2006: Howe Gelb - ‘Sno Angel Like You
Howe Gelb has always done things differently. He’s one of those artists who is constantly traipsing within his own boundary-less creative labyrinth — recreating songs of his past, releasing albums every year, playing with friends in side projects, changing his band names every few years.
It’d be easy to write about his 2005 project, Arizona Amp and Alternator. Their bio is a poem by Gelb that starts off with the lines: “this band has no members/ no memberships is loud anymore. It is mostly a place to get things fixed.” The poem eventually ends with the chorus from his song “Arizona Amp and Alternator,” which is performed and reworked in the album no less than four times. The band did not widely publicize the members involved. M. Ward sings. Scout Niblett has a bizarre thirty second feature. Grandaddy is on a few tracks. There’s a creepy boy-girl duet cover of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The band doesn’t have a website anymore and they’ve long since disappeared as Gelb moved onto his next project.
As good as Arizona Amp… is, 2006’s ’Sno Angel Like You is my favorite stop on the career path of the musical enigma that is Howe Gelb. In 2003, Gelb was at an Ottawa blues festival and found himself playing between two gospel bands at a Baptist church. They inspired him to the point that he wanted to create a gospel album that day. So he went back to the church later to catch the band again and recruited them to be an integral part of his new album.
Gelb stands out from other musicians because he definitively owns his world — with a dusty, rambling folk croon that sometimes unexpectedly finds it’s way home to washy noise freak-outs. Yet even with his omnipresent voice and style, it never feels like he has guest musicians on his collaborative records. His contributors always come off more as musical partners with whom he has a shared intimate working relationship.
The kind of soulful folk standouts you’d expect from the album are mostly collected in the first side. Setting the tone, opener “Get To Leave” was recorded as a Giant Sand song fifteen years earlier. “Hey Man” and “Love Knows (No Borders)” are some of the slower-burning highlights. “But I Did Not” and “Paradise Here Abouts” both engage with driving rhythm sections and call-and-response choir vocals. The album is full of highlights though. The songs exist within the album’s own terms.
In 2009, Gelb released a live version of the album, while his newest features Gypsy musicians and was recorded on a rooftop in Spain over the last few years. Looking through the overall career arc of Gelb, this kind of thing is no longer surprising. Rather it’s part of the naturally evolving role he has as an artist — shifting genres, defying conventions, and spinning the web of his diverse creative endeavors.
1999: Sonic Youth - Pendulum Music (Steve Reich)
Sonic Youth celebrated Y2K in a way most appropriate considering their avant-garde tendencies. The double-disc Goodbye 20th Century differed greatly from the three previous releases in the Sonic Youth Recording series, as well as all the releases that came after it. Sonic Youth saw off the 20th century by reinterpreting various pieces by 20th century composers. Many of the majors are featured here: John Cage, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros are just a few of the composers they tackle (an obligatory version of Cage’s “4:33” is thankfully AWOL). The best part of this tribute album of sorts comes from the enthusiasm Sonic Youth have for these pieces, and it rings especially true on their version of Reich’s “Pendulum Music”.
By the sound of it, Sonic Youth cover Steve Reich with the same excitement that The Replacements had when they covered Kiss. The premise of the piece is to hang microphones, upside-down, above speakers and then swing them to produce feedback when they move. They are swung once, and then gravity does the rest as the arc of the swing slowly weakens causing the rhythm of the feedback shifts. It is a stunningly physical piece of music in spite of being musician-less.
Sonic Youth’s attempt at it is admirable, and makes one wonder how accurate the word cover is for it when nobody actually plays the instrument. So while it is not a piece of music that gets much of a “sonic-youth-spin,” the fact that they chose to take part in this musical process is really satisfying. This remains one of the most memorable instances of a popular experimental artist paying tribute to 20th century classical, and considering Jonny Greenwood’s recent collaborations with Penderecki, here’s hoping it becomes a more popular practice.
1967: Priscilla Paris - Priscilla Sings Herself
The Paris Sisters — Albeth, Sherrell and Priscilla — were born in San Francisco, daughters of an opera singer whose career ended with the birth of her first child. This is a familiar setup for the story of a pushy stage mom, and sure enough, the Paris girls were on stage from a very young age, dancing and singing in a sister act with their mother Faye at the piano. The girls were big fans of The Andrews Sisters, listening to their records and rehearsing pitch-perfect renditions of their most popular songs. When The Andrews Sisters came to San Francisco for a limited engagement, Faye kept her daughters out of school so they could attend every performance. Eventually the sisters were invited backstage, where they impressed the Andrews with their poise and impressive vocal harmonies.
