1988: Galaxie 500 - Today
For reasons I can’t really fathom, Galaxie 500’s first album Today is usually overlooked in discussion of the band. Writers often point to On Fire as the band’s most cohesive album-length statement and to tracks like “Fourth of July” and “Listen, the Snow is Falling” from This is Our Music as their strongest individual outings. And yes, it is true that Today doesn’t have the “one big haze” feel that comes from a listen through On Fire, but the incredibly strong song writing and truly transcendent guitar heroics from Dean Wareham push the album right to the top of Galaxie 500’s output. Song for song, Today stacks up more than favorably against any debut album I can think of.
The Galaxie 500 sound is one of the more polarizing in indie rock. Along with other slowcore – a name that particularly tickles me – bands like Low, Galaxie 500 pioneered a technique of dropping the tempo to a crawl while still packing in the dynamic shifts any self respecting rock band ought to have. But their music isn’t just about slowing down the tempo, it’s more about using the same tempo for every song and finding new ways to make it exciting for listeners. Galaxie 500’s secret weapon is their bassist, Naomi Yang, who might lose out to Peter Hook in a “melody off,” but just barely. Yang’s bass lines range from simple riffs that propel the songs forward to higher register melody lines that successfully battle Dean Wareham’s guitar for the listeners attention.
But that’s not to say that Wareham’s presence in the band is anything to scoff at. Between his ethereal, high-pitched voice that float above the mix in every song and his absolutely majestic guitar tone and note choices, he proves himself one of the most capable indie frontmen of all time. Throughout the album he is able to switch from simple chord strumming to blistering guitar leads at the drop of the hat, all without losing his place in the slow swing provided by the rest of the band. The layers and layers of melodies on the album are simply amazing, allowing it to stand as one of the lushest works of art three people could possibly create.
1980s: Maximum Joy
Listening to Janine Rainforth shout “Don’t say maybe, tell me Yeah!” is like listening to a punk fitness instructor teaching a class that involves cannon-balling around a Warehouse in Bristol sometime circa 1982. It is pure fuel; music as motivational instruction. I discovered Maximum Joy about the same time as I was dipping into the world of Gl*xo Babies, The Pop Group, and the Bristol scene of Avon Calling. Maximum Joy stood out as a supremely populist gesture – a striking aural poster campaign that appealed with a vivid sound to those who believed you could dance to fringe music.
The Pop Group were Nick Cave’s ideal antidote to Thatcher’s 1980s London. Disappointed with the marshmallow Pop that thickly coated the surface of London cultural life, he was awakened by their scabrously skeptical, yet theatrical performances of songs like “We Are All Prostitutes.” The Gl*xo Babies were provocative too, but less successful. While they were experimental, they lived with the New Wave curse that punk’s purity had engendered; they avoided most sounds and fixations of the Bristol Scene without deciding on a clear direction out of it. Maximum Joy, on the other hand, were prepared to admit any genre that struck them, like the funk and disco of Chic, which the former Gl*xo members had admired but hadn’t attempted to emulate. The Jazz sympathizers of Gl*xo Babies – including their saxophonist – formed Maximum Joy with one member of The Pop Group and Janine Rainforth. Ex Gl*xo Babies member Rob Chapman made the eloquent observation that “Jazz is a life long apprenticeship, not a stylistic indulgence” on leaving the band with his own aspirations to incorporate Syd Barrett-like psych folk.
Because of/despite this, Maximum Joy feels like joyful celebrations among the ruins. Chapman may have been right about Jazz, but Maximum Joy succeeded in making something else: early hands-in-the-air dub/club music. Dub and sampled tracks like “Silent Street” are everlastingly long, and they feel less like virtuoso sessions for instruments than for bodies. The remnant carried over from punk is not even the edginess, it’s the motivational sloganeering: “Stay Positive, stay Plus!” “Stretch (Discomix Rap)” crosses over into leg-warmer territory but returns with its Jazz-sax solos and raps still fresh in the ear. You’d think that by now these hybrid marriages of genres wouldn’t surprise your average internet crate digger, but Maximum Joy still seem to defy the odds of where they came from – a little bit like the Flashdance welder of Bristol punk.
1965: John Fahey - The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
“I pretty much set John up and let him play. He was all by himself for most of it. I wasn’t even around for many of the takes. I set him up and let him play. He sat there with a dog at his feet.” – Barry Hansen (a.k.a. Dr. Demento)
That quote seems to sum up the flawlessness of John Fahey’s fourth album, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Anything beyond the setup of just a microphone and a guitar during these 15 tracks would seem entirely superfluous. The directness of the recording evokes a psalm-like power while also sounding (and being for that matter) effortlessly tossed off, something casually played while sitting on the porch. No matter how incredibly complex the finger picked guitar playing gets – and it does – the record never sounds like anything less than one of the warmest sets ever put to tape.
