1995: Hum - You’d Prefer an Astronaut
Music has always had strong ties to nostalgia, be it personal or global. Certain songs, albums, and artists transport us through a minefield of emotions deeply rooted in our over-stimulated bodies. It’s why listening to You’d Prefer an Astronaut still makes me relive a 15-year-old decision to purchase a Hum album over Silverchair’s Frogstomp. All my friends had Frogstomp, so why did I need to add to the pile? The true thrill of purchasing music — at least during the death rattle of major labels — was weighing what you wanted against what CDs your friends had. No one had You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and we all loved “Stars,” so the scales were tipped and a love affair that has lasted longer than anything else in my limited lifespan began.
That zebra affixed to the bright green background is an odd palate choice when inviting listeners into the idea of space. It was just one of many curveballs thrown by Hum through the course of the album, one that’s still as fresh as it was in 1995. Despite song titles buoying the album’s proclamation (“Little Dipper,” “The Pod,” and of course cult radio hit “Stars”) and casual flirtations with the definitions of space in Matt Talbott’s lyrics, You’d Prefer an Astronaut was more about the Big Bang of sonic expansion than the garbled lines of alternative-era prose. The press of the time was quick to lump Hum in with the rest of the Northern Illinois (specifically Chicago), but how lazy and ignorant were they?
Fifteen years later, You’d Prefer an Astronaut feels as if it should be nestled in retail bins alongside Funeral, You Forgot It in People, and Sung Tongs. In a musical generation that celebrates the tiniest difference in design, You’d Prefer an Astronaut continues to boast nine tracks of innovative tunings, odd time signatures, and challenging song lengths. The opening triptych of “Little Dipper,” “The Pod,” and “Stars” is slightly at odds with this claim, as each is built on straight-ahead alternative riffage, but as layers are slowly peeled away with each listen, the art of discovery begins. The seemingly simple melodies begin to morph into dynamically textured experiments. Slight tweaks in tempo and timbre are sprinkled throughout, especially as “The Pod” transitions from its angry tone into an upbeat acoustic outro. “Stars” also relies on shifting dynamics; from its quiet, lazy strums to a punchy guitar assault and back to its dreamy ending. As far as singles go, none do more to represent just how deep You’d Prefer an Astronaut delves despite its seemingly bare-bones approach.
The back half of You’d Prefer an Astronaut was their playground. From the beginning of “Why I Like the Robins” to the fade out of “Songs of Farewell and Departure,” the many swells of style and substance flourish away from the scrutiny of the alternative era’s demand for a rocking first half. “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” which was Astronaut’s first single, proves to be the band’s finest moment. The lackadaisical pickings mixed with a crunchy guitar melody alongside Bryan St. Pere’s hard hitting fills and syncopated cymbal crashes put the track on an island all its own. It wasn’t punk enough; it was too far out to be of the Alternative Nation mold; and its length didn’t allow for the quick impressions and repeated listens that the mid-90s music scene thrived upon. The lyrics were acerbic — the only link it and much of the album has to the era in which it was created.
You’d Prefer an Astronaut will never be an album for the masses. It’s unwashed, rustic, and odd. But in a police lineup, you’d be quick to pick it out; even amongst a backdrop of band’s that have tightened and perfected the Hum style in the time since, the album still feels unique. At some point, nostalgia wears off and all that’s left is the shell. While memories of standing in a Musicland with the album proudly in hand remain strong, they no longer define what is contained within You’d Prefer an Astronaut. It’s an album that makes new memories with every listen, no matter what label executives and disappointing sales may otherwise have deciphered.
1966: Hopeton Lewis - “Take It Easy”
He has since turned to spreading his unabashed love of the Lord through increasingly gospel-tinged music, but in 1966 all Hopeton Lewis wanted to do was take that shit straight ease, brah. Lots of crazy things were happening in Jamaica in the 60s – musical and otherwise – but Lewis’ illusory lyrical minimalism implored its people to rise above it all.
