1990: The Flatlanders - More a Legend Than a Band
Quick, who is the most important influence on the genre known as 'alt-country'? Gram Parsons, you say? That would be the stock answer for many, including a majority around the Tiny Mix Tapes office. Call me sacrilegious, but ol' Gram's music doesn't really do much for me. Sure, he has one of those great rock and roll biographies, hippie-cowboy-OD'd-in-the-desert and all -- but yeah, not really feeling it. So whenever somebody starts waxing poetic about Gram, I just calmly say, "I like The Flatlanders better."
Coming straight outta Lubbock with hardly a whimper in 1972, The Flatlanders put out an album (on 8-track, no less) that could pretty much only be found at truck stops in the deep South, where nobody noticed them. The members went their separate ways by the end of the year, and three of them went on to become some of the most revered singer-songwriters this side of Townes Van Zandt in the Texas underground: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock.
The songs on this compilation resemble what it must be like to stew your creative juices in the windswept isolation of the West Texas panhandle. There is the high, lonesome sound of classic country with the faint impression of a fiddle swing band on a celebratory Friday night, dancing with your sweetheart at an edge-of-town roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. But there's also the sweet smell of reefer hanging in the air. It's a mixture of conservative cowboy hats in Chevy trucks and pie-eyed freaks in a DayGlo microbus. And the best part: some dude plays a saw!
The music coming out of Nashville in the early '70s was glossy and slick. The outlaw movement led by Willie, Waylon, and the rest had yet to give a swift kick to the nethers of the behemoths dictating the era's country music scene. I have to imagine that these offbeat songs induced looks of disgust on the faces of pop-country listeners back then -- the few that heard them, anyway. Too old-timey, too weird. There is even a Hindu devotional song, for crying out loud, and that just isn't something a good, God-fearing, patriotic American listens to. That is the territory of those addle-minded heathens out in San Francisco who burn flags with Hanoi Jane. And did I mention that some dude plays a saw?
The Flatlanders were coming up with lyrics inspired by Townes Van Zandt that just weren't heard in country music back then. They had more in common lyrically with the singer-songwriters from the FM dial, yet their sound was very much rooted in traditional country. Rock bands such as The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead had incorporated country influences in their music for the urban hipsters already, but that was music coming from city slickers. The Flatlanders were reared in the land of country, giving them more authenticity in my opinion than some urbanite wannabe with a pedal steel, and thus are one of the pioneers of a genuine alternative in country music. And some dude plays a saw!
1980: The Soft Boys - Underwater Moonlight
College rock begins here, with Robyn Hitchcock and The Soft Boys. These guys were a riot. Didn’t have an original idea in their heads. Lyrics were gross. Couldn’t hack it with the punks ’cause they couldn’t leggo the Byrds riffs, but they sure did a mean “Mystery Train.” Gave Cambridge a jostle in the late ’70s, then gave up. Donated a guitarist to Katrina and the Waves.
Underwater Moonlight is the better of the only two ‘real’ records The Soft Boys ever made, a sprawling amalgam of punk, pop, psychedelia, and Hitchcock’s own sicko vision. The Boys sang, often in fiery yet immaculate three-part harmonies, of love and war and sex and death and things that go bump in the night, always with a keen sense of ironic detachment (or so you hoped). Close scrutiny of the lyrics results in scrunched-up noses; this is the same expression I have seen on the faces of unwillings exposed to Ween or The Flaming Lips.
If Moonlight now sounds somewhat dated, the songs are not to blame. The album was recorded all wrong -- the production is a bit suffocating, reminiscent of what John Cale did to The Stooges. Fortunately, the 2001 Matador reissue added an entire disc of dusty studio tapes (more than a little crud, but the best moments -- “She Wears My Hair,” “Goodbye Maurice or Steve,” and the awesome take on Roxy’s “Over You” -- are looser and fuller than anything that made the record).
