood for the meditative sounds of God Save the Queen.
Fripp has explored all of the musical concepts on display on this LP more fully elsewhere, so it is hardly essential listening. That being said, the collaboration with David Byrne is interesting, and God Save the Queen does create some nice ambiance that make this record worth picking up for the curious listener. Just don't count on playing more than half of it regularly.
The Dawn Wind was a one-off collaboration between Australian Paul Adolphus and engineer-slash-multi-instrumentalist Mitsu Harada. Made in a rustic Japanese schoolroom studio just before Paul and his family moved back to his native land, the album commemorated time spent living in a little bohemian arts community outside Kyoto. Originally pressed to a mere 200 copies, it scattered to the trendy parts of Japan and quickly became a crown jewel of obscure folk with a psychedelic World Music bend, well before World Music was trendy.
Even with, or perhaps aided by, the quaint ravages of time, The Dawn Wind delivers a chill so relaxing it could make NyQuil retire. The come-all crash pad style in which these guys roll easily comes through, with Paul's pals sitting at his feet and lending a helping hand when the guitar and bongos aren't quite cutting the mustard. It's an authentic hippie pot party captured for all eternity.
Vibe aside, it's not too hard to see why this album isn't as highly sought after as, say, the average Incredible String Band vinyl. Paul's prowess on the acoustic guitar is passable at best -- not up to the Cat Stevens standards of the day -- while his Canned Heat/Nick Drake vocals struggle to keep it together. The whole shtick is endearing, and The Dawn Wind achieves all its goals, but there aren't any Waking Life "wow" moments to really make one hanker for a revisit, nothing forcing you to ponder how they did it. However, if you ever run out of patchouli or Nag Champa incense, a couple spins of this'll fix you right up.
Cavity were one of those bands whose records had one small pressing; so, if you didn’t get in on it right away, you were out of luck. Despite being critically elevated to the top tier of ’90s sludge metal (with the likes of Eyehategod, Grief, and Crowbar), Cavity consciously decided to release highly sought-after albums in confoundingly small runs, which only furthered their cult status and led to existing copies being snatched up even quicker. Hydra Head has remastered and reissued Laid Insignificant, making it only the second readily available Cavity album after their similarly issued last hurrah, On the Lam. Hydra Head, this was a pretty great decision.
Laid Insignificant is the atypical Cavity album. It stands directly on that weird line between EP and LP, falling short of the “10 songs or half an hour” rule by two songs or a minute-and-a-half. If 28 minutes ever felt like an album, it does right here. Faster, significantly shorter, and more intense than any other Cavity album, Laid Insignificant would also get straight-up tiring if it went on for much longer. But it’s just right, with a stronger album dynamic than most records twice its length. I usually don’t consider myself much of a metal guy, but shit, this album rules.
Things kick off with three structurally befuddling five minute tracks that eat up over half the album’s running time. Main songwriter Dan Gorostiaga stuffed these songs full. Each one goes from thrashing and flogging to slow, threatening bass grooves to straight feedback with no forewarning. Multiple listens reveal just how perfect the timing is; ideas show up, explain themselves, then exit right when they need to. No one overstays their welcome. The next four are short, stinging, harsh tracks that work the same way but with no remission; they’ve got the Wire-esque “Okay, that idea’s done -- next song” ethic.
Fantastic as it all is, closer “A Bitter Cold Spell” is what really pushes Laid Insignificant toward necessity. Vocalist Rene Barge should get a lot of credit for what makes Cavity so successful. Metal bands usually present extremes when it comes to vocals: you’ve got your screamers, your melodious guys, and the guys who split their time between the two. Barge somehow manages to scream melodiously. I don’t even know. Way to go. Most the time the lyrics are indecipherable (no surprise), but “A Bitter Cold Spell” opens with a couplet you can decipher only as it smacks you upside the head: "Medic, where have you been for nine months?/ You’re having a baby." It’s sung over a vaguely Slint-y bass groove, augmented by the sort of spindly guitars U.S. Maple play when they get more traditionally melodic. The track just builds volume and layers from there, while Barge becomes increasingly frantic and guttural until he drops out, incapable of keeping up with the instrumentation. But when they meet up again, let me tell you...
Lurching out from the press sheet for the reissue of Caroline Peyton’s 1977 release, Intuition, is the remark that the album has never before been available on CD. Immediately two questions arise: Am I holding a musical gem that has somehow eluded due attention, or has it been lost in the stacks for three decades with good reason? After listening to the record I found, sadly, that the answer is the latter.
