1995-1998: Local H: The Island Years
Head over to Localh.com and you might still be able to find an image of the cover art to Local H: The Island Years, the latest entry in Universal’s Icon series, accompanied by the following caption: “On April 5th, 2011, Local H will join the likes of Johnny Cash, James Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, Hoobastank, and a select group of legendary acts that have been touted by Universal Music as representative of a genre and a generation.” Newcomers or casual fans could easily gloss over the irony and self-deprecation of this statement, but long-time listeners will likely crack a smile, knowing that front-man Scott Lucas is no stranger to either.
Ironic that a one-hit wonder whose most notable contribution to the world of rock was a single that topped out at #5 on Billboard’s alternative chart in 1996 should be inducted into such an elite (Hoobastank not withstanding) pantheon. Ironic that the duo should be honored as representatives of their generation by the very label that abandoned them during what should have been the biggest phase of their career. The late ‘90s was the place where promising careers as rock ‘n’ roll professionals went to die as the bottom fell out of alternative rock and the post-post-grunge scene failed to produce another Kurt Cobain. Many young artists were likely taken by surprise to find the market shrinking for their brand of Gen X angst, but in the case of Local H, the fall from major label grace seemed not only inevitable, but curiously fitting.
If there’s one thing that has marked this band from the very beginning, it’s a sense of… if not fatalism, then at least resignation. Formed around 1988 while singer/guitar player Scott Lucas and drummer Joe Daniels were finishing high school, the duo broke out of Zion, a small town in the wastes of northeast Illinois, with their 1995 Island debut, Ham Fisted. Lucas and Daniels’ place of origin was crucial in shaping Local H’s sensibilities. If Springsteen helped to chronicle the quiet dignity and pathos of small town Americans facing their daily hardships, Lucas chronicled their meanness and absurdity, from the “crass fat ass” of “High-Fiving M.F.,” to the self-loathing cynic of the song of the same name, to all of the sundry unmotivated slackers and wastoids that populate his universe. Like Johnny Thunders, Lucas’ characters were born to lose, and in their most lucid (and oftentimes drunkest) moments they aren’t afraid to admit it to themselves and to anyone else who happens to be listening.
Their big moment came in 1996 when their sophomore album As Good as Dead gave birth to the break-out single “Bound for the Floor.” Everyone who grew up in the ‘90s learned the meaning of the word “copacetic” from this song:
It’s actually hard to imagine a better distillation of the band’s aesthetic and philosophy. ”Born to be down,” Lucas groans in the song’s opening verse. ”I learned all my lessons before now/ Born to be down/ I think you’ll get used to it.” Looking backwards from the twenty-teens, the “why bother?” aura of apathy that pervades the song seems quintessentially ‘90s, but it speaks to a real sense of futility and entrapment that winds and wends its way through nearly every song on the album, and that’s ultimately what pushes Local H out of and, indeed, above the coffee shop ennui that their peers were passing off as rock ‘n’ roll rebellion at the time.
Lucas never bothered much with metaphor. His was the gift of sledge-hammer honesty, the ability to speak the truth so succinctly and directly as to make his meaning seem self-evident. This holds whether he is acting the part of the spurned lover in the break-up ballad “Eddie Vedder” (”Okay, I understand/ but I don’t wanna be your friend/ I don’t need another friend/ I’ve got too many friends”), the frustrated youth of “Nothing Special” (And I know I’m nothing special/ I know I’m nothing great/ I know I’m nothing different/ But I just don’t feel the same”, or as the inner voice of an aging punk whose best years are behind him, as on the blistering “Back in the Day” (”Hey, old school/ Yeah, you were cool/ But that was back in the day”).
Then, of course, there was the album’s crowning jewel, “Fritz’s Corner.” You don’t have to strain too hard to hear the influence of Black Sabbath in the two-note guitar jabs that play under the verses or in Daniels’s rumbling tom rolls utterly laying bare grunge rock’s perpetually divided loyalties: that barely disguised love for big dick classic rock covered with a patina of punk spit and venom. Named after the band’s hometown bar, the song could be a less homicidal second cousin to Big Black’s “Kerosene.” ”I’m not mad/ I’m just bored/ And everything I do is only because/ There’s nothing much else for me to do/ And that includes you.” Lucas’s creations are often unsavory, angry, or pathetic, but few sink to the level of misanthropy of this hapless drunk whose disdain for all humanity extends ultimately to (and likely originates from) himself. The song heaves to an end with a shouted mantra of self-pity, ”I’m always ashamed and that’s the way to be,” and the listener has no doubt that this is the voice of one who has hit rock bottom and then made his home there.