I’ll admit it -- I’m a sucker for melody, certainly something indie rock has delivered more consistently than has That Other Stuff. You can draw a line from The Soft Boys to R.E.M. to Pavement to Modest Mouse to Tapes ’n’ Tapes -- all catchier than anything the kids are dancing to today. But in the words of Louis Armstrong, “There are some people, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.” That, to me, is what indie rock is really all about. We know we’re right. Certainly, The Soft Boys knew. “They say I’m weird,” sang Hitchcock, “but cleanliness of the soul is more important, don’t you think?”
1983: Negativland - A Big 10-8 Place
In the 1980s, left-of-center musicians lacked the resources that are readily available to them today. Without the world wide web, out-musicians and their fans relied on zines, newsletters, and local record stores (which, of course, varied greatly in quality) to circulate and discover music. Moreover, the task of creating fringe music demanded money and time; few record labels would foot the bill for it, home recording equipment wasn't cheap, and everything was analog. If, for instance, you wanted to edit found sounds into a collage, you needed razor blades, recording tape, and adhesives.
Negativland, then, deserve commendation for crafting lengthy musique concrète pieces and using the DIY network to build a sizable cult following during the Reagan years. The group wasn't especially innovative -- they copped their technique from avant-garde composers, Nurse With Wound, and ’70s German bands like Faust. But their music was virtuosic, a cartoonish parade of split-second editing, psychedelic layering, and perverse noise-making that took hours to compose. Negativland were the Girl Talk of tape collage music, pushing their technique to the limits of ridiculousness.
Negativland's early albums, which the group's own Seeland label has been steadily reissuing over the last few years, sound as strange today as they did when they first dropped. But that's really all you can say about them. A Big 10-8 Place, the most recent reissue, is in no sense beautiful and in no meaningful way challenging. Its extended collages string together pure noise, snippets of old jazz albums, and all manner of human voices, among other things. No form emerges, no statement is made, no effect other than disorientation achieved. Most likely, these tapestries of cultural debris are intended to mimic the clamor and "unreality" of late capitalist American society, which Negativland has on many occasions criticized. If that's the case, though, this album neither critiques nor celebrates; it merely mimics. It tells us what we already know. So why listen?
1965: Albert Ayler - Spirits Rejoice
Once in a great while, an album comes along that’s filled with so much god-awful beauty and spiritual intensity that every majestic note contained therein cuts deep into the dark places of your soul and leaves you with nothing more than the promise of sweet deliverance...
Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice is that kind of album. At least it is to me.
Spirits Rejoice emerged in 1965, around the time when the Stones were singin’ idiotically simple (albeit great) pop songs about frustration and discontent. On the other side of the Atlantic, we had Bob Dylan completely blitzed out of his gourd on mountains of speed, cranking out 15-minute rhapsodies that were more on the order of Ginsberg’s Howl than anything broadcasted on popular radio before or since. Meanwhile, Elvis was thundering his way through Tinseltown, galvanizing the silver screen with nothing more than his hillbilly charm and swagger. Never mind the fact that he couldn’t act worth a lick. When he gyrated his hips, girls everywhere screamed their lust-filled heads off – and when The King let his pipes loose with a serenade, it was then when history was in fact being made, because it was then when an aw shucks, po’ dunk truck driver became more popular than Jesus Christ. It was undoubtedly a seminal peak in the musical and cultural landscape. Boundaries were being crossed and possibilities seemed endless. In some cases, art was being made. And in rarer instances, something more than art was conceived – which is where Albert Ayler enters the picture.
