1904: Gustav Mahler - Kindertotenlieder
There is plenty of mournful music out there, and a lot of it gets mocked. But I can’t imagine anyone making fun of Kindertotenlieder, one of the bleakest pieces of music ever conceived.
Inspired by poems written by Friedrick Rückert after the death of two of his children from scarlet fever, Mahler took five of Rückert’s 428 poems and set them to music that matched the intense grief found in his words. The piece — whose title translates to “Songs on the Death of Children” — is divided into five “songs” intended to be played in order, starting with mournful melodies executed by an orchestra and a vocalist. The music goes through passages of solace and frustrated rage, but eventually culminates in a sort of splendor of major keys that reflect hope and acceptance.
The subject matter is one of true sorrow and agony. Even doom metal doesn’t compare to this; however, it’s worth noting that KTL — the band Stephen O’Malley (the guitarist not only in Sunn O))) but also in one of the bleakest groups of all time, Khanate) formed with Peter “Pita” Rehberg — takes its name from this piece. In theory Kindertotenlieder is what doom and other devastating musical styles attempt to capture, but it touches on something very difficult to write about and embodies it with melodies of equal emotional impact.
The best thing about this piece is how Mahler wrote it in subtle tones, keeping it very close to the chest to make it sound almost like a personal dirge. The listener isn’t led by the hand to know what to feel; instead, the music slowly reveals itself, blossoming on the ear canal of anyone who encounters it, a composition that encloses order to the chaotic nature of one of the most distressful and agonizing situations one can experience in life.
2003: Movietone - “Snow is Falling”
The opening moments of the Movietone song “Snow is Falling” have always been like a magic wand. Despite the fragility of Kate Wright’s voice, this tune belies the immaculate, frozen moment like no other. If it weren’t so angelic, it’d perfectly capture the still, glazed-over hushedness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s Presbyterian Church.
But this tune, nestled in the knee of Movietone’s 2004 swan song The Sand and The Stars (Drag City, 2003), lights into the air and patiently sashays into the heavens on a swell of woodwinds. It’s a song of small wonder, akin to the wide-eyed poise of Vashti Bunyan or the deliberate sentimentality of Antony. It’s a place where you wanna be present, never once allowing the past or the future to shake your crystalline perspective. And, like a lot of the best things in life, it’s gone before you can truly grab hold of it.
1989: The Strangulated Beatoffs - The Beatoffs
The unplanned obsolescence of St. Louis, Missouri was going to have an impact on the musical culture of the city at some point. That is, it was bound to have an impact besides setting everything back by 10, 15, 20 years, culturally; there were going to be bands that were reacting to their surroundings not by trying to sound like what they thought people wanted to hear, but by actually ingesting what was happening around them and spitting something else back. By the mid-1980s, money had started bleeding from the city of St. Louis badly, mostly due to old legislation that legally separated (and still separates) the county and city, and when families flooded to the suburbs in the 1950s, buildings started being abandoned, neighborhoods became poor, and the city as a whole began literally crumbling. The cultural hub for jazz and blues 50 years earlier had become ignored and desolate — entirely lonely.
The press release for The Beatoffs starts with a quote from Joe Stumble’s regional blog, Last Days Of Man On Earth: “Today, I don’t think people can accurately understand the cultural void that was the suburban Midwest in the early 1980s. No internet. No email. No cell phones. No social networking. Shit, there wasn’t even cable in 1983.” Earlier in the same blog post, Stumble brings up The Screamin’ Mee-Mee’s, an early-80s St. Louis band, saying they were “part of the great Midwestern archetype of the ‘planned obsolescent’ i.e. the lone set of eccentrics jamming in a basement with a tape-deck.” Later, he says of The Strangulated Beatoffs that they “inherited the crown of planned obsolescence.”
The joke behind The Strangulated Beatoffs was that they meant it. Their whole concept was intended to deter listeners, rather than attract them; most of their music is drones, loops, noise, and gristle, filled with irreverence. The last thing you hear on The Beatoffs is Stan Seitrich and Fritz Noble screaming, “Try the wine!” after singing a half-hearted rendition of “Her Majesty,” followed by one of them making fart sounds while the other one laughs. More than one of the songs begins with someone burping. What did it matter? Not many people were listening, and those who did were in on it; besides, Stan and Fritz were making their music for themselves. And that’s part of the reason we can be so sure that they meant it.
