1989: Haruomi Hosono - “Pleocene”
I should tell you that, on a Saturday night early in 2012, I told my roommates that I was staying in and found something on the internet. It was late, around 1 AM I think, when I found this thing on the internet, and it became very important to me, inarguably the most important thing. Around 4 AM, when my the roommates returned from the bars, I was awake with this thing in my room.
See, what I found on the internet was a song, but first it was a black-and-white video shot from the passenger seat of a car to music. The car in the video drives slow down a road empty but for its dirt and coursing foliage; a single moth flashes white hot early on, lit up by the car’s headlights, but other than that. Then the road becomes paved, teeming with life, or signifiers of life: cars passing other cars, a tunnel, lights that threaten overexposure: structures and infrastructures that humans build. The camera wobbles, but I don’t know that it trembles, because trembling requires a person to tremble, and there are no people in sight.
Midway through this video, credits somehow roll, and I became very nervous for the song, absurdly. This song is the single most important thing, and it wouldn’t be right to do it so wrong. But the car continues and ends, as the song does, abruptly, early, wrongly, as expected.
I found the song in its complete version that same night, not much later. I got to know it, and I was so happy. By the early morning, the song became for me a part of a record, but I still prefer it alone and disfigured, as it was that one time on camera.
2003: The Speaking Canaries - “Get Out Alive: The Long Version”
There’s never been more a more dangerous threat to rock than restraint, never a more pernicious maxim than nothing in excess. Well, that might not be a rule that can actually be generalized for every case, but it goes some way in describing the pleasure of listening to The Speaking Canaries’ fourth album, Get Out Alive: The Long Version. That’s not to say there aren’t quiet moments, and it’s also not to say that the album’s more violently noisy passages won’t suddenly erupt into well-executed, “anthemic” (maybe even “catchy”!) indie rock choruses. But there is an equal portion of the album displaying the band’s mastery over a build-and-release aesthetic that folds into sheer fucking joyousness — the contrasts that frame and heighten the excess. So, an expansive opener verging on half an hour long is immediately followed by a more restrained song that features glockenspiel and falsetto singing, followed again by a hectic clanging racket.
Although The Speaking Canaries’ main guy Damon Che is better known as Don Caballero’s drummer (which he does a little here too), it’s his guitar playing that’s the protagonist in this particular tale, employing everything from chaotic six-string torture, to hacking and jittery math-rock, and all the way to pinch harmonics and back again, almost to the point of note-per-minute showoffery. Che is also the vocalist in this project, and when the lyrics turn out to be not-cutesy metaphors or surreal evocations (“She’ll spear your heart in the Fox Chapel/ She’ll stomp it on Squirrel Hill”) and are instead grounded references to Pittsburgh geography, they serve to pull the album back down to more earthly realms. Other times — as with the barely intelligible spoken narratives low in the mix on “Last Side of Town Pt.1” or the shrieked exchanges with a mysterious Ingrid on “Life-like Homes” — they push things further from the everyday. This is most evident with Che’s periodic yells and whoops, which feel like pure expressions of some uncontainable whatever. Or at least until you compare them to the joy-yelps on the previous album, Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged, which appeared in exactly the same places on the completely re-recorded version as they did on the first version. So, maybe it’s not the same story on Get Out Alive. But planned or not, the spontaneity and joie de vivre feel real all the same, transmitted as they are directly and without need of the messy matter of meaning.
And about the album title’s qualification: there are a few different versions of the album (the CD and LP versions have the subtitle The Last Type Story), but you should be listening to “The Long Version,” the 76-odd-minute CD-R incarnation. Cobbled together from bits of EPs and extended versions, it’s a perfect junkyard assemblage. It’s the least diluted and most comprehensive version; constraints are least in evidence. Over the course of its running time, there’s scarcely a concession to coherence or to the usual standards of contemporaneous indie rock good taste (though no Van Halen covers on this one; you’ll have to go to back to Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged for not one, but two of them). Sure, the production varies on the tracks and the levels of the drums fluctuate, but it just doesn’t matter when the album is so busy delivering its consignment of exuberant rock.