Pack up the Cats was the logical extension of As Good as Dead, projecting the anti-trajectory of the former album’s losers and layabouts into the operatic arena of Big Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cats centers loosely around a small town band that finds itself inexplicably standing on the cusp of at rock stardom, only to spectacularly crash and burn. The increased attention the band was receiving in the wake of “Bound for the Floor” clearly weighed on their minds while making this record, something that Lucas seemed to react against instinctively, as evidenced by songs like “Cool Magnet” and “All Right (Oh Yeah)” (”You could never figure out/ What was all the fuss about/ I know it’s only me/ It’s only stupid me,” are some choice lyrics off the latter). The album’s moment of truth comes from its lead single “All the Kids Are Right,” recounting with uncomfortable candor the band’s deterioration over the course of an important concert that leaves them irrevocably isolated from their fans.
Ironically, for a song about a disastrous performance, it boasted what could easily be the catchiest hook of the band’s career, and a great big chorus that was built for singing along. In a more just and equitable world, it was a song that would have solidified their place as a major act, but it never made it past 20 on Billboard’s Alternative chart, and subsequent singles fared worse.
By the end of the year, a merger between Island and Universal Music Group resulted in Local H getting dropped from their label. Shortly thereafter Joe Daniels left the band to pursue other career options. For someone who has made his career chronicling the bitterness and frustrated hopes of others, Lucas seems to have taken these events with relative equanimity (even towards the label executives themselves, as suggested by an interview with The Red Alert: “You can’t really blame those people for being worried about how they’re going to bring home money to support their family and what’s going to happen to their job… People are human and they’ve got to eat.”), and he genuinely seems to appreciate the level of creative freedom that existing on the fringes of rock culture affords him. He would go on to partner with Brian St. Claire, a veteran of the Chicago scene who had previously drummed for Triple Fast Action and seminal Chicago hardcore band Rights of the Accused, and the duo continue to release a series of increasingly more complex and mature records that could still strip the paint from the walls.
For a band that only captured the fickle attentions of the public for an instant, Local H has left a powerful legacy. Lucas’s engineering wizardry made it possible for a two-man band to sound every bit as rich as a full ensemble, and he and Daniels went a long way towards proving the viability of the rock duo long before The White Stripes or The Black Keys were anywhere on the scene. But more importantly, Lucas showed that life after the majors doesn’t have to be a sad cavalcade of county fairs and cloying nostalgia grabs, by continuing to release album after album of vital music. Whether Universal really realizes it or not, “icon” sounds just about right for these guys.
1968, 1969: The Pretty Things and The Who - S.F. Sorrow V. Tommy
The impression may be one that’s influenced by a contemporary tendency to champion brave, neglected little albums of the 60s, but S.F. Sorrow (1968) comes across as a heroic effort for its good intentions and its neglected status as the first rock opera, predating The Who’s Tommy by a year.
The Pretty Thing’s everyman character S.F. Sorrow endures the stereotypical hardships of a minor character of the twentieth century. As a boy he follows his father to work at the local “Misery Factory.” He is whisked away from his sweetheart after a brief courtship. He survives the first war. He emigrates, loses his sweetheart in an airship crash and is eventually left emotionally and physically destitute, far from home. He never recovers.
The album is widely considered to be the The Pretty Thing’s masterpiece, but it also seems to have represented the death knell of their career. The disappointment it wrought on its unsuccessful release was a catalyst for original member Dick Taylor to leave the band.
Musically Tommy was more groundbreaking than S.F. Sorrow – it was an air punching, spiraling vortex of rock instrumentation that seemed to show a new way of making loud and intense music without leaning too heavily the blues. The Pretty Things had been a rhythm and blues band in their early days and had turned to psychedelia to make S.F. Sorrow, as if they’d sheepishly conceded that it was a better tool than the blues to tackle songs that were psychologically complex. Though less original, their experiments were more melodious and less grandiose than The Who’s, and the song structures were broken up into a series of distinct formal movements – Beatlesque and, unfortunately for them, released in the same year as White Album.
