1980: The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms
As a genre, new wave is one tricky son of a bitch. It gave us some of the most artistically remarkable and blatantly self-indulgent music of the 1970s and 80s, from Talking Heads to Culture Club, Joy Division to A Flock of Seagulls. Then there are The Feelies. Cited by later, more illustrious bands as an important influence, the group may not have graced the covers of glossy magazines during their modest zenith, but those who heard them would drop their name left and right. It is not difficult to see how or why this occurred -- at their best, The Feelies were what R.E.M. always hoped, but never had the cojones, to be: carefree, reckless, fun.
But forget R.E.M. The Feelies, and specifically their stellar debut, deserve a review based on their music’s own merit. Crazy Rhythms, released in April 1980 amongst a veritable shitstorm of like-minded groups, stands grinning madly at the top of the pile -- a shining monument to new wave at its quirky best. Many bands of the era shared certain inexorable similarities, and these guys prove no exception to the rule: yelping, loopy vocals; clean, noodly guitar (“angular” by todays parlance); quick, driving rhythms. However, The Feelies stand out because of their willingness to look beyond the genre’s boundaries and explore some genuinely electrifying territory.
The songs on Crazy Rhythms are individual exercises in the expansion and contraction of energy. Opener “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” begins in complete silence before a couple snaps and clicks announce its advent. Drummer Anton Fier quickly throws a Krautrock beat on super-overdrive, accompanied by a first two-chord guitar line, then another more intricate line, then a third, and so on. The song begins on the ground and ends up, like most Feelies tunes, somewhere in the stratosphere. But this is not some strange species of psychedelia; that word is bandied about carelessly these days, and these songs are too quick, too tightly wound for such a loose, unflattering term. No, this is pop music, albeit pop music with legs. Sonic Youth’s seminal Sister comes to mind, if they had been even more concerned with crafting hooks than noise.
Indeed, where The Feelies so often succeed is where others fall short; ironically, given the title of the album, it's not the beat which elevates these dudes, it's their sense of melody. The album’s first single, the catchy standout “Fa Cé-La,” is a two-minute seminar in tunefulness and -- take note bands -- tastefulness. A lone acoustic guitar introduces the track, but is soon accented by a potent poom-poom-pah drumbeat and two soaring electric guitars that squeal and moan over the first verse. The simple, mesmeric chorus carries some of the only vocal harmonies on the record and is over before you know it. The guitars wail, more purposefully this time, over the second verse; there is a final chorus, a quick outro, and yep, that just about does it; close ‘er up, nice job!
The following track, “Loveless Love,” begins with some quiet, understated guitar harmonics before unfolding with the agile push-and-pull dynamics employed with constant success on Crazy Rhythms. Most of the song, like the album’s opener, is a two-chord exercise in sped-up Kraut-pop, but right around the 4:15 mark, its stomach bursts -- guts fall all ass-out and a great, slithering snake of a guitar line appears. It is decadent and spooky, but blissful, almost orgasmic in its sense of abrupt release. In true Feelies form, this catharsis lasts only 20 seconds before the song is done, spent, kaput. “Can't relax when there's things to do,” singer Glenn Mercer declares later on the title track, and one gets the distinct feeling he might be singing about the band’s epileptic artistic process.
Crazy Rhythms is brilliant and indispensable, partly because it doesn't beg to be dissected and explained, but simply to be listened to and absorbed. It's a difficult album to write about from any typical critical standpoint -- there is little embellishment to be found here, no studio trickery, no misguided pomposity of any sort. Even the requisite cover (a Beatles cover at that -- who are these guys, Aerosmith?) manages to avoid the pitfalls such undertakings generally risk by instantly becoming, well, a Feelies tune. It’s fun, fast, and melodious, and it works -- nah, it rules. This album just plain rules. So frequently the records we deem Great and Important are difficult, unapproachable, pedantic. How refreshing it is when one of them just wants us to dance.
1. The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness
2. Fa Cé-La
3. Loveless Love
4. Forces at Work
5. Original Love
6. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)
7. Moscow Nights
8. Raised Eyebrows
9. Crazy Rhythms
10. Paint it Black [CD reissue bonus track]
1966: The Monks - Early Monks 1964-65 / Black Monk Time
"Stop it, stop it, it’s too loud for my ears... Stop it I don’t like it," lead Monk Gary Burger sings over “Monk Time,” the opening cut off The Monks' revolutionary record, 1966’s Black Monk Time. The band -- Larry, Dave Eddie, Roger, and Gary -- couldn’t have come equipped with a stranger back story: five American G.I.s stationed in Germany during the war, they formed a beat group, covering Chuck Berry and playing to scattered crowds. After being discharged, they stayed in Germany and, under the watchful eye of Walther Niemann and Karl-H.-Remy, two German existentialist impresarios, fashioned themselves into an off kilter, manic rock unit, morphing from their innocuous beginnings as a mild-mannered Five Torquays into the radical Monks: hair shaved into tonsures, black robes, noose around neck, and feedback blaring.
