1974-1977: Jack Ruby
Art rarely occurs in a complete vacuum – the work always comes from somewhere – but that being said, it’s hard to tell what precise aesthetic landscape spawned Jack Ruby. No-wave historian Weasel Walter sourced the group’s only existing tracks and released them in late 2011 on ugExplode as the first authorized disc of Jack Ruby music anywhere. Founded by guitarist/bassist Chris Gray and vocalist Robin Hall in Albany, 1973, upon moving to New York City they quickly became a quartet with drummer/keyboardist Randy Cohen and violinist Boris Policeband. One assumes the principal songwriters were weaned on records from the Velvet Underground, MC5, and The Stooges, but considering the 1974 date on their first known appearance, something else must’ve been in the water they were drinking.
“Hit and Run” sounds like a collision between Lou Reed and Crime in its snarling, glam-infused first minute before caterwauling; tinny guitar, electric violin, and synthesizer blend into glitchy noise atop a motorik Can-like beat. The whole thing predates Swell Maps’ A Trip to Marineville (Rough Trade, 1979) by several years (not to mention being unheard music an ocean away), though that’s perhaps the closest aural analog. From a few months later, Columbia studio recordings yield a trio (minus Policeband) that, on “Bored Stiff,” sounds like a power pop group got a hold of some Faust LPs. The scrawls of cheap, distorted guitar, and keyboard gloop across anthemic, Sparks-y piano and barely-kept time on “Sleep Cure” cement this compelling collision a bit further.
Jack Ruby lost Robin Hall and Randy Cohen by the time several 1977 rehearsal tracks were taped. The group was then made up of Gray, a drummer named “Nick,” and Contortions bassist George Scott. This particular trio sounds markedly tighter than on the earlier recordings, imbuing “Hit and Run” and “Bored Stiff” with a raw, sludgy punk energy and taut thrash. The set closes with an absolutely destroyed, frantic, and sweaty version of the Frankie Valli hit “Beggars Parade.” It’s interesting that this Jack Ruby had perfected its sound toward something aesthetically reined in, and with the band apparently not much of a going concern following Hall and Cohen’s departure, they also sound straight-arrow tight. However, there’s a certain audacity and charm to the earlier, hurled-at-the-wall pastiche recordings that make the 1974 dates a bit more unique and intriguing. Predating the all-in environment of no-wave by about five years, Jack Ruby’s aggressive weirdness was isolated, ahead of its time, and brilliant.
1977-1980: Joy Division - Substance
I don’t feel like counting right now, so I’ll go ahead and guesstimate that since Joy Division’s dissolution in 1980 there have been around a dozen compilation albums scraped together and shoved at fans. For those keeping score, that’s six times more releases than the band put out themselves, trumping even The Smiths’ fondness for repackaging their goodies every five or so years. These anthologies aren’t all bad by any means, but what baffles me is why after the near perfect Substance compilation, released in 1988, anyone has even bothered to try again.
Sure, there are always one or two unreleased tracks or mixes that emerge on each new compilation but what have they really added to the understanding of Joy Division as a band? Not much. At this point, each new rearrangement or repackaging is relying more on listeners buying further into the Ian Curtis mythology than on their interest in hearing a new side of the band, which, unless they unearth the secret Unknown Pleasures reggae mixes, I think we can all agree simply doesn’t exist. Hardcore fans might disagree with me, but the only Joy Division releases you will ever need are their studio LPs, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and the equally essential Substance.
Substance collects the bands first EP, a handful of tracks they contributed to Factory Records samplers, and their singles and B-sides into an almost flawless whole. These songs are so damn good, it’s hard to know where to start. Easily the strongest track from the An Ideal for Living EP is the smoking “No Love Lost,” which finds Ian Curtis singing in a totally different style than his famous baritone moan and the band generally just not sounding much like Joy Division. It’s a peppier punk sound than you might expect, but give it a chance cause it’s a great break from some of the mopier moments on the LP.
Next up is the double whammy of “Digital” and “Transmission,” and holy hell do these tracks bore their way into your skull. I’ve paired them together because of their shared structure of simply, ultra-catchy bass lines from Peter Hook coupled with violent guitar stabs from Bernard Sumner that build into haunting climaxes. As with most things Joy Division, it’s a spartan sound but one that is so effective because of (not in spite of) the empty space in each track.
Finally, there are the closing tracks “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “Love” is great and fairly well known, but I’ve always felt it holds a disproportionately high place in Joy Division’s catalog. The real star of the show is “Atmosphere:” four minutes of chilly keyboards, hammering drums that nearly steal the spotlight at the end, and one of the most somber and soul crushing performances Ian Curtis ever delivered.