Neither Tommy nor S.F. Sorrow is much like an opera, but both are braced against the spine of a narrative, more similar in this regard to musical theatre than the Single driven LP. The differences between Tommy and S.F. Sorrow’s stories are all the more striking considering the importance of the narrative. Tommy is beset with adversity at the beginning of his life. He is blind and deaf as a result of trauma, and his family life is a mess; he is passed around between family members and a pedophile uncle before being rescued by good fortune. Sorrow is a more universal, featureless character, whose life and troubles are typical of the common 20th century man, ending up the victim of impersonal, utilitarian systems. Both are affected by war: Tommy’s father is absent because of war, and Sorrow is drafted to fight in WWI.
The Who’s Tommy is almost like the child of The Pretty Thing’s S.F. Sorrow, as if two renaissance playwrights writing at the same time had attacked generational themes using family hierarchies in the best way Tragedians knew how: by exploring the social hierarchies that crush us from without – starting from within. It would appear that 60s rockers understood the value of this public approach to family tragedy too; taking their cue from Freudian psychologists who had resurrected family drama in the public mindset. As the child born in the baby boom, Tommy is the natural celebrity on whom attention is focused. As the bereaved former soldier, Sorrow is the adult whose crushing responsibility makes him an obscure minor character. It is ironic that one is bullied and blessed for his unique disability, while the other is cursed for being willing, able and ordinary enough to be used as canon fodder. The families of Sorrow and Tommy are both doomed, but the child Tommy eventually leaves home and escapes the carnage, while the adult Sorrow has to stay in the ring and fight to the bitter end.
Just as Sorrow’s war is fated, The Pretty Things’s attempt to articulate the woes of the generation that kept sorrow bottled up was probably too close to the bone to be appreciated in their own time. The sorrow The Pretty Things’ parents’ generation experienced was fundamentally a “Private Sorrow”, as the title of the military marching song suggested.
From a commercial point of view, S.F. Sorrow’s plot was as suicidal as going over the top in the Somme. The album dwelled depressingly on past war wounds that could not be healed, and made a psychedelic Voodoo guide called Baron Saturday responsible for destroying the hero’s mind instead of opening it. By facing his fears, Sorrow loses his trust in everything, defying the gospel of psychoanalysis, which cured Tommy of his psychosomatic blindness and deafness. The album concludes pessimistically that some sorrows are too great to face. “Trust” is the track that really confronts the reality of this broken existence, and oddly it is notable for its breezy harmonies and happy-go-lucky psychedelic gait.
With their everyman heroes, who are tempted and molded by characters that are painted simply as vices and virtues, S.F. Sorrow and Tommy are more like medieval morality plays than rock operas. Audiences who attended these plays were deliberately enticed into the struggles of the protagonists by being persuaded to identify with them, to uncomfortably savor the immoral choices they could have made themselves in similar situations. Devilish characters in the role of tempters went around collecting money from the audience on behalf of the players, thus forcing audiences to pay the ‘devil’ for his performance. At performances of S.F. Sorrow, the devilish Arthur Brown, of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Brown was known to start fires deliberately onstage) read out the narrative of the album between songs, Twink as an inept mime acted out the story, and live performances of the album went off in shambolic, carnivalesque fashion.
But all of this did not do justice to the bleakness of the tribute paid to a generation whose sacrifices could not be recouped. Anticipating Pink Floyd’s The Wall, S.F. Sorrow mined the fragility behind the psychedelic experience, which was lodged in the desire to escape the oppressiveness of previous generations’ burdens. It may not have been commercially smart in the 1960s to suggest that self knowledge could actually shrink the soul, rather than expand it, but it was certainly brave. The Pretty Things were not credited with inventing the rock opera, but credit is due to them for willingly and even naively opening their psyches to a troubling past, not a dazzlingly optimistic future. This openness is perhaps what has made them seem more like guinea pigs than innovators, but it also brought them closer to their protagonist, and made their tribute more profound than if they’d just puckishly picked over the ruins of their parents’ generation without making a sacrifice. As clownish rockers who used their outsider status to influence punters who were ‘paying for the devil’ when they witnessed a story of despair for entertainment’s sake, The Pretty Things put themselves on the line to express the sorrows of a generation who would never have publicly expressed it without the help of their privileged offspring.