The music is scuzzy, violent, and explosive, the group reportedly aiming for “anti-Beatles” status, yet it’s difficult to imagine John Lennon not being green with jealousy at what The Monks accomplished with their incredibly brief career. And while the hippies back home sang honey drop “protest” music, The Monks employed a decidedly more radical approach to anti-war art: With bursts of bleating organ, fuzz bass, and guitars that traded chords for scratchy bits of white noise, The Monks' sound couldn’t have been farther removed from all but the most marginalized American acts. The Monks' secret weapon was Dave Day’s modified banjo, souped up with an electric pickup that defined the band’s sound, its percussive, tinny effect perfectly accentuating the prickly aesthetic. The music is so decidedly “future” it’s almost baffling. They quietly laid down the foundation for Krautrock’s grinding minimalism and punk’s aggressive sonics, while retaining an awkwardly soulful sensibility, mirroring the energy of Detroit garage rock with purely rhythmic shuffle.
"Hey well I hate you with a passion baby/ Oh you know my hate is everlasting baby," Gary sang on the aptly titled “I Hate You,” and the kids with flowers in the hair were appalled. Released by Polydor in 1966, the feedback assaults purportedly impressed Jimi Hendrix, but general audiences just couldn’t handle the Dadaist chants, the nightmare treble-stabs, the propulsive driving drums, and subsequently ignored the record. Folks in Germany were inspired to more than indifference: one audience member rushed the stage and tried choking to death Monk Gary for “blasphemous” acts.
It’s easy to see why the music caused such a stir. “Complication” works as a perfect example of the band’s political and aural manifesto, finger-pointing "People die, people kill for you" at governmental and religious institutions. Song like “Oh How to Do Now” feature fairly straightforward lyrics ("Well, I wanna make you mine"), but twist the goofy romantic nonsense of normal pop music into something more menacing, coming across wild-eyed and insane. Like all things demented, The Monks truly had a firm grasp on their sense of otherworldly humor. “Drunken Maria” is a bouncy, hilarious take, less than two minutes of the band call and responding "Sleepy Maria, don’t sleep/ Drunken Maria, don’t drink" over a ramshackle bass line. “Blast Off!” finds the band at its spaciest, a surfy instrumental that prompts the question, “What would Joe Meek have done with a band this far out?”
“Love Came Tumblin’ Down” and “That’s My Girl” are tuneful and restrained, both tracks more focused on melody than their peers. The former finds Gary singing of romantic bliss, while the latter details a case of sexual frustration, ending the record with shrieks of "That’s my girl! You can’t have my girl!" These two songs most clearly demonstrate the alchemy of their sound; beneath the squeals and rumbles, the basic structure maintains its pop form and pop appeal. Further illustrating this point is Early Monks: 1964-1965, released with Black Monk Time by Seattle’s Light in the Attic, who have firmly established themselves as an authority on overlooked gems through reissues of Rodriguez, Karen Dalton, Noel Ellis and the Free Design. Early Monks finds the band, still labeled as the Five Torquays, exploring the dynamic they would perfect on Black Monk Time. Essentially demos, the songs serve as much more than that, often exposing the song structure that isn’t immediately apparent with the addition of the more extreme elements that would later define the band. The songs on Early Monks are uniquely gorgeous, and the organ work of Larry Clark is at the forefront, lending the songs a stately, entirely church service ready vibe.
Brian Eno famously stated that though The Velvet Underground never sold a lot of records, everyone who listened to them wanted to start a band. Nothing as hyperbolic can be said about The Monks, but their influence tends to create truly singular bands: The Beastie Boys, The Fall, The Gossip, Jon Spencer, Faust, The Silver Apples. While none of these acts directly aspire to recreate the sounds found on Black Monk Time, all share a kinship with the band, managing to subvert traditional forms and mate them with abrasive ones, to use humor and absurdist methods to point at a greater sonic truth. The Monks didn’t last much longer than this one album, but their gospel has indeed outlived them, and their radical sound, even contextualized within the immense framework of modern experimental music, still sounds baffling, exhilarating, and slightly terrifying. "It’s black Monk time," indeed.
