1999: Lowercase - “Floodlit”
I wanted to like Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory. All of its sound reference points I saw tossed about (e.g., Slint, Drive Like Jehu, all sorts of ‘90s Touch & Go Records bands) really piqued my interest – what was the last band of similar popularity to warrant such accolades? Yeah, I can’t remember either. Still, to my ears, if you’re going to revive a sound from the 90s, better to sound like something Touch & Go put out than grunge.
As soon as I heard “No Future/No Past,” however, my first instinct was to listen to Lowercase’s “Floodlit” instead. Both songs have very similar “Good Morning, Captain”-derived progressions – that is, both songs slowly build tension, eventually releasing it all with explosive aplomb. The thing is, “No Future/No Past” sounds nigh-identical to “Floodlit” with the same tom-stomp drum thud, edgy bassline, and guitars meandering overhead; yet, in Cloud Nothings’ hands, this formula is based around one single idea that feels like an adolescent tantrum, while Lowercase’s take has more guitar and lyrical variation, building a haunting and genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Go ahead, compare ‘em.
Lowercase frontman Imaad Wasif’s voice, especially at its most strained, is spine chilling. On “Floodlit,” the “Good Morning, Captain” “I miss you” moment is only a little different lyrically (“I believe in you”), yet after the song’s foreboding buildup, it feels justified. In hindsight, the Slint-derived formula seems quite contrived, and I’m not surprised at its relative scarcity in contemporary indie rock (there were enough bands doing it in the 90s to turn it into cliché), but every so often a song employs it in such an effective (or affective, if you’re into that) manner that I find it tough to deny. “Floodlit” is one of those songs, and it’s not even the best one on Lowercase’s aptly titled swansong, The Going Away Present.
Back to Wasif’s voice and why my immediate reaction to Cloud Nothings was to listen to Lowercase instead: on “You’re a King,” the closing track of Lowercase’s second album Kill the Lights, Wasif takes the “repeat one lyric and put more and more emphasis on it each time” formula to its extreme, sounding psychotic and immensely pained by the climax of the death-dirge’s brutal 12-minute duration. To that extent, I remain further nonplussed with Cloud Nothings’ pale imitation. Well, maybe that’s not fair – the difference between releasing albums on Punk in My Vitamins (a label operated by Vern Rumsey of Unwound) and Carpark pretty much assumes different standards for an audience, I just feel that I might have responded better to Cloud Nothings if I’d never heard the bands Dylan Baldi and co. were trying to channel. More people have probably watched the “No Future/No Past” video than have ever listened to Lowercase, so I realize this may come off as snobbish, but in the case of “Floodlit” the similarities are just too much for me to not call it out. Regardless, The Going Away Present is Lowercase’s masterpiece, a sorely overlooked gem that combines the best of 90s post-rock and brooding slowcore (think somewhere between Unwound and Codeine). I hope some of the people who may have been introduced to this sound via Cloud Nothings will eventually come to it.
1999: Köhn - “The Wrath of Köhn”
Rarely has music and video worked together as perfectly as in the case of Nicolas Provost’s Papillion D’amour and Köhn aka Jurgen De Blonde’s “Wrath of Köhn.” Köhn’s 1999 album Köhn² reached extremes in ambient electronic, glitch, and noise music. While the album is stunning as a whole, nothing works better than “The Wrath of Köhn.” The relatively short track spends its first half lulling the listener with a hypnotic guitar loop and mournful saxophone courtesy of Jan Verstaen, making it all the more powerful when searing guitar feedback explodes into the picture. You could argue that it’s a cliché as old as Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, but you’d be wrong.
De Blonde’s starkness and intensity in the song leaves a massive impression. It achieves a sort of horrifying beauty that perfectly matches Provost’s grotesque distortion of a crying woman in a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The short, which translates to “Butterfly of Love,” features a mirror effect similar to a Rorschach print. The images slowly morph to the guitar until the woman collapses right as the dynamics shift so violently; the film then begins speeding up until she loses any human form. De Blonde’s song works on its own, but this splicing of audio and video remains a stunningly rare achievement.
2005: Jason Anderson - Live at the Campfire
I first discovered Jason Anderson’s music from a song called “If I’m Waiting” off his 2005 album The Wreath. It was a sad and lonely little song. It’s stuck with me for years.
When I moved to the Midwest five years ago, I traveled around a lot and came into contact with a wide range of characters. It always surprised me that in whatever Midwestern city I visited, somehow a Jason Anderson show would come up. The myths of these small festive house shows followed me from Milwaukee to Chicago to Omaha.
Last year, I finally went to my first Jason Anderson show. It was at a bar called Pete’s Candy Store in Greenpoint – Anderson’s NYC neighborhood at the time. I convinced some friends to take the train with me from New Jersey to Brooklyn, and when we got there the place was fairly empty. The stage was set up in the back room, an old NYC subway car turned into a narrow concert space.
When Jason came inside to play, within minutes that little room was packed full. Instead of taking the stage, he stood on a chair and everyone crowded around him. From the first song, it was clear that we were all going to sing along to most if not all of his songs. It was a spectacle; a momentous shift of arms and legs and shouting and community. That’s who Jason Anderson is though – a performer’s performer, the type of person who inspires people to forget where they are.
In one of the videos for this Massachusetts campfire set (“Time Will Make Me Ready”), Jason talks about how he sometimes feels like a motivational speaker when he performs. Now, I’ve seen lots of bands and musicians who could claim this, but it’s usually because their music offers masturbatory solos or booming voices or exceptional lyrics. It’s a lot harder to find a performer that has a purely infectious spirit and an unquestionable gift for exuding the gooey substance of a life lived to the fullest.