“Take it Easy” is barebones by definition: one guitar, drums, vocals. This is proto-reggae at its very finest – dub be damned. Where enterprising island DJs would later rip a track apart and stone it out of its gourd with bass and slapback, Lewis’ studio itinerary involved little else besides the very essence of the thing. He was, and still is, driven by the spirit of song.
“The road is rough/ And don’t you ever get stuck/ Take your time/ Take it easy/ No need to hurry.”
1980s, 2009-10: Darkwave Creatures
Home Sweet Home is an unmarked basement bar on the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown near the Lower East Side. There are a few stuffed birds and rodents displayed in a glass case underneath the bar, as if the owner originally wanted a taxidermy-theme before leasing the bar out to the New York rock underground of the early 2000’s. Past the bar, the DJ deck overlooks a dancefloor alight with a disorienting discoball glow and hazy with automated fog. For a while there was a tacit understanding that after a certain hour you could smoke at the bottom of the entrance stairwell. Still, Home Sweet Home is too self aware to be considered actually grimy: you wouldn’t buy cocaine here, although if you already had some this would certainly be a place to do it. On the right night, first time patrons may very feel they have walked into a song from Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights.
Every Wednesday night, Wierd Records hosts Coldwave night with live music and dj sets. Coldwave refers to both a French born variant of darkwave as well as a new batch of Brooklyn based bands like Cold Cave, Light Asylum, Led Er Est, and Xeno and Oaklander among others (some of these band names hit the nail on the head a little too directly, I think). A scant eight or nine years after the great Joy Division/New Order boom that launched a million indie (as opposed to electronic) dance nights, it may seem strange to have such a blatant Ian Curtis vibe cycling back into vogue. You get the sense that the LES never really moved on, though, and Home Sweet Home certainly feels like an appropriate hub. Additionally, these bands are taking on the ole Factory Records sound with the contemporary approach of the Italo disco and lo-fi acts that have been rampant in popular DIY music for the past few years. Light Asylum, my favorite of the batch, have already cultivated a commanding live presence, and on the demo for “A Certain Person” (streaming on their myspace page) they make gloriously good on their promise to sound like “Ian and Grace making babies.” Grace Jones, that is. Just listen to that chorus.
Other times, the neo-coldwave sound doesn’t progress as far beyond its heavy-handed influences. “Just stop with the low budget Joy Division crap,” was my initital reaction to my friend who introduced me to this stuff. These bands are still in their early stages and are working through their growing pains on the stage. They already have a supportive scene and receptive audience, and I’m expecting to hear some interesting things. In the meantime though, here’s a few classics of the sound that I can’t really foresee being topped.
• Clan Of Xymox - Stranger
Like “Blue Monday” but more operatic and well, Dutch. Pretty much defines the Darkwave sound and points towards house music.
• A Certain Ratio – Do the Du (John Peel Session)
This song and band is admittedly outside the darkwave/coldwave domain, but “Do the Du” is a terrific example of how to inject the Ian Curtis vocal thing with some necessary levity. Splitting the difference betwen jangly post punk bands like Josef K and Orange Juice and starker Factory Records (which they were on) fare, the jouncy disco beat supplies the song with expressiveness by emphasizing the tonal shifts in singer Simon Topping’s low register. Soul Jazz re-issued this Peel Session rarity as a 7” in the early 2000s, memorably featuring a “hipside” and the “flipside.” The sleeve is pretty classic, with profiles of the five band members, four shirtless white yobs and a well dressed, sunglasses-sporting black gent.
KaS Product were a French electronic duo whose work from the early 80’s is the touchstone for the coldwave sound. Their track “So Young but So Cold” can be considered an anthem of sorts for the scene. In this video for “Never Come Back” they take the coldwave tag seriously and perform in an unheated warehouse (you can see singer Mina Soyoc’s breath!).
Finally, Stones Throw recently released The Minimal Wave Tapes, Vol. II, compiled by Peanut Butter Wolf and East Village radio personality Veronica Vasicka, and featuring the old, rare stuff. It’s pretty great and serves as a timely supplement to the rise of Wierd Records/new coldwave.
