1990s: Man Or Astro-Man?
It was summer and we had just sat down at the perfect bar. Right in the middle of Chicago next to not-much-else sits this odd little place. Now I’m talking real little. The Matchbox truly earned its name with such a thin, slender construction. There’s three feet of space behind the bar, and three and one-half at best in the front, and the whole place narrows to the point that if you fell back from your stool (maybe after one too many of their signature ginger infused gimlets) the wall would catch you before you fell. There’s not much food aside from the Slim Jims they sell, but they pour a generous single malt, so who’s gonna complain. Sitting there soaking in this bizarre scene I suddenly became aware of something truly alien.
Surf-rock. They were playing surf-rock, but unlike any I’d ever heard before. It was surf-rock in space. The perfect soundtrack to some 50s B-movie about teen robots falling in love at an irradiated beach party; coming to you from director Roger Corman. Oh dear God there were theremins! It was instrumental aside from the occasional sample of 50s sci-fi dialogue; snippets from trash like It Conquered the World were peppered throughout these nostalgically futuristic rock songs. The only similar band I could connect it to stylistically was Brainiac (that most sacred of bands for me) and no amount of 50s kitsch could hide that this sounded like classic Touch & Go.
The bartender came over to me and my girlfriend asking if we needed anything else.
“I have to ask, what have we been listening to?” I said.
“Man or Astro-Man,” he said, smiling a little.
“That’s the name?” I asked.
“That’s the name,” he said.
I immediately looked them up and read some facts I already expected. They were in fact a Touch & Go band in the 90s produced by Steve Albini; however there were little things that made me realize how close this band was to me for years without my knowledge. They did such memorable theme songs as Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Jimmy Neutron. Furthermore they were memorably named dropped on Mystery Science Theater 3000, easily the biggest non-musical influence on these guys in addition to being a show that I would put my appreciation for on the scale of religious fanaticism. They were the band that main character Joel Robinson said he toured with as a pyrotechnics guy after his escape from the B-movie filled prison in space during season five. If that’s not rock music immortality then I just don’t know what is anymore.
2001: Rockets Red Glare - “Halifax”
When I was a teenager, I felt like the music I really wanted to hear was somehow beyond my reach. My tastes were shaped by punk rock, but the immaturity of three sneering chords began to feel rote by 16 – I wanted to continue listening to music with the same energetic drive and passionate delivery, but I wanted more depth. Around that time, Fugazi had opened my ears to post-hardcore, and for years I tracked down as many records as I could get my hands on from the Dischord catalog; however, I felt there had to also be a comparable sect of bands from my home country that were doing something similar – something that felt more within reach.
This brings me to Rockets Red Glare, a post-hardcore trio from Toronto. Like many bands of the genre, RRG’s approach was bass-driven and characterized by volume dynamics, but their music itself struck me as something beyond mere hero worship or predictable quiet/loud/quiet narratives. This was a band that had an excellent understanding of the spatial properties of sound, imbuing their music with the vibrantly passionate delivery of post-hardcore, the intellectual stimulus of math-rock, and the sort of clinical distinction between instruments that one might associate with Shellac.
Like Shellac, RRG’s intensity was often defined by restraint – the trio’s focused strikes of aggression hit with precision, rarely feeling unwarranted or brutish. It’s a rather cerebral approach that may come off feeling cold and detached (and perhaps overly self-critical), but when the trio’s impulses were condensed, as on “Halifax,” the result was one of the most furious yet densely rich tracks a rock trio has ever committed to wax.
“Halifax” was the B-Side of RRG’s debut single. If I’d heard it at 16, it would have been life changing. Unlike the more ponderous and lengthy exercises on the trio’s albums, “Halifax” bursts forward immediately like a torrential storm, wasting no time enveloping the listener within a shower of post-punk drums and intricate guitar lines before vocalist/guitarist Evan Clarke’s distant wail asserts a further sense of desperation, as if he’s struggling to be heard over everything. There are also carefully reined-in transitional sections of harmonic feedback, keeping the trio’s musical assault breathing and focused.
Listening now, I get a different “out of reach” sense than from when I was 16. Essentially, I don’t feel a sense of ‘discovery’ so much as a sense of historical reverence, however niche it may be. Canadian indie rock sure as hell didn’t continue to develop in this way, and the future I was hoping for, influenced by a fandom of bands like RRG and North of America never really happened. Nah, instead of nurturing an emerging Canadian variation on Touch & Go-esque post-rock, we gave the world Wolf Parade, and for a few years every other local band I saw began to play limp synth-pop with a singer that sounded like a dying grandmother. On the plus side, however, this only made me value music like RRG’s even more.
1970: The Art Ensemble of Chicago (Feat. Fontella Bass) - Les Stances a Sophie
Les Stances a Sophie is a soundtrack album by free-form jazz legends The Art Ensemble of Chicago. The film itself was an obscure 1970 French New Wave comedy about a free-spirited woman who eventually breaks free from her boring businessman husband. At the end of the film, the woman sees the Art Ensemble of Chicago play and Roscoe Mitchell (saxophonist) tells her how white, male European’s sexual standards are “a drag.”