Black Monk Time:
1. Monk Time
2. Shut Up
3. Boys Are Boys And Girls Are Choice
4. Higgle-Dy - Piggle-Dy
5. I Hate You
6. Oh, How To Do Now
8. We Do Wie Du
9. Drunken Maria
10. Love Came Tumblin Down
11. Blast Off!
12. Thats My Girl
13. I Cant Get Over You *
14. Cuckoo *
15. Love Can Tame The Wild *
16. He Went Down To The Sea *
17. Pretty Suzanne *
18. Monk Chant (Live) *
The Early Years:
1. Monk Time
2. We Do Wie Du
3. Boys Are Boys
4. Pretty Suzanne
5. Higgle-dy Piggle-dy
6. Hushie Pushie
7. Love Came Tumblin Down
8. Oh, How To Do Now
9. Space Age
10. I Hate You
11. Boys Are Boys
12. There She Walks
* bonus tracks
1992: Polvo - Cor-Crane Secret
Before I even begin, I have to get a massive “hells yeah” out of my system: for the first time in over 10 years, the perpetually underrated Chapel Hill guitar anti-gods of Polvo are recording a new album. Fellow fans of their wobbly-stringed, going-nowhere-fast guitar riffs and opium-den-East meets hot-boxed-West aesthetic, rejoice with me. Admittedly, my expectations are high. Perhaps unfairly so, especially if you consider the fact that every album since their debut, Cor-Crane Secret, has represented a transformative shift in their sound, for better or for worse. Sure, we want to hear what Polvo is capable of coming up with in 2009. But let’s be honest -- if the band were to go back to the rawer, more experimental side they explored on their debut, I doubt anyone would be particularly disappointed.
Cor-Crane Secret is filled with ideas. We hear guitars played like sitars (“Ox Scapula”), rubber bands (“Bend or Break”), and theremins (“The Curtain Remembers”). Metal, hardcore, and Nirvana are fractured and bent into more sinewy versions of themselves on “Sense of It.” Two songs later, “Channel Changer” takes the almost unavoidably twee elements of glockenspiel and Superchunk-style noodling and turns them into something undeniably discordant and manic. The slinkiest Kim Gordon talk-sing songs in the Sonic Youth library are channeled on “In the Hand, In the Sieve,” and yes, about a million other influences and concepts are stress-tested through the band's strained amplifiers. Perhaps the most unexpected part of it all, however, is that all of these seemingly incongruent elements form something remarkably coherent. You have to listen through the feedback and skronk to get to it, but it’s there.
All things considered, it’s easy to see why some of the band’s more dissonant tendencies may have been off-putting in 1992. But it’s that same adventurousness that keeps Cor-Crane Secret fresh. After all, noise-rock is cool again -- the art-damaged variety even cooler. The sonic climate is perfect for Polvo’s specific brand of mismatched tunings and zig-zagging hooks. Whether or not their next album will adhere to the sound for which they’re known and loved has yet to be seen. But truth be told, if all they did was go back to the basics of Cor-Crane Secret, they’d still be years ahead of most rock music coming out today.
3. Bend Or Break
4. Can I Ride
5. Sense Of It
6. Ox Scapula
7. Channel Changer
8. In The Hand, In The Sieve
9. The Curtain Remembers
10. Well Is Deep
2009: The Factory - Path Through The Forest
I’m sitting here, staring at my MacBook, trying to find the right word to describe how Path Through The Forest -- the recent Guerssen reissue from obscure 60s Freakbeat-era band The Factory -- sounds to me. Sonically, it’s psych-tinged garage. At the time of its release, it was considered subversive and, dare I say, “trippy.” From a critical standpoint, it’s underrated. But for me? The word that I keep coming back to, strangely enough, is “scholarly.” Okay, if you didn’t already hate me for my blatant Apple product placement, you probably do now. Please, allow me to explain myself.
Path Through The Forest is not a proper album. It’s a collection of seven songs (three originals, three covers, and one alternate take) pieced together from the original sound engineer’s archives. As such, the overall feel is not that of a cohesive work, but of a historical document -- a set of lost outtakes and artifacts from an era only remembered by those already astutely in-the-know. It’s a recording meant to be studied or deconstructed as much as it’s meant to be enjoyed.
Given that fact, it’s no surprise the songs collected here vary in sound and quality from track-to-track. The band’s first single, the original edit of “Path Through The Forest,” could be the best psych track of the 60s that you never heard. Its B-side, a cover of Paul Revere and the Raiders' “Gone,” is good enough, too, drenching the original tune in acid-inspired studio effects without drowning it completely. Similar treatment is given to versions of Fairport Convention’s “Mr. Lacey” and Family’s “Second Generation Woman,” although with less arresting results.