See, Spirits Rejoice is a milestone, dig, a one-of-a-kind album that taps into the belly and heart of Americana, if not the Godhead itself. Moreover, you’ll never hear anything like this album today. Like those precious recordings on the Smithsonian folk and blues collections, the music in Spirits Rejoice encapsulates the hardships and joys and spirit of a very specific time and place in American history. And as far as innovations go, Spirits Rejoice adds a new entry into the annuls of jazz by combining Louis Armstrong’s brand of traditional New Orleans brass jazz with the wild, manic, almost uncontrollable swing of hard bop; which, incidentally, for awhile there, were two completely opposing factions within the parameters of jazz music. In fact, Tommy Dorsey dismissed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as musical communists (which is an insult I’m not exactly sure I completely understand beyond being a shitty thing to say to any red-blooded American during McCarthy-era America). Anyway, Ayler fused these two forms of music so beautifully that it soon became ridiculously obvious that both camps were hopelessly ignorant in their attitudes about who holds the philosopher’s crown when jazz styles were concerned. I mean, it’s all just a heap of notes thrown together anyway. Whether it’s bop, punk, rock, rap, or whatever -- as long as it possesses some real vibrancy and swings hard and strong, why cheapen any form of expression by placing it into specific demarcated categories?
That was undoubtedly one of the questions coursing through Ayler’s fevered brain when he was blowin’ every fiber of his poor misbegotten soul through that tenor axe of his, because Spirits Rejoice is an amalgam of so many different musical styles – marching band, R&B, blues, soul, vaudeville, etc. – that the overall effect sounds like a blast of undeniable Truth. Jazz-writ extraordinaire Ralph Gleason wrote something along those lines in what was essentially Albert Ayler’s obituary in his column in Rolling Stone magazine. That Ayler was more focused on seeking eternal truths and beautiful melodies than he was with technical aptitude or how many thunderous notes he could cram into a single scale (which, incidentally, was the prevailing rage at the time). In fact, by most conventional definitions that many jazzbo’s adhere to, Ayler was far from the greatest jazz cat to touch a horn. Regardless, the closest sax player I can think of that matched Ayler’s aim was John Coltrane; and truth be known, Coltrane crushed Ayler by the simple fact that Coltrane had more of an impact than Ayler by his prolificacy. But what the hell? That ain’t sayin’ much cuz Coltrane was laps ahead of damn near everyone in music. And as far as technical virtuosity goes, heavyweights like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker creamed Ayler, who albeit had a beautiful tone and fingers as nimble as say, Stevie Ray Vaughn, could nonetheless not keep up with those giants. And again, who could? Even when considering those who frontiered new platitudes and concepts in jazz composition, guys like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra beat Ayler by a long shot. But this ain’t a slam on Ayler; with all said and done, he ain’t no crumb. Moreover, as far as I’m concerned, Spirits Rejoice can stand toe-to-toe with any of the established masterpieces by those aforementioned legends and hold its own. Coltrane and Ayler's similarities stem from their ability to express such raw emotive passion on wax (which makes the likes of emo poster child Connor Oberst seem like a sniveling, whiny punk by comparison).
Ultimately, however, what we have with Spirits Rejoice is essentially a lament on the plight and deliverance of the oppressed and downtrodden. When you’ve been pushed down and kicked in the teeth for so long, you are left with only two viable options: fight back or embrace your oppressors with love, and Spirits Rejoice is an emblem/tableau about choosing love in the face of pain, abuse, and hate. It’s a beacon of what could be, and what should be, no matter what the trappings of our environment are – and that, my friends, is ultimately why this precious little album means so goddamn much to me. It’s a constant reminder to choose LIFE no matter how dire your circumstances are. I mean, I have little doubt that Ayler’s life was no picnic. He was an African-American living in a volatile time. Plus, he was a penniless musician, his nigh obscurity punctuated by the fact that he died at the age of 34. Furthermore, suspicious circumstances surround his death. His body was found floating in the Hudson River, and nobody to this day knows how his body got there or what he died of. Perhaps the pain in his life finally got to him. Everybody has their breaking point, and a man can only take so much wretchedness before he breaks down for good. And poor ol’ Ayler was undoubtedly up to his ears in agony. But despite all his troubles, I believe Ayler had a lotta love in his heart; Spirits Rejoice articulates this love — love for people, love for God, love for life – deeper and more eloquently than any other album I’ve ever heard in my life.
1967: Genesis - In The Beginning
This is the greatest album Phil Collins ever made. That is due in large part to the fact Phil Collins doesn't appear on In The Beginning at all, nor anyone involved in the band that brought you "Invisible Touch" for that matter (all due respect to Peter Gabriel). This Los Angeles chapter of Genesis released one album back in 1968, about a year before the now-famed British Genesis' debut, and then dissolved into comparative obscurity.