Of all the albums I truly love, Blind Joe Death always finds a place near the very top, in spite of its modest components. Though the album is completely instrumental, Fahey manages to evoke an overwhelming amount of character and personality through his guitar. From the quaint yet complex opener “Beautiful Linda Getchell” to the devotional “Saint Patrick’s Hymn” the entire album finds Fahey’s voice shining loudly through his playing. On paper an album that is literally just 15 tracks of guitar instrumentals could become bland or boring at some point, yet on tracks like “Brenda’s Blues” and “Oringa-Moraga” I still find new crevices of texture and rhythm. The album has an unprecedented staying power.
The man is heard only once on Blind Joe Death; on the fabulous “Poor Boy,” in what may now be the most famous moment on the album: the piece begins only to be interrupted by that damned barking dog; Fahey stops playing on the perfect note to draw out tension and shushes the dog. The song begins again uninterrupted. It is moments like this, these gentle tarnishes that when put next to tracks of such awe inspiring technical brilliance (the jaw-dropping “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean”) help generate the mystery and love for Fahey’s early records. There is a directness on this album that was never quite reached again. It was a time before other instruments were added or the various avant-garde recordings, back when all John Fahey needed was a guitar, a tape recorder, and a quiet room.
1995: U.S. Maple - Long Hair in Three Stages
There’s a scene in the film adaptation of High Fidelity where a nervous man tries to buy a copy of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk from Jack Black’s parody of a record store clerk. That man was U.S. Maple vocalist Al Johnson, and the scene cracks me up – not for its dialogue, mind you, but for how these supposed record store “snobs” completely denied Al fucking Johnson. I know, I know – it’s a film, they’re all playing characters, but come on! There’s even a U.S. Maple poster tacked up by the counter!
Long Hair in Three Stages was my introduction to Chicago’s U.S. Maple. The first time I heard it, I didn’t know what to make of it. Actually, that’s an understatement – I was confused, apprehensive, and a bit shocked. The intertwined guitar lines of “high” guitarist Mark Shippy and “low” guitarist Todd Rittman sounded like hiccuping contortions, as if scraps of rock n’ roll progressions were twisted, melted down, and remade into something else entirely. And even that’s too organized of an explanation, as whenever U.S. Maple would lock into a rhythmic groove, transition, or even a sustained melody, they would either take it somewhere else or abandon the idea completely. Precious few moments in the band’s discography sound relatively tidy (e.g., “Open a Rose” on Acre Thrills, “Go to Bruises” on Talker), and that’s with a heavy emphasis on being relative. Arguably more so than any other rock band from the 90s, U.S. Maple’s idiosyncratic and fractured music is difficult to provide accurate comparison points for. Some suggest Captain Beefheart, but U.S. Maple weren’t prone to the off-kilter zaniness of the Captain – they were too focused, even in the passages where everything falls apart.
Several years after hearing the band, I still don’t always know what to make of their music. Unlike so many records that may draw attention to one or two elements at a time (like say, vocals and guitar lines), U.S. Maple consistently draws (and, I’d argue, requires) one’s full attention to the whole piece. Take Johnson’s vocal approach, for example – although he’s reciting lyrics of some sort, his delivery is abstracted and gestural. Without a lyric sheet handy, the only thing I’ve ever been able to make out on Long Hair’s “Letter to ZZ Top” is “give my bones to Billy Gibbons,” and that’s mostly because I once saw the lyric mentioned in another review of the album. In doing so, Johnson’s vocals meld into U.S. Maple’s primordial melt; if one were to deconstruct their sound, each element would make absolutely no sense, yet together, a bizarrely rich (and thankfully bereft of the wackiness that plagues most “weird” bands) whole emerges. Long Hair just captures the band at their loudest – a few years later, with the Michael Gira-produced Talker, U.S. Maple demonstrated their unique creative vision could survive quietly just as well.
A friend of mine that taught guitar lessons for several years finds U.S. Maple largely unbearable – “if I wanted to hear off-tune guitar warm-ups, I’d go back to selling instruments,” he once told me – but this dismissal assumes that U.S. Maple’s music is somehow undeveloped, accidental, inept, or some combination thereof. I won’t deny that much of the Chicago band’s oeuvre can sound cacophonous or unstructured, but just saying that would undermine how constructed their songs really were. Watch any video of their live performance and it’s quite obvious just how much concentration went into their songs. On Long Hair particularly, that focus was especially raucous. The amount of noise-rock coming out of Chicago in the mid-90s was hardly lacking, but such a disjointed, unpredictable album really stands out.