2004: Josephine Foster - Fate Song #1: “Deathknell”
It sometimes feels appropriate to reduce a compilation to just one song – a song with an impact that resets the concept of the list altogether, displacing all the other contenders like an overweight diver emptying a swimming pool. What would this song have to do to qualify? Well I’d like to think of it as analogous to the Ace, the number one card, which represents both the highest and lowest score in a game. Its effect should be minimal, or unbeatable, or both.
Some examples spring to mind, most notably Carly Simon’s ultra famous put down. Enough has been said about this for reams of TMT Deloreans that will never be written, because enough has been said about it. Still, it’s useful to recall that the reason this song was successful was because it was – amongst other things – deeply ironic. In order to wield irony subtly, you have to understand the rules of the game. Songs that use irony against their own genre can contain the whole weary perspective of the songwriting world, viewed through the eyes of one who understands not only the world of love and heartbreak, but the garden path lined with the songs that get you there (it’s true that the road to hell is paved with mixtapes).
The protagonist in DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little, for example, loves and hates his “Fate songs”, which are usually ballads or country songs promoting outsize feelings of love and loneliness, as insidious and infectious as “fucken herpes.” Josephine Foster and the Supposed’s “Deathknell” is an alterno/freak-folk/what-have-you fate song that uses a blustering argument about fate itself to mount an attack on some unknown victim. This dirge is set in a bygone era, where an assassin will come to your door on foot. Although it has its roots in folk, it’s more Emily Dickinson than Bob Dylan, expressing a god-fearing (rather than man-fearing) instinct that we’re all doomed, and our appointed time is approaching.
In Foster’s stormy rant, some woman is angry somewhere. It’s nothing new. She knows this herself, and she paints her own mother and herself into the unwritten and evidently futile tradition of vengeful women: “I had a mother / Her mother had a mother / No one remembers her name.” But it’s more direct than that, as the song is addressed to some prideful sinner in particular: “You think you are strong, you are wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Although Foster puts her little rant into a perspective of vast marauding forces – the angel of death and the spectre of physical frailty – it’s easy to forget that this thundering diatribe may have originated as a dig against one poor solitary soul. Whatever was originally intended, its angry tone has managed to be both universal and personal. As revenge room 101s go, it seems impersonal, more of a planetarium than a claustrophobic cell, but just as whoever enters can imagine that they were chosen to experience a cosmic wake-up call in the warning tones of a folk harpie, whoever was actually addressed by this song is conspicuously absent; they have turned to dust as the song foretold.
“Deathknell” may not be the most typical example of an ironic pop ‘fate song’, given that it’s outside the usual attempt to subvert the ingratiating radio friendly vernacular, but for me it shares the subtle appeal of those other kinds of pop songs that insist they aren’t whatever they say they are. It walks that same tricky line in projecting a seemingly unambiguous sentiment while expressing something subtler, as with the cautionary tale of Bruce Springsteen and his anti-war popsong “Born in the USA”, a tune whose irony was lost when it became a patriotic anthem. This is the fate of the nursery rhyme, which speaks in nonsense terms to comment subtly on court intrigues, incompetent (or incontinent) Ministers of State, and abuses of power; all specifics of a time that will ultimately be forgotten. Other times, the song doesn’t do what it says on the label, and never invites any major scrutiny of its genre, such as PIL’s “This is Not a Lovesong”, which was a commentary on the record industry’s obsession with smooth ballads, and not in fact a lovesong.
Mostly, however, what these high card efforts have in common is the attempt to make the perfect godlike move in the realm of pop music: the love song that repackages bile into the sweetest of rueful ironies (Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields is an adept); the song of vengeance that’s so biblical in its vehemence, it can’t be pinned down to specific targets; the anti-war song that’s so vitriolic it apes the swagger of patriotism.
It may be no coincidence that the very next track after “Deathknell” is called “Silly Song”. Unlike “Deathknell”’s assault of raw, resonant guitars, twanging like drunkenness on the verge of turning ugly, “Silly Song” twangs in the laid back San Francisco folk style Foster’s band The Supposed have chosen to adopt, but strips back several layers to reveal a sad and desolate morning after (there’s even a whistle to accompany the lonely walk home). Neither of these tracks is exactly playful, but together they illustrate the way ‘just a silly song’ can be played with in a variety of ways. No matter how silly the song is, it can speak a volume of damage: the damage done, and the damage inflicted. This irony embedded in seemingly unambiguous pop sentiment always appears to convey a vaguely contemptuous attitude to the genre, often wearing the mask of a nursery rhyme to make a point about the emotional disingenuousness that exists outside pop music, in the baby talk of lovers for example.