That said, it’s the originals that provide the real interest in this collection. “Try a Little Sunshine” meets the 60s psych-band quota for compositions on the subject of LSD. Sure, it seems a bit cliché now, but it stands up to the tried and true hazy standards of the time all the same. Meanwhile, the song’s B-side, “Red Chalk,” proves to be both the greatest surprise and one of the album’s highlights. It’s their most stripped-down tune, recalling the Byrds at times and proving that The Factory’s dynamics extended beyond their captivating studio prowess.
Perhaps the most interesting track in the collection is its closer, a previously unreleased low-fidelity cut of “Path Through The Forest,” remixed using a destroyed acetate of additional sound effects the band had originally intended to appear on the song. It’s certainly not the best-sounding thing on the album, but the addition of these layers provides a fascinating transformation and shows how truly ahead of their time they were (even if their record company didn’t want anyone to know it). Listening to it now, you realize Path Through The Forest could have been the blueprint for any number of psychedelia-influenced bands, from Jefferson Airplane to The Jesus and Mary Chain to Spacemen 3 and onwards. It all feels a bit like looking at the Venus de Milo -- even though the classic aesthetics feel dated, and the specimen itself is partially destroyed, you’re glad it’s there for the world to experience, if only to help us understand everything that came after.
Simply put, the release of Path Through The Forest is a labor of love compiled by a few dedicated musicologists for an audience of like-minded listeners. If you’re not already interested in psychedelia, garage, or freakbeat music of the 60s and 70s, listening to this isn’t going to do much to change your mind. But for those who are -- whether you're a hardcore completist wanting to flesh out your collection, casual enthusiast looking to recreate a scene from a Richard Linklater film on a sunny afternoon, or part of the larger majority who probably fall somewhere in between, Path Through The Forest provides a worthy and engaging retrospective of yet another unappreciated group of the psychedelic era.
1. Path Through The Forest (original version)
3. Mr. Lacey
4. Try A Little Sunshine
5. Red Chalk Hill
6. Second Generation Woman
7. Path Through The Forest (previously unreleased version)
2009: Strange - Souvenir Album
The story of Strange is a cool one, albeit not that unique: a rotating lineup of high school friends from Olympia, Washington -- some musically trained, others so enamored by West Coast bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, that they learned their instruments via “on-site” training. Let’s face it: it's endlessly fun touring the high school garages of the 20th century, regardless of how the music holds up. It’s often easy to overlook technical proficiency -- and to a leaser extent creativity -- when youthful exuberance is pouring out of a recording. In the best case scenario, these limitations can lend themselves to something not only different from their influences, but something entirely unique unto itself. Since youthful naivety is the crux of Strange's sound, Souvenir Album, though far from essential listening, still has its merits, full of subtle beauty that percolates with repeated listens. Besides, if anyone’s to blame for mediocrity, the ball lies squarely in Shadoks’ court -- they’ve slipped a little with their quality control over the past year. Don’t hold it against the high school kids for not thinking how their music would fare this many years later.
The album itself is culled together from various mid-70s live performances. Organized in a haphazard, piecemeal manner, Souvenir Album’s disjointed trajectory is in large part what makes it interesting. While not as extreme or deliberate as the ever-fractured Faust Tapes, its editing approach (though seemingly naïve) is pretty odd. Segments from extended jams fade in and out, more significant than interludes, while leaving room for more fleshed-out songs to blossom in between. Lo-fi intermingles with hi-fi, and an occasional sound collage or off-kilter (and probably unintentional) production trick makes you wonder what the fuck Strange were thinking.
Their best and most structured moments are loaded with soft rock introspection. Although citing Yes, Zappa, and other art-prog influence in the liner notes, it’s rarely reflected in their music. Coming closer to an early-70s, Laurel Canyon-inspired folk rock, Strange strive for something more mature than their youthful years. While I envision young adults of the time pilfering from The Stooges and Zeppelin, Strange hardly sound enamored with those vehicles for rebellion. Their heaviest, most prog-driven song, “The Ballad of Hollis Spaceman,” although loaded with odd changes and fuzzed-out guitar solos, sounds more akin to Jefferson Airplane than anyone else. It’s also these attempts at heavier rock that keep Souvenir Album from being a total success. They show Strange still searching for their identity. But soft pop was clearly their strong suit, their subtle, piano-driven melancholy sounding like a younger, less experienced sibling of Bill Fay. There’s a formative quality to the whole thing, and I assume that had they developed more on another album, they would have eventually reached Fay's songwriting caliber. Lyrically, Souvenir Album reads like a smarter rendition of high school journal entries -- full of self-loathing, pseudo-introspection, and general discontent, yet somehow wise in its years.