2008: 2 Foot Yard - Borrowed Arms
Any band with a name that looks like somebody’s email password instantly arouses my suspicions — probably because clunky alphanumerical strings seemingly composed of someones ‘porn’ name and the year they were born were irritatingly prevalent among pop and dance bands of the early 90s. The number 2 was a repeat offender. In 1993 a euro trash rave band called 2 Unlimited held up the airwaves with the hit “No Limits.” Then there were Boys II Men. There was 2Pac.
Perhaps it’s just me, but 2 Foot Yard also has the whiff of a working title, like a loose confederation of Dutch DJs who got together for a couple of albums. But while they may be an ‘outfit’ of sorts, a vehicle for the talents of Marika Hughes (Charming Hostess, Vienna Teng), Shahzad Ismaily (too many to mention) and Carla Kihlstedt, they are no stuffed shirt. To name but a few of Ms Kihlstedt’s projects: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (Mr. Bungle with violins), The Book of Knots (responsible for a compilation of scary portraits of rotten industrial towns), and a song cycle for the stage based around Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. The last is particularly impressive when you consider the influence of another famous musical menagerie: Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals - which, while being the source of as many radio friendly soundbites as any pop album, is experimental, cacophonous in parts.
If I may extend the analogy to 2 Foot Yard themselves, the eponymous “Borrowed Arms” is the radio friendly equivalent of the Carnival’s ‘swan’ (song), a perfect gem of chamber pop that would be unpleasant only to someone in a really bad mood. On the other hand the album throws up tracks like “Crisis”, which is shouty and abrasive. Overall though, Borrowed Arms and 2 Foot Yard are an experiment within the parameters of pop. Carla Kihlstedt implied as much in an interview after a gig in Amsterdam (the home of techno I might add). The band’s tiny 2 Foot Yard was that limited space in which the artists were hanging their work, leaning their stepladders, paint cans and so on. Although the sound was lush, the band members were few, and the arrangements were for songs of pop length, which could be reproduced easily on stage without the whole of Polyphonic Spree in tow.
The series of live videos with interviews (see link below) are perhaps a more accurate glimpse of what the band can do than the album itself. But this is not to say Borrowed Arms isn’t great, it’s just so clearly created on the white paper that neutral ‘space’ estate agents and gallery attendants are so fond of pointing their clipboards at. It’s as if the record can never be more than a brochure for the live performance. Perhaps chamber pop is faulty anyway in its attempt marry the incompatible — a bold sketch of a pop song and something consummately ‘finished’. Is it a fundamentally pointless exercise? Or is the genre like classical music — put down on record for convenience, while it’s taken for granted that most music buffs would rather go to their church, the concert hall.
Despite all that’s been said though, 2 Foot Yard do transmit a rough and readiness, and even a kind of wartime bawdiness (see the provocative “Red-rag & Pink-flag”, based on E. E. Cummings’ poem) which appears to be born out of a life lived permanently on the road. Carla Kihlstedt is described on her myspace as “a wayward waif wandering the wide world, happily lost somewhere between the music conservatory, the arboretum, and the road house.” This excursion into fancy has the potential to be irritating, but it’s self deprecating enough to be endearing. In the Dutch interview, Carla seemed rueful about her tendency to end up with a band flanking her. I imagine her idea of normality must be pretty strange, but her talk of popping up in various projects as if she were a circus brat continually — but unsuccessfully trying to strike out on her own — seemed to make deliberate light of her prolific achievements. Anyway, what came across clearly was that the work of creating and recording music was more important to the members of 2 Foot Yard than where it originated.
Indeed there’s a touch of old fashioned socialism about the band, exemplified in the way they come on stage wearing workaday gear. Musicians, after all, must sweat a lot under those lights. 2 Foot Yard are old hands, ‘comrades’ skillful enough to make the best of any limitations imposed on them, even by themselves. They have the reliability of classically trained musicians and the rakishness of rock entertainers. Their accomplished album may not represent the full warmth of their live sound, but its influences (Klezmer and European Jazz) and its concerns (the restless heart, the cabaret bar, the sadness of settled life) record their trek through music, glamorous or world weary, and sometimes a bit of both.
