1967: Ivor Cutler - “I’m Happy”

When I don’t feel like hearing anything in particular I’ll often resort to the shuffle button on my iPod. Now this can be a bit like playing Russian roulette if you have an eclectic music taste (I’m sure many of our readers can relate); Nas comes on ─ no problem; Fugazi ─ that’s fine; oh wow The Walker Brothers ─ it’s been a while. Then suddenly Kevin Drumm or Sightings comes to the party and there’s a terrible reaction. Questions are asked. “What the hell just came on?” “How can you listen to this?” and I go over to switch it to something else while muttering about how it’s just on shuffle. It can be a bit of a gamble.

But what about the other side of the spectrum? When something comes on that isn’t abrasive or filled with screaming, but is so unabashedly jolly and positive that it garners the exact same reaction and confusion. I take a lot of pleasure in these moments, and it is difficult to get more explosively jubilant than a song like “I’m Happy” by Ivor Cutler. This happened to me recently with a roommate while enjoying some well deserved Mario Kart; one of those new Purity Ring singles ended and was immediately followed by Cutler.

Cutler started releasing records in the 60s after winning the heart of John Lennon (a man rather familiar himself with music that was abrasive and filled with screaming) and one of his finest records, Ludo, was produced by George Martin. “I’m Happy” sums Cutler’s approach up in many ways: 37 seconds of pounding harmonium melodies and this man, who had a way of looking old and wise even when he was young, loudly declaring in his Scottish accent, “I’m happy! I’m happy! I’m happy!” then finally concluding “and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not.” The song abruptly collapses after two rounds of this with a guttural and exhausted sigh.

There are those moments when something comes on that feels too extreme, regardless of which side of the spectrum. Sometimes it works out though, and I find something inspirational, in this case when the shocked roommate had the exact same response to Cutler’s ode to happy that they did when a song from Prurient’s Bermuda Drain unexpectedly played a week earlier: “What the fuck was that? I kinda liked it.”

2008: Entire Cities - Deep River

I spend a lot of time focusing on the stories behind songs, and that’s usually what I try to shine light on for these Delorean reviews. I have plenty of stories about albums and songs left to tell. But today I revisited an album from a few years ago, an album that means so damn much to me, and I felt compelled to share it with those of you who might’ve missed it the first time around in 2008. In our internet age of ADD-obsessed transient fame, there are so many bands who undeservedly slip through the cracks.

I was sold on Entire Cities the first time I heard their should-have-been-a-hit Deep River opener “Talkers.” Horns swell in and out while the bass and electric guitar trade notes over fast-moving drum fills. The song has a sprawling anthemic feel to it. The words are religious in a hypnotic and reflective way, while the melody/chorus is as catchy as anything you’ve heard in the last three years. If the song is not their best, it is at least the most friendly entry point to their diverse catalog.

Entire Cities hail from Ontario, Canada and they play “cow punk,” a hybrid of psychedelic and experimental alt-country music. The members vary from five to ten, and they’ve been known to put on high energy live shows with trampolines and sweat and whiskey. (Full disclosure: my best friends drove from New Jersey to Canada to see them last year.) Musically, Deep River includes all the instruments you’d expect from a large psychedelic folk band whose members enjoy shouting and drinking. There’s accordions, singing saw, keys, violin, banjo, electric guitar, lots of percussion instruments, flute, lap steel, all kinds of horns. One of the things I love most about the album though is that almost every song is grounded with riffs instead of chords, a feature that’s not so common for alt-country albums. The musicality of the band adds a certain level of calculated chaos, making the music that much more interesting of a backdrop for singer/band leader Simon Borer.

Borer carves out a cozy niche for his speak-singing in the midst of the band’s ruckus. The lyrics vary from poignant, terse poetic asides to mini-narratives about love and watching life go by from your lawn. Naturally, a rural focus surrounds the whole album, capped off by haunting closer “The Woods.” At their best, the lyrics contain those particular micro-observational details reminiscent of early Mountain Goats or Smog records. There’s a touchy uncle (“Cop Song”) who “keeps his damn hands to himself,” a waitress flirting with a patron (“Coffee”) tied together by the deadpan line “two creams no sugar,” and a sprawling praise of brotherhood (“I am my brother’s snakeskin motherfucker, and we are blood”) that seems drunkenly prophetic and brutally honest.

The most experimental song on the album comes in the form of “Waiting,” a short track seemingly written for aimless youths (“What fools are we, waiting 2000 years/ They all laugh and rightly so/ Still we’re waiting, impatiently waiting.”) The song revolves around a flute and a singing saw for a while, but eventually the dynamics pick up as it crescendos into a beautiful mess of horns, strings, and shouted group vocals. It’s a song that tells the story of the band itself: a bag of musical surprises hiding unlikely folk anthems. Deep River and their 2010 album I Hope You Never Come Home are both still available to buy, so do yourself a favor and get lost in some Canadian Americana. You will not regret it.

