1984: Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade
Hüsker Dü formed when I was born and released Zen Arcade when I was barely a smidgen of the music junkie I was to become. It took a phase of dad rock (literally whatever my pop listened to) followed by a phase of MTV-informed pop, then a hair metal stint, followed by a phase of industrial and alternative rock, before I was turned onto Zen Arcade in high school. It was a friend's cool older brother that tipped me to it, and it's stuck with me to this day. I've grown to listen to a wide array of music, but, in a way, little has changed in what I respond to. Raw emotion and hard rock still gets me psyched about life. The noisier the better, and boy is Zen Arcade noisy. It's still one of the most potent things I've ever heard, and continues to strike an emotional chord that’s as adult as it is adolescent. It's like one long, exasperated, bitter swallow of everything that pushes you to utter despair. When listening to it, the thought of intellectualizing or critiquing the songs feels mind-numbingly anti-climactic. So I figure I’ll just have to rant here.
There was something of that Nine Inch Nails-type lashing out that hooked me to songs like "Never Talking to You Again" and "I'll Never Forget You." You can bet there were folks in my high school days that fit those sentiments to a tee. But as much as there was that sort of run-of-the-mill teenage catharsis, there was an earnestness and urgency to the raw production and rabid playing that made NIN and Smashing Pumpkins seem flat by comparison. Admittedly, I never could stand the noisy sprawl of "Reoccurring Dreams" for too long, yet I could see how perfect it worked as a finale. Now it's my favorite part of the record by far, though nearly every song on here is a classic in the truest sense. Take away the context the band is placed in, and what you have is a miraculous recording more than worthy of one of those classic album docs they do for releases like The Joshua Tree and Transformer. A lot of these songs could - and should - be played on a classic rock station. Zen Arcade is more than just a punk rock staple; it's a solid, infectious and perfectly coalescing collection of songs. I sensed this at seventeen and I know this to be true today.
Bob Mould, as a performer, does that half-singing, half-howling style better than anyone. Every line is belted out as though he were singing while teetering on a cliff edge. It's so simultaneously bracing and heart-rending that a punk novice like myself couldn't help but be taken in by the messy, early-hardcore template they work from. I'm still no punk/hardcore aficionado, but I'll take Zen Arcade over the more pop-embracing Bob Mould or Sugar records any day. It's still that perfect balance of pure pop and utter dissonance that moves me more than anything else, and this album is one of the pinnacles of that type of melding. Though it's as much in the variation from track to track as it is within a given tune, there are plenty of smart, fist-pumpingly great hooks mixed in with the seeming reckless abandon of the performances. The experience is one of becoming at home with indelible songs, as well as feeling like you're mercilessly being slapped around by your inner demons. The record's not comfy, but it's definitely inviting.
What's interesting about this album, upon reflection, is how much of it is just dumb hard rock tropes revitalized. Many of the choruses are as rote as can be, and the lyrics are ridiculously direct. "Standing by the Sea" is as much a flailing, impassioned instant classic (check the urgent bass line) as it is cornball high school poetry. "Hare Krishna" is a goofy, messing around in the studio idea made gripping by sheer cacophony. On "Somewhere," the heroic guitar line takes the banal lyrics, "there's happiness instead of pain" and "dirt is washed out with the rain" and casts them in iron. Heart-on-your-sleeve is rarely this unassailable. It's such a tricky thing that when it works you almost don't want to analyze for fear of upsetting the translation from speakers to the ears to the brain. Fickle folks could poke a million holes in this album, but in the end it still moves people more than it inspires derision. It's just what the doctor ordered when it comes to rock music that’s as endearing as it is fun. I've read a lot of online comments calling Zen Arcade impenetrable and something that cred-seekers cite but never listen to. Without going into this too deeply (we're talking internet comment blurbs here) I'd like to reiterate that this is an immensely enjoyable album. It's one to blast at high volume and air guitar around the room to. It's like Kiss anthems for people who don't like Kiss. And it's nicely filled out with heady interludes (okay, so the tepid piano instrumental "Monday Will Never Be The Same" may be kinda weak -- at least it's short) to keep things from getting too overwhelming.