They were signed to MCA in short order, thus beginning a long stretch of years in which the girls were experimented upon by various labels and producers, all of whom failed to find a niche for their unique talents. It wasn’t until Phil Spector got hold of the sisters in 1961 that they blossomed into a fully-realized girl group. Spector gave the girls two of his best early songs (“Be My Boy” and “I’ll Be Crying Tomorrow”), and created wistful pop-symphonic arrangements that emphasized their innocence and femininity. Most importantly, Spector encouraged them to abandon the outmoded close-singing style of The Andrews Sisters, to instead sing softly and sweetly, with youngest sister Priscilla taking the lead.
Another Spector production, “I Love How You Love Me” was released that same year and quickly became a massive hit, selling more than a million copies. Though they would never again experience success at that level, The Paris Sisters were a popular act, and continued to record and perform throughout the 60s, with subsequent producers following the same basic formula Spector had created for the group. In 1967, Priscilla struck out on her own as a solo artist, leaving Albeth and Sherrell behind. For years she had been writing songs on her guitar, and had a passion for songwriting and performing that her older sisters did not share. Priscilla’s solo career consists of two obscure albums: Priscilla Loves Billy, a strange little collection of Billie Holiday covers, and Priscilla Sings Herself, the culmination of her long-gestating desire to become a singer-songwriter. The latter album, released in 1967 on York Records, failed to ignite much interest on the part of the public, now in the throes of The Summer of Love. Priscilla eventually left the country and moved to her namesake city where she spent the rest of her days painting, playing guitar, and raising two sons. She died in 2004 at the age of 59.
Today, a mint condition copy of Priscilla Sings Herself can cost as much as $300. Many copies of the album were destroyed due to poor sales, increasing the rarity of the LP. The resurgence of interest in 1960s girl groups and Phil Spector productions has resulted in a steadily growing reputation for Priscilla and The Paris Sisters over the past few years. For proof, consider this: when I started researching this piece, the album was not available in any form, having never been reissued; even torrent sites and music blogs were no help. By the time I finished, Ace Records announced a CD reissue of Priscilla’s solo albums complete with outtakes, due next month. This reissue will be my first opportunity to hear Priscilla Sings Herself in its entirety. For years I’ve had to reconstruct the album in my imagination from fragments scattered across various bootlegs. The melancholic “My Window” appeared on Boyd Rice’s Music For Pussycats compilation, duped directly from his scratched-up LP. The haunting “Help Me” and “He Noticed Me” appeared on The Paris Sisters Story, an expensive bootleg CD. And my favorite, “Stone Is Very, Very Cold,” was uploaded to YouTube by a generous user who has consistently failed to answer my messages begging for a rip of the vinyl.
Perhaps it is the scarcity of the album — even in an age when we like to imagine that the entire history of recorded music is just a few clicks away — that lends it such a mysterious and enchanting aura. Maybe, but probably not. More likely it is Priscilla herself who is responsible for the fetish-object status of the record. At a time when soul phrasing was the fashion, Priscilla sang softly, mutely, strangely, unafraid to project a palpable sense of melancholy. Her songs were haunting and subtle, never sacrificing an essential fragility and sadness. This may be the reason many listeners today are uncomfortable with this brand of vintage girl pop; in the wake of feminism, how can we be nostalgic for a time when women were encouraged to play up their own lovelorn frailty?
Among girl groups The Paris Sisters stood out, possessing the restrained sensibility of an older generation, never adopting the forthright sexuality of groups like The Shirelles or The Shangri-Las. Although late 60s publicity shots played up her resemblance to French “sex kitten” pop stars like Brigitte Bardot, Priscilla never traded on her sexuality in her music. In hindsight, this chasteness is both admirable and estranging, perhaps accounting for the diminished reception her solo albums received. Part of the work of contemporary feminism is the critical reassessment of texts produced by women of past generations, especially those that were initially dismissed as the product of patriarchy. Listening to Priscilla Sings Herself in that charitable critical spirit may yield some interesting surprises.
2005 -: The Evens
Because The Evens weren’t Fugazi, a lot of people in 2005 thought they must be folk. NPR even found ‘lilting melody’ in the albums. But all the usual angular rhythms were there and the protest element was this time directed at the ire-friendly Bush administration. Whatever else they may have been, The Evens weren’t folk.