2005: Orthrelm - OV

At this point in their history, the duo of Mick Barr and Josh Blair were known as a band of technically proficient weirdos who played fast, odd-timed, slightly noisy mini-tracks that challenged the ears of most listeners. To put it in ridiculously broad terms, they were the missing link between Lightning Bolt and Dillinger Escape Plan. OV presented a different approach to their sound.

For those curious, check the tracklist: a single, undivided 45-minute song. Once you press “play,” you are confronted with a pattern that could be found on their past micro-songs, except they get stuck on the first couple of seconds for five, six minutes at a time, only to move to a new lick that itself goes on for roughly the same amount of time.

In theory, OV should be nothing but a novelty; in practice, it’s an exercise in minimalism bordering on the academic (imagine if they had put pretentious essays in the liner notes). Not only does it present a challenge of endurance by being a highly repetitive and potentially monotonous album, it also showcases the way humans listen to sounds. After a few seconds our ears become numb to the sounds, making us notice details we otherwise might not (the attack of the guitar pick, the times Josh doesn’t hit his snare drum with full force) and later on we get the impression we’re listening to other tones that are not present; experiencing full on paracusia, hallucinating auditorily. And then comes the change, something that would otherwise just signal that we’re listening to a continuous piece of music and it’s heading somewhere; when it happens in OV, we feel it like an earthquake, like something catastrophic just shifted a little part of our world. Every change feels like that.

More than an album, it’s an experience concocted by talented artists that any serious listener should live through at least once. Or maybe it’s just pretentious, monotonous crap like Metal Machine Music was a couple of yesterdays ago.

1994: Total - Here, Time is Space

I find myself having great difficulty describing what I find so pleasantly alluring about Total’s Here, Time is Space. For me the album can only be summed up in brief phrases that allude to pain and misery. Since this approach has become an exercise in near futility for me, I decided to give some insight into my process of trying to convince you (being the collective you who have decided to read this) to listen to the album.

First I will attempt to put the music in the context of which it was created; i.e. describe the musical and historical significance of the project in a way the reader can relate to:

• Total is a solo project of Matthew Bower (Skullflower/Pure/Hototogisu/etc.) Originally started as a noise/industrial outlet following the breakup of Bower’s band Pure, Total later became a side group of the Skullflower project.

Okay. So Skullflower isn’t exactly Pink Floyd but I think I covered what I needed to. Now comes the part where I talk about what Here, Time Is Space sounds like:

• By 1994 Skullflower had been primarily delving into distorted sludge jams focusing on the low end of the register that nonetheless contained some semblance of a structure to work within. Total, on the other hand, was the polar opposite – all high end guitar fuzz and no discernible structure. Sometimes beautiful tones can be heard through a wall of piercing static distortion. Other times, its just an ugly mess of well… piercing static distortion.

Okay, it’s getting kind of dicey right? I should try a different approach. Maybe if I talk about a real life feeling the music reminds me of some readers can relate and they will like it! (PLEASE LIKE IT!)

• Listening to Here, Time is Space is like spending too much time in the sun with a really bad hangover. You aren’t sure if you have a fever or maybe the sun has warmed your skin too much. It feels like a can of motor oil has been poured in your head, and it’s getting difficult to form complete thoughts or ideas. Your only choice is to close your eyes, shut out the pounding headache and nausea, and just allow the warmth and delirium to overtake you momentarily.

Great, there I go again. Perhaps this is just how it’s supposed to be. I should probably just sum it up and post some youtube videos.

• Total’s Here, Time is Spaceis an epic solar drone. Miserable? Only if you let it be. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and search for that one great feeling among the sickness that surrounds you.

1956; 1970: Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion” and the Dr. Demento Show

The story of Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion” was also the story of how novelty radio DJ Dr. Demento got his name. Apparently, after the Dr. played “Transfusion” on his then un-branded-by-dementia radio slot, he began getting phone calls from baffled, enthused listeners. Dr. Demento’s name and unique radio slot took off thereafter, and with it a host of weirdo novelty personas who flocked to the outlet he provided. The crash of “Transfusion” and Dr. Demento was so momentous that Demento was quoted upon his retirement this year as saying “I think without The Dr. Demento Show, the probability is high that Alfred Yankovic would be a professional architect today.” If, indeed, “Transfusion” and other popular oddities were responsible for the rise of Demento, then they were indirectly responsible for Demento’s giving exposure to generations of novelty artists once his persona was established: Frank Zappa, Monty Python, Al Yankovic et al.

“Transfusion” had already been a big hit for Nervous Norvus by the time it was rediscovered by Dr. Demento in 1970. By 1957 the novelty song was always a strong contender for a hit, and it appears that Norvus had deliberately intended to become a novelty artist like his idol, Teen comedy presenter Red Blanchard. He bought a baritone ukulele, got piano lessons, and submitted the results of his song-writing efforts to Red’s comedy show. It was Blanchard who added the ‘crash’ sound effects between the verses of Transfusion. It was also Blanchard’s lingo that Norvus copied when he came up with his own handle; ‘Nervous’ was one of the show’s words for ‘cool,’ and the shy Jimmy Drake chose to identify himself as ‘Nervous Norvus.’