This is a record for everyone who loves rock music - not just punk rock elitists - so readers new to this band should take note. With any luck Hüsker Dü will follow suit with other great independent acts of the eighties and reunite for at least a show or two. This album alone (along with Everything Falls Apart, New Day Rising and the Metal Circus EP) shows a band well suited to a continued life outside of their heyday. If not, at least we've got this material to keep us tuned in to how a formula rooted in simplicity can translate into timelessness.
1981: Holly and The Italians - The Right to Be Italian
It doesn’t seem fair that Pat Benetar is a cultural touchstone, the quintessential ’80s tough girl, while Holly Beth Vincent is all but lost to rock history. These two contemporaries share a pop aesthetic strongly influenced by both ’60s girl groups and ’70s punk rock, but while it didn’t take Benetar long to win international fame, Vincent has continued to languish in relative obscurity, despite the fact that she’s the real deal. Sure, we all love to sing along with “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “Love Is a Battlefield,” but Benetar didn’t even co-write those hits. Vincent not only writes her own songs, but also collaborated with Joey Ramone on a 1982 cover of “I Got You Babe.” Given the choice, I know who I’m picking.
It was Vincent’s first album, as the frontwoman of Holly and The Italians, that caught my eye in a record store bargain bin. The album cover features Vincent holding her guitar, looking tough but vaguely out of place in a pink dress and matching gloves, with short, ever-so-slightly mullet-ish hair. The bold, trashy title of the single “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” sold me, but I didn’t expect much beyond novelty value out of the LP. In that song, Vincent tears apart the girlfriend of a guy she likes, derisively noting, “She likes to seem intellectual/ and to be a musician.” It’s everything that a song called “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” should be — bratty, snarky, and full of high school kitsch, but impossibly catchy at the same time.
The rest of The Right to Be Italian exceeded my wildest expectations. Though the songs focus on themes that are so common as to be clichéd, Vincent injects each with such vitality, via a unique combination of quick-witted commentary and upbeat melodies, that the album never feels trite. In “Youth Coup,” the obligatory exhortation to teenage rebellion, Vincent’s voice sounds neither angry nor disaffected. ’60s pop influences are obvious on “I Wanna Go Home,” in which hand-claps and boy/girl harmonizing back lyrics about the singer’s homesickness for Los Angeles, with its Burger Kings and 7/11 Slurpees, written after the band relocated from the States to London. The Italians really cook on the rockabilly-flavored “Means to a Den,” with the killer line, “It takes intelligence to change the world.” A faithful but knowing cover of The Chiffons’ dreamy “Just for Tonight” confirms the band’s source of inspiration.
The Right to Be Italian is a radio-ready pop classic that just never took off. For some reason, “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” didn’t even make it to the singles charts. And though Holly Beth Vincent will never appear alongside Pat Benetar (or Chryssie Hynde, or Debbie Harry) on VH1’s I Love the ’80s, she remains the real deal, continuing to [write and release music->http://www.myspace.com/hollybethvincent] more than 25 years after her underrated debut.
2006: The Magik Markers - The Voldoror Dance
Sometimes I just don’t even know what to think about the idea of rock music. At this point, the all-encompassing definition of rock has become a joke; I’ve had it with dubiously intentioned attempts to rescue this dying lumbering dinosaur that’s been limping around lethargically since whatever comet of corporate greed and middle-American complacency decided to ruin the free-spirited fun for the rest of us. I mean, we have some folks who can be allowed to participate in metaphorical near-necrophilia; if you’re in a band with noticeable talent and vigor, like, say, The Dirtbombs or Comets On Fire or Major Stars, who can make head-crackingly excellent rock ’n’ roll, this is by far a much needed respite. But I’m through with those rock elitists who are trying way too hard to define rock as the one domineering genre above all others or as a piece of narcissistic abstract comfort that makes whatever schmuck with a guitar or flashy stage moves feel he is a special and clever being amongst his petty escapades of sex, drugs, and his dying mistress. I don’t even need to start naming names, but if you turn on your TV or radio, it’s there: a fairly repulsive and vile rotting corpse of “authentic” rock idealism that rings nauseatingly narcissistic and cliquish.