Intuition falters in spite of itself. Ms. Peyton, former vocalist of the Screaming Gypsy Bandits, has a beautiful voice and her session musicians play compelling blues-rock on many of the songs, but problems arise in the melding of the two. Peyton’s well-trained choral voice, coated with innocence and clarity, betrays the rusty, bar-band guitar licks that accompany her --and it doesn’t matter how earnestly she roughs up the lyrical vowels-- there simply isn’t enough wear in her voice to sell lines like, ”Black spots on my eyes/ Can’t see my feet” (“Donkey Blues”). “Party Line,” the album’s sole disco number, finds Peyton in a better element, revealing the perfectly lazy, celebratory diction for dance-floor stardom. Holding the song from such heights, though, is its paper-thin synth accompaniment and a similarly malnourished backing vocal track. Unfortunately, Intuition allows the listener to play these hypothetical games with virtually every song: “this would be lovely if the piano were heftier” (“Just As We”) or “if that chorus was fleshed out a bit more, that could have been so soulful” (“Brister”). The exception comes with “Call of the Wild,” where Peyton, behind her acoustic guitar, crafts a perfect song. Here, a solemn vocal arc is meticulously revealed over a tastefully ambitious folk background that mirrors, but doesn’t mimic, much of Joni Mitchell’s early-’70s output.
Ultimately, Intuition plays like an audition tape, leaping between genres with little emotional investment or purpose. It’s successful in revealing Peyton's serviceable vocal range for jazz, blues, or funk, but it prevents anything (save “Call of the Wild” and perhaps “All this Waiting”) from becoming truly compelling -- and yet, a voice like hers should be heard. Through the 1980s and 1990s, she enjoyed a career on the stage; performing musical theater, often with the genre’s largest company, Disney. So, as I remove the CD from my player and lay aside the hypothetical arguments that define Intuition, it’s a comfort to know that Caroline Peyton did find her place and eventually put her voice to good use.
1956: Moondog - Moondog
There are so many interesting subplots and contextual tangents embedded in the life story of the experimental street musician Moondog; his actual music could conceivably be overlooked. As a Kansas-born blind musician who, after his move to New York City, invented his own instruments and chose purposely (righteously?) to live on the streets and dress like a Viking, he seems akin to a fictitious character dreamt up by a NYU film student: "Who cares that he actually plays music, he is faaantastic!" Musically, he was seen as both an eccentric and a visionary who was admired by Philip Glass while influencing musicians ranging from Janis Joplin to Mr. Scruff. But years before he was conducting orchestras, his 1956 self-titled album portrayed him as burgeoning innovator – contextualizing the sounds of New York with his Great Plains background, and in the process, innocently challenging the limits of outsider music.
Without the benefit of sight or insulated walls, one could contend that a homeless, blind musician is the best-equipped person to truly “hear” a city. His album Moondog is his musical interpretation of the disorganized patchwork quilt that was 1950s Manhattan. The album’s melodies are often Asian-inspired and drift in and out of context, like a hurried immigrant trying to find his way through the crowded streets. The smells of the East Village, Chinatown, and Central Park are somehow conveyed through percussive shuffles and snaps. Through most of the album, Moondog symbolically keeps time with a steady thump-thump-thump on his tom-tom: homage to his playing with Native American chiefs as a youth. This consistent heartbeat not only backbones the album and represents the forward-moving machine of New York City, but it also whispers to the Western world that the Indians once owned the land, and we are lucky to be sharing their fertile earth. Right?
Moondog allegedly once said that Philip Glass anointed him the “father of minimalism,” even though he never wanted the title/burden of leading a musical movement. The songs on Moondog may be sparse, but they are also short, normally clocking in under two minutes. As quick and dirty encapsulations of larger musical visions, the songs are not necessarily minimalist in the same vein of an extended Terry Riley composition. Moondog’s work is delicate, direct, and overly observant, like a kindergartener describing his day at school. Additionally, unlike most other envelope-pushing modern composers of the time, Moondog did not have a debilitating obsession with tone. Instead, this album maintains a lo-fi charisma that invites the listener in, comforting him or her with warm, familiar melodies and a positive world outlook. Even though many people later saw Moondog as a kook or a hippie, very few doubted his early potential for creative, accessible musical expression. His self-titled album is the best example of how enjoyable American minimalism could have been and remains the ultimate tribute to the homeless, street musician.