Norvus hired himself out as a producer, but his own sound never expanded into a fuller rock ‘n’ roll band. He stuck with a straightforward kick drum to accompany his own ukulele playing. The sound effects between verses became standard after Blanchard added howls to Norvus’ second hit “Ape Call,” an even more hilariously tentative song about quotidian encounters with danger. Norvus’ other great asset, his jittery voice, struck a primitive note as he cheerfully and tremulously suggested that a cat’s wisest approach in the jungle of romance was to single out an equally nervous chick and howl with bravado. The final and most important feature of Norvus’ sound was his jive jingle lyrics; “The pterodactyl was a flying fool” (“Ape Call”) is typical of his alliterative silliness. “Transfusion,” though, is the song that sums up Norvus’ feel-the-fear, faint-at-heart delivery best of all. Every time a verse ends, Norvus vows that he’ll never ever speed again, but by the next verse he’s apologetically looking for a fix, saying things like “Slip the blood to me Bud” or “Make that Type O, Daddy-O.”

The lack of conviction in Norvus’ voice was ironically his best asset. As a middle aged rocker, he managed to cut a dangerous figure at a time when so many kids idolized the sacred ton of metal that was the car in 1950s America. As Norvus was making light of dangerous driving, other musicians like Bill Hayes and Ferlin Husky were cranking out so-called ‘death discs’ as cautionary tales of teenage recklessness. Naturally, this genre of public safety warning crossed with rock ‘n’ roll was also mined for glamour (see Bill Hayes’ “Message from James Dean”), but Norvus was singular in exploring the phenomenon for its comedy potential. Knowing that “Transfusion“‘s comedy was accidentally-on-purpose at the cutting edge in the 1950s sheds light on its shrewd rediscovery by Dr. Demento. It perfectly fit the spirit of nonsense and apolitical anti-heroism of the comedy music that was popularized by the Doctor in the following decades.

1998: Duster - Stratosphere

Stratosphere is an apt title for Duster’s first LP. Given that the stratosphere is the second major layer of Earth’s atmosphere (i.e., not in space, but above the clouds), a fitting halfway point between Duster’s introverted slowcore and gauzy, bordering on space rock instrumentation can be drawn. Forget Music for Airports or In Search of Space, this is music for gazing at the clouds from an airplane window seat.

San Jose’s Duster was formed in 1996 by the multi-instrumentalists Clay Parton and Dove Amber. Prior to forming Duster, Parton and Amber were both in the frantically chaotic screamo group Mohinder, yet I never placed this connection until recently – frankly, it’s hard to imagine either band making anything that remotely resembles the other’s music. Regardless, I mention this because there’s one aspect between the two worth mentioning: feeling. It’s simple enough for one to hide behind metaphor or to mask earthly personality with guitar delay and songs that figuratively (or for some, literally) invoke space, yet the part of me that grew up listening to post-hardcore is often suspicious of this idea. While comparing the sounds of Duster and Mohinder is quite pointless, I’d like to think that Duster’s roots have something to do with maintaining an evocative sound that’s full of instrumental feeling.

Stratosphere is a record that actually sounds better for having been largely recorded to 4-track – the clean guitar interplay takes on an additional feeling of audible warmth because it was captured on tape, while the distorted guitars tend to maintain an enveloping fuzz, as on the seven-minute drone of Stratosphere’s title track. I’d suggest that both of Duster’s albums are essential for laid-back indie rock guitar fans, as not only does the band demonstrate an impeccable ear for tones, but also the ability to build relaxing songs out of cyclical, paradoxically meandering-yet-engaging guitar lines. The loud songs (e.g., “Echo, Bravo,” “Earth Moon Transit”) utilize feedback echoes and textured distortion, while more restrained tracks like “Topical Solution” and “The Landing” are relatively free of distortion yet retain a spaciousness befitting of the term “space rock.”

Compared with the myriad of other psych/space-leaning indie rock bands of the 90s, Duster’s records exist in a distinctly middle-ground niche. Aside from a few of their drone tracks, they rarely dealt in the sort of feedback/static washes utilized by Flying Saucer Attack; furthermore, they weren’t nearly as drugged-out as Spritualized, and they never fell in the turgid soloing that marred a sizeable chunk of Bardo Pond’s work. Normally this “middle ground” wouldn’t exactly be a ringing endorsement, but in Duster’s case it’s a comforting sitting (and, as an aside, Duster released an album of much sparser and atmospheric space echoes called Hier Kommt Der Schwartze Mond under the name Valium Aggelein the same year as Stratosphere, demonstrating their more abstract side). If anything, I’d compare Duster to a more atmospheric take on the clean, gorgeously layered guitar melodies of the Kadane brothers (Bedhead, The New Year) – Parton and Amber likely have more pedals than the Kadanes, but the feelings behind their approaches are similar. Both pairs make deceptively simple guitar lines sound effortless and beautiful, but the Kadane’s style generally feels more firmly rooted and ground-borne, while Duster’s guitars often sound like they’re floating – not out in space, but in the sky; jet stream echo as we fly from one place to another.

  

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There's a lot of good music out there, and it's not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that's not being pushed by a PR firm.