Since we really can’t save it, we just need people to destroy rock ’n’ roll from the inside out, to the point where it will potentially become vibrant again to those willing to think outside earthly constraints. And as too many self-consciously hip guitar bands have shown us as of late, you can’t invigorate anything with doses of stagnation; try telling that to whomever thinks some power chords, coke, and backstage oral sex is a great statement of purpose or valid artistic sentiment in and of itself, and you may get hostile stares. I mean, Jagger and Page had a lot of lurid and despicably hedonistic fun in their day, but they were also mad geniuses. I don’t know what kind of debauchery the Magik Markers get up to – maybe none for all I know – but at least by listening to The Voldoror Dance, the latest release in a never-ending series of tour CD-Rs, weird vinyl, and unofficial CD randomness, they’re probably having a seance or destroying things living or inanimate, even if only in the fantasies that dart through their synapses while drudging up such glorious mess. In the process, they gouge rock 'n' roll inside out, and what seems like a damaging overhaul is in actuality a violent life force that rock as a whole so desperately needs.
I’ve written about the Markers before, and I really can’t offer much more in the way of new approaches to these geniuses other than that they are my only uninhibited dream of a band that’s materialized in my young life. My generation produced a lot of commodity that was supposed to make me feel like throwing chairs and throwing a fist in society’s jaw, but this music actually delivers on such promises of daydreamed and internalized rebellion. It all feels beautifully destructive and powerful, which I’m told by the elders of rock music is what it had set out to do all along. It’s vicious and cacophonic, and there are barely any chords or riffs or any of that, but it’s honestly far from a criticism. Any rock snob who wants to downplay what the Markers do is overlooking that rock ’n’ roll isn’t supposed to pat us on the head. The people who wanted safe rock got their Pat Boones and their Breads and their Air Supplys; this contentious mess is potentially of the most freeing scuzz produced since no-wave and Ron Asheton made their respective marks.
But I digress. This is about the Markers. The Voldoror Dance is their most “professional” recorded piece, in that it was set to tape in an actual studio, and you can hear their tantrums in full clear sonic glory in the now, rather than echoing in your head after attending one of their shows. As most everything Elisa, Pete, and Leah have put out, it’s paradoxically beautiful and repulsive and flooring all at once; “Binary For Carey Loren” is 26-and-a-half minutes of what it means to have enjoyed punk rock, or, as a young and disillusioned music fan, to have a record in your collection that at least appears to encompass the thrill it was to have heard Kick Out The Jams or No New York when they were first unveiled. Amidst all of this id relinquishing, we also get the psychedelic-dubbed wonderment of “Ab’R-AChad-Ab’ Ra” and an honest-to-god filth rock death chant in “Pinkie Brown Goes To The Shore,” as great a nugget of bile as any since Pussy Galore vomited all over their garage.
Each day going into 2007 I see a steady stream of chaos, whether it be more corporate idiocy that urges us to rank our friends, a clueless and shortsighted populace willing to let pixelated representations of cartoon characters constitute a terror scare, or just the general mass vile stew of political and religious tomfoolery and everyday selfishness that permeates our culture. The Voldoror Dance is as confusing and bewildering a representation of our tumultuous new century as we may get, and since everyone is frowning and panicking about how dire the state of being alive has become, at least now we have musicians who, intentionally or not, are soundtracking and, ironically, relieving the headache I get everyday from turning on my television.
1. The Scream Of The Horses Glowing White
2. Binary For Carey Loren
3. Pinkie Brown Goes To The Shore (The Hero Of The Sea Is A Hero Of Death)
4. Ab’R-ACHad-Ab’ Ra
1996: Herbert - 100 Lbs.