One of the qualities of the Ace is the potential to blow it. It wasn’t always the highest card in the game. In the Middle Ages it was the lowest roll and traditionally meant ‘bad luck.’ Later it began to shapeshift between highest and lowest card. Because it can be played as either in contemporary card games, it is usually considered a game changer. In this way it represents a valuable move that can either open up a list of successive moves, or blow them all in one fell swoop. The analogy between this high/low card and the kind of pop song that tries to go above and beyond the call of its genre fits because the song wearily wields all its antecedents and possible succedents, like a card that has the potential to make a very significant move from a seemingly unassuming place. This is the song that blows all the rest out of the water just to make a point.
The Ace is also used nowadays to describe someone who’s a whizz at their sport, a number one. But what’s it like at the top? Is it lonely? Is it isolating to take the most exacting vengeance, or make the most subtle statement about love? In the original Socratic definition of irony, the “eiron” was a falsely modest person, who triumphed through feigning innocence while wielding a concealed wit. Pop has often played the simpleton, meanwhile delivering a stinging message. In “Deathknell”, overestimation rather than underestimation is Foster’s medium of communication; she delivers an overblown rant to alienate once and for all anyone who’s on the fence about outsider female vocalists. However, by playing this harpie role, she overplays vengeance to the point of universality, and gets herself off the hook for a possible personal gripe. It is time, not the singer, that disgraces “the strong” who are “weak and a waste of this song”; she herself acknowledges no part, as she counts herself among the victims of fate, guaranteeing her anonymity. If this is deliberate, it’s a fairly stunning move, but it feels as isolating as detonating a curse that cannot be taken back.
In overdoing its wrathfulness, “Deathknell” joins the rank of the most calculated pop songs which beg to be underestimated as sweet confections, or garrulous patriotic folk songs, or incoherent rants. They’re lonely and singular because they’re not really keeping the company they say they are; the silly songs they claim to imitate have the power to do so much more damage than the low value assigned to them as popular art. This is the reason why it’s hard to know if “Deathknell” is a really a song about kicking ass or blowing your chances. Like the Ace, it has the potential to be a bit of both.
1960s-1980s: Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar (Burma) Vol. 1
Another look into the black mirror of the past by the extra-geographers at Sublime Frequencies. This is a limited vinyl edition of a SF compilation CD from 2004 that was itself a reissue of an LP put out by SF’s Alan Bishop on the Majora label in 1994 that in turn compiled an assortment of Burmese music released between the 1960s and the 1980s.
Let’s briefly go through that timeline again, the other way round. A number of musicians in Burma/Myanmar (the choice of name greatly depends on political affiliation) enter recording studios to lay down tracks in a variety of styles for local, national, or – at the most – regional distribution on records and later cassettes. During the 1980s and 1990s, Alan Bishop – intrepid traveler, punk ethnographer, Sun City Girls member – collects said recordings and, taken aback by their wonder and wishing to spread the vibe, compiles them on to an obscure LP for local, national, and maybe even international distribution. A decade later, having established Sublime Frequencies in the image of classic ethnic labels like Folkways and Ocora, Bishop and his labelmates release the music to an audience that, through the subsequent distribution of these magical artifacts via cyberspace, cannot help but be global. Even so, wonders of this kind do not store well as MP3s and so a decision is made to reimpress them in wax; to make the collection a desirable object once again. Thus these strange and wonderful sounds spin their spell into a new decade.
Apart from some notes by Bishop about how clever the Burmese musicians must be to take Western instruments and assimilate them, no information is given about the selections or the artists (an old SF trick, though one they seem to have evolved from on more recent releases). Perhaps for many outside the geographical area from which this music originates, this won’t matter; perhaps they’ll consider it enough to wander the strange sonic corridors of this faraway music, to hear it as a siren call to another time and place, another set of possibilities. Perhaps it’s possible to just shift realities, to wake up in this foreign land and be thrilled at not knowing what’s going on. The danger of that, as some critics have already noted, is that this music becomes marketed as exotica – the “magic music of faraway places” as Bert Kaempfert used to call it (even though Bert’s music always sounded as though it came from exactly the same place every time).