After the release of Get Out Alive, a few new songs were performed on a WFMU radio show, and there were whispers on the internet that a new album had been recorded. But alas, it never emerged. For better or for worse, Che reformed Don Caballero (without any other original members), and a couple of their newer songs were somewhat Canaries-esque, but we haven’t heard from The Speaking Canaries since.
2001: Lift to Experience - “To Guard and to Guide You”
Criminally overlooked and tragically short-lived, Texas trio Lift to Experience were simply too pure and beautiful to be long for this world. Their double-disc concept album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, was their first and final record before the band split to pursue their separate careers. LTE’s potent mixture of prog rock, post-punk, and shoegaze was enough to garner them some favorable press, but their album’s bizarre narrative arc, which placed Texas at the center of a biblical apocalypse and recast the three band members as prophets of the coming Kingdom of God, must have proven a little too much for audiences (stateside, at least — they apparently developed quite a following in Europe), and the group quickly faded into semi-obscurity.
It was a good six or seven years after album was released before I discovered it, having been gifted with a burned copy by fellow TMTer Paul Bower during one of his visits to Chicago. I fell immediately under its spell, drawn in by the extraordinary power of the music, but also out of a peculiar sense of kinship with the band’s frontman, Josh “Buck” Pearson. Pearson grew up as part of the Word of Faith Movement of the Pentecostal Church, which advances a radical version of the Prosperity Gospel. When Pearson was four, his father stopped working to support his family, believing that all their material needs could be met through faith in God alone and that little things like “jobs” and “salaries” were redundant, if not outright blasphemous. Pearson’s mother wisely filed for a divorce, but Pearson continued to be an active member of the Pentecostal church throughout his youth.
I’ve spoken briefly about my own history with some of Christianity’s more peculiar outgrowths. While my experiences were nowhere near as extreme as Pearson’s, I couldn’t help but perceive a pained spirituality in his writing that felt achingly familiar. Music is a pretty common medium for young people to work through their religious ambivalence. Many approach the subject with a healthy dose of irony, poking fun at its contradictions and excesses, and in this regard, Lift to Experience was no different. The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads was full of absurd juxtapositions of supernatural grandeur with earthly squalor and mundanity. What made it so remarkable, however, was that its irony did not create distance between the artists and their subject. Pearson’s voice was not that of the Enlightened 21st-century Rationalist scoffing at the backwards ways of the masses of ignorant theists. He felt too intensely the beauty of his object and identified too closely with his protagonists, and when it became necessary to dig beneath their veneer of ecstatic fervor to uncover some uncomfortable truth, it was evident that he was also digging into himself.
Keeping this in mind, it’s probably no surprise that “To Guard and to Guide You” was one of the tracks I found most personally moving. Like the rest of the songs on the album, its lyrics draw extensively from other sources, Christmas hymns (“Angels We Have Heard on High”) and country songs (“Under the X in Texas”), but most significantly from a common Christian prayer, the Angel of God:
Angel of God my guardian dear,
To whom God’s Love commits me here,
Ever this day, be at my side
To light, to guard, to rule and to guide me.
With its brevity and its sing-song, nursery-rhyme quality, the Angel of God is a children’s prayer, and if it was not the first prayer that was learned by heart, it was certainly among them. The prayer forms the song’s refrain, with Pearson only flipping the wording of the last line to make it “To light, to rule/ To guard and to guide.”
I remember being taught, from a very early age, about my guardian angel. I was told that he (or she, but we tended to refer to him with masculine pronouns in my house) was chosen by God to watch over me from the moment of my conception, to look out for my physical and spiritual well-being. I was taught to invoke him often to ask for help and guidance, and as a result, my angel never felt like an abstract concept or a fairy tale, but rather a genuine presence in my life, such that, to this day, I recite that prayer every time I take a trip or get behind the wheel of a car. Such that, were I to lose all belief in God and to renounce my Catholic faith in its entirety, I would feel my guardian angel’s loss as the passing of a lifelong friend.