“With techno, breakbeat, and the beginnings of jungle, there was a lot of very male, macho, aggressive music. My work was meant to be an alternative to that.” - Matthew Herbert
I’m no math whiz, but from what I’ve heard, at a certain point, mathematics becomes much less regimented and much more playful than the algebra and trig I grappled with in high school. Numbers and equalities start giving way to curves and alphabets novices have no hope of breaking back down into simple digits. Appropriate, then, that techno -- a particularly mathematical music, with its reliance on machines and computers and rhythm -- has a natural stage in the club, where people are perhaps at their most playful, thanks to that music (and the chemicals, themselves products of no small amount of math). In this sense, Matthew Herbert is perhaps the ideal producer; his music has always struck me as particularly ludic: even the most aggressive Herbert tracks don’t jack -- they scoot.
The wily Brit started his career trying to recast house as a less muscular and more frisky genre. His first record, 100 Lbs., came out in 1996, and K7 has now re-released it with a sweet disc of bonus material. It’s a choice moment for a retrospective: a decade-plus into his career, Herbert last year released Scale, his most confident and charismatic work to date. The man has become a bona fide chronicler of pop history via his sprightly, conscientious compositions. Albeit a bit wonky at times, his albums pack both attentive political messages and ample dancefloor impetus.
With his recent accomplishments in mind, listening to 100 Lbs. now is a bit like seeing a clip of a master mathematician as a seven-year-old, furrowing his brow as he tries to carry the remainder in an arithmetic exercise. The songs are skillfully, if somewhat overtly, constructed, and Herbert is largely successful in taking some of the piss out of aggro house and replacing it with suave perfume. Be it a patient vibraphone melody or those quirky rhythms scattered around the obligatory 4/4 bassbeat, you can hear snatches of the Herbert to come here, despite the conspicuous absence of some of his later sonic trademarks. 100 Lbs. provides a satisfying listen, offering pleasures both present and nostalgic.
If the first disc shows Herbert in the rather artificial mask of straight-up house producer, the bonus disc presents the listener the variety of original guises the man has worn since then (although many of them still bear traces of 1990s cosmetics). The tracks span work from 1996-2000. “Back to the Start Back Back Back Back” bounces playfully like any number of Herbert tracks from yesteryear, and the sadness of the vocal sample creates the chipper-melancholy juxtaposition he continues to exploit in contemporary releases. It’s a good representative track, and it comfortably introduces the listener to the disc’s ensuing eccentricities. “Fischcoteque” crackles and squelches through five minutes that would be right at home on an Autechre record; immediately following is “I Hadn’t Known (I Only Heard),” which evinces Herbert’s knack for compiling sundry pop influences in a track whose generous funk momentum belies its latent glumness.
Altogether, it adds up to a characteristically sporting and very worthwhile release. Can serve as a nice addition to the collection of longtime fans and a competent introduction for newcomers.
1973: John Cale - Paris 1919
As The Velvet Underground seemed to be reaching the zenith of its artistic potential in 1968, there was unfortunately another type of escalation that the band was experiencing; the rift between frontman Lou Reed and the overlooked, yet essential architect of the more experimental and daring aspects of VU's unique sound, John Cale. The chasm between the two grew until Reed threatened to leave the band, thus resulting in the remaining members' begrudging decision to cast Cale out of the band.
After Reed himself eventually left The Velvet Underground in 1970, the contrast in the burgeoning solo careers of both men at this early stage reveals a curious dichotomy between Lou Reed's 1972 hit Transformer and John Cale's Paris 1919, which followed only one year later. For as timely and glossy as Lou Reed's walk on the wild side of the glam movement was, Cale's Paris 1919 was diametrically opposed in its sweetly anachronistic flavor and earnestness, taking its cues from the mellow warmth of soft rock and chamber pop. Given Cale's avant-garde pedigree, having worked with artists such as John Cage and LaMonte Young's Dream Syndicate, this album was certainly a jarring shift, especially for listeners who might have been expecting that his previous effort with minimalist Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, would have been a return to form for him and a comfortable niche to settle into.