The Strangulated Beatoffs bring to mind Hermey the elf from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, who wanted to be a dentist instead of making toys, who sang, “You can’t fire me, I quit,” before setting sail for the Island of Misfit Toys. They sidelined themselves instead of facing the rejection of other people doing it to them. The band is angry and smoldering, lazy and stoned. But the music that they made evolved and became a harsh experiment in misused psychedelics and crushing distortion — all tongue-in-cheek and laid out like a dare. Days Of Our Lives, their debut album, has a centerpiece of three songs, the longest of which, “Bothered,” is nearly 20 minutes of pulsing, cloudy vocals and beat loops. Being a fan of their music can feel like a chore, like they made it that way just for the sake of unlistenability. Based on the size of their fan-base, it worked.
The Beatoffs, taken as an album, is short and strange; much of the music made by The Strangulated Beatoffs is purposefully pointless, looping in stasis rather than growing. But a record of Beatles covers is the ultimate exercise in pointlessness. This is a record that no one asked for, and it seems all the stranger because the covers aren’t “re-interpretations” at all, but pretty straight-ahead versions of the songs recorded crudely to crackly multi-track cassette. And, all the more, it feels like they meant it; The Strangulated Beatoffs have never been a band to let down their bluff, and the concept on this album feels very Beatoffs-esque, like it ought to be a joke, but the punchline isn’t there, and the joke just turns into a story.
Most of the songs are covered faithfully, especially “Don’t Let Me Down” (where the bass stutters and trips as it recreates McCartney’s bass line), “Ticket To Ride,” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” There’s even an unlisted, partial cover of the medley from Abbey Road near the end of side B, and by that point, there seems an obvious kinship between the bands: that, by the time The Beatles were recording The Beatles, they were less concerned with saying anything and more interested in making something, creating as a cure for boredom or as a means of making meaning and purpose. The Beatoffs’ version of “Dear Prudence” is nothing more than clanging guitar and mumbled vocals — simple and fast, like they needed another song in order to flush out this concept and didn’t feel like putting much work into it.
More than anything, The Beatoffs feels like a primary source document of the desolate Midwest that Joe Stumble describes. The band’s music is typically misanthropic, bored, furious — but on this record, less so. We imagine mythos for the bands that we love and the worlds they create, and in the Strangulated Beatoffs mythos, they don’t try, because trying is weakness, and when you’re mocking everybody, you can’t be weak. But they tried at this. Making sense of where this record fits into the Beatoffs’ discography yields little fruit; this might as well be anybody, bored and lonely, taking frequent breaks from recording to smoke weed and walk down to the 7-11, television humming in the background, parents’ foot steps overhead, listening back to Beatles songs over and over to figure out parts.
The Midwestern archetype of the “planned obsolescent” is a misnomer; these bands want to be listened to and loved, remembered, but they don’t want to do it on your terms. They don’t like you. And if you want to be a fan, they don’t want it to be easy for you. Which is fine, I think — I like being challenged by people, feeling like I “get it,” am “in on it.” I’m not, of course. But no band has summed up the bitterness of living in St. Louis and the isolated Midwest more effectively than The Strangulated Beatoffs. When other people make life difficult for you, it is often your inclination to make life difficult for other people.
1996: The Melvins - “Theresa Screams”
“Hands down our all time favorite Melvins song,” say the liner notes.
Well, on the face of it, that sounds like a pretty weird thing for a band with a discography as rich as The Melvins to claim. “Theresa Screams” looks very much like a B-side with a cosmic significance probably not much greater than zero. It originally came out as part of a series of 12 7-inches released one each month in 1996, later collated on CD. To all appearances, it’s situated somewhere on the confusing border between space-filling throwaway garbage and precious collector-commodity (an ambiguous zone that Melvins releases have frequently occupied — cf. the entirely silent Shit Sandwich…And You Just Took a Bite 7-inch among others.) And unlike even the semi-notorious (and actually often diverting) fan un-favorite Prick, “Theresa Screams” features pretty much none of the things Melvins might be known for: no riffs, no drums, not even any kind of noise/sample manipulation.