As a standard rock quartet, their dynamic centered around lead guitarist Kent Henry and frontman Jack Ttanna, with a nicknamed rhythm section and occasional, much-welcomed vocal relief from Sue Richman. Ttanna had already gained some notoriety as a member of The Sons Of Adam in the mid-'60s, despite that ensemble's miniscule studio output totaling to a couple commercially released singles. However, that was simply not enough to carry the promotion of the Genesis project, as it puttered out to little recognition at its selectively issued debut. Musically, the album was too reserved for true psychedelic rock and too eclectic and studio-happy for folk.
Despite all this, In The Beginning is not without its shining moments. The Richman-sung "Gloomy Sunday" compliments her Grace Slick vocals with lush, baroque strings and a morosely plucked acoustic guitar to great effect. In light of the 16-minute-long original album closer "World Without You," with its insane, extensive guitar solo (starting off slow with sparse individuality but progressing aptly within and about the context of the song, taking the listener on an epic journey more moving than most of the Mars Volta catalogue), and "Ten Second Song," which features a dueling psych axe battle, it seems that Kent's skills were underused over the course of the album. History agrees.
The production doesn't help the cause either, as the degraded master tapes make a few tracks sound fairly muddy (or possibly just poorly mixed), adding a few bonus record pops on the CD (which could also arguably add to the "authentic analog experience" of the forgotten classic, usually found by misguided Googlers and hopeless geeks like myself). But I think there were some good ideas here, as the previously unreleased, thoroughly phased bonus track attests. Ttanna wrote some worthy tunes, and Henry's talent would immediately go on to international stardom in Steppenwolf. If only they gave it one more try to work out the kinks (please don't read a pun there), things may have turned out differently. As is, In The Beginning feels like something left unsaid.
1997: Jonathan Fire*Eater - Wolf Songs For Lambs
Jonathan Fire*Eater’s story is unfortunately all too common in the music business: band releases strong EP, band signs to major label, band releases major label debut, band is never heard from again. DreamWorks released Wolf Songs For Lambs on the heels of mountains of buzz, only to see the record fizzle despite critical acclaim. Yet it’s hard to imagine Jonathan Fire*Eater failing in 2007. In the blog era, the Washington, D.C. band’s brand of carnival organ-driven garage rock would surely find fast popularity through word of mouth; nowadays, bands with fewer hooks and more abstract approaches to rock music easily sellout clubs and find their songs playing on teenage TV dramas.
“When The Curtain Falls For You” begins the album, acting like a declaration of principles. It fades in with a slinky guitar playing mysterious minor and major chords, followed by a martial beat on snare. Then comes Stewart Lupton singing “What do children do with these colors so hallow/ Yes, I know their will is true” in a Mick Jagger bark. This is followed by a glorious mess of organ, which, mixed with the aforementioned ingredients, creates something resembling organized chaos.
Indeed, “When The Curtain Falls For You” is the record’s strongest track, but it’s followed by 13 other songs that go down like vodka at a dirty burlesque. The garage rock of “No Love Like That” recalls ? and the Mysterians, while “These Little Monkeys” steadily thumps like a cross between Motown and This Year’s Model-era Elvis Costello. Meanwhile, “The Shape Of Things That Never Came” (a reference to Ornette Coleman) is yet another song that should have been a hit.
Instead of having hits, however, Jonathan Fire*Eater broke up shortly after the album's release, while three of its members – organist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick, and guitarist Paul Maroon – formed The Walkmen. It’s easy to recognize Jonathan Fire*Eater’s influence on that band’s breakthrough record, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, with its reverb-heavy production and cocksure percussion. That record manged to find an audience (thanks to an 8.7 rating on Pitchfork and an appearance in a Saturn commercial); Wolf Songs, on the other hand, makes its presence felt in cut-out bins. What a difference five years makes.