Instead, we find John Cale abandoning the mesmerizing rigidity of his former projects, adopting a sound with a softer, more refined focus. Cale's ethereal Welsh lilt is framed by the leisurely, pastoral sprawl of guitars and pianos and, on several songs, orchestral accompaniments that masterfully pirouette between being baroque and sprightly. The atmosphere of Paris 1919 is one of curious opposites, as one can hear the echoes of naked folksy earnestness so prevalent in his early '70s contemporaries, such as Cat Stevens, Neil Young, and James Taylor, yearning to break the tense surface of gentlemanly restraint. The understated sway of "Hanky Panky Nohow," with its surehanded fingerpick twinkle and sleepy strings, evokes Nick Drake being channeled through the warm glow of a golden AM radio, while "Graham Greene"'s buoyant horn stabs, off-kilter piano, and jaunty vocal phrasing come off as one of the best songs Belle and Sebastian never wrote.
While we may wonder and mourn what could have been if the wills of Reed and Cale had not forced them apart all the way until the short-lived "reunion" in the '90s, we are left with two artists whose respective approaches to reinvention were unsurprisingly different. While Lou Reed became a professional chameleon of sorts, overtly signaling any marked shifts in his sound, John Cale seemed to enjoy a more subtle method. If being avant-garde is the act of subverting common expectations, then Cale slyly crafted a brilliant achievement in Paris 1919 by utilizing a mournful gentility to catch his original target audience unaware and hiding in plain sight.
1972: Lou Reed - Transformer
In 1972, just two years after abandoning The Velvet Underground, frontman extraordinaire Lou Reed decided to embark on a solo odyssey just as the sleazy slither of the glam-rock movement had begun to win over the hearts, minds, and grinding hips of a generation when bands such as Mott The Hoople, David Bowie, and T-Rex became painted, androgynous deities.
After his adequate but unspectacular eponymous debut, Reed was savvy enough to sense the growing popularity of glam and its potential to be the vehicle for his musical rebirth. He also utilized the immense talents of David Bowie and Mick Ronson as the figurative midwives for the delivery of his first masterpiece, Transformer. While listeners will no doubt hear the more overt trappings of glam throughout the album, it becomes apparent that Reed's intentions are far more interesting than simply aping the horny frills and ass-shaking grooves of his contemporaries, instead simultaneously embracing and subverting the conventions of what some might have considered a fun, yet frivolous, sound.
Within the tightly wound genre of glam-rock lies a core of showy exuberance, and while Bowie and Ronson's tutelage may have led him to embrace their sound, Reed's natural personality and drowsy, dispassionate delivery gently mock listeners' expectations by defying our predetermined notions of sexy excitement with a familiar backdrop blended with elements of winking irony and anti-theatrics. Opening track "Vicious," for example, finds Lou monotonally drawling verses about suffering absurd cruelties: "You hit me with a flower/ You do it every hour/ Oh baby, you're so vicious," as the periodic punch of Mick Ronson's guitar lines throw up showers of golden sparks between lines, finally culminating in a wah-wah-fueled solo that dances and contorts like a serpentine livewire, playing up the disparity between the song's lyrical content and its title and music. Reed's brand of irony is not completely relegated to the humorous or offbeat, as evidenced by the morose piano ballad, "Perfect Day," which juxtaposes the seemingly pleasant and sedate activities of a couple in love with a melancholic dirge steeped in a black cup of ennui and defeat stirred by the swelling of bittersweet strings.
Despite all of that, Reed is just as adept at playing the genre straight for the eyeliner set. He churns out a couple of gems replete with fuzzy riffs and soulful background singers on "Andy's Chest" and "Wagon Wheel." Most impressive, however, is “Satellite of Love,” a dreamy cabaret-flavored piano ballad whose Hunky Dory-esque tone eventually dissolves into a sublime melange of subtle finger snaps, insistent horns, and spacey background vocals that sound like a handful of helium-filled Bolans being released into orbit.
Looking back on the diverse body of Lou Reed's work, it turns out that not only was the title Transformer the name of the record that put him back on the map, but may also have been a prescient wink from a man who always knew that his greatest strength would be that of fearless adaptability.