Hearing those childish words crop up in the middle of an indie prog-rock song tugs at those deep and buried corners of my consciousness and calls forth only the best associations that I have with Christianity. I don’t know what Josh Pearson’s relationship with God is like. I don’t know how sincerely he identifies as a Christian these days or what being a Christian means to him personally. But whatever bad shit he experienced as a result of his parents’ religious belief, I’m sure that he has a memory, not much different from my own, of sitting on his mother’s knee while she rehearsed the words to that simple, ancient prayer, pressing each syllable into the tender folds of his heart where they could grow to form a shelter for the difficult years ahead.
2003: Cave In - Antenna
What does “selling out” entail? Is it simply to sign to a major label? Is it to get a ton of money in exchange for playing music? Of course, at some level, I do understand the basic ideas of “selling out.” Metallica “sold out” with the Black Album, Celtic Frost “sold out” with Cold Lake, Chumbawamba “sold out” with “Tumthumbing.” I get it. You compromise your sound and ideals in order to gain a ton of money and fame. You want your song on the radio and to rub shoulders next to Amanda Bynes. Still, there’s no accepted limitations of what constitutes being a sellout. Someone’s success story and well wishes are another’s curses and angry tweets. It’s what fuels the most heated and nightmarish drunken arguments between music fans at 3 AM.
Cave In sold out. Yep, they signed to RCA (a big and powerful label back then) and shed their sometimes heavy and angular (Until Your Heart Stops), sometimes psychedelic and layered (Jupiter) sound and embraced what you might call “traditional songwriting.” The guitars sounded big and compressed, and Stephen Brodsky’s voice recalled Brandon Boyd from Incubus. Basically, it’s a picture of rock radio in 2003.
Still, I can’t help to think that Cave In’s way of selling out wasn’t such a cut-and-dried case as one might think. Even though the songs had a structure and sound made for the masses, the band had always modified their approach to reach different ground. Moreover, listening to “Seafrost,” “Youth Overrided,” and the intro to “Penny Racer,” you can hear both fragments of their old sounds as well as things to come. Which is exactly why I think the album is worth revisiting. The band might shift gears often (or not, considering how much time they spend going in and out of hiatus), but there are elements that remain constant for them. Above all, their gift for songwriting is unmatched by most of their peers; they are able to make complicated music (to various degrees) with great lyrics that unfold before your ears and remain etched in your memory.
Like most things in life, selling out is not so easily explained, and in the case of Cave In, it yielded solid music, regardless of its mission.
1989: My Dad is Dead - The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get
Cleveland, like its rust belt neighbor to the north, Detroit, has had a rough go of it for the last few decades. In many ways, the cities mirror each other: loss of industry and white flight have left the cities with more infrastructure than they need and well more than they can maintain, resulting in inner-city wastelands of abandoned homes, shuttered shops, and factories, and while a viral YouTube video proclaimed Cleveland’s problems not QUITE the equal of Detroit’s, the two cities’ fates grow more similar yearly.
But despite being the home of the absurd Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland’s reputation as a source of great bands has never equaled Detroit’s. No Motown, no Stooges, no White Stripes. Even smaller Akron, 40 minutes to the south, lays claim to Devo, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and more recently, The Black Keys. Long-running experimental rockers Pere Ubu may be Cleveland’s most critically-beloved musical export this side of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
Of course, that can’t be the whole story: a city of its size is bound to produce more than a few diamonds in the rough, and local son Mark Edwards’ My Dad Is Dead was exactly that. From 1985 until 2009, Edwards and a rotating cast of bit players pumped out some 11 full-length albums (depending on how you count), all while remaining almost entirely under the radar. 1989’s The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get was a coulda-been breakthrough for the band. Released on the Long Island label Homestead Records, which boasted at the time a roster including Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Nick Cave (Sebadoh’s The Freed Man holds the catalog number immediately before The Taller You Are…), it’s remarkable on two counts: how good it is, and how little it’s known.