Unfortunately, Substance is a bit hard to find on CD, so hopefully when the next inevitable round of Joy Division reissues rolls around someone has the sense to put it out on LP stat!
2009: Frank Fairfield
I don’t quite know what date to put for this post. Sure, Frank Fairfield’s first album was released in 2009 on the Tompkins Square record label. But after watching the film about him and seeing him play in person, I really have trouble putting a date on what Frank Fairfield does. His songs come from another century; they come from the earth. They toy with the whole concept of time. He’s an extremely talented musician, whether playing fiddle or banjo or guitar. With an impossibly earnest passion for the dusty traditional folk songs of old 45s and 78s and wax cylinders, he appears to be a simple man with a warm personality. But he also appears to be much more than that.
Discovered busking at a farmer’s market in California by a local musician and eventually handpicked by Fleet Foxes to open for them on tour, he’s since played festivals and theaters and various bills with independent folks acts. Anyone familiar with Tompkins Square can see the logical connection between Fairfield’s old-spirited folk persona and the label’s old folk/spiritual compilations and reissues. The self-titled album was a collection of songs dug up from his own archive of 78s dating back to the early 20th century. 2011’s Out on the Open West offers some of Frank’s own songs, though he is hesitant to call himself a songwriter.
His old-timey fashion, appearance, and demeanor is easily apparent. There’s the hair and the high waisted pants. There’s the ratty piece of string used as a strap on his 1931 banjo he picked up for $40. The worn fiddle bow with loose hairs flying about as he cradles the instrument in an unorthodox way. There’s even the single condenser mic he uses to simultaneously capture his tortured vocals along with his instrument.
What intrigues me most about the songs on his albums is that it’s clear they are folk songs played by someone who has worn out the genre of folk. The songs are old pairs of sneakers. They are beat up cars lying around in the yard. They’re sentimental; aged. His body of work unveils a profound love for the fact that these stories have been passed down through generations through music. It’s why the songs feel lived in when he plays them. You know he believes in them. You can hear it in the subtleties of the tempo changes and the variations of the central melodies. The songs have been played over and over again to the point that they are part of his life and part of his story. It’s clear Fairfield has spent a good deal of his 26 years collecting them and living in them, and it’s impossible to question his sincerity when he claims they are “popular” songs. Who are we to tell him that “popular” songs are not timeless?
2002: Sonic Youth - “Sympathy for the Strawberry”
‘Pleasant surprise’ is an inadequate phrase to describe the moment that decisively marks the drift between movements in some of Sonic Youth’s more experimental songs. I choose to use it, however, as a figure of rhetorical understatement, or litotes as it is technically called. All of us who write about music struggle with the problem of devaluing it by over-referencing the superlative. The problem when writing about music that you love is how to approach it from any other angle but the superlative. You could take the historical significance approach, but we all know that’s not what stamps ‘important’ on something, no matter how hard we try to rewrite music’s significance in hindsight (history belongs to the conquerors etc.). You could give the musical equivalent of the literary ‘close-reading’, by examining all the ways that this music is music. But that would be dry without some effort to convey what listening to this sound is like – the impossible feat of “dancing about architecture” that music writing tends to be.
So we settle for a compromise, most of the time, because there is really no right way to describe something that’s partly cultural, partly linguistic, partly mathematical, and partly emotional. Sonic Youth always struck me as happy in this amphibious realm: land-dwelling rock ‘n’ rollers who had half-crawled into the watery world of experimentation (see, for one thing, the beat-poet referencing NYC Ghosts and Flowers). Over the course of several not-half-bad albums, they staged reasonably impressive musical breakouts the way The Beatles used to pull stunts for photographers, as if they knew that being quite good gave them license to pull funny faces sometimes. Most of the time you got the impression that Sonic Youth were just concentrating on their music fairly hard – something would blossom as a sudden dreamy digression that would strike them, and they would follow that up.
But Sonic Youth’s moderate success lay in the way they crystallized these Jams into songs. They could make you remember the near imperceptible moment when the big boat they were steering started to turn around; they could make a miniscule twist sound like the dramatic bridge in a short pop song, as when Kim Gordon sings “Let me introduce you/ Since you saw my shadow self/ Living underneath you/ She can’t resist a tickle out/ I’m a girl scout,” in “Sympathy for the Strawberry.” This was unlike the free-jazz they referenced in that, as chaotic and drawn out as Sonic Youth songs could be, the changes did not dissolve into the whole, but left you craving the hook, the moment when the harmonics became subtly atonal, and the postmodern jags of Kim Gordon became insinuating and even menacing. There were many moments like these in Sonic Youth’s oeuvre, but “Sympathy for the Strawberry” was one that struck me over and over – without knowing quite why – as being one of the Youth’s most remarkably understated moments of musical innovation.
