1996: Gastr del Sol - “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity’”
Driving cross country this summer, I saw a lot of rest stops. They vary in little ways, but one thing you’ll always see in the bathrooms is a perfume dispenser. I’ve never seen anyone use one, but they sit there, usually a little rusted with age. For a small price, you get a spray of bad knock-offs of famous perfumes — “exquisite replicas” they’re called. In such a dismal location as a truck-stop bathroom, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition to see something so out of place. Gastr Del Sol’s opening statement on the brilliant Upgrade & Afterlife, “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity,’” shares a great deal with its namesake that resides in those ugly bathroom vending machines. David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, with help from Kevin Drumm, give listeners a fractured and atrophied approximation of something elegant.
This was not new ground for the duo. Their previous album Crookt, Crackt, or Fly was filled with sprawling deconstructions, but the fact that the album was mostly acoustic set up “Eternity” as a shocking opener. From the start, the song is overflowing with haunting organ drones that are simultaneously angelic and queasy. The balancing act builds tension until it releases in a brittle solo of feedback. Grubbs and O’Rourke never surpassed “Eternity” in its use of both noise and restraint. The middle section is explosively dissonant, yet controlled and focused. In the beginning we hear beauty with an undertone of menace, until they make it very clear that the menace and decay have won.
The last section of this opener ends with more fanfare than most album finales, including Upgrade & Afterlife. It is one of the first cases of sampling from a band that made very unique use of the technique (one of the most memorable moments on the album is a duet between a trumpet and a hissing tea kettle on “The Sea Incertain”). “Eternity’s” finale explodes into trumpets and strings. The moaning orchestration is taken from Hans Salter’s score for the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, a surprisingly deep B-movie that ends with the titular shrinking man failing to save himself, but accepting and finding comfort in the fact that everything he is will eventually fade into nothing.
That sampling of strings might finally make sense in the year of The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (TMT Review), an album also about atrophy and deconstruction and one that owes a lot to O’Rourke and Grubbs. “Eternity’s” closing section is suddenly gorgeous and triumphant, but it is backed with hideous insect-like electronic chirping, reminding listeners that it is only a replica of something beautiful. Soon, all the other sounds die, and we’re left with a two second loop of a piano, a phrase with no end and no beginning, no memory and no future, slowly decaying into silence. The shrinking man will eventually be reduced to an atom, but he still finds value in his existence. “There can be grandeur in a small thing,” Garrison Keillor once said; I would add that there can be beauty in broken things, as well as originality in replicas. And you know what? I’ve smelled the Exquisite Replica of “Eternity,” the perfume that is; it’s just fine.
1985-1989: Drunks With Guns
St. Louis’ Drunks With Guns were never really destined for much. It is unlikely that there will ever be a reunion tour, a reissue campaign, or a documentary filmed around the bands’ undying influence on the landscape of modern music. Their story is the prototypical one of the Midwestern hardcore band: started by four guys with enough suburban malaise to pick up some instruments and write some snotty songs about their misery.
What make the Drunks worthwhile are the details. Their songs don’t just crawl, they ooze forth slowly and recklessly, the rhythm section front and center with the droning bass work of Jim Boyle and Mike DeLeon on alternating releases. Stan Seitrech’s guitar work, obviously indebted to Ginn and Falconi, threatens to careen into jagged leads at any moment, while lead singer Mike Doskocil’s vocals are delivered in vitriolic spurts.
The band always appeared to have tongue firmly placed in cheek, though reports of their behavior may suggest otherwise. The cover of their first self titled 7-inch spoke volumes: a bunch of average looking guys hanging out in a basement with empty cans of the local swill heaped in piles around them. Lyrically, Drunks With Guns stayed true to their namesake. You won’t find songs with overarching metaphors based on the human condition. Just ruminations about getting sauced, crashing cars, and going to dumb parties. Opening lines like “Where’s my drugs/ Where’s my cash/ You ripped me off/ Stole my stash” are idiotic but certainly endearing.