I bought Look At Who You’re Talking To at my local Newbury Comics after reading a review that likened Human Television to The Rain Parade. The shop only had one copy; though a week later, when I saw another stocked, I talked my girlfriend into buying it for herself.
We spent the whole summer listening to the record, but then didn’t play it for awhile. When I dusted it off a couple weeks ago, I got that sensation that folks my age -- folks who are sorta lying when they say they remember Nirvana -- get when they reminisce. It's a feeling that can't be nostalgia, because nostalgia is what our parents feel when they hear Al Green at weddings. I felt what only the sweetest, simplest, dumbest, most disposable pop music can make you feel. There’s no word for it, and there shouldn’t be. It's music that you once fell in love to, that you still think is all yours.
Human Television are from Gainesville, Florida, and while it’s clear they’re well-schooled in regional jangle-pop, they also dig Ride, Black Tambourine, and New Zealand stuff like The Clean, The Bats, The Chills, and The 3Ds. Their guitar sound is cheap and shambling and under-produced, often washing out the vocals completely, while the patchwork, conversational lyrics recall The Wedding Present.
Ten of the album's twelve songs are infectious, sun-kissed soft-rockers, while “I’m Moving On” slinks behind vaporous walls of MBV fuzz and “Untitled” flaunts punchy synth beats. Throughout, Human Television remain surprisingly affecting and unpretentious. And better than The Rain Parade.
In 1970, John Phillips, chief songwriter of the recently disbanded The Mamas & the Papas released his first solo album, John, Wolfking of L.A.. The Mamas & the Papas had been a pop juggernaut and, with tracks like “California Dreaming” and other hits, had perpetrated the California-as-Eden idea that was reflected by other acts of the day. But the Mamas were anything but idyllic, torn apart by interband jealously and the tumultuous romantic relationship between John and Michelle Phillips. The stakes where high when Wolfking was released, but despite some high-chart action for “Mississippi,” the album flopped.
Sonically, the album treads the “Cosmic Americana” sound Gram Parsons was always going on about, fitting in nicely with the urban-cowboy, soft-rock sounds of The Byrds, American Beauty-era Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (together and separately), and Parsons’ own Flying Burrito Brothers. Barroom pianos tinkle drunkenly, the drums maintain a soft clatter and warm pedal steel swells and moans; Phillips spared no expense in securing the best session players availabe, utilizing members of Elvis Presley’s band (Presley himself expressed interest in recording “Mississippi” but the Colonel killed the idea ). Having spent time in a premier vocal-pop group, he was understandably nervous about his own vocals and chose the, in retrospect, rather shoegaze-y approach of burying them in the mix, letting the subtle, fantastic playing of his band overshadow his modest voice.
Which is a shame, really, because in addition to his vocals being more than decent, Phillips' lyrics are far more subversive than anyone could have expected. The album starts off with “April Anne,” rife with references to Los Angeles avatars. A “gypsy woman” implores Anne to let the "Easy Rider share her bed," but Anne chooses the “drunken gigolo instead." Meanwhile, we hear of the “jingle jacket faggot friend” who’s mysteriously "dead" (a barb directed at The Byrds' Gene Clark, who dated Michelle when she and John were split up, "dead" essentially meaning "dumped" most likely).
“Topanga Canyon” recasts Lou Reed’s “Waiting For My Man” junkie tale in beach-bum attire, with Phillips driving out to the canyon to score a fix. He makes a stop at the farmers market to justify his purchase, noting the “buying and selling for profit.” But where Reed sings with fractured ambivalence, matter of fact and unashamed, Phillips pleads in the chorus, “Oh Mary I’m in deep water/ And it’s way over my head/ Everyone thought I was smarter/ Than to be mislead.” While Reed sounds detached and distracted, John sounds desperate. He seeks redemption, and the chorus of angelic backup singers echo the sentiment.
“Malibu People” showcases Phillips’ subtle dark comedy. In scenes dotted with fine beach houses and sun-bleached characters, he paints a vivid picture, a pregnant woman waiting where the waves meet the sand: “Big bellied woman lying in the sand, waiting where the waves roll in/ If she needs a spot to drop she’s not forgotten where the waves roll in.” It’s hard to say why it’s so funny, but it is. It's also poignant. The waves seem to be the only constant here. The clumsy 'some one took my stuff' blues of “Drum,” a tune that details junkies stealing John’s drums from the back of his car, is made utterly tragic by his heartbroken delivery.