Inexplicably, I pull out U.S. Maple’s records every five or six months and continue to be confronted with some of the richest, uncompromisingly unique rock music that somehow always feels slightly out of descriptive reach. Perhaps now I understand why so many people called U.S. Maple “deconstructionist rock” – even if the band contested the term, I could seemingly justify it descriptively in a vague sense; i.e., by trying to understand U.S. Maple by relating them to other bands, they most certainly were on their own. Now if only that U.S. Maple documentary would surface – the “in progress” trailer was posted six years ago!
1950s: Leon Payne - “Psycho”
Presumably, there are times in your life when you dig through your music collection for fucked up country songs. Leon Payne’s “Psycho” is one of my personal favorites. Payne was a prolific blind songwriter from San Antonio, and though he was involved in many recordings and projects, he reached many more listeners when his songs were popularized by other artists – Hank Williams, George Jones, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Price. So it’s fitting that there’s not even one recording of Payne singing his ballad “Pyscho,” one of the eeriest songs ever penned.
I first heard the song as an Elvis Costello bonus track on the deluxe edition of Almost Blue, Elvis’ odd but rewarding album of country covers. Detailing the exploits of a deranged serial killer, the song is beyond chilling. As the lyrics progress, the killer drowns a dog, strangles Johnny (who is presumably a family member), and kills a girl named Bettie Clark with a wrench. The song is sung from the perspective of the killer himself. Through this narrative choice, Payne created some profound character depth, leading most interpreters to make the narrator’s voice deadpan.
Conceptually, it’s a pretty interesting song. In the typical country murder-song script, I guess it’s fairly common for the killer to emerge as both a non-remorseful villain and naturalistic victim. Actions are chalked up to fate and the killer is victimized simply by the way “the world works.” However, Payne takes the song a completely different direction. The killer isn’t on the wrong side of the law. He isn’t claiming to be on either side of good or evil. Rather, he’s unable to realize the gravity of his actions – highlighting the chasm between the cold, calculated madness of a psychopath and the spontaneous, violent outbursts of a sociopath. This affectation distinguishes the narrator from the usual cast of country ballad murderers.
“My mind just walked away” is the last line of the song. And goddamn it is more frightening than you’d expect. Of course everything seems scarier when the killer can’t understand why his actions are villainous. This naïveté is what makes “Psycho” one of the most powerful songs in the murder country canon. The killer is a complete antithesis to what we’re used to – lacking a truly evil will or a tragic outcome plagued by external forces. Instead, Payne’s narrator is driven by unadulterated bouts of violent and clinical insanity. Like method actors, each of the song’s interpreters have inherited a truly dark and disturbed mind. Perhaps this senseless madness is a disposition too interesting for artists not to explore.
A Camp on WFMU:
1998: Boredoms - “Super Going”
Listening to any of their albums, it’s easy to think that the entity known as Boredoms might have invented a genre or two, perhaps even some tones unheard by human ears up to that point. This, of course, is mere speculation on a subject that gets resolved on a person to person basis; yet there’s one song that seems universally monumental to this day. That’s “Super Going.”
For eight of it’s 12 minutes and 24 seconds, the song lurches in a motorik rhythm, propelled by various percussion instruments and keyboard chords that bounce in a relaxed manner while Yamatsuka Eye repeats the words “shine on” every once in a while in a plain sing-song voice. If the track consisted of just this, it would be a fantastic ode to Can with a modern twist – a major accomplishment in musicality considering early Boredoms work, which was often a cacophonous mess of hilarity and violence that barely made sense but still felt like true art channeled without commentary. “Super Going” is the band actually playing music instead of wallowing in their own creative juices like savage animals, as satisfying as that was.
Around the song’s 8:30 mark, glitches appear out of nowhere. The track skips with a scream from Yoshimi P-We that yields to music similar to the first part of the song but with faster changing chords, sounding just a little more desperate and frantic. In two words, more alive. Everything just feels vivid and euphoric, a kind of energy that seldom gets captured for posterity in the studio. Like an explosive, prolonged orgasm. It’s a simple change, but it sounds like a fucking earthquake.
Within the vast, often incredible oeuvre by the Boredoms, there are points where things aren’t what they appear to be: guitars get confused with keyboards, post-production sampling mistaken for live tracking, and voices attributed to different people. Somehow, “Super Going” is exactly what it seems: a happy, simple yet heavy musical head rush interpreted by noise terrorists who had just discovered that playing as a unit could be more devastating and empowering than destroying ears with feedback and retching noises.