Instead, it’s composed of an unedited recording of the hapless “Theresa” being goaded into recapturing an earlier and apparently quite impressive scream, her every attempt deemed insufficient by the engineer or unsuccessful because of some mysterious (read: non-existent) “slight technical hitch.” Near the start, Theresa says “I don’t have anger, you guys; I’m too mellow,” but with each unsatisfying effort, her screams become more cracked and desperate, closer to whatever the opaque criteria those involved are supposed to be judging it by. Exploitative? Hard to say — Theresa seems to be a volunteer, although she might not have had in mind the treatment she receives. Obnoxious? Perhaps, but although I concede that there have also been times it seemed irritating and unpalatable, I’ll probably end up on the wrong side of history by saying that, in the right kind of mood, it can be pretty amusing.
That’s probably the key. In the liner notes to the more recent (and unfortunately mostly underwhelming) covers album, Everybody Loves Sausages, King Buzzo says of The Fugs that they were “the kind of hippies I liked; mean spirited with a wicked sense of humor.” These words might just as well be applied to his own band — and to what, as much as any of the things they’re better known for, really sets them apart from many bands on their particular continuum of “heavy” music. For The Melvins, this particular kind of humor is a more entertaining stand-in for (real?) conceptual-musical experimentation, providing many of the latter’s effects — uncertainty of outcome, the confounding of expectations, and the opening of previously unimagined vistas of sound-possibility, un-easy listening, etc. etc. — without unnecessary intellectualism or the years of having to figure out the meaning of it all. So maybe it constitutes a more accessible route to the same ends — if you’re in on the joke, that is, not on the end of it.
Humor in music is, as everyone knows, difficult to execute effectively. To work, it usually has to be well-tempered, the right kind in the right measure; things to avoid (among others) include excesses of zaniness and goofiness, pretentiousness, condescension and straight-up smugness. But as Hobbes once wrote, “men laugh at Jests, the witt whereof always consisteth in the Elegant discovering and conveying to our mindes some absurdity of another.” Not everyone these days would subscribe to such a theory, at least as the sole explanation of humor; it seems apt enough for The Melvins though. Their sense of humor may sometimes be cynical or cruel, but they have managed to evade the above-mentioned pitfalls more often than not. Of course, there’s always a pretty fine line; which side of that line “Theresa Screams” falls on is up to you.
2013: The Drones - I See Seaweed
Mea culpa, but better late than never, and you don’t need a Doc-equipped DeLorean to travel to a time where this record is still vitally relevant, because you’re standing in it. We’ve paid The Drones their dues twice in a row for records still as essential as they were when they came out, so let me not allow the circle to go unbroken: I See Seaweed is the best album by The Drones yet, which makes it one of the best rock albums of this nascent decade, full stop, and go take a float down the river if you disagree. Arguing why you need to hear The Drones is almost a moot point by now, but this record perfects the smacks you around the noggin’ with more dread-filled hopelessness than an entire tent of doomed Arctic explorers, while somehow remaining more elliptical and brutal than anything else they’ve released, moving with a mixture of reckless uncertainty and whiplash dynamism that makes “Jezebel” feel like breakfast cereal.
(Basic assumptions going forward:  Gareth Liddiard is the greatest lyricist currently working in the idiom of guitar music (uncontestable), and  When Iggy Pop gave up on punk, it went to Australia to be periodically resurrected there for at least a while [sorta contestable])
The Drones made their reputation on calling bullshit for what it is, whether the folly is English redcoats chasing down newly Antipodean convicts for sport or I See Seaweed extends the problematic to global warming, the degradation of rural towns for mining purposes, the destruction of animals for space research, and the hegemony of conservative media shock jocks. As usual, they beat you with their truth in a way that’s peculiarly Australian, goldminer-cum-sledgehammer, but what’s new is how much better they are at investing their arrangements with a deftness of cruelty, as if there’s a sense of permanent incipience and tension, in that the hardest moment is always the one yet to come. They no longer need to blast you to get the point across, which is a strange mercy, and something largely due to Steve Hesketh’s keyboards being constantly present like a drowning seagull pinned beneath a mast beam. Listening to the Drones is now more Pale King than Money, and we’re richer for it.