It’s amazing that this music exists at all. Admittedly, I’m kind of a sucker for artifact records that were destined to never be heard. Standout songs like “Segment From Mushroom Wednesday/Lies By Poetic License” and “The Last Song” are quite powerful and make Souvenir Album worth the listen, despite its spotty flow. Originally released in a run of 100, Souvenir Album was “released” just as the band called it quits. It combines the good, the bad, and the ugly that private-press aficionados eat up, but it's probably not worth the time for the more peripheral 70s rock enthusiast.
1. Segment From Barapp
3. The Ballad of Hollis Spaceman
4. Four Eyes
5. Segment from Barapp
6. A Faced Dream/Segment From On Winning The War
7. Rick’s Song
8. Segment From Mushroom Wednesday/Lies By Poetic Justice
9. Twelve Boats
10. The Last Song
1992: Eugenius - Oomalama
If you happened to be reading a music magazine late in 1991, chances are you would have encountered an interview with either a post-Nevermind Nirvana or a post-Bandwagonesque Teenage Fanclub. (Possibly both.) And chances would also have been good that in the interview, they would have heaped praise upon a Scottish band going by the name of Captain America. Yes, like the superhero. Enough like the superhero, in fact, that legal action was threatened, and so it was that the new band of Eugene Kelly, late of The Vaselines, would be renamed Eugenius.
With a reunited Vaselines currently touring and the collection Enter the Vaselines newly released by Sub Pop, Eugenius might be overlooked in the larger context of Kelly’s songwriting. But the ways in which Kelly (credited with writing 11 of the 14 songs on Oomalama) brings blissed-out pop of an entirely different sort to fruition here is both rewarding and insidiously catchy.
As the live recordings on Enter the Vaselines make clear, Kelly’s previous band combined sunshine imagery with a gleefully smutty lyrical sensibility -- just cue up “Rory Rides Me Raw” for the apex of this juxtaposition. Oomalama pivots on the same contrast, bringing the childlike wonder of pop music together with a reluctant weariness. It’s the sound of someone leaving a busied youth behind and learning to understand downtime, writing reflective pop songs about, essentially, being reflective. At the same time, there’s also the matter of the front and back covers (which feature lovingly arranged dioramas of children’s toys) and the tips-of-the-hat to superhero comic books, both in the group’s original name and in the fact that one song bears the title “Flame On.”
Oomalama opens with the title track’s unfettered bliss, led in by a stomping drumbeat and fuzzed-out guitars. One could argue that the album is bookended by tributes to a pair of early Stateside Vaselines supporters, with its opener evoking a cuddlier version of Mudhoney. The word “oomalala” is repeated over and over next to barely decipherable lyrics about boys and girls, summoning the kind of euphoria the faux-meditative title can only allude. The segue from its manic rush to the defined notes that open “Breakfast” is dramatic: a blurred night out tumbling into a morning miraculously free from hangover, but contemplative nonetheless. “Cool September morn/ I was reborn/ The sun gate crashed through my front door,” Kelly sings, and for the first two stanzas he details absence, until the chorus, regretful without apologies: “Sometimes I can’t help falling down,” repeated four times, each version meaning something different.
"Oomalama" and "Breakfast" set the tone for the rest of the album: exuberant melodies coexisting with lyrics bewildered by their own disillusionment. “Jesus, take my life from me,” Kelly sings on “Down on Me,” and the sentiment remains even amidst the roar of drums and the chorus of tuned-in harmonies. What separates the album as a whole from more boilerplate power-pop is a tendency to zig-zag, both in its flow from song to song and in the sidearm progressions within the songs themselves. Kelly’s voice is more charming than strong, but it nonetheless anchors a series of inherently comfortable harmonies. And the track order seems designed less to evoke a consistent rise and fall and more to summon up a jumble of emotions, from elation to depression to resignation.
Oomalama closes with a violin-driven cover of Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer.” “Just a boy playing possum,” Kelly sings, his tone implying that it’s been years since he was that boy. And again, the lyrics return to one line: “We go our separate ways.” Although the song isn’t Eugenius’s own, they settle into its rolling beat evenly, channeling its bittersweet nostalgia and, perhaps, using it to demarcate their own beginnings.
3. One's Too Many
5. Hot Dog
6. Down on Me
7. Flame On
8. Here I Go
9. I'm the Sun
11. Bye Bye
14. Indian Summer