Edwards plays nearly every sound heard on the album, which covers everything from pretty, jangly guitar instrumentals to Joy Division- and Devo-referencing New Wave numbers. Perhaps it’s Edwards’ nasal, thickly Cleveland-accented singing voice in combination with the depressed, neurotic lyrics of songs like “Seven Years” and “The Only One” that kept the band from a wider audience. Some writers have speculated that the birth of grunge blotted out what audience there would have been for the nervier (some might say wimpier), wiry indie rock of the type Edwards made, but in retrospect, it seems that My Dad Is Dead may have been both after their time and ahead of it.
A few years ago, Edwards finally quit Cleveland and moved to Chapel Hill, and officially ended the MDID project in 2010. Listening to The Taller You Are in 2013, nearly 25 years after it poked its head out between albums by Thurston Moore and Lou Barlow and then quickly vanished, it sounds more immediate and relevant than it has any right to. Score one for Cleveland.
1966-1992: Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Challenge / New Surfacing
European free music, experimental, and lowercase improvisation would look and sound quite a bit different without the presence of England’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble, active from 1966 until the death of constant fulcrum and percussionist John Stevens in 1994 at age 54. Stevens was a fixture in West London and studied music while in the Royal Air Force where he formed relationships with other notable UK modernists, alto saxophonist Trevor Watts and trombonist Paul Rutherford (1940-2007). Influenced by British bop tour-de-force Phil Seamen, Stevens was something of a regular at the storied Ronnie Scott’s club, but searching for something beyond bebop led him, Rutherford and Watts to form a group that quickly developed into the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
While a name like “Spontaneous Music Ensemble” might imply a sense of complete openness and absence of predetermined form, the SME at its outset was decidedly more reined in. Taking cues from American forebears like reedman Eric Dolphy (whose untimely death was still fresh on musicians’ minds) and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the SME played compositions from the books of its three principals. Curiously, it didn’t take long for the group to record, and with Canadian expatriate trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and Australian troubadour bassist Bruce Cale in tow (replaced on two tracks by premier London bop bassist Jeff Clyne), the SME cut eight pieces for issue on the tiny Eyemark label as Challenge in 1966. Long out of print and in heavy demand, the Emanem label reissued it with two extra tracks in 2001, and now that CD has once again become available.
“E.D.’s Message” starts the proceedings and is certainly Dolphy-esque in its sprightly charge, though the ensuing improvisation from the horns is a tumbling swath of variegated colors, bright but with a density more akin to the music Albert Ayler and the New York Art Quartet were creating in East Village lofts. Watts’ acerbic wail is thoughtfully behind the beat and takes center stage with the burbled goads of his fellow hornmen, while Stevens takes a mostly unaccompanied solo suspended between Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Sunny Murray before the ensemble makes a pensive reentry. “Club 66” has a curiously isolationist thread to its improvisations, with trombone, flugelhorn, alto, and bass each taking pensive, exploratory themes against Stevens’ impulsive shimmer, bookended by a clarion near-waltz theme that recalls the writing of trumpeter Booker Little. “Day of Reckoning” is tough and declamatory at its anthemic outset, but the interactions between brass/reeds, bass, and percussion display a delicately taut interdependence. It is clear that even when the SME engages the structural trappings of jazz in a “free-bop” setting, the nuanced improvisations between those lines are a greater focal point and may actually have little to do with thematic material. That dichotomy is in itself quite interesting and, while it eventually required abandoning tunes altogether, the isolated movements that lie between the frames create a uniquely tense environment.