1982: Interference - Interference
Unlike the vast number of deluxe reissues pouring out of the bigger labels these days, the self-titled Interference album never saw a proper release when it was recorded in 1982. That makes it truly unique when compared to items like Universal-Island’s reissue of the early U2 albums and Hip-O’s recent versions of the first few Elvis Costello discs. Still, it’s tempting to place this in the context of those and find it wanting. After all, many of those albums are familiar and comfortably worn, but Interference has more in common with Rhino’s 2007 Collector’s Edition of Joy Division’s Closer and Mute’s 2009 reissue of the first three Nick Cave albums than any of those more heralded reissues.
Like Cave and Joy Division, Interference were more content pursuing calculated nuance than revisiting scripted pop formulas, and like Ian Curtis and similar-minded artists, they chose to do so out of the limelight. During their far too brief two-year lifespan, Interference consisted of David Linton, Anne DeMarinis, and Michael Brown. Both Linton and DeMarinis were chums with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, while Brown and Linton had played with Rhys Chatham. Owing to their heavy downtown New York connections, any similarities to Sonic Youth or early-80s work by Chatham would be expected.
What’s striking however, is how well Interference incorporate their European influences like Joy Division, Wire, and This Heat. Opening track “Excerpt #1”’s replication of Joy Division’s staccato basslines and hyper percussion is uncanny, and “Contempt” finds the group channeling Wire’s peculiar version of angular punk while celebrating their penchant for bizarre lyrics: “Live in the climate/ Make decorations.” The droning “Interludes” that bracket the track could have been pulled from any of Bruce Gilbert’s post-Wire work, but it’s hard to call any of these artists influences when, in fact, they were closer to contemporaries.
As for true contemporaries, Interference seem to look no further than fellow New Yorkers Sonic Youth for a pattern. Much of this album mirrors Confusion is Sex in its ambition and terrific expanses of mesmerizing noise. Oddly enough, Interference was recorded almost a year before. Still, “She Said Destroy”’s lyrics, repeated with only subtle variations, evoke Kim Gordon’s gauche, yet brilliant poetic delivery: “She said now/ She said here/ She said right/ She said then/ She said destroy.”
While the decision to include remixes of nearly all the album tracks is neither original nor, for that matter, necessary, Linton’s connections in the New York underground provide for remixes that at least prove interesting. In particular, QPE’s dub mix (“QPE #5 Dub Remix”) and Toshio Kajiwara’s Bingsang remix of non-album track “Globalization Report” are standouts.
Originally intended for Glenn Branca’s Neutral records, Interference seems to have suffered from an ill-fated combination of unfortunate timing and regrettable financial concerns, evading awareness for over two decades — given the current economy, it’s ironic that it appears now. After 27 years of waiting, to say that its arrival is a tour de force would border on hyperbole. Referring to it as anything less than exceptional, on the other hand, would be a grievous understatement.
1969: Dave Bixby - Ode To Quetzalcoatl
Dave Bixby found god one evening in the late 60s — an experience that would deeply influence his life and music thereafter. Looking to attain some form of purity, Bixby renounced taking LSD and all other drugs. His friends, feeling estranged from his newfound sober and piteous identity, abandoned him. Even the local Christian group failed to recognize his personal encounter with god. Overcome with utter isolation, Bixby began to think more personally of god; he wrote Ode To Quetzalcoatl (recently re-released on Guerssen) as a result. Unsurprisingly, the album is dripping with references to god and heaven, though given Bixby’s desolate situation during the late 60s, the whole of Quetzalcoatl is profoundly morose.
Opener “Drug Song” is a downer if there ever was one. “Life used to be good/ now look what I’ve done/ I’ve ruined my temple with drugs/ my mind is stunned,” laments the recently enlightened Bixby. It’s oddly pretty though — Bixby’s vocals do well to channel his solitude; his guitar is soft, yet overwhelmingly emotional at times. Lyrically speaking, Bixby may be singing about god, but his expression is immersed with loneliness rather than faith. Ignorant of his intention, Dave Bixby’s Ode To Quetzalcoatl says more about secluded introspection than it does newfound Christianity. And for that reason alone, I don’t think Quetzalcoatl could be any more beautiful.