Except we’re rarely lost or disoriented these days, are we? In the contemporary iteration of the technoculture we are never far from some locative device, some online guidance system, able to plug back into the matrix to get our cultural fix, to fix our shortcomings, recharge our data bank, or top up our cultural capital. Bishop’s collection alerts me to Mar Mar Aye, I listen to the yearning “Beautiful Town”, then hit Google and YouTube to find out more.
Now the cover and maybe even the name of Princess Nicotine start to make sense. Here is Mar Mar Aye in 1987 or 1988, when she was still allowed to live, record, and broadcast in Burma, before settling in the US as a political exile. Other YouTube hits show songs dedicated to the Burmese monks who protested in 2007 in the face of military repression. Somehow, knowing this makes the heartfelt longing of “Beautiful Town” all the more poignant, though there’s still obviously much to learn about Mar Mar Aye and others on this compilation, such as “the incomparable Tonte Theintan” (as Bishop puts it).
Is it enough to just “listen and be amazed” as Bishop asks us to do? Certainly, Theintan’s “Lover of Winter and Snow” is under-the-skin moving, and Bo Hein’s scratchy, funky takes on tradition can’t be denied. But don’t we still need/want a back story of some sort?
If selection is one obvious element at play in the strange tale of endurance that is Princess Nicotine (why the endless repressing of these nine particular recordings?), so too is transformation. One of the magic properties of phonography is this ability for sound to outlast the many vessels within which it is temporarily contained. The phonograph may have been designed to capture sound forever but it is sound itself which endures rather than the phonographic medium. Like a relay race with sound as baton. Or like a single life with sound as soul and breath: what seemed most transient is what endures. The Burmese monks must understand that better than many of us. Here’s to them.
1991-2002: Unwound’s Graceful Exit
There is no user manual for aging rock stars. Most bands don’t know what to do when they’re past their prime or decide it’s time to bow out. Some stagger along the way, spitting subpar albums and lukewarm performances on their way to the ground, sometimes exploding flamboyantly to the delight of onlookers. Others refuse to believe their days are numbered and become laughingstocks on the County Fair circuit, promising a new album they know will never happen. The end can also be the saddest part of an artist’s career, one which fans, like pet owners, try to deny and postpone until the very last moment when it’s better to have them put to sleep than live in misery. For all these reasons, it’s not uncommon for bands to keep plowing along, never facing the lethal injection, raking a few bucks along the way.
And, for fuck’s sake, let’s keep thoughts about late stage reunions to ourselves this time.
This is why the road taken by Tumwater, Washington’s Unwound is so admirable. One of the most important and vibrant bands of the 90s, Unwound chose to end their existence on their own terms, before anything detrimental could happen to their sound. While I won’t get into the personal reasons why Unwound split – there was never an official explanation – I will postulate that the band did the right thing breaking up the way they did. Not only did they go on a fantastic high note with 2001’s ambitious, sprawling, yet introverted double CD Leaves Turn Inside You, but their discography had already ascended into genius years earlier. Leaves was only the crown jewel on a vast treasure vault.
Take for example The Future of What, released in 1995 by longtime partners Kill Rock Stars, which displays their early sound and what makes them so unique: Justin Trosper screaming Beat-like free association rants while his guitar arpeggiated, bent, and conjured a veritable hell that was heavy without resorting to traditional playing and angular without losing intention, Vern Rumsey following the footsteps of Dave Allen of Gang of Four, holding down the low end while providing the riffs and hooks. Sara Lund, their drummer for most of their history, played with mechanical abandon, grooving over shattered time signatures and transposing everything to break from the tyranny of 4/4 or, as Don Van Vliet once famously said, “the beat of mother’s heart” (I’m sure I’m paraphrasing the Captain slightly there). The Future of What also shows Unwound progressing with each song into less structured territory until the last couple of pieces are out and out harsh noise, not unlike contemporaries Emil Beaulieu or Smell & Quim. These noise segments weren’t just a throwaway attempt to seem avant-guard; heard out of context, they form a piece of brute power – formless music that makes me long for a full Unwound ‘noise album’.