The CD reissue of Challenge also includes a lengthy open improvisation, “Distant Little Soul,” from early 1967 with Stevens, Watts, saxophonist Evan Parker and the obscure bassist Chris Cambridge (who wrote the liner notes to the original LP); Watts doubles on piccolo here and his flights mesh beautifully with Parker’s slick soprano inroads. While not particularly sought out by record companies, the SME did wax a number of LPs after Challenge, and a track like “Distant Little Soul” is indicative of the group’s exploratory dedication whether or not a formal recording session was possible. By 1968’s Karyobin (Island), tunes had been dropped in favor of incisive free conversations with defined lengths, and while open improvisation was the group’s focus, it was with a shared, evolving language that emerged through constant playing and workshopping. Even as strict “heads” were jettisoned, Stevens did workshop motives for improvisation such as the “Click Piece” and the “Sustain Piece,” utilizing short, sharp sounds or long tones as a basis for group playing with the idea that people of varying skill levels may have much to contribute.
By the early 1970s the SME had pared itself down to consist only of Watts and Stevens, with the latter employing an extremely small kit; he also began playing cornet as well as using his voice. As the music evolved, the SME’s improvisations demanded as much attention to silence and detail as they did a thick sonic palette. Adding onto the small frame of a dryly tuned, minimal drum set and breath/voice was an occasional but significant necessity, fleshed out in such combinations as the Spontaneous Music Orchestra and a variety of mid-size groups. Though Watts left the SME by the late 1970s to concentrate on his own groups Amalgam and Moiré Music, Stevens continued the ensemble with younger second- and third-wave British improvisers including guitarist Roger Smith, violinist Nigel Coombes, cellist Colin Wood, and (later) saxophonist John Butcher. Smith, Coombes, Wood, and Stevens comprised the SME of Biosystem (1977), which was released on the Incus label (and reissued on Evan Parker’s psi label), and saw the SME texturally reshaped into a sparse and darting strings-and-percussion unit.
New Surfacing consists of two live recordings from 1978 and 1992 with Stevens, Coombes and Smith, and presents what were previously cassette-copy fragments (originally issued on separate Emanem and Konnex CDs) in a definitive, straight-from-the-masters edition. The 1978 pieces were recorded in Newcastle as part of a set opposite multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford’s duo with cellist Tristan Honsinger; while decidedly low-fidelity, the material represents excellently a quality that emerged in later SME music — that of roomy drift and frustrating “doldrums” against fidgety group impulsions. In fact, while it is fair to say that deep listening is a major part of the SME aesthetic, to the point that Stevens and company developed an intuitive language of play that went beyond even the subtlest aspects of jazz communication, independence and non-listening were also an important hallmark.
It seems like this counteractive improvisational sense was clearer in the group’s later edition, as Stevens plays against (or flat out rejects) the soaring lines of Coombes’ violin and Smith’s detuned, seasick acoustics just as much as he interleaves his sounds with theirs. It’s reminiscent at times of Weasel Walter’s boisterous clatter and anti-motion, as Stevens hacks, patters, and obsesses in direct, absurd contrast to the string players’ complex and sometimes romantic phrasing. This is even more clearly evident on the 1992 London piece, “Complete Surfaces,” which is taken from a crisp DAT recording and albeit with less ghostly spatial reverb, offers a punchier view of the music’s latticework with Smith’s guitar alternating percussive asides to Stevens’ nattering paths. New Surfacing doesn’t present the last recordings in the SME discography — for that one would have to hear A New Distance, recorded in 1994 for John Butcher’s Acta label (reissued later on Emanem), with Butcher’s tenor in place of Coombes’ violin for a decidedly rugged take on the group’s speedily obstinate improvisations.
A quick word about the Emanem label, which has tirelessly documented the recorded activity of the SME for close to 40 years: while Stevens’ music (which also included such groups as Detail and Away, among others) was by no means unheard, the evolution of his instrumental approach and the SME’s palette often happened apart from any sort of commercial recording schedule. Luckily, Emanem founder Martin Davidson has been able to release a significant amount of that music, and it’s hard to imagine that Stevens’ stature (or that of some of his contemporaries) would be the same otherwise. Originally based in the UK, Emanem has shifted home base a few times over its existence, including stints in the US and Australia, and recently relocated to Spain. Their catalog of contemporary and historical improvisation is impressive and well worth investigating beyond the Spontaneous Music Ensemble axis.