The combined chorus of Amy Farina’s voice and drums and Ian MacKaye’s guitar was on the surface bright and cheery, resembling a more traditional indie or college rock sound – but still, not folk. Instead of choosing the personal or introspective, MacKaye and Farina continued to make their punk statements about the rights, the limitations and the power of the individual human voice. Harmonies were there, but melodies were often sung in bold unison. On Get Evens MacKaye and Farina used their vocals to fight back with songs like “Everybody knows you are a liar,” which struck at the Capitol from the Capitol; one line proclaimed “This City is Ours;” reminding us that D.C. is also the city of hardcore (or post-post hardcore, as the Washington Post called The Evens – past caring about genre definitions even in 2005, though still recognizing that this was some form of hardcore – not folk).
In this strange context, I learned that Ted Nugent – the conservative bogeyman of the moment – was an influence of MacKaye. Nugent’s clean living, straight edge approach (before MacKaye coined the term) as well as his virtuosic guitar playing are interesting, slightly unexpected points of comparison for the music of Fugazi and The Evens.
Instrument Soundtrack was the last album Fugazi made before MacKaye started The Evens. For some it’s a footnote: a laid back collection of demos and doodles, but for me it was a stripped back affair that – like the long awaited documentary it was made to soundtrack – displayed the anatomy of Fugazi’s dense, well-sprung and off kilter rock ‘n’ roll. At times MacKaye’s later projects – like The Evens and Instrument – remind me of the ideas that an artist finally reveals when they release their sketchbooks to the public. Even if the music becomes less urgent, and we discover incongruous photos of denim-shirted Ted Nugent pasted up in this scrapbook, it seems to take us into the inner workings of an energetic collective of musicians in a way that previous albums only hinted at.
1978: Pere Ubu - Dub Housing
“That has been our one significant success to this date: we are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock ‘n’ roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.” – David Thomas
It’s a fun exercise when listening to a band to put oneself in the context of its time, but try as I might I still can’t picture what the hell people must of thought when Dub Housing came out in 1978. It was punk, but everything was skewed. The synthesizers were too dancey to be cool, the music was too weird and aggressive to be pop, and beyond anything was the absolutely booming presence of David Thomas who comes off as more opera singer than punk rocker.
That quote from Thomas above is particularly poignant, because even if it may be true, Pere Ubu are disastrous in the most grandiose way. That spirit still rings true from their peers (especially Talking Heads) in the 70s to bands now like of Montreal who make theatricality their business. That was what they did best and it reminds me every single time I put “Navvy” on and hear Thomas shouting (with a voice big enough to match his formidable size) “I HAVE DESIRE.” They embrace the disaster to the point of transcending it. Boy! That sounds swell.
2007: Planes Mistaken For Stars - We Ride To Fight! (The First Four Years)
In their time, Planes Mistaken For Stars were considered a second rate act, neither innovators nor pioneers. Nowadays, they still aren’t recognized for changing the rules of the game; in fact, I’m not sure you can qualify them as revolutionary. At the very least, they were a band that clearly marked a transition for certain artists and sounds.
Taking their cues from Rites of Spring, Heroin, and Still Life, PMFS were a frenetic, inspired bunch. Later, they would become a little heavier and straighter, but their first four years – outlined by their self titled mini-album, three EPs, and some comp tracks – are what gave them their place in the nebulous “midwestern emo” scene of the late 90s. Back then, their music was propelled by punk rock energy like they didn’t give a crap, yet had moments of vulnerability and nostalgia, voiced by the hoarse throat of Gared O’Donnell over arpeggiated chords. Take, for example, the song “The Part You Left Out,” which bangs straight ahead until the break, a calming part where the tempo remains steady, yet things get sensible without losing aggression, ready to assault the ears and nerves again. Other songs like “Somewhere in September” take the sentimentally gentler approach similar to when Rites of Spring would slow down to really hang their feelings and poetry books for everyone to see and feel along with them.
Planes Mistaken For Stars might not have had a large cult following or mainstream recognition, but they inadvertently pioneered a method of expression put to wider use by bands like Thursday, Thrice and, most recently, Touché Amoré and Pianos Become the Teeth. They plainly rocked and screamed their throats raw with powerful feelings that still resonate on the grooves of their records and those by their descendants.