“Wonderful Subdivision” is the group’s magnum opus. The track is the equivalent of a musical hangover with its’ pulsating bass throb and lumbering, giant drum beat. The guitar tries in vain to lighten the proceedings while Doskocil wretches forth lyrical proclamations steeped in suburban angst. The biggest and dumbest song in the bands’ big and dumb repertoire.
While Drunks With Guns may not be recognized as a classic punk act, it’s easy to argue their influence on the emergence of noise rock in the late 80s and early 90s. They definitely are not a thinking man’s band, but they never aspired to be. As a pallet cleanser I am hard pressed to think of anything better. Their recordings, while uneven in quality, do show surprising depth for the time. Beyond all of this, Drunks With Guns were a rarity in the hardcore scene in that they were actually a lot of fun. After the release of their final classic 7-inch Drug Problems in 1989, the group splintered into two very different bands under the same name. Neither quite reached the glory of the original group.
1968: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - “Fire”
Arthur Brown, who recorded the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic “I Put a Spell on You” and once played with British hit soul band The Foundations, is known first and foremost for his association with the element of fire, and secondly for his outstanding soul/R&B growl-to-falsetto. He wore special helmets on stage to resist fire, which only became a problem when he attempted fire-setting while wearing a colander on his head; a fan put out the flame in time to prevent serious damage.
However, if Arthur Brown’s acknowledgment of Screamin’ Jay’s influence is anything to go by, he was more than just an eccentric, he was a seasoned soul/blues performer for whom the devil was an integral part of the act. He inspired Alice Cooper, Kiss, and The Darkness (he appeared in The Darkness’ video as a priest – presumably in homage to his priest role in The Who’s Tommy). Wherever there was a flicker of hell-raising in music, Brown seemed to turn up. His one-hit-wonder “Fire” was heavily sampled by the Prodigy, who led their fans to believe that they were the original twisted fire-starters, when their rave tune owed its ferocity to the man who started fire-starting in the first place (N.B., the Prodigy’s “Fire” should not be confused with their single “Firestarter”, if possible).
Like Screamin’ Jay, Arthur Brown was ambitious and a trouper. Screamin’ Jay had aimed at a career in opera; when it fell short he played blues piano and sang. Brown’s ambitions carried him to Paris, where his band took up residency in the Moulin Rouge, honing their theatrical skills by playing with transvestites and other ‘characters’ of the Paris scene. Brown played with R&B and soul groups too before attracting attention (most notably from Pete Townshend of The Who) with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown band. The second single from the The Crazy World of Arthur Brown album went to Number One in the UK Charts and Number Two in the US during 1968.
As evidenced by live Brown’s live performances, even at his most outrageous his wonderful voice put all high jinx into perspective. Even in 1999, without the aid of fire, he was able to cast his theatrical spell. With his legacy cemented – Kiss’ makeup, invitations to play gigs all over the world – he appeared to have given up fire-starting. Only once in 2007 did he set his hair ablaze again. Another musician caught fire as a result; happily everyone was OK, and Brown remained the exception that proved the rule about playing with fire.
1984: Blurt - Bullets for You
Bullets for You is a classic recommended in hushed tones, even in this age of rabid internet file-sharing. The saxophone screeches without being obnoxious or out for blood like James Chance’s instrument; the guitar plays an amelodic but rhythmic march of random notes; the drums pound ahead monotonically like a choo-choo train trying to boogie for all it’s worth, scared to derail and kill the passengers within; and Ted Milton, the guy who’s blowing the reed, stops handling the sax to sing it and preach it like he’s not too convinced or enthusiastic. Yet it sounds like the most exciting thing in the world, or the 1984 equivalent of that feeling.
Milton formed Blurt in 1979 with his brother Jake, who had played in 70s psychedelic/prog band Quintessence, to give a vehicle to his lyrics. His verses have been described as existentialist, which isn’t surprising once you learn that Ted was a poet in the 60s (admired by the likes of Eric Clapton) before becoming a saxophonist. He was also a puppeteer who, among other things, worked on Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky.