May 15th, 1953: The Quintet - Live at Massey Hall
Of all the Bebop records and compilations released over the years there is still nothing like Live at Massey Hall by The Quintet. To use the old cliché, it was like catching lightning in a jar for one sweet moment on a Friday night in Toronto, 1953 – the only known time this quintet played together. The group in question consists of Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie “Bird” Parker on saxophone, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums; each one arguably the greatest purveyors of their instrument with the exception of Parker, who is without doubt the finest sax player of all time.
The Massey Hall concert dares you to find a flaw; a perfectly chosen setlist, a rapturous audience, and the best lineup possible. It balances the swinging cool of “All the Things You Are” and the effortless-sounding opener “Perdido” with moments of gleeful madness like “Salt Peanuts.” The audience seems aware of how special what they are hearing is and are constantly bursting into applause and cheers throughout every song, a connection that helps the album feel so alive. “Wee (Allen’s House),” is an especially stunning moment as each player’s solo riles the audience up more and more, building anticipation until the end when Roach’s drum solo blows them all away.
The moment was as important as the music. This record was unexpected considering Parker had been recently struggling especially hard with heroin. In addition, he had a major falling out with Gillespie and it didn’t seem likely that they would ever play together again, but they did here. When Parker introduces “Salt Peanuts” as a song by “my worthy constituent Mr. Dizzy Gillespie,” it sounds so casual that it can be easy to miss how powerful that moment is.
There is a sadness associated with the Massey Hall concert that can’t be ignored despite the ecstasy occurring on tape. It’s sad because Parker really does sound completely revitalized during this Friday night. He was 32. He would be dead in less than two years. I look at pictures of this concert – Bird and Dizzy look so happy together, but there’s a problem: Dizzy is three years older than his friend, but Bird looks old enough to be his father. Parker’s death makes it heartbreaking to hear such unbelievable talent stuck in time; so beautiful, yet perpetually doomed.
1985: Breaking Circus - “(Knife in the) Marathon”
Breaking Circus were a Midwestern post-punk group initially based in Chicago, though later based in Minneapolis. I acquired their relatively slight discography (two EPs and an LP) secondhand, and I find their first EP, The Very Long Fuse, to be their most interesting – especially its pop song “(Knife in the) Marathon.” Long Fuse is a somewhat scattered EP, with tracks like “Soul of Japan” and “Precision” hitting a sweet spot between Chicago peers Big Black and Naked Raygun, but “(Knife in the) Marathon” is the track I keep returning to, despite being the most unlike anything else in the band’s discography (well, aside from a posthumous single where frontman Steve Björklund makes electro-pop covers of songs by Naked Raygun and the U.K. Subs – but the less written on that, the better).
“Marathon” is essentially a college rock tune, albeit one about an altercation: “an unidentified third world athlete was wrestled to the ground by security,” the song opens. In some ways “Marathon” almost feels like a bizarre parallel to the music of Big Black – the same Roland TR-606 drum machine presence is there as well as the sinister turns of narrative, but the buzzsaw distortion has been replaced by clean 80s jangle. Thus, on one level, “Marathon” is just a hooky 80s indie rock cut; on another level, however, it’s an intriguing juxtaposition between two disparate sounds of the 80s Midwest underground. Okay, maybe they didn’t think of it that way upon release, but given how synonymous with Big Black the sound of a Roland TR-606 can be, it’s pleasingly odd to hear it used in a different (yet not totally dissimilar) context.
Breaking Circus would eventually scrap the drum machine for the talents of drummer Todd Trainer (who would later join Shellac, for those still riding that Big Black parallel), and refine their focus into noisier post-punk for their LP, The Ice Machine. To me, however, the creative off-kilter edge of Long Fuse makes it the band’s most interesting record. Unlike Breaking Circus’ other work, the EP doesn’t have artwork focused around a hammer. This can be heard symbolically – where The Ice Machine can be overly blunt and single-minded, Long Fuse isn’t content to incessantly pound the same ideas over and over. “Marathon” may lack the concrete thud of the band’s punker side, but it shows they had moments where distortion wasn’t even necessary. With its placement on an already scattered (but better for it) EP making it a noteworthy find, Breaking Circus briefly hit a catchy spot between mid-80s Midwestern punk and hooky college rock before quickly shifting off elsewhere.