As time marched on, the band dedicated themselves to exploring the farthest regions of the sound they helped create. Challenge for a Civilized Society, their second to last studio album, shows the road they had traveled, what they had learned, and where they were willing to go. Opening highlight “Data” could have been included on any of their albums before Repetition (wherein they tried to smooth their sound without turning down the dissonance or distortion) and while Trosper’s voice is less screamy, the music remains a whirlwind of postpunk noise rock. Again, as the album moves along the music becomes less defined until everything breaks from the confines of traditional song structure. This time, though, Unwound ventures into more subdued tones, loops, and different textures (listen for trumpet), expanding into a piece that could easily pass for art rock. Furthermore, the looseness doesn’t break the album’s flow – both the structured and the experimental tracks live together to form a complete work. After listening to the post-sampling Mingus drone, you have no choice but to flip the record and listen to “Data” and the rest of the songs all over again. Unwound had mastered the craft of The Album.
Leaves Turn Inside You is their most celebrated work, from the opening symphony of multi-tracked guitar feedback to the more somber, hushed tracks that carefully utilized sonic textures (perhaps to let us know the end is nigh), it is a fantastic record, but one that couldn’t have happened without each preceding work. The mood of the album reminds me of another curtain call by an important band from the same era, one where the tone is less explosive, mature, and melodic than what they had done before (I’m talking about Fugazi’s The Argument). Leaves doesn’t end on an experimental note, instead, it features a song that could be Depression-era ragtime, giving us a playful conclusion to one of the most formidable recording histories by a group of individuals doing radical rock.
1985: Martin Newell - Songs For A Fallow Land
For the past decade or so, modern music has exploded in such a way that it’s become difficult to hear it as coming from a specific point in time. Every style, sound, instrument, and period is being hijacked, sometimes simultaneously, so it isn’t hard to reach back in music history and find precedents for what’s happening now. When I wrote about Martin Newell’s 1985 track “Golden Lane” last month, I said it was very much a product of the 80s projecting itself into modern times, “an early home recording opus steeped in pop songcraft but obscured by hiss and sonic charm. Sound familiar? Listen to the production quality — might as well be a new Ariel Pink single.” Certainty, one of the most interesting aspects of Songs For A Fallow Land is its prescience for the lo-fi self-recording boom. In the tape’s original liner notes, Newell boasts that the album was recorded on a “four track in a bedroom in shameful poverty. It can be done.” Which seems like a quaint sentiment now, but it also highlights that, after being economically forced into the lo-fi sound, Newell reveled in it. Or rather, he found the aesthetic value in a seemingly warped, imperfect sound. That makes sense in the name of rock ‘n’ roll, but also in the bourgeois realm of appropriation. It might be hard to admit that the two often intersect with thrilling results.
Newell urges his listeners: “Now go do it yourselves. What if they started a record company and nobody signed? Ha ha ha.” Well, Martin Newell of 1985, we did go on to do it ourselves, which, I imagine, is why Gary War and Taylor Richardson decided to re-release your record. (We also went on to develop affordable means of recording in high fidelity, putting further emphasis on the choice to go lo-fi.) The “fuck, I don’t need you” attitude is visible in the aesthetic and aura of Fallow Land, if not in all of its harmonic and lyrical content. For example, the fairly lovely and aforementioned “Golden Lane” is pure Brit pop. There is a dash of Syd Barrett psychedelia mixed in, but removed from the hazy recording quality, I also hear The Zombies or Paul McCartney’s breezy, often nonsensical style of wordplay: “Round in Golden Lane/ Truant on a bicycle in the rain (…)/ I’ve got nothing to do but I’ll do it quite happily.” It’s this slight clash and contradiction of values — one pole inferred through lyrical stylings, the other through sound — that lends particular appeal to Fallow Man (it’s also hard to ignore the irony in Newell’s “who needs a record company?” statement when the Fixed Identity logo is placed directly below it on the reissue LP). A song like “Heroin Clones,” while more lyrically foreboding and anchored by a thumping, perfectly lo-fi rhythm section, still traipses around early psychedelia from start to finish.
Modern listeners who are introduced to Newell through Fallow Land (as I was) might be turned off after hearing a later album like The Greatest Living Englishman, his first non-cassette breakthrough, which essentially transposes the same songwriting methods onto a clearer sound palette. Of course, Newell’s later excursions don’t detract from his cassette days; they simply emphasize the oft-overlooked aspects of music-making — money, recording equipment, an engineer, general context — and assign them due importance. That may seem obvious to any active musician, but casual acceptance of timbre and fidelity as compositional tools is still a long way off. Reissuing music like Newell’s will only broaden the long narrative of rock ‘n’ roll, helping us understand the often contradictory musical terms that make listeners tick.