More than no wave, Blurt sound like a less hyperactive (and political) prototype for bands like The Dog Faced Hermans, toying with playful dissonance even though their aim isn’t to destroy ears, but to sing a half constricted, poker-faced tune, as if they’re trying not to laugh from being overtly serious. Here’s the title track of the album, which you should definitely track down and enjoy.
1967: Roscoe Mitchell - The Complete Old/Quartet Sessions
The Art Ensemble of Chicago was one of the most visible and popular groups of the jazz vanguard throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, presenting emotionally powerful and often theatrical suites of free improvisation, rigorous composition and curveballs pointing to African highlife and early jazz. Despite the deaths of founding members trumpeter Lester Bowie (1941-1999) and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut (1927-2004), and the health concerns that have frequently sidelined reedman Joseph Jarman, the group has soldiered on into the 21st century with its complex approach to “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future.” Out of print for many years, their early work for Nessa Records was reissued in 1993 as a lavish boxed set – as that’s long sold out, the label has recently remastered the material and released it separately. The works comprise Bowie’s All the Numbers (1967, previously known as Numbers 1 & 2) and reedman Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious (1968) and Old/Quartet (1967, first issued in 1975).
Old/Quartet is the most recent offering and presents the very first iteration of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble across two discs and seven tracks. Here, Philip Wilson (1941-1992) is heard on drums; the lack of paying gigs sent him on the road with Paul Butterfield later that year and it wasn’t until 1970 that the AEC found a stable drummer in Famoudou Don Moye. Like other groups derived from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Art Ensemble was known for its broad, spacious improvisations and use of ‘little instruments’ – kazoos, whistles, bells, and tin cans filled with water – and a bevy of percussion. Without a jazz-drummer’s time, the monstrous chug of Favors’ bass could supply locomotion, drone and swing, supporting the horns’ flights as on the title track to their 1969 Tutankhamen LP (Freedom). But it’s quite another thing to hear Mitchell and Bowie trade angular volleys atop sashaying, detailed rumbas from Wilson’s limbs in the closing minutes of “Quartet No. 2”, a thirty-seven minute open improvisation. “Solo” closes out the first disc in sparse near-lullaby as Mitchell moves from alto to mallet percussion and tam-tam, with haranguing pops and shrieks maintaining a caressing conviction. Minus Bowie, the group works through a variation on “Oh Susanna” at the start of the second disc. The “song” is obscured and gradually unfolds as a tonal study for alto saxophone, bass, and percussion. Even at this early stage, the wit, camaraderie, and logic of the ensemble are displayed in vivid colors. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a recent convert to creative improvisation, you owe it to yourself to investigate the Art Ensemble on Nessa.
Note: Nessa Records does not have a website but their releases are available from better brick-and-mortar and online music retailers.
1963: Ronettes - “Be My Baby”
An impressive list of songs use the rhythmic underpinnings of “Be My Baby” to pay homage to and extend pop history. The iconic boom-ba-boom-pah drum intro often leads these works, as is the case with “Sowing Seeds” by The Jesus and Mary Chain (1985) and “No Dancing” by Elvis Costello (1977). The resultant songs are usually short (< 3 minutes long), melancholy, and with a tone of longing. In a way, it seems that the original song imprints itself on future models.
For the Ronette’s recording of “Be My Baby,” Hal Blaine, the session musician who played the drum part, commands the listener to attention while creating an element of suspense. After the intro, Phil Spector, the famed eccentric producer of the song, weaves in his signature Wall of Sound, a single, powerful background sound that comprises both melody and dense instrumentation. The vocals by Ronnie Spector express persistent interest in the perspective baby. Phil Spector, who famously would ask his production team when crafting pop, “Is it dumb enough”, must have sensed that the simplicity of the beat and lyrics acted as a fine counterpoint to the complexity of his Wall of Sound.
Regardless of the reasoning, Blaine’s drum part and Spector’s production tricks are endlessly recycled. The recent wave of 60s girl group nostalgia has brought with it a new crop of appropriators, from “Ghost Mouth” by Girls (2009) to “I Want To” by Best Coast (2010). And it seems that as long as musicians dig into the past for inspiration, “Be My Baby” will continue to live on.