Take “They’ll Kill You,” which details the failures that twenty-something Australian emigrants encounter when they try and escape reality by positing a greater one beyond that country’s borders. The cracking of illusion is painted in the way the chord progression yields and opens to a seasick lurch down the scale in the bridge, sliding like the point in an argument where things start getting thrown, and sinking towards the inevitable conclusion: “this birdhouse migrates too”. It’s downright devastating, and in doing so, it pins down a peculiarly Australian neurosis in a way that’s instantly accessible in a fashion that Sixteen Straws couldn’t have been. The message is clear. The country isn’t the problem.
Accessibility is a moronic characteristic to mention with a band as gut-shakingly vital as The Drones, but it bears an important point out: the more this band evolves, the more they are capable of bringing people inside the tent. Where once Liddiard scraped a comb across the Australian past, here he discusses our communal post-(and possibly pre-)atomic future in terms that leave no one cold, but everyone chilled. Although we’re all fucked, this is not the paean to hopelessness that previous records have been; what I See Seaweed excoriates of false moralism, willed ignorance, abdicated responsibility, and misplaced misanthropy. As The Quietus pointed out, Liddiard isn’t recommending the grab-a-gun-and-blow-your-mind-out fatalism of Havilah’s “Oh My” anymore; this is him throwing down the fucking gauntlet, because he is talking directly to you here. This is not historical recollection, this is not documentary, this is the nine o’clock news, looking you right in the fucking eyes and waiting for you to start doing something real.
To get to the heart of I See Seaweed is to grow incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of only serving yourself, of condescending to your weaker parts, to say we didn’t start the fire and curl up in front of Game of Thrones. To be more to the point, any forward-moving relevance that g/b/d/k/v music is going to have relies on music like this, stuff that uses the inherited, elemental force of sweaty anger to drive a stake through the arrogance that mere consumption and observation entails, the notion that old forms can be superseded through aiming towards invention alone, that considerations of mere aesthetic alone trump meaning and urgency, that having someone put their bloody hands around your throat is a passe gesture. Music that prescribes nothing but diagnoses, and leaves you to pick up the tools. What we need, what we will always need, is art that apprehends you with the threat of making you fucking afraid and aware of the fact that you are a problem. You are a problem, and I See Seaweeed has to ask: Whose side are you on? Just yours? Wrong answer.
1995: The Amps - Pacer
With all the hoopla (full-album setlisted original lineup tour, SPIN retrospective, etc.) around Last Splash in 2013, I can’t help but feel it’s time for Pacer to get its due. At the time of its releases, pithmaster General Robert Christgau slogged off the album as “slight,” but time has shown me that where Frank Black Francis’ yelping, David Thomas-y sing-song has grown shrill and cloying, Kim Deal’s ciggy-charred, girl-group-that-beats-up-the-other-girl-groups voice has only calcified in its ineffable grace. There was such a charge putting this album on, after hearing “Tipp City” on 120 Minutes, and realizing it only gets better.
As much as I’d loved Last Splash, it paled in comparison to this catchy, cut-loose batch of unassailably distinctive garage anthems. The only thing slight about this album was that it left me wanting more, and near-20 years later, even spare, thorny sidesteps like “Breaking The Split Screen Barrier” and “Hoverin,” have exponentially grown on me with their offbeat charms (dig that crash cymbal work at 1:48 on the latter). The Dean did offer some praise of Kim’s voice, as it is one of those irresistible elements that make her stop-start musical career all the more frustrating. But life happens, and you can’t force inspiration (some of Mountain Battles illustrated the unfortunate result of this).
I recommend the above video — my current favorite and side two opener, “First Revival” — as a stellar example (out of 12) of how this album is truly inspired and a million times better than its obscure displacement in rock history would suggest.