Side two is less geographically thematic, but none less expressive. The blood and guts of “Let It Bleed Genevieve” (a nod to his dangerous pals The Rolling Stones, whose Mick Jagger and Keith Richards he would later go on to record fraught solo album Pay, Pack, and Follow with) details a fictional (?) tale of Phillips’ new girlfriend, actress Geneviève Waïte, having a miscarriage in his basement, while her replacement waits up on the sidewalk, “waiting to be skinned.” John and the boys tear it up out on the town in a fit of casual misogyny. The neighbors ask him to keep it down, but understand that “boys will be boys.” Meanwhile, “Mississippi” is an ecstatic swamp jam, all Dixieland and winks at the girls crossing their legs and looking at the narrator funny.
The album closes with the haunting “Holland Tunnel,” and it’s fitting that Phillips chose to finish the album with a song about driving. Perhaps it’s a clarion call. It seemed a fitting time to check the gas and oil and to get out while the getting was good. Throughout the album, Phillips lets his countrified beach-bum sound hide his dark subject matter. But peering through the veneer of the album's smooth sound reveals a hurt, defensive, and addicted artist. The album ends with Phillips looking to “find his soul on the other side.”
Perhaps the reason John Wolfking of L.A. remains a 'lost' album -- albeit one with a growing cult -- is because it’s too painful to view the idyllic ’60s dream crashing down. We really want to imagine California as a place where peace and love bloomed, if only for a time. We want to let our freak-folk singers move in to Topanga Canyon and record wild songs that sound the way we want the ’60s to have sounded, the way Devendra Banhart did with Smokey Rolls Down the Mountain. But in a recent interview, Devendra revealed that a female friend of his was violently attacked in his Topanga home studio by a man believing that he was Jesus.
Parallels to Phillips' experiences with the Manson clan notwithstanding (at one point Roman Polanski even, according to Phillips' book, though Phillips had something to do with the killings), it’s hard to say if Banhart is blowing smoke up our asses, playing into that Mansonesque image of his. But it’s also not hard to imagine this tale being true. Dreams can only last so long. It’s a matter of time before human nature rears its ugly head in the midst of peace and harmony. 1970 was a generational “morning after,” and as pop culture collectively woke up and got out of bed, John Wolfking of L.A. vividly, beautifully, and honestly dealt with the comedown and subsequent head-scratching.
Comparisons are funny, aren't they? Some bands can't escape them, no matter how hard they try. They can even break up for several years, reunite, then release a retrospective compilation and still come back to the same tired metaphors. It seems that finding commentary on Big Dipper without some reference to R.E.M. is like trying to avoid porn while surfing the internet (face it buddy, it ain't gonna happen). So let's get it over with here, then: Big Dipper sound similar to R.E.M. in a sort of vague, ambivalent way (they share chiming, clean electric guitar sounds and some tempos, but that's about it).
Now, let's move on to the important stuff: this anthology. Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology is a delicately assembled 49-track collection of the group's best pop gems in a tidy 3CD set by Merge Records. Giving up the music industry ghost back in ’92 after releasing a commercially unsuccessful effort in Slam on the Epic label, the Boston quartet's experience has obviously retained a bit of its original bitter taste, as only "Life Inside The Cemetery" appears on the Supercluster compilation (a tiny 2% of the anthology doesn't show a great deal of faith in their past product).
There are more than enough good reasons on Supercluster to justify its existence, however. Completists can bask in the knowledge that all of Big Dipper's late-’80s records for now-defunct label Homestead are included (Boo-Boo (1987), Heavens (1988), and Craps (1989)) in a shiny, remastered form. Meanwhile, obscurists can celebrate the debut of 15 previously unreleased tracks, an unreleased album titled A Very Loud Array, recorded after Slam silently flopped.
Big Dipper's charm was in their jangly pop-rock sensibilities laid over steady drum rolls; cuts like "Man O'War," "Meet The Witch," and "She's Fetching" are infectiously catchy riff-based college rock that surely inspired countless great Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. songs. There are plenty of hooky standouts amongst the crew of newly unveiled cuts, too: "Wake Up The King," "Lifetime Achievement Award," and the tinny but wonderfully harmony-drenched swan song "Beginning of the End."
Supercluster's bottom line is that even the worst Peter Buck reference couldn't hold this set down. If you can excuse the slightly dodgy album design, Supercluster has all the makings of any well-executed anthology -- complete sets of great songs, insightful liner notes, and a large number of high-quality unreleased tracks. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to avoid porn on the internet. Wish me luck.