This playlist might just be a green night-vision-filmed average recording of a set from 2005, but it’s the spiritual aspect of this experience that comes through. The songs where he veers off into covers of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” and Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.” The audience vocals for “So Long” and “Christmas.” It becomes less like a concert and more akin to a meditation on life. You don’t need HD videos to recognize the joy that is present during a Jason Anderson show. It’s obvious.
1988 -1994: Flour
Flour is a difficult project to approach without preconceived notions. When a friend first suggested it to me, he quite plainly described it as “some Touch and Go solo project related to Steve Albini.” Indeed, on the surface, this is completely true and accurate. Flour is a one man band fronted by bassist Pete Conway. Conway had been using the name for sometime in the 80s, playing bass in Minneapolis groups Breaking Circus and Rifle Sport (with future Shellac drummer Todd Trainer.) Sonically, Conway also used the same tools of the trade as his peers; drum machines, fuzzed out bass, and razor thin guitar are all over the four Flour albums. In fact, the touring lineup for Flour often included Steve Albini and Todd Trainer. If before listening to Flour you think “this is going to sound like [insert Steve Albini fronted band here]” you will be right.
Well-half right, half dismissive. Yes, it sounds like that. It sounds a whole lot like that. Flour’s similarities also make the vast differences that much more apparent and appealing. Condway definitely could imbue his music with the same aggressiveness and energy of his peers, but underneath the surface lurked some incredible hooks. Cynicism certainly is fun (try it today kids!) but it can become a little overbearing and monotonous if your listening habits consist of a lot of Touch and Go releases from their late 80s/early 90s heyday. Flour’s records are a breather from that. This music is actually pretty entertaining and memorable despite its obvious parallel thinking.
Flour may not the most amazing and overlooked artist on Touch and Go’s vast roster, however their first two albums, the (criminally never reissued) S/T debut and Luv 713, should definitely be held in higher regard. If you are a fan of [insert Steve Albini related project here] or of [insert interesting music in general here] I can’t recommend this enough.
1992: Sugar - Copper Blue
I first “got” Copper Blue at a time when I could relate to what Bob Mould was singing about: heartache, sorrow, and deception; you know, what usually goes through your head when you are a certain way and love leaves your life. Every song had a line that could describe something I was feeling at the time – “The Act We Act” with all the words when we said goodbye and those we couldn’t bring out at the last moment, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and the desire to remain open to go back to the way things were, and once I started moving on, “Changes,” especially the part were that person becomes a stranger and we demand change to find someone to really call our own. Every song has something relatable in an emotional way, especially since most of have more than one narrator and some are not even about being unloved.
But it’s the arrangements and music that make this an extraordinary album. The whole band rocks along with weight and dexterity while Bob’s guitar expresses more than most lyricists can with a million words without radically changing his instrument’s sound, relying on his richly detailed playing style. The arrangements are adventurous without sacrificing verses and choruses to make the songs memorable while the melodies are simple, organic, and familiar, presented in an askew way to make them feel like this is something entirely new, not something from the mind of the guy from Hüsker Dü or any other band before. In fact, the whole album is constructed with common elements but are handled in such a way that you can’t imagine anybody else sounding like this.
Copper Blue is an album that can hit hard in your heart strings; you may feel excited because you’re listening to something fresh that already feels like home.
1993: The Blue Humans - Clear to Higher Time
“The Blue Humans” was essentially a name for improvised performances surrounding guitarist Rudolph Grey. Grey seems to favor the trio format on many of the Blue Humans recordings, with the Thurston Moore-produced Clear to Higher Time being no exception. Here, joined by guitarist Alan Licht and drummer Tom Surgal, the Blue Humans present 35 minutes of improvised “hey, you got your free-jazz in my no-wave; you got your no-wave in my free-jazz” madness!
Clear to Higher Time’s production is Ramones-ified (Licht panned to the right channel, Grey to the left), which makes for a rich (if assaulting) headphone listening experience. Licht’s work in the right channel is especially noteworthy on this outing; just slightly more restrained than Grey’s fast-running guitar scrapes, Licht more or less strangles his guitar into feedback-drenched submission, wasting little time not assaulting the instrument in some fashion.
“Movement” briefly recalls the orchestral guitar dissonance of early Glenn Branca before morphing into what could be considered a no-wave act suspended within a moment. Stretching out a pair of tension-swarmed chords, Licht and Grey gradually trade between violent towers of Branca-esque guitar movements while Surgal keeps everything trapped in a disorienting, time-slowing molasses. Then, on “Finally,” the trio lets loose, inverting the tension of “Movement” by playing everything loud and unrestrained.
Thankfully, Licht and Grey seem far more interested in building chunks of textured sound than “soloing” – not to suggest, however, that they spend time meandering with feedback echoes or pedals. With considerable aggression, the first half of the record shows the trio immediately bursting at the seams, like the Psychic Paramount bereft of recognizable patterns or a theoretical version of the Dead C performing Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun. Clear to Higher Time’s 20-minute title track, however, builds itself more deliberately; i.e., not “slowly” but in a more measured sense, boiling over with several sections of feedback, no-wave squall, and free-jazz exploration. Licht once described Clear to Higher Time as “a great no-wave meets free-jazz record,” and perhaps that’s all that needs to be said – captured in studio austerity (no applause or live noise between improvisations here), these performances are staggering and are worth hearing if you’re a fan of at least two of the names mentioned in this article.