The only track with vocals, “Theme de Yoyo,” has become a cult classic and an interesting entry point into the prolific catalog of this highly talented free-form jazz collective. Years before its release, Fontella Bass had risen to stardom for her hit “Rescue Me.” She married the Art Ensemble’s trumpeter Lester Bowie, which led to her contributing piano runs and soaring vocals for the record.
The record also marks the addition of drummer Don Moye, who contributes some of the funkiest playing to ever come out of free-form jazz. The tight tambourine-friendly R&B grooves mesh with horn riffs to create a fusion that’s all too rare in experimental jazz records. Soul jazz. It’s no surprise that the label re-released the obscure LP a few years back.
Apparently the filmmaker Moshe Mizrahi commissioned the band to record the soundtrack only weeks before their visas expired. It’s probably a safe bet that if you enjoy these tracks, you’d enjoy the Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass LP that was also recorded and released in 1970 in Paris (on the America label that also released Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus). It’s a more free-flowing affair, containing two 20-minute tracks, but the band experimenting with Bass’ gospel and R&B background is infectious. You’d be hard pressed to find a better match between soul and jazz in the early 70s.
1985: Dariush Dolat-Shahi - Electronic Music, Tar and Sehtar
Iranian-American composer Dariush Dolat-Shahi’s music occupies a unique and timeless place among the countless albums from the last half-century that mixed acoustic performances with electronic manipulations. Dolat-Shahi stands above his peers as a master of both crafts, able to weave together lush melodies from his tar, a traditional Persian lute, and spacey analog synth lines – which sound like they could have been recorded anytime between the sixties and now – into a complete whole that doesn’t feel stuck in one genre or time period. His 1985 album, Electronic Music, Tar and Sehtar, is the pinnacle of his achievements and easily one of the most interesting world music (is it even fair to call it that?) albums of all time. Electronic Music’s core is composed of sparse tar and sehtar – another variety of Persian lute – pieces upon which Dolat-Shahi heaps bleeps, bloops, and squawks of electronic noise, along withe the odd frog or bird, until the two distinct parts become so intertwined you wonder why the idea of Persian classical music run through a wash of moog noise ever sounded so odd in the first place. Dolat-Shahi has done a remarkable thing by taking the two great outsider sounds of world and experimental electronic music and combining them into a album that is more listenable and engaging than either could have been on their own.
1994: Go-Go’s - Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s
One of the fringe benefits of good compilations is tracing the evolution of a particular outfit, especially when that outfit stuck to a sound and ran with it. That’s the case with disc one of Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s.
The massively successful all-girl quintet became famous with their catchy, jubilant singles “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” informed as they were by power pop, surf, and garage rock. However, few realize that the band started right in the epicenter of the LA punk scene and that vocalist Belinda Carlisle – her of the Diane Warren-penned ultra polished solo hits like “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “I Get Weak” – was the original drummer for the Germs, answering, along with the future Lorna Doom, an ad that called for “two untalented girls” (even though she never got to perform with Darby and the band). Valley of the Go-Go’s, which not only compiles hits and album highlights but also live and rehearsal material from their early days, starts with the shamble-tastic double racket “Living at the Canterbury/Party Posse.” It can barely stand by itself on two feet and, for most of the track, it doesn’t. You can hear Belinda holler in a high and tiny voice while the band tries it’s best to play together.
Interestingly, “The Canterbury” in question was a squat lived in by many a scenester who pogo’d at the Masque while waiting for his/her turn to play; that its name reminds me of a strain of prog rock can’t be qualified as nothing short of poetic. Then there’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” before it become a hit for Josie Cotton, sounding more desperate and snottier than the more famous version. A couple of tracks later, with “Fashion Seeker” and “London Boys,” you can hear how they start to feel less ashamed to incorporate more melodic vocals and, before you know it, you’re in the land of Beauty and the Beat.
And sure, here are all the picture-perfect singles (except for the not so recognized “Unforgiven,” but that’s because that came out later on their 2001 reunion album). It’s good to see where they came from and how they mastered their craft into great sing along songs, and that’s something only a good comp can achieve.
1979: Frippertronics 101
Though Robert Fripp’s name will be forever associated with the bloated titan of prog-rock, King Crimson, his most fruitful work was arguably done in a series of collaborations with everyone’s favorite electro-whiz, Brian Eno. Fripp & Eno released a few alums in the early 70s that paired Fripp’s laser beam guitar melodies with Eno’s penchant for quite reflection and treated pianos to mixed results. The records weren’t terrible, far from it, but inconsistency was the name of the game with Eno’s contributions feeling a bit color-by-numbers and never living up to the massive potential Fripp’s playing brought to the table. But this meeting wasn’t a total wash; the sessions gave birth to what was later dubbed “Frippertronics,” a system of reel-to-reel tape recorders that Fripp used to weave guitar lines into dense webs of sound. With this setup, Fripp was able craft improvised ambient experiments in real time and finally give full voice to the ideas only hinted at in his previous works. So without further ado, here is the man himself, live from October 1979, with a remarkable performance showing how powerful only a guitar and tape recorder can be in the hands of a genius.